Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lew Kowarski
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Lew Kowarski; May 3, 1970
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:This is a tape-recorded interview with Dr. Lew Kowarski. I’m Charles Weiner. Today is May 3rd, and we’re sitting in Dr. Kowarski’s house in Austin, Texas.
Kowarski:Not my house. It’s only a rented apartment.
Weiner:Temporary home, let’s put it that way. And when we left off in October, you had just summed up your place in life at the end of your experiences in Canada; and you were planning your return to France. One of the things that you said then--and you said you might go into it again -- is that you had mixed feelings regarding your return to France. One of the things that you might have had in mind was that you mentioned to me that you would have liked to stay in England -- Chadwick had discussed this with you -- but you felt the responsibility of being part of the French mission. There may have been other things that contributed to your mixed feelings, but this is just one clue you have given me.
Well, I related the episode with Charles Leblond, which occurred on the day when I left Montreal. And that to some extent crystallized my mixed feelings. In fact, by that time, it probably would be rather charitable to call them mixed. I was bracing myself for a shock. The shock occurred as soon as I landed in England, in various ways, and it’s the small details which are the most interesting. The first shock came from my being given at the French Embassy some French money -- the way it looked. It was some kind of occupation money issued by the Americans in France. They looked like a somewhat cheaper kind of greenbacks, in French with all sorts of overprinted indications on them, and they didn’t look at all like a national currency. It may sound strange that this was the first shock, but so it was.
The second shock was the telephone conversation I had with Joliot. In London I immediately met Pierre Auger, who at that time was both one of the members of the French Atomic Commission and also the head of higher education in the French Ministry of National Education. He was very much in the saddle, and that was not much of a shock. I only realized, which I suspected, that the French Establishment was reforming itself; and although I was coming to this Establishment with many cards which didn’t exist before I left France, I still would be in a position of not being a member of the Establishment. But, of course, Auger in some ways was more Establishment than Joliot, which I already said previously. So there was no surprise there. The talk with Joliot on the telephone was more of a surprise. It was very affectionate. He used the form “thou” –- “tu” -- for the first time. I realized later on, that part of it was a kind of comradeship habit from Communist national circles, because at that time French Communism was extremely nationalistic. There was a certain atmosphere, which for some perverted reason made me think of the German concept of Volksgenosse.
The conversation was in some ways momentous. Here was Joliot very recently appointed the head of the presumably grand French atomic effort. Here I was obviously the top key man in this situation technically. So I would expect that Joliot would like to see me as soon as possible, and Joliot did say that he wanted to see me as soon as possible. But the possible turned out to be not as immediate as I thought. Joliot was about to leave for a skiing holiday, and he said, “Oh, in about three weeks I will be back.” So since I had some psychological difficulty tearing myself away from England and plunging into this unknown France, and I was speculating how difficult it would be to go to it immediately, I suddenly realized that it didn’t need to be so immediate. And this also came as a shock. And so for the next three weeks I stayed in London. One of the first things I did: I deposited my notes, whose nature I already explained in our previous installment, at the French Embassy (all my personal papers had to be carried by diplomatic bag and so they immediately became extra-territorial.) Cockcroft, who was at that time in London, showed himself perceptive; as usual, and in the second half of January ‘46, my very last days in England, he said, “When are you leaving?” I said, “Last days of January.” He said, “Do you have still a few days? Could you run an errand for me?” I said, “Certainly.” He said, “I want you to go to the I.C.I. factory making metallic uranium and report on the present state of their methods and their progress.”
Weiner:But you were through with your relationship with them.
Kowarski:I wasn’t. I was still employed by them. My relationship with France was not quite started yet, and it was considered that I would be discharged from British service somewhere late January or early February. As a matter of fact, the exact date turned out to be the 15th of February. And so Cockcroft, slightly accentuating that I was still in their service, said, “I want you to do this last thing for me.” I inwardly smiled, because again it was quite obvious to me that Cockcroft wanted me to know as much as I could gather in the last moments of how metallic uranium is made. But in that characteristic way of his, not a word was said about that angle. I am entrusted with an errand for Cockcroft -- I will do it. And so I went maybe around January 20th or 25th to the factory near Liverpool, and I heard the last dope on how uranium was made and reported back to Cockcroft. It was also in these last days of January that I received my next shock. De Gaulle resigned from the provisional government. De Gaulle declared in his declaration that the post-war atmosphere in France was no longer congenial with his views of how to run the country, and he considered that the political atmosphere was such that he couldn’t count on its support, and he preferred to retire. So I was thinking to myself: if the post-war France was too tough to handle for de Gaulle, what would it be for me? My wife and daughter still remained in London for a few months before I could hope to find a place to live in France and so on. I was told it would be rather difficult. So I left alone on the 31st of January, and I arrived in Paris about 7 p.m., so that later on I would be able to truthfully say: “Oh, you know, I returned to France in January ‘46,” which always would sound better than to say February of ‘146. February was the next morning. I was met at that station by a government car sent by Auger. Joliot was still on his holiday. I stayed with some friends, and I started adapting myself to a new life.
Weiner:It was clear that your marriage was ended and that when you left your family in London, that that would be the final…
No, it wasn’t in the sense that my family still had to come to France, and the formal divorce proceedings would start soon afterwards. At that time I was still considering that I would marry the lady who was responsible for the ending of my first marriage, although I had some doubts about it, but it was still considered. My wife probably at that time still thought that she would be able to recreate the marriage atmosphere -- I knew better. The daughter, who at that time was nine and a half, was provisionally put into a progressive school in London; and I started living with friends and preparing for settling down the family in Paris, and then perhaps I should start thinking about the divorce proceedings. Nothing was to be said in my scientific or administrative surroundings, because I considered that I first had to settle my wife and daughter in France. Besides, that was my wife’s wish.
So after the very first days, when I found that I was not only still a British Civil Servant but already a French funchionnaire… Incidentally, I was not a member of the French civil service. It turned out that the three Canadian experts coming from Canada -- I, who just came; Gueron, who came a little earlier; and Bertrand Goldschmidt, who was to come in a few days -- were to be hired as heads of departments under the Commission, not in any way members of the Commission, with a special status, because the whole French Commission had a very peculiar anomalous status of an autonomous organism -- ad hoc, something rather similar to what in Britain is known as a crown company. The status was not comparable to anything. We certainly were not to be civil servants in the ordinary sense of the word. The salaries were set very high on the scale of French civil service salaries, and yet rather low compared to what we had in Canada. I was to be given a rank slightly higher than that of my two colleagues.
It didn’t mean much because these ranks were sort of created on the spur of the moment and therefore had no tradition and no significance behind them. Anyhow, they were to be called heads of departments, and I was to be called director. And there was a question: director of what? I was called director of scientific services. Now, this word has in French two meanings. It means services in the same meaning as in English -- something supportive -- but also it means offices or divisions. So it was a bit ambiguous. I was director of supporting activities which had to do with science, and this could mean anything. It could mean building administration.
Weiner:It could mean basic research, too.
Kowarski:No, now I’m taking the word “services” in its English sense. It could be that I was the director of anything which was serviceable for scientific work. Or it could mean also that I was a director of divisions concerned with scientific work, which was far more exalted and very different; and which way it would be interpreted depended upon future circumstances. So there was a fundamental ambiguity from the beginning. I also learned that I was not the only director under the Commission. There was also at least one other director, who was the director of financial administration; and the way was open to appointing more of them. In fact, all this was less definite than it might sound, because there was no organization chart in existence, and there wasn’t going to be one for several years.
Weiner:How long after the formation of the C.E.A. was this?
Kowarski:C.E.A. was formally installed in October ‘45. So it was about three and a half months.
Weiner:And did this take place before you talked with Joliot or after he was there?
Well, Joliot came a very very few days afterwards. It practically coincided. I suppose there were a very few days when I was getting settled, and running after my rationing cards. I don’t think there is any need to distinguish between the date of my return and that of Joliot’s a few days later. On one of the very first days Joliot made one of his public appearances. I already described that at that time he was head of practically everything in government science. He made an appearance at a Communist rally in Paris. That was before any hint of the Cold War. The Communist party was very very nationally minded –- “our brave Russian allies” -- even “our brave American allies” still. Joliot made some of his speeches about the progress and the bright future thanks to science and so on. And the account of that appeared in the French Communist paper, L’Humanite; and it was a typical sob sister account describing the atmosphere of popular enthusiasm and the great man speaking to them and ending with the words: “thus giving the example of a great scientist who is not afraid to mix with common people.” “Donnant ainsi l’example d’un grant savant qui ne craint pas de se meler au peuple.” That Joliot could stand this kind of thing written about him also was a shock. Generally speaking, linguistically, life in those days was every day full of some shock.
In this Communist progressive Chauvinist way, the French poet, Louis Aragon launched the expression that the future of the French people under the wise guidance of the Communist party would be towards “morrows full of songs” –- “les lendemains qui chantent.” Now, these “morrows full of songs” -- they don’t sound very sincere in English. I can also tell you that in any fine perception of good literary French, “les lendemains qui chantent” sounded to me no less of a fake. There were some other shocks from some other quarters. For example, one of the conservative rightist papers…And the conservative rightists in those days lay very low. Still they had their newspapers, and they were free to air their feelings. There was an article describing the plight of the French medicine which was being invaded by foreigners hastily naturalized, so many of them Jewish, you know, and quoting the case of a man who recently passed all the necessary exams for a French practicing doctor, and it turned out that he practically had never heard of Moliere. The idea of a Jewish intellectual, who was intellectual enough to pass all the medical studies and coming obviously from a country which had the traditional respect for western culture who never heard of Moliere appeared to me completely grotesque. So it had to be invented. And who was inventing this sort of thing in view of what? That was also a shock. I could see all these kind of people, who expressed their views about Jewish intellectuals only a few years before in a completely different political atmosphere where they probably could be more sincerely outspoken, and I was thinking that if, even at that time when the French Right was out of sight -- if at that moment a Paris newspaper could spread this sort of thing, what would it become a little later? There are other details. For example, the universal black marketeering in food: people with not too many of these obnoxious American-printed bank notes, under very flimsy pretexts, could enjoy pretty sumptuous meals, which would cost a considerable part of the monthly earnings of a workman, quite openly.
This also shocked me after the experience of how the food questions and the black market questions were treated in England during the war. I don’t think that I was feeling virtuous about it. I realized perfectly well that a country which was disrupted by enemy occupation and all sorts of things connected with it could not appear as orderly and united as a country which was genuinely fighting a genuine war. And so I was ready to find all sorts of excuses for this. But excuses or not, it was an atmosphere a bit difficult to adapt myself to. Joliot came and things started. There was, I noticed, a certain lack of agreement between Joliot and two of the scientific members of the commission -- Auger and Francis Perrin. I also noticed that Irene Joliot was not terribly interested in atomic energy but saw the new organism chiefly as a means of running her Radium Institute, where she was the director. And this attitude, by the way, that any new big beginning is above all first a source of money to bolster up your own kingdom which existed previously -- this attitude I met many times since then, in particular in the beginnings of CERN.
Weiner:Can we ask here about what she was doing at the Radium Institute? It had not been closed during the war?
Kowarski:Oh, no. Irene Joliot was mainly a chemist more than a physicist, and at that time she was interested in general stability questions. I notice, by the way, that this kind of question is usually indulged in by somebody who feels himself a little away from the front-line of specific, precise research questions. It happened to a few people I know, and it happened quite a lot to myself. I already described previously my somewhat sidewise relationship to nuclear physics. Irene Joliot, being a Nobel Prize woman and extremely respected -- rightly so -- in international circ1es, was preparing survey papers on general stability questions of various isotopes and giving them in various conferences. She was also simply administratively running the Institute. I think she had her hands quite full, and then she was present at all the meetings of the Atomic Commission, where she scientifically could bring valuable contributions from time to time; and she was also, of course, the wife of her husband -- and they always were together. If there was any dissension, you could always be certain that she would be on his side -- as long as she would genuinely agree with him, and there seemed to be no sign that she had reasons not to. It was said, by the way, that she was a member of the Communist party. This is not true to my knowledge. And I do think that no party, and especially no Communist party, could ever tolerate a member like Irene Joliot, who was far too forthright and straight, and would probably say the truth as she saw it in the midst of a complicated political meeting and thus would be a menace to it, because she spoke completely fearlessly and completely without any thought as to whether this or that would be diplomatic to say or no. And because her ideology on the whole was Communist, it was automatically assumed that she was a Communist, but she wasn’t. Joliot was, with all diplomacy that that implied. Of course, the Communist atmosphere in those days suited Joliot and his fundamental, enormously ingrained patriotism -- it suited perfectly well.
Weiner:I interrupted you when you were talking about the Commission, the attitudes toward it regarding supporting the past or building something new. It wasn’t quite clear what kind of issues you were concerned with at that time.
Kowarski:In the very first weeks it was not clear to anybody. The first detailed program -- not detailed but precise program -- was proposed by Joliot, funnily enough, on his birthday, which is the 19th of March. That was already therefore some seven weeks after my arrival -- not quite. The proposal was to start working in a definite place. The place was already found. It was a disused military fort near Paris at Chatillon. There were some picturesque details about it. When we visited for the first time the Chatillon fort to take it over, it turned out that before that it was used as a place of detention for war criminals. And since we pressed the authorities to give us the fort as soon as possible, they in a somewhat hurried way shot the last prisoners there the morning of the day we visited. At one moment we saw some of the blood. So we had to install our provisional labs there. We had to hire personnel for the positions which obviously needed to be filled first: the head of mechanical workshops and mechanical development; the head of electronic development; some chemists for analysis, and so on. Then we would start assembling the materials and building the first reactor. This first reactor was supposed to be of the CP 3 type –- that is, provided with some elementary cooling, allowing it to reach a few hundred kilowatts. And Joliot already was talking of the next reactor, which would be far bigger. There was a curious ambiguity in his statement about what would be the aim of this next reactor. It sounded something like Hanford. And Hanford, of course, was for making military plutonium. Now, Joliot didn’t say at all that we would be making military plutonium there, but then he didn’t say anything at all about what purpose this second reactor was supposed to serve. Contrary to what one might believe from subsequent statements, the French commissariat had explicitly stated military aims, side by side with the civilian ones. And Joliot as the High Commissioner had very definitely the duty to further these military aims, as well as the others.
Weiner:What’s the difference between the Commissariat and the commissioner? In other words, Auger, Irene Curie and Perrin were the commissariat as differentiated from Kowarski, Goldschmidt and Gueron? I’m not quite clear about the hierarchy here.
Kowarski:In those days, generally speaking, nobody was clear about any hierarchy, and this haziness was kept up deliberately, partly because within the commission itself -- on the level of the commission--the various differences of opinion began to appear very soon. Please don’t forget that France in those days was a country completely torn apart and which had a generation of being torn behind it. So this state of things was more congenial to the atmosphere, than it would have been in the United States or especially in England. To answer your question, one has to return to the etymology of the words we were using. A Commission is a body of men who have been given a task, or, in Latin, a “commission” (with a small c), by somebody in authority. The authority was at that time still the provisional government, which was just relinquished by de Gaulle and taken over by a Social Democratic Prime Minister. He, directly, represented the authority which gave the task to the commissioners. They were entrusted by the government with the responsibility of setting up atomic energy in France. They were called Commissaires, which does mean commissioners -- like the police commissioner of New York. And the highest among them was called the high commissioner, Haut-Commissaire. The body, over which he presided, was called Commissariat, a term equivalent to, but slightly more specific than the term Commission, used for example by the American A.E.C. And the commissioners who were not the high commissioners were also called members of the commission.
Weiner:If you had said “high commissioners” with an “s” that would have meant that there were more than one.
There was strictly one high commissioner. This, however, was complicated by the fact, which was typical for those times, that after having appointed a high commissioner --the government also appointed a second head. It was in fact not quite clear whether he was meant to be second or first. The two heads were there, and the question of who was over whom was not settled at that time. The other head was called Administrator General, Delegate of the Government. Thus we had one head, which held a commission from the government and the other head which was called the government’s delegate. If words have any meaning, this meant that they had the same title. It might be thought -- and I think it did happen later on -- that the etymology of the term “delegate of the government” was more familiar to the contemporary French than that of the word “commissioner.” Many people would therefore be inclined to believe that, in real terms, Joliot’s slightly outlandish and high sounding title had something honorary about it, whereas the Delegate was appointed to keep a watch over the Commissariat on behalf of the government. That interpretation certainly was not shared by Joliot himself.
Now, it so happened that this Delegate of the government was Raoul Dautry, who was a very great French technocrat and a man completely of the Establishment, an alumnus of the Ecole Polytechnique, whose career, at its beginning, was closely connected with the Rothschild Bank. The presence of these two men at the head of the Commissariat perfectly expressed the dual mood of the progressive Left, which at that time still was the top dog, but already aware that it would not retain this position for long. The traditional right, for a while, still was lying low. Suspicions of some involvement in the collaboration with the Germans, were hanging rather more heavily on that end of the spectrum, but in those days of course everybody was a resistant; everybody was an anti-collaborator -- and these suspicions could not be openly mentioned. I might add that I myself had always a kind of hero worship for Dautry, whom I knew perfectly well from my youthful interest in railroading. He was the great wizard of French railroads. He was responsible for bringing them, maybe 20 years earlier, from a quite decrepit enterprise into a very efficient thing, which the French railroads have been ever since and still are today. Then, of course Dautry was the top authority in our 1940 adventure with heavy water. Joliot noticed very soon that I had a great respect for Dautry, and he was very sarcastic about it. Joliot also managed to introduce a third head. He was called Secretary-General. This official was a French applied chemist about whom you can find in Scheinman’s book -- I will not return to it. I think I am still staying within permissible limits if I express the opinion that he was to some extent a self-seeking man.
Weiner:This is Denivelle.
Kowarski:Denivelle. He probably saw this position as a way of furthering his career, and his career -- I think it was obvious even in those days -- would finally lie with the French industrial circles and French governmental circles, who probably would change rather quickly in their political character. Already de Gaulle’s departure was foreshadowing it. But at that time the post-war mystique was still on, and Joliot was obviously very much a banner-bearer for a considerable part of that mystique; so Denivelle kept in Joliot’s good graces. And Joliot, who I’ve already said was not always good at choosing people, considered Denivelle as his unconditionally devoted right-hand man. Denivelle certainly aspired to the position of being the right hand, but ultimately of whom? That still remained to be seen. There developed almost immediately an opposition, among the top scientific personnel, to Denivelle, which is reported in Scheinman’s book and which finally was responsible for his departure. Joliot defended him for a long time but then couldn’t anymore. Besides the political atmosphere began to change and, with it, some of Denivelle’s visible attitudes. That came later: in late ‘48 or early ‘49. Well, I don’t know whether I have said enough about the hierarchy.
Weiner:The reason I asked was because of the implication that a decision had been reached regarding military purposes at some level in this hierarchy even though it wasn’t discussed or hinted at at a lower level.
Kowarski:It was discussed, and it was admitted.
Weiner:Oh, then I misunderstood.
Kowarski:Oh, yes. We are still speaking of early 1946. Don’t forget, the atmosphere was patriotic, “Our brave army,” the great national Communist party -- le parti de la resistance -- Joliot was appointed by de Gaulle. The peculiar charter of the Commissariat was more or less in full agreement with de Gaulle. And it was quite obvious that de Gaulle would not accept this charter without giving a certain visible part to the military purpose. Moreover, in addition to its scientific members, the Commission also contained an explicitly military member. He was, of course, a “good” military man. He was a Jewish general –- I think a brother of Marcel Dassault, who became the great aircraft manufacturer. And this General Dassault was at that time the great chancellor of the Legion d’Honneur. He also was, I think, the head of military research, that is of all research strictly defined as military. There was, this top-level representative of military research sitting in the Commission. Because he was a Jewish general, he possibly was more easily congenial to an atmosphere of progressive intellectuals, but his ex-officio seat in the Commission confirmed, without the slightest doubt that, in those days, the Commissariat had at least on paper a military mission almost as pronounced as that of the American AEC. After all, the AEC, which at that time was not formed yet, was very definitely born in a spirit of opposition to the military -- the McMahon Act.
Weiner:Yes, deliberately civilian control supposedly.
Kowarski:Deliberately civilian with military functions. And it was the same in France.
Weiner:You say that this, for my background, can be covered in the Scheinman book adequately.
Kowarski:Yes. Well, I think we have to stop now. [pause] The plan presented on the 19th of March first spoke of a relatively small reactor of a couple of hundred kilowatts, and then of a far bigger one, implicitly for making plutonium. Whether plutonium was to be civilian or military, that was sort of tactfully not mentioned.
Weiner:Publicly you mean. Even within the scientific committee.
Kowarski:Even within the scientific committee. The scientific committee, by the way, was started a week or two before. It consisted essentially of the four scientific commissioners, and of the main directors or heads of departments -- essentially the three “Canadians” (Gueron, Goldschmidt and myself) and one French physicist who, I think, was added because Joliot felt that he and his wife were a bit outnumbered by the three top scientific Canadians and the two scientific commissioners, all of whom had been under the Anglo-Saxon influence. This additional French physicist was Berthelot.
Weiner:Any relation to that family?
Kowarski:No, not so far as I know. I don’t think so. There was a remarkable piece of hanky panky involved. The committee was formed while Goldschmidt and I were on a mission to England early in March, and some of its rules of procedure were quite obviously… Well, whoever drew them up obviously took advantage of the fact that both Goldschmidt and I were away. In the next years it became clear to me (I don’t know how far it is historically obvious) that the three top people in the Commissariat, from the point of view of its strictly scientific and technical program, were Joliot, myself and Goldschmidt -- in that order -- that the two other scientific commissioners (Auger and Perrin) found themselves in some kind of opposition to Joliot; and the third Canadian (Gueron) found himself in some kind of opposition to Goldschmidt and me. Why I single out these three top people is because I think for reasons which appear to me purely objective, they were best situated to be able to contribute to the scientific and technical program. A word about Goldschmidt: his allotted sphere was somewhat limited. I pushed quite a bit in order to enlarge it gradually. At first he was interested exclusively in plutonium; then gradually he became interested also in metallic uranium and things like that. He was a very able chemist with a lot of intuition and scientific perception, and also quite a remarkable leader of men. He was -- and still is, of course -- a member of a family, which is rather closely connected to the Rothschild interests. Actually, his wife is a Rothschild. And there was always a streak of playboy in him. He never was able to go through the strenuous preparations for the Ecole Polytechnique or any other breeding ground of the French technocratic elite. And therefore I think he was considered as a bit of an intellectual nonentity by his family. Actually, he was a very brilliant scientist, and he probably was not quite aware of that himself. I will return to Goldschmidt later on. We were never really close friends, but we understood each other; and he appreciated the fact that I was a man who, not long before, took only 11 months to build a working reactor, and could therefore be expected to do it again, and at that time was the only man in France who could do it. And I appreciated both his scientific and managerial brilliance. Now what? Any questions?
Weiner:Yes. When the scientific committee was set up, was it set up to talk about the goals of the program or was that pretty obvious when the entire Commissariat was created? There must have been some original mandate without the details being worked out. When they said “atomic energy,” they had some particular thing in mind.
The mandate was drawn by people who understood little about the thing -- you mustn’t forget that. Joliot might have been a very great scientific discoverer, but by 1945 he knew rather little about atomic energy as it had developed in the intervening years. So the mandate could be couched only in the most general terms: to develop this new force of nature for all its applications, production of electric power, production of isotopes for medical and scientific and agricultural uses; and for defense purposes. All that was mentioned. How to go about it? Well, it was quite obvious that one had to found a cluster of laboratories, train manpower, create a layer of people between 25 and 35 -- the age when new people enter things like that, a layer of people who would understand these things; establish procedures for the analysis of extremely pure materials; equip factories for making such chemicals as very pure graphite or uranium oxide or metallic uranium or uranium fluorides; possibly at some much later and unspecified stage, the separation of uranium isotopes; possibly again, at some stage, the manufacture of heavy water. This immediate task of creating new labs and new personnel and setting the new problems and building a first reactor of low or relatively low power -- that was a task for obviously a few years. There was no immediate need to think much beyond that. And it was not very healthy to think much beyond, because the political scene was shifting all the time.
In May ‘47 the Communists officially left the French government and became an opposition, a very noticeable opposition indeed. For the next few months -- or even for a couple of years -- there was a series of social disturbances. The major one was in December ’47 -- when one could think that perhaps there was a possibility of a total disruption of national life and some coup d’etat based on that. That was the time when various European countries were falling one by one -- first Hungary, then Czechoslovakia; Italy was verging on the brink. I think the Communist vote in ‘48 came close to 40% or something like that. I remember articles in Time magazine hinting that it was quite possible that there would be military intervention. This atmosphere took several years to dissipate. 1947 still looked touch and go. In ‘48, in spite of that last warning from Czechoslovakia, it began to recede a little. By 1949, but not earlier, it became at last more or less obvious that France would remain in the western camp. In that polarized atmosphere, many of my colleagues could be clearly seen as belonging to various parts of the French Establishment. Others, like Joliot and most of the people immediately around him, were either Communists or fellow-travelers. As to myself, Joliot realized very soon that I was completely bewitched by the English. At first he had some hopes that he would win me over to France, to his conception of France. But then this hope began to recede. Joliot, on the other hand, considered Goldschmidt as a representative of the enemy capitalist class…
Weiner:Because of his ties.
Kowarski:Yes, and therefore not to be trusted. So this atmosphere was not very conducive to common discussion of common goals.
Weiner:One of the questions that has come up with regard to political instability is the budget. Now, when the original mandate was given, was it clear that you had a blank check -- I mean this CEA -- and was it in their minds that this would be a crash program or was this just another kind of a thing that would have to work along on available funds?
Kowarski:It was definitely not an ordinary program. It was always understood that government would have a special solicitude for it. You must realize that at that time anything atomic was completely magical, and one could always expect that the government could give any amount of money and no taxpayer would ever say no. So the pace was set not by the government giving us money but our own ability to expand quickly enough to spend big money. And in the first couple of years one cannot spend big money. There is nothing to spend it on. The pace as regards money began to come to a head only starting in 1950. It was not that money was unlimited, at any time its availability was never felt to be infinite. Only this ceiling did not matter, since another, and lower, ceiling was already set by our ability to expand.
Weiner:But when you had these feelings of the instability, was part of your feeling that the program would be cut off? Regardless of your ability to spend what you already had, were you concerned that a different leadership in the country might take a different view of the program? Not of the personalities within it but of the program itself. Or were the two so…
Kowarski:I would say exactly the opposite to what you’ve just said. I would expect the different leadership in the country to take a different view toward the personalities involved, not to the program.
Weiner:Well, whatever party would promote the program. It was just a question of whom they would entrust with running it and to what directions they would turn it.
Perhaps I should now come to this question of who would be entrusted. As I said, the public opinion was ready to support any amount of money given to this program. I’m not exaggerating. Therefore, for people who live off the state and state funds and state contracts, it was an absolute gold mine. Now, this gold mine was in the hands of some strange characters who, in their different ways, had nothing to do with the French Establishment. Joliot was obviously not a man from the Establishment. He may have been adopted by the Establishment but with some mental reservations, and not irrevocably. Goldschmidt -- the French branch of the Rothschild family in those days was still more based in New York than in Paris. Of course, they were all in New York during the war. Auger was of a typically respectable academic family, an alumnus of Ecole Normale, which did belong to the French Establishment, but at that time was in the process of becoming an underdog: the Ecole Polytechnique was noticeably and quickly coming to the fore. Gueron and I, in different degrees, were complete nonentities in terms of the French class structure.
At least Gueron was a French citizen more or less from birth. He was actually born in North Africa. It was, to some, a painful sight, this gold mine in the hands of these strange characters, who, by the way, didn’t at all want to enrich themselves -- none of us wanted to -- and if people who have access to government money do not want to enrich themselves, you don’t know how to deal with them. All the usual means of persuasion failed. We were in a way completely incorruptible. And that, of course, is unbearable. If you have a system -- I wouldn’t say corruption; that is too strong a word; France was not a corrupt country--but an established system a little bit like big city machines used to be in the heyday of big city machines in this country -- if you have that, then incongenial characters cannot be left in control. For example, the usual thing with any very big contract in France -- it’s explained very well in French literature; I could quote some examples -- is that the politicians on whom it depends to give contracts become friendly with big contractors, and big contractors give nice fat checks to the cashboxes of political parties with an eye to the next elections. Now, here we were knowing nothing of political parties, of big contractors. This old time-honored way of spending money and getting byproducts from it was totally alien to us, and yet we had full control. This was an absolutely intolerable situation.
There was another more subtle factor. People who occupy in Europe a position of great influence are usually people who come from great families, from great schools; or if they are not, they spend the greater part of their early life earning the good graces of such privileged circles. Goldschmidt excepted, we were not connected with any great families; we were not from great schools -- except Auger and Perrin who were from Ecole Normale, but Ecole Normale already at that time was a bit under a cloud. And we had no reason to establish ourselves in the good graces of people in such positions. And this in some way created an example -- a very conspicuous example, because atomic work was number one magic in those times -- which was pernicious to this system of values and sort of depreciated the efforts other people were ready to spend in order to conform themselves to these values. I think it is exactly the same thing which happened to Oppenheimer in this country. Oppenheimer became a person with extraordinary high influence without being a WASP, without having gone through any place like West Point or any of the great prep schools. He went, I think, to the School of Ethical Culture.
Weiner:Yes, and then to Harvard. The Fieldston School.
Kowarski:So Oppenheimer’s position of influence automatically depreciated those ways which are usually used to get positions of big influence. And therefore he had to be pulled down. That’s how I always explain his downfall. On a smaller scale, with smaller things at stake, happening to smaller people than Oppenheimer, this was more or less our situation In France.
Weiner:When do you think that this first began to be perceived by people who thought it was a threat or something that they couldn’t deal with?
Kowarski:You mean that we were a threat?
Weiner:Yes, this attitude toward you as a group.
Kowarski:Well, these things one feels in the air very much. There were a few things. For example, I tried to recruit a chief engineer for the building of the first reactor, and I found that any prestigious name in French advanced engineering -- and there are some very good people there -- they all found pretexts to stay out. They left it for the outsiders. You felt that they belonged to a different walk of life. And so we had very few recruits from the leading circles of French academic or engineering life.
Weiner:It would seem that in that immediate postwar period they would have many other opportunities that might be a lot more lucrative for them and perhaps more clearly-defined futures, whereas the new agency didn’t provide a clear path to establishment in…
Kowarski:That was said, but never believed that. I would say they were biding their time when they would take over, and they eventually did. The French atomic energy, with the money and so on and the prestige, was taken over by the French technocratic establishment I would say by the end of ‘51. And before that they didn’t want to individually get too much involved in it. There were individual exceptions -- some consultants from time to time would make themselves available -- but on the whole the kind of people we had to recruit to be our everyday collaborators were all “small” people or else, in some way, out of the mainstream of French technocratic life and so on. All that began to be visible pretty soon.
Weiner:You had another major problem then, and that would be to find large numbers of people to work at various levels of your program, since the educational system was disrupted and an almost entire school generation had been lost to you.
Kowarski:I don’t think the problem here was as big as people imagine. The school system was not disrupted really. During the occupation years a lot of things in France went on in a business-as-usual mood, or nearly so.
Weiner:Ecole Polytechnique had graduating classes?
Weiner:So if one looked at the statistics one would find a reasonable number of engineers still being turned out?
Kowarski:Oh, yes. And the French talented youth was as talented as ever. No, that was no problem.
Weiner:Well, one of the problems I did come across on a simple thing like a geologist prospecting for uranium -- was that because this is a field that hadn’t been explored before, no one had been trained in it. In other words, normal training you’re saying…
Kowarski:Excuse me. The French prospecting for uranium was carried on rather efficiently and successfully, so I don’t know…
Weiner:Well, in one of the books -- in Biquard perhaps -- it’s indicated that there had to be a very special program to train qualified prospectors until there were enough to go out and search for uranium deposits.
Kowarski:Well, there was an element of romanticism about it -- geiger counters and so on. Of course, at the beginning, there were no geologists already trained to use geiger counters. It was obvious they had to be trained. But all this problem of geological prospection was a bit of something thrown to the public imagination -- as in America, by the way, these prospectors, the fathers of the Darling Clementine suddenly packing amplifiers for geiger counters on the back of their mules, you know. All this had a strong appeal to the public imagination. So I don’t think personally, although I never touched much the geological part, that it was in any way more difficult to train geological prospectors than to train, shall we say, a dozen neutron physicists. I should say it would require more to train neutron physicists, but that appealed somewhat less to the public imagination, so there was less talk about it. The other thing is that Joliot entrusted this geological part to two French geologists who were definitely either fellow travelers or Communists and very visibly so. One of the first attacks on Joliot supported or chosen people came on those two. So, again, there was more visibility. And they were among the first to be dispossessed and their function taken by people more congenial to the Establishment.
Weiner:That was after Joliot…
Kowarski:No, I think even before.
Weiner:What did the program require in terms of personnel? Maybe this is a way to answer the thing that’s on my mind about the kind of people that were needed and whether they were readily available or whether they had to be retrained. And that leads to a question I want to get into -- about how this new national emphasis on atomic energy is reflected back into the universities.
Kowarski:One would say that in the first years -- in the years I was most active -- it didn’t reflect at all in any way. That was created later on, but at first the need for university programs was hardly felt at all. One of my favorite sayings in those days was: “We don’t need people trained in anything nuclear. We need people with a craft.” I usually gave examples of what I meant by a craft: mechanics of all sorts, mechanical engineering of all sorts; electrical or rather electronic engineering and, finally, chemical engineering, with ramifications such as metallurgy. That’s what was needed, and of that there was an abundant supply. Our difficulties were not due in the French educational system but to the fact which I have already mentioned -- that the top people of this applied science or technology Establishment were not very enthusiastic to collaborate. But we had any number of talented young people; that was never lacking.
Weiner:Well, talking about the difficulties in the early period, the funds you say weren’t difficult -- and you’re implying that there was available staff who could be used as is or could be trained. So that wasn’t the problem. So what was the major problem?
Kowarski:The major problem was the total rift at the top in all sorts of directions. I’ve already mentioned many of them. The existence of the two heads who, when one looks at the etymological meaning of their titles, really had the same function. The rift between the scientific commissioners on one side, Joliot and his wife somehow not quite of the Establishment, on the other; Perrin and Auger who did belong to the Establishment. The rift between them -- the well-placed French scientists and us, the “three Canadians” as we were called, who came with all the real technical knowledge but with no connection with the scientific face of the French Establishment. Goldschmidt in this respect was in the best position, Gueron in a somewhat less good position, and I in the worst of all. Rift within our own generation group -- well, we had only slightly different ages -- between those of us who were under essentially the Anglo-Saxon influence, and those who were essentially under the continental influence. Other rifts were criss-crossing in all directions -- for example, the opposition between Goldschmidt and myself on the one hand and Gueron on the other. Both Goldschmidt and I came from Canada with a definite achievement: he with his method for making plutonium and I with the first reactor. Gueron had nothing comparable to show, and therefore his actions had a style of his own. These innumerable rifts, sprung in every direction, obviously had only the chance to grow and not to decrease.
Weiner:Well, wasn’t it then a question of lack of strong leadership to sort these things out and give some central direction…?
Kowarski:Don’t forget that we had already two heads.
Weiner:That’s still lack of strong leadership.
Kowarski:Yes. As to Joliot, he was a strong leader quite enough. But Joliot was kind of stranded in a boat which was driven farther and farther away from shore by a strong current. Joliot more and more identified himself with the fortunes of the Communist party, and the role of the Communist party was dwindling. Joliot was carried away from us before our eyes. By ‘49 Joliot was visibly on his way to become almost a foreign body, I would say, in this complex of forces which were linked to the French government and French budget and French military alliances at that time. That was the time when NATO was being formed. Denivelle by then already had been ousted and replaced by Lescop, and that taught me a lesson which I never forgot -- that one should never oust anybody without knowing by whom he will be replaced. Lescop, who played a considerable role in the subsequent fortunes of the Commissariat during the next two years, was a Polytechnicien and at the same time a minor politician in the Radical party, which was to some extent an unusual combination. Most Polytechniciens, if political at all, tended rather toward the right. And the Radical party at that time still was considered sort of left of center. On his arrival in ‘49, and being a politician, he of course realized that Joliot’s days were numbered already; and he saw his part in two ways -- first to transfer the budgetary leadership of the Commissariat to those more customary channels, in which the Radical party was traditionally the most brilliant practitioner. That was one task. The other task was to make the Commissariat and its top positions ready for the Ecole Polytechnique, of which he was an alumnus.
Weiner:What do you mean by ready for it?
Kowarski:That meant, of course, ousting all of the existing leadership.
Weiner:You mean ready for takeover by that group?
Kowarski:Yes. It meant the ousting of all leadership, and ousting meant either that the top people had to submit to the new leadership, or, if they were considered unwilling to submit or unable to submit, they had to get out. From ‘49 Lescop began to work in these two simultaneous directions -- as a Radical politician and as a Polytechnicien. He was a curious character in some ways -- human, very human, somewhat fond of wine in, shall we say, not quite sober quantities; with a passionate interest, which probably was the best part of his character, in art and in painting; and with peculiar politician—like bursts of frankness. So, for example, as early as in mid-‘49 (that’s nearly a year before Joliot’s ouster), I had quite a clear idea that Lescop simply was waiting for Joliot being officially removed. It was not a question of whether but a question of when and what to do immediately after he is removed. Joliot at that time told a few of his maxims to me, some of which I remember clearly. Remarkable maxims indeed. He said: “You will always be the loser in these struggles, because they have only that to do; and you want to do other things as well. You will never be able to relinquish them and throw yourself in these battles as wholeheartedly as they do, and therefore you’ll always be the loser.” I don’t know -- these things one can never prove -- whether really my days were counted in the Commissariat, or whether I just imagined it and, imagining it, behaved in such a way as to make my departure inevitable. One never knows, but I still think -- maybe it’s a weakness -- that on the whole whatever I would be doing myself, I would have been removed unless I gave some very unmistakable proof of complete devotion to some powerful protector out of the Establishment, and somehow I didn’t look the part. I don’t know. Maybe I would have chosen it. But nobody ever made any overtures to me that way -- not in my understanding. On the whole, I may say that I always found it very difficult to sell my soul to any devil because no devils seemed to be interested in buying it.
Weiner:Let me get back to the early part of this period. That is the resumption of nuclear physics per se, which, as we’ve indicated in our other discussions before, is different from atomic energy. What happened there before the war? The cyclotron had been built; there had been other (Van de Graaff type) apparatus. The Radium Institute…
Kowarski:The cyclotron never worked before the war. The cyclotron started working during the war when the Germans fitted it out for their own experiments, including some with uranium.
Weiner:What kind of results did they get which were applicable in any way to either nuclear physics or to your program? Anything? Was there anything significant?
Kowarski:Well, our program, of course, by that time had very little to do with nuclear physics. I like paradoxes, as you probably know, and I always said that nuclear physics was about the last thing we really needed. All we needed were a few neutron physics measurements. I never use the word nuclear physics in this connection, I usually prefer to use the word neutron physics. Of course, that’s not what the young people who were streaming into our laboratories wanted. They wanted to be the nuclear magicians. And I insisted on building proper ionization chambers with their amplifiers, or systems for manipulating cadmium rods and things like that. The cyclotron, for instance, was never relevant to our work at all. The Van de Graaff was built by one of the divisions under my direction. Incidentally, it turned out that if you neglect several aspects of the Commissariat, such as purely administrative and financial, the connections with the existing biomedical field, which was outside; and geology, with which I had never anything to do -- the remaining fields were physics, chemistry, metallurgy, mechanics and electronics. As I say, the family tree was never drawn up but these fields theoretically were more or less all under me. In fact, Goldschmidt and Gueron never were under me. That left me in control of about two-thirds of the whole field -- that is, from theoretical physics to metallurgy, so to speak -- whereas Goldschmidt and Gueron covered only the chemistry between them, which was the remaining third. One sixth for each of the two, so I was, so to speak, four times more important that either of them. When Joliot’s power began obviously to be on the verge of being removed, my power also began to wane, because I was held in this exalted position exclusively by Joliot’s will. As soon as Joliot was out, there was absolutely nothing to sustain me in any high position.
Weiner:Before we get to that part, what about nuclear physics per se? You talked about the lack of relation to the program, but then there was the cyclotron in existence, and there was the tradition at the Radium Institute. In other words, pursuing basic work in nuclear physics -- was this just abandoned, or was there a new tradition or continuation of the French tradition?
Kowarski:A continuation of a tradition is never worth as much as the roots of the tradition. There certainly was a continuation of the tradition, but a continuation that was in no ways renewed. Joliot himself was no longer the great discoverer. He was part of his time a great manager and another part of his time a great politician. He continued to be director of several research labs, and in these research labs there was work going on small questions, small features of radioactivity, some experiments for instance, such as influence of electronic state in beryllium on its nuclear disintegration. That was one of the more glamorous things. Work on tripartite fission -– that is, observation of fission not in two fragments but in three. Things like that, with small means, often using the cyclotron. The Van de Graaff, by the way, was ready in about ‘51.
Weiner:What about the impulse generator that had been working…?
Kowarski:The impulse generator never was revived. The cyclotron did work, yes.
Weiner:It was the same cyclotron that was built before the war but not really used.
Weiner:It was used during the war by the Germans, which was then related to this work that…
Kowarski:Yes, and there were isotopes, radioactive bodies brought from England and from ‘47 onwards it became possible to acquire radioactive isotopes of various sorts in America. This, by the way, was a remarkable story. Joliot and Madame Joliot visited America in ‘46, tried to obtain some radioactive bodies for their researches, and in ‘46 it was still forbidden. So there was a huge splash: “The discoverers of radioactive isotopes [which they were] are rebuffed by reactionary Americans for political reasons” and so on and so forth, which of course was very profitable politically.
Weiner:Then the cyclotron wasn’t used for scattering experiments or this kind of thing…
Kowarski:I would say it probably was. The thing is, you see, that Joliot realized perfectly well that at Chatillon and at Saclay later on, and especially at Chatillon, the applied scientific leadership was rather firmly in the hands of Goldschmidt and myself -- he left it to us. And he retrenched himself in the laboratory in College de France with the cyclotron. I wasn’t much encouraged to go there. That was another rift. Incidentally, in those days I was saddled with a subordinate, who came to occupy a fairly important position at Chatillon against my wish but he was imposed by Joliot…Joliot had a peculiar taste for all sorts of cloak and dagger people who would go to Germany as members of the French military intelligence, and investigate German wartime atomic researches. And they, of course, reported mostly to the military establishment, who considered Joliot as their enemy. But, on the other hand, Joliot, being at that time the all-powerful boss of French official science, they also had to report to him. Joliot reveled in this relationship, this peculiar network of cloak and dagger semi-scientific agents who reported to him. And that’s how one of them became one of my main subordinates. A year or two after that, he assembled his subordinates around him and explained in a short speech that “you know, Kowarski; heaven knows who Kowarski is. During the war he managed to visit Oak Ridge [this is not true -- I came to Oak Ridge for the first time in my life in 1957] and learned all the secrets, and that’s what puts him in his strong position. But patience, sooner or later this will all diffuse to more reliable people, and then we will not need him anymore.”
Weiner:This is while he was on the staff?
Weiner:Who was this lovely person?
Kowarski:Well, perhaps I shouldn’t put his name on tape. Later on, in ‘53, I once mentioned that name to a Swedish scientist -- a knowledgeable person -- who instantly smiled and said: “Oh, that one! You know, he is known as the French reactor specialist who is not a Communist.” It was that regulation, probably, which finally got him a job in private industry -- head of the nuclear department in a big corporation, or something like that.
Weiner:So if work in traditional nuclear physics was going on, you had no direct contact with it.
Kowarski:I had no direct contact in it, and I’m quite sure -- I was sure then and I’m sure now -- that it presented not the slightest interest for things I was interested in.
Weiner:So this is our problem here.
Weiner:I wanted to talk with someone who could help give the picture of the development of the field of nuclear physics per se as it was pursued in France. You gave me, I think a very good picture up until the war, because you were right at the heart of it, but after the war apparently you weren’t. Who would be good to get that view from?
Kowarski:Berthelot probably. You heard me mention his name a while ago. He would probably be the best man for that.
Weiner:It would be good to fill in that part of it, because what happens is that divergence after the war, because there are new projects and new specialties.
Weiner:Getting back to your story, what about relationships with other European atomic energy people? You mentioned the mission to England that you and Goldschmidt were on.
Kowarski:Oh, yes. We went to England quite often on various missions. As England became more and more insistent on what they called and still are calling their special relationship with the United States, as England came more and more therefore under the shadow of the McMahon Act, and eager to show, especially after the spy affairs, that they were not such security risks, the amount of information that we were getting from England began to dwindle. This created some curious situations. In ‘47 Joliot for the first time visited Harwell. This aroused quite a stir in the Establishment, in the English governmental circles -- Joliot a Communist, Harwell full of American secrets. They wanted to rigidly control this visit. Cockcroft solved this problem in a typically English way. He treated Joliot as an extremely honored guest, so honored that Cockcroft devoted every moment of the time that Joliot was there to being with Joliot. Which meant that Joliot, of course, all the time was under complete supervision. It was done very elegantly. Joliot at first said something like that he would stay in Harwell two days and address perhaps members of the young personnel. It turned out that he might just as well save his breath. As soon as he opened his mouth he was told that they are terribly honored, that they made this most honorable program for him, the program -- would be a lengthy one, fully 24 hours -- and there was no question of youth rallies, because the program was so honorific that there was no time for the young people and so on. It was done with an elegance which really took breath away.
Weiner:Was he aware of what was going on?
Kowarski:Probably. Joliot was very intelligent.
Weiner:Sometimes you can flatter a person with this sort of honorary attention.
Kowarski:Joliot, like all of us, was susceptible to flattery, but this still could not debilitate his very great intelligence. In the same sporting spirit, Dunworth (whom I mentioned in the second part of this tape) would present the graphite reactor, which was developed in that graphite group which I mentioned already in the Montreal part of this interview, and he would cheerfully say: “As Kowarski may remember from his early calculations…” All the time the exact constants of the reactor were not being told to us. It was a strange situation.
Weiner:Well, that was the relationship with the English. But that was already not on a governmental basis. This was on a sort of scientific community basis, wasn’t it?
Weiner:So there was no official tie anymore. The French atomic agency was completely…
Kowarski:So far as I know there was no official tie-in at any moment between the French Commissariat and the British authorities.
Weiner:Except through joint participation of some international body perhaps.
Kowarski:Not even that. What international body?
Weiner:Well, there was the International Atomic Energy Agency later.
Kowarski:Oh, but that was much later.
Weiner:I know. And then the UN kinds of discussions -- UNESCO.
Kowarski:UNESCO never had much to do with us or we with UNESCO. There was, and still is, a U. N. advisory committee on science, of which, for example, Salam is a member (he comes to New York), and so far as I know, Goldschmidt is still the French member from France. But that came later on, not under Joliot. That came maybe in ‘52 or something like that.
Weiner:Now, the decision to start a nuclear research center was part of your original scientific committee deliberations. It seems to me from what I read that the piles were one thing. That was the first stage of the program. And then the second was that there would be a medium pile and a nuclear research center, and then third, eventually a central power stat ion.
Kowarski:Yes. All this was, shall we say, purely on paper. What was in fact the program really was: first, to have a provisional research center. I preferred to stress its provisional character, and I did in my early publications. By the way, I had several occasions to describe it in talks and papers given outside of France. An early formal occasion was at the World Power Conference in 1947. Perhaps I should give you some bibliography about that time. You probably are not familiar with it. 
Weiner:I’d like to have it.
Kowarski:That Power Conference took place in The Hague. In ‘48 I gave a talk in Brookhaven, which appeared as a paper in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, about the French atomic effort which I think reviews pretty well the state of effort. There was an even earlier paper in ‘46 in the same Bulletin, the very first. Then in ‘49 the Bulletin received a whole series of official papers, one of them by me, and the others from various people in the Commissariat. H. H. Goldsmith, who was the cofounder with Rabinowitch of the Bulletin, immediately wrote back: “You know, Kowarski, it lacks your customary punch.” This was in 1949; the ‘48 paper was full of punch.
Weiner:And in 1950 you reviewed for Nature and for Physics Today the period ‘46 to ‘50.
Kowarski:Yes, I would say the most relevant papers were first, my ‘46 article in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. I remember perfectly well when I wrote it and sent it off; it was on the 26th of September. Then the ‘48 paper, also in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that Brookhaven lecture was given in February of ‘48. And then in ‘50 was the Nature paper which actually was not written by me. It was an account of a lecture I gave; somebody wrote it up and submitted the script for my revision. I remember also how I reviewed it: I was staying in Cockcroft’s house that night. So these three: the ‘46 Bulletin, the ‘48 Bulletin and the ‘50 Nature, I think, are those which counted most, from my point of view.
Weiner:Now, let me get back to a couple of personal things in this period. When did the divorce go through?
Kowarski:The lady who was responsible for the ending of my first marriage finally signified to me quite irrevocably, in May ‘46, that she would disappear from my life. It was coming -- I knew it -- but when it actually came it was still a bit of a shock. But I never was inclined to waste my time, and two weeks after that I resumed and I think intensified my interest in Kate.
Weiner:How about the divorce? Had it come yet?
Kowarski:The divorce proceedings went their own way which was not much followed by me. Their final legal conclusion came, in December of ‘47 In August 47 I left what the French called domicle conjugal and started living alone, and I married 11 months later. I married Kate. During this 11 months I led a relatively gay life. I then had an experience with, how shall I say, not very deep affairs.
Weiner:You were not so young by then.
Kowarski:No. Still, women are nice to men in that situation -- when the man happens to be not married at that time. “He says, of course, he will marry soon,” but they think, “Well, maybe he will marry me after all,” and so on. It’s what Dean Acheson would call a position of strength.
Weiner:If only temporary. You went to the U.S. with Joliot, didn’t you, in June of ‘46?
Kowarski:That was a complete surprise. Joliot was the first French delegate at this United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, and he practically overnight told me that he would like me to come over with him. Joliot couldn’t speak English, and being accustomed to being sort of number one (in the last years especially, but on the whole, I would say for at least ten years) wherever he went, he knew that to be practically mute is definitely not a position of strength. And he thought it would be easier if he had me present. So we came more or less together.
Weiner:Irene came too.
Kowarski:Not on this first occasion. The French delegation soon became established: there would be the chief expert adviser -- I don’t remember exactly how it was, Joliot and Auger at first came together, and later on Perrin and Auger were taking turns. In addition there were, on a lower working level, Goldschmidt, Gueron and myself taking turns. Sometimes there were two of us, more often only one. But from then on, till the time when, I would say, the negotiations became quite hopeless -- sometime early in ‘48, there always was somebody in New York. I visited New York twice in ‘46, then there was a rather long visit -- several months in ‘47 and finally one, early in ‘48. Actually, when I was leaving America for England in January of ‘46, I was considering “Heaven knows when I shall see the New World again.” And I saw it exactly five months later -- it was not that long.
Weiner:Did you spend your time in discussions, at the UN on Long Island or…?
Kowarski:Discussions started, by the way, not on Long Island. They started, I think, at Hunter College -- first in Hunter College and then gradually moved to Lake Success.
Weiner:This was specifically regarding the international atomic energy cooperation.
Kowarski:Yes. One thing we were surprised to discover -- and I understand it is quite customary in the diplomatic world -- when a conference goes for, shall we say, six weeks, in these six weeks there will be not more than five or six days actually occupied. We had a tremendous amount of free time, and this enabled me not only to visit all sorts of universities and laboratories and my first two visits to San Francisco, for which I ever since had a very soft spot and still have, but also conduct my rather complicated affairs of the heart, which were finally solved by my managing to win Kate (against some reluctance) and bring her to France.
Weiner:She was in Minnesota at the time or where?
Kowarski:No, at Yale, which was conveniently near to New York.
Weiner:And the timing was just right, because it was just after the termination of the other relationship.
Kowarski:Yes. Kate had some hesitations.
Weiner:I don’t know if now is the time to get into it, but it was during this trip that you recalled in this little thing you wrote about the origin of CERN about the conversation with Oppenheimer and others. That starts another tale. I’d just as soon talk about it now, because it fits into the context. Then we can pick up the aftermath of that later. I’d like to hear what you did in New York, including that. You mentioned that you remembered having coffee in a place on upper Broadway with Oppenheimer.
Kowarski:Yes. That, by the way, was the only time I was present in this kind of conversations -- they developed on a level higher than mine. Here comes in the interesting personality of Francois de Rose, whom I think I can claim as a friend. He is very much of the French establishment, in fact a French count, a very remarkable person. If one considers the post-war part of his career, the part I knew well, that he himself probably does not fully realize, his impact on nuclear affairs in Europe has been positive to an extent. He is a French diplomat whose specialty, at that time, was that angle of the French representation at the UN which had to deal with the Atomic Commission. He made friends first with Goldschmidt and then with me, learned a lot, and taught us quite a lot about the nature of the diplomatic art. As you know, in my writings I always insist that what came out of these United Nations negotiations was that the scientists and diplomats learned for the first time about each other’s trade. And in many cases -- not in all cases -- they developed an attitude of mutual respect. That certainly was true in the French delegation. De Rose later on played a very first-rank role in the foundation of CERN.
Weiner:He was in that group that you…
Kowarski:It was not much of a group really. De Rose was known as the French diplomat in charge of atomic questions. And being in many ways a somewhat exquisite aristocrat, he could easily make friends. Oppenheimer became one, and I always joked that I didn’t know which of the two felt more flattered by this personal friendship. In this connection de Rose had an opportunity to tell Oppenheimer about his anxieties: he feared that the cultural role of Europe in science was going seriously to decrease. And Oppenheimer then proceeded to implant his ideas on what should be done about it. From there, de Rose became ready to play a role on the diplomatic field, aiming at the involvement not only of France but of several other European countries. All this was born during those days.
Weiner:You mentioned in that particular account a breakfast on Broadway with Oppenheimer and Joliot, Oliphant and Auger.
Weiner:These were the only names you mentioned.
Kowarski:Yes. That was one breakfast -- a stand-up counter, I think -- on the corner of 113th or 114th Street. If I’m not mistaken, this particular breakfast place doesn’t exist anymore.
Weiner:You mean a kind of place where you stand up or a stool where you sit at the counter?
Kowarski:Well, maybe stools. I think it was 114th, and I would say the northeast corner. In the same block there was a men’s clothing shop from which came the tie I’m wearing today.
Weiner:From that time?
Kowarski:I bought it at that time, yes. It was a remarkably durable buy.
Weiner:When had you met Oppenheimer before that? Had you met him at all during the war period?
Kowarski:No, not during the war. I met him for the first time…I was introduced to him in the delegates’ lounge in the United Nations. That didn’t leave any impression. The second meeting was some sort of a private get-together of politically minded physicists, which, by the way, is mentioned in Alice Smith’s book. [p. 485]
Weiner:What was that? I don’t recall reading that.
Kowarski:Well, lots of the “atomic scientists” were actively lobbying at that time -- the McMahon Act and so on, and there would be various meetings about scientists’ attitudes on international negotiations and atomic energy and so on. I was present at a few of them. This one was in somebody’s apartment. I went to the kitchen -- I think to have a drink -- and there Oppenheimer was washing dishes. So I started washing dishes, too, and that was my first conversation with him. Halban was known to say: “I think Kowarski is in love with Oppenheimer.” I don’t think I ever had anything homosexual in my character. On the other hand, Oppenheimer evoked a violent emotional atmosphere around him -- as you know very well -- and of course I was not immune to it. There was something in his face which reminded me of science-fiction drawings of Martians -- you know, when they assume a human countenance. There was his extraordinary voice, which I, as everybody else, could not help imitating. There was some similarity in our choice of clothes -- for instance, woolen ties and blue shirts, which of course was a bit disquieting, because Oppenheimer and I were such very different physical types.
Weiner:To the extreme, yes.
Kowarski:Yes. He was sometimes rough with me, yet in a way which was deeply flattering, because it somehow assumed a similarity of level. I don’t know whether he really felt it or it was just a part of his way of charming people. On the whole (as I think have mentioned many times; or maybe I haven’t yet) I always found myself far more at ease with top people in the scientific world than when dealing with the next layers. This may have several explanations. One of them, which is not very flattering to me, is that I deeply respected the really top people and showed it unconsciously. The others I respected less and this I also showed, in spite of myself. This, of course, would predispose the top people toward me and would indispose the rest. That is one explanation -- which, as I say, shows me up as a snob on the one hand and as a clumsy fool on the other hand. But it’s possibly true. Another and far more flattering explanation would be that top scientific achievement depends on a combination of scholarship and a certain amount of native brilliance. Now, scholars on the whole are a dime a dozen. People with brilliance are far more rare. Therefore, people who are conscious of their top position –- and top scientists are seldom unaware of their top position -- know perfectly well that they have two trump cards: scholarship, which is relatively cheap, and another one, brilliance, which is rare. And so they appreciate brilliance more than scholarship. Now, in my relations with top scientists, I would show some measure of mental agility
Weiner:You were talking about Oppenheimer. This implies that you saw him over a number of times.
Kowarski:Not such a tremendous number of times.
Weiner:Well, was it all during this period, during ‘46, ‘47, or did it go beyond that?
Kowarski:Should I tell a little anecdote from those times, which is totally irrelevant?
Kowarski:Or have I already told it to you -- about my visit to Oppenheimer’s home in ‘46 in California?
Weiner:I don’t recall.
Kowarski:It was a party. It was a meeting of the American Physical Society. There were a lot of physicists there. Oppenheimer was surrounded more or less by his court, and this court comprised Herbert Marks. I don’t know whether you ever heard of him. He was the first to serve as General Counsel of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission.
Weiner:I just heard that name recently somehow.
Kowarski:He married Oppenheimer’s secretary, Anne Wilson. I don’t remember whether at that time she was already Mrs. Marks or about to become Mrs. Marks. Anyhow she was still Oppenheimer’s secretary. You know how it is in these “at-homes.” Oppenheimer’s home was pretty spacious, with a big living room, pictures on the walls and so on…
Weiner:Was this Berkeley Hills?
Kowarski:Yes. And sometimes at a party there is a lull in the murmur of voices, a sudden moment of silence. In one of these moments I was gazing at a picture and suddenly from the other end of the room the host’s voice rang out: “Kowarski, I see you are interested in works of art. Now look over there, in that corner. There is a little statue there. Yes, there. No, I don’t mean my secretary -- above her.
Weiner:In the middle of all this…
Kowarski:Yes, I told this story to Anne Marks 22 years later when I saw her for the first time after that party.
Weiner:Did she recall it?
Kowarski:Probably. Have you ever heard of her?
Kowarski:She is active in disarmament activities of the State Department, or was when I saw her last, which was about two years ago.
Weiner:This Berkeley episode was on a trip in June-July of ‘46.
Weiner:Oppenheimer was in New York at one time during your stay here that year. And then at the time you visited California, he was back there.
Kowarski:Yes. In those days, you know, coast-to-coast flights made frequent stops. I remember, in that July, I met Oppenheimer in Denver at the airport -- it was in the middle of the night -- in search of a coffee shop, which turned out to be closed.
Weiner:What else did you do with your time during those two months? The meetings themselves…
Kowarski:Well, hell, diplomacy itself -- the corridor diplomacy, the diplomatic and semi-diplomatic meetings in between, that is between official sessions -- plus visits to the labs, plus visits to the American Physical Society meetings (there were several) -- plus my affairs of the heart, which were in a stage of transition. All this occupied time.
Weiner:It was the second trip in September that Joliot was on.
Weiner:You were not on that one.
Kowarski:Yes, I was.
Weiner:I was going to ask you about that, too. There was the Princeton meeting. Did you go to that?
Kowarski:Yes. Another anecdote. The Princeton meeting was an extremely honorable meeting. In fact, as an historian you should know that it played a certain role.
Weiner:I want to hear your version of that, because I know where the files are for the meeting at Princeton, and I’m going to work with them.
It was an extraordinarily brilliant meeting, because all prominent American physicists were there. All prominent British physicists were there also. Quite a few from the continent were there as well; Joliot was invited, of course, and I was not invited -- quite naturally so. And Joliot asked me to come with him to Princeton as a kind of factotum, translator or something, or at least to help him to find his way and get settled. I passed a very awkward moment there, of the kind with which I’m very familiar in my career, of being somewhere in between the status of a distinguished person and that of total insignificance. When we arrived there and Joliot was properly installed, I sort of hinted, “Well, should I now go back to New York?” And he said, “Well, perhaps you should go tomorrow. Go and ask whether they could put you up for the night.” Well, that meant really for me to go and ask: “Please could you keep me in this distinguished company which, as I perfectly well know, you had no intention of doing?” Some characters, like those we discussed last night, are very familiar with this sort of thing and ready to do it. But I don’t like it. So I went there to the Secretariat, and the Secretariat, of course, said the usual more or less direct lie, that “we would be very very glad to accommodate you, but the rooms are full.
Every room is reserved for delegates. Some haven’t come yet.” I don’t like it when people lie to my face, you know, and then I said: “Well, I know at least one delegate who was expected here today and whom I know from private knowledge will not come.” That was Cockcroft. So after I said that, of course they could not say, “Well, in case Cockcroft’s bed is not occupied, we will give it to somebody else.” So they collapsed and gave it to me. I achieved this somewhat cheap victory, and was quite prepared to consider that this was as far as I could go. I didn’t like the whole affair, you see, but I was just a little stung by this unpleasant politeness. So I curtly then said: “Thank you very much for accommodating me. That will, of course, suit Professor Joliot very well, because he needs my assistance for the preparation of some papers tonight,” sort of stressing that I did show some insistence strictly for Joliot, which in a way was true. I would never think of doing it on my own behalf -- it was only that Joliot did ask me to stay. But I also declared: “Of course, you are completely free to dispose of this room as from tomorrow morning.” And then it was in the same evening, or maybe the next morning at breakfast, that Wigner called me on the telephone; and in particularly Wignerian tones, practically stuttering, said: “Oh, it would please us so enormously if you could stay for the rest of the meeting.” So I said: “Well, I have some urgent things in New York, but think perhaps I could manage. I must confess,” I said, “that this meeting looks to me very interesting.” So I graciously consented to stay. In this somewhat unpleasant way, in which I played at one short moment the kind of role I definitely don’t like to play, I finally wormed my way into this distinguished gathering. A conference photograph, taken in due course, probably one day you’ll see, if you haven’t seen it yet…
Weiner:I have it.
Kowarski:Have a look at it some time. There I sit in the corner next to Oppenheimer. It happened simply because both Oppenheimer and I were late for the photograph, and we came at the same moment from opposite ends and sat together on the two free chairs, so located that the list of participants under the photograph actually starts with me.
Weiner:Oh? Well, I’ll have to look at that again. It’s on the back of a little brochure that they published of that meeting.
Kowarski:Yes. Including, I suppose, that list of the participants where I’m number one. It was a strange affair.
Weiner:In what way? In what way was it significant?
Kowarski:No, the strange affair, was my being there at all. As I say, it came as a result of Joliot’s demand and of this moment when I lost my temper a bit, and then of course Wigner’s exquisite courtesy, because he did manage to convey the sense that I would do them an enormous favor if I stayed. The conference went on as a normal scientific meeting with survey papers on perspectives. I could tell you another anecdote from it, but I prefer not to tell it on tape. I also remember that there was a very clear paper read by Bohr, of which one couldn’t understand a word because of Bohr’s peculiar elocution. You know it. And there was another paper in very beautiful English, very clearly given, by Dirac; but, as it seemed to me, hardly anybody could understand a word because the paper was strictly on Dirac’s own level. Things like that. There was a question raised in those days already, whether it was moral for the university to accept defense money. This questioning was, as yet, rather feeble. They took defense money all right.
Weiner:This was raised at the meeting?
Weiner:Do you recall in what form?
Kowarski:I don’t remember in what form. There were some organizational questions discussed, and…
Weiner:The addresses were never fully published. They published some of Bohr’s remarks and some of the others in a condensed kind of a thing. What most people don’t know is that they made a wire recording of that -- of the proceedings, which turned out in transcript to be so messy and so forth because they stuck the wire underneath the molding or something to keep it out of the way, and so it was pretty bad. I think now I’ve located the files for it, so that I may be able to get some of that. Well, what would you say was significant as an historic …?
Kowarski:Because I think it was the first time after the war that such a distinguished gathering had gathered.
Weiner:On an international basis.
Kowarski:On an international basis. The gathering was truly significant, truly distinguished -- quite a galaxy.
Weiner:And I think the theme of it was something about the nuclear age.
Kowarski:I don’t think it was that definite.
Weiner:Not necessarily the talks, but they used this. It was the 200th anniversary of Princeton.
Weiner:And they used this for some kind of a slogan to symbolize the new period which was being entered.
Kowarski:Maybe. Maybe science in the nuclear age or physics in the nuclear age or something like that.
Weiner:Yes. What was the general impression you had of the concerns of the people? There could be two categories of concerns. One is certainly very hot questions in physics, and the other could be what could be called the social relations of science.
Kowarski:My memory of that meeting was that the social relations of science were not much touched upon -- apart from perhaps this question that I do remember came in the debates, of the university dependence on defense funds. That did come up. But I don’t think that that was one of the main topics. Those particular topics were discussed in other kinds of meetings, one of which I already mentioned, where I met Oppenheimer washing dishes.
Weiner:What kind of a meeting was that? Was that a small, informal meeting?
Kowarski:It was fairly informal. It had something to do with the Federation of American Scientists or Atomic Scientists of Chicago or something like that. I suggest you look at Alice Smith’s book. You will find that. It’s the only time I think she mentions me.
Weiner:I know the book, but I don’t recall that particular episode. Did you go up with Joliot to the Harvard thing? Or was that different? That was just a ceremony for him, wasn’t it? You went from there to some reception at Harvard on the same trip.
Kowarski:I don’t remember visiting Harvard with Joliot. In fact, there was a jinx about Harvard for me. I honestly think I visited Harvard for the first time in my life the morning of the day when I first met your daughter.
Weiner:Oh, I see. So that was November or October of 1968.
Kowarski:Yes, I was driven then to Boston airport straight from Harvard. To come back to 1946. I certainly did go with Joliot to Boston. That was, I think, around October 1st, and we went to Europe immediately after the visit. But I remember only MIT, not Harvard.
Weiner:Whom did you see at MIT?
Kowarski:Oh, who was to be seen then? Robley Evans, who at that time was known as the writer of a prominent textbook. I’m not sure he is remembered much now.
Weiner:Oh, yes, I think he’s still very prominent.
Kowarski:Then I met -- I don’t quite remember. Well, Zacharias certainly.
Weiner:What was the particular attraction at MIT? Why did you go? Just to visit?
Kowarski:It was just to visit.
Weiner:Did you look at any of their apparatus?
Kowarski:Yes, they had a small electron synchrotron, several Van de Graaffs. We looked at their electronics and their counter. I don’t quite remember whom I saw there.
Kowarski:Livingston almost certainly. I didn’t see Weisskopf. Curiously enough, I met him for the first time in my life only in July ‘48. I met Martin Deutsch for the first time in June ‘47, but I did not meet him on that 1946 visit. Or maybe he was there, and I simply didn’t identify him.
Weiner:Well, I’m really interested in this period, because you visited a few universities and came into contact with American physicists.
Kowarski:Oh, very much so.
Weiner:Just at the time when they were going through a certain transition in the immediate post-war readjustment. You were doing that in France, but not tied to the university in your case. I was wondering what kind of an impression you got either as a contrast to the scene in France, or in sensing what was going on even in America.
Kowarski:Well, I could refer you to a paper I wrote in Journal de Physique I think in 1950, an account of a visit to America. I visited the United States in January-February 1950. Things were not essentially different then, I would say, from what they already were in late 1946. Now, let me see what impressions I could have. First of all, there was one of absolute, complete abysmal superiority, which was not only superiority of material means. In ‘46, you know, the first synchrotrons began to function. Not quite. They really began to function in ‘47, but there was a lot of construction going on in ‘46. That’s one thing. The other thing-—the fact that all universities were full of people freshly from Los Alamos with a remarkable esprit de corps. Then there was another thing that was worth quite a whole country in itself. That was Fermi: Fermi, who in some ways was the teacher of a whole generation of top American physicists. I saw him once or twice on those occasions.
Kowarski:At Chicago I probably exchanged a few words with him but not much more. Of course, I saw him also in France. In September ‘46, we rode on the same train together -- Joliot, Fermi and I -- from Princeton to New York. Earlier, in July, I remember I met for the first time Frank Oppenheimer. His wife I think had something to do with New Haven. She said: “I hear you come often to New Haven.” I asked, “Where did you hear that?” “Oh,” she said, “Fermi told me.” That was the first hint I had that Fermi noticed that I existed in person, apart from papers bearing my signature.
Weiner:It’s a small world.
Kowarski:Yes, it is a small world. I suppose in some way I interested Fermi personally because during those years, when he was leap-frogging with the Halban-Kowarski team, he had his ideas about Halban, and also some inkling that I was trying to work in a different spirit.
Weiner:Well, the September-October 1946 trip -- that was a short one. What about the mission itself? Was anything accomplished during that period or were there legal futilities?
Kowarski:Well, the 26th of September, the day on which I posted my article to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists … I remember this day very well, because there were lots of things that happened to me that day. In particular, there was a meeting at Lake Success, I think, on the same day on which the scientific experts of the Commission made a unanimously agreed-on report that a system of inspection is scientifically possible. Yes, the Russians did sign. That was the first unanimous document which came out of the Commission.
Weiner:That was after several sessions, several six-week sessions.
Kowarski:It raised enormous hopes, which were dashed to the ground three months later at the end of December when the Russians abstained from the resolution instituting some kind of international system, and as we had to learn later on, it was four or five days after the first chain reaction was started in Russia. I think this first chain reaction was working around Christmas Day in Russia in ‘46.
Weiner:What role did Kramers play at this early stage? Was he one of the dominant, effective people at these meetings from the scientific point of view? I mention this because there was a report which he did issue which became useful.
Kowarski:Kramers was I think the chairman. This would have to be checked, but I think he was the chairman of some scientific committee or other, and therefore his name was linked with the work of this committee. Also Kramers… Here, let me start again (for the first time on this tape) about some of my personal prejudices. I have the impression that specially in the Middle European scientific establishment there was always the feeling that the best pursuit for a human being is a spiritual pursuit; that science is the best of the spiritual things; that physics is the best of science, and that theoretical physicists are the best of physicists. So somebody who was a prominent theoretical physicist was by this fact absolutely on top of the world. It was a view which was obviously shared by most theoretical physicists. That’s why, for instance, it’s very difficult to say whether Heisenberg was pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi during the war. He was neither. He was above it, far, far above. Nazis were some vulgar politicians who committed some excesses over the Jews. Heisenberg is Heisenberg, and I consider him as one of the greatest thinkers who ever existed. Kramers was somewhat less top-notch, but here I could add many other names. I don’t want to single Kramers out. Some of my best friends are in that category, some of the friends you and I have in common. They instinctively feel that they are the very best kind of people in the world. I suppose many Roman cardinals in the heyday of the Catholic Church may have felt that way. For such people many problems are easy. “Well, you be reasonable, and if I feel that such and such international question can be settled that way, surely the lesser people should be able to follow.” I always felt (maybe it is only my own personal prejudice) that this way of thinking comes natural to people not quite absolutely topnotch -- and Kramers, I think, could be described as one of them. Later on Kramers had to play a role in the early days of CERN, and we may come to it. Any more about Kramers?
Weiner:No, I was just curious because of his name being identified with the committees.
Kowarski:I think he was the chairman.
Weiner:I see. Well, I think that unless there’s something special that you want to bring up about that, we can get back to France and the actual work as it proceeded on the pile and then the beginnings of the Saclay research center. Let me just ask a question about Saclay, because this appears to be a return to nuclear physics -- or maybe I’m wrong; maybe the cyclotron and the Van de Graaff are there for quite different reasons.
Let me say immediately that Saclay was an enterprise I was against from the start. This is a bit like the patents. I was against it all the time, and I’m still against it now. I considered that fundamental research should be essentially connected to the universities and that having a lot of people on the premises of a nuclear-energy establishment, who would be mixed with the nuclear-energy staff, fed from our budget and would pursue very worthy aims which were not ours (ours was to produce applied chain reactions) -- such admixture for us could be only harmful. I was naive, I think, in two respects. First of all, the prestige of atomic activities in the public mind would certainly remain with us, the applied chain reaction people. Other scientists, quite naturally, would be glad to profit from that prestige -- and perhaps it was even a necessary connection.
I’m not at all an enemy of basic science. And perhaps I should have realized then that this connection was a very necessary thing to the survival of basic science. Basic science would somehow be allowed to be associated with this thing which appealed to the public mind. And the second feature of the connection was the common budget. The atomic energy establishment could always get big money, and this big money would be doled out partly to whatever basic science would be maintained on the spot. Whereas, in order to pursue the same kind of researches in universities you should go to university budgets, and there it would be far more sticky. Basic scientists did consider these two aspects as necessary for their survival; and if I had understood that at that time, I probably would be less against it. But as it was I remember I was saying: “What we need now is a disused factory with a railroad siding, preferably some riverbank, and there we shall build our experimental piles or our prototype reactors. And for heaven’s sake, now, leave us alone.” This was not to be. There was a temple of nuclear science to be erected, and the idol, the big idol, in that temple had to be the big reactor or reactors. And, profiting from the nearness of this temple, there would be the lesser temples of basic science. And therefore there was no way of getting away from it. I fought and I lost. The Saclay site, in my opinion was very unfortunately chosen. It was not on a riverbank. It was not even on a railroad siding. And those of us who built things there, we had some uncomfortable impression that we were not quite at home.
Weiner:Did you commute from Paris?
Kowarski:Yes, that was easy. From 1950, but even before, I lived in the southern part of Paris from where it was quite easy to get to Chatillon. Saclay was a little beyond, total distance of the order of 15 miles. So it was quite easy.
Weiner:I understand from reading that there was considerable community dissent at first regarding the establishment of the center.
Kowarski:That happens always, everywhere, about things atomic. We needn’t go into that.
Weiner:Well, Biguard made a rather heroic story of Joliot’s talking to towns people.
Yes. It was, I think, quite a minor incident. Wherever we went, there was always dissent, and it was always settled in some way. You may remember from my CERN history that the same thing happened, on a bigger scale, in Geneva.
Atomic Energy Policy in France under the Fourth Republic, by Lawrence Scheinman, Princeton, 1965.
Pierre Biquard, Frederic Joliot-Curie, 1961. (Eng. edition, 1965).
Kowarski's Bibliography from 1946-1950 mentioned in interview:
"Atomic Research in France," Bull. At. Scientists, 1946, 2, 7-8, 25.
"L'energie Atomique en France," World Power Conference - Fuel Economy Conference, The Hague, 1947, section A6, paper 2.
"Atomic Energy Developments in France," Bull. At. Scientists, 1948, 4, 139-141, v. aussi Nucleonics, May 1948, 59-65.
"Atomic Energy Developments in France during 1946-1950," Nature, 1950, 165, 382-383; v. aussi Physics Today, August 1950, III, 8, 26-27.
"Les progres de l'energie nucleaire en France," Fourth World Power Conference, London 1950, Section J, paper 2.
"French atomic scientists report on their work in 1949" by F. Joliot-Curie, L. Kowarski, J. Gueron, B. Goldschmidt, J. Stohr and Mr. Surdin, Bull. At. Scientists, 1950, 6, 299-302.