28 September 2016

Mea Culpa, Hartland Snyder

When talking with my students about writing on the history of science, I often warn them to be cautious about oral histories—those long interviews with noted people that review their life’s accomplishments, often years after the fact.  The personal anecdotes, tucked away in university and institutional archives, are so attractive to a writer, who is seeking to enliven a biography.  But they are a minefield when it comes to accuracy, given the weaknesses of memory.  “Trust, but verify” is always my classroom advice.

Hartland Snyder (1913-1962)
If only I had practiced what I preached.  My latest book, Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved, includes the story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his graduate student Hartland Snyder in 1939 writing the first modern description of a black hole.  They called it “continued gravitational contraction.”  

I described the two men as a unique pairing: Oppenheimer, raised in New York City amid privilege and wealth, joining forces with a crackerjack mathematician who “came from the working class" instead of the middle rungs of the ladder. This was based on an interview that Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate William Fowler, who knew both men, had given decades after the fact.  

One might argue than anyone’s background, when compared with Oppenheimer’s, would look less affluent by comparison: as a young boy, Oppie was driven to private school by a uniformed chauffeur in a limousine. But Snyder’s family, it turns out, was solidly middle class. Hartland grew up in Salt Lake City, where his father served as a civil engineer. I recently learned this from Hartland’s nephew, Arthur Snyder, an experimental particle physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory.  While Oppenheimer was noted for his deep knowledge of literature, art, and music, Hartland has often been cast as the truck-driving boy from the sticks. In reality, he never drove a truck and was an accomplished violinist.  

Hartland didn’t continue research on black holes after 1939 but did make notable contributions in other arenas.  In 1947 he published a pioneering paper in Physical Review on quantizing space-time, a problem physicists are still wrestling with.  And later in the 1950s, working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, he co-discovered the technique of “strong focusing” that allowed ever-bigger particle accelerators to be built. 

Suffering a heart attack, Hartland died at the age of 49 in 1962, years before black holes were officially accepted as bona fide members of the cosmos.