Oral History Transcript — Dr. Walter Elsasser
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Walter Elsasser; November 21, 1985
ABSTRACT: Focused interview on Elsasser’s career in the United States. His decision to emigrate, 1935; on choosing geophysics; California Institute of Technology (Robert Millikan, Theodore von Karman), 1936-1940; connection between meteorology and work in magnetism; inception of the idea of the dynamo effect (Albert Einstein).
Aaserud:We're in Walter Elsasser's office, the 21st of November 1985, and what I want to concentrate on is your period in the United States, essentially, since this is a limited interview anyway.
When I came here, I had been in Paris doing nuclear physics and I had discovered the nuclear shells. But this was a very bad time to do that, because Bohr had just developed the liquid drop model of the nucleus and so people didn't pay much attention to this, and in fact I remember a one a [???] Mr. George Gamow appeared, that must have been late in ’35 or early in ’36, and I meet the organizers of the colloquium in Paris, who wanted to find out what was going on in Copenhagen. Gamow came to him. And so he gave a talk, and Gamow was there. I would describe him a type of Russian peasant, very emotional, very vital, and very great. He talked and naturally, after he had told us all about Bohr these ideas of the liquid drop model of the nucleus, also, we also got to talk about my shells. He was clearly implying a discovery. It was very clear that it was not explicable under knowledge that then existed.
So I talked with Gamow about it in front of the assembled; French physics, equations physique, and he said “That’s all nonsense, of course, we know that Bohr, the great Bohr, has said the nucleus is a liquid drop without structure. And so this is absolute nonsense.” He wouldn’t discuss any facts.
And the French are too skeptical a bunch of people to be taken in by that. But still, these things may make it more difficult to be recognized.
Aaserud:Yes, even people who worked with Bohr during that period, I think, recognize now that Bohr’s power in this matter was a little too strong and that it took too long for the shells to be realized.
Elsasser:Well, it was a matter of approximation. It was a perfectly good approximation. But who said that you can’t have two approximations? Of course, Gamow can't take two approximations. His mind isn't structured that way.
Aaserud:Could you say something about what made you decide to emigrate? You had a rather firm position in Paris at the time.
Elsasser: I had a firm position, but — yes, it was firm, essentially France such things are permanent, you know, it means really permanent. It’s not like in the United States when another administration comes in that you go out. But I felt that, with my Jewish background, that it was just a matter of time before there would be a major conflict.
Aaserud:You did feel that.
Elsasser:Oh yes. Also, that I had to make a decision, either to really become a Frenchman, sit down and learn the French language from the beginning, — you can't live in France and be half a Frenchman — and gradually learn everything from Charlemagne on down the line to present day France.
Aaserud:Yes. It's a very well developed culture in that sense.
Elsasser: Oh, it's an extremely well-defined culture, and the people seem very critical about that too, and I felt that unless I do something very specific about that, also marry into a French family, I hadn’t got a chance of making a career in France.
So I managed to get an American immigration visa, and that was in 1935. I spent two summer months in this country. And it was still depression and everybody was totally negative, "Oh, you won’t get any jobs.” I was very reserved because I thought it would have been indecent to my French friends who protected me to say I was an unemployed refugee. I wasn't, you see. And on this basis couldn’t get a job.
Then I decided, if you have seen my memoirs you might remember there is a statement when Max Born declared that my strength was mostly in the conceptual, not in the mathematical, that was always true. I spent months and months trying to learn for [???] [???] matrix algebra, [???] matrixes, and I just didn't succeed.
It didn’t become natural to me. I decided, my defect was in mathematics, and I was too old to change that. I would have to start from 13 again. And I had been in; I learned later, the so-called humanistic gymnasium in Germany. I learned later that the other people learned mathematics.
Actually, I learned calculus when I was 17 on my own at the urging of my mathematics teacher. But it wasn’t quite enough. So I felt I'd have to do something more around the conceptual side.
Aaserud:But to come back to your decision to go to the United States, you had several possibilities in your earlier career. You could have stayed in Russia, for example, and you could have stayed in —
Elsasser:— no, I almost died in Russia. I got sick. I got quite sick, and it was a miracle to me that I got out with my life.
Aaserud:Yes, I remember reading about that. You maintained your — you could have gone back if you had wanted to.
Elsasser: Oh yes. Oh yes. I mean, I was in good company.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, So that you had —
It was involved. It was also that I had been part of a very respectable bourgeois family, they had quite a bit of money, which was all lost during the First World War. I was brought up in a slightly pampered bourgeois style and my father always told me “All you have to do is to concern yourself with making money,” which is a silly ideal, because everybody has to concern oneself with that. But he said, "You do your professional work in society," that was the old style in Germany, enormous mode of thought in Germany.
Aaserud:But he supported your decision to do physics?
Elsasser:He had no objections. No. He never opposed it.
Aaserud:What I was going to ask was, did you feel a closer affinity to the United States culturally, at that time, as compared to France or compared to the Soviet Union?
Elsasser: Well, I would think that I felt a strong cultural affinity to the French, but that wasn’t quite enough, but from the practical end one must…it isn’t enough to have an affinity.
Aaserud:I would have to learn English too, how was your English at that time?
Elsasser:I learned English in high school, but it was not compulsory, it was voluntary.
Aaserud:And French too, correct?
Elsasser:Oh, French was compulsory, yes. I knew French tolerably well.
Aaserud:You had a better background in French than English.
Elsasser:But English is so much easier to learn, you see. English has very few nuances. French has lots of them. This is something that it is almost impossible to explain to an outsider.
Aaserud:The transition to the United States coincides with the transition from physics to geophysics.
Elsasser: Right, to geophysics.
Aaserud:First to metrology I believe, could you say something?
Elsasser:I always thought of that as a branch of geophysics.
Aaserud:Yes. Yes. Right. But was that, did that come out of necessity, or did it come out of a change of a change of interest?
Elsasser:No, from, it just came out because several people in the U.S. who were very prominent in the A.H. Compton conferences. So long as there’s a depression in this country
the impression in this country that it still wasn't clarified. You can't take any outsiders and they didn’t realize what was going on...in Germany.
Aaserud:In Chicago, yes, yes. I remember you wrote about that. So in that sense it was about — but you didn't find the transition too hard to make either, as I understood it. You were genuinely interested in this matter.
Elsasser:Yes, well, maybe I should add something that isn't in the —
Elsasser:Since I was a boy in high school certainly, as a student… my fellow students always used to tease me, saying, "You are so darned versatile." Now, I don't know, I never made any effort to be versatile. And I don't know anything about it or thought anything about it, but every once in a while, I came to that remark in a discussion (how easy a thing it was) (?), "You are so darned versatile.” So eventually, I think, mostly from my year in Paris, I got the idea that I could make a virtue out of this deficiency, being versatile, and become a generalist instead of a specialist. And that was one of the reasons the department of geophysics, because that seemed to be a large field, and of all the other…ever since then I have been a physicist interested in very complicated systems and I think that's the key to my whole scientific work.
Aaserud:Yes, I mean, the question of entering geophysics as opposed to basic physics or whatever, that was on your mind before your move to the United States?
Elsasser: Oh yes, as a matter of fact, something to put into memoirs, I had made the acquaintance who lived in Pasadena a man I worked with, Jesse Dumonde. Do you know him?
Aaserud:I think I've heard the name.
Elsasser:He was independently wealthy man, and that prevented him for many years from becoming a professor, because he settled down in Pasadena, decided [???] the faculty, they didn't like that, you know, but I got to know him, and the first man he introduced me to was Linus Pauling, and Linus Pauling had heard about me and he offered me a job. It's not in my memoirs.
Aaserud:— I think it is. I think you say that that was your wisest decision in life, to refuse that offer.
Elsasser:Yes, I still think so. It saved my life and permitted me to reach my…
Aaserud:Yes, I remember reading that, you did mention that. Yes, yes.
I do mention that then I was introduced to Millikan, and Millikan told me flatly right away “Look here we have so many atomic and nuclear physicists and that competence we could not use you…? "So I said, "Well, I have been interested in geophysics. How would geophysics be?"
FinnYou took the initiative in asking that. It did not come out of Millikan.
Elsasser:Yes. No, it didn't come out of Millikan. But what came out of Millikan was a power of assessment [???]. He liked the idea. Of course I later found out, I think that’s in my memoirs, that he had been director of the Signal Cross labs during the First World War, and that at that time he had found out that there was nothing on the from Kentucky colonels...around (?) that somehow that was about it.
Aaserud:Yes. A lot of things had happened in the meantime, of course. There was the Oak Ridge group in Norway.
Elsasser:Yes. So he was very interested. He said, "I'll find some way of supporting you if you do that."
Aaserud:Did you have that idea about infra-red meteorology already at that stage of did that come gradually?
Elsasser:That came because that was the — no, I thought that up. Because I thought, I did know after all quantum mechanics, I thought I knew it pretty darn well, and so I decided, since the meteorologists I found out, after some reading, understood nothing of what was going on in the infra-red, that might be a good thing to do, because I knew it was spectroscopy or could easily learn it and the meteorologists had a hard time planning hand spectra and things like that. And that impressed Millikan, and he arranged for the contract, the contract was to begin with the department of agriculture because the Bureau of Weather was with the DOA and was later shifted to the Department of Commerce.
Aaserud:You had that idea already at your first meeting with Millikan? You presented that idea about?
Elsasser:Geophysical, I didn't know what it would be — oh, meteorology, yes, came up, because that was a very difficult situation. Because Millikan and von Carman were always fighting with each other.
Yes. That was one of the stories behind your departure; we can come back to that. I would like to talk a little bit more about your experience at the Cal Tech generally speaking. Did you have contact with meteorologists?
Elsasser:There was just one meteorologist.
He was I think an associate professor and he ran the meteorology department. What they called the meteorology department. That was then (or was not) an important operation, because there were 20 or 30 officer candidates that had been detailed to Cal Tech to learn weather forecasting, and so just shut up and there was no , it was not easy to — My English was poor, and the work was very patriotic, they viewed me with great suspicion at first. For six months nobody talked to me.
Aaserud:But Millikan was behind you.
Elsasser:I knew that Millikan was behind me.
Aaserud:Did that relationship improve while you were at Cal Tech, your relationship with the meteorologists?
Elsasser:No, it was not with the meteorologists. It was with the students, the future weather officers.
Aaserud:Ah, yes, I see.
Elsasser:The meteorology — there was only one, the whole staff was one man.
Elsasser:And he was a strictly commercially oriented individual. He had a done a very brilliant thing. He had developed a method of forecasting when the sky cleared in Hollywood.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, you said that, That was the basis for his fortune.
Elsasser:That made his fortune, yes, and his reputation too. But then von Carman always tried to get me to become a...hydro dynamicist (?).
And that I wasn't willing to do. There was no point. I had no quantum mechanics and I was "versatile," and I didn't see any reason why I should become a specialist.... offered me a living but…
Aaserud:But did you find interest in your work outside Cal Tech? Did you correspond with people?
Elsasser:Only in a very narrow field, I corresponded with a couple of people, not — it was very narrow.
Yes. That's another thing to come back to, your correspondence I mean, there's a lot of interesting references there. About your — well, in particular, for example, your correspondence with Ehrenfest, that stands out as very interesting.
Elsasser:I never had any correspondence with Ehrenfest.
Aaserud:When he wrote you an invitation —
Elsasser:Oh, yes, he wrote me a letter of invitation, but I am very sure, it was Robert Oppenheimer was behind it. How should Ehrenfest know about me?
Elsasser:I'm quite sure that Robert Oppenheimer wrote that. At that time he liked me. He disliked me later, among other things as a geophysicist. He once asked me... "Are you so serious with this stuff?" I said, "Oh yes."
Aaserud:So he didn't approve of that.
Elsasser:Oh, he didn't approve of that. He said he'd block me and he did. I never thought — I saw him a month before his death. He was quite sick and I saw him once in —?
Aaserud:And after Cal Tech you, it was, could you say something about the circumstances leading to your departure from Cal Tech, or how?
Elsasser:Oh, that was a grave big mess. I think it’s getting too…complicated…There was a character named Rossby.
Aaserud:Yes, I have heard of him, the meteorologist.
Elsasser:Yes, the meteorologist.
He was a Swede, you know. He had great ambitions. He wanted to become the greatest meteorologist. And one day, I was in Washington, 1941, (not much to put that on the record, I don't think I ever) — one day he, I was in Washington, and he invited me to a very fancy thing, wine and what have you, and of course I knew there must be some reason for that, and pretty soon the reason came out and explained to me that he was at that time assistant of Weather Bureau, and had wanted to become director. He said, it hadn't, the Navy had pushed in their own men, they were much better than Rossby. More down to earth. Rossby said I am in charge of all the Weather Bureau for the United States, and "I need some assistance, I need a deputy on the West Coast. And I've decided to make you my deputy."
Oh yes. (Crosstalk). You do say — yes. You got that offer, yes.
Elsasser:So I didn't like that at all, I didn't want to be deputy director of Meteorology.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, that goes against your natural philosophy and inclination.
That's one thing I didn't want. But then this guy asked, we talked for a long time, and he told von Carman, "Your meteorologist is no good. You have this commercial character there. Throw him out and make Elsasser the director, to head up the meteorology department."
Elsasser:Well, that was just what von Carman was looking for. He went back and went straight to Millikan and told him the whole story.
Aaserud:He thought that you had gone to Rossby for your own reasons?
Elsasser:I don't know what you mean.
Aaserud:What do you mean by saying that it was exactly what von Carman was looking for?
Elsasser: Well, he said, "I can't have this man, he wants to conspire to take over the meteorology department, I can't have that kind of political intrigue in my division," you see.
Yes. Yes, so he was. (crosstalk).
Elsasser:"He has to be gotten rid of."
So a few weeks later, three or four weeks later, I thought my contract was continuing as usual, but three or four weeks later I went to Millikan's office, saw the secretary I was on good terms with her. "Well, you'd better talk to Dr. Millikan about that," so I did, and he said, "Look, I'm very sorry but you have been fired."
Aaserud:In those words?
Elsasser:I don't know whether he used those words or not, but that was the idea.
Elsasser:He was very nice about it, very fine... It was just a…Naturally he realized that I was a victim of this struggle that this can happen. It was just one of those things that happen. Millikan had pushed me hard, tried to push me ahead, and then this guy messed up the whole story, based on the idea that , the silly statement, saying that I , the great chief of meteorology, want you to reorganize the department, and of course you know how academics react to these demands. I was quite innocent, I mean, I didn't know what was going on. I should have known. I mean, I should have — but that's the kind of thing that you only learn by experience.
Aaserud:Right, right. Had you had connections with von Carman before?
Oh yes, I was technically in his department, that's the meteorology place...[???]
Elsasser:That was alright so long as I kept quiet. But when somebody comes from the outside and says “Look here make Elsasser head of the meteorology department, he knew and Milliken knew that this was, this was the end.
Aaserud:Yes. How was the relationship between von Carman and Millikan?
I mean, I don't know what their personal relations were, but there was always this sort of — von Carman had very little money from Cal Tech. And they always had these big contracts with the Aircraft Industry…and of course, Millikan didn't like that. He liked to have men that he could control to some extent.
Elsasser:And of course, — Unless he had absolute confidence in somebody like Pauling, who could...Carman was a very [???] character.
Elsasser:And my impression of him is that he was quite cynical and that didn’t go to well with Millikan. Millikan was quite a… much an idealist.
Aaserud:Yes, both strong personalities.
Elsasser:Both very strong personalities, and almost always... [???] So I was just, I was just the victim of that. But then, it had a good end, because very soon thereafter, I got this job in the Signal Corps. I had worked with the man who had been director of the Signal Corps… and so this way, I —
Aaserud:Yes, that was your next job. Where did you physically move to after California?
Elsasser:I moved to the Jersey coast the Signal Corps later.
Aaserud:And how long were you there?
Elsasser:Later on I moved to the defense research organization located in the Empire State Building. I helped to do this in connection with the weather with radar.
Aaserud:Yes, yes. You worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
Aaserud:No, OK, that's, you went directly —
Elsasser:— I went there for liaison purposes.
Yes, right, so that you were at Cal Tech from '36, yes, to '40.
Aaserud:Yes, I have it here.
Elsasser:… Pearl Harbor
To ‘41, it says here '36 to '41, it says here, yes, and then research associate, Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory.
Aaserud:Oh, that was just after their throwing me out at — I wrote to this man at Blue Hill and he found me money and I had to survive.
Elsasser:Until the Signal Corps came along. By that time, there was no problem, for a man in physics and meteorology to find a job.
Aaserud:That was your war experience?
Elsasser:That was my war experience.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, and then it says, a member of the Radio Wave Propogation Committee.
Elsasser:Yes, that was the last one.
Aaserud:That was the last one, it was after the Signal Corps. Then you had a…
Aaserud:OK, and then you returned, again your mode of work, you worked on the dynamo effect.
Elsasser:Yes, this is my main achievement. Again, I'm sorry to say, I missed out on the mathematics. I could not even find the basic theorem of flux conservation.
Aaserud:Yes, OK, of the Nobel Prize for.
Elsasser:Yes. I don't know that he got it just for that.
Elsasser:Some other things. And I just couldn't handle the mathematics of it. I couldn't and I really made the effort, spent five or six months on it. It just ... my mathematics.
Aaserud:But at the surface that's very different from your meteorology work, on the surface. More profoundly it isn't, and you say you have a lot of, you learned a lot from y our meteorological experience that you could employ on your work with the earth's magnetic field.
Oh yes, the variations, I mean, anybody agrees...I could not have developed these ideas, the dynamo theory —
Aaserud:How did the transition occur and when from your interest in meteorology to your interest in the magnetic field and its variations?
Elsasser:Oh, but that's still closely connected, there's no transition.
Aaserud:No? You would put it that way?
Elsasser:No, I would say, just looking at these maps, of the earth's magnetic field, which were then found by a man by the name of [???] I think I mentioned him ... you would see that — he died many years ago — you would see that this was the way of the magnetic —
Aaserud:— yes —
Elsasser:There was no problem with the magnetic. The problem was to interpret it in detail.
Where and how did you get exposed to these maps? What made you look at those? Was that something that came naturally or ?
Elsasser: I don't know, presumably he sent it to me.
Aaserud:Yes, so you had a relationship with him?
Oh yes, I had contact with him, yes. We were in contact. He told me, see this map here, — I think that's, how it was — and you couldn't have any doubt that this was a weather map for the earth’s liquid core. You just couldn't — so that's the thing, it was just to work out the details and the mathematics. The dynamo theory.
Aaserud:Yes. Tell me, you had had a long standing interest in this problem?
Elsasser:Well, I remember when I got involved in it, in the late 30’s. I began to think of it. It was just made for me, because it was actually so much of a problem with epistomology at that time. Because Einstein declared, you know, that this was a fundamental phenomenon, this magnetism — and I, later on when I got some [???] Heisenberg? He said, "You must tell Einstein about this answer, this is —" eventually he talked me into making an appointment to Einstein, and nothing was achieved by that.
Aaserud:He disagreed essentially with your ideas?
Yes, he disagreed, and to the extent, I ran again into Landenberg Heisenberg, and I asked him what did Einstein say, and he said that "He doesn't believe your stuff because you say the earth's magnetic field is a complicated phenomenon, and he says it's basically simple and you can't explain simple things by complicated theories."
Elsasser:If he'd ever looked at restings (?) on the map, he would have realized that it was — he was talking nonsense, he didn't know what he was talking about. I mean Albert Einstein, —
Yes, well, I mean, he had that general approach. (crosstalk).
Elsasser:He had the general philosophy, yes.
Aaserud:So you think that this epistemological basis of your thinking was of great importance in forming his [???] work and his ideas on that problem and also your decision to go into this?
Elsasser:Oh yes, I always had an interest in epistomology and well, after that, it went fairly easily. It was soon recognized I had this struggle with the Britishers. Because the Britishers think that the earth’s magnetism are private hunting domain for Britishers. And it is an old tradition from Gilbert since the year 1600, and so, that…
Did you encounter more and more explicit statements to that effect? Of British physicists ? That they kind of resented —
— well, not explicitly, people aren't that explicit , but somebody… a guy named Bullock, considerate man, he was quite a significant name, and he was apparently of a family that was very rich.. and he was a … He was later, became director of the National Physics Laboratories, and one of his main papers, he quotes me, in a little footnote, a little line on the second page, and he never quotes my name and text, and... the mathematics I had concocted. He gave the impression that I did — without ever giving the impression that I did it —
Aaserud:— that you did —
Elsasser:I mean, things like that. That’s life, that happened.
Aaserud:That's not unusual.
Elsasser:Oh no, it's very usual. In that way I really had bad luck. Because I had this problem on diffraction (?) first and then the nuclear shells and so with the magnetism, I came out on top.
Aaserud:Yes. Yes… they’re important contributions.
Elsasser:That's why I have this office.
Aaserud:Yes, I wasn't aware that you had moved. You had another office before, I remember I saw your name in another office. Some years ago.
Elsasser:Oh yes. The whole department has moved, you see. Yes, that was two years ago.
Aaserud:That's what has happened yes. I would be interested to, if you could relate this work a little more to your epistemological basis. You're talking in your book about putting it as strongly as a conversion, the conversion of a rationalist.
Aaserud:And you're also talking about rationalism versus what you call science of contingencies, which I think the meteorology and the geophysics would be, as opposed to physics.
Elsasser:Right. I have been very active in this.
OK, sir, sure...Ok. (crosstalk).
Elsasser:— except maybe the last one.
Elsasser:No, that's not the last one...and that is so old fashioned, I had a time to get a publisher for that. I can't find any place where I can publish my...
Aaserud:Yes, well, I should explain that Elsasser has now taken out his books on epistomology, which was published from, when was the first one published?
It was published in '58.
Aaserud:1958, yes, so —
Elsasser:This is all, looking at biology from the viewpoint of epistemology.
Let me just say that anyway you'll have it on tape. I have looked thoroughly. I’ve had time enough since that’s 30 years you know — what's going on in biology — yes, people are — for instance, (empiricists? pragmatists?)
Francis Bacon, 1620, says you shouldn't lose your time in speculations, stick to what you observe.
Aaserud:That's the basic empiricist standpoint, yes.
Elsasser:And don't speculate, don't even read the philosophers. Well, I remember in the ‘50s when I was preparing for this book, and a young man who was described (?) to me, a man in the faculty there, it was a small faculty, but he was a sociologist (?) and he was — this guy was a great bright fellow— (described as a bright fellow?)
Yes, I thought I'd get in touch with him. (crosstalk). Gave him a manuscript which...
Elsasser:... later became part of this and said, "Read that and tell me what you think of it." He said, "Yes, I'll read it." A couple of weeks later I saw him and I asked him what he thought of it. He said, "Well, it's very thoughtful, but I — as far as I'm concerned, I don't think, I observe. "
Aaserud:Yes, it's as simple as that.
It's as simple as that. Well, ever since, that was 25 years ago, ever since I have looked at the biologists, and tell myself, "He doesn't think, he observes." And the overwhelming majority are that type. If they have a ... And so they can't understand. (crosstalk). I've been very unsuccessful than anything else in my life —
Aaserud:How early did that urge of yours arise to ?
Elsasser:— well, I've been thinking of that lately, how that urge arose. I think I can give a specific answer. In my high school days, I had a great deal of — I read a great deal of popular science literature. This was quite different from what we have now, the science fiction kind of thing that you have. This was really very well done. It was in German. It was natural philosophy, the remainders of the 19th century German natural philosophy of, comes out of German idealism…
with Kant and Hegal Schilling, all these guys. I'm not a specialist. I cannot tell you. This was German natural philosophy, affected me very profoundly, and I think that's how I got these ideas.
Aaserud:Right, it's before your conversion that you described in your book.
Elsasser:This was the nucleus of my conversion.
Elsasser:It was not a conversion that happened suddenly. I was really —
Aaserud:— no, but it became, it materialized (?) life it became —
Elsasser: — yes, so I have done this stuff and locally nobody seems to care, because it seems that as this countries philosophy is very strong, purely pragmatic, and anything that you can't show is useful or significant in complete fashion just goes out of the window.
Aaserud:Have you ever had — I don't know, we've kind of stopped in the middle of your career, maybe we should talk a little bit at any rate about your continuing career before we go into the —
Elsasser:Oh yes, yes, I want to do that, but I was perfectly safe for it because geophysics was recognized very soon. When I first got a job at Scripps Institute in Lajolla, —
Elsasser:And then I was offered a job as a professor of geophysics in Princeton. Then I was fully in the clear, I was among the cream of the crop. There was no ambiguity, any more.
Aaserud:So you're —
Elsasser:They got the better of me.
Yes, you really, you had this period, long period in Utah too of course, you, first you were associate professor at Pennsylvania, that was in 1947.
Elsasser:Yes, and that was a bad year, anybody knows that I had sort of lost contact with my academic career.
Aaserud:Yes, that was difficulties after the war of regaining a position.
Elsasser: Yes, and so I took it even though I knew that it would be pretty bad.
Elsasser:Then they offered me this thing from Utah, and I decided, why not be a pioneer, go out in the Wild West? I thought that would be very fun.
Aaserud:Yes, and there you were quite active in creating a department, correct?
Elsasser:In the graduate school.
Aaserud:Yes, the graduate school.
Elsasser:Oh yes. So I had close connections with students in Utah. Oh yes. I was really a physicist doing graduate work.
Aaserud:And you brought a pioneer computer to Utah, I remember.
Elsasser:Oh yes, I brought a — that was one of the high points of my life. When I was in Princeton, as I came there, I had been three years in at RCA, which, by the way, it's a very nice place to be, much worse things can happen to you than to go there.
Elsasser:But then I had accepted a job in Utah, to [???] I went to John Von Newmann. Maybe let me tell you about it John von Newmann. It belongs here you can almost count him as a physicist...
I had regular discussions with him, because he was very much interested in hydrodynamics, and so I discussed my ideas about the dynamo theory. He never believed in it, never believed in it. And then in the spring of, it must have been 1950 or ‘49, I'm not quite sure, there was a big meeting of cosmic hydrodynamics somewhere in Scandinavia, Copenhagen, Stockholm. And one time when I was there he gave a talk and he said, "Obviously when there's a magnetic field and a conducting fluid, it's obviate [???]." That "obviously," of course, if you had the [???] for a mathematician, you'd know! So a friend of mine was at this meeting and told me that story, came back and told me that story, I knew that I had won the game, you see. But he never said to me that it was obvious. He always said to me, "That's nonsense, that's all." Oh yes, he always said, "You can't prove it, you can't pull yourself out of your own bootstraps."
Aaserud:Might his statement come out of his discussions with you?
Elsasser:Well, it must have because I had already for a year or so, every few weeks I had seen him and told him the and —
Aaserud:— yes, unexpected support.
Yes, but that's not all. There was a guy named Bachelor (?), you know him, Bachelor? British? And for 20 years or so he pricked up his ears when he heard there is obviously amplification and he went on home, didn’t show up at the meeting except for the last, he read a paper and it had amplification of heat turbulence, and...I never saw him.
Yes, and you say that was '49 or '50.
Yes. My papers were essentially published.
Aaserud:Yes, OK, so you got a position in Utah at about the time of the publication of those papers.
That was 1950 when you moved to Utah.
Elsasser:My own significant papers were, appeared in ‘46, ‘47.
Aaserud:OK, OK, right. So those papers were an important consideration when you —
Elsasser:I presume so, yes.
Aaserud:Utah was quite a different experience.
Elsasser:Oh yes. I liked it very much, because I'm very fond of the Mormons. If you take them with tact, they're very nice to you.
Aaserud:Yes, you make a point of that. You even considered converting at some time, becoming part of their —
Elsasser:Yes, I mean, this you have to do in Utah. It can help you survive. You're always on the outside there.
Aaserud:And that was part of your motivation for moving. Was it not? I mean —
Elsasser:There was a difficult period, personally, I don’t like to talk about it, in my life - my wife got ill, and —
Aaserud:Oh yes, that was your first wife.
Elsasser:So that was a complication, it was not just anything to do with the university, I liked Utah very much. It’s a little provincial, let’s face it.
Aaserud:Right, yes. And then it was Scripps? And the University of California at San Diego.
Elsasser:It's the same thing, you know.
Aaserud:Yes. You almost, if I remember correctly from your autobiography, you almost got back to physics again.
Elsasser:Oh, only in the sense that they made me a member of the physics department.
— not a real— I don't understand it...what these guys are talking about, my colleagues.
Aaserud:So it was never a serious consideration of yours to go back into physics at that time.
Elsasser:No. I always felt myself a physicist, I mean, I know quantum mechanics,
Aaserud:— yes, of course —
Elsasser:— old style quantum mechanics from the inside out.
Aaserud:But to join the physics department and to —
Elsasser:Oh no, that I never planned.
Aaserud:No. But you had more contact with physicists than you had had for a while, your institutional connection was —
Elsasser:— oh yes, sure, I had an office next door to Marla Mayer and across the hall was Mr. Mathias (?), you know those names —
Elsasser:But it was fairly superficial.
I mean, organizational had nothing to do with my main interest. I mean, they had that big Scripps Institution where every kind of geo physicist around, and there was no lack of contacts.
Aaserud:Yes, yes, yes. Then Princeton.
Aaserud:Then you were already of course strongly involved in this work.
Elsasser:In this work, and that's when I got this offer from the University of Maryland, that looked like a step down from Princeton, but it turned out to be (a good thing?) it turned out to be, against all reason because now I'm getting full retirement of a full professor, and Maryland, may even be getting in a few years from the state of Maryland, that's OK, I mean, in the retirement system automatically —
Aaserud:— yes, yes —
Elsasser:And if I had stayed at Princeton, I would get only the few dollars I paid into the TIAA.
Elsasser:That's all they have.
Yes. That’s the state university. (crosstalk).
Elsasser:... the TIAA is Teachers' —
Aaserud:— yes, I know, I know. But your current arrangements?
It comes from the State of Maryland.
Elsasser:A branch of the state of Maryland, and the retirement system. And of course ... it increases for inflation, all these things. Otherwise I would have a hard time getting, having enough to eat, so there are compensations.
Aaserud:Yes, good, well, you have this adjunct professorship at Johns Hopkins.
Elsasser:Yes. That really has ceased now, but they gave me the title, they call me Honorary Professor, now they have too many deans here, in this little place, with a faculty of about 250, they have I think eight or nine deans. And they have there something to — so they arranged for this. That's not important.
Elsasser:All these things, it's really epistomology?
Aaserud:Yes. Do you consider this your major contribution now, your major interest now?
Oh yes, it's really my almost entire interest. You see, I have this...[???] follow the staff numbers, and I can't handle this stuff anymore, it's really mathematics.
Elsasser:The model making is just a very small part of it.
Elsasser:This is really in a much more conceptual stage.
Aaserud:Yes. Yes. So, —
Elsasser:—but the biologists don't want it. They want none of it.
Elsasser:Oh yes. None. No. What was it, the editor of SCIENCE is a man named [???], do you know him?
Aaserud:I don't know him personally.
Elsasser:And he's one of these, I mean, they're all mathematic reductions and things, nothing in the world physics and chemistry and everything will come, it'll come, it'll come in the future.
Aaserud:Yes. Do you find the same attitude among physicists? Or is this?
Elsasser: I don't know. That's what I find so strange here. Maybe you can explain it to me. Why is it that all these physicists wanted a simple (single?) action, if you take the Big Bang, and reverse the time, it becomes a Black Hole. All the physicists are so much attracted by this Black Hole that that's the only direction which they go in. You would think that they're preparing themselves for the future, a Black Hole they will fall in one day or it would be boring.
Aaserud:Well, there have been philosophically inclined physicists, of course.
Aaserud:I myself have studied Niels Bohr somewhat. I have studied his institutional work more than his philosophical work, but of course I've got into that.
Elsasser:Yes, well, I think of myself as a faithful disciple of Niels Bohr.
Aaserud:Because you don't put your philosophy under the rubric of complementarity or, in your autobiography, but you —
Elsasser:— oh, but in fact, there's very little difference.
Elsasser:— from Bohr's work. (?)
Aaserud:Yes, I mean, you mentioned Jordan [???] Torbin (?) as one of the reductionists.
Elsasser:I never said that he was a reductionist.
Aaserud:No, but he wanted to relate the teleology in biology to specific quantum mechanical and certainty (or, uncertainty) (?) relations.
Elsasser:If I understand him right, he things of the organism as a system of amplification?
Aaserud:Yes, so you amplify the uncertainty involved in quantum mechanics.
Elsasser: Yes, all right, but he has not ever really put it into a form where you can do something with it.
Aaserud:No, no, you're right about that, I was thinking, I mean, he saw himself as a disciple of Bohr too, that's one of his main, — and he saw his —his whole effort in biological, in philosophical biology, as bringing Bohr's word to the world.
Elsasser:So do I.
Yes, yes, but the — (crosstalk). OK, good, now you tell me. (Off tape).
Aaserud:You were talking about Jordan?
Elsasser:Well, I don’t find much in it because I read this book ... I find that what he’s merely saying is that organisms are a system of amplifiers. It doesn’t get you very far and that’s all he says.
Aaserud:Yes, I can agree with that, and Bohr isn't very precise. So that Bohr can be interpreted in many ways, of course, you agree?
Elsasser:Oh yes, sure.
Aaserud:You say somewhere that the uniqueness of life is the complexity of life, or something to that effect.
Elsasser:I said that the essence of life is hidden by the complexity of general dynamics.
Elsasser:Yes. Hidden behind the… you know —
Aaserud:Yes, yes. But I mean, do you think it's possible to go behind, is it hidden to us implicitly or is it?
Elsasser:Well, I think, to give you an answer to that and you can put it on tape, would take a while. I think the essence of life is relativity (?) creativity (?).
Elsasser:— and physicists just won't try to I guess, since the concept of relativity (?) creativity (?) I guess they're always talking about the universe and…
Aaserud:And the biologists as well, they also you would say don't struggle?
Elsasser:Oh yes, they do. One side of (one sigh of?) One sided viewpoint. I mean, from this, like
Oh yes they do but from a very one-sided viewpoint, like from this pragmatic viewpoint, they can always go off into the money making thing.
Aaserud:Yes. So you, have you ever received positive feedback from biologists? I mean, are there biologists who try to take on —
Elsasser:There was one biologist last year who really tried to take that on but he was surrounded by reductionists, and he was losing his status to find out...