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Interview of John "Mike" Cornwall and Malvin Ruderman by Dan
Ford on 2004 June,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/40912-2
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In this interview John "Mike" Cornwall and Malvin Ruderman discuss topics such as: JASON, Richard Garwin, IBM, particle physics, parity violation.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.
Could you tell me a little bit about what each of you do?
Go ahead, Mal.
Many years ago, I was an elementary particle theorist. In the early 1960s, I sort of drifted over into theoretical astrophysics. And that's what I've been doing since. Like all the members of this group, we tend to get together mainly in the summer to discuss problems which at least in the beginning for most of us were rather different from what we did in our academic life. So that's a question [44:40] what the JASON program is going to handle, if you're interested…
I know, in general, what JASON is. I was just mainly interested in what your core professional work was.
So I'm a particle theorist. That's what Mal says he was doing at the time. I also had a second career, which I'm no longer doing, which was in the space, astrophysics. Van Allen belt, magnetosphere, aurora, and so one. But that was secondary. The primary career is elementary particle theory, which I continue to do. And although I wasn't around at the beginning of JASON, the way Mal essentially was, just looking at the records, you see that in the beginning JASON basically was particle theorists. There were a few other people, but that was what it was.
JASON was mainly particle theorists. It was almost exclusively academics, and certainly people not working for profit-making institutions except for Dick.
But over the years, that's changed a lot. Have you talked to other people before us, JASONs?
So you know that we now have a complement of biologists, computer scientists; we even have a chemist. And even in physics, I and one other JASON are the only active particle theorists in the whole outfit, which is quite a change.
In the whole outfit of active members of JASON, we have more people that manage to find enough time to spend the summer.
The thing is, at this stage in my research in the biography, I'm basically trying to make a plan and do some sort of triage because Dick has been involved in so many different things that I would be writing a 5000 page book if I wanted to devote a page to each. So I guess the primary thing that I'd like to talk about to you is the same question I've been proposing to other people, just to give me their take on the man himself, and suggestions on the main projects that he's worked that I should be working on too for the book.
You've probably heard a lot of them by now.
There's a funny thing that you may run across. Maybe ten years ago, he was given an award by the CIA because he was instrumental in helping the first satellites get built for observation. So at that time, somebody was putting together a videotape for the award. They had asked a bunch of JASONs what they thought of Dick. Three of them independently told the same story. You've heard that?
Well, the story is this: You'd have to imagine Dick in the 18th century, in France, a revolutionary figure of some kind, and he unfortunately gotten to the point where he's going to be guillotined.
Oh, this story.
You know that story?
Yes. That was actually in Science magazine about 20 years ago.
The point of my telling it again is that there are certain things that are very well-known about Dick, and we need not repeat them all. But the other thing that you've probably heard about him that is very well known is what Fermi said about him. He was the only true genius he ever met.
There are people who feel that he should have shared the Nobel Prize for parity violation because he was working with Madame Wu, and people like that at Columbia at that time. He is a very remarkable man.
Dick chose a rather different professional path from most of his peers. He did not go into an academic position. He went to IBM after the University of Chicago. There's always been more applied bent to his research than let's say Fermi’s own kind of work. I've always wondered what it would have been like had he stayed more at the cutting edge of fundamental physics, which he often does things in.
He's done that over the years, not only his work on parity violation, but in gravitational wave detection. Do you know about that?
He's been quite extraordinary. I have no doubt, for example, that had he stayed — he'd also worked with liquid helium. Had he stayed in one of these more fundamental fields, he certainly would have been a Nobel Prize winner.
I noticed in one of the citations that he belongs to the National Academy of Medicine. Why?
I don’t know the specific reason. He's the only man who's a member of all of them.
I often think, looking at the various things that he does, I wonder whether he couldn't be convinced to do more in medicine. If it's a service to criticize and review the work of the National Laboratories in physics-related…
It's not just physics anymore.
Well, not anymore, but if it's a work, if it's a contribution to do that type of criticism, you know the National Institute of Health and the medical research operation.
I don't think it's so much a matter of choice; I think — I don't know of anybody whose physical energy is so committed already. I just don't know if he has any additional time. Even within JASON, for example, he doesn't tend to get involved in the…
He stays strictly away from biology, and even about ten years ago, I as a physicist ran a study on certain medical diagnostics — including ultrasound and MRI. He stayed away from that, too. That's interesting because he came very close to inventing MRI well before it actually was invented. He sort of vaguely understood there was a way you could extract more information out of MRI signals. But he never followed it up. If he had, he probably would have invented it.
Does he have somebody that reviews what he does, and gives him suggestions?
I doubt it.
The same with JASON reviewing the work of other people, etc.
No, he wouldn't need anybody to do that.
For most of us, it's done — if you want to get support for your research, you do perpetual peer reviews. Working within IBM had, I think, a way in which he didn't have to undergo such reviews all the time. He'd get support for what he thought was interesting research to be done.
Did he have a free hunting license?
I think they must have appreciated it early in his career.
Given what Fermi had already said.
If he wants to do it, he should do it. He's had to be careful, in his life, a little bit. Because in fact, he did work through IBM and yet he spent so much effort in places like JASON; he had to make a bit of a Chinese wall so that IBM did not necessarily benefit directly from the sort of work he was doing, which gave them a great deal of need-to-know of what was going on.
I knew about some of the things that he had done, but I had often wondered exactly what did he do for IBM? But I found out about his work on laser printers and touch screen computers.
The touch screen that we’re all used to — it's a casual remark… oh yes, I toyed with it. IBM… [???]
He has patent after patent on things that are of interest to IBM.
He also has a patent on a device for washing mussels. Edible mussels. He had a neighbor who kept giving him mussels.
I see. I didn't know about that one.
I remember he said — and I just found it astonishing. Somebody held up a piece of machinery, and Dick immediately said, "Oh that's the so-and-so of a such-and-such of a Xerox machine."… in the rest of it. Very little idea of what goes on inside a cabinet.
I remember visiting somebody else's office with Henry Kendall, circa 1970, and the Xerox machine was off-kilter or something. And he said, "Oh, let me take a look." It says, don't open, don't touch. He takes out his Swiss Army knife. And these people were horrified that someone would dare touch something as sacred as the innards of a Xerox machine. He said, "Oh, it's this device. It's bent." And now it’s bent the right way.
Par with the guillotine joke, whenever we have a speaker and the viewgraph machine is not behaving properly, Dick would always go up while the speaker was speaking turn the right… [???]
Here's a non-attribution story.
I think we might have to move the microphone back and forth while each of you is speaking.
Anyway. This is many years ago, here in La Jolla. The place we were renting had a television set with one of these monitoring boxes at the top, and it wasn't working well because the picture was flickering and then working and then flickering. Dick looked at the box, turned it upside down, and then he did just what you or I would have done. He lifted it up and then said, "Fuck it." Not really his word. And then broke it. But that was a good thing to do, because then you could call the people who rent the TV and say it's broken. Otherwise, they would never get it fixed.
Henry Kendall told me that the first thing you do with a piece of electrical equipment that isn't working is you hit it, and hit it hard.
It's because we all grew up with vacuum tubes. Nowadays, you don’t do that. In the old days, that used to work a bit with vacuum tubes. Shake them up, and it would be a good chance it would work.
It's hard to think of things to say that you probably haven't heard.
That's okay. Anything I've heard of, I'll tell you.
It may be useful that you hear the same thing from lots of people, such a unanimous…
Also it's a matter of trying to find the best phrasing and whatever to present it. For example, (I’m not a physicist) this experiment about parity violation. I really don't understand it. I've already asked two or three people to explain it to me, and they have, but I haven't yet found something that I can say, "Ah, that's the best way to present it to non-technical audiences."
Roughly speaking, it's as if you were to look into a mirror, and things weren't quite right. Parity is talking about the reflection of things and mirrors, actually. But the point is that the technical details are really irrelevant. It was that parity is a symmetry which is akin to looking in mirrors and seeing exactly what you normally do see. You just move your hand, and then the hand in the mirror moves and all that.
And it had just been something taken for granted.
It had been taken for granted, in spite of the fact that another great physicist named Dirac had once said, "Why should parity be conserved?" He didn't see any good reason for that.
But [there was] an experiment that had been done, which clearly hadn't been considered. But that got explained away.
Right. They said it was a bad experiment.
So in the 50s, there was a certain anomaly in the decay of a certain elementary particle, and people said, "I don't know how to explain that unless there must be two of these particles: one doing one thing, and one doing the other." And finally, some very smart people figured out nobody has ever really tested parity correctly, and we ought to see whether parity is conserved, because maybe that will explain this problem.
So this all was going on at Columbia.
It was a collaboration between the National Bureau of Standards and Columbia… cryogenics…[???]But there was an easier way to have done it.
That Dick realized, yeah.
It was done in one evening.… a bit later.
I don't know how much you talk to Dick; you probably talk to him pretty regularly. You got his story on the parity violation and all that?
His explanation of it is a bit hard to understand.
Right, because these mirrors in particle physics aren't the kind of mirror that we’re used to looking at. But anyhow, he once wrote an article for a journal, and he gave me a copy of it. And it explains the excitement about the experiments that Madame Wu was doing and that he was doing. And if he hasn't given that to you, make sure he does give it to you.
I haven't seen that. I have not yet started going through his papers.
Have you talked to Leon Lederman?
Leon Lederman was involved.
He's on my list.
Good. Because he was the collaborator with Dick.
But this article that I'm talking about was kind of a historical/biographical note about this era. And it's authored by Garwin and nobody else. And so you might want to ask him about it.
The experiment's a simple experiment. He had a little spinning top—meson—it’s going to decay into other particles. Particle one goes that way, and particle two goes that way. It should, in parity it would be equally likely if particle two went that way and particle one went here.
Which was, in a sense, the mirror image.
So anyhow, you know the history. Dick's history. We don't have anything new to add about that. He's a singularity even in JASON, where there are a lot of smart people. He just knows all of the applied science so extremely well. And he can be very intimidating to these people who come and brief us, as you probably have heard, too. In the days when people used viewgraphs, they don’t use them anymore, Dick would walk in late, and he would take the viewgraphs that the guy had shown and the ones he was going to show, and he would flick through them all, and make an instantaneous decision as to whether he was going to stay or not, and then put them back. And often when he did stay, he would begin to point out many deficiencies and errors in the briefer's presentation. It could be very stressful for someone who is not really well-prepared.
On the other hand, if somebody is doing a good job presenting the science and the results, he's very happy with it. He's not just a grouch or something like that.
I remember one time I interviewed him when I wrote a book about the Strategic [Automated] Command and Control system. And I was telling him how I had been up to the SAC headquarters in Omaha, and I wanted to see this Looking-Glass plane that they kept in the… kept one of them in air all of the time. So they let me see one. They put an extra one on alert so I could see one. So the plane had these big posters. I said to the PR officer, "Is somebody going to read to me what is on those posters?” And “Yes, yes.” I said, “Why don't you just send me a copy of them; I'd rather just talk to the crew."
So I talked to the crew. It was actually quite interesting because they had, for example, this low-frequency antenna that was like their last-ditch method of sending a launch order. And they would unreel it behind the plane. It was two kilometers long or something like that. So I'm just talking to the technician who's in charge of operating that device. And he just says, in passing, "But we never let it out over land in peacetime." And I said, "Why not?" "Oh, a lot of people could be hurt if it falls off." And I said, "Does it fall off?" And he said, "Oh we lose a wire from time to time." The PR officer is flinching.
Dick was a member in the President Science Advisory Committee, when they existed, and had a certain role in that. And he did get involved in the SST program, which is this country decided not to go into it. I thought it was the right decision…. But anyway, you know all this.
Yes. No, if the country wanted to speed up air travel, they should have put money into improving baggage handling.
Well, Delta Airlines is… better…
Are they better?
I read some interesting statistic. Out of every 80 bags, only one gets mis-sent. But it costs them over $100 each time such an error is made. So it is financially worthwhile radio tagging each piece of luggage.
I was talking with a man who was the chairman of Air France, and he said one of the first things he did when he became the chairman of Air France was to take a tour of the facilities around the world. The first leg of his voyage, he was flying first class, they lost his baggage. He decided personally to put more emphasis on the baggage system.
I think the first airline that automates enough, and then becomes wise enough to say the first people to put their luggage on will be the first people to get it off, because we all know it tends to be the opposite direction, is going to get extra customers.
The people who I've encountered who had the most sensible baggage system that I have seen were the Russians. The Russian equivalent of the 747. The passengers walk in the stairs up through the belly of the plane. The walk through the baggage compartment, and they can bring as much as they want. They can also check bags, but they can leave as much as you want. It was the only efficient thing in the Soviet Union that I saw.
Cross your fingers the plane won't crash.
Well that’s the other problem.
I was trying to think of — the only stories you wouldn't have heard about Dick are the stories that involve JASON itself. And for all that he’s the singularity in JASON, I can't think of anything that stands out as a human-interest story.
I'm trying to think of pictures that flash in my mind of Dick. I [???] meetings, I think it might even been an all-day JASON meeting. And at the end of the day you're exhausted and get on an airplane. Ah, God at last! Dick puts the light on, takes out his briefcase and starts working on something else. Just astonishing.
The motivational factor, or personal factor, that keeps him going — I have never met anybody else…
I don't think it's motivation in the sense that somebody is motivated to be a movie star to make a billion dollars. He can't help it. That's the way he is. He can't help being a genius. You just are. You can't help having a capacity, an infinite capacity for work.
They're not always married together, the infinite capacity to work.
But he just doesn’t get tired the way other people do. On the other hand, he certainly enjoys himself at times and he loves to eat well and have some good wine.
We're having a July Fourth picnic, and I'll give you two guesses as to who is one of the organizers is to ensure it all goes well, and everybody can get their assignments.
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to head on back, and I don't think — I'm trying to think of something that really captures the spirit of Dick that you haven't already heard.
I can imagine. Everybody here has seen him in the same context for the same number of years. I think I've talked to about a dozen people. I must have the JASON sense.
But did you get any good JASON stories?
The one story is the story about three people repeating the same joke.
There are lots of things. Actually, the most interesting person that I talked to was his wife.
She would have a lot of stories.
I think two of his kids are coming out next weekend. I know they're coming; it's only a question of the date.
I heard that his family was coming after July 17th.
I'll be gone by then.
I'll join you in a few minutes.
Sure. Do that.
I want to hear. There's a one o'clock, but it won't start on time.
I'm afraid I wasn't very much help, but I hope… I look forward to reading your book.
I'll just stay a few minutes longer in case you have any things that pop in.
I've known Dick a lot. His wife and my wife are friends. I would be reluctant — I have nothing negative to say. But if I did, I think I would be reluctant to say it.
The only thing that people say negative is how the younger Dick used to just outsavage people.
Dick, like most people in the world, as they get older, accept the fact that he is a better physicist than almost everybody he meets, and he's become very much more tolerant.
I had met him before, but I never knew him very well. I was a little bit nervous and I thought, oh my God…
We used to see this in I.I. Rabi who is much older — the stories one used to hear about when he was much younger.
He's a very principled person, Dick. I’ve noticed that. The world shifts, and Dick tends to be more of a fixed point than most people I know. Even in a political sense, he was more — again, this is not for attribution, but I would say he was among the more conservative in the political sense of people I knew in the world. And the world has gotten to be in this country a good deal more conservative, and now Dick is being attacked… for staying where he was.
He has been for many years, an adjunct professor at Columbia.
What does adjunct mean?
Well, I'm not sure what it meant when it first started. It came to mean, technically, in recent years, someone who is teaching a course at a university who is not a member of the university faculty. For many years before that, it meant somebody who could take PhD students, because the faculty would treat them as one of their own with respect to that, even though he was not a member of the university faculty. Dick became an adjunct professor even before that and I don’t really know… We want you to be one of our colleagues; unfortunately you're not. He was working for IBM.
IBM, in the beginning, had a good fraction of its research effort in pure physics on 115th Street. And then they moved it up to Yorktown Heights. So he was physically much closer to Columbia, had much more interaction with the department and so on. That had both good and bad features because it meant that the physics department at Columbia did not go into those subjects which were well-covered by IBM, like solid state physics. Columbia had very little representation.
And the superconducting computing that he worked on, has that gone anywhere? I'm not sure what superconducting computing is. Does that mean low-temperature or something?
It would mean low-temperature and wouldn't generate much heat and things of that sort. I don't know the answer.
Computers are developed in ways that were not predicted very early. That is to say there they used to be vacuum tubes… and how many you can gather together without making it too hot. They became very much more efficient. But I don't know the answer to that question.
I have several hours scheduled with him tomorrow.
I'll get it then.
Well, I'm glad you're doing it, because…
[Interview ended abruptly and a new voice chimes in (maybe over a phoneline)]