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Interview of Basil Hiley by Alexei Kojevnikov on 2000 December 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31624
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Topics discussed include: family background and childhood; his education at King's College, London; the difference between American and British physicists; quantum mechanics; and David Baum.
This is the 5th of December, 2000. I am in London at the [inaudible word] College. My name is Alexei Kojevnikov and I am recording an oral history interview with Professor Basil Hiley. Professor Hiley, could we perhaps start with a few words about your family background and how did it happen that you chose [inaudible phrase] scientific career?
Well, here we have a very interesting one, because I was born, my family was part of the British Raj in India, and I was actually born in Burma, [inaudible word; Rangoon?] in Burma in ‘35. And I spent all my childhood in India until ‘47, the partition, when I then came back to England.
So you were twelve then.
So I was twelve.
So did you also attend school there?
I attended school, yes — if you could call it school.
What position did your father have?
My father was in the Indian Army and he was a major, the rank of major, and he was working in supplies and transport.
Did he have any connections with science or scientific interests?
Absolutely none at all. I mean he was a very simple man who —
If you could tell the name of your father.
Yes. My father was James Hiley actually, and he had no interest in science as far as I know. He was a very simple man in many ways. I think my main influence came from my mother, who was a very fiery character. [Inaudible phrase] and she, again, was part of the British Raj. I mean she was born in India of Scottish parents, and although she had again no formal education as such — because I mean the Indian Raj, being part of the British Raj we were always traveling. And I think my education was taking place in the traveling rather than in institutions, schools and so on.
So what do you recall any early interests regarding science or maybe some books [inaudible phrase] or something?
My early interest was really in mathematics, because I can remember even now at the age of eight becoming very, very fascinated with algebra. And because we had free —
Was this a school [inaudible phrase]?
This is a school. But because I didn’t have to go through a set curriculum — because I was in one school for six months, then we’d move somewhere else for six months and I’d be in another school.
What kind of schools were these?
The schools were really little gatherings of Europeans of about ten or fifteen with a school marm, and it would be all ages from you know kindergarten right up to sixteen/seventeen. This is why I say I really had no formal education as such; it was just meetings, gatherings and we’d discuss things. Now that gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and in my case it was very nice because I was able to do this mathematics. I remember my mother buying me a particular book of higher algebra for Indian schools, and I sort of systematically worked through that without any help from anybody at all. I was absolutely fascinated. And that really started my love of mathematics.
So what happened to the family in ‘47?
In ‘47 when India was partitioned my father was up for retirement and so we all came back to England. And then probably the best fortune for me was that I was turning twelve/thirteen, and I was able to get into grammar school, and I was able then to have a formal education of an English grammar school. But even that was a bit strange, because I was old when I got there and at first I was going to miss the second year. They were going to accelerate me into the third, but their new headmaster came and said, “No, we are going to have no accelerations at all.” Then when I got to the fourth year it was suddenly realized that I would not be able to have enough time in sixth form, so they then accelerated me past the fifth year where all the old [correct word?] level exams are done. And therefore I didn’t take any old levels exams. I just went straight into high school level exams with physics and mathematics. And by that time my interest in physics was dominating my interest in mathematics.
And where was this?
This was in Brockenhurst [spelling?] County High School, which is Hampshire in England.
Did your father just retire there or —?
Yes, he retired to that part of the country.
Did he live in England before?
Not very much. He was born in Bradford and lived in Yorkshire, but his father was also in the Indian Army, and therefore he was brought up and he was schooled in India. So my mother and my father were both schooled in India.
How did they adapt to England?
Very difficult — my mother in particular. My father managed quite well, because I say, he was such a simple man; he sort of came into equilibrium with his surroundings very, very easily indeed. But my mother found it very difficult, because she had been in India all her life, she had been used to the British Raj's way of life, and to come home and try and manage a family all by herself without servants, et cetera, et cetera was a great strain for her. And we came back when there was rationing in England. We had no house; we had no furniture, so we virtually sort of lived in these boxes for our dressing tables and so on. It was very difficult financially at that stage.
And so by what age you said that physics started to dominate your interest?
It would have been about thirteen/fourteen.
All right, because of particular books or teachers, or just —? Or what did you know about physics [inaudible phrase] at that time?
Well, I think my real interest in physics probably started a bit later than thirteen. It was probably about fourteen, because mathematics was my main interest when I got to the grammar school. And it was in the grammar school that I began to get introduced to experiments and so on and began to get quite fascinated with the sciences. And but I think the real marking point for me, turning point for me was when I was in the first year in the sixth and someone had a book. And it was Mysterious Universe by James Jeans. And this master said, “I’ve got a copy of this. Would anybody like to buy it from me?” And of course I shot up my hand immediately and bought it for six whole pence, which is really quite ridiculous. And reading that sort of inspired me some more, and then I read Mr. Tomkins in Wonderland, and slowly at that stage I began to get very, very interested in physics.
So was there any problem for you to choosing where to go to college?
No, not really at all. In fact I got a state scholarship after two years in the sixth form. It was, you know, it’s just that what I really wanted to do was math and science and I took over [correct word?]. And because I’d missed the fifth form, I had to do a lot of studying myself. And I realize now that I was actually studying undergraduate work when I was in the sixth form. Now I had a brilliant physics teacher who got a first class from King’s College London, and I remember discussing lots of things with him. He was a wonderful man for discussing these things. And I remember one particular occasion which really shows I must have worried him too much. We had these free periods where he would actually sort of sit there while we did our private work, but I always wanted to talk to him, and he would say, “Oh no, not Hiley again. Can’t I have some peace for once?” So it was obvious that I interacted with him quite a lot, and I think I learnt a tremendous amount from him.
So at what age —? I’m not familiar with the British system of education, so —
I’m talking now about seventeen/eighteen.
So that’s where people graduate from [inaudible word].
Sixteen/seventeen/eighteen is where it really took off.
So when do people graduate from grammar school?
At the third year, usually second or third year sixth. Because I got my two years in the sixth, because I had missed the fifth I felt I needed to — because I’d been rushing — I felt I needed a year out. So I studied the third year in the sixth in order to sort of, you know, just let it all bake down so that I could then enjoy myself and perhaps not go straight into a university with a new world and so on.
What year did you [inaudible phrase] the university?
I think it was ‘57.
What university was that?
I actually went to King’s College London. I followed in the footsteps of my physics master. And he said, “Well, you know, why don’t you try King’s College London where I went?” and I knew very little, because as I said we were a country school and there was hardly any scholarship in schools at all. I mean there’s respect for the other people there, but we were a country with a lot of farmers coming to the school and they were not interested in physics and that type of [inaudible phrase].
Did you need a scholarship to get to college?
Was it a state one?
It was a state one, yes, yes.
And were there examinations, or did you take any exams to enter?
Usually the way how well you did in your advanced level certificates, and I had a scholarship level physics and an advanced level [inaudible phrase], and I’d done well enough to get a state scholarship. I mean that one of the prizes of those days. There were a lot of county awards. There was Hampshire County Council. They gave me one at the end of the second year. But then by the time I went back to the third year I actually got a state scholarship. So those were the prestigious scholarships.
And could we have the name of your teacher?
His name was Mr. Barrage [spelling?]. I don’t know what his first name was. It eludes me. But it was Mr. Barrage, and he got first from King’s, and that was the day when first class physicists actually went into teaching, which is not happening now.
How would you describe —? So you entered the King’s College in 1957. How would you describe the level of physics education at that time and what if any particular lecturers or [inaudible phrase]?
I was a little disappointed when I got to university, because I was very much interested in what is — trying to understand nature in general; the cosmos. And what I was hoping to do at an undergraduate level was actually to go into relativity, to go into quantum mechanics, to really look at these exciting cosmologies and so on. But in fact I was very disappointed, because the lecturers didn’t want to make those discussions in the first year or the second year, so I sort of was beginning to feel that I was wasting my time.
So what did they do [inaudible phrase]?
They just went through standard stuff. I mean probably it was right for me to go through that, but I was still very disappointed that when I tried to make discussions with them they didn’t want to go — There was one man, Dunnel McKye [spelling?], who later ended up at a professorship in Kiev University who was very interested in information theory, he was very interested in the biological systems, and he fascinated — he really fascinated me with his discussions. He was the only one I think out of the members of staff that I was in contact with in the first two years that really —
Did you have a taste for experiments, for doing things like radio or things like this?
I never really felt happy with the experiments. I could do them, but it wasn’t my forte. I just didn’t feel comfortable sitting down trying to debug them and make them work. And what happened in those, in the undergraduate days, we did the experiments in pairs. And [inaudible phrase] school friend went up with me. He did experiments while I went around and talked about them. That sort of set the pattern, and I just felt that experiments were not for me.
And who and when and what year taught relativity and quantum mechanics?
That didn’t come until the last year. Well, we had a bit of what was called —
The third year. We had a three-year — I’m talking about a three-year undergraduate module. And you get some quantum mechanics in the second year, but it’s very, what I thought at that stage was very mundane and very trivial.
So did you already know something at that time?
Yes, because I did a lot of reading. I was one of these guys —
What kind of textbooks [inaudible phrase]?
Anything I could lay my hands on. I’m sorry to be so vague on that, but it really was — I don’t remember any particular book. I do remember in my first year when one guy actually gave a lecture and he did a calculation on electromagnetism, and I told him it was wrong. And he said, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think you’re right.” So I went up and did research with Page and Adams, Electricity and Magnetism, and that calculated, showed by looking up the references and so on and taking it to him and showing him that it was all wrong, and he said, “Oh my goodness, yes, it is wrong.” But then I was faced with a dilemma, because in the exam, the mid-sessional [correct word?] test, I was asked to reproduce this. So the question was, do I reproduce the wrong answer or the correct answer. So I reproduced the wrong answer and I got ten out often for it. Which sort of you know made me begin to wonder what the hell was going on in physics. But apart from that, no, I was just impatient I think. It wasn’t until I got to the final year. Then I did no experimental physics at all. And then I used to come up to University College where Harry Massey [spelling?] was lecturing and I attended his lectures on quantum mechanics and they were absolutely brilliant. I went to King’s College mass [correct word?; math?] department where Herman Bondy [spelling?] was lecturing, and I had relativity from him, and in fact I used to go to the seminars in the mathematics department at King’s because there was the time of the steady state theory of the universe, and just when the Big Bang was beginning to come into vogue, and Hoyle and Bondy and people, Pirany [spelling?], were all at King’s College in the mass [math?] department. In some respects I wish I had taken the mathematics degree along with the physics degree — but that’s just you know some 20/20 vision hindsight.
Yeah. Before we go to that, in your college class do you remember any of the Fulbright [spelling?] students? Or how would you rank yourself versus other students? Or did, if you had any idea at that time?
I think I was — I felt — I was very disappointed in my fellow students, actually, because they didn’t have the passion for the subject that I had.
How many were there?
There were probably thirty-six, thirty-five/thirty-six. There were probably two people who I respected. One guy was the name of Poulen [spelling?] and again I can’t remember his first name, and the other was James Ellerby [spelling?], and they were — and Cohn Smart [spelling?], three of them. But they were more smooth operators than really dedicated to physics, and so I’m afraid I felt that I was probably the best theoretician there. I’m sorry. I mean I shouldn’t sound big-headed or anything, but that’s the impression I got, because people were not — they wouldn’t be passionate. They wouldn’t discuss it the way I would like to have it discussed. That was my — that was the way I was judging people.
And so you were continuing undergraduate after the three years [inaudible phrase].
After three years I got [inaudible phrase].
Was that in 1961?
Oh no, it must have been ‘59, so I must have been up to university in ‘57, ‘56 [?] or so.
And what is the next stage in academic career [inaudible word]?
The next stage was to do a Ph.D., because I got a First. And once — at that stage, once you got a First there was then a scholarship waiting for you in SERC [spelling?; SCRC?] waiting for you and it was very easy to get SERC.
Do you remember approximately how [inaudible word] was the scholarship?
How big the scholarship was in those days.
A scholarship in those days, I really couldn’t tell you. Probably something like 285 pounds a year or something. It wasn’t — but that’s just from memory. It was very little, but it was enough. It got me by for what I wanted to do.
So and where did you go from —?
Well then I had the dilemma as to what to do, you know, whether to move colleges or to stay there.
Oh, you could have stayed with the King’s College for the graduate?
Yeah, for the Ph.D. I mean normally nowadays they encourage you to go to another university, and perhaps on hindsight maybe I should have done it, you know to get more experience. But I felt that I had — the King’s College mathematics group absolutely fascinated me with their cosmology, and I was able to attend their seminars. And also I had the University College with Harry Massey and the work that he was doing, and so I felt I’d like to stay in London, and then I just said, “Well okay, I’ll stay,” and I worked with [inaudible name; Cyril Dom?] and —
You stayed at King’s College.
I stayed at King’s College. I worked with Cyril Dom, who got an FRS for his contributions to [inaudible word; quaper?] phenomena, and he was my supervisor and he was a very, very nice man indeed. And I also worked with Michael Fishank [spelling?] who got an FRS as well.
And so how do you describe your graduate work? So you didn’t have to take any [inaudible word] or was it?
Not really. I mean I did attend lectures, but they weren’t compulsory that you had to pass in order to go on.
So does this mean that you never have to take any advanced quantum mechanics course and math, since you said that there was no such thing at the undergraduate level?
Well, the undergraduate level did have a course on quantum mechanics, and it was a routine course at that time. And in fact I think I got 98 percent or something in the following year for it. So you know, I mean I — but it wasn’t, it wasn’t very challenging. And then when I went into my graduate course I didn’t take quantum. I didn’t have quantum. Quantum mechanics was not part of the topic I was working on. I was working in compense metaphysics [correct 2 words? probably not!]. And I had been, sat on — the cooperative phenomena that Cyril Dom was very much interested in was essentially counting in configurations that could be embedded in regular tessellations [correct word?]. It’s a very boring type of thing, but very fascinating.
Was it the icing model?
It was the icing model, yes. But I was also — Michael Fisher [spelling?] tried to get me interested in polymer molecules because at King’s remember there was Morris Wilkins [spelling?], there was the DNA aspects, so biophysicists was very strong, and I had to sort of pull both to cosmology and biophysics, and I never quite knew which one, so I did neither and the icing model instead. And I very quickly, I found that very easy. Cyril Dom gave me a problem which — and a hint on how to solve it — and in fact I was able to solve it straightaway. And it was very productive, it worked, and you know all those glorious opportunities that suddenly everything worked. The polymer stuff worked as well and I showed how it tied in with the embedding problem in the icing model. And my thesis was really on two [inaudible word]. It was on the ferra [correct word?] magnetism and cooperative phenomena and also polymer molecules, so I had a two-part thesis. And in that I had done a lot of work with Martin Sykes [spelling?], who was Cyril Dom’s right hand man.
And when was the thesis?
The thesis was finished in ‘62. And unfortunately I had a very serious illness in ‘62, so the examination had to be delayed. I managed to get the thesis done in ‘62, but then I had to go to the hospital and have major surgery, and then my revival wasn’t until six months later.
And if we could [inaudible phrase], you said you attended the lectures by Bondi?
How would you describe the mood at that time, I mean the philosophical movement [inaudible phrase], and if you had any particular stand in those days.
Oh, that’s right. It was exciting. Not really. I mean I was very fascinated about this continuous creation idea. I mean that really fascinated me that, you know, every so often in space as it expanded a hydrogen atom could be created and so on, and then you’ve got no problems, and when the beginning is and when the end is. It sort of solves a lot of philosophical problems that had sort of been worrying me in the background. But it was really fascination. I didn’t have any ideas, because so much was coming out at that time. I mean, it was so exciting to be amongst that group of people. You know, because when you’ve got a steady state theory which has sort of been established and then suddenly you get experimental evidence coming in from the quasars and so on showing you that the steady state is not going to hold out. When you are in that kind of situation then there is a tremendous debate, tremendous excitement because you know you’ve got two contradictory or two theories which are not contradictory, and therefore you have the possibility of developing your ideas.
Did these [inaudible word] any particular episodes? I mean you said you were attending seminars, right?
Yeah. The biggest thing was when Martin Ryle [spelling?] actually came and gave three lectures at King’s showing Bondi and Gold [spelling?] and the entire [inaudible phrase]. I mean it was, you know, it was something just — I can’t explain it in detail, but it was just so exciting to be around and listening to it and hearing the debates.
Did you feel that there was also a difference in philosophy behind positions [inaudible phrase] at the time? Or was the argument strictly reduced to experimental evidence?
The arguments were both. There was the philosophical background, what’s the university like, what, you know, how do we, what sort of concepts do we have in order to discuss cosmology, and then there was also the experimental evidence which would come in and decide one over the other.
What were most of [inaudible word] backgrounds [inaudible phrase]?
Well, for him I think was really the whole motivation behind the Continuous Creation idea that he was deeply worried about the initial singularity, the Big Bang you know. He felt that that was something that was [inaudible word]. And he would — You know, because I think that probably recalled ideas of God and the creation, and he was probably not that —
Was he religious or anti-religious?
He was Jewish, and I’m not sure whether he was Orthodox. Cyril Dom was very Orthodox Jewish, but then he never got involved in these discussions. He was very much a technical man — I mean extremely. I really did, really liked him very much. He was a very — Saying “very nice man” doesn’t sound adequate. Very helpful, never got angry with anybody, always tried to look at arguments, and he never pretended that he knew something when he didn’t know something. You know, there are a lot of people around in theoretical physics who think they know everything. You’ve met them. Cyril was not like that at all; he was very honest. No, the general philosophy was I think [inaudible word] very difficult to capture it at this stage.
For me it was important, because I had been brought up you know in a Church of England background, and for my mother and father the Church was not overriding but it was important because of the military [inaudible word] Church [inaudible word] and so on. There was a sort of full structure to it all. And I quite honestly found that I just couldn’t take it, and therefore I began to ask questions and atom [correct word?] cosmology seemed to be the ideal place where I could [inaudible phrase].
So did you feel at that time that cosmology was in particular contradiction to established religion?
Yes, yes. I must say the Continuous Creation idea was beautiful, because it didn’t require someone standing up there and saying, you know, “be creative,” which is the old image that you get from the Anglican Church in those days. And I remember at that time if you wanted to talk about religion that there was a tremendous debate going on. The Church — and King’s College was, is a theological college — I remember having great debates with some of the theologians there on this matter. And that was the time —
What would be their position on that? And where would such debates occur?
They would occur, “Would you come and have coffee with me, Chaplain?” you know, and that kind of thing. And it also occurred when we were playing soccer or rugby. You know, they’d be there and then we’d start discussing these questions, and we’d move on into a tearoom or something. They weren’t the formal dis-, I much prefer informal discussions.
So what kind of position did theologians tend to take on this [inaudible word]. Which of these [inaudible phrase] to them?
It’s very difficult, because some of the people in Cambridge were very, very astute. They weren’t the — You see remember what I’m coming from is a very simple, mechanical idea of religion, of God and [inaudible word] — no depth in it at all. And that doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m sort of drawing away from it. Like, I go and find religious people, religious, deep religious thinkers in King’s who have [inaudible word] subtle ideas about God and much more subtle ideas about nature and much more subtle ideas [inaudible phrase]. But still they are very interested in how it fits into a cosmology, how it fits into science. And there was this big debate going on — I guess in my mind it was a big debate going on — of science versus religion.
And were there any of them, of the theologians, showing up at the physical and mathematical [inaudible word] lectures when these debates were?
I think they were when the big debates were there, yes, they were there, yes. But they generally, those particular debates tended to be technical, because when [inaudible phrase] it was of technical nature, “How do you know those are there?” and so on.
How heated were they? How agitated [inaudible phrase] by British standards.
By British standards, yes. The thing I liked about them at that stage was — I mean, I got very disenchanted with some form of I want to say American physics, and this might be crossed out when the transcript comes out. There is a tremendous aggression amongst theoretical physicists [inaudible phrase] — “I’m right and you’re [inaudible word]” — generally coming from America, although it’s not unknown in the British community as well.
Could you given an example? An example of some [inaudible phrase] problem you know or —?
No, it’s a kind of intolerance for discussion. “Oh, that’s perfectly obvious. That’s [inaudible word].” And we got a lot of that [inaudible phrase] and I’ve never [inaudible word] could come up to that [inaudible phrase] is something I’ve never understood, I’ve never got to the bottom of, this sort of total absolute belief that what they’re doing is right and anybody saying anything else contrary to that is wrong. And that is in total contrast to the way [inaudible phrase] going in cosmology. There people were not saying “I’m right, you’re wrong,” they were actually arguing the case. And they were arguing very passionately, but they were not led to the state where they didn’t talk to each other anymore. In other words they were open with each other and they wanted to try and understand each other’s position. And that was something [inaudible phrase] not get when [inaudible phrase].
Did you feel only at that time that there were some differences between whatever courses and topics taken by American physicists in America and in this country?
I think in those days I was very much British. I didn’t know what the hell was going on [correct phrase?]. [Inaudible phrase] And therefore all my — I was influenced only by the British group. The Americans who came across, there was John Wheeler and I was absolutely fascinated by John Wheeler.
[inaudible word] part of his debate [inaudible phrase].
He came in — he wasn’t part of that debate, but he did actually come in and visit. A bit later than that, but I mean I particularly admired him and his tremendous —
This is where history sort of gets mottled up in my memory.
We don’t have to [inaudible phrase].
It was certainly after the — it was probably more when I knew David Baum [spelling?], so it was probably about ten years later. So there is a historical gap there which I’m trying to confuse the two but —
Did you like your Ph.D. topic [inaudible phrase]?
Yes and no. Yes and no. Yes, because it trained me to be disciplined in getting exact results [inaudible phrase].
What was the challenging part of it?
The challenging part really was something that we’d noticed in the group which was just beginning to be recognized elsewhere, and that was a very — This was the fascinating question which I was told by my supervisor not to waste time thinking about, it was too difficult. What seemed to be very apparent from what I was doing, that simply by counting, in other words by combinatory leads [correct word?], I could tell you whether I was living in a two-dimensional world or a three-dimensional world — or a four-dimensional world. There was some kind of combinatorial notion of dimensionality. And to this day I think there’s something very profound there, although I’ve never seen this thing discussed in any [inaudible phrase]. Now I’m particularly interested in that because when I came later with David Baum and Roger Parose [spelling?] and so on, one of the ideas we were playing around with was can we obstruct space and time from —
Okay, so when I came later to this idea of starting with what we called prespace [spelling?], an obstruction of the space-time format [correct word?]. The interesting thing that’s taken over from my own thesis was that you can do this by [inaudible word]. You can distinguish dimensionality by gubernatorial [correct word?] means. And therefore you are not stuck with your three axes perpendicular to each other, etc. So that there is some deeper structure there that I was already beginning to probe. Now I took that further. With the thesis work, it was really getting exact results, doing the extrapolations and making assessments of critical parameters.
What kind of results? Or what was the main result of that?
The critical point, the icing model in three dimensions have not been solved, could not be solved [inaudible phrase], two dimensions [inaudible phrase]. Three dimensions you have to use series expansions. And so really my thesis was about extending the series expansions not only for the [inaudible phrase], the susceptibility, but also for the polymer end-to-end distance. The two things have got very similar techniques and you can do similar expansions. And also the polyelectrolytes, if you introduce solvents or solute interactions you get a change in the end-to-end distance of expansion. And these can also be handled by exactly the same [inaudible word] techniques. So you are thinking about these polymers on a lattice.
Whose work were you trying to improve or extend or revise?
It was really — Cyril Dom originally started it. There was one which was a closed form of approximation which came from [inaudible word], and that was something that Rushbrook [spelling?] and Scoyns [spelling?] and Newcastle at that stage and how he managed to do polygons. What Dom suggested was a way of doing configurations. Everything came down to stars, these irreducible clusters. And what Rushbrook and Scoyns couldn’t deal with are finite graphs which have the odd [correct word?] number of [inaudible word] vertex, odd number of [inaudible word] of the vertex, something like a square with one diagonal, or something like a square with two diagonals. They couldn’t handle those kinds of things. They could do polygons quite easily. And Dom gave me the clue [inaudible phrase] these others and I was able to show how it worked for every irreducible [inaudible phrase] stars, irreducible cluster, irreducible finite cluster [inaudible phrase].
And what did you not like about your thesis?
What I didn’t like about the thesis was that they want — well; it was really they wanted me to continue with the work. I think this is where I felt that we had gone far enough with accounting techniques, etc., to arrive at the best approximations for that particular approach from the critical points, etc. What I thought now what one needed was not to carry on with that, but actually now looking why you have this configure, why you had this dimensionality factor in there. But that was something that Cyril Dom and his school were not particularly interested — or at least if they were interested in it they didn’t discuss it with me very much.
Do you know why?
No, I don’t know why. It was almost like — I put it down to the fact that, you know, the physics, there are two types of physics: there is a physicist who wants to do technical things and get [inaudible phrase] and into another technical [inaudible word] and so on; and then there are other physicists like myself who are interested in [inaudible word]. And I wasn’t going to spend my life doing [inaudible word]. I would rather waste my time on the big problems and fail than do the little problems and succeed. I think that was it.
What are the big problems at that time [inaudible phrase]?
The problems at that time that were beginning to appear to me was that I didn’t understand how quantum theory fitted into all this cosmology and all this relativity [inaudible phrase]. And I began getting absolutely fascinated with quantum mechanics.
[inaudible phrase] doing some work in relativity or not?
Not really doing some work, but I mean what we did do as postgraduate students is we were giving each other lectures on these other problems. And I got told off for that as well, wondering why is the blindness leading the blind. But we felt, you know I felt that I wanted to move into these problems in a serious way, and it was quite clear I was going to get my Ph.D., and it was quite clear at that stage that once you got a Ph.D. you [inaudible word] university because there was a big expansion going on. And if I was going to be in the university —
So you didn’t worry about career.
No worries about careers in those days at all. Because when I got my Ph.D. I had three interviews; I was offered jobs at two interviews, and the third one I didn’t get as far as the interview because I already had two job offers. You know, that’s very much in contrast to today.
Yes. And where were these interviews?
The interviews were at [inaudible phrase] come out from King’s, they were at Sheffield University, and they were at Leeds University. And I was being offered jobs, you know, before I even knew where I was. I had the enviable problem of trying to decide which one to go to — unlike today, where you spend twenty years on postdocs and you still can’t — you can get a [inaudible phrase]. We were lucky in those days.
Do you think at that time the physics were already for some big if not revolution then at least a big thing that they were going to large problems and [inaudible phrase] really big questions, and how would you description the mood at that time?
The mood was very mixed. There were a group of us who certainly felt — and I’m now moving on to when I got a position here, okay, so I’ve now got my Ph.D. and I’m moving on to —
Oh, then maybe we should start with how you first met Paul [inaudible phrase].
Okay, let’s do that. Okay, let me do that. As I say, I was very disappointed with the physics at King’s College, because it wasn’t addressing any of the big questions that I wanted. And I really was looking around what the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life, because I wasn’t clear at all at that stage. This was my final year in my Ph.D.
And so we’re talking about ‘62, ‘63?
And what happens at Kingsley is that there is a thing called a Maxwell Society, and the Maxwell Society arranged every year a meeting at Cumberland Lodge, which is one of these big houses in Windsor Park, which was given to London University by some woman. I forget her name. So students could come meet there and talk about general moral questions and that sort of thing. And there was this meeting and the lads persuaded me, you know, “Come on, Basil,” because I never used to go to these kinds, said come along, you know. And there was some guy, Baum [inaudible word] talking [inaudible phrase] didn’t mean anything to me at all. And I turned up at this meeting and was playing croquet, and then someone said, “Well look, come on. David Baum is going to talk now. Come and listen,” you know. So I crept in the back, because I usually get fed up with listening to the [inaudible word] and you know walk out. [Inaudible phrase] some things I heard what he was saying. He was addressing the very questions that I had been wanting to discuss since I was a schoolboy — you know these very general questions about the relationship between quantum mechanics, relativity, the nature of the university, processes in particles [inaudible phrase]. It was sort of a mind blowing for me, and I just sat there fascinated. I’ve still got the notes that I took to this day, because I was so struck by what he had to say. Not only these ideas were the ideas I wanted to work with, but he was actually giving the feeling that anybody could do this. You know, he wasn’t saying [inaudible word] privileged few and only a very select few could do this; he wanted to say, “Come on, let’s discuss it.” And I just started talking with him, and —
After the lecture?
After the lecture during the weekend, because he was there. He then gave another lecture. And okay, I didn’t make much of an impact with him, but you know it was enough to stimulate [inaudible phrase] and I think I said to my wife, I said, “If I get a job where this fellow is going, I’ll go.” And fortunately, he got the chair here in Brookbaine [spelling?] College. And there was, you know, whenever a professor gets the chair he wants some junior underlings. Now I didn’t realize at the time that he was really, you know, that I was to be his assistant if you like, assistant lecturer. I thought I was filling an experimental post. And on the interview, I remember to this day, Arotela Arampa [spelling?], who is a very sweet professor of physics here, one of the guys who actually contributed to the soft focus X-ray microscope that Morris [inaudible word] used to crack the DNA. He was here. And I remember him asking me in the interview, now what would I do with a [inaudible word] and pendulum and so on. And I thought I’d swung it. I thought I’d convinced him that I was a brilliant experimental physicist, but I was told later — because part of my duties were to do demonstrating, which 1 enjoyed, you know as part of my duties — but I had to convince them that I was a good experimentalist, even though I’m not. And I thought I succeeded, but I was told not so long ago that the reason why they took me was not because I was a great experimentalist — because David [inaudible word] wants to work with me. So it was — And I didn’t realize that at the time.
Around the time when you first met Baum, among your peers of students, of grad students, who also had similar interests like yours? Or do you remember somebody —?
You just felt alone?
Absolutely alone. They all thought I was crazy. You know, “Why is he interested in this kind of thing?” Now see, it was a very small school, very [inaudible phrase], and I think this is one of the disadvantages. Perhaps I should have moved on to Oxford or Cambridge or something like that maybe, but I just didn’t feel happy in this. I’d much rather be in small pool.
How would you description the attitude?
Of your peers, of the other students, what they [inaudible phrase], what they thought what is important to do.
Well [inaudible phrase] want to get a job and wanted to teach and wanted to [inaudible phrase] teaching, [inaudible phrase]. So un-, sorry, I find it very uninspiring. Yes, of course it’s important to teach [inaudible word], but I want to see something else in the [inaudible word], and I didn’t see that in those [inaudible word]. I saw it in the staff. When I came here there was Roger Penrose [spelling?], and I saw it in him.
Wasn’t he at [inaudible word]?
He came to Brookbaine in ‘66 or something. He was in [inaudible phrase]. And then I saw his group working, and then his group, Bob Garoche [spelling?] came over and several others, and that was a really, really stimulating environment to me.
And before that [inaudible word] education were you tempted to take philosophy courses? Were you required to take philosophy courses? If so, where were you [inaudible word] in philosophy?
No, the only thing at King’s which was rather interesting was they have a thing called AKC, Associate of King’s College, and it’s a course which people go — and it’s open to every undergraduate of the college, and they are on general philosophical questions, you know, philosophy, religions, you know, [inaudible word] the status of the college. And I went to a few of them but I got bored [correct word?]. No, I picked up most of my philosophy talking informally, reading and so on.
So you came here to [inaudible word] in —?
Sixty-two. So how would you describe your duties, your position, and also [inaudible phrase] your position to the hierarchy [inaudible word] how many physicists were there at the time [inaudible phrase]?
Oh, it was an absolutely marvelous group. There was only ten here, so it was a nice small group and you got to know each other. But J.D. Burnell [spelling?] was the head of the physics department at that time. He was an inspiring figure actually. But unfortunately I think the second year I was here he had a massive stroke which reduced him to a wheelchair and he couldn’t speak. And I felt that I’d been denied access to a really first class [inaudible word]. But there was — Vernon Aaronberg [spelling?] was here, and he was one of the guys who came across from Germany during the Hitler time and settled here. There was also [inaudible phrase] I knew about, but I had taken his — He had retired by then. In the department itself, I think the main group was Aaronberg himself, and it was David Baum, and David Baum had a couple of research students with him that he brought with him. One Allen Cotahey [spelling?], and also there was a guy called Donald Schumacher [spelling?] who came here. And so it was really that small theoretical group, with Aaronberg being the sort of outsider but nevertheless being a very sympathetic outsider. And really what happened was, I started talking with David Baum and I suddenly realized I had a lot of work to do, because there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know that he knew and I had to catch up.
There were — first of all I had to really go into quantum mechanics and make sure I understood the thing inside out. And that I was able to do because I gave a course on it, and the best way to learn anything is to teach it.
So what books did he use, or what did you —?
The books at that time were very difficult to come by, and I wanted to do the direct notation. And the only book that was really beginning to do that kind of thing in those days was Messier’s [spelling?] book. It was two volumes in quantum mechanics, and they were brilliant. And I used those as models.
And then using — Yeah, I find Darak [spelling?] a little bit too difficult for the kids here, and also for myself. But I mean Messier was the sort of guy who broke the back of it and then you could read Darak and then — because I think Darak’ s notation [inaudible phrase] and primes for [inaudible word] values and so on, no primes, you sort of, it just — the ideas are great, but just the notations could be a lot cleaner. So I learned that. Then there was also — but don’t forget what David Baum was doing there was really he had come in with a bit of Eddington in the back of [inaudible word] structuralism. He was talking about order relation, order structures, organizations. He was trying to find new concepts which would involve space and time itself being something abstracted [correct word? extracted?] from this deeper subtle [correct word?] relationship. In that structure quantum mechanics would then emerge as a natural consequence, not as a sort of forced consequence as it was, as it still is. So there were things to learn about topology. In face Baum and myself went through Lefshitz’ [spelling?] book on topology. We went through Hodges’ [spelling?] Harmonic Forms, because there were certain things in there which we thought were relevant to this. We went through colmology [correct word? spelling?] theory, which was brand new. I mean, no physicist knew what colmology theory was when we started. Now of course it’s [inaudible phrase]. But it wasn’t in existence. Then there were the spinners themselves, and that became influenced from Penrose, you know, what is a spinner and therefore trying to understand [inaudible word] algebras and stuff like that. So that really was a big learning period for me.
And if you — we’re trying to be a bit more precise about time. In those years what do you think [inaudible phrase] what his program at that time was, what he wanted to teach.
The program at that time was that we wanted to develop a more general set of concepts based on some of the ideas he had [inaudible word] structure process — in which both relativity and quantum mechanics could be seen as two aspects of the same thing and therefore ultimately you have quantum gravity built in right from the word go. So really, although we didn’t call it quantum gravity in those days, this is what’s happening now, but we were working towards structures which were not in space time which didn’t have [inaudible word] were not described in terms of [inaudible word] but in terms of topological features. And that was how we were hoping to understand quantum mechanics.
Besides the [inaudible word], did you feel that there was any specific philosophy behind all this [inaudible word]. Or what was whether you felt anything about his philosophical inspirations or what [inaudible phrase]?
Well, I think that the — it was difficult at that time to know what he was reading, but having, looking back on it, the biggest problem that we were facing was essentially this idea of wholeness [correct word?]. The fact that — and this came a little bit later. In the early days I didn’t realize how important this all was. But there were sort of features in there, you see. There was Jeffrey Chu’s [spelling?] idea that, “Why are you always starting with space time when in quantum mechanics space time or energy momentum? They are complementary aspects. Why take space time as basic and not energy momentum?” That was what Jeffrey did, was to say, “Well, let’s take energy momentum as basic, because that’s where all our collisions are taking place, then we abstract [extract?] space” — I think he was the one who gave me this idea.
Was it from reading for you or —?
No, from reading. From reading. No, no, that’s from reading. I met him later. That was from reading. But also David knew a lot of these people, see, and he would put these names and I would get the names and I’d go and read the people involved. But it was really reading. A lot of my work was done by reading and playing around with ideas. Now where were we? Oh yes, the philos Baum’s philosophy. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just — he didn’t have a particular philosophy. You see it’s often been painted that Baum was a Marxist. This is one simple vision that’s given [inaudible phrase]. I couldn’t put him in any category [inaudible phrase]. Certainly he was no Marxist when I met him. He might have been in his younger days. His wife said he was, so I believe perhaps he was, but what he was a very open mind which would take a certain point of view which was very radical, and he was very influenced by [inaudible word]. He was very puzzled by the ideas that [inaudible word] had. And he felt there was something really deep in them, and yet at the same time he felt there was something not right with them. And therefore the idea was, was can we develop some general philosophical scheme which will make Baum much more transparent and accommodate. Now what I learnt afterwards, that he was very much influenced by Hagle [spelling?], and Hagle has this idea of inseparability again of this oneness in nature and how do we deal with it. And that brings us into thought [correct word?], and that was something that he developed later on, but at that, but at this stage we were interested in the question of wholeness. And then slowly we drifted into this idea of number [correct word?] [Inaudible word]. Would it be appropriate to talk about it here?
It will be [inaudible phrase].
Did he [inaudible word] you to read his own books [inaudible phrase] quantum mechanics?
Did he ever [inaudible phrase] and what was his [inaudible phrase]?
I mean I read his book, but he, you know, he didn’t ask me to.