Harold Agnew

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Dan Ford
Interview date
Location
Solana Beach, California
Disclaimer text

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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Harold Agnew by Dan

Ford on 2007 February 15,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-1

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

In this interview Harold Agnew discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, nuclear weapons, IBM.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.

Transcript

[Abrupt start of recorded material]

Ford:

I take it this is a good time to talk?

Agnew:

Yeah.

Ford:

Good. You go back a long way with Garwin, as I understand it. Do I understand that you were both students together with Fermi, teaching at the same time in Chicago?

Agnew:

That's correct.

Ford:

What would you describe as your relations with Dick, or what did you observe of him as a student? I don't know if at that time you were colleagues…

Agnew:

Yeah, I think from the time he arrived at Chicago, we've been rather close, up until the present. Very brilliant young man. He's not so young anymore.

Ford:

None of us are. What were his relations with the other students, for example?

Agnew:

Hello? You're dropping out.

Ford:

I was asking: What were his relations with the other students?

Agnew:

I don't know. I don’t know. The only one I know that he interacted with, because we always had lunch together when we were students, was me. He knew the other guys, but I don't think he was as close during those years. You'll have to ask him.

Ford:

I ask everybody and get different views of the elephant. Part of the job. I guess one of the main questions I have is, is there any way to describe the effects that Fermi's own style and way of thinking and way of teaching had on Dick or you or the other people who were his students?

Agnew:

I don't know. He was, again, a most amazing man. I used to talk to him — we were very close. I don't know why he liked me, my wife, but when I went back to graduate school, we couldn't find a place to live. He offered to have my wife and me and my small daughter live with them. We did for about two months or so, until we found a house. So we sort of — you know, when you have breakfast and dinner with a person... His wife went back to Italy to visit her sister, so Beverly ran the house. His two kids, Giulio and — what was her daughter — Nella — and Giulio were the kids, and Enrico, so Beverly did all the cooking, and we had breakfast together and we had dinner together for two months. Living in that same house, it's a family relationship. I would talk to Enrico — the longest conversation I had, non-technical, was when I was preparing to take the exam at Chicago, which I think Dick will tell you was he was terrified of taking it too. At least his wife will tell that you that he was as frightened to take the exam as I was. He had no reason to be as frightened.

Fermi would just tell me how — he said he was different than other people. People asked Enrico how he knew about things. I wanted to know what things I should read to prepare for the exam. He said he didn't know; he never read. I asked him how he knew these things. He said people came and told him about them, but he said it was very interesting; he realized that most of the time when people came to tell him about new things, they really didn't understand them the way he understood. It was just different for him.

I spent maybe three weeks studying something called Brillouin zones, which I never did understand, but I asked him about it. He said he would tell me about it. If you understood about 10 things in physics, then you understood everything. I said about what about Brillouin zones. He stepped up to a small blackboard and started at the top of it. By the time he got to the bottom, he took all up the whole thing, which we had been working on with Professor Zener for three weeks. He was just an incredible individual.

I guess he was attracted to Dick because Dick was so bright. Someone recommended to Fermi that he take on Dick. See, I had worked with Fermi starting in '42 at Columbia with his experiments up there, and had moved back to Chicago with him when we brought in the first reactor and then went to Los Alamos and didn't interact much with him. A little bit at Los Alamos, but not much. Did an experiment for him after the war before I went back to Chicago. He got me the National Research Council fellowship at Chicago, and then when I passed the required exams, agreed to take me on as a graduate student… Very complicated process.

Dick was always there, and we always had lunch together. We still — when he comes out here, we always get together. I once said — when I ran Los Alamos, I had maybe 1,000 PhDs, maybe more — I said if I could only have one it would be Dick Garwin. He’s most amazing. He can be very irritating at times, too. He sometimes thinks, when you try to tell him about something new — or other people… I've had other people tell me the same thing. He's so quick that he somehow thinks that he thought of it first, and it irritates people. He doesn't do it on purpose. I don't know how to describe it. He just sees things, and he immediately realizes that, oh yeah, that's obvious. If it's obvious, then he must have thought of it, too. I don't know how to describe this, but there are people that have become very irritated with him because of this. He doesn't do it much anymore, but earlier on he used to do this all the time. Really bothered people.

Ford:

I've talked to the people like Val Telegdi, whom you presumably know well.

Agnew:

I know [audio gap]. He's a little hard to deal with. He's actually a very sensitive person, Garwin. Very nice, very sensitive, very decent, very honest. But you were telling me about Telegdi.

Ford:

Telegdi was saying that — he said Dick used to have this habit as a graduate student in the laboratory of looking over other people's shoulders and saying things like, only an idiot would use such and such a device, et cetera.

Agnew:

He's never done that to me. I might be in that class of idiots, but he's never criticized anything that I've done. Lately, he has been sort of telling people that some of the things I've done, I really did. But every once in a while, he'll drop into this mode of saying, oh yes, I was involved in that too. And those of us who were on certain things can't figure out — you know, he may well have been, because we weren't shoulder to shoulder. He was mostly back east at IBM or JASON or wherever.

Ford:

I met Dick, it must have been more than 30 years ago, because I was doing a lot of work with Henry Kendall on nuclear safety things. He just took me to meet Dick, and Henry had some technical question that he needed Dick's answer on, but as we were driving out to — we had a five minute appointment for this consultation, and Henry was just petrified that Garwin would just cut him to ribbons.

Agnew:

He's never done that to me, and I've never seen him do it in a malicious sense. But if you're wrong, you're wrong. Maybe I've never been on issues that he really cared about. I know he's been very — I remember once, one incident… Nixon had a hate list, or something like that, of people — Dick was not on it. There's a story that Dick went up to whoever was in charge of this hate list or whatever it was that Nixon had. Dick complained — he didn't like Nixon &mdash that he wasn't on the list, and the guy looked at Dick and said, "How presumptuous!" Which really set Dick back. That's one of the few times that a person has shut him down.

Ford:

I'm sort of glad that I'm doing the biography now and being able to deal with the mellower version of the same man.

Agnew:

Much more tolerant, I would say, these days of people who aren't really up to his standards. Much, much more tolerant. And not as aggressive as he used to be. It may be just a sign of old age. I don't know how old Dick is. I'm 86. He must be around 80 now.

Ford:

Yes, I think he's just under 80.

Agnew:

Well I've always considered him sort of as a little boy, because when we started a relationship, which we did — I don't know, it was '46 or '47. I would be, in '47 — I would've been 26, I guess, 25 or 26, and he was probably in his late teens. So, you consider young people as really young, it makes quite a difference between teens and non-teens.

Ford:

He was astonishingly young to be a graduate student and to be in that environment.

Agnew:

There was a story when IBM was going to hire him — I don't know if you heard this — they worried about whether they should hire him. This was when he — we were both asked by Fermi to stay on and work with him. I didn't like Chicago, and I wanted to go back to New Mexico, because we were from Colorado. I just wanted to go back to New Mexico, so I turned the offer down, but Dick stayed on for a couple of years working with Fermi. Then he had this offer from IBM, and the story is that people at IBM went around asking if they should hire this guy. The story was, well, you'll be sorry if you do, but you'll be sorrier if you don't. [Jerry Kellogg, head of Phyics Division at Los Alamos, gave IBM this advice]

As an example, my wife's brother was president of IBM's federal systems division, who did military contract work. A lot of the government and military programs are just nonsense, and so Dick was very outspoken about some of them as being nonsense. But here he is an IBM employee who gave — I know my wife's brother part of IBM fits, because here's a technical authority from the same company saying what the company was competing to sell, whether it was Star Wars or space systems, as being nonsense. Even today, her brother says Dick really gave him problems.

Ford:

Dick has given me full access to his non-classified archives. It's a curse. It's too much. I'd love to have just lots of correspondence with him on IBM company matters. To say he was an outspoken employee would be an understatement. He would be writing memos saying such-and-such client achieves — I don't know what you call it — reliability with their IBM computers of such and such — and he said we can't even do half of that here at Yorktown.

Agnew:

He's very above board. Non political, in a business sense. He's — well, at least our relationship with he and his wife, he’s always been very, very nice.

Ford:

My biggest problem in doing the book is that he's just done so much in so many different fields. You have to explain to the reader the background of why the field is important and all of this, even before you can begin to say what he did. It's a very difficult challenge to make it interesting, but I guess my question to you would be, if you were going to pick three or four of the things that Dick did, what would be your pick of the top things to write about, or that you think people would —

Agnew:

I don't know. I can't think of anything that — well, he did a lot of things for the intelligence community that I don't know about, but I do know he was awarded one of their highest awards for some of the overhead satellite stuff. He figured out why the film was getting fogged and all that. He was putting in — I don't know whether they used polonium-210 to get rid of this static buildup. They used something to get rid of the static buildup on the film which was fogging everything. This was for the U-2 flights.

Of course, what was really just a schematic for the first hydrogen bomb — how much that was Fermi or how much that was Teller, I don't know. He does say that he drew this preliminary sketch. It's interesting — Dick I don't think has ever seen a nuclear explosion.

Ford:

That's what he told me also.

Agnew:

Yeah, which I, having — I guess I've seen everything — I've seen everyone 'till they quit testing. I find it sort of interesting that he's never seen one.

Ford:

I worked for many years as an investment banker here in Paris, and typically bankers, they just look at financial statements. They don't actually go visit the factory and all of this, but I liked to go out and see what I'm putting the bank's money in. Kick the tires.

Agnew:

I don't think he's ever done that. I don't think he's ever seen any of the real weapon systems being built or anything. I don't think he ever visited the old Rocky Flats. I'm not sure he's even seen the plutonium facility building pits at Los Alamos even today. I just don't know.

Ford:

I'll have to ask him.

Agnew:

Ask what hardware in the weapons field is really — he is unique. There are only eight people in the world, I guess, who belong to all three academies, and Dick is one of them. It's interesting that two of the others are here in San Diego at the University of California: San Diego, and they're both Chinese, Chinese descent. But Dick belongs to the Academy of Engineering, Academy of Science, and the Institute of Medicine. I only made two of them. I was surprised to know that he was in the Institute of Medicine.

Ford:

I haven't gotten around to asking him why.

Agnew:

I never figured that one out, but I think it had to do with — IBM sponsored a lot of research in that field, across the board. Maybe genome work. I don't know, but IBM — he evidently must have been IBM's point man, interacting with the biomedical community. They recognized how smart he was, and he was elected — it's a very small part of the National Academy system. Doesn't have a very large membership, so it was probably easy for him to be known by the majority of members. But that one's always baffled me.

Ford:

Who are the others of the eight people? Or just a few of them…

Agnew:

One of them is Bert Fung. F-U-N-G. The other's Hu Xing??, but I may get it wrong. If you get the National Academy of Sciences book — they put out an annual book of membership — they're in there. It lists those that belong to all three academies. There are only eight of them.

Ford:

It's quite a club.

Agnew:

Yeah, it's a unique club, but I'm amazed that two of them are here at UCSD and both are Chinese heritage.

Ford:

Coming back to what you said about being IBM's point man on biomedical things — looking at his correspondence and internal stuff, I haven't seen much overlap at all in —

Agnew:

I have no idea how this came about. I'm just suggesting this may have been it. I just don't know. But I think I once asked him, what the heck are you doing in that? I think he did say that IBM was supporting some particular type of research in the biomedical field. But I think it's through IBM that he was recognized as being very brilliant.

Ford:

He did things — nuclear magnetic resonance — and maybe it had something to do with MRI stuff.

Agnew:

One thing that always drove me wild, and I think a lot of other people — you propose something, you're going to do something. Well, you're doing something. Or you're making something. And he'll always tell you how you could — how it would be better if he did it his way. He's never been bashful about telling you that he has a better way of doing whatever it is. It doesn't matter. He's not quite as — how shall I say — aggressive in that manner as he used to be, but gosh, 10 or 15 years ago, no matter what invention or whatever you came up, he would always say he had a better way of doing it. Which bothered people.

Ford:

I've seen lots of correspondence of his when he's co-authoring articles or books with people, and all of the back and forth is very — generally unemotional. Saying no, it should be this way rather than that way, and the other guy says yes —

Agnew:

Very — not emotional at all. Just a statement of matter of fact. I don't think he puts anybody down. He just really believes what he's telling you. Sometimes he's right; sometimes he isn't right.

Ford:

Somebody was telling me that, for a brief period — I don't know if he was head of JASON or head of some committee of JASON or whatever — but they were saying it was a catastrophe when it came to his trying to hand out assignments to people, because it'd say this is thing that has to be researched. Well, of course he answered to it as such and such options and say that to all the people sitting around. And they say, what would you like us to do sir?

Agnew:

Anyway, he has, I would say, mellowed the last five or six years. But he's always been — I wouldn't call it criticizing, but when he does something, he isn't trying to put one down, he's just saying what he thinks. It's not personal, but of course it's always taken as being personal. If you tell somebody they're an idiot, you take it as a personal affront. But he's just stating a fact. You see what I mean? It's a context.

Ford:

I've had a great deal of back and forth with him, and I remember a couple years ago when I was first proposing to do the biography, I showed him a 20-page summary that I was giving to the publishers. I attributed to him having done such and such, and I got this screeching email back. It was totally wrong, he had never done a thing in that area, and this and that and whatever, and if I wanted to put stuff like that in, I should find a better use of my time.

Agnew:

Lucky, too, when he finally gets the final version and he has to agree to it.

Ford:

I sent him the reference. I didn't invent what — I was taking some material that was evidently wrong... But that sort of saved the day. I got slightly off the hook.

Agnew:

Good luck in your endeavor.

Ford:

This is great. I guess one other question I wanted to ask you was whether you had any photographs —

Agnew:

No, I don't.

Ford:

— from the good old days?

Agnew:

I don't have any photographs of Dick or their family. I'm sure I don't have any. Of course, we never vacationed or anything together, I don't think.

Ford:

I just didn't know whether there would be laboratory pictures in the laboratory…

Agnew:

I don't have any. I don't think Los Alamos has any, either.

Ford:

Speaking of Los Alamos and this schematic for the hydrogen bomb, I assume for very legitimate reasons — remains and will remain classified.

Agnew:

I don't know. I think some of the original sketches and stuff have been opened up, right? I would contact a man named Roger Meade at Los Alamos. He's the archivist.

Ford:

M-E-A-D?

Agnew:

E.

Ford:

M-E-E-D.

Agnew:

M-E-A-D-E, yeah. Roger Meade. He's the archivist. If you called, I think it's 505-667-5101, I think that's the number. That's the director's office, and they could direct you to Roger Meade.

Ford:

I was — wanted to see whether it would be possible to get a sanitized version of it, or if that wasn't —

Agnew:

Roger Meade would know.

Ford:

If that wasn't possible, the other thing I was thinking of asking was whether I could get some other people who do have clearances to read it and to describe exactly what was its actual role in the device that was actually finally built.

Agnew:

The only other living person who really knows would be Conrad Longmire, who lives in Santa Barbara.

Ford:

Yes, I've interviewed him.

Agnew:

Oh, OK. Fine. Conrad would know, and Marshall Rosenbluth would know, but Marshall's dead. But Conrad, if you talked with Conrad, that's the closest person as to knowing really what Dick did with regard to the first super.

Ford:

Longmire told me that he had gone back and looked and reread it, and said in fact that was the architecture of the device that was built.

Agnew:

Right, that's true. I spent, I don't know, three days with Conrad and Marshall Rosenbluth trying to figure out the roles of Teller and Ulam in the first design. We never could figure out who did what. It's just not in any documentation, but there is one interesting thing: a man named Keyworth who took — I invited Teller back to Los Alamos. He wasn't really allowed to come to Los Alamos, all the time from the Oppenheimer hearings until I became director, and I invited him back the first thing. He spent the summer there. Keyworth was his sort of keeper or host; you need a keeper for Edward. On a hike with Edward, Keyworth said that Fermi had suggested to him that he consider radiation as a mechanism for making a hydrogen bomb. But it's never been documented or said anywhere. Now, Keyworth is writing a book. Maybe it'll be in his book, but nowhere in any of the archives from the early days, as far as Longmire and Marshall and I could find, is any mention of a radiation mechanism to compress what needed to be done in hydrogen bombs. The only thing that I've heard was from Keyworth, who said that Teller said that, on a hike one time, Fermi suggested to him that he consider radiation.

I tend to believe this, because there's a book about women Nobel Laureates, and in that book there's a chapter on Maria Goeppert Mayer, and she described how she went into his office one day trying — just to talk to him. She had to go to his office. He couldn't stand smoking, and she smoked all the time, so she had to go to his place because hers smelled pretty bad. As she was leaving after discussing these strange numbers of neutrons and photons and nuclear — and how the numbers arranged themselves… As she was leaving he said, have you considered spin-orbit coupling? She went back to her office, and a half an hour later, that was the answer. She got a Nobel Prize for it. But it was just Fermi's way of — usually as conversations were ceasing — I guess he was thinking all the time — he'd say, have you considered this? And it would be the solution. So that's why I tend to believe when Keyworth said Edward said as they were leaving this hiking trip, have you considered radiation? That Fermi again was the guy.

Ford:

Dick told me that at some point Fermi had approached him and said, here's a problem. Why don't you work on this? Dick said he was doing something else. Two weeks later Fermi came back and said, what's the answer? And Dick said he hadn't gotten to it yet. So this woman graduate student also — and Fermi said to her, why don't you work on it? She won a Nobel Prize for it. Dick said he had kicked himself many times.

Agnew:

I guess the one thing Dick really wants is a Nobel Prize, but he's never really done anything — it's really the luck of the draw on that, having done something... Most of them really aren't so great in an absolute sense, but it's just that they did it first. Happened to do the right project with the right research. It might've been the Maria Goeppert thing, because I don't know of any other woman who got a Nobel Prize that was in Fermi's entourage.

Ford:

That's not my — I can't remember the precise name, but I will dig it out and see if we're talking about the same thing. But one of the questions I had about Garwin is that he's obviously very gifted at solving problems and finding the answers — but my questions is, how good is he at thinking up the important questions to address?

Agnew:

I just don't know. I don't think he has ever done anything in that sense of being the first one, but when a problem does arise, he's very good at tackling it, working on it. But I don't know of anything that he's ever initiated. For instance, we've had a lot of discussions on command-control in nuclear weapons, and I really invented or brought into being what we know as Permissive Action Links. PAL. Dick keeps saying, oh yes, he worked on that. He did this. But all of us who've been involved have really no recollection of his ever being involved. But when the subject comes up, he jumps on it. He really didn't initiate it.

Ford:

About 20 years ago I wrote a book called "The Button," about the command and control system. That was —

Agnew:

Anyway, what I did was all documented, and a cover letter from — if you send — I guess I have you email, I don't know — but I could send you this document which started the whole business of command and control, the way it's done now with us, Russia, any major power.

Ford:

That would be very interesting just to see.

Agnew:

I don't — you send me an email which has your email address, because I get confused in transferring — I know how, if I have a person's email address, then I can take this attachment and send it to you. But having to do the two things at the same, I'd screw up.

Ford:

So I'll send you an email asking for your paper on PAL.

Agnew:

Right.

Ford:

And we'll do it. We'll, it's a pleasure talking with you.

Agnew:

Likewise, and I expect a free copy of the book [laughter].

Ford:

Usually the way these books — the author ends up with hundreds of free copies sitting in the closet.

Agnew:

Should be made required reading for all members of JASON, past and present, and that will get you pretty good coverage.

Ford:

Good. Thank you very much. Bye.

Agnew:

Bye. [Abrupt end of recorded material]