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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Philip Hauge Abelson

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Interview with Dr. Philip Hauge Abelson
By Amy Crumpton
At Washington, DC
June 19, 2002

Oral history inteviewee photo
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Philip Abelson; June 19, 2002

ABSTRACT: Education in chemistry and physics at Washington State University in early 1930s; graduate studies and work on cyclotron under E. O. Lawrence at University of California, Berkeley from 1935-1939; investigations into products of neutron irradiation of uranium; identification of transuranic element 93 with Edwin McMillan; scientific activities at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at Carnegie Institution of Washington; work on enrichment of uranium for nuclear submarine project at the Naval Research Laboratory; describes information channels between scientists and government officials during World War II and his perspective on the use of the atomic bomb; continued work at Carnegie by investigating biosynthesis of E. coli using radioactive tracers; as director of Carnegieís Geophysical Laboratory conducted organic geochemical investigations of amino acid decay in Mercenaria mercenaria; co-editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research; reflections of his editorship of Science.

Transcript

Session I | Session II | Session III

Crumpton:

This is Amy Crumpton speaking with Dr. Philip Abelson on June 19, 2002, and we are at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at 1200 New York Avenue in Washington, DC. Dr. Abelson, to begin, Iíd like to start with your early years. I understand that you were born in 1913 in Tacoma, Washington? Could you tell me a little bit about your upbringing?

Abelson:

I had wonderful parents. My father was a civil engineer. As a civil engineer he had to be familiar with some physical principles and also, as a civil engineer he had to be knowledgeable about political implications and permissions to build roads and that kind of thing. He showed me things about surveying. He brought a transit home and we looked at the North Star. Later on, when I was about ten or eleven years old he took me to a construction camp. I was there for a week seeing concrete reinforcement structures being built. I got a bit of engineering in my blood. Unfortunately, in high school the physics instructor was terribly bored with his topic. He couldnít care less about teaching the students. So I was turned off temporarily on physics while in contrast the chemistry teacher was warm. She was a woman and she knew how to charm the young boys.

Crumpton:

Now were both of your parents college educated?

Abelson:

Both of my parents were born in Norway. My father was born north of the Arctic Circle. My mother was born in central Norway. They had met in North Dakota and gone to Washington State College. She had attended for two years odd before she gave birth to my elder brother. She spoke often of the speeches that the president gave. President Enoch Brian was a skilled orator. She was enthusiastic about education and the pleasures that you could get from it.

Crumpton:

Did she have an interest in science herself? Or what was she going to major in if she had finished?

Abelson:

Science in the year 1905-07 wasnít much anywhere in the United States. The things that she would quote were items that she had learned in the humanities. She would quote Shakespeare. We had such a happy home. I learned a good deal from them. My father also succeeded in getting me, when I was about fourteen, a summer job as an assistant surveyor, doing some surveying of mining claims and accidents at highways. After I graduated from high school I was a surveyor on a hydroelectric project for about eight months before going off to Pullman, Washington. To please my father, I enrolled in chemical engineering. The good thing about that was that the first year in chemical engineering they had you taking machine shop. I learned how to use a milling machine and a lathe. Later on this was helpful because in the 1930s, in physics when you were going to make some equipment you had to be able to machine and you had to be able to use your hands to make workable equipment.

Crumpton:

Now in high school you said the physics teacher was not as exciting as you had hoped. You had mentioned to me one time, I think it was high school that you had found another interest, was it journalism?

Abelson:

As it turned out I did find that in the last year in high school Iíd taken everything that seemed interesting to me.

Crumpton:

Were you ahead of the other students at the time? Did you graduate early?

Abelson:

I had got ahead of the other students in grade school. In high school I just went along at the normal pace. In the last year, I did participate on the high school newspaper and I learned the essence of journalism. If you know the essence of journalism, the who, what, when, where, why, and you are taught to get something exciting in the first paragraph, that is a practice that is useful in many walks of life.

Crumpton:

Definitely so.

Abelson:

And subsequently was useful to me later on in my career.

Crumpton:

Right. Right. So, then after high school you went to Pullman.

Abelson:

I went to Pullman, yes.

Crumpton:

Washington State?

Abelson:

Washington State at Pullman. I completed the undergraduate course in chemistry in three years. But, in the course of it I took some work in physics and found that the physics professor was a very exciting fellow. In many ways, he was the most glamorous person on campus at that time. He had been at Harvard and he had taught for a couple of years in China and he just plain knew how to make physics interesting.

Crumpton:

What was his name?

Abelson:

Paul Anderson. I had taken the first course in college physics with him and he was sufficiently interesting that later on I took some of the upper division physics courses although I was majoring in chemistry.

Crumpton:

How big were your classes? Do you remember how large they were?

Abelson:

Classes werenít large. Particularly in physics there were never more than eight or ten students in the upper division courses. In the first course in physics they made the engineers take it, so that there was a big room full of engineers sweating it out.

Crumpton:

You had taken a lot of chemistry prior to that. Were there any particular topics or problems that you saw intersections between chemistry and physics early on in college?

Abelson:

I didnít. I found the chemistry interesting and, thinking about it later, I had some kind of heightened instinct for chemistry.

Crumpton:

What do you mean by heightened instinct?

Abelson:

Well, when I was a youngster one of the teacherís I had said, he was speaking to the class, ďeach of you has some special talents and itís your responsibility to discover what those talents and what those interests are and to exploit them.Ē I donít know why it is, I can interact with chemicals I can look at them, I can smell them, I can taste them.

Crumpton:

Did you ever act on any of this at home, I mean, as a young child? Did you ever mix the wrong things in the kitchen sink or do anything like that?

Abelson:

No, I didnít do any kind of chemistry as a child at home. The emphasis there was on the engineering.

Crumpton:

Right, the mathematics.

Abelson:

Yeah.

Crumpton:

Thatís interesting. So, you were done in three years you said from Pullman?

Abelson:

Three years. Now this was 1933. This was the Depression and there werenít jobs to be had. I didnít quite know what I was going to do. When Professor Anderson offered me a teaching assistantship in physics, I was very pleased to accept it. It wasnít that much of a high paying position, $350.

Crumpton:

For the whole year?

Abelson:

For the whole school year. One of the things that happened was that Anderson imported Professor S. Towne Stephenson who had been a graduate student at Yale with Ernest Lawrence. Stephenson taught a course in elementary theoretical physics and, also, a course in experimental physics. He asked me to make a report on the cyclotron and Ernest Lawrence. This was in 1934 when the cyclotron was still in its beginning phases. But, I could see that, aha!, here was something that was very interesting and important. And, of course, Stephenson had asked me to report to the class on this because he felt it was important, too. When I made my report and thought about it, I decided I wanted to be with Lawrence at Berkeley.

Crumpton:

What made you decide that exactly?

Abelson:

It was clear that here was a new frontier. Here was a frontier where great things were going to happen.

Crumpton:

Okay. But did you have any sense of what those great things might be?

Abelson:

You couldnít predict in advance what they would be, but you knew in advance that here was field that was fertile, that was going to yield important things. With my enthusiasm and with the enthusiasm of both Anderson and Stephenson, the application to Berkeley was made and the net result was that I was one person from out of state who got a teaching assistantship at Berkeley in that particular year.

Crumpton:

Thatís very impressive. Now before we leave Pullman and go to Berkeley, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your social life there. Is that about the time you met your future wife?

Abelson:

I met my future wife during the last semester in chemistry at Washington State. I was attracted to her, because when I saw her walk by she seemed to be happy. You know, not a frown on her face, she seemed to be enjoying life. Then I conducted a detective search and I found that she was getting better grades than I was. So, I didnít marry her for her wealth of money, I married her for her wealth of attitude and

Crumpton:

and her good grades!

Abelson:

and her good grades.

Crumpton:

Or her mind! Now your wifeís name was Neva. What was she majoring in?

Abelson:

It turned out that she had decided early in life that she was going to get a M.D. degree. And part of the preparation for getting that degree was to take some courses in chemistry.

Crumpton:

She must have been one of the very few women at the school at the time.

Abelson:

When, ultimately, she was attending Johns Hopkins, where she got her M.D. degree, she was one of six women among sixty men. The reason they allowed women to be in medicine at Hopkins was because another women earlier had created an endowment.

Crumpton:

Ah, to make sure they would get in. Yes, thatís important. So was she in the same year as you or slightly younger than you?

Abelson:

She was actually a bit older.

Crumpton:

She was older, okay.

Abelson:

Because I had done all that skipping of grades.

Crumpton:

Right. Right. Did your brother also attend college with you at the same time?

Abelson:

He came to Pullman at the same time I did. He was four years older and was what was called a Ďgood time Charlie.í

Crumpton:

You were the serious one, I take it?

Abelson:

I was the more serious one. The young boys that he grew up with, none of them went to college. Whereas the young boys that I would playmate with, virtually all of them went to college at a time when this was unusual. It makes it a difference what kind of peer group that you are interacting with.

Crumpton:

Thatís true. Did your brother graduate as well?

Abelson:

He graduated and in the end he was an engineer on many of the major hydroelectric projects in the west.

Crumpton:

How interesting. A very well educated family that you come from. Is there anything else youíd like to say about your college years?

Abelson:

No, to Berkeley.

Crumpton:

On to Berkeley. You received a teaching assistantship to go to Berkeley and you were the only one from out of state. How large was that class? Do you recall how many graduate students there were at the time?

Abelson:

Oh, there were probably about fifteen or eighteen graduate students. Incidentally, in the cyclotron laboratory with Lawrence that first year my memory was that I was the only graduate student On the other hand there were postdocs coming from the east coast and from Canada. Already there were other PhD people who recognized the future of nuclear physics. As a graduate student I got assigned six shifts a week on the cyclotron and those postdocs had only three. Working on the cyclotron in those early days was a miserable occupation. It was put together with a bunch of sealing wax and a compound called glyptal. With the magnetic field changing, the vacuum system would spring leaks.

Crumpton:

Constantly, I can imagine.

Abelson:

Yeah. Whenever there was a leak or a problem I was expected to be there no matter what.

Crumpton:

Well, did your early experience in machine shop did that come in handy?

Abelson:

That came in handy later. But it certainly didnít hurt to have some experience in machine shop to be able to look at equipment and see how it was made and where the problems might arise.

Crumpton:

These shifts that you had, were they sometimes all night long?

Abelson:

Later, on quite a number of occasions, I ran the cyclotron all night long.

Crumpton:

This sounds very much like an apprenticeship almost, these first two years was it?

Abelson:

The first two years were the toughest. Later, Lawrence wanted to get higher beam energy and so he ordered a bigger vacuum system. The result was that while he was getting a bigger vacuum system he got rid of the need for the sealing wax. The new system was hard soldered together, or welded, except for a rubber gasket. That new system ultimately didnít have leaks. In fact, I gained the admiration of a number of those postdocs because when the new equipment came in I was assigned the task of finding the leaks. There was some twenty-three of them and you canít find all of them until you find the biggest in order. A whole sequence of leaks from biggest to littlest, I found in about a day or day and a half. When that equipment was installed none of the postdocs had to spend time hunting leaks.

Crumpton:

You should have been their hero then, huh?

Abelson:

Well, that sort of improved my relationship with them.

Crumpton:

Who were some of your other postdoc, not just postdoc, but your other graduate student colleagues?

Abelson:

Well, I sort of forget most of the names. I will later mention, of course, Luis Alvarez who was a postdoc. The years pass and after fifty, sixty years you kind of forget most of those names. The radiation laboratory got increasing recognition. By the time 1937 or 1938, Lawrence and his cyclotron were getting publicity on the front pages of Time magazine and so on. Notables from around the world came to visit. I remember on one occasion, who should appear but Leopold Stokowski, who was the conductor of the Philadelphia Harmonic. He came in and he was there and I was running the cyclotron. He came over to where I was running the cyclotron and shook my hand. So for about a week after I went around the physics department saying to the other graduate students, ďShake the hand that shook the hand of Leopold Stokowski!Ē

Crumpton:

So there were a lot of eminent people who were coming to the laboratory.

Abelson:

Very eminent.

Crumpton:

A lot of government officials as well?

Abelson:

That was only later. People like Vannevar Bush came out. Lawrence was so much in the spotlight that the fellow that was president of the university at Berkeley at the time said, ďSometimes I donít know whether Iím running a university with a cyclotron attached to it, or a cyclotron with a university attached to it.Ē

Crumpton:

It was a real draw, a real showpiece then.

Abelson:

In many ways it was the center of the physics universe at that time.

Crumpton:

The first two years you were doing a lot of the work on the cyclotron, monitoring it, you also had to teach, is that correct?

Abelson:

I had to teach, but I also engaged a little bit in research. Lawrence needed to get support, it costs money to run a big show, and he had the wit to realize that by emphasizing possible medical applications that that was where the money was. There were two biologists down the hall on the faculty and the cyclotron could make a very suitable radioactive phosphorus, phosphorus 32, which had a half life of fourteen days. It was very good tracer for many biological processes. So, I was asked to prepare a suitable sample for those biologists, which I did, and then to measure their samples, which I did. So as a result, while still a graduate student in physics, I had my name on a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published in 1937. The work was done in 1936. There was one other crucial time. Enrico Fermi and his group at Rome had conducted irradiation of the elements with neutrons. They had a rather feeble source, it was radium plus beryllium. The cyclotron could make neutron sources that were many orders of magnitude more intense. So when Lawrence read about what Fermi had done, he decided Aha! itís typical among the upper elements of the periodic table from radium and above that following their natural decay emitting some electrons first and then some alpha particles come out. So he reasoned that if one irradiated uranium with neutrons from the cyclotron one might be able to do even better than Fermi had done in identifying the product. You might be able to find alpha emitters. I was the chemist, so he and I did a study together and he didnít find the desirable alpha particle. As it turns out later, with more intensity it was possible to do that.

Crumpton:

How often did you find that your chemistry background helped you in physics or gave you, perhaps, a different perspective than your other colleagues?

Abelson:

It was really helpful because sometimes they would irradiate something and start a fire...

Crumpton:

They hadnít thought it through.

Abelson:

Öhadnít thought through what the consequence was gonna be. It would have been helpful to have the chemical knowledge. As it turned out as more and more things were irradiated it was desirable to do chemical studies to identify what substances had been made.

Crumpton:

Was there any kind of realization on the part of the professors at the time that as they were training physics students that perhaps they needed to have certain aspects of chemistry in the curriculum?

Abelson:

No, if anything it was not. The physics building, Le Conte Hall, was just across a little bit of patio from Gilman Hall, the chemistry building. G. N. Lewis was a famous and powerful chemist at that time and people in physics looked down, or looked sideways at the chemists. They looked sideways at me because on occasion I would find that there was a topic that I was interested in that was being given in a seminar over in Gilman Hall and that disloyal fellow would go over to Gilman Hall and then there would be sidewise looks at him.

Crumpton:

But did anyone ever ask you to report on what you heard or was interested enough that you shared it?

Abelson:

Oh, no, no. No, this was bad smelling stuff obviously.

Crumpton:

So you deliberately, though, tried to seek out a little bit more knowledge about what was going on in chemistry, keep yourself up to date.

Abelson:

Well, I couldnít do everything, but...

Crumpton:

Obviously, yeah.

Abelson:

Öbut from time to time they would have a seminar there that even some of the physicists might have done well to attend. But they didnít.

Crumpton:

They didnít. And socially, did the groups interact at all?

Abelson:

Socially, the groups didnít seem to interact at all.

Crumpton:

Were there any other odd fellows such as yourself that you found?

Abelson:

Later on, Martin Kamen, who was trained in chemistry at Chicago came. Then there were also some others that got involved, but it was nominal.

Crumpton:

Even though Lawrence realized the applications of the cyclotron for creating things to help in medicine, was there much interaction between the physicists and the biologists?

Abelson:

Not directly. In fact, he imported his brother John who was medically trained. They did later on attempt to see whether neutrons would be curative in treating certain neoplasms. He had in the back of his mind the need to finance his expanding empire.

Crumpton:

When you did teach, you had to teach very large classes, is that correct?

Abelson:

It was mainly, teaching in the laboratory.

Crumpton:

And grading papers.

Abelson:

Oh, I had to grade papers and this was a big problem, because one of the professors I had to grade papers for gave very tough exams and so he gave partial credit if a person indicated a little bit of comprehension of how he should go about solving the problem. But, when you have a class of 150 or so students itís bound to be that there will be all kinds of little variations. It is also bound to be that when they then later compare what kinds of grades they got on the exam theyíll find out there isnít a perfect consistency in the grading and then theyíll go to the professor. Then the poor graduate student is in trouble!

Crumpton:

Oh, gosh. Did you find yourself in trouble a lot for that?

Abelson:

Well, I did the best I could and I had the help that there was someone else that was also doing the grading and he was not quite as adroit as I was. So he was the one that suffered most.

Crumpton:

I donít think graduate school has changed much in all these years. Now, you were at Berkeley from 1935 to 1939?

Abelson:

Yes.

Crumpton:

And for the first two years you did TA work and work on the cyclotron and then after thatÖ

Abelson:

I was still on the cyclotron.

Crumpton:

Still on the cyclotron, but your duties changed a bit and you could do more research?

Abelson:

I had more time. On the other hand, I was supposed to be taking some the prelims.

Crumpton:

Ah, the prelims. What was that experience like?

Abelson:

The prelims, you know, were in mechanics, electricity, and magnetism and so forth. Well, I wasnít the best student. In part, because I was doing that work on the cyclotron and trying to get some research done. I really wasnít as compellingly interested.

Crumpton:

In some of the other aspects of physics.

Abelson:

I didnít get as interested in the physics as I had been in the chemistry. It was just how the mind worked in a different way.

Crumpton:

Right. Did you have to take a written portion and an oral portion?

Abelson:

In the end it was an oral exam.

Crumpton:

Did you have a particular committee of people?

Abelson:

Yes.

Crumpton:

Do you remember who they were?

Abelson:

Well, they were different for the different topics.

Crumpton:

For the different topics, oh, I see.

Abelson:

There were different people.

Crumpton:

Did you have a committee for your own course of studies at that point yet, or was that something that comes later when you were actually ready to write up your dissertation topic?

Abelson:

Well, you have ultimately a committee for your thesis and when that came I had done enough good work that there wasnít any problem there.

Crumpton:

I see.

Abelson:

I had one bad experience. There was a Chinese woman by the name of Wu who ultimately was a professor at Columbia University and who came close to getting a Nobel Prize. She took her exam with a committee that involved Robert Oppenheimer one morning and then I took my exam with that same committee that afternoon. The contrast between the two of us was very painful.

Crumpton:

What did they say to you?

Abelson:

Well, by that point Lawrence was sufficiently a powerhouse around there that they didnít want to flunk one of his students.

Crumpton:

Ah.

Abelson:

Well, thatís my suspicion.

Crumpton:

Thatís your suspicion. Well, thereís probably something to that.

Abelson:

I mean I wasnít entirely illiterate, but I certainly was no sparkler.

Crumpton:

Your talents lay in other aspects. You were more hands on it sounds like. Thatís very interesting. So how was it with the mood of the graduate students during this time period that you were there? Was there a lot of excitement about the field?

Abelson:

There was just no doubt that for the people that were engaged with the cyclotron that this was the center, the world center, so there was a great sense of excitement in the lab. Later on, that excitement really got ignited when it was discovered that uranium fission did occur. It was the identification of the products of uranium fission that I did for my PhD thesis. I did do a remarkable job.

Crumpton:

Now you heard about uranium fission, some of the first work was done in Germany, is that correct? And thatís where you all heard about it?

Abelson:

What happened was that Bohr had heard about it and he had come to the United States on a visit. There had been a seminar here in Washington in which Bohr had communicated to the people what he knew. Then that had got into the newspapers. I was running the cyclotron one morning when Luis Alvarez burst into the place. He had been getting a haircut and he didnít wait to get the haircut completed before running to the radiation laboratory. I, by that time, was on the trail of identifying the uranium fission. I might have, had I been just a little faster, been the discoverer of it because I had the necessary tools and the necessary knowledge. In fact, within a day or two I did identify one of the products of uranium fission and in the course of the next two months I identified something like fifteen of the products.

Crumpton:

Oh, wow. And you turned this information into letters to the Physical Review?

Abelson:

And ultimately into a thesis. Well, it was kind of interesting about January 30.

Crumpton:

This is 1937 or 1938?

Abelson:

1939.

Crumpton:

1939, okay.

Abelson:

Two days later I had identified one of the products and news of the identification had been sent to the editor of the Physical Review letters. So that in the February 15 issue, my identification appeared.

Crumpton:

Thatís quick, thatís very quick. Thatís interesting that Bohrís information that he had to share that you all received it through a newspaper rather than through another medium, communication between physicists or a journal or something like that. Did you find that odd or was that kind of the usual route of information at that time?

Abelson:

We were living in a different age. You know thereís instant communication now, all kinds of mechanisms that didnít exist then.

Crumpton:

But it also speaks to the power of the media to transmit information between the scientific community which is something weíll get to later, that you have a lot of knowledge about, too.

Abelson:

Yes.

Crumpton:

What was it like to work with Ernest Lawrence? What was he like as a mentor and a colleague?

Abelson:

Well, he wasnít. My mentor definitely wasnít Ernest Lawrence. My mentor really was Luis Alvarez who was there as a postdoc. Then I also got friendly interaction from Edwin McMillan. It was odd that Edwin McMillan, who was also a postdoc at that time, should be kind to a graduate student. You know? He actually helped build some equipment for me.

Crumpton:

Why do you think that was odd?

Abelson:

He was the one, well, those two guys were the two people that took an interest in a miserable graduate student. I would go with Luis Alvarez to the coffee shop and we would have coffee together.

Crumpton:

Well, it sounds like you were a doer and they appreciated that.

Abelson:

To a degree I was doer, but after all the status.

Crumpton:

Was there quite a sort of hierarchy?

Abelson:

Oh, yeah, sure.

Crumpton:

But on the other hand, they knew that you knew how the cyclotron worked very well. You had a lot technical experience. A troubleshooter. Itís always good to know people who knew how to make things work.

Abelson:

I did some of those things, but there were others around there that were more skilled than I was, a few of them. I donít know why these fellows took kindly to me. Iíve thought about it and thought about it and Iíve appreciated it.

Crumpton:

Thatís fabulous. Was there anything in particular that you felt that they influenced you with or any messages you got from them about going into a life of physics?

Abelson:

Luis was helpful in pointing out about equipment that would enable me to identify an x-ray. We better get on to the neptunium.

Crumpton:

Okay, alright.

Abelson:

After I did identify these fission products, I got my PhD degree in May.

Crumpton:

Thatís very quick.

Abelson:

That was very quick. I got a position with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. I was going to help build a cyclotron to distribute radioactive isotopes around the Washington area to do tracer work and so on.

Crumpton:

Okay.

Abelson:

But, in September, when I came back on the train, the Germans had invaded Poland.

Crumpton:

You were coming back to DC from California?

Abelson:

I was coming from Tacoma, my home in Tacoma, to take up my new position in Washington, DC. Everybody was kind of nervous but didnít know what to do. While I did do some work on the cyclotron, ordering parts and so on, I also began thinking about uranium. Particularly, a product that McMillan had been studying that showed that he was making a product of uranium that was giving rise to a higher element. I began studying what to do about it. I found out that in the middle of the periodic table you have a lanthanum that decays to a cerium. Lanthanum is the first rare element and cerium is the next and they are normally valence three. But, with a powerful oxidizing agent, cerium can be oxidized to valence 4.

So, I began thinking that well maybe this is the key to identifying the product. Fermi had talked about an eca-rhenium, which would have meant a substance in the periodic table. Rhenium would be such that you would expect certain properties of the element 93. Well, but suppose that instead of it behaving like Fermi had supposed, suppose you had a new rare earth series. Rare earth type series. Well, then the way of snipping this thing out would be to subject this product of neutron activation to a powerful oxidant to see what happens. So, I made a few attempts in Washington to do this, but the intensities were low and the results just didnít satisfy me. So it came to pass that I went out to Berkeley. When I got there I immediately encountered Ed McMillan and told him that I thought I maybe I could do something the about the chemical properties of this material. Sure enough within a day it was clear that this was the thing to do. In the course of five days a whole set of experiments was done and the properties of neptunium were investigated.

Crumpton:

Now were you using the cyclotron again to do this?

Abelson:

This was the cyclotron again.

Crumpton:

And the Carnegie they had a kind of smaller version of the cyclotron?

Abelson:

They had a so-called Van der Graaf.

Crumpton:

Okay. And it just wasnít giving you enough juice to do what you needed.

Abelson:

Wasnít giving me enough.

Crumpton:

So again you did something in five days.

Abelson:

Five days.

Crumpton:

Amazing.

Abelson:

Including the write-up.

Crumpton:

You make it sound so easy. But, youíd been thinking about it for many many months prior.

Abelson:

If youíd given the matter thought and youíve looked into the possible chemistry that you might use and so on.

Crumpton:

Right.

Abelson:

I can get to back to a slight thing when I was a chemist at Washington State. Having had this experience with my father of planning what youíre going to do ahead. I would go in and read the night before going to the lab, I would read about the experiment, and I would think about it and I would mentally plan what I was going to do. So, Iíd get the deed done. In one course in quantitative analysis I got all the samples done in half a semester. They were done properly, the professor was impressed with the accuracy. Of course, what he did was assign me some more stuff.

Crumpton:

Shot yourself in the foot on that?

Abelson:

Well, that didnít bother me.

Crumpton:

The engineering aspects kicked in.

Abelson:

The engineering, you plan ahead. You think now what are the key things that must work in order to get the deed done.

Crumpton:

So, at this point, this about 1939, you have submitted a number of articles to Physical Review, youíve discovered a new element.

Abelson:

No, that was 1940.

Crumpton:

Okay, by 1940. Did you consider yourself, because your background and training was so diverse, did you consider yourself to be a physicist at this point? How did you think of yourself?

Abelson:

In a sense to the rest of the world I was a physicist. I had been with Lawrence, thatís how I more or less needed to. But, people that were considering hiring me had to say well that fella, that fella has some other capabilities, too. I think that in terms of a sophisticated employee I had some attractive features.

Crumpton:

Because you were really truly becoming interdisciplinary.

Abelson:

I was becoming interdisciplinary. You got anymore time there?

Crumpton:

Yes, I think we have a few more minutes if youíd like to say a few more things, maybe five minutes or so.

Abelson:

I will tell you one more story.

Crumpton:

Okay.

Abelson:

I began thinking about what to do about what was going on. By this time, in 1940, the Germans had invaded France and were well on the way to subjugating it. And then it was obvious that we were going to be in a world war. So I began thinking how can uranium energy be used? I decided that, aha!, itís clear that one way to go is to somehow change the isotope ratio of uranium. So, an important step was to do isotope separation. I began on the side, on Sundays and so on, to make equipment. I studied the literature to see what had been done. Very very little in the way of isotope separation had been done, particularly in the heavy elements. It had been possible to do some separation of carbon and light things. But, in a fraction of a milligram or so, when one knew that it was going to take kilograms. So, one day I was at the lab on a Sunday and who should come bursting in but Merle Tuve, my boss. And Merle Tuve was all in a great state of excitement, he was practically emotional. The Germans were bombing in London and Coventry and so on. You know, civilians and children were being killed. They were just dropping bombs and there was no air defense available. So, he said there had to be a better air defense.

Well, the next day, one of my associates in building the cyclotron, Richard Roberts, came and he conducted an experiment. The experiment was to select what he thought would be the most useful radio tube that could stand great acceleration. Dick Roberts had been in ROTC, so he knew something about velocity of weapons, pressure and guns and so on. He knew that to really be effective you need to have radio equipment that could stand 20,000 times gravity. So, he had picked a radio tube willy-nilly that happened to be available, cast it in a ball of lead and made a hole for the tube to be in and then he took it to the top of a building and dropped it on to the concrete below. His choice was sufficiently good that the tube had withstood the impact and then by measuring the indentation in this spherical ball he could calculate what kind of gravity this tube had experienced in that instant in which the lead had been displaced. It turned out that it withstood something like 2,000 g. Well, if you could pick out any radio tube that hadnít been deliberately designed and it could stand 2,000 g, then by using your brain you could make the necessary electronic equipment that could withstand being shot out of a gun.

Crumpton:

Fascinating.

Abelson:

So, I was there as a spectator at the beginning of the development of the proximity fuse. A few days of my life. That went on and in the end one other thing that Tuve did then, he saw to it that the proximity fuse was tested out in the Pacific and it was successful against kamakazes. But, they avoided having it in Europe early because the Germans were smarter than the Japanese at that time. But, he also learned that the Germans were developing the so-called ďbuzz bomb.Ē It wasnít a plane or anything, you just sent it on a trajectory and then have it fixed so that at a certain point it drops down. An area like London, you know, if youíre in a war you donít damn much care if it hits here or there. You just want...

Crumpton:

You just want damage someplace.

Abelson:

You just want damage and casualties. So what Tuve had done was to cause the manufacture of and to ship to England a great number of these proximity fuses. After the Germans started firing their buzz bombs, the British were anxious about the possible damage, they were prepared to accept this proximity fuse and they got busy and used them. In a very short time they were knocking down about 98 percent of the buzz-bombs and the Germans gave up on the buzz-bombs.

Crumpton:

Thatís fascinating. Well, this has been wonderful. I think weíve gone over our hour and I think we got to a good stopping point. Would you agree with that?

Abelson:

Yes, because the next thing would be about the development of separation of uranium isotopes and so on leading to Oak Ridge.

Crumpton:

Right. One other thing I want to ask you just for chronological purposes, when did you marry Neva?

Abelson:

I married her in December 1936.

Crumpton:

So was she living in Berkeley as well while you were down there in graduate school?

Abelson:

Yes, yes. And as a matter of fact some of the ranking people took it unkindly that here was this graduate student getting married.

Crumpton:

Oh, really?

Abelson:

Yeah. Iíve done an awful lot of things in my life that people took exception to.

Crumpton:

Well, this doesnít sound like one that they should of. I guess, perhaps, itís because you than had a family so-to-speak so they were concerned that you wouldnít be available all the time to do the apprentice work that you needed?

Abelson:

No, I was, I was. But, thereís one other thing about Neva. She had started out at the University of Missouri, took her first year there and had taken a course in journalism and had prepared a piece that had won a prize there. But, then her parents, you know in the thirties you had the dust bowl and so on, they had gone out to the state of Washington and gone to Pullman where they had some relatives, her parents had. So thatís why she went to Pullman. It wasnít too long after she had been there, I guess a couple of years, she had made some connections and she was doing work with one of the deans, or whatever. Before long she was a secretary in the presidentís office writing letters for the president of Washington State. Well, when she got down to Berkeley, it wasnít too long after she was in Berkeley that she was in the presidentís office again doing more or less the same thing.

Crumpton:

Yeah. Now was she also taking classes?

Abelson:

She was taking classes. She started out in medicine in Portland, Oregon then I persuaded her to marry me and come to California. She did.

Crumpton:

Great. And what was her maiden name?

Abelson:

Martin, Neva Martin.

Crumpton:

Thank you. I just wanted to make sure we get that in there because she was a very big part of your life as well and did many things in her own right. Itís good to know about her, too.

Abelson:

Later on, it was a complex marital arrangement. I was in Washington most of the time and she was either in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins or she was up in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. But, one thing that she did do was that she was the one that discovered the first test for Rh factor.

Crumpton:

For babies, yes.

Abelson:

Ultimately, after I became president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1971, she then came to Washington. I had the benefit of her advice first hand.

Crumpton:

Right. First hand.

Abelson:

But, we were just good associates together. There was never a cross word, you know.

Crumpton:

Thatís wonderful. Thatís very wonderful. Well, I think that that should wrap it up for today.

Session I | Session II | Session III