The Shelter Island Conference

Just after the Second World War, the NAS sponsored a series of conferences on theoretical physics. The first, the Conference on the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, was held 2-4 June 1947 at Long Island's Shelter Island. Known as the Shelter Island Conference, the meeting was to prove a landmark in the history of postwar American physics.

The idea for the conference originated with Duncan MacInnes (NAS 1937) of the Rockefeller Institute. Hoping to secure NAS sponsorship of a series of small, specialized conferences on physics, MacInnes in the Summer of 1945 approached then-NAS President Frank B. Jewett with the idea of a two or three day conference to which no more than thirty specialized participants would be invited. Jewett indicated an interest, as long as the conference addressed problems suitable to solution by, as he wrote in a letter, "the concentrated consideration of a small highly qualified group, meeting in intimate association for discussion." After considering a concrete proposal from MacInnes, Jewett agreed to have the NAS provide funding.

With NAS sponsorship secured, the Shelter Island Conference was set to convene at the Ram's Head Inn, a new establishment that had been opened ahead of schedule expressly to accommodate the visiting physicists.

The conference, the first of three the NAS sponsored in quantum physics, provided just the intimate setting Jewett envisioned, and did indeed attract a highly qualified group. Among the 24 attendees were Edward Teller (NAS 1948), J. Robert Oppenheimer (NAS 1941), David Bohm, John von Neumann (NAS 1937), John A. Wheeler (NAS 1952), I. I. Rabi (NAS 1940), Richard Feynman, and Julian Schwinger (NAS 1949). The conference was in fact nothing less than a who's who of postwar American physics. Interestingly, the attendees were treated like celebrities when they arrived at Greenport, Long Island, where they stopped before heading on to Shelter Island. John C. White, president of the Greenport Chamber of Commerce and a Marine in the Pacific in WWII, arranged and paid for a dinner for the visiting scientists out of gratitude for the war work done by the physicists who developed the atomic bomb. One conferee recalled that during their trip to Greenport, the group was given a series of motorcycle police escorts and their bus was allowed to run through red lights.

Although the conference was to be informal, it was structured around outlines or abstracts on specific topics, as selected by discussion leaders Oppenheimer, Victor Weisskopf, and H.A. Kramers. K.K. Darrow acted as chairman—but as at least one participant remembered it, Oppenheimer in fact dominated the meeting.

The general problem the conferees were asked to address was the impasse that elementary particle theory was perceived to have struck over the preceding decade and a half or so. Specific difficulties in quantum electrodynamics (QED) and in upper atmosphere meson phenomena were of particular interest, especially in light of Lamb's and Retherford's recent experimental findings on the fine structure of hydrogen, and Rossi's experiments with cosmic rays. Both Lamb and Rossi were in attendance, and both were asked to report on their findings. Discussion of the problems raised by these experiments, and the papers that resulted from these discussions, produced significant advances in the development of QED.

Jewett's decision to sponsor the conference series thus turned out to be a sound one. In fact the NAS-sponsored conferences in quantum physics—the Shelter Island conference and the subsequent Pocono and Oldstone conferences—were of key importance for the development of postwar physics in America. One could even say that the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics, which Feynman and Schwinger shared (with Tomonaga) for their work in QED, was one long-term consequence of the NAS conferences.

Shelter Island Photos

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