Oral History Transcript — John H. Van Vleck
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Interview with John H. Van Vleck
Sopka:This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I'm visiting today, January 28, 1977, with Professor Emeritus John Van Vleck in his office in the Lyman Laboratory of Physics. In the interest of compiling a history of the Physics Department in recent decades, Professor Van Vleck has kindly consented to share with me his recollections of trends and events that have shaped the course of that history since he first came to Harvard as a student in the Spring of 1920. Professor Van Vleck perhaps we can best begin by asking you about the circumstances surrounding your coming to Harvard initially.
I'd like to begin by explaining how I happened to come to Harvard for graduate work. My father had an appointment as a visiting professor at Harvard for the Spring term began in February 1920. Normally, I would have graduated from the University of Wisconsin in June 1920. However, I had taken two summer schools quota of work at the University of Minnesota. I didn't have quite enough credits to be an equivalent to a semester at Wisconsin but Mother thought perhaps I could talk to the French department into letting me take a reading course in Moliere which I did which eked up the credits and so I came with my parents to Cambridge in February, 1920.
It was one of those really snowy winters. My father had written that he wanted a suite for us in an apartment/hotel. The answer was, there were no hotels in Cambridge. There weren't at that time. The Commander or the Continental weren't yet built. Instead, what was found for us, was the second floor of a rather rambling wooden-frame building I guess of four stories on Appian Way that was subsequently moved, I believe, to the Episcopal Theological Seminary. When we got in, there had been a big snow storm and it was impossible for the taxi to go up Appian Way.
I was unaccustomed to the array of trash cans that were found in Cambridge and I think also the snow was rather more conscientiously plowed in the Midwest because there were not these sudden accumulations there to the extent that there sometimes are in Cambridge. Well, that was my introduction to Cambridge.
That Spring, I took one course - believe it or not that was in the Business School, in Railway Operation with Professor Cunningham. The other three half courses I took, they are all half courses, were one with Professor Peters in which he largely, I would say, simply lectured, just representing what was in his book. I had Thermodynamics with Harvey Davis and that was a really excellent course. I think he was a very outstanding teacher even though he may not have had equal standing in research. I just don't know because you know he was later president of Stevens and in fact that was an excellent course.
I took a course in mathematics with Professor Boughton which was a course in differential equations but it was really a course in algebraic manipulation. I wasn't used to much written work. At Wisconsin where you took math courses when you wanted something easy and I really sweated in that course. Then, in the fall I began work entirely in the Physics Department at Harvard. I had some thought of taking a teaching assistantship at the University of California. It seemed nice to be on my own. I liked it at Harvard. My parents persuaded me it was good idea for me to stay and I'm inordinately glad that I did.
Sopka:Did you go back home to Wisconsin in the summer of that year?
In the summer of that year, I attended a summer school at the University of Chicago. I guess I perhaps had some credits from Chicago towards my graduation from Wisconsin. I hadn't thought of that. At any rate, I didn't have enough and those courses at the University of Chicago that I took there in 1919 and 1920 were for a theorist. Far less exciting than the work which I had with Kemble and Bridgman at Harvard. I think I'm right in saying, except for my first semester here, and that's the Spring of 1920, all the courses I took in the Physics Department were either with Bridgman or with Kemble. I took, I think, all my courses except Bridgman's course, in Thermodynamics. I notice that the same thing is true of Slater, namely that practically all of his work in Physics was also with Kemble and with Bridgman. Bridgman covered a great deal of ground in his courses.
There was one very bright student in mathematics by the name of Spurell, I think, could have been the very top echelons of research mathematicians but I think he wanted to have something with a business twinge to it so he went into actuarial work but a normal course load just wasn't enough for him so he would audit the courses of Professor Bridgman and he remarked that Bridgman covered as much material in one lecture as most Harvard lecturers did in two or three. Bridgman had one habit that didn't appeal to those who did not happen to like arriving early in the morning.
Namely, instead of lecturing three times a week beginning at 9:00, he preferred to lecture twice a week beginning at 8:40 and this caused a good deal of altercation with some of the people in University Hall that said that there is something in the statute book that prevented there being any lecturers before morning prayers beginning at 8:45 and so they called up Bridgman and asked him to change his hours and Bridgman replied, "well if you don't like my teaching at those hours, just cancel the course. Under the terms of my contract, when I believe Princeton was trying to lure him away from Harvard, he was not obliged to do so much teaching so the people at University Hall soon backed down.
That, however, was an episode that happened some twenty years later but the hour of 8:40 remained the same for decades. Living conditions for graduate students were rather different in those days than they are now. Nobody had a car. It was a shock to find that the rooms in Conant Hall, in the dormitory, were largely gas lighted and you had to pay extra to get electricity into your room. But, on the other hand, in some respects, life was easier than it is now. Namely, there was a dining hall in Memorial Hall with full table service for three meals a day and Slater and I both had trouble making it by 9:30, the deadline for closing in the morning, the mornings that we didn't have courses with Bridgman when we were trying to recover from the other early hours. Do you want me to discuss the table I was at. It's not particularly physics, but it's Harvard.
Sopka:Sure, it's Harvard's atmosphere and that's what we're trying to bring out.
Van Vleck:The table that I ate at the last year, the last year that I was at Harvard, that's the year I was an instructor, perhaps it was the year before, I don't know, I had some very distinguished people - Slater, Paul Buck, for many years Provost at Harvard; Woodward, so prominent in Harvard Music Department and Glee Club over the years; Chamberlain, the columnist who was later a Professor of Economics at Harvard; Ellis, an economist at Berkeley; Phil Franklin of the MIT Math Department in later years and Chuck Taylor, later of the Harvard History Department. I think this is a pretty good record for a relatively small group of people. I don't think any of us realized how distinguished most of the people at that table would turn out to be.
Sopka:Now that was 1923?
Van Vleck:This was 1922-1923 and perhaps 1921-1922. I can't remember whether I ate at that table one year or two years.
Sopka:You always ate at the same.....
Van Vleck:The first year I ate at some miserable cafeteria called the Foxcroft and it was only in the later years that someone invited me to join them at a table at Memorial Hall and that proved to be very pleasant indeed.
I had really not planned to finish up my work, the PhD at Harvard, in 2-1/2 years but I started working on calculating a certain model of the helium atom, which is described in the literature, proposed independently by Bohr and by Kemble and along about the summer of 1921 Kemble told me to my surprise that if I made that calculation satisfactorily, that would be sufficient for a thesis. And I had a rather rude surprise towards the end of the year that I got my Ph.D. because Lyman came into me and said I think you'd better come in and take your language exams with me.
I had not realized that, at that time, their rule on the Harvard books was while an elementary knowledge of German and French is required for a MA, a reading knowledge was required for a Ph.D. and I remember my parents writing me I couldn't possibly hope to pass the German exam but I worked pretty hard boning up on German for that and didn't pay much attention to the French because I had had a lot of work in French and when I finally got around to taking my exam with Lyman, I actually did a little better in the German than I did in the French just because I didn't know the names of the chemical elements and things like that in French.
The graduate student body at that time was a rather small one. I should say, 12 or 15. Some of the people I can mention, of course John Slater was the one who had the most brilliant record over the years. There was Stuart Ballentine in the Cruft area who I believed died rather prematurely. There was Noel Little, later of the Physics Department. I think Boulton[?] and he married Ms. [?????] something at the time was a graduate student in physics in those days. There was also Miss Armstrong who had a distinguished career for a women in physics. The attitude of the Harvard graduate students towards women who cross registered at Radcliffe was much more enlightened than apparently it was at Yale.
Because I remember Mary Wheeler, later Mrs. Wigner, saying that no graduate students would sit next to a women in classes at New Haven so when I had occasion to learn of that fact and had to make an academic speech on the occasion of Wigner's 60th birthday, I mentioned that Mary should have gone for her graduate work to Harvard rather than Yale. She certainly would have been treated in a completely different fashion at Harvard.
From the theoretical side, I think Bridgman and Kemble were the dominating figures in theory. In fact, when you restrict things narrowly to a theory, then Kemble was the only theoretical physicist in the department but Bridgman gave courses of a highly theoretical nature and he also wrote some in the philosophy of science where "Bridgmanisms" are sometimes used in connection with his rather pragmatic philosophy and I perhaps self-consciously, both Slater and I were influenced by Bridgman's outlook on physics. Another graduate student was E.J. Baldess who was in the Cruft area who later ended up on the staff of the Mayo Clinic at Rochester. They hired two or three physicists there and Baldess and I would see each other several times a year when I'd come up to see a Minnesota football games and then go down to Rochester occasionally and a friendship was the result of being fellow graduate students here.
Sopka:Gregory Breit was a post-doctoral fellow?
Van Vleck:Yes, Gregory Breit was a post-doctoral fellow here from 1922 to 1923. After my receiving a Ph.D., I stayed on one year as a so called instructor to be distinguished from the faculty instructorships, such as Kemble had here in the beginning of 1919. I had something like sixteen classroom hours including labs and I didn't have much time for research that year. Quite a difference from what I did when I moved to the University of Minnesota in 1923 where my teaching was entirely graduate. 1922 to 1923 here at Harvard was entirely teaching of the most elementary variety and I was known by the undergraduates as a section hand in Professor Saunders' elementary course in physics.
Sopka:Apparently a great many of the young faculty members started their teaching career here as assistants in Saunder's course.
I suppose that's true. I hadn't really analyzed that fact. Another person who was here at that time was Dana who later ended up with the Lindy Air Products Corporation who was later, for many years, a member of the visiting committee of the Division of Engineering of Applied Physics and he was always very friendly to me as a member of that committee, more so than some of the old guard engineers who were rather suspicious of theoretical physicists being needed in the engineering area. I'd like to reiterate how fortunate I was in having Kemble as my mentor.
There was nobody in the country, at that time, that could have given instruction in quantum theory with anything like the degree of sophistication and understanding that Kemble had. There probably were some professors of mathematics that understood the mathematical framework but that alone is not enough. After all the development of quantum theory is the development of physics by as much as it was of mathematical formulas. Epstein didn't come to the country until 1921 and I suspect it was a while before he became acclimated at CalTech. In California there was Birge but he was primarily a experimentalist or a spectral analyst in a distinction from a real theoretical physicist.
There was Max Mason in Wisconsin but he was violently anti-quantum theory. Of course he gave some very sophisticated courses in electro-magnetism in Wisconsin but as an undergraduate, I was never far enough along to be anywhere near ready to take these courses so I never had any classroom contact with him at Wisconsin. I liked the atmosphere of the Physics Department at Harvard when I came here in the Spring of 1920 and basically, I think that's the reason why I decided to stay on here for my graduate work.
Sopka:As we look back, it certainly seems like a fortunate decision that you made.
Van Vleck:Yes, I was lucky. I had what I call an advantage of operation headstart. I had my training with Kemble in the old time theory when the new quantum mechanics came along so I could understand action and angle variables and the matrix theory very well. It wasn't, at first, in the partial differential equations so that, in contrast to many workers in the early days in quantum mechanics, I used the matrix approach usually rather than working with analytical solutions of the Schrödinger equation or basically the two are the same.
Sopka:Did you maintain your Harvard contacts reasonably closely during the years when you were at Minnesota and Wisconsin? I'm sure on a personal level you corresponded with Professor Kemble.
Van Vleck:I corresponded with Kemble and to a certain extent with Slater but I gave a colloquium here in 1927 or part of a colloquium. I think Pierce had the other part. It was another case of bad weather. Our train was hours late and we stayed with the Kembles. I think that was my only visit to Cambridge after I left in 1923 except perhaps for a social visit before school had started when I got back from Europe to see some of my friends here. I did not have too much contact with the Harvard Physics Department during the eleven years that I was in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I did come here for an interview in December 1933. I have a feeling Professor Lyman paid my travel expenses with his own personal check but I think that was my first professional visit over those years except for that colloquium.
Sopka:Did you give a colloquium on that occasion in 1933 also then?
Van Vleck:No it was after school had broken up for Christmas vacation so I was here on a Saturday primarily. I think they gave a luncheon for me at the faculty club. I arrived here on a Friday night and left on Saturday night.
Sopka:Where you offered a position at that time or was it later that they asked you?
Van Vleck:Oh no that was definitely in connection with talking things over regarding the position that they were offering me at that time. I had a nice visit with Kemble and how much that trip influenced me one way or the other, I don't know.
Sopka:Did you have contact with the Mathematics Department also in the early stages of your appointment here?
Van Vleck:You mean when I was an instructor?
Sopka:No I mean when you came back in 1934, was there was any contact with the Mathematics Department?
Van Vleck:Oh yes, I was half time in mathematics and half in physics for over twenty years and that rather worried my conscience at times because all my research was in physics rather than mathematics. But I was technically half a member of the mathematics department and half time a member of the physics department until I went on half time in I think 1957. I'd have to stop and think.
Sopka:I was curious to know who in the Mathematics Department would have been interested in arranging such a joint appointment.
Van Vleck:I don't know. I mean to what extent Birkoff had a hand in it, I don't know. He was undoubtably the dominating figure in mathematics in the 30s.
Sopka:Did you have responsibilities to the Mathematics Department?
Van Vleck:Sure. Department meetings and tutors and things like that. So I did have some administrative chores in the Mathematics Department but when I became chairman of the Harvard Physics Department, it was pretty clear that I was limited to how much time I could spend doing committee work. You asked me to talk about how different the Physics Department was after my return in 1934 from what it was in 1923 when I left. It was not very much enlarged. I think the size of the faculty was practically the same. Shaffer had left. He was an instructor. Slater had taken his place and then Slater had been lured down to MIT. The big expansion was in the building. It was the research lab of physics which we renamed the Lyman Lab on or about 1947-48, something like that. It hadn't been built. It was a much more modern plant but that was during the Depression and instead of adding telephones, they were taking them out and you'd be amazed at how few telephones that were in the building at that time.
Sopka:Sometimes that could be an advantage if you're trying to do some work.
Van Vleck:Well, maybe so.
Sopka:There also seemed to be very little in the way of secretarial help compared with......
Van Vleck:Oh yes, there were two secretaries there when I came here in 1934. There was Miss Woodward who was essentially the departmental secretary and Miss Candee who was a librarian and a secretary to Kemble and to me and Professor Bainbridge and whoever else needed secretarial help. The secretarial help in those days was very frugal compared to what it is now.
Sopka:When you were here in the 20s, Lyman was head of the laboratory. Was Hall then the chairman of the department and Saunders was chairman when you came back?
Van Vleck:Saunders was chairman when I came in 1934. I would have said that Lyman was chairman in the 1920s and Pierce was director of the lab but I may have that wrong. That's something you could check.
Sopka:Well, I know that Lyman was officially director of the laboratory.
Van Vleck:For how long?
Van Vleck:From 1910?
Van Vleck:Then he must have been departmental chairman too because he was the one who picked me up on my having to have my languages.
Sopka:Well he certainly seems to have run the department totally.
Van Vleck:Yes, I would say he and Bridgman were the dominating figures in a somewhat different and complimentary way.
Sopka:They didn't have departmental chairman reports in those days and that's one of the reasons why it's not quite as clear who was chairman as it is now when the annual report can be looked up.
Van Vleck:And there was no longer... I don't think there was, in those days, a definite rotation of departmental chairmen.
Sopka:No, there wasn't. It was a continuing responsibility. Well I suppose coming out of the Depression in the later 30s, the next big event that influenced the department was the coming of the war.
Yes and the Harvard war effort, as you know, was, I should say, in four different areas. There was the Underwater Sound Lab run by Ted Hunt. There was a large instructional unit in which Professor Chaffee played a large part in training students in radio communications and the like. That was a large effort. Then there was some work here I think in the infrared but I really don't know. It was so classified and I really had no contact with it and it was not a large effort.
The largest single effort at Harvard, other than instructional aspects, was of course the Radio Research Lab which started in one wing of the biology building and it grew so fast that a great big rambling wooden structure was built on the back to house everybody. This was concerned with radar counter-measurers in distinction from radar. People that were at Radio Research Lab were automatically cleared for the Radiation Lab at MIT but the converse was not true because radar counter-measures was considered more highly classified even than radar. The fact that Harvard was doing even more hush-hush work was a selling point when you had to try and approve personnel as I sometimes did, by describing what we were doing without being able to tell what we were really doing.
Sopka:Harvard seem to have had a number of it's people down at MIT at the radiation lab during the early forties.
Van Vleck:Yes, I've tried to think who really was there that had tenure at Harvard. Furry was. Preston was down there; Bainbridge was there; Street was there. I was a consultant there. I was a dollar a year man there but I never got the dollar. I got a letter saying they'd pay my expenses back first class after the war and instead, I was half time at the Radio Research Lab and half time on the staff at Harvard.
Sopka:Were you able, during those war years in the forties, to continue giving any kind of normal physics courses?
Van Vleck:I gave a course in dynamics. I think courses like quantum theory and so on pretty much were out the door during that period. It was just a relatively short period because it only extended from 1942 I should say to 1945. 1942 things still continued a little bit normal. Harvard had a football team and so on. By the Spring of 1945, it was pretty clear that Germany was being licked and I think there was rather less emphasis on pushing governmental research than there was earlier.
Sopka:There probably were very few students that could be enrolled in anything beyond an elementary course.
Van Vleck:Yes. I remember I was on the awards committee of the Coffin fellowships awarded by the General Electric Company and I went to this meeting and they were trying to decide who to award them to and I said this is foolish, practically all the good graduate students are now engaged in war research of one form or another. This money should be salted down and used after the war because I think they may have ended up giving a fellowship or two to the people who were clearable for one reason or another - not because they were "Red" but because they were too recently arrived in this country, immigrated from Germany for example.
Sopka:It was in the Spring of 1945 that you took over as chairman of the department?
Van Vleck:Well, I took over as chairman of the department when Kemble went on the ALSOS mission and that, I would say, was in the Spring of 1945 yes. I continued for essentially four years as departmental chairman. I quit in February 1949 and I thought it began in February 1945. It may have been a little bit later, I don't remember exactly when Kemble went abroad.
Sopka:Well it certainly was by March so it was that semester that you..... So you had to shepherd the class of graduate students and returning faculty.......
Yes we had to keep adding secretaries and courses and so on and it was hard to find good staff. It was hard to find good staff in the war because everybody was engulfed with the war effort and right after the war, there was such a demand for physicists and what have you, we had trouble recruiting people. We had some very good people, Barowitz[?] and Colton were here as instructors in the late forties. Both of them had distinguished careers. Herbie Goldstein has a book in Dynamics that became a physic classic.
Those were some of the people I hired as instructors during that time when I was chairman. But appointments with tenure made during that era were Schwinger, Purcell, and Ramsey. Because the Harvard Physics Department was so successful in getting those people, I think, may have been one reason why they finally talked me into being dean over in the engineering and applied physics area. I should mention though that after the war, or near the end of the war, Bainbridge was very impressed with R.R. Wilson who had been at Los Alamos and he persuaded Bridgman who was then in Randolph, the same place as was Conant, to go around to Conant and see if Conant wouldn't give an additional place in physics compared to the place given under the Graustein Plan. That position went to R.R. Wilson but then he departed for Cornell so we still had the vacancy and that was the vacancy that was filled by Ramsey.