Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lew Kowarski
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Lew Kowarski; March 20, 1969
ABSTRACT: Childhood in Russia, family and early schooling; Paris University, first publication, work on crystal growth in Jean Perrin’s lab, doctoral thesis. History of Frederic Joliot-Curie’s work, his lab, character, and collaboration with Irene Curie and other scientists in context of pre-war scientific establishment in France; Kowarski’s work as Joliot’s secretary at Radium Institute, reactions to Joliot’s Nobel Prize; work on magic numbers. Work on fission: Hans von Halban, Enrico Fermi, Otto Hahn, Leo Szilard, ca. 1939; effects of science in wartime France. Applications of fission chain reaction and patents; flight to England with Halban and heavy water supply. Kowarski’s integration into English scientific community: James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, the Maud Committee, Marcus Oliphant; course of development of Halban’s group in Canada; Kowarski’s work between Great Britain and U.S. Return to Europe in 1946; political climate of postwar France, particularly the influence of communism. French Commission on Atomic Energy (CEA), its internal politics, science and scientists in postwar France: Joliot, Pierre Auger, Jean Perrin, Curie, Jules Gueron, Bertrand Goldschmidt. Growth of energy. Family life and marriages; visit to U.S., 1946; comparison of postwar science in U.S. and France. History of French reactors. Kowarski’s impressions of French scientific unity and his role in it; introduction of computer technology into nuclear topics; European Nuclear Energy Agency (ENEA); Kowarski’s involvement. Contemporaries: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr; developments in CERN and ENEA; reflections on attainment of goals and shortcomings of CERN; thoughts about being a scientist in an international community.
Weiner:I want to start at the beginning and tell you the facts that I know, and that is that you were born at St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, in 1907; and I know that you left in 1918, I guess for Vilna. The first period of time, eleven or twelve years in Russia is an interesting period. I would like to know something about your father’s occupation and family background, and something about your home life and schooling in that period.
Kowarski:Well, this requires a hit of explanation. My father was an educated man. He didn’t get a full university education, hut he was, shall we say in today’s language, a drop-out, a university drop-out. My mother was of much poorer stock and was largely self-educated. And educated people in Russia in those days, the first years of the 20th century, had an attitude toward things which has to be understood. It was in the last years of a crumbling state of things -- legal and formal. For instance, my parents had difficulty in getting married, because my father was Jewish and my mother was of Ukrainian peasant stock, and to go through all the necessary steps to get married in those conditions was very complicated. So they just didn’t marry. And that was all right: that was considered to be a proper gesture of confrontation with the times. But, of course, it doesn’t make for stability. When they finally drifted apart, in the equivalent of what today would be a divorce, they just drifted apart; and the small children were left high and dry. Again, my father, in the spirit of these rather hectic times, decided that he’d have to take care of these two little boys, and so he installed his two boys in a kind of bachelor establishment in Leningrad, and for several years we were cared for by nurses, and then my father finally married. So we lived with a step-mother, and our mother lived in another part of the city.
Weiner:How old were you when you went to this school in Leningrad?
Weiner:Was it a boarding establishment?
Kowarski:No, my older brother and I lived in our father’s fairly spacious apartment cared for by a nurse. And so [we had] this very broken way of life in our father’s bachelor establishment, which was our daily surroundings, and our mother in another part of the city. [We were] living with a Jewish father, and being ourselves Christian boys with a Christian mother in a country which at that time, as you probably know, was very conscious of that part of human relations…It all contributed to create a fundamental feeling of borderline life, not quite belonging to the core of things, which characterized my whole career later on. That’s why I’m telling this in some detail.
Weiner:It is very interesting. How old were you when the separation occurred?
Kowarski:Not quite four, three and one half. My brother was at that time nearly six.
Weiner:What was your father’s occupation?
Kowarski:My father was a businessman, what probably would be called today a conglomerate man. He started in the pulp and paper business and gradually branched out into publishing, magazines. In this bachelor establishment of his, some famous writers would sometimes come discussing something about some plans for a magazine. By the time of the revolution, when I was about ten, he began to take shape as a publisher more than anything else. But he was a publisher, again, in a kind of sense of a businessman collecting businesses. He would suddenly come home and say that he had acquired such and such old renowned publishing house which was on the skids. He would acquire it and try to instill new life in it.
Weiner:It didn’t matter whether it was in one field or another? It could he literary or political or popular?
Kowarski:It was mostly popular magazines, which were quite a force in Russia in those days. There was a tremendous rising literate population who derived all their nourishment from magazines. The magazines were usually had by subscription. They would give a sort of premium to subscribers -- you know, whole collections of works of this and that author or authors who were no longer copyrighted. These magazines were among the most popular. So the reading atmosphere contained at the same time definitely popular magazine items and also classical literature.
Weiner:Nineteenth century works.
Weiner:And how did this effect the reading materials you had available at home?
Kowarski:Well, that’s another interesting question. I started reading, I don’t remember when, but I think probably by my fourth birthday I was already reading quite fluently. I was trying to remember recently what I was reading in my sixth year, that is when I was five or five and a half; and among the things I could definitely remember were my mother’s Italian grammar (my mother was a singer) and an elementary theory of music. So I learned, for instance, the symbols for fractions as symbols for chords before I learned the arithmetical meaning.
Weiner:They were three-five chords?
Kowarski:Seven-fifths and four-thirds, things like that. I knew the symbols for chords before I knew their arithmetical meaning. That was, as I say, at about five and a half. At the same time, again this curious atmosphere of populist enlightenment. There were lots of very high-quality books about the mysteries of the universe, probably designed for sort of, shall we say, adolescent working class lads. I devoured some of this when I was five and a half. My knowledge of how many satellites had such and such planets in the solar system, which in those times, by the way, was rather inaccurate, comes from that year. Incidentally, a little detail, now that I’m talking more about it. I found later on, a couple of years later, that more recent books attributed to Saturn or Uranus quite a different number of satellites, and I derived from that a very precocious feeling that even scientific books had to be taken with a critical spirit.
Weiner:That was an early acknowledgment of that. Did you discuss with your father or with any relative or family friend any of these things? Was anybody pushing you or encouraging you in this?
Kowarski:There was a married couple -- some younger relatives of my stepmother -- who lived next door in the same apartment house. They were quite friendly with these two little boys, and I remember the young lady, once she learned that I was very much interested in Jules Verne’s novels (I was eight), she sort of snorted: “Well, that’s kid stuff. Why don’t you read H. G. Wells?” So I read my first H. G. Wells novel under her enlightened guidance -- it was The War of the Worlds to begin with -- when I was eight. H. G. Wells remained the master of my thoughts for quite a time. In fact, I met him 28 years later.
Weiner:He must have been very old by that time, in his seventies.
Kowarski:Yes. It was an interesting meeting.
Weiner:Well, we’ll get to that later. What about your mother during this period? Did you see her?
Kowarski:Yes. My brother and I would go and see her every Sunday, which gave to our Sundays (I can’t speak for my brother, but I can speak for myself) a peculiarly poignant quality -- deep feelings, some melancholy -- and that was the way that Sundays were tinged for me for at least half of my life. She was a sort of budding singer -- she was still quite young -- and she led a somewhat, materially speaking, Bohemian life in the sense that she was living alone and spending a lot of time on her studies and exercises, the kind of life that is proper to impecunious artists. Of course, my father to some extent provided for her, the basic needs of her material existence. I didn’t know much about it, although we became in that way conscious of the importance of money questions in life quite early.
Weiner:You and, your brother you mean.
Weiner:Did you pursue musical training? I know you had an interest in music, but did you play an instrument?
Kowarski:They started giving me piano lessons when I was six. Probably they had not often seen a six-year-old, starting the piano who knew practically all about the chords, in Italian! I was, I suppose, rather musical, although the absolute pitch was developed a little later. Absolute pitch is still a very mysterious faculty. It doesn’t seem to be quite innate.
Weiner:You have absolute pitch?
Kowarski:Yes. But my musical interest always outran the ability to manipulate my fingers on the keyboard, and that again is rather characteristic. Usually my thoughts and my aspirations would outrun my technical possibilities. The pattern was set probably in those years. I am rather clumsy, and my fingers grew to be a quite unusual size. I probably would do better if they made pianos in large economy sizes.
Weiner:That would be interesting. Of course, they could always cut off a few octaves on either end and just expand the middle ones.
Kowarski:There was a time when I had the biggest span on the keyboard which I’ve ever seen or heard of. At that time I could fairly easily take a chord from “C” to the “A” of the next octave.
Weiner:That’s about a fourteenth.
Kowarski:A thirteenth. Now that I haven’t played for a long time, my hand is not so supple, but I can still take from “C” to “G” fairly easily. That’s definitely too big for the normal keyboard, and it became a hindrance. Of course, this was not when I was six!
Weiner:I should hope not. This was then when your mother was away -- but you pursued the lessons. Was your father, would you say, a wealthy man?
Kowarski:Well, unfortunately my knowledge of economics in those days was not sufficient to judge. We had a fairly big apartment but in one of the poorest districts of the city, a sort of factory suburb. On the other hand, by the time we began going regularly to school, he out us in a school about five miles away from home, and we would be every morning driven in our horse carriage. We knew that the horse would be a recently retired race horse. All this indicates a certain economic level. Also, towards the revolution, we started having automobiles. Actually the French in those days were preponderant as exporters of automobiles. It’s still the same names -- Renault, Peugeot: they were quite familiar to me by the time I was nine years old.
Weiner:That’s interesting. I didn’t know they went back that far.
Kowarski:Peugeot especially is one of the oldest pre-Ford carmakers. I know that in America it sounds incredible if you talk about pre-Ford carmakers, but they did exist.
Weiner:“In the beginning there was the Ford.”
Kowarski:That is strictly in this hemisphere.
Weiner:Let me ask another question about your home life. Although you were Christian boys, as you put it, did you have any religious training?
Kowarski:Oh, yes, Christian boys had to have religious training.
Kowarski:In schools, although, of course, my mother was kind of what might be called Deistic or Theistic in her attitude toward these things, I suppose in the 18th century language she would be described as believing in some kind of Supreme Being. But she considered that it was all right for the boys to be connected with church rituals, and in the Greek Orthodox Church the communion starts at a very early age. So the communion started very early and even the confession. I remember lisping out my boyish sins when I was about ten.
Weiner:How about in the school itself? What kind of school was involved? You had been doing so much on your own prior to that time.
Kowarski:Well, I can’t say that I, at any time during my life learned very much from any institution of learning. That I am now a part-time university professor seems to be a kind of divine vengeance on my students. Usually, on whatever I was interested in, I was far ahead of the school; and whatever I was not interested in I neglected. So the school was for me chiefly a place where I met boys of my age and indulged in the delightful game of collecting the best grades. I did usually have good grades, but it’s not because I was a good pupil -- it was because I consciously indulged in this sport.
Weiner:The sport of getting grades.
Weiner:But you don’t recall anything about the school in terms of your later interests -- being exposed to something in school that stimulated you.
Kowarski:Not in Leningrad. Later on in Vilna I met a few inspiring schoolteachers, particularly one in history who was quite a charismatic personality. I hated history, so it was a very good corrective. This teacher, whose name was Strauch was of German origin, but thoroughly Russified. He was probably among the first in the long series of interesting personalities which I was collecting all my life. I graduated later on to better-known names.
Weiner:Which we’ll pursue soon. Getting back to the St. Petersburg story, there was a mention in the Geneva newspaper article which you showed me, unless I interpreted it wrong, about the state of your health at that time. Were there specific problems with your health as a youngster?
Kowarski:There were always specific problems. It turned out, by the way, many many years later, that I have congenitally only one kidney. I became conscious of that much later. Having only one kidney comes about one in 10,000, I was told. The kidney had to develop with an extra load on it, and I remember (my father’s very big family had several outstanding doctors in it, so I was usually treated by one or another of my uncles) that they always insisted that they should be careful about how my kidney functioning was going on and whether there was any albumen and things like that. So that was one problem. There were all sorts of continuous boils and great susceptibility to infections, very often high fever. I had more than my share of all childhood diseases. I am a rather rare authenticated case of a boy who had measles twice. I have no reason to doubt it -- there were first class doctors in both cases. I had Scarlet Fever at the time when the first revolution broke out.
Kowarski:Yes. I’m told that Scarlet Fever has recently been abolished. It doesn’t exist anymore as an entity.
Weiner:I can give you proof that it exists.
Kowarski:So on the whole it was a rather fragile health. Also, we were fed in a very inept way. That was the time when the fad was to have light, easily digestible things. I think I had a certain lack of fats, in particular. Also, I suspect that all the stresses of this peculiar family life, and then things which began to develop during the revolution, landed me with a strong case of something like a psychosomatic colitis by the time I was leaving Russia.
Weiner:When you were just twelve years old.
Kowarski:Yes, it’s probably somewhat premature to develop a strong psychosomatic disease. So the health was bad. Therefore, the physical strength was minimal; practically no sports. And in this way I also began to lead a borderline life, not quite in my age group. The preoccupations were not the same. Boys around ten years of age would be far more interested in, shall we say, skating or elementary school ball games and far less interested in astronomy or H. G. Wells.
Weiner:This limitation on physical activities would lead to more sedentary things and would contribute to the reading, too.
Kowarski:I wasn’t particularly sedentary in the sense that when the Russian climate would allow it I was very much an outdoors boy, but the outdoors was more sitting in the sun or walking than anything else -- and swimming later on. I learned to swim rather late -- in my adolescence -- but then I became a very enthusiastic swimmer.
Weiner:Let me ask now about the coming of the revolution. It must be difficult for you, since so much history has been written on this subject, to put yourself back in terms of what you could perceive at the time, but I’m asking you to try to do this from the point of view of what you observed, if anything.
Kowarski:Well, I grew up in a milieu in which, for instance, a relative of my step-mother (I already talked about that branch of the family) would be introduced as: “Oh, she’s a remarkable woman, a very educated woman -- she did five years of hard labor in Siberia.” That was considered as a kind of hallmark of distinction, to have been deported and done hard labor in the prison. So one grows up with the idea that fundamentally the Establishment, the ruling forces, are in some way -- well, maybe not evil, but soon to be replaced. One grows up with this idea. That didn’t prevent me in the first years of the World War I, which started when I was seven, to become a disgustingly patriotic little boy waving the tri-color flag (flags are always tri-colored).
Weiner:Like the Trinity.
Kowarski:Yes. Blue, red and white in various combinations were the national symbol of at least half a dozen nations. But that was all right. The Tsar was very high up, and he was surrounded by corrupt ministers -- everybody knew that they were corrupt ministers -- and it was not his fault, what could he do? So it was perfectly all right to be a very devoted subject of the Tsar and at the same time know that the whole Empire is crumbling -- that’s all right. One lives with these sorts of contradictions. And it finally did crumble. People took this as -- well, they were always told it would come, so it had come.
Weiner:It wasn’t then a disturbance of some very solid, secure environment that all of a sudden was shattered.
Kowarski:There were a few interesting anecdotic details about it. For instance, children living in Leningrad very often went during the summer months to some summer house, to some dacha (which is the Russian word) in Finland. I forgot to say that we always spent the three months of the summer with our mother. We were given to her care during the summer months, always. And we were leaving in 1917 from the famous Finland station, which played such a role in the revolutionary events, into Finland. Well, at a newsstand, a little boy is given a book to read on the train. I got the H. G. Wells novel, The World Set Free, in which he explained in a very clear way how the atomic bombs will be discovered and developed. I don’t know whether you know that novel.
Weiner:I’ve heard references to it.
Kowarski:I started reading it on that train in late May or early June, 1917, in a Russian translation, of course. And then we went to a village Finland which happened to be -- and we knew it at the time -- the place where Lenin spent a few weeks during that summer. Lenin returned to Russia in his famous sealed Wagon, I think in April 1917, in July 1917 he already started the first uprising. And we knew all that, and we knew that Lenin just before the uprising was practically our next-door neighbor. I never saw him, but we knew he was there, and we knew who he was. And then he took over in October of the old calendar. The 7th of November was the 25th of October, so-called. I remember my father saying to somebody on the telephone: “What? Nonsense. I give them six weeks.” He was not the only one to take that position.
Weiner:He wasn’t caught up in it. He was an observer in a sense.
Kowarski:He was an observer. Of course, because of his connections in populist literary circles, he knew quite a few revolutionaries very well. I seem to remember having seen in the apartment (I’m not quite sure) the famous lawyer who defended Beylis, the man who was accused of a ritual murder, and about whom just now a film is going on –- “The Fixer.” The lawyer was a household name; he was, of course, rather Leftist. So my father was involved; and like all these liberal, somewhat monied intellectuals, he began to realize that the revolution began to go beyond him. Less than a year after Lenin started on his six weeks’ career, my father had to leave Leningrad. He decided it was safer.
Weiner:Was it an orderly exit?
Kowarski:Oh, yes. I don’t know exactly how he did it. I think in those days trains were still going, although, on the other hand, he finally went into territory which was German-occupied. The front by that time had completely collapsed, but still there was some kind of a front line, and he had to cross it. That was in the autumn of 1918. We stayed in our mother’s care for about three months more, and finally we left Leningrad in December 1918.
Weiner:And joined him?
Kowarski:And joined him.
Weiner:And your step-mother had cone with him?
Kowarski:Yes. My health was at that time very very bad. The colitis started. I could eat only the blandest food, which was already becoming very scarce. In fact, very soon there would be very little of any food in Leningrad. I arrived in Vilna in a bad state. I was not quite twelve.
Weiner:Did you ever see your mother again?
Kowarski:No. A few years later by rumors and correspondence with cousins, we gradually found out that she went back to the village of her Ukrainian family, and there the postal communications had been reestablished -- it was in the early l920s -- and I started a correspondence which went for something like fourteen years until close before World War II, when for any Russian citizens any correspondence abroad became impossible.
Weiner:You got to the mid-‘30s.
Kowarski:A bit later. The last letter I received from her in 1938.
Weiner:I think that fills me in on that general period. Was this new home chosen because it was connected to your father’s family?
Kowarski:Yes. My father was the youngest son of a prominent small “shtetl” Jewish family. It’s a family which had quite a few fairly prominent people in it. I always say that all Kowarski’s are cousins. Anatole Kovarsky, who graced the New Yorker for many years, with his cartoons -- I don’t know whether the name is familiar to you -- his father was, I think, my father’s first cousin, and actually I met Anatole in Warsaw when he was fourteen years young. He’s a bit younger than I. Andre Kostelanetz is another fairly close cousin.
Weiner:What about this new home in Vilna, which was the root of the family apparently and had all the family ties? I’d like to know something about the life there.
Kowarski:Vilna was not the “shtetl” in question. The “shtetl” was smaller, some fifty or seventy miles north of Vilna. The host member of the family was one of the elder brothers of my father, an uncle who was a very respectable ci1en in the Jewish community of that city and who also lived in a fairly big apartment. For a while my father and his two sons lived there. My step-mother lived in her native city for a while, which was Bialystok. That is south of Vilna.
Weiner:Was she Jewish?
Weiner:In other words, when you left Leningrad, she [and your father] split temporarily. When [were they] reunited?
Kowarski:My father organized a household of his own -- that is, with his sons and with his wife. That came about a year after he arrived in Vilna, in late 1919.
Weiner:Did you resume your schooling as soon as you got settled.
Kowarski:Almost immediately. I went to a local school in Vilna -- Russian speaking.
Weiner:How would you characterize the period? The only thing I know about the end point of the period was when you and your brother decided to study chemical engineering and went off to Belgium -- and that was 1923. So we’re dealing now with 1918 to 1923. I knew very little about that period.
Kowarski:I arrived in December 1918, and I left Vilna in December 1923, so it was almost exactly five years. I arrived when I was not quite 12. I left when I was not quite 17. So it was in early adolescence. Vilna changed hands in the first two years of that period. It changed hands something like 10 or 11 times. When we arrived, it was still German-occupied. There was a Lithuanian period, a Polish period, again Lithuanian, a Russian period (the Russian period was about two or three months in the late summer of 1920). So when people ask when I left Russia I say, “It’s more accurate to ask when Russia left me,” because for these two, three months, we were again in Soviet Russia. Then, finally, at the end of 1920 the Poles came and founded a buffer state which they called Central Lithuania, which persisted for about three years. It was finally formally annexed to Poland at the end of ‘23, just at the time when I was leaving.
Weiner:This tells me something about the atmosphere. What accounted for the choice to leave and to pursue the particular kind of education that you did?
Kowarski:Well, this being everywhere and in every respect a borderline case played a certain role in it. When my brother and I arrived in Vilna, one of the almost traumatic facts of our existence was that we suddenly found ourselves members of a Jewish community. We had rather little to do with the Jewish community when we were in Leningrad. We were sort of on the fringe of it, but we had deeper roots in our mother’s life, because we were Christians, and that counted. But here there was nothing doing. The Jewish community was our only community, and again we were Christian, and, of course, we were illegitimate; and that also counted. So we were on the fringe in three ways at least. We were living in a minority, in a religious and ethnic minority, in the midst of an inflamed state of conflicting nationalism, none of which was vested in that particular minority. It was Russia, Lithuania, or Poland, and all questions of national identity were very inflamed, and the Jews didn’t belong to any of those. Moreover, we personally spoke none of the local languages. We didn’t speak Polish. We had to learn it in school, but reluctantly. And we didn’t speak Yiddish either. We spoke only Russian. That again set us apart. In particular, in order to continue our studies in what more and more was becoming Poland, and a very anti-Semitic Poland, we would have to get through it, through all the hurdles of belonging to the Jewish community, to which we didn’t belong anyhow. So the first hurdle was this Jewish environment. The second was that this community didn’t belong in any sense to this part of the world with its local passions. And the third was that, legally, we didn’t belong to the Jewish community either. Several years later, it was quite natural for us to follow the trek of the young Jewish boys abroad, because Jewish boys always had a difficult time in getting into the Polish universities in those days. For us it would be worse: a very uncertain battle, which was not our battle anyhow. So it was quite obvious that we should go to the west. But my western education was not yet completed by the time my father lost his job.
Weiner:Was he still in publishing or related conglomerate activities?
Kowarski:No. My father being an organizer, his specialty began to be organizing cooperative banking among the very small craftsmen and businessmen of the Jewish community, which is also in some ways a fringe activity. He did it in Vilna -- he founded a bank. He was its director, then it developed into something bigger. Then he went to Warsaw. By that time his second household was completely broken up, too. We were living in Vilna with the step-mother, and the father was most of the time living in Warsaw. He managed to remain the director of his Warsaw bank until sometime in 1927. He had a reasonably good salary, which enabled him to maintain his two sons when they were in Western Europe -- in extremely poor conditions, but still we didn’t actually go hungry. And then he lost his job. By that time I was 20 1/2, and he was able to support me by whatever means were remaining for another year or two, and then I had to fend for myself.
Weiner:Let me get back, though, to the five years prior to leaving for Belgium. How did you overcome the language problem?
Kowarski:Which language problem?
Weiner:Well, the immediate one. Well, I guess there were two immediate ones -- Yiddish and Polish -- but it seems to me you had to go to school. What language were they using in school?
Kowarski:Russian. There were still Russian language gymnasia in Vilna which catered for the Russian-minded part of the Jewish population, under the very scowling eye of the Polish authorities, which were menacing and threatening that these diplomas would become worthless; and finally they did. When we finally got our high school diploma from this Russian-speaking school, it was completely worthless in the country we were living in. It was not recognized by any authority, and we managed to get admitted to the western universities chiefly because these were confused years, and they didn’t quite find their way in these things. But in France it did catch up with me, so that I had to prepare for the French baccalaureate. That is the high school certificate corresponding to what in Germany is called Abitur. I had to prepare for, and pass, a French examination for that, as if I had no high school degree at all. It did play a certain role in the chaotic state of my studies in France, the fact that the French suddenly got wise to my high school diploma being worthless.
Weiner:Even though you had been to school subsequently in Belgium?
Kowarski:Well, there we were admitted to the university in some capacity, which, as I say, they never did disentangle. But in the Belgian university I found that the going was heavy. The sporting attitude to grades didn’t save me anymore. My grades suddenly fell down to a very unsporting low level, and my brother did even far worse; so we finally decided that Belgium was not for us -- let’s go to France. And in France I finally got to the Lyons School of Industrial Chemistry, which was considered as a place where one didn’t need a high school degree. One needed a certain elementary entrance examination, of which I was dispensed because I already had two years in Belgium before, with not very good marks, but I just managed to break through.
Weiner:What kinds of studies in Belgium? Was this already on the way toward chemical engineering?
Kowarski:Chemical engineering, yes.
Weiner:What made you decide to go into that?
Kowarski:Well, I obviously wanted to have something to do with science. I had two main directions in life -- either science or music. Music didn’t work out. In psychoanalytical terms I might say that the music side was my mother’s side in my life, and when I was separated from my mother it began to wither away. Also, in Vilna, which was an intensely musical city, the attitude to music was essentially the Jewish attitude, which I might call the Jascha Heifetz lottery. You pour as much musical education in a child as you can, in the idea that it might turn out to be another Jascha Heifetz; and in that case it’s the most beautiful investment a family can have.
Weiner:I call that the “Who knows?” syndrome.
Kowarski:Yes. The number of musical prodigies who passed through my visible world in Vilna was amazing. Some of them became quite famous later on -- Kostelanetz for one. There were two Reisenberg sisters who, I understand, were quite well known here later on -- one a pianist, the other a violinist. Well, my musical education began to be caught in the same kind of situation. I felt myself like a person who is interested in economic questions who was caught in a tribe of frantic buyers of lottery tickets. It didn’t work. And by that time I began to be quite big and ungainly, and my fingers definitely didn’t mesh on the piano keyboard. My aunt, the wife of the Vilna doctor who was my father’s brother, was a very fine musician and a music teacher, with a character that probably couldn’t stand the onslaught of this rather peculiar adolescent who knew everything, and knew it better than anybody else, who refused to follow her lessons. She threw up her hands in despair -- she couldn’t do anything with me. She did manage to force me to play exercises two hours a day, which for an adolescent boy is an absolute torture. By that time I was starting to play such things as Bach’s Three Voice Inventions. I discovered Bach, by the way, all by myself by playing him. Bach in those days was considered somewhat dry stuff -- practically a scholastic matter. Bach was really discovered in the 20th century, and Vilna in those days was not quite in the 20th century yet. So, I’m afraid, I had to discover Bach really for myself, but I did. People said, “Well, he’s doing a commendable effort. Now, if you could exercise four hours a day, maybe…” Well, at that I threw hands up in despair.
Weiner:Then it was clear that the other alternative was science?
Kowarski:Science. H. G. Wells. Well, I began to dream of doing great deeds immediately after I started to read H. G. Wells. I remember one of my fantasies when I was ten was that I would find how to synthesize chlorophyll. I never was for small things.
Weiner:A commendable dream.
Kowarski:Yes, I would synthesize chlorophyll, and we would do away with all this silly agriculture. We would transform some light into sugar, all in nice neat factories which would be properly organized -- no stupid peasants.
Weiner:That’s the chemical engineering prospectus right there.
Kowarski:Yes. Why chemistry? Well, the First World War was the chemist’s war. We have forgotten to what extent. The Second World War was, of course, the physicist’s war, but the First World War was the chemist’s war. Chaim Weizmann became the founder of the Jewish state because he found how to make cheaply acetone for explosives. So chemistry had a certain glamour of something practical. Now, I was not particularly interested in practical things, but I knew at the time I was about to go to the university that it would be very hard going economically. I just could not consider having a studious life for so many years and then perhaps going for a doctorate and so on. Who would maintain me? I had to learn something practical. And in those days, especially, as having a degree in pure science was not considered as something practical. It was not much better than having a degree in pure poetry. So it had to be applied science, and that means engineering. And because chemistry had this glamour… I also found that chemistry somehow appealed to me more than, shall we say, electricity. For some reason I remained impervious to electricity for quite a long time. Already well into my graduate student years I still had to discover, practically for myself, how, for instance, in a circuit you have sometimes to put a resistor which can dissipate 100 watts and in another case 1/10 of a watt will be enough. I somehow never was able to find anything like that in books. It had to be done practically by trial and error. For chemistry there were nice books.
Weiner:Which you read during the Vilna period?
Weiner:You read chemistry and what else?
Kowarski:Chemistry and physics and mathematics. I had during my school years, when I was about 14 or 15, a period when I embarked on making a table of logarithms in the duo-decimal system. That is, to the base of 12 and in duo-decimal figures. I did it with terrific enthusiasm, and there were a few months in which I counted far better in the duo-decimal system than in decimals, because I never, never went to such lengths of work in the decimal system. It was from those days that I retained the habit of counting on my finger joints. Have you heard of that?
Weiner:You mean from the knuckles on?
Kowarski:Yes -- one, two three to 12. When you go to 12 you mark one here. And so on. So you can count very comfortably on your fingers up to 156. 12 times 12 plus 12. It is very convenient.
Weiner:Of course, your fingers are so big that it would suggest that kind of…
Kowarski:I didn’t invent it myself. But when I was 10, I invented two things. First of all, all by myself, I found the formula for permutations: in fact, the factorial concept. That was all by myself. I found that with four elements you can make 24 permutations; if you have six elements, 720, and so on. I developed that idea of factorial all by myself. The other thing I developed was a perpetual calendar. I saw in some old almanac the way to calculate the days of the week. It was a very clumsy affair with lots of tables to it. I decided that was stupid, and I developed a system for myself in which one had to memorize only a sequence of 12 figures, which I can still rattle off.
Weiner:How about your brother -- did he play games of this type with you? Did he make these excursions?
Kowarski:My brother was in better health. Therefore, he was far more athletic than I. He was far closer to the sportsman ideal of a boy. He learned bicycling rather early in life. Swimming, no. Swimming he learned about the same time as I. But skating and bicycling and some skiing, he did learn early. Skiing was a must in those days. I did quite a lot of skiing from the age of four, but flat skiing, not slope -- it was a way of locomotion. We didn’t consider it a sport.
Weiner:It was necessary.
Kowarski:Yes -- for small distances. So he was in many ways a far more normal boy. His intellectual interests were more on the artistic side. He was a more artistic character. He was less musical than I. He had not absolute pitch. But, still, he was reasonably musical. In Russian schools -- our first school was still in Leningrad -- singing lessons were very important; and, of course, our mother was a singer. School boys sang in two voices -- two-voice songs by prominent Russian composers. And from time to time, after going to bed, we would stage a family concert. My father with his guests would creep to our door and listen to us.
Weiner:You were close enough in age to do these things together.
Kowarski:Two years and a quarter of difference.
Weiner:What I’m leading up to is that he went with you, apparently took the same course of study. I understand what brought you to it. I’m not clear why he also elected to do the same thing.
Kowarski:When we left Leningrad, our native city, and our mother, I was not quite 12, but he was just over 14; and it hit him far harder than me. In some ways, I should not hesitate to say, he was broken. There was one dizzy period in which his school grades in Leningrad were higher than mine. It was dizzy for him because at that time I was already considered as a rather eccentric and highly intellectual boy; that he was still able to beat his kid brother at that game was good for him. But immediately when we arrived in Vilna, his scholastic achievements began to go down and down. By the time we left, when I was not quite 17 and he was just over 19, I was already far more accomplished scholastically than he; and, in fact, I even had to coach him in French for some of his exams, which, of course, was a terrible humiliation for an adolescent boy -- to be coached by his kid brother.
Weiner:So then he was sort of dependent in the sense of the academic decision. Is this a fair interpretation?
Kowarski:When we arrived in the west, he was a very typical drop-out figure. I don’t think that during his two or three attempts to go to the university regularly, he attempted to pass a single exam or anything. Finally, by the time he was 23, 24, he sort of left behind all ideas of any scholastic achievement completely. He lived in Paris by that time and began to live the typical life of a young Russian emigre in Paris. He was in many ways a more complete personality than I. He attracted fiercer friendships and enmities than I did. His understanding of the arts was always far closer than mine, except perhaps music. By him I was coached in then contemporary Russian poetry, which was at a very high level. The last pre-revolutionary period or revolutionary period in Russian poetry and the first post-revolutionary period. It was he who coached me in that, more or less. He also was far more versed in visual arts, which always remained to me a fringe interest. And in particular, he was a necessary corrective for my excessive admiration of very modernistic things. He taught me some respect of more external things, such as, for instance, to respect things made of wood and leather and ceramics rather than stainless steel or aluminum.
Weiner:Would this also relate to styles in architecture?
Kowarski:Here perhaps my interests remained always a little more modernistic than his. But it was from him that I learned to admire such things as the Place des Vosges in Paris, for instance, which is a wonderful thing. It was he who taught me to respect the Place de la Concorde and other architectural ensembles. It is also probably from him that I first heard of Le Corbusier. But on the whole my interests remained more modernistic, and that’s why when I fly from New York to Europe I always try to fly by TWA, because I adore the TWA terminal.
Weiner:You went where in Belgium, the university? Ghent?
Kowarski:In French it’s “Gand.” But nobody uses French in Ghent now. In fact, during our two years in Ghent, French in the university was on its last legs. We again were caught in narrow nationalist quarrels with which we had nothing to do.
Weiner:Such as student demonstrations?
Kowarski:It was again my brother who taught me the respect for the Ghent architecture. Have you been to Ghent?
Kowarski:A very remarkable place architecturally. What with my modernistic inclinations on one hand and my brother’s more steadying artistic influence on the other hand, I developed a very eclectic taste. Ghent is quite a city in this respect.
Weiner:But it was a city in turmoil. At least the university was in turmoil, I gather.
Kowarski:It was just starting. It became noticeably worse in our second year, and it went entirely Flemish very soon after we left.
Weiner:So then your leaving was not only a combination of this dropping out of the sport of the search for grades -- we’re just talking about you now -- but it was also the atmosphere itself, which you apparently didn’t find conducive to study.
Kowarski:Well, we probably were not quite conscious of that. Those were the years –- ‘24 – ‘25 -- when Europe still hadn’t quite settled from the First war. European currencies were in a horrible state. Germany had just introduced the first stable mark, the Rentenmark. But Belgium and France were still in the throes of runaway inflation. We lived strictly by ourselves. We never got close to know any of the Belgian natives around us. We were considered very much like, shall we say…Well, later on I considered myself like those students who come to Paris from, shall we say, India or Indochina, although we were white-skinned, but that was about the only saving grace. The ethnic difference could be seen in every creature, in the way we dressed, the way we behaved. And then we were extremely poor.
Weiner:Relative to the others at the university.
Kowarski:Yes. Perhaps a better simile would be North African students in France, who also had this approximate ethnic conformity but not quite -- an accent, a way of living only between themselves, somewhat different food.
Weiner:The difference is that there was a North African community in Paris, but there wasn’t a community that you and your brother could fit into.
Kowarski:Later on, in Paris, there was one for us, very much so.
Weiner:I was thinking of the Belgian period.
Kowarski:Well, we were just very foreign and very younger students, very shy very much living among ourselves.
Weiner:But you had each other.
Kowarski:There were also lots of school friends from Vilna. It was a mass trek, you know. After all, our school friends were from that same Russian gymnasium. They all had worthless diplomas.
Weiner:So they had to find a place.
Weiner:You stayed there apparently until 1927. No, you had a degree from Strasbourg in ‘27. So what happened? Did you go directly to Paris?
Kowarski:No, I went in October ‘25 to Lyons. I wanted to go to Paris, but my father considered that Paris was not a healthy place for a young boy. Paris had a remarkable reputation in those days in almost the whole world. It was a reputation which, I’m afraid, some factions of the Paris business world were very assiduously maintaining. It brought in money. So instead we went to Lyons. My brother didn’t stay in Lyons very long. That was his last attempt to make a show of going to a university. Very soon he left, and I was left in Lyons all by myself.
Weiner:This was at the School of Industrial Chemistry?
Kowarski:Yes. By that time I decided that I was in a state of war against society because I wanted something from the society which society was in no way inclined to give me. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to have enough remuneration for whatever I could do to be able to indulge in science, and therefore my remuneration should remunerate me for something which would not take the whole of my time -- in a situation when I had hardly a valid passport at all, and a country which was headed towards a slowdown of its developments. At that time there were several million foreign workers in France, mostly from Italy, Belgium and Poland. And this was a kind of a submerged layer of the population. The forces of the society were to keep me in that submerged layer, and I refused to be in a submerged layer, so I obviously was at war. Now, the way of waging the war was, of course, to get the highest diploma I could get. I once got hold of some student’s manual of the Paris University; when it came to the science doctorate (not Ph.D., D. Sci. rather), it started with the promising sentence: “The science doctorate is the highest degree delivered by the Faculty of Science.” I said, “Ha! That’s for me.”
Weiner:So that was clearly your goal. Each successive educational involvement, so far as you were concerned, was a step toward this.
Kowarski:When I was in Lyons my father lost his job, and he was just barely able to see me through to my 22nd birthday, in fairly poor condition. So it was an aim very very high up, with very few weapons in that struggle. But I still decided I would do it.
Weiner:What were you studying then at Lyons? You went there in ‘25.
Kowarski:I had already behind me two years at the University of Ghent, but I didn’t handle it properly, and this Institute’s curriculum was hardly fitted to take me over. Finally they gave me a few tests and said: “Well, you can become a student without a heavy exam, but we can only take you at the very beginning.” And the course in those days was a three-year course, and at the end one got a degree in chemical engineering of the University of Lyons, which was not a very glamorous diploma -- very very far from being an equivalent of an Ivy League diploma. In France at that time -- and it’s still the situation -- there’s a harsh scale of values of what various degrees are worth. The highest degree in France is the Ecole Polytechnique. On the scale of engineering degrees, my degree was -- I hesitate to slander my alma mater -- not in the first dozen, very certainly not in the first dozen.
Weiner:There’s something confusing. I have a note that you also had a degree from Strasbourg in 1927.
Kowarski:That’s not a degree. That was the baccalaureate. The baccalaureate is the final examination of the French high school.
Weiner:Oh, that’s the thing you referred to before.
Kowarski:In those days, because of the peculiarities of the French bureaucracy, it had to be passed in two halves and there was no way of telescoping them into one. The first year in France I had to find my way. At the end of the second year I passed the first cart of the baccalaureate, and at the end of the third year, simultaneously with my final exams as a chemical engineer, I had my second part of the baccalaureate. So I finally went out of Lyons with the chemical engineering degree and the complete baccalaureate, which opened to me for the first time the way to the university.
Kowarski:Strasbourg because I chose as one of my electives Russian, and there are professors of Russian at major French universities. It’s all incredibly bureaucratic. For instance, I was allowed to pass my baccalaureate only in Lyons, because of my residence there. But since I had elected Russian and since the professor of Lyons happened to be away on sabbatical, then I quite bureaucratically again was given the choice of whether I would prefer to pass my baccalaureate in Paris, in Strasbourg, or in some other place. I chose Strasbourg, very characteristically. Why? Baccalaureate is essentially an exam in the essentials of the French culture, and I was acutely aware of the fact that although I was reasonably cultured, I still could not compete with the French boys. Strasbourg in ‘27 was still very freshly from German occupation, and I reckoned that the expectation of proficiency in French culture would be somewhat less. That’s why I chose Strasbourg. I tell this anecdote in detail because it shows that I was on the warpath, and any weapon was good.
Weiner:I think today you’d call it career planning. I don’t see this as being sinister. In other words, setting some goals and then finding out the best way to achieve them.
Kowarski:Well, I’m told that an adolescent (well, by that time I was no longer an adolescent; I was just out of my teens) is very often idealistic. I was in my way, an idealistic youth, but I am told that they usually are less grim about their determination.
Weiner:There are more options, perhaps.
Kowarski:Exactly. I had very little choice.
Weiner:The work at Lyons lead to the equivalent of an engineering degree, and you’ve explained the differences in these degrees. Did this involve any courses in science per se, any physics courses, any chemistry courses?
Weiner:What sorts of things did you cover, say, in physics, and what was your reaction to it? Was this the first time you had a straight so-called physics course?
Kowarski:No. Physics as taught in universities in those days was always a nightmare for me. I knew, of course, all about the modern things. I had a reasonable understanding of special relativity, for instance.
Weiner:From what source?
Kowarski:Books, good books. I developed quite a taste for good books. I had, still in Vilna, a school friend who was a great influence on me and quite a personality. He was one of the first in the series of authentic personalities I already mentioned as my life-long collecting interest. By that time modern books, post-World War books, began to penetrate to Vilna, and we developed a taste for them. We begged or otherwise obtained little bits of money, and we indulged in a brisk trade: on several occasions I traded away some of the old books in my father’s apartment for newer books. For instance, I remember very well the popular book on radioactivity by Kasimir Fajans. I don’t know whether the name is meaningful to you.
Kowarski:He’s still alive, by the way. That was quite an influence. I was 15 when I read this book of Fajans, in which, of course, Bohr’s theory is already mentioned. But I heard of Bohr for the first time in my life in a popular lecture at the Vilna University.
Weiner:When you read these works of Fajans and others, was it only in Russian, in Russian translation?
Kowarski:It could be in Russian; it could be in Polish. By that time I had a tolerable knowledge of French. That’s another amusing story. You may have read about it in an article I gave you.
Weiner:I want to hear more about it. I didn’t understand it fully in the context in which I read it; about what this choice of languages represented.
Kowarski:Well, among the things I decided when I was still quite a boy was that I should know the mainstream of western languages -- that is, German, French and English in that order. Why in that order? German was the language we were permeated with, quite apart from Yiddish even, which is, after all, a German dialect. But German was the language of the influence around us, the western culture around us. Germany was the country where our uncles and aunts went to a health resort from time to time if they had enough money, and they would bring recent German songs and gramophone records and news about a new German play they saw in Germany. German was the western language around us. But by my reading I knew (or I thought I knew) that the real core of western culture was further west. I was more interested in the Atlantic civilization than in the Central European civilization. Therefore, French and English. We had extremely little English around us. French was considered as a language of the very rich, very decadent, people who instead of going to a health resort would push further and go to Paris. French literature is, of course, far more outstanding than German literature, with all due respect to Goethe, and we knew that, because we already knew all the western literature in translation. And so, as you have read in this Geneva article, French for me was essentially the language of traditional high culture. And there was enough French influence around -- French books, people speaking French. English was something exotic, kind of beckoning from afar, you know. So I started with French. Also, French had this analytical structure, the same as English, which was news to me. The languages around me were Russian, Polish, Latin in school, all highly synthetic languages. German is somewhat less rigidly synthetic than those, but has still more or less the same spirit. French has a completely different structure, and that attracted me. There was almost an element of science fiction in it -- a taste of another world. So I persuaded my father to find for me a French teacher. I started this as soon as I arrived in Vilna -- I was 12. But it took some time. Finally I got my private lessons in French when I was 13. When 14, I started to speak it.
Weiner:And then you were able to read the works. That’s how we got on this.
Kowarski:Particularly detective fiction in French. Arsene Lupin and Rouletabille were my great heroes. These names don’t mean anything to you?
Weiner:No, not to me. These are French mystery writers?
Kowarski:Not mystery writers, but mystery heroes.
Weiner:I see, of the novels. In the courses at Lyons -- I started to ask you about the physics courses, and we got off on this because I asked about prior reading, and you told me what you had been reading. But what about the courses themselves? Did they introduce any of the new physics -- for example, the new quantum mechanics? You came on the scene just as things were breaking –- ‘25, ’26…
Kowarski:I first heard about quantum mechanics, I think, in 1927. My brother lived in Paris, and some of my former school friends were also in Paris, and they managed by hook and by crook to go to Paris University in various capacities of free students and so on. They first told me about the waves of matter. That was Louis de Broglie. It took me some time to hear about Schrodinger and Dirac and Fermi. Then my knowledge of popular and semi-popular scientific literature was chiefly in Russian and in German. French for me was not the language of science, and the French were very awkward about books. The libraries in France were and still are far less developed than, shall we say, here. The French usually buy their books, and of course that was completely beyond my means. And also, I had developed a certain better knowledge of the German book market, since I from time to time went to see my father from France to Poland, going through Germany. It was in this way that I bought a semi-popular book on quantum mechanics by Haas. Haas is a fairly well-known writer in elementary university physics. It was in 1930 that I bought my first book by Haas, which was appropriately called Materiewellen und Quantenmechanik. It had chapters on de Broglie, Schroedinqer, Dirac, and Fermi. There I got all of it.
Weiner:Of what nature were the physics courses that you did have at Lyons? What materials did they include?
Kowarski:Well, I think the least said the better. There was (I think he’s still alive; I’m not sure) a French writer of almost semi-popular books, Marcel Boll, who in the 1920’s made himself a crusader in introducing the ion theory into French chemistry. Since I was always very modernistically inclined, I took to Marcel Boll in chemistry just as I took to Le Corbusier in architecture, and I found that I almost immediately earned the nickname in my chemical school: “Oh, he is a disciple of Marcel Boll.” Ions were considered as a kind of dangerous thought(s), at the Chemical Institute in Lyons. The funny thing is that at the same time we had a very enlightened course in industrial chemistry (not in basic chemistry), where the professor used the ion concept quite freely. As a matter of fact, it was still possible to teach benighted boys elementary chemistry without mentioning ions; but it was increasingly difficult to teach modern industrial chemistry, without some modern concept.
Weiner:Yes, it’s concerned with process.
Kowarski:Exactly. The best course we had in Lyons was this course in industrial chemistry. It was given by Professor Meunier, who was acting director of the school and later on became full director -- a rather stiff personality, but his course was a delight. And the other course I remember (and I would like to take this occasion to “immortalize” that man, if I may say so) was a very humble course called Chemical Instruments given by a very humble man, who was considered a kind of outcast, I think, because he taught that very lowly course, which was rated as extremely unscientific. His name was Lepers. And this man was a poet in his heart, and he managed to give wonderful vistas of development of a concept of a pump, or of a filter, in such a way that you were witnessing the growth of an idea rather than handling items of a catalog. This course was probably the most inspiring I had, and there were some rather remarkable consequences. For instance, when we were studying pumps, I began to respect the Rootes pump, which consists of two pistons shaped like figures of S. From time to time this concept pops out of the most advanced things in technology. You may have heard of the automobile engine they developed recently in Germany, the Wankel engine. It’s a rotary engine, not a reciprocating engine. It’s based, I think, on a similar concept. When I was building my first heavy water reactor, I had a very healthy respect for not losing any drop of heavy water. Therefore, I had to think of a suitable pump. I again thought of Rootes pumps, and I stole a march on the first American heavy water reactor, because they did have some pump trouble. I didn’t have any, because it was a suitable pump.
Weiner:That is described somewhat, isn’t it, in the Margaret Gowing book?
Kowarski:I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
Weiner:That story brings some recollections. The work at Lyons leading to a degree in mathematics, though.
Kowarski:Not this degree. Mathematics was the second baccalaureate.
Weiner:I understand. The first was “Science and Languages,” and you had to go to Strasbourg for that, which was French culture, and you explained the reasons; and then the second half was mathematics.
Kowarski:It was called “baccalaureaten mathematiques.”
Weiner:Did you get a degree from Lyons?
Kowarski:Oh, yes -- chemical engineering.
Weiner:In 1928, wasn’t it?
Kowarski:In 1928, at the same time as my completed baccalaureate. In fact, I had to rush from one exam to another: here the chemical engineering and there the baccalaureate. It was the sort of thing which would appear horrible to any of my colleagues. To pass one exam was horrible enough, but to pass two -- and the baccalaureate was never very easy -- at the same time in the same few days. Well, I managed.
Weiner:Now, somewhere the name of a Professor Job comes up. Was that at Lyons too?
Kowarski:Yes. His course was in physical chemistry. I didn’t profit much from his course because I had far better books in physical chemistry from Germany, in German. But I talked to him, and I met him again in Paris. We came to Paris about the same time (he was transferred from Lyons to Paris) and when I started acquiring my various Paris degrees, always on the war principle -- to get the highest degree possible with the minimum effort possible --, he helped me a bit.
Weiner:So at Lyons you worked in organic chemistry and somewhat in physical chemistry, but this was not really working. This was getting background.
Kowarski:No. It was preparing for exams. The real usefulness of Lyons was the lab course. We spent an awful number of hours a week in the laboratory, the first year was mostly analytical chemistry, the second year mostly in organic chemistry, and the third year in applied organic chemistry. Of course, I was quite an object of horror to all my teachers, because my table was always the dirtiest one. I was very clumsy. I was breaking a lot of glassware. But then I noticed one thing which became characteristic. When it came to real difficulties, I suddenly outdistanced my colleagues and did better than most of them. And this is a characteristic phenomenon in my whole scientific career, and not only scientific. I seem to have considerable difficulty in elementary steps, very considerable. But if I do get through them, then I have less difficulty in more advanced things than most people. Finally I achieved far less in my life than I expected to achieve when I was young, but that was always because of the elementary hurdles. I once told Weisskopf, that was very long ago, that, “hell, I don’t know much about mathematical physics. I never used a Bessel function in my life.” I said, “When I had to make evaluations of reactors having a cylindrical shape, I usually made some very crude approximation.” Weisskopf looked at me and said, “Well, at least I notice that you really understand what Bessel functions are for, and that is far more than can be said of most people who use them.”
Weiner:That’s a good comment. This takes us to 1928 while you are still a young man. You went back to Vilna briefly.
Kowarski:Oh, I went practically every year.
Weiner:But then after graduation you went back again. So there was nothing unusual about going back in 1928?
Weiner:Because when you returned, though, you returned to Paris in search of a job.
Weiner:Now, let me ask you a question of timing here. I understand from the Geneva article and from what you said, that it was a question of finding a job that would not occupy you full time but would provide you with enough money to become involved in science more to your taste.
Weiner:And you did obtain a job as a technical secretary at the steel tube institution. Now want to know a couple of things -- whether you just responded to an ad for that, what the duties consisted of, and what the function of the organization was.
Kowarski:That’s a good question. I arrived in Paris at the end of 1928. I was nearly 22, not quite. I had my diploma, which I was learning very quickly was a relatively low-grade diploma. I learned later on (again I ask forgiveness of my alma mater) that the main aim of these university institutes in the provinces, the technical institutes, was to provide degrees for the somewhat less accomplished sons of the local industrialists. A man has a factory, shall we say -- a brewery or a small factory for making dye stuffs or something -- and his son is growing. He says, “Someday my son will replace me as head of the establishment,” or perhaps, “he will go to the factory of his uncle, who will remember him in his will, and he should be trained for engineering. So let my son go to Ecole Polytechnique.” At Polytechnique in those days there were only 250 youths a year from the whole of France, so it was very very stiff.
Kowarski:Yes. There was a descending scale of school values. After the Ecole Polytechnique there was the Centrale; then there was the Ecole d’Electricite and so on, all by competitive examination. And if the son was either, shall we say, not an intellectual, or perhaps preferred to spend his adolescence in more adolescent pursuits, well, there should be something which gives a degree which is not too complicated. So the main clientele of these institutes were these louts from industrial families. Now, those who did not belong to industrial families were remarkable prey for lower jobs -- shall we say, a man who makes routine analyses in a chemical lab. He spends his whole life at this. It really should be done by a qualified workman, but workmen are awkward people -- they are members of labor unions, they go on strike and so on. If you have somebody who considers himself a university man, therefore higher than laborers, then he will not unionize, and therefore he will be very docile. Perhaps if he does really well, he may become an assistant manager of the factory lab in due course. Perhaps he will even marry one of the poorer relations of the factory owner, this sort of thing, if you are really a conformist. Now, the foreigners. There was a complicated system of labor permits, which were granted with difficulty and were revocable, so you had to behave in order to be granted a labor permit. And if you worked without a labor permit, which is the equivalent of a wetback, then you are even more docile. Then you can’t even marry a poor relation. So in a way these graduates from these third and fourth rate institutions, who had no other connections with the life around them, were a very, very interesting pool of highly qualified labor which was easy to handle. That was the fate to which I was destined, but I had other ideas.
Weiner:How did you act on those ideas then? Do you classify your first job as typical?
Kowarski:I had several false starts. My employers, after all, had some knowledge of human nature. They would realize very well that I was not their material. In those days in 1929 France had already started the depression, before other countries. It never went as deep as other countries, but it started earlier. 1929 was already a depression year in France. There were a lot of young people coming, with or without diplomas, on the labor market. They could be had for a song, and usually there were advertisements for, shall we say, a paper factory in the provinces, some post open, laboratory assistant having a diploma of a university technical institute. I remember very well one of these advertisements in which they said: “Wonderful lodging facilities, factory restaurant, serving a main course with four and half ounces of meat...” That I remember.
Weiner:Did you respond to any of these advertisements?
Kowarski:I arrived in December ‘28. I lived in a cheap hotel, at that time still with my brother. I found him again in Paris. Every morning we would go to the public library and look at the technical journals -- in particular the Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve in Paris, which is still one of the main university libraries, a very quaint establishment. I haven’t been there since, and I don’t know whether it is as quaint as it used to be. We would go to see the advertisements. My first hit was a sales establishment of some French and Belgium coal mines, to which I came as one of the applicants, and I was given the assignment which said: “Write a paper about modern ways of using coal, come in a week and. show what you have written.” It was some kind of technical secretarial job. I came back there with my essay. I’m still very proud of what I remember of it. I handed it over to the bearded gentleman who had interviewed me, but he was in a very distracted mood. I read in a newspaper the next day, that they were all arrested that day. This sales establishment was involved in some swindle or other. I don’t know whether my bearded gentleman was arrested too. Probably. I never heard from him.
Weiner:Did you keep a carbon copy -- no pun intended -- of your coal paper?
Kowarski:No. You may have noticed that I have rather legible handwriting. That is due to a discovery I made when I was 12. I suddenly discovered that you write in order that other people should be able to read it. This principle is never taught to young people. I was told that your writing has to be neat; that it has to be beautiful; but never that it should be easy to read. I discovered it all for myself, and this was extremely useful in life. It predisposed, for example, all the examiners in written essays in my favor.
Weiner:So that was one of the abortive job attempts. But was the job at the steel tube institution the first one that you actually had?
Kowarski:No, my first job when I was really paid was at the Peugeot factory. It was my first contact with Peugeot, and it was not a happy one for either of us. It’s characteristic of my all-forgiving disposition that Peugeot is still my favorite car, not because of the way they treated me there, but because I found it’s a fine car. I still do.
Weiner:That’ssimp1e enough basis for judgment.
Kowarski:Exactly. My first contact with Peugeot was not very pleasant. But, you see, they used to proceed in this way. They would have, shall we say, five places. They would hire 20 youths for what they called a three-month test period; and at the end of three or six months they would dismiss 15 of them. It was known that 15 would be dismissed. I was, of course, pre-destined to be among them. That was my first job. After I think even two months, I was dismissed; went back to Paris and found another job. This time it was in a coke and as factory near Paris. There I obviously would be dismissed at the end of three months, but it was then that I read the advertisement of the tube business. In the gas factory I did chemical analysis. In the tube business it was paper work, and it required a knowledge of languages, and here my handwriting came in again. On the day I applied, as I learned later on, there were about 100 applications. Mine was short-listed, as they say. This time I dealt with people of a far higher human quality. One of my prospective bosses was even a politician, which was probably the first politician I met in my life, not the last. And my handwriting pleased them and the way my letter was arranged pleased them. I tried various styles on various occasions. That time, I think, the style was expressing a modest but firm conviction of my worth.
Weiner:And also probably stressing, as you did in that other document you showed me, the things that they wanted to hear, the things that were necessary.
Kowarski:Yes, I made an evaluation of what they wanted. They held me or I held to them for eight years, mostly part time. I don’t think they ever regretted hiring me.
Weiner:This was an international company…
Kowarski:France was still occupying the Saar region, which was on the fringes. It was a coal basin just outside of the border of French Lorraine. You know, or possibly you don’t know, that in that region the steel-coal complex is that the iron ore is on the definitely French side of the border, but the coal mines happen to be unfortunately in the completely German—speaking part of the country. Well, that’s all right. One develops a few concepts: that the thing once belonged to France, and in fact, one of the main cities is called Sarrelouis after Louis Quatorze. So, after 1918, the French held on to that region for many years. And they inherited there a steel tube factory, which was German. Mannesmann is still one of the main steelmakers in Germany. And so the Mannesmann company in Paris was founded to market in France the steel tubes made in the Saar Basin. Steel tubes were a novelty for pipelines in France then. The firm had sections for water mains and for gas mains, and I got into the gas main section. Possibly the fact that I was at that time just about to be booted out of a gas factory played a certain role. They may have suspected. Probably they telephoned there, I don’t know. The reference certainly was not a very good one. They probably decided that I was not in a suitable job there, and they would give me a trial, and this job turned out all right.
Weiner:Eventually did you do engineering studies regarding the high-pressure gas distribution?
Kowarski:Yes. Actually, finally in my last year I even wrote a book about it, the only book I have ever written so far.
Weiner:This is 1939.
Kowarski:It was published in ‘38. I wrote it essentially in ‘37.
Weiner:So this would occupy you, what? A half day?
Kowarski:The first year and a quarter I worked a full working day. It was suddenly almost a kind of paradise for me. First of all, the office was in the middle of Paris -- at that time it was west of the middle -- very close to the Champs-Elysees. Therefore, one went to work in civilized surroundings. My gas factory involved a very awful bit of commuting every day from Paris there. I had to get up quite early, which I always hated. The new job was far more civilized in this respect. The working week was amazing for those times. It was 39 hours.
Weiner:That was short for that time.
Kowarski:Short, yes. The salary was far higher than the one I had had. It was fully two-thirds of what was considered a minimum salary for a young university assistant. It was quite a dizzy life for me.
Weiner:From nothing. I mean this was your first job really.
Kowarski:Not my first. I was a happy candidate to remain after the trial period in two other jobs before that.
Weiner:But prior to this period.
Kowarski:In fact, it was so dizzy that I decided that I must start working part time so that I could do science in the other half. The idea that one could be paid for doing science was completely idiotic.
Weiner:To you personally or in general?
Kowarski:Well, France in many ways -- not in all ways but in many ways -- is a Latin country and has a very strong family sense. Now, for a young man to be paid in science was even then a nice way of life. You did what you wanted. One was paid a little, especially if one belonged to a family. And therefore it was a good job, and the good jobs were of course reserved for their own people. So the idea for somebody like me, coming from nowhere with no family connections whatsoever… I had a few relatives, Kowarskis and others, whom I met in Paris. They were very nice to me. They said they had heard about me and what a gifted young man I am; and, of course, a gifted young man can make his own way. It was very encouraging.
Weiner:How then did you get involved in the university?
Kowarski:It was very simple. This was December ‘28. The French university year starts in the early days of November. When I arrived in Paris it was just before Christmas. The last days before Christmas recess; so it was some six weeks after the beginning of the university year, but I was still able to enroll myself as a student in Paris University for the current year. It was difficult, but still possible. I flourished my French baccalaureate, and it was all right. I had no intention to go to any courses. I had to earn my living. I just wanted to pass my exams at the end of the year. One had to do it by selecting matters. One had the first diploma -- what might be called the B.Sc.-- by passing exams in three matters. And since my aim was the highest degree delivered by this faculty, two of these matters had to be what was known as General Physics and General Chemistry, and the third anything you like. General Chemistry was a cinch. I just had got a degree in chemical engineering. About physics I decided: “We’ll tackle that when we come to it, but let’s first concentrate on the other two.” So as the elective I took Applied Chemistry. They sniffed a little on that, because it was definitely not very well-balanced, but they couldn’t do anything. The regulation was physics, chemistry and a third anything you like, so I took Applied Chemistry. For General Chemistry I had to work a little. It was there that Prof. Job helped me a little. For Applied Chemistry, I decided not to work at all. The result was that in General Chemistry I passed my exam immediately with a passing mark, no distinction, but Applied Chemistry I didn’t pass -- I failed.
Weiner:You didn’t take courses for either one of them, though.
Kowarski:I never went to any course, never. Next year I ran into difficulty when I tackled physics. Here I had to do something, because one had to have physics lab. Of course, I never went to physics lab. But one had to pass some tests from time to time, and I decided, “I will do it somehow. After all, I had had a bit of physics at Lyons.” The first time I went to a test I asked some lab boy, who knew me more or less, where the test was. They had to give us instructions on how to do the test. He said, “That’s in the physics lecture room.” Then I had to ask, “Where is the physics lecture room?” He looked at me with completely blank eyes and said, “You mean to tell me you don’t know where the physics lecture room is?” “Oh,” I said promptly, “you said physics lecture room. Excuse me. I thought you said physiology.”
Weiner:To think of going to take the physics exam without having been to a physics lecture was unheard of.
Kowarski:Yes. After that I was careful not to ask my way from any member of the staff but from fellow students. The main professor was the famous French physicist, Cotton. I met him eight years later; I am certain that I saw him then for the first time in my life.
Weiner:For these exams it was a question of being able to study, to know what was being said in advance.
Kowarski:Here the French system works conveniently. It’s so rigid. You have certain very definite programmatic matters. You know what chapters of physics exams will be on, and you know what books to read, so it can be done, except that it was a rather hard-working year, and I had very little time to read. But now we’re talking of my second year, which was devoted exclusively to physics. I failed. I failed in the June session. I think they are changing it now. There were two sessions of exams -- in June and in October.
Weiner:This was June 1930?
Kowarski:Yes, I failed it. I went again in October. I failed again. I learned that one could go six times, and I decided after the sixth failure I will see what to do next. But I did pass on the third attempt.
Weiner:That was June of 1931?
Weiner:Were these exams in chemistry and physics mostly problem solving?
Kowarski:Yes. You have a choice usually of what is called the… [interruption]
Weiner:This is Side 2 of the tape, and we’re resuming after a brief luncheon break. At the time we left off in our discussion, we were talking about the nature of the examinations at the University of Paris, and we had discussed the physics exams that were held. I started to ask about the types of physics problems. What categories of information?
Kowarski:Well, physics in those days was divided into mainly three forces of nature: heat, light and electricity. And one had a big volume, “Heat,” and a big volume, “Light,” and a big volume, “Electricity and Magnetism.”
Weiner:It’s still taught that way.
Kowarski:I’m afraid it still is. Everything concerning the nucleus, for instance, I think went somewhere in the small print in the electricity -- you know, the phenomenon of the ionization of gases, various rays, then gradually getting to the substances emitting the rays.
Weiner:There certainly wasn’t anything in that period to do with any of the newer developments -- the quantum mechanics, any of the new developments?
Kowarski:In 1945 -- that is considerably after the events we are talking about -- Louis de Broglie made a speech, something about the progress of science, and in this speech there was this sentence, or something like it: “It is quite natural that modern branches, like wave mechanics, are still not part of the regular university curriculum.” Electricity in particular -- the electricity in which I was supposed to pass exams -- was a very strange kind of electricity. I remember trying to understand for hours on end a strange concept called the “magnetic leaflet.” It was some obviously mid-l9th century attempt to reduce electric forces to magnetic forces inspired by the new-fangled discoveries of Oersted and Faraday, and very much before Maxwell. That was the sort of thing I was supposed to study. There was some Maxwell, again in the last stages of the course.
Weiner:To do Maxwell, you had to have some advanced math. Did you have enough?
Kowarski:I don’t know really. My contact with the university in physics was a very superficial one. My aim was not to study physics. My aim was to get a degree which would mention physics in it. And these are two completely different aims in life. Whatever I was interested in physics, I was getting from other sources. As I say, the main professor, who was the professor of the optics part, I saw for the first time in my life about eight years after I was supposed to be his student.
Weiner:The degree in physics was June 1931. Up until that time you hadn’t attended courses, you hadn’t been involved in the laboratory work. Is that right? Did I understand you correctly?
Kowarski:In physics? Well, it depends on what you call laboratory work. I ctain1y had to pass an examination about being able to measure the dilatation co-efficient of a metal, something like that. That was considered real honest to goodness physics, this sort of thing. Perhaps something with a calorimeter, perhaps showing how loops carrying an electric current are attracted or repulsed, and things like that.
Weiner:Or a Wheatstone Bridge kind of experiment?
Kowarski:Yes, that’s right -- this sort of thing. Very scholastic.
Weiner:Yes. Well, that’s done now in some places. So this takes us to June 1931, but prior to that time you had begun to use your free time from the steel tube company by working as an assistant at the analysis laboratory in a hospital.
Kowarski:That was not free time. That was a paid job. I split my earning capacity between these two establishments -- I mean the tubes in the morning and the hospital in the afternoon -- in order to be at least during one half of my working day closer to a scientific atmosphere. And in 1930 I published my first paper, a very juvenile effort.
Weiner:On the bond relationships.
Kowarski:Yes. And out of the hospital work I published papers about the analysis of blood, and that was my first experimental publication. By that time I was about to pass my physics exam -- the third and successful one.
Weiner:You commented that Delaville at the hospital, who was in charge of the laboratory, had an influence on you in terms of shaping your tastes.
Kowarski:I don’t quite remember that.
Weiner:Let’s see if I can refer to that.
Kowarski:Oh, the French notice -- I think it’s an official document. I don’t think it should be taken too seriously.
Weiner:I see. I don’t know where I got that from. I don’t think you made that point. Maybe I’m referring to something else.
Kowarski:It would surprise me. Delaville was my boss. He gave me the problem. We attended to some parts of it together, and that was that. I didn’t stay there very long. It was anyhow a fringe job, half a day; so I don’t think we played a great role in each other’s lives.
Weiner:But some of the papers -- the first three or four papers -- you did in connections with the work of that laboratory.
Kowarski:No, the second and the third exactly.
Weiner:This was used as the basis for the “diploma of higher studies” in Paris.
Weiner:In other words, you had to offer a thesis.
Weiner:What else was required other than a thesis?
Weiner:And so this timing, where you got your exams taken care of in ‘31 and then going on to this thesis presentation in ‘32 -- was this average? What concerns me is that you were occupied full time with two halftime jobs.
Kowarski:Are you still talking of my Delaville job?
Kowarski:Well, the Delaville job went to the summer of ‘31, I think.
Weiner:And then you went back to just half time with the other.
Kowarski:Then I continued half time at the Tube d’Acier, and the afternoons were free in Jean Perrin’s lab.
Weiner:You started there in 1931 then. Now, how was that position obtained?
Kowarski:Very simply. It was a lab for thesis work, graduate work I suppose you would call it today. The more students a professor had, the better it was for him, except for the unfortunate thing that he had to find some subsistence means for them. Since I didn’t claim any subsistence means, because I knew it was hopeless, I was welcome. Why not?
Weiner:So essentially you just showed up.
Kowarski:Exactly. I think Prof. Job gave me a recommendation too.
Weiner:What did you do there when you spent -- what was it? -- your afternoons?
Kowarski:I was growing crystals. The subject of the thesis was relayed to me with characteristic clarity by Francis Perrin, the son of Jean Perrin and the Present High Commissioner for Atomic Energy. He told me about some ideas of a German, Max Volmer, concerning the existence of superficial layers on growing crystals. There was a tradition in Perrin’s lab about studying the growing crystals of some organic substances; and since they already had some techniques for it, his idea was that I should use these techniques with a special intent to check whether Volmer’s ideas were right. This was simple and clear. He didn’t tell me in any detailed way how I should go about it. He said, “Use this technique, and here is Volmer’s theory, and see what you can do with it.” I must say that this was a success. I finally did exactly that. A very outstanding crystallographer, who is now in this country, Prof. Egon Orowan of MIT -- once told an audience in England that this was a typical kind of work which makes disgusted theoreticians. The theoreticians have bold ideas which they invent completely out of the thin air. They postulate things which nobody has seen. And then comes an experimentalist and shows that it is exactly that and anybody can see it -- it is there -- and the theoretician feels that his imagination has not been all that bold.
Weiner:So-and—so has predicted.
Kowarski:I must say that I took this as a compliment, and it was meant as a compliment, I think.
Weiner:That’s a very nice way to put it.
Weiner:Volmer himself later acknowledged the importance of this, and it wasn’t so much later. It was in the late ‘30s, wasn’t it?
Kowarski:Yes. His book appeared in 1939. Volmer today is more or less forgotten, but it had a very interesting sequel. The book was called Kinetics of Heterogeneous Equilibria, and it became a bible of all physical chemists who dealt with this kind of phenomena. One of them was Donald Glaser, who began to study bubbles, the kinetics of bubbles.
Weiner:Let me ask about this, about your own work. Was there any relation between the work that you did on the crystal surfaces to your later work in nuclear physics, anything that helped prepare you for it?
Kowarski:I think in my later physics work it was very important that I had the outlook of a chemist or, rather, of a physical chemist. I was in this sense a kind of rare bird among all these radioactive physicists, because, after all, the chain reaction in neutron physics is a far more chemical affair than the kind of physics to which they were use to. In this sense, having a habit of thinking in these terms and thinking about them scientifically, not just something I read in a book but as a working scientist, was extremely useful to me later on.
Weiner:What about photographing crystal growth, for example -- did that relate in any way to photographing cloud chamber…?
Kowarski:Very little. One thing. A few gadgets I developed for photographing first convinced Francis Perrin and then Joliot that I had in some queer way a kind of inventive mind. It was a demonstration that I could do this sort of thing. And, of course, that’s what I did later on but in a different context. The inventive mind is something which one can transport from one specialty to another. So, I should say, my thesis work had these two results -- first giving me a working research knowledge of physical chemistry and chemical media on the one hand, and on the other hand, giving me a field to demonstrate my propensity to invent little gadgets for my work. It gave a third thing, by the way. It gave that famous “highest degree delivered by this Faculty,” which helped.
Weiner:Which was, at one point, [to be] the end of your quest, but, of course, was the beginning.
Kowarski:Oh, no. No. No. It was never intended as the end.
Weiner:But I mean that particular plateau.
Kowarski:Yes. That was helpful.
Weiner:I’d like to ask you about that.
Kowarski:Then there was another thing, if I may mention. Working on neutrons in earlier times, one had to work with all sorts of outlandish substances, such as dysprosium or iridium for detectors. Fermi, for instance, worked very much with indium. Halban and I worked a lot with dysprosium, and I worked later on with iridium. The habit of using substances in minute amounts, as a physical chemist, turned out extremely useful. For instance: dysprosium was a substance which not only was very expensive, but what was far more important -- if you spilled a grain of dysprosium oxide that was the end of it. You couldn’t obtain another gram. Halban was quite surprised, seeing my usual clumsy ways -- and I had difficulties in learning the most elementary things -- how to handle a soldering iron and so on. But when it came to handling minute quantities of this extremely precious substance, I suddenly was more in my element. Again the same thing. The difficult things you do at once. The more ordinary things take a little longer.
Weiner:How are you with a screwdriver, for example?
Weiner:About this highest obtainable degree. Your committee (I use the American term, committee) -- the president of the dissertation examination was Jean Perrin.
Weiner:And then Mauguin, the crystallographer, was on it, and then Francis Perrin was on it as well.
Kowarski:Yes, Francis Perrin was what is called the rapporteur.
Weiner:Now, how did that work? Did you have any oral examinations before the dissertation, or was it merely an oral defense of the [written] exam?
Kowarski:It was essentially oral defense. There is the tradition in French universities that the dissertation is the fruit of your own inclination, and a problem that you find for yourself. On the other hand, there is the second thesis called “Problems Set by the Faculty.” In practice it works exactly the other way around. That is, no student is usually trusted to find his main thesis. He usually is told by somebody: “You do this and that.” And then that second subject nobody cares about, and that, he can search himself –- any old question -- and it will be “Propositions donnees par la faculte.” Very often in human institutions things work out in exactly the opposite way to what was intended. So I had to find for myself a “proposition donnee par la faculte,” and I stumbled onto “Quantum Theory of Valency,” a subject about which I knew nothing at the time and I know rather little still. Quantum mechanics: never in my life I had to use it really. That’s why quantum mechanics is for me like a piano for a man who doesn’t play the piano. So what I did: I read one of these semi-popular articles -- shall we say slightly above the Scientific American level -- written by an exquisite French physicist who was a modest man and very little known now, Edmond Bauer. Like Jean Perrin he was a man who could write very well. I assimilated this paper and, of course, after that I was able to tell what was in it with a somewhat better understanding than the average man who would talk about the problems of quantum mechanics in those days. It was on a fairly low level, a semi-popular level, but at least I knew it. So the exam consists in the candidate presenting his thesis. Then he is asked questions. Jean Perrin, who was at that time approaching 70, appeared to be asleep during most of the exam. Now and then he suddenly would open his eyes and ask some very pertinent questions.
Weiner:Were you a little frightened?
Kowarski:No, but he was a formidable man. His son was the apple of his eye, and everything that the son was doing was all right with the father. And his son took a considerable interest in my thesis, at a time when my other relations in the lab were not very good, and I was sitting in a corner. In the last and third year of my work on the thesis, Perrin the son became interested. It was he who originally gave me the problem, and now, in the last year, he took a hand. And then we, not for the last time in our lives, met on a plane of common interest in a purely scientific problem, and in some way it was one of the delightful moments of my life -- my very soon—to-be finished student life. Francis Perrin has a very fine brain, and it was very interesting to work with him. He would look at my experiments and make comments and ask if I’d thought of this or that, and it would always be pertinent. That’s how my thesis finally got some kind of sheen at the end of it, which was that of a true scientific interest. I remained for my whole life very grateful to Francis Perrin for that.
Weiner:This appears to be the first time that you really had scientific guidance, that is, working with a colleague on a problem.
Kowarski:It was not even quite a kind of guidance.
Weiner:Well, with a colleague then.
Kowarski:It was a comradeship, but of course, he knew more than I did, far more.
Weiner:But you were close in age, too.
Kowarski:Six years’ difference. He was a very precocious man for his age, and I was somewhat fallen behind. By then, because of my circumstances, I tended to pass my exams at an age later than the normal age for these things. So though there were only six years’ difference, there was practically a generation separating us in the sense that I was a somewhat uncouth student, and he was a young don, a young professor.
Weiner:What I mean here, though, is that this was the first time you had a close working relationship on an intellectual level on a scientific problem.
Weiner:And so this was important.
Kowarski:Yes. Francis Perrin played a very great role in my life.
Weiner:How about Jean Perrin? Did he get involved in any way during these three years?
Kowarski:Jean Perrin probably in those days was considering that I was somewhat too eccentric a personality, who for some reason quarreled with the supervisor he gave me.
Weiner:Was this Marcelin?
Kowarski:Yes. I was a pain in the neck, generally speaking. And it took first Auger, and then especially Perrin’s son, to convince him that there was something in my work. By the time I was passing the thesis, Jean Perrin was far better disposed towards me; and being a very exquisitely cultured Frenchman, he made a little speech in which he said: “We are thankful to you for showing us once more that Nature is far richer than what we expect from her.” It was an interesting thing to say. I like to think that maybe he really meant it, and took care to put it in an exquisite form. He was a very great writer, another man I was drawn toward because he was a great writer.
Weiner:During these three years in his lab, were there discussions of what else was beginning to happen in different fields of Science?
Kowarski:Yes. I remember Francis Perrin meeting me in some kind of janitor’s lodge where I think we both had to telephone, and we waited for each other to finish our telephone calls. Francis Perrin, with his spiritual-looking eyes…Have you ever met him?
Kowarski:He’s got very interesting eyes. He’s one of those sons of great men who have to carry this as a burden, and he still carries it. In some ways his brain, I think, is probably a finer instrument that his father’s was. He told me with tremendous enthusiasm of artificial radioactivity, which had just been discovered -- it was the last days of 1933. It was another manifestation of a thing I learned. One can immediately see whether a scientific fact is important or not by some purely aesthetic criteria -- how it affects the right kind of brain. I remember when the first news of the transistor came in 1948. I told my wife at the breakfast table (I always surround her with philosophy at the breakfast table): “This is one of the greatest discoveries since the wheel.” I still think it’s true.
Weiner:At that time in 1933, it wasn’t your own judgment, I gather, from what you say…
Kowarski:No, that was Francis Perrin.
Weiner:But it was because you respected his ability, and the fact that he reacted so well to it, then you knew it was important.
Kowarski:Let me say it was my judgment derived from his judgment.
Weiner:Had you been following any of the radioactivity research that was going on in the same city?
Weiner:When was the first you heard of it and what did you hear of it?
Kowarski:Jean Perrin had the habit of Monday afternoon teas, at which we met all sorts of famous characters. It was, by the way, at one of these teas that I met for the first time my physics professor, Cotton. I also met Cockcroft for the first time there; and Albert Noyes, the physical chemist, in whose house I am staying this spring in Austin –- strange -- he remembered me still from these Paris days.
Weiner:These were teas, but were they also colloquia?
Kowarski:Yes, tea colloquium presentations. The young Joliot and the young Irene Joliot were, of course, the great stars since 1932.
Weiner:Would they be present regularly?
Kowarski:Yes, very regularly.
Weiner:Well, was Perrin’s lab in that case the center of things?
Kowarski:In a way, yes. It was a kind of court. The French always had this system of a sort of “roitelet” in a given branch of science. Ostwald wrote some interesting pages about it in his book, Great Men. By the way, have you read it? It’s a remarkable book, very remarkable. He says something about this phenomenon, which is still valid in France. At that time, in France, in what we would call today molecular physics, Jean Perrin was the monarch. As I say again and again, he was a tremendous personality. That’s why his photograph stands out among those in your corridors here.
Weiner:So at these sessions then you became aware of what was going on even though it wasn’t being pursued in your own laboratory.
Weiner:What about the period of around ‘31, ‘32, when the neutron was announced?
Kowarski:Well, we heard about Joliot’s experiments on neutrons practically the next week after they got results. And I remember still (I cannot help myself, having these somewhat impish memories) they said: “Oh, we think it’s some kind of very powerful gamma rays. Oh,” they said, “that Englishman Chadwick -- he has ideas that they are neutral particles of the same weight as protons.” There was general laughter in the room, in which Joliot heartily joined.
Weiner:That’s fascinating. Do you remember when that was? Can you date that?
Kowarski:Oh, that was the spring of ‘32 -- when Chadwick was finishing his experiments.
Weiner:But it was after Chadwick published his first paper.
Kowarski:Not yet. Just before.
Weiner:You see, Joliot and his wife published on January 18th or at least it’s dated January 18, 1932.
Weiner:And someone later on reviewing this said that not much attention in Paris had been paid to the new electronics. There had been scant need of electrical counting methods in the Radium Institute. And the question was raised that perhaps if the Joliots had had a different counting technique that they might have come up with it.
Kowarski:This is true. The counting techniques in Paris were a little bit behind the others -- not much behind but a little. In particular, Joliot, even in 1939, still didn’t have a DC amplifier. In ‘32 Paris was not very much behind, but by ‘39 it was very glaringly behind.
Weiner:He seemed to be attracted to the cloud chamber very much and to hold onto that, although…
Kowarski:Actually, artificial radioactivity was discovered with a counter.
Weiner:Right, but I’m talking about the experiments.
Kowarski:Yes, he liked cloud chambers. My first paper with him was with a cloud chamber.
Weiner:But getting back to the Chadwick idea, there is a letter in the biography of Joliot, in April, which gives the impression that he accepted Chadwick’s idea.
Kowarski:By April or May, this was already accepted.
Weiner:I’m trying to date this session. But you distinctly remember this session where Joliot himself -- or who? -- said it?
Kowarski:Oh, somebody said it, and, as I say, there was general laughter.
Weiner:But how about Joliot?
Kowarski:Certainly there was a time when he did not believe it. Joliot had one thing -- well, he had many things. He had an extremely acute aesthetic sense of science. Chadwick’s experiments, which were among the most beautiful I know -- Joliot immediately sensed in this way a kindred soul. And Chadwick also paid to Joliot the same kind of extreme esteem, as two very fine artists to each other.
Weiner:Did Joliot pursue -- do you know -- was there talk of pursuing the neutron work immediately to exploit the new idea that Chadwick was developing?
Kowarski:Not quite, I would say. If you consider what Joliot did in ‘33, he was almost entirely taken by the positrons. Neutrons for a while he abandoned. In fact, it was Fermi who started using neutrons for artificial radioactivity. Joliot still used alpha particles.
Weiner:I guess in his Nobel address Joliot indicates the possibilities of using other particles. Your first paper with him -- was that the first time he used neutrons?
Kowarski:No. My first paper with him started in very late ‘34. By that time Fermi’s classical papers were all sort of common knowledge.
Weiner:I don’t mean the first time that anyone used neutrons but the first time Joliot himself had used neutrons.
Kowarski:Second. His first paper was with his wife and Preiswerk, and it contained one wrong observation. Joliot ran through a series of such wrong observations between ‘35 and ‘38. This is a thing which in his biography is always glossed over. I can make a list of it. This unfortunately played a certain role later on, because it in some way began to give the impression that Paris work was unsound.
Weiner:That Paris results couldn’t be trusted?
Weiner:What was the cause and the characteristic of these wrong results?
Kowarski:Joliot was not a man of a beautifully conducted piece of experimentation like Chadwick, for instance. Joliot had brilliant ideas -- very brilliant because totally unexpected. Chadwick very much admired this quality. Joliot was able always to tackle a problem from a completely unexpected angle, with some usually very simple idea which would give an immediate and obvious result. And in this way he produced three or four tremendous discoveries, and, heaven help us, he began to believe that he could go on doing it. And so the period from ‘34 to ‘38 was for him a rather unlucky period. He was growing more and more famous. He got his full professorship; he got his Nobel Prize. By the way, his main recognition came from abroad, not from France. He was upheld very much by Rutherford in a characteristic Rutherfordian way: when it came to giving the Nobel Prize for the neutron, the Nobel committee wanted to divide it between Joliot and Chadwick. Rutherford said, “No, the neutron is our Cavendish business. You must give it to Chadwick alone.” They said, “What about Joliot?” “Oh,” he said, “Joliot will discover something else.” And sure enough, Joliot discovered artificial radioactivity.
Weiner:What was Joliot’s feeling about his role in the neutron? Did he feel that he had come close to discovering it and that he in fact had part of it?
Kowarski:Joliot had an extremely sane view of his role in it. It was a discovery in three parts. There was an initial phenomenon discovered by Bothe and Becker. Then there was the central phenomenon discovered by the Joliots. And there were the final crowning phenomena discovered by Chadwick. Incidentally, exactly the same story happened with uranium fission, in which Hahn and Strassmann played the central role -- the role Joliot played in the discovery of the neutron -- and Frisch played the role of Chadwick.
Weiner:I see. But let me ask you how you know this. Did this come up in conversation with Joliot about his feeling on his role in this?
Kowarski:I can’t put my finger on any definite conversation about that, but Joliot and I had innumerable conversations later on about the mechanism of discovery. Joliot gave me an honor once by making one of his lectures in College de France a sort of case history of a discovery, and he took one of my ideas in uranium fission as the subject of this lecture. He sort of repaid, in a way, some of the very profound admiration I always had for the artistic quality of his work. And so I know exactly almost sort of minute by minute how he discovered artificial radioactivity. Incidentally, it was he and not his wife. In the neutron work, the positron work, I think they were very much together. It’s difficult to distinguish. But artificial radioactivity I think was definitely his. Maybe I am betraying a confidence.
Weiner:We’re trying to be frank. This is the one place to be frank.
Kowarski:Of course, his wife was a better chemist than he. She was a radiochemist since her cradle. She worked with him on the final scientific proof by chemical separation of artificial radioactivity. He had, by the way, an extremely keen sense of what is a scientific proof and what is not.
Weiner:How did he define it?
Kowarski:Oh, that I wouldn’t venture in this very brief conversation. But, for instance, when he had the idea that the clicks counted in his aluminum Geiger counter were actually recording the activity generated by the aluminum itself, he immediately devised what were the chemical implications of that, and then he called his wife in, and they performed the chemical experiment; and after that it was absolutely sewn in.
Weiner:Was their working relationship such that they worked independently in their own specialties and then collaborated where they had to, where they needed the other?
Kowarski:To some extent, yes.
Weiner:I gather this from the few examples that you’ve given.
Kowarski:You see, Irene was the cherished daughter of the establishment, and Joliot was an outsider, very much an outsider. Perhaps we’ll have some other occasion to talk about that. Apart from their conjugal relationship, they had a very deep respect for each other. They were both extremely talented people. I would say that Irene’s talent was more that of an exquisite technician, exquisite in the sense, first of all, that she worked very beautifully, very thoroughly; and second that she had a profound understanding of what she was doing -- whereas Joliot had a more brilliant, more soaring imagination. And so they complemented each other marvelously, and they knew it. Irene, as you know, in the history of fission played a role in the first stage, because it was she who first noticed that the lanthanum had the properties of lanthanum.
Weiner:That paper with Savitch.
Kowarski:That’s right. When she first read Hahn and Strassmann’s paper, she bitterly reproached Joliot for not having been working with her at that time. And she was right.
Weiner:Because he perhaps would have been more daring in his interpretation of the results instead of saying that these are lighter elements…
Kowarski:Probably. He would not say, “It’s that.” He would say, “It might be that. If it is that, then it can be proved this and that way.” And he would have done it. That was his way of doing things.
Weiner:That was the reaction then after she had seen the publication of Hahn and Strassmann.
Kowarski:Yes. She said first: “What fools we have been!” She used a somewhat stronger word.
Weiner:What word did she use?
Kowarski:Well, the French equivalent of a four-letter word. The only reference I ever had to her using strong words. In French, by the way, they sound less strong than in English. I am told that Napoleon used the same word from time to time -- in Italian.
Weiner:You must tell me the word.
Kowarski:Oh, “coglione” he would say to somebody.
Weiner:You see I don’t know it. Now I’ve learned something new.
Kowarski:He would say it, though, in Italian.
Weiner:While we’re talking about that particular reaction to the fission, how did this occur? Were you present at that time or was this a later conversation? And how did they first learn of the Hahn and Strassmann…?
Kowarski:It occurred in a most direct way. I was Joliot’s secretary, don’t forget. I was arranging papers for him. And the Naturwissenschaften arrived. Joliot threw himself on it because he saw Hahn’s name, and read it, but it didn’t give many hints, you know.
Weiner:And was she present then, too?
Kowarski:Not at that time. When I was there they were in different establishments. She was at the Radium Institute. He was in the College de France.
Weiner:But it was later that this occurred. We’re jumping a little bit. I’d like to pursue some of these things. We get into so many events in this period, it gets a little difficult to separate them, but I don’t see any real problem. I did want to ask you about the positron work. When you were in Jean Perrin’s lab did you hear discussion of the work that was going on in their lab and elsewhere?
Kowarski:It was a beautiful listening point. You see, we went every Monday -- we saw the best of the news. And in 1932 was the annus mirabilis as it was called. It was the year when everybody was discovering everything. Cockcroft came to give an account in a language which I couldn’t understand. I read a lot of English in those days, but spoken English was still a completely closed book to me… that came later.
Weiner:Cockcroft came soon after his first successful disintegrations?
Kowarski:Oh, very soon, very soon.
Weiner:In, I guess, April or something.
Kowarski:The first letter I typed for Joliot, as his secretary, by the way, was a letter to Cockcroft.
Weiner:On Cockcroft’s work, was there any feeling in France of getting into this field of high-energy disintegration?
Weiner:Why didn’t it occur at that early stage?
Kowarski:That’s a big question, and you are now on one of my favorite subjects -- about relations between pure scientists and nonpure scientists. There was not enough contact between the laboratory scientist and people who were then able to do his sort of thing; and Cockcroft, as you probably know, was fundamentally an electrical engineer. Joliot himself tried his hand at three or four different types of high-tension apparatus, none of which properly worked -- they worked a little.
Weiner:When was this?
Kowarski:That was essentially in these empty years between ‘34 and ‘39.
Weiner:There was a Van de Graaff in ‘37.
Kowarski:Which never gave anything, so far as I remember. There was an impulse generator, which produced one nice bit of work by Pontecorvo.
Weiner:That was at the General Electro-Ceramic Company, at Ivry?
Kowarski:That’s right. It was. And there was a cyclotron, at the College itself, which never worked until the war.
Weiner:Until the war or until after the war?
Kowarski:Until the war, because then the Germans came in and made it work.
Weiner:Why didn’t it work?
Kowarski:I once came to Joliot (and I was, of course, in a subordinate position to him -- I had nothing against it; he was quite obviously on a superior plane from me, and it was for me a privilege to work with a man like this) and said, “Look, I can tell you one thing. You have to engage the services of a competent -- I say competent -- radio frequency engineer.” (In France it was easy. France had a tradition in that). “When you engage his services, in a few months your cyclotron will be working. That’s thesis no. 1. Thesis no. 2: it will never work until you do that.” The typical Russian way of stating the two things, like that. He didn’t. He hired an electrical engineer, who later on was involved in the accelerator business, after the war, in France. He was not quite the level I had in mind. So the cyclotron was sort of trying to get off the ground and never doing it. And then the Germans came and put the right sort of people on it and it worked almost immediately.
Weiner:When did Joliot start constructing it?
Kowarski:The cyclotron -- probably ‘38ish, I would say -- late ‘37 or early ‘38 it was started.
Weiner:When you were making up the plans with him for the new laboratory at the College de France did he and you have a cyclotron in mind?
Kowarski:Oh, yes. I handled many papers and tenders for equipment and so on.
Weiner:So one of the functions of that laboratory was to have a cyclotron?
Weiner:And what was the source of funds?
Kowarski:This was a very checkered affair but it was the same in many countries in those days: some subsidies from benevolent rich industrialists, some funds or grants from the incipient French National Science Foundation…
Weiner:Is this CNS?
Kowarski:Yes, CNRS. It was first called Caisse Nationale de Science and then Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique. When it was first conceived, it was exclusively a mechanism for distributing funds for research grants and salaries.
Weiner:I want to pursue this a little more and then get back to the sequence of events. Did he have in mind any particular class of experiments to do with the cyclotron when it was built?
Kowarski:Yes, he wanted to go definitely into biology via the isotopes. Don’t forget that reactors didn’t exist then. The only way of making isotopes en masse was to do it by accelerators, and the cyclotron was especially the thing for doing this -- you know, “80 millicuries by half past nine.” You know this song?
Weiner:Yes, I was thinking it was in the Art Roberts category, but I don’t know that particular one.
Kowarski:It is his song.
Weiner:We have the record of it.
Kowarski:[sings] You know Arthur Roberts?
Weiner:I met him once.
Kowarski:He’s a good friend of mine.
Weiner:I want to talk with him about that whole history.
Kowarski:He’s a very fine musician, by the way.
Weiner:I imagine so, from listening to these things.
Kowarski:The song, “Sitting on the Beach, Waiting for a Beam,” is a little masterpiece.
Weiner:He had a real perception for the right phrase, too.
Kowarski:[whistles -- both laugh]
Weiner:Let me get back to prose -- on the proposed biological uses.
Kowarski:Joliot had the idea of being the world emperor of radio isotopes. Of course, it was mostly Fermi techniques, but, after all, Fermi only followed Joliot’s suggestions. Joliot did himself suggest that neutrons could be used, only he didn’t do it. Fermi always acknowledged this. Fermi, you know, was never a man to steal somebody’s invention. He didn’t need it. [laughs] So it was Fermi’s techniques suggested by Joliot, based on Joliot’s discovery of artificial radioactivity, and Joliot was the man on top of that in the world. And he wanted to become the man who revolutionized biology. Joliot had very, very high ambitions.
Weiner:In science, you mean.
Kowarski:Joliot was the most ambitious man since Richard Wagner. Richard Wagner, you know, wanted to be Beethoven and Shakespeare and Caesar all rolled into one.
Weiner:I wonder what Joliot’s trinity was. I mean he had specific ideas about the role of science and the state?
Kowarski:Very much so, yes. Science was the great force, historical force, which shapes history; and at a crucial moment the great scientific discovery turns history in a completely new direction; and he wanted to be that man.
Weiner:In this particular biological work…
Kowarski:And in some sense he was.
Weiner:In certain fields, yes. And in the biological work and in the building of the cyclotron for that purpose, two things occur to me. One is: was he in touch with other people who either were expert in building cyclotrons or who had similar plans or experience in their use?
Kowarski:No. He had an engineer, a man called Debraine, a worthy man, who is in the French Commissariat now. He chose Debraine as his right-hand man for the cyclotron. But Debraine, who is by no means an insignificant man, simply was not the best man to have for that; and there was no better all-round man. I had confidence in my judgment in those times and still have it now. What he needed precisely at that time was an advanced radio frequency engineer with considerable experience in that field.
Weiner:Where were they available except in Lawrence’s laboratory?
Weiner:With experience in that field?
Kowarski:A number of them.
Weiner:You didn’t mean the cyclotron field then?
Kowarski:No, radio frequency.
Weiner:I see. For a minute I thought you meant someone who had worked on cyclotrons, and that limited it to Cockcroft, who was beginning things, and to people in California.
Kowarski:No, no, if Joliot had the right kind of specialists around him-but really first class -- he would have done it easily.
Weiner:Had he not been in touch with Lawrence and Cockcroft?
Weiner:There were cyclotrons going or being planned or thought of in a number of places.
Kowarski:Actually, the Cambridge cyclotron began to work, I think, only during the war.
Weiner:That’s right. It was in the same position.
Kowarski:It was a fine cyclotron, and it worked. As you probably remember, the Germans did not invade Cambridge.
Weiner:Except almost, from your story about Halban.
Kowarski:You mean how Halban was helped by the natives on our journey to Cambridge?
Weiner:Yes. But the point is that Cockcroft went to the United States twice for cyclotron information, specifically saying, “We’re going to learn the best available knowledge.” Of course, he also was a good electrical engineer, too.
Kowarski:You see, the real insular nation in Europe is, of course, not England -- it’s France where you find real insularity. Joliot didn’t speak English, and it was quite a point with him. Joliot in moments of doubt clung almost desperately to French soil. Fortunately, it was shown later on in 1940’s that he was a very profound patriot. And it was quite an instinct with him to cling to the French sources and to France. But the foolish thing was that there were very competent radio frequency engineers in France. France had a tradition of advanced electronics since the First World War.
Weiner:Where would these people have come from? Were they employed in industry?
Kowarski:Yes. Some of them, like the Route 128 people today, went into industry straight from an academic background. The great French electronics industrialist, Maurice Ponte, was originally, I think, a kind of junior lecturer at the Ecole Normale Suprieure.
Weiner:So if Joliot had wanted to organize along those lines, he could have.
Kowarski:It could have been done.
Weiner:Let’s go back to the artificial radioactivity work, which was just about the time that you went to the Radium Institute as a half-time volunteer.
Kowarski:That was the time when my thesis was already completed. They fixed the date when I should pass it -- it’s always several months in advance -- and Francis Perrin and I began to think what I should be doing. I said that I was working on the crystal growth, a subject which is fascinating but doesn’t seem to interest anybody, and I would not be able to get anything out of it. I was still working free there. So Francis Perrin said, “Yes, but you will still have to work free.” I said, “Well, then I would like to work on something more interesting.” And Francis Perrin asked me “why don’t you go to work for Joliot?” I said, “But would Joliot have me?” It seemed a strange idea. “Well,” said Francis, “I will tell him.” So Francis whispered a word to Joliot, and Joliot took me, and then he found that I was not much use, because I was clumsy; I had never worked in a physics lab before; I knew nothing about electrical apparatus; I was a nice man to provoke thinking and to talk about thinking, but not much use as a lab assistant. And so I began to fade out. And then I made a comeback as his secretary, and I began to have ideas.
Weiner:How did that come about, becoming his secretary? Was this something you both had planned?
Kowarski:You see, we published this paper in which Joliot yielded to temptation to announce another sensational discovery. The paper reported a perfectly valid scientific piece of work, an observation of the beta spectrum of radioactive silver with a cloud chamber. It was an honorable piece of work, which we did quite nicely. But he couldn’t resist the temptation of announcing that we also observed some kind of extremely powerful gamma rays of unknown origin, which showed that there were some aspects…I said, “Why don’t you think that they are cosmic rays?” Well, he explained to me that they couldn’t be cosmic rays because of the angle and so on, and so forth. Actually, he was wrong. They were cosmic rays.
Weiner:But isn’t that what you described in the title? You said that it was analogous to cosmic rays.
Kowarski:That’s right. Yes.
Weiner:What made you think that…?
Kowarski:I was dubious about it. So was Joliot, by the way, but that was a period, an attitude, which led him to decide: “Well, that’s a rather interesting phenomenon. We have to announce it.”
Weiner:Were you aware of cosmic ray work, for instance, Auger’s work?
Weiner:You were aware of it through him, for example?
Kowarski:Well, there were others, but chiefly Auger. Unfortunately, of course, it turned sour immediately on us. But I suspect that Joliot, being human, considered that…I reminded him of a somewhat unpleasant moment in his march, and that contributed to my being put in the shade for a while -- that and my clumsiness.
Weiner:Let me ask why it turned sour, how that worked.
Kowarski:Well, very simply. We announced that we observed very strong gamma rays in conditions which excluded cosmic rays. And, of course, the conditions did not exclude cosmic rays. We were wrong.
Weiner:It was as simple as that. Who recognized this and who was the first to criticize it?
Kowarski:I don’t quite remember it.
Weiner:But it was clear.
Kowarski:I never could understand why Joliot excluded them. It’s not that I was against it, but I couldn’t understand it. So when it was pointed out to us that it was cosmic rays after all, and that other observers observed cosmic rays in similar conditions, we didn’t insist.
Weiner:When was the first time that you met him -- I mean to really meet him, not just to hear him at a meeting? Was it at this time when Francis Perrin arranged for you to come over there?
Weiner:And you say then the lack of being of direct help in the lab, and then this incident, changed things for a while. What pulled things back together again?
Kowarski:This unfortunate paper with pseudo-non-cosmic rays was published in mid ‘35. I was, of course, at that time in 5eventh heaven. To publish a paper with Joliot -- that was quite something. The next academic year, the second half of ‘35 and the first half of ‘36, was quite miserable for me. I began to be a sort of slightly abandoned kind of animal in the corner, puttering with soldering irons and so on. Joliot set me a problem of a coincidence circuit, which I didn’t know how to build. Then my daughter was born, and that meant that my wife had to abandon for a while paying work, and that meant that we really couldn’t go on with my half salary at Tube d’Acier. I had to look at least for a while for some other things to do, and it was Joliot who proposed that I should simply be his secretary. He paid me slightly less than half of my Tube d’Acier salary, so I still didn’t get quite to the level of being a full-timer, but nearly; and so for the second half of ‘36 I became simply in the mornings a kind of engineering secretary at Tube d’Acier, and in the afternoons Joliot’s “petite dactylo,” as they called me: the little girl typist. That was the time that he was transferring from the Radium Institute to College de France, and he found very quickly that I was of use in that capacity. So when the academic year 1936/37 began to draw to a close, Joliot said, “Well, what are you going to do next year?” I said, “I would very much like to go on as your petite dactylo if you could find me something for my mornings. Then I would chuck the Tube d’Acier.” I was already past 30, quite an old age. I still had, apart from this unfortunate publication on pseudo-non-cosmic rays, done nothing in nuclear physics. So he said, “Well, we might try to find for you some sort of a minimum scholarship.” Actually he got 40%. So on this 40% of the absolute living minimum for a beginning scientist, 40% of the minimum, plus a few hundred francs a month for continuing to be the petite dactylo, I chucked, at last, the Tube d’Acier. That was the summer of ‘37, September.
Weiner:What was the grant for specifically? Did the grant have to state in those days what it was for?
Kowarski:The grant meant that I was boursier de recherche -- that is, the holder of a research grant -- and that I was assigned to work under Professor Joliot in College de France.
Weiner:You didn’t have to specify a project? It wasn’t a project grant?
Kowarski:Maybe I did -- I don’t remember. Anyhow, I was already for a couple of years puttering with circuits for a coincidence amplifier. Then I developed a little gadget, which I published, which was sound in principle. It was a gadget for rendering temporarily insensitive a mechanical counter when the particles came so fast that this counter couldn’t follow them -- a funny idea, which never came to be much used. It just showed that I had something to contribute. That put me finally in the circuit business so that at the time when Halban, Joliot and I started working together, I was in the group the chemist, the electrical engineer and, God help me, in some ways the theoretical physicist, or rather the mathematical physicist.
Weiner:Before we get to that (that’s a separate story, and a very full one), getting back to the Radium Institute in those first years there, what was the direction of the lab itself? In other words, what seemed to be the consistent line of research? I’d like to know about that -- whether their aim was to make more radioactive isotopes, for example. Was this a consistent program?
Kowarski:I don’t think any such institute ever had a consistent program. I don’t think, for that matter, CERN has a consistent program. I don’t think that Brookhaven has a consistent program. So I don’t think your question…But in those days, of course, things were more elementary. You’re talking now not of the College de France; you’re talking of the Radium Institute.
Kowarski:The Radium Institute -- which was, by the way, in two parts, but I will talk about the physics part, which was called Pavillon Curie -- had, let’s say, a couple of dozen research workers. Some of them were people who were doing their Ph.D. theses, and it was one of the European traditions that they could be grandfathers and still doing their Ph.D. thesis. It was a way of life. Quite a few of them were from relatively well-to-do families who could support a person in that somewhat unsuitable pursuit. Some of them were younger people with research grants from CNS. There were a few senior people in the lab. There were some people who still were working on problems which were given to them by Madame Curie. Madame Curie died in ‘34. They were still working on that. Some others, the second generation of Madame Curie’s collaborators, who by that time tended to be rather little known -- some of them were people with genuine discoveries to their credit, likes for instance, Solomon Rosenblum, who discovered the fine structure of alpha particles in ‘28.
Weiner:Wasn’t he a Russian emigre too?
Kowarski:Yes. It was the last big discovery made in Madame Curie’s school before Joliot appeared.
Weiner:What about Joliot himself? Maybe I should have asked that question rather than one about an institutional direction. Did he have a consistent course of --
Kowarski:Well, to begin with he was the prince consort. That was his original role there. He was the consort whom the princess had selected for her life. The fact that he was a genius seemed to be quite irrelevant. It was just one of those things that happened, you know. But, of course, it shows for Irene’s taste in men -- that she did choose a genius. Incidentally, he was very handsome in a rather coarse way, I would say -- sort of how shall I say, a junior leader out of a “B” picture, you know.
Weiner:He had a certain freshness about his appearance that I think would be attractive.
Kowarski:Yes. He was very attractive to women.
Weiner:All right. But in addition to this other role, he began to exercise a role as a working scientist.
Kowarski:That was totally unexpected. That was a bonus. When people abroad began to talk about him with bated breath, the people in Paris were tremendously surprised.
Weiner:This was the basis of your comment before, that the Nobel Prize, you think, was supported by English wishes.
Weiner:We have one letter from Jean Perrin where he writes to Bohr that he has recommended Joliot for the Prize.
Kowarski:Jean Perrin always had an eye for Joliot.
Weiner:I’ll show you the letter later. He said that “I’m doing this, and I’d like to know your views, too.”
Kowarski:And yet it doesn’t prove anything. Heaven help me, but it might have been simply a neighborly gesture to Madame Curie who had a house next to his. Family above all, you know.
Weiner:This is something that next time I’d like to explore.
Kowarski:But Jean Perrin, being himself a very great personality, he probably felt a kind of kinship which smaller people around him did not.
Weiner:What about the reaction? Were you present in the lab at the time he received the Prize, when the announcement came? Did they anticipate getting it? Did they know they were being considered?
Kowarski:Oh, there was, of course, a celebration.
Weiner:Was it a surprise?
Kowarski:When I started working with Joliot it was just at the moment when the Nobel Prizes of ‘34 were given, and one could always feel in the air a feeling of “Damn it, I haven’t got it.” But he simply said, “Don’t worry. I will get it next year.” He did. That was quite a foregone conclusion. It was objectively obvious.
Weiner:It was obvious, but was there a celebration -- I mean in the laboratory?
Kowarski:Yes. Madame Joliot said on that day to someone (I heard it with my own ears): “In our family we are accustomed to glory.” This is something which she said in complete simplicity and objectivity. She was a completely simple and objective person. And it was true. Being Madame Curie’s daughter, you know, Greer Garson film and all that, (that came later) -- but in her family she was accustomed to glory: “Dans notre famille, nous sommes habitues a la gloire.” She was the sort of person who would say that without boasting, without simpering, so to speak.
Weiner:But there was general shared enthusiasm, though, I’m sure.
Kowarski:There were a lot of undertones. Joliot was considered as an upstart in this milieu, who came there by being the prince consort. They never digested that. That Joliot was a genius, people could gradually sometimes consider, but that was irrelevant. That’s not the way they arranged their lives.
Weiner:And yet the point you made about this particular prize is that perhaps it should have been viewed in the other way.
Weiner:As far as his role being the dominant one.
Kowarski:He was extremely scrupulous about it, and the things I tell you are private, but he did tell me the details -- not boasting, but because we were discussing the mechanism of scientific discovery. But that is something which I know by hearsay from him. Whereas in his own independent discovery of uranium fission, I was present at the moment when it was being discovered, and it was quite an interesting experience.
Weiner:Wait a minute. You say “independent discovery.” Do you mean prior to Hahn?
Kowarski:You see, I don’t consider that Hahn “discovered” fission. I consider that Hahn gave what Chadwick, on another occasion, called “strong evidence” for a scientific conclusion.
Weiner:And your earlier statement that if Madame Joliot had written the paper with him, the paper would have turned out differently…
Kowarski:It was not the paper. They would have done the work itself differently, if he had taken part in it -- not only the paper.
Weiner:But the implication is, though, that the results may have been the same.
Kowarski:Joliot needed only a hint. His experiment, by the way, on uranium fission is one of the most elegant experiments which ever was performed in the history of science -- tremendous simplicity and originality. That clinched it completely, this very simple experiment. But Frisch did another simple experiment already two weeks before that. And when I congratulated Joliot on his discovery, he said, “Ah, don’t worry. Other people have done it already a week or two ago.”
Weiner:By that time it was beginning to proliferate.
Kowarski:No, others were not independent. Frisch’s was the first physical proof. Joliot’s was the second, and Joliot’s was independent; but the proliferators were not independent. They had all heard of Frisch’s work.
Weiner:Through Bohr, or Rosenfeld, who came with Bohr, or Wheeler.
Weiner:Then there were [others] scattered -- Tuve in Washington…
Kowarski:I have some doubts about Dunning. Dunning may have done his without the knowledge of Frisch’s work. That I can’t quite know.
Weiner:Well, we are beginning to get all the different immediate reactions, and someday we’ll be able to study and classify these into categories. Just getting back to the laboratory again, was it pretty well insulated? Did you have many visitors there? You said that Jean Perrin’s lab was the focal point of science in France. When you say Paris, I assume you mean France.
Kowarski:Well, of physics, because there are other branches of science.
Weiner:Right. Well, what about the Radium Institute? Was there much outside contact? Did people come and visit regularly?
Kowarski:The Radium Institute was never run in the same flamboyant way as Jean Perrin’s which you can see from his photograph. There were also some gatherings, but they did not have this quality of brilliance. They kept more to themselves. Besides, it depended when. Madame Curie, after all, died in the summer of ‘34. After that, of course, it was different. And then Joliot moved out to College de France, and the Radium Institute has ever since remained a sort of remnant of former times.
Weiner:Did you have regular seminars or colloquia there?
Kowarski:At the Radium Institute?
Weiner:Yes. Anything like that?
Kowarski:I think there was something like that, but it never left the same imprint as Jean Perrin’s teas. Of course, in College de France we started regular seminars. I remember the first time I gave a paper.
Weiner:What was that?
Kowarski:Oh, it was something about beryllium 8, about how it can be observed before it splits into alpha particles.
Weiner:At the Radium Institute, you had visitors. Gamow was there, for example. Do you recall that?
Kowarski:Yes, I talked Russian to him, of course.
Weiner:I’m curious to know your impressions of him and if you discussed his work and his plans for the future.
Kowarski:No, in those days I was the very junior man who usually sat in the corner in the afternoons, so I didn’t do more than gape at them. But I talked in Russian to Gamow, and I talked to Noyes, because his father was interested in electronic valency theories. So I knew his father. But apart from that, no, not much.
Weiner:Gamow worked for about two months there, I know.
Weiner:He worked with Rosenblum, too, I guess, for a period of time.
Kowarski:Yes, of course, alpha particles.
Weiner:Yes. And during this period did you go abroad at all? Were there any international meetings in Paris or abroad?
Kowarski:No, no, no. That was not for me. I was not at all at the level. I was still struggling for a subsistence level. The first time when there was seriously a question of whether I would go arose only in ‘39 when I suddenly became a celebrity, quite suddenly. There was a meeting in Liege to which I had to go, but I couldn’t go because at that time the Poles at last got wise to the fact that I had no certain right to a Polish passport, and so they simply took it away, and I suddenly found myself stateless and unable to travel. Then Joliot and Jean Perrin started pushing my French naturalization. By that time Jean Perrin was my complete supporter. He quoted me proudly as something which came out of his lab and was successful. Jean Perrin was annoyed by my misfortunes in his lab, but he always had a feeling that there was something there in that corner, and when he praised my doctor’s thesis I think he praised it quite sincerely. And then he watched my gradual rise in Joliot’s lab with considerable sympathy.
Weiner:Well, he was responsible for putting you there in the first place, so he had some…
Kowarski:No, that was his son.
Oh, I’m sorry -- that’s right. We still have so many items we have not had time to discuss.