Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Kenneth Bainbridge by Katherine Sopka on 1977 March 23,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This interview describes Bainbridge’s return to Harvard after his time in Los Alamos. His first task was the construction of a new cyclotron. He also helped to get the Physics Department back into prominence, attracting and retaining (or not) colleagues who had been doing war work. Examples of the former are Purcell and Ramsey and of the latter, R. R. Wilson. Bainbridge describes his time as department chairman, setting up the Loeb Lectureship which persists to this day. A notable event of the 1950s is the ordeal of Wendell Furry, a colleague who was called up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Harvard and Furry’s colleagues stood by him but his life was unalterably changed.
Now this is the second session concerning my coming back to Harvard in 1946, January 1946. Bob Wilson stayed at Berkeley, and he worked on the chamber with the aid of draftsmen in Lawrence’s laboratory, and I worked on the building and magnet at Harvard. Of course Bob and I were in contact, and I went out to Berkeley and saw Lawrence; we were in pretty close contact. But Bob didn’t come to Harvard until the fall, and then he gave two courses. One was the Introduction to Quantum Theory, the other was what we had called Physics H, which was a course to bring students who had been taking the equivalent of the present Physics I, for non-concentrators, into the sequence of courses for concentrators. In any case, Bob also had some responsibility for the cyclotron. We worked together very well I thought. Neither of us really wanted to be head of the thing, but we both had things to do. The design went ahead and contracts were let and the building was started and we had to do the design of some things because we could not get good subcontractors to do it. We had a good subcontractor in electrical work, but the firm on plumbing was terrible, and we had to simply do that ourselves. And then we managed to get skilled people who had helped at Berkeley: Leo Lavatelli, who had experience with a new method of wiring up Lawrence’s cyclotron. So that we went ahead on that, but, unfortunately, Bob left in January. Dale Corson, the present president of Cornell, of course, and a physicist who’d worked at Los Alamos — I think I remember him at the Radiation Lab, but I’m not sure, certainly I remember him from Los Alamos — he came and approached Bob, and Bob agreed to leave for Cornell, and went there right away. It seemed if he wished to leave Harvard, okay, don’t hold him back for a term where he’d be unhappy. And so Provost Buck agreed, and Bob went to Cornell. And then to help me on the design and construction we got Lee Davenport, whom I had known at the Radiation Laboratory, and he was sort of the resident full-time man on the design and construction of the device, and this took some of the load off of me, although I was still very closely involved until, I believe it was the following year, when Professor Ramsey came to Harvard, and Buck and I agreed that Ramsey would take over the cyclotron and I would go do other things. So that my earlier plan of working with Wilson and Wilson working with me was dropped, and I got out of the high-energy particle physics business at that time.
To what extent was Buck intimately involved in decisions such as this, rather than within, having them made within the department?
Well, it was pretty much within the department. I think I had been instrumental in getting Ramsey to Harvard, and I have a letter from Ramsey. He vacillated. At first he said yes and then he said no, and went back to Columbia. Well, he was at Barnard, I think, and at Brookhaven Laboratory. And then he said yes, and I have this letter which I’ll add to the records, and I also have the copy of the Xerox of Cockroft’s letter to me in 1937 concerning the muon.
Oh! Very good.
No, there was not much interference from on high. I think in some cases it was very helpful, even though it may not have worked in the case of Alf Nier, whom I wanted to see at Harvard, and I thought he would come. And he was offered a position and the big guns got after him, and Conant spent a lot of time talking to him and explaining the beauties of Harvard. And Dean Birkhoff, who was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the time, spent a lot of time with him, but Jack Tate, who was the head at Minnesota, made fancier promises than Conant and Birkhoff were willing to do, and so Alf went there. This would have been very nice to have somebody else in the mass spectrometry business, and we represented —
He had been at Harvard for at least a time before in the 30s, hadn’t he?
Yes. He’d been there two years as a National Research Council Fellow.
Oh yes, I see.
And had done fantastically good work and so everybody was after him at that time. Let’s see. Stop. [tape turned off, then back on…] The question of higher echelon people getting into detailed department decisions, this does not concern the department as much as it concerns the division of engineering sciences and applied physics, where, as you know, President Conant was looking for a full-time dean. Van [John Van Vleck] served very well for some years as acting dean, but Conant — I had nothing to do with this decision — but Conant went after Ernest Lawrence. Now to someone who knew Lawrence more intimately than Conant did at that time, this didn’t look very reasonable because Lawrence was not eager for the title and the higher salary; he was eager to push his work with the cyclotron. This was before 1938 I think, and so this didn’t seem a very reasonable thing to do and Lawrence didn’t accept this. If he had accepted it, why it might have worked very well, but he wasn’t interested. But after that I recommended Cockcroft very highly, and Conant agreed, and Cockcroft was offered the position.
The British physicist.
Yes. And this, he’d been a mathematician originally and went on in his mathematics at Cambridge and attracted Rutherford(s attention. He had been in World War I as a very young man, quite badly wounded but recovered, and then Rutherford got him there in physics, and then he came through with his laboratory production of disintegrations by bombardment with hydrogen and deuterium. Well anyhow, some of the letters I have from Cockcroft deal with this. This is really a matter for Lady Cockcroft, whether she wants these things published or not, but I think it was fortunate for England and the world that he did not come to Harvard because he had such a tremendous part to play in the defense of Britain and was responsible for the chain stations along the coast which got low-flying planes, and responsible for the ground control interception for the night fighters, and he organized laboratories and not only radar but he also did a lot of the work on uranium before Chadwick was given that position of following that up. And then all this was rewarded, you see, by the Order of Merit, of which there were only twelve who were non-military in Britain, and a knighthood and all that sort of thing. But he did such a good job there, I’m sure he would have been a good dean, but it was fortunate that Rutherford had said nix, and, you know, told him what the score was, and he stayed on.
Well, in other words, then, the division of engineering and applied physics which actually didn’t come into its present form until around 1950 was already planned before the war to have an entity like that.
Yes, they were —
But the staffing of it was postponed until —
I think there was a committee, of which Bush was chairman, I think, which looked into the engineering school. Now — whether that was – I’m quite sure that was before the war, there were definite recommendations. Still, I haven’t looked at these things for years. This might have been later. Anyhow, Cockcroft was one, and I also recommended Cyril Stanley Smith, and he was offered the position. This I think was post-war. This was after 1946.
You had known him out at Los Alamos?
Well, I had met him at the Cavendish in 1933, and his wife, Alice Smith, and there were two American families. I guess Cyril was still a British subject at that time, I’m not sure. Anyhow, I knew the Smiths and, yes, after the war Cyril became head of the Metallurgical Institute in Chicago and was a university professor there, and then… Well, as a formal teacher I think, in formal lectures and so on, I think he didn’t do as well as he did in sort of more intimate teaching and discussions and seminars, he was supreme at that sort of thing, and demonstrations, illustrations, and so on — not as well known certainly as a lecturer. Anyhow, I think even though Conant worked on him very hard to come, he didn’t come. And I think there was one difficulty with Harvard recruiting people, and this is why I don’t think Lawrence would come, and that is that Lawrence was doing things at Berkeley which I have never seen anyone do at Harvard and don’t expect they ever will, where one man — and it certainly worked out well for Berkeley — was sort of an empire builder, got support; if he couldn’t get it within the university he got it without the university and went ahead with his plans and did things in a big way. I don’t think that fits in with the Harvard governing system at all. I think in a state university somehow or other the trustees, the governor and so on running the show remotely, things like that can happen before they ever learn about them, but I don’t think at Harvard it’s possible, and I think this would tend to drive away someone who in some cases would hurt the university, other cases would benefit the university by building an empire. That’s enough on that theory! Well, the cyclotron was turned over to Norman, with a going organization, I think, about a year and a half, something like that, after it was started. The organization was there and Al Pote was doing the oscillator, Davenport was running the day-to-day business of the thing, and there was… Lavatelli had completed the wiring, and Millet had completed his work on model oscillating D’s and that sort of thing. That went ahead. And so the department started off after the war with this particular work on the experimental side of physics. [tape turned off and then on] Provost Buck and Ted Kemble had made an arrangement, I believe, before I returned from the war that I would have only one course for the first five years after my return and some special arrangements so that I could help get things going, such as the cyclotron, and get my own work started, and so on. This was very nice, and I guess Kemble — I believe he started this with Buck — recognized that it was somewhat of a strain, the final year, for me anyway, at Los Alamos, because of the hurry up work trying to get this place set up out in the remote, fairly remote desert there, and then trying to see that enough stuff was ready when the plutonium was ready so they could test the bomb and so on. There was an enormous amount of help of course. There were lots of people at the site, lots of people from the Los Alamos organization, but it was pretty much a few people doing the work up until February 1945, when as confidence grew more and more that the implosion method might work, then, and the Hiroshima bomb was really completed in design, that you could release the people from the physics groups, implosive groups, and electronics groups and so on to go into the Trinity work. Anyhow, Harvard went ahead after the war, and we were fortunate in getting Schwinger and getting Ramsey and the others who came later, Strauch and Pipkin and Robert, I mean —
Richard Wilson. And Purcell. Purcell — I felt I had something to do with his returning to Harvard. He of course impressed people at the Radiation Laboratory, and I was looking, cleaning out the office the other day, I ran into a letter which I had written in 1942 to Ted Kemble who was then chairman of the department, which was to be a letter to present to the president and the governing board to support his appointment to a permanent post. At the time this was a difficult thing to do in a sense, because Conant had frozen everything during the war. There would be no appointments during the war, there would be no advancements. Everything was frozen. And then you’d start looking at things after the war was over. Well, here it was one year or less, less than a year into the war, and here was a man we wanted to keep very badly, and I know that Columbia was after him, and Goudsmit representing Michigan wanted him and so on, so I told Kemble about this, and Kemble got to work on it, and everyone in the department agreed, and then I was asked to write letters. And I think I wrote two letters because the one I ran into the other day, the 42 one, it lacked a phrase which I’m sure is in a later edition. And maybe they saw this, and nothing was done for some time, and then finally the vote was taken. But that was as early as 42. And then I remember later, around 45, when I was writing back to Harvard as much as I could, when I was hardly at Los Alamos; I was down at the desert most of the time. I(d come back once a week and go to meetings, and maybe spend another day getting rid of business there, and then go back down. But I remember writing another letter saying “I don’t care what else happens, get Purcell! You can do all you want at figuring about Schwinger and other people, but get Purcell.” I think Professor Street remembers this. And it should be in the files someplace. And I haven’t been able to find it. I haven’t really looked in my files, just in what cleaning up I’ve done.
Well, I’ll keep my eye for it when I go over to the file and the records the next time.
Well, you have the department — I mean, this is ten years work to go through the department.
Well, I have been granted access to all of the files in the department.
Are they over in University Hall or over in —?
They’re all over in the archives.
Archives, I see.
At least everything before 1962. Yes. I scanned them to see what kinds of things were there, and then what I’ve been doing since is to go back and look for things that would seem promising. But you’re right, it would take ten years to go through every folder of the records.
I apparently made a separate file, Los Alamos, of my letters to Harvard during the war, and we were allowed to write to Harvard without having it go through the security people — towards the end, in July from, uh, after the test, say from August 1st on, it was allowed, you were allowed to write your ideas about appointments and so on, without having it go through the security people.
Previous to that, was all of the mail going out of Los Alamos censored?
Yeah, previous to that all the mail coming in and going out was censored, and it was quite amusing at the beginning. They weren’t going to tell anybody this, see, that your mail going out was being censored or your mail coming in was being censored. Well, it soon seemed apparent. I mean, my mother, my two brothers were in the Army in England — older brother in combat engineers, younger brother in engineers — and all their stuff, their letters to me… I guess I knew about that; those were censored again in this country before I got them — maybe not the first ones — but they’ve got double censorship marks. Anyhow, stuff going, things coming back… my mother is neat and I would get a letter from her all slopped with glue on the back, or paste. Somebody had steamed the thing open and read the letter and then taken a big whitewash brush and put some glue in it. And I guess maybe we were told that our mail going out would be censored, and there, if there was something they didn’t like, they’d clip it out. If you mentioned the name of somebody you weren’t meant to mention, then they would clip that name out and send it back and say you can either send this the way it is or rewrite it, but don’t mention that Fermi and Bohr are around the corner or anything like that. But there was a big fuss, and the Army was presented with this, that we don’t like this surreptitious opening of mail. If you are going to open it, why say so, and but don’t go through these things and mess ‘em up. And so they said yes, we are censoring things, and yes we will censor stuff going out. And we weren’t meant to telephone to anybody without having this cleared, you know, outside. Now I had to recruit people, and I had to call back, and they had a really crazy system which I mention in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article, where you had a five digit number that you mentioned. I think 15023 or something is pretty close to it. There was an operator you would call in Denver. The operator then was meant to take your name and connect you to Los Alamos, but you didn’t say Los Alamos. But you’d get an operator that never heard of this, and say, “What the devil are you asking 15-023 for?” Well, “15-023 is meant to handle the call I’m giving, and you’d better find her.” If you went on business or to Washington or to some company, again, get aside, get into a private office, and you would call this number in Denver, and this was meant to throw off whoever is listening in on the local line.
But that was certainly peculiar.
But apparently they loosened up on Harvard so that you could write to Harvard without being censored?
After. Well, this was after the war was really over. I mean this is in July-August 1945. Yeah, and then you could write and they trusted you weren’t going to describe how the bomb was made or anything like that. [tape turned off; then turned on] Where are we now? You want to —?
Well, after the Cyclotron 2 was operable, were you then returning to your own research in mass spectroscopy?
Yeah, I had essentially returned to — I made a foolish decision to — Segre asked me to write up mass spectroscopy for a book which finally ended up as three volumes on experimental nuclear physics, and with the theory accompanying each section. Ramsey and I wrote chapters for the first volume, which I think was Hans Staub, Hans Bethe and a colleague [Julius Ashkin], Ramsey and myself, and then the second one was pretty much Bernie Feld and Phil Morrison I think, and a third one was Segre, McMillan and other people. Anyhow, this was quite successful and in Russia they sold 30,000 copies in Russian, Russian ones. The Russians had copied it, translated it and copied it, brought out their own edition, corrected the mistakes in the English language edition. I have a copy, a Russian copy.
Was that done fairly promptly after the edition in America?
Well, it took time. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, the Russians are peculiar people. There was a conference I think 55 or 56 in Amsterdam, and I was there and Segre was there. He went on to Russia and he said, “You people have been copying this thing which I have been editing, and according to international copyright rules you should send some money to Wiley and to me in the United States.” And they said, “Well, we’re not a member of the convention on that, but we do put aside rubles in a bank for the authors and the editor.” So then Segre went to the American Embassy and said, “Here, the Russians have got all these rubles in a bank but they won’t give me dollars. Why can’t the United States Embassy take these rubles, turn them into dollars, and give those to me?” And they said no go, no show. So then Segre went back to the Russians and said “Here, this is terrible. Here you’ve got this money, I can’t get it out of the country.” And he was persuasive enough so that when he got back to the United States, sure enough they sent a check to him, which he then split up among the authors, and 20 percent for the editors I think about 18-19 percent for each of the authors, depending on how many pages they’d written and so on.
That’s interesting. They didn’t insist then that he use up the money taking vacations on the Black Sea.
No. That was the first time they did that, and then later they did it for Ramsey’s book on nuclear moments, and they did it, I think, for Weisskopf and Blatt — Blatt and Weisskopf’s book on theoretical nuclear physics. I remember reporting this very faithfully to the IRS, saying, “What shall I do? How shall I count this? It took me more than a year to write this thing, and what year shall I put it on and how shall I divide it up?” No reply. I wrote the next year saying, “I haven’t heard from you. What do I do about this?” Well, finally the statute of limitations ran out and so I kept it all. It’s probably on my FBI report, receiving —
Well, you are well covered with your letters.
Well yes, I’m well covered with my letters to the IRS telling them exactly how this happened.
Asking for their advice, and they probably didn’t know what to do, so that’s why they didn’t answer. I noticed that you had gone to the Solvay Conference in Chemistry. I wondered if you had any comment on that episode?
Well, it was an interesting trip to me, because just prior to that there was a conference at Harwell, the British atomic energy research establishment near Oxford, and Cockcroft asked me to attend this conference and stay there, so I went there. It occurred before the Solvay Congress, and it was a very exciting conference because Occhialini and Powell talked about the new heavy particle, the pion, which they had — I guess they did call them pi’s at the time, mu, pi, I don’t know — and they had these tracks which showed the particle slowing down, coming to rest and then disintegrating and giving a single track which was the muon and assuming that was a muon then they could figure out what the mass of the parent particle was when they balanced energy and momentum in this process. Of course they did stub their toe on this at first, because of a peculiar experimental effect in developing the plates. And so they got a finite mass for the, what we know now, are two neutrinos which go in the other direction. Oh, wait a minute, I’m sorry. One neutrino, yeah, it’s only one neutrino. I’m sorry. I confused this for a minute with pi-e and mu-e decay. This was pi-mu decay. Yeah. For a while it looked as if this thing might have a finite mass, but then in a short time with further studies why this washed out and it was a neutral particle, it had no rest mass with theoretical limits, but still it wasn’t what they thought at first: something around 105 electron masses.
Well, was the Solvay Congress in Chemistry at that time particularly concerned with —?
No. Well, the Solvay Congress was on isotopes.
Oh, I see.
And I was invited because of my pre-war work on isotopes. .And this was one thing, I don’t know if this had anything to do with my original appointment or not, but the study of isotopes gets in pretty closely with chemistry, and then Nier did a very nice job on determination of the age of minerals, so it gets into geological age of the earth, and of course gets into medicine and heavy hydrogen, oxygen 17, 18, carbon 13 used as tracers and so on. So it gets into chemistry quite a bit. So I was invited really because of pre-war work on isotopes, and there were two other Americans there: Dave Rittenberg and [Melvin] Calvin who was at Berkeley. And then I remember Gold — not the astrophysicist, but another Gold — coming from England with his daughter there, and Joliot was there. I wrote Street when I arrived in Belgium and stayed at some Hotel Metropole or some famous hotel. I wrote Street all about this new particle and what Powell and Occhialini had talked about and everything else. And their article didn’t come out until late December — this was in September — late December or in January, and this created some stir I guess, because the evidence looked pretty good, and it was good, that there was a new particle in cosmic rays which appeared at these high elevations and nobody got them from machines, but from the Pique du Midi and a peak in Braz… well that was in the Pyrenees, and something else in Brazil, a higher peak in Brazil, Well then at this Solvay Conference… I knew that Joliot had been a communist during the war, I knew that he had worked in Paris and that there’d been a young German who was active in gamma radiation and x-radiation work who had sort of been with him in Paris. But on three different occasions Joliot tried to get me and Calvin and Rittenberg. He took us out to dinner, I mean individually, and then would finally get around to talk on why he’d become a communist, and what nice people they were, and how he had joined up because they seemed to be the only people who seemed to be very effective against the Germans. And they were the only people apparently who had a spy system which would allow contact with Russians through Germany. [laughs] And it was sort of proselytizing, which didn’t take. And I reported this to Bacher, who was I guess at that — no, let’s see, was that a little later? anyhow, yeah, no, the Manhattan District was giving up and the Atomic Energy Commission was starting which was around 47 to 49 — but anyhow, Bacher was in there, and I thought he was the man I should write to on anything. Of course, it was quite amusing in the British meeting they talked about the reactor they were building, and then they had one that they wouldn’t give any details on, but they’d always say this, and in France they said this too, “this reactor is something like the one at Oak Ridge, the Clinton reactor.” Well, I didn’t know what the Clinton reactor exactly — what it was like at all. But they were all, they knew the score and Joliot wanted to know how big the bomb was,” is it this big or this big?” Well, he could make as good a guess as anyone at Los Alamos as to what the mean free path for a fast neutron would be in a lump of plutonium or uranium. They were feeling around for —
They probably may have been also feeling for responses. In other words, if they, if somebody responded very cordially, then further probes might have been launched.
No, I had been so highly conditioned on security during the war, that I hardly talked to anybody, including myself I think. [laughs] It really blocked me for some time and made me more secretive. It did have a psychological effect, I think, being in on two hot things where you had to keep your mouth shut. And plus being sort of a worry wart at Los Alamos, where there were worries from other things — a premature detonation of the bomb. There were people playing around with explosives all the time in some of the experiments and so on. I guess the nearest thing we had to any real accidents — I remember one of the sergeants being careless with some explosives and I could see him a couple hundred yards away and I heard this noise, looked over there, and he was sore as hell I didn’t come dashing over to help him, but he was alright and it was obvious nothing had happened to him except for the surprise. And another fellow blew up something and hurt his hand, but he didn’t really hurt it badly. I saw him in the hospital and took a radio to him so he’d have a radio by his bed and so on, but — And the only woman driver at Los Alamos at Trinity backed out. The sergeant who was in charge of all the wiring, and it didn’t hurt him. With a 5-ton Mack truck! And one of the weathermen turned a car over because the roads were rough and he drove too fast, but he didn’t get hurt.
I’m sure you must have had a lot of people who were out of their element in many ways in that Los Alamos community in the sense that geographically they were in territories and meeting conditions that they weren’t familiar with, and then, as you mentioned, the stress of wartime activity and new lifestyle.
They liked it; I think they liked the difference. I think Segre, Fermi — Fermi liked the mountain climbing, and there are some good mountains around there. Segre I think had never gone fishing before. Well, he had a chance to learn about fishing for trout and activities like that were enjoyable to them. They didn’t suffer, you know.
Did you want to comment about your term as department chairman, which came after 1950? 1953 was when you started, wasn’t it?
Yes. I was due for a sabbatical in 1941. Well, by that time I’d left Harvard so I didn’t get my ‘41 sabbatical, and then I was due for one when I got back from the war. Well, I didn’t take that because I wanted to get started again in the cyclotron and everything. So finally around ‘52, which was, yeah, another six years, I did take a sabbatical, and this was to be for a full year, of which I spent half a year at Brookhaven, over half a year at Brookhaven on research. I think I went there in July, and I left in February and then drove out to Caltech and I had Robinson’s office there. He was in Europe on some NATO job. But I had his office and wrote up a paper on the work I’d been doing at Brookhaven. And then I got a letter from Paul Buck saying that my name had been suggested as the next man in the department to be chairman. Well I wrote and said yeah, but we have to have a limit on this as three years and out. You know, this is always a wise thing in something like that, to set the limit before you get in. And I wasn’t very happy about it because I had thought that Oldenberg was going to continue for another half year. I knew it was coming.
Oh, I see.
I was surprised that I was to become chairman in February 1953 rather than September or June 1953. That upset me, because I had made all my plans for what I’d do when I returned, and this sort of messed them up. But I did agree to start in February. And then when I got back I went and got things going again at Harvard, and then just before the second term started when my tenure would start as chairman, and Friday night before the Monday, I got a phone call from Paul Buck saying he had something to tell me. One was that my colleague, Wendell Furry, was going to be before a committee of Congress to be interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. And then he also said that some money has come due from the Loeb bequest, and he says, “I think the amount is on the order of — there might be a hundred thousand for research for the physics department.” Well, this I found out from Roger Hickman, who was our director at the time and had a book which is given to anyone interested in the financial position of Harvard University which lists every gift, when it was given, the conditions, what the interest is, what the amount is, and so on. That’s all in there. Well you look up the Loeb bequest and it was a lot more than a hundred thousand dollars, and it was quite amusing that Mr. Loeb, I think, had been responsible for some process for producing soda, some European process, and bringing it to this country and made a fortune from it and then joined Loeb and company.
…call from Dean Buck.
Yes. Well the first item was Buck telling me about the House Un-American Activities Committee having scheduled Wendell to appear, and the second thing he told me was that the Loeb bequest had finally come due. This was the Loeb who had brought some chemical process for producing soda to this country, made a lot of money at it and had become a financier and had joined — he was the Loeb of Kuhn and Loeb.
Had he gone to Harvard?
I think so, but I can’t swear to this.
I can look that up, anyway.
Yeah, I think he is a Harvard alumnus. I have an alumni book here. Well this — well Buck said something that this might mean maybe we could apply $100,000 for research or something, but then thanks to Roger Hickman, who had the treasurer’s report, annual report — not the treasurer’s annual report, but the main Harvard huge book listing all the investments and the stipulations and interest income amount and so on of all these thousands and thousands of funds, the Loeb bequest was for considerably more than this. Mr. Loeb had left some money to his wife. Upon her death this was to go to Harvard. She would have the income of this money. I think she had enough other sources of income that she never bothered with the income so that this thing simply grew, and it was certainly over $800,000. Maybe she did take some of the money, because this was 1914 I think that this thing started, and this was 1952 or something.
Almost 40 years, so that’s a good interest.
Yeah, so it must have — in 40 years it should have gone up by a factor of three, well so maybe some money was used in other ways. Anyhow, in the will, Mr. Loeb had said that this is for physics and chemistry. I think that Mr. Kuhn felt that the man really meant physical chemistry, and so it all would go to the chemistry department. Fortunately the lawyers probably, someone from Ropes Gray, said no, this means what it says, physics and chemistry. And actually the man did like physics and he did like chemistry. So that then we considered what would be done with this money, and the best idea I had was to have a series of lectures which we could endow and run in perpetuity, as long as we had the approval of the Senior Fellows of the University anyway. And this was on the basis that when I’d been at Cambridge they had a lecture series, one lecturer in the fall, one in the spring; they came for a week or two. Heisenberg was one of them, the other one was Hans Bethe. And Heisenberg’s talk — I wish I could find the notes on that, because I kept them — was simply on the nuclear structure — the character of — as you go up from hydrogen, neutron, deuteron, helium. He didn’t know about helium-3 and hydrogen-3, and this was very interesting because Rutherford liked to take theorists for a slight ride if they were giving a colloquium talk. And so Rutherford said that, “I’d like to know. You’ve predicted what, I mean, you know from measurements the mass of hydrogen, the mass of deuterium and the mass of helium, and now you’re talking about other things, but tell me: what would the mass be of tritium and what would the mass be of helium-3? If your theory is any good, it should give these things.” And it wasn’t something he could do offhand on his feet. It was quite amusing because Rutherford had just completed experiments, you see, on hydrogen-3 and helium-3 and D in these experiments, and they had some idea of the mass of these things. They were loosely bound. The addition to this proton-neutron, whether it was a proton added or a neutron added, it was not tightly bound, and so the mass is greater. Well, this was a… And then Bethe, in the spring, was quite young, he’s just 30 or 31, something like that, and already with a great record in more than one field of theoretical physics. And then when I was at Caltech they had a lecture series of this sort. So that was the first thing that the department decided on, yes, we would have lectures in physics.
I believe that(s something that they had hoped for, for a long time, and that, before the war, Theodore Lyman used to just pay the fees of some of the people like Niels Bohr when he came, Lyman himself took care of an honorarium for him. There wasn’t any monies within the University or within the department for that, and so I know it’s been a great —
No, I had from Friday night ‘til about Wednesday to think this over. No, it was certainly an obvious thing, but it’s worked out very well, and it did come with a stipulation that the Senior Fellows of the University could stop it any time they felt like it if they were dissatisfied with the way it was being run. And part of the idea was to make this sum great enough so that the person could come and pay his — he’d have an honorarium plus expenses and this would be enough so it wouldn’t be a contribution, a financial contribution, to Harvard; he(d get something out of it. And I think this is—many stipends have gone up, sometimes, well — Well then another thing was to — from the money — was to modernize the building. Lyman had, with the money left over after the construction of the Lyman Laboratory, had had enough money to endow the building to some extent on maintenance and set up a research fund, and also to fix up the lecture hall in Jefferson. And so we had hoped maybe we could really bring Jefferson up to date and make it reinforced concrete, keep the old shell, but turn the inside around. But this was impossible and would have taken over a million dollars to do this, even in 1953. But there was enough to get rid of the old chimney which blocked one of the corridors, and… But if you touch a new building, you have to do a lot for the state fire laws. They require – That’s the first thing you do — so all the staircases, all the wooden oiled staircases, were taken out and replaced by fireproof ones and fire, emergency lights and fire alarms and all that sort of stuff was in there, and then we changed around a lot of the rooms and I think the chairman’s office. Yeah, we had enough money to — The chairman’s office actually had sort of left that section, and for a while — it was when Oldenberg was chairman — I think it was Tom’s present office. And then it went down to where Martin is now. It jumped around and it wasn’t very satisfactory, so we decided to go back there and fix it up with — we didn’t put in air conditioning, darn it, but we did put in decent lighting and ceiling and finishing and so on. And, well, I don’t know what sort of record is wanted in this history about Wendell Furry’s problems and troubles.
Well, I have already heard a number of comments, and I have all of the written, or I have a large number of the written items — the transcript of the hearings themselves and the statements that were issued by Paul Buck and the — not the deliberations themselves of the Corporation, but the results of the deliberation. And I have all of those. I know something of the committee that was formed to help him financially to meet the drain of this whole thing, but I also know that he is most appreciative of the friendship that was shown to him and the concern on a personal basis that was shown within the department by individuals such as yourself.
Well, I think people realized how these things could happen, and that he was not alone. There were other people in other universities, and friends of members of the department in other fields and so on who got caught at a peculiar time. For a while it looked, as Mr. Joliot was pushing, that there was this dictatorship and Mussolini and Hitler, that nothing much was being done about it except by communists. Now, no one was particularly fond of Stalin. But this caught an awful lot of people. I feel that I was fortunate in being so politically naive and so interested in physics at the time that it wasn’t really until I got to Cambridge that I saw the consequences of the Nazis with the refugee scientists Rutherford had helped get out who were there. But that was more the appreciation of totalitarianism and Stalin was obviously a totalitarian head of state, so that didn’t increase my liking for either Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. I wasn’t caught this way, but there were people caught this way.
The Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s there seemed to have been a significant factor in persuading many people that the communists were really on the other side of the fence from the Nazis and the fascists, that if in the civil war if you were going to take one side you wouldn’t side with the fascists, you’d side with the communists.
Well of course Kitty Oppenheimer(s husband was killed in that war, and she was befriended by Steve Nelson, who tried to help her find where he was, his body you know, and she got caught that way I guess. And Wendell’s father was a minister and sympathetic to people in trouble and so on. Well, the initial, this initial effort where we in the department all by ourselves tried to raise enough money, and as chairman I sort of acted as treasurer of that, raised enough money to see that Wendell had decent legal help. We didn’t want this to fail, him to fail because he couldn’t get a proper attorney. And then we soon found that this was a much more expensive thing than that, and so then an appeal went wider than the department, and in that case that’s where Kemble and Pound were so helpful, Kemble as chairman of this committee which tried to raise money throughout the university and Pound as treasurer of the committee. And we tried to keep this away as being a departmental thing and not using secretaries and stationery, that sort of thing, of the department; getting your own stationery and having secretaries hired to do this after hours, that sort of thing. Well it was divorced from — not to embarrass Harvard in any way. And it was quite interesting that the people who seemed to respond most generously were the doctors, the M.D.s.
Even though, at that time, at first, the head of the medical school was, the dean of the medical school said, “We don’t have anybody over here like that,” and then all of a sudden zippo, they had about three or four with a little further investigation. But I think the doctors, because they’re in contact with humans with all sorts of problems and health problems and psychological problems, and just plain bad luck sometimes, are more sympathetic to people than maybe someone else in science might be. Anyhow, that’s the way it worked out. They were very generous contributing money. Also they made more. [laughs]
I guess that’s part of it too.
But I think honestly it’s a mental thing that they simply are more generous-minded when some human is in trouble. I credit them that. And then of course Purcell was on the committee which I guess helped Buck, and of course Buck was fantastic, I think. I don’t know if it cost him the presidency of Harvard, because he certainly was an awfully good provost. But against him, of course, was the fact he was from Ohio State; he hadn’t been a Harvard graduate. I think you have to be a Harvard undergraduate to be president, maybe not, at least in all the past. If they can’t turn em out why nobody else can! [laughs] And Buck was fantastic on this thing. And Norman helped and talked with Bundy and, uh, later, after Pusey was gone. Because Pusey had been attacked by McCarthy. And I mentioned Purcell. And I guess Norman was away one year. He went on sabbatical the year after… You know, this went on for a couple of years anyway.
I think it was three years between the time when Wendell was originally called up before the first House Committee to the final time when his case was thrown out of court subsequently.
It was very warming to me that I had people, including administrators of other universities, write to me, as chairman, and alumni and physicists not connected with Harvard at meetings come up and say how happy they were; they felt that Harvard had — this means Buck and the Senior Fellows, the whole show — had done a good job in this trying time, and this meant something to helping solve the problems of the rest of them. There were people who said, “Well we handled it better at our university,” where they had a similar problem.
Well, I guess so far as Wendell himself is concerned, there were the two aspects: one, the legal one of his contacts with the committees and then with the potential of a court case, and then there was the internal Harvard dilemma, which was in a sense separate. I mean, his lawyer wasn’t of significance there, but apparently the faculty members were his advocates within the University structure.
Well, as chairman I tried to keep him busy, but not too busy. I mean, he had been head of the Admissions Committee. Okay, that was a serious job, took a lot of time, but it also — he was awfully good at it, and this would help keep him from worrying himself to death. And he continued with his course. A man is innocent until he’s proved guilty. And the Senior Fellows who finally came through with what you know are written down there — a bunch of conditions and he would be on probation for so many years, and so on. And I think that Pusey is to be commended for, after the probation was lifted, for making the proper moves to see that Wendell was promoted. Once a man is an associate professor in the old days and on tenure, then all the power for promoting and so on is with the Dean, the President, and the Senior Fellows. It’s not something the department has any control over.
Oh, I see. I wasn’t aware of that.
Yes. No, this is all — I mean, as far as my contact as chairman and I think as far as others go. They may inquire around, sure. They may inquire around other universities and so on, or inquire around in your department. But it is their business. The department has nothing to say. They have tried to say it once or twice, but, well, the one case I know [unintelligible], I don’t know why, an unfortunate thing, but well, we won’t go into that. I’m not going into scandals.
I think that’s just as well. During this period when you were chairman, were there other, quite different kinds of things? You’ve mentioned the building renovations and the installation of the Loeb Lecture Series, and then the involvement with the Furry case. Were there other developments that stand out in your mind as being noteworthy?
Well you know the big things, the big responsibilities, are getting good students, getting good graduate students, and getting good staff, and this is a continual problem and it’s a general departmental business. Everybody is in on it and can make suggestions and that’s the business of every chairman. It’s a peculiar position, because you have a lot of responsibility and absolutely no power. [laughs]
At least it only lasts for three years.
Yeah. Well, other people have been in longer. I think Curry was in for four and then, because of some peculiarity or something or other — the next man was going to be on sabbatical — he stayed another half year, that sort of thing. But I was, at that time, I was there and I think when Curry was there, we were still giving courses and research assignments, but being away for three years is not too good. And a man should still give courses, because that keeps him going and up to date on whatever field he is in, but it’s quite an extra load. And I know I was upset that there was no extra. The chairman ought to go to every meeting of the Physical Society. Well, that’s expensive. And I told Buck this: dammit, when a man gets to be chairman you should do something more for him, because it is more expensive, and there’s more entertaining, and not just lab entertaining but entertaining at home. And so finally this happened, but I think, well, the deans have funds for entertaining, and the science chairs — the faculty can’t do that.
I think now they’ve changed this, so that a chairman can delegate more and has more options than he used to have. Each chairman in turn feels that life was never as tough on the previous one. [laughs] In another ten years it will be an impossible job. But each one in turn also has some peculiarity which adds to the load. Van was there just after the war and had to get started again, and Kemble during the war, with all sorts of peculiar conditions to work under, with staff disappearing, more students, pre-radar people and so on, Van after the war, and then Oldenberg had some problems which were not of his making at all which happened, and each one in turn had a time.
Now during the time when you were chairman of the department, this was when the Cambridge Electron Accelerator was coming into the picture. But were you pretty much separated from the activities of the group that worked into that, or did you have participation in that planning?
No, I was pretty much out of that. I think, oh, I ran into some letters at the very start where we were trying to finance this thing and I think the Atomic Energy Commission wasn’t certain that Harvard had the managerial ability to handle something requiring spending $5 million, or something like that. It was a ridiculous thing. We would get on the telephone with someone in Washington and tell them that sure, Harvard had done bigger things than that, and try to get them —
It was a different league financially, though, than the building of the two cyclotrons, when you got into this —
Yeah, the second cyclotron may have been up, at most — well, the final budget was, say, several hundred thousand dollars a year, but building it was probably not more than — you couldn’t spend money faster than — say, five or six hundred thousand dollars a year for two or three years. Yes, it was a different, somewhat different magnitude. But I was thinking that all these things were gradually being controlled by an office for government contracts and that sort of thing. And that here you had a treasurer of Harvard with income at that time maybe $500 million and had 5 percent to play with, and so they shouldn’t have been scared about that. No, but I wasn’t in on that really. It was, I think, Purcell who helped on the reactor, and there was a lot of discussion on whether this would be proton or electron. Harvard was after protons and Princeton was after electrons, and then it shifted around. Harvard went for electrons, Princeton went for protons. Princeton unfortunately built a machine just too low energy, two and a half billion electron volts, I think. You need a little more to get pair production.
The Cambridge installation was different certainly from anything that had been in Harvard though before in terms of it being cooperative between MIT and Harvard.
Yeah. The only cooperative venture previously had been in the Engineering School: Harvard and Tech Lawrence Scientific School was a joint MIT-Harvard venture. But this was something quite different. And it was reasonable. I mean, I think this is true that Harvard didn’t care whether it was located at MIT or Harvard. MIT didn’t care whether it was Harvard or MIT. You just didn’t want halfway in between in Central Square, being equally inconvenient to everybody — the basis on which the Brookhaven National Laboratory was built. It was equally inconvenient for everybody — whether you were in Rochester, Boston, across the Sound in New Haven, or Pennsylvania, or Columbia, it is equally hard, no matter how you approach that darned place, to get there!
Well, I guess as long as it would be in Cambridge, it was a big improvement over what the situation is now where people are traveling hundreds of miles to get their data and experiments taken care of.
Yeah. This has changed life for physicists certainly, and it’s hard to combine in with a University — to have classes and also to have your equipment in Illinois or California or Geneva. Yeah. That’s made a big difference, but the other side of it is that the situation at a big university now is such that a man has a considerable amount of time to himself. I think that he works for maybe three years and has from the time he hands in his examinations in May until the middle of September, anyway, where he can go to a laboratory and do quite a lot of work. Then he has a year off, if he wishes, without pay. But on a contract he gets paid to go to Geneva or something. And then a full year off half pay or half year off full pay plus a year for a sabbatical after that. And I think there’s some deal where you can, you don’t have to wait two years. Anyhow, this is a considerable fraction of time where a man can be away, and then if the management eases that up so the man can somehow or other shift around in intermediate years or he can get a full year at Geneva or a full year at Batavia, the amount of time spent in analyzing these results is great compared to the amount of time getting a bombardment. And you can prepare for your experiment, in general, at the site where you are going; but it’s tough on the graduate students too. They leave. They should be in the atmosphere of the department at Harvard. They have to leave for these laboratories to get their work done: It’s worse on them.
Would you want to comment on the period after you stopped being chairman and then you presumably had time to pick up your own research again? And I know you were active in developing work for students. I mean, you had an undergraduate laboratory course that you developed and built equipment for in the early 60s —
Well, the laboratory course really was something which had been around — the idea of a laboratory course for undergraduates, which would be in sort of current physics, had been in existence way back. And I wish I could find the history. I had it at one time, and I think I have a copy, but I’ve got such a pile of papers here I haven’t been through. But I know that Duane had experiments on X-rays and radioactivity. Chaffee at one time was active in this. Hall, before that, was active in the laboratory of this type — on physics, something which was being done at the time. And then when I came to Harvard I guess this sort of thing was being done for graduate students. The first thing I know was that Oldenberg had one in atomic physics with experiments on line and band spectra. I thought it would be nice to get some nuclear physics in there, and in this period I had to do things. I started on this and I had some help from Pieter van Heerden, and I got a small grant from the department, which was enough to hire one of the graduate students at half or quarter time to help in this thing. And so this was a course, which would be given alternate terms with Oldenberg’s. So it would be one term which would be sort of atomic and one that would be sort of nuclear physics, and in the same area there. And Otto was on the second floor; I was down on the first floor.
Now how early did you get this started up?
Well, this was 1950. I think 1950 was the first, and this shifted; sometimes it was spring term, fall term, but I think generally it was spring term. And Otto’s was fall term and then it depended on when 143, 243 were given and that sort of thing, and when 245 was given. The terms shifted around in the years there.
And this was designed for people who are majoring in physics who might be either seniors or first year graduate students? Or at what point would they take it?
Well, it could be seniors or first year graduate students. And then simultaneously with all this, there was, there used to be a course in optics for undergraduates. I think it was Physics 111. And it had a laboratory attached to it, and this laboratory gradually appeared, I think, over in Byerly Hall, and I think Oldenberg may have run that for a while, and then Frank Pipkin ran this when he came, for a while. And then we gave up on optics. But Oldenberg had an experiment on the Zeeman effect, and then he had resonance radiation and absorption in mercury vapor, sodium vapor and so on. And then Frank Pipkin brought in optical pumping. The thing got more complex and advanced —
As physics became more complex and advanced.
Yeah. And some of the early experiments we had in the nuclear thing were given up, and some were too dangerous. We never really played around with absorption of the radioactive beta particles, because you needed sources which were practically uncovered, which were dangerous if inhaled or got on the skin or something. So I finally decided I wouldn’t play with that, but we could play with quite strong radioactive sources to make induced radioactivity or to study the Compton Effect, gamma ray scattering, that sort of thing.
I was wondering about your feeling of the importance for future physicists of having some hands-on laboratory experience even if they were not going to become experimental physicists.
Yeah, not everyone is of that school of thought. I think that —
I know that isn’t. That’s why I was asking what your views were on —
I mean the places I have been, people have been of that persuasion, I think. At the Cavendish, you had the Tripos and the laboratories there, and everyone was meant to have a shot at it, and get some feel for that sort of thing. And then of course Fermi is one of the greatest theorists of all time. In his research he always wanted to build, have one part of it his, which he could build and he would be responsible for seeing that work. And then at Princeton, certainly since the war, they have a system where every incoming graduate student must apprentice himself to some group and must get in somehow or other on their cyclotron, on in on something which Don Hamilton was doing there or that sort of thing. And there are people who don’t agree with this at all. Anyone in physics should — I mean, if you are in experimental physics, you do an awful lot of theory, too, and the amount varies depending on what the field is. You think of Pound, for example, and how much he has done with Abragam and how much, in Bridgman’s case, which looks like a very simple thing, but then thermodynamically you are into some really tough problems there. And in my own field, I certainly got into particle dynamics in a great way. But that was classical — classical mechanics — but quite interesting as far as focusing devices. So, well, I believe in it and I think there are certainly people who still believe that’s a waste of time for theorists. But the experimentalists certainly have to do both. And now for a while — Schwinger was one of the ones who had felt most strongly about this. He wanted his students to take Physics 246 or 247, and I think the theorists felt strongly about this when they would come up on the final examinations on some of these people. And this is true I think of all high grade theorists, that there are points where there is sort of an intuitive response, which is produced by knowledge of what really is going on, or some sort of a picture. Certainly Bohr loved to have some sort of model he could work from, and maybe those have gone out of date, but there still is this intuitive feel and help in thinking which is produced by some contact and not getting too ethereal about it. And I think in the preliminary examination Schwinger got upset, and others, because the students could have saved themselves an awful lot of words and mistakes if they had known something more earthy about interaction of radiation and matter and the production of Brehmstrahlung and pair production and so on, rather than getting too much involved in just the equations themselves, which after all came quite a bit later. And it took a long, long while before the theory of Brehmstrahlung and pair production was accurate enough to be of much use. Of course QED is the great field where you can get an honest numerical answer now.
Well, certainly your career has spanned a period of vast excitement in physics, and so I was interested to probe the perspective with which you were viewing present trends.
Well, I’m afraid I have the feeling that in order to keep away from theorizing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we’ve got to tie down — [laughs]. I think — certainly people I admire a great deal, Rabi, Lyman — I heard the statement that physics is an experimental subject, it isn’t philosophy or astrology. It goes back to something that actually has happened or can happen, and if it doesn’t agree with that it’s worthless pretty much.
I know I found in the annual reports in the late ‘50s that there was concern within the department that there were too many theoretical students, or too many students trying to become theoretical physicists, and they were trying to encourage a greater involvement with experimental activities.
We had some very good students come up later to me and to Street and say how much they gained out of this. I have a letter from my retirement, some boy out at Wisconsin wrote me and said how grateful he was that he had that experience. And I remember when Fermi came to give his Loeb lectures, I’d gone down there. And I hope the students listened to him, because he was fantastic. He knew how to do things right.
Well, I thank you very much. I think we’ve covered most of the topics I wanted to bring up. Is there anything further that you think we’ve missed that we should —?
Well, let me look at your listing here and turn this thing off.
I’m wondering what in recent years have been your favorite piece of research.
I think that this goes back more than — this goes back 20 years or so — the work on changing decay rates of radioactive substances by either chemical or physical means, and it was a lot of fun working with Maurice Goldhaber and Beth Wilson at Brookhaven and changing the decay rate of technetium by changing the chemical state, going from the pertechnetate state to the oxide or the sulfide to the metal.
That must have been quite surprising, wasn’t it? Because it was believed that the chemical combination was not influential?
Yes, that’s true. I think it’s quite interesting historically that you go back to old papers of Rutherford. Right away people did this. Madame Curie. Rutherford tried to compress radon … and Madame Curie tried different tricks, and nothing happened. But then for the first time, you see, you got radioactive processes where the atomic electrons were involved.
Oh, so the chemical —
Where you had either electron capture or you had internal conversion, isomeric transitions of long life where the energy of the nucleus would couple with the electron and not be emitted as gamma rays but simply eject the electron. So —
And that internal conversion process allows you to get a handle on changing things around, and the biggest effect is, oh, five and a half percent, something like that, change in the half life for neodymium, which is also called, I guess we call it columbium.