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A thesis that might have been

It would have been a rare treat for a graduate student to meet the great Albert Einstein, and rarer still, probably, for Einstein to take an interest in the student's work.

Yet that is what happened to the late MIT Professor Bernard T. Feld, according to an extract from his unpublished biography published in "The Pulse," the newsletter of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science edited by Jean P. Flanagan.

Professor Feld, who died in 1992, was one of the early directors of the laboratory. He came to MIT with the late physicist Jerrold Zacharias after World War II to start the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Professor Feld's encounter with Einstein occurred before the war when Feld was a graduate student at Columbia University where Professor Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers of nuclear energy, was working at the time.

As Professor Feld tells the story (in a slightly edited form):

One Saturday morning, Leo Szilard asked me if it would be possible to drive him down to Princeton. Fortunately I was able to borrow my brother's car, and I drove Szilard to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies where Einstein had his office. Szilard went to confer with the great man, while I waited outside. When they were through, Einstein saw Szilard to the door. Since I was right there, Szilard had no choice but to introduce me to Einstein. When Einstein learned that I was working on a PhD in physics, he wanted to know the subject.

"It won't be of interest to you," I said. "It's a rather dull problem in molecular spectroscopy."

"Oh, I used to know something about that subject," he said. Taking me by the arm, he said, "Come in and tell me about it."

He led me to the blackboard, and I proceeded to outline the work I was doing on the effect of nuclear electric quadrupole moments on the energy levels of diatomic molecules.

After a short time, Einstein interrupted to ask, "I wonder what would happen if you took this approach?" and he wrote a few equations on the board.

"Oh, Professor," I replied brashly, "I tried that approach, and it leads me to a dead end."

Einstein thought for a moment. "Of course, how stupid of me! But what would happen, I wonder, if you tried this variation?"

"I never thought of that," I said.

"Well, let's see," he said, and continued writing on the board.

At that moment, the door opened and Leo Szilard popped his head in and cleared his throat. "Feld," he said, "I really must get back to New York."

And so I thanked Einstein and we left. I've often thought that if Leo had just given me 10 more minutes, I would probably have turned in the most brilliant PhD thesis of the decade.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 16, 1995.

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