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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Ronald E. Mickens by David Zierler on August 5-7, 10, 11 & 13, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Ronald E. Mickens, Distinguished Fuller E. Callaway Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics, at Clark Atlanta University. Mickens recounts his childhood in segregated Virginia and how his entrepreneurial instincts and exposure to farm life fed into his budding interest in science. He explains the opportunities that led to his undergraduate education at Fisk University, where he majored in physics on the basis of his ability to combine his talents in math and chemistry. Mickens describes his formative summer research at Vanderbilt University on thermodynamics, and he explains the influence that his graduate advisor Wendell Holladay played in his life and his decision to continue at Vanderbilt for his graduate work. He discusses his involvement with the Civil Rights movement during his time in Nashville and how he dealt with the possibility of getting drafted for military service in Vietnam. Mickens describes his postdoctoral research in the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT, and he explains how events that can appear to be supernatural must be explicable within the single physical world. He describes his research at MIT as a time to expand on his thesis work on Regge poles, and he explains how his work with James Young connected him with his research at Los Alamos. Mickens describes his teaching and research record while he was a professor at Fisk, and he discusses his summer research at SLAC and his focus on the Pomeron and elastic scattering. He describes his many research visits to Europe and his work at CERN where he probed the theoretical underpinnings of high energy scattering. Mickens explains his fascination with Newtonian formulation equations and the utility of his visits to the summer Aspen Institute program. He describes some of the frictions he experienced with the administration at Fisk, his work at JILA, and the professional and personal considerations that compelled him to accept a professorship at Clark Atlanta and its transformation from Atlanta University. Mickens conveys the fundamental importance that geometry and numerical modeling has played in his career, and he contextualizes his academic achievements by emphasizing that everyone in his family has achieved a terminal degree. At the end of the interview, Mickens offers a history of the origins of the National Society of Black Physicists, and explains the significance of, and the lessons that should be learned, from Edward Bouchet’s life.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 5th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Professor Ronald E. Mickens. Ron, thank you so much for joining me today.
All right. So, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
Currently I am- the full title is Distinguished Fuller E. Callaway Professor in the Department of Physics at Clark Atlanta University which is located in Atlanta, Georgia. Let me add this, I will be leaving the university next week. That’s called retirement and I still-
Now, are you going do real retirement or are you going be in active retirement?
Actually, I’m more active now than I was when I was employed.
You’re not alone in that. I’ve learned that physicists never really retire, they just go to different stages.
Now, when were you named to the Callaway position? When did you receive that honor?
1985. This is also the thirty-fifth- I annually send in a report, so I just completed my last Annual Callaway Professor Report, the thirty-fifth.
I bet that was bittersweet for you, right?
Oh, it was. Yeah. Yeah.
Now, did the distinguished title come along with the Callaway endowment or those two separate honorifics?
Well, I’m just telling you what I think. The University told me I was a Callaway Professor; but I think it’s a separate honor to be called “Distinguished” and the university added it to it. Yes.
All right, Ron. Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning where it all started for you and the first question. I’d like to ask you to tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
Well, most of my immediate relatives, my parents and my grandparents, were born in Virginia in the vicinity of what is now called Petersburg, Virginia. And they spent, essentially, their whole lives in Petersburg, Virginia or in the neighboring counties.
Now, what kind of family backgrounds did both of your parents come from?
On my mother’s side, they came from people who had land. They had farms. My father’s side came from- well let me go back, people who worked on farms. So, they were generally modest people. I’m not quite sure I can say anything more. You know, I probably know less about the overall situation of my parents than most people would because at a very early age, at the age of ten years old, I had my own little company and I employed people. I actually employed “human beings” to work for me. And so, a lot of what I did has to be interpreted within the framework of what I was doing.
In those days, when you became eight, nine, ten years old, it was not uncommon for your parents to allow you to essentially roam all over the city. Cities were much safer. Also, Petersburg was relatively small at that time. I hope to explain some of this later on. Yes. But I don’t really, know the full details of my family—we lived in a multi-generation home. There was my brothers and I. I have two brothers, Calvin and Carroll, Carroll is spelled C-A-R-R-O-L-L. They’re twins and they’re essentially one year younger than I am.
I was born on the seventh and they were born on the thirteenth of February. ‘43 and ‘44. And like many twins, they spent more time with each other than they did with me. And so, if you talk with them, they would have a slightly different- probably radically different version of what our life- that is the general family life was during that period. So, there was my mother and father and then there was my mother’s mother- my mother’s maiden name by the way was Daisy Williamson Brown, and then her parents. Her father and mother lived there. My father had a huge family. I mean, huge, huge. I’m not quite sure how large his family was except- and it may not be inaccurate to say I may have more than 200 first cousins.
Do the multiplication, you know? You have fourteen siblings, each of them have twelve children- ten times ten is one hundred. Yeah, so there are lots of Mickenses in Petersburg and Mickens is an interesting and rare name. I have never met a Mickens who would talk to me who was not, in some sense, a relative of mine. If we talked long enough and asked, “Well, where did your mother and father come from? Where did their parents come from?” They generally trace back to Petersburg, Virginia.
Now as far as you know, Ron, your parents both grew up on farms?
Well, Petersburg was a very small town and I’m using farm in two different senses. One is the formal definition of a farm where you have cows and pigs and things of that sort, but since my parents and my grandparents came through the depression, many of the people in the town of Petersburg had their own little mini farms. We had tomatoes, we had apple trees, fig trees, we had strawberries, watermelon, pole beans, sometimes we’d call them string beans, corn, and that was, for me anyway, essentially the same as growing up on a farm because you had to tend to them most days. You pull weeds, you made sure that bugs weren’t consuming what you wanted to eat and things of that nature. Yeah.
Where and when did your parents meet?
I would guess that they met in high school. When I was growing up, most of the conversations that I had, since it was multigenerational, most of the conversations that I had were with my grandparents, my mother’s parents. My mother and father were out working, so most of the time was spent talking with them.
What level of-
And some of those conversations were very interesting.
And what level of education did your parents attain?
I think that they had no more than high school education. Many people during that time, particularly in the south, high school was the highest level of education. And oftentimes, when you reached the age of seventeen or eighteen, if you had not finished high school, you would get a job. I mean, the economics of it dictated that that had to be that way. Or for example, you would leave Petersburg and go up north and up north generally meant going to a city like Washington, DC or one of the cities in New Jersey, possibly New York or maybe even Boston. And in the case of my mother, I think she left two or three times to do that back and forth. And so, my brothers and I, in terms of people who were around us the whole time we were growing up in Petersburg, they were essentially my grandparents. So, in the future when I say ‘my grandparents’ I’m always talking about my mother’s father and his wife.
Did you parents emphasize the importance of education to their kids?
Education was emphasized in the greater community, just like social control was part of the community, that, you know, it was- in the community I grew up in, the realization was that very few people would become educated in the formal sense, go to college, for example. And that if you had or if you became educated, more opportunities, there still would be some constraints but more opportunity would be available. So, it was not just the family that emphasized education, it was the community as a whole. And young students, they called them bright boys and girls at the time, they were especially appreciated. You wanted to have someone who would go out, become educated, and quote unquote ‘make something’ of themselves. So, it was pushed.
When you used the term ‘social control,’ what does that mean?
What it means is that if you are outside of your home and that included schools also, if you were in the community and you did something like throw trash on the ground or walk on someone’s flowers, that they had the implicit permission of parents to punish you in an appropriate way. I mean, no one was going to beat you with a stick or anything, but they could-and the word would get back to your parents, that’s what I mean. And so, there was a lot of that kind of interaction going on between young people and older people. So, for example, a young person would never, the term that was used, “sash” or talk back to an older person. You know, you respected older people. You didn’t necessarily agree with what they said, but on the other hand, you knew that if you did that you would probably be punished twice, by that person, and when the grapevine got back to your parents, usually before you got there, you’d be punished again. And remember that, these were the days in which many of the punishment acts would lead to parents or neighbors being put in jail.
Technically, what would be required is you did something wrong; they’d actually go get a switch. And, you know, if you got a switch that was too small, you would be punished for that.
Ron, tell me a little bit more about this business that you developed as a ten-year old.
Well, when I was ten, we had very little disposable income. It’s like a calculus problem an epsilon amount of income and so in order to do some of the things I wanted- I had interests in things like rocketry, model airplanes and so forth, and they required money. And so, I decided that a way to get money would be to become a paper carrier. I started out with about fifty customers and over a period of I don’t know, maybe eighteen months, I got up to almost 500. Now in those days, what you did was you picked up the paper, it came in bundles of fifty, and I had a wagon, and I put it in the wagon. Now, the wagon was not big enough to hold 500 papers.
And so, I eventually hired a neighbor, this was an adult, and I think he was from the Philippines, he and his two sons. So, my task evolved to collecting the money and they would pick up the bundles of paper. And there was another little sideline to this. In those days, the paper would be bounded with copper wire. And most of the paper boys would just cut the copper wire off and throw it on the ground. And so, one of their tasks- these people who worked for me, was to collect, not only at our site, but to go around the other sites and pick up all the copper wire and then take the copper wire down to a junkyard and sell it. The ongoing price at that time was about nineteen, twenty cents a pound and, you know, we could pick up maybe $3 or $4.00 of copper wire per day. So, in those days, a dollar was a lot of money. You could really buy lots of things. And so, I kept the paper- I called it the paper company, about four or five years. It just became too time consuming. I mean even though I wasn’t doing everything and I turned it over to this family. That kind of position could- at least for someone who was black living in Petersburg, it could on various occasions throughout the year turn into, as they say, a cash cow. Christmas time, I would get two of three hundred pairs of socks. But I would also be able to collect two or three hundred dollars and that was a lot of money.
And I bought a motorcycle. So, at the age of thirteen, I actually had a real, but small motorcycle. Not a motorbike, but a motorcycle. And some of the money was used to help the family. I mean, my mother would take part of it. So, it worked out quite well for me, anyway. And it also gave me an opportunity to meet many of the people in the community that I, you know, would see on a regular basis but didn’t really know. And it gave me an opportunity to also see and understand the conditions of some people who were living in extreme poverty. I remember the first time I went to one family’s house…it was dinnertime, I was collecting money, and for dinner, they had bought a loaf of I think it was Wonder bread. In those days, it was fifteen inches to eighteen inches long. And what they did was to split open the top of the bread and so the slices are laying down, and then they took a large can of pork and beans and poured it over it and that was their dinner. And one reason I got out of being a paper boy was that when you see things like this, I mean not everyone was like that but when you see things like that, it puts a chill in you. I mean, you see that there are people who are living in conditions that you don’t like. I’m sure that they didn’t like it either.
Now there were also, by black standings, a number of people in the community who lived relatively well. They were teachers, they had various other kinds of positions. Petersburg was unique in the sense that almost any black who wanted a job could find some job. It may not be a desirable job. We had a military base that was located five miles from the city, Fort Lee. We had a large chemical company, in Firestone down in Hopewell which is roughly right across the road from Fort Lee. We had the Brown and Williams Company. What they would do is package cigarettes, and I guess later on they put the brand names on them. And then we had the Negro insane asylum in Petersburg. And so, there were many kinds of jobs that were available, but that was also one of the advantages of growing up in Petersburg. Also, nearby was Virginia State College. People often say that Virginia State was in Petersburg; no, it was in Ettrick, but right across the bridge. Within a radius of fifty miles there were a number of other what we now call historically black schools. There was Hampton Institute, now called Hampton University. Virginia State had at one time a branch in Norfolk, it’s now called Norfolk State; it’s now separate. In Richmond, you had Union College. Actually, many of our civil rights leaders went to Union. And then there was several other historically black schools. So, I grew up in a community where there were educated people. I could go to Virginia State and there were people who had PhDs in physics, in chemistry, in various other fields.
So, you had role models. You saw that there was a path forward where you can attain this level of academic achievement yourself.
No. I don’t believe in the concept of [a] role model, personally. I knew what I wanted to do, and these are people who had did it. The fact that they were able to do it had no impact as to whether I could do it. I mean, I knew that- beginning at about the age of nine, I started to read biographies of scientists and autobiographies. And I’m going to mix all of this together, and so I had some idea about, at least from my perspective, about how science worked. The first thing I concluded was that scientists are no different in how they interact with other people than anyone else. You have jealousies, you have hatreds, you have these large egos, but no big problem for me.
But there were two things that came out of my reading biographies [of] scientists. One is, at least in the United States, most scientists came from very humble backgrounds. And the second is that they had decided independently of their circumstances that they would succeed, and they did. And there’s a third point which I’ve used throughout my life; in life, you have to ignore a lot of stuff. You cannot pay attention to everything that someone does against you. Not all of it, you can’t do a hundred percent, but if someone wants to really get to you and they know how to do it, then you’re going- if you spend all of your time reacting to them, you’ll not advance yourself in any form, socially, economically, or intellectually.
Let’s go back to the books. In the 1950s, when I was a teenager the city library, which was like an old mansion that had been converted, it was downtown. It was segregated. So colored people- that’s what we were known. In the newspaper, the last page was called Colored Dots, C-O-L-O-R dots, which was convenient. I mean, look, our news was concentrated in one place (laughter). But I think I was one of the few people to use the library because I saw almost no other Colored people using the Negro section of the library. (In “those days” in Petersburg, “Colored,” “Negro” was capped!)
And that’s what it was, Ron? It was called the Colored Section of the library? I mean, that’s how you understood it to be.
Two things. No white person could go down there and no black person could go upstairs to the library. They had a Colored woman there who was the librarian and I guess they had the card catalog which is the same as the one upstairs, and so you could look through, you would write down on a sheet of paper the books that you want, card number and so forth, and then she would go up and get the books for me. So, it got to the point where- and we used to talk a lot, it got to the point where she would just say, “Keep the books. The whites are not reading them” So I continued reading things about rocketry and what is calculus and all that. I still have some of those books. Some years ago, about ten years ago, I went back to Petersburg and I took about 500 photos of all the places around the city that I used to go to, my grade school, the library, and other places like that. Yes. So, it was books from that library that I read about people like Sir James Jeans, you’ve probably heard of him.
I got Woods’ Calculus book. I could not understand. I got one paragraph into it, but I knew that if I was going to be a scientist and at that moment, I didn’t look at any or pick any particular field, that I had to know this kind of material eventually. Maybe not now. And so, it was that background that allowed me, I think, to become a scientist. And so, I didn’t need- the fact that there were these people at Virginia State who had PhDs and so forth was not a major impact. It did not have a major impact on my goals, I just made the assumption that given the opportunity and given my interests, that everyone would do that and even if there were restrictions that did not allow certain people to do it freely. That’s all. So, I’ve never had a need to say, “I need a mentor.” I’ve had them, but it was not something that I personally needed.
Ron, how representative was the segregated status of the library? How representative was that of your overall childhood? The schools, the neighborhoods, the stores, was everything in your memory really that distinctly segregated?
Yes, during the early days. You know, prior to about 1958, ‘59.
So, on a day to day, you would have very little interaction with white people?
That is actually true. That is actually true. I remember distinctly when I was eleven years old and I was listening to the radio and I don’t even remember who was giving the news, but they said- what they mentioned was that blacks were- well they said Negros, Colored people, were eleven percent of the population. And I was shocked.
You thought it was much bigger than that.
I was shocked. Now, the people who owned the stores in the neighborhood were generally Jewish. Very few people had cars, but there were some quote unquote ‘Negro’ service stations. By that time, by the fifties, even though the things like service stations and car dealerships, none of them were owned by Colored people, most of the workers, if they were in the Colored community, were. Yeah. And so, my high school had a top-rate academic program. In fact, I believe that Peabody High, which started I think in 1870 and went out of business in 1970, I think it was better than the white high school. We had teachers, most of them had master’s degrees, and we had a five-level program. The top one was called Scientific Collegiate. The one below that was called Collegiate. And then they had regular high school, then they had something like trade, I don’t remember what the last level was called. So, beginning in the eighth grade, every year you had to take math and you had to take science. So, when I finished Peabody High, I never took calculus in college because I already knew that subject. Have you seen the movie, what is it, Hidden Figures?
Sure. Yeah. I’ve seen it.
The education of those women, that was typical. Not in all high schools, but in many of them. You know, the idea of, “Look, okay, you go out. You may not become a scientist. You may not become an engineer. You may not become a writer. But you should be well educated. That it is not the degree that is important in this world if you’re educated. You should be learned.” And so, they were well-trained. So, in the upper levels, the Scientific Collegiate, most of the classes had few students. They did not believe that everybody could learn in the sense that if you didn’t put the time and effort into it, and the instructors were not going to waste their time teaching you. You could be down in one of the lower levels.
And so, when I left high school, I had a thorough grounding in mathematics. My mathematics teachers were excellent. One of the interesting facts is that when the schools eventually desegregated, and it was just Petersburg High School, many, I would say most, of the science and math teachers did not go to the new integrated high school. They went off and got positions in junior colleges and colleges. Many of their views were that, “We’ve been doing this for years, we’ve got no recognition, and we put out a product that has gone on to some of the top schools in the country. We will not do this.”
Ron, can you talk a little bit about your developing talents with your hands, tinkering around, building stuff, doing experiments even before you had formal exposure to laboratories?
Yes. Well, if you talk to anyone who’s been on a farm, one of the first things that they will always mention is the fact that they’re constantly taking things apart. Children, you take someone who’s seven, eight, nine years old, you’re naturally curious. So, if you see, let’s say, an old radio sitting in the corner, at some point you’re going to turn it around and you’ll see these big tubes in there. And you see wires and you see other things and you want to play with it. You have an old automobile out in your yard or the yard across the street. You want to play with it. You’re going to do things like get up in trees and take a pillowcase and put four strings on the edges and jump out.
And so, you learn a lot about the limitations of nature just by experiencing nature. And I think that’s one of the reasons why so many young kids nowadays don’t go into science. They have no opportunity- or most of them do not, to actually experiment with nature and find out what the limitations are. I mean, there are kids- and I’ve had this in my classroom who believe that when an animal runs off a cliff and goes out and they’re standing still, then they realize oh Lord I am now going to fall, that’s not how nature operates. So, there was always something around the house, always something in the community to explore, to take apart, to see how it works. And if you couldn’t figure out how it worked, then you would make up your own explanations. You would create your own theories and then you could test those theories.
Like I said, I remember several of my friends- I don’t think they broke legs, but they discovered that parachuting is much more than taking a piece of cloth, putting some string on four edges, and then jumping. You know, that even if that worked, you were not high enough (laughter). And children then, they had more freedom than they have now because we didn’t worry about people harming us. And so, we could walk all over town, you know. The greatest threat, and it wasn’t really a real threat, when you went from one neighborhood to another neighborhood, we had to fight. It didn’t matter whether you won or not, but you had to fight just to show what you were about.
So, what I would do is always select the biggest person, the largest boy, and they were usually, you know, a foot or so taller than I am, and I would just let them grab me from behind and one technique is to take my feet or legs and put one behind the other and lean backwards. And then they would fall, then they would let you go. So, you put up a good fight, you know. You don’t pick some guy who’s going to beat you to death. You figure out some way of doing things where everyone’s happy. You fought the fight and you weren’t scared. Now you could come back into the neighborhood. Yeah.
And Ron, besides discovery, did you like to build things?
Well, beginning at about the age of, I don’t know, eight or nine, I started out building model airplanes. At that time, you could buy a little box that had balsam wood in it, and you needed a razorblade to cut out the wood patterns. There was an imprint of various parts to an airplane, and so you cut those parts out like the sides and grooves and the wings, you glued them together, and then there was a rubber band in it and that was, you know, you turn the propeller and it would fly. It cost twenty-nine cents. I know that twenty-nine cents is important because many of the elderly people in the neighborhood and most of them were women, they outlived their husbands, they couldn’t walk to the store so they’d give you some money. They’d give you a dollar and say go to the store, you can keep the change. Well, sometimes the change was a penny. Oher times the change was ten cents, but it wasn’t generally more than ten cents. Few things cost anything more than ten cents. They didn’t have eleven cent pieces.
But anyway, in about a week, I could get enough money, twenty-nine cents, to buy one of these airplanes that I had to cut out and some glue, glue was like ten cents. When you have no money, ten cents is a lot of money. And I would do that. Sometimes I would sweep the yards up. When I was growing up, things like keeping your house clean, at least in our community, and having your yard clean was very important. We’d sweep off the sidewalk, which was not concrete, but was dirt. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. I was talking to someone the other day, you know, yeah. Saturday morning, I’d go out there and my grandmother would give me the broom and I’d sweep off the sidewalk. You wanted your sidewalk to be swept. You wanted your yards to be swept because few people had grass in their yard, so you swept it. And so that was the overall community that I grew up in. I built rockets. And you’ve probably seen that photo of me with the large rocket?
I have a collection of photos at the AIP (Ronald E. Mickens: Photo Collection, Center for History of Physics) and there’s me with a rocket, I think it’s about three and a half, four feet. I would make my own rocket fuel, you know, potassium chlorate, sulfur, it was basically just gunpowder. And in fact, I burnt down my father’s tool chair because I had to strap down, I mean, I thought this thing was going to the moon. It took me about six months to go around to various places and get the chemicals and it actually caught on fire, the tool house. The rocket actually worked. The nose cone, I took shop to learn how to use the, I don’t know what you call it now, but you know you put things on and you can shape them…But both my father and grandfather were- I wouldn’t call it confidence, they could do anything. Laying bricks, carpentry, they also could do plumbing. That’s probably why I don’t like doing that stuff now.
And for several years when I was in- not high school, but I guess eighth and ninth grade, the teachers- that was in the middle school, would have me come to their houses. Many of them lived within the vicinity of the high school, so that wasn’t hard, and fix things like doorbells. Almost always it was broken- I mean it wasn’t as if it was anything complicated. It was a broken wire or it shorted out or things of that nature. Yeah. When I was about seven or eight years old, my parents bought me a chemistry set. Gilbert. You may have heard the name? Gilbert chemistry set. Look it up. I mean those things were real. I tell students nowadays, “You know, look, these modern-day chemistry sets you get for Christmas, they’re bogus. You need a chemistry set where you can kill yourself. You need to have stuff in there that will blow up, that will set things on fire.”
I doubt nowadays that you could even buy a modern chemistry set with an alcohol burner. Also, the chemistry set included glass tubes and taught you how to blow glass, bend it, and make various things. I remember one time I was mixing stuff, and you know when you’re young, what you do, you mix stuff. You say, “Let’s see what happens.” And I put it over the burner, and it blew up. Fortunately, I was not standing over it, but it blew a hole in- I was in the kitchen, in the floor and in the ceiling. See, that’s what makes real science. When you go from experiences like that, that will allow you to become a scientist, you need to experience the thrill of almost dying, but not dying.
Ron, did you know that you wanted to be a scientist? I mean it’s one thing to want to do experiments and have fun as a kid, but at what point did you look in the mirror and say, “I want to do this for a career?”
I was curious. I never said I wanted to be a scientist. What I wanted to do was to be engaged in certain activities. I wanted to learn and understand mathematics. I wanted- it was a whole variety of things and they just happened- those attributes just happened to be the ones that we attribute to science, but there was no point. But you know after I came about ten years old, you find out well the people who do those things you do call scientists, you know, and to become a scientist, generally you need to have these kinds of skills and background and courses to take and so forth. For example, now, most people when they look at my research, they want to characterize me as, “Oh, you’re a physicist. Oh, you’re a mathematician.” I mean, I go to three or four different kinds of conferences and different people have no knowledge of what I do in other areas, you know. But I think the best thing to call me is – I’m curious. And so, I could do many things. Now, whether I can do it well or not is totally irrelevant to me. That’s decided by other people. And other people’s opinions I’ve generally tried not to have them influence me very much.
Ron, I know you took some courses beyond your schooling, can you tell me a little bit about the role of television and your science education?
Yes. In the 1950s- and this particular event took place about the time of Sputnik, there were a number of courses that appeared on television. The one that was most influential with me was called- I’m trying to remember- Sunrise Semester. And when I was looking at it—and there were other—there was mainly physics and chemistry, but there were some other courses that also were taught we couldn’t get. But at 6 a.m. each morning, five days a week, there was a course I believe in physics and then later on at 6:30 a.m. to 7 chemistry. It might have been the other way around. But my father bought an old TV, black and white. You know what we used to do for color TV? We used to put colored saran wrap on it. You ever heard of that?
(Laughter) I never heard of that trick, but I can imagine.
It was quite common. Well, it actually made it look better than black and white. The black and white looked like someone had turned their TV on and it was getting signals from the cosmic background radiation. No, but those courses were excellent.
Now, was this a local project or how far out did this go?
I think- now, you can Google it. I just don’t remember precisely, but it came out of New York, I think New York University.
But if you Google Sunrise Semester, and I did it a couple days ago, it will give you the origin story.
Now what’s the idea here? Did you get advice from someone in school that you had abilities beyond what you can do in person and so this would be an outlet for you to expand your education?
I’m not sure. I think I read about it in the newspaper, just saying that the local television would carry these shows now, it did not come on at the same time in every location in the country. But I remember that when I was, particularly from eighth grade to twelfth grade, I was in these classes with people who had interests similar to my own.
And so, while I knew that I was doing things that most of the other high school students were not, people in particular say that you’re brainy or that you’re gifted or whatever because all the other, of my friends you know, the numbers were small, were doing the same thing. It is only when you look at differences that things like that come up. If everyone is doing the same thing and they have essentially the same abilities, and they were succeeding, not so much because they had special abilities, but because they were able to put in the time and effort to do it. That’s the critical thing, you have the time and the effort to do it.
If you look at the current situation that we’re in with the [Covid-19] virus, many kids, some very bright kids, are having difficulty learning remotely, primarily because one thing; it’s a way of interacting with the educational system that they’re not accustomed to, but the other thing is that many of these kids do not have the environment, that includes economics, includes the family environment, where they can put the time and effort into it. We tend to think, “Okay, you have kids in college and all of them have the same thing.” I think one of the reasons why a lot of the kids want to come back is their home environment, or their community environment is such that it’s just toxic to them. They want to come back. They want to get away. And that’s why long-term, this experiment is not going to work.
For example, our school (Clark Atlanta University) is sending out 4,000 laptops or whatever. Well, that makes the assumption that these kids have access to Wi-Fi or whatever, that they have quiet time where they can spend to study, that they don’t have other responsibilities like having to work or go to get a job to support the family or whatever. You know, even kids who have the resources, they may not have the emotional support from their parents to push them to study.
Ron, can you talk a little bit about the track that you were on in high school, both in terms of extracurricular activities and in terms of the formal education you received that would put you on this path in science for higher education?
Well, as I said, I was in the Scientific Collegiate track and almost all of my friends who were in that track, we did the same thing. So, we didn’t look at these things as extracurricular. So, for example, many of us belonged to the projection club. That is, you remember the old films on a reel? We’d go around- whenever a class needed to show a film, we’d go around and we’d set it up and we’d be let out of class to do those kinds of things. There was a science club where we would gather and use our imagination.
For example, we imagined that we were astronauts and we were getting ready to take off and we’d go through, you know, spend half an hour talking about being in the control tower and various things about getting into orbit and so forth. But the most important thing was, well, two issues. One was that there were other students who had these interests that you could talk to. Secondly, the teachers who taught science and math were very well-trained. They were very well trained, and they were good educators. I didn’t take a single math course that was not proof based on proving theorems. And it’s every single thing you had to prove. You had to go to the board, and you wrote down a proof, you know. Left-hand side you’d write a statement, on the right-hand side you gave the justification. And then you continued to the next and so forth. We had very good, but small books selected by the teacher, and I still have a few of them, extremely good books. I think some of the books, probably not true, were written by Russians.
I was looking the other day at my spherical geometry book. Now, spherical geometry is not a course that most people, if they take it at all, they don’t take it until they’re in college. We had spherical geometry. We had plain geometry. There was a separate course in spherical geometry, again going back to my high school experience. These people were well-trained. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the movie, Hidden Figures, but if you’ve seen it, there’s a scene that Katherine is sitting in there and the overall chief is asking about who knows about this particular something and all this spherical, and she raised her hand. That was typical of the kind of course that people taught in many of these Negro high schools. Not all of the high schools, most of them didn’t. But just because they were not white high schools didn’t mean that people were not well-trained and could understand and explain what it is they did. So, I had, in terms of mathematics, I had plain geometry, spherical geometry. We had something equivalent to what we would call theory of equations. We had a good two years of algebra. My current view was that they should forget about calculus in high school and let people just really understand algebra. People don’t understand algebra, so they won’t understand calculus. I took physics, chemistry, biology. I even took home economics. I know how to sew. I was the only male in there. “Why are you taking home economics?” “Well, I want to learn how to sew.” “Who’s taking it? Wait a minute” (laughter).
So, the books we had were usually less than 200 pages and we worked every single problem. Every single problem. It was almost like an advanced seminar. If you got five kids in the class and there were blackboards on three walls, you could send people to them, you know, and do proofs. So, you’d prove it. And these would be proofs that you’d have to do in class, not that you did at home and then bring it to class. And you had to stand there, and you had to explain, well, does step five justify step six? And you numbered that step. Is it justified by step four? And so forth. So, it gives you a way of looking at what education should be about and how one should do it. And none of us needed, and going back, role models because this was just what everybody in the group was doing.
Ron, what kind of standardized tests or IQ tests or achievement tests did you take in your high school years that might give you a sense of where you might fit in for a higher education environment?
Right. I think once a year there was some type of standardized test that was probably put out by the state. It looks very similar to what people are doing now, but independently of that, many of the historically black colleges had high schools associated with them, and one of the reasons is that few of them would allow their kids to attend public schools. But one function was that they constantly, if they thought some kid was bright or unusual, they would bring him over sometimes one or two times a month, just give them standardized exams. I don’t know what they did with the results, but they might have published papers. I know that my friend, J. Ernest Wilkins, got his PhD at the age of- have you heard of J. Ernest Wilkins?
Got his PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago at the age of nineteen. Back in the thirties and forties, that was done a lot. And they wouldn’t give names, except in his case, there was a table, I knew exactly it had to be his mother who was a math teacher, college graduate University of Chicago, father who was a graduate of the University of Chicago. But so, there was a lot of interest in both the black and white communities about testing people.
There were a certain group of, let’s call them intellectuals, who wanted to show that other than white people, other than white could also succeed if given the opportunity. And so, I used to go over and all they told me was- my math teacher said, “Well, you’re scheduled to go over…” I can’t remember the name of the school now, but it was a school associated with Virginia State College- “…and take an exam tomorrow.” And I’d go after school. Walk that five miles, you know, didn’t seem that far then. And I’d just go in and talk with the person and I’d take this exam and then maybe a couple weeks later I’d take another exam. But they were more general topics. General math, general English. They were not [a] particular thing like history, which in most exams, if you’re not writing an essay, has to do with particular facts as opposed to interpretations and so forth. I don’t know whether there were any other students at my high school who participated in that. If they did, they went on separate days because when I took the exam, I was the only one there. But it would not surprise me if others did do it and they just, for whatever reasons, you know, not to have people compete. Just do it.
Ron, was there ever any moment in your high school career when you doubted that you’d be able to go to college, or were you on an intellectual momentum and you had the right people encouraging you and you had your own ambitions and interests that college was always a part of the equation, there was never any question that you were going to go on for higher education?
Well, this may seem strange. In a real sense, I had never thought about going to college. I mean, what I knew was I wanted to learn advanced calculus. I wanted to do difference equations, I wanted to learn physics, I wanted to learn chemistry.
So, like you said before, it was the curiosity and then it was college is the place to fulfill this curiosity?
Well, let me tell you this little story. When I graduated from high school, this is in June 1960, I received offers from about six or seven historically black schools. I gave it no thought. In fact, near the end of July, I was walking past the high school and the guidance counselor came out. She said, “What are you doing next month?” I said, “I haven’t really given it any thought at all.” She says, “Look, there is a program at Fisk, [F-I-S-K] University that will last a month.” And she was a graduate of Fisk, by the way. “And I will call them up and tell them that they have to take you,” which is what they did.
So, the whole thing was paid. Room and board. And it actually turned out to be a pre-college program. Well, let me explain what I mean. Everyone except for me were students who had been accepted at Fisk and who would be going to Fisk in September. School started in September then. And they were there for enrichment. So, we took three courses. We took one which was the equivalent of almost a ten-hour chemistry course. The professor would lecture, and he wanted us to write down every single word. And he would talk about these advanced concepts. You know, chemists look at concepts differently than physicists. In chemistry, you could very easily introduce the Pauli Principle and just say it’s the Pauli Principle, you know, two electrons cannot be in exactly the same state. In physics, you have to write down all the mathematics. But the laboratory was about six hours. We’re talking about every day. And there was a math course. So, yeah, it was actually only two courses. Mathematics and that was modern algebra, what we now call proof theory.
And so, I got to Fisk and the director, Sam Massey, who had a very distinguished career, not Walter Massey—at the end of the program, that was August, he asked me, “Well, what are your plans for the fall?” I said, “I don’t really know.” I told him what I was interested in and what I was planning to study. My father, by the way, wanted me to go to the military and urged me to sign up. But that was the default position for many blacks during that period, and that was the kind of position that most parents, you know, military—pay is not great, but it’s a pay. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So, Sam offered me a scholarship. I could cover everything, but that’s how I got into Fisk. That’s how I got into college. So, you could say up until three weeks before I went to college, I had not thought about college. I had no college that I was planning to go to.
So, Ron, my last question for today as we conclude our first of several talks getting on the way to colleges, what schools did you think about and what were your ultimate decisions?
In terms of what?
In terms of where to go to college?
You mean college as opposed to graduate school?
Correct. What undergraduate programs did you consider and how did you make your final choice?
I just told you. I didn’t think of any.
But you had to just say yes to something.
But that was the only thing I said, I had these offers from Norfolk State, from Virginia State, from Union, you know, the- but I did not—
But you wanted to stay close to home? You wanted to go to a historically black college?
Hell no. I wanted to get out. I could not have gone anywhere. It wouldn’t have happened, but if the University of Georgia, at that stage- no. I just didn’t give it any thought. I mean, I assumed that something was going happen, but I put very little thought to it. I had no particular reason to want to go anywhere. I mean I knew that I would probably- what I saw was ten years down the road that I would be doing science, that I would be engaged in scientific activities at some high level. You remember now that I had read a lot about scientists who were born or had their careers back in the nineteenth century, early part of the twentieth century, many of them did not have formal degrees. You look at someone like Friday and so forth. So, I knew that there were models out there that did not involve going to college. Now, it probably would have stupid of me, but I’m just telling you the rest of the question, I’m telling you how I thought about it.
Well, Ron, on that note, why don’t we pick up for round two soon and for now, that’s a great place to end and we’ll pick up soon.
[End Session 1]
[Begin Session 2]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 6th, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ron Mickens. Ron, thank you so much for joining me for round two of our talk.
Thank you very much.
Okay, so let’s pick up on one of the things we didn’t talk too much about yesterday, and that is the role of math and science fairs in your high school education. So, tell me a little bit about how those math and science fairs worked in your high school experience.
Right. Well, I wouldn’t call them fairs, at least in the sense that we currently use them. There were actually contests in, let’s say, eighth grade algebra, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and the first round took place at each high school. The best students were selected from each class and they were given a series of questions to answer or to prove. For example, one question might be: “provide an alternative proof for Pythagoras’s Theorem that did not appear in the book and justify your steps”. Or you were given some function, F of X, how would one go about plotting that function, determine where the zeroes are and so forth?
So, these are relatively high-level questions, and it included, as I said earlier, mathematics, algebra, geometry, I don’t know whether it included spherical geometry or not, physics, chemistry, and biology. And so, the black high schools, you know, did this themselves. So, the first level was at the individual high school. Then the winners there would go on to the district and you would have a higher level of questions in terms of ability to answer them. And it would end at the third level, the contests would be placed on one of the historical black colleges and universities, such as Virginia State, Hampton, or Union and so forth.
So, they were not science fairs in the conventional sense, but anyone could apply or have a display. In fact, there were no displays. It was mainly, you’re given a question- so you’re in a room with the other contestants and you’re given a question by the judges, usually three to five of them, you have five minutes to work these things out, or at least your strategy, and then you have to go forward. And each contestant had a different question and you had to go to the board and work this out. And so that’s why I don’t use the word ‘fair’ because it was not in the mode of the conventional fair. Several things came out of that. One is I got an opportunity to see who my competitors were all around the state. In fact, one person in particular from Richmond, Virginia eventually went on to obtain a PhD and we overlapped at MIT.
Oh, very cool.
I was a visiting professor at that time, and he was a professor in the department of aeronautical engineering. Don’t ask his name right now, I can supply it to you later. (Professor/Dr. Wesley Harris, MIT.)
We’re talking about sixty some years ago. Yes. But I think that was very important in allowing students to come to an appreciation of exactly what their knowledge base, how they stood relative to other students in the state. And these students were black students. You know, the issue of white students in the state and what they were doing at the white high schools never came up. We just assumed that we were operating at the high level and so there never was any comparison at all. It was just, you know, like you asked me yesterday we were talking about how I got I got there, Fisk, one week before I went to Fisk in terms of being a student. I had no plans.
And so, this is an internal, I think, psychological, emotional, and intellectual set of activities that showed that we could perform if given the opportunity, if given the resources. And if we weren’t given the opportunity and resources, we still will perform at a high level.
Now, what year did you start at Fisk?
And was the NSF Summer Science Program, was that before your first semester of classes?
Yes. The summer of 1960.
How did that come about?
I graduated in June of 1960. I was wandering around and ended up at Fisk because my counsellor went there and when the program was over at Fisk in August, I had no idea what I was going to do. The director of the program offered me a small, trust me, small, amount of scholarship, and that’s how I ended up at Fisk a month later.
And where did NSF come into this? Did you apply for something? Were you nominated?
No. I was walking by the high school. The guidance counsellor saw me, and she said, “What are you doing this summer?” And I said, “My usual, I’m reading at home and the library. That’s all I got. I didn’t apply for anything.” Now, keep in mind that this was just after the Russians had, you know, sent up their satellite, about 1957.
And so, many science programs were being supported, even at the historically black schools. And so, there was money available, but I never applied for anything. But let me tell you this story; the first day at Fisk, class day, they gave us a standardized exam. It was like some version of the graduate record and I think I made something like ninety-eight percent on it. At the end of that roughly five or six weeks, they gave us the exam again, or some other one, I don’t think it was exactly the same, but I made ninety-three percent. So, I told Dr. Massey, “This program has been a waste of my time. Negative learning as it turns” (laughter). But that phenomena is not surprising. Most standardized exams are based on quote unquote ‘a given set of knowledge’ interpretation. You know, once you get into a subject, you see that certain questions are neither correct nor false, they’re just not quite right, and that a higher, better interpretation is needed and I think that’s what happened, you know, coming out of the program at Fisk. I had a deeper understanding of various concepts in chemistry and physics and mathematics questions, you know, let me give you an example.
Suppose someone asks you, give me mathematical objects so that AB is equal to BA. Some would say just let them be regular numbers. Then they might ask when is that not true? That is when is AB not equal to BA, well, if you say, “It’s always true with numbers, real numbers, but it is not true if A and B are matrices because matrix A time matrix B is not the same as matrix BA, you know, the reverse.” And so, I think that is what happened. I just looked at these problems at a higher level than probably what I should have done. But it all turned out okay.
Now when you got to Fisk, did you have an idea of what you wanted to major in or were you sort of wide open to all disciplines and areas of study?
Well, I was forced to choose a major at Fisk.
You mean from the beginning.
Yes. You know, so I started out in chemistry, then I went to math, then I went to physics. And so, what I finally decided is I really wanted to be knowledgeable in all of those fields. Note that biology didn’t pop up there. But you had to have a major, you couldn’t have a major in just science. And so, I ended up majoring in physics and that was primarily because the physics department involved lots of math in terms of the courses and the mathematics department was good, but it wasn’t great. And I already knew calculus.
What happened is I never formally took calculus. They enrolled me for calculus, but I never had to attend. I sat in there on other courses. So that’s how I ended up in physics. But the ideal situation would have been to have just majored in science, just take and become involved in as many science courses as possible. Now, let me also add the following: Fisk, at that time, was one of the, I would say, elite colleges, not just black colleges. All freshmen had to take a one-year ten-hour course in mathematics, that is every single student. It met five times a week and it went from what we would call advanced algebra up to the calculus, and it was on campus TV (run by Fisk for its students). And we had Saturday classes, too. Thursday – Saturday classes in the morning. So, every student took that course. There was also at Fisk a twenty-credit hour five hours per semester course, that was called Humanities. You went to class four days a week, and on Friday, all of the freshmen and sophomores were assembled in one large room and you had an essay. Are you familiar with Blue Books?
Absolutely. I’ve taken them and I’ve given them.
The idea is that you start out your freshman year, you do a blue book. By the time you’re a sophomore, you’re supposed to do two or three blue books per test. So, what the professors had in mind, and that program had been there for a while, was that, think about it, at the end of two years, you had read sixty books and these included books like, Crime and Punishment, what’s the British philosopher? We read his book on Why I’m Not a Christian, (Bertrand Russell), James Baldwin, it was world literature. And so, they wanted, at the end of that period, for you to say, “I have a general knowledge, hopefully some understanding, of world literature and events.” We also read Karl Marx. So, it was a very good course.
Made you a well-rounded person.
That was the hope. That was the hope. And I think in many instances, that turned out to be the case.
Now, Ron, it sounded like you sort of defaulted your way into the physics program, but at what point did the love of physics really spark in you? When did you realize that you had a special aptitude for this and that this would be something for you to pursue at the highest levels?
Well as I told you yesterday, I don’t really consider myself a physicist. It just happened to be what I had a degree in. But I was very good in chemistry. Most of my undergraduate years, I spent doing experiments in the Fisk University Infrared Laboratory, which was a derivative of work done by Elmer Imes, the second black to get a Ph.D. in physics (1918, Michigan). And I enjoyed doing experiments. I also designed some of the minor components when we modified it some research equipment in the FUIL.
Fisk, [was one of the] first black schools to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and when I discovered in my junior year that I could not be in Phi Beta Kappa because I would have a BS degree when I graduated, I ended up taking an additional, oh I don’t know the exact number, maybe seven or eight other courses in political science, economics, and so forth. So, my view is that I’m curious about many things, but unfortunately, society constrains you to be labeled in terms of particular things. So, I mean, if you look at what I do now, tomorrow when I talk about research I’ve done work in mathematical epidemiology. I’ve done work in high energy scattering period. Useless, but interesting to me (laughter). I’ve created a new field of numerical analysis called nonstandard finite difference schemes, in spite of the fact that I had three “big named” mathematicians tell me that my career would be ruined if I continued with that stuff. When I see them now I laugh at them. I say, “Have you checked how many citations went to that work and how many people use them?” You know, there’s almost twenty PhD dissertations that have been written on it. So, I don’t try to constraint myself. I work on what I am interested in. And the PhD in theoretical physics has allowed me to do that.
It’s a starting point for broader interests.
Ron, can you talk a little bit about the courses that you took at VU during the summer of 1963? Your work on ODEs and thermodynamics?
Yes. Now, I don’t know whether this was- okay. Let me back up a little bit. Fisk had this very outstanding research lab in infrared spectroscopies and many of the faculty from Vanderbilt University would come over and use our equipment. Now, how did Fisk get this equipment? How did they have better equipment than Vanderbilt? Well, for a number of years, probably a couple of decades, Fisk had an annual summer institute in which they trained a lot of workers from the government and from industry and from other colleges and universities on how to use the equipment and to measure the spectra and how one should interpret them.
The equipment was given to Fisk by companies such as Perkins Elmer. You bring students in, you train them on a certain piece of equipment, more than likely if they’re going back to set up a lab, they’re going to use equipment that they already know how to use. So, there was always a very close connection between the Fisk physics department, at least certain parts of the physics department, and Vanderbilt University and at Fisk. And so, my advisor at Fisk, at the time, James Lawson (Fisk 1935, Ph.D. Michigan, Ph.D. 1939) said, “What do you want do this summer?” I mean I was being paid; it was lab money. He said, “Why don’t you go to Vanderbilt and take some courses?”
We looked at the summer course program. I wanted thermal and I also wanted differential equation. And that was it. I went there with a buddy and we sat at the front of the class. Nobody said anything. We’d raise our hands and correct the instructor (laughter). So, if you’re going to be in a situation, I always make the assumption that there is no one as good as me. Well, sometimes I’ve been wrong, but I don’t remember when (laughter). And so, this enrollment was to show that not only could we do the work, but we understood the work. Most people could do the work, but they don’t understand the work. And so, we were prepared to do that.
As I said, I had no problems, along with my physics buddy (an MS physics student at Fisk) you know, we’d walk over to campus about two miles away and we’d go to class and no one said anything. I mean, some of the students were friendly. The instructors certainly knew us, but we were performing. I don’t know whether I performed at the peak or not, but I performed, I think, better than everyone else. To win a race, if you’re in a foot race, you can perform at peak, but what’s required to win the award is be ahead of the person behind you (laughter). That’s what it takes to win. So, we won (laughter). We won.
Ron, when did you meet Wendell Holladay?
When I was at Fisk, I was president of the physics club, and I was interested in the field of elementary particle physics. And I don’t know if then he was chair of the department then or not, but anyway, so I invited him over. Now, Wendell is one of those people who speaks forever. I mean, I think his seminar went like hour forty-five minutes, but it was very good, and it was very easy to understand- well, he was a natural lecturer. And one of the things I found out about him, he felt comfortable being around me and I felt comfortable being around him, we could talk. You know, we talked to each other.
And so, the next year when I was a senior, he wrote me a little note. I think it was a note—or maybe we met but anyway, a note that said, “Well, why don’t you consider Vanderbilt University next year when you apply to graduate school?” Again, I had no- I knew about places like MIT and Penn, but I made no plans to go to graduate school, but keep in mind that during this period, there was this big civil rights set of events that were taking place all over the south, and other places, but in particular in Nashville. SNCC had informally moved its operations up to Nashville. There was a lot of people, a lot of demonstrations. And so, there were reasons why I wanted to stay in Nashville other than just going to graduate school. It was convenient. I applied to a couple other graduate schools just- I’m not sure why. And I got accepted. The only one I remember I think is Penn State. I don’t even remember.
Ron, was it possible to get a PhD at a historically black college at that point?
I don’t believe so, well, the only historically black college I think that had a Ph.D. in physics at that point was Howard University. And Howard was too damn close to home, you know. Petersburg is only about what, ninety, one hundred miles away. And I just didn’t want to go. And I knew the people in Nashville. As I said, my staying in Nashville, there were other considerations for me to keep in mind other than just going to graduate school.
You liked Nashville. You were comfortable there.
Well, there were things that were going on that I was involved in and I wanted to continue. As I always tell people, you know, everybody nowadays claimed they marched with Martin Luther King, they claim they knew Malcolm X, well, that may be true, it may not be true, but there are other things that people have done which you don’t want to talk about. And there’s no need to talk about them, you know? But let’s just say I had other reasons than graduate school, you know, and it did not hurt that there was a relationship between the physics departments at Vanderbilt and Fisk and that I knew a number of the people there. I mean, when I walked on campus, I felt very comfortable. Oh, one other thing, for a period of about ten years, I carried a gun with me. Even on airplanes. And I stopped carrying it, you may be too young to remember, when they started searching people because of the hijacking and taking people on airplanes to Cuba, and so yeah. And I made sure that everywhere I went, that people had the understanding that there were limitations in which I place on people about what it is I was able to tolerate from them. A little bit of fear often prevents situations from taking place. See when I grew up in Petersburg, everybody carried a gun, but it was generally for hunting. You didn’t carry a gun on you, but you know, almost all of our meat we killed ourselves. If it’s protein, if it has legs on it, you shoot it and you eat it. So, I’ve had muskrat, all that kinds of stuff. Catfish, you know, things that, during that time, maybe people didn’t have money often to buy food from the store. So yeah, you shot it and ate it.
The thing that I find quite interesting is that in a couple years, Vanderbilt started bringing in large numbers of undergraduates and many of the undergraduates had a horrific time, but I think that they had, you know, situations that they found themselves in such that they didn’t know how to deal with them. Many of them were idealistic. There’s a black professor at Vanderbilt who’s currently going around interviewing students and this one young lady said when she went from Pearl High School to Vanderbilt University, she thought it’d be the same thing as in high school. She thought everybody wanted desegregation, everybody’s going to be friendly and all of that. No, it did not turn out (socially) to her liking. I think that people like me and there were several other graduate students at Vandy, did not take this view. One of my best friends is John Stevenson, he got a PhD in chemistry from Vandy. He came over the second year 1965 but he was a military person. You know, when you have adult males who have had certain experiences, people can sense that it may not be a good idea to mess with them.
And we were friendly and everything and we had lots of friends there at Vandy, and everybody “was happy,” but you know, people I think have an innate sense of what to say and what not to say, and if someone thinks they can get away with inappropriate behavior, then they will try to get away, you know, particularly if they’re in groups.
Now, I understand you had some experience with Stokely Carmichael.
Yes. There is an interesting story here, my friend, John, knew the minister of education for SNCC. I think his name was George Ware. Both of them graduated from Tuskegee, it’s called “Institute” then, in chemistry. So, they knew each other. So, John was married by this point, and he lived on campus. And so Stokely came in, I believe Stokely was speaking at Vanderbilt University, so John assembled this group of friends in his apartment on campus. Now of course, you have to realize that there are all kinds of people, police and undercover folks circling around the campus. After Stokely gave this talk, we all went over to John’s place and sat around talking. I mean it was like what you see in the movie. We were just sitting around, you know, very few people were drinking, talking about world issues and blah, blah, blah, blah. We heard that there was a riot going on in north Nashville on Fisk Campus. So, we decided to just go over and see what was going on. So, we split up. There were police all over Fisk Campus. Many students- there must have been at least 300 or 400 students just walking around. I mean, it was very calm.
Down at Tennessee State, I think there was some gunshots there with a fire, but in the newspaper the next day, all of this was placed on Stokely. It said that he had come to Nashville and started this riot. He didn’t. We just went over- we just left John’s place and went over there to see what was happening. There’s another interesting thing. I got to know many people in the police department very well, and I won’t go into the circumstances of why this has occurred, except to say that one of Wendell Holladay’s graduate student was someone who worked for someone at the police department when the computer IBM 360 was coming out in the early sixties, and this person decided that they were going to help the police department use them. They liked doing the police work better than a PhD.
So, I knew a number of people in the police department. And what this person did, I will not say his name, he became essentially assistant police chief for a time and during his stay there, one of the people that he brought in was a black person as his assistant. And I will not say his name either. Now, during this period when I was in graduate school there, there were some people who came down from Ohio and they had stolen money orders and they attempted to go to a liquor store not far from Fisk to buy liquor. The store owner called the police and they were stopped adjacent to Fisk campus and the men from Ohio. they killed one of the police and then shot the other one. I think one was black, one was white, there may have been one who didn’t die immediately, but died later on.
And the next day, I noticed that when I was driving around, a police car was following me. And so, I’m puzzled! I would do evasive maneuvers just to see what would happen, if it would keep following me. That night about 10:30 p.m., I was going out to buy a fish sandwich, there was a very famous fish place up by Fisk, and I got about a block and a half from where I was staying and I was surrounded by about four or five police cars. Now, I had my gun with me. Fortunately, they never searched the car. All they did was just say, “Follow us.” And I went downtown. I discovered that what you see in most police stations, what you see above the ground, there’s lots of stuff below the ground in many cases.
So, I was involved, and part of the reason I was brought in was because I knew a lot of people, you know. There were some crazies. You know, in all the same movements you have, there are some crazies and there were people that were moving in from Chicago and New York who- I won’t call them gangsters, but let’s just say they were not very well-versed in the techniques of interpersonal relationships regarding almost anything. And one of the things I did was to try to, and in most cases succeed, convince them not to do what they wanted to do.
But remember I was telling you about this black assistant to the assistant police? I met him at that time. That’s the first time I met him. And they took me down to like the third floor, third sub-basement or whatever in a small room and there were two or three policemen in the room. They didn’t talk to me. They talked about what they were going to do to me, you know. And after about a half hour of that, then my, later friend, actually I was inviting him over to my classes when I returned to Fisk in 1970, he came in and we had talks about basically do you know any of these people or did you know this and that and blah, blah, blah. Yeah. So, as I said, you can see, there were reasons other than just going to graduate school for staying there, in Nashville. Nashville, at that time, it was called music city. It had at least five or six major schools. I mean, there were three black schools, Fisk, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State. You also had Vanderbilt, you had Scarritt College, you had also, Peabody College- there was I think about fifteen different colleges. The southern Baptist publishing company was there. So, it was like a big country music, bible-toting university town.
Ron, when you were thinking about transitioning to graduate school, were these experiences, these, you know, what would happen with the riot and your contact with the police, did this make you think it was best for you to just sort of bury your nose in the books and not get too involved in that? Or did you want to stay involved in the Civil Rights movement, particularly as it got more intense as the 1960s progressed?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was embedded in it. I never thought about those- I never thought about it one way or the other. In some sense maybe I segmented my life. During the day, I did physics, maybe seminars, that kind of stuff. At other times I was involved in other things. I mean I just never put the two things together and compared.
Now I know what you’re going to say already because the theme is, is that you don’t have a grand plan going into things, you just take them as they come, but still I want to ask, by the time, you know, by the time you got to graduate school at Vanderbilt, did you have a good idea of the kind of focus that you wanted to have in physics? Did you have the kind of idea in terms of theory or experimentation or the professors you wanted to work with or the labs that you wanted to be involved with, did you have a rough idea of the kind of course of study you wanted to pursue?
Well, at that time, the total number of credit hours to be taken was seventy-two, with forty-eight of them actual hours in class. So, it’s not as if you’re going to plan, everyone’s going to take first year mechanics, electrodynamics, you know, and then you can take courses in solid state, statistical mechanics, and things of that sort. But there’s a critical factor also maybe- remember, when I went Vanderbilt University, I had two separate outside fellowships. I was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and I was a Danford Fellow. So, I had four years of money for graduate school. Now I’m certain we never got money from them, but so I went there with, as they say, my own money. So that gave me a great deal of freedom of action.
First time at Vandy, my advisor, Holladay told me, “All I want you to do is do physics. Anything else you do, that’s on your time. But you satisfy the requirements that we have here, what you do otherwise is of no concern to me.” And so, we had a very good working relationship. I liked to work by myself. I like to talk to other people too, but I also like to work by myself because much of what I do is unorthodox. You know, a lot of mathematicians will say, “Oh, you didn’t prove that.” I have to say, “Is this really a great interest to you? I mean, is this something serious that you think ought to be done? You do it. I’m not going to do it. So, you do it.” It is not a great concern to me. So, I don’t remember any bad experiences at all, but I also have a tendency to not focus on things unless they directly affect my health, wellbeing, or intellectual integrity because you don’t get very far by not doing that.
So, who ended up being your advisor at Vanderbilt?
Wendell Holladay. Yeah.
And what was his research on at the time? What was he working on?
Elementary particle physics. Yes. I went there the summer before the semester starts the following September. I spent the summer there and he put me right on one of his research projects. I’m a quick learner. So, the process of learning is to understand, it’s not to look at things in detail. It is to understand what is going on and to see what the general patterns are. And I remember the- he was in charge of the theoretical group in particle physics, it was a relatively large group which consisted of both experimentalists and theoreticians.
So, the first month I was there, he asked me to give a lecture, I think maybe two lectures on some subject. You know, it’s typical for a professor if they want to learn something, give it to a graduate student and let the graduate student explain it to the professor, and this actually happened and believe it or not, I totally forgot about it until the morning I was supposed to give him something on it. So, from about 4:00 a.m. in the morning, the seminar was at 10- from about 4 in the morning ‘til about 8:30, I went through a quick learning of the subject. It actually wasn’t that hard, you know. I know a lot of mathematics, so I could understand the mathematics of it. And I also understood the physics of it. And they say it was one of the best seminars they had. And I said…part of that may be because they really didn’t know what I was talking about (laughter). But it was all good. I spent about ten-years working on that stuff. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and it’s sort of the grandfather of these current string theories and stuff now of importance in particle theory.
How was your dissertation defense? Was that an enjoyable experience for you?
It was very enjoyable. It lasted about an hour and a half. My dissertation I think was a total of fifty-one pages. And except for the first chapter and the last, it was basically just a collection of my published papers. I think I wrote something like eight, maybe eleven papers, published papers when I was a student. So, it was essentially just a compilation of those things put in the form of a dissertation. The procedure at that time was a couple weeks before the oral, you would take a copy of your dissertation and visit each committee member. So, the committee consisted of, I think, one or two people from mathematics and the rest of them- there was an experimental, a theorist in nuclear physics, and Wendall. So, I gave them copies, but the procedure also included- each of them would tell you, “I’m going to ask you a hard question.” And so, we got it. That’s just the way it proceeded. In fact, I disagreed with my advisor on some of the work that he did (laughter). I said, “This only has limited validly, and when you go to higher energies the physics just is going to break down because of unitarity.” Well, that was the standard problem with it anyway, and many knew this to be the case.
So, I knew that what I had done was correct within the sense of what one does mathematically and so I didn’t have a problem doing it. One of the things that Wendell did was take his graduate students to meetings in the Southeast, all of his graduate students, you know, we’d just get in a big car and drive. A lot of these universities, remember we’re talking about the sixties, I was one of the first people of color to actually live in one of their facilities on campus that they had recently just integrated. But again, it didn’t come up, you know, four or five of us in the car, we’d drive let’s say up to Clemson from Nashville, which is a long ride for me, and we get there, and we’d talk. Four or five of us would stay in the same room. In fact, those people that we used to room with, we became lifelong friends. Still see each other and everything. So, I always worked on the assumption that if you were at least as bright as anyone else, that they would appreciate it. And if they didn’t appreciate it, you could appreciate it. So, you know, what in life do you have insurance of fifty percent success or going for fifty percent less.
Ron, did any of your committee members ask you a highfalutin question like what do you see as your contributions to the broader area of elementary particle physics?
I think most of them didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about.
(Laughter) But they took your word for it that you knew what you were talking about.
Well as I said, you know, I had published papers on it, so at least it had gone through peer review. They had- almost all of them except maybe some of the mathematicians- had gone to my several seminars. They knew that I had given presentations at national professional meetings, you know, these professional conferences and so forth. So, they had no reason to doubt me. We ended up talking about what I would now characterize as philosophical questions. Like for example, at that time- are you familiar with high energy physics?
At that time, I think the highest energy accelerator was like I don’t know, ten GEV, twenty-five GEV. And so, there were indications that if you take a proton and you scatter a pion, pi plus and pi minus, at high energies, the cross sections would come together. Question; how high is high? How far do you have to go? And we thought you get to twenty-five GEV, that’s going to be it because the indications from data looked that way. But we now know that was wrong. We were just looking at local data. So, also questions like what happens if you have a theory that you can’t test? And my view is that there probably is never going to be a theory that you can’t test because, you know, when people talk about string theory now, look at gravitational waves. Einstein never thought that you’d be able to check that. One of the things that you learn from the history of science is that human beings can come up with solutions to issues that, at a particular point, don’t seem solvable. And so, it is a good working assumption that it will be tested. It may not be tested using equipment like we use today, maybe some of the “genius things” like, for example, many of these things that involve high energy physics using cosmic rays. Or high energy physics is being coupled with black hole physics and so forth.
So, you can do tests in one area and gain information about another. Yeah, so we discussed those kind of issues. Wendall was working on trying to use partial wave analysis to determine the particles that were created in pion, nuclear scattering and so forth, and that’s how we got- because he just tried to fit is with the theoretical structures at that time it would blow up. With a large increase in energy, it violates unitarity. And so, the question is okay, what does it mean to have something that you know is going to fail? What does it mean? How do you interpret that part that you know is right and how do you know when it’s breaking down? Those are issues that you really need to decide on before you do the experiment.
Another question I know, Ron, you’re not going to have a grand plan to, but 1968, this is a very exciting time for anybody in America, right? So, I want to ask how solidly were you on a trajectory, a standard academic physics trajectory, where a postdoc was the obvious next move for you? Were you thinking, “Are there other opportunities that I want to pursue? Do I want to get more involved in Civil Rights? Do I want to get involved in policy? Do I want to get involved in activism?” Were you thinking more broadly about that or were you pretty laser-focused on, “Where’s the best place I can go to continue my physics?”
No. I hadn’t. What I knew was that I wanted to do a postdoc and I applied for an NSF postdoc and I got it. Everyone was shocked. I think I might have been the first person at Vanderbilt ever to get an NSF postdoc. Those were very prestigious at the time. But keep in mind that this is during the Vietnam War and from when I finished Fisk up until the time I went to MIT, I got seven induction notices. Now you will note, I have not been in the military. You tell me what the rules are, and I’ll try to figure out some way of getting out of it. The last time I got an induction notice, I can tell you, it was December the 24th, 1968. I had just arrived, been about four or five months at MIT. And they thought that okay, everything is closed down on the Christmas holiday, selective service because I had been in contact prior to that with several generals and politicians and other things, you know. I had one general who ran a big lab said, “Mickens, all you have to do, take that step out front, you do it, what do you call it, basic training, and I’ll assure you, you will not have to do any other actual military duty.” “So, yeah, you’re saying that, but you’re no longer in the service. You’re running a big laboratory. I’m not going to do it.”
And I had people approach me to go to Canada. I went up to Canada to University of Toronto and in January. That is one of the coldest places on the earth. I would hate to think the North Pole is colder. So, you know, my whole thing was that I had a basically two-year plan at Vanderbilt. And I almost gave up the postdoc and my advisor (Holladay) got mad at me. I told him, I said, “Well, I’m just going to stay” He says, “You’re going- basically you’re finished. You can leave.” Then I got the NSF and I was telling him that I might just give that one up and stay. And he said, “If you don’t go, then I’m dropping you as my graduate student.” “Okay.” So, then I just dealt with the situation (of the draft) when I went up there to MIT. Yeah.
When I was at MIT, there were people who had ideas about what I should do next and I had ideas about what I should do next and guess what I did? I did what I wanted because the idea is you’ve been at MIT and the Center for Theoretical Physics for two years, what’s the next place? Why don’t you go to one of these other big places? And so, I wanted to return to Nashville for another set of reasons, you know. And I don’t regret it. If I had gone to some other place, let’s say like Princeton or Caltech or Wisconsin, one of the things that would have happened is that every time, as I used to tell people, every time that Negroes started acting up, they (the university) were more likely to ask me to intervene. I said, “If you think they are a threat, why don’t you call the damn police?” You know? Don’t call me. I have my own set of things that I want to do, and it does not involve settling issues that you should settle.
I was at- and the reason why I was at Clark Atlanta such a long time is my son became ill while we were at Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. Have you ever heard of it? (JILA) Look it up. It turned out that only two places in the country that dealt with his very rare condition. One of them happened to be the University Medical Hospital (Denver, CO) and the other one was Emory University (Atlanta) and that’s how I got here. So, while being at Clark Atlanta University, I basically taught no more than two courses at a time. People basically let me do what I wanted. I learned to say no in several languages.
Oftentimes, I’d have the dean come up to me and say, “Mickens, you’re just the person,” and they always tell you this when they see you in person, “you’re just the person. I got something that I need to finish and you’re the only one who can do it.” And I would say, “Are you certain that I’m the only one who can do it?” “Yes, because if you won’t do it, it won’t get done.” “Hey, it’s solved. I’m not doing it.” “Take that off your list. See? I’m glad that you talked with me, I have shortened your list of things that you need to do,” and folks allowed me to get away with it. So hey, you know, since I’ve been here, I have been able to publish (authored and co-authored) maybe twenty books, I don’t know exact numbers, give talks all around the world at different places and have a lot of colleagues from other countries and had people do extended visits with me. One of the worst things possible is to have someone come visit you, a scientific colleague, who’s starving for intellectual stimulation. You know, so I’ve had people from Germany, some from Spain, they want to spend twenty-four hours with you. So, I finally got into a routine. I would just tell people, “okay, first,” a guy from South Africa, mathematician, a very eminent mathematician and he was Catholic.
So, I got him a place to stay near campus, a very nice hotel and I drove him to where the Catholic church was and I said, “Now, here’s a little map. This is where you are. This is how you’re going to get there from the hotel. Want to see the town? I’m going to take you on a tour for one day. Otherwise we have a tremendous public transportation system here, and if you think you’re going to get lost, we also have (laughter)- and here in Atlanta, some parts of town, there are people with uniforms that will guide you around. Other than that, we will meet every day from about 10 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Otherwise, I don’t want to see you anymore. I have other things to do other than be with you. Appreciate you coming” (laughter).
Well, Ron, I think that’s a good stopping point for today now that we’re on the hour mark. So, I’ll hit stop here.
[End Session 2]
[Begin Session 3]
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It’s my great pleasure to be back with Professor Ron Mickens on August 7th, 2020. Ron, thank you so much for joining me again.
All right. So, we’re going to start today with some interesting things. Let me hear.
Right. First thing I’d like to discuss this morning is the whole situation when I was growing up in Petersburg, Virginia, about how people treated dead folks. The reason why I’m giving you all of these interesting and maybe off the wall situations is that it will give you insight into how I think.
In Petersburg, there were three or four black funeral homes and most people had very little money. So, what that meant was the bulk of the funeral, and I’ll call it performance or situation, was involved with the audience interacting with the body. The primary purpose of a funeral was to make sure that the people who attended the funeral knew for certain when they left that that person was dead and that they were never coming back. And so that meant that the funerals at both the church and at the gravesite were very emotional. It was common practice, for example, to have young children kiss grandma, kiss grandma goodbye. I don’t need to kiss her, she’s gone, you know. There were open funerals. That is the casket was open at the graveside and you could either kiss grandma again, put something in the casket, and the family members were to bend over, pick up part of the dirt that would be filled in with the casket, and when it was lowered in the ground, the dirt would be tossed in. That no longer happens in most situations. But the funeral practices did not end there. It was common practice, or at least in my household, two or three days after the funeral, the person who had departed would come back. I mean, not as a ghost, but it would be a situation in which both the living and the dead would finally say goodbye to each other.
I remember one instance in which, I think it was a cousin of mine died a relatively young person, two days later, my grandmother and I were sitting in the kitchen and she looked out and said, “Don’t you see brother over there? He has come to say goodbye to us.” And so that was a standard ritual. And I think from the point of view of psychology, this was a very nice and neat technique because it put you- you didn’t spend a lot of time after that in deep grief, as what sometimes occurs when, you know, there was a set of steps, you go through the steps, they’re gone. You’re not going to see them anymore.
Related to that same general set of experiences was situations related to medicine that in most communities in the south, unless you had a Colored doctor, and in most cities there were no Colored doctors you had to take care of yourself. I mean that might mean if you had polio, you were not going to the hospital, there was no hospital for blacks. There might be a room in the basement. So, in my household, and I would guess most of the households, there was two or three times a year, an annual cleaning out. So, in the springtime, you would be given a huge spoon, I mean, much bigger than a tablespoon. It would have sugar and my grandmother or grandfather would put a teaspoon of turpentine, which is dangerous stuff, and you would take it. That was part of the cleaning out process. They would also go into the backyard or go into the woods and get various kinds of plants and boil them and make some type of drink that you would have to drink. And it seems to work. We didn’t die, you know? So, that’s enough of a proof for me. Yeah. And so, the community was very, very self-sufficient. You asked yesterday about whether it was almost complete separation between the Negroes and the whites. When I was growing up, the answer was yes, from my experience. Adults, by necessity, had to interact, but in my community, the young kids, there was no interaction or very little of it.
Later on, when I went to high school and started involved with myself and my brothers in other social events in the city, give you an example; there was a police boys club and it was held downtown in a large auditorium, about the size of a basketball court. I mean a regular basketball court. When you walked in, on the right side the blacks would be seated, the white boys would be on the left side. They tried to do everything separate but equal. So, for example, Christmas, they gave out cameras, bicycles, but for everyone, every bicycle the black boys got then a white boy got one and vice versa. So later, we really hated when they desegregated because now you had twice as many people competing for one bicycle, you know?
The city public meetings were that way too. It was segregated. In fact, one of our first bona fide civil rights activities was to participate in the integration of the city council meeting. What we did is about 200 or 300 of us just went in and filled up every available space in the auditorium and on stage. It got desegregated then. It was very similar to the library. When we desegregated the library, I was in high school at that time. I mean we’d dress up. You want to be neat now, you want to be clean. We walked in and basically nothing happened. I mean, I still became the only black person who probably used the library, but I tell the joke I went up to the desk and the little white lady says, “Oh, we didn’t know that you Negroes wanted to use the books. Come on in, nobody else is reading them. Come on in. We’ll give you some. You need a list?” But seriously though, that was almost the situation.
And I think one reason why desegregation- notice that I’m not saying integration, desegregation worked in a place like Petersburg, Virginia, was because of the presence of the historical black colleges, and also because there were plenty of jobs, you know, in Fort Lee, [the] chemical company down in Hopewell and various jobs in other places. And so, there was no competition among blacks and whites for the same jobs. Places where there was competition for essentially the same jobs always had conflict. This is an important observation and applied generally everywhere in the country.
I appreciate that. And you started this off by saying these stories will give me further insight about how you think, so just tell me a little bit more explicitly how these experiences did shape the way you think, both as a person and as a scientist.
Okay. Well, my grandfather, James Williamson, my mother’s father, was one of the few educated people in my local community. When someone died, he would be the one to write the obituary and he would write it in longhand and very elegant, you know that style of writing, I call it Declaration of Independence kind of writing. And so, when I was about three or four, he began talking to me about the stars and about signs in nature and about how the world works. And his basic message was that there is an answer to many questions, it may not be immediately known, to most questions that you would ask, particular if they’re about things that you can see the natural world and so forth.
But on the other hand, you remember now that I’m also having these experiences with the supernatural (death and dying) or at least with things that in part could be called supernatural, but are mechanisms that are used by ordinary people to try to deal with the conflicts and sorrows in their daily lives. And so that had an impact on me. I mean, mainly that oftentimes, you have to have both situations occurring within the same community at the same time, but they serve different purposes for different sets, subsets of the community. That overall, you would prefer to have an explanation based on science, but if you didn’t have the education or the interest to learn science, then there were other alternative explanations which would satisfy you psychologically with regard to those needs. Like where do people go when they die? What should you do? How should you react to death and so forth.
Ron, do you tend to, in your mind, separate out the metaphysical from the physical or do you try to understand it all as one big question mark of how the world works?
There’s only one, I’ll use the word world, my preference would be universe but that sounds nice, yeah. There is only one world and there are phenomena within this world. And different phenomena require different types of explanations. So, one of the most powerful ways of knowing is the scientific method. It has the advantage over all other methods in that it provides public knowledge. Public knowledge in the sense that- let’s take a separate experiment. I tell you how to measure temperature of an object. I give you a thermometer, you can measure temperature anywhere. You don’t have to believe in science, but I’ll give you the rules that if you apply them, you’ll come up with the same value for the temperature as anyone else.
Other ways of knowledge don’t have that property. They’re not public. You take, for example, religion. Religious experience can vary even from the same family. Now just because something is not scientific does not mean that it is nonsense. And so, I don’t say that science is the supreme form of knowledge. It’s the supreme knowledge if you want to find out about those aspects of your experience that can be transmitted or explained to someone else and they will agree with you because of the logic of it, because of the methodology. And so, that type of thinking had an impact, but it didn’t push me to go to science or push me not to go to science. It was just my own personal realization about the different types of knowledge. I mean, you know, a prime example that I use in my class to illustrate the difference between public, and let’s say, private knowledge is writing a love poem. I have a class with twenty-five students, and I say, “Write a love poem about someone you love. Someone you hate.” You know? It is highly unlikely that I will get twenty-five identical essays. It is just not going to happen. It’s a possibility, but it’s just not going to happen. But if I ask them, if we’re in the laboratory and I ask them, “Measure the specific heat of a certain metal starting at this temperature,” all of them within error will get the same answer. But you’re asking different questions about different aspects of the world and they require different methods and methodologies. So, I try to make that clear in all of my classes and all of the things I talk about. I oftentimes get the question of am I anti-religion? I’m not anti-religion. It is of no relevance to me. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It is very clear that for many people, they need it and it has certainly played an important role within the context of the black community.
So, the issue as to whether there is a God or not is totally irrelevant to me, I’ll find out later, I’m willing to wait (laughter). I’m in no hurry to find out, you know? And so these different ways of looking at the universe, these different ways of trying to answer questions, these different ways of trying to interpret one’s experience require methodologies that depend upon your background, your knowledge base, what it is you’re trying to achieve and so forth.
Sometimes physicists talk about belief, but not belief about God, but belief about physics concepts. For example, before 1963, people talked about quarks as whether or not they believed in quarks or not.
(Laughter) Well, one of the difficulties is that ninety percent of your communication with others, whether within a technical field or whether general public, is that you have to use many of the same words for entirely different situations, but they have different meaning. So, what we have gone from is do you believe in quarks to quarks exist, but they don’t exist as physical particles (for most people).
Quarks exist within the context of a certain framework and says that these things- I mean if you look at it as a mathematical theory, you know, if you postulate them, then there’ll be certain consequences that come out of it. And so, the belief is not so much in the physical existence of these things, but this is what is required in order to explain a certain aspect of a physical world within a methodology that you would select. It has to be mathematical, it has to, in some sense, have quantum mechanics. Later on, maybe general relativity and so forth.
So, belief is flexible, you know, let’s extend it. We talk about seeing things and people, let’s go back into the sixties, I think one of the earliest electron microscopes, one saw- that famous picture from IBM where they had a circle of, I think iron atoms, or some metal, now that is actually not seeing in the usual sense of the word. It is what you “see” as a representation of what you find when you carry out a certain experiment or use certain types of technology, and then you represent that in turn as a physical picture of what is “seen.” But that’s not actually what you would see at all, in the conventional sense.
It’s like my grandmother saw a ghost. I looked over there, I didn’t see a ghost. But there would be no way to convince her that she didn’t. And that’s fine. You know, I don’t have a problem with neither she nor I. So, you have interpretations. So, for example, in physics we talk about beauty or in mathematics, and say a theory should be beautiful. Doesn’t have to even be right, but if it is beautiful, it will almost always turn out to be right. But that’s certainly not the beauty that we mean when we see a person walk down the street, man or woman, and we say they’re good-looking or they’re beautiful. It’s a different kind of interpretation of the word ‘beauty,’ which in fact one cannot explain simply. It’s like pornography, you know it when you see it (laughter).
That’s right. Ron, let’s get back to the narrative of your career. I want to ask you-
That’s my career. I was living. If I had died, we wouldn’t be talking.
When you got to MIT, I wonder if you interpreted something about that in yourself that you had made it, that you were operating at the highest levels, MIT is as impressive as it gets. Were you thinking at all about, you know, how far you had come and where you might be headed? Did you think in those terms or was that a little too grandiose for you?
No, it wasn’t- it’s just something that didn’t- it never came up. Look, I had been reading biographies and autobiographies from about the age of eight or nine. You know about people from the earlier centuries, I knew which trajectory one had to go through in terms of a field like elementary or particle physics. You do your graduate work, you go do the best postdoc you can and then you try to get a position at quote unquote a ‘good’ university. But I didn’t think about it. It’s like riding a bicycle. When you first start learning to ride a bicycle, you think about what you do. After that, you don’t think about it anymore. It becomes incorporated in you. I didn’t think of it that way. If I had thought about it that way, then I would not have gone back to Fisk University. But I think going back to Fisk was probably the best thing for me to do because if I was, as I said yesterday, at a non-HBCU, it would have required me to get involved in a whole lot of peripheral things for which I had no direct interest in.
But I’m asking, you recognize that MIT was an elite place and you were accepted there as part of that.
Yeah. That’s how I understood it. Yes.
And what did you do? I know you were interested in Regge poles. What was your research when you got to MIT? What did you want accomplish there?
Well, my dissertation was centered on Regge poles and but mainly on Regge cuts. And I continued that. They had a relatively large theoretical group. I was in the Center for Theoretical Physics, but almost all of the professors at the Center for Theoretical Physics, I knew of their reputation and what they did before I got there, but mainly what I decided to do was related to the fact that I’m not interested in what they’re doing. I’m interested in what I’m doing. So, if you look at my record, I published a good number of papers while I was there, but they were mainly stuff that I was interested in. I was interested in the mathematics of Regge poles and Regge cuts and so I would go to the seminars and I was treated very well, but I concluded that my stuff was more interesting to me than other stuff.
And there were people there who were interested in my work. So, it was nice. I think the whole Theoretical Physics Center would have lunch together, and someone would be picked to discuss a topic in high energy, almost everybody in the Center was doing high energy physics, I gave two or three of those talks over a two-year period. Usually someone went to a conference, particular if it was a specialized conference. Then you would come back and you’d talk about-you’d summarize the highlights of the conference and on a couple of occasions, I got into intellectual disagreements with some people there at the Center.
I had no problem (laughter). One of the things I hate is someone to say, “Well, don’t you mean that,” “Well, hell, I’m here. I just told you what I mean. No, I don’t mean that” (laughter). I was at a seminar once, not at MIT, but somewhere else and someone asked me a question and then the person in charge got up and said, “Well, let me explain what Mickens meant by that.” I looked at him and said, “You cannot- did you hear what I said yesterday? Mickens is here. I will explain. You will explain what you think I meant, but I will explain exactly what I mean.” But it was all within, at least for myself, the context of intellectual back and forth.
Ron, coming from the south and this being the late 1960s and with the very troubled racial history in Boston, I’m curious if you learned new things about racial politics in America that you might not have ever thought about had you not gone to a place like Boston at that time?
The biggest change- I don’t think I learned very much, the biggest learning factor, if you want to call it that, was that generally, people in Boston were not friendly. One thing you have to say about the south is that people in general are friendly. I mean, you walk down the street and if you say good morning to someone, they’ll say good morning back.
Even if there’s racism underneath the surface there, they’re still going to say-
That’s right. Yes. They will speak to you. You go to a place like Boston, and Boston during that time was highly charged racially. I mean it was bad. That was a period- this is when I went back later as a visiting professor, and by the way, if I sometimes slur my words, I’m reacting I think to the weather outside and also to some medication that I’m taking, I was working with an experimental group. We ended up doing a paper together published in the journal Nuclear Physics but at night, taxis wouldn’t pick me up. I mean, I could be out there on a corner waving and they would not stop and so I either walked or once the person in charge of the seminar, the experimental group leader was informed of that situation, they’d usually arrange for someone to take me home, and this was- we’re talking about Cambridge, Massachusetts back in ‘68, ‘70, ‘71, and ‘72.
But there were other blacks who were at MIT who, again, I’m not going to give any names, I’ll let them tell their own stories, a couple of them are dead but one was Ronald McNair. As you know he was a karate expert, but when they practiced, they would engage in street battles almost every time they went to practice. But I didn’t learn it. I just learned that, you know, that the South, I would say ninety-nine percent of us faced some crisis situation at some point. It was clearly more open in how people talked right to you and so forth. I would go to parties in the Boston area, for example, and, you know, people would not believe that I was at MIT. So, I just started making up stuff. People loved lies and I would tell them that I was a VD hunter. But I had a friend who was involved in that and so I knew what they did. They loved those stories. I would make up stories on the spot, you know, but they couldn’t believe I was at MIT.
Across from the main entrance, 77 Mass, there used to be- I haven’t been there for a couple years, a little park, an area where people could sit in front of the coop and if I’d be sitting out there, whatever, and somebody would sit next to me. Usually it would be an older male. And they would sit maybe two or three feet away and they’d look over and eventually after about five, ten-minutes, they would say, “Where are you from?” What they meant was, “You could not be a black who was born in the United States.” And what I would do is I said, “Well, where do you think I’m from?” And they would always pick some country. Even India. Pick some country other than the United States. And my reply would be, “That is totally nice, I wish I had that ability to determine where someone is from, just by looking at them” (laughter).
I remember one time I was at a party and there were a few MIT people and others, and again we went through this whole thing like, “Well, what do you do?” “Well, would you believe I’m a theoretical physicist?” “No, no, tell me what it is you do.” “Okay, well I’m actually a VD hunter,” and I just happened to know somebody who was there, and I went into my thing and so about a half hour later, I ran into this woman again with a professor from MIT, and he says, “Oh, have you met Dr. so and so, you know, he’s one of our new postdocs.” “Oh,” she said, and she just turned red. I said my VD position is not paying enough. I need a job on the side. So, I mean, there were large areas of New England that were basically neutral. Often, I would rent a car and travel up to New Hampshire. But then you’d go to places where it was clear that they didn’t want you to be there. But I just took it in stride. As long as people don’t put their hands on me. I shouldn’t say I am in trouble if they put their hands on me, they’re in trouble.
In the summer of 1969, you went to Italy. That must have been an amazing experience for you.
Well, that was- again, yes and no. I mean, when I was at Fisk at the Infrared Institute as an undergraduate, I had met scientists from all over the world. So, just meeting people who were scientists and who lived in other countries was no big thing for me.
But this was the first time you had travelled outside the country, right?
Let’s see. Was that the first time? It might have been. No, no, no. That was not the first time. When I was nineteen years old, and a student at Fisk, I traveled to Germany to Berlin and I spent three or four months in Berlin. It turned out later that this was supported by the CIA. In any case, I was the only black person who was in the group. And that was the year that Martin Luther King and folks had the march on Washington because I remember exactly where I was when this happened I was in Paris at the time. So that was also my first plane flight. Took the bus to New York, flew Icelandic Airlines, you ever heard of it?
In those days, it was a four-prop plane that flew from LaGuardia to Gander, Newfoundland. It made two stops before it got to Europe. But I spent half my time in Berlin fixing up homes, remember, this is also during the time that the Berlin wall is going up. And since I was the only black in the group, and I was also the youngest person in the group, everyone else was in their twenties and thirties, I became the de factor Colored person to explain what other Colored people were thinking. I just made up stuff, you know (laughter). I got invited to a lot of activities over in East Germany. Remember that during that time, if you were in Berlin and wanted to get over to either East Berlin or East Germany, you had to go to a place like ‘checkpoint Charlie’ and blah, blah, blah. One of the first times I went to, it might have been the first time I went to East Berlin, I came up out of the subway. I took the subway and I came up and I saw this huge, like, ten-meter poster of a black person. You know who it was? Paul Robeson (black, African American bass-baritone and political activist).
And I don’t know how this- but I became connected with a scientist there, young scientist, about ten years older than I am. You know, they tend to get their PhD’s a little later. And we communicated for about twenty years. And, you know, I’d always get these statements from- he was sending materials and I’d always get statements with his materials, to me from the U.S. government, “Do you realize that you’re getting items from a communist government” and blah, blah. Yeah. So, I traveled around quite a bit representing U.S. Negroes and I got many invitations to travel to East Germany telling them about what is going on in the United States with regard to civil rights. It was actually very learning kind of situations because, you know, you meet people, many different types of personalities, many different motives of why they want you to come, generally to confirm what they already think they know about what’s going on. So that was my first trip to Europe. And then I traveled around Europe with someone for about a month. We traveled by train, you know in Europe you travel with trains. And so, we went from Berlin to Norway, and down the west coast, you know, Brussels, Paris. Returning to the USA, the plane actually took off from- what’s that little small country, it’s located between France- it’s a very small country. Luxembourg.
Yes. Or something like that. Yeah. And I was sitting in the airport and there were all these other students sitting. We were sitting on the floor, and it turned out that I met two people who knew people that I know. So, they’re like two degrees of separation. And I found this to be generally true, white, black, or otherwise that if you’re in the academy, it’s likely you will meet someone else in the academy, that you’ll have common friends. Yeah. And I’ve been back to Italy a number of times because in Trieste where they have the International Centre For Theoretical Physics, Salam, along with some black physicists, set up what was originally called the ‘Edward A. Bouchet Society’ to help bring black Africans to the United States and get their degrees in the United States. No, I’m sorry, to not get their degrees. Just to do the research and then go back to Africa. So, I have had two people over a period of five years who came to work with me. One got a PhD and the other one was a professor. And they both came from Benin, B-E-N-I-N, which is a separate country, and they speak French, but it’s the same ethnic group that is located adjacent to Benin in Nigeria. I didn’t realize it was two separate areas, I had a package that was sent to Nigeria when it should have been shipped to Benin, one was dominated by the French, the other dominated by the British (in the country Nigeria, Benin there is a state). So, you know, you go to these places and you interact. I had a good time; I mean I followed my principle of don’t be perturbed by everything. You will be perturbed by something, but don’t be perturbed by everything.
Ron, back at MIT, did you have any interactions with Shirley Ann Jackson?
Yes. And as I said, I would rather not talk about that. This is complicated.
You know, her husband was a Fisk student and he was there during part of the time when I was a professor, he was a physics major and Shirley Jackson one of the first people I met at MIT. This was 1968 when she had just graduated from MIT undergraduate and she entered the graduate program at MIT. And that first year, ‘68, she and other MIT students set up the Black Student Union and I was involved in that to a minor extent. So, the answer is yes. Very brilliant, very focused person. She’s now president of RPI.
Yeah. Ron, tell me a little bit about how the opportunity at Los Alamos came about for you. Were you looking to do something in a national lab type environment?
No. That was just a fluke. The first African American faculty member in physics at MIT was James Young, who by the way, was Shirley Jackson’s PhD advisor. And he was also Jim Gates’s PhD advisor, you’ve heard of Jim Gates, right?
Full disclosure, I’ve interviewed both Dr. Jackson and Dr. Gates, so I know them both well.
I would be surprised if each of them said very much about Jim Young or even about me, you know, which I find interesting. In any case, Jim, the second year I was there, Jim came and we became very good friends. He was born in Virginia, I’m from Virginia, but we just, I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen Jim or talked with Jim, we have sort of hit it off, with personalities that are perfectly matched for each other. He was one of the early blacks back in the 50s who got a Ph.D. from MIT. Master’s degree from Howard University. And he was at Los Alamos. And so he’s the one, he said, “Well, why don’t you just come out to Los Alamos?” I had heard about Los Alamos. Never been there. Why not? So, I was essentially his guest. I mean, I had, you know, visiting privileges and all that stuff. Library was interesting. The central part of it was in a situated place that was inside the security fence that they opened only a couple of hours a day. However, for anyone who works at a security place, you know there are no secrets.
Can’t walk on one side of a fence and people have parties, you know. But so, that’s how that happened, it was nothing that I thought about doing i.e. working at Los Alamos. And I clearly was not going to work at a place like Los Alamos, not because of the weaponry research and things of that nature, it’s isolated. It’s isolated. You been at Los Alamos?
No, I never have.
Well, think about it. What do you think is there? Nothing.
(Laughter) But it’s extremely beautiful. That area has become very polluted now. Yeah. Smoke and smog and stuff. But yeah. So that’s how I got there, Jim invited me out. I’ve talked to various people there. I think I gave a seminar. Jim and I would go walking every day. He liked to walk, and I liked to walk too, except Jim has legs that are about twice as long as mine, so I got more exercise than he did. So, there was no particular plans. I mean I had a very general knowledge of how governmental laboratories work because again, undergraduate student at Fisk, some of the people who came down as teachers to the Infrared Institute were from Oak Ridge and I had been to Oak Ridge when I was an undergraduate student and Fisk probably each year would take students up to Oak Ridge. So, I mean I had a general feeling about particular laboratories and their high degree of security, and have you been to Oak Ridge?
And again, you want to retire, go there and then you can pollute yourself with mercury poisoning. It was just- I did not put any long-term thinking into it, one way or the other.
That’s the theme.
Mainly what I wanted was to have as much freedom as possible. There’s been no place that I’ve been, for example, where I’ve asked before-hand for tenure. I was at Clark Atlanta ten-years before they discovered that I didn’t have tenure. And they found that out when the accreditation procedure was going down. I told them, “Do what you want.” It’s not likely that I am going to die, that I’m going to, you know, wither away or disappear. Man, I’d be here. So, when I left MIT there were certain things that I think I wanted to do and be involved back in Nashville, and in particular back at Fisk, but I didn’t think that long-term, you know, I would end up at some place like MIT or Berkeley. I wouldn’t want to be there. I was there at Fisk and Clark Atlanta University.
Look, physicists are interesting and mathematicians, they’re even more so- they’re interesting squared. If I were to, you know, plane wreck somewhere and had to select of one other person, I’d pick someone who was an artist. A lot of my friends, many of my close friends in Nashville are artists. Have you heard of David Driskell?
Okay. You heard of the High Museum here in Atlanta?
Okay. There is a lectureship that is named after him. He was Chair of the Art Department at Fisk University and he was one of the first early professors, he went from Fisk- this must have been back in the seventies, to the University of Maryland and he established an international reputation. So, there are several things at the High Museum that are named after him. There’s some kind of Institute, I think at the University of Maryland, with his name. So, he and I were friends. We lived 100 feet, 200 feet from each other in Nashville. When I was an undergraduate—what is his name? You saw my article on Imes, right?
The colored picture on the cover is by that artist. (Aaron Douglas).
Oh, and I should know him because he taught me. In any case- so I knew a lot of artists. Another Chair of the Art Department at Fisk, Earl Hooks. He and I had a number of interesting interactions. I know I’m using up my time, but I have to tell you this. Picture Earl. Earl is shorter than I am. I’m decreasing from 5’ 5” down to 5’ 4”. I’m shrinking. Earl is smaller than that. So, Earl probably weighed ninety pounds. And one night- well, he would wear outfits like- I call it the Mexican hats. You know these things about three or four feet with little bells and jingles on it and a raccoon coat from the 1930s or forties, with actually the hands and legs of a couple raccoons on it. So that shows you the kind of person that he was, so he called me one night, it was cold. I mean it was so cold in Nashville that the top layer of the water had totally froze. That also tells you something about the heat too.
So, he called me, and he says, “Ron, they’re out to get me.” “Well, stay where you are, I stated.” He says, “There’s someone standing across the street and they have a light and they’re shining it in my little window in my room and it goes all the way around the room.” And I thought, “That can’t be true.” So, then I became curious. So, I actually- there was ice on the ground. I generally crawled because you know, you couldn’t really walk. I mean, in the Fisk faculty, we live very close to each other. So, I went over to his house and he told me, “Don’t come to the front door. Come to the back door. And knock twice, then knock three times.” So, I get inside. I said, “Earl, let me have a taste,” you know what a taste is? You know, whiskey.
So, I sat there, and I looked out the window and he said, “Well, they’re stopped right now,” but he says, “wait, they’ll…” And while I was sitting there drinking cognac or whatever, I did see a light on the wall and the light went all the way around the room. And then instantaneously, I figured out what it was. He had a mobile with some reflections on it, and every time the heat came on, it rotated. And so, the lights, the reflections off of it, would go around the room. You understand what I mean?
I mean, I knew from the beginning that- since the light was going all the way around the room, it had to be something internal, but I just had to figure out what it was. Yeah.
Well, Ron, I think for my last question for today, now we’re finally getting into the spot where you’re starting to think about long-term academic appointments. So, I know already you’re going to tell me you’ve got no grand plan, you’ve got, you know, long-term view or anything like that, but still there are some questions that you’re going to have to answer, you know, in real-time about what your objectives were, what kind of career you wanted to pursue, and so let me know what you were thinking at the time and then how that opportunity at Fisk came along for you and how you decided to accept it.
You want me to answer that now?
Okay. Well, the thing is, no. I was a graduate of Fisk. I knew almost every professor who had been there longer than ten years. And so, I knew that I could always go back to Fisk. And I also knew that they would leave me alone. And that doesn’t mean that I would not be participating in community and various other kinds of activities, but they would not impose a lot of stuff on me in terms of academic issues. That’s why, for example, I never asked for tenure. It was not relevant. I eventually was fired from Fisk. That’s a different matter, so having tenure doesn’t necessarily help you. You still need a job.
So, I interacted very strongly with the students. I generally again taught no more than two classes per semester, which at a school like Fisk is a small academic teaching load, most people taught four courses. I had research grants to support my research, including travel and other things. And a few undergraduate students for research. Same thing at Clark Atlanta University. And I would, on a regular basis, go to Vanderbilt University and Wendall and I would sit around and he had interests like fishing. I have no interest in fishing. I went fishing when I was young. That’s one of the most boring things that you can do in the world. That must be one of those sins or one of those stations in purgatory. It’s not quite hell, but you’re close enough to it.
But he [Wendell] had become - he was professor, he became department chair then dean of arts and sciences, then dean of the graduate school, then provost and then president. Vandy has a system where the top person is called a Chancellor. In other words, the Chancellor has no interest in day to day running of institution. The only thing Chancellors do is raise money. So Wendall was, you know, in his last moments were, you know, he was basically the president of—well, that was his title. Yeah. But he became interested in quantum mechanics, and when he retired from that position, he actually spent I think a year, maybe a year and a half, at MIT trying to get back into the new physics. And he decided that it was just too much that had gone on in physics to get back into regular elementary particle research.
So, he became interested in quantum mechanics, the black hole of elderly physicists who can’t do regular physics anymore, and he became good at it. And so, he and I would sit down, and I would listen to him, you know, make presentation. You know the most famous problem in quantum mechanics is the double-slit problem. That’s what Feynman said. Well, it’s true not because Feynman said; it’s true because it’s true. Like always asking, “Is what Jesus said true because he said it or is it true because it’s true?”
And so, he and I, we’d look at all these elaborate things, such as if you had a double slit and you had another double slit, placed after the first and you look at what comes out of the second double slit, ect. People have analyzed these things now, in detail. What would be the output? How is it different from the classical situation? You know, most situations in quantum mechanics, you can do with optics if you need. For example, you have tunneling in classical optics so you can do an optical experiment. It’s a wave, any linear wave theory has an uncertainty principle. That’s just follow from the mathematical analysis. It has nothing to do per se with the physics of it, it’s a linear wave theory. Wave packages can be formed by use of an integral. You can do the mathematical analysis if you know the line.
So, we talked about what exactly- well, could you change the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics? And how would that affect things like superposition. So, you know, my time at Fisk was nice. I taught courses including a course in astrology. The idea was if I give people knowledge and an understanding of how that knowledge was acquired, that their view, their belief in astrology would decrease. It had exactly the opposite effect (laughter). I started out with twenty-three students, half believed, half didn’t believe. However, in spite of all the stuff I presented, most had a firmer basis, for themselves, at the end of the course, to believe that planets influence human behavior. At Fisk, we had a group of people who would meet twice a month and the person who organized the particular meeting would pick the topic. We started off with about twenty, but it got down consistently to about ten people. And the topics were all over the spectrum, from sociology to physics to chemistry to theory of art. So, it was all over the place. So, it was a very good, it was a very good experience.
Fisk also had, once a year, the weeklong Annual Arts Program and Fisk brought in many people that none of the whites in the city of Nashville would be able to see in the city because they wouldn’t have been invited. So those were very productive activities and were well attended. And I was sort of peripherally involved in the Infrared Institute and I’d go back and see some old friends that I worked with since I mean, I was a student, they were now professors. You know, it just fifteen, twenty years later and many had retired but they would show up. So overall, it was a- and again, remember during this period we’re talking about the seventies, there’s still a lot of unrest with regard to civil rights matters in Nashville. Black power movement. The school almost closed over that. So, there were a lot of interesting things that were going on.
Ron, was part of the motivation to go back to Fisk that you would look at this as an opportunity to give back?
I thought you might say that, but I wanted to ask anyway.
Well see, I don’t understand this whole notion of giving back. If you are a responsible person, those are the kinds of activities that you would normally do. You don’t have to tell somebody that you’re giving back. You’re just interacting with your community, so you’re not giving anything back. You know, the purpose of anything is to train people, to educate people such that that community, if it’s a worthwhile community, is worthwhile. So, this whole thing of I’m going to give back, well go ahead. I never use that term.
Well Ron, on that note, we can pick this up again next week and absent giving back, I know that you, regardless of whether or not you like that term, you certainly did give a tremendous amount, whatever the motivations were, so we’ll start back up with that next week.
[End Session 3]
[Begin Session 4]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 10th, 2020. I am so happy to be back with Professor Ron Mickens. Ron, thank you so much for joining me this morning.
All right. So, to start today, let’s go back to the summer of 1972 when you were a visiting professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, otherwise known as SLAC at Stanford. How did that come together for you?
Well, as you and many other people know, SLAC was one of the world centers for elementary particle physics and I had been dabbling with my version of elementary particle physics. And so just talking with Jim Young and similar other people at MIT, the idea came up that maybe I should go visit SLAC.
Now, did Jim have a connection with SLAC?
The elementary particle community, particularly at the level of theoretician, is relatively small so that you implicitly have connections with places like CERN, Fermilab, you know, right outside of Chicago and SLAC. Yes. So, I don’t think he had a formal relationship, but particle physicists would typically just travel around the world if, you know, near some place they’ll drop in. Almost certainly, they have friends or colleagues or former students who are at the place. I didn’t have any students there, but I knew a number of the theoreticians who were publishing in my area of research.
Now, was this your first time working with an accelerator that big?
Well, it depends on what you mean by working. My stay there, and most of the theoreticians, you actually don’t do anything with the actual accelerator. That’s why it works. They don’t want you to do anything with it. And so other than taking a tour, I think the first week that I was there, I didn’t see the accelerator at all because as you know, they has the linear accelerator and it looks very impressive from the air, but that’s about it. You really don’t need to know the details, in general, of how it works. So, most of my interaction were with other theorists. Usually what happened is- I mean, I didn’t go with a formal program. You walk down the hall and you see someone and see a name that you know and you pop your head in and they’ll either talk with you or not but everyone has a general idea of what everyone else is doing.
Right. Who were you working with at SLAC? What group were you involved in?
I was not working, just like when I was at MIT, I didn’t work with any particular group. I don’t work well with other people. And that’s because they’re working on important problems and I’m working on important problems and my strategy is looking at things differently than other people. For example, at MIT, there was a large group there that were working on, it eventually became known as the (Gabriele) Veneziano Model and for a while Veneziano and I were officemates.
Yes. And as you know, the Veneziano Model was in some sense the great, great grandfather of what we now call string models.
Because out of the Veneziano Model, one interpretation, loosely, is that it describes strings. Yeah. So, I would attend seminars. I would talk to people. Keep in mind that during that time, most of what I was interested in in terms of elementary particle physics was constructing and proving very mathematical theorems on scattering of two hadrons at large energies that in some sense I determined later on they had nothing to do with actual then current experiments. Last time I talked about Pomeranchuk Theorems- what happens when you have a particle and an anti-particle scattering off the same target, let’s say like a proton, at extreme energies. The accelerator at SLAC was dealing mainly with what happens when you collide an electron and a positron? Which for elementary particle physics in some sense is much different than pion proton scattering.
What were some of the bigger theoretical research questions you were involved in during this time?
Well, I was interested in an object that was called the Pomeron, named in part after Pomeranchuk, Russian physicist. And this was supposed to be a hypothetical particle, and but it may not actually exist as a particle per se, it might be some kind of collected motion of the internal structure of the particle, but it played a dominant role in the elastic scattering, so called diffracting events. And my idea, or at least what I was concerned with that first summer, I believe, was what happened when you had pomerons interacting with each other. So, think of a starfish with only three limbs. And so that was so-called three pomeron vertex. And so, I had arrived at a result, which I never published, and I should have, on that coupling and how it affected scattering at high energies. So that was it.
What was some of the things that you learned from your time at SLAC?
Well, let me clarify one thing. In addition to going out there just as a researcher, I was also involved in a summer research program for mainly undergraduate students. I gave a series of lectures. And my lectures were, I believe, very general. Not only did they deal with elementary particle physics, they dealt with nonlinear oscillations and things of that nature. I wouldn’t say that I learnt so much or gained a lot of extra knowledge from being there, but you know, science is a social activity. And so getting to know people, understanding better their research by having them explain it to you, explaining what you’re doing to other people, that’s progress in a very general sense without having to conclude that specific knowledge has to come out. The knowledge that you gain from understanding what other people are doing and vice versa is the important thing.
Now, you went back to MIT the following year as a visiting professor.
What was the motivation there?
Well, beginning in 1969, there were a group of faculty and graduate students and postdocs at MIT who sent a proposal in, I think it was to the Department of Education, and I think the lead author on that proposal was Earle L. Loman of the Physics Department at MIT. And that was the program that brought Ron McNair, for example, to MIT. The idea was the following; set up a program that would bring physics majors, or at least science majors, from a relatively small number of historically black colleges and universities, give them, for one year, the MIT experience, and then tell them, “okay, is this what you like?” If someone had done well during that year, then they would be incorporated, they could apply to the graduate program.
And I think the numbers varied from about ten students to about twenty students. I don’t remember exactly. Roughly forty percent of those students ended up staying at MIT and getting PhDs. The other students, the ones who returned back and for which the graduate program, that is the PhD program was not to their liking, they generally ended up with master’s degrees. And so the year that they were there, the courses that they took were regular MIT classes and as I said, one of these students who was in their program, in fact, I was one of the people who recruited him, was Ron McNair.
So, the schools that were involved were Fisk, I was at Fisk, Norfolk State, Virginia State, it was called Virginia State College then at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, Hampton, Alabama A&M. So, there was seven- I don’t know whether I missed any or not. And so, students would come up. The students enjoyed it. I mean, one, because of the MIT name, but when the proposal was being written, one of these things that we specified was that if it were to succeed, then there need to be a minimal number of students, a critical mass, who would need to be accepted into the program if it were to succeed. And there were three or four faculty at MIT who were very enthusiastic about the program and there were outside people who were involved, people like me, Carl Spight and Howard Foster, and other folks and I think that’s why the program succeeded for about ten or fifteen years, when after the moneys went out, I think MIT got the impression that there were these African American students out there who could succeed in their PhD program.
But we taught the kids skills like, “Look, you see all these people sitting over there that don’t look like you? They have things that you can do. For example, some of the groups there have all the qualifying exams that had been given for like twenty, thirty years. They had file cabinets.” And so, we talked to them, “Well, we can get you a file cabinet. You go to get your exams.” We taught them how to study effectively. There was a lot of social interacting. MIT, in a formal sense, I don’t think had a sports team, but they had those, what do you call them, pseudo teams that people could play. Not varsity teams, but there’s another name for it. You don’t have a formal, any case, they formed a basketball team, I think maybe a tag football team. So, we fostered a sense of community and a sense of helping other people. If you don’t know something, that doesn’t mean that there are not others in your group who may know it, but you have to approach them. You can’t do- often in the black community, we have this Superman complex. You gotta do it all. If you don’t do it yourself, well, the way MIT and many graduate schools and undergraduate schools are set up, if you can’t do it, if you’re taking a course let’s say in E and M at the undergraduate level and you get twenty homework problems and you’re taking another course, you can’t do that.
And in a real sense, those courses are set up to force you to interact with other people. If you’re given fifty homework problems in different subjects on Monday and you have to turn them in on Friday, there’s no way you can do it, but you can do it through the mechanism of group studies, however, you have to contribute something. You can’t go in and say, “Well, I can’t work this, and I can’t work that, I can’t work that.” But even if you cannot work it, through just talking and communicating with people, you will find that the group as a whole can work it. And you learn from it.
Now, only two years later, you go back to another lab, LBL, Berkeley Lab. What were your motivations there?
That was not a very good experience. SLAC, from my perspective, operated more like a university. When I was at SLAC, it was just like being at MIT or even at Fisk. You know, you walk down the hall and you- Berkeley was much colder, at least I had the impression that it was much colder. Colder in the sense of social, well, the social effects that come from having a community. And it may just be because Berkeley was attached to a university that had been around for a long time and they’d been doing research, they were involved in the Manhattan Project and so forth.
So, that summer, in a real sense, was a waste of time. Berkeley did have a good friend of mine, an African American physicist by the name of Harry Morrison. I think he went there in- not at the university, but the lab, in 1957 and then he became a professor early in the sixties. So, he was very well-known theorist. There was another colleague of mine right down the road at Hayward State University of California. And so, I spent much of my time at a place called Solomon Grundy’s, which is right down the street, down from the university on the bay. And we would go there typically about 12 o’clock and stay ‘til about 4 or 5 o’clock, just sitting, doing physics, eating, drinking wine. Sometimes other people from the laboratory would come by. So, it was a very nice, relaxed setting. And not only would we talk about physics, we’d talk about various other issues. So that was good. But the lab in and of itself was not for me a good place to be. I think another reason why it was not as enjoyable as it might have been is that SLAC is an elementary particle laboratory and things that were going on in Livermore, the energies were much lower and people there—since they were associated with a federal laboratory and while they don’t necessarily do nuclear weapons research, they do have ties to Livermore and places like that. It’s a different group of people. I think the faculty and staff, on average, were much older at Berkeley than they were at SLAC.
And another thing to compare is your time at CERN the following summer.
Well, I had a good friend who was at CERN at the time. And I never had been there. And so, in a real sense, I was just a walk on. I went there and listened to the seminars and talked with various people, became close friends with a husband and wife team who were theoreticians who were there. I don’t even remember their names now. I mean, I could find out their names. And we spent lots of time talking physics and talking, discussing the political situation in the United States and in Europe. Those were turbulent times. I would go on various picnics and outings with members of the theory group at CERN. So that was productive. Again, primarily, I had my work which was involved with high energy scattering from a theoretical point of view and my friends and others. Yeah so it turned out, you know great, with walking in the mountains, dinners out in France, etc. There’s something to be said for having discussions walking in the mountains. I’m not going to say it, but I’ll- it’s dangerous out there. Even in the summertime. You look at places like Le Bouche or Le Zeus, I mean, it’s far out there in the summertime. So, it was fun.
And how was life for you, Ron, just as a professor in generally at this time? Teaching, doing physics, are these good years for you? Is this an exciting time?
Yes. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I think one of the plurals of being a professor is that you can do a comedy routine. That’s really what it is. Personally, I’ve never gotten very much out of attending class. When I was at Vanderbilt University, most of my graduate classes were reading classes. So, in mechanics, the standard textbook was Goldstein, but I used the book by L.D. Landau and E. M. Lifshitz, Classical Theory of Fields, which is an entirely different kind of book. So, I enjoyed teaching at Fisk and that continued through to the time that I spent here at Clark Atlanta University. Normally when I teach, I very seldom teach directly what is in the syllabus. My purpose, I tell my students, I am not your teacher because what you mean by teacher is someone to tell you what’s already written in the book and if I don’t say this to you, if I don’t tell you that, then you will say, “It shouldn’t be on the exam.”
My goal is to guide you. I said, “You will notice that I have done you a favor. I have gotten a textbook that is written in English. Bam, you live in an English-speaking country, so you ought to be able to read it. So, why should I repeat? Now you can come to me if you’re having difficulties, but your difficulties should not be of the form, ‘I just didn’t know where to start.’ That doesn’t make sense.” I said, “You do know where to start. You know that one plus one is two, so start there? But anyway, you know that. Start there. Start with something you know to be true. And you’d be surprised how that textbook will help you because you do have to know something and if it’s written down, in particular if it’s in a textbook, that means that thousands of other people also know this and there’s no reason why you can’t know it. So, my task is to use my experience to guide you to consider topics that are not in the book. So, for example, are there physical systems that have finite time dynamics? I talk about this in general physics, okay? That is, you start something, and it ends in a finite time.” And so we go into a discussion in more detail. “What do you mean by finite time dynamics?” I said, “Let me give you an example. If you take a football or a baseball and you throw it up into the air, it lands on the ground in a finite time. If you take a bottle and drill a hole near the bottom and put a liquid in it, the flow stops in a finite time.” One of the characteristics of these things, it turns out that there is an underlying dynamic for all of these things because they’re both, you know, the water coming out of the bottle or the can and the projectile essentially have the same explanation. And we go from there to discuss- well, we’re in general physics, one of the formulas that people use is Newton’s law of cooling. Are you familiar with it?
It basically says suppose you have an object and you place it in an environment at a different temperature. How fast will that object cool off? And it’s usually modeled in terms of an exponential function. T is the temperature of the object and the derivative of “T” is equal the difference between the temperature of the object and the atmosphere. So, you can solve that, it’s a linear differential equation. And then what I go on to explain is that that can’t be true. Can’t be the entire story because, you know, the solution takes forever to reach the atmospheric temperature, while the data says it should do so in a finite time. Then the question is usually, “Well, why did they put it in the book?” “Because they can solve the equation.” Most of the problems that you get in physics classes are there because they can be solved.
But I said can we come up with something that is better? You know, this morning I had a cup of tea. It didn’t take an infinite length of time to heat that water up to the temperature I wanted.
I hope not.
It’s a finite time. So, what that means is that Newton’s law of cooling is not correct. It is convenient and it has many of the properties of the actual system, but it doesn’t have the critical feature of finite time. So that D big T D T equals a proportional and linear function is not correct. Well, okay. Let’s look at some nonlinear functions. And we go through- I spent a whole lecture, about an hour and a half on this, and what you find is that you want the derivative to be proportional to a fractional power, less than one in magnitude. And that gives you finite time. See, here, this allows you to use some of your knowledge of calculus. Just solve the equation. Let it be T to some power P and look at various equations. When P is 1, that’s the Newton formulation equation. Solve. So that breaks things up. Try it for, you know, P has to be positive and try it for P between 0 and 1 and get finite dynamics. If you put P greater than 1, you don’t get finite dynamics. And so that’s how I try to do it. And some of the other professors would say, “Mickens, you’re not teaching them what’s in the book.” I said, “Damn, we gotta give you a Nobel Prize” (laughter). So, I enjoy teaching because I look at it as a learning process for me. Sometimes- and I tell students every day, “Learning is going to take place in this class. And I assure you this will occur because I’m at least one person who’s going to get something out of it. I hope that you join me in this journey, but if not, bye. See you” (laughter).
Right. Ron, did you enjoy your summers at Aspen at the Research Institute there?
Yes. Are you familiar with the Aspen Institute?
You know, basically you go there for chunks of three weeks or six weeks or whatever and there’s nothing for you to do formally. You can do whatever you want. You get in a room—the first time I went there, it was a building about a mile from where I lived. The office was like three feet by three feet, I mean it was small. It was very small. And that was the office that—basically the same size that many other people had. But I spent that first summer writing my first book. I wrote a complete book in six weeks. The first three weeks, I would get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and essentially work through to 6 p.m. 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wouldn’t shower or anything. And then at night, I would go out and party and enjoy from about 6 o’clock until about 9 or 10 p.m. And I’d never taken more than a couple of months to write any of my books. As I tell people, “Look. I do detailed outlines. Before I write a book, I may have as many as thirty to fifty pages outlined on what’s going into each chapter. So, I know exactly what I want to write about. And I understand what I’m writing about. Now you may say I don’t understand, okay, no problem, but I’m the one that’s doing the writing.” And the other thing is I never do a second draft. Someone said, “Well, your books read like that.” And I said, “Well that’s good, that’s exactly what I intended, yeah.”
So, my primary activity that summer, I was in a condominium that had five bedrooms and it spanned three different levels. The first level’s where- it was designed for people who are skiing, so the first level is where you go in and take your skis off and all that entails, then the next level was the living room, the kitchen and dining room. And then above that was like a balcony with the bedrooms. So, I was there by myself working. So, it worked out extremely well. So, I went there to get work done. And I spent very little time in the office because as I said, you know, Aspen is a good place to go if you bring a group with you or five people to work on a problem, but you don’t have to. Most weekends I walked up mountains behind Aspen. I took, one time, the ski lift up and people talk about you’re so high up, people look like ants. Hell no, they didn’t look like ants, they look like someone who are small because of the distance. And I said, “Let me get off of this.” And I met- do you know Homer Neal?
Okay. Homer Neal was an African American physicist, elementary particle experimentalist at the University of Michigan. He was professor, chair of the department at different times, the dean of the graduate school. He went for a while to Stony Brook I think as Provost. But I met him in his early days. He was there with his family and they lived right down the street from me. I mean we only talked twice because he was up there, I don’t know whether he was vacationing or whether he had a group meeting out there or whatever, you know, small group meeting. Because he was focused and- so, we became friends for a long time after that. But I think in recent years, he was President of the American Physical Society. Yeah. Very nice fellow.
You took a sabbatical at Morehouse in 1978, I’m curious what that experience was like.
And I spent almost no time at Morehouse. Let me give you a little background. The president of Fisk University and myself were in daily combat. I considered him to be one of the most unethical people that I’ve ever met in my life. And so, we had daily battles. So, I said, “I need to get away from this.” And so, I decided- I was invited by the chair or Morehouse College to come down, but I actually spent most of my time at Atlanta University, which eventually became Clark Atlanta University. And Atlanta University did not have a physics department. They offered graduate degrees. They had Ph.D.’s in most of the sciences, except for physics. They didn’t have a physics department. And so one of the things I did do, and I was asked to do- when they had received I think a twenty-one-million dollar grant or some large amount of money to enhance their graduate programs, and the committee that looked at the school and the graduate program said, “How can you have a PhD in chemistry, a PhD in biology and so forth, without some graduate degree in physics?” And so, I spent a large amount of my time setting that program up. And that includes, if you don’t have a program, that includes determining which courses are going to be taught, their level, which textbooks, and you suggest the textbooks to use. Hiring faculty. I mean there was absolutely no one there in physics because there was no physics. And so that took a large amount of my time, but I was also continuing my research involving Regge theory and so forth. Overall, that experience was nice. I got a chance to meet a few people at Georgia Tech and at Georgia State. In the Atlanta University Centre, which is comprised of Morehouse, Spelman, Clark College, Atlanta University, Morris Brown, and ITC, which is school of religion, all those are separate schools.
There was a group of us, just like there was in Nashville, we met once a month and just like in Nashville, whoever set up the meeting would determine what the topic was- and the topic ranged all over the spectrum. From physics to theology to- we would discuss things like various theories of Franz Fanon are you familiar with him? Anyway, he’s French West Indian and wrote, The Wretched of the Earth. Walter Rodney who was Caribbean, he was assassinated, who wrote, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So, it was a very dynamic group. Lots of times we left the meeting totally mad at each other, but that’s good, but we got back together. We had disagreements, but they were not of such an intense nature that we couldn’t come back together and discuss other topics. So, the overall experience was good. I went back to Fisk, well, I had decided at that point that I could not long-term be at Fisk. So, I believe I went back for one year, then what did I do? I got a- I think it was a Ford Postdoctoral Fellow and I spent that in Nashville but at the Vanderbilt University and again, in my quest not to go back formally on the Fisk campus, I then got another fellowship for the following year at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado. And I spent a year out there.
Ron, when you made this decision that you couldn’t be at Fisk long-term, was this a long time coming or did you come to this decision rather quickly?
It came relatively quickly because I had thought that I was going to be there forever, just like I thought I would be teaching forever and now I’m retired. It doesn’t take me long to make a decision and I can change my mind.
Where, at Fisk?
When you decided you couldn’t be there long-term?
Oh, I started looking around for other places and that’s how I got the fellowship at Vanderbilt.
But why? What was the motivation? You must have wanted to leave for some particular reason?
Oh, the president and I just didn’t get along. I don’t want to go into all the details of it, but he was a bully. I mean, that’s how I would judge him. And people don’t realize that oftentimes, when one is selected to be president at an institution, another institution may be trying to get rid of that person. Fisk was going through financial difficulties at that time and this person was at Harvard University and Harvard did not like this person. As it turned out, there was someone, I believe, from Harvard University who was on the board at Fisk. Fisk needed a president, you see how that goes. “Oh, we got the perfect person and this person is at Harvard” (laughter).
And so, one of the first things that came up was- I mean I’m not for most people, he wanted to be called ‘doctor.’ His degree was in law. So, we went through about a week’s battle, I actually called up to the Harvard Law School and said, “Well, what is the title that you call for these various degrees? Is it “Dr,” you know, that kind of stuff. So, I was completely always in his face at first. But it’s really more complicated, but I’m just giving you some of the trivial things. Fisk was my undergraduate institution, [and] I just didn’t like the way the institution was being treated and being run.
Ron, when you thought about leaving Fisk, what options were available to you? Did you want to stay in academia? Did you think about joining a national lab like a SLAC? What were you thinking?
Well, no. I mean, there was no consideration of anything other than a university. Anything else could be just short-term, you know, like going up to JILA, Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, you know, that’s run by the, at the time, still is I think, it’s a government facility, but it’s also run jointly with the University of Colorado.
Did you specifically want to stay with a historically black college or not necessarily?
Not necessarily because when I was at JILA, I was looking around for positions, but all of those looking around were at colleges and universities. I mean, I interviewed for a couple of places up in the New England area. I said, “Damn, it’s just too cold here.” And I went there in the wintertime and said, “This is not for me.” As it turned out, the main reason for coming to Atlanta was that my son became very ill. Very, very ill. And as it turned out, there were only two places in the country, I was lucky, only two places in the country who were carrying out full scale investigations of this condition. One of them happened to be the Medical School of the University of Colorado, and the other one happened to be Atlanta, Emory University. So, as you can see, you keep asking- a lot of things just sort of, you know, you think about it, and that’s something that you don’t plan.
Even if you try to have a grand plan, life gets in the way sometimes.
I discovered that Atlanta’s actually a nice city. One advantage of Atlanta is that after Delta kicked out Eastern Airlines and became dominant, you know from Atlanta, you can fly almost anywhere direct. Almost anywhere. Major cities. You can fly to Rome, you can fly to South Africa. Depending on the winds, you might have to make a stop. You can fly to Norway. It’s all kinds of places. When I was in Colorado, every trip was a major trip. You know, it takes a couple of hours to fly from Colorado out to the west coast.
Think about traveling to the East Coast from Denver. You know, you essentially [have] really late-night flights or let’s say even if you leave 6 o’clock in the morning, that’s 9 o’clock on the east coast. It takes about four or five hours to get there. So that’s essentially, unless you have a 4 p.m. meeting, you can’t make it there. And I was doing a lot of traveling. One interesting thing that you may or may not know is that in order to fly, and I think the route’s still to what was called Washington National Airport from Denver, Colorado, there’s some rule and the rule was like you cannot land at National if your flight is less than 700 miles. So, what many of the airlines would do is they would make an intermediate stop, see, like fly from Denver into, I don’t know, St. Louis or some place, I don’t know. And then that distance from Washington allows you to fly directly into National as opposed to going into- what’s the other? Dulles. Yeah. Dulles during those times was horrible to fly into if you were going into Washington, DC. This would not be a good idea especially landing late at night. Yeah.
So, Atlanta became the easy choice for you?
Well, given the boundary conditions, it wasn’t a choice. It was, could I figure out a way of getting there? And I just happened to know a lot of people in the Atlanta University Center. In fact, two or three of the people at Atlanta University were, they got their degrees from MIT. And so, I knew them when they were students. And so, I had set up the physics department and by that time, I mean they had like twenty something students, but the person in charge was not a physicist and the two people that were initially hired eventually left. And so, the department had degenerated down into just one person, who was a theoretician, but not in physics. They had twenty-one graduate students. And so, my tasks when I got back to Atlanta University was to hire additional faculty, and at some point, several years later we got up to twenty-one people in the department.
Oh, wow. That’s rapid growth right there.
The government, at that time, wanted to basically- I mean my interpretation is that they wanted to pick a HBCU school that had a strong science program and put money in and see what happened. And so, it was very rapid. Yeah. So, within about a two- or three-year period, we cleared out those students and many of them went on to get PhDs in other places and in fields other than physics. And so, it was dynamic. It was exciting. It was stressful in some sense. You know, because we had people from all over the world in terms of faculty, including the United States. And Atlanta University is a small place, both physically, so when you get everybody together, the attitude, “Can’t we all just live together?” (laughter) doesn’t work. Yeah. So, I eventually resigned. I didn’t stay there. My task was to set things up and what I told the Provost was that, “There are people who say that they can do better than I and I agree” (laughter).
What was your next move after you resigned? What did you want to do then?
Oh, I just, classes were set up, since we were only a graduate program, classes were set up only on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we were only a master’s program. And so you know for a master’s thesis, for the first year there’s a standard set of courses you take, you know, it was quantum mechanics, there’s electrodynamics, there’s the classical mechanics, you know, Goldstein and mathematical physics. Those are the four core courses. And then for the summer and mainly the second year, we had courses like solid state physics. During that period where we had a large number of faculty, we had three or four people who were in the atmospheric sciences with PhDs in things like climate modelling and so forth.
So, we had a diverse set of Faculty and I also set up informally connections to other nearby universities. You do not want to have formal relationships with other universities. We set up an informal relationship with Georgia Tech where our students could go over and take courses there and get credit with Atlanta University, we had to pay for it. But Georgia Tech was cheaper anyway. And their faculty and our faculty could serve as thesis advisors. I mean I had one young lady from Jamaica who did a joint research project with Georgia Tech and Atlanta University in geology. The interstate was being constructed between Atlanta and Birmingham, and you know how every day they’ll set off dynamite? Well, Georgia Tech has these seismographs and so forth, and from that data she could measure the thickness of the earth’s crust. And that was interesting. I learned a lot about geophysics. She later returned to Jamaica. You know, Jamaica is basically-what you see, the island, that’s the top of a, Volcano that hasn’t been active for a very long time. She eventually went to Norway and got a PhD. And in later years, she ended up working for the UN, some agency in Vienna. So overall, I think the program was very successful. Yeah.
In what ways over these years, you know, in the 1970s, of course, this was a fundamental time for discovery in theoretical particle physics. Did you feel like that was a period-in-time that was coming to an end, looking back?
Well, you know, all one has to do is to look at the politics. I mean, what was happening? We had the Vietnam War going or winding down. You had the feeling, I think, in the general public that scientists, you know, there was this big so-called overflow of new scientists who couldn’t find jobs and things like that. So that led to a lot of conflict, even within the academy itself. I know at a number of schools that I was associated with, either directly or indirectly, there was conflict between let’s say the humanities faculty and science faculty. You know, the humanities in general felt that they were getting no money. They had big classes, you know, teaching four or five classes per semester. And in the sciences, like at AU, I purposely put a restriction that everyone had to teach and what the basic course load would be- there are places where you can teach one, but two courses at a place like CAU is not that significant. It allows you to interact with the students. During the period of which I was a chair, at least once a month I would invite the whole physics faculty over, and other people, and we’d have barbecues, cookouts in my backyard. I mean I only lived about a five-minute walk from campus, so that was easy to do. And that included faculty, graduate students, and whoever wanted to come. If we run out of food, you got two choices. Not eat or go somewhere and get something to eat and come back (laughter).
Now, Ron, how were you able to grow the graduate department during those years? What were your objectives there? Did you want to produce PhDs?
Well, we couldn’t produce PhDs. You mean eventually?
The answer is yes. We wanted to- there’s always been the issue of lack of minorities and women. In the beginning, you know, and even in recent years, I would say roughly forty to sixty percent of our students have been women. So that was one of the goals that we had in mind. And I think during that period, we succeeded, given the resources that we had. Yeah. And as I said, many of them did go on to get PhDs. Currently, many of our graduate students get PhD’s in chemistry and the main reason for that is that we have a PhD program in chemistry at CAU. So, they would come into our program, and they do quite well because they have computational skills, they have skills in terms of mathematics. And so, they don’t go into laboratory chemistry, they go into the more theoretical parts of chemistry, like calculating the structure of Buckyballs, when other elements, like Florine, are substituted for hydrogen.
What happens if you take the hydrogens and you replace them by fluorine or by chlorine? And we have people in both physics and chemistry who have that expertise and we have access to computers at Oak Ridge and I haven’t been involved in that, probably just DOE labs, and we have a little supercomputer of some kind on campus.
Ron, the question of under-representation in the field, in what ways is it important for historically black colleges to offer a PhD as opposed to just encouraging undergraduates at those kinds of schools to go to a place like MIT, for example? What are some of the advantages and pitfalls in conceptualizing a PhD program with those things in mind?
Well, first, I don’t think every historically black college and university should do it because they don’t have the faculty. I mean, if you’re going to have a PhD program, I would guess that you need at least three or four separate topics, which means that you’re going to need a faculty of somewhere between eight and fifteen-minimum. Now, with cooperation with federal labs and other places, those numbers don’t have to be that large but that’s not likely. PhDs are very expensive compared to other programs, but in general, one argument that’s made is that when you’re at a place like Clark Atlanta University, you see people that look like you. But hell, you can get up in the morning and look in the mirror. You’ll not only see somebody that looks like you, it is you (laughter).
So, I don’t buy into this whole thing that- I mean, my generation, and you look at the generation of people like Henry McBay back in the forties at the University of Chicago and J. Ernest Wilkins, their idea was that we will succeed wherever we go. And they did. And so, they went there with positive attitude, knowing that they’re gonna catch hell sometimes from circumstances beyond their control. And when you go to the big meetings, the American Physical Society meetings or meetings in mathematics or- I don’t go to chemistry meetings, or biology, you know, half the people there, maybe more, are from other countries and cultures, so you must be able to do well and compete whenever you go.
And so, what you have to do, and I tried to do that when I was chair, you bring in a diversity of people. And my attitude- and I tell the graduate students, “Look, why do you have to have somebody like you? I’m willing to bet you you’ve got some people back home in your family that don’t like you. What you need is being able to understand their position and make it clear what your position is and come to some agreement about how you can co-exist for the betterment of both, in spite of the fact.” I said, “One way of looking at it is that this is purely an evolutionary kind of situation.”
They tell you in the bible someday the lions and the sheep will lie down together, what you’re going to get the next morning is a pile of lamb bones. That’s what you’re going to get (laughter). I mean it’s a good thing, but is that lion going to eat—if not you—what is he going to eat? So, we always had diversity in the physics department, both faculty and students. The last three or four years, maybe last five years, we’ve had a large number of students, like as many as fourteen at one time come from Saudi Arabia in physics. About half men and half women. And it’s interesting to see the dynamics. So, the first day I walked in class, all the men are on one side, all the women are on the other side (laughter). So, I went there and said, “Gosh, I mean, I’m missing it.” I said, “We’re not gonna allow this.” I said, “What I’m going to do is to assign your seats.” I said, “You’re not at home. You’re here.” I said, “If I come to your place, you can restrict me. All that means is I’m not coming to your place.” And it actually, it’s interesting how in about two or three minutes, how things, they had never done it otherwise, you know. And the females were actually better than the men, on average. In terms of their academic background and performance.
You have to remember that in countries like that, they don’t have access to equipment the way we do. And so, they are generally very well-trained in mathematics and so that worked well because the course that I was teaching them was mathematical physics. Yeah. I mean there were a few awkward moments. Now, many of the women, you know, there were various groups. Some of the women wear, I call the masks, but you know there’s a name for it, and you know, you’re not supposed to touch it. I was at a ceremony once Phi Kappa Phi and I was shaking hands. And so, what the women do when they come up, they do something like this, and it took me about two students to figure out what was going on. Wouldn’t shake my hand, took me by surprise, they put one hand over their hearts.
But it’s a great learning thing. I had to stop some practices, and these are mainly with some of the Saudi students, I would take my graduate students, roughly every three weeks, as a group out for lunch. The ones who- when the class was small, let’s say ten students or less, to a meal. And I don’t know if it was stipulated in their religion or whatever, but unmarried women would not attend these events by herself. And so, what I said was, “Okay, if not everyone can go, nobody can go.” So, we finally because I wanted the students to understand, and I say this to all my students, that science is a social activity. You have to talk with people. You have to explain what you’re doing. They have to explain their understanding of what you’re doing. You write papers. Your colleagues are gonna be evaluating your research, manuscripts. They’re going to be evaluating your research proposals. And so, this is the time to start the practice of science socializing.
One exercise that I would give particular with the undergraduate students who were in my classes was to have them to write to the author, you know, of some paper that might be of interest to the student and myself. I’d have them to write to the professor and by writing nowadays we mean email, and put, “Dear professor so and so,” but then at the end, put your name like I would, if it were me, I’d put Ron and then Mickens.” I said see what happens. And about ninety percent of the cases, what the professor would do is they wouldn’t use professor. They would do the same thing. You know, when you’re talking with someone and you always are calling them Professor and you always call them Doctor and they’re calling you by your first name, there is a power imbalance there. We need to get rid of that. You meet somebody and they say- and I’ve met some people who say, “Well, I am doctor so and so, call me that.” And I said, “Okay. You can still call me Ron.”
But going back to the original question, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. It’s an experiment. I can be crazy. I can say nonsense things. I can talk about ghosts. My first day of class, this is one of the issues I bring up my students, “How many of you believe in ghosts? However, you want to interpret it.” And you’d be surprised at how many people do. So, I said, “Okay, your first paper is: ‘write down the properties of ghost. What is it? How do you characterize it? What do they do? Are they harmful?” You go down to Martin Luther King every night and on TV the next morning somebody’s shot. None of those people who are shot are in the cemetery. How many shootings do you know about that take place in a cemeteries? (laughter) By the way, interesting fact, did you see The Green Book?
That movie had nothing to do, I mean, with the real “greenbook,” it was a total distortion.
I’m sure. Of course. ‘Hollywood-ification” I think they say, right?
Right. Yeah. In any case, how did black professionals, like college presidents, what did they do when they traveled in the south, let’s say prior to about 1960? You know, one of the things that they did was oftentimes, if there was no facility for them to stay at, no green book facility, they would go to a black cemetery and stay there. Because in a real sense, that was one of the safest place they could be. Now isn’t that interesting? Yeah. So, I bring this set of ideas to my class, even though it’s informal, I’ve talked about the gamma function. I just stop every ten or fifteen minutes and say; “Some of this stuff is correct and some of it is not true, and I don’t know which one it is but I’m gonna tell it to you and you figure out which one is true.” Yeah. So, my students, particularly the freshmen, they hate my guts when they’re in the class, but after they get out, I walk down the street, they’ll be saying hello. “Yeah, that’s Dr. Mickens, he’s mean, but take his class anyway.”
Ron, I think my last question for our talk today is can you talk a little bit about in 1990 the transition from Atlanta University to Clark Atlanta University? In what ways was that a substantive change and in what ways was that one day didn’t really look that much different from the next?
It was a very substantive change. Atlanta University was- okay, beginning around 1939, most of the schools that made up the old Atlanta University Center- see, the Atlanta University Center is a collection. Atlanta University, which is only a graduate school, they gave graduate degrees. They had a school of social work, school of business. So, Atlanta University agreed to only give graduate degrees while Spelman, Morehouse, Clark College, Morris Brown, would only give undergraduate degrees and ITC would give graduate degrees in theology. It’s a theology school.
Now, in the 1980s, Atlanta University had severe money problems. However, prior to about 1980, Atlanta University had the- I think the only graduate program in library science in the state—or at least one out of two. And so far, the library program you’d go on campus after four o’clock when the schoolteachers got off; the place was thoroughly integrated. Just, you know, if you want a degree in library science—and these have been around for a long time, Atlanta University was the place to get it. But Atlanta University and Clark College, they were also more expensive than Georgia State. As a consequence, Georgia State, in some sense of the word, had more undergraduate black students certainly than the Atlanta University Center, but probably any school in the country. So, given a choice between let’s say, I’m making it up, hundred dollars and Georgia State and $500 at Atlanta University, what would you do if you were a parent?
And so, it was decided, since the boards of the various schools in the Atlanta University Center oftentimes had overlapping members, that something must be done. And there were board members who jointly served on Atlanta University and Clark College Boards and the decision was made to join the two schools. It was not called a merger, which already implies a number of things. First of all, almost all the faculty at- well, the faculty at Clark College was a teaching faculty, and many of them did not have a problem teaching four, five, six courses. The average teaching load at Atlanta University, even if you integrated over the social sciences, was probably no more than two courses per semester.
There was probably a differential in both levels of degrees and salary between the two institutions. But for whatever reason, the folks decided that the schools should ‘merge’ and it came at a time when both Clark College and Atlanta University did not have presidents. So what they did was they brought back someone who had strong ties to Clark, not as a faculty, but just strong ties, who helped set up the Atlanta University Physics Department- remember I told you I set up the physics department? He was in charge of that. He later became chancellor I think of the West Virginia State University System, Clark University’s. In twenty-five words or less with an error of ten words, that is roughly what happened. But it has always been my feeling that the long-term goal was to get rid of, for whatever reason, graduate education in the center. And my evidence for it is the following: remember I told you we had this unique School of Library Science? They got rid of the library science program. They got rid of that school. And there were national representatives who came down and said “okay, we can help you. What would you like?” They did not accept.
There was a School of International Studies that was set up at Atlanta University that was funded from the State Department and they put lots of money into it. They got rid of that. We started an undergraduate School of Engineering Science. In a real sense, I guess you could call it pre-engineering. You take all the core courses. It wasn’t a dual degree, of course you could leave a degree in engineering. And they got rid of that. And the overall graduate school has been shrinking since then. We went from- when I first got there, I’m just estimating 3 or 4,000 graduate students at Atlanta University down to now it’s probably a thousand. So that’s basically what happened. And you have, you know, I don’t think anyone at Atlanta University wanted to have—they call it the consolidation. They don’t call it the merger. It’s called consolidation, they consolidated. And my view, and I’ve told a variety of people at CAU this, what they did was they just made a greater Clark College.
For people who have never really done research at the top level, who have been teaching four or five, six courses, your view of education is much different from someone who has done research and, you know, in one case you’re looking at training these students to go somewhere else. The other view is that you create knowledge in and of itself. The Physics Department was very successful in terms of getting money. I know back in the early nineties and so forth we had millions in research funding. I said it once in the faculty, we had more money than we could safely spend because there were people who were willing to just put the money in, and we were very successful and research productive, but once you start doing crazy things, like, “Oh we should get rid of the School of Library Science,” when you’re basically the only one in the state of Georgia. “How about you get rid of the whole school of international relations?” But when you have money for it, yeah. So, when people started doing crazy things, then I think the funding agencies started looking at other places.
Right. That’s an important point.
So, that’s roughly it. I mean, if I had an hour, I could explain it in more detail to you.
Well, Ron, on that note there, I think let’s cut it there.
[End Session 4]
[Begin Session 5]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 11th, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ron Mickens. Ron, thank you so much for joining me this morning.
Okay, so let’s take the narrative back a little bit. We’ve brought it right up to your current work at Clark Atlanta, but let’s talk a little bit more about your education at Vanderbilt. What is it that you wanted to talk about today?
Well, one of the things that I appreciated about my advisor is that he understood very soon after we met, I was a graduate student, that the best way to deal with me is put no restrictions. I had a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for one year and I had a Danforth Fellow for three years, so there was a total of four years, therefore I didn’t have any restrictions in terms of being a TA or a research associate. I participated in all the departmental activities, for example, the theory center at Vanderbilt composed of maybe twenty people had weekly seminars and I mentioned in the earlier interview about my first presentation to them. There was a roughly weekly seminar for the department and the topics ranged from atomic physics to the philosophy of physics and the history of physics, just a wide range of subjects. But early on, he told me that I could do what I wished, as long as I was doing physics. And so, we met on a regular basis, but our meetings were usually of a very general nature. They were not specific to a particular problem. Another fact of all of that was I was able to publish- I don’t remember the exact number but of the order of ten publications by the time I got my PhD. And so, after my tenure at Vandy graduate school—I mean I’ve appreciated his faith in me and I told him this, the fact that he let me be free as they say. Because I’m a little bit scattered. I get interested in things and they may not be the things that other people want me to become interested in.
Another feature I’ve interacted with Wendall on, and with the department in general is that all first-year students took a seminar and that seminar was on the history and philosophy of physics, which was quite unusual. Most first year seminars, you know, you bring in speakers or you may focus on a topic or whatever, and so that was quite interesting. I don’t remember the name of a professor in charge except to say that he was German and he brought the German or the European tradition of in a science, whether that’s mathematics or physics or chemistry, that one of the main features should be for you understand the history of the subject, and the methodologies that are currently in use and why they’re being used and compare them with other fields.
I also mentioned that many of my courses in graduate school, and also undergraduate school, were reading courses. I told the professors I would rather read my textbook in a non-conventional—not read it like a novel, but go through and work through basically all of the problems, and that’s one of the fastest modes for me to learn and comprehend. Almost anything mathematical or physical knowledge, I can probably pick up in a week because the secret behind quick learning is to figure out what is important and what is not important. If you want learn geometry, for example, let’s take plain geometry. You don’t have to go through and prove every theorem. A lot of stuff you take for granted. You go through and you prove some crucial theorem, and then you believe that other people, know and understand what they are doing so when you state a new theorem, you don’t have to go through the proof. You assume that you’re dealing with competent and honest people. And so, you can learn very fast that way.
The second principle or point is that you don’t get stuck. If you don’t understand something, come back to it later on because if you get stuck, you’re not going to get very far. The third was ask, talk to people, engage people in discussions. It’s often said that one cannot ask a stupid question. It’s not true. You can. [Laughs] One of the advantages of asking a stupid question, actually, the questions are not stupid, they’re ignorant questions. Ignorant is lack of information. Stupidity means even if you’re given it, you can’t do it, is that they are more than willing to correct you and most people don’t realize that. I saw that at MIT where many of the older, very famous professors who were engaged in field theory and particle theory back in the thirties and forties and fifties, they would ask what seemed to be very simple questions, almost as if this question is stupid. But it caused the speaker or whoever they were talking to go through and explain things in alternative ways and so forth. So, it ended up being beneficial to everyone. So, I enjoyed being at Vanderbilt University. To me, it was also a valuable social experience. It was a valuable educational experience. And when I left there and went to MIT, I did not feel inferior. Well, I don’t feel inferior to people anyway, so that was no big thing. But it was a very enjoyable experience.
Ron, what was some of the experiences at Vanderbilt and in your education overall that influenced the kinds of educational experiences you hoped other family members would have?
Well, I got an opportunity to become, I wouldn’t say friends, but graduate student colleagues with other graduate students and professors, particularly with professors. The theory group there was very social. They liked to drink wine, talk, go to the park, have picnics and so forth, and so you pick up a lot of personal family histories, you know, where they’re from, where their friends came from, how they became interested in science or literature or whatever. And that, coupled with some of the kind of experiences that I had when I was in high school in Petersburg, Virginia- remember I told you that Petersburg, Virginia is sort of the epicenter of historically black colleges in Virginia. We had Virginia State a couple miles away, then there was Norfolk State and Hampton and Union and so forth. So, I didn’t think of it in terms of being around educated people, but there were people who had PhD degrees who had received them from—from places such as American University, Cornell, MIT, etc. Professor Hunter, who was at Virginia State in the Physics Department, had essentially thirty-five students who went on to get PhD’s in physics. One of them was Jim Stith.
There was Rutherford Akins who eventually ended up at Fisk and became one of my professors there. He finished I think from either American University or Catholic University. And so, there were people who had achieved degrees, but also had been using those degrees to go on and assume positions of responsibility in the various educational institutions, some in science policy situations, and teaching. So, the Vanderbilt and the Fisk experiences merely continued that way of looking at and interacting with people who were educated. At Fisk, for example, it was very common, especially since the classes were small, we’d have seven, eight students in a classes where I would tell the students, “Okay, we’re going to meet class on Tues/Thurs/Sat. at 7:00 a.m. and it’s no big thing. We had classes on Saturday. There were some classes that were Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Others were Tuesdays, Thursdays. And then there were Thursday Saturday classes. So, when you’re in an environment in which a large number of people, certainly more than a critical mass, whatever that number was- and there were people who were constantly engaged in these learning and creative interaction type of experiences, it puts you in a frame of mind to want to continue it because there are no disadvantages in being in that situation at all.
Now in terms of my personal family, everyone in my family either has a PhD or is working on a PhD. My wife has a PhD in political science, and she is the foundation of the family. And I tell her, and other people, that without her, I think what I would have achieved would be less than what actually happened. But she has spent the bulk of her life providing time, intellectual resources, into not only the family, that is the raising of the kids, but also to working very closely with the community. She has created or set up a number of community enterprises, for example the MLK Jr. Business Association, she set that up and she did all the business affairs for it and she essentially was the director of it. She was a Girl Scout leader. And she helped direct our daughter, Leah, to receive one of the highest awards, I think it’s called the Gold Award. It’s like the Eagle Scout Award for the Boy Scouts. She was, until recently, the President of one of the Friends Society branches for Atlanta, Public Libraries and for a number of years in the summer, she put on, as a fundraiser, a jazz concert. And that event was quite successful. So, she’s an extremely good organizer. My daughter is finishing up- she’s writing her dissertation for PhD in Department of Religion of Boston University and I think the general topic of her research relates to the interaction and influences of black Catholics here in Atlanta to the civil rights movement. My son did his undergraduate work at Georgia Tech. Did his PhD in computer science at University of Michigan. He was involved with Microsoft for a number of years and then he eventually left, he took off a year and spent that year at MIT as a Martin Luther King Visiting Professorship. And he decided that he wanted to stay in the academy. I mean, he’s an extremely good lecturer, you should look up some of his videos, he’s very well known in his field.
Listen to some of his lectures. And currently he is Full Professor of Computer Science after being at Harvard, I think, for three years. So, he’s in Boston also. So, the family, from the perspective of education, I think has been very successful. And they have been productive in terms of research and scholarship in their respective fields. And they are much better than me, as you can tell, I’m not a politically correct kind of person. I’m actually quite muted (laughter). They are the modern generation. They are politically correct. I always tell people, “Well, what if I’m not politically correct? What are you going to do about it? You don’t have to listen to me. And if you do, then I know that you’re no good. You’re crazy” (laughter). So, there’s nothing that you can do. So, I think the family has been successful on many levels and I’m just curious, as I always am, to see in particular how the two kids evolve even more.
Ron, do you see this generation of upcoming scholars, including those in your families, in what ways do they have better opportunities than people in your generation and in what ways are their prospects more difficult than what you and your peers faced?
Well, I think the main difference between let’s say the general social, economic, and political environments are that people are talking about issues. I’m not certain that they are solving issues, but they’re talking about issues. I generally don’t like to make comparisons or even give advice because I remember when I was very young, I didn’t pay any attention to the “old people,” the ones supposedly with wisdom and so why would I expect them to follow my Advise? And so, the younger generation, they have to go out and discover for themselves what the issues are. My generation dealt with issues in a particular way and we made it to a certain point.
The resolution of the issues is an infinite progression. They are not going to be solved soon. Things- what we can hope is that, at time, T1, which is less than time T2, that at time T2 in some sense things are better, but I don’t think they’re going to be finally resolved and they have to determine what those issues are and how to resolve them. And not necessarily listening to me, you know. There is no such thing as universal advice that is good for all times. Advice and the goodness of advice is like scientific progress. they take time and hopefully improve, but never a final resolution.
I talk to many of my friends in philosophy, in particular in religion, and I said- as I mentioned several times, people ask me am I religious, I tell them, “It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. I’ll find out or not in time” (laughter). But in science, you have a sense of progress. In philosophy, there is no sense of progress. And what I mean- let me give you an example; the problems that people are working on now in science, they are not the problems that people worked on a hundred years ago, maybe even fifty years ago. And problems get resolved-sometimes they get resolved by just saying that’s not even something worthwhile considering or it’s nonsense within the new framework, but many of the other problems, you know, like those in philosophy; most of the fundamental issues that arise in philosophy have never been resolved and there’s no way that they can be resolved. Or you can take an example in religion, look at the topic of evil. That’s not something that is going to be resolved. This is not the same as saying that the issue is not important and I don’t claim that everything should be scientific. All I’m claiming is that it is a different way of acquiring knowledge and it’s clear that progress is an important component of it and these other areas generally don’t have a clear definition of what progress is.
Ron, in what way have your students changed over the years?
The current paradigm is that- and we broadcast this on TV, grade school, is for students to get a degree. You must have a college degree as opposed to becoming educated, and I think that’s the biggest difference, that people want degrees. I mean, frankly, we have too many colleges and universities and so forth. It’s like a snake eating its tail. If you go back to the fifties, probably no more than just order of magnitude, probably no more than about five percent of the total population went to college. Nowadays, there’s a significant- it’s probably up a factor of five to ten. Everyone wants to go to college and get a piece of paper, but oftentimes- and generally that degree is useless. Here in the state of Georgia, we have a large number of technical schools. Somehow the number thirty or forty comes to mind, and yet the state, as a whole, does not have enough technical workers and companies are complaining that students with degrees oftentimes do not have the skills that one would think would come with those degrees.
The basic skills would include things like the ability to read with comprehension. The ability to effectively communicate with others both in written form and orally, and the ability to understand the elements of significant areas of simple mathematics, most kids nowadays do not know how to multiply, and they rely on the calculator. And one of my lectures in my general physics course is related to the fact that calculators do not do mathematics. They do computations. And that all kinds of rules of mathematics are violated by a calculator. You take a simple calculator, there’s a largest number, it’s the number where everything up at the top is nine. What do you get when you add one to it? Just think about it. What do you get when you add one to it? Well, it can’t be a larger number because we know what the largest number is. There’s also a smallest number and it’s usually eight digits. So, what happens if you take the smallest number and you multiply it by the smallest number? Well, that depends on whoever wrote the program. So, in many computers, if you take the smallest number and multiply it by the smallest number, it’ll give you zero. Some of the more fancy calculators will say ‘underflow’.
You take a very simple- and I spent a whole hour talking about that in class. I bring in about twenty of these simple fifty cent calculators, and for many of them, if you take the largest number and you multiply it by the largest number, it goes down. That is the last nine goes to eight. So, we know that these little calculators do not do mathematics, then how do you know that what you’re doing when you’re using it is correct or not? So, getting back to your original question, I think that we have students who are surrounded by technology, but technology is not the same as knowledge. It doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge and understanding. And that’s what you want. In some sense, when you’re dealing with technology, particular computational aspects, you want to know when you’re right or when you could be right or when it may lead you astray.
So, the biggest problem is that schools do not prepare students for college, or even for high school, for that matter. About fifteen years ago, for about three years, I traveled around to a variety of middle schools here in Georgia. It had something, I think it was called Gifted Child Program or something. The interesting thing that I found out- this is a gifted program, almost none of them had mathematics. None of them. And the reason, and I asked, I was shocked the first couple of times, was that the teachers didn’t know mathematics, or they weren’t comfortable with it. In general, the girls- I call them girls because we’re talking about people ten, eleven years old, were not encouraged at all to do anything scientific. And so that program, from my perspective, was a complete waste of time.
Let me just say, I didn’t go to any inner-city schools at all. Where I was invited was out in the suburbs, supposedly where the education is better or where the facilities are better. And so ,we have students who leave high school with very high, you know, A averages. Some high schools you can get an A++. Instead of 100, you can graduate with a 105 the way they set up the algorithm for computing the grades. Students in general, and this includes their parents too because the parents generally don’t have a real feel for these things. Parents don’t talk to their kids anymore and so kids are surrounded by technology for which they know how to push buttons. They are restricted in general in communicating with each other by using a very low-level language, lots of abbreviations and so why is it amazing that they can’t write. Only way that you learn how to write is to write. Reading allows you to improve your writing by seeing other people’s style. It provides some models that you can try to emulate.
Now fortunately, and by the way, I’m giving you essentially the lectures that I give in class, fortunately in the United States, we live in an advanced technological society in which very few people need to know what the hell is going on, I mean the details of it. And so that means that you can survive at a certain level and be quite proficient in having a limited number of skills because what you are doing, what you have learned and so forth, is basically totally irrelevant. It’s totally irrelevant. It does not require- go to a McDonalds or go to any of the fast food places. They’re set up in such a way that people who work there don’t need to have any real understanding of what a tomato is or what a pickle is. That’s a word that they hear, then there’s a symbol on that big counter machine that they push. So, in principle, they don’t have to see the food at all. Someone says tomato, you push that little key that has the correct symbol, you know, and that’s becoming more prevalent in society.
Here in Atlanta, all of the big food stores, you know Kohler, Publics, they have at least two lines, sometimes four, in which you can check yourself out. And I never use them. I don’t even know how to use it. And I’ll stand in the long line. And so, I remember about a year or so ago, I was talking to one of the checkout ladies at Publics, she said, “Well, you know, you only have two items, you have been gone.” I said, “Well, one thing is that if I had done that, we wouldn’t have this conversation,” but I said, “Why, do you know what they’re doing? They’re doing it so that maybe five, 10 years down the road, you will not be here. They’re training people by saying, ‘Oh, you can get out much faster.’ And so that is putting you outta work and you have to realize that.” It’s the same thing with fast food stores. It’s becoming automated and the general quality of life is decreasing. I don’t care what one says about their good food. Look, a hamburger at home is better than a hamburger at McDonalds. Hamburger at McDonalds with crappy human is better than hamburger at McDonalds with a machine (laughter). And that general situation also leads to a general lowering of the level of interest about a variety of subjects. It’s like- did you see the movie Soylent Green?
Sure, yeah. Classic.
You understand what I mean.
It’s essentially on that level. Yeah. Basic needs satisfied, oh, you should now be happy. And don’t think about things.
Ron, I wanna ask you about perhaps there’s a generational perspective you’d like to share about events that led up to that hash tag shut down STEM day several weeks ago. Do you agree with that kind of approach where it was young physicists and other minority members in the STEM community who were pushing for a day like that? Do you think that that approach is something that you agree with? Would you have done it differently?
I know about it, but I don’t think about it. Remember what I said about ten minutes ago? These are issues that the younger generation should deal with. What I think about it, it’s totally irrelevant. Almost certainly there would be some point of disagreement with the younger people, and so we’ll end up being in a discussion of what I think as opposed to how the issues could be resolved. If they think that that is the way that this should proceed, then let them do it. Hopefully they will succeed, and if they don’t succeed, then hopefully they’ll learn some lesson and improve the next time they try something. I’m very familiar with it, but I don’t have any- I’d rather not give any opinion because I don’t have any opinion. I just didn’t think about it.
But you don’t think that your life experiences would give you some perspective that the younger generation might not have or would appreciate?
Well, I look back over my life and when I was young- hell, these elders didn’t have a big impact on me. It [their opinions] was interesting, but it didn’t really have any major impact on me. And it’s not clear that that situation has changed. I think and I look up to and I admire the fact that the youngsters are doing things. They’re going to make some changes and clearly the changes are going to come from the activities that they’re engaged in. It’s probably not going to be as much of a change as they think, but that’s just how I think human beings progress in terms of these kinds of issues.
Everyone thinks that time in which they live is the most important time in the universe or at least here, on the earth. Everyone thinks that. And that they have the wisdom to solve these issues. I mean, my generation thought that and others. That’s just the way human beings interact with each other and confront in the world. So, I don’t see that anything I have to say on these issues is of any relevance. I think there are a lot of people who think that the mere fact that you talk about these issues has some impact. I’m not certain of that.
Well, we’re interested in your opinion. And I tell them like I told you several times, “So, you’re interested in my opinion. You obviously are not going to achieve anything because if you are so decrepit in terms of being able to figure things out that you have to listen to my opinion and what I did, it will be of absolutely no help to you. First of all, even if I attempted to engage in that kind of activity, I’m not going to be able to tell you the real story. I’m going to tell you bits and pieces of it, and there might be some critical features in there not appreciated by me that would be appreciated by you for which you won’t get. So, you can figure this out, you can do it.” And I said there are people who have done this in terms of putting their thoughts down. Often, they appear in articles, sometimes in books. Read them. I’m a human being on this earth. My experience, in some sense, is a subset of all of those experiences. See? Solved your problem. But there are people, and the vast majority of people think that you can solve issues by reasoning with people, by sitting down. No, you don’t do it that way. What you do is you end up not giving people choices, you do not want. I mean, if you look at the non-violent movement, their success didn’t come from the fact that they were non-violent. Their success came from the fact they got the hell beat out of them and people were killed, people were hung. And so, the idea is that you put pressure, but the pressure in some sense is the exact opposite of what it is that you put forth as the guiding principle.
Ron I’m sensing, what’s the French word for an ending- “finale” of our conversation now. We’re sort of wrapping up, getting involved in thinking about the last kinds of issues that we should discuss for this oral history. I’d like to ask you, I think, for the final part of our conversation, first, in terms of your scientific accomplishments, are there projects or theories or collaborations that you’ve been involved in that really stand out in your mind as making the most significant contribution to the world of theoretical physics?
In math, science. Yes. And I think there are two or three items. One is my creation of a so-called nonstandard technique for numerical integration of differential equations. I think that’s gonna be everlasting. It’s now gotten to the point where people are referring to many of my papers. It’s basically a new way of thinking about how one creates a mathematical model, in this case, a discrete model of a continuous differential equation. And my basic contention is that the way people have been doing numerical analysis is wrong, they’re doing mathematics. If the numerical people want to be considered mathematicians, great! And so, they proved a whole lot of results and didn’t really get very far in my view, to solving the problem how to properly do the discretization’s.
The second thing is related to my thoughts about modeling. Now as you’re well aware, there is a very famous problem that’s called the Navier-Stokes equation. There’s even a prize of a million dollars if you can prove certain things about this equation. That equation is wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong as a physical model. People use it, but in nature, you do not have shockwaves in a mathematical sense. And the reason is that macroscopic matter is composed of atoms. And so that the actual physical system has no shockwaves. There’s always a boundary that has a width to it. In fact, I’m completing a paper right now where we look at this issue; it’s related to solutions of the so-called Thomas Fermi equation. Are you familiar with it?
Right. That equation is an approximation. Why would you want to create a solution that is an accurate solution of that? What you want is an approximation to that approximation that incorporates directly all of the physical properties that you want. So, there’s no advantage of getting an exact solution to something that you know is not quite right. And now hundreds of—my last count was that there were about 400 publications on it, different things, and so my colleague and I have come up with a technique that’s purely algebraic where you just sit down, look at it, and it’s based on I think my third major contribution, the introduction of the concept of dynamic consistency. And the idea is very simple. Let’s suppose you have two systems, A and B, and they can be anything. It can be a differential equation; it can be a physical system. Well, let’s just take a physical system, call that A, and then you model it by some equations, call it B. Now, the physical system has certain properties. For example, the density is positive. If the solutions to the differential equation also have a positive solution, then you say, “With respect to the concept or the property of positivity, then the two systems are dynamically consistent.”
Many of the systems and models that we construct are not dynamically consistent between the models and the system they’re trying to represent, and most people don’t think about it that way. And particularly, the classroom examples that appear for example in calculus. You know, we have the radioactive decay law. Well, that certainly can’t be correct for all times. It is possible to have a set of radioactive materials such that all the material has decayed. Well, what does that mathematical relationship now mean? And so, what you’d like to do is to construct a relationship that takes into consideration the fact that the number of atoms can go to zero in some finite time. But as I said earlier, in other interviews, the mathematics that most people normally use to model is used because you can solve it or you’re used to it, you had it in class, you know.
So, non-standard finite different schemes, as I mentioned before, there’s been, that I’m aware of, at least twenty PhD dissertations that have been written directly on it. There’s been estimated to be more than 1000 public’s written on nonstandard schemes and related issues. The use and examination and understanding of the principle of dynamic consistency is being applied more and more. Last year I wrote a book on generalized trigonometric functions. It turns out that the sine and cosines that we’re familiar with is one of an infinite class of functions. And you can use just high school mathematics (almost) to generate them.
I didn’t remember learning that in high school trigonometry (laughter).
Well, if you had gone to Peabody High, you would have (laughter). So, I think those are three things. And someone asked me recently about what was my legacy or what did I hope my legacy to be, I said, “You need to ask somebody who’s going to respond to that.” I said, “By the time I get to my legacy, I’m going to be dead.” But I said, you know, “One of the things that I’ve always tried to do is that in my interactions with people, that they may say that, ‘What Mickens is doing is bullshit, but at least he’s interested in it.’”
Worse things have been said.
Yeah, to paraphrase John Lewis, he would say, “Good trouble,” well “good bullshit.”
That’s right. There you go.
But there are some things maybe at a future date I’d like to go into if possible. Like the origin of the National Society of Black Physicists.
Good. Well, why don’t we cut it there and then we can talk next time about that organization and then we’ll talk about some of your current work and thinking a bit about the future. And I think we’ll have a full completed interview set at that point.
[End Session 5]
[Begin Session 6]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 13th, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ron Mickens. Ron, thank you so much for joining me again.
Hey, happy to be here.
All right. So today, we’re going talk about a few things to wrap up our long and amazing time together. My first question is when was the idea of a National Society of Black Physicists? When did that idea first come up and were you part of those original discussions?
Yes but let me give you a little background.
The organization was formed in a formal sense about 1977, ‘78 and so I’m going to talk or speak only up to that point.
In 1972, there was an event that was held at Fisk University organized by Jim Young, myself, and a few other people. The idea was that we wanted to bring forth our ancestors in physics. Some of the people were still alive who received the early PhDs in physics. And so, we assembled at Fisk about almost fifty PhD physicists, and that was the first event.
I bet, Ron, part of that was just to recognize and communicate that there were fifty black PhD physicists, right?
That’s right. Yes. And to bring back their students and just fellowship. It was an opportunity, I think, for many of the black physicists to meet other people who had degrees in physics who were doing research and teaching, for which sometimes they had heard of them, other times they had not heard of them. So, that was very successful. Two years later, we decided to do a similar thing at Howard University. The Howard event was the first time that we had formal lectures. At Fisk, it was basically a happy hour and awards banquet. We gave a modest, which means small, check to each recipient. There were three of them. At Howard, we had formal lectures. There might have been five or six lectures. I have the program somewhere. And then it was decided by Jim Young, myself, James Davenport, and Carl Spight, who was at Morehouse College, that the next two or three events were to be held at Morehouse, organized primarily by Carl Spight and we called them “Days of Scientific Lectures.”
So, I’m not sure if it was ‘77 or ‘78, I’ve written about it so if you can look at one of those documents, it’s in there. My publication, The African American Presence in Physics has the precise dates. It was decided at that time (1978?) that a formal organization should be set up. But, I was against it because my view was that I wanted to set up a community in which we interacted with each other primarily through social contact and setting up social networks for the younger physicists and by younger physicists, I mean undergraduate students and graduate students.
Well in any case, you can see that my viewpoint did not hold (laughter). The organization was set up. Another reason I was against having a formal organization is that when you have organizations of any sort, at some point, there arises politics, power, and jealousy and craziness and that’s exactly what has happened over time. You know, fortunately not all of them occurred at the same time. So, I attended most of the early meetings and I think it was the meeting at Huntsville, AL, it was either 1999 or it was 2000, that was my last meeting. I’ve never been to a meeting since that and I don’t want to go in any great details as to why, but I’ve never been to a meeting since that.
The organization has gone through periods where it was very influential, where it did a lot of good things. It went through other periods in which it was down in the pits, and now they’re trying to overhaul and enhance the visibility of the organization. Good luck! So it (NSBP) arose out of the first meetings that we had at Fisk and at Howard, and those meetings were set up primarily to bring the older generations together with the younger people and to say, “Look, hey, these people got PhD’s back in the thirties. I think one person in the twenties.” So, that proves that it can be done now. If you’re interested in physics, and you want to put in the hard work for the sustained time, then you can also be in that position and you can train people and they can go out and teach and/or do research. And when you train them, you want them to be better than you. There is no advance from any perspective if your students are not better than you. You want them to do better than you. So that’s basically it.
Ron, I want to ask you a question, I know it’s going to sound dumb, I know it’s going to sound naïve, but I just want to ask it because I want to get your basic response to it, okay?
That means it’s naïve and dumb then. You just said it, I didn’t say it.
I said it. Why does physics need a National Society of Black Physicists? Why does physics need it and why do black people need it?
Well if you listen to what I said, that’s the dumb part. I just said I wasn’t in favor of it (laughter). But seriously, if you really need to have that question answered, then you ask someone other than me.
I was not in favor of it being started. I mean you need to ask someone like Carl Spight. Have you interviewed Carl Spight or has that name come up?
No, it has not and I’m glad to hear it.
I will give you contact information.
His PhD is I believe from Princeton. He’s essentially my age. But you need to talk to someone like Carl Spight, possibly Jim Davenport, or Sekazi Mtingwa, have you?
I talked to Sekazi, right.
Yeah. You need to talk to someone or people who were in favor of it.
Now, Ron, from your perspective, was one of your concerns was that it would only serve to reinforce segregation within the sciences?
That was part of it. My view was look, you want to play with the “giants”, you go out there and play with the “giants”.
Who are the giants? You mean like MIT?
What I meant was, look, if you’re going to do research at a very high level, then you need to attend, become part of all science related activities, and remember that, in the seventies and the eighties and nineties, the role of African Americans in particular began to increase in terms of their involvement with the professional societies. A committee on minorities in physics was set up. A really relatively large fellowship program was set up at Bell Laboratories. You heard of the Bell Laboratory? That program was set up out in San- what’s the- there was a meeting and I’m trying to think of the state there. New Mexico. The city was Albuquerque. There was a meeting there in which we had Joe Burton, you may not know who Joe Burton was but Joe Burton was I think the treasure of the APS, but he was also a vice president at Bell Laboratories, Carl Spight, Howard Foster and a whole bunch of us. That’s when that program was set up, and ninety-nine percent of the reason why it succeeded in terms of getting funds was that Joe had those dual positions. He was both with APS and he was with Bell Laboratories. The interesting thing is that most people that I’ve talked to, who were not at that meeting, the younger people later on had no idea of how the Program was formed. They thought that this was something that was set up just because Bell Laboratories wanted to do it. No. It was that Joe Burton had those dual positions, and he, along with the members of the African American Physics Community at that meeting decided this would be one way that we could increase the number of African Americans who would receive PhD’s in physics. You allow the students to have freedom from not having to work, so you have to give them a decent stipend. You set up mentors for them and you try to ensure that they go to places where there are no essential constraints as to whether they will succeed or not. And so, the program has been very successful.
Ron, wouldn’t an easy counter to what you’re saying about playing with the giants be well that’s great that you got to work at a place like MIT and you got these fellowships in Europe and you have all of these amazing connections, but maybe that speaks both to a little bit of talent on your part and a little bit of luck on your part, but it’s not responsive to some of the structural limitations that society places on minorities, right? Wouldn’t you see that as an effective response to this point?
See, I had to ask so you could say no.
Yeah. Look, you see when I look at physics, my main concern always has been to not to just produce more PhD’s- see, to me, the degree thing is totally irrelevant. It’s not relevant whether you have a degree in Physics, or you have a degree in mathematics. One of my friends, Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid didn’t get a PhD in mathematics. When he was at roughly nineteen, twenty years of age, he was at the University of Chicago, as a grad student and wrote a book called “Probabilistic Analysis” and that made his career and he published about seventy well-known papers.
You also have J. Ernest Wilkins who, at the age of nineteen, got a PhD from the University of Chicago. So, it’s not the PhD that makes you a scientist. What makes you a scientist is doing research. That’s what it is. And so, I’ve never been concerned per se with just getting the degree, now, where is research done? Well, research is done in places like, at least they say, at places like MIT and big labs and so forth, but that can’t be the whole story because there are not enough faculty positions at Harvard, MIT, Caltech to make the scientific enterprise successful. You do science wherever you find yourself and you do it at the highest level that you can participate in and be creative in it. And so that’s always been my task, particularly talking with younger people. I want you to do top level science. You may succeed, you may not succeed. That’s life. Every event- you take the Olympics. We know that regardless of how good you are, only one person is going to win. Chances are it won’t be you. But, not trying means never to win! It’s like citations for publications. I’m writing a paper with a colleague of mine who’s in math and he’s very concerned about citation index. I said, “Look at most of these things. Outside of some physics paper where you have some huge number, most of the citation indices are going to be like, two, three, four.” So that means that only two, three people have ever cited it. What this means is that the highest citation will not come from you probably. This does not mean that you shouldn’t try to achieve that, but you have to be realistic as to what that means.
In some sense, many of the ideas and concepts that people apply to the racial situation in this country can also be applied to the hierarchy of universities. I mean why is it that MIT is great? Why is it that Harvard is great? They had certain advantages that historically in particular came out of what they did prior to and during World War II. So, there’s not a level playing field regardless of where you go. And it also helps for you to say that you are the best and then do what is required to make it so. Example: why are there so many books about Stephen Hawking? Why are there so many books about Richard Feynman? Mainly because someone decided they were going to push those people. I mean for a while it looked like every year there was a new book out about Richard Feynman. Now, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a brilliant person, which he was, and he was interesting to be around. But on the other hand, you don’t read about people who are not written about, and someone has to make a decision about who to write about. And those are the people- again, go back to Stephen Hawking, we know about. One of the main reasons why Stephen Hawking is well-known is because of his illness. Look at the people around him. They were of equal- if you look at- just try to match up contribution, yeah. But that was the drawing point and those related situations, there’s nothing you can do about. But you can try to do good work. You can try to do work that people will discuss and find interesting and maybe important.
No matter where you are, you’re saying.
Regardless of where you are. Yeah. But don’t think- I told my son when he went to Harvard, I said one of the things that you have to remember is that you are not good because you’re going to Harvard. Harvard is better because you’re going there.
You know, it is individuals who are good who go to various places that make them great. Suppose you took a moron, and I could probably supply some if I was teaching in the fall, but suppose you took a moron and you sent him to Harvard. Nothing would happen. So, it is about not sending the morons to Harvard that makes Harvard great. And so, I just don’t think that people are looking at these issues and analyzing them in the correct fashion. Same thing with MIT. They’re great not so much because they’re MIT, they’re great because they’re able to attract good people. A implies B, does not imply that B implies A? And people are switching these things around. They’re thinking that A implies B and B implies A. No, it’s not true.
Do you think- again, I understand that you want to give the younger generation the leeway that they need and deserve to make their own decisions, but from your vantage point, do you think that the situation we find ourselves in today warranted a movement like shut down STEM? Do you think that the community needed that? Do you see that as an overreaction? Do you see that as a misapplication of resources?
Well you asked me this question last time and I told you that I didn’t want to discuss it and that has not changed. My view is the following: it doesn’t matter what I think. We have a different set of people that are dealing with some of the same issues as my generation and they have different points of view, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t agree, and they should resolve it. And why should what I think have any value? It’s very clear, as I said a couple of days ago, I didn’t follow that kind of advice. I listened to the elders and we discussed and argued things, but I didn’t necessarily base what I did on what they thought.
But I’m not asking about the advice you give the next generation I’m asking you for your assessment of where we are as a society.
We’re in pretty bad shape overall, but I think though that what is occurring is, in some sense, the beginning of a possible collapse of the current form of western civilization.
Oh dear. Oh boy.
And I think that’s the people who are in charge and control of the overall situation and had many of the resources for the last let’s say 200 or 300 years, these people are now finding themselves in a position where those positions no longer hold. Or they see them as being threatened. So, I think that’s what the real issue is. We’re going through a global transfer of power, of knowledge creation from the European world view to other parts of the world. Think about it. Why is it that universally, the language for science is English? Large parts of the world were dominated at some points by Britain so that English was not the natural language, it was the language that was imposed on people. Now, it is conceivable that 200 years from now, that situation may change. He who has the gold makes the rules. This may not be the golden rule, but they make the rules. But I think that is the overall central issue is that we’re undergoing a transfer of resources, including intellectual, financial, ecological, if you wish, from Europe and I use it in the general sense of the world, Europeans to other sections of the world.
Ron, the other thing that we wanted to talk about was your broader interest in history of science.
When did this develop? Have you always been interested in these things or this is sort of a more recent development for you?
Remember when I was in Petersburg, when I was about nine years old and I would go down into the basement of the Public Library, the Colored section, many of the books they had down in the basement were not science books per se. They were books on the history of science, or they were biographies, or they were autobiographies. So, at nine, I began to read, not fully understand, probably I didn’t understand at all, books written by people such as Sir. James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe, and things of that sort.
And very quickly I acquired an interest in how did these scientists become scientists? What did they do? So, I went in reading histories and biographies of Newton, of Maxwell for example and Edison and etcetera, etcetera. And so that was what caused my continuing interests in history. As I mentioned several interviews ago, that I’ve always required my research students—and students in general in my classes, to go back and read science history, you take for example thermodynamics. Thermodynamics was not something that just popped up. I’m giving you the shorter version. There were reasons that industry needed to know about thermodynamics. They’re in the process of having people tinker with things and build steam engines and etcetera, etcetera, and they wanted to know I’ve been using a whole pile of wood for this machine, can I use half a pile of wood because then I can do twice as much work, it will cost less to do so, etc.
And so, thermodynamics, just like much of the later generalization of the theoretical electrodynamics to electrical engineering came out of practical problems that needed to be solved, but most students, if you take a typical student, unless they’ve had a history of science course in their senior year and ask them about thermodynamics, they would not see any connection at all between thermodynamics and steam engines in a deep and fundamental sense. And so that interest based also on my understandings that other people may have derived before me, but they didn’t understand it, follow from the fact that there’s only one world that we have here. One universe. And different people study different aspects of it so that in a real sense, religion should be considered part of this effort, along with Philosophy, Sociology. There’s only one world, you know? They’re not principles as some people believe in one area of the search for knowledge that can only be applied to them and not to us. Now, we tend to do set up that dichotomy in general, but there is just one world and different people will analyze different pieces using different methodologies, but if one wants to get a comprehensive view of the universe including social interactions and things of that nature, there is just one world is fundamental.
Ron, what does the life and work of Edward Bouchet, what does that tell us that we can learn from broadly?
Well, many people have a misconception of Bouchet. I have colleagues and friends of mine who have said, “Well, Bouchet had a bad deal because he was not offered a faculty position at any of the traditional white institutions,” I said, “Are you crazy? You really think he would have been offered some position- you know, what country are you living in?” Bouchet, and I don’t know that you’ve looked at the book or not-
But Bouchet was a very bright person and he left the Negro educational system in New Haven at a very early age and he went to what we now call a prep school (Hopkins Grammar School), and from there he went to Yale. Okay? That history is interesting in and of itself because while Bouchet was born in New Haven, his father was not. I don’t have time to go into detail. The state of Connecticut almost established what we’ll now call a historically black school back in the nineteenth century, and the reason it did not go was that there were many of the citizens of the state who felt that there were too many either freed slaves or free people or ex-slaves who escaped from the south who would go to their state to get an education.
Now, when Bouchet finished Yale, he was offered, near the end of his senior year, a stipend to continue at Yale University and get a PhD in physics. It would be paid for by the Society of Friends- what is that? I think that’s it. Quakers. Yeah. The Society of Friends in Philadelphia. There was a school in Philadelphia (Institute for Colored Youth) that started back in the 1830s or whatever, later became Cheney. And so erroneously, Cheney calls itself the first historically black school. If I have time, I’ll go into why the name- and so he was offered that they would pay his fees if he stayed at Yale an additional period to get a PhD degree in physics so that he could teach science at ICY. So that’s how he got to get a PhD. He finished it 1874 and two years later he received the PhD.
Now, you should go back if you haven’t had a chance and look at some of what people consider to be dissertations at that time. Most of them were handwritten. I got a copy of- the fellow who did thermodynamic work. His dissertation was handwritten. Now you see versions of it that are typed out, but that was not the original. But we do not have at the present time any known copies of Bouchet’s dissertation and I’ve been bugging the people at Yale off and on for the last thirty years. We looked even in the papers of his advisor Arthur Wright.
Many universities at that time had an experimentalist and a theoretician or a mathematician in physics. And nothing has come up for Bouchet. But that’s how Bouchet got his PhD. There was never any intention on his going to any university of college from a realistic perspective. Most Europeans, and I’m talking about white people, who got their degrees didn’t have that view. Most college professors, at best, had a master’s degree and often the master’s degree was just take a course of study under a particular professor for a year. But Bouchet was very brilliant and he had a magnificent career at the Institute for Colored Youth. One of the things that took place at the school was that the seniors had to have public oral exams. They would walk on the stage and would be questioned by authorities, white people (laughter). I mean that way you can be certified. Some Negro said, “You’re good,” you know, I believe him (laughter).
I don’t know how much of this you know, and I told more of these stories to Arlene. This was about ten years ago. So, I was going to a funeral out in a nearby city and stopped with a friend of mine, we had lunch, got in my car and I turned it on and it took me about five times to get it going. I mean it was making a lot of noise and smoking. And so, it finally began to move about five miles an hour headed toward our funeral. A group of young blacks were driving past, and they said, “Hey, your car is on fire. Your car is on fire.” I didn’t pay any attention. Then an elderly white couple drove by and said, “Your car is on fire.” Now we have real proof! (laughter) What question did you ask me? See I get sidetracked easily.
What can we learn from Bouchet?
I think what we can learn from Bouchet, particular if we follow his career, is that one, he was a master teacher. He apparently, in spite of the fact that he was very formal in how he approached people, the whole time that he was in Philadelphia, he worked with his church and he worked with other groups to help other African Americans, or actually anyone, but it would probably be just African American to be able to read and write and know the elements of mathematics so that they wouldn’t be cheated in daily transactions with other people. And so, I would say that Bouchet was a person who was highly educated and he never became angry and out of his level of his education and his perception of the world, was able to achieve peace of mind internally for himself, which then allowed him to better help other people.
Do you identify with him? Is he a hero to you?
Well, I don’t have that- I mean, I could identify with him. If you look in my book containing some of his young pictures, I have showed some of his young pictures, you know, when he was like nine or maybe seventeen to people, along with pictures of myself, and we look very similar. I mean, his hair was cut close. Now my hair is close on top, of course it’s bald on top. But that’s not something that- I don’t identify with anyone. You know, I look at myself as unique in their view. I would like to do things similarly, but not because they did it, I just like to do things similar. I mean, I realize that many current people need what’s called a role model, and I would think that if you need a role model, then someone like a Bouchet is someone you can look up to.
But the main thing is I’ve never been able to understand the argument that if I don’t have a role model, I cannot achieve. Because you’ll never achieve anything. If you’re interested in something, then do it. There are gonna be people who disagree with what you do, both because of who you are and also because they may just intellectually disagree, but you do it. You know, you cannot change how you perceived and what you want to do in life because of what other people think. And there is no particular advantage in being defined by other folks. I mean, just because someone says something doesn’t mean that you have to believe it. It may affect you, yeah, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to believe it. And I think nowadays there are lots of people who get very upset about how they’re defined by other people, but that’s part of what these other people are trying to do. Get you upset so that you are not able to achieve your goals.
So, you will notice, for example, that the other thing that I don’t believe in is firsts. I don’t know whether I was the first black person at Vanderbilt or not, it is totally irrelevant and almost certainly the answer is no. Okay ? And there are historical reasons for it. In the south, a black person was essentially defined by- among other characteristics, “a drop of black blood”. Well, sometimes if you take that drop away, all those other billions of drops look identically the same as that drop. And if you look at many of the state historically black colleges and universities, ones run by the state, oftentimes, the offspring and historically except for recent times it’s always been males, were the offspring of some plantation owner or some person who was wealthy and so forth. But many times, they made provisions to have their children to be taken care of, you know, appoint them to positions, etcetera. Look at the situation with- what was the senator from South Carolina? Anyway, there was a senator who supported his daughter through her college and so forth. That was often the case.
And so many of the people the offspring, if they were fair enough and if they could speak quote unquote the ‘proper’ language, then sometimes they would be absorbed directly into the family. And if these people went to one of the highly segregated colleges back in the nineteenth century, even twentieth century, and if the higher ups wanted that person to be there and if most of the people who were there could not tell whether they were white or black, then they would go. So, this whole notion of being the first is really totally irrelevant.
You are the first identified person by that title, i.e. being first. That’s all that means. And independently, you should be judged by what it is you can do and what it is you do as opposed to how you look or being first. So many of them are ugly so- cut that out (laughter). Yeah some of y’all are ugly! My wife says- this actually happened, we were riding down the street, this is when we first got here (to Atlanta.) I said, “Boy, that’s an ugly person.” She said, “There are no ugly people.” I said, “Hold on a second.” I turned the car around. I said, “Yeah. There’s one. There is another.” It’s not their fault but there are ugly, you put them in a beauty contest and you put your money on them, you’re going to be poor (laughter).
Ron, I think I want to ask you two big questions for the remainder of our time. One is a retrospective question one is a forward-looking question. Now, I know it’s obvious, you’ve said it explicitly and it’s been a theme that’s run through all of our conversations and that is you shouldn’t put too much stock in what other people think about you. That’s not what’s most important, right? And yet I’d like to ask you to reflect on your legacy which, by definition, is all wrapped up in how people think about you and think about your contributions. So to the extent that you want to make those definitions, you don’t want those definitions to be made by other people, I’d like you to reflect on your legacy as a scientist—not as a first in any way ‘cause I know that’s not important to you but as a scientist, as a member of many different scientific communities, and as a historian representing your field. I want you to reflect on all of those things in terms of your contributions.
Well, in terms of the history part, I’m not a formal historian, but on the other hand, I’m not a formal mathematician or engineer either, so I’ve never-
That hasn’t stopped you, right? (laughter)
From the historical perspective, what I’m trying to do is to push, in a realistic fashion, knowledge about certain, primarily African Americans who have achieved at the highest level. They don’t necessarily have to be geniuses, or they don’t necessarily have to come up with a principle. And I like that question because it fits into something, I was going to bring up anyway.
Last night around midnight, I got an email from someone in Gainesville, Florida. They’re going to rename a school after Carolyn Beatrice Parker. I had mentioned her before. She finished Fisk in ‘38 with a BA in physics, a master’s in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in ‘41, taught for a while, and then she worked on the Manhattan Project for five or six years at the Dayton Project site. Did you look it up?
Yeah. And she worked there, and she was contaminated with Polonium. She got another degree in I think around ‘51, ‘52 from MIT in physics, and from what I can gather, she was very ill at that point and wasn’t able to complete her PhD work. So, my history- so I’m not a formal historian in the sense that I’m going to look up all the intimate details and all that. I don’t have the time, nor is that my real interest, but I want to show is that there are people out there in some sense, ordinary people, who have made significant contributions to science and technology. She’s just an ordinary person who had some extraordinary adventures. It is people like her that need to be better known in the greater scientific community. Let’s take physics, we tend to push people like an Einstein or like a Feynman or like Virginia Louise Trimble and so forth. These people made tremendous and fundamental contributions, but most scientists are never gonna be able to do that. There are not that many fundamental problems around at any given time. And fundamental problems come out of analysis of what’s working and what’s not working and so forth.
So, I’ve tried to do that in my history works. Likewise, I’ve tried to push Bouchet, not that he is this tragic figure that didn’t get offered a job at Harvard because people were racist- well, they were racist, there was no chance he would ever get such a position, you know, that’s dealing with an issue that’s not important. In terms of what I would call my scientific contributions, what I would like to be known as someone who didn’t give a shit about other people’s opinion about what it is I should work on and what it is I should consider to be important. And almost in every case, I turned out to be right. I had mentioned that on two or three different occasions, I had some very imminent mathematicians take me out to lunch and sit down and talk about my nonstandard schemes. Well, they have turned out to be quite interesting and important. So, I just want to be known as someone who was interesting to be around, that he didn’t have a dull moment. Well, maybe he did have some dull moments, but I would come in and say something crazy to make it undull.
Well I’m very well-positioned to support that assertion. You are very interesting to be around over the last seven plus hours we’ve spent together.
Right. And the third is to try to indicate to people that this stuff, i.e. scientific research you should have fun with. Some of our most creative people have been put in camps, have been put in jail, have been isolated and all kinds of things, like Malcolm X. Malcolm X became the intellectual that he evolved into because he was in jail, he was in prison and he was allowed to use the library. It is not likely that he would have evolved the way he did if he had not been in jail.
And so, what one has to look at is the totality of the experiences of a given person and how at individual moments that those subtle experiences change the person. So that’s it. In many societies, they push this whole notion of saying somebody’s name. As long as you can state someone’s name or you can talk about somebody, then they are not dead. They are alive. But if you look at science for example, except for a few giants who then morphed into people whose contributions almost nobody really understands, everyone knows about Newton. Unless you have taken a general physics class, you don’t know anything about Robert Hook. And in fact, if you do, it’s Hook’s Law. But Hook in many respects or Haley or other people were just as important as Newton and there are reasons why we tend to hear much, much more about writing and so forth about Newton than about a Hook. There was some British-European continental divides there in terms of the calculus. So that all of this stuff is chancy. You don’t know what other people will think about you, but it may be a good principle to say, “I just don’t give a shit.”
Well, Ron, on that note, for my last question, knowing that looking to your future, you’re going to continue not caring, right?
Yes. And I hope it’s a long future.
Right. I hope it is too. Knowing that you don’t care about what other people think, you only have to look in the mirror, what is it that you want to do with your remaining time? What are the things that are interesting and important to you in those same categories that I mentioned about thinking about your legacy? What are those things that you want to do as a scientist? What are those things that you want to do as an amateur historian? And what are those things that you want to do as you remain involved in the many overlapping communities that you’ve been a part of?
Well, one of the things I’d like to do is to continue my research and expand on the information and interpretation of the lives of people like Carolyn Beatrice Parker or even people like Jim Young to find out what was really important to them, what made them tick! My friend J. Ernest Wilkins who got his PhD at nineteen back in the forties from the University of Chicago, I interviewed him in quite a bit of deal concerning how he felt about his scientific contributions, certain honors that he did not receive and many related issues.
And I have an extensive set of notes. You know, there is always a mismatch between what people think somebody else wants and what they want. And that doesn’t show up generally, even in interviews. So, what J. Ernest and I did is I promised him that this was just between the two of us and that none of this would ever come out while he was alive. And I’d like to do that with some of the younger people. You take someone like let’s say Shirley Jackson. Everyone, which probably means less than one tenth of one percent of the population knows about her-
In certain circles, everyone knows about her.
Yeah. There are lots of things about her life that are just interesting and never appeared anywhere and it’s not likely that I’m going to be the person to do all that. Or let’s say you take someone like a Jim Young. So, they’re sort of not quite at opposite end of the spectrum. Or I remember one time that my son and I, we are both Ford Foundation Fellows and Ford interviewed us for a video which actually never ended up being shown. And it was just interesting listening to my son about the things that I had done for him. So, I turned to him and said, “Damn, I don’t remember any of that.” But these are things that were very, very important to him. And I think that that kind of knowledge of how people interact with each other and how, in fact, their own feelings don’t necessarily- it’s not necessarily shared. What you think is important is not necessarily what they think is important and vice versa and so forth.
In terms of my research, I have no idea. In the last two months, I’ve written three papers. Generally, what I do is I just read about three or four general purpose science magazines a day. I’m on the server for whatever you call it, for Nature, for European Physics or whatever. So, they cover the whole spectrum. I’ve done some work on mathematical modeling, toy models, with the spread of disease. I’d like to write a book on that because most of the models, from my perspective, the way I look at it, are flawed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. There’s a difference between being wrong and flawed, because you can get good results as long as the theoretical structures are robust. So, I have a ten-year plan of things that I want to do. And I’ve always done this—
Right. Doesn’t sound like it’s changed.
I have a list of about ten subjects that I’d like to deal with involving history, mathematics, and the various sciences. There’s a paper that—we have the Georgia Academy of Sciences here, and so I and one of my colleagues in history wrote a paper called What is Science? And it’s a very good paper. Science doesn’t have a definition, it has many definitions depending upon the context and what it is you’re trying to achieve, it’s been downloaded over 600 times and people have gotten some educational benefits from it. I have another paper that’s called Alternative Futures in Classical Physics.
We tend to think of situations where we have alternative futures as coming out of quantum mechanics. It has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is a particular theoretical structure having that feature. Just as I said the other day, the uncertainty principle has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. It is a property of any linear wave theory. Let me give you a simple example of alternative future. I’m sitting in my bedroom, I can go out the door, I turn to the right, I go to my daughter’s bathroom. I turn to the left, I go to the kitchen. But I can do both of them. But at any time, I will do one, only one of them. But both of them are equally valid trajectories as to how I can go into the future.
And so that in classical mechanics itself, you have the possibility, without doing anything mathematics, of alternative futures. And I think the way people are beginning now to consider classical mechanics in terms of how you actually do it. For example, we generally say that classical particle dynamics is deterministic. Well, that depends on what you mean by deterministic. It is not deterministic! What you say is that you write down a second order differential equation or a couple set of them and if you know the initial conditions exactly, you can solve for any future state of the system. But you do not know the initial condition exactly and you will never know the initial conditions, exactly in a finite time. In order to exactly know the initial condition, it’ll take you an infinite length of time and an infinite amount of energy to carry out the measurement. So, I’d like to deal with some of those questions. These are the kinds of questions that people—particularly in science—consider when they get near the end of their life. They get old and decrepit and they say, “Oh, what is one plus one?” You have to think about it (laughter).
You want to go the other way?
You want to go the other way, yeah. So, I’ve enjoyed talking with you. One point I want to make, I mean ask you- not ask you, but tell you. I have been interviewed before. I remember one time I was interviewed for the Blacks at MIT project. The person that they got to write up the transcript, it was absolute nonsense. It was absolute nonsense because the transcript- what this person did was record and they just typed out what the words said by me. Most of this came out as nonsense. So, what I did with the MIT Project, is I took all the questions and I rewrote my answers in their entirely. All fifty pages and sent it to them.
So my preference would be, and I’ve read a lot of the transcripts that they have at AIP, some are good, but it depends, I do not want part of the recorded record to be a direct transcript of what I said because when you converse, whenever you’re talking with someone, you can fill in certain things. You know what they mean. But that does not come about when you just type the words down. Sometimes there should be a pause and you don’t put a pause. Sometimes there’s no pause and so forth. Yeah. And I’m sure that this is going to happen because it happened for other people. What others do is they tend to talk very slow to make sure they don’t sound like a fool. Well, I guess I’m gonna have to sound like a fool.
No, I don’t think so. Ron, I’m a little sad, this is coming to an end for us but I want to put on record that even though we were not able to meet in person, I’m hopeful it’s another thing to look forward to one day we will meet in person and we will stay in touch these next ten years. I’m excited for all that you want to accomplish. In terms of our time together, just to state the obvious, this is a monumental contribution to the historical record and I’m so grateful and appreciative of this time that we’ve spent together. So really, thank you so much.
Well, I thank you. And I think we’ll have even better sessions when we get together, particularly over a drink.