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Interview of Henry Margenau by Bruce Lindsay and W. James King on 1964 May 6, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4757
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Early life and education in Germany; student years in U.S. and A.B., Midland College, 1924; M.Sc., University of Nebraska, 1927; Ph.D., Yale University, 1929. Discussion of change in interest from liberal arts to physics. Sterling Research Fellow in Germany working with Arnold Sommerfeld, Hans Bethe, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born and Fritz London on electron theory of metals and Van der Waal's forces. Instructor, 1929-1930; Professor, Yale University beginning 1931; changes in physics curriculum and resistance to it by Leigh Page. Physics textbooks written by Margenau. Work at Yale during World War II, present work being done such as plasma physics, line broadening, philosophy of physics. Reminiscences of associates including Eugene Wigner, John Wheeler, Percy W. Bridgman. Extensive discussion of philosophical views, notably philosophy of science and historical methodolgy, and influences on these views.
Well, it is needless for me to emphasize, Henry, how much I have looked forward to this possibility of talking with you about your professional career. I think that our association over these many years is a pretty good indication of how deeply I’ve felt about you and how much I’ve admired all you’ve done. And so, this is for an extremely enjoyable experience and I hope that it will be also the same for you. I thought we might begin by asking you a few questions about your early life, where you were born, brought up and where you lived, I think for some 20 years, the first part of your career, and actually went to school, went to a Teachers College. Could you just say a few words about your recollections of early life? I realize this is a very bad time, of course, because it was a wartime period, when things were bad, and life was not comfortable, and so on. Is there anything you want to say about it, particularly with reference to your schooling?
I’d be very glad to. First, let me say, Bruce, that having read your magnificent autobiography last night, this occasion today looms very large in my mind, and I’m not quite sure that I can do as much justice to it as you have done so elegantly in your writing. Yet, I’ll be very happy to say a little about my early days. I was born in Bielevich, a town in Western Germany, in the Province of Westphalia. My parents were country folk. All my ancestors were farmers. I remember vividly my vacations spent on the farms of my two grandfathers. My father was the first man who broke away from the farm, from the country, and settled in a town. He became a workman, and he became later a caretaker of a large wholesale glass business. We lived in a little service apartment above the stable, and my father was in charge of the horses. So, during the nights I heard the horses grunt and move; I remember that very vividly. Well, I went to grammar school for two years in Bielevich.
Then I was taken out and sent to middle school, which was just one slight notch better than ordinary public school. It required the payment of a slight tuition which my father could just about afford, although he had difficulties meeting such commitments as that. We were poor. From that I then graduated on -- well, I stayed in the middle school until I was 14, and then I passed the examination which is normally called the First Maturity Examination. After that I went to preparatory school. One experience I had in grammar school was a exposure to the theory of relativity by one of my grade school teachers when I was 12 years old. This I thought was rather interesting. It shook me to know that time retarded and objects changed their lengths, but I was very, very much impressed by this lecture. And I suppose my interest in speculative science was aroused for the first time on that occasion. In 1915 I went to the preparatory school, where we were fed a lot of trite, an awful curriculum.
Was this a gymnasium?
No, no, all these schools were of a much lower grade than the gymnasiums or the aRealshule. They were just one little notch higher than the public schools which taught the hoi polloi. I spent two years at this preparatory being taught nothing. These two years were merely a review of what I had already learned in grade school.
Had you had such subjects as Latin?
No, nothing, no languages at all, except one year of French. But I had French and English in middle school. Well, after those wasted two years, which I had to endure because the law required that you had to be 17 years old in order to enter the seminary, the teachers college. After those two years, I entered Teachers College in H and spent three rather interesting years learning pedagogy and a lot of German literature, a little bit of French -- that is, French was again reviewed (I had learned French a bit on my own) -- and then I graduated in 1921 from the Teachers College. This was a turbulent period. It was after the war. The prospects for teachers in Germany were extremely poor. As a matter of fact, we were told by our teachers and by the director of this teachers college that we could not look forward to any profitable employment, paid employment, in Germany for at least five years, and we were actually encouraged to emigrate. I have very fond memories of the director of this school, whose name was Peter Tesch -- he was a great pedagogue, a martinet in a way, a very autocratic person, but a man who taught with vigor and perseverance and clarity -- and he singled me out as one of his special protege, I guess. He gave me every advantage he could; he gave me fellowships which made it possible for me to attend this school. He finally put me in a position to negotiate with the Ministry about the future of the very teachers college that I was attending. It was a series of meetings in which the representation was made to the authorities that the teachers colleges, as they were then constituted, were not good for the modern day and should be replaced.
What kind of teaching position did the teachers college prepare for?
Grade schools, only grade-school teachers.
Which went up to the age of 12 or 13?
To eighth grade.
And you had felt at that time that this was the kind of career you wanted, or…
I was forced to this career because of the -- well, the stratum of society was such that a boy from the lower levels of the population had no chance of getting into a gymnasium or into a university later. And one’s school was pretty much determined by one’s early school. Thus, I was, in this way, predestined to be a teacher. Now, there was in fact a possibility, but one that was very rarely actualized, of going from the teachers college to a gymnasium. This required the learning of several languages and the learning of a great deal of mathematics, which practically no one undertook. I was prepared to do this, but my whole life changed after I graduated from the teachers college. I was without work, of course. The people for whom my father worked were very wealthy, and this family then took pity on me. The lady of the house had a young son. She was married to a moneyed family, an aristocratic person, a baron of some sort. She wanted a private tutor to accompany her on her travels, and she approached my father with the proposition that I might do this.
I got that job, and so I traveled for one year in Germany and in Switzerland; we spent most of our time in the Alps. It was a most delightful year, and it broadened my background, and it was a year which I used to learn Latin and Greek by myself, in the hope of taking this second examination in order to be able to get into the gymnasium. But then, of course, the inflation was at its height. My mother had died. Many, many experiences began to wear on me. I was really getting quite sick of Germany and of Europe. During the war I had been in charge of my family. I had a younger brother who went to grade school. My father was in the trenches. My mother became ill. While she was in the hospital during her last illness, our house was broken into, and we were robbed of everything, all our possessions, not only money but even clothes. Everything was gone. Well, then the war ended, and then came the inflation. Well, after all these experiences, I felt that the advice which our teacher had given us to emigrate was probably good advice. I then met a person whom I later called uncle -- he was not directly related to me -- and he came to Germany in order to marry his widow’s sister. Now, that widow’s sister had become married to my father after my mother died. When the man came to Germany, he found that the lady whom he wanted to court was not courtable, but he became well acquainted with our family and developed an affection for us. He’s the man who offered to pay my way to the United States.
Had he lived in Nebraska?
Yes, he lived in Nebraska. So, then I came to the United States.
Before we get to that, I wonder if you wouldn’t say a word, Henry, about the schooling you had in science that would have had any bearing on your future career. You mentioned this lecture you had…
Was there any instruction in basic science which would account at all for the development of your interest?
Absolutely nothing, none at all. We did not have the equivalent even of a good high school course in physics in any of the schools I attended in Germany. I did, however, become interested in philosophy I did a good deal of reading in philosophy, and I became a devotee to Kant while I was going to the gymnasium. Our teachers in the preparatory school told us that there was a terrible philosopher named Nietzsche who was simply a bete noir and who should never be read by anybody. Well, I then rushed to the library and got all his books. This sort of thing aroused my interest in philosophy. But I had no schooling in physical sciences whatever, no mathematics beyond logarithms not even analytical geometry, none of that.
But you had algebra.
A little bit of algebra, not the equivalent of a really good course in the American high school.
How did you happen to hear a talk in relativity then?
Well, we had an enthusiastic teacher who knew about this. The teachers in the middle school were well trained. He was quite an exception to the rule, I would say.
But this was an effect of a principal interest on his part.
On his part. And he communicated. He was so exuberant, intensely enthusiastic about it, that he wanted to communicate this unusual bit of knowledge to his students. He gave lectures, talks, which were attended by all the pupils and some of the teachers. I remember he gave two talks…
There was no attempt to incorporate this into the natural science.
Oh, no, no.
Because that curriculum, I suppose, was quite rigidly --
Yes. And also we were 12 years old and had no knowledge of mathematics. It was just an exciting lecture, an exciting experience which I have never forgotten. Well, in Nebraska I became a farmer. Then I took a job in a country store. After one year in the country store I was visited by a gentleman who happened to be preaching in this community one day. He was a Lutheran Minister, the President of Midland College. Someone had told him that there was a greenhorn in town who wanted to go to college. As a result, this gentleman came to the store one Saturday morning, on the day prior to his sermon -- he came to give a sermon and the money that was collected on that day went to the college; this was the arrangement, you know -- and the boss wanted to wait on him. He said, “No, I want to be waited on by your clerk.” I was quite amazed. I appeared and he asked for a nickel cigar, which I handed him, and then he said, “Look, I understand that you want to go to college.” I said, “Yes, I’d love to.” He said, “Well, why don’t you?” I said, “Because I haven’t any money.” “Well, how much money have you got?” I said, “I have $350.” “Why, that’s enough. I’m the President of Midland College. Why don’t you come next fall? I’ll find you a job.” And I said, “It’s a deal.” I went to his college. I did not know what class I entered. My credits were to be evaluated later. The President did live up to his word; he got me a job peddling newspapers. I got up at 2 o’clock in the morning and peddled papers and went to class at eight. This, however, didn’t last very long. There was a lady who took pity on me, Miss Wilfred Richter, a German lady who taught French and German, and whom I still know very well. She’s a friend of the family. She’s now my youngest son’s godmother. Well, this lady needed a teacher of French and German. Her classes were too large and she persuaded the President to allow her to split the classes and hire me as a teacher. In that way I got a little more money and I could live. I also did outside work every Saturday; I clerked in a store. And in this way I made ends meet.
How big was the college then?
It had about 250 students.
Was it coeducational?
Coeducational, yes. I majored in classical languages, in Latin and Greek. After one year I had my credits evaluated and the registrar of the college was a gentleman named Krauzit, the science teacher. He taught physics. I had not taken any of his courses, and he hardly knew me. He evaluated my credits and came up with 115 credit hours. I needed 120 for graduation. This seemed very sad. So, I went to Mr. Klotche, my Latin teacher, whom I had spelled in some of his classes when he got sick. He asked me to come to his office and bring all the Latin books I had ever read. This I did one afternoon. He made me read a page of passages, and a page of Livy, the church fathers, and so forth, translating always what I had read. Then in the evening he wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and asked me to give it to Mr. Krauzit. This I did the next morning. Mr. Krauzit opened the letter and read it and nearly fell over backward. He handed it to me, and the letter read: “Dear Mr. Krauzit: Mr. Margenau has acquired by special examination in Latin 60 additional credit hours. Please add them to his record.” I graduated with a record of 175 credit hours at this college that year.
But no science.
No science whatever.
How about philosophy?
I took no philosophy at this college.
Did you do any reading in ancient philosophy?
Yes. Yes, I’d done a good deal of reading, but earlier, while I was still in Germany, especially during that year as a tutor in Germany. Well, then I was offered a job to teach Latin in a high school in Norfolk, Nebraska. This was in 1924. I accepted the job with alacrity; it paid $1500 a year. Later, however, I was told that I could not take the job because I was not an American citizen. The principal had not known that there existed a law in Nebraska which prohibits the employment of teachers who are not citizens. I lost that job. I was penniless. I went to work again. I became in fireman in a laundry, worked in stores. Then I got sick that summer and went back to the farm. And then I got a wire from this lady, the French lady who had given me a chance to teach at Midland College. She said her aunt who lived in Lincoln, Nebraska was giving a party for a lot of university folk, and I was invited. Well, I didn’t know what was up. I went. And there I met the wife of Professor Moore, the physicist who did research in spectroscopy.
His wife -- she was a German lady -- introduced me to her husband. Her husband said, “I understand you’re looking for a job?” I said, “Yes, I am.” “Well, would you like to study physics?” he asked. I said, “I’d love to, but I don’t know any.” “That doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “I understand you’re industrious and I have a job for you. I have a lot of frequencies that have to be converted into wave lengths, or the other way around. If you can take reciprocals and do it diligently day and night, I will hire you. And I will strike this bargain with you. You will be made an assistant. You must come two weeks before the students arrive. I will then teach you the experiments for the next two weeks that will be done in the laboratory, and you will always stay two weeks ahead of the students in this way.” I said, “Wonderful.” I got the job. It paid something, oh, I don’t know, just enough to live.
Were you expected to be a graduate student?
I was then enrolled as a graduate student. As a graduate student I took courses in undergraduate mathematics. My first course in calculus was taken when I was a graduate student. I took a course in electricity and magnetism, an undergraduate course, the first year. The first year I took only undergraduate courses. The second year I was able to take graduate courses, and I got my Master’s degree at the end of the second year. Then Professor Moore died. Research was going and it needed to be finished. Consequently, the university was practically forced to hire me as an instructor, which it did. So, it went on. We published a paper on Zeeman effect in cerium. And then I came to Yale on a fellowship.
This is fantastic when you consider the relatively small amount of formal instruction, Henry, that you had in physics when you came to Yale. I had never realized that actually you got all this essentially by yourself, because there were few courses. How many instructors at the University of Nebraska were there in physics at that time? Do you remember?
How big a department was it?
The department had three full professors, and I believe two assistant professors, and one or two instructors.
And Moore was…
Moore was a research professor. Being deaf he was not able to teach; all he did was research. I think he was on half salary.
He was a spectroscopist.
Yes, and a very good one. I think at the time he was a very distinguished experimental spectroscopist. He did quite a bit of work on Zeeman effects.
What other research was going on there that would stimulate graduate students?
There was no other research going on at the time. A little later, Professor Marvin, the Chairman of the Department, did some theoretical work in spectroscopy. He wrote one paper which was and still is widely quoted on certain electronic interactions in atoms which gave rise to a certain kind of coupling which manifested itself in spectra. H.H. Marvin. These were the only men who did research. I remember the…
How many actual courses in physics did you have, then? You mentioned electricity and magnetism. Did you have a course then in atomic physics, or…
No, not the first year. My memory is a little dim because the first year I took a great number of courses: optics, spectroscopy, and then I took the course in electricity and magnetism which was taught by T.T. Smith, a man who’s still living, an old friend. And I became assistant to Olney in the general lecture course. And this, of course, gave me the equivalent of the knowledge that was taught in the lecture course. I remember vividly the first lecture I had to prepare, set up for him, one of the first. Mr. Olney wanted to demonstrate magnetic inductioning. He did this by holding a long steel rod along the lines of the force of the earth, tapping it, and then showing that it had become slightly magnetic. But on the day before when we set up this lecture he informed me that this experiment was a very difficult one and the Earth’s magnetic field needed some strengthening, so he had me put some bar magnets under the lecture table! And then it worked.
It worked very well. This wasn’t the Olney who later went to Illinois?
No, that was his nephew.
That’s extremely interesting. Now, you came to Yale on some sort of fellowship, as I recall it. Were you encouraged in Nebraska to apply for Yale? What led you to pick Yale as a place?
I wanted to get a Ph.D. Ph.D.s were not offered at the University of Nebraska. I also wanted to go East where the schools were better. Hence, I applied at three prominent schools, one of them being Radcliffe. I didn’t know it was a girls’ school. I got a delightful letter from Radcliffe saying they were very much impressed with my credentials, my qualifications, but they couldn’t take me because I was a man. I got an acceptance from Yale.
What were the other places where you applied? Do you remember?
Yes, Duke, I think, was the other. Duke had just become -- it had been Trinity College. I believe those were the three.
What led you to follow up physics rather than some other field?
Well, I had now become a physicist, had taken a Master’s degree in physics, and this fascinated me, and it made it very, very easy for me to decide on my career. Then with this offer of a fellowship from Yale, everything was settled.
Did you pay any attention at all in Nebraska to your interest in philosophy, or did you let that ride…
Yes, yes. I did a little reading. In fact, I was once asked by Professor Marvin to give a lecture on the philosophy of science. The lecture was attended by the faculty and some of the students. The result of the lecture was a general shaking of heads and an admonition by Mr. Marvin that I’d better lay off this stuff. He said, “You talk like a Spanish philosopher.” I shall never forget that. So, I did lay off, for a while anyway.
What was the influence of the religious background at Midland on the instruction? Did you notice any? Was there an orthodoxy evident there?
No, there was no orthodoxy evident. It is true that the catalogue said that this was the school where science was taught from the Christian point of view, and this deterred me, and this is probably part of the reason why I did not wish to take any science courses. But in the courses which I took, which were in history and mostly in language, mostly Latin and Greek, and psychology, English, American History and so forth, I felt no propagandistic efforts at all.
When you came to Yale then, in l927 -- and, of course, you immediately proceeded to get a doctor’s degree in two years because you needed very little course work -- I think you started almost at once to work on a research problem. But I can’t remember whether that was done under Louis McNeil or not.
Yes, it was.
I had a feeling it was. And this was essentially the solid state physics.
Was this because it seemed to be available or did you get very much interested in that? That I can’t remember.
It was an experimental problem.
It was an experimental problem. I don’t believe I had much of a choice. At that time, theoretical problems were not available. Neither you nor Page had any or wanted any students. I remember this very distinctly.
(too much cross-talk) on Page, because he had the kind of feeling that most students, I think, really should do an experimental job. He, himself, had done that for his Ph.D. and this was a feeling. Even men like Norman Adams were asked to do an experimental thesis. This broke down a little later, you remember, in connection with people like Seeger and others. And now, of course, it’s all changed. But I think I recall at that time the feeling that people should do an experimental thesis even though they weren’t much interested in the work.
Yes, yes. This limited me, of course, to experimental work, and about the only people who had problems to offer were McKeon, Zelaney, who worked in what we now call plasma physics. I was not attracted by that, nor was I interested in Kouarik’s radioactivity, and this limited the choice severely. The problem I did had to do with the effect of surface treatment on the optical properties of metals, surface properties of metals. What I did was to examine the reflected light from a silver surface in various conditions of cold working. I would take a highly polished silver surface, then one that had been, well, electroplated, one that had been etched, one that had practically all its crystals exposed and was more or less in its normal state. And I examined the spectrum that was reflected. Silver has a reflecting power minimum at about 3600 Angstrom units. I built photocells, and I discovered the effect very easily. There was a clear shift in the minimum by about 30 Angstrom units as the degree of cold work became more and more intense. Highly polished surfaces would reflect one wave length; unpolished surfaces reflected another, and there was a continuous gradation in the position of the minimum as you passed from one extreme to the other. I made this find quite quickly, and it didn’t take me long to write the thesis. Hence, I was finished long before the deadline. It was a very easy job.
Yes, it was a very lucky coincidence that the problem was available, the experimental means were easily constructed, and the problem turned out to be extremely easy. As a matter of fact, after I had discovered this shift, I did the whole thing over again photographically, and I could discover the shift in the minimum on a photographic plate in one day. If I had sense enough, I could have done the whole thesis job in one day.
One of my most vivid recollections, Henry, of my stay here at Yale is your doctor’s oral examination, which was, of course, the best that I had ever experienced or have ever experienced since.
And while I don’t want to embarrass you, do you remember anything about it? Do you remember, for example, old Fred Beech, who was always asking these questions about geometrical optics. My recollection is that you, unlike many of the others, even knew how to trace the rays through a Galilean telescope.
That’s very complimentary.
Very few could do it, Henry, at that time. This was Beech’s standard question. It always came up. Always the only modification was to ask for another kind of telescope.
I remember Kovarik’s standard question about D’Alembert’s principle. I believe I was not asked that.
No, I guess you weren’t. That’s the one I flunked on! At least, I couldn’t explain how to apply D’Alembert’s principle to an object sliding down an inclined plane. I thought it was too simple a problem. But E.B. Wilson has another opinion about that. Well, that’s another story. But you must remember something about. Was it a highly satisfactory and pleasant occasion? You weren’t at all upset. Many people, of course, get very nervous at those examinations.
What I remember best about it is that Franz Curly waited for me and after the examination, when it was clear that I had passed, he congratulated me, and we took a walk up East Rock.
Well! This must have been late at night.
It was late at night. But the details of the examination have more or less escaped me. It was not a difficult examination. As a matter of fact, sometimes I compare it with the Master’s examination I took at the University of Nebraska, and I felt that the former was more difficult than the latter. But, of course, I had learned a little, having been at Yale for two years and I learned a little in the meantime.
Well, of course, our own associations during that time began to be fairly extensive, but perhaps we can overlook those at the moment and come to the year that you spent in Germany as a Sterling Fellow after you received your degree. There you went to Munich and Berlin, and Jim and I were wondering if you could give us the reason why you picked out Munich. We know, of course, that Sommerfeld was there, but was there any other reason why you felt you wanted to go there.
That was the main reason. The fellowship I had was, of course, one of the Sterling fellowships at Yale. I chose to go to Germany because I felt I could live there very cheaply, knowing the ropes, knowing the country. I had applied for a Sterling Fellowship, which normally paid a thousand dollars or $l200 a year. But in order to make quite certain that I would get the fellowship, I stated on my application that I could live on $700, and I wanted very much to go abroad. The Sterling Fellowship was the only one that permitted you to go abroad. One day I was called into the office of the Graduate School Dean, “Uncle Toby,” whom, you may remember, was the man who later became Governor of Connecticut. He called me in and in a gruff way he said, “Well, I understand you want a Sterling Fellowship.” I said, “Yes, I do, very much.” “Well, you want to go to Germany, don’t you?” “Yes, I do, I’d very much like to.” And he said, “Now, you’ve asked for $700.” I said, “Yes, sir.” And I felt he was going to ask me to go on less. He said, “Well, now. Do you think you can make it on $700?” I said, “I’m sure I could, sir.” So, he finally said, “Now, look, would you mind very much if we made it a thousand?” And he did. Now, why did I choose Munich? A: because Sommerfeld was there; B: because I knew Munich as a pleasant place, I had been there before you. That beautiful year I spent at the height of the inflation in the train of this lady as a tutor of her boy had endeared that part of Germany to me. I knew Munich as a very pleasant city, and I wanted to go to Sommerfeld.
And you, of course, by that time had been interested in the electron theory of metals.
Yes. This was rather amusing. I had done a little job here with Walterman, a small calculation which involved an estimation of the change in the conductivity of a metal when it is subjected to very high temperature. That calculation was based upon a formula that had been proposed by Compton. I had published this calculation in the Physical Review, I believe, and this little paper, a short paper, two or three pages, came out just when I arrived at Munich. Sommerfeld saw it. He came to me and said, “I would like to have you give the paper in a seminar. In fact, since you have published this paper, why don’t you give it next week?” Well, I was delighted, greatly honored and flattered by Sommerfeld’s request that I should address his seminar. I gave the paper. I talked for one hour without too much interruption.
During, the second hour I became a little flustered. People like Bethe kept interrupting and haggling, and finally Sommerfeld put me on the spot, asking me to belie this formula of Compton’s that I had used. I wasn’t prepared to do this. Then it was pointed out that the derivation of the formula, while correct, may be inapplicable to the case to which I had in fact applied it in this paper. The seminar was a complete fiasco. I went home with my head swimming, in utter panic. I was almost ready to leave Munich. But Sommerfeld came around after a few days and spoke very pleasantly to me and said, “Look, what you must now do is to correct this thing, or change it, and publish a second little article on it.” Well, this cheered me up a little bit. But I regained my composure when, after several weeks, I found that everybody who talked in that seminar left it like a rag; everybody went home weeping. Only one man did not, and this was Nathan Franck.
Nathan Franck chose to give two seminars on the work of others, whom he criticized severely, and he came through with flying colors. Well, then, in Sommerfeld’s seminar I started on another calculation, the one you mentioned: a calculation of the change in the number of free electrons in a metal with temperature. And this involved the use of the new-fangled statistics, in which Sommerfeld was interested. The calculation turned out to be a very simple one; I did it in a few weeks. But before writing it up for publication, I told Bethe, who was then Sommerfeld’s assistant, what results I had got. Bethe was always a very skeptical and highly critical person. Bethe said, “All right, tell me what you’ve done.” I told him what I’d done. He said, “Well, what is the formula for the number of free electrons as a function of the temperature?” I wrote it on the blackboard for him. It was a bit complicated. And Bethe looked at it, thought a bit, closed his eyes, I think, and then turned to me with a smile, saying, “That’s right.” I said, “What do you mean, that’s right?” Well, he said, “It’s correct. I can tell it’s correct.” Well, I said, “Did you make this calculation perhaps in a simpler way?” “No,” he said, “I didn’t make the calculation, but I can tell it’s right.” So, I said, “Thank you very much. I’m delighted to know this, but I take it then that this is not anything of sufficient interest or importance to publish.” “Oh, no,” he said, “you must publish it.” I said, “Why? You can do this thing in five minutes. Why should I publish it?” He said, “I can’t do it in five minutes. You should publish it.” Well, I did publish it in the Physikalische Zeitschrift (German publication). It wasn’t of any importance because it turned out later that the theory of metals was then known; it was Sommerfeld’s theory. It was greatly in need of refinement and modification, and this who problem of the number of free electrons done statistically has become rather academic.
Well, then, after I left Sommerfeld’s institute, I went to Berlin where I met Schrodinger and Fritz London. I’ll return in a minute to comment a bit on the aftermath of my stay in Munich. I first went to Gottingen, visited there, where I met Nortdeim, who was just going to play tennis. We just chatted a bit and then he walked off. And then I had an appointment with Born in Gottingen. I went to see the great man. Born asked me to come to his office at a certain time. I did. His door was open, and there was a gentleman, a bearded gentleman as I recall, sitting behind Born’s desk. I bowed politely, introduced myself and addressed the gentleman as Professor Born. The gentleman smiled; in fact, he laughed out loud and said, “Ich bin nicht Herr Born; ich bin den Ehrenhaft!” Well, it happened that Ehrenhaft had just dropped in, and Born hadn’t been there yet, so he sat at his desk. Born came a little later. I had a pleasant little chat with him. I spent only a week, I think, in Gottingen; it was during vacation, and I passed through on my way to Berlin. In Berlin, as I say, I met Schrodinger and had to get Schrodinger’s permission to attend his seminars and to be a member of his institute. This required the signing of a card. On my first visit to Schrodinger’s visit, Schrodinger was very pleasant; he welcomed me and he said, “Let me sign your card.” I handed him my card. He didn’t have a fountain pen, so I handed him my fountain pen. He looked at it; he shook the fountain pen and squirted ink all over his face. He signed my card, and then I had to take my handkerchief and wipe the ink off his face. That was all to my meeting with Schrodinger. And then I came to Fritz London, and I saw a good deal of him. These were turbulent days in Germany. There was already some agitation by the Nazis, and so forth, but Fritz London didn’t feel too troubled at that time.
When did he finally come to the United States?
I think it was around 1936 or ‘37. Well, London showed me what he had done on van der Waals forces, and this interested me very much, so I began to work on that problem. I did a paper while I was there, van der Walls forces between dipole molecules, and when I returned I extended his theory to include higher poles, and this sort of thing. This was really a great stimulus to me. Fritz London himself was a strange person. He was always very diffident about meeting people. He was a very, very hard taskmaster, great perfectionist, who would not allow anything to slip by in the work of his students. He was not very happy about the paper, the manuscript which I showed him. However, he did not discourage me from publishing it. In fact, he said I should publish it but I had to do more than I have done. And that was that.
Was his health somewhat uncertain then?
No, his health was perfect there. His mother’s health was uncertain her health was poor.
He died rather prematurely.
Yes. Well, I saw Fritz London again two or three years later. I thought I was perhaps a little helpful in getting him to come to this country; I wrote letters for him. Now, back to Sommerfeld. Sommerfeld was at that time quite disinterested in, in fact antithetic to, any philosophical reasoning. Philosophy was not his forte. When he found out that I had an interest in philosophy, he definitely discouraged this. In fact, I believe he even let me feel it in our social relations. I think I was pretty much the fifth wheel on the wagon at the time because Sommerfeld saw that I had written a little article on philosophy. He didn’t like this at all. In fact, people like Bethe let me know this. But the end of the story is this: Now, I’m going to jump over something like 25 years. I had never heard from Sommerfeld after my stay in Munich. After the war, during my first visit to Munich, I called on the people in his institute. Incidentally, the men whom I met there, while I was at the institute, were Unzult(?), Schatzer, Meyer Leitnitz, Tierze, (the x-ray man) and several others.
(?) was in astrophysics, wasn’t he?
He was then still in physics. He made the shift to astrophysics at that time. He had preceded Betas Sommerfeld’s assistant. Well, some of these men were still there, and I inquired about Sommerfeld. He was then at the home of his daughter-in-law, who lived in Garmisch. I received a postcard from Sommerfeld two days after that, asking me to visit him in Garmisch. I couldn’t do it because I was then far away; I was no longer in Bavaria. But, then, a few years passed…
When was this? About ‘46?
This was possibly ‘46. One day I received a letter from Sommerfeld, which I still have. In this letter Sommerfeld reminisced a bit, and he said that in his old age he had become somewhat interested in philosophy.
Yes. And he felt that he should correct an impression that he might have given me when I was young, when I was staying with him. He said he had read some of my papers and he found them interesting. I regarded this as one of the greatest rewards I have ever had from a man of his caliber. As I say, I was gratified. I was about to answer this letter, when I walked down the aisle in this laboratory, and met a student who showed me a newspaper saying that Sommerfeld had just died.
He had had an accident then.
Yes. So, I never got a chance to answer that letter.
You consider him a very great teacher?
Oh, yes. Yes, one of the greatest.
You had a chance to listen to his lectures.
Only occasionally. I did not take a regular lecture course from him. I believe he was not giving any lectures at that time.
What do you consider to be his main merits as an educator, as a teacher?
Well, in the first place, his enthusiasm for research, his receptivity to new ideas no matter who promulgated them, the extreme care with which he did his research and prepared his lectures, the solicitousness about the work of others, and the, well, systematic nature of his whole personality; everything clicked. He was a personality like a work of art. Oh, he had his faults: he was rather sensitive, he was somewhat vain.
Was he dogmatic in regard to his point of view, pedagogically?
He may have been. I suppose one may say that he was dogmatic, but, on the other hand, his point of view of teaching physics was generally so universally accepted that that kind of dogmatism never met any contradiction. So, it was hard to detect that; everybody deferred to him as the great teacher of physics. I think there was a little vanity in him. I believe he took the title Geheimrat, which was bestowed on him a few years before I came there, quite seriously, and insisted on having it used in his presence. He had many, many of the traits of the old-school German professor, but his sincerity and honesty and adroitness, even to the point of being offensive to his students, stand out in my memory.
His series on books on theoretic physics certainly became classical.
Now, how did he work with his students?
My own direct contacts with Sommerfeld were very limited indeed. The reason is probably this. When I arrived Sommerfeld asked me to read his paper on the propagation of radio waves over the earth’s surface. This was a mathematical paper which contained a great number of interesting techniques, mostly, complex integration techniques. He said that (?) had discovered a mistake in this paper, and he pointed out where the mistake was, and he asked me to correct it. Now, for some reason I did not take kindly to this problem. My interest lay in another direction; I was then fascinated with quantum mechanics, having listened to Bruce Lindsay and Leigh Page, who were then just beginning to teach courses in quantum theory. So, I wanted something quite modern, and this paper of Sommerfeld’s was at least 10 or 15 years old at that time. Hence, I chose to tell Sommerfeld that I would prefer to work on this problem in the theory of metals, which also drew a little of his interest, because that was, after all, his baby. And he said, “All right.” He acceded to my request that I change my problem. But I think he did not quite like this. I believe I would have been in his better graces had I chosen to take his suggestion to work on his problem.
This problem, I suppose, was of enormous interest to the radar (?), and this work was then considered fundamental.
Well, then, you returned to Yale. I can’t remember, Henry, whether at that time you had already received a commitment to come back here or whether you had an appointment to return to when you finished your fellowship year.
No, I believe I had no commitment when I left. However, while I was in Berlin, I received a letter from Zeleney offering me an instructorship, the highest paid instructorship, he said. I believe the job paid $3,000. And I came back. That was, after all, a considerable raise, from 700 to 3,000. But there’s perhaps another little story I should tell before passing on to the years ahead. Before I took my degree at Yale, before I went to Europe, I was approached by Professor Loeb in California to come to his institute as an instructor. The reason was this: As you recall, Ernest Lawrence was here at the time. Ernest Lawrence was given an offer to become an associate professor there, and Professor Zeleney did not want to meet that offer. This was at the end of 1928. I had one more year to go here for the Ph.D. degree. Lawrence liked me. I had seen a good deal of him here, and he had told Loeb that if he needed an instructor, he might look at me and hire me. Apparently, Loeb did this; he wrote me, asking me to come to Berkeley in the last year of graduate studies, offering me an instructorship, although I did not have my degree. You know that was common in those days; you were an instructor long before you had your degree. Well, I found it difficult to make up my mind. Then one day Loeb appeared here in the flesh. Don Cooksey gave a party for Loeb, Lawrence, several others, and I was included in that party.
Deans was there, too, yes. This party was an extremely gay one.
Out at the country club?
No, it was in Don Cooksey’s apartment. Liquor flowed, people partook heartily, and there was a great deal of laughter and merriment. By the end of the evening, Loeb patted me on the shoulder and said, “Now, Henry, I want you to come to Berkeley. Come with Ernest,” and Ernest said, “Yes, you go.” Well, I didn’t know what to say. I went home that night, slept over it, and the next morning, I went to Professor Zeleney, saying that Loeb had asked me to come to Berkeley. When Zeleney heard the name Loeb, he was stunned. He said, “What did he want?” I said, “Well, he wants me to be an instructor there.” “What did he offer you?” I’ve forgotten now what the figure was, but I believe it was $1800. Zeleney said, “Well, don’t you realize that you have another year before you get your degree?” I said, “Yes, sir, but Loeb and Lawrence assured me that I could continue work on the thesis I’ve already started and finish it there in one year.” Zeleney said, “All right. I offer you the same thing they offered you.” So, he gave me an instructorship for the last year of graduate study here at $1800. It was at the end of that year that I went to Europe. You knew, of course, that Zeleney and Loeb were intellectual enemies.
They had worked along similar lines, that is, kinetic theory of masses, and so forth.
That’s right. Discharge theory and (?). And Loeb was not appreciative of the work that Zeleney had done. I’ve always felt that Loeb was rather selfish and unfair in his appraisal of Zeleney’s accomplishments.
Well, I think you never regretted this decision.
No. It’s difficult to say what might have happened if I had gone to Berkeley, but no I certainly have not; I have regretted nothing.
Well, now we come to your early years as instructor and assistant professor here at Yale. I can’t recall the courses you gave, except for the one course which led to the preparation of our book together. I think continued the Foundations of Physics; you were permitted to do that. And what else did you do, Henry?
Well, let me first say that my desire to return to Yale, in fact, my acceptance of the job was contingent very much upon my being permitted to teach that course. You had fired me up about this and you had given me the impression that there was perhaps a future in such pursuits as I was embarking upon, into the philosophy of science. So, I owe this return to Yale, in a sense, to you, perhaps in a reverse manner, because you left. The opportunity of teaching your course was what drew me back to Yale even beyond any attractiveness which the salary might have had. I taught that course and I take great pride in saying that I’ve taught it now for all these years. I’m still teaching it. In fact, I’m engaged in teaching it now, to be sure, in a different way, I hope. I don’t believe there’s much in the course now that was in it then. I taught that course with gusto.
Did you give it every year?
Yes, yes, and with the same name. The substance has changed. It’s now turned pretty much into a course in quantum mechanics, relativity and quantum mechanics. In addition, I taught the sophomore course, 22, and nothing else. And this was the arrangement for many years until I took over a graduate course after a few years. This required some convincing of staunch people here, that it was really worthwhile for younger men to have graduate students, in theory particularly. Page did not take too kindly to this. Page said, “I don’t think it’s worthwhile having graduate students in theory. I don’t think I want to direct any, so therefore, I believe you shouldn’t want to either.” That’s the way it went, but after a while I had a student or two. The first student, incidentally, was Page, Chester Page.
He did something on van der Waals forces, didn’t it?
Yes, he did a job on van der Waals forces, which was very good and is still being used by people working in the field.
When did you begin to teach quantum mechanics?
I’m not sure I can remember precisely what year it was, Bruce. I imagine it must have been something like ‘34 or ‘35.
Was this also in collaboration with Leigh Page; he gave parts and you gave pats?
Yes. I took one semester first and he took the other, or maybe the other way around: he took the first and I took the second.
You recall that Leigh, at least in the ‘20s, had not too much sympathy with quantum mechanics. And do you want to say anything about that? How did that develop later? I, of course, lost touch. I know he got more interested in electrodynamics. He wrote an elaboration of his earlier book, and so forth. But did he always stay more or less suspicious of quantum mechanics, or did he become reconciled?
No. I was greatly impressed with what you said, which is absolutely true to the facts as I remember them. Leigh Page continued to nourish that aversion to quantum theory almost as long as he lived. In fact, when he died he was still trying to reconcile quantum theory with electromagnetic classical orbit theory. I know, I believe, the psychological roots of that attitude. Page was brought up on Maxwell’s theory. Maxwell was a great believer in pictures, mechanical pictures, in mechanical devices. To Page an explanation was simply the mapping of an observation upon some kind of Rube Goldberg device, preferably with charges and fields in it. But he would never conceive of an abstract kind of explanation, which one must entertain in quantum theory. There’s one digression, however, which he permitted himself. He did a very notable piece of research on the Schrodinger equation and its solutions to electrons in a magnetic field. This, I believe, was an original contribution to the quantum theory, which he doubtless made with his tongue in his cheek. Nevertheless, he did it and it was a good one. But the papers that were found at his desk at his death by a son-in-law, Bill Elmore, dealt with a new way -- at least when he talked it was a new way -- of reconciling the quantum theory of Schrodinger with the electron theory of Maxwell. And I believe his emission theory was in it, too. Sommerfeld once commented on the fact that he had been at Yale. I asked him whether he had met Professor Page, and he indicated to me that he had met Professor Page but he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in his writings. That is, he had condemned the emission theory from the outset. Now, there’s again perhaps a bit of dogmatism on the part of the great man.
Well, I think it is perfectly true that Lee Page’s emission theories never really caught on with the physics community. It was off the track, off the field of interest anyway at that time, and as a method of developing the theory of relativity, I suppose many people thought it was very cumbersome, though it was an ingenious way of doing it, I think. Don’t you agree?
Oh, yes, oh, yes. Well, he taught it, you see, and we all had to learn it. What repelled me was its complexity, its conceptual difficulty; it is cumbersome.
Do you want to say a word or two about your recollections of him as a man, your feelings for him as a man? The reason I raise that is because I had, myself, great affection for him because he was very good to me. I don’t know whether your relations with him were of that kind, or what you might recall. In doing that, perhaps you might compare it with Zeleney and with some of the others, like Kovarik and McKeon and so forth who were here at that time.
Well, as I’ve already said there were two men who impressed me most when I came to Yale, and these two men were you and Page. My relations with Page, of course, continued to be more direct because you moved away. Of all the people on the campus at that time, I regard Page as not only the greatest physicist at Yale, but also as the most understanding and the kindliest man on the campus. I recall nothing but kindnesses from Leigh and his family. We grew to be very, very close friends. I think that I can truthfully say that I bore no greater affection to any man in New Haven than I did to Leigh Page. Our personal relation was always very close, and I felt nothing but intense and cordial gratitude towards him. This includes especially Arthur and his family, includes especially his wife. Now, Page went out of his way to be kind to us. I shall never forget the way in which the Pages came to our aid when we were stranded in their summer house in Randolph in, well, it must have been about 1940 or so. Wait a minute. I can say exactly. It was 1939. They had offered us their summer house for a week. We took it. My wife became desperately ill. A situation arose in which she had to be taken to a hospital, but the doctors there didn’t want her to go; there was no ambulance, and so forth.
Well, the Pages came up immediately and arranged everything for us. The Bridgmans, who were our neighbors, were equally kind. Mrs. Bridgman took care of my small daughter, who was then about six months old; she nursed her, she… Well, my wife would probably not be alive had it not been for the kindness of the Pages and the Bridgmans. Well, that I think is symptomatic. We saw them very, very often. We went to their house; they came to our house a great deal, and I’ve never met a lady as kind as Mrs. Page, as understanding and charming, as helpful to the younger people in her group. Now, Zeleney was equally friendly, a little more distant as a person, but just as observant and discerning in his social demeanor. That is, they had us to their house; all the younger people came to their house; we frequently met their daughters, and so forth. In fact, the Zeleneys and the Pages came out with us when we went out to look for the first house we wanted to buy. Now, these are the two families with whom we were in closest touch all through my years at Yale, that is, so long as they were with us. As you know, we met Adams occasionally. There was no great affection between Adams and anybody else on the faculty. Adams was a person sui generis.
That’s the way he was and still is. But we like him; we’re good friends. Kovarik was a queer duck, regarded as eccentric, an old bachelor. The story which characterized him only partly, but I think is more indicative of the attitude of the students toward him is this: Shortly after I came to Yale, we had tea in the tea room at the end of the ball -- this was a daily occurrence. Kovarik had just bought a secondhand car; in fact, it was the first car he ever owned. Adams, on the other hand, had driven cars practically all his life; he was an expert on all kinds of mechanisms including gasoline engines. I listened in on the conversation -- we all did -- between Adams and Kovarik. Adams asked Kovarik, “Well, I understand you’ve got yourself a car?” Kovarik said, “Yes, I did.” “Well,” Adams said, “how does it run? Is the motor good?” and Kovarik said, “Oh, it doesn’t run so well.” Adams asked, “Well, what’s the matter with it?” “Oh, it always knocks,” he said. Adams asked, “What, always?” “No, no,” said Kovarik “only when the motor’s running.” This story made the rounds. You see, I think it’s pretty characteristic of these two people and of the attitude of the graduate students who propagated this kind of a yarn. Well, McKeon, of course, I worked with. He was my neighbor on Blake Road, so we got to know him pretty well. McKeon was not a very open sort of person. It was a little difficult to get to know him well. He was quite meticulous about things. He entered into personal relations with people only with a good deal of hesitation. You had to eat a good deal of salt with him before you really knew him. Now, who else was around? Alan Waterman. He is the man who suggested to me that little problem on theory of metals, which led to this fiasco in Sommerfeld’s seminar. I knew him as well as the rest. My relation with him was not very close. We went to his house on Christmas Eve and sang songs, you know, that sort of a thing.
That was when he lived in…
That was when he lived in North Haven. Well, the Cookseys, of course, were not very much in evidence. They were sort of retiring.
You don’t very much, I guess, Cryder and Beech.
No, I don’t remember Cryder at all, except for some of the jokes he made in his lectures. I remember Beech fairly vividly, best on the occasion in which you and he examined me for German and French. I understand from you that Beech wanted to flunk me because I didn’t know German. As I remember the story now, you talked him out of it, saying that, after all, I was born over there.
Hardly possible, but amusing.
Well, he was a very interesting old guy, you know. He wrote that famous dull book, Hastings and Beech, General Physics, and so on.
Yes, I read that in your autobiography, and I may say that I am the one who discovered the flyleaf.
Yes, indeed. I found that book up there in Room 59, and I opened it. And I think I showed it to you.
You probably did, probably did. Yes, well, Beech was an interesting old guy. He had a reputation, you know, of never going around without peanuts in his pocket.
Ross Gunn used to…
Ross Gunn, yes. I met him once.
Well, this brings us to your own experience in writing, an elementary book. How did you ever get started writing a book with Montgomery and Watson on elementary physics, because your interests had been, primarily, at that time, developing in the direction, of course, the mathematics of the physics and chemistry, which you had already written with Murphy, and of course the foundations book even earlier. Then you came out with this very beautiful elementary book. I’ve often wondered how you got involved in that thing. You were still teaching some elementary physics.
Yes. I was teaching in the course; we were all teaching in the course.
Who suggested this book?
I think the publisher. The publisher suggested that we write this book, and I believe it seemed sufficiently attractive to us, financially as well as prestige-wise, that we embarked on it.
It went into a second edition, I think
Yes, it went into a second edition, and I think they wanted a third, but we didn’t quite see our way to doing that.
I think it has been a splendid book, and I hope it’s still used. I don’t follow these things anymore, so I don’t know.
We did not revise it extensively. I suppose, if we had wanted to keep it afloat, we should have done a great deal more to it. We made a terrific mistake in adding problems, answers to problems, which we did not thoroughly check. The answers were checked by graduate students, and they contained many mistakes. And I believe these mistakes ran the book done. I believe it sold much more poorly than it might have, had it not had these mistakes. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want to give answers to problems, but we were talked into doing it by the publisher, against our better judgment. Well, I think we got these answers corrected, but then other books like yours and Sears and Zemansky, and so forth, people who spent an awful lot of time on writing textbooks -- at least Sears and Zemansky -- came through.
Oh, they made a real killing on it, that’s true.
A killing, yes. Our book was regarded as being too difficult for use in this country, and even now it sells more widely abroad than it does in this country.
Is that so? I don’t follow this. You get this information from Doberman, do you?
What are you talking about?
I’m talking about the elementary book I wrote with Montgomery Watson.
Yes. That book…
It sells abroad.
It sells abroad.
Where? In such places as South America?
Asia. I think they were going to put it out in an Asian edition, because it doesn’t sell here apparently.
Say a word or two about the Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry, partly because I noted that you recently are bringing out a considerably amplified version of that, and as I understand it, there are sections written by various people.
Volume 2 is wholly different from Volume 1. Volume 2 is an addition to Volume 1. It is not a revision, not a revision at all.
You did bring out a second edition of Volume 1.
What is the purpose of this new volume?
The new volume contains material which has become important in the pursuits of chemists and physicists, but has developed since we wrote the first volume. That second volume has chapters on most of the very new things in applied mathematics, and it’s written, as you know, by experts, not just by Murphy and me. I have only a single chapter in it.
How many people are involved? One reason is, I saw it on the list of books for Physics Today and I put it down as a possible choice for me to review thinking it was a good way to get a very valuable volume for me to keep, but I don’t know that they’ll send it to me.
Let me just get the volume.
It is a rather large book, isn’t it? Some six or seven hundred pages.
Yes, it has 780 pages. The contributors are William Band, John Dimmock, Robert Gallagher, Hofstetter, Householder, Minorsky, Mintzer, Saaty, Schweber, and Robert J. Wheeler. These are all people who are specialists in certain fields. We have three chapters from Schweber on relativistic quantum mechanics, one on external field problems, and quantum electrodynamics, right up to the minute.
Well, I will certainly look at it. It’s of great interest, even if I don’t get to review it. I’m very happy that that has come out.
Well, we’re getting on towards 12. Shall we stop now and have some lunch, and then come back.
We’ve still got a good deal to do, Jim. There are so many questions I want to raise, and Henry has a number of interesting things.
At the college we are welcome after 12. If we went on for another 15 minutes, would that be all right? Then we won’t have to stand in line so long.
Might we explore a bit, Henry, your own graduate students. Now, you had a good many, and perhaps you’d be willing to tell us how many have taken a Ph.D. with you, working on both the standard quantum mechanics work in nuclear physics and plasma physics, or spectral line broadening, the various fields in which you’ve been interested, and what happened to these students. In other words, to what extent have they, so to speak, shown by their careers the inspiration and the background they received from you.
This is always an interesting question.
This is an interesting question. I wish I were prepared to answer it fully, Bruce. Unfortunately, I do not carry the details in mind. The number of students I’ve had must be nearly 40, between 30 and 40, I suppose; it could be a little over 40. They worked in the following areas. At first we did work in van der Waals forces; then we did quite a bit in spectral-line broadening, the structure of spectral lines; after that, we shifted back into molecular forces a bit, exploring interactions between excited atoms and unexcited atoms. Before the war there was a flurry of interest in my group in nuclear physics. We did a few calculations on the stability of nuclei, on the stability of alpha particles. During the war the curtain went down on these researches. I had no access to secret materials at first, so I shifted back to my earlier interests, did a little more on line broadening. In 1946 I was asked to come to Cambridge to join the people at the radiation lab, and there I did some work on microwave conductivity of plasmas. And this initiated a series of papers by graduate students and myself in the general area of plasma physics, of microwave conductivity. And we are still working in that field today.
At the present time the physics problems to which we are attending are: one, the problem in line broadening, a fancy theory which tried to explain certain queer data -- we get all these queer data from people around the country because I’ve been working in this field so long, and every time somebody has data which he can’t explain, he seems to send them to somebody around here. Well, we do what we can with them. That is one thesis. Another thesis is entitled right now “A Theory of Plasma Radiation,” by Millochuy(?) who applies these modern techniques: P(?) diagrams. Things like equations more or less. Another thesis being done this year deals with a problem in metals, really, but also a plasma problem, called “Collective Oscillations in a Dense Electron Gas Containing a Fixed-Point Charge.” This sort of thing. Now, in addition to this, I’ve had a few students who worked in philosophy of physics. You may know that we have an arrangement whereby a man may take his examinations in physics or in philosophy and then do a problem in philosophy of physics. I’ve had about four men, four or five men, five men probably just doing dissertation work in that area.
Now, what has become of these men? Well, they’ve all attained respectable positions. The most, I suppose, successful man I’ve ever had was a man named Adolph Graunbaum. He now holds the Mellon Professorship at Pittsburgh. Another philosophy student is now Associate Executive Director of the Carnegie Corporation; he was Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Kansas University [Peter Caws]. One man, of whom I was very fond, was Meyer Rott, who worked in intermolecular forces. He’s now Director of Research at the Lockheed Corporation. Most of them are in universities, teaching. Kanoor is a student of mine who worked on an intermolecular-force problem: he then shifted into another area, and he’s now in the Bell Telephone Laboratories. He has, of course, to his credit the famous Kanoor Diagrams.
That’s interesting. Do these people try to maintain contact with you?
Oh, indeed, oh yes. This is one of the greatest satisfactions in my life, to be regarded as a doctor-father of some of these men. Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, those of my Ph.D. students who have gone into industry and who now administer research funds have in every instance asked me to be consultant, so I’ve traveled around the country a good deal: to Lockheed on the West Coast, to AVCO, and so forth. Kibel incidentally, is in charge of AVCO; he was a student of mine who worked on language. So, I’ve enjoyed their company a great deal, even in a way that proved somewhat lucrative to me.
Is this what led to your consulting in industry. I notice, of course, you have had a good deal of consulting in recent years. Much of this, I take it, is…
Much of what I’ve done for industry is instigated by graduate students, yes.
That’s very interesting.
Not all of it, but much of it. The best jobs I’ve ever had of that sort were offered to me by former graduate students. Well, that’s the way, I suppose, it always goes. Well, I have only one disciple here at Yale, in the Philosophy Department, an assistant professor now, Fitch, who teaches philosophy at Yale. All my men have gone away. I do not have a disciple on the campus, except this one. Well, let me see. You know, of course, Chester Page.
Oh, yes. He’s a big man at the National Bureau of Standards and has done very well.
He’s about as distant from me as anyone; not that we don’t talk to each other -- I like to see him -- but there was a time came and visited us, but he hasn’t done so for many years. I take great pride in maintaining close relations with the men that leave me.
Could you say a word or two about your associations with distinguished contemporaries? You’ve mentioned, of course, your earlier associations with these great men like Born and Schrodinger, and so on. But how about your associations with theoreticians roughly contemporary with you? Men like Wigner in this country, Johnny Wheeler in Princeton, Bridgman at Harvard, and so on. You’ve had close contact with all of these people, and perhaps a word or two about your feelings, example. Of course, I’ve talked to you before, Henry, but we never got into this officially, about Bridgman, a very remarkable man, and yet a man with, in some ways, curious ideas, which we’ve discussed I don’t know whether you want to say anything for the record.
Bridgman was a charming person, a magnificent human being, intellectual and a little unimpressable and cold. I remember walking along the mountains near his home, talking about this operational business, talking philosophy all the while. We would arrive at the top of the mountain, and Bridgman had yielded to every one of the points I had made against his operationism as a philosophical doctrine. And then when we finally got there and sat down, he said, “All right, now, you agree with all this. Is it then not true that operationism is not a philosophy, is not really something that defines, but sets the stage in approach?” “No, I don’t see that at all.” The difficulty in any design to convince Bridgman of the error of his ways or somebody else’s ways was to draw the summating conclusion. To say finally “You will agree to every instant you cite.” And when you finally feel that you have now got him to admit that in lieu of the fact that all these facts are true the sum must be correct. No, he would not draw the inference from individuals to the sum.
Now, another interesting thing about Bridgman is this: I met him once at a meeting after I published a book entitled, The Nature of Physical Reality. Now, we had always been quite cordial; he was very, very friendly and helpful to me. Remember the episode that I mentioned. We really became quite close at that time. And my reverence for him, my admiration for him, is and always has been unbounded, and he knows this. Well, that day he said, “How’s that book of yours doing?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t had any report on sales at all.” “Well,” he said, “I hope it won’t sell!” This took me aback; I didn’t quite know how to take this, and I asked him, “Well, I take it you don’t like it.” “No, I don’t like it.” I said, “Well, you don’t agree with it.” “Oh,” he said, “I agree with everything that’s inside the covers. But that title, The Nature of Physical Reality, I don’t see how any sane-minded physicist can use a title that contains the word ‘reality.’” Oh, then he calmed down a bit and he finally said, “Look, let’s have lunch together,” and we did, and we discussed this. And it seemed that he felt that this was altogether too metaphysical, and he wanted nothing to do with it. And, finally, before we got up from the table, I asked him, “Oh, tell me, truly, why is your condemnation of this book so complete and so thorough and apparently so hot-held?” And then he looked at me and said, “You know, I’m afraid that someday you’re going to write a book on religion!” He was a hardboiled factual scientist; he wanted no truck at all with metaphysics and religion, and this book was simply too soft for him.
Later he reviewed by Open Vistas, and he wrote a wonderful review of it. I think it was the last piece of writing he did, I’m told. Anyhow, I saw that one when I was in Japan, and he said that the last chapter, that dealt with religious problems, he could not understand. Now, Wigner. Well, I had met Wigner before. I had met him the first time in 1931 or ‘32, when I was in Germany. Oh, it was 1932. I was in Berlin. Wigner was there, and Kirkwood was there. Kirkwood and I had written papers on the application of van der Waals forces to the equation of state. And we had reached somewhat different conclusions. Wigner got interested and he wanted to know why, so we got it to his apartment in Berlin, 1932, and we explained to him how we had done things, and he sort of straightened us out. He wrote a paper on the whole thing in which he called attention to this discrepancy later. And then I lost track of him, of course.
Well, in 1939 I came to the Institute of Advanced Study as a Fellow. There I met Wigner again, and I wanted to work with him and he was extremely kind to me. He suggested a problem which he had at least half done, and I did the calculations that he had outlined for me. And then after a while he said, “Let me see them,” and he took them. And a few days later he handed to me a paper fully written, one-third of which was perhaps my calculation. It was on “Magnetic Moments of Nuclei,” where we made a refinement in the Schmidt model, and so forth. Well, I read this paper; it was beautiful and elegant, and I felt I had very little part in it. But Wigner said, “Well, we’ll send this off to the Physical Review.” I said, “Well, we can’t do this. My name doesn’t belong on that.” “Oh, yes, oh, yes, your part of the calculation is most important. Also, you wrote the preface, you wrote the introduction, you wrote the conclusion. You see, I can’t write any of these things at all. When I write an introduction I always say merely, ‘What follows is of extreme importance. Here it is.’ And you wrote a whole page which is wonderful. That man is so generous that it is most embarrassing to work with him. I found that out on that occasion.
Well, of course, I couldn’t back out. I was, in fact, delighted, as you may imagine. Then he insisted that my name come first, and I fought with him over that. I did not get anywhere. Well, then, on my own I did a little calculation, oh, along these same lines: magnetic moment, the deuteron done by the D(?) theory. That was a very short thing. I showed it to him, and he looked at it. And, finally, in the last part of the paper I had applied the results to the Deuteron, adding together the contribution of the dipole moment, the quadrapole moment, various things. And Wigner looked at it and he said, “Now, wait a minute. 18 and 12 is 100, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” And he said, “Well, you say that 18 and 12 is 112.” And sure enough, I had made the simplest kind of arithmetical mistake: I hadn’t added percentages right. He caught it in a flash. Well, I corrected it, of course, and then the paper was published. Well, then after that I had this dreadful accident shortly after I left Princeton which knocked me out. I was in bed and in crutches for a long time. But Wigner came up to see me while I was laid up, and we then discussed the publication of these papers, and so forth.
And then I’d see him off and on. Last year a man named Putnam, who is a mathematician and logician, Hillary Putnam, published a paper on quantum mechanics in the Journal of Philosophy of Science. I saw this paper and I thought it was crazy. A few days later I got a letter from Wigner, saying, “Look. Have you seen Hillary Putnam’s paper?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “We cannot let that ride. You and I must write a paper in rebuttal, setting him straight.” I said, “Well, wonderful. I’d be delighted to do it.” Well, I had the same experience again; he practically wrote the whole thing and I deny making any contribution at all. And again I wrote the order of the names: Wigner and Margenau. When I got the proof, it was turned around. Oh, that man is so marvelous, so self-effacing, and yet so helpful. I often think of the way in which men bear fame. Some endure it. Some suffer. And others do it heroically. And Wigner belongs among the latter. Of all the physicists I have ever met, Wigner runs highest in my estimation as a physicist and as a man. Now, the third man…
Before we go on, let me get another tape.
You asked me to comment briefly on important personages with whom I became acquainted, and one of them you mentioned, I believe is John Wheeler. I met John Wheeler when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I became a great deal interested in his work on collective modes in nuclei. I did a paper on V forces between alpha particles which was stimulated by conversations with John Wheeler. I enjoyed his company very much, but I drifted far away from him.
What do you think, if anything, of his recent work with geometro-dynamics.
Yes. This thing hits the nail right on the head so far as my relations with John Wheeler is concerned. John Wheeler frequently writes for philosophical journals. He gives talks occasionally on problems of philosophy of science. These talks are invariably talks about what he calls geometro- dynamics. They contain no philosophy at all, and are just a few general appealing phrases, with a bit of a florid style here and there, and then he shifts over into his geometro-dynamics. This, I think, caused us to drift apart. I do not respect John as a philosopher because he lacks training in philosophy. I do respect his early work. I resent a little bit the emphasis he places upon Bohr’s principle of complementarity, which I think is not a principle but merely a consequence of some of the actions of quantum mechanics. So, there, our philosophic views are very far apart. Now, as to his geometro-dynamics, I have read most of his papers. I find them highly inspired but pretty much in a personal way.
John is a tremendously effective teacher who gets students to move into his field, but I think with a bit of, shall I say, dogmatism. I cannot conceive that this attempt of John’s to deny all forces, to deny all matter, and finally come out with a statement that there is nothing but space which grows in kinks and has worm-holes in it, and so forth, has any philosophical appeal in the end. I can see so many other more promising philosophical approaches than that that I just can’t get myself excited about it. Nevertheless, I have participated in colloquia with him; I always found him a very wonderful companion, and a most stimulating speaker. Well, so much for John Wheeler. You asked me to make a few brief remarks about books I have written. Well, my books are -- the first one with you, of which I am immensely proud. You know the details on that and you’ve written them up in your autobiography. In fact, they enlightened me to a large extent on the fiscal proceeds from this venture; I had forgotten all about what we had earned on this.
This is a pretty mundane approach, Henry, but it rather amuses my wife, you see.
Well, it certainly interests my wife. In fact, I told her this and she was very much (?). She always remembers my saying, when I wrote this book with you, “This might keep me in cigars.” Well, it’s done better than that. Well, the second book I wrote was the one with George Murphy, The Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry. This came about because I was laid up; I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t do much active research.
That was the result of the accident you had, when the tree…
The tree fell on me, yes. Murphy and I worked on this together. He was, at that time, in the Chemistry Department, and we were together a good deal. We proceeded somewhat in the same way as did you and I when we wrote the foundations book, but there was not enough amalgamation between our styles and between our attitudes to make the book as uniform as ours was. Nevertheless, the book, of course, hit the market, and as a publishing venture it did extremely well. Now, after that we did the elementary book for McGraw-Hill. This book came out pretty much at the same time as the Nature of Physical Reality, and the Principles of Physics book.
What was the reception of the Nature of Physical Reality? Did that succeed pretty well among physicists, or philosophers, or both?
Well, it was, of course, a novelty, especially for a physicist to write a book like that. It was, at first, a book that gave my writings a bit of prestige but not currency. The book was, at first, I would say, not well received. I was called upon to lecture and got some honorary degrees and that kind of thing, but, as far as publishing sales were concerned, I think they were probably on the lowly side. But then after a year or two, two or three years maybe, the thing picked up and it sold quite widely. And then it was put into paperback and it’s selling pretty well. It’s been translated into other languages. So, I’m very happy with the fate of that venture. I told you about the textbook we’ve written. As textbooks go, that was not a success. Then came the book called Open Vistas. It was published by the Yale Press. This grew out of the Sigma Xi lecture which I had contracted to give here, and the contract read that I was to be paid a certain amount for the lecture and a certain amount for the manuscript when the manuscript was handed in. I accepted all this without reading the fine print. The book was published. It was advertised only among scholars in history and philosophy -- not even philosophy but history and English. I think no physicist had seen it except for a few. You got a copy of it.
Yes, I know you did. So, that book at first fell pretty flat. Then I discovered that my royalty rate was low. It was only 10 percent when all commercial publishers give you 15. I discovered earlier, before the book was published, that my desires in the matter -- in fact, their promise to put pictures in the book to head off chapter, pictures that were in line with the beginning of the chapters I had written -- were not to be respected. This meant that I had to rewrite a lot of this stuff because they felt pictures would be too expensive. Well, all this happened, and when the book came out I looked at the fine print, and, sure enough, I had agreed to give five percent of the royalties over to Sigma Xi, merely for being inserted in their series, for having given that lecture. Furthermore, the lecture fee was to be deducted from my royalties. Then, if there was to be a paperback edition, then half the proceeds of that, I think -- something perfectly enormous -- was to go to Sigma Xi. Well, I put my foot down there. I said, “Look, this is very unreasonable. There will never be a paperback unless you rescind that clause.” Well, they did rescind the clause then on my strong insistence. But the five percent is still going to Sigma Xi. The book went into paperback, although I think it’s never been seen by physicists. It’s selling quite well, I think.
Now, your latest venture is this book -- what do you call that?
Ethics and Science.
I think some of the manuscript you sent me is the original draft, but now there are changes.
Yes, yes, it’s been changed.
How big a book is this to be?
Well, it runs to 95 galleys. I imagine it will be over 200 pages, 250, something of that sort, fairly large print. I had a lot of fun writing that, as you know. We discussed ethics a good deal.
I’ve had so much work this (?). I hope I’ll have a chance to read it and review it.
Good. Now, let’s see, there was one or two questions about this business of history and philosophy of science. Could we do a little bit of that.
Let me set up the stage for it for a minute, because I have the impression that you feel that there is a history of science and a philosophy of science but that the two things normally could not be mixed. For example, when you, two years ago, suggested that the Institute of Physics might be interested in establishing a journal of philosophy of physics, which would be somewhat more specialized and more technical perhaps than the philosophy of science for your purposes, I took it to the Institute, and the suggestion was made that this might be this might be a joint general history and philosophy, you showed a considerable protest to that idea. And I began to get the impression that your feeling was that these two things don’t mix together. Since I don’t only share that view, I’d like to get your ideas on it.
What you are stating is my view in large part. I do believe there is a discipline of philosophy of science which is closely geared to current science, which addresses itself to the unsolved problems at the basis of science today, and that this discipline is quite separate from the concerns which many people have in the history of science. Now, history of science is certainly a respectable field of work -- there’s no question about it -- and it’s an important field of work. Above all, today, we must not lose our perspective into history. But, on the other hand, men in the history of science are frequently not trained to do work in philosophy. History and philosophy are disparate things, require disparate types of training; they’re different disciplines. Therefore, the present role of confusing the two, I believe, misses the mark and I think is in the end disastrous toward integration. Science teaching needs badly to be integrated by organizing ideas at the very basis of the teaching and the structure of science. These organizing ideas are two: you can organize into science, you can integrate science by reference to history. This produces a sort of superficial unity.
You can also do it by taking the problems of philosophy as they apply to science today seriously. This produces a more, I think, deeper, kind of unity and a more desirable union than the other. What I deplore is the current tendency towards confusing the two, conceptually as well -- as particular workers. There’re many people who know very little history but do not philosophy and profess to talk about the history of science. On the other hand, there are also very many people who know no philosophy at all no systematic philosophy of any sort -- they would never be regarded as philosophers by people in the philosophy departments -- and yet claim that they are teaching the philosophy of science. I think it is unfortunate that these two groups, which naturally fall side by side, are now forced into a common confinement, if you please. They will certainly fertilize each other. It is quite clear that a man interested in history of science must also know some philosophy of science, and, conversely, a philosopher of science must of course look through the whole history of science for evidence of his thoughts and his claims. But to confuse the two, I think, is very, very poor indeed. Now, there is, of course, a practical reason for the vogue in history of science today. It is my belief -- and this may be a somewhat arrogant belief; it is my belief that a scientist, a physicist, who teaches and wishes to enliven his teaching, finds it easier to familiarize himself with the episodes of history than to learn the jargon, the rigmarole, the whole discipline of philosophy.
Therefore, the tendency on the part of those who wish to enliven their science teaching to go into history is naturally stronger, because it is the easier road toward invigorating your science teaching. This has, again unfortunately, filled the ranks and the voices of historians of science to a volume that is now impressive, and for that reason the few of us who do take philosophy of science seriously as a discipline must defend ourselves against being overwhelmed, engulfed by this mass movement. Hence, my stand is partly defensive but it is partly, I think, grounded in reasonable and cogent considerations.
This is possibly, frankly, owing to a feeling that much of the history of science is treated in what you might call episodic fashion rather than what one might call a search for the development of scientific concepts which you would treat today philosophically, as you do, say, in the concept of quantum mechanics, but placed inside a perspective in terms of their growth. It seems to me that there’s a difference between what one might call the factual-episodic history of science, in which you merely search for what did this say, what did that man say, and so on, as distinct from the attempt to relate the concepts as they develop through historical time. Now, I wonder if you would feel that there’s still a possibility of a philosophical approach to that kind history of science.
Oh, indeed. The history of science, I think, can be categorized in several ways. One important distinction is between the anecdotal approach to the history of science and the approach in terms of history of ideas. Now, if you work through the history of science in the latter fashion, emphasizing the concepts and surveying their growth then you are using the history of science very much as a tool toward an appreciation of current problems in philosophy of science. In other words, you’d be using history of science in much the same way in which we use mathematics in approaching physical problems. Physical problems require the use of mathematics, training in mathematics; physical problems also require the use of philosophy, and that again relies on the history of ideas. You cannot, in my opinion, get a proper attitude towards the current problems of the history of physics without knowing how these problems came to be, without observing their past. And this is necessarily an excursion into the history of science. As such, history of science is a necessary preliminary for the sound study of philosophy of science.
I think you cleared up that point to my satisfaction; I don’t know whether Jim wants to push. He has a professional interest in the history of science. (to King) Perhaps it’ll come up when you ask him questions.
I don’t mean to run down…
What other questions do you have on that list there?
Well, there was something about the philosophy of teaching, and philosophy of research. Well, my philosophy of teaching, so far as I have any at all and as far as can be dignified by such an elaborate term, is comprised pretty much in what I said about the philosophy of science, about the distinction between history and philosophy of science. I’m convinced that the failure of most teachers of elementary physics today is their inordinate, their excessive regard for facts. We teach an elementary course in physics and cram it with facts. As a result of that, the students taking the course have indigestion from facts at the end of the year. They run away from facts and never want to see another one in their lives. We miss the chance of confronting these people with hair-raising, challenging ideas. What I would like to do in the teaching of elementary physics, in all of physics, is to use facts more sparingly, throw away this extreme respect for sanctity of subject matter or the belief that such subject matter in physics is somehow complete. There is no completeness. There are many, many things which you can leave out of an ordinary course in physics, as you well know.
I would throw out maybe half or one-third of the things we normally teach, and dwell upon what remains. And in this I would try to adumbrate the facts with the theory that concerns and illuminates them. I would use these theories, these ideas, these concepts as rallying points in their thinking, and the facts more as illustrations. I would, of course, want them to be able to use the equations and solve problems with them. I would certainly not relent on that. But I would, for instance, want to teach Newton’s laws not in the usual way, but with an opportunity to stop after they’ve been taught, and asking the question: “Now, look, are these laws or are they definitions? Are there really three laws logically, or are there two? What is a law?” and so forth. Is it merely a generalization of observational experiences? I would like to ask these questions. Now, at the same time, however, I should be aware of the illuminating power and the great appeal of the historical approach. So in my elementary teaching I would mix here and there an episodic and anecdotal excursion into history, and then again a statement of the laws and the ideas that have inspired this particular theory and have generated this particular kind of knowledge. So, I would walk on two legs through a course in physics. One leg would be an historical one; the other would be a philosophical one. And by using them alternately, I would try to move ahead, to walk ahead, dragging the facts behind me, rather than pushing them before me and shoving them down the throats of these unsuspecting students. Now, my philosophy of research, that’s something you asked about next. Well, that follows, I think, pretty much from this. I am convinced that some of the problems which are now encountered in physics, in nuclear physics especially, the impermanence of the ultimates, the impermanence of the (?), the fundamental entities which are now being recognized…
Henry, did you find the same answer? I think you did.
Yes, I did, in this book, but nobody has ever paid any… This really confronts us with a deep philosophical problem. I cannot help but reflect on the fact that the last dam in the way of understanding physics, which appeared at the end of the First World War, was broken by a series of philosophical insights, by the solution of a couple of epistemological problems by Heisenberg and Bohr, and somehow I feel we are dammed up now. There has not yet been a breakthrough because people have not been radical enough in their philosophical thinking. There may be wholly new avenues of approach, wholly new types of theory which do not involve LaGranges and Hamiltonians and nuclear forces. Forces may be fictitious not merely in the relativity sense but also in the sense of the poly-principle. All forces may be exchange forces arising from certain symmetries to be imposed on statements. This kind of thing. And that has never been investigated. So, I’m very much impressed by the need for this kind of basic investigation.
I’m also impressed by the fact that 50 years have now passed and we are still not unanimous about the interpretation, about the philosophical meaning of the quantum theory. As you know, the very founders of the quantum theory, some of them before their deaths, some of them even now, are arguing about the meaning of what it is about. Fifty years have passed and we do not yet see the philosophical implication. We do know the technical meaning of the thing; we can easily handle the equations. But what these things mean with respect to, well, the problem of indeterminacy and whether there’s any bearing of that problem upon human freedom, for instance what this means with respect to ultimate truth, and whether we can ever know ultimate truth, all these kinds of things. They’re all in abeyance. We don’t know the answers to them. And it is my belief that if we don’t know that particular answer, we have only half the truth, and half-truths are dangerous things and engender crises. We live in an age of crises. So, I, for my part, feel that I can do more good by working on these fundamental problems, especially as they relate to quantum theory, than by doing calculations on nuclear forces and so on. Well, that’s my philosophy of research. Right now, I’m, as you know, Bruce, greatly worried about these negative probabilities in quantum mechanics. I still have not been able to convince some people that that problem is there. For some strange reason it’s ignored. Wigner sees it, but he thinks it’s not interesting. I just can’t get myself away from it.
This gets us into the two last aspects which we might stress: first, the relation of all this to what might be called the fundamental role of science and its relation ultimately to religion. And then the question of religion and the humanities naturally leads into the question of the relations between science and the way of looking at experiences and other ways of looking at experiences.
Yes. May I comment on the latter problem first? Science and its relation to humanities. I believe science is a part of the humanities. I believe science has always been a part of the humanities, except in this paranoiac age in which have recently lived. I think it’s coming to be recognized that there is a union between the two. Let me briefly sketch the history of that, because it’s not in the physics books and it ought to be known. There has never been a conflict, a schism, an organic separation between the sciences and the humanities, or the sciences and the liberal arts. The liberal arts was a subject taught in the scholar, these schools that were founded by Charlemagne around 800. These were church schools attached to the cloisters to the monasteries and to the castles of the knights out in the country. These were the schools where the doctrine of scholasticism nourished. But these were the schools in which the liberal arts were taught. Now, the liberal arts had two curricula: the quadrivium and the trivium, you know.
The trivium was mostly humanistic, but the quadrivium contained astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, contained all the sciences of the day. And this complex of subject matters was called the liberal arts. This is where the term “liberal arts” arose. It was meant to include the sciences. The liberal arts were simply distinct from the subjects, the group of subjects, that were open to study by the clerics. If you wanted to become a priest, then you had to study these other things. The secular person went through the liberal arts. Now, this quadrivium and trivium arrangement lasted throughout the Middle Ages. A separation appeared, first, during the Quattrocento, well, at the beginning of the Renaissance, when new crafts arose, especially in Italy: people like Leonardo da Vinci, the great builders of the cathedrals, the doctors, and so forth. They became prominent and they spoke the vernacular, they spoke Italian. Whereas the teachers in the scholae spoke the Latin tongue.
So, there a cleft in language, a rift here, which was purely linguistic, at first. Moreover, the Latin language was the esoteric, the educated tongue, and these people like Leonardo, who wrote left-handedly and in the vulgar tongue, faultily -- he couldn’t even spell sometimes -- why, they were beneath the notice of these great humanists. That’s where the separation first arose. Now, it corrected itself almost at once in Italy, in England and in some other places; in Europe certainly, where Wissenschaft means the history, literature, and all sorts of thinking even today. But somehow the cleavage remained strongest in this country. We are really an island in this cultural situation. The separation between the sciences and the humanities is stronger in the United States than anywhere else. It is now taking on some force and some menacing features in those countries which we have strongly affected through our post-war contacts. You find it in Japan now. You find it in Germany. But it is essentially a Western and American phenomenon. And, of course, now it’s been brought about essentially again by a disparity of tongues. It’s again the language that separates the scientist from people in the liberal arts, and that language is mathematics, along with certain other things. So, in principle, I don’t believe there is any occasion for making an historical case for this cleavage, and, of course, from the point of view of analysis of the subject matter, as I’ve tried to show in my Nature of Physical Reality book, there is no difference in methodology at all. You can take the whole methodology of physics, chemistry and so forth, and apply it to a subject like history, or for that matter, linguistics, and you find that the basic rigmarole is the same. In my Science and Ethics book I’m trying to show that the same methodology can even be applied to ethics. So, I think there is general union, if it can only be recognized.
Now, let us say a word or two about religion. You can write a book on that; I don’t know how much you’d want to say about it. As I say, I’m stimulated a little bit because of earlier conversations we had years ago when you had, I thought, the kind of view that there was something perhaps essentially unrealistic, perhaps even hypocritical, about organized religion.
I had forgotten this attitude. As a matter of fact, I may have been a bit, well, artificial in my responses to questions you may have asked me about religion at that time.
This goes back, now, some 30 years.
Yes, it goes back a long time. Naturally, our interest in religion grows stronger as we age. For my own part, I’ve often had this feeling. Having lived in this country for some time I’ve come to the conclusion that a scientist who talks about religion is going to lose face among his friends in science. I had felt that it was more proper to speak philosophically than to address oneself directly to the religious interest. Now, this has been confirmed in my own experience. You doubtless have had this feeling that once you accept, for instance, a bid to talk about religion, every church around you gets on your tail and wants you to talk some more. Now, one reason why I have stayed away from religion in most of my writings has been simply this pragmatic one. I wanted to have my religion within my own conclave, I wanted to develop without exposure to multitudes, and this has, in fact, taken place. At this point I’m perfectly happy to speak frankly about my religious convictions. I have very deep religious concerns; I’ve always had them. These religious concerns are by no means in opposition to my scientific convictions beliefs. I believe that science is an organic, ever evolving enterprise.
There is no absolute truth in science. We shall never know the gift of God in his right hand which he offered to (?). We shall always know the virtue of the eternal search for truth, a never stagnant, ultimate truth. On the other hand, those scientists who believe in a clean separation between the natural and the supernatural imply that they know all the laws of nature, because if you don’t know what the laws of nature are, you can’t make such a division. You can’t tell that a thing which now appears supernatural will not some day be understood in natural ways. There are many examples that one could cite here. This is scientific dogmatism which pretends to know what can be and what cannot be. Over against that you have religious dogmatism, people who claim they can see revelations of some sort; they know eternal truth, not only know it, but understand it, understand it in a way that is wholly incapable of further refinement. Now, the so-called strife conflict between science and religion is simply that clatter of bones, these two dry dogmatisms in contact or in conflict. And this, I think, is wholly artificial. As I see it, religion is engaged in a movement toward ultimates which it will never reach; so is science. How can there ever be a conflict between these fluxes.
Now, as to my own approach to religion, there are several possible approaches to religion: one is ethical. It arises from the insecurity we feel with respect to our ethical commitments. It arises from a feeling of inadequacy before the moral law. It arises, to speak in religious language, from our experience of sin. And this, I think, is as real an experience as many of the observational experiences that assail us. Now, this will get the sensitive mortal into a state in which he is willing to confront religious problems. I mean, the Christian doctrine of salvation springs directly from this universal feeling of inadequacy before fate, inadequacy before the moral law, inadequacy before what some people claim to be divine injunction, command. This is one way. Now, this impresses me. The other one is this: After all, we are surrounded by not miracles, but by phenomena which we do not understand. Well, now, with respect to these we could take essentially three different stands, like the three natives, or people on the African shore who saw the first jet plane coming overhead. They asked, “What is this?” and the first one said, “Well, that’s a miracle. God made it. That’s a miracle.” The second said, “Well, it’s sort of a conformation of atmospheric elements which happened to get together by accident, and you get this thing going by there.” Well, the third one said, “I don’t know what the hell it is. I don’t know where it came from. But the very fact that I don’t know where it came from, and nobody around here seems to know, makes me think that there must be somebody or something that does know what it is all about.” Well, there you are.
These are the two fundamental approaches to religion. Now, the latter approach and also the former you can make into a scientific approach to religion. You can now proceed as follows: You can say all right, there are bona fide religious experiences, the feeling of awe you experience in the face of overwhelming beauty, the feeling of the tremendum(?) that the theologian thought so much about, the feeling of inadequacy before transgression, sin, the feeling of the desperation, social-moral desperation that the existentialists talk so much about. Well, these are just as unique, self-assertive bona fide experiences as the meters I read; so far as my personal experience is concerned, they are just as coercive. All right, if they are, they need an explanation, because all of these immediate experiences do not hang together. They hang together very loosely; you can arrange them, inductively into a context of mild rationality. You can also go from them into the field of constructs and set up rules of correspondence between these protocol experiences, the scientific protocol experiences and theological ideas. When you do this, you find yourself right in theology. Now, this is one way. Strangely, this way is less palatable to the people here in the West than it is to the people in the East. I talked a bit about the philosophy of religion from this point of view and I was...
When you were in Japan.
When I was in Japan and in India. And I was given to understand that, by golly, that’s the way people think of it there! They realize this. They don’t talk about religion as a personal god. No, you don’t heed a god. I mean, most people in the world are atheists anyhow; all the Buddhists are, you see. What we conceive to be these ideas, these revealed ideas, and these hard-and-fast notions are very fluid over there. These people are very much more open-minded. And I found them most accepting of this approach to religion in terms of the methodology of science, and that’s the way I picture it. I hope someday to write a book -- as a matter of fact, I have a contract for it now with Miss Ankshun in New York, Ruth Ankshun, who published the Perspectives volumes -- and I’m to write a book entitled Beyond Physical Reality. I haven’t begun the writing of that book yet, but I intend fully, if I live, to complete it, and that is the book in which I’m going to put some of these thoughts.
Well, that’s fine. I think, Jim, unless you want to raise a question -- why don’t you go ahead while I try to look up…
Dr. Margenau, I should like to ask about some of the philosophic influences that have been brought to bear upon your own career. You began the study of Kant at a fairly early age, and what were the circumstances that led you to that?
I doubt if I can give any specific reason that turned my attention to the philosophy of Kant. In the Teachers College, the seminary which I attended between the ages of 17 and 20, there was a good deal of emphasis on pedagogy, on psychology, and there were passing references to the philosopher Kant, who, of course, as you know, was a great Prussian philosopher, whose influence is still quite noticeable in German thinking, or was at least at that time. Hence, it was simply this circumstance that drew my attention to Kant, and I began to read him. I found the reading fascinating; because he was so obscure I actually slugged through his critique of pure reason and began on his practical reason, and so on. And I began to appreciate his point of view. I was, in fact, at first, a rather concerned Kantian.
What led you away from Kant?
After Kant I came in contact with a strange movement called anthroposophy, which flourished in Europe at the end of the war. It was a philosophy developed by a man named Rudolph Steiner, whose views, I think, have taken root to some extent in this country. I know there are now colonies called anthroposophic colonies; they are schools that are run on the principles of this man’s thinking. This man is teaching is philosophy. Well, this was a brand of Orientalism, somewhat akin to theosophy, but a little more elaborate and it was more acceptable to the Western mind. It had a very strong religious component. It made a hero of the German poet Goethe, whose Farbenlehre and (?) was greatly stressed. It happened that one of my teachers in this college was an ardent disciple of Rudolph Steiner; he introduced me to this. So, my interests shifted there, and I became at one time, for about a year or so, strongly influenced by Steiner and his movement. This was a bit mystical, in many ways quite metaphysical. The interest didn’t last very long. Of course, there was then this upheaval; I came to this country and had no occasion at all to worry about philosophical, scientific or any kind of cultural problem. And then, when I went to the college in Midland, I began to read the classics; in fact, I did a Latin thesis on Seneca’s philosophy of disht(?), which I still have somewhere. Well, I read Plato and Aristotle and all sorts of the church fathers, some in their classical form. Well, then, of course, my interest in philosophy died down. I became a graduate student in physics, concentrated on physics, did very little in the way of philosophy. I kept reading, however. At that time, especially when I entered Yale, my attention was strongly engaged and almost caught by the Vienna circle, people Philip Franck and Carnap. I studied their works. I was never completely convinced by their writings. I have never altogether entered the cloisters of the logical positivists at any rate; I’ve been disavowed by them. I seem too metaphysical in my writings. But I’ve been, nevertheless, impressed. Well, then, when I was at Yale, I met my friend, Northrop. I wrote at that time some papers, which he encouraged me to write, two papers on the methodology of science, in which I introduced the idea of constructs and varifacts and particularly rules of correspondence.
May I ask where these came from?
Were these developments of your own?
The construct business, of course, was taken over partly from Carnap, partly from Russell, although I had to alter its meaning. The rules of correspondence, so far as I know, were cooked up by me. These aroused the interest of Northrop first. Northrop incorporated them in his own writings, and he called them epistemic correlations, a word which I have never adopted because of the implications of correlative statistical technical implications of correlations. But he still calls them that, but he always is anxious and determined to explain that they are the same as my rules of correspondence. Well, in doing this, I was encouraged by Cassirer, who for two years taught at Yale after his retirement.
Was this your first contact with Cassirer?
Yes, I had not known him before. Cassirer, Northrop and I taught a course in philosophy together. The course was on Kant. I learned more about Kant in that course than I had before. Cassirer was, of course, an expert on Kant. Cassirer encouraged me in the writing of this book, and he is, if I may say so, to blame for my insistence on the word “construct”. He said, “You must use that word because it is so descriptive in English. People must learn that they are not constructed by man, that they are not realities, and so forth.” That’s the reason for that choice of term. Now, after that, I was drawn into the teaching of philosophy a little bit. I was not made a member of the Philosophy Department on this campus, but I did write an occasional paper on philosophy of science. I became acquainted with Carnap, met him, and I was always greatly impressed by the vigor and meticulousness of his thinking, of his writing. I had some talks with Einstein on matters of philosophy of science, and in later years, of course, had correspondence with Schrodinger. Schrodinger was greatly interested in these matters, in these problems of philosophy of science. Well, my interests just unfolded, developed. I finally found it so intense that I asked to be given permission to teach philosophy and physics at Yale, and my wish was accommodated. When I got the job I now hold, a joint appointment.
So, the main philosophical influences, then, have been Cassirer and Northrop.
Well, Northrop and I practically grew up together in the same environment. He was older than I, but his writings and mine developed really side by side in very close collaboration. I think we were both strongly influenced by Cassirer although Northrop denies this. He’s written a book recently in which he sets the record straight.
Among the philosophers of science who was the man with whom you had the most disagreements?
I would most disagree with the so-called Oxford philosophers and the people who analyze language and get a philosophy out of it. The analytical school of Oxford philosophy is perhaps farthest from my range of sympathies. I feel some affinity toward positivism, toward the logical positivists, some toward the idealists like Blanchard, whom I greatly revere. I feel kindly disposed toward the pragmatists. My operational definition, my rules of correspondence are inspired by Hurst and Dewey, and people of that sort.
Well, now that we’ve covered quite a bit of ground, Professor Margenau, is there anything else that you would care to comment upon before we adjourn?
No, except that I’ve enjoyed this tremendously. You’ve given me an opportunity to get a lot off my chest, and I very gladly rest now, and let you have the floor.
Thank you. This is the end of the interview with Professor Margenau.