Over at the Center for Science Writings, John Horgan has started an interesting project of posting copies of taped interviews with scientists that he has accumulated over the years, starting with an interview with Chandrashekar. In a blog entry about this, he points to a piece entitled Revenge of the Science Writer from 2001 by Robert Crease, a historian of science and co-author of what I think is the best history of the development of the Standard Model: The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics. Crease describes Horgan as “a man who does not destroy his tapes”, and tells the following story:
I once interviewed a well known European physicist whom I had arranged to meet at a table in the noisy lunchroom at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. I pulled out a tape recorder and asked him about one of his experiments. The scientist could barely disguise his impatience. After five minutes we had a slight misunderstanding about where a certain event took place. I corrected him; he thought I hadn’t been listening.
“That’s it!” he fairly roared as he abruptly stood up, his chair shooting backwards. The background hubbub in the lunchroom suddenly plummeted and everyone turned to stare. He strode away, shouting, “This is a total waste of time! You’re an imbecile!” Or at least I think that’s what he shouted. I can’t be sure, because I destroyed the tape. I was too embarrassed to consider replaying it, or risk having others know my humiliation.
One tape I wonder if Horgan still has is that of his interview with Witten back in the mid-nineties. His chapter on string theory in The End of Science included a rather harsh portrayal of Witten, some of which I remember as being quite unfair. It’s also true that Horgan’s aggressive skepticism about the claims being made at the time for string theory has stood up very well in light of what has happened in the intervening fifteen years or so.