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Interview of Ralph Alpher by Martin Harwit on 1983 August 11,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Session two is a joint interview with Robert Herman. Family background and early education, work at Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, studies at George Washington University, wartime employment and studies, work with Navy on detection of mines; graduate studies with George Gamow while working at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, early universe theory, first encounter and later work with Robert Herman, interaction with physics community. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and L. R. Henrich, neglect of Alpher and Herman work by astronomical community; General Electric projects: supersonic flow, re-entry physics, the Talaria project; the Penzias/Wilson observations; honors, marriage. Miscellaneous recollections about youth in Washington, D.C., service on scientific committees, public education efforts, work at General Electric. Meeting of Alpher and Herman, their collaboration, cosmological theory, work with George Gamow, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Edward Condon, cosmic background radiation, controversy with steady-state adherents and others; systematic neglect of their work, nucleosynthesis in stars, reactions to awards, discussions with Arno A. Penzias at the time of Nobel Prize award (with Robert W. Wilson), correspondence with S. Pasternack about P. James Peeble's cosmology papers, Alpher paper on neutrino and photon background calculation, James Follin, C. Hayashi, Steven Weinberg's presentation in his book The First Three Minutes; current cosmological efforts, A. Zee's papers on cosmology, views on the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, Fred Hoyle's recent writings. Also prominently mentioned are: Niels Henrik David Bohr, Albert Einstein, Richard Phillips Feynman, Lawrence Randolph Hafstad, Robert Hofstadter, Huntington, and H. P. Robertson.
(Parenthetical insertions were added in the transcript and were not part of the original interview. Most of them serve mainly for clarification.)
I know that you were born in Washington, D.C., in 1921.
That is right.
And that you were largely educated in Washington, D.C.
Now can you tell me more about your family and the background that you grew up in.
I was the youngest of four children. The next oldest was a sister who was nine years older; my brother was the oldest child in the family. He started to work for the government as a messenger; went to school at night and ended up as a civil engineer. He was 14 years older than I was. I grew up, well, my father immigrated from Russia, (then Russia, later the Soviet Union); he came here in the early 1900s, 1904, I believe, and started working in New York; he was 16 at the time. He started working in New York as a cabinet maker, and ultimately moved to Philadelphia where he continued to work as a cabinet maker and finally ended up in Washington, D.C. where he worked as a cabinet maker, carpenter and later as a small contractor, building contractor. My mother was born in Latvia — Riga — and she immigrated to the United States as a teenager also. They were married here; her name was Rose; maiden name Maleson. Neither my father nor mother had any formal education beyond I suppose the early teens.
Did they speak English well?
Not when they came, at all, I believe. They learned English here, and they spoke broken English, basically; in the home they spoke largely Yiddish, some broken Russian, and if my mother spoke any Latvian, I didn't recognize it, so I can't say what else she spoke.
Did you acquire any Russian from them?
A few curse words. I probably understood some of the things my father said, but I certainly lost it rather quickly thereafter.
Do you remember what first started your interest in science?
Probably when I was first exposed to some kind of science in elementary school because I remember at a very early age that I read Jeans and Eddington, and I was tremendously impressed by a book called Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis.
A very inspirational book.
For science because it was about a doctor?
It was about a doctor; and about truth, purity, and beauty, you know of devoted scientific research, and I think the real influences towards science came in high school.
From a teacher?
I think from several teachers.
Do you remember any of their names?
Oh yes, indeed I do. In fact, I corresponded with one of them not too many years ago. Probably the most influential person was an English teacher named Matilda Eiker. She was an interesting individual; she was handicapped; she walked with difficulty, with a cane. She would start her English classes by telling the students that she wrote novels, which she did. But we were not to read them because they were spicy novels, so of course all the students read her novels.
They actually were published?
Oh yes, yes. She had several books in the library, in the public library on the shelf. She was also an amateur astronomer, who was interesting; she had a club and the last few years in high school we put together a telescope, and ground the mirror, set it up on the roof of the high school and all of that. I also had an interesting physics teacher. He was a real character. His name was Richard Feldman, and he had a unique approach to physics; we basically started the year with a Model-T Ford in the classroom, fully assembled and operating, and we stripped it. And then as we took pieces off we talked about what they did and how they worked, and we would end up after the first term with the floor littered with pieces of the car; then we'd put it back together again the next year, for the next class.
He had a tremendous enthusiasm for science and he was a frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science; wrote articles about how he taught meteorology and other things in the classroom.
That's really quite striking because there are not that many teachers who normally will publish things; and here you had an English teacher and physics teacher. Did any of your other teachers behave equally actively in…
Yes, I had a chemistry teacher whose name was Miss Branch. She, too, was an interesting character; she went to the University of Chicago every summer, as I recall, continuing graduate education in chemistry.
Which high school was this, incidentally?
Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. And during the year she ran chemistry clubs after hours in which she taught some inorganic chemistry and quantitative analysis, and so on, to those who wanted to take the course.
And she was in graduate school; she was rather current; and I thought it was a very good course. As a matter of fact when I started college, finally, I wanted to major in chemistry.
But I changed after a couple of years.
What changed your ideas about majoring?
Well, I had a long conversation with a gentleman named Benjamin Van Evera at George Washington University. And I had gone in there to talk to him because I had some reservations about pursuing chemistry, partly because of the physical difficulty of doing the labs, because I was a night school student. The labs sort of ran from 10 o'clock at…
…night until two in the morning, and I was holding down a job at that time. That's a whole story which I will get to in a minute.
Okay. But, finally I hit organic chemistry, and the combination of the lab work late at night and working six days a week got to me. (World War II was imminent, and as a Navy employee I worked at least six eight-hour days.) So I went to talk to him, and he suggested that chemistry was not the thing for me for that reason, if I so chose, but that he did not foresee any jobs for me in chemistry, ultimately, because I was Jewish.
Really. At that time…
This was around 1939 probably.
Well, it was 1938-'39. And he just thought it was a bad field for a Jewish person to go into.
He himself was not Jewish?
He himself was not Jewish as far as I know.
Was this his personal prejudice or just a reflection on society in general?
I think it was a reflection on society in general. I don't recall that I attributed any prejudice to him.
Did you encounter anti-Semitism at other stages of your education as well?
Yes, once — quite seriously. When I finished high school, I won a four-year, full-tuition fellowship to M.I.T. This was awarded by the Washington Alumni Club of M.I.T. The letter informing me that I had won said that there was one additional thing they needed from me, and that was an interview with the president of the local chapter. And so I went to meet him, and we discussed a number of things including my religion, which I thought was rather strange. And then I received a registered letter from the group almost immediately which said that they had on the basis of the interview decided to award the fellowship to my first alternate, a gentleman named Richard Rebert of German extraction. I have no idea of whatever happened to him. Rumor has it that he flunked out of M.I.T. I don't really know.
I'll be dammed! I didn't realize that anti-Semitism was that strong in this country before the war.
Yes and no.
When I came here after the war, and went to college, I heard that there were quotas for Jewish students in medical schools.
I think that is absolutely correct.
But other than that, in the sciences and so forth, one didn't hear about it, at least.
I am sure that there were some quotas in graduate school, well — I am not sure; I would suspect that there were graduate school quotas in chemistry, if for no other reason, than that Jews were not all that easily hi red as chemists. I remember, for example, hearing secondhand that DuPont was a terrible place for a Jew to get a job. In fact, years later I met a fellow named Shirleigh Silverman who was a good friend of ours, who had worked at DuPont in their textile physics laboratory; I don't know exactly what it was called. And I remember one brief discussion we had about how I thought it was so unusual that he had gotten a job at DuPont. And I am sorry I don't remember how he handled that except that he did get a job there. He wasn't a chemist; he was a physicist. Maybe that made a difference, I don't know.
I should have known, perhaps, I recently read something about the difficulties that I. I. Rabi had when he was growing up and becoming a physicist, and I guess the same problem of getting jobs in science for Jews was mentioned there as well. It still surprises me each time, though, and maybe that is a naiveté on my part, but I wasn't in this country at that time. Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Well, let's see, where was I? In high school, I went to a business high school. These were depression years, and one of the things that was of great concern was that there was no money in my family, and so I felt I had to be able to earn my living when I got out of high school because I didn't know whether I was going to go to college. I had another fellowship (besides MIT) offered me, for example, in Colorado, I think, Colorado School of Mines, or some such place. And I didn't even consider it because I had no train fare. You know, there was just no way I could take advantage of that. So I learned to become a secretary in high school, as well. I took the academic courses and learned shorthand and typing. Very fortunately I was very good at it, just seemed to have a natural aptitude for both, and there were very few male students of shorthand and typing. And so, as soon as I got out of high school I got a job, which was sort of unusual at the time.
Was there any prejudice against a male secretary?
Not in those days. As a matter of fact, there were places that preferred to have male secretaries, either because of the idiosyncrasies of the employer or the places in which you would work. And at the time it was widely known that there were people like Bernard Baruch and Billy Rose who had started life as secretaries, shorthand reporters, and so on. So it was then a somewhat unusual thing for boys to take secretarial work. I think we were… there was one other young man and myself in this class, all the rest being girls taking secretarial work. And in high school I worked for a time, part-time, as a secretary to the school principal, and I also worked as a stage hand and later as a stage electrician, and later than that as the manager of the stage crew.
At the school?
At the school. This was a reasonably active thing I got involved in because it was the best stage in the city of Washington; had forty drops as I recall, and so on.
What is a drop?
These are long pipes on chains and ropes which carry scenery of all kinds. So if you have forty of them, you can do a lot of scenery changing and change the depth of the stage, and so on.
But this was not a money-earning activity?
Oh yes it was; and I think as a matter of fact there were times when I probably brought in more money at ($ .50/hr), working on the stage crew, than my father netted in his construction business.
I contributed the money basically to the family support. I think I was almost self-supporting in a sense. It didn't pay very well.
So this was by the age of 16 or so?
No, no. I got out when I was just barely 16. So I was 14 and 15 doing the stage work.
So this would have been around 1935.
'35, '36, right. Then I worked during the summers in stage work. There was an open-air theater near the Washington Monument that put on plays and musicals and so on, and I worked for the District of Columbia Recreation Department, on the stage crew down there during the summer. Got paid hourly; it was very nice work and I saw lots of good theater and so on. So anyway, I finished high school and there I was, you know, I got a job working as a secretary for National Cash Register Company. And decided I wanted to go to college, and I applied at the only free college in the area which was the Woodrow Wilson Teacher's College. It was a free teacher's college for the City of Washington, District of Columbia. I quit National Cash Register, went to Wilson for about eight weeks to ten weeks, and decided that it was nothing more than an extended high school; I made the varsity table tennis team — played some matches. Then I got a job at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM), Carnegie Institution of Washington, as a secretary. They employed only male secretaries; I was the third one, I guess. So I dropped out of the Teacher's College and in February started as a part-time student at George Washington University. That was February '38.
Did you have to pay tuition there?
Yes, six dollars a credit hour.
That was quite a lot at that time, wasn't it?
It was indeed because I was making $60 per month… I started out at $50 and was making finally $65 a month, and I paid my own tuition and expenses and gave money at home as well out of that. That was an interesting two and a half — I spent, what, two and a half years, almost three years there. The director of the institution was named John Fleming, and he was executive secretary of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, among other things. And there was a fellow there named Waldo Smith who acted as secretary of the American Geophysical Union, and among other things the DTM office staff produced the typescript, by typewriter, of the transactions of the American Geophysical Union, and for a couple of years a fellow named Canova and I typed the entire transactions of the American Geophysical Union. (Our names appear in, the prefaces for ‘38-'39, I believe, did maybe '40. Canova and I also acted as shorthand rapporteurs, taking down discussion during a meeting of the National Union of Geodesy & Geophysics, held at the National Headquarters Building in Washington.) There were three male secretaries there, I and a fellow named Norman Dove, who only recently retired, I believe, and Canova, I lost track of him. Anyway, Fleming had no women in the place, either technical or staff people. It was a very useful and interesting time for me, for not only was I going to George Washington and studying first chemistry and switching to physics, and doing that at night, but there was good physics going on at DTM. Merle Tuve, Larry Hafstad, N. P. Heydenburg, and some others were doing early proton-proton scattering; they were doing physics; they built, while I was there, a 2-Mev Van de Graaff, I saw that get built and I watched them do some of their experiments. There was a fellow named Ernest Vestine who was doing rather nice work on measurements of the Earth's magnetic field. There was a fellow named Johnson and I can't remember his first name, but he was doing studies of currents in the Earth's atmosphere. I got to know these people and began to appreciate what they were doing. And then on a part-time basis I got deeply involved with a fellow named Scott Forbush, a very gentle quiet character who just worked away and minded his own business and became well known later for what is called the Forbush increase in primary cosmic radiation flux (associated with solar activity modifying the earth's magnetic field). And he taught me how to do Fourier analyses of cosmic-ray intensity data, looking for periodicities, and we did all of these things on a crank-type desk calculator. So when I wasn't working as a secretary and typing manuscripts for the magazine, the transactions, I was down there in Forbush's office doing data reduction on primary cosmic-ray flux measured by ionization chambers in Peru and Australia and near Washington, in Huancayo, Peru and Waterloo. Huancayo was a geosciences station up in the Andes, about 12,000 feet, as I recall; maybe it was higher than that. I don't remember; I never went there. I recall one in Australia being at Waterloo?
So at the university, at the same time, you had decided to switch to physics.
After a couple of years I switched to physics, just about the time that I ended working at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, I switched to physics.
Did you have any physics teachers there that you remember?
Well, the most impressive one I had right from the start was Edward Teller.
I didn't realize he was there at the time.
He was indeed. I can still visualize him striding into the freshman physics course one night, the first night of its meeting, making a very profound statement; namely, that one of his jobs… he had two jobs… one was to teach physics to those who wanted to learn physics and the other was to get rid of the overpopulation of pre-med students, the usual function of either physics or math courses.
What did he teach?
Well, at that time he taught freshman physics, and later on I took a course in what was called atomic and molecular physics from him. I guess those were the only two I took from him — freshman physics and atomic and molecular physics.
Who else was on the faculty at the time?
Thomas Brown. Don't push me because I don't remember what the heck he taught — introductory electricity and electromagnetism, methods of theoretical physics maybe. And there was a physics professor named Cheney. There was also a guy who was later active in forming a division of fluid dynamics in the Physical Society, named Raymond Seeger. I don't remember what undergraduate course I took with him, but I do remember a course in statistical mechanics the he taught, at the graduate level. I guess he also taught the course in solid-state physics for some reason.
There was a solid-state physics course at the time?
Yes, it didn't look anything like what we have now, but — theory of solids — I forgot now what they called the course. I'm sorry I can't even remember what they used as a textbook, which is terrible. But sometime later I bought Seitz's book, Modern Theory of Solids.
That must have been quite a bit later.
Yes, I don't remember what we used; I don't even have any records. At the end of graduate level, there were a couple of other guys, and I am sorry, I don't remember their names. I also recall a course just after WWII with Charles Critchfield using Wigner's Group Theory and Quantum Mechanics.
Any fellow students whom you worked with or talked with or…
Or remembered, oh yes. Being a night school student did not make it easy to get to know fellow students. I remember crossing paths briefly with Joe Weber (of later gravitational wave renown) and Alvin Rodkowski (now retired to Tel Aviv University, who spent a career as science advisor to Admiral Rickover). There were many night, part-time students, like myself. Before we leave the faculty, though, this was now at the beginning of World War II, mind you, and I was an undergraduate. And the university had a lot of other… oh by the way… Gamow was there at the time, but I did not take… let's see did I take any undergraduate course with him? I don't think so. But George Washington, at the time, was a university which was basically immersed in the middle of a lot of Government agencies. For example, the Navy Department had its offices right nearby. The War Department, and so on were all nearby and they were beginning to accumulate, at the beginning of the war, people to work on technical matters. For example, von Neumann and Joachim Weyl (son of Hermann), and so on, were working in the Navy Department, where I was working at the time. There were many others, and these people became adjunct professors at George Washington, either giving courses or at least giving a series of lectures. So I was exposed to a lot of rather well-known names in physics. In 1940, when I left DTM, I went to work first at the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and Justice; that was in the Justice Department, as a statistical clerk; and then after a few months I switched to becoming an abstract clerk in the War Department.
Let me get this straight. This is after your graduation?
No, no, no. I am still working.
I'm still working and also at school. Except for a few months at the tail end of the Ph.D. work, all my courses, undergraduate and graduate, plus my research, were done at night, after regular working hours. All along here I am continuing to take courses at George Washington University towards my bachelor's degree.
Did you have any trouble with the draft board, or anything like that?
No, because when the war broke, I was already working in the Navy Department, and I was deferred. In 1944, when I left the Navy Department and went to Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, I had already tried to get into the Navy… I had applied for a commission as a degaussing officer to go to the South Pacific, and was rejected because of poor eyesight. Shall I go back to 1940?
I left the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism partly because of money — because I was really starving to death there, you know, maybe making $60 or $65 a month, and I had an offer of a Government job, paying considerably more, something like $960 a year, $80 a month. So I went to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, running one of the early card-sorting machines, and doing very simple statistical studies on the reasons why people from Eastern Europe were deported. Really a grubby, grimy side of life I saw there.
And why were they deported?
Do you really want to know?
Very high incidence of sodomy, particularly with farm animals. Yugoslavians, Hungarians… you know, it's one of those things that sticks in your memory.
I see. This is publicly done so that…
They were caught, okay, and this was sufficient reason to be deported.
I am just surprised how many people would be caught.
Well, look, I don't know why they were caught. That was the impression (and I was probably very impressionable) I got in my three months in that job. I really didn't like it. I applied for another job, and was transferred to the War Department, and there I was an abstract clerk for probably another three months. Letters came into the War Department suggesting ways in which they could hasten the demise of Germany, or whatever; or some guy would write in and say he owned an iron mine or iron mountain somewhere, and would the War Department like to have it. And mostly they were really crank letters, and my job was to read them, and either abstract them or write responses. That was my first exposure to the world of cranks. Then I heard about an opening for a physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory which was then housed in the Washington Navy Yard. And I applied and was accepted. (I had an alternative career offer at this time. I had a very high score on the US Civil Service exam for secretaries. I was offered a Civil Service job as 3rd Ass't Secretary at the US Embassy (or consulate) in Ceylon — good pay, oversees allowance, plus extra pay for high-risk area.) Now because I did not have a degree, I was still an undergraduate studying at night, they hired me as a contract employee, at a daily rate. I was put to work in a group that was doing early work in degaussing, protection of ships against magnetic mines. And basically, I stayed in that work except for maybe the last six months, until 1944. It was a very interesting group. The guy who ran it was John Bardeen.
Oh really? Interesting!
This guy with whom I had worked with at DTM had come in – Scott Forbush — and he was working there; Charles Kittel was in the group, and Geoffrey Keller, who later became an astronomer, and a bunch of other guys. What we did there was… that particular group was concerned with mathematically representing the external magnetic field of a ship, well enough so that if we had some measurements over a plane at a depth below the ship, we could predict what the field would be at other depths, the idea being that one would put coils on ships and generate fields of equal magnitude and opposite sign to cancel a field at mine depth because there was a great fear then of losing ships to magnetic mines that the Germans had started to use. So what we did there was enormously detailed calculations using spheroidal harmonic functions to represent ships' magnetic fields, and extrapolate them to other depths. We built a machine we called a Laplace graph which was a rectangular array of individually energized solenoids, and we could run a magnetometer in an XY plane underneath this array of magnets. We could set the currents in the coils so that we could represent the ship's field at a given plane, and then we could drop the XY carriage and make a measurement of what the field was at other depths, to check our calculations. Laplace graph was a local name. The machine was a Laplace's equation solver. The degaussing program proceeded through most of the War. Meanwhile, I'm still going to school. In 1943, I got my bachelor's degree and immediately started taking more graduate courses. Let me finish up with the Navy. By 1944, the Navy felt it had a grip on the demagnetization of ships, and the Germans really were no longer sowing as many magnetic mines. So that was basically becoming a dead issue. What really was required were people who knew something about the subject, could go out into the field and make measurements in various harbors, of the field of these ships, as they went in and out, to make sure the coils were properly set. The magnetic coils on the ships…
Let me ask, what do you mean by “that the Navy had a grip on it”?
No longer any significant loss of ships to magnetic mines. They had gone, in addition to the direction of protecting the ships by putting coils on the ships, they had also built wooden mine sweepers, which carried a long wire energized, and they would go in and out of harbors with the wire energized, and they would set off the mines. The Germans were getting cleverer; they were beginning to make acoustic magnetic mines; you had to have both kinds of signals. They also did nasty things like putting ratchet counters in a mine so it would not fire until you had triggered it 21 times or 19 times, or something like that. So a mine sweeper could go in 15 times and the next thing that came through might set off the mine. But there wasn't much we could do about that except to have the mine sweepers going back and forth at a great rate. I am giving you a lot of extraneous information, because what I was actually involved with was the laborious calculation on desk Fridens of spheroidal harmonic functions (ch functions) fitting observed ships' fields, the theoretical calculation of ships' fields and setting up and operating this Laplace graph. Then toward the end of this period submarine detection became something of interest to us, and the Navy was using a towed airborne magnetometer, that is, they would string a magnetometer out at the end of a long cable and would fly just above the surface of the water. And if you flew over a submarine you'd see a magnetic signal of some kind. The question was to interpret the signal in terms of whether we were going across the ship, athwart ship, or longitudinally, or all of these things. So I worked on that for a while. And then they decided to discontinue it because the submarine threat was diminishing so much; they didn't want to put any more effort into it. So this whole group disbanded in 1944, over a period of some months. Some of the guys went to Los Alamos. There was a fellow named M. H. Trytten at the National Academy who interviewed all of us, and he told us as much as he could about what the work would be and what the living conditions would be at Los Alamos, which wasn't very damn much, except we all knew something about the place. It was not that big a secret in Washington.
When you say you knew "something," what does that mean?
Well, for example, I knew that von Neumann and Gamow and others who were working down the hall from us in the Navy Department were doing things like studying close packing of spheres to try to improve the density of explosives. There was some work going on, on shaped charges down the hall, and in connection with something or other that I was doing at the Naval Ordnance Lab, I had to make a trip to a place on the James River, Yorktown Naval Mine Depot, I guess it was called. And they were making experimental cast explosive charges for something I think called Project Camel which was very clearly an attempt to build shaped charges, and it was not hard to guess where they were going. I mean it had something to do with nuclear explosives. Oh let me go back a minute. One of the things that was really fun being at George Washington in those days and working in the Government agencies was that there was a thing called the Washington Physics Colloquium, which ran at George Washington University. And as a student, of course, (and it was held in the evenings) I went to these meetings. I happened to be present when Niels Bohr came and gave a talk about fission. In fact, at that time I was working at DTM still, remember, as a secretary.
What year was this?
‘38, ‘39? Must have been ‘39. At any rate, the next day, Tuve and Hafstad set up an experiment out at DTM and saw uranium fission on the face of an oscilloscope, and I was there when they did this. That was a great thrill. So, we knew about fission early on, and Washington was a rumor mill. All that went on with the Manhattan program was not all that quiet. Word leaked out; we knew that Teller had left G. W. to go to Columbia. They were they were setting up some kind of a laboratory up there having to do with uranium isotope separation, and so on. Okay, back to ‘44. I had this interview with Trytten and was intrigued with the idea of going out there, but because I was now a graduate student working towards a master’s at George Washington, I felt in the long run it would be better for me to continue there because if I went to Los Alamos, I would have to stop my education. And having been brought up in a period where I had no funds to go to college, I could not imagine myself, say if the war ended, and Los Alamos employment ended, what in the hell would I do with myself? How would I go to school? Little knowing that the whole question of graduate student support would change completely. So I chose to stay and I went to work at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins. Now, this was an organization started, I guess about '40 or ‘41, I've forgotten just exactly when, to develop a notion of a variable time fuse for antiaircraft shells, using a little radio transmitter in the nose of anti-aircraft shells which sent out a signal and you beat that… you looked at a Doppler beat between the transmitted and received signal and used that as an indicator of the presence of an aircraft to set off a fuse. By 1944, that was a going concern, and they began to look for other applications of this concept of a small fuse using ruggedized vacuum tubes, electronic tubes. They set up a program to build a magnetic gradiometer torpedo exploder. And so when I was hired, it was because I had some experience with or exposure to magnetic ships' fields, although it turned out that was not used very much because I ended up being a… basically an engineer in charge of production of these damned fuses for torpedo exploders. So from when I started there in 1944 until shortly after the end of the War when we had built about a thousand of these exploders — and they were stored on a dock in San Francisco waiting to go out to sea, so they were never used — that's what I worked on, basically, a production engineer on those fuses. And then the War ended and that program was over; Johns Hopkins went through the throes of deciding what to do next. Very early…
This is the Applied Physics Lab?
Applied Physics Lab, right, which was then located in Silver Spring, Maryland. So it was now 1945, and I had just finished a master's degree which I did with George Gamow. Having taken some courses with him, I did a thesis on energy production in stars, a master's thesis; it was a review paper. And now I was really seriously interested in astrophysics; but still working, now at the Applied Physics Lab.
Let me ask you, what attracted you to Gamow?
I wish I could remember the first course I took with him; probably relativity. I found him a tremendously stimulating person. And he obviously loved physics, and enjoyed it, and he conveyed to me as a student a sense of enthusiasm which was hard to ignore. When it came time to do a master's work, I asked if I could work with him. He said “sure” and that was delightful.
Had you read his popular books?
Oh sure, sure. I knew who he was, and I was terrifically pleased to be able to work with him. As far as the formal course work was concerned, I only remember one formal course with him, which is sort of terrible. That was a year's course in relativity, and that probably was the one course he taught in a half decent manner because he really thoroughly understood and knew; and he was able to I mean he had studied with Friedmann and he really knew that subject backwards and forwards, and had a tremendous interest in it and enthusiasm about it.
There were very few physics departments at the time that taught relativity, isn't that true?
Let's see, I really can't answer that because, you know, by the time I took a course in relativity Tolman's book had been out about ten years his book on Relativity Thermodynamics and Cosmology; you know the book.
It's just that when I was going through graduate school about a decade later, most universities didn't have relativity courses. Sometimes it was taught in the math department.
So it was probably Gamow's interest that…
His personal interest that brought it into the department. Now, I had some courses in the math department, in vector and tensor analysis, and one on applications of the absolute differential calculus. Although in the last course I think we used Levi-Civita (The Absolute Differential Calculus) which is more of a physics book than a math book, as I recall. It's a long time since I thought about that book.
We are now on Tape 1, side B of the interview with Dr. Ralph Alpher. We just had an interruption where the tape gave some difficulties. But why don't we go on where you had left off.
I think we were just…
Talking about getting my master's degree and what we switched over to… or what I switched over to, both working and at school. It was my graduate work. First, to complete the remarks about my work. In 1945, we stopped working on this torpedo exploder, and I got involved in some very early experimental and theoretical work with guided missiles which was one of the new thrusts at the Applied Physics Lab. Primarily I got involved in the theoretical work, although I did some observational work with a very simple rocket with bang bang steering controls, the fins were either up or down, right or left, so it went one way or another. And I was worried about such things as the base pressure on these very simple missiles and other aerodynamic questions, and this is really where I began to get introduced to fluid mechanics, supersonic aerodynamics. So that's what I began to do in ‘45 and did for several years, sort of early supersonic flow. Meanwhile, I was continuing still at George Washington, and I was working as a doctoral student with George Gamow. I started to work on a thesis which seemed like a natural thing to try at the time, and that was to see whether, in a general relativistic expanding medium, arbitrary perturbations or small perturbations, would continue to grow or be damped out. And I worked on this for something over a year, again at night, and I was still taking a few courses at George Washington, but these were basically beginning to peter out. Sometime during ‘46, and I don’t remember exactly when this happened, Gamow came in, now to my office at Johns Hopkins where he was now a consultant, which made it rather convenient, waving in his hand a copy of the Journal of Physics of the USSR which contained a paper by E. M. Lifshitz on condensations in a relativistic expanding medium, in which he had arrived, obviously earlier than I, at the same conclusions…
This is E. M. Lifshitz.
Yes, the famous Lifshitz. I am sorry to do this to him since he is now departed; of Landau and Lifshitz fame, obviously he had fame in his own right.
I didn’t rea1ize Lifshitz had died.
I understand he died quite recently.
I think that is the other Lifshitz.
Yes, I read about I. M. Lifshitz, the solid-state physicist.
Oh, is he the one. I see. I had just heard that a Lifshitz had died. Okay and I assumed it was E. M. Lifshitz. Not so.
No, I don't think so.
Great. Okay. So at any rate, this meant I had to start on another thesis. Clearly, I could not…
It was a pretty complete paper…
It was a nice complete paper, that's right; a rather negative result, but nevertheless complete as far as the technical work was concerned. I had a negative result also. So I had a bad couple of days; I tore up all my notes and calculations and flushed them down the toilet.
Literally. Then sat down with Gamow and we talked about what to do next.
Had you found that there was an exact parallelism between Lifshitz's work and what you had been doing?
Yes. Well, exact. It was the same… basically the same approach. You had to introduce perturbations into the equations and into the gravitational metric terms, and you go through these gruesome calculations of Riemann-Christoffel brackets and all this kind of stuff, and then you look at the time dependence of these perturbations…
And you had taken all the same perturbations into account and found the same growth rates pretty much?
I went through adiabatic perturbations, isothermal perturbations — I mean I did all the same things that he had done.
Because the thing that always struck me about his paper was that he had all the various harmonics picked out in four dimensions and done it correctly, and so on.
Yes, I use to be a whiz at that kind of thing. I don't think I could do it anymore. So I had to start all over again. It's little hard for me now to keep my work at Johns Hopkins and my work in graduate school separate, so I may go back and forth…
Sure that's fine. No, that's good.
Not to confuse things.
…to see the interaction.
It really didn't converge and then only very slight1y until about 1948, and then only for a very brief period.
So did you work 40 hours a week for the Applied Physics Lab and…
…and another 40 hours a week…
…on my own.
…on your thesis anyway.
Basically, until the last stages of my Ph.D. work when I took some months off to just get the sheer physical work of writing a thesis out of the way. But basically, I was doing all this stuff outside of my job, and during this period I went on working in supersonic aerodynamics; I did a few things like I translated a book on supersonic flow with a fellow named Freeman Hill. This seemed to be a good way to bone up on German, so that I could take my German exam for the Ph.D., so I translated a book with him on supersonic flow.
Which one was that?
By Sauer. That's the author. Rudolf was his first name. And the book was owned by our Federal Government, you know it was war booty; it was a prize. It was owned by the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, and we got their permission to translate and publish the translation, which we did. I guess it was the first English book on supersonic gas dynamics after World War II.
It actually sold some copies and was used as a textbook in a number of places. We had a little altercation — not altercation, but a little exchange of letters — later with Sauer, who was a little unhappy that we had translated the book and that he got nothing out of it. But he wrote a second edition, and somebody else translated the second edition. I presume he began to get royalties again on the second edition. Okay, then sometime in the '47 or so period (was that when it was?) there was a guy at the lab named van Allen, okay?… of the van Allen belt, right. He had been a naval officer war working with these VT fuses. And I guess toward the end of the war he was stationed at the lab, and then he was there when the war ended, and he continued on as a civilian.
What is VT?
Variable time fuses.
These were these little radio Doppler fuses. And it was sort of around this time that I met Bob Herman who was working… I don't know how directly with van Allen, but he was doing… was working on the problem… oh boy, no, no, I'm sorry, I got the dates wrong. I met Bob before the war ended. Okay. He was then working on the problems of quality control of these VT fuses, because there was a serious problem of these things getting out into the field and failing when used, not firing properly, or what have you. And I guess van Allen was involved in actually getting field testing done of these fuses, and Bob was doing the theoretical work on trying to understand the quality problem, based on the tests of these things in the field, and so on. I may have this wrong because I never really got involved in it that deeply, but, that was what Bob was doing when I first met him. We were physically nearby and got to know each other. And I guess when I got started on my Ph.D. thesis work, I knew him well enough to go in and chew the fat with him. I don't know whether I got him interested or just rekindled an interest in these general questions, because as it turned out, he had studied relativity with H. P. Robertson at Princeton, and so he'd had a very sound and thorough introduction to these questions, with one of the big names in the area. And I don't remember when he met Gamow, but I’m sure he probably was stimulated by first meeting Gamow. At any rate, at some point during this period van Allen switched — now this is post-World War II, and we had captured a lot of V-2 rockets, and they were being brought back by the Navy — and van Allen somehow got the job of putting instrumentation in the noses of these and firing them at White Sands and making measurements of the primary cosmic-ray flux above the atmosphere. Reasonably early on I got involved in helping to reduce the cosmic-ray data from these flights, so I spent some time doing that. I also spent some time trying to find easy ways of estimating the effect of the Earth's magnetic field on the primary flux measurements. That brings me up to the late '40 as far as my work was concerned. Now I am getting to a relatively short-term memory and I don't have any problem. Okay, let me go back now to Gamow and George Washington. So in '46, Gamow had written a little note in Physical Review Letters, or as a letter to Physical Review (there was no Phys. Rev. Letters then) in which he talked about some ideas on the origin of the elements. Now this was a subject he had been quite interested in; as early as 1935, I believe, he had written a paper in The Journal of the Ohio Academy of Science, and then in 1942 in a talk to the Washington Academy of Sciences he had made some suggestions that the only way you could understand the origin of the elements was in the context of a hot, dense early universe. So he had this notion that he wrote about in 1946, and so he asked me if I would want to consider trying to take that concept and see whether it really made any sense, try to get some quantification, some model, something that would indicate that it was a reasonable hypothesis or not. And I began to look at… trying to form the chemical elements in a relativistic expanding medium, and went back now and began to look again at cosmological models, and tried to look for some guidance on what kind of nuclear physics might go on in an early universe. There was a kind of a breakthrough at that point because I had accumulated a whole bunch of data on relative abundances; I had gone back and looked at the early work of Goldschmidt and others and put together for my own edification a kind of a cosmic abundance table. About that time a fellow named Brown at Caltech… Harrison Brown, published a cosmic abundance distribution paper which was very useful. This showed the predominance of hydrogen and helium, and a general exponential decline of abundance to about atomic weight one hundred and then more or less constant abundances at higher atomic weights.
And the hydrogen and helium here you get from the astronomers, I guess.
The others were terrestrial.
Yes, meteorite data primarily.
Meteorite or earth crust?
Both. There were some meteorite data.
Because Goldschmidt's as I remember was earth crust.
Yes, Goldschmidt's was earth crust, and Brown had already some meteorite data, even in the late '40s. Okay, sometime, maybe it was early '47, late '46, I don't exactly remember when a fellow named Vernon Hughes at Brookhaven published a paper resulting from a cursory… I shouldn't say it was cursory, broad-scale survey of neutron capture cross sections in all the atomic species that he could lay his hands on. They were then considering what you would do to build reactors, for power I guess, and they wanted some idea of the fast neutron capture cross sections of the elements to see which ones they could use. So he gave a paper at an APS meeting, and I saw the abstract of the ten-minute paper in which he reported that he had found that the cross sections at 1 MeV increased exponentially with increasing atomic weight up to about one hundred, and were essentially constant thereafter for all the elements. And he also found that for the magic number nuclei there were dips in the cross sections. So there seemed to be some kind of universality about Ny reactions. The interesting thing was that the cross-section data looked like a mirror image of the abundance data, and so perforce the thing to do was to look at a theory of element formation; and since we had little to go on in those days, it started out with the concept of a pure neutron universe, hot and dense…
Excuse me, you said Vernon Hughes, wasn't it Donald Hughes?
Donald, Donald Hughes. Thank you for correcting that. There is of course also a Vernon Hughes, but this was Donald Hughes, Donald J. Hughes, now deceased.
I couldn't find any paper here done except for that abstract. It might have been a report or something.
we had a Brookhaven report at some point, maybe as a result of seeing the letter. In fact, I think I still have a copy of it in my office. It's a big document with all the cross sections he had measured. In fact, Bob had it and sent it to me when he left General Motors and went to the University of Texas. So he had it for 20 odd years. Now I have it.
But you don't think it ever came out in The Physical Review.
I am not sure. I could look in some of our own papers to see if we referred to it later. Yes, Hughes, Spatz and, Goldstein, Physical Review, 75, page 1781, 1949. What Hughes did was the trigger for going in this direction. It was a delightful thing to fall upon because then the whole thing sort of fell into place, and one could really construct a rather simple sequence of Ny reactions and we hypothesized that there would be intervening beta decay, and so on. Anyway, I worked for a year, a year and a half, on this problem, setting up a rather simple scheme of starting with neutrons and going through writing a set of coupled equations for successive neutron capture. You had to assume intervening neutron decay, so you always had some cross section that was relevant to the curve of Hughes. And in this way I was able to calculate, using a rather generalized representation of the cross section — you know, an exponential and a horizontal line — an abundance distribution that would result from Ny sequential reactions, with basically one free parameter, namely the assumed density of matter at the start of the process. Now this was done on the assumption that the reactions would proceed rapidly enough so that you didn't have to worry about neutron decay or the expansion of the universe which was really a tremendous simplification. But that's how I had to handle the equations in those days. Okay. Now in looking at the cosmological model, clearly I had to have a model that was dense enough to produce the nuclei, which meant far, far denser than now, and it also had to be hot since I was looking at a 1 MeV environment. So I looked at the cosmological model that would ensue from an expanding model that was hot and dense in the beginning and clearly one that is controlled early by radiation. This is alluded to in the paper describing my thesis and there's some detail about a matter-radiation model in my thesis.
Your thesis is reflected in the Physical Review Paper entitled “A Neutron Capture Theory of the Formation of and Relative Abundance of the Elements,” which was in The Physical Review, Vol. 74, 1948, starting on page 1577.
Good. Now what I would like to do is to skirt the technical part until we talk tomorrow with you and Dr. Herman, and talk about two things: One…
This is a good break point because this is really where he got heavily involved.
I 'm not really finished yet…
…because what I would like to do is two things: One, get some information from you about how you worked with Gamow — the direction there and also go on to the time when you left this line of research and left the Applied Physics Laboratory, and what you have done consequently.
Then tomorrow we would get back to this central issue again.
Okay. Going back to my night school work — and by the way, I haven't explicitly stated, but obviously all my formal education was accomplished at night because I worked continuously either for the Navy or for the Applied Physics Lab; and except for a couple of months during which I wrote my Ph.D. Thesis and had the mumps, you know I was working continuously. So all this went on at night. Now, as to how I worked with Gamow that was kind of interesting. I would rush like hell from my job and if I had a consultation with Gamow about the work I was doing, we would arrange by telephone to meet at a restaurant called Little Vienna which was on Pennsylvania Avenue near something like 20th Street. It was convenient to the campus and to Corcoran Hall at G.W. where he gave his lectures. And I’d manage to get there sometimes by five, sometimes by five thirty, and I’d have a bite to eat and he would have something to drink. He was a heavy martini drinker.
What started that?
The drinking… because he was a fairly happy person, or was he… from what one hears?
I think he was a jolly guy, and loved physics, but I think he had some personal problems with his wife, if you want my guess.
What sort of problems; anything specific?
Oh boy, I don't know what to say because I didn't know her that well. You know, I went to his house a few times. They had met in the Soviet Union, and she was an optics engineer, as I recall. I'm not sure how much they had in common. He probably was a strange guy anyway, you know, a great practical joker, a giant of a man, really quite bright, a fun loving guy. I never figured out what kind of person she was. And ultimately, they were divorced. Before the divorce the Gamow’s had problems with their only son, Igor, who was in boarding school (Staunton Military Academy) but who went through a period of sowing wild oats. Igor is, last I heard, a reputable faculty member at Colorado, with a biology Ph.D. doing research on plant tropisms.
Oh, is that right? I didn't know that. When was that?
'56 maybe. Something like that. It was not long after I left Johns Hopkins and came out to General Electric. Incidentally, I understood the then president of George Washington University (Lloyd Heck Marvin) forced Gamow out of GW because of this divorce — this led to Gamow going to the University of Colorado.
But he remarried then, didn't he?
He remarried a very delightful lady named Barbara who had been one of his editors at Cambridge University Press.
But he still drank then.
By then he was a confirmed drinker.
Toward the end of his life he went to a sanitarium because it really had begun to seriously affect his health, and he did stop drinking, but I think the damage was done by then.
But did it affect his working capabilities as far as you could tell at the time?
As far as I could tell, it did not. He was big man. He had – you know, the old story — a hollow leg. And while I think later on, if he overdid it, he might appear to be slightly inebriated, certainly in the days when we were working together, before Herman and I left Washington, I don't think I ever really saw him drunk. You know, if he drank too much, he perspired a little bit. And that was about it. Maybe he was a little more voluble and he might tend to carryon a little bit in Russian, reciting poetry — imprintable poetry of Pushkin, I’m told, with Bob who understood Russian, and who could give him "tit for tat" on Russian poetry, I guess, pretty close. But I am not aware that it ever affected his… Martin: Did it affect his relations with rest of the physics community?
Boy that is hard to say. I suspect it did. But I’m not sure but that he wasn't this kind of an outgoing, enthusiastic character even cold sober. And I think that... and his great love for physics and the idea that it was all fun, I don't think went over too well with a lot of people who were rather serious about what they did. And I think people misunderstood him; they took his sense of fun and humor, and so on, and turned that into “Well, he can't be that good if he's not that serious about what he's doing, or doesn't seem to be that serious…”
Now, Richard Feynman is also fun-loving and a practical joker, or was, I guess, from what one hears. Doesn't have quite the same reputation that one would hear about Gamow; I mean, one doesn't seem to have the antagonisms that one sometimes heard voiced against Gamow. Feynman received his Nobel Prize at an early age. I suspect Nobel Laureates are forgiven a lot. And I was just… you know I was a student at the time people were talking about things like that, so I don't know to what extent they were real. Did he ever complain about it? Did you ever notice it?
He certainly never complained to me about it. The only, the one time he complained was when we sent off what is now called the “Alpher, Bethe, Gamow Letter,” because shortly before that we had talked about where to publish it. His first desire was to send it Astrophysical Journal, but then he told me — and I can't remember exactly whether he had spoken to Chandrasekhar or whether he assumed it; but whichever it was, we decided not to send it to Astrophysical Journal because he didn't think Chandra would publish it.
Okay, let me ask you about that because in 1946 Chandra was not editor; he was associate managing editor, and it was Struve who was managing editor of The Astrophysical Journal. Would Chandrasekhar still have had that sort of influence, do you think? Or…
Well, he specifically mentioned Chandrasekhar.
He did. I see.
…in that context about publishing or not publishing. I don't remember, when did Chandra become managing editor?
Much, much later. The managing editor…
As far as Struve is concerned, the only time I ever heard Gamow say anything about Struve was that he was a rather stern, formal person… I certainly didn't know him, and I had no way of knowing whether Gamow felt intimidated about publishing in Ap.J. because of Struve. He did mention Chandrasekhar. By the way, you know, Chandra had done some work in this area, and there was some interaction between Gamow and Chandrasekhar. And in fact I have in my files, I guess, a letter from Chandrasekhar, or some comment. Gamow sent him a reprint and Chandra sent back a rather formal reply, you know, expressing interest, but not approval or disapproval of what we were doing.
Well, there was this paper in 1942 by Chandrasekhar and Henrich.
Henrich, oh yes. We referred to that… Bob and I went through that paper in minute detail when we did our review in Reviews of Modern Physics.
Do you think on that score Chandrasekhar would in any case have been the person who would have been asked to judge your papers by Struve since they both were at Yerkes.
It didn't occur to me at the time, but clearly that would have been the case, and I think there is certainly more of a suggestion in that paper of Chandra and Henrich that one has to look at an early universe to make elements, so there may even have been an element, forgive the use of the word, bothering Gamow about maybe, you know, he and Chandra were pursuing the same idea, except maybe George had arrived there first, and had made an explicit statement, where Chandra was certainly steering in that direction. I never heard him express that, but we certainly, in studying Chandra and Henrich's paper were impressed by the fact that they were either over the verge or on the verge of looking at the early universe as a site for the…
But that was four years earlier.
But then it also turns out, you see, that George gave a talk and there was an abstract published in '42 in which he had given the same idea, but it was in the Washington Academy of Sciences. And I don't know whether it's before or after Chandra's paper was published; I really don't know.
So did you sense that maybe there was a rivalry there between Chandrasekhar and…
I couldn't… I would not characterize it as a rivalry. I would characterize it. I mean my feeling at the time was that Chandra would have something to do with its publication, and that George didn't want to subject himself to being rejected. And so he felt more comfortable with the physics community.
It's certainly true that at that time there were not very many cosmological paper published in The Astrophysical Journal.
That's for sure.
… although Chandra and Henrich were published there.
Yes, but generally that was not the case.
So for that reason you then never tried the Ap.J. again, is that right?
That is right; never again. We stuck with… well we identified ourselves with basically the physics community, I think, and were more comfortable. And Bob had known Sam Goudsmit to some extent, who was then the editor, and there were others in the physics community that Bob knew and I grew to know, and so I think we just fundamentally felt more comfortable there. But I never really worried in those days about not publishing in the astrophysical literature, although it became increasingly clear and annoying that as our work went on and seemed to get better known in the physics community, we were never asked by the astronomy community to give a talk, even on this subject. I don't think I was ever asked to give a talk at an Astronomical Society meeting, even at a local astronomical meeting in the Washington area.
But don't forget that this was still the era when in the United States astronomy was simply optical astronomy. There was…
I understand that.
…almost no near-infrared work. Radio work hadn't started yet; it was a very conservative community, presumably.
But I have to tell you that I have in my — I brought it here because it struck me as I was looking at this — I have in my hand here a letter which invites me to submit… to write a paper for an astronomical magazine. And it's the first time. This is the year of 1983.
That's pretty fantastic, yes.
It's an invitation from the editor of Mercury, the publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
So it's the first time that you have been approached by the astronomical community.
…to do anything. That's right.
That is really amazing.
I can't speak for Bob on this one, but I suspect that's the case. You can ask him later.
Well, let me ask you one thing still that perhaps I'll ask each of you individually. Once you predicted that there would be a background radiation and the number that you predicted was 5° K, did you in any way attempt to have that measured by someone? Did you…
Well, what we did at the time was the following. We personally did nothing, obviously, because, you know, I was not an observational type, and while Bob has done experimental work, it never occurred to either of us to pursue that ourselves. However, we were in the Washington area, and during the next year, or year and a half, we gave… God knows how many colloquia… in the area because there was a lot of publicity about my thesis, and this sort of rubbed off afterwards on other things that we did. In other words, each time something was published in the next year or year and a half — we had a significant number of things come out — there seemed to be newspaper publicity about it, and it became known in the Washington area community, certainly. We gave talks at NRL, the National Bureau of Standards, in our own laboratory, and at local and nearby universities. And particularly at NRL (Naval Research Lab) at the time there was a nascent radio astronomy group. We talked about this work there. We talked about it at the Bureau of Standards, and I vaguely recall sometime during this era that we gave an invited paper at a Physical Society meeting at the Bureau of Standards; and there were people there — one person I knew in particular named McNish (Alvin G., formerly at DTM) who was from the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory. They were getting involved in radio astronomy as well, and we talked about this background temperature calculation, went through it probably on the blackboard, I probably even have some lecture notes, I don't know; and nobody suggested the measurement. In fact, people then were talking about the fact that the limiting sensitivity was rather higher than 5°K that you simply couldn't say anything. Well, you know Weinberg later on gave us a hard time about that because his friends — his radio astronomer friends — tell him that should have been a possible measurement at the time.
Well, I don’t know. I’ve talked with…
Hey, who would have listened to us first of all?
…Purcell who, well, I talked to Bob Dicke about it who felt he could have measured it with the equipment he had at the end of the war. I asked Purcell who was Dicke's supervisor at the MIT radiation labs, and Purcell felt there wasn’t any way that could have been done, because it was an absolute measurement; you really needed cooled detectors. And I’ve talked to Dave Wilkinson recently who is using cooled detectors, and though he is a colleague of Dicke’s, he also feels that wouldn’t have been possible unless one started cooling detectors. But were you aware of Dicke's work, the 1946 publication of the 20° upper limit?
I don’t know when I became aware of that, and I can’t speak for Bob. What I do remember from the period is that people said we couldn't detect temperatures that low.
It’s interesting that…
…and the noise. Maybe these people — certainly the people at NRL who made these remarks to us without saying it was Dicke's measurement or the 20 degree figure — must have known about his work because it was a reasonably well-known paper. And we certainly became aware of it later on; I can’t tell you exactly when, but…
Who was this? Cornell Mayer or Fred Haddock, or do you remember who it would have been?
Fred? What was the last name?
You know, Bob and I tried for some time to find out who was in the audience at NRL from the radio astronomy group, and we couldn't remember; and some years ago (after Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes in 1977) I talked to Maurice Shapiro, who arranged our talk there, and he couldn't remember. Now that name… that Fred something or other sounds like one of the guys we talked to.
Could have been.
But, you know, I really don't know for sure. I really don't know for sure.
The people who were there at the time, I think, were Lilley and McClain and Haddock and Cornell and, I think, they all were there at the time or shortly thereafter, if not then — in the mid-50s. They started getting their antenna working there and so forth. I'll talk more about this with you tomorrow, but what happened then after you finished this work or decided to leave? How did you decide to leave Applied Physics Laboratories in the mid-'50s when you then left?
Okay, during the late '40s, they formed at the Applied Physics Lab an organization called The Research Center. This was a kind of an internal thing where they were going to support basic research using some fraction of the money that was coming in from the Navy. Bob Herman was in that… was appointed to that Research Center. It was basically started by Larry Hafstad who was then the director of research of the laboratory. Then I got into it, in part of it called… let's see Bob was in either something called combustion or spectroscopy; I've forgotten what. I went into something called theoretical and applied mechanics, and we were concerned with high-speed flows. We built a helium tunnel, wind tunnel, and some other things. There was a group of maybe 25 or 30 people who joined into this Research Center from what had been a highly mission-oriented laboratory, working on fuses and later on guided missiles. And they were supposed to be a nucleus of various kind of basic research for the laboratory. That concept seemed to do rather well for some years. Then there was a gentleman who became manager of this Research Center on a temporary basis while they looked for some big name in science, in principle, to manage this organization to help it grow. And at some point he decided he was good enough to run it, and then he ran it for a while, and then we began to have conflicts. First, we were rather annoyed that he considered himself to be good enough to run this organization, given that we could have had someone “world class.”
There was no board of directors that would select his successor?
No, he reported to the director of the laboratory. By this time the management of the laboratory had changed from Larry Hafstad to a man named Gibson. Ralph Gibson. And he and three or four other people had come to the Applied Physics Lab after the war from what was called the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory, and they came, I think five of them. And they very quickly… Gibson became director when Hafstad left, and the other people who had come with him, basically took on the top management positions in the Applied Physics Laboratory. This fellow… and we'll have to worry about whether you want his name in the tape later. His name was Frank McClure. He assumed the role of manager of this Center, and it was alright for a while, and then he began to try to get us involved in the applied work of the Center, of the Applied Physics Laboratory. In other words we began to suffer from the lack of continuity in what we were doing because we were pulled to go hither and yon on some crash problem, and there were just all kinds of conflicts with this man about the way he ran the Research Center, and what he was pushing, and what he wasn't pushing. And it finally got to the point where a whole bunch of us decided to get the hell out of there. I began to look around for a job. Bob began to look around for a job. A number of other colleagues (including Kurt Shuler, Bob Rubin, etc., among others) at that time also began to look for jobs elsewhere, and they did in fact leave. Some went to the Bureau of Standards. Bob took a Visiting Professorship at Maryland, and I found a job at G.E. So there was a wholesale evacuation of the Research Center. Okay?
So then you decided to come to G.E. Did you ever consider a university job?
Yes, I did, and interviewed at several universities, including most notably the State University of Iowa, where Jim van Allen is now the head of the department. In fact, Bob Herman and I went out there together to interview. There were a number of things that appalled us, not the least of which were the living conditions for faculty, and the salaries for faculty, and…
Was there a big difference between industrial and faculty salaries at the time for physicists?
Well, sure, if I compare what I was offered at — well, first of all there was even a difference among universities. But, I don't know, the salary for an associate professor there at that time was $4500 a year, as I recall, some abominable figure. I went then and interviewed with Edward Teller at California, and I got an offer from them for $9600 or something like that, so you can already see the discrepancy. I really wasn't that interested in teaching. I went to this interview at Iowa because I knew van Allen, and it was an easy thing to try. I wasn't that interested in being a teacher.
Now, what sort of work did you start doing at General Electric?
Alright, well, the reason I went to General Electric was that over the last few years at Johns Hopkins I had begun to get involved with shockwave physics, a natural extension, if you will, of this continuing interest in fluid flow. There were some interesting practical problems associated with nuclear blast effects on aircraft — gust-loading, and so on; and we were trying to look at it in a fundamental way because I was in the Research Center. We had built a shock tube, and we were loading rather simple cantilever structures, and studying the deflection of these under shock loading. When I decided to leave, and one of the places I interviewed was General Electric's Research Laboratory, they were just beginning to assemble technical people to work in re-entry physics, because at that time the company was bidding for participation in the development of the Atlas nose cone which was the first re-entry vehicle for ICBMs. And I also interviewed at the Knowles Atomic Power Lab, and I had offers from both. I chose the Research Laboratory, and even there I had an offer from three parts of the laboratory, and I chose to go with this group headed by Tony Nerad in which high-speed aerodynamics work was going on. I suppose I chose it — by the way, it wasn't the highest money offer I had of the jobs I looked at — but it seemed to me… he offered me the opportunity to come in and spend full time doing research, so long as it was generally in the area of high-speed aerodynamics, he didn't care what I did.
Before we changed tapes, you were just taking about the work you were starting to do at General Electric.
I came in 1955. If it is of any interest, among the places I interviewed before I came here were Berkeley, Livermore, Martin (later Martin Marietta), and the National Bureau of Standards. I'm sorry, I can't remember them all. There were 13 places. I had a hell of a ball that spring, you know, traveling hither and yon on interview trips, and I had offers from everywhere; they varied from awful to adequate, and Martin (Marietta) gave me the highest salary offer. Had I gone there, I suppose I would have ended up working on SNAP generators because that was what they were really driving for.
Now, you were married by that time?
Oh yes, I was married early on, 1942.
Did your wife also work?
She worked, and later on went back to school because I met her at school, and she ultimately, by 1946, finished her bachelor's degree at George Washington, also with night courses.
In what area?
And did she pursue a career of her own then?
Not in psychology; she worked as a secretary during the war, and for some time after the war as a secretary working in the Department of State, then quit at some point, and now you are going to push me to tell you when the date was. Our first child was born in 1950. I think probably she quit around 1948, and she ruined her arms typing my thesis because the typewriter was too high, and she developed a syndrome called painter's syndrome. It gave her terrific pains in her arms.
Well, not really, but it was quite a price to pay at the time. It was the pinching of the nerve due to working with your hands too high like a painter painting a ceiling.
I see. Oh, so this is all despite your own secretarial abilities that she did the thesis rather than you doing it yourself?
Well, you know, I could have typed it probably almost as well, except that would have taken time from other things.
Sure, you were working too. I understand.
I mean I used my secretarial skills during World War II rather minimally;I remember I took down all the lectures in the course in economics and never transcribed them.
Good. So then you decided to come to General Electric.
So I went into Nerad's branch where he had assembled a group of people to work in high-speed aerodynamics, re-entry physics, and the group was already underway when I joined it. They built a shock tube, several shock tubes. One was a circular tube for… expanding the flow… high-speed flow into a nozzle to get short-period, rarefied gas flow at very high Mach numbers. We had a tunnel which blew compressed helium through a convergent divergent nozzle to give very high-Mach number flows, and there was a rectangular shock tube which I was particularly associated with, in which we did optical and other kinds of probe studies of high-speed shock waves. The work was supported primarily by the Air Force through a G. E. component which was involved in making these nose cones, designing and manufacturing the nose cones, which later became the Missiles and Space Vehicles Department, later evolved into the Re-Entry Systems Division, and it's now the Aerospace Group. They now are still in business, and in satellites…
Have you stayed with that same group?
No, no, I was in with this high-speed aerodynamics work for about ten or ten and a half years. It was a reasonably productive period because we did… it turned out we could use the shock tube with shocks strong enough, for example, to disassociate diatomic gases to measure interferometrically the gas density and infer from the measurements, say things like the polarizability of atomic oxygen and atomic nitrogen. We looked at bremsstrahlung radiation from the strong shocks in noble gases; we produced shocks that were strong enough to produce post-shock ionization; and I think we were the first ones directly to measure electron densities in the laboratory, using direct visualization of their refractive index. Now, of course, one commonly does this in astronomy because you have long path lengths even though you have low-electron densities, and you look for… I mean that's one of the ways you get at the measurement of the electron density, but we were actually…
This was the Schlieren technique you were using?
No, this was the Mach-Zehnder interferometer. And we looked at fringe shifts across the shock fronts and found that the fringes went in the wrong direction, and the only way you can understand this was in terms of the refractive index being controlled by the electrons. That technique, I guess, is now… was almost immediately widely used in fusion studies, because they were in those days interested in things like theta pinches where you could do axial — you had two-dimensional geometries — and you could do axial measurements of the electron density as the field clamped down. It later on became quite common. Of course, one used two wavelengths to get rid of the background. You used the interferometer at two wavelengths. I forgot to mention that. Okay, in about '65 or '66, I was sort of pulled off that work because there was an urgent company problem, and the vice president personally came down and asked me to switch over and drop what I was doing. The problem was that the company had developed a rather sophisticated, complex device for producing projected color television images. The machine was code named Talaria (simply a code to preserve security; it meant “The Winged Foot of Mercury"). But this is a device using a light valve which is a deformable oil film. Basically, one produced an overlapping pattern of diffraction gratings on this oil film which was quite thin, and the properties of the film had to be adjusted so that you wrote on it with… first of all it had to have low-volatility; it had to be capable of existing in a reasonable vacuum because you wrote on it with an electron beam. So the grating was written with an electron beam, several gratings overlapping, and there was a Schlieren bar system; you had a co-axial projection of light past a set of parallel bars. The parallel bar image was projected onto the oil film and then downstream of that you had another set of bars, and if the gratings you wrote had no velocity modulation — they were uniform and parallel — then all the light was blocked. But if you used the video information to modulate the velocity of the electron beam, then it was wider and narrower in various spots and then the Schlieren image could get past the second bar pattern, and you now wrote on — the same color information, and so on — on several gratings, in a time short compared to a television frame, and these images, since they were diffraction grating images, appeared in the appropriate colors corresponding to the grating wavelengths on a screen — a very complex system. Now I don't think it is appropriate that I describe all of this on the…
Let me just ask one question. The oil was in the vacuum also?
The oil was in the vacuum.
Okay, so this was an electrostatic modulation by the electron beam…
You dumped electrons on the surface and their presence in a nonhomogeneous pattern caused Coulomb force deformation of the surface as the electrons leaked through to a transparent conducting substrate. And ergo you had flow patterns in the oil films, so the problem I was asked to solve was the fact that they were developing Be ?nard convection cells in the thin oil film under electron Coulomb — and surface tension — forces driving these instabilities. And the question is what could you do with the film in terms of its physical properties, its depth, and so on, to eliminate these instabilities. That's what I worked on for two or two and a half years, and I developed a model for the film, subject to this electron beam writing, and found what was necessary to change the properties of the film in order to let it survive this treatment. The device is still on the market, the company is pursuing it as a possible home color television projection system.
Is it actually used now?
Oh yes. It is actually… you can go out and buy one…
…if you have the money — $60,000 or thereabouts.
Is that what one sees in places that have these big projection screens?
Frequently. Yes, there is a competitive system in which the color isn't… in fact I’m not even sure if it is in color; it’s a Swiss system called Eidophor. The Japanese have a large screen system; they have taken a brute force method and they've put together a whole bunch of television tubes in a rectangular array and they segment the picture. And of course there are three-tube three-color projection systems which are very limited in brightness compared to Talaria, and hence to the size of screen possible. Okay, when that finished, there was beginning to be a lot of interest in the U.S. in producing power by magneto-hydrodynamic methods, as moving a conducting fluid through a transverse magnetic field and taking power out; however, the fluid was driven. I got involved in rather simple elementary considerations in the field of magneto-hydrodynamics, both theoretically and experimentally. The experiments were done by using a water table analogy, something with which I was familiar in fluid dynamics. If you take a thin film of, say, water and flow it down a sheet and surface disturbances on the water can be thought of and analyzed as though they were flow phenomena in a gas with a specific heat ratio of 2. This is something that has been known for a long time. Now, you can, say in magneto-hydrodynamics, do the same thing except that you flow a thin film of mercury through a magnetic field, for example; then you are creating a magneto-hydrodynamic analogue. You put various objects in the flow as you pass the mercury film through a magnetic field, so we used a C- magnet from an old betatron, a 5-kilogauss magnet. We built a machine that would pump mercury around, smooth it, and allow it to flow down a slightly inclined plane through the magnetic field and back out again.
What is a C- magnet?
Well, it was just an iron core.
In the shape of a “C?”
Shape of a “C.”
…the letter “C.”
And there was a field of reasonable uniformity that was maybe 15 or 18 inches in diameter. Then of course you got into the fringe field region. So we had a free surface trough in which we flowed mercury. It was maybe 12 inches wide or thereabouts, and you could simulate shock waves by putting barriers in the flow. You could also simulate them by passing currents through the mercury across the flat surface of the trough, and the JxH forces from the current in the field would produce body forces in the mercury which you could then understand in terms of this fluid dynamic analogy with a different specific heat ratio. So you could produce sort-of-classical magneto-hydrodynamic phenomena in the laboratory in mercury, take movies of it; it’s all done in slow motion… really quite nice. Meanwhi1e, we were also looking at the more practical aspects of MHD, like, you know, producing power with combustion-driven gases, seeded with potassium to increase conductivity which is work that's still going on in the country. We pursued this for a few years, and finally, correctly I think the company and the laboratory decided that there was no immediate future in MHD power, and we got out of it. At that point, let's see, what did I do then?
This was the early '70s then?
This was the early ‘70s, right — ‘71 or '72. I guess at that point it was the first time in my life anybody ever asked me to go and do cosmology. So I transferred to a group and I was supposed to get my feet back into cosmology, somehow, something I had never done full time.
This was the management that suggested it?
Yes. I guess Bob and I got involved in some… this is a short-term memory problem. We began to look at the problem of the formation of galaxies again, which we did by correspondence, basically.
He was at General Motors.
He was at General Motors at the time, right. Worked very hard on a problem, and sort of had written it up, and then a paper came out by George Field and a fellow named Lawrence Shepley (I hope I recall that correctly) which, once again, our work… you know, what we had done was okay, but they basically had the same ideas and had published ahead of us. I became very discouraged at that point. There were other factors, of course. The events following the Penzias-Wilson observation in 1965 had taken a real toll, and Bob Herman and I were in a continuous state of upset. Then an opportunity came up to join a group at the lab doing strategic planning. Now I may have the dates of these things a little bit screwed up, I don't know, but that was sort of the sequence of events.
That's close enough.
I went into something at the laboratory called strategic planning. Well, it was called project planning in those days. But it was a small group of people who were trying to, each year; prepare a short-term and long-term plan for the whole laboratory operation, which was then used by the director of research to sell the next year's budget for the laboratory. I was in that for some years, for like eight years. Then I left that and was adrift for a year; I really didn't know what direction I wanted to go in, and so I willy-nilly took a look first at problems of the diffusion of gases in the Earth's crust because we had some people here (Bob Fleiscker, Milan Fiske, Antonio Mogro-Campero) who were interested in how radon got to the Earth's surface, and whether you could use patterns of radon emission from the Earth's surface as indicators of deep buried ore bodies — uranium ore bodies, and also as earthquake predictors. So I spent four or five months studying the literature on motion of gases in the Earth's crust, subterranean winds, and the response of gases in the Earth's crust to changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, and so on. I really didn't see anything theoretical in that area for me to do, so I got out of that, and got into a small group of people looking at a device called a chemical heat pipe which was a new approach to transmission of energy, where you used energy generated locally to drive a chemical reaction in one direction, you shipped the reactants through a pipe, and then catalytically recombined the reactants at the other end and recovered the energy, with losses en route, obviously. A pressure was required to drive this system, and so on. 1 guess I ended up writing one of the chapter in the final report on that project which really has never gone anywhere in G.E., although I think the Germans actually tried it. Then, the men who had been vice president and director of research here was moved up to senior vice president's position at corporate headquarters, and he developed an activity or wanted to develop an activity in technology forecasting for the company. And one of the people 1 had worked with here, in planning, named Lowell Steele, had actually transferred with Art Bueche, who was the vice president, to Fairfield, Connecticut. He and I then began to develop a program of technology forecasting for the company, which we did for several years. We actually pursued this, produced two volumes of forecasts in all kinds of technologies, ranging from solid-state devices to biotechnology. We did this by talking to our colleagues, finding out who was good in the company, trying to get one of these people to chair a team. Then I got the team together, we met, and I organized the discussion for one or two or three days. Then with the notes I got from that meeting I prepared a first draft of the forecast and cycled it through the participants and finally got it published. And that was kind of fun because I got exposed to all kinds of new things, and also to a lot of very good people in the company. Art Bueche died in December ‘81. He was a Cornell trustee as a matter of fact, and a Cornell graduate. Did his work there with Debye. As a matter of fact Debye was a consultant on this Talaria Program.
Oh, I see. I never met him; he was… I think he already had died when I got to Cornell or very soon after.
Well, I made a number of trips there and described the work I was doing. He was particularly interested in it because I guess it was the sort of theoretical aspect of this Talaria Program. And again, somewhere in my files I have a letter or note from him, maybe it is on a manuscript I wrote in which he expresses his pleasure at the fact that I had solved this damn problem. So that was sort of pleasant. At any rate, I must have met with him a half dozen times, describing the work we were doing.
We were just talking about Art Bueche.
An yes, so Bueche died and the, then, and still, president of the General Electric Company, a fellow named Jack Welch, decided to discontinue this forecasting activity.
He's still president now?
He's still chairman of the General Electric Company, right. This work was discontinued, like overnight, except I was allowed to finish a few of these forecasts that were in progress.
Why was that?
He just felt they weren't necessary. That's the prerogative of a president of a company. There was no point in going down and arguing with him, and I felt it was a little ironic because we had just done a users' survey, gotten in touch with all the people who had the volumes and asked them what they had done with them, whether they found them useful, and so on. We had a very satisfying response, and a very gratifying number of them wanted the forecasts to continue and found them useful. However, Welch decided he didn't want them, so the people who were involved in that scattered to the winds; they had to find other jobs.
You mean at other companies, or with…
Well, Steele, who was sort of in charge from Fairfield, actually left General Electric. They created a very special early retirement for him, and he is now happily working as an independent consultant. I found myself again adrift, and an opportunity came along to take a job which I normally would never have considered, which is to be a technical administrator in one of the parts of our laboratory. Now this is a job where you are reporting to the manager of the laboratory, and you worry about all the nitty-gritty of the laboratory, the budgets, the program plans, personnel problems, space problems, everything. The manager of the laboratory shunts off as much or as little as he cares to of all the nitty-gritty that needs to be done. In my case I have been fortunate in that the guy I work for named H. K. Liu has tried to involve me as much as he can in things like program planning where I can use my background and make some kind of at least half-ass technical contribution, and that's where I am now. Lin has taken a dim view of my being involved in things not related to his lab's work if they take any significant time. For example, by the end of the first year with Lin I had left all my activities with AIP and APS. While Roland Schmitt, at his level as vice president, encourages professional society activities, it really makes very little difference at the working level, unless the activity is highly relevant to the person's work.
Do you enjoy it?
Well, at the moment it's alright. It's a very time-consuming, absorbing kind of a job because there are a lot of details. Right now, for example, I'm organizing a… I'm chairman of an organizing committee for a company-wide meeting on computer-aided engineering, and there is a lot of work to be done getting speakers and all this kind of thing.
Let me ask you, there are a number of honors that you have been awarded; were they mainly for the… let me read them off here. The Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society, the George Vanderlinden Prize of the Belgium Royal Academy of Science Letters and Fine Arts — were these for the work you did on cosmology?
Yes, and particularly for the piece of the work having to do prediction of the microwave background. In fact, I would say that's true of all four awards that we got.
What were the other two?
The George Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute; did you mention that one?
No I didn't. It's not in your Who's Who abstract.
Oh, that's antique. It's antiquated. We've gotten four — the two you mentioned, the Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Physics and the Mathematics Prize of the New York Academy.
How nice. And those were shared between you and…
They were all shared by Bob and me.
The other question was the work that you did at G. E., was that generally publishable or was it company reports, or company secret?
The work I did on the Talaria Program, because it dealt in the end with the kinds of fluids that are used in this oil film light valve, has remained company proprietary. It's not published. There were a number of studies I've done there which probably ought not to see the light of day in the sense that they weren't that great or they were half-considered or what have you, but I have published from here. Most of what I did in the area of fluid mechanics is published. The two papers I mentioned having to do with polarizability measurements and electron density measurements were reprinted in some volume of fundamental papers on flow diagnostics by the AIAA. But generally I've published. I even had one published having to do with research management. The co-author is now the vice president of the laboratory, Roland Schmitt. It had to do with the uses of technology assessment in planning.
I see. How did you get to do that if the president isn't interested?
Oh, you mean in technology forecasting? Oh, that was just something… look when you are a high-level officer of our laboratory or any part of the company, sometimes you are asked to give a talk. Okay, so Roland, one day, was asked to give a talk, and he asked me if I would put together a talk on something, having to do with planning. So I wrote a detailed outline of how you might apply forecasting in strategic planning. He looked at it, and decided he liked it and made some comments and we developed it into a manuscript which we then submitted to the Harvard Business Review, and it was rejected. It was the first and last paper I’ve had rejected. So we resubmitted it…
You've never had a paper rejected before?
No, No. Never, never.
Really, how interesting.
That must be fairly unique, actually.
I don't know. I really don't know. Better ask Bob the same question.
Anyway, so we submitted it as it was to Research Management which is another magazine, and it was accepted and published.
One last question, I guess. I notice that all the papers that you, Dr. Herman, Gamow, and some other colleagues you worked with did, always, were in alphabetic order. Was this the style at the time, or what was the… or was it…
You know, I don't remember whether Bob was involved in the discussions of this in the early days, but we certainly did have a long discussion with Gamow about how to put names on papers. And I think my view is that if you are co-author of a paper, you are a co-author of a paper, and there should be no junior or senior authors. I think we even tried to put a footnote in some one of our early papers to indicate that the listing was alphabetical and had nothing to do with priorities of the authors. You know, you could say I'm lucky; my name begins with an a but I don't think that was the problem at all. And I hope that by now people feel as I do that if there are two names on a paper, then they're both equally guilty.
Yes, I think when there are a series of papers that goes on for a long period of time, one assumes that. With students sometimes one wants to show that it’s their thesis work and then one puts their names first. There are various styles. I just didn't know what style you were employing.
Well, Bob may want to comment on this, but as far as I'm concerned, everything I've done jointly with anybody has been a joint paper.
Good. Well, thank you very much, and then we'll talk tomorrow about the joint things with Dr. Herman.
Very good. (Note: Since I have the opportunity to put a few extra items into these recollections, let me first enter an appreciation of my wife, Louise; we were married six years before I finished my Ph.D. Between working full time (both of us), courses at night (both of us), the strain on both of us was terrific. I'll never really understand why she stuck that out and many subsequent years of great difficulty for us both. But, I am grateful that she did. And we had two great children. We frequently disagreed on their upbringing, sometimes strongly, but I am very pleased with the way they turned out. I believe she is also. I believe Louise, Harriet and Victor are proud of what I managed to get done, and that's a great reward. I hope these taped interviews are of interest, when they read them later. I also hope that anyone other than my family who may see these remarks will understand how important my wife and children have been to my life. They were most supportive of my activities, particularly as my pursuit of cosmology was an after-working-hours activity and intruded into time I might normally have given to family matters.)