Robert Romer, former professor of physics and author of a book on slavery in western Massachusetts, was interviewed by Hugh Hawkins and John Servos, professors of history and American studies.
[0:00] Hawkins: It's March 12th, 2010. We're in the alumni house at Amherst College and the interviewee today is Robert Romer, longtime professor of physics at the College. And the interviewers will be John Servos and myself, Hugh Hawkins. We too are, or have been, professors here and are longtime colleagues of Bob's. Uh Bob, appreciate your doing it and I'm going to start with a very cliched question, which you perhaps even foresaw. And that is why did you come as a student to Amherst College?
[0:38] Romer: Why did I come as a student? Well, first of all, my father was an alumnus but that's not why I came to Amherst. Uh, if there was any one single thing it was because of a wonderful seventh grade math teacher I had had, Robert Breusch, who at the time – which was 1942 or so – was an enemy alien teaching in a private school in Cambridge and seventh grade math was a wonderful experience. At the end of seventh grade I heard from my parents that Mr. Breusch was leaving the school. And I'm told that I went to my room and said I wasn't going back to school in the fall [both laugh] because Mr. Breusch wasn't going to be there. And he was going to Amherst College. I couldn't understand why he would leave this wonderful school and go to this little college somewhere. And that was definitely a reason for coming here as a student.
[1:33] Hawkins: Fascinating, okay. In your undergraduate experience – I honestly don't know – were you here before or after the installation of the famous new curriculum?
[1:45] Romer: I was a freshman in the second year of the new curriculum.
[1:50] Hawkins: What was your experience with that famous program?
[1:53] Romer: Well, the physics part was – and the math part – was pretty easy, I must say. English 1-2 was a real challenge. Like a lot of students I never really understood what was going on. Uh, the best part of the whole new curriculum for me – which really spanned the first two years – was the American Studies course–
[2:18] Hawkins: [Interjects] Hear hear!
[2:18] Romer: In sophomore year where it wasn't just a survey of U.S. history, as you certainly know. Uh, every two weeks we had a question and we had to answer it: “do you think Jackson was right or wrong to veto the second bank?” And among the people I ate dinner with there was always a lively topic of conversation: “which side are you on?” And I actually went to the library many times and checked out the extra reading. I felt very strongly about which side I came down on.
[2:55] Hawkins: Okay, and the humanities program is less memorable?
[3:00] Romer: Yes, that was a little bit more of a mishmash. Um, I guess English 1-2 and the American Studies program. Those were the best parts of it for me.
[3:11] Hawkins: Do you want to pick out any of those professors in your first two years that were memorable?
[3:17] Romer: Well, yeah, Bruce Benson was my freshman physics instructor. And he was very good. The lectures were not so great. The section meetings were fine. The math was too easy. Actually, I won't go into who my section instructor was in American Studies, but the discussion sections there did not work very well because there was one particular classmate of mine – whom I will not name – who dominated those discussions and the professor didn't know how to control this. So those are kind of a waste of time, but–
[4:02] Hawkins: A familiar nightmare for many teachers. Okay and you declared a physics major early on, after two years?
[4:12] Romer: Well, whenever I was supposed to. I think I knew from the time I was in grade school that I was going to be a physicist. I'm not sure how I knew, but it was the right thing for me.
[4:29] Hawkins: I assume you were in an honors program and wrote a thesis?
[4:33] Romer: Oh, yes.
[4:34] Hawkins: Was the subject of later significance?
[4:38] Romer: Well, it was a good undergraduate thesis. It was– I tend to be long winded. It was one of the thickest we still have in the department office. We have departmental copies of all our senior theses and mine is embarrassingly much thicker than almost any other one.
[4:55] Hawkins: Okay, well–
[4:56] Romer: But I learned to– I spent a lot of long nights in the basement of Fayerweather working on my thesis.
[5:05] Hawkins: Okay. I should really leave the physics/science side more to John Servos, but I don't want to leave your undergraduate years without talking about your extracurricular activities.
[5:16] Romer: Well, what were my extra–? Well I was on the varsity crew, which was an informal Club Sport at the time. We built our own boathouse and it got essentially no support from the College and we didn't win any races. I was in one winning race in the entire time I was on a crew. I gave it up. If you look– I've never been higher– taller than 5’ 7” or so, which is not typical crew height, but I was very strong. The crew coach liked my puddles, which is a technical term for when you take a stroke with the oar. There's a whirlpool that goes twirling off the end of the oar and the coach, who is watching from a boat nearby, can see who makes the best puddles. So I enjoyed that. I really didn't do extracurricular activities. I mean physics was pretty much my thing.
[6:24] Hawkins: Okay, but you were in fraternities–
[6:26] Romer: I was in two fraternities, actually. My freshman year, this was just at the time when the fraternities were getting rid of their discrimination clauses. And several of my friends and I deliberately joined a national fraternity Phi Gamma Delta, which had restrictive clauses, because we were going to participate from the inside and get rid of discrimination. And after a year and a half it became clear to me that this was moving so slowly that I wasn't likely ever to see it happen and I resigned from that fraternity and later I was expelled from it for trying to resign.
[7:19] Hawkins: How convenient.
[7:20] Romer: Yes. And then I was asked to join what was then Phi Alpha Psi, which had been Phi Kappa Psi and as a chapter famous event in Amherst history, was expelled from the National for having pledged a Black student.
[7:44] Hawkins: Had that already happened before you became a member?
[7:46] Romer: Yes, it happened. Tom Gibbs – who was the Black student in question – he was one class ahead of me. So it had already happened. But I was in there when we took the second Black student and there was– I remember discussions within the fraternity “We took the first one, let somebody else take the second one or we'll just be stereotyped as ‘the Black fraternity.’ It'll be all Black before you know it.” But we did prevail on that. We took the second Black student, somebody else took the third Black student, and so on–
[8:21] Hawkins: [??] extra curriculum, how about social life? Did you date? Did you go to parties?
[8:27] Romer: [laughs] Most of which were unsuccessful. Finally, I had a blind date, which was very successful. Turned out to be the girl I married.
[8:35] Hawkins: That’s sweet. I had hoped that we would talk a little about both your wives. Maybe this is a good time to say something about Diana and her remarkable career here.
[8:44] Romer: Well when I– After I joined the faculty, so after my first year in graduate school, Diana Haynes graduated from Smith and we got married and lived in Princeton. And when I joined the faculty it was I think Diana's first experience with being a faculty wife – of course there were no faculty husbands in those days –
[9:07] Hawkins: Indeed.
[9:08] Romer: Uh, was when she got a letter telling her that she was now a member of Ladies of Amherst and that she was on a Cookie Committee [laughs].
[9:20] Romer: Which, as I recall, she declined to join.
[9:26] Romer: But faculty wives generally didn't have jobs at that time. But what they did do, many of them, was to join the Amherst League of Women Voters, which Diana did and continued to be active in all the rest of her life. She went on to– She ran for town meeting in Amherst, we have Representative Town Meeting as you know. The first time that Diana ran for town meeting she lost. She was the only person in town who lost or happened to be that–
[10:01] Hawkins: Oh my [inaudible cross talk]
[10:02] Romer: [It was embarrassing] [laughs] There was something like 120 candidates, or 120 slots to be filled and– or 121 candidates, she lost in our precinct. That was– But she went on from there. She got elected the next time. She was appointed to the Finance Committee, she became chair of the Finance Committee, and I guess was in ‘75 she had the temerity to run when there were two openings, two male incumbents running. And she decided to run for selectman and won! She was then a selectman for six years. She was chairman of the board of selectmen. It was not select-people it was selectmen in those days.
[10:56] Hawkins: Absolutely.
[10:57] Romer: And she was an expert on town finances. She probably knew more about local taxes and so on in western Massachusetts than anybody else around. She did have the experience of going to meetings with other finance people from around Western Mass. And it being assumed that she was a secretary who was going to make the coffee.
[11:21] Hawkins: Ah, yes indeed [laughs]. Right, and I believe activity in animal rescue?
[11:27] Romer: Oh, yes, she was one of the founding mothers, so to speak, of what is now the Dakin Animal Shelter.
[11:35] Hawkins: I don't want to talk about your work at Princeton. Tom Servos will treat that. You returned, [laughs] “returned” to Amherst – I think you already told me you don't like that phrase – when you first got your teaching job. You came to this college. Why was that?
[11:54] Romer: Well, as I mentioned to you, the other teaching offer I had in hand at the moment was from Princeton, which paid even less than the Amherst job. Princeton offered me $3,500 a year and Charlie Cole, the president of Amherst, told me that they really wanted to get me so he thought he could go as high as $4,200. He implied that this was something very special, but the minute I got here I found out that every other new appointee was getting $4,200 [laughs].
[12:27] Hawkins: [Laughs] clever president.
[12:29] Romer: Clever presi– Well, it wasn't so clever, because if he'd been a little more clever he would have realized that of course we share information [laughs].
[12:35] Hawkins: Uh huh [affirmative].
[12:37] Romer: But that wasn't–
[12:38] Hawkins: You didn't come for the money, I have a feeling.
[12:40] Romer: I didn't come for the money. It seems like such a small sum now, but it was all right. I think the thing that attracted me most about Amherst was that we were doing Science 1-2, and teaching physics and calculus to every single freshman, which was still– now it would be even more unusual. But this was a very innovative thing, the whole core curriculum. And we in the physics and math – and other departments – there were some chemists, some mathematicians, and all of the physics department. This was something we were doing together as a faculty. Uh, we felt that we were collaborating in an intellectual way with the English department and the history department. There were some difficulties of course associated with the core curriculum but the fact that we were doing something cooperatively as a faculty, and doing something that had nationwide recognition, it was a good time.
[13:50] Hawkins: Once you're here, among your colleagues are there any that standout that you'd care to discuss?
[13:56] Romer: Arnold– [both laugh]
[13:58] Romer: The name Arnold Arons is known to anyone who graduated from Amherst from about 1952 to 1970. I guess Arnold was the dominant figure in Science 1-2. He gave the lectures. It was a little disconcerting, actually, because in Science 1-2, Arnold Arons gave one lecture a week to the entire group or half the class at a time. Whereas my section, I saw them for a two-hour laboratory and/or discussion section on a weekday afternoon, for an 8 AM Saturday section meeting. And for either two or three, I forget, which math, one-hour sections and yet I remember one time being in line at the snack bar or something had just happened that one of my students was just ahead of me and his friend asked him “Who is your Science 1-2 instructor”’ And the student of mine said, “Arnold Arons.”
[15:19] Romer: I went, well wait a minute.
[15:19] Romer: So there was something. It was not always easy being a junior member of the staff in Science 1-2. By the time Science 1-2 ended, I was Arnold's department chairman, but I had always still been in a subsidiary position in Science 1-2. And Arnold, he was not the easiest person to get along with.
[15:54] Hawkins: I certainly recall him at faculty meetings and of course it had nothing to do with his department. He was very intimidating when he spoke.
[16:00] Romer: Oh yeah.
[16:01] Hawkins: Yes, that does come back. Okay. Others besides this famous fear?
[16:07] Romer: Well, I had lots of good colleagues. Joel Gordon and Skip Dempsey joined the department shortly after I did. Bruce Benson was there. We were all doing low temperature physics after a while, not necessarily together, but there was a lot of research activity in the department and of course we shared lots of thoughts about our teaching. We had some terrific students.
[16:39] Hawkins: Do you want to talk specifically about students in general or any particular students?
[16:46] Romer: Well, there was the great class of ‘58, which sounds like just nostalgia, but I think Joel Gordon and I agree that that was probably the best class of physics majors we ever had. We had the Parker brothers, one of whom went on to be an astronaut. He was the first of Amherst’s two astronauts. Another student of mine in that class has had a long distinguished career at UConn. There are lots of other students that I could name. I really don't want to single one out. But some of the students I've had were not A students, but really some – I was not terrific as a senior thesis advisor but some of the best senior thesis experiences I've had were with what we would now characterize as B students, which in those days wasn't a bad grade, but students who really blossomed in the senior thesis experience and that can be much more satisfying in a way than dealing with somebody who is an A+ student to begin with. You feel that you're doing something instead of just doing no harm.
[18:05] Hawkins: Yes, you refer to B students. But in fact, in those days, as I recall, we graded 0 to 100. And people would make 78 and 79 and 81 would be quarreled about [laughs]. This is a minor part of college history, but perhaps it’s worth mentioning.
[18:21] Romer: Yes, numerical grades, and 60 was passing. And Arnold Aarons was– He would give grades in the 30s if he [inaudible].
[18:39] Hawkins: [Sighs] Okay.
[18:40] Hawkins: We talked a little about President Cole. Could you tell us more about your general relations with the administration, the president, the deans?
[18:53] Romer: Well, I have to say this for Charlie Cole, he appointed me even though the salary was [laughs] nothing marvelous.
[19:00] Hawkins: [Laughs]. Showed good judgment.
[19:03] Romer: Calvin Plimpton I could never really figure out. I was on the Presidential Search Committee in 1983 was it? And we found Peter Pouncey. I had the best relationship with any president I've had with Peter Pouncey. Of course, before Peter left, I became full-time editor of the American Journal of Physics and I had very little to do with Tom Gerety even though I was still a faculty member, non-retired, while he was president. And scarcely had anything to do with Tony Marx.
[19:44] Hawkins: Fair enough. I've commented elsewhere that we tend to ignore the deans and their role, which is rather [??], but do any of them standout in your memory?
[19:58] Romer: Well I think in the ‘60s, before Prosser Gifford came, the dean was not much of a presence in faculty affairs as far as I knew. Prosser Gifford was much more of a presence. I sat on committees with Prosser, and then Dick Fink who was dean in the ‘80s. In fact, when I was applying for the position of editor of the American Journal of Physics, Dick Fink was dean and Peter Pouncey was president and they were both enthusiastic in getting the journal to come to Amherst. And then later, Lisa Raskin, after I retired and I– Lisa was extraordinarily supportive in getting a college to do more in the way of recognizing the fact that emeriti exist and have interests and can be useful to the College. And Greg Call has continued that. Since I retired I continued to get travel support to physics meetings and went to a physics meeting about two weeks ago in Washington during the snowstorm and travel expenses paid for by the College. And I think that's largely because Lisa took the initiative – with a little push from me I think – to get that to happen.
[21:37] Hawkins: Do you care to tell us why on that trip to Washington you were allowed into the Oval Office of the White House?
[21:43] Romer: [Laughs] I wasn't really allowed into the Oval Office. I got my head into the Oval Office. If Obama had been there in the office that afternoon, I wouldn't have made it into the West Wing, but my daughter-in-law, Christina Romer, is in Barack’s cabinet now and she gave me a private tour of the West Wing, which was kind of exciting to have Christie look in there and say, “Well, when I meet with the President, the President sits there, and Biden sits there, and Larry Summers is there and I'm here.”
[22:24] Hawkins: At the AUP and such gatherings you’ll hear about the role– governance of the faculty, that they should play a role in governance. And here at Amherst, I think, that generally is valued. Do you feel that you have played a role in the governance of the College?
[22:38] Romer: For my first 15 years almost on the faculty I was hardly on a committee at all, which was a blessing. My department chairman, Ted Soller, protected me from being appointed to committees.
[22:56] Romer: But then later I did get elected to the Committee of Six. I know the first time happened when Bill Ward was president. I happened to be president of the local AAUP Chapter. And I had done some research on the trends in faculty salaries in the ‘70s. And Bill Ward – at his instigation I think – the agenda item for the faculty ‘Questions for the Administration’ was introduced. And the first faculty meeting where this was on the agenda we got to that point and President Ward said, “Well, are there any questions [for] the administration?” I was hoping somebody else would ask the first question, but nobody did. So I asked the first question and it got a rather cool response from President Ward because the implications of the data were critical of the administration. But I asked the question and President Ward took it. And then he said, “Are there more questions for the administration?” Now I really waited, [laughs], because I did have a second question that I had to ask. So I asked my second question and I certainly wasn't campaigning for the Committee of Six, but I think probably my asking the first two critical of the administration questions I expect that played a role in my being elected soon thereafter to the Committee of Six.
[24:40] Hawkins: I suspect you're very, very much correct, knowing the psychology of those votes. In fact, sometimes people have been accused of campaigning for the Committee of Six–
[24:49] Romer: Oh yes.
[24:49] Hawkins: by challenging the president. This does not sound like you.
[24:53] Romer: Well, I did challenge the president, but I wasn't campaigning. [Laughs]
[24:57] Hawkins: That was a very important time in the quarrel about faculty salaries and thank you for your part in that work. And in the long run it was very successful. And salaries did rise then later.
[25:08] Romer: Salaries did go down steadily in real dollars during the ‘70s. I guess I was promoted to full professor about ‘67 or 8. And I remember 10 years after that time my salary in real dollars was less than it had been when I was first promoted. But the faculty, I mean we’re busy with other things. We don't stop to think, “Well, I got a little raise.” And we're a little slow on arithmetic sometimes when it comes to our personal finances. And I don't think we realized that our salaries were going down. Or says, as you may remember, in the early ‘60s at least the Committee of Six played much less of a role here. They were not involved in tenure decisions even.
[26:06] Hawkins: But by the time you were on that committee, it was considered rather powerful.
[26:10] Romer: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
[26:11] Hawkins: Tenure became more and more important as jobs dried up, and it was frightening for people not to get tenure because they might not get another job.
[26:19] Romer: Oh yeah, it was a very serious thing. And the first year I was on the Committee of Six there were seven people up for tenure and none of them got tenure.
[26:29] Romer: That was horrible. There were seven different sorts of reasons, it wasn't– [trails off].
[26:35] Hawkins: I’m sure. It sounds to me like you did do your role in governance. But you weren't on the minor committee it seems, the CEP? You were not on the College Council.
[26:43] Romer: I was.
[26:44] Hawkins: You were? Oh.
[26:44] Romer: I was. Yes.
[26:45] Hawkins: Oh, how did that go?
[26:46] Romer: [Sighs] I can't remember quite how it happened. I came back from teaching in the south that year and I had been put up as the opposition candidate to the official slate for the College Council.
[27:02] Romer: And I wasn't even at the faculty meeting where this happened, but I'm not quite sure. This was the spring of 1970. You may remember ‘69 and ‘70 were something of a turmoil on campus. But anyhow I became head of the College Council and our biggest role seemed to be trying to write what were called ‘parietal rules’ for the dormitories, the object of which was, if I may put it this way, to allow the students to have as much sex as they wanted, but to let the trustees think that we were keeping them all virtuous.
[27:46] Hawkins: Well said, well said. [Laughs]. Oh, yes, I remember they were sort of complicated rules that didn't last too long, but it served its immediate purpose.
[27:57] Hawkins: Well Bob you provide a very nice bridge to what I wanted to talk about next, which is your social activism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a period of unrest and challenge and would you talk about that please?
[28:15] Romer: Well, I'm not– I'm not quite sure how active I was. I was concerned. I was lucky enough to go to the March on Washington in ‘63. Joel Gordon and Skip Dempsey and I – it wasn't so much of a march – we drove down from Long Island, we stayed at the Sheraton, we took a taxi down.
[28:46] Romer: And then we marched from the Washington Monument to the wading pool, but that was an inspiring day. Later I participated in a number of peace and civil rights vigils. I got very cold on a lot of Sunday mornings, vigilant to protest the Vietnam War on the Amherst common. And in the aftermath of the King assassination, partly because I was put off by – I don't know how to put this nicely – Amherst College professors pontificating about how concerned they were about civil rights when mostly what they did was talk about it. I decided to explore the possibilities of teaching at a Black college, which I did, but only for a year when I went to South Carolina to teach. I really contemplated the possibility of making a permanent career move. It turned out that that year, ‘69-‘70, at our campus in particular, was such that it was impossible to remain at that college. It was kind of a scary time actually to be a do-gooder white liberal teaching at a Black college in South Carolina, which is my least favorite state. But that particular college there was no way I could stay there and I really couldn't inflict those schools on my kids. That was not good.
[30:37] Hawkins: For a year your children did go to school in South Carolina public school?
[30:43] Romer: Yes.
[30:47] Hawkins: Well, it sounds pretty active to me.
[30:54] Hawkins: And after retirement, your interest in African Americans and their problems did not go away.
[31:01] Romer: Well I sort of stumbled into what's become another career. Actually, I've been pretty lucky in that I taught on the Amherst faculty for a long time and then when I was 57 I was lucky enough to really get a whole new career within physics by being appointed editor of a physics journal. And then after I retired I sort of stumbled into an almost unknown now part of local history: the existence of slavery – widespread ownership of Blacks – by colonial era folks right in this neighborhood and that's become quite a thing. I think I've done a great deal to educate our neighbors, so to speak, in the fact that this existed here. And as you know I've recently completed a book. But I've given talks up and down the Valley. I've talked to grade schools, I've talked to retirement homes, I've talked to every historical society I can think of. Sometimes I think I've talked to everybody who could possibly not yet know about it, but I keep running into–. I talk to audiences where most of the people don't know there was any slavery north of the Mason Dixon line and because–
[32:42] Hawkins: So it's either the hypocrisy or self satisfaction of northerners on this issue [??] roll right along.
[32:51] Romer: Oh, yes. Most of my book is concerned with slavery as it existed here in the 1700s, but there is a subsequent chapter in my book that I call ‘The 1800s: Deliberate Amnesia.’
[33:14] Romer: We like to look back– We like to remember William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth, and the Massachusetts 54th regiment and how abolitionists all our ancestors were– And one way to make us feel better about that has been to forget what happened here. I'm not trying to make people feel guilty. But I do think that slavery is a much more central feature of American history than most of us ever learned in school and we're still living with the legacy of this institution, in my opinion. And as someone who believes that knowledge is a good thing, I think the more we know about the history, the good and the bad – well in this case mostly bad – the more we know about it the more likely we are to deal with it in a good and intelligent way as we move along.
[34:12] Hawkins: That indeed is a reminder of how much has changed at Amherst. When we came here there’d be the token Black, one or two per class, and this has changed dramatically and I'm sure you were sympathetic to that move–
[34:25] Romer: Two, two, because they had to room together. [Laughs]
[34:27] Hawkins: Ah. They were required. That’s right.
[34:30] Romer: In fact, one of my Amherst classmates told me that at the end of freshman year he and a white student who he’d met wanted to room together sophomore year. And the dean required the white student to get written permission from his parents but did not require the same from the parents of the Black student.
[34:54] Hawkins: I shouldn't laugh. This is a sad story, which I think had never come out before. And now people will know–
[35:01] Romer: And that Black student, by the way, went on in the Foreign Service. He had been an ambassador. Very distinguished career.
[35:09] Hawkins: We do have– the Black alumni are indeed quite distinguished. So I'm sure you were sympathetic with that change, which is a whole ‘nother story. How about the admission of women to Amherst?
[35:21] Romer: Obviously a good thing to do. My own children were beginning to apply to colleges about that time. And I remember at least one of them saying, “Well why would I apply to a school that's all male? I mean that's weird.”
[35:45] Romer: So it was definitely a good thing. As you know the faculty integrated somewhat for that. You asked me before about my interactions with President Cole. One moment in my Amherst history that I'm kind of proud of, probably before you came. President Cole said at a faculty meeting – faculty meetings were always held, remember, on the second floor of the Octagon in the Babbitt room. By the way the Octagon is on a site where the first Amherst meeting house was in the 1700s where the slave-owning town minister preached to a mixture of whites and black slaves, right where the faculty meeting, where the site of the Octagon. Anyhow, President Cole announced to the faculty that he thought we should be warned that some department was thinking about appointing a female professor. It was not the psych department and this particular appointment fell through, but the point of this story is that then President Cole said that, of course, the candidate had been advised that if she came here she would not be expected to join the Faculty Club.
[37:17] Romer: And there were chuckles around the room. Some weeks later I had to see the president. I didn't make an appointment about this, but I had to see him about something else. I didn't go see the president routinely, but I had an appointment to see him about something else. And as I was leaving I brought that up and said I thought that he was out of line in making that remark. I found out later that my colleague, Bruce Benson, specifically had gone to the president to make the same comment. So I'm sure we were not the only two people who objected. I didn't have tenure at the time, but–
[37:58] Hawkins: [Laughs]. I’m very glad to hear this. This adds very interesting additional details of things Rose Olver has told. Because she did come later and had a different set of problems. But that's quite worth recording. As to the changes of Amherst, another change that’s come here is the openness for gay and lesbian students and faculty members. Have any role to play in that?
[38:24] Romer: My closest friend on the faculty was Dudley Town, who was gay, and I didn't know that and was something I never thought of really. I was perhaps the first faculty member that he told, that he came out to, whenever it was, early ‘70s, I don't know. But he was a really close friend, a colleague with whom I shared much more of my teaching experiences than I did with other people. He called me into his office one day and he asked me to close the door. He said, “I have something really important to tell you about.” And he started to say, “I want you to know that I am a member of one of the most persecuted minority groups in the United States.” And I was just about to say, “Dudley, I know it's tough being a diabetic but aren't you being a little bit overly dramatic?”
[39:39] Romer: But I realized what he was going to say before I said that. Later I told him what I had been about to say. He thought it was pretty funny. But I realized that all those years he had been gay and afraid to say so and probably certainly in the early years when Dudley was here, if it had been known, he would have been out of a job instantly as some people were. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a faculty member thinking every day, “This might be the day that they find out and my career is over.” And as I said, in reading the faculty minute for Dudley I believe – you might correct me on this – but I believe that he was the first faculty member who came out to the College community and did not get fired.
[40:41] Hawkins: I feel sure that's true. I don't think any other faculty member ever voluntarily come out. But people where this embarrassing fact came to the knowledge of the president did depart quite abruptly.
[40:53] Romer: [inaudible]
[40:53] Hawkins: There's a lot to talk about. I said in some of our email exchanges that you have had two wives who had outstanding careers. And we talked about Diana. Betty Steele, who is your wife now. She should be interviewed in her own right, I admit–
[41:07] Romer: Well yes.
[41:11] Hawkins: But maybe say something about her role and your connection to her.
[41:16] Romer: Yes Betty Steele was director of our computer center for a long time. And then Betty Romer became director of our computer center.
[41:23] Romer: Because she was Betty Steele and now she's Betty Romer. She came here part-time when computing had barely begun here. And she had two young children at the time. Then she eventually became director of our computer center, which she was for a long time. I mean, she's effectively been in charge of academic computing here from, I guess the late ‘60s until ‘96 when she did retire. So she's seen a lot of changes in the role of computing when she– For many years it was only the scientists, and then a few economists, who had any use for computers. And of course we were quite resentful when some people started writing their history articles and their English notes on the computer and interfering with our uses of it. In the early years the Amherst Computation Facility, besides slide rules and desk calculators, was a telephone line to Dartmouth and you could go to the basement of Chapin in the early hours of the morning and slowly get your output on a roll of this disgusting yellow paper. And now of course computing dominates the College. If the email is down for half an hour people go crazy.
[42:58] Romer: And everybody has to have a website. Students, if you let them– I’m glad I don't have to deal with these [current] students who are texting each other during your classes.
[43:13] Romer: But she's overseen that. She was an extremely good manager at that. She was very creative at getting good students to work for her and giving them enough free rein so they could be, and were, very creative without at the same time accidentally destroying the system and bringing the College to a halt.
[43:42] Romer: She has really overseen, dramatically, the influence of computing and the internet and email and everything else on the College.
[43:55] Hawkins: Well she’s been– In my own case, and I am one of those historians who came late to it and then finally did a book through that route, she was extremely helpful. And I could back up everything you say. Her work with the students, saying to them that this might be wrong and you might laugh at it, but you never laugh at the users. And being a user, who needed all the help he could get, I really appreciated that. Okay, now in the non-scientific side, which I was trying to cover here, what have I left out that you would like to have on there for posterity?
[44:35] Romer: Why don’t I tell you about my tenure process? The early history?
[44:37] Hawkins: Yes that’s very much worth hearing.
[44:41] Romer: Well, after I'd been here about five or six years my wife, who read the rulebook, said ‘This is the year they should consider you for tenure.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And Diana said, ‘Well, yeah.’
[44:56] Hawkings: Those were the days.
[45:00] Romer: I wasn't really uptight about tenure at all. I mean it wasn’t that I was 100% confident that I would get tenure, but at that time the job market in physics was such that it wasn't going to be the end of a career if you didn't get tenure at your first job. So I approached my department chairman and pointed out this rule to him and he more or less said, “Well, what's your hurry?” [Laughs]. And I said, “No, I'm the rule says you should consider me so.” Some months later he very nervously called me into his office. And he said, “The senior professors have been discussing your role in the department.” It was very clear he didn't want to talk about this at all. So this is probably bad news. But eventually he said, ‘We've decided that we'd sort of like you to stay.’
[46:11] Romer: And then he said, ‘But if you'd like to. You don't have to.’
[46:17] Hawkins: No slavery here!
[46:20] Romer: And then he said, “And I mentioned this to President Cole and he said it was okay with him.” And that was it. They didn't even ask me for a CV. They didn't ask for outside references. They didn't ask me whether I had published anything since I joined the faculty. There were no student letters. It was really quite charming in its casual approach and much less time consuming for everybody than the process that we have now, which is very elaborate. And I'm sure that injustices were done and bad decisions were made in those days, as they are now, but it was very different. The Committee of Six was not involved. I suppose they mentioned it to Dean Porter.
[47:06] Hawkins: That’s yet another revolution that you have brought to our attention: the complexity of administrative procedures and done in the name of fairness, openness. I'm sure you know too cases where somebody, a good old boy, who came back without any competition and stayed on even without perhaps great talent because he made no waves.
[47:32] Romer: Certainly the research productivity demands on young faculty now are quite stringent in a way, perhaps more so than is really appropriate at this institution. Certainly more stringent than they were.
[47:58] Hawkins: Indeed, I can recall one senior member of the English department saying to another, “You don't have to write a book to stay at Amherst. But if you do, it had better be good. [Laughs]. Which in many cases would match. In fact I think maybe some wrote books that weren't very good and still stayed. [Laughs]. Okay, that was well worth bringing up, what else is in your mind that I haven’t thought of here?
[48:26] Romer: Well, let’s see. You haven't asked me about my appearance in the comic strips.
[48:34] Hawkins: All right.
[48:37] Hawkins: Let’s have that story. How could I have left that out.
[Both laugh. Crosstalk]
[48:40] Romer: Maybe–
[48:40] Romer: I think our most famous physics alumnus is Bill Amend, class of about ‘83 or ‘84, who went on to create the comic strip Foxtrot and which quite a few Amherst professors have had cameo exposures in. And I've been in there quite a few times as the bearded – as I was when Bill was a student – bearded, no nonsense physics teacher with a desk cluttered with physics toys, who gives Peter Fox a hard time in his science classes in the high school that Bill Amend depicts. And some of my own lab notes that I've written for physics courses have been quoted verbatim in the comic strips.
[49:52] Romer: Well that was sort of fun. And then there's Romer’s rule.
[49:58] Hawkins: Please tell us about Romer's Rule.
[50:06] Romer: One time about 1971 or 2, in a faculty meeting, we voted out the then introductory curriculum, it was Problems of Inquiry. We voted it out. And then we were supposed to vote in a new freshmen set of courses, only we didn't. We voted it down. And the administration and the senior professors, which didn't include me, were in kind of a panic. How could we not have a curriculum at all for the freshmen? So there was a frenzied week, maybe you remember, maybe you were on an important committee at the time. But apparently, the administration and the Committee on Educational Policy and the Committee of Six, held sort of frantic meetings all week. And we were summoned to a special faculty meeting the following Tuesday and as we walked in we were presented with the curriculum on which we were supposed to vote. And we were told we had to vote on it and we had to vote yes that night. Well, which we did, but I didn't think this was a good way to go at a curriculum. So I proposed the rule, which essentially said that important faculty legislation should not be considered until the entire faculty had had a chance to see it for at least a week. And the senior people more or less patted me on the head and said that was totally unnecessary. They would never do anything like that anyhow, even though they had just done it.
[51:51] Romer: And I had actually proposed legislation notes, probably could have been worded better, but it was not adopted. And Romer’s Rule for years was more effective because it had never been adopted. Nobody knew what it was.
[52:07] Romer: And so people would get up in faculty meetings and say, “Well, I think that violates Romer’s Rule,” and or even “the spirit of Romer’s Rule.” But as I recall it was Professor Hawkins who actually succeeded in getting something–
[52:25] Hawkins: A sad literalist. I think they were beginning to violate Romer’s Rule–
[52:28] Romer: Yes [laughs].
[52:29] Hawkins: And I thought it should be in writing. I asked you about it and you said you thought it was more effective not spelled out. But I went ahead and got it voted and then the then dean referred to the Romer-Hawkins Rule, which completely ruined the humor and subtle reference which scientists got. And you drew me aside and said, “Do you know why Romer’s Rule has a special meaning?” Maybe you'd like to explain that now?
[52:54] Romer: [Laughs]. Well, there is a Romer’s Rule which my father, who was a famous paleontologist, invented to deal with a particular gap I think in the fossil record. But the gist of it was that a lot of evolution occurs not because, for instance, that fish are excited about walking on land and seeing the Rocky Mountains or something, but because in a period of drought the mud puddles that they're living in are drying up. Maybe they can get to a nearby puddle, which is bigger, by having rudimentary lungs to breathe air for a while. The idea is then that a lot of evolution occurs, not because organisms, animals want to do something different. They want to keep on doing what they're doing, but they have to adapt a little bit to get to the next puddle. And then it's been adopted by the anthropologists too.
[54:04] Hawkins: Okay. I'm at the end of my agenda here. But I'm willing to continue on the non-scientific side of things if there's another good anecdote tucked in there.
[54:17] Romer: But I'm not sure I have anything particular I want to add.
[54:20] Hawkins: Okay, and if I know John's technique at the end, he always allows the students to say something else that's on their mind.
[54:28] Hawkins: So you still could have afterthoughts.
[54:30] Romer: Yeah.
[54:31] Hawkins: Well, that's been highly satisfactory with some things I think are well worth having recorded for posterity.
[54:38] Servos: Well, we're resuming an interview that began earlier this morning with Hugh Hawkins talking with Bob Romer about his experiences at Amherst College. In preparing for this, you and I thought it might be best to divide the labors a bit of asking questions and you decided to take the Amherst College side of the story, the teaching career side of the story, and I would take the side dealing with Bob's career in physics and his professional side of life. So maybe we can just pick up where you left off. You were talking, as I recall, a bit about your father at the very end of the interview with you. And of course he was a very famous paleontologist, one of the leading paleontologists of his generation. Did he have much influence in helping you choose science as a career?
[55:35] Romer: Probably, but indirectly and subconsciously. After all, paleontology is a pretty different science from physics. I loved math. I was very quick at math. I once said to my father that we had different kinds of brains, that he had the memory – which you have to have as a geologist or if you pick up a rock or a bone and you immediately know what to call it – which I never had. I described it to him in computer terms once as saying that he had a big hard disk and I had a faster CPU (Central Processing Unit). But of course he was an academic and there's an academic tradition in my family. My favorite aunt was a biology professor at Oberlin all her life. Not that I went to the Museum of Comparative Zoology where my father was director – not that I went there frequently – but when I did go that was real scholarship. You go in the big front door of the MCZ from Oxford Street, up those steps, and walk down halls with cases of stuffed animals and bones. And then you turn around, you go into my father's office. And there's my father way off by the window looking out over Oxford Street. And you walk past hundreds of drawers with little bits of fossils that haven't been sorted yet and reprints that have been mailed to him from all over the world. I mean this is a scholarship. I always thought that was just a wonderful atmosphere.
[57:23] Servos: Did he talk with you much about his teaching?
[57:29] Romer: No, I was very much aware of his teaching. I knew he was a very popular lecturer. At that time he sometimes gave a lecture from 9:00 to 10:00 at Harvard, and then walked over to Radcliffe and gave the same lecture again from 11:00 to 12:00 because the girls and the boys were not allowed to be in the same classes.
[57:54] Servos: Many physicists, especially experimentalists, talk about how they become interested in the subject through childhood-play with electronics or crystal sets in the very old days, if you go back to the 1920s.
[58:09] Romer: I did some of that, not a whole lot. Yeah, I built things. I had an erector set and built stuff. I built model airplanes. I really loved to smell the glue.
[58:25] Romer: That was during World War II. I built a lot of balsa wood airplanes. I didn't get into amateur radio or electronics, I never did. I didn't join the radio club when I was a student or when I was in prep school, which I might have. I don't know physics always seemed like the right thing. It was very basic. Biology was too complicated, chemistry was just smelly and explosive, and physics was the fundamental thing.
[59:03] Servos: You mentioned Robert Breusch as an especially influential teacher when you were in seventh grade was it?
[50:09] Romer: Yes.
[59:09] Servos: Yes. Were there others as well who were steering you towards science?
[59:16] Romer: I'm not sure there were other particular teachers in– I had a number of math teachers who let me alone. My sixth grade math teacher – she couldn't deal with me – and just let me do all the seventh grade stuff while I was still in sixth grade. That was great. And Mr. Breusch was– Well one of my memorable experiences in seventh grade was the first and only theorem I ever discovered. This sounds like real, what seventh grade, at best stuff, but I noticed that if I subtracted– I took all the perfect squares: 0, 1, 4, 9, 16 and so on and subtracted one from the next one I generated the odd numbers. I went, “Ooh, this is cool.” And then I kept on trying bigger numbers. And then I realized that this was probably true for all numbers. And then I proved that it was true for all numbers. And I discovered that all by myself. Now, I knew right away that probably somebody else had stumbled–
[1:00:34] Romer: –and proved this theorem before, but Mr. Breusch was very good about it. He was very encouraging and shared my excitement and, yes, confirmed my notion that this was well known. [Laughs]. Oh and one other thing. The most memorable day with Mr. Breusch was a spring day in May, whatever year it was, ‘43 I guess. I remember the scene. It was a sunny day. I remember the room. Said he wanted to speak to me in his office. And I went in there just so sure of myself. Mr. Breusch was going to tell me that I was going to be a great mathematician and he was going to praise me to the skies. I went in there and he chewed me out. Because, he said, he could tell from what I did on timed tests in classes that I was very good at math. But my homework, he said, [both laugh] was clear that I hadn't put enough work in on my homework and that I was never going to amount to anything unless I worked a little harder.
[1:01:45] Romer: And I went into that office, here's this man I worship and he's going to praise me and tell me what a great career ahead of me and instead he lays into me for being lazy.
[1:01:56] Romer: I told him about that years later when he was a colleague of mine at Amherst. He did not remember the occasion but boy I remembered it [laughs].
[1:02:04] Servos: No doubt with a German accent.
[1:02:07] Romer: Oh yes. Yeah some of the other students in seventh grade made fun of him. They called him “hairbrush” instead of “Herr Breusch” and some of them couldn't understand him, but if you took the trouble you could understand him. And he had quite a story. He and his wife had escaped from Nazi Germany. They lived in South America before they came to the U.S. and he was an enemy alien. And then he was hired at Amherst to teach future air force officers, teach them meteorology of all things.
[1:02:43] Servos: Now, was there a time when you were at Amherst where you were thinking about math as a possible major, or was it always physics?
[1:02:50] Romer: I thought about switching to math. It was really always– There was a brief period of time, maybe a month, when I thought ‘maybe I'll be a mathematician.’ But I had sense enough to realize that being a mathematician, and really doing anything significant, required a level of abstract thinking that I probably wasn't capable of. I didn't want to be a third rate mathematician who never did anything in research. And the same way in physics. I decided I would be an experimentalist, not that experimentalists don't deal with theory and have to be knowledgeable about it, but if you're persistent and work very hard you can do significant experiments even though you're not going to be a Richard Feynman or an Einstein as a theoretician. So I think experimental physics was the right thing for me.
[1:03:55] Servos: There was no specific event that led you one way or the other?
[1:03:59] Romer: No. No.
[1:03:59] Servos: Right and teachers here, in addition, now Breusch taught you in sophomore year?
[1:04:06] Romer: That's right.
[1:04:07] Servos: And were there other teachers who were especially important to you in becoming a physicist?
[1:04:14] Romer: Well actually William Fairbank was another very influential teacher, very different from Robert Breusch. He never prepared for class because he was too busy. He was not quick at mathematics but he really understood it. We sometimes joked that he really didn't know how to differentiate a polynomial, but his enthusiasm for physics and his imagination was infectious. I would come home from a class that he had taught in thermodynamics, say, and wonder, ‘What the hell was he talking about?’ But he was so excited about it it inspired me to sit down and figure it out from scratch. I actually wrote an editorial about those two influential teachers. They were both terrific in different ways. Robert Breusch’s clarity in math class was inspiring. And William Fairbank’s confusion was also inspiring.
[1:05:18] Servos: He gave you mysteries.
[1:05:19] Romer: Yeah. He would come into class – he didn't know what he was supposed to talk about that day – because he'd been up all night looking for leaks in the vacuum system. So he would tell us how to find leaks in the vacuum system.
[1:05:35] Servos: Oh you mentioned your thesis in talking with Hugh and you said it was a very long one but you didn't tell us what it was about?
[1:05:42] Romer: Well, it was about nuclear magnetic resonance, which was quite a new thing at the time. This was 1951, ‘52 and nuclear magnetic resonance was a discovery that came out of World War II first published in ‘46, I think. Ed Purcell at Harvard got the Nobel Prize for that. He shared it with Felix Bloch at Stanford. But this was all quite new, not that anything that I did was revolutionary as a senior thesis, but I continued to do nuclear magnetic resonance. Now that's been taken over by the medical practices. The word nuclear, you know, has been dropped. It's now what MRI: magnetic resonance imaging. So they don't use the word nuclear.
[1:06:38] Servos: And who was your advisor?
[1:06:41] Romer: Bill Fairbank who was here at the time.
[1:06:45] Servos: And you got to know Purcell a little bit at this point?
[1:06:49] Romer: Not at– Oh, actually my senior year Ed Purcell took a whole Saturday morning and showed me around his labs at Harvard. That was great. And then I didn't go to Harvard. I got accepted at Harvard for grad school but I didn't go there because my parents were too close. But I did get to know Purcell later. In fact, one of my – I'm jumping ahead about thirty years – but one of my great moments: I published a paper in the American Journal of Physics – this was long before I was editor of it – which I was very pleased with. It was called “What does a voltmeter measure?” It was a very fundamental way of looking at a perplexing problem in electromagnetic theory. About a week after it appeared in print I got a handwritten letter from Harvard, from Purcell. ‘Dear Bob, what a terrific paper you just published. Wow!’
[1:07:52] Romer: That made my day, that made my month, and then he went on to say, ‘this has really caused me a lot of trouble because I'm just finishing up the second edition of my magnetism textbook. I've got to work your idea in.’ And then he was in such a hurry that he messed it up a little.
[1:08:11] Romer: And so I told him about that and he fixed it. And then another, what twenty, thirty years later, I had another great experience with that paper. My grandson was taking electromagnetism at MIT and using Purcell's book. And somewhere in the course that problem based on this idea was – it didn't refer to me in the book – was assigned and the class was confused about it and the professor, young guy, didn't know. ‘So well, there's this really great paper–
[1:08:47] Romer: in American Journal of Physics. I'll put it on the class website.’
[1:08:52] Romer: So my grandson said he resisted the temptation to say, ‘That’s my grandfather!’
[1:09:00] Romer: But that letter from Purcell, I mean, any academic knows so many of us will read a book or a paper or hear a lecture and we think, we may say to our friends, ‘great paper you should read this’ or something. How many of us take the trouble to write the author and say, ‘good paper’?
[1:09:18] Servos: Yes and extraordinary for a Nobel Prize Laureate to do that.
[1:09:23] Romer: Yeah.
[1:09:26] Servos: When you were applying to graduate school, why Princeton?
[1:09:31] Romer: Some of my Amherst professors – we'd talk about various places. I think I applied to Harvard, I applied to Cornell, I applied to Princeton.
[1:09:42] Servos: Wasn't Princeton more known for its theory than its experimental side at that time?
[1:09:50] Romer: I'm not sure. I mean it was both. I mean it was a good solid department. No doubt about that.
[1:09:59] Servos: When you got there did you find that you were well prepared?
[1:10:04] Romer: Yes, except I didn't know it. I remember the very first meeting there were only ten, twelve students in our entering graduate school class. I remember the room: 222 Palmer Lab which was where the graduate courses were taught, where the thesis defenses were held. That was where the physics instruction went on. We had a meeting – must have been shortly after Labor Day that year – with the department chairman. And before he arrived we were all sort of eyeing each other and some of us sure we were in the wrong place and probably everybody thought he was in the wrong place, but some of us showing it by not saying anything and other people talking in big language about things they knew. Here are these guys talking about quadrupole moments and selection rules and I'm thinking ‘what in the world is a quadrupole? I’ve never heard of this.’ But it was clear to me years, or months, later that we were all kind of insecure. And a year later some of the people who had been talking most knowledgeably about quadrupole moments were gone. I had less content than some of those guys who had attended as undergraduates big universities where they took some graduate courses their senior year. So I had less language at my command. There were details that they had heard about that I hadn't, but my education turned out to be pretty solid.
[1:11:56] Servos: You eventually end up with Robert Dicke as an advisor. Could you tell us a little bit about him?
[1:12:02] Romer: It was sort of accidental. I had a National Science Foundation fellowship. I think that was the first year there were– I know that was the first year there were NSF graduate school fellowships. So I didn't need financial support being a TA or an RA. But I had sense enough to know that I didn't want to just disappear into the library even though I could. I didn't need to earn any money. And so I went looking for professors who would like to have a free research assistant. And I got steered to Dicke. One of his students had gotten ill – wasn't deathly ill – but was expected to be out of things for a year and his thesis was coming along and Dicke said, ‘Ed Lamb’s thesis is coming along very nicely and you can just sort of finish things up and we'll have a publication in Physical Review by Christmastime.’ And I went, ‘Whoa, this is terrific.’
[1:13:14] Romer: Ed eventually came back, he finished it up, he got his thesis done several years after I did mine and his result has never been published. Not just that it didn't get out by Christmastime, it never got published. It was a good number, and it got talked about at conferences, but it was kind of funny that I expected to get my first publication by Christmastime with Dicke as a co-author and it never happened. Yeah I worked with– Robert Dicke was a great physicist and I didn't really get to appreciate him until after I got through. I think there would have been better people who would have been better thesis advisors for me. In fact, if I'd come along six or seven years later Robert Dicke would have been a much better thesis advisor for me. At the time I worked with him he was just beginning to get interested in gravity. But he was doing it all by himself. We didn't have meetings of him and graduate students where he would tell us about his ideas about gravity experiments. He was a very reclusive guy and I think shy. And so we didn't know that he was actually working on something totally new. And in the years when Bob Dicke, as I eventually dared to call him.
[1:14:45] Romer: When he was working on gravity, there was a group interaction among his graduate students that really didn't exist so much when I was a grad student. Actually, probably the best year I had as a grad student was the last year I was there when Dicke was on leave at Harvard. And when we had questions we would talk to each other. Instead of trotting up to the second floor of Palmer from the basement where experiments went on we would go to our other graduate students and say, ‘What do you think?’ And I mean sometimes we would be ‘Well I think Dr. Dicke would do this.” [Laughs]. But we didn't have the recourse of going right to Dicke.
[1:15:25] Servos: Now Dicke had worked on the radar project in World War II.
[1:15:29] Romer: Oh yeah.
[1:15:30] Servos: And I guess that was the impetus which led towards some of that immediate post war work that eventually you become involved in on microwave spectroscopy.
[1:15:40] Romer: Yeah, yeah. I mean, a lot of the equipment we had was salvaged from the MIT radiation lab, which must have been a wonderful place. And I mean of course they sometimes said they weren't winning the war but they were stopping the Germans from winning the war. MIT Rad Lab Building 20 – famous building – in physics and war history, which has just recently been demolished I think to make way for the new computer science lab. Purcell was there and Dicke was there and Robert Pound and Julian Schwinger, a theorist, who developed a lot of the theory of waveguides and so on. And Robbie was there.
[1:16:28] Servos: Did you hear some of these stories when you were a graduate student? Was this becoming part of the lore?
[1:16:28] Romer: A little bit, yeah.
[1:16:34] Servos: And your thesis? Eventually you do publish that with Dicke.
[1:16:43] Romer: Yes.
[1:16:43] Servos: In Physical Review?
[1:16:44] Romer: It was a paper in Review of Scientific Instruments. Was another illustration of how naive I was at the time. When I started working on this with Dicke he gave me some of his theoretical papers – sort of background to this to read – and then eventually he said, ‘There will be a paper on Review of Scientific Instruments.’ And I didn't have the sense to say, ‘Oh, could I see the manuscript?’ Or even, ‘Is it done? Could I see a preprint?’ Instead, [laughs], I don't know why I didn't say, ‘Oh, could I see it?’ Instead, every month I went to the library to look at the latest issue of the Review of Scientific Instruments to see if it’d been published.
[1:17:34] Romer: It finally was published. When it was published I wrote it.
[1:17:41] Servos: Well it's nice to have surprises now and then isn’t it?
[1:17:44] Romer: [laughs] Yeah, right.
[1:17:46] Servos: Now you uh– and I’m going to avoid the word “return”.
[1:17:50] Servos: Is it better to say “called back” to Amherst?
[1:17:53] Romer: No, I was hired. I was hired because – well they knew I existed. I was hired because I drank too much coffee one morning during the New York meeting of the Physical Society and on my way from the lecture hall at the Hotel New York to the bathroom I met Arnold Arons who was returning also from the men's room. And we stopped to chat and he said, ‘Oh, you're finishing up this year. Would you be interested in a position at Amherst?’ Arnold was acting chairman that year. Ted Soller, who was chairman, was away.
[1:18:33] Servos: What were your impressions of the physics department? You'd known it as an undergraduate, and now you've seen Princeton's, and you come back to Amherst and does it look different?
[1:18:44] Romer: I wouldn't have come back to Amherst if it were not for the fact that serious research was going on among the faculty members and that, unlike a lot of other small colleges at the time, research was valued, expected. You didn't get tenure if you didn't do research. You weren't required to produce a certain number of papers per year, which you might be if you were in a university department, but research was important and encouraged. And the teaching was time consuming, but not so that you couldn't do research.
[1:19:32] Servos: And the department at that time was housed in Fayerweather?
[1:19:34] Romer: Oh, yeah.
[1:19:35] Servos: Yes.
[1:19:36] Romer: I spent my first, what, fourteen years in Fayerweather.
[1:19:40] Servos: It must have been getting a little tired as a building as–
[1:19:43] Romer: Oh, yeah. Well, we had no elevator. If you wanted to take equipment from the basement to the first floor it was a major operation. But no I liked that. I was right under the library though and if any undergraduates were getting rambunctious up there, or sometimes even walking around, I’d have plaster falling on my desk.
[1:20:09] Romer: But I like that building.
[1:20:12] Servos: Now you were teaching quite a few hours a week in the General Education Program. And I presume also offering courses that were for physics majors?
[1:20:25] Romer: Mm-hm [affirmative].
[1:20:25] Servos: And what was the total teaching obligation that you had?
[1:20:28] Romer: It was generally participation in the Science 1-2 plus one other course. I think that the first year it was – I described earlier in this interview talking to Hugh Hawkins – fairly substantial obligation in Science 1-2 plus teaching the senior Modern Physics course which had no laboratory associated with it. That was sort of typical.
[1:21:02] Servos: It came to something like nine hours a week of class contact, or maybe even a little more? [cut in tape] So there really wasn't a lot of time for research, I would imagine, given the problem sets that you must have been handling.
[1:21:19] Romer: Yeah we did have undergraduate TAs who read the lab reports so we didn't do that. Other than that, yeah we graded the problem sets and the quizzes and so on. It wasn’t that oner– One shouldn't think of teaching as onerous but it was a small enough number of hours so that, yeah, there was time for research.
[1:21:50] Servos: Now it's been a tradition, at least in my memory, for the physicists to work hard to enroll undergraduates in research projects that lead to publication. The department has quite a record of that. Was that already the case when–?
[1:22:09] Romer: I can remember one undergraduate project, which did not itself result in a publication, but it got something going which I continued to work on as my own research project for another three or four years and then that sense it led to publication. But I've never had a senior thesis project which resulted in a joint publication by me and a student. Other professors, especially in more recent years, I mean my colleagues David Hall, Larry Hunter have done that. For one thing I always wanted the student project to be as independent as it could be. And so even if it didn't lead to publishable research I felt that was more satisfying for the student. Although I think directing senior theses was– Other people were better at that than I was. That wasn't one of my strong points.
[1:23:16] Servos: Of course it must have been a little bit more difficult to keep students on a research track in the ‘50s. I don't imagine there was as much summer money available for students to pick up technique in the laboratories? We have all these Howard Hughes grants and such.
[1:23:34] Romer: There was some money for that. I only had a student around one summer, partly because I wanted the summer to do my own research. I didn’t want to– I found it kind of tiring teaching students where to find the machine screws in the shop and how to solder things. I mean I wanted to get on with the work and especially since I didn't really like so much to involve them in my own work as I did encourage them to do their own thing. So it wasn't that I wanted the summer off – and I didn't take the summer off – but I wanted to do my own thing.
[1:24:12] Servos: Did you think much about going elsewhere during those years to find better conditions for doing your own thing?
[1:24:18] Romer: I did spend several summers at Brookhaven. One of those was instigated by Joel Gordon who found there was a group at Brookhaven who had built an ultra low temperature cryostat that they had been just trying some things out in before they moved to the reactor at Brookhaven. So this thing was sitting idle and Joel arranged for three of us: Skip Dempsey, Joe Gordon and myself to spend a summer at Brookhaven. And then later I spent a couple of summers there, which was really just to do something different. One of those summers that's actually how I got started in the energy business. It must have been the summer of ‘70 I went there. The group I was associated with was at the time that the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant was being designed and Brookhaven was right out near Shoreham. And they were having brown bag lunches, discussing nuclear power and its problems, and they convinced themselves, and me, that nuclear power was good and safe. And I remember thinking ‘this is the future.’ And although I don't play the stock market, luckily, I'm thinking, ‘hey, this really is good, maybe we should buy some stock in LILCO’ (Long Island Lighting Company), which was the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, well that would have been money down the drain.
[1:26:10] Romer: The Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant never turned on. [Laughs]. That got me thinking about energy a few years before any other physicists started thinking about energy– or before most other physicists started thinking about energy and first it led to a course that Dick Fink and I taught. It's called Colloquium Sixteen about energy and the environment. And then I had this idea of doing Introductory Physics in a new way, combining what was growing interests that people had in the energy problem. Combining serious physics for the non scientists. No calculus. Not much math. Combining non-mathematical science – but serious science – with what we used to denigratingly call “kitchen physics”: how a toaster works, and what those two outlets in the wall are, and how toasters work, and combining those two things.
[1:27:31] Servos: And that book is published in the mid ‘70s.
[1:27:35] Romer: It was done and came out in ‘76. And it got a very large share of a very small market. And I wasn't planning to teach out of it. I always thought ‘if I ever write a book I won't teach out of it myself.’ But my colleagues convinced me that it was, hey, I designed it for this kind of course, so why don't I try teaching it. So for quite a few years I taught. It's called Physics 9: Energy and an awful lot of students in it.
[1:28:15] Servos: Now that must have been among the first science-for-non-science-major courses offered by the department or do I have that wrong?
[1:28:24] Romer: Well, of course Science 1-2 was for everybody.
[1:28:27] Servos: Of course, right. But under the new curriculum that replaces–
[1:28:31] Romer: The new new curriculum.
[1:28:33] Servos: The new new curriculum.
[1:28:34] Romer: Because Science 1-2 and English 1-2 that was the new curriculum. Connection with the new curriculum, by the way, one thing Hugh might have mentioned but didn't: one of my regrets about teaching was Ted Baird, who ran English 1-2 the way Arnold Aron's ran Science 1-2. He approached me once about my teaching a section of English 1-2 and I chickened out. I regret that I didn't do that. It would have been stressful but it would have been interesting and I’m sorry I didn't do it.
[1:29:16] Servos: I was wondering how you think of your teaching as having evolved over time during the period you've been here.
[1:29:23] Romer: Um–
[1:29:24] Servos: So many people fresh out of graduate school arrive and carry with them the desire to replicate themselves or the graduate students they knew in the school they were coming from and I don't know if that was on your mind initially and whether that remained foremost in your mind over time?
[1:29:51] Romer: I don't know. This isn’t a real answer to that but the course I really liked to teach was what would be a junior level, a serious level physics, a longer introductory. The junior level Maxwell's Equations Electromagnetism course, because other people liked to teach that too, but that was the thing I especially loved. Actually one reform that I feel that I’m pretty much responsible for in the department – cause we rotate courses pretty frequently. I remember that when I was an undergraduate here the Junior E&M course had been taught for years, maybe decades, by one particular professor. And there were other professors who would have loved to teach it but they didn't get a chance. So I introduced what, very roughly, the following: if you teach a course year one, if you want to teach it again in year two you have an absolute right to teach it even if everybody else wants it instead. For year three you have almost as much of a right. For year four you have no claim on it at all. If somebody else wants it it's their turn. So basically the really attractive courses like that, the junior senior courses, they may be taught three years in a row by one professor but not more. We swap them around. But that's the course I really like best.
[1:31:40] Servos: How did it differ from others?
[1:31:45] Romer: Well it was kind of abstract in that you're thinking about fields, electric and magnetic fields. So it's high powered and abstract in that sense as opposed to classical mechanics where you're thinking about springs and stuff, which is also very good physics. And the mathematics of the vector analysis is something that students can appreciate the power of there. And what I really liked was well – like the paper I described that Purcell liked so much – had to do with induced voltages and what a voltmeter measures; and a lot of bad textbooks written on this kind of topic where they use words like voltage and potential where they weren't applicable and I wanted to get it down as basic as possible, eliminating junk and being very, very basic about it. That's the kind of thing I really enjoyed doing most. And I think the students appreciated that. And aside from the energy physics book that I published, I often thought about writing an electromagnetism book. I actually sketched out chapter outlines. I never wrote it. And I sort of began it, at least in my mind, quite a few times. And then a friend of mine, a very good physicist David Griffiths at Reed, wrote the book that I would have written. But so many E&M books, they take this beautiful subject and they destroy it.
[1:33:43] Romer: To them it’s a whole bunch of equations and they don't make any distinction between the importance of let's say the simple equation that describes Faraday's law and the equation for the anomalous skin depth in a metal at intermediate temperatures. There's a beautiful structure there, which so many E&M textbooks don't get.
[1:34:08] Servos: One of your work dealt with low temperature research during the ‘60s and I guess into the ‘70s.
[1:34:14] Romer: Yeah.
[1:34:14] Servos: And that was work that you shared an interest in with colleagues here.
[1:34:21] Romer: After World War II Ted Soller came back. He had been at the MIT radiation lab. And he had the foresight to realize that for the future of the Amherst College Physics Department – and the science departments in general – more serious research should have been done here. And he thought deliberately about what's a good field. He had never done low temperature physics himself. Low temperature physics is something that's not being done very many places and we can do it at Amherst. And he hired Bill Fairbank and Bruce Benson, who were both finishing up at Yale together. And they built a helium liquefier. So we were going to have liquid helium at Amherst. They also had it at Yale, at Toronto, at Cambridge and Oxford, in Moscow and not so many other places. And in a way we were going to be one of a couple of dozen laboratories in the world where liquid helium research was going on. Well about the time that our liquefier got going, and it continued to operate, this homemade liquefier, for years, Arthur D. Little began to sell helium liquefiers and so low temperature physics became much more common. But we continued to have a very active low temperature program, not so much collaboratively among colleagues as having a number of colleagues doing low temperature physics at the same time. It was one point in the ‘60s where I think one year there were six of us in the physics department doing low temperature physics. I think all independently of each other except we cooperated on making the liquid helium, which we did by ourselves. We’d spend all day making ten liters of helium.
[1:36:31] Servos: What's happening here is that young people, like you and Joel, are joining the department and finding the equipment here and a tradition of work already begun and your interest in the subject rose as a consequence of that. It's not something you were thinking of before you arrived.
[:36:48] Romer: No. It was because it was going on here that I took the trouble to learn something about how to do it and why I went to Duke the year that I did to do low temperature physics. So all during the ‘60s there were quite a number of people working on it here. I mean some of those folks were what we now call non-tenure track professors. They were here filling in for two or three sabbaticals in a row.
[1:37:22] Servos: So you go to Duke because Fairbank is there.
[1:37:25] Romer: Yeah.
[1:37:25] Servos: And you spend some time at Grenoble as well.
[1:37:30] Romer: I had a sabbatical. I went to a low temperature lab at Grenoble. Alright, I don't pronounce it right
[1:37:38] Servos: Grenoble [pronounces the word again]
[1:37:39] Romer: No, now that's not right either. That turned out not to be terribly productive in terms of my research. It was interesting, you know, living abroad, dealing with a foreign language, kids going to the neighborhood school. We lived in a little village 10 miles from the city. And we had a communist administration. We voted for president. We marked the ballot for LBJ under the watchful eyes of the communist mayor who also made sure that we checked the box for John Kennedy, who was running for reelection. No, Teddy Kennedy. Yeah, Teddy Kennedy was ‘64. Sorry, Jack had been assassinated. That was another big thing in Amherst history.
[1:38:34] Servos: The work that you did there did not contribute notably to your development as a physicist?
[1:38:42] Romer: No. I didn't do much low temperature physics after I came back from teaching in the south. That’s when I got sidetracked into writing about energy and writing– writing– more writing–
[1:39:06] Servos: It's about this time you start to contribute regularly to the American Journal of Physics.
[1:39:10] Romer: Yes.
[1:39:11] Servos: That is to say in the late ‘60s, ‘70s?
[1:39:14] Romer: Yeah I was on the editorial board of the journal. I eventually became editor of it. Then I was book review editor of it. And then I was very lucky. In the late ‘80s when I had been involved with the American Journal of Physics and frequently refereed for it, I was book review editor of it, I cared a lot about the journal. It is unique as a physics journal. It’s the physics journal that people actually read as opposed to just looking numbers up in. And when I read that the current editor was resigning from it, having done it for ten years, I cared enough about the journal so that I actually went through my entire Rolodex – not that I have a Rolodex – but it's equivalent of a Rolodex in my mind, all the physicists I could think of who could be a good editor. I wrote to a friend of mine at Wesleyan. I picked one out of this group and suggested he apply. I mentioned this vacancy to my wife and I guess one of my kids was home. And they said, ‘You'd be good at that.’ Oh and then I got a letter from the chair of the search committee saying somebody had suggested me and I mentioned that letter to my wife and she said, ‘Oh you'd be good at that’” And I thought, ‘Oh.’ Although I actually had no idea whether I'd be any good at it or not. I mean it was a real adventure because totally different. I thought I might do it. I cared enough. So I was very relieved when my friend at Wesleyan said that he didn't want to apply because by that time I wanted the job.
[1:41:07] Servos: And, you know, that was – correct me if I'm wrong – but it would have been a pretty unusual step for a member of the Amherst faculty to commit himself or herself to editing a journal at that point, right?
[1:41:19] Romer: I think so.
[1:41:19] Servos: I mean the college didn't traditionally support those kinds of enterprises.
[1:41:22] Romer: Right, but they did this. Peter Pouncey and Dick Fink, they both wrote for me. Peter Pouncey lied enthusiastically for me. Arnold Arons, I used him as one of my references, even though he and I had fought vigorously sometimes when we were teaching a course together. But I always used Arnold as a reference when I was applying for things and I always got them. I also used Peter Pouncey and Peter sent a letter of recommendation. He was writing. He sent it over for me to look at before he mailed it. I don't do that with letters of recommendation.
[1:42:04] Romer: I'm sort of nervous about this. And the things he said about me were so nice. I didn't want to change them. I did correct some of his grammar and spelling.
[1:42:15] Romer: And I gave it back to Pat, what's her name? Uh, Peter’s– Pat Mullins.
[1:42:25] Servos: Mullins, yes.
[1:42:25] Romer: I gave it back to Pat Mullins, Peter Pouncey’s secretary, and I told her about this and she told me later that she discreetly fixed the spelling and punctuation and Peter signed it without reading it.
[1:42:38] Servos: Well you were just showing yourself to be a good editor [laughs].
[1:42:40] Romer: Yeah. Well I had to do quite a bit of that as well as criticizing the physics, while I was editor. Yeah but they were very supportive in arranging the finances and an attractive way of providing space in renovating a couple of rooms in the science building at great expense. But that all worked out fine. It was a good deal for the society that owns the journal. They paid some of my salary, the college paid some, my colleagues were very supportive.
[1:43:17] Servos: And you edited that for thirteen years?
[1:43:20] Romer: Yes.
[1:43:22] Servos: Was there an initial term and you were renewed or?
[1:43:27] Romer: Well, technically there was three year terms. I mean the understanding always was they could fire me at a moment's notice if they wanted to. And I didn't have to fill out a three year term. When I did give it up, finally– It turned out I loved doing it. It was never easy. And for the first summer it was terrible.
[1:43:57] Servos: Why was that?
[1:43:59] Romer: Well, I mean it was terrible in the sense that I didn't know whether I could do it. Manuscripts came. Sometimes I would go to bed at 2 AM thinking, ‘What have we actually accomplished today? Well, we've logged in the mail.’ [Laughs] We haven’t done anything with the mail. I was developing a computer database, which I'd never done before, keep track of these things. I had nightmares about mail trucks full of manuscripts coming at me. Eventually I got more relaxed about that. I found out that I could do it and I could do it very well, and it was very stressful. I had difficult authors, I had controversial manuscripts, but I got to deal with a lot of interesting people. But my plan always was to retire from the editorship before I really want to, instead of getting to a point where they're all saying to each other, ‘Doesn't he realize it's time to go?’
[1:45:07] Servos: And during those thirteen years, I'm sure there were big changes in the journal and would you want to describe some of the things you wanted to do and did and maybe some of the unintended outcomes?
[1:45:26] Romer: One of the things I didn't succeed in doing, and this is a journal which is not a hardcore research journal. It's not Physical Review, which is sort of the standard American physics research journal. If my colleague Larry Hunter ever really proves by experiment that – to use technical language – that the electric dipole moment of the electron is nonzero, that'll be on the front page of the New York Times, it'll be in Physical Review Letters, and maybe Science. We wouldn't have published it. Well, we would have.
[1:46:06] Romer: We would have found a way but it wasn't for new research results. Ideally it's for review articles. It's for new ways, for instance, of looking at what does a voltmeter measure – to look at one of my favorite papers again. I wanted to get more review articles on current research, but the people who can really write those they're awfully busy. I'm sure you appreciate a good review article is terribly demanding to write and it would demand that somebody who was immersed in research give up his research for a while. I was no more successful in getting review articles then my predecessor was. Some of the things I did do– Well here are a couple that sounds trivial but it turned out to be important, I believe. I got the table of contents out on the back cover where you can see it. Instead of having to do what you have to do, for instance, with the New Yorker. You wonder, ‘Is the table of contents going to be on page four this week or is it going to be on page twenty-two?’ This way somebody browsing in a library can pick it up and see what's there. Another thing I did was to insist that the footnotes in articles include the titles of the articles and not just the pages. I got a lot of grumbling from authors because sometimes they actually had to go and at least look up the articles they were citing instead of just copying references from somebody else. And it takes a little more space. But everybody agrees when they think about it that was a valuable thing to do. I had editorials. They were a lot of fun to write. I wrote an editorial about half the time, on average, but I also did something that hadn't been done before. I got very frequent guest editorials and those are kind of fun. I got Carl Sagan, I got Martin Gardner, I got Edward Teller.
[1:48:27] Servos: Many scholarly journals have faced difficulties with publication in the last twenty years, as you know, both because of declining membership in societies, professional societies, and increasing costs. Did you face some of those difficulties?
[1:48:43] Romer: Oh yes. It’s a little bit like some of the numerical problems that President Obama and my daughter-in-law face with the economy. The rate of job loss isn't as bad this month as it was last month. You phrase that in mathematical terms. There's some derivative there which is positive. They're not all negative. Circulation went down steadily. Went down faster with some journals than it did with mine. I worked very hard to do what I could to boost circulation. I didn't ever see the circulation go up and I'm sure that because of some of my efforts it didn't go down as fast as it would have without my efforts. With great difficulty, surprising difficulty, I talked the society into having a special base, almost free rate, for undergraduates. This is the Tom Lehrer approach. That song about the old dope peddler gives the kids free samples because he knows full well that today's young, innocent faces are tomorrow's clientele. You get them reading AJP while they're young and it's almost free and then they're going to pay real money to get it later. We also went electronic, of course, during that decade. That was something– I'm still not any good at reading on the screen but, you know, that's where my kids, that's where my students get their information. And so we are certainly going to go electronic. And fortunately, there was more urgency to do that for journals like Physical Review and Physical Review Letters than there was for my journal and we could afford to let Physical Review make a lot of mistakes which, I said this once at a physics meeting where the editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society was there. I said, ‘We had the opportunity of letting APS and Phys. Rev. make the mistakes.’ And Marty Blum, I know him, but he said, ‘What mistakes?’
[1:51:14] Romer: They did have trials and tribulations which we were spared from because they helped a lot when we did decide to go electronic.
[1:51:24] Servos: I understand you were also involved in the Forum on the History of Physics.
[1:51:31] Romer: [Laughs] Yes. After I retired I haven't been doing exclusively slavery in the valley. I am not an historian of physics. You are an historian of chemistry.
[1:51:43] Servos: Certainly not physics. [Laughs]
[1:51:43] Romer: Well, but you are an historian of science and I am not. On the other hand, I had considerable experience, at least with the rejecting papers on history of physics for my journal and even publishing a few. A few years after I retired I was invited to stand for election as an officer. They put as essentially the history of physics the vision of the American Physical Society. And so I think it's the only– No, I was about to say it's the only election I ever won. That's not quite true because I did a couple of Committee of Six elections, but I lost for fifth grade president.
[1:52:23] Romer: But I was elected to the chair sequence, that is you become vice chair and chair elect, and then for a year you are chair and then you’re past chair. But the job is really to facilitate the work of people who really are historians of physics. And I was in fact in charge of invited sessions on history of physics during 2005, which was a challenge, because that was the Einstein Year and Einstein scholars were in high demand that year, but that was interesting. So I was an officer of the forum for four years. Now I've gotten inveigled into it again. Just a couple of months ago the American Physical Society April meeting was being held in February. Don’t ask.
[1:53:23] Romer: Sometimes the April meeting was in May. Once it's also been in April. This time the April meeting was in February and in Washington where I have kids living. And I asked the current chair of the history forum if I could just drop in and say hello to some of my colleagues there and maybe get a free lunch. Well, turns out there is no such thing as a free lunch, because before I knew it I was chair of an ad hoc committee to revise the bylaws of the organization. And I did go to the executive board meeting a few weeks ago. And I didn't even get the free lunch because just as it came to be my turn on the agenda the hotel staff brought in the lunch. Everybody else was happily eating their lunch. By the time I got through what I had to say they were insisting on clearing away the plates.
[1:54:16] Romer: But I have been semi-involved with them even after my four years was over.
[1:54:25] Servos: Before we close I would like to ask one question about the department and that is: it seems to me that physics has been unusually successful in maintaining a cadre of faculty who are both excellent teachers and not just committed to research but just outstanding at it. People with international reputations.
[1:54:48] Romer: Yeah.
[1:54:48] Servos: And that's really astonishing at a small liberal arts college. So I guess the question is, what's the secret? How has the department managed to attract and keep scientists of that caliber?
[1:55:04] Romer: Well, we have worked at it. We have some– I mean right now David Hall, Will Loinaz, Jonathan Freedman and then, now a little bit older, Larry Hunter. Terrific group of people. Will is a theorist, the other three are experimenters. Although I should emphasize – in case anybody's watching this who doesn't understand physics – an experimental physicist is not just a tinkerer who plays with Erector Sets. I mean you can't be a good experimental physicist if you don't understand and deal with theory pretty seriously. Well the College has always been good at providing space. These kids have been pretty good at getting grant support. Larry has to spend a lot of time reapplying for his grant extensions. In Larry's case– When he was applying he came here for a visit, a winter day in I don't know ‘82 or something. I could see that he was really a terrific researcher and I advised him not to come. Because I laid out some of the difficulties. And when you don't have graduate students, and you have undergraduates who can be very helpful, but they keep disappearing. They graduate, which is not really fair. And you don't get any special breaks from the National Science Foundation just because a liberal arts college is a nice thing. You're competing big time. And I advised him not to come and then I turn around, of course, and try to do my best to persuade him to come. And the clincher was that after a day of talking to us he wanted to go for a walk down the bike path in the snow and I loaned him my boots. He and I were talking about this just a few days ago. I think that was very helpful in getting Larry to come. I loaned him my boots. And a couple of years later he had a tenure offer from University of Michigan and we fought that off. We got an early tenure decision. Peter Pouncey fought with some people who say, ‘Well, we don't do tenure except in October.’ And I remember I was on the Committee of Six and at that time I wasn't allowed, as a member of the department I wasn’t allowed to say anything in the Committee of Six meeting and it was very frustrating because you have people saying, ‘Well, what is this dipole moment of the electron he’s trying to measure? Is he just measuring that because nobody's bothered to measure it before? [Romer makes a sound of frustration]
[1:58:17] Romer: Fortunately, Dick Fink who was Dean, knew about the significance of Larry's work. But I remember Peter Pouncey, I think he pounded on a table. Peter said, ‘There is nothing more important to this college than the quality of it’s faculty. We're not going to let some rule like that keep us from getting Larry.’ But also at that time I told Larry that forever and ever, if he wanted me to read drafts of his papers or grant applications for content or for style and spelling, I would do it. Because I'm a much better speller than Larry is. I mean I'm only partly serious about this but things like that, I mean, we work very hard to keep those guys. And we're very lucky we got three young guys who all got tenure three successive years and we were a little nervous about that. We feel conspicuous and, to our regret, we're about the only department on campus that does not have a tenured woman, or even currently a tenure-track woman.
[1:59:37] Servos: You’ve been concerned about women in physics for quite a while.
[1:59:40] Romer: Yeah.
[1:59:40] Servos: Not just on the faculty here but the student body as well, among the majors.
[1:59:47] Romer: One of the first editorials I wrote in AJP was about the dearth of women physicists. It's not just an Amherst problem. Physics has about one poorest records of getting and keeping women as any discipline.
[2:00:07] Servos: But getting back to retention, you were offered positions elsewhere during your time here.
[2:00:13] Romer: Yeah.
[2:00:14] Servis: What led you to turn them–
[2:00:15] Romer: Turn them down?
[2:00:16] Servos: Yeah.
[2:00:20] Romer: Well, I was certainly tempted. As other people, like Larry Hunter, have been tempted. I mean universities with graduate schools, that is where most of the frontline research is going on. And I did get restless and think ‘Wouldn't it be great to have graduate students?’ What kept me here? In a way Amherst is– Things peripheral to physics. Amherst is an awfully nice town to live in. The schools are good. My wife had a political career. But I'm not meaning to suggest that I stayed at Amherst because of my wife's career. I think because what I have really liked to do best is take a problem or a paradox that arises out of my teaching of an advanced undergraduate course – or sometimes from an elementary course – or something nobody has bothered with before and really thinking deeply about it. And this isn't Physical Review Letters research. I think it's valuable. But it's something that's valued at Amherst. And I guess I thought that there probably would be pressures not to spend my time that way. Whereas here if I wanted to spend my time that way, hey, that's fine.
[2:02:30] Servos: There is a freedom here that you wouldn't enjoy elsewhere.
[2:02:33] Romer: Yeah, yeah.
[2:02:33] Servos: And I imagine the camaraderie within the department was important too, you know?
[2:02:37] Romer: Yeah. One way I was really disappointed – that's not the right word – that Dudley came out of the closet was we didn't talk about physics so much.
[2:02:48] Romer: I remember we used to have real arguments about paradoxes and special relativity and electromagnetism and so on. And then Dudley, having concealed his sexual orientation all those years, he wanted to talk more about his sexual orientation. I didn't want to talk about it, so I didn’t.
[2:03:05] Romer: I wanted to talk about physics. But I did co-teach with Dudley a lot and this one time he and I taught a Problems of Inquiry course on light and color together. And I remember there was some criticism because these courses were supposed to be interdisciplinary. And we figured well between Dudley and me we’re interdisciplinary and besides look at those history courses that are taught by nothing but historians. They think they're interdisciplinary, why can't we be interdisciplinary?
[2:03:40] Romer: One of the things that was fun about this book on slavery that I just finished, quite accidentally, the very last sentence of text in the book refers to Isaac Newton and his theory of light and colors, with a footnote to a paper that Newton published in either 1675 or 1676, depending on which calendar you're on. And I thought that was a very nice way that, as a physicist, to end my book about slavery.
[2:04:15] Servos: I wonder if there are any questions that we failed to ask that you'd like to answer anyway.
[2:04:21] Romer: Yeah right. [Laughs]. We have covered a lot of questions. I, no, I can't think of anything more that I really feel I have to say.
[2:04:32] Servos: Okay.
[2:04:33] Romer: But thank you for spending all this time.
[2:04:36] Servos: Well, it's been my pleasure, Bob. Thank you very much.
Robert H. Romer, class of 1952, professor emeritus of physics, arrived at Amherst in 1955. His interest was low-temperature research and nuclear resonance in liquid helium-3. In 1969, Romer, who had been a civil right activist, spent a year teaching at Voorhees College. He served as editor of the American Journal of Physics for thirteen years before retiring in 2001 from the Amherst faculty. His book Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts was published in 2009.
Hugh Hawkins, professor emeritus, joined the faculty in 1960 and was the Anson D. Morse Professor of History and American Studies until his retirement in 2000. He helped to build the history and the American studies departments and served as chief architect for the first-year Liberal Arts studies program.
John Servos is the Anson D. Morse Professor of History. He teaches survey courses on the history of western medicine, the history of science, and the history of science in America. He is a regular participant in the First-Year Seminar and author of Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling.
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