Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frank Press
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Interview with Dr. Frank Press
Frank Press; July 1, 1997
ABSTRACT: Family background and childhood (1924- ); early education; City College of New York (1941-1944); Columbia University (1944-1949); courses taken with I. I. Rabi, Norman Ramsey, Willis Lamb; working with W. Maurice Ewing at Lamont Geological Observatory (now Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory); interactions with M. King Hubbert, Harold Jeffreys, Cecil Green, Louis and Clara Hay; professional societies and meetings, including American Geophysical Union (AGU), Geological Society of America (GSA), Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG).
Session I | Session II
Doel:This is an interview with Frank Press. Weíre recording this on the first day of July, 1997 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. And I know that you were born on the fourth of December, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. But I donít know much about your family and your parents. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Press:My parents were first generation immigrants who came from, what is today, Belarus. And they came in 1916 or 1917. Actually, my grandfather came around 1880, established a business successfully, and then left a son in charge of the business and went back to spend the rest of his life in Russia, where he sired my father.
Doel:What sort of business was that?
Press:A hat business. I think it was Youngís Hats or something like that. It became a famous company.
Doel:Interesting. Was that in Manhattan or Brooklyn?
Press:It was in Manhattan.
Doel:And on your motherís side?
Press:My mother came from the same town, a town called Minsk, a city called Minsk, in Russia. And she — Iím not sure how much detail you want here.
Doel:This is fine.
Press:This kind of detail? They traveled across on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Pacific. And my father, having never seen his brother before, —
Press:— went on ahead, left my mother in Harbin, China, for a year — there was a large Russian community there and she worked as a milliner — while he went on ahead to see if he could find a brother. So he traveled across the Pacific, and then across the continent, finally located his brother, who helped him set up, and then he sent for my mother who was in China, and she came over.
Doel:It must have been an extraordinary experience.
Press:It was quite something.
Doel:Of course, Russia was in turmoil from the onset of the revolution.
Press:Oh yes. He was running ahead of the draft as he crossed the continent.
Doel:What sort of things did he tell you about later?
Doel:What sort of memories did he share with you later about that period?
Press:My father was very taciturn but my mother gave us all the details. He was fairly well-educated for that period of time, having graduated from the gymnasium and having worked in a bank there. They were Jewish so they had certain proscriptions placed on them and my mother spoke of pogroms in her town, but on the whole they seemed to manage fairly well. As for my motherís family, her father was a manufacturer of some kind. She wasnít very well educated. My father went to work as a salesman and, as soon as possible became a U.S. citizen. He continued as a salesman throughout his life. My mother was essentially a housekeeper.
Doel:What sort of sales was your father involved in?
Press:He was a wholesaler for groceries. Then he became an auctioneer, buying and selling businesses, mostly groceries but other kinds of stores as well.
Doel:This is after you were born?
Doel:How did he make the transition from being in sales into auctioneering?
Press:Well, in sales, one sold commodities. In those days there were no supermarkets. There were just individual, local stores. And a lot of them were going out of business and starting up new businesses. So gradually he knew all of those people. When somebody was going out of business and wanted to sell all of his or her goods and fixtures and so on, he would take care of that. He did this either on consignment or he would buy the business. And then he would auction off the parts — like a regular auction, you know, like the way they sell tobacco. And all of the other storekeepers would come from all over the city and buy the goods, the canned goods and the cash registers and the scales and all the fixtures. That was his business.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Did that start before the Great Depression started or was that something later?
Press:It was in the middle of the Depression.
Press:We just barely managed. He never made a lot of money. I had two brothers, older than me.
Doel:How much older are they, your brothers?
Press:Theyíre both dead now. Iíd say they were eight and six years older than I was. Sam, the oldest, became a lawyer and Paul became a kind of editor, a magazine production manager and editor, and later personnel director for Condť Nast.
Doel:Condť Nast? In the interview with your wife, she talks about her involvement with her father at the newspaper where he worked.
Press:That was quite different.
Doel:What sort of house were you living in when you were growing up in Brooklyn?
Press:We lived in a tenement in Brooklyn.
Doel:What part of Brooklyn?
Press:It was Brownsville. The source of many things. Notorious as well as artistic, scientific.
Doel:Yes. What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up?
Press:It was kind of a Jewish ghetto. Self-imposed. An enclave. Self-sufficient, very good public schools, excellent schools. In those days in New York City to be a schoolteacher was one of the best jobs you could possibly get in terms of salary, prestige and everything else. And the requirements, the examinations, were quite difficult. So we had great teachers.
Doel:I meant to ask you. Did you have a library inside your home?
Press:No. Oh, maybe a dozen books. But the local well-stocked public library did very well by us and I spent a lot of time there. It was about a mile walk.
Doel:Was it a Carnegie funded library at that time, or the city?
Press:Well, Carnegie, what did he build about two thousand libraries?
Press:It was a City library, but Carnegie money went to keep up the City libraries. So Iím not sure.
Doel:Were you receiving magazines at home, things like Popular Mechanics or newspapers?
Press:Well, yes, when I got older. In my teens I did. Yes, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, yes.
Doel:I was wondering even earlier, when you were just beginning to learn to read, if you recall any other magazines coming in?
Press:No. But the New York Times was there. Mostly my brothers, my older brothers, brought that in. And a good chunk of my education came from my brothers, who preceded me in school, so they brought home a lot of stuff that whetted my appetite.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Of course, they would have already been reading widely.
Press:Yes, but mother was essentially illiterate in English, so all I could get from her were ďfairy tales,Ē a great appreciation for music, and love and compassion of course. My father just spent all his time working.
Doel:You didnít see much of him when you were young?
Press:He was home for dinner every night. But as I say, he was just, you know, taciturn, worried about providing for the family.
Doel:Did he take you with him at any times to the auction houses? Did you actually see him do his work?
Press:Yes, I did. He wasnít the auctioneer, there was a professional auctioneer. But he was the guy that put it all together. He had a double life, in a sense ó in a good sense. He was very, very beloved in his business community. I discovered this afterwards. At his memorial service, the number of people who came to honor him, that we didnít even know, was enormous!
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Press:And they all described what he had done for them. How he had set them up, how he lent them money, how he gave them equipment that they couldnít pay for. I was once at a Geological Society of America [GSA] meeting in Florida, and I walked into a liquor store to buy some wine or something — I was having some friends over — and I still had my name tag on.
Doel:Youíre pointing to your chest; you mean the name tag on your shirt.
Press:Yes, the GSA tag. And the storekeeper looked and said, ďYouíre not related to Saul Press are you?Ē And I said, ďYes, he was my father.Ē And then he gave me a bottle of wine free and said, ďI have to tell you about your father. I donít know whether you know this.Ē And then he proceeded to describe another one of those stories about how he was helped. And none of us ever knew this at home.
Doel:Iím very curious. What did he tell you? Do you remember this particular development?
Press:Well, it was the case where this man was trying to set up in business in Brooklyn. And he had no money, not even for fixtures and a cash register and things like that. And my father used to stock these in some warehouse or storehouse. But in this case, the guy couldnít pay for them. So my father said ďHere, take them and whenever you can, you can pay me.Ē That was a nice, nice happening. But, okay, this has nothing to do with Lamont.
Doel:But it does have to do with you, and youíve become a principal part of Lamont, and I think this is therefore important to have. I imagine it was an extraordinary thing to discover that about your father later on.
Doel:And you really had not sensed that in growing up, that he was, that he had those kinds of qualities?
Press:Right! Did my wife tell you about fatherís double life?
Doel:Iím not sure. What are you thinking about? [Cross talk]
Press:Sheíll have to tell you that.
Doel:Thatís fine. Iíll make a point to Ė
Press:If she wants to.
Doel:Surely. Iíll make a point of asking her about that as well. What do you remember reading when you first developed an interest in reading?
Press:Of course there were the fairy tales, Grimmís Fairy Tales, and things like that.
Doel:You mentioned your mother was telling stories. Was this the sort?
Press:No, not really. You see, my mother was a very romantic person, and she read the Jewish newspapers, especially a very famous newspaper in New York, called The Forward, at that time. She read it from cover to cover every day, including the letters to the editor and the advice to the lovelorn. And she used to talk about it all the time. She was also very musical. That is, she couldnít play but she did sing, and she loved music. And her family had been musical in Russia. Her father was a choirmaster.
Press:As a hobby, not as his main job. So Ė
Doel:And what was his main job?
Press:He was a manufacturer, of hats, I believe.
Doel:When you say musical, was she in any singing clubs or?
Press:No, not here, but in Russia. Not in this country.
Doel:I see. Thatís very interesting. Iím curious when you say that she was romantic, what else are you thinking about, in addition to the sorts of things that you mentioned?
Press:Oh, just, she was very people-oriented, in terms of peopleís lives and so on. She talked of the Tolstoy books, like Anna Karenina, which she had read in Yiddish translation. Sheíd talk about these books and Chekhov too. And opera — the music and the plot, especially the Bel Canto romantic operas. She was romantic, not in the sense of romance between my father and mother, but rather, as my motherís attitude towards life and the rest of the world.
Doel:You mentioned your fatherís name was Saul. Her name was?
Press:Actually his name was Solomon but they called him Saul in his business life.
Press:Her name was Deborah or Dora.
Doel:Thatís good to have on the record. You were beginning to tell me about things you were reading as you were growing up.
Press:Yes. It was mostly, you know, young peopleís fiction, fairy tales and Tom Swift — boysí adventure type books and so on. And then when I got interested in science, it was all sorts of how-to-books: how to make, how to put things together, and so on.
Doel:Were any of the books particularly memorable for you?
Press:Well, I mean, donít ask me to recall a particular plot of the forty-seven Tom Swift books.
Doel:Did you read them all?
Press:I read a lot of them. And I was an avid newspaper reader. The interesting thing about my early life is this. I wasnít very smart in school until the sixth grade. And from then on, I was at the top of the class, all the way through.
Press:I got a pair of glasses. I couldnít see the blackboard. [Laughter]
Doel:Youíre grinning as you say that.
Press:And not only that, in the New York City school system, the smartest kid was in the first row, first seat. Thatís the way they did it. And the dumbest kid was way in the back. So they put me in the back where I really couldnít see. You need feedback when youíre a kid at school — positive feedback.
Press:And then somehow the teacher told my mother I probably needed glasses. She had noticed what I was reading all to myself at the back of the room but never raised my hand because I couldnít see the board. So I got a pair of glasses and took off.
Doel:Thatís remarkable. Did you have a sense that you were near-sighted?
Press:No. Everything was just a big blur all the way through the first six grades but I thought that was just the way things were. I didnít realize I couldnít see any distance at all.
Doel:But you were reading already at that time?
Press:Yes, so it was probably near-sightedness.
Doel:Of course, New York at that time had quite a few daily newspapers in addition to the New York Times. How many papers?
Press:Oh the News, the Daily News came in, every night without question.
Doel:And you had the New York Times, you mentioned?
Press:My brothers brought the New York Times in. My father read the Daily News, a very popular tabloid newspaper at the time. But thanks to my brothers and the Times always being in the house, I was the only kid starting in about seventh grade who always read the New York Times. So I got very smart — in terms of history, current events. You keep reading the Times, and you get an encyclopedia of the world, in many ways.
Doel:Were there any things that particularly interested you at the time? International relations or national issues? Or did you find that you were reading all the stories?
Press:I just read the whole thing. My best introduction to international relations was as a kid stamp collector.
Doel:Really? You began that pretty early?
Press:Yes. Incidentally, I just met the guy who bought Scott Stamps. You know of Scott Stamps?
Doel:I donít really.
Press:It was a big thing.
Doel:What was it?
Press:A catalogue company. I used to buy stamps from them. It was an international company. I donít want to go off on this, but this guy bought the Scott Stamps Company at the age of twenty-five. He was a grade school drop-out. Okay, enough of that.
Doel:Thatís interesting. And did you continue to do stamp collecting all through high school?
Press:No. It ended after a while, I guess at the high school level.
Doel:It must have been, for you, I imagine, an extraordinary change in realizing you could see the blackboard. That you could get involved in classroom events in a way that you couldnít before.
Press:Yes. As you can imagine, it was a big shock. I never thought that I was stupid or anything like that. As I say, I just kind of drifted through. Being introspective and just reading my own stuff, and so on. And then once I could see what was going on, you know, I just took off. So in high school, I was way up at the top and in junior high too. My wife was — we went to the same high school ó well, she beat me out. She was the number one student in her class; she was a year behind me. And I was among the top three or four in my class.
Doel:I want to make sure that we cover that. I just had a few other questions on the earlier part of your life.
Press:This was a big high school. There were a few thousand kids.
Doel:Indeed. Was it about two thousand or?
Press:Two or three.
Doel:Was religion particularly important when you were growing up?
Press:Culturally, yes. We werenít very observant, except that we observed the holidays and so on. My mother wasnít too careful about keeping a Kosher home. I think she just brought that with her as the way she grew up. So it was not important in a theological sense, but in a cultural way, of course.
Doel:Sure, because of the neighborhood and surroundings. Did you get formal religious training when you were young?
Press:Just enough to get Bar Mitzvahed. Also I went to what was a social democratic organization, organized by people at the newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward, and they had religious schools. You know, very informal religious schools, where we learned to read, not Hebrew, but the Yiddish language. And Yiddish was spoken in my home.
Doel:I was going to ask about that.
Press:My parents spoke it in the home. We learned Hebrew after school, just enough to read it in order to get Bar Mitzvahed. But I did learn to read a Yiddish newspaper, which I can still do.
Doel:Interesting. Could you speak [cross talk]
Press:The thing that I rue most is that my parents never spoke Russian at home except as a secret language.
Doel:As parents do, to keep the kids from knowing something.
Press:And if they had spoken Russian at home, and I had kept it up as a kid, just think what that would have meant. Because I spent so much time in Russia over the years, completely unable to understand.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Were you speaking Yiddish with them? Was that a shared family language?
Press:No. They spoke Yiddish and we boys spoke English. But we understood it. My father would speak English. My mother would just shift back and forth.
Doel:So you got very used to being in both languages in a sense. That is very interesting that you didnít have the Russian language at home. Did you hear it spoken in the neighborhood? You were separate from Brighton Beach where one would have heard it more.
Press:Thatís nowadays. Brighton Beach has a different class of immigrants there now. Theyíre all educated. And they came as adults most of them, having had education in Russian and professional careers in the USSR. They were taught completely in Russian at school. So Russian is their language. My parents came over long ago, in 1917; and in Russia before the Revolution, Jews were not permitted in Russian schools, so Yiddish was their main spoken and written language except for that rare few who were allowed ďbeyond the Pale.Ē But my father had to learn enough Russian to do his job at the bank, although Iím sure it was a Jewish bank that he worked for. I think, additionally, once in America, it was looked down upon not to speak English. So in America my father learned quickly to stop speaking Russian but he and my mother always spoke Yiddish together and a mixture of English and Yiddish once the kids came.
Doel:Indeed, there were social pressures of that kind. And you say it was difficult at the height of the Depression to make ends meet, or at least that you were aware sufficiently of how difficult it was?
Press:All the time.
Doel:Were your brothers working after school?
Press:Yes, they were. They worked their way through college. They went to Brooklyn College. And then my older brother went to Law School in New York and lived at home. And they earned their way through college by working nights as ushers at the New York Paramount Theater.
Doel:And that was in Manhattan wasnít it?
Press:Itís very famous. Thatís where Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played — and Frank Sinatra first got famous.
Doel:Did you get in to see any of them?
Press:Oh yes. My brothers. I got free passes and Iíd take my dates there. This always impressed my high school and college dates ó Billie included.
Doel:Indeed. Thatís quite interesting, what you just said.
Press:This was the Big Band Era, you know.
Press:The New York Paramount was a very famous place.
Doel:It sounds as if you were able to spend quite a few evenings there when you were in high school and early college. Out of curiosity, did you ever get to meet any of the band leaders or were you there simply for the performances?
Press:An usher isnít very high up in the pecking order you know, so all they could do was to get two passes every week or so. But it was great — and no, I never did meet any of the band leaders.
Doel:Speaking of Manhattan, did you get to the museums often when you were growing up?
Press:Yes. Yes. And thereís a great childrenís museum in Brooklyn — the Brooklyn Childrenís Museum. Itís essentially a science museum. I spent a lot of time there. The Brooklyn Museum is famous, even to this day, especially as an art museum. In fact, its collection was just written up in The Times a few days ago as being an extraordinarily good collection. And then, of course, I visited the many museums in Manhattan. It was easy to get there by subway for a nickel!
Doel:Do you recall any of the dioramas particularly? Was there any subject that you found particularly interesting when you think back?
Press:Well you know how they did it in those old-fashioned museums. You have these set scenes with stuffed animals. You have mineral collections behind glass walls. Itís quite different today. And footprints of dinosaurs. That sort of thing. Also the Brooklyn Museum had concerts. We went to a lot of those concerts as a family. They had Sunday afternoon symphonic concerts. And then, we went very often to the summer concerts at Prospect Park - a big beautiful park in Brooklyn. They had classical, band, all kinds of concerts in the park.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Did those continue through the 1930s, during the Great Depression?
Press:Oh yes. They probably were WPA [Works Progress Administration] orchestras. There were lots of WPA artists and musicians but I donít remember the details.
Doel:Did you get over to the Hayden Planetarium when you were in Manhattan?
Press:Yes. I donít remember when it was built and when I started going there, but I do recall being there several times.
Doel:Certainly it was in place by the mid-1930s.
Press:And the Worldís Fair was a big thing for us all in that era.
Doel:I was just thinking about that. The 1939 Worldís Fair.
Press:If you want to find out about me and my youth, get Leonard Garmentís new book called Crazy Rhythm [Crazy Rhythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixonís White House, Watergate and Beyond. New York: Times Books, 1997.] — just published about two months ago. It got a great review in The New York Times. Leonard Garment was Nixonís lawyer in the latter years. Fortunately he was untarnished by Watergate. He became a very successful lawyer. He and I grew up together. We were best friends in high school. He became a musician at first and he played in some really big bands. Then he quit that life and went to law school, became an attorney and met Nixon. And between Nixonís piano and Garmentís saxophone and clarinet, well, they hit it off in this New York law firm where they both worked before Nixon was elected President. And then Nixon took Leonard to Washington. But Len describes our youth very well in his autobiography, Crazy Rhythm, which is a real page turner and very funny.
Doel:So he talks specifically about your growing up as well? Thatís interesting. You stayed in touch with him over the years?
Press:No. There was a big hiatus. And then I met him in the White House. Thatís interesting. I was on the faculty at MIT [Massachusetts of Technology] then, and was in Washington on some committee or other, and we met in the White House Mess. We were delighted to meet up again, embraced, and so on. Had lunch with him in the executive dining room down there. And then he was out of government, and then some years later I went into government. And I reciprocated. So we both ended up in the White House in different roles. He as a lawyer and I as a scientist. The name of his book has a musical title: Crazy Rhythm: in the band and at the White House.
Press:Itís a remarkable book, really remarkable — his personal history. I really enjoyed it.
Doel:What did you find most interesting about it?
Press:In the book?
Press:He had a very troubled life. Itís impressive how he worked himself out of all his personal, mental, domestic problems, and managed to be a top flight lawyer. How he was able to — he was a liberal — how he was the liberal conscience of Nixon during his presidency. That wasnít too well known. Itís quite a story, how he managed to survive those terrible guys like Ehrlichman and Halderman, who wanted to get rid of him, but Nixon wanted to keep him close by. And the book tells about the anti-Semitism in the White House and how Leonard managed that. He took care of so many things for Nixon: cultural, intellectual relations with different ethnic groups across the country, especially the Indians. Heís written down that whole story and itís beautifully written. The story of what it was like to be a musician in a big band touring around the country. And why he quit music, mostly because the black players were so much better than he was. And he didnít want to do anything that he couldnít excel in, at the very top. When he sat down to play with these musicians and saw what they could do and how they seemed to have it in their fabric. Thatís all in there. And his continuing bouts with manic-depressive illness. His wifeís suicide. And the personalities, the remarkable set of people he interacted with. But I donít know why Iím telling you about his book. You can read it.
Doel:Youíre also telling me a little bit about what you found interesting about him. It is someone that you knew well in [cross talk].
Press:How he was, I mean, he joined the Nixon White House because he was success-oriented. He wanted to be an intellectual, and a powerful person. He says that. Even though he, as I say, his intrinsic political ideology was contrary to everybodyís around him.
Doel:Now that youíre describing it, Iím recalling. There was a New York Times book review, wasnít there? Yes.
Press:It was reviewed in all the magazines as well.
Doel:There are a few things that I still wanted to get back to in this time period. You mentioned the library you started going to. What did you find particularly interesting there?
Press:Oh, just to enter that room, that building. The atmosphere of quiet scholarship. You know, everybody at work studiously. Not a word. If you spoke in a whisper, you got kicked out. And then all of those books on the shelves that you could go pull out and look at. And the fact that you could actually borrow books. I once came to the library with dirty hands. I was just a kid. The librarian looked at my hands and she took my library card away. It was a disaster for me. Just the fact that I couldnít go there. I didnít have my library card anymore! And then a couple of weeks later she gave it back.
Doel:Her intent, I suppose, was to teach you a lesson. Thatís very interesting.
Press:So, the library was a place to be respectful and studious and to see the amount of knowledge all around you. It had a very good childrenís section — so many different books, you know, for boys interested in science, with nice descriptions of things you could do at home.
Doel:Were you able to actually do any kind of experiments at home?
Press:Oh yes. Yes.
Doel:What sort of things?
Press:Mostly with kids in class who were like-minded, and weíd do things together. They were chemical, electrical. Just elementary electricity and magnetism. We could buy parts in junkyards.
Doel:I imagine thatís what you were doing scavenging around.
Press:And transmitters. Yes, weíd go around scavenging. And weíd build transmitters to send a signal a few blocks. Giving everybodyís radio a buzz because once we were on the air, they couldnít hear anything. It was just a noisy broadcast. You know, Morse Code that saturated every radio in the neighborhood. But all of these books, you know, they described how to do it. They were for kids like us. Go to the junkyard and ask for an induction coil or for an automobile part, this and that. And thatís what we would do.
Doel:Do you remember being interested in ham radio at the time? That was, in the 1930s, that was becoming much more widespread.
Press:No. That was too fancy. It was too advanced. That required, you know, equipment. My brother Paul became a ham radio buff, my journalist brother. He got pretty good at it. He bought the equipment and, you know, was communicating all over the world. He once had a long ham telephone conversation with the King of Jordan and with other famous amateur radio fans — like Senator [Barry] Goldwater. But I never did go that far.
Doel:You mentioned there were other schoolmates who were, or people in the neighborhood, children who shared your interests.
Press:Yes, there were, but not many. The kids who shared my interests were in the classroom. But they lived — not in the immediate neighborhood — but a couple of miles away. In the immediate neighborhood, the main interest was in athletics, essentially sandlot baseball, stick ball, basketball, that sort of thing.
Doel:Were you involved in sports?
Press:I didnít excel. I was always the last one chosen when they chose up sides. But I didnít give up. I just kept on trying, you know, even though it was a downer every single time I was last chosen. But these were my friends and so I tried. I think that not being able to see too well as a kid in elementary school didnít help too much either.
Doel:I recall that feeling myself. Were you reading also other kinds of science books? Clearly your interest in science was growing at that time? How old were you when you recall having an interest in science?
Press:I would say junior high school and up. And that would be the science classes in junior high school and high school. Also, my oldest brother, my older brother, Sam, took a physics course in high school. And heíd come home after every lecture and repeat the lecture at home—
Press:— to the whole family, none of whom understood what he was talking about except me. So that was rather influential, as a matter of fact. I had his textbook for years after he finished with it, kept looking at it.
Doel:Kind of interesting that he took that kind of effort to try to share.
Press:Out of enthusiasm.
Doel:— his own enthusiasm.
Press:Yes, heíd say, ďLook what I learned today. This is why we have seasons. This is why volcanoes erupt and form mountains.Ē Things like that.
Doel:How did your family react to it, the others besides yourself?
Press:Just benignly, not very interested, except for me. It was kind of beyond them.
Doel:Were there any teachers who were particularly memorable for you in junior high school and high school?
Press:Yes. There was one teacher, and his wife who, to this day — sheís now eighty-five and he just died — who to this day are just like godparents to our own children and even to my granddaughter. So we always kept close. Mr. Hay was my junior high school teacher of seventh grade math, but most influentially, of history, civics, all my social studies classes seventh to ninth grade. He then went on for graduate training and became first a psychologist and, then, the founder and director of a program for disturbed and delinquent kids in one hundred public schools in New York. The Hays were childless but they had maybe a dozen kids like us who they kept track of. We became very close friends for the rest of our lives. And their caring and teaching extended beyond school.
Doel:And what are their names?
Doel:Yes, for the record.
Press:His name was Louis Hay.
Press:And her name was Clara Hay. And itís interesting that my children became beloved young friends as well. Why, my oldest granddaughter, Sara, who is about to graduate from Columbia, well, Clara Hayís home became a second home for her in New York City. She always goes downtown to Claraís home to study for exams or write papers ó there she has a quiet, serene place away from the noise of her college ďdigs,Ē and Sara, like us, always loved the Hays and vice versa. So they have been wise, influential, and loving friends to three generations of us Presses now.
Doel:Interesting. And he was teaching you mathematics?
Press:He taught junior high school mathematics and junior high school history. And then he invited a few select kids in his class to his home every Friday for fine music and discussion of books theyíd suggested we read. And this continued into high school, even though he wasnít our teacher anymore. There would be a book for example, that we would all read at home and then discuss with the Hays such as John Deweyís works in philosophy. We also read a lot of political philosophy and fiction. They had, for those days, a fantastic audio system, and long-playing record collection — so weíd hear music that we never would have heard otherwise, and certainly not in those early, formative years.
Doel:Big band music particularly?
Press:Yes, all classical. They were extraordinary people, influenced a lot of lives. Completely, idealistically dedicated too, you know. They were well educated of course, and we boys, smart as we were, had just come out of, you know, ghetto families. The Hays had graduate degrees in psychology and were vastly cultivated and well-read and they liked and respected young kids, and so forth. So they were sort of like surrogate parents who really were surrogate parents in terms of our intellectual development.
Doel:Itís clear they had quite an influence on you growing up. Particularly over a number of years.
Press:Billie might have told you about them also. She was on the fringe of that group because she had not gone to that junior high, and actually, the group was made up of boys only. After a while in our mid-teens we began bringing girls and I brought Billie from time to time. She got to know them extremely well too. There has always been mutual love and respect there.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. In fact, we hadnít spoken directly about them. Itís very interesting that you had that kind of discussion about books. Dewey was certainly a major topic, but not certainly for junior high or high school students at the time.
Press:It was cultural enrichment far beyond what we would have gotten in school or by ourselves.
Doel:Did you stay close with any of the other members of that group?
Press:No. Because we moved away. Billie and I married young and moved away from New York City. Had I lived in Manhattan, probably yes. During my years at Lamont we lived at Lamont. We lived in New York City for only one year after we were married. So we drifted apart from the group and would see them maybe every five or ten years at a gathering at the Hays, but that was it.
Doel:Going into high school, if itís appropriate, you mentioned earlier about the social democratic group connected with the Forward.
Doel:How early did you become involved in?
Press:We were not. My parents werenít members or anything like that. They only read the newspaper. But the newspaper had a very powerful influence on American Jewish immigrants in the Social-Democratic tradition. It was always very anti-Communist, anti-Bolshevik, had cultural programs on radio. Our radio was always tuned to the radio station called WEVD, for Eugene Victor Debs.
Doel:Very interesting. I hadnít been aware of the station. Or at least thatís what it was called I imagine. Or was it literally?
Press:It was the WEVD radio station.
Doel:It was literally that?
Press:Yes, it was named for him. I donít remember whether my parents voted for Norman Thomas or for the Democrats. I think they voted mostly for Roosevelt.
Doel:How often were politics talked about?
Press:A lot. Mostly, of course, about the New Deal. My father took me to the famous NRA parade in New York. I donít know what you know about that. The NRA was the National Recovery Administration.
Doel:I know about that, but the parade? What did that involve?
Press:Oh it was everything. Unions, businesses, government. This was the big Roosevelt initiative to end the Depression.
Doel:Right. Harry Hopkins.
Press:Yes, and everybody was coming out to support it. And so it was a big organized, parade and a political parade that was very ecumenical. Of course in New York City then nobody, nobody was against Roosevelt, except maybe on Wall Street. But, so Roosevelt was quite a hero — you know, for all of the middle and lower classes in the country. And, of course, there was the politics of the war. And with Hitler in Europe, of course, well we talked about that all the time.
Doel:Thatís what I was curious about too. Clearly you must have been talking about Germany and Hitler.
Press:All of my relatives in Russia were wiped out. Disappeared. And my brothers were in the service. I wasnít. I was rejected. I was deferred to finish my college years because I was a physics major but I was called up the last year when I was in college, but, because of my eyes, I was rejected.
Doel:1944 this would have been. The year you graduated.
Press:My senior year. I was only in college for two and a half years. I went right through. So it would have been, you know, my second year, but my senior year in college.
Doel:Indeed. Indeed. Of course the schools were going on around-the-clock schedules by then. Did you attend any other kinds of political events as you were growing up? Iím curious particularly what else you were reading?
Press:Yes. In college I was involved both in campus Social Democratic political organizations and the physics club. There were two organizations: One was the American Youth for Democracy [AYD], which was a communist sort of organization, or front. And the other was the League for Industrial Democracy, which I belonged to, which was the social democratic equivalent on campus. And we were fighting all the time with AYD. There were no others. There was no Republican youth organization or anything like that. Especially not at the City College of New York.
Doel:Particularly not. Particularly not in those years. And before college, were you involved in that sort of activity?
Press:No, in high school, I was running the newspaper. What was I now? I was managing editor or something like that. I forget. I was involved in school politics too and Len Garment was the head of the Student Organization. So we were that small group of kids who everybody knew. We were at the top scholastically and in terms of school politics. When I say school politics, I mean just school politics ó the guys who chaired the student organization or who ran the newspaper. But we still havenít gotten to Lamont and youíre going to run out of time.
Doel:Thatís all right. These are important topics that weíre covering right now.
Press:I donít know why Columbiaís paying for this.
Doel:You were saying that?
Press:Garment was the liberal in the Nixon White House. I was kind of ďway outĒ politically in the ďEwing White HouseĒ. The others were all very conservative Republicans.
Doel:Thatís one thing I do want to ask you when we get to the [W. Maurice] Ewing period because thatís very interesting.
Press:Save a spot.
Doel:We will. Weíre pausing again just for a moment. [Pause] Weíre resuming after a brief interruption. I wanted to ask you too. Were there any other high school teachers that were particularly memorable?
Doel:You mentioned junior high school. Were you teaching yourself in some ways the science that you were learning in high school?
Press:Well, mostly through library books. But also, you know, the high school science teachers. Unlike today, they had to have masterís degrees not in education, but in the science. They were very good. A lot of the science teachers had Ph.D.s. This was a legacy of the Depression.
Doel:The Great Depression. It was a difficult time and opportunities were in the school system.
Press:And there were also a lot of very bright, very educated women who had no other career choices. So it was a good education in high school. And then when I went to City College, it was a superb university. When I graduated from City College, even though I was there only two and half a years, and went to graduate school at Columbia, I was a year ahead of a lot of the entering students who came from famous universities and attended for four years.
Doel:Preparatory schools and such.
Press:And everything. The City College teachers were tremendous. And also the students were so smart, we all learned from each other.
Doel:I was curious about that. How much after hours socializing among the students was there when you were at City College?
Press:We were all commuters; we didnít live on campus. But, you know, in the lunchroom, in-between classes, in the social halls, in the places where you could sit, the discussion, the conversation was highly intellectual, at a very rapid pace. Politics, science, everything. Then the clubs, the science clubs, the various clubs. It was a very rich atmosphere that you donít normally expect from a school of commuters.
Doel:You mentioned you were involved in the physics club, science clubs. What did you do with that?
Press:Well, there were student seminars. And there were special labs, experiments. Discussions on different technical things. If there was a great discovery or something, you know, in the newspaper, weíd talk about it. And we were a group of like-minded, science-oriented students who got to know each other. So it was kind of a good place to go to meet like-minded friends. It was like a singles bar. Where you go to meet friends. All looking for friends. You know, science attracts a kind of lonely crowd. And we found common interests there. So between the classes and seminars, you know, it was the place to hang your hat.
Doel:Iím curious what sort of topics were being discussed. Quantum mechanics, of course, had been around long enough that there were accounts of various new — was that one of the topics that you remember?
Press:It might have been a seminar, that sort of thing. But the topics would vary. It was very broad.
Doel:Thereíd be classical mechanics as well.
Press:All of that. Meteorology was taught in the physics department. So you would do things like that. Donít forget these were undergraduates, so it wasnít very advanced.
Doel:I was trying to get the sense of what topics you remember.
Press:It was an extension of what we learned in the classes. Just about every physics major belonged to it.
Doel:Interesting. How often did you meet?
Press:Once a week.
Doel:Did you take trips or did you have any people come in to give talks from outside?
Press:I donít remember going on a field trip. It had a lot of young faculty. Mostly graduate students or new post-docs. Graduate students from Columbia would come over and give courses. They got, they were close to our age, so they would come over and give talks. Also, I had jobs connected with being a physics major. I taught undergraduate physics to students at other local universities who were taking physics because it was required — for medical school or something like that. And this was a problem for them; they were having trouble with it; so this was an aid to them. I forget how I got paid. It was some government program.
Doel:Interesting. How often did you do this? Was it three times a week?
Press:Yes. It was good pay for a kid in those days. And, let me see, it was essentially an undergraduate course for non-majors. And then there was another government program where I worked with a professor on his research. I was doing calculations for him.
Doel:Interesting. Who was that?
Press:Who was the professor?
Press:Robert Ingersoll Wolf was his name, and he was doing perturbations of orbits.
Press:No, planetary orbits due to relativity theory. I donít know quite. But I, you know — all heíd do was give me a set of calculations to knock off and a hand calculator.
Doel:The old mechanical calculators?
Doel:How much time did that take per week that you were working?
Press:On the calculating job?
Press:A couple of hours a week. I forget what I got paid, a couple of bucks an hour.
Doel:Thatís good pay for those days. Did he talk to you about his research? Did you get a feeling for what an actual research program was about?
Press:In a general sort of way. He was very kindly, nice, terrific teacher. He also set me up to tutor a very wealthy girl on Park Avenue. That added to my income.
Doel:What do you remember particularly about the science courses that you took at City College?
Press:Well, I still have my books, textbooks and so on. They were just very good courses ó we did the whole book, did the problems, and all of that.
Doel:Which textbook were you using?
Press:You know, I just made my move from Carnegie Institution of Washington to my new venture with WAG [The Washington Advisory Group]. I had all my college textbooks there at Carnegie. I had a science book outfit come to buy all my books. And I was trying to decide shall I give these away or shall I take them with me. And I kept quite a few of them. Let me see if I can remember.
Doel:Thatís fine. That can always be added to the transcript later on if you recall.
Press:No, I canít remember. I think a math textbook guy came from Iowa State. Letís see, my calculus book — I should know — the advanced calculus book was Sekolnikoff [transcript addition: Abraham and Becker; Courant, Sclater and Frank; Joos, Zemansky, Bateman, Love, and Lamb].
Press:I wonít give that book away because I got the only A in the class.
Doel:Is that right?
Press:In advanced calculus. These were smart City College students. Twenty-five of them. I was so proud. And then the professor called me into his office, and said, donít major in mathematics; you donít have it.
Doel:Is that right?
Press:How about that?!
Doel:How did you feel about that?
Press:The only A in the class.
Doel:What were you thinking might be your career at that point? Were you thinking it might be in something like mathematics or were you thinking physics?
Press:I was thinking of physics. One had to take three years of science. I took physics and geology and chemistry. And I liked physics very much. And then in geology, I had a professor who had a magnetometer and said, go out and do a magnetic survey of Van Cortland Park.
Press:And that was kind of outdoor physics. And that really got me. Because hereís a way I could do physics, and hereís a way I could be an explorer. And so that was the start of my career in geophysics.
Doel:Indeed. You enjoyed being outside. Being able to take the physics outside.
Press:You can imagine why. I mean, growing up in a crowded neighborhood in Brooklyn, and then going to this enormous park, something like a national park out West. Surveying a park, you know, with a highly technical instrument. Interpreting it in terms of different equations and so on. It was great. And so then I wanted to do geophysics in graduate school and I went to Columbia and Ė
Doel:Before we get to the Columbia period — we certainly need to cover that.
Press:Iím trying to push you into the Columbia period.
Doel:And Iím certainly going there. But what do you recall about the geology classes that you were taking at City College?
Press:This was not a very strong faculty, compared to physics. They didnít publish.
Doel:The people in physics were publishing?
Press:Oh yes! Oh sure. Textbooks. They were famous people, but you could tell, you know, that the geologists were coasting and so on and so forth. So they were easy courses to get through and not very impressive.
Doel:Were there field trips that you took in geology?
Press:Yes. Yes. There were many field trips. They did that very well. I do remember that. They knew exactly where to go. Even in Manhattan youíll find topographic features where you can see the geological sections. So the Manhattan schists and the Harlem gneiss, and the Palisades diabase — we did all of that. That was, as I say, they did that well. I guess they liked to get out into the open air themselves. And theyíd done it so many times that they knew exactly where to go and what to say and how to interpret it.
Doel:How were you taught in those field trips? Were you asked initially to make interpretations on your own, or did they use it as a lecture to demonstrate what was already known?
Press:In graduate school, you made your own maps. In graduate school — and you had regular field courses, full courses in the field — whereas in undergraduate it was just Saturday afternoon, you know. And so it was mostly lecturing in front of an outcrop.
Doel:You mentioned chemistry as well. Did you feel that they were not as strong as in physics?
Press:No, they were good. Good. They were competent. I think in the sciences and engineering, they were very strong at City College. In philosophy, extremely strong. The famous Bertrand Russell taught there.
Doel:Indeed. And that was before his political troubles?
Press:Yes. And what was the name of the famous philosopher at City College? [Morris Cohen]. I had a course at City College that to this day, I can still feel its influence.
Doel:Is that right? Which one was that?
Press:It was a yearís course in general science, where they did everything in a single course. Biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry. It was required. And to this day I have been trying to get schools to do that kind of course. Not with team teaching. It was one teacher who taught the whole thing. And there was no textbook except for their own book of mimeographed notes. And it was an overview of science, across all disciplines, which was really quite extraordinary.
Doel:That is! I havenít heard of that being offered, even at the time, in other universities.
Press:Not even today. They may do it today, but itís always a team teacher set-up. Six different teachers each coming in for two weeks, which is not quite the same.
Doel:No, it isnít, because one doesnít see the links.
Press:Itís disjointed, few links as you suggested and all those different approaches, different styles.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Press:And thereís never a total commitment to a course, given like that ó a good overview. Itís just ďMy two week stint starts now and ends in two weeks!Ē
Doel:That must have been a very interesting experience to have that. Did you get to know the instructor of that course?
Press:No. I canít even remember his name or what. Most of my teachers I only remember what they looked like. I canít recall names that well; I just remember the material.
Doel:Was that a first time when you were exposed to ideas in these other disciplines?
Press:It was early on. It was in the sophomore year. So it would have provided a panoramic view. Then I went on to take geology, chemistry and physics.
Doel:What were you supporting yourself with in those years?
Press:I earned a little money the way I described. But my family, my brothers and my parents, essentially supported me. Even though they werenít scholarly types ó my ďscholarshipĒ ó I was a very serious student — this was a high priority for all of them. So they paid for the books, and everything else. They even gave me a weekly allowance for accidentals. In fact, they did that even in my first year of graduate school at Columbia because there werenít fellowships and scholarships for entering graduate students the way there are today. But after my second or so year at Columbia I started to get Columbia fellowships.
Doel:And you certainly didnít have time to earn during the summer years because of the accelerated schedule that you were on.
Doel:And you mentioned that you had tried to get into service but you couldnít.
Press:I tried to ó in the meteorological branch of the army.
Press:I tried to get into the meteorological section because I had a physics background and Iíd had a course in meteorology. And I thought that the eye examination would not be so important, really. But they wouldnít take me. So I flunked out again with the eyes. Iím extremely near-sighted.
Doel:Thatís interesting. One of the training centers for meteorology was in New York City at the time.
Press:I think NYU [New York University].
Doel:NYU had had it. [Athelstan] Spilhaus [Jr.] was there at the time, wasnít he?
Press:Right. Also Haurwitz. He was there too. Bernard Haurwitz.
Doel:Right. Another major figure in meteorology.
Press:Right. I went down to NYU and took courses as a graduate student in Columbia at the Courant Institute.
Doel:But not during the time that you were an undergraduate?
Doel:When you were undergraduate, did you get to meet faculty in other universities, or was the universe pretty much what went through City College? Youíre nodding your head yes.
Press:Yes. I forgot about that. It was mostly that enclave there, which is really self-sufficient. Because it was a broadly international faculty.
Doel:So it was. You mentioned also the political activities that you had been involved in. We may want to cover these in more depth in a subsequent interview. Were there other events, developments, that were particularly important to you at that period of time?
Press:Well, letís see. Of course the war years and all of that. I was a freshman when Pearl Harbor happened. I remember the great convocation of all the students coming together to listen to Rooseveltís speech. Iíd go to the very famous concert series they had every Friday nights at Lewisohn Stadium, which is on the City College campus. Great orchestras, playing outdoors, in the summertime. And we had a great library. Oh, a fantastic basketball team in those days. Basketball was different then. And City College was number one in the country a few times — the whole country, the whole country. Imagine that!
Press:All with players five foot seven, eight, or nine. I didnít play, but there was a very famous basketball coach there then called Nat Holman, and he was my gym teacher as well. You know, he really was the gym teacher. Heíd be there saying, ďDo this, do that.Ē Anybody in basketball would know Nat Holman today. So he went out and got all of these kids — mostly from the ghetto — taught them basketball, and they became the top team in the country. And then in later years he had — this was after I left — he had one scandal. The players threw the game for money. And that ended his career. He was totally devastated this great, great coach. Sad.
Doel:But the record, certainly up to that point, speaks to the kind of dedication that youíre describing among people who were at City College at the time.
Press:Well, I donít know about other schools at the time. They might have had that kind of dedication too. Who knows?
Doel:But it certainly was part of your experience in having been there. Of course, these were the years that you were getting to know Billie, your future wife.
Press:Yes. We didnít date in high school, but as soon as I got into college, we did. She went to NYU though. It was a subway romance; that is, we traveled on our dates, to Manhattan ó including of course, to that New York Paramount on free passes ó on the subway.
Doel:Indeed, weíve covered that from her perspective certainly in those years. When you were considering graduate school, were there other places besides Columbia that had come to your attention?
Press:You have to understand that, in those days, for a poor family with no scholarships, it was a commuting university or nothing. No matter how dedicated my parents and brothers were to my education and advancement, they couldnít afford an out-of-town school. One of the problems with City College today is that all of the bright kids get out-of-town scholarships.
Doel:Yes, and go elsewhere.
Press:Go elsewhere. Now Billie got a scholarship to NYU. And with that she could afford to attend. And City College was essentially free, almost free. So that took care of that, and Columbia, right in New York, was about as good a school as any.
Doel:Indeed it was.
Press:As it is today. And it had a very good, well-known geology department. [W. Maurice] Ewing wasnít there when I applied.
Doel:Did you know of him? Thatís something Iím very curious about.
Press:Well, you see I was in the physics department.
Doel:Youíre in physics.
Press:I went into physics at Columbia, and I took my courses there. People who were there then are still my friends. You know, we all talk to each other. But, very important to me was that I when I registered for Columbia graduate school in physics, I knew that Ewing was coming. They had told me.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. So you knew of the field of geophysics by that point.
Press:Yes. They told me, ďTake your physics now until Ewing gets here in a year, and then youíll start doing the other stuff.Ē
Doel:Were you thinking of geophysics then as a career?
Doel:Already by that point. Thatís interesting. What did you know of the field?
Press:Well, as I told you, the introduction to field work. And then on my own I got some textbooks that I worked through.
Press:[Carl] Hyland. I remember it because it was self-study. [?] Jakorsky. These were both books in exploration geophysics. You know.
Doel:Hyland was at the Ė
Doel:Hyland was at the Colorado School of Mines.
Press:I didnít know that. Good for you. How did you know that?
Doel:He was one of the very few who had written a textbook in that period of time.
Press:Okay. But how did you know that?
Doel:Study of the history of the earth sciences.
Press:Okay. Good! And then [Louis L.] Nettletonís book.
Doel:And that was on prospecting and so on.
Press:They were all, essentially, on prospecting. But it was nice to work through them because all of the classical physics that I had studied was right there with an application. So I worked through those while I waited for Ewing to come to Columbia. And it was great being in the physics department taking all of those good courses.
Doel:Who were you taking courses from in physics?
Press:Oh, all the great guys. Three Nobel Prize winners.
Doel:[Isador I.] Rabi was there.
Press:I took Rabiís course. And I took Ramseyís, Norman Ramsey, Harvard Nobel. And I took Willis Lambís course. Iíll tell you a funny story because it really is funny. When I was president of the Academy, I was at a regional meeting of the Academyís at San Diego discussing all of the public policy issues that the Academy was concerned with. And Willis Lamb was in the audience. Willis Lamb is very taciturn. He hardly ever talks. Heís a very quiet guy. But during the discussion period, he raised his hand. Everybody turned around, my God, Lambís going to say something. And here weíre involved, I forget, with federal budgets for science. So Lamb gets up and he says, ďFrank Press, you never handed in your final exam for Physics 125 at Columbia.Ē So I said, ďI did.Ē He said, ďYou didnít.Ē ďI did.Ē ďYou didnít.Ē
Doel:And you had, of course, hadnít you?
Press:So I had to go back and get a transcript and send it to him. And I showed that he passed me, you know. I forget what grade I got. So I got the Columbia transcript and sent it to him. So he sent me a note saying, ďI never made a mistake. I always remember these things. I donít know quite how I might have forgotten.Ē Not admitting that he really did forget, figuring instead that maybe there was some fluke where I passed without having taken the final exam. That was really something. [Laughter]
Doel:I can imagine the reaction in the room once that question was raised.
Press:Figure that out!
Doel:What else do you recall?
Press:Rabi was a lousy teacher! Just terrible. Though he was a great man, terrific man. I got to know him because I was, much later, on the Presidentís Science Advisory Committee [PSAC] with him. He and I were on that during the Kennedy administration. But when he taught at Columbia, heíd go to the blackboard at the beginning of the lecture, write an equation on the blackboard, get it wrong, and then he would just stick with that equation trying to figure it out for the rest of the lecture.
Doel:And you were sitting in the back knowing that it was wrong?
Press:Well, the class was small — ten, fifteen students. We were all just waiting for him to go on. But he wouldnít move on. But Lamb was a terrific teacher. Infinitely well prepared. With notes, classroom notes that heíd hand out. Great informal textbook. Explanatory notes that he very, very seriously prepared.
Doel:Again, these are all small classes that you had.
Press:Yes. Of course. Ramsey taught optics. See there, I remember the text! Jenkins and White. I almost remember the Rabi text on nuclear physics. And The Electromagnetic Theory [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1941] by [Julius A.] Stratton was the text that Lamb used. And then I took partial differential equations with an excellent man, although not a famous person. He taught in the physics department — [?] Webb. His son became a geologist afterwards. Harold [C.] Brown was in my class in physics. He became Secretary of Defense and president of Caltech [California Institute of Technology], as you know.
Doel:Did you know him well?
Press:Yes. We interacted. And Spurgeon Keeny, who became head of the arms control organization and chaired my committee that I told you about that interacted with the Russian scientists.
Doel:The one that, and I should say that that was off tape when you mentioned that, this was in the 1980s that weíre referring to and later.
Press:Oh was that off tape?
Doel:That was off tape.
Doel:The committee involving the Soviet and the American [U.S.] Academy of Sciences on arms control negotiations.
Press:A lot of famous persons. [L. James] Rainwater was in my class. He won a Nobel Prize.
Doel:Sure. He was, later, on the faculty at Columbia.
Press:But he and I were in classes together. Well, thatís it. Bob [Robert] Jastrow. Itís all coming back, gradually.
Doel:It was one of the major physics departments.
Press:It was really quite something. Rabi was the chair of the department. It was just after the war and there was all of the excitement of what they had done during the war at the radiation lab. People came back and the Los Alamos people came back. I remember the Manhattan Project had a big chunk of Schermerhorn Hall where the geology department was.
Press:I remember off limits and guards and everything. Nobody knew what was going on.
Doel:And Angelo Ludas had been involved in that as a machinist.
Press:Thatís right. Iím not sure if he knew what he was making as it was all very compartmentalized.
Doel:Were there visitors who came through? Was there a regular colloquium series on that?
Press:Yes. Yes. Some very famous lecturers from across the country. In geology. International. Great little seminars. You know. [cross talk] And of course we had physics seminars as well. So until Ewing came, I used to go to those. And then after Ewing came, I just spent all my time with him.
Doel:Right. Iím curious about what you had heard of Ewing at that time when you were entering Columbia University?
Press:Well, you have to realize that I never had a course in geophysics. They didnít teach it at City College.
Doel:Very few people did at the time.
Press:Right. Exactly. But, actually, [Enrico] Fermi taught, just before, just as I came, Fermi taught a course in geophysics Ė
Doel:Very interesting. What was Ė
Press:— at Columbia. But I missed it.
Doel:You missed it.
Press:I missed it. And Iím sorry I missed it. It was in the catalogue. And then when I got there and discovered it, he wasnít there any more. He was in Chicago. I remember in the description that it had mostly to do with atmospheric physics and phenomena about the earth and its moment of inertia. The energy budgets for the earth, and so on.
Press:Whether he did the Earthís magnetic field, I donít know. Might have. He would have, in a general course like that. Sorry I missed that. That would have been quite an experience!
Doel:Of course [M.] King Hubbert had been at Columbia earlier, but was gone by that time.
Press:I know. He was gone when I got there.
Doel:Had you known of him when you entered or his involvement in the technocracy movement?
Press:Yes. Donít ask me how I knew about Hubbert and technocracy.
Doel:Well, considering your involvement in some of the political groups, I was curious.
Press:Right. I did know about it. I donít know when I learned about it. I thought it was kind of a weird movement. My first real interaction with King Hubbert is the first scientific paper I ever gave on my masterís thesis at the American Geophysical Union. He got up and said I was wrong.
Doel:Is that right?
Press:And then we argued. And so on. I was just a kid. He was a famous guy. I was right. Itís okay now. But it was quite a shock, you know, to be challenged that way.
Doel:What sort of issue was involved?
Press:This was while I was a graduate student. Well, it was my masterís thesis. A plane had flown over Bermuda dragging a magnetometer and had got a magnetic profile. And I recovered the volcanic, the shape of the volcanic structure beneath the limestone reef. Limestone is not magnetic; volcanic rocks are — from that magnetic survey. So itís just an interpretation of what that magnetic survey revealed.
Doel:Your thesis involved three different regions, didnít it?
Press:No, that was my Ph.D. thesis.
Doel:That was the Ph.D. thesis. Thatís quite right.
Press:For the Ph.D. thesis, I just submitted three published papers.
Doel:Which was common practice.
Press:I donít remember. Maybe it was common practice.
Doel:Is that right? Certainly after the late forties.
Press:Published papers before Ph.D.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. That may not have been. Indeed. The time that you did that. So Hubbertís contention was that?
Press:Whatever. I forget why. But he said something or other. But I was shocked; I couldnít respond, right off there. I had to go back and look at it.
Doel:Did you get to know him subsequently?
Press:Not well. He was a hard person to know. I donít think he was in Ewingís class as a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. His one important contribution was a forecast of the oil reserves of the world and when they would run out.
Doel:Indeed. Again a contentious issue, early 1960s.
Press:The way he did it was he set up the calculation and so on. Can I get you anything? You want a Coke, a soda?
Doel:No. Iím okay. Iím still doing fine with the coffee. Thank you. We were just talking a moment ago off tape about the influence of Harold Jeffreys and his own monumental works in the field. You were recalling something?
Press:Oh, I gave a lecture. I received the Royal Astronomical Society gold medal, and that entails a lecture. The Jeffreys lecture, I think itís called. And Jeffreys was in the first row. And I was talking, I forget, about a lot of things, including plate tectonics. And here this famous guy was in the first row, going like this.
Doel:Youíre shaking your head, back and forth, meaning?
Press:ďNo, youíre wrong, no, no, no.Ē Andó
Doel:Thatís very interesting. And this is, of course, not too many years ago that youíre talking about.
Press:Yes. Well, this is when just about everybody accepted continental drift and so on.
Doel:I recall well he continued to insist that mathematically it simply couldnít be. Did his wife Bertha [Jeffreys] come to accept it, the theory?
Press:I donít know. I met her. Then sheís, you know, sheís a mathematician. And they wrote a very nice book together, husband and wife, on applied mathematics. They — I donít know her views and how they evolved in this respect.
Doel:It must have been interesting to look out in the audience and see him nod that way. Did he talk to you about it?
Press:But everybody else in the audience accepted what I had to say.
Doel:Of course. Of course.
Press:Teddy [Sir Edward C.] Bullard was in the audience. He was one of the fathers of plate tectonics. And that whole Cambridge School, except for Jeffreys, were powerhouses in the early days of plate tectonics.
Doel:Indeed. I certainly want to bring Teddy Bullard back into the picture when we particularly talk about the Lamont period. You mentioned your involvement in the Department of Geology at Columbia. When did you first start taking the classes there? Was it the second or third? It was the second year that you were a graduate student there?
Press:Although I spent most of my time in the physics department, I knew that I would be in the geology department. And so I had an advisor there. And the advisor was telling me what courses I should take. And this great advisor, this eminent geologist, said, ďThe first course you should take is index fossils.Ē
Press:Where I had to memorize something like a thousand fossils! Because these were indices of different horizons. I knew that I would never use it in my career as a geophysicist, but he insisted.
Doel:Must have been a sinking feeling on your part.
Press:And you know what itís like to memorize a thousand fossils? Without any sense of relevance in terms of what I am going to do with this? Straight memory. Itís worse than a foreign language.
Doel:Thatís right. That was Horace Coryell?
Press:I forget his name. Maybe. To close the loop, the co-author of that book was Robert [R.] Shrock, who was the chair of the department Ė
Doel:At the department at MIT.
Press:— at MIT that I took over from him.
Doel:Right. That does close the loop.
Press:This big fat, [Hervey W.] Shimer and Shrock [Index Fossils of North America], this big fat book this thick on index fossils. And my wife must have told you that when we were en route on the subway on our dates, every minute had to count, so Iíd just go through my cards — no talking.
Doel:Actually she didnít tell me that story. This is an interesting thing. You literally remember having the index cards with you on the subway during your dates?
Press:I had to. I mean, this guy, quizzes every couple of weeks. This is my first course at Columbia. Do you want me to flunk out, you know?
Doel:Who was your advisor, by the way?
Press:Who was my advisor?
Doel:Was it [Geoffrey] Boucher?
Press:No. I think Boucher wouldnít have done that.
Doel:That would have surprised me.
Press:I think it was [Charles H.] Behre.
Doel:Right. He was an economic geologist. Who else do you remember taking classes from in those early days?
Press:Well, of course, Marshall Kay was very intellectual ó and Boucher. Those were two great geologists, both of who had, essentially, to abandon everything theyíd learned when sea floor spreading and plate tectonics came in. And to their credit, they did evolve in that direction. Unfortunately, they didnít live much into that new age, however.
Doel:But indeed most of their careers had already gone on very different conceptual frameworks.
Press:Behre is interesting, at least to me. Behre took me aside once and said, ďYou know, Frank, you really should go major in another field. You know, being Jewish, youíre never going to get a job.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Why did he feel that?
Press:He said it in a very friendly way, trying to be helpful I think. But I persisted, nonetheless. And when I came back ten or fifteen years later to get a Columbia University honorary degree, he was my escort.
Doel:Did he remember saying that to you?
Press:I didnít remind him and I donít know if he remembered.
Doel:Was that because of the prejudices in the oil companies, particularly against hiring Jewish people?
Press:Iím certain about that. So I think he was really trying to be a friendly advisor.
Doel:I think it was fairly widely known that the oil companies did have strong, anti-Semitic prejudices. But it certainly was not as much the case within the universities. There had been a number of people with Jewish backgrounds who had gone into?
Press:Well. Allen Bromley told me just the other day that Yale never had a Jewish faculty member until about that time. So — Well, okay, shall we continue.
Doel:Was that discouraging when you heard that comment? Or did you feel that you were going to be able to overcome those kinds of prejudices?
Press:It was done in such a friendly way, and I was so far along, that I just continued on. And actually he was wrong. Because I was, as soon as I got my Ph.D., I was offered a job.
Doel:Was this with Magnolia [Petroleum Company]?
Press:No, that was a summer job. Those oil company jobs were all summer jobs.
Press:I did those. How did you know about that?
Doel:I recall that from your papers at MIT.
Press:Okay. Yes. So I consulted for Shell and Magnolia, which was a, what, a subdivision of Mobil, I guess. But then I was offered a job, my first job, was either to stay at Columbia or take a job with ARCO [Atlantic Richfield Company].
Doel:And that would have been exploration geophysics?
Press:Yes — so Behre was wrong!
Doel:Things were actually changing as I recall fairly quickly in that immediate, post-war period. Had you known, had you met Ewing prior to the time that he actually arrived on the scene?
Press:No I didnít meet Ewing until he showed up right there at Columbia.
Doel:What were your impressions?
Press:He showed up with Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel and that was it. What were my impressions of him?
Press:I canít tell you my first impressions on the first day. They evolved over time.
Doel:Iím sure. He had known about you?
Press:I donít know, I just went right to work. Not just in the classroom, but on research, as soon as he came.
Doel:Had you been in correspondence before?
Press:As a matter of fact — see itís all coming back now — as a matter of fact, I had met him! Before he showed up to teach in the fall, he invited me to go to sea with him on the Atlantis out of Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute].
Doel:This was the first Atlantis cruise.
Press:Yes, so I came up and I had met him before, when he came to Columbia, I guess, just to look things over. And he said, okay, come up and work for me during the summer. And I did.
Doel:How did you feel about that opportunity?
Press:Oh, it was terrific! It was a real challenge. Because the people with him from Lehigh [University] and from the oceanographic institute, they were rather experienced young people, in that they had been doing this work during the war years. And they could build things, and make things, and do things. They were doing real research work whereas my only experience was in a physics lab. You know, in school rather than actually on a research project.
Doel:I was curious how relevant you felt that experience was to the sorts of things you were doing on board the Atlantis.
Press:Well, I was stronger theoretically than anybody he had on his crew. And then as a boy scientist making things, you know, and also at the City College of New York labs, I had learned quite a bit. And so I was making amplifiers. And building hydrophones. And just doing all of the things connected with an expedition where you have to, where you were doing acoustic work on the sea floor. But they had already discovered the SOFAR [Sound Fixing and Ranging] channel. And they had all of the experience with naval hydrophones and naval equipment.
Doel:Right. Curiosity. Did you already need a security clearance when you were sailing on the Atlantis or did that come later?
Press:This was after the war.
Doel:The first cruise was Ď46, wasnít it?
Press:Yes. So I donít think I needed a security clearance. The first security clearance I really needed was in connection with the nuclear test ban, to go to Geneva, when I was part of that delegation.
Doel:When you say that your —
Press:I could be wrong. Because we did have ONR [Office of Naval Research] contracts and Air Force contracts in Ewingís lab. And so now Iím not sure about that.
Doel:Certainly aspects of the SOFAR work were kept classified. The Bermuda operations and so on.
Press:Yes. So I might have had a security clearance. If I did, I passed it. And the only reason I hesitate is that the first time I had to get a real security clearance, I flunked it. Then I passed it. But it had to be reviewed. But that was later on in my career.
Doel:I was going to ask you, given the nature of the McCarthy period particularly, clearly you didnít have any problems with your involvement in the political areas that you had been at the time that you were at Lamont?
Press:No. No. You want to get into that now?
Doel:Not the 1960s, but only if it was relevant for the early years at Lamont.
Press:No. It had to do only with the test ban negotiations.
Doel:Letís make a note to get back to that at the appropriate point later. How were you learning about the kinds of problems that you quickly became involved in with Ewing? Marine geophysics, studying the nature of the sediments? Was it informal, via the contact with other graduate students or were you already reading the papers in progress that Ewing and other students were writing?
Press:Well, the courses, the courses of Boucher and Kay, those were fundamental geology courses. And so I knew about what was known in geology and what was not known about the debates at the time. And the controversy, the growing controversy about the nature of the sea floor. Whether the sea floor was permanent or ephemeral. So I knew about those issues.
Doel:The question of whether continental drift, [Alfred] Wegenerís ideas, were those questions raised at all in the courses, or Kayís?
Press:Oh yes. Boucher lectured extensively on why they were wrong — Wegenerís idea was wrong. With very erudite arguments based upon factual data as to why Wegener was wrong. So I knew what the issues were.
Doel:You were aware of the paleontological issues involving South America and Africa, for instance?
Press:Yes. And Boucher discussed all of that. And the theory that the ocean basin was a foundered continent, a continent that just subsided below sea level.
Doel:The land bridge idea.
Press:Not just the land bridge, but the whole of the sea floor was granite and had subsided. Taphrogenesis, the up and down motion, that the sea floor subsided. It was just a granite crust that sunk for some strange reason that nobody understood. And [Arthur] Holmesí theory was — and Holmesí explanations were hardly mentioned in class.
Doel:And [Alexander L.] DuToitís?
Press:Well DuToit was considered a little bit more of a wild man. But Holmes was a very famous geologist.
Doel:He certainly was.
Press:Dean of Geology. Probably the best, still the best geology book. Ours is the second, his is the—
Press:Not talking about the book, I was telling you about the —
Doel:The Earth [Frank Press, Raymond Siever. W. H. Freeman: San Francisco, 1978].
Doel:Your book with Ray Siever.
Press:So it was surprising, now that I think about it, that Boucher hardly mentioned Arthur Holmes.
Doel:Before we get to the cruise, I was just curious if you recall classes with other people. And I actually have here, and this is from 1944 or Ď45, the list of the instructors in the Department of Geology.
Press:Well [Charles P.] Burkey was an old man. He came, but he was retired. I took mineralogy but not with [Paul F.] Kerr. [Armin K.] Lobeck I knew but I didnít take his course. I took [S. James] Shandís, I think. He was on my Ph.D. language exams. Of course I took Boucherís course. I took Kayís course and Coryellís course which I mentioned. I might have taken Behreís course in economic geology. I think so, but Iím not sure. And I might have taken Shandís course in petrology, but Iím not sure. This is not complete because what about all of the faculty from the American Museum? Theyíre not listed here. They had joint appointments at Columbia.
Doel:Thatís true. Some did have joint appointments. [Norman] Newell was over there, for instance.
Press:Yes. Right. I donít see his name here, and they were regular members of the faculty, came to faculty meetings and everything.
Doel:I recall that later editions of the catalogue did list them.
Doel:So you got to know them as well.
Press:Yes, and donít forget, it was a small department so all of the professors — Kerr for example knew all the students and interacted with them informally. Kerr was a very nice guy.
Doel:And Kerr was influential later in getting the Lamont development to actually work as I recall. Youíre nodding your head yes about that.
Press:Yes he was. But it was Ewingís pushing all the time that he was going to leave if they didnít build a big research place for geophysics ó like LGO [Lamont Geology Observatory] ó that really lit the fire under Columbia.
Doel:That was the offer from MIT.
Press:Yes, from MIT. Did Joe, did Worzel tell you about that?
Doel:Iíve heard about it from a number of people, Joe in particular. And actually if I recall correctly you were quoted in Bill Wertenbakersí book as recalling the meeting that you had organized and taking the vote as to whether to accept the offer, MIT and the Hetty Green estate, versus the—
Press:Well, I donít know if I organized the meeting, but Ewing turned to us and said what shall we do? And we all had equal voices. It was extraordinary.
Doel:Who else was there?
Press:It was Worzel and me and Ewing. Maybe [Nelson] Steenland. Iím not sure.
Press:Yes, but Iím not sure.
Doel:Had you been part of the group that traveled with him to MIT to look at that facility?
Press:It was right across there, Narragansett Bay somewhere. Hetty Greenís estate. I forget the name of it.
Doel:What were your feelings about MIT at the time?
Doel:Your feelings about MIT. Did that play?
Press:Well MIT was a very famous, very prestigious place, of course. And the way we were received, by the president of the university and provost and the deans! And it was [Julius] Stratton who received us and Charlie Townes. They really went all-out to recruit Ewing. [cross talk] It was a real blow when he turned it down because it was not a strong department at the time. And the fact that Ewing turned them down led eventually to my taking that job. Because they never recovered after Ewing turned them down, never built a department.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. So your feeling is that that decision was pivotal for the career, for MITís institutional history.
Press:I think so. It was a weak department. And as a matter of fact, they were debating whether to close it down entirely. And if not for Cecil Green and his money, probably they would have done so.
Doel:And Harvard was not — outside of a few people like Francis Birch — was not —
Press:Oh Harvard was very, very famous in geology.
Doel:Was very famous, certainly through the 1940s and fifties. Although they hadnít really developed much in geophysics as I recall, post-war.
Press:No. No, they missed it. Of course, now theyíre coming back. In the past five or so years, theyíre coming back strongly in geophysics.
Doel:Indeed. Thatís very interesting. I hadnít been aware that prior to Cecilís gift, there actually had been a question of closing that department at MIT.
Press:Thatís what I — donít ask me how I know that — but I do recall. In fact, I believe Cecil told me, that. My wife is visiting him this week.
Doel:In La Jolla [California]? Yes.
Doel:Born right at the turn of the century. Had you known him prior to your connection with MIT? Through either geophysical services or Texas Instruments?
Press:Yes. Yes. I knew him in a couple of ways. When I was at Lamont, and Cecil often recalls this, he came for his first visit to Ewing at Lamont. And I met him at the bus, where the bus from New York lets people off on 9W there. You know. I donít know if thereís a bus that stops there now. There was a little bus shelter there on the corner of 9W and whatís that other road?
Doel:Oak Tree Road, I believe itís called.
Press:Is it Oak Tree? No.
Doel:The one that goes into —
Doel:The one that goes from Palisades into Snedenís Landing.
Press:What is it — Oak Tree?
Doel:Oak Tree at least in the direction that leads away, westward. It may be called something else going into Snedenís.
Press:Okay. Yes it is. I think it is. Right. Right. So I met him and took him up. And then I met him because I was part of the group that spent a summer at Texas Instruments where they had a program for graduate students and faculty after that.
Doel:That would have been in the 1950s, was that? Or was it later that you were involved in that?
Press:When I met Cecil Green the first time, it was anytime between Ď49 and Ď53. But somehow Cecil got turned off. Because, well, of course he was an MIT graduate. And his first big philanthropy went to MIT. And Ewing was always disappointed about that decision. He always thought that his was the better place and he was the better person and was more deserving. And itís also, I think, because Ewing never really cultivated Green. Green likes to have personal relationships. He was and is a very homey sort of person, a homespun person. A very warm, simple person. And his gifts are based upon merit certainly but also upon relationships. Caltech never developed them with him. Scripps [Oceanographic Institution] did. Stanford [University] did. MIT did.
Doel:University of British Columbia [UBC] as well.
Press:Yes, and Oxford, but I donít know quite how that worked out. In Australia: personal relationships.
Doel:Well, clearly, that hope, Ewingís hope during that first visit was that this might be a relationship that would aid Lamont.
Press:He was. Cecil was looking around from many points of view; he was establishing relationships. Also GSI [Geophysical Services, Inc.], his company, wanted the best graduates and was hiring. And so Cecil would establish relations with universities to learn about the graduates and the young faculty.
Doel:Right. Do you have a sense of what it was that Cecil may not have felt comfortable with at Lamont?
Press:I would simply say that Ewing just came across as, Iím very deserving for where I am in the field, and what Iíve accomplished and my potential, and how strong I am and with how my group is. Iím very deserving of support. And that I think would have turned Cecil off. Even though it was true. It was just the wrong approach. Whereas a guy like Shrock, who was never a famous geologist, just by his close involvement in terms of family and discussions and philosophizing and continual cultivation, was able to attract Cecil Green. Besides, as you know, MIT had some very, very good students who helped set GSI on an entirely new course, maybe in a way that Ewing could not have. Because this was, these were the students who learned signal processing and predictive filtering and numerical methods, from one of the inventors of that whole subject, Norbert Weiner. So MIT had brilliant students, a great math and physics department, and middle caliber, geology department. It was an uneven geology department. [Louis] Slichter was there for a while, and [?] Haskell was there for a while. These are two fine scientists, but they didnít stay. Slichter was —
Doel:Was out in California.
Press:California. And Haskell, whoís a real deep scientist and made some very fundamental contributions, somehow wasnít retained.
Doel:Was it in part your perceptions, then, of the lack of strength at MIT that persuaded you to vote for Columbia, for continued relations there? When you mention the unanimous vote, Iím just curious what motivations people had in taking it?
Press:It was a lot of things. First of all, any move is destabilizing. You know, you lose a lot in terms of getting re-established and re-settled. And things were comfortable. And the Columbia people, you know, the Lamont thing was there, being talked about. Secondly, the MIT administrators were very cultivated, smooth, sophisticated, cultured people. And for this gang of roughnecks — Ewing, from a poor, ignorant family in Texas; Worzel, you know him, with his gruff ways; and me, with my background — it was not in our league. We werenít comfortable with that kind of a crowd.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Was Karl Compton already president?
Press:No. At MIT? No he was gone. It was Stratton.
Doel:Stratton. Yes, it was Stratton.
Press:So just, you know, they were too fancy for us. And because they were fancy, they may not have been reliable we thought. This is unfair. Because after I got to know them, they were a first-class crowd. And they were honest. They would have provided all of the resources. They were cultivated, but they didnít flaunt it except, you know, unless you yourself were self-conscious and uncomfortable about these things. So it was declined for the wrong reasons I believe. Nevertheless, it might have been the right outcome. Because Lamont did take off.
Doel:Did Ewing talk to you about his negotiations with [Dwight D.] Eisenhower regarding the Lamont estate?
Press:Yes but donít ask me to recall what they were. But he went right back and used the MIT offer as, you know, as anybody would. And he needed an observatory; and the space he had at Schemerhorn was very constrained.
Doel:And for areas, particularly seismology, being directly on Amsterdam Avenue was not —
Doel:Enabling any serious observations.
Press:So that, that explains a lot in terms of MIT and Columbia.
Doel:It does. One thing I was curious about. Did Ewing make any effort to get to know Ida Green in the time that he was talking with Cecil?
Press:Thatís unfortunate. Because Ida Green is responsible for — is the person who made Cecil Green a philanthropist. I mean she saw that they were accumulating all of this wealth, and she said letís become philanthropists. Letís give some of this money away. So Ewing never thought along these lines — of cultivating potential donors in a personal sort of way. You know, he received them, talked to them, and then just by telling them how great the science and the discovery was in my laboratory and all of the things that we were doing that nobody else has ever done before, that should have been sufficient, he felt. But many people donít like to give their money away on that basis. They want to know more. Such as what that recipient is like as a human, what his family is like. They want a greater involvement with the donor. At least the Greens did. Of course, weíre simplifying a great deal. All of these things are complicated.
Doel:They certainly are. But yet it does speak to Ewingís style. The sorts of things that he was doing [cross talk].
Press:Even though Cecil was an MIT graduate, you might think it was natural for him to give money to his alma mater. He never went to the University of Sydney. He never went to Oxford. He did spend time at UBC as an undergraduate and finished of course at MIT. In La Jolla, he did have a house there. So it was natural for him to get to know the local people.
Doel:Youíre raising good points. It certainly is a complicated issue. Did Ewing talk to you generally about the long-range plan that he had for financing Lamont? Clearly he had a lot of the specific grants — the Navy contracts, in particular in the beginning. Iím curious in a general way how much he shared of that with you?
Press:You see, financing never was a problem in the early days when I was there. Because an application, a research grant application was never turned down. So we had all of the government money. There were no strings attached. We didnít have to cultivate human relations. We simply would write a proposal. And usually with a laboratory as productive as Ewingís, it would get funded. It was only when things got more expensive than the government grants could afford — like the ship operations and the construction of other laboratory space on the Lamont grounds — that he had to think of private donations.
Doel:Of course in developing geochemistry, there were the Atomic Energy Commissionís grants to Larry Kulp.
Press:That were grants coming in. But still if you wanted to get a ship, you had to buy it or get it. Even if it was donated, you have to have it prepared.
Doel:I imagine youíre thinking particularly of the purchase of the Vema.
Press:Yes. And the subsequent. No, then the Navy started to have ships that they would supply. But the Vema is a good example. Although the Vema may have been donated, a good part of it, but then it had to be altered, and put into shape for oceanographic. I think the Vema was donated by Vetlesen.
Doel:Of course, later the Vetlesen Foundation becomes important for Lamontís funding.
Press:Donít forget. I left in Ď55, a long time ago.
Press:After I left all of this got really expensive, and when they got hard up financially and they needed outside resources. And, of course, as you have undoubtedly been told, Columbia never did a thing for Lamont in terms of jobs or the kind of support that the physics department, the chemistry department received on campus.
Doel:During those early years, did that begin to rankle people? Was that a sore spot for Ewing?
Press:When I was there, the biggest worry he had was to retain me. To get jobs for Worzel and for me. And they wouldnít create that, you have to, you know, have to do it from that list of faculty you showed me, a retirement or a slot. You know, they wouldnít create jobs readily. And he had to fight for those and negotiate them. And whether we replaced somebody who retired from a classical, another field or not, Iím not sure just how he promoted those.
Doel:Thinking back particularly to those very early years, who were you closest to, say among the other graduate students who were beginning to form around Ewing?
Press:We were all close. We were very close. There were so few of us. We were close indeed. So the three of us, the three prime students — Steenland, Worzel and Press — you know, we all socialized together a lot and as couples and we had family get-togethers as well. They became our best friends. And Angelo and Lenore too. Then when the others started to come in — like Chuck Drake and Jack Oliver, that group, Gordon Hamilton and John Ewing. But even with them, the total number was about ten or so in the early days. And so we all knew each other very, very well. Lived close by and our wives were all friends and neighbors looking out for one another and one anotherís kids.
Doel:And this was in New York prior to the time that you came over to Lamont?
Press:No, not at all, Lamont was the bond because we all lived right there, either on the grounds or just off. So we were thrown together in a kind of an alien community of very wealthy people who looked at us as freaks so to speak. Except for Ewing, he was a famous guy.
Doel:Was that partly because of his wife Midge and her relationship with Snedenís Landing?
Press:She was essential in that. Midge was a Kidder and therefore a member of an upper-class and New York family. Yes. Midge looked upon us as freaks also. I guess we were scary to her: we were more like her husband, in terms of our humble beginnings. Although Worzel had a fairly fancy family.
Doel:Iím curious what you mean by that.
Doel:Joe Worzel having the fancy family.
Press:I think he was pretty well off, you know.
Doel:The background of the family.
Press:Yes. Yes. Not social class. Not social set the way Midge was.
Doel:Just in terms of the level of comfort.
Press:That and a certain social standing in their community. Well, I guess weíre about done.
Doel:I promised you we werenít going to go more than about two hours on tape. Letís see if we can go just a few minutes and then weíll resume with Lamont in the later period.
Doel:One of the things I was very curious about was, as you began to concentrate, particularly on seismology, who did you come to know? Were you already getting a feeling for the national community? Clearly it wasnít very large in seismology.
Press:Oh yes. Oh from the very beginning.
Doel:I was curious how quickly you came to know.
Press:From the very beginning. We knew who the big players were and what they were doing. And what gaps we would fill. We knew that. Of course, Ewing knew them professionally from meetings and so on. And we, as young scientists, knew them from the literature and then also from going to the meetings.
Doel:Which meetings were you going to particularly?
Doel:GSA for one. [cross talk]
Press:I would go to every single one of them. And to the Seismological Society of America [SSA] meetings as well. Weíd go to all of those every year.
Doel:Did you go to the Petroleum meetings, AUPG?
Press:No, not AUPG, but SEG [Society of Exploration Geophysicists].
Press:Yes. Went to those. We never went to one of these meetings as listeners. We always presented papers. In fact, that was the motivation for going. So we got to know everybody. And since we knew what was going on, we knew what we could do that would be different.
Doel:I'm curious, in particular, about those that you came to meet. Do you remember meeting early on, for instance, those in the Jesuit community, like [Father James B.] Macelwane, as well as [Charles] Richter and [Beno] Gutenberg?
Press:Yes. Met them all at meetings.
Doel:While you were still a graduate student?
Press:Yes. Really. Yes. You have to say this for Ewing: his graduate students were all working scientists. And thatís true today. But in those days, in those days, it was a little bit rare. And I say working scientists, I donít mean just in research. But he would encourage them to go to meetings, present papers. Get to know everybody.
Doel:As you look back on it, including from a later perspective, did that seem, does that seem unusual at the time? Was that not common practice in the late 1940s, early fifties?
Press:While we were doing it, we didnít know — in terms of a comparative way — what it was like at other schools, other faculty members, other teachers, how they treated their students. But after the fact, looking back, when we could understand, you know, the history of the subject and the evolution of universities and research departments. And donít forget, this was the period of the great explosion, after the war, of research in general, including geophysics. And so everybody was in a transition to a new way of life. I mean, realize that before the war, we were a third class scientific nation. And after the war, we became a very powerful country in science where graduate students probably contributed to half the productivity of American science in general. Okay? So we were in that transition. And how much it was Ewing and how much it was the era in which we lived — well, itís hard to disentangle it. But Ewing did push his students as working scientists to give papers, to challenge them in their research programs, to set up opportunities — both in financing their work, and just taking them to exotic places, like to sea — to establish their scientific credentials. And whether he did it as a matter of pedagogical philosophy, whether he did it because he just wanted a research team, and these were the only helpers he had — there were no other faculty at the time — or whether he was evolving a new system of graduate training in a thought-out way, ďIím going to do things differently, and this is my philosophy.Ē Whether all of that went into it is hard to know. But I suspect that it was a combination of all of these things.
Doel:Did he talk to you about his philosophy towards pedagogy at any point?
Press:Never. No. We never got into things like that.
Doel:Iím curious too if he talked about the interface between theory and experiment, particularly given that you were the strongest theoretician in the Lamont community.
Press:He practiced it. He didnít talk about it much. He practiced getting information, getting data. Being the first to get data and interpreting the data by theoretical advances. I mean he was trained to do that. He was strong in classical physics and he was very good with his hands, having grown up on a farm. So he was both an experimentalist and had good theoretical capacity. And so it was natural for him to think along these ways. And all of his students, you know, just were plugged in where they could contribute best. And sometimes they were needed in things that they didnít know anything about, and they learned. By themselves and as part of the team.
Doel:As part of, particularly as you say, within the graduate community and the others. Let me just ask one last question for this session. How important was your involvement in the Atlantis cruise for your later work in geophysics? How important was that experience being at sea?
Press:It was of great importance, absolutely.
Doel:In terms of what ways are you thinking about as you say that?
Press:About how one becomes a competitive scientist in terms of the totality of what that means. Organizing an experiment, the management of an experiment, developing the equipment, making it. In those days, you didnít go buy it off the shelf at Hewlett Packard the way we do today. If you needed an amplifier, you made it with your own hands from components. So it was all of that. It was the sense of defining an experiment that was significant that filled a gap in knowledge. There was an enormous sense of competition. Ewing was really a competitor, like an athlete. He had to be first. And if somebody was working in the same field as you, it was a real race where you would derogate the competition, you know. Itís like spurring on a horse, you know, with your spurs, and you derogate the competition. ďGotta beat those slobs; theyíre not as good as we are; theyíre kind of stupidĒ and so on.
Doel:In those early days, did the competition seem to be Scripps and WHOI [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] or were there others on the international field or otherwise that seemed important?
Press:Well, so far as oceanography and the sea floor was concerned, it was definitely Scripps. In seismology, itís interesting. Gutenberg and Richter and Benioff, they were friends. With them it was different, they were friends. They never were perceived to be competitors. Yes, it was a nice friendly relationship with them, unlike Scripps and Woods Hole.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Press:Teddy Bullard was not a competitor; he too was kind of a friend. The Jesuits were extremely classical so they were kind of, you know, well-known and contributing but not in the same league. The Russians were non-existent, just out of touch. The Japanese, also Jeffreys, were superb theoretical seismologists so we learned a lot from their papers.
Doel:But there werenít really any interactions in those early years, were there?
Press:No. That interaction with the Japanese began, at least for me at Caltech. And Ewing, coming from the war years, from undersea acoustics, really kind of defined his own field. And the Woods Hole people were more collaborators, junior partners — it was mostly Brackett Hersey ó they were junior partners, rather than competitors.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Press:A little bit of competition, not much. [Cross talk] The Lamont crowd steam rollered them all.
Doel:Thatís a very interesting observation. I was just recalling the kind of relationship that Ewing had with Columbus Isein who was director.
Press:Very friendly. Extremely friendly. Columbus admired Ewing even though Columbus was a fancy sort of, sophisticated, cultured, rich family background, sort of guy. But he understood Ewingís great strengths, and appreciated them. And Ewing was always welcome at Woods Hole. First of all he was there during the war years and made an enormous contribution to Woods Hole, and of course what he did in acoustic propagation! So that was always a very good relationship.
Doel:You mentioned a moment ago a very interesting observation of the good personal relationships that existed between Ewing and Gutenberg, Richter, [Hugo] Benioff, the people at the Seismology Lab at Caltech.
Press:Yes. I mean we werenít close friends or anything like that. But —
Doel:The cooperation was there.
Press:We were doing things that they werenít, they admired. And of course they were very famous people. So it was okay.
Doel:Do you feel that it had to do with your own relationships with them or was it something in the nature of the field that allowed this kind of greater cooperation?
Press:No. It changed. When I went to Caltech, then it started to compete with Lamont. We started to work with the same problems and we were really competing. But beforehand, the Caltech people were doing other things. It was a California network of the seismicity of the earth, statistics, probabilistic earthquake studies. Benioff was famous for his instrumentation, Gutenberg for compiling the famous travel time curves, and the study of the earthís core, mantle interface. All of those things which Lamont was not working on. Lamontís seismology was more an extension of the underwater acoustics from their own. The shifting the spectrum from lower frequencies, from the acoustic frequencies of the ocean. It was a natural extension which it turned out to be very, very important.
Doel:Unfortunately, we — I know that weíve run out of time for this time. We do want to continue on this, including your role as the political liberal in the Ewing White House as you referred to it before. Let me just thank you very, very much for this first session.
Okay. It was very good.
Session I | Session II