Oral History Transcript — Charles H. Townes
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Interview with Charles H. Townes
By Finn Aaserud
May 20 and 21, 1987
Charles H. Townes; May 20 and 21, 1987
ABSTRACT: Early education and exposure to field; attends Duke University; graduate work at California Institute of Technology; Caltech environment; work with Smythe; develops interest in spectroscopy. Accepts position at Bell Laboratories; shift from research to engineering; attempts to pursuade Bell Labs to become involved in microwave spectroscopy. Impact of war on development of spectroscopy and physics in general. Interest in astronomy. Accepts I. I. Rabi's job offer at Columbia; work conditions at Columbia versus Bell Labs. Forms advisory committee on millimeter waves; on Navy committee for infrared radiation; feelings about committee work. Work on service advisory committees prior to position as director of research at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). Involvement in Office of Naval Research (ONR) committees on millimeter waves and infrared radiation; purpose and outcome of work, including development of maser concept; participation in non-service advisory committees; work at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Acceptance of IDA position; circumstances and considerations involved; views on direction of IDA. Involvement in establishing JASON?establishing clearances, convincing Pentagon. JASON organizational structure; selection of projects and members; extent of Townes' own involvement in projects; impact of JASON on government advising and social policy.
Aaserud:We are beginning an interview emphasizing your involvement in science policy and science advising, and it will deal particularly in detail with the origins of JASON and your involvement in that. But I want to start with the beginning and talk a little bit about your childhood and your schooling, as it pertains to your motivation for going into physics and your motivation then for going into science advising on the basis of that later. You said that you have been asked some of these questions already, so if I ask you questions that you have been asked before and which are well covered there, we can just go on, of course. What were your parents' background, ethnic origins, and education?
Townes:Well, my parents were educated in local colleges in Greenville, South Carolina, where I was brought up, and they were from families that were generally fairly well educated. My father was a lawyer. After he finished college, he studied law by himself, because the South was very poor at that time, and passed the bar examination. His father was a lawyer and an editor of the newspaper, and he had fairly prominent brothers prominent in the state. In my mother's family, my mother's father was a businessman. He had not gone to college, but was generally a very prominent businessman and leader. Her mother was again well educated through private schooling.
Both my parents were rather intellectually oriented. My father liked encyclopedias and always wanted to find exactly what the situation was when questions came up. He also liked natural history. My mother took every course in college and went on towards the Master's degree. She wanted to become a doctor but her parents felt that wasn't the right thing for a young lady to do, and she said that, well, she felt her parents wanted the best thing for her, so she decided not to do that, but she took other later courses and so on. So my parents encouraged me in the direction of learning, and worked with me so that I did my homework. My father used to give me exercises in Latin grammar and so on.
Aaserud:So they were established in the local environment, so to speak.
Townes:They were prominent members of prominent families in that environment. My mother had come from Charleston, which was a fairly high society city prosperous. My father was from a rather smaller town, from the sticks, so to speak, in the Piedmont region. But he was from a very prominent family there. One of his brothers had married a Calhoun, and they knew John C. Calhoun well. They were prominent in politics and so on.
Aaserud:Both had been in the area for some generations.
Townes:That's right. They'd been there for a long time. Let's see, their ethnic background. All my family had been in America since before the Revolution. None had come over after the Revolution. And they were a mixture of most of Protestant Europe, except for Scandinavia, who were more recent comers, generally. But a mixture of German and a great deal of Scottish and English and Welch blood, and Huguenot French and Scotch Irish and so on. It was a normal American mixture of that time, for people of families that had been over here a long time. They were also very religious people, and I always felt that I was strongly religiously oriented too, and still attend church regularly. I had a very deep sense of duty and truthfulness and accuracy and responsibility and so on. I went through school in a fairly normal way and enjoyed school fairly well, until it became a little boring, and then my parents suggested that maybe I'd like to skip a grade, which I did then. I skipped the seventh grade and got on into what was then high school and then it was interesting again.
Aaserud:What kind of school?
Townes:Public school. Public schools in that area were quite good. The schools were segregated, of course, so that this was the white faction of the population, and it was also more or less the city faction of the population. There were other schools on the outskirts of the city where the children of families that worked in the cotton mills attended, and they were somewhat lower in general academic standards. But nevertheless there was a general mixture of city people. Actually I lived on the edge of the city on a small farm. My father, while a lawyer, liked farming. That's typical of Southerners. He had several farms, and we lived on a farm. I had lots of animals and pets and built things and roamed in the fields and picked cotton and apples, and sold the apples. My father took us very frequently out on other farms, just to explore, wade in the streams and catch snakes and turtles and so on. I considered it a very happy childhood. My parents were people I admired and liked, and I think they were excellent parents.
Aaserud:How large was the community?
Townes:The city had about a population of 20,000 the city of Greenville, South Carolina. It was, I think, the third largest city; yes, I believe it was the third largest city in the state at that time, but still rather small, by modern California or Eastern standards. A bit of a metropolis for its area, but a small town, and most people knew each other, and the families had lived there for a long time. I was very interested in natural history, as was my brother. I had an older brother two and a half years older than I, and he was interested, and we collected insects and all kinds of things together. I collected bird eggs and rocks and seashells and I pickled fish and other things that wouldn't preserve by being dried and so on. I had sizable collections of almost everything.
Aaserud:Was that something that came from yourself, or was it something that was encouraged in any way?
Townes:My parents encouraged it, and my mother was very tolerant about it. We raised caterpillars in the house, for example, to see them hatch out into butterflies, and she accepted that as a natural boys' interest. My parents encouraged us in interest in natural history, as well as interest in a wide variety of other things, and I had some hobbies. One of my uncles was a professor of electrical engineering at a local college, and had an early radio. He gave us an old radio, and we played with that and had a lot of fun trying that out, trying to make radios and so on. I also built buildings and built wagons and just did a lot of things with my hands, and my parents encouraged that. Since we were somewhat isolated we were a big family of six children we were not very gregarious. We lived on this small farm and just did everything ourselves. Now, by the time I got to high school, I took essentially all the mathematics courses, one required general science course which wasn't very good and I knew it wasn't very good. Then I didn't take any other science because it was not good in that high school. My parents knew that, my brother knew that, and I was told that. So while I liked science, I didn't bother to take any there. I just learned science on the outside. I did a good deal of studying on the outside.
Aaserud:Natural history and science neither of those were school-induced. They were self-induced.
Townes:That's right. That was, I would say, just my own interest and my family's interest.
Aaserud:You had one brother and four sisters?
Townes:I had two brothers. The other brother was considerably younger than I, and I really did not see a great deal of him, except at a rather early age when he was a little boy. I took languages. I took Latin in high school, and just a general variety of subjects. Then when I went to college, I had in a way an advantage of getting into college extra early, because that school system had only eleven years. That was the normal number in the grade schools in South Carolina at that time. So I got into college fairly early. I had skipped a grade already, so I was a little bit picked on by my peers for being young and somewhat scholarly. But another aspect of my family is that they partly from their religious beliefs, but partly also from a sense of human dignity were very strong on having your own independent thoughts and being able to stand up against people who didn't agree with you. They were not at all argumentative; they just quietly went their way as to doing the things that they felt were the right things, and so I didn't have much trouble standing up to being picked on by my peers.
Aaserud:Within limits of course, but there was never any real problem with that.
Townes:That's right, even though I was picked on a bit for being a little different. Now, in college I began to take science, more serious science courses, and I sort of went through all of them. I really thought of going into biology, probably, but I wasn't sure, and I liked mathematics. My second year in college I took the first course in physics, and by the end of that year I was sure that physics was what I really wanted to do.
Aaserud:What had your brother done before you?
Townes:My brother went into biology, and he is a very well known entomologist, and I often say that, well, he was so much better than I was. He was two and a half years older than I was, and he was so much better than I was that I sort of felt I should do something different. And that may be the reason I went into physics, too. But in any case, I was very entranced by physics, partly because of its logic, and because it dealt with the real world. Mathematics was logic enough, but I liked to deal with the real world, and as I saw it, physics really did that, and was a beautiful subject because things could be figured out if you worked at it. Now, that college didn't have very much physics. It graduated maybe about one physics major per year, and my last year, there were no other students than I, and so I just studied the book and worked the problems. That was the course. The professor really wasn't very familiar with the book, but I handed in problems that were worked and that made my four years of physics.
Aaserud:Was there anything in particular that opened your eyes for physics?
Townes:Well, the last book that I studied was Jauncey's MODERN PHYSICS, which I think was very good from my point of view, in introducing me to lots of modern physics, and the ideas at least of quantum mechanics. I didn't really have any quantum mechanics at that time. But the ideas were there, and a number of new discoveries and so on, which were done in a way which was not completely rigorous, but rigorous enough to make it interesting. Now, I also took a lot of other courses, because there wasn't all that much science. Any course that seemed to have a good professor and was said to be interesting in the college, I took. I finished enough courses to get a degree after three years in college. My parents felt I was a little too young to leave home, and I didn't object to being at home particularly. I was ready to leave, but I felt, well, my parents want me to stay and that's reasonable enough. So what I did was, I took a degree in modern languages after the three years, and then I stayed on a fourth year and took a degree in physics. So my first degree really was in modern languages, but not because I expected to go into that field, but just because it was another subject I liked, and I had to stick around, and I thought I might as well get another degree.
Aaserud:What were your expectations and when did you have them first?
Townes:Well, research was almost non-existent in that area. I knew what research was. There was a little biological research that one of the professors was doing. But it was field biology, trying to find new growths of plants and various sorts of things, a little ecology. I enjoyed that, and my brother was finding some new species, and I enjoyed collecting. I collected for the school museum, for example, got a job doing that. I went on a lot of biological expeditions. But that was about the extent of research there. In my last two years, there was a good chemistry professor who had just arrived. He was doing a little bit of laboratory research, but I didn't especially like chemistry at that point. It seemed to me too much a cookbook kind of thing. It didn't appeal to me. Later in life I actually did a lot of chemistry, but more physical chemistry. So I had had relatively little exposure to real research, but I wanted to do that. I was very interested in finding out new things. I was very interested in ideas, very interested in finding out new things. My hope was to get a job teaching in a college or a university somewhere, and be able to do some thinking and do some modest amount of research, at least. Jobs were very scarce, however. It was during the Depression, and physics was relatively unknown, and few of my friends knew what physics was. They just didn't know the name even. Physics came into prominence of course during World War II much more. Now all those people would know what the name is, at least. And there were just no jobs. But nevertheless, I felt by working at it I could get some kind of a job teaching somewhere.
Aaserud:What was your parents' opinion of that?
Townes:Well, my father thought that that was a reasonable occupation. He was not so pleased with my older brother collecting insects all his life. He thought collecting insects was fine as a hobby, interesting and fine as a hobby. But to make a career out of it, he was not enthusiastic about that. However, I think he appreciated my own choice. My brother of course went right on with his choice anyhow, and they were not difficult with him about it. But I remember very well their talking about it. You know what kind of a career is that going to be how, that's a good hobby, and so on. But physics was both my hobby and a projected career. I remember very well some of the excitement of some of the first physics. Newton's Laws themselves I found really just tremendous. That was my first exposure to physics. That was when I was a sophomore. Then when I was a junior, I studied a book. I largely studied by myself because there was only one other student in the course, and the professor didn't lecture very much. I remember very vividly, I was at my grandmother's mountain house up in the mountains one summer, and I thought, well, let's start studying the book and get ahead a little bit. I sat up in the woods overlooking a stream, and I remember very well the rock I was sitting on and the stream and the woods around, just exactly how it looked. I read for the first time about special relativity, and that was just a tremendous experience, to see what could be found out by reason, and a whole new view of what time and space were like. I must say that it was particularly exciting to me because as I sat there that one morning, I thought I'd found an error in Einstein's reasoning. And so I went back to the house for lunch. I came back in the afternoon and sat in the same place and thought about it some more. And I decided that Einstein was right after all. So I was able to find my own errors. But it was still very exciting. There were several occasions like that, but that's the one that I remember most vividly, when I discovered new ideas. Well now, I applied for ???).
Aaserud:How old were you then? Was it your junior year, did you say?
Townes:Well, let me see. That was just before my junior year, and so that would have been 1933. I had just turned 18.
Aaserud:What kind of encouragement did you have from your teachers or teacher of physics?
Townes:Well, I had teachers who were not research people. Some of them had Ph.D.s. They were very intelligent men, and fine people, but they had simply not had an opportunity to do research. They had gotten a job teaching in a small college and were doing it well. Generally I would say they were quite encouraging. I appreciated them, in most cases. There were a few cases that I thought the people were a little objected if I asked too many questions and so on. But mostly they were very intelligent and open and encouraging, and even though they were not known scientists, not known to the world of science.
Aaserud:But they could help you with correcting Einstein.
Townes:No, they couldn't do that, no. No, they didn't.
Aaserud:But was relativity part of the course then?
Townes:Relativity was part of the course, but I'm not sure the professor really understood it. I was largely studying it by myself and started reporting and working at problems, and I don't think he had all that much of a grasp of it. The professor did understand Newton's Laws, and he was very precise and logical about it, and that was one of the things that attracted me to physics the logical system. And he was very clear, a person of good intellect, and sharp thought and high standards. But I guess I never found out whether he really understood special relativity. I would guess he probably didn't really understand it very well.
Aaserud:Did you share the experience with anybody else, like a fellow student or something like that?
Townes:There really wasn't anybody else. No, there wasn't anybody else. There was another student in my class, but he had rather different interests, and while we got along perfectly well I never really was very close to him. Now, in going off to graduate school, I applied to all the right places, but I made a point of applying to two local universities because I didn't know whether I would get help. Most of the schools at that time would let you into the graduate school, regardless of what your record was almost. But there was no financial help, and what I needed was some financial help, teaching assistantship or something. I applied to four big universities and then two local places, University of North Carolina and Duke University. I had a cousin, distant cousin, who was in the department of physics at the University of North Carolina, and I thought maybe that would help me. But my father said, "No no, it'll be harder on you rather than easier on you. That's just the kind of person he is. He'd be very meticulous in not giving you any help." And sure enough, I didn't get any help there. But I did get a teaching assistantship at Duke, so I went to Duke for a year. And Duke had some pretty good modern physicists, and I learned a good deal there, but it was clear to me that I shouldn't stay there permanently. I took a Master's degree, and did a Master's thesis, and then I applied again everywhere.
Aaserud:Your father had supported your education up till then.
Townes:My father had supported me through college, that's right, and he would have supported me further, but he had no excess amount of money. While I never felt poor, we were very close about money. $100 was a whale of a lot of money at that time. My father had a good deal of property, and a good deal of land. I remember his saying that he wasn't sure he was going to be able to hold onto it during the Depression, but he did. And I never felt poor. On the other hand, it was quite clear that, you know, we had to work hard and be careful. My father would have done anything required to send me to college if I had asked him, but he sort of expected, and I expected, that I would support myself in graduate school. So I went to Duke, and then I applied again to all the big colleges, all the big universities, for some kind of financial help, and I didn't get any.
Aaserud:You were there for a year, did you say?
Townes:I was there for a year. Then I worked that summer. I'd saved up a little money. I worked that summer teaching all kinds of things. I taught Spanish, I taught kindergarten, I don't know how many subjects I taught, and eventually at the end of the summer I ended up with $500. I decided to go to what I thought was THE best place and see if I could stick it out, and see how long the $500 would last. So I took a bus out to Caltech and entered graduate school there. And then, after one semester, I had done well enough that they gave me a teaching assistantship, and from then on I was able to get along and stick it out there.
Townes:I felt it was the best school at that time for physics. And I still think it was. It had a tremendous array of excellent people. I suppose also, I liked strange and different things. And getting to California was different enough that I appreciated that too. But basically it was because I felt that it was probably THE best place at the time. I had considered Cornell, which was good at that time; MIT, Princeton, and I guess Michigan was another one on my list at the time. Michigan was very good in physics during that period.
Aaserud:You even applied to those places, perhaps?
Townes:I applied, yes. I'd applied, and I was admitted but with no financial help. At least I think I was admitted. I certainly was admitted to enough of them, but without any financial help. That was of no great value to me. So that's how I got to Caltech.
Aaserud:What was your basis for knowing about the quality of the places?
Townes:Oh, I talked with students and professors and read. You might say, one other thing about my early experience in physics which seems a little off beat at this point, but which was important in those days the Bell System TECHNICAL JOURNAL was given free of charge to the local city library. The Bell System TECHNICAL JOURNAL today is rather specialized and would be of interest to maybe a budding young electrical engineer but not necessarily a physicist. But at that time, Karl Darrow was writing review articles and publishing them in the Bell System TECHNICAL JOURNAL. He wrote review articles on gas discharges, and review articles on the new nuclear physics, which was just growing up at that time, and I remember those articles very well. I went to the library and worked on those and studied those while I was in college. I also read out of the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA about electromagnetic theory. The classic articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica are really very good articles.
Aaserud:Maxwell himself wrote there, I think.
Townes:He did originally, yes. I think he did originally. I've forgotten, but I think this was an article that had been updated, modified, but still had some of Maxwell's original authorship, as I remember. In any case it was an excellent article. So those were some of the sources that I used, and Bell System TECHNICAL JOURNAL was an enormous help to me. There were essentially no physics journals in the area. I suspect there were some maybe at the University of South Carolina. There might have been a few, but not at my college and not at the libraries. And so this free journal which had been spread around was exceedingly valuable. I guess the other really scientific things I had at the library at my college, Furman University, were some publications from the Smithsonian Institution which were sent out free of charge to people who asked for them. Those were in the biological area, and I studied those a good deal for identification purposes. Well, now, let's see. So I got to Caltech. Maybe I'll stop there and let you ask questions now.
Aaserud:You knew that physics was going to be your field, and that's what you were trying for. When did you decide about specific kinds of physics that you wanted to do, like experimental versus theoretical, like atomic versus whatever?
Townes:Yes. Well, I didn't know just what kind of physics I would do for a while. My first year at Duke as a graduate student, basically I was just catching up. I was taking some advanced undergraduate courses at Duke University, and I recognized that I had a good deal of catching up to do, so that didn't bother me. I went from Duke to Caltech, and again I was taking courses at Caltech that undergraduates were taking. There was sort of a difference in the level between Duke and Caltech at that time.
Aaserud:So there wasn't any particular orientation at Duke say that influenced you or that you wanted to take up.
Townes:No. I did my thesis on the Van de Graaff machine helping to build and make work a Van de Graaff machine and I wrote a Master's thesis on that. I worked with somebody who had come back from Cambridge, England, who had done some kind of postdoctoral work there. He was a nice man not a great scientist, but he had been in contact with all these things. And the Van de Graaff was one of the latest things at that time. He was building small Van de Graaff machines and I helped do that and wrote a thesis on that. But while that was interesting, it was not necessarily serious; it was just one of the things I could do in that particular location. When I went to Caltech, I did debate doing theoretical work versus experimental work. I had done a great deal of sort of experimental things at home, and liked figuring things out and working with apparatus. On the other hand, I was also very much attracted to theory. The only specific thing I remember considering, was that I had trouble with my eyes just studying too much I guess at night. My eyes bothered me, were irritated, and the oculist, the doctor I went to see, tried to do various things. He thought I should just change fields and not go into physics, that I ought to do something else so I wouldn't be using my eyes. I sort of said, nuts to that. I wanted physics. But I know that was one of the specific thoughts I had in mind when I decided that, well, maybe I'd better do experimental physics, not use my eyes quite so much, and so I did experimental physics. But there were other reasons. I enjoyed my work. I might have made the same decision for other reasons, but they just don't occur to me at the moment. The field I picked was again not so much characterized by the appeal of the field itself, as I picked a person, and that's rather different from what other people might pick. I worked with W. R. Smythe. I'd taken his course in electromagnetic theory, a very tough course. He sort of prided himself on being tough and making it a test of good students. And I enjoyed the course. It was tough, but I enjoyed it and I learned a lot, and he had relatively few students, again because he was known to be kind of demanding. But I felt that, well, he was demanding, he had few students, I'd get a lot of attention. He was working at that time on isotope separation and isotope spins and isotope characteristics. That was a new field at the time, and it seemed to me interesting. I felt I would be able to work closely with someone like that who had very high standards. That was the thing that appealed to me particularly. I took over some apparatus, which Dean Wooldridge had worked on, an isotope separation device by diffusion. I did that, and then did spectroscopy on the separated isotopes of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon, to attempt to measure the spins of these isotopes, which weren't at that time really known.
Townes:Yes, let's break. [Interruption]
Aaserud:What about the environment of Caltech generally speaking?
Townes:Well, that was a very stimulating environment. It was a great period for me. I was working very hard and didn't have much money. In fact, I started out, I slept on a sleeping porch with another student for $6 a month, and I lived out of a trunk, where I kept my clothes, slept in a little bunk on the sleeping porch. But there were other students in that same house, some of whom I've kept track of for a long time, in several fields. Caltech was a very stimulating, interesting place, lots of students that were interested. Some of them kind of crazy. Particularly people who went into physics in that period had to be a little crazy, I guess. But some of them were both crazy and not especially smart but nevertheless interesting, and lots of others were in fact very smart. And there was a stimulating group of people and very stimulating professors.
Aaserud:What was the size of the student body at the time, in your class, for example?
Townes:Well, I suppose there were maybe ten graduate students, perhaps, incoming graduate students, when I came in ten or twelve, maybe, something like that, certainly not more. The whole school, I don't know what its size was, maybe 500 undergraduates and graduate students. It was a small place, but hence very personal, and a good opportunity to be in good contact with people. Of course Millikan was still somewhat active then, and Robert Oppenheimer was there regularly. He'd come down from Berkeley with his students, and I bummed around with his students quite a lot too, taking hikes with them and so on. They came down. They traveled back and forth between the two campuses with him, and so I had a lot of good contacts there and good friends, and I took Oppie's courses. Houston was there and Bateman, the mathematician, Epstein was a theoretical physicist, and the Lauritsens, and then Willie Fowler was just a young professor at that point. And there was good aeronautical engineering, very good biology. I had a number of good friends in the biology department. And excellent chemists, chemistry. Pauling was there; I took some of Pauling's courses. And what's his name, Tollman. Tollman was just an excellent teacher, and Fritz Zwicky in astronomy. It was a stellar group of people, and all very interesting, some a bit peculiar, but it was an opportunity to get close to them and know them very well, and I considered it really a wonderful atmosphere.
Aaserud:It was a change from Duke.
Townes:Quite a change from Duke. Well, Duke was a nice atmosphere in the sense of being personal, and the professors were attentive. But they were rather more minor figures so far as research was concerned. And the students were not as interesting to me.
Aaserud:Were there any particular students during those early years that you would point to?
Townes:Oh, well, there were lots of them. One of my good friends was Leverett Davis, who stayed on at Caltech as a professor, and of course Willie Fowler was a young man then, and he bummed around with students some. Some of the theorists I knew quite well. Volkov who did the work on neutron stars with Oppenheimer, and Morrison, who is now at MIT, is a theorist; also Bob Christy who was provost at Caltech for quite a while. He's a well known theorist. Oppie's student and I used to hike together quite a bit. Tanaka, who got killed unfortunately at a young age, and Snyder. Then there was Pief Panofsky, who was a very good friend of mine. Pief came a year after I was there, but Pief and I saw a lot of each other. Howland Bailey was my original roommate, and I saw a good deal of him. He did not become a prominent scientist. Pief of course did. And I think I could go on for quite a while. I had a number of very good friends in chemistry and biology. Norman Horowitz was another good friend of mine who was in biology. He's a professor at Caltech, quite a prominent figure there. There were lots of them; there were so many interesting people there; there were some whom of course as I say were a little crazy, and didn't make it, but were still interesting.
Aaserud:But you were fairly alone in choosing Smythe?
Townes:Yes, that's right. Smythe typically had one or two students, and I was his only student for a while. Then another younger person came in. And I worked very closely with Smythe. He was in and out of my office or lab. I was in and out of his office pretty much all the time. He sort of gave me the problems for his book, to try them out on me. I helped him with his course that way and learned a lot of electromagnetic theory very important to me, as a matter of fact. It's such a basic subject, and applies to so much and it's been useful ever since. And I ended up working every problem in his well known electromagnetism book. And he prided himself on problems. For exams he never gave a problem that had ever been given before, nor anything that was in any of his books. He always invented new problems, and they were interesting problems, sometimes a little tough. So I learned a great deal from him, and interacted very closely with him, as was true of many people on the campus, since it was a small campus. I saw a good deal of Zwicky and Bowen. I should mention Ike Bowen. He was a favorite professor of mine; I guess after Smythe, I saw him the most. He was a spectroscopist and became an astronomer. I saw a great deal of Bowen, and Bowen was very kind to me, inviting me out, inviting me for an excursion in the countryside, and that sort of thing. As with many of the professors, it was just a very friendly place.
Aaserud:So he had a hands-on approach to his students.
Townes:Yes, oh yes, Smythe certainly did. Well, as I say, he was very, very demanding, but very helpful. And I saw a great deal of him.
Aaserud:How close was the group in terms of interests?
Townes:Who, the students?
Aaserud:The students, yes.
Townes:Well, it seemed to me the physics students ganged together quite a lot and did things together. Panofsky and Bailey and I used to do a lot of hiking together. Another person I saw a lot of was Martin Sommerfield. Sommerfield became an aeronautics person and was very prominent in early jets jet work, rockets, rocket work. But he was originally in physics, and we used to do lots of hiking trips together and so on. And I did the same thing with some of Oppenheimer's students, the theorists the theorist group who came down from Berkeley. I would say it was a friendly, reasonably close community. Frank Oppenheimer was also a student at that time. Now, Frank was not an especially strong student. He was interested in a wide variety of things. I think he was married already then, and he would take trips off in his truck down to lower California and so on, and he was also very active in a Communist cell at that time. I remember his inviting me, and I was quite interested in coming, but I just never got around to it actually, because I would have been interested to see what it was like. And I saw a moderate amount of Frank, although I wouldn't say he was one of my closer friends. Nevertheless, it was a small enough place, and students didn't have much money, and they tended to gang up and do things together. We did a lot of hiking and roller-skating and things of this type.
Aaserud:In terms of physics, were you close?
Townes:Yes. Well, we discussed, you know. We would discuss the courses together, frequently the problems. I knew very well what everybody else was doing, and I enjoyed doing that. I think they probably did the same thing. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing, and learned from that.
Aaserud:How did your interest develop during your time at Caltech, and when did you decide on a specific dissertation project or an independent research project?
Townes:Well, you see, I got started on isotope separation because, and spin measurements, because Smythe was interested in that. There was already a diffusion apparatus that had been built, although it needed rebuilding, and that seemed like a likely place to start. Now having started on that, then I necessarily continued, unless I was going to drop it and do something completely different. So I did that and I did spectroscopy, so I learned something about spectroscopy and well, there's nuclear physics and glass blowing, and so on. And that was my thesis, and all that I did at Caltech, because I left Caltech immediately after getting my degree. I had various ideas again about isotope separation and about nuclei and so on that I was going to do. I had hoped to go to a university in a post-doctoral position. A National Research Fellowship was THE thing to get then, and I applied for one and hoped to get one, and was going to go to Princeton, if I got one. I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting one, but (???).
Aaserud:What was your reason for wanting to go to Princeton?
Townes:Well, Princeton had a good physics department. There was a lot of good mass spectrometry there, and hence some work on nuclei and isotopes and so on, which I'd been working in and I found quite interesting. But what deflected me actually was that a recruiter from Bell Labs came out. And this was a big event, because there were very few jobs, and any recruiter from a place like Bell Labs was just a big event if he came to the campus. Well, I wasn't all that interested, and had not planned to see him, but Smythe said, "Well, you really ought to go over and talk with him anyhow." I said, "Well, I hope to get to Princeton, and I hope to get this fellowship which will enable me to do it." And I wanted to stay in the university. But at Smythe's urging, I went over and talked with this recruiter and met him and talked to him a bit and went back. I still really didn't imagine myself going to Bell Labs, but then in a couple of weeks I got a letter. They offered me a job. Now, jobs were very scarce, and Bell Labs was just beginning to re-hire again. They had hired Dean Wooldridge and Bill Shockley and very exceptional people like that, and just a few of them. And so they offered me a job. Well, again, I wasn't really sure I wanted to go into industry or take a job like that. But I remember very well Bowen and Smythe calling me and saying, "Look, that's a very good job. There aren't many jobs around. That's a job; you really ought to take that. You know, you don't know what's going to happen in the future, and a job like that rarely comes around." And I knew, of course, of Davisson and Germer's work there, and Ives I knew about, was working at Bell Labs. I knew there were good people there. And so I decided, well, all right, maybe I should take it. And the salary was absolutely fantastic; it was $3000 a year! That was as high a salary as anybody had been offered for some years, maybe forever, because prices had gone up. Maybe in the late twenties people had got that much, but I don't think so. So it seemed like an enormous sum to me, and I went, and Bell Labs was initially very generous to me. I was very much impressed. They wanted me to get acquainted with the labs. They were going to put me for three months each in four different sections of the lab, all doing research. And I would get a chance to see what was there and work on something. I worked on something in each place. That was the plan.
Aaserud:What was the basis for your preferring academic work so strongly, by comparison with industrial work?
Townes:Well, in the first place, I like ideas. And while I have some affinity for practical things, I just like ideas much more. It was also to some extent the orientation of my family, I suppose. You know, in the South, the right thing for a gentleman to do is law or medicine or the ministry, or planting. And business, at that time was OK but it was not really the right thing to do. My father had married the daughter of a businessman and his own family felt, you know, that's a little bit of a comedown. But on the other hand, my mother was from Charleston, and her family thought it was a little bit of a comedown for her to marry somebody from a small town like Greenville. But in any case, both my parents were rather intellectually oriented, and just wouldn't particularly think of going into business, although I had cousins in business. They didn't look down on business, but it just wasn't quite the thing to do. That may have been part of it. But primarily I wanted to do research. I wanted to be free to do research, and I wanted to deal with ideas. And teaching, I felt, was an interesting and honorable thing. Just making money in business, I couldn't care less about. And I went to Bell Labs.
Aaserud:So it was actually more a baggage from your older days than an existing separation at the time between academia and industry.
Townes:That's right in part. But there was an existing separation. There was a separation, and mostly much of the best work was being done in the universities, of course. On the other hand, I knew perfectly well that there were some people at Bell Labs who did very outstanding work, and that was the thing that eventually sold it to me.
Aaserud:Did your father or your parents have anything to say to your taking a job in industry?
Townes:No, no, they were perfectly happy. I don't think I ever consulted with them. I was out in California for three years without seeing them. Although I corresponded regularly, it was too expensive to go home, and so I wasn't in close contact with them, even though I corresponded quite regularly and was fond of my family. But that's not something I would have consulted them about, nor something they would expect me to do. I think my father was perfectly happy. They would have preferred me to come back to the South, but except for that, why, they would never object. If I had taken a job at Princeton, I think they might have been happier. But they weren't unhappy at the idea of my going to Bell Labs. But primarily the thing that I wanted to avoid was just sort of making things for money. That didn't interest me, and seemed a bit crass, and Bell Labs had some of that going on, of course. However, it was clear they were going to put me in the physics department, doing research. The initial idea I didn't know about it before I accepted the job and when I went there, though was that they would allow me to visit and spend three months each with four different sections of research. The idea was that I would see what I liked best and they would see where they thought I fitted best and then we could decide, which was very generous for an industrial company of that time. In addition to that, Mervyn Kelly started a series of seminars there. Now, today that's commonplace, but that was I think probably the first sort of freewheeling seminar allowed in industry. The company provided cookies and tea, picked out a certain number of us and said, "Now, you can be members of this seminar." So a group, largely of physicists the people that they had picked out got together to talk about modern physics and anything we wanted to talk about. Now, a lot of it was solid state. Solid state was just coming on stream. And Bill Shockley and Dean Wooldridge and Foster Nix, very good solid-state physicists, Jim Fisk who later became president of Bell Labs, were members, and some others. And that was initiated during that time by the head of Bell Labs, Mervyn Kelly, who I think was a very forward looking person. And that was very enjoyable.
Aaserud:So hiring you was part of that broader scheme of things?
Townes:Well, yes, I guess so, although the seminar was started after I got there. So Bell Labs was just beginning to have money enough to begin to hire people to do some new things. And Kelly wanted modern solid state physics in there. It was just a new field, and he recognized that it was bound to be of some importance to the Bell system. Well, this went on for about eight or nine months, I guess, and then I was called in to Kelly's office with Dean Wooldridge. I think this was a Friday. And he said, "Well, now, next Monday I want the two of you to start designing a bombing system which would use radar and be able to bomb through clouds and at night without seeing the target." So suddenly I was switched into engineering, in a field that I'd had nothing to do with. It was in some ways interesting; on the other hand, I also felt a little insulted that he didn't even ask, would I like to do this?
Aaserud:It didn't have anything to do with either of those divisions that you'd been involved in?
Townes:No. No. The only thing it had to do with, I had been working with Wooldridge. That was one of my assignments; I'd worked with Wooldridge. Wooldridge, I think, had a little premonition that this was going to happen, but I had none at all. No. That's another feature of industry at the time. That wouldn't happen that way today. Kelly was a forward looking man, but still to him that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I was working for the company, so he assigned me; next Monday I started doing something else.
Aaserud:How long into the job was that, did you say? A year?
Townes:I think I'd been there about eight or nine months.
Aaserud:What had you done before then? What type of work?
Townes:Well, I had worked on thermionic emission and cold cathode emission. I'd written a paper on that. I'd worked on microwave generation, and microwave sort of theory and transmission. I'd worked on, let me see, I'd worked on magnetism. I'd worked in those three groups.
Aaserud:Yes, those were the groups.
Townes:Those were the groups. And I was just starting to do some work on trying to get a very low voltage cold cathode tube, which was somewhat applied, but I felt it fun, appropriate. Now, see, that was 1940, and the war was coming on. Bell Labs was working on magnetron design. They had gotten some of the first magnetrons from England. They were working on magnetron design, and the whole context was that, well, we just have to get going and try to help out in this war. Obviously we'll very likely get into it, and we must help the British, and so on. So that was part of the picture.
Aaserud:Was this a contracted task by the company?
Townes:Yes, it was paid for by the Air Force. But it was a job which was invented by the company. Someone there, a man named Level had used a kind of analog computing to direct anti-aircraft fire. His work was well thought of, and the idea was to use those analog computers for navigation and bombing in an airplane, using radar to pick up the target, and to make a complex system, complex enough so that one could bomb through clouds well. I don't know whether it was a part of the original decision, but he very quickly decided that we had to allow the pilot to maneuver, because already there were some radar bombing systems, very simple, but the pilot had to fly in a straight line and he could get shot down so easily.
Aaserud:This new orientation or new approach to you from Bell was due to the war in fact?
Townes:It was due to the war, and, well, I felt, "Gee, I don't quite want to live my life this way, being told to suddenly change fields and do some engineering." Nevertheless, the war was coming on. And I recognized that, and I felt, well, you know, we all have a duty there, and you're going to have to pitch in. So I was not too sad about it. Now, we worked very hard on that all during the war and developed a number of systems. And I learned a lot of engineering, and learned a lot, made a certain number of inventions, and that's a somewhat interesting story in itself, but I think let me go on towards what it led to, because ???)
Aaserud:Yes, it's interesting, because it probably had implications for your career and for the careers of others as well.
Townes:Yes. Well, I think the whole radar development and physicists' involvement in that had a very profound effect on the physics following the war. It certainly had a profound effect on my own development, and what things I knew and could use readily. I had not had very close contact with electronics, but during that four years, I got thoroughly familiar with what was then the modern electronics, and did a lot of designing and inventions and so on. And I designed big systems. Those systems actually never got in the war, because Bell Labs and we were somewhat ambitious and I felt, a bit over-ambitious doing complex systems. The answer from the armed services was always, "Well, that's just fine, that's wonderful and so on, but would you mind designing it for a new type of radar, a different type of radar, and doing something different?" So it never really got into the war. However, we developed a lot of technology, which helped in some systems, which did get into the war. And I got a little fed up with that. And the last system we were supposed to work on was one, which was to work with the brand new promising radar, which had wavelengths of 1 and 1/4 centimeters. We'd moved steadily from 10 centimeters to 3 centimeters, then to 1 and l/4, each time building a new system. Now, I got onto the idea that that wavelength is absorbed by water. I think I first noted that from some internal memoranda written by van Vleck, who noted that and said it might be a problem. I thought about it, worked on it, and recognized that it very likely was a problem, and that it would absorb this wavelength. I argued strongly with many of the people in the field, that that was likely to give trouble and the radar would not be workable. I remember arguing, talking with Rabi about it at the time. Rabi was a real big shot at the Radiation Laboratory. And he was leading the pack in going on to do radars of shorter wavelengths, and I remember arguing with Rabi strongly about it.
Aaserud:I'm sorry to interrupt, but you were at Bell throughout the war?
Townes:Throughout the war.
Aaserud:How was the connection with the MIT Rad Lab and others?
Townes:Well, they were doing somewhat similar things, so there were discussions back and forth.
Aaserud:Yes, that was open.
Townes:Yes. Yes, there were easy discussions back and forth and people visited back and forth. There was a rivalry but a pleasant rivalry between the groups.
Aaserud:Yes, but no compartmentalization in terms of secrecy or things of that sort?
Townes:Nothing that I remember in that area, no. The bombsight, the Norden bomb sight, was considered very very secret. That was highly compartmentalized. We were told to build this bombsight, radar bombsight. We said, "Well, now, what kind of accuracy do you expect? What do you want?" Well, just make it as good as you can. "Well, what are you getting now?" They wouldn't tell us. Too secret to tell us what kind of accuracy. The general newspaper story was that they were dropping bombs into a pickle barrel from 10,000 feet and so on. That was the newspaper story. The Norden bombsight was THE big secret of that day, and we weren't allowed to see it, even though here we were trying to design new bombsights. And I never saw it until later in the war. I remember very well the first system we built. We had an old test pilot who was flying the plane for us, and we were by instruments guiding him, telling him how to turn and so on. And I badgered him about it, "Well, what do bombers do these days, how good are they?" Well, he would not tell me. It was a secret. We were doing secret work too, but the Norden bombsight was super-secret. Well, we flew our very first bomb drop, and we dropped the bomb and we dashed to the Plexiglas window to see where it was going to hit, and we saw it hit. The first time I had any indication of how we were doing or what the goals were, was when this pilot said, "That's a damn good shot, if you ask me." That was the first time we had any indication. We missed by 20 miles 200 ft. at 10,000 ft. altitude), which is not hitting a pickle barrel at all, but they never hit pickle barrels. In fact, the Norden bombsights were good only under very, very special conditions. So there were secrets. But between the radar people, I don't remember any particular impediments, or secrets. Now, I was a young man at that time, and I guess not very persuasive to the higher ups, and I remember a British commander who was sort of in charge of radar, and I talked with him a great deal. The Americans and the British were working close together. And I was finally told, "Well, we just don't know but it's been decided we're going to make this radar, so there's no point in talking about it any more." So we made the radar, and it failed. By the time they got it in the field, the wavelength was absorbed so it was never usable, particularly, because they were working in the Pacific where the water vapor was high. But that is the thing which started me on microwave spectroscopy.
Aaserud:I interrupted you when you talked about your discussions with Rabi, I think.
Townes:Well, Rabi was one of the people I argued with. Rabi was very enthusiastic about this new wavelength, you see. But Rabi is a very good physicist. I think he recognized the possible problem, but it was his decision, in a way. This wavelength was precious to him, and he was not giving an inch, that that was the right thing to do. I was a young man, and while I thought I had good arguments, nevertheless there were lots of other people who thought they were more experienced. But that's what got me interested in microwave spectroscopy, because I studied how this line might behave and how it would vary with pressure. I recognized the potentialities for microwave spectroscopy, and really for doing high-resolution spectroscopy on molecules. And part of the potentiality was that one could decrease the pressure and the line did not get weaker. Now that was very strange to physicists, and I tried to persuade some of my Bell Labs colleagues about it, and they were quite uncertain.
Aaserud:When was this, now?
Townes:This would have been the last of the war, because I wanted to do microwave spectroscopy at Bell Labs. I said, "Look, there's a good area of physics and we ought to be doing it. And furthermore I wrote a memorandum. This is one of the memoranda that are I think of some historic interest, pointing out to Bell Labs that in the long run molecular and atomic resonances could act like circuit elements, and that as they got to shorter wavelengths, they would be more and more usable, and might take over as circuit elements. Hence this is the reason they should allow me to work on microwave spectroscopy, because there were circuit elements naturally occurring and they ought to be usable. And I pointed out how to use them for frequency standards and for reactive elements and resistances and so on. But one of the elements in this argument was the ability to change the line shape without weakening it. That's a rather peculiar property that had never been seen before, just because people had not had those conditions. And it was counter-intuitive, that you can pump out a gas and the line doesn't get weaker on the peak of the line. I remember the director of research, who was Jim Fisk, inviting Arnold Nordsieck, who was a theorist he respected very much, and me to lunch, so I could talk about this to Arnold. And he asked Arnold, "What do you think of it? Is that really true?" And Arnold thought about it and said, "Well, you know, that may be right." So I was allowed to work on microwave spectroscopy at that point, although I had lots of resistance within Bell Labs. This is the kind of thing that I would have objected to and did feel badly about, in industry, that I couldn't do the things that I felt were important. Part of the argument was that, well, the company needs engineers, you've now learned to be a good engineer, and why go back to physics? You can just do wonderful things for the company if you stay in engineering. Well, I didn't want to stay in engineering, and I told them so. And so they let me do microwave spectroscopy. I think that many companies wouldn't have been that generous. But they allowed me to work in microwave spectroscopy, gave me an assistant, and I think this theoretical argument about potentialities was sort of agreed on. So that's how I got my start on microwave spectroscopy. At the same time, I had for a long time been interested in astronomy. I'd done a little work with Zwicky when I was a graduate student just on the side. I tried a few things. Nothing particularly worked out, but I had read somewhere in a book in my early years and I'm still trying to know what book that was about the work of Jansky and how he'd found radio waves coming in from outer space, and nobody knew the explanation for it. So during my nights and Saturdays, when we weren't testing our bombing equipment, and I was away from home, I decided, well, this is a good thing to do; try to think about that and figure it out, which I did. I wrote the first paper on a fairly complete explanation in terms of thermal radiation, electron proton collisions, which I wrote during that time and published then shortly after the war. And I thought about going into that field, but I decided microwave spectroscopy was better, for the time being, and so I went into microwave spectroscopy. But I know I'd already started an interest in astrophysics at that time. Well, now, let's see, that brings us up to that period, shortly after the war. Maybe I'd better stop there and see what questions, what direction you want to go in.
Aaserud:Well, I just wanted to fill in a little bit there. How difficult did you find the transition from physicist to engineer? How much re-education, how much of a change was that?
Townes:It was not all that much of a change. I wouldn't say I found it difficult. I found it interesting. While it wasn't the thing that I really wanted most to do, it was not without interest. As I say, during the war period, I felt, well, everybody had to pitch in, and I didn't really find it objectionable. I found a good deal of interest there. I found I didn't know much about electronics, but Bell Labs had good engineers and we were told. "Well, you go to this man and this man and they know about these kinds of circuits and so on. They will give you all the advice you need." And they did. So Dean Wooldridge and I learned it that way, and pretty soon we were up to speed, and were inventing things. We had an overall systems job, and figuring out the principles of things, and figuring out things quantitatively, that hadn't been done before. So we had the edge on the standard engineers. The standard engineers knew a lot of things we didn't, and could design, particularly mechanically design, and that sort of thing. But I had the systems overall theoretical sort of design and invention of what ought to be done, and not the detailed, particularly not the mechanical, design of components. I did work out the design of electrical circuits. And I enjoyed working with engineers, and enjoyed the engineering fairly well. Some very high quality engineers were there, of course. And so I didn't find it a difficult transition, nor was it a difficult transition going back to physics. And when I went back to physics, I had all that background, which was enormously valuable and really was the thing that started microwave spectroscopy for me. And of course that was perfectly natural; what you do grows out of what you know, and I had learned a lot of that and very fortunately so.
Aaserud:How would you place microwave spectroscopy or your interest in it within the broader framework of American physics at that time, just after the Second World War?
Townes:Well, it was a new field, and as occurs in many new fields, there was a good deal of skepticism among the people who had not really looked at it carefully. But it began then to yield a number of interesting results. I would say my own bent is generally to find a field, which other people are not doing. And I've done that a number of times. When a field gets popular, I tend to change and do something else. That's just my own habit; you might say I'm a loner, in part. Not that I don't like people, but I just don't see the point in doing the same thing that everybody else is doing. Particularly when the field gets popular, with a lot of good people in the field, then I think any one individual can contribute more by trying to open up a new field. So I was opening up a new field, and there was a good deal, a moderate amount of opposition. There were people who said, "Oh, that's not going to tell you anything. Well, maybe we could detect ammonia or a few lines, but we wouldn't be able to do anything more." Some very good friends of mine told me that, who knew something about microwaves. They felt, "OK, so you get ammonia and that's nice, but now you stop, nothing more can be done." And that was true for a few months, and then we started getting other things, and the field of course kept developing, which is perfectly normal. It then became quite an exciting field, and the universities began to go into it, and industry began to shut it down. Now, it first grew up in industry because industry had the microwave components, and we were living off the old wartime components. It was what made the field available immediately, that we had all those components.
Aaserud:But you had to push to make physics of it in industry.
Townes:That's right. I had to push to be able to work on it. However, we were able to use the klystrons and the wave-guides and so on which were around the surplus stuff to do physics. But a similar thing happened in several industrial laboratories. Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric each of those had substantial microwave spectroscopy groups. But then they began to close down, and basically the companies didn't feel they wanted to support that, because it was just physics and wasn't yielding anything for them. In one very straightforward case, General Electric, told my friend there, who was doing perfectly good work that, well, microwave spectroscopy with gases didn't have any applications for them. They needed measurements of dielectric constants of solids in the microwave region, and he should do that. He came to me with a long face and said, "Well, the company says I just have to work on solid dielectrics. That's not as interesting, but they feel that's the thing I should do." So that's what he did. Now at Bell Labs I was allowed to continue, but I did ask to get the help of a second person. I had a youngish assistant, kind of a technical assistant grown up there, and then a second young person, but not an additional major physicist. I approached the director of research about having another person in the field, because I felt as it continued to grow, it was promising. They said, "No, it's just not really that interesting to a communications company, because we just don't see that it's very promising, and going to do anything for communications. But we'll support you, you can do it." And that was more generous than most companies. "But otherwise, we've got to concentrate on those things that are going to pay off for communications." So a little later that year the work had had enough publicity that universities were beginning to hire people in the field. I was offered a job by Rabi, to come to Columbia, and so I moved to Columbia at that point. The offer was made in the summer of 1947, and I moved to Columbia, January 1, 1948.
Aaserud:Was Rabi in agreement with your ideas about microwave spectroscopy? Was that part of the deal?
Townes:Well, Rabi has very strong ideas. He probably is a very wise man in many ways and I admire him, but he has very strong opinions. And I know perfectly well what Rabi's thinking was. Or rather, I believe I know perfectly well what his thinking was. He felt molecules were really not very interesting, and not really physics; that's chemistry, and it's not really physics. Real physics is nuclei, high-energy physics. And solid state even he felt wasn't very interesting and Columbia never had very much solid-state physics. But Columbia had a microwave lab being well supported by the armed services, and the Signal Corps, and he felt he needed some notable research going on in the microwave lab. Now, Willis Lamb was there, doing good work. Polykarp Kusch was part of that laboratory. He was doing beam work, sort of in parallel with Rabi. But Rabi felt that they needed more strength in that area. This was an active field and interesting to a lot of people. But I think he kind of looked down on it as kind of dirty stuff, that molecules are too complicated, and not fundamental and so on. But it's OK, it's pretty good, and so, he needed a person like me. That's the reason I got hired. Now, it was a good opportunity in that they already had equipment there and a big laboratory and it was well run and well financed, and I could go ahead and work. But also at that time, I was beginning to get nuclear moments from the molecules, and that did interest Rabi. The fact that I could get nuclear moments, that was of some importance in his view.
Aaserud:You had started to get that before you were invited?
Townes:I had started to get that before I went to Columbia. Now, I did have a long running argument with Rabi about nuclear quadruple moments. He was very much opposed to my ideas about getting nuclear quadruple moments from molecular spectra initially, very much opposed to it, but open-minded, in a way. I can tell you a funny story. I went out to a conference on nuclear quadruple moments at Brookhaven, which was a big center for nuclear physics at that time. They called a conference on how to measure nuclear quadruple moments. Rabi gave a talk, and many of his people in molecular beams gave a talk, and I was asked to give a talk. I discussed hyperfine structure of molecules, and how one could in certain cases, from understanding of the molecular bonds, deduce the quadripole moments. Now, Rabi had himself measured quadruple moments in diatomic molecules in the beam work. He had measured effects, but he hadn't been able to get the nuclear moments. And here I was saying I could get the actual value of the nuclear moments, you see, in certain cases. After my talk, he got up and said, "Charlie, you know, that's a very amusing story, but there's absolutely no science in it." And so I asked him, why. Well, he mentioned a few things and I countered them. He didn't say it even as amusingly as perhaps I did; he was just very strong about it: "It's absolute nonsense, there's no science there." Then we went out to the beach and everybody went swimming, and out at the beach he offered me a job. That's a picture in part of Rabi's personality. He's very strong; at the same time, he is I think pretty wise. And while he'd argued strongly, nevertheless he saw, well, there's something here. And so, I went to Columbia a few months after that. I wanted to finish some things up. I was very interested in nuclei too nuclear spins and moments and did a good deal of work on that, and than gradually worked on into other things. Of course, out of that then grew the maser, and out of that grew the laser and so on. And out of that grew some discoveries of molecules in space and various things that I'm doing now. One can see a continuous development there, even though in some ways I've changed fields. Some of my friends who don't understand much physics say, "How in the world and why in the world would you change from physics to astronomy suddenly?" I'm really doing the same thing, just applied in a different way. Nevertheless, I've changed in part, because I felt, well, the field is advanced enough now, and it's time to start something new. I made that decision very overtly. I finished a book on the subject with Art Schawlow and, well, I felt at that point we'd worked out most of the principles and the field really was thereafter one for chemists, and that I would try to decide what else to do at that point, which I did then. I went on sabbatical, partly to think over future directions, and decided to develop both masers and radio astronomy at that point.
Aaserud:You said earlier that the notoriety of physics changed as a result of war, and that people knew the name, at least.
Townes:Yes. Suddenly physics was parlor conversation. The physicists were heroes suddenly.
Aaserud:To what extent was it a personal revelation to you, that you could do this with physics, during the war? I mean, was that something you would have expected, or was that something that changed your attitude towards physics?
Townes:I don't remember anything like that, in my thoughts. It seemed perfectly natural to me, let me say. It seemed perfectly natural. You know, I regretted the war. I regretted having to turn to engineering per se, rather than continuing physics. But it seemed perfectly natural and reasonable, and I don't recall any sort of great surprises, to me. I've always regarded science and applied science as fairly close together. And I've always have been interested in apparatus and so on. And so, I regarded it pretty much as a continuum, but only questioned, do you turn this way or turn that way?
Aaserud:That a physicist could make that kind of contribution wasn't a surprise to you.
Townes:No. No. I think it surprised people who were not in the field much more. Of course, the nuclear bomb I think surprised people, and as you know, very prominent physicists, including Lord Rutherford, never thought that you'd get any energy out of a nucleus. And on the other hand, once fission was discovered, I remember very well, when the news got to Caltech when I was a student, why, we immediately started talking about, well, that probably means you can get energy. We didn't know how many neutrons would come out, but nevertheless, it sounded very promising, then, that we immediately could get energy and explosions and all kinds of things. And so, that was a very sudden twist, and I would say that was surprising. Maybe I shouldn't even say surprising. It was new. It had not been really thought about before. It was quite new. I wouldn't even say it was surprising, because, you know, I sort of expected discoveries in physics. I knew things would come up, and so it wasn't surprising in that sense. On the other hand, it certainly was new, whereas the development of microwaves to do communications and to do navigation and that sort of thing seemed like more of a step-by-step affair.
Aaserud:But it did change the conditions under which physics could be pursued, of course.
Townes:It certainly did. It certainly did. It changed the style, the amount of money available, and the energy with which physics was pursued. And it made jobs in universities for people, and many of my friends from Caltech had taken jobs teaching high school even, teaching in junior colleges certainly very good men teaching in junior college, working in the oil fields, working in industry. And suddenly after the war, why, there were jobs for them in the universities, and many of them became quite prominent. It wasn't for lack of ability that they were teaching in junior colleges. It's just that there were no jobs.
Aaserud:The laboratory that you turned to at Columbia was funded by the Signal Corps, I think you said?
Townes:It was a general services laboratory, under the responsibility of the Signal Corps primarily, but funded jointly by the services.
Aaserud:Was that a result of the war?
Townes:Yes, it was a result of the war. That laboratory had been working on magnetrons during the war, you see, and they had also started some measurements on the absorption of microwaves by water. They'd made some good measurements, but at high pressure, atmospheric pressure. I'd been working at low pressure where you could get narrow lines. But that work had gone on at Columbia during the latter part of the war, so they had started investigations then. But of course, it came along a little too late. The radar was already made, when it was found how much the absorption was. And the laboratory was based on this initial thing, working on magnetrons, which then continued to be supported. After the war of course the ONR particularly but other services stepped in to help the universities and help them keep going, and they were interested in the further development of magnetrons. In a way, that was the job of that laboratory still, after the war, to develop high frequency magnetrons. The armed services felt that any good physics in that general area was fair game, and that's of course what the university was interested in.
Aaserud:So to some extent there was some similarity there between the situation at the Bell Labs and the situation at Columbia.
Townes:That's quite right.
Aaserud:In that the apparatus was available for the same reason.
Townes:Yes, quite. Exactly the same reason, and it started from the same origin. The primary difference was that clearly, as an associate professor, which was the appointment I had, I could make my own decisions about what I wanted to do.
Townes:And I had a lot of independence, and I had a bigger group of people, because I could accumulate students to work with and others. And then I also had other people nearby who were very much interested in the same kinds of things, so I had a little better environment. Bell Labs was a very good environment in many ways, but this was a little better for this particular field.
Aaserud:You had no constrictions at the Columbia laboratory as to what you were expected to do or what kind of work you could do?
Townes:No. I was urged from time to time to think about magnetrons, or do something that might help the Signal Corps. And I said, "Well, if I have any great ideas that I'm interested in, OK. But otherwise I'm not especially interested in magnetrons. I don't want to work on that." And that's all there was to it. And they said, "Well, OK, that's up to you. But it would be nice if you did some time." That's what the kind of attitude was.
Aaserud:Of course, there were some periods in time that there was more of a request for that than at other times. And I guess we're getting into the advisory committee on millimeter waves now.
Aaserud:That's related to those questions, of course.
Townes:Yes, but it's a different type of story. I guess that was probably my first substantial advising of the armed services. Now, that came about in the following way. I was very interested in getting to higher frequencies, because the absorption lines became stronger at higher frequencies, and also you opened up new spectra that could be seen. So I worked quite hard. I was looking quite hard at ways of getting to higher frequencies and doing millimeter waves, and maybe beyond. Now, the armed services people would visit from time to time. They knew my interest, and so when they had the idea of having the millimeter wave committee, to advise them and their program on what ought to be supported, why, they came to me to be chairman and form a committee. It was done in a very direct way, because what they did was to transfer some funds to the Columbia Radiation Laboratory to take care of travel expenses and other things for everybody on the committee. So I formed the committee, and they were all paid, and the whole thing was managed out of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory. And as I say, that was sort of my first introduction to trying to advise a governmental institution. Maybe I had been on short-term things before. I don't think I remember any. But also, somewhere along in there, I was on a committee on infrared for the Navy, which Don Hornig headed, and that was a very interesting committee. We traveled around quite a lot, trying to figure out would infrared ever really do anything for the military. And that was just an assignment. I think this was probably the first, though. And of course I was chairman in this case, so it was more responsibility.
Aaserud:It was a committee to keep the services aware of what kind of research was relevant?
Townes:It was a committee which was asked. I have correspondence on that. You can get it out.
Aaserud:Yes, I have a little of it here.
Townes:There are some letters which say what the purpose of the committee is and so on. But I think I could paraphrase it.
Aaserud:There's a letter here, actually, I think it follows the list of members.
Townes:Ah yes. OK, that's right. We were supposed to look at the ONR program in this area, to look at whatever else anybody else was doing, to encourage people to think of ideas, and to think of ideas ourselves that they might support, to develop the field of millimeter waves. That's basically what it was. And this letter, I think, gives a fair enough picture of what that was, what the expectation was.
Aaserud:Yes. There's a letter here, which is written by you on the 21st of July 1950 to Commander P. S. Johnson of the Office of Naval Research. That's of course, during the Korean crisis, or in the early stages of it anyway. You write here, "If the present world tension is maintained or increased, I will make every effort to find time to visit the ONR in accordance with your invitation, shortly after my return from abroad." You were visiting somewhere, I suppose. "If the situation eases, I still hope to be able to come, but such hope may have to be sacrificed if other things are too pressing this fall." So that is a case of the world situation coming to a point where you would turn your work towards application.
Townes:Well, I would take more time anyhow to try to help out. That's quite right. And I've always felt that kind of responsibility, that, you know, everybody has to pitch in. And it was for precisely that kind of reason that I went down to Washington in 1959. I felt that there just were not enough good scientists in Washington, and we had a pressing problem with the Russian missiles and other things coming on, and it was just a part of my duty. I thought I could stand it for two years in Washington, because it was not really exactly a pleasure for me interesting but not a pleasure.
Aaserud:We'll get to that, of course. Do you remember this particular letter?
Townes:I don't at the moment, but maybe if I read it, I might.
Aaserud:I just selected one paragraph there, of course. I'm just curious about what particular problem it refers to and whether it was part of the advisory work.
Townes:Well, let me see. Yes, I don't know what that refers to. I would suspect that maybe Paul Johnson had asked me to come down and spend a few days, and sort of look around ONR and talk to them, that sort of thing. I suspect that's what it was. It speaks of a visit, and of course I was seeing Paul on occasion, in connection with this committee, and he would come to Columbia. So I think what this was is that he probably wanted me to come down and sort of look around and talk with people and try to give advice and see what was going on there, and see if I could help. I wouldn't have been especially eager to interrupt my work to do that, and that's why I gave this kind of response. And, well, if it looked important I would certainly try to do it, you see.
Aaserud:But it was not a question of changing your research work.
Townes:No. No, it was not a question of changing my research work, although you know, that's always a possibility. If you look around and see something and they feel it's important, then they might talk with me about it. But I think that was not really very much of a question at that time.
Aaserud:You'd done it once before under pressure, of course.
Townes:Well, at Bell Labs I was ordered to. That was real pressure. And also then the war was really coming on and I thought it was a still more urgent situation, and so many people were starting to do that.
Townes:It's quite possible that they would have asked me to come join them, and be a part of ONR apparatus or something like that. It's quite possible. I don't believe I ever seriously considered that, but this might possibly have come up that way, that they wanted me to come down and take a job there for a year or so. But this speaks of a visit only, and I guess the idea was a visit. I would look around, get acquainted, and advise them and then something might develop. But I don't really remember their offering me a job. But I suspect it's fairly likely that they might have said, "Well, what about coming down and joining us?" or something like this. It's a likely occurrence.
Aaserud:Under the right circumstances, you may have been open to it.
Townes:Yes, I might have, but ordinarily I wouldn't want to do that.
Aaserud:Of course, the ONR was supporting the lab too, wasn't it?
Townes:Yes, it was one of the three services that was supporting the lab, you see. Basically the funds came one-third from each service.
Aaserud:Yes. That was your lab. But it was supporting Columbia physics more generally too, wasn't it?
Townes:Yes, it was supporting the Radiation Lab. The Radiation Laboratory contained the research of Willis Lamb, myself, Polykarp Kusch, at least some of Rabi's work. And those were the primary professors in it at that time.
Aaserud:I came across a research proposal here, to ONR, signed by Rabi and you.
Townes:Yes, I guess I was chairman of the department of physics then, that's why I signed it.
Aaserud:I don't know what came of it. You're complaining that they're reducing their support.
Townes:Well, that's sort of a normal problem. We keep trying to boost the figures up a little bit, and they shave it down a little bit, and sometimes they boost it.
Aaserud:Finally, now we've come to July 1954, and it's another letter from the ONR, this time from E. A. Tucker. "This branch is pleased to inform you that there has been considerable interest among Navy scientists and development engineers in the molecular beam amplifier and/or oscillator which you recently conceived of and have now proved experimentally to be feasible." That's the maser, isn't it?
Townes:Yes. That's right. Now, Tucker, no, that's not the Tucker I was thinking of.
Townes:Yes, that would have been later. They didn't pay much attention to it when we were trying to work on it. After it started working, why, then they began to pay some attention and got interested, and I pointed out some of the possibilities to them.
Aaserud:Yes, I think one of them is this, "Proposals to Attach the Maser Amplifier to one of your Antennas." That's 1957, that's three years later.
Townes:Oh yes. Well, that's right. That's when I decided to work hard on applying it to astronomy. At that time, the Naval Research Laboratory had the best antenna, on top of the building of the Naval Research Laboratory. And I knew those people quite well, from previously talking to them about radio astronomy, and they had a prominent group in radio astronomy at that time.
Aaserud:So there was a close relationship there between that office and you.
Townes:Oh yes, between me and the radio astronomers at NRL, who were prominent in the field.
Aaserud:And the advisory committee too.
Townes:Oh yes. I saw a fair amount of them and we were on very friendly terms. They never gave us as much money as we'd like, but nevertheless we were good friends. Now, maybe we ought to close up at this point.
Aaserud:OK, fine. I don't know how representative you'll find those letters I've picked out. Of course, I pick out what I find is interesting myself.
Aaserud:I would like to ask you a little bit more about your papers, which I looked through another part of today. What still is lacking, of course, is the period before Columbia, the war work, the Bell work, anything that has to do with your education or even before that. [1 minute of static on the tape.] Dr.
Townes:At Bell Lab, there are notebooks on various part of my work. I must have had some modest file of correspondence and other things. I just don't know that when I moved if I would take those with me. I doubt it. And you know, Bell Labs might not have been interested in keeping my correspondence. I was a young man then. They had no special reason to save anything of my staff. They would just chuck it out. So if there were some particular pertinent things that I was working on at the time, I might have taken them to Columbia with me, and they might be in the Columbia files. There might be a few things like that, but I just can't otherwise see where in the world the collection would be. But there could be a few early things among the Columbia things that I brought along with me for the files. I did save a few papers, a few informal technical papers, from the Bell Labs days. One was this memorandum of mine, trying to persuade Bell Labs to let me work on microwave spectroscopy. The other one was kind of a long summary of the field and potentialities of microwave spectroscopy. I think I gave a few talks, you know. Something like that.
Townes:Yes, well, maybe it was, early work on microwave spectroscopy and so on, and those were specifically technical things, maybe of some historical importance, but nothing of a major nature. And then there were one or two other papers I saved from the Bell Labs days. I do believe Bell Labs should have my notebooks. Also, I patented various things at Bell Labs and a few papers connected with the patent's may well be on file. [Technical problem detected and resolved.]
Aaserud:Well, at least we hadn't gotten into the substance of the interview itself. But we were talking about your papers. I don't know if there's anything more to add to that.
Townes:No I'm afraid there just isn't anything that's likely to exist much as far as correspondence is concerned, with scientists and colleagues and so on, left from the Bell Labs days.
Aaserud:No. So, of course, one could always inquire at Bell Labs, but it's probably not much of a likelihood. Have you ever done that?
Townes:I've never done that, no. I was hoping maybe you had.
Aaserud:No, I haven't. I've been trusting you. I saw that there were so many things here, and the first time I was here, I wasn't careful enough about the years.
Townes:Well, the only reason I can see for Bell Labs saving something like that is, they might say that on the basis of its pertinence to some patent or something or other like that, they just automatically save things for a while. But then I would think after 20 years they'd throw it away.
Aaserud:Yes. I think that for tonight we can give up covering your whole career, so I have put some headlines here, some main headlines. Maybe I can read them to you....
Townes:All right, concentrate on those.
Aaserud:... so we can agree on what we're doing. A little headline is, family and family life. Of course, you married along the way, but that's a minor one. The first major one is the continuation of yesterday's discussion of advisory and other extra-scientific activities through your appointment at the Institute for Defense Analyses. And then, after that, I would like to cover your work at the Institute for Defense Analyses, of course including the establishment of JASON, your involvement in that, where you came into that, and that kind of thing. Then, a little more briefly perhaps, your acceptance of the provost position at MIT, the background for that, expectations and experience, and life and work in Cambridge generally speaking during that period. And then your JASON involvement after leaving IDA, when you became a more regular JASON member, and to look at that both in some detail and also within the broader context of your other involvements, both in science and for example in PSAC, the National Academy of Sciences, in IDA itself, because you were a trustee there, and because you were a member of the professional committee, I think. That kind of thing.
Townes:Maybe. I don't remember the two last things very well at this point.
Aaserud:OK. I don't think that committee was ever terribly active. It was disbanded.
Townes:Yes, I guess I remember that. I made some visits there; sort of a general discussion of their work, yes.
Aaserud:Yes. It had to do with the relationship between IDA and WSEG, I think.
Aaserud:And there were some personal problems there between the leader of WSEG and (???).
Townes:Yes, yes, right. Oh yes. It comes back now. I'm remembering more.
Aaserud:Yes, I think it was Rinehart and Bissell, if I remember correctly. Rinehart was the leader, I believe of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Division within IDA, and Bissell was the president.
Townes:Rinehart, I don't recognize Rinehart. Are you sure about that?
Aaserud:I think it was Rinehart? Well, I can pull out some documentation.
Townes:OK, somehow I don't remember.
Aaserud:Maybe you'll be reminded. If you don't remember, it may not be that important anyway.
Townes:Yes. Well, there were some severe problems in there, and we could talk about those, I guess. I remember some of the problems, and I remember now that I was sort of called in later.
Aaserud:Right. OK, we were talking about the Office of Naval Research yesterday, and your activities on its Advisory Committee for Millimeter Waves, and I would like to complete that discussion. I don't think we talked too much about the nature of the work there.
Townes:On the committee?
Aaserud:Yes, on the committee.
Townes:OK, you want to talk about that now?
Aaserud:Yes, just in general.
Townes:The nature of the work of the committee. Well, what we did was to meet and go over research programs in the area and discuss possibilities of things that might be supported or ought to be looked at, and so on.
Aaserud:By the ONR.
Townes:Ought to be looked at by ONR, or anybody interested in producing millimeter waves. The effort was to produce millimeter waves. Well, of course we were working for ONR, but we were interested in the field generally, and nobody cared whether it was done by ONR or anybody else as long as it got done. Now, on the committee, we had quite a range of people. I selected people in different fields because it was not a well-developed field, and it was obvious that new ideas were needed. And so I had some very outstanding electrical engineers, but also a very prominent person in infrared, a very prominent person in superconductivity, and a mixture of people then having the talents that I thought might bear on the subject.
Aaserud:You picked them out.
Townes:Yes, I picked them out. I presume that they probably were approved by Paul Johnson from ONR or something, but I was the one who selected them. They were representative of different parts of the country, too, just to be sure we were in contact with everything that was going on. Now, we met, and some of us made proposals. I brought up my own ideas and made proposals, and various people did. And so we discussed as a kind of a seminar what might be done. Also, ONR presented us with all the ideas that had come in to them. Individual members of the committee tried to collect information and present ideas that they had heard about or knew about that other people were doing. And sometimes we got people to come in to talk to us about things that they felt might bear on the subject. I'm not quite certain now, but I think we visited a few places also, that were active. One of the things we did was to organize some publicity, because the field was small and not that much activity, and we wanted to get people interested and point out the potentialities and the interests, and what the problems were. And we settled on having John Pierce write an article in PHYSICS TODAY. John was an excellent writer and very outstanding in electronics in general, and he seemed to be quite willing to do it. So he undertook to write an article to encourage interest that might be developed in the field, and that article of course is available. We were making every effort to generally promote the field, and encourage people, and look at all ideas. And trying new ideas ourselves. I was at the same time working in the laboratory with a variety of ideas. I tried a wide variety of things; magnetron harmonics, and Cherenkov radiation. I remember very well presenting the idea of having Cherenkov radiation using materials with paramagnetic resonance, or ferromagnetic resonance, but particularly very sharp paramagnetic resonance which I had been working on, which would then produce the equivalent of a dielectric constant of the material, resonant at a certain particular frequency. And we would discuss those things. I never worked on that in the lab. I felt, while it was a kind of interesting idea and might develop, it wasn't quite worth the hard work necessary to try it out, unless I saw more promise in it still. And this went on for about a year or so. I'm not sure how frequently we met. One can find that from the correspondence. But I suppose, every four months or so.
Aaserud:Something like that.
Townes:We would have a meeting, and we would have enough meetings that we had really surveyed everything that was going on, and surveyed our own ideas. And so I was beginning to feel that, well, we may be coming to an end as to what we could usefully do immediately. I was a little discouraged that nobody had turned up what I felt were great new and promising ideas. There were new things, but there was just no clear solution. Then we were having a meeting in Washington. That was the occasion when I tried to think back over things, and what it was that might possibly work, and why other things weren't working. That was where the possibility of the maser occurred to me. Now, is there anything else that I can tell you that would be useful about the committee?
Aaserud:Well, I saw in your correspondence that you also tried to communicate with the work in France and I think especially in Britain, and that it was hard to obtain some communication there. Maybe you could say something about that.
Townes:Offhand I don't remember it too well. Do you remember the persons with whom I was corresponding in Britain or in France?
Aaserud:You were traveling in Britain; in 1950 I think it was.
Aaserud:And it was probably in connection with other business.
Aaserud:But I think you just sent a general report that, there wasn't much to report. I don't think it was much more than that.
Townes:Well, that was part of our overall effort. Wherever we went, we would try to be in contact with the field, and find out whatever was going on. And I was interested. I would have done that anyhow for my own scientific reasons, but we reported to the committee to keep everybody informed. Actually, 1950 I believe was the first time I had ever been in Europe. I went there partly just for personal reasons, to see Europe, but also I made it an occasion to visit a number of laboratories and visit people that I knew about, and certainly looked around Great Britain. I was in fairly close contact with the British radar establishment, and had friends there, and I remember visiting that lab. There was, I believe, somewhat later, a group in France at one of the commercial companies, and a man named Bernier that I corresponded with a good deal. And they were doing a kind of a modified magnetron, which they were getting down to the millimeter region. I believe that was a few years later, but they may have been somewhat active during that period. They did first class work, and Bernier and I developed a friendship. But then that work later faded out, and didn't go very much further. But I certainly was exploring everything in Europe that might be pertinent, and would have reported it to the committee. That was sort of part of what we were doing, to inform everybody and inform ourselves about what was going on, what it was that might be promising, what things wouldn't work, and what people were working on. That was all part of the picture.
Aaserud:So it was much more active than just looking at research proposals.
Aaserud:It was essentially trying to expand the field.
Townes:We were trying to stimulate the field, trying to keep each other informed, trying to turn up any good ideas that might be available. And everybody was keeping their eyes open. Most of these people were quite interested personally, sort of working in the field. Not all of them. Daunt, for example, the person working on superconductors, was less connected than the others. Nevertheless he was interested and watching out for things.
Aaserud:How typical or untypical was this within ONR, was this, to have such an advisory committee for a specific field and try to develop that field? Were there other committees that you can think of?
Townes:Well, I'm sure there were, but this was certainly not typical. In the first place, even administration was centered at Columbia, and it was a rather special highly personal kind of thing. They were happy to do it, and pleased with it, I think. They had many committees advising them, but most of them were cut and dried, I believe. On the other hand, there were some others which were
Aaserud:It was more your interest than something coming out of the structure of ONR, so to speak.
Townes:Well, yes. Its particular nature had more to do with me than with ONR, although they encouraged it. They made the money available and they wanted a committee.
Aaserud:But you had the idea in the first place?
Townes:No, I don't think it was my idea. I'm not certain of that. I talked with Paul Johnson off and on. I think it was he who suggested, "Would I like to do this?" And I agreed to do it. I think it was an ONR initiative, but the particular style in which it was done was largely my own, and the other people who were with me on the committee. They were a lot of very capable broad-scale people, and we constructed the program together, more or less. ONR did have advisory committees, but, as I say, I think many of them were more cut and dried. They would meet in Washington and just review proposals. However, there were other types of committees, and I was on one of them, the infra-red committee. I don't remember exactly what year that was, but I would suppose maybe 1952 or 1953, something like that.
Aaserud:Was that the infrared committee of the ONR?
Townes:ONR, yes. ONR. It was headed by Don Hornig, who later became advisor to President Johnson, chief science advisor, and I had known Don Hornig. He was a physical chemist. And Don put together a very good committee. Van Vleck was on it, Sutherland from Cambridge, England was on it. And Gene Fulini, who was a kind of a different character, being an engineer, and not so well known scientifically at that time, but kind of an activist. Gene has since been very, very active in Washington. And there were undoubtedly a few others; they don't occur to me at the moment. That committee was to advise the Navy on its support of infrared. The Navy had been supporting infrared for a long time, and with a sizable program. And they felt that it wasn't turning up anything that made it justifiable in the long run from the military point of view. They wanted the committee to look at it and see whether there really were possibilities for military use of IR. Now, it seems ridiculous at this point, because we all know how important IR is to the military. Millimeter waves were the same thing, except they had not had a big program in that field. But they didn't have any very specific good applications for it, just some kind of possibilities, and we were supposed to look out for that too in the millimeter wave business. But the infra-red was rather specifically to answer the question, "Is this a field that ONR should continue to support? Does it have any real military potential?" We traveled abroad and reviewed laboratories abroad, and what they were doing. It was an excellent far-ranging committee. It happened that we found various things that we felt were promising. At that time, the Sidewinder missile was being developed at China Lake, by a former colleague and former fellow student of mine, from Caltech, Bill McLain. And we got wind of this. It was being done under the bench. And at the time we arrived in China Lake to look at the program, it was just two or three days after they'd gotten an order from Washington. The people in Washington found out they were working on this and said, "That's not your business. You shouldn't be working on that kind of thing. Stop it!" And we looked at this and immediately decided that was THE most exciting justification for infrared use. And so we immediately got hold of an admiral in Washington and explained this, and that he really ought to let this work go ahead, which he then did. And it was supported well, and of course has become a very important program. That was another, I would say, rather specially oriented and freewheeling kind of committee, and so there were such.
Aaserud:But that was a little later, wasn't it?
Townes:That was a little later.
Townes:No, it was not as late as the sixties. No, I would have said that was in 1952, 1953, 1954; somewhere in there.
Aaserud:And then there were advisory committees for the other services as well. I don't know if they were fully active.
Aaserud:In your case, there was one I see here for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. To remind you, I brought one page from one of the minutes.
Townes:OK, good. I'm glad you did. Yes. I see. This was 1956.
Townes:Well, this was a general physics advisory committee, obviously, and Elliot Montroll I guess was in the ONR at that time. And you see the people on this list were generally well-known, very competent physicists. I think that was an overall advisory committee for the Air Force program, just to review what they were doing and hear about it and talk with them about what they ought to be doing. Yes. So certainly the other services had similar committees. I had relatively little contact with the Army. I think they had much less of this kind of thing, although I was in close contact with the Army Signal Corps, which was in New Jersey and which supervised the contract at Columbia. I had close contact with them, and gave talks there. They were particularly interested in time measurement, frequency and time measurement, and had yearly meetings on the subject; and communications things of this type. But to my knowledge, they didn't have advisory committees of this quality or type.
Aaserud:I came over some requests from the Office of Ordinance Research of the Army, I think headed by Herman Roble.
Townes:Aha, oh yes.
Aaserud:There were two requests, one in 1958 about missile guidance, and one in 1961 where he wanted to support basic laser work.
Aaserud:But that was the extent of it?
Townes:Yes, I think those were sort of personal contacts. Roble was a theoretical physicist originally, I believe, and he was a good physicist. So he tended to contact physicists. But I believe that was a fairly personal, short-term kind of thing that he was asking advice about.
Aaserud:Yes. You didn't really have too much time at that time, either.
Townes:That's true. Yes, that's quite true.
Aaserud:In the first case I don't think you were too enthusiastic about his proposition. I didn't bring the letter.
Townes:Well, that's quite possible.
Aaserud:But that didn't take much of your time?
Townes:No. Oh no, that was a more casual short-term thing.
Aaserud:The Air Force Advisory Board was another thing, again, wasn't it?
Townes:Well, I don't remember all that much work on the Air Force Advisory Board. I think it was not very extended.
Aaserud:No. There was a little file on it but it didn't say much.
Townes:I think that's right. My service on it wasn't very extended, and my feeling was, it wasn't really all that active, too.
Aaserud:Yes, right, because you were serving on another advisory board also starting in 1947, which I think was the same year as the Navy committee started.
Townes:No, not 1947. The Navy committee started in 1950.
Aaserud:OK, so this was before then.
Townes:1947, what happened?
Aaserud:You started the connection with the National Bureau of Standards.
Townes:Oh. Yes. That's right. Now, that was still different. Each of these things, of course, has its own character. I had done what I think was probably the first work in stabilizing oscillators on a molecular line. That was my work on microwave spectroscopy. I had the fundamental patent on that and had done it. The Bureau of Standards was interested in frequency standards, producing what they wanted to call at that time atomic clocks. Now, of course, those are really molecules, not atoms, but it was close enough that they could call them atomic clocks. And they knew about my work. I had published it. And Harold Lyons asked me to help. Well, he was interested in doing things that I was very interested in, so there was a close scientific connection. That was not a broad advisory committee but rather more technical advising on a personal basis, in that case. And I worked with him over some period of years, helping out and advising him, and he then eventually developed an atomic clock, got lots of publicity, and then he took a job at Hughes. It's amusing that he organized at Hughes a group interested in this general kind of field, and one member of that group was Ted Maiman who built the first laser. Yes.
Townes:I was chary of giving my time to just a lot of committee work and administrative work and so on. But those committees which I felt were interesting scientifically to me were the ones that I tended to serve on, and also the ones I tended to be called on, because I was still fairly young. There were many people from World War II, sort of senior statesmen of science, who were giving the broader advice to government at that time. I wasn't all that experienced, and in addition I didn't want to take time away from research, from things that were more specifically of scientific interest to me. So you may notice, most of these committees were fairly closely connected with my own scientific work, and that's part of the reason I accepted doing this work.
Aaserud:How close was the atomic clock advice for Lyons, for example, to your work?
Townes:Well, it was quite close. I was myself thinking and working on ways of getting very accurate time. And, as I say, I had built the first ammonia clock, stabilizing an oscillator on the ammonia line, demonstrating that it was possible, and measuring roughly what kind of precision was obtained. I didn't feel that that gave quite interesting enough precision. It was good, but I didn't feel that it was interesting enough for me then to work further on that.
Aaserud:Was that before the Lyons connection or in relation to it?
Townes:Well, I did the work before the Lyons connection. Lyons learned about my work, and he was interested. He was not doing that at the time. He was a radio physicist, but he wasn't doing microwave spectroscopy. At the Bureau of Standards, he knew their interest, and he was interested in clocks. That was part of their job. And he read about my work, and some other suggestions in the field, and decided that that's what they should do. He then enlisted my help, which I was glad to give. I was interested in seeing it done. I didn't feel that it was promising enough to be the center of my own work, although I kept thinking about other ways of doing it, of getting better clocks. And I may have made a number of calculations and estimates of what might be done by various methods. Lyons wanted to go ahead and do it, to make a demonstration, even though I felt it was clear it was not the best clock, and would probably not in the long run be a usable clock for standards. Nevertheless he wanted to demonstrate it, and hitch it to a clock. It was a good clock but not to me an exciting one. Nevertheless I was quite interested in the overall scientific problem, and later of course when the maser came along, why, I looked at that pretty closely as a clock.
Aaserud:Oh yes. But you continued to collaborate with Lyons well after the maser too.
Townes:Yes, well after the maser. He continued to be interested, and he could get my advice and help, and I was glad to help him out. He was an enthusiastic person that was working hard on fields that were of general interest to me.
Aaserud:Did you get any ideas in return from the collaboration?
Townes:I don't think any ideas. I got a little pay for it, but it was not especially significant to me. But mainly I felt, well, it was an interesting field and Lyons was working on developing it and I was glad to help and encourage him along. I don't remember any special scientific ideas that I got from that direction. There was a chance it might happen, but I don't think it ever happened.
Aaserud:Yes, you were open for it.
Aaserud:On paper at least, your involvement in advisory committees is impressive at the time, although you're saying that it was mainly things that added to your work or had connection with your work. Another one was for Brookhaven; there was an advisory committee for Brookhaven. That comes in the same category in that respect?
Townes:That's true. You see, I was working at Brookhaven in the summers on occasion, doing work on nuclear moments. And so I would go out there and spend the summers. Then they sort of tapped me to be on an advisory committee. Well, I felt the work at Brookhaven was interesting and worth keeping up with, and since I had used the laboratory, I felt a little obligated to help them out, too, and exhibit that interest.
Aaserud:That was the microwave spectroscopy work, was it not?
Townes:Well, it was spectroscopy, and it was partly microwave spectroscopy. They were doing spectroscopy there. But then there were some other things. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance, and the so-called Knight effect was discovered out there by Walter Knight, who was a young man then. He was working in the same laboratory, and so I immediately tried to figure out what it was, and recognized what caused the effect. We wrote a joint paper on it. So I did a little work on other things that were related. And I was interested in other work on nuclear moments and nuclei at Brookhaven.
Aaserud:You did experimental work there that you couldn't do at home, so to speak?
Townes:Well, I wouldn't say that, no. Really, I went there partly for the family, as a vacation, a way of getting out of New York City and still continuing to do interesting physics. It was a way of doing physics in a new location. It also gave me contact with a new set of people, and work surrounding my own work. But it didn't really give me better facilities.
Aaserud:No, but it was nice with the change.
Townes:It was stimulating and a nice change and a pleasant environment, and the beach was nearby. And we had young children then who enjoyed it very much. It was an outing for them.
Aaserud:Yes, and the advisory committee work came out of that.
Townes:It came out of that. You know, once I established that connection, well, they tapped me, and it was a little hard to turn down. I guess maybe I have an over-developed sense of responsibility or a soft heart or something. When people who've done something for me ask me to do something for them, or when I feel they're doing a public service and they need some help, I find it difficult to turn down. Nevertheless, I tried to specialize it on those things that were of more direct interest to me.
Aaserud:How was the work there? Of course at Brookhaven, you had to relate both to the lab and the trustees of the Associated Universities, I guess it's called.
Aaserud:How was that?
Townes:Oh, well, perfectly natural. I don't remember any particular problems. You must remember, the trustees were, many of them, representatives of the universities, and distinguished professors of one kind or another, and a few people who knew this kind of work, and knew scientists. I felt it was a perfectly natural environment in which to work. My experience and my outlook may possibly have been generally a little broader than that of some of the scientists. I'm not sure that there was a remarkable difference, but they were somewhat broader. After all, I had majored in modern languages as well as physics. I was very widely interested in things. And my father was a lawyer. I'd worked in his office some and picked up a little money that way, and I had worked at Bell Labs, and worked at a university too, so my experience was moderately broad. And I felt at home with a wide variety of people. But the trustees at Brookhaven were not such odd people. They were really sort of fairly close to universities, and easy to talk to. There was no discrepancy there.
Aaserud:Well there was a case there, but I'm sure it's not a big thing. It was when you were chairman. You wrote the report by having individual members sending you their opinions from either one or several visits to the laboratory, and you put it together. Then there was some discussion about whether this was too critical, because you were saying, you know, "Mainly it's good. However, we should point out the negative things because that would be most helpful for them." And then I think it was Jerry Zacharias.... I'm not exactly sure whether it was him. He was on the committee, right?
Townes:I don't remember. That's quite possible. That's quite likely, but I just don't remember for sure. You know more about me than I do in some of these things. I'd have to review that. I don't like to say things that I'm not sure of.
Aaserud:And he convinced other committee members that this was too negative and you had to rewrite it. But that's a small thing.
Townes:Oh yes, well....
Aaserud:I was just wondering whether that indicated something general about relationships there.
Townes:Well, I don't remember it, you see. I guess maybe I have a little vague recollection of it now that you bring it up. I would have said that was a fairly normal kind of interaction. Jerrold Zacharias is rather assertive, and I don't think he considered me one of his best friends, or saw things exactly the way I did. Nevertheless, I might have been a little annoyed even, at having to rewrite this. On the other hand, that's not something that would upset me very deeply. And I don't remember it.
Aaserud:Right. No, he hadn't contributed at all, you see, so he was a little embarrassed on his side, because he was busy with other things.
Townes:Well again, that sounds just like Jerry.
Aaserud:And he did some politics. He convinced Bethe and Weisskopf, I think, to write you and tell you that they agreed with him, although they had agreed with you before.
Townes:I see. Well, again, that sounds like it. See, I guess being a young man; I tended to be more straightforward and not quite so politic. And Jerry might well have been right at that time; perhaps it seemed a little too negative. In any case, you know, I don't remember anything as any great difficulty. It might have been a little annoying at the time, but I don't remember it as any great crisis or any great difficulty.
Aaserud:No, generally I got the impression that the work was rather easy, in the sense that there weren't too many things to worry about, and that the work there was progressing well.
Townes:Yes. I think probably my feeling was that, well, if you're going to help them, you don't just write a sugary kind of statement, but say, well, this is fine, but here are things that might be improved, that weren't so good and you ought to know about. And that is a somewhat delicate matter; depending on how widely those reports are distributed. Jerry might well have been right that it wasn't the politic thing to do. But you see, those were just senior physicists. Jerry was substantially my senior at that time, and these other people were. These were senior physicists.
Aaserud:Bethe and Weisskopf were also on the committee.
Townes:Yes, they were substantially older than I, and while I admired them, of course, I didn't consider them different kind of people from me. It was a perfectly natural kind of interaction.
Aaserud:Well, you were on the same committee, after all. How much time did these different advisory committees take, in relation to your academic work and in relation to other work too, if such there was?
Townes:Well, I was not at that time doing any commercial consulting to speak of. I don't remember any, outside of the Bureau of Standards, for which I did get some pay, but I didn't really consider that commercial. And I was concentrating quite hard on science. I would have thought that, during that period, it was kind of 10 percent of my time or something like that, but not more. It was a perturbation but not a big perturbation of my time, and I wouldn't have felt very happy to have very much of my time go in that direction. On the other hand, for the reasons I said both scientific and sort of a sense of community responsibility I did get drawn into those things, and felt it was a worthwhile thing to do. You perhaps know the University of California has a theory that the duties of a professor are teaching, research and public service. I'm not sure every university expresses it quite so firmly and straightforwardly, but I think that is an atmosphere in some universities. And it's a personal view of my own too that everybody should pitch in to a certain extent in public service. And while I regretted losing the time, I didn't find it uninteresting. I just would have been sorry to have had too much time eaten up that way.
Aaserud:Well, you were able to accomplish a few things scientifically anyway.
Townes:I was pretty busy, yes.
Aaserud:Do you have a general evaluation of the usefulness of these committees?
Townes:Oh, I think many of them are extremely useful. Some of them were not useful at all. Much depended on the particular circumstance and need, and how much attention the committees got, how well they worked on what they were doing. Some of them were more or less formalities. Others were exceedingly effective. I think the infrared committee, for example, was very effective. It really made a difference to the Navy's support of infrared, and I think it essentially saved the Sidewinder project. The millimeter wave committee I think was effective, in the sense of doing the job well. But in fact, there was almost nothing there, almost nothing to be turned up, and so I believe that last meeting in Washington was probably the last meeting because we sort of said, "Well, we've surveyed the field and these are the things that are going on. It would be great to get some millimeter waves. We don't see any very hot prospects, but these are the various ways in which you could work at it." And that was that. On the other hand, it was just at that meeting where I had the maser idea. And after a while I worked on that, so you might say that the maser came out of that. Otherwise, except for general education and contacts, while I felt the committee worked well and it did the job, it would be hard to point to other specific outcomes. But that was a job to be done survey the field; see what might be done; advise the Navy: should they support it or not and in what ways, and what areas might be promising, or are there some promising areas. And that's what we did. Now, some of these other things, sort of general advice in physics, physics advice to the Air Force, that's a more nominal kind of thing. I think the Air Force felt it was obliged to get that kind of help, just to kind of be sure they were respectable and didn't miss something and so on. But they were doing a perfectly good job, and the physicists didn't work at it especially hard, and so nothing much happened.
Townes:And I would say the same thing was true of Brookhaven. It was a kind of a nominal visiting committee, just to be sure that nothing was amiss, and nothing much was amiss.
Aaserud:When you say that the maser idea came out of that meeting, what exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean in terms of ideas, or just that it happened at that time?
Townes:Well, it was connected with the work, in some sense. I'd been working on trying to produce short waves for some time, and had tried various things, and other people had tried various things too. This committee tried to really survey the field and see what the possibilities were. We explored ideas, and it was in the early morning, before that last meeting, that I was sitting in the park and just thinking it over, with a little bit of a sense of frustration, how we hadn't gotten anywhere; why was that? The fact that I had surveyed all the field and thought about it overtly and hard and gotten everybody else's ideas, and they had surveyed it and thought about it too, and there weren't any ideas, certainly was part of the reason I decided, "Well, we have to do something drastic, and really, these are the problems. Why hasn't it been working? We've got to just find some way of getting around those problems." And the problems were in part just making small things. Already as background, there was my interest in molecules, and my thoughts back at the Bell Labs about possibly using them as circuit elements. He says, "Well, gee, if you're going to make some small things accurate, molecules and atoms are the ways of doing it. But the trouble is, they don't give much energy." And then it suddenly occurred to me: "Well, in principle, they could produce more intensity if you get temperature inversion. And how do you do that?" And I just followed up those ideas. So that it was a situation which helped bring about my facing the problem and deciding, well, this is the only way it's going to be done, if we can do it. So in that sense it came out of the committee.
Aaserud:That was a breakthrough that you also probably could have used to good effect at Bell if it had happened then.
Townes:If it had happened then, sure. Yes. I said that I wrote this memorandum trying to convince the Bell System that molecules would be useful in the form of circuit elements, in some sense. But I carefully noted in that memorandum that you could not generate much energy with molecules, because that required heating up to high temperature, and they would fall apart. Then you could get only a limited amount of energy, and I did not think of amplification. I very specifically pointed out to them, well, that's something you couldn't count on. So while I had considered generation of electromagnetic waves by molecules before, I had discarded it because of the second law of thermodynamics, and it was only later that I realized that you didn't have to be limited by the second law of thermodynamics.
Aaserud:But it's an interesting constellation there, I think the application and the science working together, so to speak, to lead to that. You have yourself pointed out more than once that it's not a question of only basic science leading to technology, it's also a question of technology leading to basic science.
Townes:That's right. They interact and feed each other.
Aaserud:So that comes out of your personal experience with the matter. Are there other developments that you would point to, relating to my interest in science policy, science advising, prior to your appointment to the Institute for Defense Analyses in 1959, that we haven't covered?
Townes:I don't think of any. Of course, during World War II, I was working on military things, and during that period, I was in contact with the military and military problems, to some extent. But I was not on any over-all advisory committees. I was a young man just very deep in Bell Labs at that time. But I did have contact with sort of national problems. I think the other thing that I noted during that time, and I think is very important, is that the people who had experience during World War II, particularly on advising the government, then continued to operate and be important to our society, generally advising the government in thinking about policy and public matters and so on, Rabi being one of them, DuBridge, many other people; they were still in the business. I was too young a person during that war to have that particular experience, but I observed these people and thought, what a fine thing it is. That undoubtedly affected my own thinking about the relation between science, scientists and society. Now I don't think of any other actions on my own part, but you've already brought up things that I'd long since forgotten about, so there might have been some other things.
Aaserud:Yes, but not offhand anyway. You said that you were watching this change, not only in the physicists' situation, but in the physicists' attitudes or activities in the broader range of things. Are there any particular examples that you would point to, that you saw at particular close range? A model of sorts?
Townes:Well, I was fairly close to Rabi, I. I. Rabi; he was at Columbia and in the same lab. I talked to him very frequently. We had lunch together very frequently. He was fairly active in sort of general advice and off the cuff advice on public affairs. I appreciated that and enjoyed talking with him about public affairs. We had lunch together sort of fairly regularly, almost every day, unless there was some other conflict or something else to do. And in addition I saw a good deal of him in the lab. I guess Jerrold Zacharias was somewhat active during that period too. Now, if you ask me exactly on what, I'd have to think for a while. There's no one outstanding thing that occurs to me, but undoubtedly there were a number, but I don't remember them at this point.
Aaserud:I'm asking about things that stood out for you personally at that time, not necessarily what was most important objectively speaking.
Townes:Nothing immediately occurs to me. I'm sure there were some things, but I just don't remember any at the moment.
Aaserud:So, unless we decide that there's something we haven't covered we should regard the first headline as taken care of.
Aaserud:And turn to the circumstances and background for your accepting the IDA position.
Townes:OK. Well, some of it was in the national news, and the general happenings of the time. I had participated in a summer study for the Air Force and this may be one that you've missed, that was not unimportant in trying to foresee the next 25 years of the Air Force and what they should be like.
Aaserud:Which summer was that?
Townes:That was in 1957. 1957, and I somewhat reluctantly agreed to do that. They'd gotten together an interesting group of people. I remember Bill Shockley for example being there, and a number of very prominent electrical engineers, and others. Von Karman was officially around somehow. It was supposed to be the second Von Karman study. Von Karman, some years earlier, had headed a study to try to predict the future of the Air Force. That report had been very important to the Air Force, and this was a second effort now at trying to see into the future of the next 25 years. They called on me as someone who was active in the forefront of physics and who might foresee new things that they would not realize were coming along, you see. That's what they were trying to do, to get a look at the forefront of science and technology.
Aaserud:Do you remember who else was on that study?
Townes:There were some people from Lincoln Lab. Davenport, I believe, was on it, for example a first rate electrical engineer from Lincoln Laboratories who'd done very good things. I believe Everett the electrical engineer from Illinois, very senior, and a dean there at the time, who died recently he was on it. I don't remember others at the moment. I believe, let's see, well, I can't remember for sure, others. The study was up in Woods Hole, as I remember, and that was a nice vacation spot. It was in August and I went up there for a week or so, about a week. There were two things that I remember that we advised, that I advised.
Townes:I remember two particular things that seemed pertinent to my own experience. One was that we suggested that they should be looking at satellites and space work. The Air Force this was the summer of 1957 was very reluctant to have that in the report, and they told us then in a fairly straightforward way that if that were in the report, and got to Congress and they hoped it would go to Congress to help sell their program Congress would look at satellite work as a boondoggle and it would be hard on the Air Force and would hurt them financially, and hence they hoped we wouldn't put that in the report.
Aaserud:This was how many months before Sputnik?
Townes:About three months. So we reluctantly took it out and said, "Well, OK, if you say it really will hurt you and you don't think you can do this kind of thing, or talk about it, why, OK, we'll take it out. The other thing was that I recommended pretty strongly that they ought to be thinking about masers operating at shorter wavelengths, on down into the infrared. And that was written into the report, Down as far as the mid-infra-red, I guess, is what this report said, or something equivalent to that, about 10 microns. Now, that report never became public because while it was being put together, Sputnik occurred. So suddenly the whole orientation of the report needed to be changed, because then space work was popular. It would have been just a great thing if the Air Force had said, "Well, if you want to recommend space work, let's do it and be honest about it." But they didn't feel they could risk that. So the report was out of date then when Sputnik came along in October. So they decided not to issue it. They had another study the next summer, and I was kind of fed up and decided not to join them again. The next summer they put in lots of things about space work, but they left out any mention of short wave masers. I was not in the group, and that is it. That is in part a picture of the fact that most people didn't believe maser techniques could be pushed to short wavelengths, you see. That was the summer of 1958, just about the time Schawlow and I sent in our paper about lasers.
Aaserud:Which changed things, of course.
Townes:Which then later changed things. Now, the Air Force effort was a fairly major study, and I agreed to do it. I think I spent a week or maybe ten days on that. And when Sputnik came along then, I was sort of feeling, that, gee, why did we have to miss that? And furthermore, I was concerned about the potentialities of space development, and the lack of a good US program. And as 1959 came along, then there was still more worry about how far behind the U.S. was. ARPA was formed to try to remedy that. Then there was concerned about the missile gap. Generally there was a feeling in the United States that we were in trouble and behind, and we needed more technical effort and more technical input to U.S. policy. That was part of the picture. Now, Garry Norton, who was the president of IDA, approached me, and I don't know why, or who suggested he approach me. I had been active in these various ways and was generally getting to be pretty well known in science. But he came up to Columbia out of the blue and wanted to see me and talk with me about this.
Aaserud:So he came himself.
Townes:He came himself and visited me at Columbia, and tried to persuade me to take the job of Director of Research and Vice President of IDA. Now, IDA at that time was in an unusually powerful position. In the first place, it was primarily run by universities and university people. I wouldn't have done it, I think, otherwise, if it had been a government organization or an industrial organization, because I would have felt there was not likely to be enough openness and freedom and support for unpopular opinions if necessary. But it was governed by a group of university presidents and other people prominent in university circles, and some businessmen who were interested. Furthermore, it was sort of the chief advisor to the government in national defense issues, and some broader issues connected with national defense such as arms control and some foreign policy affairs and so on. They had manned WSEG originally that's correct, manned WSEG and then when ARPA came along, they provided at least the technical manpower for ARPA. Herb York, the first director of ARPA was an IDA employee; he later became head of DDR & E. So IDA had a very important position, a crucial position. It had the support of the university community, which I thought was very important to get objective advice, and I also felt and it was a common feeling of the time and I felt it strongly that there was not enough good technical talent in Washington at that time. We had to make a lot of decisions and the country was in trouble, and so I felt really a pretty strong sense of duty that somebody ought to be doing this. I had been tapped and asked to do it, and I was reluctant to turn it down. Now, it was at a time when I was very active scientifically. We were just trying to make the first laser, and that was a very hot project, and there were a number of other projects I was very busy with.
Aaserud:And the conference was coming up.
Townes:The First International Conference on Quantum Electronics.
Aaserud:Yes, that was September of 1959, so you were involved in arranging that as well, I guess.
Townes:Yes, I was chairman of that. The ONR had come to me to organize and run this conference, which again, I was willing to do because it was primarily a scientific conference and interesting to me, and lots of my friends were part of it, and my students participated and so on. But I was asked to do this, and it was really a difficult decision for me, but in the long run I felt that there was a clear need; it was obviously a potent position where one could do something useful, and how could I maintain that scientists should contribute to society, and back out of this because I felt I was busy and had other things to do? I never felt that I particularly enjoyed administrative work, doing that sort of thing. On the other hand, I had been on enough committees and so on to understand that I could get along. It wasn't bad, I didn't hate it, but nevertheless it wasn't something that excited me the way science did. I felt I could undertake it for a short while, and could stand it for a short while, and I agreed to go down for two years, which is what I did.
Aaserud:What did you know about IDA before Norton's visit?
Townes:Well, I knew what it was doing. I knew a good deal about ARPA. ARPA was sort of throwing money around to try to get things stimulated. Some of it was a little haphazard, but basically it was a big effort to activate technology and science, and it had been much in the newspapers. I knew a good deal about it anyhow.
Aaserud:Did you know York personally?
Townes:I did not know York personally. I may have met him, but I did not know him well personally. But I knew who he was. I knew his work here, at Berkeley, and so on. I also had known something about WSEG. I knew Bill Shockley pretty well, and he had run WSEG at a somewhat earlier time. Bright Wilson I knew well, and Bright Wilson had been active in WSEG at an earlier time, as had H. P. Robinson. I had met H. P. Robinson. I didn't know him well. He was very active in IDA, and I was pleased about that. I felt he was an excellent person. So I knew about WSEG, and I knew about ARPA, and I was interested in the arms control problem. The President's Science Advisory Committee had recently become active. I would have to look in the records to see just when Killian went down to Washington.
Aaserud:That already was in late 1957. It was the same year as Sputnik.
Townes:Late 1957, OK. And that seemed like a very good effort, and I knew a number of people on it. I guess Rabi was on that first committee, and I knew a number of the other people who were. I felt they were doing worthwhile things, but they were doing it part time. And that was also an attraction, and there was the expectation that I would have a fairly close connection there with the President's Science Advisory Committee.
Aaserud:Did you know your predecessor, Al Hill?
Townes:Yes, I knew Al Hill. I knew Al Hill, and knew about his work. I had had a moderate amount of contact with Al, through radar work, you see. And I talked with Al, of course; and I talked with the people in the President's Science Advisory Committee. I talked with them about how things were going and what was needed, and whether there might be some interaction, and they were encouraging. They were very encouraging, in fact. I had no official connection. I believe by then, let me see, had Kistiakowsky taken over? I think maybe Kistiakowsky was the chairman by then, by 1959.
Aaserud:I don't have that year. It may be.
Townes:I remember talking with George. I think it was George Kistiakowsky particularly whom I talked to and who encouraged me very strongly, and sort of said that they wanted to have close connections with me and so on, and this would be very useful, and urged me to do it. So I talked with a number of people.
Aaserud:You knew the MIT people already then. There was a strong MIT representation there.
Townes:Oh yes. Well, I think Zacharias probably was one of the people. I knew Zach and I knew Rabi. Those people had already been quite influential, and they were the natural people to call on. I've forgotten who else was on the committee, but they were people that I either knew well or knew about. And George Kistiakowsky I had known, through chemistry, and so there were a lot of reasons why it looked like an important opportunity to do something badly needed by the country, and IDA had a very key role, much more a key role than it has now. Today, I would say it's just one of many advisory groups, but at that time it had a very key role, and there was not much else. So on that basis, I felt that it was too important a duty to be selfish about and turn down and stay home. It wasn't easy. My family was still young, and we had to leave one daughter in New York with some friends so she could continue her school. She was at a stage where she couldn't change very well. We took the other children.
Aaserud:Maybe we should take the opportunity to digress about your family, since you volunteered that now. When did you marry?
Townes:I married in 1941, spring of 1941.
Aaserud:So that was long ago, at that time.
Townes:That's right. I married while I was at Bell Labs, and we already had two children when we moved to Columbia.
Aaserud:You met when you were at Bell, too?
Townes:I met my wife when I was at Bell Labs. I was living in New York, and she was working at International House, and I met her while she was working there. I was living in the Columbia area, and going to International House every once in a while. And we had four daughters in all. Two more were born after I got to Columbia. We were generally a rather close family. We weren't all that eager to move, particularly because of the children. I didn't otherwise mind moving per se. But my wife was fortunately flexible enough, and agreed that this was important. She also felt it was something I ought to do. So we did it.
Aaserud:What about salary? Was it up or down?
Townes:Oh, it was a considerable increase in salary, which was not a zero consideration. But I'd always prided myself on not making decisions of that type on the basis of salary. I had gone from Bell Labs to Columbia with a decrease in salary. When I came to Berkeley, my salary decreased. I've always felt that I could manage with what money I had and that there are other more important things. On the other hand, it was a substantial increase in salary, and that was not unwelcome, and it did help in moving a family, and so on. But that was not a primary consideration.
Aaserud:Did you have particular ambitions when you took the job? Were there things that you saw as important that you wanted to push, in the job?
Townes:Were there some big areas that I felt ought to be pushed?
Townes:Well, I don't think there was anything that was sort of special and peculiar to me, except possibly optical masers, which then become lasers, of course, which I felt were very promising and ought to be pushed. But I sort of purposely did not play that hard, because it was a personal issue. Space work I felt was important. Space and missile work I felt were sort of some of the most crucial things of that time, and that we ought to get to work in that area. But that was not a new idea with me. That was a current general feeling. Then I felt there were likely to be a large number of new possibilities. I was also quite interested in appropriate control of weapons. And in general policy and international relations and politics and so on. In fact, I helped try to organize within IDA people in that field, rather than just purely technical fields, and we set up a little group in IDA to do that. It was not easy, because the government primarily wanted technical help. They felt I think government generally feels that, "Well, we know all about politics and public affairs generally and international affairs, and all we need is people who have the specialized training that we don't happen to have. In other words, we got a group like that set up, and worked on rather broader problems.
Aaserud:Including people with a social science backgrounds?
Townes:Political and social science, yes. But the main work of IDA was technical. Now, I remember one of the very first things I did when I went down there was to talk with Allan Dulles, then head of the CIA, and get a thorough briefing on what we knew about the Soviet space program and missiles. And I remember Dulles saying, "Well, you know, a reasonable estimate is, they have a rather modest number of missiles that would be ready at this time, and they won't make them very fast. However, we recognize that it might be all wrong, that they may be moving much faster than we know. It's possible and we can't tell. There's relatively little information." His best guess was essentially correct, but there was clearly no way of knowing that that was correct, and it was very worrisome to people. I went through, you know, lots of other briefings, trying to evaluate things and figure out what might best be done.
Aaserud:IDA was in transition, I guess, since Sputnik or even before. I mean it was originally only WSEG, and then ARPA came in there.
Aaserud:It was helping with the Gaither Committee I think and the Draper Committee.
Townes:Yes, that's right.
Aaserud:CIA, I think, got their foot in the door.
Townes:Yes. Yes, we worked with the CIA to a certain extent. IDA operated rather generally wherever the government felt it needed expert advice, and the kind of advice that university type people might give. And it had a lot of authority and was treated rather specially. After all, for a non-government organization, to have lots of personnel sitting in the Pentagon and making recommendations on what monies the Pentagon should spend, recommendations which were almost automatically carried out, was very unusual. It couldn't last a long time, and didn't. But the government had sense enough to know that that was the only way they could do it at the time. They just didn't have people. Officially, any contract or order, expense of money, had to be signed by a government servant. But the government servants were really few and far between, and the IDA people did all the work, and handed the papers over to somebody to just sign them and pass them on. So as a practical matter, this non-profit, non-governmental organization was running the government decisions in the Pentagon at that time, and generally I think it worked fairly well. As time went on, naturally the civil servants began to be a little peevish about their not really making the decisions and about all these people telling them what to do. And it really was their job, and the military felt the same way. And so gradually those people had to be replaced. I think this was inevitable. I believe particularly in the case of WSEG, it was retrogressive, because WSEG evaluated the weapons which the Pentagon considered, and to have an independent evaluation is terribly important. When the Pentagon evaluates itself it's just not likely to be as objective, and it wasn't. They wanted certain results to come out of the reports, and we had a hard time seeing that an objective result was stated, rather than the thing which they hoped would come out of the reports. That created continual friction, and eventually led to a split, where IDA just felt it couldn't do it any more. And the Pentagon basically didn't want them to do it any more either. WSEG is now practically unheard-of. It's not important, and I don't know whether it actually still exists.
Aaserud:But it started out within the Defense Department, and then IDA was brought in to help it over the hill, so to speak, and then it went back to its original state again, I suppose. The National Security Agency was also getting some help from IDA when you were there.
Townes:That's quite right. That was a separate division of IDA and a very important division, a separate division.
Aaserud:Yes, but you were above that.
Townes:That division reported to me.
Townes:That division reported to me. It was not a division into which I ever delved very deeply. I talked with the top people, and felt that I had enough assurance that things were going well and they were capable. We appointed the people. But it was highly classified and there didn't seem to be any need for me to delve into it. I never did any active technical work on that, whereas all the other areas I did active technical work on.
Aaserud:You accepted the position on the 21st of July 1959.
Townes:I see. You know a lot more than I do. I knew it was somewhere along in there.
Aaserud:That wasn't too hard to pick out if you look at the papers. And then, two days after that, you were offered a position as chief scientist at the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency. Do you remember that?
Townes:No, I don't.
Aaserud:You may not have wanted to consider it anyway.
Townes:I think I would not have considered that. I think that's not something in itself which would appeal to me, because it did not have the generality that the IDA position had. Nevertheless, it's a respectable position. But I frankly don't remember it.
Aaserud:The first IDA contact for you that I have found in your papers was a request to review a TRG study of the properties of laser devices.
Townes:Do you have that request? I don't remember that as coming from IDA.
Aaserud:I have that request, yes. That was a request from IDA, so at least you knew, of IDA from that point on I'm sure you knew about it from other sources as well.
Townes:Well, I thought of this as ARPA, not IDA at the time.
Townes:At that point I'm not sure; I was acquainted with IDA, at least. I wasn't clear about any difference.
Aaserud:Yes, and to some extent you were right, of course.
Aaserud:Was Edmund Gordon Gould at TRG?
Townes:Yes, but I didn't know his first name was Edmund.
Aaserud:Was he responsible for the report?
Townes:In part, yes. I think basically he and Goldmuntz wrote it. It was kind of a funny circumstance. I knew Gordon Gould quite well. He'd been a student just next door to me; two offices over, and he'd gone off to this little company. And I knew some of the other people who were Columbia students who'd gone out there, and one of them was a student of Jerrold Zacharias's at MIT, a man named Daly.
Aaserud:So that was kind of a premonition of that whole problem.
Townes:Yes, I'm interested you found this letter. I had not turned it up, nor had I had gotten this thing from the Pentagon, but I knew it existed somewhere. I couldn't find it in my own file. Where did you find this, in the attic or downstairs?
Aaserud:No, downstairs. This is the Institute for Defense Analyses file.
Townes:Well, the person working on history of quantum electronics and lasers didn't find this. And she had plenty of access to my files. I didn't spend much time on it. I didn't know just where it was. But now this letter from Hardin is not something the Pentagon sent me. That is somewhat new. It also confirms a thing. I remember very well how this came up. Somebody from DARPA, and presumably it was Hardin, telephoned me, and asked would I review this study. I'm not sure whether Gordon Gould had talked with me about it a little bit before that or not. But I generally sort of knew what it would be, from what he said, and I said, "Well, I'm really pretty busy." And I probably asked him how big it was, and told him I was pretty busy, and I really didn't feel that I had time to do it. Well, then he called me back and said, well, that TRG didn't want anybody else to look at it except me. They were very sensitive about it, and they didn't want to submit it to anybody else but me. And I said, "Well, gee, I don't see why that's necessary." "Well, you know, that's what they feel. If they're going to get it reviewed, couldn't you please do it." So I agreed.
Townes:You can see here that it says, "We have assurances from Dr. Goldmuntz that they are quite intent to have their proposal submitted to you for technical appraisal." See, they didn't want other people to see it. Now, I think that was just because Gordon had been talking with me and he knew about my work. He knew that I knew about these things already and was not commercial in my orientation, so they didn't want anybody else getting hold of this at the time. I think that was the reason.
Aaserud:But that was before you had any idea of the priority conflict.
Townes:Yes, but also this had nothing to do with IDA so far as I was concerned. It was just a government request, that I review this.
Aaserud:So this has nothing to do with the priority conflict?
Townes:Not so far as I know.
Aaserud:Well, that patent conflict is a whole different story, of course.
Townes:Yes, that was part of the story all right. The patent situation is just a kind of a wild situation. It's crazy, really.
Aaserud:I saw that you had gotten hold of the report itself finally, to the TRG.
Townes:Yes, that's right.
Townes:That's right. That's right. I got hold of that to look at it again to see just what it said. And there, you see, I was trying to help them out, saying, well, there's an intelligent young group of people, and I thought they could do the work. You can see in that report that I suggested that there were a number of other places where you'd want to support this kind of work, which would be good. Supporting them was fine, but I felt at the time that they were OK, they were a good competent group, but not the best group. It really ought to be done by some of the outstanding physicists in the universities. I wasn't looking for money at that time. I already had support from the Air Force. I had plenty of support. But I felt that generally, that type of work would be best done in the universities, and by still more competent people. This was a young group of pretty good young physicists, and I didn't want to run them down. I gave them some praise there I think, but I tried to urge them to think about supporting some other places too if they really wanted to do that, you see.
Aaserud:Maybe not strongly enough.
Townes:Maybe not strongly enough.
Aaserud:OK, maybe we should begin to move towards JASON, unless there are other things. If we move towards JASON, of course, we'll forget everything else about IDA probably during that early period, so maybe we should be a little careful there.
Townes:Well I think, really, it's a sort of matter of time now, to concentrate most on the things that are most important to you.
Aaserud:Yes, that would be JASON, of course.
Townes:And, you know, if you need other material at some time, we can maybe go further at another time.
Aaserud:That would be great. I would appreciate that very much, because we will cover essentially the sixties now, and maybe not even your full activities then. But don't let me say that because that takes time too. I mentioned the National Security Agency.
Townes:One thing, by the way, one more thing about that report. After I read it, I saw that the ideas were so close to mine that I agreed, Gordon must have seen our paper, and I called him up and said, "I read your report. Have you seen our paper?" And he said, "Yes." So he had seen it, and he has admitted in court now that he saw it before he wrote that report.
Aaserud:That was the beginning of it, in that sense.
Townes:The beginning of...?
Aaserud:... the patent conflict.
Townes:At that time, I couldn't imagine any patent conflict actually, because he had seen our report and then written this thing, and we had records. We already had a patent applied for you see. So I never foresaw any kind of a serious patent fight.
Aaserud:No, but by hindsight it was the beginning.
Townes:Hindsight, yes. Hindsight, maybe. Well, the whole thing was rather peculiar, but I think we need not get into that.
Aaserud:No we shouldn't get into that. That's a big story in itself. Had you been aware of or involved in Project 137?
Townes:I was not involved in it. Yes, I believe I was aware of it, and I think Garry Norton when he came to see me talked about that. And it's kind of an interesting case, that John Wheeler, for whom I have a great respect he's a good friend of mine had led this Project 137. He had great devotion to government service and things that physicists must do to help the country and so on, and he was very idealistic, enthusiastic. Garry reported to me I'm not sure it was on our first meeting but some time fairly soon that after 137, in which all kinds of good things were proposed about scientists helping the government and so on, John Wheeler had been asked, "Well, now, will you come and take this wonderful full time position and see that scientists continue the great work you've done in 137?" John thought about it and said, "No." And everybody was terribly let down. Now, that's the conflict of a physicist, you know. John has a great sense of duty, very interested in trying to help government and the United States, but he just could not really give up his field that completely. He couldn't do it. I made a different kind of decision then, and I think it was probably the right decision, and maybe John's was the right decision for him.
Aaserud:He claims, in his letter of resignation from JASON, I think yes, he resigned from JASON in 1973 when JASON was going to change its umbrella organization from IDA, because he was a trustee of Battelle and he didn't want to be suspected of any conflict of interest when the transition occurred.
Aaserud:And in that letter of resignation, he states that he spent half a year full time in this effort toward creating Project 137, so he probably thought that was enough. I have to talk about that with him. I haven't spoken to him yet.
Townes:Yes. Well, OK, we can talk about John's role in JASON a little later. Let's see just what you want to talk about next.
Aaserud:Just one interesting thing John Wheeler was also thought of as a possible candidate for the directorship of the NSA laboratory that was set up at Princeton also, early on.
Townes:Yes, I would think he might have been, yes.
Aaserud:But that was back in June 1958. I have some early material here on Project 137, but we could skip that. We don't have all that much time. We have noted already that the initiation laboratory idea, which was what Wheeler and Wigner and Morgenstern I think wanted an idea of a laboratory for basic research for defense and national security failed essentially because there was nobody to take the directorship, or that was part of it anyway.
Aaserud:So then in the process, the plans were modified, and you gradually got the idea of a more informal group that would stay in the universities, and that would meet at intervals, and that would become JASON, of course.
Townes:Now, when do you feel that happened?
Aaserud:I feel that that had happened when you came to IDA. You can correct me on that, of course. Yes, that's even in your papers, I feel.
Townes:Well, you say when I came. It happened after I came.
Townes:It had not happened before I came. That's why I asked you, because it sounded to me like you were saying, well; this general idea had been formulated then as the thing to do. That wasn't really the case, and we can talk about that.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, fine. Well Marvin Stern of course is one central figure in this. And he wrote a letter to Norton, on the 7th of July 1959, which in fact is two weeks before you accepted the position, and he says here, "During the past several months, a group of my colleagues and I have discussed the underlying idea which had generated Project 137, and which in turn continued to be generated by this project," etc. "The original project or proposal was for a laboratory. This proposal was perhaps imperfect. In any case, it has not been translated into action for one reason or another. My associates and I have therefore concerned ourselves with outlining a similar approach aimed at the same end result. This approach basically consists of a non-profit organization such as the Institute for Defense Analyses, entering into a formal contract relationship with individuals making up a group of the nation's qualified scientists currently engaged in university research," etc. And he essentially lays out something like what would become JASON, and he had already spoken to people Ken Watson, Marvin Goldberger, Keith Brueckner, Murray Gell-Mann, Val Fitch, Sam Treiman, Norman Kroll, Fred Reines he talks about here. I don't know whether you had been involved in the developments here in this letter.
Townes:Well, now, OK, let me see if we can get this straight. When did I actually go down to Washington, do you know?
Aaserud:You accepted the position on the 21st of July. I don't think you went down before then. No, you didn't.
Townes:I would guess I probably went down about September 1.
Aaserud:Yes, I would think so, because it was a surprise in that letter that I saw, that you had accepted it, so yes.
Townes:OK, now, let me just see what Marvin is saying here.
Aaserud:Actually I visited him in Santa Ynez.
Townes:Santa Ynez, where is that?
Aaserud:It's just inland from Santa Barbara.
Townes:Oh, I see. How is he, what's he doing now?
Aaserud:He's fine. He's a freewheeling consultant on his own, and he has this wonderful farm up there, with lots of dogs. He even has horses, and is riding.
Townes:I haven't seen him in a long, long time. He's a very bright guy. Does he still stutter?
Aaserud:Yes, a little. A little bit. Not much.
Townes:He used to have quite a stutter. I haven't seen him in a long time. Does he have a family?
Aaserud:Yes. He has a wife. He and his wife live together there. I think the children moved out a while back. They're close, but not on the property, which is pretty big.
Townes:Well, now, yes. My belief is that this was more an idea of Marvin Stern than this group of people who were in 137. And this is why I objected to the way you put it, that those people had sort of transformed their idea into this.
Aaserud:It's strange, though, because he never had, he didn't have an institutional affiliation with IDA.
Townes:I know. I don't even know whether he was involved in 137.
Townes:He was. OK. Now let me tell you how this came up, and what I think the argument was. I didn't really remember that there was this early a letter from Marvin Stern. But it did originate from Marvin Stern. My memory is that shortly after I got to IDA, Marvin Stern had contacted me and had talked with Garry Norton. And Garry talked with me about it a little bit and said, "Well, there's this guy. He's in touch with some good physicists, he's interested in doing something, and it would be a good thing for you to talk with him." And I talked with him, and he basically proposed this kind of thing. Presumably I saw this letter by then, but I do not have the impression that it was something that grew up in the community, but rather it was Marvin's idea.
Aaserud:He was just an enthusiast.
Townes:Yes, he was an enthusiast.
Aaserud:coming out of nowhere, in a way?
Townes:Well, not nowhere. He had been with the group. But he was not a well-known scientist. He was very smart but not a well-known scientist. Now, what he told me at that time was that there was this group of people. He didn't particularly talk about 137. He said there was this group of people who had been going to Los Alamos for the summers, and all knew each other. And he told me who they were, many of whom I knew quite well. Norman Kroll is one of my good friends. He was at Columbia University at the time, and Val Fitch had been a Columbia University student. I was on his exam, and I knew him well. And I would say all of these people I knew fairly well, except maybe Fred Reines I didn't know so well all these people listed here, and most of the people. There were a few I didn't know one or two from RAND and one or two from Los Alamos that didn't show up in the scientific journals, and I didn't know them. And Marvin said, well, these people had been meeting at Los Alamos, and they'd been working, I had the impression, largely at Los Alamos on defense type problems and so on. They found them interesting, and they'd been talking about forming a corporation to do consulting. And I told him that, you know, a private corporation, a money making corporation, isn't going to be able to talk with the government and so on and have any special influence. I'm sure that you can make money that way, but that really doesn't do for you the things you've been doing at Los Alamos where you're on the inside and you can do things and all the information is open to you, and so on. If you get in a private corporation, where you're doing consulting, it's completely different, and you have to realize that it doesn't do the same thing. And he said, "That's what I've been telling them, and really you ought to get interested in getting them into IDA to do something." So that's how it came up to me. And my belief is that it originated with Marvin. As I said, it wasn't really an outgrowth of 137, in the sense that it was that 137 group of people that generated it.
Aaserud:No, but it could be used as such within IDA.
Townes:What's that again?
Aaserud:It could be used as such within the IDA structure, as an argument that since Project 137, or the ideas of that, will not materialize; we'll do this instead. And that's what his argument was about.
Townes:Oh yes, it could be. Yes, that's what he's arguing. I don't think that was the particular argument when I was there. See, I'd not been involved in 137. I knew about it. I was told about it. But it was a disconnected thing, so far as I was concerned. And this was Marvin coming up, and people largely centered around Los Alamos. Perhaps there was a more direct derivation from Project 137 than I knew at the time, but in any case it wasn't clear to me then. The idea was to see that they could be effective. And so, I talked with Marvin in some detail, and I felt that it was the right kind of an idea. We drafted it some, and I talked with the people. I guess I may have gone out to Los Alamos to meet them, and I talked with a number of them, excepting Murph Goldberger. Now, at the time, I asked, "Well, you know who ought to be head of this?" And so on. And we talked about organization. "Oh," they said, "Murph. Murph's the man. When we were going to form a company, Murph was going to be president." So I said, "Well, if that's the person you want, that's fine." But I didn't meet with Murph at that time. He was away or something or other, and I met a number of the other people.
Aaserud:That was early in your IDA tenure.
Townes:That was before we formed the group, you see. I went out there to talk with them directly.
Aaserud:Yes, so the chairman was elected before the group was formed, so to speak.
Townes:Yes. That's right. It was already a coherent group of people, and they wanted to do something, but they had this idea of forming a commercial company. My belief then was that Marvin brought this kind of organization up, you see, both to them and to me.
Aaserud:They already had a name. It was Theoretical Physics Incorporated. They were just about incorporated. It was four of them, Goldberger, Brueckner, Watson and Gell-Mann.
Townes:Yes. And I remember meeting Conrad Longmire for the first time there. He was one. He was at Los Alamos, and hence I hadn't run into him. I think that was the first time I'd been to Los Alamos.
Aaserud:Oh, really? You hadn't done summer studies or anything?
Townes:No, I had not. No, I'd never been connected with Los Alamos before that, never been there. Well, now, I talked with them. It took some persuasion that this was the right thing to do, but they were interested. And of course, a number of them I knew quite well, and I had great respect for all of them. They recognized well that my being at IDA was a help, because I would understand them and how things ought to be done. So it was sort of a mutual admiration society, saying, well, we've got to put something good together. And Marvin was quite active in sort of advising and talking, and I think basically he had the right general kind of ideas. Now, when it came to negotiating with the Pentagon, however, why, then Garry and I did that, and we sort of framed it in terms of something I hoped would be palatable to the Pentagon. We worked out the structure, of course with their assent. There would be Goldberger as head, and then an advisory committee of some of the more prominent people who had been organizing to talk about it. Marvin was a member I believe, but it was also several other of the most active people. And then I decided we ought to have some senior people to give the group somewhat more authority, because although there were all these very bright young people, they were young. And so we organized a small group of senior advisors, I guess we called them, or something like that John Wheeler, Eugene Wigner, Ed Teller, and Hans Bethe. That's right, four of them, four senior advisors. And that was part of the structure. And now, we had a little difficulty getting it set up right in the Pentagon, because the ARPA people wanted to grab it. And the head of ARPA, even though he was an IDA man, was so eager to have it in his organization, because he recognized that these were very good people, that he kind of grabbed and tried to set it up, and we had to overrule that.
Aaserud:You're not talking about York now, are you?
Townes:No. Not York. No, the person in that position by then is not somebody who's known so well. He was a good rocket man. I can't remember.
Aaserud:Was it Johnson?
Townes:No. Johnson and Betts, those were the administrative heads in government bodies. Johnson was a salesman from GE, I think, who was appointed. He held onto that position tightly and tried to make it important but didn't know any technology at all. Betts was a very good competent general, and he was the next appointee. But no, the head after Herb York was George Sutton. Herb moved up into an official DDR & E position by then.
Aaserud:Yes, of course he had, yes.
Townes:And George Sutton was there, who was, well, a nice guy and competent, not of Herb's stature, but pretty good. He grabbed at it and wanted to call it Project Sunrise, and my friends thought that was a somewhat sappy kind of a name. They didn't want that either. So eventually we got it worked out. Well, maybe we ought to stop right there, because we were just talking about the initial formation and where the idea came from, and I think that's about how it happened. I went and talked with these people, and we kept sort of trying to see how to best frame it. And then I talked with Marvin Stern pretty continuously over that period, and he was very helpful. Eventually we got it framed in the particular way we did. But it's very close to this suggestion. I had forgotten about this letter. I must have read it at the time. But anyhow I was talking with Marvin and he said essentially similar things.
Aaserud:Yes. The reason it says "Talk 6/83" there is because you had it among your papers, preparing your talk for the 25th anniversary of JASON. So it was there.
Townes:Oh, I see. I still had forgotten about it, I guess.
Aaserud:But you know, it may be that the chronology wasn't that clear. I don't know, would you like to continue for a little more?
Townes:Sure. I'm just getting a little hoarse; I'm going to take another cough drop.
Aaserud:Yes, I hope I'm not ruining your voice words completely. So in terms of projects, did you have any early ideas about something in particular that JASON would do?
Townes:Let me see. I'm just trying to think how to answer that. Of course, these people who had already been working at Los Alamos, had been working on various things, and these new things they wanted to continue to work on.
Aaserud:In particular the Sherwood Project I think, a few of them had worked on.
Townes:Yes. But now, some of the early things. Basically we organized to try to examine rather broadly technical problems associated with national defense, and to work on whatever new ideas we could generate, or whatever analysis needed to be done. But the space work, and in particular anti-ballistic missile work, were some of the areas that were fairly hot at the time. New forms of radar and detection were also, and I would say, many of the individuals had particular things that they were interested in and wanted to push or wanted to look into. Others didn't, but said, well, they'd like to listen and see what things they had some ideas on. And so there was no one dominant theme. And at our first meeting, we had sort of discussions of various people who wanted JASON to work on this or that, or who had problems, or were simply asking to talk about the fields as they saw it and the needs of the time. There were just lots of things to do, but I don't remember that there was any one sort of big topic that everybody was going to work on, or any two or three big topics that everybody was going to work on. I think they were just the topics of the times. There were problems of nuclear weapons and space and ABM and so on.
Aaserud:It might help your memory although I'm just getting out some things that might be arbitrary. You never know how representative these things are.
Townes:Well, fine. Give me something that may jog my memory.
Aaserud:Here is mentioned a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss the high energy accelerator program, also called the Corpuscular Death Ray. It does not refer to JASON in particular, but I was just wondering whether that was the kind of project that might be given them. I mean, it's the right time for it.
Townes:Yes. Oh, It certainly was. And some of these people were part of JASON. Now, Bond, Jack Bond, was well known to Kenneth Watson and vice versa, and they talked about things continuously. Bond was a physicist, and he was making a list of some of the good people that he knew, several of whom were JASONs. But this is just the kind of thing they would be asked about and asked to work on. This was a new technology for anti-missile things, you see, and so on. That's fairly typical.
Aaserud:On the other hand, I would think that this refers specifically to JASON. This is a letter from Kenneth Watson to you, dated the 13th of October, 1959, when he suggests a viability study of a fusion project ASTRON, isn't it?
Aaserud:Could you verify that that's specifically about JASON? I don't think it mentions the name. I think it talks about the group or the study or whatever. But if not, we'll just go on, of course.
Townes:Well, he says, he talks about "our IDA group." That was very clearly JASON.
Townes:JASON might not have been officially formed, but we knew it was being formed, you see. It's clear it had not yet received a name: "The IDA group." It had not yet received the name of JASON, and it was just this sort of idea to cut its teeth on this, and so this is just the kind of thing, and this was specifically for that group. My memory is, the name JASON came quite early. But I think this was probably during the time that it had not quite been official.
Aaserud:Yes, I don't have the exact date for that now.
Townes:I think, after Sunrise was suggested, we decided we'd better find a name that would be appealing, pick a name of our own before somebody else picked it. And so we picked out JASON, and it was picked out basically by Murph Goldberger, who says his wife suggested it. So the chairman's wife suggested it and everybody said, "Well, that's fine, that's a good enough source."
Aaserud:Actually I think she found that name in the previous yearbook of IDA.
Aaserud:Because the yearbooks of IDA I think it was Steinle who edited them.
Aaserud:And he had a peculiar sense of how to do these things. He always chose a mythological or at least a historical figure to relate the IDA work to, every time. And the year before he had chosen JASON.
Townes:Well, that's interesting. That's quite possible, because my guess is that these people would have looked over the yearbooks of IDA to see what they could learn about IDA and so on, and she might have looked at it. All I know is that Murph told me it came from her, and I said, "Well, that sounds fine to me. Does everybody accept it?" And they said, "Sure, that's fine." So that was picked out quite early.
Aaserud:Well, there were still more things to arrange, of course, specifically how the people were to be cleared, and whether they should have a wide or a narrow "need to know" kind of thing. And you indicated in your talk that you had some problems arguing that they needed a very broad definition of clearance.
Townes:Yes, that was quite a struggle, an important one. As I think I indicated, it's rarely that one gets over that much of a commitment from the Pentagon, to open up, to make a new ruling for this group, that they could have a completely general "need to know." It was partly because it was a new thing, so something new could be done. It broke all the rules, so to speak. But it was partly also the recognition by the Pentagon that this group could be quite important. And we sold it that way that, you know, these are exceptional people. And my own interest and argument for it was not so much the specific things that they were going to do, which I felt were likely to be real enough, but rather that the older generation of government advisors and people with experience in these areas was getting old, would disappear in time, and that it was terribly important for the country to have a new group of people who became familiar with these problems, and could deal with them then in the long run on a policy basis and so on. That was a primary reason, and the most important reason, it seemed to me, to form such a group of very outstanding young people. And that argument sold pretty well in Washington, that it was an important thing to do, and I think, as time has shown, it has worked out to be quite important. Many of these people have had very significant roles. Their familiarity with the field has helped out. They could be called on relatively short notice to give experienced advice. A number of them served on the President's Science Advisory Committee and in various other capacities. But it was not at all easy to get that clearance. And then some of them, being bumptious bright young people, were not all pro-government, and had said some things that might well be considered Communistic or taken other kinds of very liberal politics. So a few had very specific problems, and it was difficult to get them through. But we tried not to worry them about that, and we worked hard at it, and eventually they all got this really very extensive kind of clearance. And I think they've kept the faith well. I think they've lived up to their responsibility certainly and they didn't abuse their need to know.
Aaserud:There were no candidates that you had to give up?
Townes:No. There was not a single person that didn't eventually get through. But there were some things that were difficult.
Aaserud:Well, maybe you have implied that, but I'll ask the question anyway. How was the first group chosen? You've indicated that the group was there, in effect, but it pretty soon became a larger group than the original one.
Townes:Well, now, for the moment my memory is a little hazy about how large it was or wasn't at that time.
Aaserud:Well, this is the list of persons attending a Project JASON meeting. It's Project JASON now. This is the 17th of December, 1959.
Townes:Well, I know how large JASON was. But I mean the group that I had contact with when we were trying to form it, and how large that group was is not so clear to me. But the way they were chosen was something like the following. I got together with these people, the more active people in this group of what became the advisory committee, and Goldberger, and we made out a list. And that was a list of people that they'd been working with, plus a few others that they thought would be good or they had worked with in some other context. Some of them are just very outstanding young physicists that they thought might be interested. Now, we didn't get everybody that was initially suggested there, and we added a few later that weren't initially suggested. But we got most of the people, and so it was the group that had been at Los Alamos, friends of the leaders, and people that they and I knew. And we sort of picked out others. We tried to produce some breadth in the group, but we were primarily looking for exceedingly outstanding people.
Aaserud:Yes, that was the main criterion.
Aaserud:Not any background in advising previously.
Townes:No. No, we were looking for....
Aaserud:Nearly the opposite.
Townes:This was recognized as a new group of people, very good scientifically, who would then learn about the business and get into it. That was the idea. And many of them had had contacts with each other at Los Alamos, but I'm not sure that that was true of all of them.
Aaserud:Of course, part of this was to bring in a new generation.
Townes:Yes, that's right. That's roughly how they were selected, but I can't tell you much more detail at the moment.
Aaserud:I found an interesting letter here. I don't know what to say about that. It has to do with Congress. It's a letter from Garrison Norton to Senator Jackson, of the 13th of November 1959. Well, he's written a little memo for Jackson here, "The role of contract research organizations in the national security policy process. The following memorandum attempts to gather together some of the principal ideas suggested by the questions posed in the staff memorandum of October, 1959, of the Senate Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery." And there's a question 5 here, which says, "How can one minimize the danger that the essential separation of policy research groups on the one hand from operations on the other, may result in ivory tower thinking?" And actually what Garrison Norton does in answering that question is essentially to lay out the JASON idea it seems to me. It's very interesting that Congress was involved in this. I don't know to what extent this is a valid interpretation.
Townes:Well, let me see. These are questions raised in Congress?
Aaserud:Yes, that's how I understand it. This is a covering letter, and this is the report that goes with it. And that is the heading, which I just read to you. And the questions seem to come out of Congress, and it's Norton who attempts to answer them. And in answering one of those questions, he brings out the JASON idea.
Townes:Oh yes. Well, it would be on his mind and a useful answer a new idea and a useful answer.
Aaserud:Well, I don't know if that was part of the process as far as you're concerned, and if it was that complicated.
Townes:I don't remember this, and my guess is that Norton had been around Washington a long time. He was not a technical person. He was an accountant in background. But he'd been associated with the Navy, and he knew the Secretary of Defense very well. Gates was a good friend of his. Well, a good political contact man is what he was, and I think he would have known that I wasn't very experienced with Congress and political contacts, and he probably sort of would have handled
Aaserud:that side of it.
Townes:That's right. I would deal with the technical people and the people in the Pentagon, but when it came to the Congress, well, that was something that he would know how to deal with, you see. So he probably did this. Now he might well have talked with me about it, and gotten my ideas. But, this would be characteristic of Garry, after talking with me and other people, to handle this kind of thing himself. At the moment I just don't remember this at all. That's the reason, that I didn't write it. It was not anything that had much of a follow-up either.
Aaserud:Yes, it was more to lay it out neatly so that it was done correctly.
Townes:Yes. But that's interesting.
Aaserud:That covers, I guess, to a great extent, my headline 2 here: IDA work including the establishment of JASON. Unless you see anything particularly important, that we have left out.
Townes:Oh well, gee, if I thought about it, I might think of some more things, but I think what we've said, plus these various letters which you have covers most of it. In the correspondence back and forth with the Pentagon and in this case I think I drafted the letters, drafted the memoranda and so on, which, I would go over with Garry I tried to lay out how one would define the JASON group, and what it could do and what the context was and so on, trying to at the same time be sure to protect the academic character and protect the people. And I think they appreciated that very much. They knew I would be sensitive to that. That's one of the reasons they joined IDA, that we were a good match. But you'll see in those letters, I think, the basic ideas in those memoranda. So I don't think I need to add anything to that.
Aaserud:No, I have those, of course. What could be added would be whatever background, or specific behind-the-curtain kind of negotiations that lay behind it.
Townes:Well, the thing that I remember most there was that both Johnson, who was head of ARPA, and George Sutton, an IDA employee who was then the technical head of ARPA, both wanted very much to capture the JASON group. It had to be funded through them, they felt, but they wanted it to be reporting to ARPA, you see, and we felt that was clearly the wrong thing. It ought to be a separate group and independent. So while the funds we felt ought to come through ARPA and they did nevertheless we couldn't let them manage the group and have it reporting to them. Now, there was nothing bitter about that, but there were substantial arguments and it was a little touchy, to be sure that, they didn't capture the JASON group, and that the JASON group maintained its independence. Then the question of clearances, getting this very general clearance and getting everybody cleared, was another problem. And there were also problems in reassuring all these young physicists that things would work all right, and that they would be treated decently and so on, having this IDA institution there, and knowing me and something about me. The fact that IDA was run by universities and so on was very helpful in making them feel a little more comfortable about what they were getting into. And the senior statesmen there those four senior statesmen were also very helpful, because they knew them and respected them. In the formation and initial meetings, they were really quite helpful, not so much specifically with anything that they did, but just in the general encouragement, and presence. They would say things and encourage people, but they themselves never worked very hard on any of the specific problems. That wasn't what they were there for. They were there as somewhat figureheads, people to assure everybody else of reasonable experience in the field and so on. So there were a number of somewhat touchy diplomatic problems. Also, the question of how widely within the government the JASON group should consult. We managed to keep that quite open and wide too, so that they could work with a variety of agencies, which they did to some extent.
Aaserud:ARPA was the main agency there too, wasn't it?
Townes:Yes. That's right. That was the main input, but nevertheless we wanted to be sure that they could work easily with CIA or the White House or anybody that called on them in the administration, and we were able to maintain that. A lot of the power that we had in that argument was the quality of the people. The quality of the people was so outstanding, and that was what made it possible.
Aaserud:So that was actually clear from the beginning, I mean, after you had convinced the powers that be that ARPA should not be the only provider of tasks for JASON.
Aaserud:So that was clear from the outset. And then it was not hard to get the agencies to provide tasks after that?
Townes:No, the agencies were glad to have it done. In the first place, they weren't paying the bill. Secondly, they could get access to very good people, get some new inputs and so on. So the CIA was delighted to have a chance to get in touch with these people. There were many very difficult technical problems there. And so they were called on by a variety of groups, and they still enjoy doing that, having that kind of generality.
Aaserud:Well, conceivably, there could be some suspicions early on. I mean academic people and intelligence people don't hit if off at first sight.
Townes:One of the jobs that JASON is just undertaking and I was called, asked if I would be on the committee; unfortunately I don't have time to do it) is a quick study of what can be done to save the embassy in Moscow. Now that's just the kind of thing the JASON people can do well, and they'll tackle it with no holds barred. They're very imaginative, and they know basically what kinds of signals can be gotten through and can be stopped and so on. And so, what could be better than to be able to call on a group like that, to suddenly look at a situation technically and very intensively and advise the government on what might be done. Now that's not the Pentagon. That's a little different branch of the government. That's one of the more amusing kinds of jobs, just because it has a strong public interest, and is a kind of acute problem, you might say.
Aaserud:I understood from Alvarez that he had accepted a role.
Townes:That's right. Luis is on it. That's right. Luis agreed to serve on it, and he'll be good at it. But there are a number of other very sharp people there that will, I hope, do a very good job.
Aaserud:OK, then, my next heading would be the MIT thing. That's not quite as important, you know, from my research point of view, but it's important for a general interview with you, of course. And then the next one would be JASON involvement we talked about the establishment after the IDA period. But maybe before we turn to that, we should talk a little bit about the establishment of JASON projects, even while you were in IDA. What were the projects and how were they taken up? Who provided the problems?
Townes:Well, I'll have to search my memory to try to give you more than a rather general answer.
Aaserud:That's where I don't have too much paper, you see.
Townes:Yes. You may be able to get copies of programs of the early meetings somewhere. That would help a great deal in sort of nailing that down, what kinds of things were done. My memory is something like this....
Aaserud:Your papers are good from 1967 or 1968, something like that, but not the first years.
Townes:Not before. Well, that ought to be in the IDA correspondence. Have you seen my IDA correspondence?
Aaserud:Yes, but it's scarce for those first years, for some reason.
Townes:Well, now, one thing, those programs may have been classified. There may have been items on there whose titles were classified and then I wouldn't have it in my files.
Townes:And that may be one reason. I guess I didn't regularly put agenda in my file or put letters in my files.
Aaserud:You did, after a certain date.
Townes:I see. Well, OK, now my memory of what we did was something like the following, that we would invite an agency or subdivision of an agency to come talk with the JASON group and say, well, what are their problems that they need to be solved? What were the interesting things they felt that technically the agency was doing, where a group of people might give advice and help? And so we would get talks from these people. Usually, you know, their better technical people would come and talk to us about the problems as they saw them, and what might be done. And then the JASON group would ask questions, and make comments and new suggestions, and then among themselves think about, well, do they have any ideas on how to solve these problems or what might be done? Or is there something the agency's missing that they ought to be thinking about, and that they could work on and make reports about? So they would do studies and make reports.
Aaserud:So you had briefings already in early 1960 probably.
Townes:Oh yes. Yes, we would have briefings pretty much right away from the beginning, I think. Now, in addition to that, some of the JASON people themselves had already been involved, and they would talk about their own work and their problems, and they would get suggestions from their colleagues, get help from people who wanted to collaborate with them. And JASON members had their varying interests. There was one JASON member who was a physical chemist from Chicago, the name again slips me.
Townes:Gomer, yes. Gomer fairly early told me, maybe somewhat privately, but he told me, "Well, you know, this is a very fine group. I'm glad to be with them. I really am not all that interested in thinking about weapons and so on. I'd like to think about other things."
Aaserud:That was long before Vietnam and all of that.
Townes:Yes, fairly early in the game. "And I'm just not sure I should be in this group." And I told him, "Well, you know, we have a rather broad charter, and why don't you think about arms control problems? And other things. Or maybe civilian security problems of some kind. Whatever. You know, we're not bound, and I think you ought to do the things that you find interesting, that you feel are definitely valuable to the country, that as long as they have to do with some important function of the country, I think you'd be supported." Well, he welcomed that, and for some time he then wanted to think about arms control problems and ways of controlling weapons and so on, which he did, I think with some useful results. Eventually he dropped out because he just didn't feel he was getting very far on the arms control problems. So everybody had their own interests.
Aaserud:Was that when you were in IDA or was it after?
Townes:I don't remember for sure, but I think it was probably when I was in IDA. It must have been, because when I left IDA and went to MIT, I was so busy at MIT that I had relatively little to do with the JASON group then for a while. I no longer had any administrative responsibility, and so I think that must have been while I was still at IDA, that Bob Gomer came to those kinds of thoughts.
Townes:There were all kinds of problems, the various sorts of ABM, lasers; and laser propagation became a fairly important problem for a while.
Not immediately. I worked on that a bit at MIT, and sent them some things, such as water absorption. Let's see, Keith Brueckner followed me, I believe, in my IDA position, and I still had some contact. I think it was pretty soon. It was pretty soon, it was maybe shortly after I left Washington that propagation problems became important. I remember having some arguments with Keith about the effects of water and dispersion of water by laser beams.
Let's see, I got Bob Collins to come to IDA at some point. What year did he come there? I'm not sure. I remember having big discussions with him about laser effectiveness and laser propagation. Culver came I think while I was there too, so there was already fairly quickly a good deal of activity in thinking about lasers. It was an interesting physical problem, interesting theoretical problem. It seemed to have some possible unusual applications.
So it was just the kind of thing that the JASON people would analyze, and try to advise on, as to, you know, what the future held. That was fairly early a rather active area for analysis. And while I was at IDA, I wrote a paper with one of the WSEG people on communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence by laser beams. So, you see, then the projection of the possibilities of lasers was very much in the wind. Of course I knew more about it than most people at that point, in the very early days.
Aaserud:But it wasn't hard to get an ear for it.
Townes:No, no. No, everybody was interested, even the Pentagon. And this guy in WSEG, I've forgotten his name, I talked with him some about it, and about this possibility. He was very interested, and so I felt, well, this would be a nice thing for somebody in WSEG to be able to publish a paper. After all, most of the stuff was so classified, and he was a good analyst, and we worked on it together and published a little paper.
Aaserud:It was in the open literature?
Townes:Open literature, oh yes. About communication by laser beams. I was trying to show that extraterrestrial intelligence might try to communicate with us by laser beams in the infra-red or visible region, instead of the microwaves which everybody thought at the time. And that argument still goes on. So I wrote that while I was at IDA, and that's just an illustration. So, yes, there was a good deal of work, fairly early, in the laser business among theoretical physicists.
Aaserud:The first summer study I think was in 1963, in JASON.
Townes:Summer study on?
Townes:On lasers, yes. Well, I would guess that's about the time when we were beginning to talk maybe about nonlinear properties of the atmosphere or something like that. Somewhere along in that period we began to get on to nonlinearities. I wrote a few things while I was at MIT, pointing out some of these effects in thermal blooming and self-focusing because, I had discovered the self-focusing and nonlinear effects, dealing with my own work at MIT. And I knew of JASON's interests and the Pentagon interests. So that was about the only thing I did for JASON, I think, during that period.
Aaserud:But you don't remember specifically the very first problems that came up, that first fall and spring?
Townes:I don't. One of the early things that the group worked on was what seemed to be an idea for a sort of a bistatic radar. Now, let's see, what was it? Allen Peterson was very much involved, and Murph Goldberger worked on it. And it was kind of considered a group project. A new way of using radar, using two antennas, but I've forgotten the details now. It seemed quite interesting to the group at the time. I wasn't sure it would go a long distance, but it was something new, and there were some good theoretical considerations about it. There was a good deal of activity on that for a while, and then that petered out. It didn't turn out to be as fruitful as they had hoped. That was one of the early things that a number of people worked on. What else? I just don't know.
Townes:Oh, yes, particle beams. A lot of these people were high energy physicists nuclear physicists, high energy physicists, theorists. Particle beams was a great thing for them.
Aaserud:That fed into SEESAW, I suppose. SEESAW was an ARPA project. I think that started before JASON.
Townes:Yes. Let's see. When did Christofilos join?
Aaserud:Immediately, didn't he?
Townes:I think it may have been.
Aaserud:I think so. He was on that first list.
Townes:Well, he had already been involved, you see, in the ionization radiation and blackouts due to nuclear explosions.
Aaserud:Yes, the Astron thing?
Townes:I've forgotten what the name was, but nuclear explosions in the high atmosphere the electrons and the effects on radar and so on. He'd already been involved in that.
Aaserud:Before the Van Allen Belt.
Townes:That's right. Yes, that's the kind of thing. Now the JASON group jumped onto that sort of thing, and some people from RAND, I guess, probably LeLevier, worked on that a good deal. They'd done it before and kept on doing it. Christofilos came in somewhere along in there. He was continually pushing things, usually very big things, very big and expensive things, for example, low frequency communications, he pushed.
Aaserud:BASSOON, I guess it was called.
Aaserud:BASSOON, or SANGUINE.
Townes:I think maybe BASSOON, I've forgotten.
Aaserud:I think it changed names along the way.
Townes:In any case, that eventually paid off. He worked very hard, worked a lot, almost too much. It became a little embarrassing because it ran up quite a bill. But those were some of the fairly early things. You know, there were high these energy physicists, and particles and radar and radiation and ion beams and nuclear explosions and the nuclear explosion effects, that sort of thing, were all fairly natural to them. And there were lots and lots of issues like that. I think Ken Watson was working particularly on kind of a nuclear gun, a directed nuclear explosion which would be effective in shooting down missiles or something, and he worked on that a good deal.
Aaserud:That was in the ABM scheme of things?
Townes:Yes. Yes. And let's see, then various things like this were coming along somewhat in that period. Oh there were just lots of things. I can't tell you exactly dates, but most of these things I'm mentioning I think came along fairly early.
Aaserud:What was the interaction generally speaking between the kind of work the high energy physicists, but also others, did in JASON, and the work they did on campus or in their regular work?
Well, there was some overlap in some cases, and in fact, that was one of the things that we were careful to arrange, that if they did work that had some pertinence that could be charged to JASON, then they could publish it in the open literature, if it wasn't necessary to be classified. A few people kind of made a point of doing that, if their work overlapped with things of interest to the Pentagon. I think Norman Kroll, for example, who had been working for years on the theory of magnetrons and things of this type, did some of that work under JASON's aegis and published it. So where there was a reasonable judgment that it was pertinent to the Pentagon and so on, why, people did that. I have forgotten now. I think probably the steering committee sort of reviewed what was being done occasionally, and if anybody was stepping out of line, probably said something. I don't remember anybody stepping out of line actually. I don't think it was ever any problem. The one problem I remember at the moment is Nick Christofilos was spending such an enormous amount of time and running up enormous bills. People felt that that had to be checked a little bit. But at the moment I don't remember anything else. I don't think there were many troublesome cases.
Aaserud:So there wasn't a strong hands-on policy on the part of the agencies. I mean, there was a lot of freedom.
Townes:There was a lot of freedom. That was monitored by IDA, but generally, there weren't any special problems. I think if some government agency had wanted to make a problem, that might have been able to find something and say, "Well, this isn't really helping us. This person isn't doing this or that." I think a trouble maker might have been able to find something, but by and large there wasn't anything that was difficult or out of line. It was run rather loosely.
Aaserud:But there must have been some friction along the way.
Townes:I don't remember anything now. I think what was more likely to happen is, if we'd get some briefings from some group and JASON would look at them and if JASON wasn't very helpful, why, then the interaction just died out and they'd interact with some other group. I think that's more the kind of thing that happened. And maybe JASON disappointed some people, but they didn't make anybody mad so far as I know.
Aaserud:The other side of the coin of course is that when you have a lot of freedom like that, you may not be doing exactly what the agencies would like you to do exactly then, so that you lose impact, at least in the short run.
Aaserud:I don't know what would be your comment on that.
Well, I think that probably occurs from time to time, that the agency then doesn't become very interested. But then suddenly they'll have a problem that they know the JASON group can help them out on, or suddenly they feel a need to ask some member of JASON to come in and talk with them and discuss something, and then that's invaluable, and they appreciate that possibility. You know, take this Moscow problem, for example. The fact that they can suddenly call on a group like JASON to do that is just enormously valuable. And now they may not do it again for some time.
So, of course during the Vietnamese period, JASON got into trying to solve some of those problems, and worked on it pretty hard, and I think made a real contribution. But the nature of the Vietnamese conflict, and politics, was such that it didn't really pay off as well as it should have. I think what they did was excellent, and it was appreciated very much in some quarters, but it didn't fit into the normal kind of military pattern, and military officers just didn't seem to be able to carry it out very well. So unfortunately it didn't work. But there was a very close contact during that period in some sense.
Aaserud:You were fairly close to that, weren't you, in your advisory committee position of the DCPG, the Defense Communication Planning Group.
Townes:Well, yes and no. I was really fairly out of JASON during that time when I was busy with administration at MIT. I just didn't have time for it. Much of that went on then. When I began to have time again, I did some things for JASON, and learned about what they'd been doing, which I hadn't had any contact with for a while. And then George Kistiakowsky had been pushing this so-called McNamara Line sold it to McNamara and had been pushing it and George had been chairman of this committee. But he got so annoyed about the Vietnamese war and the Pentagon's treatment of it, and the government's treatment of it, that he suddenly resigned all government committees and tried to make a political point of that. At that point, they needed somebody else to chair the committee, and they got hold of me. I talked with George about it, whether I should do it or not, because I was not all that enthusiastic about some of the military policies either. And I talked with Nitze, who was then Under Secretary of Defense, and I told him I didn't feel we ought to be bombing North Vietnam at that time, and I thought we ought to do various things. "Well," he said, "I agree with you. I know we've got to move in that direction as well as we can." And urged me to take the position. And George Kistiakowsky said, well, yes, he had resigned but he felt still it was important, and he felt it was appropriate for me to go ahead and accept, so I accepted. Now, however, that did not last very long. It was interesting, in a way, and there were some very good young people on the committee from JASON. But their contact person was a general who was fairly bright. I can't think of his name at the moment.
Aaserud:Starburg, was it?
Townes:No, not Starburg, no. It was a French name, as I remember. But anyhow, he was an Air Force general, rather bright, and it became clear to me that he was not interested in the McNamara Line, which is what we were trying to push to see that that line was enforced and used and would be effective in isolating the North and South Vietnamese armies. He was interested in basically guerilla warfare and using these things for fighting in Vietnam rather than protection. And I resigned in protest, but more quietly than George. I didn't feel that the general was blatant enough, and that I knew enough about it to make a big public point.
Aaserud:I think Ruina resigned while you were chairman.
Townes:From the committee? Maybe he did. I had forgotten that. But it just didn't smell good to me, and I sort of quietly bowed out and said, "I don't really think I want to do this." So that was a relatively short period, and I did not have any very big effect. I kept the system going for a while. Then I think it kind of collapsed after that pretty soon.
Aaserud:Who succeeded you anyway?
Townes:I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think it may have folded up shortly after that. I'm a little hazy about that. But it didn't last long anyhow.
Aaserud:Goldberger was on that, wasn't he?
Townes:Initially I think he was. Whether he was when I was there, I'm not so sure. But in any case, it had been an effective committee. I think people had approached this problem with some enthusiasm, thinking maybe they had a solution to the Vietnamese War. And then they found that it just couldn't get carried out very well, and maybe they were unrealistic. But I would say certainly in part it was because a good many of the military people didn't feel that that was the kind of thing they wanted to do. That wasn't the approach they wanted, and so it got kind of sabotaged.
Aaserud:So you're saying that generally speaking, you were not too close to JASON during your MIT period.
Townes:That's right. That's right. I would attend occasional meetings, but I just didn't have any time for it. I knew what was going on, roughly. But even with this McNamara Line, or wall, or barrier, I had no contact until it was fairly far along, and then somewhat later I went to a JASON meeting and they explain to me what they were doing.
Aaserud:By then JASON didn't have that much to do with it any more as it had originally, in Santa Barbara in 1966, for example.
Townes:Well, they were still moderately active, but they had been through the peak anyhow.
Aaserud:Oh yes, there was activity there. You volunteered about the Vietnam project. I'm still searching for a typical, accessible project or set of projects in JASON that I can choose as a case. I think that even if I deal with JASON generally through the 15 year period, that is not enough to get a sense of how and what they did. And I think it would be very good to get a sense of a specific case of a typical thing that JASON did. And my question is of course, what would be your suggestion? What would both be typical, good and also accessible to an unclassified Norwegian like myself?
Townes:That's a hard problem. JASON work is so varied, that it's difficult to pick out something typical. And a lot of it is miscellaneous.
Townes:Yes. It's miscellaneous, you see. The very big thing that they did, and sort of worked on in unison and which was substantial, is this barrier, and the various kinds of detection and listening devices.
Aaserud:In connection with that.
Townes:In connection with that. Now, while it never had a large pay-off in that form, there was a very striking use of it, in our defense of a city let me see. My memory isn't what it used to be. I'll think of it a little later. But it was a city which was being attacked.
In Vietnam. Lots of American soldiers were there. It was discussed in the newspapers, as an American Dien Bien Phu, where the French were so defeated and the Americans were surrounded. They were in fact surrounded, and they were going to be attacked and killed and this would be a tremendous defeat and so on. And it was sticky, dangerous. The science advisor for Vietnam recommended using some of these JASON detection devices around the city, and they were dropped in by plane. The belief is that that gave the Americans enough information about where the enemy was outside the city, in the forest that the enemy was strongly and successfully attacked and had to withdraw. Certainly the city was saved and they never attacked, even though they were supposed to be right on the city and it was terribly dangerous and the Americans were outnumbered and isolated. And I think the effect of these devices was probably fairly real. Certainly it was a tremendous triumph on the part of the American forces. At the time the Vietnam situation was such that the newspapers didn't want to mention any successes, and so the story just kind of faded out in the newspapers and nothing every happened. And nobody said, well, the enemy had been defeated and so on, it was a great triumph. Because we were all prepared for this tremendous defeat, and then the defeat just kind of petered out and nothing more was said. They did find a lot of remnants of enemy equipment, and it is thought that these listening devices were important in allowing them to successfully attack the enemy, but maybe the enemy had other troubles, such as lack of food or something else too.
Now, is that a typical example? Well, no, I don't think anything is typical. I think that's going to be your trouble. I would say, analysis of particle beams and what they can do and what they can't do, analysis of laser beams and what they can do and can't do, those are fairly typical, and it's a continuous kind of thing. There's a lot of work, a lot of very important work, on the sea warfare. That however is probably largely classified.
Aaserud:Yes, ASW and other things.
Townes:Yes, that sort of thing. And it would be largely pretty tightly classified. And you might not be able to get the information.
Aaserud:The Navy is particularly tight.
Townes:Yes. There's been some really quite important work there. You see, I haven't been all that active in JASON since 1961. I've been on the periphery. I attend their meetings and try to encourage them and so on. I think what you ought to do is to talk with some of the steering committee, during those periods. Talk with, a few different steering committee members who were on the steering committee during different periods. And they can probably pull out sort of a good sample of examples for you. I think that would be the best thing. I wouldn't be the best source. I know various things but I don't think I could sort of search through and say, well, now, there are the really important things, these are the typical things. Oh, examination of safety around nuclear centers, and of nuclear energy has been one of the kinds of things.
Aaserud:Did that start early on?
Townes:No, no, that wasn't early. No, you're looking for early things?
Aaserud:Well, I'm planning to concentrate on the first fifteen years.
Townes:Oh, well, fifteen years wasn't so early in my language. That problem may have come during that period. I think somebody must have a list of projects. I always get lists of projects that are going on now. Somebody must have a list of projects, and I think if you get some of the people on the steering committee during that period, they could pick out some of the things. I'd have to think about it and talk about it and look up some things to sort of feel that I was really giving you a right answer on that. So let's move on to something else.
Aaserud:But there were headlines of course too. I mean, at that early time, there was ABM and particle beams.
Townes:Oh yes, there were principal things that ARPA was working on and hence they wanted help on. And there was lots of analysis done.
Aaserud:Well, I'll continue on projects anyway, but just a different slant of the question. To what extent did JASON do independent work, either originating from themselves or from some agency, and to what extent did they evaluate other people's projects and work?
Townes:Well, I would say it was largely independent and new work. But there were also evaluations, in the sense that the CIA would call in a group and say, "Please advise us on what all this means, and we'll tell you what we know and what we think. But we'd like to get your suggestions. There are some things we don't understand. And anything else. "And so the JASON group would go over it and say they agree with their findings or they don't agree with their findings, and make other suggestions. I think largely the Pentagon has called on JASON for problems of a broad type, saying, well, is this whole thing feasible?
Townes:There would be a field or general operations, for JASON to analyze and make a report on. It's rare that they would ask JASON, "Would you look at this report of somebody else and criticize it for us?" That's pretty rare. They would rather say, "Well, here's this proposal for a certain kind of thing, and we'd like your analysis of it. Is it going to work? Are there new inventions that could be made in this area that would make it work?" Or something like this. So that it's not exactly criticism of work; it's just criticism of a field. That's fairly frequent. Criticism of a field and an activity, but not of somebody's specific work, usually, excepting the things that had occurred to me in the CIA where somebody's made an analysis and they want to be sure it's right or know whether there's something else that can be done. And there you go with specific reports and ideas about something, and just react to it, you see.
Aaserud:Well, we're probably getting tired, both of us. But, of course, the one big question is the impact of JASON, and how that has varied over the years, and how it can be measured, and different kinds of impact. I mean, there were several sorts of impact. There was not only impact for government or for national security policy; it was also impact on the relationship between the scientific community and the national security community, that kind of thing. Could you make an evaluation of those roles of JASON, also over time? And how would you suggest that one should go about to make that kind of evaluation as objective or as secure as possible, if it is possible?
Townes:Well, I think the easiest kind of thing to evaluate might be the role that JASON has played in communication and in people giving general advice and being in positions of some importance to give advice to government. You can probably develop statistics as to what roles the JASON people have played in other kinds of governmental advice and operations and administrative positions within government and so on. I think that would be the easiest thing to document, and I think it would be fairly impressive. If you ask about technical achievements, I don't think there's anything where you could say, well, here's where the JASON group invented gunpowder and changed everything. Because I don't believe there's any single technical achievement of that character. Rather, it's been a kind of a continual running commentary and help and examination of technical ideas all through the system, which some other people are doing too. The JASON people have added a certain kind of elan and perceptiveness to those analyses. There are things they've invented. It just happens that all the really good ones that occur to me are highly classified. There probably are some others that don't occur to me. You might ask a few other JASON people what they would suggest.
Aaserud:Is there any chance for having things declassified of that sort, from your experience? This isn't the best time for it, I'm sure.
Townes:Yes, they get declassified. Many of them get declassified eventually but not all of them. One kind of invention which may be a good case, but may be an unfortunate case, is Luis Alvarez's suggestion, for detecting explosives, having to do with terrorists. Do you know about that?
Aaserud:Oh, yes, the one he's doing now, yes.
Townes:That's right. However, he claims that he really invented that not in the JASONs, so he wants the patent rights, you see. That's been a little bit of an embarrassing situation, because he wrote a report for JASON about it.
Aaserud:I was wondering about what was the context of that patent problem, yes.
Townes:Well, it was a problem. He did it as a part of JASON, wrote a report, and the government got excited about it. It looks like a very promising way of trying to deal with terrorism, and that was one of the problems presented to JASON: "Have you had any ideas how to stop terrorists from sneaking things through barriers?" So Luis had this idea, wrote a report about it, and the government, as I say, got it and was very pleased about it and promoted it and was going do something. And then Luis decided that he had really had the idea outside of his JASON work, and so he was entitled to a patent, which rather annoyed the government, because they thought they had paid for JASON's work and that was JASON's work. And it was pretty embarrassing to JASON. In any case, nobody wanted to make a big public point about it, and so it is now officially a non-JASON invention.
Aaserud:Oh, but he's still having problems getting the patent, isn't he?
Townes:Well, that may be. That may be.
Aaserud:It's not been resolved. He told me he was frustrated about it.
Townes:Well that may be. But I would say that's something which, on the one hand, the JASON group did, on the other hand, it's not officially JASON now.
Aaserud:Is that a unique occurrence.
Townes:Well, that's the only case where something like that has come up, that I know of. Now, that's the one case that occurs to me at the moment that is not classified. But there must be others. I think you really ought to talk with some of the people who've been closer to JASON recently. I think if you were to write the previous heads of JASON, telling them your problem, and you would like them to say how to evaluate it, what things have the JASON people done, what have been typical projects and so on, each of them probably would give you a thoughtful list, and it would be much better than what I could do.
Aaserud:OK, fine. Well, I have accumulated some answers on that, from others.
Townes:OK. Fine. I really think, in my view, the most important impact and the most easily documented is the general role that these people have played in our society, as a result of their experience and breadth of view and detailed knowledge of military and governmental affairs, from which they can speak with some authority. And they speak out in public quite frequently. Many of them do. I mean, you look at all these people: Sid Drell, Murph Goldberger, Dick Garwin. Dick Garwin maybe speaks a little too much in public. And the number of people who have been on PSAC, have been chairmen of various other committees, and sought out by government and so on. Some of them are not pro-government at this point, because most of them tend to be fairly liberal, but they have a substantial impact on public opinion, and speak with some knowledge. They speak with some knowledge, and mostly pretty responsibly.
Aaserud:That goes beyond JASON, of course, because they never do it as JASONs. They can't do that.
Townes:No, they don't normally do it as JASONs. And you know, if they serve on various other panels, it's not as JASONs. But it's a result of their having become educated to the problems in JASON, and making those contacts, being thoroughly familiar and hence highly respected for their knowledgeability in those areas, and having that knowledgeability. I really think that's perhaps the most profound impact, and it of course fits with my original thought, that the important thing is to get a new group of people in contact educated and in contact. My effort has always been to educate them more than anything else, to see that they were in contact and knew about the problems and were thinking about them. So actually what happened in JASON from then on was, from my point of view, a little secondary, excepting the whole thing had to be sold to the government.
Aaserud:Well, not all cases are as clearcut as others, I think. Sid Drell is a very clearcut case. He started in JASON, he says that himself, and he went up into more high-level advisory positions.
Townes:Yes, Sid tells the story about how I called him up and persuaded him to do this crazy thing. And Sid has just been very devoted to the public interest and has worked very hard on it.
Aaserud:Well, there have also been JASONs who have distinguished between what they call white collar and blue collar JASONs: people who have used JASON as a springboard successfully, and on the other hand people who have been in JASON precisely because that is the only forum they know where they also can maintain a full relationship with their academic work, and they don't want to pursue it further in their careers.
Yes, that's right. You know, in a sense I am to some extent that type. I don't want to make a career out of this thing. On the other hand, I feel I ought to participate, and I have no objection to doing that, excepting the question of time. But it's not something that's an ambition of mine to do that. My ambition is to do science. That's what I enjoy most. So I keep getting sucked in and withdrawing a little bit and getting sucked in again. It's sort of built into my viewpoint, that I ought to spend some time on public affairs, and I just devote some time.
Now, Norman Kroll has gotten out of JASON, another quite different example. Norman served very conscientiously, did a lot of hard technical problems, worked them out and worked hard on it. And he told me, well, he thought he should get out just because he shouldn't stick with one thing indefinitely and he felt it would be good to change now. So he was going to get out of JASON, just clean slate, and not do any more. So that's what he's done. And while Norman has done some public things, mostly it's on a highly technical basis. That's the way he's handled it. Other people have done very different things. And so it's a collection of people, each with their own approach.
But overall, if you look at their roles, it's been fairly substantial. Freeman Dyson is another case. Now, Freeman has worked actively in JASON. Freeman is never chairman of anything. He's just not that type. But he's very smart, he's literate, he writes, he has influence on the public, he speaks knowledgeably and sensibly, and I think has a substantial influence. And he's well-educated as a result of being in JASON. He has the contacts there and he's realistic about what things are, although he's still a very different kind of case. And I think that's what one has to expect, picking out a group of bright people, each with their own individual approaches. And now, if you ask what would have happened if there had been no JASON, what would have happened to those people? Well, they might have developed some other contacts, but I think probably never as deep a contact with the government, and they just might not have developed so much contact. Being bright people, they would have broadened out probably and done some things, but I think this has been of substantial importance, and I think has increased that process of contact between the academic world and our society generally.
Aaserud:We've been talking in very general terms now. If we get back to you and what you did, in and for JASON, after the Institute for Defense Analyses period, I'm sure you weren't completely in the dark. What were the peaks of your involvement? Let's limit it to those first fifteen years perhaps, or if there's a large peak afterwards you can talk about that as well.
Townes:Well, I would say, since I didn't have much time, for a while I only did those things associated with lasers, which I was busy with. And I did a moderate amount of that sort of special problems in lasers and things that other people wouldn't see or hadn't thought about, when special problems came up about lasers. I've done a modest amount of things also for the CIA, where the CIA has special technical problems, or things that needed thought and analysis and imagination. And so I've done a certain amount of those. I did also this committee which we mentioned somewhat briefly. But I really have not been very active. I'm trying to be in touch, but my feeling is that, well, they've got all those good people there that are working, and there are lots of responsibilities that I have. I've been rather active publicly. But I felt that I haven't been especially needed there any more. I guess maybe I made the point before, that my own personal mode of work is to dive into those things that I think other people aren't doing that are needed. For example, that's why I went to Washington. I felt, well, nobody else is doing it. If somebody else is doing it, then I don't need to do it. I took on the job of forming a committee to advise General Motors, for example, on much the same basis. General Motors was in pretty bad repute among academics, and in fact, I was attacked on campus for having anything to do with General Motors in the student newspaper and by some of the faculty. One of the things Charlie Schwartz insisted, was that people should reveal their nefarious contacts with industry, big industry especially, and he mentioned me in particular. I had to reveal that I was on the board of General Motors at one time. I pointed out to him, well, you know, that's in WHO'S WHO, you can find it there, and it's publicly published by General Motors at every public meeting. So why do I need to say anything else? Well, he hadn't known that. That's typical of Charlie. Well, but I talked with the president of the university before accepting this, because I felt, well, General Motors was in trouble, it's an important part of the economy of the nation, it asked for help, and I had gotten from them the right kind of conditions, I felt, where I could really do something, and it would be significant to them. And now the question is, was it good for the campus, and did the president of the university have any objection to my doing this? I knew it would be criticized at that time. It wouldn't be criticized today at all. Well he said he thought on balance it was a good idea. So I did it, and now it's quite an acceptable thing to do. But I felt that it was more important for me to be engaged there rather than with JASONs. JASON was going, and had a lot of good people in it, so I haven't been very active really. I've been trying to keep up, but that's about all.
Aaserud:Well, this is a letter from Brueckner about your laser involvement in JASON. That was as far as I know and first laser summer study of JASON, so that feeds directly into that. Were you actively involved in that study, do you remember?
Townes:Yes. I must have been. I normally would be directly in the laser business. Now, see, July 1963, that was sort of the wind-up, so they probably started on it substantially before that. Yes, I think very likely I participated in that, and most of the laser business, for a while at least, I participated in. I haven't been doing it recently, however, because it's a well known field now, with lots of good people in it. In these early times, I would have.
Aaserud:Here are some ramblings about Keith Brueckner's work, where even Ken was a little upset. According to Katcher. I guess that's unusual. I don't know, if that rings any bells at this time of night.
Townes:Well, Keith did have some problems. And I guess he sort of resigned at some point and pulled out. And it was clearly because of professional differences in attitudes. Keith was not a very diplomatic guy, and it did cause some problems. I had some arguments with Keith about some of the laser things, more on a technical basis.
Aaserud:The instability, atmospheric thing?
Townes:Yes. Yes, that's right. He's just a bulldozer type that doesn't listen to anybody else very much. He's smart and very energetic. I don't remember that item specifically, but I'm not surprised.
Aaserud:Well, he succeeded you, right?
Townes:He succeeded me as director.
Aaserud:And he dealt easily in that job too, of course, because he and Bissell didn't come to terms.
Townes:It wasn't working out very well, no. It wasn't working out as well as it should have, and in view of his ability, it's too bad, because he's scientifically very capable, but just didn't know how to deal with people very well.
Aaserud:Yes. I also have some material on the 1971 study, but I don't know if you care to discuss that.
Townes:1971 study of what?
Aaserud:Laser study; there was another laser study in 1971.
Townes:Oh, yes. Well, I'm going to have to be turning in now pretty soon. Is there anything else specifically?
Aaserud:Well, I think we've been over most of the things relating to JASON. I guess we could go through all of the papers, but there's no point in that.
Townes:Did you want something about MIT? Do you want to talk about that briefly, or do you want to postpone that for another time or just drop it?
Aaserud:Well, if we're going to talk later, anyway, we can postpone it. That's fine.
Townes:OK. Why don't we do that?
Aaserud:Yes, because it would probably be too short anyway.
Townes:Yes, it would have to be pretty short tonight. OK, why don't we break it up now then?
Yes, fine. That's fine. Good. Thank you.