Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Edwin Wilson by R. Bruce Lindsay and W. J. King on 1964 June 3, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5065
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Early education and family background; Harvard University (1895-1900) mathematics and physics courses and teacher including Wallace Sabin; Yale University (1900-1903) mathematics and physics courses and teachers, including Willard Gibbs; Ecole Normale Superior, Paris, to study mathematics (1903-1904), impressions of Henri Poincare, Charles Emile Picard, Joseph Valentin Boussinesq; teaching at Yale University (1904-1907), teaching mathematical physics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1907-1922), teaching mechanical engineering; Harvard University (1922-1945), work on vital statistics; administration at Harvard compared to MIT; work at the Office of Naval Research.
In these interviews, we usually begin by asking about the early education of the scientist being interviewed. Now, I recall you were born in Hartford, Conn, and presumably you went to school there. Did you go to public school? Hartford, I remember, has had a celebrated high school. Did you go to that one?
No, we didn’t live in Hartford. I was born in Hartford, but my parents lived in Middletown where my father was principal of the City schools.
So you went to school in Middletown?
After a fashion, but when they began to get into politics in the schools, he didn’t like it, and he set up his own private school and I hung around there. I don’t remember that I was a regular student in it, because I was two or three years younger than anybody else in the classes. I think he didn’t wish to put me at my age in competition with the students that he had. I have no recollection of learning arithmetic. My mother said I learned it by folding her 60 inch tape measure in all possible ways until I knew all the products that went up to 60, and that I did this when was about four. I don’t know.
Where did you go to secondary school?
Well, my father had this secondary school and fitted boys for college — he had a right to certify them into college in those days, and as I say, I more or less hung around the school. I don’t remember I was ever asked to recite or anything like that.
Did you have geometry? Did you pick it up by yourself?
I had plane geometry. It was a very interesting subject, but as I say, I don’t remember being subject to the kind of education students got in those days, which was reciting from — I don’t remember being asked any questions.
You must have taken some sort of examination to get into Harvard, though, didn’t you?
I took an examination to get into Yale. My father was a Yale man, and he intended that I should go to Yale, and so I went to New Haven and took the entrance examinations for Yale, and could have gone to college at 15, but he thought it was too young. Between that time and the next year, he moved to Cambridge and he had six children, and I was the oldest, and he thought that he could better afford to send us to college at Harvard than at Yale, which must have been hard on a good Yale man. I know he came in one summer day, and said that he’d been out to see Dean Briggs, and Dean Briggs would take the Yale certificate and let me into Harvard, and he guessed perhaps I could get a good education at Harvard. It was very fortunate, because Yale was a primitive institution and medieval in those days. Harvard was a modern institution already.
But you were then about sixteen when you —
— when I went into college.
What led you into being interested in mathematics at that time, do you think? Can you look back at all and see any original signs of interest developing?
Well, I don’t know anything about that, because as I say, I don’t know how I learned arithmetic except that my mother said I picked it up by folding a 60 inch tape measure, and I know that the first thing I remember about mathematics is my waking up one morning and telling my father that I had discovered that the difference of two squares was equal to the product of the difference of the numbers by the sum of the numbers. He said, “Well, when you get to algebra, you’ll learn that’s right.”
(Laughter) Yes, yes. Do you recollect starting out with mathematics immediately at Harvard the freshman year?
Yes, I wanted to be an astronomer, but Harvard had a research institution in astronomy, and the courses in astronomy that were open to students were not very satisfactory. They were elementary, and I knew that at that time astronomers were supposed to have some mathematics, so I took mathematics. But I also took Latin and Greek. I had a classical education, very much the kind of education that was generally thought to be a gentleman’s education in those days.
Still, Eliot had already introduced the elective system by that time, had he not?
Yes, you didn’t have any required work except three courses in English which weren’t worth taking. They bored the students, they bored the instructors.
They had some celebrated people there in English at that time. Wasn’t Barrett Wendell, wasn’t he there then, or did he come a little later?
No, he was there all right, but most of the work was done by young instructors or graduate students under the direction of these men. And I say they were bored by being in this system which they didn’t, I think, approve of too much, but had been put over by A.S. Hill, and we used to say that his initials should have one more S on it. (laughter)
Who were your teachers in mathematics?
Osgood and Bôcher, and J. M. Peirce, the dean of the graduate school who taught quaternions. B. O. Peirce did give one course on differential geometry, a half course that I took. It was a beautiful course. He didn’t give anything about the applications of differential geometry to physics. It was nothing about elastica or anything like that in it. It was just straight geometry.
Was it based on something like Goursat —
It was based on lectures. He’d come in before the class got there and write a synopsis of his lecture on the board, and then he’d wait until we’d had time to copy that, which took about 20 minutes, and then he’d come in and give his lecture. He said that he didn’t believe a lecture ought to be more than 35 minutes, anyhow, and he had as much in his 35 minutes as anybody else had in 50 minutes, because of having the synopsis there that we had already copied down. There was no reference to any text. Osgood gave the sophomore calculus. Freshman work was in the hands of instructors, recent PhD’s, for the most part.
Did you have any work with Byerly?
I don’t know that I registered for any work with Byerly, but I took his courses in mechanics based on Routh, though he didn’t use it as a text, but he was talking mechanics the way Routh wrote it. I think I was only a listener in that course.
What did you have with Bôcher, algebra?
I had with Bôcher, in the second year, modern geometry which meant projective geometry largely, and then later, I had his algebra which is printed in a book now, determinants, matrices, and things like that. I think it must have been Bôcher with whom I took the theory of functions, of a complex variable; theory of functions with a real variable was with Osgood, as the calculus had been, both elementary and advanced. Osgood gave a course on Galois theory which rates as algebra, but I don’t think he knew much about it.
Of these men, how would you compare them?
They were totally different. Bôcher was a very smooth lecturer. You had time to get it into your notes. He didn’t lecture in a high strung fashion or manner, but there was no enthusiasm about him. I don’t mean that he didn’t have it, but it didn’t show in his lectures. You might almost as well have taken them off a gramophone, or something like that. Osgood, however, was quite different in that he was a rather high strung person who had great enthusiasms, and was not anything like so clear a lecturer as Bôcher. The poor students got very little out of him.
Did he wear that magnificent black beard in those days?
Yes, yes, he wore that black beard.
I don’t think I ever saw one that impressed me more. He was still going when I was a student, of course, at Tech. I used to go to the Harvard Math Colloquia for a while, and heard Osgood give a very beautiful lecture. But the thing that impressed me most was his beard. (laughter)
I think he became a rather good lecturer. When I was in college, and he was a relatively young person, he was totally uninterested in geometry, or in logic, for that matter. He didn’t think that E. V. Huntington amounted to much, and he was very much opposed to there being any applied mathematics in the mathematics department, it must be a department of pure mathematics. Although he taught the elementary course in mechanics, which I took, statics and elementary dynamics of a particle —
He later wrote a book on mechanics, I think?
Yes, I think that later he took some interest in mechanics and taught Fourier’s theory of heat, at least when he went to China, after he retired. But when I knew him he was opposed to there being any applied mathematics in the mathematics department. He was willing it should be in the engineering department, of course, perhaps in physics. Bôcher and he, I think, probably both agreed on that policy, and I do know that Byerly told me that he and B. O. Peirce, dissented from it. But after they retired, of course, they didn’t have any more votes. And J. M. Peirce seemed to be interested only in quaternions, and their applications.
Is he related to B. O. Peirce?
Well, distant cousins. He was the son of old Benjamin Peirce.
Then he was a brother of the logician —
Yes, Charles Peirce. I don’t know whether he thought anything of his brother or not. I think he probably wished his brother was a little more normal individual.
Did you have any contact with Charles S. Peirce?
One day, in 1905, in the fall, when the National Academy of Science was having its autumn meeting in New Haven, Charles Saunders Peirce was there, and he gave a paper on logic. The papers were open to the public, and I went to the lecture because I was very much interested in symbolic logic in those days. The lecture was unintelligible, and I spent the late afternoon with him at the Club and had him to dinner, and spent most of the evening with him, but I decided that he was losing his mind at that time. He apparently was never the same after making up all those scientific definitions for the Century Dictionary. Mrs. Ladd-Franklin who was one of his best students, and whom I knew later, told me that she thought he began to lose his mind already in the late ‘90’s, I mean the bite of his mind. William James described his conversation as flashes of lightning in a deep Sumerian darkness, and that was the way he was in 1905, there was no coherence to his talk. A brilliant idea here, then nothing that amounted to anything, then another brilliant idea. His brother was quite different. He was methodical; he gave an intelligible course on quaternions.
Was he a professor at Harvard for a long time?
He was not only professor, but he was senior professor of mathematics and dean of the graduate school. He was a bachelor. He lived very comfortably, not far from the university. So far as I know, he never gave a course on his father’s work on algebra, and never carried it on. Of course, Charles Peirce, when he was young, made some additions, comments to his father’s work, and Gibbs mentioned it in his work on multiple algebra, though he didn’t go into it in any great detail, because he was interested in the Grassmanian system, rather than in the linear associative algebras. I never got any notion from James Peirce that he was even interested in that great contribution of his father. The person that was interested in that was Professor Hawks at Yale who had written his doctor’s thesis on it. I don’t know whether he had written his doctor’s thesis on it because of Gibbs being interested in multiple algebra, though of a different kind, or whether it was Pierpont that put him on it, or maybe Percey Smith, I didn’t know who started Hawks on him. You see, Study and Poincaré had played down Benjamin Peirce’s contribution, and tied this kind of algebra into the Lie group theory, the structure theory of groups, and had implied that that was the way to handle the matter. Hawks went at it purely as old Benjamin Peirce had as a problem in algebra, just straight algebra. When I happened to sit next to Study at the International meeting in 1904, he told me that he had read Hawks’s work, and admired it greatly, and that when I got back to New Haven I was to give his compliments to Professor Hawks and tell him that he Poincaré had been wrong. So, I did.
Did you have any association with Julian Coolidge? Wasn’t he more or less a contemporary of yours at Harvard?
Coolidge and Whittemore and Huntington were three brilliant mathematical students, I believe all in the class of 1895, or 1896. They were three or four years ahead of me, and I remember that when I was graduating, Osgood told me I was very welcome to stay on to the graduate school, and they’d take care of me with a fellowship, but that he recommended that I would go down to Yale because he said we’ve just put these three people on the staff and they’re all good. There won’t be any more good positions on this staff for, oh maybe, ten years, and at Yale they’re mostly old people and there’ll be some openings down there. So, it was on Osgood’s recommendation that I went to Yale. He supposed that I would study primarily with Pierpont, and I did take some courses with him.
Had you been aware at that time of the significance of Gibbs’s work?
No, neither of them ever mentioned there was such a person as Gibbs. The only thing I heard about Gibbs at Harvard was B. O. Peirce when he heard that I was going to Yale said, “They have a fellow down there named Gibbs that we think is pretty good.” (laughter) B. O. Peirce was a very brilliant man, but he never said anything with any real enthusiasm. He would underplay every statement that he made, so that you couldn’t possibly over-interpret what he said.
How would you compare him with Osgood, say?
B. O. Peirce.
He was a much more brilliant man. B. O. Peirce was equally brilliant as an experimental physicist, although he had a rather dull subject, and as a mathematician, and as a mathematical physicist. He was an all-around very able man and a very fine person, a very friendly kind of person, but always, as I say, avoided putting anything emphatically.
Of these men whom you had at Harvard as an undergraduate, which one would you say was the best teacher?
You mean for A students and A plus students?
Which was the man who gave you the most stimulus?
I couldn’t say. So far as my work, after Gibbs died and I had to take his work, went, I suppose the most useful courses I had were Byerly’s that I wasn’t registered for. I just went in and listened to him. Asaph Hall on theory of orbits and things like that, that is the applied mathematics, because I had to take that on after Gibbs died.
How about the physics department at Harvard at that time, did you ever have any association with people like Wallace Sabine or old Hall?
Sabin gave the lectures and the first course in physics that I took. It wasn’t the most elementary course, Hall gave that, gave the lectures in it. Of course, the laboratory work was under assistants. So I knew Sabine, very early.
Was he a good teacher? Did he —
He was a very good lecturer, clear and he didn’t try to cover too much ground. He did his experiments well on the table, but his laboratory work wasn’t very instructive because it was all cut and dry. The young instructors who were assigned to the laboratory sections didn’t have much interest in the job. We generally went to the diener when we wanted any help. He’d been there for years, stayed there for years after we were graduated, but he knew exactly from his experience what was bothering any one of us. The others didn’t know. So it was much quicker and easier to go to him.
Was the work that Sabine was doing in architectural acoustics thought much of at Harvard at the time? Did it make any splash? Did the students know about it? He did, you know, his famous reverberation work just about 1900, about the time you graduated, I guess.
He was famous for his interest in light and acoustics. He was their specialist in light at the time, and in acoustics, and shortly in waves, in general, though perhaps, not in Marconi waves, in those days. I think everybody knew that he was a distinguished consultant on architectural acoustics. That was my impression when I was in college, but at any rate it’s my impression now of what my impression was 65 years ago, because I knew him afterwards when I was at Yale and teaching physics. I knew him pretty well. It’s very difficult to say just how I was impressed when I was actually in college.
You had little association with Hall, I take it, at that time?
Practically none. Or with Trowbridge who was a senior man. B. O. Peirce gave the second course in physics, and that’s where I was acquainted with him, and then I did take his course on differential geometry.
But you didn’t have very much of what might be called mathematical physics, except through the mechanics, is that right?
Yes. We had the mathematical theory of the instruments that we were using, but couldn’t see, in B. O. Peirce’s course. He was following Andrew Gray’s book, (Lindsay acknowledges) and he would lecture on the theory of these instruments and what its importance was, but the mathematical physics, what you’d call or I’d call mathematical physics, he didn’t give in connection with that course. It was just theory of the instruments. The first real mathematical physics I got was with Gibbs, and I was put into that because I had to have four courses for a full year’s credit for the degree, and they didn’t have four courses in pure mathematics that I hadn’t had already. In fact, the first year there they had to put me into vector analysis to get a fourth course, and I told the dean that I had had quaternions, which was essentially the same thing except for the way it was put, and that it was hardly fair to count it for the degree. “Well,” he said, “it’s worth one course to the degree to have you sitting under Willard Gibbs.” (laughter) It was a very easy course.
How many students were in that class? Do you recall?
Were these mostly mathematicians, or were there some physicists?
About 50-50. It was a very easy course for me, whereas quaternions had been difficult, and the vector analysis was difficult, obviously, for all the other students in the course. I think the first time that you have to use an algebra that is different from the one that you’ve got ingrained in your fingers as well as in your head, I think it’s bound to be difficult.
Was Lynde Wheeler in that course with you?
Oh, no, Lynde Wheeler was five years ahead of me, I think. Or four years ahead. I think he was Yale Sheff ‘95, and I was Harvard College ‘96, you see.
What were your impressions, as you look back now, you say the course was easy, but you think this was because you’d had the course on quaternions, or because Gibbs made the thing very simple because he was a good lecturer?
I said it was difficult for all the other students. It was easy for me because it was review, although the notation was different, and while he mentioned quaternions he was really giving his own system. You see, I had that from September ‘99 to June 1900, and in November or December 1900, Yale Bicentennial Committee told me to write it up as a book, and I could not have done it if I’d been in the course without any preparation, such as the course of quaternions gave me. I just got more out of the review course than I could have possibly gotten out of the first course.
Did they try to get Gibbs himself to write this?
No, he was writing his statistical mechanics. They said he couldn’t do it, but they wanted it written, and that he’d given them permission to have me write it if I would. He had nothing to do with it except to write a prefatory note. He told me he wouldn’t have anything to do with it. That it was my book, on his system.
And you didn’t consult with him even?
No, I never asked him a question about it. He told me I shouldn’t. He said it was my book, and he wouldn’t have any time to do anything about it, look at the manuscript or anything else, except to write the little prefatory note, and that’s all he did. He was working very hard, not only during the day, but during the evening, because he came back from his dinner, or supper, whatever he had at night, to his office. You’d see his light burning until around ten o’clock, when he’d go out and go back home.
This was in the old Sloane Laboratory?
Sloane Laboratory. It was in the northeast corner, second floor. Well, of course, I had to work very hard, too, to write a book as long as that was, between December and July, in addition to teaching 14 hours and working for my PhD degree.
Was that the only course you took with Gibbs?
Oh, no, I took every course that he gave, in three years I was there. Well, there was light, the electrical theory of light; there was the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances, or physical chemistry; there was multiple algebra. I think there was a course on potential theory which was electro-magnetic potential theory rather than light. I think those four were all in addition to the vector analysis.
Why didn’t you do your doctoral thesis with Gibbs?
I had a graduate thesis for final honors at Harvard in mathematics, in geometry, with Bôcher, and I expected to stay in geometry. The teacher that I was most attached to, for that reason at Yale, was Percey Smith, who was a fine geometer. He was about the same age as Pierpont, Osgood, or Bôcher.
He was the Smith of Smith and Gale, Analytic Geometry?
Yes, he was a wonderful teacher. Everything that he ever taught was perfectly clear, and at the same time he had an enthusiasm for it. He combined the characteristics of Bôcher and Osgood in that respect. I expected to go on with his work in that general line, in modern geometry, and in foundations of mathematics, logical systems, and things like that. But when I was going to Paris, I went to see Professor Gibbs to say goodbye to him for a year, and he said he’d been teaching mathematical physics at Yale for 30 years without having but six students who were adequately fitted to take the work, and he was probably right, because they were either not fitted in mathematics or not fitted in physics. They needed more of one or the other, certainly, to take his work, and that if I had any interest in applied mathematics, he thought that when I came back from Paris, if I wanted to do it, it would be useful if I would give an elementary introduction to mathematical physics, so that the students, when they came to take his course, students of physics he was talking about, would be better prepared. But he said, “I don’t want you to do it unless you want to, because everyone should do what he wants to do. He does that better than things he doesn’t want to do.” Of course, in Paris, there was very little geometry.
Incidentally, why did you go to Paris instead of going to Germany?
I don’t know.
Most people went to Germany then, didn’t they?
Well, yes, most people went to Germany.
Poincaré was still there, I suppose.
I had had, you see, instructors in mathematics and physics who were primarily trained in Germany; Osgood, Bôcher, Pierpont, Smith, and I don’t know why I didn’t go to Germany. I could talk German. I could write German, at that time. I had had four years of German before I went to college, and a couple of years in college. It may all be due to Hadamard. Hadamard was at the Yale Bicentennial in 1901. And of course, I met him, all the young instructors in mathematics met him. And he said something about it being a good thing if more Americans went to Paris for mathematics, that he thought that Paris had more mathematics than any one place in Germany. I remember being at Pierpont’s house when Hadamard was talking about this, in the evening, and it may have been what he said. I went to the École Normale Supérieure as an intern, student, room and board, of which I had to pay, being not a Frenchman. I never understood how I got in to the school, unless it was through Hadamard, some way or other, because to get in you had to have an invitation from the Minister of Public Instruction, and you had to do it through the State Department. But it was done all for me by somebody. Pierpont, or Smith or Professor Phillips, the dean of the graduate school and head of the department — I have an idea that somehow Hadamard being at the Bicentennial and my meeting him and his talking to me about it, arranged all this for me. But it may be that I should have gone, being interested in geometry, to Italy, because geometry was better in Italy than it was in either France or Germany at that time. In fact, Julian Coolidge was in Italy that winter that I was in Paris.
Did you spend your time mainly on lectures, or did you do a good deal of research? I know that you published some work as a result of your stay in Paris, but how did you divide your time?
Of course, I wasn’t registered, because I was not a candidate for a degree. I had my degree, and I was treated at the École Normale as they treated their post-doctoral fellows, their young instructors, and things like that. Separate room. I went to lectures, Hadamard at the Collège de France, and Brillouin in electromagnetic theory, Collège de France, and old Jordan, on group theory, same place, and I went to Sorbonne, Picard and Poincaré, Andoyer who was giving a course on orbits, and Lebesgue who was introducing his Lebesgue integral.
Quite a galaxy of stars.
I spent as much time reading and studying and working on research as I pleased. I don’t remember how I divided my time. I did read in the library at the École Normale Supérieur. Ricci’s absolute calculus, which came in very handy when I became responsible for teaching Einstein’s generalized relativity, but that was because it was a sort of a geometric analysis, you see, a generalization of vector analysis, but I just happened to read it. I was just working as I pleased, going to the lectures as often as I pleased, fairly regularly. It was fortunate that I did, when I got back to New Haven and found that I not only was to give the elementary Gibbs work but all the rest of the Gibbs work.
How would you compare the quality of the instruction in Paris with that at Yale?
Graduate instruction was all there was in Paris. Well, the French lecturers that were good were very good, and those that were poor, were very poor.
How would you rate Poincaré, for example, do you recall?
He was a very poor lecturer. He asked the class why any of them bothered to come on one or two occasions.
This is rather amazing, he wrote so beautifully.
Yes, he wrote beautifully and he gave a half course only, and it was on the mathematical theory on the tides, but it was really on integral equations, which was the method he was using to handle the tides, and it was later printed and probably was a beautiful book, although I never looked at it, as a matter of fact. But he was a poor lecturer.
Was it because he had a poor voice, or —
I don’t think he wanted to give the lectures. I don’t think he did. He mainly was translating into his own system some monographs on the tides that had been written by a fellow named Hough, H-O-U-G-H, which he called Huff. How the man pronounced his name I don’t know. And he told the class they could read him just as well as he could, and that’s about right. Of course, Picard was an exceedingly polished lecturer. Apparently interested in his subject, and he gave two courses, two half courses, one lecture each a week for half a year. He told me he would never do it again, give two courses, even if it was only two lectures all together. It was much harder than to give two lectures on one course. He said he would never do so much work again.
What were these on?
He was a beautiful lecturer. One was on differential equations, and I think the other was probably on integral equations. I don’t remember very well. You don’t get much impression of a one hour lecture for half a year, you know — one hour a week, for half a year. The most I got out of Picard was when I was at the annual dance at the École Normale, and he was there because it was a general university dance, and the Sorbonne people were there too. Those interested in science. And he was there, and he said, asked what I was taking just as you’ve done, and then he said, “It’s too bad Poincaré is so bad a lecturer, but of course, he never went to the École Normale.” (laughter) He said he went to the École des Mines, the mining school, and he said, “It’s too bad, not because it makes any difference, except all the young mathematicians, knowing he’s the greatest one of all of us, think lecturing badly is part of being a great mathematician. (laughter) They’re beginning to lecture in the swinish fashion that the German mathematicians lecture.” Swinish was the word he used. Hadamard was not a good lecturer at that time. There’s no doubt about that. Goursat I didn’t follow, it was a relatively elementary course. Goursat, he said was a good lecturer. Boussinesq, in the theory of light, it was the mechanical theory of light, not the electromagnetic theory that I’d had with Gibbs. Boussinesq was a marvelous lecturer. He never had a note. He came in and all these formulas of Fresnel and everything else went on the board letter perfect. The physics was carefully explained. He did like Gibbs, he talked physics, and wrote mathematics on the board.
I think you became quite an admirer of Boussinesq because you handed out a good deal of his stuff in the courses that I took with you at Tech.
Yes. He was a very good lecturer. Of course, he had to get the same formulae that Gibbs had to get, because they had been checked so repeatedly since Fresnel —
That was a problem too, on the elastic solid theory.
Well, he went into the properties of the ether, he talked about physics. For instance, he stopped one day entirely talking about light, and said, “There’s Newton’s law, inverse square law.” He says, “It seems to hold very well in the astronomical ranges. We don’t have any idea whether it holds in small ranges of say a foot.” At that time work hadn’t been done, I guess.
You did, as I recall it, spend a little while in Germany during that trip abroad, did you not, before you came back to this country?
On the way to Paris, I went to Christiania where they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abel. Then I came down to Paris. In the summer, I traveled somewhat in Germany, but I think mostly in Switzerland. I never have been in Germany for any length of time. I didn’t like the place.
I don’t know. I didn’t like the place. I was in Austria for quite a while. Munich was all right, but not Germany.
You didn’t care for Prussia, I guess?
No, I didn’t like Prussia. I don’t know why, but I didn’t like it. Austria I thought was very agreeable.
Did you come in contact —
German-Switzerland and French-Switzerland, I knew.
This was just traveling?
You didn’t attempt to make any contacts with professional people?
No. The first contacts with professional people in Germany was in 1904 at the International Mathematical Congress.
That was St. Louis?
Heidelberg. There was one at St. Louis.
In 1904, a World’s Fair, and they had people like Poincaré and others come at that time.
But this was in Heidelberg, I feel very certain, but I’d have to look it up.
When you went back to Yale, of course Gibbs had died in the meantime.
Yes, he died while I was there. I got a telegram from Professor Phillips saying that he’d died.
This must have been somewhat of a shock. You hadn’t suspected that anything like that would happen. Gibbs had always been pretty healthy, hadn’t he, when you knew him?
Healthy, but not robust.
I know in the biography there is some remark about the fact that when he was a young man there was some danger that he might have T.B.
Well, T.B. was the white plague in the days he was young and for some years afterwards. He lost one sister with what was supposed to be tuberculosis. Another sister never married. It was said around New Haven that one reason he hadn’t married was because the family seemed to be rather susceptible to tuberculosis, but whether that was actually so, I don’t know. He never told me that. It’s the sort of thing he wouldn’t say anything about, of course.
I take it that he never mentioned personal matters to his students, or even his colleagues?
No, except insofar as that he’d been fortunate enough to be able to do what he wanted to do, and he thought everybody should do all he could to do what he wanted to do rather than something he had to do. No, he didn’t mention personal matters.
What kind of a personality did he have?
He was a Victorian, of course, as my father was. They were about the same age. The Victorian gentlemen were what you might call reserved, but kindly. There was nothing particularly notable about his personality.
Was he a very approachable person?
He always had time for his students. He never acted as if he didn’t want to see them, and he always acted as if he was glad to help them, if he could help them. They didn’t bother him much, because they had enough respect for what he was doing, so they didn’t want to interfere with it unless there was some reason they should. The fact that he let me, at the age of 22, write his vector analysis when he knew he wouldn’t have any time to help me in any way, was the kind of person he was. He had confidence in people, and the result was they did the best work they could for him.
He had very few students, as I recall, who went on to the PhD under him, something like half a dozen perhaps?
I don’t know. I’ve never seen the list. Wheeler was one. He wrote his thesis under Willard Gibbs, although his chief, of course, was Hastings over in the scientific school. I would guess that E. H. Moore, who was so long head of the mathematics department at Chicago may have gotten a PhD with Gibbs, or maybe he didn’t get one until he went abroad to study. I never looked it up. A. D. Risteen who was a secretary to Charles Peirce when he was writing the scientific definitions for the Century Dictionary, and who was a graduate of Worcester Tech, got a PhD with Gibbs on old-fashioned thermodynamics, calorimetry, and that sort of thing, about the time I was working at Yale. I don’t know how many students got a PhD with him. It may be that Hastings did himself in the very early days. You see, when Gibbs got his PhD himself, you couldn’t get one at Harvard, and as far as I know, they hadn’t started to give them at Harvard. You see, Yale was the best scientific institution from something like 1845 to 1885, and they had a remarkable president named Theodore Woolsey, and he was one of these persons who knew able people, young people, as Eliot did. Gibbs got his full professorship, to be sure it was without pay, when he hadn’t written anything, just because I think it was one of the last appointments that Woolsey made. They had a remarkable faculty in science, particularly, but it was also good in other subjects. They were very influential in the National Academy at its start and afterwards because they were good and they were in considerable numbers in the Academy, and they went to the meetings, whereas a great many people who were good didn’t go to the meetings. So, it was easy for them to elect their colleagues.
What was the reputation of Gibbs around Yale?
It was the same as the reputation of any leading scholar of any university around the university.
Of course, it’s commonly believed, and it’s often said by, in these brief popular biographies, that his work was not appreciated at Yale.
Well, it wasn’t appreciated by Lord Kelvin. It was appreciated by Lord Rayleigh and by Maxwell.
Poincaré too, I guess?
Poincaré was really a different generation.
But he certainly did say something about that book, Statistical Mechanics, because you quoted it yourself, about it’s being a little book little read because it’s a little hard. That comes right out of Science and Hypothesis, one of the popular books of Poincaré. But I guess it was some of the German physical chemists that realized that what Gibbs was doing was fundamental.
I think it’s just a myth that people didn’t. They didn’t realize what he’d done in the sense of knowing what all its consequences were, there’s no doubt about that. But that was true of Maxwell’s Treatises on Electricity and Magnetism. When he died, we don’t even know that Lord Kelvin approved of them.
I’m sure he didn’t. (laughter)
That Yale was a genius of very high order, I think, was thoroughly appreciated. Certainly, B. O. Peirce appreciated it at Harvard when I was in college and was going to Yale. He didn’t mention anybody else at Yale in the same discussion at all. Gibbs was the only one he mentioned. The American Academy in Boston gave Gibbs the Rumford medal within about a couple of years of the time that that big monograph came out. Now, how much they knew about the monograph, I don’t know, but it was a good scientific institution. He was elected to the National Academy within two years of the time the second part of it came out. I think it’s just a myth that he wasn’t appreciated. He wasn’t understood, of course, until somewhat later, not in detail, but that he had done very great work, I think was generally recognized. There was no way to get the big monograph on heterogeneous substances printed. It was done by the Connecticut Academy, the local Academy, and it was done with a subscription taken up by his colleagues because they knew it ought to be printed. His vector analysis, his little pamphlet, he paid for himself. He had it printed privately, just for his students, and he sent it to some few friends. How many copies he distributed, I don’t know.
How would you rate Gibbs as a teacher?
Of course, Gibbs never had but very few students and they were all able students, and for that kind of student, I think he was a pretty good teacher. His lectures were clear, carefully thought out. In that respect, he was a good deal like Boussinesq, that he was writing mathematics on the board, but he was talking physics, and a great many mathematical physicists including a fellow like Poincaré, write mathematics on the board and talk mathematics. There is a very great difference. The rumor was, that when he tried to teach undergraduates in the days, I think, before he went to Germany, but it will be right in Wheeler’s book whether it was just before he went or just after he got back, I don’t know — it was said that he wasn’t a very good teacher for ordinary students, but if anyone had any trouble with his work and went to him and asked him about it, he expounded it extremely clearly and patiently. His PhD was in mechanical engineering, not in mathematics or physics. It was in the mathematics of problems in gearing.
He actually patented some inventions, as I recall it.
He patented a railroad brake. It was a mechanical brake, not an air brake, and I think he patented one or two other inventions. What did he make?
It was a governor, I think.
A governor, yes, for an engine. He was a very good man with his hands. He was the do-it-yourself fellow around the house where he lived with his sister and her husband. He would have been a great experimenter according to his colleague, Hastings, who was head of physics in the scientific school, if he had wished to be, because Hastings says when Gibbs came to the conclusion that Maxwell had made an error in setting up equations for light in absorbing bodies, he built with his own hands an apparatus — I saw it in Wheeler’s book, I think — and ran the experiment and was convinced that the experiment proved that Maxwell’s formula approach was wrong, and the one he proposed to put in its place, was right. He took the apparatus over to Hastings, and Hastings checked the experiment, and then he didn’t say anything about the experiment. He just used the law that he thought was proper for the circumstances in absorbing bodies, and the only reference I’ve ever seen to that work was Wheeler’s own paper in 1951 at the meeting of the Academy in New Haven in which he showed the Gibbs formula apparently fitted the experiments, not Gibbs’ experiments, but published experiments, better than the Maxwell formula, the thing that had never been shown even with respect to those experiments.
Gibbs’ course on electromagnetic waves was essentially a course on Maxwell’s theory, wasn’t it?
He gave a course on light. He didn’t say much about waves that wasn’t appropriate to a course on light. I don’t remember that he really went into the problems of the Marconi wave, waves of that length. He may have alluded to it, but it didn’t leave any impression on me, and all my notes on his lectures were dropped overboard by the people unloading my baggage when I came back from Paris, so I have nothing to check my memory on.
There are some papers on this general field, in his collected works that were brought out, I believe, on the electrical theory of light, not very much —
All his papers were reprinted in his collected papers. There was also two volumes explaining what his works were by various scientists, a commentary two volumes.
Haas was the editor.
There was some talk there about his work on light, but I don’t know that they referred to this particular thing that Wheeler did, because I think those volumes antedated Wheeler’s work. The characteristic of his work was the amount he could get out of very general assumptions, few in number. You see, in his work on equilibrium of heterogeneous substances, he used only the conservation of energy and the principle of entropy that it tended to increase, and the general mechanical system of Lagrange, Mécanique analytique. And he got all that great memoir out of that, with application of logic. Of course, his phase rule is done in half a page just counting constants. That’s all it amounts to, really. Exceedingly simple proof. He wrote a very condensed style. He said a good deal on a page. The difficulty was that he was using so few tools, hiding the abstraction, and with an extraordinary appreciation of the facts. If he attended a colloquium where somebody presented a paper, as they did every two weeks, graduate students and staff — somebody would ask him a question, and he would stop and think, and he’d say, “Well, it would probably be so-and-so,” and he was, so far as we knew, always right. He seemed to know instinctively what went on in nature, and I don’t mean to say that he got it without having read a lot of material, but he had that power of generalizing what he read, to what ought to be true in general, as I suppose every really great scientist, like Isaac Newton, has. He wasn’t in any sense a problem solver, not that he couldn’t solve problems, but he was a scientific philosopher of the first rank. He didn’t get quantum theory. One of the great regrets Wheeler and I had, was that he didn’t live long enough to let us see how he would react to the quantum theory. Planck, himself, was very doubtful about it, as I know from talking with his students who studied with him before the quantum theory became generally accepted. But there was a paper read by Lynde Wheeler on electron theory of matter of J. J. Thompson, where J. J. Thompson had 16 electrons wandering around a nucleus for the oxygen atom, and Gibbs’ comment on that was, that this would complicate the problem of the equipartition of energy, and that it was complicated enough without that, because he had worried for 30 years as to how you could get rid of the energy in the degrees of freedom that didn’t seem to have it. Now, whether he would have been the first man in the world to appreciate, after 30 years of thought, what the quantum theory meant, or whether he would not have understood it, as it is obvious that Lord Kelvin never understood relativity, for instance. We don’t know. It would have been very interesting. He had been trying to find out some way to explain the ratio of the specific heats, which was obviously not a case of equi-partition. It was all right for monatomic gases, one forty, (corrects himself) one sixty seven.
Yes, one and two-thirds.
But when you got the diatomic gases, well it did pretty well for oxygen at ordinary temperatures, it didn’t do well on chlorine.
Then, of course, there was the variation with temperature.
And there is a variation with temperature. Of course, people didn’t know anything about the variation with very low temperatures ‘till quite late.
Gibbs, of course, actually did live, roughly three years after Planck’s paper of 1900, and presumably he could have read that paper, but I suppose during that time, he was so immersed with this book —
Oh, he didn’t do anything but that statistical mechanics He was overworking, and Dean Phillips, head of the department of mathematics, and Gibbs was a member of both the department of mathematics and the department of physics. Phillips said the man was played out when he finally turned the manuscripts over to the express company to go to the press. Van Name his nephew, who lived with him said that he never saw any evidence that Gibbs was unduly tired. He had worked hard, because everybody at Yale knew that his light was lighted in the evenings while he was working on that book, and it hadn’t been before he took that on. I don’t know. Planck himself didn’t understand it. The fellow that understood it, and made it real, was Einstein, (Lindsay acknowledges) because he took it seriously. There was, at one time, if my memory is right, a proof by Planck that the quantum theory could be derived from the Maxwell equations, and he actually derived it. If I remember rightly. I read it, but didn’t understand it — the derivation, at all. At any rate, it was later, considerably later, that Poincare, about 1910, Journal de Physique, proved that it couldn’t be derived from Maxwell’s equations. That definitely was pretty obvious from the work Einstein had done by that time. Anyway he was getting results which you didn’t see how you could get out of a continuum theory.
Leigh Page, at Yale, spent a long time trying to do one of two things; either to show that quantum theory could come out of classical electromagnetic theory, or, to show that there was a fundamental inconsistency in it. You may recall that?
No, I didn’t know anything about that.
Yes, he actually had a paper all ready to present to the American Physical Society about 1923 or ‘24, just after I went there as a young instructor, in which he thought he had found a fundamental logical inconsistency in quantum mechanics, and he was all ready to go to Washington or somewhere to give this paper when he discovered an error, and it was all cancelled. Page never liked the quantum theory himself, and was either trying to show that it was only a consequence of classical theory, which presumably you said Poincaré proved could not be, or if not, there was something wrong with it anyway. (laughs) It was a very strange thing.
I think you’ll find Poincaré’s article in the 1910 year of Journal de Physique. I certainly haven’t looked at it for about 50 years, so I’m not sure —
He died shortly after that, actually, about 1912, I guess.
Yes, but I have never looked up, in recent years, the early work of Planck, to see whether I’m right in thinking that he thought he had proved —
I don’t recall that paper, myself. It would be interesting to look that up. His complete collected works are now available. They were collected by the German Physikalische Gesellschaft and published a few years ago, and one could easily trace this.
It might have been in one of the editions of his book on radiation, Wärmestrahlung. That is where I think I saw it, in the first edition of that.
In connection with Gibbs again, could you make any remark as to why you, yourself, did not want to write a biography of Gibbs? I know that in the preface to Lynde Wheeler’s book, there is some discussion of that point, but it never was made clear, because you obviously were in an even stronger position, than Lynde Wheeler to write that book. I think Lynde did a good job, at least I enjoyed reading it, and I think it was probably as correct as you could expect, but why didn’t you want to do it?
Well, I was exceedingly busy, and I wouldn’t have had the time to do it, and Lynde Wheeler had the time, and he had eight years contact with Willard Gibbs, and I had contact with him only from September 1899 to June 1902, and he’d a written his thesis with him, while I had not, and while I could have written it, I wouldn’t have written as good a biography as Wheeler did. I knew I didn’t have the background. I didn’t have the feel for old New Haven that he had. I was a foreigner in New Haven, coming from Cambridge, Mass.
But you did give him a great deal of help, I’m sure in various parts of it.
I don’t think you should claim that I was very much help. Of course, I don’t know how much help he got between the time Gibbs died, and the time I left New Haven, of course, we were very close friends. Naturally, we talked about Willard Gibbs and compared him with other people we had studied with, and things like that, but the real follower of Gibbs in New Haven was Wheeler. I was getting to be more of a follower of Gibbs by the time I left, and I was right after coming back from Paris, because I had to work up all these courses one year at a time.
Was your teaching at Yale during that period from 1903 to –– when was it you left, 1908?
1907. Four years.
Was it entirely devoted to the work in mathematical physics, or did you teach any pure mathematics at that time?
I was in the mathematical department and I was teaching some pure mathematics. I think it was during that time that Richardson here took a course with me. He came down from Nova Scotia. I don’t think that it was before I went to Paris, but he was there and took a course with me. Might have been. I can’t remember. I continued to do some research in pure mathematics for a long time after I was mainly teaching applied mathematics.
I’ve noticed that in some of the papers, of course, which you published at that time in geometry, for example, the differential geometry, and projective geometry, but then you also did some papers before you left Yale in what amounts to mechanics. For example, here is a paper you wrote in the Annals of Mathematics on the influence of radiation on the orbit of a particle subject to a gravitational field.
Yes, that was a continuation of some work that Poynting had done. Isn’t that dated 1908 or 9?
Then I must have done it in New Haven.
And you worked on equilibrium of an inextensible string? But I guess that was after you had left.
Well, there was a transition period there. Of course, after I went to Tech, I didn’t teach any pure mathematics. I was taken up there to do mechanics.
How did it happen, if we may ask, that you decided to leave Yale to go to MIT? Let’s see, had Maclaurin become president?
No, no. Professor Lanzo, head of the mechanical engineering department was coming to the retirement age, and he had been the person who gave advanced rigid mechanics and elasticity theory at Tech, and whether it was true or not, I don’t know, but the administration did not believe that there was anybody at Tech who was enough of a mathematician to carry on that work for another generation, say for 20 or 30 years, and who wanted to do it. There was certainly nobody in the department of mathematics who could have done it and who would have wanted to do it. There was nobody in mechanical engineering, so they decided they had to go outside, and I was doing this kind of work on an even broader basis, not just simply elasticity, hydro-mechanics, and so forth, electricity, thermodynamics at Yale, and there were very few people who were doing this. A. G. Webster used to say I was the only man in my generation who was competent enough in mathematics to do real good work in more recondite mathematical physics. I don’t know whether that was so or not, but I do know that when R. S. Woodward was called from doing this kind of work at Columbia to be president of Carnegie Institution of Washington, which was just set up, he wanted the Columbia people to invite me down there to take his place on this advanced theory work. It came just about the same time as Tech. The Columbia people did not make the offer, and Tech did. My mother was still living in Cambridge with my younger siblings, and the Tech position represented an advance in rank and an increase in salary, and there wasn’t much else I could do but take it. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do. The Yale people, I talked to the head of my department, Phillips, about it, and he said, “Yale was just out of luck if somebody else could take me away.” But Yale couldn’t very well match that offer without putting me ahead of so many people that were on the staff. It would upset their entire schedule of salaries and promotions. They could do that by bringing people in from the outside, but they couldn’t do it at home. He took the attitude right away that there was nothing for me to do but to take that offer, and yet there wasn’t the slightest suspicion on my part certainly, that he wasn’t very sorry that he had to give that personal advice. I’ve had to give that kind of advice myself to people. D. L. Webster was a case in point, when he was the young physicist that I was counting on to get the department of physics at MIT doing pure physics research, when Ray Lyman Wilbur walked in and wanted a man for a head of his department. I told him I had only one, and that was Webster, and I didn’t want to lose him. Of course, I’ve said the same thing to Yale people when they were up there, you see. They said they couldn’t appoint a man of 31 to a full professorship, but I took Wilbur in to talk with him, and — I hadn’t filled that place when Yale people came up to see me again to see if I had anybody. I said, “No, I hadn’t anybody.” But I was trying to get Arthur Compton who was in St. Louis, and I was sure they’d do well if they could get him, and that if they went after him they could beat me, because the salaries at Yale were higher than they were at MIT, and the work was rather less with more emphasis on research there. They said, “how old is he?” and I said “he’s 29.” They said, “Well, we told you two years ago that we couldn’t take anybody who was 31 and couldn’t give him a full professorship.” I said, “All right.” Well, I didn’t get him either, because they called Swann from Chicago to Yale to take that place. Not a young man any longer. (Lindsay acknowledges) When I saw Michelson a couple of months later, I said to Michelson, “You didn’t work too hard to keep Swann, did you?” He said, “Oh, no, I heard I could get Arthur Compton.”
Who’d keep Swann if he could get Arthur Compton? Chicago wouldn’t, and Yale wouldn’t even call Swann for the position, you see, instead of Compton. But that comes from having a democratic system where the appointments are made by the faculty. They won’t take the chance.
Who was president of MIT when you went there?
Pritchett. A liar.
How long did he stay? Maclaurin succeeded him in a few years, didn’t he?
He hired me in the spring, and he wasn’t there in the fall. And when he hired me he knew perfectly well he wasn’t going to be there. The reason I said he was a liar is that everybody knew he was, but I couldn’t put that in print very well. (laughter) In fact I was told by members of the corporation that they were glad he left, because they couldn’t depend on his telling the truth. He told me what he was going to do for me, and all that sort of thing, the next year. He knew perfectly well he wasn’t going to be there to do anything for me.
He wasn’t the Pritchett that went down to the Carnegie, was he?
Yes, he was, he was a liar there too.
I remember hearing Richardson tell about that.
Richardson would confirm my story.
Sure. He did. (Laughs) That’s very interesting.
I was glad he wasn’t there, actually, because I wouldn’t have liked to do any business with him.
How did you get on with Maclaurin? Did you find him a good man to work with?
He wasn’t there when I got there. They had an acting president, Arthur Noyes, the chemist, physical chemist, and I was told that Noyes could have had the presidency if he’d wanted it, but that he didn’t like administrative work. He was doing very well as acting president for two years. Whether it was true that he could have had the presidency if he’d wanted it, I don’t know, but at any rate, he was doing very well. The talk was that he just wouldn’t take it, because he wanted to be back in his laboratory. There is some evidence that that was right, because it wasn’t long after Maclaurin came, not too long afterwards, that Noyes left and went out to Cal Tech. He told me that he was always being interfered with because of having been acting president and having to give opinions about things that he was no longer competent to give them about because he wasn’t actually seeing all the facts as they came along. He wanted to get back to chemistry and he couldn’t. He had a better chance, he thought, to get back to chemistry by going to Cal Tech than staying at MIT. Maclaurin came in 1909, two years after I was there. I was in the department of mathematics. I didn’t see very much of him for quite a while. Of course, he saw me in faculty meetings and some committee meetings, and things like that. He had me Chairman of the Nominating Committee for Officers of the Faculty, but we didn’t have any very great common interests so far as I know, until one afternoon he called me into his office, and said he wanted to see me. I went over to his office and he said “Yesterday we appointed you in charge of the physics department.” I said I was quite content in the mathematics department, mathematical physics I was doing, and so forth. He said, a “If you can have a mathematical physicist as president, we ought to have one as head of the physics department.” (Laughs)
What kind of courses were you teaching there in the period before World War I?
I was teaching relativity, theoretical chemistry, physical chemistry, that is, Gibbs’ courses on that, and a little about quantum theory.
This is before World War I?
Well, World War I didn’t begin for us until 1917, and by that time I was in charge of the physics department. I was teaching the aeronautics because Dr. Maclaurin came back one summer from a vacation in England, and I think it was the summer of 1912 that he was there, and it was the fall of 1912 that he came back, and he did ask me to come in and talk to him. He said, “I’ve seen something of the British Admiralty this summer. They say the Germans are going to start the war in the late summer or early fall of 1914. We may, or we may not get into it, but if we do get into it, we’ll need to know more about airplanes than we know in this country today. And the Tech has got to start a course in aeronautical engineering. The Navy is giving us Lt. Hunsaker for the engineering aspects of it, and the design aspects.” (He’d been there for three years as a student of naval construction, and a very able man. I knew him at the time. The Navy was donating his time). And he said, “There is nobody we can get to do the theory but you, and I guess you’ve got to do it.” I said, “I’m full of work on quantum theory, relativity, mathematical physics, dynamics.” I’d been giving the hydromechanics for the naval constructors. Well, he said, “I know, but if we’re going to have a war, we’ve got to have some aeronautical engineering. I don’t see any other way to start the course. I think for the sake of the Tech, and the country, you ought to do it.” So I started then with Hunsaker working up a course in aeronautics. It was mentioned here in early May, when the Navy gave me their Distinguished Service Award. But I started that work with Hunsaker.
I think this is quite amazing that at this early date, that this material should have been covered. Both aeronautical engineering and relativity.
The British were working hard on it. Hunsaker and I based our course on what was being developed in England. Prandtl in Germany had been working on it for years, because when I was over there in 1908, I think, I talked to Prandtl about vector analysis. He was much interested in vector analysis. He was working on it, but he wasn’t saying what he was doing. That work, as far as I could make out, was classified.
I think it was only about 1908 that the Signal Corps purchased their first plane, wasn’t it? This was only a few years afterwards.
Yes. At any rate, the Wrights had flown in 1903. And Blériot, when did he go across the channel? In 1904, or ‘05?
I’m not sure.
Of course, Dumont, what was his name, the dirigible man —
Not Zeppelin, because the first dirigible was this fellow who was working in France, and it was in 1902 or ‘03 when I was there that he came sailing over on to the race course at Auteuil in his balloon. As soon as he got down far enough so that the tail dragged down on the ground, the police pinched him for an entrance fee. [break in recording] … work, and published a good deal of work. And the Navy itself was working on it, because I went down to Washington in 1912 or ‘13 and a fellow named Zahm had a wind tunnel there.
I wonder if you could tell us again what happened when the dirigible came down? We missed that on the tape.
I said the police took him for the entrance fee to the grounds, and he gave them a louis, he threw one down, and bet on nine, because nine was his plane, he said “I’m betting on nine of course.” And nine happened to win the race. It was 365 to one as I remember it. It was a very large figure. So they gave him a bag of louies, and he went off. He was a Brazilian, I think, a wealthy man, but I can’t remember now the name. It was an episode that didn’t mean anything to me, at the time, of course. I just happened to be at the races that day. I didn’t go very often.
I’m also quite surprised at the fact that you included relativity in your work in World War I. Was this generally accepted by the physicists of the day?
Well, with G.N. Lewis, I wrote a monograph of 125 pages or so on relativity before that.
1912. That’s two years before — that was the very year that I was probably working on it, the very year that Maclaurin wanted me to go into aeronautics.
This was, of course, really the so-called restricted relativity.
Yes, it was the special relativity of 1905. The generalized relativity —
— came in 1915, actually, I think during the War.
Yes, I would have said ‘14, but I’m not sure, because it came out twice, in slightly different form. The first edition with Marcel Grossman, who was a fellow who’d studied in Italy and had this system of Ricci’s, this absolute calculus, that I had read in 1902-03. And then in ‘16, I think it was, that they printed a slightly modified form of it. It didn’t deal with the fundamental equations, but with the so-called cosmological constant.
It was about that time —
I’d been teaching about relativity for six or seven years, off and on at MIT, that and the quantum theory. And just as I told Dr. Maclaurin, these two subjects were going along very fast, and I couldn’t do very much in keeping up with them if I had to take on the aeronautics. By then it was a national necessity. The same way when Woodrow Wilson wanted me to go over after we were in the War as scientific attaché at Rome, I went to see Maclaurin about it. He said, “No, we can’t run that course, and that’s now a wartime necessity because they’re sending officers right straight along into that course. You’ll have to tell President Wilson your war work is here, not in Rome.”
Your first paper was a report in 1915 on the theory of an airplane encountering gusts.
Contract work with the government.
I see. That was the NACA, as it was called then.
It was their first paper. Whenever Carmichael of Smithsonian sees me, he’s apt to say, “I still remember that you had the first paper in the NACA series.” (laughs)
That’s extremely interesting. And then you finally worked up that material in your book on aeronautics?
Yes. It’s a very elementary book, but you see I got out of aeronautics when I went to Harvard in ‘22.
In fact, I don’t think you were doing much with aeronautics when you taught the courses from 1920 to ‘22 in theoretical physics, because those were all on the constitution of matter, quantum theory and relativity again. You were back in your stride.
Well, you see, Hunsaker left, and then I had to take care of aeronautics for a while, and then we got Warner in aeronautics.
Yes, E. P. Warner.
And I think that C.L.E. Moore began to teach the aeronautics before I left Tech, because of my having so many things to do; running the department —
You were running the Institute.
Yes. There was a committee of three running it, but as I was the youngest one, and the secretary of it, I did most of the work. They came in to discuss it whenever I asked them to.
Who were the other two? Talbot and Miller?
Talbot, who was Chairman of the Faculty, he was head of the chemistry department, and Miller who was head of the mechanical engineering department, they were maybe twenty years older than I was, I don’t know just how old. They were old hands at MIT as department heads.
I marvel that you were able to do so much at that time, because you still gave these courses, and this took a lot of time. The course I took with you was a two year course in which you surveyed all kinds of things, including crystallography, as I remember, among other things. This had an important part to do with the constitution of matter.
Was Louise Eyre there?
Yes, she was in the same class. And Bailey Townsend.
Louise Eyre got my course up for me.
Oh, she did the typing of notes?
Oh yes. I couldn’t have done the things I’ve done if I had to do everything, including the details, myself. I don’t know what’s happened to her —
She married Bailey Townsend, and then he died —
Oh, yes, he died in his garage. I always wondered ––
It was supposed to be suicide, but I never was sure.
It could have been accidental CO poisoning. Carbon monoxide.
I don’t know what happened to her, though.
I don’t know. Her father was a patent attorney, or something like that, and she, I think, went into his business. I have not seen her. She came up from Columbia to work with me, and I was busy, of course. That was when there was this administrative committee and I was still running the physics department. I got it organized so it largely ran itself. She had a very good course with the professor of mathematical physics down there that they appointed when Woodward left, and when they wouldn’t appoint me from Yale, Wills was his name. (Lindsay acknowledges) Why she came up to MIT, I don’t know, but she came up as one of my staff assistants to help me, and when I found out what she had had, and she was taking my course, I put her on the job of working it all up for me. Of course I told her what I wanted, and I had my notes that I had used before, so that she had something to work on, and she did a remarkable job. You can get a very remarkable job done by an able young person, if you give them a hard job to do. Maybe she didn’t do it as well I as I could have done it, but she probably did it as well as I could have done it with all the other things I had to do. She couldn’t have given a lecture. She didn’t have that kind of command of the subject as a whole, but she did an awful lot of work on it. The same things happened when I got engaged in trying to write a paper about the same length, over a hundred pages, on fitting the logistic curve to populations, forecasting population growth — there was a little sylph came in — she was about 5’ 10” tall, she was taller than I was, she was sylph-like coming in from a junior year at Smith where she had studied statistics with Miss Rambell (?). Trying to pick up a little money, she was the daughter of a poor minister who didn’t get paid much. She was trying to pick up a little money in the summer to help with her senior year expenses at Smith. This Miss Puffer she came in, and wanted to know if I had any computing to do. I said “I’ve got a lot of computing to do, if you want to do it. Do you know how to fit least squares?” And she said, oh yes, she knew how to fit least squares. I said, “these constants are non-linear.” I asked her whether she knew anything about non-linear constants. She said “no, but if you give me a book that tells how to do it, I think I can do it.” So I gave her Whittaker and Robinson, the toughest book there is on the subject, and showed her the part that said how to compute least squares by successive approximations, of course, when the constants are nonlinear. I left her with a postcard addressed to me. I was on vacation in the summer, and said, “When you get stuck, why if you get stuck, just drop me the postcard and I’ll come up and see what’s the matter.” I got the postcard about after ten days saying that she must be making mistakes, because she couldn’t check these calculations, Reed and Pearl, by least squares. So I came up to town, and I said, “Miss Puffer, if you had been able to check them, you didn’t know any more than they did about how to fit it.” (laughter) She was fitting them right where they had fitted them wrong, and was getting quite different answers, as I knew from just graphical work on paper that they couldn’t be right.
Well, sometimes these young women are pretty bright. There’s no doubt about that. Louise Eyre certainly was very bright. I remember her very vividly.
She learned a lot more doing what I put her to doing than she would have learned if she just sat in the course. (Lindsay concurs) Anytime you take on an able person as an assistant and give them a real job to do, they learn a lot more.
She finally got her Doctor’s degree, I think.
I think so. Yes.
Dorothy Weeks was another one in that same course. She wound up teaching physics down at Wilson College, in Pennsylvania. Chambersburg. Then the other one was Mildred Allen who taught at Mt. Holyoke.
She became head of the department at Mt. Holyoke. She was a bright girl, but she got wrapped up in her teaching and administrative duties, and I don’t think she ever did any research.
No, I don’t think so. She took a year off and went to Yale, I remember when I was down there, but I don’t think she did very much. She’s retired now.
Yes. Of course, Dorothy Weeks left Wilson College some years ago, and took a job at the Watertown Arsenal. (Lindsay concurs) That’s because she was due to retire pretty soon, and the Watertown Arsenal would keep her until she was 70. Then, she’s an old Wellesley girl, and I think she wanted to get back near Wellesley. She was friends with the head of the physics department there. Now, I think she’s gotten to be 70, or 71, and is out of the Arsenal, although she may be kept on, for all I know, as a consultant.
I saw her a few years ago up at her summer place. She had a joint summer place with Miss Laird who had retired as a professor of physics at Wellesley, or some place.
Laird doesn’t seem to be the right name.
Maybe it was Holyoke. Well, anyway the two of them were living together up in Randolph near where Bridgman lived for —
There is this one that retired as head of the department of physics which, who I think has been living with Dorothy Weeks, or Weeks with her, recently in Wellesley, and I’ve forgotten that woman’s name. I never knew her well. I’ve heard her name. And it was something like that, a short name. But the name isn’t Laird, and she’s now in very poor health.
That’s too bad.
Dr. Wilson, I wonder if you would want to say a few words about some of the problems you had to face as department head at MIT?
The main problem that I had to face and never solved was to get the thing modernized a little bit on the side of the basic physics which it needed to have done to it very badly. It was a good department. The teaching was better than any I ever had at Harvard. In fact, when Hall came down complaining that they had got to get somebody to teach physics there, I told him that as soon as they got anybody to teach physics at Harvard, he’d quit teaching and do research. If they wanted the teaching well done, they’d better let me do it from Tech because I had a large staff, and they would enjoy a little different atmosphere if a part of their work, they had many sections of it — they had 32 sessions of freshmen and 32 sections of sophomores — and he could make arrangements with Lowell, and Maclaurin could make the arrangements all right. They were both for cooperation between the two institutions. But their pride wouldn’t let them do that, (Lindsay laughs) and they went and got Saunders who did exactly what I said he would do. He was a great teacher, of physics at Vassar, but he was not a great teacher of elementary physics at Harvard. He went back to his optics intensively and was promptly elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and became a member of their research staff.
Did you have the problem of adequate funds?
Not to do anything, no, there were no funds to speak of to do anything with, in those days. As I say, I had a good department. The electro chemistry which was a professional course, like mechanical engineering, had been under Goodwin, who was a physical chemist really, or a chemical physicist, whichever you call it, but not essentially a research man, essentially a scholar and a teacher, and I just had to leave that to him. Then the work on heat, combustion and insulation, and all that sort of thing, had a specialist in C. L. Norton, a very able man. He didn’t know anything about Fourier analysis, but then he didn’t need to for his work. You don’t insulate anything with Fourier analysis. He gave a very good course on general aspects of heat, and he had a research laboratory on industrial physics. It was very well. He was a very wealthy man which he had made out of consulting fees with the insulating companies, not out of his salary, which I think was never as high as $4000. I just divided the work up among my full professors, or maybe used one or two of the senior associate professors.
Did you get Franklin to come up there?
Franklin asked to come up, just as A. G. Webster asked to come up at one time. Maclaurin wouldn’t take Webster on for some reason, although I was for it because he could do the — I was very busy with the aeronautics and was interested in modern physics, and I would have liked to get out of giving the old line mechanics, hydro-mechanics.
Webster had that down pat. (laughs)
And Webster had all that down fine. I was sorry that Maclaurin wouldn’t take him on, but for some reason he wouldn’t. But he would take on Franklin, and so he took him on. Franklin asked for a job. He said he had retired, but now that there was a war on, both his boys were in the War, and he thought he ought to go back to work. So, he came up and asked for a job, and I put that up to Maclaurin, and Maclaurin said “sure, he’s a very great teacher.” He said, “I’ve no objections to great teachers. I think a man has a right to make a career in an institution like this on his being a great teacher.” Of course, Franklin could have been a great research man. He had the ability. His brother was a great chemist. But he’d rather teach. He came up. He was a great help. It was easy enough. You just organize it. Of course, Cross had done everything himself. That’s what most professors do, but if you have enough on you, you can’t do that. You’ve got to delegate. (Lindsay concurs) If you know to whom to delegate, that will do it right, why you can delegate a good deal to young people and it’s good for them.
Perhaps we might break off and go to lunch. When we get going again, I’d like to ask a question or two about the book you used to refer to when I was your student as “my advanced calculus”, a very celebrated book. My wife has a copy of that book that she thumbed over every single page of, (laughs) and I still have her copy, and still occasionally look into it because it’s very useful. What really happened to that professionally, commercially? Was it as successful as we all thought?
Well, I never bothered to ask Ginn how many copies they sold, and I never bothered to keep a track of what their royalty checks were, and add them up, so I have no idea what the number of copies sold was. But ultimately Ginn wrote me a letter saying that the plates were worn out. They didn’t like to put out any more copies, and they didn’t want to reset it, and that Dover wanted to take it over. They had a deal with Dover whereby they would get and I would get, each of us, $250, or some such sum, for letting Dover have it, the reprints of it. So Dover is selling it. I don’t know —
Paperback — it’s being sold for half the price. It stood the competition pretty well. It was the only advanced calculus available in English when it came out in 1912, but very soon a lot of other easier books came out.
Woods, your own colleague, wrote one.
Yes. When I was in Edinburgh to give a lecture on public social science one evening, and I stayed overnight and went to see Whitaker at the University. They were using it as their text, not an English text, but my advanced calculus. He said it was very satisfactory.
It’s a remarkably useful book.
You can give a course on it that takes two years to finish if you really do the whole thing thoroughly. (Lindsay concurs) The reason it’s that way is that when I wrote it, I had written to all the teachers of advanced calculus that I knew about in the country, and asked them what they were teaching, what they wanted in the book, and there isn’t anything in the book that some of them didn’t want. But nobody was teaching anything like in one year the whole of what is in that book. Some of them wanted some function theory, others of them didn’t want that but wanted differential equations, or a little more differential equations, or they wanted calculus of variations. The book contains everything that anybody wanted.
My recollection is that in your preface you said that you had the inspiration from de la Vallée Poussin’s book, the Cours d’Analyse Infinitésimale.
Well, that’s the book I’d been using at Yale. My book wasn’t written until five years after I’d left Yale. I was teaching the advanced calculus with la Vallée Poussin’s book as a text. I had used Sturm’s book, old Sturm, as a text before Vallée Poussin was available. The boys had had enough Latin so they could read mathematical French without any trouble. We’d have had more trouble if we tried to use a German text. (Lindsay concurs) There’s a good deal of it that’s a good deal like de la Vallée Poussin, and a good deal of it that isn’t like his at all.
He put in a good deal about Lebesgue measure and integration —
Yes, I left Lebesgue measure out.
Richardson used that when I took a course with him, the real variable, when I was an undergraduate. I found it a very fascinating book, and I enjoyed reading it, although the fine print was hard.
Yes, well, Lebesgue integral belongs in the function theory rather than in advanced calculus, I think. (Lindsay concurs)
What can you say about old Woods? Was he brought there when you were in the department or was he already there?
He was already there. He was a full professor when I came in as an associate professor.
What had his background been?
He was a geometer, primarily. Tyler, the head of the department, was an algebraist. Woods had a German education. I don’t remember now where he got it, but he was a geometer rather than an analyst. Bailey, of course, was just a teacher of mathematics. He didn’t have a Doctor’s degree.
I remember. One of the old line, Tech SB’S, I guess. I remember that famous book, Woods and Bailey, so they used to call it, the Tech Boys, “The Babes in the Woods and Bailey”.
The origin of that book was that Bartlett had a sabbatical year, and spent it in Germany and Italy, possibly France, I don’t remember, seeing what they did in engineering schools over there, and he came back and told the department what was being done, and expected, that if they were interested in it, he’d be asked to do it. But he and the head of the department didn’t get on too well together, and so the head of the department put the job on Woods and Bailey who didn’t know what Bartlett was talking about, except that they just got an impression from what he said, because they hadn’t been around to see what was actually done, as he had been. That was the origin of Woods and Bailey.
Did you ever know Professor Cross who was at MIT?
Yes, I succeeded Professor Cross, and he was frequently in the department after I took over.
What kind of a person was he?
He was a telephone applied physicist. I don’t know as he ever worked with the AT&T people, but he’d worked with some of their predecessors in the early days. He was a nice gentleman.
He’s the man of whom they used to tell the famous story that he got so he couldn’t lecture in elementary physics without a marble in his pocket and he’d have his hand in, you know, feeling that marble, and everything would go well. One day the boys got in there and took the marble out and broke down the lecture. Is that story apocryphal, or had you ever heard it?
I never heard it, one way or the other. (laughter)
He certainly built up a lot of interesting demonstration equipment. You gave me a chance, you know, to go in their one summer and give some lectures, and I found it very fascinating digging out some of his old demonstration stuff, which seemed to work.
He and Maclaurin hadn’t gotten on well together. He wasn’t retired prematurely, but they just hadn’t gotten on well together, and when Maclaurin put me in charge of the department, he told me not to have Cross around, that he’d only be a nuisance. Which must have meant that Cross had been a nuisance to him, but Cross was a perfect gentleman about it. He would talk to me about the matter. He’d say “you do just what you please, that’s what I did.” He said “I haven’t made any changes here for 25 years and probably I should have started to make them just about that time.” (laughter) When I decided to change the course after one year’s experience, I drew up a plan for the new course, and I took it in, showed it to Cross, and said, “Look it over and make any comments about it, I’d be very much obliged.” He looked it over and the next day he brought it in to the office and he said, “Well, Mr. Wilson, I couldn’t make any comments about it, really, except to say as I’ve said before, that a lot of changes ought to have been made in the last 25 years that I just didn’t make, and I’m glad you’re making some. I know perfectly well if they don’t work to suit you, why you’ll change them.” He was very nice about it. What happened, that I knew would happen — all the full professors griped about it.
He was fairly popular with students, I guess, as a lecturer.
But they would gripe about it, because it was different from what they were used to. My best protection was Professor Cross, just the opposite of what Maclaurin said, “I’d better get rid of him. He’s been nothing but an embarrassment to me.” So I had to tell Dr. Maclaurin that I hadn’t found him to be any handicap. He was very nice about the changes I wanted to make, and everything like that.
I wonder whether you would be willing to say a few words about the situation that developed in 1922 when Fox Nichols was momentarily brought in as president, of course he didn’t last long.
I came in 1920, and you still had the Administrative Committee. You left in ‘22.
Yes. Well, the situation, the history, was this. Nichols had been president of Dartmouth, and it came out in the papers one morning that Nichols was going to Yale as professor of physics and Director of the Sloane Laboratory. I happened, that morning to be coming to Tech from Boston instead of Brookline and was walking up to my office just the time Dr. Maclaurin came out from his house. He walked along with me, and he said, “Well, our old friend, Nichols is going to Yale. Of course, he never should have gone to Dartmouth. He isn’t an administrator. He can’t make decisions. Well, I don’t know that I’m too good an administrator,” he said, “but if I should find out I failed and had to leave Tech, I wouldn’t go back to Columbia, or somewhere else as a professor of optics. I would go into the law.” You see, he had been dean of the law school before he went to Columbia as a professor of physics. Well, this seems not to have been known to the Corporation at all, because, later sometime, I don’t know just when it was, perhaps in May, maybe April, they elected Nichols to succeed Maclaurin. He was inaugurated at the graduating exercises about the first of June, 1920, Maclaurin had died early January, to take effect the first of July. Between the first of June and the first of July he had this bad heart attack, and he was technically president for, I think, 18 months, until his doctors decided that he never would be able to do the work. That he had to have something much less strain on him to do. So, he went out about January 1, 1922. The Administrative Committee kept right on, you see, through all that period, and then in the spring of 1922, I got this request from Harvard to go over and start their department of vital statistics in their new school of public health. I also got an invitation from Johns Hopkins to go down there and start a course in, I suppose you could call it, bio-physics. It was to be a sort of parallel course to biochemistry, but more physics in it, and I decided to go to Harvard. I had in mind that Noyes had found that after being acting president, he’d got to be somewhere else if he was to be free to do his scientific work. I presumed that the same sort of thing would happen to me, and I’d have not only the physics department and possibly a president I couldn’t work with. I could have worked with Nichols, all right.
When you left Tech in ‘22, was it clear that Stratton was going to be the next president?
No, it wasn’t clear that Stratton was to be the next president. All I knew about that, I was told by one of the members of the Corporation, when Nichols was appointed and broke down. I told him what Maclaurin told me at the time it was announced Nichols was going to Yale, and I told him that I didn’t see that Nichols could do the work. And he said, “Well, you know, there were six people on the Executive Committee, and the Executive Committee had a right to make the appointment.” I don’t know that I should say this while the machine is running — “the Executive Committee had the right to make the appointment. They were split three-to-three. Three of them wanted Nichols, and three of them wanted Stratton, and finally, as the three who wanted Nichols were the senior three, the junior three gave in to them, saying ‘We’ll break the deadlock and vote for Nichols.’ Now that Nichols is washed up, as it looks as if he will be completely washed up, I suppose the junior three will perhaps say that it’s their turn.” And that’s exactly what happened ultimately. I don’t remember just when it was that he told me that. I seem to think it was when Nichols had broken down enough so that there wasn’t much hope that he would ever be able to do the job. It could have been just after he actually resigned from the job, when the Administrative Committee was still working, of course. Well, that spring I got the Harvard offer and I decided I’d better take it, although it meant a complete change of activity.
Had you done any work in this area before, of statistics?
No, not anything that amounted to anything. Of course, I knew more statistics than any bio-statistician in the country, because I knew the writings of Laplace and I knew the writings of Gauss and they couldn’t read either. As a matter of fact, I think I was considered for the position when they started the Hopkins school in 1918, because Dr. Welch, who was to be head of the school, talked to me a long time about the fact that there weren’t any vital statistic statisticians, that an institution of Hopkins standard ought to make professors from heads of departments, and things like that, and that he had to make a choice between geneticists, who knew some statistics and a great deal of biology, and physicists, who knew perhaps no biology, but a great deal of statistics, because of their work with gas theory and quantum theory. And his choice ultimately went to Raymond Pearl, who was what you’d call a human geneticist. He’d worked on the genetics of poultry, and he had studied statistics with Pearson in London, and he was a statistical geneticist and biologist. His choice was Pearl. The Harvard choice happened to be me that was all. They might have made better choices than either. Vital statistics was at a very low ebb. You couldn’t appoint the best actuary in the country, because the insurance company was paying him so much more than the university paid for salaries, and you didn’t want a second-rate one.
Why was there an interest, at that particular time, in developing work in this area?
The American Public Health Association was like the American Medical Association in that it had standards without which you didn’t rate as anybody or any institution worthwhile, and they required for their degree, on paper, although they didn’t give any degrees, their standards for the degree in public health was that you should have about a quarter of your time in vital statistics. That’s because the health departments all have their statisticians, they all get in the death certificates, they all have to edit them and get out statistical reports, so that a quarter of the time of the students in a one year course leading to the lowest degree or certificate in public health, was prescribed by the American Public Health Association to be in vital statistics, so no school of public health could be without that subject. The subject had been taught informally at Harvard before there was any School of Public Health, by the professor of sanitary engineering, Professor Whipple. But the School of Public Health wanted to have a separate professor. Whipple continued to do the work in sanitary engineering in the school, but he wanted to give up the statistical work and the school wanted to have him give it up, and they wanted to have an appointment in it, and they picked on me.
As I recall, you were also made a member of their Administrative Board, too in the school, were you not?
Oh, yes. I think all the full professors were members of the Administrative Board. There weren’t many full professors!
The school hadn’t been going too long, I guess, had it?
It started — it hadn’t been going at all when I was appointed. I was appointed, I think, in February. The Corporation voted the appointment, and it was 11 weeks before the overseers O.K.’d it, so that it probably was along in April, or maybe early May before it was announced. We began work with the — the first of September, when the new term began or the middle of September, whenever the work started.
Your headquarters were put out at the Medical School, were they not?
The School bought — the Infants Hospital, for its building and the work was in the Infants Hospital, but they hadn’t bought that in ‘22. Or at any rate they hadn’t reconditioned it so that they could use it, because the first year, all the staff of the Public Health School had their offices in the Medical School. But, after that, those members of the Health School faculty who were not members of the medical faculty had their offices over in the new building that they bought, the reconditioned Infants Hospital.
Part of your job, I suppose was to draw plans for giving the Doctor’s degree in this field?
Well, we didn’t favor giving the Doctor’s degree. It was on the list, but we weren’t anxious to give it. The ordinary degree that the American Public Health Association favored was the certificate in public health. Harvard didn’t like to give that. They thought it wasn’t a degree, and I think that seeing that it was a graduate degree, they really gave the Master of public health, rather than the certificate of public health. They had the right to give the Bachelor of Public Health, too, in place of the certificate, but I don’t think many such degrees were given, certainly not to medical graduates. Later, they did give the Doctor’s degree on about the same basis as a PhD. Ruth Puffer, who did the detail work on that population report, had a Doctor’s degree, ultimately. She came back about a year later.
How was your own time divided there between teaching and research?
There was little teaching to do.
Didn’t you give a course in statistics?
I gave a second term statistics, statistical epidemiology, which was an advanced course, the students didn’t have to take it, and my assistant, Dr. Deering (?), assistant professor, gave the first term’s course. Otherwise we were free for research, both of us. But later, of course, I got into more trouble because Mr. Lowell, when he set up a department of sociology about 1930, put me in it, with no obligations except to attend department meetings. A president can do that at Harvard, and the department can’t say anything about it. (Lindsay laughs) He put four full professors of Harvard University into the department of sociology when he set up; a historian, an economist, and me as a demographer, and the fourth one I’ve forgotten who he was. We were in the department as long as I was in the University, that is, from 1930 to 1945. Sorokin and Zimmerman both came from Minnesota. They were new appointees. And then, when W.L. Crown (?), who had given the economic statistics, and a little course on the theoretical mathematical economics, went to California, they asked me to give that course, so I had a course in economics to give, a half course, half a year.
It must have been quite a change from mathematics and physics?
Well, I had written on mathematical economics before I ever wrote on mathematical physics. Rather simple mathematical economics. Quite a way back. That’s one reason why I want to see Gale if I can for a few minutes. I want to see about the work of Edgeworth of 1881, of which I was quite familiar. I’d got into mathematical economics at Yale because Irving Fisher was in it, and was kind enough to be quite a friend of mine. Willard Gibbs had been interested in Fisher’s thesis.
Fisher had actually studied under Gibbs?
Oh, yes, he’d studied under Gibbs and he applied Gibbs’ general method of thinking about things to the economic situation in his great paper of 1892, which was one of the very best papers on mathematical economics as of that time. I don’t think it was quite as good Edgeworth’s of 1881, but Edgeworth has never had much following, and Fisher has had a lot. That’s probably because Fisher was more of a mathematician than Edgeworth, and Edgeworth was more of an economist than Fisher, so that a mathematician can bite in on Fisher much easier than on Edgeworth. I was in the department of sociology, the department of economics, as well as the School of Public Health, and Conant put me in the School of Public Administration. I suppose because I had been on the Science Committee of the National Resources Planning Board. When he set that up, he put me in that.
How would you compare the administration of the university at Harvard with the administration at MIT?
By and large, Harvard hasn’t an administration, and MIT has. The theory at Harvard is that nobody can tell anything to a full professor. He can tell the president what ought to be done, but the president can’t tell him what he ought to do. He’s appointed on tenure to do the best he knows how to do for the university and on the whole you get it better done if you don’t try to tell him what to do. Let him make up his own mind. Of course, in practice, some of the presidents have ideas about what the professors ought to do. They have, of course, the proper right to talk to the chairmen of departments, whom they appoint, and they can get it down to the staff that way, but I’d never heard of the president at Harvard telling any professor what he ought to do. The chairmen of the departments are temporary appointments. Generally, something like a three year basis, but they’re always temporary, and any president that doesn’t like a head of a department, can have him changed, even if he doesn’t have anybody that’s fit to put in the job. Conant did that. He threw out Burbank as chairman of the economics department. Lowell had had Burbank there for, I guess, 13 or 14 years. It was a very big department, and Burbank had lost most of his standing as an original economist and a writer of economics because of the administrative work of running a big department, and it had a very large student body. Conant discontinued him, as he had a perfect right to do under Harvard traditions, and put in his best research economist.
Did Burbank have tenure?
Oh, yes, he had tenure. Every professor has tenure.
How could he discontinue him as head of the department?
Yes, deans and chairmen of departments have no tenure. They’re there at the pleasure of the president. Conant got out a rule that nobody could be chairman of a department for more than three years running. He hadn’t looked into the situation enough to see that there were departments in which he didn’t have enough people to make a change, because they do have to have tenure, the chairmen, as I understand it. They wouldn’t put a non-tenure appointment in as chairman. I don’t know if there are any rules that says they shouldn’t, but I don’t know that they ever have. The rule used to be in mathematics that the first time an associate professor got tenure on his associate professorship, he served for three years as chairman of the department, because they thought he might as well learn what the department’s business was when he was young, and they might as well rotate it to him at that time. The man Conant put in wasn’t an administrative officer. He didn’t want to be. He felt that he had to take it if the president urged him to. He didn’t write a thing in the three years while he was chairman as far as I know. Conant finally let him out and put Burbank back in, (laughter) and we’d just had three years of sheer misery in the department, and the fellow who’d had the most misery was the poor fellow who was trying to serve as chairman of the department. Harvard’s a very nice place to be on tenure. There’s nobody can tell you anything, so far as I understand matters. Nobody above you but the president. There are administrative officers, and if they don’t do what you want them to do, you complain to the president about them.
Deans, for example.
The deans, yes. Generally speaking, one gets along very well, because if you have a tradition that there isn’t really anybody between a tenure appointment and the president, the person who is put there in an administrative position is probably as conscious of that as anybody, and they get along. It’s like the rule at the University of California when I was there in ‘29 as a sort of private consultant to the president, President Campbell. They had a budget committee under the vice president for academic affairs, and some of the deans and some of the professors. This budget committee took care of all promotions, appointments, and everything else. The president was required by the statutes of the university, Dr. Campbell told me, to present their budget whether he liked it or not. He could demur about some of the items, and then the Corporation, or whatever they called them, would decide whether he was right or whether the budget committee under the vice president for academic affairs was right. But actually, they compromised their differences, as they didn’t wish to make any stir in the Board of Trustees. They preferred to present a uniform situation to them. I suppose, theoretically things might be bad enough at some times, so they preferred to fight it out with them. I think it did come to that on the Trustee’s desire to have an oath of loyalty, or something.
Yes. It caused a great deal of stir.
Yes, a great deal of stir. But at Tech, there is an administration. You know to whom you’re responsible, and who are responsible to you. I remember when I was going to make the change in instruction in physics, cut out about a third of the physics and do the other two-thirds better, I called up the president. I said I was going to make a change unless he said I’d better not, and I thought I’d better tell him because he sure would hear from it. (laughter) He said, “How long you been thinking about this?” I said, “Oh, something like six months?” Well, he says, “Do anything you want, if you’ve thought about it six months, and I’ll back you up.” He says, “I have people here on the staff that have a dream about 4:30 a.m. and come in here and want to turn everything over by 10:00 in the morning, and I have to go slow on that,” he says. But I didn’t have any trouble. Professor Cross took care of all that for me. It was a great change for me to go over to Harvard where I couldn’t find out anything as to how the way things were done. “Well, they’re done the way you want them done,” was all you’d get out of them. Find out what you should pay your secretary? “Well, it’s your budget. You pay your secretary what you think you ought to pay her.” I found that the secretaries with equal responsibilities were getting anything in different departments, from 1000 a year to 2000 a year. And griping about it, of course, whenever they got together for lunch. (laughter) At Tech, there was a scale of salaries. I didn’t determine what I’d pay my secretary. I recommended to the man in charge of personnel what she’d get paid, and if that was in accord with his scale, for persons of her tenure and her seniority and ability, well, she’d get it, otherwise she wouldn’t. But you always worked through channels at MIT, and there weren’t any channels at Harvard, really. But that’s really the way it should be theoretically as far as permanent officers are concerned.
It certainly seems so. Then you know where you stand. I know this is a very difficult question, and probably somewhat nonsensical, but would you say that you enjoyed your last period there, which was some 23 years, as much as you did say the first 23 odd years of your career, because in a way your career has been split timewise into pretty much two equal parts; one on the mathematics and physics, and one on the statistical work. It’s practically an impossible question, but I would be interested to see what sort of reaction it evokes.
Well, something had to change, because I got so involved in administrative work that my work, if I stayed at Tech for another 20 years, was not going to be like the work had been for the 17 years I’d been there, where I was for the most part of it entirely free to do my research in science, and my teaching. I was inevitably engulfed in administration, being chairman of one of the largest departments and having been on this committee, I would be in a difficult situation with respect to a new president, and it might be an impossible situation. There were plenty of my colleagues who didn’t like some of the things I had done, of course. That had to be understood. So a change had to be made of some kind, because things were going to be different. I can’t really compare situations, and you can’t compare, I think, your happiness between 25 and 45, and your happiness between 45 and 65. These are just incomparable things. Social scientists would ask you some questions and get an answer and write a paper about that, but I wouldn’t put any amount of confidence in the paper that he wrote. (laughter)
Yes, they do this sort of thing.
I had a very good time at Harvard.
If you had had an opportunity to take a position in theoretical physics, say at another institution like Yale or Columbia or Princeton, do you think you would have taken it as against the job in vital statistics at Harvard?
Well, I presume I would have. That would be my guess, because I had to spend two, three or four years mainly talking with professors of medicine, reading books on medical science and clinical medicine, before I even knew the language that I needed to talk, because there are a lot of people in vital statistics who don’t know the language anyway, because they don’t consort with people who actually treat disease.
They just use the figures.
They just use the figures, yes.
You wanted to get right to the root of it, and find out what it was about.
Yes. In my opinion, you cannot apply statistics safely in any case, and you’re sure to be wrong, if you don’t know what the statistics mean as data, except you could be accidentally right. I told Whittaker in Edinburgh that I was going down to Cambridge to spend a couple of days with R.A. Fisher. He looked at me with a sort of perplexed way, and said, “What are you going down to see him for? He’s no statistician.” (Lindsay laughs) Well, I said, “A lot of people in my country would tell you that he’s the greatest statistician in the world.” He said, “He’s done some very valuable mathematical work which can be used in statistics provided the data are such that it is applicable to them, but he cannot be trusted with data because he thinks he can apply his figures to any data whether he understands them or not. He’s been working his system on some psychometric data of the Scotch highlanders. He’s come to a lot of conclusions. These conclusions are just randomly right and wrong. He has no idea which are right, and which are wrong. He knows nothing about the subject. Any highlander of the last 300 years could have told him which of those conclusions are right or wrong.” It was typical of R. A. Fisher that he did feel that he could apply his statistics to data that he didn’t understand. Whittaker wouldn’t have said that he did if he hadn’t done it, of course. He was a person who was very insensitive to his environment or the people in it. He lived his own life in his own mind, and with his own mice. This was all right with his mice. He couldn’t get on with his wife. He had nine children. They all grew up, and she still looked as if she was 18 years old. My wife was fascinated by her when she came with him to the Harvard’s tercentenary when he got an honorary degree. But when he went from Rothamsted to Cambridge, he left her at Rothamsted. She always had him where he ought to be when he ought to be there, and everything. She just took care of him. As she probably had of the nine children. She was a pretty good biologist in a practical sense. I shouldn’t wonder if she knew some biology anyhow, but he didn’t get on with her somehow.
What is your opinion of Whittaker and his total contribution or do you think you knew him well enough to have an opinion?
Well, Whittaker was a great scholar in physics and in the history of physics both. He was a first-class statistician. He was a good mathematician. He wasn’t a super mathematician in any way, but he had all the mathematical ability one needed to handle physics. I thought he was a very intelligent fellow. Now, how original he was, I don’t know. Whether he made any real original contributions to physics. He was under no obligation to, as professor of mathematics. (Lindsay concurs) He proposed a new method of fitting curves which, so far as I know, has never been adopted, but which seems to me perhaps might be worth being adopted. It’s in that book of his, Whittaker and Robinson. You get a different solution from the least square solution, but it has a pretty sound probability base, and not the normal law base either, not exactly that, at any rate, he’s essentially fitting by moments. I’d have liked to have had the time, or the computer’s time, to try it on a number of things to see whether I got as good results. Whittaker was a very great applied mathematician. He wasn’t any Isaac Newton, of course, but —
He’s been criticized so much in his history, that history of the theories of ether and electricity, which I admire personally very much.
So do I.
He was criticized because in discussing relativity, he soft-pedaled the contribution of Einstein, and he amplified the contributions of Poincaré and Lorentz.
He was right.
This is interesting, because Jerry Holton of Harvard doesn’t believe this, you know.
No, he wouldn’t. There are people who do. I don’t see that you need to play down either of them for the sake of the other. I don’t believe Einstein knew anything about Poincaré’s work when he did his work. I don’t think Poincaré knew anything about Einstein’s work when he did his work. They both undoubtedly knew something about Lorentz’s work, and if I was doing anything about it, I’d play them both down as compared with Lorentz, H. A. Lorentz. Lorentz had most of the Einstein formulae. He even had local time, which is the change in the time corresponding to the change in length. Poincaré’s work was purely mathematical. Lorentz was a good physicist as a physicist, (Lindsay concurs) and I doubt if Poincaré could be so considered. Einstein’s work was a philosophical interpretation of Lorentz’s with one change that had to be made in order to put it on the philosophical basis. I think Lorentz was the big man there, and perhaps Fitzgerald. Of course, they were both thinking in terms of the ether, and the ether has disappeared.
It’s Einstein who really gets the credit for washing up the ether —
Yes, there was no reason for washing up the ether until you got the photoelectric effect, which indicated something about photons. You didn’t have to make that interpretation, but you certainly had a good reason for doing it, after you have the photoelectric effect. To his dying day, that fellow, the Bell Telephone Company that worked on color — Ives, was not satisfied with the Einstein postulates, at all.
Neither was D. C. Miller. Of course Miller was attacking it from a different angle.
Your predecessor, Barus, said, “Poor Miller, he doesn’t know anything about interferometry.” (Lindsay laughs)
Well, he had some notions, all right.
Barus said he didn’t have any notions about interferometry. He said, “Now, I know perfectly well from being in interferometry all my life, that I cannot take more than 16 to 20 observations and average them and reduce my error by averaging. And he’s taking hundreds. The result is, that whatever he gets is pure chance, because if you take too many observations to get a precision figure, it’s not a precision figure. It depends not on your fortuitous errors, but on your systematic errors.” Ives’ objection was on wholly different grounds, namely, that we could not determine the velocity of light without using light itself, because there was nothing fast enough. We can determine the velocity of sound without using sound, but we couldn’t determine the velocity of light without using light, and we had to use it coming and going. So it was round trip light that we determined the velocity of, and that the whole algebra, group theory or anything else that you wanted to apply to light, would be different if you assumed that light going out and coming back had different velocities, and if it was on platforms of different velocity, it would have, at any rate, from the old fashioned point of view, different velocities, which it appeared not to have. So, he was the choice of the Fitzgerald Centennial Committee, you see, to go over there to Dublin and lecture on this subject, and you’ve probably read that last paper, by Ives, on the subject, published in Dublin.
Dr. Wilson, I wonder if you would want to say something about your philosophy of teaching?
No, I don’t know as I know anything about philosophy of teaching.
What is your approach to setting forth a course? You’ve had experience in a number of fields.
I don’t think there is any generalization I could make. The only question is to do something that your students get. Do it in a way that they get it. I had to give an entirely different course in statistics in the school of public health to doctors who didn’t even know logarithms, from what I would give in Harvard College to students who had calculus. The same thing is true in economics. If a student doesn’t know any calculus, you’ve got to talk it in words. You can’t write a differential equation. There may be an advantage in economics, because we may not have any laws of economics that are well enough known to justify the use of a derivative, anyway.
Don’t you think, though, one could build models just as one does in physics?
Yes, but they’re a sort of a mental masturbation. They don’t generally reproduce anything. (laughter)
That’s a point.
I think that this notion of models, where you don’t have any well-known laws, is probably misleading a whole lot of people who are able to manipulate mathematics and uninterested in what happens in the world.
They merely want to play with the model.
Exactly. They want to play with the models. I’m not against models that are models of something. I don’t see any sense in a model that doesn’t correspond to anything we have, and I think part of the obligation of the man who makes the models is to see that it does correspond to something we actually have.
Of course, I haven’t done very much in this field, but I have gotten interested in Zipf, a little bit, George Kingsley Zipf, and his famous law of frequency rank order in language and things of this sort.
I knew him very well.
You knew Zipf. I’d be interested if you would tell me something about Zipf. Now, he died rather prematurely, didn’t he? He was a rather young man.
He was a rather young man to die of general disseminated cancer.
Oh dear, that was terrible.
He had a very hard time in the last months.
Was he a professor at Harvard, actually, or —?
I don’t know whether he had ever gotten that rank. He was one of the best investigators of some questions in language and linguistics that we had. I don’t remember what his rank was. He was a very bright man, and deserved any rank that they would give him. Whether he actually got it I don’t know, because there are a great many people that like to be at Harvard, and in Mr. Lowell’s day he didn’t feel obliged to pay people for being at Harvard if they were willing to pay him for being there, so to speak. (laughter) He said he didn’t see any particular reason why you should turn somebody out after he had been there for 15 years, because you couldn’t put him up one rank, provided he was willing to stay where he was, and you were getting out of him the value of what you were paying him. He didn’t even retire people at 66, which was the retiring age, unless he thought he could do better with somebody else. He told me at one time when we were discussing this matter that what was the use of stopping the services of a man 66 if you didn’t know somebody of 46 that looked just as good as he did at 46. One of his notable cases was George Foot Moore who was professor of the history of religion. He got to the retiring age and wrote a little note to Mr. Lowell saying that he had a book to finish, and he would like his time entirely free, and so he was calling his attention to the fact that he would be 66 on such a time and would come to retirement. Mr. Lowell sent the note back to him, Moore told me himself, saying, “I’d much rather that that book came out from a professor that was still active at Harvard than from one that was retired, and so I’m returning your resignation.” George Moore, later had a cerebral hemorrhage which laid him up for a little while, and he renewed this. Mr. Lowell sent again, Moore told me, his resignation back to him and said “your doctors tell me that your case is not so serious but what you’ll still be able to work on your book. We want that book to come out while you’re an active professor.” Now, just what words he used, I don’t know. Moore didn’t entirely approve of that ruling, he told me. He thought it was exceedingly kind, but he was one of these very conscientious men, and he would rather, I think, have been on his own.
Bridgman didn’t retire even at 70, as I recall it. He was well over 70, I think, before he retired.
Mr. Lowell retired people that were kept after the normal age. He retired them whenever he thought he could do better, and he told me that it was the most serious thing a president had to do. It was a very serious thing to determine whether he couldn’t do any better, and he’d better keep the man on. We have the same question with respect to the president of the United States. What’s disability? It’s now being debated. Mr. Conant was for putting everybody out at 66. Mr. Pusey is going back more to Mr. Eliot’s and Mr. Lowell’s point of view, and he’s continuing people at his pleasure at the University. They lose their administrative positions.
That is they may not be deans anymore.
No, and they can’t be in charge of the library, so that the librarian who was Conant’s provost, the only provost they ever had while Mr. Conant was away so much fighting the War, and making the atomic bombs, and so forth, Paul Buck, has been relieved of his directorship of the University libraries, but he’s still professor of history. There are a great many people being kept on after 66. I don’t know that that it applies at the medical school. The medical school is in a difficult situation, because surgeons should retire probably before they’re 66, because so many of them get so that their hands tremble and they no longer are prime operators. It isn’t true of the medical scientist. Normally, they feel the rule ought to be the same for everybody on the staff, in the same position, and if the surgeons have to retire at 66 — they used to have to retire at 63, while the medical scientists didn’t until 66. They don’t like too much differential there. Walter Cannon who had support for his work which the University would lose if he was retired was kept on until perhaps he was 70, at the medical school. He died shortly after that, anyway.
When it came time for you to retire, did you have a well mapped out plan of what you were going to do during this period?
No, no, no.
How did it happen that you got involved with the ONR?
The first captain that came to the Boston office to run the administration of the ONR, decided that he wanted, operating with Harvard and Tech, he wanted some older men than there were on the staff. He asked Shields Warren — how he asked Shields Warren I don’t know, but Shields Warren had been, was I think at that time, in charge of biology and medicine for AEC. He asked Shields Warren whom he could get, and I was told that Shields Warren said that he’d better get me if he could, that I’d been at Tech and I’d been at Harvard, and I knew about everybody of importance in science around Harvard, and that if he wanted a senior citizen, he’d better try to get me. My assignment was to do whatever anybody else on the staff didn’t want to do, or what the captain thought he shouldn’t do, if it was a question of institutional relations. One thing that happened was very amusing. He came to me one time and said, “There’s this little business here at Harvard that’s a mess. We can’t get it settled. We can’t get any decisions made. Do you suppose you could do anything about it?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ll try.” I went over to Cambridge. It happened that I was invited to a cocktail party given by the Chairman of the Department of Mathematics for the person in ONR in Washington who was in charge of Mathematics, that was Mina Rees. (Lindsay concurs) There was the provost lapping up a martini, you see. I had one myself, and then I said to Dr. Buck that I had this little job wished on me by the captain. I told him what it was and I said, “I would know what to do about that at Tech, but I don’t know your protocol here well enough to know to whom to go. Do I go to the professor, [unintelligible name] I think I get along all right with him, or do I go to the chairman of his department, or do I go to his dean? How far down can I go?” Buck gasped, and he said, “Why Wilson, with all the contacts you had at Harvard you don’t know that that has to go to the president?” I said, “I’m ashamed that Harvard has a system in which it has to go to the president.” That would never get to the president at MIT, and if it involved the physics department, it wouldn’t get to me, if a man that had charge of that particular activity didn’t bring it to me himself. “Well,” he said, “at Harvard it has got to go to the president.” He says, “I can’t make the decision for you.” That’s not much of a provost.
I would say, especially when the president was away.
Well, the president happened to be in town. He said, “Fortunately he’s in town, and I’ve got an appointment with him tomorrow morning. We’ve got an awful docket of work to go through, but I’ll put it on it, and if I can get to it. It certainly isn’t a high priority item from my point of view.” I said, “It isn’t from mine either. We just don’t want the misunderstanding between Harvard and ONR to get any worse.” “All right,” he said. But this was Conant. It would never have got to Mr. Lowell. He would have delegated to his dean all the authority to take care of it that he could, and the dean might not have even taken it. He might have said, “you go and talk to the fellow about that. You know him and he knows you, and you can probably settle it all right.” Mr. Lowell, had you see, Murdock as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and Murdock was a very able fellow. Many people wished he was president of Harvard instead of Mr. Conant, and by the time Mr. Conant had been long enough in the War, many people preferred that Buck would stay as provost and Mr. Conant would stay in the War. (laughter) There were a lot of people who didn’t feel that way, of course. But you know how things are. There was one time when I was in the sociology department, that they voted to ask the administration to make a permanent appointment, a tenure appointment, full professorship, from outside to add a member to their department. They asked me to take that over to the dean’s office. It didn’t go to the president’s office. “Go ahead, take it over to the dean’s office,” and let them know what the department wanted. So, I went over and said I had to see the dean about something. His secretary said “it’s budget time, he hasn’t any time for ten days, I’ll put you down for next week, Friday afternoon.” She said, “the dean, of course will be in all the time, but he’s booked full, and he likes to know what’s coming up in the way of business, so that he can think about it, and who’s coming to see him. If you’re willing to, why, tell me what the business is.” So I told her. She said, “Well, the first question he’ll ask you is whether you’re for it, or whether you’re just a messenger of the department.” I said, “It was a unanimous vote. I suppose I may be here because I made the motion, I wanted to cut off the discussion, as I knew that everybody wanted it, and we were all tired of listening to the discussion. It was seconded by Lawrence Henderson, and the president knows him pretty well. But it’s a unanimous vote of the department. I don’t think there was any dissent at all. We’ve talked about it for quite awhile.” She said, “all right.” The next morning I was in my office about 9:00 o’clock, and the telephone rang. She said, “Professor Wilson, the dean came in, I didn’t expect him, about 5:30, and asked what had happened. I told him what had happened, including what you’d said. He said “You can tell Professor Wilson he doesn’t need to come over, that’ll be through the Corporation next Monday morning, and that’s a long time before Friday afternoon.” (laughter) Mr. Lowell didn’t have a provost, but his dean knew exactly what he could do in such situations as that. And no use to worry about it. And it was a good appointment, there is no doubt of that. Mr. Conant had this ad hoc committee arrangement.
I remember serving on one of those once.
It’s a very bad scheme.
I thought it was utterly useless.
It’s always a very bad scheme to do anything that is utterly useless. It’s just the sort of thing that you do because it’s the habit to do it, or because you’re afraid to make a decision. An ad hoc committee with outsiders, as well as department members, passing on department appointments, will not be frank with their president. They wouldn’t want it, if it was in their own institution, to have an outside committee frank with their president about what they wanted to do. The president of a major institution can consult anybody he wants to about anything he wants to and he’ll probably get a considered opinion, but not if there is a group of outsiders and insiders. I don’t think they ought to have it. There are many ways in which the president can get outside opinion without putting insiders and outsiders in the very embarrassing position in which they are — provided the outsiders disagree with the insiders. I met A. F. Burns one time. You know he was Chief of the Council of Economic Advisors, I forget under what president, and head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and I said, “What are you doing in Cambridge?” He said, “I’m on one of these infernal ad hoc committees of Conant.” He says, “it’s about the appointment of a Professor of Economics. It would be very unfortunate for the University and for the professor if he were appointed at Harvard. He just would be a miss fit. I think,” he says, “he’s got sense enough to know it, and I know that he has an offer to go to an institution where he would not be, and knows he would not be, a miss fit? So I [voted for him.]”  [break in recording]
The minister of the church I go to was a great admirer of George Foot Moore.
I knew him very well, socially, I knew nothing about his subject. He was a great authority on Judaism. He was a very nice man. He was president of the American Academy in Boston, as I was at one time. He was president I think before I was.
That just brings back to my mind this Kirtley Mather and his scheme, you know, for having this college for retired people. He and Harlow Shapley and a few others have started this business up in New York State somewhere. Do you know anything about it? They haven’t been after you to go and lecture and so on?
No. There is a law school, I’m told, in southern California that hires only retired professors. They’ve got the best staff in the United States. That’s what’s said. Common talk.
You prefer to do this sort of thing you’re now doing, rather than to continue teaching at another institution on an emeritus basis?
No, but you see, I would have to be, if I were to go on with the work that I’d got started, reams of which was never quite finished — if I were to go on with that, I’d have to stay where I was or go to an institution which was interested in it, which would mean a school of public health, to work in epidemiology and vital statistics. There aren’t many such schools, really. Then if you change your place where you have all your data and all your assistants that have helped you accumulate the data and helped you to work it up, you lose several year’s work. As far as my work was concerned at Harvard, if I couldn’t keep it up at Harvard, I would rather do something such as I’m doing now for the Navy.
You weren’t interested going to a place where you would mainly lecture on mathematics or even statistics?
Dr. Wilson, is there any particular phase of your work that you didn’t follow up completely, that you have regrets about not following up?
I don’t see any use of having regrets about what you can’t do anything about.
Sometimes people feel that they were close to a solution of something if they had just persisted a little bit longer, they could have achieved what someone else has done?
Not in the nature of the work I was doing, to be of that sort. I had put a lot of time and my assistants’ time on the follow up study of measles and scarlet fever, which I wrote a long paper one time. I wondered how much it had changed in 10 years so we went back and got the data, but I had no chance to do anything with it. I just had to drop it. I don’t see any reason why I should regret about it, because it was inevitable that if I didn’t stay right there and didn’t have control of the statisticians or computers that were helping me, I couldn’t do anything about it.
What do you think you enjoy the most about your present work with ONR, the association with people doing various types of problems, or are the problems themselves of special interest to you? You must of course encounter a great variety of things both on the biological and on the physical side.
Well, it’s a very nice office. It’s — it has able people in it, obliging people in it; the business manager hires able secretaries and things like that. I don’t think I was ever in a department that was on the whole so nice and cooperative. Nobody seems to have any gripes with anybody else. It’s a very pleasant place to be.
It does keep you traveling a good deal, I guess, doesn’t it?
At times there is a good deal of travel, but at other times it’s very little, and I generally can take the travel when I want to and don’t have to take it when I don’t want to. It’s administrative work, but you see, the Office of Naval Research, you go and see people and they’re fond of the Office of Naval Research. You have people telling you, well, it’s the first of the National Science Foundations, and still the best one. What they mean is, there are lawyers there to take care of your patent problems; there are business people there to take care of all your business problems. Your only trouble is with the university staff that you may not get on with them. It’s something that could be done except for the fact that the contract has to be with the university instead of with the scientist, for business reasons, legal reasons. A university wouldn’t have to have any department of sponsored research, except for a contractual feature. The Navy can take care of it, but that isn’t true of any of the other services. There’s NSF –– the Navy has never gotten into such a mess with the ONR as the AIBS crowd with NSF.
I know, the biologists, yes.
The most important things that I see in the Office of Naval Research are the branch offices which are in touch day after day with the scientists. Scientists can, on the whole, be put down as in an anti-government class. As a whole. Conant told two captains who were in charge at different times of the Office of Naval Research, that the Congress had no business letting the Navy have any money to spend for basic research at the universities. All ought to come from a science foundation. All he wanted was one great science foundation that would take care of everything. A. N. Richards took the same attitude, although I didn’t hear him say so, but I know he took it. Compton, Karl Compton — the three musketeers of D’Artagnan, who ran the OSRD, took that attitude — they wanted the science foundation to be their foundation with them in control of the distribution of money. Which may be all right, but all these services that have a mission of any kind, like the surgeon-general for public health, or the Navy or the Air Force, they need scientific advice and they need to be on friendly relations with scientists, and I think it was a great misfortune, that when the Air Force began to spend out money, they didn’t set up regional offices. We ought to have our best professors acquainted with the scientific needs of the Navy and the Air Force, and the Army, provided that you can be acquainted with a major general. (laughter) The country has never been sympathetic with its Army. It’s always been sympathetic with its Navy, and sympathetic now with its Air Force. The Air Force came up simply because the Army couldn’t look forward a little bit.
Actually, don’t you think that the Navy on the whole, has had a much more forward looking policy in terms of research?
Of course, the Navy has been in it a long time. The Air Force are kids, relatively speaking to grown up people in the Navy. The Air Force has got perhaps more scientific problems in the present and future than the Navy has, though the Navy has aplenty.
I was thinking in terms of the Navy as compared with the Army.
Oh, well, the Army — when Maclaurin got the Navy’s support for his course on aeronautics, he went down — and it was started, as I said, by the British Admiralty telling him war was going to break out in a couple of years. He went down to Washington to try to interest the Army people, major generals, and he came back and he told me “we don’t get any help from the Army.” He says, “the major generals that could give us some help, like the Navy is doing, the admirals, they say that these old crates are no good in war, and people should understand that war is a rough and tumble business and the crates wouldn’t last at all. He said “of course they are quite wrong, they would be at least some use in reconnaissance, you might not actually be fighting with them, but they could be useful in reconnaissance, and that’s a very important thing in war, but they can’t see any use for it.” He says, “They can’t see any use for them.” He let his psychometrist go, because he didn’t believe in psychometry. One time he came back from Washington, after E. L. Thorndike and Yerkes were running the psychometric tests on all the Army officers and recruits and everything else. He called me up and said, “Well, Wilson, you remember the time we had trying to get some help out of the Army for the aeronautical course?” And I said, “yes, sir.” He says, “Well, I’m back from Washington and I’ve seen some of the psychologists and they’re doing a pretty good job. They rate some of these major generals down below the Negro janitors, and there must be something in it.” (Laughter) Well, it was really pitiful, because after the war was over Secretary Baker, Secretary of War, sent me and Manly who was an engine man, and somebody who was a structure man, out to McCook Field to see what was the matter with it. There was nothing the matter with it, except they had people there who didn’t know the business. They hadn’t trained them. We were there for three or four days, and we all signed a report to the Secretary of War saying that if the Army had trained them in aeronautical engineering the way the Navy had, there would not have been anything for him to worry about at McCook Field. That these people were doing their best with what they had to work with in the way of background. You couldn’t expect anything better out of them. It was pitiful to see those fellows there. They were working no end of hours a day trying to do a job that they had no training for.
Well, it’s getting towards 3:30. I’m leaving at 4:00.
Yes, I think perhaps it might not be a bad idea to terminate at this time. I think we’ve really got a great deal of very interesting background information.
You’ve got a lot of stuff that you can’t use.
Well, it’s all there on tape, and while we won’t try to transcribe it all, it will be available to be listened to by properly authorized people. And a summary will be made in any case, in due course. We are certainly very appreciative of your kindness in being willing to spend your time on it, I assure you of that.
Individual who helps maintain a laboratory.
Wilson misspeaks here. He intends ’99.
Wilson surely intends Gibbs, not Yale.
Mathematician and economist David Gale, at that time a professor at Brown.
The bracketed words are not audible on the digital audio copy. But they make some sense in context, and were perhaps audible on the original tape.
American Institute of Biological Sciences