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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of D. Allan Bromley by Finn Aaserud on 1986 October 30,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Some of the topics discussed include: David Allan Bromley's childhood and early education in Canada; his undergraduate education at Queens University; his studies with J. A. Gray; his work on his Ph.D. at Rochester; his early days at Yale and his subsequent career there; his first visit to Washington and the NSF and AEC; the development of the Yale physics department; heavy ion facility and computer center; involvement and editorship of treatise on heavy ion science; collaborations.
We came to Yale last time.
We should pick up from there. I think I ended yesterday asking you about your knowledge of Yale and Yale's knowledge of you, before you got the offer here.
That's right, yes, and I told you that my knowledge of Yale was essentially negligible, and that Yale's knowledge of me, I assume, came as a consequence primarily of the 1959 Conference on Heavy Ion Interactions that was held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, earlier in that year.
So what did you know about Yale?
All I knew about Yale at the time was that it was one of the Ivy League universities. It was one of the oldest universities in the country. And, although its reputation in the physical sciences had suffered dramatically since the 1940s, I happened to know that my old mentor J. A. Gray at Queens had had some very close friends here at Yale back in the early days of radioactivity and nuclear physics. They were Covarik and Bumstead, who were some of the leading American people around the turn of the century. They had continued with a first class program up until 1940, so I knew that Yale had a background in the field. I knew that the second cyclotron in the world had been built here at Yale, and quite frankly, I knew more that there were departments other than the physical sciences — in the humanities and the arts — here which were among the best in the world. One of the things that I must say attracted me as much as anything else to Yale at that time, coming from a national laboratory, was the fact that I had spent five years in a community which was saturated with physical scientists. I thought, if I'm coming back to a university, I want to come to one where I will have an opportunity to interact with people in as broad a range of intellectual disciplines as possible. The college system here at Yale for that reason I found particularly attractive, because at that time it was a much more selective system than it is now. The college fellowships consisted of essentially senior members of all the departments represented within the university, and provided a convenient milieu where you came to know a very broad spectrum of people. You came to know them well, because you met for sherry before lunch and you met for dinner when you had an opportunity to talk to your students. The various fellows gave talks on what they were doing, what was of interest to them, and it provided a very convenient framework within which to, in a short time, develop a feeling for and come to know a wide spectrum of our faculty. That was something that Yale had that no other university to my knowledge at that time had. So I felt, I'm leaving a national laboratory because I want to broaden the spectrum, I might as well go somewhere where it will be convenient to broaden that spectrum. As I told you yesterday, one of the other reasons of course was the feeling that if you go to a place which is at the crest of its reputation, you are simply one of the boys, whereas if you come to one that is off crest, than there's a real challenge to bring it back.
What was the origin of your motivation for a broader approach like that?
I think it was something that developed rather gently and imperceptibly during my five years at the national laboratory. I found myself increasingly being bothered, when I wasn't actually doing physics, by the fact that the spectrum of activities available to us, and the spectrum of interest of the people whom we met at parties and outside of work activities, was very much limited. That was why I really felt that life was becoming much too narrow in Chalk River, partly because of those reasons, and partly also because of the geographic isolation. So that was one of the reasons that a university really appealed.
That was the negative influence; there must be some positive influence.
Yes, the positive influence was that I was firmly convinced that if you did not operate with students, you tended to become rather sterile in your approach to your own science. And so it was the possibility of working with students as much as anything else that was the positive drawing card for coming back to the university. Quite apart from that I guess too that I have to say that when I came back to Yale, and when I decided to come back to university, I had recognized that there was no adequate textbook whatsoever in nuclear physics. I came back here with the firm intention of writing such a textbook, and I had arranged my teaching here so that I would be teaching the appropriate courses, which would develop lecture notes that should become a book. However, I found after about three years of working on this that each year when I looked back on what I had written the year before, it was frequently obsolete, and also frequently even wrong, because the field was moving at a very rapid pace at that time. I struggled with this for three or four years and finally decided, the hell with it, that this is a non-convergent process, so I enjoyed teaching. I do enjoy teaching, I must say. There's a certain amount of ham in all of us academics, and so I really do enjoy the actual lecture process and dealing with students. But I had the intent of writing that book. I realized that I was never going to get a convergent version of the book, and so I have instead written a rather large number of papers over the years. I just finished this eight volume treatise, and I've worked more on that sort of thing than attempting to try and condense a field that is still as rapidly growing as nuclear physics into a static textbook. I saw and learned substantially from the efforts of Bohr and Mottelson. You may remember that right at the peak of their creativity and professional productivity, they decided to write the definitive textbook in three volumes. They actually never got beyond Volume 2. The fact that they worked on this took them away from their active work and actually removed them from the science, effectively permanently. The books are useful, but the books are not the ultimate thing in the field, and I learned, I must say, from that that this is not necessarily the best way to go.
You’ve found an appropriate middle way.
The middle way is that I stand back and decide; I've done a number of these now in heavy ion science, on accelerators in nuclear physics and detectors in nuclear physics. I simply write the introductory section which puts the whole thing into context as far as I can. Then I take a look around the world and say, who are the real experts in each of the sub-areas of this field? So far I've been very fortunate in being able to convince them to actually share their expertise and write the definitive chapter, and put them together; and the net result seems to be useful. People apparently want to buy it. Editing one of these things is a marvelous educational experience, because you have to read every word in it, and in doing so, you at least in principle have to understand what's happening. So I find it tremendously effective on the whole.
This is a technique that you also had some experience with in the committee work for Physics in Perspective. We'll get back to that.
Let’s stay with the first impressions of Yale. How did you find Yale when you came here? You said something about that.
Yes, I’ve told you something about that. Well, I’m not sure whether this is the sort of thing that should ever go on record, but I must tell you about my first afternoon at Yale. Three things happened. The first was –- which I already told you about –- the information transfer about the new administration in the department. The second thing was that a new student came to me special delivery from the University of Tokyo. An old friend at the University of Tokyo had heard I was coming to Yale and had picked an outstanding student and said, “You be there when Bromley arrives.” So Kino Nagatani was indeed here. He subsequently admitted to me that he didn’t understand a word I said to him for several months, and I equally pointed out to him that for the same period I didn’t understand what he was talking about either. But I did learn one very important point, and that was, that if he bent 90 degrees in bowing, that meant he didn’t understand anything I had said, whereas if he just bowed slightly from the neck, that meant that he had grasped about 30 percent of it. So our communication was calibrated entirely by how deeply Ken bowed. Ken was a great student, and subsequently went on to a very distinguished career. But unfortunately was killed in an accident in Tokyo. He was a professor at the University of Tokyo, and a year ago he had an accident and was killed. I felt very badly about that. He arrived. He was my first student here at Yale. And the third thing was a little unusual. I received a phone call and picked up the phone and the voice said, “This is Gregory Breit.” I thought, how marvelous, he is calling to welcome me to Yale. So I said, how nice it was to hear from him. Gregory said, “Are you organizing the Gordon Conference in Nuclear Physics this year?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Did you invite McIntire to give a talk on transfer reactions?” I said, “Yes, I did.” Gregory said, “You are an opportunistic son of a bitch.” So I said, “Gregory, I don’t accept that from anybody. I am hanging up this phone, and I am walking over to your office. If you don’t apologize profusely, I’m going to break your arm.” So I did walk over to his office, and Gregory apologized profusely. We became the closest of friends, and for the rest of the time Gregory was here at Yale, we used to meet and have lunch on a regular basis. I learned an enormous amount from him. I also learned that he didn’t respect people who didn’t stand up to him.
That was the way to deal with him.
That was clearly the way. So our relationship was extremely pleasant and extremely productive for the rest of my days here, but it was something of a brutal introduction to the place.
Was that an impulsive action on your part or was it something you had been prepared for?
Completely impulsive. I can't claim any credit for having thought through what was the best way to handle the situation.
You came to Yale as associate professor and associate director.
Yes, and I must tell you a little about that. Obviously I would not have come to Yale — not the slightest question — except that I was firmly convinced that I was a tenured associate professor. Robert K. Adair who came at the same time also thought he was a tenured associate professor. Neither of us even dreamt of the possibility that we did not have tenure until the first meeting of the tenured faculty of the Yale physics department occurred, and neither of us was invited. So there was an hour or two of total consternation as we realized that somehow or other, both of us, both of whom consider ourselves as reasonably knowledgeable people, realized that we had been finessed. Somehow or other, even though the letters we had and all the discussions we had had left us firmly with the impression that we were tenured members of the Yale faculty, in fact we were not. Fortunately at that time I still had a number of offers from other universities which had still not totally died. They were still vaguely viable. So within a matter of hours, those were reinstated, and I remember giving the provost something of an ultimatum — that either I had tenure within the month or I would not be here at the end of the month. And so with considerable consternation and considerable flap, Yale managed to get both Adair and I tenure before the end of the month, and so we did remain. But it was a somewhat traumatic experience, first of all, to realize how naive and child-like we were in our negotiations, and how neatly we had been finessed. So that was how I got to be a tenured associate professor. Then, within the year, the department decided that they were going to regularize the whole situation and make both Adair and I full professors.
So that was enough.
That was enough.
What were your arrangements otherwise? What were your responsibilities?
My responsibilities when I first came here were, first of all, I had arranged that I was going to be doing teaching of all the graduate nuclear physics as a basis for writing this book that I mentioned. Secondly, my responsibilities were as scientific director of the Yale Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator. In that capacity, I was responsible for thinking about where Yale was going in the long term, in terms of nuclear physics, and also responsible for taking a look at where we were and how we could improve the existing situation. I mentioned to you the last day that one of the real problems we had was that our instrumentation was woefully inadequate, and so my first action there was to bring Charlie Gingell, my old chief engineer from Chalk River, over, and turn him loose. Then we had to do some general restructuring of the personnel here. That was not a way to become popular, because there were a large number of young people who were not tenured, who for various reasons had, I'm afraid, developed the expectation that unless they did something dreadful, they would obviously be given tenure. That's not the way you build a strong program, and so a lot of them blamed me as much as anybody for the fact that they did not get tenure and subsequently left. To some degree they were right. In that sense it was a somewhat difficult first year, because there was a rather substantial restructuring of the personnel here. And then, as I told you yesterday, after a few months here it became very clear that the facilities we had were optimized for chemistry, not for physics. If we were going to remain competitive in physics, we needed new facilities, and that's when I started work on the design of the Emperor.
Was that something that was intended, that chemistry aspect?
No, it was something that happened, and it is in some sense historic. Let me back off a bit. During the early days of the Manhattan Project, it was a very real question whether the triggering of a nuclear explosion might not in fact trigger the nitrogen-nitrogen reaction in the atmosphere, so that the nitrogen-nitrogen would form silicon and the entire atmosphere would rain out as sand, ending life on the earth. Since no one really knew the answer to that, Edward Teller, who is the person most responsible for really raising the question, asked himself, who is the person who could best calculate what the probabilities are here? And he immediately concluded that Gregory Breit was the logical person. So Breit did those calculations and concluded that the danger was not there. In retrospect it's a very safe prediction, because had he been wrong he would have been covered by gons of sand along with everybody else and nobody would have been around to question his decision. But anyway, out of that came Breit's interest in the interaction of heavy nuclei. At that time one of the very good students here was Alexander Zucker who subsequently went to Oak Ridge and is now the associate director there for physical science. Breit convinced Zucker that when he went to Oak Ridge what he should do is try to figure out how to make that measurement. Zucker did take one of the old calutrons that had been used for separating uranium isotopes, converted it into a cyclotron that would accelerate nitrogen, and made the measurements, which in fact showed that Breit's calculations had been correct. Breit then decided that Yale should have a facility that would, first of all, bring it back into the mainstream of science from which it had slipped, and, secondly, allow Yale to be at the center of some very exciting new research that he envisaged from his theoretical studies of this type of interaction. Beringer at that time had the world's best program of molecular spectroscopy, coming out of his experience in the radar laboratories during the war, and it was a world recognized program of real excellence. Breit and Watson, the then chairman, convinced Beringer that if he were going to get tenure here he was going to have to sort of give up his molecular spectroscopy and devote his remarkable talents as an experimental physicist to building Yale an accelerator. So an accelerator was designed. There were several false starts on cyclotrons and what not, and finally they designed this linear accelerator. In trying to get this supported by the Navy and by the Atomic Energy Commission, Watson, our chairman, called on E. O. Lawrence, who was an old Yale faculty alumni, for help. Lawrence in fact did help, but along the way decided, why just get one at Yale, why don't we build two of them, and we'll have one at Berkeley, and one will be at Yale? Since he was at that time a man of real clout in the community, he suggested that Yale should send its design to Berkeley to polish the design. Beringer did that, and then when it came time to build them, Lawrence did the spade work politically, so Berkeley got one and Yale got one. Berkeley built theirs from new equipment and really didn't spare the horses at all in building a first class machine. Yale, for strange reasons, somehow got the impression that they would get a certain amount of brownie points if they built it using as much war surplus equipment as possible. The net result was, the Yale machine never ran as well as the Berkeley machine. The Berkeley machine is still running, and is, however, being used primarily in nuclear chemistry. The Yale machine was supposed to be equivalent, but the decision was, since all the Berkeley people were nuclear chemists, that what was left over was nuclear physics. Yale would do nuclear physics with this machine, and some good stuff was done, but the machine simply was not a good one for nuclear physics because it didn't have the resolution to allow you to isolate quantum variables. We continued doing interesting things with it until 1968, I guess, when we closed it down. I've forgotten the exact date. But in the meantime we worked on the tandem which was going to give us a much more precise probe for nuclear physics.
What was your place within physics more generally at Yale when you came?
Oh, I guess when I came here I was viewed as something of a Young Turk, who was expected to sort of stir things up. No one was quite sure how this was going to work, least of all me, and that's why the first couple of years were years of considerable turmoil.
But nevertheless you were given a quite independent position?
I must say, to his credit, my colleague Bob Beringer — who was director of the heavy ion project, and for whom I was supposed to take over the supervision of the scientific program -– could well have taken the point of view that I should damn well continue to work to improve that facility, rather than deciding rather abruptly that the facility was not what we needed and that I should get out and do something else. He could have — and many people would have — taken a negative and antagonistic point of view. That was not at all his attitude. He could not have been more helpful and supportive, and I must say also that the president and the provost — the Corporation -– provided me with support that I could not have bettered anywhere else in the world. It really was a remarkable vote of confidence on their part, and I've always very much appreciated it.
So after you set Breit straight, things improved.
After I set Breit straight, and after we had our shoot-out with Vernon Hughes about whose machine was going to get built, things went on the whole much more smoothly.
You were instrumental in building up Yale physics internationally, and you've had a very large number of international students — national students too of course.
Was that something you intended from the beginning as part of the structure?
Yes, very much so. The reason I came here, as I mentioned before, was predominantly to deal with students. I have always felt that students learn more from one another than any of them learn from any of the faculty. They can teach us a lot, and there's nothing more rewarding than watching the transition of a young person from student to colleague to teacher. When a student starts telling you things that you didn't know anything about before, then you really feel that you've accomplished something. One really superb student makes up for any number of those who are not so superb, but quite frankly over the years here at Yale, I have just been very much impressed by the ability and quality of the young people who have chosen to work with us.
How long did it take until the laboratory got moving, so to speak? It seems to me from the publication list that you still continued to publish with your Canadian friends after you came here.
Yes. After I came here we did continue working with the Chalk River people, and while we were waiting for our own facility to get started here, I initiated a series of cooperations with the people in Brookhaven. At that time the senior person there was David Alberger who had a Yale PhD in nuclear physics. I was invited to come over and use their facilities, and was delighted to do so. Two of my early students –- Albert Howard, who is now the Dana Professor of Physics at Trinity, and Joe Allen, who is the first physicist astronaut — both did their theses using the Brookhaven facilities, and we used to commute back and forth to Brookhaven. And of course, I continued to use the heavy ion facility too during this period, but after being approved on December 26, 1962, the laboratory started construction; we had great fun designing the laboratory. That's one of the advantages. You get to start with a blank sheet of paper and design it any way you like. That was done during 1963. Construction started in late 1963, and we took occupancy of the building May 4, 1964. It was my birthday. As a matter of fact, one of the other great things that happened on that day was that Mrs. Schultz, my executive assistant, came to work with me for the first time on that day and she's been with me for 24 years, which has made a difference in a lot of ways in what I can accomplish. But we then finished up the assembly of the machine. The first experimental publication from the new machine was in September of 1966, and we formally dedicated the machine on October 6, 1966, just a little over 20 years ago.
Yes, because it was in 1965, I think, that you described the Emperor in the Yale SCIENTIFIC MAGAZINE.
That's when we were just finishing its construction.
And the year after you described the new Emperor in another article, but that's the same one.
Right, that's the same one. We just had made it run at that time. I must say that I can still remember the day that we were supposed to turn it on for the first time. I was in New York at an APS meeting, and Mr. Sato, my chief engineer, called me in the morning at my hotel in New York and said, “We're going to turn everything on. We're going to have beam at 3 o'clock this afternoon.” So I left New York at 11, came home, got a cab at the railway station, stopped off at an appropriate store, bought a couple of cases of champagne, and came charging back into the laboratory. At 3 o'clock, sure enough, the switches were thrown, and a giant burst of flame came out of the top of the ion source. We turned everything off, and I stored the champagne and got on the train and went back to New York. Two weeks later we got beam. It was a rather dramatic opening.
Yes, fireworks. You mentioned that you brought your students to Brookhaven and even went there yourself.
That's quite a different experience with a national laboratory than you had in Canada?
It's very much different because Brookhaven, you see, is a very different national laboratory because it is operated by the Associated Universities Incorporated. So right from the very initiation of Brookhaven it was assumed that Brookhaven's primary function would be the provision of facilities that for whatever reason were not available on the individual campuses. They have been extremely successful in this. I have had the pleasure of using their facilities, and in fact I still continue to use their facilities to this day. I have students and post-docs over there working with facilities that we don't have here — that complement what we have here.
But the original national laboratories that came out of the war have more of a similar history to the Canadian ones, right?
They're more like Chalk River. Much more like it. Oak Ridge, Argonne, Los Alamos, to some extent Berkeley they're called the general purpose laboratories, and their tradition, background, and history is very much like Chalk River's. Brookhaven is quite distinct.
Do they act similarly to Chalk River in their relationship to universities?
Well, much more so than Brookhaven. But over the years, there has been much more success in developing cooperative relationships between the universities and the national labs in this country than in Canada. For example, I have had students at Oak Ridge on many occasions, students at Argonne, students at Los Alamos, and it is a much more effective collaborative environment. But still Brookhaven has been the one where I've had the most contact.
And where there generally has been the most contact between universities and a national laboratory.
Has that kind of relationship been loosened up in Canada as well?
No. As a matter of fact, I was up in Canada about three weeks ago to give the keynote address at the dedication ceremonies for a major new accelerator facility –- a unique one in the world — and the research staff there were still complaining that they had made no headway whatsoever in convincing the universities to have their students come to use that facility.
How clear a conception did you have of a specific research program, when you came to Yale, and to what extent was that realized?
To a significant extent, it was realized. What I wanted to do when I came here was, to the extent possible, try to do two things. I wanted to understand what we could do, using heavy ions as probes of nuclei. And secondly, I wanted to understand how collective phenomena in nuclei developed, because I had been involved in the early recognition of these collective phenomena in Chalk River, but nobody understood systematically how they developed. So my first students — the ones here at Yale, with the heavy ion accelerator — focused on what we could do with heavy ions, and what was limiting what we could do. The ones at Brookhaven focused on this question of the structure of the nuclei, what were the collective phenomena, what were the individual particle phenomena, and so on. So to that extent that worked well. Then in planning for the new facility, of course not only did we have to plan what the machine was going to look like, but obviously we had to decide what we wanted to do with it — to decide what its characteristics should be. There the research program directions were very clear. What I wanted was a machine that would have sufficient energy coupled with sufficient precision to allow us to extend the kind of studies that people had learned how to do with very light nuclei all the way through the periodic table up to the heaviest — lead, uranium, and what have you. Our idea at that time was to try to understand whether these simple concepts that worked when there were only a few neutrons and protons around really worked when you had, say, 300 of them around. Was there something quantitatively different? The other hope I had at the time was that it would be possible for us to get involved in some degree of applied nuclear physics, so that we could give our students some training in that interface between basic research and what one might use nuclear concepts, tools, and techniques to accomplish in other sciences and in technology. So from the beginning we had plans to do things in nuclear astrophysics, nuclear geophysics, material science, surface science — all of these ancillary areas. Fortunately it turned out to be possible to develop those areas here. I think that's important, because it provides our students on a continuing basis with this breadth of exposure. They may not be working in an applied area themselves, but because there are several other students with whom they interact on a daily basis who are doing that, they talk to one another. More than anything else my goal is to sensitize students so that even though they may be doing nothing applied, I want them to have a feeling that when they do something in basic research that has an application, they're going to recognize that it has an application. Even though they may not follow up on that themselves, they will keep that in mind and somebody will follow up on it.
Was that kind of expansion something you had difficulty explaining to other faculty? Were there any divergences about that?
It really wasn't necessary to explain it to other faculty, because in all honesty I have to tell you that in a place like Yale, the department tends to run a little bit like a loosely coupled group of baronial fiefdoms, and the senior members of each of the areas tend to have a fair degree of autonomy. That has certain disadvantages, but it also has certain major advantages. If you have a lot of good people, you can get a lot of good things done with a minimum of interference and waste motion.
The mode of collaboration here must have been quite different from what you had experienced at Chalk River. I mean, in your mode of collaboration, it was mostly with students, wasn't it, when you came here?
Yes, entirely. Entirely, yes. And yes, it was remarkably different because, first of all, the things that I had taken for granted at Chalk River in the way of instrumentation development, in the way of engineering support and all of those things, were no longer present. I found that I was sitting around a lot of the time actually wiring circuits together, and doing a lot of the work which other people did for me in Chalk River. On the other hand, I had students and worked very closely with them. It really was an apprenticeship project in my early days here – much more so of course than now — where we used to sort of work round the clock. We were all there whenever the machine was ours, and they provided a dimension that was simply missing at the national lab. They were enthusiastic. They were bright. They kept asking questions. They had ideas about how one could change the approach and what one might learn and so on. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and the function of the faculty member is to try and cull out the ones that are good and sort of suppress the ones that are bad, and just generally keep the ship moving in the general direction. So it was exciting, and I look back on those years with very real pleasure. I had some remarkable graduate students. They've done very well, and I'm proud of them. But I also had a hell of a lot of fun. Unfortunately, as you get older, things change. Once this laboratory was founded, for example, I found that I had the responsibility for making sure that the funding kept coming that would support it, for building up the instrumentation, for making sure that younger faculty were around. As you age in this academic business, you find, I think, realistically — at least in the kind of projects that I get involved in — that more and more you spend your time providing the environment and the facilities that allow young people to really do what they do best, and be creative. You yourself end up with not as much time to really get involved in turning the knobs and what not. But you still, I think, can have a real impact on what's going on, because by talking with the students, and with the post-docs who sort of interface between the faculty and the students, you can certainly affect in a major way the direction of the program — what kinds of things people are doing, and that in the long run is the most important thing in a lab like this. What things can we do in a unique way that are going to be important in illuminating something important in physics? A lot of laboratories tend to fall by the way because they get terribly immersed in dead ends. One of the hardest things to do is to kill off a dead end.
Most of your work during the first year anyway was in relation to those two facilities.
First the Heavy Ion Accelerator.
The Heavy Ion and the Tandem.
Also considering the fiefdom approach at Yale, to what extent were you able to maintain communication with theory and the theorists, and how does that compare to your experiences at Chalk River and at Rochester?
The situation here was unfortunately a rather bad one in that respect, because at that time the interests of Gregory Breit — one couldn't have asked for a brighter, better, wiser nuclear theorist — had focused on the nucleon-nucleon interaction. All his people and all his students were working like mad on this. So in fact I had essentially no interaction with nuclear theorists, until such time as we built this laboratory. Then I was able to hire nuclear theorists as part of the laboratory team, and then we had very good interaction and in fact that was one of the, I think, components of what success we had — that we had the ability to talk on an hour by hour basis with some very good young theorists. We tried from the time I got here in 1960 and almost for 20 years, to hire somebody to replace Breit as our really senior theorist. It wasn't until something like four years ago that I finally did succeed in getting I believe the best nuclear theorist in the world, Franco Iachello. So it took a long time, but it did work out marvelously well in the end. But in the interim prior to that time I had a whole series of remarkable young people who spent several years with us as post-docs or as junior faculty members, and they made major contributions to the activities of the laboratory. They made major contributions to teaching our students, and I owe a lot to all of them.
So the building up of the laboratory was, if not entirely independent, then somewhat independent, of the theoretical group that was here at the time.
It was in fact totally independent.
It was totally independent. You'd go that far, it had been before as well. What about the use of the equipment before you came?
The use of the equipment before I came had been very largely influenced by the theoretical group — Breit and his associates. I must also give full credit to Bob Beringer, because during the period when I was using the Heavy Ion Accelerator, Beringer really took on all responsibility of looking after getting the funding and keeping that machine running. It wasn't until I had this laboratory operational, and had the tandem going, that the responsibility for all these administrative and funding and other aspects became mine.
That was the relationship with theory. You talked about your wish to expand physics to other fields.
Did that have any impact on the relationship with other fiefdoms, with other people at Yale?
Yes, indeed. For example, for a number of years we had a very close connection with Professor Wolfgang in the chemistry department here at Yale. It was a great tragedy that Dick Wolfgang was killed in a boating accident just at the time when he was reaching a peak of his creativity and reputation. We also had a fair amount of collaboration with people in the biophysics department. Yesterday I couldn't remember the name of the man who invented the field of biophysics in the first department here. It's Ernie Pollard. He was the man who built Yale's cyclotron, as a matter of fact. He's one of Rutherford's late students. A number of people in Pollard's department were interested in understanding how rapidly moving heavy ions affected biological systems, and so we had a fair amount of collaboration with them. We always had collaboration with the astronomers, because from the very beginning of this laboratory we had one of the strongest programs in nuclear astrophysics anywhere. Caltech of course is the major center for that, and right from the very beginning I had, first of all, Jack Overly as assistant director of the laboratory, and then Peter Parker as associate director of the laboratory — both Caltech products, both very interested in nuclear astrophysics. That was done in part with the full intent of making this a major center for nuclear astrophysics training too, because I felt that that was one of the important interfaces between nuclear physics and astronomy. We had good collaboration with people in our own astronomy department, so the contact was more with people outside the physics department than with other branches within the physics department.
Was that in part motivated by need? Did funding come as a result of such relationships?
No, not at all. It was motivated by recognition of scientific opportunity, that these were exciting areas. I’ve always felt that the most exciting problems frequently occur in the interface between scientific disciplines, where the tools and ideas of one can be applied to the problems of another, and that’s turned out to be generally the true situation.
How did that relationship or collaboration work? Did the other departments formulate problems for you or was the initiative usually yours?
No, the way it worked normally was that we would get together, usually down at the college over lunch, chat about something, and decide, “Look, I have the equipment and the technology that can really attack this problem of interest to you.” Or they would come and say, “Look, we’ve got an idea that we don’t really understand; maybe you have some thoughts about it.” And it would usually work out that we would simply agree to collaborate on something. We would provide the instrumentation — the beams from the accelerator and facilities, and sometimes computer time and facilities — and they would get involved in bringing their expertise — sometimes bringing a particular piece of equipment they had to have, sometimes bringing special targets that they had that we didn’t have. It was a real collaborative program, where different expertise was brought to bear on a problem that required more than just what either one of us could do.
Did you encounter any problems in selling that kind of methodology to others?
No, not at all, because it’s a very simple arrangement. If somebody doesn’t like doing things that way, one simply says, the hell. And there are lots of people who do. It’s a self-selection. It’s a self-selection process; you find colleagues with whom you enjoy working and with whom you have rather common goals and motivations, and so you work together.
One of the people in other departments, I suppose, was the Norwegian Onsager. Did you have any relations with him in that way or other ways?
I didn’t have many relations with Lars until I was chairman of the department, and then I had some.
That was from 1970 to 1977.
1970 to 1977, that’s right. That’s during the period when Lars got his Nobel Prize and when Lars was resigning from Yale, and that was a disaster. He should never have left Yale. What happened was that when he finished up and came toward retirement age, Lars was a very gentle person, and he wrote to the provost’s office saying, “Look, I would like to keep a contract, and I’d like to have a few students, but I won’t bother anybody.” He’s Yale’s first home-grown Nobel Laureate, and so naturally the answer should have been, “Anything you want, Lars.” But in fact, a junior secretary in the provost’s office got this document an decided to answer it without asking anybody. So the letter came back, saying, “You and who else, Buster? Here are the rules.” So after the chemists found out about this, they were horrified, and they got nowhere in trying to convince him to stay. So I was asked by the president if I could do something to try and repair this gross foul-up that had happened. I had some sessions with Lars, and I did my damnedest to convince him to stay here at Yale, and there was absolutely no way. I remember that Charles Bockelman, who was just then becoming deputy provost, was sent up to try and intercede with Lars, and we had some common sessions with Lars, but I will never forget the last one. Charlie made a tremendous pitch, beautiful job, of why Lars should stay here. Lars said, “Bockelman, do you know anything about elliptical integrals?” And Charlie said, “No.” So Lars opened his desk drawer and said, “I have just solved a magnificent elliptic integral.” Pulls out the papers, and for one hour takes us through this incredibly intricate solution. Each time Charlie would try to change the subject back to why Lars should stay at Yale, Lars would continue with the elliptic integral. It was patently obvious that we weren’t going to get anywhere. But when he got all done and sort of said, there was the integral, beautifully resolved, Charlie said, “Now, to come back to this question of your leaving —” Lars said, “I have another integral.” That finished the interview. So we failed on that one, miserably. Lars was clearly one of our most distinguished colleagues, and a remarkable man, a true genius.
You got to know him well, even if you didn't collaborate.
Oh yes. I didn't collaborate with him because Lars was a theorist working in a totally different field of activity, and we never had more than, you know, collegial conversations over lunch over this disaster.
Well, who did you collaborate with?
The people with whom I collaborated most during this period? With the work on the Heavy Ion Accelerator for a year or two I collaborated with Jack Greenberg, who is still a member of our faculty here, and we published quite a lot jointly. When we got here to the Tandem, for the few early experiments, I collaborated with Jack Overly, whom I mentioned, and Peter Parker. Then I've always felt very strongly that assistant professors at Yale should be totally independent. They should not be considered as sort of high grade post-docs. So I've encouraged them to develop totally independent programs, to have their own graduate students. We would try and provide the facilities and support to allow them to do whatever they wanted to do. But it is I think proven true that the best way to run a laboratory of this kind is to get the smartest people you can find. It is literally true that unless you try to hire people who are smarter than you are, you're going to go downhill fast. So I have tried to bring young people in here who are the best I can find, and let them do whatever they think is best. Whenever they have a real success, the whole laboratory gains from that success, and I've tried to convince everybody around here that there is no such thing as really constructive competition unless people recognize this. Cut throat competition which degenerates into sabotaging one another's experiments has occurred in laboratories. I am happy to say it has not occurred here. But constructive competition of the kind we had at Chalk River is marvelous. It keeps people on their toes and moving. We've tried to have that and I think we do have it. Among the later young people who've been here, I collaborated quite a lot, because our interests happened to lie in the same region, with Carl Erb, who is now the director of nuclear physics for the National Science Foundation; with Nelson Stein, who came here from Seattle as a post-doc and stayed here for a number of years on the faculty before going to Los Alamos; with Rolf Siemssen who is now director of the big national nuclear physics laboratory in the Netherlands; and with Tom Tombrello who became director of the Kellogg Radiation Lab at Caltech. Those were the major people.
That covers a large period of time, I’m sure.
Yes, it does.
Maybe we can get back in a little more detail to some of them.
I asked you about the collaboration generally. It's a very general question, so maybe we should get a little bit back to earth. I notice a whole series of publications here from 1962 that you do together with your old Chalk River collaborators, that is, Almqvist and Kuehner.
Almqvist and Kuehner, that's right.
And they are listed as publications of Academy of Science, USSR, Moscow. I'm just curious as to the context for that.
Yes. What happened there was because the Soviets became very interested in the work that we had done. The Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union arranged several international conferences to which they invited Almqvist and Kuehner and I. They were very interested in what we had done, how we were doing it, what they might be able to do. So there was a lot of interaction over a period of a number of years, as they were building up their heavy ion program. I think as things turned out, they never did quite — with one exception, Vadim Volkov –- get into the field of high precision heavy ion science. They continued to focus primarily on the production of super heavy elements, the production of elements very far off the valley of stability, and rather specialized topics of that sort, rather than trying to do the high precision things that we were doing, where the goal that we had was to bring heavy ion science into the mainstream of nuclear physics. There's a great tendency in nuclear physics — the photonuclear people were the worst offenders in this — to try to develop little ingroups of people who meet in their own conferences, talk about their own problems, and lose sight of the fact that they're just part of a much bigger science. From the very beginning, I've always felt it very important that heavy ion work not be isolated or not become fragmented from the main science, and be recognized only as another way of looking at the real problems of how does the many bodied nuclear system behave. The Soviets have tended to be a little more fragmented in that sense than we have.
But the context of that series was their interest in your work.
Yes, the context was that they wanted us to come over and tell them what we were up to, why we were doing it, what we thought we were doing. They just wanted to find out as much as they could about what was going on.
Was that the beginning of that kind of contact, or was it something that had been going on?
Well, it had been going on a little more sporadically because we knew that the Soviets had some interest in this area. At that 1959 conference in Gatlinburg there had been a few Russians. However, once the Tandem started running, the Soviets became very interested, because this was something quite new.
This was just about when it was going to start running, wasn't it?
Well, but the small Tandem at Chalk River had been running, you see.
That's the one you're talking about.
What's a good periodization here? I think in your article – the introductory article to the treatise — you talk about the predominance of experiment until 1970 or thereabouts.
And then there's a resurgence of theory after that.
Yes. You see, whenever you open up a new field, there is a period at the beginning where you don't have any over-arching theory that provides sort of a framework for putting it all together. What you're doing is trying to find out what the phenomena are. You find yourself sitting back saying, I wonder what the hell would happen if I did this? And so you go do it, and you find out. But it's not clear what bearing that has on other things, until you get a critical mass of data available. When you begin to see what the connecting links are, what the underlying physics is. Until you get that sort of critical mass of good experimental data, the theorists are pretty much at sea, because no matter what they think of, there's not enough coherent data to anchor any of the thought, and you can go charging off in any direction. So that's why, I think, we had that. And frankly, also, I would have to say that a lot of theorists had the feeling that, “My God, this is complicated! All those particles. The question is, will we ever be able to do anything with it?” And it took some brave individuals to leap in and decide that we can handle it.
It’s reminiscent of Bohr’s making sense out of spectroscopic data, for example, that nobody could make sense of previously.
Exactly the same thing. But until you see some underlying simplicities, some underlying principles, symmetries, that govern the whole thing, it's very difficult to make sense out of any individual piece.
So that you would say generally that the experimenters are the leaders in this, in that sense.
Physics is, after all, an empirical science. You can in face amuse yourself by playing mathematical games, but it has nothing to do with nature until such time as you try to see whether it has any contact with phenomena.
How did this change about 1970 affect the work at Yale? May you should describe the change first a little bit and then look at the effects.
The change that we, I guess, see then is that when you are still picking the pieces to make up the critical mass, the choice of problems is based as much on intuition as anything else, and you do things because they are accessible experimentally, because you have a gut reaction that they could be important –- or because you at least think you have a glimpse of some underlying coherence in the data. Once you begin to see some viable theories, then it becomes much simpler to either yourself, or in collaboration with the theorist, or reading the theorist’s paper, to focus on, what would be the critical measurement? What would allow you to make the decision between that approach and this one? And that’s the whole secret of picking experiments. What are the ones that answer, if you’re successful, critical questions? There’s a tremendous tendency in our field, I regret to say, to make measurements just because, like Everest, they're there. You can make them. And one of the roles that I have in this laboratory, and other people have in other laboratories, is stamping out that kind of stuff whenever it arises, because there's so great an opportunity to do irrelevant stuff. You have to try and keep focusing on, what's the physics? What's the physics question that's being asked? Is it an important question? And if you got the data that you're trying to get, would it answer the question? And so the development of theories that were pertinent to our work in the early seventies made it possible to go from a shotgun to a rifle approach, so that instead of trying to make sense out of a broad picture, you could focus on, here's a specific physics question, let's go get it.
Which is exactly what you did at Yale.
Does that mean that you also obtained theorists at Yale in more close collaboration?
Yes, during that period we had a series of young people. Probably the one best known is Robert Ascuitto who really played a very important role in the work that we did, because he lived night and day here in the laboratory, interacted with students, and he was just a very bright young man who had tremendous energy and great enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was important, because you need it in a place like this. Every so often, you know, nature decides that she's not going to cooperate, and you work very hard for a long time, and you finally decide that there's no way that you're going to get any useful information out of the experiment that you're doing, and there's a tendency to get depressed. That's when it's very important to have a few people around who are by nature enthusiastic, to sit down and discuss with you, you know, where can you go, what’s the most effective new direction that you can take? How can you take the greatest advantage of what you've learned so far to do something that's really interesting? That was important, and I felt from the very beginning that it was very important to maintain both the theory and the experiment in close communication and collaboration. That's one of the things that has characterized this laboratory all the way along.
Where did that theoretical breakthrough come from, and how does the laboratory fit into it?
There were several. There were several breakthroughs that came. One of the first came when we realized that we could in fact use heavy ion reactions to probe very specific quantum behavior of very specific quantum states of nuclei all through the periodic table. That had simply never been recognized. First of all, nobody had the resolution to really do it very well. But Ascuitto and his collaborators proved that you could really now recognize the data were of much higher quality than they had been previously; you couldn’t be satisfied with first order theories, you had to have higher order theories that took into account a lot more subtle and sophisticated phenomena, and you could actually nail down what those phenomena were. So we were the people here who invented the whole study of higher order nuclear processes, both with light ions and with heavy ions. The great advantage of our tandem was that whenever we got an idea with heavy ions, we could go back and study with protons and deuterons and alpha particles and sort of understand what the basic physics was, and then leapfrog into the heavy ion area and ask ourselves, what more can we learn by doing it with heavy ions? So that was one of our major goals. Then, the major breakthrough, I think, in the understanding of all of this stuff, came after Iachello arrived, four, five years ago; actually he started visiting us about seven years ago. We then began to realize that the great complexity that we had developed could be explained theoretically. Starting in Chalk River, for example, in a particular system we knew three resonances. Seven years ago we had found 39 in the carbon carbon system. I had given up hope, quite frankly, of ever really understanding what all this was doing. We were sitting here at the blackboard one day, chatting about this. I’d sketched a potential on the board that I thought was the shape of the interaction potential, and Iachello says, “That looks exactly like a Morse potential from atomic physics.” So we agreed, yes, it does, so what? So he went away and thought about it and all at once realized that anything that could be described by a Morse potential had a very specific U-4 symmetry inherent in it, and that you could in fact write down what the quantum states would be expected from that kind of a potential in a closed form. So he wrote this down and we sort of looked at it, and then Carl Erb and I decided one day, you know, “That damn thing looks vaguely like the structure of all those resonances of ours.” And so, in about two days, we were able to find, to our vast astonishment, that all 39 of the resonances were precisely accounted for by this little expression and there were none left over. We had them all. So we immediately had gained tremendous insight. We changed our entire picture of how these interactions took place. We have subsequently learned that it’s a very universal thing, that it occurs in all interactions of heavy nuclei. But it came about simply because we were talking sort of on a continuing basis, and it was a to and fro business. That’s the sort of thing that’s been very effective.
To what extent did the theoretical breakthrough come from a variety of places, and to what extent did it occur here?
Those two things specifically occurred here. There was a further important development at MIT, where Herman Feshbach was involved. Herman recognized that a lot of the things that we were seeing fitted into a theory that he’d developed a long time ago for the so-called doorway states in nuclear physics, the idea being that the target and projectile came together in a very simple configuration which provided a doorway through which you got into the much more complicated compound systems. We had in fact rotating doorways, so that following up on that idea gave us a lot of new insight. Again, Herman had invented many many years ago, back in the fifties, a statistical theory of what happened when neutrons hit nuclei. It never really worked very well. So in the early seventies, when Bob Stokstad was here as a post-doc and then a junior faculty member, he and I worked together on this. From looking at some of our data, it occurred to us, maybe we should try applying Feshbach’s statistical theory to heavy ion interactions, for which it had never been designed. We found out to our great amusement that it worked a hell of a lot better for heavy ion reactions than it ever did for the series of things for which it had been designed, and of course Herman was delighted with this. It gave us a lot of new insight into how energy and angular momentum are equilibrated in many-body systems. So that was great fun. Again, Herman and I had spent an awful lot of time chatting with one another in our many science policy activities, and on occasion when you get tired of science policy you talk about physics. That’s how it developed. During a considerable period there I think we were one of the major centers, without question, in development of what heavy ions could do toward really telling you something about detailed physics. But we benefitted enormously from contact with people like Herman, like Akito Arema from Tokyo, Ygl Talmy from the Weizman Institute, Aage Bohr from Cophenhage, and it is a truly international community. These are all old friends, you know, who see each other on a rather frequent basis.
It’s a stereotype that European physics is theoretical, or at least that continental European physicists are more theoretically inclined than Anglo-Saxon physicists. Does this development fit the stereotype? Did theory in some way come from abroad?
No. No, it did not. As a matter of fact, that stereotype is turned on its head right at the moment, because the Europeans are much more aggressively pushing experiment than we are, and more of the theory is being done in this country. So it's completely reversed, if it ever was true. Like most stereotypes, it may occasionally overlap reality, but not too long.
I guess about 1960, the role of computers began to become important.
The role of computers was very important, and that was one place where I think we were very fortunate. When I first started thinking about building the laboratory, it became abundantly clear that there was no way I was ever going to be able to afford the kind of computer I wanted. I had enough experience at Chalk River, where we had probably the best computer system anybody had at that time, in the late fifties, to know that what I really wanted was a big enough number cruncher so that I could combine the intuition of a good graduate student with the number crunching speed of a large computer. Instead of having to formulate your problem, shove it through a slot somewhere, and wait four hours for the answer to come back, by which time you'd forgotten why you asked in the first place, you could sit down and play it like flying a light plane. You could sort of fly it by the seat of the pants. And so with that goal in mind, I realized that fortunately IBM had a lot of good Yale people on its board of directors, and so it took six months of horrendous legal negotiations. The IBM people became convinced and the AEC became convinced — all the lawyers in those two groups and our own lawyers became convinced — that it would be great idea if we formed a joint study program which would allow us to specify what we wanted. IBM would then build it, and we would get the first one for a token sum, and then they could sell copies for whatever they thought they could. That worked admirably.
It was a pilot project.
It was a pilot project. We designed the system, and since nobody had told us that we had any limitations, we naturally designed all the specifications at least a factor of ten better than anybody had ever done before. We demanded resolution and data carrying capability and everything that was at least ten times better than anybody had ever seen. To the IBM people’s great credit — first of all, they didn't know enough about the field to realize that they were being asked to do something which most people would have said was totally impossible. So they quietly went away and did it. That was the impressive thing. We had 25 or so systems engineers, hardware and software, here for about a year in the lab, and a rather interesting thing happened. Back at IBM, they're always in different buildings or they never communicate very much, whereas here we didn't have the space and jammed them all into common offices. So, remarkably frequently the hardware people would say, “You know, it would be just a hell of a lot simpler if we had software that did the following.” And the software people would say, “Well, why didn’t you say so?” And they would crank it up and then the software people would say, “Now, we could eliminate this entire block of software if the hardware would just do the following.” And the hardware people would say, “Why the hell didn’t you ask?” and would go downstairs and modify the computer to do that. So we had a remarkable group of young people — students and postdocs, undergraduate students, graduate students, IBM engineers. For a period of about a year here, we had as tremendously exciting interplay of people who never under normal circumstances ever talked to on another. There never is an opportunity. And out of that came a whole new language, a data acquisition language which was a higher language than Fortran, and a tremendous amount of hardware. It gave us by far the most sophisticated data acquisition system that any nuclear laboratory had. The proof that this was a good idea I think came from the fact that the first student I had working at this program, Joel Birnbaum, within three years was director of computer science for IBM, after graduating with his PhD in nuclear physics. He is now executive vice president of Hewlett Packard and in charge of their whole computer activity. A whole series of young people have, in the course of doing nuclear physics, learned how to use computers in a rather personal way, that is unique, because not many people have access to really big number crunchers. Right at the moment our students with the new machine will have a coupled IBM 43 41 and a concurrent computer 32 80 which gives them more computing power than most university computer centers have. The fact that it's ours and that we don't pay for doing it means that 24 hours a day that thing is grinding away. It's more difficult to schedule the computers than it is the accelerator, because we find typically that it takes something like 12 hours to really analyze even one hour of data that comes off the accelerator.
What was the immediate motivation for this huge effort?
The motivation was pure and simple that I wanted a damn big computer and there was no way I was going to pay for it. I wanted, as soon as we got started, to have this great big computer sitting here with the kind of peripherals and interfaces that were student-friendly. So we had to design a lot of new stuff for that. IBM subsequently sold many copies of this system at over four million dollars each, so they're very happy with it too, and it's been used in all sorts of strange ways. The testing of the 765 and the 757, for example, used the same front end that we developed here, because the problem was the same — how do you take a tremendous amount of analogue data and present it in the forms so you can make decisions? It’s used in medicine a lot now, too.
What was the year of main effort in putting this into operation?
It was probably the 1965 to 1966 period.
How does this panel report from 1963 fit into this? It's a panel report on computer utilization in treatment of nuclear data.
Yes, that's right. That was where we got a chance for the first time to sort of try and expound what we were trying to do, where we were headed. And at that time in fact we were trying to do an interim thing called a multidimensional analyzer, and there were a couple of them built. We had one of them here. It actually never turned out to be as valuable as I thought it would, because what we were really trying to do was to build the big computer plus graduate students on the cheap, and it doesn't work. So we just didn't have enough power in the computer, but we did a lot of work with it. It was a step on the way to doing the full-fledged system.
To what extent did you experience the problems of doing a pilot project?
Oh, we had lots of problems. We had lots of problems. As I said, it took six months, where I had to learn all sorts of damn fool things like European patent law and everything else, to try to mediate between the AEC and the Yale and the IBM lawyers, because lawyers are always trained to tell you why you can't do something, and it is damned rare to find a lawyer who will tell you, “Tell me what you want to do, and I'll tell you how to do it.” That’s what we didn't have.
We were talking about computers and the problem with being the first.
Yes, being the first gave us lots of problems because we were the first. That was the first time that the AEC had ever had a joint three way program involving AEC, a university and a major industry. As a matter of fact, I've been asked on frequent occasions to give talks at AEC symposia on how we organized this, because it was considered to be a prototype of how effectively one could have this three way interaction. So we spent an awful lot of time on that, and it was expensive in terms of time. But it was an enormously valuable investment, because being first gave us the opportunity to really structure a system that was precisely what we wanted, and get it.
You said why you wanted it. To what extent did you experience unexpected results in terms of how physics is done, in terms of the relationships within the work?
Yes. Well, the first thing that came out was a major danger, because very quickly after we got the thing in use, graduate students recognized that it turned out to be vastly simpler, cleaner, neater, and much more fun to make data with the computer, instead of going and measuring out in the target room. There’s a tremendous tendency that unless watched very carefully, graduate students will lose track of the fact that the computer is just a tool that allows you to analyze what nature does. Instead they find themselves using the computer to analyze what another computer program created for them, and you can get into a closed loop that has no content whatever and has no contact with nature. So there's a very seductive siren call into a swamp here, that you have to guard against.
And difficult to check.
Very difficult to check. The first thing that we uncovered was the tremendous seduction potential that this system had, and that if left on their own, students would simply lose touch with reality. The other thing that we discovered was that there was a great tendency to over-analyze. There was a great tendency, for the same reason, that you have the data and then you just sort of beat it to death and far beyond death, when it is no longer yielding any real insight into physics. Mathematical games are very easy to play. So we developed over the years some ways of sort of checking on whether our students were really getting too far from the real world or not. I guess that was the biggest surprise. The other surprise, though, was that in most of our work, most of our theories, and most of our problems — our real multidimensional ones — our pictures, our model require, you know, a great many parameters to really adjust to. The thing that amazed me — still does — is that if you try to use a mathematical algorithm and you simply say, “Here’s the model, here are the parameters, here are the data,” and you tell a computer to do a Lie squares fitting or somehow or other try to adjust to get the best fit between your model and your data, it can take a hell of a long time. It can find all sorts of spurious solutions and everything else. But if you’ve got a good graduate student, and you have the experimental data there, and you have the theoretical output there, and you have all the parameters in the theory with flags on your screen that you can flip up and down with a light pen, it’s astonishing how quickly a graduate student can work his way through multidimensional space and avoid all the pitfalls and come up with a useful result. What it really proves is that the human is tremendously limited by the low speed of his mathematical processes, and when you sort of take that to one side and say, “Here’s the hardware, now you just drive, we’ll take care of the number crunching,” it was amazing — and as I say, still is — how quickly a good graduate student becomes adept.
So the overall effect is definitely positive.
Oh, very positive. We have students who get answers they would never get otherwise, much faster than they would ever get them any other way, and who become, first of all, as much as anything else, completely confident that, no matter how hairy and formidable the problem looks at first sight, hell, I handled something worse than that; and they are prepared to tackle it. So, for example, one of my students, Dick Herkle, is now the world’s expert on computer control of traffic in major cities. He designed the traffic system for Los Angeles and Tokyo and Berlin and lots of places. He told me one time that it purely came out of the experience he got sitting down here playing with this system. I have another student who did a lot of work with the machine down here who has his own company now, which is doing expert systems on managing small businesses. He claims that what he did was to take the major piece of software we had downstairs on this system, which we called Easy Fun, and just reinterpreted everything so that it applied to small businesses. He’s made a young fortune out of this. So there are a lot of applications to the confidence that you can apply a computer in an effective constructive way to what looks on the surface like a totally unstructured problem. And the most important thing that we can give young people, I feel, is confidence that, hell, I can tackle that.
Would you say that that has helped the working opportunities of physicists more than your willingness or effort to go to other fields explicitly?
No, I think that they’ve been very much synergistic, that we have been able to do more things on the interfaces because we’ve had the computers. We’ve been able to understand things more deeply, and it simply broadens the career spectrum that’s available to our graduates. They have more expertise than some of the people against whom they’re competing, and how they balance the use depends on the individual position that they happen to find themselves in. But the one thing it does do is that the world outside has over the last 25 years gained the impression that the people we are turning out tend to be flexible, tend to be well trained, tend to be confident. They’re the kind of people for whom you can sort of say, “We’d like you to do something about that,” and they go off and do it. I feel, you see, that we had failed miserably if all the people to whom we grant PhDs in nuclear physics wanted to work in nuclear physics, because what we’re really doing here is educating physicists. We happened to be working in nuclear physics; I happen to think it’s a good field in which to educate physicists. But the dominant thing is, we want people to know how to attack problems, how to get the information they need, how to use it, how to get useful answers.
So it’s a general education; it’s intended to be that.
It’s a general education. That’s what we shoot for. Sometimes we miss a little bit, but we try.
You have written about opposite effects at other places. We’ll get back to that when we talk about science policy involvements. While we’re still at the physics, maybe you could describe the international and national institutional network that developed over the years.
Yes. It has developed rather substantially since I got involved in it. In the early days when I was first working at Rochester and Chalk River, the international network was still rather fragmentary. The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, for example, was founded in 1922, but for the first many decades it really was a European operation, for all practical purposes. When I first came here to Yale, for example, I was struck one day by the fact that although the US was doing a very large fraction of the world’s physics, there were practically no Americans on any of the commissions within the IUPAC. So I did some lobbying, and I talked to the people at NSF and AEC and said, “Shouldn't we do something about this?” Then a group of old friends, Tomm Lauritsen from Caltech, Heinz Barschall from Wisconsin, Herman Feshbach from MIT, Joe Enesser from Brookhaven and I -– and a few other people — got together at some American Physical Society meetings and over dinner a few times started talking about this. I must say, our first efforts didn’t really get very far, but they had a rather funny offshoot. Out of those meetings developed the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society, and I was the first member of the APS Council representing nuclear physics back in the early sixties. So the result wasn’t what we started out for, but it turned out to be a very useful result because it brought together all the American nuclear physicists in this division. But then later in the sixties and early seventies, I went back and had to look at this question again of IUPAP. I’ve forgotten exactly how it happened, but I became a member of the US liaison committee for the International Union. Back at that time, I tried to get as a goal that we should have one American on every one of the commissions in all the branches of physics. We didn't have anything like that at the time. But over a period of several years, I then became chairman of the US liaison committee and kept working — on this idea. And so by the mid-seventies we actually had one American on each of the commissions, and the nuclear physics commission began to be more active. A number of the commissions became much more active and became more representative of world activity, because when there were no American representatives, particularly in the immediate postwar period, they weren’t really representing what was going on in physics, since we were playing a major role, a bigger relative role than we do now. And so –- I’ve forgotten when, some time back about that time — I then was elected a vice president of the International Union. I served six years in that role, and then I was elected as the main president-elect and I’m now the president of that. So I’ve had some impact over those years in trying to really develop much more international framework for handling the matters of nuclear physics. I think that I just attended the nuclear physics commission in August in England, and there really is a major recognition now that we are international. In Trieste three years ago we finally, after enormous amounts of effort, got China, the last major hold-out, into the International Union. Now their nuclear physicists are involved, and their physicists in all areas are involved, and that’s grown very rapidly. So I guess all I can say about the international scene now is that, in a sense, it is no more dominated by one group, the way it was in the fifties and sixties, when the US really had a very dominant role. Now it’s much more general, not because we’ve slipped so much but because other countries have increased their activity and have come up, in some cases surpassed us. A number of countries, particularly in Europe, have chosen to focus their activities on nuclear physics more than on many other competing areas. France has done this to a very large extent. Italy has done this to a large extent. It’s true in Germany. It’s true in England to some extent, not as much. I’ve talked to people in government in all of these countries to sort of ask, why did you do this? And their answer is that it’s not so much that they want nuclear physicists, but they feel that this is an important field for training the young people who will contribute to their technology bases, the national technology base, because of the fact that in order to be successful in nuclear physics, you have to learn something about a lot of techniques -– you know, thin films, vacuum techniques, electronics, computers, all of these things. Secondly, you have to take a systems approach to a problem. There's no way really one person is really going to get very far. You need to be able to bring in engineers and technicians and students and other scientists, and somehow put it all together into a system where their talents are used coherently. And thirdly and most important is that these folk that are trained in nuclear physics tend to have the self confidence that allows them to go out and tackle problems of the kind that are important in society. So for that reason they have chosen to put resources into the field in order to train more young people in the field, not because they want them to stay in the field, but because they think that they will be effective members of the national attack on all sorts of problems.
Which is your own attitude.
Yes, it’s a point I’ve been pushing for years.
To what extent has this general international involvement coincided with an increased collaboration between the laboratory here and laboratories in other nations, and how have the interrelations been between the general effort and that more special reflection?
It’s been closely connected. For example, over the years, as soon as we had the new facility -– in particular, as soon as we had the first Emperor –- that obviously gave us considerable international visibility. A lot of it came out of this international activity, but for example people from the University of Strasbourg, from University of Frankfurt, from the University of the Witwatersrand, from all over Italy, from Japan, from Canada, came here and spent one year, two years, three years, and subsequently went back home. With the experience they’d gained here, they were in a position to play quite significant roles back home. And so we have developed over the years a rather extensive network in all the developed world, really, where we have good friends who feel that they really had a good time while they were here. They learned a lot, they had an opportunity to do some good physics, they certainly contributed to the reputation of the laboratory. They helped us in training our students. It was a tremendous benefit for us, and I like to think in most of their cases it was a real benefit for them. In the last couple of years, while we’ve been rebuilding the machine, we have sort of dropped that program down because we felt it was unfair to bring foreigners here when we didn’t have, you know, frontier facilities for them to work with. But starting again this coming year, we will be getting a lot of people back. For example, Cofin who's the senior guy at Strasbourg, will be here for several months. Greiner from Frankfurt will be here, Jan Vaagen wants to come back for a few weeks, we’ll have a couple of people from University of Tokyo, and one from Sao Paulo in Brazil. And so, I am quite convinced that we will continue to be a major sort of focus for activity in our field. I’m delighted to have this, and it makes our laboratory much more interesting and brings us a lot of new ideas, a lot of important ideas. Just having people from an entirely different background, an entirely different system, can be very stimulating.
To some extent, of course, this is a result, in the first place, of people coming out of here and establishing research centers both in this country and in other countries.
To what extent has there developed a school, if you may call it so, out of the laboratory here?
Well, we have been exceedingly fortunate, and I think I have to be honest and say good fortune was the dominant aspect of this. We have been exceedingly fortunate not only in the quality of our students, but also in the quality of the people whom we’ve attracted here as young post-docs, as young faculty members. You see, Yale intrinsically has certain problems here, because we and Harvard are the two universities that just as a matter of principle do not have tenure track positions. We have to tell young people when they come here as assistant professors that the probability that they will be promoted to a permanent position is something like one in fifteen. Then when a new tenured position opens, the fact that they’re here isn’t going to give them any advantage at all. They’re going to be in competition with the rest of the world. Now, that’s a sort of bleak story to have to tell a young person, and the question is, how do we continue to attract really outstanding young people, given that? So far we’ve been successful; and the reason has been simple: as long as can continue to provide the facilities and the support and the environment and help these people do the research and get the visibility. Getting the visibility is important; that means getting them invited to give invited papers at major conferences and invited papers at APS meetings and colloquia at other universities. Those are the kinds of things that the older members of the staff can do simply by picking up the phone and saying, “I’ve got a good young person here that you’d like to hear.” As long as we can do that, so that the years spent with us are worth more to these young people, and are viewed from the outside as being worth more to them than equivalent time spent somewhere else, then we’ll continue to get the good young people. The moment we stop being able to do that, we’re dead. And so it’s why I spent a very large fraction of my time working on placing our students and our young faculty, who are not going to be promoted to a permanent position, in challenging good jobs elsewhere, because if we don’t do that, then it’s just absolutely certain that within a matter of a year or two, we’re not going to get any more good young people. They’re not going to come here. The fact is that we have been successful in attracting a lot of good young people, and that begins to establish the tradition. People look back and say, Tombrello and Siemssen and Stokstad, and all these guys who are now running major labs around the world, did their apprenticeship essentially here. It means that other people figure, well, whatever they do there, it seems to work. So that helps us to attract them. I like to think of it as sort of an extended Yale family, and it’s good to get them back. We from time to time do invite them all back, and we have some wonderful sessions here. We’re going to be doing it again next spring.
You hardly have room for all of them in one room now?
We don’t any more. We don’t any more. We have tended to graduate something like on the average of between six and eight a year for the last 25 years, so there are a lot of them out there now.
And the fate of the students has been generally good; you’ve been successful in placing most of them?
We have been successful in placing all of them, with two exceptions, and those two, unhappily, just came unstuck, mentally, and are now in an institution. But we’ve never had a case of a student who didn’t have some very serious problem of that sort who wasn’t well placed.
So that’s two out of how many?
Two out of several hundred. And during the period, you know, when people said that there were no jobs and all this sort of stuff, we still had all our students placed usually six months to a year before they graduated.
Maybe we should wrap up the physics here. You’re free to talk about whatever you feel you haven’t talked about.
The important thing in the physics here is that it’s been great good fun, understanding not only the structure, but the interaction potential of a complex many-bodied system. I remain convinced that we have the opportunity in nuclear physics of bridging the gap between the infinite many-body problem of material science and plasma and what not, where you must use statistical techniques, and the few-body problem that at least we used to think was the case for particle physics, where you can hope for detailed microscopic solutions. I remain convinced that because we have that unique bridging position, if anybody is going to be able to understand it, we will eventually be able to understand what is really one of the outstanding problems left in physics. That is, how do many-body quantum systems behave as you heat them, as you subject them to extreme conditions? And can we really understand the detailed behavior of a many-bodied quantum system? I’m optimistic we can, and that we’re making good progress toward that, but we’ve a way to go.
We talked about the connections with other fields. I’ve noted solar physics and waste disposal, as two specific examples here.
We’ve gotten involved in all sorts of things. For example, a number of years ago, one of our young people, Bill Lanford, invented a new technique for measuring the age of anything made out of glass, natural or man-made. Out of that came marvelous technological techniques for measuring how much hydrogen is in any material. It addressed the whole problem of hydrogen embrittlement in engineering. At one point 30 industries had people here within a period of a month or two with representatives learning how to use this technique – how to measure how much hydrogen they had in their systems. That went all the way from, how do you build the inner wall of a fusion reactor, t how to measure the age of beer steins. It turns out, if a beer stein is made before 1940, they don’t have to pay duty on it when it comes into the US; if it’s after 1940, they do. So I got a phone call one day from an importer of German beer steins who said he had a whole shipload of ones that he thought were made in 1937, and it was damned well important for him to find out, because if it weren’t, he was going to have to pay a hell of a lot of duty. So we told him to bring up one of the alleged 1937s and a new one, and it took something like 15 seconds to demonstrate that in fact his had been made in 1936 in about October. We could prove it in a way that the Customs officer who came with him took one look and said, “Convinces me.” So there have been a lot of little things of this kind that we’ve gotten involved in. How to make amorphous silicon solar cells. The problem in the old days was that there were dangling bonds that wrecked the electronic performance. We showed that what was happening was that in the amorphous structure, there were bonds –- the silicons -– that weren’t properly attached to anything. They just dangled. And we also demonstrated, if you allowed enough hydrogen, and the hydrogen was small enough, that it would attach to each of those dangling bonds. In fact, you could use fluorine, too, and in no time at all you could make yourself a perfect amorphous material that would make a great solar cell. That now is the basis for the whole solar cell industry.
To what extent have you been able to place students say in non-nuclear physics environments, for that broader purpose?
Very very effective. For example, there are over 20 of our students who happen to be at the Bell Labs at the moment doing no nuclear physics whatsoever, doing all kinds of things there. We have perhaps 12 to 15 at the IBM Research Laboratories. We have students doing electronic music. At Sloan Kettering one of our students is the chief radiology consultant. We have been building little semiconductor devices in Boston. For the last six months one of my students, Tony Aponic, was here in the lab, I had a hell of a time finding him. I could never find him when I wanted to discuss something. And only after he graduated and got his PhD did he tell me what he’d been up to. He had realized that on the basis of what he had learned here, he could in fact make a little gadget, which he did, which would fix resistors in the General Motors voltage regulator, and computer control a little laser that would carve the resistor to make it exactly what General Motors wanted. He could do it at tremendous speed and at practically no cost, and he had incorporated a little company, while he was supposed to be doing his thesis. So, after chewing the hell out of him for doing this and not telling me, I then bought a piece of his company when it went public. Within a year General Motors bought the company for four million dollars, which was rather nice. Tony went off then to designing instruments that could be used to probe nuclear weapons tests. We’ve had students in just about any old field you’d care to name at the moment. One is for example a scientific journalist, writes for science magazines. And if you name a profession or area of activity, we probably have a student who’s pretty close to it somewhere. There have been a lot. If you want the numbers, as a matter of fact, I’ve done the statistics on this. Out of all our students, 40 percent tend to stay in nuclear physics, 40 percent go to industry of one sort or another, and 20 percent go to government or something completely strange.
And those 40 percent nuclear physics, do those include any kind of institution or is that only academic?
No, that includes both national labs and academic institutions.
So the 40 percent industrial is non-nuclear physics.
That is correct. That is correct.
That relates very closely to a statement you’ve made many times about pure and applied science — that you don’t want to distinguish between them.
I’m totally unable to tell one from the other. As I have said many times, I can distinguish at 50 paces good from bad science, but I sure as hell can't tell basic from applied.
Maybe we should end our physics part here and turn to science policy, if that’s fine with you.
Yes, that’s fine.
Maybe we could start out generally, if you have some general statement about the physicist’s special role, if there is such a thing, in postwar science policy.
Well, first of all, there is no intrinsic reason why physicists should, but there are two reasons why physicists did. First of all, you have to recognize that prior to 1940, physicists were considered, quite frankly, weirdos. We became socially acceptable as a consequence of the Manhattan Project and the Radar Project, when people generally recognized, you know, these guys may actually be good for something. And coming out of the war there was a whole cadre of distinguished physicists from the Manhattan Project and from the Radar Project. They simply took over, and they sort of moved in first and established the fact that there was such a thing as science policy, that politics and science had been irretrievably welded together during the war. They were the first people to really recognize this, and recognize that if they were going to be able to move to the frontiers of modern physics, they could only do it with help from the federal government; private institutions simply couldn’t afford the facilities to take them to the frontiers. So that was one reason. The second reason is a little less obvious, but it is one that comes home loud and clear after you’ve sat on as many committees as I have. That is that physicists tend to think differently from a lot of other people. It’s part of their training, that when faced with a complex situation, their approach is to sort of try and clear away as much of the underbrush as possible, and focus on, what the hell are the central issues here that we might be able to do something about, or that we could operate on? What can we isolate as being critical to this problem? There’s a great tendency in a lot of other specialties to sort of nibble around the edges and get tangled up with all sorts of details. Physicists tend to be — well, first of all, they tend to be a bit arrogant. Rightly or wrongly. And so they tend to sit there and sort of wonder what these idiots are thrashing around about, because they’ve already decided what the issues are; they’ve decided to go off to the men’s room or somewhere and decide what to do about it and get on with it. So the combination of approach, intrinsic arrogance, and being in the right place at the right time meant that physicists just simply dominated all science policy activities in most countries for a couple of decades after World War II. So that was sort of an accident, if you will, of tradition and placement and many things. Physicists still play a disproportionate role in policy activities, and in part it’s traditional because it’s been established that they are the people that you expect to find in these committees. You know, when a committee exists and you ask the old timers on it to pick some new guys, to get them trained, they tend to pick people with the same kind of background that they have, so there’s an Old Boy network that tends to bring more physicists into the project. But it is still true, and I think it is an important point, that physicists do tend to bring their techniques of thought into their public policy activities from their physics, and it gives them a bit of a leg up on a lot of other people.
Harvey Brooks has distinguished between science for policy and policy for science.
Yes, and it’s a real distinction. It’s a very real one. The two, of course, are very much related, but it ties back to a more fundamental problem. We oscillate between focusing our attention on the performers and the audience. We keep oscillating and never seem to settle down with some kind of a balance, so that we develop enough scientific literacy among the public to appreciate what the performers who are doing the science are doing it for, and what benefit it has for the public and so on. So it’s this problem of whether you’re trying to design the public policy to improve science, and therefore help the performers, or whether you’re trying to do it the other way around — to try and get a constituency, on the one hand, and an appreciation of what the significance of science is, on the other hand. They’re quite different activities. They require quite different skills. But they are of course intimately connected, because they affect the whole question of what science can contribute to the society that supports it.
What are the most important activities, and have been the most important policy activities of physicists and their institutions?
That’s a hard question, because in fact, I would have to say that physicists have spanned the entire range that you can conceive of, within the definition of science policy. Not only in this country, but in the UK, in Europe, in Japan. So I would just simply have to say you name the science policy activity, and physicists have played a substantial role in it.
Well, PSAC for one has been seen as a particular important example.
PSAC, of course, and its modern incarnation, the White House Science Council, is clearly one. The JASONs, when you think how many physicists there have been in that, you’ve got again this picture. You look at the groups that the National Academy of Sciences has put together to tackle major problems, and you find a real predominance of physicists in most of the committees.
Well, let this be a general impersonal introduction then; let's get back to the concrete and personal. What was the origin and motivation for your own involvements in science policy?
Well, as I mentioned yesterday, when I came from Canada over here as a brand new Yale faculty member, I had essentially zero knowledge or contact or anything else with the policy apparatus. I was starting from a complete blank. My first real contact with, I guess, the system, first of all was when I was trying to convince people to buy me an accelerator, but that was a very personal sort of thing. On a broader scope, it came about when, I think, after I’d been here a couple of years, I had a phone call one day which asked me would I consider the possibility of becoming chairman of the Nuclear Science Committee of the National Academy. This was a committee that was formed in 1946, and Robley Evans of MIT had been chairman of it for a couple of decades. I don’t know who suggested it, I don’t know how my name came up, but I was asked would I consider being chairman of this thing. So I said, “Sure. Why not? What am I supposed to do?” Because I had no idea at all. So for several years, quite a number of years, in fact, I functioned as chairman of that committee.
From 1965 to 1974.
Yes. It was from that base that I sort of really got involved in this work with IUPAP, and worked with the Nuclear Science Division of APS that I mentioned earlier. During that time, I guess, I also got involved with a variety of small studies that the NSF wanted done and that the AEC wanted done on specific problems, and I guess established a certain degree of credibility within the NRC structure and within the agency structure in Washington. So that kept going along.
How much time did that kind of work take?
Very little. You know, it’s the sort of thing, it’s pro bono public. Everybody’s expected to do a certain amount for their profession, and it took nothing of any consequence. Then I guess when I really got involved in a major way was in 1969. After the physics survey that George Pake had done back in the early sixties –- and I had been a member of both the Nuclear Physics Committee within that survey and the Medium Energy Physics one that George Pake had chaired –- the Academy decided that it was time for a new one. They wanted one to sort of establish a pattern for physics in the seventies and early eighties. So they had a meeting at the annual meeting of the NRC that year, in 1969. I didn’t realize it at the time but what they were doing was a dry run. They were trying to decide who was going to chair this activity. There was one afternoon session where they had Lew Branscomb, me, and a couple of other guys I forget at the moment, and we were all asked to talk for half an hour about how we thought this should be done. We sort of couldn’t have been more different. All of us had totally different ideas about how it should be done. And anyway, out of this thing, totally unexpectedly from my point of view, came a call from Ned Goldwasser, who was head of the Physical Science Section of the NRC, saying, “Will you chair the new physics survey?” I must say my immediate reaction was one of some consternation, because it was patently obvious that I didn’t know enough about the system or anything else to undertake this job. So it took me about a week to sort of make up my mind and decide, well, hell, it’s going to be a real experience; I’ll give it a try. That turned out to be the sort of experience that you would never do twice. One to a customer. But it was a marvelously educational and, in retrospect, actually pleasant experience. I started out having a chat with Fred Seitz, who was the president of the Academy, and a few old time citizens, about just what the hell they had in mind. I then undertook to put together a committee and a whole bunch of panels, and I must say, it was surprising. I called in all, my records show, 200 senior scientists within the US and asked them to participate. Of that 200, 199 immediately said yes. One said “I’m too damned busy.” And I guess I have to in considerable honesty say that that one was probably the least qualified of the 200 or very close to it. But it was amazing the way people rallied round, to really participate in this survey activity, because the feeling was that it was going to have a real impact on the future of the field. And the other reason was that people had sort of panicked, because we had gone through a period in reaction to Sputnik during the sixties where there was 20 percent growth per year. And in 1968, when we met the targets set for 1970, the government had turned off the crash program, and universities simply didn’t know how to react to the change from going up at a huge rate per year, to coming down. They just simply sort of held their breath, tightened their belt, and kept hoping that if they could hang in there, surely next year we would start growing at 20 percent a year again. So by the end of the sixties, people were already convinced that there was trouble ahead, and that we had better damn well understand and plan for the next decade, or we were going to be in even deeper trouble. So that activity, the survey activity, took a lot of time. The early organizational period of this took a great many meetings, several day meetings each, in Washington, but I was still able to maintain, you know, normal research activity here and teaching. That was not really a problem. But as we got closer toward the end, I was again taught a very serious lesson, which everyone should know, and that is that everyone at the beginning of one of these activities always tells you, “You as chairman only have to organize and tell people what to do, and they’ll do it. You’ve just got to sort of pull it together. It really won’t take much of your time at all, and it’s not going to be a big load. It won’t interfere with your other duties.” That’s a lot of damn nonsense, because when the chips are down, the chairman of any activity has to do two things. He has to first of all decide very early in the activity what the final product is going to look like, because otherwise the committee just thrashes around in every direction. The chairman has to keep focused. And secondly, he has to be prepared to write most of the damned thing when it’s finished, because first of all, it’s very important for one person to do it because then there’s a certain coherence, but secondly, it’s much more difficult to convince other people to do what you want them to do than it is to do it for yourself. So a very large part of 1970 I spent sitting around this table, actually writing drafts, particularly of volume 1, the overview volume, of this thing, and I must have written a good 80 percent of that directly. Not only once, but several times, because what had happened here is that you would write a draft and send it out to committee, and the committee might not respond at all. One member of the committee wrote exactly three sentences at any time, and they were never used, those three sentences. Other members of the committee were enormously helpful. Ed Purcell was an absolute gem of a conference member. Ed did whatever was asked of him and did it beautifully. So the chapter in here on “What is Physics?” is very largely a Purcell creation. That he really worked on. I remember he told me that his biggest problem was that he sat there for days looking at a blank sheet of paper, and it was like standing in front of a great granite slab with a chisel and thinking, what the hell do I have to say that’s worth putting down on this topic? What really exacerbated the situation was, he said he could hear dimly through the walls the drum of the six secretaries in Harvey Brooks’ office who were typing what Harvey had dictated, before he was even begun. Harvey had his little lap typewriter, and no matter what you sent Harvey, Harvey would sit down there and read it and then would type like mad — finished copy out of his typewriter, on planes, on trains, anywhere. He was a real tower of strength. So also was Alvin Weinberg. Those guys were really great, and made a tremendous contribution. Another guy who made a tremendous contribution to this activity was Conyers Herring, as I mentioned to you last evening. Very early in the game, I had to make the decision that, instead of having each of the specialty panels try to get their own data, and try to make it internally consistent and comparable, the way to do it was to get one group of real experts together and let them provide all the statistical data for the entire study. I was very fortunate in being able to convince Conyers Herring to take on this job, and do it with real style. I remember the day that we agreed that he would do it. We went to Washington and had an interview with the people who had been responsible for doing the statistical data collection in several of the areas of the old Pake survey. They sat around and explained all 20 ways why what we were trying to do was impossible, how it couldn’t be done, wouldn’t be done, nobody could do it, and that it was a stupid idea. So we sort of staggered out from this and went to a bar and had a couple of stiff drinks, and decided, what the hell, we can do it. And so it turned out that Conyers did a magnificent job.
How did the ideas for it originate? How did it come about?
The ideas for what this report should look like?
Well, what happened there was that sitting here, I spent about a week making a draft outline of what this should look like — what the chapters would be, what should be in the chapters. It was one of these things where you lock in what information you’d like to have and so on. I sat down with Conyers, and we chatted about this and said, “Look, how much of this data do you think you can get?” And for some of it Conyers said, “Be reasonable, we’ll never get that data.” So we removed that. The most difficult question, and the question that took the most discussion and time, was a decision that I’d made very early in the program. In this study as distinct from any previous study we were going to address the question of trying to give relative weighting in terms of need for support and merit for support of all the different subfields of physics. That’s something that people have tended always to ignore, saying that will make enemies, why do that. Because what will happen is, what rates on the bottom will never get supported. And it’s unfair and everything. So I felt that if we were going to be read by the people to whom we were most anxious to address our recommendations — namely staffers in the Congress and in the agencies — we had to face up to the fact that those were the kinds of decisions they had to make, and that we were better qualified to make them than they were. So our question was then, how the hell do we do this without shooting ourselves in the feet? How do we give a priority rating without having people do just what a lot of people had claimed, namely, pick off the top three and throw away all the rest? That’s where we came up with the idea of doing it in several dimensions, one intrinsic to what’s the probability of finding new laws of nature and so on, the other extrinsic -– what’s the probability of it doing something useful for society, and third, structural. You know, we’ve already made a major capital investment; what’s required to get some return out of that? Or, do we need to support this field because the guys over there in the other field need results from it. And so on. And by doing it that way, we sort of took the curse off the linear one-dimensional ranking of things by pointing out that, although some things ran beautifully in one dimension, they’re very bad in others. We actually found out a very funny thing, during this. We started out by plotting intrinsic upwards and extrinsic horizontal on this sort of thing, and got into a hell of a fuss, as being elitist and all sorts of things. One morning here it occurred to me I know how to handle that; you rotate the whole damn thing 90 degrees so that things like acoustics and what not that were raising most of the fuss were plotted up much higher than astrophysics and elementary particle physics which were way the hell off to the right as having great intrinsic merit. And it turns out, that particular rotation eliminated about 90 percent of the screaming and bitching. Just the fact that you were plotted higher up somehow appealed to people. It had nothing to do with any facts, it was just sort of a visceral impression, I’m not going to be plotted below those guys. But right before we started, the first three meetings that our committee had, that the survey committee had, were devoted exclusively to discussing this outline. Is this an outline that we can live with? Is it an outline that we walk? It in fact survived remarkably well.
The broadened approach was motivated by the need for selling physics?
The need. It was clear that physics was not being appreciated, and that it was a representative, we felt, not only of physics but of science. Again, it’s the arrogance of physicists; it never entered our minds from the very beginning that we weren’t in fact carrying the ball for all of science. So we had spent a lot of time asking ourselves the question, who the hell are we addressing this to? And so we found out finally we were talking to the Congress and to agency folk, we’re talking to our own colleagues in a very important way, and we’re talking to the educational community. So there were three audiences, and once we had sort of agreed, all right, we’re going to try to do this, then we decided that we really had to have specialty subpanels to really provide the grist for our mills, and that’s where the other volumes came from. These subpanels had to be appointed and put together. That took a lot of time, getting those together, to try to get all the different areas covered adequately. We got the subpanels appointed and put them to work, and I went around and visited most of them for their original meetings and sort of got them started. Then there was a bit of a break, when they were off doing their work and writing their panel reports and what not. As soon as the panel reports started coming in, then we started having very frequent meetings of the main committee, and some of these meetings lasted for several days. Finally I took the whole committee up to Woods Hole for two weeks, and we just spent the two weeks in intensive study of the panel reports, asking ourselves, how do they illuminate the questions that we want to address in here? Then after that was when I simply came back here and sat down and started writing. We kept exchanging documents, and we met at least once a month for a couple of days. We would thrash out the draft that was then on the table, and having gotten all of that done except this priority exercise, then we tackled the priority exercise.
That was the last.
That was the last. And the way we finally ended up doing that was the jury rating, where we invited in someone who was a protagonist for the field to make the case. Then we did a jury vote, and we recognized at the very beginning that what we were doing was just illustrative. We tried to emphasize that we were just illustrating a technique that we were recommending, and showing how it worked when this particular group of people tried it. I was pleased to see that after this came out, in fact, the Oak Ridge National Lab used the technique to rate their internal programs. Then I got a chance later on to use the technique to evaluate all the programs in the Navy. That turned out to be great fun, because I had two juries, one of blue water admiral types and the other civilian employees. They started out figuring that this was the biggest crock they’d ever been exposed to, but since the Secretary told them, by God, they would do it. When we got all done, it was marvelous. It was a real love fest, these guys saying, “Gee, I never knew what you guys were doing was really useful before.” It was good fun. But the document then was generated; it took longer to get it out and published than I would ever have dreamt possible. But I think on the whole most of us who were involved in it had been satisfied, to some degree, with the impact it had. It’s very difficult, you see, to evaluate what kind of a disaster you might have staved off. You don’t get any credit for that sort of thing. But it is interesting, I’ve seen copies of this in Chinese and Russian and in various other languages, and a lot of other people have used it as well as we have. It was always sort of comforting, when you went into an office on the Hill or in the agencies of Washington, to find a well battered copy of this that people used.
It’s a huge enterprise and a huge result in sheer volume. How many people do you think have read it? What kind of impact does it have?
A very large number of people read this volume.
I enjoy reading it, I’ll tell you.
A lot of people read this, and most of the people we wanted to, read this volume. A lot of schools have used this as a text, for example. But the other volumes, the backup volumes, have been read only by the people with very special interests, and you know, focused problems, who wanted to get some insight into something very special. Now, a lot of people have complained that this is just too damned big, that it was daunting, and that people sort of looked at it and said, “Did you read all that? You’re out of your mind.” I think that that is in some sense a valid criticism. But I also think that if you try to do it too briefly, you end up making unsupported statements, and you can really be counter-productive because people will say, “So what? So those arrogant bastards say that, so I should believe it? Forget it!” This gave us enough room to actually document what we were talking about, and to make our case, and people will say, “So what? So those arrogant bastards say that, so I should believe it? Forget it!” This gave us enough room to actually document what we were talking about, and to make our case, and people could read what they felt like and focus on the chapters they felt like. You know, people always say, “Well, you know, yours wasn’t as successful as the one on astrophysics” -– Jesse Greenstein’s report. And I say, “That’s absolutely true, because Jesse has a much smaller community, and a much more coherent community. “It’s much easier to get the consensus in the astrophysics community for what people want, and Jesse was able to spell out one, two, three, four –- here are the things and it’s a short list; go do them. And most people did them. So that doesn’t bother me at all. If I had to do it over again, which, God forbid, I would never do, I’m not at all sure that I would do it very differently.
Even if you don’t want to do it again if you get the chance, what did you learn from it positively?
What did I personally learn from it?
I guess the first thing — the thing that strikes me most in this — was the fact, how easy it was to get reasonable people to agree to a general consensus in all sorts of areas of physics, even though it was against their own personal self-interest. As soon as you brought things up, so that things got so complicated that they couldn’t actually track where their self-interest would take them, and they were forced to answer specifically on the basis of their knowledge and their general evaluation of things — because we had a wildly diverse membership on this committee — we ended up being remarkably unanimous. I was surprised at this. The physicists, when given a series of facts and opportunities and what not, are remarkably similar in the conclusions they will reach. They’re a remarkably homogeneous group. So that was the main conclusion. The other thing that I found gratifying from this was the fact that I interacted with a cross-section of some of the best physicists in the entire country for a period of a year or two, and it turned out to be a real pleasure. They were cooperative. It was fun to work with them, and a real privilege to get to know all of them.
To what extent have you found that the recommendations have been taken up?
To a very large extent. If you go back and look at this, you will find that although they may be tilted in various ways, a very large fraction of the recommendations we made have been implemented in one fashion or another. A bunch of us got together at a meeting not long ago and we were just discussing that point — people from the old committee. In general I think our feeling was that we should be damned pleased with the extent to which it was implemented. You never get everything that you ask for in a thing like this, but certainly we had reason to be pleased with what had happened.
To what extent was this a starting point for a larger science policy activity on your part? I mean, you must have been doing a lot of details.
Oh yes, I learned a lot of details, about how to get people to agree on things and how to chair meetings and what not — there was no question about that. So from my point of view, that clearly gave me a credibility and a visibility in science policy circles that I obviously had none of prior to that. You know, they’re multiply connected paths, but this got me into activities throughout the physics community, and I guess indirectly it got me into the industrial world, where once you sort of get started, that sort of multiplies too. So that’s how I’ve become a director of a number of companies, and I found all of that extremely valuable in terms of my function here at Yale. It gives me a totally new insight into how things operate, and what opportunities there are for my students and people outside. Some people think that, you know, this obviously conflicts and interferes with your function as a Yale professor. That strikes me as demonstrating a lack of understanding. All of these activities, as long as you can keep them from just killing you or eating up too much of your time, are all coherent. They all help, making you more effective in what you’re supposed to be doing.
Well, you mentioned that navy evaluation, that came out more directly from this.
Yes, that was directly out of this. The Secretary of the Navy asked me to run this review of the Navy programs.
Science programs, science and engineering, all their technical programs.
When was that? Directly after this?
About a year and a half after this, yes. I’m sure that in some sense this was responsible for my getting involved in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I became chairman of the physics division of that, and then I was asked to stand for election as president. I won that election. I must admit that I entered only because I thought it was guaranteed that I would not win it, because Frank Yang was the other candidate. I thought, my God, obviously Frank, a Nobel Prize winner, is clearly going to win this thing and I can forget it. I’ll be a good citizen and act as a stalking horse for Frank. I don’t know what the hell happened, but that turned out to be a very interesting experience, because it’s the world’s biggest scientific society, and it’s sort of coming into its own in scientific matters now, both nationally and internationally. It’s the one umbrella organization that represents all the sciences, and it’s becoming recognized as such. During my tenure we did a variety of things that I think helped in that. We held a lot of breakfast briefings for Congressmen and Senators, and would get three or four senior people in the field, whatever the question was, across the country to come for breakfast. I would host a breakfast up on the Hill, and we would get, you know, maybe 30 or 40 Senators and Congressmen in and have a discussion for a few hours. I organized meetings where we brought the presidents of all the scientific societies in the country together for a day or two. We would just discuss common problems and so on, and we made common cause with the Chinese. The Chinese Association for Science and Technology, CAST, is now a sister society of AAAS. We improved relations with the British association, and did a lot of work getting Latin America and India involved. So that was a great opportunity to get to know a lot of people both inside the US in other sciences, and outside the US in the general scientific community. So that the AAAS was a very good opportunity. Then the White House Science Council activity has turned out to be very interesting. That’s more recent; that’s 1980.
You’re a founding member of that –-
I’m a founding member of that. As you remember, PSAC died in 1972, I think. It died for a very obvious reason, and that was that the members of the then PSAC committed suicide, in a very real sense. They were given access to classified information, and tentative thought schemes of various possible courses of action the administration might take, and asked for their advice, they went public, and went screaming around talking to newspaper men and beating the administration over its head. Not surprisingly, President Nixon said, “Do I need these bastards?” So unfortunately for Ed David, who was a very good Science Advisor, good guy, PSAC really shot itself well and truly. So that killed the immediate scientific apparatus at the White House level, until such time as Reagan, or Ford, put it back together in a sort of way. When Reagan came in and appointed Jay Keyworth, there was a great degree of accident in that, from my point of view, because it turns out that Keyworth, when he was an undergraduate here at Yale, had been one of my advisees. Jay had had a tough time as an undergraduate, as he came from a wealthy family and he had lots of, you know, things going on outside of Yale which interfered with his activities here. He sort of needed a lot of guidance and counseling and just general fatherly chats from time to time. So I got to know him very well, and I suggested, for example, that he should do his PhD at Duke, and arranged for him to go work with Ed Bilpoosh there. So when he became Science Advisory, he sort of immediately called up and said, “OK, if I’m going to take then, you by God are going to come help.” So that was how I became a founding member of the White House Science Council. And again, it was amusing, I had dinner one night in the Cosmos Club. I was sitting there, and the people at the next table were discussing the new White House Science Council. They didn’t know who I was, and so it was a marvelous discussion. But the main source of general unhappiness was all those God damned physicists. They had listed them all; they were all physicists with one exception, and this made people terribly unhappy. But it was just a reflection of the old days. Physicists tend to gravitate onto this kind of committee. I’ve been involved in a number of activities. For example, when Mrs. Gandhi came here in 1982, she rapidly discovered that the only thing that she and Mr. Reagan could agree on was an initiative in science and technology, reporting directly to the heads of state. Since I was president of the AAAS, I was asked to see if I couldn’t respond to her request to meet leaders of the American scientific and technical community. So I organized an afternoon where she talked to about 300 people that I had invited from across the country. Then Mr. Reagan asked me if I would chair the American side of this, do an initiative, and that got me involved in the Indian venture. More recently it seems like we’re going to do a repeat of that with Brazil. David Packard and I have just completed this study on what will be required to keep US universities and colleges healthy for the next decade. That report came out earlier this year. It’s been taken to the president within the last few months. David and I both testified before the Congressional committees in science and technology, and I’m optimistic that a lot of our recommendations there will in fact be implemented. So that’s been a very interesting program, and committee activity. I’ve chaired a hell of a lot of committees in my time but never one like that. The committee members were all people of violently individualistic opinion, and we all had huge conflicts of interest. It took us a long time to sort of hammer things down to the point where we could agree on any recommendations about anything. But gratifyingly, what we ended up with was very close to the outline we started with, and was unanimous. That was something that pleased me tremendously, because I wouldn't have given much of a bet throughout the course of the activity that we could ever end up with a unanimous document.
There's a continuity from PSAC to the Science Council in the number of physicists that were represented, the relative number of physicists.
Yes, that's right.
What about the stature of the two with regard to independence of advice?
You have to understand that there is a fundamental structural difference. PSAC was developed by President Eisenhower in the aftermath of Sputnik, when the country was in a complete, you know, tailspin; what has happened to us, what's gone wrong? We, the leaders of science and technology, are behind the Soviets! And the PSAC mandate was that, although the Science Advisor chaired it, PSAC could set its own agenda and reported directly to the President. The White House Science Council does not have that access. It is, if you like, not a creature of the President, but a creature of the Science Advisor. To be quite honest, I don’t think that it has been used at all effectively thus far, although Jay felt that we were a great help to him. But there were a lot of things that we could have been doing that we weren’t doing. The PSAC members I think may have worked harder at their task than some of us did. We did more of our work as individual panels that went off with one or two Science Council members bringing in a lot of other people and addressing things that came back in for review and blessing by the White House Science Council. PSAC tended to do more things themselves and spend more time at it. They also, particularly toward the end of their existence, tended to raise issues that the administration may not have wanted to have raised at the time, and in that sense they were more independent. The present Science Council certainly has the freedom to raise issues that are not brought to it. We do. But I think the difference is overrated, for the following reasons. The advice that you put together in any advisory committee is worth no more than the willingness of the person to whom it’s addressed, namely, the President, to pay any damn attention to it. And in a lot of cases, these great independent activities of PSAC simply fell on deaf ears and nothing happened. In our case, we have spent more of our time addressing questions that have been specifically addressed to us, and therefore we had a guarantee from the beginning that the President certainly wanted to know what we had to say on the matter. So I think there is more made of the difference than perhaps is warranted. But I do feel that there is a lesser degree of independence in the Science Council than there was in PSAC, and I also feel that more could be made of the WHSC operation and structure. It depends so quickly now on the personality, the philosophy, the approach that the Science Advisor wants to take. My impression is that Bill Graham, who is just now coming into office, is going to use the Science Council in a very different way than Jay did, and I think we probably will be put to work more than we were in the past.
But the access to the President also is different.
The access to the President is different. It’s surprising, because when the chips are down, in its own way the White House Science Council has much better access to the President than PSAC ever had, for a very simple reason. David Packard is one of the most wealthy individuals in the country. He’s an ex-Deputy Secretary of Defense. But more important, he is a lifetime friend of the President's. So whatever the issue, David is one of the very few people in this country who can just simply walk into the Oval Office and say, “Look, here’s something you should know.” And so it’s not by accident that so many of the White House Science Council committees have David as chairman. But he’s a great guy and it has been a great pleasure working with him. So in terms of the actual fact, “Can you get the output of one of your panel activities to the president’s ear?” You sure can.
So you would say that the ear that science gets from the highest level is back to track.
Yes. The point is that, you know, a lot of people didn’t recognize this, but for a long period the President, who is something of a science buff, but has no background in science, used to call up Keyworth and say, “Hey, I’ve just seen something on television I didn’t understand, come explain it to me.” So they developed a relationship which ended up with the President saying, “Look, Jay, I want you to be president of the 8:30 AM discussion here” –- you know, the White House group, and that’s worth more than anything else. If you have somebody who is sensitive to what the role of science and technology can be in any particular activity present when the decisions are made, then you really are in a position to affect things, and Jay had that role for a long part of the time he was there. But of course, you get very heavily involved in White House politics, and the chief of staff wants the absolute minimum number of people having access to the President and insists on it being through him. Mr. Reagan is a prize example of that philosophy, so what Mr. Graham will be able to do has not yet been demonstrated. But it’s quite clear that Graham was appointed to be deputy director of NASA over the strong objections of Jim Beggs, which means he has strong support in the White House. It’s also clear that in the Challenger aftermath, the President relied very heavily on Graham. So I think his contacts are probably in pretty good shape.
PSAC was established essentially for national security reasons.
As a readiness kind of thing. What kind of things and what things in particular has the White House Council been dealing with?
Well, of course, a tremendous amount of our time has been devoted to, again, security matters. A lot of them are classified, but obviously the SDI initiative has occupied a tremendous amount of time. Questions of military preparedness. The fact is that it’s generally recognized that in the military area, the one thing we really have going for us is technology. We don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the people. We don’t have all the other things you might think of. But the one thing we have going for us –- and it’s patently obvious, it was demonstrated in Iceland, the Russians believe it too –- is technology. So a lot of questions come to the White House Science Council on that. For example, things that we study formally and turn in reports on, is the whole question of the reconstruction of the national air space control plan, the FAA’s operation. They were all set to go and spend 20 billion dollars on what would have been an instantly obsolete computer system. So the Science Council did the study on that, and came up with a completely different approach. In fact, we prevented the FAA going off on what would have been a dreadful tangent. We did a study of all the national laboratories. Are they really functioning the way they should? Are they worth what we’re investing in them? How should they be restructured? What changes should be made? A lot of changes have come out of that. A whole new personnel policy for scientists in government, for example, fell out of that study, and that one is still being tracked very heavily. We did this thing on what does the educational system in the US need for the next decade to remain viable. We’ve had studies on, oh, the aerospace plane, for example, and studies on, does the US need an Institute on Arthritis? Does the US need an Institute on Nursing? There are these huge pressures on NIH to expand in those directions. We’ve been very much involved in this whole question of the interaction between the federal government and the basic research community, industrial and academic. The question of industrial competitiveness, how does the US compete with the rest of the world in industrial areas? We put a lot of time into that one. Well, this gives you sort of an impression of the range of things. There is still a large fraction that is security-related but not nearly as much as PSAC had. We have a much broader spectrum of activities in the civilian sector.
And these are all for the most part questions that you have been asked to respond to?
For the most part these have been questions that we have been asked to take a look at because they are questions that have boiled up through the system that have not been resolved further down. They have boiled up to Presidential level, and the President has decided, “OK, it is something of Presidential level. I’d better damn well find out what my advisors think about this.” And so we’ve been asked to take a look at it.
Although the questions in the White House Science Council have been less national security related than the questions in PSAC were, you still have a security clearance to work there.
Oh yes. You have to have a whole array of security clearances.
You finally got that after your coming here. What was the background, the context, the circumstances for that?
It was a very interesting thing. Of course, when I came here this last time I immediately lost my Canadian clearance, and there was an interesting period when I couldn’t even read some of the reports I’d written because I didn’t have the adequate clearance. So shortly after I came back here, the AEC decided that they wanted me to serve on various committees and that I wasn’t going to be able to serve on them until I got cleared. So the clearance process was sort of in the wind, but there was a difficulty because they didn’t want to give clearance to a non-citizen. So this sort of went on and off all during the sixties. During the sixties I was a member of a little sort of informal chowder and marching society that the director of nuclear science at AEC, George Colestead, had put together. The directors of all the laboratories that spent more than a million dollars of AEC money got together several times a year somewhere. We were all over the place. We were in various places in the US. We were in Puerto Rico and all over, and we would simply get together for a week and discuss common problems. They were marvelously fruitful and useful conferences, and so, all sorts of this came up during those. At the end of the sixties we had a meeting at Los Alamos — not at Los Alamos, at Las Vegas — and the intent was that we were going to meet in Las Vegas because it was close to the weapons flats. And so we were taken out to the Nevada weapons test range, as part of the program of this week, and shown all sorts of fascinating things in the test program. I didn’t realize until many many years later just how fascinating some of this was, because it turned out that during the course of this, various people had not been fully aware, since I had been part of this group for years, that I wasn’t cleared and that I was not a citizen. So they showed us all some very very secret things, and just about the time we were leaving on the bus to come back to Las Vegas, it was recognized in Nevada and Las Vegas and in Washington that security had been breached in an absolutely horrendous fashion. I mentioned to you the other day that the DOE, then AEC, had a very difficult problem on its hands, to take the most severe action with respect to a lot of senior personnel in the AEC, or to get this damned foreigner cleared and made into a citizen in jig time before there was any possibility of my blabbing to anybody. I had of course not the slightest intention of doing so, because first of all, I hadn’t realized just how secret the things I was being shown really were, and secondly we had been told that this was highly secret and I obviously wasn’t going to do anything about it. But at that point, even though I would have done it anyway, we had put in our six years, which at that time was a requirement before you could petition for citizenship. And so my wife and I petitioned for citizenship, and after an absolutely astonishing ceremony here in New Haven, we became citizens. I was very quickly given a Q clearance, and subsequent to that I’ve had Qs through the Navy Department, I’ve had Qs through United Nuclear because we build about half the Navy’s propulsion reactors. Through the Naval Studies Board I had the Defense Department clearances, and now I have all the clearances as a member of the Science Council.
To what extent is your Science Policy activity accurately reflected in your bibliography?
Not so much my bibliography because a lot of the stuff one does there is simply short reports, letter reports, documents of one kind or another that never appear in a publication listing. It has been extremely useful to me, though, in another sense here at Yale, and that is, a number of years ago, I became concerned that so many Yale students were so woefully ignorant of how the system works, and of anything to do with the role of science in US politics and society. I should have known that every time you hitch about the fact that the students don’t know something, you find yourself teaching a course to repair that gross omission very quickly. So I now teach a course each spring semester, which gets both graduate students and undergraduates, on science and public policy. The intent is to give them a feeling for how the system does work, how we compare with other countries. Of course it’s enormously useful to have all this background exposure, because one can get examples of just about anything one wants out of this for the students. I insist that each one of them write me about a 50 page essay, a real research paper on some aspect of science and public policy. I’ve been very pleased that the graduates of that course have gone on in quite an amazing number of cases to careers in public policy, and have done remarkably well. So it’s had a real impact on a lot of students.
Since when did you do that, did you say?
I’ve been doing that for the last five years.
At what level is that?
Both graduate students and senior undergraduates attend it.
So there’s your own students generally?
My own students, and last year there were some 60 students who took the course.
Do you have a separate report kind of bibliography for the kind of science policy activity you’ve been doing?
We talked before about the relationship between the university and the national laboratory, both here and in Canada. If we look at your list of activities here, there’s a whole section covering national laboratory activities.
So you’ve obviously had quite a lot of involvement in that. It may not have taken too much of your time.
No, it doesn't take too much of my time, and let me tell you why I do a lot of that, though. I’ve served on a great many review committees. The reason for that is very straightforward, and that is that when you go to one of these review committees, you have very smart people in the institutions you're reviewing, having spent weeks preparing for the reviews. There is no more efficient way to find out what is really going on on the frontiers of science than serving on these review committees and having people really work to get as much information across to you in the shortest possible time. So I find it a very efficient way to keep up with what’s happening, much more effective than trying to slog through all the literature.
So your motivation is at least in part selfish.
It’s a very selfish motivation. It’s a very selfish scientific motivation. It’s the way I get very high powered tutorials that you couldn’t possibly pay for in any other way.
Is that a common thing among physicists?
Yes. And of course after you’ve done enough of it, you develop a certain sense that within 30 seconds after you get into a new institution, you begin to get slight hints of whether it’s a very healthy institution or not so healthy. You begin to follow your nose, and so, hopefully, you develop an instinct so that you can be helpful to the management in suggesting things to them. That’s what these review committees are all about.
But that’s secondary perhaps.
For my purposes, the reason I do it is not because I have a great urge to tell people how to run their institutions. It’s simply because it’s a marvelous way to learn what’s going on.
Could a similar thing be said about your industrial activities, or is that different?
No, that’s different. The industrial activity is completely different. I only, first of all, take directorships because I can see some particular reason why I should do it. For example, the UNC Incorporated thing I’ve been on for a long time. That was a very practical application of my nuclear activities. And the local things, the local utility, is very much the same. The local bank was simply because there isn’t enough contact between Yale faculty and the business community here in the city, and this provides me an opportunity to really get to know and interact with a lot of the community leaders here in New Haven in a way that would just not be possible otherwise, so it’s been very helpful in that respect. And a part that it’s exceedingly educational, because people don’t get to be community leaders by being idiots. And one learns a hell of a lot of interacting with them.
Well, it may have been motivated to some extent through your interest in spreading science also into other communities.
Oh, yes indeed. And it was related very much to my interest in knowing enough about the industrial field to be able to advise my students as to what it might hold for them. For example, I’m involved with Cronar Corp. because I’m interested in finding out what alternate energy applications we may have in the future. And so I pick them because I figure I’m going to learn something, as well as hopefully contribute something. [Interruption]
Maybe the most particular part of your industrial activities is the involvement in the United Nuclear Corporation, which has been an important contributor of apparatus for nuclear science at any rate.
I got involved with them back in, I guess it was 1967. At that time, I think the idea was that they needed someone on their board with specific nuclear credentials. But we have spanned a tremendous amount of activity since those days and changed the nature of the company rather dramatically from an extractive industry that was the only one in the field that went all the way from uranium ore in the ground to the reactors complete and ready for installation. Actually, we stopped all uranium activities altogether, except we still do manufacture the submarine reactors. But now we’re involved in telecommunications. We’re involved in repair of aircraft engines. We’re involved in very high technology, development of new materials, new machine techniques, and we operate the N reactor out in Washington state. We’re involved at the moment down in New Mexico and Wyoming in decontaminating whole areas that are contaminated by mine tailings and so on. So it’s become a technology service activity, more than a specific mining manufacturing activity.
Well, that’s service for scientific institutions.
That’s right. That’s correct.
Of course the other way that industry becomes more and more involved in science is through direct research, but that hasn’t been the case with your involvement.
That has not been the case, no. The only one of those that does direct research is Cronar, which has been one of the leaders in the research leading to direct solar power generation.
You mentioned at dinner yesterday the negotiations with the Navajos about uranium.
In what capacity was that?
That was as a director of UNC. That covered a wide range of educational experiences. That was in the days when the Navajos decided that they were going to make various areas of the reservation open to bids from various companies that might subsequently wish to mine uranium from those areas. And they were very tough negotiators. Then I got very much involved. UNC formed a joint venture with Gulf Oil to manufacture commercial reactor fuel, but very early in the game it became clear to us that Gulf really didn’t intend for this joint venture to flourish; the intent was to wipe us out rather quickly. So we actually sued Gulf for something in excess of two billion dollars, and I spent quite a bit of time in the Supreme Court of New Mexico, being grilled by hostile lawyers about all manner of things. Fortunately we won the case. Nobody ever expected that we could take on something as big as Gulf and win; we’re a relatively small company. But we did, and it made a very major difference in our activities. It made a hell of a difference in Gulf’s activities too.
Another entirely different activity which might be called science policy -– I don’t know –- is your involvement in popularization of science, such as contributions to the McGraw Hill YEARBOOK, and other instances as well. How important do you consider that as part of your activity?
I consider it as certainly important. It’s not a major part of my activities, but I have over the years done more and more of it, in giving talks to, you know, public groups of one sort or another, and in writing popular articles that try to present what’s going on at the frontiers of physics in a way that would be accessible and attractive, hopefully, to a more general public. That I think is a very important aspect of our work that we tend to neglect. But in neglecting it, we end up with a public that has no idea what we’re doing and certainly is not much interested in what we’re doing and certainly is not prepared to support what we’re doing.
So it’s at one with your general education involvements and interests.
How important is that as part of policy for science, I suppose you could call it?
Not terribly. I’ve been involved with most of the major journals at one time or other, and again it’s one of those activities which I think all of us feel we should take on, as part of our professional responsibility, to try and maintain the quality of the journals in our field. But it is not terribly time consuming, and I have not ever become so deeply involved that it really represented a major drain on my time. Some people really do spend a very large fraction of the time editing specific journals in their fields. I have not done that, and that activity in my case has been more consulting activity, when I get called on, if there are specific problems. Or I will read, you know, papers and comment on them, and decide whether they should be published or not, but it’s not a big activity. The kind of editing that I do more is pulling together of that treatise or the other multi-author volumes that I’ve done in the past, where I want to address a particular topic in a particular area, and see if I can’t produce something that would be useful.
That naval research involvement —
Yes, that was while I was part of the Naval Studies Board.
Was that before or after you got your clearance?
Oh, that all required clearance.
So that was after 1969.
I’m interested in that because it’s related to my special interest.
I see. I can tell you a bit about that. What happened was that there was a growing feeling within the Navy that the research at the Naval Research Lab had become somewhat disconnected from the needs, either real or perceived, of the real honest to God blue water Navy. It wasn’t clear whether that was true or whether it was just perceived, and so I was asked to run one of these jury activities. And so what I did was to, with the Secretary’s help, get two panels, one panel of civilian employees -– scientific employees of the Navy –- and one panel of flag rank officers in the Navy, who were really part of the honest man’s fighting Navy. What we did was to get the people in the Naval Research Laboratory to take their entire program and break it down into bite sized pieces. I guess by the time we got done, there were a couple of hundred of these things. The proponents came in and took a long time to do this, and made about a five minute pitch as to what this was about, why it was important to the Navy, and what the future held. Then the two juries, who both heard this, voted on a multi-dimensional matrix as to what was this –- was this useful, was it interesting, where did it impact the Navy. Oh, we had a very fancy matrix.
That was the Physics in Perspective model.
Same thing, that model exactly. And so at the beginning, as I said earlier, the two juries were completely off it. The Navy officer folk really felt that this was a bunch of longhaired folk who were not doing anything very pertinent to anything that they might be interested in, and the civilians tended to think of the officers as a bunch of damned dinosaurs who wouldn’t understand anything anyway. So it was not a terribly pleasant operation. But as things progressed, again, we found the same thing as here; you’ve got to break up the voting into sufficient patterns so that people can’t track their prejudices. They’ve got eventually to lose track of how they should vote to promote their prejudice, so they end up saying, oh hell, what do I think about this? And they would just quickly vote their common sense and their intuition and their knowledge. And so of course, they didn’t know how everybody was voting. Through the whole program this was done; they had no idea of how the other people were voting, either within the juries or between juries. So when we got all done, I had a bunch of stuff the Navy supplied and the Academy supplied, jointly, and we analyzed all these matrices. And I well remember when we got the results and wrote a short report for the Navy –- for the Secretary -– as to what came out of this. What we were able to do was to take all the programs in the NRL and show how these two juries had reacted to them. The thing that was astonishing was that the two juries were amazingly congruent, even though they’d started out completely different. The people who were most amazed by the congruence were the two juries themselves. First of all, they didn’t believe it, and so we had to spend a fair amount of time demonstrating that we hadn’t cooked the results, that this was honest to God what they had actually voted. But having done that, it was amazing that people, as I said earlier, were wandering around sort of saying, “You know, I never realized that what ou were up to really was as relevant to what I’m doing as it seems to be. I’d like to learn more about it. Why don’t we get together for lunch. Let’s talk about it.”
Yes, and that report is not available.
That’s a classified one, yes. How was that actually produced? That wasn't a jury that produced it?
Yes. It was the jury that produced the raw material for the report. The matrices were filed out by these juries -– the two of them –- because what I wanted to find out was, really, how different are the flag level Navy folk and the civilian employees, in terms of really evaluating how useful this research is. And as I said, the most important thing was that they were remarkably in agreement. What we were able to do was essentially develop a list of activities. The ones up at the top, everybody agreed are tremendously important –- we really should put resources into those. And there were some down here at the bottom that everyone agreed nobody needs these, and they got sheared off.
What was it that turned the tide?
What made the difference was simply the recognition that by God, they had agreed. And the only reason they agreed was because it had been broken up sufficiently that they couldn't track their prejudices. They had to actually vote on what they believed, on individual simple pragmatic questions. That’s the secret to doing any of these things. You have to fragment the questions so that, if you’re a juror, you cannot keep track of what’s happening in the multidimensional matrix and propagate your own prejudice through to the answer. You just can’t do it.
How much of this is a lawyer’s kind of activity and how much is actual good presentation of data?
That’s a very fair question, and as a matter of fact, in this activity, one of the items in the matrix was that they had to evaluate just what was the level of B.S. and where did the proponent come in a ranking scale between, you know, under-selling his act and overselling his act. And so each individual got appraised by all the members of both these juries on what’s their B.S. coefficient, and that was interesting to correlate with how the general rankings came out. It turned out, to the credit I think of everyone, that there didn't seem to be much correlation. These people were sufficiently mature to spot it when they were being given a snow job, and also to spot it when they had a diffident guy up there who was sort of under-selling what really was going on. But it is a very real question. It was a great opportunity for the Navy to really try that, because we hadn’t done it in the physics survey, and the Navy gave an opportunity to really build in the test of this question of, “Am I really being given a load of snake oil by these folk?”
It’s fascinating. I mean, it’s easier to analyze that study than the Physics in Perspective study, because the number of interest groups there is so much much larger; there’s only two in that Navy study.
Yes, that’s right.
Are there any other science policy activities that you would point to yourself?
Well, of course, the IUPAP activity is very much an international science policy activity that continues. As I think back, I was the first chairman of the Office of Physical Sciences in the NRC when it was reorganized, and we did a fair amount of work there at government request on a number of topics. I’ve been involved in a number of studies with both the Department of Energy and the NSF in reviewing potential accelerators –- whether they should be built or not built. I have been involved in comparative reviews of programs. For example, I did a big one on the NSF; we reviewed all their programs and ranked them. In fact, I must admit I still feel I got double-crossed a bit on that, because I had thought I had a definite commitment from the director and everyone beneath him in the NSF that if we would bite the bullet, and since all of their programs were being starved for funding, and if we would help them, then they would tell us, “Look, here we have certain amount of money that’s being expended over 12 programs. They’re all under-funded and they’re all going to die at this rate. What we want to find out is, which are the best ones and which are the least good? And if you tell us that, then we’ll take the funds that we liberate by closing down the less good ones and put it to support the best ones.” That was the condition under which all of the members of my committee functioned. And we did our job, and indeed we did recommend that two of them be closed down. It wasn’t easy. One of them was Stanford, one was Maryland, both first class universities and good programs. But then, when that was done, the NSF promptly double-crossed us and said, “Right,” closed those down, and kept the money. So I must say that I felt that that put the entire question of peer review at risk, because the moment people felt that all they were doing was killing some of their colleagues, to no profit, there was no way that anyone would serve on any such committee. So I wrote a blistering letter to the NSF director, and letters to a few other people, and we got most of that corrected. But had that been allowed to remain, it would have struck a real blow at the heart of peer review in any such situation, because nobody would serve on a committee if you knew that if you said anything negative, it would simply be held against the organization and now one would benefit.
This was when?
It was about four or five years ago.
As to science policy activities, you’ve been doing more an dmore of it?
Yes, more all the time.
More policy for science than science for policy.
Yes, the first; more the former. And more of it all the time, it seems, because once you get involved in these circles, there are always people who have marvelous things they want you to do. And unfortunately, in my case, I find it fascinating in many cases, so I get involved in more than I should.
To some extent, of course, this reflects some kind of centralization of the physics enterprise, just by virtue of the size of it, I guess. The Physics in Perspective is also a sign of that.
Yes, that’s right. There’s nothing much we can do about that.
No. Well, you have to be more careful about the priorities, of course.
In particular in my case, because for a year or so I was completely out of action for physical reasons, and I really should be more careful about getting involved in some of these things than I am.
Yes, because after all, you still consider yourself a physicist.
I mean, the science policy involvements are peripheral in relation to that.
They’re peripheral, but one of the great functions, one of the great pleasures of being a senior Yale faculty member, is that you have one of the few positions in the world where you have relative freedom to allocate your effort as you see best. And as long as I can keep good students coming through here, and keep our facilities at the frontiers of our field, and do the research that I find particularly interesting, then it makes life much more interesting for me if I also am involved in some of these other things.
And when you reach that level of physics research, you can hardly do physics without being involved in those other things.
Well, the Physics in Perspective is a huge enterprise; it’s side by side [in your bookcase] with an even bigger one.
With an even bigger one.
Yes, the Treatise of Heavy Ion Science. To what extent does that reflect your own contribution and the contribution of your students in physics?
Oh, there’s a large amount of that that comes from my own students and post-docs and junior faculty. In looking back on it, I’ve been involved now in just about every branch of nuclear physics in some fashion or other, but probably the work that people recognize most as being mine is heavy ion work. I’ve been involved in the initial activity in Chalk River on that. Although I still keep a hand in a lot of other activities, that’s the one that most people think of.
Thank you. Fine.