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Interview of R. Bruce Lindsay by Henry Margenau and W. J. King on 1964 May 6, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4744-1
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Early life in New Bedford, MA; father’s informal education as chemist and engineer; difficulties in early education. Undergraduate at Brown University, 1916-1920; interest in mathematics. Graduate work at MIT, 1920-1922; physics exams; Edwin B. Wilson’s tenure at MIT, state of physics teaching there, limitations of the department. Work with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, 1922, leading to self-consistent field idea applied to alkali atoms; Bohr as a person, teacher, and philosopher. Continuation of Copenhagen work for Ph.D. thesis in Department of Mathematics at MIT. Work atmosphere at Yale University, 1923-1930; reluctance about the new wave mechanics, later work in this area. Recollections of Ernest O. Lawrence at Yale, rivalry between Leigh Page and William P. G. Swann; Swann’s interest in spiritualism, Page’s emission theory of electromagnetism. Development of interest in philosophy and methodology of science; associations with Percy W. Bridgman, Norton Wiener, J. D. Tamarkin. Foundation of Physics course at Yale. Teaching at Brown from 1930; Carl Ba.rus; development of Mathematics Department under R. G. D. Richardson; Lindsay’s supervision methods. Chairman of Brown Physics Department, problems setting up undergraduate degree program post-World War II; supervision of teaching. Research during World War II. Connection with the Acoustical Society, 1936, member of executive council; associate editor of ASA Journal, 1950, editor-in-chief 1957, interest in publication of archival technical material. Great figures in the Acoustical Society; growth of and comparison between Acoustical and Physical Societies; role of the American Institute of Physics.
You will permit me, since your autobiography will be on record, to probe your life, your experience, in a sporadic manner, and to put in a pinprick here and there to try to illuminate some of the things which have been problematic to me and whose illumination will be interesting, not only to me, but for everybody who has occasion to hear this record. Your early years at Yale coincided with the presence on this campus of Ernest Orlando Lawrence. What are your memories of Lawrence?
One of my memories, Henry, is the utterly chaotic way in which Lawrence would give a physics colloquium. He undoubtedly, as we all know, was a very brilliant man; and even in those early days, the promise was quite clear. I think most people realized he was going to do great things, but I think everybody felt that these things would not be in the line of physics teaching but rather in the development of some clever ideas which might be very useful in future physical research. And this of course is what actually happened. I have a very vivid memory of several of his colloquium talks in which he seemed to start in the middle and work towards both ends, with results that were rather devastating to everybody there and led to friendly criticism from John Zeleny and others, which of course Lawrence took in his stride; I don’t think he worried much about them. Of course those were the days when Lawrence and Beams were working together, as they said, “clipping the tails off quanta.” You may remember those famous experiments they fooled with at that time. I can’t pretend, Henry, that I had a very close association with him. I went down and looked at his apparatus occasionally. He was always bubbling over with enthusiasm about what he was doing. He felt somehow that this was of the greatest and most supreme importance, and he wanted everybody to realize it. But he acted, I think, in the eyes of people like Page and Zeleny, somewhat like a wild jackass.
Well, that certainly is very interesting. There is a tale, possibly apocryphal, which insists that Lawrence discussed the theory of the cyclotron with Leigh Page and that Leigh Page strongly discouraged Lawrence from proceeding with the plans he had. I’m told that Page was right, that Page called Lawrence’s attention to the impossibility — theoretically at least — of focusing the cyclotron beam. There were no self-focusing properties built into the early cyclotron. The tale goes on to suggest that Lawrence was completely undaunted by Leigh Page’s reasoning and the attempts at convincing him, and went right on building the cyclotron anyhow. And experience of course proved Lawrence right but for a reason which no one could have anticipated. There were, strangely, these focusing properties that arose in errors of construction and so forth. Do you remember anything of that sort?
No, I don’t think that this was ever brought to my attention, and I hadn’t realized frankly that Lawrence was working along those lines while he was still at Yale.
This came in the last years of his stay at Yale, in 1927 to 1929.
Well, I was here then, but I don’t remember. This was never brought to my attention.
It recalls of course a later episode in which Bethe claimed in a paper in the Physical Review that you could never make a cyclotron accelerate electrons above a certain energy which was in the hundred thousand volt range. In the same issue there was a paper indicating the possibility of a synchro- cyclotron which had already achieved velocities beyond that.
Kerst went ahead and made the betatron anyway. I might say, of course, with regard to Leigh Page’s picking up difficult points and pointing our errors, you may recall the famous case of the thesis of the lady who became Mrs. Henderson. That was Evelyn Colpitts, who did a thesis with W.P.G. Swann. I suppose we can speak about it now, because he’s gone and so is Page. When this thesis was read by Leigh Page, he discovered a fundamental error in simple electrostatics, an error which seemed to indicate that Professor Swann had forgotten something fundamental about the charge inside a metallic conductor. This completely vitiated the poor girl’s thesis. She had to do it over again. You may not remember that. It may have happened just before you came, but it was an interesting illustration of the fact that Page had an uncanny ability to pick out difficulties in a thesis. And while he may have picked out the wrong thing in the case of Lawrence, he certainly picked out the right thing in the other case for Miss Colpitts.
I understand that Page’s reasoning with regard to the cyclotron was right.
Yes, but it didn’t turn out to be relevant because of other things.
Nature came to Lawrence’s rescue.
Well, it has sometimes happened that some of the most successful scientists achieved their success in actual fact by lucky accidents even though you may say they have been prepared for it, and therefore their success should not be derogated at all or depreciated because of that.
I’d like to ask a question about when you first came into contact with quantum mechanics. In reading through your autobiography a second time, it struck me very much that at that time in the United States quantum mechanics was still a theory somewhat outside the usual course work of the undergraduate or even graduate physics student. Yet you were drawn into this new area.
This is perfectly true. That is, there were no books until the late ‘20s except Sommerfeld’s Atombau und Spektrallinien, (A.J. Sommerfeld, Atombau und Spektrallinien (Braunschweig: Friedr. Vieweg & Sohn, 1919,)) which was the first Bible, so to speak, of the Bohr theory to come to this country, and then he wrote the Erganzungsband, which did have wave mechanics in it. But except for that, one was really forced to use the literature, Of course, de Brogue’s thesis had been published in the mid twenties, I think it was available about 1926. But the really elaborate treatments of Dirac, von Neumann, and others were still in the future, and most of this stuff you had to dig out of the periodical literature.
What impelled you to dig it out of the literature?
Because I wanted to give a course, and you know how it was: You tried to get people to let you give a course in these new developments and since everybody admitted it was important, you tried to do the best you could with the course. It so happened in this particular case that Professor Page was perfectly willing to teach the “old Bohr theory,” if we may call it that. He was familiar with it. He had brought some of it into his book “Introduction to Theoretical Physics,” for example, and he was glad to teach it. He liked spectroscopy too and so on. Hence the so—called new quantum mechanics, as it was called in those days, was left for somebody else and I asked for the job, and got it. I don’t think I was terribly competent to do it, but it at least had the effect of making me try to read the papers, which were mostly in the Zeitschrift fur Physik with a few in the French journals, there was very little at that time in the American journals: most of the stuff in the Physical Review then was still along the old Bohr theory lines. Even Van Vleck and others, who were quite notable in this country at that time, were using the old Bohr model up to the middle ‘20s. It took a while for this material to get across the ocean, so to speak, and I think that it wasn’t until the books began to appear that these courses became more common, I think that one of the best textbooks in quantum mechanics was the chapter that you, Henry, wrote in The Foundation of Physics. I used that chapter for years in teaching quantum mechanics at Brown because it was the clearest exposition of the subject that I could find. I’m sure that many other people felt the same way.
This came, of course, from Sommerfeld’s Erganzungsband.
Certainly not wholly by any means. You had a flair for presenting the operational point of view in a way in my estimation that he never succeeded in presenting. You may have gotten some of the ideas and all that from the literature, but the presentation, Henry, was I think just exactly the right kind to be clear to the tyro, to the initial student just embarking on the subject. And I think this has made that book a very important book even as a text.
You’re very kind to say this. I will not try to return the compliment.
Well, let’s change the subject. Have you got something else on your mind?
Yes, I have other things. But since you raise this point, I would like to ask you something, a more specific question, about that very book. I’m not sure that I ever told you this, but I was once questioned on the correctness of your presentation of D’Alembert’s principle, which, as you may recall, is completely different from what Professor Kovarik asked and expected to get on our oral examination for the PhD. He wanted what I now call, and what you doubtless call, the Mach version of the principle of D’Alembert. It happened at that time that some reviewer of our book came to my aid by publishing a review, by saying in his review (this was a Frenchman), that ours was the only book in which D’Alembert’s principle was developed and presented with historic precision. I was delighted. I told my critic about this and shut him up. This of course was in the theory that you had written, and I’ve often wondered how you came to know so much history.
I read the original Traite de dynamique of D’Alembert. I simply pinched the principle from D’Alembert himself. (I think we did include also the Mach version as well.) This was simply an exercise in the history of physics, trying to understand what D’Alembert had written in 1743.
And so far as we at Yale are concerned, inclusion of the Mach version was a concession to Professor Kovarik.
That may be. You may remember, to speak about poor old Alois Kovarik, that he was the one member of this physics department at Yale to put up the strongest objection to the introduction of the course on foundations of physics. You may not remember that.
No, I don’t.
This happened when I tried to have the course approved. Kovarik said, “This will all turn into merely eyewash, a lot of talk. It will never accomplish anything. It will never be of any value to students.” A very strange remark from Kovarik because I used to sit in my office, which was right next to his, and listen to him discussing the history of radioactivity with some of his seminar students, his comment struck me as very peculiar in the light of what I used to listen to. Anyway his view did not prevail, and maybe he did not mean it seriously. He and I got along all right, but I don’t think that he ever had any real feeling for what you and I call philosophy of physics. That would be my judgment. He had a feeling for the episodic history of physics in the sense of who discovered this and who discovered that, but I don’t think he had any feeling for philosophic ideas, and he felt that such would be a waste of time: it would degenerate in a lot of talk. Fortunately, Page, Zeleny and Uhler and the others didn’t agree with that, and so the course was given with the results which you’ve already commented on.
Let me mention briefly the irony of events which forced Kovarik later on to put his blessings in a sense on this course — in fact identify himself in part with it. There came a time when all courses had to be made into year courses. This was probably six years or so after you had left Yale. At that time, Kovarik’s history of radioactivity course stood there in somewhat isolated fashion. It did not have very many students. The interest in radioactivity began to wane in the favor of the newer concern with quantum mechanics, and Kovarik’s course had to be coupled with another one somehow to make a year sequence. And the only choice he had was to couple it with your course, which I was then teaching, on foundation of physics. So the two became Physics 32-A and 32-B.
The irony of events!
Now, may I ask you, Bruce, about the relation, personal relation (and of course also intellectual affinity) between Swann and Page. I didn’t know Swann. Swann left the year I came. I heard some interesting stories about him, and I learned to know and appreciate him later on. I vaguely remember that there was not much love lost between them. How was that?
To the best of my recollections, they got along; but, as you suggest, I don’t think their relations were very intimate. There’s a very amusing illustration which might be given. Their two sons used to quarrel a good deal as to whose father was the greater physicist, and I think it was finally proved by their fists that Leigh Page was a greater physicist than W.F.G. Swann because young Page beat up young Swann. This may be apocryphal, but I have heard this story. I have the feeling that they were two very different people. That is, Page was so very methodical, systematic, thorough and painstaking. Swann was ebullient, highly imaginative, tended to rush off into things, used grandiloquent language to describe very simple phenomena — something that Page certainly never would do — and was very theatrical in all of his ways. He never gave a lecture, you know, without being very careful to have his hair all done up in the sky and would invoke many tricks of stage procedure in giving a lecture in physics. He got criticized by many people, and yet others thought it was wonderful, because somehow here was a man who really knew how to attract attention and thus get physical ideas across. Page was always very calm. He was never theatrical, and his lectures were always methodical but never very what you would call exciting at any time, even when he was talking about something that was very interesting, as, for example, the interest he had in later years in the relativity ideas of Milne. He worked on that. He had some very nice ideas quite independent of Milne, I thought, but never excited any enthusiasm because he had no theatrical approach. Swann could take a subject that everybody knew about, which was almost trivial, and make a lecture that was worth a hundred bucks even back there in those days when lecturers weren’t paid much. You know what I mean. Now, as far as their relations went I’ve just sketched the personalities of the two men. I think those personalities did affect their relations so that they could never really be very intimate.
That’s very interesting. I came in on the tail—end of some of these episodes.
As you probably know, Swann, if I may go just one step further, got so wrapped up in some of these more esoteric things that in the latter part of his life he went into spiritualism. At least he told me that he had, and he told me some wild tales about seances with mediums and, so far as I could see, he took it seriously. He may have been pulling my leg, but I don’t think so. I think he really meant this. And this made me wonder a great deal. This was a thing you never could have associated with Leigh Page by any stretch of the imagination. I mean for example if Leigh Page was interested in religion, it was because he decided it was a good thing to go to church, on Sunday — it was the proper thing to do. I never heard him mention the subject otherwise. And as far as spiritualism was concerned, I feel sure he would think this was absolutely fantastic.
Absolutely crazy. I can confirm Swann’s tendencies in that direction because I met him on one or two occasions at meetings in the so-called Wainwright house, where certain religious groups met periodically. There was a session devoted to occult phenomena, and Swann spoke on things of this sort, and he certainly gave evidence of his interest in paranormal psychology. As to his seance interests, I’m not informed.
He lost his first wife, and then claimed that through some seance she came and advised him to marry again. This seemed rather ludicrous, but he took it seriously. I hope it isn’t improper to mention such things, since presumably Swann’s children will never hear this.
You mentioned the emission theory of Leigh Page this morning, and you also discussed it a bit in your autobiography. Could you tell me a bit about what it was? My memory is a bit dim and it is confused slightly by my having taken his course.
I wish I could talk about it intelligently, but really I don’t think that I can do it well enough to justify putting it on the record in this way.
But you thought of it as …?
I thought of it as an achievement. It was an attempt, as I understand it, to develop essentially relativistic electro-dynamics, and I think once you got over the notion of emission of these elements, then the thing became essentially the problem of relativistic treatment of the motion of charged particles. I mean the emission theory was a kind of way to picture this process rather than a necessary element or mechanism. There was no real mechanism.
To me, the emission theory has always indicated a trait of Page’s intellectual personality. It has always seemed most characteristic to me because it bespoke a tendency to start with visual things, with images, the picturesque and an unyielding resistance to taking abstract relations, such as Maxwell’s equations as postulations. He would never start with a fundamental abstract mathematical proposition unless he could derive that proposition from some set of visual pictures like emission. Now, it’s also my feeling that at the time when you were at Yale this sort of spirit prevailed in these halls. Nobody really wanted to believe the quantum theory because it asked you to take something mathematically for granted when Maxwell had said that there is no picture of reality unless in terms of strains in the ether and so on. Now am I correct in this?
This is a very interesting point, Henry, because one might suppose that with the presence of a man like Willard Gibbs here at Yale not too long before the time of which we are speaking this notion of the development of abstract ideas, such an abstract idea, for example, as the notion of a Gibbsian ensemble, would have produced an effect; but apparently it didn’t. And the people that succeeded Gibbs here at Yale were pretty earthy physicists by and large, with the exception perhaps of Leigh Pace himself, and it may be that this earthy atmosphere — this kind of naive realism, if you want to call it that, applied to physics — may have infected him somewhat through association with people like Bumstead, who was, as you know, also his teacher, and one of the early radioactive physicists like Boltwood, and with Zeleny, who was primarily an experimentalist and always wanted to look at things from the picture standpoint. Surrounded by this atmosphere, he may well have been affected. But it certainly is curious that they forgot all about Gibbs. Now, it may well be that most of them could never read Gibbs and understand him. After all, the book he wrote on statistical mechanics was a pretty tough book for most people to read. Even Poincare is supposed to have said about that book which Gibbs wrote in the last year of his life — this was for the bicentennial of Yale (1701—1901) that it was “a little book, little read because it is a little hard.”
Yes. I’m a little surprised at all this.
Probably you’re surprised, Henry, for the same reason that you have developed, and have had for years, the power to associate firm and useful meaning with highly abstract concepts, which are not necessarily tied down to pictures.
This has been part of my problem, of course.
I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but it’s just your way of looking at things. And Gibbs represented that in a way that I think was not appreciated in this country at all at the time that he was writing. It was appreciated in Europe to a considerable extent, but probably not for a quarter of a century.
This brings me to ask a question about a man who you doubtless know, Arthur Haas, who’s mentioned in your autobiography. He’s the man who explained Gibbs to the American public. Do you remember this?
He tried to.
He edited a commentary on Gibbs’ work. What is your impression of Arthur Haas? He was here to give some lectures, and I believe you had some contacts with him.
My first connection with him of course was the fact that when I went abroad in 1922 Kramers, who was then teaching the course “Introduction to Theoretical Physics” at Bohr’s Institute in Copenhagen used the two volumes of Einfuhrung in die Theoretische Physik (1921) as the basic book. Now, it’s true that Kramers didn’t lecture from it. He used the Socratic method that I myself made a lot of use of later in teaching, of making the students give the lectures. What the students did was to read Haas’s book and then present the material on the blackboard. Kramers would then criticize, and it was quite clear of course that Kramers never was fully satisfied with Haas, but he felt at any rate that here was a book that supplied the essential background. It at least had the skeleton of the stuff he wanted to present. I always had the feeling that Haas at least had the facility for presenting things rather clearly, but at the expense usually of leaving out the tricky difficult points. In other words, he was a good pedagogue only in the sense that he made the materials easy. Many students found it that way but then found that when they went into the stuff more deeply. That Haas had been feeding them special cases and had not been general enough, and then, of course, they found that they had to dig more deeply. This was my criticism of Haas. He was a beautiful popular lecturer. He had a fine, pleasant style; he was very agreeable, and, again, he had that capacity for taking out of a difficult subject the relatively easy part to try to make clear. But I don’t suppose anybody considered him a really very great physicist at any time. He had that flair for writing books. There’s no doubt about that.
I’ve been told by a number of people that Gibbs’ own writings are much more illuminating than Haas’s commentary upon them. I’ve found this to be the case.
Well, I suspect this is true.
When we wrote this book, our book together, on Foundations of Physics, I went to Gibbs’ writings and I found them extremely clear and beautiful — somewhat redundant in places, but never obscure, never as obscure as Haas’s.
That’s an interesting point. I think I would be inclined to agree with you, though Gibbs’ book was certainly found hard by many people. But you were probably in the right frame of mind to appreciate it at that time.
Uhler, of course, was a devotee of Haas’s, I believe.
Uhler translated one of his books and got himself into hot water with your publisher, Van Nostrand, in this process. This is one of the reasons I think, why, Uhler decided he wouldn’t physically have anything to do with the mechanics book, which finally was dumped into my lap, and I’m happy that that happened because, though I could have gotten along with Uhler, life would have been pretty complicated during the period while the book was being written, as you probably can imagine.
You mention Uhler. I wanted to ask you about Uhler’s cat. Are you familiar with Uhler’s cat? Uhler gave a demonstration in Physics 22, and one of his celebrated experiments was the dropping of the Hill House cat. As a matter of fact, I was once or twice given the job of catching it as part of the lecture. He would then hold it up with its back down, suspended by its four legs and release it, and the class saw how the cat righted itself, and Uhler would then preach the principle conservation of angular momentum in terms of the cat’s motions. Later a movie was made of this, which I believe is still being shown.
Actually, of course that movie was made by other people long before Uhler. There was nothing novel about this. This was done originally by an Englishman (whose name I have momentarily forgotten.) Even in Uhler’s time these pictures were available in that man’s books. So all Uhler did was just to find the cat and do the experiment and hope that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wouldn’t discover him. I saw the thing done all right. It produced quite a sensation, but there was essentially new about it, Henry. I remember those pictures that were taken by the Englishman.
Was that the one who took the pictures of the jumping man and the jumping horse?
Yes, there was also a picture showing a horse going over a barrier.
When did you give your first course in quantum mechanics?
I think it was around 1926 or ‘27. I can’t be absolutely sure, though I think I put it in the autobiography. It shows how the memory fails: I had to go to the Brown library to look up the Yale catalogues to verify this, but I did verify it. Leigh Page and I divided up the material one semester for one and one the other. Didn’t you take that course? What course did you take with me? I thought you were in one of those courses.
Yes, I must have taken it.
Maybe it was the Foundations course.
Yes, I must have taken it. Yes, I took your Foundations course, but I think I was in the quantum mechanics course too.
This was a one semester course, a part of which I remember was the winding up of the Bohr theory of polyelectronic atoms. The reason for giving this was that I’d made some calculations on these and I wanted to take advantage of that. And then we went on into de Brogue and Schrodinger. I never did very much with Heisenberg because I never really had a feeling for the matrix mechanics in those days.
Well, that must have been then the first year you ever gave it. I remember your form of teaching in that course less clearly than I do our personal contacts or conversations.
I may have given it only one year or possibly two. But, you see, I left in ‘30 so there were only about three years, in which I could possibly have given the course.
Perhaps I’m right in thinking that you gave it in ‘27. When I came as a graduate student I was not ready to take it. I don’t believe I took this course, and you did not give it the last year I was there. You see, I came in ‘27. I left again in ‘29. I’m afraid I missed this course somehow. It appears at any rate that ‘27 was when Yale for the first time offered a course in quantum mechanics, which was rather late, I think; people at Harvard were already teaching it; Van Vleck was teaching it.
This I think you can say was pretty largely due to the feeling of Leigh Page.
Specifically, to change the subject, I would like to know how your interest in philosophy arose?
It’s very generous of you, Henry, to refer to an interest in philosophy on my part because you must realize — and you know and you might as well admit honestly — that I have never really delved into philosophy in a professional sense in the way you have. What you might call my interest in the philosophy of science, however, did develop while I was an undergraduate in college. For some reason or other I was encouraged to read Poincare’s books, Science and Method, The Value of Science, and Science and Hypothesis. I read those first in an English translation that George Bruce Halsted had prepared. Halsted was an American teacher of mathematics probably somewhere in the neighborhood of New York, and was interested in the logic of science and impressed with Poincare. Josiah Royce, the Harvard philosopher, was also very much interested and wrote an introduction to this particular volume. The three books were bound as one. I remember exactly what it looked like, and I have a personal copy of it still. I found it first in the mathematics library at Brown, and it may be that one of the math professors had called my attention to it. I found this book absolutely fascinating. I must confess I don’t think I wholly understood it, but the style was beautiful. Then I went and got German translations of Poincare, which had very elaborate notes in the back, and I found there I could get a little better explanation of some of the points that Poincare slid over because he didn’t think it was necessary to illuminate them, but German thoroughness had produced these notes, and I found them very helpful. I read some of this material in French, but by and large used mostly the English and German translations. That was really the beginning of my interest in philosophy of science. From there I went on and read Karl Pearson’s book, The Grammar of Science. I know it’s customary for philosophers to dismiss that as a tissue of logical fallacies, but the point is that Pearson was talking about matters which I found very puzzling: for example, the foundations of mechanics. I didn’t start to study physics, as you know, until I was a junior in college, and I had come to it via the mathematics route. When I started studying physics I took a more advanced course, and there it was customary to just write F = ma down and say, “Well, in elementary physics you learn what force is and what mass is, and so we just start to use the equation and don’t inquire further.” This bothered me because I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t think the way it was presented was clear, And then I found that Poincare was coming to grips, and Karl Pearson was coming to grips with this problem: What do Newton’s laws mean anyway? Are they the results of experiments? Are they hypotheses? It was a revelation to me that mechanics, which was usually presented as a set of facts, actually was based on hypotheses that were by no means accepted by everybody and there were many ways of presenting it. This was really a revelation of what I later came to think of as the philosophy of physics. From then on, I began to read a number of other things, but Poincare and Pearson started me off. I suppose that that was when I was 18 years old as a junior in college.
You were very precocious. You graduated at age 20.
I was a little over 20, but that was merely an accident.
But you did have philosophical interests in the foundations of science at this early age. Were you influenced later by any philosophical writers?
No, because you see I didn’t really delve very much into what would be called professional philosophy. I never tried to read Kant’s Critique. I have read since — that is, in the period when we were writing our book and since then, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, a good many philosophical writings. I got very fond of Josiah Royce and I read almost everything he wrote. It wasn’t because I was trying to find out precisely what his philosophy was. I don’t know that I ever have found out. I knew he was a sort of transcendentalist and that he was not wholly in sympathy with James’s or Dewey’s pragmatism, but I didn’t try to understand it from the standpoint of professional philosophy as a plan for trying to build a complete system of explanation of human experience as the big systems builders did. At the same time, in going to philosophy seminars, as I did for a while at Brown after I went there, I used to get so impatient with the long-winded discussions in which there was endless confusion and finally the outsider would add it all up to practically nothing, because there was no agreement. Now I realize that this is what philosophers are for, to probe these things and to try by their disagreement to provide somehow a residue you can get hold of. But to me this has never been so fascinating as it has to some people, possibly to you. So I’ve never really in a way liked to think of my interest in these fundamental matters of physics as professionally philosophical.
I’ve used the word methodology. But it’s a bad word, because, you see, it’s damned because of its use in educational circles. I mean methodology in physics, and yet when you use the term, a great many people are inclined to brush you off and say, “Oh, well, that kind of tripe” But the word “philosophy” connotes a professional activity, and to that extent I thought that what I was interested in in science, in reading Poincare and Karl Pearson and Mach and Hertz and people like them who delved into these matters, was just attempting to understand on a fundamental basis what physics is all about. If you want to call it philosophy because there’s no other simple term, all right. But to try to tie that in with professional philosophy, I never felt competent to do it, Henry. I mean I could see, for example, that Kant in his Critique was, so to speak, influenced by the Newtonian physics — this I think is fairly evident — but to delve into the whole relationship, I never felt myself competent, nor did I feel urged to do it, you see. So I would say, to be quite honest, that my interest in these things has been far less fundamental from the philosophical point of view than yours. It might rather be phrased: “Well, what is the meaning of it?” And you might say this is the same with you, but I think you have tried somehow to relate it more to what the professional philosophers have thought. And you’ve gone into people like Heidegger to see if you could find out what is the connection between the professional philosopher and what he thought and what the physicist has done. That I have never felt competent to do.
This disclaimer on your part reminds me very much of Bridgman’s demonstrations of his ignorance and innocence with respect to philosophy, he being a most competent philosopher, also disclaiming his interest and competence in philosophy.
I’ve heard him say so in public, yes.
Now, what was your relation with him? You had known him well, probably better than I.
No, I don’t think so. You probably came into closer contact with him through not only your writings but seeing him in summer and so on. I have a good many letters in my files from Bridgman. He sent me reprints. He would slap me gently on the wrist occasionally when he’d refer to me in his writings and so on, but I never felt that I got very close to him. I always felt that he was a very shrewd Yankee who had his feet on the ground because he never got away from that laboratory where he was doing his work on high pressure. He was always connected with the real world. He had that anchor there. When he went up to his summer place in the country, then he could go to that little cabin of his and just meditate about these other more philosophical matters; and he kept the two aspects of his work in a certain sense quite separate from each other. I don’t mean to say that they didn’t influence each other — probably they did, unconsciously and inevitably — but he acted as if he tried to keep them separate, so that he didn’t want people to think that his philosophizing was going to affect his high-pressure work anymore than that work was going to affect his philosophy. But I think most people probably felt it did, because the very notion of an operational point of view somehow seems to be the sort of thing you would expect a really down-to-earth experimentalist to develop, if he went into philosophy.
What do you think of Professor Bridgman’s philosophy of science?
I never really found out what it was except insofar as he put considerable stress on what came to be called the operational point of view, by which so far as I gathered, he meant simply you should never use a concept unless you can demonstrate what you mean by it by actual operations. At first it was clear to me he meant operations in the laboratory, and then of course later people showed that was rather absurd, and he finally said, “Oh, I also mean pen and pencil operations as well.” And when it came to that, I thought much of the significance of the whole thing rather evaporated. But this was an opinion, and when I criticized him in a paper I wrote… You see, I wrote only two papers on the subject. I never really did much on it.
Well, Bridgman regarded you as his principal and most revered opponent.
He did? He never told me that.
He wrote a paper about you, you remember.
I know. He mentioned me in a paper or two, yes. But I had no idea he felt that strongly. It’s interesting. I admired him very much, but I never felt very close to him. I invited him to come and speak at Brown many times. He was always glad to do so. He came and gave us numerous talks. He never was a very attractive lecturer. He spoke, I think, very poorly before an audience, and yet whenever he said anything, if anybody wanted to pay attention to what he said, it was always something very significant. He was very provocative. But he was unfortunately a poor speaker. Many great scientists have been. You know, of course, how bad a speaker Bohr was. Maybe we shouldn’t go into that.
I did not know until I read your autobiography.
R. Bruce Lindsay reminisces about Niels Bohr and how he spoke.
You must have heard Bohr talk.
Once or twice, yes, in English, and of course that always handicaps.
Bohr couldn’t even speak Danish well. He actually had an impediment in his speech which hampered him no matter what language he used. But in addition to that he had such an intense desire to be precise in his utterance that he made it very difficult both for himself and his audience. It would have been far better if when he gave a speech, he had read it from a manuscript. He refused to do so almost always, and this was much, you might say, to his credit; but in view of all his difficulties it was a mistake, because it meant people very rarely understood what he was saying.
Were there any philosophers of science whom you particularly disliked? — or whose philosophies of science you particularly disliked? — or felt unattracted to?
That’s a good question. I’d have to meditate on that a while because no one immediately comes to mind. I certainly didn’t dislike Bridgman, though I didn’t wholly feel that his viewpoint was very helpful to the progress of theoretical physics at any rate. But I can’t say that I felt antagonistic towards him or any other philosopher of science.
I don’t mean in terms of personalities, I mean in terms of their doctrines.
I understand. Well, I’d probably have to meditate. It’s hard to give a quick answer to that, because I guess I haven’t thought about it lately. Maybe Henry could mention a few names of people whose ideas he thinks I might have disliked.
Oh, I think you recoiled somewhat from the extreme forms of positivism that were featured by men like Nagel at one time and Bergman. I think you were somewhat out of sympathy with that movement.
I was once asked, though, if I wasn’t a logical positivist myself, and I had a little problem to make it plain that I didn’t think I was, and at the same time I felt of course that this point of view, insofar as it tried to come to grips with the essence of the subject, should be looked upon with a certain amount of respect. Yes, I think that the trouble with the logical positivists is that they went the whole way and simply reduced all of science just to these “thing” sentences and so on. I didn’t think it got too far.
Your story about Bridgman’s retreat from instrumental operations to paper and pencil operations interested me very much. As a matter of fact, there was a third stage in this retreat, of which you are probably aware; when he finally had the paper and pencil operations knocked out in connection with certain concepts which were purely abstract he said, “Well, there are also mental operations.” At that point of course he had surrendered his doctrine. This was indeed our conversation up the mountain. Then when I finally got him to admit that operations could also be mental operations, then I found I had him, but he only said, “Well.” You had had contact with Wiener. Would you tell us a little about your impressions of Wiener as a person, as a mathematician.
My first contacts, of course, were listening to him try to explain the theory of relativity to a group of graduate students at M.I.T. in 1921. He was then a young instructor in the mathematics department, but he was very much interested in relativity and gave some lectures, which were rather profound. They were not very clear to me at that age, and I don’t think they were very clear to many other people. I always admired his persistence, his belief that if he only talked enough, he would get the stuff across. He was already developing certain eccentricities at that time, though he had not of course grown a beard. He didn’t look quite as eccentric as he later became. I cannot pretend that I knew him very well. I was just a young graduate student and he was of course an instructor, and I was in the physics department and he was in the mathematics department; so that our contacts weren’t very extensive. Then later, of course, I moved away from M.I.T., and I began to see him again only when I went back to Brown, because he was a great friend of J.D. Tamarkin, who was professor of mathematics at Brown from the middle ‘20s up to the time of the war. They exchanged research notes. Wiener would come down quite frequently to the Brown mathematics colloquium, and Tamarkin would go up to Tech, and this of course produced a host of stories about their relations. I’ll tell only one if you’re interested. They would propose to each other theorems to prove. Tamarkin was primarily an analyst, a function theory man. So they would challenge each other to prove theorems.
On one occasion Wiener came down to the Brown colloquium and said, “J.D., I’ve got a problem. I’m having trouble with it. Shall we talk about it?” And after the colloquium they talked about it for a while, and Wiener said, “Well, I’ll let you know what luck I have,” and he went home to Cambridge and J.D. went home and went to bed. And about 11 o’clock that night just as he got into bed, Wiener called up on the phone and said, “Well, J.D., I’ve proved the theorem. It’s all okay.” J.D. said, “That’s fine. Write me about it. I’m going to go to bed.” So Tamarkin went back to bed. At three o’clock in the morning his telephone rang again. This time he got up a little more sleepy than before, and on the other end of the wire Wiener said, “Sorry, J.D., I just found an error in the proof.” Then there was the time, you know when Wiener had been in Providence to see Tamarkin. He was having lunch I guess at the Tech Faculty Club in Walker Memorial the next day with one of the professors who told me this story afterwards. He got up after lunch and looked out of the window and said, “My God, somebody has stolen my car. I don’t see it in the parking lot where I left it.” He went out with great excitement. No, it wasn’t there, so he came back and called up his wife. “Have you any idea where that car is or has somebody really stolen it?” She said, “You remember you drove to Providence yesterday with your car. Are you sure you drove it home?” It turned out he had driven his car down to Providence and had returned by train!
Wonderful. Well, I have an experience of Wiener that I might relate. I met him in St. Louis many years ago at a symposium on philosophy of science of some sort, and on being introduced to him, he spotted me as a person of German birth. Anyhow he asked me, “Weren’t you born in Westphalia?” I said yes I was. “Why,” he said, “are you a native? Do you speak the language, the dialect?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “You know, my wife comes from there, and she’s taught me that dialect. I want to try it out on somebody who knows the language.” He was a great man for learning languages. He was also learning Chinese at the time. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Let’s go to lunch together.” And during the walk to the restaurant, he began singing these old ribald student songs in this terrible dialect, which is very close to Dutch. I enjoyed it immensely, but I couldn’t stop the man. We walked back to the symposium at two o’clock in the afternoon and we sat in the front row and Wiener kept singing these songs — at first quite loudly and then in a lower tone of voice. But finally somebody had to shut him up.
Yes. There are many stories about his language prowess.
Two years ago he came to Yale as a Terry lecturer and spent three days on the campus. I chatted with him then. We chatted one morning. I picked him up at his room at nine o’clock in the morning and took him down to my office and we chatted. When 11 o’clock came around, I looked at my watch and said, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Wiener, but I have a class to teach at 11 o’clock. Maybe you would like to amuse yourself in the library. I’ll see you when I get back.” He said, “What’s this class of yours?” I said, “It’s quantum mechanics.” “Oh,” he said, “I have a theory of quantum mechanics. May I teach your class?” I said, “Wonderful.” And he did. He talked to the boys for 25 minutes. Then he ran out of substance and waved to me and said, “We are through. Let’s go.”
That sounds so typical of Wiener.
I was sorry to interrupt. Now, while we are on the subject of philosophy of science and philosophy of physics, I would like to ask you, realizing your acquaintance with Bohr and your great admiration for him, what you think about his philosophy and particularly about his principle of complementarity.
I think, of course, it was an interesting extrapolation of the fundamental idea that comes out of the indeterminacy principle, which, as you yourself have remarked, is really a theorem in quantum mechanics. It was quite clear to me that Bohr in his later years was always looking for ways in which these fundamental results of quantum mechanics could be applied in a larger context, and me I think he somehow seized on this notion of the mutually exclusive modes of explanation of different types of experience as something very fundamental. Now, frankly, I’ve never felt too much impressed with that. I think it is rather interesting, a little bit amusing and perhaps suggestive to people, but I never felt somehow that the use he made of it, the attempt he made to apply it to other sciences like biology or, say, to the field of sociology, as he did, carried very much weight. Let me illustrate. You know, he had the notion that you could use the principle of complementarity — or you really had to, as he felt — in any attempt to explain the nature of life. He had the notion that there are two mutually exclusive ways of looking at a living organism. You could take an organism apart and examine what each part is good for and then ultimately you understand it, because after you’ve got all the pieces there you know what they’re for and you could, so to speak, put them together again and thus understand the organism. But, as he pointed out, if you tried to use only that process, you ultimately wind up with a dead organism.
Therefore, you haven’t really explained the thing you set out to explain. On the other hand, the other approach, of course, is the overall organic approach. You just observe the behavior of the organism; you try to study everything it does. But in that way you have to forego the role that each part — of the organism plays in its fundamental behavior. So here are these mutually exclusive ways of looking at things. I’m sure this was very attractive to him, and he made a very interesting lecture out of it; but frankly I don’t think that biologists have bought it very significantly. Then there was his attempt — I know he spoke about it in a lecture at Brown once — to contrast mutually exclusive ways of looking at social experience. He contrasted the concepts of love and justice. He said, “These are mutually exclusive. If you treat a person wholly from the standpoint of love, then you can’t be just to him. If on the other hand, you show a person nothing but justice, as say in the reproving of the bad behavior of a child, then you have to forego the loving kindness, which certain people say is the right way to handle it.” Well, this is ingenious, but, after all, somehow I never felt that it really was coming to grips with the problem. It was the development of a philosophical feeling on the part of a very thoughtful man, who was doing the obvious thing —— that is to say, using the ideas which had proved very useful in one branch of science and trying to apply them directly to another by a kind of isomorphism, which sometimes works but more often doesn’t. This is the way I felt. Now, this is partly tinged with a feeling that as Bohr got older, he grew more dogmatic about these things and finally came to the conclusion that somehow he had the right ideas about it all. I think it was very unfortunate. I actually heard him get up in a lecture, which he gave at a time of a conference. (It was the only big conference I ever attended in Copenhagen where they asked back a number of the people that had been fellows there years before), and though I, of course, had been out of the field of quantum mechanics for a long time, I was invited back. That was in 1951. There were some celebrities there — Dirac and people of that standing. Bohr gave the first lecture, and he gave the last lecture. Like all his lectures, the first was a complete historical rehash of the whole quantum theory practically from Democritus on down to Bohr and beyond. It was very interesting, and yet it was a little painful to take. Then, he finally wound up giving the final lecture after everybody else had had his say, and almost the last thing he said was: “After long, serious meditation on the problems of quantum physics, I have reached the conclusion that the will is free.” I thought this was a very strange thing for him to say. But then afterwards, in thinking over this excursions into philosophy, I concluded perhaps maybe he really felt this sincerely. But I think many people were profoundly shocked to hear him say this.
I take it you are also against these somewhat extravagant elaborations of the complementarity principle in which Oppenheimer and others have recently indulged, where they want to solve every problem in philosophy and life — the mind-body problems — all of these by reference to the principle of complementarity, seeing the basic dualism in physics and therefore claiming that physics is the most basic science.
This is to me, Henry just an illustration of dogmatism that apparently most clever, able scientists seem ultimately to get themselves involved in. Now, I’m not against dogmatism where it serves a useful purpose. It may tend indeed to develop science. In many cases a man who holds very firmly to a certain point of view in spite of many objections which most people think are pretty clear and obvious, serves a very useful purpose. There is a great danger however when influential people, who ultimately can control the resources on which future science has got to depend, get in the saddle and allow their dogmatism, their feeling they have the only right way to look at things, and refuse to recommend the support of projects which do not conform to their feelings. To me, this is a very important problem in what I would call the sociology of science — that is, the ultimate support of science in our civilization and in our economy. That is why I have a feeling of discomfort and a feeling sometimes almost of helplessness in thinking that some very clever people have finally reached the conclusion that they know all there is to know. At the same time those are the people that often command tremendous respect in Washington and places where the taxpayers’ money is being divided up for the support of scientific projects. I think back to the problem of the cranks in science. Julius Robert Mayer was considered a crank, and yet now everybody knows that he made the first valid calculation of the mathematical equivalent of heat. “Well,” you say, “yes, but you ought to be able to distinguish that kind of crank from other kinds of cranks.” Perhaps you can. But I think somehow there should be some way in which the dogmatic people would be open—minded enough to allow a little consideration, take a little chance on a man who has a wild idea.
This is a very nice problem. Suppose you take the man who worked on the bubble chamber.
Donald Glaser, you mean?
Yes. As I understand it, for a long time he was the only one who believed in it, and he finally made it work. Now, how does one know beforehand whether the man is really good and really had something or whether he’s just a fraud?
There are plenty of frauds, of course. There’s no doubt about that. Who was the man who detected isotopes by the optical method?
Was it Allison?
Allison, not the Allison in Chicago but the other Allison.
He developed something that no one else could repeat.
That’s right. And I think this was tried and was finally found to be a sort of illusion. There are ways of testing these things. There’s Ehrenhaft, for example.
Ehrenhaft was an illustration of a man commonly considered to be a sort of crank in spite of the fact that he held a professorship in Vienna. The curious thing about Ehrenhaft is that his experimental techniques were superb. I think no one questioned that, not even Millikan. The trouble was that he got it into his head that what he was doing was finding charges of magnitude less than e. But his students could take his apparatus and do wonderful things with it as experimental equipment. When he discussed photophoresis, for example, it was beautiful work, but he tried to tie all his results to his obsessive ideas. Now, if he had really proved his point, we wouldn’t be calling him a crank. Who knows?
How about Willard Gibbs? Here’s another isolated person.
He wasn’t so isolated, you see, because people abroad realized the significance of his work. I mean people like Kelvin and Poincare and Helmholtz and others realized what Gibbs was doing, and they appreciated it. I think it was ultimately understood in this country too. No, I don’t think he ever was considered anything remotely resembling a crank by anybody. I think he was considered a bit queer in this country. There are many stories about him of course right here at Yale in that respect. You’ve heard them all. I don’t need to repeat them.
Yes, but of course they are being discredited one after another. I suppose it’s true that every great innovator is a lone wolf wherever he may be residing. After all, if a man has a great idea at Yale, not many others follow him. Quite often this happens at Chicago, it happens at Harvard, it happens everywhere. That is just the fate of a man who for the first time announces a great insight. Now, may I give you a preview of some of the questions I would like to ask in a general way, so you can make up your mind as to which you might want to answer at length?
I might profitably make a note of those.
I’d be glad to take them in any sequence you like. You don’t need to write them down. I would like to know a little about your acoustical activities and your distinguished contributions to the Acoustical Society. And I would like to hear a little about your work in the American Physical Society in your administrative capacity there. You’ve been on the Council for so long. Tell us a little about your contribution there, your experience, the satisfactions that this kind of work has yielded.
I think when you speak of the American Physical Society you really mean the American Institute of Physics.
The American Institute of Physics, of course.
I did serve on the Council of the Physical Society a good many years ago, just an ordinary term. This was largely of course finding out how Karl Darrow operated.
I see. You see, I've had no affiliation at all with these things, and I'm curious what sort of satisfactions you get out of them. Of course the fruitfulness of your work is apparent. I'm just wondering what sort of personal satisfaction you get. And I would also like to ask about your present views on ethics. I believe I know them, partly from conversations with you about the ethical imperative, the thermodynamic imperative. I'd like to have you comment on that if you like. And finally I would like to probe you a bit on the question of religion.
Leave the last for the end. Maybe we can run for the train while you're asking it. Well, let's take the matters up more or less seriatim, if you will, Henry. I'd like to say something about the Acoustical Society because I would like to have it on record that my association with that society has been one of the grate satisfactions of my life. That may be considered a little curious because at this time in particular there are many physicists who have long since felt that acoustics has no place any longer in physics, that it is primarily a technology or a branch of engineering. Now, I disagree with that. I came into acoustics, as I explained in my autobiography, in a kind of accidental way. I had started out to be an atomic physicist, as you know, but when I came to Yale as a young instructor and wanted to teach an advanced course, John Zeleny the chairman, said, "The only course of a graduate character we don't teach is a course in sound. Would you like to teach it?" I said I didn't know anything about sound. And he said, "Well, that's your problem — to find out if you will." So I began to read Rayleight's Theory of Sound, and I found it a very fascinating book, one of the most fascinating books that I ever looked into in my life. Incidentally, you'll be interested to learn that I began my stud of Rayleigh in a German translation because at that time I couldn't afford to buy the Standard English second edition. It was a little hard to get, but you could get it by paying enough. But the German translation in paperback I found in a secondhand bookstore in New Haven. So I killed two birds with one stone, and brushed up my German and read Rayleigh at the same time. It was a very fine translation. This reading began to interest me immensely, because it opened up an entirely new vista. It showed me there were problems of great theoretical interest that this man had been considering back in 1877, which still were of vital importance, because as I looked at what the Bell Labs were trying to do in certain problems in transducer design involving the vibration of membranes and the radiations from vibrating materials, I saw that Rayleigh inlcuded much of the fundamental theory that they were rediscovering at the Bell Labs. This naturally intrigued one. I said, "There must be something to this subject. It's still alive. It isn't dead at all. It wasn't finished with Rayleigh. If people would only go back and look at Rayleight, they would see that there are very interesting things there that could be applied." The new technical developments had made it possible to make acoustics into a living science, whereas in Rayleigh's day the best he could do was to make a toot out of a birdwhistle or something like that. Now the Bell Labs' scientists were putting at the disposal of this subject all the modern paraphernalia of electronics. So, this is how I got interested in acoustics, and, as you know, I gave courses in this field at Yale. I was not a charter member of the Acoustical Society. The Society was formed in 1929. I had already begun to teach the subject and was writing a few papers on sound but in those days I didn't have much money, and I wasn't a joiner. I was very shy and rather disinclined to expose myself to these practical people who knew a lot mroe about how to design and work with equipment than I did. So I stayed away from the Society for quite a few years, and finally joined in 1935 when I began to go to meetings and give papers, partly for the reason that the Physical Review stopped accepting papers in acoustics about that time. The editors said, "There now exists a Journal of the Acoustical Society. You should send your material there." I began to do this and then I got invited to meetings and gradually learned to know there were some very nice people in the Society. many of them were engineers, but they were interested in hearing what theoretical physicists had to say about problems in the transmission and filtration of sound. So I began gradually to move in that direction and was eventually invited into the inner circle of the group there with Wallace Waterfall and so on and found them very interesting people. In the meantime, my own research supervision at Brown was divided between problems in quantum physics and acoustics. The form involved calculation of atomic wave functions by the Hartree self-consistent field method, and I had a good many students who did theses on that. At the same time I began to encourage students to do experimental work on things like acoustic filtration, which struck me as a rather interesting subject. I had learned a good deal about it from P. W. Stewart, with whom I wrote a book on acoustics. This provided the basis for a number of graduate theses, both on the master's and doctor's level. When the war came along, I got involved in war work in acoustics. This also tended to build up my interest. Then after the war I gradually got brought more and more into Society affairs. I finally was elected president in 1956-57. By a curious accident just at that time the editor of the Journal resigned, leading to some confusion. Finally I was put in as a holdover for a period, and I got interested in that editorial work that I've kept that up ever since. I find the job fascinating, and I think it has been a very interesting and possibly fruitful way of devoting attention to a field. It enables one to take a much broader viewpoint with regard to a field of science like acoustics than concentration on one element of research in that field. To me that has been very helpful. I've enjoyed the work very much. So much for the Acoustical Society. About the same time — that is, in the mid '50s — I was sent as a representative of the Acoustical Society to serve on the governing board of the American Institute of Physics and began to take an interest in the affairs of the Institute. I found that rather stimulating as I began to learn a little more about what the Institute of Physics can do for the socieities on the one hand and for the whole profession of physics on the other. I have become rather firmly devoted to the idea that there is a place for such an organization, that it can serve the members of the various physics socieities and also serve the community. I think it has carried out its task very well. Now, of course, it's easy to make fun of organizations. Charles Dickens did that, you know, in Pickwick Papers with the Pickwick Club and so forth, and it is true that Americans somehow seem to have this penchant for getting around a table with a green cloth and arguing administrative matters. One can be cynical about it, but after all, things do get done this way to a certain extent; and as longas you don't take it with too deadly a seriousness, I think it provides an interesting modification of one's concern for the subject in research and/or teaching. In recent years I've devoted quite a lot of attention to such matters, and found them on the whole rather rewarding. I've been very impressed, for example with Elmer Hutchisson and what he has done at the Institute of Physics. I think that he really has been instrumental in making a lot of people aware of the power and influence of physics as a science. This woul dnot have happened if matters had been left, say, just to the American Physical Society or the other societies that represent physics. So to be associated with AIP this has been a worthwhile endeavor for me.
What has been the nature of your affiliation with the American Institute of Physics over the years?
I have been on the Governing Board for a good many years — I suppose something like eight or nine years — and since 1959 on the executive committee, largely I think through the influence of Mr. Wallace Waterfall, who is a very powerful figure. We have got along very well because he has been Secretary of the Acoustical Society as well as Secretary of the Institute. By serving on the executive committee I've been on the inside and have seen more about the operations until now I've got myself really involved in the problem of the reorganization of the Institute as well as the problem of the succession to Mr. Hutchisson, who is resigning as of October 1. I obviously think the Institute is a very fine organization. It's worthy of a lot of attention and support, and I hope it gets it.
Would you care to say anything about how the Institute does its work?
Yes. I think the main purpose of the Institute in the first instance was visualized by K. T. Compton, who really started it in 1931: to provide a center through which the various societies representing physics in this country could pool their efforts primarily in publication, to make publication more efficient and prevent overlap and duplication of facilities. This was the first idea. But the people who founded AIP were broadminded enough to see that such an organization might also have it in its power to provide for the country as a whole an image of physics as a profession that the individual societies could not by themselves provide. I think this was Compton's vision and a very far-seeing vision. Hence in the charter of the organization there was written in the obligation for the Institute to concern itself with broad problems of education in physics, as well as of public relations, so that, the image of physics would be presented properly to the general public. Relation with other branches of science were also deemed important. I think both Barton, as the first director, and Hutchisson probably even more than Barton, have tried to meet these obligations. This couse has led to problems because it means that the Institute has to do two things. It has got to satisfy the members of the found and member societies that it is doing its duty with respect to publication, or circulation of journals, of maintenance of membership lists for the societies, and these other routine activities for which it was really set up. At the same time it has to have an active committee on education, a committee on public relation, and these groups must work with various elements of the community at large to push physics in high school, in college, to make sure that the supply of physicists for the future is assured. I think the Institute feels that this is part of its obligation, and this is being done through the agency of the directors and such directors of departments as Bill Kelly in education and Gene Kone in public relations. Others who participate includ Jim King who heads the project on the history of and philosophy of physics, which I know the Institute feels is very important and wants to maintain. The building up of the Niels Bohr Library is another indication of the attitudes of the Institute towards the fundamental problem of making sure that there can be a history of physics written in the future by being careful that the resources of present-day physics are preserved. I hope this is sufficient. It at least gives my impression of the aim of the Institute and my own interest in trying to do what I can to further that aim. I suppose you can see that as I have got more deeply involved in what might be called administrative work through my appointment as Dean of the Graduate School at Brown in 1954, now ten years ago, that this provides a kind of normal outlet in other directions for administrative impulses. There are aspects of it that are probably not good from the standpint of what I might accomplish as a research physicist or scholar. This is a debatable point. I can't really explain this. I suppose there's a sort of fundamental feeling — here I speak probably with some immodesty — that maybe I can make a better contribution to society in this way than if I immured myself in a hut and simply meditated. I don't think that I have enough profundity in me to make the kind of contribution that you can, Henry, to speak quite bluntly and frankly. Therefore I have an obligation to do what I can in ways where I think I see a possibility, and I have seen that in some of these administrative things. I've enjoyed my work as dean because I feel there that I am in a position to promote graduate education in all fields, not only in my own field of physics. In so doing, I can perhaps take a little broader point of view than I would if I stayed entirely within the domain of physics. I've enjoyed that. I've felt that perhaps I'm making a little contribution. In the same way, in physics itself, if I take an administrative interest in the AIP and the Acoustical Society, then I'm serving the same kind of purpose there. Some people would say, "Well, yes but you're sacrificing too much." My answer to that is, "I doubt it because I don't think I have that much to sacrifice. I mean I just don't have it in me."
Well, quite apart from the modesty that speaks in your explanations of the life you chose as an administrator, one could doubtless argue with the relative importance that you bestow on this. I'm not at all convinced that work of an administrative nature is not more important even if it's done by a person who could otherwise make very distinguished contributions to research. I think administration is not only necessary, but greatly to be emphasized in our present-day somewhat complex society. We do need this division of functions, and I think that there is a measure of sacrifice involved when a person like yourself devotes himself so unstintingly to these important duties. Well, now, the next topic on my list is ethics. I know, of course, of your thermodynamic imperative.
Yes, you wrote me a very intersting and critical letter at the time when I sent you the reprint, and I was very grateful for it. I was actually able to use to advantage your comments when I amplified the thing a little bit in the alst chapter of the book, The Role of Science in Civilization. I still feel, of course, that there is a great deal of uncertainty and doubt about the value of such a principle. It was thrown out more as a provocative idea, to see whether people would find anything useful in it. I know that at the time when Hugh Taylor accepted the article for the American Scientist, he wrote back and said a reviewer who had read the manuscript said that it was worthless; it was simply nothing but emphasizing the ethics of an ant hill! Still in spite of that, Taylor printed the paper. He said he printed it largely not because of the thermodynamic imperative, but because he thought it was a very simply way to explain to most people the essence of thermodynamics.
But again I can't accept your modesty in withdrawing any positive assertions which you have in fact made, and I think made wisely and most interestingly and charmingly. With any theories of this character, to my mind it's just a question of the way you put this imperative. Is this a generalization of human experience? Is it something which you regard as a primary value that comes from a priori philosphical considerations? I mean how does it fit into the entire methodology of ethics?
I don't know enough about the methodology of ethics as a whole really to answer the question. I suppose I felt if we assume that ethics is going to be built essentially on value and value judgments, then possibly one could effectively do something with a value judgment that uses the terminology of science, suggested by what I consider one of the great theories of science, namely, thermodynamics. This notion of order, which is so closely tied up, you see, with the concept of entropy in the second law, struck me rather forcibly. Actually, I'm afraid if you come right down to it, most of the stuff is in Schrodinger's little book, What is Life?, with the exception that he didn't stress the notion of an imperative. However he stresses the idea of the relation between life as a consumer of entropy. Of course the use of the word "consumption" was my own an dthat I like to make. Anyway the notion that possibly one could find a certain mental satisfaction in a feeling that if human beings would try to consume entropy in the sense of injecting order into their lives, that life might be more wholesome and they coul dmake a greater contribution to life as a whole. That made an appeal to me, because it did seem somehow to bear a relation to the Golden Rule and Kant's categorical imperative and to other types of imperatives one might imagine. But I'm afraid, Henry, I've never made any attempt to place this in the pattern, say, of a complete ethical theory, partly because I just don't know enough philosophy, partly because I have doubts anyway, a few doubts about a scientific theory of ethics. As I said in my discussion of your ideas, I try to be fair and just in asserting what I thought you had been doing. Of course I hadn't the advantage of your whole book, and I hope to have that before long. But I am of course in a state of some doubt as to what this all adds up to.
Yes. You would not claim gernality for this imperative.
Not at all.
These silly little brutal examples that I put in my letter to you really fall flat. I am still a little wondering about that example I gave.
One might indeed say that my imperative enocurages the production of life because life is the consumption of entropy and produces order, and therefore the more life you have, the more order you have. This I would not accept, because I think one has to apply my idea primarily to the individual. It's an individual matter just as the Golden Rule, it seems to me, is a matter for individual choice. This isnot a thing that can be imposed on people as a whole. It's something each has to choose, just as you choose to obey the Golden Rule or not. If you don't have free choice, then I do't think the principle ahs any meaning anyway. In that way I would discount the attempt to say. "Well, didn't Hitler do the right thing when he tried to maek the German people orderly?" and so forth. He made them orderly in a certain sense. He injected a terrific amount of order, but of course it all evaporated into disorder ultimately, and I would not take that as an objection to the principe, because I think that in that case the people were not free; and if a person is not free to obey or disobey an imperative, the imperativeh has no meaning for me. Now, this is a value judgment in itself that you might not agree with.
Oh, yes. The quantitative formulation of the imperative is something that you would probably not maintain.
It is difficult to maintain.
It's conceivable that I could justify murder by sprinkling the ashed of my victim on his grave and raising flowers, enough flowers, so that the total entropy reduction which occurs in the creation of moonlight, you see, is greater than the loss of it would be when I killed the fellow.
This is Dostoyevsky's argument in Crime and Punishment. The individual student could kill because in this way he woul dkeep himself. But of course there's a moral.
I am of course against your imperative if you take it literally, but I don't think you ever meant it in quite that way. I have run into one thing in your book which I would like to call to your attention. It seems to me a slight contradiction in terms. In connection with this imperative, I had originally planned to put it in my book, but I finally decided to leave it out until I had discussed it with you.
Well, I think you'd better leave it out completely then.
You know, I think that perhaps we'd better conclude the interview very soon.
Couldn't we get Bruce to tell us just a little bit about religion?
It will be very brief because the statement will not encourage you at all. You know there is a First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which says: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." I also have an amendment to my constitution, that the gentleman named R. B. Lindsay shall never make any public statement whatever on a matter of religion. I will go on and embroider it a little bit, since you have raised the question. This does not mean that I'm not interested in religion. It does not mean that I don't go to church, because I have gone to church quite regularly for many years. In fact, I've gone to a Unitarian church in Providence for almost 30 years because I happen to like the minister. He's a friend of mine. I've never joined that church. I've never been willing to sign the covenant book. And I suppose that it takes less in a way of a commitment to sign a Unitarian covenant book then any other religion you could possibly imagine except possibly Buddhism or one of the Oriental religions. My course here has been based on my unwillingness to commit myself even to that extent. I go because I think church is a very useful social invention. It's necessary, it seems to me, for our time. Everybody has a religion whether he admits it or not; no one can avoid it. But as to what that religion is: In general, it's an intensely personal matter. And the more importance you attach to it, perhaps the less willing you are to talk about it. That has been my view. This means of course that nobody will ever know what my religion is, and you might say thisi s a rather curious situation, but this is exactly how I feel. So I never talk openly about it. I've never written about it. Well, this is not entirely true. When I was a Yale many years ago, Ray Seeger got me to go down to one of the churches in New Haven and talk about the religion of a scientist. I never published the apepr. It may be still in manuscript form somewhere, but I don't know where it is. And since that time, since my youth, I have made an agreement with myself that I would not make any statements. I've been urged to do so. I've had invitations to preach at the Unitarian Church, but I have always refused. I'm sure many people have felt it is very peculiar of me to take this attitude because some of them have read papers I have written about related matters in philosphy of physics, science, sociology, adn so forth. I wouldn't object to talking to a grup about the thermodynamic imperative, but I don't consider that that gives away any views of mine on religion.
Well, it makes you a most interesting, fascinating and enigmatic person. And I think that is a very good strategy.
I don't think that my wife, for example, to whom I am closer than any other living person, and whom I love intensely knows what my religion is. And I don't think she cares. She herself, incidentally, is a good Episcopalian. We don't go to the same church and yet we never have any trouble at all in being in a so-called religiously divided family.
I think that's a very unique attitude, a very unique answer.
Perhaps this winds up our interview.
Do you have any other remarks to make?
Nothing, though Henry might want to raise some further matters. He has certainly wound up with the fundamental thing, which could have, in some cases led to another half-hour of discussion but I don't think it can now, Henry. I am just peculiar! You probably never realized this in spite of our friendship and long acquaintance, this peculiarity of my character, did you? Maybe you suspected it?
No. I think it's an amazing trait of wisdom.
Well, that's very generous of you.
I can't wholly understand it, because I personally haven't lived that way. I feel a bit aggressive about certain religious convictions, and sometimes in order to combat them I have to come forth and state my own.
I think perhaps we had better conclude here. Than you very much, gentlemen.
Thank you for the opportunity, it has been very interesting.