John Wheeler - Session II

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Interviewed by
Kenneth W. Ford
Jadwin Hall, Princeton University
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Interview of John Wheeler by Kenneth W.

Ford on 1993 December 20, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

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This is one of 22 sessions of oral history interviews with John Archibald Wheeler conducted by Kenneth W. Ford between December 6, 1993 and May 18, 1995. They represent research material for Wheeler’s autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics (Norton, 1998).



I'll respond first to your [Ken's] comments and your letter of the 9th of December, first page, last paragraph. Thoughts on my own precocity: As if I were precocious! I'm not sure that I know exactly how high you have to be able to reach to count as precocious, but I do remember overhearing my father and mother talking after I'd gone to bed about the problem I was presenting because they felt they ought to do something special about my education. And I do know that in high school my mathematics teacher, Lida Baldwin, came around to see my father about what could be done about me. So she was a booster.

When I used to work at the public library in Youngstown, Ohio on Saturday mornings to help repair worn out books so they could be sent back into service, I think there was some family duty other than that outside work which made me say one day to the family, "Well, I can certainly do that, but if I'm going to get a scholarship to college, why, I'm not sure it's a good idea." Anyway, I feel it was a sissy way to get off from doing my fair share of the family work. And my two poor brothers and my sister, I fear they must have got some of the fallout from this. I should have been more protective of them. But it's hard to get a good perspective when you're too young.

When did I learn to read, and what did I read at various ages? I can only recall that our living room in the evening had people sitting around—that is, the children and our parents sitting around—everybody with a book in his lap reading. But when did I start to read? I suppose that was in the public school in Washington, D.C. where I began primary school. That's where I learned handwriting. The teacher was so insistent on the slope of the letters, fine Italian script, and so on that I guess I must have taken my style of handwriting from those days. But it's odd that I can't recall learning to read. Except that I know there were words I used to encounter that I didn't know and I had to figure out their meaning from the context, or supposed meaning, which was a poor man's way to avoid using a dictionary.

Did you show any aptitude in writing or other non-science areas? Well, the lowest I got in anything, I guess, was in music. And then in history I didn't do so well, if I remember correctly. I had a terrible memory for dates, but I loved the subject. In English I recall some prize essay contest, which I think the newspaper had sponsored, and I got the prize in that. But it would take me a flash of memory to recall what it was about. That was in high school in Youngstown.


My friend Rushworth Steckel lived about half a block away in Youngstown. He and I had connected together little telegraph sets we'd made so we could send telegraph messages back and forth. His father was an inventor who was working on a device for rolling steel right smack into the desired ..?.. to avoid an intermediate step in processing of steel. His setup was down the street, so Mr. Steckel would go by every morning on his way to work. If I remember right, his dog's name was Pet—Mr. Steckel and Pet going down the street. Only one or two times did I visit the setup where he was developing this rolling mill. He was interested in ideas and he was a great admirer of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, so he loaned me a book by Steinmetz on relativity. That was a subject that interested him and I think we got into pow-wows about it.

Algebra, geometry, and calculus. All of those I remember from high school, not from primary school. And I was interested in the newspaper. I can recall the extra newspaper that came out at the time of the death of Harding and his replacement by Coolidge.

My father was a great admirer of Woodrow Wilson. I guess I let it shake off on me. I treasure the memory of the wonderful old man Paul Barrows, now no longer living, who was near us in Maine in the summer. Paul Barrows had been a student at Princeton and he spoke especially of the professor of political science he had there. Students would crowd into the lecture hall, they would fill all the seats, then they'd sit on the steps between the seats, then they would sit on the floor at the front of the room, then they would stand at the rear, it was so packed. And they were absolutely silent, except every now and then they'd break out in wild applause. It was Woodrow Wilson who was the professor.

I recall in Youngstown the boys in the immediate neighborhood, apart from Rushworth Steckel, had acquired attitudes which were, I guess, representative of the community. They were against Jews, they were against foreigners, and they were for the Ku Klux Klan. My family spoke against those ideas, but we never got into any real confrontation. I have a dim memory that somebody in that neighborhood had claimed that my father was Jewish, which of course he wasn't. But maybe it was because he was so economical the way he ran the library. In Baltimore I made the acquaintance of a wonderful rabbi, Morris S. Lazaron. I had been elected by my eight or ten colleagues in the young people's group at the Unitarian Church to be the head of that group, and somehow we got to talking about the issues of those days, economic recovery, world stability, and thinking that it would be more effective if we met with like-minded other young people's groups. So we set up a federation of young people's groups where we included, thanks to the help of Rabbi Morris Lazaron, a couple of Jewish groups. We put out programs for our meetings. I think they were mimeographed or dittoed. I don't think they were printed, because I would not have known how to get a thing printed.


I do recall, in Youngstown, the interest of my friend Rushworth Steckel in radio, and I myself got interested in that, too. The world's first regular broadcasting station, I believe, was KDKA, of the Westinghouse Company, in Pittsburgh, which is, say, 80 miles from Youngstown. I ended up with a circuit consisting of a crystal antenna and earphone, and ground wire, so I could hear this KDKA. The newspapers carried in the equivalent of the science section—I've forgotten whether it was every day or every week—diagrams of radio circuits that people might like to use to make their own radios. And I can recall going to the hardware store to buy what I called rohesat, r-o-h-e-s-a-t—My mispronunciation of the word rheostat. That shows how much I knew about the subject.

The interlude in Vermont had come during that time in Youngstown. Then I had time to get excited about the mechanism by which this radio wave propagation took place. And I had, this to some Christmas gift (I think from my parents), a chemistry set. Although that didn't have anything to do with electricity, it did give a chance to make unusual combinations and to make my own powder—sulfur, potassium nitrate, and graphite, if I remember right. Anyway, that was satisfying. Then, after a while, came the realization I could get an explosion even more simply by putting acetylene in water in a bottle with a little crack in the cap where I could light it and make an explosion to set off the contents of the bottle and blow off the top. But never was it big enough or bad enough to shatter glass, of course.

I can recall at the time of Franco saying to myself, "The easy way to do away with Franco would be to set up a smoke-ring generator." Robert Wood, in Johns Hopkins days, was a great experimental physicist. He had never managed to make out in his mathematics, so he never succeeded in getting a Ph.D., but he was, justly so, a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins and really good. Resonance radiation was his great feat. Anyway, he demonstrated a smoke-ring generator in the lab to us students one day and it became clear that the vorticity went all the way around the circle of the ring of smoke. But after making that lesson quite clear, he proceeded to produce a half smoke ring coming out of the smoke-ring generator. It took some doing to find out how he managed that. He put a partition across the smoke-ring generator so the smoke was in the upper half and the other was clear air. A smoke ring generator—not with smoke, not visible, but with some explosive gas—would be a real way to approach Franco, because across a public square in Spain where he was giving a talk, we could set it off. But I never got into any actual assassination work, so ....

Once, as a child, I did actually set off an explosion and damage a finger. I'd been reading about explosions day after day, and we had these dynamite charges in the pig barn, which we used to dynamite holes for the power line we were putting in to bring power to us and our neighbors. I didn't want to set off the whole stick of dynamite—that would be too much—but I knew about these little dynamite caps, little copper cartridges that were slid over the fuse, crimped with pliers, and slid into a hole in the dynamite to ignite the dynamite. The fuse was lighted at one end, the impulse ran down the fuse to this mercury fulminate cap, so-called, and then it [claps] set off the dynamite. That was a good preparation for dealing with the super. [laughter]

So having access to the pig barn, because I fed the pigs every day, I went up there to the loft in the pig barn and dug around and found these dynamite caps and took one or two with me across the road, which I thought would be a more secluded place to experiment. I tried dropping the cap onto a match which stuck in the ground with a flame coming up, but I always missed. Then I tried dropping the dynamite caps from a lower height on the flame. I got lower and lower, and finally it was so close to the darn flame it went off before it was even dropped. For weeks afterward I was taking little pieces of copper out of my chest and legs and arms. Fortunately, none of them landed in my eyes. We had to go ten or twelve miles to the village of Fair Haven to get the doctor.

I was holding the cap in my left hand, so it blew off the tip of this left finger and part of the thumb. The doctor had obviously had a hard day; he insisted on sitting down and eating his supper before he would do anything about this. But after that, why, he cleaned it up, soaked it in a hot bath with some mercury compound dissolved in water, and with his snippers snipped off these pieces of flesh, trying to dress it up into a reasonable end product.


About subjects other than physics and mathematics: I remember French and learning French at the high school in Youngstown. I got the impression that several of the students had been abroad with their parents, but that was a financial category that our family wasn't in, so I had listened with awe as these young people pronounced French in such a impressive way. I'm afraid that my French pronunciation was never very good. When Janette and I were talking with anybody in French, our children would follow along behind us a good distance, ten or twelve feet, I think, so as not to be identified with this pronunciation. [laughs]

In Baltimore there was a chance to get German. Conrad Uhlig was a real enthusiast for German and it was a pleasure to hear his rolling pronunciation of German. My father had had German at Brown University as a student, and he had some delight in speaking some of the German phrases. But Conrad Uhlig, well, he made it a pleasure to learn German. He talked of the long-standing German connection with Baltimore, represented especially by the Hamburg American Steamship Line. Lots of Germans had made their entry to the United States in the period of the great migration to the Port of Baltimore. Anyway, he had poor judgment, I think, because he saw to it I got some prize for German in high school. I can't remember writing any essays in German, but it was a great satisfaction in the time when so much of physics was being done in German to be able to follow the journals.

But that is approaching the time of college We should be still talking about things in school.



K: John, one other thing about the school period I think might be particularly interesting is the time you spent in Vermont, the year-and-a-half "leave of absence" from Youngstown. You moved along at such a clip there. Did you have a teacher who recognized your ability to move faster and encouraged you or just left you alone? How did it happen?

I honestly can't remember how come I moved up in grades and was able to skip, and whether the initiative to skip came from me or the teacher. I could hear these recitations of students further ahead than I, and that gave me a head start. But my biggest trouble was always dates in history, trying to remember those numbers. Speaking about the French and the German, I can't recall any languages at that grade school in Vermont where I went; I would be surprised if there were any.

I would really love to know how much Spanish was offered in high school in Youngstown, because I can't recall any Hispanic element in the population there. The phrases that were used in describing the ethnic mix: the hunkies (that was the phrase used for the Hungarians); the Poles; and the Wops, I think, for the Italians.


Living in Baltimore and being as strapped financially as the family was, Johns Hopkins was the logical place for me. But could I get a scholarship? There were a few scholarships awarded—somehow in the infinite wisdom of the legislature of the State of Maryland, through the say-so of local political leaders in the various communities where students came from. I know this way of getting money, whether it was four hundred a year or whatever it was, was pretty important for my family, because they were really hard up—hard up not only because the town of Youngstown didn't pay good salaries to people in the library, but also because my father was helping to pay the salary of one person he was able to get. He supplemented her salary out of his own pocket—out of the family pocket—to help get a really good person in that area of library work.

Anyway, I can recall going around with him to call at the residence of the local political leader in one section of Baltimore who would have a say-so about the scholarship. Well, I think this man looked like a rough-hewn diamond. He must have concluded that I was in a different class of people than the ones that he depended on for his political support. But at any rate, in the end he gave his—I don't know whether it was a recommendation or simply consent. I also had to interview somebody at Johns Hopkins. I can remember his telling me, "Well, you know you're not really as careful of your appearance as you ought to be. You don't have your necktie." That was right.

I'm not sure whether I was delivering newspapers at that time, but certainly not the daily newspaper as I had been doing in Youngstown; it would be the Sunday paper. I have a dim memory of getting up at a time like five o'clock to pick up the papers at the street corner and cart them around to the various subscribers to the Baltimore Sun. So that was the financial side of it.


In the interview, when I was asked about my interests, I said engineering because I didn't see any way to make a living except through something like engineering. Physics was not so popular a word then as it seems to be now. So I went to the engineering school in electrical engineering. Whitehead was the head of the school and there was the dean of the electrical part named Lampe. I can recall meeting Whitehead once in the hall and his suggesting some problem to me that I might like to look at, but I somehow never got revved up to do anything on the problem.

The engineering school in the first year included, of course, strength of materials, electrical circuits, alternating and direct current machinery. The engineering library, as I think I mentioned earlier, was also the physics library. The physics journals were there, and here were these issues of the Zeitschrift für Physik with the latest things on vector coupling between particles of various angular momenta in atoms, in the spirit of the old Bohr atom. My chemistry teacher, named Smallwood, was gripped by the story of the Schrödinger equation. But did this wave represent the electron, was the electron spread out, or what? So the mystery of that wave and what it meant was something that started in early. Harold Urey, it seems to me, was there for a while in the early days of deuterium, but I honestly don't remember when deuterium was discovered, so I can't be sure of that. I can't remember any great interaction with Urey at that time, although in later years we would talk about the constitution of the moon and what was the mechanism by which the moon was formed.

K: John, you started Johns Hopkins in 1926?

Let's see. I would have said it would be 1927, because the only date I can remember is '33, when I was graduated, and it took six years to get through on this non-stop flight that Hopkins allows. It's not really a departure in the sense one might think from the usual university habit, use Hopkins didn't start out as a usual university. Postdoctorate work was the original focus of attention—research—but then they had to add on some undergraduate to work to make it possible to get people up to speed, just the way today some universities have to add on what is high school work to get students up to speed.

The undergraduate course in physics was taught by Hubbard—John C. Hubbard, if I remember correctly. He was conscientious. I wouldn't call his teaching of physics inspiring or loaded with new insights, but solid and well done. Anyhow, he gave me encouragement to go on in physics.


My Grandfather Archibald was a great traveler. He was footloose; he and my grandmother visited more than once in Mexico to visit my Uncle John Archibald, who was in silver mining in Mexico, and other uncles that lived in the west and who were mining engineers. I can recall the two of them being seated at the swing on the front porch when I came home from school one day in Youngstown. Well, there was romance hearing about Mexico and the silver mine, so I must have absorbed that. Anyhow, I got this chance to work in my Uncle John Archibald's silver mine in Zacatecas in Mexico. Earlier he had been in a different silver mine in Guanajuato, but Zacatecas is where he was at this time.

When I had this chance to go there, this would pay me enough to cover the expense of the travel by train. I was hell bent to buy or rent a motorcycle and go to that place in Mexico on a motorcycle—I had never ridden a motorcycle [laughs] —but my parents had a lot more sense than I did. They vetoed it. So I went by train. I can recall so well getting to El Paso and then going across the border there. I don't know whether I carried my suitcases by hand or whether I got a taxi, but considering the way I'd been brought up I probably carried a suitcase by hand and got on the Mexican train. It had the great feature that the meals you'd get when the train stopped at the station—at a meal stop. The Mexican custom official going through asked me if I had anything to declare. Well, I didn't really even know what that meant, but he opened up the suitcase and here were all these ladies stockings that my mother was sending to my aunt. "Are those for you?" [laughs].

I think the train pulled in around midnight at Zacatecas. I was impressed by the way the principal stops were honored by the soldiers getting out of the last car on the train and parading up and down with their guns on their shoulders. This was a revolutionary time of Mexico, and the locomotive of the corresponding train had been dynamited off the track the day before. My Uncle John had been through an even more troubled time in Mexico earlier and he had been forced to go between the lines at what's called "No Man's Land" to bring in the wounded on one of the sides of the fighting. He told me about how in those days he'd go along on the track and you'd see every pole for quite a long way decorated by a body hanging there.

My Uncle John and some of the kids had, I think, a vision of the east that was different from the truth. They wanted to know how come I didn't have a Stetson hat on. They wanted to see what a Stetson hat looked like. Well, we lived in the house of the manager, because my Uncle John was the manager of the mine. I understand now the house has been burned down. I shared meals with the family. The dog being around was quite something. I think that was a natural thing to do, to have a dog around as an early warning system, before the days of all these electronic gadgets to let you know somebody's coming.

I think it was tough to do business in Mexico because of the corruption, but the only side of it I learned about was when my uncle told me that when the government tax man would come around once a year and go through the books, he had to be careful always to put in a certain number of pesos in the book to be there. It wasn't until later in life that I had an experience with la mordida—"the bribe" as it was called—to get space on a plane. I was trying to get from Guadalajara to Puerta Vallarta, I guess it was, and each time I'd go to the counter, "No, sorry. All of the seats are taken." And then finally I got the bright idea of sliding a five dollar bill up there and saying, "Would you mind taking another look?" and he said, "Now I can find one." La mordida.

I can recall my Uncle John lecturing me one day after I'd been there several weeks that I should be more gracious to Federico, who was somebody that helped him around the office, that in Mexico you just didn't say "Good morning," you talked more.

I never did see the silver and the gold that was made at the mine. That last step in the operation was made in some place that I guess was specially looked after. My job was to help rewind electric motors, because the deep workings of the mine needed pumps to pump the water out. The pumping unit, if you weren't going to have peons doing the pumping, needed electricity. The motors would get worn out from the unhealthy conditions of grit and water down in the deep workings. So I rewind it, and check out that the motor would go again. These motors ran, I'd say, from half a horsepower up to two horsepower. I can't remember ever looking on any really big motor.

In the deeper workings of the mine there was 440 volts and I can recall getting a real jolt out of the 440 volts one day. I was really cuckoo. I was playing a game of follow the leader with my slightly younger cousins and we were walking along at the top of the wall going around a certain region on the mine. There was a power line overhead and I reached up my finger and touched it. Whew! Boy, I think that was like a thousand [?]. Fortunately, rubber-soled shoes and the force of gravity saved me. It pulled me down.

Well I think my cousins that were following along on top of the wall could see the bad effect of reaching up and touching the wire, and I think they were also a little bit shorter than me. The oldest was a year or two younger. He was John Christie Archibald, Jr. (A few days ago, I received in the mail the invitation to the graduation of John Christie Archibald IV at the University of Texas at Austin, his grandson.)

The other cuckoo thing I did in the follow-the-leader game was when I came near one of these big tanks where the cyanide solution is. As you recall, the scheme of dealing with the ore is to grind the stuff in a marvelous grinder going around, grinding ore into powder. This powder goes into a tank of cyanide solution, which dissolves the silver, the gold. Well, this open tank had a pipe running across it, maybe eight inches in diameter. Well, could we walk that pipe without falling in? [laughter] We did, but we were kooks.

Uncle John a couple of times took us out on a Sunday to shoot birds. I apologize, I don't know the kind of bird it was, but at any rate having the guns we were carrying was illegal because these were revolutionary times. We always had to put the guns carefully under the back seat to hide them from view. But here I was, loading the gun with the muzzle pointed down. I made some boo-boo and it went off and blew a hole about as big as a cup, a saucer, in his fender. Well, obviously I couldn't fix it up. But he was very forgiving. The governor of that state of Zacatecas I met at a party the very night I was leaving for home. I was told that his political enemies would be allowed to escape from prison and then be shot while escaping.

But all I can recall immediately is the sauce. It must have been—what is that pepper that people use occasionally? At any rate, it was so hot that a couple of days afterwards my lips were still burning.

I didn't go straight back. I went instead to Mexico City, because my round trip on the train was round trip from Baltimore to Mexico City. There I met a friend of my uncle who took me around a bit. We went to see the pyramids of the sun, the Great Square of Mexico. That country is so colorful. I think I told you about Claudio Teitelboim's words about it. Coming as he does from Chile, he likes to compare Spanish as it's spoken in the various countries of Latin America and says that it's by far the most colorful in Mexico. Going around Mexico one time, on a more recent visit, he saw all these shops saying " Burn the cocoa" That meant bring your car in and with our electric torch we'll cut your roof so your roof will go up and down like expensive cars. "Burn the cocoa." But in only one place did he see this sign: "Materialists are forbidden to park in the absolute." [laughs] It was at a building site where there were trucks coming up with bricks and lumber for the building project. The trucks bringing materials are absolutely forbidden to park there.

My summer in Mexico was in 1928, after my first year of college. The Depression had not hit in full force, because the stock market crash of September 1929 had not come down the pike yet. But I had the feeling economic conditions were not tip-top. This mine was owned by the Pittsburgh Veta Grande Mining Company, and I know my uncle had his reservations about them.

I can recall again going through the section of the mining area where there were workers here and there—all Mexican, of course—and I had the feeling there was some latent hostility. I asked my uncle what I should do if one of them did anything. He said, "Either do nothing, or knock him down, but nothing in between."


That reminds me that I was not much on fighting in the Youngstown days. Some chap had challenged me with "How about a fist fight?" and I said "Well, I'm not very keen on that." Anyway, I kind of edged away from it.

We lived in the time when books were shipped in wonderful, big wooden boxes. Thanks to the library, we had in our backyard four or five of these wooden boxes, so my brothers and I and neighborhood boys made a kind of settlement there. We had one place where we had an atlas that somebody had. Maybe I had supplied the old atlas. Anyway, one of the boys got his knife out and cut the German flag out of it. Well, I thought that was desecration. I think there was more sympathy toward Germany—not pro-German, but more sympathy for Germany in my family than in most families, so probably I had some of that reaction. Anyway, I was so burned up that I started to go after him, and he disappeared, but I took his overcoat and with my pen knife I made lots of holes. I recall my mother afterward insisted that we pay for the new coat for the boy. But I'm afraid that when I got angry, I got really angry.


I can't recall that my experience in Mexico brought me back with any money that helped get me through college, but I did get some kind of an assistantship around the laboratory to guide younger students. I'm not sure that went through every year while I was a student, but I would say maybe three years out of the four years of equivalent graduate work.

It was a great treat there to have as a professor of physical optics Pfund, Augustus Pfund. He had a delight in equipment, delight in showing the channeled spectrum where you have a film in front of a spectroscope and a white light shining in and you spread the white light out into a spectrum. Some colors have come through with constructive interference, reflections off the two faces of this little bit of film, and some destructive interference. Some colors are brighter than others. The channeled spectrum.

And then shaking out the solution and silvering a mirror, that was fun. Of course, we didn't have lasers in those days. But these were qualitative and quantitative experiments. Another professor there at that time at Hopkins was Gerhard Dieke, who had just come from The Netherlands. He had a yen for quantum mechanics, counting spin states, and its relationship with spectroscopy. He was interested in atomic spectroscopy and later he shifted to molecular spectroscopy.

Then there was Joyce Bearden, who came from the University of Chicago. His specialty was X-rays. The department had adopted this policy of each student working for a month with one professor, and then a month with another, and then a month with another, so he'll get real acquaintance with the science of physics. This was primarily in the experimental domain. With Bearden I can't remember what I did experimentally, but I know that we got into the interpretation of some of his work and wrote at least one paper together.

Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld was the leading professor in the department in theoretical physics. He had done an enormous article in the Handbook of Physics—the German Handbuch der Physik—on spectra and the structure of solids. Some of his predictions about the properties of solid hydrogen are still waiting to be checked. I think as much through his influence as anybody's, Maria Mayer was brought into the workings of the department. Her husband was Joe Mayer, the professor of chemistry. But she herself had no proper position. I think she was treated as a research associate, but I'm not sure she had any salary. At any rate, Herzfeld and Maria Mayer ran a little seminar course where a dozen of us sat around the table going through the book of Born and Jordan on [1 theory chapter by chapter. A wonderful way to learn the subject.

And then there was a Journal Club. I can recall being given or picking out and somehow giving a report or a paper on some penetrating radiation observed by Bothe and Gentner. Well, it turned out later it was really neutrons, but that interpretation didn't come up (?).

K: It was interpreted as gamma rays at that time?

I think that was the way it was interpreted. Then when the neutron was discovered, I can recall the excitement that gave my best friend there in school in Hopkins, Bob Murray, Robert Taylor Keys Murray. He would never use a slide rule. He was suspicious of their accuracy.

Robert Wood, being a member of the Royal Society, periodically went to England, and he was charged by the department, so I learned later, to bring back some new staff member in the field of nuclear physics, which people began to realize would be important in the future. He got this man that Rutherford recommended, Norman Feather. And like other members of the faculty who had any touch with the experimental work, he took on students for a month to work with him. It was a great pleasure to learn something about working with radioactivity. The Johns Hopkins Hospital had radium for use in radiation treatments, and somehow it was possible to get hold of those needles.

Anyhow, there's radon and what we used as our detector was the human eye. The alpha particle would hit this foil of zinc sulphide and produce a flash, and the eye would pick that up—that is, if you would sit in the dark with your eyes opened for at least half an hour. We could count these flashes for half an hour or so, and come back another day and count again and see how much the activity had gone down. Then, when the neutron was discovered, my classmate Bob Murray took such delight reading the papers and telling me about how Moon had put the source in St. James Park in the pond and then had rowed to see if he could go faster than the neutrons. [laughs] Oh, but it was such a treat to have Feather use that book of Rutherford, Chadwick, and Ellis on radiation from radioactive substances. So much to be learned there.

K: Was Johns Hopkins University at that time one of the leading physics institutions in America?

Leading in spectroscopy, yes. It wasn't at the forefront of nuclear physics like Berkeley, and it wasn't at the forefront of molecular spectroscopy like Ohio State.

K: How about theoretical physics?

Herzfeld was outstanding, but I don't believe he published a whole lot. His work at this time, if I'm not mistaken, was primarily in connection with the properties of fluid flow or irreversible phenomena.

K: Eugene Wigner describes Princeton in the early 30s as somewhat backward relative to European universities. Your description of quantum mechanics being already taught while you were an undergraduate suggests that Johns Hopkins may have been more advanced, more modern than Princeton at that time.

That sounds right. I remember somebody telling me—was it Shortley, who had done the book with Condon at Princeton on quantum mechanics?—telling me that Condon was learning quantum mechanics as he was giving a course on the subject. So it was a treat, special treat to hear him. And we didn't have any cosmic-ray work going. I can recall driving to Atlantic City one night for a meeting of the Physical Society and a debate between Compton and Millikan on whether photons are particles. [Wheeler said "particles are photons"—probably a slip of the tongue.]

K: Was there a moment when you stopped being an undergraduate and became a graduate student?

It was just a continuous transition, as far as I can recall. I must have had to take some kind of a test, but I don't remember. But getting an assistantship, helping students, that was a great thing financially. It diminished the tuition cost.


K: Did Johns Hopkins have what we would now call breadth requirements— requirements that you take subjects outside of your major?

Yes. As an undergraduate, yes. I took history, English. I can still remember a wonderful man, Wardlaw Miles. He had had a leg shot off in World War I, but he would nevertheless stand there on his one leg. He had the little podium seated on this table, it was one of two [?]. He knew something of Shakespeare [?]. I can remember one time he was so enthusiastic that he lost his balance, and we all rushed up to pick him up. Wardlaw Miles in English. Shakespeare was such a treat. I can recall his going over some paper I had produced, as other students did too, and saying you've got to do this, you've got to do that—giving me some guidance. But I can't remember what the guidance was.

I can't remember any special inspiration from the German, but from the French. I took a third-year course in French, although I hadn't had any French since high school. This was a course in which most of the students were already teachers of French who were getting up to speed. And all the lectures were in French.


Maria Mayer had the misfortune to be at Hopkins at a time when the president was Isaiah Bowman. He had had a distinguished career as a geographer, but he had a negative attitude toward all foreigners. It made Herzfeld, who was probably the most distinguished man in the department, feel unwelcome. Maria Mayer was not only a foreigner—that is a German—but a woman. He could have given her a job, but he didn't. And so in later years, when the Nobel Prize was awarded, it was to her and not to her husband. She had an enthusiasm for the new ideas, the new quantum mechanics, and she had worked in the field with good people. But she never asked me to do a thesis with her.

I had assumed I was going to do my thesis with Herzfeld, but in mathematics there was one colleague who had suggested: Might I not do my thesis with him? That was Aurel Wintner. He had written a great book on infinite determinants and infinite matrices, which had just the right content to be useful in the mathematics of quantum mechanics. But that was a bit too removed from any direct physics for my taste to follow that as a thesis topic.

Anyway, when Maria Mayer didn't get a proper position, then it became easy for her husband Joe Mayer to accept a call to another school, say g bye to Hopkins; and Herzfeld, easy for him also to accept a call to another school. So Isaiah Bowman, by his lack of enthusiasm for these stars, lost them. I suppose that the point was, if I had ever put it to him directly, he would have said, "We're in bad financial times," because this was the time of the Great Depression. There's a whole section in that little book that Roger Stuewer sent where I talk about how bad the Depression was.

John Mauchly, I don't say as much about him there as I could have, because he played such an important part in the making practical of computers. But he had a rather jaundiced view of man's lot in the world. He loved Bach, the mathematical properties of the music of Bach. I can recall his being seated next to me once in class. We were waiting for Herzfeld to come in, and he said, "People who get married ought to know that if they put a bean in a pot every time they have sexual relations with their wife, and do that for the first year, and then take out a bean thereafter every time they have sexual relations with their wife, there will always be a lot of beans still left in the pot at the end of their lives." [laughs] He had a jaundiced view of mankind. He's the one that couldn't get any decent teaching job and took a job at Ursinus College at the outskirts of Philadelphia, where he worked on that computer. Can you remember during the war using the Eckert-Mauchly computer in Philadelphia?

K: It was afterwards—I think in 1951—we first used that.

I see. Yes. And did you run into Mauchly at all?

K: No. You remember it was Larry Wilets who sort of managed the computing there in Philadelphia, whereas I was down at the Bureau o Standards in Washington, on the SEAC.

I forgot to mention about Maria Mayer that she and her husband Joe Mayer gave an engagement party for Janette and me after I got back from Copenhagen in June of 1935, a few days before we were being married.

I'm trying to touch on various people. I think I've said all I should say about Bowman. Of course there was the great tradition of the medical school which had an uplifting effect on all of Hopkins. There were the four great doctors and the painting of them. Let's see, the four doctors—Welch, Osier, Kelly, and Halstead. The only one of them I ever met was Welch. He was famous for his dinners. He would have the menu printed up. I don't know where these dinners were given, at some club probably. But then, as if that weren't enough good eating, once a year he would go to Atlantic City and stay for something like a week and go to a hotel and every day after every meal have three desserts. But he was a master at giving talks. He would carry a little slip with the remarks about the topics he wanted to cover, and then he would go on from there. A great pathologist.

And you remember that the man who had got the university going, Daniel Coit Gilman, went on after Hopkins to make the University of California a great research university. He was known for riding around the campus at Berkeley on a horse. He once said, I think there, that the most important attribute for a faculty member that he wanted was character. You probably have heard me speak more than once of the way he got his Hopkins faculty. He picked out the best people he could around the world and invited them in to his conference on what the new university should be and try to do, and as they talked day after day they got more and more enthusiastic. Finally, Gilman thought the moment had come, and he said to Gildersleeve, the great classical scholar from England, "Professor Gildersleeve, If we set this school up this way, will you come?" He got Gildersleeve. And he got Rowland—gave Rowland enough money so he could use the first year going to Europe and seeing the key people and things. And he spent a lot of time with the famous four doctors, talking about how the hospital would be set up. It was Gilman's idea that one man was sent to New York to go through a big hotel and see how it was run, because the running of a hospital would be like that in many ways.


Herzfeld I'm immensely indebted to for his wonderful perspectives on physics. Every year when he began a new course he would talk about the general layout of physics and then about bringing this field in, making the subject of the course into it, shows its relation. He would talk about some of the great people in the field, and then get into it.

K: Did you pick him as your thesis advisor, or did he invite you to work with him? How did it come about?

I honestly have so poor a memory I just can't remember, but I think that I asked him to be my advisor. I remember as a sophomore going from time to time to the physics seminars run by Herzfeld. I suspect that John Hubbard, who had given me such a boost at the beginning, may have spoken to him a good word to treat me. Anyhow, it was attractive to think about physics problems that had a mathematical flavor, like this game of finding coordinates in which the wave equation would separate, and I think I may have mentioned about Ehrenfest, the Ehrenfest [?}.

Herzfeld would open his voice [1, saying, "It may be that the nodes of the wave function itself define the proper coordinates." Then Ehrenfest saying, "My dear Herzfeld, you are completely crazy." Friendly, good colleagueship. But it was always appealing to me to try to find a way to separate the variables in the three-body problem. I spent an immense amount of time on that. Breit had worked on the three-body problem. in later years I learned what he had done. It took me some time to realize that it just doesn't separate. But I still have the good fortune of a colleague who's deeply interested in that. A world expert on the three-body problem is Victor Szebehely. He's in engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, a world expert on the three-body properties. He's written a couple of books on the subject.

My thesis was on the absorption and scattering power of the helium atom. This business of the close connection between the two was always such a beautiful subject. I did not at that time know about the work of Kronig and Kramers, who had showed that if you knew the absorbing power as a function of frequency, you could predict the other component—if you knew the real or the imaginary part of the refractive index, you could get the other.¹ [See footnote on next page] Later John Toll put that idea to use in his treatment of pair production. Kronig I knew, but I never talked to him about his theorem. Nor did I ever talk to Kramers about that theorem. I don't know why.

Peter Putnam, along with Charlie Misner and Joe Weber, was with me for that year in Leiden. Peter was interested already then in art and sculpture, and he put me in touch with the sculptor and painter who painted a head of Kramers. This head was done in the last days of Kramers life, so it had the heading underneath it, "Hans is sleeping." At any rate, this sculptor, Harold Isenstein, if I remember right, lived at The Hague. We got him to do a drawing of Alison's head, but not a sculpture. But we do have a small piece of sculpture that he did over at our apartment at Meadow Lakes. Well, how did we get onto all that? I guess I was talking about my thesis and the relationship of scattering to absorption in helium.

In Wheeler's paper basesd on his thesis, he uses "the ordinary dispersion formula," but does not cite Kronig and Kramers. (KWF)

I fell so much in love with all that business of scattering and absorption and collisions that I wanted to do a book on elementary processes of atomic physics. I talked with a Pakistani colleague, F. B. Malik, about that, and he did a lot of work on it. Unfortunately, I dropped out, and I'm afraid the thing went on the rocks. He at that time managed to get a job at Yale. This thing, this job, this piece of work didn't pan out. He just didn't end up with any future at Yale, so he is now at Southern Illinois State University at Carbondale. F. B. Malik comes from [what is now] Bangladesh. His parents, I gather, gave money for a major school there in Dacca. And an uncle of his had been in the Pakistani diplomatic service, ambassador to China, and I've forgotten where else. There was a hot time when Bangladesh separated off from Pakistan, but I can't remember all the ups and downs of that. It's a remarkable thing to me how the people that love physics have a kind of bounce or love of life. I don't know which is cause and which is effect, but he keeps optimistic.

My work on the scattering and absorption of helium required me to calculate the absorption power of helium as it depended on the frequency of the light coming in. And then, from that, using the relations of Kronig and Kramers, it was possible to calculate the scattering power of the imaginary part of the refractive index. [In Wheeler's paper based on his thesis, he refers to "the ordinary dispersion formula," but does not cite Kronig and Kramers.] Or rather I guess the real part. At any rate, the interesting feature was how similar in many ways helium was to the atoms I had been running into in talking with Joyce Bearden, understanding X-ray absorption and X-ray scattering. Because there was a long continuum and that preceded by some powerful absorption lines that converged to this continuum absorption limit. The so-called f-value, the total amount of oscillator strength in that absorbing power, in the X-ray case was often substantially different from the value 2 that you might have expected from the presence of two electrons responsible for the absorption. Also in helium there was this departure of the absorption—integrated absorption—from the sum value that one might have expected, the reason being that so much of the strength that has to add up in the end, come hell or high water, to this total of two is in the line spectrum. Well, you could say what has this all added up to? Has anybody ever measured the refractive index of helium? I confess that that's one of the many things I will have to look up if I ever put together, as Dave Sharp urges me to, my collected papers to give a discussion[?].

In later years I became very much in love with the statistical model of the atom, and a student came along—I wish I could remember his name now, was it David Kerlick or was it somebody named Thompson?—who viewed the statistical treatment of the Fermi-Thomas statistical model of the atom and figured the hydrodynamical oscillations of this system and used that to get a statistical model of the generic absorption spectrum. That would have been another nice thing to put into a book on the elementary processes of atomic physics. In keeping with Gamow's spirit in his book One, Two, Three, Infinity.