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Interview of Wolfgang Panofsky by Charles Weiner on 1973 May 15, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4994-1
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Family background and childhood in Germany, 1919-1934; emigration to U.S. and undergraduate study and life at Princeton University, 1934-1938. Graduate work at California Institute of Technology, 1938-1942; work with Jesse W. M. DuMond, course load, and importance of his thesis. War work at California Institute of Technology; problems because of enemy alien status; work on firing error indicators. War work at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory: atomic bomb explosion, feelings concerning implications. Research at University of California at Berkeley, 1945-1951: construction of linear accelerator under Luis Alvarez (training, funding, working relationships, work schedules, relationship with other research groups), work on synchrotron, bevatron, Material Testing Accelerator project, neutal meson work and pion work; campus life, teaching responsibilities, textbook writing with Melba Phillips; security measures at Berkeley, 1945-1951: Berkeley's loyalty oath leads to move to Stanford University, 1951. The "Screw Driver" report (with Robert Hofstadter) for the Atomic Energy Commission. Korean War-related work (Felix Bloch, Edward L. Ginzton, Robert Kyhl); rigid politics of physics department; Washington involvement; consultant to the Air Force Science Advisory Board; Hans Bethe, Edward Teller; Bethe's Conference of Experts, 1958; Geneva negotiations, 1959; George Kistiakowski and Isidor I. Rabi; appointment to President's Science Advisory Committee, 1960; Dwight D. Eisenhower. Government support of science; Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC); Joint Committee on Atomic Energy hearings (Ginzton, Varian Associates); avoiding the "Berkeley image" at SLAC. Also prominently mentioned are: Sue Gray Norton Alsalan, Carl David Anderson, Raymond Thayer Birge, Hugh Bradner, Henry Eyring, Don Gow, Alex E. S. Green, William Webster Hansen, Joel Henry Hildebrand, Giulo Lattes, Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Edwin Mattison McMillan, John Francis Neylan, Hans Arnold Panofsky, Ryokishi Sagane, Robert Gordon Sproul, Raymond L. Steinberger, Charles Hard Townes, Watters, Gian Carlo Wick, John Robert Woodyard, Dean E. Wooldridge, Fritz Zwicky; Federation of American Scientists, and Lawrence Radiation.
I’d like to start with 1919, Berlin, when you were born. I’d like to know something about your family life. I know that your father was the famous art historian, but that’s really all I know about the family. I don’t know about brothers or sisters, where you lived, what the home atmosphere was; so it might be good to start when you were a boy.
Yes. Well, of course my father moved from Berlin to Hamburg when I was less than a year old, so I think we’d better start at Hamburg rather than Berlin, because obviously I have no recollections there. I have one brother who was a year and a half older, who is now a meteoro1o gist at Pennsylvania State. I don’t remember very much of home life. It was a typical middle class intellectual life. Interestingly enough, even though my father was an art historian, he actually had a great deal of interest, in a sort of semi-amateur way, in mathematics and particularly geometry.
He wrote a very famous book on perspective. In a funny way, though, his preoccupation with art scholarship turned his children off on art, because his attitude on art was not that of art appreciation or art esthetics, but specifically art scholarship. I remember some instances when I was something like five years old and I would go with my parents to a museum. We would spend something like four hours in front of one picture and things of that kind, which is the surest way to discourage your children on art. So also, the general attitude was that until children have learned something, one really didn’t do very much with them. So my parents, my father, did not really participate very much in influencing me at an early age.
I went through the regular German education of a private vorschuler and then entered the gymnasium in Hamburg, which had nine years of Latin and four years of Greek, and essentially no physics and mathematics or at least very little. I was a good student, my brother was a good student. It was a very competitive sort of school situation. But as you know, Germany has a multiple fixed track of schooling which is sort of preordained by your parents. You don’t have any electives in school, or at that time you didn’t.
Your parents either put you onto the more scholarly track, which is the gymnasium, or the more technically oriented track which is the realschule and so forth. So unless you switch schools, you stick to that track in a reasonable way. So unless you strongly feel that you are misplaced, that’s what you do. We had many friends. The only technical thing we did was playing with lots of mechanical gadgets, such as Maerklinbaukasten which is a children’s erector set of enormous proportions, and making all sorts of monsters.
How old were you at that time?
Oh, I started that quite early, at six or seven or something.
You had a brother.
A year and a half older.
Did he do this with you?
Yes, he did this with me, too. My father used to give evening seminars in art history in our home, and one of the things we used to do was that we noticed that he always ran out of cigarettes, so we built a vending machine for chocolates and cigarettes for his seminars, which would work by putting a coin into it and selling these various goodies, with my brothers and sisters. You can see the level was very sophisticated.
Let me ask about your mother.
She was also an art historian. She was a student of my father’s and she advanced directly from fraulein student to frau professor without becoming frau doctor. Actually she co-authored a few articles with my father, and many times worked with him on bibliographical and other activities, and traveled with him and so forth. But she actually had zero interest in technical matters. On the contrary, she had a strong aversion to anything mechanical and was inept in it, disliked it.
Did she teach you?
No, fundamentally our schooling — since we didn’t have any real problems, we were as I said on this track, and we fundamentally had very little interaction between school and home. I mean, school is where we went and we had our friends. We actually did not have a great deal of detailed interaction with our parents, other than general atmosphere and access to things and so forth, but relatively few specific discussions on scholarly subjects. My father, sort of in a half-joking way, said he didn’t want to have anything to do with his children until they could speak Latin. He almost but not quite maintained that particular remark. Photography is one subject which my father did teach us in a way, specifically, the technical things, also developing. We built cameras and we took lenses from opera glasses and made a camera, a little box, and so forth.
Did you use the camera in a hobby way?
it was sort of the technical —
Yes, mainly in the technical area, otherwise an occasional snapshot, but nothing —
How about radio, things of that type?
Yes, we had elementary radios and put some things together, and one technical thing which in retrospect I’m happy didn’t kill us, I remember we had various motors running the erector set, and when we traveled back and forth to Berlin, we took our toys with us, and the Berlin voltage was 220 volts, and Hamburg was 110, and I made a voltage divider so we could run our toys both places. In retrospect, I have come to the conclusion that it was a fairly lethal device. But anyway it didn’t kill anybody. But my parents had no idea whether what we were doing was unsafe or good or bad.
Where did you learn to do these things?
I don’t know. Sort of school folklore, and books and talking with other kids and so forth.
Any particular books and magazines?
Nothing I remember.
Any automobiles in the family?
No. A few of the people at school had automobiles and they were greatly admired and considered to be very peculiar. Automobiles were essentially non-existent in school life at the time. See, I left Germany in 1934 at age 15, which was three years before finishing the gymnasium. We were in a very fortunate situation. My father even two years before that was a visiting lecturer at New York University. He already had one foot on each side of the ocean.
So when he was dismissed from his Job as professor at the University of Hamburg under Hitler in 1934, it was a relatively untraumatic move to emigrate. I had some bad experiences under the beginning of the Hitler era in school, tough guys beating us up and things of that kind, but — 1934 was relatively early to leave. My father then accepted a job at New York University and Princeton simultaneously, and he gave lectures in both places. At Princeton he gave lectures essentially to get free tuition for his kids. That was essentially the purpose. We lived in Princeton.
Not at the Institute?
No, the Institute didn’t exist yet.
Yes, it did.
Well, I guess it existed, but only for science, not yet for humanities. Dr. Einstein was there. I’m sorry, the Institute branched out into non-natural science later on. My father had been I believe, if not the, one of the first members, branching into the humanities. My father had read Flexner’s book on graduate education, deploring the fact that people were getting degrees in camp cooking and such things, and that some scholars should be less burdened with teaching, etc.
Let me go back a while. Something I want to go into detail on — about the general economic situation in Germany, in your family, first of all. A professor was relatively well-to-do. In the structure of society, but these were hard times, some difficulty. Do you have any recollections of that?
Well, things were fairly rough. I remember this, sort of in flashes. Our relative affluence was fairly good, until inflation, but then we simply lost all the capital we had. And I remember, I was only four years old, but I remember some scenes when they were poring over the paper, how many million marks eggs were today. And people used to go out and barter directly with the farmers, various spoons, or what have you, against food. Then after Inflation, my father was on a salary. Like a typical middle class professor, we always had a maid, and when we left — at that time for Instance I remember one discussion was that it was legal to take something like 1500 marks out of the country at that time.
We didn’t have 1500 marks to take out. We had much less than that. So many people approached my father, whether he would be willing to take money out for them, and he refused to do that, so we actually took out a few hundred marks, and that was all we had left from what there was. So the affluence was Just normal professor living, on a reasonably comfortable salary, which at that time was sort of customary middle class family — an apartment on the fourth floor of a building, but with a maid, living In a fairly relaxed way, but a non-luxurious way.
Were there people at home, friends of your parents, who came to visit? You mentioned the art seminar, but what about colleagues?
Oh yes. Colleagues — almost all the visitors were fundamentally professional colleagues or students of my father’s. My father sort of hated relatives, so we had relatively little family visitations. And almost zero visitors from other trades. One exception whom I do remember was Professor at Hamburg, the mathematician, with whom my father had a very intensive intellectual interaction, and who also talked to us kids. He was a radio fan and he showed us a lot of his electronics and also played chess with us.
He was a famous chess champion, and taught us chess at the age of 5. As I recall, was the only individual in the non—humanities that I recall meeting during that period, who came to us, to my parents. There was a philosopher by the name of Cassirer. yes, the philosopher who also took an interest in the kids, and he would also play chess with us, giving us a rook in advance, but he always beat us despite that. So we did meet some of the great men, who sometimes took an interest in the kids.
You mentioned and Cassirer.
I think — a mathematician — the name is wrong, I have them confused. Hecksher was an art historian we also met. The mathematician’s name was not Hecksher. What the name is, I probably can pick it up later.
Were there discussions of politics, the general state of what was happening in the world and Germany?
Yes. There was quite a bit of political discussion, mainly deploring the rise of Naziism, the sort of worrying about Hindenberg’s general incompetence, and invective against Von Papen, and about this really being a transition away from the Republic. I had an aunt who would visit occasionally who was the first female police commissioner in Germany. She was police commissioner in Berlin, and an ardent socialist, and she was very good. When she came she would talk about politics a great deal, worrying about the deviation from the course which the 1919 Weimar Republic had set. But again, politics was not the focus, just in sort of snatches — I was not interested in any detail.
What about the religious orientation of the family?
Essentially zero. There was zero religious orientation of the family. We had a few orthodox relatives. We had a very enlightened religious situation at school. In school there were courses in religion taught as scholarship, so I learned during that time probably a great deal of Old Testament events, more or less in historical sequence, and had some very good courses, including going over all the maps of the area and so on and so forth, so actually I probably had more religious instruction than most Americans do.
Scholarly Sunday School.
Sort of a very scholarly Sunday School kind of thing, but with some very good people. Of course, we were surrounded by religious images almost continuously, the pictures on the wall, discussion and so forth, at home, simply because with the art scholarship, religious pictures were all over the desk and all over the place, because that is what the subject matter of my father’s work was. So I certainly got exposed to the influence of religion on the cultural evolution of Europe.
But it wasn’t part of your own life, in terms of your being a member?
Not at all. Not at all.
Were you conscious at all of anti-Semitism?
Not until the last year. This is a sort of amazing thing, I mean, the fact that I was Jewish and some other people were Jewish and some others not Jewish and so on and so forth, simply did not really mean anything, until the last year when I was 15, when it was -— essentially when I was 14 or 15, when I was deliberately—they told me that that’s what I was. For instance, I was a member of an athletic club and I got kicked out during the last year, because they were becoming Aryanized to participate in athletic competition, and I didn’t pay any attention to that. In Germany athletic activities at that time were not associated with a school, only in a minor way. Any competitive sports were done through sportvereins, and most of the other kids were gentiles, and just didn’t pay any atteption to it, until suddenly there was a decree to kick me out, and everybody was terribly astonished.
A shock. You hadn’t been aware of it as a political issue?
No. You must realize that Hamburg, probably of all the areas in Germany, was probably one of the most liberal communities in Germany, and one of the last communities to really succumb to Naziism, because of its strong ties particularly with England, and being a fundamentally sea-faring town — that the middle class people by and large were business people, some of the international windows to the outside, so the atmosphere was less provincial generally than it was in Bavaria or southern Germany. It still is, yes. Weiner. Then Hitler came to power, January ‘33. Do you recall that?
Not as a discontinuity. The discontinuity I recall was when Himmler was assassinated, and there was a lot of discussion of how such a thing could go on without due process, and suddenly for the first time, the question came up that the state can be and should be restrained. Just the thought that states can do what they want to do, it had that effect, but didn’t really occur to me till that particular point.
So then even within the family you don’t recall discussions of what Hitler’s rise would mean?
Not really. Now, again, I may have. It’s quite possible that at this distance, I may have erased the severity of much of that. After all, I was 15, pretty much — the Hitler business did not drive any wedge between me and my non-Jewish school friends at all. None of them joined Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. So, but I may well have attenuated the severity of this, Just by lapse of time.
The laws applying to the university employees went into effect about March or April 1933, and the first dismissals announced in May. He was not affected by that?
I’m sorry. I just don’t remember the sequence. We left some time in ‘34, but he had sort of been planning for this. I mean, he saw the handwriting on the wall, I don’t know exactly how or what.
He was not terminated [in 1933]?
If there was a gap in actual employment, it was very small. simply don’t remember exactly how that worked. He was a regular professor at the University of Hamburg and also something at the art museum called the Kunsthalle, but I really don’t remember the exact sequence of termination. It was not traumatic. It was anticipated. It was sort of not a protracted period of time.
When he had gone earlier to the States for the visiting professorship at NYU, was this alone, without the family?
Without the family.
Was it for an extended period?
Yes, it was twice I believe for half a year or four or five months, something like that.
That’s a long time for the family.
That’s right. My mother stayed home. We had essentially Mother, maid and two children.
Your life remained the same, and school.
That’s right. There was no major discontinuity.
When you came you went directly to Princeton?
Yes. There was a stop in England. Essentially, when we decided to go, we tried to learn English. A crazy lady who was the wife of an associate of my father tried to give us some English lessons in Germany. Then we spent I believe one month at the Devonshire Coast, and learned a bit more English, and I forget exactly why, we stayed there for a month, then went on to New York, then went to Princeton. And a colleague of my father’s who’s now dead by the name of Charles Rufus (?) Murray, an art historian at Princeton, had arranged to have a house rented there. We stayed for a while in a small inn,then moved into the house in about a week. Then our furniture arrived. So again, the mechanics of this was relatively straightforward.
This was April, you didn’t start school till the following September.
Thats correct, We stayed there in the summer getting settled, and getting acquainted with Princeton. But then of course, there was a real problem, to get admitted to Princeton. The arrangement was made that the tuition would be waived but Princeton made no commitment to admit me or my brother, and the problem was that I was 15 and had not finished the gymnasium, and so I remember having an interview with the admissions officer of Princeton University, a very martial looking gentleman with a moustache by the name of Heermann. I remember that quite well.
The problem was, what would be the less traumatic thing to do, to start at Princeton University, having really deficiencies in preparation, or to go to American high school, which culturally would be much more difficult, because by that time I would be a junior or senior, and the rest of the kids already being along a track. So it was decided to make the experiment, and have both my brother and myself enter as freshmen at Princeton, And that’s the way it stayed. That is, because it was thought that that was a lesser problem.
By that time, your English was—
No, it was pretty miserable, and so what I actually did, I never did know whether the interest in science was sort of peripheral. I mean actually, to be frank, the main reason I enrolled mostly in scientific things because those were the items where you didn’t have to speak much English, and I was scared. So — the motive was purely negative, for the decision, I recall, I was very much scared to enroll in those courses where you’d have to generate term papers in English. So I took essentially beginning physics and calculus courses and a year of drawing, and any other course - I took a course in Latin poetry. I got permission to translate into German poetry rather than English poetry, because the professor fortunately permitted me to do that.
Were these electives? Had you already made a decision you were going to major in—
Oh, not at all. At that time there was not even a direction to find in the beginning, and you didn’t have to declare your major until the third year. This was just a general beginning in science, primarily because I was scared to [Interruption]
We were talking about the choices at Princeton before we get to the point where you do choose a major. I want to ask about your adjustment. You said it was an easy transition, but how did you settle in and make friends?
Well, we did make some friends. Interestingly enough, there were a couple of people who then became physics majors, who were from the Western part of the country, who sort of looked at my brother and myself as being people who should be taken under wing, to a certain extent, who spoke bad English, who were sort of floundering around, but were sort of interesting people. So we had two very close friends. One fellow came from New Jersey, one was from Denver. The fellow from Denver is now the chairman of the physics department in Lehigh, Ray Emrich, you may know him — do you know him?
He is an officer in the fluid dynamics section of the American Physical Society. He’s a tall red-headed fellow, he may be grayish by now. But he was a very real American American, and tried very hard to teach me quite deliberately — he taught me to drive, he tried to really teach me how things went. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, we bought a 1926 Buick, and we had another friend who came from Pennsylvania, and we drove all over the country, the three of us. I was 16, my brother was 18, this other kid was 17 to 18. So we really got to know America that way. We drove about 7000, 8000 miles.
Cross country, oh yes. We got stuck in Nevada with a broken crank case, and we had all sorts of adventures. Then we went, on the way back, to North Dakota and met with a geologist from Princeton who was a neighbor of ours, and we did some digging for artifacts. I remember that well; I was quite interested in it.
Did you visit any institutions?
Just really an adventure.
That’s right. You see, we were only in the United States for a year, so it was fundamentally to see the country. It was a very new experience, because of course in Europe we didn’t do any traveling, and in Europe we would go to Berlin and visit family, but traditionally Europeans really don’t travel, particularly in those days did not used to go and travel. The whole idea that you want to travel around and see the country at that time was a much more American idea than European.
Distances are greater.
Sure, and again, I think my parents did not really have much of a specific idea what this was all about. My father sort of thought it was a great thing, but they didn’t know how to drive and I think had only a very remote idea of what it meant to take a 1926 Buick and drive 7000 miles around the country.
You mentioned some friends, who were the others?
There was a fellow named Rocky Thompson, who was a psychology major, who was also a very down to earth type, who hasn’t been very successful since then. He’s some kind of bond salesman now. There were several others with whom we had a more casual acquaintance. But we mainly went to classes and worked and there wasn’t very much social life.
We lived at home, and had a peculiar situation, that freshmen were not allowed to be on the street on which my parents’ house was, because that was the club street from which freshmen were banned. So I had to get special permission to walk home. And a similar situation that at that time undergraduates were not permitted to drive. My brother and I were the only drivers in the family so we were the sole transportation of my parents. We were essentially the chauffeurs of the family. But what I meant is that we would be all day on campus, and then only go home to sleep. We’d eat in the regular dining halls and so forth.
Did the family life change very much as a result of the transition or was it pretty much the same?
It was very similar. It was essentially the same. Colleagues at the house, and I would see them sometimes on weekends, and but we fundamentally went alone. But it was essentially the same thing, colleagues at the house, essentially we had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the art department and so forth. We had zero Interest in art courses.
A large group of colleagues in that field came. Are there any you particularly remember?
Mainly Charles Rufus Murray, and a man by the name of Cook from New York University, Lester Cook. I don’t remember any other names.
I was thinking of people who were also emigrating at this time.
No, I don’t remember any like that. I was really just plan not acting very much with that.Just met individuals I either liked or didn’t like, chatted a little bit and then usually got bored by the detailed shoptalk and vanished and attended to my own things.
It seems you’d have enough to do anyway as a student.
That’s right. That’s right. It was very relaxed, but intellectually, not closed.
How did you then get more and more interested In physics?
Well, I got very interested in it. I got good grades. I guess physics was the one subject I ever got a B in. I got more and more interested in it. Then I believe it was after my sophomore year, Professor Harnwell got me a summer job together with Ray Emrich at the RCA Radio tube plant, when my parents were away. I lived in an apartment that was also vacated by a friend of my father’s, a colleague in New York, and I used to commute by subway to Harrison, New Jersey and work there. I guess I did my first scientific paper, the relative importance on limitations of conduction to emission for oxide-coated cathodes. In retrospect it was quite interesting.
And it was a paying job, and a sort of — it was fun because I learned a lot of technology and using an oscilloscope, etc. I had to learn a lot of vacuum technique and evacuating things and sealing things off, but also trying to understand what was going on. And that worked relatively well. Then also Princeton had the custom, for people who did well, of independent work, and I wrote my junior paper on the vibration of a piano string, which is an interesting problem. It’s not just a matter of simple Fourier analysis, but it turns out there are multiple collisions between the hammer and the string.
They actually have a repetitive impulse, it turns out, it’s not just a single impulse of striking the string. Then I wrote another term paper on the third law of thermodynamics, which was in my junior year. And then — because I had good grades — I then did a senior thesis with Walker Bleakney. It was very nice at Princeton at that time, because physics was very small. There were only five majors in my class, and the previous year there’d only been one, I think, so you became very well acquainted with the faculty. Also I had a little room in the basement of the physics building and worked there almost continuously in my waking hours building a high pressure ionization chamber and an electrometer circuit and running the decay curves the various isotopes activated in the cyclotron down there.
It had just about started to operate.
That’s right. But I mainly wrote a senior paper on the behavior of high pressure ionization chambers and their saturation characteristics and all that kind of business. I learned how to do thing in the shop and so forth. Again, which is a major change, because my parents were essentially non-mechanical. I mean manual skills, building machine tools and so forth, was something which was just not done in the sort of middle class Jewish activity in Germany. During that time I learned very much to get my hands dirty, and wind transformers and learn how to do fairly precision shop work and all that kind of business.
How did you happen to get into that?
I really don’t know. I think mainly by becoming acquainted with Walker Bleakney. I also became very well acquainted with Allen Shenstone. They were both people I talked to quite often. I also remember I took a graduate course from H. P. Robertson in quantum mechanics and had a very good time at that.
What other courses did you take?
The regular classical sequence — electricity and optics —- I remember, the optics course was taught from a French textbook, Bruhat Optique, which was sort of a remarkable thing to happen at an American university, there was no comparable work—teaching an undergraduate course on a junior level with a French textbook was sort of a peculiar thing. At the time, there was no solid state course of any kind I took. The pressure to take courses was relatively low. I mean, this quantum mechanics course was a graduate course, and I just decided to do it, but it was not required.
There was more emphasis to complete the classical sequence and do a senior thesis of some kind. Some of the senior theses were relatively straightforward. I helped another fellow, name of Beggs who is now I believe chairman of the board of Leeds and Northrup who became a commercial fellow, to map out acoustics of the local movie -— which was his senior thesis. He was just running oscillators into the speaker system, and I was running around with microphones, mapping out the seat by seat response and plotting fancy curves.
It’s almost as empirical as that today.
That’s right. I’m sure it has not improved greatly. There was one of the senior professors, now dead, by the name of Cooke on the faculty, who had designed the ceiling of that particular movie house, to have more uniform front to back response, and the purpose of the senior thesis was to verify this particular situation.
What about nuclear physics during this period? The cyclotron was running.
I had no interaction with it whatsoever. I met Hilt White, mainly to get some kind of a hot target to run in my ionization chamber, or to get something braised, because they had some facilities there locally. But I had essentially zero exposure to nuclear physics, and didn’t know what was going on. In the part of it where I worked I got acquainted with the various mass spectroscopy activities. Hippel, who’s now at the Bureau of Standards, was working there on the crossed field spectrometer was interested in just classical electrical things, interested in the theory of that particular thing, it was electric and magnetic field at right angles gadget.
Hippel, this is not the one vho was at MIT?
No, another Hippel. He did precision measurement of the gyromagnetic-ratio of the proton at the Bureau of Standards later, but he worked at that time on the E. cross, H. cross, crossed field, mass spectrograph at Princeton. I think I’ve got that right.
You worked on something like that later in your own work, didn’t you?
A little bit, yes.
During this period had you any feeling about a focus first, had you decided yet, “I want to be a physicist”?
No, not at all. I’ll tell you one thing about my whole career. I’ve always been really totally non deliberate, I mean, somehow or other, this sounds sort of funny when I talk with my kids who are all terribly worried about the future and “what shall do?” And I’ve always sort of drifted from one thing to the other in some natural way without planning well, without thinking about it I mean, I’ve always been totally non deliberate about it, which is partially due to a sort of protected existence, I guess I mean, in spite of all the emigration and the conflict in Germany and all that business in Germany and getting into a new environment. I don’t remember any kind of decision point of any kind, at which I decided to become a physicist or what kind of a physicist, or this, that and the others. It was just sort of a natural thing to go from one thing to the next I mean, I’m being serious in saying that I first decided to take technical subjects because I tried to figure out how I could get going in spite of my rather clear inability to write any kind of English papers But I simply had fun—
All right, given your non decision to do what you’re doing, was there any particular aspect of physics that you felt more attracted to than others?
Well, one thing that I did do independently, quite apart from the lab work which I had fun with independently I studied in enormous detail the Abraham volumes on classical electricity, because the teaching of electricity was Just the standard junior-senior course which didn’t go very far and didn’t look into any sort of basic things about what electrons had to do and so on. Another thing, at that time I found that I was very good at explaining things to other people. At that time, Princeton was socially different from what it is now. Essentially two-thirds of the people there were very rich and one-third were very poor, and a large part of the activity of the college consisted in transferring the money from the two-thirds to the one—third.
I became a member of what’s called a Student Tutoring Association, which means that people would retain some of the better students to help them to prepare for examinations. And I used to do a lot of teaching. What it amounts to, some other students had bad rapport with their particular Instructor, and I was rather successful at it. In fact I remember one occasion where Professor Harnwell had taught a senior course and there was one guy who was near flunking, and I had him as a private tutoree for a few weeks and he got an A in the course, and Harnwell was very upset and called me in and asked whether I had known the exam or whether there was anything wrong.
I said no, there wasn’t, I guess he was just a slow character, and if you sat down with him, you could work on these things. But part of the reason is, I was then interested in classical electrodynamics at the time and had worked independently on the Abraham books which of course were in German and therefore not generally used. That was one independent activity I did, plus the business on these various term papers and so forth.
Well, you mentioned the Abraham book that excited your interest. Had you selected something you would specialize in?
No. I mean, I did my senior thesis on this high pressure Ionization chamber thing, but which was fundamentally just an interesting object with no conscious decision that I would be interested in nuclear physics. In fact, I didn’t understand any nuclear physics. I took just a very brief lecture series, I believe it was, where I just became acquainted with the basic energy balance in nuclear reactions. It was E. U. Condon who taught it, I believe, at the time.
It must have been just before he left there for Westinghouse.
Yes, he left. I’ve forgotten now the exact sequence, I’m somewhat confused.-
I think it was about '37, I’m not sure.
My only acquaintance. I’m confused between what happened in my junior and senior years. I may well be sloppy here. But there was some kind of theoretical lecture where for the first time I understood how you actually balanced nuclear reactions, simply by masses and so forth. That’s all I ever learned about nuclear physics while at Princeton. It was not an undergraduate activity. As it happened, I was simply not in touch with it.
Were there colloquium talks, discussion groups, journal clubs?
Not any particular impressive thing, I didn’t participate very much we did some.
How about other extracurricular activities of any sort? Were you involved in sports?
Not much. Sports were compulsory in the beginning, so I was on the fifth basketball team, which was for a 5’2” student, not the ideal choice, but it was a choice between that and body building, which means running—no, I didn’t do much. On the other hand, I was actually quite a good athlete in Germany, in track, but I didn’t go out for anything and didn’t participate in any kind of organized competitive things. I was a member of the Chess Club, but the only game we ever won was against West Point, we got beaten by all the New York boys. I remember once taking a trip to West Point. It was the only triumph in our life as a chess team. And they’re supposed to be strategists.
Your life then really revolved around your studies.
Pretty much, studies and relatively few friends who lived in the more shoddy dormitories. I mean I essentially never went into the fancier dormitories, but I had friends in the less affluent dorms. For instance, I often had the situation that between classes, there wasn’t enough time to go home, so I’d either go to the library or simply go to one of the friends’ dorms. That was sort of the life. Then in the summer, I had a summer job. One summer, I went on my famous 7000 mile trip. Another one I had a job at RCA. Oh yes, and then, this was an important thing.
In the last summer, I was hired at no pay by Henry Eyring, the chemist. Yes, that was an interesting situation. Henry Eyring, as you probably know, was a physical chemist, and the way he works is by talking, so he would like to have students to whom he would talk to about the theory of liquids, all summer, occasionally interrupted by talk about the evils of drink. I would occasionally run out computations for him on a hand computer, but otherwise talk with him or he talked to me rather, about theory of liquids. And I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot about partition functions and the more semi-empirical statistical mechanics of the day, and that was fun.
Then at that time he also had a group of young people whom he was trying to sort of ad hoc teach various subjects, and he was interested in the theory of elasticity, and I agreed to write what amounts to a little textbook on the theory of elasticity, so I actually at that time generated a rather complicated mathematical thing which is essentially a rewrite of lectures which were given by him and some other people on elasticity, using the complete matrix formulation, and then boiling down the number of matrix components by different symmetries. So that was a summer activity, and I got quite interested in that and it was sort of a fun summer.
Between your junior and senior?
Between junior and senior years. That was a fun summer, because I was his assistant, and I would be there for sometimes 12 hours a day listening to him, and occasionally talking back, but not very much.
Did he expect you to take notes?
Not like Niels Bohr dictating something.
No, no, that wasn’t the Idea at all. The idea was essentially to have the disciple talk back to him if he didn’t get it, and occasionally simply doing some computations.
This clarified his thinking then.
Yes. The purpose was to clarify his thinking. That was the purpose, and it was amusing, because as you probably know, he’s a Mormon bishop, and he would occasionally interrupt it by a moral discourse, and then go back to –
What about the drinking, when you said evils of drink, was that because he did drink or because he talked about it?
No, he does not drink but he smoked big black cigars; that is all I remember.
When you first said that I thought he was interrupting to have drinks.
No, no, not at all.
You meant that he was moralizing.
That’s right. He was interrupting to talk about the evils of drink. No, no, not at all, he was only indulging in black cigars.
That was an interesting relationship. You were young.
That’s right. I was very young. I wrote this set of notes and I learned a lot.
Whatever happened to all these things, the set of notes, the senior thesis, the earlier papers you did, did you save them?
Yes, they’re around somewhere.
Where for example?
Either home or in the files here.
That’s something we should make a note to look for, on the tape.
All right, I think I still have the RCA paper kicking around somewhere.
I think it would be good to pull these things together. These are things that are not at all on your bibliography.
Also things that give a documentation of this period.
They exist. As far as I know they exist. I’ll try. I’ll take a look.
Very good. Let me ask, how did you get from Princeton to Cal Tech? When and for what reason did you make the decision to continue on in your schooling?
Well, many of the professors said I should go on, and so I applied I believe to ten graduate schools. I went through that application routine, and I had quite good fellowship offers from Columbia and Cal Tech and one or two others, I’ve forgotten, but the ones I took seriously were Columbia and Cal Tech. I actually had an Interview with Rabi. Rabi tried to persuade me to go, and he gave me — he spent several hours with me giving me some really very impressive lectures on molecular beam apparatus—he showed me his laboratory and so forth.
He suggested you would be working on that?
Not necessarily. I forget exactly how the interview was arranged. Not necessarily. On the other hand, Cal Tech, I got an enormously long letter from Hillikan, that’s quite an amazing thing to do. I mean, he wrote to an applicant graduate student. He wrote a four page single spaced letter telling me about life at Cal Tech and what was going on there and how great. It would be and that he hoped I would come and so forth. He evidently did that in a very deliberate way to get good graduate students to the place.
Gee, I’d love to see that letter.
That exists too.
OK, that could be duplicated.
I guess maybe I’d better duplicate some. OK, I’ll break down.
The Millikan letter and those Eyring notes, senior thesis, the other papers you wrote.
All right. OK. OK.
You got this personal letter saying why don’t you come, giving reasons.
That’s right. It was a standard teaching assistantship at Cal Tech, where you gc room and board for teaching, the deal which essentially all the graduate students had at that time.
Tuition covered as well.
Tuition covered as well, yes, so essentially you only needed money for incidentals like transportation,amusement and so forth.
What was the basis of your final decision?
I don’t really remember very well. I think primarily a sort of a sense of adventure. First, I didn’t like the city, because I’d worked there that summer at RCA, and also, sort of a sense of adventure, to get away, and also, people told me Cal Tech was a good place. It was not in any way whatever related to the particular subject of research, didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going to work in.
What about the faculty, was there any faculty that attracted you?
No, didn’t even know anything about the faculty. I didn’t even know who was on the faculty other than Millikan. I had read Millikan’s book on the electron and knew who he was, and had the, Millikan, the Electrons, Plus and Minus. I’d read that at Princeton, but only knew of Millikan, I didn’t know of anybody else there. Somehow it was just sort of general terms, being told by my professors that these were very good places. But I was in no way focussed on the actual activity that was going on there.
And the trip there was you graduated in June, I assume –
graduated in June and then yes then I decided to go there by boat through the Panama Canal. That was actually the cheapest way to go, on a freighter through the Panama Canal. I took a lot of books with me, did a little studying on the boat.
How long did it take?
About a month. And stopped in Panama and other places. At that time things were not tourists quite primitive. And then landed in San Pedro, in LA, at Cal Tech, and there met some of the second year were all being very helpful, because everybody lived what was called the Loggie. Cal Tech had the custom at that time, still does, that all teaching assistantships have room and board at one of board at one of two places. The room is either at what’s called the Athenaeum which is a faculty club, or what at that time used to be known as Old Dorm, which was a redwood shingled firetrap, which is where I lived first.
Who else did you meet and come In tact with in terms of graduate students?
Well, graduate students, for Instance the man who immediately became a very close friend was a fellow named Howland Bailey who is now at Rand, who had a rattletrap car. And then my office mate was a fellow by the name of Donald Wheeler, who is now at Lehigh, and he was a very quiet, scholarly, very reticent person, non-outgoing fellow. We used to work together without talking very much. But a very congenial group. I mean, there were many people.
I got acquainted with Charlie Townes at that time; in fact he was one year older than I was and he was working on an isotope separation chain, with the Hertz separation methods, with a whole sequence of mercury pumps. That he didn’t die with mercury poisoning — there was more darn mercury strewn all over the floor.
Cal Tech used to have floors with cracks in it — they’re sort of either tile or concrete with grooves in between, and in almost all the laboratories the grooves were filled with mercury. That was standard equipment. Anyway, Townes and I used to brag to one another that we were the only ones who had solved all the problems in Smythe’s book on electromagnetism. Yes, we were essentially the only ones. — It was a sort of contest.
You mentioned getting into research. How did you decide on what research focus you would take?
You see, Cal Tech had a very heavy course load in the first year, and in the first year Donald Wheeler and I had an office together not in research. He worked in a different research field later. But we kept the office together. All teaching assistants were assigned Joint offices. Now, the first year was a very heavy course and problem load. As you probably know, one of Millikan’s traditions at Cal Tech was to teach that problem solving was the thing.
Now, Cal Tech has come away from that, but his main principle of teaching, and he impressed the whole faculty with it, was that teaching should be focussed on people being able to do difficult problems. So the incoming graduate student had almost zero opportunities to find out what was going on in research there. So I actually had less laboratory contact during my first year at Cal Tech than I had during my last year at Princeton. So I took the main, what’s called the hurdle courses at Cal Tech— one of them, I passed by examination, but the rest of them I took. Very difficult courses.
I learned mathematics from Harry Bateman who made a really deep impression on me, and Smythe taught this course which was entirely problem solving, and without background. Then Epstein taught the more theoretical courses on electrodynamics and so forth, and Houston taught the only solid state physics course I ever learned.
Was the course called solid state physics?
I think it was called Theory of Metals. It was stop-bands and —
What book did you use?
We didn’t use a book. I kept notes and read references. There was no single book.
That’s a pretty heavy load in the first year. What about Oppenheimer?
He was cycling at the time between Cal Tech and Berkeley, and I remember, I tried to audit those, during my second year. I didn’t understand anything and dropped out.
But you do remember going to them.
I tried to, yes, and he asked me then later, when I was in my thesis work, he asked me to give a seminar about my thesis work, to his class, which I did. But I never interacted with him, with his actual formal lectures. I tried to audit it once and couldn’t understand anything and quit.
That’s not at all unusual.
But I became acquainted with him, a little bit, casually, during that time. But some of the young theorists who used to go up and down with him at that time, Kusaka and Christy, for instance, became friends and used to go to concerts together and so forth. I met Christy at that time.
Well, what about the people he would relate to down there, men like Charlie Lauritsen for example, did you know him?
Not very much.
Lauritsen and Fowler?
Not very much. I’ll explain that. I then started doing my thesis work under DuMond, and Cal Tech was fairly compartmentalized. I mean, there were the, call it high living, whatever you want to call it, crowd, were the ones around Lauritsen. Fowler and so forth in the Kellogg Laboratory. They were even in a different building from the rest of the physics research. And I took a course in nuclear physics from Lauritsen, which I learned a lot from, but it was only one quarter, one semester, I don’t remember how it worked. But otherwise, I had essentially nothing whatever to do with the nuclear physics community there at all.
And I worked on X-rays, but I got started on that, again, more or less by drifting into it. My office as a teaching assistant was on the top floor, and DuMond’s laboratory was on the bottom floor, and during the first year I had nothing to do with research, but I used to go down there and spy during the first year, but I had nothing to do with it and Just dropped in and talked to people about what they were doing and became interested in what they were doing and so forth. Then, during the — I don’t remember the chronology exactly — I guess it was the second year.
I asked DuMond if I could work with him, and I worked first as an understudy to Bailey on the precision measurement, and then Bailey left and I took over the experiment. By that time, DuMond went to Washington, the war started. During that period I did my thesis while DuMond was in Washington working on the degaussing of ships, and some other things, and so I was pretty much on my own. Again, the time sequence may be somewhat mixed up here.
Well, your first paper with DuMond, Bailey and Green is 1941.
Yes. That’s my thesis.
Oh, that’s your thesis. The abstract. I have it here.
I did essentially two Jobs while I was there. I did the h/e job, where I really inherited some apparatus and added others, and also found various sources of error which had been totally unsuspected and so forth. And then I worked with DuMond on the first experiments on the curved crystal spectrometer.
No, that’s different again, no, that’s not true. In the early days, before I ever got there, DuMond worked with Kirkpatrick on the mult-crystal spectrometer, which was a very laborious way of lining up separate crystals. Well, then DuMond built a curved crystal spectrometer, where rather than having a whole bunch of separate crystals aligned in the appropriate geometry, you bend a crystal to a radius which is twice that of the focal circle, That was really a matter of extremely fortuitous historical circumstance, because he built the thing, which was a very elaborate technical thing, but if one looks at the efficiency of reflection of it for high energy X-rays, at that time, no sources would have been strong enough, until the reactor was invented.
I mean, it was an interesting thing, that here the tool for precision gamma ray spectroscopy was built, but had the reactor not been developed, no sources of sufficient strength would have been available to use that particular spectrometer. Now DuMond is an incredible man, because he’s a man who did absolutely everything himself, from scratch. One of the main things sort of the main principle of the lab was, not to depend on anybody else for anything that goes into your final data, For instance, he built all the pumps, published papers on the pumps, he built X—ray tubes, published papers on the heat conduction problem in the rotating target, He built the whole high voltage and regulator business.
This is all with the students, he cast all the lead bricks, He poured the concrete for the PS, for the galvanometers and so forth and so forth, I mean, there was simply no dependence on anything else. I then got into it, and the first thing he knew relatively little electronics. Electronics was the thing of the younger generation. So I got into the business when I started being a graduate student he had this X-ray tube and it wouldn’t be stable. I built a fancy regulator to keep the voltage stable. And that’s when he decided that I was worth Joining him, and then I worked on the shielding and the lining of the spectrometer, and got the big X-ray tube to work, and so forth and so forth.
Did he invite you to come part of his group, is that the way it was done?
I don’t remember exactly. Again, it was sort of a gradual thing. I sort of slowly converted myself from a drop—in visitor to a regular member, to become his regular graduate student.
Before we talk about the research, I’d like to know what you were teaching and how much of your time it took?
Oh, I don’t really remember that very well. I had a section. I was a teaching assistant, and I had a section in the regular freshman and sophomore sequence. We used to sort of race our sections against one another, as to whose section got better grades, and our people did fairly well. I frankly don’t remember.
How much time?
I don’t remember. I frankly don’t, I’m sorry.
What I’m getting at, when you started research you were still teaching?
Oh yes. Oh yes, I taught essentially all the way through.
You were a teaching assistant right on through?
Right on through. Then I got a fancy fellowship during the last year, which believe did not involve much teaching. I wrote a textbook with Carl Anderson, which never was published. It’s called Duane Roller, Anderson and Panofsky. Duane Roller, Anderson, Watson, I guess Mi1likans name was on it also, I’m sure you know it. It was a freshman textbook with a major historical perspective
Yes, I think we have it in our library.
A very good book and liked it very much because it has a very historical approach to each chapter, and also it’s illustrated with good materials, sort of a fun book. Anyway, it was a very good freshman text. The sophomore text was awful. It was Millikan and somebody else, [Gale?] hadn’t been changed for a long time, and Anderson and finally decided, on a crash basis, it was so awful, Millikan wasn’t around at the time, that something had to be done. So we engaged in a tour de force, writing a 300 page textbook in a summer there. I’ve forgotten when, I think the last summer there. This thing was quite good, and it was mimeographed, and I remember all the graduate students gathering all their girlfriends to collate the book. And it was used all through the war as a regular textbook.
Why did it remain unpublished?
I don’t really remember why it was unpublished. I don’t think anybody. I just don’t know. People were dispersed. By the end of the war, everybody went to different places.
What did it cover?
Electricity. Electricity and optics. It was essentially the regular two year sequence, optics, and I’m prejudiced, I thought it was very good. It was done in a hurry, obviously had rough spots, but it was well received by the students. Again, I have that around somewhere.
Well, this is amazing, that you’re doing that while you’re writing up your thesis. Before we get to the thesis work, the first publication that I see is 1941, the thesis, and yet there’s a big paper, this one is April 7, 1942 — now, is this what you mean by the thesis?
Yes, that’s it.
But there wasn’t a preliminary report?
Yes, I forget, a letter, or was there a bulletin or an abstract, I don’t remember.
It’s an abstract.
I see, OK —
— at a meeting —
I wrote that, yes.
Then there’s another one, the 20 kilovolt one, that’s ‘42, that’s also an abstract, “Determination of h/e by means of the Short Wavelength Limit of the Continuous X-ray Spectrum at 20 kV.” And it is a sequence on this same subject.
Yes, that’s all my thesis. That was all really my thesis. There was a great deal of interest in that. There was a major discrepancy. See, this was all tied in at that time in this whole question that the value of e was wrong, because of the wrong viscosity which Millikan used, and h/e was wrong too by quite a large amount. This was a decisive paper, even though the now accepted value is 2 1/2 standard deviation, different from the one published there, it was a major shift which made it clear that what was wrong was e and not h/e, but there were some auxiliary physical things which are emphasized in these various things. First, there was a question that had fooled everybody else: the fact that the low atomic number, deposits on a target, in X-ray tube, would slow down the electrons, but the radiation efficiency was low, so it was overlooked. So you got a fake threshold and that was the reason why a lot of old measurements were wrong. I mean, that was the main discovery in this paper. And the rest was a very mathematically logical extrapolation to threshold.
What do you think you learned from it, in terms of your work on the problem? You’re saying what it contributed, but did it influence your style?
Yes. I mean, for one thing, the whole question of worrying about precision and unfolding resolution out of data, and mainly really, sort of a really complicated system with lots and lots of components, where you just have to worry about each part of it. It had to work right, and nothing is sort of the weakest link of the problem.
Like what you’re doing now.
Yes, and a lot of sort of, it was a very complicated interlocking experiment, and I don’t want to indicate that I — DuMond designed the thing, and it sort of grew through several generations of students. I believe that a paper by V Bollman, as a sort of preliminary, not correct, derived from the same apparatus. And fundamentally my main task, by paying attention to detail, was to get the voltage properly regulated, and mainly with the relatively poor vacuum of the time, making an automatic gadget which in vacuo would scratch the surface of the target off, and remove different atomic number layers. Then the main thing I did a mathematical thing, by iterative method, unfolding the resolution out of the actual observed curves. But the basic gadget was hardware which had sort of been accumulating over many generations of graduate students, with DuMond as senior man. It was called the Watters X-ray rube. Watters is a rich New York industrialist, and some way or other — DuMond was able to get a few thousand dollars to get this.
This was a specific fund which was acknowledged.
But this was pretty much specially designed for DuMond?
That’s right. That’s right.
Watters Memorial Research Fund.
That’s right. I forgot. I think Mr. Watters was alive but [crosstalk] — I met him once. He sponsored, essentially, not so much ongoing research but this complex of high voltage equipment for the high voltage X-ray work.
What were his expectations? Kellogg’s expectations for example were radiation therapy.
Yes. I really don’t know, how the interactions between DuMond and Watters went which initiated that. I simply don’t know.
Yes, there’s a lot more material on DuMond
I have a copy of his autobiography.
Let me ask a little more about him. Since his work wasn’t in the main nuclear physics area and it wasn’t in the cosmic ray area, I gather that he was somewhat isolated?
That’s right, he was quite isolated, and his relations — he’s a very temperamental man, and his relations were sometimes good, sometimes bad. They were always. I wasn’t particularly sensitive to this, but there were always flaps, particularly during the war. He always felt persecuted by the Lauritsen crowd, to some extent, although they appreciated him very much, I felt. It’s not uncommon in any faculty situation, that when there is sort of a large organized laboratory, that the individual researcher somehow or other feels persecuted. I mean, that’s a pattern which I’m sure you find at Berkeley at the Radiation Laboratory, and it was found here too.
And the Cavendish.
And the Cavendish. It’s a very standard phenomena. DuMond’s relationships with Lauritsen were not terribly good. They had their ups and downs. And my feeling was that it was pretty much one way, the fact that DuMond felt uncomfortable. Also, the Lauritsen group was sort of a vigorous hard-drinking crowd, and you asked me about alcohol consumption in connection with Eyring and the “evils of drink.” I mean, it was really a quite remarkable situation, that the people in the Kellogg Lab were all sort of a very convivial, hard-drinking crowd, while the people in Bridge Laboratory, cosmic ray people and DuMond and Epstein and so forth, were by and large, much more moderate types.
What was the reason for that? One reason was that Millikan was in the Bridge.
That’s right, and Millikan of course was very abstemious, so there was a real disparity between—
Well, they were his students too — there was Anderson, Bowen probably—
And they were directly out of Millikan’s tradition. When did you hear about nuclear fission. It was while you were at Cal Tech.
I heard — Fermi gave a lecture, he was visiting, talking about fission, first time I heard of it. He was calculating, very roughly, critical masses, in the lecture. I forget when that was. You can probably tell me. However, I hadn’t — I wasn’t a nuclear physicist. I was an X—ray guy, and so I had no appreciation — I found, It very interesting, but then it disappeared from sight. I did not participate in the nuclear physics seminars or anything of that kind at Cal Tech. So excepting for the course from Lauritsen, I really had very little training of any kind in nuclear physics. I tried to read papers and so forth, but really didn’t know what was going on.
The intrusion of nuclear fission didn’t change it either.
Do you recall if it created much of a stir?
No, I don’t remember.
Were you keeping up pretty much with other parts of physics while you were focusing—
Not too much, a little bit, a little bit. I remember for instance that when the betatron was discovered, I gave a seminar on the orbit dynamics and stability of the betatron. Even though there was no such animal, around there. It was sort of fun.
Were you troubling yourself about things about the mesotron and its significance?
No. I didn’t know that much theory. I didn’t know any highbrow nuclear theory at all. Not until afterwards, at Berkeley, until the Piccioni-Conversi experiment, did I recognize that there was really a paradoxical situation. So I just occasionally knew that there was such a thing, just sort of the external phenomena of mesons and pair production — but I was fundamentally pretty narrowly involved in the X-ray situation there, and really pretty much tied up. A graduate student usually is, in trying to get the bugs out of this rather complicated piece of connected machinery. I mean, the main thing about this thesis, it has a lot of interacting high precision components. Dullond wasn’t there, and this fellow Green, who was a next generation student, and Alex Green, he’s now in Florida, and he’s turned pretty much a theoretician, Alex E.S. Green, do you know him?
I pretty much was fully responsible. Again, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was really in a very responsible situation, and also from the point of view of just plain not killing anybody, because it was a 300 kilowatt 100 milliampere huge power supply, lots of gadgets, and precision, crystal spectrometers, and lots of problems of shielding and precision measurements and high voltage dividers and so forth and so forth and so forth and maintenance and —
You were duplicating DuMond’s approach by doing it completely.
That’s right, and he vanished you remember at that time.
You were duplicating the style, not division of labor, but doing it all falls on you.
That’s right. You see, this was probably the main difference in style between the Lauritsen approach and the DuMond approach. DuMond wanted to be essentially fully in control of everything, but he was not an organizer of teams.
Did it have anything to do with the scale of the apparatus itself?
Oh sure. Oh sure, I mean, beyond a certain point you can’t get away with it.
You have something that’s three floors high — where you need a couple of people — [crosstalk]
Yes, that’s right, well, actually this particular — no, it wasn’t tiny, it actually was not three floors high, but it was scattered all over the building, I mean all the power sources, the big generators and what not, High voltage feed-ins were stuck in the basement, and the cooling towers, and one on the roof, one on the side of the building rather, and then there was one, two adjoining big rooms for the hardware.
Did Millikan have any interaction with you at this time?
He wasn’t checking on you or helping or anything?
No. I took one course from him,
Was it very good?
Not very, simply because it - [off tape] To the graduate students, it was not very highly regarded, because he essentially kept going over his original book on the electron, just gave it, which to the non-historically minded graduate student was essentially a lowbrow account of essential physics, of Millikan rather than physics.
Like a review of Millikan’s book Condon did for the American Journal of Physics during the period, and the review was entitled Days and Nights at the Norman Bridge Lab.
Thats right, and the course was like that also. Millikan and I didnt meet until I participated later in the war project. No, I’m sorry, I met him, of course, but essentially didn’t interact with him in any way.
Let me ask about the thesis exam. You had an oral.
Who was on the committee? Who did you have to face?
Oh, Zwicky, Bateman, Epstein, Bowen, I don’t remember.
These were people you’d had courses from?
I’d had courses from, yes.
Were you responsible for the subject matter?
No, the questions were generally more general, broader. It was partially on the thesis.
Was Millikan on the committee?
Yes. I believe he was. I remember one thing — you know, an important historical document which maybe you should get hold of, is that as soon as you are through with your thesis examination, the other graduate students come to you and bring you a book in which to write your experiences which used to be called Der Dummkopf Buch and it was called Das Dummkopf Buch after I was through with it. It’s an interesting document because, Cal Tech being somewhat inbred, many of your examiners were examinees and still are in that book. I remember the examination.
Particularly, I had a run-in with Zwicky, who used to be the terror of all graduate students, and if you’re interested, I can recite the occurrence. It made an indelible impression on me. He said, “Well, Panofsky, consider a glass on a turn table. What happens?” So I said, “It becomes a parabaloid.” He said, “Well, of course, we neglect gravity.” I finally got my courage together and said, “Well, of course viscosity, what happens?” So I derived the equation, which is a Bessel. function and so forth, as the one layer drags and the other one. Then he said, “Well, Panofsky, do you know what I’m talking about?” I said, “No.” “Well, of course, a nebula.” So that was his mechanism of examination. Then later I met him in the Atheneam. He said, “Well, Panofsky, how did you like your examination?” I said, “Not too bad.” He said, “The trouble is that everybody else is trying to examine you. I am trying to teach you something.” So that was my examination with Zwicky.
He was then a formal lecturer.
He was terrible.
Formal in the European style.
That’s right. He was terrible, and because he was not only formal but orthodox, and he liked to present things in a given formal way. I remember one really ludicrous example, where he asked a student to present a problem, and the student would write it on the board, Zwicky said, “Not this way.” The student said, “Oh, no, it works this way, Professor Zwicky,” and finally the student kept writing and Zwicky would erase after him as soon as he could, and the student trying to get his method of presenting it on the board, There was quite a scene.
Another thing was that Zwicky always had the difference between tensors and tenzors. Tensors were matrices with differential coefficients, and tenzors with constant coefficients. And there was sort of a running battle between tensor and tenzor. Michael who was a mathematician at Cal Tech, who was an expert at differential geometry and tensors and so forth - Zwicky had a very belligerent attitude, that his mechanisms of tensor notation was superior. He was a terrible teacher, because he was so extremely orthodox and non-interacting.
Toward the time when you’re completing the write-up of what became your thesis, preparing for your exams and so forth, what were your expectations of the next step, granting you’re not a decision-maker?
Again, I didn’t really pay very much attention to it. You see, what happened was, the war started. The war started and DuMond accepted a responsibility for National Defense Research Council activity which was an outgrowth of several things Lauritsen was doing, a sort of spinoff from Lauritsen’s main rocket business. Firstly, he worked in a precision aerial camera which tracked moving targets, and then he was involved in what was called target rockets, essentially a spin-off of Lauritsen’s rocket activity, and then while firing at target rockets, he and Green conceived the idea, what’s called the firing error indicator, which is a gadget for measuring the proximity of bullets to targets, through various physical interactions, initially magnetic. Now, he roped me into that and I simply worked on that. I had a publication on that.
This one’s “Determination of Wave Forms and Laws of Propagation and Dissipation of Ballistic Shock Waves.”
That’s right, that’s right. So I got roped into that and contributed to it quite extensively. It was a big project. I have the final report of it around here somewhere.
You did this at Cal Tech?
At Cal Tech.
This was before the thesis?
This was already as I remember essentially contiguous. It may have overlapped by a month one way or the other, but it was essentially a continuous transition.
You were paid?
I was paid, yes.
That was your first Job in physics, essentially.
Well, I’d had a summer Job at RCA and of course I’d been a TA.
That sort of paid your education, whereas on this Job you were paid specifically for the research.
Meanwhile, you had published already, you were established in a sense. What were your expectations? If the war hadn’t interfered.
I didn’t pay any attention. That’s really true. I also got married in ‘42. I married DuMond’s daughter. There also was a sort of a very traumatic thing: I was an “enemy alien” still because, due to inadvertence, when my parents entered the country, they took out first papers. The arithmetic at the time was that I would have been only 20 when they got their citizenship and that would automatically make me a citizen. However, their final papers were delayed by the bureaucratic process, so they didn’t get their citizenship until I was 22, and I was being told that now I had to start all over again. In some way they assumed, and nobody told them otherwise, that the time at which the kids became citizens would be related to the actual time that they initially filed for citizenship.
They assumed the five year business was automatic. So I was an enemy alien, and at that time there was the Enemy Exclusion Act from California, and all enemy aliens had to register -— the anti-Japanese Exclusion Act, and all the Japanese were exiled by General DeWitt and all this rather nefarious business. And of course it was in effect aimed at Japanese, but the law included Italians and Germans. So I had to register, and one rather amusing situation was that I was constrained to not go more than five miles, or whatever it was, from my domicile — it may have been ten miles, I’ve forgotten what the radius was. The amusing thing was that Cal Tech, which was my domicile, was involved in classified military activities, so here, as an enemy alien, I was constrained to be at a military activity, and at that time I loved to go hiking and climbing in the hills also. I used to have a map with my legal radius in my pocket and used to go scrambling out in the hills with my fellow graduate students or wife to be, and on the other hand, there was always the threat that the deportation would actually spread to the non-Japanese, so there was a real worry of insecurity, that I would suddenly —
Evacuation, or at least eviction into the Midwest, because — well, that never happened, of course, because the motivation was really anti-Japanese, but that of course was never transparent and certainly not known, so there was a real feeling of insecurity. I tried to expedite my naturalization. In effect, what happened then was, because I was working on this firing error indicator gadget, I had to be cleared as an enemy alien for classified stuff. The main thing I remember about that, there was a most magnificent form which I had to fill out, a single sheet which unfolded into 4 by 9 pages into a single sheet. How they were printed I don’t know — anyway, they cleared quite a few.
There were many enemy aliens involved. Fermi, I believe, was still Italian then, so that was not per se unusual, but as a combination of that with the Exclusion business — So also at that time, I taught courses to military personnel in classical mechanics and electronics and all sorts of stuff. Von Kanman had organized a number of courses both for electronic engineers and military men in more modern physics, or update basic physics for engineering officers. And I remember I would teach these courses, and treat people very roughly, made them work problems, do all sorts of things. And then came Pearl Harbor, from one day to the next day, they were suddenly all colonels and generals and so forth, they were very impressive.
They were just ordinary characters the day before. But anyway, I finally got — Millikan intervened to accelerate my citizenship. One of the amusing occurrences out of that was that there was also a curfew for enemy aliens, and I was teaching these extension courses in the evening. So it turned out, two days after I got my citizenship, two burly military policemen walked into my class and asked me in front of my class why the hell I wasn’t In bed, you see, because it was past curfew hours. So I proudly showed them my newly gained citizenship certificate.
You were in front of the class?
I was in front of the class. So I proudly showed them my newly gained citizenship certificate, and they thanked me and went away. Before I actually did get my citizenship there was a real feeling of a situation of insecurity there for a considerable period of time, because it was purely arbitrary, in what sequence the various enemy aliens were to be evacuated from the battle zone which was California.
You were still very young.
Yes, I was 23. It was in 1942. So this was all a very touchy situation at that time, until I finally got the citizenship. At the same time I was working quite hard on this particular problem. This was a very interesting problem. This was my first interaction with the military mind to some extent. We observed that when people were being trained for gunnery, they would shoot at moving targets of various kinds, rockets, flags and so forth, and people kept in training sometimes for weeks and months, until out of a whole battalion of men, one guy would hit something.
And then they were clared fit for overseas. So the fact that statistically this was a completely meaningless process didn’t occur to anybody. So what DuMond conceived, I believe there’s some confusion about original credit, whether DuMond or Green conceived it, I didn’t although erroneously DuMond gives me credit for it in his memoirs — that what is important is not what you hit, but the probability of your hitting something, and therefore that what you want to shoot at is something which is physically very much larger than the actual target, so that you can actually map the pattern. So the question was, how to create a pattern of detection around the tow target? So DuMond started that project, and originally we got support for it from the National Defense Research Council.
At that time, at first we went from doing it by magnetic detection which turned out to be difficult, to the shock wave detection. We got into the physics of shock waves and then we — there was the transition, and we developed the product, which was then used in actual training, although pretty close to the end of the war. Now, here was again the situation. DuMond initiated the project, but he was a very bad organizer and relatively inept in terms of getting a large number of people to work on a concerted business. He also was still involved with some other activities. So he finally appointed me as head of the thing, to run it.
He was in Washington anyway?
Yes, he was in Washington. I’ve forgotten now exactly the time sequence. It’s somewhat confusing, you can check it out with the memoirs, but he was part of the time in Washington. He came back then it is complicated, also he had family problems but anyway, I became the head of the thing. It was a very complicated business because I had to essentially map a full scale experimental test run and all that. In addition to this main publication, there were quite a few reports written and so forth. The next thing was quite interesting, namely, Luis Alvarez read some of our reports.
Now, Luis Alvarez was responsible at Los Alamos at the time for the yield assessment of the first nuclear explosion, I mean the measurement of explosive power, both In the original test explosion and overseas. So he had designed a bunch of gadgets for acoustically measuring the shock wave, and he read our reports. It speaks extremely well for Luis Alvarez — he reads other people’s technical reports which most people don’t do. He decided that our group had already done his work, that the problem in measuring the shock wave from bullets and the problem in measuring shock waves from nuclear explosions are essentially identical.
So since I was the head of it, he got me up to Los Alamos and then we set up a clandestine operation, where we would manufacture shock wave detectors for Los Alamos and send It through code addresses and all that kind of business. And this then became the main gadget with which the yield of the nuclear weapons was measured. I think you probably know the story about the drop of that Hiroshima (bomb) and the correspondence with Sagane, you know that situation?
I’ve seen a copy of the letter, and I don’t know really the full story of it — Arthur Compton talked about it very briefly and reproduced a page of the letter. [The letter was addressed to Sagane and was dropped over Nagasaki. C.W.]
Well, here’s an historical object sitting in the corner, that beast there, is the gadget which was the sphere which has two microphones that was used to measure bullets whizzing by at a distance of 50 feet on either side. And then it’s essentially modeled after the [human headsi, it has almost the same acoustic properties as the human head. It turned out the diffraction pattern of sound around the human head is such that if you add the amplitude of the sound waves on the two sides, you get an almost spherical sensitivity pattern, but if you take the difference you get binaural hearing.
And so by using the sum-difference algorithm, you can measure both from this distance and the direction, from that gadget. What Alvarez realized is that simply using that and giving it more transmitter power, it could be used directly for the other purpose. So I was sort of the liaison man, and we manufactured various of these gadgets for Los Alamos, without knowing what it was for, excepting for myself, as I ran back and forth. Then I collaborated with others on building the receivers for it, and I was then in a 8-29 over the first Alamagordo test explosion, where the thing was used. Yes, I was in a 8-29, on top of that. I had to trust the theorists to know how to calculate the blast right.
How much time did you spend in Los Alamos altogether? These were just trips?
These were just trips. I was never in residence. I was there for a few days stretches at a time, I forget how many trips.
What was your impression of the blast? It was a very rare thing, not many saw it.
Well, there were very few people there. Again, you’d be surprised to hear that everybody was so exhausted that you sort of took the position, “Oh well, it works” and went back. I fell asleep on the way down in the airplane immediately. I mean, the deadline was so tight that everybody was in a state of utter and complete exhaustion. We looked up and made a sketch of the mushroom cloud. And went to sleep. Said, “Well, it works.” I mean, somehow or other, looking back at this, you think everybody should have been impressed by the historical moment, but particularly the younger people – again.
I wasn’t very old at the time either—there was a war on, and I was not in any way a participant in the design of the device. I mean, it was a rather peripheral activity and I did not comprehend the depth of the engineering problems of making the bomb itself work at all. Still I mean, I recognized the importance of it all right, and knew when the dates of actual use were, and read about it in the newspaper afterwards. I mean, after these initial activities I was then decoupled from it. But somehow or other, when it actually happened, there wasn’t any particular discontinuity. It’s a terrible thing. I mean, if you think about that. You should be tremendously impressed by the discontinuity of history and so on,but it just wasn’t that way with hardly anybody. Also, part of that of course was simply a matter of total exhaustion, I mean, simply because of the deadline. The receivers didn’t work, and everybody was getting in on that and trying to debug this and debug that, and in fact this gadget actually was not used.
The one here in your office?
No, at Alamagordo, the weather was too bad, the drop couldn’t be made, so all we did in the airplane actually was simply observe the mushroom cloud. The acoustic sensor (acoustic firing error Indicator) in fact was not used, because as you may have read, at the June Alamagordo test, the weather was bad and there were delays and so forth, rather complicated. They were not used. But they were used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
You mentioned about the letter to [Sagane]. Let me see if I understand it. I know the letter was dropped, was signed by a few people — as a matter of fact, the names weren’t even on the letter though. The original letter just said, “We’re three physicists” —— If you could tell me
Well, the story was the following, about this gadget, together with —
What’s the proper name of this?
The original name was firing error indicator, acoustic firing error indicator. Then it was converted for the use of the Manhattan Project to a shock wave calibrator. I don’t know whether It had an official name. Anyway, R. F. transmission distance required, It had a large battery case above it, which was a cylinder about a foot and a half long and about so big around, something like that. The assembly of the acoustic head and the battery case was dropped by parachute, from the second plane, and the famous letter was taped to the battery case. The transmission from this device was telemetered, to the plane,and the shock waves were photographed on the oscilloscope screen, and measured.
The plane that Alvarez was on?
That’s right, and that was the assessment. In fact one man, Larry Johnson, who was at the University of Minnesota for a while he’s now in Montana was in both planes. He went on both missions. He was the only physicist who went on both missions.
You’re talking about the plane that followed the first plane?
That’s right. And supposedly this letter that went down by parachute was supposedly indeed delivered to Sagane and Sagane did deliver it to the high command. Now, I never got the story straight, whether that channel of communication did or did not play a role in the actual decision to surrender. But it was essentially a letter which explained to Nishina what this is, and asking him to communicate that fact to the high command. The communication did indeed take place. What was the actual effect of it, I don’t know.
guess it was later returned or given to Alvarez and then others put their signatures on it,
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that feature. I believe the story was published once in the Saturday Evening Post.
I hadn’t seen that, but Arthur Compton handles it a little bit, and then I have the xerox of the letter
Well, I got into it in a peripheral way, into the design of the gadget, and then I was on a B—29 and that’s where I got acquainted with Alvarez, and at that time Alvarez had written the original set of notes on the proton linear accelerator. I mean, I became acquainted with the linear accelerator business at Los Alamos during those times when Alvarez was concerned with the postwar era.
That’s when he was thinking of using surplus radar.
That’s right. That was the sequence, so what happened really was that drifted again from my Ph.D. work into the firing error indicator work, because DuMond was impressed by the sufficiency of statistics, and I was just finishing my thesis, and then he roped me into that. And in his absence, had been finishing up the construction and calibration and some modification of his curved crystal gamma ray spectrometer, while he was in Washington. Then he came back, and I had really already finished my thesis but I was just working on the other research, which was with a younger graduate student, Dave Lind, who is now at the University of California, whom you probably know. So then I got into that, and then DuMond was not involved in this Los Alamos business. After that, I did become very much worried about the social consequences of the bomb, and then in Berkeley later gave a lot of speeches about the need for international control and so forth. But at the time, there was really a very small number of people, really only those who had been involved in the project all the way through my contact was quite peripheral who were very much concerned with what they were doing, I was, quite in sensitive.
At that time.
Were you aware of the movement that had started, the petition—
No. No, I was not aware of that at all.
Did you discuss this with Alvarez, that his having signed the Panofsky Afterwards, yes. Much later. In my recent activities with arms control, I actually supervised some term paper on some of these things [including] the decision to drop the bomb and many of these questions that interested me much later than this.
There’s a new book that’s been completed based on a Berkeley doctoral dissertation, by Martin Sherwin, on atomic diplomacy and World War II using papers that have never been used before, the Presidential papers and things. Very interesting, I think.
What is it called?
Well, the thesis was on atomic diplomacy in World War II, and it was done at Berkeley. He was turning it into a book, He’s been up at Frank Longs program at Cornell for two years, which is about up.
So it’s not out yet—
It should be out soon. So you’re saying that you were relatively insensitive. You weren’t aware of what was going on at that particular point.
Well, I was aware of what was going on, all right, but—
No, I mean aware of the petition and the movements.
No, I was not aware of the petitions, the movements, at all, I was aware of the historical significance of this, I guess I once was involved in an argument about the conflict of values here, about the problem of expected casualties, and if there was an invasion of Japan, versus dropping the bomb, That was sort of the standard argument. But in general, there was essentially this enormous pressure Just to get the gadget built and make it run. So it is in a certain sense, in a wartime atmosphere, sort of an insensitizing element.
You went back then, after the Los Alamos connection, and continued your war work at Cal Tech.
Well, it interleaved fundamentally. I mean, the Los Alamos and the war work at Cal Tech were interleaved. The war work at Cal Tech was all concerned with getting this thing improved, tested, into production, for gunnery training, and for various types of tow target configurations, while at the same time, as a sideline, making these things for Los Alamos.
What I wanted to get at is, when the war ended, what happened in your work? You were at Cal Tech.
I was at Cal Tech, and then I was beginning to look for a Job. I had one offer from the Bell Labs, and went to Bell Telephone Laboratories for an interview, and then Alvarez arranged to have an offer given to me to go to the Rad Lab at Berkeley, based on the contact when we worked together, and he knew what could do in terms of various experimental things. We talked, and he was at that time gathering a team to build the proton linear accelerator out of the surplus radar sets. So I went to Berkeley.
Weren’t you tempted at all with the Bell Lab?
A little bit.
What did it specifically involve?
It wasn’t very specific, and one of the things that “untemped” me, I believe at that time that Dean Wooldridge was there and he persuaded me that the Bell Lab was the greatest place in the world to be, and he left two weeks after. So that detracted somewhat from his persuasiveness, and— Well, we talked as I remember more about working methods which we were trying to do and so forth. You see, the head of the NDRC division involved in the acoustics business was Harvey Fletcher, whom I met at the Bell Labs at various times, so I had, during the wartime work, made acquaintances at the Bell Labs. He suggested I should apply there after the war. And I did. So the only Jobs which I really took seriously were the Bell Labs one and the Job at Berkeley, and the Berkeley Job wasanon-academic Job. It was simply to be research assistant or whatever they called it, physicist, class X,Y,Z. I forget exactly what the special business was, and I decided to go there. I loved California. My wife liked California. And also it sounded like an interesting thing to do. Also I thought Alvarez was a very Inspiring gentleman. So that’s It.
We’re getting down to a new period, so this is a reasonable point to stop.
I think it’s as reasonable as any.
What we want to do next time is pick up at the beginning of the Berkeley period, and talk about your expectations, how you fitted into the larger scene there, this six-year period, then take it to the Stanford transition.
Anderson was not a co-author. The proper citation is: R.A. Millikan, Duane Roller, and E.C, Watson, Mechanics, Molecular Physics, Heat, and Sound (Ginn and Co., 1937).