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

Oral History Transcript — Dr. Richard Wilson

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

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

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

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


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


Interview with Dr. Richard Wilson
By Katherine Sopka
At Harvard, Lyman Laboratory of Physics
February 10, 1977

open tab View abstract

Richard Wilson; February 10, 1977

ABSTRACT: Includes information on his education in England and his postdoctoral work in the United States prior to arrival at Harvard; early impressions of life in the Harvard Physics Department; cooperative work in high energy physics within the department and with MIT; subsequent decline of all such work locally until only the cyclotron remained active serving medical needs; comparison of training of theoreticians and experimentalists with emphasis on wide employability of the latter.

Transcript

Sopka:

This is Katherine Sopka speaking. Iím visiting today, the 10th of February, 1977, with Professor Richard Wilson in his office in the Lyman Laboratory of Physics. In the interest of compiling a history of the physics department in recent decades, Professor Wilson has kindly consented to share with me today his recollections and perspective on developments in physics at Harvard since he first came here more than 20 years ago. Professor Wilson, perhaps we can best begin by asking you about your pre-Harvard background and about the circumstances surrounding you coming to Harvard in 1955.

Wilson:

Yes, I was educated in England doing high school during the Second World War, and began Oxford just at the tail end of the Second World War. I was lucky in one sense because I was just finishing my undergraduate work and the Army didnít want anybody and I was more or less directed to go on to take a PhD instead of being directed to go into the Army. And this, for English purposes, this was equivalent to military service, which was very useful in later time. So I started studying for the PhD or DPhil as we have it in Oxford, in 1946, about a year after the end of the second World War. And I was interested in that time in nuclear physics though it wasnít the strongest part of Oxford lab, and at that time the highest energy available was from radioactive sources. I worked with radioactive thorium, and then I used the first radioactive source ever to come out of a Harwell reactor which was built a little while later. So it was always coming to the United States was clearly the only possible thing for a European physicist to do, to at least visit. My father always said that way back. The Bell labs and RCA labs were brilliant places to be. So when the opportunity of the PhD was over I started looking around to visit, and the place that came up was Rochester, which Iíd never really heard about before, except I was told by my thesis advisor, Hans Habon [?] that Vicky Weisskopf had been there and a lot of good people had been there, Lidar Bridge [?] had been there, and they had a cyclotron just being finished and Burton [?] asked if Iíd like to spend some time there. So I did so. So a year after my PhD I went out to Rochester for a year. Then I met Panofsky at Rochester when he was visiting and went out to work with him for a year at Stanford, and where I got married to my wife, the sister of Panofskyís wife, and then went back home to England in 1951 — no, 1952 — with the intention of staying in England. But I found England was by no means as excited about what was going on in America as I thought ought to be. And to some extent, the fact that Iíd been away from England for two years meant that I started on the bottom of the ladder again. And after a couple of years I looked around to leaving England, particularly since I hadnít found a permanent job or even a continuing one, one which was guaranteed to continue. And so an offer of a job came from Harvard because Professor Ramsey was visiting Oxford. Actually, Harvard would not have been my preferred choice, but after some consideration I decided to come here and came here in 1955. Iíd been working before at Rochester. Iíd worked with their cyclotron studying with mesons the first experiment in captured pi mesons in deuterium, which gave us the spin of the pi meson. Worked a little bit with the electron lineac at Stanford — it wasnít terribly fruitful. Actually just beginning. And back in Oxford I worked by that time, with a cyclotron at Harwell, which was 20 miles away. So I came to a very equivalent machine here from Harwell. So when I came here I didnít know many of the faculty. In fact, Iíd met Norman Ramsey, I had met Professor Bainbridge before when he visited Harwell when I was a graduate student. The time I was in Rochester, I spent one day visiting Harvard and I met Professor Strauch, Professor Van Vleck. And the faculty knew me a little more because — well they knew my wifeís family. My wife being the daughter of Professor Dumon of Caltech. This was rather amusing because when I first arrived in Harvard Physics Department, Van Vleck introduced me at a luncheon meeting as Jesse Dumonís son-in-law. I didnít really feel Iíd arrived on the Harvard faculty until about four years later when one of Jesse Durmonís visits to us, I took him into the lunch at Harvard and Van Vleck introduced him as Dick Wilsonís father-in-law.

Sopka:

Very good. I didnít realize that.

Wilson:

So I think to the extent that Harvard does have a style, and in some sense itís a conservative style, in the best sense of the word conservative, its people donít interfere with anybody else. It always has seemed to me, some sort of quibbles in other departments, and indeed, the incipient things in this department, I can see people not entirely agree with each other, but the amount of acceptance and respect everyone has for each other, it makes an extremely pleasant place to be around. I think that from other places oneís visited, the tensions are much more obvious. When you get bright people, each with strong wills and strong views, tensions are normal. But they donít seem to occur very much here. I think that if thereís any style, that itís that, and itís interesting to try and understand why. I think it became a habit for one or two particularly good people and particularly nice people from when I came here. Because Professor Street, whom Iíd never met before and never really heard much about his work, I think he has contributed very much to that atmosphere. I still do. In a sense, thatís the style one can come across very strongly. At the same time, itís a style, although people accept each other, there is not as much cooperation with people here as Iíve seen in other places. On big projects there was the cooperation for the cyclotron and then the electron accelerator. But that rather went to pieces, and I donít see that on anything, either in the physics department or in the engineering department, at the moment. And I regard that as a weakness, particularly for experimental subjects because it means we wonít have any big facilities in the area. When I first came here, it clearly had been the cooperation, or there was, on planning the electron accelerator. That time there was cooperation with MIT. I suppose the primary movers in that cooperation were Street and Ramsey, and from MIT there was Livingston, and probably Zacharias at MIT I would have thought was the dominant person responsible for that cooperation and anyone directly concerned with the accelerator himself. But that was more or less around the electron accelerator — what really broke the cooperation between Harvard and MIT was the hydrogen bubble chamber catastrophe. Well, on questions of what to do thereafter, it was a split on institutional lines, which weíd not really had before. I mean, weíd had agreements to differ on institutional lines, and say this is your preserve, this is our preserve. Itís just simpler to keep it that way. But on this occasion there was a real split which was never really recovered from, and I think was the source of the failure; I mean the end of the electron accelerator and the failure to do any — to get really fundamental things thereafter. Probably the failure to keep it going for synchrotron radiation which was associated with that.

Sopka:

You mean you think the demise of the local activity was as much attributable to difficulties in the workings of a group as to the mechanical limitations, or electromagnetic limitations of the equipment itself, that it had just been outclassed or outstripped by other machines elsewhere?

Wilson:

Well, thatís partially — I think the first crucial thing to keep the electron accelerator now with that energy, weíd have to be doing new things with it. And we did in fact propose 15 years ago to build a colliding beam, and we got some degree of unanimity on that and it was proposed by us Harvard primarily. But we didnít. And that was not so much an internal split. But of course we had a big battle with other people and who also wants to build a colliding beam out on the West Coast. It resulted in for some years neither of us building one. Which was the worst resolution of that battle. But itís typical of government bureaucracy: two people want something and they say neither of you shall have it. Really, give it to one. But then there were various things could have been done afterwards, but particularly after the explosion of the bubble chamber everyone was extremely sensitive on his own interests. A lot of people were thinking of moving their interests elsewhere and not really supporting the accelerator as a base for activities. And when there came a question of transferring the activities to synchrotron radiation, which is very interesting but not high energy physics, or direct interest to me, there was not enough support among the physics faculty or of MIT to really say look, this is what we want. So when it came to asking for money in the government, we were weak. And I think that was a not only a local tragedy, but a national tragedy because it basically, we pulled down the machine for a million dollars; it cost a million dollars to pull down. And righ now Brookhaven is starting building something similar which with a full cost of $20 million, which is just a national waste of money. However, that was, I think we did put the proposal into the government. One of my feelings is we should have, could have been stronger locally. And that part, I suppose, is the other part of the coin from everybody letting everybody else do his own thing, that when it comes to having complete group support for a big project it isnít always there because itís ďwell, thatís your thing, you do it.Ē Just say, ďLook, this is important to all of us that this goes ahead.Ē And I think we missed out on that. I think thatís one of the problems of experimental physics. Weíve been missing out on things like that. I think I came here, really, one of the reasons for coming here was the existence of the cyclotron which was similar to the one Iíd been working on at Harwell, almost the same size, which I could do work with. But then the plans for the electron accelerator were the reasons I really came here. The idea of being able to do work at home was what I wanted to do, and Iíd be working with [???] And the first six or seven years I was here I basically didnít do any experiments anywhere but at Harvard. As a matter of fact, basically the last 15. This was, I think, the choice, even though some of the more exciting physics was to be done at the cosmotron at Brookhaven. I decided the physics here was interesting enough, and I just preferred to sit down and work on the local things and that was convenient. I think a more satisfying way of working.

Sopka:

How have things worked out recently? Have you had to —

Wilson:

Well, recently, anyone whoís interested in really either nuclear or high energy physics, has to travel. The silly thing is, having rejected the thought of traveling when I was in my thirties, and now that I am 50 and I find Iím traveling all the time, at a time when it wears me out much more than it ever would have before. But that is just the way life has to be as things have changed.

Sopka:

Where have you been doing your work these days?

Wilson:

Well, letís see. The high energy physics have been at Fermi lab almost entirely at Batavia near Chicago. And Iíve been doing some nuclear physics at the National Bureau of Standards, and I find itís better down in Grenoble in France. Once, itís silly, all the measurements have been done away from here. All we can do here is assemble apparatus and write proposals and make telephone calls. Itís not quite a most satisfying way of doing things. That had a lot of effect, of course, because it means that the graduate students, I suspect — Harvard is a much less attractive place for graduate students to experiment in this sort of field as it used to be because the ideal thing for graduate students is while in your course work to be sort of playing with some equipment before developing to going elsewhere. And now to develop the equipment for the experiments you might be involved with or participating in some experiments of previous students and we canít do that so much now. We do some computer programming, but they see less of the whole picture. And the attractive place for a graduate student is clearly near where the accelerators are. So the result is the number of good experimental students we get in is really rather small at the moment. I think thatís a pity because the scope of the experimental students in jobs afterwards I think is enormous. Not that they all seem to feel. For example, in experimental high energy physics, every student that goes in you canít guarantee that he would be able to study experimental high energy physics until heís retired. But I think itís unreasonable to expect that. And in fact, I think the more reasonable question to ask is of the people who graduated experimental high energy physics or experimental nuclear physics, do they have a training which is useful in other things? Iíve had four students who moved out, moved away, and all of them regard the training they have in experimental high energy physics absolutely first rate for what they wanted to do. In fact, one has gone into radio therapy and teaching at Mass General Hospital, and he specifically said there is no such possibility to be a PhD in the field in which heís now working. So the training has to be in something else. The training heís had stretched his imagination and made him think about the equipment, and he couldnít have imagined it any better. So, itís hard to get that across to some incoming students. The standard thing theyíre told is the job shortage in experimental physics. That I think is perhaps in the last 20 years. Because when I came here, of the students around, only about one-third were staying on in academic life or field research. But then about the time Sputnik went up, that was 1956 I guess, to about four or five years ago, every student who wanted to could stay on an academic field research. That led an expectation. But itís not clear to me that they should have stayed on an academic research. I think in fact that was short changing the rest of society. But it led a pattern of thinking of people which I think weíre going to break a little. Well, many of the people in the department were thinking it along my present interests. The cyclotron — Itís interesting because everybody expected that to be closed out by now. Itís still keeping strong. Not pure physics, but almost entirely for medical work. That came up not entirely accidentally. It was intended at the beginning that it might be able to do some radiotherapy work. The first ten years no one got doctors interested. Without doctors being interested thereís no point. But then they spontaneously, the head of neurosurgery and one of the neurosurgeons at MDH, came up about 10 years ago, maybe a little more now, and so he started doing some work with the cyclotron, and now itís paid almost entirely for medical work. And in fact is one of the cheapest ways of a particular treatments being done much cheaper than surgery for treatments, which is what itís being used for. So thatís partly because the cyclotron was built and would otherwise be thrown away. I think itís partly because the cyclotron is close to physics department whereas itís quite clear that a cyclotron in a hospital would not necessarily have quite the same interest of other people in it. Itís also good to have that cyclotron being there. One or two undergraduate assistants every year, which I think is good for undergraduates to learn these things. I think itís important to have these things around a university where people can learn. Get some aspects of it. Aspects of whatís going on.

Sopka:

Do you think it may even be more effective as a training device because there isnít the high pressure of itís not a big machine, that thereís a lot of — Thereís not the same scheduling and the student can get close to the machine, maybe even try to do things.

Wilson:

Well, itís not being used that way. Itís not being used as a training device in a PhD sense; used more as a device for people to get some feel for what might happen in the medical field, not in anything else. Itíd be used as a testing ground for some equipment for high energy physics, which is useful. It helps. Weíre not a complete vacuum as far as beams are concerned for testing. So that helps. Iím more of the feeling that itís there. It gets constantly to peopleís attention that physics is more than elementary particle physics, and itís more than the pure theory and itís more than even the few experiments in elementary particle physics. It has a tremendous number of ramifications, some that you would never look at. I think that is important. With the other activity Iíve got in quite recently, of course, is running in conjunction with some from the Kennedy School of Government and Energy Policy Group, which is now...

Sopka:

Timely.

Wilson:

Timely, but its geographical concerned with — Itís one of these interesting Harvard things. We found the ideal geographical location was the tail end of Jefferson.

Sopka:

For doing what?

Wilson:

For this group to sit in.

Sopka:

Oh, I see.

Wilson:

Because it is halfway between the engineering department and the Kennedy School of Government and is convenient. And at the moment it is a place where some economist and engineers and technical people mix. I like the idea of that being close to physics people, because we in fact had a couple of physics undergraduates join in the work also. Absolutely first rate. The term papers theyíd write are the sort of thing R.D. Little would charge $50,000 for.

Sopka:

What kinds of questions are these?

Wilson:

Well, itís questions — the students wrote has been doing with some help from me, at the request of the energy officer of the state of Maine, is the problem and the extent to which one can in the state of Maine do what is called co-generation of electricity. That is to say, combine electricity generating devices and industrial parts. So to get greater efficiency and use of the fuel, which right now, since the fuel is more expensive, itís more interested in greater efficiency in its use than one used to be. So he wrote a fairly comprehensive paper on this subject, which, in fact, has plugged straight into the political system of the state of Maine. So that itís a sort of activity which leads to a relationship between technical and non-technical things, which is really quite, I think, important to realize how the technical things can properly get plugged in, because physics in my view shouldnít be in isolation from the rest of the world.

Sopka:

I should think that would be quite exciting for an undergraduate to be involved in something where he sees an immediate interest in the world.

Wilson:

What they seem to find that interesting — Iíve been giving a course on this. The last four years Iíve been doing half my teaching outside the department. In a certain sense this is one of the great pleasures of Harvard. If you have an idea which is half-way decent, the department chairman always letís you do it. So that gave me a course in natural science, a natural sciences course in energy environment. And this last year has been a course on past energy systems in the engineering department, which was a graduate level course summarizing our energy systems. But the interesting thing is the students in the energy environment course were writing papers. We were busy discussing energy problems and how soon we were going to run out of energy when the oil embargo came up in 1973. The students were absolutely surprised to the extent the term paper they were writing were immediately seized by the governor of the state of Florida in one case, because it was the only paper on the subject he was interested in that he could find immediately. I donít know anything about the subject, and they said, well, you know more than the governor of Florida, which is —

Sopka:

Yes, I think thatís fine. Iím encouraged to hear that this kind of activity is going on.

Wilson:

Those are things Iíve been spending a small amount of my time on. I think itís one of the pleasant things about the department is one gets encouragement for doing it. I mean, there are some times — the encouragementís always there, but not necessarily the interest.

Sopka:

So as far as funding is concerned, have you had to devote much of your energies to securing outside funding? Or has your activities been —

Wilson:

Oh yes. Itís always — I guess thatís one thing Harvard has probably less of than many other places, partly because weíre not together. When I first came here, when there was the cyclotron work, all the funding details were being done by the director of the cyclotron lab, Bill Preston, and there was always enough money for doing what one wanted to do. But now — well, partially Iíve gotten older, of course, but itís also partially that funding is a lot harder than it once was. Iím basically looking for all the funding myself on all the things. The high energy physics we have has four senior professors. We are joint in that; thatís at least one part of the bit coherence in the department. The only thing actually. And so that gets a lot of the red tape simplified by that. Itís by no means avoided. There is no sort of collective lab funding, and thereís no one in the lab who, you feel, is really constantly going out and beating the drum for funds. I gather that used to be the case in this department at one time when Roger Hickman was younger, not since I was here. But other departments I know the department chairman, other people, do much more beating the drum for funds for the department as a whole than happens here. To that I think I regret about the department. But I suppose itís partially unavoidable in the way we are all independent of each other.

Sopka:

Iíd like to ask you to comment on your view on the relationship between both your own feeling about experiment and theory, and then on a more social level, the interactions within the departments between the experimentalist and the theoreticians, which seem to be a more cohesive group now than certainly — and a larger group than in the past.

Wilson:

Thatís right. Itís very interesting how these things can switch, because when I first came, the theory was not a cohesive group. To the extent it was cohesive it was all centered around Julian Schwinger, who had very much his own personal style, and a lot of graduate students. But in a certain sense, he was wearing out his little — exaggerated the word — he was getting older. Hadnít quite the energy when he was younger that he used to have eight or ten graduate students when he first got here, and it gradually went down. So itís quite clear that he couldnít quite be the only focus of the group. And about ten years ago it was a source of concern to us how we could make a more cohesive group with other people. And the fascinating thing to me is the extent with which this has happened, in particular the last three or four years. Itís partly due to success. There is nothing like success. And that weíve had some very bright students. But the fact they have been working together and pulling together, in a way which ten years ago I was deeply worried about. The interesting thing is I think the inverse has happened in experimental physics which I think is less cohesive now than when we were when we had the electron accelerator and the cyclotron as our major high energy physics activities, that was a cohesive group. The activities of low energy experimental physics tended to be all on one contract with the Navy; that made more cohesion than there is now. But the experimental physics in very non-cohesive now. A lot of problems are arising from that.

Sopka:

Experimental physics, is it tending more to be tied in with applications rather than with fundamental experimental physics associated with theory?

Wilson:

Not really. Not really, no. I suppose the only application stuff weíve got is for Harvard. And of course, the particulars on the cyclotron. Thatís not really the physics department any longer, because the cyclotron is being sufficiently successful; itís moved out of the physics department. Itís run by an inter-faculty committee of the medical school and— well Iím chairman of the committee representing the faculty of arts and sciences. And the reason for that is itís now out of the physics departmentís hair.

Sopka:

Oh, I see.

Wilson:

And actually it is entirely independent, and that means that if we go bankrupt, the chairman of the physics department doesnít have to cough up a penny. Itís one less — itís simplifying red tape on them because we donít have to worry about departments. They donít think about it. So in a sense, thatís off on one side, as it should be, administered without department interest. Most research is still extremely pure. More practical stuff in the course of the engineering department. But Iím deeply involved there because the whole engineering department is more theoretical things being done than actual experimental things. The number of people who get out and do anything is going down.

Sopka:

I see. Is this situation that you feel is peculiar to Harvard or is it characteristic of the state of the art and science today?

Wilson:

In a sense I donít think itís peculiar to Harvard. One thing thatís peculiar to Harvard now, and that is that theoretical students are good and they can get jobs. I think the theoretical students a lot of other places are not so good and canít get good jobs. And a theoretical physicist whoís not very good is often a complete drag on the market. An experimental physicist is not. There are many things they can do. Particularly someone who can and has done experiments has a tremendous advantage. So I think thereís a real distinction. So, but at the moment, while weíre ahead of ten years ago, that the theoretical students of which there were at that time appeared to be too many, couldnít get jobs and were getting lost after they left here, I think was the case, has probably diminished. But I think other places, other institutions, have this problem. Part of the problem is that theoretical students get a PhD, and then a small place like the University of Wyoming wants to upgrade its physics department. And if theyíre going to get the research done, they have to put some money in. If they put money into theoretical physics itís to pencils. And if itís money to experimental physics, itís real money. And so they find they can attract a second class theoretical physicist who canít make it in one of the top twenty much more easily than they can attract an experimental physicist. And that means the students get trained to think — undergraduates come here to graduate school to get trained to think in terms of theoretical things and not in terms of how an experiment lab will be set up or designed.

Sopka:

Oh, yes.

Wilson:

And for the whole field, I think thatís very, very serious. I mean, our undergraduates, although their training tends to be very theoretical (by nature, electro physics is theoretical) they do have the option of contact with a tremendous number of people who are constantly doing things and thinking about things. But thatís not true all over. For example, I get very nervous when I go down to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and see a theoretical physicist trying to decide whether Westinghouse had done an experiment on reactor safety properly or not.

Sopka:

Yes. I can see your point.

Wilson:

Thatís whatís happening in the world now. I find it rather dangerous.

Sopka:

So that you feel that the training of an experimental physicist provides him with a valuable background, even if he isnít able to locate on the site of a large machine and actively pursue a particular line of research that might be close to his own heart.

Wilson:

Yes. If he goes out of the field of research and does something else, I think by the fact that heíd done some experiments, understands data and how it was got and how it might have been got, knows how to ask questions about it, I think is a type of training which is extraordinarily broad in all sorts of other places. Well, a good theoretical physicist automatically gets some of that. But the really good ones donít go outside the academic world anyway. But what one really worries about, I really worry about is the people who donít get in the top twenty here. Those theoretical physicists stay — theyíve only kept up with things at Harvard and their PhDs simply by putting blinkers on and ignoring what these other questions which are useful in the outside world.

Sopka:

On the other side of the coin, how do you feel about the significance of theoretical training for experimental physicists?

Wilson:

Oh, well, every experimental physicist has to have theoretical training automatically. Students who get PhDs with experiments with me have much more theoretical training than I have. They understand the theory better than I do, which is important. And with everything I add, they get that. So Iíll be able to design and think very fundamentally about the next experiments. So I think the fact weíve got to have theoretical training is really there. But itís partially a question of — I think itís the mixture. Iíd be very upset if we ended up with a split in the department into two departments, theoretical and experimental departments, because I think everyone would lose.

Sopka:

I think itís certainly where it would lead.

Wilson:

But itís not — thereís, you know— thereís tendencies that way, and so it sometimes seems simpler. And the students want to go that way. We just last week wrote to the department to reaffirm the whole department, but slightly watered it down. Particularly what happens with theoretical graduate students, they donít take, some of them want to go through Harvard without taking any course towards [???] experimental physics. And we donít go along with that. We insist they take one half course. Well that may be a little small. I always refer to it as — (I think it was Wendell Furryís expression) ďthatís a vitamin-free diet.Ē Actually itís the wrong way around. I suppose in a sense the theoretic physicists are really the vitamins. But thereís no experimental physicist that would ever dream of going through without taking a course on some of the theoretical physics concepts. It would just be inconceivable.

Sopka:

It isnít physics, I guess, unless you have large doses of theory.

Wilson:

Well, the theory is that you need to correlate the numbers. I donít think itís physics without the experiment, either. I mean, my feeling is physics is basically an experimental subject. Itís observing things in the universe and trying to understand them. The more we look at the discoveries that happen, the more you realize however much one may revere the theoretical physicist, the experimenter is the key. Somebody comes out with a latest Nobel Prize, came from a discovery of two years ago, was a discovery which was immediately chained to the whole of the understanding. Now it fitted very much into theoretical concepts, but the theories werenít predicting it. They werenít saying go out and do this measurement in this region in that way and you will find it there. Theyíre beginning to say that they did, but they certainly werenít at the time. They were close to saying it, may have been close to saying, but they didnít have quite the guts to say it. But then when the experiment was there, they fit it rapidly into a framework for them. Which is one of the reasons which, of course, made it an important Nobel Prize experiment. The basic reasons for the experimenters ever looking in those ways didnít need advanced theory to sort of think you might want to look there. They were all looked for on general principles, which didnít need any very advanced understanding. So in fact, they were the principles which made us want to add a storage ring to the electron accelerator. So I think it demonstrated that a successful experimenter is in fact doing a lot. The great problem, of course, in being successful in an experiment is often so much luck. Nine-tenths of a Nobel Prize is partly luck.

Sopka:

Yes, I think that certainly is true. I noticed that you had supervised some 30 PhDs.

Wilson:

Right.

Sopka:

Most of them were during the period when the machines were active. Do you have a group of PhD candidates, working with you now?

Wilson:

At the moment Iíve got two.

Sopka:

On what areas?

Wilson:

Work in high energy physics, and theyíve been working experiments in Chicago. The moment the experiment is over theyíve got several hundred computer tapes of the data and weíre hoping to analyze them. They are spearheading some of the work on that. Maybe, I tend to ask something of my students; more than many others do, many students at other universities. I tend to want the student to learn a lot of different things in experimental physics. First, heís got to know something about keeping the apparatus working and building it. Preferably build one better himself. Then heís got to understand something about the data analysis. So heís got to know several little bits. But some people are willing to let students get by with solely working with data analysis, and I think that returns a very one-sided student.

Sopka:

That doesnít seem like really being experimental if you donít get your hands on the equipment.

Wilson:

It isnít. Thatís right. Of course then the bubble chamber experiments were typically that way, because bubble chambers are huge objects. But quite often you didnít find something like — Iíve never understood that a student gets a PhD thesis with working with a bubble chamber pictures and never has the interest to go and look at the bubble chamber of which the pictures were taken. And those students exist, and they just bemuse me. I just donít understand them at all. Iíll look at the bubble chamber, even though Iím not interested in taking the pictures. It somehow— the interest in the things is, I guess is — I think itís clear that those people donít do as well afterwards.

Sopka:

Well, I think it seems as though it would be indicative of a personís general intellectual curiosity.

Wilson:

Exactly.

Sopka:

Weíre coming to the end of this side of the tape. Shall we continue on to the other?

Wilson:

If you have anything else you think would — not quite sure thereís much else I can talk about of interest for the sort of things. Yes. Another few minutes, I guess. Just go through what the students are doing.

Sopka:

I hate to have you cut off in the middle of a sentence, and I know that this is now —

Wilson:

Yes, well there are 30 students. I think about ten or so of them are on the cyclotron, probably more, with those I worked very closely, of course, because I was in there all the time. But those students not only built the equipment, they also operated the cyclotron. If it went wrong at night time, theyíd have to fix it. And they couldnít always fix it, of course, but weíd have a system. They would call me several times at home at four in the morning and say the cyclotron stopped. And quite often Iíd be diagnosing it over the phone while I was in my pajamas. Iíd say try this, hit this relay, and whatever it might be. Three times out of four I didnít have to come in, which was fortunate. But of course, then the whole scale of experiments went up when it went to the electron accelerator. I had more assistants and more engineers. And the people learned not to do things for other labs. But then my students still operate their own equipment, operate the equipment quite a lot, and set things up and try to do a fair amount of the understanding about the fixing of them. But of course, they all worked with computers. Itís interesting. I donít work that well with the computers myself. Theyíve developed high speed computers somewhat since I came here. But, I can help them with their plans. Of course, I think even people who do work with computers find helping students on the computers is exceedingly hard. You can get up a framework, and then you just have to leave the student to himself to figure out a particular way. Itís almost impossible to see visually what heís doing. Itís not a piece of equipment. So thereís a real change happened in that understanding there. But itís interesting. I think my students, probably all the students in the physics lab, learned how to use computers. Push computers further than almost anybody else in society. Which perhaps is useful, I think, to learn. I guess thatís all. I canít think of anything else of interest.

Sopka:

Well, I thank you very much for giving me your time, and the information.