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Interview of Jeffrey L. Garwin by Dan
Ford on 2007 January 16,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/40219-6
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In this interview Jeffrey Garwin discusses topics such as: his father Richard Garwin, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, hydrogen bomb, summers in Los Alamos (New Mexico), Judaism, JASON, Harold Agnew, Bernd Matthias, Edward Garwin (Richard's brother).This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.
Okay, this is an interview with Jeffrey Garwin on January 16, 2007. This can be on or off the record or if you want to say something off the record, just say that and it will be noted as such. I guess maybe to start, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself. I understand you're a medical doctor but I don’t know too much more about you.
Okay. I don’t know. Saying I'm a medical doctor is sort of stretching a point. I went to college at Stanford and got a Bachelor's degree in chemistry. And then after that, I went to Yale. And through a slightly winding route, managed to end up with both an MD and a PhD from Yale. My PhD is in lipid biochemistry. And my MD, I never did an internship or a residency afterwards.
Aha, I get it.
I went straight into research. I did a post doc at Harvard for a couple years and then went into industry. So I've been in industry since 1982. My first job after being in academia was at Biogen in Cambridge.
That’s right down the street from me.
I imagine it is. If you're in Cambridge, it's down the street from almost everybody.
That’s right. And your sister used to live down the street from me.
Uh-huh, yeah, well she lived right off… I forget which one… no not Porter, Central Square.
That’s funny. Good. Well in terms of the biography, I'm trying to figure out, of course, what makes your father tick.
Have you ever wondered about that or figured it out?
No, I don’t think I've figured it out. I guess I've wondered… My impression, partially based on what he said, is that he just likes solving problems. And I don’t know why he likes solving problems so much. I think I sort of… I like doing the same sort of thing. I'm not in physics of course, but… I think he just likes doing it to show he can a lot of the time. So it's a cross between trying to figure out how things work and then figuring out how to fix them when they don’t.
He has gotten into the biography business rather slowly in the sense that at first, he wanted it to be what he called a scientific biography. And I said what is that? I said the biography is about a person. You have to know something about the person, not just providing a summary of what they said in technical meetings or what they wrote in technical journal. And so I was at your homestead in Scarsdale in October and so he finally produced a big batch of documents and, you know, an essay or something that he wrote when he was I guess about sixteen or something.
Oh my goodness.
And it begins with saying is, you know, what I want to do is to be challenged. And that does seem pretty consistent thing about his life.
Yeah. I don’t know whether he really… I don’t know whether he likes being challenged. I think he likes facing challenging problems. I really do think he likes figuring… which I think is slightly different.
Yeah, that's what I misstated, I didn’t say it very well. No, I think your interpretation is correct.
So, you know, the harder the problem, the happier he is. And… but he'll go looking for problems. In other words, I mean just on a… from the time… I don’t know… from the time I can remember, I probably have a different experience of my dad than my brother or sister do because I'm on the oldest. And I don’t remember him traveling very much when I was young, before I was in high school. So I graduated high school in 1967. So that would… And as far as I remember, he didn’t get involved in President’s Science Advisory Committees or anything until about, oh '63 or so, which would correspond with when I started high school.
And at first I don’t think they did very much traveling. You know, he would go down to Washington and come back up. And the traveling I did with him was when we… I think every summer of my life until I was about eight, so eight summers in a row for sure, I was… I spent in Los Alamos, which was great for a kid, I mean there's nothing better than Los Alamos for… there was nothing better for a kid than Los Alamos in the 1950s. I have very fond memories of that.
So he would work at the lab during the day and I hadn't the foggiest idea about what was going on except my earliest memory of Los Alamos is driving up the hill and sleeping in the back of the car and being awakened when we came to the checkpoint where there were these spotlights and guys with machine guns, so.
Yeah. Whoa. I don’t remember how old I was then. I was very young. I was, you know, three or four I would guess. But you know, I got to spend my days exploring the canyons and playing with friends and riding bikes and stuff like that. My dad would come home fairly early from the lab and he had lots of friends in Los Alamos and they would all come over and some of them were pretty famous people. I saw… I'm sure I saw a couple Nobel Prize winners in Los Alamos and lots of other people who were just plain famous. Of course I didn’t know them then, I just categorized them as whether I liked them or not.
Were they fun to play with. So… but so that was the kind of traveling that he did when I was… that’s the kind of traveling I remember him doing is that we would go someplace, we would go to Los Alamos for the summer. We would go to visit family in Cleveland. And so he wasn’t doing his globetrotting consulting routine until after I was much older and even out of the house. So I don’t have much of a memory of that. But even on the trips around New Mexico, he would always be pointing out different geological formations and how they happened and, you know, looking at people's houses and seeing if there were cracks in the foundation, trying to figure out how he would fix them and all this other stuff.
I remember when… there's a joke which I heard… which I first heard told about my father, which I have since learned is a standard engineer joke. And basically three guys are doomed to… are condemned to die by guillotine —
Ah yes, I've heard this.
You know, that one. And that was the first joke I ever heard of my father. But that’s very characteristic of him. Put me face up, I think I see what you're problem is.
Well, I mean… Once you were old enough, did he talk much about the actual work he was doing, because a lot of it was classified so he couldn't talk about it.
Hardly any. I think I was probably the youngest kid in the block to understand what classified work was. Namely, that I didn’t know anything about it and was never going to know anything about it. It was… all I knew is… I would know after the fact or, you know, when something was published, he would occasionally say oh yeah we’ve been working on this project for a while and we just, you know, released it, you know, the big… all the antisubmarine warfare stuff which apparently he's been doing forever. I was aware that he worked on some anti-submarine warfare issues, but I still don’t know anything about what he did.
It was a real revelation when he got the award from the… what, the [R.V. Jones Intelligence Award] National Security Administration, NSA, [CIA, actually] whatever their acronym is, for the work on the spy satellites. You know, I didn’t know he had anything to do with that. He… actually occasionally… before that, the only thing I remember is that he would occasionally come up with information about how these spy cameras worked. And I would think that’s pretty neat, how'd he know that? You know, but he's a physicist, he knows everything. But you know, he never let on as to what he was doing. He would sometimes mention that he was going to a meeting and he had this committee and he would mention some of the names of the people on the committee, but as far as I knew, they were just regular old physicists.
And your picture was in the New York Times. You were sitting on his shoulders.
Oh yeah, he used to do that with me all the time.
In Los Alamos.
Yeah, he used to do it when I was little and there was an apartment in New York and we had a… we had one of those china cabinets, you know, for mostly… people used to use them for displaying china, you know, so it was glass on three sides. And there was a top which was a little bit ornate, you know, it had carving and whatnot on the top of it. And he would carry me on his shoulders around the house and they would store things out of my reach on top there. And so he would bring me over to the cabinet and let me pick stuff up off the top of the cabinet. So this was something he used to do all the time with me.
But when did you find out about his work on the hydrogen bomb?
When did I find out about that? I think I found out when I was in high school. And the reason… I finally pieced it… I think I finally figured it out when… I think I knew about it, I knew everything about it, as much as I am ever going to know, I found out when I was probably in college or in graduate school. But I think I found out about it in the sixties when my dad found himself on the opposite side of disagreements with Edward Teller about the use of tactical nuclear weapons and the anti missiles, anti-ballistic-missile systems and things like that. And things got pretty intense.
And so there was a little bit of, you know, credential warring between people who liked my dad's point of view and people who liked Edward Teller's point of view. And so at that time, it came out that my dad had designed the trigger for the hydrogen bomb. But for all… you know, those were the years that I was having so much fun spending summers in Los Alamos.
So that’s how much I knew. You know, the highlight of summer is when he brought a bat home from the steam tunnels in Los Alamos.
I see. Because your mother told me that there were some conference in Erice in Sicily.
In I guess about 1981. And Teller was there and pointed to your father sitting in the audience and described his work on the hydrogen bomb. And your mother said that was the first time that she knew.
Well that would correspond to my memory of being… the first time I really knew about it, you know, because I… that was… I finished graduate school in… all of my graduate education in '79. So I do know… I know for sure that that’s when I knew that he did the trigger. Before that, I knew he had worked on the hydrogen bomb, I just didn’t know what he had done. And from the people… When I was a kid in Los Alamos, I mean lots of people came over. There's actually… I believe there's a picture of Enrico Fermi playing with me on the floor of one of the houses or apartments we rented in Los Alamos.
And he was playing with a toy of mine which I liked, but my father thought it was really cute and apparently so did Enrico Fermi. It was a little thing shaped like a drum and that’s all it looked like, a little drum. And it had a magical property and that was if you rolled it on the floor away from you, it would roll back. So this was a very interesting thing for a physicist to play with. Not only physicist's children, but physicists. So you know, I met Fermi, at that time there were… Hans Bethe was in Los Alamos and I met him. I met… I'm willing to bet I met Oppenheimer but I don’t remember him.
I mean, I remember Bethe. Harold Agnew is still a very good friend of my parents. I like Harold Agnew a lot. And who else was there? I'm blanking on the names. Zachariasen., I remember him. There were some other… But as I recall, all of those people worked on the… either the Manhattan Project, the hydrogen bomb, or both. So I knew these people. I don’t remember Edward Teller, but that doesn’t mean he never was there. So I just… These people, I knew as sort of friends of my father's who he talked with at Los Alamos.
I didn’t realize… I knew before that he had worked at Los Alamos in like the summer of '51 and the summer of '52. But I didn’t realize that he had been working at Los Alamos throughout the fifties.
Oh yes. Definitely. I am absolutely sure of that. I mean, I had enough time… I was there every summer… As I said, I was there, I believe every summer until the summer of 19… through the summer of 1958. I don’t think we were there in '59 because we went to Geneva, Switzerland starting in the Fall of '59. But I'm not absolutely positive. And then a couple summers we went back, but never for as long. Although I do remember one summer when I was in medical school, my parents were spending essentially all summer there because I went out to stay with them for a couple weeks. But I had friends there. I mean, I knew the Agnews… well the Agnews' son mostly. And there was another family that was from Los Alamos… two other families from Los Alamos that we used to spend a lot of time with, with the kids… everybody used to spend time with. So I'm pretty sure that we were there.
I'll have to ask him more about what he was doing. I've talked a lot about the initial work on the hydrogen bomb, which was in fact much more than the trigger. He actually came up with the engineering design for the whole thing.
Wow, that’s nice. No, he never told me that. I never knew that.
But the next year, he did something which was from a military point of view, probably more important than the initial design. Because the initial device was humongous. I forget how many tons it weighed.
Yeah, he did mention to me that he miniaturized… he made them a lot smaller.
Yes and… well and then the next year [actually the same summer — 1951], he came up with a design that was actually something you could put in an airplane, just one, but that was the thing that permitted the thing to made into a useable weapon. But I will have to ask him if he can talk about it, what he did at Los Alamos in the rest of the fifties.
Yeah, I don’t know what it was. I recall all of his… he and all of his buddies were in T-Division, theoretical… I think it was T as in theoretical. But I'm not absolutely sure.
I don’t know either.
I don’t know what projects he was working on or anything. I just got to, you know, ride my bike, play tennis, swim in the high school pool, explore the canyons.
I've never visited Los Alamos, but I think I should just to…
Well you should except … I actually did this just a couple years ago and I had not been back for a very long time. And it was distressing for me because of two things. One, there was that huge fire in Bandelier National Park and it was a … good old U.S. Forest Service, really blew it. They were going to do a controlled burn and they succeeded only halfway. They did a burn. And it extended all the way up to Los Alamos. I mean, they had these gorgeous ponderosa pines that were… I don’t know how old they were. They looked… they were really tall and they were… it was just beautiful. And when I went there, it was really sad. The forests were burned right up to some of the houses, not very many houses —
Yeah, not very many houses were lost, but it was right up to the developments where the houses were. And it was… you know, that was one of the neat things about that environment were these beautiful tall ponderosa pines. And I drove… you know, I drove the back way down to Bandelier and I was just horrified. It was just so sad. So that was one thing. And then the other thing that’s happened is I don’t know whether it's because, you know… White Rock didn’t even exist when I first started going out there, it's sort of a mini housing development down the road from Los Alamos, a little lower elevation, and there's another one called Barranca Mesa, and I don’t know where that is.
But people started building really nice homes there. For a long time, the whole of Los Alamos was a company town, I mean it was the U.S. government town. And it was all this very nondescript plain housing and it was sort of… it was getting kind of ratty. And so people decided first in, I believe it was the sixties, they were for the first time offered the right to buy the houses they lived in. I mean, some people had been living there for twenty years, but they had to rent from, I think, the Zia company was the government owned entity that was responsible for maintaining all the houses and whatnot.
And they were finally able to buy those. And so a lot of people did but a lot of other people said, you know, it's just not worth it, we’re going to build our little palaces down the road. And when I went, I was… it sort of looks like a high altitude slum in places now. So it doesn’t look anything the way I remember it. So that was sad too. So between the sort of… the environmental degradation due to the fire and, you know, the degradation of human habitation, it just wasn't nearly as nice as I remembered it.
Maybe I won’t go. I mean, I'd like to go to Cleveland for example, you know, just to walk around and go to the high school he went to and go visit the orphanage where your grandfather…
Actually, my dad told me… he was telling me that you had found out about the… a little bit about the orphanage and my grandfather had told me a story which apparently he had never told to my father. And that was that the guy… all I remember was his first name, Harry, the guy who basically mentored my grandfather. He and my grandfather, I guess this guy was… I don’t know how much older he was actually than my grandfather. But they had… Harry had a motorcycle, which my grandfather helped him build and maintain. And in those days, you know, I guess it was probably 1910 or so, is my guess, you know, motorcycles were pretty new.
So my grandfather apparently was active in this shop where… at the orphanage and one of the things they used to do was tinker with this motorcycle. And so they used to do all sorts of things on this motorcycle, one of which was there was this great big… my grandfather described it as a great big ditch or a trench outside the orphanage. And their goal was to be able to ride the motorcycle down one side of this steep ditch and successfully negotiate it to the top of the other side. And a lot of the times they just sort of fell over backwards, you know, halfway up apparently. So he used to do that.
The other thing, and I don’t know whether this is true or not, but he said that they used to play this game on the motorcycle where one of them would drive and the other one would sit on the back and the only thing that was unusual about this game is the guy on the back would cover the eyes of the person driving and only give verbal directions on where to turn. So the image of my grandfather doing this was just too much for me when I was little.
Yeah, so I remember… You forget how… or you fail to imagine how the people you know later in their life must have been when they were much younger. And I remember, you know, saying to my mother when she was ill and she was just going up and down the stairs, you know, just saying something. And I said oh you're doing very well today. And she said, you know, I used to climb stairs two at a time. And to me, it was just so shocking to imagine my mother doing something like that. But she was of course speaking of when she was ten.
And I know when I interviewed your sister, I was talking about this Bellefaire place and some sociologist wrote a book about it. And it was saying how this place was initially built for the orphans of Jewish Civil War veterans. And it was apparently, you know, for the era, a very enlightened place and, you know, trying to be very experimental as far as educational system and so forth was concerned. But then over the years, it was sort of radically transformed and, you know, several changes of administrators and so forth. And it became more of a penal colony than of a… you know, a progressive outfit. And it was talking about how the… you know, parents… like your grandmother was not allowed to visit him, you know, except for two weeks a year, even though she lived in Cleveland.
Uh-huh, yeah, I didn’t know that. But I did know that she had moved from Chicago just to place, I guess, my grandfather and I guess two of his brothers in the orphanage… or one of them.
One of them… your uncle Lou.
Uncle Lou was there, I know he was there. Because Abe and… who was the oldest one, stayed home.
And the… you know, the conditions were terrible in the… there was very little food and the students, you know, were always trying to escape and foraging in the neighborhood for food and…
Oh my goodness.
All of this. And there were some kid quoted in the book, from his diary, and it said a rat ate my orange. And but so your sister was sort of shocked by this and she told your father and he said oh that can’t possibly be true and his father never mentioned it. And I said well… I said I'll send you a copy of this book, which I did, and I said the… one of the main documents… pieces of documentary evidence about what life was like was a two hundred page journal kept by your uncle Lou.
Yeah, I read that book when I was home one time. And my father had said that he was surprised to learn that Uncle Lou had made this… had written this thing up. And apparently it had been sort of… it had been quasi published, I don’t know where it was kept, where the manuscript was, but yeah, we never knew about that until you pointed it out to us.
Yeah, so I'm going to try to go to Cleveland and I spoke to the sociologist who wrote the book, who was quite pleased that somebody read his book.
You can tell him that at least four people have read it.
At least four people have read it now. And in terms of what usually passes for sociology, it was very well done, it didn’t have all of this usual pseudo scientific gobbledygook. It told a very straightforward story. But it was just very interesting.
Yeah well my grandfather never told me very much about it. He told me about Harry and his motorcycle. And my recollection is that he really… I'm pretty sure my grandfather actually graduated from Case.
Yes he did.
And that he attributed his going to university to Harry… to Harry's influence.
And was Harry a student or just a young faculty person or…?
I think he was a young faculty person that… that’s why I'm not clear as to how much older he was than my grandfather. I got the impression he might have been only five or six years older. And his name is in that book, in that sociology book, it's like Harry Gidelson or something like —
I'll have to look it up.
He plays very… he's very prominent in that book. I was surprised. His last name begins with G and I can't remember whether it's… it's like Gidelson or Ginsberg or something like that. And he… and it was clear to me that it was the same guy. You know, he worked with… he wasn’t a dean, he was like head of the machine shop or something. And he did some other stuff. So he befriended my grandfather. And the other thing… the other story that my grandfather… the only other story my grandfather told was that apparently occasionally they went on trips out of the orphanage to other places. I forget where they went. They might have gone back to Chicago, I don’t know.
But they stayed in a YMCA and the YMCA had showers which had a curtain rod across the shower. And my grandfather told me that he used to amuse his fellow orphanage mates by doing giant swings on the shower rod. Which was hard for me to imagine, given that my grandfather was probably five nine and must have weighed 220. You know, he was very rotund at the time I knew him. And so the image of him doing giant swings was just too much.
I'm sure he wasn’t that heavy then.
Well that wouldn’t correspond with the documentation about the food shortage.
No, that’s right. That’s also true. But he never mentioned anything about it, and he never mentioned anything about, you know, not being able to see his mother or anything like that. I always… when I read about the conditions in the orphanage, I was… I guess I could understand why only… oh Abe and Joe. Abe was the oldest and Joe was the youngest. And they… neither of… and I couldn't understand how his mother had chosen which ones to put in the orphanage. It was really sort of odd to me. And but the family story is that she moved… My great-grandfather was killed… did you hear this story?
Yeah, he was killed in Chicago. And so as a result, as a single mother, my great-grandmother didn’t know anything else to do and she learned about this orphanage in Cleveland which was supposed to be good. And so she moved to Cleveland so that she could put x number of her kids in the orphanage and still be near them. But I think that must have been a wrenching experience for her as well as for the kids.
Oh, I can… I imagined it was because my own grandfather, you know, died when my father was two. And you know, they had like eight or nine kids.
And it was very, very difficult. And my father used to tell me that my grandmother, if they were bad, would you know, threaten to send them to the orphanage.
But the orphanage in question, it was called the Boston Home for Destitute Catholic Children.
Oh my goodness.
And it was just really frightening… frightening name. The Protestants… there was a big Protestant orphanage in Boston and it had a nice name. It was called the New England Home for Little Wanderers.
Oh boy. Now, which would you rather go to?
Yes, that’s it. And I've never had any interaction with Jewish orphanages in Boston so I don’t know what they did by way of naming things, if they came up with something halfway polite sounding. Bellefaire sounds…
It's residential, you know.
It sounds… like you know, a suburb of Chicago or something. But that brings me just to another question is… how important to your father is Jewish tradition?
Well I would have answered that… I might have answered that differently ten or fifteen years ago. I think it's becoming more important to him but in the past… it's not a direct quote, but the flavor of it was well I'm not keen on any religion but if you have to have one, Judaism is about as good as you can get. So, you know, when I was growing up, they always… it's paradoxical. He rarely went to temple more than on the high holy days. And we never… we would observe Hanukkah at home. We would have… but it was never very religious, you know, we would say the prayers over candles and whatnot, but that was about it. And we would always celebrate Passover, of course one night because we’re reform Jews.
And he would go to high holy days services, he would make an effort to be there, but I can remember a number of years when he had to be at some conference and the conference won out over the high holy days. I have never really seen him… he doesn’t talk about religion a lot, he doesn’t talk about being Jewish a lot. So I think since all of us have left home sort of over the last ten years, I think my father has attended services more frequently, but I'm not sure there was a bible at home. I mean, he can read Hebrew phonetically, but I don’t think he reads with any degree of understanding. So I would have to say that it's not a big part of his identity. I don’t know, I might be wrong.
Yeah, I mean… in this most recent set of papers he gave me, there was a letter he wrote at some point to some Rabbi and I can’t remember… I just… you know, I have a photocopy of it, I haven't gone back and studied it. But I forget what it was the Rabbi wanted him to do that he didn’t what to do. But he was just explaining in the letter what his feelings were toward Judaism. And he just… he seemed to feel it didn’t really impose much by way of dogma or anything that troubled him intellectually.
And you know, you could believe more or less what you wanted to believe.
Yeah, I think —
And it had an ethical basis to it, which was not a bad thing for a society. So to that extent, he would go along with it.
Yeah, I think that’s fairly consistent with what I saw when I was growing up. You know, on the other hand, we always… my parents always belonged to a temple and they were actually founding members of the temple they still belong to, the Westchester Reform Temple, you know, I remember when it met in, I don’t know, one of the outbuildings of a church before they built their own facility and ended up being built in Scarsdale.
You mean a church of another denomination?
Oh yeah, oh sure, a real church, you know. We used to hold High Holy Day services in church sanctuaries at that time, that was in the early fifties, I would say, '54 —
You mean like a Catholic church or Protestant church?
Presbyterian church I think.
Isn't that funny. I wouldn’t have… I mean it certainly makes good sense to… you know, in terms of efficient use of real estate.
It's just like one of these airport chapels.
Where any denomination can hold their service. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is this JASON group that he was a member of.
Oh, has been a member of for years.
And has been.
He still is.
And do you know much about that or have any opinions about it?
I've met… well, I've… my recollection… it's interesting, I read a history this summer, one of the books that was… that my parents had was there's a book published called, I think, The History of the JASON. [The JASONs]
Right, that just came out.
Yeah. It's a very interesting book. It's lots of fun for me because I recognized lots of the people. But I didn’t realize that it had started so long ago. Apparently it actually started in the sixties.
'59 or '60, I think. 
Yeah, my dad started with it in like '63 or '64 I think. 
And… but it was never such a big deal. And I only started going to La Jolla in, I think the seventies. But I would go for a week every year and I would meet most of… a lot of the JASONs socially, at least the physicists and the chemists. I guess I met everybody pretty much. There were a lot of JASON events. And so I know the people but only in the last ten years did they start doing JASON talks where I went and learned a little bit about the unclassified things that they were doing. So I don’t have any strong opinions one way or another.
Because at some point, there was lots of controversy about JASON, I think when the Pentagon papers were published, it revealed work on something that they called the electronic fence.
Oh sure, the one in the Vietnam.
In Vietnam. And there were… I don’t know, you probably met Jack Ruina.
Oh yeah. Yeah.
And you know, Ruina was telling me how he was burned in effigy at MIT.
In various protests and he said that was one of the more unpleasant things that’s ever happened to him.
Well we were picketed. My parents apparently were picketed in Scarsdale.
Really? That’s what I wanted to ask was whether you saw anything like that.
No, I didn’t but I was away at college or graduate school at the time that happened. So it didn’t make any impression on me at all. You know, I can’t remember whether… where it was, but I was aware that JASON worked on various projects for the Defense Department, some of which were very applied. And I knew my dad was doing consulting. I mean, I went to Stanford from '67 to '71, which I probably the peak of radical activity at Stanford at a time when Berkeley had receded and Stanford was the new headquarters for radicalism in the west coast.
And so people were always discussing what these dastardly groups were doing consulting for the Defense Department and Stanford itself had Stanford Research Institute which… for which my father consulted on. And the one I remember was apparently SRI did some of the design work on the nozzles that were used to spray Agent Orange. So that was unpleasant, so there were a lot of radicals who were very upset about anybody who did any work related to that, because?? I knew my dad did it. I didn’t know… I don’t know to this day whether he worked on that particular problem, but you know, the electronic fence, I had a pretty good idea that he had done it.
My understanding, by the way, is that he consulted on something similar for the Korean War. You could ask him about it, but he was too… I don’t know that he was… I guess he was a little older than might have been draftable for the Korean War, but by that time of course I was born and so he wouldn’t have been in drafted in any case under the old rules. But I'm pretty sure that he was flown over to Korea to look at the situation and see if there was anything that could be done.
Yeah, I think he did some type of work relating to combat aircraft and communications or air-to-ground communications, something like that.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure that’s true. So it wouldn’t surprise me that he worked on the electronic fence.
And in terms of the… you know, the other… you know, he was surrounded by, you know, all of these other hotshot scientists. Did you ever get the sense that he had rivalry with anybody in particular?
No. The one thing I will say is that there were very few of the scientist acquaintances that I saw that ever challenged him any way, I mean, sort of socially challenged him. You know, would say… you know, they would always sort of ask his opinion, whatever he said they would accept, with two exceptions. Two exceptions, which… one of them is Harold Agnew who is really a funny guy, but he doesn’t let my dad get away with anything. He's always, you know, sort of, you know… in a very friendly way, you know, sort of giving him grief about a variety of things. And they're very good friends but for instance, that’s one… whenever I… still, whenever I go visit my parents in California, Harold Agnew lives just up the road in what, Solana Beach, or somewhere like that. And I always try to see him and his wife and my parents together, just because I think it's so amazing.
I see. Unfortunately when I went to La Jolla two years ago to interview a bunch of… to interview your father and a bunch of JASONs, unfortunately the Agnews were off on some long trip.
Yes, in the summers they very frequently… they have a bunch of timeshares which they trade… which Harold trades avidly.
And so that’s always… it's always hit or miss for me as to whether they're going to be in town at the time that I'm there. They're very frequently in Aspen, but they can be almost anywhere. So in any case… But he's very funny. And the other person who used to give my dad a hard time is now dead, his name is… was Bernd Matthias who was a metallurgist.
I don’t think his name has… hasn’t come up, probably because he's dead.
Yeah, probably —
Not on the interview list.
No, he's not on the interview list and his wife died just a few years ago too. So they were… Bernd was a real character. And I believe he knew my father from the University of Chicago days, but I'm not absolutely positive.
Because I mean, one of the things that various people have talked to me about, like some who were with him in Chicago, like I had a couple long talk with Val Telegdi whom you —
Oh yeah, oh good, before he died.
Yes, before he died. I actually have been interviewing people in… starting with the oldest and working backwards.
Sounds like a plan.
Just to be on… that’s all I can do. But —
Oh, Val Telegdi is or was another real character.
He was a riot. But I mean, he was telling me about, you know, when your father was at Chicago, he said he had the less than endearing habit of… in the laboratory of… you know, looking over other people's shoulders. And he said he would often preface his observation by saying, you know, only an idiot would use that type of capacitor for…
Oh my God.
For this type of thing. And he had many, you know, battles with government officials and so forth. And he really played very rough. And you know, I was talking with one of the CIA people that he had worked with and this guy was saying that there was a meeting with some Secretary of the Air Force and he said your father just, you know, lit into him in such a personal way, telling him that, you know, he obviously knew unless he was a total fool that such and such was incorrect.
Yeah, I've heard similar stories. Well you know, he… it was… my father is such a perfectionist and is so rigorous in his thought and is usually so far ahead of anybody else in terms of having thought things forward that, I mean each of the kids probably had a different response to this, but I did virtually no rebelling until I was out of the house. There was just no way to be right if my father had a fixed opinion. So it would not be out of character for him to do that. Actually, I did remember something that people might not have told you.
And that was that for the longest time, he used to have bets with people, you know, on… mostly on physics related things, you know, who was going to be right about this or that. And the one that I remember that he had with Bernd… he was always betting with Bernd Matthias who was this incredible character. And the one with Bernd Matthias had to do, I believe, with the highest temperature that… of a super conductor. And I believe that my dad said that there would be a super conductor found above twenty degrees Kelvin. And I believe Bernd Matthias took the other side on that, I believe that was the way it went.
But regardless, what was so fascinating to me is what the prize was. The prize for this was that if my dad was wrong, he would go work at Bell Labs, and if Bernd was wrong, he would work at IBM.
I see. But did anybody collect on these bets?
No. Yeah, well they did, but my dad… I'm virtually certain that my dad won that particular bet and didn’t have the heart to collect.
This is what… because I remember the bet. I think I was there for the bet. And he had this… And also for years, he carried around a little notebook on which was inscribed all the bets.
Yeah, with dates, you know, because they would be… there would very frequently be future based things. And so he would have this recorded.
Isn't that… I'll have to ask… that’s great. I'll have to ask him about that. How do you spell Bernd Matthias' name.
I believe it was B-E-R-N-D-T and Matthias I think was M-A-T-T-I-A-S. There may be an H after the second T. [yes]
Alright. I can look it up. It's interesting because I talked with Murray Gell-Mann yesterday.
Oh, I've met him too.
Yes I'm sure. And he was in Chicago for about six months before your father left Chicago to go to IBM. But during that time, they had some type of informal physics department seminar every week. And so Gell-Mann … it was just whoever wanted to stand up and say something. And so Gell-Mann presented his thinking about what he was referring to as strangeness, and your father said something to the effect that oh that’s just a lot of rubbish. He couldn't see what the use was of any of that. And so Gell-Mann was telling me that… of course the two of them, Gell-Mann was 22 and your father was like 23 or something or 24, these are just two kids. But Gell-Mann was saying that he was really hurt by that and terribly discouraged because it was, you know, one of his main ideas. And of course he went on to develop it and that’s what he won the Nobel Prize for.
But he said the thing was that… he said many years later, your father apologized handsomely —
— to him. And he said he was really shocked because he was so surprised that your father had remembered this to begin with because it was just… it was an offhand comment of thirty seconds. And he was surprised that he had remembered it and you know, impressed that he apologized. But I guess the thing is that, you know, lots of the people I have talked with, you know, they said that he has unnecessarily made enemies by, you know, smacking people down too hard.
Yeah, I can believe it.
And that, you know, he would have won the National Medal of Science ten years earlier. You know, he was nominated all the time but there was always somebody around that he had scorched.
Yeah, that’s probably true.
And if had ten percent more diplomacy, he might have been a hundred percent more effective.
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think he's become more diplomatic in the last, you know, few years, I don’t know.
Yeah well I met him… oh more than thirty years ago and I was… it was a friend of mine at MIT who introduced me to him. And my friend had gone to consult him on an experiment that was being done and essentially to see whether, you know, they were on the right track, whether they were doing the experiment correctly. And my friend, he was a full professor of physics at MIT and all of this, but he was basically shaking in his boots at having to present this thing to your father. And you know, he would have been crushed if he had been told no, he was on the wrong track.
And you know, I just witnessed this thing and it was also tremendously odd because it was like my friend had scheduled a five minute meetings to review this thing with your father. Your father was at a conference on something else. And so we went into an empty conference room and my friend, his name is Henry Kendall, he —
Oh really? That’s funny. When I was at Biogen, one of my lab assistants was his son, Jim.
No you must be thinking of somebody else because Henry didn’t have any sons.
I thought he did. Kendall? K-E-N-D-A-L-L?
Yeah. Maybe there are more Kendalls in the world.
But no, Henry had a stepson.
No. Huh, well that’s interesting. That’s an unsolved mystery. I am absolutely certain that this kid's name was Jim Kendall and he worked for me when I was at Biogen and I am virtually certain that his dad was a professor of physics at MIT.
He may have been, but not this guy… not the same guy.
Yeah right, maybe a different Kendall, who knows, I don’t know, okay fine.
But anyway the strange thing about this meeting… and Henry just brought me along, he said oh this will be your chance to meet the smartest man in the world. And he said but be very careful and he said Garwin doesn’t do small talk and he just sees right through everything, so don’t just go, you know, chattering on about any type of nonsense because he'll think very badly of you the minute he sees you make some terrible blunder. And I said well do you think it would better if I said nothing. And he said probably. We go into this session and, you know, your father shakes hands and says hello and he sits down and Kendall remains standing there, you know, describing what they're going to do.
And your father takes some notebook out of his pocket that looks like the notes from the meeting that he's in. And he's reading while Henry is speaking. And I thought this was just so odd. And so at the end of the allotted five minutes, you know, Henry just stopped, he had finished, and your father noticing that he had stopped, shut his notebook and got up and said yes, that will probably work. Nice seeing you again and he zooms out the door.
That is so weird.
And so I was… I said to Henry afterward, I said that’s the rudest person that I've ever met. And Henry said, oh he's always like that. He said he was paying perfect attention to everything that I was saying and understood what I was saying, etc., and you know… he said he does that all the time. And so I was telling this story to your parents the last time I saw them in New York and your father said well you should put that in the book. He said that’s a great story. I said I think I'll put it at the beginning of the book. But he's a very special person, and it's really a lot of fun talking to him and to all the people he worked on, so. Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?
I don’t know.
Oh yes, one thing I wanted to ask you was does he talk to you about your work?
Yes he does, sort of. He asks me about things, he knows the kinds of things I've worked on in the past or I've been interested in, and so he reads the New York Times religiously every day and… well, not so often anymore, but will very frequently cut out… literally clip out an article and send it to me or nowadays he'll email me and say did you see thus and such, or he'll mention it. But what I do and what he does are very different. And I guess I've been surprised over the years that he does seem to have remembered the things that I've mentioned, you know, that I've been interested in or that I've worked on.
And so I think I've earned his respect in that regard. But I am very poor at physics. I mean, maybe for whatever reason, I just don’t have good physics intuition. On the other hand, I have extremely good biological intuition. You know, I just understand biological systems. And so as a result, the kinds of things I'm interested in or that I do, you know, he just, at some level, doesn’t follow very much. So I guess does that answer your question?
Yeah. I just wonder, you know, looking at him as a national resource, you know… or I just think it's too bad he didn’t focus more on biology and curing diseases and some of the work on, you know, the weapons debate is really sort of… is quite repetitious.
It's been the same thing… same criticism of ABM and Star Wars and, you know, just going on for thirty years.
And, you know, I've… if I could be the person who picks what problems he solves, I think… you know, in the last thirty years I might have picked a somewhat different set of problems than the ones he's worked on.
Yeah, I actually brought up to him an idea about medical records. And he actually mentioned that back in the, I don’t know, late sixties, early seventies, I think he sent me a copy of a position paper or an article he wrote for somebody about how you could use computers to get a consistent medical record. And so it isn't that he hasn’t thought about these things or talked to people about them, but there's a political problem there which is, you’ve kind of alluded to, he probably is not very good at. And that getting medicine to adopt computerization has been very difficult for everybody.
So I mean that’s the only… but that, if he had been effective in getting people to adopt that approach, that would have had a big impact. But I really think that his mind just doesn’t work on biology nearly as well as it works on physics and engineering and math. And you know, I know that… I have a daughter who's the same way, much… even though I think biology and chemistry are absolutely fascinating and are very easy, I have one daughter in particular who really, the more biological it is, the less well she does with it. She did better in chemistry than biology and really likes physics compared with chemistry, so go figure. So I think it has to do with just sort of how your brain is wired.
I guess. Good. Okay well this is very helpful. This picture that you mentioned of Fermi playing with you on the floor —
My dad and mom have it.
They have it, okay.
Oh yeah, they have it. It's a slide. My dad used to take slides all the time, you know, so they have it. It's one of my father's favorite pictures. He may have even made prints of it, I don’t know.
I will ask about it. We were in your basement and —
Oh yes, the archives, except that isn't where the slides are. The slides are kept in a coat closet… in the front coat closet stacked up in big carousels, or at least that’s where they used to be. They didn’t used to be in the basement.
I think that was everybody's place for slides in the days of slides.
I guess the theory was that you could… when the house is burning down, you'll walk by the front closet and be able to grab the photo collection.
I don’t know, in the case of our house, I don’t know if they’ve taken it down, but my dad had strapped up a projection screen onto the railing. And so we used to show slides in the living room.
Oh I see. Well it certainly wasn’t up when I was there in October.
Yeah okay, well they might have taken it down a couple years ago.
Good. Well it was very interesting talking with you and if I have any other questions, I'll get back to you. And I'm also going to try and… Well has your brother Tom… I think your father said he's working for the Gates Foundation now?
Yeah, he is.
Does that mean… did he move from Washington?
Yes. He's now living in Seattle.
Oh I see.
Seattle area anyway.
That’s the penalty of doing anything with Microsoft I guess or with Mr. Gates. Rain. Okay yeah well I've sent him an email so I'm sure I will connect with him at some point. And I guess one other thing, what are relations like between your father and his brother, because your uncle declined to be interviewed for the biography and I just… when I was at SLAC, I just tried to go by and see him anyway, but he wasn’t there.
Well, you know, I don’t know. His brother is I guess five years younger or something like that.
Something like that, yeah.
And I always got the feeling there was a rivalry between them, but it was a rivalry that Ed never could win. And so they… I don’t know that they never got along, I mean now every summer that my parents are in La Jolla, Ed comes down and visits from, you know, I guess he lives in Half Moon Bay now. And so they come and visit and they talk about stuff. My uncle is much less intense about physics than my father is, that’s my impression. But I don’t know that they're very close. I mean they certainly never lived close to each other. When I was at… when I went to Stanford, I spent… you know, I would periodically go over to my uncle's house to have dinner and, you know, see family basically and… but we never discussed my father. So I don’t know, I guess their relationship is always sort of… as I've seen it, sort of cool and distant.
Because I thought… it's of course not uncommon to have feelings of jealousy or one guy looks not too happy that the other guy had more success or whatever. But as I was telling your father, when I went by Ed's office at Stanford, the door of the office had the newspaper clipping taped to the door with a photo of your father getting the National Medal of Science, etc.
Well I don’t think there's any real ill will. The other thing is that my uncle is, I think much more socially liberal than my father is, and I think that’s been sort of a source of unease between the two of them. That’s just my impression, I don’t know.
I mean socially liberal on what type of issue?
Oh lifestyle, you know, my father has been married for fifty years… more than fifty years, I'm 57. My uncle has been divorced, has lived with numerous… you know, long term relationships, but lived with numerous women. And my uncle was much more interested in the counter culture in the sixties and seventies than my father ever was. So I just think that they're very different people. My uncle, as far as I know, never really did the same kind of traveling or consulting as my dad did. As far as I know, my uncle pretty much stayed at SLAC his entire career.
Yeah because I was primarily interested in talking with him to talk more about your grandfather and the family because he was sufficiently… the sufficient age gap between him and your father that your father was off at university.
You know, by the time Ed would have been eight or nine.
So they didn’t really overlap very much.
No, they didn’t. Although apparently my mother's brother, Howard, was in the same grade as Ed was and I think that’s how my mother met my father.
Yes, that’s what he told me.
Right. So… but… and so Howard and Ed hung out a lot when they were kids, I mean all the way through high school, I got the impression. And… but I don’t know, they would… I think my dad… I always got the impression that for some reason, you know, it was like the Smothers Brothers joke, you know, mom always loved you best. So I always got the feeling that in some ways, you know, my grandparents liked my dad best. Or at least that was the way Ed felt. And so I don’t know where I got that from, but that may be the source of it. It may be that if you tell Ed that really what you want is sort of some insight into my grandfather, then he'll be more willing to talk.
Yeah, I was going to send him a copy of the book about Bellefaire…
Oh I'm sure it'll be news to him as well.
Yeah and see if that would open the door a little bit. Good. All right well I will let you get back to biological discoveries.
Useful things, and thank you very much for your time.
Anytime, really if you want to talk about anything else or schedule another time to talk, I'm happy to do it.
Great, okay, take care. Bye.
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