History Home | Book Catalog | International Catalog of Sources | Visual Archives | Contact Us

Oral History Transcript — Dr. Philip Morrison

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Access form   |   Project support   |   How to cite   |   Print this page


See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection


Interview with Dr. Philip Morrison
By Owen Gingerich
At his home in Cambridge, MA
February 22, 2003

Listen to Morrison describe the origins of the paper that he co-wrote with Giuseppe Cocconi, "Searching for Interstellar Communications"

Oral history interviewee photo
open tab View abstract

Philip Morrison, February 22, 2003

ABSTRACT: California State University of San Francisco (1940); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigh (1940–1942); Manhattan Project (1942–1946); Cornell University (1946–1964); helium isotope research; cosmic ray research; gamma ray astronomy; SETI; review of his best papers; reviewing books for Scientific American.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Gingerich:

This is Owen Gingerich with Philip Morrison on Saturday afternoon, February 22.

Morrison:

One month to the equinox.

Gingerich:

All right. At his home here on Bowdoin Street in Cambridge. We’re all set. We're going to talk some about astrophysics and about your time at Cornell in particular today. Why don't you start out by saying when and how it was that you got to Cornell?

Morrison:

Yes. I have to get the dates straight.

Gingerich:

You can add them into the transcript later. You can just guess them now.

Morrison:

Okay. But just to make my own mind straight, I have to organize it on a chronological basis. I left California in 1941. I got my degree officially in ‘40 in the spring, and in the fall I taught in San Francisco. I was a fresh new Ph.D. A friend was teaching in the Physics department at the new intended California State University of San Francisco, which was then being built. So I came to their downtown place, a beautiful little cloistered affair right off Market Street. It’s still there, the extension division now. It was charming, like a college of a few thousand people in the midst of a busy city at a very pleasant, quiet place with green center and so on. Outside in all directions the life of San Francisco. So it was very pleasant. This job wasn’t going to last very long. Oh, I guess I should tell you, I had a very hard time getting a job. This was because I had irritated and (utterly accidentally) inflamed a choleric and difficult man called Leonard B. Loeb on the faculty of the University of California Berkeley physics department. He was a plasma physicist of early times, the son of a very famous and celebrated scientist father. Loeb the elder was a distinguished physiologist, the most famous name ten years or twenty years before in University of California science. This guy was a really unpleasant person. I can say this with some virtue, because he was a very rare thing in the California faculty. He actually volunteered as a strike breaker in the famous longshoreman’s general strike of the 1930s with a mock military bearing, and so on, a choleric, red-faced man like that. I was a brand new graduate student who had never heard of Cornell, essentially. I went to this department picnic with the other students, met a few people and so on. One Sunday evening as school is getting ready to start I — I had perhaps come a month early — I decided I would work on my hi-fi set which I then determined to make. I was an advanced radio amateur, and a buff at electronics. I had records, and I knew it would be very good socially to have a record concert every Saturday in my digs, and I would have to make that work well with an excellent amplifier. I would look things up, and redesign and so on. I made push-pull 6L6s to excite this big speaker, and I was very happy. Putting this thing together before school started one Sunday evening in the student’s shop, I got it working after some hours of fiddling. It worked, but unfortunately it worked not more than 10 seconds at undue volume, because I wasn’t sure where the volume control should be set and I set it too high. It tore the place down for 10 seconds. All alone against dead silence that Sunday evening. Well, I wasn’t alone very long. In roared Professor Leonard B. Loeb and he said, “Who are you, who are you?! What are you doing here?!” And I said, “Sir, I’m sorry. I’ve turned it off. It’s okay. You can speak quietly now. I was just doing this electronics and” — you understand. And he said, “Well, what are you doing here anyhow? How come you are in the shop?” I said, “I’m a graduate student.” “Oh yes,” he said, “I saw you at the picnic. Yes, yes, we’ve heard about your like.” And he said, “This is an outrage.” And I said, “I’m sorry. It’s all over now and I won’t make any more trouble.” But he walked away full of anger. And he always had it in for me — partly because my politics became more and more evident to him and he was dreadfully reactionary, and partly because he had this little altercation with me over my unintentional and apologetic behavior when I had this thing turned on for 10 seconds on a Sunday night. When I graduated from Berkeley, Ph.D. in ‘40 — I, as I said, had one year teaching in San Francisco. Just a temporary job. It was a good one. Then I went off to Illinois, following my ex-roommate Sydney Dancoff who had gone to Illinois the year before. He followed Serber who already had left the same job to go somewhere else. Now where had these people gone? Well, nobody knew, but everybody surmised. So I went off to this strange and mysterious job in Illinois, — it was a genuine instructorship at the University of Illinois — Champagne/Urbana, Illinois, a very good university with a top physics department. At that point one of the most learned nuclear physicists in the world, a gifted experimenter, a quiet man from Vienna known as [Maurice] Goldhaber, co-discoverer of the neutron no less — he was only a student when Chadwick, who gets the credit I guess discovered it. But the paper was Chadwick and Goldhaber [Nature 134, 237, 1934], at least one of the papers. He knew everything about neutrons. I took some interest in nuclear things, but what caught me at Illinois was another man called Donald Kerst. Have you ever heard of him? He was then very, very well known, because he had just invented and completed a brand new style of accelerator called the betatron, which especially for relativistic electrons to —

Gingerich:

I probably read his name, and it didn’t register.

Morrison:

Oh surely. To high relativistic energies correcting for the relativity changes. You couldn’t use a regular RF accelerating repeater. You had to frequency modulate RF.

Gingerich:

Let me back up just a little bit. You said you had a very hard time getting a job. The one in San Francisco, or the one in Illinois, or just any job?

Morrison:

Any job.

Gingerich:

But this was also in part because it was still the end of the Depression when teaching jobs were difficult.

Morrison:

No. I had the following handicap. Mr. Loeb saw to it that every place to which I applied, with one reference letter from Robert Oppenheimer and one from Earnest O. Lawrence, I had a third unseen reference letter which he, Loeb, wrote. He did so, browbeat the secretary who handled the department correspondence for graduate students applying for jobs to make her tell him to whom I was writing, and then he wrote a special letter identifying himself — not very well, but you know, “This is a great troublemaker. You had better not hire him. It’s impossible” and so on. A direct blackmail campaign. I applied to something like sixteen jobs.

Gingerich:

And I netted one.

Morrison:

I netted one because my pal — two pals — had been there before me and told the department chairman, “Pay no attention to this stuff”, you know, and so I got that job. Uh! It was hard. So I arrived, it was nice, and I worked on the betatron. Of course in early December, sitting at home near the Urbana campus we heard a murmurous sound: talk, calling, chanting, singing, some unexpected noise on the campus. All the students were saying something. We were living in a quiet residential area that Sunday afternoon in Urbana. But of course the first response was — couldn’t understand the words, it wasn’t quite that close — naturally to turn on the radio. What did the radio tell me? That Pearl Harbor had been attacked, sinking the Arizona, and frightening the people out of all possible reason. That was the beginning of the war for us. O course we were then rapidly mobilized. By January we all had agreed to twelve months of school, with two-weeks vacation and teaching extra courses. By January-February of ‘42, the students too were marching, many males, in uniform in platoons, singing English marching songs like “Jolly Jolly Sixpence”, as they went. The campus was rapidly being empties of eligible draftees.

Gingerich:

So you went to — ?

Morrison:

Thrown directly into the war at Illinois.

Gingerich:

But you were taken off to Los Alamos then shortly after this?

Morrison:

Oh, it wasn’t formed for two years. As soon as it was formed, yes. So I worked on the betatron and all was well, and at the end of ‘42 — but not quite at the end of ‘42 — war already going on now for a year and a half, and we were doing more work, and we had summertime teaching, all that sort of thing. The students had to stay or be drafted. So it was an unusual world. I answered the telephone on one occasion and it was Christy; a fellow student of Robert Oppenheimer’s, a fellow student with me, a man who got his Ph.D. the same year, Robert F. Christy. I don’t know if you know who he is. A wonderful person, he’s still around. He was a Canadian who had graduated from UBC a somewhat English background, with a restrained manner, very quiet, very calm, extraordinarily full of integrity. A wonderful person. A good friend, and I hadn’t seen him since we graduated. He said, “I know you’re coming to Chicago for the Midwestern Meeting of the Physical Society because you’ve got your name on the abstract. Don’t leave Chicago without seeing me. I count on you to do that, please. This is urgent,” and “Don’t fail.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll do that.” So I was a little puzzled, but I went there. When the meeting was over, I went to the University physics department. In those days such meetings were in the physics departments on the university campus, not in big hotels. I recognized at once something was going on, because there were armed guards in front of the physics department. “I’ve found the nest.” Sure enough, I appear, and the laboratory was so excited. Down came Bob Christy, took me by the hand, walked me past the guards and sat me down in his office and said, “Now, what do you think we’re doing here?” I said, “Well, I don’t really know. I just came. But it’s pretty clear to me it has something to do with uranium.” He said, “Yes” in his crisp way, “We are making bombs.” This was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard anyone say. I knew of course that atom bombs were somewhat implicit. All the students believed that. But to think that it was so well organized that already they had this end in mind, and it was all going on somewhere, even in Chicago, but I hadn’t known a thing about it except the disappearance of people. I was quite impressed. I myself had written a piece on such bomb-making which I tried to sell as a magazine article, which I never could do although it was a good article, early for its time. But the Saturday Evening Post rejected it. I think they probably didn’t want to publish such a thing. So that was that, and he said, “I would like you to join the project. Let me ask you a question,” said he, “Do you think that we, the Allied side, can lose the war save that the Germans get an A-bomb first?” I said, “Well, the way you put it, no, I don’t really think so, but that is an important thing.” He said, “Yes, it is very important. You are one of only a few people that can do something about it. You better take this seriously. I know what you’re doing in Illinois. It’s a good thing, but this is major, and we can’t afford to let resources go by, so consider it very seriously and come back.” And so I did and I agreed. I went and talked to my wife — my first wife, not Phyllis but Emily. You probably don’t know her.

Gingerich:

I think I met her once.

Morrison:

Yes. We talked it over; it was grave, but we agreed we could not avoid the possibility. So I joined up.

Gingerich:

How much notice did you give them at Illinois?

Morrison:

It was very common. I was the third person in the job. I think they knew it was going to happen. Serber had gone that way, Dancoff replaced Serber, and I replaced Dancoff. Neither, going there the first time, expected it, but each one was drawn away, and the head of the department, Loomis, was probably just in on the game. They had a list, and going down the list we’ll finally fill up our slots. So that was the situation. You went to Chicago, the Metallurgical Lab, and spent a very busy and reasonably happy time there. Of course it was war work, but very interesting, seeming to us very important and very close to the realities of warfare in some way — without being so grave as actually making bombs. Because we were making plutonium, which is only a step to the bomb. In a big way. So I was catapulted into this big-style affair, and I stayed there, and realized that my position was one that pretty soon would bring me in contact with all parts of the project. It just turned out that way for various accidental reasons. I always had a Catholic set of interests, so I had done something on uranium mineralogy and I had done other things, published a paper on some geological radioactivities and so on. So I had a number of interests, and during that time I was working first I replaced Christy. That’s why he hired me, as somebody he could rely upon to replace his work in Chicago. And that was work which he did to replace Fermi. Of course you don’t quite replace Fermi, but you do something that he was doing, while he is now doing something else. Christy was going to do something else, and needed me, and got me. So I spent a pretty nice time becoming an experimental physicist. I speak of it always as being a neutron engineer, because that’s what we were. We were neutron engineers. We knew very little experimental physics; we developed it for ourselves from scratch.

Gingerich:

You were working with the neutron pile?

Morrison:

Exactly. I was in charge of a group which Christy had been in charge of which Fermi had invented. Make mockups of the lattice, the active region in the designs for the Hanford piles, the big factory-size piles, the reactors that were going to make plutonium. And our task was to mock up these things using materials of matching neutron properties, but not building a 100,000-kilowatt device but rather a 50-watt device — enough to make enough neutrons, to be able to measure the behavior, measure the multiplication factor, the fission, all those things, by mocking them up using graphite, plastic and aluminum, whatever it took. And I’d go to a big laboratory, a big room called the West Stands. (Not the famous West Stands where the first reactor that worked was built, but the room next door to that which was twice as big!) Theirs was the squash court, and ours was a racket court or something even a little bigger. There we built, one after another, dozens of variants of the Hanford lattice and measured their properties by a clever scheme — which Fermi had invented, of course. Pretty evident. He had built a small part of the thing, then you have to track the leakage. You do that by making foil counting, radioactive counting indium detectors to measure the neutron leakage, measuring the gradients everywhere and extrapolating them to see what happened in an infinite pile of the same sort. So we measured the critical amplification of the designed lattice.

Gingerich:

So there was a lot of calculation going on?

Morrison:

A lot of calculation, a lot of quantitative work, routinely done. We did it over and over and over again on different physical systems but with the same ideas. The three of us, three physicists, I and two even younger ones called Jane and David Hall, both cosmic ray students of Arthur Holly Compton, head of the Chicago lab, made these things by the score, and measured them and learned a lot doing it. The most interesting thing we learned was that the electric clocks in the Chicago district — nowadays everybody knows that, but we didn’t know it then — were slow in the morning and fast in the afternoon! And we could never reproduce the results well until we figured that out.

Gingerich:

That’s amazing. Everybody knew what you say, except you. And how did you find this out?

Morrison:

Because our data were always one way in the morning and the other way in the afternoon. Repeatedly this irregularity came up. We said, “What could it be? It must be the clock!” That’s the only thing we were dependent on that was outside. We had to time the exposures for the radioactivity measurements. And it was only seconds, but it made a difference. Crudely, an extra minute exposure made a several percent difference. We didn’t think that was our error. We found out how that all worked out. So then I ended being in that Chicago lab with — you probably know Alvin Weinberg, and you certainly know Eugene Wigner.

Gingerich:

I never met him but I know the name of course.

Morrison:

You might have heard of Gale Young? No. A very, very clever physicist from Chicago. And these people had been part of Rashevsky’s group. Did you ever hear of him? Rashevsky was the first distinguished biophysicist that I ever heard of, a Russian emigree who tried to apply contemporary physics to biological systems. He picked up a couple of these clever people like Weinberg and Young and more who were all trained in cosmic rays, or something with good physics in it, and they began to develop these topics. Then they were wiped out by the war, and they went to work in the Metallurgical Lab.

Gingerich:

Now you say there were basically three of you — that is to say three physicists — in your group working with the pile. There must have been then lots of other groups like this doing other things.

Morrison:

Oh yes. This lab had maybe a thousand persons.

Gingerich:

How many of those were physicists?

Morrison:

Oh, a hundred. Maybe two hundred. Chemists too, lots of radio chemistry.

Gingerich:

And so you were backed up by a lot of people who could do computing and secretaries?

Morrison:

Computing was not what it is today.

Gingerich:

No, I understand. They would be working with a Marchant or a Monroe.

Morrison:

And if you were lucky you had access to a click-clack IBM system with punch cards. That was how we managed. It was very interesting, and at some times it became rather, I would say unhappy, disenchanted. Because it was the influence, I believe — perhaps this is wrong, it is only memory — to some degree the influence of Leo Szilard and his close friend and fellow compatriot, the Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner, a brilliant, brilliant physicist, but not a very accommodating person. He was very serious. And Fermi, too, was a little bit that way, though Fermi was not always so sober. I worked with those people, with them, enjoyed it just toward the end of 1942, all of 1943, until in 1944 after the crisis at Los Alamos — Los Alamos was founded in the early spring — maybe February or March, ‘43, soon after I joined the project.

Gingerich:

And the crisis was?

Morrison:

The crisis was the discovery made at the project by foresight. They checked the neutron background of the plutonium made in the piles by irradiating uranium with neutrons, to turn U-238s into plutonium-239, which was a long-lived, charge-rich nucleus with a very low fission threshold, so that slow neutrons could make it divide. This was a basis for the reactors. That was what we had.

Gingerich:

And they measured the background?

Morrison:

They measured the background by using a site out of one end of a mountaintop, a mesa far from the rest of Los Alamos. There was no background except cosmic rays; letting it sit for a long time and measuring the number of fissions that it made, they could calculate and check the number of neutrons that were spontaneously emitted. Nearly all heavy radioactive substances above the natural level have a lifetime short compared to geologic time. Much of that lifetime is known to be spontaneous fission. The whole nucleus divides, not the major branch, but a branch that makes neutrons, and neutrons provide a background against which you must assemble the bomb. The speed of assembly depends crucially on the neutron background, because the neutrons rattle around, become slowed down. When it starts off, if you have a lot of neutrons to start, you can’t keep it together very long. It becomes vapor.

Gingerich:

And the crisis was that — ?

Morrison:

Was that they discovered that the kind of material they were making was too radioactive ever to make a bomb according to the design then current! Which was, you may well imagine, the gun type bomb. There were two bombs in everybody’s mind as soon as this was discovered, thin man and the fat man.

Gingerich:

Yes, I have heard of them.

Morrison:

Okay. The thin man was a long tube, a cannon barrel, and you would shoot the plutonium right down the cannon barrel and the moving slug would fit into a hole in its target, and assemble a lump. That worked fine for U-235 because while it was radioactive, it had nothing like the spontaneous fission background of plutonium-239. Therefore it was much easier to work on a gun, but not very efficient.. Nobody ever uses guns today. The South Africans, the Americans who were first, and no doubt the last to learn.

Gingerich:

So you had to essentially disassemble a sphere, and blast it into a concentric shape simultaneously.

Morrison:

That’s the sort of thing we’d have to do, actually crush it. That’s much faster than gunpowder, than artillery, and it worked out about marginal. You could do that. You could get low efficiency — 10–20% maybe — but 1% in early designs.

Gingerich:

So the crisis was that discovery, and therefore a different design had to be worked on. What practical effect did that have? Moving a lot more people in?

Morrison:

Doubling the laboratory in a month.

Gingerich:

In a month. And you were part of the doubling.

Morrison:

I was part of the doubling. Now, I wasn’t there — this is an opinion — because I was a friend and student of Robert Oppenheimer’s, the director of the lab, because he did not want to be accused of something like nepotism or favoring his own students. He could have assembled the lab out of his own students. He didn’t want to do that, so he didn’t even tell me where he was. I knew he was running a lab, but didn’t know where it was. We called it Site Y in the secret language.

Gingerich:

But did you have any inkling, any suspicion?

Morrison:

I knew it was in the West. I could guess it was probably the State of New Mexico, but I couldn’t have said where it was, or why I knew that.

Gingerich:

But meanwhile Fermi had been in Chicago the time when you were working there.

Morrison:

I replaced Christy who had replaced Fermi. Fermi had gone. When Christy was told to find a replacement. Fermi had gone to work in the Argonne Park Laboratory where he built the first reactor that first power consequence, the prototype of power reactors.

Gingerich:

So did you see Fermi from time to time?

Morrison:

Oh yeah, after that I did.

Gingerich:

But who did you actually report to?

Morrison:

I was a group leader, and I reported just to the general management of the laboratory, of whom Fermi was a very important figure. But Fermi was interested in reactors when I was just testing reactors. When we finished the testing and fixed on a design my job essentially became less of a line job; I was just helping various people, and Weinberg and his group, talking with them, making side calculations, looking into the possible existence of a natural substitute for plutonium, all kinds of inventive things.

Gingerich:

Were you sent to Hanford to check out what they were doing or—?

Morrison:

I was expecting to be sent to Hanford. In fact I was in the Argonne Laboratory — after Fermi went to Hanford, in order to run the Argonne reactor, which was by then a heavy water reactor, and my boss was — Wally Zinn, a wonderful, inventive experimenter, who stayed away from academic life after that, and became the vice president of one of the big high-tech GE or DuPont or Sperry.

Gingerich:

That’s okay.

Morrison:

Okay? So we were working in Argonne Hanford start-up, and we had been given instructions from the General and from our boss and so on. (Oh, I didn’t mention, and perhaps you ought to know this, two of us unknown to each other, a young fellow physical chemist in New York and a young physicist in Chicago, independently on the job had figured out that there were ways to get positive intelligence about the Germans. Not just to keep our secrets from them; that’s counterintelligence. Positive intelligence is reversing it, getting secrets from them. We realized there were ways to do that which would not occur to the ordinary intelligence operators. So each of us wrote a long letter on this topic, and sent it via channels. I gave mine to Sam Allison, who was the director of the Chicago lab, and Karl Cohen. (I didn’t know him at that time) gave his to Harold Urey who was the head of the Manhattan District laboratory in Manhattan, which was separating isotopes. The two arrived in General Groves’ office about the same time. This make a big hit on him, because his people were also getting nervous about this issue. So we merged and I became a part-time intelligence technical operative while staying physically, mostly in Chicago, then mostly in Los Alamos but with, let me say, five times a year a trip to Washington to look at what the prisoners of war had to say and to talk with other young intelligence officers. A lot of excitement for a simple physicist. When I would go there they would dress me in a false uniform and made me an ignorant artillery officer. Romantic.

Gingerich:

So is it still a secret what your suggestion was?

Morrison:

Suggestion?

Gingerich:

To get the positive intelligence?

Morrison:

Oh no, no, it’s been done. The most ingenious one was to drive, take an airplane at great risk and fly as low as you reasonably could down the Inn and the Neckar and the Rhine and rest of the rivers of Austria and Germany which I had then looked up, calculated their flow, their cooling rate, etc., tried it out at Hanford, and found we could detect the radioactivity of the water. As they too probably had water cooling, they too probably had radioactivity. If we didn’t find it, it wasn’t that big.

Gingerich:

And you didn’t find it?

Morrison:

We didn’t find it. But people risked their lives a lot to get those data.

Gingerich:

Interesting.

Morrison:

And I had some taste of this. This is all nothing new with Cornell, of course, but you’ll see why in a moment. When I came to Washington once, they said, “Look, we will show you somebody” and they fixed me up, and took me to an apartment house in the suburbs, of course a secret OSS building. There they took me in and they introduced me: a German mining engineer working for OSS, an intelligence officer. We showed him the aerial photographs we had made of the mines of Czechoslovakia from which we knew — we thought we knew — uranium could be coming. And we showed these pictures to this man, and he was wonderful. He was absolutely wonderful. He looked at them, he took out his stereoscopic device and looked with it. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know. It’s a heavy metal. I can tell that from the slope and the scale of the operation and the colors of the rock. One of these heavy metals that comes in a funny, poor ore. It’s not lead. Lead is too cheap for such a thing. It’s not gold; gold is too dear for such an operation. But it’s somewhere up there, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t think it’s tungsten. I’ve never heard of any tungsten deposits up there, so I just don’t know.” It’s a heavy metal I’m pretty sure.” He had it right. Of course, it was right.

Gingerich:

And you didn’t tell him?

Morrison:

No, we didn’t tell him. We couldn’t tell him that, but he was right on. So we knew that you could find that out, and that was the way I sort of had fun. Well, one thing led to another and I went to Los Alamos, and there I was sort of between theorist and experimenter. And because I made these assemblies, which were perfectly safe but which had a 1- value not very far from 1, within 1/10th of 1 percent, but where the chain just builds itself up and flattens out. Now we made them on little assemblies the size of this recorder here, but full of enriched material.

Gingerich:

When you say “the size of this,” you are showing me something like a softball.

Morrison:

That’s right.

Gingerich:

That won’t record, you know.

Morrison:

No. I understand. As we did that, it got more and more tricky, because the closer it came to k = 1, the less you could fool around with it. Of course we were rather slow to learn. We could measure it all right, and we could watch it, but you always had the chance of error. And in that task, but at the end of the war, after the war was over two of the people in my group were dead of radiation. Accidents. I was away at that time, in Japan.

Gingerich:

Dangerous.

Morrison:

Of course Fermi knew that. Fermi said so. And these people felt they ought to do it. We did because it was wartime. We didn’t have time to wait for the six months or a year to make an automatic device. But it could have been done better. I am sorry about it. It wasn’t actually my responsibility, but — I was far away, but I could have intervened. And a young physicist called Harry Daghlian, who against rules did it all by himself in the middle of the night, and Louie Slotin, my colleague, an experienced physicist but a rather cavalier one—

Gingerich:

Is this the famous story of taking it apart with one’s hands?

Morrison:

Yes. To be honest, that story is exaggerated.

Gingerich:

All right.

Morrison:

It responded by expanding thermally much faster than you could take it apart with your hands. He did it, but it didn’t have any extra effect. He prevented a low level from persisting. And that was after the war. (It was May 21, 1946 when he died. And he was only ill about a week. I was still at Los Alamos then.) Now as I say, I was in Chicago. I had acquired some intelligence interests which took me into various little on odd corners. I was part of Hanford design; I worked for the DuPont Company, while sitting at my desk in Chicago. When Wheeler and Fermi left Chicago to go physically to Hanford, I took some of their work upon myself. They gave it to me. And DuPont wanted to include me, so they gave me tasks, and I became, for six weeks, a DuPont employee. I went through the famous indoctrination, loyalty to the DuPont Company was high-tradition training.

Gingerich:

I see. How long did that take?

Morrison:

A week.

Gingerich:

A week. You didn’t have to sign a loyalty oath to DuPont?

Morrison:

Well, I was already loyal to the project, but I only had to say that you know I wouldn’t tell their trade secrets to anybody and know how great they were and the story of DuPont. Mr. E.I. deNemours himself had come to the laboratory in his fancy 18th century dress to the new powder works whenever he was out, and there was a big experiment, a big trial going on in the powder works in Delaware.

Gingerich:

One of the DuPont people then who was president of the American Philosophical Society—

Morrison:

Crawford Greenewalt.

Gingerich:

He was there at the time when Fermi had the pile go critical.

Morrison:

Yes. He was there and he was the person who I interacted with strongly. He was a very able, nice man.

Gingerich:

And that’s because he was stationed there in Chicago or—?

Morrison:

Yes, because he visited. He was the head of what was called TNX Division, which was the DuPont’s code word for the uranium pile division. But all that is more-you know-intricate, intra-corporate and interior relationships, all which had names and persons and struggles and so on. So that was the situation. Then at Los Alamos in particular I encountered the celebrated Hans Bethe whom I think I had not ever seen before. But I knew his work, because as a nuclear physicist of those days I was brought up on his two great books on nuclear physics — issues of modern physics, statics and dynamics of nuclei or whatever it was called. I had studied them hard, so I admired him greatly. I also knew his work on the electrons and everything when I met him I found how kind and considerate and helpful to a young physicist he could be when the time came for the project to break up, I was away, I was in Japan on the government’s business measuring — confirming — the Japanese measurements on the site. We from Los Alamos were already out in Tinian Island with our shots and our uniforms, and whatever we had of training, and anybody else to be sent out would have had to comply with the military requirements. It would take some time to find them, so they took whoever was nearby and said, “You go into Japan.” The best we could do, you know. I couldn’t speak any Japanese, but they gave me a wonderful language officer from Rock Island, Illinois, a man named Congleton, John Congleton. Four years at the Monterey Language Lab, starting with zero Japanese and ending with fluent Japanese as tested by yours truly, going through Japan with him when he was our entire communication medium, me and an Ensign called Barney [Berhard G.] O’Keefe, whom you may have heard of — who became the head of Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier, Inc.

Gingerich:

Okay. It’s a different O’Keefe of course. I don’t know this one.

Morrison:

You might know this one. Okay. He became a magnate of some power, a very able man, and a young naval officer, part of the project because he was trained as a physicist, and we went around Japan with him. He was our watcher and bodyguard.

Gingerich:

And so you were in Japan when suddenly Los Alamos was downsizing.

Morrison:

When I got back there all the universities were filled up and the term was well away, so Los Alamos said, “Won’t you stay and finish up?” And I had a plan.

Morrison:

...to make a plutonium-burning nuclear reactor. Because we were the plutonium experts. And actually this plan has never been carried out very well. The Japanese have tried and given up, and the French have tried and given up. The thing is there is just too much uranium in the world, so it’s harder to make a fast reactor, a fast neutron reactor, and a little more dangerous, and people would rather mine the extra order of magnitude more of uranium, because there is plenty which in those days we didn’t realize.

Gingerich:

So how much longer did you stay at Los Alamos?

Morrison:

It was almost until the summer of ‘46. I returned from Japan maybe in October ‘45. In November-December we spent all of our time testifying to Congress, describing and advocating. And in January-February, I got back down to work and I was trying to leave this legacy for people who would remain. We had a reactor, very dense, cooled by mercury, no water to slow things down, and this object was called Clementine, which I named because of the song. You know the song?

Gingerich:

In a cavern, deep dark cavern—

Morrison:

“In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for to mine dwelt the miner ‘49er” and his daughter Clementine. Now that we parodied, and I parodied the telegram to them, a non-secure telegram, “In a cavern in a canyon, excavating for to mine, dwelt the miners ‘49ers and our darling Clementine.” 49 was the code word for plutonium, so when they got the telegram in Los Alamos they knew very well that I meant: “How is the reactor you’re building coming along?” I knew it was going to be critical any day then.

Gingerich:

Okay.

Morrison:

So that came from Cornell.

Gingerich:

But it was your contact with Hans Bethe that led to your going to Cornell.

Morrison:

Absolutely, yes. Well he asked me and Lawrence asked me. I knew more about Berkeley and Lawrence than I did about Cornell. I knew nothing about Cornell, but I loved Bethe and I still do. I admire him intensely. And though Lawrence made something that fit me quite well, I was politically afraid because of my radical history that the state of the University of California could soon be shaken down by some kind of legislative outburst.

Gingerich:

And basically did that happen?

Morrison:

It did. But basically I wasn’t there. At Cornell — well, it was hard enough in the McCarthy period, but it was not public, and not the subject of any newspaper editorials. It was much quieter, and the University really didn’t believe in firing people who had done nothing wrong, just because a newspaper accused them of something. And that was the difference, so it really was a good idea. And of course Bethe was the kind of person to go to just such a place. That was it. And at Cornell I — you can see in the first papers there what I was doing. All kinds of strange things. But a lot of public things, a lot of articles on various affairs. But do you want me to talk a little bit now about the physics at Cornell?

Gingerich:

Yes, please.

Morrison:

Right. And shortly thereafter. I stayed at Cornell from ‘46 September until ‘52 (or ‘53) when I had a sabbatical which I took at MIT. And I did nuclear physics. The most interesting work which I still think is one of the most interesting papers that I ever took part in, with a student called Jerry Pine. You might have heard of him. He became well known. That’s this paper, “Radiogenic Origin of the Helium Isotopes in Rock.” It was already 1955, so I was at Cornell. Now we have good evidence, which I think has become canonical, that the helium found in the gas wells of Saskatchewan, Oklahoma, Kansas, of some places in Europe, we find a lot of helium in gas wells. Some wells, like the ones in Oklahoma, were so full of helium and nitrogen they wouldn’t burn. There is a wonderful story about discovering gas in some wells in Oklahoma and sold the lands and built the pipes and all that and sent it through the pipes. And of course you know it had some methane in it, but there was so much helium that it wouldn’t burn consistently in the ordinary fixtures, so it was an utter failure. It became a helium well. Helium well was a big success because helium was worth a lot more than methane, I’ll tell you. But from that and from the helium-3, helium-4 ratio and from mockup experiments we did to simulate the low uranium content in the rock and the bombardment of the light elements of rock by ? particles from natural uranium mixed molecularly into the rock i ? on lithium giving neutrons in the reactions. All this can be calculated and mocked up to check it. We did all those things. And I sent Jerry Pine down into the mines to find a low-background place along with Giuseppe Cocconi who was another colleague of mine at Cornell. He was a cosmic ray person, and he knew how to use mines and to mountains. So we would drop the samples down the shaft a thousand or two thousand feet to get them to somebody to measure them underground, where there was a low neutron background. We came to conclude that the helium-3/helium-4 ratio differs a great deal between the atmosphere and the gas helium, it could likely come about — we simulated it by mixing natural uranium and radioactivity with natural rock elements, measuring the neutron intensity again in such a system as we had with Fermi — not quite so complicated, but something like that. Put into a mine so it had low background. That was very nice. It’s one of the most interesting things — no, the second most prominent thing that I ever did. The — two more on this same page, I’ll mention them. So that was rock helium. Then I came to MIT to follow Bruno Rossi, whom I came to like very much along with Bethe and who was closer to my interests at that time. Though I was hired by Bethe on the basis of this, and I came in ‘52 and worked on a paper with Rossi and Stan Olbert on the origin of cosmic rays, in which we had the temerity to complete a partially successful theory of Fermi’s — which we definitely improved, but you know, it was no big improvement! So that was pretty nice. So those are things which are—

Gingerich:

That’s right. Fermi was working on X-rays in the Milky Way and what was happening to them around that period of time.

Morrison:

Around that time, exactly so, yes. And Fermi published a paper on the cosmic rays being made by acceleration with moving magnetic fields, which was right, but he cut them off the wrong way. He cut them off by collision with other nuclei as they were being accelerated, and that cut-off gives a bad fit to the composition. He must cut them off for leakage out of the magnetic field into outer space, where the field was much weaker. That’s how we modified Fermi. Actually it was one of ten much better things he did that year or two. So Rossi and Olbert and I published that paper a year or so after Fermi.

Gingerich:

So that was the result of your being at MIT for that year?

Morrison:

Exactly. And I went — in fact you can see in ‘56 another paper I worked on, that’s the one to which I went to MIT, but at MIT Rossi was so excited about the origin ideas we were having that we re-did it in terms of diffusion theory. It was diffusion theory, all based on what I learned in Chicago where I knew nothing about diffusion. I had to study it up to understand the age theory, and I had to read Fermi’s papers in Italian, which was good.

Gingerich:

Okay. How did you learn to read them in Italian?

Morrison:

I just read between the equations a little bit.

Gingerich:

I see. All right.

Morrison:

That was enough. And you see the next paper, “Solar Origin of CR Variations”?

Gingerich:

Mm-hm [affirmative].

Morrison:

Another thing I’m very proud of, and that brought me into contact with Tommy Gold who very soon had the same ideas. Maybe it was already his, I don’t remember, probably it was. The cosmic rays show variations in intensity which are connected to solar activity. This has two reasons. A man called — I don’t remember who now, but several people, Simpson, probably John Simpson and others, Auger probably, figured out that the sun must make some cosmic rays, from the relation between solar activity and cosmic ray bursts, little spikes in the cosmic rays. That was correct. But how to explain decreases in cosmic rays from solar activity? Well that’s what we did, me and Tommy Gold, the solar origin of CR variations in ‘56. That was because the sun throws out magnetic fields, clouds, and its plasma pushes them away with magnetic fields and strengthens the fields, so they diffuse more slowly, etc. Variations, some increases, some decreases.

Gingerich:

Was Tommy Gold here at Harvard at that time?

Morrison:

He was.

Gingerich:

And so you got in touch with him while you were at MIT?

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

And this paper in part came out from that interaction?

Morrison:

That’s right.

Gingerich:

So I know he was still here when I came back from Beirut, which would have been in the fall of ‘58, because Baade was lecturing and Tommy Gold was attending those lectures. But he must have left to go to Cornell very soon after that.

Morrison:

As soon as we learned about him and so on, we stole him from Harvard, Ed Saltpeter and I.

Gingerich:

Okay.

Morrison:

Cornell had a very bad astronomy department. It was a one-man person, one-man department with an old observatory and a Clark telescope of 8" or something like that built a hundred years before. Well, that wasn’t so bad, but this guy was impossible.

Gingerich:

I don’t even remember his name.

Morrison:

I can’t either at the moment, but he was an impossible person, and he would never hire anybody and he would never do anything new for the first time. He wanted only to accumulate material. He had a copy of the Palomar plates that were issued. I don’t know, two thousand or something of them.

Gingerich:

He got the photographic set? Yes. Okay.

Morrison:

It stayed in his personal office unopened for two or three years after it arrived, in spite of the fact that there were many people by that time interested at Cornell in looking at astronomy.

Gingerich:

Well, if you don’t know exactly what to do with it, why open it?

Morrison:

Yeah, but that was a sad story. I felt better about it — this is a personal note — because he was also mean to his wife. I know that because she was in confinement and in the same hospital room with a friend of mine. I’ve forgotten who it was. The wife of some physician or somebody else I knew outside of Cornell. And the two exchanged their experiences. And whenever I visited, there he was bawling out his poor wife for not having done something or other, and there she was, you know, recovering from giving birth a few days before. But he was not pleased with what she had done of daily chores. This man can’t be very pleasant.

Gingerich:

So anyway you built a new astronomy department around Saltpeter.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

And then getting in Tommy [Gold].

Morrison:

That’s right.

Gingerich:

I want to make sure I ask you about the Cocconi paper but you were going down here through the list, so maybe you want to talk first about the gamma ray astronomy.

Morrison:

mp3 Yes. Well, gamma ray astronomy arose out of the fact that Bob Wilson at Cornell was building a good, nice new electron synchrotron with which he was able to make high-energy gamma rays. And so they were all the talk, and we tried to calculate how far they would go and so on. And Cocconi came to me one day — I’ve often reported this — and said, "You know what, Phil? If there are people out there, won’t they communicate with gamma rays that'll cross the whole galaxy?" And I said, “Gee, I know nothing about that. They will cross the galaxy. It’s very thin in hydrogen. But not all that well. There will be some loss." "What about radio?" he said. "I don’t know much about radio, but I understand there is a lot of radio out there. Why not use radio? It’s much cheaper. You get many more photons per watt and that must be what counts." And we began working on that and pretty soon we knew enough about radio astronomy to publish a paper called, as you say —

Gingerich:

"Searching for Interstellar Communications."

Morrison:

"Searching for Interstellar Communications," yes. Which of course is not yet SETI, but it's a much better name. SETI has always made me unhappy because it somehow denigrates the situation. It wasn’t the intelligence we could detect; it was the communications we could detect. Yes, they imply intelligence, but that's so evident that it’s better to talk about getting signals from them, not just telepathy, you know, that sort of argument.

Gingerich:

So in fact the gamma ray astronomy paper and the Cocconi paper are related in a peculiar way.

Morrison:

Yes. Cocconi read that and we talked about it, and he said, “Doesn’t that go through the galaxy?” “Yes?” Said, “Well, maybe that’s where the signals are. They’ll come from outer space.” Which was a commonplace of the day. And I said, “Maybe they are, but let’s look at all the frequencies.” So we published a paper which did try to look at all the frequencies in a rather crude way, and say the best one is right near the hydrogen line but not on it.

Gingerich:

That was before the OH line was really known.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

I found the gamma ray astronomy article very nicely done. It was, from my point of view, of its not being too technical. I mean, it had a wonderful amount of physics in it in systematically looking at the different possibilities, but it was very nicely laid out so that it’s quite readable.

Morrison:

Yeah, I think it was a good paper. I will tell you what the experimenters said, quite correctly: it made it look much too easy. It took them fifteen years or something to get that far.

Gingerich:

Well, you suggested at the end that it was going to be an experimentalist’s problem.

Morrison:

Yes, yes. I was not wrong, but I was too optimistic. Skilled people spend years of their lives at the task.

Gingerich:

But it was because of Robert Wilson’s synchrotron that got the talk up about gamma rays that—

Morrison:

Exactly. And then Giuseppe’s picking that out for the interstellar signals, which was a strange thing to come up with. But we knew each other well.

Gingerich:

You had mentioned Cocconi before, because you said he knew about caves and mines. So what was your general relation with him? He was just a—?

Morrison:

He was a dear friend. He and his wife were very good friends of ours. He was a little bit like my failings and his were the same. We had very Catholic tastes and interests. Instead of homing in on one particular tight subject, he liked to see physics broadly. He’s also a wonderful human being. In fact, I’m trying hard to mail him a letter, which I have accumulated in a package, but I’m trying to talk to his daughter who lives here in Boston, to see how he is and where I should address him and so on. He’s been very much on my mind for the past couple of weeks. Normally he comes at the end of the year to visit her, and I haven’t heard from him, so I wonder. So I’ve got to check up on that.

Gingerich:

He’s still living at Cornell?

Morrison:

No, no, no. He went to CERN in Geneve; when I left Cornell he left Cornell.

Gingerich:

I see.

Morrison:

For the same reason. We reinforced each other. He went because CERN was starting. He was made the head of the first PS, the Proton Synchrotron. And he stayed at CERN until he retired.

Gingerich:

The fact that he was leaving was one reason you decided to leave?

Morrison:

Yes. So there you come to the paper that I think is the most — well, the SETI one which is not SETI but CETI but you can’t pronounce it, and the Russians invented the other one, and they spelled it differently, but that’s all right. This one, Morrison and Chiu, “The True Emission from Hot Degenerate Gases.” Did you see that one? Is that on your list?

Gingerich:

Yes, yes, and I got a copy of it.

Morrison:

You got a copy. Okay. Now this is Hong-Yi Chiu. Hong-Yi Chu I’m trying to think. I don’t remember his Chinese history anymore. I don’t think he ever lived in China very much. He was from Southeast Asia, from Kun Ming. When they left there once the Japanese entered China, he became a very bright graduate student in the Cornell physics department. And it was just at the time when you can see that — I’ve been interested for some time, gamma ray astronomy, flow of information in cosmological models, searching interstellar communications. Something about that is in the wind. Of course we picked that up. And we decided, “What about this? Are neutrinos good for anything?” We sort of said, “Well, there are no such things as neutrinos. Very few.” We all knew neutrinos, but “Are there any made there?” I said, “Look, let’s consider that. Let’s see if it will get sufficiently hot to generate gas. It doesn’t keep neutrinos because they’ll leak right out of the middle of the star.” He was very good at the Feynman diagram game, which I was just learning.

Gingerich:

I noticed that it’s filled with the Feynman diagrams, which must have been very popular at that exact time.

Morrison:

Yes, yes. And Hong-Yi was very good at it and knew how to normalize them, which I certainly never did. We printed his paper. It’s really quite interesting, because it demonstrates for sure that the main thing that will come out of a supernova — we didn’t know it then, but it is pretty well clear now — are neutrino! Do you know that there is a thousand times more energy in neutrinos than there is in photons, from supernova?

Gingerich:

Yes, I had heard that.

Morrison:

Okay.

Gingerich:

So that’s because of this work.

Morrison:

Now of course we were rapidly superseded by more careful calculators, real computing and so on, but we did the crude first-diagram thing and got it right, not corrected by 50 percent over the years.

Gingerich:

But you mentioned that it was too early, that therefore people didn’t remember to cite it.

Morrison:

That’s right. Because by the time they were doing something, they had much better tables to work from. We just gave the broad idea. But I still think that that’s an important paper.

Gingerich:

May I go back for just a moment to the Cocconi paper?

Morrison:

Sure.

Gingerich:

When I read it, it sounded like you. So I think you wrote it.

Morrison:

Yeah, I think I did. And he was the governor on it.

Gingerich:

I see. To keep you from being too wildly speculative?

Morrison:

Exactly. And too enthusiastic. We were a good team. We were very good friends and we still are, and he doesn’t like publicity, whereas I don’t exactly seek it but I can’t avoid it. So I’m always telling people, you know, the paper Cocconi, if you want to talk about the early invention of it, don’t go talk to Cocconi. I’ve given this story many times. I try to keep it public but he doesn’t want to do it. He’s interested in real things and not in taking the credit.

Gingerich:

I would like to ask you about the Babbáge book, because I think this is so indicative of the fact that you weren’t keeping your nose to the straight and narrow line of doing astrophysics.

Morrison:

That’s true. Well I became a writer for Scientific American [unintelligible phrase]. The old one called “Science and Science Education for the General Reader.” Here it is if you don’t have it. It’s ‘49 to ‘76, a specialized list.

Gingerich:

Let me see. Oh, okay. Yes, I have it here.

Morrison:

Okay, well look at that. You see what’s happening, in ‘46 when I am certainly at Cornell, One World or None, a book, one chapter was mine. I think that’s probably important. That was based on my congressional testimony, extrapolating the attack on, with one bomb on Nagasaki to the situation with a bomb of similar size on 23rd Street and Broadway in New York City.

Gingerich:

So this is a chapter or something you wrote in this?

Morrison:

Book.

Gingerich:

In the book.

Morrison:

By Dexter, Masters and Kay Way, editors. A very successful book at that time.

Gingerich:

So there it is in 1946.

Morrison:

That’s right.

Gingerich:

Well that, I can understand, would be an ordinary kind of follow-up of the situation you had been in, but that by itself doesn’t indicate your great breadth of interest. That becomes more noticeable by about 1950.

Morrison:

Yeah. Well you see, but notice there is a review of Patrick Blackett’s book. It was a very useful thing to do for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a very important book which I agreed and disagreed with, and I actually convinced Sir Patrick that he was a little bit wrong. He underestimated the bomb.

Gingerich:

Okay.

Morrison:

So there it is, even a couple for the New Republic. Ah, The New Yorker [6/8/46] is one I don’t like at all, but it’s a good one, I would admit that. Daniel Lang was one of their staff writers at the time.

Gingerich:

Is that an interview with you?

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

I see. “A Fine Moral Point.”

Morrison:

Yes. I used that phrase. It had to do with something— I told him I was pretty, you know, conflicted about the whole history of the war. It was such a terrible thing to do, but we never saw that it could be avoided. I am so distressed in a contemporary world when people say, “How can these people who are so religious and so on undertake these terrible things?” Well it’s hard to know, but since I did it myself, I have some more understanding. I mean I was a genuine pacifist in 1932 maybe, ‘31. I was a high school student. But that was my view and I wrote essays and so on. Because the terrible fight of the trenches with — what was it called? A famous book which came out. I can’t remember, but written by a German from the point of view of a German soldier. Eric Maria Remarque was the author: All Quiet on the Western Front.

Gingerich:

I’ll find it.

Morrison:

You’ll find it. It was a huge bestseller. And there’s an English one too, a play, Journey’s End. You know, how terrible the trenches were in a long war. And a fine moral point was what Mr. Lang picked out made me a little unhappy because it wasn’t something I emphasized a lot, was that the radiologist, whose name was I think — but I’m now a little mixed up — I think it was Suzuki (but now I’m not sure that wasn’t just the name of the Canadian TV producer and biologist). But that’s all I can say now. I think it’s the same name. He came to me in the week or two that I spent waiting in the hotels in Tokyo to see what we could do, before we were allowed to move out of the city by talking to the local scientists. And he appeared, a radiologist from the University of Tokyo, a very elderly man, very distinguished, and began to talk to me about it all and his was clearly a very strong moral position. And I told it to Lang, and Lang made something out of it because of some phrase he picked up. And what Suzuki came to point to me, that he knew of the radiation damage because he had worked in [unintelligible word] Pennsylvania hospitals five years before or so doing whole body radiation of — I always said dogs, but I now believe it was rabbits. But one or the other animal, to study the half-mortality point, you know, 50 percent lethal rate. And he said to me it was the only nuanced but clearly present resistance that I found from any Japanese in my entire tour through Japan for a month after the war. He first came to me with a moral complaint. Others said, you know, “It’s all war. War is hell and you just did hell too.” And I said he was right. But this guy came and said, “I know about radiation, but you Americans carried it further than I did. You have done the human experiment.” I must say that is a pretty strong remark, ostensibly hidden just to show me the paper and so on. I had to agree with him. That gives me the feeling that I could change in two years of history: the whole society changed, and the whole world changed, you know, to the murder in some obscure way contributing to making bombs against a whole city. Before that I couldn’t imagine such a thing. But first it was the Nazis, then it was the war itself, and then it was the danger of losing, and pretty soon there was nothing I could do about it anymore. Notice though these titles in ‘47, atoms, the enlargement of science, nothing new about the bomb there but more generalized with co-author Emily Morrison (my first wife). The virus articles in Scientific American high vacuum the neutron life of Babbage and more.

Gingerich:

Yeah. “The Curious Life of Charles Babbage” in the Scientific American in April of ‘52.

Morrison:

That’s right.

Gingerich:

And the Babbáge book doesn’t come out until 1961.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

So there is some period of being interested in Babbáge.

Morrison:

Yes. Having to do with computers, of course.

Gingerich:

Yes.

Morrison:

The old title for this book?

Gingerich:

Yes.

Morrison:

A new introduction was written for this edition. I think you have to be careful in getting the date of this book.

Gingerich:

Do you think this might have been a reprint, and it came out a little bit earlier?

Morrison:

That’s my offhand opinion. I would certainly like to look at the title. Maybe I’m wrong. See, this is an anthology of Babbáge based on the Babbáge volume, Babbáge’s old Calculating Engines which I borrowed from the Cornell library.

Gingerich:

I have a copy of that book which is much coveted by some collectors.

Morrison:

I see. It’s a good book, published in the 1860s originally. The Cornell library made available a copy of the original edition. But I think we took that long. You know, we were trying to get something to work on together, and this was a very good thing.

Gingerich:

When did you meet Emily? How—?

Morrison:

Oh. She was literally the girl next door.

Gingerich:

You mean in Pittsburgh?

Morrison:

Yep,

Gingerich:

I see.

Morrison:

We went to college together.

Gingerich:

And you got married when you were a graduate student?

Morrison:

When I was a graduate student, yes, the second year, ‘38 I believe. First I went out with Syd Dancoff as roommate. We lived in a boarding house, a lodging house, and then we found a little garden cottage. You know what a garden cottage is? In Berkeley it probably still exists.

Gingerich:

I don’t really know what that is.

Morrison:

Well people have houses on lots, and generally they are allowed to build another little settlement on that same lot, and they call it a garden cottage; it’s got the essentials. It’s got two rooms and a bath and kitchen. They can rent it and it pays the mortgage. So we lived in one such, which first I shared with Dancoff and then after a year or two both he and I got married. And then coming back to Cornell. Emily would work as a secretary. Emily is a smart lady and liked to write and was very good at French and Russian. So I think the titles show that I probably stimulated the article, Emily would do the work and write it up and I would tease it into shape but it gave her something to do, lots of library work, so we’d work these articles up. And they went all the way from — well, I’m not so far apart here. ‘49 to ‘57, yeah. That’s Cornell.

Gingerich:

I am getting close to the end of the tape which is in fact — it’s nearly 90 minutes, which is long enough probably for a session of doing this without a break.

Morrison:

Right. Well let me just add, to make sure I’ve done it, what I think are the best papers. I think that’s the thing they probably want me to say. Well, the first one was that neutrinos take away energy from hot degenerate objects much more than do photons! I think that’s a very important point of how the universe works. And second, of course the less physical, just the idea of communication across the galaxy which comes again and again and is mostly the Cocconi papers. A beginning, rather naive but fun. And that handles neutrino and communication. And the bomb part is sort of covered over, lots and lots of articles on it. And then the helium 3 and helium 4 thing, which I still think is a very good result.

Gingerich:

Now I am intending to come back again.

Morrison:

Oh, you are? I see.

Gingerich:

Yes. Because I want to talk about the follow-ups on these things. For example you have been very much involved with the SETI community and going all around with it and so on.

Morrison:

Yes. Oh yeah.

Gingerich:

I think we need to talk about that continuing involvement.

Morrison:

Okay.

Gingerich:

Also to get some view of what you’ve been up to at MIT on these lines. Now I’m assuming that Patricia has talked to you about Los Alamos and that whole part.

Morrison:

I think so. It was actually the author of the Groves book.

Gingerich:

Oh. Somebody else has done that.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

And she has talked to you about — has she interviewed you about some other things or is she only masterminding it in the background?

Morrison:

She’s masterminded it. But we have talked a lot about various things.

Gingerich:

And has Gerry Piel come and talked to you about your connections with Scientific American?

Morrison:

No, he hasn’t.

Gingerich:

But I think he is planning to.

Morrison:

I think he is intending to. And I have talked about that. I can’t remember. I have talked to so many people now. The main, longest conversations are with this man who works with the National Council on Natural Resources or something like that, Natural Resources Defense Council. What is his name? He wrote the Groves book. Robert Norris.

Gingerich:

Okay. I can find out who that is.

Morrison:

You certainly can.

Gingerich:

In fact I’ve been told who it was.

Morrison:

Me too. I’ve met him quite well, but I have a very bad memory for names these days.

Gingerich:

Oh, I have had this problem for a long time.

Morrison:

I guess there’s only a certain number of boxes.

Gingerich:

Do you file names alphabetically in your mind? Can you remember the initial that a name begins with even if you can’t remember the name?

Morrison:

Yes, but sometimes wrongly. But I tend to do that, yes. It’s strange.

Gingerich:

Well, what you’ve told me is very interesting, and I think it should be quite clear from the point of view of the transcription, but I do want to come back and do a follow-up. It will be some weeks from now because I want to make sure that they don’t have any problems with transcribing this and I want to — and I also have some traveling to do.

Morrison:

Yeah, sure. Let me just mention this though. Nobody has really, that I know of, has tried the formidable task of looking at the book reviews.

Gingerich:

Twelve hundred, you say.

Morrison:

That’s my estimate. Even to list them is a formidable job.

Gingerich:

I understand.

Morrison:

They’re indexed fortunately, by the Scientific American. There published three volumes of indices.

Gingerich:

Yes. I have those volumes. But then it’s not just that, but think of the number of books that you looked into carefully and decided were unreviewable.

Morrison:

Oh yes. Five times as many at least.

Gingerich:

Yes. It’s a formidable number.

Morrison:

Yeah. Well, in big times a mail sack a week.

Gingerich:

Of books. Yes. Yes, I can see why you had a problem about giving them away.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

Because otherwise you get totally inundated. My office at the observatory is about to sink under the astronomy books that I get sent which have no relevance whatsoever to the Journal for the History of Astronomy because they have no history in them. But I don’t want to just put them in the wastebasket. And I remember you always felt that it was a little crooked to give them to the library because that was undermining the publisher’s market.

Morrison:

Yes. I would send them to poor colleges in Nigeria and so on.

Gingerich:

There is a possibility. Somehow I’ve got to cope with this.

Morrison:

Yes.

Gingerich:

Are there other remarks you want to make? We have probably 3 more minutes.

Morrison:

Okay. Well, I was going to say that these early topics, some you have indicated, helium I have indicated I think as very valuable, neutrinos, instead of gamma rays I have indicated. I think those are the three main things, except of course the persistent struggle about the bomb which took on so many phases. And I guess the other one is book reviews in scientific literature. But there I have a lot of literary support which you ought to look at a little bit. It will help you. Should I lend you those books?

Gingerich:

I have the indices.

Morrison:

Yeah, but there is this book called A Long Look at the Literature.

Gingerich:

Oh, I have that too.

Morrison:

Oh well, you are in good shape then.

Gingerich:

Only if I can figure out where it is.

Morrison:

Okay. Well, I have it up on the shelf.

Gingerich:

No, I know I have it, but I haven’t looked at it recently so I’m not sure where it is. All right. We’ll talk about those things when I come back, and I’ll make sure that I have found that book in the meantime.

Morrison:

Okay. Great.

Gingerich:

Well thank you. This was extremely interesting.

Morrison:

Yeah, it’s always interesting to reflect.

Session I | Session II