Oral History Transcript — Dr. William A. Nierenberg
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Interview with Dr. William A. Nierenberg
William A. Nierenberg; February 6, 1986
ABSTRACT: First part of a series of biographical interviews. Childhood in New York City; high quality of public schools during Depression; decision at 13 to become physicist; inspirational high school teachers; aptitude for mathematics; undergraduate at CCNY and junior year in Paris; graduate at Columbia; involvement in Manhattan Project with Dunning from 1942; University of Michigan and Berkeley after war; wife and children.
Nierenberg:I have told many interesting stories of my scientific beginnings. Others are in some memoirs that I cannot let you have now because they are not releasable until much later — perhaps in twenty years.
Starting at the very beginning of this interview I must say that as an extremely poor boy I was very lucky to grow up in New York City during the depression. The schools, the libraries and museums were just fabulous.
At a certain age, probably when I was ten years old, I knew I was going to be a physicist, even though I did not know the word for my interests.
Aaserud:You were born in New York?
Nierenberg:In New York City, yes. New York City was wonderful then, and not just for me. As a result of the formal and informal education available, the city made a tremendous contribution to the war effort in terms of trained people. The schools were turning out people like Julian Schwinger (who was about four years ahead of me), Robert Hofstadter (who also preceded me by about that amount), Feshbach, Morton Hamermesh, and at that I only cite one-tenth of the famous names. They were all physicists who were being turned out in New York City, mostly from the same school — the City College of New York and many from Townsend Harris High School — those were my schools also.
Aaserud:The 13th of February, 1919?
Nierenberg:Exactly, at 213 E. 13th Street on what was then the Lower East Side. I recently discovered to my surprise, that it is now the East Village. When I was born there, it already was a miserable tenement. Now, 67 years later, it is part of the East Village. That's New York!
Aaserud:What was your parents' background?
Nierenberg:They were both immigrants. By coincidence they both came here from the Austro-Hungary empire in 1906 but met in this country. My father came from a miserable village called Jazlowicze in the poorest part of the empire. It has one point of fame. It is apparently a source of famous Polish warriors. As far as I can tell it was similar to the village in "Fiddler on the Roof".
Years later, in Berkeley, I learned that Sulamith Goldhaber's (Gerson's first wife) mother came from the same village. She described it as a place with one pair of men's shoes, reserved for weddings! My father came over at the age of sixteen, my grandfather having preceded him. He had to work very hard, in sweatshop conditions, and lived very poorly during the Great Depression, supporting two children — my younger brother and myself. He suffered some mental problems that made him disappear for long periods, placing a great strain on my mother.
My mother was five years younger than my father. One of her brothers preceded her. As I said my parents met on the Lower East Side and were married and soon moved to what we then called the East Bronx but is now called the South Bronx. They had a terribly hard life during the depression. I do not believe their income exceeded $700 a year. This was not atypical for the depression but it was made up for some of us by having these marvelous schools which I firmly believe were the best in the world.
We also had wonderful museums that I visited on weekends like the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry in the Daily News Building on 42nd Street, and the wonderful collection of museums on 155th Street and Broadway. One of my most cherished memories is attending a Saturday morning lecture for teenagers at the Natural History Museum given by Harold Urey on heavy water. He showed how heavy water had a higher melting point than ordinary water. Years later at UCSD, when I introduced him at some function, he chided me for not remembering the sign of the effect!
Aaserud:What did your parents have in terms of education?
Nierenberg:I can say little about my mother's education. My father's was very good despite the poverty and repression that abounded. He probably got a better education there than he would have gotten here. When he was through with school in Europe he spoke Polish, German, Russian, Yiddish — all well, and Hebrew. That is impressive. When he came to the United States, he went to night school, as so many of his contemporaries did. He foolishly quit early because he felt he had been cheated of a medal through some petty school politics.
Aaserud:Were you exposed to that?
Nierenberg:No. In fact, he lost some of the languages from lack of practice as the years went by. I know of his early fluency because when I was young and we were together in the City I was amazed at how he could converse with foreigners in these diverse languages.
Aaserud:You spoke English in the home?
Nierenberg:We only spoke English at home. I never learned Yiddish and I regret it. I did learn Hebrew in religious school — and that rather well, but I am afraid my intense interest in physics and math displaced Hebrew by the time I was twenty. In Yiddish I only know the pejorative words that everyone now knows.
Aaserud:What did your parents do when you were in your teens?
Nierenberg:They had little formative effect on me. I was socially independent from the age of twelve on. I controlled my own education, made my own decisions, decided what schools I would go to, what my major would be and so on. Before I was sixteen I was completely self-supporting.
Aaserud:Was that something you were encouraged to do?
Nierenberg:Not particularly. I simply took charge.
Aaserud:Are you writing your memoirs, did you say?
Nierenberg:Yes, and they are practically finished. However they only cover the period at Scripps, although some of the first chapter has material that would be of interest in this context.
Aaserud:Are you writing about your background there, your youth in Paris?
Nierenberg:Not much about my youth in Paris, but just that part which is relevant to my career in Scripps. You have to understand that my interest in physics was sui generis. There were many youngsters like myself living in tenements in the city who had little facilities for exercising their talents. As an example, my first exciting experiment was making a perfect magnetic compass. I magnetized one of my mother's sewing needles by stroking it with a horseshoe magnet and floated it carefully on the surface of water in a tumbler sitting on the window sill. It can be done if one places the needle carefully on the water surface, delicately using the v-space between the thumb and forefinger. If the needle is not allowed to break through the surface tension it will float indefinitely.
We soon learned about Lafayette Street, which was called "gyp row", where electronic junk was sold. With a few pennies I bought a crystal of galena that I mounted in a little lead casting and fashioned a cat's whisker to tickle the surface. I made an inductance by winding wire on an H-0 oatmeal box and after hours of searching, I found a sensitive spot on the crystal and the radio worked great. (My mother upset it while cleaning and I never was able to make it work again!) I was deeply involved in this kind of activity from the age of nine on. It included model airplane building, for example but all under the most primitive circumstances. It was clear to by the age of thirteen that I was going to be a physicist, as I said earlier.
Like many of my young colleagues I was gifted in mathematics. I do not say this to boast, but to reinforce an earlier point. On graduation from CCNY I earned the Paul Kenyon medal for excellence in mathematics. It is an award that is only given on exceptional occasions. I learned that the last previous award had taken place four years earlier — to one Robert Hofstadter whom I came to know years later on.
I had already won a first prize in the William Lowell Putnam contest. This was in 1939. At the time there was a small fuss made about it, but age has since brought great notoriety to the award. The reason for raising this point is that I, like others, had to make an early decision as to whether to go on in mathematics or physics - mostly we chose physics.
Aaserud:You can't point to any important high school teachers?
Nierenberg:I certainly can. Townsend Harris High School was wonderful and the teachers were excellent — in fact they were also CCNY teachers. I had an excellent math teacher - Rene Carrie - who later was professor of philosophy at Columbia University. His going to Columbia was a result of the closing of THHS. It was bad for future students but good for individuals like Rene Carrie who were forced out of comfortable-depression niches to more active professional lives. Incidentally, Carrie was a neighbor and good friend of I. I. Rabi's.
My physics teacher was Iven Hurlinger who was excellent. In fact, I had little choice because that was the only science available to me in THHS. Hurlinger took a personal interest in me. He helped keep me stay alive by paying me for grading papers. He also protected me when I entered CCNY he learned who my physics teacher was to be. He knew him to be incompetent and worked vigorously to get my section changed. The best he could do was a brand new and unknown instructor — Morton Hamermesh who turned out to be one of the best teachers I ever had.
My mathematics training was also very good. CCNY provided a very thorough, sound basis in required courses. In my junior year in Paris I had courses with Rene Garnier, Armand Denjoy, Frechet and Lichnerowicz (who was then a remplacant). Garnier was a splendid lecturer (in mechanics as well) and Denjoy was one of the worst. Nevertheless, my most inspiring and distinguished teacher was Emil Post at CCNY. I had many courses with him including functions of a real variable. This was the same course I had taken with Garnier in Paris and I was impressed (or depressed!) by the number of errors Garnier had made in the course. Post's field was mathematical logic and I discovered years later that he had enunciated Goedel's theorems before Goedel. This was remarkable considering that he had to teach sixteen undergraduate hours a week. He had lost an arm somewhere in his life and he was mentally unstable, although it did not show in the classroom. It was a real shame that he was so put upon given so much talent — but that also was CCNY.
This was typical of the quality education we could get then. An example is my French. It is very good and has improved with time and opportunity. My French has become fluent because of the excellent basis I received in high school. I am always amused at the surprise evinced by French people at my reply to their question of where I learned my French. They cannot believe that our schools can be that good.
Nierenberg:It was unusual. Schools like THHS were rare but they did exist. I was very fortunate, poor as I was, to get that splendid education — all for free. Even the textbooks for the first two years in college were free. This situation was true for so many of us. The graduates of that period are all over the country. I am told that the undergraduate school most represented in the National Academy of Science is CCNY.
I should say that I was not all that keen a student early in high school. It was the quality of the schools and the competition of my fellow students that kept me going. The competition resulted in other behavior patterns. Late in my high school period 1 discovered that there were financial rewards for good grades. Specifically there was the Regents' scholarship of the State of New York that paid one hundred dollars a year while in college. It was based competitively on a weighted average of regents examinations. I stayed on for one extra semester at THHS, partly to enter CCNY as a regular student in the fall, partly to take trigonometry and solid geometry in addition to advanced algebra and also to take a condensed fourth year in French to improve my grade in the third year French Regents examination. I got the Scholarship.
This "good grade" momentum carried me all the way through college where I discovered smaller scholarships and was probably why I graduated summa cum laude — but the drive started purely from economic necessity.
Aaserud:And you were motivated to go to school on your own part, you weren't pushed in any way?
Nierenberg:I was not particularly pushed, but when your parents background was like mine it was taken for granted that one was to continue one's education for as long as it was economically feasible. I have already mentioned how facile my father was in languages. He was equally facile in self-taught mathematics. That must have been instilled in him in Europe and this innate attitude towards education was transferred here. Of course the aim of all this education was not clearly defined. My father's desire was that I be a lawyer — even after I had my PhD in physics.
Aaserud:Was it in high school you discovered that there was something called physics?
Nierenberg:Essentially. THHS only offered physics as I said earlier. The school had been forced to move from its own building, Townsend Harris Hall, on the 137th Street campus of CCNY for the selfish needs of the CCNY campus. It settled on three or four floors of the 23rd Street school of business. Because of the small size of the school, and limited space, physics was the only science offered. Other high schools would have chosen the easier chemistry or biology under the same circumstances.
I started to support myself somewhat earlier. My older cousin, who also was an immigrant got me a summer job as a "floor boy" in a dismal fur shop in New York. It is probably the lowest level job next to toilet cleaning one can get but the hard work was good for me. It was a summer job because fur items were manufactured then for winter sale. I made $10 a week when I started, working fifty hours a week but four and one half years later I was earning twenty-two dollars a week — I was very proud of my raises. In fact when I was graduated from CCNY, my employers offered me two hundred dollars a week to stay as a salesman (this was far more than they drew!). A very distinguished physicist who also earned his way as a floor boy was Elliott Montroll - he worked in his father's shop in New Jersey.
I also had a year-round job working Wednesday and Saturday nights as a waiter in an ice cream parlor. You are a New Yorker now so you must know what one is — they must still exist. It is a place where moviegoers go after theater break for sandwiches, coffee, ice cream sodas and so on. Naturally I did not get the job because of competence but because my best friend's father owned the place.
The combination of these jobs and scholarships made me essentially financially independent and combined with free tuition and free textbooks, made my life genuinely tolerable.
This was the beginning of the end of free textbooks. I remember Duff as the author of the physics text. The three credit course in calculus used Love's calculus. The advanced, five-credit course was based on Granville, Smith and Longley and included descriptive geometry as well. I mention these texts explicitly because they represented part of a synergism that had developed between chemistry, physics and mathematics that unfortunately has disappeared. The chemistry course developed atomic theory and the Avogadro's number concept via the perfect gas discussion. Physics offered much calculus practice in various applications. Mathematics coupled to physics and so on.
Aaserud:Yes. You read the books?
Nierenberg:We had a great time — not like what goes on today. At THHS when class was over at 2 or 3 o'clock many of us repaired to the library and drew out chess sets or discussed current popularizations of emerging physics such as those of Jeans and Eddington for example or discussed books on the history of mathematics like that of Cajori.
For many of us at THHS and CCNY chess and fencing were the big thing — certainly not football at our average age! When I got to CCNY I tried out for the chess team. The captain tried me out did very well until he drew me into a stalemate. I had never experienced that before and felt it was unsporting. That plus the fact that I guessed I was not good enough made me quit. I was also afraid of becoming a chess bum that would detract me from my studies.
Talking about chess reminds me of Willis Lamb whom I met at graduate school at Columbia. Willis was an assistant professor in 1939 when I arrived. He had been an intercollegiate chess champion. Willis Lamb was a fabulous teacher. He talked even faster than I did but he seemed to know everything. At the weekly colloquium he impressed me by seeming to know as much as the speaker. It was a great department. The names were Nordsieck, Lamb, Rabi, Fermi. We had almost permanent visitors in Bethe, Teller and Maria Mayer. All but Rabi were splendid teachers . There were very few serious graduate students before the war. There were Julius Ashkin, James Rainwater and John Nafe as well as myself that are worth mentioning.
Aaserud:Before that you went to City College?
Nierenberg:We will return to CCNY of course, but I want you to appreciate my feelings of awe listening to the lectures of these great physicists. The lectures were two hours each but they would seem to pass like minutes. I had a somewhat difficult time that first year in making the transition from a purely undergraduate school to a graduate one.
We may not get to it later so I would like to mention the geophysics course that Fermi taught. He had taught it once before in Italy and he clearly enjoyed it. This profoundly interested me to do a geophysics major with Maurice Biot. It was interrupted by the war. After the war, Biot having left, I earned a different degree. By returning to geophysics when I came to Scripps was returning to an old love.
That high ratio of faculty to students no longer exists in physics — we knew we were fortunate, even then.
Aaserud:City College was...?
Nierenberg:City College was something else again. I will give you my way of looking at it — with some overstatement. There was a very large physics faculty and I put them into three categories that overlapped somewhat. There was a fraction - perhaps a third - that were not remarkable in any way. It was just a job. There was one professor by the name of Taylor who was an M.D. He put in an absolute minimum amount of time and disappeared. (He was the one from whose section Hurlinger rescued me.) There was another named Brown who was afraid of germs. He would only open doors using his hands inside his jacket pocket.
A second third were fabulous and dedicated teachers. There was Mark Zemansky whose famous textbook in thermodynamics was just appearing when I took his course as a sophomore. Henry Semat had an excellent upper division text in atomic physics that developed into a widely used textbook. Simon Sonkin and Robert Wolfe were dedicated teachers. Wolfe was particularly effective in science survey courses where he brought us up to date in developments in astronomy. There was a young instructor, Hyman Goldsmith, who performed the first slow neutron nuclear transformation demonstration in an undergraduate school. Lawrence Wills and Harvey Hall taught the mathematical physics especially well. Wills had been a student of Gregory Breit and co-authored a famous paper in hyperfine structure. Hall was one of Oppenheimer's first students.
Sonkin went to California to work at Stanford during the war and remained there. I used to see him when I was in Berkeley. Hall went to ONR and remained there after the war.
There was a third group exemplified by Walter Zinn. He was a distinguished experimental physicist who worked closely with Fermi at Columbia. He was there because there were no other available jobs. He would surely have preferred full time research at Columbia rather than teaching sixteen undergraduate hours at CCNY. Given the times, this symbiotic relation between Columbia and the local undergraduate schools was good for physics. Others like Zemansky and Semat and Clark Williams also worked at Columbia. The other good guys like Wills, Hall, and Newton Gray were kind of "burned out" and did no research at all.
Quite early Fermi and others turned to research that was the basis of the Manhattan project. Zinn, as his assistant, was burned very badly in a laboratory accident. He was handling powdered uranium metal, which is pyrofloric, when it spontaneously ignited. The story made the New York Times but its significance was not understood. Not understood except for the few physicists around even down to my level who were fully aware of the new developments. There was another great school in physics in NYC and that was New York University — uptown on the Bronx campus. They had a similar but lesser relation with CCNY. Otto Halpern was the leading theoretical light at the time and h-e turned out very good students. One of them was the Morton Hamermesh who was my first physics teacher at CCNY. NYU attracted many very good students who would not attend Columbia University. They did not like Columbia University due to the heartless, unfeeling way they treated students and, in fact, the way staff treated each other. To some degree, NYU had the same climate some years earlier when Gregory Breit was the number one man. He was very difficult.
When Van Vleck left Wisconsin to go to Harvard, Breit left NYU to go to Wisconsin. Where Halpern came from, I do not know but it was all before my time. Breit's trouble was that he demanded too much from his students. Besides the ones I mentioned like Hamermesh and Gray, there was Jenny Rosenthal, The students often had rented rooms converted from living rooms on the ground floor of private homes on University Avenue. The desk would be in the protuberance of the bay window. At 11 o'clock at night he would walk the avenue to see if the students were still at their desks. Newton Gray, in particular, swore that he would do no more research after that experience. One of the results was an addiction to the Japanese game of GO on his part along with similarly affected faculty of CCNY and NYU. Those were days when the game was relatively unknown and Japanese-English dictionaries had to be used to interpret the available texts. Fortunately, I had absolutely no talent for the game despite two years of application.
Nevertheless, the general situation for physics in New York City was vibrant.
An illuminating story that is of the times and continues beyond is that of Mitchell Wilson. My account may have some minor errors because I obtained almost all the information from Wilson himself and had no way to double-check it. Mitchell Wilson was a physics graduate student like the rest of us but with a novelist's sensitivity to events and history. He started at Columbia but he hated the place, disliked the people and switched to NYU. He never had a chance to see if he would be happier there or not and you will see why.
He had to make a living like the rest of us but he was shrewder (and more talented). He followed a typical physicist's pattern but in-an unusual area — writing for the "pulps". In a cold-blooded fashion he statistically analyzed a large number of published stories for the number of words in the opening, the development, love interest and denouement. He wrote stories following this pattern and was very successful in selling them to the "pulps" for about two hundred dollars a piece which was a fortune then. He was so successful that he soon graduated to the 'slicks" like Colliers magazine that paid two thousand dollars a story. This success had the result of removing him from the active physics world — he never obtained his degree.
Immediately after the war he wrote a successful novel called LIVE WITH LIGHTNING. It was an interesting semi-fictionalized account of events, primarily at Columbia, that led up to the development of the A-bomb — so much of the work had been done there by Fermi, et al, and Dunning, et al. It was not a flattering picture of Columbia. To protect himself he reassembled accurate personality traits into individuals so that they could not he specifically identified. Still the individual traits were there like those of Bergen-Davis the x-ray physicist who was chairman in the early thirties, Rabi and so on. He also wrote grade-B movies. I remember one with Broderick Crawford that was excellent and held me in suspense to the very end. He wrote much that had a science content. The Russians particularly valued his work and translated them for popular consumption. As a result he accumulated many rubles in Russia. He would spend months in the Rosseya hotel in Moscow using this surplus while he worked. Several times we tried to get together while I was in Russia but we could not coincide. He died just before my last trip.
This begins to give you a picture of the excitement that pervaded our lives. I taught mathematics and physics in summer school at CCNY as well while in graduate school. One summer there must have been eight or ten of us teaching together. I remember Robert Marshak, William Victor Cohen, who was a son of Morris Raphael Cohen, and Hyman Goldsmith. Because I was junior member I was supposed to remember my place and often would run afoul of Goldsmith. Still I found it exciting to be with a productive and knowledgeable group. You can see where my push and development came from but I still had a good deal of my New York provinciality left despite my sojourn in Paris. As you may have noticed most New Yorkers are quite provincial.
Aaserud:So you were really exposed to the forefront of physics —
Aaserud:— even from City College — ?
Nierenberg:Even at CCNY. That is where met faculty like Robert Wolfe, Henry Semat, Lawrence Wills, Mark Zemansky, and Walter Zinn. While the best course in thermodynamics that had been given locally had been given by Fermi and put down in a small volume by Lloyd Motz, the more permanent effort was by Zemansky as I said earlier. His work was in response to the on other text, that by the famous chemist G. N. Lewis which was replete with errors in derivations. The results were correct of course, after all the Clausius-Clapeyron equation was an accepted result — they were taken from the literature — but the partial derivatives were grossly mishandled. Zemansky was doing low temperature work at that time and he was frustrated by Lewis' text. I was very flattered to be admitted to his course as a sophomore. At that time he was still teaching from his notes.
You are quite right about being in the forefront. There were no transatlantic airplanes which means that the European physicists who came to the United States had to pass through New York City before they went off to Chicago, Berkeley or wherever.
Aaserud:They just showed up, even if they were going to some other place?
Nierenberg:Yes. They would spend several days in New York City. After all it took one week to cross the ocean so that the extra days spent in New York City added little overhead. They obviously spent most of the time dropping their information at Columbia and it eventually would percolate down to me.
This bias maintained the city as the leading center, not only in physics, but the arts as well. The phenomenon revealed itself in other odd ways. During the race to publish conversions of problems of classical physics and the old quantum mechanics to the new quantum mechanics, the New Yorkers had the edge. The mail left the ships in New York and it took another day or two for the Zeitschrift fur die Physik to get to Princeton. That time lead gave a distinct edge to the New Yorkers. Later it was Gorter's having the time to spend with Rabi that gave the latter the idea of atomic beam magnetic resonance. Whereas Gorter failed to find nuclear magnetic resonance in the solid state, he stimulated Rabi to apply it to his atomic and molecular beam systems. This New York situation was also a factor in moving Schwinger's career ahead. This early history of Schwinger's is fascinating and should be recorded someplace.
Aaserud:Zemansky has been used over and over again. I used it at the University of Oslo. It must have come out in a lot of editions, of course.
Nierenberg:Well, even though I was not very worldly, and knew of little outside of New York, except for Paris, I remember the excitement and fun of this period. Fortunately I was saved the pains of the generation four years before me because, just as I would be looking for a permanent job, the war came and the situation changed dramatically for physicists. I was very lucky and I have always felt that I was most fortunate in timing.
This continued even to immediately after the war. I am not trying to be overly modest but I look at the situation in 1946 in an honest way. When I finally got my PhD there were extremely few of us coming out and university physics departments were simply exploding. I was offered appointments in five or six good schools. I had a difficult but pleasant choice to make. Dean Pegram asked me to stay on at Columbia but the great New York City was beginning to pall on me. I began to see the beginnings of the many problems that were soon to beset the city and Columbia University.
Although I wanted to go to Berkeley, Rabi received no response to his letter to Emilio Segre, and so I chose the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. One of the reasons was the history of their famous physics summer schools — something we may wish to talk about later. Just two weeks before, my wife, I and our first baby were to make the great adventure of going all the way from New York to Ann Arbor, Rabi got the reply from Segre inquiring if I were still interested, they would like to hire me. I regretfully declined. A year and one-half later they revived the offer and I went there as an associate professor.
Aaserud:well, okay, let's go hack a little bit again, your trip to Paris, how were you chosen to go?
Nierenberg:I was very proud to be chosen. While I was a junior, it was not a normal "junior year abroad" affair. It was for the best student in the class which numbered about sixteen hundred. It paid one thousand dollars which was very elegant for the time — equivalent to perhaps ten thousand dollars today. My one way ticket on the French liner, Champlain, at a special second class fare was eighty dollars.
The scholarship was called the Aaron Naumberg scholarship (note the coincidence - my name is William Aaron Nierenberg). This was the family that endowed many institutions in the city, including the famous stadium. Normally the scholarship was steered to a language major but since I was clearly first in my class it was hard to ignore me.
The field rapidly narrowed down to two of us — the other was a French major being pushed by the romance languages department. My sponsor was professor Zemansky and he was able to introduce me as having just earned highest second year honors. The final decision was to be made by the president of the college, Frederick B. Robinson. He was a strange but remarkable man. He was strange in dress and manner. He was remarkable in that he rode out several periods of political turmoil, including the Rapp-Coudert committee period, to a normal retirement. He had been a professor of economics before rising to his august office. My meeting with president Robinson was my first introduction to a Jewish sensitive situation — not quite anti-Semitism. I made two visits to the president's elegant office, the first with Zemansky which was straight forward, the second alone, clearly for Robinson to tell me that I had been chosen. The latter meeting evolved into a complex and subtle discussion that I had difficulty in penetrating at first. I realized that I had the fellowship but only if I accepted some condition that was not being put clearly on the table.
In 1937 when a serious young American physicist went abroad he really had but one choice and that was Cambridge. Today there are many. There was no question then — Cambridge was the place everyone went, to. My own thoughts were vague and tentative and, of course, tending towards Cambridge. I had not thought about it deeply yet — one thing at a time.
Aaserud:Germany was out by that time, of course.
Nierenberg:Obviously and terribly yes. But the Cavendish was still great. That was where Rhodes scholar physicists would go and that is where my other mentor, Norman Ramsey went. I finally got the drift. What he was concerned about was that if a raw New York Jewish kid were to go to Cambridge, he would have to be associated with a college. Given the religious orientation of the colleges and my background, president Robinson feared that I would be brutally treated, as if I were someone from the middle of Africa. Of course had I a Disraeli background it would have been all right. Finally catching on, I said, "Oh, I think I prefer to go to Paris".
As soon as I said that, it was all over. In Paris the Left Bank is a turbulent melting-pot where anything goes and I would be relatively colorless. Besides, I had a good physics rationale. Brioullin and Fabry were teaching the general physics courses. Unfortunately they stopped teaching those courses just when I-arrived but I took other courses and worked very hard. I would have done a bit better in England with the tighter discipline that I needed.
That happening was the first sign of prejudice. There were more serious ones that benefitted some fellow physicists unfairly. I do not use their names because their actions were not deliberate although they surely knew they were favored well out of proportion to their abilities. Of the fifteen or so majors in my year just two were not Jewish — well recognizable by their names. When we were graduated, the most sought after prize was a fellowship or teaching assistantship to continue graduate education under the most favorable conditions. The average annual stipend was about seven to eight hundred dollars. Columbia has many, some at one thousands and some at twelve hundred dollars a year, really munificent said. In this pre-war period, Columbia never offered this to me, a Jew from City College. In our class they gave one to one of the two gentiles whom I would place near the bottom of the fifteen in our class. The other gentile got one to Princeton. He was not near the bottom but he was not at the top either. As far as I can recall none of the other Jewish students in my class received an assistantship anywhere else. Neither Columbia, Princeton, nor NYU offered me a fellowship although I was at the top of my class, had won first prize in the Putnam contest and was graduated summa cum laude. I said get one offer and that was from Stanford University. I was excited because it offered the possibility of studying with Felix Bloch. Unfortunately they only offered six hundred dollars out of which I had to pay two hundred dollars in tuition and travel to California. I was foolish not to accept. I was too unsophisticated to realize that they would not let me starve but would find other monies for me.
I also had an offer to go to Pullman, Washington with Clarence Zener who was leaving CCNY. Their enthusiasm cooled somewhat when they discovered that I was Jewish.
Hence I stayed on in New York and made out reasonably well because the physics department created a special position with the title tutor to help their best student make the transition to graduate school. It paid $1500 for' the nine month year and I made $400 additional teaching mathematics in the summer. It was princely for the time, but I did have sixteen contact hours a week. In addition, Columbia gave me a tuition fellowship. This carried me through until the war and the Manhattan Project.
This attitude toward Jewish physics majors changed dramatically after the war. The prominence physics developed had physics departments all over the country bidding for the very best graduate students — even if they were Jewish. There was an ironic twist to all of this. After the war Zemansky and the others at CCNY steered their best students everywhere but to Columbia. Rabi recognized the pattern without understanding the underlying reason and once complained to Zemansky about Columbia not setting the best graduate students from CCNY!
There was more to these personal stories. After finishing my PhD in the post war period, I stayed on at Columbia as an instructor. I once irritated Rabi by pointing out that even then I was the first Jewish instructor in the history of the physics department. He, himself, started as an assistant professor. What had happened in his case was that the physics department advertises its first graduate course in quantum mechanics. For some reason they found themselves without a teacher in what was then an emerging subject. Hence George P. Peagram, then chairman, wrote Heisenberg inviting him to nominate some promising young German theoretician to take the job. Heisenberg replied, noting that there was a capable American who had been studying and publishing in Germany, namely I. I. Rabi. It was difficult for the department to ignore this recommendation.
I do not tell this story to belittle Dean Pegram. Although a staunch Republican, he was a real liberal in affairs of personal liberty. He chaired a Madison Square Garden rally for E. U. Condon when he was under attack by Nixon. He used his influence to bring Fermi permanently to the United States to escape the fascists — Fermi's wife was Jewish. He was similarly instrumental in bringing Emilio Segre to this country — Emilio is also Jewish.
To illustrate how pervasive this disease was let me recite a story involving E. U. Condon, a great liberal and someone I learned to admire and respect greatly. Condon had been chairman of the physics department at Rochester at some period before the war. Years later Bob Marshak became chairman (where he initiated the famous Rochester meetings on high energy physics). One day, in searching through the office files, he came across a letter of recommendation written by Condon on behalf of someone at Rochester. In essence he recommended against taking this person as a post doc because he was Jewish. The argument was that, after a few years, he could not be transferred elsewhere to a permanent post and they would be stuck with the incumbent indefinitely. That kind of argument was often made and it was self-fulfilling. But it was a situation that changed dramatically after the war. It stopped in 1945 and again for self-fulfilling reasons. The reason so many Jewish boys went into physics was that they could not get jobs in engineering which was by far the more practical vocation. So many, like myself, who were not interested in high school teaching decided that, if we could not get paying jobs in engineering, we might as well study physics which was equally unprofitable but intellectually more interesting.
In Europe it was different. Wigner's earned degree, for example, is in chemical engineering. After the war in the United States it was also different. (Steve Weinberg also majored in engineering as an undergraduate.
Aaserud:What about the emigres who came over, do you have personal instances of anti-Semitism or problems that they had in physics institutions in New York or —?
Nierenberg:The ones who came over in the period you are talking about were already famous — Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Emilio Segre, Leo Szilard, Otto Halpern, Bruno Rossi, John Von Neumann and so on. Hans Bethe was already famous for his lectures in nuclear physics that appeared as the three famous articles in REVIEWS OF MODERN PHYSICS. We all studied from them.
Aaserud:Yes, he did that at Cornell.
Nierenberg:Yes, and that was the course that he taught at Columbia when I was there. Withal I have a feeling and some slight evidence that even they did not advance as rapidly as they should in those early years. Rabi in particular complained that John Ray Dunning was accelerated in salary compared to himself. Of course it was not obvious to me at the time that these emigres were Jewish. I did not learn until years later that Bethe, Wigner, Teller and Von Neumann were Jewish. In fact, I still do not understand how a Jew gets a Von in his name. I was told that his family was wealthy and had bought the barony.
Nierenberg:Some of them also were lucky through an ironic twist. Teller, Von Neumann and Wigner were Hungarians. Because they were Jewish they were excluded from Hungarian universities so they had to go to German universities which were far superior.
It was difficult to tell, for me at least. While I knew Segre as a colleague at Berkeley for years, it was quite late before I learned that he was Jewish. I did not realize that Bruno Rossi was also. When I mentioned this to Emilio once he looked at me queerly and said, "What do you think Rossi is in English? — Rose!" apparently Rose is a Jewish name everywhere.
You know that I did not know that Edward Teller was Jewish for a long time. After all, his accent was Hungarian - not "Jewish". No, these "greats" had few problems.
Aaserud:Your Jewishness, was that important as an influence in your home?
Nierenberg:No. It had no influence on my career whatsoever.
Aaserud:What were your expectations when you went to City College? Even more than when you went to Columbia? Did you expect to go into research? Teaching?
Nierenberg:I had none. I just hoped for the best which was not much. You cannot imagine what the Great Depression was like. There were just no jobs. Let me recite to you the story about the competition for the Bureau of Standards job that then vanished. An expected civil service job opening for a physicist at the Bureau Standards was advertises and attracted much interests. I went downtown to the Federal Building to take the examination. I was not qualifies but I felt the experience would be valuable. Instead of taking the written examination, I should have made a name list of the fifty or so candidates that were there. These names would read like a Who's Who in Physics twenty-five years later. Incidentally, the job never appeared. It was closed out for budgetary reasons when the incumbent retired.
Very occasionally there would be a university opening. Some were able to get post-doctoral fellowships that they could hold on to. I did not know how to arrange this sort of thing. I just drifted. I enjoyed my physics and worked hard at it. I was bright and people gave me teaching jobs. I did not have the slightest conception of what the future would bring. In fact even now I cannot visualize how I might have ended up if the war had not occurred. I might have ended up as a shoe salesman — a lot of guys did.
This did not just happen in physics. I met chemical engineers who never practiced anything resembling their training. My wife's uncle was a chemical engineer who ended up as a furrier. It was all a matter of timing. If there were a few openings when you were graduated, you might make it — otherwise you were dead.
Aaserud:So the war was good to you in that sense?
Nierenberg:In that sense — yes. But we could have done without it.
Aaserud:Yes, of course. So, and your parents supported you all the time, your decision, your inclination?
They did not exactly support my decisions and inclinations. They just went along with whatever I chose to do without really understanding. I ran my own life. In those matters, as well as most others, I was quite independent.
Aaserud:Did you continue to live at home?
Nierenberg:Yes I did. Most probably because it was more efficient. I realized that maintaining my own place, as I did in Paris could be a big strain on my time. However, to this day, I cannot so simple household chores.
Aaserud:So the choice of Columbia as your graduate school — ?
Nierenberg:— Was a very natural one. There was a steady flow from CCNY to Columbia and NYU.
Aaserud:Was there any reason to choose one over the other?
Nierenberg:Well, I believed that Columbia was the better school Motz plus Sidney Millman and Clark Williams who were my colleagues at CCNY, did their research at Columbia. Several of them like Williams and Millman, introduced me around and showed me their laboratories. There were the few, like my first physics teacher, Morton Hamermesh, who got their degrees from NYU and still maintained relations with that school. Columbia was also physically close to CCNY — they are just fifteen city blocks apart.
Mostly, except for demanding quality, I just followed the path of least resistance. Very few of us were worldly-wise enough to choose our next steps on a sophisticated basis.
Later I met colleagues who were much wiser than I and always were aware of what their choices were. One was Charles Kittel who deliberately set out to work with Van Vleck. He had his life more or less completely planned and essentially followed this game plan.
Unfortunately when he went to Madison to work with Van Vleck, he discovered that Van had left for Harvard and had been replaced by Gregory Breit. Gregory was good enough for Charles so Charles stayed and earned his degree with Breit. Intellectually it worked out very well. Socially it was a disaster and probably permanently fixed Charlie's stammer. Charles continues a very successful career in a sophisticated fashion. I got to know him well and to understand his approach as a colleague in the Berkeley physics department. (There is a story as to how Charlie stayed on at Madison to do some independent post-doctoral work. Unfortunately, be failed to consult Breit who was infuriated. One day Kittel was leaving the Union just as Breit was entering. Breit swung on Charlie and knocked him down the flight of steps!)
A much more interesting example, to me at least, is that of Ernest Lawrence. He was raised on a farm in South Dakota by immigrant Scandinavian parents. Yet he was more worldly-wise in the physics community than anyone else I ever knew — and that includes I. I. Rabi. He was a neighbor of mine on Tamaipais Road in Berkeley and I would, very occasionally, drop in on him evenings to talk over some problem or other. There he would be in shirt sleeves, sitting at the dinner table with his five children - looking for all the world like his Scandinavian farmer forebears. Yet, he was shrewd in the way of the world. He was the first to see the future by "big physics" and he acted on it. His Berkeley Radiation Laboratory was the model for all later laboratory developments. Brookhaven is a typical case in point. Rabi and the other easterners were absolutely frantic about the concentration of nuclear physics in Berkeley and devoted great energy to building up a copy in the East. I know a good deal about this because Pegram, Rabi, Ramsey and others would periodically sally forth to inspect various pieces of real estate. It would always seem to be raining and Ramsey would pop into my lab to borrow my lab coat. That way I got to hear much of what went on.
Another Scandinavian was Carl Anderson at Cal Tech. I got the following story from a well- retired physicist from Reed College who was at Cal Tech when Anderson discovered the positron. Millikan, the grand old man of the laboratory made his usual rounds in the morning after the discovery. When he got to Anderson's station, he immediately recognized the importance of the cloud chamber pictures and started to organize the entire laboratory around these results.
Anderson stood by quietly while Millikan broke the experiment down into its elements for verification by other members of the laboratory. This went on for some time until Anderson quietly said, "Professor Millikan, I sent in a letter to the Physical Review last night." That abruptly ended Millikan's activity.
I know that I would not have been wise enough to so this — nor would ninety-five percent of my colleagues. It seems that, as in many other affairs, some people are more genetically blessed — they have this wisdom by instinct.
Yes, it's not easily explained in terms of background.
Okay, well, it seems that a significant change at least from the outside occurred in 1942. That was when you became involved in the Manhattan Project.
Efforts like the Manhattan Project but also the radar effort were very significant for young people like myself but also for the future pattern and level of scientific and engineering efforts.
Yes. Before that you had supported yourself through your teaching at City College, right?
That is correct. The last year of my teachings at CCNY is the interesting one at this point of the narrative. As I said I was teaching - in my third year - as a tutor at CCNY. I had signed a contract for one year of teaching at a time. However, in the fall of 1941 I realized that I had to move on. The draft was on in full vigor. Many of my CCNY classmates had already been drafted and most were in officer candidate school. I was prescient. I was sure that we would be in the war before my contract year was over (even if I did not predict Pearl Harbor)!
Hence I went to professor Corcoran who was chairman and asked to be released from my contract at the end of the semester feeling that other, older people could teach and I should be doing something different, more related to the war effort. He was not at all pleased because he already had lost faculty. The military had set up training programs in needed fields and were stripping universities of their faculties for teaching.
Meteorology was a case in point. NYU became one of the important centers for teaching meteorology. I know something about it because one of my colleagues, John Dinwiddie Shea, had gone over to NYU to teach meteorology and kind of took me under his wing. In fact, I attended a banquet of the American Meteorological Society with him and met the famous Pederson whose textbook was the standard of the subject. It was then I first recognized the Scandinavian domination of the subject which persisted even until the period of Harold Sverdrup, my distinguished predecessor. The bulk of those then trained represented a wave that passed through the system and have now retired from the scene. The schools, however, have remained centers of excellence — NYU still has a first class department.
Well, Corcoran was under pressure but he recognized the reasonableness of my request and released me from my contract. I assumed that I would go into the military but, like many others, I wanted to do it my way. My way was to be a naval aviator. I had been a romantic kid and had dreamed of being a naval aviator. I had read novels based on the Pensacola training school. I also realized that many of my older professors had a close relationship with the U.S. Navy going back to WWI, usually based on magnetic mines and degaussing of ships. Shirley Quimby was one and Harold Webb was another. The latter was also graduate adviser and so he was assigned the task of seeking out particularly well qualified physics majors for officers.
This was my chance, so I applied to the Navy through professor Webb. I wanted to go with the V-11 program whose graduates were called the "ninety day wonders" from the length of the training course. It was a cram course that would turn you into a hotshot pilot, qualified to fly a plane with a torpedos slung underneath for attacking war ships. Webb started the papers moving and I felt I had a good chance — my health and eyesight were excellent. After my second visit to see how my papers were progressing Webb said, "You know, Fermi came around to see me. He is recruiting for the 'project' and would like you to join him."
I was flattered to be invited by the great physicist who had impressed me so in his courses — even though I already knew that he thought well of me. Of course I knew what the 'project' was. Every physicist in the area, no matter how junior, knew. There was no secrecy — yet. In fact, I remember describing how a theoretical atomic bomb (or perhaps reactor) might work to my freshman science survey course. Despite the invitation, still felt I wanted to be an aviator.
I did consult around. In particular I talked to a fellow teacher, Clark Williams, who already was working part time on the project. He agreed that it was normal for a physicist to want to join the Navy but he guessed that there would only be six months of research to be done and then we could turn the affair over to engineers for execution and we would all join the Navy. We were both naive enough to really believe this. But the world of science then was made up of naive people like us with just the few exceptions.
There were actually at least four quasi-independent groups in the area working under the aegis of the NDRC (National Defense Research Council). I did not go with Fermi for personal reasons but ended up with the group that stayed on in Manhattan working on the diffusion project. There were Clark Williams, Eugene Booth and John Ray Dunning. Henry Bourse joined us later. Dunning was the initial leader.
There were three competitive methods that were being seriously worked on around the country for separating U-235 from U-238. There was the centrifuge method, under Jesse Beams, the liquid thermal diffusion method and the membrane diffusion method. The latter won out, not just because it was the better method — that is still not obvious — but because of the drive, determination and, perhaps one could say, the salesmanship of Dunning.
But, as I said, Rabi personally disliked Dunning. Rabi was then in Boston as one of the "vice-presidents" of the MIT radiation laboratory working on radar. He urgently arranged for a meeting with Harold Urey (who probably dislikes Dunning as well) to persuade Prey to take over the project. Rabi could and did do this because he was part of the nation wide power structure who was given much too much credit for the success of the project in Henry Smythe's book. Prey was logical enough because he was famed for his knowledge of all aspects of isotope chemistry including their separation. He had no inclination to manage but was persuaded to do so to save the world from Dunning — so to speak. Dunning, however, was irrepressible and the project succeeded famously.
You can imagine what happened. I got a deferment of course and I worked for six months, then another six months and after three extensions I knew that this would be the pattern to the end of the war because of the clearly growing optimism about the results of the research and engineering. The project grew exponentially from a few dozen people to perhaps several thousand. Out of this number perhaps only fifty really knew what we were working on. Security was very good.
So the nature of the work was entirely different before and after you joined —
You are right and that is where the classical physics training came in — not available to today's majors. What was involved was fluid flow, diffusion, heat transfer Poisseuille flow, turbulent flow and all the instrumentation that went with this kind of research. I was a chemical engineer for four years but did not know it. As an example, when I joined the project I felt that those researchers who were testing membranes using He-Co2 mixtures were ignoring conservation of mass. I worked out a formula for extracting the basic separation factor. It was immediately used and called the "Nierenberg cut correction".
Dunning was very much impressed and had many carbons struck and distributed. Some months later and much to my surprise. I found the same formula in somewhat different form in the Handbook of Chemical Engineering. It was called Rayleigh's formula and had been developed by the great physicist in his experiment to demonstrate the existence of argon in the atmosphere by a diffusion process essentially identical to ours. Since the project grew exponentially it was impossible to follow up with a correction although I tried. For many years the "Nierenberg" terminology was used at Oak Ridge. (It may still be!)
When I think of my decision I feel that I would not have survived. Most of those first pilots out of Pensacola did not make it. They were the first wave — our only defense against the Japanese fleet after Pearl Harbor. They came in low and slow to get close enough to launch a torpedo that was not reliable in the first instance and they made easy targets for the Japanese counter-fire. Nevertheless, I always felt bad about the matter because I knew I would be a physicist the rest of my life and this was my one chance to become a Navy pilot. I made up by becoming a private pilot with an instructor's rating much later in life but it is not the same thing.
One consolation is that if I had gone Navy they might have assigned me elsewhere. My fellow student John Nafe was very ocean oriented. He promptly joined the Navy, became an officer and was assigned to Annapolis to teach physics all day long for four years. He never got-to sea.
What did the work as a section leader involve? What size was the section —?
It was variable but by the time the war ended we had about thirty-five people in the section. That is a large group when you consider that I was only about twenty-four years old. I also had a great deal of delegated authority for money and materials. It was that kind of experience that matured many of us beyond our years and enabled the country to pick up rapidly in science after the war. I was not that mature in the beginning. When I joined the project, Dunning asked me what salary I wanted. I laboriously computed the generous amount of one hundred eighty dollars a month. He looked at me peculiarly and proposed two hundred twenty as a more equitable and normal figure.
In the beginning it was difficult because all we could get were 4-Fs who might be good and two or three youngsters who came from a Yonkers trade school. Then the military did a wise thing. All the projects around the country were lacking trained young scientists and engineers. Hence they selected a large number of bright prospects from the armed forces and sent them back to selected universities for eighteen month cram courses. The ones that came to work with me were very good and probably are scattered around the country performing well as engineers.
I was also head of an aborted top secret section for awhile and, finally, I was a member of the theoretical group headed by Carl Cohen. Little of this work can be discussed fully even today — the top secret work exemplified some of the problems of the time. Urey had a former student, whose name I mercifully forget, who was kind of a charlatan. He came up with a super method of separating the isotopes which few of us knew anything about. The excitement was great and much money was pumped into it. The demonstration set up was put back in Pupin Laboratory where we had started from.
Rather belatedly, Dunning decided that the new project needed a theoretical group and asked me to form one — he did not like Cohen. I was not happy about taking on a third assignment and before I started to build up a new group I persuaded Dunning to let me work by myself for awhile. The whole affair was curious. After some calculation I came to the conclusion that the new method at best could not improve over the gas diffusion method by better than a factor of e per plate and that with an enormous penalty in power. Let me explain what a plate is in chemical engineering. It is unit of performance derived from the early petroleum fractionating towers made of stacks of trays or "plates". Even if a tower is continuous this concept is used. In our case each plate or stage gives a minute change and thousands are needed. Hence a large change in performance could make a huge difference in size and cost.
Dunning did not want to believe me but I dragged my feet in putting together a group and finally Booth found the source of the trickery and the whole thing collapsed. I imagine that there were many incidents like this during the war. It was not good for Dunning who already had the great success of the gas diffusion plant to his credit. I, like many - but not all - others worked very hard and late during that period. I would put in six full days a week. My wife and I lived in the same house all during the war.
That is the other part of my life that I should mention. At the same time that I was negotiating with professor Corcoran I persuaded my fiancée, Edith to elope and get married. My argument was more or less the same. It was before Pearl Harbor but I knew the world situation was going to change dramatically. If our marriage was a fait accompli then her mother could not persuade us to put it off if I had to move from the city. We were married on November 21st, 1941 in Yonkers. As it happened I stayed on in New York City. Hence we formalized the marriage on the 21st of March, 1942, with a religious ceremony. To the days of their passing our parents were unaware of what we did. We lived in a small house near the Mount Vernon city line.
I left New York City for reasons similar to the ones I later had for leaving Berkeley. When I was a physicist in New York City life was much easier. Physics was a small, uncrowded field. I owned a car and was able to drive and park everywhere in it. I even remember being able to park near Herald Square in the middle of the day. When I drove to Pupin I could park right near the gate. By the time '48 came around you could already see what was happening to the city. The good things were there but they were getting harder and harder to enjoy. It was at that point I felt I had to leave - it was getting to be too much.
Aaserud:That was the basis for the decision?
Nierenberg:Yes. A lot of my colleagues solved the problem by moving to the suburbs -particularly Westchester because of the Nevis cyclotron. Somehow that seemed to be the worst of all possible cases. You had the long commute, no possibility of going home for lunch, and you were too far-out to easily enjoy the theater, opera and the museums. Those that had no children, like Henry and Barbara Foley, chose to live in Columbia University apartments. Many with children found it unsuitable.
Aaserud:What was your wife's background?
Nierenberg:Edith went to Hunter College and was graduated one year after me. She majored in accounting and education.
Aaserud:You have two children?
Yes, two. My daughter lives in Tallahassee where her husband is professor of biology. She herself has been for a number of years secretary of the Department of the Environment of Florida. She is very well known in Washington and is on many major committees. I expect you will be hearing of her soon. She was born in 1947.
My son is president of a small but rapidly growing software company in Sacramento called Unify. Their principal product is data management. One of our family jokes is that Vickie will be a candidate for the vice-presidency and Nico will be her finance manager.
A good deal of my daughter's success is due to her Berkeley upbringing. All her formative years were there including college. That is where she met her husband who was her teaching assistant in biology. Berkeley is a tough school in the worldly sense. If a youngster is sophisticated enough to avoid the street traps then he or she can have the best schooling possible.