July 13, 2009 we are interviewing Thomas Carroll. Participating today will be Jessica Carroll, Amy Olinzock, Sree Adepali, Jana Bruderreck, and Sam Stewart. Supervised by Janie Schwab, Director of the Dudley Observatory.
Jessica: And we are all very excited to get to know you. We’d like to start off by asking how you got involved in the Dudley Observatory in the first place.
Tom: I was on the faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York and my specialty is American cultural history and I specialize in the history of American science and technology and I got recruited by the late Steve Wiberley who called me up one day and asked how would you like to be on the board of the Dudley Observatory?
If you knew Steve you’d know how persuasive he is, he used to be the acting provost, is a Native of Troy, wonderful, very confident administrator, everybody loved him and all he did was tell jokes all day long and after he got you laughing and relaxed and comfortable by telling you two or three jokes he’d then say and by the way I want you to do me a favor and …
I don’t remember what year it is, but when the computer boots up I’ll be able to tell you. It must have been either the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. I said sure, I’d love it. I already knew he was on it and I knew that Sam Wait was on it. You’re all nodding, you know, who Sam Wait is? I’d known Sam and Steve for decades and, I certainly knew at least vaguely what the history of the Dudley Observatory was so, sure, and he ‘course made it sounds really terrific ‘cause he said “Pretty much we meet twice a year and have a really nice dinner and then we give away money and that’s about all we do.” I said that doesn’t sound too strenuous I guess I can do that. So I agreed to serve, and I don’t remember what the terms were. I don’t remember whether there was a three year term or a five year term or a one year term or whatever, but I just said sure, fine.
So that’s how I got interested in the Dudley. I had plenty of interest in astronomy and the history of astronomy before that, and astrophysics, and planetary geology which is probably more of an interest of mine than the others. I really wasn’t a specialist in that subject. The only thing I’ve ever done even remotely connected to the history of astronomy was my first history paper which I did while I was a student assistant to the historian at the jet propulsion laboratory to pay my way through some of my undergraduate years at Caltech. That was on the history of solid propellant rocketry so it wasn’t exactly the history of astronomy. I guess I know about as much about rockets as Janie knows about balloons.
Janie: I know a lot about balloons.
Tom: I know a lot about rockets. I know you do, that’s why I said it. I really had done most of my work in the history of chemistry and in the history of evolution, Charles Darwin, and in American history of science and technology generally, more cultural and political history than the history of a particular scientific discipline.
Tom: Is our hour and a half up yet?
Jessica: Not quite, how did you know you wanted to get involved with history and then connect it with chemistry?
Tom: That’s a very good question. That has to go all the way back to when I was born. I’m a fourth generation townie from Princeton, New Jersey. If you don’t know what a townie is go ahead and Google Princeton Townie. Nowadays you’ll get a whole bunch of false hits on some people who are doing bicycle tours of Princeton and there’s a bicycle called The Town itself. You get all these funny things about bicycle tours. Skip over all of those and go to the ones where they talk about the town kids of Princeton, that’s me. I’m a fourth generation townie from Princeton, but I just happened to have been born on March 14th, 1949, which is Albert Einstein’s 70th birthday. Now Albert Einstein was living about a mile away from the hospital where I was born on that day, celebrating his 70th birthday, and of course this was nothing but a coincidence, but my mother thought this was a sign from somewhere. That I was going to be the next Einstein.
It turned out I was good in math and science and liked science and technology, in fact my third grade teacher reprimanded me to my mother at a parent-teacher’s meeting because she said I was rushing through all my tests so that I could hand them in and then take out a book and I was taking out books about atoms and submarines. She told me that I shouldn’t be doing that, I should be concentrating on my studies instead, which was a terrible mistake, but that’s alright.
I also, of course, grew up in the fifties and early sixties which was the Cold War and in those days if you were a male at least in America and you were good in math and science, everybody assumed that it was your patriotic duty to go become a rocket scientist to beat the Russians in the Cold War. From early as I can remember everybody said I was going to be a great scientist or engineer and that I should do that, which was fine with me. I got terrible guidance in high school. In fact I went in to my, after the first grades were handed out in the fall of my freshman year of high school, the guidance counselor called everybody in and he called me in and said I think you’re probably going to be good enough to go to college, I said of course I’m going to go to college. He said well you could probably go to a lot of good places, where would you like to go? And I said Caltech and he said you want to go to Caltech? And he said why don’t you want to go to some place really good like MIT? You know, I said, ‘cause I think Caltech’s better than MIT! And he said well I don’t know about that and he sort of sent me away and about two weeks later he came back and he said well you’re right that Caltech is a pretty good school I looked it up, he’d never heard of Caltech which is just astounding for a high school guidance counselor. I was sort of fixed on that from, from day one, and then I went to Caltech and during my first year which was 67-68, all of the first year students at Caltech were required for the humanities and social sciences course to take American History and you could either take a survey course if you were just a regular student, or if you were advanced placement you could take a seminar course. We had nine students. I was AP in American History, we had nine students with one professor, his name was Byrd Jones, just died in the late 80’s. He went from Caltech to Stanford to University of Massachusetts at Amherst and he spent most of his career there. It was called special topics in American History and the professor could pick any topic he wanted. He picked what he then called the history of the Negro in America, you would never call it that today, but that’s what they called it then, and we did everything during that year. We did a whole year on that subject and we did everything from the arrival of the first Dutch trader with African slaves, in Jamestown in 1619 to the recall election that was going on as we took the course in Pasadena. Pasadena had just voted to integrate the schools by bussing the kids all over town, the northwestern corner of town where all the black kids lived to all over the place and as soon as they voted to do that a whole bunch of people who were opposed to integration and civil rights in general launched a campaign to recall board members, school board members who voted in favor of integrating the school.
So we studied that very closely and everything else and you know I was a suburban white kid from Sentry, New Jersey. I had all the usual prejudices of a suburban white kid back then. They called it being a white liberal. I thought, you know, everybody deserved a chance and then I didn’t really know much about racism and ethnic issues in America. It was a real eye opener. You know, we really need to make sure we’ve all got our perspectives straight.
They said you guys (there were no female students at Caltech at the time) are all want to be scientists and engineers and you think doing that is sort of hard work and very exciting and discovery and so on and that everybody in the humanities and social sciences is just doing a lot of bull, that it’s mostly just spouting off opinions and it’s not very hard to do. That we’ve flunked into it because we couldn’t do calculus. And he said well that’s not true at all. He said history is a study of causes the same way that science is. What you’re trying to study in a laboratory and isolate all the variables so it’s harder to do and you have to do it over time which doesn’t distinguish it from all science because lots of things like paleontology and cosmology and so on also study change over time and can’t go backwards over time so you can’t back there, you have to deal with whatever sloppy evidence you have left over from back then, but umm, it’s every bit as important for us to do it and it is an investigative science where you’re doing research on causation in nature, it’s just that you have to deal with human beings making choices as part of that causation. And you know it never occurred to me before and when I was your age in high school, history meant memorizing when the Visigoths invaded Rome and what the names of the Secretaries of the Treasury were and knowing whether the Treaty of Paris was for the Civil War or the War of 1812 or the American Revolution or whatever. And you memorized it and you got your hundred on the test and then you forgot it because it was irrelevant to your life!
I never thought of it before as a really fundamental issue. He said if you don’t know how causation works in human society then how in the world are you going to make choices about the future? You’re not going to know how your actions will affect the course of human events and he said trying to be an intelligent agent in human society is like participating in an action sport, if you go surfing or downhill skiing or if you drive a racecar or something like that, you are in a dynamic situation where things are moving along and you can’t stop them and you’re not entirely in control of your situation. There are forces at work in the world around you that are beyond your control but you do have some degrees of freedom about what you do and if you know which things you can and can’t do, it might make the difference between crashing into the wall on turn two of the Indianapolis motor speed way or winning the Indy500 just to use the most recent examples. I remember sitting there in class and staring at this guy and saying wow, I never thought of that before. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about it. I’ve always been a people person as much as I am a gadget person. I’ve been doing computers since ’66 and I love the stuff. I love science and math and technology but I really like people too. So as I took that course I said this is fantastic! It really opened up my eyes to doing history. I spent about a year or so fumbling around not knowing what I wanted to do and, as I said, I didn’t get very good guidance in my childhood. I knew I wanted to be some scientist or engineer or something, but I didn’t know exactly what.
Another informative influence in my life, speaking of the Indy500, when I was about eleven one of my best buddies in elementary school was named David Guerzini, he’s still alive, he’s down in Princeton. His father was an immigrant from the same area of Italy as Mario Andretti. When I was about eleven, he took his son and me to the Trenton motor speedway in Trenton, New Jersey to see any Indy car race because he wanted to see Mario Andretti race cars. It was A.J. Foit and Mario Andretti and Fornelli Jones, all the famous names of Indy car racing. I didn’t know anything about it, I just went along for the ride, but there was something about sitting at the start finish line of a racetrack with 33 800 horsepower engines going by with no mufflers on them at 130 miles an hour! That alters your genetic composition and I just got totally hooked on Indy car racing, which is utterly indefensible. There’s no particular redeeming value to this at all anymore. You can’t even say it actually helps you, you know design safer cars or anything ‘cause it’s way beyond that now, like at 220 miles per hour, you’re not going to do that on the interstate, but I got hooked on Indy car racing and it turns out that Jim Hall, the man who invented the aerodynamic wing on racecars, which is upside down from an airplane so it produces down force so it sticks the car to the ground, was a Caltech graduate, his family was in oil from Midland, Texas and he went to Caltech to be an aerospace engineer and then adapted that to car racing, had a pretty good career as a car racer himself, so I decided I’d go to Caltech. I originally wanted to go to Caltech to be a rocket scientist, but then I said gee, I can go to Caltech and design racecars. So I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and after doing this course in my freshman year with Byrd Jones I said, this history stuff is pretty good.
So I after stumbling around for a couple years I actually changed my major to history. I have a bachelor science degree in history from Caltech and found out that I could do, combine all my interests and be a historian of science and technology. I got hired to be the student assistant to the historian of the jet propulsion laboratory and I helped him write the history of Project Ranger which was one of the early space programs. It ended up being a prelude to the Apollo program. They flew spacecraft, smashed them into the moon, and took pictures on the way down so they could get close up, the first close up, photographs of the moon. They were using it to scout possible landing sites for the Apollo spacecraft. That was before they learned how to do soft landings. So I helped Cargill Hall who was the historian, to write that book, fit sort of all his work under the search on that book. I computerized the index to the archives at JPL.
I had been using computers for years by that time and he let me write this little paper on the history of the rocket motor for the Sergeant missile which, as it turned out, was breakthrough rocketry. Solid propellant rockets up until the middle of World War Two were at most that big around, about four inches in diameter, and you just lit them the way you would light I don’t know, a fireworks rocket and it would just take off and you couldn’t steer it, you couldn’t speed it up or slow it down or anything. Once you lit it took off, which is not very good for doing things like putting people in space or trying to guide a nuclear weapon to a target on the other side of the planet. JPL was very actively involved, probably centrally involved, in changing the whole design concept of solid propellant rockets from these little things that were essentially controlled explosions to great big.
Originally the first operation was about 30-31 inches in diameter, cast polymer fuel solid propellant rockets which could be steered, you could design the curve of thrusts so that it would take off quickly and then slow down or do whatever you wanted to do. You could design it so that the rocket would burn according to your design and that was therefore a big deal. That paper is one of my most cited papers ever. It’s still being cited now in fact, Three or four months ago, a scientist who works at theWoolwich Arsenal in England, sent me an e-mail and said where I can I get a copy of that path breaking paper of yours. Anyway, by the time I did that paper, especially when I learned that doing original research with manuscript materials unpublished, and this was a whole lot more fun that I ever thought it could possibly be, I totally love it, I wrote my senior thesis on the origins of the National Science Foundation, which grew around World War Two. Everybody was agreed by the time we got to the end of the Second World War that any nation state in the modern era would be vulnerable militarily if it didn’t have ongoing first rate science and engineering. NSF was created as a way of having federal funding and a degree of federal control over that, and civilian federal control instead of military control over it. The assumption, the academic scientists were convinced that the generals really didn’t know what kind of science and technology to develop because they were too focused on the last war instead of the next war. They pointed at things like the development of the bomb in the Manhattan Project as their evidence for that so the NSF was created by that. I was just lucky enough not only to have Cargill Hall at JPL as a mentor, who was terrific and really spent a lot of time with me, teaching me for example how to write, how to think critically, but also to have as my undergraduate advisor a man named Daniel Kevles who’s now a chair professor at Yale. He was a terrific, terrific influence on me, he was extremely tough, I wrote seven drafts of my senior thesis before he signed off on it. He really taught me how to do first rate work. I was hooked. I went to University of Pennsylvania to get my PhD in a program called the Department of History and Sociology of Science, which is a goofy name. It was actually the history of American science and technology mostly, and medicine, which was arguably, when I was there in the 70’s, the leading program in the history of American science and technology in the world. It was a great place to get my PhD. We just did all kinds of interesting stuff there. So that’s how I got into the field.
The chemistry part came along because my under-graduate advisor Arnold Thackray, was the historian of chemistry and to a complicated story which would use up the rest of our hour and a half. He and two other graduate students and I managed to snag a National Science Foundation grant to do a quantitative analysis of a century of the history of American chemistry which we did and published as a book. So I decided to do my senior thesis, I mean my dissertation on the history of academic chemistry in America and then did some other work on the history of chemistry after that.
I had a lot that I haven’t published yet, which maybe I’ll do in my retirement. I just gave my first paper in the subject at a styling conference in over twelve years, at the society of architectural historians meeting in Pasadena in early April. So I’ve still got a finger in that subject.
That’s a very long answer to your question.
Jessica: It was very detailed, perfect. Flipping to the packet that we got about you, there are all your honors and awards-
Tom: Packet about me?
Jessica: Oh yes.
Tom: Haha, You looked at my website too?
Jessica: Of course
Tom: Oh my God…
Jessica: We found that you received an Outstanding Young Men of America honor; we were wondering what that is and what you did to receive it.
Tom: I didn’t do a thing to receive it, it’s, frankly I think it’s stupid. They’ll probably sue- can they sue me for saying that? It’s one of these gimmicks. There’s a zillion who’s-who’s out there. They send out invitations to people to be in their distinguished publication. There’s a listing, all over the place and then people say yes and then they find out who your parents are and who your cousins are and who your professors are and who-everybody else around you and they all say you know, when P. Thomas Carroll is going to be in the next edition, don’t you want to buy the deluxe gold edged copy? For some reason my dean at RPI who, other than this one flaw is a pretty wonderful man, but he just thought this Outstanding Young Men of American honor was just a great idea and so he put me in for it, as he did every new professor coming along down the pipe, giving humanities and social sciences at RPI and of course I got in and because they accept everybody who sends in the form unless they’re mepples who are dragging on the ground and then of course they sort of send-hit everybody. Unfortunately my mother, who’s not terribly sophisticated, went and bought one of these stupid things. She spent forty dollars on it to see her son’s entry in it. It’s not really very important.
Gee, have I ever won an honor that I thought was terribly important, I can’t remember. You tell me what else was in my vitae. A far bigger honor for me was to have been asked to be an author for the lead article in the centennial issue of Science Magazine, leading journal in scientific research in the United States and in the centennial issue of American Scientist. The first one I was on the coattails of Dan Kevles my undergraduate advisor, Phil Abasan, who was then the editor of Science, very prominent scientist, I should remember his name, called up Dan and said Dan I want you to write the lead article for the centennial issue of Science about what science was like in America in 1880’s, which was when science just got off the ground. Dan said well I’d like to do it, but I’m really busy, how ‘bout I bring along a couple buddies? See if they can help. So they said okay as long as you’re the author, you’re the lead author and you sign off on it. Dan called up Jeff Sturchio, who was my office mate and we were working on this chemical indicator project together and called up Jeff and me and said how would you guys like to help me get this article done, we have to have it finished by Christmas! And I don’t know, it was like November, mid November, we said oh God, sure, okay, for-sure-you know, lead their article in the centennial issue of science and won’t sleep for a week for that, so I forget how we did it, but we were on the phone for about and hour and we sort of divided up the material. Everybody got their assignment, and then we all rushed off and we sent everything off to Dan and Dan then cut and pasted his piece and our two pieces and we published the article and that was a great honor to be runner up with that article.
Then when American Scientist, in the mid-80’s, decided to do a special centennial issue, they were trying to put it together to figure out who should do what and they asked Melvin Krangberg, he was the editor of technology and culture for many, many years, the lead journal in the history of technology, he was at Georgia Tech who should do this. They also asked Nathan Reingold, he was the editor of Joseph Henry papers. Joseph Henry was from Albany, he was first secretary of the Smithsonian among other things and Nathan’s head of his paper published at the Smithsonian and both Nat and Mel said why don’t you get Tom Carroll to do it? And I owe them both big time, they’re both good men, they were both fans of mine for various extensive reasons and they both said Tom Carroll so I got a call out of the blue from somebody I’d never heard of before who was the editor there and they said how would you like to do the centennial issue of American Scientist? And I, you know I tried not to say “YES!” immediately to that, but then they said, we’ll pay you a few thousand dollars it will be refereed, so you’ll just have to do what the referee tells you. It’s a commission article and here’s sort of the general outline, but we want you to write whatever you want.
I said of course! I liked that article and I feel very, very proud of that article.
I’m pretty proud of what we did with the long range planning committee trying to set up the Dudley for the 21st century, let Janie take off with it after which was extremely painful process. Another thing, Nate Reingold also got me invited to be one of the speakers at the Smithsonian for Albert Einstein’s 100th birthday symposium in 1979. Each person presented something on a different discipline and I did a paper which I called Immigrants in American Chemistry. I’m pretty proud of that. I thought that was pretty important thing I published. I combined my quantitative skills with my interest in American science and I went out and tried to compile as long a list as I could of everybody who did anything in America. Who practiced chemistry or chemical engineering in America and was born outside the United States and I came up with about 700 people I think. Then I found a whole bunch of information about them and punched them all, coded them all, on IBM punch cards, and did a whole bunch of quantitative analyses of it. What I found out was something in that article that really hadn’t been stressed before. That if you look at the title of the whole symposium because it was about Einstein was The Musts Flee Hitler and it was about refugees who came to the United States, who were intellectuals of one sort or another, who were fleeing the Nazi era in the 30’s. Instead of just focusing on that, I focused on every immigrant, compared that group against a baseline population of other people that came to America and I found something that, you know, everybody when they talk about the people or refugees when they come to America and became great scientists and so and so forth from Hitler era always talk about the Einstein’s and the Enrico Fermi’s and so on and so on and so forth. One of the things that doing it quantitatively turned up was something that you wouldn’t find if you just looked at the prominent people. That was that if you already were a professor in a German university somewhere between 1933 and 38, which is when most of them left, and 39 you could come to America and you might have a hard time getting settled in and having as prominent a position or whatever, but you still had an academic career when you got here by and large. The real problem was for the people just getting their PhD’s and just entering their careers as scientists. When they had to leave Europe and come to America, they couldn’t get in the door of academia in America and get themselves professorships because they were competing against entry level PhD recipients in the United States. A lot of them didn’t know any English and they were focusing on subjects that weren’t hot subjects in America, etc., etc. If you look at that stratum, the younger refugees coming from Europe in the 30’s, they all went into industrial careers. They had very distinguished careers doing things like developing perfumes for fragrance companies and things like that. I turned that up and said you know this is really an important development in the history of all that, it’s never been talked about before and I actually, I named three or four or five people that who were in my database who popped up. And one of the most rewarding things I ever got was I got a letter from one of those guys who was in his eighties and had worked for some chemical company on Long Island his whole career and said I really dearly wanted to be a research professor in Chemistry and I never got to do it, but I had a wonderful career in research and I got rich doing it. So it’s over and done. I really wanted to do fundamental science at a university and I never got to do it and you’re absolutely dead on, there’s a whole bunch of us and you’re the first person to ever notice that, I’m really proud of that.
Jessica: Good, okay. We’ve talked a lot about your past-
Tom: She didn’t know that
Jessica: What projects are you currently working on?
Tom: Mostly now I’m a beggar. I spend most of my day doing all this stuck work I can’t con anybody else or pay anybody else to do. Running a starting not-for-profit organization in Troy, the biggest responsibility I have with that is raising the money. We have a historic building that was in terrible shape and we bought it for ten dollars from Republic Steel in 1974. We spent about 400,000 dollars just stabilizing it back in the late 70’s and early 80’s and then we just finished, December 30th, spending another 930,000 dollars getting the exterior pretty much finished off. We need another million or so to finish that off plus we need enough of an operating base, membership, and so on and so forth so it can be an established organization doing our thing. So most of the time I’m out there schmoozing donors and trying to get memberships and making nice to bankers and so on trying to raise the money, Janie can tell you a lot about that.
Janie: He taught me everything
Tom: That’s what she does now with the Dudley. I’d never done that before in my life. I’ve never been in sales. I know I was an academic intellectual my whole life. I didn’t have to worry about paychecks and so, it turns out I like it. I like convincing people with deep pockets to part with some of their money for a good cause, not simply because I like chiseling people out of money. I don’t feel that I’m doing that. It’s because I really believe in the cause. You’re originally from Germany yeah? Well, you all know the Capital Region well enough even if you’re not from here to know that Troy isn’t the highest status city in the Capital Region, and about the third class I ever taught at RPI back in the fall of 1980, I heard one of my students refer to the residents of Troy as Troy-lets. You may have heard that term. You forget, perhaps, that I’m a fourth generation townie from Princeton, New Jersey. That term was a term that I played with very creatively in class from then on with my students. I think it’s a crime that a kid can grow up in Troy ashamed of their home town. And I think that the people in affluent neighborhoods in the Capital Region, who make fun of the kids of Troy, have a lot to answer for about that. That city is one of the most internationally significant cities in the history of American technology and it’s not been given the kind of treatment it should have been. When I go to history of technology meetings I’ve done this all over the world, I’ve done this in Munich, I’ve done it in Sweden, I’ve done it at the science museum in London and pardon my French, but we’ll put it on the record, my colleagues, all these places will always come up to me and say, Carroll, what the hell is wrong with Troy? That would be exactly what they’d all say and I’d sort of play dumb and tug on my hair a little bit and say what do you mean? And they’d say, you know what we mean, this city is really, really important in the history of American technology. They’re tearing old buildings down, they’re throwing away all their records, there’s no scholarship being done, there’s no museum, why don’t you do something about it. And I’d say, well I’m too busy correcting undergraduate grammar until two in the morning once a week. They don’t give me enough teaching assistance and I’m drowning in students and coursework and I’m not getting any scholarship done and I don’t have any time to do this.
And after listening to them for about sixteen and a half years I decided that correcting undergraduate grammar until two in the morning once a week was a waste of my talents, so I quit. Part of the reason why I really enjoy beginning was because I’m beginning for a cause I really believe which is, this is really a great story here, I’m the guy who came up with this phrase, that this area was “the silicon valley of the 19th century”. I coined that phrase in March of 1997 for a talk I gave for the Troy Rotary Club right after I started at the Gateway and we have the potential to be the best regional industrial heritage program in the nation full stop, and I’m either going to do that or die trying.
Jessica: What have you learned of anything of a mistake or accident that was made? I’m sure you’ve done many labs, like being a science guy, so like have you learned anything from messing up or making a mistake?
Tom: I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, the hard part is figuring out which one, you want a mistake having to do with research and that kind of a thing or a mistake, just a general professional mistake of any sort, does it matter?
Jessica: Just maybe-
Tom: As long as it’s a nice, classy
Jessica: Ha, maybe one that most impacted you?
Tom: Boy, I’m drawing a blank on that. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve never, as far as I know, published a research mistake that I regret. I’ll tell you the one that I did do that really was a goof up. There was a big flap, a big brouhaha in science, Janie might be able to help me with the date, fifteen years ago maybe, maybe twenty, two guys, two chemists at the University of Utah named Pons and Fleischmann announced rather flamboyantly that they had achieved cold fusion. Fusion usually, as far as we know, never happens unless you’re at very very very high temperatures to put it mildly. They said that they had figured out some way using certain, I think it was platinum catalyst dadadadada to achieve fusion. Very low temperatures, I don’t think it was room temperature, but it was 400 degrees Fahrenheit or something. The University of Utah, before they had submitted this to a referee or the process of refereeing, published it in a scientific journal and did gigantic press releases and so on. It was one of those things that hit the nightly news so, there was Tom Brokaw saying cold fusion has been achieved in Salt Lake City, yada yada that’s going to revolutionize everything about, what we’ve ever known yada yada yada and I knew, I have to know a little bit about that subject because Dan Kevles was the top historian of American physics, so I’ve done a lot of work on fission and fusion and the and the bomb and Manhattan Project working for him and I knew there had been this couple of instances of anomalous research results. There was a couple of German scientists, I think they were chemists too, not physicists, in 33 somewhere then, who also published a paper where they said we got this very weird anomalous result with what looks like this huge burst of energy. We’re not quite sure and it was very similar laboratory conditions to what Pons and Fleischmann had and there was another one I think there were two other published ones and I knew about that a little bit and out of the blue, I don’t know why she should call me, but one of the top reporters for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is a leading publication, weekly I think, newspaper about stuff that’s happening at universities and colleges and she called me for my opinion on Pons and Fleischmann account. She said do you think it’s true, you think it’s bogus. I said I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think it may take a while for this to be sorted out because it’s being proposed by some chemists who bring to their laboratory work a very different set of assumptions and practices and equipment and so on and so forth than physicists who are doing high energy physics would do. They may end up talking past each other for quite some time before they sort it out. Physicists will dismiss it but the chemists will still back it up and so on and so forth and this may take a while to sort itself out. Well that hit the street about three days later on the front page, I mean the front page of Chronicle High Education and as soon as it appeared, I mean like hours later, Steve Koonin sent me an e-mail. Steven Koonin was my dorm mate down the hall, good buddy, when I was an undergraduate at Caltech and we knew even then that he was the top student in our class by a mile. He went on to work at Lawrence Livermore Labs he came back and was the provost at Caltech, when he was at Lawrence Livermore he worked for Steven Chu who won the Nobel Prize in physics later then he became the provost of Caltech, then he went to BP, and he’s been for several years now the head of research for British Petroleum. Doing all of their alternatives to fossil fuel stuff everything from nuclear power which he knows a whole lot about to solar and wind and I don’t know, etc. etc. recyclable materials and corn and he’s now, he just left BP to become the second of command at the Department of Energy in the Obama administration and first in command is Steven Chu.
Tom: I’ve known Koonin, we would drink beer and listen to rock music on Friday nights in the 60’s, and Steve sent me an e-mail, it was the first time I heard from him in ten years and he said Tom, watch out what you say here, you’re dead wrong on this one, Nick, I’ve forgotten Nick’s name now, very very prominent, current professor of chemistry at Caltech, the top chemistry guy at Caltech. Nick and I have been doing all these experiments, it’s totally bogus and we’re going to fry these people at the American Physical Society next week in Baltimore, so I wrote back to Steve and I said well gee thanks Steve are you sure. Your results are going to be at this meeting, are you sure everybody’s going to buy it right up front without subjecting it to a little more scrutiny and he never wrote back to me because I was sure he was too busy. Sure enough, two weeks later he and Nick got up at the American Physical Society meeting and just ate Pons and Fleischmann for lunch and the whole thing came to a complete stop as soon as they published the results and I never, I was so busy right then I never even looked at the results so I don’t know exactly how that unfolded but the lesson I learned from that is that you know the referee process in science is a very good one and it’s very dangerous for historians to say or anyone else for that matter or speculate about what’s going to happen in the future, up front in public. It’s okay to do it in the back of your head, but until you’ve really really got your ducks in a row, you probably shouldn’t do what I did that time when that reporter called me up so I’m much more careful now when reporters call me up which they do all the time you may have noticed that I was in the paper last week a lot. I get a lot of phone calls, you know, a lot of interviews from the press now and a lot more sophisticated in the way I handle them than I used to be.
Jessica: How do you feel about the lovely economic crisis we’re in, how will it affect chemistry and research?
Tom: Perversely enough, I think it’s a really good deal. I don’t want to give away too many of my political prejudices. My own business not yours. George Bush was not the best thing to ever happen to public support for science nor was he the best thing to ever happen to government policy to be based on science and Obama is far far better. I mean after all he’s hired Steve Koonin I guess that’s not too much. Look him up. He’s a great guy, good, good buddy they also put a whole lot more money back into scientific purposes of one sort or another. I for a long time, have thought that if you’re going to fund science based on public policy issues, if you’re going to use tax payers’ money to pay for science, first of all of course it has to be vetted. What you choose to support has to be vetted by scientists who know whether or not you’re supporting scientific research that’s quality work, but second of all it has to be decided what kind of science you want to support because the public needs it, or wants it. Not simply because it’s the coolest fundamental threshold of discovery. I think Obama’s administration seems to be putting a whole lot more sensible emphasis on what public support for science should support than I’ve seen in quite a while. I think we desperately need research on alternative sources of energy and we also need, we really desperately need, support for analyses of how we’re going to make the transition from a fossil fuel based society to a society that’s not fossil fuel based or much less fossil fuel based. One of the things I’m proudest about that article in American Scientist is that it talks about the way science and society get transformed rather dramatically. When you have the cultural transformation, that one, in the late 1880’s, in the 1880’s was about the transition from a rural agrarian society to an urban industrial one. We’re now going from a fossil fuel based global economy to a post-fossil fuel based global economy, whatever that’s going to be. If you don’t think there’s going to be cultural transformations as a result of that, you’re naïve. It’s going to be very very difficult so I think that’s a very good thing. I think it was a very good thing that when Jim Hansen starts talking about global warming at the NASA that they don’t muzzle him anymore. I think in a certain sense, the meltdown of the economy brought that about because people voted for Barack Obama for President.
Obviously if you’re into some engineer research having to do with automobiles and you work for GM then this is probably not the best the best time for you right now. So it’s going to have certain repercussions and certainly I think, academic institutions are hurting, a lot of academic institutions base their budgets in large measure on earning from
sometimes spectacularly large endowments. Those endowments have gotten clobbered in the last year and at some institutions of higher education that really brought kibosh on their ability to support scientific research and engineering. So it’s a mixed blessing but I think by and large there, the election of Obama and the difference he puts on public support for policy about science and engineering trumps the financial setbacks. It’s looking more and more like the Great Depression; we’re not all going to be out there with tin cups selling pencil on the street corner for ten years. You may have a hard time finding employment when you first get out of college; I assume you’re probably going into college. But I don’t think it’s going to be as big a setback as the Great Depression, it’s probably going to last a little longer than 2009, but it looks like it’s going to be a recession that’s recoverable. Whether the United States will reach her intuitive preeminent position as the 800 pound gorilla in the world economy is fair.
From what I can tell in Europe, we have the stupidest mass transit of any industrial nation save Australia. Well Australia of course has a little ring of civilization around the giant desert so, can’t blame them. We have colossally stupid transportation policy here, we’ve pursued that, we have colossally stupid public policy about the city, and we’re going to pay a very very big price to catch up.
Tom: I came on in 2000, or so. It was before I went to the gateway. They probably wouldn’t have asked me if it was after I’d left RPI. It was before 1997. I don’t remember when, anyway where was I, just finishing Charles Darwin, so you know, I’ve sat in the chair when he wrote the Origin of Species, I disproved that he and Marx ever had a substitute for correspondence, they exchanged letters, Marx sent him a copy of Das Capital, Darwin took it, in those days, books still had the pages stuck together, you actually had to take a knife and cut the pages open, and he cut the pages to the first ten pages of Das Capital and then never read it any further, wrote a nice thank you note saying thank you very much for your book, I look forward to reading it but he never read more than ten pages and I know that because I’ve held Darwin’s copy of Das Capital in my hand, it’s in the library. I was working one day, reading letters from Darwin to Charles Lyell, and opened up a new folder and there in front of me was Lyell’s hand written draft of the title page of The Origin of Species which is in Philadelphia. I don’t know if nobody knew it was there but most people didn’t know it was there and now it’s very well known in there. That’s why that awn is at the beginning of the title, Darwin wanted to call it “An Abstract of an Essay On the Origin of Species” and his publisher, John Murray, said I am not going to publish an abstract of an essay so he just lopped off the first two lines that said “An Abstract of an Essay” and left “On the Origin of Species”. That’s how the “On” got included in the title.
Well anyway, I’m very close to Darwin. I feel like I peeked over his should during his lifetime because when you do a calendar, you sort out the correspondence and you put it in chronological order so you follow him day by day and you go through the correspondence and you get a very very different notion of someone’s life. If you do a chronology day to day like that I recommend to you if you ever have to do biography or a historical history that from the first moment you work on it you do a chronology and you put everything in place as precisely as you can because it turns out you often find out why somebody does something much more clearly when you do that. You find out what was really on their mind that six months was. You know that their daughter was dying or just died or whatever. It was an issue with Darwin.
Kennedy announces that he’s going to send a man to the moon before this decade is out. That announcement was just after a whole bunch of scandals about the Soviet Union launching people into space and about spies being caught. When Joseph McCarthy gets up in West Virginia and waves a paper and says I have in my hand a list of known communist spies in the State Department which just starts the McCarthy Era right after Klaus Fuchs in the 50’s was arrested being an atomic spy.
That kind of chronology helps a lot and I’ve done that with Darwin with his whole life. I really feel like I grew up with the guy and because of that I have some different views about things than most people do the about him. The most notable one is all this talk now that he stalled publishing “The Origin of Species” for twenty, twenty five years, because he was terrified about the religion implications of “The Origin of Species”.
Thought he was an atheist and was going to go to hell and I don’t, I don’t believe that. He was sensitive to his wife’s feelings and his wife was very devout Anglican. He was concerned about his moral after he died no question about that, but there’s no question the primary thing that throws him was fear of that mistake you were asking me about. He had a blown it, you know he was more of a geologist than he was a biologist when he started out and he had blown it with an article he had published in 1840 on the origins of a thing called the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy in Scotland which is this glen in Scotland, weird kind of thing, and there’s these terraces on it that look like people built roads along the side and he came up with this complicated theory influence by Charles Lyell the famous geologist. The earth had gone up and the earth had gone down and the oceans had gone up and the oceans had gone down and there had been all these ancient seashores as a result of the earth going up and down and soon as he published it this geologist goes through Europe and publishes a paper which says ice age, glaciers come down from the Arctic they plug up all the outlets to this basin, fills up with water to this level, and as soon as the, the ice starts to melt and they recede, they recede enough that this one area at the end of the thing opens up and all the water drains out so the water level drops to that outlet point until the glaciers retreat a little more and there’s a lower outlet point at the other end, water all retreats, and all those parallel things are ancient shorelines alright but they’re shorelines based on receding glaciers. As soon as Darwin looked at that he says I completely blew that. He resolved, if you read his correspondence for months afterwards, he’s saying what a stupid man I was to publish so rashly on that subject. Shortly after that a man name Robert Chambers published a book called Vestiges of the National History of Creation, which he published anonymously, no author, his name came out later and he, he came up with the theory of evolution and so on and so forth, which was very much in the air at the time and it was full of all kinds of inaccuracies and goofy goofy speculation and stuff. Darwin wants to actually read that book and said this guy is setting back the field because he’s making everybody not believe in this stuff anymore because what he’s saying is illegitimate, and so everyone’s thinking aha yeah evolution we already tried that it’s, you know, forget it, it’s just not true, we all know it’s bogus. So he said I’m not going to let that happen, I’m not going to publish until I’ve got everything nailed to the wall and he did, I mean if you look at what he did for the next twenty years, you know he’s a rich man he didn’t have to work, he spent every waking moment nailing every detail to the wall as best he could with the techniques of the time, and that was really what he was trying to do and he really didn’t want to publish “The Origin of Species”, that was a little summary of this bigger thing he was trying to publish which was a big book on the subject, never finished probably. I’d love to spend five years with Charles Darwin.
I already know what’s going to happen, probably better than he does, because I know what other people were writing about him behind his back and odd kind of stuff. Turns out often historians know better what happened than people who were players. Be careful of people who say, I was there, therefore this historian is saying this happened is just bogus, they don’t know cause they were there alright, but they only saw it through their eyes, a historian can go back and see it through that person’s eyes, and through the other two hundred people who were in the room, who may have seen it a little differently and it’s only after you weigh all that evidence that you can even hazard a guess what eventually happened. Often eye witnesses do not know what really happened.
The big thing over that was the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Exhibit. Enola Gay was the bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. When they put that on display there was a big, big fight because some of the curators who put the exhibit together said that there was a lot of difference of opinion within the military about how many casualties there would be if in fact there was an allied invasion of the Japanese mainland instead of the dropping of the bomb. Everybody always said we dropped the bomb and if we hadn’t it would have cost millions and millions of soldier’s lives to do a land invasion. Turns out that there’s a lot of documentary evidence that they didn’t know whether they believed that or not at the highest standard policy making within the military in 1945, they really didn’t know what they were doing, but from the day Truman said, this saved millions of American lives everybody agreed with it and of course if you were in a ship, if you were in the American navy and in a ship in the pacific outside Okinawa waiting to invade Japan, you were very happy to see that bomb dropped on Hiroshima because it meant you weren’t going to get killed. So it was very very controversial and some of my friends who were curators there really got fried because they mentioned this evidence.
Jessica: Alright, well I have no more questions so you guys want to say anything.
Janie: Any, any more questions?
Sam: Earlier you mentioned that you studied planetary geology
Tom: I didn’t, no I didn’t study planetary geology I’m surprised you never asked me how I got into astronomy and the Dudley Observatory. When I was a kid I got a telescope, it was a three inch reflector; I don’t remember the brand or model. It was white with black trim and I looked at the moon a lot and Andromeda and the rings of Saturn. I could see all of that but not much else. I lived in a place full of light pollution and didn’t know how to use it very well, and it was a pretty simple thing.
Anyway, it didn’t have an equatorial mount and things like that. Point it at something and you could look at it for like forty second and it was gone. You had to re-aim the thing and I grew up during the space age. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff about the space age about the space at the time. Then I went to Caltech undergraduate. Caltech was great. I sick of all this stuff, as I said I worked at JTL, I was on site at JTL every week for almost two years, which was terrific. Two of my best buddies while I was an undergraduate there are very prominent in astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology. One of them was Andy Ingrsol. If you look up Andrew Ingrsol, Andy’s still a professor at Caltech and Andy was very much in on the ground floor of a lot of the planetary geology stuff. They wanted to go to the moon primarily because it was a stunt to outdo the Russians during the Cold War. That was the primary reason why Kennedy wanted to go. But then they said, okay, we’re going to the moon, what are we going to do when we get there? One of the things we’re going to study is where the moon comes from, was it a piece of the Earth, did it aggregate from elsewhere and so on and so forth. What does it tell us about how bodies around stars accumulate etc? Caltech was very heavily involved in research for that.
Andy got more involved in solar planetary geology. So they had a planetary geology program. Ingrsol came later and was sort of a fresh young face there when I was an undergraduate. We were involved in some campus things together. We helped to start up a residential house where undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff all lived together. It was a project and so I got to know Andy not because I worked in his lab or anything but because of that. As a result I knew a little bit of planetary geology because Andy was on a lot of the teams. When the Mars images came in after the Mars lander landed on Mars and he was there looking at it and he said oh look at that, that looks like a Midas Muffler that rock over there and he’s still there. You still see him on the Discovery Channel.
I picked up vicariously on planetary geology. My best man at our wedding was Jim Woodhay who’s a geologist. I took a geology course while I was an undergraduate. Bob Sharp was one of the top geologists at Caltech and my wife took a couple geology courses in college too. We both love geology it’s really fun science. I would probably have become a geologist if I had started out in that direction. I’ve always liked that and I was right there watching the press conferences with all national press in the press room as they were looking at Mars.
My other close friend in all this is Paul Schechter. Paul was a graduate student at Caltech when I was there and we get to know each other through extracurricular stuff. Paul went to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton while my wife moved back to Princeton, which is where I’m from, and commuted to Penn for a couple years. We got to be really good friends while he was at the Institute for Advanced Study. It turns out while Paul was at the Institute for Advanced Study, he developed a thing which you’re welcome to Google, you’ll find it all over the place, called the Schechter luminosity function. Which is this nice, hairy equation that tells you how to calculate, estimate the amount of light given off by a galaxy and the Schechter luminosity function is used all over the place for all kinds of things having to do with estimating the size of the of the universe and, more importantly, having to do with the mass of the universe. If you know how much light is given off you know how much mass there is etc. and then there’s all this issue about dark matter and dark energy, Paul’s up to about his neck in that, he’s also something of a technician, he designed, devised most of the guts of the observatory down in Chili. He flies down to Chili all the time. Paul’s now at MIT ironically enough, coincidentally enough, he is the William A.M. Burden professor, astrophysics at MIT. His professorship was endowed by one of the great grandsons of Henry Burden, the horseshoe manufacturer in Troy. I’m now in the Burden Iron Works Museum in Troy. We’re both connected to the Burden legacy so through Paul I’ve learned a lot about astrophysics and some of these squabbles over dark matter and dark energy.
Janie: On that note we should probably tie things up and I mean you guys have to get to class now.
Tom: Oh too bad.