David Wenner

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ORAL HISTORIES
Wenner [photo from ex libris post].jpg
Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of David Wenner by David Zierler on August 24, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/46738

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

David Wenner is a retired businessman and consultant who curated the rare physics manuscript library that would eventually become the Wenner Collection at the Niels Bohr Library. In this interview, Wenner recounts his childhood in Florida and describes his early interests in sports and academics. He describes his interest in pursuing a liberal arts education as an undergraduate at Yale, and he discusses his graduate work in computer science at Purdue. Wenner discusses his professional experiences at Texas Instruments and his long career in consulting at McKinsey & Company. He explains how he became involved with the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara and how an interest in reading physics books grew into a full time pursuit curating what would become a singular library of rare physics manuscripts. Wenner describes how he built the collection and the various considerations that led to him deciding to work with AIP and to create the Wenner Collection. He describes the process that went into his book History of Physics, and he discusses his current interest collecting manuscripts relating to climate change. At the end of the interview, Wenner reflects on ongoing questions raised by cosmology and quantum theory.

Transcript

Zierler:

Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 24, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with David Wenner. Dave, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Wenner:

Happy to be here. I’m glad to be able to add my thoughts to your collection.

Zierler:

Fantastic. Okay, all right. So to begin, tell me right now-- I know, of course, you're retired, but please tell me, just in terms of what’s going on in your daily life right now, any institutional affiliations you have or memberships that you're a part of that sort of keep you engaged on a daily basis.

Wenner:

Well, I’m now 75, so I’ve just resigned my last board position, which was on the board of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which is, I believe, the second-oldest foundation in the United States and the oldest science-oriented foundation. I was very active in that and helped them with strategy development, and after my nine years on the board, you just retire, so I’m now an Emeritus nonvoting anymore.

But in addition to that, I have a family—two girls. They’re married and have children. I have a second home. I play a little golf, and I do a little photography, but I basically spend a lot of time collecting. I spend an inordinate amount of time, according to my wife, in front of the screen doing research and buying books and that sort of thing. It’s just fun. It’s like opening Christmas presents.

Zierler:

[Laughs] Excellent. All right, Dave. Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning, your origins, and let’s start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they’re from.

Wenner:

My father was from Illinois; my mother was from Ohio. They met at the University of Colorado at Boulder—during World War II. They both left college, my mother to come down to her parents’ home in Florida. My father went off for flight training. He never went overseas, and came back after the war and settled in Florida. Became a mosquito control pilot and later the director.

He was then elected a county commissioner and became chairman of the county commission of Brevard County, Florida. First we lived in the small second home on my grandparents’ property. Then when they got older, they moved over to the small home where I was born and we moved to the big house. We remained in that house through high school and the time I spent in college. I grew up in Cocoa, Florida, which is on the Indian River on the East Coast of Florida, about midpoint in the state, east of Orlando.

Zierler:

Dave, I’m curious. You grew up right in the shadow of the space race, and I’m curious if both your strategic location and your age generationally sort of was a foundational inspiration for your interest in science.

Wenner:

It certainly had something to do with it. When I was growing up, there was the testing of the military rockets and they would often explode like the Fourth of July. There was a lover’s lane on the west side of the Indian River and when you knew there was going to be a launch, you watched it. Yes, it was great.

In grade school, I remember a number of times that I had a science fiction book inside the textbook I was reading while I was supposedly paying attention in class. So science fiction and being near the military testing program and then the Mercury program, did make me very interested in science.

Plus, the high school where I went was also very much populated by people who were with the space program, the children of the space program. I knew a lot of the people who were in that program, and so I learned a lot about it and so on. Never really became a part of the space program. I worked at the Merritt Island launch area one year, my first year of summer of college, but other than that, I really had no involvement directly with it. But it certainly had an impact.

Zierler:

Dave, growing up, did your parents have any sort of hopes in terms of the career path that you would choose, or were they generally open-minded to whatever your interests were?

Wenner:

My father was more interested in my athletics. [Laughs] He was a coach of the Little League and he made sure I played football and that sort of thing. He didn't really care about my education. My mother, on the other hand, wanted me to be Mr. America. She pushed me to excel and she helped me and that sort of thing. In science fairs, she was there. My grandfather was an engineer also and he was there, so they helped me excel, if you would. Anything I was interested in they would help me with, sort of like parents do today, I guess. [Laughs] You probably have a child.

Zierler:

I have four; I know all about it.

Wenner:

Yes.

Zierler:

Did you stand out in math and science in terms of your grades in middle school and high school?

Wenner:

Yes. I was the salutatorian of a high school of 400, and it was a girl who was the valedictorian. I was kind of the brain of the high school. I won the mathematics contest. But I was also an athlete, so I won the scholastic athlete award. I wasn’t a great football player, but I was a good football player. I went out every year and I was on the varsity. I wrote the column for the school in the local newspaper. I was involved in all sorts of things in the county. My father was county commissioner, so he knew everybody and I was able to get involved in these things.

So yes, I did do well in math, and my intent in high school was to get a degree in physics. I wanted to become a physicist—maybe an astrophysicist; I wasn’t sure because I didn't know the difference, but that’s what I wanted to do. Actually, I had a change in mind after my junior year of high school that I can go into a little bit if you’d like.

Zierler:

So initially, when you were thinking about colleges, you were thinking about physics programs.

Wenner:

Yes. It turns out I was accepted at Caltech, MIT, Georgia Tech, and the Air Force Academy.

Zierler:

With the intent of pursuing a physics degree.

Wenner:

Yes, and the Air Force Academy was because my father flew a plane. And my choice would have been Caltech, I think, because MIT was big; Caltech was small. So I applied to several schools; I got into all of them.

Zierler:

I wonder if you ever had any concern that a highly technical undergraduate education would leave you wanting for sort of a broader exposure in the humanities.

Wenner:

That was part of it. There’s a story involved here. So as part of my junior year summer, I went to an institution called Boys State. You’ve heard of that. You know, if you're interested in state government. So I went to Boys State and after that, because I had won the Society of Actuaries, which mean that I scored the highest on the Society of Actuaries test in my high school, and I was given a chance to go to a national mathematics camp. So I went to the Boys State and then I went to the mathematics camp after that. In the mathematics camp, I met a bunch of people who were scary smart and not at all like I was. I was interested in girls and football.

Zierler:

And you had not encountered kids like this in your high school. This was a different breed for you.

Wenner:

No, I had not. So I said to myself, “That’s not the kind of person I am.” Some of them said they were going to go into physics and become great physicists and all this sort of thing, and they were really much, much smarter than I was, too. Out of 100 points on the test I had a 25, and some were there with 75 or 80. So they were two or three standard deviations smarter than I was, and I said, “Maybe not.” That was one feeling I left the camp with.

Later that summer my mother was giving a cocktail party for some of her friends at our house, and so I went to say hi, and one of the ladies asked, “Davey…” (the middle of Florida is southern.) “Where are you going to college? What are you going to study?” So I said, “Well, I was thinking about studying physics, and I’ve applied to Caltech and MIT and Georgia Tech. That’s what I want to do.” She said, “Oh. Really? Have you ever considered a liberal education?” and I said, “What’s that?” [Laughter]

Zierler:

What’s a liberal education?

Wenner:

So it turns out after that I applied to Yale and ended up accepting Yale, and I studied engineering science but also took a bunch of courses I wouldn’t have gotten at MIT.

Zierler:

That’s interesting, Dave, because you could have… I guess it really didn't even occur to you to split the difference of going to a school that had a top-rated physics department, but could also offer that broader-based humanities program like a Harvard or a Yale, for example.

Wenner:

Yeah. Well, I did go to Yale.

Zierler:

No, I’m saying in your initial thoughts…

Wenner:

No, no.

Zierler:

…you were really laser-focused on science, technical education.

Wenner:

I was a high school kid who played football and studied and dated girls and all this sort of thing. I didn't think about college that deeply. Nowadays, you take tests and you have people tell you what they think based on your personality and that sort of thing. Back then, we didn't visit any campuses. All I did was I read a little bit about each of these universities and I learned a little bit about their reputations, and so I chose the best offering what I wanted to study. End of story.

So when I ended up deciding to go to Yale, it was because, well, maybe I’ll go to Yale and then I’ll go to Harvard Business School or Stanford Business School and then go into business because that’s what I wanted to do after seeing the kids at math camp.

Zierler:

So once you made the commitment to attend Yale, your singular interest in pursuing a physics degree, that sort of fell by the wayside. You were interested at that point in having a broader education.

Wenner:

That’s correct, and engineering science gave me a lot of the basic math and engineering that I thought would be useful to me no matter what I did. But I was kind of more switching to business in my mind at some point.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm [yes]. Now what year did you start at Yale?

Wenner:

’63.

Zierler:

Okay, ’63. So this, of course, is… Even by the time you graduated, you had left before really the campus unrest and student protest movement really picked up steam.

Wenner:

That’s correct. When I left, everybody had short hair, and when I came back a year later, they all had long hair. I was a member of a fraternity. Now, a lot of people in my class went to Canada to escape the draft because the draft was in full force when we graduated, but I went to graduate school.

I went to Purdue to get a master’s in computer science because again, not thinking very deeply, in my senior year I really got excited about computer science. It was kind of neat. I could write programs and do all sorts of stuff that I didn't know I could do before, so I wanted to learn more about it. So I took a year and went to Purdue on a National Defense Education Act scholarship, and studied computer science there. A lot of people who were there at the same time stayed on and got their PhDs. I didn't.

I had decided that I wanted to go to business school, so I applied to Harvard and Stanford, was accepted to both of them, and then I got a letter from my draft board that said, “I’m sorry.” “One course of graduate study; now you're 1-A.” So I said, “Well, I guess I’m not going to business school,” but fortunately, one of the summer places that I had worked was Texas Instruments and they offered me a job that was deferrable. So I went to work at Texas Instruments in Attleboro, Mass, which is not that far from where my wife grew up.

Zierler:

So what degree did you end up finishing off with at Yale?

Wenner:

I ended up with a BS in E&AS, Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Zierler:

Looking back, Dave, how well do you think you fulfilled your mission to get a broad humanities education?

Wenner:

I think very poorly. [Laughs] I mean, when I was in high school, I didn't read any of the Great Books, and I did do that at Yale. But I felt like I was entering from the outside. Back then, two-thirds to three-quarters of the class came from boarding schools. They all knew each other. They all had studied stuff in the humanities well beyond what I had, so I was just trying to keep my head above water in my first couple of years. So I just studied, studied, studied. I did not take advantage of a lot of what Yale had to offer because I was either in the stacks or I was taking class or I was partying.

Zierler:

Dave, would you say that you had a pretty middle-of-the-road, middle class upbringing?

Wenner:

Yes. My parents didn't have any money.

Zierler:

So I’m curious. I ask that because culturally I wonder how well you fit in with, I assume, many of your classmates at Yale who had come from preparatory schools and from much higher up the socioeconomic rung.

Wenner:

I didn't feel like we did without. I mean I was never hungry or anything like that. My father was well-known in the community and respected. My good friends’ parents were doctors and lawyers and things like that, so I didn't feel I was any class distinction when I was in Cocoa.

When I arrived at Yale, there were more cliques. They all knew each other and they all spoke the same language and they all had studied literature and languages. I never studied a language in high school, so I was starting out in French in college. So I was basically saying, “These guys are way ahead of me. I’d better catch up quick.” So I worked hard and did pretty well catch up by the end of my freshman year. It turns out to get into Yale from a prep school back then you didn't have to be all that smart. [Laughs] So I did okay. But at first it was a challenge.

Zierler:

Now you took this job right after school. What did that mean for your acceptance to business school? Were you able to defer that as well?

Wenner:

No, I did not because I had no idea how long I would be working. So I worked at Texas Instruments until the draft went to the lottery system. In the lottery system you receive a number, and if that number is a high one, and if you are not drafted by the end of that year, you're free. So I stayed at Texas Instruments for two or three years until they went to the lottery system, and then I said, “Hmm. Do I really want to be doing this?”

I was a systems analyst in the IT department, so I got involved in lots of stuff going on in the company, and one of the organizations that I dealt with hired a consulting firm and I loved what they did! I said, “My god!” You know, they studied a problem full time and people listened to them. They had a chance to go deep, not just jump from one thing to another like I was doing, and so I said, “That’s something I’d like to do!”

So I put my resume out that following year and was interviewed by a company in the Boston area called Corporate Tech Planning, a spinoff of Arthur D. Little Company and the Sylvania Applied Research Labs that did technical consulting. So my IT background and master’s degree was a good fit. I went to work for them and in two or three years I did a number of projects and built my confidence that I could do consulting. Then I got a call from McKinsey & Company. Frankly, I hadn't heard about McKinsey & Company, but then I did some research and found out they were the best in the business.

Well, it turns out that a fellow named Harvey Golub, who ended up being head of American Express when he left McKinsey, was starting an IT practice in McKinsey’s New York Office and wanted to hire some IT guys to help him build that practice area, so I did. I spent my first year there learning business at night. I would do McKinsey work during the day and then I would study at night. So I was reading finance books and all this sort of thing, and I hardly got any sleep at all. It was like first year at Yale, but even more intensive. But you know, you just dig in and you get through it.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

It turned out that the IT practice really wasn’t going anywhere fast, so I found myself working in areas like operations, which often involves IT, and I’d had operations experience at TI. So I ended up working in a number of different studies, and operations practice studies all involved heavy travel.

Zierler:

And this is all within McKinsey.

Wenner:

Yes, on a McKinsey team serving clients wherever they are located.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Wenner:

So the IT studies I did were for clients, one of whom was an insurance company in New Orleans, for example.

Zierler:

Dave, I just want to interject at this point. Obviously you got your sea legs pretty early on the technical side of things, and you're describing vividly how you're teaching yourself business at night and things like that. I’m wondering what about the interpersonal side of consulting? How are you developing your skills, you know, developing relationships with clients, developing relationships with the team as you rise up the management rank? Is this sort of all instinctive for you? Is this sort of - things that you have to work on as well in a formal sense? How are you building what I assume would be an important aspect of this career path as well?

Wenner:

That’s a good question. I’m an introvert. I don't enjoy crowds. I don't enjoy large audiences and so on. I much prefer one-on-ones or small groups, and a lot of the time you spend at McKinsey is with a small group of McKinsey people and client team members. I also had to develop competence and confidence in dealing with senior clients. For example, I had to be able to pick up a phone and talk business with somebody who’s had 20 years of experience in an industry when you’ve just learned it at night. It was tough for me. I wasn’t a natural at that.

Zierler:

Who would be that kind of person that you would call? Would that be like an executive vice president kind of level?

Wenner:

Yes, in some cases. In many cases it might be an operating general manager that I’d be interviewing, or I might be discussing an issue with senior management along with a more senior McKinsey person. Now, as a new McKinsey person… Let me talk a little bit about the progression in McKinsey so you understand how it works.

Zierler:

Please.

Wenner:

First of all, you're a member of a team and you are responsible for the analysis of a piece of a problem. You also work with the team to come up with the answer to the bigger problem based on the piece that you're working on. But you can comment on anything. There’s an engagement manager who is responsible for working the problem day-to-day, and you report your work to him or her (mostly “him” back then). So that person is supposed to help you do what you're doing.

But it turns out that for much of the time I was basically on my own. [Chuckles] I would spend weeks on site with a client and then I’d come back and interact with the team. So I had to learn on the job. It was like, “All right. I’m going to do it.” I would not do well the first time or the second time I tried something but I finally got better at it. I was never really the best at the schmooze part of consulting, which I like to think is not as important as getting the right answer and having the facts and convincing argument for why change was needed.

So as a result, I tended to emphasize, in my whole career at McKinsey, tough problems, try to always find innovative answers, and develop props to help build a logical structure for my communications. So I would write storylines and try out the storylines with executives in a conversation without charts, get their reactions and concerns, and do the further work needed to strengthen areas of weakness in my arguments before writing the formal presentation. I never tried to “wing it.”

Zierler:

Dave, I wonder if you can build… If an immediate client or example doesn't come to mind, if you can sort of offer a composite sketch of the kind of problem that McKinsey would work on, and specifically where you would plug in within your team on that kind of problem.

Wenner:

Are you talking about at the junior level or senior level?

Zierler:

Well, so I think as we’re building this narrative, at the junior level, and then in your description, describe how your role might have changed as you grew in the company.

Wenner:

Okay. So one of my earliest… [Laughs] This is a funny one. My first study—and I’m going to delete client names, but I’m going to use them just because it makes a better story.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

My very first study had nothing to do with IT; there wasn’t an IT study available at the time. This was a public sector study in a large metropolitan city. There were a number of service organizations within the city: Fire, Police, Sanitation, and so on. The question was should there be more decentralization of services? Would that be a good thing? So as a new associate, guess which service I got? Sanitation.

Zierler:

[Laughs] Of course!

Wenner:

This is my first day of the study of--

Zierler:

Welcome to McKinsey!

Wenner:

I didn't have a chance to fill out the paperwork; I get to learn about sanitation. So two days later, I and the engagement manager are scheduled to attend a roll call at a sanitation center to meet the people who pick up the trash and get to know what that’s like, okay? So the night before the roll call, I’m at dinner with my wife. I said, “Should I wear the three-piece suit that I just bought for McKinsey or should I wear my blue jeans? What should I do?”

Zierler:

Right! [Laughs]

Wenner:

So I fretted over this for a long time, and finally ended up wearing the three-piece suit. The engagement manager showed up wearing blue jeans. It turns out sanitation is a paramilitary organization, and the brass, the guy in charge, has a uniform and his shoes are spit-polished. So he thought I was in charge and kept talking to me, “Sir, sir,” and paid no attention to the engagement manager.

But basically I saw the engagement manager four days out of a three-month study. I did the work and wrote the report. I bounced ideas off people who knew more than I did about centralization, decentralization. It wasn’t like I was on my own that way, but I didn't have any guidance, and that’s kind of the way it works…at least how it did back then. I think it’s a little more systematized now.

I didn't go to my initial training program until a year and a half in, so I wasn’t taught writing skills or anything like that. You got it done. You looked at other reports to see what the format was. You talked to people who know something the topic and you took the input and you wrote it. You bounce it off the engagement manager who redirects you a little bit and you rewrite some of it and then you submit it.

Zierler:

Dave, I’m curious. For example, at a prestigious law firm, junior associate attorneys, if they’re doing good work, they’re sort of put on the partner track where if they stay on this track, they’re headed to leadership positions in the firm. Is there a similar culture like that at a place like McKinsey? Did you get a sense at some point that you were on a track that was leading toward senior management and increasing responsibility?

Wenner:

After joining it, I said, “I’m never going to stay here. I mean, this is going to be a way to learn and grow and that sort of thing.” That’s why most people join McKinsey. They don't join it as a career. It’s high pressure, travel, long hours, nights away from the family, and all that sort of thing, but a great way to learn problem solving!

Zierler:

Yeah. Yeah.

Wenner:

Argh! Great problem solving. So after I joined, I spent the first 3 months in the office doing this New York study. The next ten I was out on the road at client locations. I was only in the office three days in the next ten months. After two and a half years, I was performing okay, but I was arriving home on Friday nights after dinner and leaving Sunday afternoon, and that’s hard on a relationship. We had a young child and we’d just moved to a new location. I’d show up late Friday and she’d want to go out on Saturday night and I’d want to rest. Then I’d be tense getting ready to fly out the Sunday because I had to prepare. Basically my wife and I had no time except to work together on renovating the house, so we had no downtime. At the end of that two and a half years, I decided I was leaving McKinsey. Just too much.

So I went to the person in the New York Office who does the staffing (who is really the power in the office) and said, “I’m leaving. Who do I need to tell and what’s the process?” because at McKinsey, you don't just find a job and leave. You tell them you're leaving and then they help you find a good job. So a few years at McKinsey is usually a win-win for everybody, even though you’ll only be there for a couple of years.

Zierler:

Because most people, when they leave, they end up going to work directly for a client? Is that part of the idea?

Wenner:

No, not necessarily, but it is probably through a McKinsey contact. McKinsey has a great network.

Zierler:

Right, and they want you to leave happy, is part of the plan.

Wenner:

It may be another client; probably not one of yours if you're leaving after a few years, but somebody’s client somewhere. They need somebody with your skill, and yes, you get an introduction. They know you're from McKinsey and they know what McKinsey does, so you have a leg up.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

But he said to me, “All right. We’ll help you find a job, but there’s this assignment in Copenhagen. It’s in town. You can see Copenhagen. Have you ever been to Copenhagen?” “No, I’ve never been to Copenhagen. Never been out of the country.” “Why don't you go to Copenhagen and do this six-week study? We’ll fly you and fly your family over and put you up. When you come back we’ll help you leave.” So we did that, and six weeks later, it was pretty good. [Laughs] I enjoyed it. So all right, let’s up for six more months and so we did. At some point they let me bring my furniture over, and so I stayed a little longer.

After a while I was the only engagement manager in that office. It was a small office and it was great. It was like being an entrepreneur and having a lot of freedom and be able to do problem solving and 01’s. We call them 01’s, which means the first study for a client. It’s always challenging because everything is new and you have to figure out what problem to solve. The client may think it’s this problem, but you have to help them figure out what the real problem is and then you have to help them understand why that’s true and why they should hire you to solve that problem. So 01’s are more of a challenge. They are more interesting.

So anyway, a couple of years after I became an engagement manager, the head of the office, who was a senior partner, said, “Why not think about staying here and becoming a partner?” So I said, “Sure. Why not?”

Zierler:

Did you know what you were saying yes to? How well developed was your understanding of what it meant to be a partner at that time?

Wenner:

Not that well developed, but I had a pretty good idea that he was powerful enough to help me to become a partner.

Zierler:

Did you see him as a mentor? Was he somebody that was going to look out for you?

Wenner:

Yes, definitely. He came in from the LA Office to head the Copenhagen Office. Because it was a small office he and I worked a lot together. We also got to know each other socially. Anyway, I was going to be put up for Partner in late January just short of six years after I joined the firm. 1979 maybe. Yes.

So you're probably not going to want to put this in, but it’s an interesting story. My wife was pregnant with our second child, and she had to go into the hospital because they believed she was going to deliver way early. She ended up staying in the hospital for a month (six weeks, actually) and right at the time she went into the hospital, we got this inquiry from the largest business group in Sweden—oh my god!—and Dave Wenner was supposed to manage that 01. [Laughs]

Zierler:

Oh, boy. What kind of support structure do you have at the house? Are there grandmas who can help out, or what’s the situation?

Wenner:

Nobody. So they delayed the study for six weeks for me.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. This is the Swedes who did this or McKinsey?

Wenner:

McKinsey. McKinsey talked to the Swedes and said, “We’ve got the guy who can solve your problem. Here’s his situation. Can you wait?” But finally they said, “No, we can't wait any longer,” at about the time she was due. She ended up being a week overdue. But she was induced and right after she delivered, off I went. [Laughs]

Zierler:

There you go.

Wenner:

Oh my god. Anyway. So it was a tough time because in a month, my team had to diagnose the problems and potential of this entire company. This company was a computer company—I knew something about computers—that was a joint venture of a private company and the Swedish government. The problem is they were serving two masters. The government wanted employment and the private company needed profits, and so they did all sorts of stupid things. Anyway.

So I went in with a team of junior people, and it was the most intense period of my life. I mean, I’d had some intense periods before that. But during this period I would wake up in the middle of the night and take notes. I would dream ideas and in the morning I would try to interpret them. It had to be done by the end of the year, so by the end of the year it was done. I made a presentation to senior management and we got 9 months’ work from it to tackle the problems. So that would take me over the election period and we have a new client, and so everything was fine, except at home it was a mess. I had been a terrible husband and father during this period, so I had a lot of repair work to do which took me a long, long time.

Zierler:

Yeah. It’s another problem to solve and it wasn’t for McKinsey. [Chuckles]

Wenner:

Yeah. I did a terrible job of solving that problem. I’ve been married now for 52 years and so we’re fine now, but sometimes I thought we wouldn’t make it.

Zierler:

You figured it out.

Wenner:

I’ve been retired for 17 years and it took all of that to get back to normal…[laughs]…because she went through a lot in Denmark with a five- or six-year-old and the new baby, and I was away most of the time.

Zierler:

Dave, just to foreshadow a little bit, clearly you're fully engaged with your career. You're moving up. You're solving problems. You're obviously gaining a lot of satisfaction from the good work that you're doing. Are you, at this point, starting to think, even 15, 20 years out, what’s the game plan for retirement? Are you starting to think that early on what you might want to do in a post-McKinsey reality?

Wenner:

No. No. No. What happens typically is four out of five people who join McKinsey leave before becoming a partner. Another half leave before they become a senior partner. The difference between being elected junior partner and senior partner is junior partners get elected because they have proven they can solve problems, lead a team develop a client or two. Senior partners have to have developed a portfolio of clients and be able to keep a bunch of associates and junior partners busy keep clients satisfied and all this sort of thing. So it’s another level of moving beyond comfort, you know.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

So I was just focused on, what’s my next thing I’m going to do?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Wenner:

So it turns out when I was elected, we decided that it was time to return to the US. I wasn’t thinking about retirement at all, basically, to answer your question—not at all. I was thinking about what’s next? You know, do I go back to the US? Do I stay in Copenhagen? What do we do?

Zierler:

But you mean what’s next within the context of McKinsey.

Wenner:

Yes, right.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

Right. And getting back to the US and reentering into McKinsey US is not a small thing, either, because you come back from overseas and you come from a small country and a small office. They say, “What does this guy know?” [Laughs] So anyway, I joined a new office in Atlanta. It was a startup office, and so I focused on clientele development and building that for the next few years. We bought a home in Atlanta which was much more to my wife’s liking. We made friends and our office became a tight group of people and so on.

Zierler:

And clientele development would have been a new endeavor for you. I mean, you might have been doing a little bit of that informally, but this was definitely a new area of expertise for you to build.

Wenner:

Yes. We make a distinction between client development, which is to take an existing client and find new ways to serve them, and clientele development, which is to go into a new geography or industry and solicit the business of a new client. As we would say at McKinsey, “find a problem that makes sense for us to work together on.” [Laughs]

Zierler:

Right, right.

Wenner:

By the way, McKinsey was never about economics. It was never about billing and that sort of thing. You could be the highest-billing director and if you had poor ratings from the consultants you worked with or your partners, you would not be successful. If you failed badly in any one of these things, you would not be successful. If you failed economically, you would certainly not be successful. You had to be economical and if you were, then the other things become important supporters, okay?

So anyway, yes, another skill I had to build was the greenfield, cold-calling kind of clientele development. Now it’s not totally cold calling because we had some ex-clients in the Atlanta area from other offices, and they were very nice in helping us get introduced to new potential clients. But it was a lot of time spent on free mini studies to show what we could do - “Let me spend two weeks on our own ticket learning about your company, and then let’s have a meeting and talk about how we might work together” kind of stuff. So it was a short diagnostic study, but an unpaid diagnostic. We did a lot of that stuff and were modestly successful. It takes a long, long time.

Zierler:

At this point, Dave, you're probably… Your sort of maturing in the field and your confidence is at a level where even if it’s the CEO of a client company, you're talking with them pretty comfortably on a one-on-one basis at this point.

Wenner:

Yes. Yes. But I have to feel a sense of comfort in knowledge and preparedness. Let me say one other thing about myself, and that is that I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’ve never had a great memory. So I have become really, really good at synthesis. I build a model in my mind of how things are, and then when a new piece of information comes in, I try to fit it to that model. If it doesn't fit, a lightbulb goes on and I think about it and either challenge the new information or change the model, and so my model keeps progressing until my model becomes a synthesis of the answer, okay?

So I’m not a detail guy. I can't remember details. I couldn't tell you squat of what’s in History of Physics now. [Laughs] Every one of those individual chapters, when I was doing it I understood it. I knew what the science meant, exactly how it worked, and what’s important and what’s not. I knew a lot of details about it. But later, I recall the concepts but the details are gone.

So the guys who are really successful at clientele development are the guys who could remember tons about the industry, having read it once, and could have a conversation sounding like they knew a lot more than they did. Then they would develop the knowledge over time. I was very good at doing a day or two’s interviews and then synthesizing stuff that even the CEO I’m talking to didn't know about his company, because he hadn't talked to the guys that I talked to.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

But I couldn't just have a lunch conversation about what’s going on in his industry without a lot of preparation. So I always knew that was an area that I was weak in, so I needed to be the best at solving the problems. So I succeeded by being the best problem solver and an okay schmoozer. I forced myself to do that. But yeah, the new relationships I built were on the ideas I was able to bring after two weeks of looking at a company on our ticket.

Zierler:

Dave, I want to ask. Depending on the person you were talking with, particularly at the executive level, would it be easier for you to talk to clients who themselves had a technical background, or would it be harder? In other words, if they didn't have a technical background, it would be easier for you to sort of—I don't want to say assert, but to show them how your background gave you a unique insight into helping solve the problem that they presented to you.

Wenner:

I never, never, ever used that. Never. The problems I was dealing with were largely non-technical. I mean, they had nothing to do with technology. They had to do with organization, strategy, operations. They were management, that sort of thing. I never said once, “I have a master’s in computer science.” I never said that.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

Now if somebody saw my resume, it would have that on it, but I never used that. I always said, “Give me a chance to look at your company, and I can help you figure out what your opportunities and problems are.” I try to describe what I did for clients (and I had some long-term clients), as helping them set higher aspirations than they had before—in other words, to want to do something that they hadn't necessarily wanted to do before, and then I helped them figure out how to do that. Then I helped them set out even higher aspirations.

One guy I served as a head of a division ended up being CEO of the company. That was a couple-billion-dollar company. I didn't serve him the whole time, but I did serve him over and over again and people that reported to him and that sort of thing. So what I did first was I helped point out problems and set aspirations. What could we aspire to be, and then how do you get there? Most of the clients I worked with were not the best of class. They were middle of class, and so getting to best of class would be a great aspiration, but that might even be too high for them. Improving profitability, adding 50% to revenues, going into a new area successfully—those were the kinds of aspirations we would set.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm [yes]. When did you decide that retirement was on the horizon for you? Was that more of a personal decision? Was that sort of a feeling that you’ve accomplished that you could in this field? How did that process play out?

Wenner:

I was in Atlanta for 18 years. My kids grew up in Atlanta. I went from a junior partner to a tenured senior partner in Atlanta, and during ten years of that period I served as head of the telecom practice because I had learned a lot about the industry by serving a telecom client for a number of years. The telecom practice was not really well organized at that point, so I just basically called meetings, wrote articles and things like that. So I had a focus outside of just local clientele development. I was there 18 years.

Zierler:

And in telecom there must have been a real frontier mentality that this is really wave of the future kind of stuff at this point.

Wenner:

Yeah, although a lot of what was going on back then was the Bell system was being broken up.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

So these companies were trying to learn how to operate by themselves, and long distance companies, AT&T primarily but also Sprint, were invading, trying to take away revenues from them by proposing different tariffs and that sort of thing. So there were a lot of regulatory issues as well.

Now, near the end of that, broadband became an issue, whether you put fiber in the ground to homes and so on. I wrote an article about that. Wireless became something, but wireless really wasn’t big until late ’90s when I had moved on from that role. So this was a lot helping a company that’s slow and sleepy become a competitive enterprise. That’s what I was doing, not so much technology of the future. I would be reading stuff about that stuff, but I wasn’t working on that, but I read a lot during this period. On the plane I would read, that sort of thing. Anyway.

So when I got to be, I think it was 52, the firm said, “You can take early retirement from age 57…” If you retired between 57 and 62 you can get some incentive for taking early retirement. I had had this idea in mind of returning to Florida and starting an office there, and this was on and off throughout my career. But when I was handing over the telecom practice to a new head—because someone in the New York office needed to run telecom, not somebody in Atlanta! [Laughing] I thought maybe now is the time.

I did a study of new office opportunities and made the recommendation that we start an office in Charlotte and Miami, so I looked at both places. I went to Miami and another partner went to Charlotte. So I moved there in ’96 and started an office with the intent of retiring five years later. I would have a five-year period of building a new office, which is fun. I’ve done this before but this was the first time I would lead it. And then leave the firm. No idea of what I was going to do after that. What generally happens to a McKinsey partner at that period of time is they will go on a board or two or they may take a senior position in a company. At age 57 when I planned to retire, I would be young still.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Wenner:

So I was probably going to go get a job after retirement. So anyway, I started this office in McKinsey in Miami with a partner from the Mexico City office, and together we served Florida and the Caribbean and the northern part of South America.

Zierler:

Was your partner junior to you? Would you be grooming a successor in this regard?

Wenner:

No, no. He and I were both senior partners. He was a senior partner in Mexico City and I was a senior partner in Atlanta. We had gotten to know each other through the telecom practice, and so I talked him into it. I said, “Let’s just have an adventure.” So we went to have an adventure. We had our ups and downs, but by the time we left, there were 45 people working in Miami and now there are 150. The reason that Miami worked is not because the local client base was all that great, because it wasn’t, but because Miami such an attractive place to live for people who want to fly out of there. So I did a lot of flying again in my last five years, but the office succeeded because it was a great place to work, not because of the local clientele.

So during that period, I came down with prostate cancer, had it surgically removed, but was out for a short period of time. McKinsey teams were calling all the time. My wife got upset about the fact that I couldn’t get any peace even when recovering from a cancer operation, and so when I left, I said, “I have enough money. I’m going to retire. I’m not going to do anything else in business. I’m tired of this. I’ve done this for 30 years now.” That was my 30th anniversary with McKinsey. I want to take a break and then do something else.

Zierler:

So you made this decision without having a game plan for the next chapter.

Wenner:

Right. That’s sort of my history. [Laughs] Yeah, I don't know that I would recommend that to everybody, but it worked for me.

Zierler:

Was the diagnosis serious that you were thinking existentially at that point, too, in terms of how precious time is?

Wenner:

No, no. Well, first of all, when I got the first diagnosis of “We’d better check this out,” I said, “Okay, but kept working. I got a phone call from the doctor walking down the concourse of the Atlanta airport, saying, “It’s cancer.” But it turns out it was a small cancer. It was fast-growing, and so I did some research on where best places were to either have the seed put in or to have the prostate removed. Talked to a guy who puts seeds in and he said, “Looking at your situation, I would have it removed. You know, 55 years old, small, fast-growing—don't take a chance with radiation. Have it removed.” So I did. I went to Johns Hopkins, the best in the world at that point, had it removed, you know, recovered quickly, was back at work. So that was an existential problem for me for a month or two. [Chuckles]

Zierler:

Yeah.

Wenner:

But you know what? One of the things that I’m good at is saying—Okay, I’d better get all over it. If I can't do anything about it, okay, but I’m going to deal with what I can.” For example, my wife is going absolutely crazy and is depressed by our president and what’s going on. I’m saying, “I think it’s horrible. The guy is a jerk. He shouldn't be president, but I can't do anything about that, so I’m not going to get depressed. I’m just going to stay at home and not catch this COVID stuff because he’s really screwing it up.” I don't know where you are on the political spectrum, but excuse me. That’s where I am.

Zierler:

I’m right with you. That’s a fairly wide band of the spectrum to be in, and I’m right there with you on it.

Wenner:

Well, a lot of people in our community here aren’t.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

This is a south Florida…a lot of people in our community from Wall Street, watch only Fox News…

Zierler:

A bit of the Mar-a-Lago crowd where you are?

Wenner:

No, they’re not that kind. They’ve all been married for 40 years. Wholesome, family-oriented people. But they think they’re smart because they’re rich. They’re not that rich, but they’re well off and they just want to keep what they have. They don't want taxes to go up. And for some reason, because of Fox News, they thought Hillary was terrible and many of them voted against Hillary instead of for Trump. Anyway, so…

Zierler:

Don't get you started. [Chuckles]

Wenner:

I’m a guy who can put things I can’t control aside, away from me, and so--

Zierler:

I wonder if part of that, Dave, is sort of your management consulting chops applied to your own life in terms of identifying what’s fixable and focus on that.

Wenner:

Maybe, but it’s also just an ability to put blinders on. I would like to think of it as a skill, but I think it’s just a personality thing. Some people can; some people can't. Some people are getting depressed during this; some aren’t. I don't think it’s a skill, but anyway, I get buried into what I’m doing and so that helps. It helps to be deeply involved in something that you're working hard on trying to understand or do. There’s no time to worry, whereas if you're sitting around just watching TV and listening to all the latest news, then you will get depressed. Anyway.

So when I left McKinsey, I sat down and I wrote a bucket list. Literally I wrote a bucket list. I wrote it down, I don't know where. Maybe I still have it; maybe I don't. I used to like this physics/science stuff. I wanted to learn the mysteries of the universe. I wanted to learn about very big: cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics. I want to learn the very small, quantum level. And also I wanted to learn about evolutionary theory because I thought that was the other concept that really mattered. So I wanted to understand the physics of the universe and evolutionary theory, which is at the sort of the physics of life. So I set about doing that.

By the way, we left Miami, for another long story, and moved to the Bahamas. [Laughs] Renovated a house in the Bahamas. Stayed there two years. Found it wasn’t the right place. Moved to Santa Barbara.

Zierler:

Oh!

Wenner:

Don't mind moving to new places. We’re used to living in new places. There was a spreadsheet that got us to Santa Barbara. My wife participated. [Laughs] After I left McKinsey I said, “You decide where we’re going next. Your decision,” but I helped with the analysis. Anyway.

Zierler:

I mean they built a whole university around the idea that this is a great place to live. Why not? Why not Santa Barbara?

Wenner:

Right. Anyway, that’s another whole story because that turned out to be not a good idea, either. Five years later, we moved back to Florida for reasons of fires and the desire to be nearer to grandkids and things like that. Anyway, so we were moving and building local relationships and joining clubs and all that other stuff at the same time, but I started reading about all this stuff. I must have taken 20 books with me to the Bahamas and bought 20 more and read them all and started collecting a couple of the original papers. So by the time I left the Bahamas in 2005 and went to Santa Barbara, I probably had 10 or 20 scientific documents that I’d collected because I thought they were written about as scientific theories and experiments that really mattered in what I was studying. So I wanted own a little bit of what made a difference.

Then when I got to Santa Barbara, one of the McKinsey partners who lives out there was the chair of the board of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, the local board of that institute. So I joined that board and I got to know David Gross, the head of the Institute who is a Nobel Laureate, and a number of the other physicists there, and went to talks given by visiting scientists and really got into it.

I started collecting more and I realized that I didn't know enough about physics just reading these general books about physics. So I hired a post-doc who was spending a couple of years at the KITP to tutor me on Saturdays. So I would pay him $100 or something for a couple of hours of his time on Saturday. He’d give me a reading list for the next week, and I’d read what was in it and we’d come back and discuss it and he’d give me another reading list for the next week. So we made it through relativity, basically. I forget why we ended there. His tenure as a postdoc ended and I never hired another one, but by that time I was getting seriously into collecting. Like the back bookshelf there was full of books. [points behind him].

Zierler:

Yeah. So Dave, I want to ask. [Laughs] One of the questions that I’ve been really excited to ask is at this juncture, right, did you realize at some point after the fact how in-deep you already were? Did it happen in a flash? Did it sort of happen over time? When did you realize that this was more than just attending a lecture and “Hey, this is a cool thing,” until this was sort of like… I don't know if obsession is the right word, but when did you realize that this was something that you were really devoting a tremendous amount of energy and resources to? Was it gradual or sudden?

Wenner:

If you’ve been listening, you know that nothing with me is decided like that ahead of time. [Laughs] This was an evolution. But I have to tell you that one of the reasons I’m a good problem solver is that I know how to structure work and I know how to state things like a hypothesis and then gather information to test that hypothesis and then modify the hypothesis and so on.

So whenever I would buy a document, I would write about the concepts in it. Every time I bought something I had the discipline to write about it. So I’d have to learn about what went into doing the research that was reflected in that volume or journal entry or journal issue and write about it.

Then gradually I had enough of those so that I put them together into the first generation of History of Physics. AIP has 12 years’ worth of these annual documents, starting very thin and growing each year. So what happened from the start was a rigorous approach to documenting. Then what then happened gradually was a realization that I had multiple documents relating to a particular line of research. Why don't I look for other documents to fill in that line of research so I have a topic covered and I can write about the line of research, not just the individual documents--

Zierler:

This also indicates, Dave, that your own budding expertise in physics is allowing you also to identify the holes in your collection as well. In other words, it’s not just a literature review you're doing; you're also learning how to substantively understand the material so that you can identify what to go after next.

Wenner:

Yes. However, I have to say that there is a wealth of information out there by people who, like you, have studied the history of physics. They tend to go very, very deep in a particular area.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

And I was going broad, covering area after area after area. I could generally find a text written by a history of physics writer that gave me a head start, but they didn’t always provide references. I began to dig through citations in the documents I had purchased to find references, but the texts I read gave me ideas for a storyline, a first hypothesis of a storyline in that area. By the way, Wikipedia was just beginning to be available…

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

But not nearly at the level of quality it is now. Now I can go to Wikipedia and see a very detailed write-up on something. Back then--

Zierler:

We take for granted just how incredible a resource it is, but you're really getting started without this benefit initially.

Wenner:

Right. It did have some benefits, though, which I’ll go into in a second which are not related to this. Then there’s a whole story of collecting - what it takes to be a collector kind of discussion that I don't know whether you want to have or not.

Zierler:

Absolutely.

Wenner:

Okay. Anyway, so I’d locate the book or two that described the history of quantum theory and how it was developed and I’d read that—or the discovery of the atom or Newton’s theory of gravity. I’d read that and I’d get an idea of kind of the story and then I would start writing my own. I would first draft a topic sentence. “This is about theories of gravity and the experiments to test the theories.” That’s generally now a chapter in History of Physics or a subtopic within a chapter. Then I’d write a draft of the whole subtopic or chapter and this would identify gaps in knowledge, and so on. Then at one point I made a transition. I said, “Well, you know what? I really ought to build out the documents that I have.”

By the way, I hate to say this, but I was also collecting evolutionary theory. Very early on, I think about the time I moved to Santa Barbara, maybe a year after I moved to Santa Barbara, I said, “That’s not nearly as deep an area as physics is.” I had a lot of the books which I’ve since sold, but a hundred books does it in that. In physics there’s a bottomless pit almost.

Zierler:

Sure. Sure.

Wenner:

I’ve giving you the intellectual process, and I’ll give you the physical process in a minute, okay? The intellectual process is build out topic or just happen to find something that provides a reason to explore and build a collection around a new topic. Identify what the collection is missing and look for it and at times come across and buy something that doesn’t fit but is really a neat thing or a bargain. Read about the area that it deals with. Think about the other things that are important to buy in the new area. Put them on a want list and search for them. Then at some point write about the area. Writing about the area identifies gaps and other documents I don't have and need to buy. Log the things I don't have yet but I want to get. And so on.

So I have a Word document, History of Physics, and I’ve got a lot of Excel documents that are lists of these things. Containing things like, who did I buy them from? What’s the name of the document? What’s the document about? I initially didn’t note how much I paid for each document, bit later thought, “Maybe I’d better start writing that down.” I didn't do that at the beginning. [Laughing] As the money got significant, I started writing that down.

Zierler:

Dave, I want to ask. At what point are you starting to think that this is a collection where you're not simply building it out because of the satisfaction of seeking to achieve comprehensiveness, but that this is something that has greater sociological, cultural, and historiographical value well beyond anything that you can confine within your own personal residence?

Wenner:

That didn't come till very late. There were a number of steps before that. So I’m well off, but I’m not rich. So as I kept building these areas through the time at Santa Barbara into the time I moved back to Florida… Actually, I was in Santa Barbara and 2008 happened. My net worth plummeted by a good deal.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

My wife and I made an agreement that I would not spend any more on my collection.

Zierler:

[Laughs] And how much? I mean, we don't have to get into the nitty gritty, but how much of your own wealth were you utilizing for these purposes?

Wenner:

At that time I don't remember, but it was too much… I was spending $1,000 increments on these things and it was five a month or ten a month, something like that, so it was--

Zierler:

And when the stock market is good, this is sustainable and in a crash it’s not, essentially.

Wenner:

Exactly. So at about that point, we had to abandon the house a couple of times because of forest fires, and so we decided to move back to Florida. I decided… My wife helped me decide [laughs] that I wasn’t going to spend any more on this, so at that point, I said, “I’m pretty good at collecting. Maybe I can turn this into a business.” That gets me into another topic which I won't go into now, but I self-financed through buying and selling almost all the remainder of my collection.

So from about 2009 on, maybe 2010 on, my net outflow dwindled. It didn't go to zero, but it went down a lot and that allowed me to continue collecting. But I was still on this—this is interesting—new area: weather! Oh my god! I don't know if you’ve read the weather thing. I think the weather write-up is pretty good, you know. Climate is even better, but weather is pretty good. This is fun, learning about this area and writing about it, you know.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

By the way, receiving the book and being able to open it up and look at it… You know, I get it back from my book binder. It’s pretty. Put it on the shelf. My friends go, “Ooo! Ah! Don't bore me with what’s in there, but that’s pretty,” you know, that kind of thing. It’s all very positive reinforcement.

So at some point, I got through all the things that I thought were interesting. What was still open was things about the mathematics of physics and the mess called The Standard Model of Particle Physics. These areas were not as interesting to me but I said to myself, “What will it take to get it all done? All of physics? Well, first, let me write the table of contents of the book.”

So I had a table of contents at that time, but it was incomplete. It was the contents of things I had already. So then I set out and I wrote a table of contents for the history of physics. All of it.

Zierler:

Dave, I wonder when you say if there’s a duality and I had to create it in the sense that this was something that you felt the field needed—not just that you wanted to do it, but that as a result of all of these books and manuscripts that you collected, this needed to be part of that as well.

Wenner:

I was not thinking of the library being anywhere else at this time. I was thinking about for me, in addition to the fun of dealing with people in buying and selling books and finding a great find and all that sort of thing, it is the intellectual part of this that had inspired me. So what inspired me to try for a complete collection of the history of physics was the realization nothing like this exists anywhere. This book, the History of Physics, and a collection that covers the history of physics since the renaissance -- there’s nothing like this, and why not go for it? Let’s go for it. I didn't think about whether humanity would love it or not. It was sort of like wouldn't this be neat? I hadn't thought about whether I’m going to sell it or not, only that it would be unique! At that point it was a bit more than half-done. But I decided, “I’m going for it.”

So that was to me a key point. I sort of said, “This is a big picture thing now,” and so I forced myself to develop the sections that I didn't really expect to have much fun with and collect for them as well. So I got into that phase of this thing, which is get it done! Get it done.

Zierler:

Yeah. Dave, how do you define “Get it done”? I mean you say already history of physics and physics manuscripts, it’s a bottomless pit, so how do you define those over limits where you're going to be satisfied that this is a collection that achieves some level of comprehensiveness?

Wenner:

Right. Like I said, I build a model in my mind and then I test it against what I see and then I modify it. So this organization structure has changed a hundred times since I started to develop it. As I’d find a new leaf on the tree, I’d have to figure out how to change the tree in order for it to fit on a branch, so History of Physics was a living document all the way through. If you look at some of the earlier books, you’ll see how it changed.

When I got to the point where I wasn’t seeing ways to improve History of Physics anymore and the number of documents referred to as “not yet in this collection” had been on the list for a long time and I felt I was unlikely find them over any reasonable period. This was like two years before I started marketing it. I sort of said, “Okay, it’s done. Let’s wrap it up.” All right?

So then I thought, “Okay, what does wrap it up mean?” Well, this book is a Dave Wenner product. It’s got a lot of misspellings in there. It doesn't have an index. The sentence structure is incorrect, etc., etc. So I had to find somebody to edit it. I had to find somebody to create an index. All that sort of thing. Meanwhile, dealing with all the remaining work that’s at the book binder and that sort of thing. So in the last year and a half, it was getting the remaining documents rebound or boxed and getting the History of Physics to a point where it was presentable. It’s still not perfect. By the way, I’m still editing the text when I discover an error.

Zierler:

When you say presentable, that in and of itself conveys a challenge because presentable to whom? To other physicists? To students? To historians of physics? It’s a wide audience out there, so who are you thinking about in terms of presentability?

Wenner:

So initially, friends I shared it with, including the people who wrote the reviews on the back cover, were physicists who I was working with on the board of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and they loved it! They absolutely loved it. They learned something about the history of their own area, and they learned about area areas that they wanted to know something about. They wouldn’t pick up a book to read about an area, but they would read a chapter about that area.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

So I think it’s of interest to physicists. That’s all I knew.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

That’s all I knew. Okay. I shared it with the head of the Research Corporation, a physicist named Robert Shelton, who had been the president of the University of Arizona before he became the head of Research Corporation. His review said something like, “This would be a great teaching thing. Physicists ought to learn this when they’re taking physics.” So I thought, “Well, maybe it’s got a broader audience. Maybe it should be in high schools or colleges that have physics curricula, one copy in each library—that’s a lot of libraries!

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

So I thought, “Maybe that’s what I’ll do with the book,” and by the way, the book was really more on my mind. I also researched the collection and said, “What do I do with the collection?” My first thought was to give it away. Yale, maybe. Who knows? It’s a one-of-a-kind collection. So I talked to my accountants and they gave me some jarring information. For gift purposes, the IRS would place this collection in the same category as a work of art.

Zierler:

Like giving a painting to the Smithsonian, something like that.

Wenner:

Yes. And the tax code says if I’m an artist and I give my painting to the Smithsonian off of my easel, I can only deduct the cost of materials.

Zierler:

Ah…

Wenner:

I cannot deduct so-called market value because there is no market value.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

So I said, “Wait a minute. The cost of materials—first of all, I paid x for them and now we’re at a value of 2x because of inflation.”

Zierler:

But not to mention, Dave, all of the painstaking work you did restoring some of these manuscripts.

Wenner:

Exactly. And researching and locating them. So I said, “Well, that’s not very satisfying,” and then I thought, “Well, how do people sell collections?” It turns out that collectors usually dispose of collections by either giving them away or putting the individual documents up for auction. I could not find an example of anyone who sold the pieces for more than the sum of the parts, and so I said--

Zierler:

Also, that would violate whatever desire you would have to…this beautiful, comprehensive collection that you had, I mean you’d throw that out the window.

Wenner:

Yeah. It was a nonstarter for several reasons. So I thought, “Okay. Let’s try to make history. [Laughs] Let’s see if we can sell it for what it would cost to put it together.” So I sat down and did a spreadsheet of what it would cost today to buy and plus the time and materials required to do this – it took me more than ten years.

By the way, I didn't mention the lucky timing of my collecting at about the time the Internet was opening up the world market for documents such as this, and a lot of things coming available that are seldom available anymore, so doing this again might be impossible.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

So I said, “But let’s just assume it is possible. What would it cost?” At least $5 or $6 million. So I said, “Hey, $5 million.” [Laughs]

Zierler:

This essentially… It’s less of a headache and it makes you whole at the end of the day.

Wenner:

Yes. I mean I didn’t value my time as much as it was worth at McKinsey by any means, but a $5 million sale earns me more per year than my kids earn. [Laughs] So I feel okay about it, and it’s a one-of-a-kind and so on, so yeah. I’ll sell the whole thing for that. Then we got into the selling process, which was another whole process, but before we get into that, I’d like to talk about the building process, the unintellectual parts of the building process, okay? Let me just take a sip of water.

Zierler:

Sure.

Wenner:

I probably spent 8 hours every day on this. I’m at the computer before 5:00 in the morning until breakfast. If it’s a nice day, I’ll go out and play golf, or if it’s men’s day or whatever or Marilyn wants to play or we have a cocktail party or it’s a beautiful day and somebody wants to go shoot some photos, so I’ll do that. But this is my work. Every day – 7 days a week.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

So Sundays, same thing. Sundays. You know, it doesn't matter. I’m not a churchgoer, so early Sunday morning. So this becomes my go-to thing and where my mind is most of the time, and the other stuff is my vacation period away from that. I take my vacation a little bit at a time. I don't know if you ever read any of the John MacDonald series about…

Zierler:

Sure. Sure.

Wenner:

Yeah, okay. [Laughs] I’m doing it in smaller chunks. That was another one of the authors I enjoyed when I was growing up, John MacDonald. Anyway. I get up and every morning I get on the Internet and I see what’s been listed in the areas of my interest. I have a Boolean on AbeBooks that gave me a list of documents that were put on the market the previous day, okay? So I go through that. It’s usually on the order of 100. You know, out of the 10,000 or more books added every day, 100 of them meet my Boolean, and I kept fine-tuning the Boolean so I got wheat and didn't get a lot of chaff. I’d often find a book that I would either buy there …or it would set me on a trail to find the same one elsewhere that was one-quarter of the cost this guy was asking for it. [Chuckles] Anyway, so there’s that sort of random looking at the Internet and finding stuff.

Secondly, more importantly, there was a search based on gaps in my History of Physics, and to understand how I did that, not only did I use search algorithms on all of the document search engines, but I also found companies out there that buy shelves of books from libraries and from periodical publishers and well them by the pound—not by the pound literally, but they sold an issue for $50. I knew which issues to buy, so I didn't have to buy all of the issues. I bought some of the issues – the valuable ones.

Zierler:

Right. You were strategic about it.

Wenner:

Or I bought $500 issues for $50.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

I made a number of purchases that way. These opportunities aren’t around anymore; I mean they don't have the good ones anymore. [Laughs] Even the American Institute of Physics used to sell back issues at $15 or something like that. I bought a number of issues from AIP a decade ago that I sold back to AIP as part of the collection! [Laughing] You know, not 1,000 of them, but maybe 100 of the 3,500 documents in the collection now in fancy boxes written about nicely, etc. came from AIP. So I was clever about understanding value and finding organizations selling them that didn't understand value as well as I did. They made a profit because they got documents for free or for very little, you know, for 5¢ each while I paid $15 to $50, but for the $50 I got something that was worth $500—you know, that kind of thing.

Secondly, I bought whole runs of important journals when I could. I bought a whole run of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1665 (the first year) to 1889—hundreds of volumes. I rebound and sold five of those volumes – Newton’s optics papers – for what I paid for the entire lot. Of the Phil Trans run I purchased I kept the volumes I wanted: 30 or 40 of them, and then consigned the rest of them to dealers to sell. Not only did the purchase give me all the volumes I needed, but the sales of the rest helped me finance other stuff. I ended up buying several partial runs of the Phil Trans. I bought Philosophical Magazine runs, long runs. I bought Zeitschrift für Physik. I bought Annalen der Physik. I bought Nature. There weren't really long runs of the APS journals available, so I had to get those individually. But I bought a number of full runs and kept the ones I wanted to, had them rebound, and sold the rest, which helped me finance my collection.

I also took part in auctions and found some things at auctions, but not many because I wanted to buy things for less because I was on a budget. I had enough discipline to say, “This is all the further I’m going to go on price,” because I knew what the market was and I’m only going to go to like 30% of that and that’s all I’m going to go. So anyway, I bought some but not many. I missed a lot of purchases that way.

The thing that turned out to be most useful was the many relationships with book dealers I was able to establish across the world, through the Internet. Many of them had only listed a small fraction of what they owned. Some of them hadn't even explored what they had owned, and so after I bought a few things from them, I shared with them the list of things that I wanted. I know now which dealers are deep in what areas and so I know which ones to go to when I’m looking for something. They look around and many times they’ll find it, or at least some portion of the time. I’ve probably had first name relationships with 100 dealers worldwide, often small dealers, and that’s drying up a little bit now, too. I was fortunate that I got in early and was able to build those relationships.

Now my view on book collecting—which is different than your library’s view, I think—is that it’s what’s inside that counts. Scientists used what is inside and didn’t take care of the outsides, and so many of the books in my collection are rebinds. What I mostly bought was documents that have clean interiors and I’d rebind them nicely in period-style bindings. I also don't care enough about who previously owned the document to pay a lot extra for provenance because I was most interested in the science inside. That’s the way I collected. Most book collectors are buying for a different reason – often bragging rights - so that allowed me to buy things that are less expensive. I’m afraid… This is, again, between us but you can share it with whomever you want. Your library is good but seems to be focused on “How famous is the book?” and “What’s the history of the book itself?” rather than the science inside. When I see pictures of some of my books on your website, they’re the very old ones that have the nice original bindings, or contain the original advertisements or have important provenances. [Laughs] Not much is said about the science inside.

By the way, during my collection I had purposely avoided the really famous ones because why pay $10,000 or a lot more for one really famous old book in a beautiful binding when I could buy 15 or 20 that are as important for the same money? So at the very end, I said, “You know what? I’m weakest in the really old expensive stuff, so I need to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on the really expensive, old stuff.” So I filled that in. That was one of the last things I filled in because I thought, “I need to do it to sell this collection…” and yes, it turns out to be what AIP highlights in the collection. [Laughing]

Zierler:

Dave, I want to ask you on the acquisition side. A theme that we’ve been talking about is your ability to educate yourself in new areas. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, to the extent that it’s relevant, the underworld of book collecting, the seedy side of book collecting. What did you learn about this international trade of book selling that’s not so readily apparent to people on the outside but that you learned about like, “Wow. So this is really how the sausage is made, huh?”

Wenner:

Yes. Well, I know there is a dark side. I’ll give you one case example where I ran into it, but generally I have dealt with very reputable book dealers. Early on I bought some things on EBay, and that will be the genesis of a story I’ll tell you. But mostly I’ve bought from book dealers who are listed on Abe and been in business for years.

Zierler:

So reputable means right off the bat that you're not concerned that you're trafficking in stolen material? Is that the first item of concern?

Wenner:

Yes. That’s a concern. And I was taught that concern while working with some really fine book dealers As one example - Michael DiRuggeiro, the owner of The Manhattan Rare Book Company has become a good friend. I’ve bought a bunch of things from him and I’ve sold a few things through him. He was the dealer who did the appraisal of my book collection for AIP because he knew the market and my collection, but that’s another story. He’s a stickler for quality and authenticity. I bounced ideas off of him like, “Should I be buying this? I don't know this guy really well.” He would do a little research and he’d say, “Yeah, maybe not. So I would stay away from this guy.”

One example where I did call him up was I bought this book… the famous Turing. Yes. It didn't really fit in my collection, but hell, everybody’s got to have Turing!

Zierler:

Sure! [Laughter]

Wenner:

And that was back when it cost a quarter of what it now costs. So I saw it on the Internet and I bought it for $4,000 from a guy in Australia. It was a big acquisition for me, but the going market price at that time was $10,000. So I got it and it had a library mark on it, but did not have a cancel. So I called Michael and I said, “Michael, I’m a little worried about this book. Would you mind calling the library and checking this out?” So he did and he found out that that book was missing from the library.

So that same guy from whom I’d purchased the book, the Turing, had sent me an email, saying, “I’ve got a bunch more like this.” So I said, “Michael, we have a chance to nail this guy.” [Chuckles] “I really want to stay out of this. Would you help me?” Michael is such an up-and-up guy and really wants to stamp this type of thing out, so he said, “I’ll do this.”

So he phoned the library back and said, “Here’s what we’re doing,” and then he phoned the Australian police. I forget who he called, but anyway, he got the police in on it. So the strategy was that I would string this guy on, saying, “I don't have the money now to buy this, but here are the four things I want to buy. Can you hold them for me?” Then we found out his address perhaps by saying I needed it to send him a check or something. I forget how we found out what his address was. Then the police went to his place, made a sting, got the other books, and this guy went to jail.

So then I said to Michael, “When I return the book I’m out $4,000. What do I do?” So he called the library back and the library person says, “Do nothing right now. We’re submitting for the entire loss.” So I held onto the book, for like five years, and then I said, “Michael, will you check with them again?” He called the library again and the librarian said, “Oh, yes. We’ve gotten paid for that. Keep it.” [Chuckles] So I did and Michael sold it for me. [Laughs]

Zierler:

That’s great.

Wenner:

And Michael got the documentation from the library that it was fine to sell it. So that was my one… That was my first major situation. So I have not been involved I that. Even with auctions I ask for paperwork, you know.

Zierler:

Sure, sure. Dave, when you did start to think about not being able to house this collection yourself for the long term, was AIP, was the Niels Bohr Library immediately obvious or did you sort of shop around in considering repositories?

Wenner:

Actually, I did not. I offered a couple of book dealers a percentage and… Some of these book dealers have very wealthy—I mean net worth starts with a B kind of guys who might buy it and give it to their university. Which they can do better than I could because once they establish market value by buying it, then they can give it away and get the full tax benefit. So I started along that route but I happened to mention to Robert Shelton that I was doing this. (Robert Shelton, as you remember, was the head of Research Corporation at the time and was previously the president of University of Arizona.) He happened to be in a meeting with Greg Good a month later and mentioned the collection to Greg. Greg said something like “This is exactly what we’re looking for!”

Zierler:

Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Wenner:

And he and Robert Brown, who was the CEO at the time, said, “What can you send me about it?” So I sent them the History of Physics and some photos. (I had some professional photos made.) I also said, “Why don't you come down and take a look at it? You can stay at my house for a couple of days and go through whatever you want and see whether it’s of interest.” So they did and as they were leaving they said, “How much is it?” and I told them. They said, “Wow.” I said, “That’s my number. That’s it. Take your time, but that’s the number. Here’s why I think it’s worth it. I spent this much time and it’s this complete. There’s nothing else like it.” It turns out that that got them going because they thought my collection could be the beginning of a new level of aspiration for AIP.

Zierler:

Absolutely!

Wenner:

It was going to be the core of a new higher aspiration so a $5-million cost might be okay. There are a lot of big givers out there looking for ways to give money to science.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Wenner:

They went back and evidently had some problems convincing their board. A year passed, and it turned out that one stumbling block was the board needed to have an appraisal that shows the value of the collection. I said, “Well, how about this? How about if the value is based on what it would cost to you put the collection together over the next ten years?” and they said, “Yes, that’s good. That’s exactly what it would cost us, except we’d get it now rather than 10 years from now.”

Michael did the appraisal. He came and personally inspected the collection and did individual appraisals for hundreds of the more expensive documents, and then valued the others through comparable sales. In addition to valuing the volumes themselves he also estimated what it would cost to hire somebody to do the I did over 10 years and came out with a valuation of about $6.5 million, which then went to the board. The board approved and they purchased it. This initial contact was in 2016. They took possession of it in the middle of 2018, I think, and they’ve been working on cataloging it since then.

Zierler:

Dave, I can only imagine the flood of emails and phone calls as all of these details are being worked out as you're getting ready to transfer this collection. I’m curious just sort of generally. What is your stance in terms of how, on what level of granularity do you want to be involved once AIP takes over control of the collection? In other words, are you involving yourself with things about what kinds of books are going to be displayed when, or are you generally more hands-off, saying, “Here it is. We’ve agreed on the big-ticket items that need to be worked out, and you do with it what you want at that point”? What was your overall approach to that transfer and your ongoing involvement?

Wenner:

Okay. To answer your question in a short sentence, I was more interested in getting the deal done, and whatever it took to get the deal done, so didn’t raise any questions. The only thing I asked for was it be called the Wenner Collection.

Zierler:

Right.

Wenner:

Because I put, you know…

Zierler:

It’s the Wenner Collection! You don't have to explain why. [Laughs]

Wenner:

AIP can decide “We don't want to call it the Wenner Collection anymore,” but to do that the board has to state an important reason for the change. That was the only thing I was looking for other than the check. I even made the collection available to them six months or so before I got the final payment. I offered them the chance to spend the time needed at my house to do an inventory. They didn’t do that but they had possession for six months before they made the final payment. The only provisions that they were concerned about was if someone came back to them and said, “This is stolen,” that I would make them whole on that, which I understand. But again, I was not concerned about that possibility, so I readily agreed to it.

There was one aspect of the negotiation that surprised me and that was the fact that there was no mention in the whole negotiation of any desire to own History of Physics (the book).

Zierler:

What was your expectation before even having a discussion?

Wenner:

I assumed that they would want to own the book, or at least have an exclusive license for its use. To me, half the value of the collection is the way that History of Physics ties the collection together and links individual works to the scientific process that took place as some point in time. So it’s more than a collection of individual documents. It is a set of the most important documents in the history of physics over the past 500 years.

Now did I say, “Are you sure you don't want to own this?” No. I didn’t want to complicate the negotiation. I just decided that I would offer the use of it to them later. So I own History of Physics. They own the collection documents but not the book that ties them all together. It blew me away that nobody would think of that, all right?

Zierler:

Did you raise this concern?

Wenner:

No. I did not. I told you I wanted to get the deal done. I think AIP was just interested in the documents. If you had a business background, you’d have said, “What’s the asset here? Part of the asset is History of Physics,” but they seemed to think about it only from a Niels Bohr Library standpoint.

Zierler:

Did you raise this concern about ownership of the book after the deal was done?

Wenner:

In a way. Let me explain. So my vision for AIP is that they will have a library for people for postdocs and visitors who can be on-site, but with a website based on History of Physics that replaced the references in the book with links to digital versions of the documents, most of which are already digitized, they could make this library available to anybody anywhere in the world.

Zierler:

Digitize.

Wenner:

Digitize. I said, “I have not done a calculation, but my estimate is that 90%+ of these documents are already on the Internet.” Everything in the Phil Trans, everything in the Phil Mag, everything in Nature, Annalen der Physik, Annales de Chimie et de Physique, everything in all the publications of AIP’s sister organizations and so on—they’re on the Internet. Some of them are behind pay walls, but they’re all on the Internet. There are very, very few that are not already available in digital form on the Internet. They could make a website, put History of Physics up there, or modify History of Physics to make it better over time. Make it a living document. Maybe have a subscription fee or instead have it sponsored through donations. Every high school or college could have access as could any student interested in the history of physics.

Zierler:

Now that the collection is situated in the Library, have you been able to keep tabs on how it’s been accessed, how it’s been used, how it has… I mean it’s a short period of time, and of course all of this now is handicapped by coronavirus, of course. But I wonder if you have a sense or an ability to keep tabs on the way this unbelievably important collection is actually being put to good use by the very people who would come to our library?

Wenner:

I have no idea.

Zierler:

Is that something you're interested in?

Wenner:

Not particularly. If they were to pursue the idea of leveraging History of Physics I would be happy to help, but they are not. I do try to help when AIP is looking for information, like they were recently, and it is nice to get the emails or calls from Mariann when there’s something she thinks might be of interest to me. But I haven't heard from Greg in the last two years.

Zierler:

So my next question is, Dave, once you finished all of the negotiations and detail in terms of transferring, the mechanics in transferring this over to the Niels Bohr Library, I understand that the bug of book collecting didn't ever really leave you, right? So in what ways have you not recovered from your initial joy at doing this, and what are the kinds of things that you’ve been involved with since?

Wenner:

Yes, I continue to fail retirement because I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of collecting. I’ve developed a number of relationships with science book dealers that make it easy for me to continue collecting, and I’m continuing to pursue smaller collections that are not going to take me ten years to complete. I have a list here. I have four collections that are now at the 600-document level, and another five that are at the 100- to 200-document level. So not insignificant collections, but none anywhere near the size of The Wenner Collection. And no more 800 page books.

Zierler:

I’ll just state for context that right now, despite the overall economy, the stock market is doing quite well, and so I wish you ongoing success, at least in that regard, that you can continue doing this. [Chuckling]

Wenner:

And my wife is no longer complaining after the big payment I received a couple of years ago from AIP.

Zierler:

Right. [Laughter]

Wenner:

Yeah. I have a track record now. By the way, I recently completed my collection on climate change. I had part of that pretty much completed when I sold the physics collection, the part relating to the scientific study of the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect that started with Fourier back in 1824. But after I sold the physics collection I started collecting the other aspect of climate science, the study of the changes that have occurred over the last four billion years in climate and the scientific investigation of these changes. This is a different stream of scientific effort that did not until quite recently have any relationship with the greenhouse effect research —different scientists not much talking to each other until their predictions started to collide in the 1970s. So I doubled the size of the collection to cover this other stream of scientific effort.

What was surprising to me (and several experts I’ve discussed this with) is that it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became clear that the globe is warming. Before then there were two competing predictions by different groups of scientists: One that the earth was warming because of increasing greenhouse gases, and another that we are in for a cooling period.

Zierler:

The global cooling, yes.

Wenner:

The Malenkovich 100,000 year cycle…

Zierler:

That’s right.

Wenner:

Anyway, my climate collection now covers both sides of that scientific research. It’s a 600-document collection, and it’s got a 16-page overview document that you probably should read if you are interested. It’s the best-written short document I’ve written. It’s both a history of climate and a history of climate science all in 16 pages, highly summarized. [Chuckles]

So where this relates to AIP is that I offered to donate the collection to AIP. I said, “I’d like to donate this to AIP if you will pay for an an appraisal like we did for History of Physics, I’d give it to AIP, however it came out.”

But what I heard from Gigi is “We don't do that,” which I understand is a legal requirement of some sort. I decided to sell it, so it’s now in the process of being marketed the same way I initially started to market the physics collection.

One of the other collections I’m doing is on early computing. I have a computing background and so I went back to…

Zierler:

Not only a computing background, but you came of age at one of the early points in computing itself.

Wenner:

Right. So I learned about the history of computing science and so on. This goes all the way back to Galileo and takes a history of calculating and computing through the first generation of digital, when I was studying it. It’s still underway. I haven't written about it yet; I’ve just got write-ups of the various documents.

Another that I undertook, because I thought it might have a limited but very wealthy market, is Mars. [Laughs] I’ve got the only collection I know of covering the history of science and science fiction of Mars. So it goes back to when Kepler, Huygens began viewing the planet through telescopes, which really picked up when Schiaparelli said, “I see canali,” (channels) in the middle 1800s and Lowell says, “I see Canals!” Then suddenly everybody sees canals where there aren’t canals, and this turns into speculation about advanced civilizations on Mars. There’s a whole bunch of fiction written about adventures on Mars with advanced civilizations and attacks from Martians and that sort of thing. So there’s a rich history of science (not always good science) and great fiction, all of which is kind of neat.

By the way, the fiction was first published in pulps so I found and bought the individual pulps and put them into boxes and I’ve got a collection of that. I think a couple of well-known rich guys who are trying to get to Mars might be interested in this collection, and it won't make a blip in their net worth. So we’ll see. But in the meantime, it’s fun. I’ve got to show you something. Just a second.

Zierler:

Please!

Wenner:

I have totally failed to mention my book binder, but here is the cover of every one of the things.

Zierler:

Oh, wow!

Wenner:

Do you see it?

Zierler:

Beautiful!

Wenner:

So a picture of Mars.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Wenner:

Every one of the boxes has a cover.

Zierler:

Oh, that’s great!

Wenner:

So you’ve got to do a photographic process and all this. He is just an amazing guy. I should probably have spent a few minutes talking about him because this wouldn't be what it is without him. You’ve probably seen these. These were ratty old things. This is a Phil Trans. You’ve probably seen the ones in the collection. Doesn't that look nice?

Zierler:

It’s gorgeous! Yeah!

Wenner:

And these were ratty, old, terrible, awful things.

Zierler:

Yeah. I mean it shows you just the wonders of what good book binding can do.

Wenner:

Yes. And my bookbinder loves a challenge. So one of the things that I made money on was I would buy these books and have him repair them and make a box for them and then sell them for multiples of what I paid for them. One gets a little bit of a rise out of that, you know? So I have not done this, though, with the current collections. I’m only collecting for the collections, not for resale.

So I mentioned climate, Mars, early computing. The one behind me there is some of the highlights of physics. I can't give it up entirely, so it’s going to be a couple hundred documents. But then I got into collecting a few other things that I just got interested in. So for example, meteors and meteorites. Have you ever heard of Ernst Chladni?

Zierler:

No.

Wenner:

Okay. He’s famous for acoustics because of experiments with vibrating dinner plates with sand on them that illustrated the vibrational waves. But he also was the guy that said for the first time in 1794, “Meteorites come from outer space.” This was in the late 1700s when no one knew about asteroids so they thought meteorites were from volcanoes. It took 100 years of analysis of the composition of meteorites and the trajectories of incoming meteors to get people to believe that. So I’ve got a collection of documents from the period of time they were trying to figure out where these things came from.

I have another small collection covering the 1700s relating for the search for ways to determine longitude at sea. There was something called the Longitude Act in England that established a commission to evaluate proposals by astronomers and clockmakers regarding ways to determine longitude at sea. You probably read Dava Sobel’s book on longitude that popularized this quest.

Zierler:

Sure. Right.

Wenner:

I have a little collection on that. I’ve got some documents on game theory, early rocketry, the search for extraterrestrial life—and other little things like that, little areas of interest. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Right now I’m trying to bring together my Mars collection so that when the pandemic is over, before we find out we really don't want to go to Mars, [laughs] someone will buy the collection.

Zierler:

Dave, do you think this is it, or you have more collecting to do in you?

Wenner:

I don't think so. I think I’m done. I’m 75 and I can still lug a pretty heavy box, but at some point that’s not going to work, you know? [Chuckles] I’m getting a little tired of that anyway, so I think we’re done. I’ve got two or three years’ work anyway, maybe five years’ work to finish this off, so when I’m 80 I will retire to my rocking chair…

Zierler:

Right. Plenty to keep you busy, and hopefully the stock market will be good throughout this pandemic and beyond.

Wenner:

Yeah. I’m not sure I’m going to spend a whole lot more money on collecting new things. I think what’s finishing up now is more about spending the time to document Mars and Computers like I did Climate. They’re going to be 20-page summaries not 800-page books like History of Physics.

Zierler:

Well, Dave, I think for my last question I want to ask you something that’s sort of both broadly retrospective and also will ask you to sort of think about the future in terms of your contributions and your legacy, and that is on a superficial level, there is certainly a major narrative shift as we’ve discussed your life, and that is you had these interests early on in science. You sort of shelved them during a remarkable career in consulting, and then you did something that really nobody ever does when they think about retirement. Retirement is usually about taking it easy or pursuing interests on a light level, and yet you really threw yourself into this remarkable project with what sounds to me like as much, if not more, force than you did when you were starting your career in consulting.

So I want to ask do you see that narrative shift for yourself in reflecting on your own life, or do you see it as one part of a single story that just had different opportunities at different times? In answering that question, when you think about your legacy long-term, what are the things that you think stand out in terms of what you’ll be remembered and appreciated for?

Wenner:

Most of those things have nothing to do with either McKinsey or the collection. [Chuckles] They have to do with family—you know, being a good father, giving some guidance to my kids, completing my recovery from bad husband, …you know, things closer to home.

I would also like to be remembered as somebody who has been honest, has never knowingly told a lie, or at least a harmful lie. A fairly smart guy, able to bring things together in a conceptual way better than most, one who will stand up for things he says he thinks are right rather than about what other people think of him. Those are the legacy points that I have.

A career at McKinsey—it taught me a lot. The single thread that goes through here, I think, is using my mind in a problem solving sense, reversing entropy, if you would, in a way that’s useful. I think when I’m gone, I’m gone. I don't think there’s an afterlife and I don't think there’s any permanent, indelible mark that anybody makes. Everything changes over some timeframe or other.

Zierler:

Have what you learned in science influenced your views on spirituality?

Wenner:

Yes. I’m not much of a spiritualist.

Zierler:

I’m asking, if science encourages that way of thinking.

Wenner:

Oh, no. But being a skeptic does. Well, I think at the edge of science there are lots of unprovable, or yet unproven theories especially in cosmology and in quantum theory. We don't really know what’s reality and may never know what’s reality, but does that make me think that there is a purpose? No, it doesn't. I think if there were purpose, we would probably have been shown some sign of it. [Laughs] Yeah, I believe in evolution--

Zierler:

And I guess Mount Sinai doesn't count for you in terms of seeing a sign.

Wenner:

Oh, no. I mean the words of men who passed on stories by word of mouth and thought that somebody ascended to heaven in front of them to the… No! I know the conspiracy theories that are going on now! [Laughs] So why would I believe a conspiracy theory that was written 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 years ago? It’s good to know what people thought way back then, but they are man’s thoughts, not those of a god.

So anyway, no, I’m not spiritual. Do I think that the uncertainty around cosmology or quantum mechanics is going to resolve this? I don't think so. I mean yeah, I know that there’s some question about whether time is real. [Laughs] But it sure feels real! I remember stuff. There’s stuff I haven't done yet. There’s stuff I know I have to do tomorrow.

Zierler:

Dave, you're well read and you know enough that if you don't know, that means that nobody else really knows, either.

Wenner:

In this case, yes. But there are many things I don’t know that others do. I recognize what I don't know and when that is the case I try to admit that I don't know. And my wife will tell you that I need to learn how to take out the trash at the right time without being told. [Laughter]

Zierler:

It’s a long atonement from your days in Copenhagen.

Wenner:

Oh, yes. It’s still not over. Every once in a while I still get reminded.

Zierler:

Well, Dave, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. This has been an interview that I’ve wanted to do since I first came to understand what the Wenner Collection is all about. It’s extraordinarily important, I think, that we spoke for a number of reasons, and I think that the value of this conversation, both to get your viewpoints in a much more—you know, as we said at the beginning, in a much more in-depth and sustained way than what is otherwise publicly available in much shorter interviews.

I think that part of this is it’s not just that historians of science are going to gain value from this collection literally for generations and generations to come. Part of that study is going to be who was this guy who did this? Now we have that on record in a way that is not superficial—not to criticize anything else that’s been written about you, but that we were able to do it in this sustained way where we really filled out the entire story of your really remarkable and unique motivations, your intellectual curiosity, and your sense of adventure in wanting to take something like this on after a career where you could have easily said, you know, “Golf is good by me.” So I really want to thank you for doing this, for generously spending this time with me, and I take this as an opportunity for us to stay in touch as well.

Wenner:

Great.