Oral History Transcript — Dr. Norman Ramsey
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Norman Ramsey
Norman Ramsey; December 19, 1978
ABSTRACT: In this interview Norman Ramsey discusses topics such as: his childhood and family background; I. I. Rabi; Bergen Davis; Columbia University; P. A. M. Dirac; Cambridge University; molecular beams; Harold Urey; Enrico Fermi; Herb Anderson; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Radiation Laboratory; Jerrold Zacharias; Ernest Lawrence; Carnegie Institution; Jim Van Allen; Ed Salant; Merle Tuve; cyclotrons; high energy accelerators; University of Illinois; Maurice Goldhaber; radar research; Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab); Brookhaven National Laboratory; Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI); Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); high energy physics; Stan Livingston; alternate radiant principle; Argonne National Laboratory; President's Science Advisory Committee; Jerry Weisner; Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC); John F. Kennedy; Ed McMillan; Frederick Seitz; Phil Abelson; T. D. Lee; Owen Chamberlain; Murray Gell-Mann; Ed Purcell; Edwin Goldwasser; Cambridge Electron Accelerator.
TranscriptSession I | Session II | Session III
Hoddeson:Before we launch into your various involvements with the creation of Fermilab, I will spend a few minutes on your earlier background, even though most of that’s been covered by the Columbia Oral History people. You were born in Washington, D.C. 1915?
Hoddeson:Did you grow up in Washington?
Ramsey:No. My father was an Army officer. 80 we moved on the average of about every three years, and the two places I lived the longest were probably New Jersey, where I was between six and eleven, and Leavenworth, Kansas where I lived between the ages of eleven and sixteen, and the I went to college.
Hoddeson:What did your father do?
Ramsey:Well… he retired eventually as an Army general. He was in the Ordnance Corps and it was a technical kind of position, as far as the Army goes. When we lived in New Jersey, he was commanding officer then as a major of [???] Arsenal, and then during World War II, he was commanding general of Rock Island Arsenal here in Illinois
Hoddeson:I see. Were there some scientific influences?
Ramsey:I would say… probably in two directions, I suppose. Somewhat. In the first place the Ordnance Corps is a technical corp, as opposed to most of the branches of the Army. It’s the one that’s most concerned with manufacturing, which can be either chemical manufacturing, as it was in the case of Pickitany Arsenal, or tank manufacturing, as opposed to most of the branches or the Army. It is the one that most concerned with manufacturing, which can be either chemical Pickitany manufacturing, as it was in the case at Rock Island Arsenal. Secondly, my mother was rather early in that stage of ERA or something, was actually — taught mathematics at the University of Kansan for a year or two before she was married. She didn’t actually get a Ph.D. She did graduate work for a year or so at University of Chicago, in math.
Hoddeson:I see, shows a strong scientific — when did you decide to go in the direction of physics?
Ramsey:Well, in one sense rather late, in one sense rather early. I think I always had an early interest in scientific kind of things, but at this period of time in the history of the country, I don’t think it was known that physics was a career. I barely heard of it as a subject; even after I took a course in high school and even up to almost the time I graduated from college, I never realized it was a career you could go into or a field you could go into. I just thought of it as a course. That’s a big different, to what the situation now, where a physicist in this country is a known profession. Actually, in college I was initially pre-engineer, and I got somewhat bothered by that because it was doing things too much just on use of steam tables and not very interesting what the steam tables meant. So I then made the opposite extreme shirt and was in pure mathematics for a while. But I had a feeling at all stages that probably what I was most interested in was physics. It just took me until I graduated from college to realize that it was a profession I could go into.
Hoddeson:I guess you took some —
Ramsey:I took physics courses. I took the pre-engineering course.
Hoddeson:Who did you take physics courses with?
Ramsey:Oh, I took at Columbia the undergraduate courses. The man who taught the undergraduate courses was a man by the name of [???] House, I think not a terribly inspired instructor or professor, and Shirley Quimby, who is actually very good.
Hoddeson:I took a course with her —
Ramsey:You went to Columbia, so you know Shirley Quimby, and Bernard.
Hoddeson:He was also there when I was there.
Ramsey:He was actually a particularly good one I think, as far as far as – also probably I had a good advantage in high school. I had, in a certain sense, which he really knew what he was talking about. He was probably a very good physics in the sense that he really knew what he was talking about. He was not very interested in teaching, in fact was the city chemist, and she spent most of this time doing the jobs that a city chemist is supposed to do, analyzing the water, but nevertheless, he did really understand the physics, man by the name of Wiegand — and I think probably gave a favorable impression because at least it was somebody who understood what he was talking about.
Hoddeson:What made you decide to go to Columbia in the first place?
Ramsey:Oh, a combination of accidents. First place, I graduated from high school in Leavenworth, Kansas, and my father as an Army officer was certainly hoping I would go to West Point, but I’d skipped two grades in school so I graduated at the age of 16, and was therefore ineligible for West Point, also ineligible by their rules at least for MIT, so — but I did win a scholarship, a scholarship that I worked on fairly hard, to the University of Kansas. But just the summer before I would have gone to the University of Kansas with the so called Sommerfield Scholarship, my father was transferred to Governor’s Island in New York City. Initially he was planning to put me — he took quite literally the requirements that 16 was too young to go to college, was going to put me in a preparatory school, I think Trinity school or something, but when we went there for an interview, they decided that I’d probably be a nuisance to them, be a little bored, in any case, I’d had close to — so they encouraged me to enter Columbia. I registered at Columbia about, oh, three weeks after the term began. They told me, go down and buy the books and show up for class, so that, I’d say it’s a total accident. After I was there for a while. I didn’t even remember having heard of Columbia as a Kansas boy at that time, and then I remembered, yes, that as a boy when we lived in New Jersey, when I was around seven, my father took me to an Army, West Point football game in which Columbia was beaten something like 64-0, and then secondly, I remembered to my great sorrow that indeed there had been an advertisement on our high school bulletin board for scholarships from Kansas to Columbia. I learned later, I would have been an absolute shoo-in if I’d only applied, but of course I didn’t apply.
Hoddeson:I see. Did you interact with Rabi already in that period?
Ramsey:Slightly, enough to — this is the period ’31 to ’35, when I was an undergraduate, and I did, in the sense he was clearly — well, I observed him I guess first when, heavens, he was talking some about the Dirac theory at one of the physics colloquia. I used to go to physics colloquia. I didn’t understand them necessarily. And he and Bergen Davis were having an argument about some of the peculiarities of the Dirac electron, and he — clearly Rabi knew what he was talking about, I think on that issue, and Davis didn’t know what he was talking about. And he was clearly the sort of leading person, but I never took, he didn’t teach any undergraduate course. I’m not even sure that I’d every personally met him. I knew of him. Then when I went —
Hoddeson:You decided to switch and be physics major?
Ramsey:Well, essentially what happened was, when I graduated — even my senior year at Columbia, I was the mathematics teaching — that only had one of them. They had a graduate teaching assistantship and somehow or other, they gave it to me as an undergraduate, so I actually was sort of a member, more or less, of the mathematics department in my senior year. They, they had a so-called Kellogg Fellowship which I was offered to Cambridge University. It was primarily for work in the letters, which the mathematics and physics departments thought they would be permanently cur out of, but the dean or something argued that mathematics pertained to alphas, betas and gammas, and thus to letters, so that I was given this fellowship for two years study in Cambridge. By that time, I was beginning to realize that physics was what I wanted to do, so that I got agreement, I said I would be willing to accept it if they would allow me to shift, take advantage of it and shift from mathematics to physics which was a bit of a disappointment to them, but nevertheless I did — in fact, it had a little peculiarity. It meant that when I returned from Cambridge, I had two offers. One was an instructorship, regular teaching instructorship in the math department at Columbia. Another was a —
Hoddeson:— with only an AB?
Ramsey:With only an AB — well, with two AB's. I had an AB from Columbia and an AB from Cambridge University. But the other was a sort of $900 a year scholarship, sort of post-doc — well, it wasn't really a post-doc; It was really a teaching assistantship in physics, which I decided I would indeed follow through. I had been taking chiefly physics at Cambridge. What I basically did was I did my coursework for my degree, but definitions are rather different, between Bachelors’ at that time, particularly between the different levels of work. Essentially the undergraduate at Cambridge did all of the course work that we would normally do in this country for graduate school. In other words, Dirac’s course on quantum mechanics would be an undergraduate course.
Hoddeson:Did you study with Dirac?
Ramsey:I took his course… yea. I didn’t study as a personal — well, it was a small class. Yes, I studied with him. In fact they had a very outstanding faculty — Rutherford, Cockcroft, Radcliffe, they had a really quite outstanding group at that time. So it was one of the outstanding places. One of the reasons I was happy with this scholarship to go there. When I returned, in a certain sense, I returned to Columbia — I suppose in a certain sense I supposed it would be easiest to return. It's quite clear, since they knew me from before, I would get more credit for what I'd done abroad and probably more quickly get finished with my doctor’s degree. And Columbia has always had the peculiar characteristic that, I think for the last – heavens 30 to 40 years, it has been one of the most outstanding places in the world , but it’s never seemed to be so to the people in residence at Columbia at the time, and in fact, I can remember, when I went there I really worried very greatly as to whether I should return to Columbia, which had this greater ease of getting credit, or whether I should have gone to a first rate place like Cornell. Now, it turned out on my PhD final examination committee, we had only a few people getting degrees at that time who had big committee, I had seven members of the committee, and by now six of the seven members have Nobel Prizes. So it's clear it was a first rate place. Six of the seven. That included Rabi, Kusch, Harold Urey in the chemistry department, it included Willis Lamb, and I don’t think Maria Mayer — no, she wasn't on it. Oh, Fermi. Fermi came there after I came. Well, that's five out of the six. If I reconstruct I get the six.
Hoddeson:You were at Columbia during the most exciting period, when fission was discovered.
Ramsey:Yes. I would say, though, Columbia has been an exciting place for a long period of time. It’s not exclusively — that was a very exciting period at that time. In the first place, that was quite in the period, the place I was doing my research, which was with Rabi, was sort of — well, involved with the work on which he got his Novel Prize on molecular beam resonance technique, was being developed just at that time. In fact, it was invented after I got there. It was sort of unheard of at the time I went. In fact, when I first went to Columbia, told Rabi I would like to work with him on molecular beams, he somewhat tried to dissuade me on the grounds that in fact, they’d measured the magnetic moment of the proton to 10 percent accuracy, you probably couldn’t get it more accurate than that, the same for the deuteron, and all the heavier nuclei were too complicated to understand so it wouldn’t be very interesting, so he felt the field of molecular beams by then was somewhat washed up. In contrast, within the first six months I was there, this molecular beam resonance method was invented, and — well, suddenly it became possible to do experiments not to 10 percent accuracy…but to a 1/1000 of a percent accuracy of better, and the whole subject became far more exciting than it had ever been before. So that was really a very good fortune. At the same time, Urey, when Rabi — Fermi, who'd not even been there at the time that we had, that I'd come there, and there was no expectation he would come. He took advantage of receiving a Nobel Prize in Sweden to leave Italy, took his family out and just kept on traveling, traveled straight to Columbia. And started work. I was not working with him myself. Herb Anderson, who does experiments here, was one of the ones who was working most directly with Fermi at the time. Herb Anderson was my best man when I was married so we had a close — and I took courses with Fermi, got to know him quite well; got to know him better however probably at Los Alamos, after the war, then I did then.
Hoddeson:So you were working with Fermi — working with Herb?
Hoddeson:And got to know him a little bit probably through this.
Ramsey:Oh yes, probably through this. For Fermi, for example, he’d be one of the best sources of information.
Hoddeson:OK, well, we don’t want to go too deeply into this. I just want to ask one question about Rabi before we leave Columbia. Was he already then before the war, thinking about large laboratories associated with machines?
Ramsey:No. I would say essentially, no. He was primarily, I think he was doing molecular beam kind of research, which was — well, he was thinking about large laboratories compared to what, maybe many people were thinking about. I think he got — we had for example a grant from Research Corporation for I think $5000, which was a very large grant before the war. In that sense be was. I don't think he was ever thinking in terms of more than essentially a group of graduate students. He had a couple of people, Gerald Zacharias, who was a teacher at Hunter College who came in and worked with him some there. But I'm sure he was not thinking of the other. In fact, he was if anything a little bit critical of Ernest Lawrence’s excessive tendency to have big things and I think it was really his experience during the war at the Radiation Laboratory, and recognition that if you did the big things in the right places, where you really needed big things, it was highly appropriate
Hoddeson:Interesting. Then you went to Carnegie Institution?
Ramsey:That was after I got my — what I did was, I studied and did my coursework at Cambridge. Then for two years I did my research at Columbia, and had very good luck with the experiments so I finished up fairly quickly on it, and then had a post-doctoral position at Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Hoddeson:Whom did you work with?
Ramsey:Well I suppose the person I worked most with was Jim Van Allen of the [???] later of the Van Allen Belt, but he and I were on exactly parallel positions at the time. There were two post-doctoral fellows, and we were both that. Now, on the more senior level, I probably worked particularly with Ed Salant, who was teacher at New York University, who was down there for the year. Essentially the three of us were doing a fair number of experiments together. Merle Tuve was director of the lab, and Norman Hidenberg was one of the — essentially we all worked reasonably closely together. It was a small group. But the three of us who worked most closely together were probably Jim Van Allen and myself and then Ed Salant.
Hoddeson:Tuve and Haskell were working on the cyclotron.
Ramsey:They were working on the cyclotron. Dean Cowley was working on the cyclotron. We were actually working, using the then high energy accelerator which was existent, namely the 1 MEV electrostatic machine, which had the characteristic that in the winter time, it indeed went up to 1 MEV, and in the summertime when the humidity was high in Washington, you were lucky if you could get 10 kilovolts out of the machine. That was then high energy physics.
Hoddeson:Was that actually the first time you worked with a high energy accelerator?
Ramsey:Yes, that was the first time I worked with a high energy accelerator.
Hoddeson:You didn’t work with the Columbia accelerator?
Ramsey:No, I having chosen to work with Rabi, he wasn’t involved with that. Herb Anderson was very much involved with that, in fact was involved in building that, even before Fermi came along, working with John Dunning.
Hoddeson:Yes. Ok. Then you went on to the University of Illinois. How did that come about?
Ramsey:Well, let’s see, I went on — in the first place, there were two things that are rather confused. If you look up the list of things, there are two things running always in parallel. Namely, after I was at Carnegie Institution of Washington for a year — actually I could have stayed on for another year but I got married that summer and it was still the Depression, you didn’t turn down a possible university job if you could find one — and they were pretty rare, and I got a position at University of Illinois. There’s been sort of an inflation in ranks. It was then a position known as associate, which was a position below instructor. Most places now have abandoned the position of instructor. You start off as assistant professor. There, you served first as an associate, then as a lecturer, then as an instructor and THEN you became an assistant professor and went on. Well, I got a position as an associate at the University of Illinois; I think $2700 per year.
Hoddeson:It was a depressed period? It was during the war?
Ramsey:It was 1940. The war was on in Europe. It was not on — my starting there was in '40 but as you'll see my career was rather short. In any ease that was a depressed period. The Depression was still very much on in academic affairs and university positions were extremely rare. I was very fortunate, to get that.
Hoddeson:As I understand there were very few staff people there. Goldhaber was there at that time.
Ramsey:There was actually very strong staff people there. Goldhaber was there at that time. Don Hearst was there, and Bob Serber was there, and Limon and, well, Loomis was chairman of the department. No, actually I would say it was one of the stronger departments. None of the departments had quite as big a size or a strong a range as many of them now do. But In any case, I went there to essentially spend what I thought was the rest of my life. We were newly married. We'd bought all our furniture, which we still have, in Champaign and Urbana, and at the end of about six weeks, I was somewhat drafted to the Radiation Lab at MIT working on radar at MIT. And essentially from that period on during the war I more or less had two concurrent jobs, one that I was actively working on, and the other on which I was on leave, 80 that I was on leave from University of Illinois, and totally on leave, I wasn't even showing up at the place from the sort of October of, maybe November of 1940 — well, it was early enough so that I had Thanksgiving, I know, out in the Boston area — from November of 1940 to 1943, I guess, and then in 1943, I was offered a position at Columbia but allowed to go on leave from there, so from sort of '43 on I was on leave from Columbia, instead of being on leave from Illinois. But during all that period of time, my active career, since essentially the war was on, was — well, at the beginning, it was as an associate at University of Illinois. Then I was on the staff in radar research at MIT. Then they sent me down to Washington, where I was officially expert consultant to the Secretary of War, was the title —
Hoddeson:Was that your first experience with government?
Ramsey:Yes, except living on Army posts, something like that. I was familiar with government in that. But it was my first active experience, except trying to keep out of the way of the MP's. Then, I was there from; I guess I probably went there in something like '42, and then —
Ramsey:No, I was there from '42 to about '43 or so, and then I went — well, it was a triple. Yes, I had a triple. There's a peculiar story on that one. I was on their books, you're quite right, but I was, I then went to, I was actively in there from '42 to '43 and then, in '43, I went to Los Alamos, and for a strange peculiarity I —
Hoddeson:— you were at Rad Lab?
Ramsey:I was at Rad Lab from '49 to '42 and it's on their behalf I went to Washington in '42, and was in Washington — plus or minus — well, I’m pretty sure I got to Los Alamos in '43. Actually, I arrived there in fall of '43. I was recruited in spring of '43 —
Hoddeson:— that's when everybody, that's when it started.
Ramsey:That's right, when it started. In fact, I was supposed to be amongst the first getting there, but I had the following peculiarity, which I was working, the office I was working in, my official title — embarrassing title — expert consultant to the Secretary of War — bearing in mind I think the definition given at that time of an expert — “ex means a has-been and the spert is a little drip.” So in this form I was an expert consultant to the Secretary of War, but the man I really worked directly for was a man named Bowles, who was sort of the head of an office. There were about, oh, 15 or — a dozen of us who were in the office, I actually worked, really worked directly with the Air Force on getting radar into use with the Air Force. In fact, that's where I got my greatest amount of experience including one, really one weekend when I got a frantic call from a major in the Air Force who said that he had to produce a three year procurement plan for the Air Force on radar starting from scratch on Monday morning. So he called me in, and we sat around. I knew the equipment and I had a list of what the equipment was and he had the number of airplanes and we'd say, “Well, every airplane ought to have a radar altimeter, so that's, well, there's 50,000 airplanes, that's 50,000 radar altimeters, and 1 in 10 ought to have blind bombing equipment, 80 that's 5000 —” In that fashion more or less we made up a list much came to something like, gee, the numbers are — I'd say on the order of a billion dollars. That's a lot of money in those; the procurement list that they finally adopted and was actually purchased was approximately that, the one that we produced that weekend. It went to the higher authorities and they'd say, "Oh, 50,000, it should be 48,000” or something like that. Obviously we didn’t know what we were talking about. 52,000 as the case might be. But essentially — I think at that point I learned how things really get done. They get done by somebody really ready to stick his neck out and work on them. Other people will sort of eventually agree or make slight changes, but whoever writes the first draft is the man who really determines most of what the course of events will be. Well, that was the office, but essentially we were attached to the office of Bowles. Then in the spring of '43, Oppenheimer came out to talk to me and wanted me very much to go to Los' Alamos, explained what they were doing. It was clearly an exalting thing. I said yes, OK, I would be willing to go. He said, “Don’t say anything to anybody, that you work — we work for a very powerful man, General Groves, who always gets what he wants,” and I should just wait, and I would be told that I’d go out there. Meantime, they’d appreciate if I’d start a few experimental tests that they wanted at Dolgrin Proving Ground for the Navy, so I agreed to do both of these, this was just to be for a week or so. Well, time went on, and this was starting somewhere in the spring, and heavens, by end of summer the word still hadn’t gotten around, but which time I was spending about two days a week working on these tests. It was getting a little bit embarrassing. What turned out to have been the problem was that there were two people in the War Department as it was then; there was no Defense department, who had never been turned down on a request. One was Groves, who had never been turned down on a request. One was Groves, who was head of the Manhattan District, running Los Alamos and other places, and the other was Bowles, who was sort of the chief technical officer of the Secretary of War, and each of them felt they could not afford to lose high demand. So nobody really cared I think what happened to me, but each wanted to make sure he didn’t lose face. So basically what would happen would be, well, Groves would say he needed me. This would go up to the Secretary of War Defense, who was probably off then re-viewing the troops in Africa, and when he got back he would forward it to Bowles, who would then go back and say, no, he couldn’t afford to let me go. This is without consulting me. Then it would go back to Stimson, Secretary of War, and he would — and this would go back and forth. And it soon became very important to each of them that he not lose the battle, for fear of losing future battles. As I say I think I was a pure pawn. No one could have cared less what happened to me. Finally it did come out in the open. I mean, Bowles really asked me and I said yes, I really thought that's where I should go. In fact, I admitted I was already working for them some, which took a bit of — at that point, it was clear he was going to lose on it, since there was still free choice on it, but then he I think felt he needed some kind of a face-saving device, and the one he proposed was that indeed I should go to Los Alamos (which I was going to do anyway, but that I should remain on his payroll. I would still be an expert consultant to the Secretary of War but otherwise totally work for the project at Los Alamos, which I did and was purely a staff member of it, except for the peculiarity, sort of unique position on employment. I was never really officially a member of the staff. I was head of one of their principal groups but —
Hoddeson:Who were your collaborators mostly?
Ramsey:Well, I was chiefly I suppose Admiral Parsons, Deke Parsons was probably the one I worked with most. I was his deputy. He headed one of the three major divisions, and I was — oh, there were various — Sills — I had a fair sized group. Most of the work that's now done at Sandea (?) Corporation was actually in my group, the smaller group.
Hoddeson:The ordnance work?
Ramsey:The ordnance work, yes. And the ordnance and the Air Force end of it is what I was most concerned with at that time. We had a group that went over to Utah, the 509th group.
Hoddeson:I've been researching a little bit the work of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, and I was just curious to know how the different divisions there were interacting during the war period.
Ramsey:Well, they basically I think interacted very well. Ours was a peculiar one. Ours was mostly detached, in fact, sufficiently detached that it gets even lost in a certain amount of the history of the project, because it was decided by the security people that essentially, though they did, there was rather insistence on Oppenheimer’s part that there should be a lot of interaction among all parts, and the theoretical group should discuss with all the people doing things, relatively freely. One of the things they decided that they should keep quite secret… Shall I continue? One of the things it was felt should be kept highly secret, even within the lab, was that — and particularly from outside — that things had progressed sufficiently far that there was an interaction with the Air Force, so that for example, any time I was visiting say Wright Field, where they were modifying some airplanes for us, I was not allowed to call Los Alamos by the telephone. I always called a number in Los Angeles, and then the switchboard operator there cross-connected, usual with terrible signal to noise ratio, to a call that she would then place to Los Alamos, and then Robert Oppenheimer and I would shout on the ends of our lined. At one time the people at Wright Field were of course curious to know where I was talking — said, “Why don’t you just ignore the phone, go out in the field and shout, you could do just as well.” I think it was about true. But included in that, our division — we were never allowed to give a colloquium, for example, at Los Alamos. It was supposed to be a little less clear that there was quite that activity as far along there, so that I would say, in almost all of the divisions except our, there was quite close interactions, but there was rather less interaction, particularly between my group and the others. But on a very personal basis, of course, lots of interaction. Bob Wilson, for example, headed the group for the cyclotron there. I got to know him quite well in that connection.
Hoddeson:And then of course Herbert Anderson. He was also working with Fermi.
Ramsey:Herb Anderson was mostly at Fermilab and was not actually — well, he was working with Fermi, but most of his main work was done at University of Chicago. Fermi did come out there eventually, and — but, on the whole, as far as the general interaction there goes, it was really operated not so differently from say the laboratory here, as far as free, quite free interaction goes – I think, between the different groups, as much as time would permit. The principal exception being my own group.
Hoddeson:Was there a difference in that respect between Los Alamos and the MIT Rad Lab?
Ramsey:No. I would say it was rather similar in that respect too, except in that case, there was no single, at least during most of the time I was there, there was not so much separation. There was actually a little separation on groups. There was a radar countermeasures group, and that tended to be a little bit separate doff, because they didn't want to have too much word out as to what the most successful counter-measures would be.
Hoddeson:I wonder if you could just comment very generally on the influence of the war on big science. Here are these big laboratories, which were clearly demonstrating the power —
Ramsey:Well, I think it had several major effects in that direction, and I think at a sort of opportune time. In the first place, it becomes apparent that a big laboratory could do certain things that a small laboratory could not do. That is, the combination of people — and this experience I think was being gained at just about the time that various projects got into a stage where they were being done that way. In other words… particle physics was graduating to successively higher energy machines. And this got a fair group of people at least trained to be familiar with the problems of large laboratories and maybe not too frightened of them.
Hoddeson:— to work communally —
Ramsey:Yes to work communally, which you had to do on that, the willingness, the realization that if you could get enough extra done that way it was worth doing. Secondly, it provided I think a good way for, probably better than almost any time since, for people to get to know people and for people to sort of rise to the top; I mean very junior people if they had a talent for running a group, very quickly were not only running a group but later a division, simply because there were a lot of different things to do in a rather rapid expansion period, so that a surprisingly large number of both university presidents, research administrators and things of that kind I think did originate from people who were sort of discovered, whose abilities in this direction were discovered during places like, their work in places like MIT Radiation Lab, Lawrence Radiation Lab at Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, University of Chicago.
Hoddeson:Something analogous was going on in industry at that period, for example Bell Labs.
Ramsey:Yes. I would say both yes and no. In the first place, Bell Labs, even before that period, was a large laboratory, though I have the feeling that even before that, most of their things were done more in individual groups. It was not a big, not quite as extensively perhaps cooperating an enterprise as some of the bigger ones. After all, both in the Radiation Lab and particularly at Los Alamos — everybody was working on one project.
Ramsey:Two projects in a certain sense. Basically one project with a couple of branched, whereas in a certain sense you can say, Bell Labs was working on one project, too, communications — the subdivisions were much more marked in the case of Bell Labs. I mean I think you really did have subdivisions, not having to cooperate quite as intensively, after all — After all, particularly at Radiation Lab, we were making different components of the same device. We had to get together to see how they’d fit together.
Hoddeson:Of course, as you told very well in your Brookhaven history, Brookhaven was a direct extension of the war work.
Hoddeson:Columbia wanted to have a reactor lab nearby.
Ramsey:Yes, that’s right.
Hoddeson:Let’s see, I imagine that most of the Brookhaven material has been covered.
Ramsey:I think so, I believe — I haven’t had this for a long time myself, it was in that Columbia — but I’m pretty sure that was covered. I’ll try to bring you a copy of that next time I come.
Hoddeson:That would be great, yes. You mention in this little talk that Brookhaven and the AUI have served as models.
Hoddeson:Now, was the AUI the unique first model for all the later consortia?
Ramsey:Approximately so. The reason I say approximately, certainly within our mind as we were establishing it, we had no model of this kind. That is, it started off originally as, well, really we started thinking, what Columbia should do. Then we expanded it to a few universities in the New York area, and at a fairly early stage got in a lawyer, John McCloy, who’d been Secretary of Defense or something at one time, and he sort of, I think the first man I learned from how you’d set up a corporation. I didn’t even know how you’d set up a corporation up to that time. Now, it’s my understanding, two things. In the first place, there have been other consortia of organizations. In the first place, there have been other consortia of organization. It’s an old legal term for all sorts of things, and I’m sure places like Harvard and MIT have probably had some cooperative arrangement with some special corporation to set up to handle real estate, or something like that. And I also believe that in perhaps in a field, either some atmospheric sciences or something, I learned later that they had even a sort of scientific cooperative organization set up, totally independently, neither of them knew about — But I would say to all intents and purposes, in physics, I would say, yes, this is certainly the original one, yes.
Hoddeson:The original, the model.
Ramsey:Yes. And certainly at least I do know the following is a very clear difference, from just my own point of views, in being deeply involved in the establishment of AUI. We had not particular model to look after. I mean, you know, we’d talk to the lawyer, what could be done, and he would say what could be done, and we’d say what we wanted to get. We had to get some arrangement that would make the university happy. And started out, there was no, certainly nothing we were modeling after; in the case certainly of the establishment of URA we were quite aware of AUI and knew what features we wanted to retain, what, some of which we wanted to change. It wasn’t to that extent quite as much inventing something de nova as it was in the case of AUI.
Hoddeson:In what sense was Brookhaven a prototype? You mentioned that CERN was modeled after —
Ramsey:— yes, well, I would say it was a prototype in the sense, well what we wanted — I mean we weren’t clear on the initial form. We were even thinking maybe it might be something on the Columbia campus or next to the Columbia campus, and then there was the problem of having to have a site for the laboratory. This size of it was more determined, as I mentioned in that one, we certainly had more in mind nuclear reactors than we had high energy accelerators. That was minor. Accelerators were a relatively minor infraction cost-wise, and everything else. But in some ways, fortunately, the reactor problem, the general worries on safety and what not, forced us to be 10 square miles of land. We ended up by getting two five square mile plots which isn’t quite the same thing, but more or less satisfied those rules. And the, having had that big plot of land, as the accelerators grew, of course, it was a natural for it.
Hoddeson:Was that the first time in American physics when site selection was a big issue?
Ramsey:No. Well, I suppose in a certain sense, both yes and no. I mean, certainly, any — (crosstalk) — sure, I would say it must be, heavens, any time a university — well, I know in the case of the University of Illinois, that’s one thing I learned in my short career, as to how the University of Illinois was put at Champaign-Urbana, and that is, again, there was a site selection process. Namely the legislature wanted simultaneously to establish in the same year a prison — a new state, they figured they’d have some prisoners — and they also wanted to establish a university, and they put — their method of site selection was, they put them up for bid. Namely, whichever city offered the biggest amount for having either the prison or the university would get it. There was active bidding for the prison, which finally went to Joliet, as one of the bigger places in Illinois that made a quite heavy bid. There was only one bidder for the university and that was Urbana, Illinois, which offered a corn field. So it went to the cornfield. In any case, that’s a form of site selection there. Heavens, and there was a problem, where is the capital of the United States. There are all sorts of site selection problems. I think this was the major, certainly, up to that time — now, in the case of Brookhaven, I don’t think there were so many key site dependent problems that you really had, particularly with a consortium of universities. It it’s to be a single university running it, there’s even then a site election problem. Should it be on 21st street or should it be on 22nd street that you put the laboratory? And here was a case, you had to look over the whole Northeast and find a site that would be mutually satisfactory to nine different universities, and to the Manhattan District.
Hoddeson:There was nothing like the intense competition between localities which took place —
Ramsey:There was no competition from the localities. There it was quite different. There was possibly a more intense competition, pretty intense on both, between two different groups. In the case of the, as mentioned there, in the case of AUI, the establishment AUI, basically the initial move, as mentioned there in that other book, was made at the instigation of Rabi and myself, but really by the New York group, New York area based group, for our laboratory in the New York area, and when Charles Zacharias, a good friend of ours at MIT, who was head of the MIT nuclear science and engineering, heard of this, he scrounged, got his friends at Harvard together — I was at Columbia at that time, — and got them to put forward a proposal for a similar kind of thing in the Boston area. And General Groves, who then headed the Manhattan District, told us that if we could get together on a single site and a single laboratory, he would probably support it. If we could not get together on a single site, don’t bother him, he was a busy man. He also gave us a little warning that if we waited for the new Atomic Energy Commission to be established, knowing new organizations, he suspected it would be at least a five year interval before they would ever be able to bring themselves to establishing a new laboratory, and he could see his way to establishing one new laboratory, and he could see his way to establishing one new laboratory in the dying days of the Manhattan District, but not two. So then we had really an intense struggle between two groups. We did get together, but essentially half the trustees were from the Boston area and half from the New York area, and Rabi and I did a bit of clever politics, I was then working on the Columbia side, by issuing invitations also to Johns Hopkins, which brought the average down, and to Cornell University, from which there was no train communication to Boston, and that did get the group to agree, it had to be basically in the New York area. But there was really quite intense group — I would say, there was almost more intense competition between a small group of people on the trustees, then there was here. In fact, there was — the basic decision was made by trustees, on the recommendation of the site committee, of which I was chairman. That part was quite different. For example, it was also true there that AUI or the initiatory university group, AUI hadn’t been quite formed. (Initiatory University Group was our earlier name) was indeed asked to provide the site committee, one member of the Manhattan District — and also the Manhattan District met with us and gave us engineering advice, and in fact, we employed through their aid civil engineers — but basically, the scientific group was doing the whole recommendation, subject to the approval of the Manhattan District. Whereas here, you had this big competition of 132 sites, and then, the National Academy, a scientific group in the National Academy boiled it down to six. Then actually the commissioners themselves made the choice among the last six — which we will get up to, and I think we maybe better do that next time.
Hoddeson:We’d better stop now. Ok. Then we’ll move from Brookhaven to Harvard at the beginning of the next session.
Ramsey:Fine. Good. Ok.
Hoddeson:Thank you very much.
You’re welcome, I hope this is all…..