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Interview of I. I. Rabi by Stephen White on 1980 February 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Family background and early childhood; religion; early interest in science; learning Copernican theory; Manual Training high school; Cornell University undergraduate (1915-1919); Student Army Training Corps (1917-1919); tutoring at City College; National Research Council Fellowship (1927), travel to Europe; met Linus Pauling, Arnold Sommerfeld, Edward Condon, Howard Percy Robertson, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Edwin Schrodinger, Hans Bethe, Rudolf Peierls, Otto Stern; Columbia University lecturer; physics research at Columbia University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1940- ).
I want to talk about how you generated a scientific career. Obviously, you were young. You were playing with electricity. You were playing with photography. You were inspired, as it were by the awareness that you could study the world in a rational way, which wasn’t all mysterious and beautiful and yet I suspect, although you don’t say so, that that was one of the things that moved you to go to Manual Trades High School.
Manual Training, that it was a little better. At some point, you must have decided you wanted to be a scientist. Now, you told me in the past how in fact it took you a while to know what you meant by that, and I wonder whether you could talk about that.
Yes. To go back to my recollection, I suppose, like most American boys, they did play with machinery of some kind. They did play with machinery. My possibilities in that direction were small. We lived on a farm. We didn’t have a car. However, I did get interested. It started by reading, Barbara Christie, about airplanes. There was a book called SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN BOOK FOR BOYS, from the old SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and other things which I read in the local library particularly in the children’s section. And I wanted to handle and see those things. I wanted a telescope. I became interested in astronomy. I had no telescope, but somebody had lent me opera glasses. Things of that sort, I think, would share — almost every American boy does that at some time. However, with me, since I originally got started more or less in a scientific direction by reading about astronomy, Copernican theory, I tended to go on with it, and so, I did what I could locally. I had a battery and did some things. I did manage to pick up a small telescope, one of those cheap things that are sold and put together. I started doing things in photography. I even bought a rather good bellows camera on the Bowery in one of those pawn shops; for $5 I got a rather magnificent camera. I acquired a tripod. Somewhere or other, I made connections with a boy whose father ran a junk shop, which enabled me to acquire wire. I got together with some other kids, and wired things, like electric bells. I had a small business, finishing photographic things, photo finishing, and got some other kids to help me, and paid them part of the proceeds. We had one disastrous, oh, very disastrous day. It was Labor Day. We got a lot of prints to develop. No room in the house for them to dry. We hung them out on the clothes line in the back yard, and the wind came up and scattered these things over the gardens next door. With the job of cleaning that was the end of that business. But I installed electric bells and burglar alarms for some of the store keepers around the place, things of that sort. I had a very active relationship with another kid three blocks away. He and I got together and installed a telegraph between our houses. It meant stringing wire across streets — big houses. They seemed big then. I mean four or five story houses. It meant throwing a string across and then pulling it after. My father had to pay for a plate glass window in a store which we broke: the stone didn’t quite reach the other side — things of that sort. So I was a very busy kid, in that way, and in a way the leader of a group, three, four, five kids. I made acquaintance with other kids. The sort of thing that happens, and this went on until I was, I think I was 14, starting high school. A different life started at that point. Of, course, I had a wireless station. The word “radio” hadn’t been coined then, where I could receive and transmit. I made most of the equipment somehow, and I had a license. I almost failed. The degree of the license wasn’t as high as it should have been. I could read all right, but when I went to take the examination, I had no gloves. It was winter and my fingers almost froze and I couldn’t write fast enough.
Was it Morse Code?
Yes, Morse Code. No, there was no telephony. The only telephony that there was, I think the Prince of Monaco came to New York Harbor, and he had a set of tuned quenched spark coils, and he could play music over it. And also, I had a piece of pride. I wouldn’t read a newspaper, but I would listen to the transmissions which were made to [???] in Germany. (This was before the war.) From Long Island, to [???] in Germany — I copied this. This was my way of getting news. I was very proud of that. And sometimes I could hear them transmit and hear, what’s the name of that station? In Panama, Key West.
They had a transmitter down there.
Yes. These were at certain times. Of course, things in New York Harbor — I could easily spend a lot of time on that, which I did. It was very absorbing for me, at the time. Of course, it caused me to read a lot of history. I just didn’t do it the way some kids did. I read of the history of wireless. Marconi, the people in [???] and Hertz and this sort of thing, and my interest was not just in the gadgetry, but to some degree, to a large degree, in the science, and the other things kind of that go to make history. So it was more than just perfunctory. On the other hand, I didn’t go into it deeply, as I suppose I could have.
How much mathematics did you have at that time?
I had just the mathematics kids have at that time. I think I had probably more arithmetic. I think I could express square root.
No, no, that was in high school.
You had no desire to go beyond the school in mathematics, studying mathematics on your own?
No. I never came across good books. If I had run into that book of [???], where he describes — there were no good books of anything. You don’t pick up mathematics very readily. At least I didn’t. Some do, just on clear ability. Yes. I did find out things. Some kid, I remember distinctly, he knew how to extract square roots, and told me, and I was very excited about it. How I found out, how you read — the first time, one time in school, I saw some other kid, I was next to another kid and he had a book that was not a class book that was distributed. Because we had no such thing at home, only prayer books, in Hebrew. I asked him, “Where did you get this book?” and he told me of the existence of a library. Told me where it was, and I went there and registered, and started taking out some books. They were big books, of fairy tales, actually, but I was small for my age (still am), but the librarian didn’t believe I could read. She made me read a page. So it was all in this way. What I picked up was, these experiences here and there, and went on from there to get a kind of wider horizon, but it was always this sort of thing. Nothing of guidance from adults. Or really even teachers.
I want to ask you a very hard question. I don’t know how you could possibly answer it but I’ll ask you anyway. When you were say 15 or 16, second year in high school, how did you envision your own future? What did you think you'd be doing as an adult?
It wasn’t very clear. I certainly was — I was not going to be a salesman. I didn’t look forward to being a lawyer, though I probably would have been fairly successful as a lawyer. No, I didn’t know, but I really was interested in doing things that had connection with science, as I understood it. I don’t think I had any other definite ambition. And then I did think of business, but only in the sense of giving me an opportunity to do science. Which science wasn’t clear. Not biological. I knew science. I didn’t know what the different fields meant, how it was divided up. I was interested in science. I didn’t even put a name on the subject, which it would be. I was not terribly good at it in high school, in physics, for example. I didn’t pay very much attention. The teachers didn’t interest me. I was good at mathematics. I was good at chemistry. My best subject, as far as the examinations were concerned, was history. Well, I had no problems with anything. I was not — literature was natural to me, something which I liked. In fact, I was pretty good in all subjects, in that sense, and to prove it, I had the highest grade in the Regency Examination, New York State Regency Examination, higher than anybody from Boys’ High, which was the prime high school in Brooklyn at the time. Now, the question, where to go on, what college to go on — I had no advice whatsoever.
You made an odd choice.
No, it was a natural choice. I chose Cornell for a number of reasons, some completely trivial. Our math teacher, who was a very good math teacher, was also the football coach of the high school, and I helped him some, distributing tickets and so on, and I would get into the football games, which I wouldn’t ordinarily have done, and I became enthusiastic about football. Cornell had a famous football team then. Cornell had a humorous magazine called THE MERRY WIDOW, which amused me in a trivial kind of way. I remember, one verse I read in it: “A steam roller rolled in a straight line/ and flattened from east to west./ He hadn’t a chance to utter a whine,/ But his pants no doubt were pressed.” This was in that. I had read all the romantic novels, of, you know, Fennimore Cooper, and that was in the Finger Lake region around there — all those stories. Secondly, Cornell seemed to have found something where there would be emphasis on the mechanic arts. It was a democratic sort of thing, which, at that age, was rather important. And lastly, it took one out of the city, which I really hadn’t been, so there were good reasons. I did not know about Harvard, for example, or Columbia University, I didn’t know the difference between that and City College. I just didn’t know.
Was City College then what it later became — a rather good —
— I didn’t know anything about it, but I wasn’t going to go to City College.
No, but I’m asking, historically, when did City College —
Oh, it was very good. Yes.
I thought it might have been, between the wars —
No, especially then. Oh yes. It was a rather rigid place. So, it was natural for me to go away, and it was Cornell. Oh yes — there was a Cornell Fellowship.
I was going to ask you where the money came from.
Scholarship. And my money came from — I had a New York State Scholarship, which you get of course for getting certain grades in the Regents. I had that $100 a year, and of course, that wouldn’t have helped if I were going out of state. And the Cornell Fellowship, which was tuition. So, those were additional. So it wasn’t completely haphazard, although the reasons were funny, considering my character and background and so on.
When you went to Cornell, there again, did you then, about the time you went to Cornell, had you made up your mind you were going to study — you got a degree in chemistry, didn’t you?
Had you made up your mind that early that you were going to study chemistry, or —?
No, no, no. No, no. I really registered first in engineering, electrical engineering. I’ll say this. Coming from Manual Training High School, with a free elective system, I not only had all the scholastic things — I had two languages, which is rare now, French and German, but I also had all sorts of shop work, and advanced courses in chemistry, somehow or other. So I had credits way into my junior year, in evaluation of the courses I’d had. It was a high school, and far from the standards of a university, but it was damned good. I studied engineering, particularly electrical engineering that I was going for. It was still far from my early dream of being a scientist, and interested in the structure of matter. This is the —
— that far back?
Yes. Those were the words. I didn’t know what you did to do it. I started with electrical engineering. The initial courses are about the same. And I took chemistry, and one course in chemistry which people find boring, qualitative analysis, was very exciting to me, because there was a prescription, how to find out what this is — you’ve got unknowns, you’re supposed to find out what it is, and you were not graded on how you do it, just the answer. I found all sorts of ways of getting the answers, and some of it was just plain inspiration. My roommate came along with an unknown. Those also were part of it. They were doing chemistry. So I did both. He came along with this thing. I looked at it, smelled it. I said, “This is oxalic acid. You go and report it.” He had great faith in me. He went and reported oxalic acid. Correct. Later on I found it had no odor. But it was ok. I had insights into whatever it is. I was very pleased with myself — yes, in tune, in that course. I went on, taking this thing. However, there was one thing I will say. I never studied courses. I never read in the subject I was taking the course in. If I was taking quantitative analysis, I might be reading Shaw, things of that sort. I was one of the few people who read THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, this stuff. I read widely, in philosophy and everything else.
Took no courses in those subjects?
No, no, not a single thing, no. I took no courses. The only course I had outside of mathematics, physics and chemistry was the required course in freshman English, and I’m very glad they required it, because it introduced me to Palgrave’s GOLDEN TREASURY, which gave me a lot of —
The first book I’d ever owned. Well, anyway, if I’d found it earlier — but it was great. So, this was clear. Which way I was going was clear, and I wasn’t — I was going at more of an intellectual interest. The physics that was taught at Cornell at that time was abysmal.
Yes, that’s right. It was one of the great places for physics, but it was taught in such a way that there was no intellectual interest, and you felt that it was something where you — research in it consisted chiefly in measuring the resistance of copper (crosstalk). And on the other hand, this little introduction to chemistry — chemistry, right off they talked about the structure of matter. In physics you got that — you would never get it in physics at Cornell at that time. Maybe nowhere. I don’t know. So it was by accident, in that sense, that I went into chemistry. But I paid no attention to it, in a sense. It was easy. I was good at it. Organic chemistry, which is usually intricate and so on, was no problem for me. I did all of it, the rules for looking at it, this sort of thing, so I was a good student. I wasn’t the best student in the place, but not very far from it. I was as good as you could be without studying for it and working at it, that sort of thing. I never handed in reports, or, some very sloppy pieces of paper. I depended on taking the final examination and hitting it hard.
Did you tell me once, this is in my mind, about meeting somebody about that time? (crosstalk) [???] was it?
Oh yes. No, Philip [???], yes. He was a boy who came out of nowhere. He was tall and looked very much like Oppenheimer — a blonde kind of Oppenheimer, not quite as self-conscious. And he had read a great deal, too. Oh, it was wonderful, to get another kid who was interested in literature and everything else. He had worked with a man called (Creevor?) who was a figure at that time. He also knew about something he’d heard of — the mysterious constant H. Whatever it might be. He intimated, opened ideas that there was a whole world there, which was not mentioned in any textbook, either textbook or teachers or anything, and this was — at a time, the quantum thing was great, but (crosstalk) — No, it shows the level of American science, that this wasn’t even heard of. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even heard of four years later. Heard of, yes, but not studied and so on. It wasn’t — it was a pretty shabby thing. You know, a great university, as that was, not to have some intimation of these things in the physics course!
You must also have been at Cornell at the time of the Eddington measurement of the Einstein shift?
You had already left?
Let’s see, I think the news of that came out —
I got my degree in 1919. So I don’t think that — I knew about it in the newspapers, but not at Cornell.
Well, that’s what I meant. You weren’t studying. You weren’t at Cornell at the time.
No. I don’t think it — it would have made a great impression on the newspapers, but not the physics course.
THE NEW YORK TIMES had it, the physics course did not.
No question. Well, that was certainly true in England, for a time, when the physics was done by outsiders.
Continue that. You said he introduced you to the notion that there were things going on in physics that weren’t represented in your course.
And it was mostly Planck, or mostly —
— the Constant H. Whether he named Planck is something else again. But Crehore had known and told him.
What’s his name again?
Crehore. I think he was a private engineer, inventor, something of that sort. He was a very well-known name at that time, and I suppose I should refresh my memory.
I can find out.
Yes. It was a good name. Maybe some encyclopedia would have it. It certainly was known to me from my reading.
That interested you.
But there wasn’t much you could do about it.
Yes. Well, I suppose I could have, but I was doing all sorts of other things. That wasn’t in the direct thing. It didn’t interest me enough or give me enough to go on and find out what he was talking about, and I couldn’t have, in books that were available to me. You’d have to go in — One great thing about Cornell was, the chemistry department, there was an insistence that you were required to possess some sort of reading knowledge of French and German. Chiefly, since it was chemistry, it was happily in German. You had to consult books of this sort. It’s really too bad, now, that they aren’t required. It’s all in English, it’s true, but it won’t necessarily be for the lifetime of the people who are students now.
Well, we’re a richer society. There are easier ways to learn German than to learn it in school.
No, I learned in school.
I say there are easier ways than to learn it in school.
I doubt it. I doubt it. No, no, I think school is the easiest way of all, while you’re at school.
We certainly differ. Jeffrey learned French without ever studying French, by going to France and living for a year.
Oh, but that’s not an easy way. (crosstalk)
As I say, we’re more affluent now than we were.
I see. No, we aren’t. You are. No, you weren’t. Jeffrey was.
So, you graduated from Cornell and went on to graduate school?
No, no. I graduated from Cornell in 1919, and there was no job. In chemistry, certainly. And certainly not for a Jew. Frankly, no jobs. I did get a job, a small job, in analyzing mother’s milk and furniture polish and so on.
Distinguishing between them?
Well, it was a general thing. The fat content of each — that sort of thing. I had no job, and a friend of mine who was studying law, had studied law, and his brother had started a little accounts receivable discount house, and I went to work there, at low pay, but I saw something of that business. At one point, I had more than $300,000 worth of Swiss watches1 at least the certificates for them being imported, and we lent the importer some money, and I had to deal with them when they defaulted and found I could. We were taken in by one swindler. I lent him money on forged accounts receivable. Very nice man, otherwise. That essentially put us out of business, but I was in that for well more than a year. There was a whole group of us — Maurice Finklestein, Ben Ginsberg, Joe Lapin — who were all in the same way. We were kind of marking time. Also, when that ended, I started a local newspaper in Brooklyn called THE BROWNSVILLE BULLETIN, with a thousand dollars I got from my parents. By that time I got to be 25 or so and I said to myself, “This is the time of choice. If you want to be a scientist, you've got to go back to the university.” And we all did. Joe Lapin went to medical school. He'd been out that period. Maurice Finklestein went to Harvard and got an advanced degree in the law, what they called Master’s S.J.D. It’s jurisprudence. Ben Ginsberg went into the philosophy department. He was together with some people like [???] and Scott Buchanan. That group. We all went off at the same time, each went his own way, and I went to Cornell. I went to Cornell for my graduate work. That was the turning point in my life, because it turned out, I’d had all the courses that Cornell had to offer, and the subject by this time, which I had read — oh yes, in between this period, when I was out, I read a great deal in… (switch tape) …In fact, I used to go to the New York Public Library several evenings a week, when I was doing my work during the day. It was a tremendous help. Anyway, before I attempt to expand the whole life — my friend Ralph Morgan did, INTRODUCTICN TO POETRY, through [???] and so on — However, to come to that point, I didn’t have physical chemistry. I applied for an assistantship in the department, and they didn’t give it to me. So I said to myself, “I’ll study physics,” I’d had all the chemistry Cornell could offer, “And I’ll put it together, why not?” I mean, I had a great deal of confidence in myself. And then, when I started taking these courses in physics, which were the advanced courses, because I felt I was too old to take intermediate courses, I never did in the subject, I found that the part of chemistry that I was interested in was called physics that this was it. Intellectually and so on, the mathematical side of it, the beautiful theorems that they had, the maximum, minimum — oh, marvelous! So I had a wonderful time, and there was no question of going back to chemistry, or even trying to put the two fields together. Chemistry was put aside entirely and in the course of time, I forgot most of it.
So, if you’d got your assistantship in chemistry —
— the whole story would have been different. I would have been a chemist. I would have done a dissertation, which would have been disastrous, because they had a lousy graduate school then, very very backward. But you see, when I talk about celebrations, — it was frustrations, defeats that led me on to the right course, as if God had kicked me! “Get away, dummy!” That’s why I’m older than my contemporaries.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know you had that long —
— oh, four years. Then of course, after a year — it was all very fortunate — I applied for a fellowship at Cornell. I didn’t get it. I’d met, the previous summer, I’d met Hal Newmark. So I decided to change to Columbia. I changed to Columbia.
Oh, you did. So you got your doctorate at Columbia?
I got my doctorate at Columbia, exactly. But this is how it happened. If I’d had this fellowship, — somebody else got it, my competitor then, and was never heard of again. But I can see why they didn’t give it to me, because I was a nuisance. I asked questions all the time — hard for them —
(crosstalk)… answer —
— in a department which had a lot of intelligent people, but they were not questioning the basics, which I dwelt upon, and they knew the stuff. They’d learned and so on. They could do it and some of them became, went out and became quite important, more on the applied side, that they wouldn’t have done if they knew the basics.
In passing, by the way, how did you stay out of the war?
Oh, I didn’t stay out of the war. I was drafted. I volunteered before I was drafted, and I was in the Student Army Training Corps, and I had to live in dormitories and so on. Oh, there’s a wonderful story. I almost died, if I weren’t so independent. This was during the flu epidemic, and we had, you know, a lot of marching and so on, and we lived in the dormitory, and one morning, I just didn’t feel right. So I went and reported to sick call, went up to the infirmary. The doctor examined me and said I was all right. At least I thought he said I was all right. I went off and was having breakfast, I’d missed breakfast, when a fellow, the sergeant came along and said, “Oh, Rabi, I thought you’d called on somebody that died, you have to go to the infirmary.” So he took me to the infirmary. I got to the infirmary, was put to bed, two in a room. Next to me was an Air Force cadet — Cornell became a school for that — an Air Force cadet who was really sick. Well, I was there for the rest of — was rested, I didn’t march (I didn’t mind that) but then, I missed the next meal, wasn’t given a meal. The nurses would come in. They’d go over to this guy and take care of him. Finally a doctor came, and all he did was to adjust the window so the upper and lower things would match. He put his hand on my shoulder. That was all. And I didn’t get breakfast. So I tried to wheedle the nurse, “What’s happening? What am I —?” “They didn’t tell you?” I finally got her to say that I had same temperature. The next time she came around, I really played with that thermometer, and maybe I hit it. I was rewarded by a meal, and got some strength in me. I put on my clothes and skipped out, and went and reported at my dormitory. That fellow died. I would have died. This is what we [???]… I mean, the idea of putting you there with sick people. I escaped that. Otherwise — Oh yes, my next important incident was, when the Armistice was declared and the officer on duty — (a bunch of dumb suckers, mostly from Georgia, spit and polish. as far as their puttees were concerned, ignorant) — he comes in, and I was reading, this wonderful thing, the Armistice. He said, “Do you know your infantry drill regulations backwards?” I said, “No, sir.” “Ten days KP.” That’s — when they wanted me to assume a uniform, in this last war, I finally persuaded them, “I think a civilian is the noblest rank of all.” Oh, they wanted me to — I got a bonus. I got a $60 bonus from New York state.
They wanted to make you a colonel or something?
Oh, commodore. Navy.
Yes. They introduced that grade for a while.
A simulated grade.
So, you were at Cornell, you went to Columbia. How long did it take for you to get your degree?
Oh, very leisurely. I was in no rush. I would say, when I add it up and so on, three or four years.
You got your degree about 1927.
You have to submit a paper, publish a paper, which I did, submitted it to the PHYSICAL REVIEW. It was published January, 1927, so I got my degree as of 1927. I could have presented my dissertation a year earlier. I could have had it earlier, but — And another thing that saved my life, absolutely, too: when I got to Columbia, I met a man who was teaching at City College. I met a man who was a friend of Helms, a brother-in-law, who was teaching at City College and told me there might be an opening. I went down there, and got a job. This was after I’d been at Columbia a year. I got the job, and it was a job of tutoring, $800 a year, 16 contact hours of — but it made all the difference in the world. I was on my own. I was on my own and had a real job, in the subject, in physics, and it made all the difference in the world to my morale. I was a respected member of society. And of course it opened doors to other people who were teachers there, and I don’t care so much for studying alone. I always get a group. I had a group of people and everything. I was really on the road. But this was again, a series of failures that I didn’t get the fellowship that I went to Columbia. The education at Columbia was far superior to Cornell’s, although Cornell had the better professors.
Oh, really? Was there anybody at either one of those places that I'd be likely to know about?
I remember the name because you had the book. I don’t even know what the book was.
Well, ok, it’s just, the name. PHYSICAL REVIEW was started at Cornell and was published from there. They had Meritt and a number of people. You wouldn’t know them, because I never came under the influence of a great man —
— that’s what I was getting at —
— during my whole education in the United States.
When did you go to Germany?
The year you got your degree.
That’s right. I got the degree. I got this fellowship.
Oh, you got a fellowship.
From Columbia. No, I applied for the National Research Council Fellowship — or didn’t, I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t get it. But Columbia had, there’s a Columbia Fellowship, a very nice one, which I didn’t get, and that’s probably for various reasons. Some of it may have been racial, at that time. But I did get something called the Barnard Fellowship, which was $1500. That’s all, period. And I got that. I took that and used it as it had never been used before, for travel. So, 1927, there’s the first time I came across people who were actually making physics, whose minds I could — more than respect. You know. Like. Well, people who became important. The first person I met, coming across, was actually Linus Pauling.
This was where?
Zurich. Then later on, I went to Munich, and I met not only Sommerfeld but Condon and Robertson, who were fellow students, about the same age, younger than I, but then later on, there was Bohr and Pauli and Stans — everybody who was anybody, Heisenberg, this sort of thing. I was right there in the midst of it you can see.
Most of these people were about your own age?
Yes, younger, except for the other generation. Stan was ten years older, Bohr too, I suppose, maybe even more. So, this was then — and the way they looked at problems, the professional way you look at it, that I hadn't seen. It’s not that I was ignorant because at Columbia, in my usual way, I organized a group, and we students at Columbia never thought of going to a professor for the modern stuff. We knew it. I published a couple of papers, as a graduate student.
Talking about people like Heisenberg — did you at this time — I keep coming back to this — did you by this time have the mathematical sophistication you needed?
That’s a part of what I was going to tell you. The difference between Cornell and Columbia. At Columbia, we had a Professor Wills who was the chairman of the graduate department. Professor Wills had studied in Germany for some time and he had certain ideas of required courses. Cornell was free, no required courses. You only had your examination at the end for your degree. Here, he had certain, required courses. Those were just the things I needed. I had a required course in the mathematical equations of physics. A bad textbook, but better than none. It was given in the physics department. At Cornell, they had it there, it was an option you could take physical mathematics if you wanted. So this turned it to something else, infinitely superior, although the professors at Cornell, man for man —
— there wasn’t much difference?
No — were better physicists, much, better. But it didn’t work out, because they couldn’t organize anything. The students, the whole atmosphere was something else, and before this kind of — low grade, in a way. There was one fellow, very bright guy, became a big figure in RCA. He had his apparatus, beautifully made apparatus, with a sign: “DANGER, 50,000 Ohms” — you know, jokes like that. Of course, various things. The first colloquium I attended was, describing how they spent their summer. Camping outfits. You know the intellectual tone, somehow — At Columbia, I never was in contact with a professor, but the [???] wasn’t too bad.
You mentioned when you got over to Munich, or over to Europe rather, meeting (Stern?) among others. He was a rather important man in Europe.
Oh, very. He was in a sense the leading experimenter. But — another one of those accidental stories. I went to Sommerfeld, Zurich, that was natural, because Schrödinger was there. I went to Zurich because Schrödinger was there. I arrived just in time for Schrödinger to leave to go to Berlin. The next item on the itinerary — and also from Linus Pauling, he recommended a certain pension in Munich — was Sommerfeld, and it’s an odyssey to describe the travels, until I landed in Hamburg, where I started what turned out to be my life’s work, in a way. All accidental.
Let me get something clear. You went to Munich because of Sommerfeld? What kind of association did you expect to have with Sommerfeld? What was the process here?
I didn’t know. I knew of Sommerfeld his great students that he put out, Heisenberg, Pauli — Debye.
(crosstalk) — what were you planning to —?
I was working on something. I was working on the hydrogen molecules structure, the hydrogen molecule, but I was also learning more physics.
What would you be planning to do — take a course with Sommerfeld?
No, no, no courses.
I might attend a colloquium and then, talking to people.
Not necessarily Sommerfeld.
No, no, no. I didn’t know whether Sommerfeld — or not — I didn’t know what the system was. I certainly didn’t talk to my professors at Columbia.
So what you’re saying is, substantially: you were going where physics was being done?
Naturally. That’s it exactly. Not more than that. Not more than that. I was going to where it was happening. Yes, a traveling scholar. So, there was Sommerfeld, and I met Hans Bethe, who was a graduate student at that point, Peierls, and of course Condon and Robertson. Those were two important things in my life, who were there, who were finishing their two years they’d been abroad and were going back. Condon had a job lined up at California and Robertson at Princeton, assistant professor. That was — I was without a job because I couldn’t get a leave of absence from City College, this little job — so I went the rounds. I picked up whatever I could, both of physics, and just abroad.
Condon was a very nice guy.
Great wit too.
That’s where — yes, I acquired this chauvinism. I was a great American chauvinist. I wasn’t that, before I left. It was there. The criticism of the United States, always for the good things.
Of course you met Robert about that time?
Still in Europe?
In Europe. Oh, almost everybody I met that was important in later life.
How many years were you there?
How did you make $1500 last two years?
I never stayed in a second class hotel. Third class. I never traveled third class, but fourth class, until they abolished it.
Was Helen with you?
Well, this is interesting. Of course, we couldn’t see how to do it, the passage. So I went alone, somehow or other. However, we saw that — this was, I went over in June — by September that it wouldn’t work. And I think she raised some money, or her family raised some money, and she came. Then, we just demonstrated, two can live… as cheap as one… lived cheaply. But this was a great thing, in some ways, because this was about the salary that the Germans at my level were getting. They were living like that.
You said the work in which you spent the rest of your career started at Hamburg. Was that Sterne?
Yes, that was Sterne. Not so much Sterne in person, but from Munich, I went to England — a big step, in the summer, just to be in London and so on, and Robertson and Condon had gone to England, and the first shock came when I tried to stay in his hotel. In Munich, I was living for six marks a day, which was about the equivalent of a shilling. All found — room, board — in Munich — I mean, in London, it was eight shillings, plus breakfast, in London. It was far beyond my means. I looked around, and I remembered, from reading Conan Doyle and so on, the region around the British Museum, and I found that I could get a four or five shilling bed and breakfast. It was still tough. Then I sent for Helen. She was to meet me in London, and she did. But that’s a story in itself, which was, you needed a visa there, $10, American visa to England, some sort of (retaliation?) there, and she was told, if she didn’t have it, to transfer to Copenhagen. My plan was to go from Munich to London, stay for a month and then go to Copenhagen, which was the Mecca. By the way, I might mention, when I went to Munich, I didn’t write beforehand for [???] and so on.
University in the old sense.
I had it. Nobody else did, but I had it, in the old spirit. The same was true of Bohr’s Institute. Well, Helen came and we had to get out in two or three days. She did a month of sightseeing but did it in two or three days. We went to the British Museum, and I’d read about this [???] “Book of Hours,” in [???], the Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. We walked in, two young people, Helen and I, and asked for the “Book of Hours.” I didn’t know what to expect. It came in about a dozen volumes. We sat in a certain place and we were given this. Priceless, absolutely!
That happened to me at Widener, once.
We just spent a happy hour or two with these things and gave them back. Gee, the “Romance of Leonardo da Vinci,” I’d forgotten that, by [???] — oh, it was a tremendous book for me.
They had a biography of Benevento Cellini, which was another one.
Yes, that’s right, and the LIFE OF PASTEUR was another one. I read all those somehow, yes. But the one about Leonardo da Vinci was a kind of eye opener for me. It gave me an introduction to art, which I would have found it very hard to — painting, I should say.
I read it when I was a kid. So then, you started working on?... we were talking in a vague sort of way of your going to Munich, to Hamburg, on what I presume was molecular beam work.
(crosstalk) Yes, what happened there — part of the little incidents of our getting there, and so on — we were essentially thrown out of Copenhagen. That’s another one of those celebrations.
Why were you thrown out?
I’ll never know.
You mean, the Institute?
Yes. The ostensible reason was that Bohr had worked very hard that summer, and was tired and not taking people — especially since I hadn’t made an arrangement. So (Nishan?) and I were thrown out. They had made arrangements, the first time they’d been made, with Pauli. So I went to work with Pauli, and Sterne was there. But there were two — there was an American and an Englishman, an Englishman by the name of Frazier, an American by the name of [???].
Ronnie, that’s right. I talked with them all the time, and I could help them on the theoretical side. They were working with Sterne and I had an idea for an experiment, and I was invited by Sterne to do it. And this was considered a great honor. It was the laboratory in Germany at the time doing this great work. With a wife and no job, I was in no position to refuse the honor and I certainly had no experience in this field. So I learned from Taylor. I did an experiment there, and this experiment, which was a methodological one, and when I was through, I went back to my first thing, and I went to Leipzig with Heisenberg, and that’s where I met Robert, briefly. Then when Heisenberg went off to the United States, for a lecture tour, I went to Pauli, whom I’d known very well by that time. I got my job through Heisenberg’s recommendation at Columbia. That’s the way things hang together in a sense.
You did the experiment with Sterne. You left something hanging there. Then when you finished —
No, no, I got finished.
Then you went back, you said. I didn’t understand what you meant?
Went back to theory. To theory, yes.
So you thought of yourself as a theoretical physicist.
I thought of myself as a theoretical physicist, and this other was — well, it was more American tradition, that you were a physicist, and this German bifurcation, where it was not — of course, Otto Sterne himself has done very important theoretical work. So, it was a natural thing, in this sense. But not many people did it. But it was natural for me. It was in line with what I had always thought of the subject, that you had ideas, you were studying nature, if your thing could be worked out mathematically, it was a mathematical idea, you tried to do that, and if it was more on the experimental side, you did that, and very often they — it required both. Maxwell was one. Faraday, he was — didn’t know any mathematics, couldn’t really be a theoretical physicist in a sense, in the pure sense of it — so it was along those lines, although (Willie Mien?) in Germany, professor of experimental physics, but he made important contributions to the theory, the theory of radiation and so on. And the British tradition.
The only distinguished person you didn’t mention was Fermi.
Well, that came later in Zurich. We haven’t talked of that, mentioning Fermi. There was a meeting and so on.
While you were still in Europe.
Still in Europe.
So you finished up with Sterne, finished that methodological experiment. What did you do next?
Oh, I went to Leipzig. To Heisenberg, and joined his group, which was a fascinating group, and so on. It was — oh, a whole series of names. I don’t know whether this is the place to bring them out. I mean, in the (crosstalk).
Let’s see, what year are we in now? about 1928?
I finished in 1928, and the beginning of winter, 1928, December and January I think we were in Leipzig. It was a very cold winter, one of the coldest winters — it got to 30 below. And… (off tape)
So finally you got an offer from Columbia, while you were in Europe?
While I was in Europe. Now Nancy was coming along. And I had no job, and hadn’t written for one. I don’t know whether I mentioned the incident with Richtmeyer, professor at Cornell? He was coming to visit, going through Hamburg. I invited him to this lunch with the Hamburg ambiance. Every day of the week, we had lunch together at this hotel, and — in Hamburg — Stann, Pauli, the professor, Lenz, professor of theoretical physics, Pauli was his assistant, and Frazier, Taylor, Gordon, Walter Gordon, and I. We learned an enormous amount, with younger people there, and the elders — Pauli was an elder, even though he was younger. For three marks, we had a complete lunch, nice napery, silver service, this sort of thing and waiting, serving part of it, then when you seemed to be through, they would put the dishes on, perfect. I lost my verb at this point… I was describing…
— your offer from Columbia.
Life in Hamburg.
Oh, Richtmeyer came through.
Yes, Richtmeyer came through so I invited him to that lunch. And we were there. I introduced him around. Pauli hadn't arrived, so when Pauli came in, sat down… (German) So, went through this and then he ordered and what not. Well, I had invited Richtmeyer in the hope that he might offer me a job. He didn’t. So I had no job, at that point, and I fully expected I would go into the real estate business with my father. But out of the blue, in May, a cable, offering me this job, at $3000 a year, which was beyond my dreams of avarice that I’d seen at that time. I’d be coming, so it was all set. He said, “Don’t bother to telegraph a reply.” Well, I telegraphed a reply and so on so, there again one of those things. Why did I get the job? It had been turned down by (Crohme?) who was really a very good man. It had been turned down by another fellow, who wasn’t very good. He’d turned it down because he wasn’t going to live in New York, a fellow graduate student, a year earlier. And Heisenberg, in coming through, had recommended me highly. And I had suggested some avenues of research in solid state physics.
You were ahead of your time.
I was, in a way, yes. I guess so. Anyway, this was it. I got the job. This is how we came. It was in 1929. If I hadn’t gotten a job in 1929 —
— it would be a year later —
It wouldn’t have been, a year later, certainly not.
I say it would have been a year later on the calendar. Jobs were a bit harder to find.
Yes. I would have been out of physics, completely. But I realized that. I didn’t feel desperate about it. I’d had a great goal in physics, by having been there, in this period, with these people and everything else. I —
You were satisfied.
I was satisfied, at the time.
What was the job? Assistant professor, lecturer?
Called lecturer. It wasn’t quite instructor. And all I was asked to do — it was really nerve wracking — two hours a week. There were full professors, 14 hours a week. Here I was hardly hanging by my eyelashes. I offered to teach various courses — turned down. But I was an important influence in the department, in addition, and I taught every course, and the reason I changed from the pure theoretical physics, although teaching every course, is just the example I told you: solid state. I wasn’t terribly interested. When I sat down to think profound thoughts, it was always just solid state. I was not going to do it. After all, I had this molecular beam technique. So I moved into that.
You moved into that.
Abandoned solid state.
What ideas did you have for solid state?
Oh, there was always the question of the conductivity, compressibility — all the properties of the solid state that were unexplained.
Not mysterious but unexplained, certainly, yes. To see what quantum mechanics could do with it.
Could contribute to it.
Yes, that’s right.
So you started doing molecular beam work because it was something you knew, you suggest.
Well, I always had. You know, it was a highly respected field at this time and a mysterious field, in a way. There were other people. It was being done in one or two other places. One of them was in the university chemistry department, the University of Illinois, and I forget the other place. And somehow, I drove them out of business.
Who did you have working with you during those early years?
My first graduate actually working with me was Victor Cohen, who was the son of Professor Morris Cohen. Then a number of people, sort of, as the thing went and became successful. But he was actually my first graduate student.
When did Sterne come over?
Oh, Hitler — ‘33, yes.
He came to Columbia?
No, no. Where was he? No, gosh, where would I have been if he had come to Columbia? Just imagine — suppose you’d been a young professor of theoretical physics, you know, not very distinguished yet, and Kesselring came along or Sommerfeld or Debye or Bohr?
Where did he go?
He was given this job by a very nice man who had great ambitions for the University of Pittsburgh. No, Carnegie. And no sooner had he arrived than the man died. They had a terrible time with his successor, who was an engineer friend, Mike [???]. He didn’t have a happy time.
He stayed in this country?
He stayed in the country, and finally he, after the war, he just left, retired, and went to live in Berkeley. He had some private means. I mean, those German professors had some sort of private means.
Were you in contact with him when he was here? I’m just trying to figure out if there was any continuing student mentor relationship during that time.
Well, we never had that. No.
You didn’t stay in experimental work.
What I’ve done there, I’ve learned, techniques and so on, I’ve learned from Taylor, who in turn learned it from him, but my work directly was with Taylor, sort of colleagues, and basically I don’t think he liked me.
Yes. I think he regarded me either as a rival or as an upstart.
Or both. We never had — I mean, some, some, I would visit him with all due respect and this sort of thing —
How much older than you was he?
I think, ten years. I think he — I never felt that with him. He liked Taylor very much, who was a real, what in their minds was an American type, had been a football player, blond, handsome, and a very good experimenter, in addition, very good.
What became of him?
Unfortunately, he went to Schenectady. He worked with Langhill. He had an infection of the colon, appendicitis, really — diagnosed as a cold, and died of a burst appendix. Terrible. And he was really remarkably — one of those experimenters who really was observant. He, when he was doing something, he not only saw what he was doing, he saw all sorts of side effects. I learned a tremendous amount from him.
It’s hard, very hard for me to see Ronnie [???] as a serious physicist. He must have been at some time or other.
Well, I think that’s sort of right, in a way. He — I don’t know just why he missed out. He’s bright. He knew the field. He knew what was important. He had bad luck. That’s a palpable thing.
I know it.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I know it is, and Tuesdays and Thursdays… Saturdays…
He had an apparatus, and it was all set to go, and by that time he had to take a vacation for two or three days, and when he came back it wasn’t working any more. It’s this sort of thing. Not of the concentrated goal.
That’s — he always struck me as being dilettantish in his approach to life.
Somewhat of that sort – but know all about it — but he’s one of those people who, in a situation, knew everything — one of those people who could wise you up about everything. We had a wonderful first meeting. It was a sort of, for some reason or other, some sort of luncheon or dinner at a restaurant, with people around there, physicists, and I was sitting next to this guy, who was talking German, and suddenly he said, “You’re no Deutscher.”
He’s living in Australia now, Rabi — with his son. Or rather his son is there, he lives in a — Isabel?
She died but only recently. He’s very nice. I know them very well, for a period of several years now, it’s all — I never believed most of what he said. I couldn’t tell if it was true or not. Then, he claimed he was the bastard of this, I forget the name of this Dutch — did he tell you that too?
And that somehow or other, he was a distant relative of Karl Marx and so on. And then he’d go on retreats.
Get drunk too. Yes.
He was quite a boozer.
Quite a boozer. Strange thing when he was not, as [???] explains, when he was not drunk, — well, when he was drunk, he was sort of unreliable, but sort of brilliant. But when he was not drunk, he was dull.
I never found him dull. I found him —
No, I found him interesting, but — a different relationship. I didn’t find him comfortable. I liked him, but I didn’t find him comfortable. And I had the feeling he was using one.
Next time we sit down, I want to talk — I want you to talk in more detail about what you were doing in physics, what you accomplished during your years there, between the time you came back to Columbia and the time you went to MIT, which is when you must have done 90 percent of your physics.
Or 80 percent.
Oh yes. Those were years of very, very concentrated hard work, believe me.
And right around the calendar, I think, with no more than three or four days a year, five days, taken off, and a hell of a great time.
I don’t want to start that now, but actually what I’d like to do next time we sit down is go from beginning again with molecular beam work, and just what you did that attracted the Nobel Prize.
Yes. I’d have to go back and — connections. It may be all right, for this time. While I was a graduate student at Columbia, I was asked to give a colloquium talk on experiments of Sterne and [???], on that experiment. I was completely fascinated by it. I had heard about it before, about space quantization and this sort of thing, and it really shook me, my outlook in physics. I was just a beginning graduate student, but I’d been reading around, I wasn’t — you know. And that thing of space quantization — I knew the elements of quantum mechanics and that sort of thing, the atoms and spectra and so on, and I knew they were trying to (H?) quantize it in this way, into which seemed to me absurd. I said, so, take some bright guys like myself and we’ll find some way of doing this. Then I heard about this experiment, space quantization. That would really stand one way, or the other, coming out of the [???].
— nothing in between.
And nothing in between. Now, in that period, traveling through a vacuum, it couldn’t. Nothing could happen. There’s something much more mysterious than that. It can be bright all day long, but it’s this was just plain different. So I was prepared to give up the basic ideas I’d acquired in my whole education in physics, in substitute for this softening(?). Then I was asked to give a colloquium on this, on these experiments and other experiments that had come out. I read those papers very very carefully. They were very fascinating. Not only the details of the experiment — which again fascinated me far beyond what they should have, experimental details — but also the theory of it. And I gave a colloquium. After the first hour, I said, “Now we turn to the theory.” There were the professors all asleep in the front row. So I knew the subject and what they were trying to do, and had been fascinated by it, by the time it occurred to me to do it, because it had been described as a very difficult and mysterious experiment. So when I was asked to do something there, under the tutelage, and being at the place, and with John Taylor, I did the experiment, in a very short time.
It wasn’t new.
No. Really the American experience and with John Taylor, we occupied the same room, not that he helped in doing anything of it, but —
You could hit the ground running, in a certain sense.
I said that the reason I was able to help with the theory and so on, was invited — because I knew the experiment as such. I wasn’t ignorant of it. But it went all the way back. It was an accident of which the origins were a couple of years before. So I knew its capacity and its charm, and the models connected with it.
Well, you must have had ten years of intensive work, because when you come right down to it, you almost said to me that, until 1930 you were learning, in a certain sense, and in 1941 your whole life changed.
Yes, that’s right. Those were the years. The years essentially were, we’ll say, 1929-1939, and before that, I had really sort of — well, living in an atmosphere of the greatest physics —
— yes, I understand.
— and being imbued by a different man —
Well, it’s the best kind of learning.
Yes, the best kind — several things, like having been in some atelier, sort of thing.
And as I say, after — when did you go to MIT, ‘41, right after the war started?
I always hate detailing the… MIT —
— your Rad Lab —
Yes. Oh, I went there right after voting for Roosevelt.
Yes. The day after voting for Roosevelt, I went there, and really stayed five years.
Until the last election, that was the first and last time I ever voted for a President. Why do you hate MIT? It was at MIT after all.
Because MIT had nothing to do with it. If you take MIT as a location, you might just as well say, Cambridge or — (crosstalk). No, I don’t like the idea of MIT, this sort of association, because we did a great thing, and MIT had nothing to do with it.
They gave it a home.
Gave it a home, for which I presume they were well paid and got a great deal of profit.
Oh, they got a great deal of profit. They got a lab out of it. (crosstalk)
It made a physics department. An engineering department.
Well, it’s a pretty good engineering department.
Not as good as all that.
Well, it’s electrical engineering that you’re talking about.
Yes. Anyway, that’s why. The Radiation Lab is one thing. Something we made, we started and founded, on one of those grants.
You really started it? How many people were there when you joined it?
At the time I joined it? Three or four.
Lee came a few days later. But he wasn’t cleared. Actually, by — we must have had about 30 by somewhere around New Year’s.
How many at the end, about 5000?
Less, 4000. No, it was a great thing, and I don’t like to have any thought that this was done by MIT. It was done by Americans from all over, from all over. And we had no man from MIT on the governing committee except at the very end.
If you say so.
No, we —
Compton had no connection with it at all?
Oh yes. He was on the top committee. You know not of the lab, but for the government. (crosstalk)
…idea or whatever…
(crosstalk) oh, came OSRD and then it was there but out of the lab. It had nothing to do in the sense of having made this, the lab —
What was the hierarchy? Lee was the director of the whole shebang?
Lee (DuBridge) was the director of the lab.
And you were scientific director, or?
No, no, no. No. Loomis and I were associate directors.
Oh, I see. I thought —
Loomis concentrated more on personnel. I was not scientific director. We had no scientific director. I was the head of advanced research. I was also the head of the transmitting group, the magnetron group, and so on. It never had a real structure. There was Rollie Gaither from California, who came later, who ran our — we set up an organization, that would make a few quick — I forget what his name was — I guess that was the general –- But we had a steering committee, which had everybody you know on it — Alvarez, McMillan — they came later — but Bob [???], Turner, —
I didn’t know very many people. I knew Louis Ridenour very well. He was the only person out of there that I really knew well.
Well, he came later… (crosstalk) on the steering committee, George [???], there was a whole — I have a picture of the steering committee.
All right, let’s talk next time we sit down. Let’s turn this off now. It’s practically at an end. Next time we sit down…