Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lew Kowarski
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Lew Kowarski; May 4, 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:We’re resuming now on the morning of May 4th. And when we left off, we were talking about Saclay. You expressed your view of it as a mistake. You explained part of that. You implied that the decision had been made. Was this made in the Commissariat or even beyond that? For example, what was Joliot’s position?
Kowarski:I think you just said that I considered this a mistake. I did at the time, but I don’t think I was right. It was one way of maintaining a certain sector of French basic research. Without this way this sector could not be maintained. From the point of view strictly of developing atomic energy in France, Saclay probably was a mistake. But that was not the only point which had to be considered, and people like Joliot, Auger and so on did consider other points of view. I didn’t. Obviously, probably there were other ways of combining the money-drawing power of atomic energy with the needs of basic science, and these other ways could have been considered; so that something better than Saclay could have been done. But the point is that in my judgment of Saclay at that time, I simply neglected the needs of basic science. I considered it was irrelevant. I narrowed myself to strictly the needs of developing atomic energy, and I don’t think it would have been reasonable if Joliot had had the same approach. By the way, I think the time has come to make my declaration of the general character of this interview. I have been rereading the installment of October, ‘59 recently; and I have been thinking about what was said yesterday. I think that as an independent history of my scientific doings it devotes far too great a proportion of its total length to the controversial questions like my controversies with Halban or my judgments of what was imperfect in Joliot’s activities in these years and so on. Let it be understood that I did not consider my declarations as anything independent but as a complement to such documents as, shall we say, Biquart’s biography of Joliot or Margaret Gowing’s account of what Halban and I were doing in England; and considering that the future reader, whoever he may be, will have access to these documents, I add my comments as a supplement. And therefore I dwell more exclusively on aspects which in those documents are not covered.
Weiner:That’s clear -- or on which you give a different perspective.
Weiner:Well, I think that’s clear, and I think that’s my intent as well. Getting back to Saclay, it brings up another question, because Joliot was involved in the CNRS as the head of it, wasn’t he? -- at about the same time.
Kowarski:Not at the time of Saclay. Previously, Joliot was very much the formal head of CNRS. He formally resigned, I suppose, about the time we came back to France. He was no longer head when I saw him in France for the first time after the War. But being this prestigious personality, with also the prestige of atomic energy, which is almost impossible to imagine today, as it was then, he in fact was in some ways still the master of the CNRS situation. His successor there was a zoologist, Georges Tessier -- I think either a Communist or close to the Communist way of thinking. I suspect that Joliot considered him at that time, probably wrongly, as a kind of stand-in -- but formally he was no longer the boss.
Weiner:How was the policy of CNRS regarding the cultivation of basic science linked, if at all, to the Atomic Energy Commission’s approach through Saclay, for example?
Kowarski:It was pretty much independent. There was a strong desire of a more traditional form of scientific research not to be swamped by the prestige of atomic energy as such. We were considered in many ways upstarts. I think the public admiration of atomic energy was considered by specialists from other scientific specialties as something not quite healthy, but in any case like a mighty wind which has to be endured. And Joliot himself -- I think I already mentioned that -- kept some compartments of his life (for instance, his chair at College de France) as rigidly apart as he could. This lack of fusion together, again, was characteristic for the French life of those days -- these innumerable criss-crossing rifts.
Weiner:Now, your own work had little to do with anything at Saclay other than the pile -- is that right? Or were you involved as part of the Commission in the total execution of the decisions?
Kowarski:Let’s distinguish between the Chatillon period and the Saclay period. Chatillon was that disused fort which we occupied in February ‘46 and where the first reactor ZOE was erected. Saclay was a place where the second reactor, which was later on finally called EL-2, was built. And Saclay really did not come into shape as a place of work until some time, shall we say, in 1950 at the earliest.
Weiner:It was started in 1949.
Kowarski:It’s difficult to say when it was started.
Weiner:I have it.
Kowarski:It certainly was in some formal way started about then, but Saclay was built by contractors, who by that time had dealings chiefly with Lescop, the Secretary-General. I already characterized him. (Lescop, by the way, curiously died either the same day as Cockcroft died or the day before -- I don’t quite remember.) This contracting procedure was already quite within the French habits. Probably, and curiously enough, for this reason it could be considered in some ways a healthier procedure, because it was less marked by unusual urgencies and unusual ways of approaching things. It was in some ways more relaxed, more normal, and therefore probably more free from some inner contradictions. And by that time when it was seriously underway, I was obviously on the skids. The double process, which I described earlier, of getting rid of an unusual way of spending government money at one hand and on the other hand of getting rid of people who were in responsible technocratic positions and who were not alumni of the Ecole Polytechnique -- by that time, this double process was well underway. To sum up, the whole Saclay period was one in which I had less and less to do with the Commissariat. Stripping me of my various responsibilities was a process which started formally in ‘52, but informally it was already in progress for some two years before that. There is much to say about this period, and we will not be able to say everything, so we will have to choose. You may ask your questions, but I also will have to make some choices.
Weiner:Yes. But historically it’s a tremendously important period. So my desire is to have it as complete and full as possible. The time we have is not the problem; it’s your applying some selectivity as to things that you want to talk about. But within that framework as much as possible to…
Kowarski:I think the best way would be now to examine things in several strands and then perhaps in time from one strand to another. The strand I would like to introduce now would be my attempts to get out of this Situation.
Weiner:Let me get this clear. Do you intend to return to the project of ZOE, of the construction of the reactor? Do you think it’s worth returning to in terms of what can be added to the historical record?
Kowarski:Well, that would be another strand. Perhaps it would be better, come to think of it, if the first strand to start on was the story of the first two French reactors, taken together as a line of development.
Weiner:I think so.
Okay, back to ZOE. The initial point was Joliot’s official formulation in March ‘46 that there should be one first chain-reacting device in France which would be expressly built for the purpose of being the first chain-reaction device in France and which was planned to feature heavy water, metallic uranium and some couple of hundred kilowatts. It would be roughly similar to CP-3, Zinn’s first heavy-water reactor. The uranium had to be metallic. Why? Because we knew absolutely nothing about the propagation of heat in the oxide of uranium at that time. There was, to my present knowledge, no reactor in the world at that time with uranium oxide as fuel. This oxide is a kind of ceramic material. We knew nothing about its properties. Since a couple of hundred kilowatts already implies a certain flow of heat, certain limitations of temperature and so on, we didn’t dare to attempt all this, unless the fuel were metallic.
Accordingly, one of the earliest problems was the preparation of metallic uranium. You may remember that this was the object of the last assignment which Cockcroft gave me in England, so I knew certain things about it. However, chemistry was not in my hands. Metallic uranium was not in my hands. There was no time to be wasted on this. And yet I could see that this work was not going the way I considered desirable. By the summer of ‘47, Bertrand Goldschmidt who more closely related to chemical affairs, watched the fortunes of metallic uranium with perhaps even more concern than I did at the time. He decided that the prospects of achieving a few tons of metal were still so remote in the future that perhaps one should consider building a first chain reaction with oxide of uranium, thus renouncing the idea of extracting those hundreds of kilowatts.
So it was Goldschmidt’s idea, sometime in June or July of ‘47, strictly as a consequence of his appreciation of the metallic uranium situation, that the first achievement of the Commissariat should be scaled down and be no longer something like CP-3 but rather more like CP-1 and even, in terms of kilowatts, probably less than that. CP-1 was graphite and oxide; for critical mass reasons, it contained lots of graphite and lots of oxide. Our zero-energy heavy water reactor had to be more compact; and therefore, if one renounced an assuredly heat-conducting fuel even less heat could be extracted from it than from CP-1. There was the precedent of ZEEP in Canada, which was run at energy never more than one or two kilowatts; and that was Goldschmidt’s proposal -- that the Commissariat should not wait for metallic uranium but should start something like ZEEP immediately. This proposal was made to the Scientific Committee during one of my stretches in New York. It was more or less instantly accepted.
We were surprised at that time -- both Goldschmidt and I -- how readily this change of program was accepted, almost absent-mindedly. One would almost think that the scientific commissioners were quite indifferent to what exactly was going on, technically speaking. In late August of ‘47 this decision was officially approved by the Scientific Committee at a session which was held in the summer White House of the Commissariat, which was in Brittany; I was put in charge and given a free hand. I had to hire the chief engineer. Perhaps at that time he was already hired, I don’t exactly remember. He was very much a non-Ecole Polytechnique engineer called Le Meur and he had distinguished himself by building some reservoirs of liquid fuel for the French Navy at Tunisia. It’s funny to remember how thoroughly French in those days Tunisia still was. And since I always insisted that these zero-power reactors were simply big containers filled with heavy water and some uranium rods dipping in it, this previous achievement seemed to be a suitable kind of preparation for the engineer in charge. Questions of leak-tight big vessels and so on. That’s how he was selected and appointed. I put together a small technical committee consisting of this chief engineer, the chief metallurgist (a rather remarkable character called Jacques Stohr), and then there was this military intelligence man whom I have already mentioned. His role was not quite clear.
I passed to him some of my Canada notes on reactor calculations, and he was supposed to have a group under him who would have to digest these notes and get ready to perform the necessary calculations. He was on the whole a rather antagonistic element in my technical committee. I already mentioned, I think, how a few years later he explained to his subordinates that his role was gradually to pry all the Oak Ridge secrets from me. I tried to explain to my collaborators my point of view: since we had to use uranium oxide, this would introduce some complications in the physics of resonance neutrons for which we had no precedent and for which we couldn’t hope to get in time any serious physics approach. All we could do immediately was to intuitively develop orders of magnitude, which could be done, without any calculations, in five minutes’ thinking. We would have to rely on these rough estimates rather than attempt to do exact calculations for which we lacked exact physical data.
This was a point of view which, for a somewhat second-rate French applied scientist, was hard to understand. Such a scientist never finds himself in a situation where there are no accepted physical data from which to start. A curious duality arose: I, giving my group purely intuitive orders of magnitude, and this member of my group making exact calculations, in which he more or less avoided any explicit mention of the physical data he was starting from, but whose results would be safe, that is well within my rough orders of magnitude: Both results were presented in parallel to our superiors: his, of course, with the glamour of exact mathematics, and mine somewhat tainted by the fact that obviously they had been made in five minutes. However, I was the boss, and so I was able to push through the results of my five minutes’ calculations. They had to obey. The main problem was the preparation of dense enough uranium oxide.
We tried various ideas -- whether there should be a combination of powdered oxide with some glue-like medium, which would present the least absorption for neutrons. Again, the same gentleman tried to play a leading role in that effort. Meanwhile, Stohr presented a completely new way with sintered uranium oxide, which produced a fairly high density. This had to be done in an atmosphere of hydrogen in special furnaces which he had to devise himself, build himself, made the first approaches to sintering in them and finally sintered the whole few tons necessary. It was a kind of Robinson Crusoeish way of doing things -- everything out of his head, and building his tools as he went on. While Stohr was building up this sintered uranium oxide process, the other activity, that is the attempt of using uranium oxide powder with an organic glue, gradually dwindled to nothing; and Stohr in my eyes became a rather great man and in somebody else1s eyes a mortal enemy. Stohr, by the way, was typically representative of that phase of French atomic energy. As I already said, the French establishment of advanced technological thought avoided us. Stohr had practically no degree. He had a degree from some kind of a junior engineering college, very junior; and his sudden arrival to a position of prominence was another anomaly. He had a rather hard life later on, but I daresay an interesting one.
Weiner:Did he stay in the atomic energy establishment?
Kowarski:He did. And for many years it was a continuous struggle between his extraordinary creative ability and the forces of the establishment to keep him down. He became quite a known figure abroad. I heard very respectful mentions of him, for instance, in Argonne’s metallurgy division. In France he was more and more brought down. Finally he was squeezed out more or less completely, and then put in rather early retirement on health reasons. By that time he was sixtyish. That is fairly recent.
Weiner:He got that process working, the sintering part of it.
Kowarski:Yes. Later on Stohr played a far more important role in the history of the second reactor, to which I will come. But now, back to ZOE’s small committee. In spite of all these internal contradictions, the work went on. I ruled it with a heavy hand and in an increasingly uncertain state of mind.
Increasingly uncertain because all through 1948, Joliot was gradually getting out of our affairs. This became very obvious in ‘49, but in ‘48 it was already well underway. Now, the official decision to go on with ZOE was taken in late August, early September of ‘47, with the original organizational decisions and so on. ZOE started working on 15th of December 1948. Thus, ZOE took 15 1/2 months. Considering the enormity of the effort which, in those days, was necessary to ensure speedy procurement (French industry was still in a pretty devastated state), we luckily could rely on a somewhat unusual resource, in the person of a very remarkable character attached to the same group –- a man called Roland Echard, who was a very small-time, kind of self-made, engineer or superior foreman without any degree. His father was a small craftsman-manufacturer. Our Roland was a very picturesque character who came to the surface at the time when France was in turmoil of liberation. He came through the Communist party.
I suspect that he not always was a Communist but joined the Communist party at that moment. And he knew Joliot by chance meeting -- I think something to do with his being sick and in the same sanatorium as Irene Joliot or something like that. And he became a kind of troubleshooter in a highly irregular capacity, shall we say, and using highly irregular methods. He would go into factories which had to deliver to us some component of the reactor and threaten hellfire if they didn’t deliver it in the next week, hinting vaguely at his high connections, not only with Joliot but also with government circles. And by sheer gall he would frighten the staid managers of factories. They would feel that they were giving us something atomically significant, in an incomprehensible way, something temporarily superior in its urgency.
Weiner:He was what you’d call an expediter?
Yes, but in highly irregular circumstances and in highly irregular ways. At the time after ZOE started working there was a question that not only I but several members of the group under me should get the Legion d’Honneur. I of course wanted to include Echard, and then it turned out that there probably would be some difficulty as to whether he was eligible for that honor, considering his prior activities. Finally I got the award for different (pre-ZOE) reasons, and there was no ZOE-based award at all. Well, all through 1948, in this 15 1/2 month period, the thing went quickly up. People considered it something miraculous that a reactor could be built in these dilapidated circumstances in such a short time. Of course, people don’t realize that a zero-power reactor fundamentally is an extremely easy thing to build. You must have a tub of sufficient size into which to pour a sufficient amount of heavy water, and dip in this heavy water the proper amount of uranium in practically any form.
The exact proportions needn’t be known, because the optimum combination of uranium and heavy water corresponds to a very flat maximum in the curves. If you are 10% off the optimum, this is hardly noticeable in neutron multiplication. That’s the beauty of heavy water: it’s far easier than Fermi’s first test of criticality with graphite. Since you renounce the extraction of heat, the whole heat-circuit problem doesn’t exist. You have, of course, to take a few precautions about safety devices and so on, but they can be fairly crude. So the task is not so difficult. It’s only its extraordinary novelty -- people who hadn’t had first-hand experience, as I had with ZEEP in Canada, wouldn’t know where to start. But since I knew it, it was fairly easy. Which enabled me to devote some part of the year to a successful conclusion of my wooing of Kate -- she was still hesitating -- and then finally to marry her and bring her to Paris. I married her in Cambridge. She was staying there with her brother. Incidentally, for the anecdotal part: in ‘48, the problem for a French citizen of Russian birth to marry an American citizen of German birth, proved practically inextricable in the conditions of French red tape. So I had the idea of marrying her in Cambridge, where at least I was honorably known. There we were married, in July ‘48.
Weiner:Which introduces a fifth country.
Kowarski:Yes. There is a logic in it.
Weiner:Let me ask about the size of the group working on this first reactor and how you’d break them down -- the proportion of highest technical people as compared to factory assembly type of people.
Kowarski:Well, the group of my immediate collaborators was something like four people. Two more were closely connected: Gueron for some chemical supplies and the head of electronics, who was of Israeli origin, but he had the good luck of bearing a name which could be easily pronounced in French. His name was Surdin, and the French pronounced it to rhyme with Chopin, which made it a fairly good-sounding French name. For a foreigner in France, to have a French-sounding name was practically the same as for a Negro in America, in those days when it was really important, to have a nearly white skin. He could more easily pass. The second difficulty was, of course, the accent, which neither in my case nor in Surdin’s was ever perfect. Still, during the war he was working in England on radar and was perfectly aware of modern electronics -- by “modern” I mean the 1945 kind -- and so I made him come from England and assume the electronics leadership at Chatillon. Surdin and Gueron were the two associate members of my group, considered as suppliers more than connected with the reactor itself. And, as I say, there were four others.
Weiner:That was the total staff just working on the project?
Well, you see, I also was the director of most of these things. Electronics was under me; mechanics was under me; metallurgy at that time was under me; theoretical calculations were under me. The staff was growing, and it had not only the task of building the first reactor. There were, for instance, extensive measurements of neutron diffusion in graphite, partly for using it in the reflector of the heavy-water reactor (although in that function, its purity as measured by diffusion was not very crucial), but mainly, I would say, as an exercise for training the newly arrived people. And later on we had vague plans that perhaps we would build graphite reactors as part of the effort. There were, chiefly under Gueron, a lot of analytical chemists. Goldschmidt at that time started preparing the ways of extracting the first milligrams of plutonium.
Plutonium could easily be manufactured in the zero—energy reactor in milligram quantities, enough to familiarize people with its chemistry. Also, approximately at the same time that the decision of building ZOE was taken, I discussed with Joliot what to do about metallic uranium, and we decided to take this job away from Gueron and give it to Goldschmidt. He immediately started on it, and with his characteristic brilliance, achieved it very quickly. As soon as ZOE went into operation, we started thinking of the second reactor, and by that time the techniques of producing metallic uranium were already well mastered. There was also a growing group of purely theoretical or rather mathematical physicists who were recruited (some of them were Polytechniciens) on a principle of which I was fond in those days. I was considering that mathematical physicists have to spend a lot of their time on unworldly pursuits of theoretical physics, but they also have to be useful by providing more precise calculations of reactors.
I thought that they could do it 50-50, half of their time getting more and more involved in precise reactor calculations and for the other half being completely free to indulge in quantum electrodynamics or what-not. By December ‘48, when ZOE started working, all this added up to a certain number of distinct groups. And in January ‘49 in my characteristically slapdash way, in something like less than an hour probably, I sat down and made an organizational chart of all services under my jurisdiction -- all departments -- which, strangely enough, I never had done before. I gave them names (I’m never short on giving names to things). What amuses me is that some of these names are still used at Saclay, and some of the appointments I made are still there -- fortunately for them, or not.
Weiner:What did the total inventory of people come to that time -- do you recall -- by early ‘49?
Kowarski:Oh, I suppose it was in the hundreds by that time.
Weiner:More than 200?
Kowarski:Probably a bit more.
Weiner:I’m just trying to get an estimate of the kind of enterprise it was. This is the total staff, including secretaries?
Weiner:All at Chatillon?
Kowarski:Yes. Well, Bertrand Goldschmidt’s chemical production place, which was on the riverbank with railroad siding and in a disused factory, by that time also was possibly of the order of a hundred. I went there rather seldom; there was no need for it. I don’t exactly know what was going on there.
Weiner:When did number two get underway? Number two was not to be at the Fort; it was to be at Saclay. Was it the plan that it would be prepared for Saclay?
Kowarski:Let me say a word about December ‘48. Anyway now I could be talking for weeks, because there were so many facts of all sorts. The selection I am making now is rather fortuitous, the things that jump to my mind. A word about the name ZOE. As soon as the Commissariat decided to have this heavy water and uranium oxide reactor, people were asking: “What will be its name?” It was still the time when all reactors had names. And Auger proposed a name: Eudoxie: something like Uranium and deterium oxides.
Weiner:Well, the first E would be for the water (eau).
Kowarski:No, because “D” was deuterium, so it’s a bit hazy. I immediately put my foot down on it for several reasons. One was purely human and purely spiteful -- that I didn’t want the name to be given by Auger. I wanted to have given it myself. But there was another one, a rather more interesting one and a bit difficult to explain. Ecole Normale, of which Auger was an alumnus, was the summit of exquisite French intellectuality. They were tremendously selective. They had far fewer pupils in science than Ecole Polytechnique. It was the absolute summit of the whole system of selecting the best minds by competitive examinations. They were very much penetrated by the idea that they formed the top elite, and they made all sorts of jokes about it, but in the spirit of: “Well, we are on top, so we are allowed to joke about it, but that’s because it’s our own joke.” They had a way of using mock learned words and mock complicated spellings to underline the fact that they were on the highest intellectual level, therefore they could afford to show off by joking about it. And somewhere in this name, Eudoxie, there was this combination of easily assumed intellectual superiority with a reminder “we can make jokes about it, but don’t forget we are still on top.” There was something in the sound of it. I would rather have something simpler and more popular, and I hit on this ZOE idea. ZOE is zero energy, oxide and “e” for eau lourde, the French word for heavy water. It was short. It did not have this obnoxious mock learned sound as Eudoxie would have. It sounded more popular. And there was another reason for it -- a private one. When my mother was expecting her second child (the first child was a son) she wanted a daughter. Being of the Greek Orthodox Church, she chose in advance one of these Byzantine names--that of the Empress Zoe. I always had a vague idea that I somehow did the poor girl out of her right to exist, and so I decided in this way to compensate for the wrong I had done to my female self.
Weiner:A Freudian explanation.
Kowarski:Well, it was as jocular an intellectual explanation, I suppose, as the name Eudoxie, but at least I kept it for a while for myself.
Weiner:It was related to ZEEP anyhow.
Kowarski:Because of zero.
Weiner:Yes, so it had a certain ring to it.
Kowarski:In the hagiographic Soviet literature about Joliot, which began to appear a few years later, it was gravely explained -- and I think Soviet youth had to learn it -- that the great French humanitarian scientist chose the name Zoe because it was connected with “life” in Greek, and he was underlining that he was working for the forces of life, not death. It was a lesson to me how hagiographic myths are created. Joliot had strictly nothing to do with the naming, either at the Eudoxie stage, or the final choice of ZOE.
Weiner:It makes a good story for their purpose, though. The actual successful trial start-up was December 15th.
Kowarski:December 15th. I deliberately scheduled it for December 16th, thus creating a certain amount of anticipation, people wanting to gatecrash. I think I already explained in the story of ZEEP that one keeps the number of people present to an absolute minimum, and yet it always swells to more than you expect. One tries to exclude… There I committed one of the silly, mistaken and evil actions of my life. I excluded Francis Perrin. It was evil, because I owe a heavy debt of gratitude to Perrin for the role he played in my existence in the 1930’s. It was silly, because although Francis Perrin had stayed very much aloof from our core activities in these years, he exercised a certain discreet role in the background, sent to us his pupils and so on. Being a man of extraordinary intellectual value, he never should be taken lightly. And it was also politically silly. It’s difficult for me -- he is in some ways a very impenetrable man. I don’t think he ever forgot that episode. And since he later on became very important, partly due to my own insistence on his assuming this leading role, it was rather silly of me to slight him in this way. So I think it was on the whole a complete mistake. Auger by that time had left the Commissariat altogether. My whole group was present -- of course, Joliot and Madame Joliot and various subordinates. Then photographs were taken. At one moment I climbed a ladder to put the date of the launching on some plaque or other. I made a dramatic gesture, which was perhaps a bit exaggerated, of wearing blue overalls during this whole ceremony -- a kind of hallmark, that I, too, am a working hand on this project. The photograph showed hind quarters of these blue overalls in their full beauty, and this exhibit was immediately dubbed “the most beautiful behind in the world.”
Weiner:Where are they -- those photographs?
Kowarski:Oh, I have them somewhere.
Weiner:Try to dig one up and send one. I’d really like to see it. As an illustration for this page, that would be interesting.
Joliot was in a strange role. Joliot was the absolute boss. He was a god-like figure. And yet he was very obviously an outsider in this event. He was ill at ease. The limelight kind of naturally went to him, and yet he had to rely on what I was saying or ordering people about. In Biquard’s book, I think you can find extracts from Joliot’s notes on that day, during which at some very critical moment there is a sentence: “Kowarski says: Now it ought to begin to function.” There were some interesting interpretations or misinterpretations of the exact level on which it was working, because this gentleman who made the exact calculations had to prove that it started on the exact centimeter that he predicted. It didn’t. But a super-exact connection could easily be conjured up to account for the difference. There was a lot in his behavior similar to behavior of certain people we have very recently talked about. So you could imagine what he was doing at that moment. There was a painful moment in which, as the main photograph was being taken, I started seating people around me.
I decided to sit in the middle with my chief engineer at the right hand and Stohr at the left hand, and this gentleman sidled up and sat on my right hand. I had to publicly chase him out, which did not improve our subsequent relations. I was heavily reproached later on for having chased him out publicly and it was explained to me: “What’s wrong with you, Kowarski” -- a sentence which I am quite used to hear –- “is that you don’t understand that sometimes you unnecessarily make enemies. You made a mortal enemy out of this man on that occasion, and that harmed you considerably later on. And for nothing.” I had to say, in reply, that first of all, he already was my mortal enemy before he became a member of my small group; his line of action was rational and practically independent from what I was doing -- to him or about him. That’s one point. And the other point is that my reaction was not at all for nothing. If he had succeeded in being photographed on my right hand at that moment, he would use it. My refusal was something far more practical than just a gratuitous insult. I could only state my opinion; the people who had reproached me were not convinced. I still am.
After that, there was, of course, an anti-climax. A few days later there was a press conference, with Joliot again not knowing exactly how much limelight should be given to him and how much to me. There were some slightly painful moments. I was not precisely the person to relinquish that part of limelight which I thought was reasonable. I always underlined my complete veneration of Joliot, my complete recognition of him as an inspirer, as the boss, as the man who made all this possible, as the man who took all the responsibility for it and so on. Yet it was difficult for me to relinquish the part of the man who had the technical knowledge, which Joliot did not have. It was an obviously uneasy situation, but I think we rode it out fairly well. I have also to mention the official visit to Chatillon by the President of the Republic, whom I met then for the first time. That was Vincent Auriol; he will appear in this story yet, if I have time, in another episode. It was just before Christmas. Holidays are taken very seriously in France. I went off on another errand. I started arranging for my leaving France -- unsuccessfully.
That is part of the other strand. In the days around the New Year I made various arrangements for what would be done during my absence. I gave the keys to Surdin, considering that Surdin was responsible for all electronic control equipment; therefore it was his sector. Then again this unnamed gentleman simply went to Surdin and ordered him to give him the keys. I’m always surprised at the ease with which people obey orders if the orders are clearly given -- they don’t question the authority. Surdin had no reason to relinquish the keys. In fact, giving them up was in some way a dereliction of duty, if I was considered in a position to give valid orders. But since this man came to him and simply said: “Well, I am now in charge. Give me the keys,” Surdin gave them and that was that. In January I was back. I proceeded to this, already mentioned, episode of formally organizing my department for the first time. We started immediately to think of the second reactor. This thinking went on for, I would say, the whole first half of 1949. For me it was a difficult time. By that time my first wife, whom I still regularly was seeing on Sundays because I went to see my daughter… The pattern, for my daughter, of seeing her departed parent on Sunday was reproducing the pattern of my own early life. I understand this often happens with broken families; they reproduce their pattern in the next generation.
Weiner:You’re referring to the episode as a child when you visited your mother on Sundays.
Kowarski:Yes. It was quite hard on Kate. She knew that on Sundays I did not belong to her. She bore this with quite remarkable fortitude. At that time my first wife had a minor job at Chatillon, in a sort of public relations department. (I learned later on of a remarkably similar situation at Brookhaven). And all the time I was trying to arrange for her a job at the United Nations in New York, using the fact that one of her former bosses, the French intellectual politician, Henri Laugier, was at that time one of the Deputy Secretaries of the United Nations. He finally did manage to give her a job at Lake Success, and so in the summer of ‘49 she and my daughter moved out, which was quite a heavy blow for me -- I was very strongly attached to my daughter.
Weiner:By that time your daughter was about 13.
Kowarski:Just before her 13th birthday. I made for myself a diversion by developing some ideas about stable nuclei. I told you already that this is a typical domain of reflection for people who are not quite in the mainstream -- general considerations of stability. I even produced at that time a little paper, which was presented at the American Physical Society in January or February of ‘50 in New York. Curiously enough, this paper, which hardly can be said to be really scientific work, did not pass unnoticed. In particular, I learned that it was the main topic at one seminar given by Fermi in Chicago.
Weiner:This is the magic numbers paper?
Weiner:And this is after the shell model had come out.
Kowarski:Well, not quite. It was more or less simultaneous with the shell model. And, of course, my considerations did not use the language of the shell model. It was purely phenomenological, without attempting to deal at length with any characteristics of, shall we say, spin. It was simply stating a few simple facts about stable nuclei. I was rather bashful about publishing this. I knew perfectly well that I was not in the swim of nuclear model-mongering at that time, and this was a bit of a reflection by an outsider. I would never have published it, but Bethe encouraged me to do so.
Weiner:How did that come about?
Kowarski:I talked to him about these things probably as early as ‘48, and I told him that there are two missing elements in the periodic system -- the 43 and the 61 -- and both of them are odd-numbered, and they are missing because they have no stable odd isotopes, exceptionally: even isotopes they cannot have anyhow. Having no even isotopes regularly and no odd isotopes exceptionally, they are completely missing in nature. But the exceptional things about them is not just missing out of nature; it’s more precisely the instability of their odd isotopes. There are only two other elements which have no odd isotopes. Let’s see: one is argon and the other is neodymium. All other elements have odd isotopes. And so I told Bethe that theoreticians who consider the anomalies which are responsible for the absence of these two elements should consider the case of argon and neodymium as equally anomalous. And theoreticians should consider these four cases as more or less equivalent. Bethe was struck by this suggestion and said, “You should publish that.” So I did.
Weiner:Where was this that you saw him? You said in ‘48. Was it in France?
Kowarski:No, it was at the Birmingham conference, which took place very soon after my marriage, and I think we were traveling in a train from Birmingham to London.
Weiner:A nuclear physics conference?
Kowarski:Physics, probably nuclear physics. I don’t remember.
Weiner:And the term “magic numbers” -- had that occurred at the time?
Kowarski:Well, did I ever mention to you the story of Elsasser and Guggenheimer?
Weiner:I don’t recall. I know Elsasser had the shell model in the ‘30s.
Kowarski:Well -- I suppose, yes. The first mention in print of special numbers was made by two German refugees at that time in Paris, and appeared side by side in Journal de Physique, in 1934, I think. Elsasser gave what, for his time, was a completely theoretical paper, but his numbers were wrong. Guggenheimer made a theoretically, I think, rather naive paper, but his numbers were right. And that taught me a lesson about the community, the established church of scientists. Elsasser is now exclusively quoted as the author of these ideas, and Guggenheimer is never quoted. The fact that Elsasser’s numbers were wrong and Guggenheimer’s numbers were right is considered irrelevant.
Weiner:And so the term “magic numbers” that you used is one that you had inherited from the literature, from the discussions of this in the past.
Weiner:What were you doing in the U.S. at an American Physical Society meeting?
Kowarski:Well, actually, what I was doing really was making at last, almost desperate effort to induce Kate to come to Paris and to marry me, which was successful.
Weiner:Of course, you went with another excuse. Did you go on some French national business -- in other words, through the UN or UNESCO or anything like that?
Kowarski:I’m sorry. Please erase the previous. I’m confusing two visits. There was a visit -- that desperate visit -- in ‘48, but that was not the visit during which I presented my paper. I presented my paper in ‘50.
Weiner:Yes, it was published in ‘50.
Kowarski:I presented it in ‘50.
Weiner:It was published in Phy. Rev. in ‘50. [“Magic Number and Elements with No Stable Isotopes,” Phys. Rev. 1950, 78, 4, 477-479]
Kowarski:As I say, I was very dubious about the scientific value of this paper and whether I should present it, and I was a bit surprised when Rabi told me: “Well, it’s a bit long, but I think for a distinguished French scientist we will make an exception’ but I was chiefly surprised by the quality of the discussion which followed it. I think Nordheim participated in the discussion and Segre. This was quite a mark of distinction. You know how these papers at the American Physical Society go.
Weiner:They go right on to the next.
Kowarski:Yes. At the same meeting there was a panel -- I think on the shell model. The shell model was at its early beginnings. And I mentioned… I was not on the panel, but questioned from the floor. I mentioned the anomalies, the periodicities, in absorption of neutrons as having something to do with the shell model. And although this idea was completely accepted very few months later, at that particular moment it was not accepted yet, so my remark was completely pooh-poohed by all the theoreticians on the panel.
Weiner:Do you recall who they were?
Kowarski:I think Weisskopf was there. As I say, the remark was brushed aside with complete certainty and only equal to the certainty with which a very few months later it was considered as completely obvious.
Weiner:Do you recall that they were defending Bohr’s model?
Weiner:This was the feeling -- that all of us knew that the discussion of evidence didn’t contradict the Bohr model.
Kowarski:Incidentally, my paper on magic numbers makes a remark at the end that this kind of consideration is sufficient to explain the asymmetric fission -- and I still believe it. And therefore I am surprised when, periodically, other explanations are put forward.
Weiner:That seems to be quite a different paper not only for that period but in terms of your work in general.
Kowarski:Well, as I said again several times, general stability of nuclei is a subject which is cherished by nuclear physicists who are no longer quite in nuclear physics. The first time I started thinking about these things was during my seclusion on that island in Brittany in 1940. And that, of course, was all generated by these curious irregularities in neutron cross-sections, which were observed in my experiments with Halban in 1938. You may remember that at that time there were some unfortunate mistakes committed in the arithmetic of evaluation, which meant that our cross-sections were wrong by a factor of 10; for this reason this paper was never properly incorporated into the mainstream. It was one of the innumerable contradicting papers which were brushed aside.
Weiner:Now, we got onto this paper at just about the time that you were beginning to talk about…
Kowarski:I was describing my devotion to this question as one of the subjects which occupied me in the first half of ‘49. The first half I was in something like a convalescent mood, partly from the terrible exertions of achieving, finishing ZOE on time and so on, partly from a realization that ‘49 was already a time when it was obvious that Joliot did not have it for very long -- and what would become of me; partly digesting the failure of my attempt to leave France; partly anticipating my daughter’s departure for America; partly trying to induce Joliot to provide me with some provincial chair in France, and Joliot saying dubiously: “Well… well… you have been involved in these managerial things lately. Why don’t you publish something?” I was publishing at that time, and Joliot didn’t seem to know it. This convinced me that Joliot was using this what he thought was lack of publications as a pretext, and the real reason was elsewhere. And the real reason, I think, was in the fact that, since I was a little bit too big for my britches, it was useful for people who belonged more definitely to the establishment (after all, even Joliot belonged in some ways to it) to keep one piece of ground on which they would be safe from me. And that is why I was not encouraged to settle on the academic ground. This was rather unfortunate, because if I had become a French professor at the age of 42, probably the last part of my career would have run in a far smoother way than what resulted from my not having been a professor in European conditions at all.
Weiner:It would have been a smoother way, but a different career altogether.
Weiner:I don’t know whether CERN would have come into it.
Kowarski:Well, since I am trying to be candid in these recordings, I will give later on my idea of how much CERN’s coming into being profited from my various misfortunes.
Weiner:I don’t know what thread you’re about to get onto now, but let me say that I hope you’ll return as part of some thread to the attempts to leave France.
Kowarski:I think it could be the second thread.
Weiner:Okay. I don’t know whether we’re through with what we’re doing now in terms of whether you want to go into the story of the second reactor.
No, I think it would be better if at this time we returned to the geographical strand, and then I will resume. I think it will be more understandable -- the story of the second reactor. I think I said enough yesterday about the somewhat uneasy conditions in which I returned to France. The fact that I was drifting further and further away politically from my natural milieu, which was essentially Anglo-American, was very menacing. The fact that I, during most of this time, was actively trying to induce an American citizen to marry me, which would even close the gate to the simplest way of joining France -- by marrying a Frenchwoman -- all this contributed to the fact that very soon…All the time I really was asking myself whether it would succeed or not. In ‘46-‘47 the idea was that I could join an English-speaking country any time I wished. I was a fairly prominent part of the Anglo-Canadian project. It still had this tremendous prestige in everything, and so that was really the most important fact about me -- far more than my origin or citizenship. In the summer of ‘47 I talked for the first time about it to Oliphant, who was always -- I think I said it before -- a very outspoken man and always an outspoken critic of what he considered my excessive diplomacy. And he said, “Well, what the hell” -- or words to that effect -- “if you want to leave France and establish yourself in Britain or in America, why don’t you say so for God’s sake?” From late summer of ‘47, just from the beginning of the ZOE project, I began to be quite clear in my mind for myself that as soon as ZOE would be finished, I would be free from my obligations to France.
That would mean that I had repaid my debt to France, which was quite real, and I would have repaid it, I had reasons to consider, rather handsomely; and therefore I would be a free agent. And so in the later part of ‘47 I made up my mind that I would leave France. Still it would be more convenient if I could manage to be in some way compelled to leave France. I remember, when I left for a trip to Norway in early December ‘47, there were signs that there might be some kind of a Communist putsch in France at that time. There was a rather serious disturbance with serious interventions of government armed forces. And I took with me to Norway an amount of traveling luggage which was slightly out of proportion with my real needs for a Norwegian trip. But then while I was in Norway, it was obvious that there would be no serious disturbance in France, and I came back. By early ‘48 I began to talk quite openly, especially in America, that I was simply fishing for some offer. In early ‘48 I think that McCarthyism had not quite started yet; or, if it had…When was the Hiss-Chambers affair?
Weiner:A little later than that –- ‘49. I’m not sure. It was before there was a Presidential campaign in the U.S.
Kowarski:I think the Hiss-Chambers broke out late in ‘48.
Weiner:Was it before the elections?
Weiner:It would help. In other words, it’s an election year kind of thing.
Kowarski:The famous dialogue between Chambers and Nixon about some bird watching. Well, in early ‘48 it was not quite clear yet. Already the Communists were very definitely not at all anymore “our brave allies.” Already the fact that Joliot was a Communist obviously meant that he, for instance, couldn’t go to America any time he liked. But still I was not yet considered to be irrevocably tainted. Forty-eight was not an easy time for American science. It was still a time when there was disbanding of wartime establishments and their personnel was re-joining the academic life. This was still going on in ‘48. In July of ‘48 I met Weisskopf for the first time in my life. I told him about it. I remember his saying: “Well, I don’t know how you should go about it. What you really request is so ridiculously easy that there should be no question about it.” It turned out to be not easy at all. It was there and then the first time I had an inkling that Weisskopf’s judgment about this sort of thing was not always very reliable. Some people actively discouraged me. Szilard told me that in his opinion I was not behaving fairly to France. I had my own opinions about it. I remember I talked to Oppenheimer, who was rather aloof, and Oppenheimer talked to Wigner in my presence, and Wigner had, I think an attitude of: “Include me out on that question.” It was at that time that I had the first suspicion that Wigner might be adversely affected by his opinion about Halban army double crime in connection with Halban. I already commented on the double crime.
Weiner:Do you think that there may have been a feeling there that they didn’t want to be in a position of inducing you to leave or aiding your leaving in terms of international diplomatic implications?
Weiner:And even security implications since they the*selves were so deeply involved in these questions.
Kowarski:I don’t think that security questions were very prominent in early 1948. The Alan Nunn May affair was already over. [Tape change] In early ‘48 I was discussing these things quite freely with Bertrand Goldschmidt. He also was thinking that maybe he would not stay in France for a quite different reason. His life was entirely in the Rothschild circle, and it was not clear how long France would remain a healthy country for that circle. It already in recent times had been very unhealthy, and this might happen again for somewhat different political reasons. We even exchanged innumerable jokes, saying that the year ‘48 as everybody knows from the history of the 19th century, is a year of great political upheavals and changes; and there might be some significance for us in this figure of ‘43. On the whole, my American contacts were discouraging. I knew that Britain offered probably better prospects. There was this Birmingham meeting, which I already mentioned a moment ago when I talked to Bethe, and I had the idea that if things came to a head, I could always talk to Cockcroft and have a job in Harwell.
Weiner:When you talked with the American, did you speak of a job in the American Atomic Energy establishment or…
No, academic -- a university job. As soon as ZOE was launched, I simply telephoned to Cockcroft and said: “Well, the time has come now to discuss it seriously.” And I spent Christmas ‘48 or the New Year in England talking to Cockcroft. Cockcroft offered me a certain rank in Harwell. Chadwick considered that I should have a higher rank, but he said: “Well, I see Cockcroft’s problems. We have to abide by that.” There was also the problem of fitting in Pontecorvo, who was at that time coming back from Canada to Britain with his British citizenship. So Pontecorvo and I had to be digested at the same time, with the considerable difference that Pontecorvo was already a British subject, and I wasn’t. In the first weeks of 1949, Cockcroft considered this question seriously with the authorities, and the authorities vetoed me on security grounds. I was too closely connected with Joliot.
The end of ‘48, early ‘49, was already a period in which the security question started in earnest in America. There was that “special relationship.” There were many foreigners to be first digested, and then, I have no doubt, that the plan was already ready that they should be gently eased out from Harwell gradually -- all foreign-born scientists -- into the academic life. And why burden their problems with me? I was not even a British subject. I was tainted by Joliot. I had the past history of very serious clashes with the British authorities, such as they were in ‘42 to ‘44. So the character was known. It was not an easy character, so why burden themselves with this additional problem? There were, on the other hand, two reasons in favor. First of all, personally I had something to contribute. I should say really three reasons. One was that personally I had something to contribute -- that was in particular Chadwick’s opinion, and Chadwick was still fairly influential.
The peculiar kind of, shall we say, managerial leadership, the experience of running projects, running them as crash programs, the recent success in France: it was quite obvious that I had been a positive factor in the earlier stages of the British project, and there was no reason to suppose that I would not be a positive factor again. There was a clash of two opinions about it. One was that a valuable man is a rare thing and therefore has to be snatched upon. And the other equally frequent was that, after all, people are interchangeable. If one isn’t convenient, you replace him by another and so on. But the rare-value argument often does prevail and that was one reason for letting me in. The other reason was what I might call fundamental British decency: “Well, this man did a lot for us.” Today, by the way, the fact that I did a lot for the British is more clear, especially after Gowing’s book. But in those days it was more controversial, but still it was…
Weiner:But it was known by a few principals. Cockcroft and Chadwick knew.
Kowarski:Yes. Well, Cockcroft and Chadwick were both for my coming to Harwell.
Weiner:I see. You’re talking about other.
Kowarski:Yes. For example, Michael Perrin, who was one of the authorities with whom I clashed quite head-on in ‘42 and later, was still in power. Michael Perrin, as far as I know, was in favor of my coming for the third reason. And the third reason was simply knowledge -- knowing, after all, little notes or no little notes, but knowing quite a lot of things which at that time were still extremely secret. There was no declassification of anything concerning the reactors at that time yet. It was simply safer to put me under lock and key rather than to let me loose on the Continent. I have no reason to believe that Michael Perrin was not entirely won over by this argument. Therefore, in spite of the fact that he might have been one of the authorities least inclined to grapple with me, he personally probably would consider this as an overriding consideration. As a matter of fact, this overriding consideration was perfectly justified. The Norwegians first and the Swedes after that began to build reactors, having gathered enough information from Chatillon and chiefly from me. I was definitely a factor of proliferation in the European continent, very definitely. Already some of the evil was done by that time.
Weiner:The French national policy was an open policy at that time, was it not?
Kowarski:No, not at all. Since you ask this question, I’ll tell you that as soon as ZOE was launched, and the enormity of the fact that France was the first country on the western European continent which had an actual going chain reaction -- that is, on which this mysterious new fire was lit –- “well, what about now communicating all information to all and sundry; above all, to the Russians?” People were naive in those days. They didn’t realize that the Russians by late ‘48 knew far more than we did, but we couldn’t know it. That’s one face of the question, and, second, what if Joliot makes good his often proclaimed principle that science should be free and freely published and all nonpublishing is just American imperialism,” and all that? At that time Joliot was using this language very frequently and hotly. Well, Joliot actually did declare that there are of course no scientific secrets. He saw no reason why these technical secrets should be given to everybody and deprive France of its technological advance. This was a very ingenious way of getting out of a dilemma. All this was discussed in detail in an article which appeared in the Economist in January 1949, which I would very strongly advise you to get. I think it’s relatively easy. Incidentally, make a note. When you get it, send me a Xerox.
Weiner:Okay. This is on your list of papers -- right?
Kowarski:No, not at all. This article was not by me. It’s mid January ‘49. Articles in the Economist are not signed. It was a very long article. It was written by an American journalist, Stephen White. I was given a prominent role. I knew Stephen White well. When this article appeared, I heard that Halban made the comment (Halban at that time was living in England): “I think Stephen White should have made a better job of concealing that this article was dictated by Kowarski. It wasn’t: Stephen was quite capable of writing it all by himself. Since we are talking of Stephen White, may I tell another anecdote? On the 14th of December 1948, Kate and I had dinner with Stephen White at his home in Paris, and John Manley was there. I don’t know whether the name means anything to you.
Weiner:Was he connected with CERN later?
Kowarski:No. He was for several years deputy director of Los Alamos, and for a while was quite prominent as an American neutron physicist. John Manley knew me. I suppose we met on various meetings during my stays in America. In my ‘48 article in the Bulletin, which I recommended to you to read, and which was based on a speech given in Brookhaven in February ‘48, I said that “we have firm hopes that the first French reaction will work some time in 19148, not before Christmas, of course.” In December ‘48 some of the rightist French press were widely speculating on what was the reason for French atomic program falling behind and declared that it was because the enemy was already within the gates; that it’s all run by foreigners and Communists, and that’s Why, in spite of Joliot’s promises that the first chain reaction will be achieved in ‘48. This of course was unthinkable for the reasons explained, and so on. All this time we were keeping a little mum about the exact progress of ZOE. As I said, our task was easier than one might think, because people who were selling these stories did not realize what a technically easy task it was.
Weiner:Especially if you’d done it before.
Kowarski:Right. Well, not quite. ZEEP had metallic uranium, for instance, not oxide; and that was one of the main difficulties. But still it was easy. Well, at least it was easy for me. So Stephen White a little mockingly said, “Well, Kowarski, we are today the 114th, Christmas is in 11 days. You said that it would still be in ‘48, and then you added: ‘not before Christmas, of course.’ Well, you now have at the most two weeks. So what?” And I said, “Well, Stephen, you know how these things are. One never is quite as successful as one thinks one will be. Things are like that in life.” And Stephen said: “Well, when the thing is really imminent, you will let me know.” I said, “Of course, of course. But, as you say yourself, Christmas is upon us and there is no prospect.” We left rather late on that evening. We left probably close to midnight. I think Stephen brought Kate and me home. We lived on Boulevard de Montparnasse at that time. And so I went to bed after midnight. And at six o’clock in the morning Bertrand Goldschmidt came to fetch me to go to Chatillon for the launching. I don’t think Stephen ever forgave me.
Weiner:That’s funny. It was within a few hours.
Kowarski:Well, we still remain friends, of course…now, where were we?
Weiner:One of the places you were was in England. I know what started it -- about it was better to keep you there under control, and you said that you had been responsible in a way for the proliferation of reactors.
Weiner:And I then asked about the French national policy on that. So that the problem still in my mind was: were you violating policy by helping proliferate or what?
It was not violation. It was a certain amount of leakage which was unavoidable between colleagues. The Norwegian was Gunnar Randers, a very interesting character. I think he’s now scientific secretary of NATO. He didn’t need many leaks to put two and two together. He was also assiduously collecting leaks from England, where he had many friends, and some in America. Leaks he collected from us were probably not many but probably they rounded out the picture. The Swedes -- that was somewhat different. They were far more candid, and their reactor plans were in some fairly remote future. Randers’ reactor started working in ‘51. The Swedish, I think in ‘54. Incidentally, the Norwegian reactor was called JEEP, and the Swedish reactor had an unofficial but fairly well-known name SLEEP. In this way it was unofficially acknowledged that they were descendants of ZEEP. The affiliation was clear. And, since my role was duly reticent but not quite leak-tight -- the sort of proliferation on the continent also became quite clear. Incidentally, Dunworth was Randers’ friend, and Dunworth was responsible for some of these -- I would say on the whole fully legal -- hints which were thrown around and which Randers used.
Anyhow, I think if I had been in the shoes of those Britishers who had to decide about Kowarski, I probably would decide in favor of his coming to England on fairly strict conditions of communication or noncommunication with the Continent and strictly on the basis of considerations of security and nothing else. This particular controversy sprung again two years later, as I will tell in due course, during my last attempt to leave France. Anyhow, my arrival in Harwell was vetoed. Cockcroft wrote me a friendly and brief as usual letter about it in late January ‘49. 1 was slightly ill at that time, and the letter made me far more ill. I wrote to Chadwick about it, and I used the expression that “now I have been cut adrift.” In a way this was the end of what I might call the zenith period of my career. I interpreted it that way. I made another desperate attempt to get out of it, and it again failed for a completely different reason.
Weiner:Why didn’t you look into the possibility of getting placed in English academic life rather than in the atomic energy establishment?
Kowarski:English chairs are run on a complicated system of advertisements, candidacies have to be supported. My obvious supporters were Chadwick and Cockcroft. And both Chadwick and Cockcroft thought that I should be in Harwell. I would say Cockcroft, because Cockcroft was always dubious -- I already mentioned -- about my academic status. His ideas of me as an engineer were always a bit exaggerated, I think. And Chadwick because Chadwick thought that I would be more useful at Harwell. After I was vetoed from joining the British enchanted atomic circles, the idea of putting me in a university probably never occurred to anyone, because either I had to be considered as in touch with Harwell -- and then all the objections would arise again -- or I would be kept out of touch with Harwell, and in that case I would be far less useful. I had far fewer credentials.
Weiner:Well, you were saying that this was the end of a particular stage.
Kowarski:Yes. In ‘49, therefore, I made a serious attempt to encrust myself in France, since I was practically marooned there. But then I had these conversations with Joliot about academic positions, and I saw that I would have no support there, and without support it was impossible. In late ‘49 I started making preparations for another American trip, and there the visa questions began to get sticky. It needed the intervention of François de Rose and some of the friends he had in the State Department who knew about me to push my visa through. It took a couple of months or perhaps a little less. Finally in January ‘50 I came to New York. There was this episode with the magic numbers, which I already told about, and some people began to quite seriously consider the question whether I could fit this or that university. Some conversations took place at NYU, and there also was a fairly comic attempt of putting me in the University of Iowa. Turner was there at the time.
Kowarski:Yes. Turner knew perfectly well my role in the early history of atomic energy, of the chain reaction. He considered it very favorably. And so he recommended me. I came there. In those days I still didn’t think anything of spending sleepless nights on an airplane and working the next day. They asked me to give a paper. I gave an account of the paper I had given a couple of weeks before at the American Physical Society, the magic numbers. I was very tired. The audience was not terribly responsive. They were not terribly interested in this sort of thing. The appearance was a bit of a flop. As I say, I was deadly tired. And they deliberated, and finally decided that well, they had seen enough of me. Jauch was there at the time.
Weiner:On a visiting basis?
Kowarski:No, he was there on the staff. They had enough of foreigners. They should give a chance to an Iowa boy. They finally gave the chair to some completely unknown Iowa boy. If I mention his name, you will see how unknown he was then -- it was Van Allen. So there were these half-hearted attempts to fit me into some American university. And for each of these attempts, it would be some open chair for which there would be other candidates. I was not there; I had not enough support; and so nothing came out of it. Then Oliphant went to Australia, and Oliphant made a very serious effort to bring me to Australia. That just shows you that I was getting to be a bit desperate at that time.
Weiner:You were just married. Wouldn’t that be a factor? A question of where you set up your married life. It wasn’t a question of you taking off somewhere alone.
No, Kate would go with me anywhere. We were already married by that time over a year and a half, pushing two years. There were no children and reason to believe that there wouldn’t be any, which made us more mobile. The salary in Australia would not be terribly high, and getting from Australia anywhere else would be a fairly rare event. That’s something under which Australia is still suffering. The first thing they should have done was have some comprehensive scheme for people to travel out of Australia. That would prevent some of this claustrophobic feeling and would probably put Australia far more quickly on the map as an intellectual center in keeping with its rising economic position.
Anyhow, Oliphant had serious disappointments in Australia himself, and nothing came out of it. Yet, during a goodish part of 1950, I was seriously thinking that we would go to Australia. In the summer of ‘50 there was another of these big meetings in Oxford, and then the Pontecorvo affair broke out. And there I met for the first time Maurice Shapiro. He’s the cosmic ray man in the Naval Research Lab in Washington. He’s a warm person, a very friendly person. We discussed my problems quite openly. He took a very human interest in them, and I think I can count him as among my close friends from that time. It’s always a joy meeting him in Washington. He simply said: “All right, for this and that reason I can quite easily see why your attempts in early 1950 didn’t work. That’s not the way of doing it. I know how to do it. I will do it.” And he did. He sold me to Lawrence Hafstad who, at that time, was the director of research at the AEC. And Hafstad was very sensitive to the argument which Shapiro was playing for all it was worth, that a person of my knowledge should not be let loose on the European continent.
Fortunately or unfortunately, at about the same time, the first sizeable declassifications of research reactors were made. This at the same time made me a less obnoxious person and also diminished the value of keeping me under lock. It was perfectly well realized by knowledgeable people that after all, my knowledge was not so much bigger than what was already declassified. It was -- but not very very much. And by that time already people had some idea… The Russian bomb was already exploded. People had already the idea that the Russians knew far more. So in a way the urgency of taking me in was quickly diminishing. On the other hand, some people, including Hafstad, had a very clear idea that a person of my temperament, my way of mixing with people, was still a proliferation factor; and it still would be better not to have me freely moving all over the continent. Hafstad was very responsive to this argument. At the end of 1950 the McCarran-Walter Law -- the first one -- came into operation. There were two of them. The first one came into operation, and at this time I had rather serious difficulty in getting a visa.
I needed a visa simply to go and see my daughter in New York. So a trip was planned for Christmas ‘50. Finally with some considerable difficulties, I did get the visa. I’m sorry, no. The difficulty was already in ‘49, and I got a visa valid one year. American visas, by the way, define their duration in terms of entering, not of staying. If the visa is valid until, shall we say January 15th, then you can still enter on January 14th. The conditions of staying are something different. Visas are delivered by the State Department and staying is decided upon by the Department of Justice -- the Immigration Service. So my visa, which was granted after some difficulties in January of 1950, was valid for one year. And therefore it was valid until some date in January of ‘51 for entry. So I decided that I really should use the last weeks of this validity and enter in the United States at about Christmas ‘50. But the McCarran-Walter Law being already in force, my visa had to be revalidated. And it was this revalidation which caused some difficulty, and yet still it went through. Now, the visa, which was delivered to me in January ‘50, was for one year. It could have been for two years. If it had been delivered for two years, quite a few things would have been changed -- in particular as regards the existence of CERN. I don’t know whether the choice of stamp, one year or two years, was simply the matter of decision by some little girl in the Secretariat. But it is interesting to speculate about what would have happened if the little girl had chosen a different stamp. In particular, quite a lot in Weisskopf’s career would have been changed. [pause for lunch]
Weiner:I checked back before we went out to see where we left off, and you had talked about the interest that Hafstad had had for AEC, through the initial efforts of Shapiro, and then the difficulties regarding the changes in the immigration and entry laws. You had gone through the background of that, and you got to the point of the difference of a clerk stamping something with one year or two years. That sets the stage for the story you’re about to tell.
Kowarski:Well, I left the United States from that particular trip on the 15th of January 1951 with the idea that I would very soon receive a formal invitation as visiting professor for one year to Johns Hopkins. Hafstad gave me a lunch at the Cosmos Club, and outlined very frankly a few strings attached to it. One would be that I would not be given any considerable grants for any research I would undertake, because giving a considerable grant would attract attention, and they would prefer not to attract attention to me. Second, that I would during this year not be quite free to move -- such things as going abroad and so on. Probably it also meant that I would be under some kind of discreet surveillance. And finally that the job was for one year; there was no formal guarantee that it would be continued, but as Hafstad was led to understand, it most probably would and quite possibly even at Johns Hopkins itself. I had time to visit Johns Hopkins. The head of the department was Dieke at that time. And so I left with the idea that if nothing extraordinary happened, I very soon -- shall we say by the summer at the latest -- would be back in the States, this time for good.
Weiner:Let me ask a question. Was the position at Hopkins for specific research on contract with AEC? Was that it?
Kowarski:I don’t think I went into that at that time. I only had this negative reminder that the research contract, if there was one, would not be big.
Weiner:But the point is that the arrangements were made by AEC, and Hopkins just accommodated you.
Yes. I would say in view of the fact that Hafstad specified that it would not be a big grant probably meant that there would be a grant of some kind. I came back to Paris and started making preparations for getting out. One of the preparations was the visa. The visa, which I already explained at some length, I was in the States last with, was no longer valid; so there had to be a new visa. Usually one has to state one’s intentions. If my intention was to go there for a visiting professorship for a year, I had to state it. I don’t remember what category that was at that time. Today it would the H visa. Then came one of those pieces of red tape which are characteristic for this kind of activity. On the whole, most regulations concerning the entry of foreigners in these conditions, in a country which lots of foreigners want to enter, are surrounded with all sorts of hedges which slow things down and make them difficult. It was my experience, for example, with naturalization in France.
This slowness is not due to inefficiency: it is efficiency of a reverse sort. It’s meant to be made difficult. One hedge in this particular case was that I had to present some guarantee of the fact that I would leave at the expiration of my job and would have means of return and also some obligation waiting for me in the country of my origin, which in this case was France. I knew perfectly well that I had no intention to return, and everybody knew it, but for the formal situation there had to be a declaration that I intended to return to the best of my knowledge. And I could do it quite sincerely: I expected an invitation for one year, and that would be all at the time of departure. I had to present some certificate that I had a continuing job in France that I was on limited leave. Therefore, I had to make an official declaration to the Commissariat (and Joliot was no longer there) of my intention to go to America for a year and to return. This, of course, made a wonderful opportunity for those who wanted to get rid of me. Francis Perrin, several years later, gave me a beautiful comment in his characteristic private style which he never shows in public.
He caressed his beard and said yes, in those days certain French circles were very glad to be able to use the U.S. consulate as an amplifier. He used the word strictly in an electronic sense. You put an input there, and the amplifier produces a loud output. The loud output in my case would be that Kowarski was considered to be a Communist danger under the McCarran law. That would be public enough, and that could profitably be put in various files concerning myself and so on. The input was whatever information would be supplied to the U.S. Consulate to make me subject to one of the categories foreseen in the McCarran Law. Of course, in these things one is like a betrayed husband. One is the last to know what is happening while everybody else does. There are a lot of people who know all about it, but they never told me. So I have to assemble little pieces. I think when the request was made, the Consulate made, as a matter of routine, an inquiry through the French intelligence services -- the French at that time I think called it Defense of the Territory Service -- and therefore one had to see that my file at this Service contained the necessary information. The information, of course, was supplied by the Commissariat. What kind of information, I don’t know. Ostensibly it was that I was for several years a member of the French labor union which is roughly equivalent to the CIO, but rather like CIO before it merged with AFL -- that is, the more leftist of them, and of course by that time completely Communist controlled. I think it still is.
I joined it because not joining it would mean a public declaration that I was in complete disagreement with Joliot, so I joined it. Almost as soon as Joliot was ousted, I resigned from it. So I think the situation was quite clear, but this probably was not put on the document which was kept in the police files. I doubt that that would be enough. I think that there were, among the Commissariat staff, quite a few members of that organization which later on received vasas fairly easily. The McCarran Law, if I’m not mistaken, has some kind of proviso -- the usual kind in this kind of law -- “or any other person who by his associations professed beliefs and so on can be considered as…” I suppose I got in under that proviso. Now, in my case, of course, there was an association -- the association with Joliot which was always very deep and not without its difficulties, particularly political, but again you don’t need to put that in the document which is in the police files. You put what you want. The visa, by the way, was to be delivered on the occasion of a conference in Chicago, to which I was officially invited, and it was already at that conference that quite a few people from Europe couldn’t come under the McCarran Law. There were some remarkable cases.
Weiner:What kind of conference was it?
Kowarski:Oh, something nuclear in Chicago.
Weiner:When was that?
Kowarski:The conference was to be held in August, 1951, and I had to go ostensibly to that conference, but of course the invitation to Johns Hopkins was also indicated. There were some noticeable exclusions from that same conference. I think Dirac was excluded because he had a Hungarian wife. That’s very typical. Somebody wrote that “by his family associations, Professor Dirac is liable to be blackmailed from countries behind the Iron Curtain,” without realizing, of course, that Miss Wigner was not quite what they intended for such cases. Peierls’ visa, I think, was also refused because Peierls was active in the British Association of Scientific Workers, and that Association by that time had affiliated itself to the World Federation of Scientific Workers, which was at its top substantially Communist controlled. After Peierls had been refused, he was promptly sent to Washington with a mission to sit on some joint committee between the British and American governments which was supposed to classify top secret documents, and the British gave him a diplomatic passport which didn’t need a visa. That’s again the British way of doing things. So there was no difficulty for Peierls. I received a formal invitation from Johns Hopkins in early February, and very soon after that…
Weiner:You didn’t go to the meeting.
Kowarski:No, of course not. I received a formal invitation in early February, and soon afterwards a warmly welcoming letter from the president, who was Detlev Bronk at the time. When the visa, which I think I officially asked for some time late in February with papers from the Commissariat and so on, failed to come through after the normal wait of three to five weeks, I began to feel that something had stuck over there, and things could be expected to go seriously wrong; and probably that forced me to seek another “corde a mon arc” (that’s a French expression -- string to my bow).
Weiner:Now I understand.
Kowarski:At that time negotiations about CERN started seriously. I will tell later on about my being involved in them, if there is a later on. A very important CERN meeting, at which I played a somewhat substantial role happened in late May of ‘51. By that time there was still no news about my visa, and I began to have serious doubts. Certain letters were written. In early July I received (I think from the organizers of the Chicago Congress; it may have been Allison, who of course knew me quite well): “Dear Kowarski, For some damn-fool reason they put you under the famous Proviso 9 in which a person has to acknowledge that he’s ineligible under the McCarran Act and petitions the Attorney General to waive the provisions applicable to his case.” There were lots of people who refused at that time to continue with the demand for the visa. But I wasn’t proud -- I could do it, if necessary. However, several weeks passed before the question (of whether my demand under this proviso was receivable) could be solved. In fact, it never came to that. I knew from the grapevine that during this time there were serious conversation in England involving one of the atomic energy commissioners; that, on the whole, both the British and the American atomic authorities were in complete agreement that I should be gotten out of Europe as soon as possible. And again by grapevine I knew that the State Department was reticent, but the Atomic Energy Commission was going to fight for my admission -- strictly by reasons of national security. I think, on the whole, they were right: a person like me should better be kept under discreet surveillance in some suitable location. I was quite ready to submit to that. Then suddenly came a straight refusal from the Paris Consulate, which excluded even the Proviso 9 procedure. That was in early August.
Weiner:In other words, not even giving you the opportunity to appeal under that.
Kowarski:No. I learned at about the same time that Kemmer was in the same trouble -- straight refusal -- and then he received a rather cryptic letter from Oppenheimer saying that “this is one of the sad facts of our time, and he (Kemmer) should not think that there is any miraculous way around it.” It looked chronologically like a single sudden event which completely stopped the proceedings for both Kemmer and me. Kemmer, by the way, was excluded because, some time previously, in his then capacity as an official of the British Association of Atomic Scientists he intervened on behalf of Alan May. The popular press, especially through the writings of Dame Rebecca West, specifically pinned him down as one of those “spineless intellectuals,” and in his case not even British-born, who are stupidly endangering the security of their country by intervening for notorious convicted spies, no doubt “for motives which we strongly suspect are not entirely pure.” He signed some mild petition papers strictly ex-officio. I learned later on (several years later) and from a source which I think is quite trustworthy, that at that time the State Department received a letter signed Joseph McCarthy, but probably drafted by Cohn and Shire. They were just back from their famous trip to Europe and probably they saw various interesting files, including mine, and possibly Kemmer’s. Joe McCarthy, in that particular letter which was, I guess, not the only one of its kind, gave a list of six names warning the State Department: “If you let in these ones, you will hear from me.” I have no reason other than pure chronology, to suppose that Kemmer was on the same list. I was assured that I was. And so instead of a dubious case on which the State Department was considering to stretch the interpretation because the AEC was very insistent, I became a firmly named casus belli between the State Department and McCarthy. That was in the summer of ‘51, and you know how the things stood just then. So I received this blank refusal early in August. There were some attempts to put things right. Sam Goudsmit asked me to make some declarations with documents about my belonging to various organizations. I did.
Weiner:What did Goudsmit have to do with it?
Kowarski:Goudsmit in those days was very much involved in security questions concerning European scientists.
Weiner:Because of his ALSOS work?
Yes, he was considered as an expert. Goudsmit came to Europe in August-September -- I saw him. He continued some kind of fighting, but he gradually gave it up. For me those days were the days of something approaching a real nervous collapse, because this was in a far stronger way a repetition of the episode of two and a half years earlier, with Cockcroft’s letter. It was quite obvious then -- and that’s exactly how it happened later on -- that probably this wave would pass; eventually I would resume my relations with the States. But, for the time being, this put an end not only to my personal continuation of my activity in more congenial surroundings, but also (which was even more important) it made me a lame duck in France itself. I was practically declared a security risk (that’s the amplifier effect). Relations between the European countries and the States under NATO were becoming gradually developed. I would be left out of it, of course, and gradually, but quickly enough, I would be pushed out of this whole field by people who would continue to have relations and go and learn things from America and so on. So it meant not only that I would have to continue my career, whatever remained of it, in uncongenial surroundings (and of course I began to feel rather worse after that about my relations with France; it was quite obvious that the origin of this affair was in France, not in America), but also that the field in which I had acquired some world position and so on, would become closed to me.
Choose some other field? I was 44, and one doesn’t like to be compelled to do that, so relatively late in life. Very serious soul-searching was in prospect. The door was still open for my daughter, who was then in New York, to come to Europe from time to time in order to see me. But she was already nearly 15. She would become an American adolescent, go probably to an American college, and gradually swim out of my existence. All these blows came together. Well, as usual, when one has a collapse of quite a few elements of one’s existence, one seeks for a replacement. There were in sight: One was CERN. I was fortunate enough in that a few months before I started to be seriously involved in it, so I intensified this involvement. The other was my continuous participation in French atomic planning, which just by that time began to attract greater government support and financial promise. Before that, in the years between ‘49 and ‘51, the budget of the Commissariat actually went down, in figures corrected for the inflation effect. However, in later ‘51, it was decided that by that time the Commissariat was sufficiently purged of uncooperative elements -- they were either out or incapacitated -- and one could at last start bringing real people to it and giving real money. But the real people, whoever they would be, would still not be as knowledgeable as I was. And so I started making the first plans for producing some plutonium in France. This more or less completes the story of my attempts to get out of France.
Finally, strictly speaking, I did get out of France. I got out to CERN, which is not in France. But it seems to be quite obvious that my own part of the foundation of CERN was mainly precipitated by the fact that I had to find for myself a place somewhere. Also, I do think that if I had not been active in those times, it’s quite possible that… I never say that I was the top decisive factor in the history of CERN. But there were, shall we say, four, five, six people who, in conjunction, did play a decisive role. We stood, so to speak, on each other’s shoulders to make a combined column of human bodies tall enough to reach over a certain wall. And if one of these bodies were missing, we would not have gone over the wall. Everyone in this small group was essential. And I earnestly don’t think that if one unit was knocked out, a ready replacement would come along. In this strictly limited sense I think I can say indeed that my staying in Europe was a necessary condition for CERN to come into existence. Also, I have reason to believe that the plans for making plutonium, without me, would have gotten on a completely wrong track, and France would then get her bomb, I would say, at least three or four years late -- a not-negligible delay. Those were the wider consequences, as I see them, of my personal visa misadventure.
Weiner:Let me backtrack one minute. You said that you were aware in ‘48 of the pressures on Joliot and the changing political climate and therefore considered that this might affect you, too. At the time in 1950 when he was dismissed on April 29th, it came suddenly despite the fact that things were leading up to it. I gather, from what I’ve read, that it was rather sudden.
Kowarski:No, it wasn’t.
Weiner:He had been warned that this was going to happen?
Kowarski:Well, here again comes one of these unsupported statements that I have to make and for which I have no proof. All through ‘49, Joliot was making anti-government speeches which were mounting in tone, and after one of these speeches -- I think in the early ‘50s -- he said to me: “What are they waiting for, these spineless people? Why don’t they dismiss me?” I think Goldschmidt repeats in his book the same idea, that the Communists decided that Joliot was more useful to them as a martyr than on the Atomic Energy Commission. And therefore they were egging him on, and giving him instructions to get himself fired. That the government finally had to act according to, how shall I say, the reasonable principles of government behavior by firing him, I have no doubt. Joliot was one of two heads of an organism which had definite top governmental (including defense) functions. When he became the leader of people who went about the country and Europe proclaiming, “if the government orders us to make weapons, we will say no,” he obviously was no longer a suitable person to be in charge of an establishment, which, among other things, had to make weapons. So there was nothing sudden about it. A week or two before the firing occurred, he made a particularly clear anti-government speech; and thereupon, he was dismissed. To say that it was sudden… I think it’s, shall we say, naive.
Weiner:I only meant sudden in the sense that everything had led up to it, but it wasn’t a question of hearings or announcements a month in advance that they were considering this. The act itself was very quick.
Kowarski:Oh, there were some parliament debates. But, you know, in the French governmental circles, there was no great interest in atomic energy.
Weiner:It didn’t become a national, kind of scandalous issue in terms of being a political…
Kowarski:The Prime Minister at that time was leftish -- I think it was Bidaut, who later on became an extreme rightist, but at that time he was still reasonably leftish. When Bidaut announced the decision of the government to put an end to Joliot’s high commission, there was a vote; and if I remember right, every party except the Communists supported the Government. It certainly was no national scandal.
Weiner:Was any attempt made to involve people at the Commissariat itself? There was no question of hearings or testimony?
Kowarski:This sort of thing doesn’t exist in France and I would say nowhere in Europe.
Weiner:I see. And was there any pressure at the time of dismissal for making a clean sweep?
Kowarski:No official pressure. There was a debate, I think, in November of ‘51, where two speakers urged the government to make an investigation about who are the leading persons in the Commissariat but that was a year and a half after Joliot’s dismissal. The speakers drew the attention to the abnormally low proportion, as they put it, of people born in France of French parents -- an abnormality which ought to be corrected. This, of course, was an attack aimed not only at me but also at Goldschmidt, who was born in France but not of French-born parents.
Weiner:What about the higher staff at the time of the dismissal? Biquard’s book says that the directors issued a statement saying that individuals have the right to hold political opinions…
Kowarski:Oh, yes. We did issue some damn-fool statement at that time, because it was then necessary, and those of us who would refuse to sign it would find themselves completely isolated from the rest of the staff. You know, many statements of that kind are signed by people for this kind of reason. I signed it myself. We said that we considered that Joliot was indispensable for the French atomic program, and I did think he was -- he was a leader; and you have to have a leader.
Weiner:But it was also the principle that one can have one’s own political views without affecting one’s technical work.
Kowarski:I don’t remember about that. Possibly something was… But, of course, the real issue was not that Joliot had political views. The real issue was that Joliot publicly, repeatedly declared that if the government ordered him to do this and that, he would not do it. The nature of the Commissariat’s tasks was explicitly written in the constitution of the Commissariat. So, in fact, Joliot was saying in advance that if the moment came to decide what to do about a certain category of tasks, he would refuse to fulfill the duties of High Commissioner. And I think it was quite natural under these conditions that he was asked not to assume these duties any longer. If I were in the French government’s shoes, I probably would not have dismissed him there and then. I must say that shortly before that (here comes another of my questionable statements) there was a fairly protracted period when Joliot’s pictures were circulating in Chatillon and in the embryonic Saclay with the proud caption: “If the government asks us to turn our knowledge to the manufacture of atomic weapons, we shall say no,” signed Joliot-Curie -- and I asked Joliot, “Fred, what the hell do you mean by this? You know perfectly well that if you had explicitly accepted to make atomic weapons a couple of years ago you would start doing exactly the things you are doing today -- that is, building up labs, accumulating supplies, training people, producing successive forms of stronger and stronger chain reactions, envisaging making plutonium and so on. So why do you allow things to be proclaimed which have no real meaning?” And he said, “Well, I admit that this declaration has not much technical meaning, but what a beautiful political slogan!” Again, there is no proof that this conversation ever took place.
Weiner:There’s no reason to doubt it, because you had indicated that his emphasis did become increasingly political. So this became more important to him. Well, you flashed back a bit. That completes the series of episodes and again sets the stage for CERN as a very necessary thing in your existence.
Before that, let me see, what else can I say about that time? Well, just about then, after the far-reaching U.S. and U.K. declassification of the Fall ‘50, Francis Perrin and I decided that we’d better publish a few data bout ZOE. So made a publication about the physical parameters of the Chatillon reactor, which probably was my last -- what might be called -- original contribution to neutron physics, if one can consider that the production of a chain reaction is an act of neutron physics; and even an original act, because the reaction took place in a medium which has never been explored before, strictly speaking. There were some other noteworthy episodes marking the latter half of ‘51. Dautry died in August ‘51. For a while Lescop remained in the sole control (the third head) of the Commissariat. Francis Perrin became High Commissioner sometime in early ‘51. Lescop simply brushed him aside. The first Polytechniciens began to be appointed at various places, and then a very remarkable conspiracy started: Francis Perrin was to be exposed, at least to the government, as a person unwilling to embark on making plutonium. The issue of plutonium was, in fact, quite simple.
The Commissariat could either not make plutonium at all or make plutonium for scientific and civilian uses or make plutonium for military uses. I was holding the opinion, which was duly reflected in my publication (see, for example, “Nature,” London, March or April 1950), although perhaps with no extreme bluntness, that to continue atomic energy activities and yet to decide not to make plutonium at all would make no sense. One could not indefinitely sustain that particular assault with one hand tied behind the back. One could not study properly the phenomena and application of uranium fission without having any refined form of uranium whether extracted or derived. So I pushed for making plutonium. People would ask me whether I envisaged it for civilian or military uses. I said that if there is little of it (In fact, I published this once; in 1952 the article appeared -- in “La Technique Moderne,” 1952 -- a leading technical periodical), it would be silly to spend it all in one or two mushroom clouds. There would be a better use for it. And if there is a lot of it, then why not make an explosion or two? One has to learn about these things, even if only defensively. But I considered this issue very minor. What was really at stake was that in this attempt to take over the Commissariat for these two kinds of reasons, which I’ve already explained, the attackers had to proclaim that the people who then were in the Commissariat in high-level jobs were sort of traitors because they refused to make military plutonium.
Therefore, one had to bring in the pressure of people who wanted military plutonium. That was, above all, the military and some rightist circle. So the issue became very quickly identified as a struggle between those who refused to make plutonium and those who did want to make it. Now, everything was under secrecy, and besides at first (1951) I couldn’t publish any technically documented speeches in favor of making plutonium. I believed that I had to be specifically authorized for that. Nobody did, and so it was very easy to spread in all self-respecting “silent majority” circles the idea that all the scientists who remained there from Joliot’s times, with Kowarski still at their head -- they are sabotaging the plutonium program. The fact that at the same time I was actually drawing up the plutonium program remained under wraps, inside the Commissariat and so did not have to be considered. If there had been a real struggle, and somebody ready to defend me, there probably would be arrangements for suitable leakages; but nobody was defending me. Perrin for a while did try to by-pass the issue of making plutonium, because he was declaredly on the left, an anti-militarist; and if he suddenly came out for plutonium, he would quarrel with all his lifelong friends. A very complicated plot was then arranged: Francis Perrin should be put in a position where he would be compelled to make a public declaration of refusing to make plutonium.
This would put him in a perspective rather similar to that in which Joliot found himself a year and a half before. All the details of Francis’s ouster were carefully prepared. His successor was waiting behind the stage, and it was agreed (again I learned it by grapevine) that the successor’s first action would be to dismiss me. Incidentally, when the successor, who was quite happy to know that was about to disappear into America, learned that I was prevented from going there, I was told that he attacked Lescop with considerable rage: “What have you done? We had got rid of this guy and here he is as large as life.” And Lescop sort of said: “Oh, you don’t understand. We rendered him completely harmless.” The successor replied: “With this man you never know.” He was right, because the fact that I was drawing the plutonium plans with Goldschmidt, and that we were trying to persuade Francis Perrin not to oppose them, did become known in some government circles. De Rose intervened. He was a genuine friend of both of us. It did foil the whole plot. That was in October 1951. There was also a plot to fill the place left vacant by Dautry’s death by a suitable politician. This also was foiled, and the place went to a rather forceful French technocrat called Guillaumat. Dautry died in August of ‘51, Guillaumat came in I think early November ‘51, and I was told by Biquard that on the night before he came to take office, the whole night was spent in burning some suitably selected papers. I would like to tell this to Lawrence Scheinman when I see him. The poor man never suspected anything like that.
Weiner:Scheinman constructed his story on the basis of what was left, you mean.
Kowarski:Yes. I kept a paper or two. (I suppose by the standards valid at that time, strictly illegally). I would be glad to show some of them when you are in Europe. I have a little collection of papers from that time which I Xeroxed, and the collection of Xeroxes is in an envelope in a safe place marked that it should go to Mrs. Gowing in case anything happens.
Weiner:Your final bequest.
Kowarski:The position in which I was at that time, half of the day drawing up plans for making plutonium and for the rest of the day struggling with the consequences of my officially-proclaimed refusal to make plutonium was a bit eerie, a bit science-fiction, but one gets used to this sort of thing.
Weiner:By then you should have gotten used to such contradictions, since the preceding five or six years had been the kind of a life where you were doing something, but you were at the same time thinking about not doing it anymore.
Kowarski:So I was in late ‘51 making plutonium plans, fighting off plots, more and more involved in the preliminary discussions of CERN and all this time, it must not be forgotten, the second reactor was going up -- and the reactor was not free from difficulties either. I think these years of ‘52 and ‘53 were probably the most difficult years of my life when my health began to be very seriously undermined. I had still to go through a second period of that sort, probably slightly less dramatic, 10 years later. Possibly someday we’ll return to that. As I say, it was probably less dramatic, but by that time I was 10 years older, and also my health was already impaired as a result of the first period. So the consequences for my health were rather more serious ten years later.
Weiner:How did it affect you?
Kowarski:If I could tell you that, I probably would be a great specialist in blood pressure questions. I suspect that what happens in these situations is that one continuously pours into one’s bloodstream all sorts of substances which function like adrenalin, and these chemicals upset the chemical regulation of the blood pressure, and that begins to affect seriously the kidney function.
Weiner:It had difficulties to start with.
Kowarski:I think I mentioned somewhere that I was born with only one kidney.
Weiner:That’s what I mean.
Kowarski:Other people have strokes. In my case it was the kidney function. The kidney, when its function is originally impaired, responds by raising the blood pressure. A vicious circle is then established, which, when it is well underway, is diagnosed as “malignant hypertension.” I certainly came very close to it. By 1958 there were already some doubts whether a vicious spiral had not set in. In ‘53, at the height of my two difficult years, I spent practically all my weekends in bed. I had terrific bouts of nose bleeding and headaches and so on. Well, I don’t know whether my organism was particularly weak or whether I imposed particularly high stresses on it. Obviously this was a kind of situation which doesn’t occur very often, and whenever it does, cannot last, one way or the other. Now, what next?
Weiner:Well, dependent on whether you want to take a break, the thing I would get on with…
Kowarski:We could just as well go on with it. We have about 25 minutes.
Weiner:Fine. It seems to me that the logical thing is to see how you extricated yourself from that situation.
Weiner:This career crisis of ‘53.
Well, it could have only two issues. Either I would be involved in some resounding fiasco and completely dismissed, probably put on a relatively small salary on some sinecure for the rest of my days, so that one could say: “Oh, Kowarski has an honorable place. He’s free to do his researches” and so on and so forth, and left completely and rigidly outside of all superior councils, either of an atomic kind or of a CERN kind. But for that there had to be a fiasco. Now, I will not go into all the details of politics in the Commissariat in those days. There were certainly quite a few people who would obviously gain from such a fiasco. I could be gradually stripped of all my responsibilities, and there was really no need for treating me very harshly. But a straight demotion would be simpler. People have a certain amount of joy in seeing the mighty fallen, you know. It would be nicer for some people if there could be a sort of a resounding crash. The convenient pretext was the second reactor. And if that reactor could in some way fail, that would be a very nice way of ending the Kowarski question. On the other hand, Guillaumat was in his own way a genuinely patriotic man; and Guillaumat realized that the failure of the second reactor would also be the failure of the Commissariat, of which he had taken charge at that time as the very forceful Delegue du Gouvernement.
So Guillaumat preferred dealing with me in a way which would not endanger the second reactor, and that deprived the fiasco-watchers of the fiasco. I received just enough support to make the second reactor a reasonable success. A reasonable measure of success, is, shall we say, definitely not a complete failure. At the time of its start-up, it did fall short of the expectations, but only in some ways which were still reparable. It was duly seen that the repairs should be done by people of another persuasion, so that it could be easily said later on that the reactor didn’t succeed under the old pro-Communist leaders, whereas now that they have been replaced by truly reliable people, it works all right. Still some people would say: “Well, after all, Kowarski built it, so we owe at least that to him.” On the whole, the fact that the reactor was not a fiasco did slightly blunt the weapons of the attackers. Later on, I was assured by many people that Guillaumat had a peculiar sympathy for my kind of character. One of the somewhat loose- tongued people who knew me at the Commissariat said: “You know, Guillaumat liked you, and he was ashamed of it. It was as if he was sleeping with a Negress.” Guillaumat is still alive, but no longer in atomic energy. He was the son of a famous colonial general who was some sort of a resident in Morocco. He was very much a member of the “military-industrial complex,” if only by his family background, and to crown this, he was of course a Polytechnicien. That was unavoidable in those days.
Nobody from that kind of family could get a suitably high position without being a Polytechnicien and with9ut having achieved a high rank in the competitive examinations of the Ecole Polytechnique. There he was, all armed with an exceptionally high rank, very genuinely patriotic, very rough, inclined to see me as “a force of nature.” One could feel in his relations with me: “Oh, what a pity. If only…” Even that mixed feeling helped -- in a limited way, yet unmistakably. All through the year ‘52 -- the second reactor reached criticality in late October ‘52 -- I was gradually removed, bit by bit, from my various functions. When the reactor started working, I became completely expendable. In the months after that I was stripped of my last attributes other than running that particular reactor (not even ZOE) but running it under the very close supervision of Francis Perrin and whatever characters got into the position of being officially able to speak in his name. In November ‘52 a high-level committee was formed between the industrialists and the French government about the development of power reactors, to deal with questions which I had discussed previously in detail with Guillaumat. I learned about the formation of this committee from the newspapers. At that time I was already officially a part-time member at the Commissariat’s staff. Something like 35 or 4O2 of my time was officially in the pay of CERN. The provisional CERN was by that time already working. Well, that I think is enough to define the atmosphere in which I was in the beginning of the year ‘53. That year, in my life, was to be dominated by the creation of CERN. So perhaps, the atomic strand may for a while be considered as finished. [pause in recording]
Weiner:We are resuming now after a break of several hours, and when we left off here’s what we had been talking about. We decided that it would be good to talk about the last of the atomic energy work and how that came to an end and then pick up the thread of the beginning of CERN and try to at least talk about your getting to Geneva.
I think I went as far as mentioning the events of late ‘51, where I found myself drawing plans for the French plutonium production, and at the same time attacked for sabotaging that production. What later on became the first French program for plutonium-making came out of a table which I drew on one small sheet of paper in less than half an hour. This first sketch was modified later on in some respects, but the general idea of this table and most of the items in it eventually became a subject of hot debates in the French Parliament and in ministerial councils. Soon the government decision would have to be made: “What will the government do now that atomic energy is in good hands?” When the decision came near, I was, of course, no longer mentioned as having anything to do with it. In ‘52 there was an interesting period in which I was also attacked by the Communist press for having betrayed Joliot’s teachings and having lent myself to the militaristic turn in the Commissariat affairs. There was a delightful cutting from a French fellow-traveling paper, Libration -- I suspect I know who the writer was -- explaining that “European” scientists are assembled to discuss nebulous plans of a European nuclear community, obviously inspired by American imperialism.
The notorious Kowarski is there, and he is the man who tried to put France on the way of making plutonium, but one can safely predict that the plans for this European institute will suffer about the same fate as the plans for making plutonium in France. Which parallel was rather perceptive. I still have that cutting. At the end of November ‘51, after I already had heard several playful allusions –- “Well, why don’t you go to Russia now that obviously your boats are burned in the West?” -- I would usually playfully reply: “Why should I go to Russia? I come from there.” I received one Sunday a phone call from abroad in which a former friendly colleague of mine, whom I knew all the time as being a very devoted Communist, began briskly to outline the plans of how I should meet on a certain date in a certain place not in France a man who would recognize me by this and that and I would recognize him by this and that. At one moment I hung up. The telephone rang again, and the man affably said: “I think our communication has been cut; you know, this international telephone doesn’t work very well.” So I heard about it, and I said: “Well, what about it?” I said, “Thank you,” and this time I hung up for good. Well, what was I to do with this? It so happened that on the same day or next day I was to go to Norway for the inauguration of the first Norwegian reactor. Should I warn anybody about this call? I could immediately visualize that as a result of my warning there would be a piece in my file in the French police: “Kowarski by his own admission has today been in telephonic communication with an agent from abroad, and details about the intention of defecting to Russia were discussed in that conversation.” That would be that. Instead of which I kept mum for a few days, and then I told Hafstad.
Weiner:How did he figure in this?
Kowarski:Hafstad, as you probably realize, is of Norwegian origin, and therefore he had to be at that meeting.
Weiner:Oh, you spoke to him in Norway. This was after all your arrangements were completely through with him. So this is a year or two later.
Kowarski:No, not a year or two. It was still the year ‘51. My visa was refused only about three and a half or four months before, so it was still a fresh affair. He thanked me. He took the details. I don’t know what he did with them. I never asked anybody about it. Then I came back to France, and this time I talked to Francois de Rose. I told him that I already had told it to an American. Francois de Rose chided me very severely for having told it to a foreigner before telling it to the French authorities. I excused myself on the grounds that the call came on a Sunday and I left Paris almost immediately; I hadn’t seen anyone in France, and here was Hafstad who was so deeply involved in my affairs a few months before. So de Rose probably thought this was another proof of the lack of my attachment to France. After that I went to talk to Guillaumat. Guillaumat chided me even more. I don’t quite remember whether I did tell Guillaumat that I already had talked with Hafstad. I think I mentioned Hafstad only to de Rose. Guillaumat chided me even more severely for having talked to a man from another ministry. De Rose was connected officially with atomic energy, but only sidewise; yet I consulted him first instead of going to Guillaumat, my direct boss, I pleaded naivete -- de Rose, my old friend; this was an international matter; I judged that being an international matter, a man from Foreign Service was entitled. Guillaumat thought that this was an incredible misunderstanding of my duty as a state servant, and that was that. Later on I met this friend of mine once or twice at international meetings, and we never alluded to the incident. I also knew that he once or twice asked for a visa to France to attend conferences and was invariably refused. I thought that perhaps this episode had something to do with it, because I did give his name to de Rose and Guillaumat.
Weiner:Was he a Russian?
He’s not a Russian, and I prefer not to discuss his nationality. I might also say that he was one of the lecturers at the Madame Curie celebrations in 1967 and gave an extraordinarily good lecture, and very warmly congratulated him on that and quite sincerely. Well, that was perhaps the last remarkable episode in ‘51. Fifty-two passed in making the Saclay reactor, the EL-2, and succeeding in the teeth of growing difficulties. Gueron by that time was appointed Director of Saclay, which was a purely temporary, stop-gap appointment, because it was thought that Saclay must have a scientific director. And the policy of -- I almost said Vietnamization of the Commissariat -- had not yet given its fruits, so it had to be someone with some kind of prestige value of having been in atomic projects since the wartime. Since my opinion of Gueron was never very high and I never concealed it, this didn’t make matters easier. In the spring of ‘52 there was an episode in which some kind of unusual and unexpected corrosion occurred in metallic uranium prepared for the reactor. This was pounced upon as evidence of my incapacity.
Then Stohr devised how to deal with it, very successfully. At that time I requested another three tons of uranium, prepared according to Stohr’s indication, to replace this one which was corroded. I was rudely told that they were not going to throw good uranium after the bad, so to speak, so instead of having a new batch, Stohr and I rather painfully had to stick to the old one. Stohr managed to cure it. The first account in the press of this incident appeared in some kind of a popular Sunday supplement, as a sort of scandal news from Saclay. Exactly the same corrosion episode occurred for the same reasons in Norway, and its account was published soon afterwards, with color photographs on the cover of Nucleonics in America -- because in Norway it quite reasonably was considered as the discovery of a new form of corrosion of uranium and an indication of how to deal with it. It was a nice bit of technical advance. In France the same thing was publicized as a scandal at Saclay.
That shows the atmosphere in which I had to work in this last year. in July ‘52 I was approached by a young, talented Polytechnicien called Robert who told me he wants to learn from me what I know about reactors. He considers that I am a very venerable master, and he wants to be my pupil. I knew perfectly well, of course, that as soon as he had learned, he would be urged to take my place at this reactor. By that time I was already involved in CERN rather deeply. It was a form of a adiabatic transition from Paris to Geneva, and I had no objection to its taking the form of coaching this young man, whom I considered to be an honest man, well intentioned; and as long as the situation was perfectly understood on both sides, we could do a good job together. We did. I still consider him a rather extraordinary combination of three factors -- intelligence, diploma from the Ecole Polytechnique, and moral honesty. I think, in some way, it can be said that he saved me. Because once the future of this reactor was vested in him, suddenly there was no interest for anybody to destroy it anymore. He perfectly well realized the situation, and prepared this adiabatic transition with complete candor and effectiveness. In October ‘52 the second French reactor became critical. The ceremony was very reminiscent of that nearly four years before. This time it was a reactor which was supposed to reach somewhere between a thousand and 1500 kilowatts. It was, by the way, cooled by compressed gas and turned out to be the first reactor of this kind in the world.
Weiner:Were you aware of that?
Kowarski:No. I wasn’t aware of the fact that it was the first of its kind in the world. I knew that the British were working in a similar direction, but at that time it turned out that they had none working yet. I will pass through all sorts of technical details, which showed that there were problems to be solved before the reactor could reach full power. This is perfectly normal for any first of its kind; and, in fact, this is the reason why such experimental reactors are worth building. Each first of its kind is built to demonstrate a new principle and see the snags which inevitably occur and then cure them, if possible. Snags did occur, and each of them was greeted by the Commissariat, the press and so on as another demonstration that the reactor was badly conceived. This was not pure malice; people quite genuinely don’t understand the difference between building something proven and building the first of its kind in the world. The successive, rather dramatic discoveries of various imperfections and finding the ways of curing them were treated by the press and by the people around me as if it was a defect in a bridge constructed along principles well proved since the 19th century.
Weiner:This was probably true in cyclotron building, too. There’s the same idea that each snag in it was a way of learning to improve it. But other physicists complained very often that during this initial period when the thing could not have been steadily used for producing experimental results. But the thing itself was an experiment.
Exactly. Nobody understood what it meant. Most people have no idea of what a scientific experiment is, what exploration into the unknown is. After all, the need to venture into the unknown, deliberately and systematically, occurs in practically no other walk of life. Much later on, some of the Polytechniciens appointed to head the program (which was developing very smoothly in France, at a time when there was no reason anymore for displaying hostility to particular projects) would say that virtually every subsequent development came out of the Saclay reactor of mine. And that, I suppose, was true. That’s what it was built for. A few days before the reactor reached criticality I received an invitation to the Elysee Palace for a private lunch with Vincent Auriol, the French president who was still there nearly four years after I had shown him ZOE. It was a highly enjoyable luncheon with various domestic episodes created by my somewhat unexpected appetite, with which Mrs. Auriol, being a woman of great tact, dealt very charmingly.
At that time I ate considerably more than I do today. We discussed a few things; I told him that there was a certain lack of coordination between this and that which could be improved, certain ways of reaching the public opinion which could be usefully tried and so on -- a sort of a lightly serious conversation. A few days later a terrific storm broke over my head. That was approximately simultaneous with the launching of the second reactor. I never could quite understand what happened, because if I asked people what exactly I was accused of, they would pierce me with an indignant glance and say: “You know very well what I mean.” Well, I didn’t. I don’t know to this day. As I see it, there was a general fury over the fact that I, being a nobody from nowhere, received an invitation from the President of the French Republic to have a private lunch at his home, which happened to be the Elyse Palace. This was an honor many people would give several years of their life for -- and why me? That was one element. The other element was that it was automatically assumed that I would use this occasion to pour venom on this and that in the Commissariat. I did indulge in a few mild criticisms, but they were more in way of: “Well, you know, nothing is perfect in human affairs.
It could be improved in such and such direction, if attention is paid to this and that.” And I mentioned no names. Thirdly, it was conjectured by some that another French scientist, who had some personal relations with the President because they came from the same small city, was invited to the same kind of luncheon a few days after. Some of the things he said to the President might have been of a less innocuous kind -- and there arose a natural confusion. There was an initial period during which the physicists took over and the new reactor worked at small power, so we had no occasion to test its cooling system. Then a long series of essays started, going gradually up in power. And in the spring of ‘53 a rather serious leakage developed in the gas ducts, which was due to an unexpected kind of vibrations. The gas followed a rather unusually shaped path, and on this path it created certain vibrations which weakened some of the essential joints. A feud developed between the chief engineer, who didn’t want to change these joints, and Stohr, who suggested ways of changing them. I took Stohr’s side. I was more or less ready to fire my chief engineer, who turned out to be completely stubborn. He did a very fine job, but it was like designing an automobile which crucially depends on a hundred details in order to work at all. Ninety-nine of them work -- the hundredth doesn’t -- and so the whole thing is of no use.
He remained stubborn about that hundredth detail. By that time I had already no power whatsoever to fire or promote people. Robert took over and removed the chief engineer, agreed with Stohr completely, conducted brilliantly the operation of replacing the shaken joints, which was not a very easy affair, because in some places they had already become slightly radioactive. The reactor reached more or less its intended power about a year after it was started, and eight or nine months later, in mid-‘54, it reached something like 30% over its peak design power. So the reactor turned out to be a complete success, and there was no longer any fiasco in sight. The operation and successive discovery of various weaknesses and their repair proceeded smoothly because of Robert, whereby his career was very effectively promoted. Several years later he was appointed director of research for all military applications of atomic energy, a position which he still occupies, I think, with distinction.
Weiner:His background was in science?
A Polytechnicien, again. Being one involves, of course, considerable training in basic science. But his inclination was always towards the applications. He was a Navy man. In October ‘53 there was a crucial moment -- whether the reactor, repaired by Robert, would stand the test of working uninterruptedly one week at nearly design power. At approximately the same time the first positions in the permanent CERN were being filled. I was already one of the members of the top level of the provisional CERN. The question would be whether I would be appointed to the permanent CERN, with one of the similar top positions, or not. Francis Perrin was very evasive about that. I realized then all this sheer hypothesis on my part, that if the reactor were able to stand the test, then I would be allowed to depart in honor and in fact it would be awkward simply to axe me; whereas if the reactor could not stand its week-long test, it would be proclaimed a failure, in which case not only it would not be possible to appoint me to a post in CERN, but it also would be totally unnecessary: my simple dismissal would follow as a matter of course. In fact, as I read the situation, everything was staked on that test.
The reactor did stand it, and within some 24 or 48 hours I received the news that nomination committee, then meeting in Rome, recommended my being appointed. That was in early October ‘53. Everyone from then on knew that I would very soon leave Paris and go to CERN. And everybody in the know knew that it was chiefly because the French found this handy way of solving the Kowarski problem -- with my cooperation. It could always be explained that this man is eager to work at Geneva, in a purely scientific establishment. And that’s how you find it, for instance, in Bertrand Goldschmidt’s second book, Atomic Rivalries. The nice sentence read$: “From ‘52 on, increasingly, Kowarski started working for CERN, and by the end of ‘53 he left Paris completely” or something like that. It was all very cozy. If one cooperates with this sort of thing, one can preserve…Otherwise the people in power regretfully begin to break you. The case was not unlike that of Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer was also offered the possibility of a quiet departure from high government councils on atomic weapons and atomic energy because he ostensibly preferred to devote all his time to the direction of the Institute of Advanced Studies. That would make everybody happy.
Oppenheimer refused, because he wanted a resounding scandal, as a means of alerting public opinion. I accepted the opposite course of action simply because I considered that there was no such thing as a public opinion in France on these matters. French public couldn’t care less for this sort of thing. So that’s how it happened, and by December ‘53 I was already renting temporary quarters in Geneva and signing a lease for a permanent abode. Kate was still working, as a medical secretary, in her American hospital, and she gave up this job in March ‘54. On the 4th of April we came to Geneva. For a while, a few months, I was still half-time at CERN and half-time Commissariat and I did spend nearly two weeks per month in Paris. It was obvious that there was nothing there for me to do anymore, and this arrangement was changed in October ‘54: at that time CERN became a permanent institution, and my nomination took full effect. It was then arranged that I would be paid by CERN for 8o of my time, leaving to the Commissariat 20% plus some extra time for travel and so on. C.E.A. thus went on paying me a quarter of my former salary there. This arrangement, with some variations, went on for the next six and a half years. It was a fiction that I was still used by the High Commissioner for consultations, advice and so on; in fact this activity very quickly dwindled. The new factor, my work for OEEC came in ‘56. For about two years, from October ‘54 until, say, September ‘56, the link with Paris was quickly decreasing to nothing and at the same time, my dubiously sustained situation in CERN was also going down. But perhaps we will talk about it in connection with CERN. At this moment, the story is about my gradual elimination from France. As I have said, my residence was taken in Geneva officially, as my permanent domicile, as from the 4th of April ‘54.
Weiner:Let me ask about the changes that you perceived in the French scientific scene in general beyond your own involvements. If I were to ask you to say what happened from the war and the post-war period, the immediate period, to the time you essentially moved to Geneva…
Kowarski:Do you mean from shall we say, early ‘46 to the spring of ‘54?
Kowarski:And do you mean nuclear science or science in general?
Weiner:Nuclear science and science in general. We talked a little bit about how these things stood in the ‘30’s, the general background of it. What kind of a scientific community were you leaving? What had happened to change it during the course of those years?
Kowarski:I lived less and less in the scientific community, because I was more and more involved in purely managerial tasks, also very much in the task of saving my skin and, towards the end, in the task of launching CERN. All this amounted to a full-time occupation. I had very little contact with the French scientific community. My impression from those days is that France was in this respect not very different from the rest of continental Europe, and definitely different from Britain. It was -- and in my opinion still is -- a singularly uninspired time for science. Since the war there has been only one genuine Nobel Prize in current physics in Europe, and that was Mossbauer -- only one. Kastler’s Nobel Prize: well, Kastler is a respected and a loveable person; and the work he did was valuable -- and perhaps it was not a bad idea to give the prize to a respected, productive figure. By the time he got the Nobel Prize he was, I think, 64; and it was done for a piece of work which turned out to be one of the stages in the build-up which ultimately led to the discovery of lasers. It was an essential stage; still it’s a matter of appreciation, and I believe that Kastler would quite possibly not have gotten the Nobel Prize if he had been an American or an Englishman. There were more obvious, more glamorous candidates in these countries.
Weiner:That’s not the only measure of scientific health.
Kowarski:No, and yet it is a measurement. It’s one of the straws in the wind. If one country has, shall we say, seven Nobel Prizes in the time another has 11, this is not much of a measure. But if one country has 20 of them and the other country has two, that does indicate something. And in this respect the position between America plus Britain on the one hand and the Western European continent on the other is quite striking. I do not think Europe has shown itself very well in the development of basic science. Again, the Nobel Prize in biology -- I’m not able to judge this. Jacob-Monod-Lwoff. They certainly were extremely respected people before they got the prize. Let’s assume, because I cannot judge at all that they are about equal to such people as, shall we say, Kendrew, Watson or Crick. Still it was only one prize during this whole time. That again is an indication of something.
Weiner:Did you attend any meetings of the physics societies in France during this ten-year period or eight-year period?
Kowarski:Yes, a few, not many. And as time went on, I had less and less time for that. I felt a little cut off not only from the human scientific community in France, but also from their subjects of preoccupation. I went more and more into a kind of engineering management or administrative and political management.
Weiner:What about the large-scale development of the community, not talking about the top who may qualify for a prize or not, but the question of numbers of people coming and the kinds of questions they were working on?
Kowarski:On lower levels there was no lack, as usual, of very talented, very good people. They lacked leaders. They lacked interesting problems. They were very seriously minded. They lacked this gleam of crazy adventure which enters, for instance, so much into the image of Feynman. And that not only goes for France. It goes for the whole European continent. There were various differences. For instance, Italy was always rather good in high-energy physics -- relatively good, compared to other countries. In fact, I remember that with some astonishment at one CERN meeting (I think in ‘58), it was quite obvious that the first place in Europe was held not by Britain but by Italy. And that, in my opinion, was due to the efforts of Fermi, who went several times to Italy in the years between the end of the war and his death. I saw him in Italy a few weeks before he died. There was also a rather moving episode… The last time I saw him was at Saclay, on his way from Italy to America, and here I cannot help (Weisskopf probably wouldn’t like it)…somebody asked me to make a welcoming speech for Fermi, so I spoke. I tried to be warmly funny, and Fermi graciously replied -- and then a young Frenchman came and with considerable emotion (this was in ‘54 when I was already living in Geneva, and only seldom coming to Saclay) said to me: “Thank God you were here,” implying “how would we feel if the only people to greet Fermi would be on the level of our dignitaries here.
Weiner:What about these questions of particle physics? It seems to me that Saclay by that time is getting geared up with machines that eventually go into particle
Kowarski:Saclay had no machine at that time which would be able to create, shall we say, several hundred MeV. So high-energy physics was totally closed. Saclay built later on a machine, in my opinion not a very successful one, which started working in ‘58 only.
Weiner:That’s right. But was there any concern…? Without a machine was there any concern in France with particle physics and with that field?
Kowarski:Well, cosmic ray physics, of course. Leprince-Ringuet was the leader of this school. Being a Catholic, he was eligible to, and gradually moved into, the position of the official French scientist number one. By that time the specification of top dogs and underdogs were completely reversed. The white France, traditional France, the France of the 16th arrondisement in Paris, the Ecole Polytechnique and sons of well-to-do families and so on, and ostensible Catholics, were more and more coming to the fore in the scientific world.
Weiner:And Joliot by this time was completely out of the scientific scene?
Kowarski:Joliot was a national glory. In 1955 there was some celebration, which I remember only dimly -- some commemoration of the discovery of artificial radioactivity. I explained all around that it was just exactly 21 1/2 years since the artificial radioactivity was discovered, a nice round figure handy for a ceremony. There were solemnities in the Sorbonne; there were speeches; and Joliot was hailed as the great discoverer of this and that -- and not a word was ever said about his role in uranium fission or chain reaction or atomic energy. That was a dangerous subject. In ‘55, at the first atoms for peace conference in Geneva, the French had a big splash. They had two exhibitions -- one official and one commercial. There were all sorts of historical panels showing the lines of development. Joliot’s name was never mentioned. And finally Joliot, who visited Geneva, found his name mentioned in the British exhibit. They gave a little panel of history with fundamental discoveries of nuclear physics.
Weiner:He was excluded from the official delegation, too, wasn’t he?
Kowarski:That was not only Joliot. That was a phenomenon, which I think for the first time drew my attention to Robert Jungk. Robert Jungk made an article in what might be called a western anti-communist intellectuals’ magazine, Preuves (Proofs), in which he described the atmosphere of the Geneva conference and said: “The French delegation doesn’t contain Joliot. The British delegation doesn’t contain Blackett. The American delegation doesn’t contain Oppenheimer. The German delegation doesn’t contain Heisenberg.” He quoted a couple of other examples, and concludes: “it’s obviously a completely general pattern in this situation.” I myself managed to attend this conference, having been hired by Auger to be on the UNESCO delegation.
Weiner:But not the French delegation.
Kowarski:Not the French delegation.
Weiner:I just wanted to fill in a little bit on this.
Kowarski:In the next two conferences -- 1958 and ‘64 -- I was on the French delegation, one among many experts listed officially.
Weiner:But this change of leadership -- was it accompanied by any change in the scientific training system or in the role of the various institutions in the hierarchy?
Kowarski:In atomic energy?
Weiner:No, in physics in general.
Kowarski:I don’t know to what change you…
Weiner:Well, changes in the mobility in the system, the fact that certain schools, let’s say, determine what kinds of jobs you get -- the kinds of traditions that you’ve been alluding to all along. Apparently there was no change in this.
Kowarski:No, there was no change in it. It’s still valid.
Weiner:Was it just a question someone just a little bit reversing the role?
Kowarski:There were a few quite welcome bright phenomena in this dark spot. For example, Louis de Broglie, being a Vatican prince and a Nobel Prize winner, was the darling of the French government and of official French science. Being a somewhat independent character and a little bit like Dirac, I would say, he was not very good at carrying the effective number one role. This role finally was taken by Leprince-Ringuet. But Louis de Broglie among his students had some of all persuasions, leftists and rightists, and never made any distinction. That’s what I consider a bright phenomenon. Leprince-Ringuet on the other hand had his headquarters in L’Ecole Polytechnique and was surrounded always by Polytechniciens, which gave a certain style to his school of research. CERN was founded by adventurers, dissidents, people like Dahl, and at first was greeted by practically every European country, not excluding Britain, with considerable opposition from the established academic community. There were variations. In England there were many more highly-situated supporters than elsewhere. For instance, both Cockcroft and Blackett were very ardent supporters of CERN. In France, CERN was promoted chiefly by Francis Perrin and myself. It was opposed from the right because it was not national and from the left because, as I already said, it was hailed as a tool of American imperialism.
Weiner:Joliot’s position was that?
Kowarski:Joliot’s official position was that. I must say Joliot changed completely his position in early ‘54 and became from then on an ardent supporter of CERN. The Soviet position officially was changed in ‘55. That is told in Jungk’s book.
Weiner:Now you’re in Geneva. What do you want to do?
Kowarski:I don’t think I could go now to the history of CERN. I’m a bit tired and this will be a huge chunk. I think what I should do now is make a kind of prospect for the forthcoming part.
Weiner:An outline you mean.
Kowarski:For the future installment.
Weiner:And that helps me prepare a little bit.
Kowarski:Here are the topics: CERN from its early beginnings to the moment when I came to Geneva. Then various subsequent chapters -- my going down in CERN between ‘54 and ‘56, my getting interested in the OECD and becoming a little bit indifferent to CERN for a while, my resumption of interest in CERN from about ‘58-‘59; the growing up of the computer side of activity in CERN; and my gradual switching from being a specialist in reactors to a specialist in computers -- which to this time surprises me, because I never approached really, at close quarters, a computer in my life; I never wrote a program, although I know something about programming, but not in any practical way. To continue: the way in which I was able to play a rather influential role in the early stages of the introduction of computers into particle physics in Europe; then the way in which my relations with OECD developed; the elimination procedure, started in 1962, from CERN; the collapse of my health. And then from August ‘63 the start of my academic career in America. Then the last period of my career, which I consider as beginning in the summer of ‘65, which might be described as a kind of almost-retirement with occasional bits of work for CERN: occasional appearances on the academic scene in America, occasional involvements with this and that. That makes quite a lot of occasional involvements. Also, an important part of my time was taken by what one of my secretaries, once described as the “Kowarski glory,” that is, the questions connected with publication of papers, with giving historical or surveying lectures, with being invited to represent this and that -- all this for the sake of my past glories, including this present interview.
How do you like that? I won’t let you end like that. I’ll have the last word, which is: let’s quit.