Just after the Second World War, the NAS sponsored a series of conferences on theoretical physics.
The first, the Conference on the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, was held 2-4 June 1947 at Long
Island's Shelter Island. Known as the Shelter Island Conference, the meeting was to prove a landmark
in the history of postwar American physics.
The idea for the conference originated with Duncan MacInnes (NAS 1937) of
the Rockefeller Institute. Hoping to secure NAS
sponsorship of a series of small, specialized conferences on physics, MacInnes in the
Summer of 1945 approached then-NAS President Frank B. Jewett with the idea of a two or three day conference
to which no more than thirty specialized participants would be invited. Jewett indicated an interest, as
long as the conference addressed problems suitable to solution by, as he wrote in a letter, "the concentrated
consideration of a small highly qualified group, meeting in intimate association for discussion." After considering
a concrete proposal from MacInnes, Jewett agreed to have the NAS provide funding.
With NAS sponsorship secured, the Shelter Island Conference was set to convene at the Ram's Head Inn, a new
establishment that had been opened ahead of schedule expressly to accommodate the visiting physicists.
The conference, the first of three the NAS sponsored in quantum physics, provided just the intimate setting
Jewett envisioned, and did indeed attract a highly qualified group. Among the 24 attendees were Edward Teller
(NAS 1948), J. Robert Oppenheimer (NAS 1941), David Bohm, John von Neumann (NAS 1937), John A. Wheeler (NAS 1952),
I.I. Rabi (NAS 1940), Richard Feynman (NAS 1954), and Julian Schwinger (NAS 1949). The conference was in fact nothing
less than a who's who of postwar American physics. Interestingly, the attendees were treated like celebrities when they
arrived at Greenport, Long Island, where they stopped before heading on to Shelter Island. John C. White, president of
the Greenport Chamber of Commerce and a Marine in the Pacific in WWII, arranged and paid for a dinner for the visiting
scientists out of gratitude for the war work done by the physicists who developed the atomic bomb. One conferee recalled
that during their trip to Greenport, the group was given a series of motorcycle police escorts and their bus was allowed
to run through red lights.
Although the conference was to be informal, it was structured around outlines or abstracts on specific
topics, as selected by discussion leaders Oppenheimer, Victor Weisskopf, and H.A. Kramers. K.K. Darrow
acted as chairman -- but as at least one participant remembered it, Oppenheimer in fact dominated the
The general problem the conferees were asked to address was the impasse that elementary particle theory was
perceived to have struck over the preceding decade and a half or so. Specific difficulties in quantum
electrodynamics (QED) and in upper atmosphere meson phenomena were of particular interest, especially in
light of Lamb's and Retherford's recent experimental findings on the fine structure of hydrogen, and Rossi's
experiments with cosmic rays. Both Lamb and Rossi were in attendance, and both were asked to report on
their findings. Discussion of the problems raised by these experiments, and the papers that resulted from
these discussions, produced significant advances in the development of QED.
Jewett's decision to sponsor the conference series thus turned out to be a sound one. In fact the
NAS-sponsored conferences in quantum physics -- the Shelter Island conference and the subsequent Pocono and
Oldstone conferences -- were of key importance for the development of postwar physics in America. One could
even say that the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics, which Feynman and Schwinger shared (with Tomonaga) for their
work in QED, was one long-term consequence of the NAS conferences.