Oral History Transcript — Dr. Peter Glaser
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Interview with Dr. Peter Glaser
Peter Glaser; November 22, 1994
ABSTRACT: Some of the topics discussed include: his Jewish childhood and early education in Czechoslovakia; his family's escape from the Nazi takeover; his education as an engineer in England; fighting with the Czech army during World War II; his return to Czechoslovakia after the war; his emigration to the U.S. where he earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Columbia University; his employment as a consulting engineer at D. Little in Cambridge, Mass. where he spent his career; his resolve to obey the Hippocratic oath to "do no harm;" Cryogenic insulation; lunar surface research and experiments; von Braun rocket team; space solar power; thermal imaging; Krakatit (the book).
TranscriptSession I | Session II | Session III | Session IV | Session V | Session VI | Session VII | Session VIII | Session IX | Session X | Session XI | Session XII | Session XIII | Session XIV
Elder:Okay, this is November 22, 1994. The 14th interview with Peter Glaser and John Elder. And this is the conclusion of this Nobel project. So, I have some questions that fit the situation I think. And one of them is — these are going to — they have — they just come in some order.
Elder:I was curious what you tell your children and your grandchildren — which may be two completely different cases — about a couple of things, one was about Czechoslovakia? About the war? And about Judaism? Not necessarily in that order, but you know, they're kind of related.
Glaser:Well, you know, having grown up in that part of Europe where you are very conscious that you're a Jew, in some very specific ways at school was, of course under the ministry of education, and religious instruction was part of the curriculum. And you quickly became aware that you were Jewish because during religious schools the priests took care of the ninety percent of the students, and in our case, in my hometown, Decanter, then in another room taught us. So, you really became very quickly aware that somehow religion distinguishes you from the rest of the world. There's only one, sort of — it's a state religion, in a sense, but it was a very democratic regime, and therefore, if you said, "I'm a Jew." Or if you said, "I don't believe in anything," in fact, in Czechoslovakia there is a whole large percentage of people who proclaim that they are agnostics. And the reason is because during the Husitte wars, in the middle ages, so many people were killed, because of the church's persecution of, what they called non-believers, and thus you can be agnostic and you don't go to any religious schools. I think there were some people who did just that, and as they grow older, the Roman Catholic Church, is, of course, the official church, but it is not that strong, in terms of because such large percentage of people are non-believers. Having seen religious wars and didn't like it. Being a Jew meant that you were considered different because of the religious, or somewhat mysterious, not understanding what the Judaism was about, and yes, we had a very nice temple in my hometown. In fact, I had a call from a cousin of mine who said I should go and watch Yentl, the movie, because it was filmed in my hometown and there on the movie, of course, was the temple, and I recognized the place. So it was a very nice tape in temple with mosaics and, you know, very nicely built. And thus being Jewish was, to me, you know, that's where my family was and was for generations prior to that. And that's where my children are. Now, I belong to the conservative part of the Judaism, and I belong to the temple here, temple in Manure [?] in Lexington, and my children went to Hebrew school, and they married Jewish girls, the ceremony was held in temples. So, my grandchildren are Jewish. I am — I know that those of us who came from Middle Europe, our Judaism is different, let's say, than the Judaism of the Stittle [?], because we were much freer, even under the Austria-Hungarian Empire the Jews had received freedom, let's say —
Glaser:— in the 1840s, and could live in towns. They didn't have to live in some ghetto like London. I just received from the archives in Prague, some information about my grandparents who lived in a small village in the early 19th Century, then moved to the town. So, being Jewish in Czechoslovakia was you were an equal citizen, no different than being a Jew in this country. It became clear, of course, as I grew up that some of my school mates were very much influenced by the Nazi, sort of sword processes, and started to be anti-Semitic, and you could tell that the — where they were coming from, their uniform was sort of Lederhosen, and white socks. Sort of with — I don't know what you'd call it, sort of patterns on the white. And then into their own kind of organizations. So, it was upsetting because people that I knew stopped speaking to me. You know, we were the outsiders. And then of course, when Hitler took over, everything changed and we managed to get out of there. As far as I can see, the Jewish experience is that as a Jew you are always somewhat of an outsider. And you're always mysterious to people who don't know about your beliefs, you're [???] and so on. And in a sense, we have a lot of history to fall back on. History which I find very interesting. And one doesn't have to take it all literally, but the Old Testament does teach us a lot. And I'm not saying that the New Testament doesn't, but it's a religion which is — was really designed to allow the worship of one man, and that was Jesus as the Son of God, and that to Jews, just is contrary to their religious belief, and similar to the Mausoleums. Now, the problem is that we didn't understand other religions, where's there's Buddhism, wishing to his [???]. And I think it's much more useful to think that we as human beings have to believe in something. If you don't believe in anything, that's the most difficult position to take, because somehow all these things just happen. And, if you like, my belief in God is not that I take it literally, but I always say to myself, "Well, how did the various major events in the — what we call the universe happen? And how come it all works?" And the more we learn about viruses and how they interact and the sophistication of an AIDS virus and other virus, you know, this just didn't evolve in a way that is by chance. And I don't know if Einstein was a very devote Jew, I doubt it, but his saying that I always find very interesting is, "God is sophisticated, but he's not malicious and we have not yet understood the extent of the sophistication." So, again, I — whenever I have my children, they know where I'm coming from on this. I'm glad that they are living in the way that I expect a Jewish person to live. And it gives you a certain prospective. And you can handle perhaps problems with a historical prospective that it is not as easy as when you have, you know, believe in everything just turning out beautiful, because things rarely do. So, as a Jew, I have always felt that — not that the Jews are especially chosen people, there's a role for Jews, there's probably a role for Buddhist, and a role for Christians and so on. And the thing that is most important is that we love our fellow man. And if that would indeed work, and if every Christian would follow the tenets of their religion, I think life would be lots better here on earth. The worst is that, you know, you see people fighting each other and so on. And what interested me, I think it was this week that the letter from the Pope for the first time acknowledged that Christians did many wrong things in the name of their religion when they were trying to follow the truth. Whatever that, by definition of Christendom is.
Glaser:So, it's a very difficult situation to be a Jew. You have special [???] things that you have — commandments you have to follow. Not everyone does it, but at least you're aware that you should, and they're not imposed by any outside government. They're really imposed by your own understanding of who you are.
Elder:Are you talking about moral principles, or are you talking about keeping kosher, and —
Glaser:Well, the moral principles are really the most important things. The keeping kosher may or may not be, you know, that's, I would think in a different category. There are some very good reasons why we should keep kosher, which are not all, you know, religious, per se. Some of them are very sensible.
Glaser:Oh, up to a point. I don't eat pork or any shell fish, and you know, in other words, I don't look if I'm in a restaurant whether the meat is kosher meat. There are always degrees.
Glaser:And I don't — I'm not an orthodox Jew in that sense. So, I feel the things that I've been doing professionally obviously are influenced by the upbringing that I've had, as well my religious beliefs.
Elder:Do your kids ask you about it?
Glaser:About what? About how I feel about —
Elder:Well, or what's — what's the right way to live? Or have they gone on any paths that [???]
Glaser:I — I — we feel very fortunate that they have not. Now, I felt it isn't what you say; it's what you do that counts. And so both my wife and I have tried to set examples to children, and seemingly, that worked. In every family it may be different, you know, some of other things work better. But in my case, at least, I didn't have to preach, or to admonish, they just happened to do the right things. They all belong to temples, and attend important services, in the Jewish calendar. You know, I always felt that since we were always so persecuted over the ages, you might as well understand why. And what sets us — why are we different to people where we live?
Elder:It must be something though, to see it already carried on.
Glaser:Well, I'm pleased, yes, because, after all, I represent just one generation in many generations who went before me, and I hope others will go after me. And all I can do is do my best to continue in that particular way and, again have no regrets.
Elder:Does your family ask you about what happened — well, of course you weren't actually in Czechoslovakia — do they ask you about the war?
Glaser:To some extent?
Elder:And what happened?
Glaser:I, you know, if they ask me I discuss it with them. They have some idea; it's not foremost in their mind. It's very hard for anyone who was in the war to share those experiences, because they're sort of out of body experiences, you know, how do you tell about the things that you have been involved with, as so far removed from the everyday experience of people, that talking about it, and if you look at TV war films, well, they're really as far-fetched as you can come, and therefore, they don't represent things, it's sort of a personal experience, that you go through. It's not something that you necessarily want to always want to remember. I find — in fact, the most important quality that the human brain has is that it forgets. The worst is if you would have absolute perfect recall. Because that would be terrible, I think.
Elder:Hum. I recently dug up a story I wrote a while back about a kind of alien that does have perfect recall.
Glaser:I think that that's —
Elder:They're appalled; they can't understand the humans who don't have it. It seems —
Glaser:Yeah, but I would consider —
Elder:— horrifying to them.
Glaser:— this a terrible punishment to have perfect recall. You know, again, I feel we are — our brain is designed in a way such that we don't remember everything that happened to us. And I recall a famous doctor saying, "Well, the wonderful thing is there is no memory for pain."
Elder:Hum. When you can't actually make yourself feel it again.
Glaser:No, let's say you had an appendix, you would have no way of remembering, or let's say you had a bad headache a week ago, you can't remember today what it felt like to have that bad headache. So, you have no memory for pain. Which is the design of the human brain. I think it's a very clever design. Even a computer only has a limited amount of memory.
Elder:And are your kids curious at all about what it was like in this other country?
Glaser:Oh sure, in fact my oldest son was there, and I think my other children will probably will go there one of these days, too. They're too busy with the little ones right now. They're all very interested, you know, where we come from, and, you know, as the opposite of what Wagner's Opera where, you know, [???] "Thou shalt never ask me where I come from and where I'm going."
Elder:Another question I was going to ask, somewhat related, again, about your kids, is just where they're at now?
Elder:Where are they, what do they do?
Glaser:Let me start with my oldest. He went to Lexington — they all went into the Lexington schools.
Elder:What's his name?
Glaser:And they had all the same schooling, they went to school they could walk to here near us. And then they went to Lexington High. And then David went to Columbia College. His grandparents lived in New York, so he knew New York. And I was, of course, very familiar with Columbia, my wife went to Pilot, we knew what to expect, and he was reasonable streetwise, so we didn't have much of a concern about sending him there. And David did well in college and then from there he went to the University of Chicago, to get an MBA and a Law Degree. And he did well there, and then he worked at a New York law firm where he met his wife to be. And then he went with Bear Sterns, where he's a senior managing director.
Elder:Went with what?
Glaser:Bear Sterns. It's a big Wall Street investment — one of the — I don't know, six biggest in New York. He's been there for several years. And he's doing very well. I think [???] in that positions. He travels just like I did. Comes with the territory. And he's got two children, and his wife is a lawyer, and she works for J. P. Morgan Investments, and live a New York life. Which is, well, you know, they have a live-in, and all that. They have to because it's a profession they come home late at night. David's primary hobby is he's a gourmet cook. So, he does very well that way, and I always enjoy his dinners. And in his apartment he's got a restaurant size gas stove.
Glaser:No, with gas, you know, I've forgotten the name and make, it's a well- known make. And the kitchen is a very important relaxation for him, and he jogs, and he belongs to one of these clubs, or whatever — I've forgotten the name, where he can work out. Our younger son, Steven, is married to a lovely girl, and they have three children. And Steven had dyslexia, mild dyslexia, and it was not easy for him to finish high school.
Glaser:And then he went to U-Mass, and graduated, not with honors, but he graduated, and he then went to work for a company in New York, really in West Chester, which took care of trees. And he liked that because he's more of an outdoor person. And he got an MBA from the University of Connecticut at night, of which I was very — we were very impressed, because that's not an easy thing to do when you — he had a supportive wife, and so he was able to do that, and he is now a part of an [???] company which takes care of lawn care company, and doing well.
Elder:In New York?
Glaser:In New Jersey. He moved to New Jersey. So, he's very good with his hands, which my older son is not, that's not his thing. He has good hands for cooking, but not for repairing things. Whereas Steven — in fact is very helpful to me in Vermont and knows how to cut down trees and enjoys it. And he's a very good skier. And our youngest, Susan, she's a delightful young lady. She, after graduating from high school she went to Bonnar [?], to follow in her mother's foot step, and then she went to Columbia Business School to get an MBA in Human Resources. And now she works with Hewlett Packard in Andover [?] in Human Resources. And she just has our youngest grandson, Joshua. And her husband is from this area. So we are very happy with our family, and so far we have six grandchildren. We expect, if all goes well, that our daughter may bless us with one more eventually. So, my wife is a twin sister, so — and her sister lives close by, and if you've never believed in ESP, being with identical twins, no question they communicate by wondrous ways. Which to lesser mortals like us cannot do. So, that's my family, and we have many friends, and enjoy things.
Glaser:We're all getting together for Thanksgiving; there will be 16 of us.
Elder:This was a question that — it just came up at the end last time. You mentioned, I thought it was interesting, you said something about you keeping up with your mail. And you’re reading, and I just thought I'd ask you about that. For what reading you do, and what — how much correspondence you do and how you manage it all? It's another — to me, it's another one of those things that are part of this life —
Elder:— that don't turn up in this paper, you know.
Glaser:Yeah. I have sort of some — I'm professionally active. For example, last Thursday, I was in Hanover. I was asked by the local ASME section to give them a talk.
Glaser:And this was at the Thayer School of Engineering, at Dartmouth [?] College, and in fact, while I was there, I met some good old friend of mine, Dr. Myran Tribus. Who was reminded me, "Gee, you know, you were the guy who did help me when I was assistant secretary of commerce, for — with dealing with states. How to assist in the development of the technology and of the whole program that commerce had."
Elder:What was his name?
Glaser:Myran Tribus. T-R-I-B-U-S. And I totally forgot about this technology program of the states. Each state had a program to develop technologies for industry and economic growth, and all that kind of stuff. And he reminded me of it and that I helped him with a presentation. He's a very, very well-known man. Some of the dynamics. He some ideas about new cycles and he then was at MIT. So that — I'm professionally active, and I'm Chairman of the Sunset Energy Council, and I am in — you know, the editor of the Journal of Space Power. I'm still involved in the Solar Energy Society; I'm now editing a special issue of Solar Energy Journal on wireless power transmission. So, that entails lots of correspondence with people all over the world.
Glaser:In fact, I have two Russian contributors, and a man — good friend of mine, Harry Tubal [?] from Israel. And then I have you know, umpteen people that contact me about one thing or another. And students who write me and they want some papers, which I religiously answer and send.
Elder:Do people call you up?
Elder:It's just voices appear out of nowhere and say —
Elder:Gee, this —
Glaser:I had a call today, for example, there was man at NASA, Dr. Rasool, who was sort of in the remote sensing and the various other geophysical things. And I found I had a voice mail from him and it said, "Gee, call me in Paris." So, I called him today and he's with the International Geophysical something group in Paris. He retired from NASA. And he called me because he wants me to meet with Indian Ambassador to Italy, who's interested in wireless power transmission. You know, I mean, that's sort of typical. Out of the blue, so I'm going to have lunch with this guy when he comes and —
Elder:What was this guy’s name again? The guy who called you?
Glaser:Rasul. R-A-S-U-L. I think that's how he spells it. [note: it is actually Rasool.] And so he's going to come and perhaps I'll invite Bob Frosh, who's the former administer of NASA and this guy to have lunch with me at ADL. You know, those are the unexpected things, and they're always — you know, I'm involved in the AIAA. They have an international activity program and there's a meeting in Hawaii on Alternative Power Systems. And I said, "Look fellows, Hawaii in December sounds nice, but I do video conferencing, my presents is by electronics, not — we don't —" and so I suggested why don't we have a meeting in Washington as preparatory meeting, because they wanted me to spend a week in Hawaii, and, you know, that's not what I had in mind. And so we had a meeting November 9th in Washington at the Canadian Space Agency. Because a friend of mine is chairman of that. So, we worked it all out, and that's what they're going to now discuss in Hawaii. So —
Glaser:...from [???] I don't know. Professor D' Mutachan [?], Deputy Actor [?] d' mission [?] Secretary Department of Physical Technical Problems of Energetics Russian Academy of Sciences. November 18th.
Elder:Oh him, yeah.
Glaser:Subject conference on Alternative Power from Space, which is a conference in Albuquerque, to which, where I am giving a plenary talk on January 8th in Albuquerque. In fact, I'm going there with my wife. He writes with deep sorrow to inform me about Actor d' mission, Ureal [?] Danker's [?] heart attack and death on the seventh of November. Professor Bailiff [?] speak on space system concepts, modes of power supply to earth, will be able to come to symposium only if organizing committee could find possibility to organize his accommodations, meals and transportation. Well, you know, that's — we will appreciate you're advising us of your decision. So, here I am.
Elder:That's a lot of work.
Glaser:Danker was who I know, you know, died, and so after you know, that's a typical thing coming out of the blue. That's why I'm busy. You know, and I can never foretell, the way I explain it, you know, whenever I was full time at ADL, I found I was starting a new job every day. I never knew what the day will bring. Clients calling, other people, you know things of this. So, I have to do something about it and see what we can do.
Elder:How about reading? What do you —
Glaser:Well, I read to —
Elder:What do you make sure to read, and what you do not get read?
Glaser:I tell you frankly, I read the New York Times. Okay? That's about the only newspaper I can stomach to read. Most of the others I find — you know, they remind me of my hometown newspapers in my little hometown [???]. As far as books, I find the books I tend to read are non-fiction. Most fiction reading I did when I was much younger. So I've read most — I've read a few books, but whatever a fiction writer can think of, I've probably experienced in one way or another. And I can't get myself into it, so like this is a [???] was very nice, but that's the kind of book I can, and I may not read it cover to cover, but I you know, read portions of it. If I would start really reading, you know, I would have to spend — no, you know, I wish I could do like a friend of mine did, with two or three hours of sleep. I've never learned how to do that.
Elder:I don't think you can. I think you're born.
Glaser:Yeah, your genes must be. So I need seven hours. I can do with five for a while, or six, but eventually that catches up with me. And so most of my reading, I read all — you know, I have the whole pile of journals, and as you see, that's just the normal stuff that gets to me. So I have to look at things and —
Elder:Do you? Do you go through those?
Glaser:Oh, I usually do.
Elder:How many magazines do you keep up with every month?
Glaser:Oh, probably, I must get a dozen. And I manage to look them over, you know, and try and understand where they're coming from. I've — you know, since I've edited the Journal, I've learned how to glance at things — read things strictly know where the — what it is about, and I don't have to spend too much time there.
Glaser:You know, an editor gets a stack of things, and unless there are some important things, it's very hard to just read. Because I have to do things.
Elder:Are they interesting to you?
Glaser:Yes, they are. They are. I have a whole library of Holocaust books. Not that I've read every one, but I feel that now they're being published, I don't know what happens in due course, will we forget? You know, it happens.
Glaser:So I do it for myself, my children and my grandchildren. I used to belong to the various book clubs; the only one I now belong to is a Jewish book club, because they publish these books about the holocaust. And some are very good. Various types of authors.
Elder:Hum. Well, the other question I had — this is the all-time general question, but we'll see. I was going to ask you, what — if you have any particular plans of what you still want to do? We've gone over so many things that you have done, what do you still have in mind to do?
Glaser:Well, I have a plan which is reasonably ambitious, and that is to continue to be a catalyst for international activities in wireless power transmission, with applications to the high altitude long endurance aircraft, power relay satellites, solar power satellites, in various ways, and essentially, my — well, what I can still do is be a supportive of all the people who try and do things, and if I can help, I'm glad to do that. If they ask me to talk, I'll be glad to do that, preferably by a video conference. And see that it's happening. And I am pleased that it is happening. That, you know, in this country, there are several societies who now are looking at this. And I feel that the — as I mentioned before, the challenges that we face on earth are enormous, and not appreciated; because just like tectonics, you don't detect that America is moving away from Africa. Okay, but it is. And climate change, you don't detect. And it takes perhaps 50 or 100 years and that seems a hell of a long time, but unless we can —
Elder:Until you've lived, huh?
Glaser:— be prepared.
Elder:Until you've lived 50 years, then it doesn't seem so long.
Glaser:That's right. You know, and if I talk about, well, the Japanese are planning for 2040, well, that's about the only time scale that's worthwhile talking about, there's nothing we can do in five years. Or a presidential, you know, therefore, the kind of time frames in politics are totally out of whack with time frames that we will have to plan for as a global community. And what most people haven't figured out, that we live on a hell of a small planet with very finite resources. And that's the only place we've got for the next — I don't know — perhaps thousands of years. And the fact that we haven't dealt with most of the major problems yet.
Elder:It seems that one of the characteristics of your whole career at ADL was once you became, you know, the solar power satellite guy, there was a steady stream of that.
Elder:But it seems that there never ceased to be other things.
Elder:And you know, somebody just reminded you of one that you had entirely forgot about, and who knows how many others there are? Will that still be the case?
Glaser:I imagine so.
Glaser:Yeah. Variety is the spice of life. And I've never thought that I would, you know, be immersed in one subject for ever, and I enjoy having contact with many different —
Elder:Where will these things come from? I mean, are you still going to get assignments from ADL?
Glaser:Well, yes, that too. And chance.
Glaser:You know, I —
Elder:Because you're known. I mean, I'm not sure, but my impression is you're now — you're sort of — you're very known for one thing, where will the — who will come to you with all these other problems?
Glaser:I can never tell.
Elder:But they do?
Glaser:But they turn to — you know, many different people say, "Well, gee, this guy did this, perhaps he can help me on that." So that I never looked among myself as just being you know, on this one, sort of drilling a deep hole.
Glaser:And I'm not a loner. I work with people. I enjoy people. And I interact with people. Sitting alone on my desk is not my idea of the way I've worked before, and I don't expect to work.
Elder:What about — this seems not your style, but, what about anything that you — I guess the general category of regrets, or things that you might say, "Well, I had a chance to do that, and you know, I blew it, or I didn't do it."
Glaser:You know, I've thought about that, and I have to say I find myself very fortunate. But basically the things that if I look — whatever I accomplished, I'm satisfied. I thank God that I'm in good health, and that I can still continue to contribute. I don't think that I have any regrets. I'm sure I could have been better in this, or better in that, but I know my limitations. I can't be everything. And all I can hope is that the things that I have thought about, written about, talked about, other people will follow in my footsteps. And that's about all, perhaps they won't, that's possible too, but that's the way things may be, and I — as long as I can have the inner conviction that I have done what I expected to do, and was expected of me, then I'm satisfied.
Elder:Hum. Did you ever wish that your parents could have seen more of what — you know, more of what you did?
Glaser:Well, of course, I would have liked to, but you know, that's God's Will, if you like, He's meant, or whatever other you want to say. You know, you can't foretell life. And you have to live in the here and now, and I think my — certainly my father knew me as a young man, my mother, so my some of my grandchildren. You know, so things — I have a, you know, relatives with whom I've friendly. I've tried very hard not to have enemies. I don't like to have enemies. At least not in my family. So I get along with most of my family members — all of my family members. There's too few of us.
Glaser:Do you have it? Well, let me thank you. I know you've been very patient and you've managed to suggest ways that we could do this interview, which I found most helpful.
Glaser:And I think you're very good at it.
Glaser:And very pleasant about it. So, I enjoyed the experience.
Elder:Oh, I did too. It was great.
Glaser:I would appreciate if I could get copies of the tapes, if that's not too much to ask.
No, it's not all. Let me — I'll —