This summer, I received the most amazing opportunity to intern with Phillip Anderson, a Princeton physicist. In 1977, he won the Nobel Prize for the Anderson Localization Theory, a concept that explains why insulators are insulators.My task was to read a draft of a book he was writing on the history of high temperature super conductors.
The more I read of Professor Anderson’s writing,the more interested I became in his life story. Books and interview transcripts wrote mostly of his physics career, which is oftentimes incomprehensible to the average person.I wanted to be able to understand him. He may be called the God of Princeton, but he was a person just like the rest of us.
As a little kid, he was known as a “bad boy”, having gained this reputation to by throwing a cabbage out the window and copying answers. But as he matured and adjusted to school, things became easy for him.He particularly enjoyed math in his high school in Urbana, Illinois; the kids in his class were all very competitive and made a sport out of racing each other to finish the problems.
Though he admitted that school was relatively easy, at every phase of transition, “there would be a period of getting into it [because]no one is successful at all stages.”
At sixteen, he embodied the dream of any high school kid after receiving a full-support national scholarship from Harvard. It was evident that he was brilliant, but college was an abrupt change.
“Well, as I said, high school was easy and Harvard wasn’t,” he recounts.Phil came from an academic family; it was a given that Andersons always got A’s. In high school, if his A dipped to an A-, he would immediately start working very hard in that class, but overall, high school was easy. College was a completely different story.
“I started getting A-’s and B’s right off the bat,” he recounted.
Physics class was an especially radical change for him. He had previously learned that physics was qualitative; the students at his high school were given apparatus to play with but no one had ever explained to him that physics could quantitatively explain everything.
However, his apathy towards high school academic physics didn’t belie his true attitude towards the discipline. He had read some books on relativity and was immediately intrigued.
“So I was already a physicist but I didn’t know it,” he commented.
He said the turning point was then he read a textbook and correctly derived Maxwell’s Distribution in his head.
“I was gone,” he recalled. “I had been intrigued by physics before but I didn’t know it was physics I had been intrigued by.”
As someone who went to college as a sixteen year old, he was bound to have a profusion of advice for high school kids on transitioning and adjusting to college life.
He laughed in response. “Well, my advice would be worthless because I didn’t adjust very well. I didn’t really adjust that first year.”
Perhaps it was his age. His freshman year wasn’t the glamorous party college was made out to be.
“I remember going over to the dining hall and seeing all the people gathered in groups chattering gaily,” he said,“And I would be sitting alone or with my college roommate. It was kind of lonely. There were no girls around and I didn’t know how to approach girls.”
However, just as he had worked hard in physics and immediately began to understand it, so too college life seemed to become easier. In his sophomore year, all his courses seemed simpler and he spent a lot of time having fun with friends. From then on, he coasted through Harvard.
After a wartime stint at a naval radar research lab from 1943 to 1945, he returned back to Harvard for graduate school. It was during his graduate studies that he met Joyce, his wife of 67 years.They met when Phil was home from graduate school one spring. She was living on a secretary’s salary at that time, so Anderson recounts she was glad to be given a free dinner.
“Well, I think it was a done thing by the end of the day,” he smiled. “Certainly my mind never changed.”
Six weeks later,Joyce gave up her career to marry Phillip Anderson and support him in his pursuits in physics.
Though he didn’t follow his own advice, Professor Anderson advised students to do“physics related summers, summer studies or [take]an internship somewhere” if they wished to pursue a physics career.
Now 90 years old, he still drives to work every day. His passion and dedication to physics make him an inspiring figure for aspiring physicists and other people as well. Through the story of his life, we can understand Phillip Anderson, not only as a physicist or the God of Princeton, but also as a human being.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Kaylee Ding, a student at the International School of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
Photo: Princeton University