Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of David Bohm by Maurice Wilkins on 1986 June 6,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Family background and early influences; father’s social and business views, views on science, negative interactions with his mother; mother’s upbringing and her inability to cope with life, panic reactions; grew up around working class people; interest in intellectual pursuits rather than sports; early school experiences; studying science on his own; interest in Amazing Stories and Scientific American; use of the public library to learn science
One thing is to try to go back to one’s early childhood and see, for example, to what extent the experience is there. Or interact, including interactions with one’s parents and other things at that time may have set one in a certain direction of intellectual development. When I tried to do this in my own case I couldn’t find very much but I had one or two early memories of seeing sailors taking to pieces a field gun on display and putting all the parts together again and firing the gun in about one minute or something incredible. So this idea of disassembly and assembly made a big impression on me. But so far as my parents were concerned, all I know is that I was very fortunate in that my father was always encouraging about books and any sort of general interest in things. So in that respect I was if anything over-supplied with encouragements, but this did not, as it may sometimes in young people today, turn me away in other directions. I think it tended to encourage me. Are there any other sorts of things you would like to say to —? Do you think that your early childhood or your parent’s might have encouraged you to go in a certain direction by either consciously being encouraging or possibly lack of interest or opposition, or how would it be?
Well, I can’t say that they encouraged me at all in the direction of science. If we consider first my father, then my mother, and possibly the family as a whole, my father was very much down to earth. As a businessman he emphasized common sense and being practical and making money and making your place in society.
Well, the scientist is also very down to earth.
But I’m saying that in that sense there was some positive and some negative. In his down to earth emphasis and common sense I think that affected me so that I constantly wanted to bring things out in a more common language rather than in an abstruse language. So I think that had a positive effect. On the other hand his constant emphasis on the importance of other people’s opinions — you know, fitting into society — he took the view essentially that whatever society in which you live said was right was right; that essentially what people thought, people in general, was right. I think I rebelled against that. I couldn’t accept that.
Didn’t you like these other people?
No, it wasn’t that I didn’t dislike them, I just felt that merely because people were saying things didn’t make it true and that it was quite possible for everybody to agree on something that was false, and he seemed to be saying that if everybody agreed on it, it couldn’t be false. I don’t think he really would have said that 100 percent but it was a tendency in his thought. I’ll come back to that later and possibly begin to see it going wrong. Now, I think it’s hard to say from my mother what I got because she was not interested in intellectual things at all. But people say that matter and mother have the same root and matrix and so on. Mother tends to emphasize the more material side of things, to emphasize the body, the earth and so on rather than the sky or the spirit. And probably I got some tendency towards looking at matter as fundamental in a way which was nonverbal in a sense I can’t really trace. There wasn’t enough background, anything very favorable to science on the whole. I mean, I was interested, of course, and people used to say electricity is mysterious, nobody can see it which must have aroused my interest.
If I can just interrupt a second. Going back to these things about father and mother. I mean, your father to some extent was putting some kind of pressure on you to encourage you to become a conventional businessman.
Yes, and to fit into society and to become socially successful. Not only in business, but as an entertaining person all around in society.
Oh yes, I see. Socially approved. You mean he was quite sociable and successful?
He was very good socially and people liked to hear him talk. He could talk to anybody and they enjoyed it.
Yes, so that he easily fitted into society and conventional ideas and he interacted well socially.
Yes. Now, he told me something later once which was very revealing. You see he said he had once as a young man been interested in socialism. Very young — he had just come from Europe you see. And he talked to some working men about socialism and they made fun of him, and as a Jew you have nothing to say about socialism. You have nothing to do with socialism. You’ve got to make money. Jew’s, you know, there is an absolute gulf between being a Jew and being a working man. You see that’s part of the background. We lived — my father’s store was in a working class district, Polish and Irish.
And the store sold what?
Now he was very good with these people. He could talk Polish, Lithuanian, all sorts of languages that they talked in, and he could bargain with them which they enjoyed. In fact, half the reason they came to such a store was they could bargain whereas in the big stores down town they couldn’t do that.
You mean he made a creative social interaction with the bargaining process?
It interested them. It wasn’t just a matter of cheap furniture. He made it an interesting experience.
They could say they succeeded in outwitting the Jew and so on, you see, and it gave them pleasure.
And so probably he was really outwitting them.
Yea, but they got plenty out of outwitting him. So he arranged it that way, so he was quite good probably.
So this was a kind of creative intellectual game, to some extent, that he was playing. So presumably he was a man of some intelligence.
Yes, I think he was very intelligent. My mother was also very intelligent, but there were some problems with her. She wasn’t really happy.
Or did she find it difficult that your father was very good at social graces and she was very bad?
She was very bad. In fact my father, that was one of his principal complaints, that she didn’t help him. He pictured the wife should really arrange, should be a tremendous help to the husband in society and she was zero help.
Yes, in fact he probably made it much worse projecting all these expectations on to her and everything. And she probably retreated under the burden.
So the father was this — I suppose you might to some extent say that, just as you have been searching for unified theories of matter in the universe and so on, your father in fact was engaged in a sort of unified process of socialization with all these people and everything.
He felt there was a certain circle in which he wanted to be united, especially the circle of his friends who were Jewish businessmen. He would play cards with them and talk with them.
And he was really quite sort of vigorous in all these activities, wasn’t he?
Yes, he enjoyed it.
Yes, very lively.
He put a lot of energy into it.
That’s right. And he said people said he was a good talker, entertaining, except at home where it was very unentertaining. It was always angry.
Yea, because you mean he was fed up with his wife.
Hoping she would back him up
I wonder if it’s a reasonable comparison to make that he was putting all his energy into sort of this unifying activity, this social business life, and then you put all this energy into unifying notions of scientific ideas.
Well, it’s hard to know. He felt?
You’ve got the common feature: each a lot of energy going into both of these processes one generation removed.
Yes, but I would have liked to have seen a unified social life, but I felt that it didn’t exist, that it was rather a fake, you see. I couldn’t put it in words at the time, but I wasn’t impressed by any of what he was doing and I felt something false about it.
Yes, and you doubtless were a bit disappointed in him.
And he was very disappointed in me.
Yes, and he would say he was disappointed in you because you didn’t conform to this and back him up.
Yes, and he wanted me to be a practical businessperson and so on. You see, the problem with all the different classes and religions was that most of the boys that I knew were, you know, poor people, working class, and largely Polish and Irish in decent. The Jews were really — there were only two or three. We were the only Jewish family for a mile I would say, or half a mile.
You were really a minority then.
Yes. Where I went to school I don’t know if there were any other Jewish people in the class. There may have been one occasionally. So I didn’t feel identified with the Jews, you see. I felt I wanted to be identified with the larger society, American, or sometimes I’d see people?
Because of your own social contacts.
Yes, that’s right. When I was about four-years-old or thereabouts I was asked if I was Jewish, and I said no, I’m English. Obviously I didn’t know anything about England; I meant the language was the meaningful thing to me. I identified the culture with the language.
Was your father a practicing Jew?
Yes, yes. Not very devout, but he was practicing. My grandfather was far more so.
Was your grandfather in the United States as well?
No, he immigrated, you see, and he was there when my father arrived. My father left Europe when he was about 15 years old. He came by himself to America. The practice was he was told of the name of a Jewish family to go to where they would help him, you see.
But your grandfather was there already.
Right. He had arrived a number of years before that, long before. He had already set up a business by the time my father arrived.
Why didn’t your father join his father?
My father’s father and mother died in the plague when he was about twelve years old and he was then shunted around from family to family as was the custom.
Yes, my father became an orphan you see.
But I thought you said his father had been in America.
No, that’s my grandfather, my mother’s father.
Oh. Your mother’s father had been there but your father’s father?
Lost his parents.
He had lost his parents and he’d been shunted around from one family to another. He’d been gone to what is called the Yehiva, which was the study of religious studies. And at fifteen he immigrated to America and changed his name in order to avoid military service. Then he was directed to my grandfather by somebody. My grandfather already had a small business in furniture. As was the custom, he was supposed to marry, or it was hoped he would marry the daughter of the house, which he did. There were several children there but he married one of them. He got a dowry of $5,000.00 with which he set up his business, too, the furniture business. In those days it was a fair amount of money. My grandfather was also very good at bargaining and talking all the languages and making the rounds.
Your mother’s father?
Yes, making friends with all the Polish people and so on. Not personal friends but sort of be friendly with them in the store and drink a bit of Schnapps with them. He also had a friend, another non-Jewish friend, called Horst, from Czechoslovakia, in a big furniture store. He managed to buy up all the rejects through Horst.
My grandfather. He bought up all the rejected furniture at almost nothing. He made profits beyond imagination by selling it still very cheaply.
Oh yes, I see. The furniture business came in from your mother’s side.
Yes, and my father got this money and went in on his own.
And he turned out to be very successful as well.
He was moderately successful. He was just mediocre. I’d say he got along. He had dreams of being much greater, of course, because his dream was that my brother and I would set up a furniture store in the town, Wilkes-Barre, and become the greatest furniture dealers in the town.
Okay, so you don’t mean in the United States.
No, but in that town.
His imagination didn’t go that far.
No, it didn’t go that far.
So, he had very big ambitions according to his ideas for you and your brother.
Yes, and he was very sadly disappointed by it, both of us.
Yes. To what extent do you think you went off in these other directions reacting against him because you felt there was something false in this whole sort of social convention thing.
Yes, I did feel something false. Firstly, this falseness of the class structure, you see, and the division between Jews and non-Jews. I felt it was false and I felt that to just make a little circle of Jews didn’t mean anything. There was nothing special about it, but at the same time I could see there was anti-Semitism among the non-Jews which I also felt was bad.
So in a way you had a feeling for the unity of mankind, so to speak, partly arising out of all the contact you had with these individuals.
Yes, but there was also the American, the whole American culture which said people were equal and you shouldn’t distinguish, you see. I took it seriously it said that.
These were sort of abstract concepts that you read about and heard being talked about.
Yes, and so I took it very seriously, and so we mustn’t set up Jews and non-Jews or rich and poor and so on and judge people according to their money or their religion or whatever.
But presumably, though, there were in that society certain sorts of features which did correspond with this American idea. But you also saw the opposite, the anti-Semitic attitudes and the isolation of the Jews themselves.
Yes, that’s right. I didn’t encounter a lot of anti-Semitism myself; once or twice. I remember once as a small child about seven or eight. You see the Polish people were generally very friendly to me but there was some Slavs of some sort, probably. I call them Slavs. I don’t know where they came from, who were very anti-Semitic and they began to taunt me and I got very angry. The Polish people said don’t answer him, don’t let him get your goat. In fact the anti-Semitism that I experienced was only occasional, you see. Most of the Polish people were quite friendly and what they thought was that the Jews were excluding them. They said, “Why don’t you come and eat with us?” and I’d say, “No. I can’t because it’s not Kosher.” And they felt, “Why don’t you come to church with us?” and I’d say, “No. We have to go to the synagogue.”
You felt this was a false way to behave.
That they were fragmenting society.
Yes, and I felt poor people were suffering in an undeserved way.
Which poor people?
Miners and so on. They didn’t have a lot of money, many of them.
Were the miners not Jews?
They were Polish and Irish.
Some of them did all right but many of them were rather poor and they lived in company houses and they were pretty much shacks.
And so you have the majority of the population were poor and Polish and Irish miners, and then you had a minority of Jewish people.
There were also the Anglo, you know, the people like Welsh and English and so on who were further advanced, you know, and they were not in that class.
They were higher up.
Yes, there were not a great many of them around, so I didn’t notice it. You know, I didn’t have a lot of contact. I had a few friends like that.
But the Jews were a minority who was mainly in commerce.
That’s right, yes.
I mean, this arising partly out of the fact that in history Jews have been forbidden to do anything else other than the only thing they could do is to handle money, which the rest of them said was sinful.
A tradition from Europe was just carried out. A few of them were in manufacturing, but mostly in commerce.
Yes, yes. So this whole idea of unity then and unification and the breaking down of barriers and fragmentation, in a way, you can see the whole of this arising out of your experiences there in that society.
Yes, along with all the ideals, the American ideals, freedom and equality.
Yes, you had the American ideals and then you had your own direct experience.
With boys who you felt sort of brotherly kinds of relations with. Although you were a Jew and they were Poles and Irish.
We had more money than they and so on, you see.
You had more money, yes.
Obviously, but it didn’t interfere at that stage very much.
And you felt the social inequality business, the economics, the more money business was another barrier which you felt was unjust, and in a way this was one of the reasons you felt that the Jewish sort of unity, and your father wanting to be a center in this whole social thing you felt was false as far as they were turning their vision away from the fact that they were poor and were suffering. It was lack of justice.
It was pretty narrow, yes. It was a lack of justice and a lack of sense saying, “Why should they get picked on more than the others?” I didn’t see any great difference. Also, the Jews often looked down on the Polish, not only because they lacked money but they didn’t seem to be so clever and so on. That was probably due to their background. I didn’t notice it at the time, but there was a difference which I noticed later as I grew up that the Polish boys didn’t go far in school and they dropped out and gradually I lost contact with them. There wasn’t much to say to them.
Well, this might have been partly due to the fact that the Jewish boys had more education. They were taught toward an intellectual pushing in the home.
Yes, although even when I was in high school I had a Polish friend who used to talk science all the time, science fiction. We used to discuss science fiction.
And he was Polish was he?
One friend. The first few years in high school he was my main friend with whom I developed my interest in science. In fact, even before that there had been a boy, my first — well let me try to say how my interest in science developed. There was this whole situation and the working people again emphasized this sort of practical thing. They sort of tied up with my father in that way saying that they didn’t have any notion of abstract ideas or anything and they would have looked down on it. You see, in fact among the working people intellectual things were looked down on, especially. I remember when I came home from the library with books I felt constraint to put them under my coat because these Polish or Irish boys would make fun of me. In fact, some of them did on occasion saying, “What are you doing with books? Why not play football or do all the great manly things like you’re supposed to do?”
They might have been from peasant families in Poland possibly.
I got less trouble from the Polish than from the Irish. But some of the Polish?
The Irish were peasants, presumably.
Yes, the Polish were more inclined to be favorable to education I think.
Just a take I think I must [break in tape]. Okay, now we’re recording again and, I think this thing about the way your interest in science began. That’s easy enough and obviously it’s very important that we’ve come to that. I wondered if we could just return a little bit. I wanted to dig around a bit more on the father and mother thing. The thing is, to what extent do you think that your father had a sort of genuine feeling for unity within his social group, or, when you said he was so much appreciated as a sort of entertainer and all that, and the life and sort of the party. Did you feel that apart from this social injustice, the blindness to the social injustice and so on, did you feel that he was genuine in that respect or did you think, did you have any kind of feeling that he was wanting to be the center of the scene for egotistical reasons?
I think clearly he wanted to be the center of the scene, but at the same time his values were such that that was the thing that was worth doing. It was what people — in other words, the right thing to do was what people in your circle generally expected you to do, and that was virtue.
Yes, and so you feel that he was acting properly according to conventional views within his society and that he wasn’t just being a kind of show off.
He did have that, too, but I think that it wasn’t just that.
You feel that it was more a question of creative, social action rather than egotistical display on his part.
He felt that that was what life was all about.
Yes, so he had his values and he acted properly very much in respect to them, but you felt that this set of values wasn’t a sound one.
That it was part of that society and you felt that it didn’t really make sense in relation to the wider world.
Yes, and money making was the other value.
How did you feel about money making?
It didn’t impress me very much. I didn’t really take to it. I would have really liked to have some money, but I didn’t see it the way he looked at it. You see, my brother was much stronger. When he became older he began to bring up to my father that what he was doing was useless and wrong.
How old was your brother?
He must have been 14 or 15. He felt that it was really wrong to make money by not, what he felt, doing something really useful. That was also part of the working class mentality.
Real work was distinct from shuffling money around.
Or shifting around goods from here to there.
I see, yes, that’s an interesting point.
The working people all wanted to make money, that was clear. In fact, most of their jobs were pretty hard so they would have said only a fool would want to work if he had enough money not to, but most of them would have said that. They wanted money but they didn’t really regard those things as really useful, you see. They felt that the real work was being done by them.
So they did have some, although they preferred they didn’t necessarily enjoy working all that much, yet they still had some respect — honest, good human activity.
Yes, and it was also part of the American tradition from the pioneering days when people had to depend on themselves and so on and work together.
Yes, I see. So the whole idea of society holding itself together through work and cooperation was part of this picture. Maybe I’m sort of overdoing this trying to draw parallels between your ideas about the physical or the whole universe now and the unity and so on with these notions, but I mean it’s worth just sort of probing around and see what works.
Well, I didn’t actually come out and charge my father in doing something wrong, but I really wasn’t impressed by what he was doing of any value. And as I thought about it I couldn’t imagine living by just shifting furniture around or buying furniture from one place and selling it for a higher price. In some sense it was a service to these people to make the furniture available but at the same time I didn’t see it as a very useful, creative activity.
Your brother, was he older than you were?
He was younger.
Younger. How many years?
I see. So you were the first son. Isn’t that something very important in a Jewish family?
It’s probably important in tradition, yes. Also my mother was probably much closer to me than to my brother and in some way this created a reaction in which my father eventually got closer to my brother. That’s partly because I never went along with my father at all.
Do you think that your brother sort of got up and faced your father on the money issue although he was 14 years younger?
Four years younger.
Sorry, four years younger, at the age of 14, so you would have been about 18 then.
I was in college probably.
So that presumably?
I didn’t even know he’d done it. My father told me and he was very hurt.
Oh hurt, I see. But I suppose by that time your father accepted the fact that it was no good trying to get you into business and commerce.
Um hmm [agreement].
But presumably then you hadn’t been able to, although you wished to stand up to your father and what he was doing was not a good thing, but you still had a feeling there and presumably that strong feeling was one reason why you felt impelled to go in a very opposite direction.
Yes, I didn’t think that, you know making furniture available to people was a terribly good way to spend your life. I mean, I didn’t know I had moral objections, although fundamentally I did in a sense that I thought that the whole situation was unjust. But I didn’t particularly think my father was to blame more than anybody else.
So you could certainly draw a parallel between the principles of universal scientific community and truth and honesty and justice connected with that and the nature of science itself and the nature of the American society at the time. At least the ideals which were to some extent represented in the reality, weren’t they? So rather than your father encouraging you to go to college and be interested in books, you were driven there by a reaction against him, really.
Presumably, he didn’t read books, did he?
No, he read some books. Later on he began to read literature of various kinds. It wasn’t that he was against it; he was against science in particular. He used to call it scientism. He used to make fun of professors all the time.
Well, he was right to some extent, wasn’t he? [laughter] You’ve made fun of professors.
Yes, I mean it was constant. He was overdoing it in a way. He wouldn’t ever say science, he would say scientism. He was perfectly aware of the meanings of all the terms. It was one of his jokes. I remember when I was 14 or 15 he was often reading at night. I don’t think, for some reason he felt science was up in the clouds and abstract and not down to earth. It was just no great significance. It was the sort of thing professors did.
Meaningless to him, just sort of empty talk and empty activities.
But I suppose, do you think this is connected with the fact he didn’t seem to have any connection with human and social relationships?
No, it didn’t seem to have any at all to him and it was even hard for him to believe at first that planets were up there in the sky. Later he realized it and when he did he would say, “What does it matter?” He felt that the relationship with people was the key thing.
In many ways he was quite right.
I suppose science in a sense is just one particular form of relationship between people.
He didn’t see the point of it, you see. Later on he may have, but for a long time certainly he didn’t.
What sort of literature was he reading?
I don’t know. He would read books of various kinds. Just stories. Sometimes if I brought books home from the library he would read them if they were stories.
I see, novels mainly. Which would be about people.
Yes. So, he was really very interested in people and social life and human interaction. But he also got caught up in this sort of money thing.
He never managed to make a lot of money. He felt money was important for status, you see.
Yes, because it was part of the whole social magnet statement, and money made church society go around, so to speak.
It wasn’t so much then that he objected, disliked science, as that he thought that it was sort of irrelevant.
Yes, he didn’t see the point of it, it seemed. It was just fooling around.
Yes, but he didn’t actually very actively stand in your way in going to college.
Of course some people have great rows with their parents like Rosalind Franklin with her Jewish father who strongly objected to her going to University because she was a woman. She had to battle against that.
But of course it was part of the Jewish tradition at that time to go to college at that time, so he wouldn’t have objected.
Ah, for men.
For men, yes, and even some women, too. Women were going already, yes.
Oh, I see. So there was a respect for learning.
In the Jewish tradition there was a general respect, and he himself was learned in his way in the Jewish tradition.
Yes, yes. It was more the conventional social life, values, and the interest in money and all the pressure of expectations to go in that direction which you reacted against.
But he didn’t actively stand in the way because to some extent you were doing what was conventional and going to college.
Yes, well that was sort of all the other Jewish boys were going. It was sort of?
So you really had no difficulty in getting to college.
It was more of a question of what you might do after college and also whether you were getting too involved in sort of rather inane things like science.
Yes. Well, he sort of gave up on that. I think he was skeptical of what would come of it.
Oh, I see. He did come around to see that it did have meaning after all.
Well, that took time later. I mean, he must have gradually come to accept it. No, he would have said, “Well, okay, you’ll make some money that way. It’s not as good as being in business but?”
Yes. What about your mother? You say that she had, it was a bit difficult to make out what she was like when her husband was really rather sort of trying to expunge her, so to speak. Was it a bit like that?
Yes. Well, he was very angry with her, you see. Not only that he felt she didn’t keep the house properly for him and didn’t cook properly. He complained bitterly everyday about that. They used to fight very hard.
How do you mean fight?
He would start to insult her and she would fight and get angry.
They would fight physically you mean?
Well, they, I don’t think they — he may have struck her once physically, but primarily they would get very angry at each other and shout and she would get very angry at him and sometimes even threaten to kill him. Sometimes she was sort of inclined to hysteria and being carried away. She used to get very angry at some of the neighboring women sometimes feeling like they were talking about her. That they were to be looked down on, you know; got very angry and got into very bad fights with them. But she had a very hard life.
I think that people like that; it is very difficult for them to develop their potential as human beings if they’re constantly being criticized and sort of ground down.
Well, she was, no doubt. She did well in school. My father used to admit that she is very intelligent, but he hated everything else about her you see.
She did very well in school?
Yes, even though she came from Europe at the age of seven and had to learn the language and was sort of a fish out of water. Her brothers said that she sort of didn’t fit, you know, she was sort of always a bit strange.
What kind of things did she do well in school?
Well, I don’t know; whatever they taught in school in those days.
There was nothing special about science or mathematics, or maybe they didn’t do much of that anyway.
No, I shouldn’t think they did.
So all you know is she did well and she might have been good on those things, but you simply couldn’t know.
Her brother became and an engineer, an electrical engineer, and he was very interested in science. Both brothers became sort of an interest in that sort of stuff.
So, on your mother’s side at least in that family there were a number of people who were bordering on science and engineering.
This thing about her being interested in the — you were saying something about earthy things. What was that?
Not that she was — just simply the feeling I get which I can’t?
Yes, a general sort of sense of the nature of her interest.
Her direction would be somewhat earthy, or down to earth way to put it.
Yes, yes. Did you have a garden, I mean, did you have flowers?
No, she never did any of that you see, she was too downtrodden, too depressed to do that sort of thing.
I see. So, she really got no opportunity to express herself in this environment.
I mean, was she even finding difficulty to do much for the children?
Yes, she couldn’t really do things properly.
You mean she was being told all the time that she was a wash out and no good, and so it was a little bit like being called a dunce.
Yes, in fact she was a difficult person in many ways. I mean, she couldn’t really handle money properly, and you could see how it was being sort of squandered.
Yes, but how much of that was simply sort of being compelled to play the role which her husband was imposing on her?
Yes, I’m sure it was, but I didn’t have much confidence in her ability to do things, you see, after a while, and she got very nervous and she used to come running after me at nine o’clock getting very nervous when I’d come home.
Nine o’clock in the evening?
Yes. No, she got really unduly nervous. And the whole thing was beyond her control. As a matter of fact when I was seven or eight there had been some talk of them separating, which must have worried me.
How old were you?
I was about seven or eight.
You were seven or eight.
Yes, but I can remember that I did think this: although I would prefer to stay with my mother I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have any confidence in her ability to take care of me and therefore I thought it would be better to go to my father.
Yes, at least your father was a kind of real person, even if you didn’t approve of the sort of person he was.
At least he would know what he was doing, yes.
She was just sort of some vague sort of rather ineffectual figure that didn’t really become very real.
Well, she was real enough but had no control over her emotions. See, she couldn’t really use her intelligence.
But you mean she did put on great emotional displays.
Yes, and she couldn’t sort of keep track of herself and with money or with practical, with what she was doing.
So there was a lot of her putting on great displays of emotions and all this altercation in the family.
And then you got subjected to quite a bit of this, too. She was emotional about you and sort of getting nervous and worked up, did she?
I mean it is possible, I mean some people, many scientists don’t show very much emotion, and [???] said you’ve come into this general picture. You might say part of that might be connected with the fact that you were reacting against your mother who was so putting on these great displays which seem really negative.
Totally irrational. Well, they were destructive and irrational. They made a mess all around and she could scream about all sorts of things and become so nervous and lose track of things. I felt my father was relatively rational though he was really pretty emotional, too, in his way, he would sort of control his panic where she couldn’t.
Yes, he might get in a rage but he would do some sort of, do it to some extent a bit controlled.
Whereas she just had no control at all.
Yes, and it would run right away. So in fact you grew up in a family then with both parents putting on great emotional displays; one with some degree of control and the other with no control at all.
So you might well say that you emerged out of that thing as the one thing you must never do is let emotions get a hold of you, it will be the end of you [laughter]. I’d be glad you saw some truth in that.
Anyway, there was that uncontrollable rage and fear. My mother would also panic very quickly and I think I picked that up from her, and my father I could see was often panicking, but he was under control, you see. He really was afraid but he kept it under control and he managed it. For example, I can remember one incident that there was a great deal of panic whenever you got ill, especially on my mother’s part, and I picked that up. I remember I was about ten years old and I cut my fingernail very badly, it was hanging. I was really getting worried about it and my uncle came in, one of the uncles, my mother’s brother, and sort of very matter-of-factly said something spontaneously which I can’t remember, but it sort of indicated that there was no point to all this.
Yes, there was really no need to get in a panic.
And then I suddenly saw that there was no need to be afraid, you see. But of course that lesson was not sustained because generally around me people were getting into panics. Incidentally, he couldn’t maintain that when he had children. I could see that they were frightened because he probably went into a panic about them.
What, your uncle?
He could do it with other people’s children, but couldn’t do it with his own.
He couldn’t do it with his own, yes.
That’s a common characteristic isn’t it? Like the children of psychoanalysts are often so neurotic.
I used to admire this uncle because he was so full of vigorous energy and cheerfulness; sort of liveliness.
I see. He must have appeared more positive than either of your parents. Can’t you recall anything? It’s honest work and honorable, also.
Well, also to be good and tough and be able to fight, you see.
Yes, both are similar things.
I noticed my father was always a bit nervous about whenever it looked as if any such thing would develop. You could see he was avoiding it, you see, which used to disturb me.
You didn’t respect him for displaying this fear?
Well, I could see that there was sense in not getting into a fight, but at the same time it disturbed me a bit. I had that same problem, you see, sometimes with these Polish or with these Irish boys. There was one I remember — see, many of them were very tough. They use to have gangs that used to attack each other but I kept out of their way obviously. There was one Irish boy that was my age that used to constantly bother me and taunt me and make trouble. Finally, after some time I went to his parents and they said it’s up to you, we can’t do anything.
You went to the parents?
I went to the parents. They were sort of uncles, you see. This boy was related to some other boys I used to go with, Irish boys, and I talked to the parents of these other boys.
Ah yes, you knew the family.
Yes, they said, “Well, we can’t do anything. It’s up to you.” So finally it was intolerable and we started to fight, you see, and then after a while it was finished and then we became very friendly. It seemed that’s what he wanted.
I see, so you did fight him and came out of this fight reasonably well or [???]
Well, we sort of were equal.
You were able to hold your own once you started to fight.
Yes, and then he was very friendly to me.
So in a way he wanted to establish a relationship but couldn’t do one until you had a fight.
It was part of the culture to say that you couldn’t be related until you’d proved yourself with a fight.
How did you feel about when you were fighting?
I suppose I got carried away, so it was all right.
You might have quite enjoyed it.
Um hmm [agreement].
But at least you — I think one sometimes does this in a sort of spirit of desperation.
Yes. I remembered that some of the other people around were then encouraging me saying, you know, go ahead.
They quite enjoyed you having a go at this fighting bit.
Yes they sort of were glad to see me stand up to him. It was part of the culture.
Yes, yes. So when you got in a really desperate situation you were prepared to face this thing of physical violence and to fight.
Yes, where there was a great reluctance, you see.
Yes, I think what I was about to say was that I kept out of these things all the time. I mean, when one was faced by a real threat by a bully I realize the chips were down. It was now or nothing and I fought back. And the bully was so damned surprised the never touched me again. It was a one-minute fight. It’s silly in a way. He was just undermined and thrown off his balance.
Anyway, there was this general toughness and I wasn’t really — also there was the great importance of sports, and I seemed to lack coordination and I couldn’t really throw a ball exactly where it should go or very far, and people kept on trying to teach me, and so far I’ve never learned it. That created a problem, you see, because sports was a key part of the relationship in this society.
I wonder how much of this sort of lack of ability like this coordination really is innate or what extent it is that one decides subconsciously that one’s not going to throw well?
I don’t know. I think there was a sort of general feeling that all these movements and muscles that you couldn’t follow — I probably developed the feeling that I would try to control things through the intellect, try to be able to see beforehand where every movement would lead and then do it. Whereas these physical movements you can’t do that way, you see.
Oh, you mean you feel that you had an interest in trying to control things by your intellect?
Well, by figuring it out.
What age would that have been?
It would have been very early, say seven or eight. I probably felt I wasn’t able to coordinate it and I’d have to figure it out.
Oh, so you mean at about seven or eight, why do you think you were so interested in trying to in a way control your body and ?
Or the general situation.
By using your?
By figuring it out. That was probably to feel more secure. I felt I wasn’t coordinated. Some people could make a coordinated move without thinking about, so in that area I couldn’t do it very well. And then in other areas it seemed also socially it was very hard to see exactly what to do, and I wanted to try to — in unusual situations I felt the need to somehow be able to plan out what you would do.
So what you might say then if you had grown up in this family where you saw the most disastrous quarrel between your parents and immense sorts of displays of emotion on both sides running away from themselves dangerously in the case of your mother and generally an ability on her part to be able to control her life or control anything. Then you might well have been driven by all this example to say, “For God’s sake, I must hold on to something, some alternative.”
Which was the intellect. You say that this was a sort of lifeline which you decided was?
Since I was able to do it then I pursued it.
Yes, and you had the facilities in that direction so you sort of do to develop it.
Yes, I used to just say figure it out.
Can you give me an example of one of the things that you figured out?
Well, you see I can’t remember, but I have this general feeling of wanting to figure out what I would be doing beforehand. When I was about twelve, or ten or eleven, I was walking with some boys in the backwoods of the mountains there. I don’t know if I told you this, we had to cross the stream. This was a typical problem that you had to do things and just trust your body. It must have happened many times, but the thing I remember was the stepping stones. But I suddenly took this leap and it worked, you see, whereas before I would have said I must take every, I want to see if I can step from one stone to the other and stop and see where I then make the next step and so on. So that was the sort of thinking, and suddenly I had that insight that it wasn’t necessary, that the movement as itself was a state of being.
It would look after itself.
It would look after itself. And that sort of incident, it impressed me so that it stuck in my mind.
This was a leap away from an analytical approach to a sort of holistic notions.
At the same time it shows how strong the analytical approach was.
Yes, quite, that you had been developing all this figuring it out, as you say. Yes, well when one becomes a theoretical physicist to make sure, I mean, you’d say this term ‘figuring it out’ was of course very clearly what you’d been doing all your life, but then you’ve gone beyond the early limited term for ‘figuring it out’ to ‘figuring it out’ in terms of holistic notions.
You can’t remember any examples of the sort of things that you figured out that encouraged you to go on with this approach.
I guess I don’t remember it but the feeling I had was like when you were to walk from one place to another, each time you were walking you can stop at any moment and see where you are and reconsider. You’re not committed to a course such that you can’t sort of stop it and reconsider it at that moment and change if it’s wrong. Do you see what I mean? Or while you’re on that stepping stone, on that stone across the stream, once you’ve made the leap you can’t do that.
Yes, well, I suppose what you felt in a way was that there was no real security in your parent’s life, being sort of all along on a river of emotions and that, you know. What you needed to be able to do was to put your foot down on say stones and just stand on something firm.
Yes, and be able to stop and look, look around and make the next step on a firm basis.
So you wouldn’t be sort of just dragged along by these currents.
Yes, by these uncontrollable irrational currents.
Yes, yes. But then you, on the stepping stones, you saw it wasn’t as simple as that. You had to be prepared to go along with the whole motion and the mind and the body couldn’t be separated.
Um hmm [agreement].
So this was really your first example, the lesson very clearly in your mind that you had unity of mind and body.
Um hmm [agreement]. Well also the unity of being in motion. You see it was really the feeling I had was that I would separate being and movement in the beginning saying that being was on those stones and then you would move from one stone to another.
I see, yes.
But there was the idea that motion was first and being was part of it.
I see, yes, yes. That there was no such thing as being and becoming. It was all — you couldn’t, no one could ever stand still.
That’s my point.
Yes, you can’t stay as a certain being and then choose the next one.
You think this is reasonable to attribute this to the reaction, these awful sorts of great currents of emotion sweeping your whole dimension of being.
But also to somehow — whether this was an effect of it I don’t know — but it was not up to the usual degree of coordination so that I found that I had to watch my movements. Other people seemed to learn these movements far more easily without even thinking about it or without considering it.
Yes, I think it was quite in general ordinary people I noticed seem to have a particular facility for picking up certain conventions that I find, for example, that if I have to play a game, or even writing, answering examination questions. I find that if my children are schooled, they all have difficulty in this. They seem to give all sorts of different answers than what the examiner really wants. Or writing and essay. Where the much more mediocre minds of the other children seem to sail along. They seem to sense all this that is required of you and do it. It’s the conventional thing.
Well, with regard to examinations I had no trouble, I could do that. When it came to some of these other situations perhaps there was too much tension or fear or panic of some sort.
I think probably what it means is that ordinary people that don’t have any exceptional powers of intellectual analysis and imagination and so on don’t have much intellectual development, these people have more or less instinctive feeling for what the social group requires of them.
And the more intellectually developed people are?
The also have the ability to pick up the sort of movement required almost by a kind of mimesis which they are not conscience of.
Without understanding it.
I think you see University students generally picking up all sorts of stuff without understanding it. They know it after a fashion. They can often sort of kind of trot it out in exams and get reasonable marks. It’s not simple regurgitation, but he gets his prompting having a supple sense of what the teachers really expect of them.
Yes, they can pick it up. It’s really mimetic in a sense of?
What’s the word?
It’s a kind of imitative response.
Yes, but it’s a special ability within the social group to pick up and respond to the wavelengths of the social group, isn’t it?
But that is by mimesis, by imitation, by subtle imitation.
Yes, I suppose that’s — yes, they do imitate. And whereas you were stepping outside — I mean, you revolted against your father’s sort of imitative?
But I would have liked to have belonged to these boys’ working class groups and been more part of it than I was, but there were always these difficulties. The difficulty of bodily movements and the fact that they worshiped physical strength so much. I didn’t feel quite as strong as they were. I may have been as strong, but I didn’t think I was. My father always told me I was weak.
He made you weak.
Yes, and I don’t know exactly why he did. Probably he himself must have felt weak because I saw he was afraid of physical fights.
He never did anything. He never gave you exercises or things, devices to strengthen muscles or anything like that.
No, no, he never did anything like that.
Yes, he didn’t take much positive interest in that.
No, he wanted me to be strong but he said I was weak you see, and he said I couldn’t stand up to the sort of treatment other boys could take.
And he sort of discouraged you.
Did he ever do anything encouraging to you at all?
He did sometimes? Can you give me an example of something?
He may have done so occasionally. It’s hard to remember. He was almost always negative. I think he was negative all around and with my brother, too.
Yes, and to your brother.
Yes. In fact my brother had a much harder time because people used to compare him with me and I’d made a good record in school.
Yes, I see. But did your mother ever give you any encouragement?
Well, not really. She didn’t discourage me, let’s put it that way. I didn’t lose confidence through her except I lost confidence in her. But I may have lost confidence in a sense that I should have had a mother I could have counted on.
So in a way you lost confidence in your father because he seemed frightened of the physical violence, and you knew that you were afraid of it. You probably sensed the fact that if necessary you could face it, but you felt that he might not be able to do that.
Or he might not want to or he might not be able to.
Yes, yes. And you didn’t have confidence in your mother either for other reasons.
Yes, there really wasn’t much at all in your home life to inspire any confidence at all.
No. I told you I had some confidence in this uncle, but I didn’t see a lot of him. My grandfather was sort of a rough character. He was really a peasant back then, almost.
He was a furniture man.
Yes. He was sort of, very devout and had very simple ideas.
Yes, but he being the one who had been able to build up the furniture business, so he obviously had a lot of skills.
The business, yes. He had a lot of skills, no doubt. My grandmother, you see, was the one my mother depended on. She always struck me as the quiet sort of reasonable type of person. You could depend on her.
Ah, you had some contact with your grandmother?
And she was somewhat encouraging?
Well, she was in her way, yes. The main encouragement was that she was orderly and rational and sort of you could count on her. It would make sense, you know.
Yes, there was some order in her world, yes, and some sort of meaning, whereas you didn’t really see much meaning in either your mother or father’s lives.
Well, then didn’t your grandmother give you — did you feel that to some extent she respected you as a human being in your own right?
Yes, I’m sure she did. For example, she used to ask me to help her with her English, you know. She was going to night school and we would spend a couple of hours on that and she’d give me five cents.
So her language was primarily what?
Yes. But she was going to night school studying English.
Which country did she come from?
Lithuania, and they spoke Yiddish.
Well, the people spoke mainly Yiddish. She may have known Lithuanian, but that must have been very rusty.
Yes, I see. In their separate lives, in their ghettos they might have been largely using Yiddish.
Yes. Well my grandfather spoke basically Yiddish, too. He knew just enough English to talk his business and he knew Polish, which was the main point.
I see. So you were helping your grandmother with her English?
Well, sometimes, yes.
And she’d pay just for some money.
Yes. And my grandfather used to pay me to say the Hebrew prayers. Five cents. [laughter]
They were both sort of friendly towards you, then, and so this must have somewhat encouraged you to have some degree of self-respect if you felt you could teach your grandmother something.
The old joke is you can’t teach your grandmother something, isn’t it?
[laughter] Well, she had a somewhat broader point of view than my grandfather. She was sort of very interested in things.
I thought that you once said something about your mother. You had a feeling that she had a certain, what would be imaginative, poetic, or spiritual quality or something.
Yes, well, I remember when I visited my aunt once and she brought out a picture of my mother when she was young and she had a sort of look in her eye which was sort of inward looking. It was sort of a spiritual quality of inward looking-ness.
I see. Sort of inner meaning which is not on the surface of life. Whereas you felt your father really was seeing the meaning of life on the surface — conventions.
Yes. I felt my mother had the capacity to see the inner meaning, but she was too confused all around to do much about it.
Too broken up.
Pulled apart, whereas your father then didn’t have a sense for inner meaning you felt.
Well, he could have but he didn’t want to. He felt it wasn’t right according to his culture. It was not the thing to do.
He chose not to. He turned that one off.
The nearest he got to it was the Hebrew, the Jewish religion which he was learned in.
Yes, but this was a conventional thing again.
So he decided that he was just going to be conventional and that was it.
Um hmm [agreement].
And so he never gave himself the chance to develop any potentialities he might have had in that direction.
Um hmm [agreement].
So this sort of inner vision and so on, you might say that you got this from your mother’s side?
At least it was showing itself there.
I felt sort of an emotional bond to her when I was young, in the sense that I could trust her emotion. I couldn’t trust what she would do, but I could trust her feeling.
I see. So from a feeling point of view you felt somewhat on the same wavelength and with your father you felt less so.
Yes. I felt he would do the right thing but his feeling was hidden.
So that you really felt that if she could have held herself together more in one piece and to have managed mundane practical matters in life, like money and cooking and, these things.
And not to get carried away with these emotional outbursts.
Yes, that she might have been like someone that you really could have got on with well. But it was all this — she just would go off the deep end and become totally unreliable.
Um hmm [agreement].
But your contact with your grandmother never sort of developed very far, you mean.
Well, I didn’t see that much of her. It seemed that she was practical and reliable, you know. She knew what she was doing.
I think the difference between the generations sort of stands in the way a lot I think with this type of thing.
Well, also there was the language, you know. Her English wasn’t all that good. I mean, I could understand Yiddish but I never could speak it, so I think I had a resistance to speaking it because it wasn’t American.
So you were saying something about your — turn back to the parents’ business when you were beginning to talk about your original interest in science. What was it you were going to say about that?
Well, I think the first interest that I can remember was when I was about eight-years-old and in my father’s store. There was a boy, he used to have boys come in to help him take care of it. He brought a magazine called Amazing Stories, a science fiction journal.
Yes. And it had a story called “The Columbus of Space” or something or “Voyage to Venus.” I don’t remember what the story was, but this tremendously aroused my interest, you see.
I see. “Columbus of Space.” So, space travel.
Yes, a man was going to make this great adventurous journey.
Yes, to Venus.
I see, do you remember any of this?
No, I don’t remember that story at all except that it was some great adventure.
Maybe that made a big impression on you.
What year would that have been?
About eight-years-old, maybe nine, I don’t know.
What would that be? '19?
’25 — about ‘25 or ‘26.
Yes, these ideas about space travel were just beginning. The Germans were making rockets and planes and things in a small way.
Yes, but I mean in our environment that would have, nobody would have?
They wouldn’t have known about it. No.
Because people — my father would have thought that was just nonsense.
Yes, yes. But these ideas could sort of filter around amongst writers and so?
Well, there was a science fiction — you see around that time they started this first science fiction journal in America, Amazing Stories, then later several more came up. Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, and as I got older I used to buy them from time to time. I talked them over with this Polish friend of mine, Koniki [?] his name was. We used to talk about all sorts of things. As a matter of fact, but I was interested in science before that and after the Amazing Stories, then in the fourth grade they put out a book on astronomy. They gave us a small book on astronomy that they wouldn’t let us keep, but we would just hold it there and make readings in it. But I used to read it all the time rather than the other things. So this impressed me tremendously, the tremendous size of the sun and the tremendous distances and the great order of the movements of the planets.
You say this was a textbook?
It wasn’t a text, it was sort of a story about it. It was a sort of a bit extra that they gave you.
I see, it was a bit of extra reading of sort of a book on astronomy for the general reader.
Well, it was really for the child, but still.
What age would that be?
Well, the fourth grade. I must have been about ten or eleven.
So that you were stimulated to have an interest in astronomy and this whole sort of bigger universe at the age of about ten.
Yes, and it seemed with all that order and tremendous immensity it was sort of in contrast to the pettiness of the life around us here.
Yes, it was Einstein said that sort of same, too, didn’t he, much later on in his career. You mean this was a kind of holy pure world up there, untainted by human foolishness of husbands and wives sort of shouting at each other.
Yes, and also people fighting for no good reason.
Yes. Violence, boys, and ?
And teachers who were ?
[???] tough work.
Yes, and also, the point is I didn’t like the school, you see. Not that I was against the learning, but I felt the whole atmosphere in school was wrong. I felt the teachers were addicted to arbitrary authority, you see. I wouldn’t have had the words for it, but I used to make up stories with my brother to tell them. We used to tell them about, we made up all kinds of stories about the boogie men. We called them “boos”.
With your brother?
Yes. So one of the stories was they were organized. I had them organized into an army of captains and majors and generals. I said the worst of them all were the teachers.
You mean the teacher was a category of boogie men?
The teachers of the boogie men really were the worst of all.
I see. There were different levels in hierarchy of boogie men and the teachers came right at the bottom.
Yes, well the top really.
Oh the top, I see. They were bad, they were the worst of them all.
It went up from the captains then the majors and generals and the teachers.
Why, was it this arbitrary authority?
Yes, it was the arbitrary authority saying that they really just wanted to exert arbitrary authority, you see. Very often I was rather bored there. You had to wait and wait and watch the clock until it was time to leave.
Yes, it’s dreadful watching the clock. And you didn’t feel they had any respect for the subject that they were teaching? No real feeling for it.
Well, I think some of them had. I felt they got across some feeling for it, but I think, first of all they had to go at such a slow pace, but this exertion of arbitrary authority was what worried me. There was such a contrast because outside before you went to school you could just talk to anybody whenever you wanted to and say, “Okay.” You could say what you wanted to, you see.
Yes. And then suddenly you couldn’t say anything except when they wanted you to talk and only the things they wanted you to say. And they could punish people and exert every kind of?
What age did you start going to school at?
Seven or six and a half.
Oh, that was a bit late wasn’t it?
Well, because of my birthday or something. I think maybe it was just before seven.
I think now in this society children start going to some sort of thing, nursery school, much earlier on, don’t they?
Yes. Well, they used to have kindergarten, but I didn’t go to it.
You didn’t go to it, yes, so you had no experience of school until you were about six or seven?
So it came as a bit of a shock, all these constraints.
Yes and then outside the boys were really rotten. They admired — they were inclined to be contemptuous unless you could equal them in strength and skill.
Was there good discipline in the school?
Well, it was quite strong discipline, yes.
Yes, yes. So the rottenness of the boys was kept under control?
Yes, that’s right, yes. I think the school was probably better than most in that area.
Well, it was good that they gave you this strong label, isn’t it?
I mean, that showed some sort of concessions to free inquiry, didn’t it?
Well, I think they had an attitude in which they respected knowledge and learning. I mean, that was clear.
I see. And they had all sorts of religions and certain groups.
Well, I was the only Jew in class. There were mostly Catholics and maybe some Protestants.
Ah, the Catholics, you mean the Poles and the Irish.
They were both Catholic, yes. But Catholic influence, you weren’t conscious of any sort of particular impact of the Catholic religion on your life you think?
Well, I don’t know. Not very strongly, except people I knew were Catholics.
You didn’t know quite what it meant?
Well, we talked about it a bit, but they used to say that the Jews had crucified Christ and I used to answer back that it was the Romans and they were saying, “How can you hold people responsible for what was done 2000 years ago to people today?” I couldn’t understand that.
So this was another piece of injustice on the part of the attitudes of the Catholics towards the Jews.
Unreasonableness and injustice.
Yes. We never really got very strong about it, you see. I didn’t produce any great deal of friction.
But you do seem to have had quite a lot of different ways in which you felt about injustice and unreason. There was your father’s respect for convention and his social Jewish world. There was the Catholic attitude towards the Jews.
There was a feeling that my father was unjust to my mother.
As I grew older that went away because I could see that she was terribly hard to deal with.
Yes, you could understand more why he got so desperate. But presumably she got worse too.
Um hmm [agreement].
Under those pressures. It does seem to me that you had a whole lot of situations where you were reacting against injustice.
Um hmm [agreement].
If I was just thinking back about my social life I was practically unaware of any social injustice at all. I was insulated from these matters. Interesting point. Interesting point.
I probably felt that my father was unjust to me, you see.
Yes, well, whether you consciously did or not you obviously must have felt, yes, and to what extent if feeling that you were being unjustly treated may have stimulated you to be more sympathetic to the needs for justice to other people. One doesn’t know, does one? It could be. So you were embedded in a social situation where there were lots of opportunities for observing injustice of one kind or another.
Um hmm [agreement].
Yes, I probably didn’t sort of see that. I think probably my own family, so called, was a very good one from the point of your getting justice, because I think that my father in particular was — well, he came from a family with feminists, you see, and suffragettes and free-thinking, generally. So his whole attitude was to encourage every individual in their own rights to do their own thinking, you see. So in many respects my background was more or less the exact opposite of what yours was. Later on, of course, my father was very concerned with the injustice in the slums of Birmingham where he worked as a doctor, and of course I just had to — he became totally engrossed in this question of economic reform. How far did you get with the science at school at various ages?
Well, there was no science in school at all until I was about in high school, I’d say about eleventh grade or tenth grade.
That was another school?
Yes. The first six years were the elementary school.
But at the elementary school you got the book on astronomy?
Just that, that’s the only science. But that awakened my interest and then a little bit later I met this Polish boy and another boy we called Waisaki [?]. And he used to make things with his hands.
What sort of things?
Well, little ships and devices of various kinds. He was interested in science. We used to go to the library together and get books on chemistry and physics.
The public library?
And it was free?
Yes. But of course later I got separated from him, whereas he didn’t go on with school. He was also not too balanced. I mean, he was always nervous and he began to break down later. I understand after I ceased to know him and he died at the age of 19 from something or other. But he was always a bit unusual or something. He had these unusual interests, you see.
What sort of models where these things and devices?
He was interested in model airplanes and model ships. Later I became interested in making small radios.
I see. Yes, I think model airplanes were always fascinating. Well ships, too. I suppose you have this dynamic thing. I suppose all the space travel is a similar thing — you know, a sort of ship that travels about. You’ve got this freedom.
We made models of sailing ships and put them in the ponds. And we tried some model airplanes that didn’t fly too well. He made other things. I can’t remember. So there was that interest in science at that time. We used to talk a lot about interplanetary travel and I remember we had an argument once. We were planning to go to Mars, you see, when we grew up and I said I think we’d probably have to stay there a year to explore the place. He said no, we must return immediately.
He didn’t want to. I don’t remember why not. He felt it was too dangerous. He said he would tell everybody what my plans were.
I see. He thought you were planning something unwise to stay there.
He’d have to warn people. So you weren’t planning to be engine drivers and you were planning to be astronauts.
I don’t know how serious we were but that was our imagination.
Childhood notions, yes.
With this second Polish fellow Koniki [?] we used to discuss science fiction all the time. Also, science and things. When we had science in high school we would talk about it. We would sort of study things on our own.
Did you notice any contradiction of attitude between the science fiction and the school science?
I don’t think it bothered me. I realized the science fiction was fantasy so it didn’t bother me that there would be a difference.
Yes. So to some extent the two things did fit together.
The science fiction was the more romantic aspect of the science whereas you could see that the science in the school was also interesting although, it was rather possibly a little bit dry.
Um hmm [agreement].
And matter of fact.
Yes. Well, it didn’t really seem to cause any trouble.
Yes, yes. I think presumably you saw the poetic interest in even the dry school science. Where I think the trouble now with so many children having science in school is they haven’t got this intense interest in science generally which lightens it all up for them. I think they only see the dry aspects. Unless you make it very interesting to them they won’t get interested in it at all.
Science, it seemed, there were several things that science would have this aspect of this vast universal law and also the great power in it. You see, it used to interest?
Law you say?
You know, with the planets and the sun. And one discovered these laws in chemistry and physics.
Yes, I see.
The other side was there was great power in it. I was fascinated with the idea of atomic power by the age of thirteen.
Atomic power? That was in The Amazing Stories was it?
Well, it was always in those stories all the time.
You mean Solly [?] and people like that presumably right about 1920 or something.
Well, they were always using atomic power and all sorts of drimes [?] and liberating energies that could destroy planets and so on.
Gosh, so the Manhattan scientist brought up on atomic power Amazing Stories?
Yes. So when I went to the library and saw the Scientific American about neutrons and protons and so on I became very fascinated because it seemed this was the road to atomic power.
That was before the idea of fission of course.
Yes, but the neutrons seemed they would be the way because it would penetrate, you see. The nucleus?
You worked that out for yourself?
Well, that was probably in the article, I don’t know. There were popular articles on it, semi-popular in the Scientific American.
You think that atomic power and neutrons were being??
Well, I don’t know if they said so, but it seemed that if you were going to do anything it would be the neutron because that could penetrate the nucleus. I mean, I remember talking with Koniki about it, so that was of course a great dream of saying it would liberate all this energy and make space travel possible and do all kinds of interesting things.
The idea of liberating power itself was fascinating, you see. I even used to have fantasies when I was a bit younger about trying to produce lightening. You see, I heard about these coils like Ford coils that would build up high voltage sparks. I thought of trying to build it up still more and produce lightening.
You could really.
Um hmm [agreement].
If you had the facilities.
But that may have been some people would think it was a sort of compensation for a feeling of being powerless, you see.
Well, it might well have been. But you were also, you had all of these memories of seeing lights and street lights.
But that was much, even much earlier.
Oh, it was earlier?
I mean to see light as radiating out into the darkness. I used to walk and see these street lights that sort of radiated out into the darkness and sort of had a significance to me.
Was that before you had an interest in astronomy?
Well, it could have been. I mean, I didn’t see any direct connection at that time.
What about looking up at the sky in the night and thinking that was marvelous?
Yes, well the stars were very interesting and later with science fiction came the notion you could go there.
Yes, I see. But the street lights?
Seemed to be doing, an energy that penetrated the darkness, you see, and really reaching out from where they were to me and to everything.
Was this some sort of symbolic things of some sort of spiritual [???] enlightenment which might?
Yes, that I used to like to think about lights that were more and more powerful — thinking of tremendously powerful lights.
What would they do?
They would do more of the same, but you see, when I heard of ultraviolet light infrared, you see, then I thought of a flame which would go from red to white to blue to violet to ultraviolet. Thinking of the tremendous energy that would penetrate everything. I was very impressed with the idea of energy and power. I used to study the table of chemical activities avidly. If I ever saw another element that was more active then I’d known it was a fascinating thing. Let’s say sodium was way in the top of potassium and lithium and then down on the other side was fluorine and then came the idea that their nascent elements were still more active and so on. So the idea of activity of chemical elements was fascinating.
What sort of age would that be?
Twelve or thirteen, when I first saw them in the library.
Oh, this was a long time before you had any science in school then.
So you were reading all these books about chemistry on your own before you had any science education.