Oral History Transcript — Dr. John G. King
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John G. King; November 18, 2009
ABSTRACT: ohn G. King was born in August 1925 in England and attended school in France, Switzerland and, in the US, the Exeter Academy. Before Exeter, when his mother lived in California, one of his classmates was Shirley Temple.
At Exeter, because he was a lonely boy, the teachers allowed him to experiment in the lab and he became good at fixing electrical devices and electronics. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 where he fixed radios and then transferred to the Navy, Samson Naval Training Center and then the Submarine School in Newport, where he worked on antisubmarine detection and defense projects. He then entered MIT in 1946 to work on his Bachelor’s degree where he was taken under the wing of Jerold Zacharias. He stayed at MIT for his Ph.D., became a Professor, and retired in 1996.
He describes how Zachrias became interested in education by visiting High Schools, and realizing that the students did not retain much of what they were taught in the sciences and science labs.
In the interview he describes the rise in MIT’s prestige due to Zacharias’ hiring of Bruno Rossi and Victor Weisskopf, Deutsch, and Feschbach. He describes some of his work on the atomic clock (Jerome Wiesner, Dick Daley), and experiments on the equivalence of electron and proton charge, Hoyle’s continuous creation theory experiment to detect matter creation ( with Sam Cohen) which got attention from Bondi, and some of the low temperature experiments with Peter Stephens and Dan Oates. He mentions Edwin Land, Purcell, V. Jaccarino and others.
His views on religion are those of an agnostic.
He has 8 children with his wife Betty, who is an architect. He is now collaborating with one of his sons, in the development of demonstration experiments.
Zimmerman:The first thing is where were you born and what year?
King:That’s easy! I was born in London, England in August of 1925, so I’m now 84.
Zimmerman:Where did you go to school, and when did you come to the United States?
King:I was born in England, and I was a British subject, as they call it. My mother and father divorced in about 1927, and I was brought to the US around then, and then I went back with her and my grandmother to France, and I spent my early childhood at France attending the ecole communal in a small village, Cheraute, in the Basque country in southwest France. I went to a school with about 20 kids ranging in age from about five or four to about twelve, and that was going to be all the schooling they were going to get in general. Of course one out of some number could go on up the ladder to the lycée and eventually to the Ecole Polytechnique, but I didn’t do that route. And I was surrounded by my fellow students who were from peasant families, but I got along quite well with them. Since I couldn’t speak any French, I was considered l’enfant le plus sage, the best-behaved kid. But after about two months I learned French, and I was no longer the quiet boy, the foreigner.
I have to say that I thought highly of that school, and still do. Every day the kids would be lined up in a row according to age and asked to do mental arithmetic appropriate to their age. The first group would be asked what’s 4 + 2, and at the other end they would say what’s 2/3 of 319, which is a challenge. There was an emphasis on this because as future farmers and clerks and store operators there were no calculators and so on, and so they had to do their arithmetic in their head quickly and give estimates and so on.
Zimmerman:This is one of the things that is lacking right now in the American society.
King:That’s right. And then we learned how to write with a sharp-pointed steel pen, very flexible with French manuscript handwriting, which I can still do, and of which John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence is a good example. Also we had dictation every day. We’d write half a page, and it would be checked for accuracy and so on. All of this not very creative. And finally there was a science lecture.
Zimmerman:What grade was that?
King:It went from age four to twelve, so essentially K to 7, because it wasn’t high school. I’ve been back a number of times, and the time before last I met up with one of my classmates who himself had become a teacher, and so we had an interesting back-and-forth about what had been happening in the world. And then my grandmother went back to the US and was sick, and my mother went to visit her, and I would go over to visit, and then finally they sold the property in France where I’d gone to school in 1936 and we came back to the US. Then we traveled around and I went back and forth across the US, and I went to schools in Mesa, Arizona, Santa Barbara, California, Palm Springs, California, where one of my classmates was Shirley Temple, if you can believe it. Then my grandmother died. My mother got a moderate amount of money and was able to send me to the Phillips Exeter Academy over here.
I forgot to say that before that, in ’37 we went back to Europe and I went to a school in Switzerland in Zuoz near St. Moritz, and there I had to learn German. There were three English-speaking kids, probably 50 Swiss kids speaking either French or Swiss German, which was of course kept down — they wanted you to learn real German.
Zimmerman:Swiss German is…?
King:Terrible. Very hard. And then finally, there would be a sprinkling of eastern Europeans, and then a collection of Germans, some of whom were sort of Nazi youths in ’37, so they were in their own group. Then my grandmother got really sick, we came back, and that’s when I went to Exeter in ’39. Graduated in ’43. I then turned 18 and being a delicate child I was going to be drafted and it didn’t appeal to me to be in the armed services — you know, a sheltered kid and so on. By then I’d learned a lot of electronics, so I tried to get a job first at the Radiation Lab at MIT. That didn’t work. They had 3,000 people, how could they have me? Then I went to the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab and I was hired, and I worked on the guidance of acoustic torpedoes, built a chassis with 30 vacuum tubes. And was finally drafted and went to Ft. Devens in January of ’44.
Zimmerman:Now this was before you received a bachelor’s?
King:Oh yes, I’m a high school kid. You see, because I was by myself so much of the time, the foreigner, I had hobbies such as taking apart old radios, and I spent summers in Vermont and built public address systems using push-pull 6L6s in the output stage. So I was quite sharp in electronics. I built regenerative radios. I was a radio ham. So I did all these things. So they hired me at the Underwater Sound Lab, and when I was finally drafted and, in early January ’44, taken away to Ft. Devens in the Army, I learned later they had called Washington and said, “Get that kid back.” I didn’t know that. So I go to Ft. Devens, and there I spend many weeks repairing all the radios on the post. The first sergeant would say, “King, get over to D company and fix Major Jones’s car radio.” And then I’d say, “Well, I need parts,” and they would take me in a staff car to the one Radio Shack that existed, the Deutschman brothers from Canton had set it up at 167 Washington Street. So then I’d come back and fix the radio.
Finally they sent me to Camp Edison, New Jersey in the Signal Corps where we were in the last pigeon company, and every morning we’d get up at five o’clock and go out on the playground and pick up pigeon droppings. So I’m in the Signal Corps in Camp Edison near Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. After a week or so the first sergeant says, “Come in. You’re going into the Navy.” So I had 48 hours to go to Sampson Naval Training Center on the northern part of Lake Cayuga, the lake that Cornell University is on. So I go up to the Navy base in my Army clothes and they are sort of confused by that. I had had the so-called “convenience of the government” discharge to enlist in the Navy. But I didn’t know what was happening — nobody told me anything; I just followed orders.
So then I’m back at the Underwater Sound Lab in May of ’44 and I spend the rest of the war in my sailor suit working there, until after VJ day Harvard got rid of it went to Penn State as the Ordnance Research Laboratory, where I stayed until May of ’46. And then I went back to MIT as a freshman, and I’ve been there ever since. At one point, newly appointed faculty were supposed to go to the faculty meeting and give a short speech about how happy they are to be there or something, and my mentor, whom I will talk about more, Jerrold Zacharias, said, “You should say, ‘I’ve never been anyplace else. I hope the place is good.’” But anyway, that’s what happened.
So then I spent four years as a physics major, and when I got into the so-called senior lab, I remember doing an experiment with liquid helium at low temperatures below the lambda point looking at the viscosity, and I remember making a kind of torsion thing and multiple dewars and so forth. And Sanborn Brown, who was running it, was impressed with my experimental skill, and that ability to make apparatus work has been the principal element in my advancement in my career. And in my own critical opinion, and you know, you look back on your career and say, “If I’d been wise I would have done this and so on,” but it’s too late. So I’m not regretting it, but there are two things wrong. First, I never had any intellectually disciplined mentors, and at one point I almost went to get a post-doc with I. I. Rabi at Columbia, and he would have been more of a disciplinarian, or possibly with Ed Purcell, who would have been even better in my opinion, but instead I just stayed at MIT. And they liked my experimental skills, so they let me do anything I wanted. Now my senior thesis was on trying to attach electrons to hydrogen. As you know, of course, hydrogen ionizes at 13.5 eV or is it 13.6? Mercury has a density of 13.6.
Zimmerman:Is that solid hydrogen?
King:No, hydrogen atom. It takes 13.6 or 13.5 eV to pull the electron from the proton. Now if you push an electron into a hydrogen atom, it binds with an energy of about three-quarters of an eV. At that time, one of the major things was to study the hyperfine structure and other properties of both hydrogen atoms and the molecular spectrum of hydrogen molecules. This was done by the atomic beam method that had started in the ’20s with Otto Stern showing that there was quantization of magnetic moments and that atoms in a beam would be deflected in an inhomogeneous magnetic field. And in fact Zacharias, who was then my mentor, always had a photograph of an original Stern slide showing the two part deflection. So therefore, detecting hydrogen in a beam was a major issue, and the only device they had at the time was the so-called Pirani detector consisting of two thin platinum ribbons in a bridge circuit, and the hydrogen atom hits it and either cools it or heats it, I forget. Actually it’s kept warm, so it cools it I think. Like a Pirani pressure gauge, a very sophisticated form, but it was not very sensitive. I mean it couldn’t detect one hydrogen atom or a hundred; it detected many thousands. So while you could do the experiment, it wasn’t ideal. So I was trying to find a way to detect hydrogen, and it didn’t work for reasons that I still don’t fully understand, but I wrote it up and that was my bachelor’s thesis.
Then they immediately offered me a graduate student position, in spite of my grades not being all A’s. They were mostly B’s, and that’s because I had too many outside interests. And that has gone through my whole life. Again, if I were to criticize somebody of my energy on some scale, I have moderate brains…I don’t consider myself of great intellectual power compared to some people I know, but okay, not bad. If I had used those skills and talents better I could have done more, and many of us can say that, and that’s the matter of the right mentor. And it’s very analogous to some kid that shows talent in basketball, and he may never go anywhere. But if he has the right position, the right coach, then he can move. And I spent a lot of time on automobiles, fixing them and making them go, including rare vintage machines such as the cars built by Ettore Bugatti, one of which I bought in 1948 for $800 and sold ten years later for $1900 plus a Plymouth Suburban. That friend of mine still has it. It’s now worth three or four hundred thousand dollars. Then I later bought one for $4000, and it’s in a PSSC movie incidentally, and that one sold for two and a half million dollars. So these things are rare.
Zimmerman:You sold it for two and a half million?
King:No, I sold it for $8000 a few years later. I didn’t sell it for two and a half million. That’s the current price, you see. I once remember having lunch with Edwin Land and saying that I did all these things and that they were using up too much of my time. He said, “Well, why are you doing it?” which is a perfectly valid question. So I used about a quarter of my time on my career, and about three-quarters went into all sorts of things. I’m not telling this in exact sequence. I should say: I get a graduate appointment. I do a thesis on the hyperfine structure of bromine. I’d worked with a man, Vincent Jaccarino, who is at Santa Barbara, he’s a little older than I am, I haven’t talked to him for a few years, on the hyperfine structure of chlorine, so it was natural to do bromine next, and then together in ’53 we did iodine where we observed the first nuclear octupole that anybody had confirmed. And as you probably know, if you plot nuclear magnetic dipole moments as a function of Z, they rise in a sort of uniform way, and there are Schmidt limits, so called, that are the calculated limits on a simple model, but if you put in more complicated — I mean it’s a whole business of its own. Well, after we measured the iodine one, I Kush at Columbia measured indium, and we started getting the elements of the analogue of a Schmidt chart. So to understand how a nucleus makes magnetic moments and electric quadrupole moments and so on is a whole business that I used to know all about but have forgotten.
Zimmerman:I recently recorded Mike Tinkham He was also at MIT.
King:That’s right, working with Woody Strandberg at MIT.
Zimmerman:I guess he worked on oxygen.
King:Yes that’s right. I remember his thesis. There’s probably a copy of it in my files somewhere. So I did this experiment, and that was one of those where for a change I really did work 36 hours at a stretch. By then my mentor was Jerrold Zacharias, who had gotten into the beam business as follows. Around 1929 (and this is all rough memory), Rabi went to Stern in Hamburg and worked for some period with atomic beam methods.
Zimmerman:Really? So the atomic beam method came from Germany?
Well, actually they came from a Frenchman whose name I forget who was the first to show that atoms travel in a straight line in a vacuum, and did a very elementary experiment where he heated the filament. This would be 1914, so the incandescent lamp was commonplace. He had a filament coated with something and a mask in front of it, and when he lit the filament, the matter evaporated, and a reverse shadow of the mask was cast — it blocked out the atoms, showing that they were traveling in a straight line.
So Stern knew atoms travel in a straight line, so he builds a glass Stern-Gerlach apparatus that becomes world famous. And Rabi goes there, and I don't know whether he actually learned, but when he gets back to Columbia, Zacharias is there doing a thesis on the noise generated by hitting large sheets of metal (theater thunder?). I don’t remember the details. Again, these are only rough things. So he’s not an atomic physicist, but he joins Rabi’s group and becomes one of the more energetic people and does terrific work, and measure the hyperfine structure and nuclear spin of Potassium 40, the rare isotope between 30 and 41 naturally occurring with a long life radioactive nucleus.
Then Zacharias gets involved with the Radiation Lab as the Second World War breaks out, and is the group leader on something, I forget what. Then after the war, he sets up an atomic beam lab at MIT in around 1946 probably. I don’t know about it; I’m a freshman, you see. But by 1950 when I do my senior thesis there, it’s running along and it’s turned out six or seven graduate students. And I do my senior thesis, I become a graduate student, I do this experiment on bromine, publish it. Meantime, I remember at my thesis oral, Professor Francis Friedman, who will come into this story, says, “Shall I go up to Harvard or shall I stay and hear a talk on something, or shall I stay and listen to you?” I said, “Oh, go up to Harvard.” Then I said, “Now here’s the hyperfine structure.” And I said we didn’t find any deviation in describing the intervals requiring a magnetic dipole moment, which we now know, and an electric quadrupole moment — there is no trace of any higher moments, and we didn’t find anything particularly remarkable. And Zacharias said something like, “Sometimes you’re in the rough looking for golf balls, and you find diamonds. You found a hell of a lot of golf balls.” Well, that’s a typical Zacharias story. My colleague Ray Weiss and I haven’t really said so, but we’re compiling these small sayings for no reason, just for fun.
Now, so I do this, and immediately afterwards I become an instructor for two years, and I run the freshman lab. That’s my job besides teaching class in first-year physics. Instead of having three recitations I have one, and then run the freshman lab. And my immediate reaction is to introduce new and more interesting experiments, because when I’d been in the freshman lab I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t open to much of anything, it wasn’t very up to date, and I remember doing things that somehow upset the technicians because I turned the apparatus upside down and make it do something difficult and so on. And there would be a bored graduate student in theory as the teaching assistant because that was how he was being supported, not a good way. That lab persisted and I became in charge of it. Mostly what I did was introduce some new experiments that have been written up in some obscure publication of the American Association of Physics Teachers, which I may have somewhere but I don't know where it is.
So I continue working in the Atomic Beam Lab, and gradually I find myself becoming the senior person there, and I become an assistant professor, an associate professor, and then a full professor in due course and not terribly ahead of schedule but not behind. I later discover that various offers to go and work at Bell Labs and so forth were somewhat suppressed by Zacharias. And the reason I know that was that one day I was waiting in his office, and on the floor was a letter, and I picked up the letter, and being nosy I read a little of it before putting it on his desk — he’s not there — and sure enough, it’s to Kellogg (Rabi, Zacharias, and Kellogg published a lot of things), who was I think at Bell and whom I had met at lunch. On Saturdays Zacharias would take us out to lunch with visiting dignitaries so I got to know people, and this man had said, “Why doesn’t John spend some time at Bell Labs?” and I never heard anything about it. So I figured this was intercepted.
Now gradually as I became de facto head of the lab and starting to have my own graduate students, the first one was Bob Golub, and he’s now at University of North Carolina, and he is 70 but still doing interesting things in low-temperature neutron physics, cooling neutrons down and looking at things like the electric dipole moment things that theorists are interested in and keep calculating to lower limits. But he’s done quite a few things in that line. In fact I had lunch with him in early September, now that I think about it.
So this goes on, and gradually I drift away from that and two things come to me. One is null experiments, and I’ve done a lot of null experiments, and had any of them not been null you would have heard about it. One of them that persists through my whole career, and I’ve never involved students with it (except for senior theses), is trying to see what the unbalance of the proton and the electron charge might be, or whether the neutron has truly zero charge. After all, a neutron decays into a proton plus and electron plus an antineutrino, and that gives you room for having charges here, there, and somewhere else. And there’s a beautiful experiment done at UC Riverside in about ’87, and I’ve been at them to publish it for years, I don't know why not, in which Douglas Burke (he’s not in physics now) takes a U tube full of superfluid helium, and makes it oscillate back and forth into a chamber containing a Faraday cup with an electrode. And now he sees what charge it carries. And you see, the charge is going to be less than 10-20 of an electron, so any interaction of that charge with solids or the material is so small even by the standards of superfluidity at 1 degree, or 1.5 or whatever he was working at, you don’t have to worry about. So that the superfluid fraction that goes into this container, thus leaving behind all ordinary charge would still carry this hypothetical charge. So that says the combination of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons, a helium atom, has a charge of about 10-26 or -27, so it’s quite a few orders of magnitude better than my number.
Zimmerman:Many other people have been trying to do this. Vernon Hughes I guess did.
King:Vernon Hughes did, and a fellow at Stanford whose name I can’t…
King:Yes, Bill Fairbank.
King:No, I don't know about that one. He was doing something with the positron…wasn’t he working on…?
Zimmerman:He was looking at the gravitational pull of a positron I think.
King:Right, to see if it falls. And he was also looking for monopoles? I think so.
Zimmerman:Cabrera was. I think he saw one monopole.
King:Yeah, I don’t doubt that he did. But some people have suggested that it might have been some wise guy turning the knob! Anyway, so that’s a very good experiment. Then in May of ’07 a Physical Review Letter appeared by a Stanford group, and since I did speak to Steve Chou a few years before, I suspect it’s an offshoot of his group, in which atom interferometery is to be used to determine the unbalance, and that should give eight orders of magnitude better, and it will be with rubidium and maybe some other atoms. It would be good if it was also with atoms with a large neutron excess. I don't know if they can do that. But I haven’t heard any more about it, and I check to see if I’m not missing something. My papers are never referred to because a review article appeared in some journal, so everybody refers to that, so I’m second order, so to speak, and that’s all right with me. But I’m still doing an experiment of this kind, and because for a while MIT gave me office space, which was nice, and some lab space, but I had no particular people to work on it and not much money, so I actually have moved it up to Maine where my son…I’m hiring various kids of mine to work on it as well as me. It’s one of the twelve projects I have, and twelve projects are too many; the effect is that you don’t do anything.
Zimmerman:Tell me which ones they are.
King:Well I could come to that. Let me continue this historical development. By the way, I see you have that excellent book, Techniques of Experimental Physics by the guy at Harvard, Wilson. It’s wonderful. That’s the book that I used in project lab at MIT. I made everybody buy it, and it’s a superb collection of things. For instance, physicists are so accustomed to a certain kind of treatment of statistics in experiment, but they have no idea how if you’re in the agriculture business and talking about corn crops, how difficult it is to standardize the different samples and so on. So you get a lot of insight into other parts. I don't know whether it’s still in print.
Zimmerman:I don't know. This is ’52.
King:Yeah, that’s about right. But the content is still valid. I mean it’s true that my computer now, my various math programs have methods of handling data by various statistical means that are so far beyond me.
Zimmerman:It’s too automatic. It’s not very transparent and you don’t know what you’re doing.
King:That’s right. Actually you’ve put it exactly right. But it bears the same relationship to the electronics of my day as the electronics in this thing. (Pulls out a mobile phone.)
So what happens is that I am now at MIT and still doing hyperfine structure, still an assistant professor, and in 1958 I get promoted to associate professor. And I’m still teaching introductory physics, though I occasionally teach a graduate course in spectroscopy and I’ve taught the junior physics courses in atomic physics. Meantime, I have to say this. I see Zacharias off and on, and I can walk into his office, and he arranges consulting jobs for his students, which is nice both for the experience and the income. My first consulting job is at National Radio Company, an old-line maker that made a three-tube regenerative receiver in the ’20s, and then made ham radio receivers with the best sensitivity that could be obtained. During the War they built a lot of military stuff; I don’t remember any detail. And so around 1954 or ’55, Zacharias has been developing with the aide of post-docs an atomic clock that can be packaged. In 1940-something, Rabi said in an off-handed way, “With all this hyperfine structure, we could make an atomic frequency standard of incredible precision and stability.” He doesn’t do anything about it, but all around the world, in England and France and Columbia itself, people take an atomic beam apparatus and say yes it could make a clock. But an atomic beam apparatus of those days was often a bronze casting vacuum envelope a foot in diameter and maybe six feet to twelve feet long with many glass ports, a ground surface on top where metal plates sealed with grease, Celvacene could be moved around, thus adjusting alignment. And inside would be magnets that had copper tubing insulated with some kind of asbestos fabric insulation as windings, thus being relatively low vapor pressure. And you ran water through it, and you ran 600 amps through the coil which you got from an array of submarine batteries which were in turn charged by welding generators. So you can see the heaviness of it all. And that had become sort of traditional.
So if you built an atomic clock based on that, and you develop the electronics at the time that can lock to the resonant line — in other words, as you turn the frequency dial, you make transitions appear and the beam strengthens, so you get a curve like that. So now how do you lock at the top so the frequency stays there? And that requires starting with a crystal oscillator, multiplying it up, adding another frequency, and all sorts of things like that. So you put that all together. But nobody was addressing the fact that while the Bureau of Standards, as it was then called, might be willing to have such a device, it was none the less something for graduate students and technicians constantly making sure the water was flowing.
So what Zacharias wanted to do was build sealed off atomic clock that you could plug in, and everybody said, “Ah, you can’t do it.” He went around looking for companies that could do it, and Jerry Wiesner at that time had been consulting with National Radio Company about over-the-horizon radar. So Zacharias latches onto National, National builds it. I’m over there once a week for an afternoon and getting $100 bucks or $300 — a lot of money in that time — for my expertise on how to do vacuum and how to do spot welding. I remember getting their technicians to make a spot welder using a car battery and a homemade levering thing. Worked fine.
Zimmerman:In the olden days they used to use a pedal.
King:Yes, exactly. Well it had a pedal, with a piece of slender chain. Anyway. So here I am at National Radio Company making some money. Of course about a year and a half or two years later there is a photograph of Zacharias and some people from the Signal Corps who were standing by the first atomic beam apparatus. And one if his early graduate students, Dick Daley, [I must check name spelling]was pivotal in making the thing really work because most people have the idea that the magnets should be inside the beam tube — at least the pole pieces; the windings could be outside. Daley said let the beam travel in a pipe half an inch in diameter, and let it be squeezed down in the characteristic shape of the metallic replica of a two-wire field. In order to have a field with a calculable gradient in the beginning, two wires were used carrying current, and there’s a field that has a calculable gradient. Then people said, “Oh, let’s do it with iron and not worry so much about calculable because we are now using the deflection merely as state selection, not as measuring anything, not measuring the moment. Then what we’re doing is putting in RF frequencies to induce transitions, so that’s difficult. So there would be that technology that went on for so many years and was being done at Berkeley, at Princeton, at Columbia, and I can’t think of the European places. There would essentially be an oven that sent out a beam of atoms, then there would be a partition chamber that would have better vacuum and two slits, so you ended up with a collimated beam of atoms, and then that would go to a detector some distance away. And on the way would be a deflecting magnet, the first one called the A magnet, the second magnet the B magnet, and in between a homogeneous field from the C magnet. So the atoms would be split up one way and they would go through the C magnet diverging, and then they would split further in the B magnet if there was no change of state and miss the detector. Whereas if you induced the change of state, they would be refocused and make a current in the detector. And that method was I don't know how many graduate students, but I would say more than 30 but less than 100 used that technique, probably nearer to the 100, and did a PhD thesis. In a sense it reminds me of medical laboratories where thousands of urine samples come in and they put it in a machine and out comes the chemistry. Here we put in sodium, potassium, rubidium, and all the isotopes, cesium, and then having done the alkalis, we then do all the halogens with an electron deficiency, and then we start doing rare earths. So the whole periodic table, one can measure all the magnetic moments, and everything is publishable, and they’re all bricks in the edifice of knowledge represented by the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. It’s up there. It probably doesn’t have tables of nuclear moments, but it might. [Yes it does.] And those often give references to who measured it and so on. So that went on, and in a sense what it was, was excellent experimental training because you had to build and make work this complicated apparatus, and make some kind of sense out of the thing. And then of course the first time you worked with some weird material, you had the problem of making the beam, and secondly the problem of detecting it, and so those would add different things.
The atomic clock business, then, almost ruined the National Company financially, but I think they survived, and it since went on. When you get the atomic time from WWVB, I don't know what clocks they are using now, but they are going to turn to single ions trap. Again, Steve Chou would be the pioneer in that kind of work. That will replace the cesium beam technology that’s been used up to now, since probably 1960 to about now, so almost getting on for 50 years. But I think it’s about to be switched.
Zimmerman:Wasn’t it the precursor to the laser and maser?
King:Well yes, the whole idea of state selection of beams was essential to the maser, and there were people working on electrostatic deflection of molecules using an analogous procedure to the Stern-Gerlach technique. And of course the maser, I remember somebody telling me in 1958 probably, “Oh, your atomic clock is all done. The maser will do it.” But it turns out that the hydrogen maser, which comes close, has higher resolution, but it has wall shift problems because the short time the atom spends bouncing near the wall introduces shift. I think I’m right. But the hydrogen maser used in radio astronomy a lot has never been used as the world’s frequency standard, and I’ve forgotten the arguments.
By the way, I supervised about 25 or 28 Ph.D. theses in my time, and about 120 bachelor theses, which are full of speculative things. I just came across list of them all, what they worked on and so forth.
Zimmerman:You have a shelf full of theses there.
King:Yes, the same kind of thing. The null experiments were carried out by different undergraduates mostly with my help. When I was a graduate student I went to the weekly colloquium, and I remember hearing Hermann Bondi talk about the continuous creation model of the universe, and he said that the rate of creation is beyond any possibility of detection. I can’t remember, but it was one hydrogen atom per volume of the Empire State Building, the age of the universe.
Zimmerman:Per cubic mile or something.
King:Something like that. But it appealed to me in a certain way. I liked that. In the beginning God needs only to make one hydrogen atom. This is quite different from the present picture, that’s for sure. And we know that by the time of the observation of the microwave background, then that went away for good. And Hoyle was still interested. And I’ll say this. I did an experiment with one of my students, and there are several parallel tracks here. I’ve had some extremely able graduate students, and they would come to me in the following way. I’ll now go back briefly to the lab, the educational part. I was in charge of the freshman lab. When I reached a certain level of authority and was in charge of all undergraduate labs at MIT in the Physics Department, I did something. I decided that the freshman labs and sophomore labs were doing more harm than good. That is, for a tiny percentage of the students like me, they found interesting things in it, but for most people they were finessing it, it was 10-15% of the grade it was monotonous, not well done. There would be a room with 16 identical set ups. Not good. Cookbook. So I used my authority to get rid of it.
Zimmerman:Were you the one who introduced the corridor lab?
King:Yes. But I decided to replace it by two things. The corridor lab, which would be accessible at all times, 24/7 as they say, and would contain, oh, eventually I was hoping that MIT — this has never flown, I should tell you, but for reasons I’ll come to. Eventually I wanted the many miles of hall at MIT to have 100 showcases, and I used fire alarm boxes, but they’re painted blue instead of red, and inside is something that happens when you push a button. One of them is you stand on a platform (which I noticed has vanished) and you charge yourself up to 600 volts at very low current, and then you touch another thing and it measures your capacitance, and it reads out in picofarads. And then you make a model in which you approximate yourself as a conducting cylinder, and you’re this far off the floor, so there’s an image conducting cylinder, and you can calculate that roughly. And sure enough, I’ve tried small children and I’ve tried tall people, and it pretty much agrees. So people teaching introductory electrostatics could send their students and make them do the experiment, so they get a little more insight into this.
There were to be 100 showcases at MIT, of which maybe 20 or 30 would be on physics, but there would be ones from the Aero Department about lift and drag on the wing, and the EE Department could do one on auto and cross correlation for getting signals out of noise, which would be nice, or they could do one on negative feedback. The one I had in mind, apart from one that shows an amplifier that distorts grossly, and you turn in the negative feedback and it cleans up — that’s very nice to see. But one I had in mind has an oscilloscope in the case, and the trace goes up wiggling like this. There’s a low frequency noise from a diode making it wiggle. Now here’s a steering wheel, and your job is to keep it in the straight and narrow while it wants to wiggle, and a meter measure the error. Now you can make it go faster, and then you can’t follow it, you see. So there’s a cybernetic situation where you’re a steersman trying to correct the error. Well, I have the parts, but I’ve never had time or people to put it together.
Zimmerman:Right now some of those experiments are in science museums.
King:Yes, they’re beginning to do them. And various instructors, some of them had quantitative outputs that could be used as a homework problem. So for a while I had it working that way in the ’70s, and then they were renovating and nobody was maintaining the boxes, so they’ve since taken them away. I’ve since thought if I could get someone like the man who funds the lectureship we were talking about to hand over a few million dollars, let’s say five…It costs probably $10,000 to make each box, so 100 boxes will be a million. And then you need to have some people around, so that’s another million. And then you need to endow half a technician in perpetuity, that’s perhaps another million. So you’ve got three. Because such things stop working, and you need to pay an undergraduate $10 an hour to go around every week to make sure they’re all working. Maintenance is a lot of it. And of course, you gradually improve the engineering. And in fact one of the showcases built in ’93 I think, ’94, when I was still in my lab by an electrical engineer doing a master’s thesis was a Kelvin generator. You push the button, water dribbles down, a charge builds up, and at two kilovolts a spark jumps and it starts over. It turns out it was well built, but it wasn’t built of suitable non-corrosive stainless steel everything, and that apparatus is up in Maine, and my son Benjamin is repairing it at this very minute, except he works at Bowden, so it’s slow.
So this showcase business was to do many things. First there would be a certain fraction of the public that would push every button and pay no attention. That happens. Oh, by the way, some things wouldn’t be showcases, but for instance I’d like something where you have to put in a quarter, and then suitably shielded and made safe is what amounts to a metal turning lathe, and there’s some aluminum hex stock that is fed forward and sticks out one inch from the chuck. You use a collet, and you make it pneumatic. Now your job, after you pay your quarter, is to turn that into a cylindrical piece, taking off the hex, so it makes a chattering sound. And if you run in too hard, the oscillations of torque stop it and you’re asked to back up. You fix it that way. So you learn to do that. And then there’s a dial indictor that tells you what the diameter is, so you learn to see what taking off a thousandth of an inch means. You don’t have to touch the controls; you just run it once more and it takes that fraction off, and then that’s that. And then you can cut it off with a turning tool rest and you can have it as a souvenir: “There’s my little piece of aluminum.”
At the opposite extreme are anal nerds, such as I would have been, who would systematically go and do every experiment. I have biologist friends that I talk to about what kind of biology or chemistry can one do under these circumstances. Certainly you can measure pH in various ways with very small samples and flush it out. And then there will be people for whom it’s assigned as homework. And then there will be situations in which a biology major, and as you know, biology is now surrounded by electrical and electronic devices that are not well understood by biologists. So the biology student goes by the EE box showing getting signals out of noise, and she says, “Oh my goodness, that’s just what we need to do here!” As far as I know, the biology curriculum doesn’t teach you anything about auto correlation or cross correlation. You have to take 6.08 (that’s in course 6, meaning electrical engineering) to learn about that, you see. So what it all boils down to is it’s an additional source of informal knowledge, which I always quote Alexander Pope, who once said (so they say), “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or touch not the Pierian spring.” Well, I learned by looking it up that the Pierian spring is the one where the muses were. But he is wrong, because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing if you think you know everything. A little knowledge is infinitely better — and I can say infinitely — than zero knowledge. So if you have the slightest idea oh, you can measure capacitance! You know, that’s an idea.
Zimmerman:And now people are measuring nuclear magnetic resonance, MRIs and such.
King:Sure, right. And that would be another experiment. So all sorts of things could be out in the hall, but it hasn’t happened, and the reason is very simple. I have too many projects, and to do such a thing you need to say all right, for the next three months I’m going to do nothing but try to raise money. And so if I wanted to do it now, and it’s way down on my list, I would use some leverage. I hope to talk to ten titans of industry, like I’d talk to M. R. Bose of the Bose Company who was a professor of EE, and I would talk to Bill Gates, and I could probably get entrée to have half an hour with Bill Gates. Whether I could convince him, but with his scale of funding, $5 million would be nothing. And then I have an idea whereby…but that gets to another story. So that was to replace that.
The other thing was Project Lab, which did work and is one of my successes, except that it was shut down after about 30 years, after 3,000 students went through. Well, about that, 3,000 students. The way I ran it when I started it, I had a very able technician. That was pivotal, Jan Orsula from I think Czechoslovakia had worked in radio astronomy as a technician in Australia, come here. Wonderful man: very orderly, disciplined, and yet sympathetic to the students and helpful. We used a space that had had the cookbook labs, and what you would do is you would ask the students to take this course, which was a twelve-hour course, and there were to be six hours in the lab every week, five hours of thinking about it (you should live so long), and then one hour of lecture, or something like that. And the required book was Introduction to Scientific Research by E. Bright Wilson Jr. That was required, you see. And I would talk about it to some degree in the lecture. Now when the students enrolled for this Project Lab, they were asked what are your interests? What hobbies do you have? What sports do you like? Do you play a musical instrument? And unless they chose partners on their own, I would put them together in partnerships with a common interest. Actually Jan Orsula did the paperwork. And they would come in for one hour, and they would sit down at a table with me, and I’d say, “Well what kind of project would you like to work on?” And there would be two extremes. There would be some student who would say, “Well, I want to measure the infrared reflectivity of sodium dichromate crystals”, and I’d say, “That’s very difficult because a) we don’t have these crystals, and b) we don’t really have the equipment. And he’d say, “Oh, but I have the material,” and he’d pull it out of his pocket, because he’d worked at Bell Labs the summer before. So I’d say, “Well, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you work on setting up a known flux of infrared radiation with a known spectrum and intensity,” and that took him the rest of the term. Whereas at Bell Lab they had I assume some Perkin Elmer box that you turned the knob and out was supposed to come…
Zimmerman:You had to have a telephone number where it would order one of those.
King:Yes, exactly, which for some large amount of money at the time. So here they had to learn how to make a bolometer and learn how to take a red-hot wire or heating element or something and then how to make some slits — that’s easy. And then the interference, the diffraction grading is marvelously coarse because the wavelengths are so long. So they did that, they figured out how to make that. I can’t remember the details.
But at the opposite extreme would be say something musical…say a violin player and a cello player, and then somehow we get talking about why is a Strad better and worth so much money, and then one student would say, “I hear it is something to do with the varnish,” and they say, “Well, maybe.” So they go down to Fisher’s on Boylston Street, or wherever it was then, and get pieces of violin wood, a dozen for $20 bucks — a lot of money at the time — and then they varnish them and they put them in a cavity and measure the Q with different treatments, and they find that there is a variation, but they don’t know what the Strad is, but the Q is higher if you put two coats and wait a long time. I forget what the answer was, but there was something, you see.
Then in other cases the student wouldn’t have any idea, and you would say: how about mechanics, heat, light, sound, and atomic physics? For that last we could make our own little vacuum tubes out of solder glass, which is a technique that came and went. Largely due to Jan Orsula, I could talk about that. The tubes contain electrodes and filaments and whatnot, and using a roughing pump and then getters can be got down to 10-8 or -9 millimeters of mercury.
Zimmerman:That’s the same as 10-8 or 10-9 torr.
King:Pretty close — And then they can do experiments. A standard experiment that was to run a beam of electrons and deflect them in a magnetron-like structure. In other words, you had a filament and a cylindrical electrode, and the electrons would come out, and then you would put on a field until you cut it off. So you were measuring e/m. And then some ambitious students would use it as a diode and measure the noise, and that’s at lower electron currents in the saturated current, and thus measure the charge. So here’s this tube they’d build. With Orsula’s help, takes two periods. Then they had the rest of the term to measure e/m and e. And then one of the most famous experiments, which led to an article in The Physics Teacher by the man with whom I’m writing a project lab book, (it’s actually one of my twelve projects), Paul Gluck of Jerusalem. We wrote an article in The Physics Teacher on the burning out of light bulbs. Because in 1964 or ’65 I had two women students, architecture majors, who had to take a project lab, when there were probably only 20 women among all the MIT undergraduates (Now they’re 46% or something like that). When I was a freshman in ’46 there were three women in the class, one of who was unusually pretty. I arranged to sit next to her. Three years later we were married. She was an architecture major, and was the first woman ever employed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, which Bulfinch designed the State House, and Richardson designed the Trinity Church down here and all sorts of buildings.
Zimmerman:And also a lot of railroad stations.
King:Right. So Betty was there as the first woman employee, and lasted a few years. And she’d come from a large family (I was an only child) and she said I don’t want any children, but actually we ended up having eight, but I’ll come back to that. We bought land and we did things. And that is, again, a major distraction from doing one’s work in the lab. Zacharias used to say never leave a running apparatus — this must be true in your field. The apparatuses are not well engineered; they’re built as best you can. And then finally they run, and then while they’re running, you keep taking data until it breaks down, and that may be 36 hours, you see, and that’s not very good for a family man, and it caused certain troubles that I might get to eventually So back to the project with the two women — See, I had a course book of Betty’s on illumination engineering, and I learned that the ordinary incandescent lamp, which you don’t have around here anymore, has a lifetime that goes with the inverse 12th power of the voltage. You raise the voltage one volt, from 120 to 121, and the life will go down from 1,000 hours to about 900 hours. These two young women architecture majors had had that course. So I said to them let’s buy a lot of pilot bulbs and check that 12th power. They got interested. I said, “We’ll buy 100 #47 pilot light bulbs designed to run at 6.3 volts and to live for 3,000 hours (or whatever it is), and we’ll put high voltage on them and see how they live. So the first thing they did is to take 100 bulbs (at 10 cents each, so $10, not too bad), and they burned them by applying 16 volts. And they found a distribution of lifetimes in which some burned out almost instantly, others lasted a varying time, and then there was finally a peaking at 30 seconds as I remember, and then they would fall off and some might live to be 40 seconds, 45 seconds. And this looked like lifetime distribution for human: infant mortality, a mean lifetime, and then the few hardy individuals who live on. So I had them look that up a little from the famous French scientist philosopher who first introduced these ideas, Laplace…maybe. Anyway. I know a story about him. He was getting up to give a talk, opens his notebook, looks at it for a while and says, “Gentlemen, I have found an error.” Closes it and sits down.
Zimmerman:[Laughs] That’s good.
And then they varied the voltage, and they find out that it does vary very much with the voltage, like with the minus12th power, and they make a mathematical model, and this was all rehashed by my coauthor in an article in The Physics Teacher last year. What it is: is you think of the filament, and there’s one place that’s thinner than all others always, and that place is hotter so it evaporates faster, so then it gets hotter. So you have a runaway effect, and then you do a little calculus and fit the data to the properties of tungsten and the radiation, (□T4), it turns out you can get a formula that may not be to the — 12th power but it’s the — 11th power or something — it’s close enough, considering effects you didn’t pay attention to and so on. They used to go around saying: “Gets thinner, gets hotter, evaporates more. Gets thinner, gets hotter, evaporates more.” And when they got an equation (following my direction), it was a constant times voltage to some power times e to another constant times the voltage. Both women having first names beginning with M, say Mary and Margaret, one constant was M1 and the other M2. One of them was a big number and the other one relatively smaller, and they were off by 50% from experimental results, and the two women were distressed. I said, “Oh, on the contrary, this is wonderful. It’s the beginning.”
What people learned in Project Lab was that you could take any number of innocent situations and find complicated and interesting things that could be a life work. For instance, people did experiments on the tearing of paper, the characteristic sound, the effect of the grain and fiber size, humidity. I remember teaching Project Lab in Fudan University in China where it was so orthogonal to the Chinese methodology that the students were absolutely fascinated, and the faculty didn’t know quite what to make of it. But I remember walking back with one of the faculty and picking up a handful of mud and saying, “You know, you can do a project on this: What is the particle size? What is the effect on the slumping or the characteristic angle with water content?” Blah, blah, blah, and go on. So there is nothing that doesn’t subject itself to this sort of study.
Now what happened was that after I stopped teaching, a succession of colleagues with less broad knowledge but higher expertise in a definite field, which, after all, is now the sine qua non of being in a research university — for one thing, these people have to write competitive proposals all the time, so they can’t afford to fool around. So what happened was that the projects, if you had a nuclear physicist, everything would be counting particles, and that’s fine, only it’s not necessarily matching the student interest. And then secondly, the way project labs at MIT in most of the departments work is for six weeks you learn a well-defined collection of techniques, such as digital data management in the EE Department, and then you do six weeks of a project using those techniques. That is obviously valuable to anyone who is going to be an electrical engineer, and applies to many areas. Whereas our project lab, there was no particular defined thing. You learned to use whatever you needed to use in connection with your experiment; that was very varied.
So there is something that I worked on in the educational world that has come and gone, but the reason I was telling you about it is that around 1965 when the project lab was new, two students, Sam Cohen and Fredrick Dylla were sophomores, and they go to project lab, and they do an experiment. I think the experiment was at that time I was doing an experiment with low-temperature helium beams, trying to see diffraction and interference effects of the helium atoms due to their long-range quantum interaction at low temperatures. I did see a curve where it went wiggle, wiggle, wiggle — and again, it wasn’t any student working on it; just me — and the apparatus suffered some accident, the dewar failed, and so then I said can we get a new dewar, and they said it would be x weeks. Then I had to go somewhere and never picked it up again. So I got this one graph, (like Cabrera’s one monopole, except not so fundamental). It was an experiment designed to be shown at a function at Columbia for Rabi showing what a wonderful bunch of people he’d spawned, including Zacharias and Norman Ramsey and Polycarp Kusch and others, all coming out of his beam lab. In a report about the meeting there’s a tree showing this growth. So I was going to contribute that, but I didn’t for obvious reasons: it didn’t work.
So what Cohen and Dylla worked on was a model experiment using light to see that the geometry that I was using would actually work. Light waves instead of DeBroglie waves, and it looked like it would be all right. So they did project lab. Then they both did their senior thesis with me. Fred Dylla did one on the neutrality of atoms using a spherical container that was actually a used dewar, a nitrogen storage dewar of the smallish kind; you don’t see them anymore. He had an electrode ball going down that was connected to a wire, insulated, and with resistors in such a way that the electric field was not disturbed. He was looking for sound. Here was an oscillating electric field. If the atoms had a charge, he would generate sound at the fundamental frequency. Well, he got a pretty good limit, wrote a nice Physical Review article, and that was his senior thesis.
Meantime, Sam Cohen does an experiment looking for continuously created hydrogen in mercury metal, and that gets published in Nature. Fred Hoyle sees it, and I’m at a conference in England, and he comes up and says, “Oh, I thought that was wonderful,” and so on. I said, “Yes, too bad I didn’t find anything.” Because my argument had been that in the Bondi-Littleton-Hoyle picture, the hydrogen atoms were to come out of nothing, to which I would say well how do they know what local frame they’re in, after all? I said it would please me more if inside a preexisting nucleus, which after all has quite a few MEV of binding energy, and at very rare intervals a hydrogen nucleus, an extra proton appears and is ejected. Now you don’t want it to make light because otherwise you’d observe it, but except it’s so rare so maybe you wouldn’t. Anyway. So then I asked this question. If this is true, the Earth must be generating a lot of hydrogen. And so I look it up, and sure enough it does. It comes out of deep wells and is burned, and hydrogen comes out of the Earth leaves the atmosphere. Then I thought what about the sun? Well, if the sun generated hydrogen by this mechanism, it would last longer than Kelvin thought, which would be only 5,000 years burning coal, and longer than Bethe would think operating by fusion and would not go to being a red giant and so on, but instead would go on indefinitely. I remember talking to various astrophysicists, saying what about the white dwarfs and Fowler’s model and so on. Say, “Look, if I find this in the lab, you’ll fix up the model in no time.” Then I find out that there’s a kind of power plant in which mercury vapor is used to drive the turbines, and then it’s condensed —
Zimmerman:Nuclear power plant?
King:No, no, classical power plant. Instead of using just steam to blow on the turbines, they use mercury vapor at a lower pressure and higher temperature. Then the mercury is condensed, making steam that runs the second stage. And so I remember calling up the last existing plant that was in Hartford, Connecticut and talking to the chief engineer, and said, “Now, when you collect the residue of the mercury, is there any way of knowing whether there’s any gas being produced?” You see, it would make hydrogen, according to my model. And they said, “Oh, we get a cup of water a day,” you see, so it’s already polluted by the water, I mean the shaft seals and what not.
So finally I said to Sam Cohen let’s do an experiment. The first experiment was called the bongo. It was two cylindrical containers, but we didn’t like the geometry, so we made one called the scrotum, which was two spherical containers connected to an inverted Y. There was an Omegatron mass spectrometer at the top, and we would freeze the mercury on one side with liquid nitrogen for a day or a week, and then evaporate it and condense and freeze it on the other side and see how much hydrogen we could measure. And we put a 10–5 limit on the amount that would have to be created. And that appeared in Nature. So Sam Cohen then does a PhD thesis with me, working on how interstellar grains might absorb hydrogen. He had heard Ed Purcell talking to me about that in the hall, and I suggested various PhD topics. The first chapter of his thesis was published in the American Journal of Physics as an article called Selecting a PhD Thesis. Just by him, Sam Cohen. Now he is at Princeton. He went into the plasma business. And now he’s got a new system for fusion. About ten years ago he did some extensive calculations in two phases, first two dimensional and three dimensional, which show his field reverse configuration would in fact work and be able to achieve high temperatures in a way vastly better than any Alcator/Tokomak laser system. And then he built an apparatus about 2 feet long, and sure enough he has a thousand times more charge lasting a thousand times longer than anybody else. The big question is will it scale up? So he’s had some trouble getting funding because all the money goes into the present projects, and so to take a few million out doesn’t appeal to anybody.
Zimmerman:[Inaudible] (It is hard to get money nowadays.)
King:Well he’s getting some now because of the incentives. And if that works, I’ll be pleased to attend his Nobel Prize thing, because it can be a small scale power plant with comparatively low neutron emission. Because he plans to put hydrogen atoms, protons, into boron nuclei, and you get out two alpha particles. So you’re making hot helium, and that’s what turns the turbine. And there’s negligible radioactivity involved, and the materials are cheap. But most people say it will never work. And there’s a competitive thing I just came across by somebody else, I don't know how it’s connected.
So anyway, that was how project lab kept working. Then besides this, I got into the low temperature business because I was fascinated by the possibility of large-scale quantum systems. One of the experiments I wanted to do, and I didn’t have good luck in getting post-docs and people trained, and I think it’s because it’s a fairly closed community, and if somebody is to be hired outside the field, you get the “rejects”. I’m not mentioning any names. In other words, if x worked at Yale, and Lane at Yale didn’t approve of him for some reason, then they would not give him to another low-temperature physicist as a post-doc, but to me. At least I deduced that that must be what happened. Because they weren’t effective, as it happens. One of the experiments I wanted to do was to study the evaporation of helium at low temperatures and look for the arrival times showing the effect of aggregation in the same way that the Hanbury—Brown-Twiss experiment works. Because as I say, the man never made it happen. Then I tried to do the evaporation experiment, which while a correct experiment was probably incorrectly interpreted, and various people have dumped on it unnecessarily I think, but that was the one that I think you took over and which didn’t work. That’s where we found an anomalously high temperature in the distribution of atoms. And I’ve since learned that that’s probably because of — I should have known it then — the scattering out of the beam of slow atoms, which is something that Stern discovered when he was in Pittsburg at whatever it was called before it became Carnegie Mellon — University of Pittsburg.
So I had five-year periods of hyperfine structure, null experiments which were more distributed around. I also looked for quarks with a senior and — Oh, and I looked for magnetic monopoles with a very able young man who is now a mathematician in Germany. I have to check up on him. None of those yielded anything, obviously.
Zimmerman:You never got a student who could work on it.
King:No. Well, it was too complicated, in a way. And then finally I went through a five-year period of trying to do things with helium, some of which did work, but not great. Including one in which we studied the effect of rotons on evaporation, and they were a perfectly respectable thing, but nothing surprising. And then finally, one on Helium 3 cross sections at low temperatures.
And then after that I got into some biological stuff working with Al Essig, who is in the BU medical school, a physiologist, and that produced some interesting results, but I wanted to see evaporation of water with spatial resolution, so I tried to make what was called a molecule microscope. And again, none of these things really came to fruition for two basic reasons. One is I didn’t attack them with ferocious vigor; just moderate vigor. But it has to be ferocious.
Zimmerman:That’s not good enough.
King:Right, not good enough just to be of moderate vigor. The ferocious vigor, there’s really only that reason, it would mean getting enough money and getting skilled enough people. The two go together — if there’s money, people say, “Oh boy, build a group.” And that never really quite happened.
In 1956, Zacharias, who had been director of the Lab for Nuclear Science at MIT and had set up an atomic beam lab in the Research Laboratory of Electronics so he wouldn’t have a formal conflict of interest, (LNS and RLE are separate interdepartmental lab), stimulated the hiring of better people. We had some fairly good people; e.g. John Slater, a well-known theorist. But Zach got Bruno Rossi, an excellent cosmic ray physicist, and Victor Weisskopf from Rochester, and thus built up the department. Then we got Herman Feshbach and Martin Deutsch. And so the department had an interesting history. Back 100 years ago, in a way there was a physics department, but it was sort of like a trade school in a way; I mean nothing very distinguished going on. And it did do a lot of the electrical engineering. (I may have the history a little garbled.) But then the EE spread off and became its own thing, and then the physics department bumped along until Karl Compton became president, and then he decided to bring in able people, and did bring in Slater, and George Harrison, and Robley Evans, who was a force in nuclear physics at the time, and that raised the level. And then Zacharias raised it still further. It’s pretty good now I think. I don’t have any criteria.
Zimmerman:It’s very good as a major physics department. Harvard, MIT, Princeton…
Zimmerman:Berkeley, Columbia, used to be University of Chicago.
Yes. In 1956, Zacharias, who was no longer active in any experimental physics, had the same job given to him that everybody did, including me, that same year, that spring, and that was to go somewhere and visit high schools, go to three high schools a day for five days in some area that had been worked out beforehand. In this case, my center was Summit, New Jersey. His center was someplace in Oklahoma where the mean free path was longer, and that was partly because he was a consultant to the Kerr-McGee Oil Company He was also involved with a couple of local companies that did various things, like using experiment techniques. And I was a consultant to them while he was a director.
One of the things we tried to build was an absolute way of measuring g to high precision. We wanted to take two mirrors and make a Fabry-Perot interferometer out of them, and this is pre-laser, so you do it with collimated light, filtered. And now the upper plate is held up by electrostatic field, so you shut the field off and it drops so suddenly that it can’t wiggle sideways, and it falls down, and the interference fringes go swittt, and you measure that, and that gives you g. Interestingly, this was going on I think at Hycon Eastern, a small local company. One of the workers was the son of the two people at Bell Lab who first showed that electrons have wave properties. I can’t think of their name. Now that’s pretty shocking. Anyway, never mind. This is one where they were looking at evaporation from crystal, from tungsten or something, and they somehow were able to find out electrons had wave properties in the ’30s, which was not something that had been observed.
Anyway, so that was the kind of thing Zach was doing, and I think out there in Oklahoma he was trying to have some scheme, I heard about it, I don't know whether it was connected, where you put some suitable radioactive material in people’s automobile oil, and then you could tell when it needed to be serviced. Never happened; but while out there, he visited schools, and the whole point of it was to tell high school students that you didn’t have to be Einstein, as the expression goes, to go to MIT, that there was scholarship money available, and that we had intramural athletics that were perfectly good, even though we weren’t part of the Ivy League or anything. Back in New Jersey sometimes I would give the message to a handful of students that the guidance counselor thought might make it, and sometimes to the whole school. But Zacharias discovered, which I might have but didn’t, that although students had taken physics, they didn’t understand anything. If you said, “Why is the Earth round? Why do you believe the Earth is round?” no answer.
So that inspired him. Along with the fact that Edwin Land a few years before had gone to MIT and been there for a month or so and interviewed students, undergraduates particularly, and you have to believe, as I always say, an undergraduate willing to talk to Land is already an unusual person, but fine. And what they all said was something that is not quite so true now but certainly was then. When I went to MIT, I would have an advisor, and I would come to his office as one of 30 students coming at five minute intervals and show him the courses I planned to take on a piece of paper. He’d stamp it and off I’d go, and I wouldn’t see him for the rest of the term unless I wanted to add a course or subtract a course. That was the advisor. Okay, Land found that that was going on. What he also found was many of our students were top students in their high school, and expected a whole new world at MIT, whereas it was the same as high school only even harder because instead of being the brightest kid there, they were among all bright kids.
He then said there are three things you should do: Every student should have a desk in a lab, and that became the Undergraduate Research Opportunity (UROP) program, which would never have happened because the majority of the faculty at MIT would say, “What? You’re going to have some untrained student fooling with the infrared spectrophotometer — no sir!” But Land said, “What about if I gave you $10,000?” And he did put in a couple hundred grand to sort of start things off, and that made it happen. And now that’s one of our big deals, that we have UROP, and something like 80% of the students have had it; there are some that don’t.
Zimmerman:That’s spread throughout the country, right?
King:Yes. Okay, that’s one.
The second one was you should hire gray-haired professors to be advisors, and they should talk to 20 students and meet once a week. And it didn’t quite happen that way, but we now have an undergraduate seminar program of large size with faculty spending a couple of hour a week with a student group on something, and then taking them out to dinner in a group. That’s been quite successful. I’ve taught them myself, quite a few undergraduate seminars, including some on building these solder glass vacuum tubes.
And then finally, because of Land’s interest in photography, he said most lectures are boring and the people are reading the book to the kids, who by the way are sleeping in the back, and in the front there are the few enthusiasts. He said what you should do is make them read the book, and then have movies where the inspired lectures are shown. That was an idea that actually never really happened, except Zacharias put the movie idea together with the idea of an improved high school program and put together the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC). And then of course the launching of Sputnik suddenly made money available for better science teaching, and probably fewer than 100 but more than 30 physics movies were made, of which I made three big ones: Time and Clocks, Photons, Interference of Photons; and then smaller movies: Solder Glass Techniques, and I don't know, something on radiation pressure, stuff like that, smaller short movies. I don’t have copies of them all. I keep meaning to have them.
Zimmerman:What happened to them?
King:They diffused in 16-millimeter reels. I’ve had some of them put on CD. The one on photons can be bought in Italy with me speaking Italian. I haven’t made any effort to get them. But the Photon movie, I have a cool photo multiplier, and I put light on it of very low intensity, and I see a noisy signal on the scope. And then I put successive gray filters until I see just the occasional pulse.
Zimmerman:Do you still have the equipment? [No.] Oh too bad, because it could be reproduced by a camera like that.
King:Yes. Well the 931A (vacuum tube) was inverted so the socket was above, and it was in a thermally insulated container with dry ice in it. That was all it was. And that takes the background down from say 10,000 counts a second to a few, and the quantum efficiency is about 10%. And I had a discussion of quantum efficiency, and the editors and advisors took it out, which has made me angry to this day because it’s part of the argument. But nonetheless, you open the shutter and you find that photons appear instantly, far sooner than if it had to build up energy before it emitted electron, and that’s the original way that Lawrence did some experiments in the ’20s on just that subject of seeing that photons arrive immediately. That is, photon injected electrons come out right away, whereas if you had to build up let’s say 4 eV to get out of a photo cathode made of potassium or sodium, three or four, that’s the work function, it would take three seconds at that light intensity on the wave picture. Then I did interference of photons at low intensity where I showed that at high intensity there were peaks and so on; at low intensities you got photons here and none there. And then of course I didn’t go on to try to determine the whole argument of which slit did it go through, but that’s another matter.
King:Yes, exactly. And some other people made movies. Ed Purcell made movies. Oh, I made a movie on the size of atoms with an atomic beam apparatus, and also the size of atoms built in a small glass apparatus by having a beam of potassium detecting it, and introducing argon until you reduced the intensity, thus scattering them. So you have atom-atom collisions, you can figure out the size. And then one on the velocity distribution with a whirling shutter, showing that it is Maxwellian. Those movies were not for the high school program. So this program lasted from 1957 when it began, and meantime a textbook was written, The PSSC book, now in its seventh edition, edited by Uri Habershaim, who is in Haifa and who was here. I don't know if anybody uses it…
Zimmerman:Oh, it has a large following.
King:It has a large following? Francis Friedman was the pivotal person behind it, and Francis Friedman, who died prematurely at age 42 in ’62 of pancreatic cancer, and probably nothing could have been done, but it wasn’t understood; he was probably mistreated by the doctors, but never mind. Francis Friedman was a person of such brains that he was allowed to become a professor without having any graduate students or doing any particular line of research, just being somebody who, if he sat around Weisskopf, would make Weisskopf look smarter. If he sat around anybody else, he’d bring them out, he’d know, he’d answer — terrific. So people recognized that. And he is one of three people I can think of at MIT in that category who did different special things and didn’t do particular research or anything of that sort.
Zimmerman:Another one is Bob Tinker, who started a large education business.
Yes, that’s right, Technical Education Research Center (TERC), and now he’s (at the) Concord Consortium, he’s retiring though. But he just happened to do that, and maybe it was because it was around, he saw it going on. Friedman comes there and becomes essentially the coordinator and the principal author of the PSSC’s book, and the taste person, you know, what is the right approach, how to balance this versus that. It led me, many decades later, to do a course at MIT that lasted ten years using take-home experiments, 8.01X and 8.02X. These kits of experiments, pairs of students would work on them in their dormitory room, learning how to use soldering irons and building little elementary things. My lectures were written up by Phillip Morrison and Phyllis Morrison, because after Phil Morrison did The Ring of Truth, which was around for a while, it’s a video program about science, how you know things, really a wonderful thing. I have a short appearance in it in which I show by taking a mercury lamp from a refrigerator, a sterilizer lab, and lighting the filament on half-wave 60 hertz, that when there’s not electric voltage there, I can send in UV through the bulb, which is transparent to UV from a spectrometer from another UV source. I can have a photomultiplier looking at it, and during the off cycle I can see that I’m exciting the 2536 A or whatever the UV line that’s responsible for your fluorescent lights working. No, no, I’ve got it wrong. You don’t send in UV. You put on an electric field by RF power at a few hundred kilohertz, and you raise that, and at first you excite atoms only to the 2536, and you see that single line in a spectrometer coming out of it. That’s the experiment. Then you raise the energy some more, and now you see the full spectrum, 5461. So it’s a Frank/Hertz experiment sort of, except not quantitative. But it shows that like a boat with freeboard, you can have a certain amount of motion without shipping any water.
So after the Ring of Truth, which Phyllis Morrison did an immense amount of work on, a woman of tremendous energy — she says to me, “Can I work in your lab?” and I said, “Of course.” And the first thing she does it clean it up on a sort of way that characteristically feminine, but then she gets involved with the course I’m developing, this course with take-home kits, and then after I’ve been lecturing a while she says, “Do you mind if Phil attends the lectures?” and I said, “Of course not,” so he attends them. And the next year they put out a book called Zap! with exclamation point. It also appeared in Caltech because his first graduate student at Cornell, Jerry (see, my memory…I can see him in my mind’s eye) was there visiting that fall and said, “I’m teaching E&M next term. I don't know, I haven’t decided what text,” and so on, so Phil says, “So why don’t you try this?” and they make their own version of Zap! out there, and it’s still going on. MIT abandoned it because first of all, some students think that they didn’t cover enough material or learn everything, but they did learn how to build stuff. So I’m trying to say the flavor of Zap! is sort of parallel to the flavor of the PSSC book.
The first thing that happened is there are, say, 100 students in the lecture hall, and each pair of students has been handed two red toolboxes containing tools and instruments and kits, two boxes, and they’re all told to take out their multi-meter, which is Radio Shack volt-milliammeter of analogue type, and they’re told you take the red lead and connect to the black lead of your neighbor, and we’d get all the multi-meters in series. And then I’d pass a current through them, or try to — nothing happens, and that’s because some student who doesn’t speak English well hasn’t heard what I said. So what I do is I go with a long wire to the middle of the class, and then all the meters deflect on one side, so I say must be over here, so I localize it, and that takes 20 minutes. And that’s how the course starts, with conduction of electricity. And then I have a demonstration in which current goes through electric lamps and lights a filament and makes a gas discharge and heats…I don't know, does a bunch of things, and I say that’s what electricity is — So we start with a connection to the world instead of starting with Coulomb’s Law, which is very noble, but it’s not how things work immediately. So that's how the PSSC evolved, and it had a back effect. It became more intellectually rigorous in high schools, and in some ways discouraged enrollment because people feared not getting an A for obvious reasons.
So you see, I got interested in education because Zacharias was interested in education, whereas Rabi, and possibly Zach, used to say working on education is like peeing in the ocean, to which I add, “Yes, but while throwing bread on the water,” you see, thus combining a bunch of clichés. But the thing is that that made it seem legitimate that I should work on project lab; try to build a corridor lab that really didn’t work; try to do this more recent course, which is the most recent thing of any scale.
And then finally, something I did starting in ’68, so called Concentrated Study (COS), and there you say I will teach 8.03, which happened to be vibration and waves using French’s nice book. And I say, “You’re going to come to class five days a week, and you will come at 9:00 and you will have an hour and a half of lab every day,” except the last couple of days that I’ll explain. And then at 10:30 we’ll have a pause and I at first had coffee but they didn’t drink coffee, so I had Coca-Cola; fine, okay. And then from about 10:45 until noon we sit around a big table in a room, all 20 students and me and possibly my post-doc or teaching assistant who is helping me, and we’d talk about things. The first one or two days I’m the only one who talks because they’re so used to the authority figure talking. But that afternoon at 1:00, I interview a pair of students, and I talk to them, and one sits on my right and one on my left, we all have square paper notebooks with spiral bindings, 2739Q at the MIT co-op (I don't know if they still have it), and I write down what’s your name, and where are you from? I say, “Winters must be very cold in International Falls, yes?” And we get started, and I say, “How did you find the first homework assignment?” “Well, I had a problem with six,” and the other one would say, “Oh, but I had an idea about problem six,” and before you know it they’re talking across from me. I say, “What are you interested in?” and so an hour passes.
Then the lab is going on every morning, and the first experiment is there is a cathode ray oscilloscope, an audio oscillator, and a filament transformer, six volt, for every pair of students, and it’s an analogue oscilloscope, and all the knobs are turned fully to the left, counter clockwise. You say, “You’re first job is to find a spot, get a nice spot.” And so you hear them twiddling and fiddling, and, “Oh that’s the power switch. What’s this focus? Intensity — that’s must…” And they get a big blur, “Oh, focus!” And then you say, “Now that you’ve got the spot, get this 1.5 V battery, an AA cell. And now use the clip leads that you soldered together just half an hour ago.” In other words, the first exercise is actually to take a foot-long piece of wire, strip the ends, and then solder it to an alligator clip with the insulators, and it’s nice if you use two black ends and two red ends on the red wire and the black wire, but I found students doing all combinations. But never mind. You solder it together. And now you’ll clip that to the scope, which had banana plug input, no BNC connectors in those days. And now you will try to see if the spot is deflected. So they turn the gain, and suddenly the spot is going up. Now I say, “Now you reverse it,” and it goes down. “And now try left and right. Now connect this battery to a switch, a DPDT toggle switch that you’ve wired as the reversing switch. And now reverse it.” And the thing goes up and down. “Now tell the other student to move the position sideways,” and then they see a square wave. I say, “See how fast you can do it,” and some kids get up to about 20 hertz — pretty good. Well you know, if you play a trill on the violin, the hand is wiggling pretty fast. So they’re doing this. But they don’t know that it’s 20 hertz yet, because I say, “Now there’s an automatic thing that will make the spot go like this, and you don’t have to do that.” So they are doing it with the thing. I say, “Now you take the square wave generator of the oscillator, which has square and sine, and you put it in there. And now you look at it. Now you compare it with a 60 hertz signal and you get a Lissajou figure.” By now they’re beginning to understand how to work an analogue scope.
And then there’s a whole collection of experiments, and this course was monitored by a man who was working at the Educational Research Center, which was something that Zacharias set up in the ’60s that was designed to do just this kind of thing. That got written up and was published in England. It’s out of print, but it I have copies. In my opinion a place like MIT, and BU for that matter, should offer courses of this kind, but for a small fraction of the students who want to do that. What it does is it enables a student — You see, when they’re all sitting at the round table after they’ve gotten to know me through the conferences and the lab, they now start talking. But then questions come up, and then I’ll give a short lecture on something, then I’ll come to something I don’t understand and I’ll say, “You know, I’ve forgotten what that’s about.” And then the next morning it comes up again and it’s solved. That way, you don’t have what happens in the standard course that goes across week by week, and something is not referred to again because it’s done.
Then you have projects that come in the second two weeks based on all these oscilloscopes and doing things, and those are very varied. One project was: how do you drive yourself on a swing? That was actually done by a whole bunch of students, and some of them, the mathematicians wrote down the parametric differential equations and worked on the solutions and were able to see the idea. Some others went out and tried to figure out what is it I am doing on a swing, and some of them came back, and, I don't know who suggested it, it doesn’t matter, they got a hold of a small DC motor and hung it by two wires as a bifilar pendulum, and then they applied voltage. So the motor winds up like this because of the moment of inertia of the armature, and then starts swinging. So if you pulse the motor in synchronism, and that’s of course what you’re doing, you’re putting your legs behind you. So that fascinated everybody. It’s of course absolutely trivial in the grand picture.
Zimmerman:At least they understood it.
King:Yes they did. Then at the end they went on a trip, and I hired a bus and we went out to our radio astronomy place out some distance (again, I can’t remember its name, but it is well known), and we looked at the big antenna and they talked to us and so on. Another year we went to the Cambridge Electron Accelerator to observe it.
Zimmerman:There used to be an observatory near Hamilton somewhere.
King:Well that may be it. It’s still going, this one is. Then finally, there is a presentation of projects day where each group talks for 15-20 minutes about their project. In one of the first sessions of this course I was looking at an oscilloscope screen, and there was some little pulse of noise on the thing, and the student said to me, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, it could be noise from the fluorescent lights, or something in the scope, or pick up. Let’s see.” I took off the lead and it went away, and then I did something else and it stayed there. Then I said, “You can’t expect me to explain every cruddy little phenomenon.” And they gave me a plaque with that phrase on it at the end of the month, and I have it to this day.
That thing is something that would work if some multimillionaire endowed it and paid the faculty a little extra money. That would make it worth the while. And you might, depending on circumstances, give the faculty member a reduced load. It is best done in an independent activity period or something like that out of season so it doesn’t interfere with the standard curriculum. And if chemists did it and biologists did it, then you would have a — And there are colleges that have in the past experimented with this so-called modular scheduling, and in fact I did it at a small black college for a couple of years in January, Rust College in Mississippi.
King:For a couple of years, ’73, ’4, and ’5, January. I went down there with a lot of apparatus, all the oscilloscopes in a van and set it all up. And they were transformed. Just as it happened in China, I went there and I sent a lot of — I didn’t have to send the oscilloscopes since the oscilloscopes had originally come from China.
Zimmerman:How did you go to China?
King:It was supported by the World Bank that had an educational program.
Zimmerman:Before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
King:Yes. In China I remember the students did experiments, like one of them set up an iron wire under certain tension, passed a current through it, and with permanent magnet made a force appear on it, and thus was able to drive the wire and able to find where were the harmonics, and the deviation from the harmonics that an infinitely flexible wire would have, since this is a wire of finite stiffness. That got them all very interested. I remember I would have a daily seminar structure associated with this lab. First of all, I was treated with immense respect because I was 60, and you know, that’s old, and old people are treated with respect. And they all were talking English, and they’re doing theory, a pair of students. And then they suddenly get very excited because they disagree, and now they burst into Chinese and they’re arguing about it, it was wonderful.
So what’s left now? A neutrality experiment I’m still doing sort of for fun that will probably be washed away by this new atomic interference experiment, except in my opinion — I get to review a Physical Review Letter every so often, but not recently, and part of the reason is they always give me weird experiments to review, as a weird experimenter, and I often say, “This is a very ingenious idea, but they haven’t done the experiment. It’s a proposal. I don’t think you should publish it. When they have results, by all means.” And then I get back a letter saying, “Well two other reviewers disagreed it should be published.” I said, “Well, so publish it.” But I remember Max Born reviewing a book called The Scientist Speculates, and it was full of ideas of all kinds, ranging from cosmology to how to grow bananas that would be hexagonal so they would pack better in boxes. I can’t believe it’s what I’m saying, but anyhow. Max Born was extremely angry about the thing and flung it on the floor, because he said, “If the thing works, something happens, the author says: ‘Ah, I thought of that.’ If it doesn’t work, he says ‘it was only a speculation’.” But that’s now the fashion: everything gets put into Physical Review Letters whether it worked or not. So this neutrality with atoms leaves out a number of higher order effects that they will have trouble controlling, I predict. In fact that’s what limited the Hughes-Zorn experiments. Which I also tried doing a beam neutrality experiment.
Secondly, I have the project lab book, which is of course against the principles of project lab — you shouldn’t be following directions; all the book should do is be inspirational. But you should be saying to somebody, “Here’s a board, here’s a piece of chalk. What makes the chalk squeak? What’s the frequency? What’s the stick-slip mechanism? For that matter, what makes a violin bow make a stick-slip phenomenon?”
And I might say in passing, philosophically to me, while the frontiers of physics, which exist in the distant universe both in time and space, and the extremely tiny sub-nuclear world, and also in the organization of nanostructures, and I heard some marvelous talks last week, Wolfgang Ketterle talking about magnetism with a few hundred thousand spins at 30 nano Kelvin, and how they might sometimes look ferromagnetic and other times not, and the transitions from them, and as I said to George Clark sitting next to me, my contemporary in experimental astrophysics, I said, “You know, I understood about one percent of that talk, but it was brilliant.” Then I hear a colloquium by a man from Caltech, Shawn Carroll, about the arrow of time and the origin of the universe. There I understood ten percent of the talk. But the things have gone far. But the interesting thing about this, it used to be that atoms and nuclei, it was a very fundamental thing. Then of course, doubling them up into molecules to build human beings and neural systems, that’s a world that is growing. MIT has a brain center and a neural center — I mean it’s a hot business. So that’s a certain direction. But then the organization of atoms in groups of 100,000 or 100 is something that’s very important too, and high-temperature superconductivity is just one of those things. So there are a whole bunch of things that have appeared.
The result of all this is philosophically, though, to me, classical physics takes the place of, how shall I put it, faith, or the belief in the supernatural, which I reject. In other words, to me the world is what we have and we make the best of it, and human beings should treat each other well out of a sort of principal that the war of all against all is a waste of time. You know, you could have that, and we sort of have it in a certain way, if you look at the politics of the day. And from me, it’s very reassuring that if I were to drop this comb, I can guarantee that it will drop; and if it sat there floating, and you and I both saw it, we wouldn’t know what to do. And then if it did it for a minute and then it never did it again, we’d say, “Gosh, did we see anything? What’s going on?” And yet there is a finite probability that sitting here it might jump up, if all the molecules got going in one direction. But to me, the universe and the world are extraordinarily orderly on the level of physics going on. Now of course when you talk about the weather, you have chaos in various forms, and that’s not so orderly. And then finally when you talk about human beings, well they really fuck things up. But it’s not being influenced by outer powers, and as I say to people, when I croak and I come to God sitting on a throne, well I’ll say, “Boy was I wrong!” But my belief is you just disappear, and it’s too bad. And it’s because we think what a wonderful construction we are, and we should just turn into ashes seems weird, doesn’t it. But on the other hand, I think about primitive human beings who had relatively simple worlds. That is, they had wild beasts to worry about how to get enough to eat to stay warm, and then they have to have their belief system to be encouraging, and they had short life spans and so on. We have an incredibly complicated life, with everything from scotch tape over there to this magic computer which I don’t understand in any detail. I guess I’m saying: what is the ratio of the complexity of the tools of Cro-Magnon man to our tools as they are to, say, the human brain. Because after all, there are a finite number of neurons and so forth, and information storage and what not.
Well anyway, my major project out of these dozen projects, and some of them are trivial, writing the book, seeing that my son Benjamin fixes the Kelvin generator corridor lab box, among many other things, trying to get some of the X experiment kits marketed. And then going down the list comes I’m going to write a memoir, and it will be something like the content of this talk, and I might give it a title like “Physics Fun and Failure,” because the things didn’t work — my educational schemes haven’t stayed on, my experiments except for measuring the urinalysis samples, the hyperfine structures, have not been durable. So from that point of view, they were ambitious explorations, and you think about Francis Drake explored and found stuff, but think of how many other explorers didn’t find things, you see, that happens. That’s where in a sense going back to what I said at the beginning, if I’d had a mentor with intellectual — See, Zacharias was smart, but not a person of great discrimination in the way that Ed Purcell would have been in terms of what should I be thinking about and what’s the right… He was always enthusiastic about my latest scheme, whatever it was, and that was supportive. And I did get research support without probably ever writing much of a proposal. We had this interdepartmental lab that had money from the Joint Services, and that supported the work. All I can say is that whether it worked or not, a) I enjoyed myself; b) my graduate students got good training and are able to do many things.
So another project way down is with a Grandson who is 13, I’m going to write up in Physics Teacher: Take two plastic colanders, put a balloon in it, inflate it with air, measure the pressure with a manometer. Now introduce propane in a measured amount on the manometer. Now remove the colander, and with a spark set it off. It goes pow, and with a microphone and an oscilloscope measure the sound intensity. Now make the mixture too lean, too rich, vary the mixture in steps and see how loud the explosion is, which is in some sense a measure of its energy delivered. When it is rich it will be a smoky red flame, and when it is lean it will be a sort of thin blue flame. And we’re going to say this phenomenon is going on, and you can do a Fermi calculation. If there are seven billion people, there are probably at least one or two billion vehicles, and probably half are gasoline fueled and the other half diesel maybe, some number, and of that, the average vehicle is driven 10,000 miles and gets 20 miles to the gallon and has four and a half cylinders or five cylinders, you can make an estimate. Therefore, the rate of explosions, if given four-cycle engines, is so many, and it’s a big number. It’s a phenomenon that you’re seeing right here, so it’s instructive. Well that’s down on my list. I’ll probably do it this winter.
But most important from a long-term point of view is the thing that is summarized in my Oersted talk, which is in the American Journal of Physics, and that is that informal education is what you pick up in the gutter, is what the phrase used to be, and I don't know what your ancestors were up to, but mine were digging dirt, most of them. I mean I have some small-scale aristocratic strain, but then most of them were peasants. The children learned the craft as small apprentices, and the girls were at home learning how to run the churn and the spit and sweep the floor and all that, domestic. And it’s often a question of what happens to somebody with a powerful intellect that happens to be born in that circle, and the answer is sometimes they become Isaac Newton, but most of the time not very much. So now you say the world is now extremely complicated, and people are taught many things, but most of our young people — and I’m talking mostly about the United States — our grandchildren and so on are spending time at a screen operating keyboards. Now I’m aware of the fact that when I work with an MIT undergraduate, he or she is at least one order of magnitude faster in operating the thing. For me I have to say, “Let’s see, I drag this here…” and then I hit Control W or something. Then go brrrrr, and there’s a certain hand-eye coordination from game playing. I have grandchildren that sit there and things are happening.
My point is that’s part of life now, but what is missing is interaction with materials, and it still exists, because after all, I gave my children toy gyroscopes and kaleidoscopes and stuff. But this should be organized. So the first element is every newborn child in the US gets the same kit of toys. Let’s say it costs $20, but by the time you get it into the hands of the kid and everybody has made their profit it’s $100. If we have 300 million people and they live to be 75, there are four million in each year, and that’s about right, and four million die and four million are born. Four million times $100 is $400 million dollars. But the K-12 budget is $450 billion, so that’s more than a thousand times greater. So this is not what you’d call an immense chunk. And of course it will enrich people in China building the toys. And the toys might include the following. You have three plastic balls, and it’s two inches in diameter, because you can’t have one-inch, it’d be swallowed; three-inch, four-inch. And in describing the balls to the little child, the baby, the mother or father or relative or nurse would say, “Look at this nice two-inch ball,” because the two reminds them that it is a two-inch ball, so the association of number with the physical quantity…
Somehow that reminds me of a qualifying oral where Weisskopf was in attendance, and it was the theoretical student, and I asked, “What’s the electrical capacitance of an isolated sphere?” And the student didn’t seem to know, so he started fumbling and trying to figure out. So Weisskopf said, “What is the characteristic dimension of a sphere? Ah, the radius. Okay, good.” So that worked. Anyway, they talked about the diameter of this ball.
Another toy consists of two conical cups that have holes in them, and you align it so that you can see through the holes. So you’re giving people this kind of motion of adjusting something, which of course they don’t need to do because everything is push button now, but never mind, adjust it. And you get toy experts in on how to do this. 20% of parents who get this, or some percentage, will say, “What the hell is this? I never had this,” and they’ll throw it away. At the opposite extreme are the people who are worried about their kids getting into Harvard and have read about how vital this is, and they’ll force it too hard on the kids. You can’t win. In between there will be normal behavior.
There’s a second set of toys given at age six through the post office, and that contains the gyroscope and the kaleidoscope and magnets and a compass — I have a list. And the kids like to put the magnets on a table and pull them around with another. And then they have holes in them, so you can put it on a straw and they bounce. They do all kinds of trivial things. And then the gyroscope, they ask Dad why isn’t it falling, and if Dad knows any physics he says, “Well it is falling. The moon is falling. That’s its idea of falling.” And then they get into that maybe, but it doesn’t matter. Because the teachers in the schools can then say, “Do you remember your gyroscope?” and the kids will say, “Oh I remember playing with it, and I remember it precessing and nutating, although they might know those words. Some kid says, “Well mine broke.” Another says, “I traded it for extra magnets.” What you’re doing is you’re making a culture where a bunch of phenomena, none of them of earth-shaking importance, are being instilled into the mind to make further connections.
Then another thing is the showcases that are by now in every university, having been spread around and being added to by individuals with original ideas, and naturally I think how can one build a superconducting one? Well with high-temperature superconductors, there could be a liquid nitrogen tank that gets replaced once a month and you would see the effect, and that would be dramatic. And you could get a current looping in a loop and just sitting there, or floating, or I don't know, I haven’t thought about it but just now. But there might be a program in which high school kids assemble one, and then they have a number, and then they trade them with another school, and so it goes. Then there are public showcases, 30 of them, that get changed once a month, and they’re around the town, and they’re more or less vandal proof. The one that I have the parts for except one of them is missing, the basic part, is a solenoid with visible windings about this big around, the whole center like that, and wound with number 18 enameled wire, and you see the wire going around, and you’re told it’s got 20 layers and so on. And now sliding inside it is an iron slug, and coming out the sides are two pieces of rope. And now you push a button. There’s no current, and you can move it back and forth, feeling a certain friction, but not big. Now you push a button and there’s one amp. And now there’s a force of say one pound, which rises as you pull it out and then falls off on either side symmetrically. Now you push to two amps, and now the force is four pounds. It turns out to be quadratic — I’ve tried the experiment, and I knew how the magnetization would go, and I was amazed that it was accurately quadratic. Three amps, nine pounds. I don't know that you want to go to 16 pounds with four. Now there are 25 words saying, “This phenomenon of a current-carrying wire, in this case wound around, making a magnetic field that interacts with a piece of iron, one of several ferromagnets, is at the root of every electric motor, every actuator, and when you hear your washing machine go clunk, that's what’s happening. For more information, go to www.solenoids.edu. So that’s just one of 30 phenomena of science and engineering. Another one would be incandescent lamps and fluorescent lamps in a case.
Zimmerman:Are you setting it up?
Well, I was going to set it up in Harvard. I’m thinking of it, if I get it done before I croak. My mother lived to be a month short of 100 and was in good shape to within a year or two of that. I’m getting weak and sleepy, but I can still do things. I would like to put it in Harvard Square, and I would get the long-time hardware store Dickson Brothers to sponsor it. At first they could be cautious and take it in during the night. Here’s what I would do. I would try to record what people say, and maybe even photograph them. What would happen is that a big fraction walks by and don’t even see it because they’re absorbed in their problems, like how to pass next week’s exams. A certain fraction stops, and as soon as one or two stop maybe more do, and they sort of say, “What is this?” So that’s very instructive to see if it draws any attraction. And if it becomes a cultural phenomenon, it’s what I call the distributed museum. You see, the trouble with a concentrated museum, wonderful as they are, is for kids you maybe have parents who take you there, but for school kids they go in the bus, and then a big fraction are paying no attention and they’re not really very interested. Again, it’s like corridor lab, the nerdy element pays attention, and many just don’t pay any attention. Whereas if it is ever present, even the ones who are not interested for a while suddenly say, “You know, Bill said to me last week he stopped and looked at that box and pushed the button, and it was really pretty interesting.” And so it grows. Well, I have twelve elements in this informal education. I’m not going to discuss them now.
The other thing I want to talk about is the family. So I marry Elisabeth, whose father was a chemical engineer and whose mother was —
Zimmerman:Before that, can you tell when you came to the United States?
King:First of all, I would come back for the summer on ocean liners to visit my grandmother and so forth with my mother. My parents were divorced. My father was a lawyer in England, and very smart I am told, but he was a drinker, and so he went out drinking too much, and probably messing around, I don't know. I never got enough information from my mother because she was of the generation that doesn’t talk about these things, you see. I never met him. But my mother married a Frenchman, my French stepfather, who was an early pioneer of the automobile, and that’s where my automobile interests and my mechanical skill were developed. But I was an only child, and relatively lonely — I had no community. Many people lived in the same town from birth until 16 or 18, and that’s one way, but I had none of that. I knew some of the kids in Vermont where my grandmother went for the summer, four or five of them, and I’ve been back there. I remember the man who was the postal clerk; his son is now the postal clerk in this little village. So I went to all these different schools. I don't know any of my classmates particularly, so I’m sort of a loner, and that made me concentrate on building radios and phonographs, what passed for high fidelity in 1940, and public address systems and radios and all that kind of stuff. So I got to know a lot about machinery and electricity as a youth.
But I came to the US to stay in 1938, and then the war broke out in Europe and so nobody went back. Then I went actually for a year to the Fessenden School here in Newton because Exeter thought I was too young. Then I went to Exeter for four years, and at first in order to avoid organized athletics that I had no interest in — see, I wasn’t brought up to be enthusiastic about baseball or soccer in my strange life, so I said I’ll do cross-country running, which is another loner activity. The coach thought I had possible ability, so he put me on the track team, and the reward for doing a good job in track was that since he was also the technician in the science department and allowed me access to the lathe. Part of my duty was to make sure the storage batteries that provided DC, there was 110 volts of DC as well as AC — dangerous, and there were 55 batteries, each this big, and you had to make sure the water was there and that they were charged. Well that was my duty.
I was also allowed to use the tools on the weekend, so I did that. I built a Cavendish experiment and cast lead spheres about this big around by going to plumbers and getting old lead pipe, making a plaster of Paris mold, heating it over a Mieker burner and pouring it in incrementally, so that it managed to stay together, but it was not cast in one shot. Then I hung these two weights, and I had a torsion pendulum in which I unwound the phosphor bronze from a guitar string, which turned out to be pretty good with two masses, maybe an inch around, brass. And then it was hanging in a bell jar, and I had some electrodes to pull it to one side or the other, then I could bring the spheres up and I could look at static deflections, and then I tried to measure the effect on the period, that it would shorten the period. That didn’t work very well.
So 1938 is when I came to the US, and except for travels and meetings I’ve been here ever since. But I’ve never been any further south than say Cairo, or further west than Shanghai or Beijing, and furtherest east is Switzerland really. Oh no, I’ve been to Moscow and Leningrad, but I’ve never been to South America. Oh I’ve been to Caraccas. But when you go to these meetings and conferences, you might as well go to the Holiday Inn in Newton, you’re not going to see much.
Anyway, Betty is an architecture major, very attractive, and in 1949 we were married, and she graduates in ’51 and I in ’50, and then I continue and she works for Shepley Bulfinch. Somehow we don’t want children. Meantime I’m also fooling with old cars and so on. We live in a converted chicken coop in Arlington, which was quite comfortable, except the heat was from a kerosene stove, and it once went berserk and filled the place with soot. On some page in Slater’s book on electromagnetism there’s a sooty page to this day, because it was open. Anyway, so then we moved to an apartment in Boston, and then we buy some land in Dover. Betty is working for a different architecture company, working her way up. I’m getting a stipend on the GI Bill of Rights, which is enough to live on and pay a small mortgage. Mortgages were incredible. I mean the house cost $15,000 and the mortgage was just $300 a month or $200 a month. So I graduated, I got consulting work, so I moved up a little and was able to afford this, but it was difficult, and I had bad Ford automobiles for commuting that I had to learn how to fix. I had a Model B Ford, I traded it for a ’36 Ford. I remember the distributor was mounted down low, and people never put back the splash pan underneath, so if you went through a puddle you’d lose your ignition because it wasn’t that watertight. I learned to fix that. And the brakes didn’t work when you got them wet, and the brakes were in cables and there was friction — I mean terrible cars. But I upgraded them gradually. That’s parallel to the exotic cars. This is the ordinary cars. But in every case I’m fixing the damn things.
We find out that Betty has some slight problem in her reproductive organs that are fixed by Dr. Rock in Worcester by using compressed nitrogen — something to do with how the ovaries and fallopian tubes are — and then suddenly we start having children. It turns out she is a woman who has children with no discomfort or anything, and we rather thoughtlessly wind up having eight of them. The oldest, Alan, became a radio engineer, and after being at other stations was chief engineer at the PBS station in Rochester, when he was killed by a drunken driver while riding his bicycle in 1992. Tragic. That’s the worst thing that’s happened to me in my life, which has otherwise been, I would say, charmed. I mean I haven’t had any great disasters, not like some of my friends who escaped from camps in Europe and so on.
Then my second son, Andrew, is a mechanical engineer in Ann Arbor, and is an independent consultant while his wife runs the medical lab for oncological analysis and studies and has about ten Korean women looking through microscopes working for her. I don’t understand what she does. They have a daughter who is an excellent flute player. I just got some Mozart flute concertos, which I didn’t know he’d written, that I’m going to send her on a CD.
The next son is James King, who has a mysterious problem with some gland in here (again, I don't know the details), which caused him to have all kinds of disabilities that were not diagnosed. We didn’t know what was wrong with him. He went into the Navy and worked on a carrier as an airfield technician on airplanes on the carrier, and was very good apparently, so good that he was universally disliked because he was a Stakhanovite and set the standard too high. But he got along. Now he’s studying at the Maine Maritime Academy to become a ship captain, and he has recently in the last three years found a marvelous woman and they’re going to marry presently. She has children from a previous marriage and I don’t think they’ll have any.
The next son is Charles King, who is a landscape architect in Maine, does landscaping, though he is out of work for the moment. His wife is a librarian, and she is out of work, so I give them a little money to carry them through. He is very creative in his work, but he also probably had dyslexia to a large degree and some learning disabilities as a kid before they were understood. So he never got a college degree, and that’s a problem for him, as it is for anybody. As a landscape architect it’s all right. He had been working on a farm for $18 an hour, and that was better than nothing. And there he is, by the way, highly prized. I don't know that he is doing it now. Because he was somebody who could see that the crops were planted properly, but also make the tractor work, so that breadth of skill was very valuable.
Then comes my only daughter, Martha, who is a social worker in Santa Barbara in charge of a halfway house for people who have been discharged from walled — in loony bins to being on the street, and she is immensely loved by them and so on. And she has not married, and has a very good friend, but I don't know what’s happening to her. She’s 49, born in ’60.
Then we come to David King, who has a PhD in ornithology and is at UMass, and has a wife who is an expert on insects at Amherst. He was offered jobs at Harvard, but he finds that the bird business is much better at UMass; they have a whole department that’s very good apparently. He spends a certain amount of time in South America. They have a daughter Katy, who is brilliant, very nice little girl, 10 years old.
Then Benjamin King, who never went to college either. He went to the High Mowing School. It’s a Steiner School. You know, Rudolph Steiner invented an educational system a hundred years ago that was meant to bring out more of the individual and be less rote bound. The trouble was it brought out too much of the individual in Ben’s case, and so he said I’ll take a year off before going to college. Somehow he never did go to college. Some of the kids went through drug periods, and he got into the drink business, and then he broke from it and went to AA and it transformed his life. Now he not only runs a business that is not very business-y, but it does things like provide kits for the take-home experiments. It did that for MIT, and making showcases. At the same time, he is a half-time technician for everything in Bowdoin college, not only the science departments, and he works with a full-time crusty machinist who he will probably replace. He is actually learning a lot of formal machining skills. After all, I wouldn’t know how to run a computer controlled machine tool, although I gather it’s pretty simple, you just punch things in and it does it.
Finally we come to Matthew King, who has degrees from Wentworth and the University of Maine, and he is a wide-ranging engineer working for a highly specialized company near Bath, Maine. They build shaft seals that apparently consist of a steel disk on the shaft with Teflon around them. It is sufficiently patented so that nobody else is building them, and they’re widely used in the food industry, and the food industry is always told to have spares on hand, but some German manufacturer didn’t have the spare a year ago or so, and they spent overtime building this special thing and shipping it express to this firm. So he makes a reasonable salary, and has now learned computer controlled design, which again, I know nothing about, CAD, computer assisted design. He has a wife who is a physical therapist and gives massage and they have a daughter. So I have three granddaughters.
And that’s it. As I say, too much of my time in life has gone to — For instance, with this large family, I’m going to a Gordon Conference in Crystal Mountain.
Zimmerman:I remember you drove the bus.
King:The bus, yes. And I converted that school bus and put bunks in it and made a master bedroom at the rear, and made a master bedroom at the rear, and put in a refrigerator and a generator, so that one could use electric hotplates and cook with the windows open. You couldn’t use the gas flame. That made the trip affordable with all the kids, and it made a vacation for them. One of the reasons is we own this property in Maine, and that’s because in 1958 my wife said, “We never take any time off in the summer,” and I said, “You’re right, I’m in the lab all the time.” She had just inherited some money, like $9,000, so we bought a place in Maine on an ex-farm, 200 acres, and that’s still there. I would go up there and fix the tractor and stuff like that, but I would basically be down here.
Zimmerman:You were quite famous for having driven the bus to Crystal Mountain in Washington.
King:Oh yes, in ’68. I went to LT10 in ’66 in Moscow, and then I went to something in St. Andrews in ’67.
Zimmerman:No, that was ’68.
King:Oh, ’67 is when I went to Crystal Mountain. ’68 is when (I went) to St. Andrews. Well, memory!