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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Robert Bacher by Finn Aaserud on 1986 February 13,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview Robert Bacher discusses science policy and physicists' involvement in it after World War II through 1970. Topics discussed include: General Leslie Groves; international control of atomic energy; Chauncey Star; Manson Benedict; Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy (Acheson–Lilienthal Report); Dean Acheson; David Lilienthal; J. Robert Oppenheimer; Charles Thomas; International Atomic Energy Agency; Bernard Baruch; Baruch Proposal; Richard Tolman; Hans Kramers; Dmitri Skobeltsyn; Atomic Energy Commission; Robert Wilson; Cornell University; Sam Goudsmit; Columbia University; I. I. Rabi; Hans Bethe; Roswell Clifton Gibbs; Enrico Fermi; Milton Stanley Livingston; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Willy Higinbotham; Lee DuBridge; California Institute of Technology; Richard Feynman; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Lewis Strauss; William W. Waymack; Sumner Pike; Carroll Wilson; President Harry S. Truman; James Fisk; Office of Naval Research; President Dwight Eisenhower; Jim Killian; Ernest Lawrence; arms control.
As I say, I'm interested in science policy and the physicists' involvement in it after the Second World War and perhaps up to 1970, that's where I'll start, I think, and I'm interested to learn about your conception of the most important developments in that area and who were the most important people, institutions, and what were the most important developments. It's a very general question, and I would be very happy if you could relate that to your own experience.
Well, I think it's very hard to go down through it and pick out who were the ost important people, because you really should do that only after you've given some of the outline as you know it, and it's inevitably going to be influenced a lot by the people that you had the most direct contact with. The period after the war was a period of very rapid change, in the sense that the management of the Manhattan District, General Groves, saw immediately after the war in the fall that there were going to be moves in the direction of trying to have some international control of nuclear energy, and atomic weapons, and he took steps immediately to try to find out to what extent that was , would be practical, from what had been learned during the war, from the various laboratories.
So he set up a committee very largely of people from the various laboratories that had worked on the nuclear problem during the war, and asked them to look into this and try to answer the question, was it technically feasible to have an international control of atomic energy ? This group had people from each of the laboratories, and I think I gave you some of the names of people earlier who were involved in that. I think you perhaps ought to get the names of the people who were on that committee. Somewhere I have a picture of the committee, and we could look at that, if we can find it, and see who all was on it, but —
You would probably recognize all of them.
I think I would probably still recognize all of them. But Chauncey Star was a member of that committee, and he went off into industry. I guess was in industry then. I'm not sure. But just where he was during the war — Benedict I think was probably the chairman of that committee. I'm not sure. But anyway very active in it. But to make a long story short, our conclusion was this, that it wasn't easy to do this, but that if there was complete access to all of the nuclear facilities, we felt that it was a feasible thing to have a meaningful international control of nuclear energy.
I think this may have had some indirect influence on the things that came out from the Untied States government, which went very far in terms of turning the international control over to an international development agency, and as I say, I recommended earlier to you for you to get the report that was prepared by the Acheson-Lilienthal Committee. Acheson was Secretary of State. Lilienthal was the chairman of the committee that studied this, and I guess Robert Oppenheimer was one of the more active members. Charles Thomas, who was the chemist, was a member of it.
Winnie from General Electric was a member of it, and there was a man from the telephone company on it, so I mean it had people with a general background on it, and it was an interesting report. It had one or two parts that were subsequently corrected, but it was a very imaginative document, and had a big influence in our government, and led to the proposal , in a branch of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency was then set up within the United Nations,and it led to there being sent to that organization Mr. Baruch as the chairman of a delegation to present a proposal for international control of atomic energy.
Now, there were many differences between the Acheson-Lilienthal Report and the Baruch Proposal, some of them of a very serious nature, but — and some of them that the members of the Acheson Lilienthal, those who'd prepared the Acheson-Lilienthal Report I think took a somewhat negative view, but it was a very big thing, to go in and present that. Richard Tollman, who was professor at this Institute, was the principal scientific advisor to Mr. Baruch, and I was a member of an advisory committee to Richard Tollman, and I guess Robert Oppenheimer was a member of that committee too. The committee, I don't remember much about meetings of the committee.
I think Dr. Rabi was a member of the committee. And I don't know who , I've forgotten who else were members of the committee. What happened when this was presented, I think in July, and I was present when Mr. Baruch made the proposal at Lake Success where the commission met, was meeting, and it was a very dramatic time. There wasn't any doubt about that. And then of course it went through various of the high level committees, and what they found was, they didn't know how to grapple with this very complicated problem, and after it had gone through about three levels of committees, somebody asked the question, "Well, is it technically feasible to have international control of atomic energy or nuclear energy, whatever you want to call it?"
And so they very delightedly turned this over to a UN committee that would study this problem.. Hans Kramers from the Netherlands was the chairman of this comittee, and a very extremely able man, very fine man, and that came to t his point just along about some time in I guess the end of July in 1946. I was j ust at that time coming back from a vacation up in the Adirondacks, and I'd been reading the paper about this and wondering what was going on, and when I saw the direction it was going, I felt very concerned, and as soon as I got back to Ithaca, I called up the office and talked to Tollman, and he said, "Goodness, could you come down for a couple of days and help us ?" I said, "I'll be there tomorrow."
I immediately picked up and went down, dropped what I was doing and went down for a couple of days, and I saw from the direction that it was starting to take that this was going to be a very heavy load for him, and he had very little, he had very good advisory people from the State Department end, associated with Mr. Baruch, and , but he didn't have much scientific help to fall back on, and the result of this was that I very quickly saw that it was just an emergency, and that he needed help desperately, and it was something I could help at because I'd had direct experience at it during the war, and so I came down and spent a week there. I left home on Monday morning and came back home on Friday afternoon, and tried to do the work I was supposed to be doing at Cornell where we were building a new laboratory,over the weekend.
Well, it was a very busy time, and the people who were there working on this were very much involved in it. We got into a series of meetings with the Eastern block and I've forgotten who all were there but the principal delegate was who was the well known cosmic ray man, and who was the chief scientist involved in it. Well, these meetings went on for about six weeks. I've forgotten, I don't know how many there were, but 20 some meetings , in great detail, and finally after great difficulty, we got an answer out. They were very much, I think in retrospect, probing for information of one sort or another , and there was already evidence that they had infiltrated the Canadian project during the war. That evidence had been published before.
But the other infilitration wasn't known until a later time. But it was quite evident that they were digging to get information about it. That was fair game. But I think it was probably the case that in retrospect it's hard to say whether they had any intention in the first palce of doing this. The question put to the committee was, was it technically feasible ? And I won't go into the details of how that got answered, but the answer that came out from the committee was, it was finally agreed upon that it was technically feasible, and that decision and that judgment was concurred in by the Soviet delegate, I won't say how this came out. It took three meetings at the end to do this, and this was one of the few things that was agreed about for a long time in those negotiations.
But it was really a pretty difficult time. It was perfectly clear during that period that this was going to move ahead only with the greatest difficulty, and this was being carried on in New York at the same time that the McMahon Bill was going through Congress for setting up the Atomic Energy Commission, and I wasn't, I guess I was so busy up there I didn't pay much attention to it, but I was down in , after our, the worst part of our discussions had been concluded, and we were sort of cleaning up things, and I wasn't going down to New York as much, we were down cleaning up some things, and while I was in New York I got a call from Washington, from Dave Lilienthal, whom I had met but really didn't know very well, and saying that they would like very much to have me come down to Washington to talk about a very important question, and could I come right then, and I said, "What do you mean right then, do you mean tomorrow ?" He said, "I mean this afternoon. We'll send a plane up for you and get you and bring you right down."
So in two hours I was down in Washington to whatever it was, to stay overnight, and the gist of t his was that they had been setting up the Atomic Energy Commission, and in retrospect one can put together that they had tried a number of the people who'd been — who were very senior and who had participated in the direction of the war effort in Washington, whom you can dig out very easily, and couldn't persuade anyof them to stay in Washington longer and serve on the Atomic Energy Commission. And though they had been, everybody had told them that they ought to have a scientist on that commission, they weren't able to get anybody on the commission, and they were down to asking me to go on the commission,a nd they put it in pretty strong terms. Essentially they put it in terms — and I'd be glad if you didn't quote me on any of these things that you put on-but they put it in terms that, if I didn't go there wasn't going to be any scientist on the Atomic Energy Commission. It happens that this was something I felt very strongly about, and I did not want to go to Washington and they knew I didn't want to go to Washington.
So this put me in a very difficult position. I went home to think about it and figure out what I could do, and I came to the conclusion, after talking to the president of my unviersity, Mr. Dade, and Hans Bethe and I wasn't allowed to talk to very many people, and my wife, and two or three other people,that this was just an impossible situation, and I , it was a subject about which I had very strong feelings. I felt that for the Atomic Energy Commission to start up without having scientific representation on it was not the right thing to do, that science ought to be represented on there, the technical end of it ought to be represented at the highest level.
Many government agencies had failed by the business of starting only having the technical people in on the policy making three or four levels down , and I had seen that, so it was something that I had very strong feelings about, and I guess, I don't know whether it was, what they told me was really true or not, that they were through fussing around to get some scientist to serve on the commission or not, but in any event, it ended up by my going to Washington. And not only did I do that, but I, the hardest thing for me to do was to esentially abandon my job at Cornell, because we were starting a new laboratory, and I essentially retired from the job.
You maintained formally, but—
I maintained my position as professor but not as director of the laboratory. I told them they ought to get a new director. Bob Wilson came up there as director, which as very good. He was a very good director of the laboratory. McDaniels succeeded him as director of the laboratory, two years. McDaniels was my last graduate student, at Cornell. So that's how I went to Washington, and this really was something that had to be done very very quickly, because, I've fogotten just when this was done and I don't think I even have a record of it, but it was done some time in either September or October, early October, and the commission really started to work late in October and had some of its early meetings. I've forgotten when I took the office, but some time late in October.
You had experience as a physicist both before, during and after the war. Your career was obviously very strongly affected by these developments. Could you , do you have some reflections about how the war experience changed physics, and the physicists' experience generally speaking ?
Well, you see, I started out as a spectroscopist. I was Sam Gaudsmitt's first graduate student when he came to this country, and actually did a theoretical thesis with Sam on the Zaiman effect in bismuth, and particularly in thallium, which I managed to work out and be able to solve the problems and do it for intermediate field strengths, between weak fields and strong fields, run it right through, and this had been done and this was sort of a new thing, and I worked on some, subsequently quite a number of other problems, but the hyperfine structure of course was caused by nuclear moment, so right away I was thrown into things associated with the nucleus, and I became very much interested in nuclear physics, and as things started to come out,
I was particularly interested in and attracted by the wonderful work that Fermi was doing with neutrons, and I wanted very much to work in that area, and after the war, I had for one year a fellowship, that was during the Depression, very difficult time, I had for one year an instructorship at Columbia, where I had a wonderful time, to get to know Rabi very well, and he of course was doing then very new work on methods of measuring magnetic moments, which was certainly a very much better way of getting magnetic moments than getting them diretly from the optical spectra, and essentially I taught in the elementary course there, and the second term i was there I gave a course in the things that we'd been working at in some of the theory of some of the hyperfine structure things, to his graduate students and of course doctoral fellows, which was sort of — which was very interesting to me, for me, and I had a very good time at it.
But in February of that year, Hans Bethe came through New York, on his way to Cornell, and we learned then, I guess we'd known that Cornell was trying to get some work started in nuclear physics and Hans was going there in theoretical physics, and of course he's been there all these years, and he spent two or three days at Columbia, and I saw him for quite a little bit while he was there, and we just absolutely were amazed and completely taken by his extraordinary voluminous knowledge of everything that existed in theoretical physics, and —
This was your first meeting with him ?
This was my first meeting with him. I was enormously impressed by this man. Rabi had known him before. But Rabi was very much impressed too, and he'd done all sorts of things by that time, and I thought, with their starting nuclear physics up there, that this looked like a very good place. I thought, well, now there won't be any chance to go up there, they've now sort of decided what they're doing and so on, but to my enormous surprise, along a little later in the spring, I got a letter from Gibbs asking me if I'd be interested in a job up there, that they had a job, and it was an interesting job in the sense that they wanted me to come in, they had found they had the problem that they weren't able to introduce any modern physics into their introductory courses, and I guess one of the reasons they picked on me was, I was working in introductory courses, and I certainly had had some experience in that, but of course I had never lectured in an introductory course before I went up there, and so, this was something I found very attractive, and of course it was doubly attractive because , I mean, I was both interested in the elementary work and teaching these ideas to young students when they were taking their first course, but also, I was terribly excited about the possibilities that existed up there for getting closer to nuclear physics.
So I said, "Well," they wanted me to come up there and set up some work, h igh resolution work in spectra, and it turned out when I looked into it that they had some wonderful spectroscopic equipment up there that had never been used. It had been sitting in a case ever since it had been bought. And there were some wonderful wonderfull equipment up there, and so, after talking to them a bit, I said, "Well, I'd like to have one thing sort of clear if I went up there.
I would be delighted to start some work in spectras particularly if I could get someone who would like to learn the field and I could teach it to them and we could get the work going and so on, but I would like to myself get out and try to follow up some of these experiments that Fermi —" Learn something was what I first wanted to do, learn something about these experiments that Fermi had been doing on neutrons, and particularly, and start right in doing that. Well, they said that wasn't the direction that they'd been thinking about, but that was an interesting possibility, and I said I thought that there might be possibilities for tying this in with their work in physics, and they had some possibilities for getting resources and doing the kind of — Fermi was working mostly with radon beryllium sources, and they had a way of getting these and so on.
Well, the upshot of this was that I went to Ithaca. The people at Columbia were very gracious and very helpful , in the sense that they said, "Well, if you'd like to do that — " I said, "This is late and I think you have every right to insist that I stay here another year if you want to, but it is something I'd like to do, I think, and it's an opportunity, it's a direction that I want to move in." And they were very good about it. I think Rabi thought I was absolutely crazy to go away from Columbia! But I grew up in a small town and I'm not a city boy.
That was part of it too.
That was part of it. Ithaca was a very attractive place, and we enjoyed Ithaca very much.
They have some good people in physics too, of course.
Oh yes. They had a number of very good people in physics, too, and this was really Gibbs's start with the guidance from Lloyd Smith, who was there, to get things started.
What was the precise time for this, you started ?
I went up there in the fall of 1935. I spent the summer giving some lectures in Ann Arbor, went there in 1935, and was there until I went off to the Radiation Lab.
It was just at the beginning of nuclear physics, so to speak.
Well, nuclear physics had gone on a long time before that, but it was in a very active period. The Cornell cyclotron was built on a shoestring, and by ingenuity , from Livingston and it was a nice machine, very small.
When did it go into operation ?
Well, let's see. I'm not quite sure I can give you the date but I think it went into opertion right away in , he started it in 1934, the year before. It was started the fall of 1934. I went up there in the fall of 1935, and I can't remember now back so many years whether it was complete then. I think it stated to work very shortly thereafter. There was great trouble in those early days with vacuum problems and things like that. They didn't have , — the system was rather bad.
What I wanted you to say something about was how the transition from Cornell to , the introducction to war work, occurred.
Well, from this schedule I gave you, I started out , the first year I was there, lecturing in the elementary course, from February of the first year I was there to February of the next year, and then the period in between I taught an advanced course, and I didn't have so much teaching in the period after that, because there was quite a lot of work connected with having a major responsibility for an elementary course, and there were some 500 students taking this course and so on. Actually Professor Hull who ran the course did most of that, and he was very good and extremely helpful, and we got along fine together.
Yes. That was your first experience with that kind of course, too.
Absolutely. I was learning from scratch.
And there weren't many textbooks you could use, I guess.
I've forgotten the textbook situation, but these things that I was adding to the course were mostly not in textbooks. They had some wonderful demonstration experiments that the course was, and they played a very important role in the course. The two people who lectured in elementary physics there were Howe in the introductory course in the arts college and Branthum ? who lectured in the engineering course. They were both very skilled lecturers. Well, to get to the later period, after two years, I started setting up a little laboratory to do some neutron experiments and I very carefully sort of duplicated some of the equipment that Fermi had used in Rome.
And started to just try to repeat some of the things that had been done there to see whether I could do it. I found, to my amazement, that I could. And then I started doing some additional things, and this became quite interesting, and then, along, I forget exactly what year it was, but I think perhaps 1938 or thereabouts — I'm not quite sure just which year it was , I think it was 1938 -Livingston was invited by MIT to come there and build the big machine. I think he was very much upset by the fact that other places were then building very much bigger machines , and the machine at Cornell was essentially a toy, although it had one thing which he and one or two of his people working with him had invented, an arc source, which meant that that little machine had a much higher current than other machines had, and this really made it useful, and made it a special machine, and in fact, was the thing that we subsequently used later to do neutron experiments with it.
And so, I won't go into the details of that, but after Livingston left, we realized that , I suddenly read as paper that Alvarez had written at Berkeley, in which he had tried to modulate the linear accelerator out there in order to make slow neutron, pulse slow neutrons and measure their velocity by the time of flight and so on, and he had , he was somewhat discouraged by this because it was quite hard to do it with that kind of a machine, and , but I was much taken by this because I realized immediately when I read it that our arc source would be very good for this, and sure enough it was. Well, I won't go into the details of this, but we had a much — we had a high current.
We got quite good neutron yield. And we were able to make quite, through some developments that were made at Cornell , we were able to make time measurements down into the microsecond region, which hadn't been done much, and in physics, most of the work with ionization chambers was done collecting positive ions and that puts you into the millisecond region almost immediately, so that we , and we had collected electrons and succeeded because we knew so little about it in insisting on trying to do it even in something like boron trifluoride. If we'd known a bit more, we probably wouldn't have dared try it. But we were very ignorant, and started off trying to do it and succeeded, with some real difficulties, but we didn't have to have proportional counting, but we did succeed and I think, I was looking over some of that work not too long ago, and I think we got down to the point where our errors were in time measurements.
Now, to give you an idea, the time of flight for a 1 volt neutron for one meter is 72.3 microseconds. And y ou see, th is is immediately connected with some of the problems in radar, because that is the same time as the time for an echo from about seven miles. So you see, this was how I got tapped for the radar business, and when I went, we were just in the middle of this and finding some things that did not agree with old things of Fermi's, and I asked, I talked to DuBridge and Loomis about it, and I said, "I really feel that we ought to straighten that out before we shut that thing down and find out what this is all about. We are not sure about it yet." I said,"I think I either have to stay there until that's done or alternatively try to keep the work going on a part time basis," and they chose the latter and said that they'd be glad to see me go back there and spend a period every three weeks, and so I went back one weekend, having learned, working with Richard Tollman, that I would do laboratory work later — I hadn't learned that from Richard Tollman yet but I had learned it before, that you could work on the weekends as well as not, and so we did do just that, and I used to come out on a Friday and stay, on a Thursday night and stay Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and then go back to Boston.
But the problems, the technical problems were very closely associated and Higgenbotham, Willie Higgenbotham who was then a graduate student, not of mine but of Lloyd Smith's, at Cornell, and who was expert with these fast circuits, came almost immediately to work on the radar problems, taking some of the techniques that we'd succeeded in using there, and to work on the radar work, and he subsequently went out to Los Alamos, when we started going out there.
So there was a close connection.
There was a close connection across, in a rather unusual way, that is, the techniques were very close together. Conceptually of course the things were completely different, and except that it was a matter of measuring distance by measuring a time quite accurately. Or getting an echo and measuring the time when a dignal came back and so on. The principle was much the same, and a very simple thing too, because it was — Well, anyway, I stayed at the Radiation Laboratory for two years, and the Radiation Laboratory of course just blossomed tremendously, and had a great many very very good people in it, and then, in the fall of 19 — I guess some time during 1943, our laboratory at Cornell was somewhat decimated because they took two of the principal people there to go work on the nuclear project, after Pearl Harbor, and they wanted to get some measurements made with a cyclotron at Purdue, so Holloway and Baker went out there with Schreiber and King who were at that , at Purdue, and did the experiments for a couple of years out there, that were related to the nuclear project, and subsequently McDaniel stayed on, and did improved the work , the time work at Cornell very markedly, and did his thesis there, and we subsequently took that equipment to Los Alamos when Los Alamos started, and it was used there during the war.
Yes. And how did your relation with Cornell develop through that period ?
Well, I was in touch with Cornell during the war. I mean, Gibbs was very helpful. I think often of the problems was that I think Gibbs had a feeling that these big laboratories were decimating the other universities, and he I think , I think he felt that the war work could be done in a larger number of places, but I think all of us who had some experience in the war work realized that you needed a concentration in order to get it done, and it just wouldn't work the other way, and I think that is really true, so, — Well, at any rate, to go on, I won't go into the radar things except to say that as you know that work , the laboratory was very — became a very strong laboratory .
I've forgotten just when it was, but I became the head of the division that treated the signals that came in from the radar and did the demonstration work. We were working with measurements of the , in , working with cathode ray tubes, persistent screen cathode ray tubes, and problems of distinguishing signal from noisse, and making accurate measurements of these time intervals. This was at least related to the things I'd been doing before. And there were some extremely good people working with this, who technically were much better at it than I was, but it — and it became a very strong division. Mil White who came from Princeton was in charge of the transmitting components division, and we had one division that did the transmitting components and one that did the receiving components, and then we had ones that worked on systems. That was the sort of general organization of the laboratory.
It msut have been a tremendously different way of working than at Cornell or any other experience.
Yes. Well, these laboratories worked very well because they moved very fast. And I won't stop to give examples of that, but I mean, they did move extremely fast. Things moved very fast. In some cases, there were examples of, we heard that something had been done and a little description of how it was done, and we were in some cases, the people were able to make something before something could be shipped to us. If it had to come very far. You know, things moved with enormous rapidity, and the success of the war laboratories was that they were pretty much open within. They didn't have barriers within. And this of course was, some of the service laboratories had lots of barriers within them. The civilian laboratories didn't have many barriers within them, and they, that made a much better arrangement on the whole.
You mean in terms of access to information.
Yes. And occasionally there had to be a barrier around something. I mean, for example, intelligence information had to be treated separately, but — Well, along in the late fall of 1943, pardon me, in the late fall of 1942, I'm a year ahead of myself — in the fall of 1942,. McDaniel was finishing up his work at Cornell, and when he had really finished that up, I arranged that he come to the Radiation Laboratory essentially to be transferred around between the various groups and make sure that he was able to get all of the technical things that had been accomplished in radar, that were needed.
There were, for example, tubes that were , vacuum tubes that were used, and the people who were working on the nuclear work didn't even know they existed, because they didn't know they existed, they could have gotten a clearance but they just didn't have access to the information to know of their exsistence. They were used all the time in radar and they weren't used in the -they made a lot of difference in the nuclear work. And the same thing was true in other projects, so it was enormously important for the Los Alamos Laboratory to get access in setting up to all of the things that had gone on before, so that it could draw on that information. Well, I think Robert Oppenheimer began to realize this, and came to Rabi and me, who were both at the Radiation Laboratory, and asked us if we would, from quite different points of view, Rabi was quite senior in the laboratory, was associate director of the laboratory, and I was in charge of one of the division of the laboratory — whether we would advise him in connection with the starting of a new laboratory, and what were the problems of as big laboratory ?
Because he hadn't had experience of this. Well, we had some pretty definite ideas on this, and particularly in connection with the role that the military could play in a laboratory, and that is, we felt very strongly that a laboratory could not be under the military. I mean, it couldn't be a military laboratory. They just weren't working. You have , if you build a laboratory and if the people in it are all officers, then you've graded the people in two ways. Which way do you grade them then, by their service rank or by their capabilities for doing the job that they have? You see, there's a conflict. And the service laboratories had great trouble on this, and they also had trouble from the kind of red tape that they ran into, and some of them were very seriously hurt by that, and those of us who had gone through a civilian organized laboratory realized that and exerted what influence we could in seeing to it that this would become a civilian laboratory, because there were influences in the opposite direction which I won't go into at length.
But in any event, we put that into the pot in the earliest days, and it was quite a point of argument at first, because it had been planned that Los Alamos would would turn to be a military laboratory, but I think Groves, who was a very sagacious man about such things, even though he first thought that compartmentalization was the most important thing that you could have in a laboratory, began to realize that that would defeat him, he'd defeat himself in this, and that the very openness that a civilian laboratory had had as big advantage, and it provided very much greater flexibility. And we were able, for example, during the war to make a complete change at Los Alamos, because we had to reorganize the laboratory when it was discovered that plutonium made in a nuclear reactor had some of the higher isotopes, that had spontaneous fission in them, and that made a neutron background which was devastating to– the methods that were originally thought of for assembling a nuclear weapon just would not work for this.
So something that we had decided in 1943 was too complicated for the project to do, had to be done later. The project actually started , the project at Los Alamos started with a meeting, a ten day conference to discuss the work of the laboratory, and I guess Rabi and I were the only ones from outside the project who were at that meeting. We participated in it to a limited extent, because most of the things they were reporting were things that we didn't know about. We were learning.
I was learning, anyway, and , about what was going on, and at the end of this, Rabi — Robert Oppenheimer asked both of us if we would not join the project, and we had then the position of going back to the laboratory and making a report on what we thought were the chances, because what we were really doing was , if we made a recommendation, we felt we ought to make a recommendation on what the probability was that they could get something in on the war, and that turned out to be very much more favorable than I think either one of us had thought when we first started on this business, and it resulted in a major effort being made by the Radiation Laboratory at MIT to help the project out there, and it ended by, I don't know how many people but on the order of 20 people, some of them very experienced people, very senior people, Bainbridge and myself went out to spend all time out there, and Rabi spent quite a good fraction of his time out there during the remainder of the war.
So there was a close cooperation there from the very beginning of the Los Alamos effort.
Yes. Well, a decision was taken, and this was not a decision which all members of the Radiation Laboratory concurred in. They didn't all know about it, but I mean, the people who did know about it didn't all believe in it. There were people who thought this was an utterly silly thing to do, that we'd never be able to do anything like that during the war. It was close.
Was there the same openness at Los Alamos between the different divisions, groups?
Pretty much, yes. At least on a high level. That doesn't mean that everybody in the laboratory knew everything that was going on, but people who had responsibilities, there was a coordinating council and things were discussed in that pretty broadly.
So Groves' conceptions were defeated from the outset.
Well, I would put it this way. Groves, I think Groves came to realize that this was the only way to do it, and I think, he never raised the question. He had first said, "There is a famous — " Well, you should get a copy, if you're interested in this, of the so-called Groves-Conant letter, which essentially stated the policy for the beginning of the project; whereas it was going to be a military project, it was then under the Groves-Conant letter was not to become a military project till there were significant quantities of fissio nable material there. That's what the Groves-Conant letter says. I have a copy of it in my files, I think. The thing is that that date never was called. I mean, Groves realized that it wouldn't work. Well, the project did work. It ran into great difficulties , as I explained a little earlier, along in the middle of the thing we had to go back and tackle a problem, had to solve a problem that we had thought earlier probably couldn't be solved, but there was no alternative.
Yes, that went smoothly too.
Well, then at the end of the war, I started telling you about that earlier, so I've covered that later period after the war.
Well, that was an effort coming back to normal.
Yes. I started telling you about it at an earlier date but I didn't tell you the early part about, period during the war, which I've sort of inserted here now. So now we've carried on to the period up to and I guess, up to the Atomic Energy Commission. Well, I don't think there's much I can tell you about that. You can read the history of that.
Yes. Yes. Well, how do you feel that, well, it's interesting I think to look at the different generations of physicists coming out of the war experience. I don't know to what extent it is possible to generalize about this, but I noted for example that Lee DuBridge wrote in his MEMORIES that he found it difficult to return to Rochester because he didn't feel that it was as easy as he thought to get back into the basic science research, and that that was one of the reasons that he accepted the presidency here. I wonder whether that was a general reaction or general experience of one generation of physicists, how easy or how difficult it was to return to the old way of working ?
Well, there are all sorts of things that happen in your life that change from time to time, and for example, when I came out to Cal Tech after being on the Atomic Energy Commission, I came here as chairman of the division and with the understanding , with Lee DuBridge, that I thought we ought to do two things at Cal Tech. One was to very much increase the effort that Cal Tech was making in the theoretical end in physics, and two, that we ought to start some work on particle physics, and we immediately set out to do that. I mean, I started taking steps to get Feynmann here before I arrived at Cal Tech. Things were right that he would come to Cal Tech, and he did. He had a very unhappy experience, marriage, in Ithaca, and I think it's worked out very well for him. I mean, I think some people thought he wouldn't stay here either, but he's been here now for quite a few years.
Yes. When was this, that you made this — ?
Well, I approached him first when I was on my way out here. We went up to northern Michigan on the way out. I had to take the summer off after the Commission. T hat was a very, I was worn out. I hadn't really had any , I'd had only a very limited vacation since the beginning of the war, and I was worn out. So we took the summer off. I mean, I actually left Washington in May and didn't turn up out here until the end of August. We spent the first part of the summer on a lake in northern Michigan, and part of the summer in the mountains in Colorado, met the Bethes there, walking, and then we came out here in August. I started digging into what we had to do.
That was your first vacation after the war essentially ?
No, not quite. I think I mentioned to you that I'd had a vacation a couple of , I had a couple of weeks up in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1946.
Right. I was asking about your experience on the Atomic Energy Commission.
Well, I had not of course been at Los Alamos. After the war, after I left there in the beginning of "46, I guess I had not been out there again until the fall of "46, after the Commission was set up, and when we made a visit out there, when we went around through the various laboratories, when the Commission was set up. The fact is, now that the five members of the Commission were-Dave Lilienthal was the chairman, and there was Lewis Strauss, was a member of that Commission, Bill , William who was a newspaperman, came from DesMoines, Iowa, wonderful man, who had, was a very inquiring mind, and very good sense of the propriety of things, and Sumner Pike — and then, of course, I was the junior member of the Commission, and my, you know my background. And it was a wonderful group to work with, and the group was, discussed things very —met alone often or with the general manager, after, as time went on, who was Carroll Wilson. Now the situation is that all of these, Carroll Wilson included, are all dead. I'm the only survivor of that group.
It was really a wonderful group to work with, and very very dedicated. They really worked very hard, and it was really fantastic experience. One of the big problems was to go around, for those who didn't have any background in it, was to go around to the laboratories and sort of try to get some feel for what they were like, and we made a, early in November, the Commission started really to work in late October and then we made a trip around to Oak Ridge and on out to Los Alamos and up to Berkeley and back, and then , I've forgotten whether everybody, just how that went, but Sumner Pike and I made some further trips around, and, to see what, get some feel for what was gong on, and it was, the facilities that were built to separate uranium isotopes, for example, during the war, were absolutely tremendous. The factory that was built during the war was one of the biggest factories that was ever put up in this country.
And it was a really tremendous affair, and just came into production at the end of the war, and the whole production problem was going ahead great guns at that time. There were many problems connected with it. Problems of the raw materials, problems of what production facilities were the best to keep on and maintain, and I'm not going to go into the details of this, but each one of these was a major, major policy decision. The budget was then an extremely large budget, compared to other things. Now it looks almost infinitesimal, compared to the national budget, but — and the problem of moving ahead with weapon development was indeed a key part of it, because a very large, a large fraction of the people from the Los Alamos project, they'd been essentially, had come there during the war with the commitment from the Manhattan District that they'd be allowed to go back at the end of the war, and that was essentially a commitment that was often made to the organizations from which they came. And while some people — there were also quite a lot of people, very good people, who stayed on in the project after the war, and I think that was a very good thing because they made a very good laboratory out of it, but it was a very tough thing after the war, because some of the techniques were very difficult to maintain, and it was a very tough job that Bradbury had as director of the laboratory, and he did a wonderful job of it, bringing it back to this strong laboratory that it became. I think he deserves enormous credit for that.
I had the feeling that one of the ways that we had to do was to provide as much as possible a way for us to find out what was going on in the projects on a fundamental basis, without it going through all of the red tape of reporting up through lines of things, because I had learned that you do that and things get distorted on the way up, or people put in hedge factors, or things of that sort, and you don't really find out what's going on. I suggested to my colleagues on the Commission that I thought it was important that I make my base in one of the laboratories during the first summer of the project, and I thought the place to do it was Los Alamos, so I got my family to go out to New Nexico, and I met them two-thirds of the way to New Mexico. They drove out and I went and met them two-thirds of the way because I couldn't get away earlier, and we drove out and I stayed with them for a while and I made an arrangement that if I were needed in Washington, I would pick up and go back immediately. And so I did that, and we took a little vacation out there, but mostly we, two or three times I was called back. I was needed in Washington for a quorum or for some decisions that needed to be made.
But I also found some things, and I'm afraid I can't describe this, but by digging around the laboratory I found out that there was more known about one field of weapons design than I thought was possible, and and they felt that it was perfectly safe to take things where we could actually increase the number of weapons that we had, and that was something of very great significance, and so, we took the steps right away. I sent off a cable, a telegram to the Commission urging that that be done and it was done essentially by, the order came out almost by return telegram, to do it.
So it really, it did make some difference to have somebody there on the spot digging in, and I think that it was a way of — I think these big organizations sometimes lose out by the number of layers that things have to go through, and we tried to eliminate it, but it also was not easy, because we had great responsibilities in Washington, and I mean, there were always problems that the Commission had to cope with, and they very often needed a quorum or even the full Commission to deal with a problem that had come up, and they wanted everybody on the spot to discuss it, and that's the nature of the Commission. Anyway, that happened. The second summer I decided that I wanted to stay closer to Washington and I wanted to find out what was going on in the more open research, and I went up to the Brookhaven Laboratory and spent the summer up there. I'd been on the organizing committee for the Brookhaven Laboratory after the war, and before the Commission was set up, so it was — so was Lee DuBridge.
Yes, who was on the General Advisory Committee.
Well, this was before the Commission was set up. Well, when the Commission was set up, one of our first problems was to get the General Advisory Committee set up, and it was a very hard thing to pick the people that we needed, and to get people who represented all of the fields that needed to be represented there, and at the same time all of the experience and wisdom that needed to be brought, and not fill it entirely from people who'd just had experience in the project, because that wasn't the right thing either.
So that worked out.
mission very good advice, I think. The relation between the Commission and the General Advisory Committee was a very close one, and I think that worked out very well. I mean, we couldn't always do exactly what they recommended because there were other things that had to be taken into account, but we came pretty close to it, on the whole, I think. I stayed in Washington then for, I had agreed to stay for something around a little under two years, but what happened was that when it turned out that Mr. Truman came up for re-election in the fall of "48, and this was a very difficult time, and as you remember, that election with Dewey, everybody had almost conceded it to Dewey, and Truman won the election. Truman was an extremely able man, and he had a way of impressing himself upon people that worked for him, and they had very great respect for him. For example, Dean Acheson, who was absolutely devoted to him, his Secretary of State, and was a great advisor of him and felt he was very very fine, and you know, he had some weak points, but on the whole he had some enormous strengths in meeting very difficult positions and I had great admiration for him. One of the things we had to do was, we had to all go call on him, and we briefed him on how many weapons we had and where we thought we stood, and we did this personally.
At formal meetings?
We did it with the five of us going up there and telling him. Just the President along with the Commission.
So there was that close —
This was not done, and indeed, the first time we briefed him on the number of weapons what happened was that we sent him a statement and I had a copy of it, and neither his copy nor mine had the numbers in it that we were reporting to him, and I read it to him and put the numbers in from memory as I read it to him. Later I think — but ordinarily reports that went out of the Commission didn't have, were very carefully expurgated.
Yes. So how important was the Atomic Energy Commission in reshaping physics after the war?
Well, I think one thing we did was rather important. And this was something that the Commission did and it was something that I was very impressed with. When we were going in for our first budget, I went to the budget people and I said, "I think we should have a line item budget in there for research, supporting research on a general basis, that's not tied to any of the laboratories, that's tied so that we can set up grants, contracts, what not," and they said, "Well, gee, we don't know how to defend this in doing —" I said, "Well, that's easy. I'll go defend it for you in the budget hearings."
They said, "That's fine, all right, we'll do that," and that was how we got some money, and we had a research division and it was just about then getting set up, and I don't remember whether it had been set up. Dr.James Fisk , who was subsequently head of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, was our director of research, and he was of course an extremely good physicist and very highly regarded, had worked on radar at the Bell Telephone Laboratories during the war, and was a very distinguished and able person, and we persuaded him to come as our first director of research.
Actually one of the jobs I had was to go up and really persuade him that we really needed him badly, and he came, and that we would like him to come down and talk to the Commission as a whole, and he did and was convinced that he should come, and he did. It was a great thing. He was a fine man to be the first director of research, and I think we had some funds right away to give to him. In fact, we had funds for support of research before we really had a staff to allocate this, and what we did was, take part of these funds for supporting reserch, and we transferred them to the Office of Naval Research and used it to support their program because we said their program was the sort of thing we ought to support, so we used it. We gave it to them.
Allocated it to them for the first year or so. Then when we got a staff that could do it —but they were doing a fine job, which had been set up immediately after the war, and so we just used that to supplement it.
It wasn't necessarily in the cards from the outset that the Atomic Energy Commission should support research as such?
Let's put it this way — our directive from the law was clear that we should support research, and that was one of the reasons why I didn't want to see a budget go in the first time without it. Let me say, I appeared when the hearings were up and I never had an easier job in my life getting the money that we needed for the support of research. It took about 20 minutes.
I mean, there was a complete understanding by the people on the budget that we couldn't be operating this without beginning right from the beginning to set up to support research. They understood this. I just declared that this was an essential thing to start and the act said so and we had to do it right away. And there was no complaint about it at all. They said, "Well, how much money do you think you want?", and I said, "Well, I think it should start modestly and grow," but we started it off with a fair number of millions of dollars per year. I've forgotten exactly what the number was.
Yes, well, that could be looked up, of course. When there was a plethora of organizations for the support of science, even at that time, I guess it started with the Office of Naval Research —
— there weren't so many at that time.
No, it wasn't that many, but the Office of —
— National Science Foundation came at a later date. That came at a later date, and I don't know just how much later but quite a bit later.
Yes, the late forties.
Late forties some time. I don't know just exactly when it was.
The Office of Naval Research was before the AEC.
Oh yes, the Office of Naval Research was an office that grew out of the organization that the Navy had. They had a sizeable organization to support research, and it was a very competent group. And they set out immediately after the war to do this. As a matter of fact. Groves had set out to support research and he had already set up certain contracts to support by the Manhattan District. So he had set out to support research in research laboratories. He'd essentially allocated funds to start the Brookhaven Laboratory.
The Association of American Association of Universities, AAUI, whatever , I don't know exactly, I ought to remember this, but anyway, that was done before the war and was done-not before the war, that was done immediately after the war, and done by the Manhattan District, so there were some things that we were supporting by way of research, but I thought we ought to do other things by way of supporting research fellows and we started to do that right away. I thought it was important that we set up a budget for research right in the beginning.
And I think that there was no problem — this wasn't something that there was any argument about. I think our rather small staff on the Commission was reluctant because we had to formulate a budget very early, and they were reluctant to do that, and I said, "It's important that we do it immediately and in the first budget, because, a, we're directed to; b, it's important; and we should not lose any time in getting it started."
Yes. Well, maybe a few words about your subsequent involvements in the area of my interest. I note here for example that you have been a trustee of the Rand Corporation for example.
I was a trustee of the Rand Corporation after I came out here and about for ten years. I mean, I don't think there's much to say about that. It's something that followed rather naturally after my participation in things during the war and things they were interested in. And that's a long time ago. But what might be more important to say is that, starting not long after the war, there came to be an advisory committee set up in Washington that was actually set up in the Office of Defense Mobilization. I guess this was not set up until Eisenhower became President. But I'm not quite sure of that. It may have been set up even earlier than that.
You're listed as a member from "53, but —
"53. I was a member twice.
Yes, "53 to "55 and "57 to'60.
Truman-'48 to "52 — it was just after Eisenhower came in that I apparently went back on that advisory board. Well, this board reported formally through the Office of Defense Mobilization, but Mr. Eisenhower, President Eisenhower always had the committee come in and talk with him, and he always spent time with the committee, whenever the committee asked to come in he always made room for it. He felt it was important and I think his own interest in it was what really made the committee have some , count for something in the government, because it didn't have any organization. It wasn't a full time committee. It didn't have a full time staff.
It had one person as a secretary, I think it was David Beckler who was part of the staff there. He'd been in the Defense Department. And it had a number of people in it. Lee DuBridge was on it, I guess Charlie Lauritsen was on it, and during that period, Jim Killian was on it. Jim Killian was on it at the time of the Sputnik.
I had retired from the committee by that time, and at that time they took the decision that it should be set up formally as the President's Science Advisory Committee. They felt that it needed more presence and that they needed to get science more into the government, and Jim Killian then took over, was the chairman in the Office of Defense Mobilization, took over as chairman, and they added some of the earlier members of the committee.
Including myself. And Hans Bethe I guess came on the committee during that period.
For the first time ?
I think he'd been a member before. I think he came back too but I'm not certain of this. You can look it up.
Did it become a full time occupation then ?
No, it wasn't a full time occupation. It was supposed to be a part time occupation, but the fact was, that the committee met every month for about three days in a regular session, and we had so much work to do that we were spending, the first year after it was set up formally, I figured out that I had spent more than half of my time working for that committee, in fact, two-thirds of the time. The first year it was up, we got involved in these test negotiations in Geneva and I spent a very large amount of time on that.
Fisk, Jim Fisk, the same Jim Fisk was on that committee, and as a matter of fact, I guess at that time he and I were both vice-chairmen of the committee, and we representing the committee — he was the chairman of it, I guess my views were a little too definite to be regarded as exactly neutral on this point — his views were much more neutral, and we then had Ernest Lawrence as someone who represented other views. Well, it turned out when we got onto this committee that, after we'd been talking for a while, we found out that our views were very much the same. They weren't all that different. And we went over for these test negotiations with the Russians, and they were very interesting.
They were essentially technical negotiations, and were subsequently turned over to other negotiations, but Ernest Lawrence became very ill early in the negotiations, and he'd had troubles with his intestine. He'd had a perforated intestine, and, at various times, and so the fact was that he, when he got well enough, they shipped him, he came back to the United States. It was very sad. And he died that August before these negotiations were over. .. getting science advice into the higher levels of all of the departments that were involved in science. Part of that was done by the people that were brought in to take some of those positions, because they were so very competent.
They came in through helping in the Science Advisory Committee, President's Science Advisory Committee, and then became very much involved in it. Herb York is a good example of this. Harold Brown was a good example of this. And there were many other cases. But they are probably the two most outstanding cases, both of whom turned out to be extremely good at this and to work at it extremely hard and make their full career in this area. I think it's had a very gret effect. But whether it's had — just exactly whether it's more important than something else I think is awfully hard to say. I don't think that's a measurable thing. But this group that went over to these talks in Geneva — the staff of that group was a very very flexible and knowledgeable staff.
The talks were very good, and I think it was a very interesting sort of negotiation. It certainly had an impact on what happened subsequently, and I hope today that, I mean, bringing on up just to say that the problem, one of the outstanding problems today is that we are in a period in which the stocks have grown and grown aid grown and we're just now coming to a point where there seems to be a chance of seeing them cut down some. I think this is an extremely important thing to do, and to provide a way in which we really get after the business of cutting down the stocks of nuclear weapons throughout the world. I feel very strongly about this, and it's been something that's followed on for far too long without it changing.
Well, it doesn't look all that hopeful perhaps at the present moment, but that's another matter.
Well, I think it does look pretty —I think there are chances that this really will come about. I don't feel entirely discouraged about this. I think that the meetings that were held in November made a start, and I hope that, while they sort of provided for getting ahead with this, and I fully think that we're going to see steps taken to cut back on nuclear weapons.
I think that we've come closer to seeing some things actually -this is the first time in a long time when we've had the two governments actually saying that they are, saying in public that they are prepared to take steps in this direction. They haven't said precisely what they are, and the Soviets have made some actual proposals in this direction, and —
Yes, right. Well, to wrap this up, I am planning to emphasize the physicist's role in American policy. How do you think the physicist' s role compares to the role of others, and do you think that it makes sense to concentrate on physicists, not necessarily at the expense of others, but as a point of concentration?
Well, I guess that the answer to this is, it sort of started after the war, that the people who had been closest to the policy making and the development of weapons and so on , and the developments in some of the major other fields that were developed during the war, were physicists, and there were lots of others. There were engineers. There were metallurgists. There were chemists. There were all sorts of other people, but by numbers the physicists were — and I suppose this comes in part because physicists can, showed an ability during the war and subsequently to shift rapidly from one subject to another. That's the nature of physics.
Lots of physicists have shifted their fields during their lifetime. I give you an example of this — And I think that this all sort of fits in together, why it's been natural that physicists would be involved in this. I don't think it's because physicists are better at it or anything else. I think it's sort of the way things go, and there have been , — I think other people now are taking this. If you look for example in some of the journals that publish this and talk about the disarmament question, there's a significant fraction of papers now written entirely by non-scientists. It's become a profession.
How do you consider that development ?
Well, some of it's very good and some of it I can't understand at all.
What about the involvement of other scientists? Do you think it's as natural as before for physicists to participate?
Well, actually the fields which technically are associated with some of the modern problems are not so much associated with pure physics as they were before. They're associated with applied physics, and for example, the people are apt to be found more in applied physics or engineering, certain branches of engineering, than they are among pure physicists. So I think it's a little different situation today. That's just where the field is. Because they have to do with lasers and all sorts of things like that, and while a laser is basic physics certainly, there isn't any doubt about that, it's mostly been — the techniques have largely been developed by people who are applied physicists or what not. There's much more work in applied physics. There didn't used to be such a thing as an applied physicist. Exactly.
No. And physics is becoming compartmentalized.
It's becoming much more compartmentalized. It's a very very broad field. Well, I don't think this is something that's catastrophic in any sense. I mean, I think this is just the way things go.
Yes. But maybe physicists don't have the same capacity for a general approach any more?
Oh, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think that physicists do have, at least some physicists — I think it is probably true that among the younger people, they are less attracted to these things than people used to be, but that was, I'm not even sure that's right. I don't really know. I've been involved in setting up a study group here at the Institute, at my advanced age. We have people from all fields in it.
Yes, and on the other hand PSAC for example has not been exclusively physicists by any means throughout this period. I think Lee DuBridge was the first leader of the group who was a physicist as such. The majority have probably been physicists.
I don't know.
Another thing we are involved and engaged in at the Center for the History of Physics is to make sure that important documentation, written or otherwise, on the history of physics in the 20th century is maintained properly. You spoke to me before about some documentation that you have in your files. And I was wondering what are the plans, how are they maintained, are there arrangements for their being placed — ?
Well, I'm afraid that's something, already many things that I've had in my files have already been turned over, one place or another, and — but there are some things that still need attending to, like these papers. I need to dig up some of this correspondence of Gaudsmitt. I gave an example of that. I think I'd like to see, I think I should send that to the American Institute of Physics.
Yes, yes. We have no interest as such in maintaining papers ourselves. Our task is really to make sure that papers are maintained.
I think some of his things are in your archives.
Exactly, in that case it's natural.
I think some of his things are in your archives, that's why I —
— they are. It would be very good.
I'll try to see that that happens.
Good. I appreciate that. Are you writing any memoirs, do you have plans to ?
Period, OK —
It would be much too tough a job. It's not something that -and I think I'll let other people do that.
Yes, well, you had a very rich career, so it's a — it's fascinating talking to you, and it will be very interesting to follow this up. I'm sure as you say a lot of people have the same feelings, so you may be imposed upon by a lot of people.
No, I don't feel imposed upon, but it's remarkable what a large fraction of time gets put on this sort of thing. It happens, as I said, there are several now digging into this.
Yes, and it may not be just a fluctuation.