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Interview of John Clarke Slater by Charles Weiner on 1970 August 7, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4893-2
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Slater leaves Harvard University for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930 (Karl Compton) to build up Physics Department there; work on quantum electrodynamics. Growth of MIT Physics Department in the 1930s and 1940s, relations between experimentalists and theorists; discussion of works and publications during the 1930s. Changes in U.S. physics; overview of post-World War II physics to 1951, and reasons for establishing own research group; establishment of the Radiation Lab, 1940; magnetron work; Bell Labs visits, 1941-1942 and 1943-1945. Planning of postwar development in MIT Physics Department; transition from Radiation Lab to Research Lab of Electronics; formation of laboratories of nuclear science, acoustics, and spectroscopy; the Lincoln Laboratory, the Instrumental Lab; growth of nuclear branch of Physics Department; physics activity in general in postwar years, Solid State and Molecular Theory Group; the Compton Lab.; Materials Science Center established ca. 1958; interdepartmental and interdisciplinary work; visits to Brookhaven National Laboratory; Slater and Per Olov Lowdin’s Florida Group. Also prominently mentioned are: John Bardeen, W. Buechner, Arthur Holly Compton, Edward Uhler Condon, Jens Dahl, Robley Dunglison Evans, James Brown Fisk, George Harrison, Douglas Rayner Hartree, Raymond George Herb, Milton Stanley Livingston, Millard Manning, Jacob Millman, Wayne B. Nottingham, Isidor Isaac Rabi, Schafer, William Shockley, R. A. Smith, Julius Stratton, Robert Jamison Van de Graaff, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck, Eugene Paul Wigner; American Physical Society, California Institute of Technology, Florida State University, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Princeton University, University of Bristol, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Chicago.
I’d like to start now, in the spirit of our conversation, with some questions relating to the period at the end of the 1930s. When we last talked we discussed the work of the department, and your own work… just up to that point. And about at that time we felt that a new era was beginning because the war had intruded, and in fact the situation had changed at MIT, including your own personal work. What I’d like to ask first is: when did you become aware of the potential war emergency? When did it occur to you that there would be some change or some need to think about the possibility of change in your own work and the department’s work?
Well, this came up very shortly after the war started in Europe, long before we were in the war, because, as you probably know, the MIT Radiation Laboratory was started in what was it, December...
October. That is, the first meetings that led to it were October 1940.
That’s right. But by December 1940 the thing was in real operation. There had already been questions coming up at MIT as to what part the faculty members could play in the war effort and so on, although we weren’t in the war yet. But then in the fall of 1940, when the Radiation Laboratory was being started, we were very conscious of it, because a good part of the initial work of the laboratory was in some of our physics areas. There was a large undergraduate laboratory, which we turned over for the first organization of the Radiation Lab, and then it wasn’t very long before they built two extra stories on the roof of the physics building, Building Six. And this all was very closely allied with the physics department; so that naturally we were in on it at a very early stage. We were not in on the actual organization of the Radiation Lab. But I know that I was “in’ personally in the magnetron work. Within a couple of weeks after the first people were on hand I had a visit from Rabi asking how a magnetron worked. He didn’t know and I didn’t know, but that was when I started in, and that must have been November 1940, I think. So it was very obvious from that time on that we were very closely tied in with it.
Was there anything prior to that? The war in Europe had started.
It had started the year before. And I cannot remember the dates well enough. I know that there was a request that came around from Compton for the various departments to make suggestions as to how they could be useful in the war effort. And I believe that was earlier. I’m not sure. I think that probably has been reported in that history of the department.
No, I was thinking of the thing I wrote, The History of the Physics Department. I know I’ve got copies of that correspondence, because I know that Compton sent around these memoranda to the various departments asking how they could be useful. At that time I think we had not thought about the Radiation Laboratory, and my suggestion to Compton was that the physics people could sort of act as a set of consulting physicists in a sense; that if problems were brought to us, we could get together and use our best judgment as to who could work on these things best, etc. Well, that was the stuff that never got implemented at all. But my recollection is that it happened very early in the history of the war.
I see. Well, your department history starts with the history of the Radiation Lab in October 1940.
Yes. Well, I would have to look up this correspondence and see what the date of it was. But I think it was before the Radiation Lab started.
Compton by that time would have been involved in government activities, because even throughout the ‘30s he was involved as an advisor in an attempt of the New Deal Administration to establish a science advisory board.
That’s right…And, of course, Compton was very much in on the establishment of the Radiation Laboratory. He and Albert Loomis and I guess Vannevar Bush were the moving spirits in that.
Talking of Compton for a minute, did you see any change in his role over the decade of the ‘30s? When he came as president of MIT in 1930, he was still very much a working physicist from Princeton. He had been head of the department there. But in about the mid-thirties he became more involved as a national spokesman for science and got involved in lots of committees and so forth. And I wondered if this affected his role in the Institute as you perceived it.
I think it began to. I think he spent more time outside the Institute and therefore had less time to handle the MIT duties. And the way he took care of that was to invent a whole lot of deans. We had had no deans until then—well, I guess the dean of the graduate school had been the only one— but he brought in deans of science, deans of engineering, etc., and started in that organization that’s developed a great deal since then. And that was done in the late l930s simply because he found the duties of running the Institute were too much for him. And this undoubtedly was partly the result of the growth of the Institute but partly the result of these outside things.
How did that affect the department? You described earlier that if you had a problem or if you were planning for physics, you would go over and talk with Compton...
That’s right, and of course that stopped. And from the personal point of view of the ease of running the department, things got harder.
Because you had to go through levels...
Had to go through levels, that’s right. Now, actually, we went through the dean of science, and the dean of science was George Harrison, who had been my executive officer in the physics department— or the equivalent of that. So that he moved up to being dean of science, and so this was a good contact. But nevertheless it was not so direct as it had been. In other words, in the last two or three years of the ‘30s, I would say, there was not much chance of personal contact with Compton.
Did this affect your budget problems?
No, I don’t think so. I think that we were just about in the same situation.
One thing we didn’t cover last time, as long as we’re backtracking for a minute, is the budget situation. Had you the requirement to submit a budget every year?
And did you then try to justify it? How well did you fare generally?
We fared pretty well. It was a period when things were growing relatively slowly. Of course, we were still in a Depression time, and the annual growth was small enough so that you could pretty much extrapolate from one year to the next and add a certain percentage on and hope that this would work, and it came out about that way. In other words, it wasn’t a case of greatly increased budgets.
You did have an increase in enrollments, though?
We had an increase in enrollments, in the number of students in physics and soon; so we added to our staff, and we could justify this because we had more students to teach. So we were growing all through this period. But it was clear enough that we had to grow to take care of our loads; so there was no great difficulty justifying the growth.
The Institute itself on a larger scale must have been committed to this growth.
It was; that’s right.
So this wasn’t any special argument that you were making.
No, I didn’t have to make a special argument.
And there were no special battles to get new laboratories or new large-scale apparatus?
Yes, there were some. We mentioned in the earlier interview about getting the cyclotron set up. There was one project that I forgot entirely to mention in the earlier interview that was quite an interesting one. I spoke of George Harrison a moment ago. Well, George Harrison, as you know, is a spectroscopist. He was interested then not only in the constructing of spectroscopic equipment but in using it for large-scale measurements of atomic spectra; and we had several people in the department who were analyzing the spectra and so on. Well, this was the period of the WPA, the Work Projects Administration. And Harrison got a project going under the WPA by which we hired high school students and people of that sort to do a lot of the simple work of reading plates and recording numbers and things of that sort. So that he had actually a $700,000 budget total over a several-year period from them, and we had quite a staff, and he produced a great deal of very useful information—turned out wavelength tables and so on, which were the best ones that we had at that particular period. So that was one of the various devices by which we kept research projects going, even though the present sources weren’t available.
And how did that take care of the internal department problems? This seems to me to be, as you describe it, an expansion. Did it also provide jobs for graduate students?
Well, we had jobs for graduate students, and can’t remember whether any of them were paid from this WPA fund or whether they were sort of helping to run the thing. But there were a number of graduate students in the spectroscopy effort that were being paid; so that we didn’t have any trouble finding money for them.
And as far as the effects of the budget pinch, which probably were felt in your first years when you came in... We talked about this a little bit, but think that probably around 1933 or so would have been the most difficult period.
That was the most difficult period.
And then things got better as far as funds were concerned?
From ‘35 on.
Well, that fills in a little bit about that. Other than these discussions that you had with Karl Compton regarding the possible use of physicists as consultants, nothing specific had jelled prior to the Radiation Laboratory. Is that right?
No one had been approached?
No one had been approached, not as far as I know.
And then you have described that the Applied Nuclear Physics meeting organized by Robley Evans provided a...
That happened to be a convenient time for talking about these things.
Did you know whether it was planned that this other more confidential meeting would be taking place, or did it just happen to jell at that time?
I think it happened to jell. I think that the conference had been planned first, and then it turned out that a number of the people who wanted to talk over the Radiation Lab and its organization were coming anyway, and they decided: “Well, why don’t we just do this on the side?”
And it was strictly an informal meeting...
Who would take the leading role in that...?
I wasn’t in on it enough to know.
Well, apparently DuBridge emerged 10 days later.
DuBridge emerged 10 days later.
As the director.
He might have been selected already.
He very likely was; I just don’t know the history of that. Rabi was certainly one of the people there, but I don’t remember who the others were.
Now, when the laboratory was set up, you indicated that it was Compton’s plan that the physics department shouldn’t unduly influence the laboratory; that it had to preserve its integrity
I guess it was a defensive feeling also about that. How was this done? It seems very difficult, because they were physically intruding, and whereas for years there had been no real expansion of building and so forth at that time— the physics department was two stories that was put on top of that and so on—, so how did you maintain this from your point of view, this kind of separation; and was it an artificial one?
I don’t think it was an artificial one. The people that came in for the Radiation Laboratory had very little to do with the physics department. We had to keep our teaching program going, and our faculty was not very much affected by it. I personally was doing research with the Radiation Lab and a few of the other physics people were but not very many. So that really they were pretty well separated. The laboratory space that the Radiation Lab used in these first days before they really had a building was separated enough so that... and of course there were guards and that sort of thing... so that there was very little intercourse. Actually some of the early Radiation Laboratory area was right down where we were a few minutes ago picking up this audio-visual equipment. The basement of that building was one of the areas where we had Radiation Lab space. But they were pretty well shut off from the rest of the Institute. And people who came in didn’t mingle too much with the rest of the Institute. We knew them, we saw them and so on; but they were pretty separate organizations.
The logistics of it must have been tremendous— to move those people here and to find housing and...
Oh, it was.
Was this handled in any way at all through the department...
No, they built up their business organization right from the beginning. DuBridge and Wheeler Loomis and a number of people recruited, and recruited the whole organization, so they didn’t have to make any use of what we had.
It must have been difficult, though, and impossible, I think, to keep from the larger MIT community the fact that there was a secret laboratory...
Oh, no, they knew that. This was obvious.
But presumably it was understood that it was a wartime project, and so there were no questions asked. Probably a lot of gossip and different rumors and so forth.
And then as the Rad Lab developed, you indicated that you were involved very soon, within weeks, with this question that Rabi brought you.
How did you respond to a question like that? You were approached because of your wisdom and knowledge and expertise, but how did you go about then to figure out the theory of a magnetron? Was there much literature to consult?
None at all. They just told me what it looked like, what voltages you put on, what magnetic fields you put on, what currents you put in.
And what it was supposed to do.
What it was supposed to do. So I began to look at this from the points of view of Maxwell’s equation as to what would happen inside there and the point of view of space charge and things of that sort, actually using very similar principles to solve it that I’d already been doing in solving problems in atomic structure. And it didn’t take very long to figure out how it was working. As a matter of fact, it was less than a month after I started, I think, that I had a report which didn’t really have to be changed very much. It indicated the general method of operations, things of that sort. There was a great deal more to do, but anyway I looked at it from first principles without trying to get information from anybody else, because I was convinced that nobody knew very much about it.
Well, who else would have or could have come close to knowing? It seems to me that people in England could.
Well, they were working on it, but right at the beginning we didn’t have much interchange with them. They simply produced the description of the thing and the information we needed and let us go to it. Later I found, a couple of years later, or a year later anyway, that Hartree, who was an atomic structure man in England, was working on the same thing— along the same lines. We compared notes.
I had the impression that perhaps the theory was known before. So actually this was experimental.
It was an experimental thing. They knew it worked. People had known about the existence of much simpler magnetrons a number of years earlier. They’d been using very simple magnetrons, for example, at the University of Michigan to generate very short infra-red radiation. But the design that really made the thing work— the so-called multi-cavity magnetron—was an English invention. And it was more of an invention than anything else. They tried out different structures and found out that this particular one would turn out quite a lot of power. They had some very good people working on it, Oliphant, the nuclear man, and Randall and a number of others were working on the magnetron, but none of them at the time had figured out how it worked. And therefore they hadn’t been able to figure out how to design them, what were the design parameters you ought to use, and things of that kind. Well, as say, later Hartree got into it. Later also Brillouin got into it. There were a number of very good physicists who eventually were doing it. But at the beginning there was very little interchange between them. That was part of the policy; we weren’t supposed to let any secrets out.
That clarifies something for me, because I had the impression that this was because of the secrecy—that you had to do it all over again, and you demonstrate that it wasn’t that.
No. What I was doing had not been done before. What Hartree was doing had not been done before but he was doing what I was doing. We were very glad when we could compare. I had made a mistake of a factor of 2. He couldn’t check me by a factor of 2, and eventually his factor was right and mine was wrong. It didn’t make any serious change, but in the numerical things it did have a slight effect. But we were doing the same things at the same time and closely enough so that we could check our equations.
You were doing this as a sort of extra—curricular activity I gather.
That’s right, cut down my teaching activities some so as to have time for it.
For that month you mean.
Oh, for longer than that. No, once the Radiation Laboratory started, was in the thing right along. So I almost immediately cut down my teaching, continued running the department; but then, as you know, a year after that went down to Bell Labs so that then I turned over the department to somebody else to run. And from that time on until the end of the war I didn’t do any active work on department administration or teaching.
What was the nature of your duties in the Radiation Laboratory after this initial month? Were you working on similar problems?
These same things, carrying on with these same things first. They didn’t give me duties. I looked around to see what I could do, and it was very clear to me that all of the people there were looking at the microwave problem in a very over-simplified way from the point of view of thinking they were like ordinary lumped electric circuits—inductances and capacitances and things—whereas it was obvious that they were really problems relating to solutions of Maxwell’s equations in cavities. Well, I think the person who realized that first was Ed Condon. Ed Condon wrote a very nice review article on the subject of microwaves early in the war that was very useful and helped quite a good deal. For example, W. W. (Bill) Hanson, who was around a good deal, was very conscious of how that was the right point of view. But there had been no real treatment of the microwave problems from that point of view. I decided it was worth while to try to teach some of these people in the Radiation Laboratory how it worked. So I sat down and spent quite a good deal of the time trying to straighten these things out, and, as a result of it, wrote the book, Microwave Transmission, which I got out quite early in the war, trying to put together as many things as I thought would help these physicists. So I spent quite a good deal of time doing that.
It interests me that Condon published a review article, you published a book; and yet the purpose of it, of course, that motivated both of you was the production of a secret war device.
That’s right. But there were obviously enough general principles there so that this could be put out as an unsecret publication, as just a contribution to science.
I see. There was no feeling then that if people weren’t already organized and working on this, that this would help them.
No. You see, there had been work on microwaves at MIT before. Barrow and Stratton and Chu and so on had quite a program, and that’s one of the reasons why the Radiation Laboratory came here. So these things were not strange to MIT at all, although I hadn’t been personally working on it.
And all of your other problems were sort of put on the shelf.
They were sort of put on the shelf. It was obviously a big problem to keep the department going, and I kept my hand on it even though I did have various people—Bert Warren and others—who were acting heads for periods. But we had large amounts of teaching to be done, and there were some wartime courses and things of that sort that had to get taught—and a great many sections of elementary physics and so on—with a greatly diminished staff because lots of other people went into other kinds of war work. We had more physics staff members who weren’t here than who were here. So we had to improvise, bring people in, etc. Nevertheless we taught the main courses every year, every term during the war, and I had to do quite a good deal to keep that running even though I wasn’t doing the whole administrative work at the time. [short pause in recording]
I’d been asking about the effect of the war. I’d like to ask how you were affected by the draft. Did you lose at any stage many staff, and how did this affect the physics department?
Very few, very few staff members. They were almost all doing war work of one type or another and were not drafted.
Was there some difficulty, though, before they could get deferments?
I don’t remember any serious problems. I think that they got into war work so fast that their deferments were taken care of. And the ones that were left on doing the teaching mostly were old enough so they weren’t liable to be drafted and so on. But I hardly recall any cases that we had of real problems on the draft.
I think something came up later—‘43 or ‘44, perhaps with the Radiation Lab that there were a number of people in this very precarious position because the draft regulations were uncertain.
Well, think they were somewhat precarious. We had a draft office at MIT, and they had to work on these people and so on. But I don’t believe that we had anyone going into the Army who really had been doing physics and whom we needed.
How about students?
Some students were going in, but there again a great many of the more advanced students just started in working for Radiation Lab or one thing or another of that sort. In other words, the number of graduate students fell off a good deal; and the ones that were left were mostly doing enough instructing and teaching and so on, so that they were pretty essential, and we could make out good cases for them.
You made a point in your history of the department about the criticism of the draft policies but not in the way we would think of it—in terms of people being drafted— but the fact that they did go into the Radiation Lab and other places, interrupting their careers. I didn’t know what you were implying there.
I didn’t remember that I had made such remarks.
It seems to me as if you were saying that perhaps they should have been allowed to finish their degrees, because the problem that you were concerned with at the end of the war was the fact that these people were then stranded; that they had, in fact, interrupted their graduate careers, and there was considerable difficulty in your mind as to whether they would actually get back to it unless special efforts were made.
I think that was true. But I don’t think that very many people whose studies were interrupted had any permanent harm as a result of it. They got back, and they did very good work after the war, finishing up for their degrees and so on. We made real efforts at the end of the war to make places available to the people who had interrupted their graduate work and wanted to finish up with their degree, and yet got married or something and had to have more money than they had before. We took care of them. But they did it outright.
There was something specific. Oh, here. “Gloomy predictions were being made about the deficiency in training physicists that would result from the unwise draft policies of the country during the war. These policies, as a matter of fact, had resulted not so much in potential physics students, at least on a graduate level, being drafted into the armed services as in their joining the Radiation Laboratory and similar organizations and devoting their time to physical research. They, in other words, formed this generation of physicists which were or threatened to become a lost generation.” And then there’s your point about their being accepted immediately into well-paying positions in industry, which might be nice for them financially, but then they would never finish their graduate work, and they would not have the breadth that they would need for a good physics group.
Yes. Well, I think when say that there was a worry I think that there was, but don’t think that we here were particularly worried about it. We felt that this was something that could be handled all right, but we wanted to take steps to see to it that people who did want to go back and finish their graduate work could do it.
But was getting at the unwise draft policies.
If I said that, I didn’t really mean to indicate it, because I don’t think that they were particularly unwise. I thought that they were handled pretty well.
I see. I was just wondering what the alternative would be. It seems to me that one alternative would be to let them finish their work at the university, but then they wouldn’t be available for the Laboratory.
No. No, I think that they made out pretty well with a difficult situation. We had a certain number of students who were graduate students at the time of the beginning of the war and went into Radiation Lab and other laboratories around here and who continued on as graduate students at the same time and took their degrees, either with theses in that area or other theses. For example, George Vineyard, who is at Brookhaven Laboratory, was in that situation. He was doing his graduate work with me, and he did a thesis on magnetrons— a classified thesis, but he got his degree all right.
And eventually it was released?
I’m curious about the atmosphere in the Laboratory. You say it’s been referred to as “the miracle of the children,” and you refer to the style of organization, which was rather loose even though it kept on getting bigger and bigger, because the nature of the activities were such and perhaps the principles of organization had been worked out, so that it would have this great flexibility. You would have troubleshooters—that is, Slater going around working on theoretical problems and someone else just sticking his nose into something else to see how he can expedite things. I know there have been official histories of the Laboratory, Baxter’s history of the OSRD touches on the Laboratory. But I would be interested in your description of the atmosphere as you perceived it— what kind of a working situation, what kind of a day-to-day give and take did you see there? Was it any different then?
My impression was that it was very good. I didn’t actually sit in the Laboratory and work very much. I was mostly doing figuring and calculations, and that I could do at home or do in my ordinary office. Nobody knew what I was doing, and there was no need to be in there. There was a period later after that first year when I was having an office in one of the new buildings— the one right over there, as a matter of fact— which was built as a building for the Radiation Laboratory. So I saw something of the way things were on the inside. But I wasn’t in with the boys, so to speak, nearly as much as if I had come from outside. But I had the impression that it was well run—very good morale and so on. I was on the coordination committee or steering committee or something or other and went to the meetings of that and saw the people we’re talking about. But I think that this was the result of two things. One was the fact that they had exceedingly good people running it—in other words, Lee DuBridge, Wheeler Loomis, the two people at the top— and the other people who were in high positions there, such as Rabi and a number of others, were exceedingly able people, and everybody realized it, and very sensible in organization as well as in science. And the other was that they managed to keep the military out of it much mote thoroughly than was done at the Manhattan Project. In other words, we were not dominated by the military people all the time. The military people who were around were helpful rather than an incubus, so to speak. So there wasn’t any feeling of hostility to the military service. On the other hand, I would say there was just a very good feeling all around. It was a well run and happily run laboratory.
And a young one, I gather.
And a young one. That’s right.
Which would contribute.
Which contributed. There were a great many people of about the same age, just out of graduate school.
Were they distributed pretty well throughout Cambridge in terms of housing?
I imagine in the wartime situation they just had to do the best they could.
They had to do the best they could. There was no housing for them.
So it’s not as if they were in a specific camp, like in Los Alamos, for example, which might have contributed to the morale.
By 1943 you went to Bell Labs— I think it was in June. Now, let me ask one question.
Let’s see: I had been at Bell Labs some before that. I was there and then there again. The first time at Bell Labs was in December of ‘41, as I remember, just after Pearl Harbor. I went there for about a year and then came back. was working then with Fisk and the others in the magnetron group at Bell; so that (I felt that I knew Fisk very well; he got his degree here and so on; I was very impressed with what he was doing) felt that I really could make more contribution there than could here where I wasn’t in the magnetron group at all. I was just doing this business of writing up reports and things like that. So I went down there, and was actually working in the lab there as well as doing theoretical work then came back here for a while. And then they wanted me...I don’t remember the exact chronology, but I know that in the spring of ‘43 I was invited to go to England for three or four months to go through the magnetron work there and make liaison. And that was handled, believe, through the Radiation Lab; and then after I came back from there I went back to Bell again and was there in a more permanent (semi-permanent) position than had been earlier and was there for another year or so after that. So there were two separate times that I was there but the net result was that I was at Bell more than was at MIT.
And you felt that the magnetron work that you could do would be more effective at Bell,
I did. And I felt this partly because the people in the magnetron group there at Bell were an exceedingly able group again. Fisk, you see, has gone on to be president of Bell Labs and so on. The people that were there were people of the very highest quality. Whereas the magnetron people here at the Radiation Laboratory were very good, but I don’t think that they were as outstanding.
You felt that you could be more productive.
I felt that I could be more productive and do more good with them.
And then you moved your family?
No, they stayed here.
And how long a time were you away?
A considerable time.
It must have been a bit of a hardship.
It was a bit of a hardship. On the other hand, I perhaps should mention that at the end of the war I had a divorce. This was sort of working its way up during that period, so that it probably was just as well to have a little cooling off period when I was away some.
I see. And the official link with Bell was from about June of ‘43 to December of ‘45. Is that right?
I believe that’s right. But I had had almost another year before that in ‘42.
What was the link then between the magnetron group at Bell and the one at the Radiation Laboratory here? Was there a pretty close tie-in?
Oh, yes, very close.
It wasn’t a question of them being an independent group or duplicating it or working on the same problem deliberately, but rather they had a specific piece of the problem that they were attacking.
You weren’t in any way duplicating the work that the magnetron people were doing here.
This was your first experience, though, in an industrial laboratory type of an environment. Was there any difference from your point of view compared with your experience at MIT in the department?
Well, of course, as compared to experience in a department that was teaching there was a good deal of difference. But as compared to the Radiation Laboratory, between that and Bell there was also a difference, and I got the impression that the people at Bell knew a good deal more what they were doing than the people at the Radiation Lab. They had been at it longer, had more experience and so on. So that I, on the whole, liked it very much at Bell.
That refers to the quality of the people. I should ask: is this Bell in New York?
Bell in New York.
I have a tendency to think of...
Murray Hill didn’t exist then. This was down on West Street.
The old building—right. And so that’s not too much of a difference in environment, because I think that building had a sort of MIT type of structure.
And in a large area which is very similar in terms of its geography and physical features similar to this one, because, as a matter of fact, you’re near the water.
The book was 1942—this was sort of in between the periods?
That’s right. As a matter of fact, I finished that book during this first period when I was down at Bell— as well as working on other things. I remember reading proof on it and so on in New York and not in Boston.
Were others at Bell on loan from universities:, or did it mainly consist of...?
Oh, yes, quite a good many. The closest university relations were with Columbia. You see, Columbia University had its radiation laboratory project. Rabi had been very much interested in getting these things going. And Columbia was lending a number of people to Bell; so that the group, particularly in the second period when I was at Bell, had about as many Columbia people as it did Bell people, including some very able people.
But it wasn’t the kind of set—up which was attracting from all over the country?
No, they didn’t try to do that, but they did want to keep the connections with this Columbia radiation lab. So I saw a great deal of them.
But Rabi was up here?
Rabi was here, but he got these things going in New York.
Who from the Columbia physics group was involved?
Let’s see if I can remember. Arnold Nordsieck was one and Kellogg, I believe. I don’t remember the names of all of them too well. There were others in other parts of Bell, and there were people who were working at Columbia that we saw a great deal of Kusch and various others were in on the project.
The people who were doing the nuclear work were probably off with one phase or another of the Manhattan Project— either Columbia or Chicago or Los Alamos: Dunning was active, and when did Pegram die? I guess it was in the post-war period.
Pegram was still active then. No, this was, of course, an entirely different enterprise, but they did quite a good deal of microwave work, too.
This is the time to ask about another question which goes back into the ‘30s as well, and that is links with other universities under peacetime circumstances. We didn’t explore that much. But I wondered if you had participated in the Michigan summer schools at all.
No, I never did. Well, that isn’t quite true. I did a three-week lecture period there one summer, but that’s all. And that, I believe, was right after the war and not before. I wasn’t there in the period before the war except to visit once or twice. I knew the people; I had been there; but I hadn’t spent any time there.
Did you get the impression on the total American physics scene that that was pretty much of a focal point during the summer?
Very much so. I think it was. I think it was an extremely useful thing.
I’ve heard, of course, a great deal to that effect. I was curious whether at MIT, which was a center in its own right, did you also feel this?
Oh, no, we appreciated this very much.
There’s one other thing similar to that, and those were the Washington conferences on theoretical physics organized by Gamow and Teller with the help of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. These I guess started in the late ‘30s.
I remember that they did. I was at several of those. They were very useful things.
Do you recall particular circumstances?
Not too much. I’m a little vague about it. I don’t think I gave any talks or anything like that, but I found they were interesting to go to.
Did they ever get involved with any of the subjects of your research? It seems to me that I recall they talked of energy production and stars, they talked of astro—physics, they talked of... There were some on nuclear physics, but I don’t know of any on solid-state problems.
Not much. And actually, as I say, I was pretty much on the outskirts of those. As I remember it, those things came just before the Washington Physical Society meetings, something of that sort, and I would take in perhaps a day of it before the Physical Society something of that kind—but not any more than that. But I saw the people. I knew the people and so on.
Were there any other summer schools or special conferences other than the American Physical Society meetings that you would go to during the ‘30s that you recall as being especially important?
I’m trying to think whether any of the older Gordon conferences, the ones down in Baltimore, were going in that period. I think they were. The ones that are now in New Hampshire started in the Baltimore area, and I went to several of those. Those were applications of chemistry and mathematics and that kind of thing. Debye and various people were running such conferences. And my recollection is that some of those were before the war.
I know very little about those.
Those were, and continue to be, very useful conferences. Of course, the ones in New Hampshire are the outgrowths of those.
In I guess 1936 the Harvard tercentenary took place. Did you participate in that?
Only as an observer. Being a graduate of the place I was invited as everybody else was. And when they had the exercises outdoors, I sat there and everybody got rained on. This was the most striking feature of the tercentenary. There was a great rain, and everybody was sitting out in the yard, and Mr. Conant ran a very fancy fireworks exhibit on the Charles River. Those were the two most striking things— nothing very highbrow or important. But anyway I was there, but I didn’t do anything.
There were some scientific sessions, though.
There were scientific sessions, yes. But I didn’t feel they were particularly vital.
guess there were a lot of people invited foreign visitors and so forth.
That’s right, but few of them in the field I was interested in.
I have the proceedings of that meeting.
Yes. Well, my recollections, as say, are rather frivolous and not very scientific.
It’s interesting to get that dimension. While we’re on this, one other question: on the 1933 Chicago American Physical Society meeting, which we were discussing before, where you were talking about it as being symbolic of the change that had occurred in American physics. It would be good, I think, if you would like to, to go into a little bit more detail on the meeting itself. It seems to me that if it stood out so much in your recollection that you must have some more to say on it.
I don’t really think so. It was one out of many meetings. I used it in that paper just because it seemed like a date that one could use to make a point, but there were many other Physical Society meetings that I went to which were equally interesting. And I went to meetings in Europe, too. There were a number of meetings in l934 in England which I went to, believe said something about that before.
Bohr was at that ‘33 meeting. Had you seen him since your stretch (I use that term advisedly) in Copenhagen in the early ‘30s?
I just can’t remember whether I’d seen him in the meantime or not.
You had been back to Europe once.
I had been back to Europe once in 1929, and I don’t believe that I saw Bohr on that trip. I saw many people, but I don’t remember having seen Bohr then.
Did you talk with him? Did you see him at the ‘33 meeting?
Not very much.
He was probably busy.
I guess that was also the summer that he was at the Michigan summer school.
I believe he was.
And these meetings occurred in June, and the summer school must have started Just at the end of that.
Yes. I wouldn’t be at all sure that Bohr did not stop in here at MIT on his way to or from. I remember having a conversation with Bohr in my office at MIT in that general period, so it might well have been in connection with that trip.
I guess I’m interested in it because in this article that I’ve just completed I’ve dealt with the exposition itself to make some general points about technology and...
I think most of us felt that it was pretty silly to try to run a scientific meeting in connection with an exposition. We did our best to have a meeting, but the only sessions that were good were the ones at the University and not out at the exposition.
Those were outdoor sessions, weren’t they, at the exposition?
No, they weren’t. At least the one where Bohr talked, which I mentioned in something that I wrote, was inside.
That was the one where there was the difficulty with the microphone?
Yes. He had more trouble than we’re having today.
Even without it he had difficulty.
Yes. Well, most of that session was at the University, and was a regular Physical Society meeting, so it had nothing directly to do with the exposition, except they chose to have the meeting there.
This is a little digression, but I thought I’d go into that. During the war period as you indicated in your history of the department, the planning for the post-war development of the department took place.
Was Compton involved in any of those discussions?
Compton was involved but not in a very active way. Most of it went on between us in the department, and we could report things to Compton, and he was favorable and glad we were doing it. But he wasn’t making very many suggestions about it. This was mostly just an outgrowth of our talking. Julius Stratton was a good deal in on it and Morse and so on, a number of us in the department thinking about how we could work things out.
I asked about Compton, because I wondered if he expressed himself in terms of his plans for the post-war science in general, since he had been at the top during the war...
He expressed himself to me only to the extent that we were trying to work out these ideas for enlarging the department and getting a lot more nuclear physics going and bringing in a lot of able young people and so on. And he was very enthusiastic about it, and he backed us up, and he helped us a good deal with it. So he thought that we were on the right track. But he in almost every case took our suggestions and just helped us carry them out.
Of course, I know it’s difficult, but did you know what his expectations were in terms of large-scale government support of science and so forth?
Well, we were obviously hoping for it. It was very clear that the money that had gone into the Radiation Lab and the Manhattan Project and so on had accomplished a great deal. It was obvious that these things couldn’t be done without money and pretty obvious that the government didn’t want to drop them flat. So that both Compton and Bush were very much in favor of continuing large-scale government support.
But there was no overall plan that emerged?
I don’t think that there was. I think that each separate thing was played by itself, but they all sort of fitted into a general picture.
I was tremendously impressed by the extent of the planning done at MIT and the sense of timing. First of all, systematically saying what role should the Institute play and what should the scale of the operation be, and then saying in what areas should the Institute specialize and for what reasons, and then how do you get over some of the transition problems. It was a very systematic thing. I don’t know anywhere else where this was done. I know there was a great deal of scheming and planning going on all over. But it seems to me that to move on this large scale on August 15th, 1945, with these announcements of the Research Associates, which would allow people to complete their graduate work, was a tremendous bit of planning.
Well, don’t like to toot my own horn, but I must say I think did most of it myself. In other words, I thought a great deal about these things and talked people into them and they went through.
They had a tremendous response.
The two fields that you selected to pursue and stress were the microwave electronics field, which was the natural consequence of the pre-war strength and then the wartime developments here: and the development of nuclear physics, which was also obvious in terms of its future developments but was relatively weak here in the sense of its being incomplete, although there were elements of it here, There are a couple of things about the electronics. Stratton was in the electrical engineering department— is that right?
Stratton had been in the electrical engineering department before I came to the Institute. His original training was in... I was going to say it was in electrical engineering, but it was not. His degree was in Switzerland in physics, but he went into electrical engineering at MIT. But he transferred into physics almost as soon as I came to MIT. He decided that his interests were fundamentally in physics, that it was not a very successful thing to try to divide one’s time between two departments; and so he asked to be transferred to physics. So he was in physics.
But the link then of the post-war period—the decision was then made to link it with electrical engineering.
This was largely because he felt that in what ought to be done the impetus come from physics. And in the first year or two of the first laboratory in electronics it was largely physics, but we felt this was a field that by rights belongs in electrical engineering, and we would do everything we could to see to it that it built up the electrical engineering side. And we thought it probably would have less interest in physics as it got more applied, and I think that is just the way it has developed.
The program for that was quite clear, and it interests me to see how the smooth transition from the Radiation Laboratory to the Research Laboratory of Electronics came about. Did you feel that there would be some criticism perhaps, that MIT was gaining from the wartime effort?
Oh, I think we discounted that. Of course there would be some criticism. But it was such an obvious thing to do. It was clear that if we didn’t do it nobody else would. All the equipment, all the knowledge and so on, would just essentially get lost. I didn’t see how there could be any proper criticism, and I don’t think there was very much.
was saying this because of the care taken during the war to maintain the separation.
I know. No, after all, the scale on which we continued it was so small compared to what had been going on before, that it was mostly just rescuing the pieces, so to speak. And the people in charge of the Radiation Laboratory felt that this was a fine thing. They were really worried to see this great going operation just die completely— DuBridge and the rest of them. So think that they were quite happy that we worked it out this way.
It took some planning. There was great cooperation. I think it was a very clever institutional form to transfer certain activities to a basic research division of the Radiation Laboratory.
Yes. We figured that was the best way to do it with the best continuity.
You described it rather well.
remember put in enough so that one could figure out how it was done.
I don’t have too many questions on that. I just realized that it apparently went very smoothly.
I guess the thing that lubricated it, too, was the availability of money, and this came from two sources this MIT revolving fund. There were Institute funds, MIT funds, but was it as easy as all that to convince the Institute to provide a rather large sum of money as a general commitment for this new kind of research associate program?
My recollection is that that came from some grant that had been made by somebody for developing research or something. I would want to check on this, but I have a feeling that maybe this came from Mr. Sloan. I’m not sure. They had this, Compton had the use of it, and he felt this would be a sensible way to use it. But my recollection is not very good on that. We should check it with real data.
That would have been an interesting point. Would it have been a grant made before the war which was unexpended, or was it a new one?
I just don’t remember.
It’s an important issue. Without that, you couldn’t have had those notices out on August 15th, for example.
That’s right. We essentially put this up to Compton and said: “We’ve got to have underwriting on it,” and he knew where he could get the money. It was there somewhere where he could lay his hands on it. And so he was the one that produced that.
And then you were able to replace those funds as government funds became available.
That’s right. Underwriting rather than really paying for things.
I guess that made the important difference. Other universities were not able to do that, to have this kind of cushion for the transition period.
Well, maybe they hadn’t tried hard enough. Maybe if they had a more favorable administration and people trying to make plans, they could have worked it.
But it certainly made a difference here.
It certainly did.
How did the ONR support come about? In any account I’ve ever heard of it, it just—well,—appears that ONR becomes interested, the Office of Naval Research becomes interested, makes a policy decision somewhere along the line that it will support the area of nuclear studies or what emerges as particle and high-energy physics. But I don’t know if you know the background of that, it would be interesting to get some more.
I don’t know it very well. I know that they had a very intelligent group of people running the office of Naval Research—Waterman, Piore and a number of people who made names for themselves later in other directions. I wasn’t very close to the organization of that—not enough to know who really started the thing. I suspect that some of the impetus may have come from the close personal friendship between Compton and Waterman. They had been friends for many, many years. But they got in a group of extremely intelligent people and managed to put their thoughts across, and that was the leading organization that took over science after the OSRD stopped. Of course, there was a lot of misgiving about closing down the OSRD. There were many people who felt that it was a mistake; that something like that should have continued. But it did close down, and the government did their best to fill in the gap, and part of that was the kind of thing they did for us with direct grants to MIT’s Radiation Lab, and part was support to the ONR.
It certainly appeared on the scene at the right time.
That’s right. So they didn’t leave a real break in there. No, the young people at present who are all against the Defense Department supporting fundamental science and so on just don’t know the situation that was existing then, because this was extremely good from the point of view of fundamental science. I would say there were no drawbacks at all.
What other alternatives would there have been in the postwar world?
I don’t think there were any alternatives that could have been carried through so easily.
Well, the big sources in the pre-war period were private foundations.
Yes, but they were on a much smaller scale. The ONR was able to do things on a scale more like what was happening in wartime, and they had sense enough to realize that the foundation of military research is good science and that they were the ones that could help support the good science.
In the other laboratory, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the support came from a consortium, I guess, of several groups.
That’s right. Several different groups in the Defense Department put money together. And, as I remember it, this was operated (I guess still is operated) on a Signal Corps contract. The Signal Corps was the operating agency. But several different branches of Defense put money into it.
How was that handled? Were you involved in all of the negotiations?
I wasn’t involved at all in the negotiations on that.
Who from MIT was? It seems to me there are two things. One is the Radiation Laboratory and its phasing out. And then the other one is the new desire for a Research Laboratory of Electronics.
So there would be at least two parties involved in addition to the service agencies.
Yes. Well, I had nothing whatever to do with phasing out the Radiation Laboratory. But as far as the other is concerned, my recollection is that Bush carried the ball pretty much, probably Bush and Killian, as well as Compton. And this thing we were given to understand was that the decision to put quite a lot of money into it came directly from Harry Truman; that he felt, as we did, that it would be a disaster to lose all that impetus, and that this would make sense. So that I think we had help directly from him. Stratton, of course, was already in the thing. Stratton was in a very good position in Washington. He knew the right people. He could help out, too. Have you talked with Stratton at all about the history of these things?
You ought to, because Stratton is an exceedingly knowledgeable man, and he knows the history of MIT as few people do. See, he was here ten years or more before I was, and he knows, for example, the period of the l920s very well. No, I think that he is the most valuable single person that you could talk to about the history of MIT. And then he’s gone on with so much higher things. He was president of MIT, and now he’s chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation and so on. But I think you would find that he would be glad to talk, and I think you would be tremendously impressed. He’s a very impressive man.
I’d like to.
I think you should. And he’s right in New York, so you would probably find it very easy.
I don’t know if I’ll have an opportunity before I leave, but I’ll have to think about that.
He was the real moving spirit in getting the Electronics Laboratory going. I think that he and I and Al Hill (?) and a few others sort of planned it, and George Harvey, between us. But Stratton really carried the ball.
I think that it’s a tremendously important thing to get the history of that immediate post-war transition, because the pros and cons of these debates today— both sides seem to ignore the circumstances of the situation.
And there are already so many assumptions that people make about how these things ca about. And much of this is a revelation to me, although I had a feeling for much of it. But there’s very little documentation. What you see are Just changes of slope on funding curves, with no explanations about why and how. You mentioned in your history that once these decisions were made to start the Research Laboratory for Electronics and the Nuclear Physics...What’s the proper word— nuclear structure and...? Nuclear science...
What did we call that? Laboratory of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering when we started the thing.
And these were accompanied by an acoustics laboratory and a spectroscopy laboratory.
Yes. That was the outgrowth of what Harrison had had before the war.
And then after the initial work was established, the initial ideas were established, you were successful in building up a senior and junior staff and attracting graduate students and this innovation of the research associateships helped very much.
It did. Of course, this wasn’t a complete innovation, but we simply were pushing it harder than we had before the war. We’d had such things before.
Right. The work then begins to jell. And one of the points you mentioned is that you began to get contracts then for work from various government agencies.
But could it have been foreseen, when you were doing this planning before the war was actually over? It seems to me that the basis of the planning was to keep things intact to build good work at MIT and that perhaps there would be increased government support later. But had you thought of the form of the support, whether it would come that way?
I don’t think we had, because I don’t think we could see anymore than anyone else could just how it was going to work out. I think we all felt that something would have to take the place of the OSRD and that we would take advantage of it when it came along, whatever the mechanism was; and the government felt that they would do what they could to continue scientific research being subsidized, and this is the way it worked out.
Then when the contracts did come in, did this lead to an expansion of the laboratories, or a maintenance of the size that you had?
Well, I would say an expansion, because of course when we started these things, we were just beginning to recruit staff, and they expanded up to a large size.
But it was still within the limits that you had originally planned.
It was still within those limits. Now, of course, later things expanded up beyond those limits. The Lincoln Laboratory was an outgrowth of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and this was nothing that I had anything to do with, but I don’t think the Lincoln Laboratory could have been started if we hadn’t had the Electronics Laboratory as the base for it. Well, that obviously led to a great deal more money being thrown in, and at that point MIT decided that the thing was getting too big to have as part of the campus organization and put it out in the country and made a separate organization of it. Similarly in another area the development of the Instrumentation Laboratory. This is nothing we had anything to do with except we knew Stark Draper very well, but that had to be set up as a separate thing.
The peeling off of these additional laboratories in retrospect seems to be a way of living with your original plan. Was it?
I think so, yes. No, I know when I was thinking about these things back in the wartime period or even before, it seemed to me that an institution in MIT’s position could well be sort of a focus of a lot of semi—industrial activities around the outsides. And the way we went about it seemed like a sensible way to lead to this, and it did. Now, of course, the students don’t like the idea, but nevertheless the thing worked its way out.
There’s some similarity in that to the way you organized the department in the ‘30s, which I characterize as a sort of a federation with a number of different laboratories and groups working.
Oh, very much so. And I felt that the only possible way to organize a department as large as we had, with as much laboratory work going on and all the organization connected with it, was to do it in a federated kind of way—in other words, by setting up the Research Laboratory of Electronics and these other interdepartmental things, we managed to push a great deal of the organizational headaches and the business activities and so on on to those laboratories rather than having to handle them directly through the physics department. I didn’t have a large organization in the physics department. I didn’t think that we should. And, of course, these things have continued. Now, don’t forget that the history of the department stops at 1951. Here we are sitting in the Center for Material Science and Engineering. This was another of my projects after the time that report was written. Here we’ve got some more central facilities and that kind of thing, which have done a great deal in pulling together not just what goes on in physics but what goes on in a great many departments around the Institute; so that’s a whole story which I haven’t written up anywhere.
Maybe we should talk about that.
But which I thought should interest you.
Let me ask a question before we do that on this concept of letting the individual laboratories worry about their budgets and so forth and their administrative work. Is there a danger then that they may swallow up the parent organization if they happen to be in a field which is very heavily supported?
This could happen. I don’t think it has happened here. I think there has been enough of them and enough balance so that they haven’t done this. But I think that there has been a real danger and is a real danger in the particular situation we have at MIT of the nuclear thing swallowing up the rest of the physics department. This, I feel, is a place where things have gone badly in the last few years in the physics department. I think the nuclear branch has grown too big. And I think if I had stayed on in charge of the department I would have kept a better balance than has been done by the people who’ve come along since then.
Is their growth a result of money being available in that area and a response to the availability of funds in that area as compared to restrictions in other areas?
Partly, and partly an interest, on the part of people running the department, in that field and appointing staff in that direction rather than in other fields. In other words, when I left the department, I felt that balance was being lost and that the best way to keep a reasonable amount of work going on in the solid-state area was to federate with other departments of the Institute, which is why I started working and other people started working, too, on this Materials center.
One way of getting into that is to ask questions regarding your assessment in the history you wrote, which was in the late ‘40s, where you felt that the future looked fine because of the approach that had been taken in the planning for the post—war period was beginning to pay off and would, You saw the need for the new building. And I want to ask when that came about. And the other point you made was you needed “peace and quiet.” Now, this suggests that after only a few post-war years that the scale of the enterprise had changed so much—the fact that there were so many new large laboratories starting with so many sources of funding— and implies to me a great deal of paperwork, bureaucracy and so forth...Is that what you were referring to when you said “lack of peace and quiet?” or was it something...?
I think it was...
Of course, it was a troubled time.
It was a troubled time, yes. In other words, I was trying to do a great many things, and I didn’t have too much time for any of them.
That’s a statement that you wouldn’t have made in the early ‘30s, gather.
No, probably not. Things had developed very much busier than they used to be.
Why was the department history written at that time?
It was written for the following reason though it was never used. But some kind of formal request came around from the president’s office for documentation as a help in their writing up the history of the Institute for the last few years. So I wrote it and sent it to them, and they never used it.
Was anything ever published?
Nothing was ever published. I never even had an acknowledgement from the president’s office that they had received it. So I just thought I’d keep it and it would come in very useful at some future time.
I’m a believer in writing things down like this every so often. Even If you don’t use them at the time, they come in handy eventually.
It also helps you to understand better what you have learned. I guess you’ve done this with review articles and books, too.
I’ve done that that way, too. And in connection with the Materials Center, which I spoke about, I wrote little reports on that as it developed. We’ve done similar things in our Solid—State and Molecular Theory Group. There’s quite a history about how that thing grew up, which I will write down some day.
Well, maybe we could talk about that. Do you think that this might be an appropriate time?
It could well be. I have a feeling that you’re sort of working on the things for which you have some documentation already.
Well, I’d like to go into a few more of those your career. But let’s put this as something we’ll pick up today. (I think we’ll have time) as sort of bringing your department history up to date, even if it’s only in outline form. One other general question I wanted to ask about that immediate post-war period was the general atmosphere of the U.S. and internationally: the changes that you perceived were taking place. You talked specifically about the microenvironment here. It seems to me that you got around then a great deal more than you did earlier on the linear accelerator work, which I’d like to discuss In detail. You visited a number of institutions. And then in ‘48, for example, as vice—president of IUPAP, you reported on...
I went to a lot of IUPAP meetings.
And perhaps, first domestically, I can ask you about the atmosphere, how you would characterize the physics activity and. the pace and the environment in those immediate post—war years. Would you say they were pretty similar to what was going on here?
Oh, I think they were. No, I think the same sort of thing was going on everywhere. Of course, the closest parallel in a way to the MIT development was the Chicago development. We looked at their institutes and so on with much interest, in many respects feeling that we were doing it better here than they were doing it there, with a lot less friction, but they had the same desire to build up many different departments and separate laboratories—their institutes in different fields. And many other places were doing similar things.
Did Berkeley change very much?
In size certainly, but they didn’t go on this institute basis. They didn’t have separate laboratories.
Oh, my, the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley or (Lawrence’s Laboratory) I remember was the biggest thing in the country at that time.
That’s precisely what I meant it had existed before and merely expanded.
It expanded greatly. But that made much more difficulty from the point of view of federation or anything than anything we had here. No, there was, and I think still is, a great deal of that feeling in Berkeley between the department which had all the chores and teaching and so on and the Radiation Laboratory, which has all the privileges. I felt that very much when I talked with Berkeley people.
I was getting at that point— that they did not start separate institutes and diversify. It merely was the large—scale growth of the Radiation Laboratory.
In other words, at Chicago you had the Institute of Metals; you had the Fermi institute; and here you had the RLE and nuclear science laboratory. Whereas in Berkeley, as far as I know (I don’t know the full history of it), it seems that the expansion was in the Lawrence “radiation laboratory.”
It was. That’s right.
Whereas here it was more diversified, and some new institutions were established.
On the European scene…You reported in your Physics Today article that—contrary to views that Americans might have of the. U.S. being so far advanced and Europe being so far behind as a result of the war—the European physics activity seemed to be very healthy and thriving.
That’s right. I think they were.
Are there any particular places in the immediate post—war period that seemed to be making the kinds of changes that you were making at MT and that Chicago was getting into?
Well, think in one of these things I wrote I mentioned that Cambridge University was doing quite similar things. They had their Mond Laboratory and various other branches of the department, their radio astronomy, etc. and were doing it on about the same scale that we were and in very similar ways. I was interested in comparing notes there, and Bristol University was doing similar things and so on. I didn’t have very much experience with the continental places immediately after the war, so I don’t know how rapidly they were getting going on things. But I have a feeling that they were trying to build up in a similar way. Then, of course, one can’t overlook the fact that a good deal of our organizational effort in these years right after the war was in the direction of the Brookhaven and other laboratories of that type. I was in on the committee that was setting up Brookhaven, and we thought that was a fine thing, and we were saying similar things for the Argonne, etc. And the Europeans were setting up CERN. There was a good deal of interaction between the people there in the way of doing it and the actual personnel, etc. So that they were set up much along the same lines.
Would you say that the international ties in physics in the post-war period were increased compared to the links that existed prior to the war?
I don’t know. I would say they were increased, but they certainly have not decreased at all.
In the immediate post—war period the attitude toward the Germans would have been a deterrent toward full international cooperation.
Yes, but that didn’t last very long.
You mentioned in your article that this was already being overcome by the time of the meeting.
Yes, Well, just consider Weisskopf is head of the physics department here and he’s been head of CERN... I guess he’s not right now — I’m not sure who is; I don’t remember— but anyhow he had been for a considerable period.
He was for five years, through an important period. And he still has a relationship.
He still has a very close relationship. I assume he’s there right now.
Yes, supposedly for summers. Well, now I’d like to get into specific questions about your own work in that period. You mentioned at the end of our last talk that you had some difficulty in deciding up until 1951 just what you would focus on.
wasn’t quite sure. I was in so many things that I decided that I wanted to look around before jumped one way or the other. I also felt that wanted to stay with the microwaves in general long enough to write up what had done, and that turned out to be the Microwave Electronics book, which I wrote, which was in the Bell Labs series. And that was what led me into the linear accelerators and things. I saw that there was a close analogy between the accelerator structure and theory and the microwave structure and theory—just multiply them up to a larger scale and they operate on very similar principles. I thought that ought to go in. And I wanted to test out the ideas and see if they worked before I actually put that all down on paper. So that really was in a sense finishing up my connection with microwaves in that work I was doing in the Electronics Lab with the accelerator and other things. But then I felt there was a good chance of the Electronics Laboratory helping out in getting us back into the solid—state field. It was obvious this was getting to be a very important thing, and felt that the low-temperature area, as well as the solid—state area, should be pushed. I was able to set up a little laboratory over there and get things going. Well, just debated as to whether I should continue doing that sort of thing or go directly back into theory. And think the thing that decided me to go back into the theory was largely that theory got so important with all the development of transistors and things like that so that it was obvious to me that there was a tremendous amount of work to be done, I realized couldn’t do everything, and thought it was wise to concentrate on that.
The semi-conductor developments, I guess, were especially interesting.
They were especially interesting, but other things too related to the theory of solids.
Was there anyone else here who was working on the theory of solids during this period:
Well, we were starting out to work not exactly in that field but relating to the theory of solids while I was still running that laboratory in the Electronics Laboratory. We tried to get going on applications of microwaves to low temperatures and to resonance and to solid-state things. I managed to get quite a group of post—doctoral people on hand for one or two of the years then. We really started quite a lot of stuff. Some were here as research associates; some were here as instructors, assistant professors, graduate students and so on. But we had Charlie Kittel, who is now at Berkeley; Art Kip, who is now at Berkeley; Pellam, who is now at Caltech; Luttinger; Ben Lax around a little, who is now at the Magnet Laboratory; Francis Bitter was playing with the project at that time; Squire, the low temperature man, was around. So if you put all those people together, we had quite a power house of people who have since turned out to be very good people in the solid—state area. None of the rest of them was doing exactly the kind of theory that I was working on myself; so that it was not until I broke off from the Electronics Laboratory and formed this solid—state and molecular theory group in 1951 that I really began to collect a group of students and post—doctorals who worked just in the quantum theory area. I decided that that was a thing that should be done, and first explored the possibility of doing that as a group inside the Electronics Laboratory. Their opinion at that time— and I think it was wise —— was that the Electronics Laboratory had already grown as big as it should and that it would be wiser to do this separately. So I went out and got separate financial support for it, and we set up a little project of our own, which started in 1951. And I then began to collect a group of people who had been working in straight solid-state theory.
Where did the support come from?
It started out as ONR support. I had an ONR contract, and then later got NSF support.
Well, NSF had just come into existence then.
Yes, and it wasn’t doing things yet. And then also we had some direct support from Lincoln. Lincoln helped us out by taking on their staff some of the people who were in fact working with me and my group.
see. It was called a group.
And it was housed...
It was housed first in the regular physics building. It was there until we moved into this building a few years ago.
But you weren’t part of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. It was a group within the physics department.
It was a group within the physics department. But I took advantage of some of the experience I had in electronics things, the laboratory there, to organize it—so it was pretty well organized. I don’t know whether you are familiar with the Progress Reports that we get out in that solid-state molecular theory work.
Well, that was one thing that we started right at the beginning. It occurred to me that you might be interested in this particular one, We started with these Quarterly Progress Reports as soon as that laboratory started, and this was the 15th report, so to speak, which I put out in ‘66, in which I wrote up the history of the group— here’s a number of pages of history of it. Then a list of all the people who had been connected with it, the degrees we had given out in that report, and then complete list of publications of all the people who had been connected with it; and then a write—up of the current state of solid-state and molecular theory at the end. We’ve still got some copies of it, so if you’d like that...
Oh, I’d like it very much.
I don’t think you’d be interested in the whole set of the 70 or 80 reports that we’ve had up to date.
But this summarizes it.
This summarized it as of four years ago. So it’s the most recent regular summary report that we’ve had.
This would give one a pretty good overview of the development of the entire field.
Because we assume that the kinds of problems you were attacking here were the kinds that were very important in the field as a whole.
Right. And I tried to bring some of that out in the write—up. As a matter of fact, this write—up at the end is the thing which I sort of used as the basis for some of these Physics Today articles.
We were talking about the Solid-State and Molecular Theory Group, which is now tied in with the Materials Science Center. Let’s trace things back for a minute, so we can find out how this Center got established, At the end of your department history— we haven’t fixed a date, but we’re assuming it was 1950 or so— you indicated a new building was needed for all of the activities.
That’s right. That’s what turned out to be the Compton Laboratory, and it housed a good deal of the electronics and a good deal of the nuclear science work. But that is not this building.
I understand. But I wanted to get into that, since it came first. Was there much of an effort made to get the commitment and then the funds for it?
Yes, but that was largely done on a higher level. That is, the Institute wanted to do something to honor Dr. Compton. They raised money, and they built the building. So that was very little that I had to do connected with that.
When was his death? [June 22, 1954]
I don’t remember the year.
This was after his death that the building was started?
The building, I think, was started at least before his death, but I believe he died before it was dedicated. No, I’d have to look up records on that.
So those funds were raised externally.
They were raised externally.
And the argument that you made for building here was not sort of part of the campaign?
No. We kept making arguments for it, both for physics but more particularly for the Electronics Laboratory right along. See, the Electronics Laboratory was housed at that time largely in the Building 20, the temporary wartime building, which is still here, but it’s a fire trap, and we’re always scared having the large amount of research going on there, and we were very anxious to replace at least some of the space with really good space. So that argument we kept making with the administration, and they completely agreed with us and put it on a high priority list, and I think it was while Killian was president that that was put through. He was very anxious to see it done.
The decision not to consolidate the nuclear facilities in a particular place was made just about at that time.
That’s right. We thought a good deal about that and wondered whether it should or should not be part of the same thing. For one thing we couldn’t afford enough money to build a complete nuclear laboratory. Secondly, we went into the question of shielding and so on and decided that this was the most effective thing, to let them be scattered around a little bit.
That reminds me that one of the things involved there was the synchrotron. And wondered, from your history, why it was done in the electrical engineering department.
Well, because the person who was interested in doing it was van Getting, who was in electrical engineering.
That’s interesting. You think of it, of course, as a physics kind of a machine once it’s built.
That’s right. But Getting was one of the electrical engineers whose training was in physics, and he was equally interested in both fields.
And once it was initiated, did it become the problem of the electrical engineering department to raise money for it rather than physics?
But once it was built, then it becomes really a physics...
Well, there were as many electrical engineers working with it as physics people working with it, I think.
I guess that would be true in operations, because it’s basically an engineering project but it is used for physics.
Yes, but I think if it had been left to the people in physics we wouldn’t have built it. In other words, getting really wanted to see that built, and then the other people carried it on after he left, and one or two continued using it, But we wouldn’t have initiated it, but were interested in it.
Let’s get back now to the Materials Science Building. I don’t know how far back the story begins. Not the building but the whole center.
Yes, the whole center. Well, here again I could do it better if had read up my records, which are down in Gainesville, I felt in 1951 when I started this solid-state and molecular theory group that the one interdepartmental or interdisciplinary laboratory that we didn’t have that we needed was in the general field of materials. There was just as much reason, if not more reason, for interdepartmental work there than there had been in electronics and the other fields. We needed the space. We needed the departments working together in that area. So I just kept my eyes open to see how this could be operated and how we could get into the thing. Well, I was no longer a department head, so I had to operate as an Institute professor, which was my only official standing around here, but that did have the advantage that I was regarded as an interdepartmental professor that could play around in any department that I chose. So started after this solid-state and molecular theory group had been running two or three years (I can’t remember exactly which year I started—‘53, ‘54) bringing together a little interdepartmental organization of a few chemists, the physicists interested in this area and a few others, a few metallurgists and so on. We called it... I’d have to look up the records to see what we called it: Laboratory for Solid-State and Molecular Theory or something, [Laboratory of Chemical and Solid-State Physics] I can’t remember it, t was not the same title as this. It was not the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, but it was an organization which had no function except to get something started. I got the people together, we had meetings, we started writing little annual reports— where I would just get a report of what they were doing in. And we decided people could be members of this and members of their department at the same time, etc. So we started a little skeleton organization, which I thought would be a help if we ever got to the point of being able to go somewhat further. Then there were a number of different steps that went on. I remember that at one time (1955) there was a meeting in Washington, looking into the possibility of interdisciplinary work in the field of solids, organized by Tom Johnson when he was down there. Now, which agency was he in? I’d have to look up and find out which agency had that particular meeting. But Fred Seitz was there and John Bardeen, Morris Cohen and I were the two from MIT and a number of people from other universities were just talking about how good it would be if we could just get the government to put in some money for an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary laboratory dealing with materials. I have some of the records at home, I can check on them and get the details of which year it was and who was there—things like that. And nothing came of that. But at the end of that…Do you know Morris Cohen? He’s in metallurgy here.
I know of him.
He and I got together and said: “Well, now, don’t we really need a materials center at MIT?” and we both decided we did, and so we both did nothing about it because there was nothing that could be done. But we began pushing further and thinking about who, what departments and so on would be the logical ones to be mixed in with it and how many people around there were who would be connected with it. And so it was clear that there was something stirring there. We just wanted to keep things stirring and let the administration know that things were stirring. And then along came the ARPA. As a matter of fact, I believe that we made a proposal to somebody before the ARPA came along, and forget which agency it was. There again I’d have to look up the records. But I remember that we made at least two unsuccessful efforts to get financing. Obviously we couldn’t get this without financing, and we spent a great deal of time— Morris Cohen and I and a few other people got ourselves appointed a committee with a few others on it and got research projects from a lot of people around the Institute and made proposals, which were turned down a couple of times in succession. We began to get pretty discouraged about it. But then along came this Advanced Research Project Agency, and they called on us one day. I remember a meeting in the metallurgy headquarters. And they were starting this program of interdepartmental and interdisciplinary laboratories and materials. And we had already done enough thinking. They hadn’t started any yet. They were just thinking about it. So that we could outline pretty well what we thought out to go into such a laboratory and how it ought to be handled. And they said: “This sounds fine. Why don’t you turn in a proposal?” Well, this was, guess, the second of the proposals we’d made, and we turned it in, and it got turned down, But then they said the next year: “Well, why don’t you turn that in over again?” So we turned it in over again and sort of improved it and thought a good deal more about it and got the organization going. But in the meantime we could point to this skeleton organization we had. We’d been continuing our annual reports and our staff meetings and that kind of thing. And the next time we did get our money. So at that point we really were in business.
What year was this?
There again I would have to look up the records. I can’t remember. (Annual reports of Laboratory of Chemical and Solid—State Physics issued July 15, 1959, 1960, 1961).
Generally. If you can give me some sort of a fix. Because I’ve lost the track of the historical trend here.
It was probably ‘58 or something like that— about that order of magnitude. We can get some reports from the Materials Center afterwards in the office over here, and that will get you organized on this. But we started in our operations by getting Stratton (he was then president) to put enough money in to get a real building, some of this money to come from MIT but a lot of it to come from this ARPA contract. Every year some of the financing goes to amortizing part of the building, and I think we’re still amortizing. And we were able to get the administration talked into hiring an architect and getting going on real planning and spent a good deal of time thinking about the planning. So that I was really in on the planning of this building, which came out of that, much more than I was on the Compton laboratory. And for several years we were in the process of just confederating different people who were around the Institute, trying to get them to work together and that kind of thing. We had various committees at various different times. One of the real problems was that a very active part of the work in materials— solid—state and electronics and so on— was in electrical engineering. Professor Von Hippel, whom I have always got on well with, though he is a very individualistic kind of man who wasn’t too anxious to join in with a project like this— he would really have rather kept his own organization going, [And I] gradually came together on things. He realized that he was getting ready to retire and that we could join his things in with the other things from other departments and make a larger organization out of it. But there was a good deal of negotiation that had to be carried out in connection with getting that thing going.
How did the metallurgy people react?
They were very friendly and helpful all through. In fact, people all around were very friendly and helpful. And so we got the organization going and were operating with a sort of a planning committee for a number of years before we really had a running organization and then a director in the building. We had the plans for the building all made and got the building started. And then R.A. Smith, who was the first director, was appointed— brought in from England. He came in and was director for a number of years. As I remember it, he moved in here about ‘63 or ’64. The building was finished by then and was running completely and has been running very well ever since. Smith left to go back to England two or three years ago, and Grant came in and took over as director. Smith is in town at the moment. We’re having dinner with him tonight. He’s now university president in Edinburgh, Scotland. He’s president of a place called the Heriot—Watt University, which was founded in honor of or with funds from James Watt, as a matter of fact. It’s a small technical institution. But anyway we got this going, and I was in it very much from the beginning trying to carry it all through. The main object was to see that this work in the solid—state field didn’t get lost even though felt the physics department if left to itself would drop it. The present administration of the physics department really has very little interest in it. I thought this was the best way to keep the field operating.
Two questions come up on that. Smith reminds me of this. Maybe it’s just my personal experience, but I know of at least one other case where someone from England was brought in to head one of these new materials centers.
There have been several of these.
At Case. I forget his name.
I forget his name, but I know the man.
And I wonder: was this a special characteristic of English science at the time?
No, I don’t think so. It was partly lack of people in this country who could do it well. There were so many such laboratories that were trying to start. But Smith had had experience right along these lines. He had been the head of the radar research establishment—the head of physics in the Radar Research Establishment rather, which was the English equivalent of the Radiation Laboratory. He knew the local situation very well. He’d been back and forth to MIT many times. He consults for Electronic Corporation up the street and that kind of thing. And so he knew the situation. We had visited his laboratory—not only I but other people— and knew that he was running a very good laboratory. And he was getting restive under government civil service in England and sort of felt that he would like to move into a university. So it was a case where his experience was just right, and we knew him, and we knew he could do the job very well. His interests are not terribly different from mine. He’s a theoretical rather than an experimental physicist in the theory of solids, has written a number of books in it, and was a very good man in running the semi-conductor laboratory. So he just seemed like a good person, and several of us who knew him, knew that he was available for such a thing; and it was not too obvious where to find people who would be good. As a matter of fact, when he went back to England, we thought very seriously about what we would do as a substitute, and we finally decided the sensible thing would be to take on Professor Grant from metallurgy, who had been on our original planning committee. He, rather than Morris Cohen, was the one who really was on the committee that followed the initial changes through. So he had known the laboratory from the beginning. And he’s doing a fine job. I should say one more thing. As soon as this Materials Center started, I turned over the things that had been annual reports for this other smaller organization into Annual Reports for the Materials Center. So they’re continuing; they’re going out every year; and I’ll get you one of those before you leave so that you can see what this year’s report looks like. But it’s very much along the same lines that I started back in the early 1960s. About in ‘60, I guess, were the first reports of that type that we got out.
The other question that it brought to mind was the problem of the physics department itself and the emphasis on one field as opposed to another. I wonder if this is something generally true of solid state. Because it’s the kind of a field which is an umbrella field and covers so many approaches that it becomes difficult to define it specifically within a department. Maybe it needs this special identity which you were able to give it.
I think it does. I felt that this really made sense: to tie it in with a number of departments. Because they are all closely concerned... [pause in recording]
We’re resuming now after a short break. The other question that had in mind about the problem of incorporating solid-state physics in a physics department…You answered that you felt the need to cooperate with other departments. Then, again, you had at least someone like Charlie Townes, who was in the physics department. How does that kind of solid—state fit in? Did he represent an investment in solid-state in the department or was he there pretty much as an individual?
He was here as an individual. Now, my recollection is that his work was reported in this Materials Center report.
He wouldn’t be in this one.
He wouldn’t be in this one. But I can check very easily, because Ali Javan, who came with him, is still continuing that work; and I think that that is reported. Here is the continuation of that, so there still is work of that kind going on. This is what Townes brought in. Of course, he had more while he was here, But Javan is a very good man, and there’s a very good program still running.
But this is done within this building now. Is that right?
No, it’s not. It’s in another building. In other words, this includes quite a number of things that are not all done in this building. We decided from the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to accommodate in one building everything connected with materials. Therefore, the organization that we brought into the building was broader than the grants were.
I see how this works now. People don’t lose their departmental affiliations.
They don’t lose their departmental affiliations at all. That’s what we felt was quite wrong about the early version of the Chicago scheme. They had separate staffs in the Institute. We don’t. Everybody is a department member. That was our original policy, and we’re convinced it was right.
Well, I think that brings that story to a good conclusion.
I’m glad you had a chance to meet Smith [just now during our break]. As I say, he was around for a number of years and did a very good job. And also Schafer, whom you met, has been the sort of business manager from the beginning. That’s one thing we learned from the Radiation Lab and the Electronics Lab, that one needs a strong business office. It happened that Schafer was a man who had been in a manufacturing line of CBS, I guess, of radio/television equipment, etc., and he was available just at the time we needed somebody; and he was a good friend of Dean Gordon Brown of the school of engineering. They got together, and Schafer appeared on the scene and has been a wonderful God—send.
ft would be the role of the bus mess office to handle the normal business, and also to be the intermediary for the grants and the contracts.
Sure. All those he handles through his office. He has quite a large office. He has a number of people working there for him and does it very efficiently.
Now, getting back to the earlier period: when you made the decision to be relieved of your duties as chairman of the department in order to go back into the type of research that you had finally settled on—which was to return to your earlier pre—war interests, you did take a year at Brookhaven as sort of a transition. I’d like to ask why and what you did there.
They asked me to come down there. They wanted me to sort of inspire them in the sort of thing we were doing and in some related fields. Actually worked quite a bit with the neutron diffraction people there and with other experimentalists as well as with theorists. They felt they wanted some stirring up on that line, and while I was there ran a quite good conference, bringing together low—temperature and neutron diffraction and various other kinds of people that I thought had interests in common but didn’t know it. That started quite a lot of work. But it was just when 1 was starting this solid—state and molecular theory group. So I managed to have three or four of the boys who were in that go down with me for that year. And the result was that they got to know the Brookhaven people and vice versa, and it was just generally a good interchange, felt that by then I had not had any real time off from MIT duties for a number of years. I tried to get some time off something like every seventh year. They didn’t have any sabbatical system then, but one thing or another would give me some time off, I felt it was about time to do that. So that’s why I went down.
Who was the director of Brookhaven then?
In the physics division?
Goudsmit was physics, I guess. Was Haworth the director? I believe Lee Haworth was the director and Goudsmit was the director of physics. Yes, Goudsmit was the one I was dealing with. But I believe that that was while Haworth was the director.
And did you have much to do with the other activities of Brookhaven? You mentioned that you were on one of the committees originally planning it.
Yes, that had been years earlier when the thing was being set up. In between I haven’t had much contact with them.
Let’s get back to this general thing about Brookhaven first. As a result of the committee work in setting it up, was the functioning rather smooth with the MIT participation, or did you run into problems which you were aware of as department chairman?
Very smooth. See, the first director down there was Phil Morse, who was from the physics department; and we have had very close connections with it. We’ve always had people working back and forth between here and there.
And when you went down, of course, it was with nothing to do with prior involvement. It was strictly for these reasons.
What was Brookhaven like in that period? It was quite a contrast living out there in Long Island to living in Cambridge.
Yes. I lived on one of the apartments on the site. As I say, this was about the time when I was really working up to a divorce, and I was down there by myself and living by myself. It was a nice place to be, I enjoyed it. As I say, I had a number of boys with me who were working with me. So we were doing things together. And I was working with people there. I remember I did some work with Bainbridge who was there at the time and so on.
Was Livingston there at that particular time?
Livingston was also there at that time. Of course, he was on leave from here, and I saw a good deal of him.
Did your linear accelerator work come in handy there? Was there much interest in that, or was this already past history?
Oh, they already knew about it. It was already past history— still operating.
That brought you awfully close, the closest you ever came, to accelerator work.
That’s right. I was sort of amused by it, but I decided I didn’t want to stay with it. Peter Demos, who’s now director of the nuclear laboratory I guess, was working with me on that. He stuck with it, still likes the old machine.
It seems that that year that you went to Brookhaven was the year that all the linear accelerator publications began to pop out.
You had about seven publications.
Well, this was writing up the stuff that had been in the works for several years. I simply felt that since I was changing over into solid state, I ought to get the things written up that I’d been working with. That’s why those things came at the same time.
Did you complete them before you left, or was it at Brookhaven?
I really don’t remember. I think I mostly completed them before I left, because I know I was doing pretty concentrated research at Brookhaven. But I might have been reading proof or something there.
Did you feel in any way because you had been away from some of these questions for a long period of time that you had a lot of catching up to do?
It was very curious. The catching up that I had to do, and have been doing ever since, has been reading my old papers more than anything else. In other words, what I felt was that I had made so many suggestions of things that had not been carried through before the war that it was much more important to implement those, get them going, than it was to try to fit in with what other people were doing. So if you will study the papers that I’ve written since, to a very large extent they’ve been simply carrying out further the things that were unfinished business before the war but that all the other people had forgotten about, trying to get them going and into operation. This group that I started— the solid—state and molecular theory group—had a number of bright boys who got going on the application of the computer to these things, which of course we didn’t have before the war. So that a great deal of our activity since has been doing properly with the computer things that had been sort of sketched out in those earlier papers. So that, as I say, I studied my own papers more than anybody else’s.
Even in that first year at Brookhaven?
That’s right. No, we were doing some new things, but they weren’t strikingly different from what we’d done before.
In characterizing the development the group, which, I gather, still exists...
It still exists. It’s, I must say, limping pretty badly; but we joined some other people on, so we still have an organization that exists. Let’s see if I have the new report which just came the other day... Anyway a number of new people, who are doing somewhat different kinds of work, are in it now; but it still exists.
How would you characterize this over a 19-year period now? Would you say that there have been parallel groups that have sprung up, maybe not for such a long period, in other institutions— or is this pretty unique in terms of the orientation?
It’s almost unique. The group that we have in Florida is perhaps more like it than anything else. And that came about through Lowdin, the Swedish physicist, who’s written up in the report there, who was here with us for periods of several months at a time back in the early l950s and has developed a running group in Uppsala. He developed this group in Florida. So I’ve now joined on to that, so that it has a somewhat similar existence. But there are not many places that do similar things.
If you had to characterize the overall orientation of the group in terms of, not any specific paper, but in terms of types of problems and approaches to them, how would you do it if you were writing a resume of the group?
Well, I think you’ll find that I’ve written about 25 pages at the end of that big report on that subject.
You mean this Quarterly Report?
That’s right. Towards the end of that is a thing on the current state of solid—state and molecular theory, with particular application to what this group has done. And I did that partly with the idea of answering this question. So I think it’s perhaps more effective for you to read that than for me to try to say some of the things.
As long as we’re talking about the Florida group, did the decision to go there come about because Lowdin had established this group already and so it was the obvious place?
Pretty much, yes. No, I had been thinking as the 1960s came up that MIT had a pretty inflexible 65—year retirement. In other words, you can stay on a fractional period basis after that but not do anything very active. Florida had a 70—year retirement age. But I didn’t want to shovel snow and worry about snow tires, the rest of my life. I would rather be further south. And since Lowdin had established this thing in Gainesville, I thought it made good sense to tie in with him if he wanted me to do it. I let him know, as a matter of fact, when he started in the operation then, which was about ten years ago, that maybe the time would come when I would be interested in moving down. And that was the reason. So that I’m still on active duty there, and the group is going very well.
It’s interesting that a Swedish physicist would start a group of that type in the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Well, he got invited in to do this. They had been looking for somebody that could do that kind of thing. And they were very persuasive, and I think that he had some of the same feeling about shoveling snow in Uppsala.
There’s more of it.
Well, he lives in an apartment there; he doesn’t have a house. I was telling about Lowdin and his going to Florida. He liked the idea of being in this country; he had spent considerable time in this country and that looked like a good proposition to him. And so he decided about 1959 or ‘60 to have this connection.
And this continued as permanent?
Well, he says now that he’s been there longer than he expected he would stay when he started, but he has not set a tithe limit.
There are a number of things that I’d like to get back to.
You were asking about what the theory group here has done, and I said you could read up on it in that report. Perhaps I might just say in a very few words the idea that I’ve had, which is the sort of thing that I spoke to you about when we were talking about the 1930s. I feel that in wave mechanics and quantum theory we have the mechanism for understanding how all kinds of material work. I would like to get it to the point where we can really use it and calculate how things work. And there’s much more to this than most people realize. So we’ve been just going through all the various stages and steps that had to be done to do fairly reliable calculations of all the various aspects of solids and molecules.
Why is it that this approach is so consistently ignored in many places? I don’t mean the results of your work, but I mean that people as a matter of their own approach don’t sense this fundamental need.
I don’t know. Of course, a great many physicists, particularly with a European background, wouldn’t be caught dead doing any calculations. And I think that has more to do with it than anything else does. They regard it as beneath their contempt to spend their time doing calculations. Well, I don’t personally spend my time doing calculations, but many of the boys do; and I firmly believe it’s the only way you can get answers and the answers are what are needed. But you find ten times as much effort put in among theoretical solid— state people on doing elaborate analytical ways of trying to avoid doing calculations as we’re doing on doing the calculations. And I’m convinced that if people spent more time really carrying problems through instead of thinking about how to avoid trouble, we would have made much more progress than we have.
Would you say that this carries over beyond solid—state theory and into the particle theory?
I think so.
Even in the age of the computer.
Even in the age of the computer. They’ve been very slow. Now people are doing some of the kinds of calculations in nuclear work that we were doing in the l930s in atomic structure—self-consistent fields and so on. But I remember even at the beginning of the post-war period trying to get some of the nuclear people here interested in doing some of those kinds of calculations, and they wouldn’t look at them then. Now they do.
That’s very interesting.
But, as I say, there’s been a great reluctance to do anything that involves computers or computation on the part of a very large number of physicists.
Would you say that— this, of course, is a matter of opinion— perhaps people with an inclination toward those problems are going now into engineering types of programs?
They may be: I don’t know.
If physics is not encouraging this. If they have this desire and this particular approach, then they might express it in some other way.
This could be. I don’t think, though, that the fact that we got into such calculations in this group is any indication that we had the type of people who wanted to be doing, calculations. I just had a group of intelligent and ambitious boys who were doing all their calculations on desk computers. And in the early 1950s they began to realize that computers, the digital computers, were coming along. And it was completely their initiative, not mine at all, for them to explore and see what there was around the Institute, to see how they could get the use of it, and see what they could do with it. So that a number of people in the group really took a great deal of initiative in the period from 1950 to 1960 and really got the computer business going. I didn’t push them into it.
The problems themselves required it.
They realized they could get the answers this way that they were interested in getting. They were interested in the problems rather than in the computing. And they felt that this was the best way to get the answers, and sure enough it was.
Although you may have covered it in your summary in this report, I’d be curious to know what happened to the people who’ve gone through the group— what kind of fields they’ve ended up in and what kind of work they’ve been doing.
Well, all sorts. I think I can document some of this, because here we have a list of the people who have been connected with the group and, you see, I’ve written for each one a page or more of his publications and it tells where he is. Well, now, the first man [Arthur Agajanian] is at IBM; the second [Leland Allen] is a professor at Princeton; the third one [F.J. Arlinghaus] is at General Motors Research Lab; the fourth [M.J. Bailey] is doing research in England; the fifth [Michael Barnett] is at RCA at Princeton; the sixth [John Barrett] is at Oak Ridge; the seventh [George Bessis] is in Paris (he was a Frenchman who came in); the eighth[Glenn Burdick] is at the University of South Florida at Tampa; the ninth [E.A. Burke] is the chairman of the physics department at St. John’s University in New York; Louis Burnelle is at New York University in chemistry; Earl Callen is at Catholic University apparently; here’s a man [William Chambers] who’s at Rice; here’s a man [Fernando Corbato] who’s assistant director of the MIT computing center; here’s a man [Imre Csizmadia] at the University of Toronto, one at the University of Copenhagen. Incidentally, you may run into him: Jens Dahl, J.P. Dahl. He’s a very nice fellow, a very smart fellow. —-Alex Dalgarno, who was at Belfast but he’s now at Harvard. Many of these people are people who were just here for a few months or something like that. Peter DeCicco is here, Donald Ellis is at Northwestern. This is not up to date, of course. Englman is in Israel; Freeman is head of physics... Here, again, this isn’t up to date. Art Freeman is head of the physics department at Northwestern. In other words, I’ve gone up to “F” in the alphabet. You can see they’re doing all kinds of things—universities, industrial laboratories. There are quite a number from England. Here’s a man [Andrew Hurley] who is in Australia. One of the first people we had was a Chinese girl [Hilda Hsieh] who’s now in Communist China; she was a Communist, George Koster is here. Jan Linderberg is in Denmark. Here’s Lowdin, etc. So the information is there,
is there any way for you to know whether any of them have started similar groups?
Oh, yes, I know pretty well what they’re doing. A number of them have started similar groups.
In other words, they’ve kept the same approach. I can see it as valid, you know, without them doing it, because it’s a wonderful…
No, For example, Freeman at Northwestern has got a group very much like this, which he started out. And Lee Allen, who’s in chemistry at Princeton, has got a very similar group, etc. So there are half a dozen around the country now which are essentially outgrowths of this.
I see. But in your answer to my question before about whether other groups were parallel, you were referring to the past.
I was referring to the somewhat older ones. But a number of these people going out got these. One of my quite recent students from Gainesville, Tim Wilson, has gone down to the State University of Oklahoma, and he’s got a quantum theory project running there, and he’s got quite a number of students and is very happy.
Well, another question I wanted to ask has to do with your own research productivity after you made the decision to retire as chairman, whether you found that you were writing more papers or not over the years.
I don’t think so. I think as I compare the productivity in the 1950s with that in the 1930s, they’re about the same.
Well, of course, the duties of the 1930s weren’t...
They weren’t so serious, although there were plenty of them. But, we can look at my own bibliography.
That’s good, because I really don’t have a copy of the full bibliography.
This is complete up to ‘66, but you can see that starting with 1921, clear up to 1939 at the end of that page— well, here we’re at 1950. I think I have written more, but a lot of these are reports. I listed in this thing things that had appeared as reports in these quarterly progress reports. This is not just a standard quarterly progress report. Most of them have current reports of research. I’ll give you one of those before we go.
Well, many of the later publications have been collaborative efforts since you’re working with a group.
A few of them have, but not very many actually. But the most recent ones I’ve done have been collaborative with various people.
In looking back over...
But, of course, don’t forget that in the last 10 years, my major effort in writing has been this series of books I’ve been doing. In other words, the papers have been sort of incidental.
Right. You pointed out, I think, when we discussed it earlier, what your approach is to the books and that really brings out what you have in mind in your way of approaching problems.
Yes. And a great deal of the earlier materials for some of those books appeared in reports, in these progress reports.
Now, could you characterize the different periods of your work from the start, from the Harvard days, up on through the ‘30s and then the war years and the late ‘40s, and the subsequent years? Would you pick one period over another as being more productive, not in terms of numbers of words coming out or numbers of numbers, but in terms of the kind of personal contribution that you felt you were making— the satisfaction that you got from it?
I don’t really think so. Certainly there were a great many more new ideas coming out in the 1930s than there are in the 1960s, but this is largely because the field was new, and everywhere you turned there was something new to be done. Now everywhere you turn there is something to be polished off. So that if you were to look from the point of view of originality, you’d find much more in the older papers. But I don’t think that’s because I was inherently any more original then than I am now. I think it’s in the development of the field.
What about the comparison then of opening up questions and polishing them off? What brings more satisfaction?
I think they’re equally necessary.
Necessary I can understand, but...
They’re both interesting. I have very little difference in satisfaction between one kind and the other.
Arid out of all of this, is it possible for you to identify a single piece of work that has given you more personal satisfaction than any other?
Now you’re talking like David Frost. He always wants to know one thing. Well, I think the most important paper I wrote was the 1929 one on complex spectra, the one where the antisymmetric wave functions were brought into a determinantal form and so on. But that led to a tremendous number of things.
You’re assessing that in terms of the subsequent implications.
That’s right. And then it was fun working it out. Here were a whole lot of results that people just hadn’t suspected could be derived at all.
On a paper like that do you recognize when you’re doing it that it’s going to be that important?
Oh, sure. There wasn’t any question about it.
You knew it. That lends to the excitement. I think it’s interesting to know that there are different levels of personal satisfaction in all of these things. But as far as my questions, I’ve covered the major points that I had intended to do in terms of your career and the overall department issues. I always kick myself as soon as I leave. But I think that if we can stay in touch when you. I get the transcript, you’ll have an opportunity to remind yourself and remind me. And there are a few points, that we did bring up that require some digging into the files when you get back to Gainesville.
I probably won’t do that right away, because I’ve got so many other things that I want to do. In other words, I still am working very hard on the last of this series of books on quantum theory of molecules and solids. I worked on that in a very concentrated way this summer. And until that’s out, I think I’m not going to take time off to do any digging in my files. I think I told you the first time we talked that when that is done, then I hope to get my files in shape and to write something in the way of reminiscences, memoirs or something. That’s when I’ll look into these questions of dates and things like that… (“Solid—State and Molecular Theory; a Scientific Biography” by J.C. Slater, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1975)
It might be good, when you get to that, to select specific documents regardless of the ultimate decision that you make on your files and papers…to select specific documents that provide verification, background and enrichment of the main points that we’ve covered in the interview.
This could well be.
I think that that would be very good. I think that...
It could well be that a set of Xeroxes of some of those things could be put in whichever other...
Other library that doesn’t get the main papers.
Right. I think that would be very good. Well, maybe we should shut off this wonderful machine.