Oral History Transcript — Dr. Paul Buck
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Paul Buck; March 2, 1977
Interview concentrates on the history of the physics department at Harvard University, and discusses: the department's relationship with the department of history; appointments to the department; movement of the cyclotron to Los Alamos; development of a general education program in science. Harvard personnel discussed include: J. H. Van Vleck, John Slater, Ted Kemble, Kenneth Bainbridge, Roger Hickman, Gerry Holton, Bernard Cohen, James Bryant Conant, Harlow Shapley, George David Birkhoff, P. W. Bridgman, Edward Purcell, Julian Schwinger, I. I. Rabi, Wendell Furry.
Sopka:This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I am visiting today, the 2nd of March, 1977, with Mr. Paul Buck in his apartment on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. In the interest of compiling a history of the Physics Department in recent decades, Mr. Buck has kindly consented to share with me today his perspective on developments in physics at Harvard from the point of view of an Administrator and a Historian.
Mr. Buck, perhaps we can begin by asking you to comment on when you first became acquainted with the members of the Physics Department and began to share their concerns.
I arrived in Cambridge as a graduate student in Conant Hall in the fall of 1922, and as I was unpacking I heard someone blowing a flute, an Ohio State football song. I went out, and there was Van Vleck, who was living in an adjacent room, and had preceded me to the Harvard Graduate School a year in advance. That was my first acquaintance with Van. We became close friends. We remained close friends from then on. Itís rather interesting to me that we had adjacent rooms in Conant Hall more than 50 years ago; we now live in apartments in the same building. He on the fourth floor, and Iím on the fifth floor just above him. I also knew John Slaterlvery, well, who later went to M.I.T. [???] days. My next acquaintance came when I, became Dean of the Faculty and later Provost of the University people like Ted Kemble, Bainbridge, Roger Hickman who showed me the then unused Cyclotron which we were about to send down to Los Alamos. I mentioned, and then a new series of acquaintances came when I had to begin solving problems, making decisions on the appointment of Purcell, Schwinger, and Ramsey or knew very well.
Also another very close relationship developed when I, as Chairman of the original committee on General Education in a Free Society had to develop a program. The Physics Department responded beautifully. Ted Kemble, Gerry Holton, Bernard Cohen who wasnít in the Physics Department, but was in the History of Science developed a course in General Education for non-scientists that (superb) on completely respected the Rockefeller and Carnegie Corporations, whose helped endowed it, who helped finance it. This was a wonderful group of men, and I enjoyed them as people, I respected them as scholars, and I came to feel that our Physics Department as it developed under my Deanship was one of the nicest groups of gentlemen that I have ever come into contact with.
Some Department, are riven by internal dissensions. Understandably among serious scholars, the two Departments that seemed to me to be both distinguished and compatible were the Department of Physics and the Department of History. So thatís my acquaintance with that Department. the wartime problems of a University and of the Physics Department — there are two parts of that — One is Conantís effort in (Gurvcs) to improve the quality of the faculty, and then my, more-or-less taking over most of his functions during the War and filing that our joint effort to build up the quality of faculty. Our device was to develop the ad hoc committee system which you must be acquainted with.
Buck:Conant was worried by the fact that many departments, in the sciences as well as in the humanities, had suffered by not keen enough investigation of people recommended to the President and the Dean. Conant came in perhaps to rapidly, enough political finesse, which (later) supplied him with and began telling people in the Biology Department, his own Department of Chemistry, and especially Physics to the then Saunders that the quality had slipped, and something had to be done about it. Conant A burning with all cent the knowledge of what was happening in breakthrough of science, in the biological sciences, biochemistry, in chemistry itself, in physics especially was a new century, not unlike the century of Newton; it was coming up, and what should be done about it? I think that turmoil resulting in the Committee of Eight, (the committee that examined tenure problems — too much-rested upon three great scientists who were celebrated in Morrisonís 7 volumes on The History of Science.
The History of Harvard, you (?), Shapley in Astronomy, Birkhoff in Mathematics, and Pete Bridgman in Physics. But these men alone couldnít face the future and this would-make us restless. Shapley was the only important scientist, for example, when the War broke who was not offered an important position, any position at all in the War effort. Birkhoff died, but Birkhoff towards the end told me he was completely ignorant of the development (?) toward Aiken was developing in his new machines that have so revolutionized many aspects of science. He just wasnít interested in that. At a meeting that we had in the Faculty Room the IBM (?) President [???] Birkhoffs research as a ďThe machine is not worth a damn. [???] mind could solve a problem at less expense.Ē As for Pete Bridgman, one thing that shocked me. This great scientist really knew less what was happening in the atomic energy field than I, an outsider, knew, and I knew no physics. So something had to be done, and the dominance of this great trio had to be somewhat changed by a whole new group of younger people. Thatís one aspect. Now [???] how do you write this type of history? You mentioned volumes of Morrisonís one volume — and Iíll mention a second. The volume he mentioned was his Harvard in the latter part of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th. Each class (?) done by an individual from a particular department.
Thatís the type of educational history which I donít like. It is purely institutionalized, itís the purely personalized, and it doesnít show intellectual aspects what really were happening to things. I had hoped that after I got through my many years of administration I could return to my history writing and write an intellectual history of the University — what happened in all the various departments. Well, that book turned out to be too big an assignment for a man my age, and after having been exhausted by too much administrative work, but mainly because I hadnít kept up with the literature. Itís commonly known (?) that when a scientist thinks in chemistry or physics, as Conant left his (?) administrative work could not return and catch up with what had happened in chemistry. (Chuckle)
[???]sadort memoirs. There had just been too much written, and what man could do all his fields. What happened to economics which went through those various changes? What happened to history which broadened tremendously (?) Chemistry, physics and (?). I hope that we would write a different type of history. It canít be done by one man or one woman, but it ought to be done by Departments. What really happened to physics, an (?) that important decade? Morrison is an (?) example. The volume I want to mention is his Harvard-Founding of Harvard in the 17th Century. This is a relatively small subject, but he mastered it, and many of us, professional scholars, think that was one of his best works. He really knew what people were thinking and what they were teaching and all that sort of thing. (?) one has done that in later years. So I was hoping that maybe this is the type of history that you might want to write (?) wartime problems (?) a University.
Sopka:You mentioned in particular the moving of the Cyclotron. Did that have to go through approvals?
I got a phone call one morning from Conant who was in Washington saying, Paul, Iím talking as a representative of the Manhattan Project, Iím talking to you, acting in my capacity as President of Harvard. You are going to be approached by Van [???] Bush to request movement of the Cyclotron to Los Alamos. You know this is a very delicate subject, and I had enough secrets to keep (?). Conant was very proper in not trying to, but I want you to [???] make decision and listen to Bush. Well, I never (?) about the Cyclotron as a new Dean, so I called up Roger Hickman, and had my first meeting with him. I later made him an Assistant Dean in the scientific area. A very fine gentleman indeed and a very useful servant to the Physics Department. Not himself a great physicist, but the type of person who understands and so forth. He taught (?) semester.
Sopka:He taught the first semester of Physics B at Radcliffe. He was my first teacher in physics.
Buck:He took me up to that shed — that old [???] building, now torn down, you know, that had been built up in World War I, and that looked to me like a lot of tin. The old Cyclotron — was utterly idle — and he explained it to me and showed me, etc. So I went back and was informed. Acquiring money to build that thing was very complex indeed, from all sorts of who sources, and a number of people worked on it, were part at Harvard and part had gone away. I think Bainbridge had had a major influence in the building of it. Bridgman had operated also a committee to help finance it. Well, Bush called, and I said I would be receptive. The Cyclotron was not being used now. It was a shame to have an instrument like that completely idle. If it could be used in Los Alamos, I would [???] out the processes of leaving. But there were legal problems, and I would have to call in the re-assurer and my good friend and colleague, Bill Claflin, and we would have to solve the financial and legal problems.
Well, they sent up agents to work on the legal problems and financial problems, and the arrangement was very equitable to both sides. The main thing that dominated my point of view was that if that Cyclotron can [???] it be used — it was not being used in Cambridge — could be used at Los Alamos; we had an obligation to get it there. Arrangements were — and they a [???] were approved by Claflin, and joint recommendation, the Corporation permitted [???] to move.
Then, a tempest in a tea-storm arrived. Bridgman went to my office, ďWho are you, (?), to decide whether that Cyclotron would go to Los Alamos?Ē I said, ďWell, Iíve had good advice, but if you want more, would an [???] statement from Bush help you?Ē He said, ďYesĒ, and he went off. I called Bush and I said (?). Bridgman had long been a dominant influence, dictator of the Department. He didnít understand what it was all about, but he doesnít want to have that Cyclotron moved by an historian, and I said, ďCan you help me out?Ē Bush did. Three hours later I got a telephone call from Bridgman saying he was appropriately satisfied that the thing be moved. Bridgman no more understood what this problem was about thanÖ Iím talking about a great man whom I respect... but the physics had moved beyond him, and (?) said about it. Just a (?) years later, Purcell once said, ďSome of this new small particle physics has gone beyond me.Ē Our point was how we could adjust (?). During the war years, and shortly after, Conant and I devised this idea of an ad hoc committee. Youíre familiar with it.
Sopka:I know that there have been ad hoc committees at various times in the history...
Buck:No, we started it on a very comprehensive point of view. (?) Committee (?) irregularly and imperfectly in the early years — Conant and I (?) systematized. The first thing was that department in making its recommendations, support its recommendations with full data, and in also saying who were the other people who were runners-up for the competition. Would the recommenders name five or six other people that you considered and state why you preferred them, the men you recommended?
Sopka:I have found one of those files in the Departmentís records of such a file that they prepared for somebody who was proposed, but then didnít come, but I was interested to see the form and the detail.
Buck:Well, that developed, and there was a lot of paperwork. Then the next important thing was that since Conant and I realized that no one or two men could pass judgment on a whole realm of subjects, we would have the advice of outside scholars of repute and also within the University weíd have one or two people from an adjacent Department, but no one from the Department itself. On the other hand, we would have as witnesses any, not only Chairmen, but several other people that might wish to come and give testimony, and as I (?) pointed out in a talk with Smith that he quotes in his article. Conant was persistent in probing, and never did he indicate what his own preferences were or were not. He was completely impartial in his (?). I got the material together, and I negotiated with the Departments. Well, as this relates to the Physics Department, remember during the War an awful lot of our first-rate physicists were away.
Sopka:Yes, almost all of them. At least as far down the river as M.I.T. if not out in Los Alamos.
Buck:I figured that if we really were going to take the Physics Department recommendation — I donít remember now who they recommended — Purcell was one of them. I think the other we didnít approve of, but I told Conant that I could fine resources for two more appointments, that the Department was understaffed, and if we were going to meet the challenge of the future of physics, we had to get some more, so I created two new appointments. Donít ask me how I got the money for it. Thatís irrelevant. And we went to town. I forget who was then appointed. Purcell obviously. I think Schwinger was in that group.
Sopka:Yes, I jotted down the dates when they came. It was in the late 40ís. Ramsey came in the 40ís.
Buck:I think Purcell got his appointment in Ď46. Now, someone else was appointed in Ď46, and he came and he went back. Was that Fisk?
Sopka:That was Wilson.
Buck:Wilson, oh. He preferred a laboratory job.
Sopka:He went to Cornell I believe immediately from Harvard. I believe he is in Chicago now.
Buck:Donít we have Fisk here?
Sopka:Fisk? I donít believe so. He may have been discussed and proposed.
Buck:Well, Purcell. ThenÖI swear it goes back to Ď45. It was the youngest man given permanency in recent times. And thatís the story. Schwinger had been at M.I.T. in the Radiation Laboratory, not as a Professor, and everyone said that he just couldnít teach. First place, his living habits — he didnít get up until about noon. Sometimes he didnít get to M.I.T. until late in the afternoon. And then heíd start by seeing on the blackboard problems that others had left unsolved. Heíd solve them. Then heíd go to work and then heíd go back, and everyone felt that he just couldnít fit into the University. But then a (?) committee (?) everyone (?) was a real genius. A man of physics who would equal any one of his generation. A very young man. And I said all right, letís try him out. Letís get him. (Laughter) You have to put him undercover until after heís through the Governing Boards, because Schwinger (?) out very well, and (?) Van helped. Van Vleck, my close friend, helped (?). We offered Schwinger the job.
Once Harvard offered the job, then two other Universities got immediately interested in him, one of them was Rabi, his teacher at Columbia, who said ďMy God. Weíll offer him a job at Columbia.Ē And then Oppenheimer, who was about to leave California and wanted to be succeeded by him, he went out to get him there. And these two people were arguing, Oppenheimer why he shouldnít go to Columbia and Columbia arguing why he shouldnít go to California, all forgetting that Harvard was in the picture. Van as Chairman of the Department went to work and quietly convinced Schwinger. He was (?) by the fact that Schwinger married a young lady from Brookline who didnít want to leave Boston. So we got Schwinger. That was quite a triumph. (?) Bainbridge had already been there, but we gave him new encouragement. Ramsey was brought, and that was largely a problem of Columbia not knowing how to handle him. They wanted him to work (?) at Brookhaven. And he didnít want to be away there. He wanted to be in a University. So we got Ramsey. Well, Iím rather proud of some of those appointments. It certainly regenerated the Department. Above all it put it in the hands of younger men who had achieved and knew where physics was going. There were Bainbridge, Purcell, Schwinger, Ramsey, and Brooks who are the ones I remember most. And also in a humbler fashion, but an important fashion, Roger Hickman, I made him Assistant to the Dean in the science area and he kept me informed. He was very modest, unselfish, in an objective way. And Van remained very well. Iíll repeat what I said, that the Departmentís major contributions to the General Education Program, Kemble was superb, Gerry Holton was superb, Bernard Cohen was superb, and of course Conant who gave the fourth course in Chemistry. I think Conant had an assistant who is now at Princeton (lost to California or Princeton). His name I forget.
Sopka:Was that Thomas Kuhn?
Buck:Tom Kuhn, yes. I knew Tom Kuhn, because he was Editorial Chairman of the Crimson, and I saw a good deal of him. He wrote superb articles on the General Education Program. Well, that was quite refreshing. There have been other appointments since that I recall, but I will say that the contributions of the Department to the General Education Program, the first three courses in science for non-concentrators... Oh, Iím talking too much.
Sopka:No, Iím most appreciative of it. I might just interject in your comment about the General Education that Iím making a proposal to give a course like that through the Radcliffe Institute Seminar Program on an adult education level where people missed an introduction to science during their formal education might have a chance to go back and not only learn some science but learn it from this perspective that has been developed through Kemble and Holton, Conantís work over the last 20 years.
Buck:These were first-rate people of course and Kemble made one important amendment on the faculty that was not accepted at once. There were debates over the situation. Instead of having a single course, we ought to have a group of courses, and not too many. It was figured that there should be four in science. Kemble gave a [???] course in physics for people who couldnít use mathematics; I think Holton was largely for those who could [???] use mathematics; Cohen approached the history of science; and Conant did it from [???] sort of a case system. He figured it was very difficult to explain [???] to undergraduates some of the experiments in modern sciences. It was technique; it was pretty much so if you took a well-known figure like Newton and showed how [???] worked [???] his experiments, or go back to Harveyís discovery of blood, and that sort of thing. They could get a picture through the cases from the past. And I think those beautifully complemented each other. Do you have some more questions? On the whole I think I have answered the question of post-war adjustment to new physics in the student body. I think that was a very successful period.
Sopka:Yes, it certainly was.
Buck:I think one of the most exciting periods in Harvard history. As for the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, that was a problem. We had received that gift from... Whatís his name?
Sopka:Gordon McKay. Gordon McKay to teach physic applied science and engineering from the [???] beginning to the end. Here came a delightful problem. Since we just establish a new engineering school here were an abundance [???] Every state has university, and had an engineering school, but Conant realized that something new was necessary, that was to give the [???] people [???] home basis in physics so that they could apply this science to the new technology. The sort of thing that was being done in some areas of M.I.T. and Caltech. But how to do it at Harvard? We had some mechanical engineering, a very good program in mining engineering, but for the most part it didnít reach these big new problems that the war presented and how to handle these things on a much higher level. But who to find as Chairman. The then Chairman, Dean of the School, whatís his name...back in the war years... was a pleasant person but he didnít have the intellectual breadth of science.
Sopka:Is that Harry Mimno?
Buck:Oh, no, no. He was never Dean
Sopka:He was Acting Dean at least for aÖ
Buck:Yes, but this fellow was in and out of the war an awful lot. Westergard or something like that?
Sopka:I believe that is.
Well, [???] we had a [???]But this wasnít his central. His central was sanitary engineering, very [???] so we found Van. Everyone was surprised, why did we pick Van for that job? Well, Van did a superb job, and the whole thing was transformed and developed. It was a very important post-war thing, a major achievement, being a Division of Engineering and Applied Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. (Chuckle) I remember Garrett Birkhoff. The first proposal [???] to describe it as the Department of Applied Physics and Engineering. Well, APES would be [???] (Laughter), [???] so we [???] it to the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics. So Harvey Brooks, who succeeded Van, as a very distinguished fellow has continued this on. And I remember he explained it very well at luncheon. A friend of [???] mine who was in [???] presence of the Cambridge Electric Light Company, [???] complaining that in the Harvard alumnus of some distinction and achievement was complaining to me that he couldnít get any graduates from Harvardís Division of Applied Science. Heíd have to go to places like Northeastern, and why couldnít Harvard train people. Well, I had him to lunch with Harvey Brooks and Harvey Brooks explained that we just donít get that type of student who would be satisfied working in a small place like that. That it isnít important, but itís at a lower level. Our people go into major University positions, a research laboratory like Bell, G.E., etc. And thatís it.
Sopka:Itís probably comparable with the comment that the Harvard Medical School does not train family doctors.
Buck:Even more specialized, at least in the past, was Johnís Hopkins. They [???] were definitely [???] research medical people, not even surgeons and also Professors at Medical Schools. The [???] I have nothing much to say about the Furry episode except that it is all in the past. This was not the Physics Departmentís problem. It was just by accident that Furry was in the Physics Department. I think itís all been documented. This is my problem. At that time I had won the complete respect of the faculty with respect to the Physics Department, and they were willing to let it lie in my hands. The Corporation appointed a committee; Conant was away, of course, the committee was composed of three members of the Corporation. [???] The administrative committee replace [???] the President. I was made Chairman, Charles Coolidge, a very important member of the Corporation, was on it, Paul Cabot (as Treasurer) was on it, and Roger Lee who was somewhat senile but was a senior member of the Corporation, and it. Most of the work went to me. When the Furry case broke, Charlie Coolidge was out in Aspen skiing and not available, Paul Cabot was having a vacation sailing in the West Indies, Roger Lee was [???] and I was all alone to handle this.
Sopka:Were you, by then, Provost of the University?
Buck:Yes, for some time. I immediately announced that there would be no blanket rule. Conant, I later learned when talking with Charlie Coolidge, [???] had favored this, and he had publicized this actually. If anyone admitted membership in the Communist Party, heíd be out. That was a blanket rule. I went before the faculty and I repudiated this. Coolidge later told me that Conant had announced that it was his view, but that the Corporation should take no action that Paul Buck wasnít willing to support before the faculty. I really had no authority as I think one of those papers [???] but I made it. Coolidge later said that he was rather annoyed that I had done [???] consulting him. Really Charlie, how could I consult you in Aspen? [???] Paul Cabot or anyone else? I had move. Coolidge [???] it worked out pretty well.
Sopka:Was the feeling on the level of the Corporation that Wendell Furry [???] have when he was called up — should have opened up and told everything and named names and should have been a completely cooperative witness?
Buck:No, I donít think so. Actually Furry was very... I was on these committees. They appointed another committee, within the University committee, of which I was Chairman also. Don David from the Business School, Herman Griswold from the Law School, someone from the Medical School (I have forgotten). David didnít want to serve, so we had Baker, a member of his faculty, who later became Dean of the Business School, and I had Purcell. I think that was the committee. We met rather regularly, and we took testimony. Purcell [???] wasnít very articulate. [???] Iíd only had Charlie Coolidge there talking with us. Purcell didnít say anything, but when he got home he called me up on the phone, and he talked beautifully, and I said Ed, why god damn didnít you say this at the meeting? On the other hand, we had Ramsey in, the articulate Ramsey. It was wonderful. But it was a crisis in my life. I had decided earlier that I was going to leave the administration when Conant left. We had been a team which couldnít be duplicated, and I think that a time for a change would come and Iíd leave. At the first faculty meeting this is what I said, [???] devoted the past twelve years, the central years of my life, to the well-being of this faculty. There remains 100 days until Commencement, and I shall be leaving. I shall do what I can to prevent in this short period the work of many years of being [???] But in real sense the final determination of the extent of harm to the faculty is [???] in your hands — the maturity you show, the judgment you reflect, responsibility you exercise — the faculty rallied behind the Provost and supported the Harvard Corporation with the thoughtful treatment of the cases that had achieved [???] notoriety in Washington. From the onset —, the Provost declined to go along with a blanket rule automatically suspending and perhaps terminating the appointment of faculty members who refused to answer questions put to them by a Congressional Committee. Each case was considered on its merits, and decision on the final case was summarized by the Provost — the last Faculty [???] So you see, I had support the faculty. They didnít need to, and the result was a triumphant success for the faculty at least. I donít know how some alumni took it.
Sopka:Well, I think it would be impossible to satisfy everybody in the extended Harvard family but...
Buck:The [???] all these investigations and Congressional things,— you asked me whether Furry had been cooperative in answering. Well, the answer to that is that he answered the questions. I had published, you know, the hearings summary. I published a pamphlet and distributed it to all members.
Sopka:Yes, Iíve read all of those. I found it very illuminating myself to read.
Buck:There it was. Now actually when the Corporation, Charlie Coolidge, our [???] committee questioned Furry, he made a much more damaging condition — all the FBI and all the Congressional investigations [???], He admitted he had committed perjury. At one time denying that he had ever been a member of the Party. Now that shocked the Corporation no end, because according to our statutes there are only two causes for dismissal of a man from a tenured position. One is gross neglect of duty, and the second is grave misconduct. Now perjury is a grave misconduct for [???]. Iíve had quite a day discussing [???] that with Charlie Coolidge. Of course, in itself — would be justifiable cause for dismissal. But there is such a thing as compassion in this world and forgiveness, and I thought Furryís later conduct [???] for that. It wasnít legal anymore, because the 7 year period had passed — It could [???] Furryís later conduct convinced me he had reformed and was now an honorable citizen, and that the whole essence of religion is the degree to which it can forgive a person. I tell, it took some talking, but it worked. Iím talking too much. I have nothing more to say. If you have any other questions...
Sopka:Well, [???] in talking with people in the department and with Furry himself, I realized that this sort of cloud over him lasted for some time and there was an additional problem raised at the time when you were so successful in getting the Corporation to agree to the fact that, although grave misconduct was recognized, it was not necessary to fire somebody who seemed like a reformed and valuable member of the faculty. Then it was only after that in the McCarthy period, when he was actually cited for contempt of Congress and could have gone to jail, there was the problem of what would Harvard have done if he had gone to trial and actually been jailed.
Buck:That was previous, wasnít it?
Sopka:No, it came after.
Buck:After I had left. I donít know that, because I was in Europe at that period. I had a sabbatical after I got out of office.
Sopka:You probably needed it.
Buck:And Sally and I were in Greece, Those were all the [???], yes. I didnít know about that. I donít think they would have changed their mind. They made a decision, the Corporation. He was put on probation for a while so that if anything happened, but this happened before, so I donít think there is anything there. I donít know about that, though, because, as I say I was washing my hair clean elsewhere.
Sopka:Well, I thank you very much. Itís been very helpful to have you talk.
I return real history is not as dramatic as the Furry trial, etc., and Iím not for a moment denying that if we had lost that case, an awful lot of hard work I put in in those 12 years would have been destroyed. The whole Physics Department, which I took so much pride in for its great morale and competence, would all have been shattered. This I couldnít so this was important. I think when [???] fact