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Oral History Transcript — Norman Feather

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Interview with Norman Feather
By Charles Weiner
In Edinburgh, Scotland (James Clerk Maxwell Physics Building)
November 5, 1971

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Norman Feather; November 5, 1971

ABSTRACT: Undergraduate atmosphere at Cambridge: course work, lecturers, extracurricular groups, training experiments in radioactivity and scintillation- counting; obtains old radon tubes for neuron experiments while doing radioactivity work with R.W. Woods at Johns Hopkins in 1929; discussions with Chadwick of Joliot papers (1932); move with Chadwick to Liverpool (1935); return to Cambridge (1936); reaction to selection of Bragg as Rutherford’s successor; shift in Cavendish world role in nuclear physics; war service at Cambridge: administration, teaching, measurement of fission cross- sections; move to Edinburgh to replace Barkla (1945).

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Weiner:

Iíd like to start by picking up just about at the point where we left off last time. That was after your yearís stay in Liverpool, returning to the Cavendish and taking up your new duties. You explained last time that this was a period of reorganization in a sense because Rutherford was working with a new team, and Iíd like to run through the personnel. Last time there was some confusion in my mind whether Oliphant was there. In fact he must have been.

Feather:

Yes, he was. As a matter of fact, too, some slight lack of memory in that connection has persisted with me. It was only this summer that I finally got it straight. I had been prepared to say that Oliphant wasnít there, but that was quite wrong; he was. Although I didnít actually, in the matter of administration in the matter of or research, come across him very much that year.

Weiner:

He was there a year before he left for Birmingham.

Feather:

He left for Birmingham in Ď37, I think.

Weiner:

Just before Rutherfordís death.

Feather:

Yes, thatís right.

Weiner:

You mentioned last time that you began to take on certain duties. Rutherford had in mind for you a task associated with the publications of the laboratory, but you didnít have a chance to explain what you meant by that.

Feather:

It was a duty which never got off the ground, really. He did say to me that he thought it was time that the papers submitted for publication by the young research workers, the first or second paper that the person might write during his period as a research student, should be looked at by some one person in the laboratory in relation to presentation, in relation to length generally, in relation to English usage and so on. And he suggested that I should take on that job. Perhaps I looked over two or three papers in that way, but it was not a task which was eventually finalized, formalized, because Rutherford died almost within a year and that was the end of it.

Weiner:

Had there earlier than that, in your years there, been any formal or informal procedures regarding publications emanating from the laboratory?

Feather:

Well, the individual supervisors of research would just check over what one had written. Sometimes it would be a joint paper, and then more often than not the supervisor would write it rather than the research student. But when it was a paper published under one name, and that the name of a young man -- I must say of course Rutherford and his staff had a very liberal attitude in that respect, that there was no attempt to bring such publications under joint authorship if it was indeed, as it often was, the work of the young man himself. So youíre asking whether what a young research student would write in that way would actually be checked over in great detail. It would differ, depending upon who his supervisor was. And after all, even for permanent members of staff in a physics department, not everyone is perhaps as pernickety about the use of English as everyone else. That kind of oversight appeals to some people and has no appeal whatsoever to others, so it would be a rather uneven arrangement when it was left to heads of individual research groups.

Weiner:

Would Rutherford play a final role in this process? In the early period, Iím talking about.

Feather:

No, generally not. He would certainly be apprised of what was going on, what papers were going forward, and I forget whether it was the situation in the States, but it certainly was then and still is in a formal way the situation in this country that papers submitted for publications in the proceedings of the learned societies require a communicator who is a fellow of the society. So in all these cases, some senior member of the staff in the Cavendish would be acting as communicator, and in some cases of course Rutherford himself, and Rutherford would be kept informed.

Weiner:

This would mean, if he was communicator, it would go through his hands; you would assume heíd read the paper and would not submit anything he did not approve of.

Feather:

Of course. Yes.

Weiner:

Iím more concerned with the scientific content of the paper. I know that he had a rather critical attitude towards publications emanating from other laboratories which he thought either were not accurate, were vague, or inEact were wrong, fallacious in terms of the counts theyíd done or something, and Iím just wondering at what level this kind of scientific referring was done within the laboratory?

Feather:

Well, I think largely at the level one further down, that is to say by the research supervisor, Chadwick, Ellis, whoever it might be who was looking after the research day by day. I think that if he felt that the young man had not got the material for a paper of some substance there he would just say, ďNo, this isnít the time to write it upĒ.

Weiner:

Lewis commented on something like that at the Moscow meeting. He pointed out that Rutherford was against the publication of incomplete work. The relative completeness of a piece of work really depends on your point of view.

Feather:

Of course. That is an attitude which was idiosyncratic. I think it was a healthy attitude in relation to that particular phase in the development of physics. Whether it is an attitude which could be maintained with any consistency today, whether it would be wholly healthy today, is a question which I donít imagine has an obvious answer. But I still think if one has to err in one direction or the other, to err in the direction in which Rutherford erred in this matter is preferable. That is to say, although it is true that in these days one cannot avoid, I think, preliminary announcements, circulation of preprints and that kind of thing, it is a real disease when the learned journals of the world are cluttered up with such things, particularly when as a result each issue has to have about three pages of errata at the end. Or every now and again one of these preliminary announcements has to be withdrawn completely. However, the situation does change. Weíre talking about the period 40 years ago. Within the context of the time, I think Rutherfordís attitude was a healthy one.

Weiner:

You say in the context, you meant that the field was so new and the techniques were just being developed that it paid to be sure. Also I get the feeling that there were not agreed-upon standards of reporting results -- Iím talking about specific experiments, disintegrations and so forth and measurings of energies and velocities, all these kinds of things -- it seems to me that lack of agreement on what is important to report and what method, created a great deal of confusion and might have contributed to his caution.

Feather:

I donít think your last point -- Iím not saying itís invalid, but it doesnít raise in my memory any very great response. I mean, it doesnít seem to me that you have put into words an essential part of the situation, an essential feature of the situation. I donít quite know what you would mean by lack of standards and so forth.

Weiner:

Iím thinking, for example, of correspondence with Lawrence -- there was a plea in some of these letters for closer collaboration before things were rushed into print, because it was a new field and none of the people were really very sure of themselves.

Feather:

Yes. I didnít see as much of that side of it, because I wasnít as actively involved by a long way as many of my colleagues in the use of the new machines.

Weiner:

Right. I was just trying to find this particular letter in the Cockcroft papers, referring to the need of independent experiments to be carried out elsewhere for verification and in particular at this stage of the field to correspond with one another beforehand -- I canít find the specific letter. But getting back to the point you were making on the publications, was there any special choice of journal, where one journal would be preferred for certain purposes?

Feather:

Well, Rutherfordís own work was largely published in the PHILOSOPHICAL MAGAZINE, for a long time at any rate. Then the work of the laboratory generally over the period of 1920 to Rutherfordís death was put into the PROCEEDINGS of the Royal Society. The PROCEEDINGS OF The Cambridge Philosophical Society were used for perhaps less substantial publications.

Weiner:

When you say less substantial, you mean less important as a breakthrough or a new internationally significant scientific development? For example, the neutron would not be published there, obviously.

Feather:

No. You see, the Cambridge PROCEEDINGS came out quarterly, the Royal Society came out monthly, NATURE came out weekly, PHIL MAG came out monthly, so that when I say substantial, it also implies that one can wait the additional couple of months and no harm done. I mean, on the average it must be two months longer before it appears in the Cambridge PROCEEDINGS on that basis, and one can tolerate the additional delay. So I think by and large, apart from a few papers which Rutherford continued in his old tradition to send PHIL MAG, most of the substantial work of the laboratory was sent to the Royal Society and appeared in their PROCEEDINGS.

Weiner:

The questions of productivity comes up, in terms of whether there was any implied attitude toward the productivity of various groups within the laboratory, measured in terms of their publications. I know this is a modern concept, a contemporary one, and I wonder if in any way this showed up? That is, Rutherford or anyone saying, ďWell, gee, we havenít had any published results out of your group for a long timeĒ.

Feather:

Well, I was really never head of any large group under Rutherford. During my time until Chadwick went off to Liverpool, I was working in Chadwickís group. It may be that Rutherford used to ginger up the group leaders. I donít think so, in the sense that youíre speaking of. Of course, in his regular visits to individual researchers this was a continual aspect of what he had to say -- not, you know, ďYou havenít published for a long timeĒ, but ďLook, youíre taking a long time in doing this experimentĒ. Publication was never mentioned in that connection, just the fact that there wasnít much to show for what youíd been doing this last week.

Weiner:

Sort of ďLetís get on with the work ---ď

Feather:

Yes, rather than ďLetís get publishingĒ.

Weiner:

I see. Well, I have no evidence on that, Iím not even suggesting that he was pushing for publication but I thought that was worth probing. By the way, do you know if any lists were kept at any time of the publications emanating from the laboratory? This is a problem that would interest me, to make a complete study of all the publications. I know I can get them from the journals by working backwards, but if it existed in terms of an annual file?

Feather:

I donít think so.

Weiner:

I havenít found it. That I think would support your point, that there wasnít a great emphasis on Rutherfordís part. Iíd like to get back then to the team that was in existence in 1936. You were there, Oliphant was there as assistant director of research, Dee was there and you indicated that at that time he had charge of the high voltage sets. Was he also working on the cyclotron?

Feather:

No.

Weiner:

That was Cockcroft and Hurst?

Feather:

Just a moment, weíre talking now 1936. Cockcroft would have general oversight of that kind of thing, but he wasnít really working on the cyclotron in the sense of suggesting experiments from day to day or anything like that.

Weiner:

Well, it wasnít hardly running, certainly, but --

Feather:

No, but he had oversight of its construction.

Weiner:

He was rather preoccupied with the Mond laboratory, I would imagine -- since that was his main domain.

Feather:

Yes, of course.

Weiner:

Cockcroft, Dee, Oliphant, you. Ratcliffe was there but was working physically apart.

Feather:

Physically apart, yes.

Weiner:

What other individuals or research groups? Iím trying to see what you mean by ďnew teamĒ in terms of who was there, and major roles.

Feather:

Well, I think when I speak of a new team, it possibly suggests a more formalized setup than there really was. There was no question but that Rutherford regarded himself as being in charge, and when I say in charge, I mean in charge of everything, you know; and that he would have X or Y along to help organize this or that on a particular day, without any real promise that on the next day heíd have him along. I donít think there was ever any resentment at his running things in that way, but that was how it was. There was complete, well, fairly well-defined complete devolution of authority to Chadwick during his time; and would have been and was initially to Oliphant during his time as assistant director of research. But to anybody else, no, not really, not complete.

Weiner:

So even with the coming of the new Austin Laboratory and with the advancing age of Rutherford, there was no major change in terms of how he was going to handle the affairs of the laboratory.

Feather:

No.

Weiner:

Even innovations in publications?

Feather:

Of course, itís hard to remember these things fully, but you see, having lived through the time, and having lived through the time a a very much intermediate level in the hierarchy during this time Iím speaking of, as near the bottom as near the top almost, one got the impression of an organization which runs smoothly, almost under its own momentum, you know. Obviously decisions had to be taken from time to time on major issues. Obviously a fair number of people were acting over fairly long periods without reference to Rutherford or anyone higher up, were just allowed to get on with it. But whether they bad any authority, if that question is asked, itís difficult to remember. There wasnít any scheme of devolution which was written up on the board anywhere.

Weiner:

When things function smoothly and relatively harmoniously, thereís no consciousness of this other thing. [Telephone interruption] We were talking about the division of responsibility and you were saying it didnít stand out clearly in your mind that there was any organization chart that was really adhered to. Letís get back to your specific responsibilities when you came back in 1936. There were certain things that you took up and Iím not clear what they were -- lecturing, or research supervision?

Feather:

Well, both. I came back to the vacancy or, as I shall explain in a moment, vacancies created by the departure of Ellis to the chair at Kingís College, London. Ellis had, of course, lecturing duties in the Cavendish. He had a group of research students for whom he was responsible, and he had his fellowship at Trinity College. Well, of course Trinity was my college too. My return in 1936 was really brought about by the fact that this particular vacancy in Trinity College as staff fellow responsible for physics in the college, was there, and on any ordinary assumptions would not occur again for 10 or 15 years. So it was the college vacancy that really clinched the matter. Iíd only been away a year, and I had a great attraction to working with Chadwick and a personal affection for him, but there it was. That particular opportunity wouldnít recur for 10 or 15 years. So as always in such cases at that time (and it still persists to some extent) one has to marry a college post with a university post. It was done, and effectively I took over the post that Ellis had in relation to the Cavendish and the post that he had in relation to the college. So when I got back I gave some lectures, not necessarily, of course, in fact, Iím sure, the same as Ellis had given -- there just was now another body available for lecturing in the Cavendish. But I did take over the direction of the research students that were halfway through their course with him. One of them was Sam Devons of Columbia. He was the one whoís gone furthest from that group. Then of course I began to take on one or two new research students of my own.

Weiner:

And the teaching you did was in the basic courses. Do you remember which ones?

Feather:

Well, certainly, there would be the experimental nuclear physics courses for the third year. They werenít called that in those days but essentially thatís what they were. I forget what course I gave in earlier years, whether it was heat or electricity or properties of matter, I donít remember. Iíve given different ones at different times. Certainly the third year, radioactivity and nuclear physics.

Weiner:

This was for the college? Or at the Cavendish?

Feather:

No, no, all lectures are university organized. Oneís duties at the college relate to supervision in small groups.

Weiner:

When you say third year, you mean third year research students?

Feather:

No, I mean third year undergraduates. There were no lectures in those days, no regular courses for research students.

Weiner:

How large was the research group of Ellis that you took over?

Feather:

Oh, at that time I think no more than three research students.

Weiner:

So there you would check on their progress, see that their needs were taken care of, and if there was a particular problem and you had to go through channels, which you said were not clearly defined, you would go to Oliphant for apparatus or something?

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Then you added to the group. How was this decision to be made, who would be added to your group?

Feather:

You see, I went back in 1936 -- and the first additions were in October, 1937 -- that is to say, they would be agreed upon by Rutherford during the previous summer, and the regular process there was that we made the inquiry which of the final year students, under-graduate students, wished to continued for research, assuming they got a good degree and all that. One made that inquiry round about February or March, interviewed them, made a general estimate of potential. Then when the degree results were out in June, one made the decision for which of them support should be found. And then there arose the applications from abroad, people who had support from other sources who wished to come. Rutherford in that connection always had assembled the various heads of research groups, with Chadwick in the old days, with Oliphant in those days -- you know, just sorted out the list. Generally speaking, one handed them out to some extent according to the expressed wishes of the student himself as to what he would like to be doing, to some extent to keep the general balance of the laboratory correct, and so forth.

Weiner:

Itís a problem when it comes to general balance. You mean general balance within nuclear physics, or within -- ?

Feather:

Well, one forgets, I think, how relatively small the thing was even in those days, the total number of research students in the Cavendish -- I say research students meaning a precise class of students who would be candidates for a higher degree; it was only on the order of 30 at that time. And when you say balance, yes, I mean balance within nuclear physics. There was no attempt to maintain a balance over the broad pattern of physics generally.

Weiner:

But of course if the occasional student wanted to work with Ratcliffe, or something...

Feather:

-- oh yes, yes --

Weiner:

-- it was quite obvious heíd be encouraged --

Feather:

-- yes.

Weiner:

By the way, I have now completed although I have not analyzed the complete list of research students for each year, from every available source. I found several archival records in Mr. Deaconís office and I made a complete list of all the photographs. Then Iíve done an analysis on your recommendation. I found the source which gives the PhD abstracts each year from 1925 through 1940. It turns out that there were -- I have the statistics somewhere here, I can give it to you -- a surprisingly large number of PhDs, I think, a majority in nuclear physics or nuclear physics related subjects, and more than half were from the Dominions.

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

New Zealand, Canada, Australia, etc.

Feather:

Oh yes. That was always the situation.

Weiner:

And there were very few from non-Commonwealth countries, very few foreign students in that whole period, six or eight that worked out.

Feather:

That I think didnít represent any prejudice against these other sources of research students on Rutherfordís part. It was more the reflection of the fact that there were established student scholarships for these Dominion people, and the 1851 Exhibition Scholarships. They were available in all the Dominions, and anyone who got one of these and wanted to do nuclear physics in those days just came to Cambridge. There was no other option available, in fact.

Weiner:

Yes, I ought to check the records of the 1851ís.

Feather:

Rutherford had one himself. He had one of the very early ones.

Weiner:

Oliphant came on one.

Feather:

Yes. So did Massey. Letís break and have a cup of coffee, now, if that suits you. [Break]

Weiner:

We had just talked about your basic responsibilities in terms of teaching and soon taking over Ellisís research groups, to which were added other people later. In addition to that, you did research. But since your research had been interrupted by leaving for a year, what was the problem, if any, of getting into a new line, or to pick up an old one?

Feather:

Not really a serious problem, because the kind of research I did at that time didnít involve much by way of apparatus, you see. It involved use of Geiger counters and counting equipment which in those days was very primitive really, so it didnít involve much in the way of apparatus. And I had plenty of problems on hand, so that there was no real delay in getting back into work.

Weiner:

You picked up on the beta ray work.

Feather:

Yes. Both on Ellisís magnet, and also more particularly using counters and absorption methods. The first research student I took on of my own was Dunworth, whoís now director of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. He produced the electronics for coincidence counting techniques, and most of our work by absorption techniques was done in the coincidence way, between betas and gammas or between gammas and gammas. We got down to it fairly quickly.

Weiner:

Did you find that now that you were back with specific responsibilities, there was a problem in terms of allocating your time to research and to other responsibilities?

Feather:

Oh, I donít think more than there had been before, really. I donít think so. There always is that kind of problem.

Weiner:

Did you continually have experiments running?

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Dunworth at that time was your research student.

Feather:

Yes. Dunworth had taken his first degree in Cambridge, and came on directly to do research starting in October, Ď37. Well, he hadnít completely finished, although we had published a number of papers, when war broke out in Ď39.

Weiner:

Yes, you had that one paper on nuclear isomerism and a whole series. Now, this is interesting, in this case -- some of your papers are in the Cambridge Philosophical Society, some are in the PROCEEDINGS of the Royal Society. The one on nuclear isomerism with that as the title, ďNuclear IsomerismĒ, is in the PROCEEDINGS of the Royal Society, and yet the specific ones on production of positron - electron pairs, the other one on absorption for instance, experiments in radiation from sodium, those are Cambridge Philosophical Society. Getting back to what I asked earlier, how did you decide in that case?

Feather:

Well, my own estimate of the situation was that the paper on nuclear isomerism was ure substantical than the others. The others were, oh, either of bread-and-butter character, or perhaps too speculative to be sent to the Royal Society. The positron-electron pair one was really perhaps not entirely closed to criticism, in relation to conclusions. But it was again perhaps the first time that that particular arrangement of coincidence counting had been used in that connection, and we thought it was worthwhile putting out, although we werenít prepared to go completely to the block on the results. That is a case where if Rutherford had been alive, he might have said, ďLook here, donít bother to publish this at allĒ.

Weiner:

Of course, this was self-selection. You made the decision. But at the same time you were anticipating, if you had sent it to the Royal Society, that there might be some kind of a negative response.

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

On what basis? Any different than the basis you just described, or was it that in general they had a conservative attitude towards anything that was somewhat speculative?

Feather:

No, I wouldnít say that they did, but just as I say, it was aside from the main line. We were really concerned with developing coincidence techniques for study of nuclear disintegrations. And this was a sideline. ďLook here, we might use the same general kind of techniques in this question of positron-electron pairs; letís see if we canĒ. We werenít intending to pursue that line. We hadnít either the familiarity with the field or the manpower to pursue that line any further, but ďletís show that this thing can be doneĒ, you see. It was just a sideline.

Weiner:

More in the mainstream was the disintegration, for example the radioactive sodium?

Feather:

Yes. But again, even at that time there were very many cases of simple disintegration which would be investigated by this method. And although even then not many of them had been investigated by that method, well, you know, nothing very new except one additional small bit of information was coming out of that experiment. On the other hand, at the time in question, uranium-Z was one of about three or four known cases of nuclear isomerism, and indeed was the first case that had ever been identified as such. Anything new one could say about uranium-Z was something new.

Weiner:

How did you happen to team up with Bretscher on that --- because of his chemical approach?

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Then you did another paper on that, with --

Feather:

-- with Dunworth, yes.

Weiner:

Both of those were in Ď38. Itís hard for me to tell the time of year; was the work done in Ď37, then published in Ď38?

Feather:

Yes, I should imagine so.

Weiner:

Both of these are Royal Society, and that judgment was made by you on the basis of the importance of the work.

Feather:

Yes. Of course thatís perhaps implying before that, as a fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, I could submit those papers to them on my own initiative. Not at that time being a fellow of the Royal Society, I had to get a communicator for the others. Appleton in fact certainly communicated the one with Dunworth. I donít remember whether he communicated the one with Bretscher or not.

Weiner:

I donít think he did. This raises a question, the absence of Rutherford - who would be the principal internal critic and communicator -- with Rutherfordís death, who could one really turn to as the leader of the laboratory?

Feather:

I couldnít, in my field, turn to anybody really. Appleton would go through the formality of communicating it. You know, he wasnít unaware of the jargon of nuclear physics. He could read it with intelligence. He did in fact make some complimentary noises when heíd read that paper. In fact, I think he committed them onto paper himself with a little note saying heíd sent it off and he thought it was fine. But you know, one couldnít depend on him for any real critical judgment.

Weiner:

The critical judgment would come from the referees of the journals, or were there referees?

Feather:

Oh, yes, there were referees in those days.

Weiner:

Both on the Cambridge and on the Royal Society?

Feather:

Iím not absolutely certain in relation to the Cambridge Society.

Weiner:

On the Royal Society, would you have any way of knowing who the referees might be? With Rutherford gone, who would they be likely to send something to, in that field?

Feather:

Well, I certainly shouldnít have known at the time, but they might have sent it to Chadwick; I donít know. They might have sent it to others, I couldnít say that either. Or Oliphant, there were a fair number of people who had been Cavendish nuclear physicists around in those days.

Weiner:

But they were now scattered.

Feather:

They were scattered, yes.

Weiner:

This raises the question of Rutherfordís death, the impact of it. First, about the immediate personal impact -- apparently from all accounts this was not a long illness, it was very sudden. He had plans for things, and he wasnít making any basic changes in the laboratory, so it must have come as a severe shock in all senses, personal and professional.

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

What was the immediate impact, in terms of your feelings about the future of your own work and the work in the laboratory?

Feather:

Well, I donít know I ever thought that my own work would be likely to close down; at that time I had a fair number of ideas of things that could be done, and I think one had sufficient trust that the Cavendish could largely survive even such a traumatic experience as this. There was, of course, a lot of speculation as to the next occupant of the chair and so forth, and I suppose a number of us, out of emotional judgment rather than hardheaded judgment, would have thought at that time and did think at that time that nuclear physics was still so much a growing point that it would be desirable if possible to fill the Cavendish chair with another nuclear physicist. So it came as a shock to all of us, I think, all of us who were experimenters in the general field of nuclear physics, to find that the electors to the chair had not taken that view. Now, when one looks at the matter from the viewpoint 30-odd years on, one perhaps can see whey they decided that -- if they did decide formally before they really began thinking of names -- that perhaps one should not have a nuclear physicist this time; perhaps one should make it possible that the Cavendish could branch out in a new direction if an opportunity came. I mean, from this distance in time that verdict, either as I say fully conscious or merely as reflected in the appointment, could be justified. But it didnít appear to be justified to us at the time in question.

Weiner:

It must have been. Even with the tempering of the years you probably recall the feelings of disappointment.

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Had you any knowledge of how it was going to go until it was announced?

Feather:

No.

Weiner:

Had you any idea who was likely to be considered? Of the nuclear physicists?

Feather:

Well, yes, of course, the possibilities in relation to nuclear physics I suppose were very few indeed. You see, there were two chairs in those days, the Cavendish chair and the Jacksonian chair. Cockcroft had succeeded C.T.R. Wilson in the Jacksonian chair. -- am I right? No..

Weiner:

Didnít he go around Ď37, I think?

Feather:

But now, how did it come -- do you recall it precisely, when Appleton came on the scene?

Weiner:

I thought that was later. Iím sorry, it was only later that Cockcroft held the Jacksonian. It was Appleton first.

Feather:

Thatís right, Appleton first.

Weiner:

The chair was left vacant for a few years and a decision was taken to bring it into a different field, and the Appleton was --

Feather:

-- and then he went off to the DSIR and then Cockcroft had it. So I think at the time in question (1937), Appleton was Jacksonian professor.

Weiner:

Here it is, yes, the chair was vacant as of September 30, Ď34. A new plan was called for. Suggestions were that it should go to crystallography. At any rate, Appleton was appointed in Ď36.

Feather:

Yes. Then Appleton went off to DSIR, The Department of Scientific Industrial Research, in 1939 and Cockcroft was appointed. So Appleton was in the Jacksonian chair at the time. Well, Cockcroft could have been appointed to the Cavendish chair. Oliphant could have been brought back from Birmingham. Heíd only just gone. Chadwick hadnít been much longer in Liverpool, only two years. I think that was the field. I donít think it was any wider. Most of us thought that it would be Chadwick. Beyond that, of course, if one wanted to change the direction, the field was practically wide open.

Weiner:

You knew the board of electors?

Feather:

Oh, yes. The names of the electors to the chairs in those days were published annually in a list, all the chairs in the university.

Weiner:

The list I got from the university reporter, as of October Ď37 the board of electors to the Cavendish professorship included Fowler and this skill -- both of whom had been connected with the Cavendish as it was functioning -- Darwin, W.J. Pope --

Feather:

-- he was professor of chemistry.

Weiner:

W. Wilson.

Feather:

Yes, he was a mathematical physicist really, of Bedford College, London.

Weiner:

I see. F.E. Smith; I know an F.E. Smith who was with DSIR.

Feather:

Thatís right.

Weiner:

He was not with the university but he was on the board. O.W. Richardson.

Feather:

Yes. He was a Nobel Prize winner in physics.

Weiner:

Electron physics. And M. Taylor.

Feather:

M. It couldnít be G.I.? Only one initial?

Weiner:

No, I know G.I. My writing was pretty sloppy at that point, it looks as if Iíd written Mr. Taylor.

Feather:

That doesnít really make any sense to me.

Weiner:

No, itís not G.I., I would have written that properly. Well, Iíll have to check it out. Now, given the composition of this board, that still wouldnít dampen your feeling and speculation that it should be nuclear physics and, if so, one of those you mentioned. [It must have been G.I. Taylor. - NF. 1978]

Feather:

Well, you know, I suppose we werenít as worldy wise as we might have been. It was a time of considerable emotional upheaval. No, again, looked at in cold blood, one would have no very strong conviction, or shall I say, no great trust that that board as constituted would do the thing that we were hoping they would.

Weiner:

I wonder, Oliphant mentioned in his talk -- and I donít know whether this is something he got from Chadwick or independently -- the criticism that Rutherford had received over the years regarding the focus of the laboratory. It apparently came from some people on the council of DSIR.

Feather:

Yes, and Smith would be one of them.

Weiner:

That the appointment itself, the new appointment, would reflect DSIRís views, perhaps shared by Smith, that the laboratory should be more diversified and perhaps thak things which are more of a practical application.

Feather:

Yes, could be. Could be.

Weiner:

We donít know. Is Smith, by the way?

Feather:

Oh, no.

Weiner:

Because this would be interesting. When the announcement came, it must have been as much of a shock as the announcement of Rutherfordís death.

Feather:

Well, yes.

Weiner:

Iím not referring to the emotional level, but --

Feather:

Yes. I think so. Perhaps, you know, we behaved a bit like school boys, some of us. There were a few things written on blackboards and rubbed off the next day and that kind of thing. remember myself saying how sad it was that the Cavendish had lost two professors within a period of six months - Rutherford and the nuclear physicist who was not appointed to succeed him. And then, letís talk about -- of course, it was after that -- how long was it before the new director assumed his responsibilities?

Feather:

I couldnít be sure about that. Not very long, certainly. I forget when the announcement was made. I suppose certainly in the spring of Ď38, and he was fully installed by October, but how much earlier I donít know.

Weiner:

In what way did this affect the work in nuclear physics, in terms of people, resources, focus of attention?

Feather:

Really at that stage not at all, you see. After all, it was only a year and war was on us, and in that year, not at all. Except of course that Oliphant was away, and so the group which he had been looking after died a natural death, more or less. For the rest, no. You see, the cyclotron had come into operation, so that was a new group. There were two high-voltage sets operating, as against one in Rutherfordís time. So that nuclear physics could stand -- Iím not suggesting that this was imposed on it -- but could have stood a contraction of new money for a few years at that stage, without any trouble. It never got to that point. The war came.

Weiner:

Well, there were no great resources being fed in beforehand as a matter of fact -- more resources than you ever had.

Feather:

Yes. And of course, you see, three or four months after Bragg took over, fission was discovered. So here was a new interest.

Weiner:

Iíd like to talk about fission and your work in a minute. First, about the new leadership. Were there any organizational changes? Iíve talked before about nuclear physics. I mean now about the overall laboratories, teaching, research groups. Was there any change that was introduced by Bragg in that prewar period?

Feather:

Well, you see, we were so busy with our own jobs that anything which happened, and Iím sure things did happen, really rather passed us by. For example, I canít be certain when Orowan arrived in the Cavendish, whether that was before Bragg was appointed or as a result of the appointment. But in the field of pure solid state physics, I would imagine he was the only person of international reputation who came about the time that Bragg was appointed, except Bradley. I think Bradley actually came with Bragg. He didnít stay around very long. I donít remember him very well as a person. I forget how it was that he disappeared from the scene; I think he left fairly early, Iím not sure.

Weiner:

Ewald was in briefly but I think it was --

Feather:

-- hardly in the Cavendish, was he? He obviously spent some time -- if he had a departmental affiliation --

Weiner:

No, I think he was a guest for a while.

Feather:

I should have thought it was more likely with crystallography than with physics, but after all, he was the kind of person that Bragg would obviously make common ground with. In that prewar period Iíll accept Ewald, but the other two names which might have stood out were certainly Orowan, who certainly hadnít been with Bragg before but he was also someone out of the Cavendish tradition and of international reputation, and Bradley who probably did come with Bragg.

Weiner:

You were talking about the focus of the laboratory on nuclear physics and the fact that there were still growing points in the field. Iím talking of the one that did occur. Yet when we talked about 1932, last time, you said that once these developments of 1932 occurred, that the role of the Cavendish in the entire field of nuclear physics began to change somewhat, and you said that the other institutions which had been concentrating on perfecting accelerators and so forth now were catching up and were moving, so that the distribution in the field had already changed. The preeminence of the Cavendish, not in terms of quality of the work but in terms of its unique role --

Feather:

-- was gone forever.

Weiner:

Changes in the Cavendish world role didnít occur solely because of --

Feather:

-- oh no.

Weiner:

They had already begun to occur in Ď32. The evidence was that the field was changing, former Cavendish people were occupying chairs elsewhere -- and by Ď38, the time of Bragg taking over, building cyclotrons in Liverpool, and all those things were going on all over the world. Thatís true, but then the fact that the demise of nuclear physics at the Cavendish was institutionally affirmed by the appointment of a non-nuclear physicist as director, and that had an additional

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Now, how did fission change this situation? Iím not saying change it in any way. Let me rephrase that. Letís talk about how you heard about fission, how the news came, what the reaction was in terms of your own work.

Feather:

Well, you see, it was obvious I think to anyone who was in the field, it had been obvious for a couple of years before -- well, at least 18 months before January, 1939, that there was something very odd happening in these interactions of neutrons with the heavy elements. Iím not sure to what extent youíre familiar with the publications from Berlin and Paris in that time, and of course from Fermi in Rome, and it was quite clear that one could now produce trans-uranic elements, or begin to produce trans-uranic elements, so people were bombarding uranium and thorium with neutrons and they were collecting radioactive species, they were separating radioactive species in great abundance. That was beginning to be known in Ď37 - Ď38. The way they interpreted these was entirely as trans-uranic elements, but that interpretation was -- suspect is too strong a word, but it didnít fit into oneís general picture of things. Because it implied that any given trans-uranic species existed in a number of isomeric forms. This connected with my current interest at that time in nuclear isomerism. This phenomenon which until then appeared to be represented by about three or four species only, so far discovered, it appeared almost as if there were another 15 or 20 such species disclosed at one go. But it was not a comfortable situation; one could tolerate dual isomerism, two types, but this was beginning to require three or four types for each species, and that wasnít comfortable at all. So before fission, before the whole thing fell into place by the realization that what was happening was fission, I was already planning experiments. Hopefully of a physical character rather than a chemical character, to see whether these new species were indeed trans-uranic. That is to say, to try to identify their characteristic x-radiations, which would place them in relation to atomic number. It was not going to be easy to do in the only way that we could do it, by absorption methods. It was not going to be easy because one couldnít use the K-radiations which, if they were trans-uranic, would be more energetic than those of the absorbents that we had to deal with to study them with; therefore we couldnít study them. One had to use the L-radiations which were less energetic and more complex, and so it was going to be difficult anyhow. But we were getting up, producing these sets of, as we called them, selective absorbers of medium-weight elements -- using the K-absorption of the absorbers -- in order to pick out the L-radiations of the assumed trans-uranics. We werenít quite ready to go with that when the real explanation was announced. Of course very shortly afterwards, Bretscher and I had a short note in NATURE in which we applied just this method which we were intending to use to pick out the L-radiations of the trans-uranics, to pick out the K-radiation, much easier, of the mid-weight elements which are produced in fission. Se we identified iodine and hellurium amongst the fission products by this method, which we were intending to use. If we had been adventurous, you see, we should have done the experiment at a much earlier stage, perhaps a year, well, six months earlier, and then found that the radiations there were not the L-radiations of the trans-uranic but the K-radiations of the midweight elements. Abelson in the States and McMillan were planning to do just the same thing. In fact I think they did what Bretseher and I did about the same time or maybe a month earlier.

Weiner:

When did you do it? The paper was called ďAtomic Numbers of the So-Called Trans-Uranic ElementsĒ.

Feather:

Thatís right.

Weiner:

NATURE, 1939, but my information at the moment doesnít give you the date of submission. Do you recall when the experiment was done?

Feather:

Not without reference back, but I should say it would be some time in April or Nay.

Weiner:

When and how did you hear about fission?

Feather:

I think I was the Hahn-Strassmann paper in NATURWISSENSCHAFT before I saw the Frisch-Meitner letters in NATURE. I think I did.

Weiner:

So this would have been January, Ď39. At that time Oliphant was in the US from about mid-December to sometime in January, and he doesnít recall hearing about it. So apparently there was no private information that you had -- nothing till January when it hit everyone.

Feather:

No. No private information.

Weiner:

And you read it not in the newspapers but in the journal, the paper of Hahn-Strassman?

Feather:

Yes, if Iím right in saying I read the Hahn-Strassman before I read the Frisch-Meitner, then I certainly read it in the journal and not in the newspapers.

Weiner:

What was the reaction in the Cavendish?

Feather:

Well, I think a slight disappointment to find that weíd missed out -- but great excitement.

Weiner:

Did it then immediately come to you to complete planned experiments?

Feather:

Oh yes.

Weiner:

Was that the first thing you decided to do?

Feather:

Have you got the sequence of appearance dates of that and the other paper?

Weiner:

Iíve got the page numbers. Here we are. Feather and Bretscher, NATURE, Volume 143, page 516, and then your paper on page 597.

Feather:

Yes. I would have said that was the order of the experiments. Yes, that was the first thing we did.

Weiner:

Then in the same volume page 1,027 is your own paper on fission of heavy nuclei.

Feather:

Yes, that was a review paper, invited by the editor of NATURE.

Weiner:

I see. That would have been later in the year substantially?

Feather:

I donít think much later. I think it was probably written the end of May. The submission date would not be recorded in NATURE I think because that was a review article invited by them. It wasnít a letter. But Iím not surprised if it was in print by the end of May.

Weiner:

During that time there were visitors to the laboratory. Do you remember Gentnerís visit? He was there -- the correspondence with Cockcroft indicates that he had wanted to come in April. Do you recall?

Feather:

I donít recall.

Weiner:

I was curious about his attitude on the cyclotron and so forth. By that time the cyclotron was working?

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

And what kinds of experiments had been done with the cyclotron?

Feather:

Incidentally, may I just say in parenthesis that the experiment on the time involved [in fission], the second of those, was not done on the cyclotron. That was done on the 1 MeV Phillips set. I myself was not responsible for any fission experiment on the cyclotron just at that stage. There was an Indian there, R.S. Krishnan, for whose research I had overall responsibility. He was a nephew or perhaps not quite so closely related to C.V. Raman, and heís now head of the Raman Institute in Bangalore. He was a very energetic young man, very quick worker, the kind of person who did an experiment one day and wanted to publish the results the next, and did indeed publish a large series of small papers. A case where if Rutherford had been in charge perhaps heíd have been restrained a little in that respect. I mean, at that time I must confess that I got the impression that outside opinion was that this young man is publishing much too quickly and perhaps we donít take much notice of what he says. He was doing experiments on the cyclotron, and I donít just know when to place it but it couldnít have been much later than that. He and Gant, (was it Gant, who was killed in a mountaineering accident shortly afterwards) found that fission could occur with deutrons.

Weiner:

In 1941 there was something the two of them published in the PROCEEDINGS of the Royal Society. I have part of it.

Feather:

Yes. But most of the work on the cyclotron then was just in straightforward nuclear reactions involving deuterons, in both light and heavy elements.

Weiner:

And the principal people using it for those experimental purposes would be?

Feather:

Iím just trying to think who would be in day-to-day charge of that when war broke out.

Weiner:

Was Hurst still working?

Feather:

No. And in any case I donít think he ever was taking any directive responsibility of it. And I donít think W.B. Lewis was either, although he must have been around until shortly before the outbreak of the war.

Weiner:

Perhaps Dee would know.

Feather:

Dee would know better than I, yes.

Weiner:

Then I can reconstruct from publications.

Feather:

Cockcroft of course was nominally in charge, certainly.

Weiner:

It just occurred to me than in the absence of Rutherford as the leader of the lab and also as the senior man in nuclear physics, was it natural, after Oliphant left, to turn to Cockcroft on some of the nuclear questions?

Feather:

Yes. Insofar as it related to me purely personally, for example, it was Cockcroft who put my name forward for the Royal Society, at that stage.

Weiner:

He was the senior man in the beneficial personal sense. Feahter: Yes.

Weiner:

The one to whom you would turn with a problem.

Feather:

Yes. With a problem of supply or organization, yes. I donít think I ever consulted Cockcroft very much in relation to specific research, no.

Weiner:

In that case, who? Or didnít you?

Feather:

I didnít. I had to take my own responsibility.

Weiner:

Do you recall other visitors? I know while weíre talking about people in the lab, I know Meitner was there for a visit and at the same time Hahn was there.

Feather:

In Ď39.

Weiner:

Yes. And I know nothing more about it. I know her visit was planned with the idea in mind that perhaps she would stay. It didnít work out.

Feather:

No.

Weiner:

It was apparently a misunderstanding. Also by that time the war preparations had started and it wasnít clear.

Feather:

Yes. I remember that vaguely, and I canít remember anything very specific about Hahnís visit. I think it can only have been a very brief one. But I will say that Bretscher, who was generally responsible for the chemistry in relation to radioactive processes, had working with him over that period, Iím talking now about mid-1938 onward I would guess. Leslie G. Cook, a Canadian who had been with Hahn and had left Hahnís lab before fission was recognized and had come to us -- of course he was a very good radiochemist -- he was able to give us the background on Hahnís work up to the time that he left. There is in the early part of 1939 a paper by Bretscher and Cook, if you look up the records. I forget just what the title was.

Weiner:

When did Frisch arrive, do you recall? He was certainly there. It couldnít have been the early part, he was still in Copenhagen, but I have a feeling it was in 1939 that he came.

Feather:

I couldnít place it exactly. And he would have no official status in the Cavendish at that time.

Weiner:

He soon went to Birmingham, didnít he?

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Now about the war, the effect of war preparedness -- when do you recall the first introduction of these questions? Where in discussions it was indicated that there might be a need for you as an individual and for the laboratory as an institution involved?

Feather:

Well, of course, the first send-official pronouncements actually in that direction were not taken in relation to nuclear physics or fission, but in relation to radar. There had of course during the summer been bust the odd speculation that fission was of vast international significance. Fowler had had one or two groups talking about this. There had been a rather odd message from Meitner which wasnít in plain English and one didnít really know what to make of it. And there had been attempts at calculations about multiplication and so forth and various hypotheses. There was a South African whose name was Crooks, I think, a research student in theoretical physics who did some of these. I donít think it was ever published, but he got a fair way on with it. We talked about his calculations, Iím not sure whether before war broke out or soon afterwards. I wouldnít be sure on that one.

Weiner:

Was he a research student?

Feather:

He was a research student or research fellow. My memory could play me false with the name there but Iím sure it begins with C and Crooks sounds as good as any, but Peierls would tell you all about that. But to come back to the other thing. Round about June or July we were told that it was very likely that all the research personnel of the Cavendish, other than those who for serious reasons might wish to opt out, would be split up into groups of eight. And sent off to the radar stations on the coast which were semi-operational, to learn how to run them, to produce new ideas for improving them, that kind of thing, generally to work themselves into the system. I suppose amongst the members of the teaching staff of the Cavendish I had least knowledge myself of electronics as a branch of physics, I was almost ignorant of it, but I took charge of one of these groups of eight. Starting I suppose Just about the beginning of August, we moved to the north Norfolk coast, and took over two houses which in the ordinary way of commerce would be houses rented to families holidaying on the coast, two neighboring houses. My wife and small children and our maid and our nanny, we were lucky enough to have both of them in those days, moved in there. And we provided meals and so forth for these eight people who were distributed between the two houses, for a period of six weeks, I think it was, before the exercise was discontinued. And during that six weeks period war was declared. Iím placing going to the coast about the 1st of August. War was declared on the 3rd of September. And thereafter of course, to have odd bods like this all around these stations was not regarded as appropriate. So, the teams were brought back. Most of the people were given the possibility of going off to places like, T.R.E., Telecommunications Research Establishment, and in fact many of my colleagues on the teaching staff went, too. So when the term opened in October, and I -- who certainly hadnít picked up any serious amount of technical knowledge during the six weeks that I was there -- I went back to Cambridge. As I say, most of my teaching colleagues in my own age group went off to the research establishments and were never seen again in Cambridge for the rest of the war. So it really did fall to me, along with one or two people more senior in age, to get down and organize teaching on a wartime pattern in Cambridge for the rest of the war. It wouldnít have been possible but for the fact that before very long, two London colleges were evacuated to Cambridge; Bedford College, the womenís college, and Queen Mary College, and also one of the teaching hospitals; that didnít influence the situation very much. And the corresponding non-combatant members of their staffs were brought in too, and with this motley team we managed to keep the teaching going at the Cavendish, not only for the Cambridge students in physics but also for the students of these two colleges in physics. It was against this background of a scratch team of lecturers, and my overall responsibility to Bragg for organizing the teaching program on that basis, that such work as I was able to continue to do in fission research went on in Cambridge during the initial period of the war.

Weiner:

Are you referring to the DSIR project or just the normal basic physics?

Feather:

Oh, just the normal basic physics. For the first nine months of war, I suppose such research as we did was just a continuation of what we were doing. Krishnan for example was still there, as an Indian.

Weiner:

Bretscher was there?

Feather:

Bretscher was there and I think Cook was there for a little while too. But very soon of course, on an entirely unofficial basis, Chadwick was becoming concerned that [fission) was a problem on a national scale. So even before anything was set up officially, there were contacts between Cambridge and Liverpool, between Liverpool and Birmingham and so forth, and a little sense of direction was given to this. It was not of course for some time after that that the thing became organized, nationally, with committees in London and so forth. I took on the job of being at least administratively responsible for the group in Cambridge -- which was now increased a little by students drawn in as one could from outside -- to have a Cambridge group doing fission research and reporting to the Directorate.

Weiner:

When was that? Was that already late Ď41?

Feather:

Oh, it was before that. Because it was in December, 1940, that Bretscher and I put in a minority report, or shall we say were allowed to put in an appendix, to a feasibility document for the Directorate. We said that we believed that if uranium-235 had the characteristics which were suitable for this job of a bomb, if 235 uranium had it, then we believed 239 plutonium would have it. Although no one had any at that time. And that probably technically the chemical process of separating plutonium 239 from a reactor might be less difficult than separating isotope-wise 235 uranium, in the isotope separation plant. That was in December Ď40.

Weiner:

So the work was well advanced and you were obviously well informed about what had gone on.

Feather:

In an unofficial way, yes. There was in Britain probably -- and I hope with full discretion -- a fair amount of interchange of ideas and information in an unofficial way, which any reliance on a tight security code would have made impossible.

Weiner:

There was not compartmentalization because they had not even been organized.

Feather:

Oh no.

Weiner:

Well, getting to the teaching duties for a minute, these were normal teaching functions that were just continued under wartime circumstances?

Feather:

Oh yes.

Weiner:

Were there any special teaching responsibilities in training people for some kind of military role or some kind of defense position, which would involve -- well, anything from navigation to basic electronics or basic physics?

Feather:

There were some courses in electronics for that purpose. There was one run in Cambridge, and one that brought together lecturers from outside, as well as such people who were remaining in Cambridge. There were very few remaining in Cambridge who had any knowledge of this aspect of the matter, because as I said they were all away.

Weiner:

What about students? Was the student body reduced substantially?

Feather:

No. Except the student intake was not very different, as I remember it, but of course the recruitment boards and so forth in most cases required that a student should not take more than two years, and the university modified its rules so that by concessions and compression of courses, people could qualify for honors degrees in two years, which was otherwise unheard-of. So there were the brighter students who in a period of two years went away with the full qualification on which they would normally have attained. They did their undergraduate work, compressed, reached the stage hopefully that they would have reached in peacetime, and after that were drafted into the war effort somewhere. There were those who entered university and perhaps after a year the recruitment board, Iím not sure thatís the correct title, said, ďWell, you must be off into the forces at this stageĒ. There was a great deal of committee work in that respect, and with Thirkill whom you mentioned as a member of the committee for the appointment of the Cavendish chair, I sat quite a lot on a small reviewing body in relation to physicists, which made these decisions in relation to individual students.

Weiner:

I see, on the basis of deferment either to complete a certain stage of the work or to be of assistance in war projects.

Feather:

Yes.

Weiner:

Well, how long did this continue at the Cavendish?

Feather:

Oh, I think right throughout the war. There was a steady stream of regular students, with very few of them taking more than two years of an undergraduate course.

Weiner:

What about your own responsibilities? How did they change through the war period?

Feather:

Well, until the strain was a little too much, I ran those two responsibilities, until the summer of Ď44, I think. That is, I was administratively in charge of organizing of teaching, and I was administratively in charge of the group reporting to the directorate about doing experiments in relation to fission work. Also, there was the Halban group from France that had arrived in Cambridge by that time, although Halban and Kowarski worked that group on their own authority in relation to its research. Insofar as they had to have liaison with the university and so forth, that came through me too. But I think Iím right in saying, from October Ď44, it might have been a little earlier, I was relieved by the university of all my university responsibilities for a period of a year, and during that time was able to concentrate on doing the war work.

Weiner:

By that time the Halban - Kowarski group had moved to Montreal. First Halban, then Kowarski.

Feather:

Yes. It may have been the year Ď43-í44, Iím not sure. Certainly whichever it was, I did spend the period from July to September, a period of about 10 weeks, in Montreal, in Ď44, partly as a change of scene and a bit of a rest, and you know partly to maintain contact with the people who were already out there.

Weiner:

It must have been a rather difficult situation, living in Cambridge and the London area during that whole period. With the bombings.

Feather:

Well, yes. Cambridge got a little, not a great deal. I mean, there were a couple of houses completely destroyed on the road where we lived one night. We got many alerts, but not a great deal of bombing.

Weiner:

Was there any damage to the university?

Feather:

Nothing of significance, I think. One student, one young researcher who was working in our group on the cyclotron at that time, was completely blown up one night-- no trace-- the bomb fell flat on top of his residence.

Weiner:

Did the cyclotron keep operating throughout the war period? And if so what was its function?

Feather:

Yes, I think it kept operating most of the time, as did the high-voltage set. Our major task, which we never really completed with the precision which was hoped, was to make measurements on cross-sections for the fission reactions.

Weiner:

Strictly war work then.

Feather:

Oh yes.

Weiner:

Is it fair to say then that the cyclotron was used exclusively for war work?

Feather:

No. Not throughout the war. I should think that until say the end of Ď42, it was very little used for war work, but after that yes. As for the high-voltage set, I think probably anything that happened on that after the end of 1940 was directly war work.

Weiner:

Another question, which is not quite fully related, on the use of the cyclotron for making radioactive isotopes; in many other places that was one of the justifications for the funding of cyclotrons. In Cambridge I found no evidence yet to show that that was the case, but I was curious whether you know anything on that line and whether in fact it was used for making of isotopes for tracers and for biological and medical uses?

Feather:

No. I donít think it was, not in those days.

Weiner:

There was a London medical cyclotron planned.

Feather:

Was it planned, you say? Was Rotblat involved in it?

Weiner:

It was planned. I could talk with him. I didnít realize that he was the one, because thereís a letter from Lawrence anyway.

Feather:

I think Rotblat was involved in it. Iím not sure.

Weiner:

I see. I want to know more about that. Because of the limited time, Iíd like to get to the question of the latter part of the war, and the possibility that you may have begun to think already, when things looked a little brighter, about the postwar role of the Cavendish, about the postwar development of nuclear physics, and about your own career as well.

Feather:

Well, I think I was -- youíll understand that I was too busy to think in that way for the duration of the war or almost the duration of the war. I was relieved from the necessity of thinking in that way from about February, 1945, when we were still of course at war, because it was then that I was invited up here with a view to asking me to accept this chair, you see. So I did accept the chair in Edinburgh, I should say in March, 1945, and moved here for the beginning of the session in October, Ď45, you see. So my natural loyalty to the Cavendish might have remained, my immediate problem was to think of Edinburgh.

Weiner:

What did you have in mind and what had they led you to expect, in terms of what you might be able to do here?

Feather:

I knew I should be able to do very little here to begin with. At that time the previous professor, Barkla, had died, in October Ď44, and in any case his own research had petered out a good deal before that.

Weiner:

Was he still working on that J?

Feather:

J-phenomenon, yes, such as he was doing, yes, something in that line. At the time in question, Born was here in the chair of mathematical physics. His senior member of staff was FŁrth, who eventually went to Birkbeck and is still alive, a theorist who had quite an interest in experimental work. And the only young person doing research was a very junior member of the teaching staff of this department who at that time was being directed by FŁrth from the mathematical physics department and doing a bit of research in an odd room in the building. That was the only experimental research going on at all, you see. The size of the departmental grant -- of course one could always hopefully get outside support for research -- the size of the annual departmental grant at that time was 408 pounds a year. The corresponding grant is now something like 18,000 and that of course is not enough. We still have to depend largely on external funding. So I knew that there was no immediate chance. I arranged to take with me to Edinburgh the electromagnet which the Royal Society had provided for Ellis for his beta ray work, you see, and I had things that I hoped to do with that. And eventually this same young man Pringle whom I mentioned, the only person doing any research, collaborated with me and with another member of the staff on that beta ray magnet, and we did a small amount of work with it before that was packed in. Pringle incidentally went off to Manitoba after a few years, and then went into industry and started up his own firm. Now heís the director of Nuclear Enterprises, that firm that makes all the electronics equipment. Itís set up in Edinburgh. So I knew there was no immediate prospect. There was of course at that time becoming available a large amount of disposal equipment, which of course wasnít tailored for university research laboratories.

Weiner:

You mean radar equipment?

Feather:

Radar equipment, electronics and so forth in bits and pieces, magnets, this, that, the other -- surprising what it was intended for in the wartime. But the university was generally quite helpful. They got me a benefaction from an industrialist for 3000 a year for seven years, which helped. We used some of this for this disposals equipment and lathes and things for the workshop, which was on a man/boy basis almost at the time that I came. We were able to buy a Philips set, (a Cockcroft-Walton set) you know, and after a year or two we got going.

Weiner:

Itís clear -- youíre buying a Phillips set and youíre bringing the magnet with you -- itís nuclear research that youíre doing.

Feather:

Yes. And for a while it was just nuclear research. Things have greatly changed since then, and nuclear physics is only one of several lines, and not the most productive line that we have in the department at the moment. In those days my chair was the only chair attached to the department. Now weíre just in fact going through the applications in response to an advertisement for the sixth chair in the department. So things have moved since then.

Weiner:

And the building?

Feather:

And the building, yes.

Weiner:

Had you thought of a cyclotron in that period?

Feather:

No.

Weiner:

Why not?

Feather:

Well, I think for the reason that I hadnít a large staff. I hadnít immediately the expectation of a large number of research students, and it seemed to me that to have one machine, namely a straightforward accelerator, was as much as we could cope with. After all, I myself personally havenít any great flair for design or overseeing the installation of machines and so forth. By aptitude Iím a person who works on a small scale.

Weiner:

Were you able to get the Phillips set and the Cockcroft- Walton?

Feather:

Sorry, itís one and the same. Phillips really put on the market the Cockcroft-Walton set.

Weiner:

That answers my question, whether it was an off-the-shelf kind of thing.

Feather:

Well, it was pretty much off-the-shelf, although they were made one by one. It was pretty well a replica of the smaller of the two that were at the Cavendish at that time, which were made by Phillips.

Weiner:

So that wouldnít involve anything other than the expenditure and the decisions wouldnít involve a major commitment of internal personnel to assemble and design?

Feather:

No. They sent over the engineers who installed it and I just sent one or two people from the department to Cambridge to see how they were run, and that kind of thing.

Weiner:

Was this decision that you took based on your assessment of the situation here, did this differ in a major way from general trends, in terms of large-scale activities? I know that in cases where there were accelerators and there was a desire for bigger ones --

Feather:

-- I think it did, yes, and it may be that I could be justifiably criticized on the basis of lack of ambition or lack of adventurousness in this. But it was a firm decision that this kind of physics suited me better than trying to commit a department which was struggling to emerge with any bigger machine.

Weiner:

Iím commenting on it because it seems very much of an individual position which wasnít based on some assessment of what others were doing, but what you felt was necessary. Well, as far as the specific things I said I wanted to cover we have. There are others weíll think of later. And also the time is going.

Feather:

The time is going, yes. You have your ticket? I think we should begin packing up.

Weiner:

Thanks very much, once again.

Session I | Session II