Oral History Transcript — Dr. Norman Ramsey
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Interview with Dr. Norman Ramsey
Norman Ramsey; January 5, 1979
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.
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Hoddeson:Last time we left off just at the end, I think, of our discussions of the formation of AUI and Brookhaven, which we didn't go into in great detail, but just mentioned, because In some sense they were prototypes.
Ramsey:Yes, they're included a little bit more in this Columbia Oral History part, which I'll be giving you copies of later.
Hoddeson:Fine. So then maybe we'll just move on. By 1947 you went back to Harvard I'd, and you continued on with the politics of high energy physics as well as molecular beam work, is that correct?
Ramsey:Well, I was also involved in high energy physics, except the definition of high energy physics was always of course lower then than now. I was in charge of the Harvard cyclotron which was being constructed there, which incidentally, in view of subsequent things, somewhat amusing to note, was actually a machine designed by Bob Wilson when he was at Harvard, the year 1946 to the summer of '47. He was spending most of his time actually out in Berkeley, designing charge of that design, also doing some proton-proton scattering experiment, and he then elected to leave Harvard am go on to Cornell, and when I came to Harvard I both was indeed setting up a molecular beam laboratory, which had been sort of one of my own personal fields of research, but since I'd already done some high energy physics things, I was asked to be initially chairman of the committee, then part of the time actually as director of the cyclotron. They had a man, Lee Davenport, who was then assistant Director of the cyclotron. I was chairman of the — my actual official position most of the time probably was chairman of the nuclear physics committee at Harvard, under which this came and there was actually no director of the cyclotron, but there was an assistant director. The chairman of the committee functioned also as director, and that — so I was doing that. And then I was involved in them, as we looked for — clearly that machine, although it was a fine machine and still operating, it was at somewhat lower energy than later apparently became desirable. So I was very much involved in the proposals for initially a proton accelerator, to be built at Harvard, design study for that, which led to the (?) Radiant Focusing Principle, and then, when that was turned down, the electron accelerator, which was proposed there in —
Hoddeson:— wait a minute; I thought the (?) Radiant Principle was discovered at Brookhaven?
Ramsey:Let me clarify that. (crosstalk) Sure, the actual sequence was the following — no, let's get that one straight. In the first place jointly between Harvard and MIT we were worried about needing an accelerator, and a group at CERN was also interested in what was later — well, CERN didn't exist, but a group from Europe was worrying about a high energy accelerator, and we eventually agreed to pool our explorations, about how it should be done. And Stan Livingstone in fact particularly encouraged this collaboration, and then was a proposal that there be a study group on this. Don’t ask me which summer. Initially, actually to be in the Cambridge area, but one or two of the people we wanted to get were Courant and Snyder, and the accelerator at Brookhaven, the cosmotron at that stage, was just getting into operation, and the people at Brookhaven refused to allow Courant and Snyder to leave Brookhaven for that summer. So the study was actually transferred, although it was a study primarily not for Brookhaven. It was a study for the European group and the Cambridge area. It was actually located at Brookhaven, — OK, and the summer of ’52 — and it was actually located there. Stan Livingstone was directing the study, and Brookhaven people were cooperating in it, particularly with Snyder and courant, and out of this study, but Brookhaven was not particularly pushing for an accelerator of its own. It already had itself more than busy getting the cosmotron going. Out of this study, there emerged this bright idea or reemerged, since there had been some — oh dear, Christopholous had Alternate(?) Radiant Principle earlier. It was essentially re-invented; essentially the predominant people on that one were Livingstone, Courant and Snyder. And it was invented at Brookhaven lab. That is perfectly correct. But the project being studied primarily was, it was sort of a joint study of a possible new machine in the Cambridge area to be of higher energy than the 150 MEV cyclotron, which Wilson had designed at Berkeley and which we had constructed, which was our highest energy machine at that time; and a study of what the Europeans should do if they collaborated on some form of machine. And then, when the idea was invented at Brookhaven, then indeed Brookhaven submitted a proposal shortly thereafter for essentially what was later the Alternate Radiant Synchrotron.
Hoddeson:I see. Was there indeed collaboration with Europeans at that time?
Ramsey:Sure. Oh yes. That was they were meeting the preliminary, they were a fair fraction of the manpower. I don't think — if you actually take the individuals whose names contribute to the idea, namely Courant, Snyder and Livingstone, actually one person was from the Cambridge area and two were from Brookhaven. But the origin of the project and the origin of the study was this combined interest of the Cambridge, Mass. group and the European group, and it was essentially the accident of a couple of key people being unable to be spared for it at any other location — but I know it started in to be actually meeting in Cambridge.
Hoddeson:I see. I'm wondering how to get solid documentation?
Ramsey:Well, in the first place, Livingstone has them. I might even have some, I suppose, if I go back to — I might or might not — of the original calling of the meeting, and of the actual — see, this would be '51-ish, I'm not sure, I would say Livingstone might have some on that and I might have some on that.
Hoddeson:Well, some day if you come across it —
Ramsey:OK, let me take a sheet of paper and I will…
Hoddeson:That will be just great. By the way, Berkeley was doing something also, I learned from Livingstone. They had something like the Alternate Radiant Principle at that time, but it was classified. Do you know anything about that?
Ramsey:You know, I don't know about that.
Hoddeson:He's the only person who —
Ramsey:There was the Thomas cyclotron, L.H. Thomas also had a paper on a so-called Thomas cyclotron, which essentially had Alternate Radiant Principle ideas incorporated in it, but nobody understood. I mean this was a paper published. This one… you can find in the literature, and should be included in your historical thing. L.H. Thomas and I would say the Piper must have been published in the early forties or late thirties even.
Hoddeson:I think I've seen it.
Ramsey:This does implicitly include some of the Alternate Radiant Principle. That’s probably — even earlier than Christopholous's. Am I right on his name? — OK, I suddenly got worried…
Hoddeson:No…this one is Christopholous, he's at —
Ramsey:— yes, I know him well.
Hoddeson:OK. Meanwhile you were also involved with Defense Department and the Air Force still?
Ramsey:I was on a scientific advisory board of the Air Force at that time. That was, once every month or two —
Hoddeson:It doesn’t have much to do with high energy physics?
Ramsey:It has very little to do with high energy physics. The nearest it had to do, the Air Force scientific advisory board had something to do with space exploration. I remember, one of the issues that was up, it was pointed out that it would be possible to shoot essentially some chunks of matter into orbit, and for something like a million dollars, and I think our committee recommended that they should do it, but it got censored, further up the line, as not being worthwhile. No, it did not directly pertain to anything in high energy physics. It was sort of a national service kind of activity.
Ramsey:Were you involved in any way in the controversies in the fifties between MIRA and Argonne?
Ramsey:Well, yes, indirectly. I guess some in the final stages very directly. In the first place indirectly — I was asked to be a referee on both the MIRA and the Argonne proposals… and in fact made what I thought was a very sensible proposal which was ignored, namely, that they ought to do with the two groups I think I mentioned to you last time in the establishment of Brookhaven Laboratory — when there was a group from Cambridge, Mass. and a group from the New York area proposing Laboratories, and Groves told the two groups, it they could get together with a single proposal be would probably support it and if they couldn’t get together on one don’t bother him, he is a busy man. My recommendation was a little bit…the AEC should do the same thing with regard to the MIRA and Argonne proposals, which were running in the same directly, namely the — a good many of the scientists in the area were supporting the MIRA proposal. On the other hand the AEC and Argonne were fairly committed to having something at their laboratory. And they ought to tell the two groups, get together on a single proposal or don't do anything. But this was not done, and in fact, they then — there was the rather infamous — both AEC and the MIRA group, in my opinion, did (to put this tactfully) rather badly, in the sense that I remember… one of the stages — I was then on the general advisory committee of the AEC during most of this time, somewhere — I was also involved therefore in that sense. I think I was on the general advisory committee of the AEC for about 12 years, from '56, I suppose, somewhere —
Hoddeson:It says '60 in this —
Ramsey:'60, OK, it’s probably right, in that one, '60 to ’72, I suppose. But I know, one meeting, when the presidents of all the Midwestern universities scheduled a meeting with the commissioners to present their case for having the MIRA machine being a machine that goes to the Middle West, all the presidents arrived in the commission offices, and they were told on arrival that the commission had decided yesterday that the machine would be built at Argonne, before they heard — at Argonne, not at MIRA, which was what they were coming to advocate, which was certainly not a tactful thing, because the presidents of universities are not used to being treated quite that way. But that seems to have been typical of the way that moat of that particular project was handled. I had very little directly to do with it.
Hoddeson:Can you date that roughly?
Ramsey:Probably not. Well, you could date it if you could find out when the MIRA machine was approved. When it was first approved. That would have been the day-after that machine was approved and I would have said — well, I could think back, heavens — DGS — Lee Ting could give you the approval date or something for DGS. That you could find…
Ramsey:Now, the MIRA group didn't die. So at that stage of the MIRA-Argonne thing, it was indeed settled that the DGA should be built, somewhat over the protest of the Midwestern group. As I say, I think the division was excessive on both sides — I mean, it wasn't all that bad a machine — and it also did provide a machine, and they could at least utilize it, and theirs wasn't all that good a machine.
Hoddeson:But wasn't there a problem with the — about classification?
Ramsey:No, not really. I mean, there was more worry I think — no, they were in fact prepared; they always ran that machine quite free. I think the classification problem was not particularly serious. I think it was more, I have a feeling It was even more sort of various kinds of jealousies between sort or the Argonne group was mostly sort of University of Chicago, and the other group would be excessively dominated by them and excessively a government laboratory, and I'm sure the classification argument entered to some — being a laboratory which did do classified work. On the other hand, I think experience has proved — I don't think the classification significantly interfered with the GVS operation. I don't think you'd have to have any special — but that, I'm sure, contributed to some extent. But it was chiefly, I think, rivalry between two separate conceived projects, and possibly, with a difficulty that neither of them were all that inspired, that their interest would overwhelm the other group. But that was the devil to do — the GVS was sort of the last of the non-strong-focusing machines. Well, the Russians built one evening later… But even after, it was built after the strong focusing principle had been invented; it was built partly in that case as Strauss’ rather frantic response to the fact that the Russians had a bigger machine at that stage. I think it was decided on a rather poor basis to go ahead rather frantically, even though the Brookhaven machine was already-started, which, I think was a much more inspired design of machine. Part of the AEC commissioners, Strauss in particularly, didn’t really trust whether that machine would ever work. Actually it was operational earlier than the MIRA, than the Argonne, the GVS was, and in the case on the other land, in the case of the MIRA machine, I'm not sure theirs was all that inspired either, but it was better, more in the direction of intensive. Well, in any case, once having settled that the machine would go to Argonne, be the Argonne machine, the GVS, then the MIRA group continued, in a sense continued making proposals, and then I got rather directly concerned. It must have been somewhere round '62.
Hoddeson:Do you have a copy of that document?
Ramsey:I — My letter? I'm sure I have a copy of it, if I could ever find it. I keep copies of most of my letters. It was presumably a referencing report. The AEC presumably has a copy somewhere too. It’s filled only by date — copy, of referee —
Hoddeson:Then you got involved again.
Ramsey:Then I got involved very vigorously again, was I guess in '62, when I was at the time I was a member of the general advisory committee of the AEC and was asked to be chairman of a Joint committee between the GAC and the President's Science Advisory Committee, to essentially recommend what should be the next steps' in high energy accelerators. This was partly stimulated by the fact that the — well, various government branches, particularly the AEC, were receiving a large number of proposals for new accelerators. The MIRA group had come in strong for their FFAG, Fixed Field Alternate Radiant synchrotron, which was basically a high intensity machine. There were a group of Yale University and Los Alamos and probably, I think there were two other places, had proposals for so-called pion factories, which were very high intensity proton accelerators, somewhat analogous to the — well the one thing did finally emerge — this gives a report, yeah, that those were. Then there were quite a few university proposals. There were several proposals for machines of the order of, like essentially more machines like the Brookhaven synchrotron, but just built at different locations, and then eventually, 200 GEV proposal from Berkeley and 800 to 1000 GEV proposal from Brookhaven. And a proposal for a new elect — even though SLAC was in existence — a proposal for a physics department as opposed to a SLAC electron accelerator by Bob Hofstadter, and there was a proposal from — well, from Pucconi I believe and others at San Diego, and I guess there were a total of, must be a dozen, 15 different accelerators, if you added them all together.
Hoddeson:Is this the first time there were so many?
Ramsey:Oh, they were sort of building up, as time went on. The AEC was not able to decide what to do. People were waiting until the AGS was at least working, and the Cambridge electron accelerator 188 operating. I mean my activities in getting that going. And then succeeded that with — one of the reasons probably that I was asked to be on the committee, because I didn't have a conflict; we'd just gotten approval of an accelerator earlier.
Hoddeson:I was going to ask you why you were chosen.
Ramsey:Well, I was on the GAC. I was probably considered somewhat neutral, since I did things both in low and high energy physics, and they were concerned about the balance between different fields, am also, I wasn't an advocate of a new machine myself, since we had just had support given to the last machine we’d asked for. So that, I think a combination of these reasons, certainly one of which was that I was probably the member of the GAC which was closely — and had the greatest familiarity with particle physics. In any case I was chairman of that. You take a copy of the report.
Hoddeson:Yes. One other question. Was this the first time in high energy physics when not all the proposals could be funded?
Ramsey:No, it had come before.
Hoddeson:Was it a turning point?
Ramsey:But I would say it was the first time that they came sort of quite so sharply into conflict. I mean, there certainly were proposals that had been made that weren’t funded, prior to that, but I would say they tended to be possibly rather smaller. Well, we'd made a proposal for a proton accelerator, a 10 GEV proton accelerator from the Cambridge area, before the GVS was approved. And that was in fact, we felt with the Cambridge outgrowth of this study that had taken place at Brookhaven, obviously there was a little bit of a feeling a little on the part of the Cambridge group, I think, that it was a study of their problem that led to the Alternate Radiant Principle. But then because of the accident of geography, namely, being done at Brookhaven, Brookhaven was getting the machine. And so we had our proposal. That was turned down. Then we followed it up with an electron version of the same thing, which was approved. But say for example, the proton was turned down, so there have been other things turned down, but it was usually an individual this was the first time it was apparent that either you were going to spend an enormous sum, of you weren’t going to do really exciting things, or you were going to turn down most of the proposals. Basically our conclusion, I think our most important decision, that was the first time I think that was made at least fraction of the machine that sharply, was that we could only afford a small — it was much more important to make a few big steps than to make a large number of small parallel steps, and that people just simply had to get together and cooperation on using. That any machine proposed that we were going to favor, we felt had to make a major advance in one or another threshold, ideally in the threshold of higher energy, perhaps in higher intensity, but it had to be a major step. And that we wouldn't advocate two or three somewhat similar machines that people had been proposing at that time, and in particular, I think our net conclusion was, that none of the pion factories were really all that interesting point or view of particle physics. Maybe from the point of view of nuclear physics, this wasn’t our concern.
Hoddeson:Were there any strong arguments for high intensity?
Ramsey:There were some arguments for high intensity.
Hoddeson:Any individuals who took very strong positions?
Ramsey:Yes. In the first place, the MIRA group of course — that was the advantage of their machine, was high intensity.
Hoddeson:Yes. I mean on the panel.
Ramsey:Oh sure. After all, the panel — we had people, I would say, — I don't know that the panel in a certain sense — yeah, I think I can remember fairly well who they were, but let us say, on a regional basis, people like both Johnny Williams and Ned Goldwasser were after all in the sort of MIRA area. Their universities were strong participants, and so from that point of view — but I think basically, the panel, I mean, tried, despite some implications in books subsequently written that it was just a matter of the East and West ganging up on the Midwest, something like that, which is the impression you get in this book — you know, Dan Greenberg’s book — actually the group I think really functioned pretty well, trying to figure out what was the best thing, and I think all of us really got convinced that although intensity at certain levels can be crucial — you do want good intensity — the big reward seemed to come with the energy, as opposed to the intensity. I think most of us really did feel that, although there were both intensity thresholds and energy thresholds, at least at that state — threshold is the more exciting of the two. And in fact that was our conclusion. Our conclusion in the case of the MIRA machine, which various people from MIRA interpreted as the kind of death, in the sense that I think we concluded: yes, you should do it, it would be interesting, but not of it significantly delayed the major step to higher energy. Which conclusion I think was quite correct. And I think even most of the group, formerly MIRA group, would agree to that, at the present.
Hoddeson:Well, now, why did you choose Berkeley?
Ramsey:(crosstalk) Oh, I think, sure, it was essentially the problem — I think we felt rather strongly on our panel, the problem was the commission didn't so much appreciate later, that as far as we could see, the problem, one of the problems was not that there were too few high energy laboratories, but there were getting to be too many high energy laboratories, but there were getting to be too many high energy laboratories, and that it wasn’t really so much a case that you distribute a facility here, a facility there, one at another place, then you gradually build up a large number of parallel facilities, but essentially there were going to be a couple of leading ones, and a new one will do it. If you build a 200 GEV accelerator, probably another accelerator or several of them will wither away, won’t be funded, won’t be that exciting, and therefore, I think we had a general impression that it would be a good thing not to establish a new site, because that would only accentuate the problem. Secondly, one of the things that we found very frustrating, in fact, with the committee, as far as geography was concerned, Brookhaven was a much more favorable location for the machine, they essentially had a lab. On the other hand, traditionally Berkeley had been the great source of many of the things in high energy physics, had been a very strong group, and we really felt we ought to keep them going. And if so, the only way to do it — it was their turn next, in that sense. I mean, the Brookhaven group had — while they were still getting the AGS going — I mean, in fact, that was one of the arguments, I didn’t take it too seriously, that the Berkeley group raised on it, was that they couldn’t afford the time to work on it. Somewhat similar argument some people make here, pertaining to whether the next machine should be at Brookhaven, here, — I’ve seen that in several forms. I don’t think that was a very strong argument but nevertheless it was an argument. In any case, it was quite clear that if the Berkeley group were to be maintained as a strong center, in physics, it was their turn for getting a machine next, and they had a good proposal. And we also concluded — actually the recommendation of our committee was for both a 200 and an 800 GEV machine, and with a time schedule which would have gotten one started. In fact, one of the things we concluded was that the 200 GEV machine would be enough cheaper than the 800, you’d probably learn enough ways of economizing on the 200 GEV machine in succession, for about the same cost as you could do the 800 GEV machine only, because hopefully you’d learn enough bright ideas then — after all, there was only one machine operating at that time with the Alternate Radiant Principle and so there wasn’t all that amount of experience — maybe two, I’m not sure whether the Cambridge Electronic Accelerator was then operating or not. But in any case there wasn’t a vast amount of experience with alternate radiant machines, and if, for example — as proved to be very true here at Fermilab — if you learned from the previous experience how to diminish the aperture, by a marked amount, then you can save a tremendous amount in the cost of the machine, so that all you had to do was save, well, save sort of 25 percent on the cost of the 800 GEV machine and you could have the 200 GEV machine for free.
Hoddeson:And yet Berkeley then went to a tremendous aperture, even though there had been discussions of a smaller aperture machine.
Ramsey:Yes. Well, they tended to be rather — that was perhaps even a fallacy. I mean, it looked as if they weren’t in fact going to be getting all these economies. They didn’t have quite the push. This is where Bob Wilson I think came in very strong at the laboratory here, in the sense that he was a great advocate of making economical machines, and really got the push in that direction. In fact, so much so that the 200 GEV machine sort of swallowed the 800 GEV machine, as witness the fact it’s now operating at 500, and the doubler saver, it will be at a thousand. So that really —
Hoddeson:So, in a sense, what you hoped would happen happened at one place.
It happened at one place, on a sort of a somewhat shifted schedule. See, what we had hoped — and I think that’s one thing we would have changed, the main thing I felt I would have changed in my report, turned out to have happened anyway, was that instead of recommending a 200 GEV machine, construction in ’68, something like that — no, sorry, our committee report, we had our report in ’63, for construction to begin in ’64 — what we should have said, I always felt, subsequently, we should have said 200 GEV, plus 50 NGEV, where N is the number of years subsequent to ’64 at which…Session I | Session II | Session III