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Photo courtesy of Milton Slaughter
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Interview of Milton Slaughter by David Zierler on August 6, 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 Milton Dean Slaughter, Affiliate Professor of Physics at Florida International University. Slaughter recounts his childhood in New Orleans, his involvement in the civil rights movement, and he describes his undergraduate work in physics at Louisiana State University and his graduate work in theoretical physics at the University of New Orleans, where his dissertation focused on electron-laser pulse scattering. Slaughter discusses his long tenure in the department of physics at UNO, and prior to that his research in theoretical physics at Los Alamos. At the end of the interview, he discusses his long-term interest in gravity.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 6, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Milton Dean Slaughter. Milt, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me as well.
All right. So to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Yeah, I’m Affiliate Professor of Physics at Florida International University. I think somewhere there, in that administrative stuff, I would be like a courtesy professional, whatever. I can serve on departmental committees and all this kinda stuff like that, but when this first started back- I believe in 2006, I was in Coral Gables after hurricane Katrina and, well, I was looking for something to do, etcetera, and also trying to take care of the mess back in New Orleans.
And so, I wandered over to Florida FIU, Florida International University to see what’s going on and it turned out one of the faculty members over there had gotten some transmissions from the Department of Energy and displaced physicists in Louisiana had been put on a list by a guy named Peter Rosen. I knew him from my time at Los Alamos. He and I both worked in T-Division management at the time. And also, the SSC had just gone down the tubes.
So a lot of those guys in Los Alamos, several of them, actually were counting on the SSC to be up and running- that fell apart and actually he had been a dean at a UT school in Dallas and then got associated with the Department of Energy and that’s how Peter Rosen got to- when Katrina hit in 2005. So, I just happened to wander over there, and this faculty member, I actually had all these communications and my name was on the displaced list, so it was somewhat fortuitous, I guess. Maybe that’s the word. And I’m sitting there looking at my name on the screen. And so it worked out very well in terms of my having some official, you know, professorship or whatever. Although, I was still a professor at UNO. I taught online there actually until the fall semester of 2005, yes. And the spring semester of 2006, which was terrible actually. Teaching online, of course, that’s another one of the similarities today with all these universities scuffling around here looking at their budgets and this and that and the other, all that kind of foolishness. And then of course now having to deal with all of the absurdities coming out of the Whitehouse and all of that. That’s what makes it different, of course, very different from the sixties and other times that we’ve had because we’ve never had a president to be as goofy (laughter)- whatever you want to call it and the enablers, the people who work for him, you know?
I mean I’ve had to on several occasions to basically tell whoever the hell, like one of my bosses back in Los Alamos, you know what? I’m not gonna do it. You can fire me. In fact, before you fire me, I’ll quit. And that’s what I kinda expected to have happen maybe three and a half years ago. It didn’t happen. So that was still shocking, to see how many people would enable total foolishness coming out of a high office like that. It’s still amazing actually, even today.
Well, Milt, let’s talk about some more sensible times. Let’s start with your origins, and really let’s start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
Let’s see, my mother and my biological father were born in Mississippi. I never really knew my biological father. My mother was born around Gulfport, Mississippi, some small town in Mississippi, etcetera. She finished high school, believe it or not, which was an achievement in those days. By the way, I was born in 1944, June 9th. So, she was actually very instrumental in my life. Like mathematics, algebra, and all that sort of thing.
And indeed, my biological father was in the Army and my mother decided to make money as opposed to sweeping floors and crap like that, went out to Washington, DC to make money. A number of black folks did that during the war as some sort of secretary clerk, assistant or whatever. And indeed, that’s where I was conceived (laughter). There in DC. She and my biological father really didn’t get along very well at all, and she always thought of him as a monumental skunk undeserving to be born rather anyway (laughter).
And so, that’s basically- you asked me about my mother and father, right? And so that’s my biological father. I have no idea. Now, he did move to Chicago after the war. So, I probably have an unlimited number of half-brothers, half-sisters, and this and that and the other who are still in the Chicago area. The only time I really tried to make any contact with him was when I was at Los Alamos and I think I had a meeting or something at DOE and happened to have a long layover at O’Hare. And I said, “Ah, what the hell, let me try to see if I can locate him.” And so I called him and he was on the phone, etcetera. At first, “Oh, I’m not such and such,” but I repeated a few facts that my mother had told me and we had a little discussion. And then in my mind, this was a long time ago, of course, in my mind, I said, “Yeah, you know what? The hell with this joker.” Hung up the phone and that was it.
I never had the inclination- one of my kids, a couple of my kids, actually, they use ancestry.com and this and that and the other. You know, they actually fool around with that and have records of slaves and this and all kinds of stuff like that, you know. But I was too busy basically trying to make a way for my family to really get very much into that sort of thing.
So, my mother actually did well considering the circumstances. She tried her best to take care and provide some money and things like that. She remarried, actually, I shouldn’t say remarried. She was not married to my biological father. So, in essence, I am a true bastard (laughter). Actually, I always found that kind of funny (laughter).
In the strict definition of the word, that could technically apply.
That’s right. All my life, you know, I had people talk about that ol’ B when I got teed off or something, it always pops back in my mind. It’s kinda funny. So we lived in New Orleans. I was born and raised in New Orleans, actually. My mother, unfortunately, I was in fourth grade, she got sick with tuberculosis and went to Charity hospital when I was in fourth grade, basically in and out of the hospital until she passed away from TB when I was in eleventh grade, a junior at McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans, which was- well, we would call it today a magnet school. It was a school where regardless of where you lived in the city, if you were black, you would come. And by the way, as you know, all these years of segregationist years, Jim Crow laws, all kinds of stuff going on, etcetera. Did I give you enough? You can ask me whatever you want.
That’s great. And Milt, where did you grow up?
In New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up there. My first- now, we would spend occasionally, we had family in Gulfport, Mississippi, and as a young kid, we would occasionally go there. One of the memories that comes to me was in Gulfport actually. I probably was about five years old, something like that, and my mother was holding my hand and we were on- the main street in Gulfport was not paved, and there was a wooden sidewalk and I remember her holding my hand and then a couple walked out on the sidewalk and they were W folks, white. And I remember my mama actually stepped off the sidewalk to let them go by. And it puzzled me because we were there first, so to speak. They had come out of some little store. And I remember asking my mother, “Why would we move off the sidewalk?” This was a young couple. As a young kid, you don’t have any ideas about this, that, and I just thought it was kind of interesting. And my mother, I don’t know her exact words, she babbled something to me, whatever. And as a young child, you accept it and you move on.
Gulfport, Mississippi, that’s one of my first- there are memories I do have earlier than that. I was a mischievous kid getting in trouble and I guess science, probably because of my mother, always kind of intrigued me. And while we would visit sometimes in Gulfport, I would like to- I’m seven, eight years old, something like that but I’d like to follow the experiments.
Now, you had a lot of roaches in the south, right? Alabama, Mississippi. These are house roaches. I’m not talking about the big cockroaches, right? And I do remember one experiment I was trying to do and that was to see if you had a pregnant house roach, if you put it in the freezer, froze it, took it out a week later, would the damn thing live? And to my surprise, oh, they do.
That was one thing that pops in my mind. Around the same time, I remember I took some hot sauce and I took a live house roach, drew a circle of hot sauce around it with roaches in the middle. The idea seemed reasonable, hot sauce is hot, so I figured this roach would run into the circle and come back. No. House roach loved the hot sauce, ate it up.
And that house we visited, it’s still there. Somewhere in the 3100 block, I think, somewhere on 20th Street. It’s still there, actually. And in that house, my grandmother lived. My great grandmother lived. She was actually born a slave and indeed, actually- let’s see if I can say this correctly, I am a member of the third generation in my family who was not born a slave (laughter). Let’s see, did I get that right? My great grandmother was a slave, my grandmother was not, my mother was not, and yeah. Third generation. So, let’s see, you asked me about mother and father, right?
Yeah. Father, like I said, never knew him and he was not in the picture in my early life whatsoever. And later, my mother met another guy who became my stepfather. He was a truck driver back in New Orleans. And there are lots of memories associated with him as well.
Milt, at what age did you realize that you had a special aptitude for math and science?
Oh, at the time I had no idea about a special aptitude for anything, quite frankly. For me, it was just running around doing, that’s why my family considered me to be mischievous because I’d be doing something crazy or whatever and going out of the house, trying to discover this, like whatever. I had no idea about special aptitudes or anything else. Responsible for that behavior, probably my mother. In fact, I’m not even sure, even today, after all these years, her idea was basically to make sure that I would grow up, be safe, not get shot, killed, or whatever, and have a happy life. I mean that’s basically where she came from because she did- one of the few black folks in those times that really even finished high school, to tell you the truth, just I tried to do that.
And unfortunately for all, she just got sick with tuberculosis, which was very rampant at that time. There’s a drug that they use, it starts with an A (isoniazid), the docs would call Azid- and in my mind it starts with an A, you probably are familiar with it- they were just using that, and what happened of course as you know, bacteria of course can become immune. In fact, (now) in Washington state, there’s been outbreaks of tuberculosis. They’re still using variations of that drug, but they have other drugs now that they can control TB up to a point, except for mutations and so forth.
That’s of course what you see with SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. Have a lot of strains running around, have a lot of mutations as well, and I presume, I mean you can go to sites like medRxiv and other places and read a billion papers and preprints about all this stuff. And indeed, the first strain from the east coming from Europe and the strain coming from the west to Washington state, there’s two actually distinct strains. And now, God knows how many strains there are. Plus, there are a hell of a lot of mutations, most of which don’t really matter, but you never know with bacteria and viruses what kind of mutation can be something like- I don’t know if you saw the movie World War Z?
Yeah, sure. Scary stuff.
It’s bothersome because particularly today’s world, the United States, oh, twenty, thirty years ago had a lot to say in terms of what happened in Europe and other places, you know, in terms of medical research, safety, safeguards, and that’s just gone. So, you’ve got everybody and his uncle, labs and scientists all over the world doing these things. So, it may sound kinda silly, but I actually do worry, not necessarily about something equivalent in World War Z, but you never know.
And particularly, this COVID-19, by the way, you know it’s interesting, learned a couple decades ago, more than that actually, it works by geometry. And so, if it has the right geometric structure, it can proliferate. If it doesn’t, you can stop it. And in fact, some of the research of some of these, I won’t call them cures or vaccines, I think that’s gonna take a hell of a long time if they do things correctly, a lot of research groups were, in fact, when it first came out, I actually started doing a little research myself until I looked and I saw there are a lot of people who have backgrounds in biomedical this and that and the other, mathematicians, physicists, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m just by myself here out here in Pasadena.” So I quit doing that. It’s just easier to see what the hell other people are doing.
Milt, how segregated was your upbringing? Did you or your family interact with white people on a daily basis?
No. New Orleans was a strange place. New Orleans was like an island, always has been actually since its founding. So in New Orleans itself, you actually had a few free blacks, for instance. Blacks who managed to escape, hide their identity or whatever. My wife was born and raised in New Orleans too, but her family had, still has, a lot of French and Spanish inheritance or whatever you wanna call it, goes back centuries.
So New Orleans is very different. In terms of my experience, as a young kid, I noticed- I think I wasn’t really aware of segregation or integration or anything else except in a peripheral manner. I noticed when I was in kindergarten, first, second, third grade, all the teachers of course in the black schools were white, K through five or so. They were all white. I noticed that, but it didn’t have any significance to me. Now the teachers we had actually were great. I got a kick out of that. I had a crush on, I think it was my first-grade teacher who basically, for the kids in the class, she’d made what I discovered would become one of my favorite drinks, was crushed tomato juice in a big giant pot. And she would serve that out.
We moved around a lot because in terms of making money, my stepfather was a truck driver and so whenever the company, I think it was Couch Motor Lines, that was the name of it. You had problems with pay and equities and all that, troublesome days between blacks and whites, etcetera. And so that would cause problems with my stepfather causing him to become upset because he’s not getting paid fairly. If you’re the driver as opposed to the loader, I mean those are different jobs, right? And the driver of the truck, hey, he was like top dog, and because he was black, sometimes that wouldn’t work out too well. I think you asked me about integration and segregation.
Let’s see. I’m not really aware, I noticed a lot of things going on. We lived- in fact, the house is probably still there, we lived at 216 North Prieur Street, about a block and a half from Canal Street, and you could walk from there to Canal Street and then you’d head toward the river and you’re near the French Quarter. And you had the department stores like FW Woolworth, Maison Blanche, D, H. Holmes, etc., There were two of my favorite stores heading toward the river on the “left” side. Krauss, and another store, called Werleins for Music. And I was interested in music. In fact, later on I would play the trumpet, baritone horn, and tuba, etcetera. So, those places were owned by Jewish folks, right? So there was a connection there because the Jews were, you know, now, their status was higher than blacks and so forth, but they were very much aware of prejudices and so forth. I mean I could go to Werleins, hang around in there, nobody would arrest me or whatever or kick me out as a young kid, and I could look at sheet music, look at fancy horns and this and that, stay there forever and it was always fine.
Same thing with Krauss. Krauss was a big department store and it had clothes and things, particularly for black folks to wear to go work in other people’s kitchens, etcetera. So my mother would take me there quite a bit. She would leave the store with some outfit or whatever to wear to work. Her day job—she worked folks’ houses, but she also had a job working in various restaurants. In fact, there’s one in particular that I remember. I think it’s still there operating. It’s called Ye Olde College Inn, and she was like a bus girl, you know, picking up the plate, that kind of stuff.
And she worked hard to maintain things. My stepfather was, unlike a lot of black men, her husband- so, I did have a- there was a male in the house, right, during most of my time. So, I guess I was lucky in that sense, but he was a little- he was running around doing crazy things, but he would bring at least part of his paycheck back home so we could survive. He would do a lot of that.
In terms of integration and segregation, I’m really not aware of it in terms of wanting to do something about it. Certainly, kindergarten through, I’d say, fifth and sixth grade, different schools, we moved around a lot, different neighborhoods. My first four years, K through three, I went to McDonogh 37 Elementary School. And that was a pretty happy time for me as a boy ‘cause Superman was on TV. I think his name was George Reeve. He played Superman on TV, black and white of course. I loved Superman, so I’d put on my cape, I had a teddy bear, and I remember that very well and we had a long- these houses, by the way, in that area were all Spanish-French design, high ceilings, French doors, and all that sort of thing and indeed where we lived was just one room. One room we had there, the giant French door, you opened it up, my uncle and aunt lived in the next section. And later on, my uncle, his name was Walter, and my aunt, she had polio, and my cousins and so forth, if you closed the French door, it was like we had one room, they had one room. And that I remember quite vividly because we had one room and you’ve got- at the time, my sisters were not born so it was me, I slept on the cot. We had a pot to pee in, you know, and that was about the size of it.
And I remember my electric train that I got for Christmas and all that sort of thing. In terms of being fully aware of segregation and integration, no. It just was something that was just there. And I didn’t ride at the time on street cars, buses, and this, that, and the other. My contact with people who were not black was essentially zero. That’s just the way it was. And I didn’t think too much about it, you know. That took a while coming. Probably actually when my realization that something was awry and that maybe I was involved in it, other than just as a spectator, was probably around when I was in maybe sixth grade. There were people- a little background.
In New Orleans, people come in all flavors, right?
Because of the nature of New Orleans as opposed to the rest of the state. You have New Orleans in more than ten square miles. It’s like going to a different country if you’re in New Orleans. And so you had black folks, different complexions. And black people, even today, still have their problems with being very, very black, very, very light, this, that, and the other complexion, right? That’s still a problem with the black community, and at that time it was very heightened, and particularly in New Orleans, because the lighter you were- it’s like apartheid in South Africa, right? Where you have black, color, white, right? Those distinctions.
So, you could fall in the middle group. So, you had a lot of blacks tried to follow the middle group. And in fact, for the few times I would actually get on a bus or streetcar or something like that or whatever, what I noticed, and it led me to begin to kinda become more aware, you had the little pocket, like, you stuck in the seats where it was separated by a doggone sign, right? The front section was white and then you had this damn thing that you would stick in there and it said, “For Whites Only” on the one side of it and the other side said, “For Coloreds Only.”
And so, the bus had a few whites, a lot of blacks, and you could move this damn thing only up to a certain point. The first few feet were structured parallel to the direction of the bus. The second of those seats were perpendicular to that (guaranteed there would always be “white folks” seats available), and there were no holes in those seats to put the sign in. Everything else, that was it. And I began to wonder about that. I mean, what is the meaning of this sign and so forth, but you know, when you’re young, you kinda deal with whatever is there.
And your parents, of course, what they’re doing, this took years for me to realize, all they’re doing is protecting me essentially from raising hell, this, that, and the other. That’s one aspect. The other aspect I noticed, some black folks, hey, they look white and so you might go somewhere, and you see some guy (laughter) that you know, he looks white, but he’s working-people thinks he’s white, right? And he’s got a position reserved for whites. I say to him, “Oh.” And he replies, “Okay, keep that quiet,” which is cool.
At Woolworth, we had the lunch counters and stuff, segregated and all that kinda stuff like that. At Krauss, the same thing was true and while my mother would go there looking for clothes to buy this, that, and the other, she would bring me to the black lunch counter and I’d have pie a la mode, that’s a slice of apple pie and vanilla ice cream, and I was happy to eat that.
An incident occurred there in Krauss. I finished my pie a la mode and I went to look for my mama. I got lost, it’s a big ass store (laughter). I got lost, so I was scared. And we had escalators, believe it or not, and I remember I was scared and I came to the escalator that was going the wrong- it was going up, and I was trying to go down but I did spot her and I remember hollering, “Mama!” She saw me and I went down the damn thing the wrong way. And after that, I said, “I will make sure I stay at this counter eating my pie a la mode even if I’m finished until my mama comes to get me.” That memory always sticks in my mind.
Another memory, a hotel, I think it’s called the Fairmont Roosevelt Hotel now. It was a Roosevelt Hotel and right off of Canal Street and across the street from it was the RKO Orpheum Theater, but next to the Roosevelt Hotel was this little book store. And the guy who owned the book store was extremely nice to me. I’d go in there and it had all these physics and mathematics books, and sci-fi books and all kinds of stuff in there. And he let me sit there and I could stay just reading this stuff, right? And so, I’d go there a lot. That made an impression on me, because for me, I realized that not all people who did not look like me were bad, right? It’s the kinda thing that comes to one’s awareness. You kinda, as a kid you realize- but it also had kinda a negative effect in a sense because it meant I was sometimes not able to distinguish who was good, who was bad, you know? (laughter) Kinda funny you know, when you’re a child.
And environmental awareness is something that actually stayed with me, actually it’s still with me in terms of dealing with kids, graduate students in physics, math, or this, that, and the other, that you have to- just looking at somebody and how they look and all this kinda stuff it really doesn’t matter worth a damn. It’s your assessment of who that person is. And also, universally, what kinda person you are that matters. And that kinda stuck with me as well.
Let’s see, you asked me question segregation and so forth, interesting things that had an effect on my life. We were still living on North Prieur Street, a block and a half from Canal, and my mother didn’t know about it, but I would walk, it was probably a mile or so down to the French quarter, and I remember seeing this young black kid doing the tap-dancing and the singing and all that crap, but he was making money, right? So I said, “Oh, maybe this is a way to make money.” And I guess I was about maybe nine or something around that time, so I said, “Oh.” I went back home, I built a shoe shine box, and brought that with me to the French Quarter. Mom had no idea that I was doing this. And I walked to the French quarter one evening night to set up my little shoe shine boy stuff. I had one customer (laughter). This guy had me shining his shoes and doing this, that, and the other to those shoes, but anything I did, it just wasn’t good enough, right? And I forgot what I was asking, seventy-five cents or whatever the hell for this. And so, I’m working on these damn shoes, right? It must have seemed like forever. And it didn’t matter what I did, I couldn’t get his damn shoes right. So, “Oh, you got this and that,” I made seventy-five cents. I said, “To hell with the shoe shine box.” I lasted one day on the job, right? Now these other kids, and they had a lot of them there, they were singing and playing saxophone, trumpet, or whatever, tap-dancing but that was the end of my career as an entrepreneur in the shoeshine crowd. That made me a little bit more aware too because I noticed all the people there- that was actually on Bourbon Street, the corner of Bourbon and Canal, that’s where I supposedly set up the shop. But I still was not really aware of integration, segregation, in terms of the law or in terms of my rights because hey, I had no idea about stuff like that at that particular time.
Milt, when you were thinking about college, were you thinking specifically about physics? Or that interest developed only during your time as an undergraduate?
My interest in physics and mathematics and all that began years before. Again, probably due to my mother’s wanting to make sure I grew up. And then by that time, I had a sister who was about ten years younger than me, and then another sister I’m fifteen years older. We’re all still stuck in this one room at 216 North Prieur Street. What did you ask me?
When you started to think about physics.
Ahh, physics and math and all that kinda stuff. As I said, I began to be interested in science, not just physics, but the guys around the bookstore would let me just sit there and read stuff. So, I mean I could grab anything off the shelf without paying for it and he didn’t mind if I sat as long as I wasn’t in the way of his customers. So, I think that’s where the beginning of- cause I’m reading all of this stuff, and then I decided, well you know, there were libraries as well. And so I’d go to the libraries and read and this and that and the other. And there’s a little bit of a breaking point here in terms of where we moved, but we’re living other than 216 Prieur Street, we moved. I’m jumping the gun a little bit. I’m trying to answer your question about physics, math, and all that sort of thing. We’re now living at 8839 Oleander Street and there, there was a public library on Carrollton Avenue. I had a bike so I could ride my bike there. So, I’d go to the public library and they wouldn’t let me check out any damn books or anything (W folks only). But the librarians were nice, they were just following whatever the rule was and Jim Crow crap and all this other stuff. But hey, I could sit there and Scientific America was my favorite magazine. I couldn’t check the damn things out, initially. Then the rule on that actually changed and so they would allow me to bring a few things home. And then I read as much as I could. I’d be there for hours. I had nothing else to do anyway.
And I just read a lot. And so my interest in science, not just physics, not just mathematics or anything else. I discovered that I didn’t like chemistry. I discovered that I did not wanna be a doctor and the reason was too much memorization of crap, you know, things that didn’t make any damn sense at the time. Now, of course, things are different. You’ve got quantum chemistry so things are a lot more correlated today, but not at that time. Things were all over the place.
So, I read a lot in science and in fact, I remember in Scientific America, I looked at the back and it had ads. One of the ads was you can buy a little computer project, we’ll mail it to you, or you could buy a little telescope kit. And so I actually did that. To make extra money myself, I delivered Ebony magazine and newspaper for black folks, I’m not sure if it still exists, I think it’s still going called the Louisiana Weekly. And so I would deliver that. I would also cut grass to make extra bucks and that was the money I used to buy my first telescope. So, I put that together, it was a reflector.
So, I knew how to look at sunspots with the box without blinding myself and stuff like that. And that was cool. And my interest in science grew from there in terms of just science in general. It was not physics, not mathematics. In fact, I guess if you wanted to call it anything it was probably astronomy that really caught my eye, with the planets and this and sun spots and trying to watch them and stuff like that.
The physics and mathematics end of it came into play via- there’s a fella, I can’t think of his name- Martin? He would always have an article pretty much in every issue of Scientific America to talk about different things or sometimes it’d be about mathematics, which I would read. And he also would have puzzles in there, typically, to pose to you as a reader, right? To solve. And then the next issue you might get the answers, right? So, I think that prompted me to some degree as well in terms of interest in science and mathematics. By the way, after we moved from that house at 216 North Prieur, I lived in the Magnolia Projects and the Calliope Projects where my mother’s sister lived. So, a lot of my time outside of a place like 216 North Prieur Street was actually being brought up in the projects.
So I’m a little bit older at that time. My interest in physics and mathematics and science was still budding during that period of time, but still not well-defined and so forth. I had no idea of what I wanted to be other than I did not wanna be a doctor, I did not wanna be a minister. By the way, amongst blacks, one way to make money and to do well for yourself in those days was to become a doctor, a dentist, or a preacher.
Although I had that same sort of generic feeling about a lot of doctors and dentists, it’s really just that the ones with whom I came in contact, or at least as I perceived through my child’s mind, everything was basically about making money and moving up the structure, right? The best that you can. I mean, no matter how much money you had, if you were black, you were still black, right? You’re never gonna be- even the Jews in the neighborhood, no matter how much money they had a lot of them lived in fancy places on St. Charles and this, that, and the other but they were excluded from the higher cast in terms of politics and power and so forth.
Which also- as I mentioned to you earlier about Werleins and places like that, Krauss and so forth, the Jewish community and the individual Jews who owned those places had some idea of what it felt like to be discriminated against, right? And that made them more amenable to helping people who were black or this or that or the other, you know, survive.
Let’s see. I think you were trying to get at when did my mathematics and physics really get to the point where it became more serious?
More serious and to the point where you recognized that you were bound for graduate school and that you had the abilities and focus to pursue a career in physics at the academic level.
Yeah. I would say that began- I was in sixth grade and the school I went to was Thomy Lafon Elementary School. It was adjacent to the Magnolia projects (where I also lived). But every kid there was black and pretty much from the projects. There was a teacher, I still remember her, her name was Mrs. Demesme and I was pretty- I was born in June, so I’m Gemini, you know, double personalities or whatever the hell one calls it but I recall I’d be at lunch recess and mess with my Captain Midnight decoder ring. Anyway, when you had enough Ovaltine wrappers and a small amount of money which I did and mailed it to the company they would send you the ring, it utilized lemon juice and crap, you could open the damn ring up and make secret messages, right?
Anyway, you could make stuff visible or not. And I remember Mrs. Demesme coming to me and she would ask me about the ring and other things but she was kind of a caretaker in a way and I realized that hey, while I could play ball or whatever with the tougher guys, I also actually liked to be by myself sometimes. And that got me kind of interested in things external to me. Now this is peripheral to what you were asking, I remember sitting in the school cafeteria and there was a sign up there in the cafeteria it said, “Dear Lord, we offer thanks and praise for food, good health, and happy days.” That kinda piqued my interest because I was more aware, this was sixth grade, because I knew this was kinda funny to have this religious thing in a public school. Now, I didn’t know too much about the constitution, but I did know (in a childish way) that we were supposed to have separation of church and state. And in fact, that’s why I still have it memorized ‘cause I’d sit there looking at this damn sign, right?
My mother was not very religious, but she’d go to church because that was the way to help us basically stay conformist, let’s put it that way. Seventh grade, I went to a school called Priestly Junior High, and my seventh-grade math teacher, by this time, times had changed a little bit. Teachers now were not all white, she was black.
After Scientific America, I had read every mathematics book or whatever I could get my hands on, and she was teaching algebra, well, I already knew that stuff, right? So I’d sit in the back of the class and she’d be at the board and it was boring. And I was a mischievous kid anyway, so I’d interrupt her and say, “Oh, you got that wrong. Oh, that’s right.” And I remember she got teed off with me. She brought me (laughter) to the front of the class and pulled out this big ass ruler and I got- yeah, I got whooped. Actually she didn’t hit me very hard because she liked me, I guess, except for being interrupted in the class, right?
And then I kind of said, “Whoa, there’s something to this stuff.” That was seventh grade. Eighth grade, I got more interested in science and math, and that was actually another algebra class. I would go to the main library ( Robert E. Lee circle!) and a couple of other libraries. There was one that was very close to what used to be called the Calliope projects (that little small library, it was near Washington Avenue close to where Xavier University is now). In that library I read every book I could on science, physics, mathematics, and science fiction. And included amongst those books were things about Los Alamos, World War II, the Manhattan Project and scientists. So that was my first actual idea with what I wanted to be later on when I grew up, that’s where it began actually, in that library. I tried to comprehend material on electrodynamics, Einstein’s stuff, there.
So, that was seventh grade and Eighth grade. Ninth grade, I learned that I had some aptitude for music, which I didn’t know. So, I started playing the trumpet. New Orleans was a very musical city, so you have a lot of big shots actually, black guys who would play gigs up in New York City at the Village Gate, you know, I guess the Tribeca Hour, all those sorts of places. They’d do gigs and stuff like that. And the trumpet just happened and as far as aptitude, what my music teacher, his name was Alvin Batiste—he realized that I had this aptitude for music. Somebody would played something and then I could repeat it, you know? Boom, just like that.
And so, I’d be in class- now I jumped ahead a little bit ‘cause now I’m in tenth grade, that was in tenth grade high school. He’d bring me in occasionally, sometimes he got like a Dizzy Gillespie or somebody would pop in town and he’d say, “Oh,” he’d get me out of class and bring me in. He’d say, “Oh, I got this kid here. Play something and he’ll play it back for you on the trumpet.” And wouldn’t you know the connection there and why I bring that up is because my memory is not eidetic, but it was damn close at the time. I can remember crazy crap, you know, if I looked at ? it would stick in my mind sort of like a still photo and I kinda realized because of the music playing, listening to something, that although I did not have perfect pitch, but I could repeat stuff like that. Mr. Batiste let me play in Black Musicians Union place on Claiborne Ave. I thought for a while maybe I would be a musician, but soon realized there were plenty of other people a hell of lot better than I who didn’t even need practice! Besides I didn’t have the bucks to join the union.
And indeed, I think that was the tenth grade. There were tests and stuff, things you had to take, and I thought it was a joke listening to this test. Anyway, I got called out, the central school board office was right down the street from MacDonald 35, which, by the way, was located right across from the federal building on Loyola. The school is gone, the federal building is still there. And I got called up one day to go down to see some psychologists (laughter) ‘cause they were curious about how this black kid, you know, in this school basically could do this. The ACT wasn’t invented, there was something analogous to the SAT and some other crazy tests. For me, I realized the questions they asked were crazy. And by crazy, they would give me a sequence like one, two, three, four, five and then the question would be, “What’s next?” Right? And you’re supposed to answer six. Now to me, it made no sense because if you’ve got one, two, three, four, five, the next answer could be any damn thing. So, mathematician, right? It could be twenty. But I also had enough common sense to realize that these tests made no damn sense and I was not devoid of a modicum of common sense, so I would try to give people what I thought they wanted and that’s why I was good on those damn tests. Well, this makes no sense, but I think that’s what they’re looking for. These two guys were sitting there, they’re both psychologists, right? Asking me all these idiotic questions about this, that, and the other, and they are giving me some sequence of numbers and asking me what’s next or to repeat it, right?
And my memory is still photographic in a way, I picture things and this- it’s like pulling up things on a computer, right? So I pull up something and there it is and if I can focus in on it, oh, I can see them all, right? That taught me in a way hey, there must be something either wrong with me or something right with me. I didn’t know which. And that was tenth grade. And then there was this test they had- everything was segregated. It was state-wide and they would have these tests basically in algebra, geometry and this- in tenth grade, Mr. White (my geometry teacher), I had a geometry class, which I actually liked, the only problem was hey, I always knew geometry. It’s like equilateral proof of this and all that stuff. And indeed, in the past, I had studied non-Euclidean geometry as well. And so, I would sit in the back of class, but I learned enough not to interrupt whatever the hell he was doing so I wouldn’t get that ruler on my hand, right? But he was very cool, I liked him, and he thought enough of me to actually- he gave me- at the end of the class year he gave me his personal slide rule sheathed in blue leather! I still have it because he’d never seen a student like me, I guess, in his class who knew this stuff- we were compatible, we liked each other.
And indeed, in particular, he was not that versed in the non-Euclidean stuff so he would actually ask me questions about non-Euclidean geometry (which of course made me feel like a big-shot). Anyway, to answer your question which you asked me some time ago, I began to realize, there’s something about me evidently that nature likes that makes me maybe suitable to be a scientist, a mathematician, or whatever the hell.
And so I started going down that line with more cognizance in my mind of that, and so I started trying to build little things, like a little cloud chamber. We had mesons coming in cosmic rays, right? Mesons and this, that, and the other. So I’d get a hold of some dry ice and build my little deal there. It wasn’t a real cloud chamber because there you have electromagnets around it. Anyway, you’d put it there, and one could see those streaks. Those were mesons and cosmic rays coming through leaving a track.
Totally fascinating to me, and no matter where you brought it, they were still coming through. It could be inside, outside, those cosmic rays were “bad boys”. So that was fascinating. And earlier, I had mentioned the telescope, that was fine. That helped a lot.
Oh, I will say that with the telescope, that was on Oleander Street, that came in very handy. We had a lot of bullies, what we call now bullies, right? These are the bad asses of the neighborhood, right? I could fight. You had to survive in the projects, you fight or you die. But I also realized, you know, I’m not the strongest big boy on the block so I could get my ass kicked any time. So how do you handle these guys when they come up and ask you for your damn lunch money? This hard money I earned by delivering Ebony and Jet magazine and stuff like that.
I would get on the street car and drive to the- at the time, the main library was at Lee Circle, by the way, I used to- it would take me a little bit too, the Lee Circle damn street car goes running and I look at this god damn statue up there, and now this time I was more cognizant of the fact that Robert E. Lee was a confederate general in the Civil War.
Anyway, I go in the library there and I get biology books, which I didn’t give a damn about biology, but these biology books—and I could check them out at that time—but they had plastic inserts. The nice thing about them was the plastic inserts would have pictures of female and male genitalia, right? (laughter) So I would check out these little “bad boys” along with the plastic inserts. They seemed to have a bunch of them in there.
And so, when the bullies came around, and if they wanted my money, I’d bring out one of these books, and I’d say, “Hey guys, let me show you something.” And of course the hell with the male penis, the parts that had to do with females though, oh my god. So they left me alone ‘cause I was like somebody they could come to, he’d break out this stuff and explain what’s that note? I’d tell them, well how do you do this? Oh. And so that was the way I—that kept me out of a hell of a lot of fights because I had the bad guys sitting on the little porch next to me with me and my biology book and these inserts and so forth. So I wasn’t dumb. I figured out a way to get around that.
Let’s see. In eleventh grade, my mother was still in the hospital. She passed away when I was sixteen and I was in French class and by this time, the main library was in downtown New Orleans. I could walk there from my high school. I could cut class, nobody gave a damn really. And now they had a bigger collection of books. I would see all the white people water fountains, black people water fountains, trolleys and this that and the other.
By this time, I’m cognizant, to some degree, of segregation, Jim Crow, the whole damn thing. What I really liked, at the library they had a fantastic dictionary. This sucker was about that thick, but it had all the words in there and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, like hey, that’s the male part of me, right? Hey, I got a kick out of this etymology right in all these damn books. So that had nothing to do with physics, that had to do with the male side of me. And my uncle Walt, which I haven’t really talked about much, but he taught me one thing when I- By the way, my mother was in the hospital all these years so what would happen is I would spend a lot of time living with my uncle or aunt in these different places. My uncle Walter, who was also a truck driver, he told me one thing when I was young, which still sticks with me, his phrase was, “Girls are not soft boys” (laughter). And to me, that was like realization. My god, that explains it. Girls- I have no idea. They’re crazy, right?
One time I’m pulling on their hair and doing crazy things, later on when the hormones blew, oh my god, you know, you get a crush on this girl and this, that, and the other. Anyway, he told me, “Milt, girls are not soft boys. Would you please remember that?” And that did stick with me and it helped me to cope with the other gender, right, female. And to kind of get along with them and to control my- to try to understand the best I could of who they were.
Eleventh grade, all these tests and things are going on. Championships- let’s see. tenth grade I was champion state fair in geometry. twelfth grade I was state champion in trig, advanced calc, but things were still segregated. So you had a black state championship, you had a white one. And they would bring us to Southern University in Baton Rouge for the tests.
Anyway, in eleventh grade, I came in second to a good friend of mine. His name was George Washington, not quite as knowledgeable as I was probably but he came out of what was called the Desire project, which was the worst project in the world. He had tons of brothers and sisters, spent a lot of time just trying to make money to help support the family. A very good friend of mine. So actually, I was quite happy that he beat me out in eleventh grade in algebra. And so, we were good friends. In twelfth grade, we had a principal, that was McDonogh 35 High School, his name was Dr. Mack J. Spears, he had a doctorate from Yale and while at Yale, he knew a guy whose name was John W. Alexander, who became acting dean at Columbia College of Columbia University in New York city. Well they knew each other. And so, in twelfth grade and also the latter part of eleventh grade, he mentioned me, unbeknownst to me, to Alexander. And said, “This kid needs to go to some great place.”
And so, in twelfth grade actually, Dr. Alexander and Dr. Spears worked it out so that I had a full scholarship to Columbia College to go to school. Somewhere in that time and that was twelfth grade. I was living with my uncle and aunt in the Saint Bernard project, which is a hell of a place. I mean bullets coming through the walls. Anyway, I remember there was some mail from MIT. Maybe it was like an early acceptance piece. I wound up going to Columbia and that was the summer of ’62. Actually I had to make some money. I worked at the Pontchartrain Golf Club doing like bus boy stuff to make money to buy a foot locker, to get enough money to get a train ticket from New Orleans to New York. I’d never been on a train before. I think your initial question was regarding how long ago was my interest in physics and mathematics.
At that particular time, actually, what was at the top of my mind was not physics, was actually mathematics because every time I read something on physics, hey, they’re doing all this mathematics, right? So that kinda jumped to the forefront, and of course as I told you before, all these years before, reading all this stuff—oh and the other set of books, which I don’t know if you ever read them, they’re actually good, not if you’re not a physicist but it’s The World of Mathematics by Newman. Have you read that?
I have, yes.
It’s a great set. In fact, I still have a copy I managed to buy, somewhere. I don’t know where the hell it is because many years later, Katrina came along and just wiped away a lot of stuff. But I grabbed that. And I’m jumping around I know ‘cause you’re bringing up things from my memory.
That’s fine. Milt, let’s talk about why did you decide to stay in New Orleans for graduate school? Did you consider programs beyond or did you wanna stay close to home?
No. Getting the full scholarship to Columbia was a great thing for me, it’s just how do I get there? What do I do? Living in New Orleans, the furthest I had been away from home was probably Gulfport, Mississippi, towns like Sweet Beulah, Mississippi, or Perkinston, Mississippi. So, my knowledge of the world, other than from books, was limited. Going to Columbia was- let me back up a little bit because they deserve some mention.
There was a Jewish family, the Mintz family, in New Orleans. They had a furniture store. They still do. And they, it turns out that several members, including their son Donald Mintz, they had gone to Columbia as well, the father and the son. When the Columbia scholarship materialized, beginning September of 1962, they contacted me by phone and provided a little mentoring and sponsorship. Of course, most of it went into my naïve ear and came out the other, but that was the beginning of my thinking about what I could do. I could tell you, I got into New York city and I guess- have you been on the campus of Columbia?
You know you got the sundial there. And so, I get there, I managed to make my way via bus and subway. I’d never seen the subway and all that kinda stuff. Anyway, I get to campus, they assign me a room and blah, blah, blah. And I get a beanie and a jacket and this is my first couple nights on campus. And I’m sitting on the damn sundial, I had my little beanie on, Columbia College beanie, powder blue. And there was some other Columbia kids around as well. Columbia had a quota at a time, roughly four blacks per school. Now there were a couple other guys who claimed there’s five or six, but I never met ‘em. I knew four, including myself. Anyway, I’m sitting there with my little beanie on trying to figure out what’s the next move? What do I do? How do I eat? Where do I go? And stuff like this. And this young girl-what Columbia would do, they’d bring in girls, Barnard, of course is right across the street, you got Vassar, right out of Poughkeepsie. Then you’d have girls out of Sarah Lawrence College. But they had all these young girls and they’re all white, right? Some good-looking, some not, whatever. This young girl, I’m sitting with my little beanie, minding my business. She snatches my beanie, I guess they were told, “You see a Columbia guy, you snatch his beanie and run.” So, she snatched the god-damn beanie off my head and I looked at her, she was running away, and I said, “Oh my god, she’s white” (laughter). I didn’t know what to do. If I start running after her-I’m remembering all that history, you know, segregation, Jim Crow, right? In my mind of course, I didn’t know what to do. I said I ain’t going after her like some of the other guys were after- hey, they are all white, some girl snatches their beanie, they run after and chase her, she giggles and crap, right? I just sit there. She sees me, I guess, I don’t know what the look was on my face, but she realized that I didn’t know what the hell to do so she brought the damn beanie back (laughter).
Anyway, that solved that problem. And we talked a little bit. And later on that night, there was a dance. And I debated whether I should go or not ‘cause I figured everybody at the damn dance is gonna be white, number one. I’m probably gonna be- the other blacks, there were four, but I hadn’t yet met the other three, right? So I’m the only black guy that I see around there, right? And so I decided to go. I go in there and there was some guys with tuxes on and all kinds of crap, and then what I consider to be lousy music or whatever. So I became a wallflower. The same young girl comes up to me, she had sympathy and empathy, you know, could be like that right. And men too, but women, quite often, they can do that.
Anyway, she must have seen my perplexed state and she actually came up and said, “Would you like to dance?” And I said “okay.” So we danced and this, that, and the other. And to make a long story with her, we actually had a date. I took her to a movie, it was up around 96th Street, which was quite hilarious. I recall the detail about that date. I often wonder what happened to her, but she was a very nice modern art student, by the way.
Okay. Back to September of 1962. Classes and stuff like that—I signed up for calculus, I wanted to do that and it was Columbia had calculus C, B, and A. C was the toughest one. B was just the regular one for science and engineers. Calc A was for those premed students, right? To get into Calc C, one had to take a test to get into the damn thing. And it turned out there were two others who wound up having to take the test to get into Calc C, it turned out the other guy, he was a W guy, a white guy and he was from New Orleans actually, and we’re both sitting there taking this test .I forget what his test- on my test, I had to prove the binomial theorem, which was great actually ‘cause I remembered the crap, I knew how to prove it, so I passed the test and I got into Calc C. And that went on, the only problem, which turned out later to have a fundamental effect on me in terms of physics and mathematics, was in the class, it turned out the guy who was from New Orleans, he dropped out after a while. He just couldn’t put up with all that stuff in calculus C.
In my case, my grades were like Bs, Cs, Ds, and this. And the other four or five, I think the class is like seven people. These guys came from schools like Phillips Exeter and Andover. And many them, I mean, Calc C was, hey, they already had this stuff, right at the δ and ε level álá pure math? And it affected me greatly for the rest of my life, little fish in big pond. Actually the professor for that class, I remember him calling me and this was after maybe half the semester were over or something like that in his little cubicle office type of deal and he told me that I should drop out of Calc C, back to B or whatever the hell I wanted to go into because I’m gonna get Bs and Cs, but everybody else is getting A+s, As, and A-s? And tears came out of my eyes because it just- I’ve never had anything like that happen to me. It felt akin to the big fish coming down to the little sea and all of a sudden, I’m at Columbia and crap, they came from really top-notch places.
But hey, I could hold my own, it’s just that I wasn’t getting A+s. And it affected me deeply and had a bearing for the rest of my career, even today, that this professor told me I should drop out of the damn thing. And at that point, the rebellious part of me solidified and I knew that, at the time, I wanted to be a mathematician. Physics sort of came in my sophomore year taking classes in electromagnetism and this from a really famous guy and later on at Columbia from Nobel Prize winners, nuclear physics. My only problem was that by this time, I was totally screwed up mentally because of all the changes of going to New York City, right? And you’re too young to know about this stuff, but you got LSD running around with that guy Timothy whatever his name-
Leary, yeah. That’s his name. Thank goodness I never actually messed with LSD. So, you had kids on peyote. Codeine, Cocaine, you could get as much of that as wanted. Just go to the drug store and buy a bottle of Romilar cough syrup, right? It’s full of codeine. Yeah, you could buy a bottle of that stuff if you wanted to. You know the Vicks VapoRub, you stick that tube up your nose? It’s full of what is it, dextromethorphan I believe that’s the name. You crack that sucker open and you put it in a cup of hot coffee, it melts, you drink it, oh, you’re like as high as a kite, right? Stuff like that. Didn’t mess with that as it ruined one’s cup of coffee. So, all this stuff is going on in New York City and I’m a freshman and a sophomore at Columbia and you got all these women and girls, many of whom whose parents were wealthy, they come out of Westchester, or this, that, and the other county, and New York’s crazy as I am, right? And young girls, they wanna do their thing too, particularly if they see a black guy. “Oh, that’s something new. Oh, let me go mess with him.” Right?
So you have all these things going on as well. And then of course cultures, right? Other than my Jewish mentors back in New Orleans, and musicians in St. Albans, most people treated me really nice. In terms of religion, that was a Russian Orthodox church, it’s still on the campus of Columbia. There was a Lutheran church up on the street on Broadway. I’m not a religious guy by no means, but I would go there, not so much for the religion or anything, but just to sit there and have a sensible lecture or a sermon actually given that made some sense, right? ‘Cause I came out of New Orleans and the saying was, “Baptist born, Baptist bred, when I die, Baptist dead,” right? My girlfriend- that’s another story too, I can spend a lot on that- but anyway, my girlfriend, later my wife, she was Methodist. And we got married, I said what the hell? “Methodist born, Methodist bred, when I die, Methodist dead” (laughter).
Anyway, the same thing sort of happened at Columbia,in terms of affecting my physics, science, and mathematics, it was 1962, JFK (John F. Kennedy) gave his October speech, right? We almost had nuclear war. I watched JFK give his speech in Ferris Booth Hall. He was assassinated November 22nd, I believe, 1963.
Anyway, I watched that and his speech and what occurred to me was the fact that I’m in New York city. My family is in New Orleans, so we have nuclear war, what the hell am I gonna do? How do I get down there to protect, you know, what’s left of my family? Anyway, those days were kind of goofy. I am rambling a little bit, so please keep me on track.
No, you’re doing great.
So, another thing that affected my wanting to be a scientist, physicist, or mathematics or whatever, there was another black guy, he was two years ahead of me. I think he’s still alive and lives in North Carolina. He was a brilliant physicist, Rhodes scholar. He was two years ahead of me and in physics. So here was a black guy I ran into. And so I obviously looked up to him, right? ‘Cause he was doing well at Columbia. And but I did recognize the point. He basically was a salesman at the time, even though he was in physics. He really was a salesman. In fact, during the time, I remember him forming some groups. He tried to form a group with the Shirelles, a singing group. I had some interest in them. Another time, there was a restaurant that was at- let’s see, near 114 Street and Broadway, called the West End. You kinda nodded, yeah, you know the West End?
I went to NYU, I spent four years in the village.
Oh, you went to NYU. Okay. Go ahead.
No, no, please. I know it, but you have the stories.
Yeah. The West End was our hangout. The owner was a guy named Sol, S-O-L, and that was his last name. I forget his first name. An older guy, but he was very kind to us, in particular to me ‘cause when money wasn’t- I had a meal job that I used to work my meal ticket and all this other crap and but hey, if I didn’t have a meal on a given day (like summer in NYC), he would let me have eggs, I’d mash them up and he’d give me mayonnaise and pickles and crap and a slice of bread, hey, I had something to eat no matter what, right? In the West End.
And the West End was a collection of company. If you wanted to find a girl, hey, that’s where you went, to the West End bar. And you’d find a collection, by the way, I’m not the only goofy, crazy joker in there, right? Most of the people in there were young students and you got all these things going on. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, blah, blah, blah. You got this going on, you got all these things going on at the time. Civil rights. And in fact, SNCC, I remember the Columbia chapter had gotten corrupted, unbeknownst to the mother organization. The local chapter of SNCC, a couple of guys, they were running the local chapter, the Columbia chapter. They were bosses (laughter).
Okay. And they would try to- so the problem they had with their chapter is that they had no black people there. And so that’s why they were talking to me, trying to convince me to join the bad boy. The problem they had with me was they were talking about a lot of pure BS, this that and the other, which I thought, “Hey, there’s some good things about some of this stuff, but in the real world it’s never gonna happen because why? It never happened to me.” If I were a believer in your stuff you’re expounding, and this and that and the other, you know, maybe I woulda been able to connect. I didn’t have crap. You’re talking to the wrong guy. I’ll never forget those two guys. My nickname for one of those guys was google eyes.
Anyway, that was SNCC. You had all these things going on campus. And by the way, I can’t leave this out, the guy who got me in, he was acting dean John W. Alexander. White guy, he was born and raised in Macon, Georgia. I drove him absolutely crazy because he felt responsible for me, you know, with my principal Dr. Spears back at high school, they went to school as I said, Yale University and all that but he was responsible for me, the dean’s fund. I got up there to New York in September, I didn’t have a damn coat. It didn’t occur to me that it gets cold up there, so one needs a damn coat.
And I know he acting dean before David Truman. So, anyway, and my classes in my freshman year at Columbia, hey, I do a little French, so complete assignment, then shove it under the class door. Same thing for English but It was terrible. I always hated Shakespeare. Beowulf was even worse. And my English class in my freshman year, the poems I read and liked were by T.S. Eliot. Yeah. That, I felt, made sense. I could actually read his poems and say, “Oh, this is pretty nice.” The rest of it, as far as I was concerned, was crap. Beowulf and Shakespeare, I mean I knew ‘cause back even in high school, people loved Shakespeare, you had plays you know. So, I knew he was a big guy, I just could never really get meshed with Shakespearean type stuff.
But John Alexander, I drove him nuts because I was doing all these goofy-ass things and he called me in, first of all, the coat. I came to his office, it was getting cold. It hadn’t snowed yet. This is probably October. And he realized I’m sitting there, I didn’t have a damn coat. And he asked me if I had a coat, I said, “No.” So he actually gave me money to go and buy a damn coat, which I kept for many years, actually. I think Katrina destroyed it, but I did so many crazy things, and he just didn’t know what to do with me. I’m sure he’s dead and gone and all that. I tried to look him up and find out and thank his family, but I’ve only been partially successful.
Anyway, I drove him absolutely nuts in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965. I drove him nuts for four years because he felt responsible for me, right? ‘Cause he was partly responsible for me being there. And in fact, I’ll relate an interesting thing, and this is like 1965- so I’m jumping ahead. I was still doing goofy things, going to physics classes and shoving assignments and whatever under the door.
So, he set up this meeting. I’ll never forget it. It was myself, Dean Alexander, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, another guy who was a big shot, they gave him a Nobel Prize, he taught nuclear, and we all met at the faculty club at Columbia at Morningside, Christ, you know, right there by the gates where that young lady recently, you may remember, it was only about a block away. We met at the faculty club there, I sat down at this table and it had all these spoons and forks to the right, spoons and forks to the left. I was like, “Holy,” in my mind. I’m saying, “What the hell? I’m an octopus?” I had no clue (laughter). There were people doing this and that and they had napkins and I tried to follow what everybody else and the reason why he set this up was because the two physics guys, they had concerns with me because when I would turn in stuff, the stuff would be good and all that, but I wouldn’t show up. And I wasn’t like the other students. And then some of my grades were slipping and this and he’d get the records and stuff and that’s why he called me in, to try to see if he could- like I said, I was driving him nuts.
And that was almost his last effort to kinda put me on the right track and he figured by having these two big shot physicists there, right, that that would help. The problem was, like I said, even for me, I got all these forks and spoons. I must have had ten different little bowls, and then the waiter, I look at him, he’s black. Everybody in here is white, except for me. So, for me, it was like the wrong message, right? But I knew what he was trying to do, he was trying to help me through these big shot physicists sitting there, but it wasn’t working ‘cause my mind was not on that. It was on should I use that fork or this? Mimicking what this guy is doing. The whole damn thing was me trying to figure out how to eat.
Yeah so it was a total waste. Now for him, I have no idea. That was his second to last time to help me. And I’m skipping ahead a little bit. Years later, he actually invites me into his office there at Columbia and he basically tells me, “You know, you’re driving me nuts, Milton. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me out? What can I possibly do, etcetera, etcetera.” So, he rambles through a lot of stuff, and the one thing that he says- and you gotta remember, Vietnam was hot by that time. And so, he brings up the military ‘cause he did have enough sense to realize I needed structure in my life. And I’ll interject this quickly. My family in New Orleans, my uncle Walt, they had moved to California by that time. So in terms of me, I had no one left in New Orleans, right, who were like my surrogate father, surrogate mother, and all this type of thing. So I really felt alone, which was contributing to my foolishness.
So anyway, he brought up the idea of military and so in there he brought up the air force and that brought me back to my childhood because I saw the Thunderbirds fly over my house when I was a young kid. They were like at tree-top level, and I just thought that was fantastic. And so, the next day, actually unbeknownst to Dean John Alexander, I went down to Times Square to find a recruiter. He lied to me. I said, “I wanna be a jet pilot.” “Oh, you can do this, you can do that.” I signed up to do that (laughter). Of course, I wound up doing something totally different.
By the way, I jumped ahead a lot because prior to that, I went on probation at my end of my sophomore year and I decided to hitchhike down to New Orleans. My uncle had already gone to California, but another aunt and cousins were still there. And so, I decided to go there, dumb idea. I did a little research. I knew Highway 11 would get me there. I think the 81 is now the freeway. But I think it was under construction or not built at the time. So Highway 11- this is summer of ’64, so I decide to hitchhike. And I started my hitchhike at the GW Bridge and that worked for a while. I got my first ride with a truck driver that got me into Pennsylvania. Some other hitch guys and so forth. Then I got in trouble near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Slept at a Laundromat. Slept at a gas station one night. Anyway, it was terrible. Made it through Maryland and I got to- it’s called Front Royal, Virginia. Are you familiar with Front Royal?
Yeah, Front Royal, at the time, it was like a pass. You’d go in there, it’s the pass to get you into Virginia really, at the time. I don’t know what the hell it is now. And I’m thirsty, food, money was low. So I walked into literally Front Royal. I see a US Postal Service. I said, “Oh, post office. Bam, they gotta have a water fountain or something, I can get a water or whatever.” So, I go to this bad boy and I noticed that the little mailboxes, there’s a door so I open the door and there’s this woman (laughter). So, she’s in her, like, what do you call, night clothes?
Yeah. And she’s white. Blonde hair. I said, “Oh my god, I’m gonna get lynched.” But actually she was quite nice. And hey, I’m a young dude and all that I guess. Anyway, it worked out perfectly fine. She said, “Son, excuse me, blah, blah, blah.” I had water and so forth and that was good, worked out fine. I didn’t get hanged, lynched, or whatever, or get the crap beat outta me.
That’s very good. That’s right, I survived that and in Front Royal I also-there was a grocery store on the south side of 11 and there- this is before the post office, actually. It had a water fountain and there was a guy in a rocking chair on the porch. I said, “Okay, I can go there and just turn to the water fountain and get a drink of water.” And I went to do that and he said, “No” (laughter). “No water for you, boy.” I knew I was in big trouble. And then later on in the post office.
Anyway, so that was Front Royal, Virginia. I finally eventually made it down to Roanoke, Virginia and there- it was about 4 o’clock in the morning, I sat on the porch there. I had friends there, family there, the Dudley family. I knew the address and everything and I just waited ‘til lights came on. The reason why I knew the address, the Dudley family had a son who was another black guy who was also a junior at Columbia. He was also in the navy in ROTC, but he had a girlfriend named- anyway, he went off the rails and so forth. He disappeared for a long time. His family came up from Virginia to try to locate him. That’s why I knew his family and I knew their address in Roanoke, Virginia. So all I had to do was figure out how to get to the address and so forth. And even to this day, I still do not know what happened to their son in terms of Columbia. Let me back up a little bit more ‘cause I’m jumping ahead. I went kinda nuts in 1964, semester ended, and freedom riders and all that.
Yeah, unbeknownst to me ‘cause I wasn’t clued into anything other than craziness, the route I decided to try to take was Highway 11. Lucky for me, I just happened not to be in troubled Mississippi area, cause I had that bus ticket by the Dudley family to get on the damn bus to get to New Orleans, right?
I woulda been in that general area where those three guys, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed, right? Hey, it’s like being in another timeline, right? I’m a physicist, timelines and quantum- anyway. So, I get down to New Orleans and this is summer of ’64 and it turned out Boeing was there and they were gonna cooperate with NASA to build the Saturn-1C booster—booster rocket that became part of the if I recall correctly, was the rocket Apollo 11. So, I said yeah, what the hell, I can make some real money. So, I went there and applied for a damn job as an engineering aide. And they hired me in June, early July, of 1964 to join them. And Boeing set up a temporary office at a vacated SEARS building downtown. They later moved their operation to Michoud where NASA was. And so I became a member of that group, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was like the mascot. Young kid. My physics and engineering was good.
And in fact, exceeded some of the engineers. The group leader was a guy named Richard Maltheson. I’ll never forget him. That joker was about 6’ 4’’, red hair, out of Boston. He loved his big-ass cigar and he was a great guy. And the problem we had with the Saturn-1C was basically the hydrogen and oxygen splashing. And that would cause problems, misfires, blow-ups and all kinds of crap, so we had to come up with a way to prevent that. Anyway, they played jokes on me and one of the jokes they played was—and we didn’t have all the fancy calculators and the computers at the time and so, they put me on a Friden calculator, F-R-I-D-E-N, Friden calculator which with limited machine precision numerical capacity. And they’d tell me to solve this problem which involved holes in a large matrix. I was too stupid to realize that at some point trying to solve, talk about basically a system of thirty, forty equations, right? To be solved simultaneously. There’s no way a Friden machine was gonna be able to handle that. It just wasn’t gonna work. They put me to work on that and I had a few days to complete the task and so each day, they would check in with me and each day I would lose, it was a joke.
And eventually, I mean I worked my ass off trying to do this until I finally realized that machine accuracy, it doesn’t matter. I could be Newton, it wouldn’t matter. I would not be able to solve this problem this way because machine would run out of accuracy, it just couldn’t compute using those techniques. And I tried every damn technique known to mankind to work this. And finally, I gave up, admitted to defeat, and then they- I remember there was this one guy, he was a good friend, a Lebanese guy and a couple other guys as well. They came, “Ah, Milt, you finally figured out the trick. It’s like we handed you an impossible problem and you were stupid enough to try to solve it” (laughter). But it was nice working there because I was getting a paycheck every two weeks. I had a confidential clearance, I could go to Dooky Chase. You know Dooky Chase, the restaurant?
Yeah, I’d go to Dooky Chase every other payday, get some nice food. Turned out there was a black engineer, first black engineer I actually ever met, who worked in a totally different division- Boeing was quite large. I never would see him at work, but it turned out he liked to go to Dooky Chase at the same time. And by the way, Dooky Chase, if you’ve been there, you know it’s right across the street from a project, Lafitte project, right? And the parking was terrible and you could get mugged very easily, anyway, until they built that little parking lot. So I’d go there, and that was quite nice going there. So, I was on probation from Columbia at the time, and in fact, when I was there, I got drafted because I was working, I got drafted. I went down to the Customs building. Turned out I was flat-footed, but unlike Trump, that didn’t get me out.
Also, a little color blind, which I didn’t know. That didn’t do it either. And at the time, I actually- part of me didn’t give a damn about this and I figured, “Well, you know, back in the Columbia days, when I went back there, maybe I could become a pilot and stuff like that,” who knows what my crazy thoughts were? And somewhere in that process and I went through the whole process. I remember going to the federal building. So, you’re there in a line to determine whether you were going to be Army or Marines. Okay, marines- Oh, Army- just depended on your position in the line. That’s what it was. Like what? This makes no sense. Anyway, it turned out none of that mattered because what came in the mail, I think it was called a full 2S-deferment for students?
Yeah. And that got me out of that all mess, so I was able to go back to Columbia in 1965, where I proceeded to make the same damn mistakes I was making earlier in my life. Mathematics- to get back to what you were asking me- was still there. It was overriding. By this time, I knew I did not want to be a mathematician. I wanted to be a physicist. That had solidified. And then of course I told you about signing up at the air force in Times Square where I figured I could use my skills to revolutionize the air force, right, I’m dumb and stupid, right?
And what happened was I got down to- oh, I signed up at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. Yeah, that’s where I signed up. And my ass was down at Lackland Air Force Base that night. It was cold, I had this joker bark into my ear and I said, “Slaughter, you have made a fundamental mistake.” Hey, I was twenty-one pretty much and all the other people around me were like little teenagers and teenyboppers. Twenty-one when somebody’s eighteen or nineteen makes a hell of a big difference, right? Cause you look at them, you say, you know- it was crazy. Anyway, basic training occurred essentially, which I loved. Everybody thought I was crazy. In fact, my first night in the military, the air force actually, it’s called S.O.S (laughter). Never seen S.O.S. before. Hey, that’s some good stuff there.
I went back for seconds and thirds (laughter). The other guys, they were all recruits like that, they thought I was nuts, right? But hey all it is beef and a nice- I don’t know if you’ve had S.O.S before- it’s good. Beef chips and stuff or bread, hey, toast? It’s great. Throw an egg and some bacon and man, you got a nice breakfast.
There you go.
Yeah, there you go. Military service taught me a lot of things. The key thing was that it actually put me on track to be a disciplined person because in basic training, when I looked around- I was in the air force at Lackland Air Force Base, the guys on my flight- the flight is sort of like an Army company and I was the only black in there. I was the oldest person in there at twenty, twenty-one. And when I looked around, there were people- California, Texas, two largest states in the country. So, most of your recruits and people come from there. The other kids come off farmlands in Montana, Idaho, places in the deep south, and a lot of these kids had never ever seen a black person before. Or even talked to a black person. Hey, they come outta farms, this, that or the other. Country is big. And so in the military, you all jammed up in there, you’ve probably seen that movie Full Metal Jacket? I don’t know if you saw that movie.
Actually, that room where that sarge- let’s see- anyway, the drill sergeant, it’s almost a duplicate of the barracks that I was at, actually. It was almost, almost, not quite. And some of the things they played with, that guy who gets beaten with the socks, I didn’t get beaten with socks—but that’s called short sheeting. So I got short sheeted, but in a nice way. And we short sheeted other people too. Anyway, the thing that came through me and I was the oldest guy in there, and I was black, and I’d been to New York city and New Orleans, and in New Orleans, you’re used to seeing different types of people. And then I’ve got all these people from places like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, farmlands stuff and this. And then you’d meet people from different religions as well, right? And most of them didn’t give a damn about religions, like I did, except a couple guys who were Mormons (laughter). And they were the only guys I had any hassles with because at the time, if you were black, you couldn’t get up to the heaven, you know, you could die, you couldn’t make it there, that was part of the public church at the time. That’s changed of course now. But that gave me a sense of discipline and because I- in fact, we had two DIs, and the military does bad cop, good cop. That’s the way they tend to do it. They tend to use two guys. And the youngest, my drill sergeant, I was almost as old as he was, you know? Like twenty-three years old, right? But he had served time in Nam and he was back rotating.
Anyway, so they looked at me and so they assigned me- they would talk to me a little bit different than the other recruits ‘cause I was closer in age to them and so forth. So they would come to me and say, “Hey, Slaughter, we’re having a problem with- it’s all one on one stuff-having a problem with this guy, that guy. Can you tell us what can we do to make things right in this fight?” Which is like I say, in the air force, it’s like a company. And things like that. And that was fine ‘cause that made me feel good, made me feel like I was useful. The other thing they did that I totally think they screwed up on, they had me march these jokers from the barracks to the hospital across the base and I told the youngest DI, Vezeldinos, that was his name, I told him, “Sergeant I don’t think this is a good idea for you to have me march these fools across the base.” In formation, salute, and all of this stuff.
And some of these guys, they really don’t like my guts anyway. So first of all, the black dude-anyway, that happened. He said, “By God, you will march these guys.” So, I managed to get ‘em up through the base and then they go through checkups, me included. Then we had to bounce back across the damn base and all hell broke loose ‘cause one of ‘em actually started in the ranks calling me names and this. I lost my cool. So, I’m in command of these idiots. I called one of them everything but the son of God (laughter). We finally made it back to barracks.
The reason why I bring it up is that it added a sense of discipline on top of everything else. And later on- I’m jumping ahead now because what happened was these idiotic tests, they give you all kinds of tests in the military, you have no idea what the hell you’re taking, they just give you tests. You go there, you take this test. Well I’m good at tests so I figured out what the hell these fools want me to say. So evidently, I was a fool again. So, instead of being lined up having a shot at being a pilot or a navigator, they said, “You know, Slaughter, you’d make a damn good linguist.” I said, “What?” I don’t like language. I hated French. I can’t even speak- by the way, you come outta New Orleans, you kinda speak like you’re from Brooklyn. Brooklynese and English, they’re close.
Yeah it’s kinda crazy, I only discovered that in my freshman year. My freshman English teacher thought I was from Brooklyn, in his last class we went outside and everybody was gone except for me and him and we sat under this tree right near Broadway actually, on the campus, and he asked me, he go, “Well you’re from Brooklyn.” I said, “Brooklyn? I’m from New Orleans.” And we talked about that. That was my English teacher. I can’t think of his name right now.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, afterwards. Anyway, so I became a linguist and they assigned my behind to Russian. Now, that I thought was good, and in the meantime, can I be a Pilot they said “No”, I said, “okay, what the hell, can I be a navigator?” “No, I don’t think so.” So, I went to typing class. I did about twenty words per minute correctly. That was the deal to get the hell outta there. So a week or two of that, I got out. Anyway, I was a linguist and finally basic training was over. By the way, everybody thought I was crazy. You know, basic training you go up swinging and climbing up crap and this, that, and the other. For me, that was fun, man. Running? I was the fastest guy, like the third or fourth guy. I was in damn good physical shape.
So for me, basic training was fun. And that made me the odd ball, right? ‘Cause everybody else hated it, you know? And like I said, S.O.S., hey, this is damn good food man. So I was looking forward to every day of basic training, you’re doing something crazy. You know, swinging on some rope or whatever the hell they came up with, this is cool. I remember that.
It added to my sense of discipline and actually the military was, quite frankly, it’s responsible for me being alive today because I got discipline. Later on, after getting married, I was assigned, by the way, as a linguist, they assigned me to Russian. I thought that was cool because Russia- the Soviet Union at the time would be great because of physics and mathematics, right? That was still in my mind. I wanted to be a physicist, so Russian would be great.
So I was on base. Actually, I was on that damn base for like two and a half months or so and I was supposed- in Russian, I was supposed to go to Syracuse University because the military had a deal with Syracuse to teach you Russian. My problem was teeth. My teeth needed certain work and this- and it wasn’t available there at a military base near Syracuse University. So that’s why I was on Lackland Air Force Base for like two and a half months, in the interim they had to give me something to do, so instead they assigned me to kinda be like the manager of the big-ass mess hall. And of course, you have your badge with the name Slaughter up there, and all these jokers coming in, you just check ‘em in, you check ‘em in, you know, hundreds of them, right? And of course some black dudes would come in and I noticed a few who had the name Slaughter there. And of course, I’d say, “Oh, this guy related to me or not?” So that was interesting.
And then I’d get a chance to roam the base. I had nothing else to do. I was waiting for my next assignment from Syracuse University, Russian was out, and I’ll throw in this, kinda funny, I remember it as well, there was a part of Lackland Air Force Base set aside for women and I and several other guys, we sneaked over to the women’s side of the Lackland Air Force Base and we were watching the women to see how they do their training. That’s why we were interested, besides just the women, right?
And you know, you have slogans, right? In the military, the sergeant, he’d drill ya and he’s singing songs and you’re singing, that’s how they do all that stuff. And so, we watched the women go through that stuff and we wondered what kind of songs and slogans were they singing, and one of the slogans I kind of remember—the female drill sergeant—she’s maybe thirty, forty, I remember her saying all I wanna hear is- this is the interview, right? “All I wanna hear is p…..s sucking air” (laughter).
That was the funniest thing. So we brought that back, after we sneaked back to the male side of the base, right? We told them about it, “Hey, that’s what they do over there.” Their slogans are not at all like our slogans. Our slogans were killing somebody, shooting somebody, or whatever the hell. Theirs about p…..s sucking air. Now this one may have to be edited, right? (laughter) I don’t know. Actually I don’t care.
So, that was that. I finally got an assignment. The assignment was, believe it or not, all Vietnamese major dialectics. I got orders, a little tube, they’d give you a little tube of crap and they said North Vietnamese in particular. So they flew me out to Fort Meyer, not Fort Meyers, Florida, Fort Meyer, Virginia. You may be familiar. Anyway, that’s where there was a little base there. In fact, Vietnamese was being taught there. So, I get there and the next day I walk in, it was Major Jones. I give him my salute and so forth. He told me, “What the F are you doing here?” It turns out, because I signed up at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, and my home was New Orleans, they had sent my real orders to the wrong damn place. I had been changed to Hungarian.
Hungarian. I said, “What the hell?” Anyway, he said, “Tonight, you get your ASS on this plane and you going to Monterey California to the DLI, Defense Language Institute.” And that’s what I did. I got on the damn plane, I got into San Francisco airport and there was a little two engine plane a mile away at SFO, and I called my- we still weren’t married at the time, but my girlfriend Hazel, who later became my wife, I called her, I said, “Guess where I am?” She said, “Where?” I said, “I’m in San Francisco.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Well, I’ve been assigned Hungarian.”
And actually I didn’t care. At the time, people who were assigned in Vietnamese were getting killed like crazy because what they did, they put you at the point, you could be air force but you did point at the head of a marine group, Army group, or whatever the hell it was, right? And the point of knowing Vietnamese, you called in the air strikes, the South Vietnamese Army was around. That was your job. And the military had this idiotic idea of search and destroy, which made absolutely no god damn sense. It was moral-defeating.
You’d take some damn place only to give it up, and then a month later you’re back doing the same damn thing. It made no sense, right? And that was LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson). He just had not so great generals. Westmoreland was one and body counts, all this stuff. It made no sense. But anyway, I didn’t care. I said, “Well, if I got killed, ya gotta die sometime.” It didn’t matter to me. And that’s how I got in Hungarian and DLI and that was fun for a while.
Our instructors, well, every instructor at DLI in Monterey, California, was native. And we spent pretty much eight hours a day—except Friday was culture day and culture day we would cook, listen to music in whatever language you’re doing, and it’s culture day. And we had a- and my class was only like seven or eight of us. There was an FBI guy, a CIA guy. I was Air Force, there was Army and Navy. And that was intriguing as well, particularly the CIA. CIA man, this is CIA, you know. And yeah, I learned how to cook chicken paprikash. Right? So that was cool. Except I got tired of it ‘cause I don’t like language and so anyway, that’s another deal.
Then I wound up getting stationed at Darmstadt, Germany, by which time I was married. And in Darmstadt today, it actually has some major physics facilities actually in Darmstadt, and I was stationed there, and that was fun. And there was a lot of stories, some of which are very humorous. I will say one thing. To get married, I had to draw on my pay, which was I think like seventy-eight bucks a month or something like that, so I had to draw six, eight, nine months’ worth of pay. So, by the time I got married and all that- so in Germany, my wife didn’t come over for about a year, maybe something like to that base. And my checks, because I had to draw on the checks to pay for the wedding, my best man, he was from Pennsylvania- anyway, all that stuff, my checks were like, at the time, you could literally get a paycheck for less than a dollar, you know? So, it made me feel pretty good. Everybody would gather around me. Your checks came in little mailboxes. And so, everybody, payday was there, everybody would gather around and see whether Milt’s check was more than a dollar or not? (laughter) “Oh, a dollar two.” Anyway, that was a lot of fun.
So, Darmstadt was great. I had a great sergeant Huntley was my supervisor. And my shift was three days on, one day off, three days on, one day off, three days on, then four days off. Day shift ends at midnight, and we had a great time. And my language was Hungarian. We had this big ass board up there. And you would track- the Soviets would use the Hungarians, the Pols, the Czechs, just to test out how well we could track ‘em and they’d fly right up to, you know, going to a friendly country or whatever.
You’re next to people who trained in Czech, Polish, Russian, all these languages. And you’re sitting at this machine essentially recording every damn thing. That’s why I had to go to typewriting school ‘cause you’re typing this stuff. It went directly from us to NSA, Fort Meade. Interesting. And you had to be on time. But I had a great time because sometimes he’d give me four days off so I and my wife, hey, we can get a little Volkswagen which I bought and we’d drive down to Spain, we’d go to Paris, we’d go to all these damn places right, ‘cause I had like eight days. I had a chance to go to all these places. So that was a lot of fun.
While I was there in Germany, to get back to science and physics and mathematics, I took classes, UC Berkeley mostly. Wiesbaden air base had a fantastic library. So, we could drive there. I’d send my wife off to the PX, called the BX in air force base back in those days, but she liked to shop and while she was doing all that crap, I’m in there doing the physics. And I could actually check books out and bring ‘em back to my home base in Darmstadt and I would get classes from some really top-notch guys at Berkeley, right? And I got As and all those things and that further solidified the physics thing. I got out in ’70. I should have gotten out in March. I asked my commander for an early out of a couple months to take care of family situation. So, I asked him for permission for an early out of a couple months so I could or take care of that situation, which did get approved. So I actually got out in January and landed in Fort McGuire Air Force Base.
So, I started school in January of ’70, got my Bachelor of Science in Physics in ’71. And at the time, as far as graduate school because of the conditions, I had to stay in New Orleans. Going out of state to some graduate school was just not there. It made sense financially, and by that time, I was taking care of two of my sisters. So, I entered graduate school in ’71 at UNO, University of New Orleans. And as a graduate student, my advisor was only a couple years older than I was, to tell you the truth. Maybe four years older. He had gone to CCNY up near your way. He showed me a paper by Greenberg on lasers and coherent states and all that stuff. I saw it and had an idea. Turned out the idea paid off and I did my dissertation on coherent states, but done in a quantum way, not classical at all.
What do you mean? What’s the difference between quantum and classical?
Oh, the difference? Classical is like Newton’s laws. One way to put it classically, in a classical situation, I could just predict almost everything in principle. I could look at you, analyze everything you do, and then in principle, classically, using- if I had available every equation and I had all your initial position, your eyeglasses and all this, I could then project classically what you would do in the future to a T. Of course, it’s complicated because I see behind you, you’ve got trees, I mean that’s in principle. In practice, it’s nearly impossible. But in principle, classically, I could do that.
Furthermore, classically, I could go back in time and project what you had done because I would have your shirt. You’ve got a white t-shirt on. If you expanded that more to include a few more things about you that I could incorporate into my classical physics and mathematics, I could do a better and better job. So, the more information you gave to me classically, the better idea and the better result I could give to you for what you did ten years ago or what you would do ten years hence.
Quantum is a puzzle. Why? Because we know quantum mechanics says, the example you always see is position versus momentum, right? You can know one very, very well, but the more you know one very, very well, the less you know the other one. So there’s always variability and unknown that’s built into the system, into the universe. So it doesn’t matter. I could have every detail that you would give me about your life and all that.
Classically, if you gave me your whole history and you went to NYU, you told me all that stuff, classically I could predict what you’re gonna do ten years from now to a T. Quantum mechanically, after a few iterations of the computer or this, no way. I can’t do that. It’s like having a timeline. In fact, as a physicist, timelines are stalling infinitely. I just do that, I just saw another timeline. Classically, that doesn’t exist. Quantum is built in. And indeed, most scientists, not all, think for instance time is quantized itself. Special relativity says distance, you know height, width, all- XYZ and time are related, right?
And that’s special relativity. It’s not quantized, but if you quantize that, you asked me the difference between classical and quantum. As I said, quantum has built in an unknowing ability about what the future will be. It’s simply built in. And nature likes that, for some crazy reason. You can literally go in cause we have the tools and things to do that today, or even 30 years ago, IBM, there’s some beautiful photographs of things. I used to tell my students re: a car going up a hill. You have a little Volkswagen car and you wanna go up a hill, you know you have a maximum speed that you can get to. Classically, you can compute. Hill is too high, you can only go to a certain speed, you’ll get to a certain point where the car will stop. It doesn’t have the energy to get over the hump of the hill, right? So it will go back down classically.
Quantum mechanically, that’s not true. It turns out there’s a certain probability, even though your car may not have enough speed, energy, or whatever to make it over that hill, there’s a certain probability, it may be small, for you to get to this point and then suddenly be on the other side of the hill quantum mechanically. And in nature, we find that to be absolutely the fact. It happens all the time.
And in fact, you can see that. You don’t see it macroscopically like I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me, and we don’t see that. But this computer, it would not work if it were not for quantum mechanics. GPS, you know, finding your position, you get the GPS to tell you where you’re going. That would not actually work if it were not for quantum as well. It turns out that incorporating general relativity in a quantum world, that’s the big problem facing scientists today. Nobody knows how to do that yet.
Einstein invented special relativity, then he came along with general relativity, but general relativity is strictly classical. It works up to a point and indeed has been verified up to a point. Decades ago, they took a plane, maybe you know all this so stop me from repeating stuff, they took a plane, put an atomic clock in it. The atomic clock on earth both synchronized, flew the damn thing around to see if whether or not they were in sync, and they were not. General relativity says space-time is what gravity really is, right? The problem with that general relativity, classical, is that no one’s figured out how to take general relativity, which is classical, and make it quantum so it has that, as I mentioned to you, that unknowing aspect to it. No one’s figured that out yet. And it apparently, there are string theories you probably heard of that are a little wild, this guy named Juan Maldacena and other people, they have string theories.
The problem with them, is that you can’t calculate a damn thing with them. They’re beautiful, but you can’t calculate anything with them. So in a way, they’re great, but they’re useless. They also imply that there more dimensions, probably at least ten. You saw the movie Interstellar, didn’t you?
That’s correct. Yeah that guy Thorne, actually he’s over at Caltech. He actually modeled Gargantua a black hole solved the time differentials and stuff like- he actually did the calculations and things to make movie depictions semi-real. In general relativity, you have things like black hole singularities.
A black hole is a singularity, what that means actually is if you get down to that point, the mathematics that you’re dealing with to handle the physics goes kapoop. Nothing works. You get crazy things like one plus zero is five. One plus zero is fifty. That’s what you get. That’s what a black hole is. Your physics and mathematics go to hell in a hand basket is the easiest way and you could have all this high falutin stuff going on with Hawking and other people. You could have all this fancy stuff, but what it boils down to is what’s really going on?
It gets to the point where regular mathematics simply does not work. Nothing you do. Here’s a great thing. Take an electron, and this I tell people, people have this, you know electrons, protons, neutrons, right? You take electrons, it has electric charge. Electric charge is distributed. It has a mass. You try to look inside of an electron, guess what you find? You find you can’t look inside of it, even in 2020. You cannot look inside of- we don’t know how to look inside of an electron. If you try to use classical physics, you asked me about classical versus quantum, for an electron say, it appears to be dimensionless. Nothing works. Feynman tried his best to make it work. In fact, do you have the Feynman lectures on physics?
Oh, I mean at that book store way back in the Roosevelt Hotel, that was the- because he’s got three volumes there, and Feynman has a way of putting things in a jocular way and it’s really where I learned to learn I loved to learn physics, from Feynman’s lectures on physics. But mathematics, he has that there, but Feynman doesn’t expound a lot in his lectures on the mathematics so much ‘cause he liked to talk about the physics. The mathematics came through the book the Newman, The World of Mathematics,- you ever heard of a guy named Trachtenberg?
Oh, you have? Trachtenberg. Yeah, I used to go there and the reason why was just for fun ‘cause he has all these crazy things in there, like how in your head you can calculate the square root of something in your head without a computer or calculator. And there’s tricks to doing that using Trachtenberg’s tricks, right? Hey, fun and games, right?
Milt, when did you realize that you were such a deep thinker and that you’d have a future in academic physics?
In New Orleans as a graduate student ‘cause I looked around- I probably still own the record, I got my PhD in roughly three years. Two summers and three academic years, coulda got it in three years but we were in graduate housing and they wanted to kick us out before I graduated. I didn’t have a place to live, so I said, “The hell with this.” So I told them, “I’m not graduating in May,” in 1974.
So, my wife and I by the way had our first kid by that time too, my first daughter. And so I applied, we didn’t have computers, so we had those- what do you call those, stenographs or whatever the hell the damn thing, it was a pain in the ass sending out applications, I mean all these damn things had to be typed with this, that, and the other. And I sent about one hundred of these damn things. The box is somewhere in storage, I don’t know where it is.
So, I sent stuff out to Caltech, University of Illinois Urbana, University of Maryland College Park and ninety-seven other places. During that period of time- when I really knew I was going to be a physicist is when I completed my dissertation on quantum coherent states and lasers. A quantum coherent state looks like a laser and people, they still do, have problems with trying to understand cause the laser’s made out of trillions, quadrillions of photons, right?
Feynman diagrams were essentially worthless in terms of trying to understand that. You can’t do it. And it turns out a coherent state is a quantum state, which, in itself, when you look inside, is trillions and trillions of photons and so one needs not worry about individual diagrams or photons so much and one can take them and treat them as a “whole”. And I did the dissertation, got the results. They agreed with other people’s stuff and it got published in Physics Review. So I had my first publication in Physics Review D, accepted when I was still a grad student, got published in ’75, and a second paper as well with my advisor’s name on it, although he came second.
His last name was Murphy, I said no, you’re gonna be second bro. My name is Slaughter (laughter). But that’s when I knew. And then we waited in August, the final day, my graduation date was August 8th, 1974. It’s the same day, announced his resignation.
Richard Nixon resigned.
There you go, bro. At graduation, everybody had video/radio and we heard the news, obviously, in 1974 Nixon said he was gonna resign tomorrow, Ford’s gonna be president, all this other bullcrap. Everybody just broke out. And then the next day of course at noon, that was the end of Nixon. Yeah, so you remember August 8th, 1974, that’s when I graduated.
And we had to move out of that damn graduate student housing within days or something, but luckily an invitation came from the University of Maryland that they would hire me on as a postdoc in physics in that department and the University of Maryland had over a hundred faculty members. They were ranked probably at the top ten, something like that, in terms of physics. So this is a hell of a big break. All I had to do was to figure out how to get enough money to get my behind and my family from New Orleans up to College Park, Maryland, right?
I would say at that particular moment when I had that postdoc, that’s when I knew I would be and succeed ultimately as a physicist, really, at that moment because there was something there, tangible, right? And there were other things, there was a Ford Foundation thing that I got rejected from and a couple other things I got rejected from as well. I remember also asking my advisor about my CV, should I put down there that I’m black or not? All these questions come in. And at the time, actually you were probably better off, depending on where you sent your stuff. MIT was starting to do the right thing a little bit. MIT was just like all the other damn schools at the time. They were crappy in terms of black folks and this, that, and the other, but they got some good leadership. Leadership starts at the top and it percolates down And MIT was starting to get a little nervous about looking around and seeing no black folks around. Seeing people with certain religions being, hey, they’re doing great things, but they’re all stuck over here. You know, that kinda stuff. That happened later on. I was the first black postdoc at Maryland in physics. Sekazi was the second, he came about two years later. Another guy, Jim Gates, you know Jim Gates?
Yeah I remember it was later on when he got to Maryland, I think he was assistant professor, something like that. There was another guy named Siegel, he did this book on string theory and all those such, anyway, to answer your question, no. When I had that paper published, I knew I was in there. It was in a major Physical Review D and the second paper as well and then having the postdoc at Maryland, all of a sudden I’m in there. The only problem I had, I was still in quantum electronics, you know, lasers and this.
I talked to a prof named Carroll Alley, He still has a reflector up there on the moon right now. He built that experiment and had that reflector up there. He was also interested in trying to detect gravitational waves. He was also instrumental in that. And I was going to actually work under him, but what happened is when the postdoc he thought was gonna come in, didn’t show up. Professor Sadao Oneda was there and needed a postdoc. So, we all met at a little restaurant in College Park and basically Sadao said, “Hey, I’d like to have you,” and that’s when I got into particle physics per se. Not just quantum, but particle and nuclear physics.
So, I had to learn all that stuff and there was some very good guys around like George Snow, some applied physicists, several other guys, also Australian Professor Peaslee . And a few other guys around who helped me. Wally Greenberg, you may not know. You know QCD color? Yeah, he came up with the original idea. He was there in the physics department as well. A lot of these guys were quite nice to me and actually brought me up to date to be able to cope with the ideas of particle physics. I mean the theory is basically the same, but just like learning medicine, you have to go through this, remember every damn muscle, bone, this, that, and the other. And these kinds of things I didn’t know, so I had to learn all that stuff. But I knew I was going to be a physicist pretty much.
There were a couple of side issues, I remember during that first postdoc we had daily meetings that the postdocs were invited, I didn’t show up for two weeks because I’d run into a problem. I stayed at home trying to work this probably ‘til I finally figured out I had made a sign mistake somewhere in this crap, which rendered everything I was doing useless, right? And then I started showing up again at the physics luncheon meetings daily, and that boosted my confidence because I discovered, “Hey, you can make mistakes and you have to find the mistakes, live with it, correct them, and go back.”
Los Alamos was my dream job. Peter Carruthers, who was division leader at Los Alamos- I called Peter and told the secretary, they got tired of me calling essentially saying “Please let me in, I wanna be a postdoc.” The division secretary knew my name so started hanging up on me. This kid was persistent, so I changed my name, I got off the phone. So I called up anybody I could. I worried the hell out of everybody, finally, Peter said, “We’ll see what we can do about it.”
And that was the end of that. A guy named Geoffrey West, he’s retired out of Los Alamos and the Santa Fe Institute, he was the group leader of the quantum elementary particles group (T-8) and he, you know, knew I was worrying the hell out of Pete Carruthers, Geoff would usually tell me, “Well, we don’t have the money.” I knew that was crap because they get their money from the Department of Energy. We’re talking billions of dollars, right? Los Alamos didn’t give a damn about some joker coming up with a plane ticket or whatever. So, what I did, a friend of mine was already at Los Alamos, I arranged to spend Christmas with him, I called Geoff up. He started to give me the same crap about money and this. I said, “Geoff, I’m in Los Alamos. I’m ten minutes away from you. I have a talk I wanna give you to.” He said, “Okay.”
And so I gave my talk there at Los Alamos, this is 1976, so I gave my talk there and in my talk, it actually had references to several other people who were in the audience, and in the audience was a guy named Warren Pete Miller, who was a black guy. He was in the division, was T1 group leader, and knew Harold Agnew, who was the director. You know Harold Agnew?
Harold Agnew was the director and Harold Agnew had brought Pete in, they were good friends. And Pete was sort of like the affirmative action guy. The position hadn’t been created. But he was there, he listened to my stuff and reported back favorably not screwing it up, so I was given the postdoc in group T-8. And T-Division, as you may well know, was really kind of the founding division of Los Alamos. It’s where all the big shots, you know, Manhattan Projects and this, they depended on T-Division and the weapons division. T-Division was the theoretical division for theoretical design, mathematics and the physics. By that time, my age was like twenty-five, twenty-six, something like that. So, I was an old ass guy and years later when I became assistant T-Division leader, there’s a combination safe which is still there, but now I had access. I had the combination.
So, one day, I decided to open the combination and there’s fantastic records in there, you can look and see what people like Feynman, all these big shots, and generals were doing and thinking right? My stuff was in there too, and I decided to see what did these guys talked about when they were trying to decide whether or not to bring me in as a postdoc. So I actually got to read my own stuff there about me and that was quite illuminating, to say the least. Anyway, did I answer- I forgot your question.
The question was when you figured out that you were gonna make a career for yourself in academic physics.
Yeah and like I said, that answer was probably August 8th, graduating, having a paper published. I knew I was good enough to be a physicist and academic all at once.
Milt, we have about an hour left, I wanna ask you, looking back over the course of your career, what do you see as the most important contributions you made to physics?
My contributions? Oh, actually, I think that the jury’s still out to some degree on that. I may be dead before that. Professor Sadao Oneda had done work with some famous people in terms of his physics. And at the time I joined working for him, actually, he had come to somewhat of an impasse in terms of his physics. He didn’t know where to go next. But then comes along me. I’m kinda goofy, I got crazy ideas, I don’t care or whatever. And there was some things I saw in the physics that he was doing and I said, “Well, why don’t you do this? He thought I was nuts. We pushed. He actually did it and by God, it worked. And he was actually able to expand and blossom his stuff. The problem with his stuff was that it was considered pretty much kinda mavericky at the time and still is. By working with him, and he was a damn outstanding physicist. Absolute calculationist. He was in Japan actually when World War II was going on, but outstanding and Japanese tend to be- even when they hate your guts, they can still bow their head and be courteous to you, it’s kinda strange but very welcome. He was basically in that mold, very culturally in that mold. Most physicists have a tendency to kinda go with the fad of the year and stick with it no matter what.
So, the physics that Professor Sadao Oneda and company, and he had a number of grad students and postdocs working for him as well, besides myself, our physics was considered- and the way we did things was very much of a maverick nature, you’re probably not gonna get a hell of a lot of citations, right?
And hey, you’re an academic yourself and you know there are a lot of people, it’s amazing, they live by citations. A citation could be totally ridiculous, right? Doesn’t matter, you got a hundred citations for one guy and the other guy’s got five, hey, they’re gonna go with the guy with the hundred citations.
Even if you look at him, it makes no sense right? ‘Cause the five citations that the guy have actually turn out to be the ones that control the universe rather than the hundreds of just bull crap, right? Anyway, you know that. And so, in terms of making a contribution or whatever, I decided back in those days, particularly when I threw my crazy ideas on Sadao, to get him looking into it and realizing it could make a difference.
I decided that you know what? The hell with getting citations. I’m gonna do what I think is right. I’ll do it by myself. I definitely don’t need other people working with me. If they do, fine. If they don’t, that’s fine. And I will continue to be a maverick and I still feel that way. And I still do my stuff in the spirit of Sadao and his fantastic family.
My contributions, I think- there’s a paper I did a year ago, last year, 2019, and a few other papers I can think of where the results have yet to be really tested, to tell you the truth. That two projects, I don’t know, on coherent states. They still haven’t solved that. And the other one is gravity itself. There are some problems that physicists really haven’t spent the requisite time understanding, a few guys messed around, but I think they’ve missed the mark because they’re not mavericks at the right time. They tend to go with the flow and they weren’t about spending two or three years of their life on something, even if they have what they think is success, that it won’t get the citations or whatever to make them full professors at Harvard, Yale, or something like that.
So, in my opinion, most of the stuff we’ve done years ago- I’ve published some Physical Review Letters as well. So that stuff, I look at it and I update the 2020 data, 2019 data looks good. At the time, few citations. That’s just the way it is. Does it bother me? Yes, because everybody likes to have people pay attention to you, right, most people, not everybody, to think that what you’ve done is good. But I consider myself kind of a maverick-type physicist. So, to answer your question, my greatest contributions actually in physics, as I said, are yet to be determined. I got off the chart a little bit. You were asking about my achievements, is that correct?
To me, almost as important, or maybe more important, are the programs I helped develop. At Los Alamos, they had a summer program there for bringing young kids, which was not working as well as one would have desired. Of course, being affirmative action rep, and by the way, I was not in T-Division management at the time. I was in T-14, designation physics, shockwaves, weapons, which I had qualms about because it’s like Oppenheimer, you know? Are you actually contributing to, in some sense, death? You’re helping make better weapons, right? That used to bother the hell out of me.
But anyway, so the affirmative action rep at Los Alamos, they’re like thirteen, fourteen group leaders, I gotta go around and talk to them 'cause I was very serious about this affirmative action stuff. So, first of all they say, “Oh, we don’t have quotas.” It’s not about quotas, it’s about goals. What you gonna do ten years from now or whenever. “Oh, there’s no such thing as black physicists.” I said that’s got nothing to do with black physics. To hell with that. “Oh, we don’t necessary want nobody from an HBCU whose reputation is too lousy to come here.” I said, “Well, some of the people at the HBCUs are damn good. They missed an opportunity or maybe they had an opportunity and got rejected.”
In your case, a lot of these guys, by the way, are from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all these doggone places, Cornell, in fact Peter Carruthers came there from Cornell and I said, “You guys have a built-in network, right?” NYU, your school. You had a built-in network, right, of people who might make recommendations for you in this. This black kid, he’s coming from an HBCU, right? Where’s his grapevine?
So, for some of these group leaders, I actually- some of them didn’t give a damn about affirmative action but it did make sense to them about the grapevine because they had utilized it themselves, right? So they could understand about that. Some of the group leaders, I discovered much to my chagrin, were basically racists and it was built-in, will never change, you know. So I said, “The hell with that. That means in the future, I work around them.”
And there were some who were not intrinsically racist. Their problem was certainly like in basic training. They just certainly had—their culture was totally different, right? They just simply couldn’t know. They weren’t informed. And so you work with those guys. And then there were people who really tried to do the right thing and tried to work with you. So, I redid the summer program there at Los Alamos and then we had kids who were not black, but they didn’t have to be black. They could be white, Native American, I don’t care. You can come on in here. But of course the kids you have coming in will tend to be black and the reason why is very simple. The kids who were not black, African American, or Native American, they have other opportunities, so they’re somewhere else, right? They don’t wanna necessarily be in some damn program at Los Alamos even though Los Alamos has a reputation, but they would prefer to be in some summer program at Harvard, Princeton, UCLA, or Berkeley, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign or someplace like that, right? Oh how about working for a company where you make some damn bucks, right?
So I mean that’s just the way it worked out. And that program turned out to be very nice and Los Alamos. Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 and did some idiotic things, but hey, he wasn’t all bad, he did some good things too. And one of the things he did, he actually took a half a million bucks out of the weapons budget. This guy walks up to me like in June of 1981 or something and he walks up to me and he says, “Milt, you’re gonna have to get down here and it’s all for helping this, that, and the other.”
So, I had this program and I figured that out. In fact, I wound up giving out contracts to Howard University, Southern University, and Alabama A&M. In fact, Steve McGuire was one of the recipients actually at Alabama A&M, they all got subcontracts. Things were complicated because we were located in New Mexico, an NGO of the federal government, and also under California state rules. So, it was a mess trying to get anything done. But it got it done and we got money out and spent. So, that’s actually an achievement, something I always felt good about back in Los Alamos as affirmative action rep. Later on, even bigger, was when I was made HBCU project manager for the laboratory to look at all this stuff and whatever you do at the laboratory, not just my division, but every division, right? Including the medical doctors. And I like that. I had my own secretary and they gave me a little bit of power, which I was not afraid to use in terms of getting these people to do what I wanted them to do.
And that worked out quite well. In fact, we held the first conference ever at Los Alamos which had to do with HBCU, historically black college university and stuff, and I invited like 35 people from around the country from the HBCUs, and there was some very good people at these schools, they just didn’t have the opportunity, didn’t have the equipment, and the big deal was to have them meet up with other scientists at Los Alamos who were well established. Mitch Feigenbaum you heard that name?
Yeah, Mitch was there. I remember when he discovered chaos theory at T-Division. He was sitting there with his little HP65 calc- anyway, Mitch Feigenbaum and people like that, and they were happy to actually participate in this program and talk with these guys from HBCUs. It didn’t continue after I left that position, unfortunately. But that was a big achievement in my mind there because it brought a lot of scientists in who were big shots in their own fields and could meet, literally, with these lesser known academics from these little schools around the country, HBCUs, right? And talk of ideas and it turned out some of these ideas were projects that some of the Los Alamos guys hadn’t thought about that were perfectly doable, and they did. That was the other great thing. And then I had a conference there as well, on top of that, and that was right at Los Alamos as well. And in T-Division, I- let’s see, oh jeepers I believe that’s what you asked me about, correct?
Anyway, I wound up leaving Los Alamos in 1989 for New Orleans, leave without pay. Told them, I said, “I’m not setting foot on your campus unless I have tenure.” And I told the professor I don’t wanna be chairman and they said we’re not gonna do it unless you are chairman.
You can’t get out of it.
I told ‘em I wanted to be paid more than I made at Los Alamos in nine months, so they did all that, except I had to be damn chairman. And when I got there, actually I saw- we’re sitting in New Orleans with all these black folks in the city, you know, the city’s fifty something percent black. UNO was the place that was segregationist over the years, and I actually had the opportunity to do something. I went to the National Science Foundation. We got this big ass grant, a million a year from NSF, half a million from the Board of Regions to fund this program that was in 1995. And prior to that but I was still at Los Alamos making the transition to UNO. I, with others, was invited by Abdus Salam, Nobel Prize winner, to create this group associated with Edward Bouchet, you saw that. I think I sent you something. Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute is what it’s called now. And support was available from the Italian government, which was pretty good, and we had conferences and things in different places and did some good things in African countries.
Milt, one of the themes of our talk is that life for you has been an adventure, right? No matter what you’ve been involved in, you’ve had fun, you’ve brought creativity, and you’ve brought a great deal of passion and wit, and a good deal of humor, to all of the situations you found yourself in. And so I wanna ask you, for my last question, a forward-looking question, what adventures remain for you in physics and beyond? What are you excited about achieving for the rest of your career?
Are you talking about specifically physics, correct?
In physics, no, there are two projects that I’ve messed around with for more than thirty years. And actually, the number one is actually the movie Interstellar got me to think for thirty years. Gravity, I think what they did with string theory, string theory has some interesting features about it because it does allow you to avoid singularities and you asked me a question earlier, you asked me the difference between quantum and classical.
What makes things go for string theories, this is why some people were so hot to trot on that because instead of having a point, you have a string. And in that string, you can’t look any further. But because the string has sort of a lift, I’m speaking rhetorically, it has a lift, it means you avoid things like dividing my zero, you can’t, this is rhetorical, you can’t divide by zero. You can divide by a string but the string has a lift, so it’s another but different zero. You see what I’m saying? I’m speaking very rhetorically.
A physicist sitting next to me would be aghast to what I’m saying. But that’s basically it really in a nutshell, what’s going on. What I would like to do is I would like to, Einstein’s classical theory of general relativity is missing some things. And for you, you’re sitting at your desk, you can take your glasses off, you held them, you let loose, it would fall down, right? And according to general relativity, it’s because the space time is warped. And there’s a little bit, just- it’s very slight, you gotta think it’s extremely slight because just that little warp in space time, it’s such that your glasses go down. They don’t go up, right? They go down.
And you think about it and space time. Earth’s gravity is because the mass of the earth is sitting there warping space time. The sun with its huge mass is warping space time. And what I think physicists have not done enough, even the best of ‘em, have not done enough is look into and measure the best they can to try to get a hold on space-time itself to see- I mean at your height, I don’t know how tall you are, but gravity does have a gradient, it does differ just slightly. But how can space-time- just the difference in space-time and your mass is affecting that, so is the earth below you, trees, the moon, this, that, and the other. To investigate that in detail so as to make sense of it, of all infinities by- yeah, you keep strings in there or whatever you want to do, you have that. I would like to spend a few years of my time actually investigating that at that level. Along with that hope would be special relativity and I’ve had arguments with other physicists about this, do you know a little bit about, you may know a lot about special relativity. Distance XYZ and time, right? But of course, it’s only for those systems which have constant velocity relatively to each other. Physicists get away with that- you’ve heard of the twin paradox?
It’s not really a paradox but the guy who goes away and comes back is not following the same path. So there’s no paradox. That actually is for real, you can actually measure that crap and in fact, special relativity is proven millions of times a day. Or even GPS with the satellites, it works. Something I would like to spend some time on one has for sure four dimensions and notion of causality.
Most physicists think about causality but they harp on time. So if you’re outside that time, you seen the cone? So, in other words, causality. If you’re too far away and the speed of light, by the way, nobody’s every figured out how to calculate the speed of light, did you know that?
Not yet, at least.
No. I mean, you can measure it. Eddington a number of years ago came up with some numerical thing and such and such, but in terms of actually calculating what the speed of light is, nobody knows how to do that.
It’s kinda funny. But special relativity, in my correlation, general relativity, you have causality. What things can affect the future? So, if something is so far away and the speed of light is your limit, then there are certain things you can do that cannot ever affect that future. Okay? But for me, it drives me nuts, is they always pick out what are the dimensions, X, Y, Z, and T. they always pick T, but special relativity says they’re all the same.
So, what about causality from a height, width, depth perspective, right? Nobody messes with that. I have arguments with physicists and they will come up with all kinds of crap, but for me, to mess with that and understand that better would be something I would like to actually do and have a better understanding, the only difference being is that I wanna take Einstein’s special theory of relativity, make it more “quantum-like”, and then do the same thing.
Now there are things you could probably- you’ve heard of EPR, Einstein, quantum entanglement? Yeah, that actually science fiction years ago. A.E. Van Vogt. V-O-G-T, science fiction writer. Hey, back in the twenties and thirties he wrote books where one guy sees one guy, he’s talking to another guy, or you watch Star Trek in subspace, right? They use the idea of subspace, they talk to each other. And basically, it’s using the idea and the idea of quantum entanglement really to make all this crap about it but you have two electrons, it can only be up and down, right? You can only have two electrons in the same state. They can’t be in the same state.
So, that means if you have one down and one up and this one moves a long, long way away. If I flip this one, then that one should flip. But guess what? That happened instantaneously. The distance between them is faster than that signal for my finger flipping here could have gotten to my hand there.
Oh my god. What happened to causality? That’s what’s going on right now. And some guys over in Caltech, by the way, you know in you can transport very simple systems? What about people? A lot of physicists, oh, that’s impossible. Human body contains trillions of cells, how could you possibly do that? Well guess what, the answer to that really is the fact that we don’t have to get it exactly right. So, if I transport my blood to where your office with the nice breeze back there, you know, if a “few” molecules/atoms are there and not quite the same, is that gonna make any difference…one would have work hard to make sure there are no “significant” ones.
And that’s the key, for instance, to even make something like transporting, you know, somebody. And the fact that there’s a group at Caltech actually who have actually transported a system from one place to the other. The only problem they have is by transporting, they destroyed the original. But that’s okay too because you have the exact duplicate of the other yet. And so that gets to fundamental faith and I had discussions with people at Los Alamos too about the soul. So, if one could transport a human being to one place or the other or a dog or a cat or whatever, does the soul, whatever the heck that is, get transported too.
But I don’t know if you remember, there was that “rug” or whatever, that place-Turin- in Italy. A dating experiment was conducted in Los Alamos, so I was actually there with some of these guys. Yeah, they took a little bitty piece, well that’s all that they was permitted, right? To take a little piece. And the leader of that group actually he was a through and through Catholic guy. And I asked him, I said, “Hey man, you’re sitting here, and your results could have bearing on whether or not this actually was the cloth that Jesus was buried in and all this different stuff. And you could come back with a negative result in terms of dating and this and how does it affect your religion?” And he actually told me, “Well, guess what Milt, it’s not gonna affect my religion at all, because that’s what I believe, it’s faith”. But anyway, as it turned out, the cloth was dated out of the twelfth century or something like that, I don’t remember anymore. So it wasn’t that. And his faith wasn’t shaken at all. Anyway, you asked me about the- yeah, my future I would like to- I’m seventy-six and I’d like another- I don’t know, I have no interest in being seventy-seven and being in bad shape, can’t talk and this, that, and the other. Maybe I wouldn’t mind having another fifty years of good health. Good mental stuff to be able to work on those problems I just told you about and that one day the gravity because I do think they are, I have no doubt in my mind there are other dimensions out there, we just don’t have access. We don’t even have access to time. I’ve got a watch or you probably have a watch or something to keep track of time, right?
You shouldn’t need a damn watch. You don’t need a distance watch to keep track of—ah, what you just did. You just automatically went there to get those glasses back. You knew exactly what to do. If you build something, do you need a clock that’s tuned not to time, but to distance to do it? If so, you can go and make one. You can go buy a tape measure or whatever, you see what I’m saying? Time is different. We have a feeling for it, we don’t have access to it. We can measure it, but we need clocks. We need something. The drip from a faucet, something else to measure.
We don’t need that for measuring moving something up, down, sideways. We don’t need it. Time is fundamentally different. And to me, it’s always been a mysterious thing, it was a mysterious thing for people like Feynman for that matter. And it’s still mysterious even today. And nobody has made substantial- there’s a couple guys who took a whack at it, time seems to come in chunks. It seems to be quantized as well.
Well, Milt, on that note, I feel like I’ve been on a wild ride with you these past few hours. I had a great time with you. I’m really glad we connected. You were able to share your remarkable trajectory and personal stories and you know for physicists everywhere, I wish you many years of good health and good mental acuity because maybe you will just push forward some of these fundamental questions and maybe in a couple years I’ll check back in with you and we’ll see if we have time resolved by that point.
I thank you very much for your comments and I wish the same thing for you. By the way, you at NYU, you are in what year?
I’m a historian of physics. So that’s why I’ve been able to track with you this whole time.
I see. Guess what, COVID-19 man, there’s a gold mine there because you have the capability with your history background and also the physics, right? To meld them together. I haven’t seen a book like that yet. Pretty much people focus only on the politics, right? But to put together a book with history, politics, and physics and meld that with COVID-19 developments is very important.
So, I’ll tell you what Milt, we’re gonna have to stay in touch and follow each other’s careers.
Yeah. All right.