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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frederick Seitz

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Interview with Dr. Frederick Seitz
By Spencer Weart
At Rockefeller University
October 6, 1982

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Frederick Seitz; October 6, 1982

ABSTRACT: In this interview, Frederick Seitz discusses his administrative and advisory work. Topics discussed include: National Defense Research Committee; Carnegie-Mellon University; Bill Shockley; solid state physics research; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Harvey Brooks; David Turnbull; American Physical Society; Karl Darrow; American Institute of Physics; Herb Hollomon; Wheeler Loomis; Louis Ridenour; ILLIAC; Enrico Fermi; National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences; Office of Naval Research; Charles Kittel; Physics Today; Wallace Brode; Elmer Hutchisson; Sam Goudsmit; Society of Exploration Geophysicists; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Edward Teller; divisions among physicists on defense research; Lewis Strauss; Atomic Energy Commission; Det Bronk; National Academy of Engineering; National Science Foundation; Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP); George Kistiakowsky; Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; Emilio Daddario; Ralph Nader; President's Science Advisory Committee; supersonic transport public policy; Harry Hess; Melvin Laird; Rockefeller University.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Weart:

Fred, you’ve been over with Lillian Hoddeson and the others. What I really want to cover with you is more the administrative and advisory part of your career. Generally speaking, your post-war career, aside from the strictly scientific part of it. I’d like to start with a general question about your getting away from research and into administration. Was this a conscious decision or did it creep up on you? How do you feel about that?

Seitz:

It crept up, and without World War II, I don’t know whether it would have happened. In those days, the inevitable fate of a person like me was to become a departmental chairman somewhere. You often couldn’t avoid it. World War II bought out the need for people who could start programs and keep them running, and I got pulled into that, the National Defense Research Council (NDRC) programs with the Manhattan District. Perhaps the crucial step occurred when I decided in 1942 because the field needed experimental as well as theoretical solid state physics to take the chairmanship of what was then Carnegie Tech.

Weart:

Already at that point you realized that you’d be moving away from doing research, but you still managed to do quite a lot.

Seitz:

It wasn’t too bad until — really almost 1960.

Weart:

How did you feel about leaving research?

Seitz:

Well, you know, if your administrative work is closely tied to research, you feel that something important is being done, even though indirectly. I remember Bill Shockley once saying, “I see you’re getting hooked on administration.” I said, “Well, Bill, there aren’t many academic places in the country doing experimental solid state physics, and what I want to do is get some people together and started.” Then he said, “Well, I feel I want to stay more personally engaged.” Then he went off and started a company.

Weart:

That’s right, I was just smiling about that. I don’t imagine he had much time for research after a while. What did you miss about not doing research? What were the joys, or what did you miss in a negative sense, the joys and sorrows?

Seitz:

When you’re young and things are simple, you can do many things simultaneously, so I still published papers. It gets a little more complicated, but I still publish papers. When I went to the University of Illinois, there were a number of years when I was almost full time in research; then again, I got pulled into administration, and eventually became department head. That was about the beginning of the real end.

Weart:

That uses quite a different set of abilities, actually, doesn’t it?

Seitz:

Yes, it does. It was a big department. Carnegie was a small department. We were all clustered together, and we could do a mixture of things. I always enjoyed talking things over with the experimental people.

Weart:

What was it about solid state in particular? You could have moved, as a lot of people did, into nuclear work, for example, or gone into other areas. Did you feel committed to solid state?

Seitz:

No, there was a period, just after World War II, when I was ambivalent. As a matter of fact, I brought Ed Creutz to Carnegie to build an accelerator. I tried to divide my time, but nuclear physics that we did during the war, and more and more, I slid over toward my first love, which was growing at an enormous rate. You could get money to do a lot of research.

Weart:

What do you think it was that attracted students to go into solid state physics?

Seitz:

It depended on where they were. At Illinois, at least two out of three were thinking in terms of industrial work. The transistor had been invented by that time, and it was clear there was going to be an upsurge. At a place like Harvard — I remember discussing this with Harvey Brooks — they felt it was a field where a person could still be himself and not a slave to a machine, and it was more an intellectual challenge. I would guess, however, if you looked it over, you’d find that at least half of the people who graduated from Harvard ended up in industrial work.

Weart:

In solid state more than in other fields?

Seitz:

Yes, the attraction was there.

Weart:

What about before the transistor, going back even to the thirties, early forties, and after the war?

Seitz:

Then it was very much an academic thing except in special cases. The last weekend that Betty and I went up to Lake George to close our summer place, drain it of water and so forth, I went over to see Guy Suits. He’d been director, in charge of General Electric Labs, and he said, “You know, when they hired you,” — he was joking — “I thought they were crazy. What do we at GE have to do with those solids? A few magnets maybe, but that’s the limit.” Then he said, “And look what happened.” And that was about the way it was, a few farsighted people. There were magnets; there were fluorescent materials for x-ray screens.

Weart:

At the time you got into it, do you feel that people saw it as being more of a key to an industrial career than any other field of physics, or possibly more related to applications ultimately?

Seitz:

No. If you look at the history of the subject, you see that it was intimately interwoven with some of the most fundamental questions of physics, questions of free electrons in materials. Why aren’t they always free if they are in metals? Remember, Einstein and the specific heat of solids?

Weart:

Or more recently, the collective phenomena questions.

Seitz:

That’s right.

Weart:

Do you think there was anything different about the people who chose solid state physics? Could they have gone either way, or was there something special about their attitude?

Seitz:

I would guess that those who really wanted an academic career looked on it, particularly in the post-World War II period, as a field where you could be yourself. A person like Charlie Kittel would have been lost at the Berkeley accelerators — one man, one cog — although people like Ed McMillan and Louis Alvarez got out in front and stayed in front and stayed in front. They had a great time.

Weart:

I understand. The nuclear people had to deal with very large groups and government funding and so forth, which the solid state physicist doesn’t have to. Yet, if you’re going into the industry, then you’re not your own man in the same sense again.

Seitz:

No, they are almost two different kinds of attitudes.

Weart:

How do you feel people have reacted to the fact that your main work has been in solid state physics? Do you think other physicists regard it in the same way as any other subfield?

Seitz:

By this time it’s almost become a field of engineering. Another thing to remember is that the military people, Office of Naval Research (ONR) for example, who supported research had little difficulty in providing funds, because they thought in terms of transducers and other things that were doming on, piezo materials. This was postwar.

Weart:

I’m thinking mainly of the postwar period. Was there a chance around the time of the transistor, or was it already under way because of military things before that?

Seitz:

It was already under way. The silicon diode came up during the war and was really the start of the interest in silicon as a semiconductor. That continued. There was a realization that there was going to be something called solid state electronics, one way or another.

Weart:

When I was a graduate student, or before I was a graduate student, I asked a physicist what he thought about going into solid state physics. This was just after superconductivity. He said, “Now all the fundamental things have been done. From here on its applications.” Do you think that’s just?

Seitz:

In an absolute sense, it is, yes. There are lots of wonderful nooks and crannies to explore, but it’s becoming more and more a field for the good engineer, or applied physicist. Another thing to remember is that many people, who previously went into physical chemistry, chose physics with the goal of a solid state physics career rather than physical chemistry. Physical chemistry almost died out in our country, whereas it had been a very flourishing field. Berkeley had a big physical chemistry department, as did Princeton and others. Moreover, if you look at many of the successful solid staters, they were physical chemists at some point in their career. That was true of the older generation.

Weart:

I had a few questions left over about some of the things you did in terms of helping to bring the solid state community together in the postwar years. One of the spare ends is the Academic Press Series on solid state, started in 1955 by you and Turnbull. How did that come about? You mentioned to Lillian that it had something to do with your not doing a new solid state text.

Seitz:

Many people said “Why don’t you update your book?” And Lord knows it could have stood it. My book was somewhat different from Kittel’s. His was intended to be a classroom text, very much pitched at the graduate level. I tried to write something more like the old HANDBUCH articles; that was in the back of my mind, but I realized I just couldn’t do it between two covers without degrading things. So I got the idea of a series and talked to people and to the Academic Press, and then looked around for an experimentalist who might be interested.

Weart:

I see. That was Turnbull’s role. He watched over the experimental side, and you watched over the theoretical side. So it was to serve as a kind of a HANDBUCH?

Seitz:

That’s right, yes.

Weart:

I’m interested that it was titled Solid State Physics. Looking back at the early 1940s, I don’t find anyone calling it solid state physics; it’s called physics of solids, that kind of thing. Do you have any idea where the term “solid state physics” first began to be used?

Seitz:

I wonder if it isn’t the fact that there’s a Division of the American Physical Society, Solid State Physics. We formed that division sometime in the late forties, maybe 1947, 1948, or 1949.

Weart:

Could you tell me how that came about?

Seitz:

There was a very small group of six who got together. I don’t know if I can remember all their names together. There was Smoluchowski, Sid Siegel, Tom Read, and one other.

Weart:

I can probably find it from the APS records.

Seitz:

I don’t know whether it was Shockley or not. It probably was. [Yes. Also Saul Dushman, later replaced by Clarence Zener. – SW]

Weart:

When you say you got together, when, where, how?

Seitz:

I remember a meeting of the Pittsburgh contingent in out apartment, in one of those years. Then we reached out for other people, although at that time I think almost everyone I’ve mentioned was wither in Pittsburgh or close to it.

Weart:

You mean, happened to be passing through, or was actually there working?

Seitz:

That I don’t quite remember.

Weart:

Why a Division of the Physical Society? There are alternatives. One is to have a society of your own, for example.

Seitz:

We were all members of the Physical Society and had great respect for Karl Darrow [the APS secretary]. One half of the suggestion was that we have a quiet meeting in an off month, like March. Karl listened, and he said, “In addition, we’ll get out of the hair of the nuclear people.” Then he went along with it. However, Karl got the drop on us because he quickly began bringing in other divisions.

Weart:

Oh, so there wouldn’t be only solid state…?

Seitz:

We were indignant, but we didn’t have any luck with pouting.

Weart:

Would you have preferred to have only one, and why would that be?

Seitz:

Provincialism. We all enjoyed one another. It was a lot of fun. We had meetings, a small group. We thought maybe we’d get 100 people, and talk about common problems.

Weart:

The problem was that the Physical Society meetings had become too large by now?

Seitz:

Yes. The two meetings at the time that were of any consequence, other than the small meetings at Schenectady or you name it, were the New York meeting, which was a tremendous bustle.

Weart:

— and the Washington meeting?

Seitz:

And the Washington meeting. The Washington meeting was nice. You could sit out on the lawn of the Bureau of Standards. The New York meeting had a big session in McMillan Hall at Columbia [University], in the days when we used to meet there. We just thought, if we could all be in the same hotel and meet in the same bar and talk over the problems —

Weart:

And Darrow essentially supported you?

Seitz:

Yes. He supported us. He recognized the Society was growing very fast, and that it was going to have other meetings. Someone told me, maybe it was you, the March meeting is the biggest meeting?

Weart:

Yes, that’s right. It’s now much bigger than the Washington meeting, which had declined somewhat. I suppose if Karl Darrow was behind it, then nobody else would have been likely to object.

Seitz:

That’s right. I won’t say he ruled the roost, but people respected him and followed his advice. It was only much later that more querulous people began to come in. You know, it’s fantastic by present standards, but even when I was president of the Physical Society, the council would meet, propose a nominee for president, and put it on the ballot. Everyone would nod his head, say, “sure, he’d be good,” and that would go on the ballot. There were a few people with objection to this fellow who would write in, say, “Adolph Hitler.”

Weart:

That’s what you lose when you go to a larger society. The History of Science Society is still like that. It is smaller. Was there already talk at that time of having a separate journal for solid state physics?

Seitz:

No. That began when at one stage the AIP decided to do something. Actually, it’s a little blurred in my mind, but this was to be a journal between physics and metallurgy; part of my upbringing was an interest in metals.

Weart:

Was when you were chairman of the board of AIP?

Seitz:

It would be in that period, yes. Herb Holloman started a journal. It was either through the American Institute of Mining Engineers or American Society of Metals or some organizations, and he had a lot of trouble getting the thing going. I said, “Look Herb, why not have the AIP manage it?” And they did, for a couple of years. Then Herb got grandiose. I think that people from the press in Maxwell, England got to him, and he pulled it out, almost over a weekend, so it went off. One or two volumes were handled by the AIP.

Weart:

Was that the first journal that was essentially devoted to solid state physics?

Seitz:

In the U.S. Early in the fifties Mott got out something that was called the JOURNAL OF PHYSICS — which was very strong in solid state.

Weart:

Now I want to move on to Illinois and your solid state group there. This is talking from the administrative or social standpoint. What gave that group its character as a group, as a separate entity? Did it have a special location in the buildings, for example?

Seitz:

You mean at Illinois?

Weart:

Yes.

Seitz:

No. It was a very large department, for its day. It still is, of course; it’s one of the big universities. When Wheeler Loomis returned from the Radiation Lab, he knew personally a number of young nuclear people, tried to get more, had mixed success, got quite a good group. In addition, Kerst succeeded in getting enough money from the state to build a machine. It had its own laboratory, but it was a small thing and most of the people circulated around it. Wheeler thought that he ought to have at least a two-subject department. He himself had come in the field of gaseous electronics and molecular spectra, so he knew there were other fields. I think he once told me that Rabi tried to talk him out of it, saying that high energy physics was the way to go — that’s where the great mysteries are. Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with that opinion. I had known Louis Ridenouer at the University of Pennsylvania. Louis spent his war years at the Radiation Laboratory, which is a story in itself, and he went back to Penn at the end of the war but was very soon asked to be Dean of Graduate Studies at Illinois. He was a physicist, and he and Loomis talked the thing over and said, “Why don’t we try to get a group of solid staters? It probably has a future.” So Wheeler and he approached me — I was then at Pittsburgh — and asked if I’d come. I saw things going in such a way that Carnegie Tech couldn’t support both solid state and nuclear physics, the way costs were rising, so Ed Cruetz and I made an agreement. I think he was reluctant to see me leave, but he took over and ran the department for a number of years.

Weart:

When you went there, you took some of the solid state people with you. How did you set up this group? Here are the nuclear people. The machines are already there, here’s the solid state group. Where did these people get together? Did you have a separate part of the physics building for the solid state people?

Seitz:

No, it was one of those beautiful old buildings, built in 1909, and there was plenty of space in it. All we had to do was scrunch a bit. We were given a number of labs.

Weart:

Did you have a separate seminar for solid state?

Seitz:

Oh yes, Friday afternoon.

Weart:

Right from the beginning. How did you interact with the nuclear people?

Seitz:

That department was the most friendly place I’ve ever been. Everyone got along great. During the Korean War, I helped set up a military-oriented lab. There were some complaints about that because there were mixed feelings, but that wasn’t solid state.

Weart:

Which lab was that?

Seitz:

It first went under the name of Controls Systems Laboratory. It pulled together a mixture of people who were nuclear physicists but had been interested in radar during the war, and others. It did some very fine work, half of it on the newly emerging computer technology and half in radar?

Weart:

I see. In those days they wouldn’t have objected because it was military?

Seitz:

Some said, “This is an oddball thing to have.” We were in a separate building.

Weart:

Did that involve solid state also?

Seitz:

Very little. It was mainly digital computers and radar.

Weart:

Was that where the ILLIAC came in or was that a separate thing?

Seitz:

The ILLIAC has an interesting history. It goes back to Louis Ridenour. He became a good friend of John von Neumann. Louis also knew a mathematician, Abe Taub, now at the University of California, Berkeley, I guess just recently retired. Abe and I were graduate students together at Princeton. Louis and Abe had also known each other very well. They got together and decided that they ought to start a program at Illinois to begin the building of a von Neumann machine, which was supposed to be the second machine, the first one being built by von Neumann and his group at Princeton. Louis searched around and found that the Department of Ordnance would finance two machines if they could have the first.

Weart:

If who could have the first?

Seitz:

If the Army could have the first.

Weart:

That was the ORDVAC?

Seitz:

That’s the ORDVAC; so they got enough money to build two machines. They got Ralph Meagher, who was a nuclear accelerator engineer and knew how to wire up circuits both very fast and so they stuck. Then they came on the line with both ORDVAC and the ILLIAC long before Johnny’s machine ever passed its first digit through.

Weart:

Basically with von Neumann’s ideas, but they got it.

Seitz:

He didn’t have the same quality of experimental people.

Weart:

ORDVAC and ILLIAC were essentially the same machine, but the ORDVAC was used for ballistics and that kind of thing?

Seitz:

That’s right. It was used at that the Aberdeen Ordnance Laboratory at the mouth of the Susquehanna. On the somewhat amusing side, Johnny, who was a mild person in ordinary relations, a man of very strong character and opinions, but mild in his dealings with humans, was much annoyed that this machine came on first. He made the quip, “You may have the first machine, but we will be the first ones to use the machine in the way it should be used.”

Weart:

Is that true?

Seitz:

I suspect so. But he actually spent a lot of time at Illinois after that.

Weart:

Was the ILLIAC used much by your group, the solid state group?

Seitz:

Very little. A few people, such as Jim Koehler, got interested. It got used by our military laboratory group, Controls System Laboratory, as an instrument for controlling many things simultaneously. For example, one program we instituted was controlling something on the order of 50 aircraft at once.

Weart:

You mean on-line control?

Seitz:

On-line real time control.

Weart:

You weren’t actually too much involved in the entry of computers into solid state physics, were you?

Seitz:

No. That came later on. It was a new generation who did that, people like Walt Harrison.

Weart:

To go back again to the question of the relationship of the solid state physics group with the rest of the physics department, were there any questions, for example, when it came to hiring new faculty, whether it should be a solid state physicist or a nuclear physicist or maybe somebody else?

Seitz:

It was done fairly equitable. We added one here, another there, if the right person came along. Statistically the percentage of solid state physicists grew very fast, but we started very small. Another thing I should mention is that additional excitement in solid state physics came about because of interest in electron and nuclear resonance. A lot of the early experiments were done in one way or another with solids. This was another thrust of an academic kind.

Weart:

Was there cooperation between the two groups on some of these things, nuclear resonance and so on.

Seitz:

Yes. Charlie Slichter very soon associated himself with the solid state group.

Weart:

You became chairman, I guess, in 1958, and then from that point on you had to pay attention not only to the solid state physicists but to the whole department. How did this affect your outlook?

Seitz:

I’d already had that at Pittsburgh, so I’d learned to deal with it. I used to go to the nuclear seminary when I had time. Of course, it was getting very, very complicated then. Among other things I took the lead in helping the nuclear group decide if it wanted to build a new large machine in our community — that is Urbana-Champaign. The group decided they would rather support a national machine. It was a very important transition time for high energy physics since it had become clear during the 1950’s that the field was not closing. This transition was clearly indicated in 1954 when Fermi gave the address in the McMillan Auditorium at Columbia University. As you will recall, there were meetings in the McMillan where the retiring president of the APS gave an address. Fermi spoke of the evolution of nuclear physics. It was clear that after the discovery of the pion, he had first thought that everything was now going to converge. We’d have the cement of pions, for the neutron and proton, and we’d get exact equations. Then this simple idea began to blow up —

Weart:

— the famous particle zoo and so on.

Seitz:

Yes. Then Fermi said that he was going to make a prediction. He predicted that, by a certain year, maybe the year 2000, there would be an accelerator that went completely around the earth. I don’t know whether that was ever documented.

Weart:

I haven’t heard that one before. I don’t know.

Seitz:

It’s a marvelous thought. We didn’t know then that it was the end of the road for him.

Weart:

I wish he had a tape recording of that talk. Well, getting back to Illinois, what did you try to do while you were chairman? You were chairman of the department for quite a while there. What did you see as your main role?

Seitz:

Keep the show on the road. Help people. Those were very peaceable years. Then I got pulled out for the NATO assignment.

Weart:

We’ll get to that later. In effect, Loomis had already set up that there would be groups, and it was just a question of expanding them and hiring good people.

Seitz:

You’d lose some people and you’d hire some people.

Weart:

These were not years of budget problems, so there wasn’t any real trouble?

Seitz:

There was no great trouble. The federal government backtracked somewhat on the money for physical sciences, about 1955, 1956.

Weart:

Just before Sputnik.

Seitz:

And then Sputnik reversed everything. I remember Mannie Piore and I spent some time in Washington getting more money for basic science. He had already gone to IBM. Mannie succeeded in getting to the DOD to convert money for hardware over to research money. That was during the 1957, 1958 period. He knew all the ropes about how it could be done.

Weart:

Money for hardware meaning, research hardware?

Seitz:

No, money that wasn’t used. There are several categories of money, you know — testing, for example, money allocated for testing equipment that wasn’t going to be used that year.

Weart:

Is this in the NSF and DOD budgets?

Seitz:

This was all in the DOD. This was, as I recall, within the Navy’s framework, which Mannie knew like the back of his hand.

Weart:

Right, that was his field.

Seitz:

So the dam broke again, and money kept flowing until well into the sixties.

Weart:

One other question to backtrack a little bit. When you were talking with Lillian, you mentioned that the whole University of Illinois had been disrupted by controversy during the McCarthy period, and I wondered whether the Physics Department in particular was affected? Almost every department had somebody who was suspect or got into trouble.

Seitz:

Not much at Illinois. There were the usual agitated meetings of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and one of the faculty members, I think he’s still alive, Doob, had a brother-in-law, I think, who disappeared in Poland, and that created a stir. There was a certain amount of shouting at the AAUP meetings, about what action should be taken, but it didn’t affect the university senate much.

Weart:

There weren’t famous hirings and firings, and that kind of thing in the Physics Department?

Seitz:

As a matter of fact, we gained some very good people because of the troubles at Berkeley. [resignations due to the State of California Loyalty Oath – SW]

Weart:

Oh, is that so?

Seitz:

Geoff Chew and Francis Low came. Loomis tried to get more, but there were people who didn’t want to live in the bucolic environment, who preferred the coasts.

Weart:

That’s always been a problem at Illinois, I’m sure.

Seitz:

Yes. Well, some went to Chicago.

Weart:

Let’s move out a bit now toward the national scene. We’re going over an awful lot of your career fairly quickly, but there’s a lot of ground to cover too. Is there anything else about the department at Illinois before we start talking about some of these national committees and groups?

Seitz:

No. It was in the main enormously congenial.

Weart:

Was there much after hours socializing, by the way?

Seitz:

Yes, in the evenings people would get together. There would be a colloquium speaker from somewhere else, and someone would hold a party. It’s a small enough town that everyone would show so it was very sociable. Incidentally, when Betty first heard me propose that we go to Illinois, she said, “Good Lord, that’s the last place in the world I’d ever think of living.” Then when she got there and got established, she just loved it, and left with great regret. We also had a lot of good music on the campus. We had an opera workshop that was amazingly good, and lots of chamber music. Many of our friends were from the music school

Weart:

I know that you have a particular interest in music.

Seitz:

The Physics Department as a whole did.

Weart:

Yes, I’d noticed that if there’s any place that a harpsichord is being built on camps, it’s probably in the physics lab. As far as I can tell from your vitae, in the postwar period, probably one of the first national committees you were on was the National Research Council’s Committee on Solids, organizing conferences and so forth. Was that the first national advisory group that you were on, or were there others before that, aside from NDRC and war work?

Seitz:

I think it came about as follows: ONR called on the Academy, through the National Research Council, to organize some programs in solids. At that time, R.C. Gibbs, who’d been head of the Physics Department at Cornell, joined the Council. He called on me to help in this. So we formed a committee and held a number of conferences, books, meetings. Then, somewhat later on, Lawson McKenzie, who was with ONR, proposed creating a group which might be inter-agency. I guess I worked with him on it. It would try to tie things up on a national scale.

Weart:

Was this the Solid State Physics Advisory Panel?

Seitz:

That’s right, Panel of the ONR, but eventually of other agencies. The Air Force got interested in it. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), as it was called, and the Army got slightly interested in it. It became more generally supported. As I recall, people would pay their travel expenses to meetings out of their grants, contract, whatever they had.

Weart:

It wasn’t formally supported by anybody. It existed on its own.

Seitz:

That’s right. But the people from the agencies would come to the meetings.

Weart:

I see.

Seitz:

I have a wonderful photograph in the other room, that I discovered cleaning out my desk. In 1951, the Navy suggested the group meet out at NOTS. That’s a Naval Ordinance Test Station in Inyokern. We were flown out in a DC-3, stopping at bases on the way for the night. As a matter of fact, it was about that time that Johnny Bardeen, who was a member, was thinking of going back into academic work. I remember asking him if he’d be interested in an offer from Illinois, and he was.

Weart:

You met at one of these meetings then. What sorts of things were done at the meetings, starting back at the beginning, with the conferences and books and so forth? What was this group trying to accomplish and how did that mission evolve?

Seitz:

Spread the word, get people talking about what the critical issues were, stimulate research.

Weart:

Was this in a military context or just in a general context?

Seitz:

General. All the military grants or contracts we got, as you know, had a line item, “This is what this relates to.” Military requirements are usually fairly specific. But we looked on that as interesting boilerplate. We weren’t antagonistic, because they supported us very freely. There was one time when the ONR reviewed things and decided that maybe it wouldn’t support cosmic ray research, but I think they even traversed themselves on that too.

Weart:

This committee’s purpose then was to communicate among the various groups? Of course, there was also the Solid State Division of the Physical Society, so what was the committee’s special role?

Seitz:

We were trying to make sure the grant money kept flowing in the right directions and we stayed in close touch with the people who managed the granting agencies.

Weart:

Then you would tell the granting agencies where there was a good place to spend their money?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

Did the reverse also apply, telling people where there was money that they could get?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

You must have visited a lot of the solid state groups.

Seitz:

We would visit around at each other’s labs.

Weart:

As a group?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

That’s kind of unusual, isn’t it? I’m not aware of this kind of thing happening in any other subfield of physics.

Seitz:

One analogue was the series of Rochester Conference in nuclear particle physics, which started small, but then they became enormous international events.

Weart:

How many people would be present at one of these meetings?

Seitz:

They grew continuously. Initially, there might be 15 or 20, and eventually it got to be much larger.

Weart:

It would be a regular conference.

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

How often would you get together?

Seitz:

Oh, about twice a year. Then everyone knew one another. I remember it was very helpful because we got a number of good post-docs from Berkeley, where Charlie Kittel was building up his resonance group.

Weart:

They would show up at these meetings?

Seitz:

You would meet them.

Weart:

You would meet them because you went there.

Seitz:

That’s right.

Weart:

It gave the younger people a chance to see the older people, and to observe the process of match making — invite them out to take a look at a place and so forth?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

Who were the people from the funding agencies? Were there any particularly important people in these?

Seitz:

Lawson Mackenzie was very much a part of the show.

Weart:

He was with ONR?

Seitz:

ONR. There was Charlie Yost, who was originally with AFOSR, when it was in Baltimore. I think with Charlie ended up in ARPA. Don Stevens used to show. He took a very great interest in this.

Weart:

They would be there, and you would all be discussing together what were the good projects, who were the good people, what this group or that group needed?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

Did equipment come up much?

Seitz:

Yes, that came up too.

Weart:

That’s not so much a concern for solid state physics.

Seitz:

Well, people needed Collins [helium liquefier] machines. They needed magnets, Varian magnets and so forth.

Weart:

What finally happened to this group?

Seitz:

I don’t know. Eventually I ceased to be its chairman. I don’t know whether it still exists. There may be something connected with the National Research Council that represents an echo. Other groups formed. David Pines formed the condensed matter group that had symposia here and in the Soviet Union.

Weart:

There is one thing that I do know the panel did a little later. This was prepare what is called the Sproull Report, the Solid State Physics Research report. Were you involved with that?

Seitz:

Do you know the year of that?

Weart:

1957.

Seitz:

That would be about the time that things were warming up in the Defense Department to create material research labs.

Weart:

This was just before Sputnik, so it must have been part of the push to get them to do that.

Seitz:

I would guess that Mackenzie might have been behind that, or someone equivalent to him at ONR. I don’t believe I was on the committee. Bob [Sproull] was then at Cornell, and was very much the up and coming person. I think he was looking for an opportunity to build up a significant laboratory at Cornell.

Weart:

What about the Materials Testing Laboratories?

Seitz:

They were created in 1959 or 1960, that period.

Weart:

Right. You got one at Illinois that you mentioned.

Seitz:

Well, ours was an oddball. For some reason, a Congressman from Missouri took exception to our getting such a lab and struck it out of the budget.

Weart:

Because it was in Illinois, not in Missouri?

Seitz:

That’s right. Illinois had gained a federal prison that was scheduled for Missouri. The person who saved us was Don Stevens. He arranged that the AEC —

Weart:

He wasn’t at the AEC?

Seitz:

He was. He was with the materials branch, where he still is.

Weart:

By the way, when you are going around to these various places and seeing the solid state groups, did you notice anything in particular about how they fitted into their departments, that solid state was a new, up and coming thing. Did they fit in well with the departments or were there frictions?

Seitz:

I don’t know of any frictions. I think they fitted in well. Certainly Kittel was well accepted at Berkeley. There the high energy people were so might that anything else —

Weart:

— that’s right; it existed in their shadow, so to speak. At Cornell I heard there was some difficulty. Solid state people had their own building and so forth.

Seitz:

Long before that time, I was very close to Cornell. I remember I went there for a wonderful meeting. It must have been about 1952, on luminescence. I used to get there about once a year if not more, but then something happened. I guess, once I went to Illinois, I didn’t go to Ithaca as often. I lost touch.

Weart:

I was just wondering whether solid state physics seemed like an area that needed fostering in the late forties and early fifties, whether it still seemed fragile?

Seitz:

It did. But once the transistor came in, it had a new impact.

Weart:

Sort of pre-transistor and post-transistor. Pre-transistor. You could see that it was a field that was needed, but a lot of the more powerful physicists would be concerned with fundamental particles and so forth.

Seitz:

That’s right.

Weart:

Ok. We can get back to some of these things, because I have other questions about some of them, but first, as you can see, I’m trying to do it in semi-chronological order, but we have to do blocks at a time. The next block that comes along is the American Institute of Physics, which has special interest for me; it’s an interesting question anyway. You became Chairman of the Governing Board of AIP. Do you know how that came about?

Seitz:

I think I know fairly well. Wheeler Loomis was appointed chairman of the nominating committee. He came up to me one day and said, “Why don’t you take this, Fred, do some good for the profession.” He said, “You know, it doesn’t take too much time.” But I knew the people very well. I’d been in on the creation of PHYSICS TODAY.

Weart:

Oh, is that so?

Seitz:

Yes. We had a committee. I remember we had two sessions to try to think of a name. I think that PHYSICS NOW was our first choice, but then another group came in and said, “That’s a terrible name. Why don’t you take PHYSICS TODAY?”

Weart:

I see. I didn’t know you were in on that one. Well, tell me a bit about the American Institute of Physics. It must have been mainly under Hutchinson.

Seitz:

No, it was before Hutch.

Weart:

You were named before he came in?

Seitz:

Yes. I was Chairman of the Board for five years, 1954-1959, and I think Hutch was named in 1957. We’d have to check that.

Weart:

That’s right, he came in about 1956, 1957.

Seitz:

Harry Barton and Wallace Waterfall ran it when I was elected. There were also some very fine satellite people. We used to meet in that luxurious —

Weart:

That old building on 55th Street?

Seitz:

Right, where some theatrical club now holds out. Incidentally, there was a movie “The Sunshine Boys” in which the interior was shown. Whether it was a Hollywood copy or the real thing, I don’t know.

Weart:

I think they used the real thing. Someone told us about that. We have picture of it. A beautiful building.

Weart:

Well, they dolled it up, too.

Weart:

What was the character of the place? The governing board didn’t have much to do, or was it a very quiet operation?

Seitz:

The governing board was a very friendly group, which discussed things. They were all interested in physics. They had the various disciplines. The only dissident in the crowd was Wallace Brode, who ran the Optical Society. He was always sure they were getting short changed and eventually pulled out.

Weart:

What sort of a fellow was Barton? How did people react to him?

Seitz:

Well, Barton was very genial, very conscientious and quite flexible — a bit of the Princeton aristocrat. Obviously either he or his wife had means. Wallace did the really hard work of making sure that everything stayed on track. As an indication of how much the physics community in those days worked together; when the opportunity came to buy that building [on East 55th Street] around 1940, they asked individuals in the Society to contribute, and they raised a very large fraction of that money from individuals. When it came to doing the same for the new building in 1957, some contributed but some would object and try to persuade others not to contribute.

Weart:

You had to go out and raise money from industry and from the foundations as well.

Seitz:

Yes, and some from the government. The agencies would give us money to pay overhead on special projects. So it was put together through bits and pieces.

Weart:

This was in connection with the AIP education studies and that kind of thing?

Seitz:

That’s right.

Weart:

When Hutchisson came in he stirred up quite a lot of these things. The Public Information Division and the Education Division started up, especially after Sputnik and so forth. Hutchinson wrote in his history of it, “Some members of the governing board were fearful that the AIP would not be able to administer the many new projects without jeopardizing the other work of the Institute.”

Seitz:

That sounds more like worries, people have today about their own kettle of fish.

Weart:

But this was already back around 1958, 1959, when you were still there.

Seitz:

Yes. But it was still a very easy-going and friendly environment. It sounds stupid now, but I could appoint the Executive Committee by saying, “I appoint such and such.” Now you’d have a riot if the chairman were given as much authority.

Weart:

Everyone knew one another well enough to work together.

Seitz:

That’s right. We’d do it geographically. So and so lives in New Haven and can get in easily.

Weart:

How did people react to Hutchisson?

Seitz:

He was well-liked. He was ambitious for the place, but it didn’t bother anyone particularly. His wife, Rose, was a very pleasant and thoughtful contributor to the environment.

Weart:

They were willing to let it go ahead and get built up?

Seitz:

Yes. There was always some little tugging between it and the Physical Society, but that never got really serious until much later.

Weart:

Between AIP and the Physical Society?

Seitz:

I often think that Sam himself was the instigator of some of the turbulence, but always within gentlemanly bounds.

Weart:

Sam Goudsmit?

Seitz:

Yes. It’s my personal suspicion that he wanted to be sure that his activities were well taken care of.

Weart:

It was his job, I suppose.

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

There were a lot of discussions at that time over the role of AIP in relation to its member societies. It started off with the Society of Exploration Geologists.

Seitz:

That was a special war I remember well.

Weart:

Do you want to tell me something about that?

Seitz:

Well, no new organization had joined since the founders, and one day, some chap, I think in Oklahoma, heard of us. He was a one year chairman or president of the Society of Exploration of Geophysicists, so he proposed membership. By coincidence, Eugene Wigner was president[of APS] at the time, and he saw all kinds of dire consequences of this. I was pilloried for even suggesting such a thing. I remember a very dreadful meeting in a hotel room. Finally they withdrew.

Weart:

The Geologists did.

Seitz:

Yes. They withdrew, and that ended that. A year later, Eugene was out of office, and matters became more peaceful.

Weart:

If they’d applied then it would have been different?

Seitz:

It probably would have been different. Incidentally, Karl Darrow really understood the Institute and was a quiet but firm friend through all of this.

Weart:

This does touch on what seems to be a permanent issue having to do with whether the AIP will be diluted, whether people should be members of the AIP or the Society. What was the fear? What was the basic concern?

Seitz:

Well, it’s a good question. I’ve heard all the arguments, and maybe I can remember them. It always seemed to me like a red herring.

Weart:

I don’t think it could have been just Eugene, because in one form or another, this issue keeps coming up.

Seitz:

Well, there was some suspicion of the AIP — fear that it would become the master organization, and would do all kinds of insidious things. I don’t know what. You know, if you added up the Institute’s power, it was nil, because it didn’t interfere with research policy or anything else. Its main job was getting on with publishing some society journals and running a certain number of Institute journals. Moreover it could provide public relations of a kind no member society could alone.

Weart:

Whether the societies might lose their identities somehow?

Seitz:

Considering the rate at which the American Physical Society was growing, it’s preposterous to me that there should have been the concern, but there it was.

Weart:

There must be something real there, because it does keep coming up. It’s hard to know just what it is.

Seitz:

Well, if you find out in the course of your various explorations, let me know. Because on one occasion, I was very much on the hot seat. I was regarded as a criminal for a year or so.

Weart:

A traitor to the physicists?

Seitz:

Well, it couldn’t have been that bad, because they elected me president of the Physical Society not long after.

Weart:

What about when the new journals began to be set up? This was again around the same time, Physics of Fluids, the Journal of the Mathematical Physics, the Russian translation journals, all of these being AIP journals.

Seitz:

They came along pretty easily. I remember the Journal of Fluids. There was a very nice chap from one of the Navy ordnance labs who was interested in fluids. He proposed it, and everyone agreed there was a place for it. Leonard Schiff proposed another and everyone said, “Oh that’s fine.” It was a little bit like the Vietnamese War, this fight about the geologists. The amusing thing is that Wigner and the president of that society ended up being very good friends. He went around and said, “I’ll see the chief and find out what the trouble is.”

Weart:

Do you think it would have been a problem if it had been a group that was closer to the physicists, like the astronomers?

Seitz:

Probably not, but there might still have been some complaint about empire building, in the environment of the time.

Weart:

I see, when you let someone in it dilutes it for those who are still there.

Seitz:

When people are frustrated, or have angst, it’s often very hard to tell what the root cause is. They may not know themselves. They just know that, at that moment, something’s wrong.

Weart:

That’s right. I’d very much like to deal with it and understand it because it’s a continuing problem with the AIP, and yet the AIP seems to be able to pull these things together better than any of the other sciences. The biologists have been totally hopeless.

Seitz:

Absolutely horrible in comparison.

Weart:

There must be some general pattern in these things. Well, let’s backtrack again and get closer to the Defense-related things. Were you involved between 1945 and 1950 in any military-related research? For a lot of people there was a hiatus after the war and before the Korean War. Were you involved, other than in ONR funding decisions?

Seitz:

I was involved in those, and then I spent 1946, 1947 at Oak Ridge with the reactor school.

Weart:

The “College of Nuclear Knowledge.” Did you know Rickover? That was when he was there.

Seitz:

Yes, very well. When he arrived, he greeted me. He know I was going to head the college, and offered to put me up in a Navy billet which he had, while I was waiting for Betty to come.

Weart:

He didn’t miss a step, did he? What was your impression of him at that time?

Seitz:

A very serious and intense man, with a mind of his own. And he was going to make it. He had an excellent history in the war. He had been a naval inspector at Westinghouse. He heard about degaussing from the British well before we were involved. He told Westinghouse, “Start manufacturing belts, we’ll need them.” They said “We don’t have the contract.” He said “You start manufacturing them and you’ll get a contract,” and that’s the way it worked out. So he became a hero for them. He often gave them a long lead on things that were going to come.

Weart:

His relationship with Westinghouse goes back actually to before the war began? I didn’t realize that.

Seitz:

And the minute he had exhausted everything he could get out of Argonne, he hitched up with Westinghouse again.

Weart:

Did you have much relationship with him afterwards?

Seitz:

We were good friends. Once in a while he would invite me to a meeting he was holding to discuss policies and this or that. The last time I saw him, tete a tete, was 1970, when we were working on a study of classification particularly the dangers of over-classification. Everyone said, “Fred, you know Rick. He’ll oppose this. Why don’t you go and try to sell him?” This was because we were asking for much more declassification.

Weart:

Right.

Seitz:

It was his 70th birthday, and the girls in the office brought him a little cake to celebrate. We talked and he listened, sort of glassily. It didn’t have any effect on him.

Weart:

No. That would be the last issue you’d be able to affect Rickover on.

Seitz:

He used to invite me to launchings and so on.

Weart:

I see. Were you involved with him in his early career when he was trying to get the submarines built, get the shipping port reactor, and all those things?

Seitz:

I saw him very often in that period, but in a kind of peripheral way.

Weart:

This was because you were on the Navy Committee? We can get up to that. You were at Oak Ridge. Were you involved with Defense people in any job prior to the Korean War?

Seitz:

No. Only those advisory things.

Weart:

I understand. Mainly the solid state panel, I suppose.

Seitz:

That’s right. I don’t know if it’s heavily classified now, but the English had a disaster at one of their reactors, that was called a thermal runaway.

Weart:

Was it the Windscale or the one prior to that?

Seitz:

Well, it was overheating in the graphite as a result of the release of energy stored in the graphite.

Weart:

There’s the famous Windscale one around 1957, I believe.

Seitz:

No, this was much earlier. This possibility of a build-up of stored energy in the graphite was recognized very early. I went to Chicago during the war to work on it.

Weart:

With Wigner?

Seitz:

Yes. The effect was called the Wigner effect on the project. And then there came the point where the English actually had an accident of that kind and were completely mystified as to how to handle it.

Weart:

They didn’t know what had happened?

Seitz:

Well rather what to do about it.

Weart:

You had to tell them about radiation annealing?

Seitz:

Well, here was a friendly ally, and yet the subject was still under secrecy wraps. We were asked by the AEC to sit down with them and make suggestions, think it out, but we knew what the most likely thing they should do was.

Weart:

Do you remember the year?

Seitz:

Around 1950.

Weart:

Things were pretty primitive at that point. 1950 was the year of all the summer studies, Project Lincoln, Project Charles, Project East River. Which of those were you involved in?

Seitz:

Certainly Project Charles, peripherally, but then the Navy held a big meeting at Woods Hole, and I was involved in that. I remember taking that train down the dunes with the group from ONR to attend the meeting.

Weart:

This was a meeting on what?

Seitz:

The Navy was thinking broadly about submarine warfare, what do you do. They also had a group that reviewed basic science policy for the Navy. It was called Project Nobska. There’s a Nobska point in Woods Hole. That’s where that foghorn that you hear is situated. I remember meeting there. Project Lincoln was Wheeler Loomis’ baby. You may remember that he spent a couple of years as director there.

Weart:

I see, so this was not any specific scientific issue. It was more just questions of general policy, getting operations research back on the track and that kind of thing.

Seitz:

We were beginning to think in terms of submarine-based launching systems.

Weart:

That early?

Seitz:

You know, it’s obvious in a way. As long as you have rockets, why not some of them on a ship?

Weart:

— especially if you’re in the Navy. Was Rickover involved?

Seitz:

No.

Weart:

He wouldn’t have been in on that yet.

Seitz:

Rick ran his own show, ran it tight. He was still not nationally prominent at that time anyway.

Weart:

This was also the time that you gave your speech to the Physical Society, where you were urging scientists to go into military research, warning that Stalinist Russia was not a nice country.

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

What prompted you to give that talk?

Seitz:

Loomis was president at the time and he said, “Why don’t you give them something topical?” So I gave the talk.

Weart:

This was already a time when there were beginning to be some divisions in the scientific community, what one thinks of now as the Teller-Oppenheimer split. Of course, already Teller had been concerned that Oppenheimer might not be encouraging people enough to go into war work. You could already begin to see some lines of division. Were you sensing that kind of thing happening?

Seitz:

The split wasn’t really very pronounced yet. There were a few individuals who felt strongly one way or the other. Weisskopf for instance was against scientists being involved in military work. Such individuals more or less went off and did their own things. They didn’t have a strong following. The following came after the Oppenheimer affair.

Weart:

At that time most people pretty much enthusiastically supported going into defense research.

Seitz:

That’s right. But there were a few people who would say that they didn’t want to do that kind of thing, and that was their privilege.

Weart:

Bob Wilson is one, I think, for example.

Seitz:

Yes. I think Bob says it more now than he did then.

Weart:

How did you stand in relation to this split as it developed?

Seitz:

The thing I remember is that I clearly saw trouble and was never in the thick of disputes. I was never asked to testify or anything, although Oppie worried me. At the time I saw the thing really blowing up. I knew Edward Teller very well, and I called him up to say, “Look Edward, try to stop this. It’s just going to cause a split in the scientific community.” And he refused. He now says that Fermi called him, and it could be that Fermi did also since they were exceedingly close friends.

Weart:

People often combine things in their memories. Did people identify you, do you think, with one side or the other?

Seitz:

It’s hard to say. I never testified. I felt the most significant piece in that book of testimony [of the Oppenheimer hearings] was von Neumann’s, where he said one should not use security as a means of taking revenge on someone whom you dislike.

Weart:

I’m thinking, not just of the Oppenheimer case but of the more general issue of hawks versus doves, as it later began to be called.

Seitz:

That crawled along, grew and grew and grew. The split was pretty complete. By the time one of the people who had been anti-Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss, was proposed as Secretary of Commerce. I knew Strauss.

Weart:

You knew Strauss?

Seitz:

Very dedicated man. A great patriot in the best sense.

Weart:

He was head of the AEC for a while there.

Seitz:

That’s right.

Weart:

He got shot down in Congress.

Seitz:

By that time, the feelings ran so rampant that Weisskopf would not preside at the dinner where Lewis Strauss gave the talk even though he was president of the Physical Society at that time. Rabi chided him for it, said there is such a thing as duty.

Weart:

I understand. But it didn’t happen immediately in 1954. It sort of grew.

Seitz:

Exactly.

Weart:

Well, the next thing I have down for you in terms of military or defense-related work is that you were chief scientific advisor to NATO in 1959-1960 but there are at least ten years in between. Were you much involved with anything other than advising ONR?

Seitz:

I certainly was on the NRAC (Naval Research Advisory Committee) all through that period.

Weart:

That’s right. That did come a bit earlier. Why did I want to discuss that later? I guess because it leads into other things. Let me first ask you about NATO because that seems like a thing in itself. What was this job; what did the scientific advisor do?

Seitz:

Let me give you a little of the background. There was a group, and I suspect Rabi, who had a very fertile mind, was involved in it, which asked, what should NATO do in response to Sputnik? They said, “Well, it ought to have a science office and get into real science as well as military things and help stimulate science.” Everyone was stimulating science in those years. This proposal was greeted enthusiastically. I think the U.S. Offered to pay half the bill, and they set up the office. Rabi became American Representative on the NATO Science board, and asked Norman Ramsey of he would become the first Science Advisor. Norman accepted with the condition that he be there only one year, and he avoid being chairman of the department at Harvard if he did another service to society. Then, after his term ran out, Det Bronk asked if I would take the post. I said I’d do it for up to a year and a half. He said “That’s fair enough” so I took it.

Weart:

Did you live in Paris at that time?

Seitz:

Yes. I first went, as I recall it, in March, sized up the situation, moved over in June, and was there about 15 months in all.

Weart:

Was this the NATO fellowship? Was this the origin of that?

Seitz:

Well, Norman had started a lot of things going through the NATO mill, which was not as complicated as the UN mill, and I organized them after they were approved. Incidentally if you’re in one multinational organization, you recognize the characteristics of another.

Weart:

Why because there are fifteen different countries?

Seitz:

You have to get the countries going together, and every one has to make a speech about their views of policy and so forth, which may or may not be relevant. Norman got several things on the drawing board and into the legislative machinery. Then when I arrived, the money began to come in, so I had to put things together and get them working. We’d debate questions. Would we give grants to a known Communist? We decided we would if he had the right scientific credentials. And what do you know? The first thing that happened was that an English scientist, Powell, who discovered the pion, asked if he could borrow the whole NATO Navy to track some cosmic ray balloons for him in the Mediterranean. Powell was a Communist who eventually shifted his loyalty from the Soviet Union to China. We gave him money to do the work and arranged for cooperation.

Weart:

I see, it was this sort of a thing. You didn’t get involved in the military questions.

Seitz:

No. There was a board that was the analogue of mine which dealt with military R and D and testing problems. I sat on that ex officio, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it. I had my own area to worry over.

Weart:

I see. So essentially it was getting the wheels turning, getting the thing set up. I guess some of those survive to the present day, don’t they?

Seitz:

Yes. It was an interesting thing, because as the saying goes I was appointed by the State Department. I was a State Department foreign officer give to NATO.

Weart:

I see — diplomatic passport and all that.

Seitz:

That’s right, and they had some State Department spies who were supposed to make sure that I was doing the right things. These were young people, for the most part. They’d send messages back home to describe what I seemed to be doing. What they didn’t know was that these messages also went to friendly U.S. military people in Paris who would call me over and say “Why don’t you read this, Fred? This is what those fellows in the State Department are saying about you.” That was very amusing.

Weart:

I think Kistiakowsky in his journal has a line where he complains about the State Department not getting the money for you and that sort of thing.

Seitz:

That’s right. The State Department was not a strong back-up.

Weart:

What about NRAC? Then not long after that, the Defense Science Board. I’m interested in how these things functioned.

Seitz:

NRAC was created, as I recall, about the same time as ONR. It’s what’s called a statutory committee: it’s created by law and can only be abandoned by repeal of that law. It was composed of a group of people who talked about science policy and also were briefed on this and that. Because it was potentially very powerful and since it had legal status, the naval officers tracked it carefully and made certain it was kept busy with interesting work, which was all right because we were all good friends. Various naval officers who had scientific interests, some of them quite serious, were on the staff. I guess Michelson might have been of that ilk. He could possibly have lived that kind of life. We discussed a broad range of things. I stayed on, as I recall, until 1970, when I had to get off because things here at the [Rockefeller] university got too busy.

Weart:

What about the Defense Science Board?

Seitz:

It was created about the time of Sputnik. There were several greatly admired people, loved by the entire scientific community who were close to the military. One was von Karman. He was a great hero, well liked, worked well with the officers determining policy and had positive suggestions. Another one was H.P. Robertson from Cal Tech. I’d known him from his Princeton days. He was a relativist, a good theoretical physicist. He started the Board, that is he was the first chairman. He ran very good meetings. I served ex officio on it as a representative of NRAC. Several chairmen of NRAC asked me to serve on it as their representative. I eventually was asked to serve as a regular member and then, in one interlude, was asked to chair it. I had been vice chairman under Clifford Furnas, the president of the University of Buffalo. Then he asked me to follow him, which I did. I stayed chairman much longer than I normally would have, because we went through a period where the Defense Department almost ignored the Board. It was mainly [Assistant Secretary of Defense] Harold Brown’s choice. He had very little interest in advisory committees, so he let us float.

Weart:

So Brown relied on his own people in DOD?

Seitz:

That’s right. He also brought in Eugene Fubini as a personal advisor. Fubini was with him for many years as a colleague and advisor in one form or another. This was true when Harold was at Cal Tech, and, of course when he was Secretary of Defense. Then a new man came in, John Foster, who’s now with TRW. He wanted the committee to function, and called on us for all kinds of special studies as well as short-range advice. That’s when I really got to know Pat Haggerty well. He became vice chairman when Foster arrived, and we spent a lot of time planning the work of the committee.

Weart:

I see. How did the NRAC differ from the Defense Science Board in this respect, in the way its advice was sought and so forth?

Seitz:

NRAC was more of a club, if I can use the word. It met in tight discussion groups with navy staff and occasionally made a study.

Weart:

NRAC was mainly concerned with things like research funding or was it also concerned with scientific questions?

Seitz:

Above all scientific questions. We spent endless time getting briefed and reviewing programs. People had suggestions about fear. The Defense Science Board operated in a very different way. It had many panels studying many things. It would bring in outsiders — Bell Labs or universities. Most of the industrial people having defense relations took an interest.

Weart:

To what extent would either of these groups initiate particular studies? How much was asked of you and how much was an idea that would come up within the group?

Seitz:

There might be a review of some field. Someone would say, “We ought to review the present state of rocketry” or some other special thing. A discussion would grow out of that review and then there might be a suggestion that we ought to have a panel look into the issue in depth.

Weart:

How much do you think the advice was used?

Seitz:

It got built in. It’s hard to put your finger on specific things, but they’re there. Perhaps its greatest virtue was the fact it periodically brought into the same room people from all the services, who would talk about common problems.

Weart:

High enough level people that they would make some difference?

Seitz:

They were particularly high during the Robertson period. Once Harold Brown came in, and the officers began to realize that he was ignoring it, they began to send their third assistant. But once Johnny Foster was appointed and used the Board seriously it picked up again, and we began to get major people. It had the attention as long as the key people in the Department of Defense took it seriously.

Weart:

I understand. Did the Defense Board come to a definite viewpoint and then set out to sell it, or was it more just a matter of complete flow of communication?

Seitz:

Prepare a report, offer it. Usually there were a couple of staff officers on the committee. They were the ones who made sure it was fed in, whatever value it had.

Weart:

I see, and then whatever would happen would happen, and you would go on. Were there any recurrent issues that kept coming up before the board?

Seitz:

More money for appropriate research.

Weart:

Sure. Were there any issues that came up that had a lot to do particularly with solid state physics?

Seitz:

No. The question of creating the Materials Research Labs was certainly reviewed and got enthusiastic endorsement.

Weart:

How about questions like [Advanced Research Projects Agency (of DOD)] ARPA’s support of microelectronics, that kind of thing?

Seitz:

That began to come later. The Navy was the first to see the real opportunity in the microelectronic field, and contracted directly with industry to push that.

Weart:

Were you involved in that?

Seitz:

Not in any direct line.

Weart:

Was NRAC much involved or was that other people in the Navy?

Seitz:

For a while it was regarded as a very, very top development. Texas instruments came up with this idea. At that time the Navy had need for a special electronic devices in connection with its submarine programs, and they poured money into it. If you look back, one can say they got it off the ground.

Weart:

Oh yes, I know, that’s a big story by now.

Seitz:

Then it fed back into the civilian areas.

Weart:

I’m curious because you began as a solid state physicist. At this point you’re functioning as a general scientific advisor. I was wondering to what extent you would sort of hark back to your own special expertise, while you were doing these things?

Seitz:

Special expertise was useful but not in any sense a major factor.

Weart:

I was going through in my mind what kinds of solid state issues might have come up. The only thing I could think of was the question of hardening against electromagnetic pulse and so forth, which I guess already some people had thought of.

Seitz:

Very early.

Weart:

Did that come up before the board?

Seitz:

It was recognized, but never given anything like the publicity it has had in recent years. One still had a lot of vacuum tube technology and discreet transistors.

Weart:

That’s true, it really wasn’t as much of a solid state problem at that time, as it is now.

Seitz:

The whole world hadn’t gone in for very large-scale integration.

Weart:

You could have been any kind of physicist and still would have functioned pretty much the same.

Seitz:

For a long while Dale Corson was one of the staunch members of all these organizations, and a very useful one.

Weart:

What about the test ban treaty? That came up during this period. Were you much involved with the debates over that, questions of verification, that sort of thing?

Seitz:

Not in any very direct way.

Weart:

It must have come up before the Defense Science Board.

Seitz:

Questions of verification did. This brought in people with ideas about how you verify. It was a great shock when the Russians had that enormously dirty test.

Weart:

Oh, the 58-megaton test.

Seitz:

I remember there was to be a big Pugwash meeting at the time. The Soviets were supposed to send a team and didn’t.

Weart:

You were on these boards right up through the sixties till almost 1970, and I wanted again to carry on this question about… The divisions in the scientific community became greater as the Vietnam War began heating up, and I wonder if any of these divisions were reflected either on NRAC or the Defense Science Board?

Seitz:

Not within those boards. However there were very sharp divisions outside — all the arguments about whether we’d go ahead with ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile]. I never knew whether we could develop a satisfactory ABM, but I thought that at least it ought to be studied. You know, once could have stopped radar or the whole nuclear energy program using the same arguments — many said they would never work and attempted to prove it on paper.

Weart:

You are listed as one of the scientists who supported the “Safeguards” system, for example. Secretary Laird publicly listed you and one or two others.

Seitz:

Yes. I testified before Congress in the spirit I mentioned to you that I thought these things ought to be tried. If they were successful, they would be important. And the cost was not horrendous. If they weren’t successful, well, at least we’d know that.

Weart:

Was there much debate about ABM then within the Defense Science Board?

Seitz:

No. It was taken as the next step in defensive measures. The people who were put on it were earnest engineers but not exceptional people, mainly because the academic community would engage itself.

Weart:

I understand. This is a very difficult problem, too. Do you think that most of the people who opposed it were people who were outside, out in the academic community?

Seitz:

The Cambridge [Mass.] was almost in lockstep.

Weart:

What is it about that Cambridge community? What gave that its peculiar character? Why there?

Seitz:

Just a few people nucleated the attitude and then it stuck.

Weart:

Then other people gravitate towards there I suppose also?

Seitz:

Yes. They’re locked together so much that some people who had gone to Washington to work with President Johnson, didn’t dare go back.

Weart:

How did this affect your personal relations with some of these people?

Seitz:

I haven’t thought much about it. I got a very nasty write-up from the fellow from the New York Times who interviewed me when I took the job here.

Weart:

Is that so? What did he say?

Seitz:

I was a “hawk.” It was a very nasty word in those days.

Weart:

I see. In other words, anyone who had served Washington under LBJ [Johnson] became a hawk?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

Well, maybe I should ask you, were there any military initiatives that you did oppose? I suppose that’s the division between a hawk and a dove, which a hawk supports what the military wants and a dove opposes it.

Seitz:

Well, I certainly never would have advocated dropping a second bomb on Japan. I thought that was absolutely unnecessary. Whether it should have been tested in Tokyo Bay where it would not hurt anyone, in some other way — well, I never thought that was realistic.

Weart:

A lot of the people who later became “doves” went along with the first bomb.

Seitz:

The bomb over Hiroshima was a unique device they had developed — a one of a kind cannon device. Its properties have come up for review because people have recalculated the radiation pattern.

Weart:

That’s right, you mentioned that you were involved with these re-calculations.

Seitz:

There is now some doubt whether there was appreciable exposure.

Weart:

Any at all?

Seitz:

On the ground. Among the people who survived.

Weart:

How did you feel, by the way, when you first heard about the dropping of the bomb?

Seitz:

I was in Europe. I’d gone over with an agency that was supposed to prowl around and see what had happened regarding research and technology and coordinate all other agencies. It was a bit like trying to catch Niagara Falls in a pitcher. But I was there then the test was made. I knew they were verging on it when I left the United States. Almost all the news leaked to Chicago pretty quickly.

Weart:

So it wasn’t any particular surprise.

Seitz:

No. I knew they had to hold up for a while because of technical problems at Los Alamos. But we were told they were getting it settled. I left at the end of April, for 2 ½ months.

Weart:

Going back again now to the Atomic Energy Commission. We have to go back and take the various federal agencies one by one. The only things I know you were on, aside from the Oak Ridge one, was the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards at some time.

Seitz:

I served on that about two years. It was dominated completely by Edward Teller, who had a brilliant understanding of fundamentals.

Weart:

It was essentially Teller’s ideas?

Seitz:

They were good. The one thing I noted most was how very conservative one became, when one had to discuss the real siting of reactors. It became clear that you probably wouldn’t put one right in the middle of Manhattan.

Weart:

The main questions at that time were questions as to where the reactors should go.

Seitz:

Yes, and what the design should be; what kind of hardened shells you should have to contain them.

Weart:

That’s right, containment was just a brand new idea at that time, wasn’t it? Do you remember how that came up?

Seitz:

Oh, just through discussion within the committee.

Weart:

The idea of putting something around it. How did the committee function? Did people have special assignments or was it mostly a matter of getting together and looking over the reactor designer’s shoulders?

Seitz:

A combination of things, looking over shoulders, making and reviewing suggestions. The Idaho test site was one of the out-growths of the discussions. It provided a place where you could test reactors to destruction if need be. In those days testing in air was still allowed.

Weart:

Oh yes. You say it was mostly Teller’s committee. How did you regard Teller at that point? This was before the Oppenheimer thing. How did people see him?

Seitz:

Very imaginative, much of an individualist. You know, at Los Alamos, he never worked on the nuclear bomb. He worked in hydrogen devices. As a matter of fact, I remember that when I first went to Los Alamos, either in 1946 or 1947, and went through the files, I found the papers on the hydrogen devices were very interesting. A lot of good physics for that day. A great deal of the theory related to present-day discussions of the first three minutes [of the Big Bang].

Weart:

That’s right, very similar problems.

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

I really ought to ask Teller himself, but do you have any idea how he got interested in the problems of reactor safety, the problem of a reactor blowing up and so on?

Seitz:

He was probably asked to take it on by the Atomic Energy Commission and was quite willing to, because he was deeply interested. Teller has a broad and bold mind. He can handle diverse problems. Some of the equipment he and his colleagues invented to test bombs was very ingenious.

Weart:

I didn’t know he was involved with that side of it.

Seitz:

Oh yes. People wanted to know what neutron spectrum they would get, and they would devise essentially on the spot a piece of intricate equipment that actually worked.

Weart:

So again it’s the same thing — if he got interested in nuclear safety, then he would start thinking very seriously about it. As you say, once you start thinking about it, you start taking it more seriously.

Seitz:

He would be good to interview, if you haven’t.

Weart:

Yes. The problem is, he’s kind of shy about being interviewed. So many people have approached him.

Seitz:

Well, I’ll put in a good work for you. If you really get serious about it.

Weart:

Well, you know, I’m working on a history which involves questions of public attitudes to nuclear energy, and I’m particularly interested in the question of nuclear safety. I have the distinct impression that Teller was the one who invented the idea, more than anyone else.

Seitz:

That’s probably right, although the concept of “fail safe” was always present.

Weart:

These things that people are worried about began as things that scientists and engineers were concerned about.

Seitz:

Wigner was much interested in such problems, but in a lower key way although he was brilliant in the field of reactor design.

Weart:

This was back at that time? I ought to talk to him about it.

Seitz:

Yes. A great deal of stuff got thought through and invented at Oak Ridge in the year I was there.

Weart:

That’s right. That was when they invented almost all the kinds of reactors that could be done including the safety problems that each one would have.

Seitz:

I think it was touch and go whether Eugene would stay there. But finally he decided to go back to Princeton. The machinery of operation at Oak Ridge was too complicated.

Weart:

What other relations did you have with the Atomic Energy Commission? I don’t have that you were on any of their panels, leaving aside the high energy physics panels (which we are going to talk about, was there anything else, before we get to that?

Seitz:

There was that special committee that I mentioned with the British. That’s the only special one I remember, although I was frequently consulted about materials.

Weart:

Let’s talk then, briefly anyway about the high energy Physics Panel and the problems of MURA [Midwest Universities Research Association] and Argonne. I guess I’m particularly interested in your attitude as being an Illinois person and so on. There must have been some tensions there. Tell me how you saw it, how it came to you.

Seitz:

Well, it was clear that with the big community accelerators, going up on the East and West Coasts, there ought to be one somewhere in the Midwest. Walter Zinn resisted it at Argonne. He wanted to keep it [Argonne] a closed enclave with a high level of secrecy. He was interested in reactor technology and in working with the submarine people.

Weart:

I see, and if you let in all these other things, that can’t be maintained.

Seitz:

Yes. But finally, reluctantly, there was a concession. Zinn hired one of the former Lawrence Laboratory people to design a machine, which practically no one was very happy with. In the meantime, Kerst came up with his machine. Its great virtue was that it would give very high intensities so you’d be able to do quantitative experiments rapidly. The major question which arose was, should you build it and also go to higher energies in the other places? The final decision was primarily based on the fact that there wasn’t enough money to do both.

Weart:

You didn’t have enough money to do both.

Seitz:

Right. And finally the people who supported higher energies won out. I think that decision was right. Incidentally some political blocks were put in the way of MURA machine. I think such actions were a mistake.

Weart:

You were on the committee, in fact, that recommended that SLAC [Stanford Univ. linear accelerator] go ahead, and put the MURA alternating gradient one on a sort of second priority?

Seitz:

I don’t think I was on that. I think I was on the next cycle.

Weart:

The Ramsey panel.

Seitz:

Yes, the Ramsey panel, I think that the SLAC machine was authorized when I was in Europe.

Weart:

Well tell me about the Ramsey panel, then, because the Ramsey Panel definitely confirmed that…

Seitz:

I went along with the agreement that we should go for higher energies, because particle physics was opening up so much. Something new would be found every time one went to higher energy. One began to discover what we now look on as multiplets or group representations.

Weart:

How did the people in the Physics Department in Illinois feel about these things?

Seitz:

Some of the individuals were greatly distressed. They felt they wanted to get attached to a good community machine. Almost the year that I took over the department, the AEC said it was going to construct two university-oriented machines, two big ones. This decision was fostered by Tom Johnson. I called the high energy people in the department together and said, “Let’s hold a series of very intense meetings as fast as we can and discuss whether we should or should not apply for one?” The chances are that if we had, we’d have got one. Then we would have used it in cooperation with other institutions. The department came up unanimously, after two months of hard study, with a decision that we should not.

Weart:

That’s kind of unusual, isn’t it?

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

What was the reason?

Seitz:

They said that by the time they would have put it together the national labs would be so far ahead that it would be relatively useless. We estimated construction would take seven years. By that time there would be pressure to close down such “small” machines. That is exactly what happened. The physicists at Illinois were among the group that was pushing the MURA machine, and I took their decision at face value. Ultimately the East and West Coast got into a bitter fight about a newly proposed Berkeley machine. I was at the Academy then and saw the conflict brewing. Individuals would come to my office saying “We’ve got to do something, will you get the Academy to support this plan or that?” I went to the Brookhaven people, met with the board of AUI and said, “Why don’t you go national?” The Berkeley machine is much too rigid to satisfy a national need. In addition, the staff there does not have a reputation for planning nationally. The people at AUI voted this suggestion. They said they were a congenial group of about nine universities and did not want dilution.

Weart:

I don’t know how many it was at that time, something like that.

Seitz:

So that’s when we called together a group of university presidents, and set in motion what eventually was to become URA [University Research Association]. At that time it would have been very hard to produce where that machine would go.

Weart:

“We” meaning you? You said, “We called together some university presidents.”

Seitz:

The Academy.

Weart:

The Academy called it together.

Seitz:

The Academy’s action sort of emerged from the Ramsey Panel which endorsed still another very high energy machine.

Weart:

I see, so this happened when you were president of the Academy.

Seitz:

Yes.

Weart:

So then after that meeting with AUI you called together these presidents.

Seitz:

I think it was in January of 1965.

Weart:

This was the consortium that became Fermilab.

Seitz:

We were greatly criticized by some congressman. The organization created by the academy was called an organization with no money, using a borrowed telephone.

Weart:

Was it kind of a shotgun wedding? Or was this just a matter of putting it together?

Seitz:

No. Our action had to be endorsed and supported by the AEC. Such endorsement came rapidly and brought peace very quickly. People were tired of fighting.

Weart:

So it was just a question of having a new organization rather than…

Seitz:

The Academy agreed to consider all proposals fairly in concert with the AEC. Then we got a really strong committee. The high energy community jumped about into the planning process very rapidly.

Weart:

Very rapidly. The next thing I have is the Academy, and that’s a pretty long one. Cast your eye back over what we’ve talked about. Is there anything up to the Academy period, anything we’ve missed that’s significant?

Seitz:

No, I think your card index is pretty good. It must be that my girl gave you some of the information on committees which they love to collect.

Weart:

They gave me a long list of committees.

Session I | Session II