Farewell to Viki

27 January 2003

Sidney D Drell

With the passing of Viki we have lost one of the few surviving members on the list of distinguished scientists who founded modern quantum physics. Ever since I became Viki’s research associate at MIT 50 years ago he has been one of my major mentors and closest friends. The way he did physics, the way he enjoyed physics and the way he shared his pleasure at expanding his understanding of physics were all major ingredients in the early formation of my career. With his deep intuitive insights and his creative approach, Viki made pivotal contributions to opening new frontiers, and to enhancing those already opened by adding to a deeper understanding of their significance.

Viki considered himself an amateur, as opposed to an expert because, as he said, what he did was always “for the pleasure of it”. Never did he come even close to falling in the trap that Pauli cautioned against: “Don’t become an expert for two reasons: you become a virtuoso of formalism and forget real nature, and…risk that you are not working for anything interesting anymore.” Certainly no-one would ever accuse Viki of being a virtuoso of formalism.

The anti-Pauli

In an earlier tribute to Viki at CERN on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I recalled the wonderful experience of my first year with him in words that he wrote in describing his experience working with Pauli. In the American Journal of Physics Viki wrote: “It was absolutely marvellous working for Pauli. You could ask him anything, there was no worry that he would think a particular question was stupid since he thought all questions were stupid.” But as I remarked then, Viki was the anti-Pauli, because he accepted all questions not as stupid but as interesting. To him they were challenges to probe to deeper levels of understanding. The resulting discussions – with their insights and enthusiasm – were valuable experiences for those of us who had the good fortune to participate in them. We generally emerged with a deeper physical and intuitive understanding of what was going on. The great school of physics that Viki created at MIT starting in the 1950s can only be described as making physics exhilarating, exciting, demanding, and fun. It was a model for many of us for our own subsequent endeavours.

Viki also proved that even a theoretical physicist, with the right human qualities, can be an outstanding administrator and leader, as he was in his years as CERN’s director-general. I spent a year at CERN during his reign as director-general and the atmosphere was charged with progress, enthusiasm, and high expectations.

Throughout his life no-one was more committed than Viki to the value of international collaboration in science. This was much more than simple theoretical idealism on his part. He firmly believed in the importance of international collaboration for the advancement of science; all science, not just expensive big science. It was good for science. It also served to strengthen the bonds between communities in different countries working towards a more peaceful and co-operative world based on common principles of humanity and brotherhood. Viki’s commitment to this was total, both in the way he opened doors to welcome scientists from all parts of the globe and in his dedication to ensure the success of CERN as the outstanding international scientific institution we all recognize. His skills in achieving consensus among fellow scientists and in identifying the important directions of physics to focus on not only served CERN so well but were also of great value in helping mould the successful national physics programme in the US. Particularly valuable were his years as chair of the High-Energy Physics Advisory Panel working with the DOE and NSF to ensure that the US programme in high-energy physics flourished as a major participant in the broad, world community effort.

The bomb did end the cruel and destructive war with Japan, but since then it has developed into the greatest danger that humankind has ever faced.

Victor Weisskopf

All his life, to quote Hans Bethe, Viki has “sought and contributed to knowledge, and all his life he has shown compassion”; and I would add commitment. This is what made Viki the great man that we all loved so well. We all know Viki’s commitment to the cause of world peace. Having worked to develop the atomic bomb in Los Alamos during the Second World War he was fully aware of the awesome destructive potential of these terrible new weapons and the vital importance of seeing that they were never used again in combat. To this end Viki worked with unflagging dedication to help world leaders, from US presidents to European prime ministers and the Pope in Rome, to understand the physical realities of the nuclear threat. Repeatedly he called on them to lead in efforts to walk away from the brink of nuclear disaster and reduce that threat. As he said in a post-war speech at Los Alamos: “The bomb did end the cruel and destructive war with Japan, but since then it has developed into the greatest danger that humankind has ever faced. And it threatens more and more to destroy everything on Earth that we consider worth living for.”

Viki’s commitment to science, international collaboration and the bonds joining the international community of science in the quest for peace are eloquently expressed in his tribute to Marie Curie at a ceremony in Warsaw in 1967:

Common value system

“The significance of scientific collaboration far exceeds the narrow aim of a more efficient prosecution of our scientific endeavours. It stresses a common bond among all human beings. Scientists, wherever they come from, adhere to a common way of thinking: they have a common system of values that guides their activities, at least within their own profession. New approaches in bringing nations together can perhaps be discussed with more ease within this community, some political misunderstandings can be cleared up, and dangerous tensions reduced. As an example, we recall that the agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs above ground stemmed, in part, from prior meetings among scientists.

“We must keep the doors of our laboratories wide open and foster the spirit of supranationality and human contact, of which the world is so much in need. It is our duty to stick together, in spite of mounting tension and threatening war in the world today. The present deterioration in the political world is a reason stronger than ever for closer scientific collaboration. The relationship among scientists must remain beyond the tensions and the conflicts of the day, even if these conflicts are as serious and frustrating as they are today. The world community of scientists must remain undivided, whatever actions are taken, or whatever views are expressed in the societies in which they live. We need this unity as an example for collaboration and understanding, as an intellectual bridge between the divided parts of mankind, and as a spearhead towards a better world.”

Thirty-five years later those words ring every bit as true as they did when he originally spoke them.

My most cherished recollections of Viki are the warm friendship that my wife and I enjoyed with him and Ellen, his wife for many years. With our families we had many wonderful occasions together that will always be a rich part of our lives. These included summer schools at Erice with Nino Zichichi, a spring together in Vienna in 1972, a year at CERN, summer visits to the Weisskopfs’ mountaintop home in Vesancy, France, and frequent visits to Cambridge and Stanford. Discussions ranged broadly over literature, politics, and especially music. Viki and I enjoyed a special bond of playing violin-piano sonatas together on many, many occasions. Indeed Viki often introduced me at seminars and colloquia, at CERN, MIT or wherever, by recalling that he first hired me as his research associate only after Felix Bloch said that even if I wasn’t all that great as a physicist, what a wonderful violinist I was for a sonata partner. I like to think that I can invoke a conservation law to balance those two evaluations, because I know the musical praise is excessive. But how we did enjoy our struggles with Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven. That was a source of very special pleasure for us.

Viki was most fortunate to have enjoyed the loving, caring companionship of his wife, Duscha, for the last 13 years of his life. But as the 2nd Law assures us, all good things eventually come to an end. And so it has. We will sorely miss Viki, an irreplaceable friend, humanist, scientist and for me a musical colleague. He was surely one of the most beloved physics giants of our time.

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