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Interview of Melba Phillips by Katherine Sopka on 1977 December 5,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4821
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Family background, childhood and education up through college, all in Indiana; her graduate study, first at Battle Creek College (M.A.), then at the University of California under J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ph.D. 1933; also attended University of Michigan Summer Symposium in Theoretical Physics, 1929. Between her Ph.D. and her first college faculty position (Connecticut College for Women, 1937-1938) she held postdoctoral fellowships at University of California, Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study. With the exception of a period of war-time teaching at the University of Minnesota, she taught at Brooklyn College from 1938 to 1952, when she was fired for not cooperating with the McCarran Committee. During her period of unemployment she coauthored 2 textbooks, Classical Electricity and Magnetism (with Wolfgang Panofsky) and Principles of Physical Science (with Francis Bonner). In 1957 she was brought to Washington University in St. Louis by Edward U. Condon to run the Academic Year Institute program there. From 1962 until her retirement in 1972, she was professor of physics at the University of Chicago. She has long been active in the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) serving as its President in 1966 and as its Executive Officer in recent years; comments on AAPT's role and problems. She also gives her views on physics and physicists today, including the experience of women physicists in the U.S. Brief discussion of her work with J. Robert Oppenheimer and her political difficulties in the 1950s. Also prominently mentioned are: Robert d'Escourt Atkinson, David Bohm, Francis Bonner, Jay W. Buchta, Annie Jump Cannon, Suzanne Ellis, William Jordan, Robert Karplus, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, Frank Press, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck; Academic Year Institute, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Physics Teachers Commission on College Physics, American Physical Society, City College of City University of New York, Harvard College Observatory, Harvard Project Physics, National Science Foundation, Optical Society of America, Physical Sciences Study Committee, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, University of Chicago, and University of Michigan Summer Symposium in Theoretical Physics.
I’m Katherine Sopka. Today, the 5th of December, 1977, I’m visiting with Melba Phillips, who has kindly consented to share with me her recollections of the path by which she came to the study of physics and some of her experiences as a physicist and a teacher of physics. Dr. Phillips, I would like to begin by asking you to tell me something of your family background and your childhood experiences up through high school, I understand that you were born in Hazleton, Indiana, Did you also grow up there?
Yes, I was born in southern Indiana, and most of my family was born in southern Indiana, In fact, I have ancestors who were there from the time of George Rogers Clark, So I was born there; I was brought up there; my father was born there; my mother was born there, Three of my grandparents were—one in Kentucky. I should add here that I came from a family of farmers and schoolteachers, My father was a schoolteacher and a farmer, Two of my uncles and aunts, one grandmother, were teachers, So that ran in the family, I started school in a one—room schoolhouse, and my first teacher was my father.
He began teaching before I was born, of course, and he taught only 15 years altogether, but I went to school to him my first year. I think maybe that was the last he taught, I went on and went to a very small high school and graduated when I was barely sixteen because I knew how to read before I went to school and skipped a grade or two. Of course, I had (as you ask in your outline) some good teachers, a couple of very good teachers in high school, The first one was in history, so I was going to become a historian, The second one was in mathematics and science, and so I was going to become a physicist from that time on, should say, however, that the year I graduated from high school I took an Indiana teacher’s license examination, which would have qualified me with one summer’s college work to teach, again in a one-room school, and I passed it with flying colors, I think my average was 92. But I couldn’t teach before I was 18, That they wouldn’t let me do, So I had to go to college. And why did I go to Oakland City College? I was born in l907, graduated from high school in 1923 and went to college, the cheapest and the nearest college—because the ‘20s were very bad times for farmers, and we didn’t have any money, I finished there in 1926.
Oakland City was located in Indiana?
The college was not a very good college, but it did have one remarkable teacher, a man who was professor of mathematics. His name was William Jordan, He was the father, by the way, of the man who became president of Radcliffe, Wilbur K. Jordan.
That’s very interesting. I knew him.
I don’t know that Mr. Jordan knew very much mathematics, but he had the talent of making me and everybody else who came under his sway love the subject and be just tremendously fond of it, But there was no physics major, and it was very easy to know more physics than anybody else in the college. I took two physics courses. There was no way of becoming a physics major in that college. So I taught high school for one year and then an opportunity to go to another small college where I had to work terribly hard to catch up on all the things I had never known, We talk about rehabilitation or restraining, I was getting it for the first time, I’m not the only person that this happened to, but when we talk about the quality of undergraduate work, sometimes do remember that many of us didn’t have it, And therefore we do have to learn everything later, Sometimes it works and we enjoy it and sometimes it doesn’t.
I wonder could I interrupt you and ask you to go back and tell us a little bit more about your family background and your childhood, a few things? You mentioned that your father was a schoolteacher, He had been college—trained or was he someone with a teaching certificate like you spoke of?
He and my uncle, his brother, went to Valparaiso University. They didn’t graduate. That would have taken too long, But he studied there and studied violin too. My aunt, on the other hand, went to the Normal School at Terre Haute, which has since become Indiana State University at Terre Haute, I don’t remember whether my father was in Valparaiso two years or how long—— but that would have been very early in the century, because he was certainly home and had been teaching before he was married in 1906, I don’t know his dates in Valparaiso.
Had your mother also come from a farm background and how far had her education gone?
Her mother had been a schoolteacher, hut my mother did not teach school, She was married when she was nineteen, But she had gone to high school in a place that I lived near many years later, Her father died when she was nine years old, She had two older brothers, one of whom taught, Boys from a small town always went to the nearest big town, namely Chicago in this case, They didn’t like the living there inveigled their mother to come, They rented a house, so that she could have a rooming house, no boarding except for them, So my mother went to Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago, and the boys stayed there until they wanted to go west, until they wanted to go out and try homesteading in Idaho, as boys did at that time, I was brought up on stories of those Chicago days and one of the stories was about Sherwood Anderson, The whole Anderson family roomed with my grandmother, and my grandmother told me more than once that when she decided to come back to Hazleton Sherwood told her that she could not do that to him, He had just brought his wife there, his two brothers lived there, his sister Stella lived there. They I think, were the only people outside the family and other boys from home, I don’t know how they got started from Ohio to come there, but they were there.
It must have been a sizeable home.
It was a big house, It was on Oakwood Boulevard, one of those big three story houses with a ground floor where there was a kitchen and where the family ate, The boys worked for such firms as Sears, Roebuck and I’ve forgotten which others.
But then your mother returned to Hazleton and married your father soon after?
Returned to Hazleton and got a job, as I remember it, in the Tele phone Exchanges I remember that she was a very good friend of a distant cousin of my father, whose name was also Phillips, and they got acquainted, I remember her saying that her mother felt that she talked to my father on the telephone much too much, wasting time when she should have been doing other things, You asked also, I think, about my siblings, I was the oldest, I have three brothers. One of them is still in Indiana and I go back there to visit. One is on the west coast and one is in Florida, so we’re scattered all over.
Was your family associated with any particular denomination?
They were not church members, but I went to Sunday School at the local Methodist church, They weren’t very conventionally religious, but it was the thing to do, to go to Sunday school, and I never regretted that, I think the knowledge of all the characters in the Bible has been a very useful thing.
So you did have the cultural background of knowing about the Bible and had religious training, but you were not so rigidly trained that you later had problems with the conflicts between science and religion?
No, not that I remember, Of course there were lots and lots of books, and I read everything, everything I could lay my hands on.
Were you much of a sportswoman as a child and growing up? Did you like sports?
Or were you principally a reader?
I was principally a reader.
I thought possibly that with three brothers, you might have been drawn into sports.
Oh, they were enough younger that although they’re friends of mine now, they were little then, I was two and a half years older than the oldest of them, and girls tend to grow up faster than boys; so although I felt they were very nice one of them especially was a very pretty child, a beautiful child, and I liked them, but they were another generation until we all grew up.
I see. Well, you’ve already commented on Oakland City College and your experience there, Tell me about Battle Creek College, Where is that located?
How did you happen to go there?
I happened to go there because...oh, let me see: the president of the college was addressing some kind of class, some kind of institute, three day institute or something, and I was probably very responsive and I got invited to apply for a job.
Oh, so you were teaching at Battle Creek College as well as doing a master’s degree there?
Right. I was a teaching fellow there. That’s where I learned my advanced calculus and physics that I had not learned in college.
Well, you learned it by teaching it or you took courses in it?
I taught more elementary things. I took classes, although I must confess that some of the things I taught, I was probably learning well the first time, I think that happens to most teachers.
Yes, I think so, How long then did you stay at Battle Creek before heading out to the University of California?
That would have been from 1926 to ‘29?
1927 to 1930, because I taught one year of high school at home.
Oh, yes. So in 1930 you went to the University of California. Was that much of a jump or how did you get there?
Melba Phillips talks about one of the theoretical physics summer sessions she attended at the University of Michigan in 1929.
(laughs) In 1929 I attended a theoretical physics summer session at the University of Michigan.
One of the famous ones.
One of the famous ones, Condon was giving talks on quantum mechanics, It was before the publication of Condon and Morse. The course was Condon and Morse as it was being written. Dirac was there and there Text on Quantum Mechanics, were a number of other well known people, I learned some things I’ve never forgotten, about spectroscopy, atomic spectroscopy, from the people at Michigan who knew these things very well, That was extremely useful, but I had very little background for quantum mechanics, and I certainly didn’t understand Dirac at that age, I was so naive that I did the home work in Ed’s class, and at one point I was trying to check on some of the stuff he’d given us and I couldn’t get the same answer that he did, and I still remember that I couldn’t dream that I wasn’t making mistakes, I couldn’t possibly understand why I wasn’t getting the answer, and I even asked myself the question: “Is it possible that I don’t know how to take the complex conjugate of a number?” Finally I went and asked the teacher, namely Ed Condon, and it turned out that I was right. I think that maybe he looked at me twice at that point, How did I get to California? Because Ed had been there.
Yes, I recognize now when you tell me the contact with him.
So we became friends, good friends and I went to California on his recommendation.
Presumably then at the University of Michigan that was your first exposure to quantum mechanics, Had you even been aware that there was the sudden breakthrough in ‘25-‘26?
Oh, I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t studied the subject, and I was still studying things I should have been studying earlier. I had a course in optics and a course in heat and all the classical things that I don’t regret in the slightest— rather elementary, looking back on it, electricity and magnetism and so forth, It wasn’t so uncommon then not to know about quantum mechanics, Ed, for example, said that he never had a course in quantum mechanics in his life.
Yes, I can understand that because of the timing, He got his own degree just at the time that quantum mechanics was breaking, and then he wrote one of the first books on it.
Then after you arrived in Berkeley on Condon’s recommendation…
Then I took the regular courses and regular exams, all that kind of thing, taught the regular labs and recitation sessions for the first two years as a teaching assistant. Then the third year that I was there as a student I was sufficiently lucky that I got a Whiting Fellowship, There were two given every year, and I didn’t have to put in all that time for my $600 (or possibly $750).
At what point did you begin to work with 3. Robert Oppenheimer?
When I was thinking of doing a thesis, He was already there and he had three students, His first student was Harvey Hall, and then J.F. Carlson and Leo Nedelskv, who were a year ahead of me, The topic that came up to do almost all the topics that came up, in fact, arose from experimental physics, The first one was to try to understand some peculiarities of photo—ionization of potassium vapor, The second one was to try to understand the inversion of doublets in the alkali atomic spectra, Those two topics, those two papers, constituted my thesis, We did not do Oppenheimer—Phillips process while I was a student, That came later.
When you were a post—doctoral fellow? Or was it even later than that?
No, I suppose you could call it a post—doctoral fellow, There were no jobs, but one could get enough part—time work, part—time teaching, to live; and we stayed and did work, grading papers and so forth, There were several of us who did that, I stayed there for two more years, and it was during that period that I taught practically everything that was thrown my way, filling in for everybody, it felt like; and that second year after my degree I also did the paper (involving the Oppenheimer—Phillips Process) which again came up because of the problem that arose with the cyclotron work, you see: the fact that the curve that you got for the transmutation function was not what you would expect on the basis of anything like Gurney—Condon— Gamow barrier penetration, Then I got a research fellowship first at Bryn Mawr (1935—36) and then for a second year at the Institute for Advanced Studies, I didn’t really have a full time teaching job until whatever year it was that I went to Connecticut College.
While you were at the University of California, were you the only woman student in the physics department at that time?
Oh, heavens, no, I have often said —— and I’m glad to have the opportunity to say it — that there were more American women studying physics when I was a student than there are today. I will add that as far as I was concerned as a student, I’ve never felt any discrimination at all, The other women who took their degrees were not in theory, but there were at least four of them, It was not a big department at that time, Of the seven people who took their degrees in 1933 when I did, I was the only woman; but then there were only three American men, too, There were also two Canadians and one Chinese, if I remember correctly.
Oh I took for granted that women were underrepresented.
No, I was the only woman of the four Americans that took degrees, but in all there were only seven that year, I’m telling you this to give you a sense of the size of the place then. It’s true that in most of my classes I was the only woman, but if you have somewhere like 25, 30 graduate students all told and lots of classes, it isn’t all that likely that you’re going to have much overlap, My best woman friend in physics was a year ahead of me, The other two women I remember were a year behind me, But now I’m mentioning only people who finished the Ph.D. There were a few others who fell out, as there always are, So there was no prejudice as a student. Of course, there certainly was some discrimination in the job market, People felt it then, although the fellows were having just about as bad a time as I was. This was, you remember, 1933.
Many of the people who have written about Oppenheimer, either as formal biographies or reminiscing about knowing him in those years, stress the social interaction that he had with his students; male students are the ones whose comments I’ve read—in terms of his associating with students outside of class, going to restaurants with them and that kind of thing.
Did you fit in with that Oppenheimer social group?
Without any problems or being unique? You were welcomed?
Oh, of course.
I’m glad to know that. You said your first formal teachinq position was at Connecticut College. Was that Connecticut College for Women?
It was then, yes. I mean after my degree the first full time I didn’t say formal I think—
Oh, yes first full time teaching, I’m sorry.
Full time teaching position. I was full time for at least one year in Battle Creek and full time certainly as a high scheol teacher. After one year in Connecticut I came to Brooklyn College. That was 1938. I left there to go out to Minnesota, I was on leave from there during the war, and came back to Brooklyn College in 1944.
I see. I wanted to ask you about that reference to Minnesota, I read in one of the biographical sketches about you that you had been there, but it wasn’t listed on all of them.
I went out there to teach courses in theoretical physics because the department was understaffed, They had let people go off to do war work, and the one person who was left to teach the theory courses had a heart attack, By this time, of course, I knew a lot of people, —Jack Tate, Jay Buchta, people in Minnesota — who persuaded me to come out, and I en joyed that very much, There were some marvelous students, especially the first of the three years I was there, Of course, the students thinned out later because of the war.
The University of Minnesota stands out as one of the first institutions in America that was sensitized to the need for training in theoretical physics, You probably know that Van Vleck went there as a young man from Harvard.
Did he go there? Ed Condon spent a year there, too, but I thought Van came from Wisconsin.
Van did his undergraduate work at Wisconsin. His doctor’s degree was at Harvard, And then he was at Minnesota for five years.
I didn’t remember that.
He still has a warm spot in his heart for Minnesota, Gregory Breit was there also.
I didn’t overlap with either of them.
No, I know that you didn’t, but the University of Minnesota had a long tradition of wanting to teach theoretical physics,
I knew Van from Berkeley. He came and taught at Stanford part of one year. Everybody came through Berkeley. You got acquainted with and made friends with people who were visiting there or at Stanford, So that I date many friends, lifelong friends, from that period,
It’s nice to have those memories,
Well, there were H.A. Wramers and R.H. Fowler, Van came, I even remember that Ehrenfest came through, There were many many visitors, and it was a part of Robert Oppenheimer’s gift to make them feel at home, And how did he do it? He brought them to our house for tea for one thing, Tea was about 10:00 every evening. It was that kind of relationship, much more informal than they could get by visiting faculty members, especially if they were there staying at the faculty club alone, They also wanted to go to concerts with people et cetera, It was very nice, I don’t mean that Van was there that much, He was at Stanford and I didn’t see him so often, But we had some seminars in common, One of the friends I made at the time was Felix Bloch; there was a whole gamut of people, very broad.
You mentioned that you had gone to the University of Michigan’s summer symposium in 1929. Did you go in later years?
I went twe wars, but what was the other year? Offhand I don’t remember.
Your comment about the sociability among the young people at Berkeley seems to be similar to what I’ve heard prevailed at Ann Arbor in terms of the international visitors being made welcome.
That’s true, too, Yes, it was.
It was just part of the way that people in physics interacted in that period, I suppose.
Yes, there were a few other people, I must have gone hack one answer because I remember that one of the summers I got to know Paul Ewald, who was a charming person, too. I forget what summer it was, maybe the first one, that I met Dave Inglis and Bob Bacher and Uhlenheck and Goudsmit people who are still around, You’re right, Michigan was a fine place.
It seems to have had a strong influence on the growth of the theoretical community in American physics. At least everybody who has been there remembers it as a strong influence both in physics and socially in the pleasant surroundings and the general ambience that prevailed. In your years at Brooklyn College, both before going out to Minnesota and after coming back, what kind of student body were you associated with?
Oh, the students were marvelous. The classes ranged all the way from freshman through senior classes. Especially when I got back, people were still away at war, so I started teaching abost all the senior classes, Consequently I have several generations of students who are very successful or very good physicists. I don’t know whether you know the names, but Stuart Rice, who’s at Chicago in chemistry, was one, unfair to name names. They were simply marvelous students.
And they were all undergraduates in college.
They were undergraduates, There was a small graduate school, but that was a mistake, I taught one course in mathematical physics and decided never again because my undergraduates were so much better than my graduate students that it was not worthwhile. It was more fun to teach the undergraduates.
Was Brooklyn College at that time a part of the city college system of New York or was it separately instituted?
It was a city college, but there were at that time only four city colleges: City College, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens, Queens was the youngest of those four, And they were colleges, There were no regular graduate departments in the sense that a university has them, but there were graduate courses, as I said, The quality of the student undergraduate was very high, especially just after the war when some of these young men came back, People now in industry and in universities around the country started there, One of my first students when I came back, for example, was Abe Klein, who is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Pennsylvania, I just think of Abe because I think he was in the first class in theoretical physics that I taught when I came back after being away, The war wasn’t over, but I came back early so that Bill Rarita could go to Los Alamos, Somebody again had to teach classes.
At the four colleges of the city of New York system, did the student body come from all over the city of New York for particular courses?
No, not at all, People came from all over the city of New York for their complete course of study, although there was some congestion of students from Brooklyn. But we had people from the Bronx and Manhattan, and they came as they got in and for different reasons.
I wonder how they selected themselves or the college selected particular students,
I don’t know how that was handled, But I do know that some students came from long distances on the subway and some didn’t, probably more students from Brooklyn than other places. But look at City College, which had more students from Manhattan probably and the Bronx, hut again people came from all over,
I wondered whether a particular deparent might stand out so that a student who lived in New York City...
Not at that time.
…knew that they wanted to go to one rather than the other, so they wou1d get a particular teacher or a particular kind of course.
No I think that City College and Brooklyn had the best reputation for physics and mathematics, but all the city colleges gave good value for money, good value for very little money, people went there because it was cheaper than going to the universities and they got as good under graduate education as they could have got in any university at that time, with more competition than at most.
I hesitate to ask you what your present evaluation is of the local New York City college situation that we read so much about, Do you have any contacts so that you would know?
I really don’t have very many contacts, not enough to give an opinion, I know that there have been difficulties, and I know that they don’t have the choice of students that they had at that time, sometimes for good reason, As a former student of mine who had gone back to Brooklyn College to teach in mathematics, said much later: “The students don’t compare with us,” He told me at that time: “All the students like us now get scholarships to Brandeis.”
Oh, That’s interesting.
Well, it’s a comment that may have some validity, but I’m not in close enough touch to know.
I have heard a number of people speak very highly of their experiences either as students or as teachers in the New York City college system during the period that you were just talking about, so I was interested to know what your experience had been.
Of course, Brooklyn College doesn’t have the reputation that City College had, but then City College began so much earlier and we didn’t have people going back so far, I think that the kind of education you got as an undergraduate in most departments was comparable in Brooklyn College.
I see, Did you live in Brooklyn while you were teaching?
Oh, no, I never lived anywhere except Manhattan as far as New York is concerned, I lived in the Village at that time, West 11th Street, The three places I’ve lived in New York have all been in Manhattan, It was easy to get from there to Brooklyn.
According to your biographical sketch, you taught at Brooklyn College until 1952, Is that correct?
That’s right, Now, I’m not going into this here, I’ve talked a little bit about it with Charles Weiner, but it is a part of the record that I was fired from Brooklyn College for failure to cooperate with the McCarran Committee, and I think that ought to go into the record, I was dismissed from Brooklyn College in the end of October, 1952, and I was essentially un employed until early 1957—not that I wasn’t busy.
That was five years then.
It was four and a half years.
Four and a half years, Those were very difficult times.
Those were difficult times for a lot of people, but professionally in the end I don’t think it’s done me very much harm, I wrote a couple of books and lots of articles and kept very busy. Sapka: I’m glad that in retrospect you can think of it in those terms, Do you think the fact that you were fired from Brooklyn College was related to the fact that they were a public institution or could this have happened to you at any one of a number of institutions?
Oh, it did happen to lots of people, but of course the city colleges were particularly vulnerable, and the administration was particularly McCarthyite. We were talking about discrimination, There was discrimination and that was not related to sex; there was much discrimination against people who had bad any trouble of a “political” kind, and it took a lot of courage, It took courage to hire any of the people in trouble during that time.
May I ask whether you actually had been very active politically or was it a matter of principle that you didn’t want to cooperate with the committee’s style of questioning?
Well, I’m afraid that I hadn’t been all that active, but I said in the beginning that I talked a little bit about this with Charles Weiner and I’m not putting this down in detail here.
All right. I didn’t want to neglect it entirely, but I’m quite pleased to pass over it.
I will say there were many people who behaved very beautifully then, and there were many people who were very cowardly.
Well, I’m not surprised, Then in 1957 you went to Washington University in St. Louis. Was Ed Condon there at that time?
Yes, he was, He hired me to run the Academic Year Institute, which I did for five years, for high school teachers, I taught some other things on the side, did a little bit more writing and some research, but mostly I was very busy learning for the first time about more elementary science education, physics education, than I had paid much heed to in the past.
Because I guess from your own experience as a high school student, you didn’t learn much physics.
As a high school student I learned fine, As a college student… I didn’t, As a high school student I learned so much that I was better than most people in the little college when I went.
Oh, I see, I’m sorry I misunderstood.
No, no, The high school physics course that I had was splendid.
Do you remember what book you used?
Millikan, Gale and Edwards.
Oh, one of the well known ones, And then you did teach high school yourself...
Yes, one year.
One year, But then your contact with high school curriculm did not take up again until your experience with the AYI. Is that correct?
So that you had found a good many changes had been made.
Well, it’s true that I had joined the American Association of Physics Teachers back in 1943 while I was at Minnesota, because there were very active people in Minnesota in AAPT—J. Butchta, Clifford Wall, others— so that I hadn’t been completely out of touch, but even then I wasn’t aware of what was going on in the high schools except vicariously.
Well, by 1957 were the new high school curricula being developed then for which the high school teachers were beginning to be trained?
If you want a date to this, you remember that Sputnik was in the fall of ‘57, and we were already in the Academic Year Institute at that time, There’s a myth that it all started with Sputnik, That isn’t quite true, because the program of Institutes was already in.
So presumably the beginning of the institutes was more an outgrowth of the development of the National Science Foundation and the processes of funding these needs.
That’s right. Two of the people who were very active in some of these developments and very active with the National Science Foundation were also active in the American Association of Physics Teachers Paul Klopsteg, who was the founder of AAPT, and J. W. Buchta, who was the first executive officer of AAPT after he had retired from Minnesota. So that some of these institutes, which began with industry help— General Electric and maybe some other industry, put up money for some of the first summer institutes. One person who was active in getting this money was Buchta.
I see, Well, did they originally start as summer institutes?
They originally started as summer institutes, and the first two academic year institutes were in ‘56 ’57. Then there were eight the following year. The first two were at Wisconsin and Illinois, one in science generally and one in mathematics. The next year there were eight... Washington University had one of them.
You went there in 1957.
Yes, I went in March or April of 1957 after the grant came through to plan for the coming year, I stayed there, selecting candidates and so forth, and worked there, administered the institute, taught classes in it, taught several courses.
How large a group of teachers did you have in those years?
Fifty each year.
I see. And did they stay together as one class group...? Or... did they break up into different interest groups?
They all had tailor-made programs. Some classes were designed especially for institute participants, some not. The teachers had a diversity of interests. Some of them were physical science teachers; some of them were general science teachers; some of them almost purely mathematics teachers, Some of them specialized more than others. They were again on the whole very good. Many of them have gone into administration and are out of teaching, but the trouble with much high school teaching is the only way up is out, or it used to be.
I’m afraid it’s still true from what I know.
I enjoyed that, but then in 1962 I went to the University of Chicago and again taught some physics courses but was really in charge of the physical science general education course until I retired ten years later.
I see, When over these years did the two books that you were associated with as co-author get written? What were the circumstances?
During the period when I was otherwise unemployed I’m afraid that’s what I meant before, There were some class notes that had been taken by a student from Panofsky’s Electricity and Magnetism, and Addison—Wesley was supposed to publish it, but the book was not getting written, Some graduate student of Piel Pief Panofsky, whose name I forget now, was supposed to write the book, and he didn’t do it, It was actually Willis Lamb who suggested that I might be interested because it was a favorite subject of mine, I demanded to see the notes before I said yes, and I liked the notes and Pief and I wrote the book. I wrote the draft from student notes and filled it out and did some additional chapters. We worked on it together.
Were you and Dr. Panofsky in the same geographical area when you were collaborating on this?
Very little, I went out in 1954 to Stanford and stayed six weeks (actually with the Lambs) and worked there, but this was for final touches. Mostly we exchanged successive drafts by mail, During that same period Francis Bonner and I also wrote the physical science hook, but that was written very differently. There we wrote drafts quite separately and exchanged them and rewrote them.
At what institution was he at that time?
I think he had left Brooklyn College to go with Arthur D, Little, He may have been at Brooklyn College when we started, but he was with industry for a while before he came to Stony Brook.
You had become acquainted while you were both at Brooklyn College?
That is correct.
From when did the impetus for this book— the physical science book come?
I think that was suggested by the publisher.
I see, and aimed at the growing number of college courses for non science people?
Well, Fran and I had both taught in such a course at Brooklyn College, so we not only knew each other we had collaborated in lecturing for the course, in teaching the course. I think it was Warren Blaisdell who suggested that we make a book out of it. He was then with Addison Wesley.
On your period at Chicago you said you were teaching in that kind of a program...
Did you use your own book at that time?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no.
From your experience in teaching that kind of a course was it essential, only desirable or not necessary at all to provide for laboratory work for this type student?
Oh, I think it’s very important, and we worked very hard on our laboratory in Chicago. We developed some experiments that I’ll probably never get around to putting together for publication, and besides I didn’t do it all, It was often staff work, But I think experiments are very important, They have to be designed especially, Although some students hate the lab, other students appreciate what they get out of it very much, That’s true in most labs that are required, I think the laboratory is very important, It shouldn’t be too cut and dried, but otherwise, unless the students get “hands on”, it seems they don’t fully understand the material.
I was interested to know your perspective on this, both from your own experience and in terms of the teachers that you were working with, because you do hear some criticisms that laboratories are a waste of time for that kind of student, I have never felt that way myself, I feel that it’s an approach to the material that even though you could tell the student or show him a movie on it, unless he does it himself, spends a couple of hours maybe not very efficiently but doing it, he doesn’t get that kind of a grasp really of the concepts.
I think that’s true, It’s a very difficult problem to design satisfactory labs and to design an approach to the laboratory, an approach to the course. And there were some times in the ‘60s where it was particularly difficult. It was a very difficult time to teach at all, but we survived one way or another.
Well, thus far we’ve covered discussion of most of your formal positions with institutions. Now could we talk about your activities associated with the American Association of Physics Teachers? You’ve already mentioned that you became a member in the early 1940s, but you must have become more active in the Association in order to become president in 1966.
Well, I think that my increased activity in the Association had a great deal to do with my work with the Academic Year Institute. Also within that short period of time, Jerrold Zacharias began to be more and more interested in both high school physics and college physics, and they started to organize the Commission on College Physics. I was a member of the Commission on College Physics from 1960 to 1968, I think that although I’d already known many people interested in teaching physics, I got to know them better at that time.
There were people all over who had been active in the Association, not only Jay Buchta, whom I’ve mentioned, but also Walter Michels at Bryn Mawr and Frank Verbrugge, who was active in the Association too, Again he was from Minnesota and more in the engineering, applied field, I became acquainted during my years here in New York with Mark Zemansky and some of the other people in the city college system, hut also there were people interested in textbooks and education, and by that time I had written a couple of textbooks myself; so that when I was asked to run for the executive committee of the AAPT, I did, and I was on that committee during the early ‘60s.
There I got acquainted even better with some of the people in the Association. The first international conference I ever went to was one held in Paris at UNESC0— I think it was in 1966,— and I met a number of people in England who were also interested in education. I can’t tell you who was instrumental in nominating me for the presidency if that’s what you mean, but by that time I had been very active on some of the issues—what did the new mathematics have to do with teaching physics, how much harm was it doing us, was it doing us any good. It was running symposia on that kind of thing that made me more and more interested in the problems of teaching physics.
At that time, too, I think people were beginning to be much more alert to physics being physics and not diluted beyond all recognition—so that I got drawn into it and worked hard at it and began to learn how the organization functioned, I don’t know exactly how I became so active, but it’s probably because I worked at the problems. We never solved them, I think all these problems, like physics itself, are with us forever; but that’s part of the… I say charm… part of the challenge. So the more you work at them, the more there is to do, but you always get something positive done, or usually do.
Do you see the mission of the Association of Physics Teachers as a three part one which would focus on the teaching of physics at the high school or junior high school level and then at the college and possibly the graduate level education problems?
Well, I do, but of course this broad range is one of the problems. This is one of the things that makes the whole situation so difficult. The people in the universities whose future depends on their writing more and more research papers have very little patience with the problems of education at a lower level. This has to do in part with why the Association of Physics Teachers ever got started,but there are many conflicts of interest inside any association which is as broadly based as this. The people who are most interested in research problems are not going to be— not very many of them; there are exceptions—as much interested in teaching at a lower level.
The exceptions are several, Bob Karplus is a notable one. After doing a lot of quantum electrodynamics he is spending practically full time now on education of very young children. There are others, I sometimes hear from David Bohm, now in England, who’s very active in an experimental school using Piaget learning theories of education. Dave Bohm makes a connection between the kind of very difficult research he does with his graduate students and the problems of learning theory, But these connections are not obvious to many people on either side, so that you have people involved in teaching science at the junior high school level who don’t appreciate the problems of the university and vice versa, to say nothing of the people in between, This means that you have the problem of keeping all these people together with interests in common and at the same time satisfying them, if you can, with things that are useful exactly where they’re working.
That’s not easy for the National Science Foundation, It’s not easy for the AAPT, And it’s a little beyond the scope of the APS. As I think I told you before, it’s very interesting to see that the AAPT was really born of frustration that the Physical Society wouldn’t pay the slightest heed to problems involved in education, But then the Optical Society was born of frustration at that time that the physicists didn’t pay any attention to their problems in optics either, although it’s of interest that the Optical Society has been one of the fastest growing societies in recent years whereas just because prosperity has fallen off, the membership of AAPT has fallen off, in fact, in about the same proportion as the AAAS—almost parallel, The full membership figures with dates and recession and so forth scale amazingly if you remember that the factor is about one in 10, The membership of the AAAS is about ten times the membership of the AAPT, The percentage drop from the highest membership is about the same.
Do you know offhand how it compares to the American Physical Society membership?
The American Physical Society membership has leveled off, It has not fallen, People have professional interests that keep them members of the APS in a way that people don’t have professional interests — that is, financial interest—to keep them members of either the AAAS or AAPT, I do know these membership figures, It’s been my business to know them, The APS is something like 28,000 now, and the AAPT is something like 10,000 and was up to 13,000 whereas I don’t think that the membership of the APS has ever been quite to 30,000. It’s been just at a level there of about 29,000. The figure that does scale with AAPT, is the production of Ph.D.s the figures that come out of Suzanne Ellis’s office at AIP. Those figures are interesting and I wrote an editorial for the AAPT Announcer using these figures a couple of years ago. I’ll give you a reprint if I have one.
I’m sure we can find it, I may even have it at home in my stack of announcers that I never throw away.
Well, I think that this whole question of interest in membership is related to the problem of science and jobs and training of scientists and population studies as well—the number of students is going down, The enrollment figures that come out of the AIP office, are extremely interesting. I’m glad to put it on record again I think Suzanne Ellis has been a national resource, a national treasure for us in the physics profession.
Well, of course, enrollments in societies or numbers of students getting degrees and things like that depend on the two converging trends of simply the economy as to whether people have jobs and can afford to belong and it also depends on how attractive physics as a discipline is these days. If you could simply disregard all economic factors, do you think that physics as an intellectual discipline for young people is holding up in its attraction?
I don’t know that it is, but I think that it’s only a small minority of people that get so much in love with physics that they cannot be dissuaded from doing it. Let me quote something that I heard many years ago from Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin. We were at an AAUW luncheon, both as speakers, and after her experience being brought up in England, working at the Harvard Observatory, she said, with only half a smile, that no woman should continue in science and become a professional who could be persuaded not to. Now, you can take that two ways. It might even apply to everybody. If you can dissuade somebody from going into science, then from one point of view he shouldn’t go. On the other hand, there are people who need encouragement.
There are late bloomers. There are all the kinds of people who ought to go into science. I don’t know that the economic factors can be forgotten—if you put them together with the demographic factors, the fact that the birthrate has fallen off so that the number of faculty positions has gone down, so that the curve of new faculty appointments versus years is going to turn negative in the middle ‘80s very likely. This has a historical basis. It shows a lack of perspective back in the times when people forgot that a curve cannot remain exponential, It was so during a period of several years there that a new lunior college opened on the average of once a week in the United States, There was such an enormous demand for people to teach physics in colleges that people were hired in positions for which they shouldn’t have been hired, and we don’t have any way of cutting this off now because those people are relatively young. If they could retire with dignity and maintain their usefulness, some of them would be very glad to, We have built in the impossibility of early retirement in this country, more than in most countries, People who would love to keep very busy not teaching regular classes in. Colleges, giving rise to jobs for young people, giving way to young people, those people can’t afford to do it, especially if it’s going to cost them an awful lot of money and mean hardships for families or sick wives or husbands, as the case may be, They can’t afford to do it. Now, fortunately, we have a number of people who are alert to this problem now in the government. I think Frank Press is alert to the problem. I think that Atkinson, who’s now head of the National Science Foundation, is alert to the problem; and they tend to emphasize the opportunities in universities and colleges for research people. There are no jobs for young Ph.D.’s now —- or very few, With no positions available, the universities are not going to maintain their place in the research picture. But that’s just the other side of the same problem. You have people who shouldn’t he teaching, who would be glad not to teach, many of them, holding positions that should be held by young people. It’s not a question of cutting people off. It should be possible to keep people intellectually alert beyond regular retirement.
Yes, I think it’s a shame for somebody to have an arbitrary cutoff date because he reaches a certain birthday and is told that he can’t do this anymore, On the other hand, you have the problem of people who really should be moving out into other kinds of activities even earlier maybe than at 65.
It’s my impression that we, in this country, are peculiarly rigid about this, so that well, mandatory senility, statutory senility...
That’s what Sam Goudsmit calls it.
Oh, he wasn’t the first, Statutory senility sets in at a given time, and it’s not senility it needn’t be but there are two objections to early retirement, People lose money by it, and there are fewer opportunities here than in many places to work, to do interesting things, beyond retirement.
Do you think for instance in England or on the continent people have more flexibility?
I have a very small sample, but I do have English friends who retired early and have never been bored since. They’re still asked to lecture, to sit on examination committees…they have outside examiners in England, My friends are very much in demand, They give papers at international conferences, They’ve kept in touch even though they retired much earlier than I did,
Can they manage to survive economically, though, with only these pickup assignments?
They seem to be, but I’ve never inquired exactly what it cost them. They were both at Oxford before they retired, I visited them last October (They’re not in physics — they’re in philosophy) and they were both going off to Sussex to give lectures the week after I left. I’ve never asked about their income, but they are obviously not starving, and they seem very happy, very happy not to be involved in the kind of administration that started catching up with them when they got to be important people at the university. So I think that we in this country really must worry about these problems, I’m not saying people shouldn’t be professors until the end, but they shouldn’t be taking up positions that other people need, and we should have ways for people to get out with dignity who want to get out of that particular kind of routine job that they’ve been doing, And we’d freshen up the courses, too—
Well, I think it’s certainly desirable for many people to have a flexibility in their life pattern that would be of value to the individual and to the society as a whole.
That’s right. And I think that some suggestions have been made by Atkinson and others, mostly from the point of view of making more research places in the universities, But you have unemployment at all levels in education now, and we’re going to have a very elderly faculty at all levels very soon unless something is done. There’ll be a few young people who make it, but it’s hard right now.
Getting back to the AAPT and its mission to be concerned with the problems of teaching physics at different levels. I wonder if you have some thoughts about another group that are not students who are going to become professional physicists or even students formally but the general public as to whether the PT can take a part in the public conception of science.
I think it has been trying to do that. It’s one of the big problems, and of course it’s very important. It may be the most important task in education, because, as Payne-Gaposchkin said, there are some people that won’t be turned off, but the harder problem is to turn on some people, not necessarily professionally, but to enrich their lives and make them more intelligent in every respect about the world they live in. The AAPT does try to do this. It has a committee, an area committee, which works on this.
There are very encouraging developments: Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratori in San Francisco, the Lawrence Hall of Science, both very popular and both very popular with school children, Here in town I notice when I go to museums— the Natural History Museum, for example and others—there are many many children, But in New York there’s no very good museum of science and industry or anything of that sort. I think probably in Boston you do better, I know they do somewhat better in Chicago and very well in Toronto. I think that one of the things the AAPT has done is to bring museums to the attention of physics teachers. There are open house meetings scheduled for two nights in the coming San Francisco PT—APS meeting: one in Lawrence Hall and one in the exploratorium with buses to get people there. Of course, there’s also the problem of continuing education of older people. We haven’t done as much as we should about that, but this is a very important area, and I think it will become increasingly important with people retiring, living longer.
I understand that a large number of the colleges with falling enrollments have begun to cultivate the senior citizen group.
I hope so.
And have found it very satisfactory from two points of view— the older people bring something to the general student mix, and the older people’s lives have been enriched.
Of course, the university and college people need some education on this point as well as the people that we are trying to reach. And that’s one of the things that the Association also tries to do. It’s very hard to measure any success, How far do we get? How far have we gone? Well, nowhere in comparison to where we want to be, but the yardstick is very hard to see numbers on.
Do you have any feelings about the kinds of programs that have been tried —— for instance, in the high schools: the PSSC and the Harvard Pro lect Physics and the various curriculum innovations that were made? Do you think that they’re doing fine or is it time to reassess the situation?
I think that the two programs you mentioned—PSSC and the Harvard Project Physics— did fine except that they were confined to a limited audience just as physics has always been. They have not widened the scope, There may or may not be more hope for the new version of the Manmade World, which is a more practical course.
I don’t think I’m familiar with that one, Who’s responsible for that one?
That was started by Edward David, who was at Bell Labs, and John Truxall, who was then at Brooklyn Poly [technical] Institute, and is now at Stony Brook. It was more of an engineering applied type, But the first edition, at least, turned out to be just as elite. It didn’t really appeal to the broad spectrum of students. It was not enough. I don’t think that any one of these courses has done what it hoped to do, but I think that despite some specific criticisms that one can make of each, they have done a lot of good to the general intellectual community, You have now a background for picking things up and using them. They’ve been good in the sense that the Feymman Lectures have been good. They’re wonderful for the teachers So far, most of the students in our classrooms are not learning much physics in high school, not even enrolled in physics, So the new curricula have been good, but they haven’t done what they were supposed to do.
Going back a moment to the teachers that you were associated with in your years with the AYI program, did you find in general that the high school teachers of physics were desperately in need of help or modernization or even enrichment, or were they pretty capable?
Well, first of all let me remind you that we had very few high school teachers of physics per se. We did have some but not all that many. Most of these people taught a number of subjects and very few of them taught just physics, And did they need further education? They certainly did. What was worst about them, although they were wonderful people and I think that every one of them, as we said in the beginning almost every one of them went out at the end of the academic year walking taller than when he came in. The thing they didn’t know how to do or they’d forgotten was how to study. They didn’t know how to do the kind of work that’s required in college.
If they ever knew, they’d forgotten. They were rusty, But this is something one can sympathize with, and I met a number of them who had terrible difficulties at the beginning who have gone from strength to strength afterward, people who were almost already middleaged. It’s a resilience, it’s an aliveness, it’s an alertness that they tended to lack, some of them. Some of them, of course, you could never keep down no matter what, But I think they mostly gained enough self confidence to be able to say, “I don’t know when they didn’t know, which is what they lacked when they came in. They had gotten into the rut of having to fake it, many of them, when they didn’t know and that doesn’t go in science.”
Do you think that when we speak of these long periods of several decades spanning a teacher’s career that it would be a good idea for teachers to be able to take a year off and go back once a decade into a counterpart of the AYI program?
Of course it would, So that this idea I never agreed with it at the time but some people maybe still do that this program should phase itself out isn’t true, There should be a continuing program, and it’s not built into the society. There should be a continuous opportunity for “refreshment”,
Are there still AYI programs?
It would seem to me that for the group that you mentioned earlier people at universities primarily the availability of the resources of the AAPT would be even more valuable to help them be more efficient in terms of whatever amount of their time they do have to devote to teaching, since most people do have to teach if they’re going to have a job.
Some of them don’t teach at any level where they think they can learn from other people, but I think you’re right, and I think that this is a sad commentary on the kind of membership that we have in AAPT. There are some of the most famous scientists who are members, but I think one of the weakest areas of membership is the university where people think, “All right, the lab man is a member, Let’s let him represent us and bring home the new things, but we don’t have to support the organization,” I think the organization is very useful in supplying resources.
That’s something that I think has gro during the years. Although publishing the journals, the American Journal of Physics and later The Physics Teacher, has been the most popular single thing the Association does, the Association puts out more and more occasional publications, You are now also able to get short films that are not really commercially successful and you can now exchange video tapes. This exchange hasn’t gone very fast and probably shouldn’t. It’s taken a lot longer to get it started than most of us expected, because the use of video tapes turns out to be more complicated than we thought it was going to be, But the Association does provide all these services, and with executive office set up the way it is now, I think we’ll continue to do that. In other words, I think the work of the Association, although it’s very often frustrating and too much for anybody to accomplish really, is extremely worthwhile and perhaps not as appreciated as it should be by all the members of the physics community. No association can solve all the problems, but I think it can offer aids. You put down here under general comments “physics as a discipline now and in the future,” and I’ve been saying that if you like the subject you can’t be dissuaded from paying some attention to it.
But I would like to put on record something that I’ve said again and again about the problems in education and about physics research. I cannot believe that we’ll ever come to any final answer, and I think that’s probably a good thing I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing, because there would be no challenge left if we could, But this is another way of saying that if you stop, you can’t stand still or you’ll slide backward; and I think that this is true no matter how excited people get about all the new charms and quarks and so forth. I still remember when very good physicists thought that the final answers were here in the strong interactions. That seems a very foolish thing now, but I can quote prominent physicists, very famous physicists, saying so in public, I have no doubt in my mind that the more problems we solve, the more there will be to solve; and I think that’s true of our educational problems as well. Of course there are fluctuations imposed on this general trend, (if you can call it a general trend). You asked me about women, There were the fluctuations in a social context that diminished the number of women who went into professional careers for the whole of the ‘50s, I don’t think the reasons were economic; I think they were social. It was not the thing to do, The thing to do was to move to the suburbs and stay out of the professions, And so the college daughters of professional women were not going to be professional women, Some of them now regret it, And I’m glad that if the feminist movement does nothing else, it has put a stop to that period.
I gather from the comments that you’ve made throughout our conversation that you as an individual always felt that your life in the world of physics was not in any way circumscribed because you were a woman physicist rather than just a physicist without any sexual designation.
Oh, there was job discrimination, I’m sure of that although it’s awfully hard for anybody to point to specific discrimination.
But although you certainly had difficulties locating suitable lobs in one period in the ‘30s, it could have been ascribed to the depression days, and later it could have been ascribed entirely to the political climate, Do you feel that in addition to those two elements, there was no doubt some sexual discrimination?
Oh, there was, of course, often for explicit humanitarian reasons: men have families to support, for one thing. But it’s very hard to pinpoint. You never can be absolutely sure, and I think for every woman physicist... it’s very hard to say, “Yes, I’m really better than” Sometimes it’s really impossible to say, “I’m considerably better than the person who got this job.’’, you’re doubtful about all the factors involved, and it’s not only I who face this problem it’s also faced by other women physicists know, But you’re right. I’ve never felt intellectual discrimination, I’ve felt some economic discrimination.
Coming back to this other problem: The period in which people didn’t really want to develop any wings, in which it was not the kind of thing for any woman to do... Women were not supposed to undertake a long period of apprenticeship. I think I’m using Alice Rossi’s word here, That was not the thing to do for a while, It took a great deal of determination to become a professional as a woman during some period in there—I think probably the ‘5Os, There was a discouraging social climate, Alice Rossi is now I think at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps at Amherst, but I overlapped with her at Chicago. She has written a number of articles. Do you know her work on career patterns? She was head of a committee in the MAS for awhile.
No; is she a physicist?
No, she’s a sociologist, but she’s been very much interested in the general subject.
Do you feel as you look around today the young women are coming up in physics there are some— that they will face fewer barriers than in the past so far as discrimination is concerned? (There’s always the economic problem. If the job doesn’t exist...she will have difficulties).
Well, I think there are some advantages now to the alertness which must have some good consequences. Now, not only is it on people’s minds but on people’s tongues: do we have affirmative action or do we now have a backlash coming? It’s hard to tell, But I think that at least people can complain more effectively. I don’t know what the future will hold, but I don’t think we can ever go all the way back.
You spoke before contrasting the American picture with the English in particular in regard to career opportunities. In retirement, flexibility, duration of careers and moving into other activities, Do you think that so far as women’s acceptance in the field of physics that there’s any significant difference that you’ve observed among the countries?
Neil, not only in physics, I think, but in science generally, there was a period in which most of our graduate students who were women came from abroad, many of them from India, some of them— not only in only physics but in medicine from South America. There’s a tradition of women in science in France that’s greater than ours here. There are a few fields in which this doesn’t seem to have been true, Take cyrstallography, for example. There have been famous women crystallographers for a long, long time, Take astronomy. Look at the famous women astronomers Henrietta Leavitt, Annie A, Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and all the others but no one of them was ever head of the Harvard Observatory. They only worked there. I could be wrong about this but I don’t think any of those early people were on the Harvard faculty.
No, they weren’t. I think Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first and it was a long time before she had any kind of a regular appointment.
Yes, But look at Leavitt and Cannon, And there you are. So there was discrimination, Whether it impeded their work, I wouldn’t argue. That was not quite so true in crystallography, where women got further faster. We all remember Kathleen Lonsdale and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkins. And there were many others, Even in this country there has been women crystallographers.
Well, we’re never going to solve all the problems of education or physics or women’s career aspirations and realization.
We’re not going to solve them, but, as I’ve been saying all the time; if we make enough effort, we’ll make progress; and I think progress has been made. We sometimes slip back, but we never quite slip all the way back; or we never slip back to the same place. There’s a great deal of truth in saying that progress is not steady no matter how inevitable.
Well, I thank you very much for giving me your time and sharing your thoughts and recollections, Can you think of anything we didn’t cover? I think we’ve ranged widely and very satisfactorily.
Well, we’ll both probably think of lots of things we should have asked each other.
Well, we can always add a P.S. or have another session.
AAPT Announcer March, 1976, Vol. 6 No, 1.