Bill Moyers presents a profile and interview of I.I. Rabi, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in physics and an early developer of radar for use in World War II. Rabi also participated in the Manhattan Project and was present at the detonation of the first atomic bomb — an event which transformed him into an advocate for restraint in the use of nuclear power.
BILL MOYERS: For most of us, these scientific equations are but hieroglyphics of a strange and unknown tongue. But to the physicist, they are pictures of how the world works, a blueprint of the home we live in. To the man you are about to meet, one of America’s most distinguished scientists, this view of the world is very much like a spiritual. Both, he says, stem from the same source, from human aspirations, from deep thinking and feeling, from the depth of the soul.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Come and meet a man who was born before the turn of the century, who was present at the birth of the nuclear age, and who, although he looks reverently at life and the universe, once told the US Atomic Energy Commission, we have an A-bomb, a whole series of them. What more do you want, mermaids? Come and meet I.I. Rabi.
BILL MOYERS: Young physicists who call on I.I. Rabi are told to take your profession personally. Take it as an enlargement of your life, of your insights, not as a job. It must mean something to you personally in the same sense as art does or religion.
It has to give you not only pleasure but a meaning to your life. It tells you somehow how much smarter nature is than you. And still, you’re able to find things out. It’s quite a feeling if you take it seriously. No man I know has taken his own advice to heart more steadfastly over a longer time than this Nobel Laureate in Physics.
BILL MOYERS: He was born in 1898 in a small town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents immigrated to the United States when he was two, and the boy grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. In 1916, he went to Cornell University on a stipend so meager he suffered malnutrition while studying electrical engineering and chemistry. He earned his doctorate in physics from Columbia University in New York and, with his wife, then traveled on a fellowship to Europe where he studied under many of the pioneers in modern physics.
Returning to New York in 1929, Rabi began a lifetime career of teaching at Columbia University. In the ’30s, Rabi developed a technique to measure with incredible accuracy the magnetic properties of subatomic particles. This won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944. But there was a war going on, and he couldn’t make his acceptance speech in Stockholm until 1950.
BILL MOYERS: During the war, he took a leave from Columbia to become one of two directors of the radiation laboratory at MIT. There, while recruiting many of the young scientists who played key roles at the lab, he worked on the development of radar and the atomic bomb. He traveled frequently to the secret site near Los Alamos New Mexico where the atomic bomb was actually being built under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, and as one of Oppenheimer’s advisers, Rabi witnessed the first nuclear explosion on the 16th of July, 1945.
After the war, Rabi became chairman of the physics department at Columbia. And once again, he put together an extraordinary group of professors and students, among them several future Nobel Prize winners. In 1952, he succeeded Oppenheimer as chairman of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission where he was a leader in developing the international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy. He also served as a member and chairman of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.
BILL MOYERS: He has been the recipient of many scientific, academic, and humanitarian awards and has traveled the world to promote cooperation and understanding of the peaceful uses of atomic energy. But his heart has always belonged first to Columbia University, and he lives today just a few blocks from the campus, overlooking the Hudson River. That’s where I talked to this remarkable man of our century.
BILL MOYERS: You were in the New Mexico desert early on the morning of July 16, 1945 when the first nuclear explosion in human history went off. What were you thinking as the last 10 seconds were counting down?
I.I. RABI: I remember asking the man behind me who had working there, are you excited? He said, no. And then this thing came.
BILL MOYERS: What came?
I.I. RABI: Well, what came was something that could hardly be imagined, certainly, by somebody who was not a poet. This tremendous burst of light, much brighter than sunlight. And it lasted and lasted. One didn’t dare to look in the direction of where the explosion was. But then you could. And you saw this tremendous fireball with colors in it and very menacing. It grew so big as to be near you. I think was about 10 miles away. And then I asked him, are you excited? He said yes.
BILL MOYERS: What went through your mind?
I.I. RABI: I think, first, the success of it pleased and then the horror of it.
BILL MOYERS: The success of it pleased you, the fact that it had worked.
I.I. RABI: Yes. These were a lot of hard work by my friends and so on. But then you began to understand, almost immediately for my case, that it was a different world. And it came to me very hard and suddenly. I began to have goose pimples and goose flesh. You could see it was just the beginning of a power, of a vast power, which we had in the control of nature. But it was so much bigger than what had happened before.
ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember those lines Oppenheimer quoted?
I.I. RABI: Yes. I’m very sorry he said that. I don’t look at it at all that way.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t believe that the scientists who worked on that project and who built that bomb destroyed worlds?
I.I. RABI: No, not at all. No. Mostly they were good American citizens and worked on this because they wanted to support the United States and support the President. It was a real, real adventure. You made this bomb out of materials which hadn’t existed in nature, uranium-235 and plutonium. So it was a tremendous achievement.
BILL MOYERS: So there was this sense of intellectual excitement, of scientific pursuit.
I.I. RABI: Tremendous, tremendous — a new world and a power of the intellectual structure that could make it, that could calculate the properties of materials which hadn’t existed before. No, to have this occur was an extraordinary thing, a wonderful things. And of course, it’s inherent in nature, so it was bound to come out unless you destroyed culture and civilization first.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a fear that if we didn’t get there first, the Nazis would?
I.I. RABI: That was, very much so, and on the part of some — certainly on the part of some of the people like Niels Bohr and others who came to work on it who had such a great respect for the Germans.
BILL MOYERS: And they knew some of the German scientists too?
I.I. RABI: Oh, they knew them very well.
BILL MOYERS: —who presumably were working on the project?
I.I. RABI: Yes, the scientific community, the pre-war scientific community or the pre-Nazi, was a real community. One knew everybody of importance.
BILL MOYERS: So the assumption was they were as good as the scientists working here, and they could probably get there about the same time.
I.I. RABI: Assumption was, on the part of some, that they were better. Their anti-Semitism, particularly, lost their best people and the cohesion and the faith in their government. So they really destroyed themselves.
BILL MOYERS: This bigotry, this arrogance, this hatred prevented them using the very people who could have developed this.
I.I. RABI: Yeah, that’s right. And of course this provided a tremendous incentive.
BILL MOYERS: For people who worked on the project here?
I.I. RABI: That’s right. There was a really evil empire. It was just evil in every way, and it had to be destroyed. It had to be.
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you said once you were desperate to get into World War II?
I.I. RABI: Oh, I was. Yes, I considered the Nazis my personal enemies.
BILL MOYERS: You said that World War II started as an attempt to turn back to the dark reactions against the rational faculty and to introduce a new demonology into the world.
I.I. RABI: Well said! [LAUGHTER]
BILL MOYERS: What kind of demonology?
I.I. RABI: Well, their racist ideas. They were going to, in time, turn the world into slaves and Germans.
BILL MOYERS: Slaves and masters, and they would be the masters.
I.I. RABI: They would be the masters — and thoroughly convinced they were doing the right thing.
BILL MOYERS: And then you had seen London, which had been destroyed by the war.
I.I. RABI: Yeah, so I could imagine that destruction. But the real evil that I saw was there — that they could do it and organize to do it, and they were treating these humans as a mass, trying to herd them the way the Indians used to herd the buffaloes to get them to jump over a precipice — that had to be destroyed.
BILL MOYERS: How would our world be different, Dr. Rabi, if the Germans had won?
I.I. RABI: Oh, I don’t like to indulge in horror stories.
BILL MOYERS: Reinhold Niebuhr said in the ’40s that the devil was back.
I.I. RABI: Mmm-hmm. It certainly was. There’s one thing I’m not sorry are the years I devoted to our war effort. It came right out of the best period of my life, when I was going great guns.
BILL MOYERS: You had to divert yourself from —
I.I. RABI: Completely.
BILL MOYERS: —your normal work to war work.
I.I. RABI: War work — and single-mindedly.
BILL MOYERS: You had achieved distinction before you became a trouble shooter for Oppenheimer. You had achieved distinction for you work in radar. And I’ve been told that you thought perhaps we could have won the war without the bomb, but without radar, we would have lost it.
I.I. RABI: That’s exactly it. Oppenheimer wanted me to be the associate director. And I thought it over and turned it down and said, I’m very serious about this war. We could lose it with insufficient radar.
BILL MOYERS:Why was that?
I.I. RABI: I wasn’t opposed to the project — my own participation.
BILL MOYERS: But you felt radar was the more urgent priority.
I.I. RABI: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
I.I. RABI: The Germans, for example, were sending in these V-bombs to England. We had developed a radar which could see them coming and direct the fire to shoot them down.
BILL MOYERS: Radar, one of the greatest secrets of all time revealed at last — radar, that won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and defeated the Nazi U-boat menace. A radar set uses the principle of the echo to detect enemy targets. High frequency radio waves are sent out by the radar transmitter. When a wave hits a solid object — a ship or a plane, for instance — it bounces back to its source. From the elapsed time between the transmission of the wave and its return, radar can tell just how far away the object is.
NEWSREEL: Key installations are ringed by radar sets that warn of planes when they are as far away as 100 miles. This amazing weapon penetrates straight to the enemy, through fog, clouds, smoke, or pitch darkness. The waves bounce back to the base, and a warning blip gives notice of an approaching enemy plane. Radar is so deadly accurate that a searchlight synchronized with it can catch the target plane in the center of its beam while other searchlights form a cross-beam. For this plane, radar has charted the end. Our anti-aircraft batteries do the rest. [EXPLOSIONS] Now, radar as an offensive weapon — scouting planes spot an enemy cruiser with radar and contact the fleet, which speeds toward its target. At the ship’s radio center, radar sets the course to the enemy’s exact location and directs and aims the guns with perfect accuracy, though no man aboard has actually seen the target with his own eyes. The scope shows on target, and the guns finish the job. [EXPLOSIONS]
BILL MOYERS: One of the problems I remember that the Navy brought to you was how to knock off Japanese aircraft spying on ships and that you were able to help them. And it made a big difference.
I.I. RABI: Oh, yes. Yes. Somebody — I won’t mention the name — came from Washington and came to us and came with rather technical specifications of black boxes. And I asked him, what are these for, in the military way? He looked me straight in the eye and said, “we prefer to discuss that in our swivel chairs in Washington.” I quote.
BILL MOYERS: Our swivel chairs in Washington — we don’t want to discuss it with you scientists.
I.I. RABI: Exactly — we want to use this as technicians. Well, months pass. They came back again. And I said to them, now look, let’s stop kidding. You bring your man who understands aircraft. You bring your man who understands radio — this was before radar, the term, was invented — and a man who understands tactics, and we’ll sit down and talk about it.
BILL MOYERS: So they changed their bureaucratic posture.
I.I. RABI: They had to. And of course, it became very clear, too, that we were not in competition. We were there to help them, and we don’t want any credit.
BILL MOYERS: You once wrote that after about a year Cambridge, you had almost decided that you’d put in your time at the lab. Then, getting off the train at the South station in Boston one day, you saw the headlines in The Boston Record. Do you remember what those headlines said?
I.I. RABI: Pearl Harbor — Pearl Harbor bombed.
BILL MOYERS: And what did you think?
I.I. RABI: It was so strange, so outrageous. I still have a vision of 1932 or so, of seeing on the movies of the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai. And these people were fleeing. They were bombarding their roads. And that finished me with Japan. There they were. They were organized for it. There was no question they were backing their government. They were at war with civilization.
NEWSREEL: Hiroshima, August 5, 1945, just before the first atomic bomb shattered the thoughts of the entire world. Then, from out of the skies — [EXPLOSION]
HARRY TRUMAN: Having found the atomic bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.
BILL MOYERS: Did you approve of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?
I.I. RABI: Oh, yes. And the reasons behind it were very powerful, because Europe was starving. The only people who could feed them were we. And we were using up all our shipping in the Pacific to support this tremendous offensive that was going on.
BILL MOYERS: The European war was over, and we were making —
I.I. RABI: The European war was over. And we were concentrating on the Japanese war, and we were going to take it. We contemplated a million casualties. But it was the psychology of the American people — I’m not justifying it on the part of military grounds — and part of the existence of this mood, this feeling the military, and we had the backing of the American people, no question.
BILL MOYERS: Why not, however, drop it in some uninhabited and desolate place to show the Japanese as a demonstration of what a weapon like this could do?
I.I. RABI: That wouldn’t show very much. The report came back. They arranged tremendous pyrotechnics. And who would they send?
BILL MOYERS: You mean, who would the Japanese send to watch this demonstration?
I.I. RABI: That’s right. And of course, it would take time. You’d have to convince them this really was a bomb. So it was like —
BILL MOYERS: Do the images of Hiroshima ever run through your mind now?
I.I. RABI: It runs through my mind in the sense that I might be a part of the show.
BILL MOYERS: The next time?
I.I. RABI: Yeah. That image — yes.
BILL MOYERS: Someone reported of that Hiroshima explosion that 2,400 nurses, orderlies, and trained first aid workers were at Hiroshima, and 1,800 were made casualties in a single instant. And you said once that this was more striking to you than the total figure of 100,000 people killed and 10 square miles destroyed. Why?
I.I. RABI: It’s a destruction of the society. If you destroy it, hit it very hard, it’s very fragile. And that’s what I think our leadership doesn’t understand, in our own society, how vulnerable we are.
BILL MOYERS: And the loss of all these books and all this learning and these fragile threads of civilization that tie us to the past.
I.I. RABI: Just the ordinary customs — that you turn to the right when people are coming the other way.
BILL MOYERS: This goes.
I.I. RABI: Yes. All those things would go and suddenly become disorganized, and we become a mob instead of society. Once we’re a mob, we’re not Americans. As a society, we’re Americans who have this tremendous tradition. But as a mob — just like any other mob. When I first went into war work in the end of 1940, I began to think of these things in those terms. I began to realize how fragile human structure is, how fragile society was. Who would have believed that the Nazis would take root in such a civilized country as Germany? After all, I spent two years there as a post-doc, and it was wonderful. And in this very short time, this transformation.
BILL MOYERS: The Nazis took over.
I.I. RABI: That the Nazis took over and, I must say, with the full support — people were just turned around. And very frightening — something one shouldn’t ever forget.
BILL MOYERS: Which is?
I.I. RABI: That this could happen to our own country. It could happen almost anywhere.
BILL MOYERS: Do you really believe that, that a society with its emphasis on civil liberties, its great Jeffersonian tradition, its pronounced belief in the dignity of the individual, that the seeds of such a thing could grow here?
I.I. RABI: I certainly wouldn’t have believed it if not for the McCarthy phenomenon.
BILL MOYERS: The McCarthy phenomenon — Rabi remembers it all these years later as a profound threat to the fabric of American democracy. To understand why his memory of those days is so sharp with anger, it’s important to recall the fear and paranoia that Joseph McCarthy provoked in the public life of America in the early 1950s. From his position as a Republican senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy launched a highly publicized campaign against alleged Communist infiltrators and sympathizers. The victims of the hysteria provoked by McCarthy included the State Department, the CIA, the Army and the Department of Defense and private individuals as well.
DOROTHY KENYON: I am not and never have been a Communist. I am not and never have been a fellow traveler. I am not and never have been a supporter of, a member of, or a sympathizer with any organization known to me to be or suspected by me of being controlled or dominated by Communists.
BILL MOYERS: For one’s name even to be mentioned in McCarthy’s committee hearings meant the possibility of being fired, blacklisted, or ostracized. His tactics of reckless accusation amid sensational publicity created a repressive climate in the country. But he seemed invincible because of his popularity with many voters. But finally, in 1954, when McCarthy took on the Army in nationally televised hearings, millions of Americans were able to see his methods and judge for themselves.
ROBERT WELCH: Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
BILL MOYERS: McCarthy quickly lost public support and was formally condemned by the Senate in December of that year. His career was all but over. He died three years later. But the McCarthy phenomenon, as Rabi calls it, had taken its toll.
I.I. RABI: There is a man who had the whole country scared, from the President on down and without doing anything. Nobody went to jail much. He just had them psychologically scared. And when that happened, I realized that it’s constant vigilance which can preserve our institutions.
BILL MOYERS: Fear was rampant.
I.I. RABI: It really was. It did scare people, and very few really stood up against it.
BILL MOYERS: You did. You went to Washington and testified on behalf of Oppenheimer.
I.I. RABI: Oh, absolutely. Well I always felt I’ve only one life to live, and I’ve got to live that life according to my own lights. And if it were terminated then, that’s that.
BILL MOYERS: Didn’t you think about the fact that testifying for him would endanger your own reputation?
I.I. RABI: No, I was so right. No, I was just indignant.
BILL MOYERS: That they would do this to him?
I.I. RABI: That they would do this, that’s right — that they would do this to anybody of that sort. After all, here is a man who’s done so greatly for the United State and in many ways such a wonderful person.
BILL MOYERS: Rabi’s generation of scientists was greatly affected by the intellect and leadership of the brilliant but enigmatic Robert Oppenheimer. At Harvard, Oppenheimer had excelled in Greek and Latin, published poetry, and studied Oriental philosophy, all while preparing himself for a career in physics. He was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology when, in 1943, the government asked him to head the Los Alamos laboratory that developed the first atomic bomb.
When the war ended, Oppenheimer became head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and served as chairman of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. But then, in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy hysteria, he was called before a secret hearing of the Atomic Energy Commission and accused of being a security risk. He was charged with having associated in the 1930s with Communists. His own wife and brother had been members of the Communist party, and he was charged with opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb. The hearing finally declared Oppenheimer not guilty of treason but ruled that he should have no further access to classified data, despite his impeccable record of handling such material during the war.
BILL MOYERS: Much of the scientific community came to Oppenheimer’s defense, calling his trial a witch hunt. But he returned to Princeton publicly smeared by the denial of his security clearance. Before Oppenheimer’s death in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, in a ceremony symbolically clearing Oppenheimer’s name, presented the scientist with the Fermi Award, the highest honor of the very Atomic Energy Commission that a decade earlier had driven him from the service of his country.
BILL MOYERS: That must have seemed like a cruel paradox. Here is the man with whom you’d worked, Robert Oppenheimer, who had run the Manhattan Project, developed the atomic bomb, hauled before the Atomic Energy Commission, accused of being a security risk, and declared to be so.
I.I. RABI: I just don’t understand how we did it. It was such a great loss for the United States. He was so well known and got to be well known in the world, a wonderful representative of something you don’t get frequently. A highly cultivated man, he was forgiven the atomic bomb. Crowds followed him. He’s a man of peace. And they destroyed this man. We had this conference on the first peaceful use of atomic energy. And Lewis Strauss asked me, whom shall we have president of this conference? And I said, I guess we killed Cock Robin.
BILL MOYERS: Should have been Oppenheimer.
I.I. RABI: Should’ve been. Would have been Oppenheimer without any question.
BILL MOYERS: But you say, they killed him. Who is they?
I.I. RABI: A small, mean group.
BILL MOYERS: Of scientists?
I.I. RABI: No. Well, there were scientists amongst them.
BILL MOYERS: What did they have against him, in your judgment?
I.I. RABI: I find it very hard to put myself in their place. One of them might be envy. They other might be personal dislike. And a third — a genuine fear of Communism where you can take incidents and magnify it into a situation.
BILL MOYERS: Had it ever troubled you that back in his Berkeley days he had fooled around with notions of Marxism?
I.I. RABI: No, not at all. Anybody who didn’t at that time was fairly insensitive in these philosophical and social questions. He hadn’t done that when he was a child, so he did some of it when he was in early manhood.
BILL MOYERS: You mean chased notions that seemed enticing on first blush.
I.I. RABI: Yes. Obviously as a child or as a very young man, he was very much interested in psychoanalysis, things of that sort, and religious questions. He never read a newspaper.
BILL MOYERS: Oppenheimer didn’t?
I.I. RABI: That’s right. It was beneath him. He was an aesthete.
BILL MOYERS: Is there any whiff of suspicion all these years later that somehow, either through negligence or naivete or ignorance or will, he was a security risk?
I.I. RABI: I don’t think it was a security risk. I do think he walked along the edge of a precipice.
BILL MOYERS: What was the precipice?
I.I. RABI: The precipice was that he was married to a Communist. His wife had been a Communist and active. His brother had been a Communist. So I think there is some poem by Milton about chastity — we can walk through almost anything. And so he didn’t pay enough attention to the outward symbols. He was sure of his own integrity. This was the earlier…of course after the war, there was no question of his — he was doing very well. And there was no question of his being a Communist. I don’t think he was ever dedicated to it, but he may have studied of a kind, of communism as a theory.
BILL MOYERS: That was before the war?
I.I. RABI: Before the war, that’s right.
BILL MOYERS:And after the war, you think there was no flirtation whatever with any kind of ideology.
I.I. RABI: No. I won’t say any kind of ideology. He still had these mystic feelings about Hindu mysticism.
BILL MOYERS: But even though he may have walked this precipice-
I.I. RABI: At the edge of the precipice.
BILL MOYERS: —at the edge of the precipice in regard to people he knew who were Communists, did you ever doubt his loyalty to the United States?
I.I. RABI: No, I don’t think so. I never did. No, it never occurred to me to doubt it. He was a very American person of a certain kind.
BILL MOYERS: And that kind of being —?
I.I. RABI: No, as a certain kind of intellectual, aesthetic person of the upper middle classes.
BILL MOYERS: You once said he couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be president of B’nai B’rith or the Knights of Columbus.
I.I. RABI: That’s right. He could have done much better if he’d chosen one or the other.
BILL MOYERS: Why couldn’t he choose?
I.I. RABI: Well, because he was born to one. And that, being a Jew, is not a faith. It’s a fate. It’s the hound of heaven.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what you meant when once said that you understood his problem and that it was a problem of identity?
I.I. RABI: Yes, exactly.
I.I. RABI: When he had left government under a cloud, with that shadow that followed him for the rest of his life, was he bitter in his conversations with you?
BILL MOYERS: No. And nothing would have happened if he’d followed my advice.
I.I. RABI: Which was?
I.I. RABI: I told him about a year or two before this hearing things began, I said, you write an article for The Saturday Evening Post telling the story of your life in connection with this. Put it all down. And be sure, you’ll be well paid for it. That’s very important. Then your troubles will be over.
BILL MOYERS:Why did think that?
BILL MOYERS: Because I know America, how Americans react. Here is something, this great man, who writes an article about himself, his story, for The Saturday Evening Post. They’re fascinated by it.
I.I. RABI: And somebody comes out with these other things he said. They say, I’ve read this in The Saturday Evening Post. What are you talking about?
BILL MOYERS: So you urged him to just write a life testament.
I.I. RABI: That’s right — a life testament.
BILL MOYERS: And he wouldn’t do it?
I.I. RABI: He wouldn’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
I.I. RABI: He wasn’t as smart as I am.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?
I.I. RABI: I’m more in the world. See, I came from the Lower East Side, and he came from this upper crust, Jewish group that hardly believed they were Jewish.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the world you grew up. You were two years old when your father brought you to this country.
I.I. RABI: My mother. My father had come beforehand in preparation.
BILL MOYERS: Why did he come?
I.I. RABI: Couldn’t get a job — couldn’t make a living.
BILL MOYERS: What kind did he do here?
I.I. RABI: Well, almost anything. He had no skills, no training at all. And then he got a job in the clothing industry — very specialized. He’s the man who sewed the sleeves into the arm hole.
BILL MOYERS: Worked in a sweatshop.
I.I. RABI: Absolutely. And that’s what shows me how tremendous the growth in humanity of this country is.
BILL MOYERS: In your lifetime.
I.I. RABI: In my lifetime. Because there, they were absolutely under the thumb of a foreman. When he was out of work, there was nothing coming in, nothing. A working man then was in real trouble.
BILL MOYERS: This was the Lower East Side in its teaming, congested, impoverished days.
I.I. RABI: Yes, and its great days in some respect. It was an interesting life as a kid. Heard a lot of talk, a lot of activity around the place and so on. The gangsterisms of that time and the corruption, you knew all about it.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about democratic politics?
I.I. RABI: Around there, if a guy didn’t get $2 for his vote, he felt deprived, robbed. But if you survived, it was very good. I recommend it — a real experience.
BILL MOYERS: At what age did you start to school?
I.I. RABI: Well, not until late, though, because I was sick — until about eight. But I had had private instruction in religious things.
BILL MOYERS:Your family was quite religious.
I.I. RABI: Oh, very, very religious — God was present in almost every paragraph.
BILL MOYERS: So what did you read, Bible stories?
I.I. RABI: Bible stories, that’s right. And as part of my survival, I could entertain the other tough kids. I was small for my age. I still am. And I could entertain them with Bible stories, things of that sort.
BILL MOYERS: Literally, you would tell these toughs in the Lower East Side Bible stories?
I.I. RABI: Oh, sure. They were just tough, Jewish bullies.
BILL MOYERS: But you love telling them. Some of your friends tell me you’re —
I.I. RABI: Oh yeah. They’re wonderful stories. Oh, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Of course, they’re horror stories of ghosts and demons and so on. You see, the family came from the Dracula country, near Transylvania. And boy, as a kid, they just raise your hair.
I.I. RABI: Some of the stories in the Bible are stories of great atrocities, vengeance, inhumanity.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, it’s real stuff. These were not namby-pamby people. If you take the Bible as a family history, then it begins to have a certain kind of meaning, especially if you’re Jewish.
BILL MOYERS: And the meaning is?
I.I. RABI: Life — the whole range of human experience.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that the New York school system in those days was wonderful in many respects. It took these immigrant boys and turned them into Republicans.
I.I. RABI: What I meant is not Republicans with a capital R. I meant a republican in the sense of Jefferson and Hamilton.
BILL MOYERS: A belief in —
I.I. RABI: A belief in the power of an organized individual group of people taking their own fate in their hands and making their world. This is the first country, successful country, that has been made by men, not by inheritance. The Constitution and everything was made by people. And I’ll never forget my respect for the Anglo-Saxon race who made this. Let me tell you, the most astonishing thing, when you think of it, there was nothing in history compared to it. And I think our troubles may come when we forget our origins.
BILL MOYERS: And those are?
I.I. RABI: Rationality, science — don’t forget Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest scientists who ever was.
BILL MOYERS: What appeals to you about him?
I.I. RABI: Almost everything. His rationality was one. His wisdom, his tremendous scientific insight, his ability to rise above a situation and see it whole — and so intensely human in the same time. He was a scientist at home in the world. He had every ability. I don’t know whether he could sing. [LAUGHTER]
BILL MOYERS: I understand you could play a mean Gilbert and Sullivan on a comb.
I.I. RABI: Yes, when I was young.
BILL MOYERS: You gave that up?
I.I. RABI: No, I haven’t enough breath. It takes a lot of breath to control a comb. [LAUGHTER]
BILL MOYERS: I’m sorry the world has lost that talent.
I.I. RABI: Me, too.
BILL MOYERS: Your family moved to Brooklyn, and there, you said, you discovered the Brooklyn Public Library.
I.I. RABI: Well where we moved to was really way out. There were chickens who’d run in the street and things of that sort — entirely different, a complete change of scene.
BILL MOYERS: Brooklyn was the country then. I mean, rural…
I.I. RABI: No, that part. And of course, at home the only books we had were the prayer books and then school books, and one day, I discovered that other kids had another kind of book. Where did you get this? They told me about the library. I went over to the library — and I said, I was small for my age — and registered. And I tried to take out a book. They made me read it…out loud.
BILL MOYERS: The library stopped you?
I.I. RABI: Yes. They stopped me — made me read it out loud to see that I could read.
BILL MOYERS: Did reading lead you towards science?
I.I. RABI: In that little Carnegie library they had there, I read almost every book starting with Alcott, Alger, and so on, Trowbridge. Then came the science shelf. And the first thing I read was astronomy and the first I heard of the Copernicus system. It was so wonderful. They’re explaining the phases of moon, the phases of the planets, the procession of the planets, everything. And it was so marvelous, different from the fundamentalist outlook. I ran home and said, look how this — who needs god? This is wonderful, beautiful, and I can understand it. So it was quite different and made a home for me, and I think it would for everybody once they understood it properly.
BILL MOYERS: And that it doesn’t actually threaten —
I.I. RABI: No, it’s your home. One of the great tasks of humanity is to understand it, to admire it.
BILL MOYERS: To have reverence for it.
I.I. RABI: To have reverence for it and, so speak to, when you’re doing science, you’re a sort of on the trail of the champ.
BILL MOYERS: Physics seems to have a great emotional appeal to you.
I.I. RABI: Yes, it should have to everybody. I don’t know why not. It’s really your grasp on reality.
BILL MOYERS: So much has changed about the role and the presence in our society of the physicist. In the early part of this century, America was backward in physics. A young person had to go to Europe.
I.I. RABI: The first president of the American Physics Society speaking in 1900 said he looked back — only referring not to living people — he looked back for 200 years and found only two names. And one was Benjamin Franklin.
BILL MOYERS: That were American.
I.I. RABI: That were American. The other was Joseph Henry.
BILL MOYERS: And that was in 1900.
I.I. RABI: 1900 — and for 200 years. Meanwhile, all this great stuff was occurring in Europe.
BILL MOYERS: And yet by 1940, we had enough first-rate scientists to man the laboratories for microwave radar, atomic energy, and all the rest.
I.I. RABI: That’s right. I’m very proud that it’s my generation that did most of it.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, Jeremy Bernstein has written that the transformation in American physics did not come about by accident. It came about in large measure because a small but influential group of young Americans, including I.I. Rabi, came back to this country in the late 1920s determined to make the American science respectable.
I.I. RABI: We came with the white man’s magic, so to speak, which we’d learned abroad. And I think we had a time bomb here because there were so many colleges and universities that were not first-rate or second-rate or even some not third-rate, but they had students. And as soon as you could provide with leadership, there they were, suddenly. And one person could have five students. And four years later, they can take another. So it just grew exponentially, suddenly. And so we could do that in less than 10 years.
BILL MOYERS: Why did it happen at that particular time?
I.I. RABI: Some fortunate accidents — and one was the discovery in Europe of a new way of looking at physics, new laws called quantum mechanics. It was very powerful — a wonderful thing, quite different. There are a number of facets to it. One is a technique, a mathematical technique, which enables one to predict structures of atoms molecules, things of that sort. And this is what the used, for example, in making the atomic bomb. It changed the whole outlook of the most fundamental concepts. And we came. We were young people. Oppenheimer was one of them. And we had this white man’s magic. And we got the jobs, and the young people flocked to us.
BILL MOYERS: And the white man’s magic was knowledge of quantum theory?
I.I. RABI: Quantum theory and, more than that, ways of looking at things and the whole research-minded, experimental point of view — and youth.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that science should be the foundation for the community of man. But it hasn’t been that, has it?
I.I. RABI: Well, it’s a very young thing. And there are such various stages of development. There are about a billion people in this world who live more or less in the scientific age, more or less — Europe, the United States, Russia, some of these other countries. There are a billion people in China with quite a different tradition. They’re not modern. Not that the people aren’t capable — the society.
There are another billion people in India — again, quite different from the others. And then there’s the Muslim group extending from the Atlantic Ocean down over to Indonesia, another billion people. All the other three are really not touched by the scientific tradition. Not that there aren’t brilliant people amongst them to do this. You see the problem. You see the immense problem.
BILL MOYERS: Does this staggering disparity make you hopeful or fearful?
I.I. RABI: I just take it as a task. I don’t take it emotionally hopeful or fearful.
BILL MOYERS: The task being?
I.I. RABI: To do what you can to make it better, to equalize it. You overcome obstacles of prejudice, of customs, beliefs, because the scientific thing is the only universal thing.
BILL MOYERS: Well, if everybody were trained to see what the scientists sees, what would we see?
I.I. RABI: We’d see a goal for humanity, which is understanding the universe and its infinite variety in which we live. That’s such a tremendous goal, it could take a large part of our combined effort just to understand it.
BILL MOYERS: But you tried. After the war, you and Robert Oppenheimer help to develop the Bernard Baruch plan which the United States took the United Nations.
I.I. RABI: Oh, I’m so proud of that.
BILL MOYERS: That there would be no private ownership and no national ownership of uranium.
I.I. RABI: That’s right.
NEWSREEL, BARUCHS’ ATOM BOMB PLAN: From New York’s Hunter College and the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission comes Bernard M Baruch. Key figure in two World Wars and famed advisor of Presidents.
NEWSREEL: The 75-year-old statesman brings his plan for the atomic bomb. Now, with full administration backing, he outlines the position of the United States on the bomb and calls for an international law with teeth in it.
BERNARD BARUCH: We propose this. One, manufacture of atomic bombs shall stop. Two, existing bombs shall be disposed of pursuant to the terms of the treaty. And three, the authorities shall be in possession of full information as to the know-how for the production of atomic knowledge.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, that was really rather extraordinary because at that time, we wanted to turn the genie over to the world.
I.I. RABI: Whether we really wanted to, I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t think it was a genuine proposal?
I.I. RABI: I think it was for a time. But the man who proposed it, our representative, Barney Baruch, said he didn’t believe in it. He presented it in such a way. And when the Russians turned him down, I think that a lot of people there had a sigh of relief.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the Soviets defeated the plan?
I.I. RABI: I don’t know whether they defeated it. They turned it down, which is quite another thing. Suddenly confronted with this by this power, it’s against their belief that we would do it — the capitalist power. To them, it sounded like some trick, I’m sure.
BILL MOYERS: And then in the summer of 1949, the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. What did you think when you heard the news?
I.I. RABI: I felt that the inevitable has happened. If you’re ahead, you can’t stay ahead. You have to figure the other fellow’s going to have it.
BILL MOYERS: So the opportunity was lost to put the nuclear genie back in to the bottle, so to speak.
I.I. RABI: Forever is a long time, but I think whatever’s set up will have to be a dynamic process. Just as our liberty’s of concern — there has to be eternal vigilance. It’s the price of liberty — it’s the same thing for the atomic bomb. Eternal vigilance is the price of survival. And some of my friends and colleagues felt we do this by pressing on with the hydrogen bomb.
BILL MOYERS: What they call the Super.
I.I. RABI: The Super. And the way does seem to be natural. But then I talked it over with my friends about this. One of them was President Conant of Harvard. And he summed it up brilliantly. “It will just louse up the world even more.” And I quote him.
BILL MOYERS: The hydrogen bomb would.
I.I. RABI: The hydrogen bomb would. In other words, it might solve something for the time being, but it will louse up the world even more.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you think that the hydrogen bomb would be more terrible than the atomic bomb?
I.I. RABI: Well, I knew something about it. It’s ever so much more powerful by a factor of a thousand. The atomic bomb was genocidal enough. But this really could wipe out a country.
NEWSREEL: The first full-scale test of a hydrogen device — it is almost upon us. H minus 5 seconds. Five, four, three, two, one. [EXPLOSION] The largest explosion ever set off on the face of the Earth — the huge fireball looking like a vast, Protoplasmic mass. A shock wave races across the water. The fearsome impact of the blast is ready to be revealed. We see the progress stages in the development of the cloud formation. Photographs taken at the height of approximately 12,000 feet — 50 miles from the destination site. Two minutes after zero hour, the cloud rises to 40,000 feet. 10 minutes later, the cloud stem has pushed upwards about 25 miles, deep into the stratosphere.
BILL MOYERS: Your generation released this great and terrible genie of nuclear power from the bottle. Can it ever be put back?
I.I. RABI: Yes, if we used it. If we destroyed civilization, we can put it right back in the bottle.
BILL MOYERS: You once said you wanted to contribute something to the abolition of war. Have you?
I.I. RABI: No, either to the abolition of war or the abolition of humanity. I don’t know which it’s going to be because every time you made an advance and tremendous advances, it was only open more problems, more questions.
BILL MOYERS: So this is never finished?
I.I. RABI: No, no. Otherwise the human race would be finished.
BILL MOYERS: From his home in New York City, this has been a conversation with I.I. Rabi. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.