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Courtesy of Irwin Shapiro, credit unknown.
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Interview of Irwin Shapiro by David Zierler on April 23, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Irwin Shapiro, Timken Professor at Harvard.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is April 23rd, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here virtually with Professor Irwin Shapiro. Professor Shapiro, thank you so much for being with me today.
It is my pleasure, David.
OK. So to start—
But I prefer to be called Irwin.
Irwin, you got it. So, to start, can you tell us your title and your institutional affiliation?
My title is the Timken University Professor at Harvard University.
OK. Now let’s start right at the beginning. I see a birth date of October 1929. That is a very exciting time to be born in American history.
October 10th, a little less than three weeks before the crash. I had nothing to do with it. [laugh]
[laugh] So tell us a little bit about your—
Tell us a little bit about your family, where your parents are from, and what they did for a living.
Well, my father was born near Minsk in what was then Russia, was brought here by his parents when apparently he was about 2 years old. So he didn’t remember anything of Russia. His father died when he was only 12 years old.
He was the oldest of four surviving children, and he took over the responsibility largely of providing for his family from the age of 12. He got a job as a runner for a local democratic club. They didn’t have other ways of transferring information, except by runners. [laugh] And he also got himself a job as a tenement house inspector before classes began, you know, before he had to go to school. And he had a rough time but he survived, his whole family survived, and he became an engineer.
He was an engineer on the Holland Tunnel in New York City. He was a city engineer. And then came the First World War. And his boss in the City of New York couldn’t manage without him, and was in Washington as a member of the armed forces, and insisted my father [laugh] come down and help him out. [laugh]
So my father became a first lieutenant in the Motor Transport Corps, and spent the year that we were in the First World War in Washington. Afterwards, he met one of his classmates at City College whom he didn’t think was all that bright, who had made a fortune in the lamp business. And here he was, he was a city engineer—I found his metal badge after he died—he taught night school, and he taught bookkeeping and English to immigrants.
He decided he was working far too hard for far too little pay, and he decided to go into business. And because of various personal connections, he decided to go into the leather business as an importer of leather. And that’s the business he went into and was quite successful.
And what about your mom?
My mom grew up in a less underprivileged home. Her father didn’t die UNTIL she was 16 [laugh] and she was not the oldest in the family. She was in the middle of six surviving children. So she had an easier time. She became a schoolteacher at the age of I think 17, something like that, in New York, and taught boys for which she got $600 a year more pay.
They were introduced, my mother and my father, I believe by my father’s brother who married the daughter of a friend of my mother’s mother. And that’s how they met. And they got married in 1928, just on Armistice Day in fact. And I was born 11 months later.
Now, did you grow up in a secular household or were your parents religiously connected?
No, I was totally secular. I decided at the age of 8 that the concept of God made no sense. [laugh] No one told me where God came from. [laugh] You know, who is this God? Where was he? [laugh] So I became a devout atheist at about the age of 8, and I must say I’ve not had any indications [laugh] from anyone that led me to change my views since then. [laugh]
No Bar Mitzvah, I take it?
No. My father asked me if I wanted to go to Hebrew school and study for a Bar Mitzvah, or whether I preferred to play outside. My choice [laugh] was very simple. [laugh]
That’s an easy choice when you put it like that.
Yes, well that’s [laugh] how he put it. [laugh] He wasn’t exactly pushing, but then he did feel he should put the possibility in front of me just in case. [laugh]
Now where in New York did you grow up? In Manhattan?
No, Far Rockaway, Queens, right on the south shore of Long Island. I don’t know if you know New York at all.
I do, very well. My parents—
You know Far Rockaway?
I do, I sure do, yeah. My parents are from Brooklyn, so Far Rockaway is within my radar.
Yes, well, I lived six blocks from the ocean, where I grew up totally oblivious to the fact that there was a Depression. I had no idea.
Because your father did OK?
Yes, and I had no—you know, they didn’t expose me to the problems of the Depression. I just had a very normal childhood. Well, maybe you’d call it abnormal [laugh] but it was shielded from the Depression.
And you went to public school throughout your childhood?
I went to the local school, elementary school PS39 Queens, which no longer exists, BUT was just a couple of blocks from my house. And then I went to high school. Because of my scientific interests, my parents decided I should go to Brooklyn Tech because that was reachable. Bronx Science was two and a half hours of travel each way, and Stuyvesant was an hour and three quarters travel each way, and Brooklyn Tech was only an hour and a quarter. [laugh] And I resisted because all my friends were going to go to Far Rockaway High School. I wanted to be with my friends. But then I discovered several of my friends also were thinking of going to Brooklyn Tech.
In those days, what was the ranking of Brooklyn Tech versus Bronx science versus Stuyvesant?
I had no idea.
I knew they were three technical/science schools. But as far as their relative rankings, I had no knowledge at all.
Now, at what point did you start to demonstrate real aptitude in math and science?
Oh, probably—not science but math probably at the age of 6 or something like that.
My uncle, my father’s brother, saw it, and he taught me ahead, so I was adding fractions while other kids were learning to add WHOLE numbers. [laugh]
He just saw something in you, your uncle?
I don’t know, but apparently.
Yeah. And so what was your experience at Brooklyn Tech like?
My first day there was unbelievable. I had gone to the local elementary school where I knew just about everybody. It was a small school. And then I go to Brooklyn Tech where there were 6,500 students in a school that WAS 10 stories high and covered a whole city block. And as I was walking in the corridors [laugh], I felt like a little pea lost [laugh] in a giant vegetable garden.
And it’s all boys too, right?
All boys then, yes. No longer. Changed in ‘76. But it was then all boys. I felt totally lost for one day. After that, I blended right in. [laugh]
Now obviously you couldn’t compare it to a PS. But was your sense that you got a better education at Tech than you would’ve gotten at a regular public high school?
My perception at this point in my life is that the best education I got through PhD was at Brooklyn Tech.
It was [laugh] definitely the educational experience of my life.
What made it so special?
The change from PS39 dramatic because not only was Tech a good school but all the kids were bright, and they were interested in science and things like that, neither of which was true in my elementary school.
How diverse was the student body? Did you have, you know, Asian-American kids and African-American, or not so much?
Not so much. There were basically Italians and Jews [laugh] as I thought of it then. Now it’s mostly Asian, about 70% Asian. I still keep up a relationship with the school.
You’re involved in alumni?
I donate to their alumni fund every year and I visit occasionally—
Very nice. And what were some of your favorite classes at Tech?
[laugh] Actually, they were all pretty good. I had four years of shop. At Brooklyn Tech, we didn’t have study periods, maybe one in four years. We had just about every period filled. And four years of shop I found very interesting. Four years of mechanical drawing as well as the normal math, English, and science.
Did you enter into any citywide contests, any math or science contests?
No, for one very good reason. I left my house at a quarter after seven and got back at a quarter to five. And I tried out once for the golf team, and I got back home [laugh] after I was supposed to have gone to bed. [laugh] So that was the end of that. [laugh]
I was on the math team very briefly but, again, the timing was just too much. The only thing I remained on, and I was number one on the team, was ping-pong. I earned my letter in ping-pong. I was a very good ping-pong player. I was first in my team in high school, and in college. And in graduate school, I also won the championship every year a competition was held when I was a graduate student.
Now I know you went to Cornell undergrad, but do you remember the other colleges you applied to?
I applied to only one other college – Why did I choose Cornell? Because it had girls.
I’d had enough of an all boys school. [laugh] And that was a big mistake. [laugh] My father sent away for an application to MIT. I didn’t even look at it. That was all boys as far I was concerned. I didn’t apply to Harvard because that was all boys. So the only fallback school I applied to was Columbia because I knew my parents would really like me to stay in New York City because I’m an only child—well, I didn’t tell you that. But I was and am an only child, and they would’ve preferred me to go to Columbia, but I wasn’t interested. [laugh]
Had you been as far out from the city as Ithaca before you got to campus?
Oh, yeah. My father suffered from a heart attack in 1939, June. And that December, he was told he should spend the winter in Florida. So we went to Florida in December, and stayed through May. So I experienced elementary school in Hollywood, Florida, as well as in Far Rockaway. And that was an interesting experience. [laugh]
I hope your parents had the foresight to buy real estate in Florida at that time.
My father was the real estate investor, and yes, he did.
So what was your impression when you got to Ithaca? Was it a whole new world for you?
Yes, because I’d never been away from home before, and I met all these kids who apparently didn’t get along very well with their parents. This was a total shock to me. I thought all kids loved their parents, and vice versa. Everyone was happy, I thought, [laugh] as I was happy. And I discovered all these kids who were bright but they had apparently terrible home lives. This was a big shock to me. I remember to this day very well all the different kids I knew.
And did you determine from the beginning that you wanted to major in math?
Well, actually, I went to Cornell, and I majored in physics in principle. But there was a lab course you had to take that was reputedly a bear, and I wasn’t interested in taking a lab course anyway [laugh] at that point. And since I had already enough math credits to graduate in three years as a math major, I decided to graduate as a math major.
But you were really taking a lot of physics courses?
Yes, I was basically a physics major except in practice. [laugh] In principle, I was a physics major.
So with the emphasis on math, how did you use that to your advantage pursuing further education in physics?
I don’t think I was particularly unusual in the math I took as a physics major.
And in those days, what was the emphasis—
I didn’t take really pure math. I took what you might call applied math, probability, stuff like that.
Now, in the department of physics at Cornell at that time, what were some of the big trends, the big projects that the faculty were working on in those days?
In those days, undergraduates didn’t do research projects. That was sort of unheard of… Feynman was there when I was there. And I knew of him, and I remember very clearly my asking my advisor a physics question in the middle of the lobby in Rockefeller Hall, which was then the physics building. He said, “Hmm.” And Feynman was just walking by, and he said, “Dick, I have this question for you.” [laugh] And he asked Feynman the question I’d asked him. Feynman rattled off [laugh] the answer, and walked by, all in maybe a minute at most. [laugh]
By the way, I lived one house away from him in Far Rockaway.
Did you know him then?
No, he was 12 years older than I. But his sister, [laugh] I took his sister out after he died as sort of a condolence call, and she remembered me. She said that she was jealous of my red wooden rocking horse. She was about seven years older than I, something like that, and she remembered being enamored of my red wooden rocking horse. I didn’t even remember having a red wooden rocking horse.
But I checked it out with a cousin of mine, older cousin, who never forgot anything in her life, and she confirmed that I indeed had a red wooden [laugh] rocking horse. [laugh]
Now, when you crossed paths with him at Cornell, was the legend of Feynman fully realized at that point?
And did you know that? Did you appreciate his stature as an undergraduate? Did you appreciate who he was?
It’s hard for me to say at what point in my life I became fully aware of what he was, so to say. But I was certainly at least partially aware as an undergraduate.
Is it uncontroversial to say that he was the greatest physicist you ever knew?
Hmm, Hans Bethe. I’ve known a lot of physicists, and Julian Schwinger of course I knew at Harvard. And he was quite different as well as bright, but not Feynman’s type at all. Very contrasting [laugh] personalities. I preferred Feynman’s [laugh] type myself, but I appreciated Julian.
Because you could talk to Feynman? He was easier to talk to?
Yeah, not that I found Julian hard to talk to. I didn’t. He was easy for me to talk to too. He sort of liked me for some reason I never understood. [laugh] So I got along with him well. But Feynman was more my type of person [laugh] so to say.
Now in terms of the coursework at Cornell, did you gravitate more towards the experimental or the theory?
No question, the latter. I didn’t care much for the labs. I took a lot of chemistry in the beginning at Cornell, but was turned off by the smells [laugh] in the labs. [laugh] So I had enough of that. [laugh]
Was there a hierarchy? Was theory sort of more in at Cornell than the experimental?
Yeah, I would say so; it seemed to rank higher.
It was more prestigious, I guess.
Yeah, and was there a senior thesis?
No. Certainly I didn’t do any. There was none in math.
And when you were ready to graduate, was there no question that you would go straight to graduate school, or were you thinking about other options?
No, I was thinking about going to graduate school, only graduate school. I didn’t have any other plans. I applied to a lot. I applied to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. I remember my application to Harvard. They asked for a 250-word-minimum essay on why I wanted to go to graduate school. I gave them 37 words.
And I said to myself, if they’re going to reject me on this basis, I don’t want to go there. [laugh]
And they accepted me. [laugh]
Do you remember what you said?
No. It was basically that I wanted to be a physicist and in order to be a physicist, you needed a PhD.
[laugh] And Harvard had a good PhD program. That was sort of it. [laugh]
[laugh] It worked.
So why in the end—
I always felt they appreciated that, that I wasn’t bullshitting, you know. [laugh]
[laugh] So why in the end did you—
Being recorded, I shouldn’t use such language.
That’s totally fine.
Totally fine. So why in the end did you choose Harvard?
That’s a good question. I didn’t know anybody there. I went around and visited. [ ] Again, I applied to Columbia, because my parents would have liked me back in New York. But every graduate student I spoke to there without exception warned me against coming to Columbia.
Yes, and the reason basically was they felt they were kept as slaves for 9 or 10 years as graduate students.
You mean before they defended?
Yep, before they were allowed to finish, they were kept as slaves for their thesis advisors. The time to graduate was usually five, six years, something like that. At Columbia, the graduate students were kept on average, I guess c. 10 years—I don’t know the average really. But they were all telling me that it’d be 9, 10, 11 years.
And you never had that concern at Harvard?
No, no one at Harvard said anything bad about Harvard to me.
And what faculty did you connect with at Harvard?
What do you mean what faculty? Physics.
No, I’m sorry, what faculty members? What professors did you get close with as a graduate student at Harvard?
Well, when I first came, I was sort of close to the assistant professors, Robert Karplus, Abe Klein. Who else? Those are the two main ones that I can think of at the moment.
And when you got there, did you have a sense of what field you wanted to specialize in?
No. [laugh] I didn’t really know [laugh] anything.
So how did you start to develop a specialization?
Well, I chose a thesis advisor, Roy Glauber. I don’t know if you know him.
I was his first student.
I was not his best student but his first student.
Was he an assistant professor at that point?
He came in 1952. I had already been there for two years, mainly taking graduate courses.
Where did he come from? Where was he before?
He got his PhD at Harvard, and then he taught at Caltech for a year. I think he replaced Feynman or something for a year. And he was also at the Institute for Advanced Study for a year. For a few months, I think, he worked with Wolfgang Pauli in Switzerland or wherever. Pauli then was nearing the end of his career.
Yeah, and what were his projects at that point? What was he working on?
Roy was working on an optical model of the nucleus, and that became my thesis topic.
How did he—did he present a problem for you to work on? Or how did that play out?
Yes, he asked me to work on this problem.
And what was the problem?
[laugh] I don’t remember it too well now. [laugh] All I remember is I had two good ideas. And that was mainly showing that my future was in my imagination. I had good ideas. I wasn’t the most—by any means –brilliant analyst you know, just doing analysis. I mainly had apparently good ideas that other people hadn’t thought of. [laugh]
So what does that mean to have ideas? You mean you were creative?
Well, you can call it that. For example, there was an issue at the time as to what the sign of a certain interaction was. And I thought about it, and I said, “Gee, that thing also could interact electromagnetically. And we know the sign of the electromagnetic interaction, so we can infer the sign of this other thing.” And that was a good idea at the time. That was my first.
Do you remember the title of your dissertation?
Yeah, something like—I don’t remember exactly [laugh]. It was something like, “Methods of Approximation for High Energy Nuclear Scattering.”
And what, if you remember—
High energy then was rather low energy today, a few hundred MeV.
Yeah, right. [laugh] And what was the basic problem that you worked on and what was your solution to the problem insofar as the dissertation showed it?
[laugh] It was a mathematical model, as I said, optical model of the nucleus, and comparing the predictions of that model with experimental results in the 100 MeV - hundreds of MeV- range. And I remember laboriously writing my thesis—in those days, you had to copy by hand all the formulas into your thesis document. And I remember spending days and days and days trying to make the formulas legible, and filling up whole pages [laugh] that they had to fill up. [laugh]
Now you started at Lincoln Laboratory before you actually defended.
What was your connection to Lincoln Laboratory? How did that work?
Well, that was the time of the Korean War where the Korean War fighting had unofficially ended but people were still being drafted quite heavily. And I personally had no particular interest in being drafted [laugh] to put it mildly. And if I went to Lincoln Laboratory, I felt I could avoid the draft.
I started June 2nd, 1954. And two weeks later, something like June 15th or 16th, the assistant director of Lincoln Laboratory went down to my draft board with me to tell the board how essential I was to the defense of this country. [laugh] And after that, everyone at Lincoln that I knew would kid me. “Indispensable Irwin” they called me.
And what were some of the major projects at Lincoln that were going on at the time?
Well, at the time in my part of the lab, it was mainly radar projects. And they were worried about clutter, how to distinguish objects of interest, in particular planes, from the background clutter. It was basically a separation of signal from noise issue. And I worked on that type of problem for a short time.
And then along came the scare that the Russians were developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. So I was chosen to be one of about 10 – 20 people working on a special project to figure out how we could defend the US against such ballistic missiles. And I wrote a book on the results of my mathematical studies with the very sexy title, The Prediction of Ballistic Missile Trajectories from Radar Observations.
And who was your audience for this book? Were you writing to policymakers, the broader public, fellow scientists?
No, certainly not the broader public. [laugh] That wasn’t the kind of book it was. The real audience for it turned out to be the Russians.
I found out years later they not only translated it—I mean, they translated it, made all new figures, and published it. And I have a copy right in my [laugh] bookcase here at home of their translation that I didn’t get till years later.
Now when you were working on this—
And I was told that there was a bank account in Moscow that had my royalties there.
That’s what I was told by someone who should know. And I was told that the royalties had to be picked up in person. But by then, I had actually gone to the Soviet Union, in 1959, and didn’t have any idea about this translation at that time. So I missed out on whatever [laugh] royalties—
—may have accumulated. [laugh]
There are a few rubles perhaps coming your way. [laugh]
Now when you were working on this project, was it a classified project?
And so you had a security clearance?
Oh, yeah, at Lincoln Lab, you had to have a security clearance. It was an Air Force facility—
And all the funding—
—as with the defense of the US.
All of the funding came from the Military, from the Pentagon?
From the Air Force in particular.
And did they have Air Force people in the lab in uniform? What was your interaction with the Air Force? Nothing?
I guess at times—I’m trying to think. A little later, in the early ‘60s, I gave briefings on my work a couple of times a year to visiting people from the Air Force. The main project I worked on at Lincoln was not that, although that took a couple of years. It was Project West Ford, which you’ve probably never heard of.
This was an idea that came out of Lincoln Laboratory and the company, TRW to create an artificial ionosphere that was jam-proof and that allowed radio communications point-to-point anywhere around the world. The idea, which was from Walter Morrow of Lincoln Lab and Harold Meyer of TRW, was to put in orbit around 450 million copper dipoles, which were each about an inch long. And a colleague and I worked on the orbital dynamics of these dipoles, which had very high area-to-mass ratios, and we discovered sets of sunlight-pressure resonances that could bring the dipoles down from orbit monotonically from altitudes of several thousand kilometers in a few years. This “guaranteed” short lifetime in orbit was my main contribution to project West Ford, and got me involved in international politics. For example, my work (and my name) was mentioned at the UN by Adlai Stevenson, our UN Ambassador, quoting my work on this project. And I had to make a trans-Atlantic call to London, a rather unusual event for those days, To uncover what a scientist in London had done wrong in claiming that our resonances would break down before the dipoles came down from orbit. It took me only a couple of minutes of questions to figure out what he, Desmond King-Hele, had done wrong: he had assumed tha the orbital inclination stayed constant, which was a bad, and incorrect, assumption to make. When he corrected that error a few days later, he got the same results as my colleague, Harrison Jones, and I had obtained.
—and it was an amazing experience for a relatively young kid. This was the beginning of the Space Age. We realized that because of the high-area-to-mass ratio of these dipoles, they were subject to large solar-radiation-pressure perturbations. And we – my colleague at Lincoln Lab and I - realized that radiation-pressure resonances, if you chose the orbit properly, could act monotonically to push these dipoles from altitudes of around 4,000 kilometers down to the ground in a couple of years. And our proposal to utilize sunlight pressure was from almost the beginning a major consideration because there was all sorts of opposition, especially from astronomers, as soon as the project was declassified. The dipoles, they said, were going to put them out of business. Did you ever hear of Allan Sandage?
I got a call from him at my home in New York in, I think, June 1961, where he actually told me that this project was a plot of East Coast astronomers to put West Coast telescopes out of business so that the East Coast astronomers could then take over astronomy by putting telescopes in orbit above this belt.
I couldn’t believe that my ears were hearing him say that.
Assuming this conspiracy was even true technically, what would be the basis for it? How would you have put them out of business?
Because he thought they couldn’t see the stars in the night sky because of these dipoles. In the end, they couldn’t see them at all, even when they were close together, but that’s another set of stories. [laugh] But I’ll tell you—one story I’ll tell you.
I was in this period of time on a subway…the tube in London. And it was crowded, and so I was standing. And the guy sitting in front of me was reading a book on matrices. How often do you run into someone on the subway reading a book on matrices? So I started talking to him.
And he started asking me what I did and what I was doing, and I was a little vague. And he kept pushing and pushing and pushing me, till finally I told him I was working on this project. And he was so incensed, he got off at my stop, not his, to argue with me how this was a terrible thing for me to be doing. [laugh]
The dipole project excited a lot of passion [laugh] in those days.
Now when you were working on these programs, particularly missile defense, were you motivated by a sense of patriotism? Did you feel like you were advancing the American interest? Or were you really just working as a physicist, and doing your thing as a scientist?
More the latter than the former.
How was the instrument—
And I also thought it was really stupid. The Russians at that time were reputed to have missiles that could travel 5,500 nautical miles. And I said, “This is why the United States was putting this limit on our defense against such missiles. I was sure that by the time we were able to defend against that, the Russians would have missiles that can go much further, go the other way. It seemed to me that the people who were setting the policy at the top of the country were [laugh] a little limited in their thinking.
So basically the whole concept of missile defense was a futile exercise?
Not quite. This was way before before “Star Wars.” I thought that limiting our defense to missiles limited to a range of 5500 nautical miles was a bad decision.
But nobody was listening to you from a policy perspective?
Oh, no. No [laugh] only my fellow scientists. I wasn’t mixing then with people at the policy level; I didn’t even know who they were.
What would’ve been the—
And I didn’t go around preaching.
Right. So what would’ve been the chain of communication leading from Lincoln Laboratory to the generals or even the White House? How would that’ve worked, in terms of communicating the finding of the scientists, you know, and getting that information to the policymakers?
Well, Lincoln Lab took on its defense projects from the Air Force, and so the reporting was directly to the people in the Air Force who dealt with Lincoln. I was never at the top of the administration in Lincoln Laboratory, so I can’t speak from first-hand information. I was at the bottom administratively.
Were the administrators, were they scientists themselves, or were they not?
Ah, I can’t give a yes or no because it varied. At times, the top person was a scientist, other times an engineer, and third times I didn’t know what he was doing up there [laugh] anyway.
Now you were there 16 years, and this was not a tenure track kind of situation.
No; there was no such thing as tenure track at Lincoln Lab.
Right, and so were—
But I was only there part-time the last three years.
But were you ever concerned that this might mess up your tenure prospects if you wanted to move over to a university?
I never really concentrated on that at all. They were still trying to draft me up through 1962.
[laugh] They really wanted you.
Yeah, they really did. In fact, I was told at the time by the draft board that I was the only one who had escaped being drafted from Queens 67—the designation of my draft board—who was not deferred because of being in medical school or having A 4F classification. I was the only one. And I don’t know if you ever heard of Aron Bernstein.
You know—you knew Aron Bernstein?
I’ve heard the name.
He was a professor at MIT. As a youngster, he lived a couple of blocks from me in Far Rockaway. He was a year and a half younger. And he told me that the draft board had told him about me [laugh] that I was the only one.[laugh]
[laugh] Was the Cuban Missile Crisis a particularly exciting time to be at Lincoln?
You weren’t involved in any of that in terms of—
No, nothing other than being alive; it was nothing I was involved in.
And so what was the transition—
I wasn’t as worried as most people. Maybe I was naive. But I wasn’t particularly worried. [laugh] I was pretty sure there would be no nuclear war over that “crisis,”
And then so what was the transition over to the physics department at MIT? How did that play out in 1967?
Well, it came about before that. I think I’d become sort of famous, not only for my role in Project West Ford—by the way, our predictions of what the orbitS of the dipoleS would do under sunlight pressure was borne out as accurately as the measurements were made. They were right on target. And then I came up with this idea in either the summer of 1961 or 62 – I could check, but I don’t recall which— to test general relativity, and that got a certain amount of notoriety. I got the idea after hearing a short, about 10 min, talk at MIT on the measurement of the speed of light being undertaken in a laboratory at MIT by, as I recall, Henry (or George—they were brothers) Stroke. These talks were to Air Force sponsors of various research projects. In this talk he mentioned that light changes its speed which it goes through difference gravitational potentials, or something like that. I was puzzled because I had recalled that light travelled at the same speed, no matter where you measured it. So I was puzzled. I went home and looked this point up in a general relativity book, understood it, and then thought of my idea as to how to measure it and christened it the “Fourth Test.” And there was this fellow, Jack Ruina. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him.
He was a professor of engineering at MIT. He was a consultant to the government at various high levels. And he thought it would be good if MIT had me on its faculty. [laugh] And I had the choice of choosing the physics department or the soon-to-be earth and planetary sciences department; the name about to be changed from “Geology and Geophysics.” And Viki Weisskopf was the head of the physics department at that time. And Frank Press, whom you’ve heard of too, I’m sure—
Right, for sure.
—was the head of the earth and planetary sciences department. So I interviewed them both, and there was something about Viki that I just didn’t trust. So I chose as my primary affiliation earth and planetary sciences, and chose for secondary membership the physics department.
And this department was just getting started at that time?
Earth and planetary sciences?
Oh, no, I meant only that it was soon to change its name to “Earth and Planetary Sciences.” It used to be “Geology and Geophysics.” But as a department, it had a long history.
Did you feel in retrospect that that was the right decision to make?
Various reasons. First of all, Earth and Planetary Sciences was a much smaller department. As for the Physics Department at MIT, I soon realized that there was nobody except probably for Weisskopf who knew everybody else on the faculty in the Physics Department. It was just too big. There were 95 faculty members at that time in the department.
Right, that’s amazing.
It was a huge department. Whereas in Earth and Planetary Sciences, there were maybe less than 20, and I got to know everybody, and the chair especially had time to talk and stuff.
Now what was this relativity project that you were working on before the transition?
Oh, I had this idea for a Fourth Test, as I called it, of General Relativity, because it would follow the three originally suggested by Einstein. In particular, I thought of this idea that, since light according to general relativity will change its speed - slow down - as it nears a massive object, it might be possible to measure the corresponding increase in delay when detecting, say, echoes of radar signals sent from the earth to a planet with the planet is on the other side of the sun from the earth, the so-called superior conjunction configuration. It will slow down so that if you sent the signals, say, from the Earth to Venus or Mercury when they were on the other side of the sun from the Earth, and timed the echo, the time delay would be roughly 200 microseconds longer if this predicted general relativistic effect were correct.
When my son was just born, and my wife was in the hospital, and I was home all alone -[laugh] in those days, husbands couldn’t go to hospitals when their children were being born; I could visit but that was all. Anyway, it occurred to me then that the new Haystack Observatory that was then just built by MIT would have the capability of detecting echoes from Mercury when it was on the far side of the sun. So then I got excited because I felt we might actually be able to do this experiment.
Now during your time at—
So I wrote up the paper proposing the experiment in a couple of days, and submitted it to Physical Review Letters. It was published 28 December 1964. Now, before it was actually published, I learned by talking to some of my colleagues at Lincoln Laboratory, especially John Evans, that the power of the transmitter of the radio waves that Haystack had was insufficient to allow detection of echos and measurement of a time delay, when Mercury was at superior conjunction, with an accuracy high enough to do the experiment.
So Haystack needed a more powerful transmitter. It had a 100-kilowatt average power transmitter, and it needed close to A 500-kilowatt transmitter. So I went to the Director of Lincoln Laboratory, Bill Radford, to explain this need. And he didn’t know what to do about this request, because he didn’t know any general relativity.
What would’ve been required to get it up to that level?
You mean how much money?
Or, yeah, I guess, yeah.
Half a million dollars in those days, although when I asked, I had little idea how much the more powerful transmitter would cost.
And what would that translate to? What does that extra money translate to? How does that get the numbers up?
Oh, five million today or six million dollars.
[laugh] No, no, I mean what does the extra money allow you to do?
It would allow us to do the experiment. The radar would have had enough power that we could from the echo determine the time delay to sufficient accuracy to do the experiment. So he said he didn’t really know any general relativity but he’d ask Ed Purcell. Do you know who Ed Purcell is or was?
He was a first-rate person.
He had the highest integrity of anyone you could ever meet. Anyway, so Bill went to Ed Purcell, and Ed Purcell said, “I don’t [laugh] know any general relativity either.”
“But Shapiro has a knack for being right.” And what was he referring to? He was referring to my predictions of the orbital lifetime of the West Ford dipoles under the action of sunlight pressure. At least that’s what I think. All I know is what Bill Radford had told me that Purcell said. [laugh]
This was then taking us up to Christmas Eve, and he - Radford - decided to call up a friend of his in the Air Force at the Rome Air Development Center (RADC) and ask for the money, the half a million dollars, to get the transmitter to carry out this experiment. And he called up, and the guy at RADC promised him the half-million dollars right over the phone, and we were off and running.
So your calculations on the dipoles, did that seal your reputation generally, or specifically on relativity?
It had nothing to do with relativity at all, nothing whatever. It was just my reputation for—
Getting it right?
Yeah, for being reliable in doing then-arcane calculations correctly.
And so the funding came through?
In the end, was what you were asking for, was it justified?
What do you mean was it justified?
Meaning that the money that you needed to do the experiment. Did it turn out that what you wanted to find out needed to be found out?
What it turned out is we could do the experiment [laugh] and we did the experiment, and it supported Einstein. I was hoping of course that it would contradict Einstein because—
So ho hum [laugh], it agrees with Einstein’s prediction.
How did it support Einstein? In what way? What do you mean?
That his theory of general relativity predicted the result of the experiment. And we confirmed that the prediction was right on. I was hoping that it would not be correct.
Because you’d be instantly famous, I guess, right?
Exactly. It’s much more impressive if you’ve got a reliable result disagreeing with a prediction of Einstein’s than if your result supported his prediction. A few years later I wondered why light should slow up when approaching a massive body and yet masses should slow up on such approaches. So with a (later) postdoc, I carried out such a calculation—a little tricky!—and it showed that if the speed of a mass exceeded about c divided by the square root of two, then the speed of the mass slows as it approaches the massive object.
The so-called “Shapiro delay” has had probably its biggest impact on astrophysics by allowing pulse-time-of-arrival measurements sensitive to the Shapiro delay to allow the determination o the highest so far available values for the masses of pulsars in binary systems and to place important constraints on the equation of state of pulsar material.
Sure. When you were at Lincoln Laboratory, how well connected were you with academic physics? Were you attending conferences? Were you writing papers a lot or it was really—
No. I wasn’t particularly thinking of academic physics; I was mostly absorbed in the projects I was working on.
You were not?
I was just doing work on the projects that I was assigned to, or that I created, at Lincoln Lab. I never even published my thesis. I felt at that time—in graduate school—that anything I did was really not worth [laugh] publishing. I changed my mind after [laugh] a few years when I saw what was being published. [laugh] But at that time, I just didn’t think it was worth it.
Now when you made the transition to faculty, did you start taking graduate students right away?
Pretty much, yes. I think the best graduate student I had I got just after I went on the faculty.
Who was that?
And what was his project?
I gave him the project of investigating the secular variations of the eccentricity of Mercury’s orbit, and how that would affect the 3:2 resonance between Mercury’s spin and its orbit, which had just been discovered, and I was a part of that discovery. But that’s another long story. And that was his thesis, and he did very well with it. He calculated what I suspected, namely that mercury’s spin-orbit resonance would go in and out of resonance as its eccentricity increased and decreased, respectively, in response to the corresponding changes in its eccentricity due to planetary perturbations.
Did you enjoy teaching? I assume you didn’t do much teaching when you were at Lincoln Laboratory.
That’s true. My first teaching was done as a first-year, first-month graduate student at Harvard. One of the professors at Harvard, Edwin C. Kemble—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him.
Anyway, he had to close up his summer home in New Hampshire, and he asked me to teach his class in mathematical physics while he closed his summer home. Why he asked me, I do not know. I was just a first-year graduate student. I had no teaching experience at all. He asked me if I’d teach his class, and so I said, “Yes.” The day he wanted me to teach was my 21st birthday.
And I went to teach it. I prepared pretty carefully. I had a whole bunch of notes. And I put them down on the table in the front of the room there, in Jefferson 256. Do you know the Harvard physics building at all?
No, I don’t.
Anyway, there’s a room, Jefferson 256, which is a classroom. And it was a hot day, so I put down my notes, and I went to the window to open it up. And open it up I did, and what happens? A wind sweeps in—
—throws my notes [laugh] all over the room. [laugh] It was very embarrassing. Anyway, that was the beginning of my teaching career [laugh] at Harvard.
NOW almost 70 years later, I’m still teaching.
—now over Zoom. [laugh]
Right, yeah, everything is over Zoom now.
So did your—
Let me just add a postscript.
I think by far, I have the longest span of first teaching to last teaching ever at Harvard University, although I hope it becomes longer, as I still like teaching and the students still think that I’m good at it.
Oh, yeah, I guess, yeah, clearly.
No one could touch me. I mean, someone could in the future. But up until now, no, since in the past there was a mandatory limit to the oldest age at which one could teach, which was about 65 or so.
Right, amazing. Now, was the transition in terms of choosing the projects you work on—I assume at Lincoln Laboratory, you mostly worked on what others told you to work on.
That was true in the beginning, except that I decided to work on projects of my own devising after my triumph, if you will, on Project West Ford, the dipoles project. I had a sufficiently good reputation that I could be my own boss, if you will, and I was. I was given funds to hire students to work for me for the summer, and things like that.
And so when you became a regular faculty member, that was not a difficult transition in terms of choosing the projects to work on?
No, I just continued, and I came with two ideas: one was the relativity experiment, and the other was to measure continental drift, or plate motion, which was then still a controversial topic. And I felt with this new technique of very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI), of which you’ve probably heard, I could use it to measure the current relative motions of plates on the Earth. And I thought that would take me three years. It took me 18; it’s a long, and to me, an interesting story! One of the points: I tried to explain that this VLBI technique could make geometric measurements as far as intercontinentally with uncertainties as much as 4 orders of magnitude smaller than via so-called “classical” geodesy (1 cm vs. 10 m errors). This was a tough sell to administrators responsible for giving out money. They didn’t understand the technique and certainly didn’t want to get “taken” by this virtually unknown kid. These types of problems caused a good bit of the delay.
But I did other experiments contemporaneously. For example, with my students, I carried out other measurements in the 1970s such as of the geodetic precession predicted by general relativity, which we tested to c. 2% accuracy. We also tested the principle of equivalence in a context where gravitational self energy made a very detectable contribution through the contribution of the moon-earth-sun three-body system; this test confirmed that the gravitational self energy contributed equally to both gravitational and inertial mass at the level of (at least) 1.5%. I also set an experimental limit for, I believe, the first time on the possible change with time of Newton’s constant of gravitation as was proposed by Paul A.M. Dirac. He used to follow me around the country in the late 1970s to hear my talks as if I had something new to say each time, which I assured him I didn’t. But he wouldn’t say, “Just in case…”
In the 1970s I was also heavily involved in radar investigations of the inner planets. One of our findings was the fact that Venus was about 35 km thicker than previously thought, and its surface temperature correspondingly over about 200 degrees C higher.
I also had the idea in 1972 to use differenctial VLBI between the four probes that were planned to enter the atmosphere of Venus as part of the Pioneer Venus mission in 1978. This effort was carried through brilliantly by Charles Counselman and yielded excellent data on the wind conditions on Venus, thus starting the scientific study of Venusian meteorology.
In addition, I led the radar effort to study the arrival of the close passage in spring 1983 to the earth—to within 0.03 AU of the earth—of comet Iras-Araki-Alcock. This close passage revealed that the centimeter large and larger particles had been emitted from the comet, the closest to come to earth apparently since 1770.
Finally, I conceived and developed the idea to measure the topography of nearby solar-system bodies, especially the moon, to determine its topography by adding radar interferometry to the two-dimensional delay-Doppler mapping.
But we did it—measurement of plate tectonics—and we did it first.
So the controversy of continental drift was simply did it exist or not?
That was the basis of the controversy, yes. Although by 1966, when I had my idea, the issue was pretty well settled in favor of plate motions. But no one knew then whether they were, say, continuous or episodic in some fashion. My plan was to test for current motions to see whether they agreed with the long-term average measurements to which the current geophysical techniques were limited.
So there were some people who believed that the current tectonic formations had always remained what they were?
Not many by then.
It was a major controversy in Wegener’s time, and then it sort of fell to the bottom of people’s lists during the Second World War. But afterwards, as magnetism, magnetic techniques picked up greatly in sensitivity and accuracy, it became again of interest. And it had just about turned the corner when I came up with my idea for measuring current values.
So by the time I actually measured it, its existence was no longer at all controversial, but our results were still interesting because before there were only observations averaged over maybe hundreds of thousands of years. But was this motion continuous or episodic? No one knew.
But, you know, forgive me but don’t you just need to be a kindergartner, and look at puzzle pieces, and see how South America fits into Africa?
Well, that was how Wegener and people back at the time maps were first made of those two continents realized that they matched. But that doesn’t prove anything.
It was certainly not on time scale.
So in terms of data, what needs to be proved?
In terms of?
Data. What actually needs to be proved to satisfy the theory of continental drift?
Well [laugh] there were measurements made of let’s see—no, let me go back a little further. There were measurements made of ridges between the oceans like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And there were people, primarily Harry Hess at Princeton in the late 1950s, early 1960s, who suggested that lava comes up from the deep earth through these ridges, and spreads out on opposite sides of each of the ridges, symmetrically.
And then two groups realized if that were true, since the Earth’s magnetic field changes polarity on average every 500,000 years or so, there should be a pattern of magnetic field on the bottom of the ocean that matched one side of the ridge to the other side. Because as the lava came out and went its way on each side of each ridge, then the patterns of the magnetic field should match, one side of each ridge to the other. When the Earth’s field had one polarity, the imprinted field was in one direction. Then when the Earth’s magnetic field reversed polarity, one finds the field in those rocks that solidified then having magnetic fields pointing in the opposite direction.
And then there were people who said, “Ah, let’s try to measure those patterns with magnetometers trailed on the bottom of ships.” Well, it turned out the measurements were first actually done sort of accidentally. But if you just overlaid the pattern found on one side of the ridge with the pattern found on the other side, they matched just beautifully. And with that result, the opposition to continental drift, or plate motion, sort of fell like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. [laugh]
Yeah. What about the relevance of earthquakes? I mean, everyone knew that earthquakes represented tectonic plates rubbing against each other.
No. People didn’t know what caused earthquakes.
And in fact [laugh] there’s still a lot of unknowns there, but that’s another long story I could go into [laugh] if you were interested.
I want to hear it, please.
Well, Aristotle had his theory [laugh] of earthquakes, the first which, as almost everything he said in science is way off [laugh] the mark. He was very imaginative. He had a lot to say about everything. But as for accuracy, [laugh] don’t look to Aristotle. The first one who had a really sensible idea was John Michell, whom you may or may not have heard of—
—from the18th century—who actually was the first one we knew of to think of black holes, although he didn’t call it that of course. But, anyway, his theory was that somehow at depth, rocks rub against each other, and excite waves. And that was pretty close to the mark.
But no one had any idea before that. And then, well, in the modern theory of earthquakes, we still really don’t know what causes them in detail, but we do know how to trace their point of origin. We find the epicenter from seismographs, and we can find out a lot about the structure of the Earth from earthquakes, from monitoring earthquakes with seismometers disported all over the Earth.
But you’re saying we still don’t know what causes earthquakes?
Not really. I mean, we wave our hands a lot but the point is we can’t predict them, and that’s what we’d very much like to be able to do.
Right. So what were some of the other major projects you were working on at this time?
At this time, the main two were relativity tests, and trying to measure continental drift. And I also thought of many applications to astronomy and to geophysics of very-long-baseline interferometry, and developed a number of techniques that enabled microarcsecond resolution in or separation between objects in the sky, measuring polar motion and Earth rotation changes. All these things, I realized back in c. 1967 before the technique had actually been successfully used. It was just being talked about. So I set, if you will, a research program that lasted me for decades. Along the way my students and I discovered in 1971 superluminal motion, the separation motion of two “blobs” in each of some very distant radio sources that seemed to be separating as speeds great than that of light. This turned out to be, as I quickly realized, just an apparent motion—a phase effect if you will—and not a violation of special relativity. But still, detecting any motion greater than the speed of light was not exactly an everyday occurrence and created quite a stir at the time and is still quite interesting to astrophysicists who study such objects.
And how long were you involved in the relativity project?
Oh, for decades. We kept improving it. I realized it could be done with spacecraft. And in fact, its most accurate realization was done in spacecraft, after I left the field, by a group that used the Cassini spacecraft, which went to Saturn, and monitored it as it went behind the sun. That group repeated my “Fourth Test” more accurately than had previously been possible, because the Cassini spacecraft had dual frequencies and so could separate plasma effects from the relativistic effect.
Did you work directly with NASA people ever?
Oh, yeah, I was a PI on this experiment for both a Mariner flight and a Viking flight. I think the Viking flight was sort of my last gasp of involvement with NASA. I had one more – the Voyager mission - but I resigned from it. Too many meetings. [laugh]
[laugh] And were your counterparts at NASA, were they also physicists? Or were you mostly working with bureaucrats and administrators?
Oh, no, they were mostly scientists but I wouldn’t say necessarily physicists. There were also a lot of (good) engineers.
Can you explain what was it that spacecraft allowed you to do in terms of the measurements?
Because they’re actually out there making the measurements? It’s not a theoretical position?
No, they’re point sources, if you will. They’re not a planetary surface, which has a number of problems. And also they amplify the signals sending it back, so you have a much stronger signal. Those two aspects accounted for the main differences.
And what other major projects were you working on at MIT?
Well [laugh] I have to look at my bibliography [laugh] and see. I published somewhat over 400 papers. [laugh] I don’t remember them all.
But were these three projects, did that take up the bulk of your time?
Yeah, I would say, plus teaching and advising of graduate students.
Sure, and how many graduate students would you have at any given time?
The most I had was 12 at any given time. People thought I was crazy. But I managed I thought quite well. [laugh]
Yeah, and what was your style as a graduate advisor? Were you hands-on? Were you really involved in what they were doing, or did you let them sort of go?
I was pretty much hands-on. I’d meet with them very regularly. Some of them were obviously much better [laugh] than others. Some of them like the first one I mentioned, Chuck Counselman, could do things on her or his own just fine. But others had to have help, needed help. So I had a wide variety. Most of them were very good. Only one was a poor researcher. But he became famous. [laugh]
You don’t have to tell me who it is. [laugh]
I’m not going to.
Now when you were named the Schlumberger professor in 1980, did you change departments, or that was just a named chair in the same department?
Yes, the latter—
How did the department—
—I should say.
I should have instead just said “yes” to your either/or question. I could also have just said “the latter.”
Uh-huh. And how—I mean, you were there for quite a long time. In what ways did the department change during your tenure? What were the trends that had changed, the kinds of things that faculty were working on?
I was basically doing my own [laugh] thing. I didn’t pay all that much attention to what other people were doing. They were all trained geologists or geophysicists. I never took a geology or geophysics course in my life. Just like now I’m moving into molecular biology research, I never had a biology course even in high school. [laugh] They didn’t offer biology at Brooklyn Tech when I was there.
So, specifically, your work on continental drift, did you feel like you were operating at a deficit because you didn’t have a geophysics background?
Not at all.
Not at all.
What did you have to offer that perhaps geophysicists did not have to offer?
[laugh] A knowledge of the physics behind VLBI, and how it could be applied. They didn’t have a clue as to what VLBI was and how it worked.
And what is that?
What is VLBI?
Very-long-baseline interferometry. This is the technique I used to make the measurements of continental drift. And I had the idea at the same time as I heard about this new technique that hadn’t yet been used. It was just being revved up to be applied for the first time. And I realized this possible application as well as the possible application in measuring the deflection of radio waves by the sun, which then became the way to do that experiment, the so-called second test of the theory of general relativity, the one that originally garnered world fame for Einstein, through the PR largely of Arthur Eddington. With VBLI, I felt that we could do this experiment with at least two orders of magnitude higher accuracy than had previously been done.
Now, on any of these projects, was your style generally to work on your own with your students, or did you collaborate with peers on these projects?
Well, on many of them I collaborated with peers. The projects were usually much too big to be done [laugh] by one person only with students.
So who have been some of your most significant collaborators on these projects?
Haystack provided many of them. Goddard Space Flight Center supplied one or two. Haystack mainly; they provided the technical experts that I was not.
Technical in what way?
They could make the equipment and make it work.
Oh, I see. So you were never so much involved in the instrumentation?
No. I Could say what we needed, but I couldn’t design and build it myself.
Right. But you knew—how did you—that’s kind of interesting. If you’re not involved in the instrumentation, how do you know what the instrumentation needs to do? I mean, how does that work?
I knew what had to be done to make the measurements I felt should be made. But that doesn’t mean that I could be given a whole bunch of transistors and similar ‘raw’ materials, and could put together the [laugh] equipment needed to make the measurements. I just knew it was doable, but I couldn’t personally do it.
I had no background at all. So one thing I regret as a kid, I didn’t learn about electronics. But I didn’t. No one in my local area, and my parents of course neither, did anything with electronics. So I just was ignorant.
Even at Tech, you didn’t learn electronics at Tech?
Because you didn’t take—
Not in the curriculum.
It was not in the curriculum?
It was not in the curriculum then at least not in the college prep course that I took.
Interesting. Later on, I’m sure they added it.
Yes, but it was more 19th century shop then. [laugh]
It wasn’t 20th—more than modern 20th. And, of course, most of electronics was only developed after I graduated from high school, with the transistor and materials like that. They didn’t come along until later.
Right. Now, beginning in 1982, you have a double appointment. You’re sort of playing for both teams at MIT and Harvard.
No, I moved to Harvard but I took a leave of absence from MIT.
Oh, I see. So it was only in 1985 that you formally left?
I retired in 1985 when my leave of absence expired. I was allowed to retire early, I mean, not me personally. But MIT had a policy allowing early retirement at 55 by 1985. And by 1985, I was 55, so I retired rather than just leaving or resigning.
So what was the motivation to move over to Harvard?
Well, they offered me the directorship of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). One of my main concerns was how I was going to adapt from having a group of 25 people to a group 10 times as large. Could I encompass that jump? That was one concern I had. But then one opportunity I thought I’d have was related to high school science education.
Yeah, my daughter, for example, was then taking chemistry in high school. She had this chemistry book several inches thick. She didn’t really even know what a wave was, and the book had material on molecular orbitals. There was no way she or her fellow students could learn that material. Their teacher probably didn’t know much of it either.
All they could do was memorize, and then forget. They had no understanding of that material. I thought this was crazy. It seemed to me that this situation arose largely because textbook companies can make more money if they can sell more expensive books, and revise them every year. You know how it goes.
So I thought maybe with a platform from the CfA, I might be able to do something helpful for pre-college science education. That was naïve - a snare and a delusion - because the book companies have nearly a stranglehold; getting them to change their approach is not exactly easy. I couldn’t do anything. But we did make somewhat of a dent. Did you ever hear of A Private Universe?
No, a private universe, no.
Well, we did, and this wasn’t me specifically but a person I hired, two people I had hired in fact. In 1987—they went to Harvard graduation, and interviewed I think nearly 30 students at graduation, before it started, asking each student a few simple questions like, “Why is it warmer in the summer, and colder in the winter?” And almost everyone fell totally on their face.
They all said, some of them very condescendingly, “Well, it’s warmer in the summer and colder in the
winter because the Earth is closer to the sun [laugh] in the summer, and further away in the winter,” forgetting of course about Australia and minor issues like that. But it’s just amazing how this part of life is supposedly taught in elementary or early high school, and here are Harvard graduates totally ignorant of it, and not even aware of their ignorance.
So this video was made by our science education department, which I had initiated, and the video was an instant success in the sense that it was shown everywhere. The head of the NSF Science Education Division at that time told me that he carried the video with him all the time, and showed excerpts from the film every time he gave a talk, which was very often. Just to be evenhanded, the same group did the same thing two years later at MIT’s graduation, and gave the students, separately and one at a time, a light bulb, a wire, and a battery, and asked them to light the light bulb. And to see them struggling, and then eventually say, “Well, I wasn’t an electrical engineering major,” [laugh] was amazing.
It was just hilarious. Anyway, so the video crew—Phil Sadler, Matt Schneps, and Alex Griswold—became quite famous for exposing the depth of ignorance of science of the students graduating from our most prestigious schools. But as far as really changing anything fundamentally, I don’t think we did, and for the reason basically that I already mentioned.
Right. Your title is the Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy. I’m interested in practical astronomy. Is this one of those like 19th-century holdover concepts?
That was original title, but since 1997, I have been the Timken University Professor.
Uh-huh. Now, the—
Being practical certainly wasn’t a requirement for [laugh] holding the first professorship.
You didn’t feel like you needed to be practical in your astronomy?
I paid no attention to any of my titles. [laugh] None of them has affected [laugh] in any way what I think or what I do or have done day-to-day.
What was the nature of the partnership between Harvard and the Smithsonian for the Center?
You mean how did that pairing come about?
Oh, that’s a long story, in which I was not a participant; I heard only second-hand stories. But back in the 1950s, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which was founded in 1890, and that had a century-long history, was sort of totally decaying. It was taken over by Charles Greeley Abbot, who had a bug about measuring changes in the solar constant, the amount of energy the sun puts out.
And he had measurements made all over the world, where he had set up sites for that purpose, and that was mostly all he did. And it turned out that it was all wasted effort because the claims he made of detecting changes in the solar constant were really just changes in the absorption by the Earth’s atmosphere. And SAO had no other staff with any intellectual merit.
The former president of Tufts University, who had taken over the Secretaryship of the Smithsonian Institution, had a friend who was then high up in the Harvard administration. His name just slipped from my memory. And they talked about maybe somehow moving the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from Washington to collocate with the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, and maybe cause or allow a rebirth of SAO.
There were a lot of politics and problems associated with this concept. But eventually, in 1955, that’s what happened, with Fred Whipple from the Harvard College Observatory being the first SAO director after SAO’s move to Cambridge. There’s just a very brief written agreement only about three pages long between Harvard and Smithsonian that governs this move. This agreement states that the director of SAO shall be a Harvard professor, and that all facilities of Harvard should be available to SAO staff as if they were Harvard staff. There was not a word about SAO facilities being available on the same basis to Harvard staff because there were no SAO facilities then. And those who wrote the agreement weren’t foresighted enough to think that the tables might be turned some day. [laugh] But, anyway, so that’s how it came about. Then there were conflicts because there were separate directors; Harvard College Observatory had its own director, not the professor who was the head of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
They had a lot of fights, had disagreements on many things, especially about appointments of scientists. It got to be really bad. So Harvard called in a red-letter committee to look into the situation and recommend improvements. The committee ended up with a brilliant solution. Have one director for both. Then he or she wouldn’t fight with each other. [laugh]
[laugh] There you go.
And that’s how the Center for Astrophysics was born. George Field was the first director, and I was the second.
What was the budgetary relationship? Who paid what bills?
The budgets are separate. They’re totally distinct, in principle at least, so that Smithsonian pays the cost of its rental. That is, Smithsonian rents a certain amount of space from Harvard, and pays for it pro rata based on the total cost of maintaining the space; that is Smithsonian pays for the fraction of the whole cost based on the fraction of the square footage that it occupies. So if an office is occupied by a Smithsonian person, then Smithsonian pays by the square foot for that office’s share of the total cost of running the building.
Now, from your vantage point, what were the main benefits and detractions from this partnership?
Oh, I thought it gave amazing flexibility, and it gave us access to government funds and to some non-governmental funds from the Smithsonian as well as to the endowment funds for the Harvard College Observatory and to funds from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for faculty salaries and start-up funds for new faculty. Can you see what I am wearing? I guess not. It is a t-shirt from the dedication on Mauna Kea in Hawaii of the submillimeter array, a partnership between the Smithsonian and the ASIAA facility on Taiwan.
No, I can’t. Oh, wow. [laugh] That’s great. [laugh]
See, I actually [phone rings] became very friendly with the—
If you need to get that, go ahead. [break]
So, anyway, I don’t know whether you want me to finish with this or not. I became very friendly with the man in the House of Representatives who was chair of the subcommittee that dealt with the Smithsonian budget. And for some reason, he took a liking to me [laugh] and we got a lot of money, and were able to build, for example, the submillimeter array on Mauna Kea that’s now been operating for about 20 years.
All right, well, in the limited time we have left then I just want to ask, you know, you’ve been involved in such diverse projects, I wonder what—do you feel like there’s any one project or any one area that you feel like you’ve made the greatest contributions overall to science or physics?
I suppose the one that’s most famous is the Fourth Test of General Relativity. There aren’t many fourth tests. [laugh] Well, the story of that is also interesting, which I didn’t go into in all of its details, for example, but got me into a lot of controversies with some well-known physicists. [laugh]
Leonard Schiff, you remember Leonard Schiff?
He wrote a very well-known book on among other things.
He claimed that the Fourth Test was really his proposal of the gyroscope experiment to measure the frame dragging predicted by general relativity. And I pointed out to him—this was in 1965—that he may have made that proposal first, but my experiment would be done way before his. And I won by 40 years. [laugh]
[laugh] Are there—
And his in the end was a big disappointment, but that’s another long story. I was involved in that experiment too. I saved it by pointing out that with VLBI, we could actually measure to the required accuracy the proper motion of the guide star that they were using against which to measure frame dragging. And we did make these measurements sponsored by the frame-dragging. And we did make these measurements. Sponsored by the frame-dragging project, and came in within budget having beaten the specification on the accuracy of our result by a factor of two or so.
Are there certain fundamental concepts in physics that you have a particular affinity to that really guide the way that you see the world, that inform the things that you work on or the things that you’re most curious about?
I don’t think so. I would say my ideas come from all directions [laugh] and just happen to be what strikes me at the moment. As I said, I think the main thing that I do better than most is come up with ideas. But they’re not all in one area. They’re just what comes to my mind.
I want to come back to—
Yeah, I’m now, as I mentioned earlier, going into microbiology. And I have some ideas on how to answer the question, for example, why does a human have DNA with only about one-seventh the number of base pairs as an onion? You might think offhand—
—that the number of base pairs in DNA would somehow be related to the complexities of the organism. But no one’s going to say an onion is seven times as complex as a human.
So what is going on? And I have some ideas that I’m trying to work out, to see what experiments can be done that will actually show whether my ideas are right or wrong. So I’m having fun with that at the age of 90. [laugh]
I want to ask you—return to this comment you made at the beginning of our talk, and you realized or you came to the conclusion at the age of 8 that, you know, there was no God, right? And you hadn’t really wavered from this belief ever since. And so my question is, you know, as someone uniquely suited to understand how the universe works, is your unwavering non-belief in God—do you feel like your academic expertise brings any particular additional authority to that? Or are you more just that’s just a personal belief as a private citizen?
Well, I can’t prove that there’s no God, but I see no evidence for it. And I like to base my beliefs on evidence to the extent possible. If it gives people pleasure, as it does to many people, to believe in a God that they can pray to, and that gives them comfort, that’s fine. I just don’t happen [laugh] to fall into that category. [laugh]
So, but of course that’s what faith is, right? Faith is—it doesn’t—you don’t need evidence. It doesn’t rely on evidence.
That’s right. I can’t answer the question where everything came from or why, just like nobody else can.
So it makes—you’re comfortable with the idea that creation doesn’t need a creator?
[laugh] I’m comfortable with—well, not comfortable. I’d love to know where things came from, so to say. But I know my limitations, and I’m not likely to find out. So I try to do things that I can get answers to.
Do you think physics can adequately answer the question of why the Earth—or why the universe exists?
Because it’s impossible to answer or because the discovery hasn’t been made?
I’ll keep an open mind. But basically I don’t think it’s possible. If I had a bet, I would say it’s not possible. But on the other hand, I don’t feel all that strongly about it.
What’s not possible?
To know why the universe exists. But we may go steps further, but there’ll always be questions is my guess. [laugh]
Right. So, Irwin, for our last question, for our last few minutes together, you already mentioned this but—
By the way, if you want, we could meet again. This doesn’t have to be the end, as far as I’m concerned.
Sure. Well, let me ask you as a provisional final question now, what are you most excited about for the future of your field? You mentioned microbiology. Is that really—
My field? You mean what I’m personally interested in?
Yes, I am personally more interested at this point in my career in microbiology or, perhaps, more accurately, molecular biology. Why?
Well, I’ve won major prizes in physics, in astronomy, and in geophysics. I’ve won the highest prize there is in the last. And if I who never took a course in biology could do something good in biology, I would consider I’d rounded out my career [laugh] nicely.
It’s also a matter of you’ve gone big, and now you’re going small.
Yes, but that was not on my mind [laugh], the change in scale, especially since I started in nuclear physics, which deals with much smaller objects!
Well, Irwin, it’s been a delight talking with you today. And we should be in touch and think about, you know, continuing this conversation. But, for now, I feel like this is—you know, we’ve touched on some major aspects of your career, and we’ve brought it right up to the present. So I want to thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Well, [laugh] I enjoy thinking about my life [laugh] sometimes. I’ve forgotten an awful lot, unfortunately.
That’s the way life goes. [laugh]
Wonderful. So I’ll cut the recording here.
[End of recording]