Oral History Transcript — Dr. Philip Morrison
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Interview with Dr. Philip Morrison
Philip Morrison; August 1, 2003
ABSTRACT: SETI meetings; Charles Eames; films and lectures including The Powers of Ten, The Ring of Truth; reviewing books and writing for Scientific American; work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1964-2005); black holes; multi-verse cosmology.
Session I | Session II
Gingerich:Today I propose that we talk about aspects of your career after you came here to Cambridge. That is still a very strong, delicious, different, variegated menu because youíre involved in a lot of different kinds of things. Iím going to start with the follow-up of SETI, which is where we talked about in the previous interview. Then later on, we will talk about some of the book reviewing, the Ring of Truth, your work in the Eames Office, some things like that. Then Iím sure David wants to talk in greater depth about some of those, but since heís here now, heíll know what questions have been asked. Now, you have become something of a guru in the SETI world. As a result of that, you were invited to various international conferences and so on. Why donít you start just by telling us what the reception and consequences of that SETI paper were.
Morrison:I should begin by saying it was a joint paper. All of the ideas worked out together. In fact, the question that it raised was raised by Giuseppe Cocconi. But Giuseppe and I are very different in our attitudes towards public information. He feels you should not seek to increase it, and I feel you should if I ask you to tell them what they should like to know.
Gingerich:In other words, you have been to a lot more of the conferences than he has?
Morrison:He will never go unless he really likes the place and so on. I always invite him and he always says no. Of course, he lives in Geneva.
Gingerich:Well, whatís the first one that you can remember?
Morrison:Well, the first one is the very original one, [convened in Green Bank, W. Virginia, by J.P.T. Pearman] who went to the National Academy [of Sciences] for sponsorship.
Gingrich:And that was held not in Washington, in some fancy site, orÖ?
Morrison:Some site. It wasnít all that fancy, but it wasnít one of the big retreats because there were only about eight or ten people. Itís in all of the books, Iím sure. It was a very nice meeting. The most interesting and utterly fallacious member of the group was that guy called [John] Lilly.
Gingerich:The dolphin man?
Morrison:The dolphin man, exactly.
Gingerich:Why do you say the most fallacious?
Morrison:Because what he said was not true.
Gingerich:About the dolphins or about the relationship to SETI?
Morrison:About the dolphins and about the relationship, and everything else. He just didnít do any homework. He fabulated. He was a nice person, but he was no help at section leading.
Gingerich:I know it was well-known that he was there. Did he get invited to more of those meetings.
Morrison:Well, many more meetings after that. I guess Iíve been going to meetings ever since about the matter. But that was certainly the initial one. I suppose in some ways, it was the most interesting. I guess the interesting was at the Byurakan Observatory. Yerevan is the national capital.
Gingerich:I knew there was one over there in the Soviet Union. So Yereran is...?
Morrison:Itís the capital of Armenia, the republic, then a Soviet Republic.
Gingerich:Was Ambartsumian there?
Morrison:Ambartsumian was the chairman and a great hand at reciting Armenian folklore, but didnít cut down the conversation much.
Gingerich:That was exciting because of the venue or because of the people who happened to come?
Morrison:Both of those things. Itís very rare to visit Armenia in the Soviet Union.
Morrison:This must have been in the 1970s. It was still during the cooler parts of the Cold Warónot the coldest parts, but it was pretty unusual. We had a lot of fun. The first point was of course we had to go to Moscow to get there. Then we had to go to Samarkand, if Iím not mistaken, and then to Byurakan. Now, I might be wrong about that. I think it must be wrong because the interesting thing about Armenia was that the Armenians, generally being great enterprisers, were not too suited for the Socialist economy. They were ideally suited to make money when there was available, rapid, inexpensive (in any currency you might want to measure) air trip between Armenia and Moscow. In Moscow were people with a lot of money, but nothing good to eat, and Yerevan was just the oppositeónot much money, but everything was good to eat.
Gingerich:I see. How many times, roughly, have you visited the Soviet Union?
Gingerich:Was that the first time?
Morrison:I think it was.
Gingerich:I went in 1958 when the IAU meeting took place in Moscow. Things changed a great deal between one visit and another.
Morrison:When was the so-called revolution in Prague? Was it before or after you went? Anyway, it doesnít matter. That was the occasion of my first trip into Soviet influenced territory.
Gingerich:Something happened around 1967, around the time when the IAU was meeting in Prague.
Morrison:Thatís when I was there, for that meeting. I was, before that, quite unwilling to go to those precinctsónot because of anything against them; quite the contrary. I was too sympathetic. Therefore, the American government was very chintzy about letting me go there, lest I sell them the drawings of the H-bomb, or whatever. So I had to put a lot in to get a grant to go there.
Gingerich:I see. Does that mean that in any way your passport was specifically restricted?
Morrison:Oh, yes. It was very hard to come by. I forget the lady who issued it.
Gingerich:She was very infamous.
Morrison:It had a lot to do with her. Yes.
Gingerich:So this was because you had been at Los Alamos, and therefore had secrets; and therefore it was too dangerous to let you go there?
Morrison:Well, not only that. Not everybody who had been at Los Alamos was regarded that way, but I was because I was an advocate for peace, even being a Los Alamos alumnus. I felt it was disastrous to have an arms race in nuclear weapons. One nuclear war was plenty. And we had the minimal one with two. Less is probably not a war. So anyway, I had a hard time getting a passport. I had never been to Europe before going some time in the 1960s, I guess, to London, which was unusual for my interests.
Gingerich:Now that you say it, I guess Iím not surprised to hear it. I guess I was just unaware of it.
Gingerich:So you did go to the IAU meeting in Prague, then?
Morrison:I certainly did. I still very well remember first the architecture, which is so beautiful there. Itís kind of tired and dirty, but still pretty nice. It had just been cleaned up. They were working on it. I remember the National Museum, which has two or three unique, strong collections. Meteorites and tektites, especially tektites, is their strongest point in celestial museology, or whatever they call it. You know what I mean by a tektite, of course? Okay. That was quite striking. Then the other thing that was really good there was early hominids. Not the very earliest, but certainly the 30,000, 40,000 year categories. Mammoth hunters and such.
Gingerich:I am trying to think about these dates. 1964 was the IAU meeting in Hamburg. Three years later, 1967, must have been the meeting in Prague.
Morrison:Okay. That sounds right. We can look that up, because I can tell you by looking at the World Almanac when the Prague event changed.
Gingerich:Yes, because it changed very soon thereafter. Then in 1971 was the Kepler anniversary. There was a big meeting in Russia at that time, or in the Soviet Union. Because of Keplerís connection with Prague, there was a big exhibition in Prague. So we went to Prague, and were going directly from Prague to Moscow. The person who was the General Secretary or General Secretary-elect of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science went to the airport to fly to Moscow and had his passport taken away. The official line was that he had withdrawn his candidacy to be the General Secretary. I smuggled a letter out saying that this was not true at all, which went to the Executive Committee, which was meeting in Moscow. The International Union for History and Philosophy of Science in those days always had its meeting one year after the IAU. So there must have been an IAU meeting some place in 1970, í71, the history and philosophy one. Well, we are getting into a digression, but itís interesting to try to think back about those particular times. And the Byurakan meeting was some time in the 1970s? That would make some sense. And you have been back to the Soviet Union since that meeting?
Morrison:A couple of times, I think.
Gingerich:Do you have any general reflections about how your involvement with the SETI paper has in any way made your life more interesting?
Morrison:I feel like the arrogant Lord Rutherford. ďYou just would have been in the wave,Ē somebody said to him. He said, ďI made the wave.Ē
Gingerich:So you made the wave.
Morrison:Itís not much of a wave compared to Lord Rutherford, but itís a wave of SETI, and I think I deserve a lot of credit for it. Also Giuseppi Cocconi, my co-author. Nobody else published. [Frank Drake was quietly at work doing it.]
Gingerich:Let me turn now to a different topic. That is how did you and Phyllis become involved with Charles Eames? When did you first meet him? Do you remember?
Morrison:I remember that very much in detail. When I met him, I was a faculty member at Cornell. Now, Cornell, as you may well know, is not a vigorous place to incur visitors, especially if you just come from years in San Francisco and Berkeley, where there is nothing but traveling dignitaries youíd like to meet. So that was pretty clear. I met Charles when he came to Cornell as the principal guest of a festival on modern art, which took place in the first couple of years that I was at Cornell. He came to talk about modern art and its intellectual importance and what he saw in it. It was a very good talk and he won me over greatly. Heís a really interesting artist.
Gingerich:But that must have been before he was well hooked up with IBM, although he must have been into furniture design by then.
Morrison:I think he was negotiating it at that time, something like that. Thatís quite right. It was a wonder. So we became friendly there by interchanges. Then what happened (this will also date it) some sort of new deal inspiration occurred, which led to many changes. It was like a wave, like the tide which rises all boats. It raised the boats of physics education. So there was a little boat that said it was to be a representative body of physicists elected by some procedure. You could write in and nominate, and then you would become a member of the Commission on College Physics.
Gingerich:Did they make the film about Lick Observatory ?
Morrison:They sure did. Actually, Eames made it.
Gingerich:Eames made it, but it was commissioned by them.
Morrison:I went there to commission them. Not to do that one, but to do, I think, the Powers of Ten, but Iím not sure of that. Certainly Lick was done there. I invented the Lick one, spoke in it and narrated and so on and talked them into it; and many others. The Commission had some money, and with that money it had the blessing of the NSF. So people of respectability could simply apply as hitchhikers if they would like to get this going. So it was quite important.
Gingerich:So at that time, he must have had his office in Venice, CA.
Morrison:That he definitely had. That he had even during the war. In fact, what he did in that office, which made him pretty famous, was to make plywood objects which are used mostly as splints. Aircraft usable splints. Plaster castings are not good to fly around in small military aircraft whereas light plywood is excellent. That gave Eames a way up into the federally noticeable people who might give grants for design changes and so on.
Gingerich:So when the Lick film was being made, you actually went out to Venice to do the narration?
Morrison:I think actually to write it and then do it.
Gingerich:So you spent some time in a long streak, or just in and out at different times?
Morrison:In and out at a couple of different times. I had to meet the people a little bit, as they were necessary. I donít remember how long it took, but certainly a matter of months. The filming was not very long. It was quite arduous, difficult filming because I had to fit the speech to the edited film, or whatever. I forget which order it was done. I had never worked with a movie editor before, so that was quite a difficult thing; but it was interesting and I really liked it. I of course very much enjoyed my visit to Lick, which carried just the quality that I hoped it would do, I thought. It was this Victorian style enterprise now tied into these most modern things.
Gingerich:At some point, David, you will want to see that film.
Kaiser:I havenít seen it yet, but Iíd like to see it.
Gingerich:Itís been a long time since Iíve seen it, but I do remember it as being one of those results of Charlesí interest in scientific things.
Morrison:Exactly. Which increased when he began to know more people. Do you know [Raymond] Redheffer?
Gingerich:Heís the man who helped do the mathematical wall?
Morrison:Yes. He was the closest scientifically trained advisor to Eames who was present when I knew them. He was the earliest one.
Gingerich:I never met him. At the time I came, the mathematical wall had already been made .
Morrison:I think it was at least in scoreboard form when I got there. It was certainly not new. They were just doing it. I remember hearing what a scoreboard was and looking at the things and all that. I was very naÔve about movie making.
Gingerich:All those walls in which they could pin up things.
Morrison:Yes. And then the idea itself of course came on top of that. After that, they had plenty of money and plenty of exhibit space.
Gingerich:For the people reading the tape and for you, David, we should mention that Charles and Ray Eames, Ray his wife, took over this garage, literally. ďWe fix carsĒ or something like that was still painted on the side when I first went out there.
Morrison:It was originally a taxi fleet. So it was a multiple garage, and then the taxi business moved out leaving it pretty vacant. Thatís when the Eameses snapped it up. Their business was growing, and it was declining. As I wrote, it was on Electric Avenue, so I felt that was an ideal name for it. 901 Electric Avenue.
Gingerich:It must have changed because eventually it became 901 Washington Blvd.
Morrison:Itís actually on Electric Avenue at the unmarked intersection. Itís not popular, so they were able to switch it around in their bookkeeping.
Gingerich:Nobody would have ever found it if it had been Electric Avenue.
Morrison:Exactly. Do you know what Electric Avenue is? Itís the route of the Big Red Train. Do you know what the big red train is?
Gingerich:Whatís the big red train?
Morrison:I donít know the real name of it. I donít want to call it a street car. Itís what I would call an inter-urban line, Los Angeles being regarded as its theater. Itís not exactly inter-urban. (Itís intra-urban, but only in L.A. It didnít go to San Francisco!) It went all over L.A. to many places in these big red cars that you climbed into like a railroad car, and it had electric pantographs. It went whizzing down the track directly behind the Eamesí garage. So the train would pass 20 feet away from it every hour or so.
Gingerich:When you said they had electric pantographs, the transcriber will be baffled. You are referring to the trapezoidal piece that connected to the wires.
Morrison:It runs against the cable. Thatís right. It just pushes against them. Itís spring-loaded.
Gingerich:I know you were on deck, for example, when they did the Copernicus show because you wrote the little motto to hang above the doorway.
Morrison:Oh, yes. I guess so. (Maybe by poet Walt Whitman. I can tell by seeing.)
Gingerich:It was about looking back and seeing the earth as this blue planet suspended. I donít remember your words and I wish I had them. Iím not sure I have them on any photograph.
Morrison:Good old IBM loses nothing.
Gingerich:Has to have them somewhere.
Gingerich:So you were obviously part of Eamesí repertoire of resources so that you could be called on for that.
Morrison:Definitely. And we went there frequently.
Gingerich:And then you and Phyllis went out on a sabbatical leave or something?
Gingerich:How long were you there?
Morrison:Six months, I believe.
Gingerich:And part of what you did there was working on the remake of Powers of Ten.
Morrison:Thatís right. And part of it was to take care of my very much rapidly aging mother, who lived right in Los Angeles, around the corner.
Gingerich:So that was part of your motivation?
Gingerich:So it must have been great fun working in the shop. What else did you do?
Morrison:I taught at UCLA.
Gingerich:Okay. So you werenít at the shop all of the time?
Morrison:No. In fact, I wasnít really there very much, but Phyllis was there all the time as a working artist who set up things, drew seams, did costumes, and all of that sort of thing. I came in only in the evenings when UCLA was over. I remember that very well because I was nearly always invited to stay for dinner by the Eameses, who were great hosts. I didnít know about that lady, the Japanese chef, who cooked every good thing. So most of the days I would eat there.
Gingerich:One of their staff members remarked that the Eameses lived in an unreal world. She said, ďI donít think Ray has been inside of a grocery store for more than a decade.Ē
Morrison:That is surely true. Not only that, the same story. We always ate with the Eameses, nearly always. It was many times. We discussed everything. Often there were other visitorsóusually a cosmopolitan flow, in other words. It was always quite interesting. And we discussed things. Among other things, we talked about the movies, because movie people were very big in Los Angeles. Eames was really a movie-related person. Everybody talked about the movies. Very often, Billy Wilder was there, or sometimes a less famous, but also wonderful movie person.
Gingerich:I never met Billy Wilder, but Eames mentioned him quite often.
Morrison:Yes, he was frequently there. The curious thing was we talked about movies all the time, but never did I ever go to see a movie. I wanted to, and there was a very good theater not far away, but we never could find the time. Itís just the opposite of Francois Truffaut. Truffaut, the French film maker who made 400 Blows and The American Night [La Nuit Amťricaine or Day for Night], and a number of other incredibly famous movies.
Gingerich:And he was always going to movies?
Morrison:He always wanted to leave Paris because he couldnít stand the life of the city. As he drove away from his haunts, he would feel more and more like a fish out of water. By the time he got to the first grass, he said, ďYou know, there is that little movie playing at such and such a place and Iíve never seen it. I better turn around and go back. I donít know when they will have it again.Ē So back he would go, always explaining what he really wanted was the bucolic life, but he couldnít stand to leave Paris. He made the famousówhich I think was a great movieóThe American Night, which is a strange title, but it is a technical movie term. American Night is an underexposed, heavily lighted film, so it looks like night. The sky is not bright and so on. Itís American Night, and it was a French style of cinematography.
Gingerich:Now weíll go back to The Powers of Ten. I guess Charles had been wanting to remake it for a long time because the first version of it is entitled something like a sketch for a possible film.
Morrison:Thatís the second version. There are three versions. The first was due to our English friend, Bronowski, and his daughter.
Gingerich:Thatís right. Thatís the one I was referring to because she narrated it.
Morrison:But I donít think thatís called the sketch.
Morrison:Well, you might be right. I can find it for you. But the word sketch, another word went with it, I think [rough sketch]; but Iím not sure. In any case, there were two versions. I think three. The first made with relativistic attention, which is wholly inconsistent but was insisted upon by Jacob Bronowski, who understood relativity and wanted it to be relativistic. His daughter was the day-by-day, technically educated person working on the scoreboard.
Gingerich:Judy [Judith] Bronowski.
Morrison:Judy Bronowski. Then time came to make another one, and I think they all agreed the idea of the relativity was too much. It was hard enough to accommodate The Powers of Ten, but adding a whole new structure of thought about what time and space mean, forget it. Forget about it. You canít teach all of that. We even gave an explanation. Then I wrote the whole thing out in full detail. There are ten or fifteen pages about it right over there. You have seen the book?
Gingerich:I have seen The Powers of Ten book, of course.
Morrison:Thatís what Iím talking about.
Gingerich:Isnít that funny? I forgot about the book, of course, or I probably would have brought it along. I have the book there. That was almost an independent production of yours and Phyllisí?
Morrison:The book itself?
Morrison:Yes. We had a very bright young woman who worked with us, somebody called Genisse. She now lives in Santa Monica. We worked very hard making the whole thing go. What we used, of course, is the 40 main scenes from the Eames. Do you know how that film was made to begin with? It was just made from those 40 scenes.
Gingerich:I realized that was the case.
Morrison:They had built the first computer controlled camera work done in the animated film world. It was so said to me. The computer was to advance the image towards the camera very precisely so registry was maintained. They took it through the ten fold zoom.
Gingerich:I know the second one was just brilliantly seamless, as opposed to the first one, which was really a sketch from that point of view. I helped them on a variety of ways. For example, supplying them with exactly the right star fields from the Lick Sky Survey.
Morrison:It was wonderful.
Gingerich:Which they used as they were zooming out. I also calculated the XYZ positions of all the brightest galaxies so that those were correct. Because of the Powers of Ten speed-up in going past the Virgo Cluster, it was not more than a few frames. Then wham! They were past it. There was a lot more accuracy there than people would realize. But Charles was very particular about doing things accurately.
Morrison:I too felt that the Lick thing was the right sourceójust a box full of prints, much smaller than the Palomar. The Sky Survey didnít need one that big.
Gingerich:Yes. You had more angular width on those prints than on the Palomar prints.
Gingerich:So it made more sense to use those.
Morrison:I remember having to decide because Palomar is a sexier name, but I went with Lick. They all agreed to it.
Gingerich:I think then I mailed them the charts from the set which we had for teaching purposes because we had— as you [Kaiser, a former teaching fellow] will remember, a couple of boxes full of the Lick Atlas. Well, that was an interesting part of your world that kept threading in. It was part of the whole business of making science more accessible to the general public.
Morrison:And strangely enough, as a generational overflow.
Gingerich:What do you mean?
Morrison:Because Eames Demetrios is a film-make. He graduated with Harvard filmmaking classes. He has made a whole version too.
Gingerich:[laughing] You can suppress that from this transcript.
Gingerich:Well, letís put it this way. He has some of the genes, but not entirely the genius of Charles.
Gingerich:How did your work with Eames relate to your getting in to the Ring of Truth? Was the Ring of Truth television series just totally separate?
Morrison:None of them are totally separate. Donít forget, I made British TV before that, which they up and paid for. They even took me to Britain, and I made a Christmas Lecture series.
Gingerich:Oh, the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
Gingerich:I remember that you did that, but I forgot that there was a movie involved. That was part of the deal.
Morrison:It wasnít a movie. It was a film made of the events. I mean, it appeared as a separate entity.
Gingerich:And you did some spectacular things for those lectures.
Morrison:We tried. They promised me an elephant in the middle of winter. They never got it, only a horse.
Gingerich:I knew there was something involved with an elephant.
Morrison:I still resent it. Talking about energy, I brought in an airplane engine, and a man and an athlete who had actually bicycled an airplane. That was two approaches. Then finally, the airplane engine, the athlete, and a horse or a Grecian elephant. They lent me a horse.
Gingerich:They got you the horse instead of the elephant.
Morrison:Right. I didnít blame them. It was the middle of winter.
Gingerich:The Royal Institution has a certain amount of space, but leading an elephant up the steps might have collapsed the building.
Morrison:Absolutely. That worked very well.
Gingerich:So in that, that was filmed in real time. You didnít have retakes.
Morrison:When you say the Powers of Ten?
Gingerich:No, the Royal Institution lectures.
Morrison:Oh, no. That was done as a live TV broadcast.
Gingerich:And so they were filming or broadcasting that in real time?
Morrison:Yes, but they probably cut it because it went to school classes and so on. Time is a disappearing variable in television.
Gingerich:I understand that, but at the Royal Institution, they are very finicky about the scheduling.
Morrison:Yes, I know. All of those notes. And the men who ran it always came and said, ďWell, you were about three seconds too late to begin.Ē But that was pretty good for the first time.
Gingerich:Itís not the beginning, itís the ending thatís so critical. So you had something on film, but thatís totally different than doing the Ring of Truth.
Morrison:Iíll tell you about that. Please bring up your questions again because I very easily lose them; if you remember, do it. I have done a number of TV things. I met Michael Ambrosino. Do you know his name?
Gingerich:Yes, I know his name. Now I am remembering. You gave some kind of a lecture— it was a Bronovski lecture, was it not?
Morrison:Exactly. The idea was a setup of a memorial lecture in the two countries where Bronovski worked. You get the TVs, the companies to exchange their expenses and run a series of memorials to Bronovski. I donít think much came of it.
Gingerich:I donít remember any other Bronovski lecture except for yours.
Morrison:Neither do I. So I donít think it happened, but something happened. Maybe there were two of meóhere and in England. Iím not sure of that, but I think so. I did go to England and I did work with a novelist who had just won the Booker Prize, a very smart person.
Gingerich:And your lecture was about termites and telescopes.
Morrison:Yes. It was a very good lecture, I thought.
Gingerich:I thought so, too.
Gingerich:You must give us all abstracts so that David knows what you were doing in that lecture.
Morrison:Things were freer in those days, too. Such an ironic title would not be the best thing today. It was not violent. I was very much impressed by reading E.O. Wilsonís book. I can even name the very book, which is upstairs. It was Social Insects. It is a superior book. Itís a very celebrated treatise and very good. In Social Insects, he describes in detail, in a simple-minded 50 pages (itís an 800-page book, lots of room), he described the termites, the ants, various kinds of ants. Of course, there are 3,000 species or something, so you can always grab a few. So he does that. He tells you just how they work. In particular, he told this fascinating story about termites. Because termites have a nest of arches which reminded me ofóyou might have been thereóthe Moorish mosque in Cordova, which was turned over into a Christian church. When the king arrived (maybe even the Pope. I think it was the king.) to see the work having been finished, the king chided the prelate. They had really made a superb and unique structure into a beautiful but common place. I donít think they thanked him for that.
Gingerich:But one of the critical things was about the termites being able to build arches.
Morrison:Exactly. Because I was brought up to believe by my high school teachers that that was a test of civilization. The English couldnít do it, but the Romans could do it. She felt this was very much a guidance to architectural sophistication.
Gingerich:As I recall your argument, that the termites too could build telescopes; but it would take them a long time because it would be necessary to build it into their DNA structure.
Morrison:I wish all readers were as good as you. [laughter] Thatís exactly so. Itís a tiny little analogy. It says, ďYes, they didnít know how many arches would be present in the termite nest. The termites didnít know.Ē Where they went was partly stochastic because they had simple rules which had been tested. You donít build an arch unless itís known itís going to end within a certain distance of the existing ones. So you cancel that one out, which automatically spaces that one. But how many you get out of that is just randomized. This is a very interesting thing. I was saying the telescopesójust what you saidócanít imagine our doing that. But think a moment. Donít you believe that if we were as hard-working and assiduous as the ants, and lasted for millions of years as they did, we would sooner or later build them, even though we didnít know how to plan them? Itís because they would come out automatically.
Gingerich:Something like that. [Break].
Gingerich:Do you have anything else that was specifically coming up?
Morrison:Well, I might have had. I donít know now.
Gingerich:So weíre continuing on August 1, 2003 with Phil Morrison at his home in Cambridge. This is Owen Gingerich and David Kaiser is sitting by as well. So we are working our way up to your making of The Ring of Truth.
Gingerich:So was that Ambrosinoís idea?
Morrison:It was Ambrosinoís idea to try to talk me into making some. See, Ambrosino invented Nova. He was a theater person in the Army during the occupation of Japan. He was an amateur theatrical person veteran Japan was wide open for Army theatricals. It was better duty than running someone from a bridge with your gun. So he did that and came back, and he had made a theatrical reputation in the Army. He could get into that game again. He was then inspired to do it in science, which he liked and felt the same need we all did: ďLetís improve it.Ē So he went to England on some kind of a grant and studied for six months or a year how the BBC show Horizon was done. He came back and sold Nova into taking science.
Gingerich:But he was out of Nova by that time and looking for some other exciting project.
Morrison:In fact, he did the thing called Odyssey, which was the Nova of anthropology.
Gingerich:And meanwhile, he knew you because you were obviously the sort of person who would be around to advise Nova. You probably advised a lot of Nova programs.
Morrison:Yes, I did. We were friends by that time. So that was really how I got into television. Then when I got done with that, he said, ďLook, letís pick a whole series.Ē
Gingerich:Did it take much persuasion?
Morrison:No, it was a fun thing to do. Hard work. For two years I didnít realize I never saw my friends. I hardly ever went to the movies. Movie makers never see movies.
Gingerich:So I know you rented some kind of studio or business space down at Central Square.
Morrison:Thatís right, in a little building across the street from the power company. I think itís the second biggest building in the square.
Gingerich:And in the beginning of the book you indicate what size of staff you had. You must have done a lot of preliminary planning before you got so far as having your producers and assistant producers.
Morrison:Well, we had to hire them first because I need their work. You know, I needed a couple of years of work.
Gingerich:You told me while you were doing it that this was hard for you because they had so little science background.
Morrison:Yes. So at first I conceived of the idea, which worked out pretty well, of getting people inónot me, but other scientists from a variety of backgrounds who knew something about the mediaóto talk on some issue that they could think of that was relevant. The producers and the associate producers and assistant producers and all of that crew would sit around and be the audience. Thatís how we developed the material.
Gingerich:And you also told me that there was a certain amount of tension because these non-science people wanted a certain amount of pro and con on the issues. You kept telling them that on this level of science there was no con.
Morrison:Yes, more or less. They also wanted to introduce false complexity. For example, they were very unhappy when we told them about the mapping because they said (especially one of the producers), ďYouíve got to decide. Do you want to do this mapping an arc in the sky. Theyíre doing it by degrees, by radians, by what?Ē We said, ďListen. Weíll do any of those things.Ē We never mentioned the word degrees. Maybe just in passing. So we did this thing. We sighted the stars by, I think it is called an alidade, which we built on the side of the van. We rented a van and we just sighted along it, and we never introduced the number of degrees that it moved, a much simpler method.
Gingerich:Then as Aratosthenes did. Very good.
Gingerich:Yes, very good.
Morrison:See what we did? We measured that arc with a real 1:1— and then we took 20:1. Then we drew it, stuck it on a piece of paper, and there you were. So we didnít know how many degrees it was, but it was 83 1/3 of 2?r. Whatever. They made more sense and didnít have to worry about radians. But the producers were quite skeptical that this was really true because they had been through the hell of learning that a radian is ? over sixty degrees or something. But we did that.
Gingerich:I thought it was lots of fun that you found such a straight north/south road.
Morrison:Yes, wasnít that fun? Right in this house, as it says, and itís true, sitting here one winter night, Phylis and I looking at the road atlas. And we knew it had been a flat plain, so it would be somewhere out there. And we looked around for a long road, and we found this beautiful example ó393 or something.
Gingerich:Itís 183 in Kansas and Nebraska.
Morrison:Which goes from Something, Kansas to Something, Nebraska.
Gingerich:Coldwater to Bassett.
Gingerich:But what I thought was interesting, not just that you had a straight road, but that you essentially established that it was the longest north/south straight road in America.
Morrison:Well, I wouldnít swear to that because road is too big of a noun to cover everything. There might be some military highway. But if you look at the maps at ordinary scales, such as ordinary people would look at, there is no competitor. So thatís as much as I would say, if I wanted to be careful. Of course, my strength is not careful phrasing of these claims!
Gingerich:In doing a project of this sort, you had to have the book coming out simultaneously with the broadcast of the six television programs. Isnít that right? Thatís the usual pattern.
Gingerich:So you were probably going crazy trying to get both things done simultaneously.
Morrison:Except you do if you write them both, so itís not that bad. If they follow each other pretty close, itís not bad. And we had two very clever young people working with us.
Gingerich:One of them was Elizabeth Cavicich?
Morrison:Yes. And the other was a lady called Genisle Schnitman who was the divorced wife of a very well-known education promoter here at Cambridge at that time, whose name I have forgotten.
Gingerich:But I remember your saying something like, ďDonít get involved in a project like this. Itís too consuming a thing to do.Ē
Morrison:Yes. Because you know what they sayóand itís always trueóAcademic life is always something diminished by the business folk, I would say. You donít learn about meeting a payroll, you donít learn— And thereís much in what they say. See, this is what weíre talking about, epistemology. But in order to get there, you have to do something about how you pay for the thing and how much it costs. Iíd say I have to worry a lot about that.
Gingerich:And the total cost of it must have been on the order of three million dollars.
Morrison:Yes, itís mentioned in there. It was a grant from Polaroid mainly. It was from Polaroid because it was their 50th or 60th anniversary.
Gingerich:And did you have to go and give a pitch to Ed Lands to get it done?
Morrison:Yes. He was enthusiastic about it. We had to convince the advertising people. They were just beginning to sell their movie camera, which was not a success; but the color Polaroid had been a great success.
Gingerich:Thatís right. That makes another kind of Eames connection because I know that the SX-70, their first color instant film camera, that Charles had one and was busily taking lots of details to make a sales film for them.
Morrison:Well, I knew that. And I probably was intermediary to a degree.
Gingerich:I was wondering if there wasnít a little connection.
Morrison:Yes, Charles wasnít turned away by it in any way. He was quite happy to do that.
Gingerich:Now, he was very principled about not letting anybody else use the camera.
Gingerich:So I saw it there at the time he was working on it, but you couldnít touch it.
Morrison:He told me these wonderful stories of his going to photograph the Copernicus manuscript in Cracow. Maybe you were there.
Gingerich:I arranged it.
Morrison:And you got the certain number of openings.
Gingerich:Yes. When he came in with a group of us and saw the manuscript one afternoon, he took a certain number of pictures of us looking at the manuscript. Then he told me that he would like to go and photograph the manuscript itself. This was vacation time for the library and I said, ďWell, I have no idea if I can arrange it, but Iíll try.Ē I was promptly asked, ďWell, how many pictures does he want to take?Ē I knew that when he took pictures, it was reckoned in terms of hundreds rather than in terms of tens. So I said, ďOh, about ten openings.Ē So they agreed. The fact that he brought in these master and slave strobe lights, which had no wires connecting them, just had the librarians utterly fascinated and entranced. So they basically lost track of what was happening, namely that he was taking several hundred pictures of seven openings. They are wonderful pictures, of course. Itís interesting to get your take on this. I gather this was your high point as far as television was concerned. Did you ever go back to that medium?
Morrison:Yes, but mostly in a more objective style. See, what happened was 1995 arrived. Thatís the best you can do for the anniversary of the bomb before it happens.
Gingerich:I remember. You made a Nova program about the background radiation.
Morrison:I made perhaps parts of ten programs, not only for Nova, but for the British, the Japanese, the Canadians, the Italians... Every four weeks another crew would come. They were not all about radiation. They were about something. There were very few other living actors in the scene. So they would come back with the TV experience.
Gingerich:I remember the background radiation one in particular because we got a copy of it and I used it in my class for a number of years. We had a regular film program associated with it. It was difficult to get films that had the proper didactic content and at the same time something that would keep the students coming back to these sessions.
Morrison:Yes, quite so.
Gingerich:Now, how did you do The Ring of Truth simultaneously with your book review deadlines?
Morrison:Thatís a nice question, isnít it. You did something there, too. You took care of a couple of obligations.
Gingerich:That was when you were writing the essays. Was that the same time?
Morrison:I think so.
Kaiser:Do you mean Nothing is Too Wonderful to be True? Which essays do you think?
Morrison:Iím not sure.
Gingerich:The essays in Scientific American, after Phil stopped doing the book reviews, he became an essayist for them.
Gingerich:Is it possible that you were into those essays already at this time?
Morrison:I donít think so.
Gingerich:I think you were doing book reviews still.
Kaiser:This is 1987, I think.
Gingerich:Definitely you were doing book reviews.
Gingerich:So how did you manage to do both?
Morrison:By never stopping to think. I donít know.
Gingerich:I found your Long Look at the Literature, the 100 Memorable Science Books.
Gingerich:Did you choose the 100 reviews?
Morrison:Indeed I did.
Gingerich:I figured it must have had your stamp, but it must not have been necessarily too easy.
Morrison:Actually, it wasnít easy. I chose them on the basis not of the review but of the book. Then I tempered that a bit because some good reviews I could recognize as less appealing books. See, there are two things I could look at: a list of the reviews and a list of the books.
Gingerich:Itís delightfully idiosyncratic, the choice.
Morrison:Yes, you can be sure of that.
Gingerich:Like the one in here on snack foods.
Morrison:That was so famous. You were right, but you pick up just what experience teaches. I somehow did a book on ice cream.
Gingerich:On ice cream? But that is not in here?
Morrison:No. But I learned there was a big literature in the food world about making ice cream with microphotographs, phase changes, and thermodynamics of all kinds. Then the same thing happens for other topics as well. So I became adept in this literature, and got these books and the references would no doubt make a track. So I thought about snack foods, which is mostly about heating them hot enough to toast them without making them too burnt-flavored. The same thing took place between Mr. Post and Mr. Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the turn of the century.
Gingerich:That I didnít read here. Was that in another review that isnít—
Morrison:No doubt, yes. Thatís how I learned it. But one of them invented the idea of flakes. The other invented shredded wheat, which was fibrous. They thought they would get together. They were both health food nuts, and they made these foods around Battle Creek, Michigan because they each had a sanitarium there. This was their health. It really was. It was not just every day. It was a bonanza to have everybody eat it. They had just thought of their patients. So Mr. Post said, ďWe must toast it.Ē Thatís when he invented Post Toasties. You have to admit itís a great invention. And Mr. Kellogg accepted that his edible yarn could be toasted as well.
Gingerich:And I love the juxtaposition. Itís probably an error to refer to them as two SETI books. One about all of the cross-country photographs of flying saucer replicas and the likes with a very futuristic book on space travel. To put the two together in the same review must have been just a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was an interesting kind of way to let one reflect off the other. I did not read the entire book, but itís the kind of book you can just leaf through and sample.
Gingerich:And there are some wonderful reviews in this. You do explain how you were brought in by Dennis Flanagan with a momentís notice to take over this particular spot.
Gingerich:And I gather they thought of you because you had been a very successful article writer for them.
Morrison:Yes, but how did I become that? Because I knew them at Life magazine before they were Scientific American.
Gingerich:How did you make that connection?
Morrison:Because Life magazine sent correspondents to see me and bombs became interesting to the magazine, just after the war. Gerry Piel, he was the guy who did it. He was the Science Editor of Life and Flanagan was his assistant.
Kaiser:You also began book reviewing very early. I remember seeing book reviews of yours from Physics Today from the first issues in 1948.
Morrison:Thatís how I got into the whole thing. You are right. That was much too hard. That was going to be a yearly thing and it lasted one year. New physics books of the year. Itís too much to review. The one who does this most amazingly now is Virginia Trimble. She makes weighty, not even to say ponderous, clever translations of every paper in astrophysics that seems important to her; and she publishes these things in a Stanford publication for the SLAC magazine called Beamline.
Gingerich:Oh, the Beamline. And you get a subscription to it, as do I, for reasons unexplained. I suppose like you, she is a very fast reader.
Morrison:Yes, and a very fast writer.
Gingerich:When did you discover that you were a fast reader?
Morrison:When I learned to read.
Gingerich:You mean it goes back to your childhood?
Morrison:Yes, it does. I taught myself to read largely from placards that were half cylinders posted on the rounded edges in streetcars and buses in Pittsburgh when I was five or six.
Gingerich:Somebody read them to you and youÖ?
Morrison:Began making a code to decipher. It was perfect, and simple. Did you read what I just read? Itís amazing. I ran into it some time ago, but I ran into it again today. People are now making translations by computer in the following way. Itís absolutely obvious and brilliant. They get a translation— Suppose you want to have a translation between English and German. You get a copy of the play Hamlet in English. You get a good translation, even two if you want to spend a little more money, in German; and you correlate these things in the machine with all kinds of probabilistic refinement. It turns out you were a useful translation!
Gingerich:So you could then use it subsequently on other things. Because I was just reading on the web about Latin translation problems and the machine examples quoted were disastrous. So they havenít advanced it to that stage yet.
Morrison:But they really have great scrutiny, the translations of the Latin. They were read only by 500 scholars in the whole world and all of them knew it perfectly.
Gingerich:Well, not all of us do now. Some of us need those translations.
Morrison:These people are doing it every day it seems, or so they claim.
Gingerich:You can ask for a translation of articles if you are using Google, but they donít seem to be terribly good.
Gingerich:Well, there is yet another topic I should touch on. Of course, you were brought to MIT not to write book reviews and to make movies. So tell me about your life at MIT.
Morrison:I was brought here by that famous man for whom I really feel very warmly. J.R. Zacharias. You know who he is.
Gingerich:Yes, and he was very much involved with the PSSC Physics.
Morrison:Thatís right, which he early recruited me through [Hans] Bethe. His way of getting it going was to call up ten university Physics Departments, where we knew somebody well from his war time and other experiences, and talk to a senior person. He would ask that senior person to dig up two or three likely candidates, serve them a nice dinner on the house, and see if they would like to take this job.
Gingerich:So you were brought to MIT specifically because of the PSSC Physics?
Morrison:No, I was brought here to spend the summer here. And during the summer, I made a lot of acquaintances and my personal life was changing. I met people at MIT, especially Francis Friedman. He and Zach were powerful enough to shake everything in place.
Gingerich:What year was that?
Morrison:Very bad to jump at me like that.
Gingerich:It must have been the early 1960s because thatís when the PSSC stuff was beginning to roll.
Morrison:Between 1960 and 1963 I would say.
Gingerich:Because that was in part a post-Sputnik movement.
Kaiser:Actually, I believe there were plans for PSSC even before Sputnik.
Morrison:We always claimed it was pre-Sputnik.
Kaiser:The biology one got a lot of impetus after Sputnik, I believe; but PSSC was earlier, though not by much. It was maybe 1956 or so.
Morrison:Or even less, I think.
Kaiser:Even later into early 1957 perhaps?
Gingerich:And certainly one of the things that PSSC was working on was films, but you never made a PSSC film.
Morrison:No. They were a different kind. I was already writing them a textbook, and I wrote all of the general parts of the textbook. You know, my specialty is a broad view. I donít want to do too much about— I did spectroscopy, in fact, but at that level itís not too hard. So I donít know how I got left out of that, but I didnít want any more jobs. I wrote half the volume. The first part was a general view of physicsómagnitudes mainly, dimensions, measurement, etc. The last part was atoms. In between was optics and waves.
Gingerich:So then you must have known another person who was involved in writing the text and making the films, Byron Youtz.
Morrison:Yes, I did. From Nevada.
Gingerich:Well, out West. I think Washington State.
Gingerich:He was the Chairman of the Physics Department when I first went to Beirut, so we knew them very well. As a result, once I came back here, when he would spend the summers here helping with the films and so on, I often went out to Watertown to see what they were doing.
Morrison:Did you know Kevin Smith?
Morrison:He was the head of the Watertown Studio.
Gingerich:Thatís when I first met you and Phyllis. You were working on something, but it was not PSSC directly. It was some other educational initiative, maybe for slightly lower grade levels.
Morrison:Possibly. We also did something for the fluid mechanics people.
Gingerich:Yes, but I donít think it would have been that.
Morrison:I donít think it was that.
Gingerich:Because it was some kind of a meeting at Watertown, but not at the filmmaking place, I donít think.
Morrison:I canít recall.
Gingerich:Itís something of that sort. Thatís fascinating. I knew you were involved in those things, but I didnít realize that that was seminal in actually getting you to come here. But nevertheless, you did advise research students.
Morrison:Yes, I was a regular professor. I had graduate classes, undergraduate classes, and Ph.D. students, and too many of those at that.
Gingerich:Roughly how many Ph.D. students did you work with on theses?
Morrison:Two dozen, anyway.
Gingerich:Ken Brecher was one of those?
Gingerich:Are there other names among them that I would know or that people would think of.
Morrison:Jerry Pine. Iím at my worst trying to remember names, and I especially wasnít prepared to think about them. Tom Day, at San Diego.
Gingerich:Thatís okay. If you think of more, you can always drop them in on the transcript. Again, this was the time when a lot of high energy things came on the scene in astronomy like quasars, black holes, and so on.
Gingerich:So you must have kept your finger in the pie for those kinds of things.
Morrison:I did. I even wrote a couple of papers on early stuff about quasars, which are not all that wrong, one might say. That is, rotation was the main fight, not the black hole.
Gingerich:I think you were, at least for a long time, skeptical about black holes.
Morrison:Still am. Not what they use now, because they donít use the black hole in any of those ways. It could be a gray hole. It would make no difference.
Gingerich:Expand on that a bit.
Morrison:Well, a black hole, itís nothing. But if about the same area applies, that will be right, it will emit something. The horizon will not close entirely. It will look qualitatively the same but quantitatively different.
Gingerich:Itís because you feel that the singularity or close to it is so untested in general relativity that youíre not convinced that the theory can be extrapolated that far.
Morrison:Exactly so, yes. The singularity is not part of the theory and you should not imagine that it is. Electrodynamics really established that in some way.
Gingerich:Fair enough. So these observational things you would say are indistinguishable from gray holes? Have you made your reservations known or is this just what you talk about with your students?
Morrison:More of the latter, but Iíve probably printed it once or twice. The enthusiasts are so great. They never stop to ask, ďDo I need the whole theory or just some parts of it?Ē Because they have a theory. But I admit there are so many now that Iím hard put to sweep them all out.
Gingerich:And whatís your take on the multi-verse cosmology?
Morrison:Iím all for it.
Morrison:Largely because of the very thing which puts the other one on the other side of some scale. The early events are so strange that they must be unlikely, and the only way you can make them so conspicuous is to have many, many tries like the Lindť inflation.
Gingerich:And you would suppose that in these multi-verses the physical constants and configurations could be radically different, one from another? So that we just happen to be in the one that is congenial for life out of this roulette?
Morrison:Thatís the idea.
Gingerich:I know this is how the Astronomer Royal argues. I know he has critics who feel that since these multi-verses are forever unobservable, that this is just metaphysics.
Morrison:Well, itís hard to tell where it comes in. I agree.
Gingerich:Wait a minute.
Morrison:As soon as you get to a situation where we can— Itís pretty close now with the expanding accelerating gases, that thereís going to be a very large extent out there thatís really seen from here.
Kaiser:I do think part of the idea was that each separate bubble universe was causally disconnected from the others, though.
Morrison:Thatís only tidying it up, I would say. Sure, you can do all of that, but it has to be done by hand. So what I would say is that when you see there is going to be an ever-expanding gas, that suggests to you that there might be a lot of them.
Kaiser:But thatís different than a direct observation of a neighboring galaxy.
Kaiser:There are other observational consequences it seems.
Gingerich:The question was whether you could ever actually observe their existence.
Morrison:Well, I think you could. If we learn more about it, we might be able to see something in the particle physics that would tell us that things had to go very far away before it would be visible.
Gingerich:David, can you think of any follow-up questions?
Kaiser:We are going to meet separately, and I will try to draw them together more coherently then.
Gingerich:All right. It might be fair to give Phil a list of the subjects you want to cover so you donít catch him by surprise as I unfortunately did just now.
Kaiser:Yes, I can do that.
Gingerich:That would also be the situation if I were trying to remember some chronology.
Gingerich:Well, thank you very much, Phil. Iím going to turn off the tape and then we can talk more randomly.
Session I | Session II