Julian Schwinger and Pancreatic Cancer


Julian Seymour Schwinger (February 12, 1918 – July 16, 1994) was one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. He shared a Nobel Prize in theoretical physics with another genius, Richard Feynman, for his re-normalization theory of quantum electrodynamics. Today, he is far less famous than Feynman, even though he had a wider range of discoveries and tutored far more PhD students and Nobel Prize winners. Feynman was outgoing and sought popular attention by giving humorous lectures, writing books and producing films for non-physicists. Schwinger was an introvert who was more interested in his discoveries, so he was less in the public eye than Feynman, was not as loved by his students, and had far fewer friendships.

Education of a Genius
Schwinger was born in Manhattan to orthodox Jewish immigrant parents from Poland, who made a lot of money manufacturing clothing. His older brother taught him physics at an early age. His parents lost their business in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, so he could not afford college tuition and went to the free City College of New York. His teachers at City College were mostly graduate students from Columbia and New York University, who noticed that he was extraordinary and involved him in research projects in physics, so he no longer had the time to go to classes. He was so brilliant that he could get by with little preparation in physics and mathematics, but he flunked history, English, and German.

His research in physics during his freshman year was so original that his instructors introduced him to I. A. Rabi, an incredibly productive physicist who taught at Columbia. Rabi told Schwinger that he belonged at Columbia, which at that time had one of the strongest physics departments in the world. Schwinger transferred to Columbia with a full scholarship. By age 18 (1937), he had published seven papers, any of which could have served as his thesis for a PhD, when he didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. In 1939, at the extremely young age of 21, he received his PhD and left to work on nuclear physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Cal Berkeley. He spent just two years at Berkeley and left to take his first faculty appointment at Purdue University. With World War II on the horizon, he was soon recruited to work on radar at the Massachusetts Institute Technology. He worked all the time there and did most of his work at night when everyone else was home sleeping.

Career and Legacy
In 1945, Harvard offered Schwinger an Associate Professorship. Since Columbia and Cal Berkeley also gave him offers, Harvard quickly made him their youngest full professor ever at age 29. At Harvard, he was a very private person whose own graduate students spent little time with him. I went to one of his lectures. My friends thought that he was wonderful, while I didn’t understand a word. That was one of the many reasons I decided that I could not compete with the geniuses in the math department and decided to go to medical school with the rest of the grinds — students who have average ability and intelligence but work harder than everyone else.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear bomb, said that Schwinger gave talks to show that only he could solve a problem, while others gave talks to show their students how to do the calculation. Schwinger’s brusque personality conflicted with other Harvard faculty members so in 1972, he left Harvard for University of California in Los Angeles. His successor, Steven Weinberg, found a pair of old shoes on his desk that implied, “Think you can fill these?”.

Schwinger died from pancreatic cancer at age 76. His headstone at Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is engraved frac{alpha}{2pi}. These symbols refer to his calculation of the correction to the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron.

Just about everyone who ever met him was impressed by his incredible ability to know everything about physics. At age 30, he was awarded the Charles L. Mayer Nature of Light Award in 1949 for his work on Quantum Electrodynamics. At age 33, he received the first Einstein prize. At age 46, he received The National Medal of Science presented by President Johnson, and at age 47, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Tomonaga and Feynman.

Pancreatic Cancer
There is no effective treatment for pancreatic cancer. The five-year survival rate is less than five percent. About 20 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are candidates for the Whipple surgical procedure which has a 25 percent five-year survival rate. This extensive surgery involves removing the wide part of the pancreas, the first part of the intestines, a portion of the common bile duct, the gallbladder, and sometimes part of the stomach. However, this radical surgery is done only for tumors that are diagnosed when confined to the head of the pancreas and have not spread into nearby blood vessels, the liver, lungs, or abdominal cavity.

Nobody knows what causes pancreatic cancer. Cancer appears to be caused by
• inheriting a cancer gene,
• damaging genes by exposure to cancer-causing agents, or
• genes mutating or changing so that cells do not die in their pre-programmed way.

Every normal cell in your body undergoes apoptosis: it splits to form new cells a programmed number of times and then dies. For example, red blood cells live 120 days and die, skin cells live 28 days and die and the cells in your lips live 24 to 48 hours and die. Sometimes cells “forget” to die due to damage to the DNA. They try to live forever, which is cancer. Breast cancer does not kill as long as it remains in the breast, but it can spread to your brain, liver, or lungs and destroy these tissues to kill you.

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
• Cigarette smoking. One in five cases of pancreatic cancer occurs in smokers.
• Age: The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age; more than 80 percent of pancreatic cancers develop between ages of 60 to 80 years.
• Race and ethnicity: In the United States, pancreatic cancer is more common in African Americans. Pancreatic cancer is proportionally more common in Ashkenazi Jews, probably because of an inherited mutation in the breast cancer gene (BRCA2)
• Known genetic risks: breast cancer genes (BRCA2 and PALB2), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM), Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon-rectal cancer syndrome), and the Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
• Gender: Cancer of the pancreas is more common in men than in women. However, men are more likely to smoke, which can account for part or all of this difference
• Diets high in meats, processed meats or fried foods (diets high in fruits and vegetables reduce risk)
• Chronic pancreatitis
• Diabetes
• Obesity

What This Means for You
Most of the known risk factors for pancreatic cancer are also risk factors for other cancers, heart attacks, diabetes, dementia and other causes of premature death. When you change your lifestyle to help prevent pancreatic cancer, you are also helping to prevent other diseases as well.

Julian Seymour Schwinger
February 12, 1918 – July 16, 1994