Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Herman
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Robert Herman; April 11, 1983
ABSTRACT: Family background and early interests, knowledge of Russian, the eclipse of 1925, the Depression; studies and teaching at City College of New York, fellow students, Mollier surfaces, graduate work at Princeton, infrared spectroscopy, Einstein/Bohr controversy, ideas about macromolecules, infrared spectrum of liquid nitrogen; marriage, war effort work on the proximity fuse, the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, work with Alpher, Gamow, Wallis, work at University of Maryland, General Motors, University of Texas, consulting and committee work, editorships, committee work, speculations about creativity in science.
Harwit: I know that you were born in New York City in 1914. You went to City College and then to Princeton, but what I wanted to ask you is whether you could start talking about your family life, and work your way into telling me how you got into physics, as so forth.
Herman: Happy to do that. First of all, my father, whose name was Louis was born in the city of Tula, about 115 miles south of Moscow. This city was famous for the munitions works of the Czar on the one hand — and for that reason to this day, it's essentially a closed city to tourism — and in addition, Tula was famous for its silver works, samovars, and silver tableware. MY mother was born in Moscow; her name was Marie Lozinsky, and that family moved from Moscow to Tula when she was only about two years old, as I remember. The family was involved in the production of silver tableware, goblets, etc., and they were of very good means until the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. My mother and father knew one another from the time they were children. My father's family came to New York City in the year 1906. My father was then about eighteen, and after being in New York for not quite two years — he was one of the most unusual cases (laughter) — he actually went back to Russia. He went back in 1908, and spent about two years there and married my mother, and then they came back to New York in 1910.
Harwit: But his parents already were here?
Herman: My father's parents and the other children had come in 1906, and were in New York. I just might interject that I prevailed on my father, because of my interest in the history of the family, during his early eighties to produce a document about his own life reminiscences. I bought him a typewriter with a Cyrillic keyboard and he produced 220 single-spaced typewritten pages…
Herman: …about his recollections until the age of 26 when I was born, and then I couldn't prevail on him to go on beyond that because he said I knew everything else that had happened.
Harwit: I see.
Herman: But it's an extremely interesting document, and I mention this in the sense that I think it's a marvelous idea to explore the human aspects of science, and to try to understand what makes people do what they do, and to explore how they do it — perhaps as intensively as exploring the work itself. I have two brothers. My older brother Mark is a physician; my younger brother Daniel has a Master's degree in educational administration, but he works in engineering kinds of activities.
Harwit: Let me ask you, did your parents or your father continue the silversmith interests here in this country?
Herman: No, that was on my mother's side.
Harwit: That was your mother's side.
Herman: Well, let me mention since you bring this point up, that my father never went to school for a day in his life — an extremely intelligent man, self-educated. He was an apprentice to a boot maker at the early age of about nine or ten.
Harwit: How did he learn to write?
Herman: He learned how to do it all on his own and it's interesting that as he grew older, most of his friends were university students. He read their books and became rather well educated. On the other hand, my mother had a good education which was most unusual for a woman during that period in Russia. She actually went through and finished Gymnasium, which was a very interesting thing in my own development because she had the formal education; my father had none. But they were very highly imbued with the importance of culture and education as — let me say, were most Eastern European Jewish families. I mean, it was a long, cultural tradition so one was steeped in this from a very, very early age.
Harwit: Were you the oldest?
Herman: No. I'm the second. I have an older brother — there are three brothers — and I'm the middle one. At a very early age, apparently I evidenced an enormous curiosity about things. And I smile when I recall being told by my parents that I was nicknamed after the sentence that was coming out of my mouth all the time which was, "I wonder why." So I was asking millions of questions from the earliest age. When my older brother went to public school, I was something like three and a half years of age, and my mother told me I raised a tremendous ruckus that I was not going too, so she took me to the public library and took out book s. And I learned to read at very early age.
Harwit: You taught yourself?
Herman: Yes, basically taught myself to read. I just might mention in that context that when I was about six years of age, I had already learned to read and had read a great deal. I insisted that my mother teach me how to read and write Russian. I've been bilingual in Russian from birth. I have always known both languages, but at the age of six, I decided that I had to know how to read and write. So my parents purchased some readers for me, and I learned the Cyrillic alphabet. I learned how to read; I learned how to write. My mother would give me Russian dictation while she did the housework after I came home from school and would then correct it. It's been an enormous pleasure for me, particularly to be able to not only speak but read, and live done a great deal of reading in Russian literature.
Harwit: Do you recall which gave you more difficulty in learning how to write, English or Russian?
Herman: Well, it was the Russian, because it came later. In other words, I learned how to write later, and didn't do it as intensively as I did English, of course.
Harwit: But the spelling in English may have been more difficult as you went along, or did that play a role?
Herman: Well, Russian spelling is simpler in a sense than English spelling, but I didn't have… I wasn’t, let's say, an excellent speller, but I didn't have any terrible difficulties with that.
Harwit: Now, in your Russian did you get encouraged to read novels and things like that later on in life by your parents, or…
Herman: No, this was all self-motivated.
Harwit: And all at a very young age?
Herman: It started in an early age; then it developed more and more as I grew older.
Harwit: And in your adult life, then, you had no difficulty reading the great Russian novels.
Herman: Well, I’ve read them, but I wouldn’t say no difficulty. After all, my ability in Russian is not on a par with my English. I can read and I have a rather large vocabulary, but I still need a dictionary.
Harwit: In immigrant families the vocabulary tends to be restricted to the sort of language you use at home. Is that your experience?
Herman: Yes, indeed. In other words, to begin with, the spoken language was at a lower level, as you just mentioned. But as I read and became older and more knowledgeable, I began to make an attempt to improve my language, which I did, and generated a rather large vocabulary, compared to what it might have been when I was small.
Harwit: Now, the neighborhood you grew up in, in New York, was it a neighborhood in which a lot of Russian was spoken, or Yiddish, or English?
Herman: Well, I was born and raised in the Bronx, and the neighborhood was not Russian. No, in fact, there were where we lived, particularly, many Eastern European families — mostly a Jewish community. But basically, little Russian, more Polish and Yiddish was spoken.
Harwit: Now, tell me about the things that interested you when you were young, in school, out of school?
Herman: As a small child, I had an enormous curiosity about everything. I don't want to exaggerate this, but when I started to read fairly well, I would go to the library and practically at random every week grab all kinds of books — an armful of four, five, or six, as many as they would let me take home, and I would read these; then the next week do the same. More specifically, I would say that my interests lay in two directions all of my life: One of them was in the arts. I had a great deal of interest in drawing, painting, sculpture which I was rather skillful at. I was very good at that; and to jump forward, when I was in the last part of high school — well, middle of high school— I was offered a scholarship at Ethical Culture in New York which had a lot of emphasis in that direction.
Harwit: It's a high school, right?
Herman: Yes. That is correct. Unfort… well, I don't whether it's fortunate or unfortunate, it was only a half scholarship, and the family couldn't afford the other half, so I continued to go to public high school. As I said, my interests were very heavy in art, and I did a lot of drawing, painting, sculpture — that is, modeling with clay. On the other hand, I had a very great interest in scientific matters. I remember we moved from one area to another in the Bronx, and I remember going to a particular library on Fordham Road where I did a lot of avid reading. There's a specific incident that comes to my mind. I doubt if I were more than nine or ten years of age, when I recall taking home Percival Lowell’s book called Mars. I remember reading that with enormous interest, particularly because he had woven the fantasy that the Martian canals were made by intelligent creatures. Only a few years ago, I came upon a copy of this book; I believe it was published in 1896. I purchased it and had the thrill of seeing these pictures again that he had drawn, and also reproductions of Schiaparelli’s drawings. Then I was fortunate to find another book that he published ten years later, 1906, in which he summarized all of his work with statements that there was no doubt at all that these canals were made by intelligent creatures. The reason I mention this is not only because of the impact that it had on me as a young child, but retrospectively to realize how fraught with danger intellectual processes are because they are, on the one hand, woven with prejudices that are healthy and drive us to search for new things, but on the other hand also possibly becloud our vision and generate some kind of a hell in which you live unknowingly.
Harwit: Yes, that’s certainly true.
Herman: And this is a fascinating matter to me. Then, I'd like to mention that only a couple or so years later there was this marvelous total eclipse of 1925, that I remember as though it were now, and which was one of the most emotionally moving and thrilling experiences I have ever had. I was eleven years of age, and remember how I stood at a certain place which was at a height — in other words, it was a nice, clear view. It was a beautifully clear day in New York, and I remember seeing the eclipse progressing to totality with all the streamers and all of the various phenomena and the darkness and the stillness. I mean, it was just an enormous experience that has lived with me always.
Harwit: What time of day did that come?
Herman: That came, I may be wrong, but my recollection is that it was in the late morning. Somehow I feel it was some time around eleven o'clock. It would be interesting to verify this to see whether my recollection is any good. But from that time on I did a great deal of reading. I mean, as my colleague, Ralph Alpher, mentioned, I also devoured everything I could get my hands on — I read Jeans; I read Eddington. And of course, at that early age, one does not, as a matter of fact, gain full appreciation. It's impossible. But there are different hierarchical levels of knowledge and experience, and it still has a tremendous impact. I never liked school. I mention this because I think it's an interesting point. I'm not sure I know exactly what it was all about. I know that I don't sit still very well for long periods of time. It gives me a feeling of being trapped. I sometimes can't figure out how I sat through all the lectures I've attended at school and elsewhere. I remember my first day at school sitting at a desk right next to a window and looking out and seeing a tree with a bird on a branch, wishing that our roles were reversed. So actually, I had an enormous drive for knowledge, a great feeling for learning, but I never liked the particular formal processes that I was put through. And that lasted basically all of my life.
Harwit: Did this give you difficulty in school? I mean, did it lead to antagonisms with teachers or bad grades, or any of those?
Herman: Most of the time I was a very, very good student. I had outstandingly good grades and my deportment was also very good. I remember my mother saying that she wished I behaved in a very good, simple, easy way at home, and not necessarily only at school, because apparently I was a difficult child. On occasion, in my elementary school and otherwise, for reasons I've never thoroughly probed or understood, my grades would sort of fall apart. I don't know why this was. But only for a very short time…
Harwit: Catastrophically or…?
Herman: Well, no, no. In other words, they went from basically straight A's; I’d get some lower grades. I never really understood that. So I went through public school. I could tell you the names of various and sundry teachers, (Miss Rhum and Miss Lindsay (1st); Miss Thomas (2nd); Miss O’Neill (3rd), Miss Klein (4th); Mr. Liebson (5th); 7-8th Miss Haas, art teacher; Miss Huntington (8th)), but I must say that I cannot put my finger in those days on any individual who had a strong influence on me. While Ralph was recounting this aspect of his experiences, I began to realize that through elementary school, junior high and high school, there were, in fact, no strong personalities influencing me.
Harwit: Not even your parents, would you say?
Herman: No, I would say, my parents, yes — that they had strong influence on me, and I was always curious about their lives, where they came from, their experiences, what went on in Gymnasium and Tula, what my father did as an apprentice to a boot maker, and what life was like. Yes, the influence was there at home and very strong.
Harwit: Let me ask you, did your father's parents also come to the United States the first time he came over? So were they still alive?
Herman: Oh yes, they were alive until I was grown up, yes.
Harwit: Did they have an influence on you?
Herman: I had a great deal of respect and affection for my grandparents, and I would say that I had a lot of interaction with my paternal grandfather until I was certainly in my late teens. I enjoyed visiting him. He had been in various and sundry businesses, but was also a rabbi. We would have all kinds of philosophical discussions. Since my father was a rebel and an agnostic — to put it mildly — there was a strange situation. But I had a marvelous relationship with my grandfather in spite of the fact that I was never bar mitzvahed. It's an incredible business, but quite interesting.
Harwit: Now, he also lived in the Bronx?
Herman: Yes, that is correct.
Harwit: And did you see them frequently then?
Herman: Well, when we were children, we saw them virtually every week, on the weekend at some point, yes. So there was close family.
Harwit: Your mother's family, however, stayed in Russia?
Herman: That is correct. However, in 1929, my father made a large effort for someone of his financial means to bring one of my mother's older sisters and her child, who was about ten years of age at that time, from Tula to the United States. And that is the only part of my mother's family that came to this country. I might mention that when I was graduating from junior high — that was in 1927, I believe — I had a home room teacher whose name was Miss Huntington, and I will never forget, at the end of the year, her coming and telling me something. She called me over to her desk and told me that I… this may be a dream of mine, but I'm positive it happened. She said to me that I was the best student in the graduating class, and that they had considered giving me the medal. But that this girl, who was a close second, was going to get it because she was a girl.
Harwit: I see. That was the reason…
Herman: This is a gratuitous piece of information, and I'm proud to say that I did not become a woman hater, on this account (laughter). I then went to Evander Childs (he was an educator in that period), which is a high school. I mentioned to you this offer of a scholarship to the Ethical Culture School, of which we couldn't afford to pay the other half, so I was at Evander Childs. During that period, again, I took chemistry and physics. I can mention the chemistry teacher's name; his name was Scudder. I remember distinctly his talking about electrons in the nucleus. Well, it was a time before we knew some of the things that we know now. I remember taking physics; I can't recall the name of the teacher (Mr. Langer). I was deeply interested in the subject matter, studied all the stuff, read all kinds of books, but did not find what was being taught at school all that exciting. It was all rather pedestrian stuff, done in a rather old fashioned, even for that time, classical kind of a way. There were no inspirational spirits. To touch on this question of what moved me, it was not these people, or the school, or the system. In fact, I would say I was disappointed, bored by them, and made my own kind of a life — privately — by doing a great deal of reading, going to the Museum of Natural History. I spent a great deal of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from an early age when my mother was prepared to let me go downtown on my own. I might have been something of the order of 12 years of age. I haunted the Met, and went to the library there, because I had a great interest in Egyptology. I did a great deal of reading along those lines, and I might have been 13 or 14. I remember studying hieroglyphics in the works of Sir Wallace Budge, who was a great Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, if I recall correctly. Then there were works by Gardiner and also Ermann. It's interesting that much later, of course, I became acquainted with Sam Goudsmit, who also had a great deal of interest in these matters.
Harwit: This was after you already were a physicist?
Herman: Oh yes, yes. This was much later; I would say after World War II, yes. Well, high school (I should mention Mr. Shamus who (Bless his soul) brow beat me into attending speech clinic to overcome a sloppy hissing S. I worked at this and solved the problem. I love him for it and still remember the doggerel I recited! — I was graduated in 1930; I was graduated with honors. I'm going to mention to you that there was a school play. Maybe people who've known me lately know me to be very verbal and seemingly outgoing, but basically, I think I'm rather retiring, and lead my inner life, except with my good friends. I never liked to get up in front of people, but I got inveigled into being in this class play with some idiotic part of a drunkard with a red nose. It was all a bunch of foolishness. I remember afterwards, after the graduation ceremony, a Miss Dillon, who I think might have been an English teacher, saw me in front of the high school on the steps and looked at me and said, "You were graduated with honors?” (laughter) I mention these things because-I-must confess — I don't need to, but I want to say that the reason I'm so interested in the way we do science and the way we do our work, the reason I find that important is because I have found this to be very interesting, difficult, with all kinds of snake pits, dragons along the way, road blocks, prejudices, everywhere you turned. And it's not that I think I was looking for it. I think it was all there. And it's there mainly from the point of view that you go along with the system or systems, the way they are, or you get into trouble. I think that's very important, because if you think freely, if you probe the edges of knowledge, you have to be a free spirit. You have to be someone who is willing to take risks, to be independent, to walk out on the plank, even though it's going to break off; and constraints and manipulation and arbitrary rules are very, very painful. I think one way you try to solve that is by retiring into a corner, but then you can't stay there all the time, so you run into conflict. I think that is an incredibly interesting subject to pursue. One little thought that I might drop out now is back in the '50s, I remember there was a psychiatrist, professor at Yale University, by the name Lawrence Kubie. (Lawrence Kubie we understand was Enrico Fermi’s psychiatrist, and later became the Health Commissioner of the State of New York.) He was interested in this subject that you are interested in, namely, what are the characteristics of people that move them into their life's pursuits. He wrote a couple of articles on the characteristics of scientists, and I believe at least one of these articles appeared in the Sigma Xi Journal, back in those days. I’ve always been meaning to dig those up again. Okay, so I went out of high school; that was in 1930. I lived through the Depression. I started to go to City College. As you undoubtedly know New York City, being a metropolitan area with many millions of people, even at that time — the economic levels were low, in general — the opportunities were small so City College had the pick of the very best students in this large metropolitan area. At that time it was, I don't doubt, one of the great colleges in the world.
Harwit: I think that's certainly true. It also had free tuition, didn't it?
Herman: That is correct.
Harwit: …for city residents?
Herman: Yes, it was completely free, except for something of the order of two dollars as a breakage fee when you took chemistry. And I smile, because even that was painful to some of us. In 1930, like many, many other young, poor boys who were capable, I would walk to the subway for about 6-7 minutes — it was elevated in the part of the Bronx where we lived then — and then I would ride on that and change to another…
Harwit: Where did you live?
Herman: I lived in the Bronx near Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road. I’d go to Pelham Parkway Station — it was elevated — then I would change to another elevated which then went to underground, and then I would…
Harwit: Lexington Avenue Express?
Herman: That is correct. It was the White Plains-Lexington that I took first, then I changed to the Seventh Avenue, then I would get off at 135th Street and Lennox Avenue, which was in Harlem, and then I would walk west through Harlem, up the cliff at St. Nicolas Park. City College was on one of the gneiss folds of Manhattan Island. You would go there with your car fare, which was very minimal, a dime maybe to buy a glass of milk and a brown bag with a sandwich. It was a tough period, because the Depression came around and there was very little money. It was a blessing to be able to go to a free school. Again, at City College, I must say that one of the great things, as far as I was concerned, is that there were a lot of very fine teachers. The curriculum was extremely broad and required. In other words, you did not have the choice of majoring in some delta function, but you had to take two languages and proper amount of mathematics and a year at least of all of the sciences, physics, chemistry, biology. You had to take geology. You had to take mathematics. You had to take logic. Morris Raphael Cohen, the great philosopher and logician, was at City College at that time. You had to take government and economics. You had to take courses in art and music. There was descriptive geometry, in addition to the calculus.
Harwit: This was for everybody who attended?
Herman: In liberal arts, you had to take all of this. There was a course in government, and may I add, there was also a requirement of two years of public speaking, which as the years went by, went down to one year, then to a semester, and then disappeared. This is a tragedy. Anyway, I mention all of this because I thought this was marvelous. During this period, I continued avid reading, not only of…
Harwit: You had time to read?
Herman: Oh yes. I have always read.
Harwit: A lot of people in college don’t have time to do anything except…
Herman: I caught the disease, and I never lost the disease so I always read everything I could get my hands on — literature, technical things, and so on.
Harwit: In high school or in college, did you find yourself stimulated by fellow students at any time?
Herman: I’m glad you asked that, because at college this certainly was the case, and I was going to touch on that. The one person in college who was a great inspiration to me, and who opened doors for me and who was my mentor and to whom I shall always be grateful, was Mark Waldo Zemansky.
Harwit: Oh, really?
Herman: Yes. Zemansky is very well known in the scientific community as a great pedagogue. In his early years he did some beautiful work in resonance radiation and excited atoms, which happens to be the name of a book that he wrote with (Allan C. G.) Mitchell: Mitchell and Zemansky. He was a National Research Council fellow. Mark Zemansky was a wonderful man. He…
Harwit: He was your age?
Herman: No, when Mark Zemansky died, last December, at the age of 80…
Harwit: Oh, I see, so he was not a fellow student?
Herman: No, no. He was a teacher.
Herman: I beg your pardon. No, I’m sorry. He was my teacher — mentor and an inspiration to me. He was a man of enormous precision in everything he did. He was an outstanding teacher. His lectures were impeccable; they were exceedingly well organized. Everything he put on the blackboard was beautifully done logical. His statements were all right-on, to use modern terminology.
Harwit: For many years, students went through an elementary course in Sears and Zemansky. (Francis W. Sears). There was a whole set of books that they put out in physics.
Herman: That came later. I took thermodynamics with him, for example, when he was working on putting his book on heat and thermodynamics together. I could tell you a lot of anecdotes about Mark Zemansky, but we can perhaps forego that at the moment. I took all the physics they had to offer at City College, but with this very rigorous and demanding required curriculum, there wasn’t all that much time to take all the electives in other areas that you might have taken. I took all the physics, and then there were students. For example, Bob Hofstadter, who is essentially a life-long friend. I became acquainted with him when we went to City College together so I’ve known him for over fifty years.
Harwit: You were classmates?
Herman: Yes. Then at City College there was Morton Hamermesh, a classmate, and his younger brother Bernie Hamermesh, I later had as a student in my freshman physics; Max Shiffman, the famous mathematician (He had been at Stanford. His brilliant career ended prematurely as a result of schizophrenia); Bernie Feld…
Harwit: Oh, I see, at MIT?
Herman: Well, yes. Now, I’m trying to remember if Bernie Feld was a student or he was a young instructor when I was an instructor there. I’m a little mixed up about that. There were many outstanding and brilliant students at the College over the years. You probably know that Judge Felix Frankfurter was a graduate of City College; Bernard Malamud, the author; Penzias, I’m sure you know, was a City College graduate.
Harwit: Was he? I didn’t know that.
Herman: Yes. Frank Press was a City College graduate.
Harwit: Oh, really?
Herman: And on and on, one can go. One thing that was nice at City College was that there was this great pedagogical faculty. They taught well, and the student body was extremely talented. The competition was very great, and it was a pleasure to be among students of this kind. There were alcoves down in the basement. There was a big area that was divided up into parts with these beautiful oak benches and big tables and the freshmen, the sophomores, juniors and seniors had their areas. There’s where you lived and argued about Communism, philosophy, life. And that is an aspect of City College that I think was a major element in the development of many of us — it gave this enormous and strong interaction during which we talked about anything and everything. There were turbulent times; the students didn't like the president of the college. His name was Robinson, and there were all kinds of incidents and difficulties.
Harwit: Were there any student uprisings, in a sense?
Herman: Oh yes, yes.
Harwit: What sort of things?
Herman: There were, and people were expelled and put on probation. It was a rather turbulent time.
Harwit: This was in the very early '30s?
Herman: Yes. I was at City College from 1930. I should have graduated in ‘34, but I didn't because I lost a semester as a result of an appendectomy that caused a lot of trouble. So I was graduated in ‘35. Let me mention that the Physics Department had honors courses for the better students. These were one-on-one, and I took honors courses with Mark Zemansky. One semester, I did an honors paper that I still find to be rather interesting. There are steam tables that give pressure, temperature, specific volume, and enthalpy…
Harwit: Keenan and Keyes? (Joseph H. Keenan and Frederick G. Keyes)
Herman: Well, I don't remember exactly which tables these were, but what I did was to determine the ice point on the Kelvin scale through Clapeyron's equation using the steam tables. That was an extremely amusing and interesting exercise to determine the ice point. And as a matter of fact, I got a rather nice number that deviated from the then-accepted value by something like a quarter of a degree or so. I remember asking Mark Zemansky why wouldn't this be worth publishing, even from a pedagogical point of view. But for some reason he never seemed to want to do that. The second semester I was studying some statistical mechanics with him and trying to learn something in a number of books, including (Ralph Howard) Fowler's Statistical Mechanics, which I must admit was flying pretty high at that time. In that connection I’m going to mention an anecdote, because one day in the main library at City College, I was pouring over Fowler's Statistical Mechanics, struggling with the specific heat of para and ortho-hydrogen. I remember struggling writing notes, when I suddenly became aware that there was somebody hovering in back of me. Well, I turned around, and there was a young boy who must have been 14 and a half years of age — I don't know exactly how old he was — in knee pants with socks, and he looks at me and says, “Why are you writing down the Hamiltonian explicitly?" And this turned out to be Julian Schwinger. (One night while taking a walk with Julian Schwinger in Paris during the early 1960s, I recalled this incident. Strangely, Julian didn't remember.)
Harwit: I see.
Herman: And I mention that because in a certain sense from an early age, one started to come in contact with the kind of people who for reasons that are clear without mentioning them, might have discouraged one from going on oneself. As a student at City College I used to go to the colloquia at Columbia University to hear lectures that I, of course, did not understand all that well. But it was very stimulating and I heard lectures by Fermi, Dirac, and all kinds of people of that caliber. When I graduated from City College, the question arose about where I would go to graduate school. There was no question, but that I was going to graduate school. And let me mention that I never had any jobs. In other words, I did not work as a young person. My parents, so imbued with the idea that their children have proper education, behaved in a way that exhibited that they were fearful that if one got a job and started to make money, it would be like a tiger tasting human flesh. Then you are in deep trouble (laughter). I say it was discouraged, and I never found time heavy on my hands — ever in my whole life.
Harwit: Did you do any sports?
Herman: Oh yes, yes. I neglected saying anything. Yes, of course. I played tennis. I played one-wall handball and was extremely good at it, because I've always had very fast reflexes, and was skinny as a rail. As I say, very fast, and I was good at these things.
Harwit: Tennis was an expensive game, though, at the time, wasn't it?
Herman: Well, except if you could finally afford a tennis racket and a ball, you could play free in the parks.
Harwit: Van Cortland Park?
Herman: Well, St. James Park, Van Cortland Park. That is right. The game that I liked the best and excelled at the best was touch football, what we called “Throwing Association.”
Herman: Throwing Association. That's what it was called.
Harwit: I see.
Herman: Don't ask me where it comes from.
Harwit: Instead of touch football?
Herman: In those days, it was "Throwing Association," but it was touch football. Again, because I was very agile and fast, I could elude virtually anybody at will, and we used to play winter and summer, for hours at a time.
Harwit: And how long did that last; until you were in college?
Herman: That lasted until college and maybe a little beyond, and then it petered out. That is true. I said, then, that I never worked for a living. I should modify that because the guy running the corner drug store once asked me if I’d like to earn some money jerking sodas, to use the terminology of the day; and very sheepishly or nervously I said I would. I think I lasted fifteen or twenty minutes; because being a very precise perfectionist, I was making these sodas too well and his profits were diminishing as I put in too much chocolate, too much milk and too much ice cream. I remember his grabbing the glass and the scoop out of my hand… "Get out…" (laughter) However, when I was at City College — ah, these things are amusing to recall — when I was at City College, I made three thermodynamic surfaces, and I enjoyed doing that — my artistic, sculptural dexterity or ability — so I made a PVT surface that I modeled in clay, made a casting in plaster of Paris, and then painted the various parets of the surface in different colors; (The different phases and mixture regions.) I did all of this at my father's factory. He had a trunk factory in downtown N. Y.C. on Canal Street, then Green Street, then Bleeker Street.
Harwit: These were steamer trunks?
Herman: Well, some were steamer trunks, but he made those magnificent wardrobe trunks. In those days, people who had means traveled across the ocean in vessels, and they would go with what was called a wardrobe trunk. It stood tall, and you opened it up. One side there were drawers, and on the other side there were hangers so you could hang your clothing. There was laundry made… he was a very fine craftsman, by the way. Some of these trunks were made out of rawhide, white rawhide, with brass hardware with magnificent brass Eagles, locks, brass locks — beautiful stuff, magnificent. I would go down there and cast these surf aces. I did one PVT surf ace. Then I did a Gibbs-surface on which were plotted the Gibbs free energy, the temperature and the entropy. Then I did, what we called, a Mollier surface. That had the Helmholtz free energy, the pressure, and the volume… I’m sorry, I cannot at the moment… it would require a little time to sort that one out. So I did that when I was a senior, and I enjoyed doing it; of course, no pay. I was poor as a church mouse. Then, somebody at Brooklyn College, I can’t recall his name at the moment, who was a physicist, was so excited by this he wanted to have a PVT-surface. He engaged me, and that also… I was in business, and I think I got paid enough to pay for (laughter) the subway fare. Well, it was absurdly small, but I got pleasure in doing these kinds of things. Okay, I was accepted at Princeton to enter in the fall of ‘35.
Harwit: This was the graduate school in physics?
Herman: Graduate school in physics. I was accepted.
Harwit: At what point had you decided you would major in physics? Was this in response to having had courses with any particular individual?
Herman: Okay, as I mentioned early, I had always these very powerful drives toward artistic things and scientific things. I also had an enormous interest in music at an early age, but did not have the opportunity to study music. My older brother played violin and he destroyed my opportunity.
Harwit: Why is that?
Herman: Well, he just was not very talented at it. Then I wanted to study piano, and the family never could afford a piano so I took care of my frustration as an adult and learned to play the cello and the flute — in a manner of speaking — because it is very difficult to learn music well when you're…
Harwit: How old were you when you taught yourself, or…
Herman: I started to study cello when I was in my forties, and I was told I was insane, which I was, but I learned how to play moderately well. I mean, not very well…
Harwit: You play chamber music with people?
Herman: I can play sonatas with piano, and so forth.
Harwit: And you sight read?
Herman: I can sight read, yes.
Harwit: It must give you a lot of pleasure then.
Herman: A tremendous amount of pleasure, and then I learned to play the flute by myself because I didn't have the time to study everything formally. I studied cello with Paul Olefsky, who at that time was the first cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Harwit: This was when you had already moved to Detroit?
Herman: That's right. Paul Olefsky became a Professor of Performing Art at the University of Texas at Austin, about nine years ago, and little did we know when I was studying with him, that he'd go to the University of Texas and then I would follow. That's very very amusing. So where was I? We were talking about…
Harwit: I was asking how you got influenced into going into physics.
Herman: So I remarked that I was interested in the arts and in science, and I think it is clear in my mind that studying physics with Zemansky particularly, then there was Simon Sonkin, who was a very good teacher and a very fine human being. With Henry Semat — these people stimulated me, mainly Zemansky, and I took all the physics courses. And I must say, while I might have gone into biology or chemistry; chemistry didn't please me because it just didn't seem to have in those days a core of knowledge that you could build on. It impressed me more as being a descriptive subject. I must also admit…
Herman: Yes, I didn't particularly like the laboratory. I was very good at it, but that had nothing to do with it. Biology was descriptive in those days, and not all that challenging. And as I said, we studied all those subjects — geology, and many others. I just… it just was a natural thing to fall in love with a subject like physics which had this deep fundamental core, and allowed you to imagine that you could model the world. That's exciting.
Harwit: How much of a hero was Einstein at that time for young boys who were going to study physics?
Herman: Well, I would say that as you go back in time, the heroes get bigger and bigger. So, Einstein was an enormous hero. I also have almost all my life had Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci as heroes, to this day, as a matter of fact. I can't say that one understood deeply enough why, although as one developed in physics, one began to realize that he was such an incredibly fertile human being, not just in relativity but in all these other arenas; that it's just overwhelming to think about it.
Harwit: I was just wondering to what extent having a person like Einstein still alive tried to make someone who was interested in theoretical work emulate his style and perhaps get very frustrated in trying to measure up.
Herman: I will comment on that, by going forward. Bob Hofstadter, who as I said — we'd known one another for a very long time; well, we were undergraduates together and then graduate students at Princeton.
Harwit: He went to Princeton as well?
Herman: He went to Princeton so we were together there. I was going to comment on this later, and I just abbreviate it now. There were an enormous number of great physicists who were there and kept going through.
Harwit: At Princeton?
Herman: At Princeton. And Bob and I, periodically, all our lives, will touch on this point and say, “It's amazing, we used to think that all physicists were like those people." Now that, I think, answers the question. In other words, we were so stupid, that we didn't do any analysis of what we should do with our lives. In other words, there we were, poor, City College boys, coming from Jewish background with this enormous drive…
Harwit: Hofstadter also?
Herman: Oh yes. …enormous drive for intellectuality, culture, arts, science — everything, and never sat down and said, "Should we become doctors, engineers, this, that or the other?" We fell into this arena, fell in love with it, and we never even thought about whether we would succeed or fail. We just did it. We were lucky. We were lucky. Now, it is true that it was not easy to get into a medical school which I never even imagined doing. My older brother Mark became a physician, although he did not get into a good U.S. medical school. He went abroad, and he got his medical degree at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. It was a five-year course, and it was a very good university.
Harwit: Was this because of anti-Semitism in this country?
Herman: Yes, I would say the following: The way I would put it is, his scholastic record was not good enough to allow him to enter in a system with quotas. That's the way I would put it.
Harwit: This was your older brother?
Herman: That was my older brother. That's right, who was in Edinburgh from '31 to '36.
Harwit: At any time did you have any interest in going abroad to study or to work?
Herman: It never occurred to me. I've done an enormous amount of traveling in the later part of my life, but when you are born in a certain kind of sociocultural, you just don't think about it. In other words, you orbit around where you were born. It's like a point with a very narrow arena around it.
Harwit: It's just that the generation before you, that is ten years older than you, the Robert Oppenheimers and the (John C.) Slaters had gone to Germany to study there, and sometimes to England, and so I was wondering whether this was something that, as a graduate student, one hoped to do or looked forward to doing — or was this just something that was destroyed by the Depression?
Herman: I think to a large extent it was destroyed by the Depression. In other words, it didn't appear to be a viable option. It was clear that I was going to pursue physics because I didn't do an operations research analysis (chuckle) of what I should do. I just decided I was going to be a physicist –- period. I never even thought about it. I applied to Princeton. And you may know that in those days, the total graduate student body at Princeton was restricted to 220 in number in the whole graduate school.
Harwit: I didn't realize that, no.
Herman: I think that's a correct number. The Physics Department student body was of the order of 20 or so, and it was quite large. I was accepted, and of course, in retrospect, I've always realized that this was in the nature of a miracle, because there were an enormous number of applications, and they accepted one, two or three people a year. When I was accepted, Lyman Spitzer was accepted.
Harwit: Oh really. So he was a classmate of yours?
Herman: We were classmates. I should say, though, that I was accepted to go in the fall of '35, but I didn't go. I spent a year at City College as a teaching fellow. Now, what is insane is that they did not offer me any kind of a fellowship at Princeton. I didn't have any money. So I asked if I could defer coming for a year. They said yes so I taught at City College for a year, the academic year '35-'36. Subsequently, it turned out, and Edward U. Condon was at Princeton at the time, and he was one of the people who was a great influence in my life, told me, basically, well, why didn't you come, and then we would have fixed things up somehow. But I was naive; I was very unworldly — that is, operationally unworldly. I mean my mind was flitting to the “Last Supper,” and Egyptology and whatever else. So I spent a year teaching at City College, and I want to mention, I taught 16 hours a day in the day session. That was four…
Harwit: Sixteen hours a day?
Herman: I mean, a week, excuse me; I'm slipping up, here. Four elementary physics classes including the labs, two-hour labs, two hours recitation, labs multiplied by four, that's 16. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, I also taught two hours each night; I taught a course called Science Survey. So that made 20 hours of teaching in a week. During that year, I went to NYU up at the Heights in the Bronx where I took a course in nuclear physics, given by Alan C. G. Mitchell, that is, the Mitchell-Zemansky, Mitchell.
Harwit: What Heights is that?
Herman: New York University at the Heights in the Bronx.
Harwit: It's called NYU Heights?
Herman: Yes. It was called that at the Bronx location. It's gone now. So I did that Wednesday afternoon. And then on Friday nights, I went to NYU, downtown at Washington Square, and took a course in Advanced Electricity and magnetism from Irving Lowen, who was a professor, a very fine and clever man. He gave a great course, and was disgusted with me because I did a Ph.D. of an experimental nature when he said I should have been a theoretician. Unfortunately, Irving Lowen died at an early age because of a, I think, neglected gall bladder problem, which was a very tragic thing. In addition to all I have told you I was doing, I was also collaborating with a life-long friend by the name of Milton Saperstein, who was going to medical school at New York School of Medicine, then Bellevue Medical School, and we were doing work on a phenomenon known as After-Contraction, which has to do with the following: If you flex a leg or your arms, and you exert a muscle group, and then you relax it, there's an after — movement. We were studying the… well, it turned out to be a cortical phenomenon. That's among the earliest research that I did. It was in neurophysiology. We published three papers, and I just mention this because I think it expresses the rest of my career, namely, that I've never been able to, so-to-speak, sit in one arena, exclusively for decades at a time, but have gone from one thing to another. I went to Princeton in the fall of ‘36. I spent four years there. They were very stimulating. Condon was a great teacher and a very inspirational man. Unfortunately, he left and went to Westinghouse, a year after I arrived there.
Harwit: Do you know why he went there?
Herman: He became a director of their research lab, and after that he went to Corning and became the director there. After that, he became the director of the National Bureau of Standards. He had started out as a newspaper reporter. He was a physicist who wrote extremely well, as you know, and who had some great ideas and had a very interesting career. Now, at Princeton, there was Condon, there was Shenstone, who was an atomic spectroscopist; a very interesting figure was Edwin Plimpton Adams, the man who did the Smithsonian Tables, and who was one of the last great classicists, who could do multidimensional Faraday ice-pail experiments and calculate the electrostatic potential problem of hemispherical bosses on hemispherical bosses. I took courses with him, not only in advanced analytical dynamics but advanced electricity and magnetism, as well as courses in Bessel functions, elliptic integrals and functions, etc.
Harwit: That was all in physics, rather than…
Herman: Oh yes, that was all in physics. Gaylord Probasco Harnwell was at Princeton. I only mention that because it was an interesting middle name.
Then there was H. P. Robertson who was a marvelous man; he was a great teacher. He was a terrific scientist, I mean, of Robertson/Walker fame. He was a great man. He was a warm human, a wonderful person.
Harwit: He went to Caltech after that.
Herman: Yes, then he got killed in an automobile accident, unfortunately.
Harwit: Yes, I remember that.
Herman: Walker Bleakney was there, who was doing work in mass spectrometry. Rudolf Ladenburg was a research professor who had come from Germany. There were other people, but what is more interesting are the visiting professors. There were always people coming through, like John Slater. These are people I took courses with. Slater, (John C.) Van Vleck, (Wolfgang) Pauli was there lecturing. (Niels) Bohr came periodically. The Math Department, as you may recall, was quite distinguished, von Neumann was there. (Solomon) Lefshetz was there. Luther Pfahler Eisenhart, and I give his middle name, just for fun; (H.) Marsden Morse was there. These were all mathematicians.
Harwit: Did you take a geometry course with Eisenhart?
Herman: No, no.
Harwit: I was wondering where you had learned your general relativity.
Harwit: …because he wrote one of the texts.
Harwit: Well, more than a text. It's a monograph.
Herman: I did it with Robertson. I should mention there were no course requirements at Princeton. You were on your own, did whatever you pleased.
You had to pass the general examinations; you had to write a proper, Ph.D. dissertation, and you had the final oral which was in the main a proforma kind of exam.
Harwit: I'm sorry. You did your thesis with Robertson?
Harwit: You just learned relativity from him. You said you were just doing experimental work.
Herman: It turned out that I got involved in infrared spectroscopy — molecular spectra. Hofstadter did his thesis in molecular spectra. This was something that happened because of Condon's great interest in molecular and atomic spectra. What is interesting is that I got into that route. Condon left, and I did my dissertation under no one. In other words, I had no mentor. And I'll never forget when I finished my work, Robertson was the chairman of my committee, but I had no major professor. I did my work; I wrote it up, then I submitted it, and I finally (laughter) being a naive idiot, said, “My God, I don't have anybody to defend me.” It's amazing. It went okay. It was extremely exciting to have people like Slater, Van Vleck, Pauli, and Bohr. Einstein came to the colloquia. There was always something going on. There were great discussions. It was an extremely stimulating atmosphere, but it was kind of a tough atmosphere.
Harwit: How was Einstein in discussions at that time? One always reads about the active participation when he was in Berlin. I was wondering by the time he came to the United States, was he older?
Herman: Yes, he was older, but he did, now and again, have some interesting comments to make at colloquia. I should mention that I was present at the discussions between Einstein and Bohr about causality. I wish I had a better memory for the details of what transpired there. I should also mention that…
Harwit: Is this at the time of the Einstein/Podolsky/Rosen work? That was being discussed at Princeton with Bohr?
Herman: Yes, there were these two or three Bohr/Einstein discussions about the subject of causality with a…
Harwit: How were they arranged?
Herman: My recollection is that each of them got up and gave discussion.
Harwit: So, it was essentially a rehash, or replay I should say, of the papers that had appeared in the Physical Review.
Herman: I think that is probably right, with additional commentary.
Harwit: How did the participants come across?
Herman: Well, my recollection is that it was an enormously strained thing. Einstein, as I remember it, was very upset, and evidenced this in the manner in which he commented to Bohr about Bohr's discussing the universe in which God played with dice — I just throw that in.
Harwit: When you read those two papers, Bohr's — Bohr's, at least in the reading — reply to the Einstein/Podolsky/Rosen paper sounds as though it's just a restatement of the Copenhagen School of Philosophy, without being a direct answer to the really substantive questions that were raised by the Einstein/Podolsky/Rosen paradox which again is in the headlines now, in a sense that…
Herman: By the way, I think that's right, but I cannot recall enough, and I don't think I knew enough about those matters at that time, in order to have a very sharp and vivid recollection. I'm sorry…
Harwit: And there was no scuttlebutt of what other people were thinking.
Herman: Not that I remember, at the time.
Harwit: All right.
Herman: One thing I'd like to mention very briefly is that for me that was a marvelous environment, after City College where virtually everything was prescribed. I mean, you had to take all these course, not that I didn't learn a great deal. But when I went to Princeton, it was the other end of the spectra. You were wide open: You do what you want to — you study, you don't study, you go to class, you don't go to class. Well, I did my work in infrared spectroscopy. My thesis, in fact, was on the hydrogen bond strengths in the fatty acids. What I was doing involved a lot of vacuum chemistry that I learned to do, and did all by myself. I did all the infrared spectra, and I won't go into those details. What I will say, however, is that I then got very interested in problems in photoconductivity and fluorescence. In fact, Hofstadter and I, together, got hold of a room down in the labs of Palmer Physical Lab — got a room and we set up an apparatus and began to study photoconductivity in willemite. I mention this because here we were graduate students, working toward a degree, no mentor, but we got some apparatus built. They provided the money to do this, and we set up this — well, it was basically a special kind of a spectrometer.
Harwit: What did you use for detectors in those days?
Herman: Pardon me.
Harwit: Was it bolometers?
Herman: Right. We had a galvanometer with a bolometer. That is correct. It was all very awkward, very sensitive, difficult, and so on. I mention this because I think it’s marvelous to go to a university where, if you have a reasonable idea, the authorities will support you to some degree. We got shop time, we got an apparatus, we got a quartz lamp, and we inveigled a gentleman by the name of Pugh, I think, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, to part with a magnificent zinc orthosilicate crystal of willemite that came from the Franklin mines in New Jersey. We studied photoconductivity, and that is interesting because during those studies, we discovered trapping states, experimentally, I believe, for the first time. What that was all about was the following: If you took a willemite crystal down to liquid-nitrogen temperatures and shone an ultraviolet light on it, put it in the dark, and then let it warm up, you got an enormous rise in dark current which, of course, came from the electrons leaving the trapping states and going into the conduction band. That's nice. I like that. I mention this because I've always had enormous enjoyment doing new things. Two other things I want to mention to you, not because I want to be self-serving, but it shows how a young person can be reaching out for new ideas, but ineffectually. For example, I got the idea that you should be able to determine the size of a macromolecule from light scattering, so I made a calculation — I must admit that it was kind of crude — of the size of the macromolecule by asking what would the size be of a chain extended in space according to random walk but without bond angle constraints. Then I said, what would the size of this configuration be if I took a sphere of radius R and enclosed all the links but one, and that link had a 50-50 chance of being inside and outside. I derived a relation between the number of links and the radius of the sphere. Then I looked in the literature and found light-scattering curves from neoprene rubber molecules in solution. I don't remember the book in which I found that. (I believe it was Memler.) That gave the knee of the scattering curve, and then 2πR = λ, or something of that order. I made an estimate of the molecular weight of neoprene in solution, and I was all excited about this. This was before… this was 1939, 1938-39. So someone said to me, "You really should talk to Eugene Guth about this, because he's an expert in rubber chemistry and all that random walk stuff." I met him subsequently in Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the American Physical Society, and we had a discussion. I'm ashamed to admit that he discouraged me, and I forgot it, because he said it wasn't accurate, it wasn't this, it wasn't that, which was a damn shame. Three years later, I think about 1941, I forget now; Peter Debye published his now very famous paper on using light scattering to determine the size of molecules. Okay, so I beat my breast. Another thing I thought of doing as a graduate student was to study the infrared spectrum of liquid nitrogen or liquid oxygen in an electric field. Condon had written a paper on Stark effect as a way to induce forbidden transitions in nonpolar molecules. I read that, got all excited, and started to build an apparatus. Of course, had I finished that, which I did not –- and of course, when you don't finish something, you have only yourself to blame. But, good grief, as a graduate student, you can't have a six-ring circus going on — it turned out that if I had done this, I would have seen the forbidden transition and absorption in liquid oxygen and nitrogen without an electric field because of the fields of the molecules themselves when they are in that close proximity. There's a gentlemen in Toronto — I wrote his name down before — Harry Walsh. Harry Walsh discovered that phenomenon years later. Now, some of these things I mention because you never learn. You never learn. In other words, if you're going to do something, you should do it, if you do it, you should beat the drum, and so on. This has something to do with tomorrow (tomorrow's interview with Ralph Alpher on the microwave background radiation), in a certain sense. But I mention this because I get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that in the right kind of environment, where people don't smother you and say, "Make a proposal,” that you can do things. This is, I think, very exciting, and I wish that were more the case now. I got my degree at Princeton in 1940, and then jobs were not easy to get. I was married in 1939. My wife's name is Helen. In fact, her name is Helen Keller, and her birthday is the same as the "real" Helen Keller, which is sort of funny. We have three children. Our first children were twins, (Our lives have been profoundly affected by the birth of retarded twins. This resulted from birth difficulties, we believe. The twins have come a long way, but are not capable of living independently in our society. This is a very moving and important subject from a social and human point of view.) Our third child was a… well twin girls, Jane Barbara and Lois Ellen,… and the third one was a girl, Roberta Marie, who is now in the fourth year medical school after receiving a Master's Degree in Epidemiology.
Harwit: Was your wife interested in science also? (Not professionally, but extremely so in general. She has been very patient and supportive and has been a good friend to all of my close colleagues and friends.)
Herman: As a matter of fact, she had training, became a dental hygienist, and after we were married, did not work and raised the family. She just didn't do anything professionally. I then got a job as a research assistant at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. I had the magnificent salary of $100 a month, and the City of Philadelphia had one and a half percent tax, so my take-home pay was $98.50. We lived in a very small, little apartment which was basically one room with a Murphy bed with a kitchen and a closet and a bathroom.
Harwit: What's a Murphy bed?
Herman: That's the one that comes out of the wall, and a bathroom that didn't have radiator in it. I had a job at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, operating the Vannevar Bush differential analyzer. He constructed this differential analyzer at MIT, and then they had one built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School. I was operating this. It had mechanical torque amplifiers. I won't go into those details. I was working on that, solving differential equations for John Brainerd, who was professor at the Moore School. There was also a man by the name of Howard (W.) Emmons, who went to Harvard — a famous fluid-mechanician.
Harwit: Alright, you were just talking about Howard Emmons.
Herman: Moore School; but may we make a brief excursus, to go back to Princeton, where, I believe, in 1938, Dick Feynman arrived on the scene. He had been an undergraduate student at MIT. He had, so to speak, been discovered by Slater, and came to Princeton. It became eminently clear very, very soon that he was an extraordinarily brilliant young man. I just wanted to interject that in the sense that I had my experiences with Schwinger at City College and with Feynman at Princeton. With all of these great physicists, who came as visiting professors and lecturers, this could have been a discouraging element, but I think that we were so excited about the process of doing science that this did not discourage us.
Harwit: Now, John Archibald Wheeler must have been there at the same time, then.
Herman: I'm glad you bring that up because Wheeler came in 1938 from North Carolina, as I recall it. He became a young assistant professor, and I recall him with great warmth and gratitude because he was always an extremely kind, interested person to whom you could go and talk about physics, and he always had time and patience. It's a great pleasure for me now to be at the University of Texas where he also came.
Harwit: You're colleagues.
Herman: We're colleagues now. Well, I just wanted to mention this briefly. To go back to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering; while I was doing these runs on the differential analyzer, solving the differential equations for fluid flow, etc., in my other time I was trying to write up some papers with Hofstadter who was at the University of Pennsylvania Physics Department at the time. It's there that we wrote up our papers on photoconductivity and the discovery of the trapping states. In addition to that, I started… well, I did set up the differential equations for the deuteron problem and was working on that getting solutions of the states of the deuteron as an effort of my own, when, as Alpher mentioned, along came a journal with a paper. I can't remember at this very moment who did this paper on the deuteron. I think it was Bethe and somebody; I can't remember exactly. So that collapsed. The year…
Harwit: You had switched at that point to doing theory?
Herman: Oh yes, yes, I was very interested in theory. That's true. Yes.
Harwit: But had you made a definite choice of what you were going to be doing?
Herman: Not in the slightest. And let me mention to you while I was a graduate student at Princeton, among the various things I was playing around with, I did a calculation of the specific heat of tin at low temperatures, and published a paper on that. Don't ask me why I did it. I just got interested and did it — and the hard way, on desk calculators that were not very kind to you. The year at the Moore School, I can't say was all that uplifting and edifying. I then went back to City College where I spent the academic… well, pardon me, the year 1941 — '42, teaching. I was teaching, but in the middle of the spring semester — see, the war had started — there were all of the problems and the pressures of the war, and I began to wonder about what I would do. I was, I think, rather strongly influenced by Hofstadter, who left City College. He was teaching there that year also. He left in order to get involved in war-effort activity, and went to the National Bureau of Standards, as a matter of fact where they were doing all kinds of work, including proximity fuses for bombs. Lockridge was there and numbers of other people. Now, as I say, this… I knew Lockridge very well. He's passed on. I’m trying to think of his first name and I can’t. Donald Lockridge, thank you. So this influenced me, and Bob being down in Washington was aware of the effort on the proximity fuse for naval aircraft, that is, naval antiaircraft gunfire that was going on at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, which was part of Section T of OSRD, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. I went down to Washington and had an interview with Larry Hafstad, who was one of the group at DTM, the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, who with Tuve, Norman P. Heydenburg, and Dick Roberts; and Gregory Breit, who was there at the time, did the famous work… Breit was the theoretician, and that's where they did this great work on proton-proton scattering at DTM. I went down there, was interviewed by Hafstad, and was convinced that it would be a good idea to get involved in some of these activities; in the middle of the semester, in fact. I left in April of 1942 and joined that group, and got involved in the proximity fuse effort that lasted through the war. I can briefly mention that: To begin with, we all got involved in some of the more basic kinds of things that had to do with circuitry, with leakage effects, with vibration tests, with life tests, there were assembly problems. But I was personally not all that enamored with focusing on the laboratory physics. It's at that time that I began to be very interested in operational science, namely, how do you use these things? Are they going to be any good in the field? So I spent most of my time, actually, concerned with the operational use in two ways: organized tests at sea to use this ammunition, say, in tests against battle rafts that are being towed by sea-going tugs — off, well, you do the tests off a destroyer, and this battle raft would have poles with a screen that, you see, would trigger proximity fuses, and then you get the naval photographic party. Weld organizes these tests with a destroyer, a battle raft, a sea-going tug, and sometimes a destroyer escort. The photographic naval people would come. This was a big deal because this was generating tests at sea during the middle of the war. Weld goes down to Norfolk and talk to people in command, and then they'd commission vessels that had come back from the fighting. People on board would suddenly find out that their leaves were canceled, because they were going to go out on the tests with civilians. That is a long, big story that I will not go into. But I did find it extremely interesting and gratifying to be involved in these tests at sea in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Harwit: You went to the Pacific also?
Herman: Well, not into the fighting. But weld goes out for tests. On the other hand, I was responsible for trying to analyze the reports back from the fleet, of their test firings. I used and kept the data and their graphs, and in a sense, was trying to see whether the ammunition…
Harwit: What sort of data?
Herman: Well, the data that was coming back would be the results of test firings of one or two of these fuses.
Harwit: You said you kept it?
Herman: Oh, I was keeping records.
Harwit: Oh, I see. Oh, kept, yes. Right.
Herman: I was keeping records, and then you would know the different kinds of ammunition with different kinds of dry-cell batteries whose properties were decaying as a function of time. Later they made what were called reserve batteries that had plates… they look like little storage batteries that have plates; they have an ampule with an electrolyte. When the shell was fired, on setback the ampule would break and because of the spin the fluid electrolyte would go into the plates and activate the batteries; so the shelf life was better.
After the war, as Dr. Alpher mentioned, this Research Center was generated, I became…
Harwit: Applied Physics Lab?
Herman: In the Applied…
Harwit: At Johns Hopkins…?
Herman: Yes. Pardon me. I should mention that the whole effort that was going on at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism moved over to Johns Hopkins, that is…
Harwit: How big was the Applied Physics Lab at the time?
Herman: At that time?
Harwit: How many people were working there?
Herman: In those days? There must have been a couple of hundred. No, no, when I first joined it at DTM, there might have been a total of maybe 30, 40, and later on at the Applied Physics Lab, in the early days; I think there were a couple hundred. It was of that order. Of course later it became very much bigger. At the Applied Physics Lab this Research Center started; that corresponded to the way many of us felt. There were some very good people who were attracted to this Research Center. I'll mention a few names in a moment. I became the head of a group; I'm trying to remember the name of it. It was the spectroscopy group; we were concerned with combustion spectra and line widths and shapes and various and sundry things — I don't need to dwell on that too much.
Harwit: Did you consider at that time going into university life?
Herman: Well, that went in and out of my mind, but I think what I can say is that so long as I was actively involved in doing research, this was the main interest that I had. I always enjoyed lecturing. I enjoyed teaching, although the tough stints of teaching I did at City College (laughter) — I mean, that could poison your feelings because that was a bit much. I enjoyed the work we were doing at the Applied Physics Lab. Alpher mentioned how this thing fell apart later, because of the usual evolution toward an arbitrary management with certain strong people who think they know better than everybody else what needs to be done and how it should be done. Some of the people at the lab — there was Richard Wallis, for example, who was professor of physics at Irvine, University of California, very well known in solid-state physics. Robert Rubin was there. He was Debye's last graduate student at Cornell, if I recall correctly. Jim Follin was there, with whom we worked, and is still there as far as I know.
Harwit: Maybe I should ask you more about the Applied Physics Lab and your stay there, tomorrow, when we talk jointly with Dr. Alpher, and skip now to the time thereafter. You recall that Dr. Alpher in the interview mentioned why you and he had quit, and maybe you'd like to add something to that, and then tell me about what decided your choice of your next job.
Herman: Fine. In brief, I think what happened at the Applied Physics Laboratory is that the individual who became the director of that Research Center (Frank T. McClure) began to feel more and more that he knew all the answers. As a matter of fact, I can tell you this, that I knew him very well, and at one point he said to me, when he had been entrenched, that, "Now," he says, "we're going to tell the bastards what to do.” I mean this is a direct quote. That poisoned me, and from that time on, the whole thing began to fall apart. (The details of this story would be very interesting with regard to the overall problem of the administration of research.) Without going into all of the details, let me say that people like Shirleigh Silverman, who was there and Ralph and others just couldn't tolerate this kind of an atmosphere. And it was clear that we'd be better off to leave. Ralph told you what he did. Bob Rubin went to the Bureau of Standards. Dick Wallis, who was there, went to the Naval Research Laboratory where he developed and did a lot of very fine work. Shirleigh Silverman went to the Office of Naval Research, where he became the civilian director. Ralph went to G.E., and I got an appointment as a Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. Johnny Toll was the chairman of the department there at that time. Let me mention to you one thing, that while I was at APL, apart from this great experience with Gamow and Ralph Alpher in the astrophysical matters, I also had a very lovely experience working with Dick Wallis. We, for the first time, did a theoretical calculation that took into account the interaction of vibration with rotation in a molecule, and determined the effect of the distributed charge in the molecule on the intensities of the lines in the rotation-vibration spectrum. Now, this was very interesting because Oppenheimer had made a calculation of this sort some years before, considering the molecule to have a point dipole. When you do the calculation with a point dipole, you get results that are not right. And the way I learned about that is that Sol (Stanford Solomon) Penner — he did some infrared vibration/rotation spectra of carbon monoxide — came upon Oppenheimer's paper and applied corrections. He wrote a report, I saw this report, read it, was amazed at the size of the corrections, and felt intuitively that they couldn't be right. I looked at Oppenheimer's paper with Dick Wallis, and we realized that he was looking at a point dipole, so we redid the problem with a finite dipole. He did it with Heisenberg matrix representation. We did it in a more straightforward way with Schrodinger's equation, and came out with the result that said something about what the effect on the intensity of the spectral lines will be if you have a dipole expansion of a given kind. That was a very useful and interesting result because people began to be able to explain the distribution of intensities in the vibration-rotation spectra of molecules, not only, say, in flames but also in stellar envelopes.
Harwit: Is your more recent work on the behavior of electric charges in the vicinity of dipoles in magnetic fields an outgrowth of this?
Herman: Well, let me… that's an interesting question that you ask.
Harwit: Its thirty years later.
Herman: Dick Wallis and I periodically have joined forces in looking at defects in crystals that behave like molecular complexes. The answer is essentially yes, because we did this vibration/rotation calculation — I mean the Coriolis Effect. We looked at F-centers; then we started to look at the electron in the field of an electric dipole. In fact, we did the first work on that, which indicated that there might be some kind of an effect where, as you reduce the size of the dipole, the electron was unbound at a finite dipole. Then, when we published that paper other people who saw this were a little more clever, and they were able to make a precise calculation of the size of the dipole when the system became unstable. Then we looked at the problem of the electron in the field of an electric dipole with a strong magnetic field. Now we're looking at the problem of an electron in the field of a quadruple. This is interesting because an electron in a lattice sees defects that have the character of dipoles and quadruples, and so on. It's sort of a messy business, but it appeals to us. I went to the University of Maryland; I spent a year there — teaching. I taught modern physics, and during that period I was writing up papers mainly on spectroscopic matters that had to do with line shapes and line widths. That work was done with Shirleigh Silverman and with William Benedict. William S. Benedict was…
Harwit: At the Bureau of Standards?
Herman: He was at the Bureau of Standards for many years, and I can only say that he was a wonderful man, and a genius at doing molecular spectra with the patience of a saint, with the absolute patience of a saint, and he did beautiful stuff that had to do with the water and with carbon dioxide molecules.
Harwit: So this was the academic year '55 — '56?
Herman: That was the academic year '55 — '56. Then Hafstad, who interviewed me, when I joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism — this proximity fuse effort in '42 — Hafstad who was then a vice president of the General Motors Research Laboratories in Warren, Michigan, went there as a vice president in 1955, then in the spring of '56…
Harwit: Excuse me; he had gone from the DTM?
Herman: He went from DTM to the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. Merle Tuve was the head of this laboratory. Merle Tuve then went back to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism where he became the director, and Hafstad who was the associate director at APL of Johns Hopkins University became the director. When Hafstad left the Applied Physics Laboratory, and was replaced by Ralph Gibson and the people from the Alleghany Ballistics Lab, he went to the Chase Manhattan Bank. Pardon.
Alpher: Director of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission — first.
Harwit: This is a comment by Dr. Alpher. (Dr. Alpher was present during this entire interview.)
Herman: Thank you very much. You are quite right. I mixed this up.
Harwit: Can you repeat that then?
Herman: He became the director of Reactor Development of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Herman: After which he became a consultant advisor to the Chase Manhattan Bank. It was during the Chase Manhattan Bank tour of duty that he met an individual who had very strong and deep connections with General Motors, and at this moment, I cannot remember that man’s name. I could find it out. Hafstad became the vice president in charge of research in Warren, Michigan. Hafstad, with whom I had worked during World War II then prevailed on me to go to the Research Labs in Warren, Michigan, with all kinds of promises that there was going to be a burgeoning of research and basic research. He thought that this would be a great opportunity; and let me say, that the way it was represented, it sounded like a great opportunity, but not knowing anything about industry, I must say at that time I was a little — well, I was not knowledgeable — I wouldn’t say I was naive. I then went to General Motors, and I have a lot I can say about that from the point of view, not only of a great enjoyment in doing a lot of different kinds of research, but also what life is like in a big industrial laboratory, compared to a university, etc.
Harwit: Good. Well, we’ll interrupt here now, and then come back later to talk about your career at General Motors. Let me ask you one last question now, if I may. During your work in molecular spectroscopy, did you have much interaction with a group at Michigan — (David M.) Dennison or (G.B.B.M.) Sutherland, any of those people?
Herman: All right. The interaction with those people — mainly David Dennison — actually came while I was at the Applied Physics Laboratory, because David Dennison and Richard Crane, at the University of Michigan Physics Department, were very deeply involved in the proximity fuse project because they were working on the damage assessment. There were tests done where a 5-inch naval shell with a proximity fuse device would be positioned in front of a screen out in the New Mexico flats and exploded. They would analyze the fragmentation patterns and then use the static fragmentation patterns as they were transformed into moving coordinates to determine what kind of damage would occur if you had an aircraft of a given type. In New Mexico, they also fragmented shells against aircraft. This was done by (Everly J.) Workman at the New Mexico School of Mines, I believe, out in New Mexico. I’ve known David Dennison since that time, and certainly interacted with him on occasion about some molecular matters — but in a rather narrow way. So virtually all of the molecular spectroscopy and the line width and shape work was done independently. All the work I did with Wallis, and as a matter of fact, I worked with Bob Rubin also in extending what I did with Wallis by using Morse potentials, and so on.
Harwit: So these groups physically worked independently and didn’t have that much influence on each other.
Herman: I would say that's exactly correct, and I’ll tell you one anecdote. I was interested in the carbon dioxide molecule and then there’s Fermi splitting. I was doing some calculations, and I ran into some questions. I asked David Dennison a question about the calculation, that is, "How do you do thus and so?" And his reply was, "You do it the right way." That I found to be extremely interesting and annoying, and of course there was retribution in the following sense: That I recalculated something he had done in his famous paper on carbon dioxide, and I told him that there was a numerical error and he would never believe me. But then, years later, he redid it, and owned up that he had made a mistake in arithmetic. He was a very nice guy, and was an extremely good physicist, but he was very up-tight. Wasn't he Ralph? (Laughter)
Harwit: All right, so we’ll talk later. Thank you.
Harwit: We’ve just come back from supper. I guess you were saying Dr. Herman that you'd failed to mention Eugene Wigner as being one of the professors at
Princeton when you were a student there. Maybe you would like to talk about that, and then we’ll go on to when you started working at General Motors.
Herman: Right. Well, when I commented about the professors, or at least some of the professors at Princeton, it amazed me later that I had forgotten to mention that Eugene P. Wigner was at Princeton. He was one of my professors from whom I took courses in theoretical physics. That, of course, was a rather potent influence on all of us students. As a matter of fact, he was a very hard task master, and kept us working very hard. I might mention, as I recall it, that one of the best courses that some of us felt he gave was what was called a senior course in theoretical physics, because many of us felt that we understood that and got more out of that than some of the more sophisticated abstruse graduate courses. Another small point that I might turn back to was while I was at the Applied Physics Laboratory during World War II, one of the missions we went on in connection with the proximity fuse was a mission on the USS Phoenix, a cruiser. It turned out that that cruiser had been sold to Argentina and was renamed the Belgrano, and was sunk at the Falklands War. That, of course, touched me a little bit. I just mention that as a tiny bit of lore. Okay, as I mentioned, Larry Hafstad became a vice president in charge of the Research Labs at General Motors in Warren, Michigan. He attracted me to this laboratory. I went there at the end of June of 1956; I became what was called a consulting physicist, for lack of a better designation. For a while, I was just functioning as an individual. I was somehow, I think, associated with the Physics Department there, but I’m not sure. Between ‘57 and ‘59, I became the assistant head of what was called the basic science group. One of the upper managers — in fact, he was the scientific director of the laboratory, a man by the name of John M. Campbell — was the acting head of this group. Then in 1959, a Theoretical Physics Department was formed, and I became the head of that. I remained the head of that until 1973, when they changed the name of the department to Traffic Science Department, and I remained head of that department, which was really the original department, until I left in 1979 to go to the University of Texas. There were a number of efforts that I made there: One of them was in the area of what I like to call vehicular traffic science. In those days, very little had been done, as yet, that could be called traffic science, vehicular traffic science. There were a few papers. As a matter of fact, one was by Gordon Newell, who was a physicist and a professor of civil engineering, and who now also has an appointment in the Operations Research area at the University California, at Berkeley. He got interested in traffic and was looking at traffic as though it were a dilute gas. When I knew I was going to GM that was in the spring of ‘56 Elliott W. Montroll (deceased December 1983) was professor of physics at Maryland. He and I were talking about the kinds of things that one might do at a laboratory, like GM Research Labs. We thought it would be interesting to look into and explore some problems in vehicular traffic. As a matter of fact, I got heavily into that area, and drew a number of people in. Montroll was one of them. He and I started to do work on single-lane traffic flow, platooning of vehicles, the interaction of human beings through the automobile and control systems, and it was possible to discuss the dynamics of platoons of vehicles on single lanes with no passing, and one could develop a description of this that gave the flow of the vehicles in terms of this car-following process. I will not go into all those details now.
Harwit: Physically, it was a compressible flow model, isn’t that right?
Herman: Well, it’s not a fluid model. It’s a deterministic model that basically says the acceleration of a given vehicle depends upon the relative speed of that vehicle with respect to the vehicle ahead. The acceleration, which is the longitudinal control, is generated a time lag, T, later than the perception of the stimulus, so what you are basically saying is that you have a stimulus which is a relative speed at a time t, and then that the acceleration response is equal to some gain factor times the relative speed at the time t + T.
Harwit: If I remember, though, you also found nozzle effects following constrictions in the traffic…
Herman: Well, you are talking about bottle-neck effects and so on. Since, you know, our time here is limited, let me just say that Montroll was involved in starting these things up. Another person who was drawn into this work was Prof. Renfrey B. Potts who had spent a year at the University of Maryland and who was professor at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. In addition, to the single-lane flow or car-following which involves stability questions that are very interesting, it was possible to describe the stability of these platoons in terms precisely of the time lag of the system and this gain factor. It turned out that you have stability if the product of the gain factor and the time lag was equal to, or less than, one-half. I drew Prof. Ilya Prigogine into these matters. Also,…
Harwit: How did that come about?
Herman: Well, the way that came about is I became acquainted with Prigogine in the early '50s when he visited in Washington, D.C. and was giving some lectures at the Bureau of Standards. We became good… well, we became acquainted — friends. Then I was interested in trying to help generate in the General Motors Research Laboratory a climate that would move more toward basic science, and therefore to try to draw in people like Montroll and Potts. I drew in Richard Wallis, whom I mentioned before, Bob Rubin and Robert Hofstadter from Stanford, among others. So I tried to draw Prigogine in, and I got very interested in trying to model multilane traffic, which is very different from single-lane traffic in that passing is allowed. Now, of course, you have a distribution of speeds of vehicles on a multilane highway, so if you look at anyone vehicle, if it travels on a lane, it will eventually — at whatever speed it is going — come up to another vehicle that is moving slower than it so you have a speed-reducing process. You can calculate this sort of thing, in the way you calculate molecular collisions. I won't go into that. Then, a vehicle that is trapped behind a slower vehicle can escape by lane-changing and then speeding up to a desired speed. This is a relaxation mechanism that can be described in terms of some kind of exponential relaxation. Then when you have higher concentrations, you have what we call an adjustment effect, where the speeds of the vehicles tend to cluster around the mean speed in the local environment — and that's equivalent to thinking of platooning on a lane of the highway. Well, you can write down that the time rate of change of the speed distribution f(v) — it's a function of v and the concentration, and so on — is equal to a sum of processes. There would be the slowing down interactional process, plus a relaxation process, plus an adjustment process. What I am now talking about is what evolved out of my discussions with Prigogine, and we developed out of that a kinetic theory of traffic which had a description based on a Boltzmann-like partial differential equation.
Herman: Well, Prigogine was a consultant to the lab in many different kinds of ways for the order of 20 years, and over that period of time, we wrote numbers of papers. We wrote a small monograph on this kinetic theory of vehicular traffic. He consulted with the Math Department and Physics Department as well. Montroll remained a consultant for many, many years, as did Hofstadter. With Montroll, since he and I enjoy doing all sorts of strange things, we did a piece of work on a characterization of countries, trying to develop certain kinds of graphical representations for the way the work force in countries evolves from agriculture through commerce, and manufacturing to services. We did another paper on a statistical analysis of the Sears Roebuck prices over a period of 75 years, and developed a Sears Roebuck consumer price index from statistical sampling of prices in the catalogs that gave very nice information with very little effort, compared to what the government does in order to generate a market basket. I just mention these things because as far as I was concerned, it was important to try to generate some kind of a lifestyle that was pleasant and interesting, and in some ways the work was useful to General Motors. To go back to the traffic, there were many other aspects; I’ll just mention briefly. We did single-lane flow, multiple-lane flow; we studied the platooning of buses as a mode of transportation. We looked at the merging of traffic, throughput at intersections, small car effects — that is, the properties of traffic if you look at car size. We got involved rather heavily in looking at fuel consumption as it is interrelated with traffic characteristics. In more recent years, we began to work on the characterization of traffic and city networks, with the idea of trying to generate a more global macroscopic model which would describe traffic in a city network. I should mention that this particular aspect evolved out of the multilane work that I did with Prigogine; and he and I wrote a paper describing a two-fluid model of traffic which I have pursued, both theoretically, experimentally and observationally. It is providing a means of quantifying the quality of traffic service in cities. You can begin now to say something about, "Is Houston worse than Dallas? Is New York worse than London? Matamoros, Mexico, is terrible." You're beginning to have a way to rank-order cities in this regard. I did a great deal of work on the traffic science part at General Motors. But in addition to that, I did a lot of work in collaboration with Hofstadter and with Geoffrey Ravenhall at Illinois. A woman by the name of Bunny Clark — I drew her into the department that I was responsible for got her Master’s degree in solid-state physics, and then did a Ph.D. in some nuclear physics; that she did at Wayne State University. She was involved with us in the whole business of analyzing high-energy electron scattering experiments that were going on at Stanford, at… well, at Stanford, not at SLAC, but at HEPL, at the High-Energy Physical Laboratory. There were all these experiments going on; and Hofstader, Ravenhall, and Bunny Clark and I, for quite a long time, were involved in the theoretical analysis to determine the charge distribution in the nucleus.
Harwit: Why was it of interest to General Motors?
Herman: Well, that, of course, is an obvious question to ask. It isn’t clear to me that in fact it was of interest, except in so far as it was of interest to some of us who were there, and they were willing to support some of this type of effort. I always felt that they were interested in keeping people who were capable of doing work at a high level, and supported that. My main thrust was in traffic, but non-negligible amounts of my time and energy went into some of these other matters. And of course, they got a lot of visibility out of that. I might say that, for example, we tried to get some funding from NSF to support the computer aspects, because they were very heavy. You had to generate Coulomb functions; the calculations were rather sizable. The reaction of the people in the appropriate part of NSF was basically, "What the hell would someone at General Motors know about high-energy electron scattering?" So it was arranged for the money to go to Illinois. So the money went to Illinois, and we did the work at GM in collaboration. I just mention that as a little anecdote in passing. In addition, I was…
Harwit: Did they subcontract it to you from Illinois?
Herman: Well, Illinois just bought the time on the GM computer. That worked perfectly alright — kind of silly business, but that's the way they wanted it, and it was okay. I think I might have mentioned earlier that I continued to work with Wallis, on and off, on these matters of the binding of an electron to a fixed electric dipole without a magnetic field, with a magnetic field, and then we pursued the problem of an electron in the field of quadrupole, but that came later.
Harwit: That came at Texas.
Herman: Yes, that is correct. Bob Rubin came to the laboratory on occasion, and we worked on the problem of the intensities of the vibration-rotation lines and molecules, expanding what we had done, that is, what Wallis and I had done by looking at this problem with a Morse potential. It was very much more complicated, but not without interest. We worked on a number of other things. Of course, during this period I was always in close contact with Ralph Alpher. For example, in 1967, he, Gamow and I did some work that was published in the Proceedings of National Academy. Then we did some more work on the galactic formation problem that was mentioned in his discussion, but we'll let that go. I might mention that near the end of my stay at General Motors — I just mention this briefly — when you reach a certain age, people say that you are ready to retire. I don't want to dwell on this, but my 65th birthday was approaching, and there was quite a to-do about this. But right about that time, the Federal government passed a law that said that you can't be removed until you're 70, without some kind of special reasons. So, there was rather a bit of a turkey. I'm not going to go into that; I just want to mention that there are always problems. That, in itself, is a very interesting story that I don't think is particularly cogent at this point. I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to join the faculty at the University of Texas so I naturally opted for that.
Harwit: Was that through your knowing Prigogine who has a part-time appointment there?
Herman: Well, that was part of the reason, undoubtedly. I had friends at the University of Texas. I don't think there is any point in naming a couple of the other people, but they were anxious and interested to have me down there. I got a joint appointment in physics and in civil engineering.
Harwit: Which reflected both of your main interests.
Herman: That is exactly correct, and I went to Texas in August of 1979. I was very pleased to go down there because live always related very strongly to the academic world and to academic science, and so on. Prigogine was there. Certain other person, for example, John Wheeler was there, whom I knew from my graduate student days at Princeton. Roman Smoluchowski was there.
Harwit: He had been at Princeton also.
Herman: Exactly. As a graduate student I knew John Wheeler as a graduate student when he arrived in ‘38. Wheeler was an assistant professor, I was a graduate student. Roman was at the Institute for Advanced Study, I think ‘39, ‘40, something like that. And I also knew a Professor Robert S. Schechter, who is a very excellent petroleum chemist who knows a lot about statistical mechanics. It was a pleasure for me to go down there. I’ve been there for four years; I’ve been teaching in civil engineering, but not in physics. I’ve been doing traffic science on the civil engineering side; although quite a bit of what I’ve been doing in traffic science is embedded in some of the statistical physics, and also in some of the ideas of stability and fluctuations in dissipative structures. I am also pursuing the work with Wallis on the interaction of an electron with multipoles, and Alpher and I keep talking and hoping that we’re going to put together some material regarding certain aspects of cosmology, and so forth, if we have the energy, the time, and the ability to do that. That is briefly about where I stand now. I might mention to you that I have done a great deal of consulting over the years — well, work — with the National Academy, National Bureau of Standards, and Office of Naval Research, etc. (I might mention that I have never consulted for fees.) live served on two commissions of the NRC. I served on the Assembly for Mathematical and Physical Sciences for three years.
Harwit: Which does what?
Herman: That commission was concerned with mathematics and physics. Then I served for another three years on the Commission for Sociotechnical Systems. Its name has changed.
Harwit: What does it do?
Herman: These commissions are concerned with many different kinds of things. I mean, the latter commission was concerned to some degree, with communication science, building science, with safety hazardous materials, etc. The physics one was concerned with many problems that had to do with physics and astronomy for that matter. I have tried to serve the community in those ways. I’m presently still a member of the Committee on Resources for Mathematics, and that is an attempt to get more resources for pure mathematics and to resolve some of the difficulties of mathematics…
Harwit: What do you mean by resources, in this case?
Herman: Money to support projects so that there can be funding for professors so they can travel, so they can have students, postdocs, and so on. There is certainly a lack of this type of funding in the mathematical community. My efforts with the NRC, live coupled with my efforts with ONR, years ago, as a consultant with NSF. My working with an industrial company for a long time, and being at a number of universities, has given me a rather broad view, that has generated in me a very deep concerns about the funding of research in the United States, the impact it has on the direction and the quality of research in universities. The kinds of development professors undergo in order to be successful in the university structures, as they are. And this is something I just mention in passing as a topical area that I would like very much to have an opportunity to discuss and get into sometime, because I think it is time that very careful consideration is given to how to modify what is going on, to the benefit of the professors, the students, the universities and the country as a whole.
Harwit: The structuring of the universities and the funding in order to facilitate good scientific work to be done in and students to be taught…
Herman: Yes, in all disciplinary areas, I don’t feel that we’re doing as good a job as we might. I just use this as an opportunity to mention these feelings that I have.
Harwit: You’ve also served on editorial boards, I believe.
Herman: Oh yes, I was an associate editor for the Reviews of Modern Physics. I was the founding editor of Transportation Science, which is a journal devoted to the science of transportation and traffic. I was an associate editor of Operations Research which is the principal journal of the Operations Research Society of America. I, in addition, served on the Council of the Operations Research Society of American. I was the president of the Society. I’ve done refereeing until it comes out of my eyes and ears. I’ve tried to serve the scientific community. I regret that I haven’t had as much involvement in the Physical Society as I would have liked, but it’s not possible to do everything, I suppose.
Harwit: Now, you’ve also had a large number of honors. Have some of those been for the traffic work, or most of it been for your cosmological work?
Herman: Well, there are the four awards that were discussed in Alpher’s statements that I shared with him. In addition to that, I have received other honors, awards, associated with my other life. I received a medal from the Universite Libre in Brussels. I received the Townsend Harris Medal from City College of New York.
Harwit: What is that given for?
Herman: That is given to distinguished alumni for their achievements in science or humanities. I received the Lancaster Prize of the Operations Research Society of American and the Johns Hopkins University – that’s a joint sponsorship – for the early work that I did in traffic. (Modeling single-lane flow with no passing — giving the mathematical description of the flow and stability.) That was a joint award with some other people. Then I received the George E. Kimball Medal of the Operations Research Society for contributions to the profession of operations research and to the society. Then, I think, like a lot of other people, I received the Naval Ordnance Award for the work done during the war.
Harwit: Dr. Alpher says in the background, “Oh yes, I forgot all about that.” You also got one of those? Dr. Alpher is sitting here while we’re discussing Dr. Herman's career. Are there any things I should have asked you about your career that I didn't, that seem important to you?
Herman: Well, the only thing that insinuates itself, and I think we’ve touched on this. I don't know whether it was… I don't think it was on the tape… I think we’ve touched on this, otherwise. And that is the whole question of the process of doing creative work and what is involved in getting work done, wherever you may be? This is, of course, a very deep and complex subject. The feeling I have is that there are a lot of forces at play, and, I think, having done a great deal of work in my lifetime — whether good, bad or indifferent — I can say without being accused of sour grapes that there are a lot of things going on that make it extraordinarily difficult to go ahead and do work. In other words, what I think I’m trying to say, as apart from the difficulty of creation, the institutional structures seem to me to not make it easier to do good work, but they make it harder all the time. I have found that to be true in universities, in industry, in relation with the government. In other words, there are always reasons that crush it, rather than reasons that make it easier.
Harwit: Do you have the feeling that it's become worse over the decades or century, or whether this is something that has always been there, because scientists and other creative people tend to live at the expense of the rest of society, and have to be accounted for?
Herman: Well, if I have to answer right away, I would say, in general, I think other your remark is correct, that it has always been this way.
Harwit: Without particular change one way or the other?
Herman: Well, basically, I believe, it has always been this way, but as time goes on, I think there are more and more effects that make it difficult. I think that has happened because of the whole evolution of the funding. I remember that right after World War II, I was visiting Princeton with two colleagues from the Applied Physics Laboratory. One was Shirleigh Silverman, whom we’ve mentioned before; the other was a chap by the name of Robert Petersen. He had been involved in the proximity fuse program and also in the ramjet program — rocket program. These two people were saying how marvelous it was that the Government was getting involved in supplying funding for scientific projects, and at that time, I said to them that it's a mixed blessing because, in my opinion, this was going to evolve over the years into a situation where the Government was going to be controlling the funding, and therefore controlling the directions, to some degree or other. And I don't want to sound like the Delphian oracle, but I feel that this is what has happened. It needs a very, very careful look by the scientific community because if you are not in the right club, you are in trouble. I think the scientific community should be concerned about the support of worthy work. It should be concerned that the funding just doesn't go along certain fashionable lines to the exclusion of others and the lack of funding — even small amounts for young people who are creative and capable. I just think this problem should be studied very intensively.
Harwit: I was hoping tomorrow when you and Dr. Alpher will be discussing your cosmological work that we could get into this area of clubs of various types. I’m hoping that maybe you’ll discuss that.
Herman: Be happy to try to do that.
Harwit: What I'd like to do tomorrow is to start talking about cosmological work that the two of you did, and repercussions it's had. And then also, perhaps, if overnight you think of things that either one of you would have wanted to add today, we should have some time at the end of the joint interview where each of you could add on to what you've said. Sometimes one has ideas after sleeping on them. Good.
Herman: Time. (My mentioning this work undoubtedly expresses my feelings about the rapid passage of time. von Humboldt once said, “…time does not flow on emptily, it brings, and takes, and leaves behind.” I have also always been intrigued by the brain's marvelous ability to “work” in the unconscious mode as you “sleep on ideas.”) Excellent.