A Nobelist's recorded recollections
First-hand accounts of California's movers and shakers chronicled in oral histories

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

Owen Chamberlain received a bound copy of an oral history of his life. D. Lyn Hunter photo.

01 NOVEMBER 00 | When Owen Chamberlain, professor emeritus of physics, entered first grade, he was the only student in the class who couldn't write his own name. He was a poor reader and had no real interest in sciensce.

"Mostly we constructed forts and made cigarettes out of eucalyptus root," Chamberlain said of his boyhood days in San Francisco. "I don't think I can really recall any ambitions. I think I wanted to be maybe a streetcar motorman."

Despite modest aspirations, Chamberlain became a pioneering, Nobel-prize winning physicist, whose work changed the course of world history.

The transition from typical boy to one of the 20th century's most notable scientists has been chronicled in an oral history of Chamberlain's life.

The treatise was created by the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office/History of Science and Technology Program.

Program staff interview leading participants and witnesses to major events in the development of Northern California, the West and the nation, in fields that include the arts, politics, business, medicine, public health and science.

Chamberlain's oral history provides a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a ground-breaking scientist, including his work as a Berkeley graduate student on the atomic bomb, his views on disarmament, and his collaborations with such luminaries as Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, Edward Teller and Emilio Segré, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize.

"Well, I thought the weapon then ought to be somehow demonstrated for the Japanese rather than used on a city," Chamberlain said of the atomic bomb, in the oral history. "In retrospect, a demonstration of the nuclear weapon over some lightly populated or unpopulated area would have failed in its purpose. It wasn't that impressive until you gave it the real city to work on."

Of the Nobel Prize, he says: "I think that no doubt, I'm listened to much more as a Nobel Prize winner. I often think that people in the public domain pay too much attention to winners and not enough to other scientists who are also very well qualified to speak up on similar issues."

"Much of our history is not written down, but exists in the minds of people," said Charles Faulhaber, director of the Bancroft Library, at an Oct. 24 reception where Chamberlain, now 80 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, was presented with a bound copy of his oral history."It is important that we talk to these people and record this invaluable information."

The library also is in the process of collecting oral histories of those involved in the relatively new fields of biosciences and biotechnology, such as Paul Berg, a Stanford Nobel Prize winner in the field of recombinant DNA. He too was presented with a bound copy of his oral history at the reception.

"It's wonderful to have this first-hand account of his life," said Margit Birge, niece of Chamberlain and granddaughter of Berkeley professor Raymond Birge, namesake of the campus physics building. "It gives me a better understanding of my uncle, the contributions he made and how his work affected the way the world is today."


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