Archive for April 2009

Important 1963 background information from primary source!

April 2, 2009

I very much enjoyed reading Part One of your book. I would be pleased if you passed this on to your co-authors or anyone else who might be interested. Of course, I will be happy to elaborate on anything.

I thought I would first tell you a bit about myself. I zipped through Harvard from 1943 to 1949 with my A. B. in Chemistry and Physics, and my PhD. in Chemical Physics under Bright Wilson. (Ken Wilson, his son, was 12 when I first knew him). I then worked for ten years in infrared instrumentation, eventually as Assistant Director of Research, at Baird-Atomic near Harvard Square. At Graduate School and after, I was (and remain) close friends with Phil Anderson and Dave Bodansky, but I did not learn nuclear or particle physics. (I also roomed with Tom Lehrer and performed in his Physical Revue, but that’s another story.)

I came to the White House in 1961 to work for Jerry Wiesner (from MIT, as you correctly note later, and not from Harvard.(see page 30)) This was a Schedule C–political–appointment. I think about a year later we became regular civil servants as staff of the Office of Science and Technology, and Jerry became Director of OST as well as Chair of PSAC ) and Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. I left in September 1967 to become Vice President for Academic Affairs at NYU.

My two major responsibilities were communications and basic science projects. My first task with the latter was trying to solidify the approval for SLAC, which finally came through. As then defined, Federal Budgets were around $100 Billion, and deficits were described to the nearest tenth of a billion (say $4.2 Billion), so the $100 million SLAC budget got Presidential as well as Congressional attention.

You describe the problem and issues leading the appointment of the Ramsey Panel very well. Paul McDaniel was the AEC staff of the Panel, and I was the PSAC staff member. I participated actively in every meeting, and drafted parts of the Report, but did not vote on anything. I have a few comments on your piece — none major– and of course 45-year old recollections can be very fallible.

1. I believe that the Ramsey Panel was so effective in part because of the briefing that Jerry gave them at the first meeting. He told them (us) that we had just put through SLAC after much effort, and that we would not be able to build a new accelerator for at least two years, and that a second one would be at least two years after the approval of the first. This point was frequently raised during the Panel discussions. At that time, the FFAG was much further along than the Berkeley proposal.

2. Murray Gell-Mann was a persuasive promoter of the FFAG. I believe that without Jerry’s briefing point, the Panel would have avoided the priority issue, and simply praised both machines. In the end, the Panel knew that it was killing the FFAG with their wording, as you make clear.

3. Ed Purcell, the clearest thinker on the Panel (and indeed the clearest thinker I have ever met), was the strongest advocate in the early Panel meetings, for having the Berkeley machine designed for 200 GeV rather than 100, which as I recollect was where they had started. I believe that this point, made informally, had an impact on the Berkeley folk.

4. From my point of view, the MURA turn down was very favorable for the future of high energy physics. Because President Johnson said that the major reason for not going ahead was that a more important machine was coming along, it gave Presidential support to the 200 GeV machine, and this helped in my later discussions with BOB. Thus, the issue became not, “Should we build a 200 GeV machine?”, but “How should we build it?”, and “Where should we build it?”, a very important difference.

5. The site selection process for the 200 Gev machine also had a major dividend. At the meetings around the country, the Congress and Senate members on the stage “Took the Pledge,” as Manny Piore put it. The politicians would say in effect, “This accelerator is very important for the nation and it deserves to be built. Of course, it should be built here, but I support having it built.” It would be hard for these people to vote against it when it came to the floor.

6. I had worked hard with the astronomy community on the issue of access to Kitt Peak, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia. Mount Wilson and Palomar were worse than LBL when it came to accommodating outside users. In the long discussions of governance and access, I emphasized that the local scientists had a big advantage over outsiders, they know the ins and outs of the machine in depth, and on most straightforward experiments, local scientists would win the competition. It was essential that there be a local staff of great competence, and the Director have substantial authority, as Pief maintained. However, the size of the local group should be such that it could perform a relatively small fraction of the experiments.

Now my Lyndon Johnson story, related to the meeting described on page 44.

Wiesner had resigned to become Dean of Engineering at MIT in the summer of 1963, effective at the end of January, and, at his suggestion, Kennedy had picked Don Hornig. After the assassination, Wiesner told Johnson that he would be willing to stay on a few months longer, but Johnson said he would stick with the agreed transition to Hornig. OST had worked reasonably well with Johnson’s people, particularly on issues involving the Space Council, but there was no closeness between Johnson and Wiesner the way there was between Kennedy and Wiesner. They had known each other dealing with arms control issues in the fifties, and Wiesner would hitchhike to his home in Martha’s Vineyard in the summer on Air Force I when Kennedy went to Cape Cod. Also, because of Arms Control issues, Wiesner was particularly friendly with Hubert Humphrey, and they spent time at each other’s houses. I am confident that Johnson was aware of their relationship.

Since MURA involved the Big Ten Universities and the University of Chicago, the Senators and Congressmen from all five States wrote Johnson to try to overturn the AEC decision. In his formal letter of turndown, Johnson said (correctly) that he had spent more time on that issue than on any other in the FY 65 budget.

Two days before the December 20 meeting, President Johnson asked Wiesner to prepare two separate one-page memos to him. One would give ten reasons for building the MURA machine, and one would give ten reasons against building it. I worked with Jerry on their preparation. They were both, of course, signed by him and on his stationery.

Jerry came back from the meeting shaken. He told me that at the key moment, to his surprise, Johnson picked up the second memo and read it to the group, without saying who had written it, or that it was one of two. He then casually put the memo down face up on the desk, in such a way, that when Humphrey got up at the end of the meeting, he would see that the memo was from Wiesner. On page 44, You quote the letter from Elvis Stahr to Humphrey saying that the memo “omitted some highly relevant matters and was prejudiced on its face…I don’t know who wrote it but it sounded exactly like it had been prepared by somebody from New England or the West Coast.” I believe that by putting New England first, and not even the North-East (after all Brookhaven and the PPA were in New York and New Jersey), and not California, MURA’s chief competitor, that Stahr indeed knew who wrote it, but didn’t want to say he had sneaked a peak at the end of the meeting.

I had originally taken a two-year leave from Baird-Atomic in March, 1961, and I extended the leave two more years, finally resigning in 1964. In January 1967, I agreed to go to NYU that fall. I had continued to be the person in the office dealing with High Energy Physics. When the JCAE authorized the design, I felt elated and said to myself. “Thank God it’s over, the accelerator is here.” I then realized that my six years in Washington had brought me to the point that I was confusing pieces of paper with actual things. The first shovel of dirt had not been turned, and I was acting as if the accelerator was built! It was time to go out in the real world.

With all good wishes,

David Robinson