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Credit: UMN School of Physics and Astronomy
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Roger Stuewer by David Zierler on July 9, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is an interview with Roger Stuewer, Professor Emeritus, History of Science and Technology, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Stuewer recounts his childhood in rural Wisconsin, and he discusses his undergraduate work in physics education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the formative course in optics taught by Ed Miller. He describes his service in the U.S. Army and his deployment to Germany in the mid-1950s, and the opportunities provided by the GI Bill to further his education. He discusses his brief career teaching high school math and physics before he was offered an instructor job in physics at Heidelberg College. Stuewer describes the circumstances leading to his return to Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in the history of science, where he was advised by Erwin Hiebert and where he was deeply influenced by Heinz Barschall. He describes his fascination with Arthur Holly Compton and the Compton Effect which was the subject of his dissertation, and he explains his decision to join the faculty at Minnesota. Stuewer recounts his efforts to build the history of science and technology program there, and the opportunities he was afforded with a joint appointment in the physics department. He describes some of the major methodological and historiographical debates in the field over the course of his career, including competing ideas of whether the history of physics should be pursued at the conceptual level or have as its focus social phenomena. Stuewer discusses the major impact of Thomas Kuhn and he explains his decision to take a faculty position at Boston University before returning to Minnesota for the rest of his career, where he subsequently focused on the history of nuclear physics. He describes his motivations for creating a symposium on this topic, where Han Bethe delivered introductory remarks, and he explains his longstanding interest in John Hasbrouck Van Vleck. Stuewer describes his advisory work for AIP’s history program, and how his work as an editor for the American Journal of Physics provided him a unique vantage point of the field. At the end of the interview, Stuewer reflects on what his scholarship has taught him about how humankind makes sense of the physical world.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 9, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Professor Roger Stuewer. Roger, thank you so much for joining me today.
You’re very welcome. I appreciate your efforts.
To start, would you please tell me your title and your institutional affiliation?
My present title is professor emeritus, history of science and technology, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Now, that’s your title, but in terms of your closer affiliation, would you identify yourself more specifically as a historian of physics?
Okay. Well, Roger, that’s great. Let’s take it right back to the beginning. Let’s talk a little bit about your childhood, and we’ll start even prior to that. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
Right. Well, my parents — my father, Martin, grew up on a farm close to this small town in central Wisconsin, Bonduel. My father’s parents immigrated to this country as children with their parents. So, that would be my great-grandparents on both sides of the family. They immigrated. I spent some time in Hamburg giving talks and what have you, and there’s this wonderful facility, Ballinstadt, on the seacoast, the harbor of Hamburg, where you can find out about all of the immigrants who have immigrated to the United States, at this wonderful digital library there. I was able to locate my great-grandparents on my father’s side: Stuewer. [laughs] On my mother’s side, Westphal, there are so many of them [laughs] that I wasn’t able to identify exactly where they came from. But both families originated in East Prussia. I think close to the city of Stettin.
So, they emigrated. The immigrants came over at the end of the 19th century. And let’s see. I think I told you this neat story that my sister, regrettably now deceased, did some genealogical research, and she found out that my forebear grandparent on my mother’s side was actually in the Prussian army, and apparently he impregnated [laughs] someone, and he was escaping a paternity suit from his locale in East Prussia. So, they came from there, and then they went west from the east coast, of course. They settled in Wisconsin, and that’s the location of most of my — I think essentially all — of my forebears on both sides of the family, the Stuewer side — the “Stuwer” (pronounced Stever) side, as they would say — and the Westphal side.
And where were you born, Roger?
I was born in Shawano, which is nine miles to the west of Bonduel, where I grew up. And so, that would be about 40 miles west of Green Bay. The main highway that goes through is Highway 29. So, you start with Green Bay, you’ll go Green Bay, Bonduel, and Shawano, on Highway 29, east to west.
What were your parents’ professions growing up? And I’m curious. Around the time you were born, how did they fare during the Great Depression?
Well, they were both children, of course, of the Depression, and my father — let’s see, I think he was the only one of his several siblings who turned out to be a non-farmer. He went to barber school, I think in Milwaukee, as I vaguely remember, and then he became a barber, I think, maybe for a very, very brief time in Shawano, and then he moved with the family to Bonduel, Wisconsin.
And on my mother’s side, again, they were all farmers on — I think all of my uncles on my father’s side and on my mother’s side were farmers, I think with a couple of exceptions. I remember my uncle Hank Westphal was a mail carrier in the vicinity of Bonduel and around there. So, he got off the farm. But I think basically all of the others either had their own — they owned their own farms, so I think they were reasonably successful farmers. I know that my father was always jealous of the prosperity [laughs] of his siblings on the farm, when he really had to struggle as a barber in this small town. I remember that as I was growing up, I think he never had any more than an annual income of $2,000.
So, you know, it wasn’t an especially prosperous family.
Do you have any recollection of the 1930s, the Depression years, yourself?
No. I was born, of course, in 1934, so that would be at the tail end of the Depression, in any case. But I know that it affected my parents, and in particular, my father, very substantially, because it really affected them economically. So, he never made much more [laughs] than $2,000 a year so far as I remember, throughout his entire life.
I’m sure you do have memories of World War II.
Well, I do. My cousin on my mother’s side, Howard, was in the Army. And he was shipped over to the eastern combat zone. And I remember very well that he was stationed on Guam, I think, for some years during the second World War. And I remember that we were always apprehensive of him, because he was really clearly exposed to combat danger.
My uncle — another uncle on my mother’s side — Walter, had a farm about four miles west of Bonduel, and Walter and Ethel had a daughter, and two sons, Curtis and Kenneth Westphal. But as we were growing up — this would have been around — well, it would, in fact, have been in 1942, because we were well aware of the Battle of Midway. And it impressed us so much as children that we climbed up in a tree close — well, on the main highway, 29 — and in the branch, one big, broad branch of the tree that we climbed up into, we carved into the branch “MIDWAY” to mark that event, that really impressed us as children. We knew somehow, as children, that that was a turning point in the far eastern theater of the second World War. And then, of course, my cousin Howard survived, and he came back as a veteran after the war.
Roger, I’m curious. Did you become interested in science and the natural world before your formal introduction to science in school?
No. [laughs] I think not. I mean, in terms of the natural world, from this — one of my cousins, Jimmy (James), son of Hank (Henry) — he and I were very close companions as children. He was, I think, one year older than I, and we used to go together every now and then, trout fishing on the local stream. Oh, about a couple miles south of the small town of Bonduel. And so, we’d go trout fishing. We camped out every now and then alongside of the trout stream, and hooked up our lines [laughs] and worms, and trout-fished, and then came back. So, I remember that my mother took a picture of me, holding up probably about an 8-inch speckled trout. [laughs]
What kind of a school did you go to growing up, Roger? Was it a smaller school? A bigger school?
Well, grade school — let’s see. I went to St. Paul Lutheran School in grade school, and I think my class there — well, my grade-school class was maybe 20 or so kids, or something like that. My mother was a grade-school teacher. She taught in a country school for a number of years, all eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse. And I remember she took me along one time. And there I was, you know, sitting amongst her young students. So, I got to know them a little bit. [laughs] And then when there was a consolidation of the school districts in Wisconsin she moved into Bonduel and taught second and third grade in the grade school there in the public grade school in Bonduel.
And what about high school? What were your high-school experiences like?
Same town, Bonduel. So, I graduated grade school and then went right on to high school, and I was in the high school there from 1948 to ’52 in Bonduel High School. I really remember, both in grade school and in high school, I really had excellent teachers. They were personable. They were well-prepared, and I learned a lot, actually. Grade school, I graduated valedictorian of my class in grade school. Went on to high school, and ultimately graduated valedictorian of my high-school class.
But the education was really pretty good. I would say essentially, apart from science, I think I had a general science course in high school, and I know that I had a biology course, which I detested, because we had to dissect some frogs. And that was very difficult for me, so I knew that I was never going to get into any profession that would involve biology. [laughs] But the grade school — the high-school class was, I remember, quite good. But I think it was taught by the basketball coach. So, a small central Wisconsin high school. I think my high school class, there were about 50, 55 students in that. So, not as small [laughs] as grade school, but still pretty small.
Roger, looking ahead to your time at University of Wisconsin-Madison and your major in physics education: was your interest initially to be a physicist, or an educator, or did you always try to balance the two interests?
Well, you know, [laughs] it’s sort of as Hendrik Casimir says in his wonderful autobiography, Haphazard Reality, things happened as they happened. [laughs] And so, in university, I didn’t get involved in physics at all in the first couple years. I was in a pre-accounting major at the University of Wisconsin from ’52 to ’54. So, I had no science at that point. So, I was doing a lot of pre-accounting work. Numbers. And then, of course, I went into the Army, so that was a major transition in my life, in many ways.
And at what point did you enter the Army?
Well, I completed my sophomore year at Wisconsin, and then I had no — I couldn’t have any financial help from my parents. They couldn’t give me any financial help. So, the only financial help that I had in those first two years is that when I graduated as valedictorian of my high school class, that carried with it, at this time — I think it may have been a fairly far-sighted kind of program on the part of the University of Wisconsin. Because if you graduated as valedictorian of your class, it carried with it a one-year tuition scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. I think it was kind of a far-sighted program on the part of the University of Wisconsin. So, I did get that one-year tuition scholarship for $100 a semester [laughs] at that time. But I had to do some janitorial work at night for my meals.
And over the summers, in the summers I worked in Fox Lake in the Green Giant canning company, which was really pretty arduous. Of course, you never got any overtime pay. They kept you working as long as they could and as steadily as they could, so I remember working 18-hour days, one after the other after the other, at Green Giant canning company. But they paid reasonably well, as I remember, and I was able to save enough money to continue my education for the second year at Wisconsin. Well, I worked there in the summer after graduating from high school, and in the summer after my freshman year in college. So, that was my means of support, but then I ran out of money. There just wasn’t any way that I could continue.
So, at that time, ’52, ’54, many people actually — many men — were volunteering for the draft, and I volunteered for the draft. That had the advantage — if you enlisted for the Army, that was a three-year hitch. If you volunteered for the draft, you then were technically drafted, and that was a two-year hitch. So, I volunteered for the draft in the summer of ’54, because I had run out of money, and then I went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and then on to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I would have been stationed longer, had I not noticed, or observed — witnessed this horrible accident on the Trenton train station. I believe it was a Puerto Rican student, soldier, who I didn’t know personally, but he somehow got too close to the edge of the platform. And a train came through and swept him off the platform, onto the tracks. It was naturally a dreadful, horrible, horrible accident. But the Army noticed that I had witnessed that accident. And so, they kept me on at Fort Dix — well, I think it would have been pretty much indefinitely — until they decided that they didn’t need me as a witness, probably for some kind of insurance purposes or whatever.
So then, they ordered me to Germany in ’55, and I came into Bremerhaven on a troop ship, which was no fun whatsoever. I had to stand guard on the fantail. I remember that very clearly, with my rifle over my shoulder, standing guard on a fantail for absolutely no conceivable reason. But that’s what the Army did. [laughs] So, I did it. I obeyed all of the orders, all along the line, because there was no possibility that I wanted to take any chance that my term of service would be extended. [laughs]
So then, I shipped over to Bremerhaven and then went on a troop carrier to Warner Kaserne, a huge barracks complex north of the city center of Munich, which had been formerly a SS barracks. And so, there we were, me and my buddies, in this huge barracks. And that’s where I was in Munich for, I think, a little over a year, and I then was ordered to Fort Ord, California, to be discharged. Essentially, that was the way it worked.
What was your plan when you were discharged? Were you going to go right back to school?
Yes. I was — of course, the wonderful thing was that then I had the G.I. Bill.
And the G.I. Bill provided one and a half months of education for every month of service. So, 24 months of service translated into 36 months of education. That’s four academic years.
And that’s for graduate school also, not just undergraduate?
No. Well, it turned out to be only undergraduate [laughs] for a while. I’ll tell you. So anyway, I had learned in the Army that I could be discharged three months early. And so, since there are no three consecutive months of 31 days, I was able to get discharged 92 days early, absolutely the earliest [laughs] possible time. So, I was discharged at Fort Ord, California, and then made my way back to Wisconsin.
But as I say, I then had four academic years of education coming to me under the G.I. Bill. So, I went back to the University of Wisconsin, and I also took some summer courses, so I received my undergraduate degree at the end of the summer 1958. At that point, I still had one academic year left, so I hadn’t used my entire G.I. Bill. But that one academic year [laughs] came in handy for me too, later. I thus completed my undergraduate education under the G.I. Bill.
And what was your plan, Roger? What did you want to study upon coming back to school?
Well, I knew that I didn’t want to be an accountant. [laughs] So, I gave up the idea, and my two pre-accounting years at Wisconsin were intellectually worthless [laughs] to me. So, I returned, and I thought: okay, I really thought that I might like to be an engineer. I had always loved math and some science, but never learned very much about it. In any case, I entered the civil engineering program then at the University of Wisconsin, and that lasted, I think, one semester, because I had great difficulty in visualizing three-dimensional engineering drawings. I just couldn’t put it all together intellectually for some reason or other. And so, that was quite frustrating to me, so I knew that I didn’t want [laughs] to be an engineer. And also, a civil engineer in Wisconsin, you have to get out in the cold winters in that one, so that wasn’t appealing to me, either.
So, I then shifted from pre-engineering — well, civil engineering, after one semester — I then went into science education, where I met this wonderful man, Milton O. Pella, at Wisconsin, who had a very long and distinguished career as a professor at Wisconsin. But he was an absolutely wonderful human being. And so, he took me under his wing to a substantial degree. But that’s when I began to take some physics courses, like optics in particular, from Ed Miller, which was [laughs] a difficult course, but I did well in it.
And Roger, did you have physics education at all as an undergraduate?
No. Well, physics education, yes.
I’m sorry. Specifically, I mean: did you take courses in physics proper?
Right. I took, as I say, Ed Miller’s optics course, and that was really the main thing. I think I may have taken another one as well, but Ed Miller’s course was the most important one for me, because Ed Miller was a good teacher, [laughs] but the course was a very difficult course, and he taught it in a strange — I don’t know if you’ve ever had an optics course yourself. You know? Physical optics and geometric optics.
But Ed was in the second World War, and he served basically, I think, as an optician in the second World War, in the optics parts of the Army, and had this unique way of teaching optics. For example, you know, if you send light into a doubly-refracting medium, what happens is you get both the ordinary ray — which are circular wavelets — and you have the extraordinary wave, which are elliptical wavelets. You have to, in order to trace rays through that kind of a doubly-refracting system, you’ve got to know how these two work together. And Ed Miller’s way of doing it was to envision these things like a rubber band. And so, according to the refractive index, you had to stretch a rubber band this way, or this way, or this way. And so, in a really hands-on wave-drawing system, ray-drawing system, he taught how to do that.
He had his own notes in the library, in the physics library at Wisconsin. And I and others gravitated to them to see really what the devil he was talking about. [laughs] It was really difficult to understand. But with the notes and whatever, we actually — including me — learned a fair amount of optics from him. And that personal connection, and because I was a very good student in this class — was very important to me a couple years later, when I decided to go on to graduate school.
And what were your goals in graduate school? What did you want to pursue?
Well, in graduate school — after the Army, in 1956, I then worked that summer as a crew caller on the Chicago Northwestern Railroad in Green Bay. And that was a very well-paying job, so I was able again to save some money and actually buy a used car to take to Madison, when I returned in the fall.
So then, completing my undergraduate degree, then I became a teacher. So, I taught physics and mathematics at Germantown High School, north of Milwaukee. That would have been the academic year ’58-’59, after I graduated. So, I taught one year in high school then, and I occasionally returned to see my friends in Madison during the course of that year, and in particular, I reestablished my connection with my very good friend, Lewis Tusken. And it was during that year that both he and I decided — we each had one year left under the G.I. Bill — and we both decided that we were going to use that one year together somewhere, at a European — that is to say, either German or Austrian — university. And so, I had spent one year in Munich, and I said, “Let’s go to Munich.” And Lew said, “No, let’s go to Vienna.” He had spent two years in the Air Force in Vienna.
So, we went to Vienna in 1959, for one year in graduate school. That was really the beginning of my graduate education in physics, because I got a Studienbuch and took some physics courses at the University of Vienna. But I also had a great deal of fun studying the city of Vienna, and everything that wonderful city has to offer. [laughs]
And Roger, how was your German at the time?
Well, my German was pretty good, because I had learned some German at home. My mother spoke fluent High German, Hochdeutsch. My father only spoke Plattdeutsch, Low German. But I learned some German at home. But then at the university, in my first two years, I did take a couple of German literature courses, and so I learned some more German there. And then my year in Munich, I did pretty well. By the time I went to Munich in the Army, my German was reasonably good at that point.
So then, after that, when Lew and I decided to return to the University of Vienna, by that time, my German was pretty good. His German was fluent. He was fluent in German because he had gone, had been selected to go to the military language school in Monterey, California, where he learned German fluently, and also Russian, too. So, that was a very wonderful thing that the armed service did for him.
And then, just before we left to go to Vienna, Lew married a Canadian Airlines hostess, Sally Gardom, so there were three of us going back to Vienna instead of two. So, the three of us lived together, and we found an apartment at Nussdorferstrasse 6, a third-floor flat that was owned by Herr and Frau Härtle. And they had a large bedroom to themselves, and I had a couch in the living room. But then, we shared the bath and toilet common facilities. So, it worked out very well. So the three of us then were living on two monthly G.I. Bill allotments of $110 apiece. So, $220 per month for the three of us, and we did pretty well. We had enough money to actually have some wine. [laughs] I used to go to the Piaristenkeller on the Piaristengasse, an absolutely wonderful place, and listen to the zither player there. This was the time of the lilting Third Man theme tune, and all of that atmosphere in Vienna.
So, I remembered [laughs] much later that I was asked to review a book, a biography of Marietta Blau, a distinguished Austrian woman physicist. I have it on my shelf here. She had gotten her degree at the University of Vienna in 1919, then had worked in the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna in the ’20s, and ultimately immigrated to the United States and had a distinguished career, partly at Brookhaven, and wound up as a professor at the University of Miami. Well, she returned to Vienna in 1960, in not very good health. I think she was a chain smoker. Well, I was a pretty reasonable smoker at that time, too. [laughs] In any case, in this biography it was said that her only source of income when she returned to Vienna was a United States Social Security check of $200 a month. And as I’m writing my review of this biography, I thought to myself, “My gosh, the poor woman was starving in Vienna.” And then I realized, I calibrated, that at exactly this same time, three of us were living on $220 a month in Vienna. So, she wasn’t starving [laughs] on $200 a month for herself. So, this was kind of a cute calibration.
Anyway, we had enough money that we could have some wine in the evening if we wished. We spent a couple of wonderful evenings with Frau Härtle in Grinzing, the wine district in Vienna, and learned some Viennese lieder from Frau Härtle. I still remember one or two of them. [laughs] In any case, that’s when I met Helga, in the fall of 1959.
What was the plan then, Roger?
[laughs] Well, I’m not sure there was much of a plan, except to join up with her and ultimately get married. [laughs] So, we began to go out together in the fall of ’59, probably around October or so, maybe late October. I had met Helga in the Austro-American Club in Vienna, which was a popular place for — there were a fair number of Americans in Vienna at that time, so the Austro-American Club was pretty active. So, I went there one evening, probably at the end of October, maybe early November, when this woman came up and asked me to dance. It was Damenwahl, ladies’ choice. And I later learned that this woman Helga was intent on ditching her boyfriend, who was sitting one row back behind me. So, she came toward us, and briefly glanced at him, but then asked me to dance. And so, that was the beginning of our get-together.
And then we got together, and we often spent nights at her flat at Peter-Jordanstrasse 3A, about three blocks or so from where her parents lived on T?rkenschanzplatz. I don’t know if you know Vienna at all, but this building on Peter-Jordanstrasse and her parents’ house on T?rkenschanzplatz are in the 18th District of Vienna, which is commonly known as the Noble District of Vienna. It’s a wealthy district, and a good many members of the Austrian nobility lived in the 18th District. It’s sort of well-known for that. And I later learned that Helga herself is an aristocrat. [laughs] Her full name is Helga von Schmeidel, a title that dates to the time of the Crusades. You know, German-Austrian aristocrats are all von whatever. So, Helga was one of the aristocrats who lived in the Noble District of Vienna.
Anyway, we started seeing each other and by that Christmastime of 1959 we pretty much knew that we were going to get married. I like to tell this story about the traditional Viennese New Year’s Eve party, where the partiers have this tradition: you take a piece of lead, heat it up in a ladle to make it molten, and then dump this molten lead into cold water where it solidifies, of course. And according to the shape it assumes, you can predict the future for the next year. In our case, that new year would have been 1960, and the molten lead, when we dumped it into cold water, everybody agreed that it assumed the shape of an embryo. And that turned out to be prescient, because our son Marcus [laughs] --
You’d just met.
No, he was born in March of 1961. We were married in April of ’60, and he was born in March of ’61.
Now Roger, was your ambition at that point to become a university professor at some point?
Well, I loved teaching, and my mother was a superb teacher and a much-loved teacher. And there’s no question in my mind that she instilled in me my lifelong love of teaching. So, by the time I went to Vienna — well, I’d already spent the preceding year as a teacher at Germantown High School in Germantown, Wisconsin, teaching math and physics. So, I knew that I wanted to continue as a teacher. And so, during that year that I was in Vienna, somehow, [laughs] I’ve forgotten how, but Thomas “Tom” Stinchcomb was professor of physics at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, somehow learned of me, I guess, and offered me a job at Heidelberg College as an instructor in physics with a mere bachelor’s degree. Those were the days.
So, I was hired as an instructor in physics with, by that time, only one or two undergraduate courses in physics to prepare me. But I did learn a lot from Gerry Holton’s Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science. It’s a famous text that Gerry wrote. I think it was his first published book. And so, I learned a lot from reading that, and I turned out to be a pretty good teacher at Heidelberg College. And so, by that time, I knew I wanted to continue teaching physics.
But then, in the course of two years in Tiffin at Heidelberg College, it was obvious to me that I would have to have a Ph.D. And so then, I knew that I would go back to graduate school and made arrangements. I applied to the physics department at Wisconsin to be a graduate student in physics at Wisconsin, with this very minor, meager background in physics. But Ed Miller said, “This guy is pretty good,” [laughs] and so, he evidently was my principal advocate at Wisconsin. And he took me on as a teaching assistant in his optics lab at Wisconsin. So, I was his teaching assistant for the first year as a graduate student at Wisconsin, after I returned. [laughs]
Roger, were you still sort of splitting the difference between ambitions as a physicist and an educator? What were your plans at that point?
Well, I knew that I wanted to continue teaching. And of course, I knew that I wanted to continue teaching physics. So, it then was clear to me that I had to have a Ph.D. in physics. And at that time, you know, this was ’62. You know, it was fraught with uncertainty. You know, growing up in a small town in Wisconsin and everything else, being the first person in my generation among my siblings who went on to university, it wasn’t clear to me that I would have the ability or the perseverance to get a Ph.D. in physics at Wisconsin.
But you know, I always remembered the poet’s admonition that “of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” So, you’d better try it. If you can do it, better try it. So, that was my feeling, and so, that was the source of my determination to study physics and work for a Ph.D. in the field at Wisconsin.
Now, Roger, Wisconsin had a very strong history of science program at that point too, right?
They had a very good department of history of science at that time. One of the very few departments of history of science. It may have even been the first in the country. I don’t remember. But they had a strong department of history of science at Wisconsin, and some good teachers. Robert Stauffer in biology and general history of science was good. And there were other good professors in that program, too. But of course, I gravitated to Erwin Hiebert as a natural source, because he was expert in history of chemistry, history of physics. And so, I naturally gravitated to him. So, I took at least one course, or a seminar, from Erwin during that first two years then at Wisconsin when we returned. We were at Tiffin what, from ’60 to ’62, I guess.
And so, I gravitated to Erwin, took a couple of — at least one seminar, and maybe more, from him, and knew within about — well, I spent one year as Ed Miller’s teaching assistant in the optics lab, and then during that year, I took Heinz Barschall’s course in modern physics, which I’ve told many people, that was the best physics course I’ve ever had in my life. Heinz Barschall was a marvelous, marvelous teacher of absolutely clarity. So —
What did you learn in that class, Roger, that was so fundamental?
Well, it was basically modern — that is, atomic physics and nuclear physics. Some nuclear — not too much of it at the end, but it was basically atomic physics. And so, it was a year-long course. And again, I did very well in his course, and then I asked him, and he decided to take me on as a research assistant. And at the time, the accelerator laboratory at Wisconsin was in Sterling Hall. And so, I then spent two years as a research assistant on the tandem accelerator at Wisconsin. And during that second year — it was now my third year of graduate school then — during that year, I just knew that my deepest interests were in history of physics rather than physics. So, I knew I’d never lose my love of physics, but I really wanted to learn a lot of history of physics.
So then, I decided to transfer from physics to the history of science department at Wisconsin. And that was really difficult mentally, psychologically, because you know, here’s this wonderful physicist, Heinz Barschall, and fantastic teacher and researcher, a product of Princeton and Los Alamos, a man of vast experience and knowledge, and yet I knew that I wanted to transfer. So, I made an appointment with him towards the middle of that second year of research associate with him. And I knew that I had to tell him that I was going to transfer, because my preliminary examinations were coming up in physics, and I just couldn’t feel honest about taking those examinations without having told him of my decision to transfer into the history of science. It would have seemed like a betrayal to me, had I not talked with Heinz beforehand. So, I did talk with Heinz, and we spent an hour in his office. And I ultimately told him about my desire to — my intention of transferring into the history of science department.
So, it was a difficult hour for both him and me. But after it, I then took my Ph.D. exams in physics at Wisconsin — first, my written examination and then the oral examination. And you had to pass the written examination to be admitted to the oral examination. Well, I passed the written examination, and then the oral examination is coming up, and that’s going to be with Heinz and a couple of other professors at Wisconsin. So, I went and I passed that one too. So then I would say that I felt intellectually honest about being able to transfer from physics into history of science. Otherwise, had I not told Heinz beforehand of my intention and then taken the exam — and then not taken the exam, let’s say, it would have felt like a betrayal to me.
And so, I told Heinz, and Heinz then — wonderful, let’s say, intellect — person that he was, he then understood it, and I then transferred, and I got a double Ph.D. I did the whole thing over in the History of Science, written and oral exams in history of science. So, I wound up with a double Ph.D. in history of science and physics from Wisconsin in — well, formally in January of 1968, but actually, I’d already accepted the position at University of Minnesota as assistant professor in the summer of ’67.
So, I was appointed assistant professor and then got my Ph.D., in that order, [laughs] which is the reverse of the usual order, but I did it. And Heinz then served on my Ph.D. committee in history of science as well. Absolutely wonderful, dispassionate man that he was. He also, a few years later, when I was doing very well at Minnesota, he invited me to give a physics colloquium at Madison, probably the only invitation from that department that ever went out to a historian of physics at that point. But Heinz, that’s the kind of a man that he was. He invited me to give a physics colloquium at Wisconsin. And I’ll never forget how he introduced me. He said, “It’s always a pleasure to have one of our students return to give a colloquium here, especially one who’s been so successful as Roger Stuewer.” That takes quite a man to do that. And well, I know other — I’m good friends with another former student of Heinz’s, Charlie Holbrow. He’s now long retired from Colgate University. And he has made some comments about Heinz too, what an enormous intellect and man he really was. So, there we were. So then, I’m going to Minnesota. [laughs]
Roger, can you talk a little bit about your dissertation, how you developed it, and what you saw as some of your principal findings and contributions?
Sure. When I shifted into the history of science department at Madison, it was just at that time — I’d been in physics for three years — it was just at that time when the laboratory notebooks of Arthur Holly Compton were becoming available for study, research at Washington University in St. Louis, where Compton was before going to the University of Chicago. So, the laboratory notebooks were at Washington University in St. Louis, so I knew that they existed, and I began to look into the discovery of the Compton effect as a potential dissertation topic, and became fascinated with it, because I saw that the history of Compton’s discovery was not really well understood. And so, I [laughs] unpacked it in my book on the Compton effect — you see it behind me on the shelf here. [laughs]
Yes. And Roger, why was it not well understood? What was your sense? What was the missing link there?
Well, the progression of his thought — he had his Ph.D. from Princeton. He got his Ph.D. from Princeton and then had his first formal appointment as assistant professor at Minnesota. Then after that year, he went to Westinghouse Labs in east Pittsburgh — and basically left academia, he couldn’t do any real experiments there, but he kept up his theoretical understanding and development.
So, I saw how Compton’s understanding of the interaction between an incoming light quantum and an electron in an atom — the Compton effect — how that whole program developed and culminated in his discovery of the Compton effect, at the end of 1922. [laughs] My book on the Compton effect has not — remains the best study [laughs] on the subject to this day, and no one has corrected it. Let’s put it that way. No one has improved on the story. So, as I’m going along with this, my research on it, my initial research then for my Ph.D. dissertation, I’m learning a lot about the early development of Compton’s thought. So, it went on.
Tell me about how the assistant professorship came together, even before the dissertation ended.
Well, that was the result of — followed from Erwin Hiebert’s wonderful support. I went on the job market in the spring of 1967, April of 1967, and the world was very different. The academic world at that time was very different than it was even just four years later. It was an extreme seller’s market at that time, and ultimately before I was appointed — before I was formally appointed at Minnesota — before I accepted my position at Minnesota, I had had 35 job offers.
It was another world. It just was another world.
And Roger, this is all in history of physics, these job offers?
It was mostly in physics, teaching physics — college level, university level, all across the country. And also, one of the job offerings was as associate director of the AIP history center under Charlie Weiner at the time.
So, I ultimately accepted the Minnesota position. Now, that came about in the following way. Erwin had been at a conference in Notre Dame, probably in 1966 sometime, and there he met Herbert Feigl, an extraordinary man who became the source [laughs] of the only philosophy of physics and science I’ve ever learned. He was marvelous at Minnesota when I was appointed. He asked me always to come into his office and talk about aspects of philosophy of physics. Okay. So, Erwin had met Herbert, and Herbert told Erwin at that Notre Dame conference: if you ever have a good student, let me know. Herbert was just building up the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and he had a marvelous grant from the Carnegie Corporation, as I remember.
And so, Erwin finally was able to track Herbert down in Hawaii. He was at another meeting. Herbert was [laughs] a well-traveled scholar. And Erwin told him that he had a good student. So, Herbert then invited me to come for a job interview at Minnesota. That would have been in April of 1967. And I’ve told many people — many of my good friends this story, that Herbert met me at the Twin Cities, Minneapolis St. Paul Airport, took me to dinner at the Tempo Bar on Franklin Avenue — it no longer exists [laughs] — in Minneapolis, which was really the Stammtisch of the Center for Philosophy of Science at Minnesota. “Stammtisch,” because Herbert was a Viennese. Paul Feyerabend was a frequent visitor to the Center. So, there was a lot of sort of [laughs] German and Austrian influence there.
So, Herbert invited me then to dinner, took me to dinner at the Tempo Bar in April of ’67. We had a marvelous, marvelous steak dinner. And we began to talk, of course. That was a job interview as far as I was concerned. And Herbert began to ask me about my hometown, my religious upbringing, my time in the Army, this, that, and the other thing — everything conceivable about my personal life.
He was sizing you up to see if you were going to be a good fit for the faculty.
Well, more than that. I, of course, could have talked for hours about Compton at that point, I knew his work so well. But no. As I’ve told my close colleague Alan Shapiro, my good Israeli friend Yehuda Elkana, and a few other people, it took me six months to understand that all Herbert wanted to know was whether I was an anti-Semite or not. That was the reason for all of these personal questions that he put to me during this “job interview.” Okay? We talked always about my personal life and everything. And so, Herbert had had his share of experience with anti-Semitism. He had gone to the University of Vienna. He left the University of Munich in 1922, and transferred to University of Vienna because of the virulent anti-Semitism in Munich at that time. So, Herbert knew a lot about it, and he was one of the co-founders of the Vienna Circle. So, Herbert and his wife Maria knew a lot about anti-Semites, so Herbert wanted to make sure that I was not one of those folks.
Roger, if I may interject though — I mean, you’re a long way from Munich and Vienna.
Why should this be a concern in heartland America?
Well, it certainly was a personal concern to Herbert.
And not without experiential basis. So, it was certainly a personal concern to him.
And how did you understand that this is what he was driving at? Did you put the pieces together yourself, or did he come out and explicitly say so?
I finally put the pieces together for myself because, you know, I came to know Herbert really very well, and I had seen something about the viciousness of anti-Semitism myself when I was in the Army in Munich. My buddy, Gerry Mankin from Pittsburgh, was being beaten up by some southerners who were screaming “Jew bastard” and the like to him, in this Army barracks in Munich, and I broke the thing up. I’ve always tried, and I think successfully, to treat people like people. And so, I asked Gerry, “Are you a Jew?” And he said, “Yes.” It never crossed my mind to ask that question, of him or anyone else. And so, I had seen in my own experience the viciousness of it. And so, I resolved with that experience with Gerry, that I would never become part of such a mentality.
And so, with that unique background for myself, and then coming to Herbert, whom I knew was a Jew, Jewish background, as was his wife and everything — and all of these personal questions, you know, about me during this job interview, it just all clicked that that’s what Herbert really wanted to know, whether I was an anti-Semite or not. So, that was the job interview.
Then Herbert got the idea to call Morton Hamermesh in the physics department — head of physics and astronomy — to ask Mort whether he’d be interested in this guy or not. [laughs] And so, Mort immediately said yes, and so between the two of them, they worked out this joint appointment between philosophy and physics for me at Minnesota, beginning in really the summer of ’67, nine months before I finished [laughs] my Ph.D. degree. So, I was assistant professor before doctor.
And so, I was very, very happy about this arrangement at Minnesota. It really worked very, very well. And in fact, I went from an untenured assistant professor at Minnesota to a tenured associate professor in four years, which was something of a record at the time, at least for Minnesota. So, everything was really going very well for me and for them, for both departments, at Minnesota. Mort said: I don’t care where he has an office. He’s going to have one in physics. And so, I had a wonderful office in physics from that time on.
So Roger, it was a joint appointment?
A joint appointment, yes. Yeah.
And how did it work out from the beginning, in terms of how you would be splitting your time?
Well, it was basically up to me. [laughs] That’s the way good people treat other good people. And Mort and Herbert just thought to themselves, you know: what is the best we can do for this guy? [laughs] Right?
And when I began building the program in the history of science and technology at Minnesota, the only thing I thought was what is the best thing that I can do for this guy? First, Alan Shapiro, and then other people. What’s the best atmosphere that I can create for this particular person? And so, that was the way Mort and Herbert worked. And so, for the first year, I taught a natural science course at Minnesota, but then I said: well, I’d really like to develop some courses in 19th and 20th century history of physics. Mort said, “Great! Wonderful.” Herbert said, “Great. Go ahead. Do it.” And of course, what was standard then — and I’m not sure it’s standard now, but it was standard then — Minnesota was on a quarter system at that time. And it remained on the quarter system for a very long time, I think, until maybe five years ago. Anyway, Minnesota was on a quarter system. The teaching load for physicists was one course per quarter. And Mort said, “That’s your teaching load. One course per quarter.”
So, I had a wonderful and comparable teaching load to everyone else in the department and never was made to feel that, you know, somehow or other I didn’t belong. There were a couple of instances. It was quite — [laughs] one amusing one, in retrospect. I remembered one of the distinguished — really, most distinguished — people in the physics department, Ed Nye. [laughs] I know that when I began attending physics department meetings at Minnesota, one of them, Ed Nye, got up and said, “What is this guy doing at our meeting?” Right? [laughs] He was that kind of a guy. Absolutely direct. You know? You knew there were no hidden motives for this guy. Right?
So, that was, in the beginning, kind of mine and Ed’s relationship. As it went on, he and I became very good friends. And we’d talk a lot about history of physics and his experience in physics. He was a very, very distinguished atmospheric physicist. And so, we became very good friends, and that’s the way we’ve always done: to treat people like people. And that’s the way I was treated, and that’s the way I have to be. I just have to treat people — so, that was — it just worked very well.
My appointment there, my teaching load, everything was comparable, and I had some absolutely wonderful colleagues in the physics department, and of course, in the philosophy of science — one of Herbert’s closest colleagues wasn’t actually in the center, but in the psychology department, was Paul Meehl. Paul Meehl was one of the most distinguished psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers of psychology, in the country. And Paul Meehl and Herbert, and then later on Grover Maxwell and other people in the Center for Philosophy of Science — we all liked each other very much, and everyone felt at home. It was an absolutely wonderful atmosphere. So, there we are. [laughs]
Roger, I have to ask. Among your colleagues in the physics department, did they — how shall I put this — did they accept you as one of their own, or were you sort of viewed as an outsider to some degree?
Nope. Absolutely as somebody who had considerable expertise in the history of physics, and treated just like a colleague. One of my closest friends in physics at this time was a man by the name of Lewis Nosanow, a very distinguished condensed matter theorist. He was on the fourth floor of Tate Lab, and I was on the fourth floor of Tate Lab — our offices. And I worked there many evenings. Lew would be there, smoking a cigar, and I would be smoking my cigarettes, and we would pass the time. And so, we got to be very, very good friends.
And then, a couple years later, one of my really closest friends, was a man by the name of Ernest Coleman, a Black physicist — and we got along just marvelously together. Just famously together. He’d come to my office. I’d go to his, etcetera. We got along just famously together. Then Ernest left for an appointment at NSF in Washington, and so that severed our immediate connection. But we saw each other under some good circumstances later in Washington, too.
And Hans Courant, son of Richard Courant, you know, of Courant and Hilbert, the famous mathematician. Hans Courant, who just passed away a couple years ago, he and I became very close friends, and he was a wealth of information and personal friendliness and supportiveness and everything. So, the long and short of it is that we were all colleagues, and that was the important thing.
Roger, in terms of, you know, as a young assistant professor with the joint appointment, how did you envision your research agenda? Did you feel that you needed to do original research, both in physics proper and in the history of physics?
No. It was always clear that I never presented myself as a physicist, but only as a historian of physics. So, the physics department, and my colleagues in the physics department, knew that I was going to work in the history of physics and not try to contribute to physics itself. So, that was never a conflict, never a problem. I was accepted as a historian, and that was it. I mean, I would say that I was given really a huge amount of freedom in choosing and developing what courses I would develop, etcetera, and ultimately develop a program in the field. So, no. Everyone knew I was a historian. I presented myself only as a historian.
It was — one amusing thing along those lines is that — oh, gosh, for me to put a date on it, I suppose it was maybe 20 years or so after I was in the department, something like that. Anyway, the head of physics and astronomy resigned or retired or something like that, so they were looking for a new head of physics and astronomy. And lo and behold, someone — I’ve forgotten who — came to me and said, “Roger, go for it! Apply for the head of the school of physics and astronomy.” I had gone quite a way in developing several programs, like the Babbage Institute and others — other things that I was a pretty fair administrator.
And so, I was called in for an interview for the head of physics and astronomy at Minnesota. And as soon as whoever began asking me questions, I said, “Look. What you people want is a distinguished physicist. I’m not a distinguished physicist. You want and need a distinguished physicist. So, you would be silly to consider me.” Alright? And so, you know, I laid it on the line. They accepted it. And there it was. You know? And that’s the kind of a relationship that we had. You know? Say what you’re thinking. You don’t have to hide anything. You don’t have to try to [laughs] do anything sneaky or tricky. Just lay it out. Talk like a person, like a human being to another human being. That’s the kind of relationship that it’s always been.
Roger, let’s zoom out a little bit. Can you give me a sense of — what are some of the most important issues in history of physics generally during this time? What are some of the big questions, some of the big historiographic debates, some of the most interesting topics that you and some of your key colleagues are looking to work on at this time?
Well, at that time, I guess — and I guess to some extent, still today — it was always conceptual versus social, or whatever. You know? How do you do history of physics? Do you do it as a conceptual history of physics, or do you treat it as a social phenomenon? So, the old internal/external debate in the history of physics, and the history of science — and so, I think that was probably the principal sort of division at that time, and everyone knew that I was an internalist. I wrote and worked on the internal history of physics. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the external aspects, the social aspects of the history of science, and the history of physics in particular. I certainly did, but I also was quite skeptical about some of the — let’s say, results, of some of the work at that period in time.
In particular, I guess, I was never — although, I think I was something of a personal friend of Thomas Kuhn’s, I never was a — never really thought a great deal about his history, philosophy of physics and his great book — I have it right on my shelf here. What’s Kuhn’s great book?
Oh. There’s a few contenders for that, right? You’re talking about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?
Yes, exactly. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Right. Exactly. One of the things that bothered me about it was that he really made short shrift of quite a few things that I thought were well-established at this time. An example, maybe the main example — you know, was the relationship of Einstein’s theory to the Michelson-Morley experiment. Right? Was the Michelson-Morley experiment really significant in the evolution of Einstein’s thought on relativity? That’s the question. Well, Gerry Holton wrote this really wonderful analysis of it, and he showed beyond doubt that Einstein was not at all influenced by the Michelson-Morley experiment in the evolution of his theory of relativity. Okay? And yet, in Tom Kuhn’s Structures, alright, he treats the Michelson-Morley experiment as if it was the major influence on Einstein’s thought. And I thought: well, this has been disproven historically, so why, Tom, are you perpetrating this myth now? Okay?
So, it was those kinds of questions that bothered me about Kuhn’s book, and about Kuhn’s approach, really, to the history of physics. Okay? So I know that Kuhn was not particularly impressed with my work [laughs] as well, but that’s the way it was. So again, why hide it? [laughs] You know? You state your views. You discuss them. And that’s it. But that’s one of — that was certainly one of the major issues, internalism versus externalism, in history of science, history of physics in particular.
And Roger, where did you see yourself falling out on that particular debate?
I think essentially [laughs] — I never knew — well, let’s put it this way. I knew that I could never do justice to the external history of physics, because I simply wasn’t that interested in doing so. So, my feeling was that the really interesting, important problems arose within the internal structure of the history of physics. And you know, very many good people agreed with me. Jed Buchwald agreed with me. Jed Buchwald, for instance. He and I — well, we became, and we are, very good friends. And you know, he [laughs] sneers at the externalist approach, etcetera. And we were not at all alone on that. So, there was a clear division of people.
Did you see — did you place a greater importance at this point on revising and publishing your dissertation, or writing articles?
Oh. Well, I organized, with Herbert Feigl’s essential contributions. I organized this conference on history and philosophy of science at Minnesota. And I guess I was always more interested in the internal aspects than the external aspects of it. But that isn’t what you asked. What did you ask?
My question was on if you placed a greater emphasis in those early years, on revising your dissertation into a monograph, or in writing articles that branched out from the dissertation.
Thank you for reminding me. Well, it took me quite a while to transform my dissertation into a book, The Compton Effect, and in particular, when I resigned my position at Minnesota in — what, at the end of the ’71 school year to go to Boston University, I was still very much working on that transformation. And so, when I got to BU, and it was a — it turned out to be a fairly unsatisfactory appointment for me at Boston University.
So Roger, I want to understand. You left Minnesota? It wasn’t a leave of absence? You formally resigned your associate professorship?
I formally resigned at Minnesota. When was that? In the spring of ’71, I guess. The spring of ’71. So, Robert (Bob) Cohen, a famous philosopher of physics and good friend of mine was dean of arts and sciences at BU at that time, and Imre Lakatos, a famous philosopher of mathematics and also a good friend of mine, was urging Bob to make an offer to me to join the BU faculty. So, Bob ultimately did make an offer for me to go to BU, and I decided to accept it, because I was very shocked and disappointed that at Minnesota, at Minnesota here, the historian of medicine, Leonard Wilson, was vigorously opposed to me developing a program in the field at Minnesota at that time.
In any case, at Boston University I was still very much working on this transformation. And fortunately, I got a study carrel in Mugar Library, so I spent a lot of time in Mugar Library in my carrel, working on that transformation, and not really being concerned about articles at all. I really wanted to get this book out. So, I really worked very hard on that transformation during that year — what, ’71-’72. So, later, you know, I wrote a large number of articles on the history of quantum theory, and still later on the history of nuclear physics.
Did you intend to stay at Boston? Was that the long-term plan?
I certainly expected to stay at Boston University.
And Roger, what was attractive about it? Were you looking? Was it a stronger program?
Well, let me put it this way. [laughs] The circumstances were that I had this very successful joint appointment between physics and philosophy at Minnesota, and I was developing the history of physics. Okay? And so, I assumed, after talking with Bob Cohen —then dean of the college of arts and sciences — that I was going to get a similar appointment at Boston University between physics and philosophy, or maybe between history and physics. Okay? Well, it turned out that Bob had not talked with either the physics department, or the philosophy department, or the history department, about this guy Stuewer. And so, I get to Boston University, and the question is: what are we going to do with this guy?
And so, the decision of what to do with this guy is to give him an appointment — and now, I insisted that it be a tenured associate professorship at BU, which they agreed to — and what do we do? We put him in the Department of General Education. So, we give him an appointment in DGE. Okay? The Department of General Education, as an associate professor. Well, that was kind of unsatisfactory to me. But I enjoyed teaching. I taught a course on natural sciences. I remember I enjoyed teaching it. I liked a number of my colleagues at Boston University, etcetera. But it wasn’t the same kind of intellectual atmosphere that I had had at Minnesota.
So, during the course of that year, ’71-’72, that I was at Boston University, I wasn’t far along. I was sort of in the middle of it. I got a call from Mort Hamermesh at Minnesota: would you be interested in returning to Minnesota? And so, [laughs] the more I thought about that, the more I thought: yeah, I’d be interested in returning. And so, Mort then — we had a wonderful vice president of academic affairs, Gerald “Gerry” Shepherd. So, Mort had learned that Gerry Sheppard, as the academic vice president at Minnesota, was really very interested in the history of science and interested in developing it.
And so, when they offered me to return to Minnesota, with the same joint appointment that I had before, between physics and philosophy, the Center for Philosophy of Science, and then the opportunity to develop a program, Gerry Sheppard said: if he returns, if I can get him back, we’ll give him another position right now. Okay? So they gave me one position immediately to supplement my return.
So, well, that was just irresistible. I mean, just despite how much we loved Boston and the area and everything else, and in fact, we had built, first of all, a chalet on Copple Crown mountain, close to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and then we also bought — good friends of our at Boston University, Don and Gail Patt, decided to sell their wonderful cottage on Mirror Lake in New Hampshire, which was just outside of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire — and Helga somehow managed to get the [laughs] down payment together. We decided to buy that as well. So, we had some very substantial attractive forces keeping us on the east coast, and you know, in the Boston area, New Hampshire, what have you. Nonetheless, the offer that I was given to return to Minnesota, it was simply irresistible. I mean, I was given the offer of developing a program in the history of science and technology at Minnesota. Well, that was just — I simply couldn’t refuse that. That was one of those offers that you just can’t refuse.
And so, I did decide then to return after one year at BU. I came back as an associate professor at Minnesota, and Mort had pretty much promised that they would promote me to full professor within three years or so, which is how it turned out. And so, there was opportunity at Minnesota, and there was no opportunity, basically, at Boston University for me.
And Roger, obviously you had not burned any bridges when you resigned from Minnesota.
No, no. In fact, it always had been, and remains, [laughs] my practice to have good, cordial relationships with people. And I like always to say that it was quite amusing that after I returned, then of course, I knew that about a year earlier, Mort Hamermesh had resigned as head of physics and astronomy at Minnesota to go as head of physics at Stony Brook. Alright? And then Mort decided to return to Minnesota after one year at Stony Brook. Okay? So, I called that the Hamermesh Anomaly, and when I did exactly the same thing, I said, “No, this is the Hamermesh Effect.” [laughs] And so, I really replicated — followed in that same mode. So, Mort was pretty familiar with what it meant to return [laughs] to Minnesota, too. So, that’s what I did.
When you got back to Minnesota, was this an opportunity to branch out in new research endeavors, or were there extant projects that you were looking to continue?
Well, I certainly soon branched out in another area.
So Roger, the question was: upon your return to Minnesota, did you see that as an opportunity to take on new projects, or did you have extant projects that you wanted to continue on?
Well, I decided after a lot of thought, and in particular — well, first of all, you know, I was trained as an experimental nuclear physicist on the tandem accelerator with Heinz Barschall at Wisconsin. So, I always had an interest in the history of nuclear physics.
And then in 1977 I got the idea — really in ’76 — of having a symposium on the history of nuclear physics in the 1930s. That was really a new venture in the field, because nothing similar had been done before. And so, I said, “Okay. I wonder.” So, I talked with Mort Hamermesh, who was a theoretical nuclear physicist, and I talked with Al Nier, a very distinguished nuclear experimentalist at Minnesota. And I said, you know, “What if we get people together who have actually lived through the 1930s and have them talk about their research during that period?” And Al Nier said, “That’s a wonderful idea.” And Mort said, “Yes.” So, I then began to think: well, how would we do this? I mean, get people like Hans Bethe or Sir Rudolf Peierls, or any other of the distinguished nuclear physicists who were living in 1976 or so? They wouldn’t have any idea who the hell Roger Stuewer is. [laughs] I mean, you know? There’s no reason to know anything about me. So I said, “Okay. Let me ask Mort and Al if they’d join me in this, because they would be known to distinguished nuclear physicists.”
So I began then to form an organizing committee for this symposium. And with Mort and Al we branched out and got another guy to join. Anyway, so then I wrote letters of invitation. [laughs] This was in the letter-writing period, right — to Hans Bethe, Sir Rudolf Peierls, Otto Robert Frisch, Emilio Segrè, on and on, to eight really distinguished nuclear physicists to have them talk about their research and their experiences in the 1930s. And as soon as Hans Bethe said “yes,” he’ll come, well then there was no question that we were on a roll.
And so, people — whoever we invited, they accepted our invitation. So, Sir Rudolf Peierls, Otto Robert Frisch, and on and on it went, for eight people — you know, R.R. Wilson, former director of — Robert Wilson of Fermilab. And on and on it went. So, we assembled, you know, eight people to talk about their research in the 1930s. And so, they accepted. Hans Bethe said, “Why didn’t you invite Viki Weisskopf?” And I was able to tell him, “Yes, I did invite him, but he’s in Europe and can’t come.” Bethe said, “Okay, fine.”
So, that’s how that symposium — I published the proceeds in 1977 — originated, and that’s really how it got me really firmly engaged in the history of nuclear physics. And so, from that point on really, I began to — well, I still wrote some papers in the history of quantum theory, quantum physics, but then I really began to write and research the history of nuclear physics and write papers about that. And that symposium then served as the model and inspiration for two subsequent meetings at Fermilab, and one subsequent meeting at SLAC, Standford Linear Accelerator Center.
So, it was very successful. It was very successful. I remember Sam Schweber, a good friend, you know — he said, this is really great, and people really agreed with it. I mean, these papers are wonderful. There’s that result, [laughs] again. And so, it was absolutely splendid.
And for example, even Laura Fermi accepted our invitation from Chicago. And what a wonderful person she was. And gosh, Eugene Feenberg, and Otto Robert Frisch. Well, Laura Fermi and Feenberg died the same year this publication came out, in 1977. And Otto Robert Frisch died two years later. So, we held this symposium just at the right time, basically, so that these people who really did so much in nuclear physics in the 1930s, were living and came and interacted with each other. And I established the model that was followed in other meetings as well, to be very leisurely. In other words, one lecture in the morning, one lecture in the afternoon, with lots of open conversation, both in the morning and in the afternoon. That’s really at the heart, in my view, of a successful meeting. It went splendidly. Splendidly.
And the speakers — you know, Hans Bethe gave the opening talk in the evening, in Mayo Memorial Auditorium here at Minnesota. This was the first time I met Bethe — but I met him a couple times later at other meetings — he was a remarkable man. And when he was talking on that Wednesday evening there was a power outage, or a power failure, in the auditorium. The lights just dimmed. You know, the lights just sort of went out, and we were videotaping everything. Well, Bethe was completely unfazed. Whether the lights were on or off, it didn’t matter to Hans Bethe. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it. He just kept right on going. You know? Just like that. You know? [laughs]
So, people’s personalities come through pretty clearly along the line, too. Well, you know, with all of the — and I’ve looked into this, in the 1930s, very carefully too — subsequently and before — well, with the rise of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, the ’30s were a period of great transformations, very political transformation as well. Hans Bethe entitled his talk “The Happy ’30s.” And I remember that Sam Schweber just couldn’t get over that. Here’s Bethe who, in fact, was forced to leave Germany in 1933, because he was Jewish. Well, because he was of Jewish descent. He was a completely nonpracticing Jew. But he called it “The Happy ’30s”. And so, Hans talks about the real excitement of experimental and theoretical physics in the 1930s, and he says, you know, “There were some pretty unhappy events in the 1930s, but let’s look at what was really happy about the development of physics.”
So, on and on it went. It was just a wonderful, wonderful symposium. Concerning Laura Fermi — well, I purposely invited Henry Koffler — he was a well-known biologist and the academic vice president at that time — to serve as the official host of the symposium. Henry agreed, so I made arrangements for him, at the end of the symposium, at the last dinner, to have a bouquet of a dozen roses in his hands to give to Laura Fermi. That touch affected a lot of people. Laura Fermi was beside herself with joy with this recognition. And everyone else, it just warmed everyone’s heart.
So that was the kind of atmosphere, too, that I tried — I think successfully — to establish, an atmosphere in which people felt at ease, talked about things, visited with their old friends, and talked about things that were really close to their hearts. Anyway, in my own research, that was really the stimulus for me to become fully engaged in the history of nuclear physics, both experimental and theoretical, which I then pursued.
Roger, why the ’30s? Why were you interested in focusing specifically on the ’30s?
Well, because I knew that it was a transformative decade, scientifically, politically, economically. I had come to know Vienna in 1959-’60, when Helga and I married, and then we went back to Vienna frequently. Frequently. And Roman Sexl, a good friend, a distinguished theoretical physicist and well-known textbook author at the University of Vienna, proposed to invite me as a visiting professor to Vienna. Well, Roman tragically died about a year later of cancer — I think brain cancer, as I remember. But he died, which was a great shock.
Anyway, colleagues in the physics department at Vienna then picked up the invitation, so I then was invited. I spent two months in Vienna and two months in Graz on that invitation, and I got to know the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna and the legacy of Stefan Meyer, its director, and in fact I pretty much rescued some important correspondence that Stefan Meyer had with others that ultimately wound up in the archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
So anyway, I had come to know Vienna from the point of view of people who were there, and I knew that Stefan Meyer had lost his position at the Institute for Radium Research with the rise of Hitler, as did other people. So, I knew it was a transformative decade in many respects including socially and economically with the hyperinflation after the first World War. In fact, from Helga, I have some of the Austrian currency of that period, you know, bank notes of millions of marks. Hyperinflation. Never saw anything like it in Austria and Germany, before or since. So, I knew there were a lot of things that were exceedingly interesting and important to cover in the 1930s, so in focusing this symposium on the 1930s I knew that it couldn’t help but uncover some important insights into the history of that period from the actual participants in the physics of that period. So, that was the motivation.
Roger, I’m curious. Obviously, historians of physics were very interested in these proceedings. What about physicists themselves?
Very much so.
What are some standout names of people during that time, in the physics community, that were interested in following these proceedings?
Well, you know, Bob Wilson — [laughs] Robert R. Wilson. At that time, in 1977, he was still director of Fermilab. Well, Bob Wilson was a polymath. Do you know the name at all?
Yeah. Well, you know, he designed Fermilab, the building of Fermilab. And in the approach to it, you see his wonderful sculptures, and later he invited me — when there was a History of Science Society meeting in Ithaca, he invited me and Sam Schweber, as two people — and Helga was there, too — to his home in Ithaca, where it abounded with his own sculptures. So, Bob Wilson immediately latched onto this. And Otto Robert Frisch wrote his autobiography, and Sir Rudolf Peierls wrote his autobiography, so clearly, some people were inspired to follow up in important ways in their own lives, in their own research, in their own work. So, I think it was inspirational in that respect as well.
I want to ask you about the conference proceedings in 1988 on the Michelson era. Why call it the “Michelson era”? What was so formative about Michelson to deserve the name of an era after Michelson?
[laughs] Well, I must say that I did not have very much to do with the organization of that particular conference — this was at Case Western Reserve, as I remember. Is that right?
I think so.
Is that the one we’re talking about? Yeah. I have the book on my shelf right here, too. Well, Stan Goldberg, who was a good friend, was I think probably the principal organizer of that meeting. And Michelson — well, was a very important experimentalist. So, I think Stan saw the era as a means of talking about other aspects of it.
In fact, you’ve prickled my curiosity. Okay, here we have The Michelson Era in American Science, 1870 to 1930. Okay. 1870 to 1930, taking place in Cleveland in 1987. Well, this was how Stan basically devised it — why did he call it an era? Well, Michelson certainly was most influential. That’s when Michelson did much of his work, in the 1870s. And then through the end of the 1930s his work was being pursued, too. You know, experimental optics and what have you. So, I think basically Stan picked out the name that he thought would describe those many things. [laughs] Here it is. Yeah, you see: “The Crafting of Great Experiments, Part 1.” “The Interpretation of Great Experiments, Part 2.” “Part 3: Michelson and his Scientific Legacy.” So, you see, it was just a means of drawing together experiments and theories of that period, which is what Stan wanted to do.
Roger, can you talk about some of your scholarly work on Van Vleck?
[laughs] Well, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck — “Van,” as everyone knew him — was certainly one of the most remarkable people who you ever would manage to meet or get to know. And so, Van’s life, okay — his appointment at Minnesota was his first academic appointment after his Ph.D. at Harvard. So, he spent 1923 to ’28 at Minnesota, then he transferred to Wisconsin from ’28 to ’34, if I remember correctly. Van had his undergraduate degree at Wisconsin, and then his Ph.D. at Harvard, and Minnesota was his first post-Ph.D. appointment.
So, Van knew that Roger Stuewer was at Minnesota, and Van knew that his student, Chung Lin, was at Wisconsin. So, Van wrote to both of us, asking: would you like to join me on a project? Namely, let’s uncover the history of the Wisconsin and Minnesota football songs: “On, Wisconsin” and “The Minnesota Rouser.” Okay? Well, this is the most substantial scholarly work [laughs] that I did in connection with Van. So, Chung Lin went to the archives at Wisconsin, I went to them here at Minnesota, and we wrote this wonderful article on the history of these two football songs. Van played the flute in the Wisconsin marching band when he was an undergraduate at Wisconsin, and then he was an avid football fan, both at Wisconsin and Minnesota, and back at Wisconsin. So, Chung Lin and I were terribly gratified that Van thought of us and made this proposition. So, Chung went to the Wisconsin archives, I went to the Minnesota archives, and we put things together, sent them off to Van, and Van began to write up our — what he called our magnus opus, the history of these two football songs. So, that was the most important scholarly work [laughs] that I did with Van.
But then, of course, I was instrumental in establishing the Van Vleck Lectures in the physics department here, after Van’s death. Van married when he was teaching here, between 1923 and 1928. He married Abigail Pearson, who was one of his students. So, when Van died, Abigail got the idea of establishing a chair in Van’s name here at Minnesota. So, my graduate student, Frederick “Fred” Fellows, who was from Boston and did his undergraduate work at Yale, was thinking of his dissertation, and I said: well, Van’s work at Minnesota and Wisconsin together would make a very good topic for a Ph.D. dissertation. So, Fred accepted that and wrote his marvelous Ph.D. dissertation on that. Which, my successor here, Michel Janssen, has used in his own research on this same era in the history of quantum physics and thinks that Fred’s dissertation is fabulous. Okay? So, certainly that was another aspect of my contribution to Van’s [laughs] legacy.
But the football songs were really — it was really lots of fun to do it, and there is a postscript to it, because during the course of our research on this, Van asked me: what does the Minnesota football cheer, “SKI-U-MAH,” mean? Well, of course, I didn’t have any idea, but I did go to the archives here at Minnesota. No help. I finally located an alumnus who happened to know that this is an old American Indian war-cry meaning “Victory.”
[laughs] So, I wrote back and told Van about that. But then, when Van won the Nobel Prize in 1977, I sent him a one-word telegram: “SKI-U-MAH.” [laughs] You know, those were the days when you sent telegrams or letters. Well, I sent this one-word telegram to Van, and he wrote back. He said, “Yours was the briefest, but most to the point, congratulatory message I received.” [laughs]
Anyway, Helga and I got to know Van and Abigail quite well. When we were often in New Hampshire, Van came around one time, in his sporty Rover sedan, and took us around to various sites in New Hampshire that he knew about. Then, when we were in Boston, Van and Abigail invited us to their flat on Memorial Drive, where Van showed us his extraordinary collection of Japanese prints that he had inherited from his father. So, we got to know the Van Vlecks pretty well, and they were both wonderful people. You know, Van was one of the very great — well, physicists and intellects of the period.
Roger, let’s talk a little bit about — and this is going to be some inside ball for us — but let’s talk a little bit about your service to the AIP advisory committee on the history of physics. Obviously, this is my home institution. I’m greatly proud to be a member of AIP, and I work closely with many of your successors and colleagues. How did you first get involved on the advisory committee? Was it an invitation? How did that work?
Well, it was an invitation. Martin Klein was chair of that committee at this time.
And where was Klein at that point? What was his institution?
He was at Yale. He’d transferred from Case Western Reserve to Yale in 1967 where he joined the Department of History of Science and Medicine. Asger Aaboe. Is that name familiar to you?
Aaboe: A-A-B-O-E. A Dane. Alright? Double-A is pronounced “O” in Danish. Oh-boe: A-A-B-O-E. No one ever got ahead of him in the alphabet [laughs] on any list whatsoever. Alright. Absolutely wonderful man. He became a very good friend, and of course, a mentor to my close colleague here, Alan Shapiro, who has a Yale Ph.D. and came out of the Aaboe and Klein atmosphere. Right? When I hired Alan as the first new appointment when I was brought back here in 1972, I of course did what was common at that time: I called up his advisor, Martin Klein, and I said, “What about this guy? Is he any good?” [laughs] And Martin said, “Roger, don’t worry. He’ll never poop out.” [laughs]
So I got to know Martin very well, and he was very helpful to me when I wrote my first important paper, on non-Einsteinian theories of the photoelectric effect. Martin was kind enough to comment on it for me, so I got to know Martin very well. Well, Martin was chair of the AIP committee, and I assume it was he who suggested that I be invited onto the committee as well. So, I became a member of the committee, and one year after I was appointed in 1978 Martin said that he would like to give up the chairmanship, and please appoint Roger as chair. Okay? So, I then became chair of the advisory committee and served as chair from 1979 to 1993, for the entire balance of the period when the AIP was in New York. So, I was chair of that committee for 14 years — a long time.
So that’s how I got involved, I assume initially through the advocacy and invitation of Martin Klein, and I then succeeded Martin as chair of that committee. It was a wonderful committee, and you know, many of the prominent physicists of that period were members of it: Maurice Goldhaber, Melba Phillips, Fred Seitz — gosh, one after the other. It was just an absolutely wonderful committee. Perhaps the most captivating meeting we had during that whole time was just after Willy Fowler won the Nobel Prize, which of course was awarded in Stockholm on December 10, 1983.
Right. December, 1983.
Right. So, he was in Stockholm in December of ’83. Well, he was in New York [laughs] in January of ’84 for our committee meeting. That is, just a few weeks later. Alright? So, I deliberately called that meeting to a halt, adjourned that meeting, about a half an hour before the usual adjournment time of around 4:00. So, I adjourned it about 3:30 or something. Anyway, I said, “I’m going to adjourn this so that we can experience some of Willy’s joy that he had in Stockholm vicariously. So, Willy, would you please tell us what it was like in Stockholm when you were there?” Well, Willy Fowler was an amazing guy. I mean, these people are really wonderful people. I mean, it’s one of the gratifying things of my life that I’ve been privileged to meet these really, really wonderful people. Willy Fowler was one of them.
And Willy — the first thing Willy said — I said, you know, “Tell us” — Willy said the first thing he did was when he saw Barbara McClintock in Stockholm. Barbara had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in biology and medicine. And he walked up to Barbara, and he said, “Barbara, have you ever kissed a Nobel Laureate?” Smack. There it was. [laughs] He just grabbed her, hugged her, and smacked her. Right? And then he went on by talking about his fascination with railroads. I mean, he was a railroad buff. So, he was just overjoyed when he was permitted to be the engineer on a train from Stockholm to some outlying country location. So, he just went on and on, absolutely wonderful guy.
The mention of the railroad, of course, brings back this Van Vleck story that I love to tell. Van was also a railroad buff, and he — it was absolutely remarkable. Van knew — and had in his memory — the railroad timetables of every important European and American city. So, if you ask him: at what times does the train leave Munich for Berlin? Alright? Van would tell you. He could tell you. When does the best train leave Chicago for Minneapolis? Van would tell you, just like that.
So, I… Bernard Cohen, his historian colleague at Harvard, whom I and Alan Shapiro knew very well, told this story: At one time, he was invited to give a lecture at two universities in the midwest, A and B, so he went to Van and asked, “Well, Van, what train do I take from A to B?” And Van said, “Well, you take the 9:00 o’clock out of A and that’ll get you to B at 3:00 in the afternoon.” And Bernard said, “Fine. Good.” So, that’s what he did.
But when he got to B his host said, “Well, instead of the 9:00 o’clock, why didn’t you take the 10:00 o’clock out of A, which have gotten you here at B at 2:00 in the afternoon? So that was a great puzzle for Bernard, so when he returned to Harvard he asked Van, “What about this?” And Van said, “Yes, that’s right. But wasn’t that the best beef lunch you’ve ever had in your life?” So, Van knew not only the train schedules, he also knew the menus in their dining cars. [laughs] So, Van’s knowledge of trains was incomparable, maybe comparable, maybe possibly comparable, to Willy Fowler’s. But I think Van’s was probably greater. [laughs]
Roger, can you tell me a little bit about your tenure as Resource Letters Editor for AJP, American Journal of Physics? How did that come about, and what do you see as some of your key contributions to the field for quite a tenure, 37 years you served in that position.
Well, I was invited — I can’t remember, actually, who invited me to become Editor of the Resource Letters. But it’s clear that they weren’t doing well. [laughs] It’s clear that they needed some kind of revitalization, or something. So, I was invited to become Editor of the Resource Letters. And I accepted and then immediately began work.
And, of course, my first instinct, my first object, always, is to get good people working on it with me. So, I immediately conceived the idea of an Editorial Board for the Resource Letters and thought about appointing six people on staggered three-year terms: two each a year, for three years: two, two, two. That kind of staggering. So, that’s what I did. I assembled the initial Editorial Board with those staggered terms on it, and then I just kept on going when two people — when the terms of two people expired, I invited two new people to serve. So, it was constantly revitalized, and that worked exceedingly well, because these people, they were the experts. I wasn’t an expert on a broad range of physics topics, but they were experts, so they knew who to invite as authors of the various Resource Letters, so I took their suggestions into my noggin and considered them and then invited the authors for the various Resource Letters.
And let’s see. I think by the time I retired I had served as Editor for 183 Resource Letters, for a period of 37 years, which will never be equaled [laughs] by anyone else in any other office of the AAPT. So, the important thing was that I established this method of operation that constantly revitalized itself through the appointment of two new members taking the place of two people who are going off, and paying close attention to a broad geographical distribution. You know, you want members from California, from Missouri, from New York, etcetera. A broad geographical distribution — and a broad topical competence. You don’t want all nuclear physicists. You want condensed matter physicists, nuclear physicists, etcetera, and you want women on it, a good gender distribution as well.
So, that’s how we went from year to year, and from beginning to end. It worked very well, and people were generally pleased with it. Well, the committee members always told me that that was the best committee they ever served on. They really enjoyed the work that we did. We met at every AAPT winter meeting, and not at AAPT’s expense. My travel expenses were paid, but the travel expenses of the six committee members weren’t paid, although they did get lunch on the day we met. They had to get their travel expenses from their home institutions or God knows where. But they managed to come, and they were very happy to come, because they really enjoyed the work. So, it went very well, and everybody, I think, was very happy about it. So, it was an important and pleasant experience.
Roger, in what ways did you see your tenure as Editor of the AJP Resource Letters as giving you a very special opportunity to help set the tone for the field?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I tried to set the tone for the field of physics, or history of physics, or whatever, at the AAPT or the AJP. As Editor of the Resource Letters, it was a gratifying experience for me, you know, for the reasons I’ve just given. The people, the committee members, were wonderful. But my good friend, John Rigden, was Editor of the AJP for many of those years. And John and I were, well, very close friends, and we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and working together. So, you know, John and I were [laughs] brought together so many times, and not only in those contexts, but in other contexts, which was one of the joyous things in my life.
You know, John and I defined our friendship in the following way: we said that anything that one of us said to the other would go no further, period. So, we had this atmosphere of complete confidence in each other’s discretion. So, we could, and did, talk about anything under the sun. Absolutely anything under the sun. Any aspects of our lives, any aspects of our professions, or whatever, knowing that whatever I said to John, or whatever John said to me, would go no further. Period. Well, that’s a precious bond, and it was a bond that existed between us until John’s death. So, that’s the way I would see part of this AJP activity as so very important in my life.
Roger, it’s such a unique vantage point as editor, so you can see all kinds of ideas: discussions, arguments, historiographical debates coming your way. What do you think some of the most significant threads, or lines of debate, during your tenure were, in history of physics?
Threads. Lines. Well, I think — and you know, the citation that I received for the Pais Prize, the Abraham Pais Prize, I knew — or got to know — “Bram” Abraham Pais well before his death, and then after his death, I knew his widow, Ida Nicolaisen, very well too. One aspect of the citation for the Pais Prize that I received was for my work in bringing physicists into the writing of the history of physics.
And I guess if there’s at least one major thread, that certainly is it, with the symposium that I organized in 1977, etcetera, and on and on. I brought a good many physicists into the profession, into the spirit of writing the history of physics. And you know, among my colleagues here at Minnesota and elsewhere, they knew that some good things were happening in the history of physics, and they wanted to contribute too, in some way. So I suppose if there is at least that one major thread, that’s it. You know, join me in the fun, and join me in writing. Join me, etcetera. So, physicists have joined me in writing the history of physics. [laughs]
Roger, I can’t help but note — you know, I interview. This is what I do. I talk to physicists all day long, and I am struck, as a community, how interested they are in the history of their field. It’s very unique, actually. Generally, physicists have a profound and deep interest in the history of their field, that is —
I say, I agree. Amen, amen, amen. It’s absolutely true.
[laughs] Yeah. I mean, I don’t have any off-the-cuff explanations for it, but I can confidently say that it’s front and center. It’s so obvious. And so, I want to ask you — you know, one approach would simply be: let the historians do the history. Right? What’s the value in bringing physicists, without historical training, but as you understand and share with me this view, the appreciation of history — what’s the value of bringing them on board to engage in historical work in a way that obviously a historian would, you know, never get in front of a cyclotron and start to take [laughs] measurements?
Right. Well, the obvious or clear answer to your question is that I can learn a lot by talking to physicists. I learn a lot, and people do learn a lot, and they don’t only learn details of physics or the history of physics, but they learn — you know, or they sense in some way about how a physicist’s mind works, what a physicist values, what a physicist appreciates. Art. You know, whatever. Go on. Good literature. Music. You know, some of the best pianists around the world are physicists. And so, on it goes. You know, you learn these people in general, and by and large, are remarkable human beings.
And it’s so — well, that’s one of the most depressing aspects to me about this current environment coming out of Washington. The complete disparagement of scientific writing and of scientists themselves. I find that so repulsive. I can hardly express how repulsive I do find that. And so, I’ve learned — throughout my entire life, I’ve learned so much from physicists, not just details of physics or things that I didn’t understand about physics that they can explain to me and do explain to me, but what is the nature of them as human beings?
And you know, I think of my friend, Hans Courant. Well, you know, he was a wonderful person, and I learned so much from him. Not just physics, but as a human being — what drove him, what nourished his intellect, what stimulated his thought, etcetera. So, that’s the real value of cooperating, continuing, and working between historians and physicists. The two learn so much from each other, and gain so much from each other, that it’s a wonderful, wonderful human activity. And lord knows, we need a lot more wonderful human activities.
[laughs] I’ll return your sentiment. Amen, amen, amen.
I mean, so that’s my deep feeling about this.
Roger, in this capacity, what have been some of the most significant or even profound historical contributions to the field that physicists themselves have made? What stands out in your memory?
Oh, gosh. You mean, what physicists have made to the history of physics?
In this way that — where you made this determination to sort of invite them aboard the field, on this basis that they love the history of physics, they appreciate it, they understand it, and they want to contribute to it. So, what have been some of the most significant results of this decision that you made, in terms of the work that they’ve contributed to the field?
Well, I guess their writings about it, you know, and the book that I just showed you on Nuclear Physics in Retrospect. That’s certainly a major result. I also point to another book that I edited, or co-edited, namely, Springs of Scientific Creativity, in which my colleagues Ted Davis and Rutherford (Gus) Aris were co-editors with me. The stories that are told in that book, the episodes, focus on individual scientists, physicists — many physicists, but mathematicians and others as well — about their most significant creative contributions, creative springs of their work, as we put it, in the title to it.
Well, that’s an important book, and there are important chapters on people from Maxwell to Einstein to Schrödinger to Von Neumann, etcetera. The roots of their creativity in their work — if we had not arranged that series of lectures, those aspects for those people would have been lost. I mean, no one else was going to do that, but we decided that we were going to do that. And what is great, or what was great, about it, significant about it, was that here were two distinguished chemical engineers — well, they’re much more; they were fantastic intellectuals — came to me, a historian, and invited me to join them in composing, creating, or asking, these people to talk about their various subjects, to try to identify the springs of their subject’s creativity.
So, it was a marvelous series of lectures. And you know, those lectures would have been lost. They wouldn’t have been there unless two chemical engineers, distinguished chemical engineers, came to a historian and said, “Let’s work together on this and figure out who we’d like to invite to explore this activity.” Francis Everitt — God, you know, a fantastic physicist at Stanford. You know, he’s done some of the most extraordinary experiments on Einstein’s relativity. He went on sabbatical leave, and the result of his sabbatical leave, his research, was this marvelous article on Maxwell that he wrote for our book. Well, if we wouldn’t have done this, that article may not have been written. And so, on it goes. So, any way in which we got involved to bring people into the field, into the profession, into the writing, into the human aspects about the field, you know, if somebody doesn’t do it, it won’t get done. [laughs]
Roger, your other major contribution as an editor, of course, is as co-editor for Physics in Perspective. In what ways did this work differ from your work for AJP?
Well, Perspective in Physics, a journal that goes on today — it’s still going on.
John Rigden and I — well, we figured out that we were going to try to do something new, I guess: to get people, to get physicists to write about important topics in the history of physics, but also to, well, write about — my idea was to get physicists and other scientists to write about their home cities, like Stockholm, like wherever, to write these Physical Tourist articles to serve as a guide to the historical sites of importance in your city. That wouldn’t have been done if John and I hadn’t established this journal. Our “In Memoriam” series, getting people to write, to reflect on the lives of individuals —to write something that is addressed to a broad audience of readers. That kind of thing is not common, and wouldn’t have been done if we hadn’t established this journal.
And so, on it goes. We tried to make unique contributions to the field by asking people to write about things that may very well have been unique in their own experience up to the time they wrote them. So, any way in which we can get people to do this work, this research, this writing, this thinking about it, is to the benefit of us all. We have to take a very broad view of life and work. We’re only molecules [laughs] in this great activity of life, and we have to recognize and support the work of other molecules and bring them together and make sure that their interaction is productive, exciting. You know, it has to be something that helps us all out in some way. And that, I think, is more and more important for us, and in particular, for Americans at this time of our life.
Roger, I want to ask a question. We can’t, obviously, talk about every single conference you’ve attended, or symposium. So, I want to ask you a general question, almost a sociological question that sort of ties together all of your work and efforts in these conferences and symposia. And that is: what is the overall benefit to both physics and history of physics, to have these events? In other words, how does it move both the field of history of physics and physics itself forward?
Well, again, I guess I’d say in the broadest human sense that you can imagine. People working with people. People learning, trying to understand, other people — what they do. People understanding that A and B may look different, but they’re not different — that people can contribute to the good, to the beneficial interactions in society, and in thought, and in creativity, and in work.
We can’t — I mean, in the course of my life so far — and I hope it continues [laughs] for a while yet — I’ve been privileged to meet really so many I think who were truly extraordinary people. I mean, I think of Hendrik Casimir, Van Vleck, Willy Fowler, just to mention a few. Casimir, too, was a completely remarkable man. I mean, a human being without whose life we would be very, very poor as human beings. Here was a man who was head of Philips research laboratory during the war, in 1943, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. I asked him, “What was Heisenberg’s view? What was Heisenberg thinking when he visited Eindhoven in 1943? What was Heisenberg thinking at this time, after the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad?” Casimir said that Heisenberg was absolutely convinced of a German victory, after Stalingrad. Well, you know, to tell about that experience to another human being like me, sitting in my office, when he’s down the hallway on my invitation to give a series of lectures at Minnesota, for him to come to my office and sort of unload about this — well, you don’t forget experiences like that. It improves our human existence, our understanding, our feeling for one another, our appreciation for the lives of others.
So, I think the interaction, the bringing together of people in different fields, with different thoughts, that’s at the nub of humanity. And the more we can do to help that along, the better off we’re all going to be.
I can only imagine, Roger, now that we’re in pandemic mode and we’re all socially distancing, you’re all too aware of the loss of all of the meetings, the in-person meetings that never were, during this year, and all of the things that can’t be replicated just by sitting and looking at each other on computer screens. Right?
Yeah. Yeah. No question about that. No question about that. I mean, you know the ability for me to shake Casimir’s hand — that’s something that is entirely different than reading his autobiography. You know, the ability to actually meet someone and hug someone, you know, it’s so much a part of our true human existence that so much has gone by the board during the pandemic right now, that God knows how we’re ever going to recover fully from that. How are we ever going to really, in some small sense, replicate what we had before? You know, it’s a very big and disturbing, and unsettling, question. So, all we can do, I guess, is hope and expect that other human beings are experiencing the same needs and the same wants that we are right now, when we can’t [laughs] shake each other’s hand. You know?
So, that’s — [laughs] well, you know, there are times in life — well, not many, there haven’t been that many times, certainly, in my life for this kind of thing. But, you know, I remember after my opening lecture at the Joliot centenary in 2000 in Paris at the Collège de France, we went out to lunch — were invited to go out to lunch, and at lunch was Sergey Kapitsa, son of the famous Pyotr Kapitsa. This is now 2000, and one of the things that Sergey Kapitsa said about the Soviet Union was, “Only the past is uncertain.” Only the past is uncertain, meaning that people were rewriting history in the Soviet Union.
And meaning that we should be very careful to preserve the past in some true sense. So, when we see the human atrocities that are occurring right now, well, we hopefully will survive them. But only the past is uncertain. Well, right now, in the United States, the future is fairly uncertain too, it seems to me. [laughs]
Roger, I want to ask you two last questions to conclude our wonderful time together. One is a retrospective question about your career, and then one is going to be like you just said, a forward-looking question about the uncertainty of our future.
So, for the retrospective question: you’re so uniquely suited, based on your academic experience in physics and history of physics. What do you think your unique perspective teaches us more broadly about the way that humanity has interacted with the natural world over the course of your career?
Well, I’ve had, and continue to have, a good many physicist friends, and the one major thing, you know, that they have taught me and do teach anyone is that we should try to approach nature, physics, objectively, dispassionately, to gain the kernel of truth that might be there — to realize, you know, that people — physicists, human beings — have survived some terrible episodes in the past, like the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust — developments that have transformed all of our lives, to try and break through the complex emotions that the knowledge of these events produce, to realize that there’s got to be a nub there. There’s got to be a kernel there, at least, of what will aid, assist, humanity in going forward instead of trying to destroy the past. So, that’s kind of the way I guess I feel about this.
And Roger, you mentioned of course that we’re facing an uncertain future. A lot of that uncertainty is in physics itself. Where is physics headed here? What’s going to be the role of ever-powerful computers, machine learning, artificial intelligence, the next generation of telescopes, the next generation of accelerators? Will we have a new SSC or an ILC? Right?
From your vantage point, as we look ahead for the rest of the 21st century and all of these uncertainties about ultimately where physics is headed, what do you think is most important for the next generation of historians of physics to think about?
Hmm. Well, I’m always reminded, you know, that historians make very poor prophets. [laughs] So, I think that I personally would have to be enormously humble about that in even attempting to answer the question. I don’t know these various fields that you’ve mentioned. You know, I don’t know their guts. I don’t know their workings on an intimate nature. I’m pretty sure, you know, that some distinguished astronomers or particle physicists or whatever would be able to perhaps think about possible [laughs] futures here. But as I said, as a historian, I know that I undoubtedly am a poor prophet. [laughs]
Roger, it’s been such a delight speaking with you today. It’s been very special to me personally, since I share your interest and love for the field, and I really want to thank you for spending this time with me.
Well, I thank you for the invitation. I thank you for your impressive knowledge, your impressive ability to extract [laughs] things from me, and I’m sure others as well, in a productive way.
Well, if I didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t be good at my job, so I appreciate that.
Well, you’re very good at it, and much appreciated.