Oral History Transcript — Dr. William A. Nierenberg
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Interview with Dr. William A. Nierenberg
William A. Nierenberg; June 30, 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:We went up to Scripps the last time. I would like to recapitulate a little before we return to Scripps again. I would like to talk a little more about consultantships that you held, because I looked at a vitae of yours that added a little bit and I thought I should ask you about that. I think we talked about your very early consultantship with the Navy in 1947.
Nierenberg:Yes, from any viewpoint it was odd, but perhaps a typical postwar experience. It happened while I was an instructor at Columbia and had accepted an assignment to teach in the summer session. To reconstruct it, it involved a Navy captain — Captain Maxwell — who was a very strange character, to me at least. Apparently he was originally a Russian sailor who had jumped ship in a U.S. port when he was fifteen or sixteen years old and was adopted by an American naval family. I am not clear whether he made Annapolis, but he became an EDO — an Engineering Duty Officer. He came into our ken after the Bikini explosion, where the Navy was encumbered with radioactively contaminated vessels that were being towed to San Francisco. It was realized that they had to be decontaminated in some way, and the reason he was chosen to be in charge of the operation was his expertise in cleaning boilers — that is to say, in removing scale from boilers. It was conjectured that if he could remove scale from boilers, he could decontaminate. I know it sounds bizarre today when we would not let ships like that within hundreds of miles of our coast. Captain Maxwell was a very rough character, by my standards at least. He cheerfully took over, although he did not know what it was all about. But I did tell you about that and Pete Scoville, the name I was missing, if you remember?
Nierenberg:It was Pete Scoville. I am sure you recognize the name. He died about two years or so ago.
In any event, that was when I met Pete Scoville. It came about this way — Captain Maxwell found himself overwhelmed by the ships, people, and responsibility, and so, he came up to Columbia to locate a consultant he could use as an adviser. He contacted Dean George B. Pegram for help. The dean was unable to dislodge anyone more senior than I. In my case, I was only available for about three weeks in early summer and five weeks at the end, because I had to teach freshman physics in between. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to Washington. It was our first Washington experience and my first defense consulting experience. We were also expecting our first child.
It was an unusual experience in other ways. The Navy had started a laboratory in the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, called the "Radiological Defense Laboratory", to develop defense and, decontamination techniques. It was just in its infancy, with a host of civilian and Navy personnel indiscriminately assembled. At one point, I was sent out for one week to talk to them and report back to Maxwell as to what I thought of it. It was not only a new experience to me, but also to Captain Maxwell, who retired as a rear admiral. That, too, was an interesting story, because he was then hired by the city of New York to be their anti-smog chief. But he made a mistake. He did not know he was dealing with dishonest Tammany politicians who really wanted nothing done. They thought he would be a figurehead, but they were wrong. He rented a helicopter and flew over the city, spotting the noxious emissions from the stacks, mostly city power plants, belching filth. They were the prime source of pollution. He reported back and ordered controls, so they fired him. That was the last I heard of Captain Maxwell.
Aaserud:I think we talked about that involvement the last time.
Aaserud:I just wanted to know whether it was the same thing.
Nierenberg:Yes, it was. But the interesting item to report was the Scoville incident, which involved the definition of the roentgen which is the number of ions produced in 1 cm3 of dry air in standard conditions which corresponds to 0.00129 gms.
When I came to Washington, I was assigned a desk in the old Navy buildings that dated from WWI. They no longer exist. They were on the Mall. I sat there in this large, empty room with people running around, seemingly aimlessly. The buildings were loaded with ambitious captains who were trying to find a niches and, in no time, I was loaded with dozens of reports on radioactivity. You know what these documents are like. I read them and tried to be of some use, although in unaccustomed circumstances. Lice all good scientific articles, they began with a page or two of definitions of the terms used. The first one I read defined a roentgen as so many ion pairs per .0129 grams of air. I did not find it unusual. I assumed that the typist had made a typographical error. It should have been .00129, as I said earlier. But then I picked up the next report — it had the same number, ".0129." So did the third! There must have been about a dozen that all had the same error. Hence, it was obvious to me that they all were plagiarized from some common source. I was very proud of myself. I worked my way through the Pentagon the way a goldminer works to find the lode source of gold. I found it, actually sitting on the top floor of the Pentagon. It was Pete Scoville. It was he who wrote the initial report. All the other reports were just copies. I found it terrible.
Aaserud:I'm not exactly sure how deeply we got into this last time.
Nierenberg:Well, perhaps that is too deep. The Office of Naval Research had only been operating for three or four years. Apparently, I was in their area. The chief of Naval Research was Admiral Thorvald Solberg. I think he was the second one, and I met him in the course of the summer.
Aaserud:That's a good Norwegian name, yes. Then you had a consultantship with the National Research Council, 1954 to 1959, it says.
Nierenberg:Well, that probably was the Mine Advisory Committee you refer to. The Mine Advisory Committee started at Catholic University earlier than my coming, and I came in for two reasons. First, there was my work at the Hudson Laboratories involving antisubmarine warfare. Second, my relation with a close colleague and very distinguished scientist Eliott Montroll, who then was in ONR. He suggested that I could be useful on this committee. He was on it, as well. At some point we switched from Catholic University, as housekeeper with Professor Carl Herzfeld chairing, to the National Research Council, which is an arm of the Academy.
Aaserud:What did the work consist of?
Nierenberg:It was advisory to the Navy on dealing with ocean mines. It was a residual problem from the Korean War, where we did very badly at minesweeping. At the landing at Inchon, the Navy had a difficult time keeping up with the Army when they were pushing the Koreans north. They were continually delayed by the pressure mines. I left that committee when I felt that it was not very effective. The very distinguished oceanographer Columbus Iselin was on it, also. We both left the committee when we felt that the committee's work was getting to be trivial and even silly.
Aaserud:In what way?
Nierenberg:Well, I must tell you about the chairman. Some of these committees can be almost dangerous. One of the big arguments was whether it is more useful when a harbor is mined to mine the outer passages, where the water is, say, one hundred twenty feet deep, or the inner channels, where the water might be forty feet deep. The technology would be considerably different for each case for both the mines and then sweeping. We never did resolve the issue. Anyway, the chairman, in trying to close a report for the Navy, said, "Well, gentlemen, the only way to solve this is to compromise." We looked at him, and he said, "We'll take the average and suggest that — let's see, forty plus one hundred twenty is one hundred sixty — half that, eighty feet, is the correct depth." I looked at Iselin, and he looked at me. We both agreed that we had better leave that committee.
Aaserud:You didn't have the appropriate interest. Then there's a consultantship, it says, for the Lockheed —
Nierenberg:That was different. Meanwhile, of course, we haven't gotten to what was talked about — my very successful career in physics at Berkeley. I ended up with something like forty students for the Ph.D., an immediate group, at any one time, of about thirty people, and an associated group of probably eighty or ninety in my seminar. I realized, along about 1958, that I had gotten so absorbed in my work at the university that I had lost touch with the "real world." The "space age" was beginning. Corporations were expanding — Lockheed had just formed their Space and Missile Division, for example.
Edward Teller was the only person who I felt was well connected with this world. Since I really did not know how to go about establishing such relationships, I spoke to Edward and said, "You know, Edward, I would like to have a consultantship with some large technical company." It wasn't really a question of the money; I wanted it to get involved in other things. He got me a consultantship by arranging for me to work at Lockheed. It turned out to be very profitable for them and for me, I might add.
The man I reported to was Louis Ridenour, who was their first chief scientist and vice president. He had been dean at the University of Illinois, and before that, during the war, he had been one of the vice presidents of the Radiation Lab at MIT. He was a prominent figure in the world of high technology. It was a very profitable two years. I came in once or twice a month and would work with the more junior people in the morning. At lunch and in the afternoon, I would be with the brass and talk policy. I cannot say that I enjoyed it, but, of course, the policy was very interesting — but also a disappointment when I learned that large companies did not operate much better than the university. They also had committees for everything — committees for salary, committees for space, and so on. I had been hoping that it would be more authoritarian. It wasn't.
I worked with Ridenour and enjoyed that relationship very much. One output should show in my vitae, but it does not — he and I gave a university extension course that was very successful called "Modern Physics for the Engineer." We had an audience of about three hundred people. Many of the engineers had had an old pre-World War II academic training even though it had been immediate postwar. They realized they were not up to date on what was going on in solid state physics, radio astronomy, and all the other rapidly changing technologies. This lecture series ended in a very useful book of McGraw-Hill's that he and I published together. His name is on it posthumously; he died relatively young.
Aaserud:To what extent did you learn about the outside world in this activity?
Nierenberg:I learned a great deal of what was going on and how things were done in this burgeoning aerospace industry. I met some very interesting people, like Eugene Root, who, I think, is still alive. He had to retire early as president of the division because of a very bad heart attack. I met quite a number of other people who could do things —Willis Hawkins is one, a very good friend I still keep in touch with. He had retired, but they called him back as president of the company when they got involved in some scandals. He retired once more, but he is still quite active at Lockheed. In fact, I hope to see him in a couple of weeks.
Aaserud:What did the interaction consist of?
Nierenberg:Well, I did consult in the laboratory. There was a variety of projects in whose treatment I believe I was successful. Then, at lunch and afterwards, there were more policy issues and planning and exchange of views.
Aaserud:The next consultantship that we didn't discuss — the National Security Agency, 1958 to 1960.
Nierenberg:That was one of the failures. I had met a physicist by the name of Callen — with whom I have lost touch — who was active in the NSA. But even earlier, I had spoken to Luis Alvarez about my interest in cryptography, since Luis was active with the NSA. I, like a lot of other physicists, had a fascination for cryptography and related matters. In some way, Luis arranged for me to be introduced to appropriate people. I became a consultant for the National Security Agency, and I worked hard at it. I read the assigned material. I would go down and look at their gear. Of course, they already had mathematicians, particularly a group at UCLA, that did a lot of other work for them in cryptography and related matters. But they felt that they ought to have more physicists involved and that in some way it would be very helpful. It did not really work out. I did not contribute anything, even though I made serious efforts.
Aaserud:What was the problem with that?
Nierenberg:We just did not seem to be able to communicate with one another. However, it is much better today. They have learned and so have we, although I do not think that the error was on my side. They just did not know how to define the problems for a physicist.
Aaserud:Then finally the Office of Science and Technology.
Nierenberg:Office of Science and Technology Policy. That is an error that keeps propagating. I was not on the staff itself. I was a consultant; I was on various panels of the OSTP. We are now in the post-Sputnik era. Simply stated, I was abruptly thrown into it; it was quite an injection into high places for many of us. Two operators, Manny Piore, then a vice president at IBM, and Jerry Zacharias, from MIT, who were always at this level, were apparently given the job of putting together a panel to work on antisubmarine warfare. I was called and invited to join. At the time, I was very busy in my research and had something like fifteen graduate students. There was one very large room I had inherited from the optometrists in Berkeley on the top floor of Le Conte Hall. It was ideal for low-level radioactive counting because it was the only place on the Berkeley campus where there had never been any radioactivity research. That was where we did our low-level counting, and it was also a sort of general office for the students. There was a desk near the entrance that was my informal desk and right next to me, at the time, was one of my students, Bruce Ewbank. The telephone rang, and he picked it up. I looked at him, and I thought he was going to faint. He turned white. You would think that he had just heard that his mother had died. That was the way he acted. He said, "Professor Nierenberg," and he handed the phone to me, shaking. He said, "It's the White House calling." Today it would not make that impact, but then it was so extraordinary. What happened was, the operator said, "This is the White House. Is Professor Nierenberg there?" That was the invitation to come to Washington to serve in that post-Sputnik period. That was the beginning of all of these panels and activities and so on. We were one of the first few in this business.
The ASW panel lasted quite a while. The first chairman was Harvey Brooks. Later, there was another version which Richard Garwin chaired. Others on the second panel were Gordon MacDonald, Luis Alvarez, Jim Fletcher, and so on. The only other member I remember on the first panel was Eugene Fubini.
Aaserud:So that was a fruitful experience.
Nierenberg:My, yes. That was a real quantum jump into high places.
Aaserud:So, what kind of advising was that? Was it technical?
Nierenberg:It was strictly technical, not policy. It included operations, antisubmarine operations, and so on. When Herb York was Defense Director of Research and Evaluation, the committee worked very closely with his deputy for ASW on the ASW budget for the Navy.
Aaserud:So this goes to show that you were not new to these, kinds of developments when you joined JASON.
Nierenberg:By no means! That's right. By the time the JASON question arose, I had become experienced in the ways of Washington, although somewhat naive as to the politics of it, I must say. But I was experienced in what I would call the "technical dealings" in moving around in Washington, yes.
Aaserud:Maybe even one of the most experienced. I mean, for a lot of people, JASON was the inroad to that kind of activity.
Aaserud:For you, it was not that.
Nierenberg:I was already very experienced. It was no big deal from that viewpoint, that is correct. For a lot of the other JASONS, it was an introduction to the Washington way of life.
Aaserud:So, we got that cleared up. I think that was important just to include those activities. Okay, PSAC.
Nierenberg:I was never a member, but I worked on many of their panels.
Aaserud:Yes. I found a letter from Hornig here inviting you to the ASW panel.
Nierenberg:Where the devil did you find it?
Aaserud:Well, that was in your papers.
Aaserud:I got a copy of it.
Nierenberg:Oh. That was because I was here at Scripps at the time. My previous papers are pretty much lost. Well, Jim Fletcher was chairman then. I see it was in 1967. We had been together before.
Aaserud:Is that panel a good example of your activities in PSAC, or around PSAC in connect on with it?
Aaserud:Was that work more science-policy oriented?
Aaserud:That was the operational or technical?
Nierenberg:Operational and technical, both. There wasn't much policy. The one time we got involved in policy, it was clear that we were amateurs. It was when Paul Nitze was Secretary or Under Secretary of the Navy — you know, he went from one to the other. We imagined we saw a weakness in the Navy's approach to ASW. I probably could reconstruct the details, but it isn't important right now. We challenged Nitze. He came and met with us, and he very adroitly worked around us. He very brilliantly got out of the policy dilemma we proposed.
Aaserud:Then you became the director of Scripps.
Nierenberg:No, that happened in 1965. That was two years before this meeting with Nitze.
Aaserud:In 1965, anyway.
Aaserud:You became director of Scripps. I think we discussed that a little bit last time — how you were approached and all that. But, what about the work at Berkeley. How was that taken care of when you left there? Your lab there? Your students?
Nierenberg:There were two professors who had got their degrees under me. One was Howard Shugart, the other was Richard Marrus. They continued the laboratory. So, that was not a problem.
Aaserud:Well, the running of Scripps. I found an interesting letter here that you wrote to Leland Haworth of the National Science Foundation.
Nierenberg:Let me see if it is the one I think it is — that was quite a story.
Aaserud:I don't know if it's the same one you're thinking about. Hopefully, it is.
Nierenberg:That was about very good science management that has been almost totally lost in this country — as many other things.
Aaserud:You mean, the physics research laboratories?
Nierenberg:Yes, and as I read it, I still feel that everything I said is correct. My mind has not changed even after all these years.
Aaserud:Okay. I think the conception of the oceanographic laboratory modeled on the physics labs is interesting.
Nierenberg:Lee Haworth was very important in the AEC because he had been head of Brookhaven National Laboratories. There are a number of items referred to here, but the principal one is the fact that in the early days, the monies were carefully balanced and could not be exchanged. In other words, money invested in capital equipment could not be used for operations and vice versa. The Congress normally makes that allocation so that you cannot raid the capital or instrument budget for operations. But, over the years, that is exactly what has happened, so there are always representatives screaming that there is not enough money for equipment. But, you see, those that make the noise are the very ones that cause the imbalance. If more money is allotted for equipment, it will slowly slip over the years unless there is very tight accounting.
At the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, it could not be done. I know that because when I was there and I built some equipment, it was built on expense money but after it was built, it had to be classified as capital equipment. Management was very careful with the books. The same thing was true of engineering, and the Rad Lab did very advanced engineering, for example, in counting equipment and in computers. They would always try to anticipate what computing equipment would be available five years ahead. This group of engineers was very special. They did not do the day-to-day engineering. But money was directly provided for that support, and we do not have that any longer.
Aaserud:So that model didn't work out?
Nierenberg:No. They never did anything about my proposals — it was really too big for Lee to do anything about, for control had already been lost.
Aaserud:I think it's interesting as an example of...
Nierenberg:Yes — of a lot of things. There are other aspects we lost. I told you how we lost the old physics, the classical physics. We went over that the last time.
Aaserud:Yes, generally speaking.
Nierenberg:Well, consider the period of this memo. About 1967 or 1968, there was a tremendous collapse in physics. Graduate students could not be employed after the degree. As a result, the number of graduate students dropped. At Berkeley, where there were about four hundred, the number dropped to about two hundred. This happened even more severely at Harvard, Princeton, and the other leading institutions. Graduate physicists were just not employable. I would start getting letters at SIO from colleagues like Vernon Hughes at Yale, proposing that some of their students could be hired into geophysics or oceanography. But the trouble is that it was very condescending of them (without their realizing it), because, while it is true the physicists were very good, you should not expect an oceanographer to raise money to hire postdocs to sit around for two years learning to become oceanographers, even if they were good physicists. The money needed would be about $25,000 today. One reason was that they simply were not trained in classical physics. There were fields like oceanography, atmospheric sciences, and so on, that could use good people, but they simply did not have the basic physics training needed. Someone would have to invest a lot of money in them to bring them up to speed. For a long time, physicists felt, "Well, but we trained them, and they are all ready to go into the world." If a student really wanted to go into the world, it would have been much better to go into chemical engineering, for example.
But, even today, the physics departments are not much better, although they pay lip service to the need for this training. In fact, I had an odd personal happening. About 1973 or 1974, I received a letter from George Trilling, the chairman then at Berkeley, saying, "Isn't it about time that you're ready for a sabbatical, Bill? We'd love to have you come up and teach your old vector analysis course." You see, that was one of the classical courses (104A & B).
After I left Berkeley, it was taught by David Judd who borrowed my notebook that I still have. I taught later, and she also borrowed my notebook. The department paid lip service to it at the time because it was the correct social thing to do and to appease the students, but they are back to teaching solid-state physics and quantum mechanics and so on.
Let me digress with an elaboration. When I was a graduate student, one of the six courses that I was examined on was physical optics. Over the years, it disappeared. Acoustics, which was an important element in lower- and upper-division undergraduate physics, eroded away over time. Elasticity as a subject disappeared, although it was a wonderful intuitive way to introduce tensor analysis, and so it went. It was the same with hydrodynamics and hydraulics. When I taught graduate quantum mechanics, I used to joke that students learned about angular momentum as analogous to isotopic spin! This is an exaggeration, but it perhaps conveys the idea I am trying to promulgate. Thus, when the engineering schools caught up with the modern world, the new physicists were no longer in demand. There were two events that come to my mind that illuminate the evolution. When I was a young associate professor at Berkeley, I was called to a meeting of senior professors.
Present were A. T. Birge, the chairman, Victor Lenzen, and others — I might add, quite conservative members of the department. Also present was Charles Kittel, the distinguished solid-state physicist. His proposal was that 104B, the second-semester elective-half of so-called vector analysis, be dropped. His motive was to make room for his introductory upper-division course in solid physics that the students were not taking because they preferred 104B. Lenzen and others were horrified at the idea of dropping a course that one hundred or so students would elect. I was there because they thought I would fight to protect it. I might have, had I understood the deeper implications. As it was, my primary interest was the graduate quantum mechanics, and so I ducked a confrontation with Kittel, something to be feared, and the course disappeared. It is my feeling that a whole series of professional selfishnesses that ignored student wishes and needs led to the free-speech movement and the other student unrests.
Another example was the encroachments on the student areas. Quite early in Berkeley, I was part of the physics intramural soccer team that included students and faculty. There were perhaps ten intramural teams and three very good playing fields on the campus, not including tennis courts and so on. By 1963, these were all gone, even though the number of teams had tripled. We had to play out our tournaments over the hill in Tilden Park at night, under lights. The reason was that these pieces of terrain became objects of desire by "star" professors who threw tantrums to get their buildings placed on advantageous sites. Students' needs came last.
A most illuminating note was a piece by Phillip Morse in PHYSICS TODAY at the time when new physics Ph.D.s were unemployable. Phillip Morse was a physicist and person whom I admired greatly and with whom I worked closely while I was in NATO, but his article was thirty years behind time and showed an extraordinary naïveté. He argues that the current Ph.D. training for a physicist made him ideal for employment in a wide variety of fields, such as acoustics, oceanography, meteorology, geophysics, and so on. He did not recognize that these fields are developing their own graduates and need little further manpower input. Further, it is unrealistic to believe that a university investigator would use part of his limited resources to spend two years retraining a Ph.D. from another field. It was all the more surprising from Morse considering his experience in sound and operations research. He should have known better.
Of course, it is boom time again, but most of the graduates are being hired again to compute and do what may be called "light engineering." I must make that remark because I meant to emphasize it the last time we spoke. Physics had been over-stimulated in the immediate postwar period. These GIs came back in huge waves, they wanted degrees, and they wanted to get out with bachelor degrees and some Ph.D.s. Mostly they went into engineering. The engineering schools were under terrible pressure, so they went and hired engineers from all over the place and out of all sorts of industries. But they could only teach pre-war engineering, courses in power, so many courses in mechanical drawing and drafting, and so on. Meanwhile, their world was changing dramatically. There was the transistor, solid-state physics, space sciences, and material sciences, and all of this was going on at a great rate. But it was the physicists who were working at that at the time, not the engineers.
What did happen was an unfortunate distortion, because when aerospace companies like the Lockheed Aerospace component emerged and all these new developments burgeoned, they could not effectively use these old-style engineers, so they grabbed these new physicists who could fit in by default, you might say. Hence, the physics departments were over-stimulated in producing students.
Inevitably, there was a kind of technical depression, the famous one. I will return to that. That was the one I was talking about. But by the time it picked up again, the engineering schools had seen the light. They began to train their people in solid-state physics, transistors, nuclear physics, and space science, and these were really ready to go to work for Lockheed when the physicists were not, because they were not well versed in the classical side of the sciences.
There was a personal side to this happening. It is no big deal, but it is very droll. I think that an account even appears somewhere in SCIENCE. All my colleagues thought how clever Nierenberg was in getting out of physics when he saw it was declining. You know, it was not that at all! That was nonsense. I left physics because I was bored with having written a hundred papers on the same theme and having graduate students doing the same thing and nothing to look forward to but an extension of the same. I guess it was during 1967, 1968, 1969 when there was a terrible depression in physics.
Aaserud:And you relate that to...
Nierenberg:No — the fact that it did not pick up fast enough; engineering education was having a hard time too. But physics came out of it slowly and only recently, because the engineers were the first to fill the gap when the situation improved. They were properly trained, and by that time, a lot of the old-time engineers had retired. For example, they could not get a decent computing activity going at Berkeley for years because the electrical engineering department insisted on controlling it, and those old guys did not know a computer from a hole in the ground. Today, Berkeley has a very vital computing complex — one of the best in the world.
Aaserud:What you're saying is that the engineers were slower in responding to this development than the physicists.
Nierenberg:Oh, yes. No, but it was not intrinsic inability. They had a problem. When the war came, they had this tremendous invasion of GIs returning from the war who wanted to get engineering degrees. The universities had to have teachers, and they hired anything they could find. And the only people they could find were those who knew nothing about modern developments in engineering. They simply were not there. It was very difficult. To some degree, I think that is happening in physics right now. I think we are again over-hiring, because industry is demanding a large number of trained people. The same cycle will repeat in about three or four years. The tempo will level off, and there will be a saturation. Those in the university pipeline will not be needed, and all these huge buildings and all this large number of professors who were hired are going to be surplus for an extended period. It seems quite clear, to me at least.
Aaserud:So that letter from Haworth triggered an association?
Nierenberg:Well, there was another letter. I wrote a very similar letter — actually a much better one — to the President's Science Advisor Dr. Hornig on the same subject. It was about a three-page letter wherein I exposed this oscillation. The other trouble is that there is a five- or six-year lag between when the students enter school and when they come out, and that matches the period of these ups and downs. You get this huge mass of aspirants when they believe there is a big demand for engineering, but by the time they emerge, it no longer is there.
Aaserud:So that's a different matter.
Nierenberg:That's a different letter. It had no effect.
Aaserud:Did you make a specific suggestion?
Nierenberg:Yes, there was a specific proposal with a lot of details. Are you familiar with IR&D — independent research and development? This is negotiated between companies and government for each major contract. There may be, say, a 100-million dollar contract to build some device. The government allows a few percent, one-, two-, or three-million dollars for what is called IR&D. The money is used for research that is not directly related to the contract. But it has to be more or less basic investigations in the general area of interest to the pertinent agency.
The money gets used, and Lockheed would use the money in conjunction with the University of California and Stanford. That was a lot of money for that purpose — that is, supporting graduate students to come work in the Lockheed lab, and so on. What would happen, though (and that is the sort of thing that got Beggs in trouble), is there would be some problems on the production line. Suddenly they would pull all that money back and throw it into solving the production problem, which, incidentally, is illegal. Meanwhile, the side effect was profound, for this three percent had a big effect on the physics departments because all of a sudden this support disappeared for no apparent reason. I pointed that out in my letter to Hornig — namely, that this has a terrible oscillatory effect on the support of physics.
Aaserud:But your change from physics into oceanography was in no way typical?
Nierenberg:No. It was very atypical. It is still talked about. Well, you know, I did have a choice at the time. You have to remember that shortly before that, I was offered the presidency of AUI. I was very tempted, and I went East to talk to the board. Columbia said I could move my professorship to Columbia, and Yale wanted me to move my atomic-beam research to Yale at the same time. But I decided against taking that job. Then there was some other job — the presidency of City College — but that was later, probably after I took the job at Scripps. So, I was sort of tempted to move. I told you why. The Free Speech Movement and some other things were additional effects.
Aaserud:That was the main thing. It wasn't Scripps from a positive point of view?
Nierenberg:No. Scripps was positive too. But I did err in one way that I should tell you about also. I was looking for something that was like the physics I went into in 1938-39 and that was not so much in public view —that was not so much a matter of high policy, like atomic bombs and atomic power, and the effect on me of all this money and fifteen Ph.D. students. When I came back from Paris, I cut the number of students in half, but before I knew it, I was up to fifteen students again. It was just very big.
I also always was interested in geophysics, as I told you when we talked about it, and I certainly was interested in oceanography at this time. Oceanography was very little known to the public at the time, as well. That was the other reason I wanted to take the job. I knew people in the laboratory were very good, and I knew it was a good institution.
My error was in not knowing that at that precise time there was a PSAC panel that was formed under pressure from Congress. The President's Science Advisor formed a panel under Congressional pressure to write a report on oceanography and how to develop it in the national interest. In other words, the seeds of destruction were already there, and I did not realize it.
In fact, Gordon MacDonald was chairman of that committee, and Bill McElroy, who later became head of the NSF and then chancellor at UCSD, was the biologist and chaired a special sub-panel for marine biology. When I came to Scripps that fall, they held one meeting here, and I briefed the committee rather prematurely I am afraid. Had I known that was going on, I am not sure I would have taken the job, because that was the kind of thing that happened to physics. It had become a big deal and all sorts of alien things were shoved into it and all sorts of people who felt that this was a good place to make a lot of money came roaring in, and so on.
Aaserud:I also saw a letter of yours to the National Science Foundation somewhat later which argues for oceanography as an interdisciplinary field, and they argued back that it really wasn't.
Nierenberg:That is correct. Butt they just did not understand how the disciplines had worked. Physics, over the years, has changed a great deal. Right after the war, and for a few years, everything was slow neutron physics, but it disappeared and went over to the new nuclear engineering departments. Lo energy nuclear physics disappeared from most physics departments about the same time. It also went into nuclear engineering departments and chemistry and so on.
Physics does that, this out-transfer, which is very significant because it keeps itself reasonably small and allows it to move ahead. Chemistry has not done this and neither does oceanography know how to do it. There is no JOURNAL OF OCEANOGRAPHY, for example, nor is there an oceanographic society like the American Physical Society. There are all sorts of odd entrepreneurial ventures, but they do not have the dignity and the standing of the APS.
Aaserud:What about Scripps at the takeover? You said last time that it was not in as good a state as you thought it was.
Nierenberg:Well, had I known what bad shape it was in, I probably would not have taken the job. I just could not believe what had happened to that institution — it had lost all form and shape. It had been robbed of its business manager and of its storeroom and much of its service units in order to form the new campus, and it was sort of floating along. Nobody was paying attention to its operation. Roger Revelle had not paid attention to it for four years, and perhaps longer. He had been away for two years, and for some reason, an acting director was designated. It was run by an assistant director- Geoff Frautschy — who really was not a scientist. For a year before I came, while they were looking for a director, Ned Spiess was acting director, because at this point Roger had severed his relations with the university.
As I said, it had just lost all form and shape. It was a collection of small baronies where people were trying to hold on to what they had. Many thought it was going to dissolve and sort of disappear as a unit. That was a common conception, and it was really a bad situation and very stupid.
Aaserud:How much work did it involve to get it on its feel again?
Nierenberg:Actually, it did not take that much work. There were some administrative tricks which I won't go into that I could do quickly and rapidly. But what happened was that Spiess held onto his fief, Marine Physical Lab (MPL), and Isaacs and Walter Munk built one each. Did I mention that the last time? I don't remember.
Walt [Walter Munk] had been content to remain a professor. He was not then an empire builder. But he realized that if he were to stay at Scripps, Scripps might disappear and he would have to do something to maintain some status. There was a statewide organization called the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. He had an offer from Harvard, and he said he was going to go to Harvard unless they would let him build a branch of the institute within Scripps, and they did.
Scripps did not dissolve. I would like to take credit for the fact that I not only held it together, but made a cohesive unit out of it once more. These baronies are all integral parts of Scripps now — these units that might have separated. In fact, there were a number of members of Scripps, like Harmon Craig, who felt it was so far gone that Scripps should just be a ship-operating facility and the staff would be in different departments on the UCSD campus. This group tried to form an earth science department in a way separate from Scripps, to be part of Revelle College. They did form one, but it just blew apart. It just exploded completely, and it reformed inside of Scripps.
Aaserud:I also came over some correspondence that I thought was interesting regarding the openness-secrecy question of an academic institution — that is, the question of allowing Russians at Scripps.
Nierenberg:Well, there was quite a bit of that, and it was a real problem. It was not Scripps that was the problem, however, because Russians were able to go to the cities. It was San Diego and the Navy, and I never completely understood the rationale. It was a very heated issue with the State Department. We wanted certain numbers of Russians to come and spend a week or two or three at Scripps. We had a devil of a time. We were able to get, though, a couple of them to come back in connection with the deep-sea drilling. They had to write their contributions to the preliminary reports. But it was just very difficult over the years. I heard something recently that made it sound like it may have eased up.
Aaserud:But it was the Navy, essentially, that was the problem?
Nierenberg:The Navy was the block, yes.
Aaserud:What are the positive accomplishments at Scripps that you would point to in particular?
Nierenberg:Certainly the number one success for a period of more than fifteen years was the Deep Sea Drilling Project [DSDP] and its various outcomes. You mentioned Haworth. When I came to SIO, it was coincidental with the big explosion and evaporation of the MOHOLE Project. In parallel and quietly, we were preparing the DSDP, and we were giving the leadership of a consortium of institutions. I consider that one of the biggest successes of my career in scientific administration was getting something like that going, getting it funded, getting the technology going, and, particularly, all in the shadow of the MOHOLE Project. It involved a whole new technology in a novel area — the deep ocean. The entire fifteen-year operation was really quite impressive, I believe, and that was number one. The second was the development of the concept that climate, short and long term, is primarily oceanic. We have to look to the oceans for climate, and we capitalized on the long history of development of climate studies at Scripps which started towards trying to predict short-range climate. A third one is the application of remote sensing. We still are unique as an oceanographic institution in that we have remote-sensing facilities and the concomitant data-handling-and-processing apparatus. I worked long and hard to develop it.
These are the first three things. The expansion of our ocean-engineering activities in the form that applied ocean-science curriculum and research and the sea-grant college were things that were done under my leadership, and under some very complex circumstances that would be boring to go into.
Much of this, of course, is for my memoirs. You can read them if you want and find out what you might want to extract from them and then get my okay. It would just save me a lot of talking.
Aaserud:Okay. We've come into that period.
Nierenberg:That's right. Exactly. And it is all in my memoirs. I believe there is very little I would add to that account. They will be bound in about another month, and I can lend you a copy. I will want it returned, and, of course, you would have to agree that if you select an item for inclusion, my agreement is necessary. And I think for the things you are interested in, there would be no problem. But there are items where there are names mentioned in a way that I just do not want revealed for twenty-five years. Nevertheless, there is a lot of material you could use, and it would save both of us a lot of trouble.
Aaserud:I would appreciate that. You wouldn't allow that to be available together with the interview?
Nierenberg:Yes. You could just treat it any fashion with respect to the interview. It will save me a lot of talking, and, in fact, you will have all you want on Scripps in there. Just the kinds of questions you are asking are all in there.
Aaserud:So, I pick out the things that I'm interested in and ask you if you approve it.
Aaserud:And there are, of course, publications like these, too, which I think are interesting.
Nierenberg:Well, that was very successful. Is this the one, the AMERICAN SCIENTIST?
Nierenberg:Oh. That was a prize affair. You know that I was very flattered by its reception. For example, a distinguished geophysicist at CalTech uses twenty bound reprints that he distributes to his class in geophysics at the beginning of the year. He claims it is the best description of the plate tectonics, sea-floor spreading, and continental drift that is available.
Aaserud:A very good introduction.
Nierenberg:There was only one detail missing — and a very old one at that. Otherwise it seemed very complete. Believe it or not, the missing item is the contribution of a colleague, and his work is one of the ten most-cited papers in the CITATION INDEX. Al Engel at Scripps, a geologist, made his one major deep-sea expedition where he dredged rocks from the bottom of the ocean, interpreted them completely, and recognized the significance of their basaltic nature. That was a key element, as I mentioned. It is the only detail omitted, and naturally it would be someone from Scripps!
Aaserud:Advisor-at-large to the State Department since 1968?
Nierenberg:Well, it was initially a kind of leftover from a previous life, because I plunged completely back into my university work in 1962. However, there was the White House Science Panel on international science chaired by Detlev Bronk for two or three years. It was not terribly effective, but a lot of VIPs were members. I was also a member. Later, when Herman Pollack became the chief science officer at the State Department, I worked very closely with him. I assumed the title "Advisor-at-Large" to work mostly in two areas — oceanography, on the one hand, and NATO, on the other. I have done that more or less ever since. In fact, although it is no longer worth the trouble, I still hold, as I told you earlier, a diplomatic passport. But they are no longer of much use.
Aaserud:How much work does that involve?
Nierenberg:Not very much. It oscillates. Sometimes I was very busy working for State, sometimes not. Right now, the whole operation has once more been reorganized. Oh, yes, the Ocean Environment and Science Bureau has an advisory committee of which I am a member that seems to have a knack of calling meetings that I cannot make. This time, I will be in Philadelphia when they have their meeting.
Aaserud:What about that position as part of the more general advisory structure? Are you one of many advisors to the State Department?
Nierenberg:No. Mine is a separate role. But they are not using me very much in that role at the moment. It depends.
Aaserud:I think you also have some interesting observations in this article — about what physicists can do in Washington.
Nierenberg:Let me see what I say. I do not remember saying some of these things.
Aaserud:You divide the physicist's advisory role into different periods — I think, four periods. During the last period, the physicist is largely integrated in the Pentagon structure.
Aaserud:It starts with the independent kind of organization of physicists because that's needed, and then the physicist is more or less integrated into the structure.
Nierenberg:The current phase four began during the last few years. It is represented at many levels of government. Rereading this, I must say I write pretty well — I sure do not remember this article.
Aaserud:Was that a commissioned article?
Nierenberg:Probably not in the usual sense. I was probably informally asked to write it. I do not normally write on commission. I have just written my first commissioned article, in fact — on acid rain. I must work it over on this trip.
Aaserud:And your autobiography is largely on commission?
Aaserud:Then it's the National Advisory Committee for Oceans and Atmosphere. That's a committee Congress created in 1971.
Nierenberg:NACOA, you mean?
Nierenberg:I come to that here, too.
Aaserud:But how does that fit into this structure? You probably say something about it there. I mean, in the sense that the Congress's direct involvement in science and science policy is rather recent.
Nierenberg:Gosh, it's a long article.
Aaserud:It's long for PHYSICS TODAY, too.
Nierenberg:Can I have a copy of this too? I hope I have this in my file.
Aaserud:You can have that. That's another general interest article. That's good for background. Is there anything more to say about that work on the National Advisory Committee?
Nierenberg:No. Nothing special. It was a presidential commission. Since I was the first chairman, I put it together. In fact, I put together two of them — that and the NASA Advisory Council.
Aaserud:Did that involve a lot of work?
Nierenberg:Here it is — the pertinent remark: "It could well be that we are seeing the beginning of a process where the scientists in government will be replaced by other disciplines, such as political scientists, economists, and lawyers." I am very nervous about this development.
Aaserud:National Science Board — 1972 to 1978, 1982 to 1988?
Nierenberg:Right. Well, of course, it will be 1988 assuming I live that long.
Aaserud:Well, it looks promising. That's the leadership of the National Science Foundation, of course. Do you have any specific reminiscences of that work?
Nierenberg:No. None that I would single out. You know, these responsibilities can be very tedious, with all sorts of spurts and false starts. In principle, the National Science Board is the Foundation. In practice, it is an advisory committee. The Foundation is run by the director and the bureaucracy. The Board, like a lot of boards, has a good deal of trouble making its influence felt. Other than that, I have no special observations to make.
Aaserud:But it's been hard.
Nierenberg:Oh, yes. It is hard work and consuming.
Aaserud:The President's Science and Technology Advisory Group?
Nierenberg:Oh, that was a transition group, was it not? Well, there really were two. What happened was that considerably after Nixon had cancelled PSAC, it was re-established by law of Congress. Si Ramo and Bill Baker formed a very large committee to study how one would get this going. I was on it, along with many other people —Murray Gell-Mann, Frank Press, Edward Teller, and so on. After that affair, a science advisor — H. Guyford Stever —was chosen, and the office was restarted. When Reagan came in, still another committee was formed which was one of many transition committees. The one in science was chaired by Ramo, but it was considerably smaller. There were some very good people on that committee, such as Schriever, Teller, Bueche, Seitz, Baker, and so on.
Aaserud:That was in 1980. The President's Science and Technology Advisory Group was from 1975 to 1976, so that's earlier.
Nierenberg:Yes. That probably was the first one I was telling you about. Then the science advisor became Frank Press.
Aaserud:How do you evaluate the transition from the previous PSAC structure to the new one?
Nierenberg:Well, everybody seems to agree that for the most part, other than some rare instances and from the viewpoint of science, that structure in the White House has not been as effective as one would have liked. But none of the science advisors — none of them — have been physicists (until Keyworth).
Some of them have been more effective in the sense of a presence generating a good feeling. That is quite the opposite of what has happened with the way this administration has treated this office. It has viewed it even less seriously than the previous ones.
The original appointment of Keyworth was like that, although Keyworth did better than anticipated from the viewpoint of basic science. It was almost a slap in the face of the community to appoint an unknown like that who never had a record and probably never will. It was extraordinary.
Aaserud:So it's a political thing more than anything else?
Nierenberg:It was not even that.
Aaserud:What has that done with the relationship between science and the administration?
Nierenberg:Well, they just pay it lip service. In the end, I believe the last paragraph I have written here is salient. The politicians, the lawyers, and the accountants take over. They run the government. Scientists do not. They do not know how to take control. I believe the country would be better off if we had advisors, instead of Mr. Regan or whatever, like a younger Rabi or a younger Jim Killian as an important part of the establishment. We do not. It is gross when you consider the way this country is built. I always like to say that France does not look to us for perfumes or clothing design, but they do for technology. All countries try to steal our technology. And that is what makes this country so great — technology, and also management and production. In other words, we get used and we do not end up on top in the transfer.
Aaserud:So PSAC was an important institution.
Nierenberg:I do not think it was terribly important. No. But it was all we had.
Aaserud:But, at any rate, it was better with it than without it?
Nierenberg:That is true. I really do think so. For one thing, they could at least prevent excesses or craziness. The presidents would listen to advice of the kind that would keep the office away from extremism or crackpots or whatever. There I think they were effective. I was thinking more of the positive aspects. Still, although negative, it is a useful function and a very important one.
The National Advisory Council you mentioned. What did that involve particularly?
It was probably more a sounding board for the administrator of NASA, along with his deputy, who did interact with us very strongly. These were R. A. Frosch and Alan Lovelace, respectively. I think it had some effect in some areas. We did do a few useful studies, one of which was on one of the outstanding problems and that was the hazards presented by handling liquid hydrogen. In fact, Willis Hawkins did a very good report for us on that as chairman. NAC was an interesting committee. I placed Jim Michener on the committee. One of the valuable things about that committee was its balance. I find it useful to have outsiders on such a committee. Enthusiasts have a way of being carried away and making recommendations that administrations consider absurd economically or in other ways. When you have a person like Jim Michener around, a kind of mirror is held up so that the rest of the committee can see themselves more clearly.