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Interview of Earle Plyler by E. Scott Barr and W. James King on 1964 April 7, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4828
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Early life, childhood interests; undergraduate at Furman University, South Carolina; B.A., 1917, M.A., 1918; Johns Hopkins University, 1923; optics work at Cornell University, 1919, 1924, Ph.D., 1924; recollections and anecdotes on teaching, research and administrative duties at: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1924-1941; University of Michigan, 1941-1945; National Bureau of Standards, 1945-1962; Florida State University, Tallahassee, 1962; comments on the construction and personalities of Harrison Randall and William Coblentz; assessment of former and present students and evaluation of the nature of the educational process. Personal beliefs and satisfactions. Also prominently mentioned are: Nick Acquista, Allison, Jack Craven, Walter Gordy, John Howard, Imes, Earle Hesse Kennard, Samuel Pierpont Langley, A. Herman Pfund; and National Science Foundation.
The purpose of the anniversary sketches in the American Journal of Physics is to add flesh to bones. In other words, we've got the bones and now we'd like to have a little flesh on them.
Well, now, Randall's not going to live forever. Are you going to write him up sometime?
Oh yes, I had an interview with him in February.
He is a remarkable man. When this record gets to running I'll want to tell some things about him.
It's on now.
Let me interrupt just a second also. How about Abbott? Is he available still?
That's a good point. We should add him to the list.
I think so — for his astrophysics work.
The trouble is, he did one thing and one thing only, measuring radiation from the sun primarily, and if he had quit that after 20 years, and had gone into measuring radiation from the planets to the stars, he would have then tided over. But he just stood still, and the others moved out. He did a fine job while he was doing it.
What I was thinking is only in terms of his activity as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a figure that should be remembered. And as Assistant to Langley and as the first head of the Astrophysical Observatory, I think that he’s probably a man who should go into the general background. How do you like that spectrometer there? That's one of the first ones at the Astrophysical Observatory.
Is this the picture of the one with the quartz lenses? Did you get a picture of that?
No, there is not one of the ones with the quartz lenses.
He made an instrument with rock salt. Is this the one made with rock salt?
No, this is a mirror instrument there. The rock salt one I know of.
I've seen it. They took it out of the exhibit and packed it away — I don't know whether to protect it or whether they thought it was too old-timey. He didn't have the modern type of instrument. He would swing the arm that had his bolometer around.
This was his calibration set-up here. That's his carbon arc, there. He's pouring a tremendous carbon arc right in front of a slit and water cooling the slit just so it didn't melt. Then what he is doing is using higher orders of the sodium wavelength to get his calibration out there. So he was the first one, really to do a calibration on rock salt.
The reason, if for no other, than I think that Langley was truly a great scientist is that just as soon as he would do something, Paschen and Rubens would try to do the same thing a little better, that they said Langley had pointed out. Those Germans didn't think much of anybody but Germans in that period. They were almost right, but not completely. From 1870 up to World War I, they surpassed all other physicists in the world, but when they referred to Coblentz and Langley, it was a sign they felt they were really good.
This was a very real tribute. One other thing about Langley's work is that he opened up a spectral region which was vast compared to everything that had been known before his time, so his new spectra was really a most remarkable achievement.
Did you put in your report about Langley appealing to fellow scientists for support? Langley tried to measure infrared, but his wavelengths were very poor, as you know. But before he got his rock salt, he was using glass. He finally decided that he had gotten to 11.8 microns which was the farthest infrared known. He wrote one of the great French scientists, and said, "Do you know of any other wavelength that's been measured with certainly this long?" The man wrote back, no, and so he says according to the affirmation of Professor So-and-So, this is the longest wavelength ever measured. That's in his first collected volume of the annals of the Astrophysical Journal.
Yes. The Smithsonian very kindly lent that to me. That's where I got these pictures from.
I would like to get your comments on the work of Coblentz.
Coblentz was a genius. When Coblentz wanted to do something, that is, decided to measure something, instead of the way that the modern people do, looking in the catalogues, calling up some company or something like that, he'd take off his coat and go into the laboratory and start making it. He made his own thermocouples; he made his own galvanometers; he wound the coils, and everything of his Thomson-type galvanometers.
He ground mirrors out of blocks of cast iron.
Yes, and they have a tremendous supply of his things which I saved. When Condon came to the National Bureau of Standards, he said that “This place is more like a museum than a laboratory. We want to throw out all these old things.” Well, I didn't agree with him; I just hid them so that it wouldn't be harmful to his eye and saved them. Now, the Bureau feels like it is almost grown up enough that it can have a museum and not be considered old-timey. I pulled out seven boxes of Coblentz's things that he made himself. I have two of the thermocouples that he made, in which the receivers, the diameter is about 2/10th of a millimeter, but he did not connect the wires together, and then seal that target on it, but he sealed the wires to the two edges of this target which was re-invented by Schwartz and Hilger and then copied by Perkin-Elmer, but none of them ever looked far enough back in the literature to find that Coblentz had done that in 1924. With so much being done today, and so many people in a hurry, there's a lot of what I call rediscovering America. But Coblentz was a wonderful man with his hands. He was a very hard worker, and he also did not know what it was to consider anything impossible to do to measure the stars. He measured the temperature of the planets, and two out of three of his measurements are still just about as good as they can get. He did this with his little thermocouples at the Observatory at Flagstaff.
He measured some of the basic constants in physics—
The solar constant, he worked on a good bit, I remember.
Didn't you tell me at one time that he called up the power plant and complained bitterly because it was blowing smoke across his building while he was trying to get measurements?
Yes. He said, “Don’t stoke that furnace anymore. You’re making too much smoke.” He didn't like that smoke in there. But his precision — now, what does it take to make a good experimental scientist? There are a lot of ingredients. Precision is certainly one of the main factors to determine these constants, and a whole lot of patience. But these little carbon lamps that cost ten cents, (the Bureau sells them for $100 now) were calibrated for total radiant energy, the number of microwatts per square centimeter coming out at a distance of two meters from that lamp, and the calibration was given at three different currents. He calibrated those back in 1914, ‘15 and ‘16. When I went to the Bureau there was some concern about whether these calibrations were good — were we putting a farce over on the public, because we had issued about 1000 of those lamps all over the world, and that was and still is the standard for thermocouples and other devices like that that he did fifty years ago. Well, with all the modern amplifiers and new systems, all we could do is say that our value was in the experimental area of his values. Then, I took two of them over to Teddington, England, in my suitcase, when I was going to a meeting, and left them there for them to judge. Well, Coblentz claimed that the values were accurate to one percent, but I took two lamps, each one of them had three values for three different currents, and five out of six of the values that they got checked within 1/10 of one percent of what Coblentz gave. Then the Canadians in their National Research Council, which is almost like a Bureau of Standards, checked them, so those lamps which were calibrated and made for standards 1916 are still good. His constant on the total radiant energy — Planck’s constant — is as good as any value. If you’re interested in reading about that, read John Sanderson’s story in the November 1963 issue of Applied Optics. There are three stories in there in regard to his career in three different subjects: Sanderson on Radiometry; John Strong on his work in Astrophysics; and the man from Canada (R. Norman Jones) in regard to his infrared. Now that infrared work, these 135 pure compounds, was done over a period, by the point by point string pulling method, of 18 months, and scarcely ever, after he completed the curves in those three volumes of investigation of infrared spectra, did he do anymore infrared spectra. But he set the pace for all the modern industry to use infrared spectra for analysis.
For analytical spectroscopy.
For infrared as a means of analysis instead of wet chemistry-type analysis.
Now all this chemical analysis now is based exactly on Dr. Coblentz’s work?
That’s right. He set the pace for it, and he did that over a period of 18 months. The interesting thing about that, he had to pay out of his own pocket for a lot of those compounds. I still have some of them that he ordered from Germany, and they are going to be in the Bureau exhibit with these bottles that he ordered from German firms they couldn't make good chemicals in this country at that time. He knew that it was no use to measure each spectrum if you had any impurities. How would you know which was the impurity, and so his emphasis on the purity of the sample, and then the correlation that there were groups of atoms rather than the atoms in absorption was a great distinction? Each molecule differed from every other molecule; a fingerprinting process for identification.
This was really a major discovery when he discovered that.
If that had been known and followed up, he would have gotten the Nobel Prize for that. If he had published his astronomical results a little more, he might have gotten the Nobel Prize for that, but he was a lone worker. Over his entire career, he never had more than two people with him, and sometimes none, and therefore he would just have to take these subjects and work hard on this for a while, and hard on that. He had the vision of the important things to do, and so, all present-day radiometry is based on his foundation which is more general in methods of measurement. He laid the foundation for that. He is truly one of our great scientists who compare with Langley, with Gibbs, Joseph Henry.
Do you remember about when it was he did his three volume work?
From 1903 to 1905. He was a Fellow at Cornell University after he got his Doctor's Degree. Then he got a fellowship from Carnegie Institution in Washington to continue on his infrared research. After 18 months he was offered this Bureau job, a position as Stratton's assistant. Stratton was interested in interferometry so he would keep them in adjustment, so when Congressmen came out there he'd let them look through and see spectra. Finally he took some of his infrared curves in and showed Stratton and Stratton said, “Well, what of it?” Coblentz went away very unhappy. Two weeks later he got a notice from Stratton, "Order infrared spectrometer immediately. Get back to work.” He had impressed him more than he thought. Stratton was a poker player-type man, and he wasn't going to tell him right then that “I think this is wonderful.”
The reason I asked about that date was because I think it's very interesting when I was at Tulane in 1936, or 1937, I guess it was, went out to the research laboratory of the Department of Agriculture and talked to their head chemist out there and told him that I thought they were making a mistake in not using infrared analysis as part of their general program, and was told in no uncertain terms that the chemists did not need infrared for their work, that they could do their analytical work better without spectroscopic assistance, than they could with it.
Yes, but now they've taken the subject over.
It took almost 35 years after Coblentz had made this discovery, and the chemists had still not picked up the fact that this would make possible analysis for molecular compounds that now-a-days is more or less the basis of chemical operations.
That's right. But chemists are much more alive today. They're about to take over nuclear energy for many of their studies, and they've taken over nuclear magnetic resonance. The physicists have been developing this subject and then they see how they can learn more about the molecules. The chemist really has as his field, the molecules, and any tool that would give them any information about the molecules, they're very ready to adopt.
How would you compare the quality of the work of Coblentz with that of Randall?
I would say far superior to Randall. Randall is a great man on two counts; one, he took a small college-type department and in 20 years or less, or in ten years, made it into one of the world's great physics department that's recognized all over the world; that's been voted every time for the last 30 years as one of our ten or twelve greatest physics departments, accomplished because he was a judge of men. He could talk to a young man and see whether that man would go on and have a career. He brought Goudsmit, Uhlenbeck, Dennison, and all those men who are great men today in physics to his new department. But, he didn't offend his older men. He kept them right along and they accepted it gracefully. He had a wonderful department. That was, I think, his greatest accomplishment. His next greatest accomplishment was that at the age of 42 he went over and worked with Paschen for a year at Tubingen and there he got introduced to infrared, and Paschen was studying the emission lines of atoms and wanted to extend it down in the infrared so he made an infrared grating instrument. So when Randall came back about 1914, he started developing grating instruments for the infrared and did two or three researches on the atomic lines of tin and various substances, but immediately saw that this should be important in the measurement of molecules. For the first time, molecules like HCl, HBr, and CO were resolved which were beautiful examples of the beginning quantum theory and then the instrumentation were improved until that became the world center of infrared. When I graduated from Cornell in 1924, Professor Merritt took an interest in me, and he offered me an instructorship if I wanted to stay on at Cornell, and he said, “If you don’t want to stay here, I’ll write to Professor Randall where they are doing the best infrared work in the world, and see if he won’t give you a place, because you ought to continue on in your researches.” I thanked him very much, but I said I wanted to go back South and get something started down there. They don’t have anything in the South. And if I could make a little improvement down there, I'd feel happy, and also I wanted to make some money because I wanted to get married. So I thanked him. I wondered what would have happened to me if I had stayed around one of those big universities, but I believe in Shakespeare very strongly: "There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may.” I would have wiggled around somewhere. Don't you think so?
Yes. You mentioned Randall. There's one thing about that I think that possibly one of his students was the first Negro physicist, possibly in the world.
He is half Negro and half Indian named Imes. He did the first infrared work that showed isotopic structure and that there were definite states. You see, they thought these bands were continuous. Well, that didn’t prove any quantum theory. Then they showed you either had a line or you didn't, and they were separated out very nicely. Randall’s student Imes did that work, and then Walker and Slater and a lot of others.
I think this is something which is of general interest. I believe I may be right that this is the first Negro man who became a well-known and able physicist.
Yes, but since then they've turned out a great number; do you know Jim Lawson up at Fiske, and Posey out at San Jose? They did very well.
I was saying this goes back a long way. What did Imes do after he left Michigan?
He went to teach at Fiske, and he never did do any more research work.
Fiske really had an infrared tradition then, doesn't it?
They're doing quite well still there. At their Institute every summer they are having infrared studies as a regular thing.
I taught in three of those.
Yes, I've been on the faculty there three times, and they told me any summer I'd come — they wanted me, but the last summer I went down there I almost died from the heat. They've now put in buildings that are air-conditioned, and so now, I think I’ll go back, maybe, in another year or two, and serve on their faculty for another summer. Since I was working for the government, I would take leave and go down there officially, so I couldn't take any money from them, and so I’d give it back to them for their university to help out in some way, which they appreciated. But I don't think that's the reason they invited me to come to teach.
Jones probably wanted to get you down there.
He's a good friend of mine, but I tell you what. It's hard to gauge if a man inspires and makes conditions, and that's what I'm going to try to do here. I’m going to do some research. I'm getting two men in infrared to come in and help. I don't ever expect to get into big time work like I was doing in the Bureau. If I wanted to continue that, I would never have left there. But I do want to get it started and hope that I can inspire one or two of these young men so they will do the things that I would have done if I hadn't been head of the department.
Have you already got your infrared men?
I've got one, and almost another, one of Dennison's men at Michigan. He's supposed to let me know this week. He came down and visited with me. I have four graduate students working with me right now.
Who's the other man?
The other man is from Tokyo, one of Mizushima's students, one of the best men that he ever had there. But, I say that if a man can inspire other people and set up conditions and improve the efficiency, he's been very valuable to science. So, a man hasn't drawn a blank in life, if he is an administrator, or a teacher, provided he inspires and develops other people. But if he doesn't do that — some administrators I've known cut down the efficiency of the men 10%, he hasn't done very much. But Randall always encouraged his men. Now, he was a very fine man personally, and I asked him why he went into the far. Infrared, he said, “Well, I didn't want to be in competition with my men. I want to give them a chance. I asked them what they wanted to do, and let them stake out what they wanted to do, and none of them went into far infrared, so I went into that.” Now, that's the kind of leader you need. As for leadership and development, I'd put him in as one of the greats. I don't know of any physicist in this country who has been a better administrator and leader than Randall. I rank him at the very top.
This has always been something that rather puzzled me: Randall is an experimental man, per se and yet he was able to build at the University of Michigan, a kind of symposium that brought these new ideas in quantum mechanics into this country.
He had a great ability in picking out men; for instance, he had the best shop men I've ever seen at any university.
Their gratings there were the world's standard for some time.
For the far infrared, not the near infrared or the visible, anything they made was a work of art and a work of precision. It wasn't just one or the other. It was both. That was his great contribution to American science. Now, when it came to research, Randall's research was not very important. We wouldn't be talking about him today if it hadn’t been what he did after he retired. He did biological research on infrared, and really made some valuable contributions. His own personal scientific research has been greatly magnified by what he did after he retired. Randall took a liking to me, and was always very close when I was there at Michigan. After I left, if he ever came to Washington, he would always look me up.
I've seen him in your office.
When he came down for Ohio State meetings and symposia, he'd get a notice for me to come, and I was with him for a day or two. I used to enjoy talking with him and philosophizing with him and when I told him I was going to the Bureau, he said, "Well, you've got a mighty man's shoes to fit (that was Coblentz). I said, “If both my feet will fill one of his shoes, I will be happy.” I saw him about ten years later when he came to Washington, and he said, “You remember what I told you about this job?” I said, “You told me a lot.” He said, "Well, you delivered.” I said, “What?” He said, “You’ve done well. I thought that a great compliment from him.
From him, I think that's something you can appreciate.
That's right. When he was 83, he came down to get a project, and he came out to see me and told me he was asking for a three-year project, and he said, “I told them if they give me a three-year project, I'd probably retire and take it easy after that.” So, when he was 86, he came down, and I asked him what was bringing him to Washington this time. He said, “Oh, I came here to get my project renewed.” I said, “I thought you were going to retire.” He said, “I did say that, and I shouldn’t have ever said it, because I don’t want to retire.” Then, at 89, he came down again and got it renewed, and at 92 he wanted to come back, but his family told him, that he had really done enough, and that he should take things easy. I understand he’s very happy now, writing the history of infrared.
You mean he's doing that?
Yes. He has the family living in his home with him and they take good care of him. I was at Michigan at the time they inaugurated the Randall Building, and he was the mildest, meekest man. They said some very nice things, and he said, “I didn’t do it. You people did it. It just so happened that luck made me — that I was the head of the department. All the accomplishments we made, you people did it. He was sincere in saying it. He was extremely mild-mannered, a man you could greatly admire. He never had any troubles with all these young aspiring people, or the old people that looked like they were being passed by. He made them into one big team. Each one was doing his individual work, but they all worked to make that department an outstanding department, which they did.
This, I think, quite unique that he was able to hold together these men who had such diverse personalities and diverse interests, too, and keep that department for such a long period of time, and yet he looks like such a nice sweet man. How could a sweet man do that?
Because he convinced them that he was going to see that they had everything they needed, and he was going to do everything possible to see that they had a career; that they didn’t have to worry about the promotions, that he'd get that from the Dean. All he asked was for them to do the best they could. He didn't push any man, but he let them know where they stood in the department and how much honor they brought to the department. He did this in a kindly and friendly way, and in a way that showed he was interested in them rather than in himself, or this big monster of a university, that it was an individual thing.
Incidentally you said that Rowland’s gratings were the best for the far region, whose were the best for the intermediate?
I said that Michigan was the best for the far infrared…
You mean Randall's for the far infrared. Who was the best for the intermediate?
Well, at that time it was the Hopkins gratings — the Chicago gratings were never turning out. Occasionally they would get a good one, but they never did get that machine working.
This was Michelson's machine?
Yes, and it never equaled what Rowland had built at Hopkins. Now, they've re-worked those machines, and maybe improved them somewhat, but except for the ghosts that were in there, they gave very sharp images and very clear spectra, and a man soon learns to live with ghosts. He knows how to test for ghosts, you see, because of the intensity of the orders, and things like that. Most of the good work that was done in the visible and the ultra violet was done with Hopkins gratings during the thirties when the atomic spectra was king. Each subject has its era.
Who was running the grating machine at Hopkins at that time after Rowland was gone?
Wood, of course. Wood took over and then John Strong —
Did John Strong come there immediately after Wood?
Wood was retired, but still ran the grating, and I'm very happy to say that Wood had enough confidence in me that he gave me five gratings. You know, sometimes it pays to take the oath of poverty. I said, “Professor Wood, I’m down at an institution that gives me $100 a year for research, and I've got to spend that money to get a thermocouple. Now what can you do about helping me about gratings?" He said, "Oh, I’ll send you some.” He sent me those gratings, and also sent me a number of replicas, too. Wood in his way was very kindly to help out somebody whom he thought was worthy, but he was somewhat selective. Pfund would give himself out to anybody that came along. That was different.
What did Wood do with the money he received for the gratings? Was this his own money?
No, it went into the university. Now, he may have charged a fee for supervising, but it helped to support the Physics Department, because Hopkins has never been a very rich Physics Department, because it takes tremendous money to run physics. And the endowment while good was never enough to put in large sums.
So these Wood gratings went into your first grating spectrometer, the one I helped you build.
They still have those there at North Carolina. He gave Coblentz 3 inch gratings and gave me 5 inch gratings, and those gratings are going to be in this exhibit. I'm talking about this museum at the Bureau so much, but all the old equipment which was saved there will be valuable in the future.
I hope those in North Carolina are being taken care of.
I hope so too, because they will be historic someday. The Electrical Division of the Bureau had an attic in their building, and they put all their old equipment up there and they're still pulling that out so that it won't be thrown out. But they did throw out some fairly nice things.
I understand they’ve already thrown out a good bit of material. About five years ago, I was looking for a mercury resistance unit, and they couldn’t find any. Do you know whether they had any?
Well, we had one of those in our radiometry section there that we had on loan. I don’t know if it’s still there. They had these old time Helmholtz galvanometers, you know, with the magnet in the center, and they were ready to throw them out, and I salvaged some of those.
Is Driscoll still there?
Oh, yes, Driscoll is still there. Driscoll is a big shot galvanomagnetic ratio, you see, and all that. He was a graduate student at North Carolina, and got his Masters there. I taught about six or eight men at North Carolina, that I run into no matter where I go. A NASA man came down by the name of Roth, who was a graduate student there in mathematics and had a couple of courses with me, and I didn’t recognize him, but he said, “Did you teach at the University of North Carolina?” I said, “Yes.” He said, "Oh, I was in a couple of your classes. You haven’t changed much since that time.” He had gotten bald-headed, and that is why I didn’t recognize him.
In looking over your papers here, I can't remember… T. Burdine.
Burdine was a man who took a Masters — he didn’t take a doctorate, and went out teaching in some small college in Tennessee. I don’t know where he is now.
I was just looking over the people that had been there that I had known. Of course, Jack Craven and Walter Gordy, Dudley Williams, Paul Steele earlier, and Ralph Weatherford is another one.
Weatherford went to teach at Chattanooga, and he may still be there.
I don't know whether he is or not. I've lost track of him, and then Paul Shearin who did the first work with you on calibration wave lengths, and then of course your work with Dr. Humphreys whom I saw in Washington last week. He said to tell you that he missed you, and to give you his greetings. I guess that these are people at the Bureau that I don't know — J. W. Rowen and C. M. Hunt.
Yes, they were in chemistry there.
The only one I remember at the Bureau is Nick Acquista, and I remember meeting him up there.
Yes, Nick was a little Italian fellow —
He was a very good instrumentalist, wasn't he?
He was a good instrumentalist, and there had never been anyone in his generation that went to college. But in New York City at the City College I believe it is, anybody who makes over a certain grade in high school, like 85, gets free tuition, and so he had done so well in high school, he went on through college. His father and mother were from Sicily, and never did learn English. They lived in a little Italian community in Brooklyn, and he was the first person of the family to have graduated from college. He had a good mind, and he came to the Bureau and worked for me. He had been there about two or three weeks, and he came in and said, “I’m quitting this job to look for another.” I said, “Why, what's wrong?" He said, "Well, I come in to ask you for something to do, and I go and do it for two or three hours, and then come back and show you, and you tell me something else to do. Someday I'm going to come in and ask you and you're not going to have anything for me to do, and I'm going to be out of a job.” Well, he worked for me for 13 years, and I used to kid him. He got very embarrassed and then I stopped, because I didn't want to hurt his feelings. I said, “Do you think I'm going to run out of ideas for something to do?” He was a delightful fellow, and he's done very well too.
Incidentally, I think it would be nice to get your comments on some of these particular studies that you think are most notable among the very many that you've made. I think that the N20 molecule was one of your very first really important contributions to the field, because I think, in this case you showed that infrared could do things which the chemists could not find out about any other way at all.
That made us physicists feel good, didn't it?
It did indeed.
The fact is that infrared is the best method for small molecules, because when chemists try to find the structure by substitution, they destroy the angular arrangement of these small molecules, so that they just can't tell anything about it. The reason that paper attracted so much attention, probably more attention than any paper I've ever published, is because my answer came out different. If it had come out the way the chemists thought it would, they wouldn't have been that interested. This showed that the chemists were wrong, that it was a linear molecule, but not symmetrical. It was proved very distinctly and very carefully by infrared analysis. Now, I've worked at that when I was on sabbatical leave, before I got started in research at North Carolina. At that time, Barker didn't believe in me. Barker was working with me, and said, "Well, Professor Barker, since I have what you may think is a crazy idea; I'm not going to be happy until I try. So, why not let me try, and prove that I’m wrong.” I had calculated from the combination bands that it called for a very long wave length band, of about 18 microns. He said couldn’t measure that far. I said, “How do you know I can’t. Just give me the chance to measure that far.” He said, “All right. What do you need?” I said, “I need a fore prism of potassium bromide and I need, of course, a grating.” So he said, “Well, we can do that for you.” He cut the grating; it took him about a couple of days to run the gratings, and it came out beautifully on the first try. You close the door, and set it at constant temperature and wait to see what you have; and then he gave Paul Weyrich, who was an expert technician there at Michigan, a slab of KBr.
Weyrich — I couldn’t remember his name — but I think he's one of the great instrumentalists.
He is retiring in just about a year.
He made that great infrared department by his being able to work with rock salt and KBr. So he made me a 20 degree prism, and he turned that over to me about 4:00 in the afternoon. Well, you talk about making people work. I put that grating in that instrument and Barker wouldn’t let the graduate students get into the instrument, but he didn’t object to my going in — I put that grating in that instrument; I put that fore prism in and got that instrument adjusted in about three hours. I went home and ate my supper, and looked at the trees to see if the little branches were moving, and the little branches were barely moving, and I said, “Good, I can work tonight.” I went and I worked from about eleven till five-thirty the next morning, and I had that beautiful 18 micron bending vibration band. I plotted it out. I went home and slept about two hours, got my breakfast, went back and showed it to Barker the next morning, and he didn't say why didn't you do more.
He was convinced.
He was convinced that that band was there, and that I did have a little intelligence. I think he had doubts before that. The first thing Barker did after he got to be head of the department in 1940, I believe it was, was to give me a job to come back there to work with him again.
You convinced him properly.
I told him that he did that because I was the first Southerner he ever saw who would work. You see, people in the North had the idea that Southerners just didn't work, and I had worked more than he would. He'd have to beg off. I guess he was so amazed that a man from the South would really work that he gave me a job.
I think that quite a few of us have surprised people at one time or another. Let me point this out. As I remember, one thing at Chapel Hill when you were doing most of your work, that you got into the habit of going home to take about a half hour nap.
I had to. That's the way you make two days out of one. It's a great institution. In the warm countries like Spain and Italy, they just close up stores and everything for a couple of hours and do that. Then I would have the drive to go on until eleven o'clock that night.
That's exactly what I still do. I go home for lunch —
Did you learn that good habit from me?
What I do is put the music on the record player, and sit and close my eyes and rest for half an hour and then get up and I feel like I have really let my luncheon digest and been rectified by the music. It's a really good program.
Well, I have about five more minutes I'd like to talk. I'm getting hungry, I'm an early eater. Can we cut this off and then come back for a few minutes?
Sure we can.
For instance, I would like to tell why I went into this solution work when I first started out.
That's what I was coming to next.
I would like to tell why I went into flame spectra, why I went into high resolution, and what I thought the problems were, and what I think is still left to be done in that, if I may do that.
We'd be delighted.
Here's the one paper I said that we did together that just got left off.
Well Scott, if you hadn't moved away we'd have done a lot more. Scott and I were exactly alike. We both were lazy, but we both had this drive to make us work. And I've been fighting between those two things all my life.
When we were in North Carolina, you started off in this business about getting the spectra of solutions and had about five or six of us working on this at one time or another. How did you happen to get into this?
There were two reasons. One, what was the best research we could do with a minimum of instrumentation. We couldn't hope to have a big grating instrument at that time like they had set up at Michigan, and so with just a small prism instrument, what could be done?
In other words, we wanted to work with something where we didn't have to have high dispersion.
That's right. Another thing was that the theory of Bernal and Fowler had just come out a little before that where they were trying to explain the liquid state, and they explained that water was made up of groups; these twisted around with about four molecules stuck together. The idea came to me if water is such a regular thing, and somebody had taken the x-ray spectrum of liquid water and found certain regularities in the x-ray picture, what would happen to that regularity if we put things like salt, liquids into that to see the modification? So, we were among the first people that started measuring the changes in the water spectrum produced by absorbed materials — solutions, so to speak.
Wouldn't you say in a fashion, that the understanding of the gaseous state was pretty good. The understanding of the solid state was pretty good, but the understanding of the liquid state was very poor?
And still is.
I was just going to say that. You talk about the solid state, and maybe in the future, ten years from now, the liquid state may be the thing where people are placing greater stress.
The only difficulty — there must have been at least up to now, 5000 or possibly 10,000 papers on this subject. But the findings are always empirical. You're finding an effect, but there hasn't been anybody; all the good theorists went into field theory, in the nuclear, and there have not been any great brains put upon solving the liquid state — not enough attention on the theory, and until theory can come out to correlate, it's going to stay empirical.
This reminds me a little bit about the transfer of heat. We understand conduction really well and can calculate it; we don't understand radiation, but we can calculate it; we understand convection, but we can't calculate it.
Except on the very special cases. The point is that when I came to Florida State I had the hope to build a high resolution instrument with the help of one of the men that's coming to the faculty. I bought a prism instrument so that I could teach infrared and infrared techniques, to a number of people, and looking around for things to do, I decided that if I just measured the spectra of molecules of molecules in liquid or in vapor state, everyone would have to be done over with high resolution, that I would go back to solutions, but instead of going back and just being one of these 5000, and being lost in the crowd, I have gone back into solutions, measuring from 15 to 40 microns to see what happens there.
Can you get enough transmission through your solutions out that far?
Oh, yes. Now, I've had to vary it a little bit. I put small amounts of water in things like ether; in things like carbon tetrachloride, and I find enormous shifts in these bands out there. For instance, the molecule of water vibrating against another molecule occurs about 16 microns. I measured that some years ago, and that band disappears when you measure it in vapor. There's no association, you don't see the band. Well, that association of bands there will go from 650 reciprocal centimeters, down to 500, depending on its environment. In some few substances, there are still higher frequencies, and it comes up above 650 centimeters! I'm just getting empirical information, but I'm hoping that for some man sitting in a room by himself some time that this will throw additional light, because in all the other studies, they have been saying, what is the effect on the vibration of this here, because that other molecule's close by. I'm finding what the effect on the binding between molecules is.
How about other molecules in water? For instance, isn't acetic acid also one of these?
That's right. Alcohols, they all have these long wavelength bands. I can keep students busy two or three years for that, but hope I’ll have a high resolution instrument before that happens. But I still think since it's one of the big unsolved problems, it’s worth something.
Getting into the long wavelength region is largely due to the fact that you developed these cesium bromide and cesium iodide crystals which make it possible to get out in this region. How about some background on this particular aspect of your work?
When I went to the Bureau of Standards in 1945, the KBr prism had just become fairly universally used and that went to 26 microns. Infrared spectroscopists have always wanted higher resolution and more range and higher transparency. I looked at the periodic table, and it's just so clear that somebody ought to have done it. Every time I see something, I say, “Why hasn't somebody else seen that?”
My reverse is, if I see something, I say, “Why didn't I think of that first?”
And so, I saw here you could go down to KBr, you could go to Kl, then you could go to rubidium, why stop there? Why not go to the heaviest elements like cesium, bromide, iodine, and I said, that that certainly would make a prism that will go out much farther. I ordered the salts of those materials, and got a man at the Bureau who was a crystal grower to grow these for me. But, there were a lot of impurities and while he chemically tried to purify it some, what we did was grow a crystal, and the part that was perfectly clear, we'd pick off. Then we'd grow again and pick off. So we got a bucketful of very clear little crystal pieces, and that's where we grew our beautiful crystal. You know, the newspapermen are always looking for romance in science, and I tell them the biggest romance that ever happens in science is when a pretty girl comes into the lab and works across the bench from a boy, and there you've got real romance. They don't mean that kind of romance. But, this experiment had some romance in science. The man that was growing this crystal for me — you talk about my pushing people was inspired. I told him that this would make a great discovery if we could get this out. I got him so interested to get this thing done, he was really ready to go, and the last melt was put into the furnace, and the furnace set, and then we dropped the temperature a certain amount every hour. You move the crystal out of the furnace and let it cool down. He was stricken with a hemorrhage of the stomach, and they took him to the hospital. When he came to, he didn't ask for his wife, he didn't ask for his children, he said, “Call up Plyler quick and tell him to get that crystal out before it ruins.” That's what he said when he came to. I did a good job inspiring him. We took it out and cut it, and we put the paper out — Plyler and Phelps. We did it first with the bromine, because he said iodine was a harder salt to get rid of the excess. The reason that most compounds that have bromine and iodine discolor is because of excess of those elements. But if it's got the right amount, and it's locked in there properly, you don't get it. We had good success with that, and we measured it and it was transparent to about 40 microns. We felt we could still go farther if we grew the cesium iodide and we did that about six months later.
Somewhat earlier than that, hadn't you done about the first really good index measuring on those KRS compounds?
Well, that is another procedure that we worked on. I try to make something count for two or three things. If you’re just doing something for one purpose, you're getting behind. I wanted to satisfy my conscience as being a Bureau of Standards man, and I wanted to find out about the materials for use in infrared, and I thought this type of work would do very well. The Germans had been the only people that had measured indices of refraction in the infrared and all the values in the tables were by them, and they had done a very fine job, like Rubens and Paschen, and all those great men. But the Nazis got to taking over, their science went down, and the people who had measured these new things like KRS5, all the synthetics, were not always so accurate.
By the way, do you know how KRS came?
The crystals from the melting pot — incidentally, which is KRS5, and which is KRS6?
Thallium bromide iodide, a mixture of those two is the KRS5. They even gave KRS numbers to rock salt, and KBr, and the whole series were down in those. But don't know. It might be that its thallium chloride, and bromide — but the 5 is the one that goes apart. Thallium iodide will not form a cubic crystal. It forms a crystal, but then when it's cooling down it goes to another form, and breaks, and so you have to mix it up to a certain percent with the —
It's like making an alloy in a sense.
Yes. Now this was first grown at Harvard University by a man named Barth in 1929. The Germans getting ready for the war scoured the literature for everything. They read about this and they started growing these crystals. When we captured some of their tanks on the African front there, they sent those pieces back, and they were found to be the same thing that this fellow Barth had grown at Harvard in ‘29, that they had reconstituted. Then we started growing it in this country. And so this crystal was there and nobody knew its indices of refraction if you wanted to use it for a lens. How could you calculate the focal length for different wavelengths? If you wanted to use it for a prism, what was your wavelength? And so, the Bureau of Standards was asked to do that, and they gave it to the Optical Instruments Section. But those people had only measured indices in the visible, and they didn't know anything about infrared. They were terribly concerned about it, and they asked me to assist them in this measurement. I told them certainly, and so we took a Perkin-Elmer instrument — the best way to measure indices of refraction is by minimum deviation — I didn't have such an instrument, so I took a Perkin-Elmer and mounted a mirror up beside it and calibrated that screw for five minute intervals by a long optical lever arm. Every time we rotated about five minutes of arc, then we would see what the drum reading was. We calibrated that drum. Then we made a jig prism that we set on the side of the other prism that would send the light right back to the slit, and by knowing the angle of that little glass jig prism very carefully, we could tell what the angle of incidence was.
You mean the jig prism like they had on that old Hilger?
Almost the same kind as that. They'd give you the angle —
— to set the prism for minimum deviation.
Same principle, exactly. We measured that out to about 40 microns which was the farthest region that had ever been measured. These Germans, and one man at Harvard for a doctor's thesis, had missed that by five in the second decimal place, which I believe I could have done better with a meter stick right out on this table.
How were you establishing your wavelengths? Were you feeding it by a monochromatic from a grating?
Well, that is the thing that was my real contribution, and started me in calibration. Nobody knew what wavelengths were out there. I calibrated these wavelengths so that we wouldn't have any question about the wavelength involved. That was one known thing. We could measure the angle so it was a sewed-up problem. That calibration was useful. Then it got me into calibration on which I spent several years, and I don't know whether you've seen this booklet.
No, I never did get a copy of it.
This book has these calibrations in it, and about 18 out of 21 of the tables in there were taken from my work at the Bureau of Standards, put out by the International Commission with about 3000 of them sold. The trouble is they sell it for $6.00. If they had put it out in a cheaper edition for $2.00, more people would have used it, but industry is rich, and they don't mind buying it. It's just poor professors who don't get it.
You got out several papers on calibration of wavelengths, too. You and Paul Shearin started off on some.
Yes, and that was a start, but we went much farther than that first paper ever did. In order to have, what you might call an almost absolute standard, I decided to calibrate the carbon monoxide spectrum which is a well-spaced spectrum and easy to measure. We measured that so accurately, that when we compared the molecular constants of that molecule with the molecular constants found by microwave, which is a true frequency, and ours is a true wavelength — we were able to get a velocity of light which at that time, was important because there were two values; one was 299776 km/sec, the old value, and the other was 299793. Mine hit right on top of the 793. Now, Rank originally measured this with a grating and thought he had established the 776 value, but his trouble was that he measured a band in the visible and to measure a band up there, your precision has to be 10 times as great. When he got out to the infrared, he was able to measure much more precisely, and he has since measured that band, of about two or three years ago, more precisely than I did back in 1953. But any man who comes along five years later has the full advantage of the others, and so that's the way science advances, with some of my early high resolution, and it was high at that time in 1953, I could now run over every one of those curves and resolve them out three or four times this well, but is it worth it? Certain things yes; other things, no.
Well, for prismatic calibration, you have the very real problem of calibrating with the same effective slit width. If you don't work with the same slit width as the man who did the calibrating, you are going to get a different band position anyway.
That's right, and what I did, I put in three levels of calibration: One for the lowest resolution instruments; one for the intermediate, and one for the highest. So, if a man can't do good calibration now, it's because he's lazy and won't do the work, rather than he doesn't have the tools. Before I took this over he didn't have the tools to do it. I remember getting a letter from you telling me what I could calibrate for in such and such a region.
The styrene was about the only thing they had which was at all useful for a lot of this, and I think I got a sample of polystyrene from you together with your curve. Nick Acquista gave it to me, as a matter of fact.
I don't know whether that's going to be important ten years from now, but I feel like I served the other scientists in that calibration.
Well, you stabilized the field by getting it on a suitable basis.
The same band sometimes missed by 30 reciprocal centimeters measured in different labs, now they don't vary over one or two, so it certainly tended to stabilize measurements.
Was it because of the immanence of war studies and things like that, that you got into these flame spectra studies? I know at JHU, they were working on this a good bit there in connection with the emissions from carbon dioxide, and I know that Shirley Silverman, for example, was working on some things about the same time you were, shall we say? The main thing is how did you get into this flame spectra?
During the War when I was at the University of Michigan, I made a fairly complete study of flames, you see, in detection of airplanes and all exhaust gases, and even in industrial products. I got mixed up with the Bessemer Furnace and took the instrument down to the Johnstown plant of Bethlehem Steel. Professor Barker went down there with me one time, and I told him how terrible it was, so when he walked in he said, “A casual glance will show you that this is no physical laboratory.” But, I discovered that all flames had many things in common. The infrared emission nearly always had very strong bands of carbon dioxide and water. At the time I took up these studies at the Bureau, after this war experience, those were the only two things that people were sure were in infrared. Now there had been quite a bit of study of flames by visible and ultra-violet. It was always easy for a man to put a plate in and let it stand long enough to cook and take it out and develop it, but infrared was a little more difficult process because we didn't have any of those time integrating detectors. So, I decided the first thing I would do was to put a Bunsen burner in the laboratory and determine what I could see. I saw the OH bands, the CO bands, C2, and CN, and of course, the CO2 and the water vapor. There I found four new molecules in the flame that were not known before. I had a basement room at the Bureau. It didn't have any ventilation, and the CO given out of that was quite considerable. I couldn't stay in the room but 10 minutes, and then would cut the flame off, set an electric fan in the door, blow it out, and go back in again.
You did something else as I remember. You had a mirror system rigged up to collect as much radiation as possible, and put it all back so that it fit into the spectrometer. This was certainly a complicated looking rig.
People told me that it was impossible to get more than one cone out, but where they missed the point, that is, for a solid rod — it is true, because it will shadow any images, but for flames the energy passes through. By putting mirrors around and keep on sending the radiation through, could increase the available energy by a factor of four, and Gayden, who wrote a book on that, visited my lab and he said it was impossible. I showed him, and so when he put out the next edition, he added a whole page on Plyler's “ingenious device” to increase the intensity.
I remember seeing that rig downstairs at the Bureau over here — you persuaded the radiation to go the way you wanted it to go, that's what it amounted to.
By connecting these different cones and by mirrors throwing them all down right back through the flame and down on the slit. The flame studies proved to be very interesting. Infrared spectra had almost completely been absorption before that; atomic spectra had almost been completely emission. Now there is quite a bit of emission spectra in the infrared, and absorption spectra in atomic spectra — the two things changed over. There are still many other things to be done, for instance, feeding in different materials into this flame and seeing if they increase or inhibit certain bands coming out; the passing of electromagnetic radiation through this flame to see what that would do with the states of the molecule. I think you could make a laser through the flame if you wanted to and have it as a component.
By the way, something which is a long way from where you started this, but I think is a lineal descendant of it, is the fact that in many cases nowadays, they are running what they call characteristic spectral flames from propellants for rockets. They say they get the flame signatures for different rockets, and this really comes back to simply saying, what are the components in the flames of this, and so by analysis of the rocket flame you can get some idea —
That's right, because I was showing that this flame had a personality, a characteristic, and that's what they are using today.
It's of military importance nowadays for identification of what type thrust vehicles are being used in various circumstances. As a matter of fact, they are trying to push this to ridiculous extremes sometimes, because now one man is trying to find out how you get the characteristic signature of a tank. I said, "A piece of hot metal has no characteristic signature.” Then you went ahead from that and did some simple work on vibrational spectra molecules for quite a bunch of materials. For example, your halogen substituted methanes were a whole series that you had investigated.
You see the hope in any subject is that you can reduce it to terms that a man can sit at a desk with a pencil and calculate out what to expect without having to go through the trouble of measuring it and can do it almost precisely. So by putting the halogen substitutions in methane, we worked out the force constants and where these bands would come, and we had drawn tie lines between the bands, and so any molecule of that type about any you could name, you could see just about where that vibration would fall in. Of course, you could probably get many more, but we thought 18 was a fairly good number to set that up.
It brought out the principle very clearly of how you go about handling such a thing.
I leave the boys for Master's Degrees to work out some of the others, but we showed that that could serve as a guide, and that was a prism study.
I think that one of the real advances that you made was in instrumentation in general, because I think so much of what you've been able to accomplish is due to the modifications which you introduced, and improvements which you made in spectroscopic equipment in general. I think of your improvement in resolution which took place over the years with your various spectrometers there at the Bureau.
I’ll tell you one thing that I did that I never did publish because I was afraid that people wouldn't understand it and how to use it, but made my recorder 10 times as sensitive as it normally was. An ordinary recorder is one millivolt per full scale which is about as sensitive as you can get, but I made mine 1/10th mv by changing the resistance in there, and it worked. I could see bands that another man couldn't see that would have too small an energy. The trouble is that it was so sensitive that the battery got going down as the sensitivity changed so you always had to have the battery up to a certain level of charge, which I did by running the battery for about a day or two; it dropped down in voltage and then it kind of leveled off.
Incidentally, have you ever published that?
No, because it wasn't sure enough. Somebody would have to know what they were doing, and so I never told that secret.
I knew this was what you did, but I have never seen it in the literature.
No, it just increased the sensitivity. The sensitivity and the ruggedness of the tubes in all of those recorders were far greater than the sensitivity that they operate them at. So I could push that up to 100 times and it still would probably stay on scale, but I used it at about a factor of 10.
Didn't you do a great deal in the way of eliminating stray radiation by a variety of devices?
That's right. I looked, and you can do the same thing, in the literature and they were showing water curves up five and ten percent above zero with l/l0th of a millimeter thickness. With 1/100th mm thickness it's down 100% absorption in the strong bands, but people were measuring with instruments with stray radiation. So I gave considerable attention to see that we had a pure spectrum, and that the intensities really meant something in that region.
Especially in the long wave length region where you had low intensity from your sources, if you couldn't eliminate the stray, why then, of course, your readings didn't have a great deal of significance.
That was one — I'm not telling you all about the difficulties I've had. Sometimes I've gotten so provoked that I felt like throwing the instrument out of the window and saying I was through with it, but I had one very lucky experience. When I found I couldn't go any farther than 50 to 55 microns with the cesium iodide prism, I then said, well, why not turn to small gratings, and so I got the shop to rule me some, about ½ millimeter spacing on a shaping machine, and I bought a thermocouple which had a quartz window instead of the KBr window, and so I got all these parts together and I went down to my laboratory and put them together, and in two hours I was running spectra out to 125 microns with that little instrument. That was in 1954. I think at that time, there had been many little instruments built, but there was only Randall's big instrument, Oetjen's big instrument, and maybe one other $50,000-$100,000 instrument for the far infrared, and here for less than $1000 in total cost, thermocouple and everything, I was measuring out to 125 microns. I was lucky because a lot of thermocouples have so thin a coat that they don't absorb. They give out at 35 or 40 microns, but I told V.Z. Williams that I wanted one with a thick covering that's fast. Now, that's a hard combination, but this thermocouple went right on out to 125. Then I got a Golay cell put on and went to about 600 microns. It was a Perkin-Elmer, the earliest model — the 12 model — and I just took the Littrow mirror out and put the grating in place of the Littrow mirror and I was in business.
Well, I seem to remember, also, that you used to use sandpapered plates
Oh yes, the short waves would be scattered, and the long ones would reflect like a smooth mirror.
There were a number of things like this. As a matter of fact, I think that you still need to write a paper on the tricks of the trade for spectrometer manipulations, you might say. Of course, with the development of these high resolving power instruments, it became possible for you to then study the rotational vibration spectra of gases, and this is something to which you devoted an enormous amount of effort.
From about 1950 to 1963 — 13 years. I was like a sculptor who made a figure of a beautiful girl and then fell in love with her with his own work. I fell in love with that instrument and after 13 years of it every time I would see the spectrum of a new molecule, a different molecule; it would give me a good feeling, a happy feeling. The last thing I did at the Bureau with my men there was to tackle this problem of carbon sub oxide, C302, that's been in controversy for 30 to 40 years; what is the structure of that. With this instrument we were able to resolve it. There were seven overlapping bands. With a resolution approaching two-hundredths of a reciprocal centimeter, we were able to separate 5 series.
In what region?
That's from 3 to 5 microns. We were able to separate these out to prove without a doubt that it is a linear molecule and find its molecular constants. That is a picture of the instrument over there, and it is still in the region 3 to 5 — the highest resolution instrument in the world.
Were you able to get any R branch resolution with those things?
Oh, why we could go right up to 3 or 4 numbers of the head, and then come back and see the other numbers thrown in between. In the series, where K changes 1, 2 and 3, 4, but the J remains the same, but to do it puts in the total energy between the different J states pulls them out a little, and they said it was impossible, back in the old days, to ever see that structure. And I just made them stand out like that.
It used to be that they said Q branch can’t be done anything with at all, and so, with the high resolution, that you I’ve got, eventually this was no longer true.
I don’t know whether it was good judgment to put that many years on one thing or not, but I certainly enjoyed it, and I think it made some contributions.
I would say it has identified a particular type of study with you in a fashion that cannot be separated from now on. I think there is no doubt about it — that is the region that Plyler worked in and essentially earmarked as his own.
We went through a lot of molecules, and it was all a lot of enjoyment because for an instrument to operate like that was certainly good.
Do you think that there is much likelihood of improved resolution beyond what has been reached now?
By conventional methods, only two or three times in the region up to 10 microns. Out at 100 microns, if we can get better detectors, 100 and beyond, better sources, the resolution should be about the same over the whole spectrum, if you had the energy or maybe even a little better in the far infrared. But with energy being less, and so of the 57 things I still want to do, that is one, to make a powerful source for the far infrared, and I have certain ideas I believe would work. If I can ever get this department to stop growing and having to seek new faculty and putting up new buildings, and things like that, then want to get started into some of these things that I've just put off and I haven’t pushed very hard. That is, if I can get the Science Foundation to stake me out a little bit in some of these things.
What has been your general philosophy in research? Supposing you are considering a problem, how do you start working on the problem?
I start by intuition, but I want to define intuition. We were talking about Coblentz working on intuition and hunches. He'd come in and he'd start taking measurements and say, “I'm not going to take measurements. Today is not a suited day. Fate’s against me.” He'd come in another day, and he'd take four or five measurements, and say, “No use taking anymore. If I took them for a year, I'd never get a better value.” Now, he’d call that intuition. A lot of people thought he was a wizard, different from other people. He was drawing up unconsciously all of his experiences to guide him, and he was making wise decisions, but he called it intuition.
The cues he was getting were imperceptible to other people.
And to himself even sometimes. Well, I'm talking about that kind of intuition that I would bring my whole experiences, probably parts of it, at any rate, to bear on the situation. First thing, I would read the literature a little bit. I would think about what I knew about that; what would be a good projection for carrying that farther. I didn't want to read the literature too much until I had thought myself, because I was afraid it might help form my ideas. I don't want any man's ideas. I want to stand on my own feet. But, I didn't just want to waste time in doing things that other people had done. I read every abstract to see what other people had done, but not read their method of approach, primarily. If the abstract didn't give the results, I’d turn to the article and read that, and look at any diagrams of spectra. Well, I’d say, he's got stray radiation in that; he has too much gas. Why, some of the early work in trying to resolve bands was entirely masked by 100 times too much gas in the absorption cell. I couldn't resolve it today by the amount of gas they had, so I was trying to avoid those types of errors, but not to get so sold on his approach that it would hurt my original approach. Then, as I worked along, I kept my eyes open, and my mind open, so if an avenue pointed in a different direction, that could take that up. In many of my experiments, the end product was entirely different, but maintains that if a man is not in there working on something, he won't have these things happen that were leading to something else.
Well, don't you think that almost every study that you made, or would make, would automatically open up two or three other things which needed to be made from that?
That's right. You advance the truth, but you advance it in your mind so close that you can think more clearly than somebody that might read your paper. Then after I finish, I might go back and read the man's paper and sometimes I'd find he'd done something that I hadn't thought of, and I’d say, my goodness, I’ve got to check that out. Sometimes I’d say, that poor fellow missed the boat. So that's how use the literature. For instance, last year I was measuring broadening of these rotational lines and my instrument is so highly revolving that there is scarcely any correction for the slit width of the instrument itself. What I see is practically its actual width coming off on the recorder. I wanted to see a very enormous broadening, so I said, if I take a big dipole and put it in with another big dipole, then I ought to get things broadened out to a reciprocal centimeter, and I could measure down to 2 or 3 hundredths. So, then, I certainly ought to see a nice big, broad, fat line, that is, for atmospheric pressure. I decided I'd measure HCl on (HCN), two very strong absorption bands, and to my surprise, this broadening would be a certain amount, and then it would build up and get enormously broad as I'd run through the various lines of the J values, and then get back narrow, and then get back broad, and saw that this got broadened every 20 reciprocal centimeters. That's just the separation of the HC1 lines. And it so happened that these two had the same total energy, and when an HCl line would get in the same energy level as an (HCN), the two molecules in collision would resonate. It's the first time that anybody had seen resonance between two molecules on account of collision. Then the total energy would get out of step. When the next HCl line got in step, it would get back broad and so that broadening was just as if you applied a curve, and I never dreamed I was going to see that. At first I was very much dismayed as to why that was working in that way. It is important to keep your mind on what are the possible things that this experiment may lead to. I was looking for CO in the flame spectrum, and the instrument commenced moving like that. Well, I had Nick Acquista watching that instrument, and I'd say do you see anything. He said, “Not a thing." I said, “Well, I want to look at it again." He said, “Doc, isn't that funny, it made noise at that same place when I was working at it.” There was a beautiful spectrum of CO that had never been seen before. You have to let the experiment kind of lead you along. Each result will tell you what your next step is. If you’re going to say, I'm just going to measure this, you’ll always be doing dull research. That's why I hate to promise results, because I may not end up doing anything that I said I would.
One objection I have against project writing and things like this is when you say I want support in order to do this particular thing. I hesitate to do something like this because I don't know if that's what I really want to do. I want to have the freedom to drop that and pursue something which is worth doing if it seems that that is the better thing to do.
And that's the way it should be. All the man can promise is that he will work and give it his best attention, and they shouldn't expect any more.
I think too often that we simply do busy work, in a sense, that is we give graduate assistants a chance to make a living by doing some routine operations, but a great deal of the inspiration and a great deal of the fun, a great deal of the excitement is gone from it, because it has become a cut-and-dried operation, instead of something which you enjoy doing because you love it, because it's exciting, and because it's interesting. This seems to me to be one of the pitfalls of our grants-in-aid through proposal writing that is common in today's way of going about things.
I ought to tell you about some experiments I tried that didn't work. Allison, who was down at Auburn here, a very fine gentleman and all, had postulated that there was a heavy hydrogen. If he'd just postulated and hadn't tried to prove it, he would have been a great man, but he tried to prove it. I took and put water, copper sulphate solution with two electrodes and ran a current and boiled that water down till I had just a little bit in the bottom and tried to see if I had changed the density of it. Well, the two came off very nearly equally; but if I had looked in some of those old Edison batteries and drawn some of that water out, I may have been able to have found a difference, but I didn't think deep enough. Nature was trying to help me, but I was too predetermined, I was going to do it my way.
Those old Edison batteries are things of the past now. They were wonderful devices.
You can still buy them. For certain operations they use them because of their long life, but their power and capacity are low.
I am thinking of the tremendous ones that had battery jars two feet tall.
I'm talking about the nickel one. That was once that I had an idea of trying to find something, but I didn't look for it in the right way.
I thought you were going to talk about Allison's photo electro-effect, those things which he worked with so long and — I don't know how to say it — some people could get the effect and some people couldn't.
And it was generally believed that it was not the effect, it was psychological rather than physical, because when it was set up in a very strong carefully controlled way, nobody else could get it. But I'd say this about any experiment. It was a lot better for him to try to do something, than to sit down and say I'm not going to do anything, because he learned a great deal about the whole system. If he had just used that cell in a little bit different way, he could have discovered a number of things —
He did identify the existence of things in materials which have been confirmed. This is still quite mysterious. It is true he did make identifications. We actually found in some mineral, a new element which he named Alabamian.
Does it still carry that name?
No, it does not, because simply, we are not able to justify it, but they have found this in the mineral that he said it was in. It is there in a trace. He said it was there, but he couldn't prove it to anybody's satisfaction, so the thing has gone through a non-proven verdict.
He was a wonderful teacher.
He still is. He's teaching at Huntington College, in Montgomery.
Have you ever met Allison?
You ought to meet him if you can. He's one of the most genteel fellows, a gentle soul, and a physicist of the old school. He's a very delightful man.
Where did Allison do his work?
At the University of Virginia. He got his Ph.D. there. In regard to how I research, I don't have any cut-and-dried program. I just have an interest that here is something that's worthy of study. I will first try to measure spectra; vary the conditions; change the temperature; change the strength if it's a solution; and see what it can tell me, and then that will lead me on to what way to go. Now, I will decide on a general field. I don't try to do this in a mysterious way. I don't want to give you that impression, but I think if you go with a fixed idea and a fixed mind that you are not going to advance things, you’ll fill in the gaps and that’s what so many people now are just filling in the gaps that somebody had not measured. Here's a new liquid created by the chemist. Somebody will measure the vapor pressures; somebody else will measure the density. That's all right for Master's students, but I don't think that's for a career.
These are training exercises. That’s what they are.
That’s a good way to put it. Now, you said you had a question. What was your question?
What would you say would be your advice to people starting off in research now? How do you think they should plan for a research career? How do you think they should go about getting into one?
Well, if it's a graduate student, and a lot of them come to me for advice, I tell them if they're going to be at this university, they ought to relate their research to something that someone in the faculty is interested in. And so, they first must go around and talk to the different people that have programs and see what their program is, and see if they could find something that interests them. Then they may think they don't want to do any of that, but that they might like to do such and such a type of problem. Then they should find a professor that would let them work that under them and even if it's not his prime interest; and if they can't find any professor to do it, then tell them to come to me and work with me on it. I think the student ought to feel that he has a wide choice, but if he asked me my opinion, I will tell him, and I’ll ask him, "Now, you've taken various courses. What type of work is he interested in?” The first thing to find out is whether he wants to do theory or experiment. Does he find symbolism simple, or does he find it very tedious. Then, if he makes that decision, then he can decide what field of knowledge appeals to him. Is it elementary particles? Then he should read and talk to the professors in that field and see if he could create an interest. I've had one or two boys come in with somewhat novel ideas, and I encourage them rather than discourage them. However, I tell them it might take longer to get a degree because we don't have anybody here actively working very closely to that. Why don't you try for a year, and then see what happens? If it doesn't look like it's going to be promising, then turn to something that's somewhat better. But there's very little experimentation done today on the basis of the old things, where a man would start out, go out and say I’m going to do such and such experiment; and I think the country is losing by it. But, if you went three years working on something like that, you lose all your money from the National Board, you won't get any promotion in the university, and so, there is a compelling force to keep a man from being an individual.
Seeking security —
We all want that. I'm happy to say that I got security so I can be myself from now on.
That is true of some, but not all. I’ve also found a lot of these boys are more concerned with the attitude of their professor, the man they’re going to work with, than they are with the subject. They want a professor who is open-minded, tolerant, and who has a certain amount of originality, and will never condemn them, but will try to build them up. You’ll find a man who's very selfish, and just wants a student to save labor; they don’t want to get with them, and I don't blame them.
To what extent do you think that an undergraduate student should start working towards his graduate program before he gets his undergraduate degree? In other words, do you think that a sort of fundamentally broad training is better as an undergraduate student, or do you think they should attempt to specialize while still undergraduates?
The broad training, by far. Most of the students we have trouble with want to start right into research when they first get here before they learn the first year graduate work and get a foundation — we have one boy who started experimenting in his junior year, and never did get courses, and he’s going to go through life with that gap in there. Now, if he's a really bright boy, and that’s maybe one out of 100, he can do these courses, tell him that's his first responsibility, and then say you can work around with a certain group as an observer, a side man, but you’re not going to be part of that team; you’re just getting experience. I don't think he ought to be thwarted if he’s really good and keeps up his other work, but he ought not to be allowed to substitute that for a good solid foundation.
I guess the thing I I’m thinking about is that. I have sort of been out of harmony with some of the things that are happening in the general training of the undergraduate students. We have now these two curricula — the curriculum R and curriculum S, I believe is the terminology which we use now, where we are now taking the undergraduates and giving them an undergraduate training which is sort of tailor-made as pre-graduate training, rather than trying to have them become, shall we say, physicists in general and have a relatively broad and possibly an interdisciplinary contact, that is, have a man broad doing his undergraduate work, rather than already starting the structure for his graduate training.
That is true, but competition is so keen that we are doing the training right in the physics and not giving him the broad background, and the only way of survival seems to be that way, because when they go to graduate school and come up against boys that have been at M.I.T. and if they have taken history of science instead of a strong course in mechanics, electricity and magnetism — that’s why I said our history of science and science concepts are going to be more for the philosophers and the psychologists than it is going to be for the physicists — then, they'll say that boy is not adequate. He's not ready for graduate training.
I'm thinking more in terms of taking, say, two courses in quantum dynamics as undergraduates?
That's very bad, but let me tell you what has happened in the last ten years. What used to be first year graduate courses have become senior courses, and in another ten years, what used to be first year graduate courses will be junior courses. Now, I don't believe in such rapid acceleration, although I do think the high schools are better and they can do it. But I don't want that acceleration to come by skipping things down below, but by the boys being able to actually comprehend faster because they have better backgrounds. If it's that, I have no objection to it.
Dr. Plyler, we are getting to the end of the tape and we have covered a considerable amount of ground. Is there anything which we have left uncovered which you would care to say a few words on?
One thing is that the happiest part of this has been my colleagues. I don't know of anything finer than spectroscopists or physicists in general, and going to a meeting is almost like going back to a family reunion, and if I was picking a career all over again, I'd still pick the same one, and do almost the same things, except that I would have done better with that heavy water, and a few other experiments that I haven't mentioned.
Thank you very much, Dr. Plyler.
We got a lot of colloquium talkers from the North in January and February, and they'd write and say they could come to Florida, if we wanted them to come and give us a talk. Most of them paid their own expenses, that is, their institutions did; we didn't have to pay. We had one man from Bell Telephone Labs; one from the Bureau; and one from Hopkins.
You think maybe the weather had something to do with it?
I’m sure, because they stayed about a week after they got here.
In a sense, isn't that partly the explanation of how you happen to be here yourself — when you contrast the Florida winters with the Washington winters?
No, don't like Florida weather, because it's six months of summer. I like about two weeks of summer. Now Washington had about three months of summer, but two weeks of miserable weather, worse than you'd find anywhere. I like it up in the mountains around Asheville or Greenville where because of the elevation the nights are cool. It's warm in the middle of the day, but at nighttime, you might need a blanket. I could stand a lot of heat during the day if I have slept well at night, and, as you say, it's just what you're accustomed to. No, by choice, I would not have picked it. The reason I came here was because I felt I was needed, and that's a very important thing. They have some fairly bright young men here, (don’t quote me on this).
This is part of the testing.
They have a minimum of judgment on how to go about things. For instance, we are moving into this new building, and we have furniture in another building that was bought on another fund, but it was bought to serve physics. Why say anything about this, why not just move — about $10,000 worth of office furniture is there over in the basement of a dormitory, but it was bought on the money that put the dormitory up, and they asked this dormitory manager if they could take this office furniture with them, and he said, “No, indeed, that's the property bought by our funds.” And so, I had to go to the vice president, and I said, “If they’re bought by those funds, that’s all right. I think that was very kind of them, but it was bought for the use of physics, and why can't physics still use them just because we're going to another location. Before I buy that furniture, I’ll just let them sit right over there in the basement of that dormitory. It's very nice accommodations. “He saw the point and he agreed we would take it. There are so many things like that which come in to disturb the situation. I never worry about it, though. That’s the big difference from the Bureau of Standards. When I go home at night, I'm a free agent because there is nothing going to happen, and in a university you have a right to make a fool of yourself, but you don't have that in government.
I remember you saying fairly recently that you were hoping that you could be right five times out of seven.
No, it was six out of ten, but I tell my wife seven out of ten.
You just play percentages. There are going to be a certain number of decisions which will turn out undesirable, but if you make more good ones than you do bad ones you can keep happy.
I have to stay in the black, and then I don't worry, when I'm on the right side of the ledger. But, there is a very good potential for the Physics Department. You know what I mean. You know John Fox and Edward Desloge, Kromhaut and Davis —
I know Kromhaut better than the others. He's been at our place a couple of times.
This man you met out there is the best theoretical physicist in the whole southeast. He is the man who invented the cluster model. You know you have a drop model like the liquid model of Wheeler and Bohr, and he's got the cluster model. That's Wildermuth and he's the one who invented it. To be made a Herr Professor Doktor, and the head of the Theoretical Physical Institute at Tubingen, that's a big honor, you see, because he came here as an associate professor, and in five years-time, he's made an international reputation. Well, I'm sorry to lose him, but he's more German than I am a South Carolinian, and he was bound to get back. The fact that this place was a place that a man could have a career speaks well. It's not all lost by any means.
We've had the same thing at Alabama. We had some men there who have gone from us to other places.
You've got my man there, Carlson. Is he still there?
I didn't know he was one of your men?
He worked with me at the Bureau on quadrupole resonance.
You never published anything together, did you?
No. Is he any good?
I don't know. He hasn't published anything since he's been with us. He's been doing a lot of work.
He was really in a sad situation when he was at the Bureau. Hopkins has this long term for graduate students. They keep some people ten years before they turn them loose. You didn’t go to Hopkins did you?
No. I went to Cornell for graduate work. I graduated from Harvard in '43, and went into the Army. When I came back to the States, spent a year at G. E. Research Lab, and then decided to go back to Cornell and get an advanced degree in physics, so I got a Master's degree in solid state work. Then I felt this wasn't quite what I wanted, so I changed over into the history of physics. And I got a Doctor's Degree in the History of Physics at Cornell. But, you mention one man in your autobiography that I admire very much and this is Murdock. I had a course in Crystallography with him (McCarthy had retired by this time) and he was still very keen on this subject and its history. He also had something that we both agree on, he with a broad approach and me in my small way, and this is the matter of the nature of physical laws. As you know, he's a member of the IUPAP Committee, which is trying to work out standardization of nomenclature and of constants. One of the problems is to define a common form of some of the laws so that it can be used in standardization. He argued that these laws are a convention, which is what I like to argue. This is one point that we have had some fun in discussing but I haven't seen him in years.
Certainly that is true; all of physics is a man's concept of how nature works. Sometimes it's very close, hope, but sometimes later years shows that it was all phony, and it's the way that we interpret nature and may not be nature's way at all, although I hope we're not completely off base.
What was that thing — the N-ray — that some gentleman in France had for a while until Wood showed it false — that was very embarrassing to everyone concerned? Bob Lagemann at Vanderbilt University has an interest in the history of physics, so he's been looking up these N-rays for some time now.
I should get in touch with him when I visit Vanderbilt.
In four years from now I'm going to be interested. That's when I retire in four years, and I’ll be interested in the history of physics. I think it's a very fascinating subject. You should take me on as a colleague (laughter). But the point is this, I've known so many of these old timers and known them intimately, like Randall, like Wood, and all these people I know extremely well —
We were talking about that last night, and I said I thought that Dr. King should get from you your comments on people because you do have a fund of information which would not be accessible, except by personal knowledge. I think this is quite important. Let's not wait six years.
I have down there, a stack of papers that high of Coblentz, of the letters that people wrote him; that some crank would write him, and his reaction to this and that, that when I get time, I’d like to work that up because it reveals his personality. I've written two very brief articles about Coblentz, but in both of those, he was still alive, and I couldn't go into his sixth sense, but that played a very dominant part in his life, and it was just as much a passion as physics. The strange thing is that he had enough sense not to mix the two; he kept them in separate compartments. He’d do his physics, and he I’d do that. He once tried to mix them, but didn't convince himself that he could, so he never would.
By this, you mean simply a feeling of intuition, something like Newton had —
I think this was a little more than intuition.
What do you mean by sixth sense?
I think it was psychical research, isn't it?
What I meant is man's place in the metaphysical world; that he believes in spirits walking around. That type, and going to these mediums and having his grandmother brought back. He went and had Langley brought back once, and talked to Langley. He tried to make it scientific. He took magnets; he took polarizers and looked at these mediums through them, trying to see if he could get any physical measurement, which I think, showed he was a true scientist.
You know something? It would be a very interesting paper to write on physicists and psychic phenomena. A tremendous number of people have gone into it.
Robert Hare, the great chemist, was one. Silliman was very much worried about this, because Silliman at Yale and Hare in Philadelphia, were very close friends, and Silliman got to be quite concerned that Hare was devoting more and more time to this sort of thing. Then, of course, Rayleigh was involved in this to some extent, too, and Sedgwick. As a matter of fact, they were in the British Psychical Society, over there, and I think Rayleigh was once President of that. John Howard is working on this some now in connection with these Rayleigh notebooks which he persuaded the Air Force to pick up.
Is John Howard working on that?
Let me say this. I would not be abrupt or harsh. I'd be very kindly, but I would try to bring it out as a factual matter. I think you should be altruistic towards a man, rather than lambasting how crazy can a man get, and that attitude.
I think this is quite necessary to be done.
It should be done factually, but no condemnation, no sly little statements as to how foolish he was, etc.
The problem is why did he do that?
I can tell you easily about Coblentz. His grandmother believed in it, and his grandmother brought him up — she made tables walk. One of his aunts could talk the unknown language, and so, what more impression can you have for a little boy than to see a table hopping around a room. Oh, that Bureau is just full of these people. Have you ever heard of Keiss, the atomic spectra man, Meggers and Keiss? He believes in astrology because he had a sister who had supernatural powers.
Well, John kind of tickled me with this because he is upset over the fact that Rayleigh was interested in these things, so he was trying to pass this off very quickly as a sort of little side issue.
Was there anything in the notebooks on this?
No, none at all. John wrote to me and said, "Could I tell him how in the world Rayleigh's notebooks happened to wind up in the Sedgwick family” and so I wrote back and said, “I think it's very simple, because Mrs. Sedgwick was Rayleigh's assistant on some of his work.” As a matter of fact, I think she and her husband were interested in psychic matters, and to some extent, Rayleigh was too, and that through their association through this, they probably wound up in the family. John sent me a little statement about it, “I have tried to dispose of this aspect of Rayleigh's work very quickly.”
It's part of a person's life.
Of course, if a person is interested in these things, it's still a moderately free country and you can believe what you want.
You take some of these religions and the things they believe in like the golden plates that were brought down by angels.
Yes, they're very nice people but that's the basis of their church organization.
Do you have a real reason to know that this is not true?
I don't have any real reason to know that it's not true, and that’s what I used to tell Coblentz. I said, “You got a right to believe —” Therefore, he saw I was tolerant, although I didn't believe in it. He talked to me very freely, and would tell me what he had heard and seen.
I have to tell you a story on Dr. Plyler. This is one that indicates tolerance. We had at North Carolina, a fairly well-known philosopher, Horace Williams. He was a very good teacher, and quite frequently upset some of his students by tossing out ideas that he didn't really believe in himself, but he wanted the boys to think about it a bit. So, one of Dr. Plyler's undergraduate students was looking very worried about something one day and so Dr. Plyler asked him to come to his office to talk to him. He had gone to him, and he said, “Son, you look like something is worrying you.” The boy said, “Dr. Plyler, I do appreciate the chance of talking to somebody because something is worryi.ng me. Yesterday in class, Dr. Williams said we could not know that the sun would rise tomorrow, and he convinced me that this is true. Now, we just can't know that this is going to happen.” Dr. Plyler thought this over for a bit, and said, “Well, I'll tell you. Horace is right about that, but I’ll tell you one other thing, if it doesn't come up tomorrow morning, there'll be no one more surprised than Horace Williams." There are a variety of stories like that which we have around. It's nice to have an opportunity to put a few of these into the record, you might say, of tolerance, understanding and a few things like this.
Well, that has always been my greatest delight, and you asked me why I came back to Florida. Well, it's a complex situation, but I missed dealing with students. It's a wonderful thing to see these boys growing and they get these different ideas, and they get terribly concerned about something, and you talk to them a little bit, and say, "Well, I don't think it's going to stop the world for two hours in its progress. This thing is just one of the passing things, and there'll be good things that will happen and you'll go up high, and then you'll go low. I've had so many both ways for me; I'm known as little ripple Plyler.
It's like the cost of living, you might say. Sometimes it comes down a little bit, but it goes up again, and then goes down, and then up a little. Somewhere I have a picture of Walter Gordy sitting down there at that little Hilger.
If you can get a copy of it, I'd like to have one.
I’ll see if I can find it. It is not a very good picture because in those days the films weren’t too good. I think one thing that was interesting about that little instrument down there, was the fact that Jack Craven seems to have a greater ability to make that thing work than any other person.
You know, if he had gone to a place like the Bureau of Standards, a lot of his talents could have been used and he would have been one of the greatest men there. There are many places that need good instrumentation, and I'm afraid our graduate schools here — we have a bookish Ph.D. — if a man can't learn quantum mechanics and everything like that, he can't take a Doctor's degree. I have a boy that's as smart as you were or Jack Craven or any of those boys coming along from North Carolina, but he can't pass quantum mechanics, advanced quantum mechanics, but in the lab, he just thinks correctly. You know you have to tell students lots of times how to operate this. He just goes in and does it; intuition. I’ll explain what I mean about intuition a little bit later, but he goes right into this work. He won't ever be able to get a Doctor's degree here, and I hope I can find some institution that's not so bookish, so that he can, because he'll make a wonderful physicist.
I think one of the most interesting things is the situation at Chapel Hill as I remember was something like this when we were working along. If we had instrumental difficulties, we first of all called on Jack, and if Jack was busy, then I'd try to fix it up. I was sort of next in line. And Walter Gordy was working about the same time, and if the instrument didn't work, he went away and waited for someone to fix it and then he came back and took data. So, if I couldn't fix it, and Jack couldn't fix it, then we would call you down, and there were two steps to this. I mean, you would try first with the right hand, and then if you couldn't get it adjusted you always turned to the left hand, because you had a strong feeling that the left hand really had more sensitivity for careful adjustments than the right hand. Do you still have that feeling?
Yes, but you don't understand. I'm left-handed, and so, living in a right-hand world, every time I experiment with one hand or the other, I write right-handed and draw left handed. I erase the blackboard left-handed, and write right-handed. But they didn't know I was left-handed, so when Dudley wrote his book and sent me a copy, he said, “Always save the left hand for fine adjustments.” These galvanometers had very little clearance and they would drag on the side and wouldn't have a free swing.
What kind of a galvanometer was it?
It was an ordinary low resistance — moving coil type.
These were the Moll ones.
These were Moll. We had some Leeds & Northrup, too. Moll had the suspension in a tube.
It was a tension one. The mirror was on a tension wire instead of a loose one. That's why it was so sensitive.
Yes, but I was usually able to get it back into line, so they didn't want to bother me until they had gone through the motions. After a year, Jack got so he could do just as well as I could, and maybe better.
You remember John Wheeler was ambidextrous, and John would be lecturing us in class sometimes, and he'd be writing on the blackboard with the right hand, turn around to speak to us, and then turn around and pick up the chalk with his left hand and continue writing. This was a little disconcerting to the students. One other thing about Jack which you may remember, he had that thermo relay down there, and it was quite sensitive to position, and Jack, in adjusting it one night had put a book underneath the thing to get it into approximate position. It turned out that this was exactly the right position. About two weeks later, the book became due at the library, and Jack could not bring himself to disturb his adjustment on the thing because it was working perfectly, and we were getting data, so he went over to the library and renewed the book, and at two week intervals, he renewed this book throughout the year. Sitting over on that concrete pillar, there were these miscellaneous things propped up with a book, and so this book stayed in service and doing a very good job for science for quite a while.
Did you realize at that time, in order to get that instrument, I got $500 from the Rockefeller foundation. North Carolina did not have any graduate physics at all, and I finally persuaded them to give me support. It amounted to $100 a year, for research, and so there, with a $500 instrument that was given to us, and $100 a year, we generated about 10 or 12 students over a period there, and those boys were as bright as any we have today. I believe that hardship made them so that they were better, rather than these fellows that come in with a fine instrument and turn a few knobs. Now, all of them don't do that, but too many come into a perfect working set-up, and they don't learn physics.
The total laboratory space that you had available to you was less than the size of this office. There were two rooms, which were almost cubicles down in the basement. This was the working space which we had for spectrometry. We had a preparation room which was barely big enough for a battery bank, and one table, and a cabinet full of chemicals of various assorted smells, and then the spectrometer room next door which was hardly more than a big closet.
The first Ph.D. that was ever given in physics at North Carolina, I gave in 1929 to a man named Daugherty, who is now Dean at Delaware.
His curve was still on a graph paper on the back of the door of the spectrometer room when I came there as a student in '34.
I felt we ought to honor the first man, who got his Ph.D. here, and all of those men who had come from that period have done well; Dr. Barr here who is a distinguished professor at Alabama, and Gordy is a Duke professor in physics and should be in the National Academy, and I'm sure in time he will.
Dudley Williams, of course, is now at N. C. State, and in your biographical treatment you have him still at Ohio State, and I think this is his first year at N. C. State.
That's right. He went there last September. You see, I wrote that in a great hurry, because I knew if I didn't write it in that period, that I was going to Europe for six months and I wouldn't write it, and the thing would just drag on. Sometime, if you will permit me, I want to rewrite that in a more philosophical, deliberate manner, and expand it a little bit and make all these corrections you were telling me about. I want to put those in because there are many more things that happened than I put down in those thirteen pages.
We can treat that as a first approximation.
Who was the second man to get his degree in infrared with you? Was Paul Steel the second one?
Paul Steel got his in '35, the same year as Gordy.
Gordy and Steel, and Jack Craven finished as a group in ‘35. So I guess there were none between them and Daugherty, the first one? Then Dudley Williams and I came in ‘36, and then after I left there, I wasn't sure who all came along.
Do you remember MacMillan who went to Emory, and George Crouch, who by the way is associate professor here.
Yes. Didn't Buck Menius work with you?
Yes, but he got his degree with Ruark. The man that I'm the proudest of that worked more with me than he did with anybody else, but took his Ph.D. in physical chemistry with Dr. Cameron was S. C. Collins at M.I.T., the man who invented the liquid helium machine which makes it possible for so many institutions to have liquid helium. He was a genius.
Was he in the chemistry department down there? I remember him.
He took physics as a minor, but he got so interested that he spent all his afternoons up there working with me in infrared, and he was so bright and had so much originality, I told him, “You’ll make a million dollars in science.” He said, “Well, I don't think so, but if I do I'll give you a Cadillac car.” I saw him a few years ago and asked him whether he made his first million yet. He said, “Oh no, I'm a long way from it.” I said, "Well, I’m getting on in years — I'll settle for a Ford.”
Did Cliff Beck work with you?
Yes, but when I went away on sabbatical, he finished up with Shearing, so he got his degree with him. Paul Shearing got a Masters with me and went to Ohio State for his Doctors.
I saw Cliff Beck in Washington last Wednesday. I had lunch with him and we were talking about a variety of old times when we were students, and things like that. I guess, as you said a while ago, we were all hard up, times were hard in general then, we were in the depths of the Depression, and everybody was working very hard, but I think this did us more good than it did harm. As far as I know, Walter Gordy was probably about the poorest of all of us. Walter had almost nothing at all when he came there. He lived in an unheated room with a little grate in it that was all the heating, and he couldn't afford to buy coal for this, and I think that Jack Craven was about as bad off as the rest of us.
That was during the Depression, too. Those boys were living on $200 or $300 a year.
It was amazing that you could keep the students during the Depression, so many of them left the universities to go out and try to get a job pumping gas.
Well, it's true. But these boys had a goal. They had the spark. It takes several things to make a career in science, but certainly one of the most important is to have the spark, the enthusiasm, and the drive. Now, just like you're talking about Gordy. He had that drive. He was like the Salvation Army saying, a man may be down, but he’s never out.
I think he was the most dedicated man.
Dr. Stuhlman was a Princeton man, and here this country boy, twelve miles from the Railroad in Mississippi was just something he didn't like and just couldn't understand, so he was always saying things to him. One time he told Gordy he ought to go out and sell Bibles or shoes, and not be around a university, and Gordy said, “Dr. Stuhlman, I admit that I may be ignorant, but I don't intend to stay so.” He had that spirit that he was going to come right back up. You know about the story of ten lepers who were healed and one came back to offer thanks. Well, Gordy has been my lifelong friend, and he writes to me every opportunity he sees. He wrote that book, Microwave Spectroscopy, and this is what he wrote about that: “To my teacher and friend, Dr. E. K. Plyler, without whose inspiration and teaching, this book never would have been written, Walter Gordy.”
And legibly written. This is the unbelievable thing because his handwriting was so bad he used to borrow my notes because he couldn’t read his own.
The thing about Gordy, they took his free tuition away from him, and I got the American Association of Advancement of Science to give me $300 with which I told the Dean at the School that I would appoint Gordy as my research assistant if he would give him free tuition, and that's the way Gordy kept on. He saw that I saw that he had originality. He was extremely original, and with that drive he was bound to succeed.
How can you tell when you have a really good student?
It's as simple as telling night from day. The first thing, does he have a real abiding interest. Would he rather come back to the lab or go to a football game? It's his drive. The next thing is his approach, his originality. What kind of mind does he have? And it might be interesting to tell you that I go to the National Research Council, and last year they gave a report of the committees that pick out these fellowships, like NSF's and all like that. They followed what these men did after 75% of the men made good. Then they just went back and took the professor's recommendations without considering grades, what school they went into, or how many courses they had, the correlation was 85%. Do you think you can live with a man, working in the lab day in and day out, without seeing, provided you are almost as intelligent as he is? If you're dumb you can't see it. If you're really bright and he's dumb you can't see much. I stayed in contact with my students.
You stayed in contact. I cannot emphasize this too much. The general idea was that you’d work to two o’clock in the morning plotting out a curve, and come in sleepy the next morning at nine o’clock and show the curve to him, and he'd take a look at it and say, "Well, that's just fine. That certainly is a beautiful curve. Now, tonight why don't you do so-and-so?” The contact was continuous, I might say. But we all enjoyed it, that's the thing.
Because you had your hearts in it. It would have been drudgery if you hadn't thought you wanted to do it, but I was not doing anything to you people that I hadn't done, because I've stayed up 'till three or four o'clock many a time. In the old days, infrared was measured on sensitive galvanometers, and a truck going by on the highway out there would just make it shake.
Or somebody's ham radio across the way upstairs.
Or somebody would slam a door. So, you had to wait until most people got out and away in order to get very nice consistent readings, and it meant night work. Now, today with electronic amplifiers and all, that is not of any consequence, but then, it meant night work.
And far into the night. Quite frequently we would run all night long. If the instrument got quite stable, then the idea was to stay with it as long as you were able. As long as your luck was good you stayed. So often, you'd spend night after night and the thing would not stabilize, just drift all night long. That would be a wasted evening. What we used to do was to bring along some books to study, and go down to the spectrometer room and sit down in there because your body temperature affected it too. You'd sit there and study for an hour or two and take a few deflections and see how it was goi.ng. When you got it stabilized —this was the case when you read galvanometers for each reading. That is, you looked through a telescope at a scale, and so taking a curve was a matter of taking hundreds of galvanometer deflections, and then plotting and correcting, and plotting them out. You didn’t have curve tracers like we have today. This was all point by point based on two galvanometer deflections.
It is surprising how accurate those curves came out and that with these new instruments they make very few changes. Of course, some of the newer instruments are much more resolving. But, every time we said there was a band, there was one there. The thing that surprised me most, there down in this little country university, North Carolina wouldn't like for me to say it now, but that's what it was at the time — it was just coming out from being a regional to a national university, but a few years later, I was seeing a few things that we've done, quoted in books, and it was just amazing to me that we had really accomplished something.
How did you get started in infrared work?
I started in infrared at Cornell University in the summer of 1919.
Well actually, didn't you do some at Hopkins before you went there?
No, I went to Cornell for two summers, and then I went to Hopkins and back to Cornell. In 1919, I went up there to the summer school, and in the optics course it was explained that that was Cornell's great accomplishment and that some of Nichols' and Merritt's work, two of their famous old professors, had been quoted in books, and that they had made contributions and that that was the best research. I thought, well now, if there's something that's left to do and contributions can be made, why wouldn't that be a nice field. My real field was optics. Optics always appealed to me back to when I was eight years of age when somebody gave me a magnifying glass, and I got to making images with that, and I’d see a horse and wagon go by out on the road and see this image move, and my father said if I knew the distances I could figure out how fast that horse was going. I was just thrilled, and so that kind of set me toward optics. When I went to college, I was interested in everything. I said I was going to take everything in the catalogue. So, I took 26 hours a week, and in three years I finished the curriculum. Now that was a small college, it wasn't standard — Furman in South Carolina — and so the boys coming in there, some of them had finished the ninth grade and some the tenth. The South’s secondary schools were very low. It was easy for me to keep ahead of those boys. I never made competition, but I always met it. I graduated second in my class. They said it wouldn't do for me to take a degree in three years because no graduate school would let me in from a small school, so they told me to come back another year and take a Master's degree. So in four years I got a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's from Furman. I applied at Cornell and John Hopkins and Harvard.
Excuse me a second. Isn't your brother president down there?
He has been president for 25 years, and he's retiring this year, and I can't go to the Physical Society because I'm going up for the celebration — one doesn't have a brother retiring from college every year.
I think it's interesting that he has stayed there as president.
It is interesting, because he had three elements to deal with. He had to gamble on good football teams; he had the Baptist preachers that wanted to be sure that everybody's faith was right; and, he had the professors who wanted scholarship. How he kept those three different groups from fighting and pulling his hair, I really think it's a great tribute to him, that he could continue so long. He's a tolerant person, and also follows Shakespeare which I've tried to do: "to listen to each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.” So, they could come in and talk to him and tell him their ideas, and he may occasionally say, you got a point there. But when a Southerner says that, he means I don't believe a word you say, but I don't want to argue. Furman has now come up the list as one of the best institutions as an undergraduate school, and they rank second in the whole southeast in the number of people who took Ph.D.'s in physics, compared to the total number of graduates of the institution. Davidson is another very good institution of the same general type. They pay their professors better than most small institutions. For instance, a full professor there, a head of a department, makes about $12,500 for nine months. You can live off of that. There's a place for these small institutions, especially for a student who is kind of quiet and who would be lost in a big place. But some of these fellows who have outgoing personalities and want to be president, or running for politics, they're better off there. That wouldn't be a big enough operation for them.
Now, at Cornell you took a course in optics. Under whom did you work?
I worked under Professor Hawley Howe. He retired there about ten years ago. A little short man and he was from Randolph Macon College in Virginia. He was a most excellent teacher. I was amazed at the Cornell faculty, that they had men that were so thorough and so qualified. You take a man like Murdock. I have never seen a man that has a better understanding, interpretation, and also passes it on to his students. I owe more to him of my knowledge of physics than do to anybody else except myself. But where I learned physics was when I was teaching graduate students. They didn't have anybody else there to teach the advanced courses, so I had to teach all physics at first at the University of North Carolina.
You had another advantage. What you would do would be to assign each one of the members of the class a certain section of the material. You’d say, “I'll take these sections, and Scott, you report on this section over here, and Jack, you do this section here,” and this enabled us to give a really comprehensive detailed treatment to a lot of material with only a reasonable amount of outside work by the instructor.
Let me say this, Scott. I knew that if I ever saw you fellows falter, or happened to get sick and didn't come to class, I couldn't be left dry, so I went over the whole thing. But what this did was to develop the students because they were responsible to answer any questions and explain, and I think in smaller classes that's one of the best methods.
I do too and I still use the same thing. I might say one thing, however. Whenever we came to a clever, really beautifully done demonstration of some kind, this was always reserved. "This is such a pretty one. I 'm going to have to do this one myself.”
That's what they said, but I never did quite agree. I might have done a little of this but not too much.
The thing I'm thinking about is the fact that you taught these courses almost on a seminar basis with the participation of students. Now I think this did a very great deal to knit together the people, and to make the relationship between the students and instructor, a much more close, a more useful, a more vital sort of thing than it would have been if you had simply gone in and lectured to us and then we'd gone away.
It would probably have gone past you. They say that Debye is one of the finest lecturers that anybody has ever known, but he makes things so easy for his students that they forget it. It looks so simple when he does it, they think they understand it.
What was it that you got from Dr. Murdock?
I got this idea of thoroughness that every time you went from one step to another, there was a reason and you should justify it, and that's what we did in this seminar-type lecture; and that if anything was worth doing, it was worth doing well. He might say, "Well, we won't treat this subject,” but of the parts he did take, every little step was analyzed and brought right down to its lowest terms, which I think is essential for the understanding of the subject. What I was trying to do is not only get these students to understand the subject, but get them to think in physics, and I don't think any man can really be a first class physicist who just can't think in the subject. I'm afraid — now don't think I'm too critical of the present generation, but we have so many — we don't have the time to teach them this method of thinking in the subject. He did that, and I copied that from him quite a bit. So he was my best graduate teacher. Now, he wasn't known so far off the campus at Cornell as some of the other teachers were. Kennard was better known. But when it came to giving the students the ability to analyze and think, he was a superior teacher. Did you have that same experience with him?
Oh, yes. I enjoyed his classes tremendously, in spite of the fact that here was a man who had retired and had actually come out of retirement to teach, the material was crystal clear, and he had a tremendous interest in the students too. He was a very unusual man.
That's what I said about getting students inspired. One thing, if they feel that you're really interested in seeing them become successful — now, Dr. Crouch, who was one of my students, is one of the best teachers here. He is very pained and very unhappy if he has a student out in front of him who is trying and can't get the subject. He'll invite him to his office, spend two or three hours with him, and he just gives of himself completely. Now, the students realize that, and therefore, they feel they have a friend, a colleague, and a coordinator in their teacher. In his class, there were three different sections. In one section he had 45, and he had 15/A's. Another man had 45, and 5/A's; another one had 45 and had 4/A's. The students were selected indiscriminately, and they all had the same quizzes and examinations. It wasn't that he was easier, and yet he had gotten that connection back and forth, and all this writing and talking that has been done about good teaching — unless the teacher really in his heart feels that he's there to help those people, no methods will substitute for that. Now, Scott, do you think I was a good teacher, or a sorry teacher?
I thought that you were doing more good in the long run about letting us have the experience of working things out, than we would have had if we had had some of the teachers who dished it out entirely and left nothing to us. In other words, I think the general feeling was, that we were having to work very hard for our results, but nobody felt that this was a bad thing. In other words, we just regarded taking your courses was being relatively rather tough, because of the time it took compared to just reading over something and going to listen to someone else talk about it.
Do you remember Froggy Wilson, the Zoology professor there? His course required about three times the work of an average course, but when those boys went away as graduate students or to medical school, they were far superior. They felt he was terrible when they were taking the course, but ten years later, they realized that that was the most valuable course that they had ever had.
You know that most of the students now-a-days will not go along with this. That is, if it's a real tough course like that they'll evade it if it's at all possible.
Do you know why; because we do not have the proper criteria for people to come to college. Only half of the people who are in the first 20% of the high schools in Florida go to college, but a lot of them in the lower 50% go to college. We're wasting our manpower. That's not only true of Florida, but it's true all in the southeast, and somewhat true throughout the nation. As a result, we're getting these people that don't have the heart in college, but are just here because it's a nice way to grow up or a social thing. If we could get into college the highest 20% in Florida, it would revolutionize this place.
By the way, you asked about evaluation of you as a teacher by your students. What was it that Walter Gordy said to you after completing his doctoral examination as you all were walking down the campus? I can't quite remember this, but I think that Walter said something along the general line of, “Dr. Plyler, now that I'm all through and I can say this without any prejudice at all —"
He said, “You teach a man to think and stand on his own feet.” He didn't say I was a good teacher. I think I was a little bit too hard.
As a matter of fact, I think Walter actually went so far and said, “But you're just not a very good teacher.” I think he actually said this to you.
Yes, he might have added that on.
Then he finally went on and said, “You’re really not a very good teacher.”
It's a question of definition.
Walter, I think, was really implying the fact that he had learned the material in the process of working on the courses with him, but he felt that quite frequently that some of the explanations were above his head a little bit. I think that's what he was driving at. Walter was very meticulous about things, and he had to understand it all the way.
Yes. That's why I was speaking so highly of Professor Murdock. He would just lay everything and then he'd say any discussion or questions and he'd go over just slightly differently, but bring the same point out. He was patient; he was interested in seeing that you understood that thing. All the students enjoyed his classes.
How about Kennard? Did you have any courses with him?
I had a seminar with him, but no courses, but he more or less was a formal lecturer. He'd put a lot of long equations on the board and only the men who were going into theoretical physics profited by his courses.
This is too often the case —
He was the only theoretical man there. If he had been associated with other theoretical men, he would have been one of the great theoretical men of that era, but being isolated, and with nobody to compare, he had a lot of good ideas, but he was afraid to throw them out because he was afraid someone might laugh at him. From childhood on to old age, we don't want to be laughed at. And he was scared to push himself out. He went over to Gottingen and spent a year, and he did beautiful work, because there he was around people, and he'd tell them what he was doing and they thought this was fine, and that paper has been quoted, and quoted, that he did there. That’s what he needed —
What paper was that?
It was on a certain new method of the quantum mechanics that he did about 1931 or 1932, when he was at Gottingen, but you’ll see it in the literature.
How about Merritt? Was he still active in the department?
Oh, yes, he was head of the department when I was there.
Was he dean of the graduate school at the same time?
He became the first dean of the graduate school, I believe.
He must have given it up and gone back as head of the Physics Department, because he was head of the Physics Department and a professor of philosophy and was the dean of the graduate school when I was there. Murdock got to be dean of the graduate school later on.
Then, I guess you'd say that Murdock is the man that you feel was more the man who put you on the road to becoming a real physicist than any other person.
No, I would say in my attitude towards teaching and explaining every little step and seeing that a man understands it, that that side of it, but in research it was Merritt who inspired me. Collins was Merritt’s student, and Merritt said, “Well now, I’m head of the department. I don’t have too much time to give to you, but I will follow your work, but I would rather for you to actually be with Collins," and I found Collins to be a most delightful man, and a very thorough man, who knew his physics well. I had a course in electricity with him in which he proved to be a very good teacher. However, Collins did not have that super interest in research and getting something done. Research was very much like a job of teaching another course.
He turned it on and turned it off.
Yes, it's time now for me to stop other things and do some research. Then he would complete that and go back to teaching, or doing other things. Then he would say; now I must stop and do another research, and he’ll do that. But after I once got into something, I wouldn't stop there. I would keep on going. But Merritt had a freshness of approach that was extremely pleasing to me. He had kind of an insight or something like that which helped out a great deal.
I'm curious about something. Why do you think research developed in physics at Chapel Hill so adequately compared to what happened in Virginia, and what happened at — well, of course, Duke wasn't much of a school at all at that time when you were there. Why was it that North Carolina got this running start in graduate work in physics?
That is for various reasons, Scott. One reason is that North Carolina at that time had a spirit of excellence which they wanted in all departments. They had one of the best English departments.
This was during the time of Harry Chase, wasn't it?
That's right. And Harry Chase's idea was its being a national university, and so that went over the whole line and it was very opportune that I came there when they really wanted graduate physics and encouraged me, gave me salary raises, paid my expenses for trips when they didn't have much money — well, they'd pay my transportation, and I could eat if I wanted to, but it was on my own. They'd give me $30 to go to Washington. I would either take my car or go by bus —
I remember some of these mutual trips to Washington, staying at the YMCA there to save money.
Oh, yes, because it came out of our own pockets.
I remember the trip we made to Michigan one summer. George Crouch went with us that time, I think.
Yes. So you see that gave us a contact with scientists from some other places to interchange ideas and things which I think is necessary for any scientist, to get with other people. And so, instead of just being satisfied sitting there and doing our own little jobs —
Actually, himself, because I think this was really a stimulus from the president. I think the department had not had this stimulus of its own accord. I don’t want to disparage Dr. Stuhlman, or anything like that, but I don't think that he had any real enthusiasm for this. He just did his job, and that's what it amounted to. And so, until you came there I don't believe there had been any real effort to do anything which could be called research.
No, there had been one or two Master's given, but never a doctorate. My drive and enthusiasm for doing that stemmed from a long time back. When my professor told me that I could have a career in science if I worked long, and studied hard and late, I was very much amazed, and he said, “You can discover new things.” I said, “Do you mean to say that everything is not already known, and everything has not already been written into books." He said, "Yes, there are still some few things that can be done.” I asked him if he thought might find something new, and he said, "Yes, if you work hard, you could.” So, I decided I would go to graduate school, but there weren't all these scholarships and fellowships. Also, World War I came along just at the time I graduated in 1917, so I went into the Navy. That was the second most important part of my education, serving a hitch in the Navy. There were 68 of us living in a place half as high as this, and about twice as big this way, and you really learn human nature, and that's where think I developed tolerance in learning a man might be wrong, but there is some good about him in other ways. I didn't have any money. My father was a schoolteacher and never made over $3,000 a year. So, he couldn't help me, and I went out and taught for four years to save up enough money so that I could go to graduate school. I didn't find that it was necessary, because I got this university appointment at Johns Hopkins, and I got the President White appointment at Cornell University. Now, it's very difficult for a man from a small liberal arts college to get those. Usually the people in a bigger university get those, although I think the big schools are missing it, because many of our bright boys are still going to these small colleges because their fathers went there, or something like that. At any rate, my recommendations were good, and they took a chance on me.
I think that now-a-days scholarships are almost going begging for people. It just seems we don't have enough qualified applicants now a days to utilize the assistance resources which are now available.
Well, it depends, on your definition of qualified. We have about 125 applications for 23 places, but we have found that about 45 or 50 of those are worthy, but we’re bidding against 100 institutions to get those students. And so, we have not filled our quota, but I told the committee, I’d rather for us to run short and drop off at 80 graduate students instead of 85 which was the number we could have provided for, rather than taking people in that would just take our time.
In other words, if there are really good men now a days, they can get help.
But that wasn’t true. Only about 10% got any kind of help.
You know, as a graduate assistant at Chapel Hill I got $35 a month.
You were glad to get it, too.
When I got raised to $50 I was the envy of everyone around the place. I became acting instructor at $50 a month.
You were a big shot then.
There’s another thing which I wonder. How would you contrast the real drive and enthusiasm of the graduate students at that time with those who are in the field now?
My experience with graduate students was only on the receiving line. I’ve had them come to work for me at the Bureau, and I got information from that standpoint. Now, this is my second year here, and I’m now getting direct information. I’d say that we have around 75, and 25 of them would measure up in enthusiasm and ability with the best. The next 25 would be below the average that we were having when we had 10, 15 or 20 graduate students at North Carolina. The last 25 just oughtn’t be here. So, if you take over the average, we're worse off, but still we have more good students than they had at that time, but the thing has expanded 'till there haven’t been as many good students generated as you say to fill all the places today.
A rather interesting thing it seems to me that in view of the fact that there are as many living physicists now as have lived altogether in the past, then if the average ability were being maintained, then we ought to be making progress at the same rate that we have made in the past, that is, the output per person ought to be as good as in the past. But I think it's dropping off.
That depends. Part of that is that our programs are being corrupted by the Federal government. I am very much in favor of support of the universities for research by the Federal government, except for all this string-tied writing of these long proposals, and that any research I can guarantee to do in the next two years is not worth doing. If they would say, we're going to stake you and give you three or four graduate students and a research associate, and we hope you'll turn up with something. It ought to be in grants. They ought to come down and look us over very thoroughly, talk to our men, find out what our men are doing, and say we believe we can trust these people to the extent of $300,000; we can do this, or that, and we're going to support you. But I looked over one contract three times to satisfy some little fellow sitting up there, who doesn't know as much about it as I do, and I just think it's on the wrong foot. Now, I'm in favor of support and I think the National Science Foundation deserves a great deal of credit for all of the fellowships they give, and all like that, but by their idea of giving us $50,000 for high energy physics and by giving some place like California or Wisconsin, $500,000, they make the imbalance bigger. I think Federal funds for roads, for agriculture has been more or less distributed on a population of the state basis, but here is the government putting this money into physics and supporting private and public schools, and universities in about 8 states get 60% of the money. Now, is that the best for this country? Of course, those people argue, yes, we are raising the standard, and I think there's some virtue and I'm proud that we got California, Columbia and MIT. But I say to reach the boys and girls in this southeastern area, we need three or four places with inspiration, and of course, I'd like for one to be here, and you'd probably like Alabama to be another. But irrespective of where they put them, if they put them here, I wouldn't complain if they gave it to Tennessee or North Carolina, and all. But we don't have a single first rate university in one-fifth of the population of the whole United States, and we'll never get it as long as we get the crumbs from the rich man's table. Now, I'm not making any charges against the National Science Foundation, because they have done well. But who have they got on the Boards who have to pass on this thing? Well, they have five good men to every one or two that we have, but want our one or two to be used. I don't know a man that's in the state of Florida that's helping the Science Foundation to pass on their projects, in physics I'm talking about. Do you know anyone from Alabama that's helping them to decide whether this project should be granted or not? The men in there are very honorable men, and they, I think, personally would like to see it different. One of them told me they are working towards the grant system, but the big universities and the Congressmen from the big states are fighting to keep the money coming in heavily into California, M.I.T., and that. There's nothing immoral about it, but I think the whole system is out of balance. I don't want you to misunderstand that I’m not making any charges of crookedness. It's just something that grew up and grew in the wrong way in my opinion.
I think most of us would agree with that who have seen the tremendous growth of some of these big schools, the point where graduate students tend to think in terms of going to these big schools automatically; instead of going to one of a variety of schools which could be selected. I think this is sort of a degenerative process; the big ones get bigger, and the small ones get smaller. In looking through the American Institute of Physics list of physicists in the country and getting out a mailing recently, I was struck by how many one man and two man departments there are scattered over this country. Those people are completely out of the mainstream, as far as getting any help is concerned.
They're just marked off the list which is not fair. They should be investigated. There's a man out here at Berry College, named McCallister who took his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and he has inspired more of his students to go take doctorates, than any college in Georgia. And, he is rendering a valuable service. Why should the equipment be so sparse that the boys have to go down with hammers and saws and make some of it?
They may be learning by building equipment — that may be the reason they are doing well?
I know, but a little help would ease it. Not too much. I don't want to spoil these places, but just a little would make it so much better.
I think you put your finger on something when you say that too much help can spoil them. I think this has happened in a number of places, and I have a personal grudge against research which consists of assembling a bunch of black boxes and tying them together and taking the chart off the end and carrying it over to a computer and then getting your paper published essentially without contamination of any part of yourself.
That is fine after a man has once become experienced and thinks in the subject. It's a tool that means he can project himself farther. But for a boy to start out that way, he's drawing a blank in life. He'll never have a career unless he gets to another place that has the same kind of machine with the same kind of buttons, and then he might keep on, but it will be in spite of his training. Some of them will make good, but it'll be that he'll have the spirit of Gordy or something like that that he'll make it.
Without the contact of getting your hands into the equipment, it's awfully hard to see how you are learning. That's the thing that I'm disturbed about.
This is not the usual occurrence, but when I was in the University of Michigan, a boy was up for his Doctor's degree. A theoretical physicist asked him to describe the optics of this infrared spectrometer. He said, “Which spectrometer?” They said, "The one you used.” He said, "Well, I can't describe that, but I can show you the general optics of infrared spectrometry." They said, "Don't you know the optics?" He said, "No, they told me never to take the lid off that. It might get it out of adjustment." Well, they were right. But they ought to have had an experimental one on the other side of the room, where this boy could have taken the lid off, or moved it around and tried out different things.
I'm sure you heard the story about the cyclotron boy who graduated in the field, and had done his work with the cyclotron. He was interviewing an employer, and the man said, "Well, we are thinking of starting a cyclotron in our business here. Are you familiar with how you start one up?” The boy said, “Oh, there's nothing to starting one up at all. You pick up the phone and say 'beam on,' and that's all there is to it.”
Well now, these stories that you hear usually are very exceptional and not true, and no university should be given a black eye. I think we're all in the same boat. We all turn out a certain number who are not trained, and we turn out a certain number who are trained. But we have at the Bureau of Standards a man from the University of California who worked on their big machines, and it so turned out that his job was to cut off and on the switch. You see these papers by teams with eight or ten names, and he got there and was absolutely helpless as an experimental physicist.
Isn't this part of the whole trouble about team research that you develop people who have high specialties, but it's kind of hard on the individualists?
You asked me a while ago why I came here from the Bureau of Standards. I had a lovely situation there, one of the finest infrared laboratories in the world. I had one man trained to do all the drawings; I had three to take all the readings off the instruments; two would repair the instruments and keep them in the best of adjustment; three that analyzed the data, and another man to take it down to a computer to get it calculated up, and if we had really wanted to put on the steam, we could have turned out a paper every two weeks there. But, it wasn't training anybody very much. Some of the men that were helping to correlate the data and explain it or make the assignments were learning, but the rest were just cogs in a wheel. I didn't feel I was doing anything for science in the future.
This sort of situation depends so critically on the man who says what we shall do. I think this is one of the things that if anything happens to him, then the team deteriorates. It's like a body when the mind is gone, so if you have all the hands and all the facilities, and everything like that and you don't have somebody supply the ideas and to direct the course of operation, then all these specialists are almost of no use.
Yes, but for ten years I was the only man who really knew the subject; the only man with the graduate training, who was running that whole lab there. I had to furnish and generate all the ideas, and later I said, "If we really want things to go, we just get some others.” I was the only Ph.D. in the lab. Three years before I left there, we got five young men who were very bright, and I trained them so I I’m thankful I’d hate to see that lab disintegrate — that the work will go on. Now, they won't have anybody going around prodding them, but my prod is a gentle prod. I always brag on them and say, "You are doing fine.”
You had a handicap there at the Bureau. You didn't have the people working on the night shift, like we did.
Some of them would come back at night or Saturdays and Sundays when they really had something good going on. I want to ask you a question. With your experience doing research with nothing, compared to the boys now that may be working with a two million dollar set-up, if you were a young man going back to graduate school with your knowledge, which would you pick?
I would try very hard to get to a place where I could get as close to the equipment as I possibly could; as close to having an intimate knowledge of that equipment and not being a member of a large group of people, and therefore, working with only a fragment. In other words, I believe that the idea is the important thing, and I think that there are many cases where unfortunately you have to have massive installations to get things done but it seems to me the most stimulating and the most fun is when you've got a relatively small outfit running very intensely because of your enthusiasm about what's going on.
That's my feeling. I'm glad you agree with me, but that is going over the board very rapidly. John Strong is still that kind of operator and has turned out some of the finest young men in infrared and kindred subjects that we have in this country, like Bill Sutton; like Bob Madden at the Bureau and all. He is an individualist. The difference between John and me is that I'm just as much an individualist but I keep mine covered. I try to make out to the world that I'm conforming and I sort of say, “I’ll let them believe that, but I'm going to be myself.
I think this is quite true, and I've noticed that you've never really gotten yourself handicapped by having a whole bunch of strings tied to you by being involved in great big operations, and I think your success is largely because of your independence.
Do you know I could have lost my career three times at the Bureau if I had not had the strong feeling that I didn't want to and used some ingenuity. Now if you see a wall up there, don't go and butt your head against it. Either find a hole under it, or a ladder to go over, or go to the end, and so, several times they tried to transfer my program, and I’d say, well, that's fine and that's a worthy endeavor of the Bureau, but I have certain things I haven't finished up and I would be very unhappy if I laid those down at this state. So I want to finish those before I go, and I never did finish them. I didn't use any strong language or say, “you’re crazy.” What good would that do?
I remember Dr. Elliot down at Tulane used somewhat the same general idea. When he was told to do something that he knew was not a good thing to do, he went back to his office and wrote about a three page, single-spaced letter going into vast details and bringing up so many points and confusing the issue so much, that finally the whole thing would be dropped, because it just got out of hand, and he called this his technique of confusion. But never tell an administrator no.
Especially in these organized things like Bell Laboratory, Bureau of Standards, these research organizations, because if you do say no, they'll say this man is not cooperative and then they’ll isolate you. They don’t fire you, they don’t mistreat you, but they isolate you. The best thing is to compliment them for their brilliance because of this idea and that you're so glad that they're thinking about your work. You're just flattered, just pleased to death. And then go on and discuss it a little bit and say, "That was keen. Now where did you get that idea?" Of course, he won't admit he stole it from somebody else or anything like that.
I remember the story in your notes you had written there about Pfund coming around and saying he had had one theory stolen from him already, and he didn't want to have another stolen.
He didn't have it stolen, he gave it away, and that was the thing I asked you to keep quiet about because Brackett is a good friend of mine and is still living, and that would hurt his feelings to see that. Pfund just gave him a thesis which he did in a sense. Brackett did the work and he worked hard on something that turned out poorly, and every professor that's really interested in his men has something tucked back in his mind that if this doesn't go through, I'm going to give the boy something that I know will work, that I would have done myself maybe, but I’ll turn it over so we won't hold him up. I think the professor has an obligation to a man working that he doesn't keep him there ten or twelve years, saying, well, this failed, etc.
I think at the same time many of us — I don't know whether it's a good habit or a bad habit — give a boy a problem that you don't know the answer to yourself, and you don't know whether it's even possible that it can be done or not and let him have a whack at it because he may come up with some idea which really will be a useful thing. As a matter of fact, what was Walter Gordy's first project with you?
I don't remember, do you?
Do you remember a piece of sewer pipe?
Oh, yes, yes, and did you know I just reviewed — I'm on the Board of editors of the general Optical Society — I just reviewed a paper that had done that experiment beautifully. Molecules like Hz, NZ, do not normally have any infrared bands because they'll collide but there's no change in the dipole moment when the wave goes by, but if you put a strong electric field on it, you can induce a dipole or a quadrupole, and bring the spectra out. So this theoretical paper pointing that out was written by Condon about 1930, and I read the paper, and he said a field of 80,000 volts per centimeter was needed. To get a strong field, if you have something like a wire feeding out radiation that field may get up to half a million volts per centimeter. We had this wire letting the radiation come down.
The piece of equipment was a piece of sewer pipe.
But where our logic was wrong, we had a beam about an inch in diameter going down and only close up to that wire maybe for a millimeter or two did we have a big field. So, the amount that was being affected was small, so we ought to have had another kind of electric field, or we ought to have had a much smaller beam opened up by slits. So, it was an experiment of hope. But I say this thing a little bit differently, that graduate students sometimes read and come in with ideas of their own. Nine times out of ten, they are no good, but if you're smart enough to pick the one out of ten, or if you're smart enough to see how this man is thinking and get him to think a little farther so he will think of something good, so if you just say "crazy, can't do that,” “don’t you know such and such a law,” you've lost him two ways. You've discouraged the boy, and you've broken his idea of being original. So you don't want to make fun of him or laugh at him or call him ignorant, but you want to lead him to think further.
I think this should go on the record because I believe that you are really possibly unique in the sense that I’ve never known of any kind of time when any student came from a talk with you, where he had felt that you had been less than completely sympathetic. He may have thought that you were a slave driver and that you were asking for more than was reasonable for him to do, but I believe that the fact that he was always able to count on you being sympathetic and never laughing at his mistakes or berating him for anything at all. I remember, Arthur Ruark, of whom I’m very fond, indeed, was certainly quite different in this way. There were times when the graduate students trembled at the sight of seeing him come down the hall. They'd dodge around the corner so they could avoid him, and that sort of thing. I think that the sympathy that you had for your students, and your willingness to let them make their mistakes and not be bawled out about it, or not ridiculed, or in general, blamed for things which happened, I think it, was appreciated very much by all of us. We would have troubles, or something would go wrong, but there was no hesitancy about coming in and saying, "We've burned out the blower last night, and I forgot to tell you it was the last one, and we're stuck because of this,” or something like that—none of this reprimanding and sort of dragooning of the students came from you. And this, I think, as much as any one thing accounted for the great willingness to work which all of your students had.
I thank you very kindly for that statement which is well deserved. I want to argue with you on your introduction. I thought it was going to be a bad statement but it turned out to be a good one. Now, I was never a slave driver. You're not the first man that's ever said that, and people in Washington, and everywhere I've ever been, it gets back to me that people look on me as a slave driver. I’m just a hard worker, and expect the same from people around me, and I feel that this is a man's subject, not a playboy's subject. If you're not in physics for the love of it and are not willing to give your whole self to it, you'd be better off in getting something in something else. Now, I think that's a little nicer way of putting it than a slave driver. Will you accept this?
I'll take that modification. I must say that after some sleepless nights working on things, instead of saying, “That’s real good. Why don't you take the afternoon off, and go home and rest,” I never heard you make any sort of wild statement like that.
I'd better not do it for fear I'd get the habit of it. But let me tell you about one graduate student I had. He asked me whether he could get married. I said, “Well, have you got enough money?" He said, “Yes, and the girl I'm marrying said she'll work.” I said, “Well, you expect to get your degree this year. How are you going to get your degree? If you're married you're not going to be able to work over here at nights.” He said, “I asked her that, and she promised I could work every night.” I said, “Well, alright, you've got my blessings on it.” So, he got married, and brought this girl back down, and so he would come into the laboratory about ten or eleven, like you described a while ago, and work to about three or four o'clock and he'd bring his wife with him. She would take three or four straight chairs, line them up, and lie on those hard chairs, trying to sleep or rest. Well, the campus policeman were very much concerned about this boy bringing this girl into this place. He trailed them one night and went and looked through the keyhole. I stuffed it up after he told me he looked through the keyhole. Well, he looked through the keyhole, and called me up at 11:30 at night, and said: "There's the most unusual thing going on in your lab, Doc. “I said, “What is wrong?" He said, "Well, a boy brought a girl into your lab, and there she is lying on four straight chairs, and he's sitting across the room over there working on an instrument.” I said, "What's wrong with that?" He said, "Well, now, what in the world's up?” I said, “That is his wife.” So he said; “Oh, don't you believe that. You think any wife would go and lie on those hard chairs.” I said, “Yes, because this girl promised this fellow that if he'd marry her, she'd do that.” He got his degree, too.
Who was that?
That was a fellow named Cleeves who's up in Cleveland in one of the NASA labs there — Lewis Lab, is it?
I think I was the first married graduate student you ever had.
Did you ever bring your bride to the lab?
No, I didn't, but she plotted the curve for me. She says she still knows the shape of a water curve; she's plotted it with me so many times.
The students did work —
Almost none of them were married at that time.
I might have given them a little push by prodding, but they were intensely interested in the subject themselves, and I think they caught the idea that if ever you're going to be anybody, they had to meet the competition because they were working that hard at Hopkins and other places. As I look back on it, I wouldn't ever have done that if I had to do it again. I would have been scared to. A little country boy from South Carolina, never been out of the state until 22 years of age, trying to set up a physics department to compete with the big universities and give people Doctor's degrees, and put a stamp on them that they were qualified to have careers. It would scare me if I had to do it over now that I know the importance of the real implication of what was going on.
I think of the contagious enthusiasm which we had, too, that this was the case where we talked about our problems with each other, and we helped each other a great deal. I think the cooperation among the students who worked with you there was really remarkable. That if one man had trouble, unhesitatingly somebody else would dive in and help him out. It's not a case of the business of one man saying, well, I have my worries; you worry about your things. Any number of times, particularly Jack Craven would come over late at night and try to make an adjustment on something when we were having trouble, and anytime that you needed help, somebody would give you a hand with it.
That's right. That's the kind of team work I admire. But a big team on a big machine is more engineering than physics. You're going to need some physicists to think what to do and to guide it, but instead of turning people out with Ph.D.’s, they ought to turn out people that are engineers, and who will work that machine.
Did you find a feeling of teamwork, that is, of communal cooperation at Johns Hopkins when you were there as a graduate student?
Quite a bit, and that was when it was small, and I think that if you can find a good, small graduate school, it is better for nine tenths of the students who want human contact and human understanding. Very few people are these clean, calculating people who don't think about anybody else. Well, they may pretend to be, but they're human under the skin, and especially boys from small towns in the Middle West, or from Pennsylvania, even Michigan. One of my brightest students got an assistantship at Wisconsin, and everything was so big and he was so lost, that he just couldn't study. He was a brilliant boy. He took a major here and had practically all A's, and yet he couldn't make the grade because of emotions. He couldn't sleep at night. Everything was different. Nobody seemed to care whether he went to class. Nobody cared whether he ate, or had any concern. It was just the bigness of it.
When you have graduate classes of 50 people or something like this, this is a very bad situation.
It's hard on a man from a little town where he knows people.
I believe if the student and the instructor can't talk back and forth in graduate classes, you're losing a tremendous amount there. Contrast what we did in our E&M courses at Chapel Hill with what is done in an E&M course in a big institution now. The lecturer comes in there, puts the stuff on the board, and that's it. He sees his students occasionally by appointment; and I expect most of them he only knows as a name in a roll book. I think this makes a tremendous difference.
Did you feel that anyone at Johns Hopkins in particular was promoting this community feeling among the students?
Dr. Pfund. He's a remarkable man, and he developed more good men there than any other professor, men that went on and had a career, until John Strong came there and Pfund was just about to retire.
Pfund was one of the most ingenious experimentalists that's ever lived.
Absolutely. He had keenness, and you could see it and absorb it. That’s where I got my instrumentation. I got my idea of preciseness and explanation in courses from Murdock, and I got my instrumentation from Pfund.
Even more than from Wood?
Oh yes, Wood was an aristocrat. He would take a few people in his bosom, but he just couldn't be bothered with the general public. Pfund would take any man that was interested, while Wood was more of an original man in ideas, and also a great technician. Pfund learned it. Wood brought Pfund there as his assistant and he went on and got his degree, and they were both kindred in their great ability in instrumentation. But he did not want to bother except with a few students. If he got a bright fellow, he’d give him all his time, like Alexander Elliot who came there and got his Doctor’s degree; Ruark —
Incidentally, you were responsible for Ruark coming to Chapel Hill, weren’t you?
That's right. I brought him there. He had run into a little trouble up at Pittsburgh with the coal operators — people who were giving money to Pittsburgh — they didn’t like a man on the faculty who would speak out. That was one fight that has been going on since 1088 when the first university was founded. You ought to get this German book, The Foundation of European Universities, in which it tells that the Pope was for freedom, and he wrote these professors at the university at Bologna and said, “It’s better for you to lose your homes, and leave your town, than to lose your freedom.” And so the professors moved out of Bologna and moved up to Padua and started a new university up there, on account of their wanting their freedom as scholars. We have it here every year. Something will come up and get the faculty all up on freedom — but if you don't just want to continue doing the same thing, using the same ideas, we have to have free ideas in the universities. I'd say a fourth of our population is more or less regulated, and I refuse to be regulated. If I could stay for a term of 18 years at the Bureau of Standards and not be regulated, I don’t think a university is going to regulate me.
I thought you'd been there about eighteen years.
Now, we’re almost at the end of the tape.
I came to the National Bureau of Standards in the fall of 1945 about one week after Condon had arrived as the new Director of the National Bureau of Standards. I went up to his office in order to speak with him and his administrative aide asked me what I wanted to see him about. I told her nothing in particular but that I had just come to work at the Bureau and knew Dr. Condon and would just like to speak with him for a few minutes. She said he was too busy to meet new employees at the Bureau so I could not see him. About a week later I received a scratched note from him saying that he had just found out that I was working at the Bureau and wondered why I had not been up to see him. In turn, I sent him a pencil written note in reply saying that I had come up to see him but his secretary said he was not interested in seeing new employees at the Bureau. A few hours later he came down to my office and said that his secretary was too protective, and that he would have to teach her better. We talked for about two hours and he asked me what I planned to do. I told him that I planned to start a program of infrared research. He said fine and that he would help me with funds or any other way he could. I told him that I had heard that there were many squabbles at the Bureau but I had come to the Bureau for science and did not want to get involved in them. He said that if I stuck with that then I would have a career. Condon was a great friend to scientists and tried to help anyone whom he thought was capable. He made a great contribution to the Bureau by bringing in many able scientists. He modernized the laboratories and started programs in research and measurement which had not been previously done. The present high standard of the National Bureau of Standards throughout the world is in many respects, largely due to the work which he did there. I only have praise and admiration for him.