John G. King '50, PhD '53
INTERVIEWER: Today is December 15, 2011. My name is Larry Gallagher, and today I have the pleasure of talking to John King as part of the MIT 150 Infinite History project. Professor King was born in London, England in 1925. He attended MIT as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, receiving his PhD in physics in 1953 and joining the faculty soon afterward.
During his 43 years teaching at MIT, Dr. King introduced a variety of new approaches to teaching physics, emphasizing hands-on learning and independent thought. As a young professor, he also contributed to the production of several educational movies, and throughout his career has worked to present physics to ever-wider audiences. Professor King is an accomplished experimental physicist, best known for his null experiments, his invention of the molecular microscope, and his pioneering work on atomic clocks. Dr. King has received many awards for his work as an educator and a physicist, including the Alfred P. Sloan Award and the Oersted Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers. He is now the Francis Freedman Professor of Physics Emeritus at MIT.
Welcome, Dr. King.
KING: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Can you please start by telling us a bit about where you grew up?
KING: I grew up largely in France and went to the local state-run school. And then my mother had married a Frenchman, and so they lived there in a place where they were the first to introduce bottled milk into the local village. Before that, it was in a big vat. And then later I went to school in Switzerland, and eventually I came back to the US, went to a number of schools, and ended up at Phillips Exeter Academy.
INTERVIEWER: Was there an aha moment when you realized you had a special aptitude in the sciences?
KING: Yes. Because first, my stepfather had taught me a lot about the sort of elementary intuitive mechanics of car repair and carpentry and so on, which there's a lot of physics when you pull a nail out with a claw hammer. And then at Exeter, I found friends who knew about radio, and so I got involved with building radios and then mono systems, high fidelity, with 78 RPM, for students and faculty members there. And so I learned a lot about how to assemble. I also made public address systems for state fairs and things like that. And here, as a 14- or 15-year-old kid, I had to have people drive me with my 46L6's in push-pull parallel, but never mind that.
INTERVIEWER: So who is it that advised you to go to Philips Exeter?
KING: Well actually, I was taken by my mother to look at different prep schools, and it was somehow instinctive. I liked it, so I went.
INTERVIEWER: And then how did MIT first appear on your radar screen?
One of the science teachers there, a man named Bert Little, who had actually been at Harvard, said, you should consider not only Harvard, but MIT, because you'd probably find this sort of technical interest you have very resonant there. I mean, that's my vague memory of it.
And so in some automatic way, I signed up. And it was relatively easy for me to get in. I got a fairly good average at Exeter. And I came here in June, late May, or '43-- probably June.
INTERVIEWER: I read that you have written that you spent three summer months as a freshman at MIT in 1943, and returned to MIT from the Navy in the fall of 1946.
KING: That's right.
INTERVIEWER: Please explain.
KING: Well, after I'd been there for three months, I realized I was going to be drafted. And as a sort of only child living in a protected environment, I wasn't very enthusiastic about the idea, as you might imagine. And so I wondered-- could I get some kind of war work using my electronic knowledge that would defer me?
So first I go to the Rad Lab-- Radiation. And they say, oh, we have 3,000 people, you can't do it. And then I go to the Servo Lab, and Gordon Brown, then in charge, after I tell him how wonderful I am, says, well, why don't you be director and I'll be janitor?
INTERVIEWER: And this is as a freshman?
KING: As a freshman, yes-- 18 years old. And so I've sometimes, in decades after, reminded him of this.
But then I went to the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab, and they took me in. And I was very effective, because I could work late hours-- I had no family, I worked late hours. I built a circular control panel for an acoustic torpedo with about 24 vacuum tubes and relays and dangling clip leads.
And finally I was drafted and inducted into the army, as it happens, in January of '44. And the Underwater Sound lab said, we need that kid. So they got in touch with somebody in Washington. And then I went to Fort Devens. I spend a week there repairing radios instead of going out immediately. I went to Camp Edison for the Signal Corps. And then suddenly, the first sergeant said, King, you're going into the Navy. I said, what? I didn't know anything about it.
And so I go up to Samson, New York. I get boot camp, and I'm about to get into torpedo school, submarine school in New London, when I get a message saying, you're going back to Harvard. And that's May of '44.
INTERVIEWER: But now you're going back to Harvard as an enlisted--
KING: Enlisted man, in the Navy, to work on acoustic torpedo guidance. And then at the end of the war, in '45, Harvard gets rid of the underwater sound lab. It moves to Penn State, the Ordnance Research Lab, and I go there until June of '46. And then I'm discharged, and I come to MIT, even though people I worked with at the underwater sound lab had recommended Harvard.
And actually, I was admitted to Harvard. Spent a day there, and the first day they put me in a giant hall with 800 others and we took a stupid exam. And I said, the heck with this. I'm going back to MIT.
INTERVIEWER: So during World War II, then, you actually served in the various labs you just described, including up the street at Harvard.
KING: That's right. And that lab is in a building called the Hemingway Gymnasium, which is still there. It's back to being a gymnasium.
INTERVIEWER: So here you are. You've been admitted to MIT. You spend three months there that summer. Was it common for students to get plucked out of MIT, to get drafted?
KING: Well, when you got to be 18, yes. The answer is certainly. Everybody, the moment you got to be 18, you had a physical exam, and you were given-- often it would be weeks or months. But I remember going down to Commonwealth Avenue in some big place, and they handed me a copy of the New Testament, and gave me another physical, and then said, you get on the train and arrive at Fort Devens.
INTERVIEWER: So college students at the time weren't exempt.
KING: No, not at all that I can think of, no. That's not until the next-- Vietnam.
INTERVIEWER: So then it could've been a natural progression after you spent this time at Harvard for you to have entered as a freshman at Harvard.
KING: Yes. And as I say, I just didn't like the atmosphere. And somehow--
INTERVIEWER: So you came back to MIT.
KING: Yeah. Oh, I remember what it was. They said, you have to live in a Harvard house and you have to produce a $500 bond, or something. Against tuition-- in case-- I mean, I had a GI Bill thing. Or maybe it was for rent or something. That was the real reason.
And at that time, I was living with another guy up in Arlington, and we shared a primitive house, with $100, $140 a month rent between us, and I was very comfortable there, and so I didn't want to live in the dormitory. And so that's why I came to MIT. Trivial reasons.
INTERVIEWER: So you went there in 1946 with a number of returning World War II veterans.
KING: I'd say roughly half the class.
INTERVIEWER: So what was that like?
KING: Well, it meant, first, the veterans were more likely to be smoking, which was far more universal. And in fact, I remember people smoked even in the lecture halls. I guess they stopped when the lecture started, but it was commonplace.
And also, the veterans were more sharper in questioning, more forward-moving, perhaps more adversarial in a way. And the freshmen were much less so. Now I would say, in my relatively recent experience, the freshmen are quite a bit more advanced, and there aren't any veterans. There are very few older students.
INTERVIEWER: So I would also imagine the veterans were far more motivated and focused than the freshmen. But there could have been, in some instances, a delta of five, six, seven years of age between--
KING: That's right, precisely. I think the most common was maybe three or four, but there certainly were extremes.
INTERVIEWER: Right. Interesting. So once you started at MIT, what determined or influenced your course of study?
KING: Well first, of all introductory courses, the one I liked best was physics, with a man named Sanborn Brown, Sandy Brown. And actually, he's a person I had quite a lot to do with. And the lectures, I thought, were illuminating and interesting, and I liked the subject matter. But of course I'd already liked it at Exeter, where Little had encouraged me to do experiments on my own. So I remember quite a few of those in which I had built crude apparatuses and measured things. So I was already sort of set to do physics. And I remember being somewhat interested in electrical engineering, but not enough.
And I remember the fact that when I got there, because of my extensive experience, I didn't have to go to all the freshmen labs, which gave me extra time. That was the deal I had with Sandy Brown. But in actual fact, when I did go, I enjoyed them. And I was also aware of the fact that a fair number of students didn't enjoy them. And in fact, I don't mind listening to lectures and trying to figure out what's going on, and being attentive, and trying to understand the extreme foreign accent that sometimes was there, and getting used to it. Those all seem very interesting. And yet I'm aware that it puts off a lot of kids, so.
INTERVIEWER: I read where you described the work you did on your senior thesis as, quote, "the first of many experiments of that type that I've done-- bold, novel, interesting, but not leading anywhere." End quote. Can you talk about that, and the balance throughout your career between those types of experiments and experiments that did lead somewhere.
KING: Well naturally, that was my senior thesis. And maybe if I did it with more modern methods, it would probably work now. But then, who needs it? Actually, it was an attempt to detect hydrogen atoms by attaching an electron to it, making H minus, which you then can deflect and measure in a mass spectrometer.
But when I got into the lab as a graduate student, I first helped another guy doing any kind of experiment that I sometimes characterize as "urinalysis." And by that I mean that everybody produces samples, and they go to some lab.
And there are more than 100 elements, starting with hydrogen, and one wants to measure all their properties. And one of the properties, the techniques that Rabi and coworkers had developed at Columbia in the late '30s, before the war, enabled one to figure out how the magnetic and electric properties of the nucleus, interacting with electrons surrounding the nucleus and making the atom, to learn about the properties of the nucleus, which then in turn can be interpreted by theorists who were trying to understand how nuclei are put together.
Well since there are, along with the isotopes, many dozens of nuclei to study, and in particular, the halogens-- there's fluorine, first one, and then chlorine, and then bromine, and then iodine, and then astatine, which is very heavy. And then each one has two or three isotopes. So you can therefore measure the properties of all of these, and that's why I call urinalysis, each sample I studied. And these are all in tables, in books.
And so my coworker, Vincent Jaccarino who went to Bell Labs, then went to UC Santa Barbara-- he was a graduate student the year ahead of me, two years. He measured the hyperfine structure of nuclear moments of a stable chlorine isotopes. I measured the hyperfine structure and nuclear moments of the stable bromine isotopes. Then together we measured iodine, and there we found a new thing, another aspect of the nucleus. And then a graduate student of mine, Howard Brown, now at NYU, and I measured bromine again with better technique, and we measured the same property of that nucleus that we'd done with iodide.
So that's the sort of standard way that a lot of research goes on. And sometimes some terrific thing comes out of it, and other times it just goes plodding along, and you've got a lot of work. And it isn't that it isn't valuable. It just doesn't do anything extraordinary.
And then the other kind of experiments-- they come from an imaginative stimulus from somewhere. Now the one that I'm, quote, "most famous for" is the absolute equality, that is, ignoring plus and minus, of the proton and electron charge. But I did that with a technique, a much-improved modernized technique, that had already been done in 1925, my birth year, as it happens, because Albert Einstein had had the idea that charges might be slightly different, and that this would mean that the earth had a net charge, and since it's rotating, it might be the source of the Earth's magnetic field.
Well, a couple of physicists in Switzerland blew that one apart with an experiment they did, and I did it quite a few orders of magnitude later. It had developed a new interest because of what it would have on a cosmological scale if atoms were not completely neutral. In other words, if the universe, besides having black holes and dark matter and dark energy and planets and stars also has many atoms in this space in between, just floating around. And they would all be interacting through this very weak electric field if they weren't-- so there was some effort to look into it.
And so that stimulated me, and in fact, it was a physicist at Harvard whose name I can't remember who told Zach about it, and Zach told me the story, and I looked up the paper that these guys had published about this, and I said, oh, I'll do the experiment. And I'm actually doing a refined version of it at this very minute. And now I hope--
INTERVIEWER: Excuse me, but you just mentioned Zach. I wanted to explore that a little bit with you. He was your thesis adviser, eventual colleague. In your writings, you describe a relationship with him that was not without its share of challenges.
KING: Yes. Well, it's because first of all, as a thesis adviser, it amounted to him coming through the lab about every other month and just saying, how's it going?
INTERVIEWER: We're talking about Jerrold Zacharias.
KING: Jerrold Zacharias. So he wasn't doing any real supervising in the sense of-- the students would come to the supervisor and say, the experiment isn't working. And then you go down and you look at the apparatus, and you say, well, you forgot to plug in the hm. Or it turns out the contacts are dirty, so you use contact spray, which I was using only last night on my television set. People don't know these trivial things, and no matter how elaborate the thing, if you wiggle the contacts and there's noise, you've got trouble.
So in that sense he wasn't advising, you see. But he--
INTERVIEWER: So you had this world-famous physicist, your thesis advisor.
KING: Yes. And what he does is, when I have the thesis finally ready at 5 o'clock on a Monday afternoon, the deadline, and my wife has typed it with carbon copies, and I've put in the equations in India ink and all that, I go up to Belmont at 5 o'clock-- here's the thesis.
And Zach says to me-- I later called him Jerrold, but Zach-- says, where's the data? And I said, after page of 152, or whatever. And he takes it, and pulls that out, and hands the rest of it back. Because what he does is, he circulates these numbers among fellow people in the business and says, now we've done this. Not interested in the details.
INTERVIEWER: What was your reaction? That must have been somewhat devastating.
KING: No. I felt that he didn't probably need to read-- I mean, I had to write a story. Like, first I had to say, theoretical background. Well, he is not terribly interested, and has known about it, but has probably forgotten about it, doesn't need to know. Then details of the apparatus. The apparatus isn't terribly different from the last one. It's always tricky-- bromine is a toxic vapor, and comes in the form of a molecule-- two bromine atoms. Now you have to take the atoms apart somehow, the molecules, to make a beam of atoms-- and I invented a new way of doing that, but so what?
So that's how that-- I think it wasn't really interesting. It's just like, many people don't want to read a long news story that builds up. They want to know, what was the result?
INTERVIEWER: Very early in your career, you became involved in improving teaching methods, particularly around the teaching of physics. That has clearly been a lifelong passion of yours. Can you talk about your involvement in the Physical Science Study Committee, founded 1956?
KING: Yes. Well, you should know a little bit about how that came about. Zacharias, by the way, was a consultant to many companies-- not many, but perhaps six, four, I don't know-- and started some consulting companies. And he employed me here, and got me jobs there, thus supplementing my salary, for which I'm grateful to this day.
And one of his consulting jobs was with the Kerr-McGee Oil Company in Oklahoma. I think I got that right. I don't know what it was in detail. But when he was out there, he was asked to go to one of the high schools, and he talked to them about what they knew about physics. And they didn't know anything about why the earth is thought to be round, and why gravity acts the way it does. They just didn't know anything. And that made him say, high school physics is terrible.
And so he comes back. Well, at the same time, Sputnik has just been launched that very year-- '56, I think I have it right. And he takes advantage of this sudden fear that we are falling behind technically to start this program. But in the meantime, he's been influenced by Edwin Land, who came to MIT, spent some time talking to students-- and I've always said, the student who talks to Land is not absolutely typical. He was a nice enough guy, but somewhat formidable.
But out of that came the three ideas that I think two of which have been extremely important. The one that was less important was the notion of replacing lectures by well-designed films. And there were probably several reasons why it didn't work. Lecturers who are impassioned lecturers don't want to be upstaged by movies or replaced by movies.
And secondly, movies are thought of as a casual, not very serious mode, just like what you're watching now, and therefore, why should they pay attention? Whereas the lecture, you're supposed to sit in this mildly uncomfortable seat and look at the scribbled notes on the thing here. And in those days, there would be some sleeping students at the back. Now I see students with their iPads. But the ones in front were deeply interested. So movies somehow just never really got going.
INTERVIEWER: What were the two things that did work?
KING: One was the idea that students should have a desk in every lab. And the initial response-- and Zacharias was very good about that. He would have undergraduates in the molecular beam lab. But the general reaction was, what? You're going to be bringing an inexperienced student in to work on my infrared spectrometer with delicate this and that and so forth? Why, he'll make a mess of it. But Land said, but what if the student were accompanied-- I'm making a guess-- by $10,000? Which in 1964 was a lot of money. Like, $100,000 now, or $30-- whatever it is.
And so by putting out a certain amount of money, he bribed our faculty. And once it gets going, it turns out to be very good. Because undergraduates tend to be not as tired as graduate students. And they are plenty smart, and they learn the business.
And of course the other idea-- he wanted to have faculty be advisors to students. Because when I was an undergraduate at MIT, I would see my advisor after waiting to the scheduled time for about one minute, and he'd say, John are these the courses you're taking? I'd say, yes. And then he'd go, pumf! And there I'd go. No advice. And then if I wanted to drop a course, I could see him again. Or add one. Anyway.
Land wanted much more. And he had the idea of senior faculty being hired to take 10 students and tell them about the world, you see. Well, that turned into the seminar, the freshman seminar system. I don't know whether it goes on now, but it was a good thing.
INTERVIEWER: It does, yes. In fact, I just saw a quote here-- Land's quote in a presentation he made when he was talking about what was to become UROP-- said, "It would cherish and nurture the dreams of greatness that these young men bring with them when they come to the university, in particular by giving each of them, from the start, a research project of his own."
KING: Well, that's slightly extreme. I mean, I wouldn't characterize myself as having dreams of glory or anything like that.
INTERVIEWER: Very early in your career, you became involved in improving teaching methods, particularly around the teaching of physics. That has clearly been a lifelong passion of yours. Can you talk about your involvement in the physical science study committee, founded in 1956?
KING: Yes. Well, when I learned about Zach having started this and so on, and wanting to make movies, he talked to me about the first movie that I might have made. And at that time, I'd been involved somewhat with that atomic clock project. And so he said, why don't you make one on clocks? And so I did.
And as it happens, I got a copy recently. I looked at it. And it starts off with intervals that we're aware of, like seconds and years, and at the opposite extreme, nanoseconds and then very long periods. And then the notion of pendulums, and then Harold Edgerton makes an appearance, showing how he can make a picture in a fraction of a millisecond. And then there's this brief discussion of atomic time, and--
INTERVIEWER: And what were the objectives of these films?
KING: It was just to give a student an overall picture of something they might not have thought of much. And of course, in some ways, from a philosophical point of view, time is one of those mysteries that we deal with.
INTERVIEWER: And were these to be shown in high schools?
KING: They were to be shown in high schools, but of course that's something that never really became widespread, I would say.
INTERVIEWER: So what were your impressions of the whole filmmaking process? Was this an exciting project for a young faculty member to be involved in?
KING: Oh, yes, it was. You would show up at 9 o'clock, and be in the studio, in this converted movie theater, and there would be powerful lights, and gaffers, and all of the people of film making, and you would have-- trying to think of the primitive microphones and things of the time. And then the fact that a take would be interrupted by a single fly buzzing around the microphone.
And I made about three or four movies. Others, not the time and clocks one which I just mentioned, but others were based on lecture demonstrations that I had made for my teaching.
INTERVIEWER: Now were these films showing at MIT?
KING: Yes. We showed them at MIT. And at one time, I had a project in which they were shown in the hall automatically. But since everything was on 16-millimeter film, you had to-- I think we did find a continuous looping system. But they're not all that durable, so you have to watch it.
INTERVIEWER: So how would you the gauge the success of those films in achieving their intended objective?
KING: Well, my feeling is, probably not very successful. But like so many things that aren't successful, they have little effects that influence individuals here and there, and then go on to be more important. For instance, some people may write a famous textbook that is too difficult, but then people pirate it, and so it has its effect. So I think those movies stimulated a certain number of people, but you'd be hard-put to make any real statement about it.
INTERVIEWER: And this project went on for a number of years.
KING: Yes, until well into the '60s. I think my last movie was in '64 or '65.
INTERVIEWER: Are those are available for viewing now?
KING: Well first of all, the EDC out there in Watertown I think may have copies of them, but they're very nasty about letting you have them. And then there's a fellow in Louisiana who collects films, and he sent me this last summer "Photons and Interference of Photons." No, "Photons and Time and Clocks." And so I have copies. And what he did, is he videotaped them off 16-millimeter films.
INTERVIEWER: So speaking of films, I know that Edwin Land, who was also a guest teacher at MIT in 1956, had some interesting ideas around the use of film in education. Can you talk about that?
KING: Yes. Well, he probably was responding to students he spoke to who said, the lectures are boring. And there are at least three or four kinds of students. There are people who are curious about everything-- and I consider myself in that category. And so they try to figure out what the lecture is doing, and what it means, and what it says, and they're interested in it fundamentally.
And then there are other students who say, well, it's just like in the book. Why should I listen to the lectures? And actually, occasionally I've had that feeling. When I was terribly busy with something else, I'd say, never mind. I won't pay attention to lectures. I will miss them because they're just like the book. And at home I'd say, I'm not going to read the book. I'll go to the lectures.
Actually, it was a course called Advanced Calculus for Engineers, and it was the worst grade I ever got for that reason. Anyway, by the way, the final was transcribing half your homework into the final book, which was open book. But I hadn't done the homework, so I had to do it de novo. So I ended up getting an L. Do you know about--?
INTERVIEWER: I don't know about L.
KING: HCPL? That's MIT's grading system. F then follows. L is Low. Honors, Credit, Pass, Low, Flunk. For many decades.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, that I was not aware, no.
KING: All right. So I'm only going to say that the lecturing business was to be replaced by films, because the students said to Land, the lectures are boring. Some students did. And he thought, well, the great lecturers could be filmed, and then it could be shown repeatedly. That didn't really happen.
INTERVIEWER: Are you a fan at all of-- this is an aside-- but of the Walter Lewin physics lectures?
KING: Yes, he's a superb lecturer. And I could only say that, again, if it were filmed, it might not be so effective. In my experience I had a group of 30 students who sat in the front row that loved my lectures, and the remaining 270 were variously uninterested. Lewin, I think, is the other way around. The ones who are like me find it a little too forceful, and sort of noisy, and so on.
But I might be wrong. He's a great guy, though. Love his book.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Oh, great. Yeah, I've recently read it myself.
I'll just mention him because this is an example of where there is some great benefit of capturing a master of his craft, and then others being able to enjoy that. Via video online right now.
Can you talk about how, as a visiting professor at MIT, Edward Land contributed to the establishment of MIT's UROP, or Undergraduate Research Opportunities, program?
KING: Okay. I should first mention that his name is Edwin Land. If it says Edward--
INTERVIEWER: No, I'm sorry. It's Edwin, yes.
KING: And his nickname was Din. Anyway, Edwin Land, again, talked to students and thought about his own career. He went to Harvard without knowing anything about it. And there's an unauthorized biography of him that I read 20 years ago-- 10 years ago? Trying to think. Anyway, I read the biography, but unfortunately I don't remember it in detail.
But he went to Harvard, and in some degree, they forced him to follow the standard path. And he wanted to develop Polaroid. So he dropped out of Harvard, like so many clever people, went to New York City, and in a basement made Polaroid. Nice first attempts. And then developed it, tried it out as eyeglasses for possibly automobile headlights, to avoid glare, and then became useful for better vision in the military during the war, and started the company, and then got into the photography business, and was tremendously always very interested in photography.
And in some ways, therefore, he was somebody who would have liked to have had a UROP project at Harvard in 1930 or '29 or whenever it was. And so, therefore, he said they should have them at MIT. And it's one of MIT's great successes which has been copied elsewhere, but not, I think, with as remarkable an effect.
INTERVIEWER: Then he seeded that program, didn't he?
KING: Yes. He did it with money. And that's fair enough, because the idea of an undergraduate in the lab was worrisome to many, and it turns out to generally work. And not everyone-- I think 80 percent of our students take some UROP, but they don't take it all four years, and sometimes it doesn't work. But so what? The fact is, it's an available option, and every year there's some really wonderful things that I read about that people have invented. And I've had quite a few UROP students, but usually they became my senior thesis students, so I sort of knew them all along.
INTERVIEWER: Was Edwin Land aware of the fact that this caught on?
KING: Oh yes, I'm sure he was. Because he suggested it, got it going in the '60s, and he certainly didn't-- I don't know when he died. '89, '90? Somewhere in there.
INTERVIEWER: Getting back to your teaching at MIT. You had been put in charge of the freshman physics labs starting in 1953, and in 1961, you were put in charge of designing all physics labs at MIT. Over the next 40 years or so, you introduced a number of significant innovations. Can you talk briefly about a sampling of these innovations, starting with Project Lab?
KING: Yes. Well, first of all, one of Zacharias' educational things was to have Project Lab, in which, as suggested, a student would do some kind of research that would be a project, as opposed to the labs that we don't have in the physics department anymore, where 24 or 30 students working in pairs work with an already put together apparatus that demonstrates something that they've learned about in class, and the lab is supervised by a theoretical graduate student who has zero interest in it, and by a tired, crusty technician who maintains the apparatus.
Now when I took those labs, I enjoyed them, because I like all that kind of stuff. But I could see that it was only 10 percent of the grade, and it was ignored. So I got rid of those, and I replaced it by Project Lab for the enthusiasts. And every MIT student had to take a Project Lab, but it didn't have to be in their department. That was one of Zacharias' things. And the other part was to be Corridor Lab, which was the showcases in the world where people could do it at any time.
And by 1964, Project Lab was started, and there I would sit down with pairs of students who had filled out a questionnaire, and whose interests were matching to some degree. Like they both played tennis-- that was their principal sport. Or they played the violin. And so you'd say, well, what do you know about how a violin works? And they'd discover how complicated it is, how there are hundreds of people worldwide studying, why is a Stradivarius better?
And so they get involved. They spent about ten hours a week working, of which six are in the lab, from noon until 6 o'clock, in pairs, and they learn how to use oscilloscopes, and audio oscillators, and microphones, and sensors of various kinds, and how to get rid of the noise, and how to analyze the signal. And then at the end, they each give a talk, and that's it.
And I sent out a questionnaire in '85 to about 1,000 alumni of Project Lab, and I was gratified to see how positive it was. And I did Project Lab in China, and in a small black college in Mississippi, and in every case, it was very resonant. Why? Because the teacher was paying attention not to one student, which is a little too much like psychiatry, but to two students, who then argue, and I then listen. Oh, well, that's very interesting.
INTERVIEWER: That 1985 survey-- many of the respondents rated it their, quote, "best MIT experience," end quote.
And then Corridor Lab was kind of a lab on demand.
KING: Right, exactly. And before you, the experiments that you see now in the Edgerton Center, there were about ten boxes on the third floor, and people could do the experiment any time. But what happened is, they were to write it up, and it would be due on Friday. So everybody would be crowding around. There'd be no room. And then secondly, they weren't very well-engineered, and so they had to be kept being fixed.
And there's something I should mention about Project Lab. It succeeded because it was supervised by a technical instructor, now deceased, named Jan Orsula. And without him, it wouldn't really have worked. Just as the molecular beam lab wouldn't have worked without a man, a machinist who became far more sophisticated than any machinist, named Frank O'Brien. So those two people were central.
INTERVIEWER: It's great that you credited both of them.
Can you talk a bit about Concentrated Study, which went from 1968 all the way through 1985?
KING: Yes. Well again, one of the properties of the present system is that a student goes at 9 o'clock to physics lecture, and then maybe he's off, at 11 he goes to a math lecture, and then there's a humanities lecture, and then there's lunch or I don't know. So each of the teachers sort of thinks of that, his course or her course, as being the central part of the student's life. Whereas what the student has to say-- oh my gosh, I better study; my history exam is tomorrow. Oh, but there's also the chemistry. Ugh!
So if you could devote one month, namely, five days a week for four weeks, to one subject, and not have to balance the others, might not that work better? So I tried it in-- what was it, '68? And I scheduled it for June, after the end of the term.
And I got 20 students, which I figured was the right number for the same reason that-- if you have one student, it's too personal. If you have two students, it's pretty good for a certain way. Three students is bad. Then when you get to five students, there gets to be a natural leader, and that's a different kind of system. And with 10, it's sort of like army platoons. And you can manage 20, because you can pair them.
So I would get 20 students, and the first meeting would be around a big table in the room, and I'm sitting at the head, and there's a blackboard. And they're all silent. I'm the authority figure.
But that actually, I'm sorry, isn't the first thing that happens. At 9 o'clock in the morning, they show up. And here's a room with 10 cathode ray oscilloscopes of the old kind, analog. All the knobs are turned fully counterclockwise.
First exercise, find the spot. So they-- oh, that says on-off. That must-- ah, goodness. And then suddenly it's very bright in the corner. Oh, up-down, left-right. And then they find the spot-- focus, intensity. And then you say, now wiggle it up and down. One of you take the X-thing and go sliding along, and the other one wiggles-- and they see, they've got a plot of the motion.
And the next thing you do is you connect up a dry cell through a reversing switch, double-pull, double-throw, and you make them solder it. So-- oh, a soldering iron? Never heard of it. You have a little section on how to solder. They solder the wires. And now you say, flick the switch! And instead of you turning the left-right knob, it does it automatically.
And so then-- flick a switch! And now they've got a kind of square wave. And they love to see how fast they can do it, and some kids get up to about 20 Hertz. Pretty impressive. And so now they know what this instrument does, and so then they do further experiments with Lissajou figures and talking into a microphone, and that goes on for the first two weeks-- learning about instrumentation.
In the second two weeks, they do an elementary project. And that's from 9 am till 10:30 am. At 10:30 am we stop, and we gave them coffee the first day, and I learned nobody drank coffee, so I got Pepsi or something, and that worked, for 15 minutes.
And then we go into the big lecture hall. I sit there. I'm the authority figure. At noon there's lunch. They go off. Later I met them in Walker Memorial, but not at the beginning. And then, starting at 1 pm, there are one-hour interviews with pairs of students. And the pairs are either self-selected, or we tried to do some matching of interests.
Anyway, so I'm sitting here, and they're on each side of me. They have an open notebook, squared paper. I say, what's your name? You're from International Falls? Oh, very cold in winter, hm.
So I say, how was last night's homework? Well, somebody says, I couldn't do problem three. The other says, oh, well, I had an idea.
Before you know it, they're talking. And then we get onto the subjects-- oh, what's your goal in life? What interests you? What do you want to do as well as homework problems? So I get to know them, and I do pair after pair until 6 o'clock. And then in two days, I've talked to all of them-- all pairs.
And now the conversation is much livelier around the table. And then something comes up. You see, I'm not prepared. When you lecture, you prepare the lecture. I, instead, am just there. And so they say, well, in problem three, I didn't really understand such-and-such. And you said, you know, I thought about that, and I've forgotten. I'm not sure I know the answer.
And the next day, I say, your question-- there are two ways of looking at it. So it's not as though the whole subject was interrupted by chemistry, history, and so on.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds intriguing, and it obviously was successful, because it lasted for 17 years.
KING: It was highly intermittent, and it was also largely taught by me. I couldn't get any other faculty members to do it.
INTERVIEWER: But that's my question. Freshman participation in your course required some kind of collaboration, because they still had other requirements.
KING: Yeah, but first you took June, when they didn't have other requirements, and then independent January came along, and I would do it in January. And I also did sophomore courses-- more advanced.
INTERVIEWER: And that was for, obviously, students who had declared physics as a major.
KING: Yes. Oh and by the way, a very nice paper was issued by a man who observed this course, and he discovered that a few students would say, well, he didn't cover all the material. But most of them said, it was great to be paid attention to, to ask questions. And they invented clever projects-- oh, I loved it. And as I said, I've done it in various other places, in foreign, countries where in China, it really blew their minds. Because there it's very rigid.
INTERVIEWER: And did you do that while concurrent to your time at MIT? Would you do that on sabbatical?
KING: No. I would be in China for a couple of weeks, and part of it would be the April vacation, and I'd get somebody to take my classes for one week.
INTERVIEWER: So we're talking about innovations that you introduced into the teaching of physics. Could you talk a little bit about X courses?
KING: Yes. They started in '88, in the summer, with a program for minority students who were coming to MIT, and who had generally very little experimental experience in their courses. And I was helped immensely by Phylis Morrison, who then had time to work, having to stopped the large project that she and Phil had done. And what it was, was handing out tools and equipment and parts to assemble your own experiment in your dormitory room, and get data, and then write a little report on it.
And then that turned into a formal course in electricity and magnetism, which started off with a student building a low-voltage power supplies that put out 1 to 12 volts, adjustable, quite stable. And then a high-voltage power supply that put out a couple of hundred volts to 1,200 at such low current that if you grabbed it forcefully, you felt nothing, but if you let your finger produce an arc, it would burn your finger, which naturally you would feel. And so they learned about it, and then we talked at great length about the insulating properties of the body and how not to get shocks.
Then they eventually used that high-voltage power supply to make a little spark between two thumbtacks held in a clothespin-- adjustable, therefore-- as little antenna, and they were generating microwaves. The antenna was similar to pick them up. You could show it was polarized.
You could show that it was polarized. You can show that it fell off with distance. You could put a reflector and have-- so the course went quite a long way, and the lectures-- it was half an hour in lecture every week, explaining the experiment. The experiments were written up.
I taught it for three or four or five years, and then when it was handed over to other colleagues, their tendency was to say, I didn't have courses like this. What's all this crap? And so they ignored it. And plus it cost extra money, and wasn't-- well-- so it vanished.
INTERVIEWER: So the student would attend a lecture, and then they would actually go back to their dorm room to work on the experiment, and they'd be building the experiment.
KING: That's right, exactly. And oftentimes, they lived in the same dorm, but sometimes they'd have to go from here to there.
INTERVIEWER: They work in pairs?
KING: In pairs, yes. And there were some problems occasionally with fraternities, but there would always be pairs from a fraternity. I never had much trouble with that.
INTERVIEWER: Were these mainly for physics majors?
KING: No. This was a regular course open to anybody. And some people were concerned that it might be perceived as quote, easier, unquote to get a good grade, but it really wasn't.
INTERVIEWER: So you continue to advocate for the importance of experimental science in education. What is the role of hands-on experimentation today, and what are the opportunities around developing effective experiments for online interaction?
KING: Well, several things. First of all, I can say that the only lab the physics department runs now is our junior lab, which is full of ready-made experiments. I don't know that there's anything that the student assembles or works on himself or herself. And that's it.
And now the students are more handicapped than ever in the sense that they're accustomed to keyboards and screens. And those are wonderful. I'm not knocking it. And they're about 20 times faster at it than I am. I'm very slow. And it's full of information and so on. But the difference between having something about the inverse square law presented either as a movie and measuring it yourself-- there is a difference.
INTERVIEWER: And there's nothing more physical than shocking yourself.
KING: Exactly. Or pounding your finger with a hammer. A blue fingernail. Happens.
And that's vanished. And the thing is, it shouldn't be done at MIT. I have a 12-point program that I would like to see happen which starts with every newborn child in the country gets a set of toys that have a certain educational aspect to them. And that means that except for the tragically disadvantaged, of which there are about 10 percent, and the top group-- a where a group that says, I didn't have this, and throw it out. And then there's a neurotic group that says, if my baby's going to get into Harvard, I'm really going to force this on him. That's a little extreme.
But in general, people have a common experience. And I could give examples.
And then there's a later set of toys that have a toy gyroscope, and a kaleidoscope, and magnets.
INTERVIEWER: Have you thought through-- I know that that's what you've been working on recently.
KING: Yes, I've written it up, but I haven't published it or anything. And again, if I were more aggressive, I would find-- Bill Gates could give me few hundred thousand, and I could start it.
INTERVIEWER: We're going to shift gears here for a bit, but maybe we're going to come back to that.
While you are perhaps best known for your innovation in physics education, you are also an accomplished experimental physicist. You directed MIT's molecular beam laboratory for almost 50 years, and also served as the associate director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. Can you talk a bit about your work on null experiments, and how you came to invent the molecular microscope?
KING: Well, the null experiments came largely because they would be an interesting avenue that would connect with some theoretical speculations then current, and would establish a new way of looking at things. And you can sort of say, the immensely expensive experiment at CERN to look for the Higgs Boson, which they think they're almost going to find, and that will have a significant effect on looking at the standard model, and how particles have mass, and so on. But it might not appear, in which case it's an immensely expensive null experiment. You see what I mean? And maybe the universe isn't that way.
And another example, another marvelous student of Zacharias whom you may have interviewed is an old friend of mine, Ray Weiss. Did you interview him?
INTERVIEWER: For an earlier video. Not as part of this project.
KING: Anyway, he is the man who made the search for gravitational waves happen. But of course, as soon as it happened, about 100 others get in and start claiming credit and so on. So not unique. But if gravitational waves were found, and they showed new aspects of the universe, that's tremendously important, also. But so far, he has these two immense installations to the south and west, and he's shut down temporarily while they're doing something to upgrade them, but so far, no signal. So that's an immensely expensive null experiment.
Now, mine where cheap tabletop ones, relatively. They took a lot of hours. And one was to establish the equality of the proton and electron charge, which in turn had some cosmological things. And I think it's safe to say I hold a record number, which is about 10 to the minus 20 of the charge of an electron, the difference is less than that.
But my credit has, interestingly enough, been submerged by a review article that looks at the whole history of the business. So instead of referring to me, they refer to the review article. Well, frankly, I don't care, but it's just an example of the sort of credit, politics, money aspect of science which some people know how to work better than others.
Another null experiment came about because a couple of English physicists-- how could I forget the name? Hoyle, Fred Hoyle, Bondi, and somebody else-- had the idea that the universe was initially empty, and that matter was continuously created out of nothing.
And so I heard that talk as a graduate student, and ten years later, roughly, I was in a position to do an experiment to see if one way of looking at it was right. Instead of the matter coming out of empty space, which means it wouldn't know where it was, or what time it was, or how fast it should be going. You have one atom that is somewhere, and it makes another one. And the rate of creation is-- I think Hoyle said, or Bondi-- Bondi gave the talk at MIT-- one atom per volume of the Empire State Building per age of the universe. Well, that's not a hell of a lot of stuff.
But I said to myself, it's not created in empty space. It's created inside an atom that already exists. So if you want to take a certain creation myth here, instead of the opening part of Genesis, you would say, God created one atom? And 10 million years later, it makes two atoms, and we go on from there.
Well, so I did that experiment as well, it was done by a very able-- as an undergraduate thesis. The best neutrality was also done as an undergraduate thesis. Oh, no, it wasn't the best. But it was clever.
Both those people have nice jobs now. One might get a Nobel Prize for something else. Anyway, those were null experiments.
And yet another one was looking for quarks, which have a fractional charge. And so I took some seawater and tried to find, in a mass spectrometer, the occasional sodium atom that didn't have one unit of charge, but one-third of a charge. Didn't find it. That was a senior thesis.
And then another experiment-- how does that one go?
INTERVIEWER: But where's the invention of the molecule microscope?
KING: Oh, that's separate. That comes entirely separately. That came because a graduate student of a friend of mine at Brandeis had done an experiment related to an experiment I had done. So I knew the graduate student-- Skip Rosenthal, by name. And he then got a job as a postdoc working at BU Medical with a physiologist working in biology.
So I said, that's interesting. And what are you doing? And he said, well, we're looking at toad bladder and frog skin, and trying to understand the transport of molecules, and the selectivity, and how is it that it knows to take potassium and not sodium? And so forth. And there's been some brilliant work done on that.
And so I got interested in it. And so I decided that if you could see how molecules come out of a surface with spatial resolution, you could look at things like frog skin or cells that have boundaries, and you could see more water molecules coming out at the joints.
And so we started assembling various forms of this thing. And it's difficult to get funding, because it's a new idea and so on. And it sort of bumps along, and we get some partial results, and some are interesting. The resolution isn't high enough. The idea is sort of interesting, I would say. And had it worked well and opened new frontiers, I would say, well, I did a terrific thing.
What really made it go out was something I almost invented-- namely, the scanning tunneling microscope. In another context, I was trying to bring a sharp point near a surface, but I didn't follow it up enough. So too bad.
INTERVIEWER: And that is currently being used for--
KING: That does many of the things that I've talked about. And by the way, it was supported by, I think, IBM in Zurich. And so these very able people who eventually got the Nobel Prize for this thing got all the support they needed.
And it's sort of like saying, I need 100 of these cups for my new experiment. And you have some outfit that, the next morning, there they are. Whereas if you don't, it takes a month. And that's the sort of thing.
So you would develop this microscope doing the research you were doing at MIT.
KING: And at BU, both. And it has a certain number of scattered results, and it produced some interest.
INTERVIEWER: Right. But the technology essentially [INAUDIBLE] it.
INTERVIEWER: So wrapping up discussion about your research, can you please talk about your work on the atomic clock and the significance of this work?
KING: Oh, yes. Well, just after the war, Rabi, who had got the Nobel Prize for all this stuff-- Rabi had gone to court---
INTERVIEWER: Well, you know what we're going to do? We're just going to cut this part out. [INAUDIBLE]
KING: Atomic clock, [INAUDIBLE]?
INTERVIEWER: Yes. I've already asked a question. I just want you to relax a little bit, sit back a little bit, and tell me again the answer to that. So I'm going to say it again. Can you please talk about your work on the atomic clock and the significance of this work?
KING: Yes. Well again, it came about because people had learned to measure with different kinds of techniques frequencies of resonance inside atoms. And some of these are in the microwave. And they're highly stable. You can rest assured that-- it's called hyperfine structure. That the hyperfine structure of the cesium atom is going to be the same for every cesium atom in the universe. At least, that's what people think. That would be another novel experiment, is a different way out there.
Now Rabi had the idea, since he'd measured many hyperfine structures, that an atomic clock could be made. And he just set it in 1946, let's say. And immediately-- not immediately, but after a while, quite a number of people had built rather stable frequency atomic clocks. But they were all badly engineered laboratory apparatus that you could hardly-- it would be like some very primitive mechanical clock where you continually had to replace the gears, and the new spring, and so forth. So they weren't very good.
And then along comes Norman Ramsey at Harvard, and he invents a system in which the line width of the natural resonance, which tells you how sharply you can detect something, can be made vastly narrower. So that gets mixed in.
But Zacharias has an idea of how to commercialize it and make it into a thing you buy and you plug into the wall, and now you have an atomic frequency standard, and it's well-engineered. So first he tries it out on Bell Labs. They don't want it. Then he-- I forget, somebody else. Not General Electric, but somebody-- he has certain connections, but they don't want to do it.
Finally it ends up at the National Radio Company in Malden, which is one of the pioneers of amateur and shortwave radio. And lo and behold, they start working on it. And one of the graduates of the molecular beam, now deceased, Dick Daly, goes over to work there, and I'm a consultant. And between us, we come up with an engineered design that is going to be reliable, and we keep fiddling with it, and we finally get it so there's no vacuum pump with a V-belt and an electric motor going pump-pump-pump. I mean, it's all self-contained. Its vacuum is maintained by an ion pumps which doesn't require any moving parts. And there are pictures of Zach showing it to officials of the Signal Corps and so on.
And so the transformation was not inventing the atomic clock, but making it into a usable, practical device. And Hewlett Packard builds it, and for a while you could buy one for 60 grand that would sit in a 19-inch rack like another instrument.
INTERVIEWER: What did folks use it for?
KING: Well first, WWV, which was the Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards, was a radio station that broadcast the Standard Time, which of course is also influenced by motion of the ionosphere and other troubles. But at 5 megahertz and 10 megahertz, you could tune in, and you could hear tick, tick, tick, and then a voice announcement of what the time was in Colorado, or maybe in England-- Universal Time. And then there would be an accompanying frequency that would be supposedly accurate to perhaps one part in 100 million. Well, there are 30 million seconds in a year, so that's pretty good.
Now, people didn't need anything better at the time. The Bureau of Standards built bigger ones, and that was it. They didn't use the Hewlett Packard. And they're still using-- now it has connections with GPS and other stuff like that. And Norman Ramsey invents the hydrogen laser, and that's a separate issue, and another nice business. You interviewed Dan Klepner, perhaps. He was pivotal in that wonderful-- Okay.
So I'm consulting about the cesium atomic clock, and I make, I would say, dozens of small suggestions which cumulatively have some effect. Some of them were wrong, and then we did it differently. And so that's what that story is about. And part of it is, it was a consulting job that Zach arranged for me.
And I can tell two very small stories. One was, we wanted a vacuum tank in order to have an easy way to back up things without a moving vacuum pump in the early phases when we were not quite happy with the iron pump. And so instead of buying a galvanized iron tank, which would have galvanized iron and crud in it to some degree, I bought a nice copper tank. And it seemed to be working fine, but one night it collapsed on itself, because it wasn't rigid enough. So that was embarrassing.
But a good thing was, it was necessary to spot weld things together to make little connections. And spot welders were not good and crude. Jan Orsula in the project lab had invented a spot welder for students using an automobile battery, and so we just borrowed that, and it did the job beautifully.
INTERVIEWER: Let's shift gears here and talk about your general experience of MIT. You worked at MIT during a time of significant change and growth-- the second half of the 20th century. As you look back, what do you find most remarkable about MIT's role in the world during that time?
KING: Well, there are several things to comment on. When I was a student here, the structure of the instruction and courses was essentially absolutely rigid and the same for everybody. We all had a compulsory drafting course, and 50 years before, everybody had used India ink. We had got to pencils, so we could erase things. And of course, it had some merit. And you learn to sketch things, and then you could show a machine assist, and if really pressed, you could draw a formal drawing with three views of what it was you wanted made. And now of course there are computer programs that will do that for you-- CAD CAM exists, and so on.
Anyway, there were certain electives, but not many. Now we have an incredibly flexible and I think very dynamic system which has some disadvantages in that people don't necessarily learn certain basic things that they ought to. But everyone has to take two terms of introductory physics, for instance. But they used to have to take four, they used to have to take two chemistries, and so forth.
Now at the same time, there were a number of other important changes. First of all, there was the formality of dress. There was ROTC, which veterans didn't have to do of course. I don't know when that stopped. And then gradually things loosen up, and the Institute goes from being considered a sort of really weird place to being fairly weird, but with tremendous impact on the industrial and technical world worldwide.
At the same time, the class starts encouraging women-- we had practically none when I was a student, and now there's 46 percent, or something like that. And that's an important advance. And I don't know what studies there are of the different slant that women have-- I certainly sense that there are more women in biology, proportionately, than in physics, and it's because the stuff I talk about having to do-- and less so, probably, now, because physics has become largely dominated by computers, and the apparatus is built somewhere else. When you had to build your own apparatus, the girls that became women were not as prepared as boys who had hammered nails and screwed things up and so on. The girls were not encouraged to do that, and to some degree, they still aren't.
INTERVIEWER: So when did you really start to see a shift in terms of MIT's commitment to help solve the world's problems?
KING: Well, probably in the late '60s and the beginning in the '70s, I would say it really broadened out. I mean, I'm trying to think of Lorenz's chaos theory that has such an effect, and the growth of meteorology and the nuclear engineering department. All of these started opening up things. The engineering departments, our electrical engineering and computer science, has to be one of the most dynamic departments in the place. I don't know enough about the biology department, but it, too, with the new Koch Center, which I walked through today--
INTERVIEWER: So you know the Institute inside and out. What, in your mind, makes this place so unique?
KING: Well the first, a rather almost farcical answer, is the fact that so much of it is in one building. That's pretty unique. And it used to be, of course, absolutely true. And of course now that's not so important.
But then secondly, the fact that while we have an excellent humanities department, it's by no means the majority. We don't have a medical school, but we have excellent biological and medical work. And so there's a certain focus which the administration-- which I know nothing about-- must actually sense, that fundamentally we're an engineering school where the engineers are so far from being just formulaic solvers of problems, but instead they're inventors, and they value that and want to do it. And that's how I see it.
INTERVIEWER: Actually, I think your observation about MIT being a single building, still, it's considered a factory of learning. The layout of the place still fosters, supports, encourages interdisciplinary research and collaboration.
KING: Yes, I think that's true. I don't know what these outbuildings do. Of course, I have to admire and enjoy the inside of the Stata Building, even though I don't like the outside.
INTERVIEWER: Looking forward, what would you like to see MIT accomplish, and how should it change in the future? What could MIT do better?
KING: Wow. First I would say, I wish I knew. But secondly, one thing, in my opinion, is they could do more of the things that I wanted them to do and that they don't do. And so if I were a multimillionaire, I would encourage concentrated study. I'd encourage the hands-on courses, although, as I said before, that really belongs much earlier in people's lives, but since it doesn't happen then. And finally, I would encourage-- I think the UROP program probably could be strengthened, but I'm not certain. I don't know that.
INTERVIEWER: You've worked with some remarkable colleagues during your many years at MIT. Who were some of the more interesting, and why?
KING: Well, of course Zacharias. And paradoxically, Sanborn Brown, Sandy Brown, taught the elementary physics lectures in '46, and I took the introductory lectures. And then he ran the senior lab, which-- I think he did. And anyway, I interacted with him quite a lot. And he wanted me to be in his lab, and he was working on what became plasma physics-- it was called gas discharges, in those days. And he said, the beauty of this is, you can do the experiment and you can work out the theory yourself.
Somehow I'd gone to Zacharias' lab, where Zach met me one day. How did I know him? He ran a special course with Francis Friedman for students who expressed special interest in physics, and I was in that, so I got to know him. And he was a rather bad lecturer, but talking, he was very good.
So I knew him. And he said, why don't you work in my lab on your senior thesis? So I go down. There's this big bronze apparatus-- wires dangling everywhere. Frank O'Brien is there. So I say, oh, wow.
And so Sandy Brown says, why don't you work for me? If you work for Zacharias, you need to have Julian Schwinger, or some advanced theorist, explain the theory. You can't-- still, I was attracted to it, and I went there. And did my senior thesis, stayed on as a graduate student, then stayed on.
INTERVIEWER: So what about some other folks? Like Victor Weisskopf?
KING: Well, he taught some undergraduate courses at the time. And I remember one of them was on boring mechanics, though he'd just written an interesting article on nuclear physics for the Review of Modern Physics. And I and a couple of other enthusiasts would distract him in class, so instead of talking about the bending of beams, he would tell us about how nuclei interact. So then I would go and see him and ask for more detail. So I found that sort of inspiring.
And then Francis Friedman I met quite a bit later in connection with this special course of Zacharias'. And then afterwards, he was very pivotal in the PSSC, and he essentially wrote the textbook that has since been revised many times, and pulled together all the contributors, which included Philip Morrison, Ed Purcell from Harvard, and so on.
And then that's more or less when I first met Morrison. And he and I taught a course in the early '70s called Physics for Poets.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds interesting.
KING: Yes, it was. But it was interestingly enough more intellectually profound and difficult from that point of view than the ordinary course, where you say, here's an object dropping, here's the formula, work it out. Instead he would give you beautiful stories that were more complicated and so on. And I remember in particular making a demonstration showing the effect of relative illumination, as might be used in the theater-- a cardboard box, and inside were a couple of dolls, and there was a gauze screen in front. And if you lit it outside, you saw nothing. If you lit it inside, you saw through the screen.
Well, I don't quite remember what point we were making, but it was a sophisticated course. And it lasted a couple of years, and I worked with him very closely on that. And that's how I really got to know him.
And his breadth of knowledge-- he's another person who may not have had the impact he could have probably if he'd focused. I think this whole business of focus is something that runs in contradiction to imagination and curiosity, which make you go every which way.
And in fact, I've made a joke out of this idea. There's a mathematical function called a delta function. You can imagine a triangle with an area of one unit, and if you squeeze the base and you keep it one unit, it gets higher and higher until, as you approach zero, the height approaches infinity-- and that's a definite point on the axis of something.
Now, the ideal scholar knows everything about nothing, with still a unit area-- actually, he knows quite a bit about quite a range, but he typically might know Romantic poetry from 1800 to 1830, and be really full of Keats, Byron, Shelley-- terrific knowledge. Not interested, though, in Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, because they were wrong century, or something. Sort of interested, but not really. And not distracted by it. And the opposite extreme is knowing nothing about everything, and that's not so helpful. So to some degree, I would say that there was an element of that with Phil Morrison, in me, too.
There's another thing I could say about myself. I had a large family, and I had the place in Maine, and I had a lobster boat and tractors, and I repaired them all. And I would say I only spent about a third of my time on MIT-related stuff. You should spend 2/3. That would be a piece of advice. Too late.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it sounds to me, your wide range of interests has served you well.
KING: And I say, I had a good time. My retrospective vision is essentially entirely positive. You know the negative moments? Once in a project lab, I had a student who just hated his project. And he had selected it. And he kept trying to say, it's your fault. And he left after a while. Well, tough. But since I've had so few, I remember a trivial incident of that kind.
INTERVIEWER: You've had a lifelong interest in science education for the general public, particularly young people. What have you been up to lately in that regard?
KING: Ah, yes. Well, one thing I'm trying to do is to write it up and get it out, and it's taking me a long time to do, partly because I'm writing a book about Project Lab with a co-author in Jerusalem, and that's a fairly heavy job. And in a sense, it violates the basic principle of Project Lab, which doesn't come out of a book, but it's to sort of explain how it works so that other people can do their own.
But you have to be ready and willing and able to generate a project that resonates with the students. And not everyone does that. But I would say offhand that--
INTERVIEWER: But you've given some thought to-- we talked earlier about a series of kits or toys, or experiments that children could play with through K through 12. And you've talked about introducing them in playgrounds and kits and public interactive experiments.
KING: Yes, right. Well, if I were an entrepreneur of the right kind, I would have organized teams somehow, and have obtained money. But I don't seem to do that, and I'm not sure I ever will.
So the only thing I can do is write. And one of the things I'm trying to think of doing is writing some op-ed pieces for the New York Times, now that the Sunday review seems to be connected with scholars of different kinds writing on topics of their own interests, to a large degree. So that might work, and it might get picked up. But the thing I really ought to do, which is easy, it is I should write a careful short letter and send it to 100 important people.
Now to do Corridor Lab, I did get some help from MIT at one point, and I have a fund that might have as much as 30 grand in it, which since each box costs 10-- and that's usually building it in Maine, where salaries are low-- sending out letters was one thing. But also, MIT tried to help me by getting me in touch with various companies. And in fact, Analog Devices-- I was willing to do experiment in which a weight falls in the showcase, and an Analog Device accelerometer-- which I gather is, in some form-- maybe there are competitors now, but it used to be the thing that would set off the airbag in the car, besides measuring acceleration, is on the weight, and is displayed on the oscilloscopes. And the weight hits a spring, bounces up and down, and gradually dampens, so you see this.
So we built a prototype, and somehow we burned it out. Then the person I had working on it quit, and so it's just sitting there. And so at Analog Devices, whoever it was, went to some other department, and I haven't followed it up. So it's my fault.
INTERVIEWER: But what you talked earlier, and it would be, I think, very worthwhile, if you were to document the ideas you have about what a child of six could play with that would-- because it would be a cumulative knowledge of these at-home experiments.
KING: Yes. Well, I should do that. And I missed out on experimenting-- I have just three granddaughters, and actually, the oldest one has done some of these things. But the next one down, her father's an ornithologist, and she's not interested in mechanical and electrical things.
And I'm not saying that everyone will take to it by any means. But there's all the difference in the world between-- well, I give you an example. I used to ask classes, how many of you have pounded 100 nails? No hands. How about one nail? Just a few.
Now there's a tremendous difference between pounding six nails, or ten, and never. And so something that should happen in schools is so trivial. Why not have two pieces of board and connect them with four nails? And also have one nail that you pull out. And when you pull it out, not only is it bent, but it's warm. What does that mean? Trivial, isn't it? But not doing it, you don't have the faintest idea.
INTERVIEWER: Shifting gears again-- and we're wrapping this up. Looking back 30 years, on my early days at MIT, I knew I was working in an interesting place when I found myself producing a video program about an MIT professor-- that would be you-- and a group of citizens from the Wiscasset, Maine area that were monitoring, from their homes, radiation emissions from the local Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Can you talk about that project, and what was the outcome of that citizen group's work?
KING: Well, I had the idea, and it's part of this educational thing, that the world is very complicated and full of things that, hundreds of years ago, you had more to worry about bubonic plague and starvation and people throwing sewage in the street-- I mean, life is tough in this way. Now it's far more subtle in the sense that we have carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and we have global warming, maybe-- it's complicated.
And the citizens, some fraction of them should be involved in measuring things related to these things. So when the Three Mile Island accident happened, and I and my neighbors realized that Wiscasset was only a little distance away, everybody was in an uproar, and I was able to find-- first I went to one person who was a lawyer, and he said, let's get to the NRC through legal channels. And I wasn't too interested in that. And then I went to somebody else, and finally I found someone who resonated to the idea of building monitors, which I'd had in mind.
So then I had a student at MIT make the first one, and I went out to Route 128 and found the shop where, for $12.50, I was able to buy a little Geiger counter like this, and we built a power supply, and it was fixed up so that it was silent unless the radiation exceeded 15 counts per minute, or something like that-- tick-tick-tick would be what it was, maybe a few counts per second. And it would stay silent. And if that lasted for a certain length of time, it shut off a clock-- it was plugged into the wall, and shut off a clock, and if you weren't there, told you when it happened. And finally, you could test it by taking a piece of red china that had natural radioactivity-- and I forget where we got that-- holding it next to it. And we put out 50 of those around the plant.
INTERVIEWER: You had 50 citizens volunteer to put these in their homes?
KING: Right. And there were two extremes. There were citizens of such a level of disorganization that they had three TVs, and they would kick them in turn to see which one would come on-- they wouldn't do it. At the opposite extreme were Bowdoin professors who were not interested in having technology in their room.
But in between, this group would meet every couple of months, and compare the rates they measured when they held a button down, which they were to do once a week. So every few months we'd meet, and there'd be coffee and rolls, or something.
And that went on for three or four or five years, and then it started-- I don't remember when Maine Yankee was shut down, but it was.
KING: '96. And this is all happening in '73 or '74 or '75.
INTERVIEWER: In the early '80s.
KING: Early '80s, right. Okay. Yeah, that's right. Three Mile Island was '73, I think.
Anyway, it was sort of bumping along. And my wife wrote a little piece about that appeared somewhere, and she was actually very much involved in organizing, keeping people going. And it's all part of how one has to monitor these things--
INTERVIEWER: There was a concern that the power plant was emitting steam at night.
KING: Well it turned out, one night-- I happened to have a recorder as well as the thing, so I could actually see it varying. And one night, there was a tremendous bump. And in the morning I said, what could this be? So I go over and I try to look at their records, and it turns out that day is missing.
Well then I talked to one of the employees in a sort of easy, friendly way, and he says something to me that I still can't say is true. He says, we sometimes accumulate a certain amount of radioactive gas-- krypton or xenon or something-- and we have to get rid of it. We can't wait. Its natural half-life is only a few days. And so we have a system whereby if we open the valve and let it out fast, the detectors don't detect it. Now, that's what he said. I find it hard to believe. And so we do that.
Now it happened that that day-- and I checked the meteorology-- there was an inversion. And so vapor, smoke, would come out of a chimney and go like this, instead of the usual up. And so the radioactive gas came down, and a whole bunch of people's counters went off, and I had a recording of it.
And we went and talked to them, and then we talked to the Maine Nuclear Regulatory Branch, showed them the evidence, and they all took it very seriously. And in fact, I do believe the state started some kind of monitoring supervision of their own.
And then someone else in some other part of the country has built monitors, but I haven't really followed it.
INTERVIEWER: What are some other examples of you applying your background and your knowledge of science and your knowledge of building things-- what are just some other examples, how you've applied this in your day-to-day life?
KING: Well, it's a joke-- I don't do anything with it now, but I own a 1928 Caterpillar tractor, which I've used out there to pull out tree stumps and so on. And do making it work was an interesting physics project.
You see, because it's an interesting fact. The most dynamic and interesting parts of physics are remote, whether it's distant galaxies or dark matter or CERN with the Higgs Boson. But physics is also in front of us every day, working and being something you could observe and study. And for instance, if I take out a pen and tap this, it makes the characteristic sound. And there's a certain resonance going on, and I see the water jumping, and all of that is understandable, and could be a project, if you want.
And in fact a project that again, you may have-- did you interview Gerald Sussman?
INTERVIEWER: I'm not sure.
KING: Very wonderful artificial intelligence electrical engineer-type guy. Was a student in Project Lab. And his project was to understand a phenomenon that can be described as a dinner plate, but he did it, and we did it, with quarters.
So you take a quarter-- and you'll want to cut this-- but you a quarter and you do this. And look at all that, that chattering and that whirling. And there's aspects of being a gyroscope, there's nutation and precession, and then there's that this effect, which if things were right and it moved a little would go bounce more times. And many years later, papers have appeared in scholarly journals discussing this phenomenon. Well, the fact that that everyday phenomenon is describable through physics means it's sort of central to life.
Now chemistry, also central, is far more complicated. How do you know it's sodium chloride when you shake it on your egg? Biology is incredibly difficult. Understanding the human mind.
INTERVIEWER: What about the physics of baseball?
KING: Oh, a lot of people are tremendously interested in that. Very good. The deflection of the bat, the deflection of the ball, the air resistance, the spin.
INTERVIEWER: It's wonderful.
So are there any final thoughts you'd like to share?
KING: All I can say is-- it's probably always been true. The moderately intelligent fraction of the public to which we belong-- and I'm not talking about geniuses, which are orders of magnitude. But reasonably intelligent-- have probably, over the centuries-- and you don't read about them, because they are relatively quiet. You read about the tremendously powerful autocrats and generals and murderers and so on. And you think about, I believe in Iraq now, even though there's a tremendous Shiite-Sunni conflict, the majority of the public would like a normal life. And they're devout Muslims, perhaps, but not extreme. And so---
But if you look back over the centuries, there's always been people worrying about the terrible chaos that goes on. And one of the troubles in this country is that education hasn't really done what it might do, which is to be able to question-- a sort of reasonable, mild skepticism that would be instilled in people in the schools.
For instance, numbers-- numbers have to be taught far earlier than just counting your fingers, so that the idea of measuring becomes instinctive. And so the moment people say, how does the tax system work? How does the deficit work? Most people don't understand anything. I don't really understand it very well. When you say "bundled securities"-- part of it is, I can believe that they would give out mortgages, because when I got a mortgage, it was like being interviewed by the police.
INTERVIEWER: That wasn't, as they say, rocket science.
KING: No. But the point I'm making is, in order to live in the modern world, which is so full of technology and so on, people have to understand more of it. And in not a tremendously advanced way. But the only way to do it, in a sense, is to start very early, in my opinion, with rather small things that add up.
Thomas Jefferson said something about how you can't have a democracy without an educated citizenry. But he also should add that one of the things that education can do is it can foster a certain amount of imagination about the misery of others and about the importance of helping people so that it has a moral effect, as well. Which can also come from authoritarian statements from churches, but that's different.
INTERVIEWER: Well, those are great concluding thoughts, and I thank you. It's been a pleasure
KING: Yes. Likewise.