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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Leon Lederman by Ronald Doel on 2002 August 12,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Recollections of political and professional controversies within the physics community in the Vietnam War ear; extended impressions of Columbia University in the 1960s and 1970s including the Department of Physics and Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory; involvement in science education programs and activities, including development of international programs at Fermilab and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy; views on reductionism in science and the teaching of science in secondary education; extended recollections of Lederman's directorship of Fermilab and his role in promoting the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project through the early 1990s; views on present and future development of physics and physical theory. Also prominently mentioned: Jacques Barzun, President Bill Clinton, Joseph Needham, Frank Press, Isador I. Rabi, Carl Sagan, Abdus Salam, Robert Wilson.
I should say belated happy birthday. You turned 80 last month. One of the questions I didn’t get to ask you last time when we were talking about the riots of Columbia and your recollections of that tumultuous time. With the proposal that Charles Schwartz had made to the American Physical Society about greater involvement of physicists in social issues. I’m wondering if you recall your own feelings about that debate.
It’s curious because I’m not aware that one had to make such a proposal. I think the issue of science and society and the relevance of scientists to this was well established certainly in my generation by World War II and the actual use of a nuclear weapon. And then the formation of various scientifically based societies specifically devoted to the social issues like the Federation of American Scientists. The organization I’m now still connected with, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. So the issue of science and society is there. I would not insist that all young scientists drop what they are doing and get out there with picket signs and leafleting and writing articles and so on because we still have to have science. But that science plays a crucial role in the evolution of our society is to me just a given. Everyone understands that. It’s only an issue of when and how do you make your contributions to this debate. I mean it’s the same set of arguments that makes us so desperate about the scientific illiteracy of the American public, which can’t be exaggerated. It’s just paradoxical that the driving force of what we now call civilization is so much determined by science and technology.
Were you thinking about that issue early in your career at Columbia?
Yes, because we were fresh out of World War II. And that’s just when fierce debates were going on about whether the future of nuclear weapons would be in civilian hands or military hands. I forgot the name of the bill that was being hotly debated. Looking back at that, it didn’t really matter. Eventually the people who said it should be in civilian hands won and the bill that was passed created essentially the Atomic Energy Commission, which would supervise additional research on all things nuclear, including weapons. That was a great victory at the time for civilian control on the part of those of us who didn’t fully trust the military. But I think right now, with the advantages of hindsight, it didn’t really matter very much because the questions of military use of nuclear knowledge couldn’t have gone worse. You know? In fact, the absurdity of 50,000 nuclear weapons, enough to kill everybody on the planet ten times over, and you couldn’t possibly have had a worse outcome except the use of the weapons. I don’t think the debate at that time covered the decision as to whether to use it or not. So we’re all involved. You couldn’t avoid involvement then as there was the great emphasis on science research, a whole new, if you like, contract between science and government which emerged from World War II with a National Science Foundation, the Atomic Energy Commission, eventually the creation of NASA. All of these things were recognition of the importance of science, the famous Vannevar Bush essay, Science the Endless Frontier.
You mentioned the Atomic Energy Commission. I was thinking also about some of the restrictions on data initially over three million electron volts. Did that ever affect your own work?
No, I wasn’t aware that there was such a restriction. It misses the point. I think what one of the glorious things that happened was the 1956 Atoms Peace Conference. The Eisenhower initiative, where the Russians and the Americans were able to compare their data which was top secret during the war and all the curves were the same. Because Russian Scientists and American science and Russian Science and Chinese science and South Africans are all the same. It’s just one science. It’s the only universal culture.
When I interviewed Bill Havens he had mentioned that the State Department folks couldn’t quite accept that. It seemed that someone had to be copying someone else’s data. Thinking too of Rabi, who was critically involved in that effort. What do you recall his feelings were about solid state physics? Did that seem in your impression to him to be chemistry?
No, I don’t think so. I think Rabi himself was a generalist. He wouldn’t look at disciplines and say this discipline is more fruitful than that one. I think he looked at the quality of science. He was above the battle at his level as very few scientists are. Enrico Fermi was another guy who was above the battle. Neither of them was deficient in ego, but still, when it came to broad policy issues, I think he believed that all good science was wonderful. I never heard him be critical of a field. He might be critical of Joe or Harry because he didn’t like maybe the smallness of ambition or the breadth of vision, but he would not criticize a field like that. I never heard him do that.
Do you recall any tensions within the department over solid state physics or did that seem to be in your view an integral part?
I don’t remember any tensions in fact the department, it was a pretty cozy department. The leading theoretical solid state physicist, Joaquim Luttinger was just the theorist at Columbia. I’m not sure that there were any tensions between fields at that time. First of all, money was flowing generously, so there wasn’t a competitive issue on funding. We were all so amazed that we would ask for something and of course the standard answer was no, but if we persisted the answer was usually yes, because that was the time of a huge growth in funding. Sit down! Not you, her.
The family poodle, Ruby Tuesday, has joined us. It reminds me of something else that’s occurring in that time the division of the Physical Review. Did that seem to you to be a good development?
Oh, into the different sections?
Yes. Did that change the way that you read the journal?
I think I looked at that as a mild negative in many ways. Of course, the Physical Review Letters, which was the most widely read I think did not split, and so you could find out what was happening in all the other fields through Letters, but I always thought that anything that sort of divided the fields wasn’t very positive. On the other hand, there was a lot to read in the Physical Review and other than scanning the title and the abstracts, most of the time that’s about all you could get out of the other fields before you were lost in the third paragraph. On the other hand, we insisted all students go to the seminars and the seminars were across the fields of physics. We tried to keep a good balance. I think most departments did. And we pleaded with visiting speakers that come to our colloquium and seminars that at least the first ten minutes of their talk ought to be comprehensible to all the graduate students. Not always successfully, but this was our hope. Rabi himself was a firm believer in generalists, in people who could sit down in all fields and make sense of it, because we all have this common heritage that I think suffered from trying to struggle with Schrodinger’s equation. You know, it underlies all the fields of physics.
You were at the Nevis facility and then became its director. Columbia had another remote research facility at that time, what became the Lamont Doherty Observatory then the Lamont Geology ICAC Observatory. Did you have much contact with Maurice Ewing during the years that you were in Columbia?
No. I knew of him and that he was a leading figure and if he would ever give his rare colloquia, we would try to go to that because he was a big guy. I didn’t really know much about it until he left and then I was put on a search committee for a replacement. And it was only then that I realized what a powerful guy he was.
Were you working with the provost on that search?
I just made a committee of faculty members to find a successor to Ewing. The only logical successor was Ewing’s student Frank Press, and I knew Frank Press from college days. He was a freshman at City College when I was a senior. He was insisting that he be a member of the physics club and we said, “No. No freshmen.” But he became a member. And I wasn’t surprised when I got to Columbia to find that he was already with a PhD. And then years later, when we looked for a replacement for Ewing, I realized there was nobody close to Frank Press in research capabilities and communicating and being a teacher and so on. He was a giant in the field. Of course, we couldn’t get him.
Press was at MIT at that time.
Yes, he was a professor.
Did you go to MIT to talk to him about the position?
We certainly talked to him whether I went to MIT or he happened to be in New York. We certainly did, yes.
What do you recall his concerns about taking the position were?
Oh, now you’re getting into things which I really can’t remember. I think that he was very happy at MIT and didn’t see any reason for changing. When I was at Columbia I was getting offers from Harvard and Stanford and these were nice places but I didn’t see any particular great advantage to changing while I was very comfortable at Columbia. I thought it was a great place. I had great colleges and wonderful students. I’m not sure that would have happened at the other places, but I didn’t see an advantage. I thought that that was the main reason why Frank wouldn’t consider changing.
What were your impressions of Lamont as a research institution?
It was very prominent. I knew some of the people who were physics PhD are who went there. You know, physics always exports PhD’s to other fields. I mean, traditionally it’s always been their way. About half the people trained in physics PhD’s go off to other fields and make use of their training. It’s unique. And those PhDs who were Columbian graduates who went to Lamont would fill us in. First of all, it was very swashbuckling. You went out on this ship and you went into oceans and survived ocean storms. It was very heroic, romantic kind of activity. It was the closest thing to a physicist like in the movie with Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones. I mean you can do that if you’re a paleontologist, a geologist, someone who goes out and faces the world. Whereas in physics there’s enough world around you wherever you are.
Lamont had always had difficulties with Columbia administration over finances. Did that come up at all?
No, not that I remember. I mean, no, in some sense Rabi had those difficulties with the administration too and there was always a certain tension between the physics department and the University and there should be. I can’t imagine a good physics department not making trouble for the University would be unseemly.
There may be different kinds of tensions with a department on the Morningside campus versus a remote institute like Nevis.
Well, Rabi was very much aware of that. He worried about Nevis to the extent of even trying to make sure we didn’t have too many chairs and other creature comforts so that we wouldn’t be an isolated outpost of the University. And he was very much aware that ties to the campus were extremely important and made that known to us. He tried very hard to insist on enough sort of dumb regulations so that we wouldn’t have the amenities and we would be connected to the main campus. His fears were well founded because I think gradually certainly after I left, the people who worked at Nevis and lived right in the vicinity started to neglect the main campus. And that was felt when — See, originally high energy physics was a brand new field so the faculty members devoted to that was a small fraction of the total faculty of physics and the strengths were on the campus. There was C. S. Wu on the campus doing nuclear physics and there was Rabi and Kusch and the people, who did that kind of thing which is partly nuclear, partly atomic, partly, well atomic physics I guess classifies most of it. And the theorists were down there. And you wanted to talk T. D. Lee and Serber and so on. But those connections weakened I think after I left and so when ten years later I considered coming back to Columbia, I realized that that was a main issue. It was to in fact give up on Nevis because the cyclotron was closed. It was only a matter of convenience, a place for the people who lived there to collect and have secretarial help and so on. And by that time the campus faculty was much weaker. That was one of the issues which kept me from going back to Columbia. I learned you can’t go home again. Whoever wrote that book was on the mark. And that’s why I stayed at Chicago.
You seriously considered the possibility of coming back?
Oh, yes, I spent a week in New York talking to the University and I was in some trouble because it was very hard not to do what Rabi tells you to do. At that time he was ‘89, he was really dying of cancer, and he wanted me to go back. It was a special chair which I guess he helped fund, a Rabi chair. And it was very tough to say no to Rabi. Luckily I didn’t have to say no directly because he died before I think the decision was made formally, but I think he sensed I wasn’t going to come back. Anyway, I thought about it and tried to find out how it would be, and where we would live, and all the other problems. But mostly it was just inheriting a serious set of problems that I didn’t particularly feel like I needed after ten years of being an administrator.
How did the change happen from the time when Rabi was in control and maintaining those contacts with Nevis? What particularly did you find different?
Well, it’s subtle. Rabi was no longer a force, he was so old. He spent less and less time himself at the department. There was an absence of strong leadership in the department. It was at a low period and I think it’s now very strong again. All of Columbia I think has flowered in the last couple of decades. But there was a time when there were a lot of losses. Columbia bled people to all other institutions and they didn’t immediately recover from that. That dynamic president who just retired, George Rupp.
When you mentioned a moment before that Rabi worked to maintain those relationships when you were at Nevis, what sort of issues, besides having faculty chairs located there — the challenge of maintaining the connections — did you face? How often did you get to the Morningside campus for instance?
Well, there was the teaching; I mean Rabi was always a strong proponent for good teaching. Columbia physics department was a teaching department, so if you didn’t want to teach you would go to a national laboratory, was his attitude. So he had a strong respect for teaching and insistence on teaching. In fact, somewhere, wherever I was, an associate professor and so on, I had the idea that I would like to teach the liberal arts students, so called physics for poets.
You did that at Chicago, didn’t you? Had you thought to do that at Columbia as well?
Yes, oh yes, I did it at Columbia eventually, But when I initially asked to do that they didn’t let me. I thought it was curious, I want to teach this and they won’t let me. It turned out years later I discovered why. Rabi’s opposition in the campus was in the humanities and the deep intellectual Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Mark Vandor. These were the great Columbia intellectuals. And they were all sort of turned off towards science. They were not friendly toward science. Often in their writings you would see this, what is science doing for us, you know? The liberal arts students were their students, so he wasn’t going to let anybody teach. He wanted only the best teachers so that when the students would take the physics and go back to their home base, they would say, “Wow, what a physics course! It was really incredible.” So therefore, you had to have a lot of experience before they would let you teach that course. It was sort of the elitist course in the physics department. Finally they let me teach it. I taught it for four or five years, but in my last four or five years in Columbia, I taught liberal arts students, which was fun.
Was that still during the time that Jacques Barzun was there?
Oh yes, he was very prominent. He was the provost.
I remember you recalled Barzun and his writings in one of our last conversations. How well did you know him?
Only as a junior faculty member, and reading some of his books. I didn’t know him well at all except by reputation.
Did you respond to any of the particular points that he made in the books? Did you have any discussions with him about that?
No, except that there was a seminar I used to attend which was sort of Science and Society kind of thing. There were a lot of the Columbia intellectuals who were a part of that seminar and it was very clear that only Trilling expressed the small amount of regret for — He knew that science had an important intellectual activity, and he would occasionally express that, “I’m missing something,” you know. But then quickly dismiss that.
We’re resuming after a brief pause. You’re talking about the science and society seminar at Columbia. You attended that fairly regularly?
Were there any discussions that you particularly recall from those times, issues that came up?
Well, it’s hard I just have impressions of the recurring theme that science doesn’t do anything for their students. What is science doing for our students? Where does science infect the thinking and the writing of literature? How has it influenced culture as they define culture? I remember that and being rather puzzled by that because there was a minority of deep intellectuals that were interested in science, particularly one member, a great art historian, Shapiro. He used to come sometimes to physics seminars if he was tipped off, probably by Rabi, there was something interesting going on, then he would attend. And he had a lot of questions. He was what I would call a true sort of universal thinker, Renaissance type. That’s the real problem I thought, this lack of appreciation of science by a lot of these people. It’s very puzzling to me, because it is a culture. It’s a unique culture. Eventually, after Stalin’s great influence on Russian science faded away, fundamentally even in spite of him, some good Russian science got down surreptitiously. It’s a universal culture now, everywhere. Luckily for us, the language of science is English. But if you get a Tanzanian scientist meeting a scientist who works in Alaska, well they’ll talk in English and they’ll understand each other.
Has it been true throughout your career that you could get by at international meetings in English?
Yes, right. The tradition was that you had to learn a foreign language and so on, so you could read the literature. But the literature’s all English. I don’t know if they still have the requirement for the PhD. It probably is a good one so that American’s aren’t ugly everywhere. Speechless.
One of the other questions we began to touch on in the last interview was what qualities are necessary to be a good experimental physicist back at the time that you were so doing in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m thinking of the question of gathering resources, you had to pull parts of the scrapped Missouri for the barrier. You had to make decisions about who would be on the team who wasn’t. If you had to list of a few of the main characteristics of being a good experimentalist physicist, team leader.
Well, there are a lot of fields of physics, and I think there are still some fields fortunately where a researcher with a couple of graduate students and maybe a post doc are a viable team and can do good research. There are many such teams around the country, small teams, which puts less demand on your entrepreneurial ability. But even there, if you have the team leader, he still has to make sure that his graduate students get stipends so they can have a meal now and then, not too often, but occasionally. You still have to make sure that your research is funded, which means interacting with funding agencies and communicating so people know what you’re doing. So there are always some managerial skills required in the way we do research in this country. Sometimes they’re a help. Like Rabi, of course, made sure that all of the activities in his department when he was the chairman of it, and had done so much in the way of governmental service and had started the whole idea of science advice to the president and was close to Eisenhower. He facilitated, if you like, the activities and my activities without my even knowing it. But nevertheless, I think an experiment these days in physics — not even these days, but almost from the time I can remember — required some organization of resources, that’s both human resources, financial resources, equipment, and so on. It had to be put together to make this experiment. And then of course you had to visualize the experiment, both points, is it a significant experiment — what will it add to our knowledge? Then you also had to evaluate your students and your post docs to make sure that you’re going to get positive help with them. With the students there’s always the risk. With post-docs, they have more experience, you read all the letters of recommendation and you take your decisions on that basis, so judging people is important. You’re almost always working in some group sense. Now, the high energy physics groups are laughable. They’re armies. These days, on these large experiments say at Fermi lab, there may be 500 collaborators in this one experiment. But as I probably told you before, it’s not as bad as it sounds because 500 experimenters are divided into 30 or 40 sub-groups which are more traditional. Senior professor, a couple of assistant professors, two or three post-docs, five or six graduate students is the key. And that team works as a subset of a larger team if you like in collaboration and good communications with them. But it’s still the case that the professor will say to his post-doc, “Get up there and tell those guys what you told me this morning.” Jewish mother kind of pushing the kids forward. So the sociology is changing because it’s very hard now. It’s a little harder and harder as the fundamental issues get more complicated; you need larger equipment and larger numbers of people. So group size has been growing all over the field in solid state physics, atomic physics and so on. The groups are getting bigger. But high energy has gone way over the line in the sociology. When the SSC was alive we were contemplating groups of a thousand people involved and I think the experiment that’s now being scheduled for the machine in Europe, the LAC machine must also have close to a thousand collaborators all over the world. It’s miraculous that they all bring their pieces and they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Nobody has made the mistake yet of having his equipment in inches and not matching the guy in centimeters.
What you say reminds me of a story; back from the start of the Nevis cyclotron when Columbia president Eisenhower had visited. The machine had crashed in that moment. You used a local source to provide audio ‘clicks’. Clearly there is an element of showmanship critical for physics in this time. Was that particular to physics, among the sciences or did you regard that as more universal?
I would guess it’s universal. There were people in physics and I always think scientists are partly showman. I mean, theorists are different, but even some theorists in a sense are contaminated by a desire to look good. But I think it’s just a human trait. It’s like what you do when you’re teaching. A good teacher is a show-business person. There are very strong connections between teaching and the dramatic arts and that just infects all of us I think in science. Now the biologists are taking over. They’re the heroes of the 21st century. That’s what Clinton said. The 21st century is going to be the century of biology. I always say well that’s an unimpeachable source.
When did you first notice the shift between physics and biology?
Oh, I think it’s come up most recently within the last ten years as it began of course with the 1950s discovery of the structure and function of DNA. And since then biology has somewhat slowly evolved in the ‘60s and ‘70s to be increasingly molecular. Now it’s just dominated. It’s 80 or 90 percent molecular biology and with molecules you have to use very complex equipment, you know synchrotron light sources which are humongous devices and devices like that. Biology is now becoming a highly mathematical science. Some of the stuff they’re doing in biology is beginning to compete with physics in breaking frontiers of mathematics and certainly computer analysis. So biology is now a hard science in all ways. My big complaint about American education is they don’t acknowledge that so we’re teaching science now as we did a hundred years ago. My standard opening remarks in a talk is that we’ve solved time travel and a guy’s come to us from 1890 and is amazed at the cars and airplanes and we show him our computers and he gets totally discombobulated and people begin to worry about his stability so we take him to a high school and “ahhhh” he relaxes. He calms down. Nothing is changed.
I want to make sure we talk more about educational issues a little bit later. Lillian Hoddeson, Frederik Nebeker, and others have interviewed you in detailed about your work in physics to the final. You became the director at Fermi lab. I’m tempted not to touch on those issues except to ask were there issues that you were surprised didn’t come up when you were interviewed, that you thought were interesting and important in your career, that you find that historians and others haven’t asked you about, about your research?
I’m not sure I know exactly. These are non-professional or professional, but not physicists. You know, I’ve sort of been a physicist, I’ve been a manager of a big laboratory, and I’ve spent the last almost twenty years increasingly in education, so that now I’m essentially full time in education. That’s the sum total of major influences on what I do and what’s done to me. I got a lot of comments on the book I wrote. Well, I wrote two books.
Are you speaking of The God Particle in particular?
The God Particle is the one that’s caused the major amount of comments and so on. Somebody pointed out to me that I lost the star on Amazon. It was always five stars. All the reviews are five but one disgruntled guy didn’t give me any and what he wrote reduced the average. He said it’s the worst cosmology book he ever read. Somebody responded and said it’s not a cosmology book. But that can happen. But the book continues to give me five or six emails a week from people all over the country or the world because it’s been translated to ten or twelve languages. I get about five e-mails a week from readers all the way from twelve-year olds to retired street cleaners and so on who have a pension for science. If I turn it on now, and I’m logged on for a while, I’ll always find one or two comments almost invariably about the book. So, it worked. My earlier book with David [N.] Schram didn’t get nearly that much attention.
That dealt with astrophysics.
The connection of particles and astrophysics, right. And now I’m finishing a book on quantum theory for poets and politicians and policemen.
How did the collaboration with David Schram come about?
I think that he was very influential in helping me start an astrophysics group at Fermi lab. It’s now I guess one of the best astrophysics groups around the country and closely connected to the University of Chicago where he was. So it was natural I think that one of us got the idea that we should write a book on stressing the connections of particles, the very small and the very big. So that’s what happened.
How did it work in the actual writing collaboration?
Well, he would send me handwritten drafts of his part and I would have a hard time reading them. But I would eventually read them and make my revisions to his parts and I would send him his retyped with contributions of my part. We’d send these back and forth. We had a pretty good editor from Scientific American their book publishing, that’s W. H. Freeman. And so between the editing, the editor, and going around, we eventually finished a chapter.
Did it work in a similar way with The God Particle?
Well, that was different. That was an idea that Dick Terasi had, who had interviewed me for Omni magazine. So after interviewing me at length, he said we should write a book. And I said I have no time to write a book. He said, “Oh no, I’ll do all the writing; you just check that it’s right.” That was the original idea. It wasn’t right, but again it was a two-way thing where I would write a chapter and send it to him and he would rewrite it and I would say, “Well, I see why you did this, but this physics isn’t right anymore” and we’d go over it again and revise it. We went back and forth with a given chapter eight or nine times before we both were pleased with it.
How did the conception of the book change over time? Was history of physics contained in the original draft?
Yes, because that interested me. I wanted to write a history of particle physics leading up to the super collider. That was the spirit of the book. So I started reading a lot of history. I really read enormously. I learned that all the historians were Brits to some approximation. Guthrie’s six volume history of Greek civilization was this wonderful book. These guys just were beautiful especially their footnotes, in which they would debate the translation of a Greek word which was crucial to a concept in science. So a lot of that history and then following up with history of Newton, my God, there were a dozen biographies of Newton available. I think I liked in particular the one written by the famous English economist who was an amateur Newton scholar. Anyway, I remember once telling my daughter, who is an anthropology professor, all about how deep the Greek creation of what we call science was and why they were just not interested only in how do you get copper out of some ore by heating appropriately and cookbook rituals, but they wanted to know why this happens. Why is it that when you heat something it breaks down and the ore metals flow out of the crystal structure? They just kept asking why. And my daughter curled her lip in contempt which is the way daughters always behave and said, “Ah, you just haven’t read any eastern science, that’s why, you’re just totally imbued with the western dominance.” So I felt bad and I started reading Joseph Needham, which is twelve volumes of the history of science of China, and realized thank goodness that the Chinese were not in science until way, way later. They had some ideas in mathematics and lots of inventions and so on, but they didn’t have anything like what the Greeks did. But again, it was a beautiful writing, again, long footnotes where he’d call in his Chinese associate at Oxford and say, “What does this Chinese word really mean?” and debate it because translation was crucial. I met him in Taiwan when they invited him to supervise a translation of his work into Chinese.
What were your impressions of him?
Oh, God, he was old at that time. I happened to realize he was there because when I signed the Academic Sinica guest book, and there a page before me was Joseph Needham in big letters. I was in awe. We didn’t have much conversation, but the breadth and depth of scholarship to do that kind of an overall summary of so much activity.
Of course, his earlier career was in the sciences, in biology and biochemistry.
I was very impressed by him and by the book. So anyway, I read a lot of history which I tried to put into this including stories. I learned all about Newton as the district attorney or attorney general and treasury secretary in England and how he sat at executions and made sure that these counterfeiters would get their just deserts. Beautiful stories which we selectively put in the book.
You mentioned just a moment ago selectively thinking about what stories to put in. As you look back on the book now, are there stories that you deliberately chose not to put in that you would rate differently now?
I think not. I think you generally say, “I’m not going to put that story in,” and you just skip over it. But what you do is you say, “Eureka! Here’s a great story. I didn’t know about this, or lots of other people don’t know about it. Let’s put this in.” And Dick was another independent load on this, on putting things in or not putting things in. You always strive for metaphors in all of this. How do you explain this? The idea of a book was that everybody should be able to read it and understand it. People tend to approach science book too often with a conviction that they won’t understand it. And somehow you have to from the very beginning, get them into the book so you have enough momentum to survive chapter six and seven which get to be harder. With quantum mechanics it’s the same way because some of the later stuff is very, very subtle. And here was Einstein in 1935 complaining that he didn’t understand quantum mechanics. It couldn’t be right. And then 30 years later people are still wrestling with his objections, so how to make that clear? On the other hand, I tend to believe that people who buy science book don’t insist that everything be totally clear, whereas an editor is not that way. An editor would never buy a science book. They insist that everything be so clear and wrong I think because it gets turgid if you try to make it too clear. There’s a lot of things like, I don’t know, if I was trying very hard to become fluent in French, I would read French books like detective stories. And you don’t have to understand every word. You can skip over some words you don’t understand as long as you don’t miss the general sense of the paragraph. I think the same thing in science. You don’t have to understand everything, like Hawking’s book on the Brief History of Time. No one understands it fundamentally except maybe astrophysicists and so on. But anybody can read that book and get a sense of what the issues are and how people address those issues. And that’s the important thing, not the detailed clarity of the thing. I always use in my educational stuff a science way of thinking. That you can learn, anybody can learn. And yet it’s essential in science to have that way of thinking. And it’s extremely helpful in all other fields. My sermon always is that anyone can understand how science works and people know enough about it to get that feeling and then use the powerful set of components of what makes scientific thinking, in all other endeavors.
You mentioned a moment ago that you wanted to become fluent in French. What stimulated you to do that?
Well, that was the language I studied mostly in school, and I loved France. So my joy in World War II was spending some time in France and trying hard to speak it. And then over the years I spent probably four years in Switzerland, the French part of Switzerland, Geneva, over a 20 year period, and tried to use my French as best I can. I’d go to parties and listen to French conversation, dripping wet with exhaustion because it was such an effort. It’s almost as bad as listening to a lecture of the late Stephen Jay Gould because the density of information coming at you with machine gun rapidity. So I wanted to be good in French and I thought I would read French books.
You’re referring to the time that you spent in CERN. How often have you gotten back to CERN in recent years?
Oh, very rarely now. Probably less than once a year. I can’t remember when I was there last. Probably I haven’t been there for four or five years. I usually have to have some excuse like I’m on my way to Stockholm. I’ve been to Sweden more often than I’ve been to CERN.
Your mentioning Steven Hawking reminded me of one lecture he gave in 1980 on the end of physics. What was your reaction to the idea that he was advocating?
Well, I think it’s just part of our culture to be arrogant. I think just trying to find out how nature works is already a sense of arrogance. Some have it more than others but we all have it in this way. The notion that there will be an end either because we understand everything, or another end would be less pleasant is that we just can’t afford to know more about it.
His feeling was that the laws were becoming sufficiently well understood —
Well, once again, I think dramatically and probably more simply expressed as Weinberg’s book Dreams of a Final Theory. He’s very frank. He says he believes there will be a final theory personally, but he also will respect people who say we may never get there. Certainly both of us were writing these books without knowing about it simultaneously. It covers the same subject matter but they couldn’t be more different from the point of view of our styles and personalities. I enjoyed his book very much. And including this debate in which he was able to speak on both sides with a great deal of passion and eloquence and then came down on the fact that we probably will understand enough about some of these things like inflation and so on that are so abstract.
The notion of a final theory doesn’t really affect the present because we have lots of puzzles. We’re not in any imminent danger of running out of puzzles. And in fact, if you’re of that opinion, you can easily think that we’re in a period of incredible potentiality for major discovery right now.
When you heard Hawking, and then when you read Steven Weinberg’s views on the final theory, did you feel that that wasn’t a correct view?
No, in a sense I’m an experimentalist, you see, so I don’t really worry too much about these abstract notions. I would tend to feel that yes, we will at some point perhaps, but less so now than maybe even a year ago. Things are happening now in astrophysics especially at a pace which is reminiscent of the good old days of high energy physics. It may be that the world will run out of the feasibility of answering some of these questions perhaps because the universe is getting much more complicated than we thought, even a short time ago. That has to do with this mysterious new stuff called dark energy which has a name, but doesn’t have a clear concept associated with it. But I think that’s very exciting because there has to be particle physics implications of such a phenomenon and to find those particle implications will be a drive which is right behind the drive to understand the mass of particles by other Riggs phenomenon, which is really the motivation for the machine at CERN and was the motivation for the SSC. So there are not two major puzzles and maybe they’re connected because they’re most major in the same field. How can they not be connected? I tend to be an optimist. I think most of us are optimists and say, all we need really is a satisfactory model for the creation of the universe and enough data that goes back as early in time as you can via a study of cosmology and helped by the particles. The particles were about 1016 seconds after creation and with a new machine at CERN; we might change that to 1018 seconds, getting a little closer. But interesting things happen all the way down to so it’s unlikely that experimental particle physics will go much farther than 1018, it might go to 1020, 1021, 1022, but we’ll still be a long way from a direct observation of some of the phenomenon that are much briefer in time. On the other hand, all we have to do is understand everything we see now, with a coherent model which says it started 13.9 billion years ago on a Thursday afternoon. [Laughs] There was this big explosion. With those starting conditions, and a nice convenient theory like inflation which fuzzes the starting conditions enough, we may get a consistent picture of everything right up to the standard model, with all the data we have now, a huge amount of data with numbers and masses and coupling constants. It may all come out and we’re finished. Thank you. What’s the next problem? The common cold or traffic jams in Chicago.
You’re raising another issue that Steven Weinberg brought up that was debated within the physics community, the degree to which all complexity in the universe reduces to physics. You may recall the debate involving Phillip Anderson over whether there is an irreducible —
Reductionism is exactly the word.
Yes, Steven wrote an essay called Two Cheers for Reductionism.
How did you feel about that?
I like it. I mean, I tend to be very sympathetic and I’m glad that Steve that is so articulate is handling some of these issues. Again, I think that occasionally some particle physicists overstate the case and there are clearly many, many problems in good physics which are not helped by a reductionism point of view. There’s turbulent flow of water out of a faucet or something that people don’t understand. When it gets complicated, and especially when it gets complicated enough so that nonlinearities appear, and initial conditions become absolutely crucial, the reductionist scheme doesn’t work. But what Steve says, and I think that’s very powerful, is if you ask the question, he calls them converging indicators of how to get down. Fundamentally a world was created from the small to the large, we think, so that initially the heat decomposed matter as it was created into its most primordial particles and maybe at the moment there the quarks and leptons and the basic force carrying particles. With that as a model, one could build up the whole universe until you get too places where the buildup doesn’t make any sense and you have to go to other ideas. Now the big question is called emergence. That’s the place where you roll up your sleeves and start fighting. The issue is, will there emerge ideas which are totally incompatible or even irrelevant or certainly not derivable from a reductionist point of view. New fundamental ideas. Well in some sense the second law of thermodynamics would have been such a law except that we now know we can derive it from particle atomic ideas. So we don’t know of anything which is not consistent with particle reduction, although we’ll admit that reduction may not be useful in understanding the common cold or the traffic jam in Chicago. That’s the point I think is there are a lot of things in which reduction is useful but to know that you can go from this general principle, complexity principle down to the particles is very important. I tend to agree with Steve that so far every rule, law if you like, that’s been invented to understand condensed matter can be reduced. If an idea comes which can’t be reduced, that would be fundamental and very interesting, and my opinion is well come on fellows, we’ll patiently wait until you come up with one of these ideas. But I’m not sure that complexity with all of the interest and all of the bright people working on it has been very fruitful so far in understanding complex things.
Who do you regard as leaders of that program?
Well, there’s the Santa Fe Institute and there’s Murray Gell-Mann who sits comfortably with a foot in each camp. Oh, there are many, many. The trouble is when you ask me to make names I block up, but I can supply you with some.
We can add some of those to the transcript.
The people at the Santa Fe Institute who work on these things.
I want to cover a few issues we didn’t address earlier when you accepted the position at Fermi lab in earlier interviews. Were there parts of Wilson’s style that you wanted to change that you consciously thought could be done better? Or did you feel it was more important to maintain continuity?
Again, it’s a mixed bag. We are very compatible. I liked a lot of his basic driving rules. I liked his defiance of authority even though he was already an authority. That’s what Einstein once said, much to his chagrin; having opposed authority all his life he finds he’s now an authority. Wilson was somewhat the same way. He hated bureaucracy whereas he had to establish rules for the laboratory. I liked his style very much and was very sympathetic to it. On the other hand, sometimes I thought he carried those to unreasonable extremes like maximum simplicity. When I wanted to get a crane for my experiment, which was approved at Fermi lab, he said no cranes. It’s a rule. Why? Because he says you can somehow get around not having a crane. We were just discussing it last night at a little gathering. Somebody wanted an elevator to carry equipment up and down to an underground facility. He said no elevators. You can use hoists and get around that. Sometimes he was right on these simplicity ideas and sometimes he was dead wrong on those things and made experiments much more difficult than they should have been. So he was more or less a guy who he was a machine builder, a very successful machine builder, and he made his reputation by building machines inexpensively, cutting a lot of corners. At Fermi lab, it was phenomenal. It was supposed to be a 200 billion volt machine. Someone always said they made a mistake and it was 400 billion volts. It was supposed to be seven beam lines and somehow there were 14 beam lines. It was supposed to cost $250 million but it only cost $240 million. It was supposed to take six years and only took five. He did all these things, and there were some penalties. He cut too many corners and a lot of the magnets had to be rebuilt because somehow plaster of Paris was used and it didn’t work. There were some mistakes that he had to fix. On the other hand, where government bureaucrats collect around campfires’ they still talk about this device which was ahead of schedule and had much better specifications and money left over. But I guess my approach was more to really favor and give the experimenters every break you can to make it easier to do the experiments.
You mentioned earlier that you were conscious of how easily a rigid pattern can develop in a lab. What were you thinking of particularly?
Well, it’s just the standard sort of innate bureaucratic ideas that people will have and Wilson’s style was to keep changing people, moving them around so they didn’t get imbedded in some fixed pattern by mixing them up. The net result was we had a huge number of very well trained people as managers, and therefore the building of the machine which was my responsibility. His vision was facilitated by a very highly skilled staff that he had somehow left behind. But the ideas that keep the thing fresh and keep it moving and keep making opportunities for young people to come up, that takes a continuous effort. I’m not sure that the lab has maintained that tradition of shaking people up and moving them around.
Did you decide to have a visiting committee after you became director?
It’s not a question of deciding. There was a visiting committee that was set up by the parent organization, the University Research Association. They had created a visiting committee.
Wilson had not preferred to call it that?
I don’t know what he did with them, but I think there was a visiting committee. When Wilson was appointed I was in fact chairing the science committee of the trustees. But that was a time in which he was building the machine and I thought that our job was to help him as much as possible in all of this. It was I supposed oversight in a sense, but it had to be a constructive kind of oversight. Visiting committees tend not to be very effective. One of the problems with the SSC I think was the ineffective visiting committee that didn’t spot all the problems in the laboratory. Logically when you have a visiting committee, if they’re good, they fan out and have a beer with the worker bees and try to find out really what’s going on, rather than listening to presentations that the management sets up to show you the best successes. It’s very rare to get a visiting committee that will roll up their sleeves and make one and two visits so people get familiar with and know who are the guys that are actually doing the work, and then listen to presentations but now being armed with all kinds of questions.
Did you have a visiting committee at Nevis?
I don’t think so. I think universities at that time didn’t have visiting committees. It might have been very useful, looking back at some of the real disaster. We made a desperate effort to modernize the cyclotron in its last stages and that was not successful.
When you say desperate effort, what are you thinking of?
Well, let’s see. The machine started working in 1950 and produced a huge number of PhDs, a very successful machine, lots of discoveries, but by 1960 something it was getting obsolete. There were bigger machines, higher energy. The only way you could survive was to have something that nobody else has and the answer was intensity. Do you increase the yield of protons by a big factor? And our expert was Jim Rainwater, and he had ideas as to how to do this. I was the director and approved that all, but did not realize how much engineering it would take and neither did he. So the engineering was totally inadequate to the project until we got more deeply into it and we realized that this was totally more complicated. I forgot what that was called, it would change the magnetic configuration of something where you had curved pole pieces and it was in the literature as a way of almost making the machine a continuous intensity instead of pulses. It would be capable of capturing many, many more protons into these orbits. Eventually it didn’t really fulfill its design and at some point, I think we probably lasted until 1970 when the NSF terminated it.
I was curious about Robert Wilson’s deputy, Edwin [L.] Goldwasser. Did he have an interest in becoming the Fermi lab director or did he choose a different course?
I don’t know. I doubt it. I’m trying to remember when he left.
He went to University of Illinois.
He must of left early on because when Bob quit, the deputy was Phil Libdol, so I think he went to the university maybe a year before Bob’s anger at the funding he was getting for his super conducting machine boiled over and he quit. So Ed must have gone back to — Yes, he used to be at the University of Illinois. He went back there and that must have been a year or two before Wilson quit. So my guess is he didn’t have a great interest.
When Wilson resigned because of the funding crisis, the funding limits of the time, did it seem to you that it was a bid to gain the funding and come back? Did you have conversations with him about what he thought the outcome of his announced resignation would be?
Yes, I think he was a bit surprised, in fact, in the DOE, which had a new guy. That was the famous John Deutsch who later became the head of the CIA and pissed off Clinton. But at that time he was new in his job and those two guys could have gotten along splendidly under other circumstances, but they looked at this as a confrontation issue. This guy says, “I have to have more money or I’ll quit” and the new guy says “Well, I mean, go quit.” He wanted to establish his reputation and so they got on a collision path which was unfortunate.
You had concerns about your own salary when you negotiated with Fermi lab so that you wouldn’t suffer a loss from leaving the position you had at Columbia.
Well, once I was the director I had a salary; I wasn’t going to lose that salary. In fact, when I became director with the early approval — Before I took the job I went to see John Deutsch and he and I — it was a slightly uncomfortable conversation. I remember he said, well, I can help you but I have a million dollars in the budget for next year. I didn’t know what a million dollars meant — is that a lot or a little but I was very respectful.
Nevis was a much smaller facility.
That’s right. We were in that time in a budget level of 60, 70 million dollars a year where Nevis was one or two. So it was a big change for me. But the big problem was: do we build this machine or don’t we? So when I came in, the whole thrust of the... during the time that Wilson quit, there was nobody watching the store for almost a year. Everybody in the lab went off in a different direction and they all had ideas as to what the lab should do in the future, with all different price tags. When I came in, I realized that I had to have a well-defined program. So that gave rise, I think, to... we talked a lot about Armistice Day Shootout. I got the whole lab to devote one full day to discussing everybody’s idea. We started at nine in the morning and I said we’ll finish whenever we finish and about midnight we quit, with everybody having had full say as to what they think should happen. I had appointed three judges, impartial people to help me listen to all these ideas, and we met the next morning for breakfast and there was a consensus and we all agreed on one plan, which was to build a super conducting machine which would then give us proton collisions with any protons at the highest energy. That was the decision. And it was very simple. I had to get funding to make that go. I discovered that Wilson had a different idea. He wanted to build a superconductor machine as the demonstration that such an accelerator would work. And the consensus that I had was to build a machine for the future of the laboratory. They were two very different machines. He had talked about $30 or $40 million, and I got a group to do a good cost estimate. That was Helen Edwards and she came out with ‘90 million dollars. So I had to go to Mr. John Deutsch with tail between my legs and say that 30, 40 million dollars was not the plan. The last plan is ‘90. I expected black smoke to come out of his ears. But he said, “Is ‘90 the number? I said, “Yes.” He asked, “Can we shake on it?” I said, “Sure, of course we can.” He approved the $90-million machine which ultimately cost $120 million, but a lot of that was hidden in a sense of RND that we were allowed — We also had a provision that one sixth of the machine would be not classified as construction, but RND. With RND, there’s no bureaucratic limitation on the construction funds. So we spent a huge amount on that one sixth of the machine to learn how to build such a machine. And that covered the difference so that from the point of view of the bureaucracy, we didn’t exceed our budget limits and we built the super conducting machine. It’s still the highest energy in the world. I came in ‘79 and in ‘83 we got our first beam, and it’s been a workhorse of American physics. Lots of discoveries. It’s certainly been a success. But, you had to deal with the bureaucracy. We had a resident government group in the laboratory, six people that would watch us carefully and I had to develop a technique for dealing with them and my technique was to become very friendly and to give them essentially tutorials in physics so they would know what our mission was. Too many bureaucrats didn’t have the faintest notion of the real mission. I got these guys, especially the leader, Andy Mirath to fire it up with information so that I ruined his reputation in the government. “Oh, Andy, he’s in bed with the contractors.” Nevertheless, he was incredibly helpful in the bureaucratic problems because he had been there when it was called the Atomic Energy Commission. He knew everybody and how to do things.
If Burton Richter had been appointed Fermi lab director instead, do you expect that the direction of Fermi lab would have gone in a very different way?
Who knows? That’s an impossible question. Burt understood the power of the proposal, to have a highest energy collision for the foreseeable future. He understood that part. Why he didn’t take it, I don’t know. I thought that was really an ambitious thing. The electron machines which were favored there, after the ‘94 successes, really haven’t made a single discovery. That’s one of the things we worry about today because the consensus of the community now is that the next machine would be an electron machine. I never agreed with that consensus. I still don’t, but I’m not in it. So I wish everybody well. I’m worried that the electron machine will maybe clean up discoveries. It comes in afterwards and gets you a lot of beautiful data, which the CERN electron machine did. The Stanford machine is doing for their electrons, but they never made a discovery. Protons are the discovery machine.
How did the proponents respond to that criticism?
They say, “Yes, but this is a new ballpark. This is higher energy.” But they don’t really answer the decision of the criteria. The real problem is that a proton machine is much more expensive than an electron machine. So my comment is, “Well, these days it doesn’t look very cheerful to get any kind of machine in the near future. Even an electron machine will be four, five billion dollars, or six. All these machines will now be built internationally and collaboratively. On the other hand, the host country will probably pay most of the costs in some way. The proton machine, although progress has been made in reducing the costs, it still may be three or four times that much. So it’s a question of arrogance, optimism, and all the other qualities.
When you accepted the appointment at Fermi lab, Phil Handler was President of the National Academy. Did you talk to him also about his impressions?
Were there others you consulted whose views you wanted?
Well, Frank Press was the science advisor to the President, and I talked to him about the future of science in government. And I don’t remember. I know I talked to a number of other people both in the DOE and in the university community, but not Handler, because the National Academy of Science was never a strong actor in this particular field. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk to him. I usually talked to people I knew in other contexts.
Do you feel that John Peoples has continued the programs and the direction that you set up at Fermi lab?
Yes, I think so. The issue was very clear. We had to build this, what we call the Main injector. That was the project he inherited. He was quite a good administrator and the DOE liked that. In fact, for a while, he was also the head of the SSC when it was being taken apart. So he had to disinter the SSC. He used to travel down to Dallas periodically to make sure that it was closed elegantly and with a maximum savings such as making sure that the records were in good shape and any equipment that was useful somewhere else would get there. He did a lot of things like that and closed the SSC quite eloquently. That probably did Fermi lab some good I’m sure in the funding. He built the main injector which is now, under the new director, Witheral, beginning to come online.
Were there any programs that you argued strongly to continue when he became director?
Oh, no. I wouldn’t. Once you’re an ex-director, you stay out of the advising business and I would never do anything but respond to questions. If there were questions, I would be good at answering them. Other than that, I just kept a low profile.
I meant particularly in the transition period. Were there developments that you really wanted to see continued, that you wanted him to understand were high priorities of yours?
There were many things I started like SAG, Science Advisory Group, within the lab. He continued that, although a lot of it depends on how you use the information that SAG develops. I used it pretty well. if there was a SAG consensus, I would go with it. John was a little more independent of the advisory group.
Can you give me an instance of where SAG helped you make a decision when you were director?
Oh, yes. Almost everything we did in the lab was vetted with SAG, which had the leaders of the laboratory. For example, when it came to the supercollider, there was some hope during the early stages that it would be located at Fermi lab. But that didn’t happen. So after the site was settled, I particularly called a special meeting of SAG to say we’re clearly involved with the supercollider. We have a number of people that are going to join it. There are two issues. One is, if the SSC goes ahead, there’s a cloud on the future of Fermi lab. On the other hand, if it doesn’t go ahead, there’s a cloud on the future of high energy physics. What should it be? We ran out a table and said unanimously said we have to preserve high energy physics. So I think Fermi lab sent over a 100 professionals with guaranteed return to the supercollider. Some of our best people like Helen Edwards and Don Edwards, and many, many others, went down to Texas. They didn’t have to worry about whether that fragile new machine would continue or not because they had jobs. So Fermi lab was the chief contributor of all the labs, with enthusiasm and so on to the SSC. That was a SAG decision that we had to give all possible help to this new accelerator even though the future of Fermi lab would be problematic after that. if it worked, it would have worked in ‘92-’93 and we would have had that new machine with all kinds of new physics and demands on the budget and who knows what Fermi lab would be like at the moment. Because it failed, we’ve had the highest energy machine in the world since 1985. That’s very unusual to keep a lead like that. And we’ll keep it for the next five or so years until the CERN machine comes on-line the air and begins to give results. So SAG was influential in almost every important decision.
Was that new under your directorship?
Yes. Wilson was arrogant, and an expert on accelerators, so he didn’t need any advice. He could have used better advice, but of course he left physics to Goldwasser and some of the others. That was the weak part of his administration the exploitation of the machine.
Do you think that if you had gotten your Nobel Prize earlier than you did, you might have spent less time in research? Would that have affected your research career?
Yes. Well, there’s a study that was published in Scientific American by a Columbia lady. The name will pop into my head. But she studied the effect of the Nobel Prize on research.
You’re thinking of Harriett Zuckerman?
Yes, exactly. In fact, she was summoned to Stockholm to present her story because it looked as if getting the Nobel Prize was a disaster for the research you were doing. I got it in ‘88 and I was already nine years into being a director, so I didn’t need it in a sense. If I needed a distraction, I was the director of a laboratory. Even as director I was doing research. I had a routine. I would run my midnight to eight AM shift, go home, and sleep until about twelve and then go in and run the lab from twelve to about five. I’d go home and have dinner and go to sleep and get up at midnight. That was a routine I used for as long as I was able to run shifts on experiments we were doing. I told them when I became director that I would continue my research. They asked the question, “A director doing research?” I said, “Look at all the advantages.” But I did continue research and kept my hand in it.
Was that unique, or at least rare among physics labs?
Pretty much, yes. I was very active. I stayed active until maybe three or four years ago when I finally quit an experiment because I wasn’t doing anything enough for it. I was too involved with the educational stuff. That’s what killed my research. That, plus just physical endurance. You have to be in good shape to take schedules like that, but I trained for it a while.
You said, something interesting a minute ago, about being able to do the administration in five hours’ time.
Yes. Well, you know that was a period that might be three weeks and then I would be off the machine and I’d have more time. There were special meetings and urgent meetings that would send us off and I could always do that. Somebody would cover my shift.
So you could do that for short bursts?
As I say, the main thing a director is supposed to do is make the priorities clear and give people help when they need it. You know, summon resources. That’s I think the key. I think our Tevatron, the highest energy machine, worked because the lab knew that that was the major priority. So if we got an urgent call from the guy who was in charge of installing magnets in the tunnel, that he needs 20 more people, everyone would just find 20 people, they’d put down their own work and go into the tunnel. Because that was the highest priority, no arguments at all about that. So the lab had its priority very, very clear. The advantage to having a focused problem like that, we had to get this. This was the future of the lab.
Had word gotten out about the direction in which the Nobel Physics Prize Committee was moving in the late 1980s, or was the award a surprise?
The rumors, oh yes, the rumors were all over the place all the time. I knew I had been nominated three or four times and maybe for three or four different experiments, so when they called me, I didn’t know what it was for. It could have been for several other things that were of that level.
Did the answer strike you as recognizing the most significant work you had done?
No, I thought the most significant thing was what we now call the Beauty Quark. In fact, the Beauty Quark is 30 or 40 percent of high-energy physics now. Everybody’s built two machines to study it, a factory called a Beauty Factory in Japan and SLAC, and the major facilities at Cornell and Hamberg and Fermi lab, all looking at the Beauty Quark.
And that was later work.
Yes, it got more and more interesting with time. That often happens. But I wasn’t going to argue with these guys.
You had a number of other major awards: the Wolf Prize from Israel, the President’s Medal of Science back in 1965. What did you feel were the most important awards you received?
The Nobel Prize outweighs all the others because of its great prestige.
In addition to the Nobel...
I think the ones you mentioned are probably on the same level. The Wolf Prize was a nice check and was given by the state of Israel with funds from a Mr. Wolf and you got there, you had to meet the President of Israel and he awarded you the prize. That was honor and so on. Linden Johnson gave me the Presidential Medal of Science and that was nice. We had a little conversation which he won. Somehow we got into a little bit of almost exchanging jokes and funny things. So I said to him, “Mr. President, when are we going to get out of this Vietnam mess?” and he said, “Who really did these experiments for which I’m giving you this prize?” I figured I lost that one.
What a wonderful exchange.
But that was in the White House. My daughter, who is now a professor in Princeton, was a high school kid. She came along and wrote an interesting high school newspaper article on her experiences in Washington. We were standing in line to meet the President. My daughter and my wife and I were there in line, and she was introduced as Mrs. Lederman. That’s where we started having a little repartee. But the most fun probably was the award Clinton gave me, the Enrico Fermi Prize. That was fun because we spent almost an hour in the Oval Office. Even before we shook hands, he said to me, “I know more about neutrinos than any American President.” So I went through my mind saying Lincoln, yes, but when I got to Jimmy Carter, I wasn’t so sure. But I decided not to make an issue of it. Then he told me why he knew. It happened when he was governor and the university had put in a proposal for an underground neutrino facility. He read the proposal and he had total recall. I’m sure he didn’t prepare for this. There was a lineup of visitors to the Oval Office. I’m sure that he just remembered this stuff. With him I got off he said at some point, “Dr. Lederman, the nation owes you a great debt.” I said, “Mr. President could you tell me roughly how much that is?” There’s a famous photograph I think we have somewhere showing the aftermath of that remark as Clinton is going like that. My wife is rolling her eyes and saying, “You can dress him up but you shouldn’t take him out.” Hazel O’Leary, she was there.
Head of the Department of Energy.
And she’s also doubled over her chair. It’s one of these rare cracks that really work. But that was fun because it was interesting to talk to him.
What else do you recall from that hour in the Oval Office?
Oh, his general quickness and general knowledge. He seemed to have something smart to say about almost anything including science policy. Who else was there? Not Frank Press, but Harold Brown, who had been a Secretary of Defense. And so there were some issues that Harold and the President talked about on defense and again his grasp of things. I was very impressed with his general intelligence and knowledge. He seemed to know a lot about everything. And he was interested, you know? There were several times where secretaries came in, waiting for the next group and he said, “Soon.”
Did President Clinton ask you questions, seek your advice?
Yes. Well, not advice. He was curious about neutrinos because that was my Nobel Prize. The Enrico Fermi Prize was just general services rendered. But he wanted to know about neutrinos. What are they doing now? What are the repercussions of that experiment? What’s the future of high-energy physics? Why’s it costing so much money? Can’t you do it all by computers?
How many other scientists were in the room?
Also Harold Brown.
As you mentioned.
Harold Brown was another classmate of mine from Columbia.
That’s right. How well did you know him?
Well, I knew him pretty well. In fact I remember being mad at him because he borrowed my quantum mechanics notes shortly before the exam. You know, at Columbia we had a system whereas after your thesis results, you get another final exam. This was, do you understand the major subjects of physics? I couldn’t get them back until just the night before the exam. But he was sort of quasi-political even then, organizing graduate students and so on. Immediately he went into defense work, and became president of Caltech.
Thinking of the quest for prizes, I’m thinking about novels like Cantor’s Dilemma. Have you read that?
I didn’t read that. That’s [Carl] Djerassi?
No, I didn’t read it. I should have read it. I think I have it. Why didn’t I read it? I don’t know. Maybe I did, but I just don’t remember.
Is there a difference between a shared Nobel and single Nobel?
They ask that question of Mel [Melvin] Schwartz, was my colleague, and we shared the prize. They asked his kid, “Would you like to win the Nobel Prize like your father?” He said “No.” “Why not?” He says, “I want to win it alone.” I think that you get less money. And usually the co-winners aren’t always equal. I’m thinking mostly of the guy at Princeton who did all these precise astrophysics, a really good astrophysicist at Princeton, he shared the prize with his colleague. There are times when it’s clear there was a leader. Now the last prize was three relatively kids who won the prize. I mean, in the old days, [P.A.M.] Dirac was 22 or 23 and Heisenberg was young, and then it got to geriatrics scale. In fact, one of them, Carl Wayman from Colorado, was wearing a knapsack. We got off the airplane as the Swedish people greeted us. Because this was the hundredth anniversary, there were several Nobel a number of laureates and we were surrounded. They ignored him; they thought he was a graduate student. He was the winner for that year.
That’s an interesting story. I was thinking of another Nobel laureate, one co-winner with Steve Weinberg, Abdus Salam. Did his Nobel prize, do you think, influence the direction of his Center for Theoretical Physics?
I think it helped. I think it was quite a useful prose because that center was really supported by his force of getting money from all places, from the UN, from UNESCO, from Italy. It truly must have helped him a lot. I know I ran into his tracks very often in Latin America. He’d go to visit in some country and there would be a big fuss about him and his interest in developing countries and developing science. It was a rather inspiring thing. I was inspired by the Trieste thing, to try to do the same thing at Fermi lab. I would concentrate on Latin America whereas he concentrated on Africa.
Do you think his role in the Institute influenced the Nobel Committee itself?
Yes. Maybe. They are influence able by politics sometimes. Take the prize for the ozone layer hole. That was a very valuable political thing because these guys were having a lot of trouble with the industry that said we’re destroying all American jobs. Well, ultimately, when they replaced the CFCs, nobody lost jobs and they were able to do it, but they really fought that idea. His winning the prize for that experiment was a great environmental success. I can’t believe that they weren’t influenced by that.
How much experience did you have with the Center for Theoretical Physics?
I just knew the people there, and I always would tease Salam occasionally, saying, “You’re only inviting theorists. What good are they when they go back to Africa? I mean, what you want is experimental stuff.”
What would he say to that?
I don’t remember exactly. I think he said someday we’ll get around to experiments or theorists are cheaper, not cheap, and less expensive. In fact, I try to do that at Fermi lab. I really look for money from foundations to start a hospitality center for experimental scientists in Latin America. I didn’t get any money, so I just stole money from Fermi lab. At some point we had 50 or 60 and probably still have 50 or 60 Guterrezes and Avilas at the lab from all countries all over Latin America, spending anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. I even got an EEOO award because they saw all these names and said wow, look at all that good minority groups. These aren’t minority groups at all. To be a scientist in Latin America you had to have an affluent family in general. But I took the prize anyway, what the heck. In fact now there are several experimental groups that are very active at Fermi lab from a distance.
Do you know what foundations you had approached when you tried to raise these funds?
Ford Foundation, I always try them, never successfully. Was it Rockefeller? I think I tried Ford and Rockefeller.
Was there UNESCO interest in that in the international division?
I don’t remember. They certainly have an international theme. It didn’t fit their criteria for support and there was also some hesitation about giving money to a DOE laboratory even though I try to set this up as a separate entity that would work in the lab.
I was thinking about people who had won the Nobel Prize and then served on nominating committees. One said, “To sit on a Nobel Committee is like sitting on quicksand.”
I’m not on a committee. Nobel winners do not serve on any committees.
But you have the possibility of nominating?
Yes, you can nominate, but that’s your individual thing. Every year I get a form to nominate in chemistry and in physics. I rarely nominate in chemistry unless I have the opportunity for a good — you know, somebody harangues me and I listen carefully to chemists. But the physics prize, I talk it over with colleagues and then nominate. I know one guy that I nominated almost uniquely and then worked on this for four or five years. This was Georges Charpak. I think I helped a lot with that. But it’s not a committee.
How much interaction you do have with members of the actual committees?
Not much. All you know about would be the physics members. I mean I know the physics members of the committee. They’re subject to being influenced and they welcome input. Yes, I probably know more about the foundation because I’ve been there about six or seven times now. I won the prize and then I was a member of Charpak’s group that came two years later and then I was on a television program that was sponsored partly by the foundation and some company that did a free one-hour program on it called Nobel Legacy. And then one year I replaced David Frost as the moderator of the panel that traditionally follows the prize.
What was that experience like?
That was interesting because the winners that year included an Italian by the name of Dario Fo. He was a playwright. He mostly wrote plays. He was funny and considered to be a leftist. Well, as leftism wasn’t, you know, like at Columbia and City College. It wasn’t very left. But he was a radical guy who wrote plays to present his point of view. A little bit I think, it’s as if the literature prize was given to Woody Allen. I think the Italian establishment was outraged that this guy got the prize. But I read his plays so I would know about him. The same time, there were two economists who shared the prize in economics and they were part of this long-term capital company that went belly up some years later in huge failure of an investment company. You could only invest in it if you’re very rich, so lots of rich people lost money when they were interviewed. “Why did you invest in this company?” They said, “They had two Nobel Prize winners.” But I thought at the panel that I could have an interaction between these Wall Street guys and Fo. But Fo was not very cooperative. First of all, he refused to speak English, so we had an interpreter and he would dominate the whole show and I had to use a lot of efforts to quiet him down.
We’re resuming again after a brief pause. A major part of your career was your advocacy of the SSC primarily after you had stepped down as director of Fermi lab. One physicist I spoke with was curious why you decided early on to stress particular energies for the machine, as opposed to trying to build the machine to be as good as what one could get with available funds. How were you thinking about that?
Well, the tradition in physics has always been, when you make a proposal, you have to have some specific goal, and so you would look at the state of physics at the time and you’d list the puzzles, the things we don’t understand. You’d say, this machine is uniquely qualified to respond to these particular issues. That’s the traditional way. Now, fundamentally, you always knew, and you actually wrote that if this required a higher energy. Let’s take an example, Fermi lab was 200 billion volts and previously leader was Brookhaven at 30 billion volts, so almost ten times larger. We knew that at the higher energy, all our experience indicated that there would be new discoveries because you were now extending the range a lot, so what you listed were the expected discoveries which would solve the current problems of that particular epoch. So why not 300 billion volts? Normally you’d be inhibited by making the machine too expensive and you were now raising the energy by a factor of almost ten. Although the technology of that kind of machine was pretty well in hand, and it didn’t look as if the higher energy would create newer problems, there’s always a possibility of complex accelerator machine phase-phase and other technical problems that would limit maybe your intensity. Or maybe it wouldn’t work at all. There was always that possibility. For example, at Brookhaven they had the idea of producing a machine, strong focusing, that was the first time. They built a full-scale model, an electron machine model that would test this new focusing before they actually proposed the machine, what became a 30 billion volt machine. In those days they got that machine simply by writing a long letter. It got more and more bureaucratic. As the costs went up, you had to justify everything, including the simple construction and all the things that went into it. The RND was factored in too, and the operating cost. That later on became more of an issue. So, the answer to the question is, the energy you pick usually is motivated by your technical self-confidence, so as you solve the problems, the new problems that come in with higher energy, and that the costs would be proportionately less than the previous costs per GEV. Those costs have been going down readily, so that the cost per GEV has probably fallen by a factor of maybe a 1000 or more because as we learned to make bigger machines, we had cost savings ideas and so on. Now, I think that sort of builds up to the motivation for how you make a proposal. Now the SSC had an energy requirement because we were now trying to solve the problem of the Higgs. The Higgs was the name placeholder for a discovery which we believe has to be made at the next level of energy and at that time, the energy would surely confront the Higgs was a Higgs mass of approximately 1 trillion volts. That’s a 1,000 times heavier than a proton. Well, to build a machine that would make such a particle required a minimum of ten trillion volts and so because of our uncertainties and the physics, we made this a 20 trillion volt machine. So in fact, it would be 20 trillion compared to Fermi lab which was now running at 400 billion. That was a big step in energy.
Back in the late 1980s, as discussions of the SSC began, what seemed to be the political issues of greatest concern? Was there a sense that effort needed to be concentrated on one part of the process more than another?
No, I think the political problems were complex. The major political problem was the phase thing. I remember giving talks. Maybe one of the earliest talks I call it a machine in the desert. Here I am growing up in New York City and riding the subways all my life and not thinking that you could build a machine so deeply underground, in fact in Germany they built a machine under the city of Hamburg. But anyway, the idea of building a machine to confront the Higgs issue was my thing. I gave talks on it and I said we should build this machine. We shouldn’t fool around with anything else. Make sure we confront the maximum possible Higgs mass, which was a trillion volts, with a machine that could have a little more energy than that. CERN at that time was building this huge ring for an electron machine and it was well known. I kept saying Rudi [Alfaque] is going to pave that machine with superconducting magnets and make it a proton machine, which in fact is in effect what they’re doing. The LHC is using their tunnel by putting in proton magnets, but anyway, the political problem was first to convince the DOE that this is a good thing to do. So then the question came up, what would such a machine cost? Did we know how to build it? And what were the uncertainties, because this was a now a new domain of energies. So first you had to convince the community before the DOE. The community was not sure about it. And that took a lot of talks. I formed a committee to plan experiments to show what kind of experiments you could do with that machine. I forgot the name of the committee but I think it was the professor of the University of Chicago which chaired that committee and went through the phantom experimental program for that machine. We talked to experts on tunneling because this would now be quite a huge machine. I think if it was to be built at Fermi lab and we would make the ring in the wrong direction, it would go from Fermi lab under the Sears Tower in Chicago and around. It was a huge machine. And how to control the proton beam and so on. So we started doing informal studies and cost estimates and that’s ok, so we convinced the community.
If I may ask, you say you convinced the community.
The high energy physicists.
Yes. Did you feel that you had consensus, or did you recognize that there still were some people who disagreed?
No, we had consensus. I think we had consensus. Because there were things like we had our groups in high energy physics. What we didn’t have was a consensus of physicists. In fact, that was the failure that we didn’t communicate enough with the physicists outside of high energy physics. Traditionally we didn’t do that. We assumed it would be international but we didn’t know for sure whether other countries would contribute to the construction of the machine. There was an international group which I was a founding member of called ICFA (International Committee for Future Accelerators), and it was important to try to convince them that this was a good to do. They were certainly not in opposition to this, but each country when it came to collaborating with it, each country had its own ambitions. CERN was building a machine in Geneva at the time we were talking about the SSC. Germany was also occupied with building the Hara machine. The Japanese, I forgot why they were reluctant, but they were not rushing in to do this. Okay, the next stage was to convince the Government, the executive branch. Then we were enormously helped by Jay Keyworth, his science advisor. The DOE itself, the people in DOE who ran high energy physics’ were not enthusiastic. They didn’t think that was a good step. But Jay Keyworth ran right over that and he was very important in running over them and taking this directly to the president.
You thought Keyworth was particularly effective?
Yes. No one ever heard of him. I didn’t know about him. But he thought this was the adventurous thing, the right thing to do and that’s the famous incident, I’m sure you know about of the videotape I had him make for why you should build such a machine for President Reagan. Anyway, eventually the DOE was sold on it and the next step was to get it funded through Congress. And that happened, eventually. The first thing was to set up a design group. So all the lab directors signed a convention treaty if you like, to support a design group which was headquartered at Berkeley. People went there to design this machine, to really design it, cost estimate it, thoroughly with drawings and engineering and so on, leaving only the site undetermined. Then there was the famous site search.
26 states were vying for the project at one point.
Oh, more than that I think. 46 states originally, but then eventually they selected six sites and they had to decide between those six. Eventually Texas was picked. In fact, that happened a few weeks after my Nobel Prize which was in October. There was a big Lab gathering and celebration of my Nobel Prize and they figured that would help with the site selection because Fermi lab was one of the prime sites, but it didn’t. So the next all Laboratory meeting was a doom and gloom commiseration because now it was in Texas, and somebody sent me a Stetson, probably cost 400 bucks, a beautiful cowboy hat, which after a few opening remarks, I reached under the lectern and put it on. Texas is in our future.
You were surprised then at the decision?
Oh sure. I thought that by far we would have saved three or four billion dollars. Now, the more we look back on it, the more we would have saved because a green field site is an enormous undertaking. All the difficulties of that, starting up in Texas, was a huge job. Anyway, so the politics then came to keep the funding, keep telling people what a wonderful thing this is. We and a big start with the site search, because every podunk newspaper in the country was near a possible site, so they would write articles about it and we had a clipping service. I was always amazed at how sensible some of these articles are at getting at the science of why we want this sort of thing.
Did you find that encouraging in terms of your later work in education?
Sure, I thought there’s a great interest in education. I thought just searching for the site was a very beneficial thing because people would ask a lot of questions and so even if this machine fails, we should keep searching for a site or something because it interested people in this business. Ultimately, the politics that we couldn’t pay enough attention to was international contributions, and also keeping the public excited by this continuously so that Congress wouldn’t dare cancel. But you know, ‘92, ‘93 were huge deficits, $100 billion deficits and they were obsessed by that.
It was the end of the Cold War. How well did you get to know in this process people like Joe Barton, who was the Texas representative?
Not very well. A little bit. I didn’t really get involved with the politicians except for the pro guys like the Senator from Louisiana, the few very pro. I got to know Sherry [Sherwin] Boehlett pretty well.
I was going to ask about him.
Because he was interesting, and it was very funny, because he had originally for it when New York had a chance for being part of a Canadian site. And the day we said no Canada, its foreigners and New York was ruled out by that. Then he turned dead-set against it. But ever since that, he’s been very pro-science and every time he sees me, he tends to want to apologize and show all the good things he’s been doing for the field and for science in general. It’s very positive.
When you mentioned you got to know him well, I’m curious what that meant. How often would you see him?
Oh, it meant that when I’d go to Washington, I’d often run into him, or I’d get him to talk to the Trustees of the RA.
Would you meet him in his office, or would you have lunch with him? How did that tend to work?
Well, we didn’t have lunch. I met him in his office several times. Usually there would be some, oh, I’d testify before Congress quite often, and he was on the science committee. So just a bunch of things like that. He came to visit Fermi lab. We tried to get a steady stream of visitors. We even had one of the Chicago corporate executives fly people from O’Hare to Fermi lab, congressmen and their wives. They’d go shopping in Chicago and so on. It was petty bribery, getting them to see the Lab because it’s where all this money is being spent.
How well did you know the science reporters at the New York Times?
John Noble Wilford, for instance?
Yes, right. Bill Broad. I got to be very friendly with Malcolm Brown. He did several articles on Fermi lab, Science Times articles. The lady, Claudia Dreyfus, interviewed me and gave me an introduction to the associate editor of the New York Times magazine.
Had you known Walter Sullivan well during the time you were in Columbia?
I knew him. No, I met him and talked to him. And William Lawrence, a Russian guy who was the senior science editor of the New York Times for a long time. He says, “Lederman, do you know why you did not discover parity and those two Chinese did because you are imbued with Western culture which likes symmetry.”
You would argue about philosophy?
Did any of them share your interest in education? I was wondering if that matter also arose with your decisions.
Well, no. I never really interacted with them on the education front. But because I knew the New York Times and I don’t have much trouble getting a letter in and occasionally I probably had five or six op-ed articles. So I’m known to the editorial people. And in fact, one Sunday morning, my daughter called me up to say, “You’re all over the front page of the New York Times.” This had to do with Physics First, revising the curriculum. Somehow, when I asked the lady, Tamar Lewis, How come you got me on the front page? She says, “I don’t know, it just walked on the front page.” It was a big help.
I don’t want to steer us too far away from discussing the SSC. How well did you get to know some of the persistent critics who were outside of physics, like Rustum Roy?
Oh, God, I debated with him and listened to him, but I didn’t have much respect for him so I didn’t pay much attention. Occasionally I would write a rebuttal to something he would say about it, but I thought his criticisms weren’t terrible cogent, useful in any way. Phil Anderson I knew very well and there were critics in the physics community. In a sense, I think that they were wrong because they certainly didn’t profit a nickel from the loss of the SSC. Their budget didn’t go up. In fact, that was the decline of budgeting so their budgets went down. I thought that we were wrong in not communicating enough with them in the beginning and as a result, with some of my efforts, they started a PPC, Program Policy Committee of physics through the APS so that physicists could talk to each other about their plans, ambitions and so on.
How well has that worked, do you think?
I really don’t know. I haven’t been involved except at its formative days and then I dropped out of that, hoping that there would be more communication. I think there is a theory: do all boats rise? Or does everything sink? My guess is it goes the other way. It was always high-energy physics spending money on big accelerators, which we needed, which is just like the astronomers spending money on huge telescopes and eventually space which raised the budget of science. Congress went along with it. Whether that will continue I don’t know. It looks pretty grim for anything for the next four or five years, but I think one has to be optimistic and say this is a valuable thing. It produces all kinds of spin-off. I had very good arguments that these machines and laboratories pay for themselves through taxes. Just look at the one thing we did at Fermi lab alone, which is superconducting materials, which we developed with industry. Those materials were crucial to the creation of the MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging]. MRI is a ten-billion-dollar-a-year industry by now, so one-quarter of that is paid in taxes. They’re honest. So that’s two and a half billion dollars. Now, MRI had a lot of other input than superconducting materials, so I give superconducting materials one fifth of the credit. Now I’m up to 500 million dollars, which is three times the operating cost of Fermi lab. You know, everyone can tell stories of this kind, where a device used to understand quarks happens to have commercial value, and all kinds of things so that the cultural benefits are free.
What if you say those arguments have had less traction over time, is there a moment that you look back on that, in retrospect, seems to be the time when you noticed that?
Well, it’s the end of the Cold War in many ways. What I didn’t know was that we were on the front lines of the Cold War. Instead of expecting that when the Cold War is over, there will be lots of resources available for doing science, it turned out to be the other way. It was supported by the Cold Wars by the fact that we had to be leaders in science and now that the Cold War was over, they didn’t need us so to speak. So I think we have to keep making the case. Education is the long-range approach to this thing. If I can get all the high school kids to really think scientifically, then it will be easier to get these things.
How did you get through the first few days after the vote in Congress about SSC?
Oh, it was terrible, terrible, awful. Just before that I had a television debate with a good senator who was against it from Arkansas. On many issues he was right on my side. He was a liberal senator. But he didn’t like the SSC and we had this debate. He used tricks on costs that were not really fair. The problem was that when we initially estimated the cost of the machine as something like three or four billion dollars. When you add the operating costs, R&D, all the things that now wisely Congress needs to know, it came out to about seven or eight billion dollars. And then Clinton stretched it three years to make it eleven billion dollars total cost. So he said, these guys said three billion and now it’s eleven billion. Well, the only real cost increase was when they finally selected the site. They had to go back to their drawing boards and now put in a site which was in Texas and the cost of doing that. Some conservatism crept in and they had a 20 or 25 percent increase in the cost of the machine. That was the only real increase. But there were bureaucratic increases of how you count money and how you count total project costs. Anyway, that was a very depressing period of time.
Where were you when the news reached you?
‘93, I was teaching at the University of Chicago and hanging out at Fermi lab.
I was wondering if you recall how that first evening was.
Oh it was terrible. I remember being very, very depressed by this. It was a disaster. I was thinking how we can reverse it. Can we get it back? Because once before, one House killed it the year before and the Senate reversed the House. That was part of the problem because then the Japanese who were very, very close to bringing in a billion dollars got worried about the commitment. The Prime Minister was going to visit Clinton. So seven of us Laureates went to see Gore to plead with him to raise this issue with the Prime minister. And Gore said, “We have too many other issues with the Japanese. We can’t raise this issue.”
That must have been another difficult moment.
You bet. Before that. George I [George H.W. Bush] was very enthusiastic about the machine, even to throwing up in the lap of the Prime Minister.
That famous or infamous trip overseas. Who helped you most in the period in a personal sense in getting through the SSC?
I’m sure it was my wife, who has a very cheerful disposition and could try to look at the bright side of things. I wasn’t going to use the machine anyway. It was ‘93; it was scheduled to be finished by ‘98. But still it was a very sad event. And we had to learn our lessons from this. There was enough blame to go around. There were sloppy things in the management of the SSC. The visiting committees didn’t uncover what turned out to be very poor management style of the guy who was director, who I was not in favor of. That was part of it. There was a real fundamental incompetence in the DOE when we were looking for international contributions, they went out and talked to what they thought were their opposite numbers in various countries, but they were the bureaucrats and the people they were talking to were scientists. The scientists said, “Where are your scientists? They should be here too.” They never invited the scientists to come along with them in making their pitch. So DOE was somewhat guilty.
Were you aware of that at the time or did that become clear later?
The DOE incompetence, we were aware of and worried about. The managerial competence at the lab, some of us were aware of, but we weren’t enough sure of ourselves to call down the wrath of the URA [Universities Research Association, Inc.] or force those presidents and distinguished people to really examine the issue until it got so glaring that we did. The URA finally took action and decided to have a visiting committee study of the crisis if you like. And the visiting committee said we have to change the management. So that was in progress when the project was canceled. But the noises of that percolated through congress. There were various congressional committees who visited the place. There were atrocity stories about that. There was Mr. Dingell who was on our team, became famous by looking for waste, fraud, and abuse of the science. They had a bunch of very heavy-handed staff people.
You’d mentioned the heavy handed staff from Congressmen Dingell. What was it like to deal with them?
Well, I didn’t deal with them directly. All I heard was second-hand things like coming into a room and saying we want no recordings of this interview. Usually the Lab would have a recorder going so they would have questions and answers and usually write up their answers in more detail later. These guys just stopped the tape recorder and very aggressively pursued whatever, “What, you had flowers? How much did those flowers cost? You served alcohol when so-and-so was there?” All kinds of dumb things like that. Most of the committee work done at this machine is done by volunteers, who come in and get their travel paid, but they’re away from home for two or three days, so sometimes the lab treated them well. With things like that, they kept picking on all kinds of the slightest deviations from what one imagines is the ideal thing. You go to the Congressional mess. It’s subsidized very heavily. It was a messy period. A lot of this had to do with the Texas investment. They put in two billion dollars, the state of Texas, and they were crawling around the place. Building an infrastructure was a very difficult thing to do. It was not done well. A lot of defense contractors were swarming around their contracts because they were losing military contracts and those guys were very shrewd at how to bid low and then add costs later on. There was a lot of that going on. Because the physicists who were running it, we had a big tradition. Physicists had built all the machines up to that point and didn’t have much trouble with contractors and bidding processes and so on.
So SSC was a new departure in that?
You wrote a long letter to Physics Today to all colleagues in physics after the SSC vote. How was that composed? Did that flow easily in the earliest draft or did you really have to rework that?
Who knows? Good question. It was hard. I wanted unity. I think I remember something about, “I’m sure you’re not dancing on the grave of...” I remember that article. It was really to try to learn a lesson from the past by trying to install more unity in the whole physics community because all of us have ambitions and even the famous tabletop experiment is now reinforced with steel beams because it has so much junk on it. Things just get harder and more expensive with time and we have to communicate. That was really the main idea of that.
You raised the argument that the physics community should not practice birth control on the graduate population.
Right. I think that was written at a time when there was also a dip or rise in physics unemployment, which traditionally has been something like two percent, which I call full employment. Then it went up to six or seven percent and some people were saying we should do birth control. I thought they were dead wrong and after a few years it was back down to two percent because physicists tend to be useful.
You were saying it was initially perhaps hard to write that draft. Were you thinking of different things that you might say or argue than what you actually put in?
Again, it’s hard to remember exactly what the various currents were. One of the things that happened to me was that I was President of the AAAS. That was ‘90, ‘91, ‘92. It was a three year stint as President Elect, President, and then Chairman of the Board for a year. And that’s when I got into the whole business of the morale of young people and wrote an article called “Physics: End of the Frontier”. It was very controversial because I tried to do an analysis of budgets since the peak of the Golden Age, which was ‘67 or ‘68. Budgets had been flat or maybe slightly declining, but if you add in the inflation and complexity factor, declining fairly seriously. So young people were upset at the fact that they weren’t getting funding. There was a general low morale period and then the ‘93 event just added to that, reinforced it fairly strongly. So I think I was trying to solve all those problems.
Do you remember reaction to that from colleagues?
Well, colleagues, I think in physics, they took it for granted that some people would advocate for them. Somewhere I once wrote, “Once upon a time physicists walked the corridors of power with a sense of self-confidence” and that’s what happened with the Rabbi, and Fermi after World War II. And physics was clearly dominated by physicists. Clearly, science lost its strong voice and there just weren’t very many people doing that sort of thing. So I think when somebody did it, it was taken for granted. Somebody has to do some of these things, communicating, talking to people. And I’ve been a strong advocate of public relations efforts not only at Congress, but at the people who vote for Congress. I’ve tried, without success to have the universities, there’s the IJRA which manages Fermi lab is 90-some-odd universities, they could easily afford to take out rent at quarter page that Mobile Oil uses in the New York Times and talk about science.
What were their arguments against doing it?
Well, universities don’t like people to speak for them. The presidents themselves— And yet contributing to this wouldn’t have been all that big a deal. But I couldn’t get them to agree. Partly it was kind of shadow-boxing, because nobody said it’s a bad idea, but somehow it never got gelled into a real thing. Even today, I’m still after an office in Washington which is supported mostly by the DOE grant at Fermi lab which has a President, a Vice President, and a Treasurer and so on. It’s a good place to establish a platform for educating the public. It’s not lobbying, it’s education. I clearly make that distinction. We don’t do much of that. We don’t have strong spokespersons for science. You can go to any meeting and say please name the famous American scientist living. And you get dead silence. Then somebody says, “Carl Sagan? No, no, he died.” And then they’re stuck. They don’t know.
When did that change that you’re talking about happen — from having Rabi, Fermi as major figures in science policies to the later period where you point out there seen fewer. What happened?
I don’t know what happened. It’s a good question. Partly, maybe it’s the accident of not having people of that charisma. I mean, Rabi grew up in Brooklyn, went to Manual Training High School in Brooklyn. And yet he was at ease with kings, prime ministers, and presidents. He was an intimate of Eisenhower. I remember once the Atoms for Peace conference, I was in Switzerland at that time, and he came to go to the meeting. I drove him back to his hotel, a European hotel. There were tables outside and he whispers to me, “Let’s go have some coffee with — There’s the president of Westinghouse and General Electric. And there’s three senators,” and so on. He had all these famous people in industry and government and so on. I picked the Congressmen and Senators that were sitting together and they all wanted his advice on a speech that someone had given at the United Nations, which was why this whole crowd was there. The Atoms for Peace Conference. And he was more paying attention to the waiter and in his bad French saying, “I want hot chocolate.” But he would just turn and devastate one of them by saying, “Oh no, that speech was all crap. There was no sense to it.” You know, he just handled himself, and I was amazed at this. The next day, when I picked him up, he said, “How did you like the way I handled that?” We don’t have people like that in science. There’s an accident. Maybe we could have. There are a couple of good communicators. I think that maybe Carl Sagan, who left an enormous legacy as a communicator and had a special ability to do that communication and to organize. He was part of a huge television program.
The Cosmos Program.
Yes, that’s right. There was a guy, Brian Green, who’s written a bestseller on string theory and has a television presence. Somehow back in his background, he had acting. He’s very good if he can keep up there. There are a few people who could be communicators. Carl had a hard time. A lot of his colleagues were maybe jealous of the fact that he’s so famous and didn’t think his science was up to his reputation. But it was good science. And he couldn’t get into the [National] Academy, which to me was outrageous!
I was curious what you felt about that. Did you play any role in that debate?
Absolutely. I was very much a pro-Carl Sagan guy, almost violently pro-Carl. I got up at the Academy, which I almost never do because the average age at the Academy is deceased, to defend not only his science, but his importance to the scientific community. But people are deterred by that possibility of being considered a show-business person. I think we need more of them.
Sagan did not gain election to the Academy. But what percentage did you sense him were for him and against him?
I don’t know, always it has to do with who’s very active. The people who were against him were very active in saying that this is not good enough science. All kinds of people were admitted to the Academy whose science was not all that good, like [D. Allan] Bromley who’s the President Science advisor. He was an ok nuclear physicist, nothing very spectacular, but if you have eminence, allied eminence, then you can get into the Academy. A lot of people do on that basis. Name recognition. You see, “Oh, I know that guy, I’ll vote for him.” But there were some strong negative people and that was enough. “Oh, something wrong with this guy, I better not vote for him. I don’t know what it is, but you know.”
How well did you get to know Sagan?
Pretty well. I was an admirer of what he did and so on. I got him to visit and help me with this school for gifted kids that I was involved in. So he was a help for me in educational stuff.
When did you become involved in that?
Oh, I started it. I went to see the governor in 1983 of Illinois and said, “Wouldn’t you like to start a Jim Thompson school for gifted kids?” And Governor Jim Thomson said, “That’s a good idea.” And he put it into his ‘84 state of the state message. I gave 100 talks around the state in ‘84 and ‘85 and it opened in ‘86.
When you gave those talks, was it to lay the foundation for doing such a school?
Yes, that’s right and for saying we need to take care of gifted kids because they’ll pay us back a hundred fold. I listed all the diseases I could think of and I could say, “Who’s going to solve these problems? We’ve got to watch these kids. It’s not true that a gifted kid can take care of himself.” So I gave all kinds of talks in which I knew, kids don’t like to be different from their colleagues, and when you’re gifted, you’re different and kids react in different ways to this. So I had a lot of powerful arguments for why one should do this and even though the PTA was not friendly to this idea and a lot of teachers were not friendly, I remember once meeting with a large number of supervisors, principles, superintendents of schools and so on and they were raising all kinds of negative questions. Then one guy, very high up in that organization, chastised his colleagues and said, “Why are you against this? This is a great idea. Illinois is rated number 48th in support of pre-college education. Illinois is nothing. Here’s an opportunity to do something positive.” And in fact it’s true. It’s probably arguably one of the best high schools in the US and it’s in Illinois. We still have a very low per-capita investment in a rich state. So, there was a question of just giving enough propaganda, talking about it so everybody’s heard about it. The legislation which I helped a senator write and we sat down together. He made sure it was short. It fit all on half a page. It was about six of eight sentences and it slipped through, nobody watching and passed.
What was your vision for the school, how it would be?
Well, I grew up in New York where there was Stuyvesant and special schools for music kids and so I saw this as a way of building a school where gifted kids would feel comfortable. I knew if Bronx High School didn’t exist when I was there, but it because an eminent school with enormously illustrious graduates. So I wanted a school like that for gifted kids. And then the idea was since it’s a liberal state, it should be a live-in school. That was the unique attribute of the Illinois Math Science Academy. We never named it after the governor. He [James R. Thompson] still complains whenever I see him.
How often do you see him?
Oh, pretty much. He’s chair of the fundraising group for that school because we raise about two million dollars a year from philanthropy because we do things that the state would never let us do in addition to the state allocation.
How was it that it was not named after him in the long run?
Who knows? When the time for naming it, that was a forgotten promise, and he wasn’t governor anymore. Illinois Math Science Academy [IMSA] seemed like a natural name.
You were advisor to the Governor formally for some time. Did it coincide with building the school or was it a later time?
It was after. There was the end of my Fermi Lab thing, so it was ‘89-‘90, somewhere in that period I was his advisor. Really, I was chairman of the Governors’ Committee of Science and Technology. It was a development. It was to make Illinois rich by the legislature voting us 20 million dollars challenge grants, which I formed a group from industry that worked with the scientist group to pick innovative ideas and support them, which would eventually pay back. Next year we only had 17 million. I think we probably spent a total of 70 or 80 million dollars but it was a piece of cake to get a return on that by supporting all kinds of things like the cattle industry stuff. We learned a lot and had a lot of fun working with the businessmen who had fun working with us to develop and make Illinois rich.
You were able to be involved in this, in part, because SSC was not approved. I presume you would have had a key position within SSC?
Nor clear at that time. I was still doing research in the early ‘90s and teaching at the University of Chicago and beginning educational activities. I probably would have been at most an advisor. I certainly wouldn’t have taken a job there, live in Texas.
How did the failure to pass SSC change your subsequent career? How did it change the way that you thought about education?
I think probably in a minor way. If the SSC had gone on and been a great success, I would have taken as much credit for it as I could. As a result I didn’t have that to lean on, but I had a lot of other activities. I was doing some productive contributions to an experiment, and teaching a lot. And after IMSA started, that was 1MSA opened in ‘86. We just had our 15th year party. That was combined with my 80th birthday to make a gala and raise money in Chicago. I started an Academy for training primary school teachers in the city of Chicago for the schools. That’s K-6. That took a lot of time.
Is that the Teacher’s Academy for Mathematics and Science.
That’s right. TAMS. And that’s still going and always has problems because the city of Chicago is a complex thing and now because the state is supporting us mostly, we’ve been working outside of Chicago and in St. Louis and areas that make Chicago look like Scarsdale. It’s poor. And Joliet [IL] and so on. That got me into all kinds of international things because primary school teachers are very important in developing countries. The poorer the country, the more important it is because usually that’s the only school. So I got involved starting in ‘94 with an international group that’s called ICSU.
The International Council of Scientific Unions.
Right and we have meeting now in Brazil coming up in September related to that activity, primary school science teaching. We had one in Beijing two years ago. It’s spreading around the world. My good friend Georges Charpak came to Chicago one year and got blown over by what we were doing. He went back and convinced the Minister of Education, which is the only guy you have to convince in France. Now he’s got a program in 800 schools because of it. He’s got the whole establishment behind this thing which they call, “Hands to the task.”
When you look back on your education efforts in the past decade, what strikes you as the greatest successes and the greatest frustrations?
Well, the frustration is how slow it is to have the system change. Here, the thing I’m working on now, almost full time, is the curriculum, high school science curriculum, where 99 percent of all schools, kids start biology in 9th grade. If the school so demands that they take more than one year of science, they take chemistry next. And then a few fearless kids take physics in 11th or 12th grade. That’s the wrong order. That’s where the 19th century curriculum was set and it’s still that way. We’ve been working on it since ‘95. We have the city of San Diego. Last September 9,000 kids registered for physics in 9th grade, which is the way we think it should be done. The city of Cambridge and maybe 300 schools around the country, isolated schools that we know about, are doing it in the right order. I get about two or three c-mails a week from schools saying, “We’d like to change, how do we change? Where are the materials and so on?” If we keep up at this pace, it will take 230 years for all the schools in the US to change over to a sensible curriculum. So that’s pretty frustrating. And then you understand it because you have so many constituencies you have to convince. Just to list them, you have the teachers have to be convinced, the teacher’s union has to be convinced (that’s different from the teachers), parents have to be convinced, Urban League, the community groups have to be convinced, the principals have to be convinced, the supervisors of educational activities. The school board has to be convinced. City and state people who vote the funds have to be convinced. The university admissions offices have to be convinced that even though 9th grade physics only uses elementary algebra, it’s ok to let these kids into college because they’ve had three years of science and they learn more physics in chemistry and biology. So you get a whole list of people including the professors who are more interested in future scientists. I’m interested in future voters. So there are all these constituencies and that’s why it takes so long to get something going. We’ve got a momentum, but the momentum isn’t very big. So now we have to write a curriculum. A lot of schools are deterred because there is no curriculum. It’s not only reversing the sequence, it’s making it coherent. It’s that all phenomenon in chemistry find their explanation in physics. And huge amount of molecular biology in the same way. Now there’s a new field that’s called biological physics. It’s different from Biophysics. It’s like Don Glaser who was a Nobel Laureate who invented the bubble chamber. He was visiting here last week. He’s a biological physicist. He’s looking at the physics of vision in the neuro-sciences, the brain aspect. What is the physics that goes on when visual images are imprinted on the brain?
Do you find that professional biologists and chemists agreed with you on the change?
Oh yes. The first thing I did, I wrote the 26 Nobel Laureates, all colors, and so they’re on my advisory committee. No, I think you sit down with most of them and, in fact, Harold Varmus has been very active with me and Dudley Herschbach as the chemist. It’s very clear. The only people who have some hesitancy are the antireductionist people who think too much reductionism is bad for you, which I don’t understand. It’s just that my authority is fine that everything is made of atoms. If there’s one thing we’re going to pass on to our successors when our race dies out, it will be that everything is made of atoms.
You mentioned frustrations. What things do you feel particularly good about in education?
Well, the IMSA School is of great success, I think. In another five to ten years, these kids will start making major marks because they’ve been through college and graduate school and doing all kinds of things. Sixty percent of them stay in some science field which is a little higher than I expected. And so that’s a very good feeling. TAMS have incredible metrics. If you stay with a school for three years and the teacher turnover isn’t horrible, you begin to see the kids zooming up in statewide, standardized tests, math tests. It’s the only test I trust. A few days ago, Ellen and I went to Boise because there was an annual meeting of American Association of Physics Teachers, a couple of 1000 physics teachers, mostly high school and first year college teachers, or junior college teachers. They don’t call them junior college anymore. They call them community college. It’s great to talk to these people. They’re so happy that I’m there. I say, “Why are you happy, I’m a physics teacher?” “No, you’re a Nobel Laureate, you’re different.” And I gave a talk. It was extremely well attended. That’s the community. Physics teachers should hate me because what I’m asking them to do is give up the good life. Now, they teach seniors, or juniors who are usually, physics is an elective course. Very few schools require three years of science. So as an elective, they’re only teaching the kids who want to take physics and who are already pretty sophisticated in mathematics. And I’m asking them to teach freshman, kids who don’t know anything about physics, don’t know any algebra, and they have to take it. It’s required. It’s a totally different style of teaching. Some of them think it’s even a loss of status. “I have to teach freshman?” It’s like asking them to do windows.
So that’s very positive. I felt very warm. You know people stopped me in the hall and they’d say, “What you’re doing is so important.” They feel that I’m a visible spokesperson. On the front page of the New York Times they got a whole bunch of mail. The New York Times itself spent three days publishing letters on that article on the front page and the letters editor said he’d never seen so much in the way of mail on an issue like this.
That certainly struck a chord, you feel. You concentrated those efforts in Illinois?
Well, the Physics First is a national thing. I have a steering committee in Washington consisting of the president of NAS, that’s Bruce Albert’s; the guy who runs the National Science Teachers Association, that’s Jerry Wheeler; Roger Bybee who was at the Academy, is now back in his hometown of Colorado, he does BSCS, he’s now leaving; Shirley Malcolm, who runs education for the AAAS; Pinky Nelson, who is the astronaut who took over 2061; Bernie Corey who is the executive secretary of the AAPT; Marjorie Bardeen who runs the education at Fermi lab. That’s the steering committee, very informal steering group that gets involved with these. We had two workshops around Fermi lab, one in Chicago, one near Fermi lab to work on issues involved with the new curriculum, and then we had a big session this March in San Diego where the whole school system is changing over and by luck NSTA’s annual meeting was held there. So we had a big presence there, and we’re trying; that’s why I’m trying to write for the New York Times magazine. But I’ve published in many places, Education Week. I’ll send you all this stuff if you like. It’s called ARISE, American Renaissance in Science Education and it’s the change of curriculum. The idea is that really we need a change of curriculum pre-K through 16 but at my age I don’t want to do that whole thing, it’s too hard. So I picked the most egregious, ridiculous piece of the curriculum. Because what happens on the curriculum is it’s always fine-tuned. People say we need kids to know about AIDS. We’ll give a course in AIDS. You add that to the curriculum. Then they want to know about driver education so you add that to the curriculum. All kinds of social things are added to the curriculum and then educational ideas are added, nothing is subtracted, so it gets watered down and the K-16 curriculum is a disaster. Well, K-14, let’s say. It should all be redone. But if I concentrate and I’m a success in the science part and that starts working and I can get a major part of the high schools, 16,000 school districts in this country going every which way. The problem is our founding fathers screwed up on education. It made it a local issue. I think local implementation is correct but we need essential strategy.
When you look to other nations, which systems impress you particularly?
Well, none of them impress me particularly, except that they do a lot of science. In other countries, for example, here we have AP [Advanced Placement] Physics. Often, I’d say about half the kids who take AP Physics take Physics for the first time. They’re bright kids and when they become juniors or seniors they take AP Physics. In England, France and so on, the equivalent, which is IB, the International Baccalaureate is a two year course, and is taken after a year or two of introductory physics. They take a heck of a lot of science in the equivalent of high school. Whereas here we are, little by little, beginning to implement a three year science and math requirement, and that came out of standards. Now we have standards, which is a big success. So I like to call it a war because in a war you don’t figure out how much it costs to move the tank from here to there. I want a war on ignorance. To have a war you need a general staff of some kind. Well we can’t have federal control, that’s politically hopeless. So I talked to Cohn Powell when we both went to the 150th anniversary of the City College. Because he was a graduate of City College, I was a graduate. My table had five Nobel laureates out of the twelve of City College. He was with the President of the College and he came over to our table to chat, gave me the telephone number of his adjutant. This was when he was in the volunteer business. I never used it. Now I want to use it but it’s too late for him. I have to find someone who comes into the field and can act as a leader of a high power group of customers of a high school. They can set standards. Standards were not set by the federal government. They were set by the Academy and by the AAAS for their 2061 project.
Do you feel that NSF, to take one example, is doing enough?
NSF, to me, is a black hole. They’ve spent billions. They get five or six hundred million dollars a year on education. In my opinion they squander most of it. I have a very low opinion of NSF education. It could be better.
Start with that. It was a national commission to look at education in this country. I remember it was first of all, “Nation at Risk” was suggestive. We are drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity. We are committed to unilateral educational disarmament. It was real purple prose. It had a big influence. People quoted it all the time. Then there was George land his assembly of all the governors in Charlottesville and they had six issues. Each of them began with “By the year 2000”. This was ‘88. “By the year 2000 all children will arrive at school ready to learn.” That was number one of six. I think number four of six is “By the year 2000, the U.S. will be number one in math and science.” By the year 2000 U.S. is number 16, somewhere down there. Actually in physics, where kids are seniors in high school, in TIMSS, Third International Math and Science Study. There’s the Glenn Commission, which was a commission on science education. All you have to do is read the title. It says “Before it’s too late”. That’s the title. And now we have “Leave no child behind.” You can make a long list of these rhetorical statements, never followed by the appropriate action to produce anything.
How helpful have you found the current Administration for your efforts?
I think it’s negative. There are a lot of promises, its partnership things. There’s supposed to be allocated $450 million. The president put $12 million into the budget. I just read that the congressional committee has doubled that to $24 million. It’s so constrained by bureaucratic nonsense that I don’t know that anything will come out of it. There was NSF’s ill-fated Urban Systemic Initiative. I think a lot of that was inspired by the work we did in Chicago but when they made it into a bureaucratic thing they gave the money to the dysfunctional people in the school system who caused the fact that the nation is at risk. I think a lot of those people are in the government. The money that is being spent is not being spent very well. I think a lot of the Eisenhower money is useful because that really goes to poor schools, but it’s not doing enough. I know from our work in Chicago that you can take these very poor schools with primary school teachers who are totally uneducated in math and science. You know, you can pick a dozen people at random from a sidewalk somewhere and they’ll be just as good as these teachers in math and science. They approach it with fear and loathing and that’s where the attitudes of the children are created. They really catch the insecurity of the teacher in these materials, you know, in general. There are wonderful exceptions among teachers, but math and science is not that bag. So we teach teachers how to teach math and science. And we stay with the school for three years. It’s expensive. We were first supported — NSF supported us and then they said, “Wait a while, $3,000 a teacher per year?” And we say, “That’s what it costs, and we have to stay with them for three years.” They said, “Both things are unacceptable to us.” So they cut us off. You know, as if it’s written somewhere that — that was in the early days. Now they’re up to, “Yes, maybe you need $3,000 a teacher per year, and maybe it’s going to take two or three years before the teacher begins...” That’s like if you go to industry and ask, “How much does it cost to upgrade the workforce?” They spend easily that kind of money on upgrading the workforce in some sense, getting them up. This is not professional. We call it professional development but they’re not professional yet. There’s a level of ignorance. We find this around the world incidentally that primary school teachers everywhere are not trained and so our idea internationally is to use what we learned in Chicago and what they’re learning in Paris and so on to try to put this on the internet and we created the idea of a science corps, like Peace Corps, where people with some science education can take the curriculum materials from kindergarten through sixth grade and bring it into the schools. Where there, language barriers are gone. Secret handshake and T-shirts. So you have a high-morale organization doing these things.
How far has that idea gone?
Well, it has not gone nearly far enough. As I say, the biggest impact, we’ve had an international meeting in Budapest and then two years later in China and this September in Brazil. In each of these cases the host countries can give the thing a boost. And in the case of China they were really desperate. In China we had Vietnam, Cambodia; all the Southeast Asian countries were heavily represented there. We think that stuff is getting around now. What we wanted to do is sort of a headquarters for teaching materials. I spend a lot of time at the World Bank trying to get money from them because I thought that would be ideal, but got frustrated by bureaucracy. I’m a terrible fundraiser. Even though a lot of these things are going. The Teacher’s Academy in Chicago spends between six and seven million dollars a year on primary school teachers. The metrics are very good. We lucked into hiring the chief statistician of a big insurance company. He had been a teacher before he became a statistician. He was very good at looking at the data and watching the data and dividing it up into kids whose teachers had the full treatment versus kids whose teacher got a good job in the suburbs after having our training program. We know you can solve this problem. In developing countries often they tell me a sixth grade education for young women is the best contraceptive every invented. We use those things. That’s the inner city problem. That’s the really poor schools in Chicago. You get into the parking lot and the tension is getting from your car into the school and once you’re in the school it’s okay. The streets are pretty miserable and these kids have to walk them every day. So, that’s the problems, and the education in this country I think is — Well, I’ll tell you a story. I went to testify before congress, I think it was about a year and a half ago, on education. There were several bills being put forth by a Michigan congressman who’s very good at this. Much to my amazement in these education meetings, there’s a chairman sitting up there and maybe one Congressman. The people who are interested in the testimony are there clustered. This time every chair was filled. All the Congressmen were there and there was a big crowd at the media. And then I saw the guy at the witness table and that was Alan Greenspan. He was the chief lead-off witness. He gave the most impassioned testimony about the need for science education economically. We’ve been living on immigration and that’s not happening anymore. The fish who came over here to help us with well-educated scientists are going back to Ireland because they realized that there’s now good salaries to be paid back home. He cited all of this and for a guy who chooses words very carefully. It was a dynamite testimony. Then Craig R. Barrett, the head of Intel testified and another high-tech CEO, about the importance of upgrading the workforce.
What was the reaction in Congress? I didn’t mean to step on your words.
The Congressman, he said — The Chairman, Mr. Goodling, summarized it. We’ve never heard such powerful testimony; this is fantastic, we’re so grateful to all of you. Unfortunately the amount of funds associated with this activity is limited. They shot the whole thing down right there. What do you mean it’s limited? I mean suppose this is Iraq, is that limited? What’s the priority? And that’s the nonsense, that’s the point. Is that when it comes to really showing priorities, it doesn’t have one. On the other hand, I think the stakes are very high. I think that if we could get all the high schools, or 90 % of the high schools to do it right, I really do believe that a structured curriculum, which really should start in kindergarten, but you do what you can do, will produce people who think more carefully about the issues. Maybe they won’t vote for Republicans. That may be a worry on the part of some. But the idea of listening critically to debates and discussions is an important issue which they think they can learn. If they take three years of science in a coherent way, so that what you learn in math you use in physics and what you learn in physics you use in chemistry and can embellish it in chemistry and what you learned in physics and chemistry you use to understand what DNA is in biology. That will leave you, especially if you include, and that’s part of our program, a strong element of process. How does science work? Why does it work? Is there a scientific method so that if you have a problem you apply the method and the problem is solved or is science really very messy? You can make errors in science like cold fusion and so on and go off track. It’s a scientific way of thinking and we think that can be universal. It has elements of skepticism and respect. It has elements of curiosity. It has elements of what you want to do is substitute experience for authority. In other words, I want to see how this works, I want to know how it works. I don’t want to quote Aristotle who tells me it works. Many things like that which I think are elements of being a good citizen in a democratic society.
Have there been other groups besides those that you’ve been most closely associated with who you feel are also doing good work?
Oh, lots of stuff. Oh yes, hundreds. All over the place. It’s very hard. That’s one of our problems is that there are many successes, there are many super schools. Why can’t we just copy those and have all super schools. But copying doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s all these constituencies. Every one of the people in these constituencies has spent at least 13 years in a school so they’re all experts.
You’ve been talking about the importance of education, and education also takes place in museums. You’ve been involved in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What’s been the vision that you most want to see there?
Well, there again, I think they play an important role. So many grownups will tell you their first real experience in science was in a museum. Whether it was my experience with dinosaurs in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History or the museum in Chicago, the coal mine. Famous things like that. The submarine. It’s very positive with good growth in this museum. What I like to see more is, because so many of the visits are parents with kids, I would like to see the museum do some innovative things in trying to get the kids to look at these exhibits more critically. One of the ideas I have is, “Oh, let’s give them a voluntary exit exam, and if they pass a certain grade they get a $5 gift from the store.” Something that will cost the museum $2. So you could give 100 such gifts a day. They don’t like to do this testing. But it’s a way of getting the kids to look critically at the exhibits because they’re going to be on the test. Testing is an important part of pedagogy. We have a crisis of high stakes testing now which is another issue in education. It’s how even a good idea like Stannard’s [?] could produce a reaction. That’s what this president thinks. Everything is tests. Since the federal government has now mandated that the only test they would recommend is reading and math. So we have the phenomenon where teachers are told by their principals “Stop teaching science. It’s not going to be tested. We don’t have to test science.” So there are absurdities all over the place. Education is very important. It has to get a priority and it also has to be fun. It’s got to be lighthearted in many ways and that’s what our big success for these TAMS is that we use these hands-on techniques. It’s largely play. There’s a lot of play involved. Kids learn to play and learn at the same time. And very little in the way of facts until you get to fourth or fifth grade and then certainly they should know roughly how many planets they are and some of the names of the planets, and maybe some names of scientists. One of the things we did — I’ll show you a copy, I think we have a book here. My high school kids, the gifted kids just published a book. Fifteen kids spent two years, juniors and seniors, writing biographies of famous American scientists.
Right, that’s one of your most recent projects that’s been published. I would like to see that. And I was also intrigued by your preface to the Sydney Harris cartoon book. How did that come about?
I don’t know. Somehow we got to talk to each other by email or something and we exchanged prefaces. He wrote something for us and I wrote something for him.
How did you come to meet your current wife, Ellen?
Oh, let’s see, this was at Fermi lab. She was married and I was married. We met at a Thanksgiving party in ‘74, and one thing led to another.
And you’ve had the house here now for twelve years?
This house, yes.
Can you tell me more about where you live in Illinois? It’s on the grounds of Fermi Labs?
Yes. When I became director, there was a director’s house that Wilson lived in, but I gave that to [William] Bardeen, famous Stanford theorist to convince him to come to Fermi lab. That worked. He came with his family to Fermi lab and then we had to have a place to live and we found one of these farmhouses. There were some 30 farms involved in the acquisition of the land and most of the farmhouses were moved to make a village. There was one farmhouse that couldn’t be moved. It was a little too fragile and so we used that. We fixed that up and that’s where we’ve been living for 20 some odd years now. At first when I said 10 years is enough, I want to stop being director; Bardeen said in that case he would go back to Stanford. Incidentally he lives a mile from here now.
That’s interesting. I was curious; you had earlier mentioned that at dinner, issues relating to the Lab had come up. How many people connected with physics live in this area?
There’s B.J. Bardeen, he lives here. There’s the Ovanovich, a Yugoslav couple, who are at Fermi lab, who in fact started the migration here because he was a climber and climbed O’Grand and then decided to learn more about the area. Then they bought a quarter sections, about 100 acres, and got people at Fermi lab to buy into that. We bought ten acres over there. They live here as a vacation house. David Anderson, just this weekend, is moving from a little house here. He’s a Fermi lab retired physicist to a house he built 300 yards away. So that’s already a critical mass. Then there’s a friend of mine who’s a chemist who is the same year Nobel laureate as I, [Johann] Deisenhofer, who has a place in Jackson [WY]. He comes over here from time to time. The guy at Cornell who now has taken over from Henry Kendall as head of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Kurt Gottfried, has a place in Wilson. We see all these people from time to time. There are a lot of physicists. We had a party here. For my 80th birthday party we rented the top of a ski mountain and had a bluegrass band and 65 or so people. There were a lot of physicists.
Are scientists in other fields living here, or is it primarily physicists and a few chemists?
If there are in other fields, I don’t know them. There is a guy who writes interesting books about biology, but he’s more of a book writer than a biologist, although maybe he was a biologist at some time. So, yes, not many. For some reason physicists seem to dominate.
That’s interesting. Did you build this house?
No, it was ten years old when we bought it, but it had my name on it. We went over there, about six miles across the valley, to look these ten acres we bought and to see about a house. We talked to builders and there were too many questions so we drove around and then I saw this house for sale with my name on it. So we bought it. Since we’ve been here we fixed it up. We added two bedrooms so we now have four bedrooms and three baths. Often they’re occupied. We expect some visitors today. I don’t know exactly when they’ll show up. This week we’ll get crowded with other visitors. Ellen’s sister is coming with her husband. So we usually have a lot of people. I creep up here late at night when everybody’s sleeping to get my work done.
What’s your writing schedule like these days?
Well, I write. I’m trying to finish this book on quantum science which I hope is within weeks of having been finally revised. I’m writing a magazine article. I’ve got to write a letter raising money for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists every five years or so. It’s my turn to write a letter. I think the formal organization is the Enrico Fermi Education. I’ve forgotten the name of the organization that manages the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, but it’s a good magazine, very well edited these days. It’s the one magazine that informs. Oh, that’s my wife. I was mixed up because there are two cars there.
She has returned from Jackson [WY]. I literally have just a few more questions, if you think we can.
All right, let’s do that and then we’ll go to lunch. We’ll take Ellen to lunch.
To learn a little bit more about your personal outlook: are there religious convictions, personal convictions, that you feel, as you look back over your life, have played a very important role.
Not really. Religious convictions, no. Not ever. But I do worry about morality and ethics. If we can teach it, it would be good. I don’t know how to teach it. People have tried. But I do think we need some way of installing this in our society.
I mean religious convictions is not part of my bag, but I do worry about Enron’ s and tobacco manufacturers and the pharmaceutical guys and the general loss of any kind of morality... [Brief pause]. The state we’re living in, and the fact that this greed and fear that dominates us is so pernicious. I mean I never could grasp how seven of the graduates of our best schools could raise their hands and swear in public that cigarettes are good for you. Amazing.
Does it seem cyclical to you, or does it seem to be a linear progression?
I don’t know. People talk about robber barons that created the great philanthropies, and I don’t know about that, but I see so much of it going on now. I mean Peter Jennings had a one or two hour broadcast on the pharmaceutical companies. I happen to know some of that from a friend of mine who edits the West coast edition JAMA [Journals of the Medical Association]. That’s another bleak example of so little in the way of public interest. That’s a bad indicator. You look at company after company illustrating the same kinds of things and both the president and the vice-president contaminated by the same issues. Pretty bad, and I don’t know how to fix that. You know, physicists look at problems and they say “How can we fix it?” You know, that’s what we’re supposed to do, is solving problems. I stick to education and say, “Maybe if they’re better educated maybe we can find a way of talking about this. My own feeling is that the opposites of greed and fear, the concerns and compassion were probably essential in our evolutionary experience. Survival of the fittest was, maybe it’s an argument you can make, and I don’t know who’s made it. Somebody must have tried. Collaborative efforts have paid off. Generosity pays off.
Current studies of altruism?
Exactly. Can we understand that? Maybe our solution will come from the neuroscientists eventually. I don’t know how long it will take. I went to a meeting maybe ten years ago of AERA. It’s American Education Research Association 11,000 people. It was educational research and most of it was, to me, just empty stuff. But I did listen to three neuroscientists who gave presentations on what they knew. This is ten, maybe ten or 11 years ago. And they summarized by saying, “There’s nothing we know now that can help you in the classroom, but stay with us.” And clearly, a lot has happened since then, and neuroscience has really mushroomed with functional MRI and other devices which allow you to study the brain more systematically. I’d love to have a conference now in which you get some of these guys together to say, “Is there anything now that you’ve learned that we can use in the classroom?” Maybe in another ten or 20 years there’ll be a way of trying to understand some of these things. But every time you understand them you bring in things you worry about like cloning. Understanding genetics and genetic propensities is great but it has side affects you have to worry about. Privacy. The issues of cloning have come up. So you always have to have this Office of Technological Assessment which Congress in its wisdom, gutted. Even though there was an Office where people thought about some of these things. Is everything we know good to deploy or are some things we know not so good to deploy?
Are you saying that it’s become part of the political debate?
Yes, right. And maybe the debate ought to be polarized along those lines. What’s right and what isn’t right. And how do we evaluate that in a way. The ignorance. Bill Broad is good people to talk to if you have any doubts about scientific ignorance. He hangs around with the FBI in Washington and he says you can’t find a group more ignorant of science than those guys. You know, it’s scary. We know that all these incredible decisions that have to be made are made by people that are totally ignorant. They have science advisors. Pretty good science advisor, but so much of science is controversial because of its implications. There’s always a cost involved. Yes, we’d like to keep the atmosphere absolutely clean, but it costs a certain amount and so you have to weigh cost versus benefits. That has to be done but if you have the final arbiters is the people totally ignorant of science, that debate isn’t going to do you any good because they have their impression of what’s more important, cost or benefit. I think a sense of science becomes important in that. But the curriculum isn’t the only problem in education. There’s also teachers. How to raise the social status of teachers in addition to their economic status so the best kids go into teaching.
Do you see solutions that are feasible in the moment?
Yes, sure. If I were the king. You can certainly, I think, solve the problem. You have to raise the economic status. That’s clearly just money. But you also have to influence in some sense the TV industry and the movie industry. I once was part of an organization that went out and talked to people in Hollywood about adding components to entertainment which would be socially beneficial. Dead Poets Society, movies that glamorize teaching, that respect learning, and there have been some terrifically good ones. But in general, especially TV and network TV, there’s a huge disaster. I even tried that. I got some money and got a very good, experienced TV producer who was willing to try to write. Adrian Malone, he was the director of Carl Sagan’s series. And he spent some time and wrote a program which the New York Times friendly but humorously called “LA Science.”
What kind of program? Was this a pilot of a series?
He wrote some pilots but the whole thing was going to be a series. We set out a research institute, funded by a Bill Gates type character who was convinced that the US is not doing its share in developing science. Hence, this was a well-funded institute with all sorts of departments, so that every episode could be a different subject. Each subject would have all the things you wanted for entertainment, you know the car chase and the sex, but each one would teach you something about science. It would carry a lesson about science, how science works, who does science. That was the basic idea and we got a committee together to feed in ideas and to look at the quality of the science and we tried to peddle it. We had two pilots that were written out completely, character developed, and ten or so ideas for other programs, and we didn’t sell it, obviously.
Did you come close, did you think?
Closest we came is we knew the first cousin of Steve Spielberg’s cleaning lady. Chris Carter, for example, commented. He’s the guy that does X-Files. Like everybody else he’s got more ideas than he knows what to do with so he doesn’t need suggestions for ideas. He was mildly encouraging. We got a meeting with the head of CBS at the time. Lawrence Tisch was one of the seven guys who raised his hand because he’s also involved with one of the tobacco companies. He listened and he had with him his CFO or so on. Not financial officer, he was the Chief Operating Officer of the news. And they encouraged us in many ways. They said well, you have got to find a good producer. But I think largely I spent a couple percent of my time at it and maybe if I spent more time at it, it could have been more successful. I could have found some potential sponsors that would come along with us. Maybe two or three non-competing high-tech companies. Because I think we could have made an interesting program. Anyway the viewership on the part of networks is going down so rapidly that maybe it doesn’t pay anymore. You now have to sell it. And there’s some good stuff on cable or satellite TV. Like the Learning Channel. I think they have three channels now, all connected to the learning channel. And of course, when it’s on, the PBS series Nova is very good. But at one point I had the idea I was going to— I was talking to a friendly lawyer. I said, “Look, I want to sue the networks for debasing American culture.” He says, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I’ll make an estimate of how much that is.”
We were momentarily interrupted by an incoming phone call. I was thinking of what you had mentioned, when you were AAAS president in 1990, that today we’re in the process, albeit unwittingly, of abandoning the US leadership role in science. Would you still stand by that? Does that still seem an accurate?
I think so. I think that there’s remarkable science going on around the world. And I think that we’re doing very well in biology. But it’s spotty and the physical sciences have really been suffering. I think a number of congressmen are aware of this but they’ve been trying to fix the thing up by mandating that both NSF and DOE would support the physical sciences more. Because if you look at the numbers, science in this country has been rather flat. But if you subdivide it, biology’s been going up steeply and the other stuff has been going down. I think I’m very enthusiastic about biology. It’s great stuff. It’s full employment for physicists. Many, many good things have come out of it, including the cure for senility, all kinds of things. But as Harold Varmus, who headed NIH for so long, keeps saying, you can’t do biology without physics. So there’s a concern about that now. I don’t particularly think leadership — It’s really an argument as to whether we need to be the leader in all fields. I’m not so sure we do, but I think we need to keep a level of activity in it, which traditionally has brought us all the success we have. When we look at the success of US industries, all come from 20, 30 years ago science and development and understanding. If that goes away, then I think the country will be in some trouble. That’s what brought Allen Greenspan to the Congressional committee. Incidentally, he’s my replacement for Cohn Powell. So at some point, when he’s bored with the present job he has of quieting the stock market, which he’s not doing so well at, we can get him to be the head of this new consortium which will provide the central strategy for American Education.
I gather you’ve spoken with him about your intended role for him?
No, I didn’t make him an offer, but we did chat actually at that committee meeting. That’s the last time I saw him. First I’d ask him whether his testimony would make the stock market go up or down. He said, “They’ll probably listen to you more than to me.” Then I called him up once and talked to him about having him come to visit the school for gifted kids. I run something called the great minds program and bring in all kinds of great minds. I ran through an appropriate number of Nobel laureates. I brought in Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate. I brought in the head of Hyatt Hotels, to talk about the romance of the hotel industry. The only qualification is to be innovative in your way of thinking because that’s what we want these kids to do. Out of the box, however you say it.
Of all the activities we’ve been talking about in the pass hour, how much time are you devoting to each in the course of an average week or month?
Who knows? I spend about three days a week at the school, hanging out with the kids. It’s my headquarters. I have a secretary there. A lot of my writing is done there and a lot of this great minds program, which is part of the school, now we’re writing another book. We have 19 more kids writing Bio Two which will be another book of biographies of scientists. Anything that occurs to me new to add, we’re looking at. I spend a day a week at Fermi lab, mostly listening to the lectures and talking to people about what they’re doing and how’s it going. What else do I do? I go to meetings in Washington. I’m on a lot of boards and none of them pay anything. I’m on the TJRA board, and that takes me to Washington. I also have a lot of relationships with Shirley Malcolm who runs the education at AAAS. She’s dragging me to Brazil because she chairs this committee that I chaired for many years. I do some things with AAAS through Shirley and through the international group there. I’m interested in something I call the Caribbean Caper, which is to convert Puerto Rico to a science center for all the Caribbean nations, like another Trieste. It’s a Trieste-inspired thing where they would look at technical problems involved in what’s going on the Caribbean. There I got some interest from the State Department because they have a science advisor now, Mr. Neuriter [?] and he told me that Cohn Powell told him, “Don’t forget the Caribbean” because Cohn Powell is a Caribbean native. I’m going to Costa Rica along those lines sometime this fall. I do a lot of miscellaneous things that have to do with I guess continuations of previous things. Then there is TAMS, which I get involved in. Right now, thank goodness, there’s a new president. I was the figurehead president; somebody else did most of the work. But we have a very powerful board, AMOCO Oils’ CEO and FMC Corporation’s CEO, Motorola, in addition to teachers and principals and so on to look at the future. There’s a workshop retreat as soon as I get back, September sixth and seventh I’ll be at the TAMS meeting. So, it’s fragmented. There’s always crisis, write a blurb, do this. I still write letters for graduate students who have graduated 20, 30 years ago. I had 52 PhD students that worked with me. None of them are in jail.
If I may ask you one last question, how does the state of the Standard Model look to you at present?
Well, it’s frustrating because nothing much has changed. The only things that have changed are that there are things which are sort of not really intellectually connected to the Standard Model, like the Higgs particle. The more we learn about the parameters of the Standard Model, the more it looks encouraging that the Riggs particle is not as heavy as we were afraid. In the SSC days, we had no idea what the mass was, It could have been anything. Now, we believe very strongly that it’s less than 200 billion volts GEV and therefore there’s a chance that Fermi lab will find it. Fermi lab has this new injector now and it should have a much higher intensity. That intensity is slowly, very slowly creeping up. They have three or four years of running at that intensity to see if they can find the Riggs. If not, the CERN machine when it comes on will certainly find it, whatever it is. But there has to be some new physics there because the Standard Model now has no power for prediction. If you try to predict something with the Standard Model, something’s left out. So we say, let’s call it Higgs, whatever it is that’s left out. You put in the kind of Higgs concept; you make it a consistent theory which can make predictions. So, it’s frustrating that all the quantitative tests of the Standard Model have come out okay. It accommodates everything. It accommodates Neutrinos with mass. That’s one of the big things that people are now trying to measure. It accommodates the six Quarks including the top Quark and the bottom Quark. The Bottom Quark, or Beauty Quark, is a hot subject that takes up a lot of physics. The physics now is a combination of nailing down the parameters of the Standard Model, like the details of Neutrino couplings and it’s a question of extrapolating to some of these very appealing theories like super symmetry which would predict a huge number of new particles. So far nothing’s been seen. Again, you have to depend on either Fermi lab with its new intensity or the machine at CERN with its new energy to look at super symmetry. Now, it’s probably not relevant to our present inventory but this old dark energy business shows that there’s a lot of science and physics that we just have no idea about. These astrophysicists are incurring, threatening us with, or promising us that there’s going to be a lot more discovery. These guys were convinced when they did the experiment that they were going to measure how much the universe is slowing its expansion. Instead, they got the wrong sign.
Do you foresee the possibility of the US building another accelerator?
Oh, sure, if I didn’t I’d really be discouraged. I think it will be an international machine. It would be nice if it were in the US. With the US leadership, we could come out of this. But I think unless you get substantial contributions from all the countries, nothing will be built. That’s now a given. That this has to be something that the scientists work out among themselves and then each one goes to their own government. That’s the way it has to be done. I’m worried about whether we build the right machine next. At the moment, the US community is set on a large electron machine and I’m not excited by that. But okay, it’s an activity. So they’re working on a machine. Maybe five years from now, if we learn something dramatic from astrophysics and we want a different machine, it’s okay, because the word machine is still there.
I want to thank you very, very much for this long session. We will of course — and this will go on the tape — not make the tape available for anyone or its transcript without your express knowledge and approval as defined on the permission forms we will be sending you. Thank you again, so much.
Leon M. Lederman and David N. Schram, From Quarks to the Cosmos: Tool of Discover (NY: Scientific American Library, 1989)
Leon M. Lederman and Judith A. Scheppler, Eds., Portraits of Great American Scientists (Buffalo, NY: Plomethevs Books, 2001)