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Interview of Robert Shankland by Loyd S. Swenson, Jr. on 1974 August 20,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4886-1
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Family life and early childhood environment; undergraduate studies at Case School for Applied Sciences (1925-29), M.S. 1933, influence of D.C. Miller; reanalysis of Miller’s absolute motion experiments, meetings with Einstein; National Bureau of Standards work on ionosphere and standard frequency regulation 1929-30; contact with University of Chicago (1930’s and 1940’s), thesis work on photon scattering under A.H. Compton, 1935; World War II sonar work in submarine warfare; architectural acoustics interests; tasks as Chairman of Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University 1940-58; consultant to Argonne National Laboratory, neutrino experiments,1953-69. Additional topics include: associations with D.C. Miller and A.H. Compton, their experimental style, personalities and influences on others; the climate of opinion around relativity and quantum mechanics; crucial experiments of Michelson-Morley and others in relativity; comments on the resistance of the older generation of physicists; RS’s reaction to fission and the atomic bomb; problems of modern physics and comments on the relation between pure and applied sciences, the existence of a scientific method, physics as related to other sciences, approaches to the history of science.
This is the first part of the first tape of an extended oral history interview with Professor Robert Sherwood Shankland, Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, taken on the 20th and 21st of August, 1974, for the American Institute of Physics and its Niels Bohr Library Archives. The interviewer is Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., professor of history, University of Houston, Houston, Texas. As taken from American Men of Science, 1967 edition, the biographical note on Professor Shankland is as follows: “Born in Willoughby, Ohio, January 11, 1908. Married 1931. Children, five. Physics. Bachelor of Science from Case in 1929, Master of Science, 1933, Doctor of Philosophy in Physics from the University of Chicago, 1935. Was a physicist with the radio section of the National Bureau of Standards, 1929-30; instructor in physics at Case from 1930—1937; assistant professor, 1937-39; associate professor, 1939-41; became Ambrose Swasey Professor in 1941. Was head of the department from 1940 to 1958. Was assistant at Chicago, 1934-36, instructor in 1936, member of Project Vista, at California Institute of Technology in 1951.
During summers he’s been a physicist at the Radiation Lab at University of California 1946 and ‘49; a physicist and acting technical director of the Materials Testing Reactor for Atomic Energy Division of Phillips Petroleum Company in 1955, and has served as a consultant from 1939 through 1966 with Phillips Petroleum, and with Idaho Nuclear Corporation from 1967 through 1972. Director of the Associated Midwest Universities from ‘58 to ‘61, was vice president during the academic year 1959-60 and president in 1960-61. He was a trustee of the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center, from ‘46 through ‘61, and of Andrews School for Girls since 1960. He was chairman of the Hydrophone Advisory Committee of the U.S. Navy from ‘44 to ‘46, and worked with underwater sound measurements from ‘42 to ‘46. He was a member of the Acoustics Panel of the Research and Development Board, ‘47 to ‘49, worked with the Underwater Sound Committee of the National Research Council from ‘47 to ‘48, and Division of Physical Sciences from ‘51 to ‘54. He was a physicist and consultant to the National Defense Research Committee from ‘42 to ‘46, an OSRD representative to the United Kingdom in 1943.
He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American Physical Society, a fellow of the Acoustical Society, Optical Society, and Association of Physics Teachers.” As may be seen from this introduction, his main interests are in acoustics, architectural acoustics, optics, and in atomic physics and nuclear energy, together with ancillary studies in the history of science, especially the Michelson-Morley-Miller experiments, and their relationships to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. All of this has been by way of introduction, taken from American Men of Science. This portion of the tape begins the actual interview with Professor Shankland in his office at Case Western Reserve. Professor Shankland, we’ve just listened to this introduction from the American Men of Science, and we’ve found some mistakes in it. You’ve suggested that a better reference is Who’s Who in America, the latest edition, and also your little biographical sketch as provided here in typescript. There were about four or five things though, that perhaps you’d like to mention — the death of your first wife and your second marriage, being a fellow of the AAAS, and — we’ll worry about the typographical errors later.
My first wife died in 1970, and I was remarried in 1971 to Mrs. Eleanor Newlin Griffiths, whom I had known for many years here in Cleveland.
And your first wife’s name?
Hilda (Catherine) Kinnison Shankland. We were married in 1931. She died in 1970.
OK, anything else from that introduction that you would like to speak to directly?
Well, the years when I was Director of the Underwater Sound Reference Laboratories at Mountain Lakes, New York, New Jersey and at Orlando, Florida, were very exciting times during the war, because those laboratories tested and approved nearly all sonar and underwater sound equipment for our Navy and also did a lot of work for the Canadians and British, who helped us a great deal too, I may add. So in connection with the various items you’ve listed there, those four years I worked for OSRD are some of the most exciting and valuable experiences of my whole life. I haven’t worked on underwater sound since the war. I felt that only people who worked full time on it should be involved.
Let’s see how this is coming through. We have decided to proceed with this interview in four big parts. First, background and maturation, roughly up to about 1930; secondly, acoustics as a field of study; thirdly, the advent of nuclear physics and Professor Shankland’s long-term role there; and fourthly, ancillary studies in and about physics. Those titles are not holy, but it’s a way of proceeding roughly chronologically. Now, before we turned off a moment ago to test the tape you mentioned your excitement and enthusiasm about the war years and the study of underwater sound and its relationships to anti-submarine warfare. Are there other major events that you’d like to speak to at the beginning of the tape, that stand out as major talismans for your career? Like for instance the many summers in Idaho?
Yes, the 15 summers and other vacation periods that I spent in Idaho working with the Phillips Petroleum Company, Atomic Energy division at the Materials Testing Reactor were very interesting and valuable to me. That reactor has contributed far more to the development of nuclear measurement programs and nuclear power than most people realize, because it’s isolated. It’s closed down now. But it was set up originally under the direction of Dr. Richard L. Doan, and he brought many people there who were outstanding. The development work and research work that was carried on in Idaho in those years was very very important, in my judgment. I think the Atomic Energy Commission would have been well advised to keep it more of a research center than they did, but that’s a question that I’m no longer concerned with. As you say, the war years working at the Underwater Sound Reference Laboratories, and more particularly in the New York headquarters of the O.S.D.D. sub-surface warfare division — our bosses there were Dr. John T. Tate of the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Edwin H. Colpitts of the Bell Telephone Laboratories — that was the second largest division I believe after Radar in the OSRD. Edwin H. Colpitts was the inventor of the Colpitts Circuit. They operated the anti-submarine and sub-surface warfare branch of the OSRD. I was with them in New York City, as well as being director of the Underwater Sound Reference laboratories. Colpitts had spent his entire professional life with the Telephone Company, and Tate was the editor of the Physical Review and a great professor of the University of Minnesota, both marvelous men. Professor William V. Houston, later President of Rice University was also there, and he was a very responsible person in the development of the acoustic torpedoes for antisubmarine warfare. Well, I would suggest that we proceed with your list of questions, which are very well thought out, and I’ll try my best to answer them. [See preliminary agenda]
OK. Now that there has grown up a sizeable community of people interested in the science of science, more particularly in the history of various branches of science, many of us as humanists are much concerned about how young people get into a career in physics in the first place, and how this may be changing over time. So my first question here was on what family influences you can recall may have had an influence on your choice of a career in physics. Father, Mother, Grandfather?
Well, in reply to that I would say most emphatically that the principal influence was my father. My father was a graduate of Western Reserve University where he majored in science.
His full name was?
Frank North Shankland. My father did not carry on a professional career in science. He was in business. He nevertheless kept an active interest in science all his life, and all during my boyhood, there were always visitors, including professors from the university, at our home, interested in geology and astronomy and ornithology; so I very early saw what these men were like. My father encouraged me to make their acquaintance, and gradually guided me into science as a career, although he did it in such a way that I never was conscious of being “pushed” into science. But I know that he wanted me to go to Case School of Applied Science and study science. He was very pleased when I decided to study physics. So I’d say his influence was by all odds the most important family influence of my young days.
Did he appreciate the difference between physics and mechanical engineering?
Oh, I’m sure he did, because the people he knew best in science were professors at Western Reserve University, and they were very much inclined to be “pure scientists.” As a matter of fact, there was a fair amount of rivalry and even jealousy between the two faculties in those days. I remember Francis Hobart Herrick, the great biologist, making a statement in our home that there’s no such thing as applied science, there are only applications of science. And of course, that was a direct slap at the college that I later joined. So I’m sure Dad understood the difference between the two. But in his mind there was never any significant separation between the two. He was a man of very broad interests, and I’m sure he didn’t feel the way Herrick did.
You say your mother was a Canadian?
Yes, my mother was a Canadian and came to Willoughby when she was a young girl. She had very little interest in science, but she was interested in many other things and was a tremendous influence in my life, and very much interested in having me go on to college. But I’m not sure she was the one who’d have had me go into science and engineering, if she’d had the sole…
Her maiden name was what?
Margaret Jane Wedlock.
Were you the only son or oldest son?
There were two of us, two boys in the family. I was the older. My younger brother Alan Clarry is a very prominent man in high school education. He was superintendent of schools in a number of places, and he and my uncle Sherwood D. Shankland…
… how much younger was he?
My brother is three years younger than I am. He was not particularly interested in science, however. He is greatly interested in the social sciences, the humanities and administrative business. He is very good at that.
You say your father received a bachelor of philosophy degree from Western Reserve?
Do you remember the year?
And he was elected Phi Beta Kappa on the basis of his hobby, ornithology?
That was a number of years after he graduated. He was an excellent field ornithologist. I used to be embarrassed to go with him, because people expected me to be able to identify birds the way he did, and I never have been able to. But Professor Paul Visscher of Western Reserve University was the one who recommended him for Phi Beta Kappa, and they elected him on the basis of his skill as a field ornithologist. Paul Visscher was professor of biology. He followed Francis Hobart Herrick at Western Reserve University. My father also wrote several books on birds and animals for children, which were tremendous sellers, and very accurate, but of course they’re not scholarly books in the way we think of at a university. But they’re still very much read. You have here as an item “school and teacher influences.” I might mention that at Willoughby High School, I had two exceptionally good teachers.
One was Miss Margaret Walters who taught physics and chemistry and was a graduate of Oberlin, a very fine woman and scholar. I recall to this day the thrill, when we started studying physics with the textbook by Millikan and Gale…somehow that old textbook was just what a fellow needed to arouse an interest in something in the classroom... compared to baseball, hunting or fishing. Then, I had a very wonderful mathematics teacher, Miss Margaret Walsh, who taught most of the courses in mathematics that I took in high school. She was a superb teacher. When I graduated from Willoughby High School, I was the youngest person in my class. My father brought me into Case School to see about entering, and they suggested I ought to wait a year to be more nearly the age of my classmates. So I went an additional year to Shaw High School, in East Cleveland, and there I had some marvelous teachers — Mr. Ralph Brown in mathematics, and Mr. Morris in chemistry, Miss McIntosh in English, Miss Tanner in French. In those days Shaw High School, according to my uncle Sherwood D. Shankland, was the second best high school in the United States: 98 percent of our class went to college. Very few turned to Case. Most of them went to Yale, because this is the Western Reserve of Connecticut, as you no doubt know, and you had to go to Yale to be loyal to the family, but we all went to college. Shaw High School was a marvelous preparation. Now, your next item, “college and professional influences”…
…before we leave secondary education, did you take from Miss Margaret Walters your very first course in physical science — combination physics and chemistry, say?
…Miss Margaret Walters. In my junior year she taught a full year course in chemistry. At the moment I’ve forgotten the textbook, but it was a standard book and a good one. Then in the senior year we had a full year of physics, with Millikan and Gale. One of the things that I remember very much, was that in Millikan and Gale we worked every single problem: that added a great deal of interest to the course for me, the qualitative nature of it, as compared to the chemistry, which — as a largely qualitative subject, didn’t quite ring true to me in those days. But I found chemistry very interesting indeed, and she was a marvelous teacher. Then in mathematics, Margaret Walsh taught algebra, plane geometry, solid geometry and two years of algebra. We did not take trigonometry at Willoughby in those days, but I did take trigonometry at Shaw High School, and I also took so-called advanced college algebra — a marvelous preparation for Case, because most of the boys in my class at Case had not had the advantage of a Shaw High School senior year. But none of the science courses were combined courses. All the courses were separate. Physics was one thing; chemistry was another thing. We didn’t study biology at Willoughby High School, and I never studied it anywhere, as a matter of fact. Not that I’m against it, but it just never happened. In those days, general science was — I don’t think there was a course in general science at Willoughby, or if there was I’ve forgotten it.
Was Willoughby a sleeper town for Cleveland at the time? Were there commuting facilities?
Oh yes. Yes.
It was a suburb of Cleveland then?
Partially. There were two groups that lived in Willoughby. There were the natives, like my family; and then there were the people who worked in Cleveland, but lived there, like my in-laws the Kinnisons. Mr. Kinnison worked for the Austin Company. A sizeable fraction commuted to Cleveland, first on the railroad, then on the interurban railroad, then they drove their own cars. Of course, now it’s just a suburb of Cleveland in a sense, although it’s a separate municipality. But it had a double image in those days. It had the native people, and the people who worked in Cleveland, and there was a bit of a stand-offishness between the two groups, naturally. It was a wonderful place. It had only about three or four thousand people when I lived there. It had all the advantages of being a town near Cleveland, without any of the disadvantages we now have.
Would you consider it a privileged neighborhood?
In part. I think the people who worked…
… it wasn’t Shaker Heights?
No. The people who worked in Cleveland, and lived there, in general had more money than the others. But there was never any class distinction in that sense. It was an Anglo-Saxon neighborhood, almost 100 percent. Not that we were ever conscious of that, but as you look back, that’s what it was. It was not a suburbia in the present sense, because the people who worked in Cleveland participated in the affairs of “the village,” as it was then called, very much. The mayor and some of the council were often from Cleveland. There was no sharp dividing line in those days. Very wonderful place to grow up. There were some very wealthy people. For instance, Mr. Samuel Austin, President of the Austin Company, was a man of considerable wealth, but you never realized that until long after you had grown up.
Was your father salaried or engaged in different kinds of business?
Well, my father worked first for a company that made machinery, American Clay Machinery Company. lie was the business manager of that company for a number of years. Then he went into real estate and insurance. He also served 1930-1934 as Treasurer of Lake County. Then he was a trustee and also worked for the Andrews School for Girls in Willoughby toward the end of his life. He set up the first employment department of any of the secondary schools. The girls at Andrews School were getting a vocational education, and during the Depression they were having difficulty getting jobs. Dad set up a very elaborate method of getting jobs for all these girls in Cleveland industry and all over the country. It was taken as a model by the public schools afterward but he started it in the early thirties. Dad could have been far more successful in business had he come to Cleveland, like a lot of his friends did, but he chose to stay out there, because he loved Willoughby and he loved Lake County and he was also…
Andrews School for Girls, then, is not a finishing school?
Oh no. It’s a very fine school. It’s better than a finishing school, because the students take courses in art and business and foods and clothing, commercial art, that sort of thing. Most of the girls — every year more graduates go to college from Andrews School, but originally it was set up by Mrs. Andrews just to help girls become self—supporting. Today, they…
Does it have any connection with the Florence Crittendon-type homes?
No. No, it’s pretty much independent of all those things. We have of course been aware of those things. I’ve been a trustee there for a number of years — when my father died, they made me a trustee, sort of to continue the interest. It’s a very fine school. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews grew up in Willoughby. And they went to New York where he became a very successful businessman. They had no children, and when they died, they left their fortune to start the Andrews School for Girls in Willoughby. My uncle Sherwood D. Shankland, who was the first superintendent, organized it. So we’ve always had a very deep interest in Andrews School from the very beginning. It adds greatly to the community — you know, the fact that it’s there. It’s not as well known as some schools are, but — it’s not a finishing school in the way you asked the question, but certainly I would put the graduates alongside those of any so-called finishing school.
Do they teach physics there?
They teach science. They don’t emphasize physics, because what the girls need most are biological sciences, chemistry and mathematics. There’s a little physics but it’s not a major business. I’ve resisted any temptation to push them in that direction.
Perhaps this is something of a digression, but you’re also interested in schools for the deaf, a charitable side interest of yours?
Yes. The Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center, which is now on this campus — I was a trustee there for a number of years. I’m still a member of what they call the corporation, but I’m less active now because I have other interests. Its academic connection is with Western Reserve University, now with Case Western Reserve University. The Hearing and Speech Center is a very fine place, fine place indeed. And all during the years that I was a trustee, we were patterning our growth on the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis where Hallowell Davis and others have made such an outstanding achievement. So I’m very…
Hallowell Davis in St. Louis. He’s been the director, (I don’t think that he is now), of the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. This institute here in Cleveland is in the same general category. So I’m interested in that, both through my acoustics and through my associations in the university.
Coming to Case Institute of Applied Science — was that its name when you were an undergraduate?
No, it was Case School of Applied Science when I entered here, and later became Case Institute of Technology. Now it’s still that, only a part of Case Western Reserve University.
I had asked you what student images you might have had when you first came as a freshman to Case School, with regard to distinctions that were then growing up, but perhaps not widely appreciated, between experimental and theoretical physics?
Well, when I came to Case, I started first as a student in mechanical engineering, and it was only in my sophomore year that I changed to physics. In those days, there was not a great consciousness of theoretical physics in this country. You know that theoretical physics as developed in this country, was pretty much in the World War II years and since, so most of the physics that I was aware of, both at Case and at University of Chicago, was largely experimental physics. We learned about relativity and quantum mechanics, but the things that a young fellow would do himself were almost always experimental physics.
I take it you must have entered Case about 1925.
I entered as a freshman in 1925, and was graduated 1929 with a bachelor’s degree, B.S. in Physics.
How did you make the decision to shift in your sophomore year to physics?
Well, when I came to Case, Mr. Samuel Austin, the president of the Austin Company, told me that if I would study mechanical engineering he would give me a job with the Austin Company, which sounded very attractive to me at the time. But after I’d been here a year, I changed to physics, largely through my acquaintance with Professor Dayton C. Miller and Professor Jason J. Nassau, head of astronomy and mathematics, and Professor Frank R. Van Horn, who was head of geology and mineralogy. They were all very great teachers and distinguished scientists, and I was much impressed with their courses and the way they conducted themselves and carried on their laboratories. So I changed to physics, and was graduated from the physics curriculum in 1929. I think the switch from mechanical engineering to physics was very largely on the basis of these three men, especially Miller.
What was he like in the classroom?
Miller? Well, Miller was a wonderful teacher. He was a first-class lecturer, and he always used demonstration experiments to illustrate his points. He was one of the best physics lecturers I’ve ever heard, both for expository work and for describing experiments and so on. Miller was not a theoretical physicist. He used a modest amount of mathematics. But it was mostly his feeling for the apparatus and his feeling for what nature really was that guided him in all his work in acoustics, optics and other things. He was very enthusiastic. He was very friendly. He had a method of letting the students alone in the afternoons. We had all kinds of laboratories in this building, but he would open the door and let you work. And you realized rather quickly that it was up to you do do the work. He knew what was going on, and he wasn’t about to have people waste their time, but he put it up to you. He’d start you on an experiment. Then he was a very busy man himself, and he was always doing experiments of his own in another laboratory, which was more of an incentive to students by far than if he’d just continually prodded you. I think Miller’s method was example and inspiration, kindliness and encouragement and so on. He was really a very remarkable man. He was a Victorian in the best sense of that word. He never used jokes and he never told stories or anything like that, but he was always telling you of visits to Europe. He went to Europe almost every summer, and he would always share his experience with anybody that was around. He visited, I recall, Rutherford and J. J. Thompson, Joseph Larmor, the Braggs, and Lord Rayleigh and all those people. He was very partial to the British school of physics, because he felt more at home there, but he also was very interested in Germany. He was one of the first people to visit Roentgen, and he visited a number of people in Germany. But then as the war approached, he stopped going to the Continent and travelled in England. But he was very well known all over England, the Braggs he knew well and the Cambridge people, and many others.
Did you know he was a flutist?
Indeed I did. By the time I knew Miller, he had stopped playing the flute publicly. In earlier days he used to play the flute with Mrs. Miller accompanying him on the piano at Case assemblies two or three times a year. I heard him play in his home, and he was still good, but as he grew older he didn’t play as much. I heard a great deal about his flute collection. He was collecting flutes all the time I knew him. When he died he had 1450 flutes which I had to get ready and send to the Library of Congress, where they still reside. He had a very marvelous library of the flute, and also many works of art on the flute. It’s a very very valuable collection which he willed to the Library of Congress. I never was able to get as much out of his discussions of music or instruments as I would have if I had played the flute. Professor Arthur M. Benade, who is here now, would have been a wonderful companion for Dayton Miller, but of course Benade didn’t come until many years later. Miller was really interested in the flute, and he had hoped to write a history of the flute, which would have been a definitive work, I daresay, but he died before he got to it. So I heard a great deal about the flute. For instance, he had Frederick the Great’s flute in his collection, and he told me how he got it by dealing with the Hohenzollerns. He had President Madison’s flute. He had the flute that was used in the first performance of ‘Aida” in Cairo. It was really a memorable experience to talk to Miller about the flute. But I wasn’t able to play the flute, so I missed all the nuances. But it was interesting. Toward the end of his life, he spent more and more time on the flute. He was a good musician, there’s no question about it. He had a player piano, for which he cut all the operas himself, and you’d hear Wagner, with every note sounding on the piano, and the poor piano had a tough time, but it was fun.
I don’t know whether this is the place to ask or not, but I wanted to hear about Miller’s re-runs of the Michelson-Morley experiment during the twenties and especially the Kansas City meeting in 1925-26. Assertions of the discovery of absolute motion, and especially the AAAS thousand dollar prize. Do you want to save that till later?
No, this will be a good time. The first time I heard of this subject was in my freshman year here, when Miller came back from the Kansas City meeting, and had been awarded the thousand dollar prize for his experiments on Mt. Wilson. He gave a lecture for the students in our lecture hall. It was very interesting, and he was obviously very excited about the whole thing and very honored that he had been given the prize. Incidentally, the committee that gave him that prize included really distinguished men. Karl Compton was the physicist on it, so they really thought he had found something. As we know now, the small effect that Miller found at Mt. Wilson was real, in the sense that it could be ascribed to statistics, but it was due to temperature gradients across the interferometer. As a matter of fact, one of the early letters I had from you was calling my attention to a comment of Helmholtz, I believe, on this subject. At the time you told me about that, it was new to me, and when Sidney McCuskey, Gustav Kuerti and I finally worked it out, we were very pleased that we had brought his experiment into line with the others that relate to relativity. I never worked with Miller when he was making measurements with his interferometer. Those were made at Mt. Wilson and finished during my freshman year. I did help him with some aspects of his final write-up of the paper, but I must say that I never personally could accept Miller’s view that it disagreed with relativity. I had studied relativity and it seemed correct to me.
On the other hand, I was absolutely sure that Miller was honest in everything he did, and it was a real puzzle in my mind for many, many years, as to why it was that this periodic effect was there. And I finally decided to spend some time seeing if I could straighten it out, with the help of McCuskey and Kuerti, and with the encouragement of Einstein. His interest was important, otherwise I never would have done it. I went to see Einstein to see if he thought it was worth doing, and I fully expected him to tell me, “Don’t bother with it, forget it.” But he was just exactly the opposite. He said, “Any questions should be resolved,” or words to that effect. I’ve written down what he said elsewhere. So, with Einstein’s interest, we worked away at it, and this was in accord with what Dr. Miller wanted, because shortly before he died, he gave me a great pile of data sheets which I still have, and he kind of pushed them at me and said, “Well, there are the Mt. Wilson observations.” Then he shrugged his shoulders. I didn’t say anything. He said, “You keep them. And you can either burn them up or study them, whichever you think best.” That was all he said. I could tell he was not satisfied.
This was along about 1940, I take it?
Yes, just before he died. He died in ‘41 so this must have been either in January of ‘41 or — shortly before. So I felt a little strange when he gave them to me, because it was obvious that he was unhappy about them. But he never once — he knew, I’m pretty sure he knew that I believed relativity was right. I never said so to him, and he never said anything to me, but we knew each other pretty well. When he would talk about this, I always talked to him, but I never compromised my own feelings, and the fact that he gave them to me I think is rather interesting. Well, for years I just had them locked in a closet, but then, as I’ve told you before, over a period of nearly 15 years, I would get letters from very distinguished physicists asking me what I thought about Miller’s work. And during the war years in New York, I met many distinguished physicists, and they’d ask me at lunch what I thought of it. And this all built up to a kind of a pressure. Then I thought I really should o something. So instead of burning them up, we studied them. I think we satisfied everybody that I’ve talked to that temperature variation was the explanation.
We certainly satisfied Mr. Einstein. He wrote me a very nice letter when we finally got through. He didn’t see the final printed version; he died a month before, but he saw every draft. And the reason I kept going back to Princeton was to get his ideas. He was — there wasn’t the slightest hostility in Einstein’s attitude toward Miller. That surprised me. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t any hostility in Einstein even toward Philipp Lenard. Einstein called my attention to the fact that one of Lenard’s students, Tomaschek, had performed this Michelson-Morley experiment with starlight. This was a great lesson to me. Here was a man who had every reason to hate Lenard. He had absolutely no animosity at all, just talked about him as a scientist. And he was very — the only thing, Einstein said to me, I still remember, he finally nodded and gave his approval, and then he said to me, “Why did not Miller find this?” Well, the answer is, we were only able to find it because we had a big computer. Miller could never have run all these tests that McCuskey and Kuerti worked out without a computer. But Einstein wondered why not. I absolutely respected Miller as an experimenter and as an interpreter of his results, and never doubted him in the world. Thus, I didn’t understand how this experiment could be in conflict with relativity, which I felt was correct from the first time I heard about it. So it gave me a lot of satisfaction that we were able to straighten it out. Most important was that Einstein approved. I had been assured by other people that Einstein would just pooh-pooh the idea. I won’t mention the physicists who “knew” this, but you don’t find a big man ever having that attitude. At least I never have. It’s the little guys that are always sure that — shovel it down the drain. Well, that’s perhaps a little long discussion of it, but I did have a great interest in that, and as you know a lot of the work was done here. Well, let’s go back to your questions, Professor Swenson.
Well, we’ll touch upon what we’ve just been talking about later on. But on my list, “early heroes,” that’s a bad word from your standpoint, but I wanted to ask especially about your career choice in moving on for advanced studies. You told me earlier that you could either have gone to Harvard or Chicago, and you chose Chicago. Why?
Well, I never have been conscious of the word “hero” in the sense that it’s written here, but certainly the person that would come to mind here would be Arthur H. Compton. As you mentioned, when I was a senior, I had a chance, due to the sponsorship of Professor Miller, to go either to Harvard or Chicago, and I chose to go to Chicago 100 percent because Arthur Compton was there. And I think the things that made me aware of the kind of man he was and the kind of physicist he was — are two. He spoke here on this campus in 1927, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work with the Compton effect. It was a marvelous lecture, it was wonderful physics, and above all he was a wonderful man. You could tell that this was the kind of person that you would like to know and like to work with.
Then, in December of 1930, the AAAS met here; Millikan was president and gave a very fine lecture on his cosmic ray work, in which he referred repeatedly to the Klein-Nishina formula, which as you know derives from the Compton effect theory. At the end of the Millikan lecture, I saw Arthur Compton and Karl Compton seated in the audience, and they stayed for over half an hour talking to each other in a very animated way about Millikan’s lecture. And I’m sure that’s when Arthur decided to go into cosmic rays, right then. But also, as I watched him and saw the kind of a man he was, I decided then that he was the man I wanted to work with. So I decided to go up to the University of Chicago. His lifelong acquaintance is one of the great experiences of my life. One of the really great men that I’ve ever known, one of the greatest. His brother Karl was equally great, but I didn’t know Karl well. I just didn’t happen to. I met the third brother, Wilson Compton, who was an economist. He was in exactly the same intellectual bracket as Karl and Arthur. He devoted his life to the lumber industry, on a national scale. But one thing that very few people realize is that Wilson Compton prepared one of the key NRA Codes for the Roosevelt government. This was the second NRA code, and its precedents were most important for all the later codes, and it is now the basis of a great deal of our conservation legislation.
Yes. The code itself applied to forestry and forestry conservation, but it has branched out into all types of conservation, and people who are knowledgeable in this area tell me that it was the start of the whole business. So somebody who’s interested in historical items ought to really study what Wilson Compton did on the second NRA code. The first one was on cotton, which was written in an afternoon, it was so simple — so I’ve been told. But Wilson Compton really worked on his code. See, he was a Ph.D. from Princeton, too, all three brothers were, and there’s a fine building in the graduate school now called Compton Hall in their honor. I met Wilson Compton twice and was very much impressed with his ability. But of course Arthur’s the one I knew well.
When did you first visit Chicago in an academic setting? Was it several summers first?
Yes. They had a very active summer session there in the thirties, and I studied there in the summer of ‘31, ‘32, and ‘33 and ‘34. Then in ‘34 1 stayed on full time for two years, and came back here in ‘36. Chicago in those days of course had the great tradition of all three American Nobel Prize winners in Physics — Michelson, Millikan, and Compton — and we thought a great deal of their work and still do.
I presume that you’ve told in published form practically everything about your relationship with Michelson?
Yes. I never met Michelson personally. He died the same month that I started my work at the University of Chicago, and of course I’ve always regretted missing him, but it was just one of those things. But I have read so much about him and talked to so many people that knew him, that I feel I almost knew him. Nearly everything that I have learned about Michelson, I have published, with perhaps a few exceptions. But I never had the privilege of meeting him, although the tradition of Michelson was dominant at Chicago when I was there. Every Ph.D. thesis had to be experimental, because that was Michelson’s wish. The whole place, the machine shops were all set up the way Michelson had wanted them set up to do his work best, and the graduate students had to scurry in and out, so as not to interfere with the ruling of another diffraction grating or something like that. But of course, he was a very great man.
Millikan really did not take over, and his influence was not really completely independent of Michelson’s influence? Yet Michelson washed his hands of graduate students?
Others of course could answer this question with more authority than I can, but it’s my impression that Millikan carried on the Michelson tradition of experimental work, and Millikan took over largely the administrative duties. Michelson was always titular department head until within a year or two of his death. So I would say that the Millikan tradition and the Michelson tradition were almost identical at Chicago. Now, at Cal Tech Millikan branched out into many other areas — astronomy, theoretical physics and so on. But at Chicago, he was pretty much devoted to experiments, electron charge, photoelectric experiments — his work in spectroscopy was exactly what Michelson would have wanted to do himself. And that was true in a large sense what Arthur Compton did when he came there. He carried on the same tradition, in a different field — with X-rays — but there was no sharp break. The only real break in the tradition of physics at Chicago was when Fermi came during the war. Then there was a whole new group of people, and there was a complete re-organization. But up to the war, the Michelson-Millikan-Compton tradition was pretty continuous, and very much oriented to experimental work, although Compton brought in Carl Eckart and Frank Hoyt as theoretical physicists in quantum mechanics. They were important in the course work. Frank Hoyt is still living, but Carl Eckart is gone. They both got into quantum mechanics early by studying in Europe, and were among the pioneers who brought it back here, like Condon and Morse and others of that generation.
For chronological purposes, I’d like to ask you now about your experience with the radio section of the National Bureau of Standards. That was a — did you say an 18-month interlude in 1929-30?
Yes. When I graduated from Case in 1929, there were innumerable job opportunities. That was before the Depression. And I decided to go to the National Bureau of Standards in Washington and work in the radio section.
Was Stratton the chief then?
No. Norman K. Burgess was Director. Stratton was long gone. The director when I first went there — he was ill. I never met Burgess. He was almost at the end of his life when I came. The acting director was Lyman J. Briggs, and while I was there, the older man died and Briggs was made director. Briggs was a very fine director. I worked in the radio section of the Bureau of Standards. It was a close knit group, although we were divided into several projects. But the principal things we worked on in those days were the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, which is now called the ionosphere. One of the early pioneers in that had been Dr. Austin, who had just retired from the Bureau of Standards but he set up the program of ionosphere measurements. We were very closely connected with the work of Merle Tuve and Gregory Breit at the Carnegie Institution for Terrestrial Magnetism. They were also carrying out very basic work on the ionosphere: Tuve and Breit and others. I think it’s generally believed that had Breit and Tuve not switched to nuclear physics, they would have discovered radar and probably won the Nobel Prize that went to Appleton.
Nevertheless they made some very important contributions to the subject. Another project we worked on at the Bureau of Standards was station WWV, the standard frequency station, and the crystal clocks that controlled it. That was a very interesting thing to work on. The crystal clock was actually built at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and so we had a number of opportunities to see how they did things at Bell Labs. I was impressed from the outset with the Bell Laboratories and how they accomplished their research and development work. Other things in the Washington years — I always have been pleased that I saw how the federal government seemed to operate, not always with admiration but at least with some understanding that you get by living there. I was especially impressed as a young fellow with the Supreme Court. I visited the Supreme Court a number of times. There were some really great men on the Court in those days — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Louis Brandeis and William Howard Taft, and then Charles Evans Hughes. As a matter of fact, during the years I was in Washington, I studied law at night, at George Washington University Law School — we used to go down every night, have classes every night from 5 to 7.
I seriously considered going into law, but decided to go back into physics after a year’s taste of it. One of the interesting related incidents was of a call on Justice Holmes at his home on Pennsylvania Avenue. I somehow was bold enough to go and ask him whether I should go into law or not. He was very courteous, although I think he was a little surprised that I showed up. But he told me a story that I have never forgotten, and I think it would be interesting to tell young people. He said that when he was a young man, at Harvard, he had a difficult time deciding whether to go into law or philosophy. His father apparently wanted him to go into philosophy and literature. So he went out to Concord, to see Emerson one night, so he told me, to ask his advice. Justice Holmes told me that Emerson had said, “Do what you think you should do.” Then Justice Holmes looked at me and didn’t say anything more, but I got the point. As I look back, that was really a marvelous hour that I spent with him, but why he didn’t throw me out in the first place, I’ve never quite understood. He was really one of the great men in our government, there’s no question about it. Many things that are now taken for granted were first introduced into our thinking by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I’m sure that’s well understood by everybody who’s studied the subject. Well, at the end of the 18 months in Washington, Professor Miller invited me to come back as an instructor in physics here, and I’ve been here ever since.
That was after Black Friday and the beginnings of the Great Depression. You indicated earlier that you and Luis Alvarez were fairly lucky at Chicago during the Great Depression.
We were able to stay in school, without as much trouble as many other people had. And I was very lucky in that I was kept on the Case faculty, but given a leave of absence to study at Chicago, and had a job when I got through, which was pretty hard to come by in those days. That was something for which I’ve always been grateful. I know it was Professor Miller who saw to the details. But it was a very very difficult time for young people in science in the thirties. Many of my colleagues and classmates had to leave science because of it, and some of those who left were people of real ability. Of course, several of them went to your state of Texas. There were jobs in oil prospecting, and several people who came to Chicago, and some who worked with Professor Compton in his experiments — he got them jobs in Oklahoma and Texas. Some of them have been very successful. For instance, Dr. Richard L. Doan whom I’ve mentioned, who worked with Compton on his thesis — they were the first to get X-ray spectra with ruled or artificial gratings — Compton helped Doan get a job with Phillips Petroleum Company and he became director of physics research there. And then during the war, he was…
You had known him as a student?
Oh yes. Doan was a good friend. He was a student a little before my time, but he came back to Chicago and I met him there. One of my great friends. But you see — Doan is typical of what happened to many people in the Depression. I just cite him rather than myself. When he finished his Ph.D. with Compton, he worked for the Western Electric Company in the telephone company, had a responsible job developing apparatus. Then when the Depression came along, they laid him off, and he came back to Chicago, and Compton found some way of supporting him.
Ok, we’re back in business after a delightful lunch. Before lunch, Sir, we were talking about Richard Doan, a friend of yours, as an example of a physicist in the Depression, who did not stay in academic work — do you want to take up the story from there?
Yes. Richard Doan was a graduate student of Arthur Compton and performed a very notable graduate thesis, by obtaining the first spectrum of X-rays with a ruled grating. Compton proposed this topic to Doan as an outgrowth of his own work on demonstrating the total reflection of X-rays at grazing incidence, and Doan ruled a special grating on Michelson’s ruling engine at Chicago, and very successfully obtained the first X-ray spectra with a ruled grating. This is one of the landmark experiments that were performed under Compton’s direction at Chicago. Doan left Chicago, and had a very fine job at the Western Electric Company, but in the Depression, like so many other technical people, he was let off, and he came back to Chicago, where he worked for several years in Compton’s laboratory. Compton was able to get support for him, and Doan was very important in Compton’s early work on cosmic rays. Then he went to the Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he organized the physics research department and was its head until the war.
Then he came back to the University of Chicago, and was with Compton during the Manhattan laboratory days. After the war Doan went to Idaho, and was the first director of the work there for the Atomic Energy Division of Phillips Petroleum Company involving the Materials Testing Reactor (MTR) and many other nuclear facilities in Idaho. In my opinion, the group that he worked with and built up the MTR research programs was very important in the development of nuclear energy in this country. As long as Doan and Phillips were there, it was a place of leadership. Other people that came to the University of Chicago after losing their jobs in the Depression included Thomas H. Osgood, who worked in Compton’s laboratory and bridged the gap between the X-ray spectrum and the optical spectrum with some brilliant experiments on long-wave length X-rays. During the Depression, Compton helped many graduate students who did not have ample funds for their own work, and after the beginning of the war in Europe, the University of Chicago was one of the first places where refugee physicists came. Compton always gave them work and helped them get jobs. He had a wonderful influence in the transition of careers of many people, such as Rossi and many others.
Bruno Rossi, yes. Now, I’m going to start on your Roman numeral II.
OK, moving more directly into acoustics. With more of a comparison on teaching and research styles at Case and Chicago?
Yes. The physics work at Case and the physics work at Chicago were rather similar, in that both emphasized laboratory work and experimental theses. But of course the University of Chicago had much greater development in graduate study than we had at Case during those years: The tradition of Michelson, Millikan, and Compton was almost continuous in its emphasis on experimental work and original experimental theses. It was only about the time that I entered as a graduate student that theoretical work at Chicago was considered of major importance. Arthur Compton had brought Carl Eckart to the faculty and Frank Hoyt also joined the faculty. They taught the courses in quantum mechanics, and were among the first pioneers to introduce these subjects in graduate study in this country. But even up to the beginning of World War II, the great emphasis at Chicago was always on experimental work, and when Professor Arthur Compton switched to cosmic rays, the emphasis there was not theory but experiment. I would say that in comparing Case and Chicago, they were very similar, but in scale Chicago was a much greater center of research activity than Case had been, where facilities were more limited, and the staff was much smaller.
I asked you earlier if you’d every built crystal sets as a hobby, looking toward the question of radio as a spur to interest in pure science.
Well, in common with most young people in the early twenties, I built radio sets, but I never followed the interest to the degree that many of my friends did. However, the year and a half that I worked in the radio section of the Bureau of Standards, the experiences there were a great spur to interest in more basic science, than simply radio technology. As a matter of fact, the radio section of the Bureau of Standards had many pure science aspects. The work on the ionosphere and the Kennelly-Heaviside layer was certainly basic science, and the problems in developing the standard frequency transmitter, station WWV, involved a good deal of pure science. There was much work on the vibrations of quartz crystals, and the Bureau worked very closely with the Bell Telephone Laboratories in developing the necessary equipment for this work. Furthermore, the propagation of sound waves in the atmosphere led to many problems that would be classified as pure science, which needed to be solved before radio waves could be used for technology and applied work.
It’s often said that the question of long distance electromagnetic communications was a thing that pure science never envisaged, and it took Marconi — his lack of knowledge — to make the bet and the investment that something like this could happen. Does that suggest anything to you about the nature of experiment and theory, or professional versus amateur, developments in science and technology?
Well, it just happens that I recently read Marconi’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I was impressed by the fact that in addition to being a great technologist and a rather good scientists, he was above all a promoter and an engineer and a businessman. There were plenty of people who were doing the pure science at that time — for instance, Rutherford, when he came from New Zealand to work at the Cavendish, first worked on wireless or radio problems. It was only because of the great prestige of J. J. Thomson that he switched to atomic and then nuclear physics. But I have felt, all through my life, that the distinction between pure and practical science and engineering is artificial at best, and I’ve noticed especially at Case, where we have a close association between physics and chemistry and engineering, that there really is no sharp division line. We have pure scientists in our engineering departments, and we have very practical physicists in our physics department. I’ve always felt that the division was very artificial, and that no one can really show where it occurs. I might mention in this connection that in the years at Chicago, when I lived in the home of Arthur Compton, I realized how close the connection was in his activities. All the years that I was there, he came once a month to Cleveland, as a consultant for the Lamp Development Laboratories of the General Electric Company in Nela Park. And Arthur Compton is justly credited with being very important in the development of the fluorescent lamp industry in this country. It should be remarked that when he graduated from the College of Worster in Ohio, he worked for Westinghouse and then when he received his Ph.D. from Princeton, and after a year at Minnesota he again worked for Westinghouse.
Compton took out early patents that were basic for the development of the fluorescent lamp. In talking to Compton, you never were aware that he was a pure scientist or applied scientist or engineer. He was a man of universal interests, and the divisions broke down. If I could comment on this further, one of Arthur Compton’s most distinguished graduate students, I’m sure, was Luis Alvarez, and Louis Alvarez throughout his career has made tremendous contributions, both to pure science and to applied science. I know Luis Alvarez well, and when you talk to him the conversation will alternate between the frontiers of nuclear physics and the latest development for landing of aircraft. There’s no segmentation in the minds of such people on these subjects. It’s always been a mystery to me, why such a great division exists in the minds of certain people on this matter. I would — I could cite many other people. Fermi, for example, was the same way. There are people that are all one, or all the other; but they’re not the big people, in my judgment. I think Alvarez and Compton are two classic examples of how a big man really spills over in all fields that he comes in contact with and doesn’t narrow himself down. I think that’s about all I have to say on that topic.
The current issue of Daedalus (Summer 1974), the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is on “Science and Its Public: The Changing Relationship.” it has to do with this division between so-called pure and so-called applied science, science applied to the needs of the world. But…Perhaps we can come back to this later on.
Well, I can make one additional comment right now, if I may. It just occurs to me that in the case of Michelson, Michelson always stated that he had no interest in applications, that he was a pure scientist. Yet Michelson was extremely proud of the fact that throughout his life, and especially during the war, he did very practical work for the Navy. So Michelson’s words on the separation of the two didn’t jibe with what he did himself. It’s well known that Michelson opposed Edison for the National Academy of Sciences. He finally was elected as an engineer, not a physicist, largely over the opposition of Michelson. Millikan tried to get him in, and Michelson objected. But Michelson himself was very proud of his own engineering achievements, even though he didn’t call them such. Sometimes people have to have their acts examined rather than their words, in evaluating where they really stand.
Was this part of the professionalization process perhaps? Do you think that Michelson struggled so long and so hard to get pure science funded in an institutional setting, that perhaps he was jealous of the success of others? Edison is famous for saying, “I don’t need to learn mathematics, I can hire a mathematician.” And the cash nexus, the dollar value, ultimately was the motivational goal that Edison claimed was final judge of what he should be doing.
Yes, I think that surely must have been a real consideration, because the pioneers in physics in this country — say, Rowland and Michelson and those people — really had to fight to get support for science in the universities and certainly outside the universities. And I think it was part of a mechanism they had to use to get recognition. I think you’re absolutely right on that. The people that had a different view were successful in both camps from the outset, so they weren’t aware of this business. But in the early days, on this campus, there was a rivalry between science and engineering that went right down the line, for budgetary purposes as much as anything else. But I don’t think it’s basic in the disciplines themselves, but in the way individuals look at it. It’s just the way it’s organized on the administrative side.
OK. Can we look now at the questions and analogies –- “wave theory as a tool or a paradigm.” I asked here, but perhaps that’s not a good way of asking the question. What I’m concerned with, (having studied a little bit the nature of optics and physical optics through the 19th century and its relationship to bigger scientific world views), is the way in which science seems to converge at certain times with a single theory being appropriate to several different realms of human experience of nature. Have your own personal views changed over time with regard to the importance of wave theory? Should it now be seen as merely a tool, or as a basic…?
Well, I think the wave theory will always be a very important part of physics. Now, before the advent of quantum mechanics, wave theory was expected to do more things single handed than it could. But if you take the great Lord Rayleigh as an example, almost all of his tremendous contributions to optics and acoustics and too much of physics, as you’ll find in his great six volume collected works, are really elaborations of his basic understanding of the wave theory. I think even when you come to quantum mechanics, which was of course called wave mechanics at the start, I think the understanding of what wave theory is deepens continuously. Quantum mechanics brought ideas into wave theory that were not present in acoustics and optics, and quantum electrodynamics has brought in more things. I think wave theory will continue to be a dominant part of physics. However, just as the mechanical base of physics was shown not to be adequate for the whole of physics, I think you’d find that a narrow interpretation, or even a broad interpretation of the wave theory would not be sufficient to cover everything. For instance, it doesn’t cover statistical mechanics, and things of that kind.
So, I think, the analogies have never appealed to me as much as to some people. Now, you’ve mentioned the analogies between the wave theory of acoustics and optics or various kinds of optics. The analogies often are in the forms, in the similarities of the differential equations, but actually the physics comes in in the boundary conditions for electromagnetic waves are so different from the boundary conditions for others, the fact that they’re both waves is really incidental to the real physics of the problems. And of course, quantum mechanics is vastly different still. So I would say, in answer to your question, that certainly waves and wave theory and wave aspects of nature will always be important, but they will not do the whole job alone. And I don’t think that a unified wave theory is quite the answer, for reasons I’ve just said. But certainly most physicists have built on the wave theory a great deal. I can give you one example. Arthur Compton, whose work I’ve studied a good deal in this preparation of his papers, was a thorough master of the wave theory of light, electromagnetic theory.
You see, he was a graduate student at Princeton, and they had a great tradition there started by Sir James Jeans and continued by O. W. Richardson: everybody mastered the wave theory of light and the wave theory of X-rays and electromagnetism generally at Princeton. And Arthur’s notebooks, which are at Washington University, are just full of detailed calculations that he made on the wave theory, on a great variety of subjects, many of which he never published, but certainly it was the basis of his training in physics. And when he got into quantum mechanics, he still used the wave theory background as an important feature. For example, take his efforts to explain his experiments, which we now know as the Compton Effect: he tried many ways to explain them on classical electrodynamics. And he only adopted a quantum explanation when all the others seemed to fail. Very interesting thing. He tried his best to bring his experiments into line with J. J. Thomson’s theory and with others, but finally he was forced out of them.
Max Planck is famous for having said, rather bitterly in his old age, in his Scientific Autobiography, that “Old theories never die, their supporters just die off.” And this has troubled me a great deal with respect to some of the greatest names in the first three or four decades of 20th century physics. How do you feel about people like Michelson, presumably Miller, Oliver Lodge and Philipp Lenard: fighting a rear-guard action? Was this more a component of their personalities, or was there something that stays with a young man studying physics, if he learns and accepts a certain mode of explanation for the first 30 years of his life? Is he liable to hold onto it through the rest?
I think it’s a very natural evolution, or development in any individual. Now, the people that you have mentioned; I knew Miller of course very well. He was already well along in years when the quantum theory appeared. He never made any great effort to understand the quantum theory and he didn’t like it. He and so many of his generation just could not understand the Uncertainty Principle and the Heisenberg relations and so on as having any meaning in physics. And I think it’s only natural that if a scientist is brought up in a certain tradition, that he will cling to it as he grows older. You can take the example of Einstein, for example. He refused to accept quantum mechanics as ultimate and he was very bitter about it. He was bitter toward Bohr in private, in spite of their very proper correspondence and at public meetings. Michelson himself never was interested in quantum theory, in spite of the fact that his contributions to spectroscopy were very important for the development of quantum mechanics. He was cool on relativity.
I had occasion a year ago to write a letter to his former mechanic, Tom O’Donnell, and ask him what Michelson’s attitude toward the ether was and so on. Tom wrote back very emphatically that even to his last day, Michelson was trying to figure out an experiment to show that the ether existed. He just couldn’t give it up. That’s not a mark of weakness in these people. It just happens with everybody. I daresay you could take any line of work, and find that people are reluctant to give up what they cherished and learned when they were young. This may very well be true right today in theoretical physics. We have problems that are getting more and more difficult in theoretical physics, but the brilliant young people who work on them for the most part are using the same methods they used in graduate school, and the chances are that the real advances will be made by some wholly different route, that will not be so constrained to the past. This is out of line completely, but I’ve noticed the analogies and the attitudes of the theoretical physicists are exactly like what I noticed as a young fellow were exhibited by people like Michelson and Miller and the other people, toward that they thought was important.
The invariance principles — when parity non-conservation — came along, there are well-known examples of very distinguished physicists who were just wild in their belief that it must be wrong, because it gave up a symmetry principle, which they felt had unquestioned merit for their theories. Certainly the examples you’ve cited are pertinent ones. I never noticed this attitude in Compton. But, it just occurs to me — Professor Compton shifted into administrative work in the years when he might have developed this attitude toward physics. He became head of the Metallurgical Laboratory at Chicago, then Chancellor of Washington University. He had a lifelong interest in the philosophical side of physics, which leads you in quite a different direction. I never heard Compton talk against any new thing in physics, the way I heard some of these other people. But I think it was in part due to the fact that he got into administrative work and was constantly facing new problems. Certainly Einstein was not about to be led into new paths, at least from my limited conversations with him. He was very hostile to quantum theory, and very hostile to Bohr and Heisenberg.
Not to Schrodinger, or de Broglie. There were a few on his side of the fence, too.
Well, I should say that I never brought up quantum mechanics in my conversations with Professor Einstein, because I always had questions on relativity and Michelson’s experiments, but he brought it up. Every time, he would bring it in some way, and it’s true, I never heard him say anything against Schrodinger or de Broglie, but I never heard him say anything about them. The man that he was unhappy about was Niels Bohr. He just thought that Niels Bohr was pushing things the wrong way, and he sincerely — Einstein said the next great advances would have to come through general relativity, and the route was not through quantum theory. This is well known, but it certainly was one of the strongest impressions I got from Mr. Einstein. He just did not like quantum mechanics.
I notice you call him “Mr. Einstein.” Is this a compromise between Dr. and Professor? The respect you have for him?
It didn’t have any meaning at all -– “Professor,” “Dr.” — I guess I never addressed him to his face. It wasn’t necessary. He always made you feel at ease so quickly that you didn’t say anything. No, there’s no meaning, Mr., Dr. — college campuses attach meanings to these things that don’t exist in nature. Seriously, Einstein was such a wonderfully human person that you were not inclined to think of any title. It was just, the man. I think if I were asked what I would say, I would say “Professor Einstein.” But that I think is trivial. He was as warm a human being as I ever hope to meet anywhere. I didn’t know him well, but I did talk to him five times, and I have a very wonderful impression of everything he said or did. He was much simpler, I think, than some people make out, in his attitudes toward things. He was deeply committed to physics, but it was just a thing that he worked on every day of his life. There wasn’t any rigorous plan, except apparently, just go ahead every day.
At the risk of digressing some more on Einstein, since he’ fascinating, since you have had this personal contact — do you think there were times where he was personally pretty well convinced that had gotten a handle to the unified field theory? And then socially it criticized so much that he had to back away?
I don’t believe I’m able to answer that with any assurance because I’m not a theoretical physicist. He never talked to me about the unified field theory, other than, several times he made the statement, that he felt the next great advances in quantum processes or atomic processes would have to start with the general theory of relativity. And of course, this implied the unified theory and things of that kind. I am sure that he held to the end of his life a belief that a unified field theory must come and would come. And he clung to the idea that the general relativity theory would be the starting point. But I’m not able to comment on the merits of this. You perhaps have seen that recently, there’s a great deal of interest in the experimental demonstration of what are called “neutral currents” as being a…
Steven Weinberg and…
…yes, as being a tie between the weak interactions and the electromagnetic interactions. Whether this is along the line that Einstein had hoped, L don’t know. It’ll take a little more than this to be sure. Of course, Einstein’s efforts were to unify gravitation with electromagnetism, which is another aspect of the same problem. But I think, if I may make a guess, without being sure — one of the reasons, one of the basic reasons he didn’t like quantum mechanics was that he sensed that if a unified field theory really came, it would have to come by a different route. He looked on QM as a makeshift for computational purposes, in the interim. But I’m not the one to answer these questions. You’d better get a real theoretical physicist to do it. There’s no question though in my mind that this was the consuming interest of his life, to the end of his days. When he talked to me about special relativity or other things, he was interested in answering my questions and making it clear to me what he thought, but that wasn’t what he was working on. The minute I left the office, I’m sure he went back to his unified field attempts. This is well known to people who saw him much more than I did.
Let me ask in this connection a rather simple-minded question. Not a physicist’s question at all but a historian’s question. When did you first come to the understanding that there are four and only four fundamental forces in nature? Gravitation, electromagnetism, strong force, weak force interaction. Did this happen during your growth and maturation or was it something given to you as a young student?
This has been emphasized since the war. I’m sure that it was known, but…
Yes. As a matter of fact, when Fred Reines came here to be head of our physics department, and continued his neutrino experiments, it was about that time, that when you would hear a general lecture at the Physical Society or a colloquium here, very often, the speaker would start out by reciting the four fundamental interactions. The four fundamental interactions were known almost as long as I can remember, but they were never categorized that way until the postwar years.
You much prefer “interactions” as opposed to “forces”?
I don’t care. It’s the same thing as far as I’m concerned. You see, we learned about the Fermi theory of weak interactions way back in 1932 or ‘33 at Chicago, and we of course knew electromagnetic and gravitational. And then the nuclear force gradually became something by itself, and in my case, first through learning about the experiments of Tuve and Breit at the Carnegie Laboratory, in proton-proton scattering, and then of course at Berkeley. But this business of starting off a lecture with four interactions is a kind of a late 1940’s phenomenon. I think it emphasized that there were these four things, and that the interactions are not very well understood, to say the least.
Is it fair to say then, too, that in Einstein’s own development before 1940, say, the unitary, as he called it first, unitary field theory was concerned really with three forces, interactions; then it later becomes four as the result of accelerator and reactor physics?
I think Einstein himself was more interested in the gravitational and the electromagnetic, was he not? What was the third one that he was interested in primarily? I don’t recall that he did too much with the weak interaction or the nuclear interaction. I think it was two. I’m sure he thought about the others, but he wrestled with the two interaction unification. I think it was when nuclear physics moved up to the center of the stage that these distinctions were made most forcibly.
Well, one of the topics that we starred, before we started here, was “parallels and contrasts in the birth of sonar and radar.” I throw it to you that way. I don’t know how to go about this other than ask you about the echo ranging effect.
My work during the war was primarily in sonar, although we did use radar in anti-submarine work effectively, and the British used it very effectively in their work. But the developments that I was concerned with were entirely sonar. The sonar developments did not have the great university impetus that radar did. Sonar was developed in the First World War to some degree by Paul Langevin, and between the wars, the British developed a very effective sonar equipment that they called “ASDIC.” Our Naval Research Laboratory also developed anti-submarine searching equipment. They didn’t call it sonar at that time. The word “sonar” was introduced by Professor F. V. Hunt of Harvard; he coined the word just to correspond to radar. “Sound Navigation and Ranging.” SONAR. But he got the word first and then figured out what it meant! The development of sonar was largely industrial, with a lot of academic people working with industry. Now, Bell Laboratories were very important in developing our sonar. The Submarine Signal Company in Boston was the pioneer. As you know that’s now part of Raytheon.
The main difference between sonar and radar was that in sonar we have a very poor medium, the ocean. None of the sophisticated techniques or theory that were so important in radar were of much use in sonar. For instance, the temperature gradients in the ocean set serious limitations on range. In radar, the electromagnetic theory of Maxwell could be elaborated in all its sophistication and power and elegance, both in the circuitry and the propagation in the atmosphere, so there was a lot more scope for theory and theoretical developments in that. Of course, the people who made the greatest contributions in radar were people that came in well grounded in electromagnetic theory — both in England and the United States. There was not a similar chance in sonar. Although both radar and sonar were pushed to the limit because they were the only means available to cope with the airplane on the one hand, and the submarine on the other. But there were also important theoretical things done in sonar. For instance, Professor Henry Primikoff, University of Pennsylvania, worked with our group during the war. He did some very important work in sonar on the strength of echoes from submarine hulls and the propagation of waves in the ocean. And Philip M. Morse at MIT made important contributions to the theory, before he went into operations research, which of course in itself was an important contribution. But in general, I would say that radar gave a far greater scope for the development of theoretical ideas from physicists than sonar did. Sonar is one of these things that you have to work out because it’s so terribly important. But what an awful medium to work with: sea water and especially sea water with temperature gradients — just terrible.
I know myself, I was usually on the losing end of the stick when I was an ASW officer on a destroyer playing war games with submarines!
I’m not telling you anything then. You know, but it just had to be pushed, and it was pushed. But when sonar and radar were combined to get submarines, then there was a very important change. British airplanes flying out of the Coastal Command, raised havoc with German submarines crossing the Bay of Biscay — you know, in May of 1943 and again in June of 1943, about 50 submarines were sunk each month. Known kills. And that just stopped the Germans; they didn’t go to sea again until they had the snorkel, a year later. But they always located them by radar.
On the surface.
They had to come up. They’d submerge across the Bay of Biscay, then come up to charge their batteries, then they’d spot them, then they’d drop acoustic bombs and torpedoes that your friend W. V. Houston and the Bell Labs helped develop for the Navy.
There’s a new book called Iron Coffin by a former German submariner, who talks about the lack of habitability in Nazi subs and super-compartmentation problems, before, during, and after the snorkel. How about the development of generators or oscillators, magnetrons, and klystrons and transducers? Receiving instruments on both ends of sonar and radar?
Well, in the case of sonar, the earliest ones were magneto-striction. But then they shifted to crystals, and the first were quartz crystals, by the British and by Submarine Signal Company. Then there were rochelle salt crystals and other artificial crystals, ADP, etc. developed largely here in Cleveland by the Brush Development Company. They superseded quartz, and were very effective. There was not too much development necessary in oscillators for sonar, because the frequency range was well understood, and it was mostly the transducers themselves and sophistications in the electronics. But in the case of radar, of course, it was the British magnetron that really was decisive in many things. It had enough power so that you could have a set in an aircraft that could fly out and locate enemy bombers coming over. The story of that has been told many times. Tizzard brought it over to the Bell Labs, and they immediately started production, and MIT took it on for their sets. I think that one thing, the magnetron tube, really was the decisive thing in radar development. But that was developed, in the first instance, in physics laboratories in England. I forget the name of the people now, but you can look it up.
Watson-Watt wasn’t involved so much in the tube itself. He was the overall sponsor and active in radar. There’s no question about it. They called it something else at first. But the tube — you see, Watson-Watt had land stations, to detect the German bombers coming over. Then they’d send up the RAF fighters by air. But then when they needed to do it at night, they had to have a means of finding the German bombers, and they had to have a radar set on the fighter plane that could send signals out to come back; to do that, they had to have the magnetron, to get sufficient intensity in the pulse. And that was pretty much a British development. Of course, when they brought it over here, we made the normal improvements, made it more suitable for manufacturing and so on. But I think the British contribution in the magnetron is one of the decisive things of World War II.
With regard to that nasty medium of sea water and sonar there, did you have anything directly to do with the Bathythermograph, the measuring instrument used to determine the thermocline?
I didn’t work with it personally, but people in the OSRD New York office of Dr. Tate and Dr. Colpitts, did. Lyman Spitzer, who is now professor of astronomy at Princeton, was very active in this field; and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the late Columbus O.D. Islin and Maurice Ewing were the pioneers in using the bathythermograph to determine the profiles of temperature in the ocean. Islin was the director of Woods Hole until about ten years ago. He was a really great scientist. You know, there was an interesting thing happened at the New London Lab early in the war. They had the British over, and our people from the Navy in Washington, and Islin was there and gave a talk about these temperature gradients, and how they made the sound dive down so it was useless. There were certain people in our Navy who wanted the whole thing suppressed, so that the sonar operators would not be discouraged. I can still see Islin getting up and really give the admirals Hades for this –- “How will we ever solve the problem if you don’t —?” And then of course there were British people present, and they got up in their very quiet and persuasive way, and explained how they had taught their sonar operators for years about these gradients, and it was a challenge to them and so on. But I was very much impressed with Islin the first time I saw him, because he was not about to listen to these people from Washington. They really wanted it suppressed; I assure you the words were “so as not to discourage the sonar operators.” They didn’t call them sonar, they called them sound operators, I think, or something like that. I’ll tell you, there was a lot of pawing the air, in the early days of the war, on what to do about the submarines. I daresay there still is.
Well, how (given some of these difficulties that I’ve seen too in a different context, the space program, the difficulties of attitudinal sets between government officials, military officials, academic people and industrial people), how have things come so far? It seems like we’ve progressed a long way in the 20th century, with these consortia working together.
Well, I think there’s no single answer to that. I think, for example, in the case of sonar, which is not the greatest achievement but a very important one, the seriousness of the problem was such that it had to be solved. In the case of radar, there was tremendous intellectual leadership by the group assembled at MIT; they just pulled everything together, because of the caliber of the people, men like DuBridge and Alvarez and Karl Compton and you can just go right down the list. They had the prize of the crop up there, and they were all people who either had been used to working together in groups — who pulled together the electromagnetic theory and electronics and aeronautics and things of that kind. I think there’s no single formula, but in almost every case, there has been great leadership that brought it about. I’m more and more convinced that this is true. Now, we also had some pretty potent leadership for sonar. Frank B. Jewett, for example, the head of the Bell Labs was head of the division. He had to break a lot of ice jams in Washington in the Navy Department. He knew how to do it. He had the prestige. lie had the backing of men like Colpitts and Houston and Morse and people of that kind. But I don’t think the Navy would ever have accepted Sonar for what it really turned out to be if it hadn’t been for some real pushes by men like Jewett, Colpitts and others. You know, the first time they started out from New York harbor with an active sonar on a ship, it was sunk before it cleared Long Island, because the submarine used the sonar pulses to locate the destroyer or whatever it was. Well, really, the Navy was going to stop using sonar right then and there. And of course, if you take a very short term view, if you’d been on that destroyer and swam ashore, you might say, “Why give your position away with sonar?” But those things are only overcome by great leadership, in my opinion. There was great leadership in the OSRD — Karl Compton and Jewett, Tate,…
Was there a single admiral you can think of for whom you had respect?
Well, personally, I didn’t meet too many admirals. But there were some that were very important, for what I was interested in. Perhaps the most important man was Admiral Cochrane, who became head of the Bureau of Ships. Now, Cochrane, if I remember correctly, had been professor of naval architecture at MIT, and then he went into the service, and he replaced a man in the Bureau of Ships who was blocking everything. And Admiral Cochrane I think did more than any individual. Then there was a Captain Baker who used to come to New London, who I’m sure should have become an admiral, who was a great advocate of using sonar, and helped it through. Those two were very important. The admiral who was head of the office of the Naval Research, Admiral Furer — he was very helpful. I don’t think he was a heavyweight, although he was a very nice man, but he had the right attitude. But there were some admirals who didn’t think you needed science or technology, or even high pressure steam, you know. Go back in history a little bit — Admiral Stark opposed putting high pressure steam in the Navy. Well, you can imagine where we would have been in World War I if we were still converting to high pressure steam. I think admirals are just like college professors and everybody else. They sometimes have more authority than they know what to do with. But I think Cochrane and Baker were two of the most important people in the Navy. There was another man, Captain Rawson Bennett, in the Bureau of Ships who was very important. I don’t think he ever became an admiral. He should have. He was one of those officers who were called engineering duty only (EDO), which sort of automatically prevented them from being an admiral. There were some very good people in the Navy. But like everything else, there were some others who weren’t.
Did you have anything to do with the Point Loma, San Diego, Naval Electronics Lab, the counterpart to Orlando?
Oh yes. The Point Loma Laboratory during the war was under Dr. Tate, of our New York office, and the directors of that laboratory were, first, Dr. Vern O. Knudsen of the University of California at Los Angeles, who was a very great acoustics man and who died recently; and then for the most of the war, the director was Gaylord P. Harnwell, who later became president of the University of Pennsylvania. Their work was very closely correlated with the other NDRC laboratories: New London, Harvard, MIT, Orlando, Mountain Lakes, Wood’s Hole. Point Loma was a very important laboratory during the war. But they tended to concentrate on the problems of the Pacific, more than the Battle of the Atlantic, and the research projects that they carried through during the war tended to be longer range. For instance, Dr. Carl Eckart went out there from the University of Chicago, and switched to underwater sound. He became one of the great world leaders in the subject, and became associate director under Harnwell. They did very much more fundamental work at San Diego or Pt. Loma than was ever possible at New London, where we were always testing gear and developing gear. It was a very important laboratory and a big one, and I think Harnwell was a superb director. Harnwell had a facility for getting along with the Navy officers on the one hand, and the scientists on the other, and the budget people. He was a very remarkable individual, as his tenure at Pennsylvania brought out.
It’s an interesting subject, trying to pursue the awards of credit for major technological developments that are based on high science and high technology in relation. If you think of other individuals with whom you worked on sonar or underwater sound in World War II context, will you bring them up later on, and star them for me so I can cross-reference them? Would you like to talk now about your own career progression? I’d like to see roughly the nature of your experimental, mathematical, theoretical interests, and how they changed over time during the thirties, forties, even fifties perhaps. What was the progression of courses taught, the way these subjects got institutionalized and sophisticated enough to be able to teach?
Well, in my own case, I’ve always been much closer to the experimental side than the theoretical side, but on the other hand, our physics department here at Case has always been a very closely knit one. So we’ve always had the privilege of talking to our theoretical colleagues about any problem that would come along, and they’ve been very generous in that respect. So without ever developing specific skills myself in theoretical physics, I’ve always had the great advantage of talking to people like Professor L. L. Foldy and Professor Martin J. Klein, Professor Robert Brown and others here. I would say, one progression that has carried through all the years that I have been connected with physics has been increasing sophistication in the mathematical and theoretical methods that are used to attack problems. Sometimes it seems like the theorists are getting further and further away from experiment. But on the other hand, you realize that they may be pretty close to experiment. Now, just this summer, this very interesting so-called neutral currents development has shown that the theorists and experimentalists in certain areas are very closely in contact. In spite of the fact that they do different things and talk different languages, they are very helpful to each other. It’s partly a matter of personality and who you know and so on. But certainly the sophistication of theoretical physics has increased by orders of magnitude since I first began to study.
I think that was partly if not wholly due to the fact that there was this influx of great theorists from Europe in the thirties who just parked the whole business. Although there were always good theorists here — take men like Oppenheimer, Condon, Ed Kemble at Harvard, Phil Morse, for instance — what happened when the Wigners and the Bethes and the Einsteins came over was just tremendous. L don’t think that’ll ever happen again, because they’re not being developed now on the continent of Europe in the same way. It was transient, but it was extremely important for the United States and for the Western World. Now the other thing — the progress in apparatus, it’s certainly become more complicated and more expensive, and what seems to me unfortunate is that the experimentalists often are further away from the real part of the experiment than they used to be. When you work in a great big national laboratory now, the labor unions won’t let you get beyond a certain point. You can only do this and you can only do that and so on. Nevertheless, the experimenters do keep their finger in the heart of the experiment, but it requires so much scheduling, so many arrangements ahead of time, and takes so many different people to participate in the experiment that the individual aspect that was so much in evidence in the work of Compton and Michelson and Millikan and others is hard to maintain. I’ve had a number of interesting talks with Professor Alvarez about this. He has made great achievements in physics, both in the first kind of physics before the war and in the second kind of physics after the war. He would, I think, praise both approaches, but I think in his heart he enjoyed it when he made the apparatus himself and did it all, almost on his own, with his own genius. But it can be done both ways, and we won’t turn back.
This summer, as I told you, I was at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London, and was just thrilled to see those little pieces of brass and so on that Lord Rayleigh used to make all his great discoveries. You just can’t believe that that kind of physics was great physics and won Nobel Prizes for people, when you see what we have today. [crosstalk] — There was no question about it, just pieces of brass. But as you looked at the apparatus, and that was due also of the old exhibits at the Royal Institution, when you looked at the heart of the apparatus, it was very carefully worked out. The outside was never rounded off or anything. It had a lot of loose ends, this, that and the other, but for the thing that they really wanted to measure, they designed it very carefully. But it was their own creation, from start to finish. I think there is a danger, in spite of what I said a moment ago, that theory will get further and further away from experiment, and if it does, I don’t know what direction it will go. The problems of physics today are exceedingly difficult. I’ve often thought of people I know today in theoretical physics, and try to compare their abilities with those of the people who were lucky enough to live when quantum mechanics was developed, and I’m sure that the best of these theorists today are way above the best in physics a generation ago. I don’t say that in disrespect, but the other fellows lived when they could just shake the tree and get a nice problem off, and these people today have to work their heads off to get another little point on a curve. I think some great breakthrough is needed in theoretical physics, and I think it’ll come by some very unexpected route.
This is trite to say, but it’s just getting too hard to make any really significant advance in nuclear physics nowadays. You have 27 or more parameters to specify the neutron-proton interaction, and then a month later you have 28 because there are better experiments. There’s something missing in that approach. Everybody admits it, but nobody knows what to do about it. There was a time when I thought naively that probably Einstein was on the right track, in not liking quantum mechanics and thinking physics had to take another route. But as I see things as time goes on, I don’t think so. I think the quantum route is the route that’s got to be followed. It’s got to be improved, with additions, even more violent than the uncertainty principle and the quantum of action have got to come to make the next great step forward. And I don’t think this will be made until a whole new generation of physicists come along with a different basic training, some way or other. I just sense this — perhaps it’s like you were saying about Lenard wouldn’t give up this and Michelson wouldn’t give up that and Millikan wouldn’t give up that and so on. This is just as true today, but we don’t realize it, because we’re sitting at the center of things, and don’t realize how parochial we are in our attitudes on physics. We treat it as a sacred subject that can’t be challenged.
Oppenheimer used to say that some child on the street may be expected to create the wave of the future, looking to the next generation. But Derek Price among others says the next advance will probably come out of Africa, Southeast Asia, some place like that — as Western science and its attitudes permeate the rest of the world, and as different cultural attitudes evolve.
It might. There was a time when it looked like there might be a great burst from Japan. There may still be, but it doesn’t seem to have developed. I recall having had the feeling that all of a sudden something might burst — but that seems to have calmed down, and I don’t know the reason, except maybe the young people in Japan have all become engineers and practical people. See, Japan has had this tremendous push for industry, and I’m sure that a lot of the people — the Yukawas today are probably developing things in industry. But I have a feeling it will come from some wholly unexpected source. I’m not sure about Africa, but I’m quite sure that China might very well have — after all, in intellectual work they’ve got a great tradition that goes back far longer than ours. But we don’t know. It might come out of Iceland. But it’ll come. It’ll certainly come.
May I ask you what was the first course in physics you ever taught? Your first published paper? At the end of the last tape, I had asked for the progression of your own personal publications and courses taught, but perhaps I should ask that in a different way. Was acoustics always your first love?
I've been interested in acoustics almost from the time I came to Case, because Professor Dayton C. Miller was a very great authority in acoustics, both the acoustics of musical instruments and architectural acoustics. My own personal interest in the subject has developed almost exclusively along the architectural acoustics line. It developed gradually. Miller was the acoustical consultant for many important buildings before the war — Princeton University Chapel, University of Chicago Chapel, Riverside Church, and many other important buildings. He gradually taught me his philosophy and methods of approach. Then during the war I was working on acoustics, and when I came back from the war, Miller was gone, and people came to me about problems in architectural acoustics. There’s been a steady growth of my interest from 1945 to date, in this subject. It’s a very fascinating subject. It gets you in contact with many types of people that you normally would not meet, as a laboratory physicist — for instance, architects and engineers, government people, churches, theatres, musicians. And it’s been a very fascinating line of work for me. As time has gone on, I’ve worked more and more in this field, although I’ve kept my interest in physics in general. I think the last question you have here, “Is architectural acoustics a black art?” — deserves a comment or two.
Of course, it’s considered to be some kind of magic by a lot of people, because there have been some notable examples of buildings that were designed acoustically that didn’t work very well. But this is not to say that it’s not a science, or that it’s not a science that should be continually worked on. The errors that have come into architectural acoustics have almost all been the result of architects wanting to make too violent a change with tradition. Architectural acoustics has a strong base in science and physics, but it also is engineering and art. One of the things the engineer always does is to look at designs of buildings or machines that have already worked; he uses theory as an extrapolation process or interpolation process or extension process, but never to just start from scratch and make a new design wholly on theory. I could give you a specific example. One of the very important things in architectural acoustics is to understand the build-up and distribution of normal modes of air vibration in an enclosure. The only ones that can be solved rigorously however are so simple that you never run into them in architectural acoustics. And if you did, if you put one chair or one piano in the room it would completely alter it. But that does not mean that you should not be conscious of normal modes and the factors that influence them, or what shapes of room will give a good distribution of normal modes and so on.
So I would say that architectural acoustics, on the border between science and engineering, is a difficult field for transition. But it simply means that experience is the important thing, and all of us who work in this field try to accumulate as much information as we can about buildings that are successful. As I mentioned earlier, we, my wife and I, were in England for over a month in May and June this year, and the primary object of our trip was to make acoustical observations and measurements and studies in some of the famous buildings there. For instance, we studied St. Paul’s Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, Covent Garden Opera House, Royal Festival Hall, Purcell Hall, a number of the Wren churches and they all add to your feeling and understanding of what’s good in architectural acoustics. Many older buildings survive, I believe, because they have good acoustics. The ones that were disasters a century ago have been ripped down. I don’t mean to imply that you have to go to Europe to study good acoustics, but there are certain things in building that we cannot do in this country now, or anywhere in the world, because of costs, and there are certain earlier traditions that are well worth studying.
I’ve also done this in Italy and Sicily and Greece, and Crete, and have a great great body of data and information about the acoustics of buildings that I hope to use to write a book on architectural acoustics one of these days. I think it will be a book that has a lot in it that the conventional books do not have, because these are largely based on buildings in the United States, and fairly recent buildings. But the big thing that makes the “black art” out of it is too many people get into the act. The acoustical designer, the architect, the owner, then the public — and it’s unbelievable how many people want to influence the design of a lecture hall or an auditorium. In contrast to that, our Blossom Music Center here owes its form and substance almost entirely to Dr. George Szell. He knew the subject as a conductor, and he was very knowledgeable about acoustics, and he had the prestige to carry his ideas through the architects and the board of trustees and everybody.
Is this Blossom Center an enclosed space or an outdoor theatre?
It’s an outdoor place. It has a pavilion that has a roof, and will seat 4400 under the roof, but it’s open around the sides, to let the sound go on out to the lawn, where the majority of the people sit at a concert. But I shudder to think what Blossom might have been if all the different people who would have liked to get their oar in had been permitted to do so. But Szell was so dominant. And of course he was well acquainted with places that had worked well. He had some good help too. On the other hand, you can cite buildings that have been unsuccessful, and you almost always find that the architect had to listen to too many different points of view. This is often the case with a church. Churches have all kinds of people who are sure they know how they should be built.
What is the largest enclosed space that you know of that’s good for the speaking voice; secondly, for a musical aggregation? The best architectural acoustics you’ve ever examined for the single spoken voice versus choirs or orchestras?
This is a hard question, because as the halls get bigger, the spaces get bigger, their acoustics become progressively poorer. There’s no getting around that. But to answer your specific question, I would say that St. Peter’s in Rome is the biggest one that has good acoustics, that I’ve studied. It has surprisingly good acoustics, and it really was a revelation to me, when I was finally given permission to study it. I’d made preliminary calculations for example on the reverberation time and things of that kind. They turned out to be very different than I’d anticipated. And the reason was the richness of the architecture. For instance in St. Peter’s, all along the sides there are chapels that let sound in and act as absorbers and to some degree as resonators, and they have a very fine loudspeaker system that was put in by the Phillips people in Holland, makes use of time delays and so on, so I would say that St. Peter’s is the best big building I’ve seen — for both purposes.
Our Cleveland Public Hall here has some features that are good, but on the whole I would have to give it a rather poor record. It is so big, and it has no architectural detail. I mean by that, the boundary surfaces are the only surfaces there are, whereas in St. Peter’s there are columns and piers and statues and pilasters and so on. Furthermore, the Public Hall here has a poor loudspeaker system. I hate to say that, but it’s been wrestled with by lots of people, but it’s almost impossible. There are some rather small places that have abysmally poor acoustics too. And this is true of a number of churches that are built “in the round.” It’s become fashionable since the war to have churches in the round, rather than the rectangular shape. Now, they can be designed to have excellent acoustics, but it’s a much greater challenge than for the rectangular church, and often if the architect is not willing to make the compromises on appearance that are necessary for a good church in the round, then some of them are very poor. I think there’s plenty of science there, but it’s so complicated that you cannot carry through a rigorous solution. You have to use your theory to know the directions in, which you should go, and then you have to constantly compare with other known structures that work well. I’m always reminded of what Wallace C. Sabine did when he was asked to design the acoustics of Boston Symphony Hall about 1900. You know, he was the great pioneer in architectural acoustics. And many of the things that are done today go right back to his experiments.
When he was the acknowledged world leader in architectural acoustics, he was asked to design a new Symphony Hall for Boston. Well, what he did, he spent several summer vacations in Europe, listening to concerts in all the concert halls that he could find, talking to people and deciding which were the best. And after his detailed study, he decided that the Gewandhaus in Leipzig was the best one, and he came back and designed Boston with that as a model. Now, it doesn’t look like the Gewandhaus, but in architectural acoustics it’s very very close. And I think the humility of Wallace Sabine in his approach to that problem is something we can all learn a lot from. He could easily have told the Cabots and the Lodges, “Well, I’ll design something entirely new for you. It won’t be like anything in Philadelphia or anywhere.” And they’d have been pleased, I think. But that wasn’t his approach. He did this: successful designs always take all the information they can from earlier successful designs.
Is there anything in acoustics that corresponds to black body cavity resonators in optics and radiation studies? Are there perfect or virtually perfect resonators — of macroscopic size, that is, a size big enough for people to get into?
The room itself resonates? Is that what you mean? I’m not sure I follow you here.
Well, I’m thinking about anechoic chambers on the one hand, as being presumably perfect absorbers.
They’re perfectly dead, nearly so, that’s right.
Are there perfect resonators?
Well, you can have rooms that have a terrifically long reverberation time because the walls are all reflecting. Now, I think for instance of the baptistery in Florence and the baptistery in Pisa. They have reverberation times where sound persists for 12, 13, 14 seconds. But this is not good acoustically, because it mixes up music, it obliterates speech, and so on.
I was thinking, from the standpoint of the science of acoustics, whether these kinds of extremely bad places wherein to listen to things have something to teach us.
I think they have something to teach us in what to avoid. Now, to carry this long reverberation a little bit further — there’s another church in Rome, St. Paul’s outside the walls, that has a very long reverberation time. It’s a long rectangular basilica type church. Now, the baptistery at Pisa has almost the same reverberation time, but it’s circular. Well, the character of the sound in the two places is vastly different. You can’t make anything out of what’s going on at Pisa. I’ve been there when they were baptizing an infant, and you might as well have not listened — binga, binga. On the other hand, in spite of the long reverberation time, the acoustics in St. Paul’s outside the walls are rather pleasing. The organ music is fine, the singing is fine, the speaking is fine, if the priest will speak slowly. And of course when you get people in with their sound absorption, then it becomes good. So I would say that what we have learned in architectural acoustics is the all-importance of the initial shape, and for a speech and music room, a rectangular shape is pretty hard to beat, provided it has architectural detail to scatter sound.
How about textiles, texture of materials? Is the…
Oh yes, that’s very important too.
Third or fourth level? Is the texture of materials of third or fourth-level importance?
Well, you can always select the surface material to quiet the sound or absorb more of it. But that’s the last thing you should do. The first thing you should do is get the shape right, and get all the architectural detail in you possibly can. I suppose there are limits. You might get too much scattering of sound but then goodness knows we’re never going to get it, because building costs are such that if you get a little, you’re lucky. In some of the churches, like the Spanish baroque where they have so much architectural detail, it may be a little too much, although I would hesitate to condemn that. But when you finally get everything that you can that way, then you can add acoustic absorbing materials, acoustic tile or drapes or whatever, but that’s the last thing you do. Now, some designs start the other way. They try to put as many acoustics tiles in as possible and they think that will solve the problem. It never does. You can deaden a room with acoustic tile, and then build it up electronically, and of course there are plenty of salesmen who would like that approach. They’ll sell you a carload of acoustical tile, then a carload of electronic equipment, and you perhaps don’t need either one. But I would say, it’s not a black art; it’s a combination of art and science. And this is why, if I may go back to Dayton Miller, why he was so successful in architectural acoustics, because he had great artistic ability, as well as scientific ability. He was a musician. He had a sensitivity for music and for art and architecture. And I think that’s necessary. I think the person who designs a room, who does it just from the point of view of engineering, isn’t going to have a successful hall. Personally, I learned a great deal about acoustics and architectural acoustics from Dr. George Szell of the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a man of supreme genius, there’s no question about it, not only in music but in almost anything he tried to study, and he studied everything. Well, I got acquainted with him shortly after he came here, and…
Was that in the forties?
Yes, right after the war he came, and he died in ‘70. I visited with him maybe two, three times a year, and I always would try to pick times when he was just back from Europe or the Cleveland Orchestra was just back from a tour, or I had some specific question I wanted to ask him. And he was always very generous. We’d talk an hour, and he would really give me insights. He was the first person who really emphasized the importance of scattering and diffusion of sound. He didn’t call it that. He didn’t use physics terms. But that’s what he meant, and all the examples he gave of good acoustics had all kinds of chandeliers and pilasters and columns and so on. I have a whole notebook of things he told me about architectural acoustics that have been invaluable in my own studies. He had very strong opinions, and as I told you, he always got his way while he was here. But, it was good he did, because he had the genius to know what should be done. And he had unlimited experience in Europe and everywhere with his conducting.
What do you think of chambers with variable shapes, like Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Performing Arts Hall and the Jones Hall in Houston? Jones is shaped like a womb, but it can be cut in half, and it has honeycombs coming down from the ceiling that are adjustable.
Well, I’ve inspected the Jones Hall in Houston. I have not heard performances there. When the Acoustical Society met four years ago, Paul Boner and I went and looked it all over. My feeling on this question of having several types of halls for different purposes — opera, orchestra, plays, chamber music and so on — is, it has become very definite, is that you should have separate halls for each client. Now, in Houston you have the other style. I am sure that can work. The reason I feel against the adjustable type hall is the tremendous expense in all these movable ceilings and movable walls, and the engineering problem, which I sense pretty definitely from being here, the maintenance problem, the upkeep problem, the repair problem of those things is going to be staggering. In Akron we have a hail of that kind, the Thomas Hall, but I think that the approach of the Kennedy Center, for example, where they have one hall for opera, one for symphony, one for the theatre, is far better, because you can design specifically for that kind of acoustics, and not have to seal off the balcony and so on. Adjustable halls can work, but I feel they are far too expensive, and I don’t think the number of times when you really want to switch from opera to the symphony, etc. is that often. I think, I very much — You mentioned Kennedy Center. Now, actually Kennedy Center — or Philharmonic Lincoln Center — has different halls for different purposes. They have the Tully Hall, which is magnificent. They have the ballet hall. You see, they have…
You’re speaking of Washington now, the new Kennedy Center?
The Kennedy Center, Washington, has separate halls, but so do they have them in Lincoln Center, New York. They’ve had troubles at Lincoln Center, but it’s not due to that cause.
They do have baffles in the ceiling?
But those have all been taken out and a solid ceiling put in. They found that the baffles didn’t work very well because they permitted the low frequency sound to diffract around the baffles and go up above the ceiling and be lost; the criticism in the early days of Philharmonic Hall, which is now called something else, was that it lost the low frequencies. I think also, it’s a pretty large hail, and they’ve sacrificed the reflection of sound from the side walls by having what they call terraces and loges along there. This is a long story, but I think here is an example of where the architect tried to make things too different. He was urged at one stage to study Boston Symphony Hall, but he refused to do it. At that time is when they began to go wrong. But the other halls at Lincoln Center are excellent, and I think all the halls at Kennedy Center are very good. Dr. George Szell had a great deal to do with Kennedy Center. I’ll tell you a story. Mrs. Frances P. Bolton, our Congresswoman, was on the District of Columbia committee to approve the design for Kennedy Center, and she asked Dr. Szell if he’d review the plans with the architect. He said he’d go provided the entire board of trustees was present. I wasn’t there, but I heard about it from a very good second-hand source. And when Mr. Stone explained his plan for the symphony hail, Szell let him finish, and then he said, “It will be an acoustical disaster.” Mr. Stone apparently had never had anybody speak to him that way in all his life, and it was quite a scene, I guess. He said, “What would you do?” and Szell said, “Copy Boston.” So if you look at Kennedy Orchestra Hall and Boston, superficially they look different, but acoustically they’re almost an exact copy of each other. So, the success of Kennedy Center I think owes a great deal to George Szell. He was consulted all the way through by — I don’t know whether he was involved in all the halls, but he certainly was in the concert hall, which is the important one.
Back to the nexus between, pardon me for saying it, pure and applied science again, did you personally ever get involved with an anechoic chamber design?
No, I never did. We never had one here and I never was involved in the design. Now, during the war they built one at Harvard. Dr. Leo Beranek, who is very much of a leader in acoustics, built an anechoic chamber at Harvard for war work. I had nothing to do with that, but I visited it and I know Leo. I’ve also been at the anechoic chamber at Bell Labs and RCA and others. They are primarily — they were originally built to test instruments, so you wouldn’t get reflections. Now, we did have equipment at Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, in our OSRD lab there, which accomplished somewhat the same thing. We had a large steel tank with water in it, under pressure, and we would test sonar equipment in it by pulsing the source, and making our measurements before the reflections from the wall reached the receiver. It’s a pretty standard procedure now, but our tank was one of the early examples of this. So we would pulse and measure, and then when the reverberation or echoing came in, we shut things off. Now, the anechoic chamber of course does that, only it squelches the reflections from the wall. Well, there’s no way to squelch the reflections from the wall in the underwater sound case. At least there wasn’t during the war. Now, since that time they have developed so-called underwater anechoic structures which presumably do this. I’m not sure how effective they are compared to the airborne, but the idea is that there are wedges and the sound goes in and doesn’t get out again. But my personal experience with anechoic chambers has been very little. I haven’t had occasion to use them. Now, they do use them for a variety of experiments in psychological acoustics and the ability to…
Sensory deprivation experiments?
Yes, all that sort of thing. But that’s a very specialized kind of acoustics, and I’ve never involved myself in it.
Another major factor that I discovered in looking at the men getting ready for space flight is the intense concern the Germans had with vibration and sound on astonauts. Back in the late fifties, early 1960’s, a number of physicians, physiologists and psychologists, primarily of German extraction, were very much concerned about these interactions with resonant frequencies and various organs of the body, the tolerance limits of not only the outer ear, inner ear, middle ear, but bone structures, ligament attachments, things of this sort. Have you had any experience with that sort of …?
No, I’m well aware of the problems, and I think they’re very important, and I think they are a hazard that you must cope with. But it seems to me that they all hinge on the intensity. I can’t believe that a very weak ultrasonic sound, even though it resonates, is going to be too much trouble. But we’re getting up to energy levels now, sound pressure levels, that are really very very high. And I think these are things that have got to be faced up to. I read in the last issue of Nature about a study made — no, it was an Acoustical Society journal—a study made in Los Angeles of conditions in the schools near the Los Angeles Airport. Just terrible. When the kids are out in the playground outdoors, a big plane goes over every two minutes, and the level is up above 100 decibels, which is dangerous for their hearing, and then they go inside it drops to something like 90 decibels, which is just terrible. Well, there’s no question that these hazards are there, but what they do specifically to a given organ, I don’t know. It’s well known that the hearing acuity of young people coming into college has gone down steadily in the last few years, due to the background noise, and also this rock music business, which I don’t quite understand.
…which you “hear” with your sternum bone rather than your ear?
They’ve had quite a few problems at Blossom. You know, they have to have rock concerts to balance the budget. So they have very sophisticated loudspeaker systems for these purposes. As a matter of fact, I was involved two years ago in the business. But I just cannot see what in the world any people want that noise for. But I’m not about to spend my life trying to convince young people that they shouldn’t.
Have you personally conducted any experiments with the speed of sound in various media?
No. Not recently. Years ago, I helped Dr. Miller analyze his wartime measurements of the speed of sound in air. When he got through his World War I war work at Sandy Hook, New Jersey proving grounds, where he had studied the pressures due to large guns, which is part of the problem you were just mentioning, to see what ear defenders they had to have for the servicemen in the artillery — and he made some very important contributions. Then when the war ended, Miller was given permission to stay another six months and measure the speed of sound along the sandspit. And I think his value is still the best one that’s ever been determined by anybody, out in the open air, where you have to correct for temperature and wind and all that sort of thing. Well, when he came back from the war, he didn’t get around to analyzing the data and publishing it until I was a member of the staff here, and I spent part of one year with him on that. But we didn’t do experiments at that time. I’ve never measured the speed of sound. One of my early graduate students here, Dr. Earle Gregg who is now in our medical school doing X-ray work, he was first interested in ultrasonics, and we did a number of experiments together. Then he did others that I didn’t participate in. But he measured the speed of sound in various liquids and all that sort of thing. Then he got off into radiation effects. I think his hope was that ultrasound would be useful in medical applications, which it is to a limited degree, but nothing like radiation. But I had fun with Miller. He really had some good data. We figured out the so-called theoretical value, using various equations of state and all. I’m sure the value’s been more accurately determined since, but for 1918, he did a nice job. Miller was a very skillful experimenter, no question. Had one of the most skillful pairs of hands and eyes that I’ve ever seen.
Did he accept the intrinsic difference that we’ve come to see now between the velocity of sound and the velocity of light?
You mean, the difference in kind?
Well, I never heard him speak about that. You’re of course referring to the central importance of the speed of light for relativity. I think in his judgment they were both numbers to be determined, and very important basic numbers. Of course he did a lot of work in optics. He was as much interested in optics almost as in sound. Not quite but almost. So I’m sure he had tremendous interest in both velocities. But the philosophical importance of the velocity of light, I think you’ve got to be wholeheartedly in favor of relativity to adopt this point of view. He was never, he was reluctant to accept relativity, as many of his generation were. He wasn’t alone, you know, in this reluctance to accept relativity. He was just one of the most outspoken members.
Do you believe in “tachyons”? [G. Feinberg’s postulated particles that always exceed the speed of light].
I have no idea. If they find them, I will. It’s certainly an interesting bit of algebra, but I don’t think there’s anything more to talk about until they’re observed. Professor Marshall F. Crouch, who works with cosmic rays, here, has had an experiment in which he thought he might detect them if they existed, but it will take a long time to get sufficient data to prove it one way or another. I just have no emotional commitment one way or the other. If we find them, I’ll be happy. If we don’t why, I’ll get along without them.
“Quarks” exist in Australia, but not elsewhere?
The quark is having a rough time. Again, Marshall Crouch here has done a beautiful experiment in a salt mine, in which he did not find quarks. Of course, that’s been the story of everybody except Australia. But I think things like this are just — wait and see.
Gravity waves too?
Now, there’s one point I would make, though, thinking back. When I was a graduate student at Chicago, Carl Eckart gave a very wonderful seminar on the beta theory of Fermi involving the neutrino. This was right after it came out in ‘32, ‘33, somewhere in there. Eckart always gave an excellent discussion. And I was very much impressed. He showed that the rest mass of the neutrino had to be zero because of the slope of the beta-ray spectrum and so on. Well, to come back to your original question, I don’t think I ever doubted the existence of the neutrino from that moment on. And I don’t think very many physicists did. Now, we were all very pleased when the Illinois group, Sherwin and Allen, did their experiments that showed that whatever it was that was disappearing had to have a ratio of energy to momentum that was the speed of light. And then of course when Fred Reines and Cohen detected the neutrino freely moving away from its source, we were very pleased. But I don’t think it was anything except a confirmation of what we all believed. So the neutrino, improbable as its properties seemed to some people, I don’t think it ever bothered anybody at the University of Chicago when I was a graduate student, largely because of the way Eckart presented it. Now, I would say, the tachyon and the quark (and down the line) are much less real to me. I’d have to wait and see on all of them. But it’s funny that I never had any worry about the neutrino. Now, maybe it’s because I was young then and was eager to grab it. But I’d be happy to have tachyons found or quarks found. But I’m not about to sit up nights waiting for them until they show up.
We’ve talked about the former president of Rice University, William Vermilion Houston, several times. One of the last papers he ever did, but I don’t think it was published, was titled “Are Electrons Real?” Have you ever seen that?
No, I haven’t.
He began to worry in later life about these particular extrapolations to reality.
Well, he certainly must have had a lot of background from his years with Millikan to think about the electron. No, I didn’t see that paper. I had a very great admiration for Bill Houston. He was a remarkable person. But he tended to go about his business in a very systematic way, and not spend too much time just chewing the fat on things. That was the way he worked during the war, at any rate. But I never heard that business. He, of course, almost discovered the Lamb shift. Experiments he did with his graduate students at Cal Tech on the spectrum of hydrogen with two Fabry-Perot interferometers, he actually found that they were not consistent with the Dirac theory. And I guess he was more or less talked out of it by Oppenheimer, who was there then, because the Dirac theory seemed so beautiful. I talked to Houston a good deal about this, after the Lamb shift came out. As a matter of fact, I have in my file here Houston’s last set of reprints, of his papers on that subject. He never thought that he wasn’t given credit, but he was a little bit annoyed that the theorists at Cal Tech had sort of talked him out of emphasizing the discrepancy. Because as you look back on it, he had the real effect. But Lamb and Retherford did it in such a magnificent way that you couldn’t doubt it for a moment. That was a great shakeup in physics when it came along, real excitement. That and the parity business are the two things that have really shaken physics since the war. There have been other things, but those are the two big ones. That’s what we need, another shakeup right now. Maybe we’ll get it.
Would you like to say something about your early industrial consulting roles? or would you rather talk about instruments?
No, I’d rather talk about consulting. Being in an engineering school like Case, naturally I’ve had calls to help on industrial problems, but I’ve never made these the central interest of my work. Yet it’s always been there. And I think it was important to do for various reasons besides just getting a nominal fee. And that is, it brought my physics into closer contact with engineering, and after all I’m in an engineering school. I’ve always valued that relationship. And then, you learn a great deal from people who work in industry that many academic people would scarcely realize. For instance, you learn that a job has to be done on time. And you learn that practical problems are not trivial problems. They’re not beneath your intellectual dignity. A lot of things like that. I found my contacts with industry and consulting work, on the whole, very stimulating and very worthwhile. Now, my consulting work has been in several areas. Most recently, it’s largely in architectural acoustics. Early, it was in various kinds of physics. I was the physics consultant for 17 years for the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, and I worked with them on a variety of problems, development of catalysts, development of petroleum products, many things, that were really very interesting. Most of the research workers in the Sohio lab were chemists, but that was all the better. As I was the only physicist involved, then if there was any physics, why, I had to do it all. Then, perhaps the most interesting consulting work was the work in Idaho, working with the nuclear reactors, making neutron experiments, helping with the design of reactor cores and everything of that kind. I worked there for 15 summers, and I also went out several times during the Christmas and spring vacation and between semesters. During those years, it seemed everybody was sure that there was nothing but good coming out of nuclear power. And there was never a word about its hazards, although we knew there were hazards, or the disposal problem or the ecology problem or the environmental problem and so on.
This is roughly from 1945 to 1960?
1953 to 1969. My last work in Idaho was the summer of ‘69. I didn’t start quite in ‘45, although I was a member of the Argonne Laboratory board right after the war, so I was aware of what they were doing. Well, as I look at it now, there were problems there that had not been realized. The disposal problem, in my mind, is the big problem with reactors. I’m not at all worried about them blowing up, as an explosion. I’m not really worried about them spewing gas or radioactivity in a city. But all this radioactive waste that lasts for thousands of years, this looms in my mind as the problem that gets more serious every year. It’ll be solved, but it will be very much more expensive to solve than we thought.
Can it be shot at the sun?
Well, I guess it could. That would be a nice way to do it. It’s a question of cost, I suppose. I would say, shoot it into the sun or onto the moon, as far as I’m concerned, but there are problems in reactor development that are more serious than we realized at first. The supply of uranium is not quite what people thought. The breeder…
Not as much of it as people thought?
That’s right. The breeder reactor seems to make terribly slow progress, and it’s because of the lack of knowledge of the technology of sodium and all of those areas. See, in the water-cooled reactor, all the technology practically that’s needed went back to James Watt, and it worked very well. But all this new technology of sodium is really getting tougher and tougher, and more and more expensive, and there might even be a question of whether they’d achieve breeding. You see, when you put in structural elements for safety or for other purposes, you gobble up neutrons. Now, my own feeling is, and I feel this very strongly, that we should have an intermediate series of reactors, helium cooled reactors like the General Atomic-Gulf type, HTGR. This has been sidetracked repeatedly because it wasn’t an AEC idea. This man Milton Shaw who for a long time was head of the reactor development, put every nickel into the sodium breeder. And so we haven’t got much to show for anything. Shaw’s gone now. This new lady [Dixie Ray Lee] that became head (of AEC) fired him, which was in my judgment a good thing. Well, at any rate, nuclear power will come. It will have to come. But it isn’t the bonanza that we thought 20 years ago, and it will take a lot more doing and a lot more cost and a lot more effort to make it what it should be. But I think the critics of it are very unfair. They talk about women having miscarriages, an increase in leukemia and all. We have a doctor in this area who goes around and makes speeches. He’s absolutely irresponsible.
People who know the facts just haven’t the time to go and contradict him anymore. It doesn’t do any good to contradict him. He’ll get right up in the same meeting and go right on with his speech. So, there’s a lot to be done in getting nuclear power when we want it, and of course it’s all mixed in with politics and the coal and oil people and everything. But it was wonderful to work in Idaho in those early days when everything about nuclear power seemed rosy. It was the same psychology as when they started the cattle business in Idaho, you know — plenty of grass and this was wonderful. I’m very glad I had that experience. It just really tied in physics and engineering and the economy generally. And it was a wonderful place to spend the summers, too. No place quite like Idaho, in my opinion. But I haven’t really kept in close touch with the nuclear business now for two or three years, because once I stopped going to Idaho, I lost touch. Just like the sonar, once I stopped going into that — I keep my interest, but I don’t try to keep up on everything.
There’s a very interesting thing — the British, you know, have recently decided not to use our form of reactor PWR in their next reactor program, which is a great disappointment to Westinghouse and this country generally, but they have decided to go to a different type of reactor. And it ought to make us wake up to the fact that we perhaps have gone as far as we can on the light water-cooled approach. It’s been very good, but after all it was developed in the first place by Admiral Rickover for the Navy, and if you look at what the Navy should have, there’s no question that for submarines at any rate, the light water-cooled reactor was the only answer, because you had to have a compact core. But I think they pushed it too far. I think when they get these enormous sizes, there’s no question that people of a thoughtful nature have worries about safety. Again, the critics are just hysterical about problems they don’t understand, but when the British decide not to take our light water-cooled reactors, partly because of hazards, we ought to think about it.
Are the hazards more than thermal pollution?
Well, I have never heard the British talk so much about thermal pollution as we have. See, they’re near the oceans, and they don’t run into so much of a thermal problem as our rivers do. Well, I think a great big ingredient in the recent British decision was to do something for British industry, as much as anything else. But the unsolved hazard questions of the pressurized water reactor PWR were mentioned in everything I’ve read, in Nature and other places, about their decision. There’s plenty of thermal pollution from all other kinds of things as well as nuclear reactors, but they get the blame. Well, I think I’ve mentioned pretty much the personal contacts with these men that you mention here. I never met Wallace Sabine, I’m sorry to say, and I never met Michelson. I did meet R.W. Wood. He was a different kind of a man. He was a wonderful physicist, but he was very hard to get along with. The only time I visited R.W. Wood at Johns Hopkins was in the late thirties. I went to a Washington meeting, and I told Professor Miller I thought I’d stop and see Wood. Well, Miller said, “You’d better have some specific question to ask him the minute you speak to him, or he won’t spend any time with you.” Miller didn’t say he would throw me out, but that’s what he meant. Right then Wood was in the midst of his Raman experiments, and so I had been reading about his experiments, and when I met him, Beardon introduced me to him, I asked him right away about his Raman experiments, and boy, he took me into his lab and he showed me things for two hours. I just ticked him in the right way, and it was really a wonderful experience. Now, he was a man who could no more work with a team of scientists than anything. I mean, he did everything, he blew his own glass, he did everything. And he made great contributions to optics, as you know. But very individual, very self-centered, very egotistical. I don’t know as I’d have liked to work with him very long. But it was an interesting experience to meet him. So different from Arthur Compton, who was first of all a gentleman of the first caliber and thoughtful and a great genius besides.
I don’t know that this is verified anywhere, but I’ve heard that Wood was a graduate student at Chicago with Michelson right after he arrived there, 1907, ‘08, some place along there?
And had to leave Chicago. Did you hear it that way?
Well, yes. I have heard this story. I never really heard it from the people who actually knew. It was believed to be the case that Wood didn’t do very well in his examinations, and got into some kind of a row with Michelson, and left. And then, after that, he wrote his book on physical optics, and Michelson thought that he took most of that from his lecture notes. Here again, this is second or third hand. That’s all I know about it, and I haven’t the slightest idea whether it’s true or not. But it’s true that Wood never got a Ph.D. degree. Now, when I lived with Compton, he talked about Wood several times, but he never mentioned this story, not Compton, because he wasn’t involved and he never repeated rumors. He did tell me, though, he said, “Wood never got a Ph.D., except he had a doctor’s degree in ornithology,” I think I’m right on this, “from Berlin or somewhere, and he wrote a book on how to tell the birds from the flowers.” This all may be — but the interesting thing, as I think of it, Compton never repeated this thing about Wood and his troubles at Chicago. I do remember this incident very clearly. When I was there, Wood visited the University of Chicago. He didn’t give a seminar, I don’t think he did, but he was in our seminar, drinking tea and so on, and Gale took him down to see the ruling engine, which he hardly ever let anybody see. At that time Gale had just put the ruling engine under oil, to help equalize the temperature. Wood went back to Hopkins and put Rowland’s old ruling engine in an oil bath, and then wrote a letter to the editor of the Physical Review about how wonderful this was. Well, Henry Gale was just beside himself with fury about it because Wood gave him no credit. But if it’s true, and I think it’s true, this might show Wood’s hostility to the University of Chicago. Anyway, this much about Wood I know.
Another ancillary interest I’ve had is Wood’s role in the unmasking or demise of Rene Blondlot, and his so-called N-rays at the University of Nancy.
Well, this I think was dirty pool. Wood went to France and Blondlot showed him his apparatus and explained it in very great detail and asked Wood to look through the eye piece and all this and that and everything. Then, as I remember the story, at one stage when the lights were low, Wood took one lens or prism out of the system, and the man still saw the effect. Then Wood put it back. Then Wood wrote a letter to Nature pooh-poohing it. Well, I think this was just dirty. And Compton told me, he said, “That probably knocked Wood out of the Nobel Prize,” because he just made the Continental Europeans furious, that a guy would do a trick like that. You know, it happened when Wood might very well have got the Nobel Prize, and they just blackballed him. So you can sometimes be a little too funny for your own good. That’s all I know about the N-ray, really. But Compton told me that. You could tell Compton was just absolutely unsympathetic with Wood’s attitude on that. The man was wrong, there was no question about it.
Yes. But Compton’s attitude was, well, he should have sat down with the man in his lab and worked with him and shown him he was wrong, and let him write his own letter to Nature saying he thanks R.W. Wood for pointing out something to him. But Wood just deliberately did it in a tricky way to make a fool out of him. Yet Compton couldn’t dislike Wood. He still liked him, but he said he was pretty sure that knocked him out of the Nobel Prize.
Did Miller ever say anything about Blondlot?
I don’t recall it. I never recall that he mentioned him, no. You see, when Miller went to Europe, in those years, he largely stayed in England. He sometimes went to Germany, but if he went to France, it was only a quick visit to Paris to buy an old flute. He didn’t like France at all. He didn’t like the French, always got sick on the French food, that sort of thing. I never heard him mention that at all. I don’t know how it came up with Compton —Oh, I know how it came up. Compton had in his library, in his home, a book of Woods’ called, “How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers,” have you ever seen that book?
Oh, it’s wonderful. You tell the cowbird from the cowslip and so on. It’s a brilliant little farce. Well…
Perhaps later on, about the Midwestern Universities Association, and the Argonne Laboratory study you mentioned a moment ago. I would like to know something about the major instruments available to you before 1940, and the change in the size of your staff of machinists, size of your supporting staff here and equipment, cost of equipment, etc.
There was a spectacular change here, as in every laboratory. Before the war, we had one mechanic and a glass blower at the clinic whom we could use when we wanted to. We had very limited budgets. They also had very limited budgets at the University of Chicago when I was there, and when Alvarez first went to Berkeley, they had very limited budgets, too. I’ll give you a specific example from Chicago. While I was there, Sam (Samuel K.) Allison decided to switch from X-rays to nuclear physics. He was the first Chicago person to do this. And he spent a year at Cambridge in Rutherford’s laboratory. He either spent a year or a part of a year, at any rate, maybe two quarters, and he went over and worked with Cockcroft and Walton and those people, and came back to Chicago to build a Cockcroft-Walton machine, which he did. And he was given $3000 by the University of Chicago to build that laboratory up. That was in 1935, ‘36. That was considered to be very generous at that time. Of course, Allison always went into the shop and worked himself, with his sleeves rolled up, and his graduate students did the same.
The early fellows who worked with him, Franklin Miller down here at Kenyon College, and other people — they did all the work. So it wasn’t just places like Case that had small budgets. The University of Chicago had a small budget. When Alvarez got out to Berkeley, he found Ernest Lawrence was building all those cyclotrons with practically no budget at all. The graduate students who worked with him almost all had jobs in hospitals or various places, and just devoted their spare time to work with him — just exactly like (Isidore I.) Rabi’s laboratory at Columbia. All those people who worked with Rabi were teaching at Queens College or somewhere you know, and coming in nights and Sundays to work with Rabi. So you can say that the difference in budgets, before and after the war, in every place, was just orders of magnitude different from today. And of course this applied to supporting staff, mechanics, glass blowers. Nobody ever thought of having an electronics man. You always made your own circuits. We did have a glass blower at Chicago. We blew our own glass to some degree, but Mr. Van Hespen was very good. They had quite a few mechanics. But the majority of them were working on Michelson’s ruling engine even after Michelson died.
This was a sore point, you know. The young fellows, they couldn’t understand it. You see, Michelson never really had complete success with the ruling engine. He never made gratings that were quite what he wanted. He made some good ones, but Rowland is still unsurpassed until the modern machine went to doing it — now, it’s not an individual but an automated process. But I think it’s very fair to say that every lab in the country had too little money before the war, and perhaps more than they should have had after the war. There’s still a tendency in physics, there was up to the more recent [economic] retraction, for money to flow to people who were good administrators and good contractors, who perhaps didn’t do too much physics with what they got. I’m not pointing the finger at anybody in particular, but it may be in the long run a good thing that we have to think a little bit more about what we’re doing with the money we get.
What was the most expensive piece of gear you had in the physics department here before the war?
Well, Miller went to Germany and bought some very fine X-ray equipment before the war. Professor Nussbaum used it, I used it, Professor Albright used it. I don’t know what it cost, but it was in order of magnitude of thousands of dollars. It was certainly not 50 thousand dollars, it might have been 10 or 12 thousand dollars, something like that. Of course, Miller’s acoustical equipment was all home-made. He made his phonodeik himself.
Maybe you’d like to say a little about that, and the permutations it went through? He first developed it about 1903 or so?
His first real public address on it was 1908, I think. I think 1903’s a little early, but… I have here the heart of an old phonodeik. You see, the horn would fit on here, a large horn to collect the sound, and that is a glass diaphragm, you can see it better from this side, which vibrated. Then there is a very fine pivot with a little mirror on it — do you see the mirror? Then he would fasten a fiber to the diaphragm, turn it around a little tiny pulley on that spindle, then fasten it to this spring, and then when the diaphragm would vibrate, the mirror would rotate, and an intense beam of light would be focused on the mirror and reflect off to a moving photographic plate. Now, this whole thing was set up right where we’re sitting here. The phonodeik was there, the horn was here, and here he’d have his musical instrument that he would study. I think Dr. Miller made every part of the phonodeik, except the little tiny pivot that has the mirror on it, and the pulley. He had those made by a jeweler. But Miller put those mirrors on himself. I often tried to help him put the mirrors on the phonodeik, and my gosh, I don’t know that I ever got one on right, but he could put then on almost without hesitancy. You see the mirror, it’s a little rectangular thing, a millimeter one way, a half a millimeter the other way, something like that. Now, E.C. Kemble when he was here worked his physics thesis with Miller, his undergraduate thesis, and he designed the shape of that little pivot and mirror and pulley to have a minimum moment of inertia. Kemble made quite a study of it. So that’s what I have here. There are two or three of these around here.
What you have here is an instrument that converts sound into visible representation in waves.
Yes, that’s right. It’s really a mechanical oscillograph, with high sensitivity and very linear. That is, the deflection is very very directly proportional to the wave pressure, and he studied all the musical instruments, piano and everything. He made a lot of really significant contributions to musical instruments. Professor Benade who is here now carries this on with great skill electronically, is always impressed with looking up some of Miller’s old data that’s around here, what Miller found with this instrument and how he interpreted it. I’ve often wished that Benade and Miller could have overlapped, because they would have been very much in each other’s camp on things. Miller carried acoustics of this kind up through the war, and then he got into architectural acoustics, because Wallace Sabine died in 1919, and Miller filled in the gap for almost 20 years on architectural acoustics that Sabine otherwise would have done. And so he did less with this phonodeik work after that, although he did plenty. But Miller never wanted to go to electronic acoustics. This comes back to this business we were talking about earlier. He grew up with his own kind of equipment, he was extremely skillful in its use, and he found things that interested him and interested other people. And when the vacuum tube came along and that sort of thing, he did a little with it. He worked with Westinghouse on developing loudspeakers for a while. But his heart wasn’t in it. And he never went into the kind of work that was done at Bell Labs and places like that. It’s just one more example of what we were talking about, that no matter who the scientists are, when they get older, they’re not about to give up the things that they loved most all their lives. It’s just part of getting old, I guess. There isn’t any more to it than that.
And part of the process of getting old is fighting for a place in the sun by catching hold of something new, and convincing an audience big enough to get recognition for it?
Yes, I suppose that’s so.
The electronic oscilloscope, there have been several articles recently, one in Scientific American, Carl F. Braun. We were talking about Marconi earlier, Braun was the man who shared with Marconi the Nobel prize in, what, 1909?
Somewhere in there, yes.
Well, Braun is allowed chief credit for having developed as early as 1896 electronic devices that would do, in principle, what the phonodeik does later; but there have been several critics of this science journalist’s approach to the history of electronics, so I don’t know — But I’m very interested in machines or CRT tubes that show Lissajous figures.
Well, Miller was interested in electronics. He had a man here in the department who taught radio. As a matter of fact, I taught radio too, because I’d been at the Bureau of Standards. And he would buy tubes and equipment and things. We had all the electronic equipment that we thought was needed at the time. Of course, it wasn’t the sophisticated business of today, but it was what we used. So he wasn’t hostile to it. But he just didn’t feel like doing it himself. He’d rather work with his fingers and his phonodeik and so on. As I said, toward the end he was so much involved with architectural acoustics that the phonodeik languished considerably. But he — now, he had the phonodeik going right here. Whenever Sir James Jeans published his book called Science and Music, I believe it’s called, in the thirties, the cover jacket had a phonodeik record that Miller supplied, showing the equal tempered chord and the so-called just chord, the strict harmonic ratio of four frequencies.
Well, I made the phonodeik records for that in this room, and we had groups of tuning forks that were tuned to each chord. And I got so sick of making phonodeik records! We must have made 50 records, every one of which was as good as the other as far as the physics was concerned, but Miller wanted the one that showed the phase relations in the most interesting way. And when we finally got it, I must say, it was the prettiest record of all. But he just drove me to exasperation, wanting to have just the right one to send to Sir James Jeans. But that’s characteristic of the thoroughness with which he did everything. You see -– to come back to his ether-drift experiments on Mt. Wilson –- the reason that McCuskey and I were able to analyze his data for the temperature gradient was that Miller had put thermometers around his room, and he recorded the temperature every hour or so, every half hour, all through it. If it hadn’t been for his own measurements, we never could have analyzed it. But that illustrates everything he did was that way. I’m sure he had the barometric pressure and all that sort of thing. We never needed that. But these –- I don’t know, I forget now whether he had four thermometers or eight, but it doesn’t matter. He had enough to establish the gradient to the degree of accuracy we needed. But that was the way they worked in those days. And I think it’s the way we work now, except it’s with different tools.
Well, while you’re on that, may I ask about this absolute motion problem? I’ve wrestled with it for a decade or more. You’ve wrestled with it for many more decades than that. But something still plagues me about this, and that is the relationship between physicists and astronomers, and all who are concerned with the growing, expanding picture of the universe. There’s a kind of watershed moment in the year 1920 when Harlow Shapley and Heber D. Curtis had the big debate at the National Academy of Sciences on the scale of the universe: this has to do with the relationship of globular clusters to the galaxy and so on. It also is all wrapped up in questions of star-streaming and the dynamics of our own galaxy. What I’m really trying to ask is this: Why did not Miller find more direct allies? I know they existed. Kapteyn for instance in Holland and his successor, Ort. Gustav Stromberg at Mt. Wilson, who was one of the chief radial velocity calculators for the Mt. Wilson astronomers. And Shapley himself went though ins and outs of this kind of thing, as well as Curtis and others. But the famous secret history of the Michelson-Morley experiment by Miller in the Reviews of Modern Physics, 1933, has only about five or six references to astronomers, and very few to the proper motion, absolute motion problem, the problem of solar apex. Now Charles Townes and others are experimenting with open minds, using back-to-back 30-foot parabolic radio antennas, trying to find a possible anisotropy in space, a directional flux for the 3°K microwave background radiation. The question of penultimate absolute motion seems a perennial one, one that man can never really get rid of, because it’s almost a religious question — who are we, where did we come from where are we going? But what I’m saying is, Miller could have had more allies had he sought for them. But then perhaps he couldn’t have gotten published in Reviews of Modern Physics?
Well, this is an interesting point. His graduate work was in astronomy at Princeton, and he always had an interest in astronomy. He couldn’t help that. He knew many astronomers. They were often here. St. John came here and lectured, and Plaskett was here and others. But, that’s an interesting point. He didn’t bring in the astronomical evidence as much as he should, perhaps, have done. I’m not saying these are my thoughts, but in answer to yours. Perhaps I could answer this way, on a surmise. I think the most distinguished astronomers of that era were convinced that the theory of relativity was correct. Henry Norris Russell, for example, Shapley, I believe — you see, the real evidence for general relativity always has been astronomical. And the Eddington eclipse work of 1919 just swept the scientific world like a tidal wave. I’ve told you about hearing a lecture in my parents’ living room in Willoughby in 1919 on relativity. I daresay nobody knew anything about it — my father tried to learn a little bit, but I’m sure he didn’t understand it either, but they were interested in it. They weren’t going to spend three hours in an evening listening to something that bored them, you know. So I think that there was one group of astronomers, the theorists and men like Russell, who just thought relativity was established and Miller ought to accept it, call it quits. Another thing that may have weakened the astronomical support — I say this carefully — up to the time that Miller announced his direction in space, it was believed that the solar system was moving toward Vega.
Anyway, when Miller got his vectors straightened around, he thought they showed the thing going to Vega. And I showed him, or Professor Nassau showed him, the two of us, that he was wrong, it was going the other way. But he didn’t hesitate a minute, he said, “Well, if it’s going the other way, we’ll announce it the other way.” When you think of it, this was a fairly courageous thing to do. We know now, we believe now that he was wrong, but he didn’t hesitate a minute. When we showed him that the vector addition was in another direction — just a little oversight that any of us could make — and then he had this great long vector diagram with his effect as one vector, and the other pointing — I never believed that vector diagram, I must tell you. Professor Miller knew I didn’t. But we always had a kind of, what you’d now call a gentleman’s agreement, that we didn’t argue with each other about things that we disagreed on, because after all, he was old enough to be my grandfather, and we were good friends, and neither one of us were going to get into a fight over this. Really. We never said it that way. So he knew I didn’t believe this. And I don’t think Professor Nassau, our astronomer, believed it either. I know he didn’t. But again, he didn’t feel like arguing with Miller. And Miller was sure it was right. Well, I’m sure a good many astronomers felt just the same way, when they saw that thing going in the opposite direction. People who were not great theorists, that was against all astronomy, so they washed their hands of it, and the really great astronomers in theory were all satisfied that relativity was correct. Eddington, for example, was a very great critic of Miller, without knowing anything about the experiment, I may add. But I think that’s it.
Now, there’s one aspect of Miller’s looking for other evidence. This Bell Labs man that discovered the background radiation, (Karl) Jansky — Miller was the first person I knew that heard about that, and thought it was important. He really thought Jansky had made a great discovery, and he corresponded with him. I don’t know where the correspondence is now, whether it’s in the archives or not. But Miller was very much for that work. Of course, Jansky didn’t live very long, or he would have been a very famous man. He’s still referred to in all these discussions of this radiation you’re talking about — if the author is fair he’ll mention that Jansky discovered it. And the way he discovered it was investigating a nuisance for Bell Labs trans-Atlantic telephones. Miller thought there was a streaming effect there that confirmed his streaming effect. But I think he just couldn’t quote astronomers that hadn’t come out and supported him, and I think a lot of them didn’t do it because they felt relativity was correct, and then, people like Eddington and Henry N. Russell and others just didn’t believe Miller’s interpretation. It’s just as simple as that. That’s about the best I can tell you on that. I never heard him complain that an astronomer didn’t support him. He never complained about things. You could tell he was disappointed that people didn’t agree with him, but he was a man about it. And I think really, toward the end of his life, he was just fed up with the whole business, because the Cleveland newspapers here — about three times a year, would have an article about Miller and Einstein. Miller never liked it. Some cub reporter trying to get started, you know, and it was always a fight on this, that and the other thing. Einstein came to Miller here in 1921, to talk about his experiments. Somewhere I have a book with Einstein’s autograph in it.
Did Miller speak in German with him?
Yes. Yes, Miller could speak German well. See, he grew up in Berea and his playmates were the children of Methodist ministers, German ministers. So Miller could speak German. For instance, when he went to buy the X-ray equipment in German, he had to go to Freiberg to get it, and nobody in the plant could speak English, but Miller could speak German very well. And so when Einstein came here, they conversed in German. Einstein told me that, too.
Something else that worries me is the second visit, H. A. Lorentz’s visit here in 1923, wasn’t it?
Somewhere along in there.
Miller says in correspondence or some place that he was surprised that Lorentz had never seen white light fringes before!
Miller told me that.
What is peculiar about that? Are white light fringes very hard to come by? Is this a measure of Lorentz’s distance from the experimental bench?
That’s the way I interpreted it. Miller took him downstairs. The interferometer was set up in the basement here, the room next to where we went out. And he would show people; Miller could get white light fringes in a very short time. If you ever try that yourself, you know that he was just a good experimenter. He told me, I remember, just what you say, that Lorentz had never seen — are you sure it was the white light fringes, or any fringes?
I’m not sure.
Well, I’m not sure either. It’s a long time since Miller told me this.
I’m putting an interpretation on here—white light fringes are much harder to come by?
Oh yes. Yes. What you do, you find the sodium fringes first, then you get them to maximum visibility, and you keep switching on the white light, and eventually you see the white light fringes. But it usually takes most of us an hour. It would take Miller about ten minutes or less. Of course, he knew all about his apparatus. For the life of me, I don’t remember whether Miller told me that Lorentz saw the white light fringes for the first time, or interference fringes for the first time. If you hadn’t spoken, I would have said interference fringes. It is surprising, because you see, he worked closely with Zeeman who certainly must have done interferometer work. But at any rate, Miller told me this. He was flabbergasted that Lorentz had not seen — call it the white light fringes, but I wouldn’t be sure in my memory on that.
This is absolutely fabulous to believe! Lorentz is one of the first pure theoretical physicists, paid for being a theoretical physicist — think of that time, 45 years — He was primarily concerned with the theory involved in all this.
Well, Miller told me that, and I am sure he reported it accurately, because Miller had no reason whatever to say it that way for any of his purposes. I don’t think Miller would anyway, but there was no reason for saying that. I know Miller, when he told me that, he was still — he just couldn’t believe that Lorentz had never seen the fringes. It was just inconceivable to Miller. But that was before I was here, so I wasn’t present. I wasn’t here when Einstein was here either. But Lorentz lectured upstairs to a capacity audience on his visit, about theoretical physics, relativity and so on. There’s one Case alumni, an older fellow, told me he heard that lecture, and he remembered that Lorentz said that he greatly admired Professor Miller’s experiments but that he couldn’t agree with him, or words to that effect. Whether this is this guy’s memory after 60 years, or what Lorentz really said, that I don’t know.
There was no recorder then, to know what Lorentz said. Lorentz I think had a tendency to always say something kind about everybody, and I’m sure he would say something very polite to Miller, even though he didn’t believe in his Mt. Wilson experiments. Of course, Lorentz lectured here before the final Mt. Wilson experiments were carried through. You see, Miller made some trials at Mt. Wilson in 1921, and he got an effect, and then he came back and worked three or four years in the laboratory here to try to get the temperature shielding perfected, and he almost did. He had big heaters right next to the optical path, and he felt he’d licked the problem. But he hadn’t. You remember, the letter you told me about, the remark Helmholtz had made, had pointed this out as the experiment’s weakness, to Michelson. I’m puzzled about that. But if Miller said that, I think it was true. Of course, if you think back on what Zeeman did, they used gratings rather than interferometers. They might not have had fringes. It isn’t inconceivable. And Zeeman’s experiments, you know, repeating the Fizeau experiment in 1915, I think they used interferometers. I really don’t know. It’s funny, but it’s what he said. It’s what he said. And as I said, there was no reason why Miller should have said that for his own benefit, that I could see, other than that maybe Lorentz didn’t know as much as he should have.
Well, I think it primarily is a measure of the divorce between experimental physics and theoretical physics — the philosophers of science read nothing but the theoreticians. That’s rather exasperating.
Yes, I think the closest collaboration between theory and experiment that I’ve ever seen was at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley right after the war, when Oppie (J. Robert Oppenheimer) was still there, and (Robert) Serber, those two particularly — they would visit the cyclotrons every single day, and they had all kinds of ties between their theories and the experiments. Now, some of their students did less of this, but Oppenheimer was — I don’t think there was a day in 1946, when I was there all summer, that Oppie didn’t come to the cyclotron where I was working and want to know what we were finding. And not just idle curiosity, you know. If you would tell Oppenheimer something and it was wrong, boy, he’d straighten you out in a hurry. It takes a pretty good theorist to do that. And Serber was a past master at working with the — not only the experiments, but the design of accelerators. Robert Serber left Berkeley on that Oath business, and went to Columbia and I’ve always felt it was too bad, because he was so closely tied in with Lawrence that he would have done very well to have stayed there. But he couldn’t stand the Oath and so he left.
Do you know the book by Nuell Pharr Davis about Lawrence and Oppenheimer, the comparison?
I think I’ve read it. It came out some time ago, didn’t it?
About four years ago, I think. The author is a professor of literature at Illinois.
Yes, I read it. And I was in Berkeley a little over four years ago and spent part of the time with Professor (Raymond T.) Birge. I was asking about Compton and so on. Birge had read that book. He was the head of the department out there for many years. And he had read it, and liked it very much. He knew Oppenheimer very well, and he knew Lawrence very well. Of course, Birge qualified his praise by saying the author was wrong on this and wrong on that, but that the book itself was worth reading.
Do you see the divergence in styles here? Davis sets Lawrence and Oppenheimer up as two quite opposite kinds of physicists — Lawrence as the American entrepreneur, team man, building, building bigger gadgets; and Oppenheimer as the much more theoretically inclined, man of culture and broad breadth as well as depth, but not so interested in…
Well, this is certainly true superficially, but I come back to the point that during their great years at Berkeley, they worked closely together. They didn’t have to like the same food, if I may use a crude analogy, and the fact that they were so different meant that they helped each other more than as if they’d been similar. But the aspect of this book of Davis, now that I think about it a little more, kind of pooh-poohing the Lawrence method and glorifying the Oppenheimer method — that I don’t agree with. They’re different methods, that’s all there is to it, and American physics owes an awful lot to Ernest Lawrence. He was the one who started team physics. There’s no question about it. On the other hand…
We were talking about Ronald Clark’s biography of Einstein a moment ago. Here’s another perfect example, I think, of the supersensitive humanist going into science, and deliberately trying to set up a situation whereby the tragic element is brought to a par, at least, perhaps even to dominance, over the triumphal aspect of science and technology.
Yes, I think that part of Clark is — not the part that I found interesting — I found Clark interesting, and it had a tremendous amount of information about Professor Einstein that I never would have known about otherwise. I kept my own counsel on judgment of what he said, and I wasn’t about to accept his philosophy if I didn’t agree with it, but…
From what you know elsewhere, is Clark’s story of Einstein’s role in the — after that first famous letter to F.D.R. — essentially correct, namely, that he wrote two other letters or at least signed two other letters, and that he was kept aware and probably in some sense of quietude, by Bohr in ‘43 and ‘44?
I have no way whatever of knowing about that. My information on that is just what you’ve recited, what Clark says. I have no way of judging it. I never talked to Miss Helen Dukas or anyone else about it, so I really don’t know. I do know this…
It rings true to me, from what other little things I know about it.
Well, I have no reason to doubt it, but I don’t know it to be true or false, one way or the other. I do know this, from my detailed study of Arthur Compton’s war work, in connection with editing his papers, I did a lot more studying than I needed to do for just the X-ray papers, because at one time we were going to publish everything, you see. So I think the real decisions to go ahead were all made by Stimson.
Yes. And I think the Einstein letter alerted Roosevelt to the problem, and probably paved the way for Roosevelt giving the green light to Stimson. But I think the real task of setting up the project was the National Academy Report that Compton wrote, with the help of some great people, and then the push that Vannevar Bush gave it to Stimson, and Stimson getting probably more than a wave of the hand from Roosevelt. That’s the impression I got. Now, I still don’t know that first hand. But Arthur Compton, in his book Atomic Quest, dates this pretty well — I haven’t read this recently. I think the Einstein letter was more significant in creating the psychological background for Roosevelt not to veto it. See, if he had had anybody but Stimson there, I think the old Army guys would have said, “We want the money for regular bombs,” — but I really know nothing firsthand about the Einstein role. I’ve been puzzled by some of the things that were said by Wigner and others about whether Einstein wrote the letter, or Wigner wrote it and read it back — there’s a bit of confusion there. But I have no occasion to straighten it out. In my own mind, certainly, Einstein’s role in the actual Manhattan District was nil, once it got started, but that’s quite another matter.
Well, if Clark is right, there was one and only one delimited war problem that Einstein was given, I think in conjunction with Gamow, (and I might be wrong there), but that was the question of shock waves of tremendous magnitude under water, above water and at the interface between water and air.
All I know about that particular problem is a little bit about what G. I. Taylor did, and this problem was very important for the submarine problem — that’s Sir Geoffrey Taylor — and when I was in England in ‘43, one of the things I did was to go talk to Geoffrey Taylor about this so-called bubble that he had found was so effective in destroying submarine hulls. And it turned out that if you set a depth charge at the proper depth, it maximized the effect of the bubble. I think G. I. Taylor deserves the credit for that. Then of course, shortly after that he went to Los Alamos and worked with them on the detonation problems there. Of that, I know nothing. But I certainly was impressed with the fact that G. I. Taylor worked out the real problem for the submarine case. And then it was put into the British Navy largely by (P.M.S.) Blackett. By the way, Blackett just died recently. He was the great operations research man, and he had been in the British Navy in World War I, so that the Navy would listen to him on all problems. I tried to call Blackett when I was in England a short time ago, but I realize now that the answer I got was that he was sick, but they didn’t tell me that. I’m really glad I didn’t see him because apparently he wasn’t well. I didn’t know Blackett well, but he was very active when I was there in ‘43, and I talked to him several times in the Admiralty. He was certainly one of the real powers in the scientific community in England during the war, probably the real power. I think that’s agreed to by everybody.
Are you getting tired probing your memory?
Well, I almost think we’ve pretty much gone over…
One last starred item on here that you may or may not wish to handle today, maybe we can come back tomorrow — that’s, “from molecular to atomic to nuclear physics,” problems of scale, scope and value. That’s a very general way for a historian to ask a physicist about your feelings about the important cutting edge. Is it fair to say that most of your professional life has been spent primarily in the arena of molecular physics?
Well, of course the work in Idaho was nuclear, but it was not the high energy business. I would make a comment on that…
A better way of saying it I guess is that you’ve moved down the size scale.
Well, the transition that you indicate here is one that all of us followed through. For instance, when I went to the University of Chicago to start graduate work, I had determined that I would like to work with Arthur Compton, but the great thing to do then was to get a problem in Raman spectra. The Raman spectra was all the rage, and you could get a Ph.D. thesis that would come through quickly. It was all exciting, and you got all these pretty spectrum lines. Robert Mullikan was the great expert in band spectra, indeed he is the great expert. Well, it wasn’t any time until all the problems in molecular spectra — I mean Raman spectra — were pretty well solved or taken over by the chemists as a tool. Then the fad shifted to cosmic rays. I’m talking now of the University of Chicago, not myself. X-rays sort of ended up and cosmic rays came in, and then Allison went into nuclear physics, and there was a tremendous amount of crystal structure analysis when I first went there. Everybody wanted to get a crystal. But they were getting difficult, and so that went out the window. And then there was a steady drift toward nuclear physics, although reluctantly, by the department as a whole. You see, Professor (Arthur J.) Dempster was a great expert on the mass spectrograph.
As a matter of fact, he might very well have won the Nobel Prize instead of Aston if he hadn’t been in Germany when World War I started. He had a mass spectrograph all going in Willie Wien’s laboratory. When the war came, and he was lucky as a Canadian to get out without being put in a camp. Well, by the time Dempster served in the Canadian army and got to Chicago, Aston had won the Nobel Prize. Dempster was I’m sure always disappointed. Now, Dempster didn’t go into nuclear physics, except sort of through the back door. You remember, he discovered the two isotopes of uranium, and Nier at Minnesota showed that it was the U-235 that was subject to slow neutron fission. But Dempster never really got interested in nuclear physics. He was in atomic physics. (Robert S.) Mullikan was in molecular physics, and has kept it up all his life, and is one of the great men in the field. Of course he won the Nobel Prize in it. And it was obvious to everybody that Mullikan was a man of very unusual ability. But people didn’t like to work with Mullikan because it took forever to get a problem done, and it was always, to a graduate student, prosaic detail.
To Mullikan himself, every little nuance in a band was exciting, and he made something of it. But the boys who worked with him tended to get discouraged, and wanted to do something else. But Arthur Compton himself never got into the nuclear part, except in cosmic rays. But I daresay without any question that had the war not intervened, Compton would have adopted the Lawrence method and built a lot of machines at Chicago. What he did in the Manhattan District was typical of what he could do, and I think Compton deliberately sacrificed his own scientific career in the war to be an administrator, for the good of the cause. And by the time the war was over, he decided to be chancellor of Washington University, St. Louis, rather than go back into personal research. But that was his way of service. I think the University of Chicago was greatly hampered in the thirties by lack of funds. It was a private school, and the principal source of income was Standard Oil of Indiana stock which the Rockefellers had given them. And they cut the dividend in half, while I was there. When that happens, it’s pretty hard to expand. But at the same time, Ernest Lawrence was expanding at Berkeley with very little financial support, and all that he got himself.
He’s like George Ellery Hale?
Yes, very much like George Ellery Hale. Miller of course knew Hale well and thought the world of him. Miller always said he had done more for science in America than any other individual. I’ve heard Miller say that many times. I think Hale certainly did a lot. Well, I think if the war had not intervened, and Compton had stayed on as dean of science, at Chicago — and he only had that job about a year, till the war came — I think he would have rivaled Berkeley on machines and everything else. Though it’s hard to rival Ernest Lawrence. But you know — of course, Karl Compton pushed in that direction at MIT, but again, it was stopped by the war. For all of a sudden MIT became the center for radar, and by the time radar was over and the war was over, they had a very distinguished staff at MIT but they had no machines. So I would say that, its large scope, is due to the fact that physics shifted to nuclear physics. You could never have had a Radiation Lab for the Raman effect, or crystal structure, or any of those things. Nuclear problems really focused physics. And a very wonderful thing too, when you look back at it. But there’s still a lot of individual work going on, the Mossbauer effect, for example, with one man working with a small apparatus and that sort of thing.
Now, to problems of scale. We can go out in the macrocosmos to, what, 1027 centimeters, something like that?
I guess that’s it.
And down into the microcosmos, to about l0-13 centimeters. The disparity between man’s ability to probe, with some informational return, into the outer universe, as opposed to the micro-universe, seems to me an obvious kind of imbalance there. And for physicists who are so concerned with symmetry in the first place, is this a kind of subliminal drive that leads them to the building of bigger and better betatrons and gigatrons?
Well, if they use it for budget arguments, I just close my ears. I’ve heard that kind of stuff too much since the war. I’ve heard very interesting talks on just this business, and you could say, well, you’re finding that things are being found in astrophysics now for that reason. I never heard anybody say it just that way, I don’t really have any worthwhile comment on that. In other words, the universe is a mighty big thing. That’s what you’re saying. It’s an interesting problem, and I heard colloquia just last year here start with just that business. They all use the numbers for their own arguments, not for seeing where nature is going to go or science is going to go. And when they start in on it as a budget argument, I close my ears. I close my ears. Seriously, that is a serious problem, because we all have to think about budgets because we have to eat, but if the budget is determined by where the money is, instead of where the idea is, it seems self-evident that things are going to dry up for new science. You have development work, that way, but as you know too well, there are too many of our friends who say, “Well, there’s going to be money in so and so —” And what amuses me is, people who, a couple or three years ago, were talking about environment and ecology, and had a certain research program — they just changed the name to “energy” and it’s the same thing by changing a few words. Now, those people aren’t going to make any real contribution to science. They aren’t committed to anything. In contrast to that, you remember Professor Einstein at Princeton working from 1933 to 1954 on his unified field theory, with a single minded purpose that that was what he wanted to do — he could have gone into anything, you know, and been accepted as a colleague and a leader. But I think there’s more dedication needed in physics. The real physicists have got to say, “This is what we work at;” this is what makes me admire the theorists at the present time. They work on problems that are just simply devilish, but they don’t give up. Hopefully, they’ll make some spectacular progress before they’re through, but it doesn’t seem to happen overnight. It must take a lot of intellectual courage to really continue to work in particle physics or anything else. Some shoot off into astronomical problems, black holes and so on. That’s important too. That has a psychological boost because it’s of such spectacular interest. But when you just get back to the old nuclear force — you’ve got to have some intellectual stamina to stick to that, year after year.
Let me ask a specific question, tying together what we’ve talked about today. When did you first personally become aware in the 1930’s of the potential of fission weapons?
Well — of course, the announcement…
Was it there in the background all along?
No. I don’t think so. The announcement of fission was not made till 1939, so there wasn’t very much time until we were all involved in war work. Most of the people that I talked to during the war were aware that there was some big thing going on in this line. They didn’t know any of the specific details. When the Smyth report came out, it was really surprising to everybody. We got a paperback copy in New York, and Bill Houston took it first and read it and was just flabbergasted. Tate — I think most of them were hoping it wouldn’t happen. They may not have said that openly, and it was awfully close that it didn’t happen, you know. In other words, we were always talking sub rosa about what was going on in this field. And then after fission, it was understood, there was a lot of energy there, but the big question was the chain reaction. Hardly anybody knew about Fermi’s pile until after the war. That was a pretty well kept secret.
You yourself didn’t know?
No, I didn’t know about it until after the war. I didn’t know about Hanford or Richland in Washington. We did know about Los Alamos, and why, I don’t know. Several of the guys went there. We knew they were there. But Oak Ridge wasn’t known. So I. would say that until the bomb was announced, there was a fear that Germany might get something this way — but I think this fear is more in retrospect than it was at the time. Now, it may have been that people who came from Europe and knew what the Nazis were up to, had a fear of everything they might do. But certainly we were so concerned about the submarine that we weren’t worrying too much about an atomic bomb. And then when we thought we had the submarine licked, the snorkel came along, and my gosh, it was, all over again — and then the buzz bomb. And all those things were immediate issues, you know. So it would be easy to say, “Well, we began worrying about it right away” and all that, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that’s true, and I think a lot of the people that worked at Chicago and Los Alamos never were quite sure it would ever happen until the last minute. And some of them hoped it wouldn’t happen. I remember the reaction in New York. Tate was furious about the bombing of Hiroshima. He thought they should have put on a demonstration. But Dean (George B.) Pegram accepted it, and talked about how many casualties we’d saved and so on, but Tate was furious. I’m not sure about Bill Houston’s attitude.
I know he was just as excited as could be about the Smyth Report. I had to wait my turn to get it after two or three others had read it, but as soon as I got it I read it right straight through. It was a revelation. I know when I got home a month later, my father had purchased a copy of the Smyth Report. I’ve still got his copy. And Dad was just furious that they’d published it. You know, he took the attitude, “Why tell this to the Russians?” See, that was my Dad’s attitude. He was not exactly a mossback either. I think a lot of people thought that way. No, my feeling would be that if you talked to a physicist today, and they told you they were sure there would be an atomic bomb after 1939 — they’re a little bit… I’m sure there were a lot of them from Europe that were afraid it would happen, and knew what it would mean if Hitler got over here and told us what to do, because they’d seen it there. But I don’t think anybody knew until the Alamagordo tests for sure that it would work. I think everybody would agree to that. Then, of course, it just sort of shocked us all. It was like going the first time to the Grand Canyon. Every half hour you realize, it’s a lot deeper than you thought before. And this atomic bomb business — when the atomic bomb was dropped, I was in San Francisco. I had been sent by Tate to the West Coast, leaving New York toward the end of July in ‘45, to help lay out a program, perhaps help correlate is a better term, the anti-submarine effort against Japan. This was a major plan of the OSRD, and I went to the San Diego Laboratory. I went to Cal Tech. And I went to — no, I didn’t go to Stanford that time. I was in San Francisco at the Presidio when the bomb was dropped, and I had plans to go on to Seattle and elsewhere.
Well, I can remember very vividly, about the middle of the morning at the Presidio, one of the Army officers came in, where we were talking, and said to me, “What do you think of this atomic bomb?” And I didn’t know what to say to him, because in the first place I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t seen the newspapers. I went out the first thing that morning, and hadn’t seen the newspaper. I thought, what in the world is he saying? Then he pulled his newspaper out and I saw the headline. And my first reaction was not to believe it. But this ended our discussion. We didn’t have any more interest in the harbor defense of San Francisco after that. But I still didn’t believe it. That night, I went back to the hotel and I wrote my wife a letter, told her that I thought this was a psychological weapon against Japan. That is what I thought. Then I tried to call the Radiation Lab. Several of our people were working there. But I couldn’t get an answer. The telephone wasn’t working. It turned out, Lawrence had everyone in giving them a thank you talk for working so hard. Well, by the end of that first day, I began to realize that there had been an atomic bomb. But my first reaction was that it was a psychological hoax to try to scare Japan. Then, after about a day, I went on — the rest of my journey was to go to Seattle to the University of Washington, and to the Harbor Defense Station on Puget Sound. I went through the motions of visiting these labs. And on the way up to Seattle, the second bomb was dropped. And then I was flabbergasted. I really was flabbergasted, and I wouldn’t say I was angry, but I just wondered what was going on here, you know.
Then I went out to Fort Townsend, where we were testing the sonar equipment, to tell when submarines came in to Puget Sound and all that Sort of thing. But we weren’t even watching the meters. Then, I recall, an aircraft carrier came in, and the station was signaling with flags to the ship, and I said to the fellow, “What are they saying to each other?” He said, “They’re telling everybody to double the shore patrol tonight in Seattle, because probably the war’s over.” So I got on a ferry and went to Victoria, British Columbia, and had a little holiday. I thought, what the heck, the war’s over. Then I stopped in Utah on the way back, went fishing in the Kinta Mountains. Everybody in Salt Lake City was talking about what this A-bomb would mean to the future of the world. Very knowledgeable discussion, with the people of Salt Lake City. They were really worried about it too, I’ll tell you. Well, I just had been so convinced by the physicists that I’d talked to at lunch in New York about this fission business, that it couldn’t be made into a bomb — and you know, it almost didn’t work. I don’t think many really thought a bomb was possible. And I think the surprise that I experienced probably tells you the story. If I’d expected a bomb, I wouldn’t have been as surprised as I was at the Presidio.
Had you had much concern about Heisenberg and his role with regard to the German nuclear bomb?
No. I’ve read what is said. I really didn’t know.
He’s published so much philosophical stuff recently that one gets the feeling that German physicists have deliberately backed away and not criticized him. I have a notion, however, from what I’ve heard about Bohr’s troubles with the Nazis in Denmark, that as soon as Heisenberg dies, there’ll be quite a bit of memoir material published on the nature of the German atomic bomb work. David Irving’s little book is the only thing in English that I know of on this, and he in essence says that the only reason, the main reason why a Nazi nuclear bomb was not pursued was because of the errors in cross-section of moderators, errors in the calculation of what carbon on heavy water could do.
The only specific point on that that I recall is this. The graphite that they were supplied had too much impurity in it. You know, it had to be fantastically pure, and somebody told me this, maybe Dick Doan, that…
The graphite the Germans used?
That the graphite that they used had just a little bit of impurity in it, boron or something. That was enough to kill the chain reaction. Now, who told me that — I think Dick Doan told me, because he was very knowledgeable about this. But I’ve had a feeling — I have a very high respect for Heisenberg, and I am not inclined to be hostile to him the way some people are, but I have a feeling that he is sort of turning his back on the war, in his philosophy and so on. One of the people I wrote to about Arthur Compton’s work was Heisenberg, and he replied to me very nicely, but he didn’t give me the insight into what it meant to him that I’d hoped he would. It was a little bit less than complete. I mean, I got more out of reading his book The Physical Basis of the Quantum Theory — you know, that old book — he tells in there about the Compton effect. Well, he’d either forgotten, or he didn’t feel — he was very courteous, very polite, sent me a couple of his reprints about philosophy. But I don’t know, I just think that the Germans didn’t make the effort that we did. I don’t think they could have made the effort if they’d wanted to. And I just think that we had this tremendous technology of the DuPont Company and others, that was essential to make it work.
DuPont, Monsanto, Union Carbide…
…and they all just broke their necks to do it, you know. And believe me, this was in large part due to Arthur Compton. Groves takes the credit for all this, but Compton was very influential in getting these industrial people to do it, because he could talk their language. You see, he’d consulted at Nela Park for years. He’d worked with Westinghouse. He knew all the big people at these places, through contacts that most physicists don’t have. I think it was very important in the whole business. He knew Crawford Greenawalt of DuPont. How he knew him, I don’t know, but that’s one thing I noticed at Chicago, that everybody stopped at Compton’s house. It wasn’t just physicists. He was a charming man in every way. Well, why don’t we wash up, get ready and go out to the house and have some supper? It’s been delightful…
A delightful day and this tape is now filled. [Here follows a one paragraph interlude that should be put in brackets, because it’s added by Swenson after supper at Shankland’s home, this date. We drove from Rockefeller Hall, where the physics laboratory of Case Western Reserve is located, out to the East Cleveland suburb, which is on the east side of Cleveland, perhaps some four miles further from the University, and there at home, in the back yard and over drinks with his second wife, Eleanor, we talked about the climate, the weather, vacations, my work in history of space technology and history of physics, his books, hobbies, children, universities, and about art and science in general. The most memorable part that might have been put on tape was our discussion of the family and religious and philosophical backgrounds of Edward Williams Morley, A. A. Michelson, D. C. Miller and Shankland himself. Morley came to Western Reserve when it was still in Hudson, Ohio, as chaplain as well as chemist; he always had a strong Calvinist Congregational interest in relationships between science and religion. We seemed to agree that Dorothy Michelson’s studies of her father indicate that his religious preferences were always somewhat skeptical, if not even cynical. He was a thoroughly secularized and assimilated half-Jewish American citizen whose super-patriotism was perhaps his main religious commitment. Miller and his wife were always close neighbors and friends with Morley and his wife, and presumably shared the same sorts of religious and philosophical attitudes, but Shankland seems not to remember Miller expressing himself on these matters. Shankland himself stems from a Methodist middle-class background and has for a long time not been seriously interested in religion and and its relations to philosophy and science. Indeed, my own discussion of personal commitments to Unitarian-Universalism and its creedlessness today seemed something of a surprise to Shankland and his wife. It was a very pleasant evening. The meal was excellent, and we talked broadly about many facets of the academic life in Houston and Cleveland.]