27 January 2003

Karen Worth (née Weisskopf)

I am delighted to be here to say a few words on behalf of Viki’s family – Duscha his wife, who is here; my brother Tom and his wife Sue; Viki’s five grandsons, his great grandson and great grand daughter. Fortunately Viki lived to see her arrive – he loved his grandsons but yearned for that girl.

I must start by saying that CERN was one of the highlights of his life. He loved both being here and the work that he could help to make happen. We have heard much today from others about the scientific details; as family, we know how happy and excited he was to come back to Europe when he assumed the position of director-general. This led to many years of having a second home in Vesancy – he and my mother spent close to 4 months there every year – and working at CERN. It was a perfect balance, and for all of us it has meant having a home here as well.

I would like to say a few words about Viki as we knew him, and about the intersection of Viki’s work and mine – teaching and learning (I was a teacher of children, I teach teachers now, and have been deeply involved with science education for the past 20 years). Then I would like to share with you some quotations that come from the hundreds of letters that we have received since Viki’s death.

A passion for sharing

There are many here who knew Viki as lecturer, teacher and advisor, and know some of the qualities that he brought to his work with young scientists. But I want to say a few things about his passion for sharing what he knew with non-scientists of all ages and why I think he was so good at it. In 1973, in a short review of the book The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air by M Minnaert for a little education magazine called Outlook, Viki wrote: “Minnaert’s book is like a fresh breeze flowing through the physics literature. In it we find discussions of the reflection of the sun on a wind-blown surface of a lake, the colors at sundown, the shadows of the leaves on a tree. We learn how and why we see the scratches on a windowpane; what makes the color of puddles, rivers, lakes, the sea, the clouds, the sky…There are 233 entries, each discussing an interesting phenomenon of color and light outdoors, most of which we have seen. It is surprising, however, how rarely we have bothered to think of an explanation, although we consider ourselves scientifically minded, and should search for an explanation of every phenomenon we see.”

He went on to write: “Perhaps it is just the advanced state of development of modern physics which leads to the large gap between concepts and the immediate perception and appreciation of the phenomena themselves…[The book] brings us back to the things we enjoy observing because they are part of nature and because they are beautiful. It teaches us not only to admire what we see but also to think about causes and relations. It embodies the human attitude toward the world around us, to observe and understand. The importance of Minnaert’s book is that it shows how understanding adds to the beauty and richness of natural phenomena…[He] shows us what physics really is: love of nature, broadened by an ever-increasing knowledge of the causes of things.” Viki could write these words because he believed and lived them so profoundly. This love of nature and absolute belief that understanding only enriched this appreciation was basic to Viki’s delight in, and often passionate sharing of, what he knew, understood and questioned, as was his interest in how others thought and tried to understand the world.

Food for thought

In our home, growing up, dinner-table conversation was not about what you did in school today. It was about interesting questions, and thoughts about those questions. By the time the grandchildren arrived, these became “Viki questions”. We would arrive weekly for dinner with several stored up over the week. Why did the moon have a halo round it the other night? How come the remote-controlled car couldn’t get up the hill? Why did the aeroplanes sometimes have white tails and sometimes not? “Ah”, he would say, “that’s an interesting question.” And he would proceed to ask what they thought and then explain the answer.

And I remember a moment in Italy, when my brother and I were teenagers and had just arrived in Naples with our car for Viki’s first year at CERN. We had a flat tyre and immediately he and Tom put their heads together to try to convert the American measurement of pressure to the metric measurement to be able to fill the tyre properly. Meanwhile I had taken the European gauge and measured the other tyres and come up with an instant answer to the problem. I tell this not because of my role, but because this was a story Viki loved and would tell over and over.

I have another anecdote about when I was a senior in high school. My 19 classmates (all women) and I had a young male physics teacher teaching us what was, at that time, a very experimental physics programme that had been developed under the leadership of Gerald Zacharias from MIT and others. The teacher was young and inexperienced. Occasionally on weekends, six or seven of us would gather in Viki’s study at home and he would help us to understand and begin to enjoy what we were studying. We would arrive on Monday with our homework problems in hand, secure in our new understanding only to get it back quite frequently marked wrong. Imagine the young teacher who then had to deal with the daughter of Victor Weisskopf telling him that her father had said: “Ach, it’s close enough; it’s only a factor of two.”

Fostering interest in science

Viki’s book Knowledge and Wonder is another example of his enthusiasm for sharing science with lay people. It was written after a seminar series for the parents of students at the school I attended. It was another way for him to bring to non-scientists not just the facts but the delight in phenomena and the joy of understanding them. He wrote: “The idea was to sketch out the present scientific understanding of natural phenomena and to try to show the universality of that understanding and its human significance.” He knew the problems: “Scientific knowledge is hard to communicate to the non-scientist; there is so much to be explained before one can come to the essential point. All too often the layman cannot see the forest, but only the trees. The difficulties, however, should not prevent, or even discourage scientists from tackling the job in different ways. This book is one way of giving the uninitiated an idea of the greatest cultural achievement of our time.”

Science is not a necessary but disagreeable means to increase our competitive position in the world.

Viki Weisskopf

Quite naturally, but perhaps less known, Viki was deeply interested in and concerned about pre-college education – an interest we discussed more and more as my career progressed. He was deeply concerned that the science in schools was turning children and young people away from science, both as a field and as a part of human culture.

He said the following to a group of Illinois science and maths teachers in 1984: “Science is not a necessary but disagreeable means to increase our competitive position in the world. No, it is an important part of the humanities because it is based on a human trait that distinguishes us from animals: to be curious and interested in what goes on around us. We must foster that attitude, an attitude of exploration, of wonder, of joy, of insight…There are no pat answers to any kinds of questions; there is no flat knowledge, but there is involvement, curiosity and insight. This open attitude in science fosters a different approach also in other fields of human activity and culture. It is the art of discovery; of questioning, of wonder, of trying to understand. And it will give our youngsters a much fuller and more uplifting life. It will give them a new sense and a new meaning to their existence, which is so sorely missing today.” As I work in the field of education, I could have had no better preparation and guidance than having had Viki as my father.


Now let me turn to the words of others. Since Viki died we have received letters from around the world and from people in many walks of life and from different times and places in Viki’s life. They are individually unique and beautiful, but the theme that emerges over and over is an appreciation for his deep humanity; his kindness, integrity; desire to share and to listen; and his genuine delight in and respect for people. We had, of course, letters in other languages. As Duscha and I read them, she would occasionally say, as she translated the German for me: “There is no English word for that.” For those who speak German, here are a few words she loved: “seine freundliche Zuwendung, Gute, Verstandnisberietschaft und weise Heiterkeit…”

I hope those whose words I quote will forgive me if I take short passages from long and wonderful letters. Some of the quotations are from members of the scientific community who will be familiar to many of you, but others are from people who knew Viki outside of his science. It is especially these I want to share.

Here are a few tributes from the physics world: “The passing of Viki leaves a huge hole in the constellation of stars that created 20th-century physics. Insight, exuberance, the right mix of Austro-Yiddish wit, wisdom in leadership…warmth. What a guy.” Leon Lederman, Fermilab.

“He was a great scientist and also a loveable man – a rare combination…He was also willing to listen to the suggestions of a much less experienced and accomplished person, not just tolerantly but with open-mindedness and attention. In such conversations he simply treated me as a partner in an investigation.” Abner Shimony, Wellesley College and Boston University.

“To us, as to all who knew him over the many decades, he was a constant source of optimism and wisdom, and there is now nobody like him in our circles.” Gerald Holton, Harvard University.

“Viki was one of the few best men I ever knew. Such a brilliant, talented, wise and at the same time charming, kind, humanistic person and caring friend.” Evgenii Feinberg, Lebedev Institute.

“Viki was a wonderful, warm individual. Just thinking of him and his way, whenever I start to get a mean feeling about a colleague in physics, I can immediately banish it.” Gerry Brown, CUNY Stony Brook.

“Our every meeting was a human and intellectual pleasure and gain. He was a glorious original from the old world who radiated knowledge and kindness in the new world.” Fritz Stern, historian, Columbia University.

“Viki contributes profoundly, to all of us who knew him, his extraordinary gifts as a scientist and a generous and thoughtful and dear person. His exemplary understanding helped his fellow beings comprehend and contribute to bring about a life worth living.” Leon Kirchner, Department of Music, Harvard University.

“He was a man who people felt inevitably drawn to by his charm, joie de vivre and his Gute.” Ernest Bergel, psychiatrist.

“Viki’s humane splendour shines in my memory.” Arthur Solomon, Harvard Medical School.

“Viki was so wonderful to me as to all. He would talk about the follies of the world to me with that special combination of urgency and laughter. That is, he saw clearly what governments and the rest of the world needed to do – but he understood the imperfections of mankind.” Anthony Lewis, New York Times.

Another tribute came without words. At the end of his life, Viki would walk a block or so from his house. He would sit part way on the stone wall in front of one of the houses. As time went by the people who lived in the house would come out and say hello. Soon they brought out and left two lawn chairs where Viki could sit; one of them would come out and sit in the other chair and they would talk. When Viki died, Octo and Harriet Bernett put vases of flowers on the chairs for several days.

And finally, a few words from a wonderful woman – Cambridge born – a nurse who helped Duscha care for Viki for the seven years before he died.

“He was a gentle and kind man. I enjoyed being with him everyday…He introduced me to Mozart, opera and the stars.” Jean O’Connor.

We received another letter from Francoise Ulam. Some years ago when her husband the mathematician Stan Ulam died, a close friend of his and Viki’s, David Hawkins, wrote to Stan’s wife. She sent his words to us on Viki’s death: “Those who live richly have many strings, many linkages to the world. Their lives are woven into the world’s fabric, its lattice of associations. When they leave, there is a big hole in the lattice, a tear in the fabric; these holes and tears remain, they simply can’t vanish, and this simple fact is the source of all our concerns for mortality.”

t could easily be argued that what initiated Viki’s love and passion for science was his love and passion for the night sky and all of the things in it.

Marc Weisskopf

I cannot end these remarks without coming back to Vesancy, which he so loved. My brother and I will keep the Vesancy house. We love it as do our children and, we hope, the next generation as well. One of the favourite stories from someone who received many many honours during his life was about an honour Viki received in 1972. In Viki’s words: “I was greatly pleased when, in 1972, Vesancy gave me an honour that I value at least as much as any of my scientific awards. I was made sappeur – pompier honoraire (honorary fireman) in a big celebration in the old castle. During the ceremonial part of the evening, I was given a fireman’s helmet and a diploma, and a little girl in a white dress gave Ellen a large bouquet.” I know he meant this seriously and it so delightfully reflects his love of people, of community and of this beautiful setting.

And to end: Viki’s first publication when he was 15 years old was about the stars. Here are the words of his grandson, Marc: “It could easily be argued that what initiated Viki’s love and passion for science was his love and passion for the night sky and all of the things in it. His telescope [a gift from CERN] was one of his most prized possessions. Beyond Being Earth Day when he passed away, it was also the beginning of a brief period that occurs less than once in a lifetime, when all of the planets in the solar system are lined up on the Western sky so that they all can be seen (5 with the naked eye and the others with a small telescope) I have images of Viki skipping from planet to planet happy as a clam as he springboards onto other things.”

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