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Courtesy of Josef Eisinger, credit unknown.
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Interview of Josef Eisinger by David Zierler on April 26, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44442
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Josef Eisinger, professor emeritus at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Eisinger recounts his childhood in Vienna and his experiences in England as a refugee from the Nazis during World War II. He talks about his transfer to Canada as an “enemy alien,” his experience transitioning to civilian life, and his matriculation at the University of Toronto, where he completed his undergraduate and Masters work in physics before transferring to MIT for his Ph.D. Eisinger discusses his work with Jerrold Zacharias and Viki Weisskopf. Eisinger discusses his tenure at Bell Labs, where he pursued a variety of interests in spectroscopy and electron-nuclear double resonance. He explains his developing interest in molecular biology and the Guggenheim Fellowships that allowed him to advance in this new field. He discusses his work on lead poisoning and his transition to Mount Sinai. Toward the end of the interview, Eisinger discusses his involvement with translating the letters of Brahms.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is April 26th, 2020, and it is my great pleasure to be here virtually with Dr. Josef Eisinger. Professor Eisinger, thank you so much for being with me today.
Oh, it's my pleasure.
So, can you tell us first what is your title and your institutional affiliation?
Well, I'm a professor emeritus at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. I taught and headed a biophysics research lab there until I retired in 1998, more than twenty years ago.
So, let's go right back to the beginning with your remarkable story and childhood. Tell us about your early childhood and your family in Vienna.
[laugh] Well, I was born in 1924 in Vienna. We were a middle-class family, Jewish, not orthodox, though somewhat observant. I have a sister who is alive and well at 99 and who lives alone in Toronto. I'm a mere 96.
[laugh] The baby brother.
Yes, yes. She taught me everything in life because she was three years older, and I had a lot of respect for her knowledge of the world. Still do. In any case, the history is well known. I had a normal childhood in Vienna, attended elementary school just a block or two from where I lived. And then eventually at ten was a student at the Akademisches Gymnasium, which has been the breeding place of many famous physicists, like Boltzmann and Schrödinger and Lise Meitner. They all attended the school. In any case, let us move on to 1938, which is the year in which Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Austria on 12 March. What isn't so well known is that date was critical because, on the following day, a plebiscite was to take place in Austria to decide the future of the country and Hitler invaded and annexed the country (Anschluss) before the plebiscite could take place and the rest is history. In any case, my sister managed to escape even in the same year to England where she worked as an au pair girl. She was 17. Well, I don't know how much detail I should go into at that point.
So, in 1938, were you concerned with—did you feel like your life was in danger?
No. We didn't realize in the beginning what a terrible time was to come. We realized, of course, that the Nazis were violent anti-Semites and, also, that many political opponents and Jews had been arrested and sent to concentration camps. But it only gradually leaked out what these concentration camps were like. Mind you, this is in '38, when killings on a large scale were still in the future. I had a cousin who had spent time in the Buchenwald concentration camp and told me of the tortures, degradations and casual killings that inmates were subjected to. He did so only after making me swear that I would never mention this to anyone, because if I did, he would be sent back to the concentration camp. So, I soon got an idea of how desperate the situation was becoming. The Jews in Vienna lost their livelihoods, their possessions, and often, their housing within months of the Anschluss. All of them tried desperately to get out of Greater Germany, as it was now known, but since few nations were willing to accept them, only a small fraction succeeded.
What did your father do for a living?
My father was a businessman on a modest scale. He imported sea sponges from Greece and other parts of the world, loofahs from Japan, and chamois leathers from England, and sold them wholesale to stores in Austria, and also retail in a shop in central Vienna. And it was thanks to the connection to an English business partner that my sister obtained a position as an au pair girl in London and got out of Vienna in 1938. I don't know how discursive you'd like me to be about this . . ..
The head of the family my sister worked for, was a Mr. da Costa, a Sephardic Jew. He was a tipster, a legal profession in England, and advised clients which horses they should back in particular races. If the horse won, he earned a percentage the client’s wager, if not, no money changed hands. In any case, my sister had been surprised that many of Mr. da Costa’s visitors were men of small stature – they were jockeys bringing the latest information about the prowess of particular racehorses. In any case, this gentleman had offered to sponsor me if and when I arrived in England on a so-called Kindertransport. These were special trains that the Nazis permitted to bring unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany and Czechoslovakia to any countries willing to accept them, but in fact, mostly, to Britain. However, once I arrived in London at Liverpool Street Station on such a Kindertransport in May of 1939, Mr. da Costa refused to sign the necessary papers or pay the requisite bond, even after being told that I would be returned to Germany, if he reneged. Instead, Mr. da Costa and his son contrived to kidnap me from the railway station, and I found myself as an illegal alien in England. My benefactor, Mr. da Costa, then told me that this was all he was going to do for me, and that I was now on my own. I thanked him and before long, I found a job as a farm lad in Yorkshire, and later, as a dish washer in a hotel in Brighton.
Did your parents try to get out also?
Oh, my parents—I'm afraid that is a very long story. My parents were also extremely lucky, for they managed to escape just before being deported to Poland where they would have been murdered. After receiving their deportation order, my father obtained a 2-week stay by obtaining a letter stating that he was needed to help in liquidating the merchandise of his former store – this would be at the end of 1939, December, I believe — and in that period they managed to get on one of the illegal, over-crowded chartered river steamers in which Jewish men and women travelled down the Danube to the Black Sea. There they embarked on a barely sea-worthy boats that were supposed to land them in Palestine, illegally, for Palestine was then a mandate controlled by Britain and Jewish refugees were not allowed to enter, presumably, to placate their Arab allies. Well, my parents got out of Vienna just in time, and a year later, following many hardships including a shipwreck in the harbor of Haifa, they were allowed to remain in Palestine. It took that long and it's too long a story to relate here. But they survived, and so my entire immediate family survived, although almost all my uncles and aunts were eventually murdered by the Nazis.
I would like to interject that their escape story, as well as mine, is told in much greater detail in a youthful memoir I wrote: Flight and Refuge. Reminiscences of a Motley Youth (Amazon, 2016).
Josef, can I ask you, you said your family was not Orthodox but that you were observant in some ways. Were you able to keep up Jewish traditions at all in England?
I am a fairly non-practicing Jew, and I was that even then. I think that has to do with my skeptic attitude toward religion and similar doctrines. But I feel myself very much as a Jew, even though I can't claim to be an observant one, though we did join a reform synagogue a few years ago. My present family does celebrate the Passover Seder every year and we sing the traditional songs that I know from my childhood. My children and grandchildren come to our house on these occasions and keep up the tradition, albeit somewhat cursorily. I should say that my young grandchildren—I have only two— are half Sri Lankan and half Austrian-American. The world is getting more mixed up and they think of themselves as Jews, even though they rarely attend a synagogue.
How long were you in England?
I found a job as a lad on a farm near Ripon in Yorkshire, an extremely primitive farm by modern standards. We worked everything with horses, plowing and haying, harrowing, and harvesting, and we raised everything, from cows and horses to sheep, pigs, and chickens. It meant getting up in time to milk the cows at six every morning, manually, of course, there were no milking machines. The winter of 1939 was very severe, and the farmhouse was unheated except for the front room where we ate our meals. It was only room that had electricity. In it was also a stone sink and a hand pump where the family washed, and the open fireplace where all the cooking was done over a coal fire. I slept in an unheated attic and washed in a little out-building used for slaughtering pigs – the sink in the front room being reserved for the farmer’s family.
How was your English at this—did you know any English before you got to England?
Well, I had had two years of English in school in Vienna, and I soon spoke fluently in the UK. That wasn't a problem. Of course, I picked up a Yorkshire accent—[laugh]
—but I didn't know that. My sister, meanwhile, worked in a hotel in Brighton. I should explain that she lost her position with the Da Costas, because their son, who had kidnapped me from the Liverpool Street Station had fallen in love with my sister and of course, Mrs. Da Costa didn't like the idea of her only son marrying a penniless refugee girl, and gave her notice. After getting a job in Brighton, my sister wrote to me that the hotel was looking for a trainee, and would I like to apply? I did and was accepted, much to the dismay of the farmer's family, for any kind of labor was hard to come by, since the war had begun, and most men were soon in the army. In my new position I was responsible for washing all the dishes and pots of the Park Royal Hotel which sadly, doesn't exist anymore. My other chores included cleaning vegetables and preparing teas. I slept in the boiler room of the hotel and earned the princely sum of 10 shilling a week, twice what I had earned on the farm. I could tell you stories about my experiences there, but the most significant event that occurred while I was there, was that in the Spring of 1941 the German army conquered most of France and the British Expeditionary Force escaped by being evacuated from Dunkirk. Britain was now understandably preparing for a German invasion and Churchill ordered all enemy aliens – men over 16 who held a German passport – to be interned. One morning two exceedingly polite policemen came to my pantry in the hotel and asked me to accompany the police station where, I assumed I would be required to fill out yet another questionnaire.
But I have to ask, as both a Jew and an Austrian, how could you possibly be considered a German enemy alien?
Oh, well, that's bureaucracy. How do you define an enemy alien? Look at his passport. If his passport was issued by Germany, he's a German, and potentially a Fifth Columnist, the name given to secret enemy agents who posed as refugees. In any case, I said, "Fine," I dried my hands and started going along with the policemen when one of them said, "Maybe you should take a toothbrush along." [laugh] And that's when it dawned on me that I wasn't coming back. I was then interned in a series of improvised internment camps, for the British weren't prepared for this eventuality at all. There was very little food and it was the first time that I experienced being hungry. A very useful skill to learn. Eventually we internees ended up in a camp consisting of requisitioned holiday hotels in Douglas on the Isle of Man. It was, incidentally, in the Isle of Man camp that I met again a friend from Vienna, namely Walter Kohn, who is probably rightly known to the AIP as a physicist, even though he won his Nobel Prize in chemistry—
—but he was devoted to physics even then, for, unlike me, he had attended a school in England where he had learned some physics. In any case, he infected me with an interest in physics and we became close friends in the internment camps and remained so for years to come, since we shared a similar history after we were released.
Eventually, we were both among the younger internees – I had just turned 16 when I was interned – who were shipped to a series of internment camps in Canada – ‘for the duration’, as it was called. Our longest stay, almost a year, was in a camp in the woods of New Brunswick where we worked as lumberjacks and in other trades. I learned to cut trees, a skill that I made use of later in life. Not as useful (or well paid) as physics, but I enjoyed it a great deal. I also learned carpentry, since I belonged to a work gang that learned to build wooden huts, both inside and outside the barbed wire-enclosed camp. An informal camp school came into being in which academics among us instructed some two dozen of us youngsters in subjects required for the McGill University matriculation exam. We were able to write it while interned by being transferred to an Italian internment camp which happened to be in Montreal. This is the way I was able me to resume my education which had been interrupted when I was evicted from my high school in Vienna.
And what year did you get to Canada?
It was in 1940. The Canadian authorities had agreed to harbor German prisoners of war on behalf of the United Kingdom ‘for the duration’, and it took a long time before they were persuaded that some of the POWs were in fact civilian internees. Eventually they recognized that we were mostly Jewish and that most of us were eager to fight the Nazis, but when we first arrived in Canada, we were placed in a POW camp populated by Nazi POWs. Well, that did not go well and did not last long.
Were you ever explained why you were transferred from England to Canada?
No, but there was a great shortage of food in England, and Canada was able to contribute to the common war effort by taking prisoners off the hands of their British allies. Well, in wartime these decisions are made casually. In any case, after about a year, the Canadian authorities did recognize that most of us were staunch anti-Nazis and made it possible for certain categories of internees to be released, for example, by joining the Pioneer Corps of the British army. Another was for bona-fide students to be released in Canada if a Canadian citizen would sponsor them. It was mine and Kohn’s good fortune to be sponsored by the Mendel family and were even invited to live with them in their Toronto home. The family, particularly the family doyenne Toni Mendel, had been close friends of Einstein while they all lived in Berlin during the Weimar republic, and before they had all become refugees. How did the Mendels select Walter and me to live with them? A former internee who had been released earlier, had told them that in the camp, Walter and I used to play recorder duets together and the Mendels, being music lovers themselves, reasoned that anyone who likes to make music, cannot be all bad.
While living with the Mendels I got to know Toni Mendel. Toni had been a close friend of Einstein when they all lived in Berlin and they were still corresponding with each other when I knew Omama Toni, as she was known to me. This is how I got to know Einstein the human being, secondhand, so to speak. That has a lot to do with my becoming an Einstein scholar after retiring from Academia. Walter and I lived with the Mendels a couple of years while attending the University of Toronto, and until it became possible for enemy aliens like us to volunteer for service in the Canadian Army, when we joined up together.
How much older was Walter than you?
One year almost exactly. Incidentally, chances are that we may actually be related.
Both of our fathers were born in the same small town in southern Moravia, and we were often told that we looked alike. We also had the same Viennese accent and, in the army, when we obliged to dressed alike and were sometimes mistaken for each other. And once—now, this is not a story that's generally known about Walter Kohn. Sometimes he did impulsive things, though he was generally very deliberate. On one occasion, our colonel decided that there should be a boxing competition one evening, I suppose to toughen us up for combat. He asked for volunteers to fight in a boxing ring and for unfathomable reasons Walter offered to fight and was matched with a guy who, unlike him, really knew how to box. Walter was knocked about for one round but refused to quit, and in the second round, his handlers intervened and threw in the towel. There was a regimental parade the next day and when the colonel inspected the ranks, he stopped in front of me and shouted: "Good show last night, soldier!" and not wanting to point out his error, I just and shouted back: "Yes, sir!" [laugh]
So, I got credit for Walter’s thrashing. When our training was over and our company was about to be shipped out to Holland where the Canadians were engaged in serious fighting, Kohn and I were called out and were told that we too sensitive in case we were captured by the Germans. We were instead sent to the School of Instruction, were promoted to corporal, and spent the remainder of the war training soldiers in infantry skills and tactics.
Is this when you gained your citizenship?
No, at least not right away. After I was released from internment, I had to report to the RCMP, the mounted police, as an enemy alien once a month. It was only some time after the war that I was able to become a Canadian citizen. Following my release from internment I spent three months in a high school in Toronto where wrote my senior matric. This allowed me to enroll in the Mathematic and Physics course (then known as M&P) at the University of Toronto. I joined the army after the second year and completed my BA with honors in Physics and Astronomy after the war (1947). By that time, I had developed a taste for experimental physics and preferred to become a graduate student, rather than look for a real job. For my master’s thesis I measured the Raman spectrum of methane gas at high pressures and determined how the rotation of the CH4 molecules is inhibited by increasing collision frequency. For this experiment I built a high-pressure Raman tube of steel, with inch-thick quartz windows, and while it was hardly an important study, it was thrilling to use spectroscopy to observe events on the atomic scale. It gave me a taste for experimental physics research.
Now, at this point, did you know that you wanted to be a physicist as a career?
Yes, I did, but I had no idea what a career in physics actually consisted of. [laugh] I enjoyed being a physics student, but when I graduated, all my classmates — there were only seven of us — looked for jobs in industry. I went to just one job interview and decided that I really dislike working for other people and that I preferred remaining a student
Did you see yourself more as a theoretician or as an experimentalist?
Primarily as an experimentalist, but among my research publications (close to 200), there are several theoretical ones, such as my work on non-radiative energy transfer - which is a quantum mechanical phenomenon. I enjoyed the hands-on physics. I should say that in Toronto in those days, optical spectroscopy was king. The instrumentation was excellent – for a time without computers or CCDs – and the physics department boasted several well-regarded spectroscopists. Among them was Professor ‘Harry’ Welsh who was my supervisor for my M.A. thesis work, and he was the one who recommended me for a teaching fellowship at MIT. When I arrived in Cambridge, I found the contrast between Toronto and MIT to be striking. Here nuclear physics was king, and several faculty members had worked on nuclear physics on the Manhattan Project during the war. Also, students in Toronto were graded on the year’s work in a single 3 hour-long written exam, while MIT students, even graduate students, were given weekly quizzes in each course. That was something of a shock, but it is not a bad system.
And what professors at MIT did you become close with?
I eventually joined the lab of Professor Jerrold Zacharias, who headed the atomic beam laboratory in Building 20. Zach, as we all called him, had been a student of I.I. Rabi, who had been a student of Stern, of the famous Stern-Gerlach experiment. And I, myself, am an academic great grandson of Stern, as a result. We atomic beamers formed a close community in those days for there weren't that many of us. My thesis dealt with the interior structure of atomic nuclei and a professor I had a lot to do with, was ‘Viki’ Weisskopf. He was on my thesis committee and he, together with Aage Bohr, the son of Niels, had worked on the nuclear models which I investigated experimentally. Viki also taught a graduate course in quantum mechanics, while Slater taught electro-magnetic theory, and Evans, nuclear physics. Julian Schwinger at Harvard was highly regarded for his work on quantum electrodynamics and some of us MIT students attended his much-admired lectures at Harvard, up the Charles River from MIT. Viki Weisskopf was a fellow Viennese who had indeed attended the same school as I. He was an excellent pianist, and occasionally invited me to chamber music evenings at his home, once he had discovered that I liked music and played flute in the MIT symphony orchestra.
I've heard it said of Weisskopf that he was especially kind and respectful to his younger colleagues. Was that your experience with him?
Yes. He was invariably supportive towards me, as was Professor Zacharias, and I was often at Zach’s house. Zach was always full of anecdotes and jokes when he came to the lab to meet with the graduate students, which happened mostly only on Saturday mornings. The rest of the time the graduate students were on their own, the older ones passing the experimental tricks of the trade on the younger ones. It was a friendly and relaxed lab.
What were some of the major research questions that atomic beams were helpful in answering at that time?
Well, there was a lot of interest in the structure of nuclei and in nuclear energy levels. These were explored by identifying the reaction products when nuclei were bombarded by protons and deuteron accelerated by MIT’s Van de Graaff generator. MIT also had recently completed a 320 Mev synchrotron whose X-rays were used to study the reaction products of photo reactions and I took part in some of these studies. There was a lot of interest in the new tool of microwave spectroscopy which had been developed in the Manhattan Project and was now exploited in the laboratories of MIT and Harvard. But atomic beam experiments explored only the lowest energy levels, also known as an atom’s hyperfine structure. For my thesis work, I measured the distribution of magnetism in the nuclei of three potassium isotopes, by inducing radiofrequency transitions in the isolated potassium atoms as they travelled down a 8 feet-long, high-vacuum chamber, known as the can. Their path of an atom that issued from an oven at one end of the can was determined by specially shaped magnetic fields and by radiofrequency induced transitions that altered the magnetic moment of the atom and hence altered the atom’s path, causing it to miss the detector at the far end of the can. I spent two years constructing the vacuum chamber can and building its necessary components, i.e. the magnets, a mass spectrometer, an electron multiplier, which were not commercially available then, I was able to obtain all the experimental data that I needed for my thesis, comparing the experimental result with predictions of theoretical nuclear models, in just one week. My results were published in a Physical Review paper with the innocuous title "The Hyperfine Structure Anomaly of Potassium" and with B. T. Feld and V. Weisskopf as my co-authors.
Who was on your thesis committee?
Zacharias and Weisskopf and another professor whose name escapes me, were on my thesis committee, but there was also another faculty committee which examined you for three hours on your general knowledge of physics. I recall one question I was asked to answer on the blackboard was: Estimate the tensile strength of iron, using only the fundamental physical constants, such as the charge of the electron.
Did you keep up contact with your parents at this point? When did you reestablish contact with your parents?
I had established contact with them as soon as the war was over, and in 1947, two years later, I graduated at the University of Toronto. Of course, they were anxious to see me again and since I had no money to travel commercially, somebody suggested that I might find passage by working on a freighter from Montreal, a seaport. I hung out at the docks and soon found a freighter whose captain was willing to sign me on as an ordinary seaman, at a nominal salary of $1, and to take me to the Mediterranean. I was a super-numerary, i.e. an extra hand above the number the Union required. That is how was able to get to Palestine and spend two weeks with my parents. – The State of Israel did not come into being until the following year. My experiences as seaman were fascinating to me and I wrote about them in the memoir I mentioned. My parents were of course delighted to see me again.
Not that there were that many years that had passed, but the changes we had all undergone were, of course, profound. I had left home as an immature schoolboy and the varied experiences I had during the war and as a Canadian citizen, had given me confidence that I could learn to handle almost anything – or so I thought. Life was so much simpler in those days; I cannot imagine signing on as a crew member on a 10,000-ton freighter so casually nowadays. In any case such freighters are now obsolete, their role has today been replaced by huge container ships that can be loaded and unloaded much more efficiently with minimal crews. I enjoyed being a seaman and getting to know the members of the motley crew of the Oceanside and I wonder if one could find an obliging captain who let me leave the ship in Cyprus, letting me spend time in Palestine, and then pick me up again in Haifa where the ship came to bunker oil, and then bring me back home to Canada.
Did your parents want to stay in Israel? Was there any discussion of either you staying in Israel or you bringing them back with you to Canada?
Oh, well, they wanted to be closer to their children, of course, but that couldn't be done that easily. Eventually, after I became a Canadian citizen, I managed to obtain immigration visas for them, as well as for my sister who lived in the UK after serving as an interpreter for the US Army in Germany. In time my parents came to Toronto where they spent the rest of their lives. By that time, I had obtained my PhD and had accepted a post-doc position at Rice University in Houston. My father again established contact with his Greek sponge dealers, as he had done in Palestine, and he again sold sponges to drug stores in Toronto.
At Rice I worked in the lab of Tom Bonner who had just acquired a 10 Mev Van de Graaff generator for the Physics Department. Together with two other post-docs I worked very hard to get the bugs out of that machine and once we had it working reliably, we investigated the reaction products and their angular distributions of different target nuclei when bombarded with proton and deuterons, as a function of the Van de Graaff’s energy. We identified many new energy levels in various nuclei and the results appeared in a series of Physical Review papers.
I spent about 18 months at Rice, but while they were very productive, I cannot say that I enjoyed living in 1950s Houston. I disliked the hot and humid climate and missed being able to walk or to exist outside air-conditioned buildings. I missed the outdoors that was so accessible in the North-East, not to mention its superior cultural facilities. As a result, it was my good fortune when I ran into Sidney Millman while attending a Physical Society meeting in New York. Sidney had been a student of Rabi and was a former atomic beamer, so we had a lot in common. He headed at that time the physics research area of the famous Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. In any case, he invited me to the Labs to present a seminar, and to be interviewed. This turned out to be a formidable 2-day experience in which I was meticulously interviewed by a dozen scientists and was grilled over cocktails and during dinner. This was during the McCarthy era and my hosts were evidently anxious to find out what my (closely guarded) political views were. Bell Labs had many defense contracts in those days and the management wanted to make sure that I did not espouse any radical political views. So that is how my thirty year-long career in the basic research area of Bell Labs began. Sid Millman is, incidentally, the author of a fine history of the physical sciences at Bell Labs (1925-1980) and was a great opera buff.
Back then in the 1950s through the 1970s the Labs were a very remarkable, unique research institution. They were owned by AT&T and were funded by just one percent of the telephone company’s revenue. Ninety percent of the Labs was devoted to applied research, e.g. switchboards and submarine telephone cables, with ten percent funding the basic science research area. In the basic physics area, the first silicon transistor had recently been constructed and demonstrated, and Walter Brattain, who had built the first switchable transistor under a microscope, was a member of our weekly physics poker game.
There you go.
[laugh] In 1954, I was invited to join the research area of Bell Labs and I accepted happily. However, but before starting work there, I took three months off and travelled in Europe, from Glasgow, where I bought a 250cc BSA motorcycle, via Italy to Istanbul. Back in the US, when I finally started to work at Bell Labs, I was provided with a laboratory, a research assistant, and an office, and was told to select my own research topic. In those days members of the basic research area were indeed free to work on any problem, as long as it was good science. I would later make use of this freedom by working in molecular biology, and I stretched it to the limit in my work on the history of medicine.
At first, I joined Homer Hagstrum’s surface physics group where I was able to make use of my experience with high vacuum techniques to study the work function and other properties of semi-conductors surfaces. (I am surprised nowadays to be occasionally notified that these sixty-years old papers are still being used and cited.) We had many seminars, not to mention daily afternoon coffee get-togethers, that kept the members of the technical staff (‘labbies’ as we called ourselves) informed of the latest scientific developments. These gatherings also led to many collaborations and that is how I became aware of George Feher’s microwave spectroscopy work on ‘doped’ silicon, and specifically, of his ENDOR (electron-nuclear double resonance) technique. Endor allowed one to study atoms that were embedded in the silicon lattice, instead of being isolated in a vacuum. For these and similar experiments I acquired an NMR spectrometer and it made sense for me to move to another research department which was headed by Joe Burton. Feher and I used ENDOR to investigate the nuclei of the antimony isotopes and their interaction with s-electrons, and I found myself, nilly-willy, back in nuclear physics.
Josef, how much of the research that you did was at your own initiative, in other words, research ideas and problems that you came up with on your own, and how much were sort of handed to you from above you?
At no time in my career at Bell Labs was I handed a research problem to investigate. All of my research grew out of my own interest or out of collaborations with other scientists, either at Bell Labs, or at other academic institutions. At the Labs we had the luxury of not needing to write detailed proposals to obtain funding for research. If we needed a piece of equipment, or travel funds, such money was always available. In fact, when the end of a budget period approached, my department head Joe Burton would come to my lab and asked "Listen, I have to spend another $50,000. Is there anything you need?" [laugh] In today's world that is hard to imagine. Money was no object within limits. This changed, of course, in the 1980s when AT&T lost its monopoly in the telephone business and had to contend with competition.
And did you ever get the sense that your research needed to be justified as profitable to AT&T, or were those two totally separate worlds?
In basic physics research they were indeed separate worlds, although it happened sometimes that discoveries that came out of the basic research area turned out to be useful for telephony, and some, indeed, have altered the world of communications.
Right. But that was indirect. They didn't think about profit in pursuing particular research problems, it's just that some of that research happened to become profitable.
Well, of course, there were scientists at the Labs that were very much aware of what would be useful to the telephone company and that explains the interest in condensed matter physics, and specifically in semiconductors. Shockley realized that the use of mechanical relays and vacuum tubes (thyrotrons) for telephone switching was inefficient, slow, and expensive and that a solid-state device would be superior in all regards. He probably motivated Bardeen and Brattain to work on and invent the silicon transistor, for which all three were then awarded a Nobel prize. As is well known, At&T had a consent agreement with the government that permitted the company to retain its monopoly but obliged it to make all its patents and inventions freely available to the public, without charge. That's a complicated, political story that I don't want to get into, but once transistors and integrated circuits became widely available, competing telephone system forced the dismemberment of AT&Ts operating companies, which led to the demise of Bell Labs. That was the price the Labs paid for its successes. Nor was the transistor the only device that originated at Bell Labs. There were also CCDs, lasers, integrated circuits, computer languages, and many other new devices that originated at the Labs and have changed our world forever.
Yeah. [laugh] Yeah.
Yes, in integrated circuits thousands and later millions of transistors were combined into ‘chips’ and they made modern computers feasible.
And, Josef were you with your academic colleagues? Were you writing papers? Were you attending conferences?
Oh, yes, many of the scientists who worked in the same fields as I worked at universities and we attended the same professional meetings. We got along well professionally, but I always suspected that they were a little envious of us labbies because we did not have to teach or compete for research grants. Internally our research work was reviewed every year, when our publications were reviewed by our supervision and these annual reviews affected the raises we were awarded. Until the 1980s all of our supervisors, right up to the president of Bell Labs, were themselves scientists or engineers, so that our supervision was technically very competent to assess our work. Yes, it was important to publish in technical, peer-reviewed journals. Our salaries were comparable to academic salaries and all of my department heads were technically pretty savvy and judged your work from a basic science point of view, but it did not hurt if our research found a practical application.
And before you started to get more interested in molecular biology, what do you see as your primary contribution in physics at Bell Labs?
I suppose it was the nuclear structure work I did together with George Feher. It probably played a role in the Labs deciding to establish a nuclear physics department under Walter Brown, but I declined to join it because I had become interested in biophysics by that time. But to my amazement, as I mentioned before, my old papers dealing with cleaning of silicon surfaces are still read by researcher in in Korea, Japan, and Russia. Papers that I thought were long forgotten because they were of interest 65 years ago.
And how involved were you in the creation of the instruments? Were you working to put the instrumentation together or was that something that your colleagues did more?
Bell Labs had superb machine shops and glass blowing shops and if the equipment you needed was not commercially available, they built it from drawings that I prepared. This was done routinely. We would buy electronics and instrumentation that was commercially available, but we often modified it for our particular needs. This was for instance, the case for the low temperature spectrofluorometer I needed. Having those excellent machine shops available was a great luxury!
But were you involved? Did you actually do the fabrication or were there engineers that you worked with?
No, I could not personally use the lathes or milling machines, but I worked closely with the machinists who did. There was a drafting and engineering department available to help you design equipment, but I usually could manage without it. I made the design drawings and then went to the machine shop and discussed it with the machinist, or with the glassblowers. And they said whether this was too hard or too easy or, in other words, it was a cooperative effort. I should mention that there was also a huge stock room with many bins of small parts needed for experiments, and for chemicals, where we could pick up anything we needed. It was also known as the ‘gift shop’.
Mm-hmm. And at what point did computers become a part of your work experience at Bell Labs?
Well, I suppose—I should explain a physics phenomenon that I made a good deal of use of was non-radiative energy transfer between a fluorescent donor molecule and a nearby acceptor molecule. This technique allows one to measure the distance between the two molecules, if their relative orientations are considered. My colleague Robert Dale and I calculated the effect of their relative orientation and we used computers which were at the time still fairly slow and primitive. For instance, we used IBM punch cards to program the computer. We calculated the orientation effects, but also performed experiments to demonstrate the technique, which is now known as RET (resonance energy transfer) and is widely used to measure molecular separations in proteins and other biomolecules. That was an instance in which physics – quantum mechanics – made an important contribution to molecular biology.
Right. And how did that interest develop? How did you start to think about molecular biology?
Well, the primary stimulation probably came from Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double-helical structure DNA, and Crick’s subsequent work that elucidated the mechanism of protein synthesis – the translation of the genetic message encoded in the genome. Those discoveries were widely discussed among physicists in the 1950s, for they brought genetics and biology down to the molecular level – a level that physicists feel at home in, and for which they had developed various experimental techniques. It was hardly surprising that at that time many physicists were drawn to biophysics, which is simply the use of physics techniques to study biological systems. Since such research represented a fairly radical departure for the physics research at Bell Labs, three of us, R. G. Shulman, W. E. Blumberg, and I, proposed to the Labs management that we form a molecular biophysics research department. We justified this, in part, by pointing out the enormous information density offered by DNA molecules, since memory was something the telephone company had a great deal of interest in. We did not mention that reading the DNA memory was slow and difficult but emphasized that the new field of molecular biology was generating a lot of interest among scientists. The Labs management accepted our suggestion and authorized the formation of a molecular biophysics research department, with Shulman as its first head.
And what was your sense of how developed the field of molecular biology was at this point? Did you feel like you were really at the cusp of the field or had it already been somewhat developed by the time you got involved?
Well, in the 1950s, molecular biology was still in its infancy. One-by-one the codons for the individual amino acids that make up a protein, were discovered. In one of my studies, for instance, I described in detail how codons interact with their transfer RNA, and that's pretty basic aspect of protein synthesis. But the first biophysics area in which I and my colleagues worked was the identification of the molecular damage centers created in DNA when it is subjected to different radiations.
Now, it's also true that most molecular biologists would not give a damn—
—about the entropy changes or the details of how biomolecules interact. He/she is satisfied that the interactions take place. However, for a physicist it is important to understand the details of the interaction. To come back to the radiation damage centers in DNA caused by radiation, a damaged gene can lead to cancer and may be transmitted to future generations. In the 1950s we were, of course, well aware that the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that had caused untold suffering and death and it was feared that the DNA of survivors was seriously damaged and that this damage would be passed on to the survivors’ descendants.
My colleague, Angelo A. Lamola, and I irradiated DNA and identified a number of different damage centers. We also discovered that some, e.g. the so-called thymine dimer, could be reversed by irradiating it at particular UV wavelengths. There were several other laboratories in many countries working on damage centers in DNA and our Bell Labs group organized an international conference on DNA damage in Harriman, NY, which brought together a hundred scientists working in this field.
What about, Josef, the effects on people that were studying atomic blasts domestically? Were you interested in them, as well?
Well, we never arrived on the stage where we examined the DNA of radiation-exposed people, Japanese or American. Our work was still confined to identifying the type of damage that can occur in DNA.
In any case, we never reached that point, for within weeks of that conference on radiation damage to DNA, Richard Setlow made a remarkably important discovery, namely that the DNA in the nucleus of each cell, is always accompanied by a group of enzymes which repair the damage in DNA. They do so by comparing the damaged nucleotides on one strand of the DNA to the nucleotide in the complementary DNA strand. In other words, the DNA is continually being checked for damage and repaired. This also explained why there were very few cancers found in the descendants of radiation-exposed persons. These repair enzymes are of course incredibly important to understand biological evolution, for we are always exposed to cosmic rays and to radiation from the radio-active isotope (K40) of potassium in our body. Without repair enzymes to repair our double-stranded DNA molecule we would be in serious trouble.
How did your Guggenheim Fellowship come about?
Well, I was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships and I think I may be the last person alive who can make that statement, for the Guggenheim Foundation no longer permits this.
That was in 1965, right?
Yes, I received the first one when I had begun to work on biological problems, and it allowed me to visit molecular biology laboratories in order to learn the most import biochemical and microbiological techniques. These techniques allowed me to establish a molecular biological laboratory at Bell Labs. As a matter of fact, I was able improve some of these techniques by developing a quantitative chromatography technique to determine binding constants between bio-molecules.
My second Guggenheim was awarded to me in 1977 and in an entirely different field. By that time, I had worked on lead disease and developed a device for diagnosing lead poisoning and had, as a result, become interested in the long and tortuous history of lead disease. The research I did thanks to my second Guggenheim fellowship, allowed me to trace the disease from its classical origins to the modern era, and to identify the first physician who discovered its true aetiology in the 17th century. Can I tell you a little more about the diagnostic device we invented at Bell Labs?
Well, that is an interesting story that had important public health consequences. I developed a spectroscopic technique (front-face fluorometry) which facilitates quantitative fluorescence assays of whole blood. This became the basis of a portable device, the so-called hematofluorometer, with which the ZPP (zinc protoporphyrin) concentration in blood could be determined, using just a single drop of blood. Why is that useful? When a person ingests lead (Pb) many enzyme systems are affected, among them, those responsible for inserting Fe atoms into the porphyrin ring to make the heme, and when they malfunction, Zn takes the place of Fe, creating Zn-protoporphyrin in place of the heme. Now since ZPP fluoresces brightly in the red when irradiated by UV, while the normal heme is non-fluorescent, the hematofluorometer is able to determine the ZPP concentration in blood quickly and cheaply. We contacted Dr. I. Selikoff who headed the Occupational Medicine Department at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and in collaborations with his group we conducted a series of studies of lead-exposed populations and children which demonstrated the efficacy of the hematofluorometer as a diagnostic device for lead disease. Before the hematofluorometer was available, Pb assays were performed in clinical laboratories, required days, and cost about $10 each; while our hematofluorometer gave immediate results and cost about 10 cents per test. As a result, many more human studies could be performed and they showed convincingly that Pb poisoning was rampant among workers, children, and also the general population. In those days, 1 percent of dust in cities and near highways was lead! In time, we were invited to present our results to a congressional committee in Washington and the data we obtained in our human studies provided the rationale for finally outlawing leaded gasolines in 1996, I believe. Other countries soon followed suite. The lead additives were banned over the strenuous objections of the oil companies, even though these additives (tetra-ethyl-Pb) had as engines improved, long since become quite unnecessary. Since then, the analysis of ice cores has shown that leaded gasolines had indeed been the chief source of lead pollution of the air for decades and that atmospheric lead diminished dramatically once leaded gas was no longer sold. My work on the hematofluorometer and the population studies together with Selikoff’s group of physicians are the most important contributions to the well-being of human society I was able to make, and it gives me considerable satisfaction.
The hematofluorometer is, in fact, an applied physics device that makes use of classical optics and spectroscopy.
So, Josef, I want to ask, as a matter of your intellectual identity and your motivations as a scientist, when did you really start to be interested in working on things that advanced human health? Because, obviously, this is a transition in your career, at least from graduate school. So, at what point did you really start thinking of yourself as motivated by doing research that helped the human condition?
That is an interesting question because I never thought of myself as being motivated by a desire to advance human wellbeing or happiness. My research on lead poisoning really grew out of an interest in the heme and its fluorescent replacement in the presence of lead, which I was made aware by my collaborators and the relevant literature. I was of course very pleased when it turned out that my work on the hematofluorometer had medical applications. That I was able to pursue this work and collaborate with occupational physicians in field studies, was due to the unusually liberal research policies of Bell Labs. On the other hand, AT&T and Bell Labs received a lot of favorable publicity out of hematofluorometer, which was patented by the Labs. The patent is actually in my name, but we were all obliged to sign our patents over to the Labs for $1.00 per patent. But, no, I saw each problem that I approached as a puzzle that would be interesting to solve. That is the reason that I think of myself as a journeyman physicist, because I'm willing to make use of my physics background and knowledge to work in any problem in science, from the structure of atomic nuclei to lead disease among demolition workers and the fluidity of cell membranes.
But interesting and important doesn't necessarily mean advancing human health? It may or it may not?
No. I am, of course, like any right-thinking person much in favor of advancing human health, but I cannot claim to be such a dedicated humanist as to be motivated by it in my science. Maybe I should just say that I am an opportunist. I like to work on problems that are scientifically significant and are do-able. I was fortunate to be in a position to be able to do some societal good, not many physicists are able to do so. They are usually caught up in their professional obligations, though they may be socially responsible as citizens and often are. My wife comes to mind, for she is a musicologist, but she is politically very active and is guided by a strong impulse to improve human society, human health, and the environment. That is something I cannot lay a legitimate claim to and I'm happy that both my wife and my daughter make up for it.
Can you talk about the final years of Bell Laboratory, what it was like when you saw where this was headed at the end of the monopoly, and what that meant for basic research?
Yes. Well, now, I got my second Guggenheim for research on history of lead disease on the basis of a few short pieces I had written on the subject.
It was my work with the Mount Sinai physicians that made me aware of the two-millennia-long history of lead disease, and that the frequent epidemic outbreaks of a colic described in the medical literature. were almost always ascribed to something other than lead, e.g a comet or human wickedness. I applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship hoping to discover how and when the true aetiology of the disease was discovered. As you implied in your question, the winds of change had by then arrived at the Labs, and among us labbies it was said that the leadership was now in the hands of accountants, and no longer in the hands of scientists. Still I was given leave to accept the Guggenheim. I suppose it would have been awkward for the management to make me turn down the Guggenheim, but from then on, I suspect, I was persona non grata.
The fellowship permitted me to find out who had discovered that ingested lead was responsible for widespread epidemics in Europe and in America. I became interested, in particular, in Eberhard Gockel who was the city physician of Ulm in Germany in the 17th century. He was a man immersed in both the old mystical medical culture as well as in the emergent scientific age. By collaborating with the mining physician, Samuel Stockhausen in Goslar, Germany, he had discovered that patients of the epidemics rampant in Swabia at that time, had the same symptoms as lead miners and that the symptoms were caused by wine that had been adulterated by vintners with lead compounds in order sweeten and preserve them. This was effective because Pb has a sweet taste and kills the bacteria that turn wine into vinegar. This practice actually originated in ancient Rome when it was in wide use and several ancient Roman recipes provide quantitative instructions for this wine adulteration. I performed experiments to demonstrate that these recipes would in time cause severe lead disease and even death. Eventually I published my findings in Medical History in an article which continues to be widely cited. Please see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139187/
I traveled to Southern Germany where the epidemics took place and visited various archives and made use of my knowledge of Latin, still the language of 17th century medical literature. I became something of a historian – like you are. Incidentally, after I retired, I again engaged in historical studies when my wife, Styra Avins, became a Brahms scholar and I assisted her work by deciphering the handwriting of Johannes Brahms and translating hundreds of his letters.
From German to English?
Yes. Brahms wrote in German using an outdated script, called Kurrent or Sütterlin, and had a poor handwriting to boot.
So, I'm now called upon by various musicologists to transcribe this kind of writing. Yes, I suppose I really am a journeyman physicist who can get involved in almost anything!
So, when you said before as a journeyman physicist, you'll take on projects that are interesting, so what is interesting to you? What kind of a project has struck you as interesting and worth your concentration?
You mean now or—?
Over the course of your career.
Well, a journeyman scientist generally works in several fields, while it is more common that scientists in academia become specialists in a particular area. In the course of my career my research work dealt with nuclear structure, condensed matter physics, molecular biology, medicine, the history of science, even geophysics, to name a few. I got involved in these fields in various ways. I merged into biophysics in part by the discoveries of the structures of DNA and of hemoglobin, which moved biology into the domain of atoms, the natural domain of physics for which powerful investigative tool were available, for instance, NMR, X-rays, or fluorescence spectroscopy. That was the rationale for many physicists getting involved in biological systems, often in collaborations with biologists and physicians. So much to rationalize my move into biophysics, but you also asked how I selected the problems I worked on. Sometimes it was a chance encounter with a colleague who had made a discovery in condensed matter physics which, I suspected, could be used to study a nuclear physics problem. That was the case with ENDOR. Another example is that my work with Tony Tyson, an astrophysicist, whose lab was near George Smith’s, the discoverer of CCDs. Tyson obtained an early CCD from Smith and incorporated it in a liquid nitrogen-cooled camera he had built. It was a very large brass contraption that Tyson transported to various telescopes in Chile and Hawaii and used it to image astronomical features. That was, of course something quite new and revolutionary at the time, because CCD were far more sensitive than photographic film and had certain other advantages. Today this is the standard way of recording optical images Now, Tyson and I were good friends and knowing his work, I suggested mounting his camera on my fluorescence microscope and together, we recorded the first biological CCD images – it was a pathological human red blood cell. I should mention that at that time CCDs were not perfect and the early ones had to be cooled and had just 100 x 100 pixels, really toys compared to current ones. Here is another example: while studying lead-exposed populations alongside occupational physicians from Mount Sinai, I became aware of its symptoms, but also its long and dramatic history that goes back to ancient Rome. Finally, some time after I retired, an acquaintance mentioned that the Einstein archive at Princeton University had copies of Einstein’s travel diaries. I went see them and was so intrigued by reading them in Einstein’s neat handwriting that I eventually turned myself into an Einstein scholar and in time published two books about him. You can see that chance played a big role in my choice of a research area – that, and a curious mind. I should mention that while my decision to work on biological problems was scientifically motivated, there was a humanitarian aspect to the move. Physics had at that time acquired a shady reputation on account of the nuclear weaponry and anti-ballistic missile systems they worked on. The Vietnam war was going on and there was a substantial anti-war feeling among scientists. To some, biology seemed a gentler research area in which one might actually help victims of war and disease. Several physicists at the Labs had indeed formed an anti-Vietnam war movement, called Community to End the War to which I belonged. It took out newspaper ads opposing the war and the Labs management was not happy about it, because the Labs was working on several large defense contracts, particularly on anti-ballistic missile systems. We had some pointed confrontations with management, but once the war ended, all was forgotten. Still, we had made the point that the Bell Labs management ought to take the political views of its scientists into account.
So, let me know if this is a good time to ask about the end of your tenure at Bell Labs and how that coincided with the demise of Bell Labs generally.
Well, the decline and eventual demise of Bell Labs is indeed a fascinating story. It played out in the early 1980s and was precipitated by the break-up of AT&T’s telephone monopoly. The management of Bell Labs came under increasing pressure to restrict the traditional freedom of research and to shrink the research staff substantially. The molecular biophysics department was encouraged to work on medical applications of their research. There was a lot of pressure on Bell Labs and on AT&T to reduce costs.
And one way of doing that was to encourage members of the research staff to find jobs elsewhere and they were often offered financial incentives to resign. Since I had been a member of the research staff for 30 years, firing me would have smelled of age discrimination and looked bad, and so I was, out of the blue, re-assigned to a engineering position in another AT&T location. I declined to accept the assignment and was then offered a substantial settlement to resign. By that time, I had fortunately been offered a professorship in the Biophysics Department of at the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York and I wasted no time accepting it. Many other researchers at the Labs were, unfortunately, not as lucky.
And what year would this have been, when you realized it was nearing the end?
That was in about 1985.
Most staff members of the Molecular Biophysics Department, as well as other basic research departments, did find other jobs, many at universities, and left. The golden years at Bell Labs were definitely over.
And what were your options? What did you see as a possible transition? Were you looking at faculty positions?
Well, the deteriorating conditions at Bell Labs were of course well known to our academic colleagues and many of us started to look for a faculty position or other employment. Fortunately, Sandy Ross, a friend and fellow fluorescence researcher at the Mount Sinai Medical School, alerted the head of the biophysics department, Harel Weinstein, that I was probably available. I was invited to present a seminar on my research, and before long, received an offer of a professorship. I accepted and my first task was to write a proposal and to request NIH funds for a state-of-the-art fluorescence microscopy laboratory. Finding a position in New York was very lucky, because I already had a residence in the city, so that I did not need to commute or to move.
And so, what year did you start fulltime at Mount Sinai?
I started in 1986 and remained until 1998.
It was an easy transition for me, because my family stayed in New York and I took the subway to my office at Mount Sinai. This is when I started to work on biological membranes. I used novel fluorescence probes, synthesized by a colleague in Finland, to determine the fluidity of model membranes and of membranes of intact cells. We imaged the movement of proteins in membranes, something that is important to understand the structure of membranes which plays an important role in the signaling between biological cells. Some of this research was done in collaborations with physicians and molecular biologists, both at Mount Sinai and at other academic institutions. For instance, I had a long-term collaboration with physicians and researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine with whom I collaborated on sickle cell disease. Apart from my research activities, I taught a graduate course in biophysics for MD/PhD students, and a couple of times a year, I lectured on the history of medicine to first year medical students. I generally astonished them by claiming that, until the 20th century, you were better off avoiding doctors, than consulting them. I cited examples from the medical literature, e.g. the long, dismal record of therapeutic bleeding. [laugh]
It's absolutely true. Before 20th century science-based medicine, ‘bleeding’ a therapy invented by the ancient Greeks, was widely used, in spite of the evidence presented in the 18th and 19th century medical literature, that it was more likely to kill a patient, than to cure him.
Right, right. How did working at a school of medicine, how did that affect the kinds of research projects that you got involved in and the way that you conducted your research that may have been different from how I might ask that question at Bell Labs?
Well, I built up a state-of -the-art fluorescence imaging lab and collaborated with biologists and physicians, but I had done quite a bit of that while I was still at Bell Labs. The big change was not in my work, but in having to raise my own research funds. That was a rude awakening for me upon arriving at a medical university, particularly at a time when research grants were not easy to obtain. I found out that writing detailed proposals to obtain funds —[laugh]
— took a great deal of time and effort. Now, I worked in a very specialized field, fluorescence spectroscopy and microscopy, in which there were only a few active research groups and as a result, each lab was called upon to judge the proposals submitted by their competitors. The available funds were limited and when one of my proposals was turned down by a committee chaired by my chief scientific competitor, I decided that I'd had enough of this and I retired. I turned the Fluorescence Imaging Lab, as it was known, over to my younger colleague and close friend Massimo Sassaroli, who, tragically, died two years later of cancer.
Retirement gave me the opportunity to begin work as an independent researcher in new fields, but of course, without a laboratory or a staff. I have already mentioned that I collaborated with my wife by transcribing and translating Brahms’s letters, and after discovering the treasurers in the Einstein archive, I became an Einstein scholar and published two books about that remarkable person. Urged on by my wife, I also wrote a couple of papers about Beethoven and specifically, about the cause and circumstances of his death. I found my work as a historian as challenging as my work as a physicist since both involved the same search for hard evidence.
Yeah. Because you're uniquely suited as both an important scientist and a historian of science, where do you place your own work and research within the broader sweep of scientific discovery in the second half of the 20th century? What large trends do you see yourself a part of in the development of science?
That is an interesting question which I have addressed in my recent writings (e.g. The American Scholar, Summer 2020). Human societies have, of course, undergone great changes in custom before, but rarely as rapidly as following the industrial revolution. Just consider the societal changes brought on by the printing press, by the steam engine and railways, by the telephone, by radio, or by television. But the rate of change has been even greater since the invention of the transistor and by the technological progress it initiated: It brought us computers, the Internet, and the cell phone, social media, to name a few. The cultural changes these devices will lead to in human affairs are hard to predict, and they will probably be vast. They may well be even greater than the changes I experienced in my own long life. You ask about the role of my own work in the sweep of science and I would say it is not significant, the scientific issues it raised were important at the time, but interest in nuclear physics has declined and its most important applications nowadays are in astrophysics. It probably should be in the design of safe and cheap power plants.
But wouldn't it be fair to say that the work that you did contributed to the later work that supplanted your research?
Yes, I think that is true. Thanks to Researchgate, I found out how many researchers are still interested in my work. Thanks to my work on RET, the technique has become a tool which is widely used by molecular biologists. That is gratifying and has surprised me because at the time I worked on it, I considered it as just a clever trick to measure distances on the nanometer level.
Did you wake up one day and realize that you were no longer primarily working in physics and you were working in molecular biology, or was it a more gradual transition?
It was gradual and never complete. I would say that once a physicist, always a physicist. (phone rings)
I think it's your—it might be your cell phone. You must have said something that got your cellphone interested.
I'll turn it off. [laugh] Indeed, while I was at the Labs, I was invited to teach a graduate course in atomic physics at New York University. That, and my friendship with many physicists kept me more or less in touch with physics. The MD/PhD students I lectured to at Mount Sinai had an excellent MD training behind them, but their grasp of physics was deplorable.
You've emphasized the importance of evidence in physics as well as in molecular biology. And I wonder, to reverse the concept a little bit, in your career in molecular biology, did that influence or enhance your understanding of physics? In other words, did it go the other way?
Well, molecular biologists often deal with large molecules and with molecular assemblies, like membranes, while physicists traditionally deal with isolated atoms or molecules. In biophysics you often work with systems where these two domains merge, for instance in membranes, where a statistical approach is needed. In studying the structure of membranes, I used “random walk” methods, a physics technique, but I cannot say that it allowed me to learn more physics as a result. No, physics is the more fundamental science that helps in understanding the more complex systems one encounters in biology – but hardly the other way around. One of the areas where physicists excel is in making observations quantitative. When two molecules interact, a biophysicist is more likely to ask what the nature of the interaction is, its temperature dependence, etc., than a molecular biologist. A long time ago I visited a medical university in Munich and met a biophysicist who worked with the physicians there. He complained jokingly that among the medical faculty he was referred to as a Messknecht, which literally means a measurement slave, or serf. I laughed and told him that he should be proud of the epithet!
Yeah. What was it that attracted you to focus such attention on Einstein?
Well, that has to do with having had a tenuous personal link to Einstein, although I never met him in person. The reason is that when I was a young man, my life crossed paths with the lives of the Mendel family. They had kindly provided the guarantee that made it possible for me and Walter Kohn to be released from internment. We were even invited to live with them and we became quasi-members of the Mendel family. The doyenne of the family was Toni Mendel, who back in the days of the Weimar Republic, in Berlin, had been a close friend of Einstein. She was at the time an emancipated, wealthy widow who was his frequent companion in the theater, as well as in his sailboat. Einstein’s wife, Elsa, acquiesced to their friendship, albeit reluctantly, and indeed, the two families had friendly relations. When Hitler came to power, both families emigrated, Einstein went to Princeton, and Toni and her family settled in Canada. When I knew Toni, then known to me as Omama Toni, she lived in Oakville, a suburb of Toronto and I visited her there often. Her home which was filled with art, books, and music which she had been able to take with her, because she had recognized the danger represented by the Nazis very early – as had Einstein. In any case, as I mentioned before, after I retired from my academic career, I discovered Einstein’s travel diaries in the Princeton library and was thrilled by the insight they provide into the life and personality of that remarkable, yet very ordinary person. I learned a great deal about the man that is not widely known, that his interests went far beyond theoretical physics, that he was deeply involved with inventions, made significant advances to the gyrocompass, at the time the most important navigational instrument, and that he was utterly devoted to music, playing chamber music several times a week while he resided in Berlin, and that he was prone to laughing raucously at even slight humorous provocations. He loved to travel, visited China and Japan, Palestine, Spain, South America, and spent a good deal of time in Oxford and at Caltech. After I had translated the travel diaries – the only diaries he kept – I thought that others would also find them equally interesting. I decided to translate and annotate them and to turn them into a kind of travelogue which was eventually published under the title “Einstein on the Road”. In the course of my research for that book, I ran across another little-known biographical gem, a small book that a now-extinct, state-owned East German house had published while the DDR (GDR) still existed. Its author, Friedrich Herneck was a well-regarded historian of science who had interviewed the former housekeeper of the Einstein family in Berlin after the war. Having lived with the Einsteins for six years, the housekeeper Fräulein Schiefelbein was indeed the proverbial fly on the ceiling as far as Einstein’s homelife is concerned and there was little that had escaped her observation. Discovering who was now the owner of the copyright to Herneck’s book, and then obtaining his permission to publish an English translation of the book, is an interesting story in itself, but eventually I was able to translate and annotate it extensively, and it was published, richly illustrated, as “Einstein at Home.” It sheds in my opinion a very intimate light on what Einstein was like, not as a scientist, but as a human being, as well as, on his friendship with Toni Mendel.
She and Einstein were evidently on the same wavelength, both intellectually, and in relishing life. Both had a sense of fun. When Einstein left on one of his sea voyages, Toni saw him off and brought him licorice for the journey. Who knew he liked that stuff which he called ‘bear turds’ (Bärendreck)? Together they read the just published books of Proust (in French) and Freud. A great curiosity about the world around them is one thing that they had in common.
Josef, I'd like to ask you, if you'll permit me, a very personal question. The latter half of your childhood was essentially—you were ripped from your family, you had to endure terrible conditions with great uncertainty, and yet I don't detect in you a shred of bitterness or doubt in the essential goodness of your fellow man. And I wonder if you did have those feelings and you worked to overcome them, or you never felt like that and you felt like your experiences were an anomaly in an otherwise decent life that could and should be lived among people? I wonder if you could reflect on that.
Well, that's something that you as a historian should be able to understand. Thinking back, I believe I have mistrusted generalizations, something I may have learned from my father, whose optimistic outlook I share, who was careful to avoid all political affiliations. You asked me how I could avoid bitterness and kept my belief in the essential goodness of man. Maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that since I was on my own at fifteen, I worked and lived with people of every station – as Gilbert put it. They all had scant interest in politics. How could I feel bitter at Churchill for interning enemy aliens in an excess of patriotic fervor, when the greater part of Britain’s army had just been defeated and evacuated from Dunkirk, when the country faced alone a powerful enemy and feared an imminent invasion. There were some fellow internees who did harbor a resentment against Britain. I always thought that it made no sense to hold a country responsible for errors made by its government, which is a common enough occurrence. Besides, for me the whole bungled wartime interlude worked out well in the long run, as you know. Far from feeling victimized, I was more concerned with finding my way in novel situations, with acquiring new skills, be it ploughing a straight furrow, felling trees, or mastering differential calculus. Maybe the discovery that new ‘skills’ could be learned gave me confidence to follow youthful exuberance and to delve into biophysics. You also asked if I worked on overcoming bitterness against the injustices of the world. No, I never worked at it, or sought professional help to overcome it. I am, of course, very cognizant of the enormity of the Holocaust and of my own narrow escape. What happened to my fellow Jews and to so many members of my family under the Nazis is almost daily on my mind, as are all the crimes of the Nazi clique and its lackeys. But I recognize that human society is very complex and ever changing in history, and that for future generations that era will be just another chapter in the history of the world. Taking a historical view, what concerns me now is the direction in which the technological age will take us and particularly, the effects on our democratic society. We are truly entering a new, unknown territory because of the rapid pace of technological change and their unpredictable consequences. Just consider, the transistor was invented a mere 70 years ago, and it quickly brought forth ‘chips’, then personal computers, the internet, the cellphone, and artificial intelligence. Will human society be able to keep up with that pace?
Well, Josef, I think for my last question, I want to ask you about our present situation. I mean, you have such a wide sweep of history, both personally and as a scholar, and, of course, as a scientist. Even today, we're learning that the outlook might be very grim, both economically, both in terms of our capacity to deal with COVID-19 scientifically. What do you think, as the human race in general, what is it that we need both in our outlook, our perseverance, our ability to commit the right resources in the right way? What do we need collectively as a species at this point to come out of this situation and make the best of this challenge for whatever might lie ahead?
Well, I quite agree with you that things won't be the same when we're over the current pandemic crisis, which may well last for more than a year, for we won’t have defeated the coronavirus until a practical vaccine has been found and has been widely distributed. I also hope that the pandemic will have demonstrated that populations everywhere on Earth are linked to each other as never before and need to co-operate in order to survive. Without that, and a belief in humanity and rationality, instead of dogmas, we may all head for disaster. In our own country we could start by electing a less inept and amoral government. [laugh]
Yet, look there have been precedents to this pandemic. There's the Black Death, which carried away a significant fraction of the population in Europe and elsewhere. And it was followed, by the way, by a golden age. To overcome the shortage of manual labor people became more inventive and cooperated, and commerce began to flourish. It is of course, difficult to predict what will have changed when the present health crisis is over, but being an optimist, I envisage that international relations and cooperation will increase. Humanity can hardly afford hostile relationships among its nations, the threat posed by modern weaponry is too real
Well, Dr. Eisinger, I want to thank you so much for the time you spent with me today. It's been incredibly special, and I truly appreciate it.
Well, a pleasure, too. You made me think about things that I haven't thought about ever. [laugh].
Wonderful, wonderful. Well, I'll cut it here.