When Julian Schwinger came to the Columbia Graduate School of Physics in 1935 at the age of seventeen—five years younger than the youngest of us—he was shy and pudgy, with a schoolboy’s broken complexion; but he had already gone through the most advanced treatises on theoretical physics, quantum theory, and relativity all by himself, as easily and avidly as the rest of us had once gone through Two Years Before the Mast. By comparison, we were illiterates. There was even a rumor that he had published his first scientific paper in the Physical Review at fifteen when he was at Townsend Harris High School. He was at once so obviously in a class by himself that no one bothered to envy him. One thing, each of us assured the others: eventually he would earn a Nobel Prize.
When I say “we,” I mean the group of about a dozen graduate students studying and doing research toward our doctorates, along with a handful of postdoctoral fellows and instructors also in their early or middle twenties. We made up the laboratory population of the department. As it turned out, we were right about Julian. In 1965, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for work in quantum electrodynamics. Also, as it turned out, we proved to have been very poor judges of Nobel Prize material. Sitting right there among us all the time, taking part in our talk and gossip, were three other whom we had passed over completely. The first was one of our research chiefs, I. I. Rabi, who was to win a Nobel Prize in 1944. The second was Polycarp Kusch, a young experimentalist from the Middle West, with large angular movements and a loud assertive voice. He was the Nobel laureate in 1955. The third was Willis Lamb, a tall, thin Californian with a slight squint and a quiet erudition, both in physics and out. In the thirties, Lamb considered himself only as a theoretician—although certainly no then in Schwinger’s class, as far as anyone thought.