Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Park
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Interview with Dr. Robert Park
Session I | Session II
McCray:Okay. [tape turned off, then back on...] This is the second part of the Robert Park interview done on March 6, 2001. Let me do that. In 1982 you became director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society.
Park:Yeah. I was at the time the chairman of the department of physics and astronomy. It’s now just the department of physics. The two have since parted.
McCray:When did that happen?
Park:Oh, that happened two or three years ago, maybe longer ago than that time. It gets strangely compressed at this age. But they were already separate programs and housed in separate buildings and it was appropriate I think. The reason for it basically was that physics was such a huge department that whenever the university needed resources they looked around for the biggest department and took ‘em there. And so making it two smaller departments seemed like a very good thing. We’re still a very large physics department. We’re still I guess about the second largest in the country.
McCray:Hmm. But that provided some sort of cover at least from administration.
Park:A little bit of protection, yeah. So I think it was a good idea. At any rate, I had a sabbatical year coming up, and I had agreed when I became chairman that I was not going to stay around there forever.
Park:As chair. And I figured this was good a time as any to step down as chairman, let them find another chair. Somebody’s got to do it during my sabbatical year anyhow. And then I started looking for a sabbatical. But the problem was that I had graduate students who were in the final throes of their theses, and so I didn’t want to leave the country or something like that. That’s always – I’ve watched that too many times from the other end.
McCray:Yeah. I remember you saying before that one of the faculty did it.
Park:So and about that time I got a call from a member of the National Academy, actually a Nobel laureate, Willy Fowler. I had worked with him before on projects at the National Academy, and he had a big project that he wanted to do, and he wondered if I would head it. And it should take about a year to come out with a report. And I said, “Sure, that’s perfect. I’ll be right here in the Washington D.C. area. That won’t be where my students can’t reach me. At the same time I’ll be out of the department.” When you have a sabbatical, you don’t want to take your sabbatical right in the department. Because they’re just going to keep you busy.
Park:And no matter what they say ahead of time. And I thought it was all set, and then right at the last minute apparently the funding did not come through.
McCray:What was the project for?
Park:It was to look at the status of funding for experimental physics, which he was a theoretician but regarded this as a very grave problem. And so he happened also to be the past chairman of the Panel on Public Affairs of the American Physical Society. And at that time Neal Lane was the chairman. (Later, Lane headed NSF and served as Science Advisor for President Clinton.) And POPA [Panel of Public Affairs] said that we needed a presence in Washington. Now this had been tried once before with the AIP, and the AIP opened a Washington office. And it was kind of a disaster. They hired as Washington guy, somebody familiar with Washington, and put him in charge of this office, and he sent in monthly reports but you know that was kind of it.
McCray:Of just what was happening in Washington?
McCray:Who was this other person?
Park:I don’t know who the first guy was. But at any rate, they had given the project up after a few years. But the APS decided they wanted to do this, and they simply thought it should be a physicist running it – a real working physicist. And so Fowler, this Nobel laureate sort of designated himself as a search committee of one. He says, “I know just the guy.” And he came out and recruited me, and then I actually flew down to Houston. Neal Lane was at Rice at the time. I gave a colloquium at Rice, and was going on to some other meeting in Austin or someplace, and I met with Neal and you know we saw eye-to-eye on things, and so I agreed to do it. For one year. And the idea was that at the end of the year I would find somebody, or we would find, somebody to replace me, and the office would continue but it would have this kind of rotation.
McCray:Somebody would come in for a while and do it.
Park:Yeah. For a year or so, and then we’d get another replacement. And when I actually agreed to do this then, I had all of POPA to deal with as well as the administrators in the APS. And everybody you know had different opinions. But I said, “What is it exactly you want me to do?” And they said, “Well, we thought you’d tell us.” And I thought, “Well, that’s perfect.” So they gave me a whole list of things that a Washington office might do, all the way from keeping our members informed of what’s going on in Washington to keeping the public informed of what the Physical Society thinks about things. And lots of little things in between. So but this was perfect. I mean, anybody asking you, “You tell us what your job is,” that’s great. You get to mold the job to suit yourself.
McCray:What did you see the priorities as?
Park:I saw it as a communications node. And we talked about it, and what would be the easiest to do. But this discussion was going on after I already was sitting in the office. So the first thing I did of course was just go around and meet everybody in Washington. So I went to see all of the executive officers of all the other scientific organizations and got to know everyone and got their opinions on what was needed. And also in the process formed a judgement of these people and then how well their operations ran. And I wouldn’t want it named in this, but – the one I wanted to stay away from, the thing I wanted to avoid, was the American Chemical Society – which has a huge Washington office and no impact whatever. They have such a huge office that they have a lot of in-fighting.
McCray:Within the office?
Park:Within the office. And so I felt – and still feel – that it should remain a small office. It shouldn’t have a large staff. And it’ll be able to respond much more quickly. I also felt that I had to have a certain amount of authority to take a position on behalf of the Society. And so kind of the agreement was that yes, you know, where it’s called for– Well, part of the problem was, with the Chemical Society, if an issue came up, by the time they could get it through the bureaucracy the issue had gone away again. Things happen in Washington on a very short notice. Bills come up, and you’ve got sometimes a matter of days to respond. And you can’t go through all of this approval process every time. And the APS understood that very well, and so they agreed, but that they would monitor it closely and if I did anything too egregious it probably would be the end of this experiment – which is what it was considered. It was really just a Washington experiment.
McCray:Who were the main science people in Washington at that time? I’m trying to think. Erich Bloch would have been at NSF.
Park:Erich Bloch was at NSF and George (Jay) Keyworth was the Science Advisor to the President. This was Reagan era, and the APS saw that of course as the big problem, and the APS – well, right after I took the job, right after I went to Washington was when Reagan made his Star Wars speech.
McCray:Sure. Yeah, that was in ‘82 or ‘83.
Park:And that really set off the alarm buttons within the APS. And so we started talking about a study of directed energy weapons – or at least of SDI. And then it later homed in on this question of directed energy weapons, which was the most physics-oriented problem within SDI
McCray:The X-ray laser and all those sorts of projects.
McCray:So the environment with the administration was bad at the time, from the physics standpoint. Reagan in fact did come in and in his first year slashed the science budget.
McCray:Or just science across the board.
Park:All science. Huge cuts in the NSF and elsewhere. And it – he later was relatively generous to science, but we were years overcoming that initial setback. So that was kind of the environment. And since initially I was reporting to POPA.
McCray:To this Panel of Public Affairs.
Park:Yes. That’s right. And since Neal Lane was the chairman of that I made it a point to send him a memo every week and say, you know, “These are the people I’ve talked to this week. This is what’s going on. This is what I see as the problem,” this kind of thing. So a very frank, chatty sort of memo. And it wasn’t every week, but it was roughly weekly. And I would include clippings out of the newspapers and political cartoons and anything else, thrown into this packet which went to Neil. And that eventually became the column I do called “What’s New”.
McCray:Okay. So eventually this became wider known?
Park:Neal said, “Why don’t we send this to the whole panel?” I said, “Fine,” and the panel got it and then other people on the panel would share this piece of information with people on the executive board. So, “Why don’t we send it to the whole executive board?” And members of the executive board would share it with people who weren’t even in the Physical Society. So all of a sudden I– At that time the head of the National Science Board was a vice president at General Electric who I had known for several years.
McCray:Do you recall who that was?
Park:This morning I seem to be just absolutely blank on names. I’m embarrassed.
McCray:We’ll track it down.
Park:But he wrote me a letter and said, “Look.” One of his staff members who was on the council “has been showing me copies of your weekly report. Why don’t you just send this directly to me and avoid all the trouble of me having to get it from him? I find it very useful.” So here I am with the head of the National Science– And up until this time we treated this as a confidential memorandum, and it was marked “confidential,” and I was free to engage in slander or innuendo or anything else that I wanted. But here is an opportunity to communicate on a regular basis with the head of the National Science Board. And we figured we couldn’t pass that up, so we decided to go public with it – or sort of public – in that we sent it to people who asked for it. But at the same time, that sort of changed the tone of it. Immediately you’ve got – you no longer have as much slander and innuendo, although people think there is still too much of that.
Park:But it required a little toning down. We had to make the decisions. You know, did we want to tone it down a little as a way of reaching these other people that could turn out to be very important to us. In fact, we experimented for some months with a two-tiered system in which I wrote two of them. One of them I cleaned up for the outside audience. But we never admitted there were two. We had a little code that went on it so we could tell.
McCray:What was the code?
Park:I have forgotten even what the code was.
Park:A little letter or something at the end, down where you ordinarily put the secretary’s initials who typed this thing, you know. And by which initials we put down there was an indication of whether this was the unexpurgated version or the toned-down. And we did that for a while, and I don’t think anybody ever really caught on to the fact that there were two of these going out. But I finally decided it was a little dishonest.
McCray:Who would get which version?
Park:Well, the people from POPA certainly, and the executive officer of the APS and people like that – the president of the APS – would all get the unexpurgated version. And then people outside the American Physical Society would–
McCray:So the National Science Board and all that would get the slightly more–
Park:Yeah. They would get the slightly cleaned up version.
Park:But finally decided that one version really ought to fit all, and if we feel really uncomfortable saying it, we probably shouldn’t say it anyhow.
McCray:Before you took this post in ‘82 which was to be only temporary, did you have a large interest in science policy before this? Was this something that you had an interest in?
Park:Well, as a department chairman of course I automatically have a concern with it. You’re worried every year about your budget and all of these other things. But no, I really had not imagined myself in science policy at all. I was a researcher and anxious to get back to my research. But this looked like a pretty interesting way to spend a single year. But as the end of the year approached and we started casting around for who might replace me, you suddenly discover that the pool is not that large. And part of the reason it’s not that large is, I could take the job for a year without giving up my house. But to get somebody to come to Washington for a year and have to rent their house out and all the other things that you have to do generally on sabbatical, it turned out not to be that – the pool was not that big.
McCray:Of people willing to put up with that inconvenience.
Park:And so I was asked if I would stay on for at least another year. And I agreed to do that. And as I say, at that time it was an experiment, and so the council was left with the question of, “Do we want to continue this experiment?”
McCray:The APS council.
Park:The APS council. And the vote was overwhelmingly “yes,” but there were some strong feelings that the APS shouldn’t be doing this at all.
McCray:Hmm. Who were the strong feelings coming from? If you can say.
Park:They were coming mostly from senior elder scientists who– There was at that time a kind of a split within the Society that had taken place during the Korean War – the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, up until that time, the Society existed really just to publish papers and hold meetings. It was just to exchange information on physics. During the Vietnam War we got a lot of young activists who said, you know, “We need to do more. We need to get into issues like this that are important to the public where physicists have a particular point of view or some special knowledge that the public would benefit from.” And that had caused a severe split within the Society.
McCray:Was it a primarily generational split, age-wise?
Park:It was primarily a generational split, but not entirely. Not entirely at all. And there were those who wanted the APS to become kind of an anti-war group, which we never did. But that was when POPA was created. POPA was one of the responses to that. And so the Vietnam War now was over, but there was still this kind of divide within the Society – which I think with time just disappeared.
McCray:As people have died and retired?
Park:But that split was still there when the council took this vote, and there were still those who thought we should just stick to publishing journals and organizing physics conferences and we shouldn’t be involved in this other stuff at all. To some extent even the executive officer of the Society, Bill Havens, was – his sympathies lay somewhat in that direction, though he was certainly willing to do some bold things, and in particular on SDI. The guy who was most helpful at the time was the treasurer of the APS, Joe Burton, who had been a vice president at Bell Laboratories and in retirement had become treasurer of the APS. He and Bill Havens worked wonderfully together. They made a great pair. But Joe was more liberal, I think, than Havens and it was in fact Joe who picked the name for “What’s New”. Up until that time the title that I put on this thing was “What’s happening on such-and-such a date.” And Joe was a guy who had a talent for making problems go away. You know, you would go to Joe and say, “God, I don’t know how the hell we’re going to do this,” and he would say, “Well, let me think about it” and the first thing you know he says, “It’s no problem at all. Here’s what we do.” And when the decision was made that this newsletter should then be available to everyone, Joe calls me on the phone and he says, “Bob,” he says, “it’s all set.” I mean he just went and made the decisions. He said, “We’re going to call it What’s New, because it needs another name now that we’re going to put it out a little differently, and it’s going to go out on Fridays.” Because it turned out, at that time, e-mail as we know it now did not exist.
McCray:Sure. Yeah, I was just going to ask how it was disseminated.
Park:We were in that transition period. And it was much cheaper if it went out on the weekend than if it went out on a weekday. So he could cut our cost in half by sending the thing out Friday afternoon.
McCray:So it would be mailed out.
Park:Yeah. It was mailed out, but it also went out electronically, because physicists were the first group perhaps that all had computer access, or largely had computer access. So – God, what did we call it then? I’ve forgotten what it was called, but there was a system by which you could do this – but it wasn’t e-mail yet, and that was a ways off still. But so Joe, you know, set the format, set everything, did everything for this. Just said, “This is the way it’s going to be.” And that was fine. I had great respect for Joe, and it worked out just fine. In the meantime, we still had this issue kind of, of what the office does.
McCray:Were you the only person in the office at this point?
Park:Initially the only person in the office was myself and an assistant that I had from the University of Maryland. She came out and worked with me for a year. She was really terrific. She was – it’s the first time I ever really thought about the distinction between smart and intellectual. She was no intellectual. Her idea of a great evening out was to go watch the Washington Bullets play basketball. And when I hired her, she was the head pom-pom girl for the Maryland football team – which meant she had attributes that also turned out to be very valuable at times.
McCray:I can imagine.
Park:Yeah. When she asked somebody to do something, they fell all over themselves to help. So she came to work for me for a year before going back into the University of Maryland. And then I hired – there was a graduate student in the physics department that I knew who was struggling with what he wanted to do with his life and had decided that maybe he really didn’t want to be a physicist. And I hired him as a secretary, despite the fact that he was no secretary. I mean, his typing was not that great, but he could do these things, and he understood the community, and that was important. And that was really why the APS model was successful whereas a lot of Washington offices of societies are just – they’re impotent.
McCray:Okay. What’s required to understand the community? What do you mean when you say that?
Park:It’s a hard thing to describe. You’ve got to kind of be able – well really you need to be a researcher. I mean you’re got to have that experience. You gradually sort of develop a feeling for how physicists react to certain problems. And they do react in some ways differently than other people. They do respond differently than chemists to the same input. I used to – the research that I did, there was a lot of physical chemistry in it as well as physics, and I used to get invitations to speak at American Chemical Society meetings. And the contrast is just overwhelming.
Park:Well, they look different. They wore dark suits and ties, and at Physical Society meetings you don’t see many dark suits and ties.
McCray:Okay. So the chemists looked more like an IBM sort of office?
Park:Yeah. They were much more reserved and staid at the meetings. I always had the feeling that they were there listening to my talk because they thought it was their duty to be there. And physicists were often at my talks in order to argue, you know, and a different attitude entirely. And somehow you could always tell. You could spot chemists a block away. And physicists you could spot as well, you know, by the patches in their jeans and you know whatever else. And I think that’s been the great success for the APS, is the fact that it has always put such people into positions of authority. Whereas most of the other scientific societies in Washington tend to look around for someone who has Washington experience.
McCray:Rather than scientific experience.
Park:That’s right. And there’s nothing wrong with Washington experience, but if that’s the only thing you are basing it on, you miss an important part of it.
McCray:So what were some of the first issues that you began to spend a lot of time with?
Park:Okay. The first two really big issues were government secrecy and Star Wars.
McCray:Okay. Was there a connection between those two?
Park:Well, inevitably some connection, but they really had different origins entirely. At that time, the government began to interfere in scientific conferences. And there were people from the FBI at every APS meeting.
McCray:How would they interfere?
Park:They simply wanted to make sure that we weren’t talking about anything that shouldn’t get in the hands of enemies. So there would be these guys at the back of the room – again, wearing dark suits and ties – and they always had hearing aids, which weren’t hearing aids.
Park:And so you could see these guys standing at the back of the room in every big meeting. The society that I was also involved in that had the greatest – that that had the greatest impact on – was the American Vacuum Society. And at one of the meetings they had a bunch of Chinese attending – and they actually closed the meeting down.
Park:Yeah. And had really arrested the officers of the AVS.
Park:For violating these government rules on information.
McCray:Okay. Do you recall when this was?
Park:Yeah, this was early eighties.
McCray:Early eighties. Okay.
Park:And but the Vacuum Society will have the whole history of that in gory detail.
McCray:Sure. Okay, good.
Park:Those were kind of exciting years. So we spent a lot of our time fighting this issue of whether there should be a class of information that the government was calling – I don’t remember the exact word they used. Sensitive? Something like “sensitive but unclassified.” And this was information that you couldn’t put in articles – but it wasn’t classified.
McCray:So it would be a notch below classified.
Park:A notch below classified and yet–
McCray:But still squelched.
Park:Yeah. Still squelched. And when information is classified, there is a whole bunch of rules they have to go by. With this kind of information, there were no rules.
McCray:So anything that looked important they can put this–
Park:Yeah. So these guys were kind of making up the rules as they went along. And we really fought that. And I was fighting it then in two societies: in both the Vacuum Society and the APS.
McCray:Were there particular types of information or scientific topics, either in the Vacuum Society or APS, that government people worried about?
Park:Oh, sure. Issues having to do with lasers for example. So yeah, you know, begin to get a feel for which were the issues. The other society that was deeply involved was the SPIE and well, several of the electronics societies.
McCray:Okay. Would the Optical Society be one of them?
Park:The Optical Society was right in the middle of it. And so part of the issue then was to kind of organize these societies and get them working together.
McCray:These societies are all under AIP but they’re all separate.
Park:That’s right. And that we did. We worked together pretty well.
McCray:What was your take on all this or your reaction to it?
Park:Oh, I was bitterly opposed to any restrictions on scientific exchange, and it was my feeling that there was too much classified information; that that ought to be cut way down. And but classification, the amount of classified documents was just soaring during the Reagan years. The other big issue that’s always been an issue and always will be an issue is funding. And as I say, there had been that devastating cut in science budgets the first year of Reagan in office. To give you kind of a tone for things as they were then, when Reagan became President one of the first questions he was asked was who was going to be his Science Advisor. And he was asked that by a reporter, and he pondered the question for a moment, and he said, “Well, so-and-so,” who in fact was an engineer in California and had worked on Reagan’s campaign in California. And he says, “He knows this stuff pretty well, and I thought if I had any problems I’d just ask him.” You know, that’s not like having an Office of Science and Technology policy.
McCray:Sure. That’s a pretty typical Reagan response.
Park:Yeah. Well. And he had no concept at all. And so when he did appoint a Science Advisor, it was Jay Keyworth, who was a sort of a protégée of Edward Teller. So not surprisingly. The real science advice to the White House was coming from Teller. And it is no secret – at that time I guess maybe Bob Marshak was president of the APS, or at least during that period, and Marshak and Teller were bitter enemies. And in fact most of the people in authority in the APS were anti-Teller. I mean, you know, this has a history that goes way back.
McCray:Back to the hydrogen bomb and Oppenheimer.
Park:Sure. The Oppenheimer thing and all that business.
McCray:Sure. So how did you present your views, and in the process of presenting your views on these issues were you encountering flak from members of APS about what you were saying?
Park:Oh, sure. And still do. And I did it then pretty much the same way I do it now, which is that my views are not hidden in What’s New. I’ve always said that it was not just a news column; it was an editorial column as well. And I thought that the editorial part of it was very important, and if the APS ever decided that my views were too much in conflict with the APS, then that was the time for me to leave.
Park:And but in the meantime it just kept going on, you know.
McCray:Your being there?
Park:My job. Another year goes by, and there’s still nobody standing in line to take this job, and the council in the meantime has voted to extend the experiment indefinitely.
McCray:Are you enjoying it at this point?
Park:Oh, yeah. This was a whole new world for me.
McCray:What did you like about it?
Park:These were issues that I felt strongly on. One of the first things that – not long after I took the job – was when the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity was made.
McCray:Eighty-six, ‘87, around there?
Park:Yeah. And it was still Reagan in office, and here was this startling new discovery, and Reagan decided to hold a big meeting. This was important, and scientists all told him this was a very important discovery, so he held a government-sponsored conference in Washington with leaders of industry, academia and government all brought together to discuss how we should respond to this new development. Now here was a discovery that was made in Zurich and first confirmed in Beijing and Tokyo, and they excluded any foreigners from attending the meeting. Well, this got right back into this whole secrecy business, and I was outraged. So I, in the heat of passion I dashed off an op-ed and sent it to the Washington Post. I had never written an op-ed before, and all I did was just send this thing to the editor of the Washington Post.
McCray:Did you identify yourself as just citizen–?
Park:No, you know, I identified myself with the University of Maryland and with the APS. And I got this phone call from this guy who was the, at that time, the editor of the “Outlook” section of the Post, and he says, “I’ve got this editorial that was sent to me to look at,” and he happened also to be the chief science writer for the Washington Post. This was Curt Suplee. And he says, “Don’t you know anything?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Look. You can’t just send an op-ed to the editor of a paper like the Washington Post and expect to get it published.” He said, “You have to call the editor and talk with him and tell him why you’re writing this, and maybe we’ll take it seriously. But in this case we’re going to publish it anyhow.” And that got me started writing op-eds. So now I had, in this list of priorities for what the office should be doing was this idea of communicating our concerns to the public.
Park:Yeah. And early on, POPA had decided that we didn’t know how to do that. You know, we knew with What’s New and Physics Today and all these other things. We knew how to communicate with our members, and we were beginning to learn how to communicate with Congress and the Administration. By that time I had testified at hearings and had arranged for presidents of the APS to testify at hearings, and this kind of thing.
Park:Whatever topics that were coming up that we felt strongly about. And so here was all of a sudden a new door opened. Here was a way to communicate to the public. This was how you go directly to the public. You do it through the pages of the newspapers. Now the op-ed was just one thing. The other thing was to influence stories that the public reads in the newspaper. And that turned out to be fairly easy too. So here were the things that we thought were the hardest – you know, how to communicate to the public – and suddenly they were turning out not to be insurmountable problems at all. So over the years I have written a dozen or more op-eds for The New York Times, and I have never been turned down by The New York Times. They have a one-year rule, where the same person can’t write two op-eds in one year.
McCray:I wasn’t aware of that.
Park:Well, they don’t adhere to it. In my case, in some years I wrote three. So writing op-eds I think is just enormously important, and particularly if you can get them into The New York Times and the Washington Post. Not because so many people read those two newspapers, but because their op-eds are picked up by other newspapers. And in fact with the first one that I wrote–
McCray:That was on the topic of government secrecy or–?
Park:Well, the first one that I wrote was the one for the Post having to do with how outrageous it was to be holding this meeting–
Park:–on superconductivity and not let foreigners in, as though it were an American discovery. And that not only got picked up all over the United States; they put it on – they called me and said – I guess it was Suplee again – and said, “We want to put this on the news wire. Is that okay?” And I said, “Well, what does this mean?” And he says, “Well, it means any other paper can use it.” And they don’t pay you or anything else; they just pick it up free. And it not only got picked up in this country, it got picked up all over the world. I began getting fan mail from Bangladesh. And so we realized if we want to communicate, this is one of the ways that we can do that. So we still regard writing op-eds as a very important part of the job, and in fact I gave a course a the Physical Society meeting a year ago on writing op-eds.
McCray:How did the Society respond to this? I’m thinking now you’ve got three different audiences that are paying attention: you’ve got the members themselves, you have Congress, and you have the public. And there are some overlapping members there perhaps – overlapping interest in some cases – but in many ways those are very different and diverse audiences. How do you speak to such an audience?
Park:I just try to write an interesting story. The first thing you’ve got to do if you are going to communicate to anybody is get them to read it. So I tried to make it interesting enough that people would read it. I didn’t shy away from taking strong positions, and the agreement within the Society was that – and this was actually a formal agreement – was that I could write these op-eds and take whatever position I wanted. That was up to me, but I would write them as Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland.
McCray:Not as a member of APS.
Park:That’s right. So my op-eds in The New York Times and Washington Post always say University of Maryland as my affiliation. That raised a few hackles within the Society, surprisingly, who said I was disguising the fact that I was with the APS. It raised a few hackles outside the Physical Society in which they talk about, you know, how dishonest it is for this guy to represent the American Physical Society and then pretend he’s at the University of Maryland.
McCray:Were there particular people who were coming out?
Park:Oh, on any issue it’s a different group of people.
McCray:Okay. So if you were writing about SDI you would get a response from other people.
Park:From SDI people, saying, “What does he mean ‘University of Maryland’? This guy is with the APS! We know what he is doing.”
McCray:What was the response within the Society itself to this?
Park:Mostly very favorable. And the same is true of What’s New. I get people who demand my resignation every so often. When I take a position on something that really pisses somebody off, they immediately say, “A Society like ours cannot have a man like this writing.”
McCray:What would an example be of something that really ticked people off?
Park:It’s hard to find an issue that doesn’t tick somebody off, but certainly my position on space. You know, I’ve opposed human space exploration from the beginning.
McCray:Okay. I imagine that would include the Space Station as well.
Park:Oh, for almost everybody I am the token critic of the Space Station. So there is hardly an article that is written in a major newspaper that mentions criticism of the Space Station that doesn’t quote me. So I’m quoted twenty, thirty times a year on the Space Station.
McCray:Does APS itself have an official position? Or did they have one?
Park:No. And they – well, actually I guess we did. Yeah, yeah. We did actually take a formal position on the Space Station. And the position that we took officially was that you cannot justify the Space Station on the basis of the science. That’s a fairly timid position. I would have, you know– But it gets interpreted as being a very strong position somehow. And which is fine. You get the best of both worlds when you do that. So yeah, we have an official position on the Space Station.
McCray:Okay. SDI, I think there was one.
Park:Yeah. And of course I, as part of my job, I advised on preparing that statement. In fact I guess I wrote a draft or two of it. It of course got revised numerous times.
McCray:By the particular–?
Park:By other people within POPA first, and then it goes to council and council makes some changes as well. But yeah, we took a position on the Space Station. And that’s a good example of one that antagonizes people. I also said a few things about fusion that raised some real hackles. And rightly so. I maybe went too far on fusion.
Park:Well, I recognized – thought I recognized – pretty early on that we weren’t going to see fusion power in my lifetime in all probability, and certainly not on the kind of time scales that were being talked about.
McCray:This is after the University of Utah experiment?
Park:No, not cold fusion.
McCray:Okay. This is even before that whole thing.
Park:This is before cold fusion. And the big decision that had real implications for everybody was when they built the PPPL at Princeton – the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory – and started building a tokamak.
Park:A tokamak, which is a confinement device for high-temperature plasmas. Magnetic confinement. And magnetic confinement is the key here. And it’s funny. I’ve gotten criticism from more than one contingent within the fusion community. But I guess I made the remark at one point that, “Fusion is the energy source of the future and always will be.” And you can imagine how some of the people in that business reacted to that.
McCray:Well, what was their reaction? Were they angry because they saw what you were saying as threatening their funding?
Park:As threatening their funding, yes.
McCray:Was that their primary objection to it?
Park:Primary objection. And yeah, definitely. It was certainly a source of friction within the Society, but it was also a major policy decision. When they decided to build this tokamak at Princeton, it was very expensive. And what it meant was that they decided which approach to fusion had the best prospects and they dumped all the resources into that. We had, up until that time, followed a policy of having all of these separate ways of doing it, of funding them all. And in the end, you know – well, we weren’t that far along when they decided that because funding was tight they would have to decide which of these was going to be the winner. And I thought it was too early to decide. And so at that time then all of a sudden there were people in the tokamak camp that were furious at me, and not just fusion. But so those are the kind of frictions that have arisen over the years. And I guess partly – again, if you’re going to influence people you have got to get them to read it. And my job with What’s New was to get physicists to read it. And they are not going to read it if it’s bland. So I don’t mean that I was deliberately abrasive. I never was. But I let my feelings show. And overwhelmingly the reaction to these things has been positive.
Park:But again, societies take a funny view of this – officers in the societies. You know, people who like What’s New write me a letter and tell me so. People that don’t like it write to the chief operating officer who says, you know, “What are we going to do about this?”
McCray:So the CEO doesn’t get the positive mail. You get that. And they only get the bad news.
Park:Yeah. And I think that’s probably typical in most places. And their immediate reaction is, “This is a member of this Society. He has written a letter and he is very upset. How do we respond?” And I kind of took the position that, “Look. Send him a polite response and say, you know, thank you for your opinion.” And but these were people that would be howling for my head, and so it was always a case of how to respond to that. The biggest issue all along has been that of censorship. “Should we have somebody that approves What’s New?”
McCray:Yeah. How has that position changed within APS?
Park:Well, initially I said, you know, “If that’s the case, I don’t write it.” This goes out on Friday; it’s not written until Friday. And I start writing it Friday morning, and we’re still checking the news reports when we send the thing out at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And I’m not going to go through this business of having somebody else check it for political correctness or whatever.
Park:However, as time went on we did expand the office, and not a large office by any means. I hired a Ph.D. physicist to work with me.
McCray:Who was this?
Park:And this was Francis Slakey, who is terrific. He’s the most creative guy within the American Physical Society and he’s been just an enormous asset to us. And then later on the APS decided – it was a conscious decision of the council – that we would actively begin to lobby for the science budget and for things that are important to us. And so at that point we hired – again I think a wise decision – we hired a physicist as a lobbyist. And everybody else wanted us to hire a Washington person as a lobbyist. They know how to get things done. And I said, “Look. We don’t have to do things the way other people do them.” The American Society for Cell Biology, with which I have close ties, they went in and hired an ex-Congressman as a lobbyist. You know, the cigar-smoking, golf-playing–
McCray:The classic picture.
Park:He is the archetype of the classic lobbyist.
McCray:But not a cell biologist.
Park:Knows nothing about cell biology. And he said it’s worked fairly well for them, but I think it’s worked a lot better for us. We hired a physicist and a good one, Mike Lubell, who is now chairman of the physics department at CCNY and a good researcher. So he’s respected. First of all, he has the respect of the scientific community. You are not going to get anywhere if you don’t have that to begin with. And he has that because he does physics. And you know, he can be the smartest guy in the world, but if he hasn’t done any physics he’s not going to be respected by the APS community.
McCray:Within APS, has this issue of censorship or wanting to read the things before they’re published, has it changed as new councils came in or new secretaries?
Park:Well, it has, and I even compromised a little bit. I said, “Look.” The argument was made that some – I don’t even remember what the issue was, but that what I had said in What’s New was in conflict with the position that the APS president was arguing for at the very time, and that we can’t have that. And so you know the whole censorship thing came up again. And at that point I agreed to run every issue of What’s New by Mike Lubell. I said, “Here’s our political guy. If there’s political sensitivity involved, he’s the guy that’ll spot it.” So Mike Lubell is the one – wherever he is, we track him down by fax or whatever, and even occasionally having to read it to him over the phone – but he reads every issue of What’s New and tells me if there is any – if I am stepping on any political toes here.
McCray:Okay. And then you go back and–
Park:Yeah. From my standpoint, I feel that stepping on toes is not the worst thing in the world, and it’s not even a bad image to have people know that there is more than one point of view within the Society.
Park:Other people see that situation a little differently. But this has worked out well with Mike, and he – only occasionally am I upset by some of objections he raises.
McCray:What would an example be?
Park:And he rarely raises objections. You know, and so. So that – now, when I began to do What’s New also I discovered something else in terms of the response of my readers, and I found the same thing out to be true in writing op-eds, and it was that the issue– We always talk in the APS about we want to find issues that involve the public, that the public is concerned about. And so we have in the last couple of years developed a newsgroup within the APS who are not physicists. They are kind of reporters by background. And their job is to sell stories to the media.
McCray:On scientific issues?
Park:Anything that gets physics in the public eye.
Park:And the things in particular we want to do are: convince the public that physics is important; that it can solve problems; and that physicists do interesting things. And I found very early that the way that I could do that was to raise consumer issues – the kind of stuff that’s in Voodoo Science. (Robert Park’s book (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.)
Park:Places where the public is being screwed by people who invoke–
McCray:The magnets to cure arthritis and what have you.
Park:And that that’s very good stuff for us to do. There are people within the Society who think we have no business doing that.
McCray:What is their objection to that?
Park:That magnet therapy has nothing to do with physicists and we should stay clear away from it.
Park:But physics is being invoked.
McCray:As a selling tool?
Park:Yeah. And furthermore, as I say, this is something that the public pays attention to. And it is an opportunity to show the public that physicists are doing interesting stuff and they are not just in there talking about esoteric matters that nobody else can understand. So more and more, as time has gone on, I have included these consumer issues both in my op-eds and in What’s New and most recently then in the book. I refer to them as consumer issues kind of broadly, but–
McCray:But things where physics is being presented to the public in such a way to market a particular device?
Park:Either that, or simply something is being marketed in which they are ignoring the laws of physics.
McCray:Okay. I can think of the chapter in Voodoo Science where you talk about things about the perpetual motion machines.
Park:Sure, sure. And that’s the biggest battle we’re fighting right now. Largely out of sight of even the physics community, but it gets in What’s New from time to time, and that is a single company called Black Light Power that is just the latest of hundreds of companies that have claimed to find a way to extract energy from pure water.
Park:And Black Light Power is mentioned in there.
McCray:Yeah. I recall that. Yeah. I recall reading about it.
Park:Now a lot has happened since the book was written. Even at the time that I wrote the book, these guys had managed to raise some capital. Yeah. They had raised some twenty-some million dollars from deep pocket investors by claiming they had this process for putting the hydrogen atom into a state below the ground state, and thus extracting energy from ordinary water. When it goes into the state below the ground state it – lower energy and this energy is liberated. And, well, it’s almost a classic case. If you read it in there I needn’t go through that anymore, but they have since actually applied for patents on this. And they applied for some six patents, and one was granted. And again, one of the problems we have uncovered is the Patent Office, that there are serious problems there.
McCray:In terms of the people inspecting the patents not doing their job?
Park:Sure. The salaries are not high. The salaries are low. Particularly in our current environment in which high tech salaries are high. And people with a tech background are in great demand. So how are you going to get people in the Patent Office for $35,000 a year that know what they’re doing? What you get is, by and large, a bunch of Pakistanis and – you know, I’m not denigrating the Pakistanis by any means, but people who are in a position to have to take that kind of job. There are many jobs that are closed to them because they are foreigners. And so – and often the educational level is just, you know, the background just isn’t anywhere near up to the job. So they granted that one patent, and I publicly ridiculed this, both in What’s New and in other articles that I wrote. In addition to writing op-eds, I write magazine articles, this kind of thing. And I figure all of this is all aimed at exactly the same thing. It’s all aimed at showing people that physicists are involved in important problems, and do interesting stuff, and some of it can even be understood. At any rate, on the basis of this patent and the five patents that were supposed to follow it, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter represents them, is their financial advisor, and they were coming out with a public offering of stock which they estimated would raise $1 billion. Now we are talking about big money. And I regard that as serious, and I regard it as a responsibility of the people who know better to explain that there is no state below the ground state. I’ve used the term “that’s south of the south pole.” And so indeed we got the other five patents that hadn’t been acted on. One of them had even gone as far as to even assign a number, but they had not released it. There was to be one more week before they released it when I began to get in the middle of things. And sure enough, the Patent Office went back and reexamined and they rejected all the other patents, tossed them out of consideration, and automatically that opened up the first patent to reexamination. So the patent is still granted – they still have the patent – but it’s tainted at this point. You can find out that it’s being reexamined.
McCray:The companies that are involved in this, do they have physicists onboard their own staff?
Park:Yeah, sure. And if it’s a company like Black Light Power, they are you know – they hire physicists you’ve never heard of. Let me put it that way. These are not distinguished members of the scientific community.
McCray:So a physicist, but not–
Park:A physicist. And they will make big things out of that. In fact the head of the company is always introduced as Dr. Mills, but his doctorate is an M.D. He has never had a course in physics.
McCray:That’s what I recall reading. He was a Harvard Medical something or other.
Park:Yeah. He’s a very clever guy, or he couldn’t have gotten this far, and he’s written a 1,000-page tome entitled “The Classical Theory of Quantum Mechanics,” something like that. I mean, you know, a completely contradictory sort of thing. And he makes mistakes in the mathematics in the first page. But it’s a book full of equations.
McCray:So it looks impressive.
Park:It looks very impressive.
McCray:Okay. So to a newspaper person or what have you, they would look at this and think that there must be some credible science involved?
Park:Yeah, yeah, yeah. And this guy can talk the lingo, you know. So I feel we have a responsibility to speak out on these issues, and I have worked hard to try to get the APS to be more vocal.
McCray:And their response has been–?
Park:Their response has really been pretty good.
Park:You know, the process is slower than you would wish, but there is no other way to do this. I can respond overnight in What’s New, but before you issue a public statement it’s going to have to go through POPA and the council and you know all these levels of approval.
McCray:The current secretary at APS, that’s Judy Franz. Is she still the current secretary?
Park:She’s the executive officer.
McCray:Executive officer. Okay.
Park:She changed the title from secretary. Once a woman took the job, she felt it important to change the title.
McCray:Okay. I wasn’t aware of that.
Park:Yeah. And I could understand that. I share that sensitivity.
Park:Secretaries tend to be female and–
McCray:I can imagine the need to do that. One thing – you mentioned earlier about letting the public know that physicists were not involved only in esoteric matters, and that made me think about the superconducting supercollider and that whole process of the public thinking that it was just this very expensive instrument for a very small group of scientists to use. I was curious what was your view of the SSC throughout its demise.
Park:Well, it was kind of mixed. I didn’t oppose the SSC, but I was not full of enthusiasm, for a couple of reasons. One is, it would take a big chunk of research money away from other things, and you’ve got to now decide, you know, what your priorities are.
Park:And in that case it was being decided, mostly on the basis that there were a lot of very distinguished physicists who happened to be interested in that field. And so there was a lot of opposition to the supercollider within the physics community. And that was their first mistake. They did a good job politically in garnering support, but failed to garner support within their own community first. And I think they make a tactical error there. I thought the biggest single error that was made in the case of the supercollider, when they began to develop a cost overrun they panicked and decided to make this an international project. Instead of an American collider, it was to be an international collider, and they even advertised that the Japanese were going to join us. And the Japanese never did.
Park:The only real commitment we had came from India, and it was $50 million, you know, is–
McCray:To that project, that was a pretty trivial amount.
Park:We’re talking about a $15 billion project. And so that was nothing. I felt, if you look at Congress, it has a wonderful record of supporting basic science. I mean, the Hubble Space Telescope. It has no applied purpose whatever. There is absolutely nothing applied to be gained from this, and no prospect of anything.
Park:You can argue maybe it has some spinoffs, but I claim that there are three kinds of liars: there are ordinary liars, there are damn liars, and there are people that make spinoff claims. And you know, the spinoffs don’t occur.
McCray:But the spinoffs, that was a big point I remember at some point for the supercollider, that it would have health benefits.
Park:That’s right. And I thought it was a terrible mistake that they made. But the big mistake was to try to make it an international project when they didn’t have the international support lined up. And that they ended up looking foolish. But worse than that, Congress, when it supports these projects, supports them because they are American projects. And they’ve even run into that problem now in their support for the Space Station. The more that we try to make the Space Station out to be an international project, the more Congress kind of digs its heels in as far as funding it.
McCray:Is there a fine balance between that? Because when I look at big projects sometimes, it occurs to me that having some international backing makes it harder to kill that project.
Park:It can, if that international participation is based on actual diplomatic agreements. So yeah. This is not a simple and hard rule, but I thought that they lost the one real edge they had. The whole purpose of the supercollider from the standpoint of Congress was to make the U.S. number one again in high-energy physics. That was being taken over by the Europeans–
McCray:CERN and all of that.
Park:And so the job was to make the U.S. number one in this field. And that’s not unimportant. Right now the United States cannot begin to supply its need for technical people from within. We have to rely on foreigners who come to the United States because this is the center of the universe when it comes to science. And so if you look at American Nobel laureates, a large fraction of them of course were not born in the U.S. And right now today if you look in our graduate schools, at particularly the best institutions, a large fraction of the graduate students are foreigners.
McCray:Do they tend to remain here, or will they go back?
Park:Well, the best remain. The very best of them are going to have an opportunity to remain. Somebody is going to find a way to keep them here.
Park:And those that go back, that’s not so bad either. It means in all of these countries there are high-tech people who have close relationships with people in the United States. And so all these things I think are good. So it’s important to be number one. It’s not the only consideration, and there may well be projects that are so large that a single country, it’s impractical for a single country to fund them anymore. And CERN may fall in that category. And CERN of course is the new SSC.
Park:And maybe that’s the only way to do it.
McCray:Having a large international participation?
Park:Yeah. But I thought at the time that they could have pulled it off if they had just said, “This is going to make us number one” and stuck to that. Trying to go international I thought was a bad mistake for them.
McCray:Did you get any, again, criticism or response from APS about this?
Park:Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
McCray:I haven’t read these. How did that go?
Park:I would get criticized just for not being strong enough advocate of the supercollider. And then if I said the least thing that was negative, or made the statement that I made to you that I think we really ought to emphasize that this is an American project, all of a sudden I wasn’t singing the party line anymore and I would catch the criticism again.
Park:So yeah, I caught a lot of criticism during that period, and it was during that period that a lot of people were demanding that What’s New be censored.
McCray:Would you say that that was the issue that brought the censorship question to the fore?
Park:No. No, the issue that really brought that out was just pure politics; just the whole funding issue and the fact that we had gotten to the point where different people were doing things, were engaged in activities that the rest of us didn’t know about.
Park:Well, most political initiatives are initially a very small number of people – like two.
Park:And it’s not a good time for this to be public. So always in politics things start off very confidential, and only later do they become established programs and gain visibility and this kind of thing. So in that initial period it’s touchy. And Mike knows what he’s doing, and so I don’t mind working with Mike on that. At times I resent it a little bit, that I’ve got to clear my What’s New with him, but he really does not have the life and death authority over it. I mean, he can’t say, “You can’t send this out.”
McCray:So he can offer a suggestion or–
Park:He can say, “I recommend against it.” And if I sent much out that he recommended against, I would expect that would be used against me at some point.
McCray:Okay. I’m mindful of the fact that we don’t have a whole lot of time left. I have just a couple more general questions. When I do these interviews I am always curious to get a sense of how people who have been involved with science, especially physics and astronomy, how science has changed over the course of their career, and I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts on that – about just the practice of doing physics. How has it evolved?
Park:Yeah. Well, there are several levels on which you can answer that question.
Park:The thing that I find the most fascinating is that right now, today, we are suddenly – very suddenly, it seems sudden – seeing the benefits of forty years of basic research. During all of that support of basic research it was always a promise that if we understood the fundamentals of this in the future these good things were going to happen. And that was pretty hard to prove. But particularly in the medical sciences I mean you really see this now. All of a sudden all this basic research on cancer that– I remember when the war on cancer was declared, and then I can remember when we declared that we had lost the war.
Park:And we hadn’t lost the war. All that research is now showing up in these new approaches to cancer which are – they are not the blind shotgun of chemotherapy. These things are based on understanding the basic physiology and cell mechanisms of the body and designing things that do a very specific task, and it’s going to change everything. And but we do the same thing in other fields as well.
Park:So the great things that are happening now are happening as a result of this huge background we built up of basic knowledge, and not just somebody with a bright idea.
Park:So we’re kind of getting to the end of the period when an individual makes a stunning discovery. Now maybe we are. There is not evidence to base that on. But it does seem that you know we are now really making use of that basic knowledge that we’ve been storing away all this time.
McCray:Has team-oriented research grown significantly?
Park:Sure. And I think that’s an aspect of this.
McCray:Okay. It makes me think every time the Nobel Prizes are awarded they are given to individuals but certainly the individual would not be able to do that without a large team.
Park:Sure. It’s always almost embarrassing to the people who get it, and many of them get up and sort of apologize for the fact that it’s being given to “me.”
McCray:Where it could be given to all the other members of the team?
Park:Sure. It’s given by and large to the spokesman.
McCray:Hmm. What’s required to be that spokesperson?
Park:It’s a good question, and it’s a question I always faced as a department chairman. I mean I had this huge physics department, second largest physics department in the country, and within it one of the largest groups was high-energy physics. And every major discovery that came out, there were people working on it from the University of Maryland, but their names were never mentioned because they were designing a detector for this big device. And it’s the guy that has the overall control of things that is going to win the Nobel Prize or whatever else comes out of it.
Park:Jokingly, in fact, I served on a visiting committee at Penn State University, and the dean called me in afterwards and he said, “Look.” He says, “I want to build a great physics department here.” And now they had a physics department that was really quite good in areas like solid-state physics, and he said, “But we had a group come out here and review the university’s work.” And these were all Nobel laureates, and they were physics Nobel laureates, and they were mostly Nobel laureates in some aspect of high-energy physics. And they had all told him that, “You can’t have a great physics department unless it has a great high-energy physics component.”
Park:And so here was a department that had just almost nothing in this area. And he recognized that to do that he couldn’t just hire a person; he had to somehow hire a whole group. And, you know, high-energy physicists do not work alone. They are not going to go someplace where there are not other high-energy physicists.
McCray:So they’d have to bring in several people.
Park:That’s right. And you’ve got to have some distinguished ones that bring in the right people.
McCray:So it’s almost like a nucleation growth process.
Park:He says, “How do I go about hiring a whole group?” And I said, “Easy. Take mine.” Because I felt at that time, you know, we were getting no credit at all for the stuff these guys were doing.
McCray:That’s funny. Classic inversion of the “take my wife please.” Well good. I think I’m just about out of tape, so why don’t we wrap this up here.
Session I | Session II