J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture at Iowa State

Following the death of Physics Professor John Franklin Carlson in April of 1954, his friends and colleagues decided to fund a lecture series in his honor that would bring to the Iowa State College campus “…an outstanding scholar to lecture on some aspect of physical science, its philosophical implications, and its relation to human affairs.” The Lecture Series was chaired by Gordon Danielson, a Professor of Physics at ISU. 

Black and white photo of John Franklin Carlson.
John Franklin Carlson, University Photographs, RS 13/20/A Box 1177

The first speaker in the series was renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer; mentor, colleague and friend of Carlson. Carlson studied under Oppenheimer while obtaining all three of his degrees at University of California – Berkley, and Oppenheimer would direct Carlson in the writing of his doctoral thesis. Carlson and Oppenheimer would publish articles in 1931, 1932, and 1937.  Oppenheimer is often referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work as director of Los Alamos Laboratory on the Manhattan Project.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecturing in Great Hall of the Memorial Union.
J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecturing in Great Hall of the Memorial Union, Gordon C. Danielson papers [RS 13/20/52].

After graduating in 1937, Carlson went on to teach at Purdue University until 1942. During World War II he worked at the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and in 1946 he joined the faculty at Iowa State.  

Oppenheimer was scheduled to speak in Physics Hall on May 17, 1955 on his return trip to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey after speaking at institutes along the west coast. The day of the lecture, it was announced that the location was changed to the Great Hall in the Memorial Union after it was determined that interest in the lecture made it impractical to host it in Physics Hall.   

J. Robert Oppenheimer writing on a chalk board during his lecture in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union
J. Robert Oppenheimer writing on a chalk board during his lecture in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union, Gordon C. Danielson papers [RS 13/20/52].

His 70-minute lecture “The Description of Analogy of the Electron Theory” was received by an overflow crowd, estimated to be around 1,000 people. Oppenheimer gave a highly technical lecture, using a blackboard to write equations, but interspersed bits of humor throughout. You can listen to the entire lecture below, which has been digitized and is currently on our YouTube Channel.

Oppenheimer Lecture Part 1
Oppenheimer Lecture Part 2
Oppenheimer Lecture Part 3

The Carlson Lecture Series would go on to host a number of renowned physicists including; Percy Williams Bridgeman, Niels Bohr, Philip Morrison, George Ohlenbeck and Victor Weisskopf. The series would end in 1970.     

To learn more about the John F. Carlson Lecture Series check out the John F. Carlson Lecture records [RS 13/20/4] and the Gordon C. Danielson papers [RS 13/20/52].  

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