Oral History Transcript — Dr. Janet Guernsey
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Janet Guernsey; June 29, 1977
ABSTRACT: Early life and family background in Pittsburgh; elementary and secondary education in Germantown Friends School. Decision to attend Wellesley as physics major. Discussion of college (1931-1935), subsequent marriage. Return to Wellesley as instructor (1942-1945). After WWII stayed on at Wellesley while attending graduate program at Harvard (1945-1948). Work toward PhD at MIT (1948-1955). Role of home life, husband, her five children. Evaluation of Wellesley, personal research. History of AAPT, role as officer and president (1973-1977). Reflections on physics teaching and women in physics.
Sopka:Professor Guernsey, I’d like to begin by asking you to tell me something about your family background and your early childhood.
Guernsey:Well, First I should tell you about my father who was quite a remarkable man. He was born in 1868 in Brooklyn, and later, when his mother was having her fifth child, they moved to Philadelphia. His father had by then disappeared into limbo, and my grandmother brought up her family, alone.
Sopka:What was his name, since Guernsey is your married name?
Guernsey:Clarence M. Brown. He sold newspapers on the street from the time he was 6 or 7 years old. He left school when he was 12 years old, went to work as an office boy, and later he had various occupations. He was a conveyancer for a while. Then he went to work for John Pitcairn, who was the founder of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. He went to night school to complete his high school training, and then went to University of Pennsylvania Law School. He continued to work for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., and eventually in later years became chairman of the board of the company. He was a very successful man, in part I think because of his mother, who was a strong character, who would accept charity from no one.
Sopka:How did she manage to support them?
Guernsey:The boys worked. All of them. She had five children. --- three boys and two girls. The two older boys since they were 10 or 11 years old, and sold newspapers, were office boys and did odd jobs. My father was financially successful from very early years, so that she managed to get along. He was the one who really took care of her in her old age. She lived to be 86. -- I suppose I should tell you more about Father, because I really think that I got most of my impetus for doing things from him. He was a real doer. He did everything. And as I say, he was a very successful businessman. He never did practice law, but his law background was something that stood him in good stead over the years. He was interested in everything, in art, in science -- although he was non-scientific, in people, and places. Even in his later years, he never lost his perspective and his interest in people everywhere, from the cop on the corner to the chairman of the board of a corporation. He always got along very well with people, and was a strong supporter of the church. When I was a small child, I remember his coming in with a box of samples of the materials that went into the making of plate glass, I must have been in the first or second grade, when I had a little piece I spoke about making plate glass, and showed all these samples. That was really fun. I was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and I was the fifth child in the family, the fifth and last. I had had a brother who died before I was born, so I had two living brothers and one sister, all older than I. We all did pretty well in school. My brothers went to Hotchkiss, and my sister and I went to Germantown Friends School, which was probably one of the best schools in the city.
Sopka:Was that for your entire schooling?
Guernsey:Yes. I went from kindergarten straight through high school at Germantown Friends, as many many young people in those days did. This was a good private day school, in Germantown. In fact, we had our 45th reunion last year, and it was lots of fun, because we all felt we still knew each other very well. You really did get to know your fellow students. We had a class of maybe 45 boys and girls, with a real feeling of common purpose.
Sopka:And it was coeducational?
Guernsey:Yes. About as many boys as girls. They separated boys from girls for grades 7 through 10, the other grades had all mixed classes. I just did the usual schooling. But in fact, I think this is where I developed my interest in physics, because we had a teacher whose name was Bennett. We always called him Pop. Pop Bennett was pretty well a self-taught man. He had a bachelor’s degree from somewhere, but he taught physics and chemistry, advanced math -- that is, analytical geometry, calculus, the kind of thing that was a first year college course in those days, most places. And I guess it was Pop who really got me interested in physics.
Sopka:You had a physics course in high school?
Guernsey:Yes. I had physics and chemistry. In my senior year, most people took a sort of review algebra course, to pass the college boards. Well, I’d passed the college boards. In fact, I’d gotten 100 on the algebra college board when I was a sophomore in high school. So I didn’t see any point taking that. Now, by then I thought, Pop was just marvelous, and so I wanted to take his introduction to calculus course. Well, no girl had ever taken that before. And the headmaster of the school, Master Stanley -- we used to call him “Yahweh” -- he said I couldn’t do it. Mother went down with fire in her eye and said, “What do you mean, she can’t take that course?” He said, “Well, she’s just doing it because she wants to be in a classroom with the boys.” My mother said, “Look -- if my daughter says she wants to take that course, she wants to take that course, and you’d better let her do it.” So sure enough, he did. And in fact I enjoyed it very much. But I really would say it was Pop who got me interested in physics. Before that I’d been more or less a language person. I did well in the languages and I really liked them. We had French from the 5th grade on and Latin from the 7th grade on and I thought they were great. I really liked them. But I do remember, when I guess I was in 8th grade science -- this story might be amusing to somebody. I’d been sick. I was always sick as a kid. I grew out of it. And I was going to Atlantic City to recover. I had all these nasty little lesson slips that said, “You do this and that” -- so I was reading my science textbook, and I thought science was awful, yecch. Included in the assignment were a couple of pages about the telephone and how it worked. I read them and I didn’t understand them at all and I thought it was just hopeless. I was on a train all by myself, and I thought, “I’m going to understand this before I get to Atlantic City, if it kills me.” So I started, word by word, sentence by sentence, looking at the diagrams. And just about as we were pulling into the station in Atlantic City, the light dawned, and I really saw how it worked. I thought it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. It was so clever. After that, I had no trouble with science. It was a real St. Paul type experience.
Sopka:-- riding on a train –
Guernsey:Yes. And after that, science was my bag, forever.
Sopka:I’d like to go back for a moment. You mentioned your mother for the first time in connection with Master Stanley, and I wondered if you might want to put in a word or two about her background and your home influences.
Guernsey:Yes. She came from a modest family in Philadelphia. They were of English extraction. She was a beautiful woman. I think my father fell in love with her because she was always so clean and neat and well dressed and nice. She really was a lovely person. I mentioned my father not because of any lack of feeling for my mother, but simply because I do think it was father who always encouraged me to go on in academic pursuits.
Sopka:Had your mother education gone to higher levels?
Guernsey:She had gone to what they then called a normal school, which was really a kind of junior teachers’ college, I think.
Sopka:Yes, at that period they were very common.
Guernsey:I think it was, because that would have been just about the turn of the century. She was married in 1902. The whole romance was out of a turn of the century novel. She called him “Mr. Brown” until after they were married.
Sopka:Had she taught?
She tried teaching. I think she did some fill-in teaching. I know she had a few stories about what an awful time she had. But she really never did anything with it. She was more or less at home. When they were married, you see, my father would have been in his thirties. He was 5½ years older than she, so he was an older man to her as a young girl. She’d been brought up in the kind of social milieu where you did everything right. I learned from her how to handle myself at a dinner party and how to give a dinner party and how to dress and how to behave in company, and there were all sorts of rules and regulations which we followed, which included tea in the afternoon in the living room. Only I got cambric tea, which was hot water with milk and sugar in it. It was awful. I used to go out in the kitchen and see our English maid, who’d been my nurse. She always let me drink really strong tea out of her saucer. She was great. By the time I was born, Father was getting along quite well. We had a nice big house, two or three servants, and a man who worked outdoors--. We lived quite nicely. There never was any real pinch for money by the time I was born.
My father, on the other hand, was very modest in his own personal wants. He never wanted to show off the fact that he had more than some of his neighbors. We were not showered with presents at Christmas or any other time. I remember his saying to me once, well after I was married, “You know, as far as your children go, you can spend all the money you want on having a nice house and having your grounds look nice and all that sort of thing. Your kids won’t know the difference. But don’t start showering things on them, because then they’ll get stuck up.” Which is very good advice -- something that I certainly have followed -- and I’ve grown up, I think, without great wants on my own part. I don’t want a lot of material things. I’d much rather accomplish something than have things. So, as I say, we toed the mark with Mother. She wanted us to be contributing members of society, and to be well dressed and well behaved and all that sort of thing. I had a brother who was next to me, who was not well behaved at all. (laughter) All the rest of his life he wasn’t very well behaved, but he was a really a great guy, -- very very bright fellow. He was an architect and did a lot of big buildings all over the country. He had a tremendous sense of humor. For instance when as a child he was supposed to come and shake hands with the visitors, he was usually climbing a tree or hiding in the pigeon loft.
Sopka:I think every family needs one of those. If you have five children, one can certainly be like that.
Guernsey:Yes, my second son, in particular, is a law unto himself.
Sopka:You mentioned that your health hadn’t been very good in your early years. Did that preclude your doing other things like sports?
Guernsey:It did when I was very young, say until I got to high school, because I always had to have special gym classes, and I wore a brace for about five years because I was supposed to have curvature of the spine, and I was on a hideous diet. It was a diet of milk, eggs, potato soup and oyster plant, period, for three years. It was awful. Somehow I grew out of it. I don’t think there was anything wrong with me at all. I occasionally have trouble with my back. I went to an orthopedic man a few years back. I was telling him about this brace and all the rest of it. He said, “That’s probably what’s the matter with you.” But anyway I did grow out of it by high school. I played hockey and volleyball and did the usual gymnastic things.
Sopka:I wondered however if that had made you more of a reader, or introspective type of person as a youngster?
Guernsey:I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Sopka:Did you have many friends?
Guernsey:Oh, I always had lots of friends. It was just that every so often, someone would come along and tell me I was sick and put me in bed for a couple of days.
Sopka:I’m glad you outgrew it.
Guernsey:Well, I certainly outgrew it. I had an aunt, my father’s sister, who was unmarried, who lived with us for a while. She took care of my grandmother when she was ill. My Aunt Maddy always tells the story about when I was a very little girl, and I was very sick, and Maddy came in and tried to amuse me. She was reading to me, from a book about little duckies. All the little duckies were swimming along and they came to a waterfall and they all fell over the waterfall. And Maddy said, “Isn’t that funny, Janet? Look at the little duckies falling over the waterfall.” I guess I was really sick. I just looked at her and said, “I don’t think it’s a bit funny.” And she said, “You’re right, It’s not funny.” But I had my own opinions, way back, and I don’t think that I recognized the fact that I was sick. It was just that I was annoyed when I had to stay in bed. They took me to the hospital when I was 5, to have my tonsils out. And then they decided they couldn’t take them out because I had a cold or something, so they sent me home again. Oh, there were a lot of those sorts of grisly experiences. But then, I had so much fun the rest of the time --
Sopka:-- it didn’t warp your personality.
Guernsey:No, I don’t think it warped me.
Guernsey:And I was so crazy about my brother Robert (the architect), I’d do anything Robert asked me. My mother used to look out the window, and there I would be in the express wagon, coasting downhill with Robert pushing me, going like the wind, and then she’d look out, and I’d be pulling Robert up the hill in the express wagon. And my mother would say, “Robert, don’t make Janet pull you up.” “It’s all right, Mother, I want to.” Because he conned me into thinking that because I got this nice fast ride downhill, that I shouldn’t mind pulling him up the hill --. It worked out well for both. We had a war -- of course, this was World War I time -- we had a war with a family that lived on the back street from us, over a wall. We used to throw rocks over the wall at each other -- spy on each other. We had a great time. I think that was all Robert’s doing, too. We finally won the war, when my sister stole their ladder and they couldn’t get over the wall any more. That probably gives you an idea of the kind of childhood I had.
Sopka:Yes. One item that I wondered if you wanted to comment is – whether there were church influences in your childhood?
Guernsey:Yes. Oh, I went to Sunday School and church all my growing years, and went to confirmation classes. This was the Episcopal Church. I must admit that as a family we did a good deal of character analysis of the ministry.
Sopka:I see. The school you went to was a Quaker School?
Guernsey:Quaker School, yes. But my family was Episcopalians. But of course Quaker School, these schools were by far the best in the area academically. I’m glad now that I learned as much about their philosophy as I did. A lot of my friends were Quakers. Of course, the Quaker schools in Philadelphia always took anybody who was qualified. We didn’t have entrance exams. I guess you got thrown out if you didn’t do well.
Sopka:I wondered whether the Quaker philosophy, while not actually preached in the school, permeated the curriculum,for instance, in English classes, where value judgments might be discussed?
Guernsey:No. Not really, not that I can sort out what was unique to the Friends. We went to Quaker meeting, once a week, on Thursdays, for roughly an hour. You never knew how long it was going to be. If a student wanted to get up and say something in Quaker meeting, if the spirit moved the student, that was perfectly all right. We all lined up and marched across the school yard to the meeting house, and went in and sat down. We had to write senior papers, and invariably some senior would write a whole lot of blather about the quiet of the meeting house and how much it meant, but I don’t think we took it seriously at all. The idea was to take cough drops and see if you could get them in your mouth without one of the older people noticing that you did this. And when you were seniors, you had the little kids to watch over. We didn’t go until we were in the 5th grade. We sat three little kids and a senior, so you always had that senior there. The only time I ever remember really enjoying Quaker meeting was when one of the members of our class had thrown some rocks through a window and broken a window, and he was hauled on the carpet for it, claimed he didn’t do it. Nobody believed him. He got up in Quaker meeting and gave a long speech about how you had to be strong if people accused you wrongly and so forth, and the Quakers were so impressed, they let him go. We all knew he broke the window. And what was the other thing? Oh, I had to go to dancing school, and I was the worst wallflower that ever occurred, --
Sopka:Ballroom dancing, I presume?
Guernsey:Yes. Oh, I went to an afternoon dancing class when I was little. But when I got to be in high school, I had to go to Bessy Wurtz’s Dancing School. Bessy Wurtz had a little rattle, and she’d rattle it around and say, “Stand up,” and then she’d grab some boy by the collar and push him at me and say, “Now, dance.” Oh, I had an awful time. Just awful. When I was 16, I’d been saving for a car. I wanted a car when I was 16. Aunts and Uncles used to give us 10 and 20 dollar gold pieces for Christmas presents. I saved everything. I was the stingiest kid anywhere. I walked to school and walked home, rain, shine, snow, hurricane, whatever, because I saved 15 cents a day by doing that.
Sopka:How far was it? A mile?
Guernsey:No, it was a couple of miles. I walked -- I never took a trolley car. The trolley car was 7½ cents per token. I could take the trolley car. But my mother said if I wanted to save money, I could. She’d give me the 15 cents a day and if I wanted to walk, that was my privilege. So I did. I walked all the time, for years.
Sopka:Probably good for your back too.
Guernsey:Probably was. There wasn’t anything wrong with my back anyway. When I was 16, I had saved about $220 toward my car. And my father, bless his heart, said, “Well, you saved that much, and I think that’s great. I’m going to give you the rest of the money for your car.”
Guernsey:Original matching funds. So I got my car when I was 16. It was a Ford roadster, one of the first Model A’s with a rumble seat.
Sopka:Were you about a junior in high school?
Guernsey:It was at the end of my sophomore year in high school, I guess, because I’m sure I had it for two years. I must have. Let’s see -- well, when I graduated in ‘31, I was 18. So I’d had it for two years, yes. It cost $600. It was green and it had a folding windshield, and its name was Margie. Oh, it was the most wonderful car. And of course, I carted everybody everywhere they wanted to go. And then after that, I didn’t have any trouble with dances and things, because, all the boys wanted rides or were thankful for rides and so forth. At the dances of the time once you got to the point where people cut in on you and the boys knew they weren’t going to get stuck with you, why, you were OK. You had a very good time.
Sopka:It’s wonderful what a car will do.
Guernsey:Oh, yes. I did know a lot of Quakers, and I liked them very well. -- I think, that in a sense, as I look back, maybe they were more broadly interested in all sorts of things than a good many of the other kids. But we certainly were all interested in getting good marks and in learning. To a greater or lesser extent. It was the thing to do, to be on the high honor roll. That’s what we really wanted. Which was a good attitude, I think. And certainly we were trained. We were trained to write. We were trained in science. We were trained to appreciate literature. We were trained in languages. And boy, you know, when I got to college, my freshman year was a snap, even in physics and chemistry. I took physics and chemistry and math freshman year, and I didn’t have any trouble. I’d had most of it before, at least enough of it so that I could go ahead and get what else was there. And this was not true of a good many of my classmates.
Sopka:Was it the expectation of most of your high school classmates that they would go on to college?
Guernsey:Oh yes. I think they all did in those days. And I think, even as I see Germantown Friends School today, that most of their seniors go on to college. It just never occurred to us to do anything else.
Sopka:Your own decision then to go to Wellesley, how did that come about?
Guernsey:I think because my sister went here.
Sopka:How much older was your sister than you?
Guernsey:Eight and a half years.
Sopka:Oh, so she was already out and well established.
Guernsey:Yes. My oldest brother was ten years older than I, and my sister was born a year and a half later. A couple of years later, my brother Richard was born. He was the one who died when he was three years old. Then my brother Robert was about fourteen months after that, and it was after Richard died that I was born. So I was a kind of replacement for Richard, and from that point of view, I was Father’s little darling, because he never quite got over my brother’s death.
Sopka:What did your brother die of?
Guernsey:He had diphtheria, and then he had measles on top of it, and it was just too much. They didn’t know that much about how to treat it. Mother, I think, accepted it. Father really never got over it. So that in a sense, since I came along, in fact was conceived after Richard’s death, I was the replacement. I was a cute little baby with blonde curly hair and blue eyes, which is just what they wanted. Because of this my brothers and sister used to glare at me and say I was Father’s favorite. They teased me about my big nose and skinny figure (My brother called me “seven yards of pump water -- all angles and drafts). But by and large, we all got along very well together. I scrapped with my sister while I was growing up. But we became very fond of each other as adults. So, that was my childhood. And there was music. I took music lessons. I was dying to play the piano when I was about six years old, so I took piano lessons, and I took them all the way through high school. I never did learn to play the piano very well, but boy, I trudged to those lessons once a week. We used to play eight hand, two piano pieces, for concerts, and that kind of thing. That was fun. We played the “Coronation Scene” from “Boris Goudonov,” and things like that, an awful lot of them. I used to get up in the morning, horrors, at some ungodly hour, and go downstairs and practice on the piano for half an hour, -- I’ll bet my family loved that.
Sopka:Did you have two pianos at home, in the family?
Guernsey:No. Father played the piano, and we all took music lessons. My older brother had a violin, which he promptly sat upon and smashed. He didn’t like it very well. Well, here’s a story that may say something about my father’s attitudes towards life, and consequently mine -- because I picked up an awful lot from him ---. When my father’s family were young and they were all out scratching for a living they had some wealthy cousins who lived in Philadelphia. My grandmother wouldn’t let them play with the cousins, because she didn’t want them to get grandiose ideas. They were a very self-sufficient family. But the cousins used to send them Christmas presents. One Christmas they sent a lot of gorgeous presents, which were quite appropriate, for the kids. My Aunt Maddy got a tea set, a doll’s tea set. She was too old for it anyway, but it was obviously very fine china and a beautiful set. She opened it and looked at it, and said to my father, “What in the world am I going to do with that? It’s the last thing in the world I need.” And Father said, “Huh, why don’t you pitch it out the window?” “That’s a good idea” -- so she pitched it out the window. They were all that way. It says something for an attitude that I think came down to all of us. Anyway, as I say, music I’ve always enjoyed. In fact, I sing in the local church choir now, because it’s the only instrument I know how to play. I tried the flute for a while. I just never practiced enough, although I enjoyed it while I was doing it.
Sopka:You’ve already mentioned that when you came to Wellesley, your freshman year was not difficult for you, because you’d had such good training.
Sopka:Better than many of your classmates.
Guernsey:Yes, I think very much better. I had no problem with the sciences at all.
Sopka:Had you already decided to major in physics when you came?
Guernsey:Oh yes. By then, PoP Bennett had me -- completely in tow. In fact, when I arrived at Wellesley during freshman orientation week, I thought, “I’d better go introduce myself.” So I went to see the then Chairman of the Department, who was Louise McDowell. And I said, “Miss McDowell, my name is Janet Brown, and I just came in to see you because I thought I would like to introduce myself. I’m going to be a physics major.” Miss McDowell said, “Well, well, that’s very nice, but we’ll see.” She told me later, she looked at me and thought, “Uh uh, you’re too social.” So she was surprised that I really did manage it.
Sopka:Was she essentially the physics department at the time?
Guernsey:No. No. There was Lucy Wilson and Dorothy Heyworth -- and Alice Armstrong. Dorothy Heyworth was fairly new. I think she’d only been there a year or so. And then we had a couple of teaching assistants.
Sopka:That sounds like quite a strong department.
Guernsey:It was a strong department. Well, of course, in those days, the student-faculty ratio was even smaller than it is now, I think. There were three physics majors in my class, so it was not much different than it is today.
Sopka:Your Wellesley class would have been the Class of ‘35?
Guernsey:‘35, right. So anyway, I started in, and I didn’t have any trouble at all at first. I wasn’t all that great a student, I think, because as I went on I had some trouble with the theoretical aspects of physics, but I managed to get through all right. My bete noire in college was Bible.
Sopka:Was that required?
Guernsey:Yes.. We were required to have three semesters of Biblical history, two semesters on the Old Testament and one on the New Testament. Now, I’d been all the way through Germantown Friends School, where we had Bible one period a week, and we went through everything yet what I knew about the Bible was nothing.
Sopka:Compared to what was expected in the Bible course?
Guernsey:Yes. Then I had an instructor for whom I didn’t care overly, and we went through the Old Testament for two semesters, talking about the P documents and the Q documents. It didn’t do a thing for me. I think my New Testament teacher, when I was a junior, was considerably better, but by that time I had a mental block about Bible. In fact, when we were asked the first day to write a short resume of Christ’s life, I wrote he was born in Jerusalem, which didn’t endear me to the teacher.
Sopka:Were there other required courses?
Guernsey:English. We had to take, Freshman Comp. Now, actually, I could have exempted that, I’m sure, because we had so much in Germantown Friends School. For instance -- and it certainly stood me in good stead in later years -- we wrote précis.
Sopka:So did I.
Sopka:Yes, and I think it’s very important.
Guernsey:We wrote them till they were coming out of our ears, and we diagrammed sentences, did you do that?
Guernsey:Yes -- with the net result that if I have something to say, I can write fairly easily, plus I can read what I’ve written after I let it sit for a day or so. I can read it and correct it, and it turns out sounding all right. And of course grammar -- I’m still a stickler about split infinitives and dangling participles, and I know that’s a losing battle, because nobody notices any more. But I do. They stick out at me. So I really didn’t need the Freshman Comp. but I was terrified to take an exemption exam. I was sure I’d flunk it. Well, supposing I had flunked it? It wouldn’t have made any difference. However, it was all right.
Sopka:Were there other courses you took as an undergraduate?
I took economics. I took play production, as it was then called, which is now theatre workshop. That I adored. I really had a good time. I always liked to act. I was in every play that came along when I was in high school. In fact, we had -- oh, that’s another thing we did when we were kids, that I’d forgotten. We used to go to the Pocono Mountains during the summertime. We had a cottage in a resort area. At the inn, there was a big old room downstairs, on the bottom floor, sort of way off, which was used to store summer furniture and that kind of thing, and there was a great big table in it. It must have been five feet by ten feet, probably. It was an enormous old table, and we used it for a stage. There was a gang of us there, and we used to give plays for each other, just make them up as we went along. You’d either act all the parts yourself, or you’d get a couple of other people to do it with you, and you’d decide ahead of time what you were going to do. Then you’d just stand up there in front of all your peers, and act it out.
We’d decorate things with pine branches and flowers and long grass. It was very good experience in extemporaneous speaking. Almost every year after we were old enough to do this -- namely about 12 years old -- we would give a performance for the people in the Inn, who were largely Quakers. They got such a kick out of our performances that we made a pot of money since we always had a silver offering. The old Quakers would come out laughing so hard that they’d throw a lot of money in the pot, which we then would give to some local charity. I can remember, we’d take in $75 or $100 in an evening, because everybody thought it was so funny. We’d take “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and make a play out of one of them. I think I wrote most of the dialogue. We’d all do our parts as we envisioned them. The plays were self-directed, except that there was a fellow who ran the entertainment program at the inn who would come in and give us a hand if we got stuck. But by and large we did it all ourselves. I was always interested in theatre. I would have loved to have had an acting career really, except that somehow that wasn’t quite what I wanted to devote my life to. I always acted in everything I could when I was here at Wellesley. I was in a lot of shows. That was really fun. I had one teacher in college whom I remember as an outstanding teacher, Helen Russell in the math department. I took differential equations from her, and for once I really understood what it was all about.
Sopka:How about your fellow students? Do you have any comments on them, either with regard to social interactions or intellectual interactions? How about the other two fellow physics majors?
Guernsey:One of them I have kept up with. I still see her, and she in fact teaches physics at a Cleveland High School, Shaker Heights, so I see her every once in a while.
Sopka:Is she a member of the AAPT?
Guernsey:Yes, she certainly is. In fact, her husband introduced me to my husband, and then we introduced her husband to her. So it was a mutual business. My husband was my blind date for senior prom, when the man I’d asked couldn’t come.
Sopka:Where was your now husband, at that time? Was he a student somewhere?
Guernsey:No, he was working in a law firm in Boston. He lived in Wellesley. His family lived in Wellesley, and this was just, one of those things, where somebody said, “Oh, I know just the person for you.” I’d about decided not to go. And sure enough, that’s who it was.
Sopka:What’s his first name, by the way?
Sopka:You met him in time for senior prom, then?
Guernsey:I don’t really remember, but I think this was arranged just two nights before, so he just appeared for the senior prom. I had not met him before.
Sopka:I presume it was a successful blind date?
Guernsey:Yes. Yes, it was fun. We weren’t married for another year. I taught for a year at Baldwin School, in Bryn Mawr. Back in those days -- I don’t know whether Baldwin still does --they had apprentice teachers. You went, and you sort of scrubbed around and did all the dirty jobs -- well, it was like being a TA. Then every once in a while they’d let you teach a class. And you taught labs.
Sopka:Was it physics that you were teaching there?
Guernsey:Yes, and did projects, with particular students who wanted to do projects, and that kind of thing. But I learned a lot, and in fact I took the job because I knew I was going to be married the following June, and I never in the world expected to have a career. Most women didn’t in those days. It wasn’t the usual thing. Usually after college you got married and you raised a family. And so when I knew I was going to be married the following June (1936) I took this job as an apprentice teacher, howling with my friends, and saying, “My Lord, teaching: Who!” I thought it would be awful. Well, to my great surprise, I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot. And I learned a lot about how you learn a lot when you try to teach somebody else. So then, I was married, again thinking, “Well, that’s that, it was a nice experience.” I attended a seminar at Bryn Mawr, in education, where we learned about Madame Montessori and the psychology of teaching. We were supposed to write a final paper which of course I never did, so I never got credit for the course, but I didn’t need it. I must say that I had a guilty conscience about that for a long time, because it was something I started that I hadn’t finished, -- but that faded away. Well, then I was married and started to have a family, and started to get more and more bored with sitting around the house, pushing a broom. Oh, I used to think of things I could do or jobs I could get. But then came World War II, and Miss McDowell was looking for people to take war jobs, so what she did was to have a refresher course in -- I don’t think it was called electronics then. I think it was called radio. I went back to take the course, thinking fine, I’ll go get a part time job and help with the war effort, and this sounded great.
Sopka:You were living in Wellesley?
Sopka:With your family, and how many children did you have at that time?
Guernsey:I had three. That was in 1941. It was the second semester of 1942, after Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was December 7, ‘41. I thought, well, I’ll take this course, and then if I can get a part time job and help with the war effort, certainly this will be something I can do -- because by then I had casual household help, and we were in the process of building our new house. We tore down an old rattletrap house we had, and my brother Robert designed a house for us which we then built, and got done just ahead of priorities in building materials. We moved in in March of ‘42. Some of the materials came under the counter, I must say, like copper nails copper pipe. Anyway, I went to take the course, and as it happened, Miss Hayworth broke her leg and suddenly there was nobody to teach the course in sophomore E and M and circuit theory. Miss McDowell said would I possibly be able to do that? I said, “Sure, why not?”, not having any idea the kind of trouble I would get into. I had a class of very bright students, and what I knew about what had happened in physics in the past seven years, could be put in a thimble. In fact, at that time, and that was 1942, I still thought there were electrons in the nucleii of atoms!
Sopka:That’s interesting. One of the things they discussed at a recent symposium in Minnesota, was the demise of the concept of the electrons in the nucleus.
Guernsey:Oh, really? Yes. I had a visitor from Swarthmore one day in a class, and I said this, and he was very nice about telling me about the neutron afterwards, and I’d heard about neutrons, when I was a senior. Niels Bohr gave a lecture at Harvard, to which we all went. I listened to it -- well, you know how hard Bohr was to understand. At that time, I knew nothing about nuclear physics. He kept talking about the neutron and then about the neutrino, which was of course then just a theory. When I got home I talked it over with the other physics majors, and they didn’t know either, when he talked about a neutron and a neutrino, whether they were the same thing, or whether they were actually different. This was partly because we were sitting in the balcony and could not understand him very well. But it was also that we didn’t know what was happening on the forefront of physics. It was seven years later that I started trying to teach. Well, I was fine with mechanics and optics -- optics hadn’t taken off yet. It was just the same old stuff. But when I got to modern physics, -- I was lost.
Sopka:I’m surprised that you were asked to teach what presumably was a more advanced course at that time.
Guernsey:No, actually, it was just the little bit that we talked about atomic structure in the elementary course. I taught the elementary course, as well as the second level course in electricity and magnetism. It was the latter one that nearly finished me off, because I’d forgotten everything and really had to start from scratch. I worked hard that spring, believe me. Then at the end of the year I said to Miss McDowell, “You know, I like this a lot better than going and getting any war job.” Professor von Hippel at MIT had offered me a job in his lab.
Sopka:I worked with him.
Sopka:Yes. I was in his laboratory. He hired me in the summer of ‘42.
Guernsey:Well, it was probably the same job.
Sopka:He hired several women at that time.
Guernsey:Yes, I went in and talked to him, and the job sounded very interesting, but I had three kids and I didn’t really feel that I should go in town every day. It did seem that was biting off a pretty big bite. Here it was all right because I was only five minutes from home and if anything happened at home I could get there easily, or I could bring the kids with me during class hours.
Sopka:Oh, I think it was ideal that you were able to go back to Wellesley.
Guernsey:Yes. So then I asked Miss McDowell if I could come back the next year. I told her, “I’d much rather do this.” She went to bat for me and I came back. By the time I’d been here for a few years she called me in and said, “You know, if you really want to continue teaching you will have to get at least one more degree.” So that’s when I went to Radcliffe, or Harvard. They were really Harvard courses, and piece by piece, while I was teaching, earned a Master’s degree, in ‘48.
Sopka:You got your Master’s at Harvard in ‘48? So did I.
Guernsey:You did? I was in the ESAP program, Engineering, Sciences and Applied Physics, and we had all our courses in cruft.
Sopka:-- oh, I see, you were in a different kind of curriculum.
Guernsey:Yes. I did several semesters of acoustics with Ted Hunt, and of course I was lucky, I got Phillippe Le Corbeillier as an instructor. I thought he was just marvelous. Did you ever have him?
Sopka:Yes. I had him for one course.
Guernsey:Do you know what ever happened to him? He must be dead now.
Sopka:I think so, but I will look into it and pass along to you any information I get.
Guernsey:Last time I saw him, he was getting very interested in moiré patterns, and it looked as though he had a TV project that he was doing, some kind of educational project. Well, anyway, I really enjoyed it at Harvard, but I was terrified.
Sopka:You got your degree in ‘48. Were you able to get the Master’s in one year?
Guernsey:Oh no. I spent three years at it. I was taking one course at a time, because I was teaching here full time too.
Sopka:I was just interested to know. It took me two years, ‘46 to ‘48. I think Harvard was quite receptive to people like you and me. I was between my second and third child at that point.
Guernsey:For a Master’s degree, yes. But when I applied to go ahead for the PhD, I was told by Hunt, “You know, just because you can get along on one course a year, one course at a time, doesn’t say that you could really carry a full program. So we feel that you ought to carry a full program if you want to go ahead for the PhD.” And I said to him, “Listen here, if you think teaching full time, taking a course here and running a family isn’t a full time job, you’re nuts.” But then I went to MIT and saw -- I think his name was Dudley -- who said, “Oh, we like part time students here. Why don’t you come down here?” So what I did, was to go to MIT after my Master’s degree.
Sopka:So you were then at MIT from --
Guernsey:‘48 to ‘55, again doing a little bit at a time.
Sopka:Were you teaching a full schedule at Wellesley?
Guernsey:Some of the time I was full time. Other times I was part time, half time. And I was flexible with what the department’s needs were, because I really didn’t need the money -- I just wanted to keep my foot in the door. I was an instructor for five years. There were rules about the number of years one could be an instructor, so they made me a lecturer for one interim year, and then after I got my Master’s degree, I was made an assistant professor, in ‘48. I was an assistant professor for six years. Then in ‘55, my promotion and tenure came up, and I was racing like mad to get my PhD thesis done and get my degree. I wrote my PhD thesis in three weeks.! It wasn’t all that good, but as somebody said, “Don’t get it right -- get it done.” It was right but it wasn’t the best job I ever did.
Sopka:Everybody feels that way about their PhD thesis. At a certain point, you have to finish, and you know that there are other things that if you could have gone back and done them over, it would have been better.
Guernsey:Yes. It is a matter of passing that milestone in your career.
Sopka:I would assume that while you were taking courses, there was a matter of scheduling but you could do your studying on your own time.
Guernsey:Yes...and in fact, while at MIT, some courses had to be chosen, to fit my Wellesley schedule.
Sopka:Yes. I can appreciate that. But I was wondering about the point where you were ready to do a thesis, and you had to establish an area of research.
Guernsey:Well, at that point, Clark Goodman was at MIT, and I knew him. His wife was teaching out here. We knew them fairly well, and I went to see him, simply because I didn’t know who else to go to. I took Robley Evans’s course in nuclear physics and really liked it. So then I went to see Clark and said, “Gee, it’s really time I got to thinking about writing a thesis.” And he said, did I want to do it with him? I said, “Sure.” He was interested in neutron physics, so I said, “OK.” Then, of course, I had to apply for admission as a regular student, because I’d been a special student, up till then, taking one course at a time. They did accept a couple of my Harvard courses as peripheral, as a minor or whatever they called it. I took a couple of courses in the EE department, for a minor, and then went on and took the nuclear physics quantum mechanics and what not. So when I applied for admission as a regular student, I was turned down. I went to see Phil Morse, and he said, “Well, I don’t know what we can do about it, but we’ve got several other people in your category.” My Wellesley grades weren’t all that good, and so, he said, “We’ve got some others, and what I propose is that in the fall, you take your prelims, and if you pass them I’ll accept you as a regular student, and if you don’t pass them, you’d better do something else.” So I said, “OK,” and I studied all that summer – oh!
Sopka:What year would this have been, do you remember?
It would have been the fall of ‘53. I’d done all my coursework by then, but I had a difficult time over those prelims. I passed them anyway. So then I went ahead. I had to polish off one or two courses and the language exams and that sort of thing, but that was all. Then I went to what was then the Rockefeller Generator. It was a 5 MEV Van de Graaf, which I used to make neutrons, to do inelastic scattering experiments. I was having no luck at all, and in the middle of it, Clark Goodman said, well, he’d been talking to someone at Harvard, and he said it was an impossible problem anyway, and I’d better start over. This was when I was almost at the end of my leave of absence, which I had thought was going to be just a year. Then Goodman walked off, went to Japan for a year, and I was left hanging. I chased all over MIT -- madder than a hatter, trying to find somebody who would take me on as a thesis student.
I went to see Philip Morse, and I was so mad I could hardly talk. Morse suggested Stanley Livingston, but Livingston said, no way would he take me on. Then I went to see Peter Demos, and he wasn’t interested, and finally, I found a fellow named Al Wattenberg, who had been one of Fermi’s fair-haired boys, and was working with DIC at that time. He later went to the University of Illinois. He was great. He really was a great help. And in the midst of all this, I suddenly got an idea about how I could solve the problem, and it all worked out, and I spent the summer, and then I took another semester off to finish up the experimental work. Those were the days when one did not have multichannel analyzers. We had a ten channel analyzer that was home made, and you had to line the darn thing up with a sliding pulser every morning, and I’d always get it a little cockeyed. There were ten channels with counters on them, and you had to write down the results. We plotted them by hand and calculated all the rest of it on a desk adding machine. The Van de Graaf would break down every so often. The belt would go bad from sparks and we’d have to put a new belt on, which involved taking off 109 equipotential planes with spacers and insulators and so forth, and piling them up and cleaning each one with alcohol and then putting a new belt on and building it all back up again. Well, we had to change the belt about every six weeks. We were a bunch of young people all working there -- and without much supervision, because Goodman had been in charge of us when he walked off. There really wasn’t anybody in charge except just us, three or four boys who were considerably younger 21 than I, and myself.
Sopka:Were you the only woman?
Guernsey:Yes. In that group. We just pitched in and learned how the machine ran. It was hard, because the diagrams were all electrical engineering wiring diagrams, which none of us understood. But we really had a whale of a lot of fun. And it got so that we had to change the belt so often that we got really efficient at it. We could change a belt in a week, which was pretty good. We used to go talk to Dr. Van de Graaf about what was wrong, why were these belts going. And we finally did find a kind of belt (Hyco Red) that worked better and kept the machine operating longer. But just as I was finishing the rest of my experimental data, the machine ran out of hydrogen, and that was when I really decided that machines are not inanimate, that they have souls. It was late one night. I’d promised Al Wattenberg I would never work alone at night, but I had to get finished, so it was about midnight. I was all by myself in the building and the machine started to limp. It would sort of gasp and protons would come in bursts. -- and I was on my last run -- and then I had to calibrate it. And I thought, will I stop this run and calibrate? This was an important run that I wanted to finish, and I thought, I’m going to take a chance -- because all that I’d done in the last three or four weeks would have been no good if I hadn’t been able to do the calibration at the end. So I finished the run. I quickly ran down and put a silver target on to calibrate the gamma rays, and I turned up the machine -- and it coughed, and struggled, and I went out of the room into the machine room, and I patted the tank and said, “Come on, old girl, just keep going -- just 20 minutes will do it.” I was doing pre set counts and had to get a certain number to get any decent statistics -- it kept going until I had finished and I said, “Oh, boy,” -- whereupon the thing just collapsed. There wasn’t a drop of hydrogen in the hydrogen bottle. But it had kept going, just so I could do the last run.
Sopka:There must have been a guardian angel or something in residence.
Guernsey:It was the machine. It liked me. It used to behave quite well for me.
Sopka:Can you say what your thesis problem was?
Guernsey:Yes. It dealt with deformed nuclei, that had been modeled by Aaqe Bohr and Ben Mottelson. It was at that time that rotational levels, which were seen by Coulomb scattering, had first been discovered. They had been excited by protons, but they’d never been done by neutrons, so I was trying to excite them with resonance energy neutrons, rather than protons. The elements I chose were mostly the rare earths -- midway between the magic number nuclei -- which are highly deformed and have their first few excited states at only 100 key or so. These elements have large electric quadrupole moments, and are thus easily excited by protons. With neutrons it’s another story. The de-excitation gamma rays are soft and thus difficult to detect amidst a high background of energetic X-rays. The elements I chose were tantalum, platinum and hafnium. I had more hafnium in my possession according to the chemical supply man, than anybody else in the world. I had 33 pound of it -- which I later gave to Peter Demos and said, “Please take this off my hands.” But anyway, it was fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the people I was working with were a bunch of fun people, and I wouldn’t have missed that for anything.
Sopka:You must have had a rather busy life, though, in terms of dividing yourself between your home and MIT and Wellesley --
Guernsey:I did. My kids were really good about it.
Sopka:How old were they?
Guernsey:Well, one in ‘47, which was --
Sopka:-- while you were at Harvard.
Guernsey:While I was at Harvard. In fact, I went to one exam wondering whether I’d be able to stay or not, came home, packed my suitcase, made a list for my husband, went to the hospital and had the baby in ten minutes. That was my only daughter. She was the last. At that time my eldest son was ten years old, and so by the time that I was doing my thesis, he was in Roxbury Latin School. His graduation at Roxbury coincided with my graduation from MIT. They were the same day. And I went, of course, to his.
Sopka:Your daughter by then would have been about eight years old, I guess.
Guernsey:Yes. Just about. But the kids were very good. I mean, they just knew that I wanted to get this done, so they were very cooperative and helpful.
Sopka:Presumably you had your husband’s endorsement --
Sopka:-- and you had some help at home, so that the physical details of making beds and washing dishes could be taken care of.
Guernsey:They were eliminated from my schedule. In the fall of ‘42 I engaged a woman who didn’t look like a possibility at all. By then we had our new house with a place for her to live, which I had not had in the old house. She just sort of came in out of thin air, by word of mouth. Veronica had a son who was about three years older than my oldest child, who was a nasty little boy -- (he has turned out to be a nifty person) -- but she just took over the household. By then I was trying to have two people in the house, a nursemaid and a housekeeper, and I never could manage that because they always fought. I never got two who got along well together. So by the time Veronica came, she said, “Well, look, don’t worry about anything. If the house has to have a little dust in it and that sort of thing, you can be sure the children will be taken care of,” and that was all right with me. I didn’t care how messy the house was, as long as I felt safe about the children. And she just took over, and she’s still with me.
Guernsey:Her son’s grown up, married, has two kids, and we all get along very well. So it really was just --
Sopka:-- probably ideal from both points of view. She was probably grateful to have a stable place.
Guernsey:-- she was, because she didn’t know how to handle her child. She was trying to do it all alone, and have a job. She had had a job with some people who didn’t want the kid and it was just awful. But Jimmy really grew up with our children. There were times when I had to chastise him, and I didn’t mind doing it, where his mother wouldn’t. So it worked out very well for all of us.
Sopka:It’s interesting to learn how an individual’s - different components of life work out to make things possible.
Sopka:Especially when you’re a married woman with a family. Some of these details, like finding the proper housekeeper, can be crucial to your entire career.
Guernsey:-- yes -- right -- right -- Well, of course, the other thing too was that money was never a problem for me, except when I was first married. I think I borrowed some money from my sister-in-law to have my first baby. But as soon as things got ironed out and went along smoothly, why, there wasn’t a problem with money, so that I could teach only half time if I wanted. And then, you see, with this elegant housekeeper, things were all right at home. So I could concentrate on what I was doing.
Sopka:And then we mentioned the other component of your husband’s attitude toward your activities, being supportive.
Guernsey:He was very supportive. I was a little nervous at first, because he was in the Navy during World War II. He was in the Navy for about three years, and this was when I had just started to go to Harvard, or just before I started. I took a night course at Northeastern, one of those war management training courses, and that was what really got me started thinking I would go ahead and get another degree. And I had never really thought I’d every finish a PhD. But once you get started, you know, you just keep on going. When he came back from the Navy, I was well 1unched on this program, and it never occurred to him to think that I shouldn’t be doing it. I was a little concerned at first, lest he think that I was trying to do too much or not paying attention to my household --because of course I had been brought up by my mother to know exactly what a housewife’s responsibilities were. And this did cause me some pain, I must say, because I always felt that this was kind of an avocation, rather than a vocation. For years I felt that way. In fact, I still feel a little bit that way. I still have a deep sense of responsibility that my house shall be run properly, and that I shouldn’t ask my husband to do dirty jobs around the house, because that was not a man’s province. I know this is an old fashioned way of looking at things, but it was so strongly ingrained in me that I’ve never really lost that attitude.
Sopka:I can empathize with you there.
Guernsey:You know how it is.
Sopka:I feel the same way.
Guernsey:So I feel that I have to have everything correctly and have dinner cooked and served properly and all that, which Veronica does.
Sopka:But it’s your responsibility ultimately.
Guernsey:And it surely involves a lot of planning. I feel that the garden ought to look nice and the house should look nice, reasonably. I’m a messy housekeeper, but things have to go along all right, without bothering him about it.
Sopka:Well, presumably then, after you got your PhD, your status at Wellesley could be firmed up.
Guernsey:Yes. Well, actually, I was made as Assistant Professor after I got my Master’s degree, and I probably could have stayed as an associate professor to the end of my days, but of course I didn’t want to do that. I mean, I think you always feel apologetic if you don’t go ahead and finish. Several people said to me, “I know, but why choose MIT? Why don’t you go somewhere where it’s not so much hard work?” And my attitude about that was, “Look, if I’m going to invest all this time and effort in a PhD, I’m damn well going to have it from a place that I can be proud of it.”
Sopka:Yes, also I would assume, simply from a geographical consideration, that MIT was a very sensible choice.
Guernsey:Yes. Yes, it was. You see, as soon as it became clear that Harvard wasn’t really going to accept me as a PhD candidate, it just seemed that MIT was the logical place to go, and I never regretted having gone to MIT, because I really felt a great deal of identity with it.
Sopka:Do you think that the present cooperative arrangements between Wellesley and MIT might have some origins back in your own experiences?
Guernsey:No, I don’t think so. This was really just a two man decision between Howard Johnson and Ruth Adams.  They were just sitting talking one day, and they thought that this sounded like a good idea, so they got together a small committee, of which I was not a member, to talk things over, and pretty soon it was proposed. And I must say that we had some qualms about it at first, because it looked as though it might be, say in physics or chemistry or any of the sciences, that Wellesley would be asked to do the preliminary training, and let students take their upper level courses at MIT. We all kicked like steers over that, because you couldn’t hire a decent faculty in physics, say, if all they did was to teach the elementary courses.
Sopka:Yes. It would make it like a junior college assignment for a physicist.
Guernsey:Yes. Yes, exactly. But that never did occur. In fact, it never came up, except for minor times when people would say, “Well, why don’t you let them go to MIT for their upper level courses?” -- whereupon we’d all say “No--” in loud tones. It never really was a threat. And in fact, it’s worked out very well for us, because we have our major students take our basic core courses, and we have a core curriculum because we don’t have that many students. They do get a good undergraduate training. But we don’t, for instance, have a course in solid state physics. We don’t have a course in physical electronics, and lots of things that MIT has, so if we have a student who wants more than a bare minimum major, she then goes to MIT and frequently takes graduate courses.
Sopka:While she’s still an undergraduate at Wellesley?
Guernsey:Yes. And our kids do very well at MIT. So it has been good for us, to have this outlet for them, for the ones who really want to go ahead and work, and go to graduate school, and want more training than we can offer them, although we offer them special things in terms of honors projects. And I have two new people coming who do quite a bit of research, so we manage. We manage to give them something if they don’t want to go to MIT but want to stay here and do a project -- that’s fine too.
Sopka:I see. Over the years, did your number of physics majors stay pretty constant?
Guernsey:Pretty constant. We had three this year. We have two for next year. We have five for the following year.
Sopka:That’s very respectable.
Guernsey:Yes, for a college of 1800 undergraduates, I think that is respectable.
Sopka:I don’t know the statistics, but I think I would like to look into them, as to the percentage of physics majors among women at the various institutions.
Guernsey:I don’t think you’ll find more.
Sopka:No, I don’t either. I think Wellesley has had a very enviable record.
Guernsey:And in fact, I think we probably stack up fairly well against the smaller men’s liberal arts colleges. Except for some place like Reed, where they really do turn out a lot of physics majors. But I feel that probably over the years we average three to four majors, three probably, and that’s respectable.
Sopka:What percentage of the undergraduate majors do go on to graduate school, would you say half?
Guernsey:Easily half. Probably a little better than half, maybe about 60 percent, over, say, take a ten year period. And of the ones who go to graduate school, most of them, I would say three-quarters of them, do go ahead and finish the PhD.
Sopka:That much? That’s very interesting. As I told you, I had met one of your recent products, Louise Dolan. She’s a great advertisement for Wellesley College.
Guernsey:She sure is. She really has turned out well. As I said, I went to a dinner of the Harvard Society Fellows, where I was just really proud of her, the way she handles herself. She’s really a great kid. We have our complement of students who are not terribly able. But they go out and do good things. We had one who really, we were worried about, a young Greek girl, some years back. Well, the last time we went to Greece, we went around to see her. She’s in Athens, and she’s a high up member of their AEC, whatever they call it. And really going great guns, married, has a couple of kids, and in Greece women don’t do this nearly as much as they do here. So she is unusual. And she’s really done very well. And we also have kids who come and say they want to major in physics, and we say, “Are you sure? Because it’s going to be tough” -- knowing that they aren’t that well equipped -- and they say, “Well, it’s the only thing I really like.” “Well, if it’s the only thing you really like, then, fine, go ahead and do what you want.” Herman Feshback says this: “Don’t look in today’s paper for your job five years hence.”
Sopka:I’m very sympathetic to this kind of thing, encouraging people as undergraduates to take something they enjoy because I think they’ll do better than in anything else,
Guernsey:And anyway, as I have said to many, students who were nervous about it, “So, you get through with a C average -- so what? You’re doing what you like.” I had one kid who said she was a renegade English major. She apparently was very good in English, but she liked physics, and she was a C student in physics, but she finished her physics major, and was happy as a clam over it. She didn’t go on. But that’s what she wanted to do, and that’s what I think she should do.
Sopka:I think that may well be a very valuable strength, of a place like Wellesley College, that you can not only accept but encourage a student like that, who, if she were at a coed institution or one of the big high pressure institutions
Guernsey:-- would have been washed out by the end of sophomore year.
Sopka:Yes. That’s right --
Guernsey:I’m sure that’s right. I worry sometimes that we are spoon feeding the children too much, but this is a matter of personalities, and I do think that they get a lot of personal attention here in the right way, from a good many people, so that they are encouraged to do the kinds of things they like to do, which will then stick with them in later years. And as far as English, literature and that sort of thing are concerned, that’s something you pick up in your later years, where you’re not going to pick up physics.
Sopka:I think, as we were discussing before, the strength of the American physics community being in the diversity, I think in the American educational pattern, that it’s very important for an institution like Wellesley to be available for those people for whom it is the ideal kind of institution.
Guernsey:Yes. Yes. We worried a lot about whether or not to go co-ed, and I was against it. I didn’t see any point in our jumping on the bandwagon, before we knew how it was going to work out at other places. And furthermore I think there is really a place for a women’s college. And I think that our women’s center has shown that, too. For an able young woman who tends to be a little bit retiring in nature, to be able to come to a place like this where everything’s run by women -- the student activities and other things -- is an advantage. She learns that she can be a leader, where if she went to a co-ed school, she’d be very apt not to be. Not that there aren’t plenty of co-eds now, plenty of women who get to be the editor of the LAMPOON or the CRIMSON, and what not -- but those are the ones who would push to the forefront under any circumstances. I think that for the young woman who tends to be a little modest about her abilities -- and I do think this is the difference between men students and women students, and I’ve heard people who teach both sexes say this -- that many times, the male students will just say anything, do anything to make themselves look as though they know what they’re doing, when they don’t really; whereas I think it may be characteristic, if one can make generalizations, of women, to want to be sure they’re right before they stick their necks out. Now, this may be dying away. I don’t know really.
Sopka:It certainly isn’t gone yet. It may be on the wane, but --
Guernsey:I would hope that eventually it would go away. But I think there certainly is a place for women’s colleges. The people who wanted us to go co-ed felt that if we didn’t, the calibre of our students would fall off, because the really able students would want to go to the co-ed schools. This has not turned out to be the case at all. And I think the other thing that I would say about Wellesley is that many colleges now have gotten away from the idea of an all liberal arts college, where truly, it’s a liberal arts education and not pre-professional training. And whether it be a male college, or all-female or co-ed, I think it’s extremely important to have colleges which are giving what we all understand to be a liberal arts education. We almost did away with requirements, and now we’re back to requiring a fairly broad base, for graduation. And I think it’s good, and most of the students do, too. We’ve gotten away from that awful business about “relevance,” to the point where I think our students now do enjoy having a taste of several areas, rather than just getting this preprofessional training.
Sopka:As you mentioned, you can’t take your courses for the jobs that are available now. You have to get a broad education, in hopes that you1ll be able to cope with whatever situation develops. In 20 or 30 years.
Sopka:It certainly has happened to us, I think.
Guernsey:Yes. Yes, it certainly has. I mean, I feel as though I could go out and do lots of different things, simply because I could pick up where I left off years ago, because my background was solid enough that I could pick it up, when I had to.
Sopka:Yes. I think it is very valuable that this be kept on.
Guernsey:I guess one of the regrets that I really have is that I didn’t continue with some good research. I dabbled at it here and there, but that’s about as far as I can say. I did go back to MIT for a couple of years, mostly in the summer times, again, doing some more with neutron scattering -- both elastic and inelastic. Then I went to Los Alamos one summer, where I really enjoyed myself, and enjoyed being in a big lab like that. Again, I worked with the low energy neutron physics group, with a Van de Graaf. It was a 12 MEV Van de Graaf they had there. I had hoped to go back, and then, I don’t know, you can’t do everything. So I don’t feel as though I’ve really contributed anything to research in physics. The Livermore job, I really went to because I had talked to some people in Cleveland, about nuclear power, and the possibilities, and the one thing I couldn’t find much about was laser fusion. At that time it was very much under wraps and security. So, I talked to various people. I think Sandy Brown was probably the most helpful in explaining to me what the problems were. And then I saw that Livermore had a summer program, and laser fusion was one of the things that was listed, so I applied to go out there that summer, and I did and I learned a lot. I was in the laser fusion group, and I don’t think, again, that I contributed any great amount, but they gave me the job of going around talking to everybody about what they were doing and what their plans were, because they said, “Nobody ever writes down these things, so if you just go around and talk to them, why, you can write a lot down.” So I had a big thick notebook when I was through, of all the things that I’d talked to people about, what they were doing, what their problems were, what they foresaw for the future. And it was a very interesting thing to do. But I would hardly call it research.
Sopka:In a sense, having spent your professional career at Wellesley, if you did have some particular topic could you have followed up on it? -- I’m concerned that setting up what would be required now for a high powered experimental project, at an institution like Wellesley, would be quite difficult.
Sopka:The proximity of MIT alleviates your problem to some extent, but not completely.
Guernsey:But not completely, because it’s too difficult to try to spend much consecutive time. For instance, the poor old Rockefeller Generator is now defunct. Disappeared. There’s a parking lot where it was, which causes me much pain when I go by. But one couldn’t work with a machine like that in there, and try to teach out here, because scheduling would be just too difficult, for one thing. So, to work with a group in there on a project in summer time would be fine. Now, every time I see Peter Demos, he says, “When are you coming out to Middleton to the Bates LINAC?” Because I’m on the list there. And yet, I realized that I didn’t have the time to do this, that if you’re going to do this as well as everything else, you’re just going to spread yourself too thin, so that I never have done that. I may decide in a year or two after I retire to go out and work with a group out there. And I may not. I just don’t know.
Sopka:It’s interesting, to keep your options open anyway.
Guernsey:Yes. It is an option that I have, and the people at Lowell that are doing neutron work asked me if I’d want to come there -- so there are lots of things to do. But really, research, I would have liked to have done some really good research. Unfortunately, since my whole experience has been with fairly large scale equipment, it obviously is not possible to do here. And now two young people who are coming this year, both have the kind of thing that can be done here. And this is what we wanted. It was important to find someone with the kind of project that could be done mainly at Wellesley.
Sopka:I guess you have two things to consider -- it needs to be a project that can be done here, and yet, you don’t have graduate students; it could not be the kind of a project that would require a retinue of graduate students to help carry out.
Guernsey:That’s right. We did have graduate students for a while. They were women, and they usually came from a small college where their training had been, -- I don’t like the word but “minimal” is all I can think of -- so that they could take our upper level undergraduate course, then do some kind of project and a thesis, to get their Master’s degree. We scuttled that program probably 15 or more years ago, because, in the first place, the universities started taking more women, and some of the colleges took women graduate students, even men’s colleges. Wesleyan started taking women graduate students, -- and at that time, we decided, on the basis of a feeling that we would have at most two at a time, who taught our labs, that it was in a way not fair to them. We were teaching them in our undergraduate courses, and then giving them a project to do, but they didn’t have contact with more than one other graduate student, so they were sort of in limbo. And the other thing was that they had come from less demanding colleges, so that in effect, we were giving a Master’s degree to students that we didn’t think were as good as our own Bachelor’s students. In many cases. Not always. We had some really bright ones, too. But from both those points of view, we decided not to have our graduate program any more. Now for laboratory instructors, we depend on local people -- we have one woman who’s married and lives in Wellesley, has a couple of kids, who has taken our upper level courses, and has taken quite a few MIT courses, and is going to go ahead, I think, for her PhD eventually.. She teaches one or two labs for us. Then we can always get from MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern, or somewhere, students who are writing their PhD theses, and who are then not getting much support from their institution, because by the time you get to thesis writing, you’re not much help, as far as a research associate goes. So, any of the local schools are very happy to have us provide some support.
Sopka:It probably is also valuable for the individual, to be able to get some experience in another institution,
Guernsey:Well, we all teach some labs, but we can’t do them all obviously. So we have these people come in, and we’ve had some very good ones. We’ve had some that weren’t so good, of course, but it works out quite well for us. I don’t know how I got on that subject, but --
Sopka:Well, I’m glad you did. Probably then the main activity that you have undertaken professionally, outside of your Wellesley commitments, are in your work with the AAPT.
Sopka:Why don’t you tell me something about how long you’ve been involved with the AAPT?
Guernsey:Well, I guess I joined the AAPT -- I don’t remember when, but I think shortly after I started to teach here, because my department chairman, Miss McDowell, said to me, “I think you ought to be a member of the AAPT.” And I said, “Well, if you think I should, you know, I will.” I guess It was in 1956 that Allen King at Dartmouth decided that we really should have an AAPT section in New England. There was at that time an Eastern Association of Physics Teachers, which was a somewhat moribund group. It had been going great guns earlier, and then I daresay it may have been in part a casualty of World War II.
Sopka:I’m interested to have you mention that, because at Harvard we found some early notebooks that go back to 1890, of EAPT.
Guernsey:Oh yes -- I’ll bet Kemble had those. Did he?
Sopka:No, they were in the laboratory, director’s office, and had gone back to Lyman’s time. From these early notebooks, I was under the impression that the Eastern Association of Physics Teachers had died long before the AAPT began.
Guernsey:No, it was still going, and it was still trying to have one meeting a year, in conjunction with whatever the chemistry teachers and biology teachers were. They had a meeting each December of these three groups. Maybe they included math, I don’t remember, but I don’t think so. EAPT met with them once a year, and sometimes tried to have a second meeting a year, and drew very few people. They had very few members. It was, as I say, moribund practically.
Sopka:That’s interesting, because Dr. Kemble whom you just mentioned told me that in 1932, there was a New England section of the APS that was set up, and he was the first chairman of that. I asked him whether that was because of the Depression, that people didn’t feel they could afford to go to other meetings and he said, no, it was that the APS meetings were getting too hifalutin for some of the regular college teachers, so it was more a teaching group that got together in that.
That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that. I knew that in part it was because the APS meetings were starting to get pretty esoteric, and crowded. Of course, it was along in there, in late forties and early fifties that APS had its maximum attendance at the winter meetings, and those were really crowded. But it wasn’t until ‘56 that Allen King started this. I remember, he called a meeting and he sent notices around to the various physics departments, Miss Heyworth was then chairman of the department, and she said to me, “Do you think we ought to go to this?” I said, “Well, yes, I do. I think we should. Let’s the two of us go.” It was Christmas vacation. So we went up to Dartmouth, and there were probably 30, 40 people there, something like that. And there was a good deal of interest in starting a section. I remember that Sandy Brown, was asked to be an officer. Sandy said that he would be willing if he thought that it wouldn’t be just another group that died out, and all agreed that the main purpose was to increase communication between secondary school and college teachers. So anyway, they asked me if I’d be secretary-treasurer, and I said, “Sure.” We had some good meetings -- this was just when PSSC was starting, and they were really hot meetings. It was an exciting time, because a lot of prep school people were trying PSSC, and there was another group who were hanging on for dear life to the old tried and true, Dull, Metcalfe and Brooks -- and there were some really hot arguments.
I don’t think I even knew which side I was on, but I think I tended to lean toward, not Dull and Metcalfe certainly, but toward a less innovative way of teaching. I would say it was around 1960 that we finally persuaded EAPT to come with us. They had a small amount of money in their treasury, which they then passed over to us, and EAPT passed out of existence, and the New England Section of the AAPT was then the only physics teacher organization in New England. At that time in the early sixties, there were 150, 200 people at a meeting. We had two meetings a year. One was with the New England section of APS, and one by ourselves, and we still do that. Now, about seven or eight years ago, interest started to flag, and Harvard Project Physics didn’t pull it up at all, and it got to be attended by maybe a third high school teachers and two-thirds college teachers, very few university or graduate school people. The college people who came were always the same people, and always they came from a sense of duty. And it had hard sledding, as many of the AAPT sections do, and there was a time when I thought, I wonder why we have this? You know, why don’t we just die?
Sopka:-- I don’t want to interrupt your train of thought, but you mentioned that there was a great deal of excitement at the time when the PSSC physics curriculum was being developed, but presumably that didn’t continue then during the era when the Harvard Project Physics was -- being worked up, with a fairly extensive testing program -- I would have thought that it might have.
No, that’s right. Well, I think that the reason PSSC created so much excitement was that it was the first innovative program, and I think too that our meetings got to be, not all that good. It was a very loose kind of organization for quite a lot of time, where two or three people would get together at the last minute and try to develop a program, and I can remember many many phone calls at the last minute about, why don’t you come and do thus and so? But in fact, and I can’t remember when this was, we did get incorporated as a non-profit organization, before the parent organization was incorporated. We were the first section to be incorporated. The reason we did was so that we could go out and ask for money for projects. One of our projects in the New England Section worked out very well until we ran out of money, and NSF wouldn’t give us any. Sprague Electric gave us some money to have a travel program for high school teachers. What we did was to let it be known that any high school teacher who wanted to come to a meeting. but couldn’t afford it would get a little slip signed by his principal, to say that there were no funds available for him, and then we would pay his traveling expenses to come to the meeting.
That worked very well, because there were a lot of -- people in the wilds of Maine and Vermont and so forth who literally could not afford to come to a meeting in Connecticut. But they’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to come, if somebody would just pay for their mileage. We really tried to get more funds for that program, and it died out, because of lack of money. We were sorry about it. We did submit proposals, but they were always turned down, and I guess we got discouraged. Anyway, right now the New England Section is having a rebirth. The last two meetings have been very good, because two young men at the University of Rhode Island -- they’re not too young -- and somebody in the education department at U Mass, at Amherst, and some people at Springfield Technical and so forth, have become interested in seeing that there’s a little spark of life blown into the section -- which is what I predicted would happen, and was one of the reasons why I thought, we really ought not to just let it die. I thought, well, if you let it die, you can be mighty sure that in about five or ten years, there’s going to be a group of people who get together who want a physics teachers’ association -- and surely this is just what’s happening now.
Sopka:Well, it’s good to hear about that. Did I read in the ANNOUNCER that a fall meeting of the New England Section is to be here at Wellesley?
Guernsey:Yes. That’s right.
Sopka:I’m looking forward to that. I’ve been a member of AAPT since 1959, when I got my first teaching job -- I immediately joined.
Guernsey:Yes. Sure. I talked to the Rhode Island people, in Puerto Rico, last week, and they’ve got a lot of good ideas. I think it’s going to be a good program. They really are go-getters. They know just what they’re doing. So that was my first connection with AAPT. And then, -- I can’t remember what year it was -- but it was when the Commission on College Physics had been going for about a year or two, they had a big meeting in Minnesota, which was right after the summer meeting of AAPT, to decide the direction in which CCP should go, and to get some new members for CCP. I think what they did was to send nomination blanks to a lot of people all over the country, and then if you got so many votes or so many nominations, you were invited to come to that Minnesota thing. So I went to that, and that I think was the first summer AAPT meeting I’d ever been to. I think that was in the early sixties. Well, I had a good time there, and then, I got involved in various things. I was on the apparatus committee, I was on J. Buchta’s committee of recognizing high school teachers, I was on this and that, and I kept going to the summer meetings. Summer meetings are fun, because a lot of the same people go year after year, so you get to know them.
Sopka:-- Where will the one be next year, by the way?
Guernsey:It’s in London, Ontario. A meeting joint with the Canadian Physical Society. They’ve been after us for quite a while to have a joint meeting with them. So that’s what we’re going to do next year. It’s not far from Detroit. It’s easy driving distance. That ought to be pretty good, and I think it’s nice to do this jointly with them.
Guernsey:We worried about having two out of the country, in succession, but it just worked out that their meeting was about the right time, so we decided to have it with them. The Puerto Rico meeting turned out quite well. We worried about that.
Sopka:How was the attendance at that?
Guernsey:It was down, of course. But there were over 200 people there.
Sopka:That’s respectable, certainly.
Guernsey:Well, that’s as many as we used to get at a summer meeting anyway. Summer meetings have been going up in attendance, and the winter meetings have been going down, but ours hasn’t been going down as much as APS. APS has gone way down in attendance, at the winter meeting, to the extent that they’re thinking of junking that meeting entirely, calling the Washington meeting their annual one -- but they’re not going to do that yet a while. They’re lined up through 1981, and after that? This is a problem for AAPT, what will we do then, because we ought to have a meeting, a joint meeting with somebody, once a year. I am right now the chairman of a task force, which was voted by the Council last January. It doesn’t have a name, because nobody can think of one, but it’s a kind of self-examination thing: Where are we? What sorts of things should we be thinking about for the future? Fix up the constitution, so it falls in line with current practice? What do we do about an executive office? What do we do about committees? How can we help the sections to operate better, because some of the sections are like the New England one was three years ago. How can we get better communications between the membership and the Association? There are a good many section members who don’t even know the national Association exists. And all those things that I think one should do, should think about, at least once a decade.
Sopka:Yes, any organization needs to update itself, from time to time.
Guernsey:That’s right. And we’ve got a good committee. I’ve been a little bit worried about whether we’d ever get off the ground, but we had two meetings in Puerto Rico, and I think really, we’re well off the ground and running, and will report to the next January meeting in San Francisco, an interim report, and then a final report, at the meeting in New York, in January ‘79. So, I think this is a good thing, to have a look, and while some people weren’t too happy about doing this, I think people feel now that it’s a good thing to do.
Sopka:Well, I’m interested in the period when you actually began serving as vice president, president elect, then president and then past president. What kinds of things did you find yourself responsible for, or were able to accomplish, or were frustrated in not accomplishing?
Guernsey:The very worst was that the vice president is program chairman for first the “New York meeting,” which is what the winter meeting is always called, and --
Sopka:-— even when it’s in San Francisco?
Guernsey:Even when it’s in San Francisco. You’re program chairman, when you’re vice president, for that meeting. Then you become president-elect at that meeting, and you are then responsible for the programs for the summer meeting. Well, I certainly felt like a stray kitten because I didn’t know that many people. I’d done a lot of programs for the New England Section, but that’s one thing, when it’s a day’s meeting. When it’s as big as the New York meeting, this was kind of horrifying. But people were very helpful, and somehow or other it got done. I think that was probably the hardest job I had. Mainly because I felt I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know who were good speakers. I didn’t know who to invite to chair sessions. I didn’t know anything. But I just kept telling myself, “Well, you know, you’ll get it done somehow.” And in fact the meetings went quite well. As I say, I got a lot of help from all sorts of people.
Sopka:Was it 1968 or ‘69 when you began this?
Guernsey:No, no, let’s see, I finished as past president in ‘77 SO it was ‘73 when I started. And in fact, I felt as though I’d added my two cents worth to procedures about this. Probably the thing that I found most frustrating was that I was vice president the whole of that spring, and really I hadn’t anything to do, because the president elect was taking care of summer meeting, and it didn’t occur to me that I ought to be working on the winter meeting, so I didn’t do anything that first spring. --well, in June of that first year when I was responsible for the winter meeting, the committee chairmen and CPE were very helpful in making suggestions of people who would be good speakers and so forth. This was good, and I did get that going, more or less. And Arnie Strassenburg, the executive officer, of course, was a great help. I felt that, we really needed a lot of lead time. When the meetings committee met, at the New York meetinq, we had to get going on the summer meeting, obviously, but I tried to get things started for the winter meeting also, at that time, for the meeting that was a year ahead, to get ideas, so that the incoming vice president, Ken Davis, could be working on the first meeting that he would be responsible for during that first spring, when I hadn’t done anything. And I think that’s worked out better.
Sopka:I’ll bet he appreciated that.
Guernsey:Well, he did, and was very kind to say so. Jim Gerhart has been the secretary for quite a long time, and is now the vice president. Jim said to me one time, “Well, if you can get through with this, you’ve got it made.” And that was pretty much it. Then as president elect, I was of course on various of the committees, and had a lot of committee meetings to attend, and I had some AIP responsibilities and that sort of thing -- which kept me pretty busy, but it wasn’t anything you couldn’t cope with. I think, again, one of the hardest things was, appointing people to committees, because I just felt that I was not well enough acquainted with the membership to pick out really good people for the committees. But again, I had a lot of help from the executive officer, and some of the other officers who knew a lot of people. Then as president, I was chairman of various committees, and there were all sorts of odd things that always come to a president, and at that time, there was the question of the executive officer. We had the problem of Arnie wanting to have another term, but have a two year leave to go to NSF to do a job. So there was a good deal of rampant feeling about a lot of this, but we got things straightened out. That was when Melba Phillips took over as acting executive officer for those two years, and now Arnie comes back with a new three year term at the end of August of this year. So there are still questions which need to be decided, which our self-examination committee is looking into. Well perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but certainly the time will come when Arnie wants to do something else. Then the question is what do you do with the executive office? You can’t move it around all over the place all the time, because it’s too complex an operation, now.
Sopka:It is headquartered at Stonybrook, isn’t it?
Guernsey:Yes. Which is where Arnie teaches half time. And it’s been a good deal for us. I mean, Stonybrook has been very very fair and cooperative. I think our feeling is that the executive office should be somewhere, where it can have some connection with a university. Then you can get an executive officer who is good, who wouldn’t come if you were off somewhere in the hinterlands. We had the executive office in Washington for a while. I don’t think that’s the best place, and I think most people don’t think it’s the best place, now, to have the executive offices, even though NSTA just bought their building there two or three years ago. I think probably they would rent us quarters, if we wanted.
Sopka:Is the executive officer viewed as definitely a temporary kind of responsibility, in contrast say to the secretary of the APS that seems to be one of those things that somebody takes and then, holds as long as he is up to it.
Guernsey:Yes. That’s right. But I think that having seen APS’s operation, our feeling is that we would prefer to have an executive officer who doesn’t make it his life’s work. This is not to say anything about Arnie himself. It’s just, that as a sort of operating procedure, it seems to me that someone who makes this his life work tends then to be the Association, because he knows all the ramifications and so forth, and I think then, one doesn’t get some of the good ideas that one would get from someone with a new perspective. So other things being equal, I think we would rather have an executive officer stay maybe for two or three three year terms, and then have someone else. We also have a staff physicist, now. We ran upon hard times, as you may or may not know, about five years ago. Things got very bad, and in fact we operated at a deficit for several years in a row. And Arnie was very good about getting us back on our feet. He really rearranged many Executive Office procedures, which got us out of the red. Part of our problem was AIP, because the bills we were getting from AIP for services bore no relation whatsoever to their estimated costs, and went the wrong way.
Sopka:Were these bills for things other than the publications, or were they principally associated with the publications?
Principally associated with publications. They were subscription fulfillment, both non-member and member, keeping records, billing, publishing. Gradually we have taken some of these operations out of AIP. We do all the non-member subscription fulfillment in our office now. The problem was that subscription agencies go around to the libraries finding out what they want to subscribe to. This is what most non-member subscriptions are. They find out what they want, and they make this whole big list. The great long list is sent in, and you have to pick yours off from it, so it’s kind of a job. So instead of sending AIP a list of “These libraries want AJP, these libraries want THE PHYSICS TEACHER, “they get these long lists and have to cope with them. It turned out, with AIP, we were paying AIP over six dollars a member for non-member subscription fulfillment. Now, we’re doing it in the office for less than $4. I don’t know how many non-member subscriptions there are, I haven’t any idea now, but this is a considerable saving. Cliff Schwartz took the PHYSICS TEACHER advertising out of AIP, which wasn’t doing a very good job of it, and he’s managed to do this quite well. Cliff is doing a good deal of composing in his office now, in the TPT office, and again, Ed Taylor did a wonderful job on AJP (AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICS). We did cut down the length of it, which wasn’t helpful, because it meant a bigger backlog of articles that weren’t getting published.
He has managed to get AJP operating essentially in the black, with a small delta in the black, as sometimes it’s a small delta in the red, but it’s pretty nearly self-supporting, as is the PHYSICS TEACHER. This was not the case, back when we were in real trouble. So everybody has worked very hard to get the Association back on its feet, and it is back on its feet, and it now has a surplus at the end of each year. Out of this some is going into rebuilding our reserves, which of course went almost all down the drain, when we hit hard times. We no longer use future funds for current expenses. The dues for 1978, will start coming in, in September and October, and we have been using those, to pay for this year but what are you going to do if you can’t put out 12 issues of AJP next year? The membership has fallen off to some extent. Part of it is inflation. Part of it is people getting out of physics teaching. You see, it was going up because people in the teaching profession were going up. And that of course has leveled off, or possibly sunk down a bit. Then there are a lot of people in high schools for whom physics is only one of the things they teach. They felt that NSTA did better for them than AAPT because it covered everything, and just didn’t feel they could afford AAPT. So I think our top membership was about 14,000 and now it’s down at about ten (thousand). But we may come up again. I’d like to see us get more high school people.
Sopka:Among the high school teachers that I have met in the course of doing substitute teaching while I was doing my own graduate work recently, when I broached the subject of AAPT to some of them, for the most part, it went over like a -- lead balloon. -- Their reactions were “Well, what can it do for me?” or “I don’t have either the time or the money,” or something like that.
Guernsey:Yes, or, “I can read the Journals in the library, so -- why belong?”
Sopka:Possibly an important feature of the local AAPT group would be to try and persuade the teachers that there are activities that would be worthwhile for them and that they could benefit not just from the Journals but from being part of the Association.
Guernsey:That’s right. Actually, you see, there are an awful lot of people who don’t realize all of the things that they can get from AAPT, and help that they can get if they want. AAPT puts out a lot of occasional publications. They have a dandy film repository. They have slides and tapes and the works. You know. You’ve seen all those things. The resource letters.
Sopka:I wonder perhaps if you’re going to have the meeting at Wellesley in the fall, whether a concerted effort might be made to get the local high school teachers in the surrounding community to attend, people who wouldn’t have to travel more than half an hour in their automobiles -- ?
Guernsey:Yes, certainly. I certainly plan to.
Sopka:And have, not a sales promotion, but something to acquaint them with some of your things that you mentioned.
Guernsey:This is something that the section representatives are supposed to do, and some do and some don’t. We have had a very inactive section representative. Now, one of our boys from Rhode Island is section rep, and you can certainly count on him to be a person who will bring samples of all the things that are available and this kind of thing. We always have a booth at the New York meeting, and get a lot of inquiries. A lot of people pick up membership applications, and whether they follow through with them, you never know. But it’s very active. I think that there are many high school people who would benefit, just from reading THE ANNOUNCER if nothing else, and PHYSICS TODAY, and they just don’t know about it. They think it’s a problem to get to them. But certainly we’re trying now to let local high school people know when there’s a regional meeting. Oh, this is another possibility, having regional meetings rather than just section meetings, where say New England, New York, and maybe Philadelphia, if there’s a section there. A group like that could get together, to have a two day regional meeting. That might be helpful. Those sorts of things, we certainly are thinking about. Those are the people we want to get, and as I said, we really feel that we have something to offer to the university people who are more concerned with research than teaching.
Sopka:Although I think that there is considerable examination now in both the colleges and the universities as to what they should be doing, about teaching.
Sopka:So that their students are properly equipped. -- You mentioned Professor Purcell earlier, I liked the name of the course that he introduced called “Widely Applied Physics.”
Sopka:It was a great course. I told him I wished I could have taken it. Because he would just take physics students and encourage them, to see how widely applied physics is in the world, so that they wouldn’t all think they had to become elementary particle theoreticians.
Sopka:And yet they could enjoy the physics that they were motivated to major in, in the first place.
Guernsey:Yes. I think that this recent gravitation towards courses for people who are not going to be physicists, or not even scientists -- I hate to call them courses for the non-scientists, because that’s such a negative sounding thing, so I usually say, courses for students whose major interest is not science -- these are getting better, much better. And there is a large variety of them. Course materials for that sort of thing are available from AAPT, for people who want to teach courses of this sort. There are many high school teachers who are being very successful at this sort of course for everybody. We always try, at the summer meetings anyway, since many people bring their families, to have at least a morning which is devoted to physics for everybody. So there is a real push to get across to the general public. That committee has had a competition which sort of fell through this year, but the first year was quite successful, of store front demonstration sort of thing. You know, what can you put in a store window that will attract attention and still teach something about physics? While, you didn’t know you were learning. The young man who’s coming to us next year from MIT got very interested in whales, when he was still in high school -- wondered how they sound, and then how they come up again without getting the bends or anything like that? He started studying about whales, and then that led him to studying about porpoises. Then he ended up giving a course, first for some high school kids, some inner city kids, in MIT’s program for them. That was so successful, he offered it for the MIT boys, and he’s going to do it for us next year, the Physics of Whales and Porpoises. The students learn some physics, they learn some chemistry, they learn some biology, and they don’t even know they’re learning it most of the time, because there is so much interest generated. I think this is the kind of thing that we should be doing. -- sending out a young person who has a breadth of interest, who can read the newspaper, when problems are science-oriented, social problems, who can read with some degree of understanding, and with an ability to be critical, rather than just believing what he reads. After all, this is the mark of an intelligent, educated person.
Sopka:Well, I hope that these things can be realized, and that people will all keep working on them.
Guernsey:I think physics is considerably healthier today, than it was 25 years ago. By that I mean physicists are beginning to realize that they’ve got to come down out of their ivory tower. In many quarters, there is a great deal of effort being put into letting the general public know that we’re not a lot of queer little people in white coats, standing over experiments in the laboratory that nobody can understand and most people don’t care about. Letting them know that physicists really are, in many ways, making an effort to deal with those components of society’s problems that can be dealt with by physics. I think this effort is going to continue, because it’s become quite clear that we can’t be just a little elite society of people who can talk to each other, but not to anybody else.
Sopka:What has been your experience on the reception by either your students who are not going to major in science at Wellesley, or elements of the general public -- when you try to present scientific things to them?
Guernsey:Our students are quite receptive. The general public is a horse of another color. The general public still mistrusts the physicist. It’s been my experience that, if you’re trying to do anything for a sort of general audience, a few nice little demonstrations that don’t look like demonstrations are extremely helpful. For example, just the mass bobbing on the end of a spring, this kind of thing. But I think talking at the general public never gets you anywhere. Another one of the problems that I have seen in past years, which I hope is dying as a problem, is that, with the advent of Sputnik and all the scientific discoveries that followed, the quasars and the black holes and all these things, there was a tremendous push on the high school teacher to talk about some of these things. The kids read them in the newspapers. They read them in POPULAR SCIENCE, and they wanted to know all about it -- never mind classical physics, forget it, -- I want to know about black holes. The physics teacher then felt that he was completely incompetent to deal with some of these things. He tried very hard, because he didn’t want to admit he felt incompetent, and so, we were getting kids for a long time who’d had a lot of this stuff sort of thrown at them, relativity and quantum mechanics, in haphazard fashion, who really hadn’t then had time to settle the hash of good old classical physics. And I think this is, to some extent, dying out now. But this was a real problem for us for a while. We saw kids who’d had physics courses in high school, and tried to jump into college physics at a level that presupposed a high school course, who then couldn’t cope with college physics. At least with a calculus-based course. They found it extremely difficult.
Sopka:That’s interesting. So we’re in a period now where a good strong solid introduction to physics is to be highly valued.
Guernsey:That’s right. And sure, it’s fine to talk for a day about black holes and quantum mechanics and that sort of thing. I think that’s fine for them to have. But to spend too much time on it, at the high school level, is just not economical of the kid’s time, and is not a help to them when they get to college. So, I think that probably -- covers it.
Sopka:Well, I thank you very much. I think that you’ve been very helpful and very successful in covering a large number of topics.
Guernsey:You may not want much of it but I leave that up to you.
Sopka:Well, of course what happens is that it will be transcribed and available for people who want to look into this. Well, thank you.
Guernsey:Well, the one other thing that I didn’t say, and that I probably should, is how I felt about being a woman in physics.
Sopka:Oh, please do, comment on that --
Guernsey:There isn’t really too much to say except that, in recent years, with all the women’s movement, I’ve run into many questions about, “How did you feel as a woman in physics, when women didn’t go into physics?” Certainly they didn’t, much, when I was starting out. The number of women attending some of the meetings, when I first started with the New England Section was small. Out of 150 people there would be maybe three women. And now, you find that a good third of them probably are women. At the big summer meetings, you don’t really find a third, but you find a considerable number of women, whereas you didn’t before, so that there are more women going into physics. And I know that there were many who felt that they were second class citizens, and that they were looked down on. I can’t say that I ever ran into that, but probably because when I was in high school, girls were considered equal to boys as students. Even though Master Stanely didn’t think that I should be taking that math course, certainly my teachers, and certainly the boys in the class, were never other than receptive -- to females. I was never other than just another person who was interested in science. So I think I’ve gained my attitude of “we’re all in this together, never mind that I wear a skirt and you wear pants,” -- I think I got that attitude in high school. And probably it was the fact that I’ve always had that attitude that made it not difficult for me. Rarely have I felt that someone was looking down his nose at me and saying, “What are you trying to do in physics?” Once in a while.
Sopka:When you would be introduced, during your Welleseley undergraduate days, as a physics major, did this cause any reaction?
Guernsey:Oh, people always groaned. They still do You know. And certainly when I first started teaching it was, “Oh, you teach? Where? At the high school, maybe?” “Well, no. I teach at Wellesley.” “Oh, really? What do you teach?” “Physics.” “WHAT???” Gruub…that kind of thing…but that’s the cocktail party reaction, always.
Guernsey:And still is. But that, I don’t care about. Certainly, never at Harvard or MIT did I feel that I was castigated. But I’m sure there are many people, many women, who do feel this, who have gotten into situations where they were made to feel second class. That’s getting washed away, too.
Sopka:I suppose, in a sense, you were fortunate in being affiliated with Wellesley College, where there was never an instance where .a man might have been promoted, and you were not, as I think many women worry about in other institutions, where they may be passed over at promotion time.
Guernsey:Yes. I think that’s true, so that it was a good place to be. We had a student who graduated a while back, who got a good job at a co-ed college. I saw her in New York, and she was just finishing her PhD. She was married and had a couple of kids. She’d gotten this job for the following year, and she said, “Well, you know, I’m not getting paid as much as if I were a man, and that’s why they hired me, because I’d come for a smaller salary. She said, “I don’t care, I’ve got a job.”
Sopka:I think today, that’s a very realistic attitude to take.
Guernsey:Yes. Yes, that was at the beginning of scarcity of jobs. But I think it’s worth saying that I certainly have never felt, honestly, that anybody was putting upon me because I was a woman. I’ve just always been accepted for what I’m worth.
Sopka:And on the other side of the coin, you have been able to carry on a normal social family life, and still be a professional physicist.
Sopka:Has it always worked out quite satisfactorily for you?
Guernsey:Yes. As a matter of fact, as I look back, there’s very little I would change. That sounds over-confident, and I don’t mean it to. What I mean is that I have enjoyed, by and large, every step of the way. I wouldn’t have continued if I hadn’t been enjoying it. Of course there have been hard spots to get over. But nothing that’s worth while doing doesn’t have its hard spots. It’s not all peaches and cream. But as I look back, the one thing that, as I’ve said, I would do differently, had I to do it over again, I think I would have tried to get some more research in, some more honest to goodness, good research. Other than that, I find that I’m reasonably happy with the way things turned out.
Sopka:Well. We’ve timed it exactly, because we’re just at the end of the tape. That’s a good note to complete on. I thank you very much for giving me your time.
Department of Industrial Cooperation
Presidents of MIT and Wellesley at the time.
Council on Physics in Education
National Science Teachers Association