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Interview of R. Bruce Lindsay by W. J. King on 1964 July 9, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4744-2
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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.
Dean Lindsay, in your autobiography you mention your early life at home. I wonder if we could explore that a little further. I wonder if we could get some idea of the atmosphere at home. You mentioned that your father was bookish. Did he borrow books from the library, did he have his own library? You give the impression that you were very hardworking in the primary school. Was this all that you did while you were in primary school? Did you go to church? Did you speak German at home or with any of the family?
Well, here are a good many separate questions which perhaps I could try to answer more or less seriatim. My father was very fond of books, though he had not, as I have indicated in my little account, a formal education that extended very far. He had kept up his education on an informal basis; even after he came to this country he went to night school continually to study chemistry and mathematics and science in general, as well as subjects more cultural in character. He was always interested in acquiring books. He was a kind of easy prey to these book salesmen who would come to his laboratory at the gas works, and try to sell him a set of books on easy terms, whether it was a series of George Eliot’s novels or Dickens’ works or a collection of history books. And as a result, he acquired quite a substantial library for a man who was not essentially scholarly in his background. Obviously, when I was little I couldn’t really do much with those books, but the very fact that they were there and I used to see him reading a large part of the time he spent at home — (he spent most of his non-working time at home, he and my mother were not very socially inclined, so I saw a lot of them at home) — probably got me into the habit of doing the same sort of thing when I got old enough to read.
Now with regard to school I’ve pointed out in my autobiography and may as well repeat, that I was not at all a very able student in the primary and the lower grammar grades. Why this was so, of course, is a great question. I discussed it once with an educator, some years ago, and he said the problem was that I didn’t have the proper kind of education. Be that as it may, I went to a public school; my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a private school. I don’t know whether the public schools in my hometown were any worse than in other places, but the fact remains that I didn’t make a very favorable impression on the teachers in those lower grades. And it wasn’t until I got up into what came to be called grade 78, that is, the first term of the seventh grade, after the elementary school system had been changed to eight grades, that I began to attract the attention of the teachers and the teachers began to take an interest and encourage me. That part of the story is a little grim. As I said, my school days weren’t very happy days because though I did work hard, successful results for a long time didn’t seem to be particularly conspicuous. This is the story on school, unless you want to raise any other quest ions.
I was wondering about your initial experiences in school. These were not too pleasant.
No, they were not.
I take it they had given you a bad taste that you had to overcome.
You see, in my boyhood my family lived in the south end of New Bedford, and the population density there was fairly heavy in the foreign-born, mainly the Portuguese people that had come into New Bedford to do farming and fishing. There was a regular packet boat that arrived there frequently from the Portuguese Islands. A good many of these people lived in that part of town. Though they were perfectly good people, they didn’t set a very high tone for the school, and a good many of my schoolmates were of this group. We didn’t live in what was at that time called a favorable residential section. It was a kind of natural real-estate segregation, such as people now complain about in connection with Negroes. I don’t think it did me any harm, but when we moved after I had finished the first two grades and I began to go to another school, I think the teaching was better and I got more interested. But even there somehow things didn’t go too easily.
I’ve reconstructed this myself, and I suppose much of the trouble, was natural slowness to grasp ideas, a kind of shyness which made it very difficult for me to be aggressive in making an impression on a teacher, a lack of confidence in my ability, a feeling that I couldn’t really hope to succeed the way some of the bright ones were doing. But the point is that I did give the problem a lot of attention; I thought a lot about it. I was a kind of introvert and became more and more so as I went along. In fact, my father, who tried to help me, didn’t do too much good, because he put a lot of pressure on me. He wanted me to do well and would continually ask me, “Well, what was the matter with this?” Why wasn’t I doing a little better than that. I don’t mean that he was unreasonable, but he had such a great interest in the young person getting on in the world, realizing that it took a great deal of intellectual endeavor to make a success — he had reason to know that from his own childhood and upbringing — that he took my problems very seriously. And this, while it gave me encouragement, also probably increased my nervousness with respect to how things were going to come out. I really didn’t get over that unhappy feeling until I went to high school.
Did your father have any trouble economically?
Of course, he didn’t have what one would call a very fine position. He was working at that time — when I was going though the lower grades — as a chemist in the gas works, doing gas analyses, and while this was certainly technical work, it wasn’t recompensed the way it is nowadays. The whole scale was lower.
The income was adequate for the time?
The income was just about enough to keep the family respectable. Of course, I was the only child and so the expense so far as children were concerned wasn’t so great, but we certainly didn’t live in any luxury at all and barely made ends meet, I guess, until I got into high school and then my father’s job got better. He then rose fairly rapidly in the ranks of his company.
How about attendance at church?
Well, that’s an interesting story. I don’t want to talk about my views on religion at all, as I told Henry Margenau, when we had our other interview. But I don’t mind providing factual material about my experiences. My father, of course, was born and brought up a Scottish Presbyterian; in fact, his family belonged to the Independent Church, that is to say, the church that was not supported by the state, not the established Church of Scotland but the Free Church of Scotland, so called, which was a dissenting Presbyterian sect. My grandmother was a very rigid and devout fundamentalist believer. I don’t think that too much of this rubbed off on my father, so that when he came to New Bedford he found that the Presbyterian Church there was run very largely by the people called, in those days, the downeasters — we would now call them the bluenoses, that is to say, the people from the Maritime Provinces of Canada, whose acquaintance with Scotland, was somewhat tenuous, and they were therefore looked down upon a little by the real Scots. My father gave up going to church for quite a time, and that provided a problem in regard to what I should do about church. He did have me baptized in the Presbyterian Church: that didn’t worry me because obviously I didn’t know what was going on! But when it came to the question of my going to Sunday School, our part of town at the time was pretty far from the Presbyterian Church, and he wasn’t going there himself.
So, my mother just took it on herself to send me to a Methodist-Episcopal Sunday school, only a few blocks away from our house. That is where I first started going to Sunday school. But then when we moved, (when I was about eight years old) that became inconvenient, and I went for a while to the Presbyterian Church, which was a little closer to the house in the west end to which we had moved. I must say I wasn’t very much thrilled for the experience there wasn’t particularly exciting. I guess most children don’t care much about Sunday School anyway. But I felt there was a kind of mercenary atmosphere. So I stopped going there a few years after, and persuaded my father to let me go to a German Church Sunday school — this was when I was, I guess, around 11 — on the general principle that I might at any rate learn some German. You see, though my mother was of German origin, she had never kept up her German at home. Her father spoke, naturally, German very well, because he was a Rhinelander, and yet, though he tried to have his children speak German at home, the children soon got away from it. They would understand what he was saying, but they would always answer in English. Even though he disliked that, there was nothing he could so about it. My mother lost her German quite completely. My father picked up, of course, enough so that he could read German, especially scientific books.
Was this why he started studying German?
Yes, so he could read German chemical books. I found there were many little German primers and readers around the house. You see, my grandfather, Robert Leuchseuring, had made a little sideline of giving German lessons, and that’s how my father got introduced to the woman who became my mother. Well, there were these German books around, and I picked them up and tried to do something with them. But then it was decided that perhaps I might go to this German Sunday school. There, the minister, who was a Lutheran of course, had Saturday morning classes where he taught little kids German, and I went to those for a while and picked up some knowledge of the language. It got so that I rather liked the Sunday school. I don’t know that I learned an awful lot of German, because most of the children there spoke English, though they came from German families. Much of the service was conducted in German and I gradually came to understand that, and I participated in some of the special Easter and Christmas services by reciting German poems, and things of that sort. I think that was all to the good.
A little later, however I got tired of it, and decided to experiment. For a while I went to a Congregational Church Sunday school, and then I went to an Episcopal Sunday school, because that had been the church my mother had been brought up in though she stopped going when she grew up. And my uncle, one of her brothers, was going there for a while. So, I went to the Bible class that was run by a very enthusiastic Episcopalian rector, and think I got a lot out of that. My Sunday schooling was thus a sort of cut-up affair. I think I had experience in about all the branches, except the Jewish temple and the Roman Catholic church, that had ever existed. I did go to a Roman Catholic church a few times, mainly to funerals of relatives and friends. You see, some of my relatives were Roman Catholics because my mother’s German ancestors were primarily Catholic on her mother’s side. The South Germans tend to be Catholic, as you know. Actually, my grandfather was a Protestant, a Lutheran, and so my grandmother, when they came to this country, didn’t bother to follow the Catholic faith; she went over to the Episcopalian church. She finally would up actually as a Christian Scientist. Her brother, on the other hand, became more or less a nominal Catholic and brought up his family as Catholics, so there was a kind of division there in the family between the Protestant and the Catholic, which was rather interesting.
Did you have very strong ties to the German side of your family? Well, let me go on a little further. When World War I began, did you have any feelings about that, because of your German background?
No, it’s a very curious thing that I was intensely pro—British because, I suppose, my father had very strong feelings. In other words, the Scotch side of the ancestry prevailed. I remember going to visit my mother’s uncle, who ran a blacksmith shop, a rather prosperous blacksmith business in New Bedford, and he, of course, in the early stages of the war, around 1914, was very pro-German; he and my father used to get into very, very violent arguments, and I would sit there, of course, and take it all in, on the whole though, sympathizing with the British side of the controversy and with very little faith that the Germans were right. You see, in a certain sense, my grandfather had no great love for Germany though he was born there. As I explained in the autobiography, he was a South German, from Mannheim in the Rhineland, and at the time of the 1870 war with France, he had to go and fight for the Prussians. Now, if there was anybody he disliked more than anyone else, it was a Prussian. And I think he hated like anything the feeling that those South Germans had to fight alongside the Prussians; the fact that this founded the German Empire didn’t have much interest to him. He actually deserted from the German Army and fled to this country in 1871. He was never allowed to go back to Germany. He probably would have been shot as a deserter. He had relatives, of course, that he corresponded with, but his feeling for Germany was not very great after that time, and I presume this may have had some bearing on my own attitude. On the other side, my grandmother’s relatives did have a sort of pro-German streak in them which was a little embarrassing. Or course, they got over it by the time we got into the war; they shut up then and everything was smooth.
That’s very curious. Actually, my grandparents just came over here shortly after 1871, and I think for the same reason. I remember my grandmother telling me, “I’m not German. I’m a Saxon.” But it was the German Empire she was thinking about.
Oh yes! There were many Germans, I think, who had no use for the Reich as such, for the Kaiser and for the Hohenzollerns, and were perfectly glad to see all that business done away with. They respected their German ancestors, they liked to keep up their German customs. I know that my relatives on both sides of the German house took part in German-society activities in New Bedford. There were various German organizations, you know, like the singing societies, and that sort of thing. They were all interested in and enjoyed those, and the German gemutlichkeit, so-called, was well represented by those people. But when it came to any particular love for Germany as a power in the world to cause trouble, I think they wanted to be left out of it. As a matter of fact, in the case of my grandfather, he had the opportunity to send his daughter, my mother, to Germany to study music because his mother and her relatives wanted to have their grandchild brought over there, and were going to give her an elaborate education. It would have been far better for her in some ways if my mother had gone, but then somebody else would have been my mother, I suppose. But, anyway, my grandfather wouldn’t let her go; he didn’t want her to go to Germany. He just wanted to cut ties with his native land completely. I think the Germans in a way demonstrate that attitude even more than some of the other foreigners who come to the United States; that is to say, they seem to mix more readily with the old Yankee stock. They haven’t hesitated to marry with anybody, Irish, Scotch, English, Yankee, and so on. Whereas, you find, among some of the Southern Europeans a greater tendency to stick together and refuse to intermarry with other stocks.
Did you develop an interest in German literature from your German background?
I did in high school because there I took a regular course in German, which was taught by a German woman, who was a very good teacher. She, incidentally, got into trouble for her pro-German feeling during the war, and she finally left the school. But I got a great deal out of her course, more naturally than I did out of my earlier elementary study with the German-Lutheran pastor. And at that time I tried to read on my own hook books out of the public library, German books, and when I came to college I put quite a lot of time in on German, much more so than on French.
But it never really stuck?
No, I mean I never got so that I could, for example, speak German with ease.
And your interests never really kept on going, as they did in the case of Latin and English literature?
No, I guess not. I began to use German more and more as a tool for reading scientific literature. However on the various occasions when I have been in Germany I have bought some of those — oh, reprints of German classics. Thus 1 bought a copy of Goethes’ Faust and read a large part of it in the original language, but I could hardly pretend to be very scholarly about it, I’m afraid. But I have always liked German as a language and wish I had more command of it. On the few occasions when I have been in Germany I’ve tried to speak the language but in a very lame and halting fashion; in a way it has been a shameful thing, because from my family connection I might have been expected to be bilingual, but my mother threw away her chance; she didn’t have any interest.
In 1916 you began in Brown and in your autobiography you mention that you had a freshman teacher in mathematics who was very, very good. Who was he?
His name was Clinton Harvey Currier. We used to call him Cy Currier. He was an extraordinarily good teacher. His was one of these cases, however, where a man built up a competence in teaching elementary mathematics without having become a professional mathematician. In other words, he never went on and got a doctorate, and therefore he never could expect to be promoted at Brown beyond, to be more than an associate professor. At the time I had him, he was an assistant professor; he’d been an instructor in that rank for years and years. The department at that time was being run by a group of Ph.D.’s, who had very strong feelings about scholarship in mathematics. But I think they realized what a good teacher Currier was, so they took advantage of that by having him teach the elementary courses; he did a superb job of making things clear there because he was so patient and so calm and so reasonable and so pleasant about it. He never got excited. He never got irritated or angry. I don’t know how he managed, what with all those stupid people he had to teach. I never met a man who could somehow still put a smile on his face every time you asked him a question that showed you hadn’t understood something that you should have understood. And he would spend almost any amount of time to clear up a difficult point, either in class or outside of class. I never had a teacher of mathematics who quite took the pains and trouble that he did though he was not, as I say, a professional mathematician beyond a certain level. I mean, he could not really have taught beyond the level of what we call a standard calculus course. He probably wouldn’t have been much good in advanced calculus, and certainly not in theory of functions. But for the purpose, he was ideal. I had him early in the game and he encouraged me to go into mathematics, gave me the feeling that there was something there that was pleasant to understand.
Was there a mathematics club or a physics club when you were an undergraduate?
There was a pretty strong mathematics club. There was no physics club because there were then no physics students to speak about at Brown, despite the fact, of course, that the most outstanding member of the faculty was Professor Barus, a physicist; there was no real department in the current sense because Barus never wanted to make an organized department. On the other hand, the mathematics department was well established; it was staffed by eager beavers who wanted to encourage students to go on in mathematics and took all kinds of pains to see that they got their courses elected. In those days everybody who was a candidate for the Bachelor of Arts degree had to take a year of mathematics, but a great many students dodged that by taking a so-called Bachelor of Philosophy degree course, which omitted the mathematics in favor of a course in argumentation in the English Department. It was supposed to be tough, and it certainly was a bit brutal, but, on the other hand, it enabled students to dodge mathematics.
Did you join the mathematics club?
Yes. Usually freshmen were not invited to join but after freshman mathematics had been passed with credit the club would invite one to join; I think I belonged during my sophomore, junior and senior years. Of course, part of that time was broken up by the war, and the club wasn’t active, but during the time when it was active, from 1917 on, I think I was a member and I may have been on the program committee for a time.
What usually happened at the meetings?
The meetings were very carefully supervised by one of the professors of mathematics. Professor R. C. Archibald was in charge for many years. What he would do would be to have two members of the club give papers at each meeting, usually a man and a woman if he could find that combination — (you see, girls joined from Pembroke college as well as the boys from Brown) — and the Department tried to encourage the club partly from a social standpoint. But that side of it certainly was not emphasized then the way it came to be later, when the organization developed into a much more social organization. In my day it was pretty severely academic and intellectual, usually a topic would be given to a boy and another one to a girl and each would have about half an hour to present the material. I remember I talked once about the Archimedes spiral with the chambered Nautilus as an example. This is a topic in which a student who knew a little could so some outside studying, draw some pictures on the board and discuss them. Then after the two papers, there would be a little discussion. Perhaps one of the professors would add a few comments to supplement what had been said, and then there would be a social hour with ice cream or coffee and cake. There was no dancing. That sort of thing came years later. My wife (a Pembroker in the class of 1920) was a member. That is one way in which we got acquainted. Brown boys didn’t mingle freely with the Pembroke students in those days as they do today, so the boys met the girls mostly through these clubs. You see, my wife majored in mathematics, and she was quite an ardent member of the club, too. We actually had some courses together before we got through college.
I’d like to pass on now to M.I.T., and I’d like to learn about the circumstances of the general examination in the fall of 1921.
This was a fiasco.
How was it set up?
It was purely an oral examination in which the chief professors of the department threw questions at the candidate, who stood at a blackboard and tried to answer them. There was no written examination. It’s an interesting point from the historical standpoint because one has to remember that M.I.T. had not stressed very much before the days of President McLaurin and even after he died the notion of graduate work leading to the doctorate. This was an idea that began to develop only around 1915 or so, I suppose. As a matter of fact, in the case of physics, I think I am correct in saying that my preliminary examination was the first that that department had given. E. B. Wilson, of course, was the chief examiner. Old fuddy-duddy Goodwin, who was the authority on electro-chemistry but also taught optics, was there, and William S. Franklin, who had been imported from Lehigh to bolster up the teaching of elementary physics at M.I.T. which was considered in a bad state around the end of the First World War, was also there. Well, they were the principal ones, and then there were a few others. I suppose they hadn’t really settled in their own minds what a candidate for a Ph.D. ought to know. Certainly, I can’t recall that anybody ever took me aside before the examination and told me what I ought to know and what I’d be quizzed upon.
Out of my own wisdom, which turned out to be not very wise, I supposed that I was expected to understand a great deal of theoretical physics, and since that was what I was interested in primarily, I had boned up on Hamiltonian dynamics and the theory of relativity and things of this sort. And, of course, they didn’t ask me questions like that at all; they asked me questions in elementary physics. Now, the only elementary physics I ever had was from teaching it to the Tech boys, and I hadn’t taught it very long at the time. As you know, I never took an elementary physics course at Brown. I started physics with a so-called intermediate course, and at that time I was more or less imbued with the zeal for mathematics and paid more attention to that and only toward the end of the course got interested in physics. So, in a sense, I had only one real full undergraduate year of physics, because I took this intermediate course during the junior year, and I didn’t really begin to feel that physics was what I wanted to do until the end of my junior year; it was only as a senior at Brown that I really got going in physics. And it was only at M.I.T., when I started to teach it, that I began to realize what elementary physics was all about. I tried this preliminary exam too soon, before I had got enough familiarity with elementary physics from teaching it. I just didn’t understand the kinds of things the examiners were getting at. What they wanted me to do was to show a grasp of an advanced principle, by applying it to a very elementary problem. I hadn’t thought about that ever! I thought I knew what D’Alembert’s principle was, but when it came to applying it to a block sliding down an inclining plane, I just didn’t see how it could be applied, and Wilson said, “Well, you ought to,” and that was that.
Now, among the men who were interrogating you, was there anyone outside of E.B. Wilson who really was a mathematical physicist?
Not really. He was the only theoretical and mathematical physicist in the group. The others had specialized in other fields or were experimentalists of one sort or another, or in one or two cases just plain teachers who hadn’t got degrees themselves, 1 think, who came into the examination. I don’t remember how many were there. I certainly remember the three that I mentioned; there probably were another three from the Department of Physics, which was fairly large but made up largely of old Tech graduates who had never gone on to get doctor’s degrees. That was one trouble with M.I.T. in those days; many if not most of the professors in all fields were men who had got their S.B.’s at Tech and just stayed on to teach and to do consulting and so forth. They didn’t feel the need of a doctorate so much in those days.
By and large, if we may make a generalization, was it not true that the physics staff there was much closer to applied physics and electrical engineering than to mathematical physics as such.
It certainly was. In fact, even after Wilson left M.I.T. in 1922 to go to the Harvard School of Public Health, the man who became chairman of the department was an applied physicist in heat, Professor Charles L. Norton. He was a thoroughly applied man with no interest in theoretical physics. His whole life was bound up with problems of heat transfer and insulation, and so forth. He was a great engineering authority in those fields.
I should like to raise the question again of why you decided to go to Copenhagen rather than to some German place to continue graduate study?
That’s a good question. I suppose, in a sense, it was decided by the fortuitous fact that there was an actual opportunity provided through the American-Scandinavian Foundation. It was E.B. Wilson who, knowing that Hovgaard who was at M.I.T. as Professor of Naval Architecture and had been in the Danish Navy, was one of the members of the board of selection for the American-Scandinavian Foundation fellowships, had apparently thought that here was a chance to get me abroad. Of course, Wilson was very much interested in the modern developments in atomic physics and realized the importance of Bohr’s work. He was the one who encouraged me to try for this fellowship. Now, if I hadn’t got that fellowship and had used the Morgan Edwards Fellowship, which was a specially endowed one here at Brown, and which I could have had at the same time (I had finally to make a choice between the two) I probably would have gone to Germany, largely for the reason that I’d probably feel a little more at home there with a little more facility with the language. It seemed more natural to do that, but after going through the business of applying for the American-Scandinavian Fellowship on the recommendation of E. B. Wilson, and with his strong support, knowing that he was pushing me strongly with Hovgaard and finally receiving the appointment, it seemed rather churlish to turn it down. Of course, I had already been studying quite a lot in A. Sommerfeld’s book, ATOMBAU UND SPECTRALLINIEN, and that was full of Bohr’s stuff, and everybody said, “Oh, you have a wonderful opportunity to go and study with Bohr. You ought to take it.”
Well, now you couldn’t have used the fellowship in Germany, could you?
Not that fellowship. But I could have used in Germany the one that was offered me here at Brown, the so-called Morgan Edwards Fellowship which is one of our endowed fellowships. Actually, it paid exactly the same stipend as the American-Scandinavian Fellowship, namely one thousand dollars out of which the fellow had to pay his passage over and back and his living expenses during the year. Well, it’s obvious this was not possible even in 1922. I couldn’t have gone if I hadn’t saved some money on the side and if my wife, whom I married just at that time, hadn’t been willing to contribute some of her earnings; the two of us together managed to get through all right.
Where was your first contact with the quantum theory of the atom?
It was to a certain extent obtained here at Brown. Barus had mentioned the Bohr theory in his lectures, and I had made a little special study to compete for a prize for an essay on some topic in modern physics. In my senior year modern atomic theory was set as the topic. I did a lot of more or less popular reading, wrote my essay and actually won the prize. I think that the whole thing hardly amounted to much since there were only three competitors, but it served to get me interested in atomic theory. When I went to M.I.T. E.B. Wilson gave a two-year course called, “The Constitution of Matter” and tried to cover everything he could think of on this topic. This included accordingly a fair amount of quantum theory of atomic structure. So all the students got Sommerfeld’s book, which was the only thorough book on the subject then available. At that time there was no book in English that covered the same ground. Digging into this book made me all the more interested in going to Bohr’s Institute.
E.B. Wilson himself had quite a deep interest in the quantum theory, did he not?
He certainly did. He had an interest in everything in modern physics. Of course he was probably more interested in relativity than in quantum theory. In relativity he had actually done independent and original research, along with G.N. Lewis and C.L.E. Moore at M.I.T. We talked about some of his actual papers at our interview with him. But, his interest in atomic theory was great, and this whole course of his was essentially on that general topic: What is matter made of? Of course, we had a lot besides quantum theory; we had crystal structure, X-rays, and a good deal of chemistry. He was able to lay it on pretty thickly in those two years.
I imagine that this course was nearly unique among all the courses given in the United States at that time.
That very well may be.
I have the impression that there weren’t very many places where you could go and get a course of this nature.
I think you are probably correct. There may have been places where you could get an elaborate course in spectroscopy because spectroscopy was a favorite subject in graduate physics. That was certainly true at Yale, where H. S. Uhler gave such a course for a great many years, and he was quite an authority. And I’m sure at Michigan, where Ralph Sawyer and his predecessors were teaching spectroscopy, it was an important field. But it was treated pretty much by itself, and the connection between that and the structure of the atom only began to be really understood when Bohr had worked out his theory of the Balmer series. This didn’t take place until 1913. These various courses in optics and spectroscopy were functioning more or less autonomously, and it wasn’t until Bohr’s researchers got going, they suddenly exploded into courses on the constitution of matter. So, I suspect that what you say is probably correct, though I can’t prove it because I haven’t looked into the history of the whole thing.
Did E.B. Wilson have any graduate students working in this area?
He had no graduate students whose theses he was supervising in this field. His method was largely to suggest that somebody should try something of interest and then he would endeavor to find somebody that would hold his hand. He didn’t have time for this himself; he was doing so much work. As you know, he was helping to run the Institute as a member of the Administrative Committee and he was doing his own research, working on aerodynamics in particular. He really couldn’t be expected to supervise theses. He tried to get me started on a problem which struck him as interesting because he was interested in gravitation through relativity. The problem concerned gravitational radiation and the possibility of developing an absorber for this sort of radiation — the sort of thing that the economist Roger Babson has been fussing with recently. I fooled around with that problem for a while. Wilson didn’t give me any particular help; all he did was say, “Why don’t you look into it and see if you can make something of it.” He suggested to another graduate student that he study infrared radiation, because that was getting to be quite a popular subject. There it was largely a matter of trying to find some money to support a man and buying equipment and setting it up.
What kind of experimental research was going on in the physics department at M.I.T. during that time?
Very little research, frankly. You see, they’d really just got started trying to develop a doctoral program. It was just underway and there were only a few people working in various fields. Probably the one that was most active was the general field of physical chemistry or electrochemistry, as it was called, under Goodwin, and there the students were measuring electrode potentials in solutions. It was almost physical chemistry, except that it was being done in the physics department.
Was there a physics club there?
No. We had occasional colloquia. Every now and then we had a get-together in which somebody would present a paper and be subject to criticism. These didn’t take place regularly. I think there may have been half a dozen a term or something like that. The whole thing suffered, I think, because of Wilson’s preoccupation with other things. I’m sure he had the zeal to build up a department, but he simply didn’t have the time or the energy to do it. This didn’t happen, of course, until Compton became president and Slater was made the head of a rejuvenated physics department.
What was discussed at the colloquia?
They were mainly devoted to papers by students on their research projects. I know I gave a paper on the Majorana theory of gravitational absorption. Vallarta gave a paper on cosmic rays; he was getting interested in cosmic rays right at the time when the activity in this field was becoming great and was beginning to build up quite a reputation. Then occasionally somebody like Wiener from mathematics would be invited to talk about relativity. There weren’t enough students really far enough along in research to justify a regular, weekly colloquium. You see, a large part of the department was still made up of the old- timers to whom physical research meant technological processes such as photography, for example, as studied by Professor Louis Derr. He was good at making microphotographs and a very skillful man. But the point is that this wasn’t exactly modern physical research in the 1920’s. This was the trouble with the department; there were too few people who had an appreciation of the trend of physical research, both in Europe and in this country as represented by the Ryerson Lab in Chicago with Millikan and Michelson as well as the Harvard Lab, with Lyman and Bridgman and Yale Lab, with Zeleny, Page and Bumstead. Tech had not yet built up this sort of thing. So they were trying to function on a kind of shoestring and this conceivably may have had something to do with Wilson’s decision to break off when he did. He may have seen (this is of course only my guess) that it was an awful job to build the department the way he wanted to have it built until M.I.T. got settled down with a president who was a real scientist, and Stratton, was, again, an applied man. Stratton may have paid lip service to basic research, but it wasn’t until Compton came that the big forward surge of M.I.T.’s science really began to get going.
I’d like to move on to the year in Copenhagen. You worked there with Niels Bohr. What was it like to work with him? When you came into his office, did he say, “Well, you do this, you do that,” or did he expect you to have a problem on hand? Did he leave you alone to work up a problem, or did he help you select one?
He was very kind in suggesting a problem, since I was a complete tyro. About all I knew about the quantum theory of atomic structure was what I got out of Wilson’s course and what I’d read in Sommerfeld’s book, plus a few odds and ends I’d picked up on the side. I was certainly pretty ignorant. When he found the depth of my ignorance Professor Bohr suggested what he thought was the kind of problem that I might successfully work on. That was an attempt to do something with polyelectronic atoms in a semi-quantitative way. It is interesting that this was the kind of thing that he himself was working on and had finally made a breakthrough on, so as really to show what his theory could do in a powerful way. The early Bohr theory was very successful with one-electron atoms, that is to say, atoms with one electron going around a nucleus such as hydrogen, or ionized helium, and doubly-ionized lithium, and so on. But once you tried to figure out how an atomic system would work with two electrons, you encounter a three-body problem — and the astronomers could tell you that there’s no general solution to the dynamics of a three-body problem. So Bohr and his co-workers for many years tried hard to get all kinds of special solutions to the three-body problem that could be applied to atoms like helium and lithium and the lighter elements, without real success. It was very disappointing.
In the meantime, much of the basic theory was being developed, so that nobody had any doubt that the thing was, so to speak, on the right track. Sommerfeld took hold of it and threw a lot of mathematics into it, these phase integrals and quantum conditions and so on, and Bohr himself, and Kramers as his student, worked out the effects of electric and magnetic fields operating on atoms and got the associated splitting of the spectral lines. So, there seemed to be no question that the thing was on the right track, but when it came down to a very specific problem — just how is the helium atom constructed and what is its binding energy or ionization energy it just wouldn’t come out right. Bohr and Kramers and a lot of other people tried it. Van Vleck in Harvard, of course, tried it about the same time without success. I remember distinctly — I may have mentioned this in the autobiography — Bohr showing me a cupboard-full of specific, detailed mathematical calculations that he had made in the period from 1913 to 1918, almost five years which came to nothing, actually led to no results that compared favorably with experiment. And then somehow he decided to adopt a different attack and to begin to study qualitatively the problem of how you could consider from his point of view atoms to be constructed; like taking a nucleus and then gradually surrounding it with more and more electrons, fitting them into some sort of pattern. Even though you couldn’t calculate the actual so-called stationery states, you could get some notion of groups of orbits of the electrons around the nucleus. From 1920 to 1922, Bohr had already made some interesting predictions. He predicted, for example, the existence of the element hafnium, which was named for the city of Copenhagen. Its properties were discovered to be as he had predicted. Well, a man who can do that, even though he didn’t work out all the mathematical details obviously knew what it was about. And this gave a great urge to try and put more quantitative machinery into the theory.
So, he would hand out to various people special problems: for example, take a particular poly-electronic set of atoms and see what can be done with them, in the way of calculating approximate sizes of orbits and energy levels. Precise calculations are obviously impossible but at least you can obtain orders of magnitude. That was the job he asked me to do on the alkali atoms, beginning of course with lithium and going up to cesium. He indicated what line of attack he thought would be possible, and I tried to follow his suggestion. In the meantime I’d read some work of Schrodinger’s (because he was involved in this business then) and work of Fues and various other people in Germany. I finally developed the self-consistent field notion. I still, of course, don’t know where I got it. Maybe it was hidden away in some of the earlier work which I’d read. Someday I should like to make a more thorough study to make sure that I’m right in saying that my calculations were the first, as indeed they’re probably the last, made from the self-consistent field idea for polyelectronic atoms on the old Bohr orbit point of view. Because, of course, as you know, D. R. Hartree took it up from the standpoint of the new quantum mechanics and made a big thing of it. I couldn’t do that or at any rate I didn’t do it. After suggesting the problem, Bohr said in effect, “Now, this is what you probably should do and this is what I think you’ll find out,” and he would make predictions. Then I’d go home and make some calculations, and every once in a while, probably not more frequently than every three weeks or so, I would show him what I had done, and he would make a few comments. I couldn’t expect him to give me much time because he was too busily engaged with people doing more important things. But he was very generous.
The big trouble was to understand what he was saying because his voice was very low and soft. He had a slight impediment in his speech so that no matter what language he was speaking one had to listen very, very carefully to get what he was saying. And he was very restless; everybody who has written about him points out that he could rarely sit quietly, as we’re doing here while we talk, he preferred to walk. You had to watch him walk around a table; once in a while, he would stop and look at you and out would come an idea. But then he’d start walking again almost at once, before you really had time to digest the idea. So, you had to work fast and hope that when you got home you had remembered something of what had gone on. I remember when I came back and told him about this method that I thought I understood and which I was using, which involves what later was called the self-consistent field, he said, “That isn’t the suggestion I made to you, obviously, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it and see how it works out.” I felt quite encouraged when he said that.
Did you report on your technique in any of the seminars?
I never talked to any group in Copenhagen because I think Bohr’s feeling was that my results hadn’t been sufficiently checked. I remember his talking to W. Pauli about it once. He introduced me to Pauli and explained to him in German what I was doing. Pauli kept nodding his head, as he always did, and Bohr said, “Es liegt in der Prufung,” and I knew enough German, to realize what he meant. I didn’t finish my thesis in Copenhagen. I worked on it after I went to teach at Yale, as you know. I couldn’t hope to get a doctor’s degree at Copenhagen, of course, and M.I.T. wouldn’t recognize a thesis supervised by a Professor not on the M.I.T. staff. So I had to go through the motions of re-working the thesis under the supervision of a Tech professor after I got home, in order to present it to M.I.T. But ft was essentially the idea that I got from Bohr.
What was the intellectual atmosphere in the Physics Department at Yale like in the early 1920s.
I would say that it was rather conservative. The tendency was in general to be working on rather old-fashioned stuff. Zeleny, for example, was still working on the kinetic theory of gases; this was research that he had been carrying on over in J.J. Thomson’s laboratory in Cambridge back in 1900 or before. Uhler was still working on spectroscopy. It’s true that Leigh Page was working on electrodynamics and using his so-called emission theory. This was fairly recent and, so to speak, up to date and novel, not accepted too widely by other physicists, but still it represented about as original research as was going on there at that time, so far as I can recall. There was a good deal of work being done in what is now called electronic physics, for example, electric circuits from the standpoint of radio, by Lynde P. Wheeler, who, I imagine — as E.B. Wilson says, whom we interviewed the other day — probably never got full credit for the really basic character of what he was doing. But few in the department seemed to care much about it. Zeleny, evidently, didn’t care much about it. Wheeler never got promoted and finally left and went down to the Naval Research Laboratory. I think Wheeler was a first-rate man. Somehow one didn’t get the impression that there was a big physical research development at Yale in the early 1920’s. Now, Harvard still had Lyman, who was considered one of the world’s great spectroscopists, and Bridgman was already beginning on his big career in high-pressure physics; Sabine had just died — he founded architectural acoustics. Clearly there was at Harvard a tremendous surge in certain directions recognized everywhere. I don’t think that was really true of Yale at that time with the possible exception of Page, and, as I say, the trouble with Page was that a lot of people didn’t care much for his emission theory, and therefore didn’t know it was original; it failed to make a splash.
There was not much interest in the quantum theory at Yale, was there?
No, practically none at that time.
You really brought it in?
In a certain sense I guess I did, because Page, as I’ve indicated — I think I’m telling the truth — had no real love for it, and he was torn between two feelings: one, either to prove that it was inconsistent anyway, or the other, that it all could be derived from classical physics. And in either case it wouldn’t amount to so much, you see. This didn’t help things. The really great thing that happened at Yale really was the improvement in the teaching of graduate students. They hitherto had been giving individual courses in various fields and hoping the students could pull the stuff together enough to get a preliminary examination out of the way. Page, with the help of one or two others, decided that the best way to get the graduate students in control of the large body of basic physics was to introduce an overall course in theoretical physics; his introduction to theoretical physics was one of the first given in this country. Indeed, the book that they decided that he had better write was, I guess, about the first book on theoretical physics written in this country. Hitherto, the only books of this sort had been German books, like that of Haas in Vienna. So Page took some time off — I think he spent two whole summers — for developing this book. It revolutionized the teaching of graduate students in physics. It had a great influence everywhere; I’m sure it influenced M.I.T. for example when Slater produced a similar book with Frank. A number of other books were stimulated by Page, who really set the pace. I think that was a great contribution, though it wasn’t along the line of original research. There was a certain amount of very languid research in X-rays under Cooksey. He was a very good experimentalist, but he didn’t have too much zip in doing research.
How about spectroscopy?
Well, Uhler had that pretty well in hand, but I think he had worked himself out by 1922 so that in the latter part of my stay, say, from 1925 to 1930, I don’t think he was doing much more than just teaching the subject. I don’t think he was doing much more research. After all, by that time, Harrison at M.I.T. was beginning to do spectroscopy by machinery and so forth, so that the field for the individual worker became pretty limited. Kovarik, of course, we mentioned in the Margenau interview. He did work in radioactivity and it was very good work. It was very restricted, though. He was interested only in certain aspects of the field, and I think that though he was highly respected he was not thought of as a great authority on the subject.
Well, now, after you had been at Yale for a while, you completed your requirements for the degree.
I did that the first year I was there. I went to Yale in ‘23 and I got my degree in ‘24. All that really amounted to was writing up the thesis on which I had got more or less the final approval from Bohr when he came to this country in ‘23, very fortunately for me, to give the Silliman Lectures at Yale. He gave those in the fall of ‘23; I had just seen him in the spring when I left Copenhagen, and by the end of that summer and early fall, I had made enough progress so that I could show him pretty much what the thing was going to turn out to be, and he gave it his blessing. Then, after that, it was just a formality to take the train to M.I.T. once a month to talk to H.B. Phillips, the mathematics professor who was officially assigned as my supervisor. I explained to him the problem and he was interested, but he didn’t do much about it. He simply said: “Go ahead on your own.” I finished the thesis and got my degree in June of ‘24, while I was still a full-time instructor at Yale.
Well, then you got several papers out of your thesis, and some of these were published…
Yes. The thesis itself was published in quite extensive form in the JOURNAL OF MATHEMATICS AND PHYSICS at M.I.T. And then I got a paper in the JOURNAL OF THE OPTICAL SOCIETY on series spectra for polyelectronic atoms from the point of view of the self-consistent field, and one or two little notes in SCIENCE, and then a long paper in the PHYSICAL REVIEW on the carbon atom model. It was not an awful lot, but I got enough out of it so that one might have wondered why I didn’t go on in this field. I did say a word or two about that in the autobiography; I think the trouble was that I had no sooner got the thesis finished and had worked on a few examples, when along came the modern quantum mechanics with De Broglie and Heisenberg in 1924 and Schrodinger in ‘25. And the whole picture changed, so that if one were going on with quantum theory of atomic structure one would have to follow that new development. At the time, as I’ve explained — and this is a sort of shameful thing to have to admit — I didn’t quite see just how the thing was worked out. I couldn’t understand Schrodinger’s and Heisenberg’s papers — I had read the blasted things and was in a position to talk about them at colloquia at Yale, in the Journal Club, as they called it, but when it came to seeing how you could use the new theory in an original problem of my own, applying it for example to a polyelectronic atom, I didn’t see it, because I just didn’t grasp the way to integrate a differential equation by numerical means in such a way as to produce one of these so-called eigenstates. Now, D.R. Hartree saw it apparently at once, that you have to integrate the Schrodinger equation inward and integrate outward and then you have to match the two solutions and if you make a smooth match, you’ve got the proper solution. Well, that never occurred to me. I didn’t see it until Hartree pointed it out to me. Now, this simply showed a deficiency in my mathematical background, for one thing, and a certain lack of originality all around which has plagued me all my life.
I’m wondering whether this might not have been also an indication of the fact that the United States was behind the European countries in terms of mathematical physics, or in terms of applied mathematics. Now, you had published your paper here. Had you reported on it in any of the Meetings?
You mean my thesis paper?
Yes, I gave the paper at the meeting of the American Physical Society in New York, I guess it must have been in February, 1924. They used to have these winter meetings at Columbia University in those days.
But no one else picked up the technique?
Well, Louis Turner, whom, curiously enough, I met the other day for the first time in 40 years, was a young fellow down at Princeton, and I think he fooled with it a little bit. And Frank Hoyt, who had been in Copenhagen the same time I had, may have done a little bit with it. But the point was that there was so little time. I mean, after another year people said, “What’s the use; there’s no use publishing this old stuff because of the new theory of wave mechanics,” and it looked as if the new theory was going to catch on very well. And so, there wasn’t any great incentive to carry on with the work I had been doing.
You mean, in terms of applying it to the old Bohr theory?
Yes, that’s right. A few people got interested. At the time I gave the paper I probably attracted a lot of attention; there were many questions that people raised. There seemed to be a lot of interest. This was very encouraging, and I think Zeleny at Yale got quite pleased about it, because it was a kind of speculation from his standpoint as to whether I was going to make out successfully at Yale. But soon, the whole thing evaporated, though I still kept working on the old Bohr theory myself. But by the time ‘26 came along, another couple of years, I realized it was folly. I then tried various tricks in the new quantum mechanics and eventually had a graduate student and we worked on some of what you might call more fundamental aspects of the subject; he got a thesis out of that, in ‘29 I guess it was. So, I kept my hand in, but the big trouble was that I didn’t see somehow how I was going to take this field that I thought I understood pretty well, and where I think I had got results that were more significant than those that Hartree got in his original work on the old Bohr theory, because, in the early 20’s his was a different approach. It would have been ideal if I could have translated my earlier work into quantum mechanics the way he did, but that didn’t happen. Though we were friendly rivals, he made no effort to tell me much about what he was doing until he was pretty well along, which was only reasonable. Later on, of course, Hartree and I worked together in the sense that I had a good many graduate students who calculated self-consistent atomic wave functions by the Hartree method. I had one paper myself with a graduate student on the helium atom, but for the rest I never tried to stick my name on the students’ papers. I simply discussed their computations with them, let them do the work and get the credit. I’ve been a little more lenient with myself more recently in that respect. In those days I thought it was much fairer that one shouldn’t try to publish a joint paper unless one had done a large part of the work; if a thesis is in question the student should do most of the work anyway and it’s almost automatic he should get the credit.
Well, now, in the late ‘20’s you began to develop a deep interest in the philosophy and methodology of science. You had been interested in it earlier, as I understand. What led you into this area?
In the first instance, it was just browsing around in the mathematics library in Wilson Hall at Brown when I was an undergraduate. I’d get tired of working problems and banging my old head against the wall, and so I’d just look and see what books there were. I saw many books with titles something like Foundations of Physics they looked rather curious, and I started looking at them. That’s really how I began to develop an interest in this field. I don’t suppose anybody ever told me I ought to read that stuff. Archibald, who had built up this library, managed to have a lot of material of that kind around there, and it was right out on the open shelf where one could get it easily. I suppose this is really how it began. I never really lost my interest because when I was a student at M.I.T. always tried to read something along this line. When I went to Copenhagen, there was Bohr, who was obviously steeped in philosophy, and you could see it stand out all over him. So, this didn’t discourage me from a continued concern. And a good many of the people that came to Copenhagen had that point of view, people like Pauli, for example. Whenever I saw a book that looked as if it had in it something about the philosophy of physics, I would buy it, if I could afford it, and so I gradually acquired quite a little library of my own on this sort of material. Then, of course, at Yale the thing began to loom up as being more interesting. It’s a little hard to explain how this interest does develop.
In a way it is a kind of relaxation from the boredom of working steadily on detailed calculations, where you know that sooner or later if you keep at it you’re going to make mistakes because you get tired, get sick of it, and yet you don’t want to go and read a novel, or something entirely different; you want to read something connected with physics. Well, this philosophy stuff was not too difficult to read and didn’t put so much of a strain on the brain, and it proved relaxing in a way. Now, the chances are I was being deceived all the time and that this was really very profound stuff whose difficulty I didn’t appreciate. At the same time I gradually began to take more and more interest in it and then I thought I’d try my hand at it myself. I think the first paper of that sort which I wrote if I remember correctly was curiously enough the one called “Physical Laws and Social Phenomena.” I got a notion somehow that one could develop analogies between the laws of physics and the laws of society; it was quite clear that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I hadn’t read much of Herbert Spencer — moreover I hadn’t read Lester F. Ward’s, THEORY OF SOCIAL FORCES, which is odd because he was a professor here at Brown and I’d heard a lot about him from one of the sociology professors when I was a student. Clearly I was rather foolish barging into that field with so little background. But THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY printed my article, and after that I got a little more confident and wrote some more papers along this line, involving the relation between, say, fundamental ideas in modern physics and classical ideas.
Did you have a chance to explore any of these ideas, before you started teaching, with any of your colleagues, either at M.I.T. or in Copenhagen or at Yale?
Not very much. I don’t think I ever divulged my interest to any great extent until I had got a few papers out, and I began to press at Yale for the introduction of a new course on Foundations of Physics. By that time, I thought I saw the importance of bringing these philosophical considerations to the attention of students. It’s natural when you get interested in something yourself you begin to feel that it is really important, and that these aspects are not covered normally in physics courses or any other courses (in those days the philosophy of science didn’t mean very much to physicists in this country; the history of science existed but was not very widely followed at any rate by physicists). I guess George Starton was active, but he was about the only one in this country who amounted to anything in this field. His view of the history of science was far removed from my interest in the subject or in philosophy of science. I suppose I gradually developed the feeling that here was something profoundly important for students, that they ought to be given the opportunity to do more reading in this field and they wouldn’t do it unless they took a course in it — that’s the usual argument of professors, a very egotistic and self-interested argument, but still understandable. So, I said to Zeleny I want to give a course on Foundations of Physics. The senior physics staff mulled it over for a while. Kovarik said, “Oh, that’s a lot of talk, and the students never do anything or learn anything.” But Page and Zeleny and two of the others agreed, and I was finally permitted to give it. That’s the course that Henry Margenau is still giving at Yale today, although I suspect he’s changed it a good deal in the meantime.
Had you read any of the standard philosophers? You had read Peirce, Poincare, and Planck?
Well, at that time not too much. I had formed certain likes and dislikes; for example, I got interested in Josiah Royce, the famous Harvard philosopher, the transcendentalist, partly because I knew that he was interested in Poincare, that he had a wide interest in the philosophy of science as it was understood by philosophers in his day, and partly because he wrote so beautifully. Somehow you had the feeling that you could understand what he was saying. I doubt that he was still active when you were a student at Harvard.
I don’t believe so.
He had probably died by that time. He was one of the big shots along with Munsterberg and Palmer. They had great philosophers at Harvard in those days. Well, I liked Royce, and I read about everything of his that I could get my hands on; but when it came to digging into Kant, I must say I didn’t do it. I looked into a little here and there and I read commentaries and digests. I got hold of a little German book, EINFUHRUNG IN DIE PHILOSOPHIE, one of the Sammlug Goshen books. I read that through. It was pretty tough, because philosophy itself is tough enough, and when written in German it just amplifies the difficulty. I got through it and felt I must therefore understand some philosophy; I’ve given up that notion since!
How about Hume and Berkeley?
Yes, I read Hume’s TREATISE ON HUMAN NATURE and I later read parts of the INQUIRY ON HUMAN UNDERSTANDING. And I read Berkeley’s DIALOGUES, in which he brings in his idealistic philosophy. Some of that I got out of the Harvard Classics, of which my father had a set. It had a whole volume on Locke, Berkeley and Hume. I read that volume right through. Then I read some of Locke, not much, but most of Hume that I thought I could understand. But I don’t pretend really to have done it in a highly professional way. Since my youth, I’ve read a lot of philosophy, but not systematically. Thus, I’ve read Bertrand Russell pretty thoroughly, for example, but when it comes to the more esoteric philosophers, I’ve simply not made the thorough study I should have made as Henry Margenau has, for example.
Had you ever been attracted by the transcendentalists as such, by men like Emerson?
I’ve read many of Emerson’s essays over and over again, trying to understand what he meant, in many cases thinking that I have and in other cases being perfectly sure that I haven’t. Emerson as a man I admire; I think he was a very great man, but he seemed to have the facility for writing very obscurely at times. Whitehead is another man of similar nature. Some stuff of Whitehead I think is wonderful; I lapped it up. But other books, like PROCESS AND REALITY I thought was absolutely unintelligible. I could understand Whitehead’s writing on the THEORY OF RELATIVITY, because there he wrote the way a physicist or a mathematician would write, but when he stopped using the language of mathematics and used what would be called the language of ordinary speech, in many cases what he said became utterly unintelligible to me. I think that is true of a lot of philosophers. Ducasse here at Brown is indeed an exception. I’ve read a number of Ducasse’s books and to me they’re very, very clear. I don’t always agree with what he has to say. I mean, sometimes I think he’s barking up the wrong tree, but at least he certainly says what he means and he makes it quite evident to people. Incidentally, at the age of 82 he is still writing books. I saw him the other day, and he says he has three more books he wants to write before he croaks. That’s the way he put it. And I daresay he’ll probably do it; he looks healthy and he skips around very vigorously.
How about the ancient Greek philosophers? Plato and Aristotle?
Oh, I guess I’ve done my share of that material. I’ve read most of Aristotle’s PHYSICS at one time or another, and I’ve read some of the metaphysics but not all. The same is true of Plato, I have read a number of the dialogues that relate more particularly to mathematics and science, but lye never made a careful study. I have read THE REPUBLIC and the LAWS, everybody does that I guess. In the same way, I haven’t made a thorough study of the pre-socratics, but I’ve been getting their views gradually dinned into me because there’s a young philosopher, a Greek philosopher, named Peter Diamadopoulos, who is now professor at Brandeis — you may know about him.
I know him.
Well, I like him personally, and it so happens that several times we’ve been together at American University, in the summer course that Leo Schubert runs in history and philosophy of science. I have listened to Diamadopoulos talk. Just this past June I got another dose of it; he was discussing the pre-socratics again, and I found his treatment fascinating. So, I’ve picked up quite a lot about Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes and right up to Plato and Aristotle. He has a good deal to say about Parmenides and Heraclitus. These are the two Greek philosophers I’ve always been most interested in because I think I can see a connection, in a way, between their general attitudes toward nature and two points of view in modern physics. First there is the morphological, formal point of view that is represented to a certain extent by quantum statics. I connect this with Parmenides, who was after the permanent and unchanging aspects of nature. He differed from Heraclitus, who was always having things flow and felt that everything is forever changing which in a sense corresponds more to the dynamical, historical side of physics, where things happen one after the other in time. These analogies are probably far-fetched and it’s possible to read a lot into the writings of the Greek philosophers. Still it’s nice to have a little peg like that to hang your ideas on and to say, “Well, here is Heraclitus and his viewpoint, we do discuss change in modern physics.” At the same time we realize that you can’t avoid considering the permanent aspects of experience, and that was what Parmenides emphasized, the need for something to maintain itself and its identity throughout a realm of discourse. So, I have dug into Parmenides and Heraclitus somewhat; I’m very fond of them. And I was glad that Peter Diamadopolous gave a full lecture on those two philosophers at American University. Did you know him when he was a professor at the University of Maryland?
Yes. He was acting as consultant for the exhibit on physics at the Smithsonian. We used to have some very nice arguments.
He’s thoughtful, though rather controversial. He has his opinions and is a bit dogmatic, but he presents his material very clearly. I thought he gave some beautiful lectures. I enjoyed listening to them. At this American University Institute each week there were two lecturers one who lectured from 8:30 to 10, and the other from 10:30 to 12. Since I was living with my daughter out in the suburbs during the course, I gave the later lecture. I used to get in in the morning, in time to listen to at least half of Diamadopolous’ lecture, sometimes a little more, then I would talk with him privately, too. He stayed for the whole six weeks, you see, and acted as a sort of guide on the history side; they helped the students give special seminars based on papers written by the latter. I found this Institute a very fascinating experience. I’ve been there now five or six years, spending a week in June. The students are always college teachers of mathematics and physics, biology, chemistry, with one or two philosophers and historians, I don’t know how Schubert has managed to get the NSF to support it year after year. Somebody has said it is considered to be one of the most successful summer institutes the NSF has. Schubert is quite an organizer, you know, and he has everything down just right. As a matter of fact, I suppose one of the field trips taken by the students would certainly be a visit to the Smithsonian. Every week of the six weeks course each Tuesday there would be a visit to some place of interest in Washington. The Smithsonian, I know, was on the list the previous year. This year, the week I was there, we went to the National Gallery of Art. It so happens that Raymond S. Stites, who is the curator for education there, is a college contemporary of mine. In fact, we lived together right over here in this next building.
I thought he might have been your roommate.
Yes. As students together we had many discussions. He was a biologist, but very much devoted to art, and he combined his ability to draw with an interest in the history of art. He went to the University of Vienna and got his doctor’s degree there. He taught in a number of places, including the State University of Iowa and Antioch College, and has finally wound up as the curator of education at the National Gallery. He’s a great authority on Leonardo Da Vinci. I suspect probably he knows a lot about Leonardo. He has visited Italy several times; he has prowled around the place where Leonardo Da Vinci lived. He really presents a very beautiful lecture on the versatile genius. He was written a book on Leonardo which he hopes to get published. Stites earlier wrote a big textbook called THE ARTS AND MAN, which McGraw-Hill brought out some years ago and which was very successful. I think it even sells many copies today though it’s 20-odd years old. Well, Stites is an interesting chap. You ought to sometime get better acquainted with him. He’s one of these enthusiasts who tend to sweep you off your feet; before you know it you’ll want to read everything you can find on Leonardo.
One thing, to get back to Yale, and back to the year 1930 or so. Were there any interests in Yale at that time in the application of quantum mechanics to the solid state? Your interests were in the atomic field.
You must remember that I left Yale in 1930, 50 I was there only from ‘23 to ‘30. So far as I can remember, the only solid-state work was this X-ray work, the study of crystal structured, and then McKeehan came — that’s right, he came around ‘26 or ‘27 — and he brought with him work in magnetism. So that was straight solid-state work. That’s how Henry Margenau got interested in this solid-state thesis problem he told us about. I guess it was McKeehan who really put the solid-state work on its feet down there. Of course, I should not forget the solid state work of Alan Waterman. He worked on photo-electric and thermionic emission and electrical properties of metals. But I think during my stay at Yale, his work was mainly theoretical and not extensive. After I left Yale, in the ‘3Os, Lane, who had been a graduate student in the ‘20s, got interested in low-temperature physics, directed along solid-state lines. So, those two aspects could be mentioned. Of course, the thing I remember best was McKeehan’s work in crystal structure and magnetism. McKeehan came as successor to Swann as Director of the Sloane Physics Laboratory. They had a peculiar setup at Yale at that time. There was a chairman of the Physics Department, who took care of all the academic problems connected with the teaching of physics and the guidance of graduate students as far as their courses were concerned. But then there was also a man called Director of the Sloane Physics Laboratory, who really was in charge of all the physical facilities of the laboratory and in a sense had responsibility for all the research, though he didn’t try to interfere too much with graduate-student theses, so far as I could see. It was a rather peculiar arrangement, and it often surprised me that there wasn’t more friction between the two men that held these jobs. I think the idea went back to the earlier days of Bumstead and Wright. In my early days at Yale, Zeleny was Chairman and the position of Director was vacant. Then Swann came. Swann didn’t stay long, as you know, (about two or three years) before he went to the Bartol Foundation. And then McKeehan came in. I think McKeehan also was persuaded to come by Zeleny, because he had also been in Minnesota, where Zeleny came from.
Don’t they have an arrangement something like that at Harvard? They have a chairman who deals more or less with the academic affairs of a department and then a man who is in charge of the laboratory facilities.
That may be. I don’t know the setup there. I am not sure, that there is any more a director of the Sloane Laboratory at Yale. The trouble is that there are a whole lot of labs there now; such as the nuclear lab, the accelerator lab, so I don’t know whether they have a director of the Sloane Lab. I know that the chairman of the Department is Hughes, who seceded Bill Watson, but I am no longer familiar with the department organization.
Now, once you returned to Brown in 1930, you must have come into closer contact with Carl Barus than when you were a student.
You must remember that by 1930, he had retired officially. He was still giving a single course every year, just on his own volition, in Vector Analysis, because it was the thing he liked to do. The math department had no interest in giving it for physicists and there was nobody else in physics who could do it. Yet it was felt that it was useful material because he was giving it using the Gibbs notation, and the material was still of value in modern physics; though some of his applications were a bit old-fashioned, still the basic analysis was very useful, and practically all of the graduate students in physics and a good many in mathematics took this course from 1930 to 1935, when Barus died. He taught it right up to a few months before his death.
Was it possible to become intimate enough with him to understand why he felt so bitter or estranged?
Well, I’m a bit uncertain what you mean.
There’s something that he seemed to have felt…
You’ve read his autobiography, I guess.
Yes. He seems to have felt that he had a great duty to teaching, and yet he seems to have felt bitter about it.
That is probably right. He was disillusioned. I am sure he went through the same kind of disillusionment that all teachers go through, but in his case it came later and probably was felt more keenly because he didn’t start to teach until he was 40 years old. Most of us start teaching at a much younger age and therefore we have a longer time to get used to these frustrating aspects of teaching and probably take them a little less seriously than he did. As I reconstruct Barus’ situation in this respect, he came to Brown in 1895 as a full-fledged nationally and internationally recognized scientist of great distinction to teach for the first time in his life. Now, he obviously had his own idea of what teaching was; the idea clearly was what he got in Germany, because that’s where he learned most of his physics. It’s true he went earlier and briefly to the Columbia School of Mines, but that was a long way back, and what, I daresay, he remembered better was what he got in Germany. He evidently decided that his students needed a beautiful course of demonstration lectures on every aspect of physics. This is what you get in the introductory course in a German University. Well, Barus felt that that was what he was supposed to do. I am sure he devoted a lot of time and thought and energy to building up some beautiful demonstrations which really showed things, and he had a wonderful facility (he had beautiful hands for working with apparatus) for making experiments go successfully. Then he made big wall charts showing such things as adiabatic and isothermal curves. He had also quantities of lantern slides.
I fear that he found that physics, which was a required course when he first came, did not mean much to most of the students. They realized he was a great man and all that, but that did not influence them to study the subject, and so many of them made it very clear to him right from the start that they didn’t care what he said. I think this naturally got under his skin after a while. He had some advanced students, but he never had very many. You see, the trouble was that physics at that time was not very popular; it was hard and people didn’t get enthusiastic about it. The result was that very few students went on into the second course, where he could get people who were really interested. He might have 75 or 100 in the required elementary course. This might reduce to five or six in his second course, and after that there just might be an occasional student who would want to take a really advanced course. This didn’t give very great scope for developing physics majors though he took his teaching seriously. We discovered that the notebooks he left contained beautiful lecture notes. Unfortunately much of that material was destroyed. It should have been saved. I am sure there were frustrations in his experience. Anyway, perhaps I’ve told you the story, about Barus that was told me by a member of one of the earlier classes. The story goes that one day Barus announced to the class that he was going to have to be absent for the next two periods because he had to go to a meeting of the American Physical Society. He was very sorry that this would interrupt the continuity of his lectures in the course, he regretted it, but he had to go to this meeting and so forth. The only result was deafening applause! This was disillusionment. After he had spent so much time working up this very elaborate material for these beautiful demonstration lectures, it was not pleasant to feel that they were so little appreciated by the majority of the students.
I wonder whether perhaps Barus wasn’t spending too much time on the tools of teaching and not enough time on rapport with the students.
I think there’s much in what you say. For example, he finally turned the appraisal of what the student got out of the course into a purely routine procedure. He would have the students prepare a notebook and solve certain problems in a little book which he used right from the beginning and never stopped using until the end, namely Jones’s EXAMPLES IN PHYSICS. It was published in England, I guess in 1885. What happened was that then he would give a test every now and then in which you had to solve in class 10 problems from this book and they were always problems that had already been done by the class and corrected, because for a long time he corrected them himself, graded them, with comments, and this I’m sure he did conscientiously. Later he had some graduate students do it. It probably wasn’t done so conscientiously then! So the student knew that when the test came along, all he had to do was to memorize all the problems because he would be sure to get a certain number of those on the test. The result was that it was easy to grade the test.
There were very few low grades except for those that didn’t do anything. When the final came around, he announced that there would be 10 questions taken from all of the problems of the semester. This obviously meant that the conscientious student just went and memorized all those problems. This obviously was no way to test, but it was the easy thing to do and that’s what he did. Now, in the advanced course, he didn’t even give an examination. All the student did was to prepare a notebook containing a digest of his lectures, and at the same time the solution of some problems which he assigned. These problems were in general fairly stiff; they were apparently made up out of his head. But if you looked around enough you could find where he’d got them, mostly out of the Edser Physics Series. This was a favorite English series of texts on intermediate physics then very much used in the University of London. He graded you on the notebook each week and the average of those grades was your course grade. When I listened to him in his second or intermediate course, he had got to the point — that was in 1918 — where he made little effort to do more than follow the notes he’d been using year after year, and his handwriting on the blackboard at that time, had become very careless, so that it was almost impossible to read it after he had said what he was writing. So you had to listen quite carefully to get the words, because otherwise if you just copied what you thought he had written the results could be rather disastrous. However, that is actually what some people did, they copied down the most outrageous stuff and still they got by.
In other words, he corrected it as okay because it looked something like the stuff he put down. I decided not to do this. I proceeded to try to find out what he was talking about, and went and studied it independently and found out whatever I could about it, writing it in the notebook my own way. He didn’t mind. I did solve the problems that he set so he would be satisfied. But I never got much out of him as a teacher so far as his lectures were concerned. The rapport between professor and student in the classroom was almost negligible. He was a German professor lecturing to a group of students, who might as well have been bumps on a log. If you really wanted to get next to him, you had to go to see him, and he had a rather forbidding manner, and I did not dare to go near him until I went in my senior year to sign up for some graduate courses because he was at that time dean of what they called the Graduate Department. I then found him much more approachable than I had expected. I kicked myself for having failed to go to see him earlier. But, even so, he wasn’t particularly cordial to anybody; he was rather sharp and blunt. You did your business and you got out because he was a busy man, and he didn’t care to spend time talking to people unnecessarily. The situation was rather different when I came back as a faculty member in 1930. I had seen a little of him in the meantime, though really very little. I had had a few letters from him which were very cordial.
He, of course, in 1926 gave up everything except the teaching of this one course, and he spent most of his time down in his laboratory in the basement of Wilson Hall, where he had an interferometer set up so that he could make optical measurements of various kinds. To measure very small distances was his real hobby in the latter part of his life. But by 1931 he had really ceased to do anything very serious, and he spent most of his time just lying down and reading journals and books and dozing off, because he had very bad insomnia in the last five years of his life. I don’t suppose he slept at night at all. So, he would doze off in the daytime on a couch he kept in his laboratory. But if you went there and knocked on the door, he’d get up and light up his pipe again and sit there and talk very entertainingly. I enjoyed very much listening to him. He would talk about his early experiences; he was at that time writing his autobiography and he would talk a good deal about old physicist friends like Michelson and A.G. Webster. I found this very interesting and entertaining, but of course the trouble was that I was busy and so I had other things to do and couldn’t spend all day with him. So I suppose I missed a good deal of his reminiscing.
I think you told me once of a story about Webster’s suicide that Barus told you.
Yes, he had a story about that. Of course, he was very fond of Webster and felt that Webster was rather shabbily treated at Clark University. When some of the other celebrities like Michelson left Clark to go to Chicago, Webster stayed on. Then when Webster eventually did commit suicide, I think it was Barus who said that some physicist friend of his had told him — I can’t be absolutely sure which version of the story is correct — that if Webster had to commit suicide it was a great pity that he didn’t shoot Atwood, the President, first. Atwood, you remember, was a geographer and I guess he didn’t have much interest in physics. Webster’s suicide was a great tragedy.
Did Barus have any anecdotes to tell about Michelson?
I think he always felt that Michelson was a bit snooty; in other words, rather snobbish and a man who thought pretty well of Michelson. I often got that impression. They were moderately friendly, but I don’t think they were bosom friends. I don’t think Barus had any bosom friends among the scientific community. He was highly respected but I don’t think he was loved particularly. There were a lot of people who ultimately came to feel that they couldn’t really understand what he was doing, because latterly he didn’t bother to worry whether he expressed himself in accordance with the currently received nomenclature. For example, when most people had given up using musical scale notation for frequency in acoustics and were talking in terms of cycles/sec, he was still using sharps and flats and so on. This was very curious. He could have done the conventional thing, but was just a little stubborn, I think. If people wanted to know what frequency you were using, they could look up the musical scale, after all, it was all there!
He went his own way.
He certainly went his own way. He followed the lone-wolf plan. That was clear I think when the Carnegie Institution of Washington was started. He had a good deal to do with the founding of that, and I am sure from what he told me, that he could have had a great deal of money for those days to build up big laboratory work along the lines that he was following, if he wanted to get more elaborate equipment and get more people to work on it, and build up a research school. But he didn’t want to do this. He wanted to build his own equipment and play around with it, and he didn’t want to be bothered with too many people. There again he had got his fingers burned a little; he had had one graduate student that he carried through to the Ph.D., and he told me he never wanted another one, for he had so much trouble with him.
The death of his wife was quite a loss to him, wasn’t it?
That, of course, came just about the time of his retirement. He himself was about 70 when she died. I am not sure but I think she was about his age. So that the last eight or nine years of his life undoubtedly were very lonely years. You read some of this between the lines in his autobiography — though he never said very much to me about his family affairs. He did occasionally mention that his son wanted him to go down to Cape Cod in the summer to recreate, but he never could see it; he wanted to stay in his laboratory and work: he wasn’t too happy down there by the shore, and so on — but, by and large, it was rare for him to say very much about his family affairs. But I did once or twice get the impression that somehow he wished he had paid a little more attention to his wife. She, you know, was rather independent, too. She was an ardent educationalist, at least in the sense that she was very interested in public education. She served on the Providence School Committee for a time, and apparently took a lot of interest in causes of that sort. I don’t know whether you’d call her a feminist exactly, but she liked to dabble in these things while he was doing his work. I cannot speak with too much assurance about Mrs. Barus. I don’t think I ever met her, because there were no social relations between the students and the faculty in those days, except in terms of a club like the math club, that we mentioned earlier.
Actually my wife once met Mrs. Barus in connection with a special fellowship she received when she graduated from Pembroke in 1920. It was considered quite an honor, and it enabled her to do a year of graduate study. It was a unique fellowship, specially set up for this purpose, and given usually t the highest ranking senior in Pembroke College. There was a tea in honor of the successful candidate, to which the wives of several professors went and met the girl. My wife-to-be met Mrs. Barus then and I think that’s the only time that she did, because by the time we came back to Brown in 1930 Mrs. Barus had died and so we never got acquainted as a family. I met both his son and daughter. And Barus was quite interested in my children. I know he gave one of them a little teething ring with a little silver bell which used to worry my wife because she was afraid the child was going to swallow it. He knew my wife pretty well because she served as a kind of secretary for him in the graduate department in her senior year. He didn’t have very much help; he had no office full of girls. He had just himself and his pipe and one part-time Pembroke undergraduate who did the typing. He was very systematic in running the graduate department; everything was done with a series of forms. All you had to do was fill in a few gaps and you had it. He never believed in writing long-winded letters. He was very different from Dean Richardson, whose picture also hangs in the foyer of the graduate school. Richardson would write a two-page letter at the drop of a hat, you know, to a fellow in Alaska or somewhere to try to get him to come to Brown. Barus wasn’t that way, of course he never built up the graduate school; he never built up the physics department. He just wasn’t interested in administration to that extent.
One of the problems that I have been interested in is the quite high standing that Brown had in the field of mathematics at one time. I get the impression that this began to go down in the ‘30s, perhaps in the ‘40s. Is this true?
After the war, in a certain measure, yes. Of course, the story is a complicated one, think that the beginning of the story goes back to the bringing to Brown of Professor Archibald and Professor Richardson in the latter part of the first decade of this century. They were distant relatives, from the Maritime Provinces of Canada and they immediately set a level of mathematics for the undergraduate which was very high. It is true that we also had Henry Parker Manning, who was himself a Brown product, though he got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins. He really was the first one in the Brown mathematics department to teach courses on theory of functions, real and complex variables back in the 1890’s. Unfortunately, old Manning, whom I had as a teacher, whom we affectionately called Pop, became very deaf in his early years and refused to wear a hearing aid. Of course, they weren’t so common back in the early part of the century anyway, and deafness was a real handicap. Sometimes people would use acoustical horns, and so forth; the electro-acoustical thing hadn’t developed far enough then. By the time they had, I guess, Manning got to the point where he just couldn’t accommodate himself to such advice. I think near the very end of his life, maybe when he became 90 years old, he got one, but by then it was rather hopeless.
So, while Manning was teaching all those years he had a very difficult time, because you couldn’t discuss things with him without shouting, and shouting in a classroom is not really satisfactory, and though he was very kind and willing to talk to people outside of class, I don’t think too many bothered him for obvious reasons. But he was a very distinguished mathematician in his day and this, plus the Richardson and Archibald regime, immediately made the department a very strong one. They then began to give the master’s degree, and were giving a very strong one in mathematics when I was an undergraduate student. Many of the people who got master’s degrees went on to other places like Harvard, Princeton and Illinois and got doctor’s degrees there without difficulty. In the early ‘20s, Richardson was always looking around to strengthen things — he was a great promoter, a very, very eager beaver whenever he saw a chance to build up something he was connected with. He got a chance to latch on to the Russian mathematician, J. D. Tomarkin, who was a White Russian and had escaped from Russia during the Russian Revolution; he had got a temporary job at Dartmouth College. Richardson somehow tempted him away from Dartmouth, and he came down to Brown with the idea that Brown would build up a program leading to the doctor’s degree in mathematics. At that time (the mid twenties) the University had decided to go more definitely into graduate work. Barus1 tenure ended in 1926, and it was felt that the graduate work needed a shot in the arm. Barus while he maintained the fabric and turned out some very good Ph.D.’s — nobody questioned that — had made little forward advance in the way of increasing numbers or increasing the scale of operations in the various fields.
I think Richardson was up to his neck in this business of providing for the development of a new school. He did of course, become the dean of the new graduate school, which was established in 1926. Well, an important part of the program of building up graduate work was to bring in some new people. In addition to Tomarkin, he also brought in some younger people like Ray Gilman and Albert A. Bennett. Bennett was one of our own graduates who got a doctorate at Princeton and then was professor at the University of Texas. Richardson enticed him back from Texas. Then things began to hum, because Tomarkin was a really impressive mathematician, in particular a really first-rate analyst. One Department then began to give the Ph.D. in analysis. Progress there was fast, faster than in almost any other science department, faster than in physics certainly. Biology and chemistry had always been doing some graduate work, but in a somewhat lower key. Mathematics made the decisive forward move.
Now, wasn’t the American Mathematical Society related to Brown in some manner?
Yes, Richardson rather early became — I suspect before 1920, before I graduated — Secretary of the American Mathematical Society, the chief professional society in this field. He remained as Secretary of the Society for 25 years, and as such he came to know all the mathematicians of any account in the country and most of those in the rest of the world for that matter. So he was in a very strategic position to take advantage of opportunities as they came along. I think this is one very good reason why the department got a good start in its doctoral program. There was a promoter at the head of it, a man who moreover wasn’t merely a promoter, but had been a good mathematician. Richardson was a first-rate mathematician before he gave up his mathematical research to go into the administrative side. The push he gave the Brown mathematics program by bringing in young, vigorous, and in some cases distinguished mathematicians like Tomarkin, carried it along until well after the war. But then of course Tomarkin got sick and died. He was really forced to give up almost all of his work by reason of a heart ailment some years before he died. Some of the younger department members eventually got older. Then, Richardson’s interest went in a somewhat different direction. He seized advantage of the troubles in Hitler Germany to latch onto some of the emigrating mathematicians from the Central European area.
Now, these were brought in largely on the basis of government support granted as part of preparation for war and for the war effort itself, as it developed. We got some very distinguished people like Willy Feller for example in probability and statistics. But this was done in the name of applied mathematics. Many pure mathematicians devoted their attention to the fundamental problems of mechanics and other applied fields for the sake of the war effort, and the development of the economy after the war. The emphasis on the applied side led to the acquirement at Brown of distinguished applied mathematicians like Willy Prager. In the meantime, pure mathematics withered to a certain extent through death and attrition. Some of the younger people who came were rather restless and weren’t altogether satisfied with the kind of graduate students we had. Hence they did not stay long. This kind of flow is okay, but the trouble was that the outflow was a little more serious and a little more high-powered than the inflow. At this moment, the department is in process of being built up again. I’m not in a position to say really what’s going to happen. I think there are some very bright people in our math department now, but not all are recognized as celebrities. In many cases they have their reputations to make. The trouble with me is now that the people that I knew are the ones that are out. I don’t know the new ones too well, except insofar as I meet them officially in connection with graduate school problems.
Let’s return to the early ‘30s again and talk about some of your graduate students. Whom do you consider some of your best graduate students?
My first graduate student, Raymond Seeger, who actually did his work at Yale — that was the first Ph.D. thesis that I ever supervised and this happened just before I left Yale — has certainly done very well in both academic and government science. He was professor at George Washington University for a while and did some very nice research there on shock waves in particular. He got more interested in hydrodynamics during the war, and of course was the first leader of the Air Ballistics Laboratory at NRL. He finally went to the National Science Foundation. Ray, think is a very able man. He, undoubtedly, has his problems. He has a lot of irons in the fire, and he’s very much interested in the general problems of history and philosophy of science. He sets himself up as an authority on Galileo. I think he knows quite a lot about Galileo. He’s also given considerable attention to the problems of science teaching. I have a great respect for him though at times his oratory overwhelms me, to put it mildly. But I’m very happy that I have had considerable association with him. Of those here at Brown, I can mention of course some very good men. There is Arthur O. Williams, Jr. who was one of the two Edison Prize scholars at M.I.T. You know, Edison set up this scholarship in the late ‘20s to educate bright students at M.I.T. This was quite a reversal of his original feeling, that he wasn’t interested in having highly educated, university-trained people in his laboratory; before he died he got over that. However, there were only two of these fellowships, and Arthur Williams from Rhode Island won the second and last. He did his bachelor’s work from 1930 to 1934 at M.I.T. with a very high record, and then decided to come here to do graduate work, and did a remarkably fine job.
I was responsible for his thesis, which was based on the calculation of relativistic self-consistent field wave functions for copper. He did very well. He then went to the University of Maine, but came back here on my invitation, and has progressed through the ranks to a full professorship, which he has held for a good many years. He was chairman of the department in succession to me for a considerable time. Williams has done a lot for the Navy in connection with undersea warfare. He’s been on several of their committees and is very well thought of. Another former student is Gregory Hartmann, who is the superintending scientist at NRL. He took his doctorate with me somewhere around 1940 working on acoustical problems of the absorption of sound in liquids. He then went into Navy work to do research on explosion waves as well as magnetic mine detection. I think he’s done very well and is a very able man. He was a Rhodes Scholar and we were very lucky to get him to come to Brown. He took his Bachelor’s degree at California Institute of Technology. Then there is a man who is still in academic life, a full professor at N.Y.U., George E. Hudson, who did a very nice piece of research on the dispersion of acoustic waves in solids; he has made quite a nice career academically. He’s been tempted with many offers. I don’t know whether he’ll leave N.Y.U. or not. He goes off on leave occasionally, but he always seems to come back. He lives in Tenafly, New Jersey and he seems to like it there. I think Hudson was one of the best students I’ve ever had. The head of the Marathon Oil Company Research Laboratory in Littleton, Colorado, near Denver, Jacque Yost, is one of my former students. He did a thesis on the calculation of wave functions, and he taught for a while, but most of his time has been spent in the oil business, where he has quite a distinguished position. Those were some of the students I had during the ‘30s. More recently I’ve also had some good ones. For example, there’s a man who’s just been promoted to a full professorship at the University of Georgia. His name is John Henkel; and he did his thesis sometime after the war, on the equation of state of liquid argon; he is a very able man indeed. Well, this gives you some notion of the young people who have worked with me.
I probably could think of some others if I had time. I have inserted the names of some of those in the extension of the autobiography which I’m now writing. Of course, these are not people in a class with Slater, Van Vleck or Rabi but still they’ve all done a good job, and I’m not sorry that I was connected with them. Actually, Bob Morse, whom we were talking about at lunch this noon, was also my student. He did his thesis in solid acoustics with me, and became chairman of the physics department, was later Dean of the College and is now Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development. I don’t know why in the world he wants to do this sort of thing, but he’s rather venturesome and he has a tremendous amount of confidence in himself, and he’s really a very able man indeed. There is no question that he’s far more able than I am. 
Now, let me ask this rather general question. What is your philosophy as to the best way of judging graduate students in research?
I would think it can be summed up in a very few words: Let them alone, as far as possible!
You can’t leave them alone too much, can you?
No. What I have done in the past, just as a matter of routine, and my policy is still the same now is as follows: (I still have a student or two; I’ve got one now who’s over in Hong Kong getting married to a little Chinese girl, but I hope he’ll get back sometime this summer to continue his work.) Once a research problem has been agreed upon one simply sets up the program whereby the student comes in at least once a week and tells me what he’s done. Then we decide, if he’s running into trouble, what we can try to do to get around the trouble, and we go on in this way from week to week. As a rule I never have encouraged students to come and see me at any time, although I certainly never objected to that, if a man really had got into serious difficulty or had developed an idea that he just could not keep to himself. By and large I have felt that roughly once a week for a half hour conference was probably enough. If you try to poke around too much you get in the student’s way and you discourage him from going off on his own. On the other hand, the student is not likely to make too many mistakes in a single week, enough for example to break all the apparatus (although I’ve had people coming pretty close to it.) In general you can get in there in time to save the day if necessary. I have never felt myself too competent in guiding experimental theses, though I have supervised a great many in my time.
I’ve trusted in God and the student to handle these things, and confined my suggestions to fundamental, theoretical matters, that is, things that were nice to do if you only knew how. I left it up to the student to mull them over to see if he could find some way to do them. I’ve never felt myself to be really an experimentalist, and I’m sure many of my friends have wondered how I could ever successfully supervise an experimental thesis. Well, E. B. Wilson, you know, was the same way, and yet he supervised some experimental theses because he felt he could tell people what to do, even though he didn’t know in detail how to do it himself. That was up to them. I think I have got along pretty well with the students. Of course, occasionally I had some who have really bothered me a lot; even they in general have come through eventually. One of the worst cases was a man who just made all the mistakes in the book, and went fumbling along, it seemed almost interminably so, that we finally decided that he just wasn’t going to get through at all. But by some miracle, eventually things brightened up, and he finally made it. Of course, our department has had people who just haven’t made the Ph.D. at all. I haven’t personally had to do with many of those. In recent years I have tended to get stuck with students that nobody else wanted to deal with, either because they appeared to be borderline cases intellectually, or because they seemed to be difficult temperamentally. I’ve been willing to tackle anybody in that class, no matter how bad a temper he seemed to have or how difficult he was to get along with.
If I thought he had any capacity for doing a job, I thought he ought to have a chance to show it. The result is that I’ve had many of those people that others in the department just refused to have anything to do with. One of them I mentioned is this man who went to the University of Georgia. His difficulty was one in speech, a great difficulty which made his enunciation almost unintelligible at first. Most people said he would never be a teacher. I think he’s doing all right, but it took a while to get him straightened out. Then I had one student who was so insulting that one day I almost threw him out of my office. I couldn’t stand having him around. He finally came back and apologized. He got his Ph.D. and he is doing all right in research. He’s a very brilliant man but was extraordinarily difficult to get along with. Somebody had to help him and put up with him, either that, or just throw him out. I thought there was something to be salvaged there. I have not regretted my effort with him.
The job of a teacher is not to throw people out.
Right. The job of the teacher is to evoke the best that’s in a student. Now, if after a long trial you conclude that there’s really nothing there, then it’s time to tell the man he had better leave. We have to say this to some, but I think before that happens one must exert every effort to make sure that you have given the chap every possible chance. One of the difficulties in any graduate school, of course, is to get the faculty member who is in charge of a particular student and the colleagues who are sitting on his committee and watching him, to make up their minds whether he really is going to make good or not. One of the tragedies is provided by the man who is just on the border line and his supervisor won’t make a decision, and just lets him drag on and then hopes that somehow he will evaporate and be forgotten. This is tragic; it’s utterly wrong of course; it’s a crime. But this does happen I suppose at every university.
I know it happened at Cornell.
It’s one of the banes of a graduate dean’s life. Fortunately, we haven’t too many such cases lately, but when I first became dean I encountered a number of them: a department would practically wash its hands of the student in question, but never tell him so, and then he could come to me and say, “Oh, God, why doesn’t he leave?” Well, this is, frankly, terrible. Fortunately, it does not happen often now. But I fear that professors as a lot find it very hard to make up their minds when they face decisions of that kind.
Well, back in the early ‘30s you became the chairman of the physics department, and there you were dealing with the problems of building up a good department. What is your philosophy of building up a good department? How does one go about that?
Well, I fear I didn’t have very much to go on. 1 became chairman during the Depression, and about all I was encouraged to do then was to try to maintain the faculty. So, what we had to do was to encourage each member of the department to do as much as he could to push things along, both from the standpoint of strengthening the elementary teaching, which was one of our weaknesses then, and to get more students to major in physics as undergraduates, which was another tragic weakness; at the same time we were trying desperately to get better graduate students, even though we couldn’t have very many. This was essentially all that one could do in the ‘30s, to work within the existing framework and get hold of good students, give them the very best graduate training we could, and hope that when they went out they would spread the word. But I also had this terrific job of trying to increase the number of undergraduate majors. When I came to Brown in 1930 we had none to speak of; we had a fairly decent enrollment in elementary courses, but practically no enrollment in intermediate and advanced undergraduate courses. The graduate enrollment was not too bad, since several chemistry and mathematics students took our graduate courses. But there was this big gap in the middle.
We were getting all our graduate students, of course, from other institutions. I say all of them, but we didn’t have many. In the early ‘30s if we had 15 graduate students in physics we were doing very well. We have 90 now in the department. But then everything else has gone up in the meantime. So, one of my tasks, as soon as I became chairman, was to see what could be done to push up the undergraduate enrollment. We tried all kinds of publicity stuff, but that didn’t work. Finally, found the secret was to set up a professional undergraduate course in physics. Previously, all we’d been allowed to do was to have an A.B. major, but if you don’t get any students who want to be an A.B. major, you don’t do anything, and this is what happened. As soon as we got permission to set up a program leading to the degree, Bachelor of Science in Physics, and advertised it as preparation for the war work and related business, then students showed up and almost immediately we began to have a good, solid, substantial major. But after the war, the president came to me and said, “Look, the Sc.B. in physics was a wartime measure. I think you’d better give it up now that the war is over.” Naturally I put up a terrific howl and said, “Look, modify the course, make it more ‘humane’ if you want to,” (because Mr. Wriston was great for trying to make scientists into human beings), “I’ll settle for anything, more philosophy, more culture, anything, but for God’s sake let’s keep this course because otherwise you won’t have any physics majors at all.” He bought that idea and so did the corporation, and so the Sc.B. in physics has become a mainstay of the physics department.
We get a really good enrollment. For a number of years, we were in numbers of students ahead of the chemists who started their program in the ‘20s and had it well established long before we could do anything. Well, that was one of the things that had to be done, (I don’t want to claim the whole credit because other people in the department collaborated very well — but somebody just had to fight for the thing.) In a way, it was fortunate we had the war and the preparations for war as an excuse to justify increasing the number of people training for physics. As far as graduate work was concerned, it amounted to this: For most of the thirties and early forties just two members of the department — Harry Farnsworth and myself — were in a position to guide students toward the doctorate, because no one else had a particular interest in it. We did bring in Alfred Focke in 1934 and he soon did take an interest and began to work for the graduate program. He didn’t have too long to build up a program; he felt he had to go into war work. Then,’ of course, a lot of the graduate work dropped and we all went into some sort of war work. Right after 1945, the President was raring to go to build up all along the line, and we got a green light, financially and otherwise, to begin to give training to more people. Numbers increased what with the veterans coming back. Many of them were first-rate people who wanted to do graduate work and could do a good job. So, we had justification for bringing more staff in. And then government contracts started right after the war and things were in much better shape financially.
Now, this is how you built up the students in physics, how about the teaching staff itself?
After the war, when we really had a chance to increase the staff we had various sources of supply available. We could look, for example, at some of our own Ph.D.’s, and that’s what we did. We felt we understood them and that they would do a good job. That’s how we got Williams and Morse to come with us. We got some of the people who had got degrees in applied mathematics but who knew quite a lot of physics, and we gave them instructorships or assistant professorships. At that time, one could promise them a thing that became quite attractive, namely, a small teaching load and a lot of time for research.
How did you go about selecting these men?
Largely on the basis of what I knew about what they had done, both as Ph.D. candidates and research workers during the war. We tended to build up the department at first around the two fields that had been previously most prominent: one was the solid-state surface physics of Professor Farnsworth, and the other was the acoustics that I had inaugurated. We got the contract with the Research Analysis group; that demanded quite a lot of basic research on the propagation of sound in water under various conditions. And so, I tried to persuade as many of the good acoustical people that I knew to come to Brown to work on this project. Actually I didn’t get too many, but I got some. I got some people who weren’t primarily interested in acoustics but had done work in microwave propagation, and this was near enough to acoustics so that they could fit in successfully. There were certain difficulties because most of these people wanted to do teaching but with a light load so that they could spend most of their time on research. Then they found, many of them, that if they devoted too much attention to teaching, they couldn’t get their research reports written and vice versa. It’s a somewhat strange phenomenon, but a great many people can’t discipline themselves to distribute their time appropriately through the work on different projects. This makes it very difficult to adjust schedules so that you pay a man for so many hours of teaching and so many hours of research, as was necessary on a contract arrangement. We got into all kinds of trouble there, as I suppose everybody else did.
Well, now, it’s easy I would think to evaluate a man’s research, particularly if you’ve been in research yourself. You know what the problems are. But how does one evaluate whether a person is a good teacher?
It’s extraordinarily difficult. In fact, some people think you can’t do it at all. I must say that I have great doubts as to the ability to decide whether a given man that you’re going to bring in for a job is going to turn out to be a good teacher. One has to take chances here. Of course, you can listen to the candidate give a colloquium talk, and if he talks clearly and writes well on the blackboard and makes himself understood, you can say, “Well, if he does that in front of his class, he can’t be too bad.” But this doesn’t test other things, such as patience with a student who is dumb or needs special help, as well as conscientious devotion to duty, that is, showing up at every class period with the day’s work well prepared in advance, and being prepared to answer students’ questions. I don’t see how you’re going to judge that in advance except to have faith that when the man says this is what he wants to do that he’s telling you the truth. Then you can observe him, indirectly, after he’s here, and hope that he will carry on along the lines that you’ve anticipated. I admit this observation is not too easy, because at Brown we have never systematically developed the method of having senior staff go into a man’s classroom to watch him teach. This is supposed to make people nervous and they don’t like it. I daresay they do it in some places. We’ve never done it to any extent at Brown.
What we have done in the case of certain young teachers, called interns, is to have them hold special meetings in which they talk over their problems among themselves, and possibly with some senior professors sitting in. But the snooping idea is rather frowned upon. What you have to do is pretty largely to depend on what the students say, and the trouble with that is that about the only things they ever say are the adverse things. You very rarely find a student who will praise a professor until the student has been out of college for 25 years and suddenly wakes up to the fact that may be the old guy wasn’t so bad after all. But he rarely does that when he’s in college. So, it’s extraordinarily difficult to judge what is good teaching. I never am willing to admit that there is any way to do it. You say, “Well, then how does the poor president decide about appointments and promotions?” Well, the president just keeps his ears to the ground and relies to a certain extent on rumors. If these rumors are substantiated from enough sources, he draws conclusions. Of course, he will doubtless check with faculty people and hope they’ve heard something about a given man. But many judgments obtained in this way are pretty flimsy affairs. I believe it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem on which to reach definite conclusions.
I know there are people who won’t agree with me; they will say that they can tell in five minutes whether a man is going to be a good teacher. Well, I admit one can tell whether he’s going to be reasonably clear; that’s not difficult. But this is far from the whole story. I consider old Barus, for example, who certainly wasn’t clear (he was far from clear in most lectures I heard him give) was probably one of the best teachers I ever had because he made me go and find out things for myself. He gave me a stimulus. If a teacher can do that, perhaps he’s doing a better job of teaching than if he makes everything crystal clear. One of the weaknesses of Leigh Page, in my opinion, was — he did a lot for me, as I think I’ve said many times in many places — that he simply made things too clear to his students. His lectures were such a model of perfection that the students were misled into thinking that it was all as simple as pie. And it wasn’t! Page knew it, because he had to struggle through it. The students couldn’t see the struggle; all they saw was the beautiful result. Well, the student ultimately learned how tough the stuff really was, of course, but in the meantime he got a bad start, in my opinion. So I never liked this system, though I liked to listen to Page lecture, he did it so beautifully. I think there’s much to be said for the scheme I adopted of making the students do most of the talking in class and then letting the professor correct or criticize or promote discussion. Some people call this the Socratic method.
This scheme on the whole worked pretty well for the last 15 years I was teaching advanced courses in physics. I think I got very good results, and many of my students have admitted that. They didn’t altogether like it at the time; many were rather shy about it and many of them felt it was an undue burden to have to prepare actual classroom lectures. Some felt quite honestly that it was a professor’s job to profess, that is what he was there for, and it wasn’t their business to do it. Yet I think many of them now feel years after they were lucky to have the opportunity to talk. To my mind one of the great drawbacks in American higher education is the fact that the student gets so little chance to talk in the classroom. Now, of course, he can talk to his buddies outside, but when it comes to talking in the face of intellectual criticism of a severe character, he just doesn’t have the opportunity. We make him write to a certain extent, but even that he doesn’t do enough of, and the result is that much of the time these students just sit there scribbling on paper, and then they regurgitate on paper at examination time. This, I think, is tragic. I’ve been trying for years, with some success, because these new university courses that have been given are pretty much discussion courses. That is just a hobby of mine on teaching. I wish there were some simple effective way to judge a good teacher, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t altogether blame the university presidents for saying, well, in the last analysis we’d better depend on the output, what has he done? Does he write? If so, what sort of stuff does he write? And how much? I know it’s customary to say that’s publish or perish, but it is a criterion.
It’s one criterion.
Yes. I quite agree that it’s not the only one. I wish there were others that one could depend on as being equally valid, but I’m not at all sure what they are. Maybe you know what they are.
I wouldn’t know. Have you enjoyed your work in administration?
Yes, I think I have. I never thought I would because in the old days I was such an introvert that I just wanted to be left alone with my figuring and reading; that was about all, except in class, of course, where I would give lectures the way the other professors would. But I found later that somehow I enjoyed this business of talking over special problems with people, not that I had any particular wisdom, but it was interesting to see what their problems are and whether there was anything in my experience that would enable me to help. This has been very interesting. I mean, administration, it seems to me is largely the solving of problems as they come up from day to day or even from hour to hour, problems presented by one person or by a group of people, or by a whole situation which doesn’t seem to depend on any one person, and where you are really forced to reach a decision as to what to do next. This is what I ‘11 probably miss most when I retire, because when I really retire I can still go on scribbling, reading and talking to myself, but I won’t have such a chance to talk to other people, and I’ve really enjoyed it on the whole. I didn’t think I would but apparently it eventually came out that way.
I don’t think I’m a terribly good administrator, because I tend to try to shuffle off the purely routine things onto assistants or associates, subordinates who work in the office and only try to handle the critical problems which nobody else wants to tackle. I don’t know whether that’s good administration or not. I know Richardson wouldn’t think so, because he wanted to have his fingers into everything all the time. He would spend a lot of time on the smallest details. If there was a problem, say, of working up a new program, I might be willing to draw up the broad outlines as I saw it, write a part of it maybe, but ask other people to do a lot of the details. But Richardson would want it all. He’d want to write the last sentence and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, and apparently he loved it. Well, I’m not built quite that way. I like (even if it’s the administration of the Graduate School office) to have lots of time to devote to other things, such as the Acoustical Society and the Institute of Physics and writing books and papers and giving lectures. It seems to me that’s all part of the game, and as long as the president of the university feels that this is perfectly proper for an administrator and faculty member to do (in other words, he isn’t really neglecting his duties completely in doing it) why, I’d like to keep on doing it. But I realize, of course, that some part of it has got to be given up first. I suppose it will be this administrative part. The general policy around here is that you retire from an administrative post before you retire from your professorship, or you may anyway. In general people don’t stay on as administrators right up to retirement, though Richardson did. He stayed as dean up to the age of 70, which is the final compulsory retirement age, but I shall not do that, of course, and I am not sure what I will do when I stop being an administrator, if stay on teaching. I haven’t taught a professional course in physics now for about six years. I’ve taught all this stuff my wife calls “Eyewash 1-2.”
Let’s see, we were speaking about the ‘30s, and during World War II you became involved in various kinds of war work. Would you like to comment on that?
Yes, briefly. There wasn’t an awful lot of it. I tried, of course, to get war research started here at Brown in connection with underwater sound, but I wasn’t very successful. I don’t think at that time the people running that particular division or section of the NDRC had much confidence in the measurements we had made in our laboratory on the attenuation of sound in water. Hartmann actually had done some of that work and one or two other people fooled with it, but we hadn’t got to the point, I think, where our results attracted much attention as compared to those that were obtained in other places, in some of the actual Navy labs and so on. And so, I didn’t succeed in getting a contract, or at least I wasn’t successful in ‘41 or early ‘42. Then, all of a sudden, I got an invitation to head up a part of the project down at Duke University, under Joe Maxfield, who had been at the Bell Labs, on sound ranging in air. This was not actually my special line, but on the other hand since I was supposed to be a sort of expert in acoustics it was felt that I could do something, and this was the time when you didn’t stop to argue too much, and so I said, “Yes, I will go.” And I did. I actually spent only one full year down in Durham in residence; after that I went down on consulting trips at various periods up until the end of the war. J. P. Maxfield was the head of the whole outfit; there were several divisions. I was the head of the so-called physical research division.
Our duty was to make measurements of sound propagation in air and to study the effects of atmospheric conditions on sound propagation: winds, air currents, temperature gradients and humidity and all the other factors, as well as environmental factors. It was rather interesting work and I was able to get a few people to join the project, some of my former students, for example. We had, I think, a group that did a fairly substantial piece of basic research. Of course, the main object was ultimately to turn out equipment that the field artillery could use. (We were working directly under the field artillery for sound ranging in the field. I never was practically minded enough to feel too sure of this kind of thing, although I did go down to Fort Bragg with the boys to make field tests that were interesting. But practical field work never was my forte. I was interested in staying home and doing figuring on better ways of using the calculations. It got so awfully hot down there, that I got feeling rather sick. So finally, I decided I’d come back home and go back to teaching, and merely act as a consultant to the Duke project. My war work wasn’t, frankly, very extensive but what there was was interesting, and we got out some papers ultimately. Of course, the final report was clarified, so that I was not permitted to see it at first. This happened to a great many other people. I think finally did get to see it a few years ago but it’s too late now because most of the things we discovered have since been discovered by other people. That was another interesting thing that happened during the war.
Well, now, another one of your activities in the pre-war period was getting involved in the various professional societies. One of these was the Acoustical Society.
It’s a strange story, why I never was a charter member of the Acoustical Society, in view of the fact that I got started in acoustics around 1925, and the society wasn’t founded until 1929. I presume I must have got an invitation to join. Wallace Waterfall was an active in his early days as he is now in pushing people. But I didn’t join then, and I suppose one reason was that I belonged to the Physical Society and to the American Mathematical Society as well as the AAAS, and frankly, I wasn’t earning enough money to pay out too much in the way of dues. So I didn’t feel that I could afford to belong to every society that came along. Then there was a certain feeling too that the Acoustical Society was largely devoted to practical acoustics, that is, to architectural acoustics, to loudspeakers, and that sort of thing. I was more interested in basic research in physical acoustics. I don’t know how good an argument that was; it broke down anyway when I started in the early ‘30s to continue to send papers in acoustics to the PHYSICAL REVIEW. I then got back a polite letter from the editor (Tate, I guess it was) saying, “Well, this is a very good paper, but we call your attention to the fact that there is a journal now in existence specifically for the publication of such papers. We advise you to send it to the JOURNAL OF THE ACOUSTICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA.” I was thus practically forced into the Acoustical Society if I wanted to get my papers published. I did join about 1934 or ‘35. At any rate I have received recently a 25-year certificate so it must have been around ‘35 that I joined. I don’t suppose I took a very active part in society affairs for a while. I think it was just about the time when the war was getting underway, around 1941 or 1942 that I was elected a member of the Council. I had gone to meetings fairly faithfully before then, but by that time I began to be a little more active and was trying to push some of my own students to get them elected to fellowships and trying to get our laboratory better known (competing with W.P. Mason, because he was working along similar lines on acoustic filters. He was always about a jump ahead of me, but we’ve had a friendly rivalry for quite a long time). Warren Mason is really a very able man. Have you ever thought of interviewing him? You ought to.
I have thought of it, but he hasn’t been on the list.
You ought to get him on the list somehow.
Oh, he’s on our list, but he is not on our list of interviews. We have received quite a bit of material from him. We have all his reprints with a critical comment on each one. We also have a complete set of his technical memoranda from the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and this, I’m sure, is going to be very productive.
Oh, yes. He has done an awful lot of work. He’s been extremely productive in research and has a very keen mind. He’s one of the best physicists in the Acoustical Society, without any question at all and been recognized as such. Of course, he has been President of the Society and honored by the Society, but I think he ought to be on your list for an interview. Well, I just mention this in passing because we were working along similar lines in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. I have a very sentimental feeling about the Acoustical Society. It has been very good to me; it has given me encouragement, and I hope I can pay back the debt by trying to serve the Society, particularly in connection with the editorial work, which I enjoy very much. I think it’s very important, and the Society is doing a great thing for acoustics in bringing out a journal of the quality of ours. I think it’s agreed by everybody that it is of extremely high quality.
Let’s see, when did you become editor?
I became an associate editor about 1950. That was when Floyd Firestone was still the editor-in-chief. In those days he was called simply editor. The term editor-in-chief was not introduced until sometime in the ‘50s. Then in 1957 when he resigned rather suddenly, there was some commotion over the succession, but the Council appointed me his successor. Then I ran officially for the office against Leo Beranek in ‘59 and won, and I’ve been in ever since on three-year terms: the first term I guess was two years and since then I’ve had two three-year terms, expiring in May of 1965.
What do you think should be the role of the publication of the Society?
The publication, of course, is an outlet for the research that is performed by people in acoustics. It is obvious that unless the people who do the research have a chance to tell other people what they’re doing, the whole field doesn’t flourish. The publication is certainly an inevitable, necessary part of the research itself. The results must be disseminated and therefore you need a journal that is seen by a large number of people working in the field, so that they can keep in touch with it. I think our journal satisfies this fundamental requirement; in other words, it helps to promote and develop a knowledge of acoustics. This is the aim of the Society and the Journal is perhaps the most important way it carries out its charter. Of course, we have meetings where papers are given, but they tend to be somewhat ephemeral, whereas the Journal is an archive, a record, which will last forever, as long as the printed paper will hold together.
What do you feel is the proper function of the Acoustical Society itself?
The function again is simply to take a field of effort involved in human experience and develop and promote it. The Society must also emphasize what good acoustics is for human welfare. Acoustics has certainly something to do with human beings, and our journal should reflect that concern in connection with such problems as noise, for example, architectural acoustics, hearing and speech, etc. At the same time, as a branch of physics it should develop aspects of physics that are not touched upon by other physicists in order that these parts of our experience will not go unexplored. The aim is simply to promote a field of knowledge in as respectable and accurate a way as possible, so that anybody who wants to know will have made available to him what is actually the present state of knowledge and also the state of the art from the standpoint of applications. I think this is essentially what the Society seeks to do and the Journal, of course, is its principal vehicle.
So that the role of the Journal is primarily to present the present state of the art. Do you feel that it has a broader purpose than that in the sense that it is a vehicle for not only documenting research but a vehicle for broadening the goals of the members of the Society? In other words, do you feel the Society is limited to a specific set of goals immediate in the field of acoustics, or do you feel that the Society has a broader purpose?
Insofar as the Acoustical Society is a scientific society, and insofar as science has as part of its task the creation of experience, as well as its description and understanding, it seems to me that the Journal must encourage people to think of new types of acoustical experience to create, and it does exactly that, because every time a clever person reads an article in his field, this should stimulate him to think of new possibilities as yet untried, in which he may get involved or which he may suggest to somebody, perhaps a student. I think this is always what happens with any journal, that you read it and get ideas, and these ideas lead to the development of new things, and so there is a gradual increase in knowledge. For example, one starts with speech and pretty soon you’re in phonetics and linguistics, and you’re off in a region where you impinge upon the work of certain other experts who haven’t thought of themselves primarily in terms of acoustics, but now realize that without the help of acoustical scientists they’re operating at a loss. So, in that way you spread yourself, not only over a limited region of science but out into all kinds of broad aspects. You’ve probably seen the little chart I prepared showing the way in which acoustics impinges on all aspects of human experience. I prepared that chart for a conference that we had in New York in 1964 on education in acoustics, and since then I’ve been using it in connection with a survey of acoustics for the future. You remember that I spoke about the Pake Physics Survey Committee this noon.
Well, this chart is part of the acoustics report which will go to the Pake Committee, just to emphasize the enormous extent to which acoustics as a branch of physics impinges on other aspects of human experience. Now, of course, one could do almost the same thing for any branch of physics, although usually those branches of physics which originated with human sensations, as optics and acoustics, which are perhaps the two principal illustrations, would naturally have more areas of contact with all aspects of human life. I mean, when you talk about light, you talk about vision, you talk about a window on the world. That window on the world then touches everything. Well, your ears are also a kind of a window on the world, and anything that deals with how the ears behave then leads to this enormous range of ramification of contacts. I think it’s very interesting to do this sort of thing for all fields of physics and see what happens. This viewpoint is genuine in the sense that you will find in our Journal papers on every aspect mentioned in my chart, as well as others for that matter. I couldn’t put everything in the chart. There’s simply not room enough. And in the same way, our index classification in the Journal will have reference to every one of these aspects and applications. To me this is one of the interesting things about acoustics; that it does make an impact on so many facets of human life. I mean, I can get more thrill out of it than I can about elementary particles. Now, you can build a theory in which you can show by various indirect means how elementary particles affect us (the atomic bomb and all that) but it’s not such a direct connection as you can show with a science like acoustics or for that matter optics; the same sort of diagram could be made for optics.
It has a much more intimate impact.
That’s right. And a subject like acoustics brings together, you see, people with such diverse interests. That’s one of the nice things about the Acoustical Society, and the thing that I personally and many others will fight to the last ditch to preserve; I mean the coherence of the Society in the face of the influences that tend to be divisive. On many occasions we’ve had people say, “Why don’t we have sections, a certain section on electrical acoustics, one on medical acoustics and one on bioacoustics, and so on.” Some of us have fought that tooth and nail because we feel that one of the nice things about our Society is that here you have a group of people, admittedly with different interests, but all interested fundamentally in acoustics; they all get together at meetings and they can all talk to each other; even though they have their own special sections, they all can get together and discuss their problems. The man who wants to apply a technique, say, to bio-acoustics, can ask the electro-acoustics man what his ideas are about equipment and so on. This is a unique thing, I think, in this field. This is one reason why I’ve always been so fond of the Society. But of course, in this we also suffer a difficulty because the very pure physicist, who is highly specialized, considers that because we have these broad contacts with engineers, biologists and geologists, doctors, musicians, etc. we are not really a physical society. This is a narrow view, but it carries some weight in the Sodern scientific world.
Who have been some of the great formative figures in the Society?
Well, of course, you know Wallace Waterfall has talked to us about that in the interview with him. He actually was the founder of the Society, but he had the help of Vern Knudsen and Floyd Watson. Watson was the architectural acoustics man at the University of Illinois, and Vern Knudsen developed the same field at UCLA. It is interesting that in a way the Society came to be formed largely because of the desire of the architectural acoustics people to get better scientific information that they could use in dealing with situations where many people had simply used the rule of thumb with the hope that they did something right without really knowing why or how they did it. Then there were people like Harvey Fletcher, who was a great authority on hearing and speech and other branches as well. Then the electro-acoustical people, like J.P. Maxfield, whom I’ve mentioned, and audio people, like Harry Olson, were also big figures in the early days of the Society.
How about during the ‘1+Os and ‘50s? Who have been the important people?
Well, of course there are the younger ones coming up, Ted Hunt (F.V. Hunt) of Harvard, who is very prominent in electro-acoustics. He’s had a tremendous influence on acoustical research; he’s one of the senior statesmen of the Society. You know, you wouldn’t think of embarking on anything really new or radical in the Society without consulting him. He’s long since passed through the offices: he’s no longer an officer, and yet nobody in the Society would think of doing anything without saying, “Well, let’s ask Ted what he thinks,” simply because he has the breadth of background and loyalty to the Society, as well as continued zest for acoustical research. There are a number of other people of that general kind. To a certain extent Phil Morse of M.I.T. is, though he has allowed himself to be diverted into operations research and computer technology but he’s still writing in acoustics. He’s getting out a new edition of his book on vibration and sound, a third edition. So that he also could be called, I suppose, a senior statesman of the general field of acoustics. John Steinberg, for example, was at Bell Labs for many years in electrical acoustics as well as E.C. Wento, who made the ribbon microphone. Steinberg is still very active; he has gone to Miami to work on marine acoustics now. He’s a man you might keep your eye on. He was president of the Society back in the late ‘40s. Here are some of the people at any rate, but one might mention many more. There are people like Dick Cook, who is head of the sound section of the National Bureau of Standards and who was president in ‘56-‘57, right after me. Leo Beranek of course, the president of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, was president of the Society in ‘53-‘54. Nobody would think very much about problems in architectural acoustics without considering Leo. Of course Leo has had his troubles with Philharmonic Hall, but I think anybody probably would. I don’t think he’s worried; he has a lot of bounce and resilience, so we needn’t worry about Leo having troubles; he can bounce right back. Larry Batchelder of Raytheon is another outstanding figure in the Society. The new president is Cyril H. Harris of Columbia who runs a very strong acoustics laboratory in electrical engineering there. Well, here then are some of the influential people. Oh, yes, there’s also Halliwell Davis, who is head of the Central Institute of the Deaf, representing the bio-acoustical side. He was president in ‘52-‘53, and he is also considered a senior citizen of the Society. Many, many others, of course, deserve to be mentioned. I think the Acoustical Society of America is a wonderful organization and I don’t regret for a moment all the time that I have put into it. What I have accomplished, others must judge. All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed it and I feel I’ve gotten a great deal out of it. It’s been one of the satisfactions of my life.
Do you want to compare the Acoustical Society with the Physical Society?
It’s a little hard to do that, because the Physical Society in recent years has tended to become highly specialized at the same time that its numbers have become so great.
Well, this is what I was looking for.
It means, of course, that the American Physical Society functions largely in terms of small groups that concentrate attention on special problems, and you don’t find in that Society the intimate feeling of a general concern for a body of knowledge that you do in the Acoustical Society or as you would in the Optical Society or even in the American Association of Physics Teachers for that matter, because there isn’t the same focus of attention. Of course, in its early days the Physical Society was a rather intimate group. I’m old enough to remember the time (in the twenties) when the meeting in New York in February at Columbia, could easily be accommodated in a small lecture hall. There might be as many as a couple hundred at the meeting, and they didn’t have to have simultaneous sessions and everything was very intimate. Well, of course now things are different — how many members have it?
Sixteen thousand! Now they have to meet in hotels and have simultaneous sessions in the different fields. I suppose it’s inevitable that they should go the way they’ve gone, but as you say, they might have prevented the various special interests from leaving them if they made a serious effort to do so. This effort apparently was not made. Maybe it wouldn’t have done any good anyway, though possibly they could have tried to arrange earlier for divisions the way the Chemical Society did, instead of allowing special societies to be founded by their members. Now, the same kind of problem will be faced by any society as it grows. The Acoustical Society itself faced it, because now it has lost a large part of the so-called audio field to the Audio Engineering Society, and some people in the Acoustical Society regret this very much. This is the same kind of thing, happening on a somewhat lower level. As to the specialization in the Physical Society, I think it is unfortunate that so little encouragement is given to the presentation and discussion of papers outside the realms of atomic-nuclear physics and solid-state physics. Those are the principal fields. Now it is true that if you want to you can, of course, suggest papers in hydrodynamics and Karl Darrow has sent around (I have his letter in my file) an appeal for suggestions for speakers for the next meeting of the Society, and I’m sure Karl would tolerate a talk on some aspect of hydrodynamics for example, or even some aspect of optics or acoustics if the man seemed to have a broad enough approach so that he thinks it would fit into the Physical Society program. There’s obviously not an unwillingness to do this sort of thing but the fact is that you don’t get people volunteering for it very much. What you’ll get, the suggestions that will come will be, again, mostly nuclear physics, modern theoretical physics which includes work in relativity and gravitation, and solid state. It is hard to say that this is necessarily bad; it’s just the way things are, and I think one has got to put up with it. The only bad thing is the possibility that the Physical Society might set itself up as the leading arbiter of all problems in physics in the country leaving out of account the fact that there are a large number of physicists in the Optical Society, in the Acoustical Society, in the Society of Rheology as well as a lot who think of themselves in terms of teaching physics as their fundamental occupation. That is why the American Institute of Physics as an amalgamation of these various societies, can still serve a very useful purpose. In other words, it can give the Physical Society full weight without at the same time letting this society claim that it, alone, represents really the whole of physics in the country, which I think it doesn’t.
Would you compare the, or would you care to compare the administration of, the Acoustical Society with that of the Physical Society?
You’re asking me here really to compare two men: Wallace Waterfall and Karl Darrow,  because the Acoustical Society is largely operated by Wallace Waterfall. It’s true that there are meetings of the Council, and there is often a good deal of discussion and not everybody agrees with what Wallace believes, and I think he shows a considerable amount of flexibility. I’m out of touch now with the Physical Society in this respect. As I said a moment ago, informally, my own recollection of serving on the Council of that Society was that you didn’t get very far in those days if you disagreed with Karl Darrow. Now, maybe today things are a little different. I just don’t know.
What do you conceive to be — well, this is a question you’ve already answered in good part — the role of the AIP to be?
I think the role of the AIP is really dual: one is to act as a service organization to help the member societies in carrying out their activities (principally publishing) which would be, I think, ultimately uneconomical for them to perform by themselves. The second, and I think even more important perhaps in the long run is to present to the whole community an image of physics as a vital, important aspect of the life of society. It is one of the great sciences which cannot be ignored because of its great impact on civilization. I think this can be done by an organization like the Institute much better than by the individual societies, though they themselves within the framework of their own interests have a similar obligation that, to a certain extent, they discharge. But not as effectively as it should be done. The Physical Society has often dragged its feet when it has come to education. The Acoustical Society perhaps could be accused similarly; so the Teachers Association has taken the ball there to a considerable extent. I think all members of the societies ought to have some interest in education, but it is quite clear that that interest will be much more effective if it is channeled through the Institute than if it comes as an activity of the individual member societies. Now, in saying what I’ve said, I mean that any activity which relates to physics as a whole and its impact on society is an activity that at least ought to be considered by the Institute if it can possibly be afforded. And that is why I have said, and I will continue to say I’m strongly in favor of maintaining and extending if possible, the interest now developing in the history and philosophy of physics. I think this is a natural activity for the Institute, and I certainly will do all in my power to ensure that it is maintained as time goes on including all aspects of it: Niels Bohr Library, the maintenance of archives, the gathering of more material, the location of sources, all the things that you have been interested in and which I hope you will successfully carry on. I think these are natural activities for the Institute to engage in. They do help ultimately to form the image of physics for the general public. The same is true of the public relations work under Gene Kone, and of education under Bill Kelly, and of course the other aspects that we know about. Well, that’s the story there, I think.
Note added later - Dr. Morse became President of Case Institute of Technology in June 1966. Shortly thereafter this became Case Western Reserve University.
Note added in 1967: The situation in the Physical Society has changed with the retirement of Karl Darrow in 1966.