When David Joseph Bohm arrived at Penn State in 1936, he was taking his first academic baby step on a journey that would place him in the pantheon of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century.
Bohm, a son of a Wilkes-Barre furniture store owner who also served as the town’s part-time rabbi’s assistant, would later work with some of the leading minds in physics. He studied under Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, he was a protege of Albert Einstein, working closely with him at Princeton University. The partnership between the two was so close that some scientists speculated that Einstein considered the Penn State grad to be his successor.
There aren’t many signs that one of the greatest physicists studied at Penn State, though. There are no buildings, or even rooms named after him on campus. To be honest, I read several of Bohm’s books and papers before finding his Penn State connection. But if you look closely, you can still find some hidden Bohm treasures on campus, evidence that one of physics most intuitive, imaginative minds studied right here at Penn State.
Penn State wasn’t exactly a powerhouse in physics when Bohm arrived. It was known more as a leader in agriculture and engineering when he arrived in the mid-1930s. The number of physics students in his class was in the single digits, he estimated in one interview. But the University had a good library for Bohm’s intellectual journeys and plenty of quiet country roads for contemplative walks that allowed his ever-inquisitive mind to wander the meandering paths of theoretical physics, eventually leading to his position as a major figure in physics.
(While there’s no evidence that a punch in the nose led to any of Bohm’s discoveries, besides a more intimate understanding of Newton’s third law, F. David Peat’s biography on Bohm, Infinite Potential, has a great story about Bohm finding himself in a nose-busting melee after a campus snowball battle.)
Reminiscing about those formative years in Penn State, Bohm says:
“I was able to learn. When I got to Caltech I found I knew a lot more physics than people who had come from far better schools, like Columbia and all the bigger schools. The other point was that it was in a rural environment. Penn State, the college was the main thing that supported the town and shortly outside were nothing but farms and a little wayward mountains, wooded mountains in which I could walk, also on the farm roads. This was very important because otherwise I don’t think I wouldn’t [sic] have worked very well. I mean, if I’d gone to a city university I think it would’ve been very much more difficult psychologically.”
Those walks on those country roads and campus paths may have ambled directly to Bohm’s contribution to the Aharonov-Bohm effect, which explains how electromagnetic fields affect electrically charged particles. They may have also led to his intellectual daring, an attitude that would influence Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, who provided one of the key tests of non-locality, which Einstein termed “spooky-action-at-a-distance,” for good reason.
At a not-so-spooky distance, however, Penn State still holds some Bohm artifacts.
Penn State’s chapter of Pi Sigma Pi , which is the physics fraternity’s third-oldest chapter, retains the researcher’s fraternity membership card from 1938. His signature is at the top of the 1938 induction list. (His serial number is 144, if you’re interested.) There’s another name — C. H. Townes — you might recognize near the bottom of the initiation list. You may know him as Charles Hard Townes, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions in quantum electronics that led to the invention of the maser and laser. Townes was a guest graduate student from Duke University studying at Penn State at the time.
Bohm’s intellectual rebellious streak may hold one of the reasons why the scientist isn’t as famous as some of the other luminaries in the world of quantum physics, like Richard Feynman and Bell. His embrace of communism as a student didn’t sit very well with the McCarthyism in the 1950s. His investigations into the connection between quantum physics and Eastern thought, along with his collaboration with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, alienated much of the scientific community and those in the “shut-up-and-calculate” school of quantum physics.
It seems, though, that people on both sides of those political and scientific establishments are beginning to re-examine Bohm’s important contributions and discipline-spanning career, which began on our quiet campus paths.
Special thanks to Ricħard Robinett professor of physics, as well as associate department head and director of undergraduate studies in Physics, and Director of Graduate Studies, who gave me the opportunity to photograph the cards and who showed great patience when I went to meet him at Davey Lab, instead of his actual office a few steps away in Osmond Lab. (It’s a big campus, what can I say?)
If you have any suggestions for more Penn State’s hidden treasures, leave a comment, or drop me a line.