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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of David Bohm by Maurice Wilkins on 1986 June 12,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; father’s values in contrast with the values of the Polish/Irish community they lived in; unhealthy home environment; life during the Depression; the American Dream and the American West as a symbol of new horizons; perfectibility of human beings; development of views on socialism, fascism, Nazism, communism; usefulness of public libraries; love of nature in contrast to the chaos of the city; high school geometry and algebra; electrons and the fourth dimension; tornados and vortices; movement and being; light as an entity; Pennsylvania State University (1935-1939); friends and rural environment; ROTC training; chemistry and physics courses; introduction to quantum mechanics.
Yes. It’s recording now. I had a little sort of psychological theory that might explain the fact that you seem to have an usual interest from an early age in exploring unconventional or alternative views of these world and life science and so forth. And this might be connected with the fact that your father at least in some respects had been rather dominated by conventional views and this had — you felt rather strongly as a child that you regretted the fact that your father was rather dominated by certain conventional aspects of the Jewish community in which he lived. Do you think there might — I mean, no one can prove that these psychological theories are right, but do you it’s a reasonable type of speculation?
Yes, It’s reasonable. I’m sure I was affected by my father and also encouraged that way to question the limited values of the Jewish community. But also the contrast between the Jewish community which was a bit far away and the immediate surroundings of the people I was with all the time.
Yes, you mean your actual home was in a somewhat area different from the area where you were. No, I don’t quite understand this.
Well, we lived surrounded by Polish and Irish people and perhaps the main part of the Jewish community was well over a mile and a half away.
Oh, I see. You mean that you lived near your father’s furniture store.
Yes, as a matter of fact essentially next door to it.
Next door to it. I see. And so that you were somewhat separated then from the main Jewish community.
Yes, and the contrast with these values to see two communities with such different values would already help me to look more critically at values.
Yes, so that certain aspects of your family life were dominated by the Jewish community, but you yourself were immersed in the Polish/Irish mining community.
Yes, and I realized that the Jewish community often looked down on the Polish/Irish, and vice versa, and the Polish/Irish had a poor view of the Jews.
Yes, quite. I suppose this is a somewhat unusual way for people to live, isn’t it? I mean, it’s often the case that you might, for example, have a Jewish businessman who had his business enterprise in another community but to have an actual family living there meant that you as a child were immersed in this other community.
Yes, and if I wasn’t raised there I’d identify with the Jewish community, but more closely with the other one.
Yes, but when you went to visit the Jewish community did you feel sort of it was possibly a bit artificial?
Yes, limited, artificial, middle class. You know, various feelings, narrow and sort of arbitrary and know that their values were somewhat arbitrary, dogmatic.
I didn’t, but then I could see that both communities were criticizing each other so that may have led me to look, to take a stance a bit beyond that you see. You know, I had some ties to both communities and I could see some truth in both sets of criticisms.
You mean you might say you were encouraged to have a certain degree of objectivity because you were somehow suspended above these two communities.
Um hmm [agreement].
And you could observe both their weaknesses and shortcomings in the way in which each of them criticized the other.
Yes, and saying that possibly I could see that some of the criticisms were right on both cases.
Yes, yes. And so you were not really absorbed in the ordinary sort of cultural sense. I mean, most people tend to be sort of absorbed into a certain cultural surrounding, aren’t they? I mean, in as much that they don’t sort of question the attitudes. They take them for granted, whereas in your case this didn’t happen to you.
No, and also I could see that therefore a person depended very much on the community he happened to grow up in. So that idea was somewhat current in the culture.
Probably in the general American culture. You see that a person might be considerably affected by the way he grew up.
Yes, because you mean so many Americans had come from so many different cultures in Europe.
Yes, and I remember when I had a lesson. I was about 15 or 16 and I went to talk with the rabbi. He was really quite an educated man. He had gone to Columbia and he was essentially in favor of the humanities, you see. Essentially this feature of Western culture, which I forget what you call it — after the middle ages, you know — not exactly humanitarian but emphasizing the human side of things.
Humanistic, yes. And so his religion was sort of mixed with that and we had a long talk. He asked me at one stage what would I have done if I’d grown up in the Middle Ages? I told him I was very interested in science and all the things that were going on and that I didn’t really connect that much with the Jewish religion. And he listened to that and then he asked me, “Well, what would I have done in the Middle Ages if I’d grown up?” And I said, “Well, I would probably have been a very religious Jew,” because that would have been the only possibility at that time, you see. So I had the notion that I could see that even my own values had been affected by the situation in which I’d grown up, you see. But I didn’t feel that these values were ironclad, absolute. In other words I felt that there was some humanity beyond any of these values.
So that you were able in this rather peculiar cultural position of being somewhat suspended between the two cultures, both of which were in an American environment and taken out of their roots in Europe — that you were able to see more clearly than many people might the way in which people are conditioned.
Yes, I could see that all of us were conditioned including myself and that view was part of me. You see, I remember also later in college we used to argue about whether human beings and human society were perfectible, you see. Some people took the view that you couldn’t get very much farther than we were, that that’s the way people are. And I took the view that human society, human beings were perfectible. That we’re improvable, you see. And then he said — you know I don’t remember how he got it — but he said, “But you’ve got all these shortcomings that other people have.” But I said, “But after all, I’ve grown up in the same society, you see. If I was sitting in another society we’d all be different.” So that’s the sort of view that I developed I think as I grew up. I had that even earlier, you see. I was very unhappy even before I got to school with this sort of family situation I’d grown up in. I felt that it had sort of made me somewhat nervous and mixed up.
You mean the quarrels between your parents.
Yes, and also the whole trouble all around, the meaninglessness of the whole situation and all the nervous, neurotic reactions.
Well, what sort of?
Well, I don’t know, I had a feeling that...
You mean amongst the mining community?
No, but myself. I had the feeling that because I’d grown up there I was not really healthy, you see.
Ah, I see. You felt you were somewhat damaged by all this sort of awful space.
Yes, I felt that very early, yes. I had read about the West where everything in America was different. I was about six or seven, I suppose, and I thought if maybe only I could go over there, wherever it was, Wyoming or somewhere, that I could grow up in a different environment.
And everybody would be working very positively and making progress.
Well, also being friendly and not fighting and sort of having meaning and so on, you see. I had the distinct feeling that I’d grown up in an environment which was not good for me, which made me somewhat unhealthy both mentally and physically — that I wasn’t really getting the right physical background.
So you did feel that you were sort of nervous and anxious.
Anxious and sometimes bad-tempered and so on.
Yes. So you felt that these great stresses that you’d been subjected to in this environment had taken their toll on you mentally to some extent?
Yes. And I pictured another environment where this wouldn’t happen. And from there I went on to say that this is probably true of everybody. Gradually this idea dawned on me.
Yes, well most people aren’t capable of observing this in themselves. I mean, they may have all kinds of damage done to them psychologically, but apart from possibly feeling rather miserable, they generally lack the capacity of being able to look at themselves, whereas you seem to have been able to look at yourself in this situation.
Sometimes anyway. You know, in certain cases.
At least in that respect you did. How old would you have been?
Well, that must have been very early because I remember I was at a house were I was in the first few years in school. I can remember that memory is associated with that image of that house you see.
Why was it associated?
Well, I remember that I had it at the time that I was there.
There was no special reason. It just happened.
No. I remember it couldn’t have been much after starting school. It must have sufficient time to allow me to read about the West somewhere possibly.
What would that be? Six? Eight? Or what?
Not later than eight.
Yes, I see. It interests me because you see when I was six and seven I had a most dramatic experience because my very friendly elder sister, my only child was taken off into hospital and was more or less removed from my life completely. Yet my memories are of no clear memory of any great misery, but I can deduce in hindsight that I was miserable because I remember my parents going to see the school teachers and asking about me. And you see, I think this is quite a common thing in children. That their parents can be murdered and all sorts of dreadful things can happen. They can be intensely miserable but they are not conscious of it in a proper sense. And they can’t tell you.
They are not conscious enough to remember it, anyway. In the moment that it’s happening they probably know it.
Yes, but they won’t possibly know the reason for it.
No, they certainly very seldom know the reason.
They are more like to some extent animals. I mean, they experience it at one level without being fully conscious. But in your case you seem to have been able to figure it out, which was a term you used before. And I’m not suggesting that you were totally objective towards yourself. I mean, it would be ridiculous. You seem to have had an unusual capacity for being able to look at yourself. I mean, can you see any reason why you are? Was it simply that the intensity of the problem was so great that you were sort of forced to consider yourself?
Well, maybe. The idea occurred to me, you know, that I could be happier somewhere else, in some other environment, you see, somehow.
That would mean getting away from your home, for sure.
Yes, but I meant that I thought of some sort of this magical West which was so big a part of the American dream.
That way you’ll see how it figures later, too. It comes in later.
I was tremendously impressed by this pioneer, this opening up of the West. The symbolism of it of the setting sun and so on, you see. One of the American coins was a half a dollar. It doesn’t exist anymore. There was a sort of the sun setting on mountains with rays going out which was a common symbol, you see — the golden rays promising a brilliant future.
I see, yes.
So that was a sort of feeling I got from the culture.
This was the new world?
The new world, and the West was the newest part of the new world.
Europe was looked down on as old and decrepit and so on, caught in tradition.
Yes, yes. I suppose this connects with the whole idea of new vistas in science, too.
Yes. Well, I think looking forward to something new and, you know, unlimited range of vistas, you see. Like, you know, I remember that there were some mountains I used to climb when I was in college in the middle of Pennsylvania and you could see one row of other mountains, you see, going on and on.
How far away from your home was that?
About a hundred and something miles. 120 miles.
How often could you get to the mountains?
Well, the mountains were right next to the college, you see.
That’s where you were at college?
Yes. We had some mountains at home, too, the smaller kind, and I used to go there quite often.
Did you go with other boys?
Well, in the beginning yes, and later I went alone.
Yes, yes. So really, this whole American dream of new horizons and so on fitted in this, you might say was an important stimulus in your whole approach to science and life involving new horizons.
Yes. See the point is that it seemed that California was really the ultimate of that; it is as far west as you could go and it was to have tremendous possibility in it.
Yes, yes. And was that one of the reasons you did go to California?
Yes, I think it affected me.
But when you’d finished at college, I mean did you have a choice of going to other places?
I could have gone to Rochester or some such place, you see, in New York. But I got a fellowship from the college itself of $600.00 to go anywhere. Then I got a letter from Caltech saying that they would give me free tuition so I decided right away to go there. This golden dream, as it were, which was so much part of the American culture.
Yes, one could also say of course that this whole idea of alternative ways of living and looking at things was stimulated by the disastrous domestic situation that you were in. There must have been immense pressure to think that if life was to have meaning at all there must have been some alternative to living in your home where you had this great sort of negative relationship between your father and mother.
Yes, and also the whole community was a bit depressed. You see, especially as the depression came. I began to feel it was very limited. For example, there was essentially no science going on there and very little of anything else. Wilkes-Barre was known as a good place to have come from.
So it was depressed and very culturally deprived?
And full of poor whites?
Well, yes. In the earlier days it wasn’t so bad, I didn’t feel it so bad because there was still prosperity and the people were still looking forward to things.
How old were you when the depression was going on?
Well, it started in 1929 and I was about 12 years old.
Yes, so in your early teens you grew up on the middle of the Great Depression.
So, presumably that area was not possibly affected more than many areas in the United States. I mean, to make it really sort of dreary.
Well, it was. I don’t know if it was worse, but it was pretty badly affected, you see.
I did remember one man telling me once that the depression wasn’t too bad for him because he said, “But everyone sat around at home. We took it quietly. There wasn’t much money but, you know, it was just sort of a quiet time. It wasn’t so bad.” But presumably in that community it was worse. There was real sort of poverty and starvation.
Well, I don’t know if there was actual — there may have been, you see. There was a lot of poverty but it was mainly the sense of hopelessness, that people couldn’t hope to get jobs and what was the point of the whole thing. And some people may have suffered a great deal, but they were not visible. Some of the mines worked moderately steadily. It happened that my friend, this Polish fellow, his father was working moderately steadily. Different mines would have different situations and other industries failed and so on. Banks failed.
But did you have any friends whose fathers became unemployed?
No, I didn’t actually. But I was affected also by the whole general meaning of it. It was a sort of a shock that this would happen in America, that there had been such a forward look of progress and prosperity.
Ah yes, the great dream of progress and now the bottom was falling out.
Yes. It sort of took away part of the meaning. And when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected and began his new policies I became very enthusiastic about them.
Yes, yes. And so this whole thing about the whatever it’s called, American Dream, I don’t know what the correct expression is, this did have quite a big effect on your whole attitude towards life.
Yes, I mean this American Dream included, you know, freedom, equality, and justice. Also another feature was individualism. You see in the beginning I felt that each person must find his own way and it was the land of opportunity where each person could develop according to his capacities. Stood on his own feet and so on. Then I could see that with this depression it wasn’t going to happen. A tremendous number of people were doomed not even to get a job and get some sort of very stupid job and very low pay. And banks would fail. People had saved up money and banks and other companies and stocks, whatever, and they could all vanish.
So the American Dream certainly wasn’t just a matter of people having a lot of opportunity to make a lot of money. It was also a dream of social justice.
Yes, and opportunity for the individual regardless of his background. This also appealed to me. I did not identify even with my immediate ancestors much less with those 2000 and 3000 years ago, the Jews. I felt that each person was an individual and could not be made responsible for his ancestors, you know, nor could he count on them. That he had to prove himself as an individual. Abinitio, from the beginning.
So this whole American idea about the nature of a good society stimulated this sort of attitude in yourself, is that right?
Yes, in fact in the beginning I believed in all the conservative ideas about individualism, but then the depression made me begin to question those and saying that the society must have some responsibility to not only for the poor people but to give everybody a chance. You can’t just leave it to the law of the jungle.
You mean laissez-faire wasn’t ?
Yes, I believed in it in the beginning but later I questioned it.
Yes, yes. Well anyway, the whole sort of theory about the American society did make a big impression on you in your early years.
Yes. I felt America would essentially express the highest possible, highest human achievements which up to date, you see.
Yes, I think a lot of European people don’t give the American society credit for this progressive element in it which was, after all, derived from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, wasn’t it?
Um hmm [agreement].
In fact, didn’t the American Revolution take place before the French Revolution?
Yes, but the principles had a common source.
Yes, exactly. And I think that this is also where the people in Russia ought to recognize a bit more that the United States is not just sort of President Reagan’s era. They shouldn’t look at the whole thing 100% negatively because it does have some very good aspects to it. But, there seems to be one can see various factors which one could argue that sort of stimulated you into this new sort of vista exploration and insights and other areas and also the questioning of accepted ideas — some degree of objectivity to stand outside and question. Because you can’t question if you don’t?
But there was also a certain amount of idealism in the sense of the belief in the perfectibility of mankind.
Yes. Why was it that you argued against the other people that human beings might be perfectible? Where did you get that?
No, I argued for that, that they are perfectible.
Yes, why did you argue for perfectibility?
I felt that basically people were good and essentially bad things came because most people anyway the pressure had been too great or something. Unless the opportunities had been too small. That was part of the American idea that if everybody could only have his chance to do whatever he could then the good would come out.
Yes, you mean this is the Enlightenment idea, that people are basically good and for this good to be expressed you just need to have the right environment to do it.
Yes, that was sort of the idea. It was rather a common idea in the background. Now, you see, but a lot of people had the other idea that there wasn’t much you could do. When I was about 18, 17, the last year in high school, I used to have arguments with the father of a friend of mine. By then it was mostly Jewish boys I knew. He was a salesman, Mr. Weisent [?]. He would argue with me and he said, “You know that you have an unrealistic idea of people,” and he said people will only work because of fear. He said either in America or in the West essentially they would be fighting about unemployment or something and then in Russia they would be fighting for their lives. One way or the other that was the only way to get them to work. He preferred the fear that comes from the lack of money rather than the fear that would come from the State. So we used to argue about that and I said I wouldn’t accept it and I didn’t have a great opinion of Russia at the time. We’d heard a lot about what Stalin had been doing.
Oh, well, that must have been 1938 or so.
Yes, well, before, in the 30’s. Gradually this sort of information?
When did this Stalin stuff start coming out much?
A little bit was coming out already in the 30’s.
It’s getting a little bit cold. I’ll put on one of these lamb coats.
A little bit was coming out in the 30s, but there wasn’t enough to get any proof or anything. But things were pretty grim and miserable there.
Yes, 1935. I’m trying to think of my first year in Cambridge as an undergraduate. Yes, all the Sherb [?] trials were beginning then, yes, and that was fairly late on.
Yes, and one could get the impression that the government was very oppressive in Russia, you see.
Yes, well I suppose the whole collectivization and so on was much earlier, wasn’t it?
Yes. So, I didn’t really have a great regard for them, but I was very interested in politics all around. I remember just about ‘32 or so — maybe it was later, it must have been later — Mussolini came out with what I regarded as an outrageous statement that war is the help of nations and there were a lot of other equally stupid things he said in there. I remember I got very upset about it. I remember I wrote a — the first year in college I think I wrote a theme on that arguing against for the English composition class.
You mean at college there were English competitions?
What age were you then?
Well, I must have been 18 when I first took?
18. But you mean this is after you’d finished at your school.
High school, and you’d gone to college. You mean that it wasn’t just science alone, it had?
Well, you had composition, literature and a few other things. Of course languages, and in the last year you could take philosophy or sociology or something like that.
Really? Well what proportion of your — how many years were you at college?
And what proportion of your time was on science?
The major proportion was science and mathematics, yes.
I see, but there was quite a bit of broader education as well.
Compares very favorably with universities in this country now where you get, you can go two or three years without getting anything whatsoever of that nature. Science, mathematics, and nothing else.
Yes, well we had science, English composition, literature, philosophy, and a few other things, humanities.
They ought to do a bit more broadening like that in this country, too. Anyway in this thing you were arguing, I forgot what.
Well, arguing against Mussolini’s thesis about war and? But then you see that was probably when I was in high school when he said it but it may have struck me so much that I remembered it for years. But a little bit later my father came out in favor of Mussolini. He had a friend, an Italian friend, a businessman who convinced him that Mussolini was doing great things, making the trains run on time and bringing order into Italy. I thought this was nonsense, that it was just a clown really and sure that all this order was just a show, that there was nothing behind it.
Yes, I don’t know how true that is because after all Hitler got some sort of order into Germany.
I know, but Hitler was another story. The first thing was Mussolini and a lot of people, these businessmen, began to admire Mussolini, including my father. In fact Mr. Weiss also admired Mussolini, this friend of my father, a friend of mine. You know we used to have talks about him and we were quite friendly, but you know I felt I didn’t think much of him at all. But when Hitler came on the scene then this was much worse. You see I could see that he meant business and that he was really dangerous. He was attacking the very foundations of civilization I felt.
Now wasn’t Mussolini was that, too?
But he was very ineffectual.
Torturing and imprisoning trade unionists, left wingers, and all sorts.
But that was comparatively ineffectual and it wasn’t directed at the very roots of the thing. You see, with Hitler he would, Mussolini did praise irrationally and all that. I didn’t. I was very much against it, but I think Hitler just simply said blood is what counts not truth, not thought, not anything. None of the values of culture counted, you see. Race and blood and all these irrational things. And I think with the German ability to organize I thought it was dangerous, you see. My father had always been a great admirer of the Germans for their orderliness and cleanliness and so on. I had said they were very fine virtues but I felt always a little uneasy about them. I felt really — and when Hitler came along there must be something very wrong with all this virtue.
You did once tell me which precisely, which part of Europe your family?
From Czechoslovakia. It was a place called Munkache [?]. It was really Hungary at the time. It later became part of Czechoslovakia.
And why did, you say your father went over there on his own.
No, he came from there and he went to America on his own.
Came from Europe to America, yes. And he then met your mother.
At my grandfather’s house, right.
Yes. Now let me see, he, was he sent to your grandfather’s house?
No, he was just given the name. That was the custom.
I see, give him the name, yes. So, your mother’s family came from the same area?
No, she came from Lithuanian, their family.
How did they get the name then?
Well, the Jewish organized; the Jews had a sort of a vague informal organization to sort of help the immigration to America.
I don’t know how they did it. It was sort of a grapevine.
Yes, and so somehow they link people. You don’t know on what basis it was?
No. I don’t know how they managed it, but they did.
Can you remind me why your father left Czechoslovakia?
His parents had died at the age of 12. He was an orphan.
There was nothing for him.
You said that. They had died and he had no one really, no family.
But were the Jews fairly poor in that region? Was there economic deprivation?
There were some who had quite a bit of money and some who were not so well off you see. But there was some sort of community spirit. It was a very strong community spirit, religious, such that they did help those who were poorer, so my father had places to stay until he was 15 and then they probably helped him to immigrate.
Yes, their idea was here’s this orphan and the best way to solve his problems is to send him off to the land of opportunity.
Yes. And then later on he called for his brother who already was married and had some children.
Oh, I see. They came afterwards.
That wasn’t the brother you rather admired? The uncle?
No, no, that was somebody else. That was my grandmother’s side on my mother’s side.
On your mother’s side, yes. I take it it wasn’t so much a question of a lot of people having to move out of Europe because there was great general poverty. I mean, the Irish, for example, moved to the United States because there was dreadful poverty all around.
You see if you take — I don’t think poverty was so great in Hungary, the poverty was really greater if you went to Poland, Lithuania, and Russia.
Many of the Jews came from there, very poor. If you say from Germany, Hungary or Austria it was not quite so bad.
Yes, yes. I wonder to what extent the development of science in the United States was connected with this sort of American social philosophy as you might call it? I don’t know that in general there was very much evidence of it.
No there wasn’t much evidence. No, in fact I was rather on a limb by myself.
Yes, I think the American’s did very well in engineering things, didn’t they?
Um hmm, yes.
But I thought a lot of universities were set up in relation to agriculture and other sorts of practical needs, weren’t they?
So the whole scientific technological development in the United States, a lot of it was on the basis of the needs for applied science.
Yes, there was a very heavy emphasis on that.
Yes. It may have been a bit different in the East, I don’t know.
Well, all the state universities started that way and a great many of the others.
And their real sort of basic fundamental science more people call knowledge for its own sake, this was possibly more stimulated by the people coming over from Europe, for example, out of Germany with Hitler. I mean, that was rather a mess.
That made a big push, yes. There had been centers like Princeton and Harvard and Yale on the East Coast, but these were special places where only rather wealthy people could go there.
Yes. They weren’t typical of the American universities as a whole.
In fact, I suppose this whole thing about brain drain from Europe has never stopped post-war. It was Hitler and after the war it was more money jobs in science wasn’t it.
And it continues to be so. So the center of gravity of science in the world today is very much over there isn’t it.
Um hmm [agreement].
So that you’re being activated by this, these ideas were somewhat non-typical?
No. You see I was really activated by the state of the political situation, especially this rise of Hitler and the danger of war which greatly took a lot of my attention.
Why were you against war?
Well, I didn’t want the war. It was dangerous. I mean, I thought war was a destructive thing. But with Hitler there would be danger of war, you see.
That he would start war.
Yes. He was oppressing not only the Jews but also some other people and destroying — I felt much more significant — the very values in which civilization is founded.
But your being connected with the Jewish community, presumably your Jewish community was somehow aware of the dangers of the Jews in Germany.
We were aware of it but they tended to minimize it. You see, they didn’t?
They hadn’t met any refugees.
Well, there were a few, but they were helping a few refugees. But the problem didn’t, in the beginning at least, didn’t take the?
Yes, it didn’t take in properly.
They didn’t take it in, yes. There was a sort of a saying in Europe, like an old, they used to use these old sayings in Europe like the soup is never drunk as hot as it’s cooked, and so on.
You mean it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.
Yes. That’s a lot of noise but when you come down to it it won’t be quite that bad. That’s the sort of attitude.
Well, little did they know.
But I felt immediately it was worse than it sounded. You see, I felt that Hitler really was dangerous. I sort of felt Mussolini was a contemptible person but Hitler was really dangerous.
Yes, it does sound as though you were able to figure out clearly at quite an early age the dangers of fascism.
I used to read some of the left wing, slightly left wing journals like the New Republic. It was a liberal, slightly left journal.
Oh, I see. How did you get on to them?
Well, they were in the library.
The public library seemed to be damned useful to you wasn’t it.
Um hmm [agreement].
I wonder how long it’s actual to allow public libraries to go on.
I don’t know. Of course she could just cut off the funds that she’s doing.
Do you realize if you ring up the telephone to find out the time now, to get the time signal, that it’s now an advertisement for a watch company. That this is, yes the time, the Accurest [?] time, is 3:23. Accurest is the watch, so this is extraordinary. Everything is an advertisement.
Yes, value for money.
Yes, so British telecom presumably gets fees for Accurest to pay them money for the privilege for advertising every time you ask for what the time is. But, so the public library was free?
And this is presumably part of the whole notion of American freedom.
Yes, and also their insistence on the value of education.
I see, education, an improvement in progress. But it’s interesting, you see, the Thatcher ideas in individual struggle, but the American thing accepted the fact that you must have state, free state systems for at least an education.
It’s always taken for granted. You would have free state education, yes.
I mean Thatcher wants to do away with this doesn’t she?
She wants to have two [???]. But the health system never became free in any big way, did it?
No, no, it never did. But it was probably rather similar to what it was in Britain at that time, which wasn’t really that good. You had to have money. The doctors would actually come if you had no money and many of them didn’t charge very much.
So it wasn’t quite as bad as it might have sounded. But the hospitals, you had to pay for them. But there were city hospitals for people who couldn’t pay, you see.
Yes, so that the library system was really a very big help to you?
Yes, well there was really only one large public library, about a mile and half away, and I would go there.
Was this a reference library?
No, it was a general library. It had a reading room and books and so on.
So you got political magazines.
Scientific magazines, all sorts, books of various kinds, novels and science books.
I mean if that place hadn’t been there, you would have lost a very great deal in your life.
Because you were not living in a cultured community where you would have had access to political magazines and scientific magazines in other ways, would you?
Yes, it’s quite impressive, that.
Well anyway it was constant harping on the dangers of fascism in these journals, which I took seriously.
That was a small minority in the United States but it was articulate.
Yes, and then there was a fellow call Father Coughlin, who was a sort of a fascist who had a considerable following, and he put out a journal called Social Justice which I used to read just to see what they were doing.
He was American?
Yes. You see, the typical sort of thing was people would write letters to it saying you know the church says we should walk behind Christ. I don’t agree with that. I think we should go ahead of him with a club and clear the way.
That’s what the fascists would say?
Well, that’s what this fellow that wrote a letter to the journal said. That was the kind of thinking that they had.
I see, there was a sort of onward Christian soldier as you club down the people and clear the way for Christ.
Yes. But I used to read the fascist journals where I could read them and so on just so I could keep up with what they were doing. I use to read almost anything, you see.
Did you read fairly fast?
It’s very interesting how this contrasts with say my children. Most of my children read very little. I mean, and some of them hardly ever read books and yet I think they’re quite as intelligent as most good university students who can read books. It’s just they haven’t gotten into the habit or acquired this way of living in which books are an important part of life. And, I mean, does it have something to do with a sort of deprivation in other directions that one seeks? You know, ideas and so on off the printed page somehow that?
Well, you could say that everyone tries to live in imagination and so on and ideas because the realities are rather grim and limited.
Yes, because there is not much alternative. If you see what my children do is they have television and they have all kinds of music and they can go — you know young people’s music, bands, and things, and they have all sorts of other media in which they work through and social life and everything. It may seem that some of this is superficial, but this doesn’t leave them with much feeling of?
You know, in the schools or anywhere where it was mentioned and I more or less accepted that when I was a child.
Yes, it had no individual freedom you mean.
Yes, that’s right. People would say that’s the next thing to being an anarchist, which was really impossible.
We didn’t know what anarchists were, of course.
No, we thought they were crazy wild people.
There was this one black girl when I was in the eighth grade, and one day she got up and, I don’t know on what occasion, but she started to tell about socialism. It seemed she was talking rather compulsively about socialism. I can’t even remember what she said, but you know, everyone else was against it. That’s all I can remember. All the working people were against it.
But did you feel somewhat interested?
Well, I didn’t know at the time because she was talking in a rather mechanical compulsive way, so it didn’t grab me.
Yes, you mean this was some strange idea that you just noticed the other people objected to.
Yes, and she wasn’t presenting it very well.
Very well, yes.
But I think I got a somewhat more favorable presentation in journals like in the New Republic and The Nation. It wasn’t that they favored it, but at least you could look at it more favorably, and I used to argue with Mr. Weiss saying perhaps socialism should be given a chance.
Was that the rabbi?
No, the other fellow. The friend of, the father of my friend. And he said, “No, there is not the slightest chance that it would work.”
Oh, he was the one who, no he wasn’t the one who liked the Italian fascist?
No, that’s my father. Well, he also liked it too, yes. But he used to argue that there was only fear that would drive people, and I argued against that.
Socialism appeals to higher things in human beings.
No, he said it was a beautiful dream, but quite impossible.
I think that he was at least trained to be fair, but other people would say it’s a terrible thing.
Well, I suppose that Mussolini and the war was a little bit like this whole thing about having to fight and prove yourself.
Well, machismo, you know, being strong and?
Yes, and you had quite a belly full of that already. You were in a mining community.
It seemed already it was a pretty — well this fellow, this carried immensely further into the realm of nonsense than anybody I’d ever seen. Because I’d actually never seen anybody who had ever said war is good.
Yes. Did you happen to see the television program made by two Americans about fascism about a week ago?
It was quite interesting. It was all documentaries and apparently it got very little attention at all. It was a commercial flop in the United States. People just weren’t interested. They didn’t want to hear anything about it.
Um hmm [agreement].
It was the whole rise of fascism and Nazism right up to the time of World War II. It was quite educational but there was such a feeling of isolationism there and just wanting to, you know, it’s nothing to do with us. That’s the philosophy.
Yes. Well that was the sort of thing people wouldn’t worry about it. But I felt that quite a few, I gathered from the New Republic that quite a few of the wealthier people were in favor of it. Sort of viciously.
Yes, you mean it kept the unruly elements that would disturb society.
And also it would be a counter to Russia.
Yes, against communism.
Yes. Anyway the thing used to worry me.
The rise of fascism?
People began around ’37, some people, to expect war. Even when the war started in ’39 I think people in America thought we could keep out.
Yes. Yes, it wasn’t their business. You still got that spirit with the bombing of Libya. It’s a long way off. You can drop bombs on them and still nothing will happen to you. People in the States — unreality about the nature of the world. So you were right into political thinking.
I was still basically — I thought the democracy would be the only thing to improve things to say that the people should sort of raise their level and work together and serve along the lines of Roosevelt.
Yes, yes. If this is an intellectual autobiography presumably the main emphasis would be on the science, but on the other hand your scientific ideas are related to your social thinking so in a way none of this is separate. I suppose pursuing more fully the development of your political thinking is really part of the whole project. Is that right?
Yes, I think so, because I think that they’re tied together. In fact my feeling was to say that science would also help the betterment of mankind politically by eliminating poverty and increasing rationality by creating a spirit of greater rationality.
Yes, when you say greater rationality I can feel the great hollow laughter in the background.
Well, that’s what I believed in at the time.
Yes, quite, quite.
I think many people believed in it at the time.
Yes, yes. And I suppose to some extent it’s correct, isn’t it, but one has to get a clear idea of just in what respect it’s correct and other ways it’s not. Removing ignorance and superstition. How did you move then away from ideas of free enterprise, capitalism, more to socialist ideals?
Well, that was gradual in a sense. With the Depression came Franklin D. Roosevelt and the notion that you can’t have this completely free enterprise. It won’t work.
Ah, yes. So this was a state enterprise providing jobs?
Well, not only that but priming the pump and getting things going, building dams and doing various other things.
Yes, that was government money?
Yes. And the fact was if it hadn’t come there would have been a collapse. Private enterprise — it seemed the experience showed that private enterprise couldn’t organize itself.
It couldn’t work on its own?
It couldn’t keep itself going in an orderly way.
Yes. It needed some measure of Government intervention.
Yes, so probably at the beginning I thought it should be at the minimum, but then the appearance of fascism in Europe made this notion that wealthier people might favorite it here and elsewhere. It made me again doubt, they say that these people talked of freedom, but when it came down to it they were in favor of methods that were very much against freedom.
You mean rich people like arms manufacturers in Europe?
Well, not only that but there were also people in America who used all sorts of forces against the strikers or who would pay the repressive legislators or favor various sorts of dictators who were repressive because that was in line with their interests. Not only in Europe but in South America.
Yes, you mean you’d have a cheap labor force and security for people to keep wages down.
Yes, so it seemed that they talked about freedom but they were ready to use repressive measures in their own interests. They didn’t really mean it, you see. They meant freedom to make money for themselves and not money for anybody else.
Yes, that’s not good. That just — freedom that she wants freedom for Tory right wingers to go into universities and talk and so not to be shouted down by students but then she — these are all quite glad if they have a great filibuster in the House of Commons and prevent some tam DLs [?] things coming up.
Yes, and I think also there were quite a few radical students when I was at college. I wasn’t among them but they used to put out things in the paper, in the college paper, criticizing William Randolph Hurst and things like that and it sort of affected me. The general atmosphere was somewhat critical of the whole situation.
I see. So there were radical students at college but you didn’t really associate with them.
Well, isn’t that a little bit odd in view of the fact that you had been reading up on these ideas on your own in public library earlier?
Well, I didn’t really think that they were — I mean I can’t remember, but I didn’t think they were really going to address the real problem. Some of them I felt were excessively in favor of what was going on in Soviet Russia, overlooking all these bad things. Some of them seemed, well, too contentious you see. So I wasn’t terribly impressed by them.
Were they a fairly small minority?
Yes, rather small minority.
So it was rather quite a small number of these people and they gave you a general impression of being a few sort of rather useless sort of extremist oddballs.
Well, I don’t know if it’s exactly that but I didn’t think that they really had a realistic grasp of the situation.
Nor did they — they were too dogmatic and too —?
Yes, I think that the idea that they didn’t represent anything very meaningful, you might say. I think this is very much in contrast with the same period, say in European university like Cambridge where you had quite a big proportion of students, including many of the most intelligent ones, who were sort of generally socialist and Marxist and so on. So you had really good minds sort of chewing these ideas over, and so obviously this would be attractive to other students because one could see quite a large number of people exploring these ideas in an intelligent way, as you had a small minority there.
And not that you felt exploring ideas very intelligently.
No. I still had faith that the American democracy or democracy in Europe would eventually confront these problems and do something about them like the Depression and Fascism and Nazism.
When and to what extent did you move further towards socialist or Marxist thinking?
Well, that came quite a bit later. I think we’re sort of jumping too far ahead. That came when I got to Berkeley.
That was after Caltech.
I see, quite a bit later. So your own political thinking was a bit on one side during your college days.
Yes. My main interest was really physics you see. Although I had a vivid interest in politics and the general state of civilization.
So the presence of these radical students really wasn’t much use to you.
No. I think that there were three, several things. One was the basic interest in physics and second was this question of politics, which served a lot of my — which I felt passionate about at times. Then came probably, I used to feel the need to get out into nature, into the mountains and walk, that the city was a bit wearing and depressing.
Was it a very dull town?
Well, it was not only that, but I remember we used to go camping sometimes when I was in high school and after a few weeks I felt extremely healthy and everything right. And as soon as I got back into the city I felt it was all going — sort of general something wrong, the whole life chaos, confusion. People had that idea that city life was not that all good.
Not a feeling of wellbeing?
Not a feeling, no.
Wellbeing physically and mentally.
Yes. There was a lot of friction in the city, subtle friction — the ugliness and the general noise and so on.
So you got nature and life were somehow refreshing and meaningful.
Yes. Well it seemed cities had very little meaning. The larger the city the less meaning it had, you see.
So they tended to represent the rather meaningless side of human life?
Whereas theoretically I suppose a city could be a great center for human beings to come together to build up all sorts of meaning. But those cities did not.
No, they had very little meaning in them. As far as science was concerned I began, because of this general situation in the family as you were saying, and because the whole situation was so grim all around — not only the city was poor, poor environment, but also the Depression. So I turned more and more towards science, and I don’t know if I put it on the other tape, but I thought of making inventions.
Yes, you did. The idea of making money. That was one idea. If you had enough money then you wouldn’t have to worry about doing science, you’d just be able to do it because you’d have the economic power to do it.
Yes. That was one idea. But then gradually I became more interested in the theoretical side of science as we went on.
Inventions were rather a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.
Yes. So there was the focusing more on the theoretical side. I think it was in the 10th grade that we got?
What age would that be?
That would be 16 there abouts. I had geometry. Or was it 11th grade? Yes, geometry, that impressed me. That impressed me very much, the notion of proving these things.
Yes, you mentioned this on the other tape. Could you expand a bit on this? Why did it impress you?
I can’t quite say, but it seemed to be a very important achievement. Instead of just saying — previously I would think you’re just describing things as you’ve seen them. It could be that way, it could be another way, that’s just the way it happened to be, right? But in geometry you say it’s just got to be that way.
You mean in a sense it was a kind of absolute knowledge.
Yes, necessity, you see. It was something that just has to be instead of something that may or may not be. I’d never heard of such aknowledge before.
Yes. So all the ordinary hue in life is in a state of flux and change and decay and growth and everything and here you have something Euclidean, in particular. I mean, here was some sort of absolute thing that sort of stood there rock hard.
I don’t know if I thought of it as hard but just simply that it just has to be that way.
No, quite. Just that it had an absolute firmness about it which was in contrast to everything else.
Yes. Everything else was moveable in place and vague.
Well, I suppose that this is — one can see that this could be an extraordinary thought because here was something you could really hold on to in life. I suppose some people it’s religious conversion if they were convinced of the existence of God or something they might have a similar feeling. Well the first time here is something which is quite above the ordinary flux of human existence.
Yes. It’s in a kind of truth or whatever. I never even put it into words, but that was the feeling.
Yes, that was the sort of feeling there. Yes.
So I used to like algebra. We had that first in the seventh grade, but that was more a matter of manipulation. That wasn’t a matter of some special truth. But this idea of letting “x” standing for anything impressed me, too. To be able to reason about something that you didn’t know what it was and then find out what it was by reasoning by first postulating “x” and then reasoning about it and then finding it out.
Yes, you mean you can think about something without knowing what the thing is.
And through that thinking you get to know something about what it is.
I used to like that, but geometry impressed me far more.
But I suppose, of course, looking at mathematics of the modern standpoint you would realize that all this thing about the absolute truth is got much less basis as people used to think it had.
Yes, it’s not as necessary as it looks. At that time I looked at it that way and then finally you’re in high school and we had solid geometry. So at that time they decided to generalize and I worked out of a notebook a four dimensional geometry. There were various theorems.
Where did you hear about a fourth dimension?
Well, it had been common knowledge. People had talked about it in science fiction all the time. It may have been part of my language for many years.
You mean some of this was coming out from Einstein?
From Einstein and also from people writing science fiction stories.
Yes, but they got it from Einstein.
Well, also possibly from mathematics. Just simply people said there could be a fourth dimension.
Quite apart from Einstein in mathematics the idea of many more than three dimensions was standard.
Yes. For example, there was once I was in the library. We used to have — my father was getting worried about my lack of social life because I only saw one of these two boys, one boy or two boys, and we’d talk about physics and science. He said he must go to the YMHA, the Young Man’s Hebrew Association. There you can meet people. So I went there and I joined a club called the Orioles and all they did was to have business meetings to discuss finances and their basketball game, which I didn’t have much to do with because I didn’t play basketball very well. I found it very boring. There was one fellow who sort of was the older fellow in the club who sort of ran it. He met me in the library one day reading some science book and he said, “What are you reading that stuff for?” He gave me a sports magazine and he said this is what you are to read. So I opened it up and I found a story on the fourth dimension about a boy who threw a ball into the fourth dimension and it came back inside out.
[laughter] That must have been quite an exciting idea. Did you see if you wanted to go into the fourth dimension and come back inside out? Maybe you felt you might have been better if you’d been inside out?
Well, I hadn’t thought that, but it was quite an interesting idea.
Well, I wonder if you subconsciously might have felt this idea that the — that if you felt you’d been a bit miss, ill-done by the whole environment by your home, you might have felt that you’d get off to California and life would be better. You might also have thought that if you’d got into some other dimensions you could be transformed into another person.
Well, I think the thought was like another planet they might do better. We might find beings or societies where things were better. That thought was often in my mind.
You do seem to have this whole idea about moving out of our present plane into some other one where life would be better and human beings would be better.
Yes, or else other beings that would be there would be better.
Yes, quite, quite. Obviously one can never know to what extent home environment contributes to this sort of thing, but it might have been like that.
In general it seems science opened up possibilities of things that were more interesting and better and not so limited and so on.
Yes, not so limited, yes. All the new vistas.
Yes, like opening up into the fourth dimension. One thinking of the model of the world which was four dimensional, that everything in this three dimensional world was a tube in the fourth dimension. In some way I said there were hidden connections in those tubes which would help explain the forces between things. I worked out some sort of theory there including the idea that electrons would have tides on them and when the tides had the same frequency as the frequency revolution around the nucleus then that would be the condition for a definite orbit.
Were you in college then?
No, that was in the last year in school.
Where did you learn about electron orbits?
In the library.
So you were reading up about Bohr atoms?
This is really rather exceptional.
Well, I thought at the time that I would write this whole thing up and send it to Einstein, but I never did. I thought finally he wouldn’t particularly want to receive this thing from somebody he didn’t know. A long manuscript.
Were you able to write it up anyway to your satisfaction?
Well, I don’t know. There are various things that didn’t quite work out and so on.
You never kept any of this writing?
A little bit was kept. My brother and somebody else have it now. I don’t know where it is precisely.
Well, I suggest it would be a good idea to try and trace it. I think that I certainly always say to my children when they are clearing out their rooms, I say don’t throw out all your papers. If you’ve got a lot of school stuff at least keep one example out of several dozen things because I think later in your life you’ll be glad. You can’t keep it all but keep a specimen of this and that.
Well, I may be able to locate it.
I think it would add to an interest of a book quite a lot. Were there any diagrams in it?
Well, you know, this I think — and if you started thinking about this whole idea again you might find it wasn’t such a bad idea. In fact, do you think there is any possibility if you went back to thinking about this particular notion that it would be worth taking up again?
The tides you mean?
I don’t know, all these ideas that you had then.
I don’t know. It’s hard. They seemed a bit naïve.
I see. On the whole you don’t think so.
No. At the time it seemed a possibility. I began to think of making a theory of the universe or something.
I think I can only vaguely understand this. You mean it’s a little bit like these geometrical ideas of being on the surface of a sphere.
Yes. This wasn’t exactly that, but it was the idea that we are sort of beings who stretch into the fourth dimension but our perceptions don’t show either a cross-section or some sort of average. But this tied up also with my interests in?
Yes, and motion creating being. I don’t know how I got that. I couldn’t have been very old at the time, but I read in the paper about tornadoes. I was probably interested in vortices already from watching them in the bathroom or somewhere else. And the idea was that there was some sort of being, a form, a constant form created by motion.
Yes, you mean a tornado or a vortex is a little bit like a tennis ball. It moves about as an entity.
As if it was an entity but it isn’t, you see.
Yes, you mean what’s in it is constantly changing.
Yes, it’s only a state of motional fluid it’s not an entity.
Yes, but the state of motion sort of goes about.
It moves about stably. So I read it somewhere in the paper that tornadoes arose when there was a layer of cold air on top of very hot moist air so I tried to produce that by putting a container on top and a gas flame underneath.
Yes, you got that on the other tape. Did you ever see any tornadoes?
Well, I never could see one. We had a cyclone once which was a kind of tornado, but I was in the house at the time and stayed there.
You mean people were frightened?
Yes, well I wouldn’t want to go out in there because you would have been killed. We had a store right next to — our store was next door and it took the window of the store. The boy who worked in the store said he saw the window coming in and almost reached him and then was sucked out again. Then there was a mill nearby with a tremendous cast iron top to a water tank. This was carried two blocks and landed on somebody’s roof and destroyed that roof.
I remember reading a story about how a man and his wife were sitting in their house having dinner and the whole floor went up with the table and chairs on it several hundred feet and then came down again while they were having their dinner. I mean, extraordinary things happened out there.
The cyclone probably is about 100 miles per hour. A tornado may go up to several hundred miles an hour.
You know I feel that if you can fill in with a bit more specific detail on some of these things it’s going to make these things very vivid. I think what you said about the boy next door and the window coming in and going out. I mean, the more sort of specific detail like this that you can recall. It’s a bit like putting flesh on the skeleton. It brings the thing to life more because it does seem that if you lived through this quite terrifying experience, I suppose, of this hurricane?
Cyclone. It wasn’t a general hurricane it was a cyclone they call it. It’s a localized tornado.
Okay, but this was quite terrifying, was it?
Well, it lasted about a few minutes. I was frightened but I don’t think it reached the proportion of being terrified. We stayed in the house. It was clear we wouldn’t move out. We just stayed where we were.
At least, if you weren’t terrified you must have found it a very impressive event. There was this great power outside that might destroy you and you had to stay in your house and not go out.
Yes, and before that time there had been a field where there was a tremendous number of blocks of stone that we used to like to jump across and it had apparently come from the mill that had been destroyed by a tornado. They had been strewn all over a vast field.
Yes, I see, yes. So this idea about these great natural forces which would sometimes move around like, sort of destroying spirits or something. This was embedded in the whole folklore of the area. So when you made your — you started thinking about how these things worked, analyzing them in mathematical physical terms and making little experimental ones on the cooker you were in a way making a model of a volcano or something.
Yes, well, I was thinking more of an entity created out of movement. To say that out of nothing would come a being. Nothing but movement and energy.
This idea fascinated me. There were two things that fascinated me, movement creating being and light contacting things. That light was a sort of a finger reaching out contacting.
Oh, just a minute. Let’s take them one by one. Movement and being.
You see, remember my background which would tend to regard being as fixed and absolute, even if it was appealed to by geometry.
You mean all the conventional Jewish society?
In general my attempt at security by saying I want to have a solid ground to move from one place to the next. To think of beings as just there, you see. And then beings engage in movement. But things are, and then from that they engage in movement. Is that clear what I mean? If you think of a person, you think here he is and then he moves.
You mean is this partly the problem of change?
Yes. Change and constancy.
And constancy, yes.
That idea used to — I couldn’t have been more than about thirteen or fourteen when that idea began to take hold of me. I don’t know how I got to it but my background was such to say that things were pretty constant and they changed. It was not a fundamental thing, which they moved from one place to another remaining more or less what they were.
You mean that the fundamental problem was that if somebody, something stays still you mean it is, you comprehend that, that it’s there.
I even understand if it’s moving in a superficial way just changing it’s position or its shape a bit.
Yes, but the point was there was a philosophical difficulty as soon as you say that something which remains constant moves, there’s immediately some sort of shaky ground. You mean how can it be the same ??? because it moved.
Well, I don’t think I was thinking of that so much.
No but you probably sensed it didn’t you?
What I was thinking was actually the notion that movement is creation of things. I was saying in the beginning you begin to think things were there. Perhaps they were created by God or they were just always there, right? And then they move in a simple way from one place to another.
Yes, you can sort of fudge this idea by saying oh yes it’s just movement or something of the same thing. But you’re kind of fudging isn’t it?
Yes it is but I wasn’t thinking of that at that time.
I see, that wasn’t the thing that was puzzling you.
No. What was puzzling me was that out of nothing would come a being. Out of nothing but movement.
Something creative. It was something rather exciting to think.
You mean thinking about the tornado?
Yes. To think that out of movement was created a being, the tornado, which had great power.
Yes, but that didn’t relate at that stage to the general problem of being and movement.
Well, it was the problem of what is the origin of being. To say is movement primary, or is being primary?
But, you’re thinking about that in the context of the tornado.
So it was the tornado problem that made you think about this whole thing?
Or perhaps I wasn’t even thinking of human beings, or perhaps I had in the back of my mind the tornado probably attracted my attention as saying here was a case where out of movement arose a being with great power, right?
I suppose you might say you had a certain amount of tornado in your home, too, wouldn’t you. [laughter] They did blow right through your home sometimes, didn’t they? You read somewhere about this idea, the vortex, where they say movement is translated about and yet the material in the thing is changing all the time. That’s right, isn’t it?
Yes. I must have read about it somewhere.
It isn’t always changing.
As the vortex moves?
No, because you’ve got smoke ring. I mean, the tobacco smoke is kept inside the thing. It’s the same air, sometimes.
Sometimes, but in general the movement is transmitted.
It could be, yes.
But it didn’t matter. You see, the major point was that out of the patter of movement you have this being of the tornado. It was like creating a living being.
Yes, yes. I suppose a little bit like an artist drawing a figure of a person or something, similar that the movement has created something. It isn’t really because the movement stops then. Was this connected with the whole idea that matter itself is essentially all electrons buzzing around in movement, too?
It was probably connected. Later it got connected with that. It’s safe to say that atoms are particles buzzing around in movement.
But you knew about the Bohr atom at that time.
No, I think I was only about 14 when I tried to do that experiment.
So the tornado is before you knew about Bohr atoms.
As Eddington says, you mean the table isn’t really there, it’s all space and it’s got these electrons all moving about or something. That sort of thinking about physics came later.
A little bit later, yes.
So you had this general thing about being and movement and this was connected with this great natural force.
And also with this experience with having to cross the rock and being in a state of movement. In other words I connected it with my own being.
I see, yes. You mean you were, you had to have a total sense of movement and not something which had indivisibility, that you couldn’t really analyze it into bits.
Or it just wouldn’t work.
Yes. Or saying that I myself was similarly a pattern of movement.
Yes, I see. You would in a way go across the stepping stones like a tornado sort of moving.
Yes. And crossing those stepping stones I was in a state of being determined by the movement just as the tornado is.
It’s also related with the whole idea that we are never the — Heraclitus’s thing about the river. That when from year to year we consist of all the different atoms, don’t we?
It’s the constancy of movement pattern which makes our only identity.
But there is also the form as well as the movement.
But it’s the constancy of form and movement. The tornado has form only by virtue of movement.
You see the creation of form out of movement rather than imposing form on a static object.
You get the same thing in the shape of cumulus clouds where you get a flat bottom to them and a cauliflower on the top don’t you. You have a characteristic form which comes out of the movement of the air and you also get also get special forms like the — I think there is a spiral about sunflower out there where you get all these special forms that arise out of the movement of drugs. Whereas if you take a steam engine or a machine consisting of cog wheels and components together that’s quite different, isn’t it?
That’s been imposed on it. The parts have been made separately by standing a form on the metal. And then they are put together. Here whatever is there, every form that is there arose out of the whole movement.
The whole, yes, yes, whereas the mechanism is made out of components. Each of which had its origin on the lathe or the?
Was machine stamped or impressed.
By some sort of process, yes. That’s certainly true.
So it seems it was almost an organism.
You mean the vortex is like an organism because it’s got to be treated as a whole?
Yes, also because it’s form arises in its movement. Just as we say that we are constantly the movement, the air food and water and so on as one maintains?
Ah yes, in that sense it’s flowing in and out, yes.
It’s flow, call it flow rather than movement.
Yes. I don’t know to what extent your intense interest was simply a sort of philosophical scientific intellectual notion or to what extent it might have been connected with this violent, demonic force of these things knocking buildings down all around you. Presumably the two ideas both contributed to the interest. But you don’t know how much, does one? But if you’d lived in an area where there weren’t any tornadoes at all you might have been possibly rather less interested.
Well, I don’t know. I mean, I read about the tornadoes. We didn’t actually have full-fledged tornadoes in Pennsylvania but I read about them, that they were very destructive. That they would drive a straw through a board and so on.
I suppose what you could say is that your real intellectual interest in it was given some extra force by the fact that you got of the things around. That at least would be reasonable, wouldn’t it? It does seem to me if you’re writing this thing up it might be good to take that line so that you don’t just have an account of all these intellectual notions in your mind but that these are linked up with your very down to earth physical life in the community. As you say, the boy next door who had this frightening thing and the window. Did the whole window frame and the glass move towards him and then move back?
Well, the glass — it was the store which had a large plate glass window. The plate glass broke off and came in. It was large. It was about as large as this whole area here.
It came in as a whole sheet?
As a whole sheet. It almost reached him. It turned back and then it went out.
Gosh. So it just broke around the edges so to speak. Out of the frame and the whole thing moved towards him and then retreated again.
Yes. It dropped on the street and smashed.
Heavens. Intriguing phenomenon. [laughter] The threatening dance of the — it was like someone was going to punch you on the nose and when they just don’t get close enough the fist goes away again.
He would have been killed if it would have gone a bit further.
Yes, he was away you mean, from the danger from this.
And we were right in the next room.
And you heard the glass smashing in the street?
We probably heard all sorts of noises.
You mean there was a lot of noise?
The wind and so on, you know.
Well, it was shaking and howling.
Were your parent’s both there?
No, my mother was there. I don’t know where my father was. He was somewhere else.
What was your mother doing?
We were just sitting there against the wall.
How do you mean? Huddled against the wall?
Just sitting?for example, the Buddhists often say suppose you try to look at yourself and find out what you are. You’ll find all sorts of thoughts and feelings and characteristics that are always moving. And they depend on something else which is always moving and so on so that there is no static fixed ground for your being. Now on the other hand I think a great deal of our common language and concepts suggest you are sort of a fixed static being. That movement consists —
Implies it. Movement consists of change from one state of being to another. The main point being, emphasis being on the states of being, the beginning and the end. This other view is to say movement is what you are. There is no fixed ground. That sort of interested me very much. That theme reoccurred quite often as I went further in my work later. Also it suggests another thing. That I was always relating what I was learning about nature to my own nature, you see. That I felt there was some analogy between them or something deeply similar or the same.
You mean not simply that you were using yourself as your own laboratory so to speak, you were using as something more than that.
Yes, in the sense that I was in my nature I could sort of apprehend the nature of everything. It was not really a case of making an image of it or a concept of it, an abstract concept in which I mean. That theme also occurred later and also it helps to explain some of my dissatisfaction with physicists, what they were doing later on, which we’ll come to. They didn’t seem to do that and didn’t seem to see any point of doing it either.
You mean in relating to themselves —
They weren’t thinking that way at all. They were thinking they’ve got a formula that they could or a concept and they could make a prediction, you see. So they didn’t even think it was of any point to an event.
Yes, they were using it as a rather limited technical exercise.
Yes. Well that’s what they meant by understanding, you see. So there was a kind of a difference between what I meant by understanding and what most physicists meant which gradually emerged. I think you can see that the beginnings of this were showing here. The idea was that in some sense you could say that I had the not unspoken attitude, that I was a microcosm of nature or vice versa that I was somehow absorbing the essence of nature into my own being or that we were essentially the same. But understanding consisted of a kind of rapport of that kind rather than just merely a sort of an external correspondence of images and ideas and calculations.
Yes, because all this business about things all being changing. I was talking, I went to talk a yoga biomedical trustees meeting over in Monroe. And I was talking to a young yoga woman coming back and she was emphasizing how the yoga whole philosophy is one of sort of ongoing change. Part of which is sort of built into nature as a whole, but also felt it’s dependent on your own choices and so forth. Which is, of course, very interesting in relation to the whole business of aging and what one’s attitude is towards that. However, I’m probably getting off the point there a bit. Could you explain a little bit more what you mean by you felt that you were somehow this, I mean you were some sort of, well this isn’t the right way to put it. I know that it may express it roughly that you had this sort of core in you which somehow reflected the whole nature of the universe.
Well, even more than reflected, but actually participated in it.
You see in the way, if you say a child is playing he says I’m a cowboy, I’m an Indian, I’m a tree or I’m a steam engine. He is in some sense in his being, obviously he isn’t it at all but he’s feeling in his being that that’s what he is, right?
But in some sense he’s experiencing and participating in the essential feature of that. He may not be so at all but that’s the way he feels.
Yes, well he’s imagining it. Put it more crudely he’s imagining it and he can’t always distinguish very clearly between what is imagination and what is reality.
But imagination is more than a mirror image. It’s a sense of the whole experience.
Yes, you’re not putting a sharp dividing line between imagination and reality.
I’m trying to say imagination is part of reality, but in fact it’s essentially the creative source of reality. But out of this imagination which includes feeling and sort of will and all sorts of things emerges. The form of things which the feeling for the form of things which may be unknown and that the imagination is not merely a reflection of what is there though. It can reflect what is there, but it can also go beyond what is there to show creatively to produce that were only potentialities.
Yes, but if you were to take this idea of yours that each person is a sort of microcosm, then in a sense one is, it’s like Plato’s idea of all the ideas being there in you already.
Yes, well in some. But they are not there, the potential for the idea is there.
You see, it’s not exactly even blatant that you have the capacity to be everything, the essence in some sense everything, you see. I think that that was the way probably was implicit in what I was doing. And naturally you need information and so on as to how to direct this capacity. In other words so it will be relevant to any particular situation.
Yes. I mean, you’ve gone sort of being and developing these sorts of connections with the rest of the universe unless you have some connection with it so to speak.
Yes, that’s right.
Or observing it in any context.
But there is a creative source of something beyond what is out there, that in some sense it’s in you. Actually being the thing, experiencing things seemed crucial. For example, when I found some people who just simply worked satisfied out of a formula and calculated with it and I thought that the essence was gone or there’d be hardly any point. I might as well become the greatest furniture dealer in Wilkesburg. You can always become very well known at that, right?
Yes. It was I mean their attitude towards physics is presumably only one example of common attitudes to life generally. Most people are prepared just to jog along in certain conventional ways. I mean, as your father did to some extent with the conventional Jewish society.
Yes, he tried to have some; he tried to have something more and certain with his friends. Anyway, that was one of the things that, you know, which I felt and I think the other thing that we were talking about was light. These powerful lights which I felt were reaching out like fingers, almost a subtle way that the light was subtly contacting everything that it reached. You know, that light was almost a form of contact, you see.
Yes, you mean similar to the — was it Aristotle or someone who had the idea that rays went out from the eye to what was learned?
That’s right. Yes. And though these rays were going out, the light going out and contacting the thing, and making contact back with us by reflection. So the idea of a very powerful light penetrating the darkness, which resisted this contact.
Yes. You mean this light sort of symbolized the creative energy coming from the individual, sort of radiating out and making contact with the whole.
The whole, yes. I think those were some of the things. And I remember us saying at that time I was a sort of, felt the individual was the key thing. You see that is background was unimportant, all this other stuff. He had a certain worth, which he could bring out. And that if he had a chance, and the idea that you were dependent on your ancestors or so that you could be responsible for what they did, or you know, seemed absurd at that time. That was partly this American feeling, too. All these people came from Europe; it didn’t depend what they were in Europe and they had a new chance, right?
Yes, they were pioneering a new world.
Yes, and they could just let all that stuff drop away. They might have been very poor people or very ignorant or whatever, but it didn’t matter. Whereas in Europe, in a fixed society it would have mattered very much and they would have been almost condemned to go on with whatever they had been.
Yes. But of course to make that clear separation again is a real mistake because you would say that you would say all this freedom is always a sort of related to the whole context in which you’ve come into that particular form of being at a given time. And your whole where you’re going to go on is whether the freedom is relating to the constraints in which you are operating isn’t it.
Well, there were these constraints. But essentially I felt that it was very unfair that people were constrained according to who their parents were. And that somebody happened to have parent’s with money or connections and he could go way ahead. Somebody else couldn’t. It seemed that where he got to should depend on what he was intrinsically. That was my opinion at the time, you see. It was as sort of a view, which was common in the whole kind of environment, and read about it and so on. It seemed natural and just and fair.
Yes, but you were able at that time to see that it would be a sort of mistaken over simplified model to think that anyone could have complete freedom and to break all links with their traditions and what they’d, these circumstances around them.
Well, it might be actually impossible. I felt in general that these traditions were holding people back, that they were sort of compelled to repeat things, which their ancestors had been doing.
Yes, but on the other hand now would your view now be different from that in that you’d see more fully how that one is always dependent on the whole cultural situation? That one’s freedom to create is a matter of some kind of dynamic interaction between this freedom probably and the condition it was given?
Yes, well it’s clear that in the culture, at that time I pictured that the role of the society would have been to give people a scope for their freedom to do various things according their abilities and interest. Then I think gradually I began to see that the American society wasn’t all that free, that a lot of this was only lip service to freedom.
Yes. This was just a sort of sort of simple sort of political realization that the ideals were not lived up to in practice. But I mean would you say your general philosophical position now is different from the one you had then?
Well, it’s different in some ways. In general my orientation is still to say that there’s a background has been a very heavy burden in our people. That it forces people to keep on repeating nonsense that they have gotten stuck in.
But wouldn’t you agree now that this burden is just the other side? I mean strikes say suffering. I mean, in some ways the whole living is the transcending of suffering and so that you might also say that the whole creative living is transcending of the transforming of the burdens of society somehow, isn’t it? One can never sort of say that these things are just totally negative can we?
Well, they may not be totally negative. I think the society or as it is now is efficiently chaotic and meaningless. That you have to be free inwardly of whatever restrictions are coming to the extent you can.
Yes, but disregarding the particular nature of a society now where it’s very easy to see all of these negative aspects, I mean all this is, as people would say, trivial or the mathematicians or something. I mean, the more profound question is don’t you have to have a philosophical view, which can accommodate the fact that one is always living in a world of say just as one is always living in a world of suffering and also of joy? Then one is always living in a world of cultural convention and tradition and so on, but one cannot live without that.
Yes. Well you’re bound to have it, but I think my general orientation has been that in so far as it’s mechanical and unaware, which it mostly is. One of the major points is to be aware of that and be free of it. A culture which is really vital and creative has been very rare, it might be possible.
Yes, but I mean you’re already discussing the differences between one culture and another. I’m discussing the other question that in it’s essentially the individual can never ultimately be separated from the culture in some respects.
But in some respects he’s got to be distinct from the culture. You see, in some respects he probably can’t totally ever really separate from the culture, obviously.
I think this is what I’m getting at. One has to accommodate this notion of the creative role of the individual. One has to build into this the acceptance of the fact that one can never divorce oneself from the culture, that one is always imbedded in it somehow.
Yes. We are imbedded in it somehow. You could distinguish between a fairly healthy culture and one that is not. Now if there ever were one you could say well such a culture would give us hope for people within that embedment [?] to move out and be creative and it wouldn’t be such a rigid thing. On the other hand most cultures have some very rigid features which have really been destructive. It’s also equally essential for people not to be caught in that.
I don’t whether possibly we’re going to have too much of this off of the discussion here, which I don’t know whether this is really the purpose of the recording. Maybe I’m at fault in sort of you pressing on this point, but I just wondered whether you had somewhat broadened your point of view.
I’ve said that it’s the individual obviously starts from the general culture. He comes into the world and he picks up the general culture. That much is clear and that becomes a key part of his individuality. Now then at a certain stage he may then begin to look at this general culture and discover all sorts of features in it, which are destructive and arbitrary and so on. Now to that in so far as he is still identified with that then it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you can’t just go on and say everything about the culture is bad because obviously that would make no sense.
I don’t think I would even say that any particular aspect can be said to be just bad. I mean, all of this whole division into good and bad, I mean the things are really inseparable in some way, aren’t they?
Well, you can’t just point to an aspect and say it’s bad, but you can say that there’s a general tendency toward rigidity in this culture, in most cultures which is destructive.
Yes. That is a perfectly? I quite agree. I quite agree that you can point out certain aspects of the culture which are negative which are sort of you might say anti-life, anti-creation. I think my point was you’ve never really — Well, I’m really sort of grinding my own little ax here by saying that you’ve never really separate those aspects from the creative aspect. It’s like good and evil. I mean, you can never really separate one from the other. Did I tell you about I had a dream? I don’t want to go on about this here, but I had a remarkable dream some months ago. I think it was when I was ill. Of a net case of jewels, sort of oval of a net case. And I suddenly realized that the existence of evil was necessary for the existence of good and the existence of suffering was necessary for the existence of joy. Well, these tapes aren’t just for me. Of course I was rather impressed by that dream. Anyway, let’s get on with —
I mean, anyway, later on you’ll see that we attempt to probe in this sort of socialist communist phase I sort of moved over toward the other side, but I was —
What do you mean the other side?
Toward the collective side or the cultural side being primary. So I’m discussing now that phase which I had, roughly speaking, the most [???] with when I was in high school and possibly the early college years.
Which was anticommunist.
Yes. It was anticommunist, anti-socialist. Brand much American individualism.
Then you began to see the communist social ideas had a very important positive aspects.
Well, there was a slow movement by reading some of these journals, you know, [???] journals, to see that at least you could listen to the socialist ideas.
And it had a positive aspect.
Then there were a tremendous number of aspects about our own situation that they pointed out, which I hadn’t fully realized then. Basically it came to the idea that everybody, this individualism had no meaning if you had a situation where people had no opportunity. They were just stuck to be on clutter and poor jobs. And also if you had rich people whose only interest was to make more money for themselves and didn’t care about anything else and became very powerful, it was clear that individuals had no meaning because a few people would take all the power and the other individuals would be crushed anyway, just as well as under in any other form of tyrannical government.
Yes. Incidentally, can I divert for a second?
Did you see in the newspaper that the Baguan [?] or whatever his name was —
Yes I saw.
That he had a bodyguard with guns and watch towers and everything.
He turned into a kind of Hitler.
Well, he started one minute —
Yes. Anyway, it’s hard to remember any more that’s significant about the high school period. I mean, there was one thing about the high school period I wanted to tell you about. My attitude to dictators, you see I was very much against dictatorship of any kind. Months on the later years of high school in our English class we had to get up and make sort of a mock political speech.
Make a what?
As if it were a political speech.
This was an exercise in class?
An exercise, yes. Many people said they were running for president of the school or this or that. I got up and made a speech saying supporting my candidate for the dictator of the high school. And I said, “Well, he was called Adolph Stalini.” I described his program and I said, “Stalini’s motto was, ‘Stalini Never Stalls.’” You see his very resolute character. And he said, “The Stalini Salute was to throw up your hands and empty your pockets of all valuables.” It was a long speech of that kind. But I think the essential part about it shows that I felt that the whole concept of dictatorship was wrong in that the —
Either way it was send up of the whole thing.
That’s right, yes. Anyway, it was part of that feeling about — it was really part of this view of individual freedom and so on.
How did this performance of yours go down with the [???] ?
The trouble is that I was a bit too stiff about it and I don’t think they — I wasn’t used to talking like that and I don’t think it went down as well it might have gone.
The ideas were good, but you think that the actual way you put them across was —
Too stiff, it was too tense and I’d had no practice at all at doing that sort of thing. It was the first time.
Well, presumably this is a real good idea to have these things and that also people could gain some experience. That’s an interesting story. You say it was Adolph Stalini.
And you had to pull your pockets out —
You had to empty your pockets and throw up your hands.
I see. Anything else you had to do?
Well I don’t know. There were other things that I can’t remember, but he had quite an extensive program which was noted for its absurdity.
I think if you could think of a few more, if you maybe sort of dig up the memories I can get to the interest quite a lot. I mean, here you are a sort of celebrated quantum mechanics and you might say general philosophy sort of figure. I think if you can, in your intellectual autobiography you can give accounts of how you stood up in the classroom giving salutes and pulling your pockets out and with all of these ideas I think it would be quite interesting. I mean, I suppose to some extent well look, just think, you see, straight away. I mean, this whole idea of emptying your pockets is so much like the Christian emerting [?] idea of emptying yourself of your conditioning.
Well, no. The idea was like a highway man, you know, to put your hands and empty your pockets and give them whatever you had.
You know, to give over any money you had to him. The idea was —
Oh, you mean the other people had to empty their pockets and give it to Adolph Stalini.
Yes that’s right. To whoever it was appearing represented him.
I mistook it. I thought you meant that all the followers had to give this salute and throw away their possessions.
No. The idea was that whenever you met one of their representatives you had to give the salute, which was to empty your pockets of money and give it to them and throw up your hands.
I see. Give it to them. It was more like the bank robbers.
It was a robber, robbery you see. It was sort of a parity saying that’s what the dictators were really doing.
Of course the Baguan did literally.
He did it literally.
He wanted all their property too. I see. I thought that each person had to throw away all their property.
No, no. They had to give it over.
Hand it over, not throw it away.
Yes. Anyway, I think that’s more or less all I can remember out high school. I went then to Pennsylvania State College.
Hold up just a second. About the school teachers, can you remember any of the school teachers?
There were a few I can remember. There was the geometry teacher. His name is Mario Tope [?]. He’s still alive and sitting there. Somebody has written that he plays tennis every day and he hikes. He’s a very vigorous person. He’s well over 80.
Have you thought of writing to him?
I hadn’t at the moment.
He might appreciate it very much, you know. And you might get some interesting stuff back from him.
The physics professor was called High Writer, but I can’t remember much about him. There was a biology teacher, Miss Boyd. I think that Tope was a dedicated teacher. The others were not bad. The English teacher was called Vic Bays, you know, the one where — That I can remember and he was half Indian, American Indian.
Was there anything special about any of these teachers that you might possibly have picked up something useful from them?
I can’t remember.
And their sort of attitudes?
Probably only subtly. You see I think that Mario Tope must have taught geometry well to have got the spirit across. He knew my uncle apparently. This uncle, they had been friends as children, the young man, this uncle who was so vigorous and someone I used to admire. The others, you know, the thing was you could talk with them and so on. It was good.
Do you remember any conversations you had with him?
No, I cannot remember, but I mean it wasn’t difficult to talk with him.
So they were quite approachable.
And reasonably friendly. This geometry, was this the thing about Euclid dynamical approach [?]?
Yes, and then solid geometry. That went next year.
So the solid geometry was related to this whole business of ideas about four dimensions.
I got that idea from that, yes. But the idea of necessity, you see of showing that one thing followed, that the whole structure was necessary.
Now you would see that that some of it was an illusion.
It’s limited. It’s so, but it’s not as quite as absolute as I would’ve thought. But I mean at that time it certainly held my attention very strongly and interested me. The whole of science interested me. I was sort of fascinated to learn about all those things. I was also very interested in ancient history. History generally, but also especially ancient history because what fascinated me there was the scope of the thing, the rise and fall of civilizations. You saw the whole thing rather in modern history when we saw the rise and yet didn’t get to see the fall. But you saw the civilization as a whole. As I told you, that idea made me — I used to project forward into the future all sorts of interplanetary and interstellar civilizations that would rise and fall with all sorts of economic structures and financial arrangements.
Did you see the American Civilization story, Man Through Our Rise and Fall?
Yes. I stepped somewhere around 2000 something or other with the gradual decay of this whole western civilization.
When did the recession come in then?
Which recession? The Depression.
That was ’32, but I mean I didn’t picture that as the basic troubles as I assumed they would get over that. But at some stage there would be a fall in the basic character of the civilization itself, just as the Roman civilization fell and the Greek and all these others, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian.
So all has changed in a sense on that grand scale. But did we discuss this question of the Depression? I forget.
Yes we did. I mean, see the Depression didn’t affect us all that much or even my friends, but it’s general affect was a great deal because in the sense that the whole country was not working right. And that all these ideals about America were not working. We’re being shown not to —
Yes, so that you began to question this whole system of ideas.
Yes. That was the first question about rugged individualism. It had no meaning if 25% of the people were unemployed and banks were failing. You couldn’t get to the money you saved, you couldn’t hold it in some —
I interrupted you. You were starting to talk about Penn State because you got on scholarship or something.
No not scholarship; my father covered my expenses. I don’t know exactly why I went there. My uncle had gone there, the older uncle, and several other people I knew were going there. People said it wasn’t a bad school.
It wasn’t terribly far from your home.
It was 120 miles. In a way it was a very fortunate choice because — It was a very small physics department, only about two or three students there.
How many staff?
Quite a bit more. I mean, they were teaching students in other departments like chemistry and premed and so on. There were only about four or five students all together doing physics in the whole —
Was it a fairly small university then?
There were about 5,000 at that time. Right now it’s about 40,000 I hear.
There were very small fractions of students were specializing in physics.
Yes, that’s right.
Why was that?
Nobody knew about physics and it was not thought there were a lot of jobs in there and so on.
What were most of the people in the university doing?
The biggest department was agriculture and then came chemistry and engineering. Then there were the humanities and some biology, there wasn’t much. Biochemistry maybe, I don’t know. But there’s a lot of engineering especially petroleum engineering.
A state university that had grown out of the economic needs of the area.
That’s right. The physics department, its main activity was teaching these other students. One or two of the professors tried to do a bit of research on their own, but they didn’t do a lot.
So physics as a science, as an academic pure study so called was a foreign notion in this type of environment.
It wasn’t foreign, it just wasn’t done. I mean, people had the idea. There was mathematics for example and there were mathematicians who were pure mathematicians who prided themselves in knowing an application. It wasn’t entirely foreign, but there wasn’t any way to support a physics department except that way because there were no physics student to speak of — I mean, hardly any.
You mean physics wasn’t a profession in which you trained?
No. Well very few people would’ve thought of it as a profession.
You had quite a lot of stuff there. They were quite interested in their subject, were they?
Well, some of them were.
And they had time enough to discuss things with you.
They could discuss, yes. I mean, we had fairly free discussion, but the main thing was I would talk to the few friends I could talk with.
Students, yes. There was this fellow Weiss who came with me from Wilkes- Barre and he was an engineering student, electrical, but we talked quite a bit for the first two years. Then we were roommates for the first two years. In the third year I met a fellow called Maynard Dawson, who was a physics student. I think it was physics. We used to talk a great deal and we used to solve mathematical problems. Whittaker and Watson, their texts are rather advanced texts beyond the scope of the course. We used to work on those problems together and talk about physics and mathematics and a few other things. There were a few other friends I had. One was premed and one was chemistry. The thing is that by doing that, by reading in the library, by working on things myself, and my thinking about things a great deal —
Have they got a reasonable library then?
Yes. I was able to learn. When I got to Caltech I found I knew a lot more physics than people who had come from far better schools, like Columbia and all the bigger schools. The other point was that it was in a rural environment. Penn State, the college was the main thing that supported the town and shortly outside were nothing but farms and a little wayward mountains, wooded mountains in which I could walk, also on the farm roads. This was very important because otherwise I don’t think I wouldn’t have worked very well. I mean, if I’d gone to a city university I think it would’ve been very much more difficult psychologically.
You mean you needed to walk in the woods, to so to speak, collect your wits and to be able to somehow get on the right wavelength.
Yes, to come to a balance again. So that was very readily accessible. I think it was lucky that I went to this. People who had gone to big departments, they hadn’t had access to their professors and they probably were more distantly. You know, they were rather not that close to each other and didn’t talk that much to each other.
These were the famous places.
That you learn less in a famous place.
That’s right. The major point in learning was what you did for yourself as well as the ability to mainly talk with people.
All this sort of heuristic stuff and also some dialogue.
Whereas in the famous places you were just had all the information stuffed into your head.
Yes, and there was very little dialogue. It probably also had so much giving to do that you had no time to work on your own. I mean, I just kept reasonably busy, but they had a significant amount of time for walking and thinking and so on.
Could you say a bit more about this whole thing and walking in the woods and so on? Of course this has now become a famous phrase about a walk in the woods. It suggests that there was some sort of magic in the nuclear disarmaments discussion in Geneva, kind of a walk in the woods that the woods did a sort of magic and people were able to find solutions to problems they couldn’t solve otherwise. To some extent this same notion I think that didn’t Freshen Mikena [?] for a walk in the woods when the penny dropped about the next nuclear fission. I think this is quite a recurrent theme.
Yes, it’s a true problem. It takes away the tension and allows the mind to move more freely. I used to think when I was a child very young that if people could live in the forest they would be far healthier and friendly and more closely related.
Why the forest?
Because somehow it seemed to me — I rationalized it by saying that’s where we had all started or something. I don’t know, but I must’ve read it somewhere.
Sort of prime evil environment.
Yes. I must’ve read it, but I had the feeling that that would be a natural environment. That living in this unnatural environment of the city we all became unfriendly and nervous and tense.
So it’s somehow related to all of these folklore ideas about forests and being a kind of, I was going to say womb of mankind or something, where we’re all in forests.
That’s part of it. And also just simply being there you could see it was a quiet peaceful order. It’s a natural order there and beauty.
Wow! What a connection with the fact that all these trees are pointing up into the sky.
No, I don’t know if it was that. It could’ve been that. It’s just that the whole thing, the trees, the leaves, the shade and the light. See the open plane you had this extra. Very often the light was too intense or the wind was too strong. Anyway, it’s a bit monotonous.
People have said of course the opposite. They’ve said that Arabs on camels going across an endless open desert or that’s sailors at sea seeing no land for a long time. But this somehow was a stimulus for them to do creative thinking. I think this idea of being put forth.
That’s also been put forth. I mean, you can, that may have that effect, the sea, as well because it’s in movement.
Oh, bird watching.
Like the flowing stream, watching the flowing stream.
Or even with a plane across the sky, that movement to some extent always changing.
It seems a bit too mechanical. That is possibly sitting a train crossing the prairie or something might do something. But anyway I used to like to walk in the forest and the mountain. They were really forested mountains. They weren’t very high, maybe 1,000, 2,000 feet.
But I mean don’t you think the fact that the trees are bigger than you and they’re like sort of a forest is often being compared with a cathedral with the sort of reaching up into spirituality and bigger things than oneself and all this sort of notion. I mean, the trees, it’s an amazingly impressive. It’s a living thing which is so much bigger and stronger than we are, isn’t it?
That might be part of it. It was partly the sense that it was all growing freely in the wild.
It was a wild aspect then in the groves.
Yes. For example, when I later got to Pasadena, which is basically a desert except that they water it, that I felt well, these trees didn’t interest me so much because they only grew because people forced them to grow.
So that the main feeling you had about it was growth and freedom to grow and the activity of growing.
Yes, in the wild.
In the wild, yes wild. So wild is freedom from constraints.
Constraints of civilization, yes.
So it was the wildness and the groves and the freedom. I think it’s important to get that. It wasn’t often purely the height of the whole thing.
Well, later in California when you got to these Redwoods then I felt that. But you see the trees were not all that large in Pennsylvania. It was really second growth mostly.
So it was a little bit more like van Gogh Starry Night or something where you have all those tornadoes sort of going across the sky. All these sort of files moving along amidst activity, where many of his paintings showed immense sort of activity in the landscaping things, sort of a wild semi-organized type —
?I was laid down in a very [???] way, and also generally an ugly way, and so on.
I agree Berkeley wasn’t really very wild, was it?
No. It was pretty ugly, the city itself. Penn State, the state college wasn’t ugly, but the whole environment was close to this mountains and farms and so on.
You mean you could just walk out there in just half an hour, you could get —
It would take you half an hour to get to the mountain. You would walk through farm land in which the mountain.
If you had just an hour and a half to spare, you mean you could spend the hour getting there and back and then half an hour in the mountain. The rest of the time —
Yes. Or if you had an afternoon, right after eating you could go there and have a long walk and come back.
You’d have several hours there in the mountains.
Were they mainly deciduous trees?
Yes. A few conifers, but mostly deciduous.
What about streams?
There weren’t too many streams in that area. There may have been one or two, but there weren’t a lot of streams. There was a lime stone region I think was —
So the motion of the water wasn’t an important element in the —
Not there, but other places it was, yes.
That was the growth of all the vegetation and the trees.
And also getting up on the mountain and having a vista.
Getting a view.
To look around. Maybe even send out sort of searchlight theme so to speak or they could impinge on you from a distance.
But anyway, in the whole I enjoyed the thing. There were a few features I didn’t like. We have to have in the first two years what they called ROTC Reserve Officers Training. With it for an hour or two a week marching and doing things and sometimes tried —
You mean you had to do ordinary square bashing?
Yes. And then sometimes target practice and so on.
So you were drilling you mean?
Yes. I disliked that. I did try to —
But you actually did it.
Yes, well you had to do the thing. I tried to march the way they said and finally one of the student officers came up to me and said, “There’s some people who just can’t move along with the others. They have to go on their own.”
What did he do about it?
Nothing. He just said, “Well you’re one of those who can’t fit in with this.”
You mean he accepted the fact that you would be marching with the others, but couldn’t really do it properly.
I couldn’t stay in step. He said, “Some people just start walking on their own.”
Of course, Einstein was apparently recoiled very strongly against this whole thing about seeing men marching together.
I was trying to do it, but probably unconsciously I was recoiling against it. I didn’t like the whole thing. I was glad at the end of two years we didn’t have to do any more. Some people elected to go on of course and I mean they joined the reserve.
But basically it’s a sort of brainwashing type of activity isn’t it to turn you into a machine.
This is very important from the military standpoint, so you don’t think for yourself too much. And you had to do target practice.
I wasn’t too bad at target practicing.
Did you in any way enjoy sort of shooting?
Well, if I could hit the mark.
You found that enjoyable.
What about the sense of power of the gun?
I don’t know if I was thinking of that. The ability to hit the mark, you know, to —
You did find a certain fascination in this.
Yes. It wasn’t a very strong gun so.
And you were reasonably good at it.
Were there any other aspects of it?
No, I can’t remember any more. You see all we did was march and do what do they call them, maneuvers like about — I can’t remember what they —
Old parade grounds and stuff.
Did you wear any uniforms?
Yes, they issued us a uniform to wear.
Yes. And you had to return it at the end.
How many hours did you do this?
Two hours a week.
Just two hours a week you put on the uniform and march around the parade grounds.
Yes. A lot of people used to use the uniform whenever they had any dirty work to do so they wouldn’t use their own clothes. Anyway, I was glad that was over. I can’t remember too much. We had a course in organic chemistry. I took a lot of chemistry because chemistry was emphasized there so much.
Simply because of practical application.
Yes. Physical chemistry. I remember we did some experiments trying to work some things out. This idea about Langmuir we tried — Langmuir had the idea at that time of some sort of soap like films.
His bi-layers you mean.
His bi-layers and we were playing around with them. I can remember making those.
This gives you an immediate apprehension of molecular dimension.
There were various things we did. We had our courses in physics. There was one course in physics, I remember electronics really. It was a young man who had just come was teaching it and I discovered an error in the book. I went up and told him. He was very disturbed by that. He says, you know, it’s not the place of students to point our errors. So I just kept quiet because it was no use saying anything to him. The next day he came and apologized.
I see! Oh well, that’s good. It must have just shocked you. You must have been so taken back he really didn’t know what to say. Went away and thought about it. I remember in Cambridge when I was undergraduate one of my lecturers brought out a new book on crystal physics. The one diagram in the book, which had an error in it, was a terribly serious one. It wasn’t a very real error, was selected by the publishers to go on the front of the dust jacket. I felt obliged to go and point that out to him. He didn’t seem terribly interested. He didn’t seem to even be very concerned, which shocked me even more.
Later when I wrote this on quantum mechanics in Princeton I made a lot of errors because usually I’ll explain that later. I didn’t work and didn’t think about the conclusions. I used to use a nonmathematical way of coming to the conclusions always and then I would have to fill in the equations for the book. So naturally the steps were often wrong. Then students later wrote and saying there are all these errors. I’d had an assistant and we weeded out about 400 or 500 errors, but there was still a number that go through. So they would write saying it was very infuriating to have all these mistakes and have the answers always coming out right.
But did you know the answer somewhat intuitively?
Yes. So I’d have to fill in the equations as a matter of convention. You must arrive at the answers by means of equations.
I read somewhere that people didn’t understand Feynman originally. That they thought he was some kind of unsound person until they realized that he did rather the same, that he intuitively saw solutions.
I’ll tell you more about Feynman later. But roughly people didn’t appreciate his stuff at all until Dyson came along and showed the connection between his work and what Schwinger had been doing. That Feynman’s methods would be far more affective. But until somebody had proved that they just sort of didn’t take it seriously. Later on when the times come we can discuss Feynman because I have a number of contacts with him. Anyway, I remember I used to walk sometimes on the farm roads, you know, sort of dirt roads, and think. If there was something puzzling I always wanted to work it out, to get a feeling for it without what it was directly. The same as we were discussing before about vortices. For example, the gyroscope used to puzzle me — exactly why and how does it work? Finally I got a feeling for it of saying as the wheel is turning and you’re also turning the axis then if you imagine yourself moving with one of the particles of the wheel you can see it’s being driven a right angles. It’s going to move at right angles to the way you expected. You can get the feeling of why that happens. That’s the sort of thing I wanted to do. Not merely to explain the thing in purely logic steps, but to get the feeling of how it works.
That would then be more reasonable.
Yes. I gradually was getting to the point where I wouldn’t accept the proof unless I could directly see the reason for the result without the proof. In other words I didn’t trust the steps in between. I said, “Either they might be mistaken or you might have all sorts of assumptions that you didn’t know you were making.”
You wanted a more direct apprehension, so to speak.
Yes. There was another fellow whom I knew a little bit called Sekancon [?]. He’s written to me recently from California now. He saw some of my later stuff, and he’s saying that the ideas in there were already implicit in what I was saying, but I can’t remember that. But perhaps I’ll have a chance to talk with him some time.
You mean it goes beyond the merely sort of style of thinking. He was being a bit more specific and to look at the actual products —
Yes, the latest stuff. Yes, he thought that? So?
See, I don’t know about this chap Holton. Have you ever read any about all this thematic something or another in science? I never bothered to read any. I’ve been told it’s really rather over rated. But I suppose that obviously there’s some truth in it. Because I mean many scientists must have certain sort of basic themes in the way they think, which probably goes through their whole careers, doesn’t it?
I think that’s probably all it’s about. Actually maybe I ought to have a glance at what Holton says instead of deriding him like this because I know intelligent people who’ve derided him in him saying it’s puffed up too much. But it might be applicable in the development of your sort of whole thing. You’ve never read any Holton?
Well, not that much, no.
The other thing of course he did was all of this stuff about how Milliken fudged his results on the charge of the electron and apparently this is rubbish. I met him in America recently of being also that in great and careful detail. He said, “Really there’d been no fudging at all. It was all very clearly established.” And all this hoax and stuff about him fudging the thing is a complete dirty mess, rubbish. It shows how some of these philosophers of science can take and yet that Holton story about Milliken is all around the place everywhere, you see.
Well, it has a bad effect I suppose.
It’s interesting. It makes news.
People like to debunk things.
Exactly. To say that Milliken was a sound scientist for sure — we knew that already. To say he was unsound, they say, “Oh really?” It’s like those cheap newspapers. That’s an interesting point about this. I wonder. You haven’t bought any facilities for getting any of these discussions — I don’t know. It’s difficult, I don’t know what they’re going to do with all of these tapes, but in a sense this is your problem.
I think I’ll have to make notes when I write.
I mean theoretically and if you get the whole bloody thing in transcript you could then just go through sort of mark, cutting, chopping those bits out you wanted and then reassembling it.
No. I think it’s better to write as fresh from the information you can gleam from it.
That means you’ve got to construct the sentences and everything. It might take you ages.
No, it won’t take that long.
No. I mean, it’s a matter that to have all this typed would be a gigantic challenge.
Yes it would. It would cost money too because presumably you haven’t got facilities at Berkley.
No. Well, I don’t think these typists could really, and they’re not the sort that could even do audio typing. I mean, they’re not that good at it. Maybe, but to type from a tape requires a certain kind of skill.
But it’s not — They have special machines so they can stop and start exactly.
Yes. Well they might, but I don’t think it’s really worth it because —
Well, if you think you can do it well good luck to you. Well, you’ll find out won’t you? Maybe you’re quite right. I was just thinking that if you could’ve sent some extracts of these discussions to some of these people, it might interest them a little, and you might get quite of feedback from them.
Yes. I was hoping that I could see this fellow Sekancon when I go to California, and there are a few others I might find. But try to get hold of some idea of what we were doing. I can’t remember, but I used to have these long discussions with Dawson.
This again a fellow student?
Yes. He was more interested in mathematics than physics. So we used to solve these problems in Whittaker and Watson and we’d talk about physics.
Solving the problems was more sort of, was it in a way sort of like doing cross word puzzles? There was more to it?
Well, no. There were difficult problems. I mean, it was quite an advanced text. It was really a graduate text.
But it was basically a technical matter wasn’t it?
No, it was not at all obvious what to do.
So it was more sort of creative mathematics.
Yes. They were taken from the Cambridge Tripos and things like that some of them. You know, there were a whole collection of problems some of them quite —
Quite interesting questions then.
Yes. In fact Whittaker and Watson was rather more advanced than most graduate mathematics departments would’ve used for analysis. I used to try to discuss a few philosophical ideas at the time. One of the ideas that interested me was this. The notion was that suppose everything were reducible to physics to some sort of mechanism. I used to say well what does that mean for my freedom. You see, I was thinking about it. I was saying well maybe it doesn’t matter if the molecules move that way as long as I feel that I’m free then it doesn’t matter whether it’s determined by the molecules or not. That was the nearest solution I could get at that time.
And it was alright to live in a world of illusion then?
I didn’t even know if it was exactly an illusion. I would say that I didn’t picture it exactly as an illusion.
But were you assuming everything was really predetermined?
Under that assumption, yes, that would be a mechanism at one level. But at that stage I felt anyway even if it were that we would have freedom at our level. You see that in some sense. I don’t know if it was a complete solution or anything like that, but the problem was the first time I’d really considered the problem.
So you were beginning to tussle with the whole problem of determinism and free will.
And then the physics.
Yes. At that stage I think we’d heard a little of quantum mechanics, but it’s revolutionary implications were not —
This is an interesting point. What year roughly was that?
What? It was ‘35 to ’39 you see the first four years of college. So people knew some quantum mechanics, but the implications of it had not sunk into most people.
And it wasn’t getting into university teaching much?
No. Only a few rules about work quantization, things like that.
Yes, because you see it’s very interesting because there were some higher education institutions in this country, I think, which weren’t even teaching any quantum mechanics. I think even after the war. I did physics at Cambridge, which I suppose is one of the most advanced med schools in the world. A sort of center of physical science, and one was getting all the latest stuff with people like Dirac around.
We weren’t getting anything like that.
The university environment for physics is very variable at different places.
Well, we had heard of the rules of quantization and some, but still we were thinking basically classical end. Everybody was. Even relativity hadn’t made it. We knew about it, but it hadn’t made that strong an impression.
We had Eddington as an undergraduate. In my first or second year I went to a lecture, a talk which Eddington gave in the evening after dinner at my own college. One could sit there and you would ask this chap questions. I said something about it’s a 137. I said, “Well Professor Eddington, do you think studying these methods is the most important thing that human beings can do?” He sort of gulped a bit and looked at me. He said, oh no when you put it quite like that. I was just a silly undergraduate who could go and ask questions. It was a very stimulating in some way environment having all these great people around. But you could go and knock and the door and go into their rooms and say look I’ve got a question, approach them. It was a remarkable center. It was interesting that you were in some ways what you might call in a very deprived environment, but it had special features which are very helpful to you.
It’s interesting. It wasn’t a good or bad environment.
Yes. To have been exposed too fast to these other things might have been discouraging from the point of view of understanding. You have to go through to build it up, to get stages.
Going at it slowly may have been a help to you, whereas I certainly my impression at Cambridge was we were just rather sort of pushed through all the latest ideas and this was it. That there weren’t really any great questions. All these we worked out by these great people in the last few years and that was it. They had it all sewn up was the general impression what I got from physics.
I didn’t get that feeling. I got the feeling that there would be all sorts of interesting and great things that could be done. Not that I knew what they were or anything, but —
I think this is really rather interesting, because you see on the other tape you talked about when you were at Princeton and you were banned from going into the university, how you were freed from the need to conform in your conversation and discussion with the other scientists. This was an advantage. And here you are with another thing where deprivation gives you freedom.
Well, freedom comes in a way which is hard to prescribe. Having ideas pushed on you too fast to assimilate them is not freedom.
No. I think it also depends on your ability to so to speak live on a poor diet. I mean, most people who would have limited capacity to do anything original wouldn’t have thrived in such a deprived environment. They presumably would just need a more conventional approach of being handed solutions, wouldn’t they? It would depend on one’s ability for original work.
Well, you see I don’t think that the, you know, the physics department didn’t do a lot. They gave a few courses and we talked occasionally with the staff. But most of what I learned was primarily up to me to read and to talk with people and solve the problem.
Well, you had a lot of time. I must say this is very important. I think this is the greatest criticisms of university science I would say in this country is the students don’t have any time to think. I often ask students do you ever have time to think about what you heard in that last lecture. They sort of look at you blankly. They say, “I haven’t gotten any time to think.” They’re always rushing along. This is what university is supposed to be about, thinking. I don’t know how they do it.
Well, they never give it to you. I think I was luck as I said because when I got to Caltech I found that I knew a lot more about many things than these people from better universities.
When you say you knew it, you mean you understand it better?
Well, I understood it better. And I also had more knowledge actually, which I’d picked up on my own. The courses were not as good, but.
Well, not obviously you needed reasonably good libraries, and you had that. If maybe you had just been living on a farm you couldn’t have done it.
No. But also I needed people to talk with and keep it going and so on.
You met reasonably good other students to talk with.
A few, one or two. There was really one really in physics and that was all and one or two others here and there, but it was a matter of luck.
But the electrical engineer still sort of had — I think you said one of them was an electrical engineer.
I mean he still had sort of broader interests about electrical engineering and human life generally.
I think in the whole I was fairly happy during that period and there was no serious conflict of any kind.
You got away from home I suppose.
I got away from home, yes. In the beginning I had a problem with food. Remember being Jewish we were not supposed to eat anything that’s not kosher. So for a while I thought I would keep off meat, but within a month or so I was feeling pretty terrible. I was eating in these cheap restaurants because you can’t get a non-meat diet in those cheap restaurants that’s adequate. So finally I just switched over and said, “Well, stuff it.”
What was your living accommodation?
The first semester we were in the dorm. It was a college dorm, staying with Weiss sharing a room. But it was so noisy we couldn’t stand it. Then the second semester we moved over to a room in a private house. After that we were in private houses.
But you didn’t cook your own food.
No, there were no facilities.
You had to go out to restaurants.
We ate in restaurants, yes. There was diner, it was called Boots Diner.
But the university didn’t provide good food.
No, no. Only in the girls dorms they provided food, which was notoriously bad they said.
All the men had to go out and buy their own.
In the fraternities they could have food of course, but everywhere else you had to go out and buy food.
Did they cook their own in fraternities?
No, they were cooked, you know, they had cooks.
So this is some special sort of privilege which —
Fraternities are for more wealthy people.
But they had to pay for it.
Yes. The whole thing had to be paid for. They lived in the building and it was much more expensive. But we lived in these rooming houses and went out to eat. Sometimes I would make breakfast of cereal and milk there, but otherwise we had to eat out.
All this university life is very different from the European model. You don’t know how much it varies in different parts of Europe either.
That was in those days. I don’t know what it’s like now anyway.
We’ve really gone on a little bit longer. Look, this is what we’ve done.