It Happened at Michigan — Physics, Ann Arbor and J. Robert Oppenheimer


What began as a modest university summer lecture program featuring notable physicists in 1923 evolved into an extraordinary series of appearances by some of the greatest minds in theoretical physics.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, E.O. Lawrence, and others traveled to Ann Arbor to join the U-M faculty for the Summer Symposia in Theoretical Physics between the world wars. No fewer than 15 of the visiting physicists were either Nobel laureates or would go on to receive the Nobel Prize in physics.

A photo of physicists from 1931
Faculty and students participating in the 1931 Summer Symposium in Theoretical Physics gather on campus. J. Robert Oppenheimer is in the front row of men standing, fourth from left. (Bentley Historical Library)

When Harrison M. Randall, chair of the Department of Physics, rolled out the first symposium in 1923, it drew on the program’s strengths in experimental physics. By 1928, the emphasis turned to theoretical physics, where the real scientific advances of the day were unfolding. David M. Dennison, a junior faculty member, was a driving force in attracting physicists he had come to know while studying abroad.

“In order to remain ahead, it was necessary to have very frequent contacts all the while with the foremost physics, and the foremost physics at that time was being done in Europe,” Dennison later recalled.

A photo of Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi, who developed the world’s first nuclear reactor, on the Diag. (Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics)

From 1929 to 1941, a parade of the world’s leading physicists marched into Ann Arbor each summer. Enrico Fermi came from the Royal University of Rome in 1930 to discuss quantum electrodynamics; it was the first of five visits he would make over the next decade. Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, lectured in 1931 and returned in ’41.

Oppenheimer, who was a professor at the California Institute of Technology and would come to be known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” taught in 1931 and 1934.

Lectures drew advanced physics students from around the country and globe who spent their summers interreacting with each other and leaders in their field. “If we looked at the photographs, we could see all of these people who are now prominent physicists, who in those days were in the beginning stages,” Randall said in 1964. “So, this was a very great service, I think, to physics as a whole that was accomplished by the summer symposia.”

In 2010, the American Physical Society designated U-M a historic site for the symposia’s impact, “which played a critical role in helping America achieve international status in theoretical physics.”

Interview of Harrison Randall by David Dennison and W. James King on 1964 February 19 courtesy of Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland


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