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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of William Havens by Ronald Doel on 1991 February 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Topics include his youth and education; his Ph.D. work at Columbia University; building the Nevis cyclotron; nuclear fission; the United Nations Nuclear Cross-section Committee; his appointment as Secretary to the American Physical Society; recollections of Karl Darrow; Physical Review; Physical Review Letters; various divisions of the American Physical Society; Committee on the Future of Nuclear Physics; his consulting work with Los Alamos in 1962; schism of APS membership over military patronage and Viet Nam War; the changing role of the American Institute of Physics; impressions of William Koch; recollections of Goudsmit retirement as Physical Review editor; his appointment as Professor of Applied Physics and Engineering at Columbia University in 1978; APS involvement in the Star Wars Project; impressions of collaborations in high-energy physics; personal impressions of the role of physics in society. Prominently mentioned names include: Karl Darrow, John Dunning, Maurice Ewing, Enrico Fermi, James Fletcher, William Koch, Willis Lamb, George Pegram, Frank Press, Shirley Quimby, I.I. Rabi, James Rainwater, Emilio Segre, Charles Schwartz, Henry Smyth, Edward Teller, Harold Urey, Hermann Weyl, John Wheeler, Herbert York, Also the American Physical Society, American Institute of Physics, Columbia University, American Association of Physics Teachers.
I know that you were born on March 31, 1920 in New York, New York, but I don’t know anything about your family, or about your early life. Who were your parents, and what did they do?
My father was a engineer. He was a graduate of the Columbia Engineering School. My mother taught school in New York City, starting in 1906 and retired in 1951. My family originally came from Wales and settled in Rhode Island. In 1664 George Havens moved to Long Island and settled on Shelter Island. There is a museum on Shelter Island to the Havens family. My branch of the family moved into what is now New York City from Shelter Island in the early 1800’s and settled in Brooklyn. An ancestor, Jonathan Nicolas Havens, was the first Representative from Long Island in the first Congress of the United States in 1789, and my grandfather was an officer in the 7th Regiment from New York City in the Civil War.
Was that on your mother’s or on your father’s side?
That was on my father’s side. My mother’s father and mother immigrated from Germany to New York City in the 1870s. My mother was born in Yorkville on Second Avenue and 88th Street. My father was born in the Bronx on 134th Street, right where the through-way goes now. The brownstone house his family owned was destroyed to put in the through-way that goes to the Triborough Bridge. My parents met at the Willis Avenue Methodist Church, where my grandmother was the Superintendent of the Sunday School and very active in that church. My mother and father were both in the choir, and then they were married in July 1914. My father built a house for my mother on the corner of 182nd Street and the Grand Concourse, which was quite different then than it is now. It was relatively rural. I was born in the house on 182nd Street and Grand Concourse.
Did you say that your father taught at Columbia?
He graduated from the Columbia Engineering School in 1914. He didn’t teach at Columbia for a long period of time. He did teach when he first graduated; he was the Valedictorian at Columbia and taught the surveying course during the summer of 1914. My mother and father’s honeymoon was at Bantam Lake in Connecticut, which was the engineering camp of Columbia University.
He was a Civil Engineer. Well in fact, his official degree was in Civil Engineer, but he was the first Sanitary Engineer that Columbia produced.
Did your father discuss his work with you? Do you feel he encouraged your interest in science?
He certainly encouraged my interest in engineering and science, but my reason for going into it is that I found mathematics and physics and sciences extremely simple things to do, and I found great difficulty with the languages, history and humanities. I was much more interested in the sciences and mathematics than I was in the humanities. When I was in high school and college, however, I did play a trumpet. In 1935 when I started college things were rather tough and I played in a dance band to make extra money. I was even was a member of the Musicians’ Union for three months. I got a job at the Essex House and they had a union shop. I normally got four to five dollars a night playing, and it was $18 a night at the Essex House, so I had to get a temporary union card. I was a member of Patrillo’s Union. I had not been a member of any other union in my life, but for three months [at the end of my time at City College] I was a member of Patrillo’s Musicians union.
I’m curious what you remember of your reading as a child. Did your parents encourage you to read about science?
No, I don’t think so. My father always had a number of engineering magazines around. He was quite versatile in that his degree was in civil engineering but he was for instance one of the principal designers of the Air Nitrates Plant in Muscle Shoals, during First World War. Prior to the First World War most of the chemicals used in the U.S. were imported from Germany and these were no longer available. The First World War was instrumental in developing the chemical industries in the United States. There was a great shortage of nitrates for explosives, and so the U.S. Government built an air nitrates plant in Alabama, because there was an excess of electric power available. An air nitrates plant makes nitrates using the nitrogen from the air. He was one of the principal designers of that plant. After the war he was mostly in building construction. When the U.S. was in the profitable times before 1928, he owned about five or six apartment houses in New York City and was building a 20 to 30 private dwellings mostly in Westchester, around White Plains and Scarsdale. But the Depression hit the building industry before the major stock market crash occurred and we essentially lived on my mother’s salary as a schoolteacher for a while. Later he was Chief Engineer of the WPA in the Bronx.
Did you take many science courses in high school? Do you remember any teachers who particularly influenced you?
In high school I had a very good physics teacher who later became the head of the Department of Science when the Bronx High School of Science was created. I think his name was Mr. Advent, but it was a long time ago. I graduated from high school in 1935. I remember being very interested in that particular physics course in my senior year in high school. In high school I took all of the mathematics that I could take; that is everything that was offered. They didn’t have the honors programs at that time that they have now; Special high schools did not exist. I went to Evander Childs High School. I’m not sure why, except that Evander Child was principal of my grandmother’s school when she taught public school. I went to an Annex of the Evander Childs High School the first two years because the Annex was fairly close to where I lived. I didn’t have to go to the main building until the third year in high school. The Annex was at 168th Street and Monroe Avenue in the Bronx and the main building was on Gun Hill Road (210th Street) and Third Avenue and near White Plains Road. At that time I lived on 178th Street near the Grand Concourse. My father lost the house he built for his family in the 1923 Depression and after that we lived in an apartment house on 178th Street.
Did your family find it difficult to get by during that time?
Yes, I remember money was in short supply. From ‘28 to ‘33. The Depression came first to the building industry before it spread to other parts of the economy.
What was the highest mathematics course you had in high school? Was it a standard sequence?
Yes. The mathematical sequence was a regularly structured program at that time. The first year was elementary algebra, then plane geometry, intermediate algebra, trigonometry, solid geometry, and advanced algebra. No calculus was taught in high school. I took it all. I took physics, chemistry and biology in high school. Everyone in the regular College Preparatory program took five major courses each semester. I took three years of Latin, and two years of French. That was the standard, College entrance program when I was in high school.
Did you study with others, or did you do this mostly on your own?
No, I studied primarily on my own. I graduated from high school when I was 15 years old, which was pretty young. Therefore, I wasn’t as mature as most of my contemporaries. And that’s an interesting story. My father wanted me to go to Columbia College. They wouldn’t take me because I was too young, and so I went to City College, because they would take me and I had the average to get in. I found out later when I was on the faculty of Columbia that at that time — because of the Depression — it was much more difficult to get into City College as a regular day student than it was to get into Columbia College, as far as the academic average was concerned. They wouldn’t take me and they suggested I go to a private preparatory school for a year and then apply to Columbia. That didn’t sit well with me at all. I wasn’t about to go back to high school.
You had no intention of turning back?
That’s right. I’d finished high school, and I wanted to go to college.
You didn’t regret not going at Columbia at the time?
Not really. I would have been a commuter at Columbia anyway, because we lived in the Bronx on the Concourse. The 8th Avenue Subway had just been constructed. So what it meant to me was that I either got off at 145th Street and went to City College or 125th Street and went to Columbia College, and I didn’t see an awful lot of difference. I know now what the differences would have been. I think this is generally characteristic of the times and the situation in City College; it was a free education. And I mean free. I had a Regents’ scholarship, and when I registered every semester, the registration fee was $2. So they paid me $48. The Regents’ scholarship was $100 a year. Of course I didn’t get the money the day I registered. You had to put out $2 in cash in order to register, but then a couple of months later I got a check for $48.
I’m curious: do you have any brothers or sisters?
I have one sister. She’s an attorney and is now retired. She’s older than I am. She graduated from Columbia Law School in 1941. She graduated from Hunter College, as my mother did. My mother graduated from Hunter College in 1906 when it was the Normal school, not a college. Dr. Hunter was the president of the Normal school that my mother was in. It was on 68th Street and Park Avenue as it is now. The Normal School was later named Hunter College. My mother lived at 88th Street and 2nd Avenue, so it wasn’t far for her to walk to college. My sister went to Hunter College and Columbia Law School. She graduated from Columbia Law School. Her first job was with the Law Revision Commission of the State of New York at the Cornell University Law School. When the Second World War started the big Wall Street law firms were looking for women lawyers who would not be drafted, so she was probably one of the first woman Lawyer in what was then the law firm Chadburn, Wallace, Park & Whiteside. They were at 102 Broadway and were one of those large downtown law firms. Her specialty was contracts. She quit in 1943 to get married to an officer who sat next to her at law school. They then had a son, so she resigned from the law firm. Her husband was sent to Australia and returned after the war. They settled in Vermont, where he became a member of the Bar and later moved to Washington, where her husband took a position in the legal staff of the Air Force. My sister also worked for the Pentagon as a procurement officer. My sister’s husband was chief general counsel for the Air Force when he retired from government service in 1976.
That’s interesting. She didn’t have a strong interest in science, then?
No. Absolutely not. She used to help me with my English and languages, and I’d help her with mathematics and science even though she was two years ahead of me in school — I did help her with her algebra and geometry.
You had complementary interests?
That’s right. They were complementary. When she was in law school I was a graduate student in physics. We used to go to school together. We were both at Columbia at that time, and we used the dining room table for our studying. But we were quite different.
Had you decided at City College to pursue physics?
No. I majored in mathematics; I didn’t major in physics. In fact, I took all the majors’ mathematic courses, up through modern analysis. I felt something was something was missing, because it looked to me — and I don’t know whether you should use this quote — that the mathematicians set up a straw man and then destroyed the straw man and their efforts didn’t have too much connection with the real world. All of the mathematics I had done up to that time had been calculus and advanced calculus where you could apply it to physics. I realized at that time that my interest wasn’t in purely intellectual activity which could be disconnected with the real world. I wanted it to be connected to the real world. I liked chemistry, so I actually ended up with a major in both mathematics and chemistry. In my senior year at CCNY, I had to take a very, very heavy program (21 points) because I didn’t have a sufficient number of courses in either mathematics or chemistry to have a good major. I ended up with enough points to have a major in both chemistry and mathematics. I took a couple of physics courses in the last semester as a matter of elective interest. Henry Semat’s course in Modern Physics was the one I think that influenced me most, I found the subject fascinating. I think that is why I decided to take graduate work in physics.
You didn’t take advanced physics, then, until very near the end of college?
That’s right, until the last semester. The experience that shut me off on chemistry was organic analysis. As I said, I used to commute to college on the subway in my senior year. I wondered why I had no trouble getting plenty of standing room on the subway train from 145th Street to Tremont Avenue, which is where I lived, until I realized that my unknown was butyric acid which is the smell in vomit. The smell permeated my clothes, and people gave me plenty of room. My father requested me to take a shower before I could come to dinner. The organic analysis lab lasted 5-hours. If you work with a substance for five hours, you don’t notice the smell. But other people do. So that shut me off to chemistry. I didn’t like the smells; I didn’t like the rote memorization. I liked physical chemistry, it was more like physics. I remember memorizing the formula for synthesizing malachite green, because that was the favorite synthesis of the professor who gave the course. You knew very well that the synthesis was going to be on the final exam, so you had to know the synthesis of malachite green. You precipitate this, and then add that, and precipitate that-and so on — heat it up and reflux it, and come out with the dye malachite green. I couldn’t follow the reasoning which led you through that process, and I liked to see the reasoning behind a synthesis.
But it wasn’t sufficiently challenging — or at least not stimulating in the way you found mathematics?
That’s right. However it also was connected to the real world. I think mathematics is very challenging intellectually, but it didn’t have the same kind of final result which I found intriguing.
You were more attracted to the applications of physics?
Were any of your mathematics instructors at City College particularly interested in physics?
Up through advanced calculus the professors illustrated the mathematics with examples from classical physics and solved physical problems. After advanced calculus the professors were interested in pure mathematics only. I remember advanced calculus. I had Bennington P. Gill, who was a famous mathematics professor at City College. He was very good both as a teacher and mathematician, but he’d spend two lectures proving that d2F/dxdy = d2F /dydy. Mathematically that is a very important theorem to prove, because you can have discontinuities in a set where this may not be true; and therefore to prove that it is true in any mathematical set of functions is a very important theorem. On the other hand, it almost must be true with a classical physical system. So proving the theorem seemed like doing an awful lot of work for nothing. I recognized the importance of it for the mathematician, but it appeared to me at the time to be relatively unimportant to a physicist. That doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant for all of physics, because some representations are quite different from those used in classical physics and then it does become important, but not very often.
Did you find the mathematics you were studying in some ways inappropriate for the problems that interested you?
Yes. Most modern mathematics did not apply to classical physics but it is very important in quantum physics. In general almost all mathematical descriptions of physical systems have to have some sort of continuity. I had a very interesting discussion with a very famous mathematician at Columbia, Professor Edward Kasner. His office was next to mine during the war. He was probably the most distinguished mathematician at Columbia at that time. His office was in the physics building, and we used to have some interesting conversations. I was complaining about mathematics to him one time, and he said, “The mathematician’s problem is much easier than the physicist’s,” and illustrated it by the following, “Let’s take the example of how an airplane flies. The mathematician can say, let’s assume the atmosphere ends at 30,000 feet. We can calculate the motion of the airplane as it goes through the boundary of 30,000 feet, and determine what happens. It starts up, it has an inertia that carries it above the boundary, but there’s no lift there. Then it decreases falls back down and increases speed giving I more lift. Therefore, the airplane has an oscillatory motion about 30,000 feet. He said, “The fact that the atmosphere doesn’t end at 30,000 feet is of no concern to the mathematician, but a physicist has to worry about the fact that the atmosphere doesn’t end at 30,000 feet. As the airplane goes on to higher elevations, the atmosphere changes in density, and so forth and so on. So the mathematician has much more freedom than the physicist.” I like the connection to the real world, and I always have. Therefore I had no interest in calculating what would happen to an airplane in an atmosphere which ended at 30,000 feet. I like to be connected to the real world.
It’s interesting that you recognized this very early on.
Yes. In physics you’re not challenged by your own intellect; you’re challenged by nature. Maybe that’s it.
I sense that you didn’t have much contact with other students at City College?
Not very much. City College taught you how to take care of yourself. That was one of the things I think I found very valuable at City College. Remember, there were many more students trying to get into City College than could be admitted and most of the faculty there were instructors, not professors. It was very difficult to become a professor at City College at that time. Twenty-year Ph.D.’s were still instructors. Instructors shared offices with several other instructors, so that unless you were being taught by a professor, your instructor was never in an office; you never could visit him, because he wasn’t there. They really didn’t have any place to sit. You learned very quickly to corner the instructor if you wanted to ask some questions. Usually you couldn’t get him just as he came in because he came in just as the class began, but you could get hold of him for a few minutes afterward, and if you had prepared a list of questions you could get his answers if you didn’t take too much time, because he wanted to leave. If you wanted to get a good education at CCNY, the instructors were very able, but they had limitations on their time, and you had to go after them to get the answers to the questions that you wanted to have answered or didn’t understand. You had to learn to be somewhat aggressive in that atmosphere if you were going to get the education you wanted. I must admit, I didn’t understand a lot of things, and I would prepare a set of questions, and then I’d go up to the instructor and get as many answers as I could in time he would allot me and quickly write them down. Maybe I didn’t understand his answer, but if I wrote down what he said I could piece it together later.
You were rewarded for your self-confidence?
Right. So I enjoyed my life at City College, I swam on the team, and I played in the band and in the orchestra, I belonged to a social fraternity, and I was social at that time. Poor, but highly social. That was in the era of the Great Depression.
Were you involved in other activities?
I was in the ROTC for four years, and I ended up as a Cadet Captain. I was a lot younger than most of the other students, and therefore at the senior ROTC camp I didn’t fare as well as some of those who had more stamina and physical ability than I had. When I entered college I was 5 ft. 8 inches tall and weighed 128 pounds, and when I graduated I was 6 ft. tall and weighed 170 pounds. I grew a lot in college both physically and mentally.
You didn’t study with other students at City College, I imagine?
That’s right. I was a commuter. CCNY had its social functions every Thursday from 12:00 to 2:00 when there were no classes, so all clubs met on Thursday from 12:00 to 2:00. And that was the only time for socializing, except for the swimming team. I spent a lot of time with the members of the swimming team. You had to keep in good physical condition to swim with the team and swimming practice that took a lot of time. I enjoyed playing with the band and the orchestra that was very interesting; I had good friends in my fraternity in college. In general you came to the College for classes and then went home. Most of my studying was done at home.
I guess my biggest athletic accomplishment was that I was in the intercollegiate swim meet in 1939, swimming in 100-yard and 220 yards events. I didn’t place in any of the finals.
Yet you were a member on the team.
Yes, I was in the intercollegiate ranks, although I wasn’t a star.
Did you remain active in athletics at Columbia?
Oh sure. I used to go swimming during my lunch hour. In fact, the Columbia swimming coach saw me swimming during the lunch hour, and he asked me to come out for the team. I said I couldn’t, because I was an Assistant in Physics, and he wouldn’t believe me.
Is that right?
Because I was 20 at the time, and looked more like a college student than a staff member he wanted me on the college team. He grabbed a staff directory and asked me to show him my name in the directory. I showed him my name and he allowed me all swimming pool privileges of a swimming team member. Although I must admit I don’t now have the physical ability that I did when I was 20, I still swim regularly. I was a lifeguard during the summers in the late 1930s. In the summer of 1938 I was the ROTC camp lifeguard. In the summer of 1939 I was a lifeguard at Jones Beach. That was a good job at the time. I commuted all the way from the Bronx to Jones Beach. That was a long way, but I got familiar with the Long Island railroad — I took a subway train to Penn Station, the Long Island Railroad to Wantaugh, and then the bus to Jones Beach. Then the next year, 1940, I was in charge of all the waterfront operations at the Masonic club of Haverstraw in Bear Mountain State Park. That job didn’t pay as much as the Jones Beach job, but I ended up with a lot more money, because it included room and board. Since it was a social club, all my social life was covered; I never spent a cent. Every cent I got was money I had for myself; so even though the pay was nowhere near as much — I think I got $35 a week at Jones Beach, and I think I got $220 for the summer at the Masonic Club of Haverstraw, but I ended up with a lot more money. I didn’t have to commute, you see, and I didn’t have to buy lunches or anything else. It was a good way to live in a way. However, you were on-call all of your waking hours. There were disadvantages. You had one day off, but you are on call all of the other time. I had some duties at 6 a.m. and sometimes when they were short, I was fourth at Bridge until 11 p.m. But it was fun, and I was at the center of most of the activities.
This was the summer after your first year in graduate school?
That’s right. After my first year in graduate school. After that I was Assistant in Physics and taught summer school until the Manhattan Project started and then I worked diligently on that.
You’ve already answered this in part, but how did you support yourself while you were at City College?
Oh, my parents supported me completely while I was in school. I didn’t work at all during the academic year. Of course I was paid by the ROTC, and I did get some money during the summer of ‘38. Then in ‘39 I worked out at Jones Beach, in ‘40 I was at the Masonic Club of Haverstraw.
We should put this on the record: you earned your B.A. from City College in 1939?
In ‘39. Right.
Were you thinking to attend any other graduate school?
No, I was going to Columbia to graduate school. In fact Columbia didn’t want to admit me as a graduate student in physics because I didn’t have enough physics. I only had a couple of the advanced courses which wasn’t much physics. They didn’t like my preparation. However I had a reasonably decent mathematics record. I think the professor advised me to sit in on some of the elementary courses. That I didn’t do either. I went right into Pegram’s course in mechanics, and Rabi’s course in atomic physics, and Quimby’s course in electromagnetic theory. And I suffered. I had to do a lot of outside work. I didn’t have the preparation that most of the other graduate students had.
Were these advanced undergraduate lectures, or graduate courses?
They were the first year graduate courses. They were taken by seniors in Columbia College. Students coming from other colleges may take the senior graduate courses for credit. Columbia had a system of course numbering where one thousand were freshman, two thousand were sophomore, three thousand were junior, and four thousand were either senior or first year graduate, and six thousand second year, eight thousand third year graduate courses.
How many students were in these classes?
Well, I recall that there were five of us in Pegram’s class in mechanics. Jim Fletcher was one of them. He was a senior at Columbia College, and later became the administrator of NASA. He went to Hughes right after Princeton, where he’d gotten his Ph.D. His father was Harvey Fletcher, who was director of the acoustical research at Bell Labs at that time. And so he was very able in physics. Jim helped me a lot in the transition from mathematics to physics. And then there were a couple of other people who sort of disappeared, but I learned a great deal of physics there. Dean Pegram was just getting started on war work. This was just about the time of the discovery of fission. I guess some of the people thought I was his protégé at Columbia, but that wasn’t quite true. But he was very helpful. He had been my father’s adviser when my father was an engineering student at Columbia.
Had he remembered your father?
Well, I don’t know whether he remembered or not. He certainly remembered my father later on.
Did you have much regular contact with Pegram?
No, he was Dean of the Graduate School, Chairman of the Physics Department, and essentially what would now be called Vice President of the University for Academic Affairs. He was also running all of the growing burden of government contracts in war research, so he was a very, very busy man. He was both chairman of the physics department and dean of the graduate school. But he was very pleasant. I mean, I could make an appointment with him, and if I didn’t understand something he would explain it to me. I would go to his office in Low Library, or to his office on the 8th floor of Pupin, and he’d make five minutes or ten minutes available. He was always very pleasant, a very good teacher. I felt that he had a lot to do with my future career in physics.
Can you tell me more about your relationship with Jim Fletcher at the time?
Jim was a physics major at Columbia, and had all the groundwork which the professor advised me to take. We worked together in the library on a lot of problems. I mean, we were compatible. We still are. I haven’t had a lot of contact with him over the years, but every time we talk or meet, as recently as when the SDI program started we understand each other. Jim was the Chairman of the group which recommended to Reagan that he start the SDI program, and I spoke with Jim about that. I’ve kept up with him, I would see him once or twice a year; I wouldn’t say I was a close buddy or a close friend of his, but we have mutual interests, because we know each other for a long time.
Were there other graduate students you came to know very well in addition?
Oh yes. When things were going very rapidly, there are two people who come to mind. I was placed in charge of all the teaching assistants in 1942. Frank Press was one of the assistants. I guess he was two years behind me in graduate work. He started out as an assistant in physics, and I almost convinced him to come to work with us at the nuclear physics laboratory. But he decided to work with Maurice Ewing. Maurice Ewing was a physicist, but he was in the Geology department. He was what now would be called a geophysicist. Frank went over to work with Maurice Ewing in the geology department, and that’s where he got his Ph.D., and then went on in geophysics. I knew Frank well when he was an Assistant in physics. We both came from City College and were very friendly at that time. In 1941, I got involved with the cyclotron, Frank went off to the geology department, and I didn’t see him much after that. The other one who I was very close to at the time was Harold Brown, who was essentially my first graduate student. Harold was a student in my class in 1943 when I was teaching elementary physics and he was a freshman at Columbia College. He intended to become an electrical engineer. I was his adviser and I remember his interests very well, I don’t think I put any pressure on him to become a physicist. He was also in my laboratory section in elementary physics. Brown wrote the best analysis of experimental data of any student I had had up until that time or since. He was about 15 or 16 years old at the time. He went through Columbia College in two years. Columbia had three semesters a year at that time, and therefore students went through very, very rapidly. After taking some sophomore Electrical Engineering courses he said to me “You know, I think I’d rather go into physics than electrical engineering.” I said, “Great,” and encouraged him in going to physics, which he did. He was then was my teaching assistant, and worked with me in the physics laboratory. I supervised his Ph.D. thesis, and after receiving his Ph.D. he was a Research associate with me two years after he got his Ph.D. He told me he wanted to broaden his experience and get a job outside of New York City. He wanted to leave, and he should have. He was born in Brooklyn and brought up in New York City, going to Columbia College. I talked to Luis Alvarez from the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and got him a job working with Alvarez. It was at this time that the (MTA) project standed, Materials Testing Accelerator. Harold Brown, Herb York, and the Van Atta twins went to Livermore to start up what is now the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The original MTA project didn’t last very long. Ernest Lawrence and Luis Alvarez had unaccomplishable, grandiose plans to produce plutonium by bombarding uranium targets with a 1 ampere beam of 1 billion (ev) deuterons. This concept and founding of the Livermore Laboratory is an interesting story in itself. However, the MTA never worked as planned. The first sector of the MTA was built and it never worked. Everyone there realized, that it would never work as planned and the MTA project was abandoned. The laboratory later became the Livermore Weapons Laboratory.
Did you stay in close contact with them about this project?
My connection with the original founding of the Livermore Laboratory is an interesting story in itself. The Nevis cyclotron of Columbia University was just beginning to operate, and I began thinking about using it as a neutron velocity selector. I began speculating on the production of neutrons by high energy cosmic ray particles. The production data was all in the open literature and was not classified. I calculated that it took about 40 MeV to produce a proton and there should be an equivalent number of neutrons. At the time we were using deuterons in the small cyclotron on the Columbia campus and were getting about one neutron for every one thousand deuterons. If you could get one neutron per 40 MeV then the 400 MeV Nevis cyclotron should give about 10 neutrons per proton. The neutron intensity would increase by a factor of 10,000. Using this information I wrote a proposal for the Atomic Energy Commission to use the Nevis cyclotron as neutron velocity selector, saying that the main advantage would be the tremendous increase in source intensity. Very soon after I submitted that proposal, I received a telephone call from Henry Smythyes, a member of the AEC to come to Washington to see him. When I walked into his office, he said, “Bill, where did you get this data on the neutron production from high energy protons?” I said I took it out of the literature. The data was taken from the production of protons from cosmic ray showers which was in the open literature. He then told me that this neutron production information was the basis of the most classified project the Atomic Energy Commission had at the time. The U.S. was running out of uranium; virtually all the uranium that had been used in the Manhattan Project was imported, and the U.S. was losing its access to these sources. Therefore, the U.S. would have to produce plutonium using a partial accelerator rather than a uranium reactor. The MTA which I had never heard of before was an accelerator being built in California to produce plutonium from depleted uranium. Smythyes said, “Would you like to work on it? You’re already interested in the neutron method.” I went back to Columbia, and Jim Rainwater and I stewed about it. We decided we’d like to measure the number of neutrons per proton, which we did with the Nevis cyclotron. We calculated with a 400 MeV cyclotron we would produce 10 neutrons per proton. We wrote a report on the measurement which was classified a Top Secret the time. I think the number we measured was 9.2 neutrons/proton. It turned out that the maximum energy of the cyclotron wasn’t 400 MeV but 380 MeV, we also found that the neutron production was almost independent of the proton target as long as it was a heavy element. Uranium gave a little higher value because there was some multiplication of neutrons from fast fission. However when the small multiplication factor was taken into account the high energy particles produced approximately the same number of neutrons from iron, tungsten, lead, and uranium. Once the particle energy was very much higher than the binding energy of the last few particles in the nucleus the production was almost independent of the atomic weight A. Neutron production was found to be an evaporation process. Therefore, the Columbia Nevis cyclotron as a neutron source would be the most intense source of neutrons then in existence except for an atomic bomb. The Nevis cyclotron was a synchro-cyclotron and therefore pulsed. By taking advantage of its pulsed nature we were able to get an instantaneous current of about 3 ampere of 400 MeV proton for a period of 50 nanoseconds. In the 8 MeV cyclotron on campus we had a current of 50 microampere with about 1 neutron per 1000 deuterons. The neutron source intensity at Nevis would therefore be increased by 10,000 for 400 MeV proton(s) and the current would increase from 50 microamps to 3 amps for another increase of 60,000. The total increase was estimated at 6 x 108.
Okay. We’ll make a note of that.
Right. Anyway, that’s the way that I was introduced to MTA. When I visited Berkeley and Livermore, Harold Brown was working with Herb York on this particular project. And that’s the way I got to know Herb York.
When was this? Havens: Late 40s. Well, no. I went to Berkeley first in the late 40s when we were designing the Nevis cyclotron. I was there at Berkeley for a summer. My mentor there was Emilio Segré and I became a member of Segré’s group. His group was really my host. There were a couple of former graduate students from Columbia who were working at Berkeley, and I knew them pretty well. I spent a pleasant summer at Berkeley, and learned a lot about frequency modulated cyclotrons, synchro-cyclotrons. We were building the Nevis cyclotron at the time so I guess it was ‘51 just before the Korean War started. While at Berkeley in 1951, I visited Livermore and saw the monstrosity that was being built.
So you had considerable involvement in this project?
Oh yes. I had a lot to do with that at one time but for a relatively short period of time.
And this was the early 1950s?
Right. Let’s go back to the earlier period now.
I’m curious how you become involved in your dissertation research. It seems that you had quite a few demands on your time.
I was very young at the time and had lots of energy. I couldn’t do now what I did then. I started my preliminary Ph.D. research in 1940. I took my Ph.D. qualifying exam in 1941; I was working as a teaching Assistant at time. John Dunning asked me if I would work with him on cyclotron.
And you had come to know Dunning well by that time?
Oh yes. There were five courses that used teaching assistants, and John Dunning gave one of them. Herman Farwell gave the pre-medical physics. Columbia had two floors for the teaching of elementary physics, the 9th floor and the 12th floor. The 9th floor course was for engineering and physics majors. The 12th floor was for pre-med, pharmacy, and what is now called physics for poets. I was with Farwell and Dunning on the 12th floor, the non-physics and non-physical science majors. I remember the first class I had was a recitation class in pharmacy physics. I was 20 at the time, and the fellow in the front row was bald, much older than me. I was scared stiff [laughs]. But I evidently carried it off alright. Anyway we used to have an assistant’s meeting every Friday with Dunning and Farwell. So I got to know Dunning and many of the other assistants quite well. I knew him before I went to work with him. He was my Ph.D. adviser. My first job on my Ph.D. was to drill holes in the concrete to put bolts in the floor to hold the pumps down. That’s the sort of a thing that graduate students did at the time. I worked on the cyclotron. There was a group of us: Jim Rainwater, George Thiessen, Everett Blizzard, Herb Anderson and George Weil are some that I remember very well. A large group of us used to play tennis every afternoon in the summer, about 4 o’clock. Enrico Fermi, Mark Zemansky, Herb Anderson, George Weil and several others played almost every day. We always used to appear on the tennis court at 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock. The tennis courts were located conveniently right on the campus. But anyway, many of us would go out to supper together after playing tennis. It was quite a closely knit group.
This involved professors as well as graduate students?
Oh, all of us. Graduates, assistants; in the summertime it didn’t matter. I remember Fermi used to love to play tennis, and he always put a backspin on the ball. He always lobbed everything. He was good, but he didn’t have a good drive [laughter]. But he had a good spin. So we had a good time.
Do you remember any discussions in particular?
Well, oh yes, there were lots of discussions. You know that John Dunning claimed that he first proved that fission existed using the Columbia University cyclotron. It was written up that way in Life Magazine, I can tell a good story about that, but maybe it shouldn’t be made public. The publicity appears to say (I think if you examine it carefully, it doesn’t say it) that he used the cyclotron in order to prove fission existed. That absolutely wasn’t true. The cyclotron was not operating at the time. So he used a radium-beryllium source to produce his neutrons. However all of his equipment was set up at the cyclotron for an experiment using the cyclotron. Actually John Dunning had seen fission the previous summer but thought they were humidity breakdown or some other or fault in the apparatus. New York had very high humidity in the summer and no air conditioning so high voltage apparatus did give humidity pulses. When John went back over the data, he realized he had observed these fission kicks. The tapes, which photographically recorded the oscillograph traces of the pulses, showed fission kicks which could then be interpreted properly rather than as a high voltage breakdown of the apparatus. Anyway, it was after Willis Lamb and I.I. Rabi and Enrico Fermi came back from the seminar at Princeton where Bohr lectured on his theory of fission, that Dunning performed his experiment. I think the date was January 25th 1939.
There was a continuous discussion at Columbia about who told John Dunning about Bohr’s hypothesis of nuclear fission, was it Lamb, Rabi or Fermi. Dunning had an apparatus set up that could check nuclear fission, and they knew it. As soon as Dunning heard about nuclear fission he irradiated uranium with neutrons and observed the fission pulse. Once the answer is known, the evidence for nuclear fission was overwhelming. The subject of fission and how it developed became the predominant conversation in the Columbia Physics Department. I started on neutron research in the fall of 1941. At that time the neutron, was thought to be the probe to explore nuclear forces and would be a much better probe than the proton. The Coulomb forces which are very large had to be subtracted from the observed force to determine the nuclear forces. Therefore the neutron was looked at as the probe which would determine nuclear structure. However, it didn’t turn out that way. The neutron also had disadvantages. A free neutron explored the structure of the nucleus near the binding energy of the neutron which is about 8 million electron volts. Therefore the neutron probe looked at highly excited states rather than at near ground states. Since the structure of a highly excited nucleus is much more complicated than the structure near the ground state, the neutron was not the best probe for determining nuclear structure. When the fission process was experimentally confirmed everybody realized immediately what fission meant. If you look at Louie Turner’s article in the Reviews of Modern Physics (July 1941) you’ll find the whole uranium program laid out. It described what had to be done to build nuclear reactors or possibly bombs. Fermi and Herb Anderson were working on the 7th floor trying to measure the number of neutrons per fission, and Jim Rainwater and I were trying to measure the time it took for fission. It seems strange now, because we now know that the fission occurs so rapidly that it is too small to measure. However we did attempt to measure it and found the time and fission less than 1 microsecond which was the best we could do at the time. The Columbia Physics Department held a luncheon for its staff in the Fall of 1940 to which all of the assistants were invited. Herb Anderson was then Fermi’s research assistant. When Fermi introduced himself he said he could be found on the seventh floor running between his laboratory where he irradiated materials and his office where he had a Geiger counter to measure short-time radioactivity. He was looking for fission products. Herb Anderson then got up and said [laughing], “You’ll always find me following Professor Fermi running from [room] 716 to 718, where the Geiger counter is.” That was the sort of informal atmosphere we had at Columbia at the time. It was a very enjoyable atmosphere and fun to be there.
You mentioned Turner at Princeton — did you have much contact with physicists in other institutions at the time?
In some ways yes, and in some ways no. Dunning was diverted from his nuclear physics research to start the project which separated U235 from U238. Herb Anderson was working with Fermi on what later turned out to be the Plutonium project. Jim Rainwater and I were left to try get the cyclotron running after it had been rebuilt. Neither of us knew much about cyclotrons. John Dunning sent us up to MIT to talk with Robley Evans, Jack Livingood and Stan Livingston who were running the MIT cyclotron at the time. We spent a couple of days at MIT. Eric Clark was a cyclotron operator and we worked with him to learn how to run a cyclotron, and to keep it operating. I remember one thing very, very clearly and I’m glad I didn’t follow Eric Clark’s advice. I asked Eric Clark how they found the beam in the cyclotron, and Eric Clark said, “Oh, that’s easy. You get a quartz probe and you look in the window and you can see the beam hit the quartz probe.” I didn’t like that approach. What I did at the Columbia cyclotron when we were looking for beams was to set up a mirror that reflected the image of the beam into a telescope on the outside the shielding; I looked at the mirror and could see the beam hitting the quartz probe in the cyclotron. Most of the people who looked directly at the beam later developed radiation cataracts and had cataract operations early in life. Jim Rainwater and I did get the cyclotron running and producing neutrons using the Be(d,n) reaction. One of the projects we undertook was to count the number of fissions from a uranium foil which was irradiated by neutrons. This fission counting process could be used to determine the enrichment of the U235 isotope in the uranium samples which were coming from Dunning’s project on the enrichment of U235 using the gaseous diffusion process. I remember analyzing some of the samples from the Princeton University cyclotron which under the direction of Robert R. Wilson was being used to separate U235 by the electromagnetic process. We found that the separation factor for samples was not very high. The results were also confirmed by other methods. The project was soon thereafter discontinued, and the Princeton group including Robert Wilson and Richard Feynman moved to Los Alamos. We did have some connections with physicists at other universities at the time, but the contact was strictly limited. It wasn’t until later, when Oak Ridge was under construction, that a group of physicists used to get together weekly at Oak Ridge in order to exchange information. General Groves had segregated all parts of the Manhattan Project. I remember Paul Abersold used to invite the group to meet for dinner and discussion at his house, so we wouldn’t be observed, in order to talk about mutual problems from the different part of the Manhattan Project. Officially we were not supposed to know what was going on in the other parts of the Manhattan Project like Hanford and Los Alamos. However, I was in a very favorable position at Columbia to know what was happening in all parts of the Manhattan Project. We had developed some instruments at Columbia, an alpha particle counter, a gamma ray counter, which were very valuable. These instruments were later taken over by the Instrument Lab at the University of Chicago for further development for the entire Manhattan Project. Jim Rainwater and I had to supervise the development of these instruments. The instrument group at the University of Chicago couldn’t do as well as we did originally in making them work. When several of these instruments were built they were not as sensitive as the ones we built originally and we were asked to try to determine why our instruments were much more sensitive than any of the instruments they were using. We did determine why the sensitivity of their instruments was not as high as our and later instruments were much improved. Late in 1944 I got a different view of the Manhattan Project. The first diffuser units for the separation of U235 were plugging and no one knew why or how to correct the plugging. John Dunning formed a team of Bill Libby, a chemist and me to try to determine the cause of the plugging. We went to Oak Ridge to make some tests and to Detroit where the diffuser units were manufactured and went over the units very thoroughly. The reason for the plugging was determined and the fault corrected. Well, that’s another story. I’ll tell you that a little bit later.
Were you also in contact with Harold Urey?
Yes, but my contact with him wasn’t very satisfactory. The cyclotron was of very little importance to the diffusion project at Columbia and Urey wanted it moved to Los Alamos. The neutron spectroscopy which took part of Jim Rainwater’s and my time had nothing to do with the separation of U235, so Urey asked why the cyclotron should be part of the Diffusion project which Urey directed. Fermi took care of that problem. He made us a subcontractor with Los Alamos and we stayed at Columbia. Urey would come around and say, “What’s going on here? What are you doing? How are you helping the diffusion project or the isotope separation project?” We’d have to say, “Well, we’re doing the analysis of the uranium enrichment by counting uranium fission. He thought that was okay. But all of the other things we were doing had to little to do with separating U235. Although I must admit a side incident caused him to be more sympathetic to our efforts. I found in ‘41 that if you put fluorine through a vacuum pump, you polymerized the pump oil and made fluorocarbons. The pumps froze, and the gunk in the pump had to be dug out with a putty knife or spatula. I messed up my pump several times and had a horrendous cleaning job. Then I stopped running fluorene through the pump. I put in liquid air traps between the system and the pumps to get the fluorine out before it went into the pump. That wasn’t completely satisfactory because fluorine has a fairly high vapor pressure at liquid air temperature. However it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be possible to build a uranium hexafluoride diffusion plant with ordinary gasketing materials. The fluorine would replace the hydrogen in any hydrocarbon. That may have been the birth of fluorocarbons for the Uranium project. They were developed for the diffusion plant pumps and gasketing materials on the 11th floor at Pupin. They were not put in mass production at Columbia and they weren’t really invented at Columbia. However Columbia assembled the few fluorocarbon experts in the U.S. to work on the problems. Rainwater and I got into the act when we invented a method of measuring the residual hydrogen in a fluorocarbon. The neutron cross section of hydrogen in a low energy region is 80 barns and for fluorine it is 4 barns. Therefore there was a 20:1 ratio for the cross section, we could put samples in the neutron velocity spectrometer and in five minutes determine what the content of fluorine and hydrogen was to better than one percent. The hydrogen content took about three days to determine by chemical analysis. So the first analytical paper I think that was written on using neutrons for chemical analysis was classified because it determined the amount of residual hydrogen in fluorocarbons. Urey thought that that was quite an interesting discovery, and therefore he tolerated us. But he never gave us any encouragement. John Dunning was the person who protected our work and Enrico Fermi arranged for the subcontract from Los Alamos for our work at Columbia. Otherwise the Columbia cyclotron just would have been removed, and moving it would have taken at least six months.
What kind of support did you have for keeping this work at Columbia?
Pegram backed us, because he had been active in the neutron research programs at Columbia. Fermi liked our work very much, and he was consulted about all of the neutron cross sections used by the Manhattan Project, at least low-energy cross sections for the Manhattan Project. Actually Bob Bacher from Cornell and Boyce McDaniel had built a velocity selector at Cornell which preceded ours. The Cornell electronics and the Harvard cyclotron were moved out to Los Alamos in order to measure neutron cross section at Los Alamos. We had been operating for a couple of years by the time, so we did most of the work. The neutron velocity spectrometer group at Los Alamos measured the cross sections of special nuclear material (U and Pu) which were available at Los Alamos but were not available at Columbia. So Urey tolerated us, but he wouldn’t support us. We were supported at Columbia by Fermi, first from the University of Chicago and then from the University of California.
What kinds of differences did you notice between the group associated with Rabi and that connected to Dunning?
Oh, Rabi left Columbia very early. He went to MIT before the U.S. entered the war. I took his course in the fall of 1939. I think in 1940 Rabi was still at Columbia full-time. I think he gave his atomic physics course in the fall of 1941. Rabi usually gave the regular course on statistical mechanics, and I was planning to take Rabi’s course in statistical mechanics in the spring of 1941; I was a second year graduate student at the time. However, Rabi was away so much of the time that Fermi took over and gave the statistical mechanics course. Fermi was still around. He moved in the fall of ‘42. So I took statistical mechanics from Fermi. Rabi was at Columbia the first week of the course, and then he left to spend full time at MIT. Rabi gave me an offer in 1941 to come to work at MIT on the radar project. I wasn’t supposed to know what the radar project was, but I did know because Arnold Nordsieck was in charge of the seminars at Columbia and in the spring of 1941 he co-opted me to give a colloquium on a magnetron. At the time I was a second year graduate student and had to read all of the published literature on magnetrons to give the seminar. When the time came the room was packed — people came from Bell, from G.E., and many from the City universities [laughing]. What did I know about the magnetron? I got all I knew from the published literature. I didn’t know anything about the radar project that was going on. I think the audience was very, very disappointed by what I had to say. I was asked a large number of questions which I couldn’t answer. But Arnold Nordsieck had assigned me the topic, so I did the best I could with it. I don’t know whether it’s a result of that seminar or my acquaintance with Rabi that resulted in my receiving an offer from MIT to work on the radar project. However John Dunning convinced me I should stay at Columbia and work on the uranium project. I was much closer to Dunning than I was to Rabi by that time, and I had started on my Ph.D. research which was to build a neutron velocity spectrometer.
You were particularly close to Dunning by then? And knew what your thesis topic would be?
Yes. Dunning had convinced Jim Rainwater and I that we should build a neutron velocity spectrometer. I found out many of the details of the MIT radar project in a very, very strange way. Rabi had established a magnetron laboratory at Columbia...I’m not sure when that started but I think it started in late ‘42. It was certainly before the Manhattan Project was created. Jerome Kellogg was in charge of this magnetron project. Now Jerry Kellogg had been my boss; he was an instructor in charge of the 12th floor teaching assistants when I was an assistant. Jerry wasn’t very familiar with electronics, and I was designing and constructing the electronics for the velocity selector to be used with the cyclotron. I must say Jim Rainwater and I got a lot of help from the radio engineers at Bell Labs for the design of the timing circuits. Jerry said to me, “Bill, I know it’s not allowed, but could you come up here and tell me how these circuits work? They’re all classified, they’ve been sent down to Columbia from MIT, and I can’t make head or tail of them.” We were good friends, so I went up to his laboratory and explained to him how the circuits worked. The radar circuits turned out to be exactly the same as the circuit we were using for our pulsed neutron work, therefore I had no trouble whatsoever understanding how they worked. It was then I began to realize exactly what the radar project was. I think this took place in the fall of 1942. Therefore for strange reasons I got a fairly comprehensive view of what was going on in more than one part of the war research.
Why do you feel that this was so?
I think there were two reasons for it. One was that I was at Columbia, which was much more of a center of physics then than it is now. Also I was one of the few people who knew about neutrons. I thought physics research was what was going on in war research at Columbia. It wasn’t until after the war that I learned what physics research really was. However to give you some idea of the uncertainty of the time, I can tell a story that I probably cannot verify, because most of the people involved are no longer with us. Arnold Nordsieck and Willis Lamb had been designing what were called B pumps. B pumps were a special type of pump which had no contacts with the outside. In other words, they were sylphon pumps. You didn’t have to lubricate them, and therefore you could send in the uranium hexafluoride in through the pump without it going through pump oils, lubricating pump oils and gasketing material. Design and construction of these pumps turned out to be much more difficult job than anticipated because the uranium hexafluoride was so corrosive. At the time we didn’t know that Willis Lamb’s wife, Ursula, had very close relatives in Germany and Lamb could not get clearance to work on the Manhattan Project. Arnold Nordsieck then was in doubt as to which project he should work on, the Uranium project or the radar project. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Arnold Nordsieck, or knew him. He was a very able theoretical physicist. Dunning was trying to convince Arnold to work on the uranium project, and Rabi was trying to convince him to work on the radar project. So Arnold went over to see Urey. Now I had this story from Arnold Nordsieck. I don’t whether it can be verified with anybody else, and he’s dead. He said to me that he had spoken to Urey, and Urey said, as I remember it was either late April or early May 1942, “Frankly, Nordsieck, there may not be a Uranium Project after July 1.” (It wasn’t called Manhattan Project until January ‘43). “So you better go work on radar.” And Arnold went to MIT to work on radar and no longer worked on the uranium project. Even though Arnold’s wife came from Trinidad, Arnold could get clearance to go work on radar. Willis couldn’t. That illustrated the confidence Urey had in the uranium project in the spring of 1942. I don’t know if anybody will admit this now because of the later developments, but I know very definitely from personal experience that’s why Arnold Nordsieck went to work on the radar project rather than on the uranium project. When you ask did Urey do much encouraging, the answer is, not to our group. I wasn’t involved in isotope separation, but involved in a different aspect of the uranium project. The scientists working on the diffusion method of separating U235 were doing experiments on semi porous barriers which were very secret at the time. The barriers were working very well. They were testing the barriers by separating carbon dioxide from helium. There were barriers that just worked marvelously. Of course, the separation factor for helium and CO2 is much greater than U235 hexafluoride or U238 hexafluorides. There were no corrosion problems separating CO2 from He, but there were certainly corrosion problem using uranium hexafluoride. My research lab was in a room in the basement at Pupin. I had one side in the room, on the other side of the room a group under the supervision of R.W. Wood was ruling gratings in order to make barriers. He was supervisor of that project. He wasn’t based at Pupin, most of the time he’d come up from Johns Hopkins in order to watch the way the ruling engines were set up and check them. I was on the other side of the room working on the electronics for the velocity selector.
Did you develop the electronics for your detector, or was that largely Rainwater’s work?
It was largely Rainwater’s work. Rainwater was much more an electronics expert than I, but I did get an understanding of how things worked and did much of the actual construction.
What kind of background did Rainwater have?
Oh, he came from Caltech, and he had been a radio ham ever since high school. So he knew the electronics very, very well. I was a novice and I learned ...I came to know electronics pretty well in the 50’s and 60’s. Well, I had made a ham radio when I was in college. I’d had a crystal set when I was in high school, but I didn’t know anywhere near as much about electronics as Jim Rainwater.
You had completed the experimental work in 1943?
Yes, we had finished it in ‘43 but we could not publish it at the time. If you’ll look at the record, you’ll find that it was put in the classified literature sometime in 1943. It was stamped secret at the time. The question then was whether or not Columbia should grant us the Ph.D. There weren’t enough professors around and there weren’t enough cleared professors around. Also the Physics faculty felt that you shouldn’t get a Ph.D. for a thesis on a classified subject. So Dunning and Pegram said, “Well, you fellas are too busy now to finish up anyway, so just carry on.” One interesting story about that is on my final Ph.D. exam I remember Rabi asked a standard question which is asked on every Ph.D. exam, “If you had this to do over, how would you improve it?” Remember these were our theses, written in 1943. I had a big argument with Rainwater about that — I’ll tell you about that later. I said to Rabi, “Well, we did do it over again and....” He said, “That’s enough.” [laughter] When we came to actually publishing our thesis (these are the two Physical Review papers), Jim Rainwater said, “You know that we know so much more now than we did in 1943, and we could do a so much better job,” and that we should not publish these papers. We did improve the measurement by factors of a hundred between ‘43 and ‘45. And he was very reluctant to publish the papers. I said, “Jim, they were officially submitted.” I think it was July 1943, I can’t say that exactly, but it was sometime in 1943. What is the date that’ll appear on the paper? I mean, when did we officially sign off on these? He said, “Yes, but we really shouldn’t publish these. They’re way out of date.” He was right, but the papers were dated 1943, not 1945, and they were a record of what we could do in 1943.
It was a benchmark?
It was a benchmark. And John Dunning was on my side. So they were used as theses, as they had been submitted, without change. I mean, Jim felt either that if we changed anything we had to change everything. Anyway, they were those ‘43 papers. Those two papers were in the Physical Review in their entirety at that time as theses; they were the two papers we had completed by 1943. I remember that one of the biggest thrills I ever had was when we first got the neutron spectrometer operating. We were looking at our neutron source distribution from the paraffin slab that was set up near the cyclotron target. I was taking data, trying to figure out what was happening. It was obvious that the neutrons were slowing down in the paraffin slab and I calculated that the neutron should fit a Maxwellian distribution. So I sat down and tried to fit the observed distribution to the Maxwellian distribution while taking the data. But it didn’t fit at all. It didn’t fit and something was very wrong. It was then I realized that I wasn’t looking at the inside of the paraffin; I was looking at the neutrons coming out of the paraffin. Therefore there should be an extra v factor. Instead of being a v2e-E/KT it should be v3e-E/KT. The minute I put the v3 in and used a temperature considerably above room temperature, the curve fit beautifully except at the very high-energy end. The neutrons are cascading from higher to lower energies in a dE/E spectrum which gave a large high energy trail. It also didn’t fit well at the very low-energy end, because low-energy neutrons are being lost through absorption. Except possibly for blackbody radiation curves, the observed neutron distribution fit the Maxwellian distribution better than any of the curve fits I had ever achieved in the graduate laboratory.
That was a really thrilling experience, because here you’d taken the data — it was 2 o’clock in the morning, or something like that when I did these calculations — and to get a fit from something you were currently taking on an experiment. The data were being taken one point at a time so it took some time to get a curve but it was very thrilling to have it fit the theory so well. Those curves, by the way, are published in Rainwater’s thesis.
Did it matter to you, do you think, that you weren’t formally awarded your Ph.D. until 1946?
No. You mean whether I got it in ‘43 or ‘46? No, I don’t think it had any effect on me. I was so tied up with my work at Columbia. I had two jobs. Jim was full-time on the cyclotron working on the research, but I was running the elementary physics lab and also working on the cyclotron. That’s how I knew Harold Brown, Mal Ruderman, and all of the people who were in the V12 physics major program. We were saturated with students. In July of 1943, when the V12 program started, Columbia expected to have 300 elementary physics students. We got 1200 of them. And I was the one that had to scrounge for instructors and assign all of the assistants. I got an assistant professor of philosophy who knew some physics to come over and teach some of the recitation and laboratory sections. We went to everyone on the college faculty that knew any physics and persuaded them to help out in teaching elementary physics. I was working night and day. In fact there was one thing that Jim Rainwater and I did, which we certainly couldn’t do 20 years later. He was a night person. He used to come in to work 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. I was a day person; I’d get there at 6 o’clock in the morning. And so we had an overlap from about 6:00 p.m., until I got so tired that I couldn’t stay awake and I’d go home. Between us we kept the cyclotron running 24 hours a day, with one of us there all of the time during that war-time period. Now and then I would work all night and then go in and teach classes in the morning and go home and collapse. At the time, I was teaching a physics major program for the V12 program that was at Columbia, I had to teach electromagnetic theory, optics and advanced optics to people like Harold Brown and Mal Ruderman. Willis Lamb taught quantum mechanics. He was not able to work in research on account of his clearance, but he was still teaching at Columbia. It was a very exciting time, but it was very exhausting. I was married October 22, 1944. I remember that Quimby had just come back from Australia. Geno Failla, who was a professor of radiology at the Medical Center, had a party for him up at his house in Riverdale. I was engaged to my wife at that time, and that was in the summer of 1944. Pegram met my fiancé at the time, and he said to her, “Oh, you’re gonna get married soon? Congratulations. You’ll be a widow because you will never see your husband.” [Laughing]
This is probably a good time to tell me about your wife.
Her name is Aldine. We met through a college friend.
How did you first meet?
At College I had a good friend in the ROTC named Ted Witt. He had actually started out in my class in college but during our senior year he came down with pneumonia and was out for six months. Pneumonia was much more serious at that time than it is now. He didn’t finish college until the following January. He was the Cadet Colonel of the ROTC in his last semester. Anyway, we were very good friends. When he married, my future wife was the Maid of Honor at their wedding, being a very good friend of the bride. We met through the Witts. In fact Ted went into the regular army under the Thomason Act in 1940 when he graduated from college, and I remember his writing me in 1941. He was in the Cavalry in Kentucky and he wrote, “I’m losing $80 a month because I’m not married.” So I wasn’t a bit surprised when he got married. He later went into the Air Force, and I really got to know my wife when he came back in 1943 on a three months relief after having about 40 missions over Germany. I was visiting at his parents’ house and Aldine was also there several times during the time Ted was back in the States. So we had mutual friends.
When was this?
I think we first met in February 1943. That’s when I first met her, but I didn’t really start going out with her until early 1944. We both played badminton at Rutgers Presbyterian Church at 73rd Street and Broadway. At that time I was living with my family at 84th Street and Central Park West, so I went to Rutgers Presbyterian Church on 73rd Street and Broadway.
Let’s turn to the two major papers that you and Rainwater published in the Physical Review — your first published papers. Rainwater is listed as the principal author of the first paper and you for the second one. I’m curious how you divided up the writing and authorship of these papers?
We had to divide it up relatively fairly. And since Jim was senior to me in physics and knowledge also, we put the things about the instrument and the source and cadmium and Boron in his paper. I know that many neutron experiments used cadmium, because of its strong absorption in the thermal region. Cadmium had a very low energy resonance and we published the best curves on that resonance in the first paper. In the second paper, the one that I am listed as the first author, there were many of the elements which had little to do with the Manhattan Project.
A composite work, in other words?
That’s right. It was a collection of some of the, shall I say, more interesting elements which we had studied. For instance, we spent an awful lot of time measuring the cross section of carbon, especially when the Hanford reactors wouldn’t work — and before they knew about xenon poisoning. The carbon measurement was not in the original paper but in later papers. We had measured uranium; we had measured ordinary uranium, enriched uranium, though we hadn’t done any plutonium at that time. But obviously we couldn’t put those in the paper at the time. So we took the collection... indium had been used as a resonance neutron absorber, and silver had also been used this way. In fact, when I took elementary physics in City College after the neutron had been discovered, Mark Zemansky gave a demonstration of activating silver with low-energy neutrons. It was very crude, but it worked. Gold was also an element that was regularly used, and if you go back through the Bethe and Bacher articles on the use of neutron detectors, they describe a series of experiments which used neutron filters. There’s two things which are of particular interest which I’ll just mention now, since it comes to my mind. One is, we were the first ones — although it was classified at the time — to discover resonances in Plutonium 240. There was a tremendous resonance in Plutonium 240 at about 1 volt which hadn’t been reported. We had some data on plutonium — this was in the late 40s — which indicated that the differences in the samples didn’t stack up. And there was a strong resonance and 1 volt. There was so little plutonium available at that time that nobody could believe that it would have been an impurity, because the size of the resonance varied so much. We picked up this anomaly in looking at the data of the different sample thicknesses. I wrote in the paper that this resonance cannot be Plutonium 239, it must in an impurity in Pu239, but it would be a very strange impurity. It must be a very strange impurity, because it doesn’t act like anything we knew about. Plutonium 240 had been discovered in other parts of the Manhattan project because it was a neutron emitter. It’s very undesirable to have a neutron emitter in an atomic bomb, because it could cause a premature detonation. Therefore it was important to know about the production of Pu240. We found that the resonance appeared more prominent in plutonium that had been irradiated for long periods of time and we now know it was due to the build-up of Pu240. The original Bohr-Wheeler theory of fission did not allow for the production of long-lived isotopes when odd number uranium isotopes captured a neutron to form an even numbered nucleus. However both U236 and Pu240 were found to exist. Another speculation that turned out correct in one of the papers — this is a matter of record; it’s in the Physical Review — we were looking at zirconium, and we discovered some resonances which were completely uncharacteristic of zirconium. In that paper I wrote (about ‘49 or ‘50) that these resonances can’t be in zirconium; they must be impurities. The resonances later turned out to be in hafnium which is usually an impurity in zirconium. When the hafnium was removed zirconium turned out to be an excellent material for cladding uranium fuel elements in nuclear reactors. It’s not used anymore because it’s too expensive, but it served its purpose.
Yet it became the state of the art at the time?
At the time it was extremely important. But well, we did a lot of other things in later years on fissionable properties which were real fundamental.
In your dissertation — your Physical Review paper — you credit the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund as providing assistance for your work. What kind of contribution did it make?
I know a lot more about that than I should because I was appointed by Grayson Kirk — President of Columbia University — the chairman of a committee to determine what the university should do with the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund. The Ernest Kempton Adams Fund was a bequest to the university in 1890s — I’m not sure if it was 1894 or 1896 — for the physics department to use for the support of the activities in the graduate physics program. There was an Ernest Kempton Adams Graduate Laboratory, where the fund paid for all of the equipment in this graduate teaching laboratory. There was also all of the library furniture and bookcases and, you know, the easy chairs and so forth which all came from the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund. The fund also supported publications in physics research. Therefore all of the physics papers that were published by the Columbia University Physics Department — the page charges at that time were one dollar per page — were paid for by the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund. My job at the university in the ‘60s was to compare it with the costs of that time and determine the amount of money remaining in the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund. The amount of money in the Ernest Kempton Adams Fund had been spent long ago. What then should be done about it? Well, the University had to get a release from the court to put aside the terms of the Ernest Kempton Adams will and to terminate the operations. In 1896 the fund was sizable for its time but it was negligible in 1960. It reminds me that my father told me that his father took him to Delmonico for dinner around 1900 and the full 12 course dinner was $0.95. Now you can’t get a good hamburger lunch for less than $ 5.00.
This marks a good point to end this first interview. We will, of course — and this should go on the tape — not make this tape available to anyone, or its transcript, without your express knowledge and approval, as defined in the permission forms that we will be sending you with the edited transcript.
I was also assigned to another safety project for the U235 separation plant which involved Edward Teller and Henry Hoyt of Los Alamos. I got to know Edward Teller when he was a visiting professor at Columbia during the spring of 1941. John Dunning had informed him that Jim Rainwater and I were building a neutron velocity spectrometer and he conceived a large number of experiments which could be done with the spectrometer. He lectured to Jim and me every afternoon for several weeks on the theory of these experiments and what information could be obtained. It was very exciting. Teller was the Los Alamos expert in critical masses. The diffusion plant at Oak Ridge processed large quantities of uranium hexafluoride UF6. UF6 is stable with an excess of fluorine and is a very corrosive gas. If an accident should occur in the plant all the UF6 in one of the large buildings would be pumped into a large steel surge tank. The problem was that in the high U235 enrichment stages of the plant would the total amount of uranium in the surge drum be more than a critical mass. We did the best we could to determine the maximum amount of U235 that could accumulate in a surge drum. However we did need more instruments to measure the amount of uranium in the surge drum. The uranium had to be detected through 2 inches of steel. We did design on instruments which looked at the K-x ray line of uranium and did give a rough measure of the uranium in the tank. We could then make sure that the accumulated amount of U235 would not be critical and either explode or melt down the tank. Addition by W. W. Havens, Jr.
J. Rainwater and W.W. Havens, Jr., "Neutron Beam Spectrometer Studies of Boron, Cadmium and the Energy Distribution from Paraffin," PR 70, nos. 3 and 4 (Aug. 1 and Aug. 15, 1946): 136-153; W.W. Havens, Jr. and J. Rainwater, "The Slow Neutron Cross Sections of Indium, Gold, Silver, Antimony, Lithium, and Mercury as Measured with a Neutron Beam Spectrometer," PR 70 (same edition as above): 154-173.