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Interview of Thomas Griffy by Kenneth W.
Ford on 1995 February 28, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/23203
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Griffy discusses inviting John Wheeler to join the physics department at the University of Texas, Austin. Wheeler's role there as teacher, researcher, and departmental colleague. Observations on Wheeler's character and personality and his influence on the department and the university.
Could you start, Tom, by saying a little bit about the circumstances of John's recruitment. You were the chair at that time...
—and an influential figure in bringing him here.
I was indeed chairman of the department from 1974 to 1984, which included the period when John Wheeler did decide to join the department at The University of Texas. It's difficult to recall the exact process that we followed in identifying John Wheeler as the target we wanted to go after. There was a great deal of discussion in the department about trying to recruit someone of such a stature that they would give the department a credibility among other physicists that it did not then have.
This would obviously involve recruiting someone who was not only a productive physicist—someone whose publication record was well known, who made real contributions to his field—but perhaps more importantly, recruiting someone who was well known in the physics community and recognized as someone with good sense and good taste within the physics community. That narrowed it down quite a bit. As a matter of fact, it narrowed it down to John Wheeler. Because at that time, and still today, there is hardly anyone within the physics community who is more respected than John.
People, even if they disagree with him on some issues, still consider his thoughts on any matter to be important and something that others ought to have to take into consideration. Johnny had already been president of the American Physical Society by this time, which was one sign of the high regard in which he was held by his colleagues. He was still very productive in his physics research. He was reaching an age at Princeton where, although retirement was not mandatory, it would become so within a year or two. I assume, by the way, that those procedures have changed by now. I don't know. I think that mandatory retirement is off the books every place. Of course we had a good group working in relativity here at The University of Texas. People like Al Schild, who had been here for years. Bryce and Cecile Dewitt were here—also Richard Matzner and Larry Shepley. It was a large and productive group working in relativity, which has always been one of Johnny's interests. And so it seemed that he would fit well in with that group.
So we asked Johnny and Janette to come down and visit for awhile, see what the place was like, talk to us about it, and he did that. One anecdote that still sticks in my mind: My wife and I took Johnny and Janette out just driving around the countryside to see what Austin looks like. Most people from the northeast are very much surprised to find Austin is as pleasant as it is, because they have this vision of sagebrush and tumbleweed and cactus, which really doesn't fit what the place is like. So we had the opportunity to go out and show them some of the nicer living areas, the environments, the lakes that are used for recreation, and so forth. And toward the end of that day we started discussing where we might go for dinner. We stopped at a little barbecue place out in the hills west of town called The County Line.
It was a very pleasant evening—this was in the spring—and we went out on the patio to have some drinks and to eat barbecue out there, and we were looking out over the hills west of Austin. It was a beautiful evening, and the hills were turning green while it was still cold and dreary back east, and Janette turned to Johnny, say, "You know Johnny, we really ought to come here." So I figured at that stage we had it made. The rest was just settling the details. And that turned out to be the case.
John's recollection is that George Sudarshan was the first person to contact him.
How did that come about?
I really don't recall. George was, and still is, of course, one of the prominent members of the faculty here, but I don't remember exactly what the reason was that George thought it might be worthwhile to contact Johnny.
Possibly they just happened to overlap at a conference.
Perhaps so. I really don't recall what it was that led to that initial contact. I've had occasions after he came here to talk to Johnny about what was it that caused him to come to Texas, and in fact he spoke publicly about that on several occasions after he came here. He used the phrase that Texas and The University of Texas were a "can-do State" and a "can-do University." I'm sure you may have heard that phrase.
I always took that as somewhat of a compliment, in the sense that it was his impression that people in Texas look for ways to do things rather than reasons why it was not possible to do them. I think to some extent that's true. I think that there is a little bit different culture.
He viewed you as a "can-do" chairman too.
[laughs] Well, I viewed my role as chairman at the time—and in fact the entire period— as trying to be an umbrella for the rest of the faculty. You know, there's a lot of stuff that comes down from above in a university, and if you can keep that off the rest of the faculty, that allows them time and freedom to do what they really ought to be doing, teaching and research responsibilities. Johnny would approach me frequently with ideas about things that he thought might work, things that might improve the department, things that he thought would help even the State in general and so forth. And my role was simply to put him in contact with people who had similar ideas and similar motivations.
It frequently worked. Johnny often served as the catalyst for bringing together people with like views. Another attitude—for lack of a better term—which I shared with Johnny was his interest in national defense issues. As you well know, I'm sure, working on the early part of his autobiography, he played a very prominent role in the Manhattan Project up in the State of Washington, putting together the first reactors while working for du Pont, plutonium production reactors.
His interest in defense matters continued beyond the Second World War, and I think not too many people are aware of the extremely important role he played in the late '40s and early '50s in deciding where the country was going to go in its nuclear weapons program. He was certainly one of the leaders in making those decisions–some-what behind the scenes. I mean, you don't read about Johnny as much as you read about Edward Teller, but I think Johnny's opinions were equally important at the time, and perhaps even more so. Are you going to speak to Teller, by the way?
Probably not. I've asked Wheeler whether he thinks it would be a good idea. He did see Teller personally just within the year, last summer I believe.
Okay. So they had a chance to reminisce.
His feeling is that Teller is now at a stage of forgetfulness about a lot that went on in that period, so that it probably wouldn't be fruitful to talk to him. Well, let me just mention one thing which you might bring up to Johnny in case he's forgotten it, or forgotten to mention it—I'm sure he hasn't forgotten the incident. He recounted for me one time being in Washington D.C. in a hotel during the Oppenheimer hearings, and Ed Teller came to his room the day before he [Teller] was supposed to testify at the Oppenheimer hearings, and said, "What am I going to do? What can I say?" Clearly Teller was torn between some allegiance to Oppenheimer and some respect for him, and yet some real concern that Oppenheimer was sabotaging the nuclear weapons program at the time.
And apparently Teller and Wheeler had a very interesting conversation about what Teller's testimony should be the next day, the summary of which is that Wheeler finally told him, "Just tell 'em the truth as you know it. You can't do anything else." So if Johnny hasn't mentioned that, go back and ask him about that, because I'm sure he can recall far more details than he even told me. That might be an important incident to include.
Later on, of course, Johnny had a role in establishing what has now become the Jasons, an advisory group to many parts of the federal government intelligence agencies and Defense Department, as well as the FBI and others—a technical group that provides truly expert advice but is independent enough that they don't have to provide advice that fits in with what other people in the government want to hear. And I think to this day they form a very useful group that performs a very valuable service for the government. Johnny was in on the founding of the Jasons. I don't know the exact dates—I think it was in the late '50s or early '60s.
Yes, I think the precursor conference was what he called Project 137.
Project 137 was held, I believe, in the summer of '58, or maybe '59, and then probably the year after that came the first Jason gathering.
Yes. One thing that struck everybody at the University, and still does, is that of all the prominent physicists, Johnny is probably the most gentlemanly of all. He truly is a gentleman, with everything that that word implies—in terms of social graces, and respect for other people, and respecting other people's opinions, and knowing how to carry on an argument. That's something most of us don't do well in physics. But Johnny could. I mean, he could disagree with you, and do it in such a way that you felt rewarded by his disagreement. There aren't many people like that. Johnny also played, and wanted to play, an important role in the department here.
We all knew that when we were hiring him, we were getting a very prominent, productive physicist and someone recognized for outstanding teaching. What we did not know is what a citizen of the department we were getting. He turned out to play an extraordinarily important role there. I was reluctant to ask him to serve on committees, because I didn't want to spend his time that way, but he often volunteered. I always welcomed that, and he always did an extraordinary job. He's done that not just for the department here, but for the physics community in general over his lifetime.
Speaking of his teaching, of course students clamored to take classes from him. Sometimes students do that just for the celebrity status of being in a class with a well-known person, whether or not they're a good teacher. In Johnny's case, of course, they were rewarded with just exquisitely prepared lectures entertainingly delivered, and with a flair and a firsthand knowledge that just wasn't available from anybody else.
I understand he taught even science for non-scientists.
Absolutely. He had a great interest in trying to communicate, not science per se, but the excitement of science to a much wider audience, trying to tell people outside of the scientific community why it is that scientists are so excited by what they do, and why it's so important to our society. During the time that Johnny was here there were many—I wouldn't say many, but several—conferences with roughly that as their theme, and he was always a very important participant in those conferences. During his teaching he had an open offer to any of the students in his class that if they were to catch him in a mistake, even one so trivial as making a sign error or something like that, if they would call it to his attention and the student proved to be correct, the student would be rewarded with a monetary reward.
I forget now the fact of whether it was a nickel or a quarter, but it was one or the other. Those coins became treasured item among graduate students. Believe me, they did not get spent. If you got a coin from Johnny as a result of having caught him in a mistake, it got framed and put on the wall, because it just didn't happen that frequently. But it always tickled him to do it, to pay off. So he was very well liked by the graduate students. I have no idea over his career—you probably know the numbers—how many Ph.D. students Wheeler produced. Many dozens, but I don't know what the total count is. I do know that the students he worked with here learned not only physics but how to be a physicist. That's something that many of us don't know how to teach. Johnny did.
He inculcated these people not only with the nuts and bolts of how to do the calculations and what problems to work on and so forth, but how to interact with your colleagues and how to share what you're doing in a way which is informative and so forth. Students who worked with Johnny were not trained; they were educated. He did a marvelous job of it. It's really hard to think of anything negative in Johnny's behavior as a faculty member here. He served on those departmental committees, University committees, and he taught, he did research, he published, he supervised graduate students. He did everything that one expects of a faculty member, and he did them all extraordinarily well. That's the amazing thing about it.
Did he serve on the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Research Institute while he was here, or was that earlier?
I don't know whether he was doing that while he was here or not. I don't believe so, because by the time he came here he was on the Board of Battelle, and Battelle and Southwest are somewhat competitors of one another. So I'm not sure, but I would kind of doubt that he was on both Boards simultaneously.
I think it was sequential, but I didn't remember the dates.
I know he was on the Board of Battelle while he was here, so he probably was not on the Southwest board at that time. And you know, that's another thing he's done over the years, is serve outside of the physics community per se in roles like the Boards of Directors of various things.
A question for you, which you can answer in any way you wish. You had on your faculty while John was here two extraordinary people with some common interests: Steven Weinberg and John Wheeler. From your observations, how did they get along and interact? My observation, looking in from the outside, is that they didn't have a whole lot to do with each other. Let me talk about several aspects of that. First of all, I don't think Steve Weinberg would have ever have come here if Johnny Wheeler hadn't.
I mentioned earlier that one of the things that Johnny Wheeler brought to the department was not only his research, teaching, and all that sort of thing, but he brought credibility. It meant that The University of Texas was a place that a good physicist could go. Had Wheeler not done that, had not been here, then I don't think we could have interested Steve Weinberg in even exploring the opportunity of coming here. So in that sense Wheeler played an enormous role in getting Steve Weinberg to come here. Now it is true that while they were here they worked on really quite different problems, and they really didn't interact with one another all that much in their research areas.
They did interact with one another within the department in deciding what directions the department should take and hiring new people, things of that nature, and I certainly don't recall any disagreements. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there was not a close collaboration between the two people. But I think that had to do with what they were both working on at the time.
I guess Steve Weinberg had worked on relativity earlier, and had shifted to elementary particles.
Yes, he had moved away from relativity some time earlier. He was doing particle physics almost entirely by the time he came here. Wheeler continued to work on relativity problems and on these choice experiments, interpretation of quantum mechanics and so forth. I don't think Steve had a real interest in that, and I think that's the reason there wasn't a closer collaboration between the two. But I do believe—I don't know if you'll have a chance to talk to Steve and raise the issue with him—it's my opinion that Wheeler being here played a very important role in Steve deciding to come. Not that Wheeler attracted him here, but it gave the place a credibility it would not otherwise have had. Marshall Rosenbluth came shortly after Wheeler came, I think pretty much for the same reasons.
I didn't know that. Is he still here?
No, he is not. He stayed here about four years and then left to go to San Diego.
Is there anything else you want to add, either anecdotes or concerning the general role of Wheeler in the department?
I think one of my favorite anecdotes involving Wheeler is one that I didn't witness. It took place before he came to The University of Texas. I think it captures Wheeler about as well as anything I've heard. He was invited to participate in a conference—I believe it was held at Princeton—on extrasensory perception, remote viewing, kind of pseudo-science sorts of things. I suspect—although I don't know this for sure—that his invitation was based on the fact that he was interested at the time in some of these delayed choice things in quantum mechanics and so forth, which kind of border on those ideas.
And he was asked to deliver kind of a summary for the conference. I've seen the proceedings, and Wheeler got up after the conference was over and said something to the effect, "Ladies and gentlemen, sometimes when there's smoke, there's smoke." That shows the incisiveness with which he can look at something, summarize it in a way that everybody could understand, and do it very succinctly.
Looking for just the apt phrase.
Yes, just exactly the right phrase to summarize the whole thing. And he caught it in a way there that I don't think anyone else ever has. Be sure and include that in that autobiography, because it really does capture, I think, how he could examine a problem and come to a conclusion and express it in a way that anybody could understand. Do you have any more questions? I hate to just kind of ramble hit and miss.
No, I think the things you've said are excellent and valuable.
While he was here, it happened to be during the period when Michener was writing the book Texas. Michener and Wheeler had quite a significant interaction with one another. They got along quite well, and saw each other frequently at dinners and so forth. I think that would be something interesting to include, because they are two well-known people in highly different areas, and yet they really seemed to hit it off. There seemed to be an interaction there that really did work. I mentioned earlier what an outstanding teacher and departmental citizen Johnny was. One beneficial effect that it had is that when younger faculty came into the department and they would want to know what it means to be faculty member ("What do I have to do to succeed?"), rather than giving them a list of issues and do's and don't's, I could simply point to an example and say, "Be as much like this guy as you possibly can be, and you will be successful." And it worked. I mean people, younger faculty, did; they tried to copy Johnny.
They paid more attention to their teaching, for example, because it was clear that Johnny thought teaching was important. And as you well know, there are many prominent faculty members who think their prominence is based on their dislike for being in a classroom. Johnny put that to rest. He showed that you could be both a very prominent, well respected physicist and care about your teaching and your students. That had an enormous beneficial effect on the younger members of our faculty here. I've always been thankful for that, because, as I said, it's much easier to point to an example than to try to explain something. Johnny was a living example of how that worked.
You know one of his favorite sayings, that universities exist so that students can teach the faculty.