Oral History Transcript — Dr. William A. Nierenberg
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Interview with Dr. William A. Nierenberg
William A. Nierenberg; June 26, 1986
ABSTRACT: 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 Community College of New York (CCNY) and junior year in Paris; graduate of Columbia University; involvement in Manhattan Project with John Dunning from 1942; University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley after war; wife and children. Postwar transitions: scientists' reaction to the May-Johnson bill; the new physics; Ph.D., 1947. Michigan University's place in American physics (summer schools, Horace R. Crane). Joins University of California, Berkeley in 1950. Joins Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, 1950-1965; involvement in creating the Hudson Laboratories at Dobbs Ferry (Columbia University) in early 1950s; Director, 1953-1954. Assistant Secretary General of NATO (as Chief of NATO Science Committee), 1960-1962; joins JASON in 1962. Director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography from 1965. Assessment of own research. Consultancies and committee-work during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, often with U.S. Navy involvement. Scripps is touched upon, especially his difficulties upon assuming the directorship in 1965. More comments on the new physics (after World War II) and the Depression in physics in the late 1960s. Also prominently mentioned are: Carl David Anderson, Hymen Goldsmith, Harvey Hall, Morton Hamermesh, Ivan Hurlinger, Willis E. Lamb, Robert Andrews Millikan, Frederick B. Robinson, Harold Clayton Urey, Harold Worthington Webb, Lawrence Wills, Mitchell Wilson, and Robert Wolfe.
Aaserud:I was at the Scripps Archives today, and they were carrying in stacks of papers. I think they were your papers.
Nierenberg:They probably were mine, yes.
Aaserud:And my question is, obviously, whether they're accessible.
Nierenberg:Not yet. Deborah Day, who is a superb archivist, is presently reviewing them for me. There are two sets of papers. Accumulated over these twenty-one years, there are my personal files and then there are the office files. They have removed large amounts of both sets for permanent archiving. Deborah Day is going to go through the files and advise me as to which should be held back and which can be scanned today. As far as I am concerned, most of them could be read right now, but there may be a few personnel items and similar items that she is going to check. I think it will be several months before she can sanitize them.
Aaserud:Maybe we should pick up where we ended last time. Then we went pretty much through the war period. I don't know if you have anything to add to that.
Nierenberg:Well, I'm sure I do, but I can't think of it offhand.
Aaserud:Let's get started on the transition from war work and back to normal times or relatively normal times. I guess it was gradual.
Well, the first thing that occurs to me was that when the war was over, so many of us had different kinds of transitions to civil life. In my case, I hadn't finished my Ph.D. at Columbia, so I had that influence on me. There was a very interesting experience that you might want to record as part of this transition. Until I took the job at Scripps twenty-one years ago, I never was much in politics of any kind, even arms control. I was a registered Republican, but mostly I voted for Democratic presidents then. That's not true today. I voted for Roosevelt twice — the last two times he ran — and for Adlai Stevenson, but I started to weaken afterwards. I have always been a registered Republican. What developed, I found fascinating. It was interesting to me personally, because the older scientists were politically sophisticated. It was realized right away by many — but not by me — that it was very important to have comprehensive legislation to cover nuclear affairs, or, rather, atomic, as it was promptly and incorrectly named. As you well know, General Groves was the creator of a bill that was introduced as the May-Johnson Bill — I forget who was the senator and who was the House member. As I understood, it was largely written by General Groves, or at least with his advice, and was favored to pass. Everyone seemed to approve it. In fact, Oppenheimer gave his blessing. He said he read it and that it seemed fine to him.
Now, this is going to sound very strange to you and to other people when they read this, but what I am about to report is absolutely true. What happened next in each of the centers where research was going on, like Chicago, Manhattan, I also suppose at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Princeton, the major nuclei of research, was that small groups were formed to discuss the political aspects. I was very naive and did not appreciate what went on at the time. One excuse was that I was busy writing my contributions — which were rather major, if I say so myself — to Volume I of the Manhattan Project, of which there were eventually about twenty-four volumes. Others did understand, and it was just as well. What actually was happening was the beginning of the Federation of Atomic Scientists.
We would have meetings at Columbia in our case. I have a vague recollection of meeting in the physics lecture hall in Pupin. A debate started among the senior scientists about the character of the May-Johnson Bill, the majority of whom were concerned that it was too military in character and that it favored the military usages or control by the military. That was the general tenor of the criticism. And some of the senior people had been very peripatetic. I only realized this recently, from the book DAY ONE, that scientists like Teller and Szilard would actually circulate through all of the places and projects. Most of us were frozen in situ, as you know.
I myself knew nothing about what particularly went on at the other sites. But I do remember vividly that one time Edward Teller came and inveighed against the May-Johnson Act as being too military and too oriented towards the military and too much in the control by the military.
Then, at another session, Wigner came carrying the same argument. You may not realize this, but Eugene Wigner is probably more to the right than even Edward Teller. He is a quieter man but very stubborn. He came and talked to us, and he expressed the opinion that we should raise a protest because the May-Johnson bills were bad. He said, "People tell me I'm wasting my time and that we would never get anywhere, but it's like cutting off your right arm to match cutting off the left one." I remember him making some allusion of this character. He said that the fact that Oppenheimer had approved it didn't appeal to him at all and carried no weight. I don't know if I was cynical or not — I would normally tend to be — and would expect such activity to be futile, but the remarkable thing was that we actually killed the proposed legislation and the McMahon Act was substituted.
When I think back on it, as I do every now and then, we weren't all that united. Certainly my group had not been meeting for very long. Our communication with Congress was not that great. It was just that a few knew how to do it. I am sure Szilard knew how# he was remarkable, he knew how to do everything. But I do not remember Szilard coming around to this viewpoint.
It is simply that when I think about it, it is paradoxical that Teller and Wigner fought so vigorously and tirelessly against the bill and Oppenheimer, who never yielded.
Perhaps he realized he had erred. As I see it, he probably just was very careless and lazy. I don't think there was any ideology involved. He was just very sloppy. He had been close to General Groves and probably he was as naive as I. He just did not lay any significance on the whole business. But the remarkable fact remains that this incipient group had such a powerful influence on Congress and against a three- or four-star general — whatever Groves was at the time — and that entire associated ensemble. We did much better then than we do today.
Well, the McMahon Bill was considered satisfactory and I believe, except for some minor amendments, it is still the bill that guides us today. It is rather remarkable, actually. That, then, was one of the transition items, and then, like so many of us, I went back to the university.
I can tell you one thing that happened that was a precursor to the 60s. It is just one story and I'm talking about twenty years earlier, 1945-46. I wanted to go back and get my degree as quickly as possible. Before the war (I may have mentioned it in the earlier account), I had wanted to be a geophysicist because I was really excited about Professor Maurice A. Biot's course in classical mechanics at Columbia. He was a remarkable physicist and held the classical mechanics chair and had done so much in applying it to a variety of problems, including earthquakes. (Incidentally, just to interject, he died in Brussels, at the age of 80, since you and I talked last.) He should have gotten the Nobel prize instead of Prigogine, if they insisted on a Belgian. He was head and shoulders above Prigogine, who simply does not rate! I thought perhaps I would work with Biot, but he was gone. Now, what I am about to tell you is secondhand, but apparently he also came back to Columbia. He had been with the military in some roles. I had seen him only once, when he worked on wing flutter with von Karman. In any event, Biot came back. He had been an assistant professor before the war, and he had done very well by any standard. He was older and a very quiet man. Apparently he felt that he ought to be promoted to associate professor. As I understand it, he got into a very bitter public row with Rabi who was now chairman of the department. I think the essence of it was that Rabi did not want any part of Biot's specialties. He wanted the department to be confined to "modern physics," and that is the way it went. By that was meant nuclear physics and solid state physics. Columbia was not the only major department that went that way. Most major schools, other than places like Brown, did the same.
Now I am way ahead of myself. We will return to the transition period. But I want to connect up what happened here with what happened in 1964. In that interval, there was tremendous change in the teaching of physics in universities. First, sound was exorcised from the curriculum. Then optics was removed from the graduate program. In my time, optics was one of the six major graduate subjects on which we were examined at Columbia for the Ph.D. degree. It was removed, and it became a minor upper-division topic. Sound became a nothing; you learned about waves from studying quantum mechanics, not studying sound. Subjects like elasticity disappeared and were replaced by discussions of cyclotrons and such. Then it accelerated. Classical mechanics took a back seat, for example. Of course, similar things happened in chemistry and mathematics, with the so-called new mathematics and new chemistry. That happened later, but it was part of a continuous development,
This change in teaching can be viewed in many different ways, but one of them is a departure from subjects that are closely related to everyday problems that people feel or see directly, like the environment and pollution. Interest in problems like elasticity or corrosion was being replaced by teaching to prepare people for research in graduate school even though so many of them would never be involved. It was replaced by fields related to the research that the professors were doing, which was not on the environment or any other societal problems. I know that that was one of the major inputs into the revolution at Berkeley in 1964, that is, the dissatisfaction the students had with their courses and programs and the attitude of the faculty and everything else. You knew that because after the turmoil subsided, the departments all made great efforts to bring back these subjects of more direct application and try to go back where they had been. They never quite made it.
I can give you a specific example. When I came to Berkeley to teach in 1950, there existed a course that had been taught by Professor Williams for many, many years — who, I am sorry to say, apparently faded out via alcohol and never made a big mark in physics. It was Physics 121 in the upper division, and I was asked to teach it. It was what was called "vector analysis,' and I think I taught two semesters' worth. It was very curious that in a school as advanced as Berkeley there was a vector analysis course in the classical sense where one dealt with the formal vector notation dot products and cross products and what their geometrical meaning was, and so on, with some simple applications. Bright people could be taught all that in half a semester. Then what do you do the remainder of the semester? Finally, the second semester, which was elective, was wide open.
Well, I made my own course. I still have it. It was very successful. In effect, it was linear mathematics applied to classical problems for the most part, like elasticity. I even did anisotropic elasticity, where you go to the fourth order tensors so that the students could get a feeling for the subject through a concrete realization about tensors. I was teaching tensor analysis via classical physics and not quantum mechanics. And then I went into hydrodynamics as a natural sequence and so on. But this is just sketching the mathematical techniques and matrix methods as they applied to physical problems like elasticity. In the second semester, I used Levi-Civita's book on tensor analysis and then went on to special relativity. But I did not go into the physics too deeply. The students are not quite ready. They were learning a general variety of techniques, but in the process they were learning classical physics as well. It was a very successful course, because I had more students registered in the second semester, which was optional, than in the first. The first one was a required course, the second one was optional. You say you like to work with case examples. This is a case example.
But this was not my course. The course I enjoyed teaching and spent most of my time at was primarily the graduate quantum mechanics, 204A. I taught it perhaps fifteen times and enjoyed every minute of it. It was close to my research, a first- year course. Hence, I taught the vector analysis only two years and then others taught it from my borrowed notes. In fact, even after I left Berkeley, they kept borrowing my notes.
Then what happened was very strange. I was called one day (still as an associate professor) to a small meeting — and a very serious meeting, I soon realized. There were the old-timers, Professors Loeb, Victor Lenzen, the chairman of the department Raymond T. Birge, plus a very brilliant physicist colleague, Charles Kittel, the solid-state physicist. At first sight I could not figure out what I was called in for. What had happened was that Kittel was demanding that 104B be dropped as an elective course. I think the reason I was called in was because I had been so successful. This is not a boast, as you will see. In other words, the senior professors felt that I would argue for the course, but it really was not my primary interest. My course was the other one, and I do not believe in turf protection anyway. I did not realize till much later that what was happening was that Charlie had written a very successful textbook for graduate solid-state physics and taught it well. It had very solid impact. He had also written an upper-division textbook and was giving the course, but it was poorly attended because there were many upper-division courses, many of which were elective like his. He felt that, if the students did not have this 104B, they would likely have to take his course. That was why he wanted it abolished. I do not think I will ever forget that session. Victor Lenzen was not a great physicist — he was a rather dull man, but I remember his saying, "It does not make sense." Mind you, these were the conservatives, and Charlie was the liberal. They were saying, "How can you drop a course that students like so much that they take it in such large numbers?" But that is what was done, and this is only one case — it was done all over the campus. It was this kind of thing that fed the dissatisfaction on the part of the students. They go mostly by instinct. They knew they were being manipulated.
There is an epilogue. After I had been at Scripps for about six years, I received a call from George Trilling, who was now the chairman of the physics department at Berkeley. He thought that I was about to take a sabbatical and invited me to return to teach the vector analysis. They were now serious about the problem.
There were other things I could go into, but they are not related to physics — things like the usurpation of playing fields for professors' favorite buildings, and so on. When I came to the campus, we had three soccer fields. When I left, we had none. Meanwhile, we had more than tripled the number of intramural teams.
Now I return to the postwar transition period in physics, you see. Something bad was starting at that point, and I was part of it, but I did not know it was happening — I wasn't sophisticated enough. That was the second item besides the political affair. Like many of us, I had high-level clearances during the war, but I just let them lapse, believing they no longer would be of importance. I completed my Ph.D. rather rapidly and taught for a couple of years at Columbia. I went to Michigan on my way to California — like so many — to start a new career. I was very fortunate, because by being so early there was practically no competition, and I was considered very good. Because of that, I had many jobs to choose from. Many of us who came out of that time had this experience because physics was burgeoning enormously due to its emergent popularity. You also had the returning GIs, who had to be taught, and universities were expanding, so those were busy times.
But the clearance question did not arise until later. I was in Michigan in about 1949. After three or four years went by, my friend and colleague John Menke, like other people who had gone to Oak Ridge from our project, came back to start a business in the new field. He had been in a business family and successfully developed NDA — Nuclear Development Associates, or something like that. He brought me in as a consultant and my clearances restarted and have remained with me ever since.
Aaserud:Could you say, perhaps, something about your dissertation?
Oh, it was no big deal. I just picked up where things left off before the war. Rabi had a famous laboratory in atomic and molecular beams. I asked Rabi if I could work with him and he said yes and, in fact, was instrumental in getting me a National Research Council pre-doctoral fellowship, which was very handsome as far as I was concerned. It made a big difference.
I went to work for Rabi, but he turned me over to work with Norman Ramsey. That was great. Norman Ramsey was wonderful. In a way, both men were my Ph.D. professors, but I worked most closely with Norman. The laboratory was on the fifth floor, and it had not been used for about five years and there was a layer of dust an eighth of an inch thick over everything. The apparatus was Sidney Millman's molecular beam machine. The first thing we did — and Norman did the most — was to get a vacuum cleaner and vacuum out the damn place. I am not joking, it was just awful. Of course, we had to revitalize the equipment. Rabi's group used submarine storage cells for running the batteries. They were dead and had to be gotten rid of. The Navy was good enough to supply some new ones. The equipment was amusingly archaic by today's standards. But still I got my degree in nine months. I went to work like mad. I had all the needed technology at my fingertips. My vacuum expertise was developed during the war. I had tremendous maturity, also from the wartime activity, so I was able to get the thing going in quick time. There was something mysterious that was left over from Rabi's research group from just before the war in the alkali halides nuclear resonance lines. This lead to my thesis. I did my thesis on the quadrupole moments of the alkali halides. We did have one breakthrough — one really very important thing that, somehow, we never got enough credit for. We did the first zero field nuclear quadrupole magnetic resonance, and that was very important.
So, that was the dissertation. It was a very big one — about thirty to thirty-five pages in the PHYSICAL REVIEW. It was very simple of me and very unworldly. Today, one would work five papers out of the work. Besides, it was much too long. My dissertation being finished, I was available for a job. Since I was fairly well known from during the war, the chairman of the department at Vanderbilt, Francis Slack, a wartime coworker, invited me to be interviewed for a professorship and I visited Nashville. While there, the University of Tennessee became involved, so I visited both schools and they both offered me jobs. But what I did decide was to go to Brookhaven, since Norman Ramsey was planning to go to Brookhaven, which was just then starting, and since I felt he was one of our country's leading physicists.
Phillip Morse was the first director, and Norman was to be the first head of the Physics Division. Before the arrangement was final, Norman became dissatisfied with things at Columbia and accepted a full professorship and went to Harvard. This was the chair Robert Wilson left for Cornell. (This was quite a shock to Harvard — no one leaves Harvard!) Let me digress a bit about Brookhaven. I know something about its beginnings because of my lab coat. Dean Pegram, Norman Ramsey, and others would go out regularly to inspect some possible site for a new laboratory. Somehow, it would always be raining and Norman would dash down to borrow my lab coat to keep dry. As a result, I overheard much of what went on. In simple terms, the people in the East, Rabi in particular, were anxious to catch up with Ernest Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory, which they did. However, some of the best sites were declared unavailable by the military, and the committee had to settle for the least attractive one — Brookhaven, a WWII training camp. Fort Schuyler would have been superb, but it could not be had.
So I stayed on at Columbia for another year, and then Rabi wrote to a lot of schools for me — about five or six — and all but two offered me professorships. I accepted Michigan because I never heard from Berkeley, which was one of them. Just about two weeks before we were to leave New York to go to Michigan, Rabi got a letter from Emilio Segre asking if I was still interested. They had lost his letter. (Very typical of Berkeley!) But then they came after me again after a year or so, and I ended up at Berkeley after two years in Ann Arbor.
Aaserud:To what extent do you see your later physics research as a continuation of your dissertation?
Nierenberg:It definitely was. I enjoyed that style of research. What happened was, when I got to Berkeley, I wanted to do some of what was then high energy physics on the big cyclotron. I had the time assigned on the cyclotron, but I immediately recognized the large team pattern of big physics and I did not like it. I still do not like the idea of having to stand up before a time committee and tell them what I will be doing two years from now. If you know what the answer is going to be, why do it? Then, of course, the cyclotron might be broken down, or whatever, and the research be delayed still further. So I decided to go back to atomic and molecular beam research, and I went into applications to radioactive nuclei. It was the same, but different. We developed totally new technology, so we could work on short-lived isotopes and we did very many of them. I personally had about forty graduate students and my colleagues had additional ones. When I left Berkeley, was already moving fairly heavily into doing the same things with the new laser technology and modern optics. A former student, who is still there, Tetsuo Hadeishi, was beginning in this area. After forty or so Ph.D. students — and the group kept growing to forty persons, no matter what, in what was a relatively small field of physics — I could not see myself spending the rest of my life doing the same sort of research over and over, but we will get to that later.
Aaserud:Maybe we'll talk about the expectations and experiences at Michigan.
Nierenberg:Well, the Michigan thing was a very short affair, and it is probably not worth too much discussion, but some points are worth noting. Michigan was an important part of American physics. One of the reasons I went to Michigan, you see, rather than going to Illinois in Urbana which was then very exciting —
Aaserud:Those were the two main choices?
Those were my two main choices, yes, but there were others, quite a few others — Iowa State and so on — but those two were the main ones. Michigan had a glorious record. All of those midwest schools before the war were very good — Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois. They had done great physics and had had great people, but Michigan was more than that. They were famous for their summer school in physics in the thirties. The history of that school should be written up as a separate matter — the history of that summer school is fabulous. All the great physicists in the world came — you just name them. There are still group pictures of the attendees.
Let me tell you one amusing story. When I got to Michigan, there was this chap who ran the stock room. One day when I was in there foraging for something, I found this picture at the bottom of the trash barrel. Do you remember how pictures used to be done? They came on very hard, heavy cardboard. This particular picture included Einstein and Ehrenfest and others of that level. It was tremendous and a beautiful picture — and in the ashcan! I was horrified! I took it out and kept it on my office wall. It was very inspiring. About six months later, Professor Ernest Barker, chairman of the department and normally a very proper person, used his master key to come into my room and take away the picture! Suddenly it was realized that these pictures were very valuable. But he did not even have the decency to ask me for it. Now, that was my picture. I hope that they did not subsequently lose it. I have no idea where it now is.
In any event, it was a very famous summer school and did much for U.S. physics. That influenced my decision. And then, there were some great physicists there that I knew of. David Dennison was there, who had achieved this wonderful work on ortho- and parahydrogen and on the ammonia absorption line, and so on. Then, Uhlenbeck was teaching there — and he was a fabulous teacher. There was also Otto LaPorte, of the Russell-LaPorte selections rule. Of course, the other half of the department was dull. This gave rise to a split that put Barker in as chairman. That is why I chose Ann Arbor. But what bothered me when I came was that they were not getting the same people as Harrison M. Randall, who was still alive then and for whom they named their building. It was he who had the drive to develop the summer school and keep it going. The faculty let the summer school slide. They kept it going, but it was not of the same quality. They made no effort to increase the budget. It did run and was very active for a few years while I was there. The new physics was exposed there. Of course, they had people like Schwinger and Feynman. They had Fred Seitz and that was where I met him and with whom I keep in close touch. He came out one summer and we younger people enjoyed his presence and teaching. There were other first-rate people, like Bob Serber. Looking back, I now realize it was dying because people were imitating the school elsewhere, but they could have kept ahead by increasing the budget. They did not and just let it go.
But it was very important, again, because, if I may skip ahead, Cecile (Morette) DeWitt spent one summer there. She already had a reputation as a brilliant theoretical physicist. She is French, but she passed the war with Schrodinger in Dublin, where she published and did very well. She naturally came to the summer school, as so many young physicists did, because she wanted to hear about the new physics. But she remained very French.
The interesting part happened when she went back to France, where she realized that French physics was suffering very badly. They were not teaching quantum mechanics as a formal course. In fact, they were not teaching in any sensible way at all. They never had. I can say this as someone who studied in France. They taught no quantum mechanics because of the heavy hand of DeBroglie, of all people. Cecile started the summer school at Les Houches deliberately to give the French students an opportunity (even though it had an international flavor) to learn what they could not get in their universities. She was very successful. I will not go into detail, because when Norman Ramsey (see how lives cross) became the first Science Advisor to NATO, summer schools were the first program he got going, in imitation of the Michigan and Les Houches schools. He picked Cecile's right away and financed it to a level where it was very effective. When I came in after Seitz, I kept it going very strongly as well.
Somehow I always wanted to go to Berkeley. In those years, Berkeley was the center of the world of physics. The only competition was the institute at Princeton and that was in theory. Columbia was very good, but small. Berkeley had everything young people from all over were flocking to Berkeley. So, I went to Berkeley when they offered me a job, although it was a complicated affair. I made a lot of personal errors in Michigan that I got rid of by going to Berkeley as well. When I came to Ann Arbor, I became a target for four Ph.D. students who where nonperformers and I was too unsophisticated to realize it. They latched onto me and I eventually realized that I could never pull them through to a degree in the allotted time. There are other social mistakes that Edith and I made. None of them serious — please don't misunderstand me — but the kind you leave behind when you go to Berkeley. I was not a sophisticated university-type, but I learned. I was sort of a New York City kid, even though I had been to Paris. So, I cannot say much about Michigan, except for noticing these changes that were taking place in the world of physics and being unhappy about the disappearance of that famous summer school.
I can say something, though, that marks the difference with the world today. Michigan had one of the earliest cyclotrons. It had been built before WWII by Professor James Cork, a very active experimental nuclear physicist. There it was and I and a group of new, young faculty. The department hired young professors like mad to meet the horde of returning GIs. I mention four of us specifically. The reason I mention four of us — Parkinson, Pidd, Oliver, and myself — has to do with the cyclotron. Although it was basically sound, it was in bad shape. The major components were all there. There were two problems. One involved the coils; they were flat spiral coils, separated by rubber insulators. The rubber was not very strong and was cut through under the weight of the windings and kept shorting out, so there was a continual problem. The other problem concerned the RF tubes. They were homemade by a very good glassblower, but they were antique. Having gone through the war, I was sort of a modern physicist who knew that you do things with money and often it is cheaper. Then there was still a third item I come to later. This gives you a picture of what the world was like then it was a challenge. I said, "First of all, we must get the money to buy commercial tubes and have a regular, uniform supply." Secondly, at someone's suggestion, the cyclotron had to be pulled apart and the rubber replaced with sheets of Teflon (Teflon just becoming available), because it is very strong and a good insulator. But the others did not know how to proceed. I said, "It's no problem." I was a money-raiser by then because of my experience during the war. I said, "Look, they just formed the AEC, and if I know a new organization, they are anxious to commit money but do not have the proposals." Now, you won't believe this, but just the four of us 'Toting Turks put together what was an infinite budget — probably $125,000 — that would be like a million today. For that time, it was an enormous amount, but, thank goodness, there was not too much overhead. I wrote the letter. It wasn't ever a real proposal in the normal sense. We simply wrote this letter to the AEC — after we got the appropriate address. In effect, it was a letter-proposal, the four of us signed it, and, by return mail, our proposal was accepted in principle without arguing a single penny.
We rebuilt the cyclotron and it ran well for years and that is all we had to do. Then Bill Parkinson took it over, mostly because the other three went into other researches. It ran for many years. It was a very good cyclotron. Then Bob Pidd got involved with the racetrack synchrotron. It was the brainchild of a very brilliant man who is still there at Ann Arbor, but long retired, of course — this is H. R. Crane, who has since been important at the American Institute of Physics. Dick is a very ingenious man, an extremely brilliant experimental physicist, originally from Berkeley. He made the first important modification to the circular synchrotron by realizing that what you want to do is take the synchrotron and split it into quadrants and pull the four pieces apart so you have straight sections where you can insert apparatus for research. However, that made for problems that he did not foresee too well, because there were non-uniform end effects when the machine cycled through zero field, there were problems of defocussing in the straight section. It was a very small change and very clever, but it didn't work, so Pidd and I were assigned, among other things, to fix it.
But one of the things that shocked me was the way the many graduate students were employed. For example, they were building and repairing what were being called "synchroscopes," the instrument that is now so standard, digitized and all that. The event of that time was that Dumont, the pre-war oscilloscope company, had been replaced by a brand new outfit, Techtronics. This was a company built by men in Seattle out of a wartime development. That was the beginning of Techtronics. I knew about it, and was aware of the quality. They were still building their own in Ann Arbor, and they were spending their time on nonproductive effort. I startled everyone when I took some of the money, bought some synchro-scopes, and threw out the old junk. Now they could concentrate on making the machine work.
That was an example of the great change from pre-war physics where you did sealing-wax work and everything yourself to where one buys the nonessentials so items that represented real advances can be concentrated on. That was the change taking place everywhere in that period and was a very important development. When I got to Berkeley, dealing with ONR was the same. One did not go through today's complicated ritual. This fierce competition did not exist. Everything was small and everyone knew who the good people were. We knew who the good graduate students were. We knew who the good senior people were. When you put in a proposal, which rarely was exaggerated, the money came without argument. It was not a large amount of money, but you got it, and one was mostly evaluated after the fact rather than before. It was a post-evaluation procedure and I gave you this example from the AEC where, literally by return mail, they accepted in principle and left it to the businessmen to work out the details.
That was the Michigan experience. Of course, when I got to Berkeley, I found myself dealing with a very sophisticated outfit, because they had the Radiation Laboratory going, which was well oiled, well organized — with terrific, unbelievable technology. I just gaped to see what technology they had accumulated under Ernest Lawrence's guidance.
Aaserud:You didn't have to go through the same thing in Berkeley as at Michigan in terms of getting rid of the sealing wax?
Nierenberg:No. You see, Lawrence was several kinds of genius. One was his vision, like no one else's, as to the future of physics in size, and how a great laboratory is developed. The visible tribute to Lawrence, as far as I am concerned, is the kind and format of labs away from California, like Brookhaven and Argonne, which are just copies in organization and spirit of what he recognized as possible in physics. No one else saw that. Mostly they would have returned to sealing wax — perhaps not completely, but to small-scale operations — but they could not once he set the pace, of course, and the competition. Lawrence collected people. If he met anybody who really had a specific talent, he would support them, and they, in turn, were devoted to him. As a result, he had novel technologies available, as, for example, dealing with refractory metals like tungsten and molybdenum for ion sources.
In science, I could evaluate it myself. There was a collection of great physicists, technologists, machinists, engineers — all sorts of necessary and balanced talent. It was a very inspiring place for all of them, because they sensed they were part of a forward wave. This morale was very impressive. It was true for me, as well.
When I came to Berkeley, I was not initially a member of the Radiation Laboratory. I worked there only temporarily because of a complicated personal affair — my professional position was not open until January and I was going to remain in Michigan for another six months, but my wife had a miscarriage and we were sort of down and felt we wanted to get out and get moving. I was no longer doing anything useful at Ann Arbor. Hence, a job was found for me temporarily in the Radiation Lab, although I taught anyway. My formal job really began on the first of January 1951, although I started teaching the semester before.
I arrived on July 1 and was put to work in the Radiation Laboratory on a particular project of no great importance that I will bypass. The most important development in size called the "MTA," Materials Testing Accelerator — had almost everybody — Panofsky, Thornton, McMillan, and Alvarez — involved. It was located out toward Livermore, on Parks Air Force Base. I never visited it. It was an enormous linear accelerator, the idea of which was to make a pound of neutrons a day, with the implicit concept that that many neutrons could be used for all sorts of transformations. I knew nothing about that aspect of the machine. Something else you might want to talk about later intervened. Rabi, working with Manny Piore and the U.S. Navy, decided that a university laboratory should work on a particular feature of antisubmarine warfare — low-frequency sound propagation. During the war, it was discovered that low frequency sound, of the order of one hundred cycles per second, could propagate for thousands of miles. The project in the Navy for building receiving arrays based on this discovery was called "Project Caesar." The first array was built in 1949 by Western Electric and Bell Laboratories. Rabi and others felt that there should be a university laboratory to back it up with fundamental research, even though a great deal was going on in government labs, and Columbia University was tapped to house the operation. Hence, Rabi organized a convocation of everybody he knew for one whole week — many of these same people I mentioned before. Alvarez, Panofsky, Thornton, Donald Gow, and myself from Berkeley came and others came from elsewhere, etc., including fellow Ph.D.s from Columbia. The McMillan Theatre was full. We were subjected to three days of intensive briefing by the Navy and then two days of "what should one do?" kind of thing. One evening, after a session, the Berkeley group was on the 116th Street platform of the Broadway subway, on the way to dinner and the theater. There was a detailed discussion of the MTS, of which I only understood the part that dealt with the difficulties in getting a proper vacuum. It seemed that the system was built with giant mercury-vapor vacuum pumps used by Kaiser during the war for producing magnesium. As it happens, the mercury is harmless where magnesium is concerned. However, the situation is radically different where ion sources are involved, particularly where huge currents are involved as in the case of the MTS. There, the mercury is a disaster. It poisons the entire electrode assembly and fouls up brass surfaces. According to the book, mercury vapor pressure is negligible at dry-ice temperatures, yet the Berkeley people found that dry-ice slush traps failed to stop the mercury vapor. As a result, they had to resort to liquid nitrogen, which was prohibitively expensive for so large a machine. I knew about the problem because of my wartime experience when I had become a vacuum expert. The trick, somewhat mystical, is to shock the trap first with liquid nitrogen and then substitute dry-ice slush for permanent operation. That effectively traps the mercury vapors.
I told Bob Thornton about this procedure and forgot about the matter. I was surprised to learn that they took me seriously, introduced the procedure, that it worked and temporarily saved the project. I was even more surprised to learn that Bob reported to Lawrence that it had been my idea.
You know what Lawrence did? He hardly knew me. He called me into his office and invited me to become a member of his laboratory! See, that's the way he would work. I did, and I was a member. I had a laboratory on the campus and a laboratory up there. That's the way he collected people, you see, and it was a very interesting personal experience. That's the way he collected the other guys and so on. But the big genius of Lawrence was understanding how big physics could be. Most of the other people didn't.
I'll tell you a story that you may have to follow up. I have no idea if it's true or not, because it's really second hand. Another very inventive man, but of course he was a floater, was Leo Szilard. Leo Szilard told people — not me, although I knew him very well and talked to him a lot — that he thought of the cyclotron at least as early as Lawrence did. He said he worked it out and so on, but he thought nobody would be crazy enough to spend that kind of money to build the machine. You see? It's a question of what you think is possible in society. Lawrence knew right away that it could be done, that the money could be raised. I want to believe that what they told me Leo Szilard said was true, you see. It fits. Leo's like that. He could very well have thought of it. So anyway, that was getting to Berkeley and what Berkeley was like at that time. It was very exciting.
Aaserud:When was this meeting in Columbia again that you were talking about?
Nierenberg:You know, I'll be a son of a gun if that couldn't have been even the fall of 1950 or 1951 — I couldn't tell you which. It would have to be probably the fall of 1951. That would be my guess.
Aaserud:Was that a co on thing then, to get into briefings with the Navy and have that kind of connection?
Nierenberg:I couldn't tell you. I couldn't tell you. But you see, the point is that Rabi had very good Navy connections.
Aaserud:But for you?
Nierenberg:Well, for me it was new. But these were big things. That's the way one did these things, because the Navy apparently had agreed it would be a good idea to have such a laboratory. Manny Piore was the chief scientist of ONR, and so on. Of course, it was the same thing. Well, they had about seven to ten million dollars a year for the laboratory, which would be, I suppose, about 20 or 25 million dollars a year today. Gene Booth took the job finally. It was offered to Panofsky. Panofsky did not accept. E.T. Booth, who was at Columbia then, took over the job of building up this laboratory, and he was very lucky to get about one and a quarter million dollars. In that period, for a number of years, it never got to be more than about a one and a half million dollar operation.
(The seven million dollars never showed.)
And the laboratory stayed on?
It stayed on for a long time, for reasons that we need not go into here. I eventually became director. Robert Frosch, another well-known person, also was director for a period. It lasted perhaps twelve years before it died through inadvertency. The laboratory itself was not that important. It was the procedure and the cooperation between the Navy and the university that was.
Was it already in Berkeley that you started applying computers?
Nierenberg:Not exactly. I was relatively advanced compared to most of my colleagues in physics and even so I was slow. When I was at the Hudson Labs, we had, finally, two 650 IBM machines, the basic computer of the time, but I knew nothing about them or their operations. I was very naive. We had a chap who did the programming, and since I always saw him working with plug boards and wires, I thought that that was the way to program. Actually, that is the way one programs the card punch and the way the printer was programmed, but, of course, that is not the way one programs an electronic computer. But I did not know that then. I came to Berkeley in 1950. But in 1955 — it slipped my mind in the press of starting a new job — I felt I needed a computer. I went out to Livermore because Sidney Fernbach. who had been my first Ph.D. student, ran the computing group there. He set me up with some young lady programmer who used the IBM 701 to print a telephone book that was a look-up book of magnetic-field values for my research in atomic beams. My specific trigger, though, was via a French visitor whose name escapes me. He was a colleague of Charles Kittel. But Charles did not know the Rad Lab and asked me if I would do him the favor of showing the visitor around, particularly since I speak French. I still know how to say "punched cards" in French — cartes performes — from that visit. Anyway, we went around the Rad Lab. At one point, we looked into the computer room and there was an IBM 650 sitting in the center. What bothered me was the six or seven graduate students who were in my quantum mechanics class and who were using the computer — and I could not. Hence, I sat myself down and learned how to use it. That is when I began and have never stopped. So many of us do today, but I was probably the first one of my generation to use computers on-line in research.
Aaserud:Maybe we should backtrack to the Hudson Lab and talk a little bit about your involvement there. You were there for about a year, right?
Nierenberg:Not right away. During the first summer, when the lab started, I came East to work with Gene Booth. Some of the others were Jim Rainwater, who won the Nobel prize (and died just recently), and Jack Nafe, who is now retired from Columbia and who was always infatuated with the ocean, but they came from Minnesota. Altogether, there were about six or eight of us who came to help get the place started, but most were not permanent. The laboratory was on the Hudson at Dobbs Ferry. The next couple of years, I would come back as a consultant to help, and finally they invited me to take over the laboratory as director, which I did for one year. But I decided I wanted to go back to Berkeley and not stay on.
Aaserud:That was potentially a permanent thing that you had there?
Nierenberg:Oh, yes, it could have been — that is, working with the Navy and on Navy problems. That is what got me started in Navy work that continues to this day. I got into it deeper and deeper because while I was at the Hudson Lab the war was on in Korea and the big problem that, was hanging was under a mine warfare, so I became involved, in mine warfare. As a result, I became a member of the Mine Advisory Committee. Then came Sputnik and that triggered a tremendous reaction in scientific and technical activity in our country and, so, I became a member of a panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee on antisubmarine warfare, and, little by little over the years, I developed an alter ego.
Aaserud:What kind of work was pursued in the laboratory? Was it basic research?
Nierenberg:It was research related to low-frequency sound propagation and noise background in the first instance. As I said, it concerned sound in the neighborhood of one hundred cycles per second that I mentioned earlier. We were trying to carry out certain basic or applied research that would back up what Bell Labs and the Navy were doing.
Aaserud:It would have been quite a transition from Berkeley.
Nierenberg:Oh, yes. I find it all very curious. I seem to attract people that way. There was a project called "NEPA," the Nuclear Energy Propelled Aeroplane, which kept two hundred people occupied at Oak Ridge. I was only twenty-eight years old when I was offered the direction of that program. It was Al Weinberg who offered me the job, at the recommendation of someone named Cecil B. Ellis, to run that whole group of two hundred people. I did not accept, but I took the Berkeley job instead, which came soon after. When I got to Berkeley, I kept getting offered similar jobs. And then, just before I came to SIO, I was offered the head of AUI. That I did not accept for several reasons. I have also been offered college presidencies. The presidency of City College of New York, before Bob Marshak, was one. Ithaca College was another. My most flattering offer was just a few years ago. The chancellor of the University of Illinois telephoned me about the presidency of the Chicago campus when I was sixty-three years old. When I pointed this out to him, he said that the committee was fully aware of my age but figured that I had seven good years left. I felt great.
Aaserud:Maybe we should talk about your alter ego, as you call it.
Nierenberg:Well, I gave you the beginning and we can talk more about it. As a result, I developed a good knowledge of Navy needs and problems in the area of low-frequency sound, which is still of prime importance and where activity has expanded enormously. But, to go back to the beginning, I learned about the pressure mine (the so-called "oyster") which gave us great difficulty in Korea. Without going into details, I developed a very original idea for sweeping the mine. That was the first time I learned that when people tell you that something is high priority, it is not necessarily so. It was because of that that Elliott Montroll, who was then doing a stage at ONR, got me to be a member of what was called the Mine Advisory Committee and which was then run by the Catholic University.
Professor Herzfeld — an old man — was chairman. At some point, we were moved to the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council and that is where I met many people who knew me here at SIO. John Isaacs was on that committee, as well as Elliott Montroll and Columbus Iselin. As a result, I met many of the operators in oceanography. As I said, when Sputnik happened, there was a revitalization and restructuring of the President's Science Advisory Committee. All sorts of panels were started in these areas and one of them was in antisubmarine warfare. I was a member of that panel for a long time, and there, of course, I got acquainted with Navy problems at a higher level and with classification. Then I started to be invited to all sorts of conferences and meetings where I met a completely new set of scientists and engineers and that is how I got to be known by the oceanography crowd. Meanwhile, I kept my work going at Berkeley. I still had Ph.D. students, did research, and taught. My ocean work really involved an alter ego.
Aaserud:. So it started with—
Nierenberg:— the Hudson Labs, the beginning of the Hudson Labs.
Aaserud:And then the Korean War.
Nierenberg:Well, the Korean War only happened to put an added dimension on the matter. Since you seem interested, let me tell you some more about it. One summer, Booth and the others went out to visit some installation in Bermuda.
Aaserud:This was the summer of?
Nierenberg:The summer of 1951 would be my guess. I was elected to stay home and watch the shop. But it was not much of a shop then, so I was able to fly out to California, to San Diego, because we were very concerned about the state of our knowledge on noise. Our neophyte group did not know how to treat it. We had heard Carl Eckart, the great physicist, was out there and had a formulation of the problem. Hence, I flew to California to spend two or three days with the great Carl Eckart to learn and take notes that I could bring back to Dobbs Ferry while the others were in Bermuda. It was my first visit to La Jolla and I only collected odds and ends of impressions. It was a late flight, coming in the morning from L.A. As usual, we had low stratus and were held over the airport for about two hours. We landed at San Diego and I do not even know where I stayed, but it could only have been the Del Charro Motel. I realize now that the work I was interested in was at the Marine Physical Lab at Point Loma, and I cannot remember how I traveled back and forth. But what I found interesting was that not only was Carl Eckart there for the war effort, but there were other people from other places. One of the other great names was Arnold Nordsieck who had come from Illinois, and there was Hugh Paxton from Los Alamos, whom I had known during the war. So, I met some old friends and some very powerful physicists.
Arnold Nordsieck was a name to be conjured with in theoretical physics. He had done a very famous paper with Bloch — the Bloch-Nordsieck transformation and removal of the infrared infinity in field theory. He was very, very good. I was very impressed and had a very good three days. (I should mention that I had known him when he was an assistant professor at Columbia before the war.) But I did not know that I was at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Nobody even mentioned the name while I was there. It was very strange. I knew nothing of the institution for another five or six years. Arnold Nordsieck bought a house very close to Scripps and near the beach.
But, you see, at that time a very important part of Scripps was the Marine Physical Laboratory. That was a very major faction and very well funded by the U.S. Navy and has a history of its own. It was left over from the Division of War Research of the University of California at Point Loma that had been headed by Gaylord P. Harnwell, who later became president of the University of Pennsylvania.
When the Regents thought of dissolving Scripps after the war, the Navy persuaded them otherwise in the national interest. Not only that, but the Navy would put money into the Marine Physical Laboratory and, so, the Marine Physical Laboratory became a part of Scripps. It was very vigorous for many years and still is an integral part of SIO. It is intriguing, because several years after I came to Berkeley — probably before I went to Hudson Labs as a director, but after I had been heavily involved in it — I got three or four telephone calls. A delegation from the Marine Physical Lab came to visit me — consisting of Arnold Nordsieck, Carl Eckart, and some others whom I do not remember — to pressure me into taking a job as director of the Marine Physical Laboratory. I did not take it, but I remember it well. I reminisce about it with Walter Munk, as a colleague and friend. I said, "You know, I bet if I had taken that job, I would never have become director of Scripps." One develops relations and antagonisms, you see, by being inside that prevent rising to the top.
Aaserud:You went back to Berkeley after Hudson, right?
Aaserud:And you were there
Nierenberg:Until 1965 — except for the two years that I served as Assistant Secretary General of NATO in Paris, from 1960 to 1962.
Aaserud:Can you describe briefly that experience?
Nierenberg:It was a great experience that really is entitled to separate and full treatment. I am happy to talk about the NATO science program and the political aspects that can be discussed on a different plane, but its science program was of high quality and the rationale was good. NATO had been in existence for many years, but about 1957 or 1958 there was a head of state meeting, which was unusual, involving NATO. President Eisenhower was personally involved and James Killian, the president's Science Advisor, and I.I. Rabi. Killian and Rabi and James Fisk — and I do not know who else — introduced the concept that NATO develop a science and technology division in consonance with a non-military part of the pact. There is an article in the NATO constitution that says that cooperation be encouraged in scientific, technological, and cultural areas, as well as military. That was the vehicle for establishing the NATO Science Committee. It is still operating very effectively, and you probably have its history.
Aaserud:Yes, I have your article here
Nierenberg:Oh, that one, yes. How nice, I forgot about it!
Aaserud:You wrote this for the BULLETIN.
Nierenberg:Yes. May I refer to this article? There is a very odd aspect about its submission.
Nierenberg:It was very odd. Remember, the FAS tends to be relatively liberal. When I wrote this article, I said something that was quite precise. Paul-Henri Spaak, the secretary-general of NATO, was not all that enthusiastic about a science division. If they wanted to do it, fine, but his support was based on his hope that it would eliminate the gap that he believed existed between the U.S. and the U.K. on one hand and France on the other. France was, and probably still is, paranoid that the U.S. has secret treaties with the British in the nuclear area that they know nothing about. Spaak was an extraordinarily sophisticated and cynical person. He was the driving force that consummated the Treaty of Rome which established NATO. He genuinely believed that forming the Science Committee was a practical way to bridge the gap between France and the United States in nuclear matters, which was uncharacteristically unreal for him, and that is why he gave it his support. That is the point I made in the article that the editor removed as "too political." I thought it was key.
In any event, you have this information that can save me from filling in the detail which is now a matter of record. The initiative was very successful for the support of international basic science. When the operation started, the Science Committee was formed and Rabi persuaded Norman Ramsey to be the Science Advisor and director of the new division — and I do not believe that one could have found a better person to do the job. Although Norman did not speak French all that well, Mr. Spaak was genuinely taken by him. Norman did a great job. He established a pattern of operation that has been, more or less, followed ever since. Despite the fact that we had a fair budget, the office was small. There was negligible overhead, which was just the opposite of what goes on in the OECD. In other words, when I inherited the office, we did not have more than four or five officers and a corresponding number of secretaries, but a relatively large budget for the time.
The program was in three parts. One must always have a fellowship program, and so did we. We tried to orient it as much as possible to support the lesser-developed countries of NATO. Then, we also had a direct subvention program for supporting scientists — mostly so that they could get work together from the different countries. The most important operation, however, was (is) the summer schools. They were the least-expensive part of the program, but they have been extraordinarily effective and probably the most successful operation in the international area. They covered the entire gamut of science, and they did extremely well. That was the Cecil DeWitt initiative I was referring to, and it was, more or less, Norman Ramsey's idea.
It seemed to be my responsibility to get these programs on some kind of stable foundation and permanency. While I did not invent those three parts, I had the responsibility to get them administratively going in such a way that they could not fade away in the NATO bureaucracy. I was very proud of that — that it has become a tremendously successful operation. This is not the place to go into all the details of the program. But I repeat that Norman Ramsey did a splendid job starting the affair, Seitz added a great deal of strength and dignity, and, as you may realize, it continues in that spirit today.
Aaserud:It was Ramsey, Seitz, and yourself?
Nierenberg:That is correct.
Aaserud:And it started off when?
Aaserud:You started in 1958.
Nierenberg:No, I started in 1960. The others stayed for one year and a few months and I was there for two years.
Aaserud:How were you appointed?
Nierenberg:Well, I was originally an escape valve. I believe that Seitz wanted to get out before too long and he had to find someone who was available. He had heard I was considering a sabbatical year from Berkeley, so he talked me into being his replacement. I was willing to do it, because it gave me a chance to be in France — a country that is important to me. The job was not that all consuming that I could not keep up with my physics. I was able to bring a student with me — Norman Braslau— who worked in Professor Kastler's laboratory at the Ecole Normale Superieur on radium E, which is francium. It was supplied by the Rad Lab in Berkeley and shipped to France. My life was complicated. I gave lectures at the College de France where we had a regular seminar in our field, and so on. I, myself, had the title of professeur associe. The nice thing was, given my plaque diplomatique, being able to park wherever I wanted to in the Latin Quarter, which is never an easy thing to do.
Aaserud:One interesting thing about this is that this is really developing science.
Nierenberg:Oh, yes, It was a great opportunity. For example, we could support the school at Varenna in a regular fashion, like Les Houches. While we are primarily concerned with physics here, all disciplines were involved, and there are fifty to seventy-five of these schools supported a year at what we could call the postdoctoral level. They are very well attended. While the school is restricted to be in a NATO country, the students and faculty can be anywhere, even Russia and East Germany.
Aaserud:It is not militarily oriented?
Nierenberg:No, not at all, although we did try to cooperate with the military. For instance, we have schools in acoustics or propagating ducts of microwaves, and so on, that interest the military. But the schools were open, with nothing secret about them. The proceedings are all published and there must be several hundred volumes out of these schools.
Aaserud:When we're talking about your publications —your first publication that I found that has not directly to do with physics research was from 1958. I don't know the significance of that. It's from the Journal of Farm Economics.
Nierenberg:It was really not very important. It was a service to a friend and colleague. I had a neighbor — George — who was a very important figure in agricultural economics. He eventually became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and is now retired somewhere in Texas. He was a neighbor and fellow professor. There was a joint meeting of two societies of agricultural economics — American and Canadian — and he persuaded me to be the "outside" speaker. It doesn't signify anything, absolutely nothing. It was very dull, except for meeting the mayor of Winnipeg who was the son of the skipper of this famous vessel "BLUENOSE." Otherwise I remember very little of the meeting.
Aaserud:It just stood out in your bibliography.
Nierenberg:I can imagine, but it had no significance whatsoever.
Aaserud:In the same year, you were selected to do the first Ernest Lawrence Memorial Lectures of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nierenberg:That is something else again. Ernest had died six months before. At that time, the Academy had its main meeting in the spring, as today, but then they also had a fall meeting, away from Washington. This no longer happens. The council had voted to have a Lawrence Memorial Lecture at this fall meeting as a regular event. I think that was the one and only — they never had another. I was very flattered, but I think it was very droll. It is true that my group had achieved an important breakthrough in research. We had just measured a large number of spins of radioactive isotopes. It was a breakthrough that was well recognized. Physicists had been talking about that kind of research for years, and we came through. But, still, there were many other interesting scientists who could have been called on. For example, Luis Alvarez, Ed McMillan, Glen Seaborg, Emilio Segre, and many others, who were closer to him and were very distinguished and were going to win Nobel prizes — if they had not done it already — were available. I was not in that category. I believe the power structure could not agree on any one of them, so they picked me. Still, I was not all that bad a choice. McMillan was not going to nominate Luis, Luis was not going to nominate McMillan, and so on. But I was not a competitor. So, I was the first E. O. Lawrence lecturer. It was a signal honor. I worked very hard on my talk which was in my field. It was a review of the field with my particular contributions.
Aaserud:Something useful came out of it.
Nierenberg:Mary Lawrence was there and it was well attended. And, it was unfortunate, I broke my arm the night before!
Aaserud:But you were able to carry through -
Nierenberg:I was full of Emperin-codeine! It is odd, though, that I do not mention names in this lecture. There is the Koefli Committee —
Aaserud:In the BULLETIN article?
Nierenberg:That is correct. I did not mention Norman Ramsey by name — I do not know why — I made it impersonal.
Aaserud:It was very general in that way?
Nierenberg:I just tried to give some idea of the program.
Aaserud:That seems to be the thrust of it. It's the program and your evaluation of it. From 1958 to 1960, your vitae says you were a member of the President's Advisory Panel on Antisubmarine Warfare.
Nierenberg:Yes. That started right after Sputnik.
Aaserud:So that we have talked about that?
Aaserud:What were the origins of your interest in science policy?
Nierenberg:It probably began at that point, but at a low level. I never did have much interest in science policy. I did, however, in science and applications of science. If you really want to know when my interest started, I can tell you. When it is all said and done, I had very little interest in science policy or even in national policy — with one exception — until I came to Scripps, and then it was forced upon me by my job.
I never cultivated important people in politics. I was totally uninterested. Many colleagues did, of course. They were getting into arms control and related matters, followed by a belated entry into environmental matters. They were busy lobbying congressmen and senators and other public figures. If I met a congressman, it was absolutely accidental, until I came to Scripps. I was a pure scientist during that period, really. You might even have labeled me a "technocrat." Perhaps I am being overly defensive about it. I was very apolitical. I was a registered Republican, but I would vote for Democrats and never get terribly worked up over elections. I did only once — that was the exception — when Goldwater ran, and it probably was a mistake. I was one of the California co-chairmen of the Scientists and Engineers for Johnson and Humphrey. And Johnson was a disaster he dug us even deeper into the war in Vietnam in a way that even Goldwater would not have done.
Aaserud:His rhetoric indicated it.
Nierenberg:I know. But the rhetoric would be just the thing to scare the other guy and keep you out. You know, Eisenhower was a very quiet man, but he said he would have no hesitancy in using atomic weaponry if necessary to end the Korean War, and as soon as he was elected, the North Koreans immediately came to the bargaining table when they would not before. So, you can never be certain as to the correct path to take.
Aaserud:Yes, that's true.
Nierenberg:He said it very quietly and very firmly. Eisenhower made a very important statement. He said that war is hell, it is stupid, and fundamentally is a total loss of rationality. The last phrase was his. Then, how can one argue, for one thing, that one weapon is better than another? Once at war, all rationality goes by the aide. It is a poor argument, because if would make chemical and biological warfare a norm — but no one questioned his statement.
Aaserud:So you were slowly maturing in science policy questions?
Nierenberg:Yes — but the nuclear business was a problem with me. There was only a small time interval between my being effective in JASON and my coming to Scripps. I started to be exposed to nuclear policy — but turned away from it — for the first time when I joined JASON. (That was also when I returned from NATO.) Murray Gell-Mann loves policy discussions, and he put together a group of JASONS, including myself, on policy issues. Tom Shelling of Harvard was a member of the group — he came in as a consultant — and there was Don Glaser and maybe one or two others who would sit around on the grass at Woods Hole and talk about these nuclear weapons. I just could not grasp it, but the others seemed to. They would talk about millions of people being killed and the difference in effects between exploding a bomb at a thousand feet and five-thousand feet of altitude, and so on. It was not that I was horrified or unhorrified, I was simply uncomprehending. I believe that is the only word that could describe my reaction. I mean I just could not see how one could push this circular slide rule that came with the book and talk about these things. I just quietly left that group and returned to work on antisubmarine warfare, a form of killing I understood better — to put it perhaps even more uncomprehendingly. I actually stayed out of that aspect of policy until I joined Townes's MX Committee many years later.
Aaserud:That was your first exposure?
Nierenberg:That was my first real exposure to what I would call the science-policy questions in the nuclear age, although I had had a brief brush years earlier on the White House ASW Committee.
Aaserud:And your first task in JASON, too?
Nierenberg:My first task in JASON, yes.
Aaserud:You stayed on for that summer?
Nierenberg:Yes, I was there that summer, for one month.
Aaserud:That was just after you came back from service in 1962?
Nierenberg:Well, it might have been the summer of 1963 or 1964 — I do not remember which.
Aaserud:We were talking about the origins of JASON. We were talking about your first science-policy experience with JASON.
Nierenberg:Yes, that was it. Well, most of JASON work is not policy. It involves hardware.
Aaserud:I know. It's technical.
Nierenberg:But Murray Gell-Mann liked to do these things. He is very brilliant. The previous summer or two, while I was in Paris, Murray had done a very good job. He put together a group on the war in Vietnam. Now, this had to be 1961. He had already visualized the problems. Murray predicted the course of events in detail. He understood the pattern of the people in Vietnam, how they behaved, how difficult it would be for the United States.
Aaserud:I would like to, if possible, get back to JASON in more detail at some later stage, maybe even while I'm here at this point. Therefore, I'm not asking you all these JASON questions this time around, because that's a whole evening by itself. But I'll just ask you this now —what was the background for your joining them? Had you been approached before you went to Europe?
Nierenberg:Yes, I had been. You see, I probably knew half of the JASONS in that early group. Charles Townes was very important in its formation and he was in Washington at the time. People I knew — colleagues like Kenneth Watson and others — were involved. I had been approached, but I decided to take my sabbatical and go to NATO for two years. Townes was a little stiff about it, even if a good friend. I said, "Well, you know, I like the idea so much, why can't I be a member of JASON 'on leave'?" He said, "No." He thought it was a poor idea, but when I returned, it would be considered. When I did, I spoke to Ken Watson about it, and they got me inducted immediately. It was being part of the "old-boy network."
Aaserud:Your vitae says "1963 to 1970, member of U.S. National Commission for UNESCO."
Nierenberg:That wasn't a big deal. I was considered quite unusual among physicists then. I had been West Coast Secretary of the American Physical Society, so the council of the society knew of me. Since the Physical Society was invited to have a member on this commission, they thought of me immediately because of my NATO experience. I would attend the commission meetings and try to make the most of them. Then, on my return, I would try to report to the council. naively thought it would be important that the American Physical Society Council should know about the affairs of UNESCO, but they had no interest in it whatsoever. It is very typical of physicists. I am afraid that they would pay a lot of lip service to community service, but when the chips are down, they were not really interested. I was not hurt, but I was somewhat surprised. Here I wanted to make a report and nobody cared. So, you see, it was not a big deal, no.
Aaserud:And it didn't take too much of your time?
Aaserud:Maybe your activity for the Law of the Sea Conferences — that was a big deal. I'm sure that involved more activity.
Nierenberg:That was also more exciting. That is a subject we could talk about for three hours, but most physicists would not be interested. It does not belong in a physics history.
Aaserud:Well, I'm trying to expand the interest.
Nierenberg:No, but that is a very long, complex affair, and I held a certain point of view which ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the community. The outcome was unfortunate, for something good could have come out of the negotiations. In fact, what did is so bad that it is terrible. It is another United Nations initiative that got out of hand.
Aaserud:Just briefly, what was the nature of your involvement?
Nierenberg:I entered via several routes. Let me first describe a typical delegation. Remember that there were many Law of the Sea meetings, perhaps one a year, starting in 1972 in Caracas. I was a delegate many times. There were three effective layers to a delegation. One, there would be a core of people who were extremely important and were privy to all aspects of policy made and led by the ambassador and deputy ambassador and included six to seven people from assorted agencies. Their backup was the National Security Council, which established policy. They were serviced by a second layer of perhaps twenty government people. Finally, there was a group of a hundred people in different committees, like the fishermen's committee, the science group, which was us, and other public interest groups like environmental ones. In effect, most were lobbyists. This is a typically American situation, which can only be described as "grotesque." The delegation from France, as with the United Kingdom, for example, might be composed of eight people. The contrast with the U.S. delegation was startling. When Kissinger heard of this, he blew his top and ordered a drastic reduction in numbers — but even he lost.
Aaserud:That didn't simplify things, I'm sure.
Nierenberg:I also came in via another route because I was the first chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, which gave me a quasi-official position. Finally, I had been advisor at the State Department at-large on many issues for a long time, anyway. The State Department liked me. So, I entered carrying a number of perspectives.
Aaserud:I agree, a full discussion of that whole issue is warranted.
Nierenberg:Yes, it is very illuminating and tremendous. Some day, I hope to develop the subject in a similar interview. I held a certain viewpoint from the very beginning, and I knew that, in time, an administration would arrive that would not accept a treaty as things were going. I could see no other way, because the events moved in a totally wrong direction — in a useless direction even for the lesser-developed countries. The whole affair was bizarre.
Aaserud:I picked out this today; this is a publication that came out of that.
Nierenberg:My goodness, I never saw this! Where the devil is this?
Aaserud:In CERES, the publication of the FAO.
Nierenberg:Gosh, did I write that? I am not sure I have a copy.
Aaserud:Well, you can have that if you want. What was the time span for your involvement, and for the conference in general?
Nierenberg:That entire period of about ten years, more or less, but after a certain point, my interest waned. In other words, I would go to the conference for a week to "show the flag," but soon I realized that they were not getting anywhere.
Aaserud:Was anybody else of your colleagues in physics involved?
Nierenberg:No. This article is my point of view, yes. I saw immediately that the great promises being made about ocean mining (copper, nickel, cobalt, and manganese) of manganese nodules were empty. They were based on poor economics. The proponents did not understand that the prices of those items were cartelized and, in fact, have drastically fallen over the years. The LDCs were strongly motivated by the mystical returns from the bottom of the oceans. When all was said and done, the Law of the Sea negotiations begin and end with food. How did you find that article? Was it in my bibliography?
Aaserud:I just looked it up in the university library here because I could not find that journal anywhere in New York. I just found it an hour ago.
Aaserud:If we leave the Law of the Sea thing, before we turn to Scripps and another chapter, maybe you will give me an assessment of your work in physics until departing from the University of California at Berkeley.
Nierenberg:It was very successful. There was another chap in England by the name of Kenneth Smith who really preceded us with a real breakthrough in spins and moments of nuclei. Most people did not realize that the spectroscopic ground state of most of the rare earths were not known and a few of those that were listed were incorrect. These were as shown on the atomic charts. We measured those also, I think all of them. And so, we got all the spectroscopic ground states of the rare earths determined with part of the technology that we developed. It worked very well.
The other big achievement, as perhaps Will Happer at Princeton will tell you, is that mine was the first really serious and decent application of computers to hyperfine structure research and related studies. The computer program was used fairly universally.
Aaserud:When was that, approximately?
Nierenberg:That probably started about 1955. But it really took off beautifully when they got the IBM 7900 and 7904s.
Aaserud:That involved a lot of graduate students and dissertations?
Nierenberg:Oh, yes, oh, my, yes. I alone probably had about forty graduate students who earned their Ph.D.s with me. The group, of which I was sort of "grandfather," probably included about eighty students, and that was in about a twelve- to thirteen-year period.
Aaserud:From the dissertation through 1967 in Berkeley there is a continuity of sorts, then?
Nierenberg:Yes. I did do some minor papers in other areas. You know, there is an irritating thing — a purely human remark that I can make — I have not looked at the SCIENCE CITATION INDEX for years, but if you were to look at it, under my name you would find that the one paper of mine that is referred to regularly has nothing to do with my main line of work, but, rather, with the specific heat of graphite at low temperatures.
Aaserud:How do you explain that?
Nierenberg:It is an important item for this report. It was one of these odd quirks. But it was a rare result in that it was an exact solution for a specific heat of a real substance. Over a certain temperature range, graphite can close to exactly be considered a two-dimensional lattice of a certain kind. I was able to find a closed analytic solution for the density of states and, hence, a simple, but exact description of its specific heat. It is a "textbook" kind of thing.
Aaserud:Then, an entirely new chapter begins in 1960-65, I guess?
Aaserud:How were you approached, and by whom?
Nierenberg:I received a telephone call from a colleague, Hugh Bradner, who used to be in Berkeley but was now at UCSD. He apparently acted as an emissary for a search committee. He asked me if I would consider the job of being director of Scripps (Roger Revelle had left some time earlier). And I said, "Yes." I thought I would consider it. I was sort of at loose ends at this time. There were a number of reasons. This is probably my first really personal remark of this chapter. To give you an idea of the family at the time, my daughter was a freshman at Berkeley, and my son was about nine years old, then. As I say, I was getting bored by just doing the same research. It was getting more and more precise — when I read what people do today in physics, I find it unbelievable. In our case, we were just getting more and more precise and writing more and more papers — up to a hundred papers to that time — and, so, I guess I was a little restless.
I had just turned down the job as head of AUI and, as I have said, some college professorships or presidencies. But, there was another factor that made me restless. It was very disturbing — the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley — a kind of total loss of rationality. I mentioned one aspect of it, but, as I said, there were other aspects and it got to be a very difficult family matter. My daughter was a freshman, so she was on the liberal side. I was sort of middle of the road then, much less conservative than I am now about those affairs. My wife, who had been a liberal and important in the League of Women Voters, flipped over to being a conservative — a strong conservative, at that — as a result of the agitation. She was not the only one. There were other wives who changed sides. Our family dinners got to be unpleasant. We were always arguing the different facets of the Free Speech Movement.
What with one thing and another, I really was ready to leave. The SIO job was ideal because I had the background — the Navy connections, and so on. I knew some of the people at Scripps and admired them very much — John Isaacs and Walter Munk are good examples. Then there were some I knew by name like Russell Raitt and Victor Vacquier, who are excellent geophysicists. So, I found the offer very attractive, and since I did not want to get too far away from research, like being a college president, Scripps looked very attractive to me — more attractive than it actually was at the time, I might add.
Aaserud:Because it was administrative?
Nierenberg:No, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that SIO was in bad shape. I can say this much, I suppose, for the archives. Roger had neglected Scripps very badly for three or four years. It actually had been run mostly administratively by someone who was very good, but not really a scientist — Jeff Frautschy. The senior scientists were sort of going around doing their own thing and building sub-empires. What was worse was that the building of UCSD had a very powerful and more-or-less negative impact on Scripps initially, because it looked like Scripps was sort of broken apart and going to be dissolved in UCSD.
Aaserud:Are your memoirs that broad?
Nierenberg:Yes. I hadn't realized that Scripps was in such bad shape as a unit when I came here. Really, my job for the first couple of years was to bring it back cohesively as a unit. We did.
Aaserud:So you weren't all that familiar, even when you took the job?
Nierenberg:No. No way. I probably would not have taken it had I known all of the problems.
Aaserud:What was the background for your being offered the job do you think?
Nierenberg:The alter-ego work. They knew of my work and interest in the oceans — the Navy side. That was where I met many Scripps people. And, of course, they wanted an academic.
Aaserud:What was Roger Revelle's background?
Nierenberg:Geology. He had a Ph.D. in geology from Berkeley, and then he went into marine geology.
Aaserud:There wasn't any conscious decision that a physicist was more appropriate for the job? It was more your alter ego?
Nierenberg:That is correct.
Aaserud:But, in effect, the new job ended your career in physics, didn't it?
Nierenberg:Pretty much. Pretty much. Although people still know me as a physicist, even today. The spark of it that was kept alive was my association with JASON.
(Story about Carl Kayser)
Aaserud:Yes, that's true, too. I think that's a very interesting case — a physicist going into an entirely different activity like that. I don't know if we should comment a little more generally about that, in relation to developments in science generally?
Nierenberg:It is more and more unusual today. My successor, though, followed the same pattern. He is a very good man. But I think there is more of a concern now about having a physicist as director than twenty-one years ago. Twenty-one years ago they did not worry about it at all, but there is concern about it now. And that's a bad sign. It just means that oceanography is becoming more disciplinary and less interdisciplinary.
Aaserud:That seems almost a necessary development; physics, too, is going that way, isn't it? So, maybe that fighting history. I don't know.
Nierenberg:Listen, I wonder if we could stop at this point? I'm getting quite tired.
Yes, of course.