Whilst heading up the Manhattan Project during World War II, theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer quickly became aware of a promising young physicist by the name of Richard Feynman. Sensing that Feynman would be incredibly valuable at UC Berkeley come the end of the war, Oppenheimer wrote the following letter to then chairman of its physics department, Raymond Birge. To label the letter a glowing recommendation would be an understatement, but even so, and despite Oppenheimer’s efforts, Feynman turned down the subsequent offer.
Indeed he was correct in his evaluation of Feynman, who went on to become one of the world’s most renowned scientists and joint recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.
November 4, 1943
Professor R. T. Birge
Chairman, Department of Physics
University of California
Dear Professor Birge:
In these war times it is not always easy to think constructively about the peace that is to follow, even in such relatively small things as the welfare of our department. I would like to make one suggestion to you which concerns that, and about which I have myself a very sure and strong conviction.
As you know, we have quite a number of physicists here, and I have run into a few who are young and whose qualities I had not known before. Of these there is one who is in every way so outstanding and so clearly recognized as such, that I think it appropriate to call his name to your attention, with the urgent request that you consider him for a position in the department at the earliest time that that is possible. You may remember the name because he once applied for a fellowship in Berkeley: it is Richard Feynman. He is by all odds the most brilliant young physicist here, and everyone knows this. He is a man of thoroughly engaging character and personality, extremely clear, extremely normal in all respects, and an excellent teacher with a warm feeling for physics in all its aspects. He has the best possible relations both with the theoretical people of whom he is one, and with the experimental people with whom he works in very close harmony.
The reason for telling you about him now is that his excellence is so well known, both at Princeton where he worked before he came here, and to a not inconsiderable number of “big shots” on this project, that he has already been offered a position for the post war period, and will most certainly be offered others. I feel that he would be a great strength for our department, tending to tie together its teaching, its research and its experimental and theoretical aspects. I may give you two quotations from men with whom he has worked. Bethe has said that he would rather lose any two other men than Feyman from this present job, and Wigner said, “He is a second Dirac, only this time human.”
Of course, there are several people here whose recommendation you might want; in the first instance Professors Brode and McMillan. I hope you will not mind my calling this matter to your attention, but I feel that if we can follow the suggestion I have made, all of us will be very happy and proud about it in the future. I cannot too strongly emphasize Feynman’s remarkable personal qualities which have been generally recognized by officers, scientists and laity in this community.
With every good wish,
CC to Dr. Lawrence