Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lew Kowarski
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Lew Kowarski; May 15, 1971
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:Today is the 15th of May and we’re resuming; this time we’re in Dr. Kowarski’s 8th floor apartment overlooking some flowering trees. When we left off we were talking about CERN. I had asked a question about the relationships with people there, and your answer was that there was tension already developing at that early date, and I would like you to expand on that, and from there on we’re going to talk about your specific role in a biographical sense.
Kowarski:Well, from the moment CERN became a permanent organization, that is October Adams was officially in charge of the big machine project. And he built this machine with remarkable proficiency, showing very great qualities of leadership, and promoting a very active spirit in his troops, and imbuing it with a considerable esprit de corps. A general remark which I published in one of my papers was to the effect that whenever a sharply defined group develops an esprit de corps, one inevitable ingredient is to consider that in some way they are set apart from whatever community they’re swimming in. And a leader who wants to develop esprit de corps has nothing against this particular development. This did take place, and before long, in fact almost immediately, there was a distinction between the Adams team and the rest of the organization assembled in Geneva. It is quite possible that this was one of the prices one had to pay for the very efficient way in which the machine finally came to be built, and therefore I would not make any disparaging remarks about it. Every fact of life has its positive side and its negative side, especially for those who happen to be on the receiving end. But that was that, and the existence of that fundamental opposition between the proton synchrotron group and the remainder of CERN probably started at once. Other tensions were added later on.
Weiner:You say the proton synchrotron group. These are people with primarily what kinds of backgrounds? On what level were they?
Kowarski:There were all specialties and all levels. There were theoreticians, for example those involved in orbit calculations, there were electronic technicians, there were mechanical engineers and there were workshop mechanics. Geologists for the very important question of geological sitting, as they call it, in the ground, and so on. Sophisticated electronics specialists, high-level specialists from classical physics for currents in big magnets and so on.
Weiner:How many in all?
Kowarski:At the time when CERN became official in October, ‘54, the number of people under Adams (you can find figures in official documents) I would guess was of the order of 60 or something like that, and of course it grew to a few hundreds by the time the machine could be considered as finished -- that is, when it gave the first beam of the design energy or slightly over design energy -- various margins were reserved and carefully used -- the machine took a little over five years to build, which was considerably less than people expected.
Weiner:This closeknit group which had the esprit de corps was the one that really had the deadline, then, more so than other people.
Kowarski:There were other people and other deadlines. There was one, of course on the small machine. There were all sorts of deadlines on the so-called Site and Buildings division, and so on. In fact, the deadline of the small machine was considered far more imperative, because building it was a task far easier to grasp -- the way of carrying it out -- whereas the big machine in those days was still a little nebulous about how it was going to develop.
Weiner:The idea was to get something into operation as fast as possible, and this was expected to get done for the smaller machine.
Kowarski:Yes. If anything, the deadline on the small machine at least at the beginning was most urgent.
Weiner:While this was going on with Adams’s group, with whom did you have the most personal interaction?
Which time moment shall we take now? Perhaps I should go a little back and explain, I don’t remember how much I explained in the previous tape; that I occupied a high position in CERN, in having subordinates to whom I was entitled to issue orders. I had a high position on the salary scale, and all this is part of advantage in life which I often have to somehow explain to myself: why do I have them and not somebody else? And there was no lack of somebody-else kind of people asking the same question. Now, it is not up to me, it is not my job to explain what positive reasons people might have in using my experience or my quality for dealing with people and so on, but there was a very obvious and very strong negative reason, and that was simply that in the course of change of top personnel in the French Atomic Energy Commission, certain decencies often had to be observed, and it would have been far easier to say that Kowarski left an important position in Paris to occupy an important position in Geneva.
If you look at Bertrand Goldschmidt’s book ATOMIC RIVALRIES you will find that this question is dismissed in precisely these kinds of terms. In order for this arrangement to proceed smoothly, there had to be a high position in Geneva, and that was the reason. This is not the best of reasons to keep a man in high position, and I certainly myself was very much aware of that, possibly more aware of it than the other people. And therefore I considered it unstable -- It seemed to me that this particular reason within a relatively short time would evaporate and then there would be no reason at all -- therefore I considered my position as fundamentally unsteady. And that state of my mind probably also didn’t escape the attention of some other people.
For example, my deputy whom I appointed in May, ‘52, Preiswerk, declared to me as early as January, ‘53, very honestly, very friendly, that he would start looking, at the next redistribution, for a role independent from me, and this really happened when there was a redistribution of roles in October, ‘54. This automatically took a certain part of my activity away from me. Then, since I was before that engaged in building up the landscape, some parts of the landscape for example were the fostering of provisional scientific activities which could be carried out without waiting for the machines. It turned out that these scientific activities were considered to be a very glamorous assignment, and as soon as the Director-General was appointed, he immediately decided that it would fall within his realm, and therefore it had to be taken away from mine. The same happened to my conception of public relations, which I considered to be part of the scientific information complex comprising also the library, the publishing, a few other activities. Again it was considered this was a prerogative of the Director-General’s office.
So as soon as I was confirmed in my role of one of the division heads -- we at that time bore the title of director, there were about half a dozen of them -- it was immediately seen that this division was already far smaller than the domain of activities I had taken on when arriving at CERN, that this transition from a greater responsibility to a smaller one had proceeded easily and smoothly. This was not lost on some attentive people who would like to see this process to continue. That’s why, I remember when I arrived where we are sitting here, I asked myself, “OK, now I am in this beautiful city. I am in this very nice apartment. But to do what?” I remember I was using at that time the comparison that I am like a recognized piano player who suddenly has been deprived of access to a piano, and when he says “What am I going to do?” people say, “Oh, I don’t know, you are a musician -- play the violin or the flute.” In ‘54 I was already 47, and at 47 an accomplished pianist doesn’t easily become an accomplished violinist. I had an interesting conversation with Felix Bloch, who was the first Director General of CERN, but everybody knows that Felix Bloch announced his impending resignation almost immediately after his arrival. That’s another story. And Bloch told me quite bluntly that if I wanted to keep any position in CERN I had to become a high energy physicist. I think he was right. But I didn’t quite understand it then. And so I quite deliberately did not become a high energy physicist.
Weiner:Does this mean, to make a scientific contribution, that reactor work, neutron work, everything you had done earlier, none of this would be pursued?
Kowarski:No, not at CERN.
Weiner:That was clear, but it’s not clear to me why this statement was made, because your role was not intended to be the role of a working scientist there, but as organizer, administrator, planner and so forth.
Kowarski:I think Bloch’s ideas, which probably were completely unconscious, I think Bloch was and is a very accomplished theoretical physicist and not a philosopher of science, or especially not a philosopher of science and society. His unconscious idea was that science, scientists, must be engaged in scientific work as he saw the definition, and that anybody else helping science to go along has to be in the position of a second rank citizen. Since he considered that my previous record probably elevated me to the first rank, and that he couldn’t see me very easily accepting an avowed second class status, he deduced, I think quite logically, from these premises that I had to enable myself to be a working physicist of the kind which was considered suitable for CERN.
Weiner:This in a sense fits in with his own perception of his own role, because he was determined that he was going to be a research scientist while he was at CERN, at least this is what he said he wanted to do.
Weiner:It was part of the understanding, that he could do that. Although his own research was not in high energy.
Kowarski:No. But he was in a high administrative position and could force CERN to pay for his assistants and his scientific interest, and I wasn’t. I could perfectly well, if I had the kind of possibilities he had, I could perfectly well start a little group of neutron physics, shall we vague connection with higher-energy phenomena.
Weiner:You say you deliberately didn’t then -- meaning you did what you thought had to be done by you at CERN without paying much attention to that remark.
Weiner:Were there any problems in the reduced activities of your division?
Kowarski:The main problem consisted in the fact that the activities continued to be reduced, even sometimes contrary to the previous decisions. Let’s take one example. In the kind of big science establishment to which I was used, from the work in Canada and in Britain, and then in the shape it was transplanted to the French atomic energy work, there would be in the center a sizeable electronics division, quite apart from those whom we might call physicists, who, in those places, would be carrying out experiments in nuclear physics. Normally, the electronic division provided practically all of their apparatus. This structure appeared quite natural to those who thought in terms of big establishments. But not at all natural to academic people, and since academic people began to play a more and more important role at CERN, there were seeds of a clash in this situation. I remember a conversation with Blackett in 1956 in which Blackett obviously tried to convey to me his impression that I was making a nuisance of myself in some directions. I may be wrong, but that’s the impression I got. He did it with very good tact, and he said: “At the Imperial College there is a chair of nuclear physics and there is a chair of electronics, and I would never go to the electronics people to get electronic apparatus for the nuclear physics people. The nuclear physics department would have its own specialists in electronics people to build its apparatus. He was clear-minded enough and articulate enough to formulate such a doctrine. There were others, not to mention names, who held the same doctrine without realizing it. Here again we have the situation of fish and water. They lived in that particular kind of water all their lives. They knew that when a professor of nuclear physics wanted apparatus, heard his pupil built it. Therefore he couldn’t see at all what this man was doing with an electronic workshop.
Weiner:What was the electronic workshop doing?
Kowarski:That workshop, which was under my supervision at that time, started preparing for the time when the first accelerator would be working. Some knowledgeable people devised regulations, how many pieces of this or that apparatus would be needed for such staff and what kind of unified construction should be adopted for what kind of apparatus performing what kind of work, and that a start should be made to produce, shall we say, a few dozen copies of a component, which is very much like the components in hi-fi, amplifiers, loud speakers and so on, to supply the needs of so many researchers working at the cyclotron. Academic people who were already thinking of the research work at the cyclotron, started hiring physicists for it, and also quite automatically started hiring the electronic technicians. Therefore a definite conflict of these two ways of doing things developed.
Weiner:And it went on simultaneously, or did it come to a head?
Kowarski:I don’t think it came to a head, simply by the fact that those with academic responsibilities simply went ahead with their plans, and sooner or later the question arose, what does this general electronic workshop, of the kind which exists perfectly well at Saclay or someplace, what is it doing here? This was in no way something that one day clearly exploded. It was there. By the summer of ‘55 this sort of crisis became so obvious that, as I remember, the physicist who was in charge at that time of these general electronic preparations -- of course it had to be a physicist, only a physicist would know what kind of apparatus was needed -- told me that he foresaw that very soon it would be decided that his outfit should prepare things only for the big machine, and not for the small machine, which already was going its own way. This was not at all similar to the deliberate fostering of esprit de corps around the small machine. It was due to the fact that people who were preparing the research at the small machine simply were accustomed to a certain way of doing this and had no need of understanding that it could be done another way.
Weiner:It was working their way, I assume. Was it? They were getting results they wanted?
Weiner:There was really no need for them to --
Kowarski:It’s not as simple as that. If you now ask the opinion of various slightly remote observers, they will tell you, with very deep conviction that one of the things which hampered the immediate development of CERN’s research was that nobody had foreseen the need for developing and building auxiliary apparatus before the machine was ready.
Weiner:understand that that would be the case, but they weren’t charged with that kind of overall responsibility for planning, and so they were getting on with their job, and that seemed to be perfectly satisfactory, whereas you were charged with some overall planning and in fact were doing it. But this implies to me that someone has got to be over both of these things, who says, “Well, look, this can’t be.” It wasn’t lack of leadership or a deliberate decision of leadership not to intervene?
Kowarski:This assumes that CERN had a strong central direction, which would be able to clearly discuss these issues with the barons, the heads of divisions, and learn their views. Such a discussion really never took place, first of all because some of the barons never could understand that there was anything to discuss, second, for reasons of the kind of personalities involved, and in fact, by 1956-57, it began to be quite clear that CERN was developing in the way of separate Institutes, which I think is the German way of doing science. If you have two professors of physics in a German university, there is a First Physics Institute and a Second Physics Institute. This did not correspond to the way Harwell or Argonne or Brookhaven were operating it, but most of the people who by that time had had the responsibility of CERN were people who’d had no experience in this kind of work. Their experience was purely academic. Now, there was no obligation for CERN to adopt the Harwell pattern. It could perfectly well adopt the pattern of a central European university. I remember, in those days, there were some papers I wrote in ‘57, which called people’s attention to this question: what the hell, which pattern are we following? But these papers never served any useful purpose, because people who followed a certain pattern just followed it without realizing that there could be an alternative.
Weiner:I guess that was a conscious management decision not to intervene? Run things with a loose hand, let’s put it that way.
Kowarski:Shall we say, a pragmatic management decision not to intervene. I saw these things with considerable clarity, probably at once. I realized by the summer of ‘55 that the prospect of my future at CERN was simply that the original strong negative reason would evaporate, as I already said, and therefore there would remain no reason at all. This created a certain amount of alarm and despondency, and here we come to my biographical problem. In 1955 I approached very closely to what might be termed a nervous breakdown. By that time my blood pressure began to be noticeably high (this happened to many better people in similar positions) and doctors started worrying about it and prescribed for me a certain drug for blood pressure control which, as learned later on, came to be known in medical circles -- perhaps not at that moment but very soon afterwards -- as the “suicide drug.”
Weiner:Why was that?
Weiner:One that is still used?
Probably. When it became known as the suicide drug, which happened very soon after my starting on it, I chanced to see some of the case histories. Later on, there was an article in TIME MAGAZINE which put it quite succinctly: “in numerous cases it led to attempts at suicide, many of them successful.” It is one of my more fortunate characteristics that when I see something in myself which can be credibly explained by external factors, I accept that explanation. I remember that I used to wake up in the night, that would happen quite often in previous periods of my life, wake up in the night and have all sorts of depressing ideas. Then I read somewhere that usually this depressing sleeplessness is strongest at about 5 a.m. Once on such an occasion I told myself -- I had a particularly black moment in my thinking –- “It must be about 5 a.m.” I looked at my watch, and it was 5 a.m. I laughed, and from then on I was quite ready to take this black mood in my stride. In exactly the same way, as soon as I learned that reserpine in a wide category of patients, not all of them of course, created suicidal tendencies, I began to some extent to laugh at my depression. It was, by the way, an extremely lucky circumstance that I got hold of a very serious medical article completely by accident, practically at the depth of my depression. It helped me no end. I offer to psychiatrists this procedure, this kind of treatment.
So in ‘55, after our trip to Canada, the Commissariat mercifully sent me to attend an American Physical Society meeting which was held in Toronto. Because there I could go, whereas I couldn’t go to another American Physical Society meeting. The visa ban was still there. I came back from this Toronto meeting with the firm idea of taking it easy -- a nice doctor gave me a medical certificate that for a while I had to work part time -- and during this part time, I began to take it easy and look at what specified task 1 could occupy my troops with, those of the troops that were not automatically taken away to other tasks. It must be realized of course that people were perfectly aware of my decreasing situation and were quite anxious to find something that’d satisfy everybody, and therefore were quite anxious to help me if I could find something which could keep me occupied and not be anybody’s great subject of envy. Two of them were found immediately. One was developing the production of liquid hydrogen on the site. I took it because I noticed that nobody seemed to realize that liquid hydrogen would have an enormous future with bubble chambers, and people were still thinking in terms of hydrogen-containing targets for accelerators and so on. And their thinking was one or two factors of ten below what I already had in my head. The other was the terribly newfangled subject of electronic computing machines, later on to be known by the shorter name of computers.
Weiner:At this time, nothing was operating at CERN, it’s before any machine was in operation?
Kowarski:For many reasons I was already interested in computers, as shall we say a great factor in industrial civilization, and in fact I started getting my first information on the subject already early in ‘55. By summer ‘55, at some meeting when I said something, “Well, CERN probably should have a computer, let me look into it,” everybody was quite happy to let me play with it, and so I was left to prepare plans for a computer for CERN.
Weiner:Had any one there had any experience with computers?
Kowarski:Yes. Adams and Hine. Hine then had the role of Adams’ all-purpose alter ego, a kind of duplex brain.
Kowarski:Yes, they are twins chronologically, because they were born at a very few days’ distance. I think they are both just about to reach 50; Adams a little over a week from today and Hine a little under two weeks. They were wonderfully complementary, and their cooperation was quite extraordinarily fruitful. Both Adams and Hine, being intellectually very versatile and alert, were already using some of the primitive British computers for the earliest stages of their getting first ideas about the future accelerator, still before they came to Geneva. I think it was from Hine that I first in my life heard the word program. In addition, in their mathematical-physics section, Rolf Horgedorn, a German, had some experience with computers. So it was there that there existed some knowledge of computers. It was with them that I had to have some conversations about future needs for computers and so on. I do not think that they saw any urgency in a general-purpose computer for CERN, and therefore they did not oppose my interest and were helpful. And when I produced my first report which was in November, ‘55, determining the reasons why CERN should have that computer and not this one, it was very flattering for me to hear Hine’s favorable opinion, which was expressed in the terse sentence, “An excellent report, I didn’t expect it.”
Weiner:What was the action on your recommendation, on the report -- unexpected as it was?
Kowarski:The action was almost immediate. Conversations were started with the supplier, who happened to be in Britain. A tentative order was placed, I think in the spring of 1956, and the computer was delivered with exemplary speed in October, ‘58. This kind of time lag between the placing of the order and its execution I think is quite characteristic for the computer industry, especially at that time.
Weiner:When it came, that was quite a while. By that time you had developed systems in the sense of how it would be utilized.
Kowarski:I think you are talking with the terminology of today. The famous adjective “systems” didn’t exist yet. You know, like in “systems approach” and so on, as an adjective it didn’t exist in those days. The fact that “software” was something far more difficult and in the long run more costly than the “hardware” wasn1t understood at all. Fortran didn’t exist. The computer was a black box. Everybody was either a little afraid of it or disdainful of it, or pretending disdain because he was afraid. There were some mysterious people, some kind of applied mathematicians, who were able to talk to this black box, and -- I will repeat from one of my recent lectures -- and the physicists had to cooperate willy-nilly, more often nilly.
Weiner:Before all this came in, when you went about the business of producing the report and then acting on it, you were working pretty much on your own, I gather. This is not the kind of thing that involves a great many people at that stage, so this seems to me not an assignment for your division but an assignment for you.
Yes, but some of my helpers began to develop interest in it. At least one of them, Goldschmidt –- Clermont -- developed an interest because -- he was a sort of deputy to me in my division. I don’t remember whether at that time his title was official but, in fact, being a deputy he was interested in it. Another circumstance played a great role in what happened since then. It was that in late ‘55 I started already going again to conferences, my recovery having by that time left behind my summer ‘55 experiences. Specially I went to one of them in Cambridge, England. And I had a ride on a train together with Frisch. Ever since 1940, our acquaintance developed into a rather close friendship. Frisch told me his ideas about the necessity of treating bubble-chamber pictures with automatic devices, and some of his ideas about what these automatic devices should be doing. It seemed to me that if Frisch had these ideas, they were worth looking into, and so, at CERN, I started looking into them almost immediately, and by, say, late 1956, I began to push before the Scientific Policy Committee of CERN the idea that they should foster the development of computerized devices to prepare for the bubble chamber.
Incidentally, the first bubble-chamber developments were still at that time divided between some of my people and some of the people in the synchrotron division, so I was pretty close to the bubble chambers themselves. Now, the Scientific Policy Committee did not really understand. They hadn’t talked to Frisch. They didn’t understand much of what I was driving at. It’s very difficult for a committee to have any opinion about the usefulness or nuisance value of a device that they’re hearing about for the first time. That nuisance value could be expected from me was quite obvious, because the atmosphere of my going down and people having to find something for me to do was still with me. So it had to be expected that Kowarski will propose some boondoggle. The only man who expressed a very positive attitude, probably at that time more based on intuition than on technological involvement, [was] Heisenberg. I think I have said on a previous occasion that I always found it far easier to deal with the top representatives of the profession than with lower ranges, and it was quite definitely the case with Heisenberg. He would always show to me a very exquisite kind of courtesy, and on this occasion he spoke quite firmly that my proposal was worth looking into, and, of course, these committees being what they are, when a person of the weight of Heisenberg says so, other people begin agreeing. So I came out of this committee with a more or less official mandate.
Weiner:Who was on the committee at the time?
Kowarski:I cannot quite remember. It always was the same names. For example, from England it usually was Cockcroft or Blackett, either one of them or both of them. From France, it would be, from the origin, Francis Perrin, and increasingly Leprince-Ringuet. From Germany, as I said, Heisenberg. From Italy there would be Amaldi, Bernardini, names which could be expected. Besides, you can find the names.
Weiner:So you came out with a changed position regarding their attitude to your new interest.
Kowarski:Well, “changed” is too much to say, but what I would say is that by this later 1956, not only my general preoccupation with computers was recognized, but specifically there was some blessing on my looking into devices for measuring bubble-chamber pictures. This more or less coincided with the beginning of my enrollment in the European Nuclear Energy Agency, ENEA.
Weiner:Which is affiliated with OECD.
Weiner:Which thread do you want to take first? Do you want to talk about the ENEA story as a complete thing, or would you rather do it day by day and tie them together?
Kowarski:I think it probably would be better to take the ENEA story now, because for several years it occupied a dominant position in my life. This of course was never official. Officially I devoted to it 20 percent of my time. There was a time when it became so obviously at variance with facts that at one moment it was up to 30 percent for a while, for a year or two, and CERN was 70 percent only, but then it went back to 80-20.
Weiner:How did it start?
Kowarski:Let’s now form a general background, the landscape of my existence on which the ENEA story starts. The background then was that I had behind me a period of gradual elimination from CERN activities; that there was a certain style in my relations with CERN -- people got used to the fact that there was a gradual elimination; that I was in a recognized way involved in two definite technological corners, one being liquid hydrogen and the other being computers; that liquid hydrogen, although it occupied a certain amount of my time, never was a very dominant thing, and the computers in my mind should become, but very few people could see it then -- I suppose the fact that computers were in my corner didn’t strike many people as significant in any way. I still feel myself to be essentially in the position of a piano concert player who has no piano. My comeback to nuclear reactors, therefore, appeared to me at that time as a thing both desirable and impossible.
Kowarski:Impossible, at that time -- with the atmosphere. I might add that after the reserpine was hastily abandoned and other drugs were tried, at that time the CERN pension scheme began to work (in ‘56) with the obligatory medical supervision, and there were some signs of impaired kidney function, which of course had something to do with high blood pressure. Increasingly, therefore, I began to be in the hands of doctors. My first stay for observation in a hospital took place in early ‘57. These medical things become increasingly important as the story unfolds. But 1956 was still the beginning of my new going up, the beginning of ENEA, an improving situation, in the summer of ‘56. One of CERN’s directors at that time was a French gentleman called Richemond, like the hotel here, who was a member of the French banking aristocracy, an ardent Gaullist (that was before de Gaulle was in power), and whose own position at CERN was none too secure. In particular, he was full of ideas which at that time appeared very strange, that CERN should expand far, far more that it was intended to originally, which it eventually did; that CERN should be not only a venture in high energy physics, but also a model venture in international scientific and technological cooperation; and that these things should be widely proclaimed to the world. He found very little resonance with CERN leaders who considered that they were in a world entirely turning around experimentation in high energy physics and that was far more interesting than the rest of the world.
Weiner:That specialized world has changed considerably from the time CERN was first conceived. It even changed from ‘55. Right in this period it was changing very, very rapidly.
But people who were anticipating quite rightly that CERN would play a tremendous role in European and international physics considered that, since they were already engaged in the most lofty, the most worthwhile activity which can be imagined, why should we care about the rest? And in fact, when Richemond and I, for that matter, were raising the idea that CERN’s organizational experience should be made better known -- ‘56, don’t forget, was the year in which Euratom was first being discussed -- the other CERN leaders would say, “Oh, you think so?” and would sort of hint that this sort of preoccupation was a little unseemly, and perhaps was another manifestation of my restlessness and that I didn’t know exactly what I was doing in CERN. I think probably they were quite right.
Anyhow, I discussed with Richemond how the time -- as I say again, Euratom was in the air -- how the time for a sort of international structure for nuclear energy was getting really urgent, and that CERN could be very well put as an example to people who were thinking about these things. Richemond discussed that with the French cultural attache -- no, the director of cultural affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- who was a very exquisite French man of letters, and together they decided that I should be given an opportunity of giving a lecture at the Sorbonne, whose subject would be made clear by the title, something like, “CERN and What Can be Learned from it for Similar Enterprises.” The lecture was organized and the familiar white posters of official lectures at the Sorbonne could be found everywhere. “Lew Kowarski, Doctor of Science, Division Director at CERN, will give a lecture --,” title and so on.
It could be seen everywhere, except at Saclay. I was told, I am in no position to know whether it was a piece of malicious gossip, it did sound that way, that express instructions came from the headquarters of the French Atomic Energy Commission that there should be no publicity for this lecture. The lecture, in a way, was a flop. There were about 30 people present. It had been scheduled for a very big lecture room, and then was transferred to a smaller one at the last moment. There were 30 people present, half of them being members of my family or close friends. Among them there were two science writers, journalists, who telephoned to my Paris apartment -- I still had one in those days, which my daughter occupied -- they telephoned to me in the afternoon before the lecture, whether they could talk to me. I asked what about, and they said, “We want to know the contents of your lecture.” I said, “Why don’t you go to the lecture?” They said, “We’ll go, but it probably could be easier for us if you first talked to us about it.” I said, “Do you have a car?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Fine, in that case, come to my apartment, we will go together to the Sorbonne.” They came. They both are very high-quality science writers. They are still active in this field. I could give even their names. One is an Englishman, completely established in Paris by the name of Robert Clarke. The other has a Russian name, Skrotsky -- that one became later on involved in various television programs concerned with science. They came. We talked. They brought me to the Sorbonne. They were added to the quorum of 30.
Next day appeared articles in four Paris newspapers. Not many people noticed them. Among those who did there was a young man of 24, a Swiss by name of Perret whose name will appear later on quite a bit in this story. Perret had recently been hired by OECD as a young engineering graduate, hired by people who were thinking of various norms and common endeavors in the field of atomic energy, which was still at that time the main mascot of international ventures. They thought like so many people before and after them that administrative people can make meaningful decisions if there is some man who can explain to them what all these terms mean; plutonium, reactor, and so on. They hire such explainers, preferably young, so as on the one hand to be sure that they really know it, and of course young people know such things better than older people do; second, because younger people are less pretentious. So they hired this very young Swiss engineer or applied scientist and he started conversing with Pierre Huet. Pierre Huet, who also will be 50 soon or just turned 50, I don’t remember, but at that time was 15 years younger, was a very brilliant French lawyer specializing in international affairs. And since OECD was at that time thinking more of normative activities, it was quite natural for them to think that the manager of such a project should be a lawyer. I don’t think that, as a rule, I would buy that reasoning, but in the case of Pierre Huet it worked marvelously. Pierre Huet was and is one of those Frenchmen one sometimes meets, meets at the top so to speak, -- from a species hardly existing in other countries -- with an extremely brilliant, versatile kind of mind, who are able to think and to write and to act in all the traditions of the French government -- class leaders. And also a few other qualities with which government classes have distinguished themselves in all countries and all epochs. Let’s say, a certain ruthlessness.
Weiner:I wondered what you were getting at.
Kowarski:Perret read this thing in the newspapers, said, “Aha, this is something we need.” He had heard of me. He, of course, couldn’t be sure whether I was already senile or something, and so he cautiously telephoned a younger man at the French Commissariat, with whom he was already in communication, because Perret was already fulfilling his functions of nuclear factotum. He made a few cautious inquiries… The man at the Commissariat, who happened to be well intentioned, said to Perret (I wasn’t in the conversation) something like probably, “Well, go ahead, we are not aware of any change, you can sort of consider that whatever this man was worth in the past, it’s probably still the same.” So Perret wrote me a letter. Perret was an eccentric young man in many ways, and he wrote me a letter on the letterhead of some French baroness who rented rooms to him and to his young bride, and said that he was impressed by the account of my lecture in the Paris press and would like to seek advice from me, and couldn’t he see me in Geneva.
Weiner:Did he not mention his organizational connections?
Kowarski:Very little. At that time I was aware that some nuclear thinking was going on in OECD, which at that time was OEEC, not OECD. But, concerning Perret, my impression was fairly clear that he was an eccentric. I was used to, in the years when my name would occur more often in the press, I had sometimes inquiries from eccentrics -- I sort of kept the principle which I express very often by saying, “I am not proud.” And so I wrote a cautious letter saying to him that, “I don’t know how I can be helpful, but if you wish to risk wasting your time, I will not say no.” Perret came, explained to me that he was not wasting much time because his family still lived in Lausanne and he was visiting his parents, therefore, it was quite easy for him to come to Geneva. The first glance of him confirmed the impression, the fairly eccentric impression -- luxuriant black beards in those days were less common than they are now, especially on men of 24. His way of dressing was somewhat ornate, and -- however, at the very first beginning of the conversation, I immediately noted that here was a man with a very sharp mind, a man who seemed to understand my own eccentricities, and who asked me very pertinent questions about my lecture, which he had not attended. He only knew it from Clarke’s and Skrotsky’s accounts. And by the end of this conversation -- he also explained his role in OEEC, which convinced me that not only was he sort of worth my while, but also he obviously was able to do something. And so he said that he will ask his boss, Pierre Huet, to come to Geneva under the pretext of visiting CERN but, in fact, Huet would come to see me. This did take place. Huet did his visit to CERN with great grace, had dinner at this apartment. It was in the summer and there was glorious weather on the balcony, and Huet always later referred to it as “the balcony scene.” Obvious -- it was an obvious hint at Romeo and Juliet.
Weiner:A courting scene, what else?
Kowarski:It was quite a relief to deal with this completely superior kind of active mind and man of action. Huet told me that he would ask the French Atomic Energy Commission to be allowed to avail himself of my services, which was granted to him in a kind of gentleman’s agreement between Guillaumat and him, about which in September ‘56 I had an official talk with Guillaumat. Guillaumat in a few -- how shall say -- deft allusions gave to understand that there was this European unification of nuclear efforts being pushed under the name of Euratom, that it would have all the money, all the political support, and that in this respect he did not consider that the OEEC being in the same field was of any importance. OEEC was incompatible with Euratom because Euratom was strictly the Europe of the Six and OEEC at that time had something like 15 or 17 members, including the United Kingdom. Therefore, this initiative would remain in the realm of, shall we say, high level shop talk; that, therefore, I shouldn’t expect that I would be doing anything very significant, but on the other hand he said that OEEC was a highly respected and highly successful organization, which by the way, at that time, was a little bit at loose ends because it had fulfilled the Marshall Plan with such success that it had nothing to do any more. That was just before the Suez Crisis, and the Suez Crisis immediately gave OEEC another function which was, I think, fulfilled also brilliantly. It was the European plan for handling at that time very scarce resources in oil. This again made OEEC more glamorous, but Guillaumat could not know that that would happen very soon when he was talking to me. And so he used the expression which still remember, that because OEEC has this glamour he said, my cooperation with it would add to my luster -- and then with again this supreme elegance he added, “And to that of France.” He meant that the presence of a renowned French citizen in this internationally staged activity would add to the luster of France -- Remembering how ruthlessly Guillaumat had behaved in my case previously, I rather appreciated this touch of elegance.
Weiner:I’m not quite clear what your continuing connection was which made it appropriate for him to be approached.
Kowarski:I was still paid 20 percent and I was considered as the consultant to the High Commissioner. Guillaumat gave me to understand that he had never considered that this was very important, but why not give me 20 percent of my salary anyhow, it’s not much money, and here he said, “That will add to your luster and that of France,” and the whole tone was to some extent, “Well, child, run along and play and have a good time.” So from now on, Huet had a high-level scientific consultant who was ready to give him at least 20 percent of his time and probably a bit more, within the margins allowable. It was always admitted, for example, that CERN, high CERN officials, should keep in touch with their national background, and since 20 percent was already paid by my national background, it was considered that I was quite entitled to take a bit more than 20 percent. This had the additional attraction of not costing a penny to Huet, and, therefore, go ahead. So became involved in a study group for experimental reactors called REX, Reactor Experimental.
Weiner:Whose name was that? Did you have the privilege of picking that name?
Kowarski:Oh, I don’t remember. Perret was quite good at that too. It probably was Perret. Huet played for a while with the idea that I should be chairman and was quickly made to understand that the French would not quite like the idea. It was presented in the shape that the scientific advisor to the agency should not be chairman of one of its study groups. So Huet and I discussed who should be the chairman and decided it would be a very good idea if we could inveigle Eklund, the Swedish reactor specialist, a good friend of mine. As behind closed doors we were discussing the strategy and so on to steer Eklund towards becoming our chairman, the telephone rang and Huet replied to it very graciously. This was the Swedish representative at OEEC who asked whether the chairmanship of this group could not be perhaps granted to Dr. Eklund. Huet said that, “We don’t very much like this kind of pressure, but perhaps in this case we might consider what we could do.” This game can be quite delightful.
Weiner:Had Eklund been involved in any of the discussions up to that time?
Kowarski:He did come before, and then he came many times to Paris as the chairman of the group. I was appointed his “rapporteur.” Then later on, the group formed from its midst a drafting subcommittee, of which normally the rapporteur was chairman, and the chairman of the subgroup asked whether Dr. Eklund would consider to be a member of the subgroup, which he did. So in formal meetings Eklund was chairing over me, and in working group meetings, I was chairing over Eklund. Delightful arrangement which suited everybody. The REX report, the first REX report was written essentially by three people, and that was by me -- I put myself first since I was in charge of its drafting --, by Perret, and by the British member, Dr. Rennie, who is a very outstanding person as a leader in the nuclear reactor field, and at the same time, for a long time, he was one of the main people involved in international relations of the British Authority. There were other members that contributed, but the main bulk of work -- I decided to write in my slightly more than usual flamboyant style, and I remember I spent a whole afternoon once inventing the first sentence.
Weiner:Was it worth it? Was it a good sentence?
Kowarski:If I remember it right, it was something like this: “The sheer novelty of usable atomic energy will soon wear off, and questions will then be asked about technical and economic merits of any given concept.” I stuck to this first sentence and there it is. I had some difficulties in producing an equivalent in French. But I can tell you that you don’t often see on papers of OECD, UNESCO and so on a document which starts with the words, “The sheer novelty,” and so on, “will soon wear off.” I wanted people to read this first sentence, to sit up and take notice. This kind of style, of course, I didn’t keep it up through all the document, but even whatever I did keep to some extent conflicted with Rennie’s style. Rennie’s style was a highly articulate and highly expressive, rational and pure Whitehallese. I appreciated this other kind of stylistic brilliance which Rennie displayed, and the problem was how to reconcile both. Since there was a certain degree of respect for each other’s style, which I hope was mutual, we managed to patch it together so that some places were definitely Kowarski and some others were definitely Rennie. On the whole it produced a document which was greeted with considerable approval by the first official committee of OECD or ENEA or whoever had to consider it, and Guillaumat was present. It was one of the few times he attended these meetings in his high governmental capacity, and he started with his usual severe tone, “It is not up to our delegation to express its opinion about the merits of this particular achievement.” And I remember Bertrand Goldschmidt running around and hastily whispering to Huet, “You know, this was intended to be a high compliment.” What Guillaumat wanted to say was, since a Frenchman was made responsible for it, it does not belong to the French delegation to express laudatory) views. So he said -- Guillaumat, in this delicate way, wanted to express his appreciation of it, and Huet said, “I never understood it in any other way,” and that was that. We are now In January, ‘57.
Weiner:Working with them on this, you commuted to Paris -- you went to Paris for several days at a time?
Kowarski:Oh yes. Quite a lot of work was carried out in Lausanne between Perret and me. Perret at that time was also part time. He had a part job in Paris and part in Lausanne.
Weiner:You handled your responsibilities to CERN in such a way as to take on small blocks of time --
Kowarski:Yes. This, by the way, was always my way of working, which very often was reproached to me. At the times when my responsibilities were highest, I spent the least time on the spot. And I still think that it’s probably a very healthy sign. I always try to arrange my work so as to give wide delegated powers to my assistants, and I found that my steering of their activities didn’t take so much time. Also, it looked as if this OEEC business would develop, and perhaps finally I could get my piano back -- which at that time was still quite a lot on my mind. I began already to feel the envelopment in computer questions, but at that time I’m talking about it was still nearly two years before the first computer was delivered to CERN.
Weiner:That brings you to January, ‘57.
Kowarski:In January, ‘57, therefore, the REX group got the assignment of preparing more detailed plans of this and that, and in February, ‘57, Cockcroft came with something which was greeted with great glee by everybody in ENEA. In ‘57, the British program was very much involved in building power stations, and the funds for other lines of research began to be not unlimited. In particular, there was a promising line there, the so-called aqueous homogeneous reactor, which was also very much Weinberg’s baby in Oak Ridge. There were very definite plans in the United Kingdom for this type, but the priority was considered to be rather low. So the British thought that this would be a nice concept on which Europeans could work together, in parallel with the work that was being carried out at Oak Ridge at that time. That proposal immediately concentrated the attention of the REX group on a definite project, and therefore it looked as if action would soon develop.
Weiner:What was the proposal he brought, that this would be built as one of the British installations but as an international effort?
That was supposed to be in view, but at that very early stage this question was not yet approached. This British-European blend of course was the intention, and the intention, in fact, finally came to fruition in a somewhat different context which we will have to mention later on. The fact is that in ‘57 I came to Harwell, no longer as a consultant to the French High Commissioner fishing for information, but as a practical executive of a budding project, and it was when I was embarking from Paris to Harwell that the news came that my American visa was granted. This is a separate episode. As soon as it became obvious that Huet’s hunch in entrusting me with the tasks for REX was leading to something, Huet said, “It is a pity that you can’t have a first-hand look in America in these things,” and “is it certain that you cannot go to America?” I said, “Well, it’s up to you to see if that is so.” Now, at that time, the assistant to the ambassador on scientific and technological affairs was a lawyer, a Harvard graduate by the name of Max Isenbergh. Isenbergh first got hold of my file, my very thick file at the American Embassy, I think in January ‘57. I was told later on, and of course I can never vouch for the accuracy of the things was told, that having had a look at it he whistled and said, “Well, that will be hard. But we’ll see what we can do.” Please note the rather remarkable speed with which all these things have occurred. Huet’s balcony scene took place, I think, in July. Huet’s agreement with Guillaumat took place in September.
The REX group was officially started with Eklund as chairman in October. The REX report was presented to the steering committee in January, and already in January, Isenbergh started looking at my file. It’s, I would say, quite commendable speed. I got my visa rather unexpectedly quickly, as I say, early in May of ‘57. It was beset with all sorts of limitations. It was strictly for one journey. The aim had to be stated clearly to the embassy and, so to speak, vetted by their suitable advisors. In order to be able to vet it, they would have to communicate with Washington. But there was a lot of good will in all this. I notice very often in America that when there is no reason for deliberate ill will or deliberate creation of obstacles, when there is no such reason, then the general atmosphere is that of good will, and it can go with great speed. So I was admonished not to ask for anything more, to be ready to answer all sorts of questions at the border, to be sure that I am leaving the United States within the prescribed time, and generally speaking, to behave. Since I knew perfectly well that it was indeed a very hard case, I had to be grateful for whatever blessings I was given. I was grateful. I still consider that Isenbergh himself played a very beneficial role in my affairs, and that I can be really grateful to everybody who managed to solve this no doubt extremely awkward case. So, on May 30th, I think, I was on my way to the United States.
Weiner:First time since when?
Kowarski:Since January, ‘51. As the interval between January and May would normally be expected to be spent in Europe, I considered, therefore, that what I used to call “the gap” was more or less exactly six years. It was before the jets. The plane was an American plane. They still had sleepers. I was granted a sleeper. They journeyed from Paris to New York in those days with stops in Shannon and Gander to take gas. Still, in my sleeper, something like a.m. New York time, I was given breakfast. I ate it, and my next meal was at about 7 p.m. New York time. I was so overwhelmed by my being already again on the American soil that I simply, between seeing people and telephoning and trying the subway again -- in those days it was still usable -- I simply had no time to eat. I think I did swallow a few glasses of water. But my next meal, a snack, was at Horn and Hardart on 42nd Street and Third Avenue.
Weiner:What was the purpose of the trip?
Kowarski:Here I have to explain one of my main principles, which on the one hand are very fruitful for my activity and on the other hand sometimes are difficult to explain to other people. If I had an intuition that a trip was useful, I spent no time to explain to myself why. In my way of working, the obvious sources of reasons for the trip would appear during the trip itself. If one has a clear idea that it would be useful to see such and such man or to visit such and such place, if this idea comes from a definite intuition, and, in fact, not completely out of the blue sky, but from some understanding of the background -- personalities, technical facts, the places, the timing and so on -- one probably would be able, by preparing a thorough analysis of all these factors, to arrive at the logical conclusion that the trip, so defined, is advisable, But it would take far more time to articulate such an analysis than to undertake the trip itself. So whenever I could avoid it, I would. And whenever it was necessary to invent a reason beforehand, I would invent it, without much conviction. An interesting comment on this remark of yours was that when Huet decided to send me, for him it was easy. He could understand the intuitive reason. I hadn’t seen American developments with my own eyes for over six years. My only contacts were talking to people who had come from America to Europe. It was quite obvious that if I had continued to be scientific advisor on a high level, this trip was an absolutely necessary ingredient. In particular, I had to go and see Weinberg because of Oak Ridge -- at Oak Ridge there was the counterpart of this homogeneous aqueous reactor project. I made for myself a schedule at which my doctor’s eyebrows probably would be highly raised. I finally spent in the United States on that occasion some 21 or 22 days. And among places visited were New York, Washington, Oak Ridge, an American Nuclear Society meeting in Pittsburgh, Argonne, Arco in Idaho, again New York, and Brookhaven. Not California on that trip.
Weiner:Why not? Was there nothing of interest, no reactor?
Kowarski:California had no atomic center. Oak Ridge, Arco, Argonne, and Brookhaven were all specifically atomic energy centers. No such in California. So, that was easy for Huet to understand. But then I asked that Perret should go there too, and that was far more difficult to understand. Finally Huet consented to indulge my whim, on the strict condition that Perret should have the cheaper 14-day ticket, and, of course, tourist. Fourteen days meant that Perret did not go to Arco and Brookhaven, but had to go back after Argonne. Perret was a sick man, diabetic to a very high degree. The doctors, when the diabetes developed, which was in about 1944, ‘45, gave him then 15 years to live. We are talking now of the time when he had led this diabetic’s life for about 12 years already, and he had no intention of dying in three years’ time. He developed a certain kind of rage for living which showed to some extent in some of his eccentric ways of life, and he finally managed to postpone his death till 1969. The post mortem showed that his organism was completely worn out. We had a very close relationship during these years, especially in the early part. Later on it became somewhat less close, owing to various circumstances. The early relationship was so close that some people began to look at whether there were not some specific elements in this behavior. I am glad to say that there weren’t.
Weiner:Specific in what sense?
Kowarski:Well, let me express it by saying that Perret was very much interested in the opposite sex, and I don’t think I can be considered entirely indifferent to it either.
Weiner:Who would say such things?
Kowarski:People make jokes. My very insistence that Perret should go with me probably appeared strange to some people. The fact that I was quite certain in my mind that it was absolutely essential for the work of the agency, for the quality of its performance, a certainty so obvious that it didn’t need any explanation -- no, this fact was not clear to many people. So they didn’t know what to think. Perret was an extraordinary kind of person, very gifted. Of course, with various limitations, like everybody, but very gifted to start with. His peculiar kind of brashness raised people against him. I remember the last evening we spent together on that trip, there was a party given at Argonne Guest House, with the director, Hilberry, and many division heads present. This group was divided between two tables -- Argonne at that time already showed a peculiar characteristic which to my knowledge it still retains: Argonne’s cafeterias are outstandingly high level. I don’t suppose you’ve eaten there? I still could say it in ‘68. So, I was looking out from my table, at which I was surrounded by six division leaders, I saw Perret holding his own at the other table with six other division leaders, and I could see that the conversation went on a footing of a completely natural equality. This sight alone confirmed my idea that his trip was worthwhile. There was, of course, quite a lot of amusement as these middle aged and very responsible and high-level people were treated as colleagues by this brash youth. He was 25 at that time.
Weiner:What was his manner?
Kowarski:Simply indescribable. A man of 25 speaking to someone who has hundreds of subordinates, whose name is in all textbooks, speaking in a sort of man-to-man style.
Weiner:I don’t know any other way.
Kowarski:In America it goes down far more easily than in Europe. Even in America it was a bit unusual.
Weiner:I just realized that I’m “brash.” But this was profitable for the intent specifically and for this vague intuitive sense as well -- in other words, the trip itself was worthwhile?
Kowarski:Mine or Perret’s?
Weiner:It’s still your trip and he’s part of it -- to acquaint you with what’s going on. Did you find out a great deal?
Kowarski:Oh, I wrote to Huet a very long report on that, which still makes amusing reading. For example, I told him, I came there three weeks, I think, after the visit of “the three wise men of Euratom,” and I gathered a few of the puzzled impressions this visit left behind. The three wise men came with the idea that they were going to install in Europe a set of close-to-competitive nuclear reactors which they, if necessary, could order off the shelf in America. When the Americans tried to explain to them that there was nothing like that on the shelf, the communication was blocked, if you read the report of the three wise men, you will understand. If I remember rightly, they envisaged the cost of a kilowatt-hour -- for the first batch of ten reactors they were thinking of already at that time -- they put it in the order of 1.2 cents. The only power reactor which at that time was working in America was Shippingport, for which the cost was empirically rated at 5.2 cents. I was told with some glee by one of my informants that this figure appeared very incredibly high to all sorts of hopeful people, including specially those in Europe. Reevaluation was ordered and resulted in a new figure: 7.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Weiner:Who were these three wise men?
Kowarski:The three wise men were the Frenchman, Louis Armand, who was a very famous man then and now is even more famous. He’s a member of the Academie Francaise which, for a former director of railroads, is a somewhat unusual distinction. The German gentleman was called Etzel; and the Italian, a technical-political gentleman called Giordani. They wrote that fine flower of European high technological thinking, the report called “A Target for Euratom.” It predicted that ten years after Euratom was founded, the European Atomic Community would have 15,000 megawatts of installed reactors, and there was quite a lot of discussion of reactor types and prices and so on. I understand that the high flower in question was written by a Canadian nuclear engineer -- again a piece of gossip. After all, these tapes are not considered to be a history of nuclear activities in Europe. They are mostly about me and friends of mine, so if this gossip appeared to me at that time plausible, I think it should be recorded as an element of the story of my mind.
Weiner:And your environment and situation as you perceived it then.
Kowarski:Part of my perception, that’s right.
Weiner:With your reports back and the final results, you’d say your trip was a success?
Kowarski:Well, I would say that as far as -- after all, only I could judge what contributed to the shaping of my thinking, and there I think success is an understatement. It was an essential piece. I expected from it quite a lot and my expectations were fulfilled and over-fulfilled, yet my expectations had been very high. After all, as you can see, these frenetic three weeks were far from empty. I might add that probably Huet thought that too, because my next trip to America took place in October of the same year.
Weiner:For the same or related purposes?
Kowarski:Similar. This time, at some stages, I traveled together with Huet, I think to Argonne and Oak Ridge.
Weiner:By that time, how far had the reactor plans gone? You said this was precipitated by Cockcroft’s suggestion.
Kowarski:Of course the specific gathering of information about that specific type was very important. We gathered quite a lot of information. Here again, I have to underline the extraordinary warmth of welcome which I received; the cooperation which I received, as it were; the willingness for them to stand by some of my ways, which probably were at least as eccentric as Perret’s. Somebody would show me, say, a copy of a report on the Argonne heavy-water prototype, and I’d say, “I would like to have it.” They’d say, “We don’t have any to give you. This is the only one.” Then we will go out and meet in the corridor someone who’s carrying a dozen copies of it, and I say, “Well, what about it?” Then I would get one. This sort of thing. The welcome was extraordinary. Weinberg, whom I was seeing I think for something like the third time in my life, possibly the second, used all his brain, which as you know is quite considerable, in seeing how the few days of my visit could be most profitable, most pleasant.
Weiner:That’s a pretty long period of time to be away from CERN. But there was no problem on that?
Kowarski:I’m a little surprised at your saying so. I was away from CERN for three weeks -- three weeks and one day or something like that. The official holidays at CERN, like in many of the international organizations, are six complete weeks in the year.
Weiner:You don’t mean vacations?
Kowarski:Yes, vacations. I never was much of a vacation taker, because I did not know what to do with a vacation. What with this ignorance and the fact that apart from my small stays in hospital I was on the whole less absent for minor illnesses than many people -- I don’t think I was so delinquent. But then, of course, I was 20 percent, for a time even 30 percent, officially not there.
Weiner:What I’m getting at, if you had to travel so much and then report and so on -- it really seems to be an intensification of your involvement.
Kowarski:Oh yes, very definitely.
Weiner:You were explaining about that. What I’m really asking about is, it didn’t create any problems at CERN either? You could continue doing the projects at CERN as well as getting more involved in this?
Kowarski:There is nothing of which you can say that it doesn’t create any problems. My position at CERN was still very shaky. There was a certain stabilization of it due to this hydrogen and computer involvement, but this was on a plateau that continued on the way down, before it started to go up again in one direction. Of course there were lots of people who would say, “This had to be decided and unfortunately you were not there at the time -- you know, you are away quite a lot of the time, it’s your fault.” You may remember that when you were in Austin I suddenly had the idea that my autobiography should have the title, “The Trouble with You, Lew…” -- and there was never any lack of that sentence.
Weiner:So you got back from the second trip, this is still in ‘57. Did they reach any new stage in their work during that period? As you point out, it was going very rapidly.
Weiner:Yes. With all this very rapid motion, was there any change of pace within it, in terms of new stage in the program?
Kowarski:The story of ENEA is essentially the story of Huet; until he resigned from it. He resigned in early ‘64. Being an extraordinarily talented and active man, whatever he was doing was flourishing. Several other projects developed during the same year. I made other trips in Europe. I had a trip with him to Norway, for instance, in late July.
Weiner:Their activities are reported pretty much in their publications through OECD. What was your relationship with the French Commission during this period? You were in Paris -- you had no need to inform them or report to them on any of these things?
Kowarski:No. Well, from time to time I would see Perrin and give him a sort of verbal report. I don’t think at that time there was anything given to him in writing. Also, people like Bertrand Goldschmidt participated in many commissions of ENEA, so they had first-hand knowledge. There were French experts of all kinds that participated in various study groups and so on. There were other French members of the ENEA staff, so there was pretty full information available to the French authorities. It must be said that this is a subject on which probably a separate book could be written, because at the same time that the French attitude toward ENEA was, well -- I won’t go into the history here -- the French attitude to ENEA was that of considerable sympathy. The official attitude was that ENEA was a trifle, that it was not very important. Yet it was headed by a Frenchman, Huet, and a French scientist was its main scientist. All this added up to a situation similar to that of somebody who just entered into a not terribly glamorous or passionate marriage, but at the same time found a delightful new mistress.
Weiner:What happened there? I don’t know the outcome of the story. Your involvement -- was there more?
Kowarski:Stories in real life never come to any outcome. I don’t know what you mean by outcome.
We are now in ‘57. The activities of ENEA are developing very quickly. Some of these activities are directly hinging on me, some others have nothing to do with me. The REX study group is going on, both in its generality and in the shape of various subcommissions. The homogeneous project is developing, with a subcommission specially devoted to it. By the way, the general method of OEEC was to set up projects which would no longer be part of OEEC. They would be separate, by special governmental agreement, and OEEC just a kind of matrix out of which they came. There was, of course, no reactor building going on yet. There were conversations between experts, at first very preliminary descriptions of what kinds of reactors should be built, at what level of energy, and so on. In February ‘58, Cockcroft came forward again, and with the characteristic directness which the British very often display on this kind of occasion, he said that the United Kingdom had gone through a change of opinion. The homogeneous reactor was considered no longer important; there was another type of reactor which was now more important, and they would propose that the European effort switch from the first to the second.
This new type was the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, which today is known as Dragon. The story of this word is amusing. Of course, by that time I was widely known as the creator of words. I was responsible for a lot of the names of reactors, particularly the first two British reactors, one whose name was derived from that of my Canadian reactor, and the other which was directly proposed by me. So everybody kind of expected that I would come forward with a name. Now, derivations with some European hint built in were very fashionable then. I played a little with the idea of calling it after the mythological son of Europa and Zeus -- you know, the Greek myth about Europa, that she was kidnapped by the god Zeus who had taken the shape of a bull. He carried her off and in due course she produced a son who was called Sarpedon So I was toying with that idea, but I noticed that this would be considered totally incomprehensible and far too pedantic, a little bit like Auger’s Eudoxie, for my first French reactor. I didn’t insist; a few seconds were obviously enough for me to withdraw this first proposal completely. I fell on the more comprehensible device of combining EU for European and Dragon, the fire-breathing monster, which is, I think, a pretty good description of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. So I proposed to call it Eudragon, or in French, L’Eudragon. Now, it so happens that if you say this in French, it is apt to be confused with “Le Dragon.” The confusion immediately took place, and people began to refer to it, not as the Eudragon, but simply as the Dragon. I was not quite happy about that outcome.
Weiner:What were your reasons for being unhappy?
Kowarski:They were three. First the word dragon was a standard word and not a new creation. Second, there had been already in existence a chain reacting assembly called Dragon. That one was made by Frisch in Los Alamos in 1945. Third, it deprived me of the explanation I gave to the British when they asked, “Eudragon, what does it mean?” I said, “Well, it’s obvious, you drag on and on in this project.” Still, in the matter of language, if everybody around you starts using a word, you’d better start using it too. That’s how this reactor came to be called Dragon.
Weiner:Now, that takes you to the point of a switch-over based on Cockcroft’s suggestion. It seems that Cockcroft entered into the situation at crucial times, had a great deal of influence.
Kowarski:Yes, that’s an understatement.
Weiner:And that the influence was personal as well as national, in terms of British cooperation.
Weiner:Because Britain was the major nuclear power in Europe.
Kowarski:Well, not only the major nuclear power, but the main repository of practical nuclear knowledge.
Weiner:Well, I meant, the nuclear establishment.
Kowarski:Yes. Cockcroft was a towering personality, and this made the British preponderance even more obvious.
Weiner:What was his role in Euratom?
Kowarski:Euratom? Cockcroft? Nothing. Euratom had nothing to do with Britain.
Weiner:So that when he came there, he was coming as Cockcroft and as Britain, and because Britain was not included --
Kowarski:-- We are now talking of OEEC, not Euratom.
Weiner:Well, I meant the OEEC. When he came to OEEC what was his relationship to them?
Kowarski:He was simply the main expert of the British delegation.
Weiner:He had no special role, except as a national representative?
Kowarski:Well, not quite. You know, this international language. There was, very soon after the REX report, a newly created “top-level expert group” who had to give their opinion about this and that, and Cockcroft was obviously on it as chairman, so it’s quite true if we say that he had an extra role. But such a chairman normally, as I already explained on an earlier occasion, had to be a national representative coming in his national capacity. Perhaps I should add as a comment that OEEC never was in any way a super-national organization. It was always an organization conducted as a consultation place for national delegates and their experts and their other representatives, who could agree among themselves to set up an autonomous international project.
Weiner:I see. So it was a clearing house essentially, a marriage broker.
Kowarski:Yes, in which nobody had any super-national capacity. In fact, I think it’s only in this way that the joint undertakings did come to be set up.
Weiner:I don’t know if you’re at the end of that part of the story about ENEA, because this is also the time that the CERN computer affairs begin to come back in the picture, I imagine, from what I know of dates.
Let me bring the ENEA story to a break which occurred in ‘59. Back in late ‘57: My activities at ENEA are obviously bearing fruit. I decided to start having a permanent ENEA office in Geneva, which was duly created and was called “the ENEA Scientific Office in Geneva.” It was kept going in various kinds of premises during the not quite two years of its life; it had to change premises several times. It consisted essentially of three people; myself part time; a junior lecturer in physics who happened to be an American citizen, slightly younger than Perret, and who was living in Geneva. ENEA was for him a paid job, he was paid for this part of his time. Also, a full time secretary. This scientific office -- the usual story: as soon as it was materially set up, it became gradually apparent that my activities at ENEA had reached a peak and began to go down. Still, at the time that it was officially created, which happened to be on exactly the 15th anniversary of Fermi’s reactor, I considered that it was only honest to reduce my CERN part from 80 percent to 70 percent, which with some extra facilities given by CERN probably meant that, at that time and a little later, I was devoting to CERN something like 60 percent of my normal working time.
To ENEA the other 40 percent. And since I worked quite a lot outside of my working time, writing letters on weekends or traveling to America instead of going on vacation, I think it roughly can be said that at that time the actual division of my activity was probably about half and half. Well, in May ‘58, I started agitating for another trip to America to see what was happening in Oak Ridge with the homogeneous reactor. No, sorry, that was soon after the switch, so by then I had to see what was happening on the American side of the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. The interest perhaps was a bit smaller here, because not much was going on in America on that side at that time. Still, that not much was enough. In particular, I would try to get something from General Atomics in San Diego. This, by then, turned out to be impossible because of commercial secrecy, but that obstacle became obvious only when I actually visited them. In fact, didn’t even visit them. I simply visited an old friend of mine who was working there, and he was extremely reticent, and besides he had a high fever. So I said, instead of a high-temperature reactor, I visited a high-temperature physicist. I attended another meeting of the American Nuclear Society. The outgoing chairman was Lee Haworth. Quite unexpectedly, he asked me to sit on his right up there at the high table and proposed the first toast of the banquet to “our overseas guest.” Huet arrived at the same meeting, and had some ideas of getting advice from the American Nuclear Society. And as soon as he arrived, he asked me where he could catch the Executive Secretary of the society for whom he had a kind of letter of recommendation.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on the evening before, I was the guest of honor of the President. I mention this episode to illustrate some of the reasons why Huet’s attitude began to be slightly more ambiguous soon after that. This is a very typical episode for my whole career. I’m suddenly confronted either with some completely unexpected honor on a high level, or some particularly nasty piece of being pushed around, and this creates a certain element of unpredictability of what happens to me. And, therefore, a certain amount of unpredictability as to what I will do. And that makes my fitting in more difficult.
Weiner:You were talking about his coming to that meeting -- and thereafter it became more ambiguous?
Kowarski:It was not a result, but one of the elements of the relationship becoming slightly more ambiguous. Of course, what does it really show? Not anything like personal antagonism, nor a feeling that I was putting myself above my stature in life. Rather, it underlied the awkwardness with which Huet held himself in a community that was still dominated very much by academic scientists, and his unwillingness to let his very high standing in his own walk of life to be in any way hampered by the somewhat incomprehensible standards which were current in this world of the academic longhairs. In ‘58, if have to remind you, there was a recession in the United States that played a definite role. It started in late ‘57 and was already noticeable during our late ‘57 visit. In ‘58 it was quite definitely a recession. And the world of nuclear research did notice it. Also, in late ‘57, the Russian Sputnik went up, followed by another one with the dog, and that was followed fairly soon by the American satellites. Suddenly, almost overnight, we were no longer in the atomic age; the space age had arrived. The year ‘58 was a year of considerable despondency in atomic circles. The Second Geneva Conference on Atoms for Peace was in ‘58. I will not go much into what happened. One episode, though: Euratom was not admitted to this conference as an official member, because the Russians opposed it. Whereas everybody noticed that ENEA had a de facto presence, having even an office in the United Nations building. This was chiefly the doing of the British girl who was our secretary. This presence added somewhat to the peculiar situation in which the “European Atomic Community” found itself. Somehow, it did not manage to take off the ground, and yet this nimble little ENEA seemed to be getting everywhere.
Weiner:Well, their aims were different.
Kowarski:Their aims were not that different, in at least the politicians’ minds. But, remember Guillaumat’s prediction that Euratom would have all the money and all the political support and ENEA would be just a glamorous exercise -- somehow things got to look a little different. Huet didn’t waste the time he spent at the Geneva Conference. Several other beginnings were made. The Dragon venture was consolidated. The first work started on the so-called European-American Committee on Nuclear Data which is still alive. All this was within my domain and that of Perret. There were other ventures, such as a nuclear chemical reprocessing plant called Eurochemic with which I had absolutely nothing to do. Yet, at the same time, Huet began to realize that in the atmosphere of ‘58, there was not much chance of survival for the agency and for its continued success if the Dragon project in some way failed to become a reality. Thus, in the last months of ‘58, the Dragon became a very burning issue. For ENEA it was a question practically of life or death, and Euratom would not be at all dismayed at ENEA’s death. But on the other hand, if it had to be life, Euratom could work on the principle “if you can’t lick them, join them” or take over. The atmosphere was tense, and in October ‘58 I went for the second time to the hospital. There it was found that my blood pressure had reached quite indecent heights. I was never told, by the way, how exactly high, but let us say that the figure three made its appearance. From time to time.
Weiner:That’s very dangerous.
Kowarski:It was dangerous. In fact, what I could understand of the high-level medical discussions which went on over my bed -- the discussion was chiefly on whether I was in the benign phase or in the malignant phase. Malignant phase is a kind of competition between the blood circulation and the kidney function: which one will peter out first. They catalyze each other. When that has set in there is not much hope left, and that definitely was what they were trying to find out: whether that phase had, in fact, started. Very drastic drugs, not the reserpine, but others were prescribed, which were successful -- this time. Eventually they were replaced by somewhat less drastic drugs which I am still taking. A younger Geneva doctor -- I was still supervised by the great white light of Geneva medicine -- I don’t know whether I’ve already mentioned him, Mach. Spelled like the supersonic Mach. He put me in the hand of, I suppose, a pupil of his, a man who at that time was still in his thirties, who has been my main doctor ever since. He is competent -- as you see, I’m still here. This was October ‘58, and about that time some things happened at CERN to which I will have to return, and which contributed to my high blood pressure.
Weiner:In this phase, how far are we along to the end of the ENEA story?
Kowarski:In the early months of 1959 -- I will not go into that in detail. I am not writing here the history of the Dragon project. Huet made a few efforts in the domain of international diplomacy. He did not want to do it, but Perret and I persuaded him. Actually, I acted on advice given by Francis Perrin. In those days I once flew with Perrin from Geneva to Paris, and that was one of our important conversations. Perrin gave me some advice which I took to heart, and I started to relay it to Huet. He finally acted on it, with some reluctance. The effort was successful, and the Dragon project was set up under Rennie, whom I already mentioned, in Britain. It became very much a British-inspired and British-led project, with European participation. There is nothing derogatory in this as soon as the situation is clearly understood. It was to the considerable benefit of both Britain and Continental nuclear science, and the Dragon project was highly successful. It was at that time decided that there should be, on the permanent site in England, a kind of Continental representative, with perhaps not a very high position, but as a kind of ambassador from the Continent.
Weiner:To do what?
Kowarski:To supervise the Continental participation in the project, to voice the desires of the European Continental countries concerning the project, to relay Rennie’s demands on European participants, and so on. I was the rather obvious choice for that, and at that time -- that was in early ‘59 -- Kate and I began to prepare quite seriously to settle in Dorset. We had to change our car at that time, in ‘59, and there were various reasons for buying a Peugeot, and, of course, there would be no sense in buying a Peugeot if we had to go to live in Bournemouth. The number of this particular brand of Peugeot parked on our Street was increasing, and I used to tell Kate that they are like vultures watching; when would our plans for leaving Geneva go astray? They did. When finally Rennie was appointed to be the chief executive of the project, and the recruitment started, the Continental recruitment, it was explained to Huet that the idea of having me as a Continental ambassador was not considered a good idea -- of course, nothing was mentioned about my own person. It was mentioned that such a position was considered totally unnecessary and possibly harmful. Here again comes a piece of gossip. It has been related to me that a very high person in that particular establishment did not like the idea of my coming. Since diplomacy had to be maintained by Huet and Rennie, nobody wanted to fight over that, and so we didn’t go to Bournemouth after all, and we immediately bought a Peugeot. The vultures won. I went again to the hospital on that occasion. This time it was found that my blood pressure was quite abnormally low. Blood pressure rises when one fights a lot and exerts oneself a lot. When the fight is over, and ended in a defeat, the blood pressure drops. So that particular stay in the hospital was uneventful. Perhaps this is the time to go back to the CERN scene.
Weiner:Yes, you’re not through with ENEA, but you’re leaving it for the moment.
Kowarski:Perhaps, since I’m leaving it, I could add that from that late spring ‘59, it was quite obvious that Huet began to consider me as a liability, and began to phase out my activities at ENEA. I was told later on -- another of these innumerable pieces of malicious gossip -- that at ENEA many people were saying to each other, “Well, you know, Kowarski’s soon leaving CERN. There was some question of his going to work for ENEA in England. Now, of course, that didn’t come out, so he will probably come to ENEA in Paris and then, of course, he will run the whole show.” Nothing was further from my intentions, but that’s how some ill-informed people saw the situation, and Huet was not the person to be quite deaf to this kind of anticipation -- which, thereby, unfortunately contributed to my phasing out. I’m glad to say that the phasing out was of short duration. There was a new flare-up later on. OK.
Weiner:Meanwhile, back at the accelerator --
Kowarski:Yes, right -- do we go on, or --?
I think dinner’s ready, so shall we stop?