Princeton’s John Wheeler (right), with Einstein and Nobel Laureate Hideki Yukawa in 1957.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 2, 1973.

A university must not be confused with a college. A college teaches, a university learns. A college transmits knowledge, a university discovers new knowledge (or recaptures knowledge) which colleges presently will interpret and teach …. The real test of a great university lies in its additions to human knowledge.

At an international conference of scientists, Harald Bohr, of the famous family of Danish scientists, described Princeton as “the mathematical center of the universe.” According to the theory of the utility of history, coming events cast shadows before and therefore this particular preeminence, like a sort of scholarly stalagmite, must have been the product of slow but inevitable growth traceable through the lenses of the historian of science. Yet to this particular scholar of Princeton’s Scientific implosion, the accretion of a critical mass of theoretical physicists and physics-minded mathematicians, seems an ironic series of unpredictable incidents, fortuitous but fortunate for the national interest.

Stripped of the patina of alumni memory, 19th-century Princeton seems to have been “a poor place” in the words of one graduate, a kind of overgrown prep school. On the academic side, at least, the students hated it, and what is more surprising, so did the professors, who were largely recruited from superannuated ministers and pensioned-off missionaries. Classroom routine was based on bad theory and worse practice—the remorseless quizzing of undergraduates, endless recitations out of textbooks. It was from his own memories of undergraduate teaching that Woodrow Wilson set up his preceptorial system and selected personally his preceptors. He had attended a graduate school created in imitation of the German research model (Johns Hopkins) and hated it. Princeton then was a university in name only. Wilson thought the utility of graduate students would be to uplift the seriousness of undergraduates, and the dean of the so-called graduate school was only an honorary Ph.D. A French instructor was dismissed for attempting to teach literary values in addition to grammar, and Henry Norris Russell, later the dean of American astronomers, was almost punished for doing research in addition to teaching undergraduates.

If this was the scholarly situation at Old Nassau, more or less the same was true at all old-line universities. Henry Adams’ most vivid memory of his undergraduate days at Harvard was how the librarian kept his books under lock and key, so as not to disturb young minds. He himself was appointed professor of medieval history at his alma mater on the grounds that he knew nothing whatsoever of the subject. William Lyon Phelps, of later fame, remembered teaching freshman English at Yale, with the daily themes stacked everywhere over his bed and furniture. Yale had a theoretical physicist, Williard Gibbs, whose research papers were famous through Europe, yet for seven years the university refused to pay him a salary on the ground that his studies were “irrelevant.”

What was curious was that at exactly the time American science was in the doldrums—the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in Europe one of the great historical adventures in the mind of man was taking place, a dramatic revolution in the mind of man was taking place, a dramatic revolution in the understanding of the very nature of matter. The absolute world of classical Newtonian physics was breaking down and intellectual ferment was everywhere. The Michelson-Morley experiments, to demonstrate the “ether” which electricity and magnetism needed to operate in, proved it did not exist; atoms, it was show, were not solid but electrically charged packets with a measurable mass; and, most confusing, an element (uranium) had been found which gave off streams of radiation and matter —all of which made nonsense of classical physics. In 1895 X-rays were discovered; in 1896, radioactivity; in 1897, the electron; in 1898, radium.

Then in 1905 an unknown theoretician in the Berne patent office, Albert Einstein, published four epoch-making papers comparable to Newton’s instant leap into fame. The most significant was the so-called Special Theory of Relativity, which proposed that mass was simply congealed energy, energy liberated matter: space and time, previously thought to be absolute, were dependent on relative motion. Ten years later he formulated the General Theory of Relativity, proposing that gravity was a function of matter itself and affected light exactly as it affected material particles. Light, in other words, did not go “straight”; Newton’s laws were not the real universe but one seen through the unreal spectacles of gravity. Furthermore, he set forth a set of mathematical laws with which the universe could be described, structural laws and laws of motion. Light would be deflected by a gravitational field, and the shortest distance between two points in such a field would not be a “straight” line—like a ship steaming around the world on a “great circle” path from A to B.

Concomitant with this revolution was the “new” physics, the so-called “quantum” mechanics. Unfortunately, as Robert Oppenheimer wryly commented, there is no way that quantum theory can be explained to the mind of a layman. What it does is assume that light—that is matter, in the world of sub-atomic particles–is at times understood (or measured) if it is approached as a wave which by definition had neither boundaries nor substance. Yet at other times light can be measured if it is assumed it is a particle, like a grain of sand, with both boundaries and substance. To the Aristotelian “either-or” mind of science this is, of course, nonsense, but it worked and made the equations balance.

Percy Bridgman, the Harvard Nobel-laureate, called quantum mechanics “operational philosophy,” accepting the wave theory of light on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the particle theory on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In any case, quantum theory must be counted as one of the great triumphs of the human mind, the very basis of the “new physics.” The so-called “eagles of science”—the innovative imaginative European physicists—like Copernicus and Newton before them had created what Princeton historian Thomas B. Kuhn calls a new “paradigm”: a novel overreaching model called quantum mechanics under which the subsequent scientific era would conduct its normal day-to-day operations. Now even the “normal” scientists, narrow technicians though they may be, would work with a different set of assumptions. Yet American physics continued in a sort of theoretical void, suspended between two worlds–one dead, the other powerless to be born.

Princeton, and indeed the whole American academic community, stood outside this dramatically swift development in the first quarter of the 20th century. Nonetheless there were some interesting developments going on at Princeton, unnoticed and unplanned. Although Woodrow Wilson knew nothing of science, he recruited some outstanding scientists, even offering to put an extra story on Guyot Hall if the biologist E. J. Conklin would transfer.

Furthermore, his closest friend was the mathematician “Harry” Fine, who built his house across Library Place from Wilson’s in matching Tudor architecture. When Wilson was appointing his new preceptors, even though they were intended for discussion groups rather than in the sciences, Fine protested: How about a few in the natural sciences?, and Wilson genially agreed. Some men later to be distinguished came, as Luther Eisenhart recalled, because you could get anyone you wanted for $2,000 a year. Especially notable were some young mathematicians from the University of Chicago, which Rockefeller money had set up to raise the Midwest and American scholarship to the European level. This great adventure into the nature of matter itself, it was uneasily noted, was being carried out by a few great "research" professors in Europe and their graduate students-men with great prestige and no teaching duties, at a time when American physicists, with their practical bent, were measuring the electrical resistance of wire and teaching freshman laboratory sections. One American, doing his doctoral work at the University of Göttingen, noted that to save postage the library there used to subscribe to all twelve monthly issues of the American Physical Review in one package-there was never anything in it anyway.

American graduate instruction in physics was "very, very low," one returnee from Europe remembered. To learn the

"new" physics American graduate students were obliged to go abroad—as Princeton's famed (later) Henry

D. Smyth '18 went to Cambridge (where his roommate was the equally famous Russian Petr Kapitsa). Perhaps the most remarkable of this whole generation of foreign-trained physicists was the prodigy J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, after studying in Cambridge, Göttingen, Leyden and Zurich, came back to electrify whole lecture halls of graduate students at Harvard, propounding riddles in physics and snapping out the answer,

"Quantize it!"

One of the exciting facets of this youthful genius at Harvard was, according to his biographer, that he was "ob-viously Semitic." Which brings us to another problem associated with the eventual growth of American physics.

American academic institutions had been saddled with anti-Semitism. According to the stereotype, the legendary professor was a tweedy pipe-smoking Rhodes Scholar type, an "athletic Christian" elderly bachelor who gave "in-spiring" lectures and had mild scholarly interests. (Prince-ton had once fired an English instructor, the noted Horace Kallen, on the ground that he hadn't told the authorities he was Jewish; a Princeton professor today remembers being dismissed, as late as 1940, from an Eastern university because by his presence on the faculty he was holding out to Jewish graduate students a promise they did not in fact have.)

This practice, unfair and in fact, unscholarly, had been quietly breached in some of the research fields of the physical sciences. Now the University of California decided to establish a research program in physics and against precedent, made an offer to this "gorgeous new exotic" for reasons which remain unclear. Although he had already received bids from Princeton and Harvard, Oppenheimer decided in 1928 to go to Berkeley. "New York Jews flocked out here to him, and some were not as nice as he was," remembered the departmental chairman; "[Ernest] Lawrence and I were very concerned to have people here who were nice people as well as good students." Oppenheimer's lectures there proved so sensational that graduate students used to enroll year after year (with-out daring to accept a grade) in order to try to comprehend what quantum physics was all about. Henry J. Fine, curiously enough, occupied something of a similar niche at Princeton, although he was a totally different personality. After failing election for president as Wilson's successor in 1912, he became Dean of Science. He had taken his advanced work (in mathematics) in Ger-many, and although he was no research scholar, he had the odd faculty of being able to recognize that unusual ability in young scientists. Over the years he assembled what for Princeton was a peculiar congregation, known on campus as "Fine's research men"—in local terms called "queer ducks." And this constellation of talent was without honor in its own country: one undergraduate journalist somehow stumbled into a course in the higher mathematics and quickly departed, remarking on the "brilliant but unintelligible lecturers with foreign accents ... the Euro-pean, or demi-God, theory of instruction." (One of the later professors could not, in any effective sense, speak English.) Woodrow Wilson thought it was possible only by "a painful process of drill" to "insert" mathematics into "the natural, carnal man." Adlai Stevenson '22 remembered that "a page of mathematical equations still makes me shudder." F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 reflected bitterly that "conic sections" had flunked him out.

Now there was not one Princeton but two: the humanistic Princeton, symbolized by Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Fleming West, and the scientific Princeton, represented by Dean Fine. These two fine old Princetonians, who had been friends since undergraduate days, never spoke to each other after the feuds of the Wilson years. And regrettably, although Princeton's public reputation was as a teacher of the liberal arts to undergraduates, its real strength lay in the graduate training of scientists. It was a situation that would have amused the ironic mind of Henry Adams: like the University of Chicago, which publicly embraced neo-Thomism while secretly building an atomic pile under its football stadium, Princeton in search of the Virgin wound up with the Dynamo! This contrast was further reified when the alumni professors noted an odd but revealing sociological statistic: at that time the club system of social ranking was regarded as the supreme experience of undergraduate training, yet not a single member of the "prestige" eating clubs had chosen to major in the prestigious physics department. Which, of course, interested the research scientists not at all: when Albert Einstein landed in New York in 1921, he told reporters he wanted to lecture at Princeton because its faculty first gave his theories American support.

All these various currents in higher learning came together in the 1920's after a dramatic gesture by the Rockefeller Foundation. One of its leading executives, Wicklife Rose, although a former professor of philosophy, wrote these fateful words:

Science is the method of knowledge. It is the key to such do. minion as man may ever acquire over his physical environment. Appreciation of its spirit and technique, moreover, determines the mental attitude of a people, affects the entire system of education, and carries with it the shaping of a civilization. The nations that do not cultivate the sciences cannot hold their own.

In its attempt to lead and assist the course of American science, the Rockefeller people were thoroughly acquainted with the importance of the "new physics" and were accustomed to sending promising graduate students to Europe to learn its baffling theories. In fact, some 23 of the scientists who built the first atomic bomb had been Rockefeller Fellows. Now, in a striking vindication of the potentialities of private philanthropy, the foundation decided that instead of sending Mahomet to the Mountain, it would fetch the Mountain here. Instead of sending Americans to Europe to learn quantum physics, European scientists would somehow be imported to teach. And what's more, to finance such a mighty effort the Rockefeller Foundation would spend off not just income but $19 million of capital. Rose made a purposeful visit to the leading European centers, which then agreed to send teams of their scientists to tutor the American wilderness in mathematical physics. Because of the strength of their scientific faculties and their example in forwarding the cause of research, three American institutions were selected to receive the bulk of the Rockefeller largesse: the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology-and Princeton University. Aided by a fund-raising campaign among big donors of its own, Princeton in the 1920's got five research professorships "at advanced salaries" out of it plus a large scientific research fund. A further boon was born after Dean Fine died; as his memorial a pro-Wilson ex-trustee built a magnificent mathematics building symbolically joined to the physics laboratory. In the words of an undergraduate poet, Fine Hall was "a country club for math / where you can even take a bath." (It even had showers so the scientists could return to their research from the tennis courts nearby, as well as reading lights in the lavatories- in the rapidly advancing world of mathematics there was not a minute to lose!)

Henry B. Fine, father of physics at Princeton.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 2, 1973.
Although initially leery of any transatlantic transplantings, many of the younger European scientists proved congenial to the idea of such an adventure. After all, there was a constriction of academic opportunity in Europe, a shortage of permanent positions available, an ominous growth in anti-Semitic restrictions. (When asked to explain the extraordinary constellation of Hungarian Jewish scientists, one Princeton professor explained, with something less than rigorous logic, "If you were a Jew in Budapest, what else could you be but a mathematician?") As its prizes in this quantum theory lottery Princeton received two of the finest, both from the University of Berlin: Eugene Wigner, who directed construction of the first atomic "pile" for the A-bomb, and John von Neumann, one of the authentic geniuses of the 20th century-author of the Theory of Games, "father" of the computer, Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission before his death in 1954.

Although they were given half of each year off to go back to Berlin and rejuvenate themselves with the newest discoveries, apparently these two Hungarians were unhappy at first. Wigner remembers that Princeton lacked a "coffee-house," where one could discuss and further the latest speculations with one's colleagues and graduate students. In Europe there was a sort of travelling seminar, a sense of community, a feeling of shared adventure, everybody knew everybody else, simultaneous publication of new solutions; in America the graduate teaching of physics* was primitive, and theoretical physicists were few and geographically far between. He wondered if the Americans were importing Europeans as a sort of window-dressing, more or less like the pseudo-Gothic buildings. (One famous European chemist hired by Princeton flatly refused to enter Frick Chemical Laboratory, saying he could not do research in a laboratory with a portcullis; he was never seen in Princeton again.) Later Wigner found his suspicions unfounded, his graduate students "fabulous," including in years to come great figures in the scientific Establishment (such people as Frederick Seitz, Conyers Herring, and John Bardeen, who has two Nobel Prizes).

* It should be emphasized that the Rockefeller largesse was only for graduate teaching: one of Princeton’s new starts, later a Nobel Laureate, indignantly inquired if his duties were to include (as he had heard) a section of freshmen, and he was quietly reassured he was safe.

Another element in putting together the critical mass of theoretical physicists in Princeton came in 1930. The higher learning always has had strange roots, but never more than the Institute for Advanced Study. The Fuld family, owners of Bamberger's department store, decided to establish an academy devoted to pure scholarship, with no students at all, in the vicinity of Newark. Oswald Veblen, Professor of Mathematics at the university, perceived that the Institute would wither without the invigorating environment of a university town, persuaded them that Princeton was in reality a suburb of Newark. Soon dozens of Institute physicists, both permanent and visiting for a year or so, were added to the Princeton ambience. It was somehow fitting that Veblen should have been the nephew of the sardonic iconoclast Thorstein Veblen, who in his The Higher Learning in America maintained that the whole American apparatus of administration, publicity, degrees and undergraduate teaching was a sham, and thought that in contrast to the American strain of practicality the sole scholarship, idle of the truly inquiring mind should be irresponsible curiosity, and useless knowledge. The newspaper reporters were delighted to photograph on Nassau Street the Institute's first member-Albert Einstein, with his sweatshirt and flowing hair (in the spirit of Thoreau -"simplify!" —he had given up not only barbers but pajamas, socks, underwear and ties). The newspapers used to repeat the (incorrect) fact as the spirit of Princeton that Einstein’s theories (which served no practical purpose anyway) were understood by only seven men in the whole world.

A final grace note in the flowering of American science occurred when Hitler seized power in Germany: some 2,000 Jewish faculty members were summarily dismissed, and about 100 physicists came to the U.S., some permanently. The attention of world science irrevocably swung to America. One American departmental chairman remarked that "Hitler shakes the tree, and I gather the apples." Hitler called theoretical physics Judenphysik and shouted that, if necessary, the German people would do without science for a few years. In any case, the German scientific community was so fragmented and without morale it apparently never knew what was going on, at least in the realm of atomic fission. In 1939 the physicist Otto Hahn, at the Kaiser Friedrich Institute in Berlin, succeeded in splitting the uranium atom without realizing what he had accomplished. His assistant, Lise Meitner, was an Austrian Jew and therefore in danger; she was smuggled to Denmark, where she and her physicist nephew performed the mathematical calculations on how to construct an atomic bomb from these findings. The great Danish scientist, Niels Bohr, was half-Jewish and came to this country, where he transmitted the shattering news to the scientific community. Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard composed a letter warning President Roosevelt of the possible consequences and got Einstein to sign it. The end result was the Manhattan Project, in which finally all these polyglot refugee scientists were herded together on a mountain in New Mexico-"the greatest collection of crackpots in history" was the weary comment of the general appointed to watch over them-and built the atomic bomb.

The rest of the story is familiar. J. Robert Oppenheimer, after directing the building of the bomb, became Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Professor Henry D. Smyth wrote the famous "Smyth Report" and became Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission. In the debate over the building of the H-bomb the two factions were known as "Princeton vs. California," and Professor John A. Wheeler was instrumental in developing it. Professor Wigner, before retirement, won the Fermi Award and the Nobel Prize. Princeton, together with the ancillary resources of the Institute, is considered unrivalled in theoretical physics. More than 800 applications for graduate study in physics are received each year, of which 10 percent are accepted. Some 62 percent of Princeton Ph.D.'s have been elected Fellows of the American Physical Society, a far higher percentage than any other institution. A new Fine Hall looms high over the football stadium, and the symbolism is not lost on the spectators. This planet, it now appears, is running out of energy, but the whole crisis is expected to be solved by the so-called thermonuclear fusion process providing infinite energy. Princeton's "Stellarator" laboratory, directed by Professors Melvin Gottlieb and Edward Frieman, is funded by many millions of federal dollars.

So the unpredictable course of the history of science goes on. All of these events were ultimately dependent on the speculations of a group of quantum theorists a generation ago. But one dictum still holds-"The nations that do not cultivate the sciences cannot hold their own."


This was originally published in the October 2, 1973 issue of PAW.