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As the title of the section implies, this topic is treated almost entirely in terms of Peierls's direct experience of the science of his time.

His recollections of individual scientists, in varying detail, appear in alphabetical order at MSS. 11619/30-36/D.1-105. Material on specific topics, in so far as they can be isolated, is at MS. 11619/37/D.106-116, and more general correspondence often dealing with more than one topic and often the subject of careful comment by Peierls on projects or manuscripts is at MS. 11619/38/D.117-134.

It should be noted that the material in this section by no means exhausts the historical component of the collection. Similar, though slighter, references occur in much of the correspondence in section K, attention being drawn in the relevant catalogue entries wherever possible. Many of the radio and television programmes and films in section F also deal with historical themes.

An addendum at MS. 11619/39/D.136-139 contains material, relating chiefly to 1994 and 1995, received after Peierls's death.


  • 1930-1995

Biographical / Historical

Although his own lifelong concentration on theoretical physics and mathematics required a high level of abstract thought, Peierls was always mistrustful of 'philosophy' as generally understood; even as an undergraduate in Berlin he found the philosophy lectures 'unattractive' and abandoned the courses 'quite soon' (Bird of Passage, p. 19). His chosen subjects of study, however, took him to the very edge of scientific advance in physics and brought him into contact with virtually every eminent worker in the field. He was a student under Planck, Nernst, Sommerfeld and Heisenberg, an assistant to Pauli, and worked in the laboratories or departments of Fermi, Rutherford and W.L. Bragg before becoming in 1937 a professor and leader of research in his own right. Among his earliest friends were Bethe, Gamov, Tamm, Casimir, Weisskopf and Bretscher. To these were added in Britain in the 1930s Mott, Chadwick, Dirac, Kapitza, Szilard and Chandrasekhar. His famous 1940 memorandum with O.R. Frisch on the feasibility of an atomic bomb led to official contacts with UK and USA government advisers and with members of the international team working at Los Alamos during the Second World War.

With such connections, together with a friendly temperament and a nomadic disposition, Peierls rapidly acquired a great store of technical and personal knowledge of the science of his time and its practitioners, which he used in lectures, in his autobiography, and as a base for more formal writings particularly on Bohr and for contributions to the Royal Society series of Biographical Memoirs. He was also in constant demand as a source of information by historians, editors, film and television producers, and members of the general public.

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Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom