Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert R. Wilson
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Robert R. Wilson
Robert R. Wilson; May 19, 1977
ABSTRACT: This interview was conducted at intervals during a symposium on the History of Nuclear Physics at the University of Minnesota. It covers Wilson's career until his departure from the University of California at Berkeley in 1940, particularly his youth on a Montana ranch; his early interest in science and undergraduate education at Berkeley; his graduate work under E.O. Lawrence on the theory of the cyclotron and proton-proton scattering; and social relations around the Radiation Laboratory and the Berkeley physics department from 1933 to 1940.
Weart:I want to start with how you got into science. I know you were born in 1914 in Frontier, Wyoming.
Weart:You've written a little about how you were interested in atoms in elementary school and read ARROWSMITH and so on. But I don't really know much else about it. For example, I don't know anything about your family. Who were your parents? What did they do?
Wilson:All right. My mother Edith was the daughter of a rancher, Charles Rathbun, who had come to Wyoming in the early days. In fact, he had gone to the latter part of the Gold Rush, to California, had come back through "Nevayda" (as we called it) and he had a ranch there briefly. He finally ended up in Wyoming, at first with a large ranch at a place called Big Piney, and then homesteaded on Fontanelle Creek in Wyoming. My father, Platt Wilson, was born In Iowa... don't maybe you don't want to know —?
Weart:— yes, do want to know, definitely do want to know.
Wilson:OK. My father came from Montezuma, Iowa. He'd gone to Ames, Iowa. His father was a preacher named Robert Wilson. That's where my name comes from, I believe. I don't think he was too great a scholar. He was a member of a fraternity, an ATO. And he spent a year before graduation as a surveyor. Held gone out to Wyoming to help survey the Oregon Short Line. He was trained in civil engineering. He met my mother, perhaps one of their survey lines had gone through the Rathbun ranch and that's how they had become acquainted. The railroad didn't eventually go that way. But then he did return to Iowa, got a degree, came back and I believe married my mother and so –
Weart:Settled down as a rancher then?
Wilson:No, he didn't. I'm a little hazy at this point. I believe he continued doing some civil engineering, and then he became a bookkeeper for a coal mining company, maybe the Qualey Coal Mine in Frontier, Wyoming. I believe he was a bookkeeper when I was born. He soon went into the automobile business in Kemmerer, Wyoming, which is about a mile away from Frontier. Frontier is the smallest little place you've ever seen. Maybe it had a population of a few hundred, probably fewer now. So he was in the automobile industry. He also went into politics, and became a state senator. He wasn't completely successful. He was the chairman of the Democratic Party in Wyoming at the time of one of those Roosevelt elections where Roosevelt carried every state except perhaps Wyoming, so he didn't stay on in that job. He was not considered a great success as chairman, but he was a very successful state senator.
Weart:I see. You were somewhat aware of politics while you were growing up?
Wilson:Very much aware. Now, my father and mother separated when I was quite small, but I was awarded to my father. He was very political, and perhaps because I was around him as I grew up, traveling with him, etc., I became aware of politics.
Weart:How old were you at that time?
Wilson:I was up to the 3rd grade, think, or 2nd grade, when my parents separated.
Weart:I see. You still kept up contact with your mother?
Wilson:Yes. I went back and forth between them.
Weart:She was still on the ranch?
Wilson:No, she went to Denver after the separation, and eventually she married, and then moved to San Francisco. I went to school there one year.
Weart:I see. Then you were in the town of Frontier or Kemmerer when you were —?
Wilson:No, was only a baby in the town of Frontier.
Weart:But during the time when you were growing up, what was your environment?
Wilson:Well, the early environment, until about the 1st or 2nd grade, was the little town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. Let me tell you about my maternal grandmother, for I spent a fair part of my life with her at that time and she had a large Influence on me. She was a great lady, Nellie Rathbun. She was the granddaughter of John G. Fee who was a founder, before the Civil War, of Beria College in Kentucky. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but it was quite a place. Although he was the son of a plantation owner, when he came of age he freed the slaves which held inherited, and (if I understand the story told me) was then promptly disowned by his father. He may have gone to Oberlin, I'm not quite sure, but he became one of a splinter sect of Baptists, perhaps an extreme sect. "He talked to God in a cornfield." In any case, he decided to become an abolitionist and to establish a school for blacks and whites together, in Kentucky. This was just as the Civil War was developing, so he was not terribly popular. In fact, he was beaten and left for dead several times and ridden out of town, but he'd come boiling back in; eventually, though, when the Civil War did start, he had to flee across the border to Cincinnatus.
Weart:— you heard all this from your grandmother?
Wilson:Yes. She grew up in this very austere environment, not allowed to dance. She'd explain how she'd sit around when other people danced, and she couldn't, her toes tingling. I remember the words she used. But she took that as one of the missions of the family, and brought that tradition with her when she came to Wyoming as a school teacher. She met my grandfather, I think within a few weeks of arrival, or was it months, she married him. I always heard that there were two ways Wyoming was populated, and whenever you went into a ranch, you could tell. Either there were books, or there were not books — and that reflected whether the lady of the house had been a school teacher or a whore. Women were snapped up rapidly. I think they were In short supply. Anyway, she was a school teacher, and —
Weart:— this is interesting, because apparently there were some books around, when you were growing up.
Wilson:Oh, yes, after all, her grandfather had been a college president.
Wilson:I dwell on my grandmother because I was with her much of my time as a boy because my parents separated when I was eight or nine years old. My grandfather had died several years before that and my grandmother was at loose ends in Wyoming. She obtained a position as a house mother at a private school at Woodstock, Illinois, Todd School for Boys. She was very attractive and must have been something of a fast worker, for within months of going to the school, she married the owner and principal, Noble Hill. This happened at the time of my parents’ separation so I was sent for immediately, and went to that school during the time of my parents’ divorce. She was responsible for much of my upbringing — as I grew up I was with her a great deal. I remember traveling with her to Kentucky to meet many of our relatives, and she instilled the stories I've been telling you and the tradition of a responsibility to blacks. In fact, she'd brought out to Wyoming a number of black families from Kentucky. First they were hired as sheepherders or cowboys, and then she taught them how to homestead, and they became very respectable families around the area of Wyoming where I grew up.
Weart:I see. You had a very strong example of social responsibility, then.
Wilson:Yes. Very much.
Weart:And you stayed with her until what point?
Wilson:Well, on and off.
Weart:You would sometimes go with your father?
Wilson:I went back and forth, for example, the 5th grade in Denver with my mother. Then I went back to Todd School. Then I went to Wyoming, and so on. I know one thing, that I went to a different school every year of my school life.
Weart:I see. Do you suppose that this led to some of your independence?
Wilson:Perhaps so, because it meant that I never had a group of friends in any one place. Whatever crowd you're going with, after being away for a year, they've all established new patterns and you're an outsider.
Weart:Did this go right through high school?
Wilson:Yes, that went through high school.
Weart:Every year it would be a different place?
Wilson:Every year I had to establish or re-establish myself — or give up and turn inward. And I probably did that.
Weart:Did you sometimes also establish yourself, at some schools?
Wilson:I think perhaps only in Wyoming — I had a few good friends there. When I went on to school there, the kids were so tough. You know, that was really a tough place. My classmates — this was during Prohibition, and some of them were running trucks of bootleg booze to Salt Lake, in high school, that one year. I know they'd come back sometimes with wounds. They were tough kids Indeed. They were the heroes of most of my classmates, whereas I was rather a genteel person, from their point of view, a sissy.
Weart:But you did make some friends there?
Wilson:But I had a few friends that I knew. One was a cousin who I had known since we were babies. I wasn't completely a sissy, because I spent much of my time on ranches. I had an Uncle Elmer Rathbun who had a ranch, and because I'd worked on ranches, and I was very much interested in the old times, and had heard many tales of earlier times —
Weart:— around the fire at night?
Wilson:Yes. I admired that kind of life. Well, there was a great tradition of telling stories. I worked hard at ranching and wanted to be a cowboy and perhaps even was. I mean, I would ride after cattle. I learned how to throw a lariat. In that sense, when I came to town, the kids there to my eyes were city kids.
Weart:I see, so you were becoming manly, tough.
Wilson:Tough and manly, perhaps. I was a cowboy, and could ride and would spend long times out in the wild on my own.
Weart:This was while you were in high school
Weart:By the way, did you have any brothers or sisters?
Wilson:I had half... My father remarried, and he had two sons. One lives in Wyoming now and one lives in North Dakota.
Weart:I see. Did you read a lot in your childhood?
Wilson:When I went to Todd School (in Illinois) I had to spend quite a bit of time between semesters. Incidentally, it's the school that Orson Welles went to. He was their great success. Well, between semesters, for example, I had not much to do, so I spent much of my time in the library. The books were for boys for the most part.
Weart:Novels and stories.
Wilson:I learned to read rapidly because of those books, and think I read the whole library.
Weart:Were there any particular science books that influenced you?
Wilson:I don't remember any silence books. I think it was by reading the Rover Boys and such that I acquired an appetite for reading.
Wilson:I did read a BOYS MECHANICS book, a book that was put out by POPULAR MECHANICS. It was pretty sophisticated. It had all sorts of scientific projects in it, such as making a microscope-camera and looking at snowflakes. The idea was to catch snowflakes on a piece of black velvet, then magnify it, and then take a picture of it. I remember being very much impressed by that.
Weart:Did you do any of these things?
Wilson:Yes, I used to do those things. Then in Wyoming, a friend of mine and I built an airplane glider.
Weart:A model or a man-sized —?
Wilson:— no, a man-sized glider — today you would call it a hang glider.
Weart:Did it work?
Wilson:My friend was more intrepid than 1. He was a flying buff. But we would take the glider to a nearby hill, and run as fast as possible, and eventually come to the brink of a hill — there was always a wind — the glider would go up and fly for a few hundred feet. On the first flight, though, he crashed and broke his leg. Our parents then took a somewhat dimmer view. But we did put the glider together again and made more flights, once he had recovered. Then, because my father was a politician, and his father was too, we both got appointments to Annapolis. I thought it over, and just before going to Annapolis I decided I didn't want to become a military man. He went, and became a flier. He was killed during the Second World War. I'm a little fuzzy, and this may not be right, but I decided instead to go in the cattle business. It was at the end of the Depression. Many ranches had been in the hands of the banks, and they were just lying fallow. The bankers realized that they weren't going to make any money just owning them, so they tried to get those ranches back into operation. Now a friend of mine who was the son of a rancher, a few ranches along Fontanelle Creek (or "crik" as we called it) from where my grandfather had had his ranch, realized that we could do this. So we identified a ranch and decided we'd go into ranching together.
Weart:This was about the time you graduated from high school?
Wilson:Yes. We had It almost arranged — we still had to go to the bank and sign some papers, get somebody to stand behind us (which we could certainly have done), and we could have gone into ranching. Perhaps it was just a dream on our part, but I remember it as being a definite possibility. Well, in the end, we both decided, "Why are we going into ranching?" He wanted to become a lawyer, and went off I think to Boulder (Colorado), which is one of the places people went to from Wyoming, and I went off to the University of California. My mother was living there so I could get free room and board. I was interested, a few years ago, to see him on television — it turns out he's now the governor of the state of Wyoming.
Weart:So it's just as well he didn't go into ranching —
Wilson:It's just as well. On the other hand, if we'd gone into ranching perhaps we'd both be millionaires by this time, because we couldn't have hit it at a better time. The price of beef went up during World War II. Of course, we'd probably both have gone off to war instead.
Weart:A couple more questions before we get to Berkeley. I just wondered, what sort of preparation do you think your life before college gave you for a scientific career?
Wilson:Living on a ranch as I did for some periods, one had to be completely Independent. And particularly with my uncle who lived on a small ranch, that was during the Depression, and it was always sort of touch and go whether held make it or not. Many ranches went under. He was quite poor, although my grandfather had once been quite a wealthy rancher. We had to make everything in the blacksmith shop, all the haying equipment, except the rakes and the mowers, were made, but you had to keep repairing those yourself. You couldn't take them 30 miles away and get them repaired when they broke. You had to make a part in the blacksmith shop and fashion it and put it on the mower or the rake. And the other equipment, the stackers and great "bull rakes" as we called them, were made out of timber that we cut down, and we fabricated these rather complicated things ourselves. Working with him, I had the confidence that with your own hands you could build large contraptions and make them work. Then I used to work in the blacksmith shop just for the hell of it, and learned how to use my hands and make things. I think that was a very useful part of my training. Another thing, in riding all alone with a pack horse many miles away — sometimes days away — from other people, days without seeing anybody, I had the impression of being completely independent. I think this idea of being out in the country, and you're the only person, gives you a feeling of being unique in the world, which is somewhat different from the feeling you get living in the city. Quite different.
Weart:Yes, it is.
Wilson:I was disturbed — after those periods in the summer, for example, in a little cabin — when I would come back and see other people. Because it meant that I wasn't unique. You know, if you were unique, you had afeeling of immortality. Coming back, looking at the city, at all those people, I wondered how God could be paying attention to all those people, and hence to me.
Weart:Had you had any formal religious training?
Wilson:Well, my grandmother was very religious. That is, her grandfather was deeply religious. She was a Methodist then, and she was the pillar of the Methodist Church in the town. In Wyoming it was considered not manly to be religious. My grandfather, all the men, did not go to church. In Big Piney there was no church. Eventually there was one for all of the religions, which took turns in having their services there. But men considered church to be just for women. The men, in the tradition of the mountain men, had no religion and considered it a womanly thing. So, exposed to men, then, I was not religious; exposed to my grandmother, I was deeply religious. Sort of a yin and a yang, as it were. Manliness was identified with independence and freedom — we made a great deal of that — not working for wages, all those cliches.
Weart:So you perhaps had a religion inside but not so much the external observances?
Wilson:Yes. On the other hand there was the feminine part that is received from ones mother. My mother was not particularly religious but my grandmother was deeply religious.
Weart:I see. Another question that occurred to me when you were talking about being alone out there on the range, thinking of myself when I'm alone out someplace — did this give you some feeling about your relationship to nature, something about the nature of —
Wilson:I had a very strong feeling about nature. To be Indian was, in Wyoming, considered very good. The deepest insult on the other hand was to call somebody an Indian. I mean, there were such expressions as "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." There had been Indians around; when my grandmother and my grandfather went out there, the Indians would come to the ranch and were considered to be dangerous. On the other hand, being knowing about Indians and Indians ways was considered the highest kind of knowledge. There was a tradition of the mountains, the mountain men lived as Indians. There was a deep tradition there. Something highly respected in Wyoming was the mountain man. Now, although I'm not related to mountain men, it was nevertheless a great tradition. My grandfather had come from New York, some place called Cincinnatus near Cornell, near Ithaca —
Weart:I know that area. I went to Cornell.
Wilson:Oh, so you know about Cincinnatus? It's a little place.
Weart:OK. So, while you were not directly related to mountain men —
Wilson:— it was a very strong tradition in the family, I mean, the men in my family were very much aware of the tradition of the mountain men and admired that kind of life above all else. The idea that you could go out and ride a hundred miles and then ride another hundred miles was very strong. That you could go out and — I think it was "siwash" — if you were caught in a storm. By siwash, what you did was, you pulled out your rifle and shot a buffalo, skinned him — you halfway skinned him, and then you crawled in —
Weart:— pulled it over you —
Wilson:— and then the warmth of the beast would keep you warm. That was it, people were always talking about "siwashing." And things of that kind. But the Indian skill, being able to track and hunt, they were all hunters, hunting was important and being a good hunter was important. Knowing about horses, knowing all about horses, and being able to read the sky for weather. Of course the sky was a big sky there — long distances. And knowing the flowers, their names, all of that lore. So a man who was wise was a man who knew those things. One of my uncles was such a wise man, and was regarded by the local people to be a wise man, though he had no formal education yet he was a wise man. He was wise because he knew nature. So to me, that was part of wisdom, to know nature and to be in accord with it. You know, a sunset, or looking at a mountain, I remember being strongly affected by that and wanting to know more about it. A kind of a reverence for nature, and a desire to identify with it. The other traditions were to go and fight and carouse, to pull out a gun and shoot somebody, you know, that was the manly thing to do. But they also had a kind of a "sissy" part to them, which doesn't normally -–
Weart:— doesn't show —
Wilson:Doesn't show through.
Weart:Tell me, we've been talking about the influences on you, did any of your school teachers, secondary school teachers, have any strong influence on you?
Wilson:The only one that I can remember, his name was Bell, was the history teacher. He taught history in a manner that brought it alive, and got me deeply interested in the Greeks. In particular I recall his teaching about Democritus and earth, air, fire and water and the atomic theory.
Weart:I see — as part of the history course.
Wilson:As part of the history course, part of Greek history. I don't remember very well. It may also have been a civics course for all I know. But he was teaching us about the Greeks, and he was telling us about the important things they'd done, and he brought up atomic theory. I vaguely remember he brought it up because held been following the newspapers, he said, and he told us then about modern theory of atoms. This must have been in the twenties, and so he told us about protons and electrons, and how you could make up the nucleus out of a number of protons. He didn't know enough to realize there was the problem with the charge and the atomic weight —
Weart:— well, there were plenty of physicists putting electrons inside too.
Wilson:He didn't even put electrons in the nucleus. He didn't even know there was that problem. So he taught it in a very pure manner. All you had to do was put N protons in the nucleus to make up any of the elements, and then you would automatically get, to neutralize that, N electrons in orbit about the nucleus.
Weart:OK, so you found this very interesting. I'm amused, because you must be the first person I've talked to who was inspired to physics by a history teacher.
Wilson:Yes, I see what you're saying. I know that he got me all excited about this simple theory, and I thought about it, and in thinking about it I could understand it, and I could then understand many other things. Atomic theory obviously was so simple that just by thinking about it, you know, you're led to many simple questions that you can answer. I remember talking to my friends about this theory, especially to a cousin, Norris Embree, who later became a prominent chemist at Kodak.
Weart:Before you went to Berkeley, did you have any notion that you might be a scientist? Did you have any picture about being a scientist?
Wilson:No. Although I had a strong Interest in nature, I’m quite sure I had no particular thoughts about becoming a scientist. I'd gone to school one year in Modesto, California, when I was alternating from my father to my mother, and I recall there that on one occasion I took out a book from the library. I think the name of it was ELECTRICAL INSTRUMENTS, by Law. What surprised me was that there was a mathematical derivation of the constant of the galvanometer. Although I didn't like mathematics, nevertheless I remember that I could follow the argument, and I was just amazed at the power of algebra — that you could start from simple ideas and then know exactly how that instrument could tell you what amperes were. That really impressed me somehow, the mathematics, the discipline. Then I went on and read more of the book, most of which I couldn't understand. But then it came to self-induction and by God, I could understand that too.
Weart:That's an easy one too. Such a beautiful derivation
Wilson:And yet it's complicated enough so that you understand that you're getting something new out of it, such as the N2 —
Weart:— right, all goes smoothly —
Wilson:— and oh, what a delight. I was impressed that I could understand it at all. At about that time in Oakland, California, I started a laboratory in the attic of my mother's house. I'd, go to San Francisco, and I'd buy used parts. I learned how to blow glass.
Wilson:By myself. I took a gasoline torch, put it in a vise upside down, I'd pump it up and get it hot, a very hot flame. All I had was soft glass, which is almost impossible to work. I had a book that showed you how to blow glass. So I'd start, first I'd put it in the flame and get it covered with black soot, then I'd back up, practically across the room, and I'd come toward the flame, twisting the glass, and get it in the flame finally, and then blow whatever I was going to blow. I had to keep it hot, you know, carefully rotating It all the while, and then take about ten minutes to get it out of the flame, otherwise it would break.
Wilson:Pyrex is easy to form, but soft glass is just desperately hard. Well, I made a mercury vacuum pump.
Weart:That's in the attic, when you were in high school.
Wilson:Yes. I remember reversing the leather gasket in an automobile hand pump, and I would get a rough vacuum with that, just pumping (by hand).
Weart:— that's one way to get a roughing pump.
Wilson:And then get the pressure down, so that the mercury pump would pump a pretty good vacuum. I made a McLeod gauge to measure the vacuum.
Weart:This was just working out of these books?
Wilson:Yeah. Not out of the BOY MECHANICS books, this was much more sophisticated, but —
Weart:— right, books from the library and so on.
Wilson:From the library, and reading about vacuum equipment. I made a Crookes tube.
Weart:Did it work?
Wilson:Well, I got very rapidly to the point where I could get a discharge. I built a kind of a voltage device, and I'd get a voltage on the tube, a thousand volts or so, and get a beautiful discharge. Then as it pumped down, it would go through all of the mysterious business of getting the Crookes' dark spaces, you know, and the various phenomena of a discharge. Just beautiful phenomena. I'd be looking at it, my eye right up against the tube, and I had the impression that I was doing something very meaningful. Of course, I couldn't understand a thing, but it seemed there was so much to be understood there. I got deeply interested I began to think of myself as being something of a scientist. Then, when I’d go back to Wyoming, I’d sort of forget all that.
Weart:Back to the other kind of thing. Did you do ham radio also?
Wilson:At that time, I built a crystal set, and I did build a small radio. Then I decided I would build a transmitting set and become a ham. There were books about that. You could buy magazines, I've forgotten what the names were. There were Hugo Gernsback books. Then the — it may have been the RADIO AMATEUR'S — or was it RADIO NEWS — it was some magazine with a lurid cover, always, and —
Weart:I can't recall, but I know the one you mean.
Wilson:It showed early television sets and things of that kind. I did build a transmitter, but I never was interested in transmitting, and I never bothered to get a license.
Weart:It was the building that was more interesting?
Wilson:It was building it that was interesting. And I could use that, I remember coupling the oscillator into a coil and making a discharge in my Crookes tube. Making the discharge was what interested me most.
Weart:I see. All this is very meaningful. It's amazing how many physicists started out building ham radios. Even in Russia, building ham radios. It's very interesting. So, OK, then you went to Berkeley, and the choice was mainly because your mother was there, and for financial reasons?
Wilson:Yes. I’m sure that if she hadn't been there, I wouldn't have gone.
Weart:You would have gone some place else, perhaps, Wyoming?
Wilson:I would have either gone to Wyoming, or maybe to the Naval Academy, or Denver. Salt Lake was nearby. About half the people from my area went to Brigham Young University or to the University of Utah. Many of them went to Boulder, and many to the University of Wyoming.
Weart:I see. How were you supported during your undergraduate days?
Wilson:It didn't take very much support; since I was living with my mother, my meals were provided first by her. My total expenses for one semester, I remember having written it down, were $75. I worked at haying during the summer in Wyoming. And then later, my father got me a job as a surveyor. I remember how I felt guilty about it. I was paid $100 a month. I worked two or three months each summer.
Weart:Guilty because it was a patronage job?
Wilson:I knew that I wouldn't have had that job except that he was a state senator. I got that job simply because of pull, patronage. And the other people on the survey team were hardworking people who needed the job. I had a guilty feeling that I was taking the work from somebody more deserving than myself.
Weart:You mentioned that your father was a Democrat. Did he also have political views that influenced you?
Wilson:Yes. I remember one thing that influenced me deeply. It was the time of Lindbergh, he was a very great hero, and there was to be a debate at the school. I was a shy retiring person, generally speaking, especially at school. I would sit in the back and I would seldom speak up. A debate was to be held at school, and I was assigned to participate. The subject of it was: It was a marvelous thing that Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic. I've forgotten the exact title, but that was the idea. And I had the negative. I went home practically in tears.
Weart:You got the unpopular side.
Wilson:Because he was very popular, almost a folk hero at that time, and here I was supposed to say he was no good. I remember my father brightening up — it was one of the first times he'd really talked to me as though I were a person, not just some damned kid – “Look here, Son,” he said, “what an opportunity. You go back and tell them you're going to do that. I will coach you, we'll win the argument.” It came to me as a revelation that you could twist the truth. Debating was a completely different discipline. As a politician he could take either side of a problem, and he began telling me the technique. I got interested. I remember going into the debate with great gusto Instead of fear and trepidation. I won the debate hands down, no question about it. Instead of being very shy, I became rather — my father taught me, if you take a leap out of the ordinary, then you can do things out of the ordinary.
Weart:I see. He had done that himself, of course,
Wilson:I suppose so. He was not a liberal. He liked Al Smith, for example, when Smith was running against Hoover. And I remember, I didn't. There were two sides of my family — the ranching side was all Republicans, and those were the people that I really thought of as my parents, more so than my father, perhaps because he had a new family. I — my relationship to my father was not the best always. I think he wasn't very proud of me, because I was so shy. Other boys of my age matured sooner than I did, and were more extroverted — better at public speaking.
Wilson:Living in a small town, business, politics, all seemed to me something I didn't want to do. My father wanted me to go into the garage business, learn that instead of going to college. He had gone to college and not used his education, except for the work of one or two summers. So he forbade me to go to college. He said, “No. You stay here and you learn the business, and don't waste your time as I did.” And I said, “No, Dad. I’m going to go to college.” He said, “All right, you go to college, but don't expect any help from me.” And he never gave me a penny.
Weart:Was it your mother and your grandmother who encouraged you to go to college? You come from an environment where most people didn't go, I suppose.
Wilson:No, on the Embree side of the family most people had gone to college. My grandmother's three brothers had all gone to Yale. My grandmother had gone to Beria. My mother, in fact, had gone from the ranch to Beria College for a short while. One of my mother's brothers had also been in Wyoming, Edwin Embree. He'd been at Yale, secretary of the faculty at Yale perhaps, became the secretary of the Rockefeller Foundation and its vice president. Then he became the president of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in Chicago, and was rather prominent. Another uncle, his brother Will Embree, had also come out to Wyoming. He was a prominent lawyer, lived in Tenafly, New Jersey. He was one of the trustees of Yale, and was head of the Bar Association in New York. So there was that side of the family; my grandmother, in marrying a rancher, was considered lost to the family. But she had a lot of pride in her family, and I would meet them, and so the other part gave me to understand that she expected something of me.
Wilson:That I had better make something of myself. It never occurred to me not to go to college.
Weart:You've given me a very good picture of it. I see. OK, so then you went to Berkeley. Now, I'm curious how you got started specifically in physics. You mentioned in your book with Littauer specifically how as a freshman you'd stood outside the laboratory, and finally somebody invited you in. Was it at that point, or had you already before, on the bases of these things, decided to go into physics, or did that come after that?
Wilson:I don't know that I'd decided to go into physics, except that I had what I later recognized as a physics lab. I wouldn't have known, when I was making the tubes, the Crookes' tube and so on — after all, that book by Law was an engineering book, I wouldn't have known the difference particularly between physics and engineering. I think as a senior I took a course in physics. This was in the Oakland school. And the physics teacher had just died. We had a biology teacher who didn't know the slightest thing about physics, who was responsible for teaching it. I soon saw that I knew much more than she did. So then I studied physics all by myself, and occasionally I would correct her, which must have endeared me to her! But I remember thinking, if I was going to learn anything about that subject, I'd have to learn it by myself — and did.
Wilson:And I think in teaching myself physics, learned the subject better than with a good teacher.
Weart:So you began taking physics courses from the beginning.
Wilson:Now when I went to the University of California, I was enrolled in the electrical engineering school, because I didn't know one could enroll in physics. I thought I wanted to be a philosopher at that particular time. I'd read a lot of books, I'd read many of the Greek philosophers.
Weart:On your own?
Wilson:On my own.
Weart:Encouraged by your mother and your grandmother, I suppose.
Wilson:Well, my sister had gone to college, she was a year ahead of me, and she had these books —
Weart:— you had an older sister?
Wilson:I had an older sister, a year and a half older, and she was living with my mother.
Weart:I see. Had you been with your sister all these years?
Wilson:No. When I would come to live with my mother then my sister would go to live with my father. Then we might live with my grandmother, sometimes together, sometimes apart. So we were constantly circulating. But she had taken philosophy 1A, and she had various philosophy books. Although I did not consider myself a scholar, I did read those books. There had been instilled in me, by Noble Hill, the man that my grandmother had married — he was a very hardline religious person, and every morning at Todd School we'd have chapel, and he would lecture us on hellfire and damnation. I think some of it got through to me, because just as I was maturing, I began to worry about religion. I became deeply religious; I began to worry about Heaven and Hell and all such things. Then I read the philosophy, and of course that just raised more questions, all sorts of questions. And I went through a period of doubt and -–
Weart:— conflict –-
Wilson:— conflict, and it seemed to me that those problems were the important problems. So I wanted to become a philosopher.
Wilson:But as a kid from Wyoming, really very naive, it never occurred to me that you could make a living as a philosopher or as a scientist, so I enrolled in the engineering school. When I was still a freshman I changed to physics, probably as a result of — Well, when I looked into the windows of the Radiation Laboratory that you're talking about, I was completely captivated. In it the thing that was most characteristic was the mercury rectifiers on the wall that gave out an evil green light. They reminded me of my Crookes Tube. This just fascinated me.
Wilson:I remember, every time I'd go by I'd stop like a kid in front of a candy store. And my mouth would just water. I'd watch everything in there, hear the whine of the motor generator outside, and see the people rushing around inside. It just struck me that was Heaven. I was doing that one day in a rain storm, and some man, his name was Dr. Frank Exner, who was working on a Sloan x-ray tube, came to the door and said, “Are you crazy? Why are you standing out in the rain? Why don't you come in, if you want to stand some place, stand inside.” So I came and stood inside. Then he began to talk to me and to show me this wonderful piece of equipment that I had seen through the window. The cyclotron was farther in. Frank Exner was a very kindly person and explained everything to me, and I guess I could ask intelligent questions. Then he showed me the cyclotron, and that did it. I knew I just had to go into that kind of business.
Weart:I see. What was the Berkeley physics department like when you were studying undergraduate physics?
Wilson:Well, there was Professor Lenzen, for example. Philosophy of science was his subject. Very meticulous. He was the first person I was exposed to when I went to Berkeley because the first physics course was taught by Lenzen. He taught Physics 1-A and also Physics 101-A. Now, 101-A was a graduate course on classical mechanics just as 1-A was the undergraduate course on classical mechanics. By mistake I went to the graduate course, 101-A, instead of the freshman course I-A. And it was a catastrophe. (Laughter) I sat there for about two weeks, trying like hell, because I'd thought that physics was my meat and that by God, I could do it. But I wasn't doing it. I couldn't understand. He was putting down complicated integrals, he was deriving Lagrange's equations. I was trying as hard as I could to keep up with it for I knew college physics was supposed to be hard, but I couldn't cut it. Finally a friend I had made in the class pointed out the difference between 1-A and 101-A. "You dummy, you're going to a graduate course." (Laughter) I was right on the edge of understanding it — almost. So I went up to Lenzen and apologized, said that I belonged in his other class. And I went to his other class. Then I could understand it.
Weart:Then you could understand it very well.
Wilson:He was not a very inspired lecturer
Weart:I wonder, what were your early impressions of some of the other people, Ike Birge, Brode, Loeb?
Wilson:I didn't see anything of Birge as an undergraduate. Brode eventually became my physics advisor, and once when I came to talk to him he said, “Why are you taking all science and philosophy courses?” I understand there's a good course in Greek tragedy in translation. You should broaden your education and I think you will enjoy it too." So I took the course, and it was just marvelous. We read in translation Aeschylus, Sophocles, etc., perhaps a dozen plays by six different dramatists. The lectures were magnificent. I normally didn't pay much attention to lectures, but —
Weart:— you learned from the books.
Wilson:Yes. Well, my idea generally was to learn for myself. I learned from the books. Yes.
Weart:But those lectures were different.
Wilson:Yes — that was different. I remember he would sometimes act out all the parts, with tremendous enthusiasm, and once, in one play, —Aristophanes? I'm not sure, "The Frogs"? — he came to a particularly dramatic point. It was in a large lecture room in Wheeler Hall, not the big auditorium. It had a kind of a podium that stuck up about three or four feet, where the professor stood. Mostly history classes were held there because there were great maps behind the lecture platform. Right at the dramatic moment, when everybody was just spellbound (he was really quite a ham), and at that moment he took a step back and stepped off the podium. He clutched a map and came down in a tumble, and all the maps came down on top of him! And he got a standing ovation. (Laughter)
Wilson:That was real drama, yes. He could have killed himself but he didn't. Anyway, that was important. Brode was a man who carried the "good vibes," I suppose, of a cultivated man. He was more than just a scientist.
Weart:I see. But as professors these people didn't have too much influence on you, in terms of teaching their courses?
Wilson:I don't think so. There was another one — Jenkins made quite an impression on me. He was very suave. A handsome man. At the gymnasium I met him and a mathematics teacher named Goldsworthy, a Canadian who fought during World War I in the Lafayette Escadrille and had connotations of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Weart:I see, a dashing physicist.
Wilson:Goldsworthy was a dashing mathematician, and Jenkins was a dashing physicist. But I had taken boxing — you had to take a course in physical education, it was mandatory — and I got the hell beaten out of me every day. After that, I took up squash. Well, both of these people played squash, so then I would occasionally meet them at the squash courts — they were both superb athletes. So I got to know them socially In addition to taking courses from them.
Weart:I see. It made them perhaps not so remote,
Wilson:I took a sophomore course from Loeb in electricity. He had a strong personality, I think he made electricity come to life. He had all the characteristics of the German professor (although he wasn't German). A commanding personality, he showed a kind of macho. But I also admired him. They were all pretty impressive people.
Weart:I see. In terms of the formal course work and so forth, if you think back, do you think that Berkeley offered the latest and most up-to-date modern theory?
Wilson:I think they were teaching courses in a contemporary manner. I don't know that I would teach physics any differently right now. I'd say it was at about the same level as other places such as Princeton and Harvard.
Weart:What sort of laboratory courses did you take? Any that were important?
Wilson:The Physics 1-A, there was a 1-A, B, C, D course, and went through that and had to take the lab. I thought the lab was a bore. It was a waste of time.
Weart:Because you were already ahead of It? Or because it was cookbook experiments?
Wilson:I think because it was cookbook experiments. I thought and still think that those are a waste of time. I've always adopted that attitude. I once ran a laboratory at Princeton where all you did was to put out for the students a meter stick, pieces of string, pulleys, etc., and they were then supposed to measure something that occurred to them.
Weart:Sounds like Eric Rogers' lab.
Wilson:This was before he was there. This was an idea that Harry Smyth had.
Weart:Oh, it was Harry Smyth's idea?
Wilson:Harry Smyth had written the book, Smyth and Osgood. He taught the elementary course, but this was a lab course and one part of it used the advanced idea of motivating the students to do experiments themselves, and I taught that. I found that challenging, to try by having discussions to get the student to invent an experiment himself that would show something. That was a useful experience.
Weart:I can appreciate that, because I taught a course like that under Jim Faller, who was a student of Rogers, and I'd always thought that Rogers had originated that, but it turns out it was Harry Smyth.
Wilson:I'm pretty sure of that. Rogers was not there yet. This was in 1940, before World War II. I suppose Rogers came in 1942. That course, that part of the laboratory, was also terribly frustrating, because -–
Weart:— they don't know anything —
Wilson:— the damn Princeton students were really not interested in physics, that was for sure, and not the best material to work with. On the other hand, I thought the idea a good one. I suspect that Rogers learned how to do it. I certainly didn't know how to do it. Most of it came to frustration for both me and the students. Nevertheless it seemed like a challenging thing, and occasionally we could do a little physics.
Weart:When I was teaching, it had been refined to a point where it worked quite well. The students found it very exciting. Some students were actually making discoveries in the laboratory.
Wilson:Very interesting. That's the kind of a laboratory that do think might be pretty good.
Weart:Now, you started working on your own pretty soon?
Wilson:In my junior year, I learned that you could sign up and do real research. I thought that's what I'd like to do, some laboratory work on my own. And because of the earlier experience of having visited the Laboratory as a freshman. On that visit I had seen Ernest Lawrence briefly. I didn't particularly like what I saw. He struck me as a man with an inflated ego.
Weart:This already, when you were —?
Wilson:This was as a freshman, on my one visit as a freshman into the Radiation Laboratory, which, as far as I'm concerned, lasted for ten years — actually maybe an hour's visit, or perhaps ten minutes for all I know — but it was “the ten minutes that shook Robert Wilson.” It really did shake me all up. But I did very briefly see Ernest Lawrence working in the laboratory. He appeared to be telling people what to do, at that time. He had an egotistical, I mean superficially he seemed to have an egotistical manner about him. The way he spoke was pompous, and my first feeling was that given this nice man, Dr. Exner, who'd taken all this trouble with me, and just everything about him seemed good — here was this other man who seemed like a pompous ass. But it was clear it was his laboratory, no doubt about that. Then later, by reading and so on, I came to learn that the Radiation Laboratory was an important place. And I wanted to be a part of it, in spite of the fact that I hadn't liked Ernest. So, I had to go, and I was extremely shy, I recall — I had to go and ask him f I could do research under his direction. I'd go up to his office -–
Weart:— this was as a junior?
Wilson:I was a junior.
Weart:And this was to take a research course?
Weart:I see. He was somehow involved?
Wilson:Well, the idea was that you asked the professor if you could sign up with him to do some kind of independent research, then you got credits as though you had taken a formal course.
Weart:I see. It was his laboratory, so he was the one you had to ask.
Wilson:I wanted to do it in his laboratory, in the field of nuclear physics, and that meant the Radiation Laboratory. I wanted to work with Ernest Lawrence, in spite of the fact that I hadn't been impressed by his personality. But I remember being so shy at the time that I would walk up to his office, and my heart would start pounding. I'd turn away and think of some chore I had to do, "Oh, I've got to return a book." It must have taken me about six trips before I mustered the courage to speak to his secretary. It was Barbara — she was to be Barbara Laslett, Jackson Laslett's wife. She was very nice. And she told me that if I was going to speak to him, I had better find him after his class. He taught a class in elementary physics, non-engineering non-technical physics. I did just that, but I remember having a hard time not fainting. My heart was pounding as I talked to him. It took all my courage to say, "I want to—," I don't think I said it very well. "I want to do some research." He didn't even know what I wanted, students were milling around. Finally he said, "Oh yes, yes, yes." He had a way of doing things very rapidly. He said, "You speak to Harry White, maybe he'll have something for you." Now, Harry White was an instructor, I believe, and he was working on a kind of research that Ernest had started at an earlier time, when he had just come to the University of California, some experiments with Kerr cells.
Weart:Right, on sparking.
Wilson:Yes. Well, in particular, he had made an important quantum mechanical measurement of how soon after you shined light on a metal plate, before any electrons came out. A very fundamental experiment, actually. With a Kerr cell, he had pushed the time lag down I think to less than 10-9 seconds.
Weart:Very fundamental, yes
Wilson:It was fundamental, and this was I think the first demonstration or one of the first demonstrations of Instantaneous emission as required by quantum mechanics. Quite fundamental, and typical of Ernest that he would be working on a fundamental experiment. And then the Kerr cell technique was applied to other problems, one of which was the time-lag of sparking. Harry White was working on that, and Ernest was of course off on the cyclotron. Harry White was was working in the same laboratory in Leconte Hall as was Milt White. Milt on one side with the old 1 MeV cyclotron, Harry on the other side of the room. There was also a small chemistry laboratory in that same room where — who's the editor of SCIENCE right now –-
Wilson:Abelson, Phil Abelson was working on transuranics. He was bombarding uranium, among other things, looking for transuranic elements. He could have observed the fission process, no question about it.
Weart:So, there was in fact a table? When you say a chemistry lab, was there one table that had —?
Wilson:— chemical things, yeah.
Weart:I see. It wasn't a separate room.
Wilson:In order to make a Kerr cell you have to have nitrobenzene. And in order that the voltage would be held off, and you wouldn't just get a lot of current going through which would heat it up, you had to have the nitrobenzene very, very pure. There was the usual kind of chemical devices for purifying by distillation. But somehow, there were also chemicals there, and a hood, because the nitrobenzene was poisonous and smelled bad. Phil was using those facilities as a chemistry laboratory. It was something about the size of that bed in the corner. In a big room.
Weart:A big double bed.
Wilson:The laboratory room maybe was four times the size of this room.
Weart:I see — he had one corner, with this stuff set up.
Weart:And it was originally set up for the Kerr cells?
Weart:But then he took it over and started to do nuclear chemistry.
Wilson:He was doing that on one side. Then Harry White, on another side of the same table was using the distillation equipment to purify the nitrobenzene.
Wilson:Then in another corner, on the other side of the room, Milt White was using a cloud chamber and the small cyclotron. I think he was the first person (in spite of what Hans said the other day) to measure the nuclear force directly.
Weart:The proton-proton scattering.
Wilson:Yes, he found what was called the proton-proton anomaly in scattering. I think he did it even before Tuve and Hafsted, to whom Hans was giving the credit. Tuve and Hafsted did a beautiful experiment, a quantitative experiment showing the scattering going to a minimum when the nuclear force just balanced the electric force.
Weart:— this was all a bit later?
Wilson:Yes, it was later. But think that really Milt had a rough result first.
Weart:Oh yes, I don't deny that at all. Were you discussing these things already at that time, when you were a junior there with your sparks and so forth?
Wilson:I knew very well what he was doing. I would watch Milt and he would tell me about the cyclotron and his measurement. I was more interested in that cyclotron than I was in the time-lag of sparking.
Weart:I see, so you were already getting fully up on nuclear physics
Wilson:Oh yes, directly, in that place
Weart:I see, you couldn't avoid it I suppose.
Wilson:I certainly knew what he was up to. So as a junior I began to work with Harry White. I never saw Ernest again I think for quite a while. He would occasionally, about once a year, come In. Harry was very patient with me, and taught me many things about laboratory technique. I worked as a sort of research assistant to him. I spent most of my time in the laboratory, of course. My great good fortune was that Harry White got a job at the end of that year, and left. I don't mean that in any way —
Weart:— no, I understand. It left the experiment for you.
Wilson:It was an opportunity. There was the experiment. He hadn't quite finished it. He had made some very nice measurements. But here was all that equipment around, so I went to Lawrence and asked him if I could continue the experiment. And he said, "Yes." He also said, "Harry White was guiding you before, but don't expect me to give you much guidance." And he gave me none. Well, that was just what wanted.
Weart:Right, you just did it entirely yourself.
Wilson:So I had a new idea about how to do the experiment. I took it all apart and put it together in a new way.
Weart:Did you build more pieces for it?
Wilson:I built new equipment. I invented a vacuum switch — I wanted to apply the voltage to a spark gap very rapidly. Harry would bring it on in a complicated way, so that you couldn't really tell what was happening. I've always tried to do things directly and simply. My idea was, you put the voltage on the gap, all the voltage, and then you measure the time it breaks down, and not do any roundabout things such as other people working in the field had done. So the point was, how would you get the voltage on the gap? Well, I thought, a vacuum switch must be the fastest way, because the smallest gap will go off the most rapidly, which may even be correct. There was no such thing as a vacuum switch then as far as I know. I invented a vacuum switch, in which you had two tungsten wires, and you had a little piece of iron to pull the switch closed. I should have patented it, because I don't think there was such a thing then.
Weart:I didn't notice that particularly mentioned in your paper here.
Wilson:I wouldn't have considered that important — you have the paper on the -–
Weart:— yes, right here. I didn't notice that.
Wilson:Anyway, I built this thing. I was extremely proud of it, and it worked fine. And that's the way put the voltage on. I think it shows in one of the illustrations.
Wilson:Anyway, I was completely independent, and felt I was running my own laboratory, and my own research.
Weart:You had one table I suppose?
Wilson:It was more than a table. I had to have two voltage supplies, one to turn the voltage up for the gap, and then I built another one to put on the over voltage.
Weart:In those days that was a pretty big object.
Wilson:So it seemed to me, banks of wire rheostats, with which to control the voltage, knife switches, transformers, Kenotron rectifiers — and so on, an experiment.
Weart:I see, so you really had your own —
Wilson:— Yes, I had my own lab. It was probably the size of this room, you bet. I wouldn't let anybody fool around in it.
Weart:This had no walls around it, it was just an area?
Wilson:It was a large corner of the laboratory room. Was it Room 210 in Leconte? It was the southeast corner of Leconte Hall. I had the use, in common with Phil Abelson, of the distillation equipment.
Weart:The chem area.
Wilson:Yes, to make the Kerr cells, that was fundamental. And then I developed, or maybe it was Harry White, I'm not sure, but I used a new technique, differential freezing. When you freeze something, as soon as the crystals form, you take those crystals right out, and leave behind the residue liquid.
Weart:This was a new method for purifying.
Wilson:I'm not sure. But I developed it as though it were a new method. With that, the nitrobenzene could be purified very rapidly. The stills occasionally would explode, and nitrobenzene would go all over, and stink. It was awful.
Weart:I have one other question about this paper. Where did you learn to make these beautiful drawings?
Wilson:Looking at the paper. When I published this, that was at the time when there was a WPA draftsman. The lettering was certainly done by a draftsman. But that is my writing, there.
Weart:Your writing on curves.
Wilson:On the curves. But Figure 1 was probably done by a WPA draftsman, I probably made Figure 2.
Weart:I see. I wonder, because Figure 1 looked really extremely neat.
Wilson:Well, I made some measurements, which came as something of a surprise, because the time-lag that I was measuring was very, very short, several nanoseconds. And the shortness was something of a discovery. Loeb then became intensely interested in the work. At that time I was taking his course on gaseous discharge. It was a graduate course he was giving, and as a senior I was taking the course. I remember it was quite an ego boosting thing, because he spent a long time talking about my measurements and my theory. I had also developed a theory to explain the measurements, which I think was correct. The ingredients of the theory had previously been suggested by Harry White, but I developed it a few steps further. I know Loeb picked up a lot of that, and a lot of those ideas I think are still correct. The electron avalanche, with a single electron building up to a certain amount — and it corresponded to my data.
Weart:I was very interested that already in this first paper we see you building the instruments, making the experiments, and doing a theory. I wonder, at that time, had you given any thought to whether you would be an experimentalist or a theorist?
Wilson:No I hadn't. I didn't differentiate particularly. I'm not sure that I knew the difference. By then I was a senior. Every year I would go do surveying or ranching, one or the other, or both. I remember, when I worked out that theory I was out punching stakes. I had a big canvas sack of stakes, and an axe or a sledge hammer. There was a man who used the level, we were working on a highway. He would tell me what the cut or fill was, and then I had to calculate the distance to where the actual slope would intersect the undisturbed ground. I'd make a mental calculation and write that on the stake. I was going along deep in thought — I could do those calculations automatically — but I was writing out my theory on the back of all those stakes. All along the highway between Cokeville and Kemmerer, Wyoming. It wasn't completely that way, but on the back of every stake you'd find my algebra.
Weart:Like on the back of envelopes.
Weart:I see. Well, let me ask some other questions about what it was like to be in that physics department. Or perhaps by this time you weren't really in the physics department?
Wilson:I wouldn't say that I was.
Weart:You were in the Radiation Lab?
Wilson:I was nowhere. There were six senior physics students, I think. One was a Japanese student who subsequently was put into a detention camp. It was tragic. He was very good, very bright physicist, exceptionally bright man, and there were two or three other people, and we knew one another rather well. We were lost In the University of California. The physics department had nothing for undergraduates — there was no way of formally identifying with the department.
Weart:You didn't have any kind of study group, or -–?
Weart:Or study together with others?
Wilson:Well, happened to know a few of the other students, and that was all.
Wilson:There was nothing formal about it. I knew very few people, In fact. Before I'd gone to the university, I was not much of a scholar. As I said earlier, it wasn't in the Wyoming tradition. When I did go to the university, sort of dramatically, I decided this was different from going to elementary school. You went to elementary school because you had to, and you studied because you were made to. But going to college was different. There you went to get an education, and by God, I was going to get an education. So I became something of a drudge. I worked awfully hard. And then when I started research, I worked almost full time on research, and skipped most of my classes — I was learning so much doing research and talking to Milt White and Harry White -–
Weart:Did you also continue to take philosophy?
Wilson:I became less interested in philosophy as I got more into research. But I made a terrible nuisance of myself going to one philosophy of science course. I argued too much with the professor. I've forgotten what his name was. It had to do with the philosophy of — I'm trying to remember the philosopher's name, he was German, it was Reichenbach — he had an epistemological theory in which he gave a probability for every statement. A statement wasn't right or wrong as in traditional logic, but had probability of being right or wrong. You worked out the whole logic, the epistemology, on the basis of this probabilistic theory. Well, no classical philosopher is likely to understand that, and we had a very good philosopher teaching the course. Perhaps he was a philosopher of science, but his mathematics wasn't up to assigning probabilities, how you add up and combine probabilities, he just wasn't up to that. But I was. I'd read the book and I understood it. I was an auditor and I remember explaining probability theory to him. He eventually threw me out, quite justifiably. He didn't want some smart ass kid arguing with him. And I did understand it; I still understand it. It has to be such a beautiful way of talking, you know, about reality, by assigning a probability to each proposition. You get into all these contradictions in logic partly because you exaggerate by making each statement either true or false, which of course is not characteristic of most statements.
Weart:It's certainly not the way scientists think about their statements.
Wilson:No. It was a good course, as a matter of fact, a good book, and I enjoyed it. My other classes, in some I just quit going to class. I would just read the book. I remember I took a course in least mean squares. I didn't go to that class at all. I learned that there was going to be an open book examination. I bought the book. I went to the examination. I sat down early. I read the book and then worked out the exam questions. I got an A and was very, very proud of myself –- for, generally speaking, I was not a bright student, but that gave me a lot of confidence.
Weart:At some point, you decided to make your career in physics.
Weart:Maybe about the time that you were a junior?
Wilson:Yes. By then it was clear was going to be a physicist.
Weart:What sort of life did you expect to lead as a scientist? Did you see yourself as doing research?
Wilson:I think that I could make that decision because it was in the depths of the Depression. Many physicists were being kept on as teachers because they couldn't get jobs — at small salaries.
Weart:So the physicists at least had some sort of employment?
Wilson:They seemed to have some kind. My thinking was (I may have exaggerated it) that I wasn't going to get a job, no matter what I did. And if I was going to be unemployed, rather than being an unemployed engineer, an unemployed whatever, I was going to be an unemployed physicist. That was better.
Wilson:I had always been worried about being able to make a living. I somehow felt that I would be a failure in business. And also, I'd seen hard times then. Part of going to college was to get into something else, but even there was a kind of a hopelessness about everything. What I'm trying to say somehow is, that made it easy to go into physics, because there was a feeling you wouldn't make money anyway.
Weart:Did you get this feeling from some of the physicists there?
Wilson:I don't think my contact with them was enough to have given me such a feeling — but I suppose that's where it came from.
Weart:I see. By the way, Harry White is one of the few people who left to go into Industry. Do you happen to know why he did that, how that happened?
Wilson:I suspect it was just because he got a job in industry. He went to the Western Precipitation Corporation in Los Angeles. Incidentally, when I was a graduate student, he hired me one summer. I went to L.A. and worked for him. I thought that if I got a job, I would get a job at General Electric or someplace like that. I remember my wife, Jane, has told me frequently that I said to her — talking about my future when I was talking about getting married — I would say, "Of course, I'll never be good enough to get a job in a university. The best I can hope for" (a value judgment) "is to work in industry, something like General Electric."
Weart:So you saw yourself as eventually going into industry, when you were a graduate student?
Wilson:No, didn't see myself there, I didn't know what was going to happen to me. But I guess when Jane asked me what I was going to do, I said, "Well, I’ll never make it at a university."
Weart:I see, so therefore it has to be industry.
Wilson:So it has to be industry. But I wanted to be a professor. There was no question. Because I knew what a physicist was, and I wanted to be a person doing physics, like Ernest Lawrence was doing.
Weart:What was your family's attitude toward your choice of a career?
Wilson:Oh, benign tolerance on the part of my mother, who was disappointed. She wanted me to be a captain of industry. She had always expected that some lucky thing would happen in my life and I would make a million dollars. Certainly the people she admired were those who were in industry, that middle class dream. My father, I think, never knew what physics was about. When I talked to him I spoke enthusiastically about my work, and he would always make a wry joke. To him academics are other kinds of people, and he resented that I hadn't followed him, taken his advice, and I think he never did square it. I guess between a son and father there always is some kind of conflict. Except in my case I was always trying, you know, eating my heart out somehow to show him that I wasn't so bad, I was going to make it, there was going to be a future. That this was a respectable thing for a man to do, yes, that I'd done right to go to college. And he never, ever, accepted that. I think he grudgingly did, in the end maybe, but when I tried to explain he would change the conversation to the other sons and how well they were doing, something of that kind.
Wilson:To him it was longhaired work. I was turning my back on him.
Weart:I understand. So then you went into graduate school?
Wilson:The ranchers, on the other hand — they understood.
Weart:Was that so? Your uncles then?
Wilson:Yes. My Rathbun uncles understood perfectly well what was doing.
Weart:How was that? They just understood?
Wilson:I think that they were more liberal. They were quite well educated as a matter of fact. Because in Wyoming all there is to do in the long winters is read by gasoline light. They were very well read, in poetry and — without a formal education they were quite well educated. To them, business was no way to make a living. Business was not what they considered among the acceptable alternates.
Weart:I see. And being a professor was a more independent way of life.
Wilson:Except — let me tell you one final story. I had got my degree and got married, in 1940. I was to go to Princeton as an instructor. But a few years ago, I'd been given an honorary degree at Notre Dame. I got a letter from the chairman, I think, of the department of economics at the University of Wyoming. He complained in the letter, why was it that the University of Wyoming always gives honorary degrees to people from out of state that held never heard of? And here held just read that I'd been given a degree, and he had read something else about me I guess. He said, "Here you are, a prominent person born in the state of Wyoming, why don't we give you a degree?" So he said, would I please send him what I'd done, my curriculum vitae, and he would try to arrange that I would be given an honorary degree. I wrote him back a letter saying, "Well, I appreciate it, but you have to understand that there is a difficulty." Then I wrote on: On my way with my young bride east to Princeton, to be an instructor, I stopped off at Big Piney, Wyoming, where my uncle Dan Rathbun lived, and took my bride way up the North Piney River to his ranch. After the day and after the dinner, the men went out and stood, as was sometimes the custom, around a campfire. The women of course stayed inside and did the dishes and those sort of things.
Weart:They had a fire outside?
Wilson:Yes, they had a fire outside. The men were standing around it, it was sort of a tradition. And they began telling stories. The men would stand in a circle around the fire and maybe drink whiskey, but they would tell stories. It was magnificent, always, a great occasion, like a seminar. One man would tell a long story —
Weart:It was an art, actually?
Wilson:It was a real art, a verbal art. It was their amusement and tradition — the tradition of telling verbal history. That was the way they kept history alive, and that's the way I knew history. I identified with these stories. I'd heard them all my life, you know, first as a kid sort of lying at their feet in front of the fire. Then as a man meeting with the menfolk. It was how you told the story that mattered. Everybody would listen, then, and make interjections, "Yes, I knew so and so," but one man was telling the story. It must be what man has done as long as men stood around fires. I was there, and they expected me to speak, as a visitor and a member of the family. These were all either family or family friends who were from neighboring ranches who had known my family all their lives. We were all pioneers, considered ourselves a pioneer family. Very respectable — in this particular cow community, this was the creme de la creme. In short, it was an occasion. They asked about the work that I had done. I was telling them about the university. And then Billy Budd, I think, a man about my age or older, the son of a very prominent rancher, said to me, "Bob," he said, "just what are you going to do?" I said, "Well, I’m going to Princeton University." "Princeton University. What are you going to do there?" I said, "Well, I'm going to be an instructor." I said It very proudly, because to get that job right after I had my degree — jobs were very scarce even then, and to get one at Princeton University, I thought I'd really walked off with the cake. I was very proud to say, "I’m going to be an instructor." That meant a great deal to me. "Instructor?" he said. "Does that mean you're going to teach?" I said, "Yes." "Yes," said, "I would be teaching." And at that, he looked at me, he looked at my boots, he looked me in the eye, he looked up to my Stetson, he looked back down to my boots, then he looked me right in the eye and he said, "Fust Gawd damn Rathbun to become a schoolteacher," and he turned on his heel and walked away. He wasn't kidding — I never saw him again. The idea that there'd be a God damn schoolteacher in the family was impossible! Absolutely. That was the end. (Laughter) So I wrote this story to the —
Weart:— that's what you told the (Wyoming) university professor —
Wilson:— and I said, "As far as I can see, my problem in Wyoming is being over-educated." And I couldn't afford to lose more of my friends by getting another degree. [Laughter] [Break to attend conference; resume that evening]
Weart:We resume, and I hope that very good banquet hasn’t fuzzed our brains too much.
Wilson:...couple of glasses of wine...
Weart:We'll have some time to talk about the Radiation Lab. First, we don't want to go past midnight for sure. I'll certainly be out of commission before then. OK, so there's so many questions I could ask about the Radiation Lab. I have a feeling that you have a not entirely conventional view of it anyway. Why don't you start by just telling me, what did it seem like? What sort of place was it? How did it work?
Wilson:I told you my introduction as a freshman, where I found it a magic place, inhabited by people of great stature, so it seemed to me, and finally, of Ernest Lawrence, a very imposing figure who sort of terrified me. And then, I went back into the Laboratory, as a first year graduate student, in 1936. It came into the place almost adiabatically, so I didn't have a sudden impression.
Weart:Right. What I'm really asking, is, sort of thinking back —
Wilson:OK. In thinking of the time when felt truly a part of it -–
Weart:— right, about 1936 to ‘39.
Wilson:Say in about 1938. Then I would say that, first of all, it was a tremendously exciting place, and all of us had a sense of the excitement, of the importance. We knew that it was one of the outstanding places in the world. We could tell that from the demeanor of the visitors that came, and how they reacted to what they were shown. All of us felt that this was a special place and that what we were doing was very special. We felt a sense of adventure, of participation, in a really important activity of the world — and with important people, particularly Ernest Lawrence. Ed McMillen and Don Cooksey would come around in the evening with their girl friends. The whole place had a lot of style to it. As a lowly graduate student watching all that, I was impressed.
Weart:How was the place organized?
Wilson:Well, Ernest was the boss, and that was the organization. I don't recall that there was much other.
Weart:Any sub-organization, crew chiefs, anything like that?
Wilson:At each time during the day I suppose someone was the crew chief. I think every Monday, after Journal Club, we would have a meeting in the Laboratory and Ernest would organize the next week's activities. Perhaps there was a list. I've rather forgotten just how the mechanics worked.
Weart:In other words, it was a rotating thing. There was no particular hierarchy?
Wilson:No, I don't remember any hierarchy. Again, Ernest dominated the place, in my memory. Now, of course, there was a kind of hierarchy for different things. Don Cooksey and Bill Brobeck were in charge of engineering things. Ed McMillen and Luis Alvarez — I think Ed was a little senior to Luis, he'd been there longer. After all, he was married to "the boss's daughter," well, to the boss's wife's sister, of course, to be accurate. But there were a lot of other people, too, who had been around for a long time, such as Franz Kurie, who was in charge of targets as well as the cloud chamber. John Lawrence was in charge of the cancer research. Although each person had different interests, I didn't have any great sense of a hierarchy.
Weart:How effective do you think Lawrence was as a research leader?
Wilson:He was the leader. There's just no question about it. And he was very effective. But from the time when I first came until the time I left in 1940, there was quite a change. When I first came, I think everybody in the laboratory had the highest regard for him. We all called him "the Maestro," in an affectionate manner. He would work during the day or at night along with everybody else and his presence was inspiring. Everything just went a little faster then. He'd put on a lab coat. The lab coats I remember characterized the place in some sense. They weren't the usual kind of a medical lab coat, but the kind that a grocery clerk would wear, an apron, a wraparound with a sash that you tied.
Weart:— around behind your back —
Wilson:Yes, and then tie it in front. Everybody wore such an apron, and that showed you were "in." I've forgotten whether those were supplied, or whether you had to go down and buy them yourself. Probably you bought them.
Weart:I see, that was the badge.
Wilson:We of course were all vaguely dressed up because of the teaching. We would go back and forth and put on the apron in the lab to protect our clothes. So it was a rather honest thing to do. But it was also a badge. I mean, you didn't wear a pair of coveralls, you didn't wear a white medical coat.
Weart:So Lawrence would come in with one of these things on.
Wilson:He would come in and put an apron on.
Weart:He'd be like one of the boys?
Wilson:No, we would be like him! And then held look for — we were looking for leaks, if you were on crew, and Ernest would look for leaks along with everybody else. He was very good at finding them. It was a kind of intelligence test. Everything that was happening, he had his finger on, we would discuss our work with him and he would make suggestions — all very informally. He maintained his leadership by the intensity with which he followed the work. He’d frequently drop in in the evening. I know Molly Lawrence would be left sitting there, while he would just come in for a minute or so. She would bring along a book or something, because she knew it would involve a long time. But held come in, and usually not leave until 12 o'clock or so, 11 — or if he came alone, then he might stay till 2. The custom in the lab was to work long hours. He was always completely absorbed in what he was doing. He knew the answer to most things better than most other people. He was interested in scientific things. Mostly though he was interested in the cyclotron itself. He would sit down at the control desk and would inevitably push it for more intensity than others could get. He had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the work which was very infectious. Frequently the cyclotron was broken down, and a group of people might be repairing it. If he weren't helping with the repair, he'd be sitting, for example, at the control bench. As I indicated earlier, at first I thought of him as a kind of a pompous ass, but that's not quite right — he was -–
Weart:— remote? —
Wilson:— not exactly. As soon as I became a graduate student and got to know him, I found him approachable and easy to talk to. He was kindly and very, well, inspiring.
Weart:Did he have much influence on you?
Wilson:Oh, I'm sure he had a very profound influence on me. His style of running that laboratory was very impressive. He led by example. If we would literally run around that laboratory, it was because he ran. And we were infected by his enthusiasm and optimism, and his sense of priorities and of pushing hard.
Weart:And then you say there was a change?
Wilson:About 1938, it seemed to me that there was a change. I think he became more engulfed in administrative things. He found less time to spend in the laboratory. He was in some sense a rather naive person, I mean in his directness of speaking, etc. He put an electronic link between his office and the lab, so hanging down in the center of the lab was one of those old-fashioned broadcasting microphones, the kind with springs on it, that you may have seen in Pathi News. There had always been a speech address system for talking between the control room and the cyclotron room. And somehow, his office was hooked in to that. So while in his office, he could talk to the people in the laboratory. And he could listen. Well, now, of course he never saw it that way. It was a way of his being in the laboratory, and handling his administrative duties at the same time. He was raising money and1he was running the laboratory in addition to teaching a graduate course, an undergraduate course, doing everything that a professor does, and being an outstanding scholar on a world scene. He was a very busy man.
Weart:It also sounds a bit like the scene in MODERN TIMES — Charlie Chaplin's movie?
Wilson:Yes. Well, one would forget about the microphone, and might even make some — you know, it's natural to make disparaging remarks about any place you're working in. Then suddenly you'd catch yourself, because perhaps Ernest was listening. We would be looking for a leak, and the way we'd normally do it is, somebody would sit up in the control room and call out numbers on the vacuum gauge, an ion gauge or a Piranni gauge. Someone else would be torching the machine, or putting gas around it, or soapsuds, and as soon as you hit the leak the numbers would start changing. So, once this was going on, and he broke in on us and said, "No, that's not the way, you count out, 'One, Three, Four, Five'." He was telling us how to count the numbers, and, well —
Weart:— it was a complete surprise.
Wilson:We were completely surprised that he had been listening to us. There was just too much of Big Brother. Clearly that was not going to be something that would endear him. I think then, there was a change in our attitude about Ernest, that he became more of a remote boss and that was dramatized by this particular —
Weart:— this was before he got his Nobel Prize?
Wilson:I think it was before. I don't want to exaggerate this. He still would come back in the evenings. There was no change really in Ernest. He was just a little naive on some things. It just never occurred to him that there was something wrong about the microphone. Nobody of course — well, maybe somebody did tell him, or maybe he got the message himself. But the thing did disappear, after a time. But it didn't endear him to me, particularly. On the other hand, I forgave him. I came to venerate him and was very fond of him, in spite of that and similar displays of naive arrogance.
Weart:You mentioned that the book ARROWSMITH made a great impact on you Lawrence seemed like the real Arrowsmith in the Laboratory, which implies you admired him but also that you had some difficulty because you would like to be one also.
Wilson:That's complicated. I didn't think of him as Arrowsmith, I thought of myself as Arrowsmith. I thought of him as somebody already established when I first knew him, and a man of much greater importance than Arrowsmith. Most of ARROWSMITH is about a man making the scene, working hard in a laboratory for recognition. When I came to the laboratory, after all, Ernest Lawrence was a man with an international reputation. So I didn't think of that in terms of ARROWSMITH. It was I, in my private thoughts, who was Arrowsmith.
Wilson:Ernest was beyond Arrowsmith.
Weart:During this period, were you still working more or less alone? You described how you tended to not be part of the crowd?
Wilson:No. The way I came into the laboratory was that I was taking the graduate course on electricity and magnetism, which Ernest taught (he taught it well, from Jean’s book). And right away he announced a problem for the class. "No one has ever worked out the theory of the cyclotron." And he suggested, as an example, that we work out the field between the dees of the cyclotron by the Christoffel transformation which we had just taken up in class.
Weart:This was already your first year in graduate school when you came to that?
Wilson:Yes. And then he said,, "Having done that, then maybe someone later could use that to work out the theory of focusing." I didn't really understand the transformation all that well, and I tried like hell to do it, and I couldn't do it. I failed. So I thought, well, I'll work out the focusing instead. I knew how to work out the field using an electrolytic bath. At the time I was connected with some cooperative — Barrington Hall It was called. It was a cooperative boarding house, on a kind of an idealistic basis. Couple of friends of mine were there, and I may have been visiting there for a few days, I've forgotten. I do know I decided to use their bath tub, it was the only place I had -–
Weart:— for your electrolytic —
Wilson:For my electrolytic tray. I think there may have been only one bathroom for this whole barn-like place —. I remember going there about 9 o'clock in the evening, setting up my equipment in the bathtub — I preempted the bathroom. I had angry people knocking on the door and trying to come in and out, you know, but my equipment was all over the bathroom, so nobody could come in. I was having a hard time holding out the troops while finishing the measurements. Every time the pressure would get too great I'd take my equipment out, let them come in, and when they were through go back to work. It was a big production. Of course, I was not unaware of the commotion that I was causing, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. And I got the field, just as accurately as was necessary. Then having that field, I worked out what the path of an ion would be. I also invented a device for measuring the angle of the magnetic field, with a little needle and a mirror on that. With it I measured the magnetic field, and then worked out the magnetic focusing. Then I also put some carbon on a probe, and put that in in various positions within the cyclotron and measured the radioactivity in the carbon, thus determining the size of the beam.
Weart:This went on for several years?
Wilson:No, it went on for months.
Wilson:Well, it eventually went on for a year or even more, but not that part, that went on only for months. Then I came back to Lawrence and I remember telling him happily that while I couldn't work out the transformation, I'd worked out the theory of focusing. Of course, that impressed him. I suggested that we put some wires across the dees which might multiply the strength of the electric focusing by perhaps a factor of 5 or 10. Lawrence was enthusiastic. We put some tungsten wires about a centimeter apart, soldered to the dees in this manner. I remember doing this with Franz Kurie. We pulled the tank of the cyclotron, made the change, and pushed it back in. The cyclotron wouldn’t work at all then. It had a glow discharge between the dees. We couldn't get a good vacuum. Finally, we pushed a broom handle or something and knocked off those tungsten wires, hoping that that would solve the problem. It didn't. So we pulled the tank again, which was always a traumatic business, and took everything apart. What Franz Kurie had done was, held left some wooden blocks under one of the dees for support while he replaced the glass insulators, and of course that was the explanation for the bad vacuum and the discharge. Lawrence was so disgusted by the whole thing that we never got to put the wires back on the dee again. We never got to find out whether that idea would work or not. He was utterly disgusted.
Weart:I see. Tell me, in your paper on that you also gave thanks to McMillen. Did he play a role in that?
Wilson:Yes. I discussed my results with Ed, and I know that subsequently Ed did a lot of calculations on focusing and on orbits in the cyclotron. Later at Los Alamos, because he'd done that early work, he invented phase focusing.
Wilson:I recall that he'd had some ideas not too far disconnected from phase focusing, but not phase focusing, during that era. Although I always thought of myself as going to Lawrence, I guess, after ten minutes with Lawrence he might have sent me to Ed. Ed was a very young man then, and he just was not the same as Ernest Lawrence, so I might not have remembered.
Weart:I understand. Tell me, this focusing work, it almost makes it look as if Lawrence and Livingston were lucky to be able to get the focusing in the first place. Did Lawrence have any feelings about that?
Wilson:In this first paper, of course, he does talk about the focusing. And he had good intuitive ideas about it. His intuitive ideas were correct. I don't think that it was just luck. The electric part was luck, perhaps, but the magnetic part of it he understood.
Wilson:The thing about Ernest was that he had extremely good physical intuition. And he had the confidence to believe in his Intuition. Sometimes it was wrong, but usually it was correct. Once he had a hunch, he would make it come — the principal thing I learned from Ernest was that if you want something to come true, you can make it come true just by pushing like hell. That was his style. Somehow, a way can be found, and he had the faith that he'd get there. I think that's something I picked up from him — the idea that you twisted nature if necessary until you made things happen the way you wanted them to be. That you didn't have to understand it. That there were many ways of getting to a result, and if you tried this way and that way, and just hung in there, you'd find a way to success It was a question of being optimistic or pessimistic. Many people are pessimistic, and have to know the way beforehand. Ernest would have a feeling that something was possible or plausible, and then suddenly he'd get a determination that that's the way he was going to do it, and then held do it. Held pour in the necessary amount of energy and work until it got done.
Weart:I see. There's another question about you at that time. I've heard some stories, — there was the time you and Kamen put in a probe, and according to Childs' book, sprayed solder all over and the others put up a sign saying, "Kill Wilson." And then the incident when Lawrence banished you from the laboratory. Can you tell me about all this?
Wilson:Well, there are two stories really involved there. One was that as a result of our working on the theory of the cyclotron, I needed a probe that would move from outside the dee to its center — a few feet.
Weart:To find where the beam actually was.
Wilson:I started my measurements on the 28-inch cyclotron, then made some on the 36-inch, and finally on the 60-inch cyclotron. I'd push the probe in, make a bombardment at some radius, then measure the radioactivity to find the size and shape of the beam. At first I had a long set of sylphons but that was awkward, and so I invented a sliding seal. The idea had to do with a bicycle pump, for the principle of the sliding gasket is identical but turned inward radially. That got me started but it also had to do with the automobile tire pump I'd used as a boy to get a vacuum. So instead of having a leather gasket, I made it out of neophrene rubber and a shaped piece of copper to hold the gasket in place. The higher the pressure, then the higher the force of the rubber against the rod -–
Weart:— right, I understand. It forces it against the rod.
Wilson:Yes, that would make the vacuum. That's the way a pump works. And so it was a direct application of that. Well, it was a revolutionary thing for vacuum technology. There were a number of devices for getting motion into a vacuum, mostly using long chains of sylphons if it was a lateral motion.
Weart:What's a sylphon?
Wilson:A sylphon is a convoluted piece of very thin copper tubing. You could make a very close vacuum joint, I mean very closely machined, and pump oil or vacuum grease into the joint and that would make a rotation in the vacuum region without leaking. Now, my only problem was, everybody told me it wouldn't work. The shop was where you entered the lab. Oliphant came to the lab on a visit and I met him. He asked me what I was doing, as I was fabricating the seal. I told him I was making a vacuum seal for translational motion. He looked at it and said brusquely, "It won't work, we have already tried it at the Cavendish." He is a very nice man, and to me then it was like Jesus Christ himself saying it wouldn't work. Well, I was arrogant enough not to pay any attention. I went ahead and built it. My idea was, I thought I'd have to have several of the seals in series and I'd pump out, have differential pumping between each one. I was prepared to do that.
Weart:— I see -–
Wilson:And I was just trying to make the first one, to find out how many I would have to put in series so as not to have too much leakage into the vacuum. I knew if I put enough of the seals in series, it was bound to work. So I built the first one. And damned if it didn't work just by itself.
Weart:You only needed one?
Wilson:I just needed one, and that was just remarkable. Well, it was a complete break from what everybody expected. So when I built one and put it on the cyclotron, no one would really believe it would work. So when a leak occurred, and that was every day, they would point immediately to my sliding seal and say, "That's the thing that doesn't work." They'd take it out at once and hang it up in the middle of the room, then they would write, "A bas Wilson." I'd put it in one night, and the next morning It would be out, and with a big "A bas Wilson," "Kill Wilson," "Morte a Wilson" sign on it — you know, because of the different languages they made a specialty of going through them all. I think one day, the whole blackboard was filled up with all of the different languages saying, "Kill Wilson." Well, I'd put it right back in. In fact, I became something of a hero to my fellow students because of it, although a victim at the same time. I was a teaching assistant then, and in my third year, Ernest had raised money — and this was something of a departure in physics — he raised some money to support perhaps five research assistants. We were even called that. He had raised the money in order to make radioactive isotopes for the studies of medical people in the East; iron for Whipple at Rochester, and phosphorus for Stanley at the Rockefeller. Well, at that time, we had to make a target of either iron or phosphorus, it would catch fire. Franz Kurie was the expert making these targets. We research assistants were to run all night bombarding the targets, make our salaries by running shifts through the night, crews of two each, to make radioactive phosphorus or iron.
Weart:–- they'd catch fire, you say?
Wilson:When you'd open the target of phosphorus to the air it would catch fire.
Weart:I see, a regular thing.
Wilson:Regular. The phosphorus burned with a pale blue light and was easy to put out. We had been running for a few weeks when I found that about ten times as much current could be intercepted on the probe as was coming out in the extracted beam that was being used for the bombardment.
Weart:I see, this was when you were first measuring where the beam was.
Wilson:Yes, where the beam was. I measured the —
Weart:— Why did you measure the current on the probe? You had to measure it to find out where the beam was?
Wilson:No, I measured the radioactivity, to get the distribution. I was getting the distribution, how wide the beam was.
Weart:Well, why did you measure the current?
Wilson:I measured the current in order to know how the ion current decreased with radius, how much was lost. I'd flow water through the probe to cool it, so I could measure the heat and get the current that way. And I found out there was ten times as much circulating current as was being extracted. I could even adjust the probe position so that you'd get most of that current without interfering with the current coming out. Well, that was a big thing, it potentially increased the amount of radioactivity that could be made by a factor of about ten. You could just put the probe in and leave it there. It didn't even interfere with the beam. So I became quite a hero, because then Ernest called off the midnight shifts, and so the research assistants became research fellows. They didn't have to do anything — no more night shifts. It worked out though that I was the person stuck with doing all the work because I knew how to do it, putting the probe in and out.
Weart:I see, so you were the one who was left.
Wilson:Hero or not, I was left holding the sack. Oh, I was very proud, and I enjoyed working every night anyway.
Weart:Was it at this time that you started working at night?
Wilson:No, in any emergency it was the custom to work all night, and we had all worked for a few weeks before my discovery. In some sense, late at night I had the whole laboratory to myself. There was Van Voorhis, but he was a night owl. There were a few other night owls around, Martin Kamer maybe — we'd all go out sometime between 2 and 4 o'clock to the White Tavern and have a hamburger, or we would go to the Anchor Bar for a beer and some abalone. There was a group of us who would meet. Then I'd come back and work till dawn.
Weart:I had a question about that, if I can interrupt you for just a minute. If you hadn't been using the cyclotron at night, would somebody else? Were there demands on machine time?
Wilson:Very frequently, there were. People would work all night. But to my recollection, in this particular period I was usually all alone in the laboratory, from say 2 o'clock till maybe 8 o’clock in the morning.
Weart:On the graveyard shift, at least, the demands weren't that great.
Wilson:They weren't that great. Sometimes there'd be a run where people would work around the clock. Or something might be wrong with the machine, there was a tendency to work all night until it was fixed. But in between times when it was working regularly, then I would have the whole laboratory to myself. And that's what I wanted. I'd had that other lab to myself. And now I had the whole Radiation Lab. I had the machine shop. I had the run of the place. I had the cyclotron. It was an ego trip in some sense.
Weart:You could do whatever you wanted?
Wilson:I could do pretty much what I wanted, and did. Now, the target was on the front side of the cyclotron, the access side. By putting my probe in from the other side, the far side where the R.F. was, I'd have to crawl in between the insulators of the dees and then put it in. Then there was less interference with the experimental equipment on the other side, the access side. So I would crawl over the dees, go in, and have to remove a small glass window and put the probe in. It was — kind of spooky — late at night, all alone, because those dees had tremendous voltages on them (although, of course, there were safety interlocks, and there was no real danger). Yet, when you're all alone, late at night, and with something that could have that much voltage — well, I remember a sense of apprehension and fear. My procedure was the following: I would change the probe at about 4 a.m., then there was time for the cyclotron to pump down before the day's work started the next morning. I would open the vacuum valve — shhww, the air would come in — and when the pressure was nearly at atmospheric, I'd get into a position to remove the probe, take off the nuts that held it in position, and compressed the rubber gasket. As I would pull off the probe, there would be a slight "plop" as the air rushed through the hole because of a slight extra pressure. Well, as time went on, I became a little sloppy, because it was late and I wanted to do something else. I'd pull the probe off when the pressure got down about half an atmosphere, it would give a louder plop, then the air would go through the opening, much faster than before. Then I had an inspiration one night at 4 o'clock in the morning, and that was that if I pulled the probe out fast enough, there would still be a good vacuum in the tank. My inspiration was that there was nothing in the tank, and I had the opportunity of becoming a world expert on nothing. I was going to look directly into nothing. I realized, we were living at the bottom of the atmosphere. And nobody had ever looked into nothing. It's the kind of crazy idea you'd get at 4 o'clock in the morning, with the heightened sensitivity of those special conditions. Well, why don't —? So I would pull the probe off at full atmospheric pressure, bang, the air’d go rushing in. I would stick my eye down as close to the opening as I could get it, and with a stopwatch I would time myself. Then I'd calculate what the pressure inside was, and how much Nothing I was looking it. I kept track for I was trying to make a world record. I got bolder and bolder about pulling this thing off -–
Weart:— you were pulling it out by hand?
Wilson:Yes, I was pulling it off with a full vacuum on, putting my eye in, and then I would write the time down and figure out how much material there was between me and the hard vacuum. So I was becoming a world expert on nothing. It struck me as, you know, fascinating. [laughter] I was going to make an all-time record. As far as I know my only competitor was on a jet when the door popped open. He was standing next to the door and went through it. He was at such a height, that I think he may have looked through as much nothing as I have. But he didn’t survive. Well, at just that time Lawrence was starting up a big program to bombard patients with neutrons. Everyone was wearing a white coat, the doctors wore white coats, Abersold wore a white coat, and everything was painted white so that the patients wouldn’t be upset. It was important for Ernest was raising money in this way for more such experiments. He got all set to go, to start the program — and the cyclotron wouldn’t work — a vacuum problem again. They kept the patients around for days and the cyclotron just never worked. Finally they had to dismiss all the patients and cancel the program. They tried hard –- we called it dynamiting, to put a high voltage DC current on, run a discharge, trying to clear up the vacuum problem. It just wouldn’t outgas. A little bit like the wood in the case before. Anyway, they pulled the vacuum tank and lo and behold, there was a rubber gasket under one of the dees. When I saw that gasket, I knew instantly, with a sinking feeling, that I had caused it to be there. What had happened was, when I pulled the probe off the gasket would always be sucked in by the rush of air, and then I’d go around and fish it out somehow. And I think maybe I sometimes put in two gaskets, I don’t know why. I must have lost track. Or maybe because it was so late I’d forgotten about one. In any case, as soon as I saw the gasket, I knew that I had done it. So I went to Ernest and said that I’d done it, and I was awfully sorry. And Lawrence was just furious. He had every reason to be, because here was his expectation for curing cancer and for raising money for the future program, both extremely important to him, and to all of humanity as far as that was concerned –- he had so much riding on that — and here this miserable student had put a —
Weart:— left a gasket —
Wilson:— left a gasket in there, blown the whole thing. And you can understand why he would be just furious. He said, “You get out of this laboratory and don’t you ever come back!” I was a broken man. My career was over. I was just about as low as a person could get. It really was just terrible. He couldn't have known what a terrible thing that was to do to a young kid. Well, you know, life seemed over. After a while, I've forgotten quite how, I got back into the laboratory. Perhaps I happened to see Lawrence on the street and perhaps he said, "Why aren't you working in the laboratory?" Something like that, I've forgotten.
Weart:Something like that or maybe through some third party.
Wilson:Perhaps. I got fired on another occasion, too.
Weart:You want to talk about that now?
Wilson:Well, there were foreign scientists working in the laboratory, and I got the idea that they were being exploited. Not being paid enough. They were refugees. Now, Ernest really had gone all out in bringing people into the laboratory and making it possible for them to work. A little bit like Rutherford had done at an earlier stage at the Cavendish. I got to know some of them quite well working on crew with them, and a few complained that they weren't being paid enough. So, I went to Ernest and told him that it was outrageous, that he was running a sweat shop, that it was not right to pay such distinguished scholars so little. They were not being paid much more than I was being paid and I was just a miserable research assistant, making about $650 a month. But these people, who were the equivalent of professors, why couldn't he just somehow raise a little more money for them?
Weart:You must have had an unusual relationship with Lawrence.
Wilson:Not all that unusual for he didn't take at al kindly to what I said. [Laughter] At the same time I'd ruined an expensive pair of pliers by putting them directly in a hot flame, when I was preparing one of those probes.
Weart:To temper it.
Wilson:No, to hold two pieces of metal together as I brazed them. At one of the Monday meetings Lawrence asked, "Who has done this terrible thing? Who has ruined these pliers?" I spoke up saying I had done it. I said it was more important for me to get that probe made right and not waste my time, my valuable time, getting a more appropriate clamp. This was the same day, I guess, that I'd braced him on the other matter. Again he lost his temper, quite justifiably, and he said, "You get out of this laboratory and never come back!" I was fired again.
Weart:The second time probably it wasn't quite so bad.
Wilson:That time I thought I'd probably get back somehow.
Weart:Who did you interact with? Did you interact much with the other students at the laboratory?
Wilson:Yes, everybody. It was a very friendly place, and I interacted with everybody, from Ernest to — I never called him Ernest. At that time I always called him Professor Lawrence. Everybody else — well, I mean, the people who weren't students called him Ernest. As opposed to this earlier time when they called him Maestro. By this time he was called Ernest. But that was different.
Wilson:And somehow that established a pecking order within the laboratory, too: whether you called him Ernest or not.
Wilson:But it was a friendly place. At the time I remember having heated but friendly arguments with Luis Alvarez, who had a conservative view, whereas some of the people in the lab had quite [leftist] political views. I had peculiar political views, because being from Wyoming, individualism was what was important. I would never have anything to do with any kind of a union or organization of any kind in which you gave up a liberty unnecessarily.
Weart:But you said you were living in some kind of a communal boarding house?
Wilson:Yes, perhaps for a few days, but all my friends were Communists [Laughter] I mean, — Berkeley at that time, many of the people — I shouldn't say "all" — but many of my friends were Communists.
Weart:So you would go to discussion groups and so forth?
Wilson:Yeah. That place certainly was infested with Communists. They were the interesting people. I enjoyed this, because I had fierce arguments with them. I was prepared to take on anybody, and I was quite reactionary in my own views. On the other hand, I would concede enough to maintain an argument. Now if you're going to have an argument at all with somebody, you have to give quite a bit of ground. Otherwise you quit talking and the argument is over. Perhaps I became — well, if you'd looked at me, you might have said I was a radical. Because, in order to reach common ground with those guys and argue with them, and I'd argue like hell —
Weart:— Then you would fight with the Communists on one side and Luis Alvarez on the other?
On the other hand, Luis arguing with me might have thought I was a Communist, or something close to it. But it was fun. I've always enjoyed arguing with Luis. He has a very keen mind, for one thing, and he likes to argue, and he would take the time. I was miles from Luis. Whatever his politics were, mine were different, although we had quite a bit of common ground. I felt much closer to him that I was to the Communists around. But I still would argue with him like all hell.
I brought that up as an indication of the friendliness of the place. We never lost a close relationship, during that period. Later, I think my relationship with Luis got a little strained — during the Korean War or the McCarthy period, when the people at Berkeley went into hydrogen work, then —
Weart:— you were in the other —
Wilson:— yes — then I think our relationship did become quite strained. But during the time I was a student and for a long time afterwards my relationship to everybody there was very warm. And although we argued a lot, why, we would all go to DiBiasi’s parties and such, and everybody would go and have a good time together. Also, Ernest would take a group to his home, usually before the Monday evening Journal Club. He had a boat, and he was very good at inviting us to go with him on his boat.
Weart:You mentioned the Journal Club. Was there something special about the discussions that took place in the Journal Club?
Wilson:Oh, the Journal Club was real magic, and it was very special. It was part of a high tradition of physics. It was Ernest Lawrence's Journal Club, but everybody came. Oppenheimer came. It was Monday at maybe 8 o'clock, I've forgotten the exact time. Lawrence would usually have some students to his house, visitors, and everybody interested in nuclear physics and closely related subjects would come to the Journal Club.
Weart:What sorts of things were discussed? Was it mainly high-energy, nuclear physics?
Wilson:Ernest would sit at the front and Oppenheimer would sit next to him and Birge would sit close by and other members of the faculty would arrange themselves at the central table, and that also established some kind of a — where you sat at that table —
Weart:— pecking order —
Wilson:And then the hoi poloi, students, etc., would sit along the side. I remember the room very well, on the second floor of LeConte Hall, next to the library. It was always exciting. I don't know who arranged it, but I think Ernest would casually ask people to give a talk. Sometimes there'd be three or four speakers, sometimes only one, usually two or three. If there was a visitor, he would always be called upon to give a brief talk. And then there would be lots of discussion. Oppie [Oppenheimer] was very good at discussion, although he had his own seminar, but he always came and occasionally would give a short paper. Sometimes Ernest would casually assign to someone, you know, "Here's a paper, give a report on It," or "Report on your work."
Weart:Was it just nuclear and high-energy physics?
Weart:Or was it other —?
Wilson:— No, it was not. There was another Journal Club run by Loeb. There was a kind of a competition, and not such good feelings (although Loeb had brought Ernest Lawrence to Berkeley I understand from reading the history). By then, I think Loeb rather resented Ernest Lawrence, because he was getting all the attention and support. I never heard Ernest express an unfavorable sentiment about Loeb. Ernest was a very large-hearted person. He was not petty in any way that I can remember.
Weart:There was another question I wanted to ask you. Aside from Loeb, do you know of any other people in the physics department who felt jealousy, or felt the Rad Lab was wasting funds or whatever?
Wilson:I wouldn't have know it, if —
Weart:Loeb was the only one that you knew of.
Wilson:And I think that Brode, Jenkins, and White probably came to that Journal Club, although they were —
Weart:How did you know Loeb's feeling? Did he express it?
Wilson:I think perhaps he sometimes did. I used to play squash with him. I can't remember quite how I got the idea.
Weart:Did you have much other contact with people in the physics department, outside the Rad Lab?
Wilson:Well, Stirling Gerrill and Arthur Rip, who were students of Loeb, were good friends.
Weart:It was mainly the Rad Lab.
Wilson:Yes. Almost my whole life, after I was in the Lab — but on the other hand, Birge was very close to the Lab, and Oppenheimer would come into the Lab from time to time, so I knew him, though not well, and I would know various theoretical students.
Weart:I was going to ask, what kind of contacts you had with the theoretical group.
Wilson:Phil Morrison and Sid Dancoff became graduate students at the same time I did, and they were bright students. Because Oppenheimer had a great style, they adopted a great style. We were all teaching assistants, and we had offices with desks close together —
Weart:— in —?
Wilson:— in LeConte, and so we all became close friends. Morrison organized a Saturday afternoon meeting when we would listen to records, very highfalutin —
Weart:— much in Oppenheimer's style?
Wilson:Yes, as much as possible. We might drink a little wine, and listen to Bach. Always Bach. The B Minor [Suite]. I even bought the records, and I certainly got so I knew that backwards and forwards.
Weart:There are worse things.
Wilson:I still like it, as a matter of fact. But I don't think one of these times went by that we didn't play the B Minor Suite. It must have been a favorite of Oppie. So all of his students would come, in their grey suits and blue shirts and blue ties. Sometimes I wear a blue tie and a blue shirt to this day. Then they would say, "Ja, ja," the way Oppie did. He had just come back from Germany and he affected a German mode, he'd say, "Ja, ja," and all the students would say that, and they would all walk with their feet splayed out. It was fantastic how they emulated Oppie.
Weart:How did that group in general get along with Lawrence's group?
Wilson:Well, as say, we were all good friends.
Weart:Not just you, but other people in Lawrence's group also.
Wilson:Well, mostly the theory students had a style of their own, they were a separate group from the students in the Rad Lab. I think they somewhat disdained those of us who were working in the lab. I worked mostly at night, all night. They were more daytime people, although they were theorists. But we did have those Saturday soirees, except they were in the afternoon, but after the music, some kind of food, then some highfalutin conversation.
Weart:Would you talk physics?
Wilson:No. No, it was much more elegant.
Weart:Was there much physics talk between Oppenheimer's students and Lawrence's?
Wilson:Well, we were all in the same courses, so there was a lot of discussion about our classes and preparing for exams. So I'd say, there was quite a bit of give and take. We were all very close friends.
Weart:I see. Now, about the chemistry department, did any chemists come to either the Journal Club or to Oppenheimer's soirees?
Wilson:Oppenheimer didn't come to those. It was something we graduate students did.
Weart:Oh, I see, it wasn't at Oppenheimer's at all.
Wilson:Without Sid Dancoff and Phil Morrison, it wouldn't have been organized. I think it did have something to do with Oppenheimer, as a reflection of something he was doing. I was jealous because I was not one of the theory students. After you had been a student of Oppie's for a certain time, then you became a member of his circle. They would go off to fancy dinners with Oppie, and to his home, and they did social things. Some of the older people were married, and they lived a high kind of life that we would hear about. I looked at them with great envy and hoped to become a member of that clique somehow, but I never made it — nor would I have had the time if I had.
Weart:What about the Communist circles? Was there any overlapping here with Oppenheimer's people?
Weart:Or is this all the same people we're talking about?
Wilson:I think we're talking about all the same people, this small group. During the Spanish Civil War period, Oppie was doing a lot to raise money for them, and by his example — certainly it's all on the record that many of those people were members of the Communist Party. I assumed that he was a Communist, and I think they assumed he was, and when it turned out that he wasn't, I thought less of Oppenheimer than if it had turned out the other way around.
Wilson:I didn't, perhaps I didn't become a party member because was so anti. I wasn't — well, I was anti-Communist, yes.
Weart:I understand, you would argue with them.
Wilson:I think they would have considered me as a sort of an enemy, although as I say, Luis might have considered me a lost soul.
Weart:I see. What about the chemists? Did the physicists and the chemists get together much in general?
Wilson:No. I knew, for example, Seaborg, who was then a graduate student in chemistry. He and I were in the same course on vector analysis. He remembers that I was, and I remember him in that class. We knew each other vaguely.
Weart:I see, but not in terms of working?
Wilson:No, we didn't work together. Now, I knew Martin Kamen, but I always regarded him as a physicist. He worked completely in the laboratory, as far as I was concerned, and I considered him as a physicist. Held worked for Harkins — the inventor of the neutron. We heard about what a scoundrel Harkins was today [at the conference]. Kamen was always telling us about the University of Chicago and Harkins.
Weart:I see, people would be classified as a physicist or a chemist.
Weart:Now, you collaborated with Kamen on this probe?
Weart:What were the roles of the two of you?
Wilson:Well, Martin worked on the cyclotron crew. He was a member of the laboratory. But I suppose he was around primarily to do chemical things — the preparation of the targets, and he was working with me, because we had to put iron sulfide, for example, on the probe target. He would advise me how to prepare the material. I think I'd put a piece of iron on the probe, and then put some sulphur on, and get it hot, and turn it into iron sulfide. Then after the exposure I would unsolder it and give it to Martin, and Martin would do the chemistry to separate the iron from the phosphorus.
Weart:Was this a routine task, or did he make changes and introduce —?
Wilson:I don't really remember anything about the chemistry.
Weart:That was his job.
Wilson:I assumed at the time that it was perfectly routine, but I've learned subsequently that — later I tried to do some of those things myself and found that they were extremely complicated. So my guess was, he didn't make much of it. He was a man of great style himself. He spent much of his time with music, and was a kind of a Bohemian. He was just a marvelous warm person. We would make jokes as we did technical things. Both of us felt very, good that we were making a factor of ten on what anybody else was doing. We had beaten the establishment. We had our share of arrogance, both of us. Then he found Carbon-14, he just put some carbon on the probe and bombarded it.
Weart:On the probe?
Wilson:On the probe, and gave it a very long bombardment. He and another chemist (I've forgotten his name right now) were working on photosynthesis. They had the sense that Carbon-14 was going to be very important in photosynthesis. And they discovered Carbon-14. But they found it on my probe.
Weart:Now I want to ask you some questions about external relationships, foreign relationships. Did you attend any of the Pacific Section APS meetings? Were there other meetings that you went to that were important to you?
Wilson:Well, there was a meeting in Berkeley, when I believe I was an undergraduate, where I presented a paper on the time-lag of sparking. I must have gone to that. One of the things I guess I should mention about myself was, when I was a freshman, and I was still in the course of maturing — I hadn't reached my full height, I was late maturing — and somehow as a result of that, my blood system didn't quite catch up with the rest of my body. I don't know what it was. We all had to take ROTC, and when I'd be standing in a review at attention for quite a while, I would pass out.
Weart:The blood didn't get to your head?
Wilson:Something like that. And then I'd faint. Then I got so I would faint, or expect to faint, at the least sort of excitement. I recall one time, I think I fainted in a physics exam. I went through a period when I was afraid to be in crowds, or in a situation where I'd stand up for a long time, or where I had to give a talk.
Weart:Giving a talk. Sure.
Wilson:Oh, yes. And then when I did my time-lag of sparking, Loeb asked me to report on it at his Journal Club. Big moment. I was a senior, giving a talk to the Journal Club. And as I was giving the talk I realized that I was going to faint. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my life, as I was talking, knowing I was going to faint. What to do? Should I sit down and say, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't go on." I couldn't imagine that. I made the decision, I'd just see it through, because there was always the possibility it was psychological. Well, it wasn't psychological. I took a nose dive. And I woke up some time later in another room with both front teeth loose. So, I guess that's why, when you asked about the Physical Society, it reminded me. Because, although I had submitted a paper there, Professor Loeb gave the paper for me. I almost did not become a teaching assistant at U. of C. because of that incident. There were to be 27 teaching assistants, I think, and I was number 28 for a long time. In large part, they told me, because of the fact that I'd passed out. They were worried about my health.
Weart:I see. Well, how were you supported then, during this time?
Wilson:Well, I moved from 28 to 27. I was the last person to become a teaching assistant, as I recall.
Weart:I see, and then later you got a scholarship.
Wilson:Then I was a teaching assistant. My health got better and better. But I carried that fear of fainting through the rest of my life. Whenever I give a talk to this day, I go through a crisis where I have to worry about, "Am I going to pass out?" I never have since then. Was it physiological or psychological? I don't know.
Weart:I know someone that it happened to, during his doctoral examination. He passed out cold. You can imagine.
Wilson:To return to your question, there were a number of meetings. I remember the one at which I was supposed to give a paper, and I'm pretty sure that I had an abstract in, and that would have been in 1936.
Weart:I wonder whether any of these meetings were important to you in terms of meeting people, getting information?
Weart:Then your information came from being at the Rad Lab or —
Wilson:The Journal Club was the — that Journal Club, really, it was exciting. Ed McMillan would give papers on Rabi's results. Anything that was happening that was in the PHYSICAL REVIEW or not in the PHYSICAL REVIEW... Fermi came, he'd speak briefly. It was a place for outstanding scholars who visited. You would see and hear them there. Also, of course, there was the Colloquium, where more formal talks were given by visitors from all over. Between the two, one could keep pretty up-to-date.
Weart:— I see. Did you speak up? Did the other younger students speak up? Or were you there listening?
Wilson:I think we were there mostly listening, although occasionally — I remember, on one occasion — this had to do with ion focusing — Oppenheimer was giving a lecture on the motion of the particle in a non-homogeneous magnetic field. He spoke for half an hour at least, making a very complicated derivation of how it was that an ion, if it went into the field, would come out with exactly the same angle but in a reflected direction. As he was talking, I had an inspiration. I realized that the particle went into the field and at some place, in a field of radial symmetry, it's going to become perpendicular to the radius from the center of symmetry. If you then reverse the motion of it, of course, it would come back over the same path. Therefore, the path that was reflected would come out on an angle about that radius. So after Oppie had spent half an hour or so proving with the use of the most fancy mathematics, Lagrangiuns and so on — I interrupted with, "Well, it's obvious that it would do that," and then I pointed out the above very simple argument. And of course, was pretty proud of myself.
Weart:You began to see that you could do theory?
Wilson:That sort of thinking gave me the confidence to know that fancy mathematics was not always necessary; if you thought hard about a problem, you could frequently see a trick.
Weart:That's been your approach since then.
Wilson:That's almost always been my approach, to try to find some physical picture that would circumvent the mathematics.
Weart:Some sort of physical view.
Wilson:A physical view — a way of thinking about a subject —
Weart:As you described this to me, you had your hands up gesturing and it's clear that you were visualizing it.
Wilson:Yes. When I do theoretical work, I do visualize. In the case I was speaking of that did a world of good for me. First of all, I'm pretty sure I did speak up. And secondly, the drama of giving a one-sentence proof that replaced Oppie's whole seminar, gave me added confidence. Of course, that was not fair, because he was doing all kinds of things, and I suppose to him having to think mathematically about a subject was as obvious as thinking concisely and visually. [Laughter] But to me, he was being too formal about something obvious — and I am afraid a great deal of his work was characterized that way, by being fancy. I know that Fermi once told me that on a trip to Berkeley he'd been invited to Oppie's seminar, because they were talking about beta decay. He went, sat there — and he told me he really didn't understand what they were talking about.
Weart:To get back to these contacts and so forth, I'm interested in what interactions there may have been around California. Do you recall any contacts with Lauritsen, Hansen, the Varians, Millikan, Pauling, any other Cal Techers, or Stanford?
Wilson:Well, people from Stanford, Felix Bloch for example, would come to Berkeley frequently. For a while he was doing an experiment on the magnetic moment of the neutron with Luis Alvarez. Many others from Stanford would attend the Theory Seminar.
Weart:The Stanford people would?
Wilson:The Stanford people would come to Oppenheimer's seminar. I remember once Ernest, when I was a student, picked me and said, "Come on, Bob, let's go to the Theory Seminar." Perhaps I demured but he said, "Look, just do it for the laughs." "We won't understand a word," he said, "but it's good for you to hear what the theorists are talking about. So I went with him, and I didn't understand a word. When we came out he said he didn't understand a word either. "But," he added, "that's part of a physicists life, and you ought to attend occasionally." He was giving me some fatherly advice. I would not go every time, but I did go occasion ally. It was always a good idea, because you'd get a flavor of what was going on, of what was important.
Weart:Sometimes you get a feeling.
Wilson:Because I get a feeling for what's exciting, and maybe think about a theoretical problem myself for a bit. Or, sometimes, it was like going to Quaker Church, where you just sit and think.
Weart:— in the virtuous atmosphere. Did you have any contact with the program at Stanford where Hansen was working on I believe —
Wilson:I am sure the older people did, but I was just a student.
Weart:Did you go to Stanford?
Wilson:I went at least once to Stanford, probably more than that, to a Physical Society meeting that was held there.
Weart:Not specifically to visit the people at Stanford?
Wilson:No, I didn't know them that well. I also remember Frank Oppenheimer coming up from Stanford and being around the lab a bit, and I may have met him. He was a research associate or an instructor. Then Willy Fowler would come to the Lab. He was very exuberant, just as he is now. I think we called him Sunny Boy.
Wilson:Even more exuberant, yes.
Weart:Hard to imagine.
Wilson:And it was always such a great pleasure to be with him. His good humor and excitement about physics was infectious.
Weart:I see. Did Cal Tech seem to you to be a place as important as Berkeley?
Wilson:Well, Robert [Oppenheimer] would go down. There was always the time when held make the trip, a part of a semester. Then when he came back it was a big occasion. Then the people from Cal Tech would come up. I remember mostly Willy Fowler, maybe Lauritsen. They would come up and give seminars and colloquia.
Weart:So it seemed like an important place.
Wilson:And then they'd be around the Laboratory. So, yes. We were aware of them, they would talk about their results — and then everybody would gather around in knots and discuss it. I was more of a listener. I always felt a little on the outside of those discussions, because they were older, and more sophisticated. Three years older maybe.
Weart:I see. In your twenties, that's a lot older.
Wilson:Yes — they were research associates, I was a student.
Weart:What did you know about work at other places? For example, Lee Dubridge's group at Rochester? Or Joliot?
Wilson:Dubridge came and worked in the Lab, so he would report on his work. He was a very nice man. He liked to work with students so he'd sit and talk. I'd have long discussions with him. He was intrinsically a teacher, you know, a man who wanted to talk and teach. So held tell us about the work he was doing there. Many people were around as visitors, and they'd come and work for, you know, a sabbatical, or —
Weart:Were you expected to do anything particular for visitors or visiting firemen?
Wilson:Might show them around. But not particularly. But you would automatically — they'd be sitting there — the thing was, to strike up a conversation. They'd ask questions. It was just part of the atmosphere to be open, and we felt great pride in the Laboratory. So I would think that I would have considered it just natural to talk about it. And I was passionately interested in physics, interested to learn what they were doing. They'd probably have to encourage me before I'd talk to them.
Weart:Now you're rather outgoing and so forth, but you were not that at the time?
Wilson:No, not as much.
Weart:That came later?
Wilson:I was shy. But once I got to know someone —
Weart:— once you got started —
Wilson:— I was hard to stop.
Weart:I understand. Well, OK, to get back then to your own scientific work — you did the theory of the cyclotron. That was a continuing development of your measurements and so forth.
Wilson:I did that for a couple of years, and then once the probes became routine, I began to work on proton-proton.
Weart:On proton-proton scattering. I wonder, how did this come about, that you got into proton-proton scattering?
Wilson:Well, in the first place, I really was interested in physics. And to me the theory of the cyclotron was not physics. I considered that as I considered any work on the cyclotron, that it wasn't physics. Physics was what we were to do with it. So I had to do a thesis, and I thought, "What's the most fundamental problem?” It was banging two protons together and seeing what they did.
Weart:This was just out of the genera talk that had been going on around there?
Wilson:Yes. Well, that was what Milt White had been doing and there was the experiment of Tuve and Hafstad that had been reported at the Journal Club. There was also an experiment by Kerst and Herb and associates at Wisconsin, very accurate measurements. They, as well as Tuve, really had measured what the nuclear force between two protons was. My attitude was to do a simple and direct experiment, measure the force, and then apply the measurements to nuclear theory.
Weart:In your paper you have S wave and P wave and so forth. You have to have that much theory.
Wilson:Oh, yes. But that's part of the experiment. You have to work up the data, and to analyze it. That's where the phase shifts of the partial waves come in. But that's part of the experiment.
Weart:I see. Did you have to get any special funding for this?
Wilson:No. I stated to Ernest Lawrence that I wanted to work on proton-proton scattering for my thesis. So he said, "That's a very ambitious work." He wondered if I could do it. I said, "Well, I think I can do it." That was the end of it. He said, "OK, why don't you give it a try?" And from then on I was on my own. Now, I was lucky in that two people had been working on that problem before me. One was Ken Green, later of Brookhaven, who was visiting from Illinois for some time, and another was Sam Simmons, who was doing that as a thesis.
Wilson:At Berkeley. Both of them were quite a bit older than I. So they had built a scattering chamber, a chamber with a glass cover over it and a graduated dial, with an oil seal, not a sliding seal. They were starting to do this problem, and they had an ionization chamber mounted so it could be placed at various angles as indicated by the graduated dial. Well, just as they were getting ready to do the experiment, fission was discovered, and they both decided to measure fission pulses induced by neutrons. They did and they saw the pulses. They used almost all of their equipment except the scattering chamber. But as they went to follow this will-o-the-wisp fission –- so I considered it — I thought, "That's not fundamental physics." Personally I took a very snooty attitude towards fission.
Weart:Well, t wasn't fundamental physics.
Wilson:Perhaps that was debatable, especially just at that time. It was interesting of course and exciting, but it wasn't physics, to me.
Weart:Let me interrupt to ask you, because it's always interesting to ask everybody, when did you hear first about the discovery of fission?
Wilson:Oh, I remember that very well.
Weart:Everybody remembers that very well.
Wilson:Absolutely. Apart from radio and rough newspaper accounts, it was at a Monday Journal Club, and Phil Abelson gave a report. It must have been within days. And he had been bombarding — as I told you earlier — uranium and measuring the products. He made an impassioned denial that it could possibly be that way. His measurements seemed to confirm what Fermi believed he had found.
Wilson:Transuranic elements. He had no evidence for the other lighter elements. And he just insisted that it was false. He went right down with all flags flying. Other people were arguing very hotly against him, and he stubbornly stuck to his guns. He came around, I think, in a few days.
Weart:— he'd almost had it.
Wilson:He got hung up, as I recall, on making a bent-crystal spectrometer to measure the characteristic x-rays and never made a definite determination of the daughter products of the reaction. Had he worked just a little faster, then he would have definitely been the discoverer of fission. It showed, at least, that the right problems were being worked on in the Lab.
Weart:Was there much talk of practical applications in physics during that first year there?
Wilson:Before the discovery of fission, no. After fission there was immediately talk about the practical application to some kind of an energy machine.
Weart:To get back to what you were starting to say about the proton-proton scattering; so there was a scattering chamber left over?
Wilson:Yes, so I had that piece of equipment. The beam of the cyclotron was not considered adequate for the scattering problem, because it was too inhomogeneous. It had a 20 percent energy [inhomogeneity] and here we were in competition with Van de Graaf with one-tenth of one percent resolution. So what I did was to put in a number of slits in the fringe field of the magnet to define the energy. And then I led the beam out through the slits to where the scattering chamber was located. Then I had a wonderful idea, an inspiration, of using two counters and simultaneously detecting both the scattered particle and the recoil particle. That was an original idea for me.
Weart:Is that so?
Wilson:Yes. It came to me as a big inspiration.
Wilson:And a coincidence circuit between them.
Weart:I noticed that in the paper, but of course to me it seemed like such an old hat thing — I didn't realize that that was a new thing at the time.
Wilson:No, I don't know that anybody in nuclear physics was doing any coincidence work. I know I had to build that coincidence circuit. Someone at Cambridge, was it Blackett or Champion(?), had done coincidence measurements, and so had cosmic ray physicists — but I was not aware of their work then.
Weart:But not this kind of thing.
Wilson:Not this kind, as far as know. This was something unique.
Weart:I see. Already it's almost an embryo of what we have now. There's an embryo switchyard and so forth, where you have the little slits.
Wilson:Perhaps. I remember telling Ernest that his cyclotron was going to be a precision instrument. He didn't believe me. He said, "No, it will never be a precision instrument, it's only good for making radioactive isotopes and that kind of problem."
Weart:Really, is that what he said?
Wilson:Something of that kind, yes.
Weart:He didn't think it was suitable for —
Wilson:— he didn't think of it as being competitive for that kind of high-precision measurement. It never was, as a matter of fact. He was right.
Weart:I see. But he thought it was useful for fundamental physics?
Wilson:Oh, yes, fundamental physics, but of a different kind, and things for which high intensity was appropriate. With the defining slits, I had to throw away most of the Intensity, and I don't think he liked that. To him the cyclotron was — he always had a big thing about intensity, compared to the other machines. Somehow he didn't like the idea of throwing away intensity. Also, because of my cyclotron studies, I knew that if you put the ion source in just the right place, you could make the energy more homogeneous and still have good intensity. So I thought I knew how to get around that problem too.
Weart:OK. So then you began making measurements, and you sort of got the P wave. You began to see —
Wilson:I began to look for the P wave. Now, that was to be my thesis, but I didn't finish it.
Weart:Right, so formally your thesis is the theory of the cyclotron.
Wilson:It became evident that wasn't going to make it — and in spite of my efforts.
Weart:Because you were scheduled to go to Princeton?
Wilson:Yes. I'd gotten the instructorship at Princeton, and I thought I would have the thesis finished and the measurement made before leaving, but I didn't. The cyclotron had broken down. I battled right up to the last hour. I was going to get married before leaving for Princeton, and I remember Lorenzo Emo was my crew the last night. So there was a formal system — here was I, a miserable graduate student, and I could tell Count Emo Capodulista what to do. We planned to work all night. I had to get the whole system, the cyclotron — Emo was not much account. He was a no-count Count when it came to running the cyclotron. He was a very wonderful man, and even a pretty good physicist, but for running the cyclotron —. So I was rushing about trying to do everything. I had my equipment all set for the experiment, trying to make a run. Then I had to get the cyclotron going. Well, one thing after another fell apart. At about 4 o'clock in the morning, Emo, said, "Bob, I'm going over to the Faculty Club. I'll be back in just a minute." He came back pretty soon, and he had a big bottle of Scotch whiskey. He put it on the control table, and he said, "Look, you're going to get married soon. This is a hopeless fight. Why don't we just celebrate a bit instead, life is to be enjoyed." Well, as the spirit of physics ran out of me, a spirit of humanness ran back in. We both took tumblers which he poured full of whiskey. Then we drank to life, to love, even to physics — and we drank enough to ease the pain of failure. I was a little late to the marriage ceremony, for which Jane has never quite forgiven me — but that, too, was a beginning of a beautiful life together. Emo was right, physics isn't everything.
Weart:Well, it's the end of our tape, end of your experiment, end of the Berkeley period.... What do you say we call it quits.
R. R. Wilson, “My Fight Against Team Research,” DAEDALUS, Fall 1970 THE MAKING OF MODERN SCIENCE: BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES.
Wilson and Littauer, ACCELERATORS, p. 98.
Hans Bethe; at the Conference on History of Nuclear Physics, University of Minnesota.
Wilson, “Very Short Time-Lag of Sparking.” PHYS. REV. 50 (1936), p. 1082-88.
Wilson, “Focusing in the Cyclotron,” PHYS. REV. 51 (1938), p. 408-420. See also, J. APPL. PHYS. 11 (1940), 781-796.
Herbert Childs, AN AMERICAN GENIUS. THE LIFE OF E. O. LAWRENCE. Actually, the story is in N. P. Davis, LAWRENCE AND OPPENHEIMER, p. 72.
Wilson, “Vacuum-tight Sliding Seal,” REV. SCI. INSTRUM. 12 (1941), p. 91-93.
Parties were held a few times a year, or when there was something to celebrate, at DiBiasi’s Restaurant in El Cerito – R. W.
Sometimes spelled O-p-j-e by the very in, but not by me! – R. W.
American Physical Society
Abraham Rosenberg Research Fellowship (1939-40)
See Wilson and E. Creutz, “Proton-proton Scattering at 8 MeV,” PHYS. REV. 71 (1947), p. 339-48; Wilson, “Range and Ionization Measurements on High Speed Protons,” PHYS. REV. 60 (1941), p. 749-53.