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Interview of Edwin Kemble by Katherine Sopka on 1976 November 18,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Professor Kemble shares his recollections of trends and events which have shaped the history of the Dept. of Physics at Harvard University in recent decades. His long association dates back to 1913 when he entered the University as a graduate student.
This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I’m visiting today, November 18, 1976, with Professor Emeritus Edwin Kemble at his home in Cambridge. Professor Kemble’s long association with the Harvard Physics Department dates back to 1913 when he entered the University as a graduate student. In the interest of compiling a History of Physics at Harvard in recent decades, Professor Kemble has kindly agreed to share with me his recollections of trends and events which have shaped the course of that history. Professor Kemble, perhaps we can begin by asking you to contrast physics today with what it was when you first came to Harvard.
I’m afraid I can only give a pretty disappointing answer your question as I am an old man with a lifetime of individualism and an exceptionally poor memory. What I do remember is that research in the Department was first of all individual. There were no groups of people. The kind of multiple author papers that we have at the present time was a thing unknown. In the Department the work was nearly all experimental, and it was the general practice for experimental research students to build all pieces of apparatus themselves that were not available in stock from the instrument makers. One didn’t make one’s own galvanometer, but every graduate student expected to serve an apprenticeship in the shop, learning to use the drill press and the lathe. I think the pressure on members of the Department was in general very much less — (I mean the academic pressure) due to the situation that exists today, because there are so many physicists, and in each small area there are many people. This pressure was real even then, but it hadn’t at all reached the degree that I understand exists today. I remember we called ourselves the Spectroscopic Department, because Professor Lyman was doing spectroscopic work in the ultra-violet, Professor Saunders was interested in series spectra in the visible, Professor Duane was doing X-ray spectroscopy. I was interested in the theory of infra-red spectra of molecules, and the work of Professors Chaffee and Pierce in electrical oscillations were representative of the longest waves that we could associate with the spectrum. Professor Hall’s work was an exception. He was working on the properties of metals. Professor Bridgman’s work with high pressures was another exception. Professor Bridgman had his own internal pressure that perhaps matched all the pressures that one gets sociologically at the present time. I can’t imagine anybody working any harder than Professor Bridgman did. I might add that there is a very great difference between the average mathematical competence of the members of the Department as it was when I first came to Cambridge in 1913 and as it is today. At that time, the older members of the Department, except for Professor B.O. Peirce, were not accustomed to thinking mathematically, and the courses that they gave were not deeply mathematical. The teaching could not be as compact as it is now. Today there is a great deal of theoretical analysis being done by men who call themselves experimentalists. A kind of analysis that I think would have been impossible for the older men, and that the mathematical training becomes more and more abstract as physics becomes more and more abstract, so I see the advances in physics as producing a change in the quality of the personnel which is very profound.
May we talk about the General Education movement that developed after World War II?
This was a thing that interested me very much because of a philosophical element in my own personality. I had the feeling that a college education should involve a reflection and criticism on the part of the undergraduates of the general philosophy on which society rests and felt that it was really part of the job of the faculty to try to help the undergraduate to find some kind of a personal philosophy in the midst of a tangled chaos of philosophical ideas that comes to him in the normal course of contact with different members of the University staff. The General Education movement began with a disappointment over the attitude of the undergraduates at the beginning of World War II, an attitude which superficially and in the beginning indicated a very great concern over what am I going to do with respect to the Army and a very slight concern over the course of history. Some way or other it seemed that the Harvard undergraduates should have had a training that would make the point of view of those who were concerned over what Hitler was doing in Europe primary, and from that point of view then Harvard University President Mr. Conant appointed his General Education Committee to examine the question of what could we do to produce an education that would give sociological perspective and philosophical perspective to the education of the average undergraduate. I have a great pleasure in sharing in the instruction in that area which was greatly augmented by my close association with the other people in the Physical Sciences who were working with General Education courses, most of whom had a much better acquaintance with the History of Science in the beginning than I had myself. Part of the theory of the General Education movement that was begun immediately after World War II was that history could be used as a common ingredient of the courses in the three great fields, the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Sciences as a common thread running through all these things that would enable the student, so to speak, to assimilate the work that he had in all three of the different areas, and we in the sciences had quite a group of people who were interested in the History of Science, many of them meeting in my office once a week for a considerable period of time to exchange experiences and ideas. Conant’s own course was of a historical character, and the work of Bernard Cohen was historical and, in fact, everyone who was teaching in the area of the Physical Sciences, including Gerry Holton, Tom Kuhn, Le Corbeiller, and Leonard Nash, all had a great deal in common and learned very much from each other during these meetings. I am greatly disappointed that the tendency through the years for this aspect to be put into the background in the General Education Program has been strong. At the time we were willing to educate ourselves in order to do a good job with General Education. I had the impression that the pressure of academic research rivalries makes it more and more difficult for teachers in General Education coming from the sciences to give themselves the kind of re-education necessary to do a really satisfactory job from this particular point of view.
Perhaps we might turn now to a discussion of the impact of World War II on the Physics Department even before we became active in 1941 militarily.
I don’t remember that it changed our teaching program or research program until the actual beginning of American participation in the War. We were thinking about it a great deal and talking about it. Professor Bridgman put the manifesto on his door before we had gone into the war, but when the War began there was a very quick response as one person after another left the Department to join the Radiation Lab at M.I.T. and ultimately other major research projects such as the Manhattan Project. Within the Department this meant that we rapidly shrank to a skeleton Department. We had to bring in help in order to man the courses in elementary physics for the R.O.T.C. students. We had to bring in people very poorly qualified, but from other areas who had a certain amount of background in physics. I had to devote nearly all my energy to the teaching of elementary physics to a large group of students in uniform. I was helped very greatly in that work by the arrival of Gerald Holton whose gifts of expression were of very great value and who had a philosophical and historical training that was to be very useful in General Education. I remember having weekly conferences with instructors in Economics and whatever, going over the work of the week before the selection meetings, because we had no visitors to teach these sections in the large course. I remember particularly the fact that Phillip Frank and Herbert Jehle, refugees who came to Cambridge — I’m not sure about the exact times — but they kept alive some of the more advanced work in physics. There were several outstanding undergraduates who completed their work during the War and then went into research projects — I mean Dave Anderson…oh dear, I can’t remember the names of the others.
In the 1950's, long after the cessation of hostilities, during the period of the cold war, the physics department was very much concerned about the episode of one of its members, Wendell Furry, being interviewed by the Congressional Committees. Can you tell us something about your recollections of that event?
Well, I know that we all had supreme confidence in Wendell Furry’s integrity and patriotism, and that we were very gravely disturbed when he came under attack from Senator Joe McCarthy. We raised money from the faculty for a defense fund, and I feel that the Department and the University rather distinguished itself by the way that it stood by him in spite of the fact that he had at one time in the early 1930's been a member of the Communist Party. I am very proud of the way that we responded to our responsibilities under those circumstances.
Thank you, Professor Kemble, for granting this interview. I hope we can continue at a later date.