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Interview of Jonathan Katz by Dan
Ford on 2007 August 30,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-14
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In this interview Jonathan Katz discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, JASON, acoustics.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.
This is Dan Ford, and I'm speaking with Dr. Katz on the 30th, maybe?
Yeah, it's the 30th.
And we're tape recording.
OK. The first you'd want to start with are things I have no first-hand knowledge of, because they occurred before I was born — or more likely in my childhood, some of them before I was born. Obviously I have no idea what people did in science or anything else. He was, I think, Enrico Fermi's student at Chicago, and the story is Enrico Fermi — who know of course all the great physicists of the 20th century from Einstein on — described Garwin as the only true genius he'd ever met. He's just — you can see it even today, when he's I guess 70 or past 70 — he's just the quickest — I mean, smartest is the only word you can use. Quickest… Do I want to say deepest? It's hard to say if he's the deepest, but certainly the quickest and most insightful mind that I've certainly ever seen and apparently Enrico Fermi, who has met everyone from Einstein on — had ever seen. So I've heard that probably nth-hand, but that's the really famous story.
Yeah, I'm interviewing Murph Goldberger, who's supposedly the one that Fermi said that to.
OK, well now you more about the story than I do. OK. Let's see: Sometime around the time he got his Ph.D., and I obviously don't know the details, Dick of course would.
I know the early part in the hydrogen bomb and that stuff — that I know.
He made major contributions to that. Now it's a pity that Marshall Rosenbluth isn't around, who was his coworker, to tell you what can be told. Quite apart from security restrictions, the simple fact that I wasn't there — so I don't know what Dick did. Marshall would have, but of course Marshall died within the last year. I don't know who else was there who's still alive. There may be such people, but I don't know who they are.
Then he is famous for work on the Corona project. Again, Sid Drell would be your best source for that. That was late '50s, circa 1960, and that's now all public. But then of course I wasn't there. Dick is in fact very closed mouth over what he's done at IBM all these years. Occasionally he talks about some things, I don't know really — have the faintest idea what he's done at IBM.
He did — he was very heavily involved in the laser printer —
Inkjet printer or laser printer?
No, the laser printer.
Laser printer, OK.
And the touch-screen computer.
I know he's talked about touch screens…
— … and about the various ways to do that, but I don't know any of the internal workings. It sounds to me like you know more about all this stuff than I do, and I'm not going to be very useful to you.
What is the part of it that you know firsthand?
I know him — firsthand, yeah, that's obviously the only thing you have any interest in hearing from me. I know him firsthand from my time in JASON, which goes back to 1974. In fact, all my contact with him has been through JASON. I remember an incident, I think it was that first summer of '74. We were studying high-powered lasers, and we had a brief — it was a long series of briefings. It was talks every day for weeks. We heard a briefing by some group from somewhere, and I don't remember where they were from, about some kind of laser — I don't even remember what kind of laser it was. It's been 30 years. These people just didn't understand something about their data. So they said, well, we observed this or that. Of course 30 years later I don't remember exactly what it was. And they said, I don't really know what happens here. Just we don't quite understand this. So Dick looked at it, and he said, I think your diffusion pump's stalled. And these guys looked at each other and thought for a moment, or maybe more than a moment, and they turned to him and said, you know, you're probably right. That's probably what happened. And it was just spectacular. Here he had only the roughest inkling — the roughest description of their experiment — yet he was able to see, to understand what was going on and to diagnose a problem that these people had come across weeks or months — probably months earlier. Of course they were the people who built the experiment and sweated over it day after day, and they hadn't been able to figure out what was going on. And he, with his marvelous flash of insight, having heard these people talk for half an hour or an hour, probably having seen these particular results for 30 seconds or 2 minutes or something like that, immediately realized what the problem was… Just truly spectacular. There's hardly anyone who can do anything like that.
In fact, I've heard stories — again, this is hearsay — that he'll go to Los Alamos, and there'll be a procession of people from all different parts of the laboratory — they'll come by to tell him what they're doing and tell him what problems they're having, and he will sit there and solve their problems for them. Obviously he can't solve every problem, but he'll have insight into an enormously broad range of things. So I've been seeing him work like this at JASON for 30 years now, and of course the first time this business with the stalled diffusion pump was — diffusion pumps, the point being diffusion pumps will pump at a very high speed but only if you get the gas density down, typically with a mechanical pump called a roughing pump to quite a low level first. If you try to pump more gas through them, they don't work at all. That's the expression used, is they stall.
I've seen again and again this sort of thing where they'll be some complex problem, and he will immediately go right to the heart of it in a way where — well, I've sort of tried to be his student for 30 years, and I hope I've learned something from him, but it’s absolutely spectacular to watch him in action.
Can you think of other examples like that?
Let's see. Oh, I can think of things — maybe not quite that dramatic. Perhaps it made a big impression on me because I'd never seen it before. First time I'd ever seen it, and I barely knew him. We were interested in the electromagnetic properties of a complex shape, of metal, and he immediately identified — without any calculations, analytics, numerics — the basic structure of the fundamental modes. Or, we were talking about electrostatic charging, and he immediately saw right to the heart of the problem and explained where you would get a discharge when something charges electrostatically and where you wouldn't. And you get a discharge when you bring dissimilar charged things back together, but not when you pull them apart. It's not even a discharge; you get a sudden flow of current. But this business with the stalled diffusion pump was — I mean, I knew something about diffusion pumps at the time. I worked with them in the laboratory, but it just — he had a flash of insight that was truly spectacular.
Have you worked with him on specific projects?
Yeah, a large number of them, and the problem is there's so many that — because we'll often work together — I'll often be involved in half a dozen projects in a summer, and he will be involved in another half dozen, and they overlap maybe two or three, and this has been for three decades. So it's very hard to pick out any one, but he has probably — he has the broadest knowledge of physics — and I don't just mean knowledge in the sense of knowing facts and numbers, but insight in different kinds of physics — that I've ever seen in anybody. There's a lot of physics — even some that are quite classical — that is really remarkably subtle, like electricity and magnetism, which I've taught for something like a decade or more. We all — all physicists know Maxwell's equations and generally write them down blindfolded, but the implications of Maxwell's equations, which although they're classical — they're not quantized, they're not relative — well, they implicitly include relativistic phenomenon… They look fairly simple, but actually because they're vector equations involving vector-partial derivatives in three dimensions — can be remarkably subtle. You can be a real method — you can do real tour de forces in mathematical physics and not have the feel for what these equations really imply.
It's not as if he were the only one in the world who has that sort of gut feeling for Maxwell's equations — microwave engineers have that gut feeling for Maxwell's equations because they work on microwave plumbing and wave guides and so on — but he has that gut feeling for everything from electricity and magnetism to statistical physics to nuclei to atoms to molecules. Just about any kind of physics — he's fundamentally an experimentalist at heart — that touches the real experimental world. He's unique in the world. At least, I've never heard of anyone who remotely approaches him in this.
In terms of the concrete projects that you've worked — that JASON has worked on, where you have seen him work… As I understand it, part of what JASON does is, I guess, serve as a reviewer or critic for government laboratories or whatever, and help people assess their projects and make recommendations. But I guess, call it the creative side of initiating new technology or a new approach by itself through one of these summer studies or something like that — have you seen him in action doing things like that?
The summer studies tend to be more of a review than invention from scratch. There you should really go to the major things, namely the hydrogen bomb and Corona, that he played very large roles in. Now Corona I believe is completely open these days, including the engineering details, because obviously the systems are obsolete and they haven't flown in decades. There are public books, and obviously I haven't gone to the trouble of reading them, but I'm sure they're on the web and so on. You could find out exactly what he did.
There's a new book about Corona by Philip Taubman I think. I haven't read it yet myself.
Yeah, I haven't seen it either, but there — between that and talking to the other people involved, most of whom are still alive, you should be able to find out exactly what he did. One of the things I remember him telling us was that their first 11 flights failed. The thing about failure is that — failure, you learn from failure. Or you should learn from failure. And if you do learn from failure, then it isn't a complete failure: It's useful, and often it's necessary. Complex things aren't going to work the first time. That's something that we often don't appreciate. It's easy to forget. The fact that you have big computers to simulate things doesn't — they also aren't completely reliable. I mean, the computers were reliable, but you can't always trust the results that come out, because they're only as good as the models you put in, which often — are always incomplete to some extent.
That's an important lesson, that if you want to make something really new work, you're going to get it wrong the first several times no matter how good you are. Something's going to go wrong, or probably go wrong quite a number of times. NASA doesn't seem to understand that, which is one of the reasons why NASA's in such deep trouble.
It's also, I think — Fermi said something criticizing the nuclear weapons programs, that they had very few duds, bombs that didn't go off. Fermi said that that meant they were just being too conservative. They weren't trying… a lot —
That's certainly a symptom of being very conservative, yes. That you don't get duds. That things work the first time — not quite every time, but almost every time. That's certainly true.
What is your own field?
By background, chiefly theoretical astrophysics, but I do a fair bit of applied physics on all sorts of other subjects, some of them actually quite odd. Like I'm just finishing a paper on the sound a basketball makes when you bounce it. Mostly because my 18 year old, who just walked out of the room, would bounce a basketball on the floor of our home, which is in St. Louis, and make a loud and fairly unpleasant thump. So I got tired of saying — Alexander, stop thumping; go outside if you want to thump — and decided to figure out why it made a loud thump.
It's not exactly serious physics, but it's sort of fun.
Well, it'll be serious if you get it right.
Yeah, well, you know. It's fun physics. It's the analog of what mathematicians call recreational mathematics. This is recreational physics.
Did you see — there was a — I don't know, there was certainly a documentary… I think there was actually a Scientific American article about — I don't know if it was a physicist — it was somebody trying to figure out what it was that made a Stradivarius violin sound…
Yeah, a lot of people have worried about that, in part because if you could duplicate them, they'd be worth a lot of money, but also because it's just a puzzle.
It was a PBS documentary of maybe 10 or 15 years ago, and the thing is, they couldn’t figure it out. Somebody bought 100 virgin violins — wood untreated — and they tried changing the glue, and changing the type of wood. The guy fiddled with every variable he could, and they put it through every type of sound analyzing program…
Part of the problem in that case is figuring out what you mean by 'good.' In that case it's somebody’s subjective judgment, and the problem may very well be quantifying what that subjective judgment responds to.
I don't know. If you're looking at basketballs…
There are a group of people — there are not very many, probably on the fingers of one hand — around the world, physicists who quite seriously worry about stringed instruments and what differentiates the great ones from the not so good ones. I'm practically tone-deaf myself, so I wouldn't understand any of that.
You'll stick to basketball thuds.
Yeah, right, I'll stick to the dull thumps in basketballs, right. Well, there the theory turns out to be very simple.
Has Dick helped you with your own work, or is he somebody you go to and say I'm doing this, this, and this?
I think a couple of times I've asked him questions that aren't about JASON, but I must say at the moment I can't remember what they were. It's probably happened. Obviously he's not an astrophysicist, so that sort of thing — it doesn't overlap with his areas of expertise. I've done things other than that. I've done things on fracture of glass, earthquakes and the dimensions of earthquake failures, and so on. I don't think, in general, I have asked him about non-JASON things, and the reason of course is that we're together at the JASON study, and we're not at other times. Of course we've got email and in the old days we certainly had the telephone, but I must say I don't recall having done so. I probably have, but not often. At the moment none of it sticks in my mind.
In terms of the studies — this summer's study — I had asked, but non-JASON people cannot attend. I had wanted to see him —
They're mostly classified, and even the ones that aren't are a bit proprietary. So that's unfortunately the case.
I wanted to see him in action, but I understand there was an unclassified session about the Iraq war and what lessons have been learned by the military. Were you at that?
I think I was. I wouldn't say it was a matter of what was learned, but sort of what was — we haven't learned — the things we haven't yet learned how to do, and we clearly need to do better.
I guess my questions was, did Dick make any contribution to that discussion?
I'm sure he did, but I must say nothing specific sticks in my mind. It's a matter where you're in a room for a couple of hours, and there's a fair bit of back and forth, and lots of people are contributing. I'd never be able to remember who said what.
In terms of his behavior with people, I hear all sorts of things, whether he's — is patient with people, or doesn't suffer fools well, or…
He can be impatient with people who don't pick things up quickly. That certainly has happened. He got into some big public controversies about ballistic missile defense a couple of decades ago. Some of it was a policy disagreement, and some of it was a certain degree of impatience with people — not scientists generally — but government bureaucrats who didn't quite appreciate some of the technical issues involved. When your mind goes faster than just about anyone else's, it's quite natural to get a little impatient occasionally.
It's a little bit like when you read about — I have no firsthand experience, of course — when you read about medical training. Some of them become a resident or even just in their clinical rotations in medical school — and the big doctor can be amazing impatient and amazingly, ferociously critical, but listen: These students or residents, they've got to learn to do it right. Otherwise they're going to kill somebody. And one of the ways you learn to do it right is, the people who teach you just make it clear that they will not tolerate any failure and any mistake. Of course they are very experienced, and they expect the doctors they're training to come up to their level of skill. Of course, as I've said, I have no firsthand experience, no medical education, but you read about it in the whole steady stream of books of how I became a doctor, or what my life as a doctor is like. They start out with medical school and their training. Often it's rather rough on the young people, but it's a necessary part of their training. It's quite natural and appropriate for a very accomplished, senior person to be impatient and occasionally intolerant of the mistakes of those who are less skilled, but it's a necessary part of training them. In fact, they should be grateful for that. Usually, after the training’s over, they are grateful, because they realize this is what taught them their skills.
Just going back to what JASON does —
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