Via Steve Hsu, at the AIP Center for History of Physics, there’s a transcript of an interview with Sidney Coleman from 1977. It’s provocative and amusing, like the man himself, as well as informative history. Go and read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts:
But you do enjoy working with students or do you?
No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job. Well, that’s of course false…or maybe more true than false when I say I hate it. Occasionally there’s a student who is a joy to work with. But I certainly would be just as happy if I had no graduate students…
I guess your remark means then that you would like to avoid teaching undergraduate courses or even required graduate courses…
Or even special topics courses. Teaching is unpleasant work. No question about it. It has its rewards. One feels happy about having a job well done. Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor) have their rewards. I am pleased when I have done a good job waxing the floor and I’ve taken an enormous pile of dirty dishes and reduced them to sparkling clean ones. On the other hand, if I didn’t have to, I would never engage in waxing the floors, although I’m good at it. I’m also good at teaching; I’m considered very good at teaching, both by myself and others. And I’m also terrifically good at washing dishes, in fact. On the other hand, I certainly would never make a bunch of dirty dishes just for the joy of washing them and I would not teach a course just for the joy of teaching a course…
So I guess really you would be happier with the format of an institute of theoretical physics? Rather than a teaching institution like a university?
Well no. That makes it too abstract. Because that means, would you like to have a position at, say, the Institute for Advanced Studies? And then all sorts of other things would enter the picture. Like you’d have to live in Princeton which is truly an awful experience.
I was there as a young bride a long time ago.
Young brides get the worst of it. They’re even worse off than the people who are at the University of the Institute because at least the people at the University or the Institute can fill their days by engaging in their professional interests from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. But if you don’t have that, there is really nothing. Nothing. It’s a terrible place. Dullest place in the world. No I wouldn’t say that, but certainly the dullest place at which decent science or decent scholarship is done in the world today. The only advantage to Princeton is that it’s close to Princeton Junction.
Personally I’m quite glad that Harvard was wealthy enough to support Coleman, while forcing him to teach, since I benefited quite a bit from his teaching, right around the time of this interview. I had heard before that he didn’t enjoy his time in Princeton. Once at lunch at the IAS, a senior physicist visiting there told me about the advice Coleman had given him when he told him he was going to Princeton for a year. The advice was “Be sure to bring with you everything you need.” The senior physicist then told me that: “I recently realized what Sidney was trying to tell me: there are no women here so I should have brought someone with me…”