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Interview of David Bohm by Maurice Wilkins on 1986 September 25,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Princeton University, Institute for Advanced Study (1947-1950); plasma and quantum theory research with Eugene Gross and David Pines; quantum theory book included theories of Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Eugene Wigner, Erwin Schroedinger; subpoenaed by the Un-American Activities Committee (circa 1948-1949); obtained professor position at the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1951; philosophy and politics, socialism, problems with science and society (circa 1950).
Where did you go to last?
Sometimes I don’t remember. We were discussing what I was doing in Princeton, you see. I was engaged at first of all in various work. I was writing the book on quantum theory and I set it up and Oppenheim felt this was a waste of time because he thought I should be working on stuff that was going on in the institute and re-normalization — subtracting infinities and something of that nature. I was working on an idea about trying to deal with these infinities by thinking of what were called finite distance operators and thinking of a structure of something having an elementary particle, having a finite size, and I worked on that for a number of years. I didn’t really get too far. And then the third point was I was working on was the plasma with two students, one Gross and the other Pines. We worked out the classical theory of plasma with Gross. That continued the work I’d been doing in Berkeley. Pines extended this to the quantum theory — the theory of metals — and we directed it towards some paradoxes that had been in the theory of metals or some problems. People had been trying to compute the resistivity of metals by considering how electrons are scattered in metals, and not only are the electrons scattered from ions and from sound waves, but also by each other. If you computed the scattering cross section of electrons from each other, you will get an extremely large scattering cross section because of the long range of the Coulomb force, and it looked as if it would be almost impossible for the electrons to move freely. By treating the electrons as a plasma, we showed that there were collective oscillations that are quantized and we said that there must be such oscillations, and it turned out to have quite a high frequency, you could work it out, somewhere near the optical region. Then one could show that because of this collective behavior, each electron repelled all the other electrons around there, producing what we call a screening cloud. The positive ions would screen that electron so that the actual range of the potential effectively was not very great, therefore you could understand that all this prediction of tremendous electron scattering was wrong.
Really, the point was that some special higher organization, so to speak, was being built up inside the plasma.
Yes, but it also effected the individual particle’s interest and the more organized it became; the free became the individual particles. Whereas, previously, the individual particles would have messed up with each other without that organization.
It’s an interesting example of high levels of organization sort of emerging out of something, isn’t it?
Yes, it was a matter we discussed at Berkeley. It would have been very interesting to me, forming the idea of the collective behavior and the individual behavior and their interrelationships. These things were tested later. The plasma oscillations were found by passing high-energy electrons through thin films of metal and looking at their energy losses and you could find there were quantized energy losses. Various other features of this, which I cannot remember now, were checked by experiment a day or two later. We were also working out the energy of a solid and working out the energy, methlectrical [?] energy, these things must be taken into account. That was the sort of work that we were doing. There was a Norwegian student that came named, called Tor Stave. I had to leave Princeton before he could finish, but he actually got killed in a skiing accident, but David Pines finished and got his thesis out. Those were the main lines of work. The third line of work was work on the interpretation of the quantum theory. I had been very interested in the meaning of the quantum theory from the beginning with Berkeley and starting from Bohr’s view and I wrote this book which I had hoped to be from Bohr’s view trying to understand it. Actually, it turned out that it probably was not all that close to Bohr’s view. But I tried to understand it as best I could. I taught the thing for three years and put out notes and then finally a book.
You were using it in your teaching?
That is right. I taught the graduate course in Quantum Mechanics 3. That is how I wrote the book. It was necessary, because otherwise I couldn’t have found out what was clear, you see. One of the points about quantum theory was to say there was no underlying explanation for it. It was part of Bohr’s view that there was no way to understand any process by which things moved or things happened at the quantum level. His principle of complementarity stated that there was a limit to how far you could apply classical concepts, but that no further concepts were available. What he said was that quantum mechanics was just a generalization of classical mechanics in the following sense that you begin with classical physics and you apply what you might call the classical algorithm — that’s, Newton’s laws — to compute things. You replace this with the quantum algorithm from Schroedinger’s equation, but you apply it to the same concepts, and you can do this by saying that the concepts are non-ambiguously defined in quantum mechanics in a complementary way between position and momentum. That means that he says the phenomenon is one whole and not analyzable. Therefore, you only deal with the phenomenon, and he says whether there is a reality or not, he does not mention further reality behind the phenomenon. He might believe there is or not. There’s evidence from his quotations either way. But essentially it was a kind of positivist position by saying you could only deal with the phenomenon and apply the algorithm to the phenomenon to calculate the probabilities of various results.
But in what sense was it positive? You mean?
Was it from the sense that you could only — is that the point?
Yes, you could only do that. To say that it would not discuss any reality beyond the phenomenon. That is the essence of positivism, to say that science consists of nothing but correlation of the phenomenon organized logically or mathematically, whatever way you like.
That’s the only possible meaning that can be —
Yes, to say the phenomenon are all that have any meaning. And see Mach [?], for example, got very disturbed when Boltzmann thought the atoms might exist. He felt that it was unjustified, that they were metaphysical fictions. There have been two attitudes in science. One is to say that the concepts in some way corresponded to reality, and the other is to say that there is nothing but the phenomenon in their correlation.
Incidentally, about this thing about the atoms — are they still — What about the chemists? Surely the chemists had some feeling that atoms are real.
A lot of them had, but you see the positivists came along to sort of criticize that and say they were talking metaphysical nonsense since they had never been seen, that they were just convenient constructs of the logic or something.
I can see it was easier for the physicists to take that view and the whole of chemistry was a question of atomic relationships, isn’t it?
There is two attitudes we can call the realists and the positivists. Positivism gradually began to gain ground in the late 19th and early 20th Century. For a little while even Einstein had a positivist approach, but later he said that was only heuristic. He didn’t really believe it, you see. But, the fact that he used it gave positivism a tremendous impetus, you see, because he never made it clear that he didn’t really believe it. At least if he did make it clear, it was already much too late by the time he made it clear. It was many years later.
This relates to the whole business of scientists in general sort of doing something when creating the impression that they are doing something when they don’t really.
Then along came Heisenberg, who was an extreme and very strong positivist. He said that we should emphasize the observation and then the mathematics helps to compute the observation. But, he was not really a positivist because he was somewhat of a Pythagorean and a Platonist. He said that the mathematics expresses the reality and matter must somehow obey mathematical relationships and that the physical concept no longer has any meaning. He said he can no longer think of orbits of electrons or of anything going on. In this he effected by Pauli and by Bohr because they discussed it a lot. There was a general view developed saying that you could not form any physical concept of matter, you had only the mathematics. Now Pauli believed in the reality whereas it wasn’t clear whether Bohr did, but Pauli said the reality was mystical in the sense you couldn’t really say anything about it and that the observer participated in it. Whereas, Bohr was against mysticism. He said, “The observer is detached, but there is a unity only in the phenomenon itself of the observing apparatus in the electron, but the observer himself is pretty detached from the experiment.” That’s what Bohr said, which seems reasonable to say the observer has almost no effect on the experiment once he set it up. The experiment will have a strong effect on the electron, but the observer, if he looks or doesn’t look, it doesn’t effect...
In separating the observer’s instrument from the observer...
That seems quite reasonable in the sense that the observer looks at some part of the instrument that’s very little affected by his looking, say the photographic plate or something like that.
You said very little, didn’t you?
I mean it’s not significantly affected. The whole point is to create something to look at which is not significantly affected to the photographic record or whatever. You don’t look at the thing right in the middle of the process of what is happening where you might affect it. For example, you might keep something in the dark while it’s actually working if it’s light sensitive, and then it will produce a result that you will later take out and look at, a matter of electrical impulses displayed somewhere where you look. If you look at the display screen, the fact that you look has a very little effect.
But, that means your position would be that Bohr was unjustified in taking this view of separating...
I think that you could say that if he would put it there is a fairly loose connection between the actual observer — The scientists have thus far worked in such a way to set up situations where there is a rather loose connection between the observer himself or the experimenter himself and his experiment when it’s working.
That does not mean that there is no connection.
Bohr didn’t mean to say no connection, he meant a sufficiently loose one so that you could ignore it for most purposes. Pauli viewed a much tighter connection, and later so did Wignor, who said that the observer’s mind would play a key role in making the quantum process take place.
How does it do that?
I’d have to come to that to explain... It is a rather technical question. The problem of interpreting the quantum theory was not very easy. Bohr, Heisenberg, and Pauli all have differences though they were the architects of the Copenhagen Interpretation. Bohr almost ignored the reality of what he was talking about and emphasized the phenomenon. Pauli said it’s real, but the reality must be apprehended mystically by participation. He was a mystic. He studied Kepler and various other mystics and he was in contact with Jung. He was quite strongly mystically inclined. Heisenberg was about half-way between them. Heisenberg was inclined to think about orbits and then he said you can’t define them, or he said the electron is a potentiality which can realize various possibilities of being wave-like or particle-like, and Bohr would not use that language. There were sort of subtle differences between those three, but they sort of ironed out the differences sufficiently, so that people have the impression there was a thing called the “Copenhagen Interpretation.” Other people followed on and — see von Neuman developed another variation of this which was more mathematical and was not the kind adopted by most physicists, where people tended to think of the quantum state as really existing in itself. He later became dissatisfied with that and developed a quantum logic to try to make it more objective. On the other hand, Wignor went the other way and he said, “The quantum state is made objective only by the act of looking at it.” If there is a quantum process and it has one possibility or another, after Schrodinger’s equation, only covers all the possibilities and doesn’t tell how it manages to be one or the other. They say the wave function collapses. The quantum state collapses, which does not make sense because the word “state” is intended to be something that stands, but what is supposed to stand suddenly collapses. The point is in order to explain that Wignor proposed that when somebody actually looks, the collapse is explained, you see it as the result of looking. Schrodinger emphasized this problem with his cat paradox. He said, “Imagine a cat in a box with a gun pointed at it and mechanism to fire the gun. Send in a single photon through a half silvered mirror, there is a probability of one-half that it will go straight through the other half reflected.” If it goes straight through, it will operate the gun, otherwise, nothing happens. According to the present quantum mechanics, when you are all finished, you will have a linear combination of a wave function of the dead cat and the live cat. Schrodinger’s equation is unable to tell you that it’s in a state of being either dead or alive. So, how does it manage to get one or the other? Wignor said that when the observer looks, then that’s determined. This creates some paradoxes because you could put in there a conscious observer. Let’s say he was not killed, but scratched or something, and he would know. Somebody would set up a wave function and not be able to say, but then they say somebody inside would still know. There are all sorts of things which are unsatisfying about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and other people said that two universes will arise, one with a dead cat and one with the live cat. The point is that it was not clear. Bohr said the whole question is meaningless and there is no point in even raising it. There is nothing but a phenomenon and this is just an algorithm for giving you the probability of the phenomenon. There is no use trying to give meaning to the terms in the algorithm any more than you would give meaning to the power series by which you calculate that number. There really was subtle disagreement about the meaning of the theory though everybody could use it to compute.
I think I got one point wrong when discussing Bohr in that thing I wrote, that I said that he saw an observer and observed as one and therefore this had obvious ethical implications, but he never said this.
He didn’t think it was so for the physics. He may have thought it might be so in a more general sense.
But, I think the thing is that I was wrong in saying that he was saying the observer and the observed are one, because he didn’t say that.
It’s the observing apparatus.
That’s quite different because there is not an ethical — there isn’t a choice in the observing apparatus.
You are closer to Pauli there than Bohr.
I really got that wrong. I’m a bit puzzled as to why Bohr, with his obviously great interest in social responsibility, made this connection when the point is because I got it wrong anyway.
The point is that one can see now by hindsight that there was a great deal of confusion and difference in the meaning of the theory. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear then and, when I finished the book, I wasn’t quite satisfied that I really understood it. But, I did sent copies to Bohr, Pauli, De Broglie, and to Einstein, and a few other scientists. Bohr never answered and I was told that he got so much mail that he probably didn’t look at it.
I’m assuming he didn’t know what to say.
Yes, he didn’t know what to say. Pauli answered very enthusiastically and De Broglie wrote me saying he — No, I didn’t send this one to De Broglie. Einstein telephoned because I was staying at a house with some friends of his and he wanted to see me.
He was at Princeton, too?
Yes, he lived in Princeton. I went to see him and we discussed the book. He thought that I had done as well as you could for explaining this theory, but he still was not satisfied that it was adequate. Basically, his objections were that the theory was conceptually incomplete, that this wave function was not a complete description of the reality and there was more to it than that. That was his basic objection. Determinism was a secondary point because he was ready to accept a statistical theory, if necessary, although he preferred a determinant. We discussed it and he felt that one needs a theory in which one could discuss some reality which was existing and would stand by itself and did not always have to be referred to an observer and so on. He really felt quite definite that the quantum theory was not doing this. Therefore, though he accepted that it was giving the right results and would give statistically the right results, he felt that it was incomplete.
Incidentally, have you kept Pauli’s letter?
I don’t think I have. Things got lost traveling around in Brazil. I then began to look at it again and I was saying, “Can I make another way of looking at it?” In other words, it seemed that Einstein was right and I already felt dissatisfied, that somehow people were turning a method of calculation into an explanation of reality. They wanted to say that their method of calculation corresponded to reality. It was part of the current positivist approach. Part of this positivist approach is to say that people believe something when it’s an equation, and once you have an equation they believe then that the equation must be describing reality and they don’t want to admit. They didn’t want to say, “Well, this is a nice equation, it gives good answers, but it’s not necessarily a description or a close description of reality.” They wanted to say that reality is what corresponds to our equations. In fact, one of the assumptions made was that the wave function gives a complete description of reality as far as this could be done. This is what Einstein objected to. I began to wonder does it give a complete description of reality? First of all, I thought of a scattering problem. Let’s say a light has scattered off an atom. You’ll have a wave coming along that scattered to form an outgoing wave and it gets weaker and weaker. Yet, you find that a photon is absorbed by an atom at one spot. There is no explanation at all as to why that happens in the quantum theory. It is merely a calculus for computing its probability. I asked, “Maybe it doesn’t really give the whole picture, it’s just a probability calculation.” And therefore I then imagined another wave, an incoming wave, that was coming in that would then go into the atom and be absorbed. I postulated some connection as yet unknown between the outgoing wave and the incoming wave. The outgoing wave would stir up an incoming wave. That would in turn give rise to an outgoing wave which might stir up an incoming wave and you would get a whole process. Therefore, the photon could be scattered all along, moving along in some sort of rough track and it would exist on itself in that way without always being thought of as something which is measured.
What happens about the time, if the incoming thing and the outgoing thing — how are they related in time?
One is later than the other, clearly. The outgoing wave comes along and it stirs up an incoming wave. It turned out later, many years later, that I got a model which does just that, which came from the second approach that I had. That was the first picture that I thought of. I said that maybe the quantum picture of reality was incomplete. They only talked about the outgoing wave and ignore the incoming wave and the further outgoing wave. In other words, if they took one little bit of the process and said “that’s all” and because their mathematics only covered that, they said, “Reality must be whatever our mathematics covers and our mathematics covers this — that must be a whole reality.” They just automatically ignored the rest. That is typical of the positivist approach to say whatever we can see and account for mathematically is all that we care about and all that we can...
All that there is.
All that there is and all that’s worth talking about, which immediately closes your mind off to anything else. That was one of my objections to positivism. I felt that positivism was a very harmful and destructive way of thinking. But, then I got a second idea. I had this idea already, before talking with Einstein, but Einstein said that he would favor some sort of deterministic theory. I began to think, “Could we explain this thing deterministically?” The first idea did not do so. It merely said there would be an outgoing wave which would statistically stir up some kind of incoming wave. I looked at the quantum mechanics as an approximation after Schroedinger’s equation called the WKB Approximation that holds in the classical limit. In getting that equation you finally find a meaning in a so called Hamilton and Jacobi Equation, which represents the trajectory of a particle normal to a wave with a certain probability distribution. That gave a model to say that we have got a wave, a particle moves normal to the wave and it has a probability distribution across the front of the wave. That is the classical limit. Suppose we look at this equation and don’t neglect the things that led to the WKB Approximation, and I found this was equivalent to adding a new potential that depended on the wave function, which I now call the “quantum potential.” I said, “That new potential, they would have to explain all the new properties of matter.” I have the model, the particle goes normal to the wave with the probability distribution, but there is a new potential which has been ignored. In the classical limit, it’s very small and therefore we expect classical physics hold. But, now in the atom it’s going to have a very big effect. I worked that out in the one body problem and I found that it did work out quite consistently. I wrote a paper on that and I sent a copy to Einstein, Pauli, and to De Broglie and a few others. Pauli answered me right away, very angry and disturbed, saying, “This is nonsense and that this was old and not even new nonsense.” It was old nonsense that De Broglie had done in 1927. They’d had the Solvay Congress there and that he had demolished De Broglie there. He said, “The particle that was being guided.” De Broglie had proposed a theory in which the particle was guided by the wave and they had made fun of it by calling it the “Kindergarten Theory,” that the particle was like a little child who had to be guided. I got a letter from De Broglie saying that he had proposed this theory already. I then went to talk to Einstein and he said, “Okay, it’s alright,” but he didn’t like it because it seemed it did not go deep enough. He said this quantum potential; it’s just an assumption and has strange properties and so on. He wanted a theory that would have explained the thing more deeply. Meanwhile, I worked out the answer. Pauli had made an objection to De Broglie which sort of really knocked him out, because when they did the two body system, it turned out that this model involved some very strange behavior connecting distant particles. De Broglie had never answered that very well and he finally gave it up. So, I worked out an answer. I worked out this model for the N-body system. It had new properties and non-local potential and all sorts of new properties, this quantum potential. I show that, actually, it could have answered Pauli quite well. I worked out a theory of measurements and I showed that it gave the same results as the usual theory, but it gave an explanation for everything. I published that in the Physical Review later. After I got to Brazil it was published. That was the sort of work I was doing there. I had to leave America before I could find out the reaction to this paper because it was only published after I left. I had become more interested in philosophy gradually all the time. I became interested in causality and the objective existence of things and all sorts of questions like that. It seemed a large part of my interest in physics was in those questions. Even if you go back to Berkeley, when I felt very unhappy about physics. People only wanted equations and didn’t want concepts of any kind. I remember that I told you that I had been thinking of leaving physics and I couldn’t quite see anywhere else to go. That was about the status of my work in Princeton.
Where did this work which you published while you were in Brazil — did this develop later?
Yes, we did some more in Brazil and more, later. I’ll have to go into the history of that as I go along. It did develop. I sent the thing to the Physical Review just before I left America and it got published about a year later, while I was in Brazil.
[???] didn’t object to it?
I learned later that it was their policy that they did not object to it, but the leading physicists, like Pauli and Heisenberg sort of put it around that there was nothing to it. It was considered nonsense. People generally took their cues from the leading physicists.
This was not a question of rationality. It was a question of some kind of feeling that authorities are right, because they are authority.
Because they are more capable.
There is some element of rationality in it. You are just having a trust or a face in the ability of these people to be right without understanding why.
Of course, all these events were to some extent overshadowed by the difficulty with the Un-American Activities Committee. I don’t know how much we discussed before, but if you remember, I was subpoenaed by the Un-American Activities Committee several years before I left America, probably about 1948 or 1949, and refused to testify on the basis of self-incrimination. At first it seemed this was going to die down, but then came the Korean War and a very bad atmosphere. It began to build up again. I think in the summer of 1949, I was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in New York and I did not testify.
You just remained silent?
I said on the basis of self-incrimination.
Is that all you said?
Yes. They were saying, “Well, we are not a committee and we are a really serious body and you can and should testify,” but I didn’t. During that autumn, probably about November, suddenly I came to my office and somebody came in and said that he was a U.S. Marshall and was arresting me because of contempt of Congress. I said, “What are we going to do?” He said, “We’ll go to Trenton and get bail.” And, then I said, “How much is the bail?” He said, “$20,000.00.” That was a lot of money in those days. I said, “It can’t be. I have known other people who have been indicted for this and their bail was around $1,000.00 or so.” I was wondering what they had against me. I called up my lawyer who did not mind. He allowed me to do that. The lawyer said he would look into it and was sure it was a mistake. We went to Trenton and waited there in the courthouse with the U.S. Attorney until finally he got a call from Washington saying the bail was $1,500.00, which I wrote a check for. The fellow then drove me back to Princeton. We talked about various things, Einstein and things like that. He seemed interested a bit in science. He was a Hungarian and he said that he had become an American which was very important to him and he was very loyal to America and was hoping that I was not doing anything disloyal. He was quite friendly, actually.
What was the year when the Rosenbergs were executed?
That was after I left, I think.
After you left? I see.
I am not sure, but I don’t recall them being [???]
Things were still sort of in a way, getting worse after you left?
Incidentally, there is one thing in all this. To what extent did the aspect of being a Jew come into the McCarthy?
I don’t think he emphasized that very much. At least I am not aware of it. He even had a Jewish attorney working for him. At least if not him — I think it was him.
I certainly had not heard it, but on the other hand, if I can just jump back for a minute so I don’t forget about this, presumably one of the reasons your family had left Europe — of course and I put it. To what extent did the discrimination against Jews, as well as the economic difficulties, to what extent was this a factor in making [inaudible]?
I think it was more economic. My father was in a very bad economic situation as his mother and father had died in the plaque and so on. The Jews there in that village of Muncacha [?], which was really a city, some of them were really well off and others were very poor.
Your family did not come from an area where there were pogroms and?
No. I think Hungary was really more civilized in those days. It was the Austro-Hungarian empire, though there was anti-Semitism, it didn’t take a violent form. The same was in Germany, which was more orderly. They would not have allowed riots like that. More in Poland and Russia was where that sort of thing happened.
It varied quite a bit, you mean, the extent to which people were driven out by economic difficulties or by racial difficulties. Sorry to interrupt there, but it suddenly came into my mind that we haven’t discussed this. You got your bail then?
Yes. Then I got a letter from the college the next day saying that I was suspended from the university, on pay because I was under a contract and that I wasn’t supposed to go to the university at all.
Did you say unpaid?
Suspended with pay.
They had to do that because I was under a contract. I remember somebody from the student paper came to interview me and we talked a bit and he said, “What are you going to do?” And, I said, “I don’t know yet. I have no idea.” I was sort of waiting. You know in November a number of people had been indicted. They had wanted to challenge this self-incrimination method.
The argument was that, if you said something that you might incriminate yourself, even if you were not guilty.
The argument was that since the general subject was Communism and that was regarded as a crime, you might incriminate yourself if you were especially — If you once said you were not a member of the Communist Party, then you were free of that and therefore you had to talk.
After that, you had to talk?
Because they say there is no crime from there on. You only incriminate somebody else. If you say that you had never been a member of the Communist Party, for example, then they would say that you cannot use self-incrimination because the inquiry is into Communism.
The position you take is that I may be guilty, but I am not going to claim that you have no evidence...
You may be asking me about other people, but it may turn out that I, too, was a member and I would be incriminating myself. This line of questioning might lead me to incriminate myself.
The whole idea of the self-incrimination thing is based on the notion that you may be guilty, but they can’t do anything about it if they have no evidence.
That’s right. They can’t do anything about it. In any case, they weren’t doing anything about their membership anyway, at that stage, but it could be used. The idea was that it was in principle it could be used. I think they wanted...
That was a good piece of human rights that remained, wasn’t it?
The Communist Party was legal, but in view of a lot of the laws that had been passed about its activities, you could make the argument that in effect it was criminal. So, you argued that way. I think the government tried to argue that it wasn’t really a crime to be a member of the Communist Party.
Yes. Therefore, you wouldn’t be able to use self-incrimination. They said, “Look, it’s perfectly legal.” The other argument was that though it may be illegal. Some of the other things that have been attached to it that it’s effectively illegal. So many other questions have come in, right?
The point is that if you simply refuse to give evidence, which means you are just being...
That is called Contempt of Congress.
Right, and that’s — you have to have some good reason for refusing to give evidence and, this idea that you might incriminate yourself by giving evidence is a justification for saying nothing. That was a good piece of human rights that remained, wasn’t it?
The government was challenging that. They were carrying the case to the Supreme Court. I remember sometime during that winter that somebody’s case arrived at the Supreme Court and the court ruled that it was all right, that you could use this self-incrimination right. As soon as they did that, I realized that it applied to my case, too, but we still have to go through the trial, which was set for June.
What time of the year was this?
It was winter. November was when I was arrested. Probably by January or February I heard this new decision.
Yes, it was pretty long business.
I remember going into the institute and hearing about — people were talking about it or I heard it on the radio or something.
About your name?
No, about the new decision.
The new decision. The date they knew what your position was?
No, the people that I heard talking about it didn’t know. They didn’t know me. During that winter, I couldn’t go to the university. I found that I was doing a lot more work and was able to work far more effectively, not only because I had more time, but because I found that there had been a very subtle repression or oppression going on in the university environment in the sense in that, though nobody asked you to do anything in particular, there is a kind of pressure all the time to think in a certain way, just merely in order to talk to people inside.
To fit into the group.
Therefore, your mind was limited. In a way, this thing made it much easier for me to develop this new interpretation and to go deeper into plasma work. I made much more rapid progress during that time than at any time before.
But, you wouldn’t have made that progress unless you had lots of opportunity for contact with physicists earlier.
Yes. Primarily, with the students and the library and some of the few physicists. I didn’t have a lot of contact with most of them. Most of the contacts didn’t help me very much.
I mean, over your career as a whole.
I think really the thing about making progress is a matter of having a lot of contact and being able to be free of that contact at certain times. I mean, it was the same with Einstein. He had to steep himself in all the physics before him, didn’t he? Before you get free of it, so to speak. I suppose he had to know what he was getting free from.
I did all that and then in June came the trial. I remember staying with the Condons that year. They invited me.
Condon? You mean Condon at — was it Berkeley?
He was now at Washington. He was in the Bureau of Standards.
That night I stayed there. Then there was the trial the next morning and I went with my lawyer and we had to wait while various cases were disposed of, all sorts of cases, some people stealing checks and one person for murder. When my case came, my lawyer said he had a talk with the prosecuting attorney and they talked about some of my scientific ideas and so on. He seemed interested. But the prosecuting attorney still tried to trick me. He referred to one place where it seemed — I can’t remember the details in the testimony to the Committee. Somehow, they had asked me a question which they thought they had me on, you see. I had made an answer and the lawyer put it out.
Incidentally, about the Condons, could you say a little bit more about why the Condons — you mean you were living in their home.
No, for one night. Each time we went to the Un-American Activities Committee they invited me and also my friend, Ross Lomanitz.
Was this in a different town?
You had to travel to Washington from Princeton.
You needed somewhere to stay for the night and they put you up.
Were they generally supportive?
So, Condon was very much opposed to this whole [???] process.
Yes, in fact, he himself had defied the Committee in some way. I can’t remember the details, but it was a way that they — He had opposed the Committee quite strongly.
Incidentally, about Oliphant, apparently there was something in a newspaper about trying to blacken Oliphant’s reputation and saying that he had given information to the Russians. It’s interesting the way these things — almost no limit to it.
They weren’t accusing me of giving information. What they really wanted was for me to testify, so it would build up a case against somebody else and presumably, eventually it might get you...
But, there was, apparently, some intelligence report about some Australian who was claimed to have given information. But, the whole thing was very confused and apparently, this newspaper thing about the Australian being Oliphant and what he had done was quite — no justification for it at all. It just shows the sort of thing that goes on. In some countries, one can take legal action about things like that. Incidentally, I found that Eric Burrup was doing magnetron work in Australia, so Oliphant had a connection through the radar work with Burup before Burup came onto the Manhattan Project. However, back to your story.
I was acquitted. I then began to think about what I shall do.
That meant that whole case against you fell completely through.
Yes, but it was part of the whole structure. All these cases had fallen flat.
They might come to life again, you mean.
They couldn’t now because the Supreme Court had ruled that you could —
You thought you were completely safe?
I was safe from that, not from everything. I knew that the whole environment was very poor and also I couldn’t get a job. In other words, I found out Princeton then was not — I could back to the university, but my contract was going to run out at the end of June and they were not going to renew it.
Because of the fact that you were being tried or accused.
No, because I had refused to testify, basically.
I see. Because of your refusing to testify, you were on a black list and you wouldn’t get jobs in many places.
Yes. I assumed that was the case and I went to several people, to H. D. Smythe [?], who had been head of the Atomic Energy Commission, had formerly been head of the physics department at Princeton. I went to Oppenheimer and I went to Einstein and I can’t remember who else. I said, “What shall I do?” None of them were very optimistic. Smythe said that he would try to get me a job somewhere. He said maybe Louisville, Kentucky. I didn’t really want that, but he found that he couldn’t even get me a job in Louisville, Kentucky.
This was an undesirable place to...
It was really way off in the sticks. So, he was convinced that I wouldn’t get a job anywhere. Oppenheimer was quite convinced. Einstein, I was told later, asked Oppenheimer if I could be his assistant, but Oppenheimer said it would embarrass him too much. That I can understand because he knew what was coming for him. There was going to be an attack on him coming. It wouldn’t have helped me to be in that position.
Incidentally, did you notice the thing in that Oppenheimer book about him and his having offended the Admiral and how the Admiral was out to get him, quite apart from the politics, just on personal antipathy? I think it was a nice thing that Einstein put up this idea of your working with him, don’t you think?
What happened was that I knew some people in Brazil. They had been students at Princeton, graduate students, two people, Tiamno [?] and Shutzer [?], and I wrote letters to them. They suggested that I might get a job as a professor at the University of Sao Paolo. They approached the head of their department who approached the Rector and they approached — They knew there was going to be trouble because of all that I had, so they said that I should get letters supporting me.
From Americans. I got a letter from Oppenheimer, for which he got into trouble later, and I got a letter from Einstein and from some others. With those letters they made application. It was sent to the governor of the state and to various other people. Then I was offered the job in Brazil.
How long was the job for?
Three years. But, it was expected that you would be able to continue. It is contracted every three years.
Sort of a permanent job?
If I had taken their concorso — the competition — In order to get a permanent professorship there, they have what they call a concorso, a competition you have to go through and the one who wins it gets the — Usually, if somebody has been holding the chair for a while, it’s rather a formality. In other words, it could have been turned into a permanent job. Then the problem was to get a passport. I applied to the State Department and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I went to Oppenheimer again and he suggested writing to somebody in the State Department, which I did. I went to Smythe and told him about my problem and he said that he would see what he could do. Incidentally, when they said that they wouldn’t renew my contract, almost the entire physics department went to the President to try get it renewed, but he wouldn’t do it. The only one who didn’t go, apparently, was Wignor.
Why do you think that was?
Two reasons: One is he is very much against Communism and, secondly, his way of thinking was very mathematical and mine was not. He didn’t really want the department to develop along those lines.
He wasn’t sympathetic scientifically and he wasn’t sympathetic politically.
I applied for the passport and I hoped that these people would do something. I went to Boston to visit one of my students. I think I got a telephone call while I was there saying that finally the passport had arrived, to my surprise. I rushed back and began to get ready to go to Brazil. I remember I was preparing to go to Brazil and I was walking on the streets at Princeton and I met Oppenheimer and he said, “Haven’t you gone yet?” He was sort of implying “don’t delay.” Early in October I got to Brazil.
What year was that?
How did you find it in Brazil?
That is a long story, of course. Is there anything more we should discuss about Princeton?
I do think this point about being cut off from the stimulating effect of your colleagues is an interesting paradoxical point which...
One or two other points I can remember that I wanted to discuss. Do you want to say anymore?
Of course, a great deal was going on in my mind in connection with thinking about philosophy and about politics. At that time I still felt that Socialism might be the answer. I didn’t have much hope for what was going on in America at that time. It looked as if things were getting pretty grim. Not merely politically, but I also felt uneasy about the whole way things were going. If I can put it, the way where people are put in the papers as a kind of very superficial materialistic orientation to life. I remember seeing people in a small cafe, young people listening to the jukebox and it seemed very superficial. I remember crossing the river toward New York and seeing a tremendous pile of masonry and I felt uneasy about the way that was all going. I was wondering if this movement to Brazil would be kind of an adventure to open up into a new — I was hoping that maybe their people would be a bit more old fashioned and would not have got caught up in this yet.
You mean you might find them in an earlier stage of development, which was more positive.
The Americans in the United States had already passed their peak and were down a bit.
Yes. That is what I felt. I said that maybe in Brazil — all the rest of the world will catch up in it, too. But meanwhile, it might be nice to go into something where it’s not caught up.
A new sort of frontier.
In a way I was looking forward to going to Brazil because I didn’t like this whole atmosphere, and not merely the political atmosphere, but a lot of the rest of the atmosphere. It was tied up also with the attitude to science and so on. At that time, I had been slowly building up the view that science might be important in transforming the consciousness of people into a more rational and forward-looking way. At that time, I thought of a plot for a science fiction story, which shows the way I was thinking. This plot began with some beings from a very distant star who had been civilized for millions of years, unimaginably advanced in every way. The whole conflict had disappeared between them. They could sort of get together in a group and talk. One would talk and the other would be an instant contact. There was sort of no fear of anything at all. They really had left all that behind over the millions of years of civilization. The idea was that civilization had transformed these beings from primitive violent beings into this sort of thing. Some of them were traveling in a ship and passing Earth, picking up indications that there might be trouble there and probably nuclear particles. Therefore, they came down to investigate. They settled down somewhere near someplace. People all around were wondering what in the world was this. They looked and they got more and more nervous about it. They waited days and days and finally they began to attack it with all their weapons, but they could get nowhere. Finally, somebody dropped an atomic bomb on it and nothing happened. Finally, they gave up. After a sufficient time, the beings came out and established contact with humanity. After going through a long story, it turned out that they wanted to help humanity. They would give them all sorts of science and technology. They wanted all the nations to unite all over the world. After a long period of negotiations, the nations did do it. They got together and they began to set up a group in order to absorb the science and technology. An international group with many scientists drawn from all over the world. As they proceeded, some of the scientists began to see tremendous power in this technology and the idea dawned on them that they could become the lords of the universe and humanity. So, they got into touch with their governments and began a plot to use this for that purpose.
This was new science brought by these nice people?
Yes, new science and new technology. As they were going on, they began to recruit more and more scientists into their plan. They were recruiting a particular scientist and they said, “Why don’t you join us?” He went home to think about it. But suddenly it occurred to him, he got an insight into this new science, that it involved and applied such unity in everything and that there was no point to such a plot. At first, he may have thought maybe he would do it. When he came back and told them he didn’t want to join, they became worried about him. They said, “He knows about the plot and he is not one of us,” so they killed him. But, at that moment, a being passed by and saw it, so they had to kill him, too. Then everyone began to get very frightened and said, “What are the beings going to do?” It had become known that they had killed a being and a panic spread all over the world. Will they annihilate us? Will they obliterate us? The beings did nothing for three days and people got more and more worried. There was a real panic all over the world. Meanwhile, on the side of the beings another thing was going on. This was the first time in millions of years that one of them had ever been murdered. This was such a shock that they went crazy. It stirred up all sorts of primitive things that they thought had been gone for millions of years. They were afraid they would just go to pieces then and there. Finally, they worked it through and got over it. They came out and proposed — Now the whole atmosphere in the world was different. They were anxious to do anything to placate the beings. They set up a world government and a new system and all sorts of things and got it going. Finally, after sufficient time, they left, the idea being that both sides had learned something in this encounter. One of the points of this story is that if you saw the infinite unity in things and the infinitely deep unity in things, there would be no point to this sort of strife and conflict between people that’s been going on all the time. That was the idea.
But also, weren’t you saying that it’s the essence of science is this unity and therefore, it makes sense in all this de-unifying, aggressive behavior is contrary to the essential spirit of science?
Yes, and of humanity. I was sort of implying that science was also the essential spirit of all intelligent life.
Yes, an expression of it. Science is simply one form. The process of doing science is one expression of the sort of creative principles of life. This is the argument you can use that scientists shouldn’t be doing weapons research, for example, because it’s basically unscientific.
This is precisely the sort of argument which doesn’t seem to interest scientists at all, I find, and which I find very well peculiar.
It’s because of this long conditioning that has been going on for this long period of the Cold War, partly. That’s added to it a great deal.
I don’t mean ordinary scientists, scientists who are dedicated to nuclear disarmament and God knows what in working for peace as they call it, in the peace movement. These people don’t seem interested in nuclear disarmament.
I think they become cynical. The point is that all this experience with science used destructively has made many people cynical. In the ‘50s, the atomic bomb was fairly new and even then they were a bit cynical, but it has gotten a lot worse.
What is interesting is to find the idealistic scientists who are working for peace and have a hope that science can be used to establish peace. But, even that minority of scientists has got this switched off and cynical, and they have become blind to the essential unifying nature of science.
I think they become petty is a better — You see, they distrust us. I remember talking, not exactly about this, but something related saying that there is a creative intelligence, which is really essentially the same point. This comes out in science. I talked to somebody and I was very idealistic and inclined toward the left in the peace movement and so on. He says, “It sounds like delusions of grandeur.” So, my answer to him was that most people have delusions of pettiness and they make themselves very small.
I think that puts it well. I think that one of the reasons is that people are frightened by 19th Century delusions of grandeur and the arrogance of scientists in the 19th Century. They are frightened of that. As a result of that fear, they go to the other extreme and say, “Oh, no,” and try and play down this special quality of what is present in science, because they are — It’s an irrationality really, to swing from the — They are afraid of being arrogant.
Must be very petty.
There’s no project, really. I think that’s certainly part of it. People are very much afraid to get up and say these grand things about science because they think that if they do they will then start getting puffed up into arrogant attitudes, as many scientists did in the 19th Century. I think that’s part of it. I think that this is an important thing, but ultimately it seems to me that unless this sort of creative principle is recognized. Where, ultimately, are you to find a whole basis for wanting peace or anything else? What the hell do you want to get rid of the nuclear armaments for and have peace for if you can’t recognize any creative principle? You might as well be dead. Peace without creative principle.
You might as well [???] for conquest or something. The point is that there were people, as you say, in the 19th Century, that had these various visions of grandeur and some people attached into the nation and said our nation must be great and so on. Now that sort of dies out in all directions and it has good and bad effects. I think that people have a very petty view of what a human being is and the view of what a human being is helps to make him what he is.
Science has been telling [???] human beings are nothing but [???], nothing but that.
In a way, that’s arrogance to say that something is nothing, but this is an extreme — this pettiness is actually an extreme form of arrogance.
That’s a good point, to make ultimate pronouncements. Ultimate passing of judgment.
Yes, that everything is very small. Everybody being cynical and saying that everything is nothing and that everybody is very small.
Yes, it is passing judgment which is not [???] ultimately for human beings to do. Yes, anyway, your story, they both learn something out of the encounter. But I think, you see, presumably one of the difficulties about that sort of story is this: that you can give a picture of these very advanced beings who didn’t have jealousies, didn’t quarrel, didn’t have misunderstandings and didn’t do all this sort of thing. But, what you can’t do is give anybody a clear picture of all the wonderful things they could do, because these are something essentially you can hardly visualize.
Yes, you can only give a vague notion of what they could do. The feeling I had was of some sort of almost perfect contact.
Yes, I think that is something, but what do they do with the perfect contact? Presumably, you could then give descriptions and it would all be like a group of musicians playing together and all these types of things. You would have to refer to already existing examples of cooperation and creativity.
To say that life itself would be like a kind of music, creatively booked in some way.
But, by definition you can’t carry it very much further because what you create is something which you cannot know.
That is why this story would be so hard to write.
But I think you could still sort of dance around it quite a bit, as you say in talking about the whole of life as being like music and so on. An enormous sort of sense of joy and, oh, I don’t know what you would say, all the beautiful color. I don’t know what you’d see, you know what a good building?
The creative perceptions of new things and even just going into science is one of the things in a new way and some are a very different way.
But you see the thing is, I think presumably what you’d say is that going into science is good in so far as it is a creative process. It is constantly leading you on to all these new sorts of prospects. Like a piece of music playing. Once you try to define things of any particular stage, you would go dead on it, wouldn’t it?
The idea was that it wasn’t going to do that. It was constantly in flow.
All I’m saying is this that you can’t sort of give a picture. It is like trying to define life itself, isn’t it? That you can’t define. Have you thought of writing this story?
No, I couldn’t write it. I don’t think anybody could write it. It would require some extraordinary writer of extraordinary imagination.
You mean to somehow attempt to transcend some to these essential difficulties?
I agree that this is so, but presumably, good creative writers and so on, they have this special quality of being able to give little hints and nudges, and so on, which give you this vivid sort of feeling.
In science, some of the movies for example, like “Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET,” a little bit of that has been communicated. Very little, because they didn’t attempt to show the lives of these people, they showed a glimpse.
If they tried to show more, it would have gone wrong.
Because they wouldn’t be able to.
I never saw that. It is an example of we’re trying to be explicit, [???] kill it.
I felt that the dream, which was probably implicit in a lot of my attitude to science which was disappearing in the United States. They were getting caught up in all this, not only political stuff, but also this materialistic emphasis on results, money, position and power.
This has been happening all over the world.
It was merely faster there. I had the hope that somehow in other parts it hadn’t gone so far.
What happened when you got to Brazil?
It’s a complex story. In some ways that’s true, it had not gone so far, but they had other difficulties. It wasn’t all that good.
Economic and political difficulties?
Yes, and general chaos of the society. That was the other side of the coin. I think maybe we should — there is no point, there is only a few minutes left. I think we should discuss Brazil separately.
I remember visiting Brazil in 1951 because you were there. We met, didn’t we?
Yes, it was a little later than 1951.
But the interesting thing was that at that time, we were beginning DNA double helix work here. So, the whole molecular biology was very exciting, as the possibilities of great breakthroughs. Wherein, you in physics saw the physics as rather, not turning in on itself, but getting somewhat arid. The biological things seemed to have great possibilities. The only question is to what extent are creative possibilities actually achieved? This is sort of another question, isn’t it? One feels, to some extent, that the whole molecular biology thing, I feel, rather was sort of dead, sort of mechanistic of a gear wheels business. I think one saw it as a great creative challenge when you get these things, you receive them as being not as lively as they seemed at the time.
I think physics was going in for a slow period at that time. I don’t know if I can think of anything else about what was going on then that’s relevant to this.
Did you have any interactions with other people that you discussed these problems with who had views about it?
A few. I was staying with somebody called, Eric Cullar [?], who was sort of a scholar in history. He wrote books. He was very interested in social questions.
This was at Princeton?
Yes. They were the friends of Einstein, Eric and Lilly Cullar. Einstein used to come to their house, but by the time I got there, he was a bit too old to do that. I talked with people, of course, that I knew, but I don’t know if I could...
But, were there any people that you had known for some time that you kept in touch with so you could sort of compare notes with the way in which the world was changing, all that kind of thing?
I kept in contact with various people, friends I see in Brazil. I had known Melba Phillips. She had been a student of Oppenheimer.
Where was she?
She was in New York at Brooklyn College. I had friends among the physicists. I don’t know if my acquaintances were all that broad. I wrote to various people after I got to Brazil.
But on the whole, you were fairly paddling your own canoe, so far in the main. You were developing your own ideas pretty much on your own.
Yes, those were mostly my own ideas. In the case of plasma, I worked with the students who got their degrees.
But, in general, that was more sort of working out the details. It was working things out. The general sort of planning of direction, development of sense of direction and so on, you were doing yourself.
Mostly. I talked with a few people. I think that I determined most of it by myself.
How did you feel about doing these things on your own? Did you feel any degree of isolation, that there weren’t lots of other people around who seemed to be doing similar things?
You mean like the work on physics or things like that?
Physics and philosophy, sort of overall sharing of interests.
I felt that there was a lack and there weren’t too many people. I didn’t feel it that keenly. I was sort of looking forward, hoping that somewhere in Brazil or maybe getting to Europe I might find more. That was a vague idea I had in mind.
You had some thoughts about Europe then.
I thought that if I didn’t like Brazil, I might go on to Europe. There were a few people I knew there in Princeton and I could talk some philosophy with them, like Eric Cullar. But, on the whole, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. One could see that the physicists were not interested in it. So, I was dissatisfied, but it wasn’t getting me down at the time. I felt that it was an important problem, but it wasn’t the major question at the moment. I was hoping I would have new — I remember talking with someone and saying that — I can’t remember what, but that there would perhaps be some people interested in philosophical questions there in Sao Paolo. I was sort of hoping that maybe because they were more old fashioned that there would be more of it.
Yes, that’s the sort of thing I said when I went to Malaysia, that some of the science and spirituality, I said, “They can’t do this in the West, maybe you could do it here.” In a way one’s kidding oneself and kidding them. It’s not wrong. I don’t think it’s being dishonest, but I think the chances of it happening is probably not very big.
You’ll see when I discuss Brazil, that there were one or two down there who I could talk with. On the other hand, the whole atmosphere in Brazil was so difficult, the whole situation. It had some good points, but it was a very hard place to live. There was some sort of consciousness of deterioration going on in America. I remember when I was talking to Melba Phillips, it was sort of a joke, she said that America was the one country that went from barbarism to decadence without passing through an intermediate phase of civilization. It seemed that they hadn’t had time to really allow this culture to develop before all these things started happening.
This is part of the whole problem of rapid change. It is one aspect of it, isn’t it, that there is no time for the more supple aspects of culture to come into being. That certainly was the sort of thing you see in places like Malaysia with the new industries and the skyscrapers and all the new advances going up that it’s all so limited, economically and materially, that there is no sort of cultural development. To some extent the United States has been — well, it’s never been as bad as that. But it’s a bit that way.
At times it has been. Essentially, it has developed some culture. But, I think this new atmosphere, this new attitude and this new situation developing in modern technology sort of ran away with things and before it could develop much culture. It is happening here, too. It is happening everywhere.
Absolutely. I think the old cultural aspects which were good in Europe are being expunged gradually, aren’t they?
Fundamentally, science and technology are going in the wrong direction. That science fiction story was pointing to what I thought was the right direction. I already felt that America was going in the wrong direction. I had this romantic notion that maybe elsewhere it hadn’t gotten that far yet.
It is lack of courage, really, on the part of the scientists. You have to combine courage with clarity of thought, because the lack of clarity of thought in the 19th Century led people into stupid arrogances, but they had some going them then. It wasn’t having some energy and go and so forth isn’t enough because you have to be prepared to, certainly to learn from mistakes of the past if you want to go beyond that, too. You’ve got to sort of feel this essential quality of life embedded in creative activities. That, of course, is exactly what there isn’t much of, presumably either in the arts or in the sciences anymore. It’s not just the science, it’s the whole, the whole of culture.
We might discuss that later. It is sort of deteriorating. It was probably implicit all the time that it would do this, but in some way this technology has been the cause of the deterioration, this wrong development of technology.
It turned human beings into machines, didn’t it?