Narrator: William F. “Jack” Fry (1921-2011)
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 12 May and 6 August 2008
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Format: Audio (2 files)
Total Length: 4 hours, 5 minutes, 24 seconds
William F. “Jack” Fry Biography: William F. “Jack” Fry was born in Carlisle, Iowa in 1921. He completed a PhD in physics at Iowa State University in 1951. He joined the UW-Madison physics faculty in 1952 to begin a program in high-energy physics, a group he led until 1988. Beyond his experimental work in high-energy physics, Fry spent four decades researching the acoustical properties of violins. He was also deeply interested in the history of Italy and amassed an important collection of manuscripts, ephemera, and books that ranged from the late medieval period through the twentieth century. Fry donated these materials – including over 40,000 books and documents – to the UW-Madison Libraries to create the “Fry Collection.” Professor Fry retired from UW-Madison in 1998 and continued his acoustic research and study of Italian history. He died in his Madison home in 2011.
Oral History Abstract: Use this link to jump forward to the 6 August session. In his 2008 interviews with John Tortorice, William F. “Jack” Fry discusses his career as a high-energy physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a collector of Italian cultural and historical artifacts. Fry chronicles the development of his dual interests—science and music—from his childhood through his later research and teaching, noting a number of influential scientists with whom he’d collaborated. He also broadly outlines his contributions to the field of high-energy physics, the acoustics of violins, and the Fry Collection on Italian history and culture in Memorial Library’s Special Collections department. This interview was conducted for inclusion in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives Oral History project.
Key Words: Carlisle, Iowa; the Great Depression; violin music; Iowa State University; Ilze Niemack; Kenneth Watson; United States Naval Research Laboratory; George Washington University; George Gamow; mu-meson physics; Enrico Fermi; Marcel Schein; University of Wisconsin-Madison; Robert Sachs; Atomic Energy Commission; Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF); Ugo Camerini; Richard Feynman; Stradivarius violins; University of Padua; Danilo Nogarotto; Sterling Hall bombing; Robert March; undergraduate education.
**To access the OHMS oral history page for William F. “Jack” Fry, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview: click here.**
Begin Track 1, 12 May 2008
Fry: Just before we start a little bit. A little background. What was the motivation for starting the interview? Who cooks it up and where does it go and so on?
Tortorice: Well, let me pause. [pause] And I’m going to start at the beginning. This is John Tortorice. And I am in Madison at the lovely home of Professor Jack Fry. And the date is May 12, 2008. And Jack, we’ll start at the beginning. Where and when were you born?
Fry: I was born in a little town outside of a little town called Carlisle, Iowa. Which is about twelve miles southeast of Des Moines. I was born on a farm. And my family at that time consisted of my father and mother and my grandfather. And I had an older brother. And eventually two younger brothers. And so this was a modest farm. In fact, the farm consisted of sixty acres, of which thirty acres were timber. And there were only thirty acres of tillable land which brought in income. But the family depended very much on the timberland for its livelihood as well as the cultivated land. Because my father was handy in building things. In fact, he built a house and he built all the things necessary to run a farm. And we cut wood for building fences. But for building things around the farm, but also for heating the house. So the timberland was a very critical part of the land. And in fact as a child, probably the most popular place where I loved to just go running around and do things. It also was essentially not pastured enough with animals that there was a lot of wildlife as well as plant life associated with the timber.
So I went through school in this town of Carlisle. At that time, there were about six hundred people living in Carlisle. There was a reasonably good public school. And my father 00:03:00 was on the school board for a large number of years, although he spent most all of his energy in farming, he was also the president of a bank, of which he had no experience. And I asked my colleague one time, why did they choose him to be the president of the bank? And the answer was, well, he was respected as a person in the community. And that was more important for the bank than banking skills. Unfortunately, during the Depression the bank went under. And my father had fortunately put all the value of the land in my wife’s name so that we still maintained the farm when the bank foreclosed on everything.
Tortorice: And that was probably a common experience in those years of the farmers in that area.
Fry: Our family was a little bit unusual in the sense that we didn’t have many of the more elegant things than the others because both my father and mother were very conservative. So we practically never bought anything. We sold milk. Traded it for butter, actually, instead of churning. And we made things. For example, as I look back on the time, I remember that I wish I had paper. We had no paper to write on. And once in a while they would buy groceries and I would get the paper sack in order to have something to write on.
We weren’t hungry. But we were like most members of that community, quite poor and learned to survive on a few things. We rarely bought any food. But during the Depression, it was a very difficult time because there were several things that were rather dramatic. One of them was the drought. So our gardens just sort of shriveled up. My dad always had a big patch of potatoes, and the potatoes were the size of a thumbnail. And then unfortunately we had plagues of chinch bugs and grasshoppers, which in two days just destroyed all the crops. The sky was covered from these flying insects. So there were lots of things like that. So it was a period where 00:06:00 one made do. And one made a life which was mainly interested in survival. But fortunately, practically everybody was in the same situation. There were no rich people in Carlisle, so to speak.
And I got interested in radios fairly young in my days. And there was a man in Carlisle who sold radios. But he was interested in electronics in general. So I found him a source of information about how radios worked. And so as a kid of about twelve or so I started building electronic things. Public address systems, fixing radios. I remember the first crystal set I built. And I took it out and used the fence, wire fence as an antenna and picked up the radio station. And my brother-in-law who was twenty-four years older than I was really impressed that here this little teeny box you could hear a radio station on it.
Tortorice: So was your father’s generation the pioneer generation in Iowa? Or did your family go back many generations?
Fry: Many generations.
Tortorice: I see.
Fry: My grandfather, who lived with us at that time, bought the house that we lived in as a young man. My great-grandfather came to Iowa before it was a state and lived with the Keokuk tribe, which lived in Carlisle at that time. And he traded furs for things he brought in for the Indians. Then he homesteaded a large piece of land outside of Carlisle, part of it which is now the public park. And the area between Carlisle and the Des Moines River, which is about four miles away from Carlisle, all of that area belonged to my great-grandfather. And it was at that time called the Stumble Bottom, because his name was Stumble.
And my grandfather came to Carlisle as a young man. I think he was sixteen. And worked for George Stumble and married his daughter. And George Stumble had seven daughters and one boy. And they all stayed in Carlisle, so they’re all ancestors are still there.
Tortorice: What about 00:09:00 your mother’s family? Tell me about your mother.
Fry: My mother’s family has many interesting stories about it. My mother’s grandfather came to the neighboring town of Hartford before it was a state, or at the time it became a state, and homesteaded a piece of land which was about 400 acres, and became a fairly well-to-do man. There was an interesting story about him because—this is my grandfather on my mother’s side—because, well, let’s start at the beginning. Several years ago, my youngest brother John who’s interested in family history and I went to a little cemetery out near where my grandfather was buried. It’s a cemetery whose area is about the size of this house. A small cemetery. In the middle of the cemetery was an enormous tombstone. Six feet high and about five feet wide. An enormous stone with the name of a man whose last name was Parsons, which was my mother’s maiden name. And neither John nor I had ever heard about this man. The other tombstones were very small. And here in the middle of this cemetery was this enormous stone. Well, it turns out that my grandfather, my mother’s father, had a brother who came with my great-grandfather from Indiana to Iowa. And this boy seemed to be insane. So my great-grandfather built a house with a room inside where this boy was completely hidden and kept in this room without any windows.
Tortorice: Hmm. Wow.
Fry: And when my great-grandfather died, my grandfather then had the responsibility of taking care of this boy. And my grandfather fell in love with a girl that lived on a farm nearby. But she had tuberculosis and was in very poor health. And apparently they had an agreement that if she agreed to marry him and take care of this boy, then my grandfather would marry her knowing that she had tuberculosis.
Of course, it was impossible to completely hide this boy. Well it turns out he was a severe epileptic. He was not insane. He had 00:12:00 grand mal. And not too long after my grandmother and grandfather were married, she died. But she had three children before the age of thirty-two. And so my grandfather said, “I was never able to do anything for my brother. So I’m going to buy the biggest tombstone I can find and put it in the cemetery.” And that’s why that tombstone’s there.
Tortorice: Oh, what a story. Amazing.
Fry: Now imagine keeping someone locked up in a room, hidden. What that meant in terms of their lives.
Tortorice: But it wasn’t probably that unusual in families at that time, was it?
Fry: No. No. No. Of course, they never knew what it was. There was no way to find help. And they didn’t know what to do. So that was the solution.
Tortorice: Amazing. Amazing.
Fry: Now my mother was sent to college. She had a college education, which was very unusual at that time for women. And she married a man who was from a relatively poor family near where they lived. And they lived on a farm next door to me where I was raised. That farm was only forty acres, of which ten acres were tillable. It was an extremely poor farm, and the house was very poor. We never could understand why my grandfather, being a relatively rich man, sent this girl to college but yet never provided any help at all after she married this man. So I suspect it wasn’t approved by my grandfather, I suspect. Because when my grandfather died, he never left any money to the two girls. That was a diversion. All right.
Tortorice: No, that’s fine. That’s the kind of thing that’s fascinating.
Fry: Then when I was probably ten or nine, I got interested in music. And my dad told me that there’s a man who lives in Carlisle, a farmer, who knows how to play the violin. And he said, “I talked to him and he’ll give you lessons.” So we went there, my father and I, and spent some time talking to him. And he found a violin for me. He was a farmer who had a substantial farm. But he enjoyed music and doing things. So I took lessons from him once a week for about 00:15:00 a year. And then he said, “You know, Jack, I can’t teach you anymore. You’re just going to have to find a different teacher.” But in spite of the fact he was a fiddler, he had no classical training in violin, his enthusiasm was very catching. And he was a very inspiring man. So that’s how I got started in playing the violin.
Tortorice: So between the interest that you had in science and technology and music at a very early age—
Tortorice: —your life’s course was really set.
Fry: That’s right.
Tortorice: That’s amazing.
Fry: That’s right.
Tortorice: And you stayed with both.
Fry: Yes. And in fact, then I got a teacher, actually in Simpson College, which is in Indianola, which is only seven miles away. And I went there and took private lessons. And in high school I went to the state contest, which was held every year, and participated in playing the solo violin. And I won second in the state. And the girl who won first in the state was the daughter of a violin repairman in Des Moines. His name was Arell. And he provided her with a really outstanding violin. And mine was a pile of junk.
Tortorice: (laughs) So that got you started on making violins.
Fry: In a remote way, yes.
Tortorice: So besides this fiddle teacher, and obviously your father and mother, who were some of the teachers and relatives and neighbors who really influenced you in those years? I mean, obviously your father did.
Fry: My father did. But also my brother-in-law who married my half-sister because my father was married before and had a daughter. She was twenty-four years older me. And he and she lived next door just across the pasture. And he was a very jolly man, always in good humor. He gave me the name “Jack.” He nicknamed everybody. He was always positive. And he had as much to do with my attitudes of life as my parents. Because even when I was young, my mother was in poor health. Now I know that she was very depressed. And so my father was very concerned about my mother’s health. 00:18:00 In fact, when I was ten, my older brother died. He was fifteen. And then, four years later, my mother committed suicide.
Tortorice: Oh, really.
Fry: And so, at that time my father was fifty-eight. Because we were the second generation of his offspring. And so there was a big difference in age. And my brother-in-law then was sort of like a parent to me. And brought more of the modern things than my father knew.
Tortorice: And having to deal with such a loss, tragedy, the loss of your brother and mother, in those days losing siblings and parents was not that uncommon.
Fry: Not uncommon.
Tortorice: Also the way she died—
Tortorice: —must have been very difficult. And your brother-in-law helped keep you in a positive place.
Fry: Yes. Now, my father never talked about my mother’s death. My mother left a note, and that was how we knew she committed suicide. But my mother [means his father?] never talked about it. And in fact, when my brother died, there was no discussion about it. I found it out in school from a friend that he had died.
And then my mother’s life was difficult because her first husband died and her first daughter died within a period of two years. So my mother had a very difficult life.
Tortorice: Well, it sounds, you know, that your childhood was in some ways very harsh, very deprived. And yet in other ways, very rich, very encouraging to you in your development.
Fry: Very rich. Yes. right. Right.
Tortorice: So you had both things.
Fry: I had both aspects of it. And in fact as I look back at my childhood, I don’t look at it as a difficult period. Because the Depression was something everybody in the community dealt with. The death was of course difficult, but the most difficult thing about that was that my family never talked about it. So I never knew how to react. I was alone.
Tortorice: And that is hard.
Fry: That was hard. But in some way, it was a strengthening thing, too. Because then I dealt with my own life. It emphasized my interest in electronics and in music. And at that stage, music played a bigger stage in my life than electronics. But when I graduated from high school, I decided that I didn’t want to give up music but I wanted to become an engineer. 00:21:00
Tortorice: I see. So in high school, were there experiences or teachers that encouraged you in your pursuit of your music and engineer interest?
Fry: Music, yes. Because there was a man who came from Des Moines to teach in the Carlisle school. He came two days a week. And he was a wonderful man. He was enthusiastic. He was a great organizer.
Tortorice: What was his name? Do you remember?
Fry: His name was Henry Versteeg. A Dutchman. And he was what I now think is an example of the music man. When I saw the movie The Music Man, I thought oh, this is the life of Henry Versteeg. How did they find out about him? He unfortunately only knew how to play the trumpet. He could play the piano a little bit. But he managed to, well, I taught all the violin students.
Tortorice: You taught the violin students.
Fry: Oh, yes.
Tortorice: Because you had learned to play from—
Fry: I had help from outside. In fact, I gave private lessons.
Tortorice: For heaven’s sake.
Fry: And I gave lessons to Audrey.
Tortorice: As a child.
Fry: Oh, yes.
Tortorice: And Audrey is your current wife.
Fry: Yes. And she took violin lessons from me. And she still hates the violin.
Tortorice: (laughs) You weren’t a very good teacher, I guess.
Fry: I got 25 cents for teaching.
Tortorice: Wow. So you really started teaching at a very young age.
Fry: I was a freshman in high school when I first started teaching. And I had five students on the violin.
Tortorice: That’s really quite impressive.
Fry: But Versteeg always found someone to teach these people. And all of a sudden, he got a lot of, he fought for the students to play music. And there were ninety students in the four grades of high school in Carlisle. We had a band of sixty people. We had an orchestra of fifty-five people out of ninety students.
Tortorice: My goodness.
Fry: And it was all because of this man.
Tortorice: And his enthusiasm. Wow.
Fry: About five years after I graduated, he died. The music program in Carlisle just stopped.
Tortorice: So it was really one person that was able to create this.
Fry: I should say the major steps in my violin playing came from a minister who was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the neighboring town of Hartford where my mother came from. He had learned to play violin as a professional person. So he knew all the techniques. 00:24:00 And he was very enthusiastic. In fact, in the summer he put on two operas. Pirates of Penzance and Pinafore. Gilbert and Sullivan. And the local kids of Carlisle.
Tortorice: And you participated?
Fry: I had the leading role in The Pirates of Penzance. My aunt played the piano for the whole thing.
Tortorice: (laughs) So you just happened to go to school at a time when there was this—
Fry: These two men.
Tortorice: These two men that influenced you.
Fry: Yeah. The music.
Tortorice: And it was really the luck of the draw.
Fry: Yes, very much so. Very much so. And these two men changed the whole sociological structure of these two little teeny towns. Hartford at that time had two hundred people in the school. So, when I decided to go to college, and fortunately my grandfather left in his estate money for we three boys to go to college.
Tortorice: And what year would that have been?
Fry: Nineteen thirty-nine.
Tortorice: Oh, 39, right before the start of the war.
Fry: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: And so you finished high school. And—
Fry: Incidentally, in high school I was a very poor student.
Tortorice: You were a poor student.
Fry: At best, I was a C student.
Fry: And the last year, there was a teacher named Miss Weir who taught history. And an English teacher, Miss Watland, who taught English. Miss Watland’s father was president of the college in Osceola, Iowa. She was well-trained. She made sure that we read in class good things. We spent three weeks reading Shakespeare. We read a lot of English literature. She was an inspiring person. Miss Weir was a slavedriver who demanded excellence. This waked me up a bit.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. So when you were a senior in high school, you started to get interested in—
Fry: Absolutely. In academics.
Tortorice: —in academic subjects, and it was really these two teachers.
Fry: We didn’t have a library until I was in the ninth grade. The school had no library. So we had no reference material. And there was a gentleman living in Carlisle who was a very strange man. He was never married. He took a bath once a year in the river nearby. He never went anyplace. He did a little bit of carpenter work. I never saw him. When he died, he left money for establishing a library in our school.
Fry: He left thirty thousand dollars. 00:27:00
Tortorice: In those days, that was a lot of money.
Fry: In 1936.
Tortorice: Wow. So he was—
Fry: He played a role. Suddenly, I had books.
Fry: I remember getting a book on chemistry. I had never thought about chemistry, because chemistry was never taught. I was a little bit interested in physics, and so I read some things in the library about physics and got interested in calculating simple things. And a little bit on electronics.
And the teacher of the physics course was really very incompetent. And I remember when we got to the pendulum, where the period is square of the length over g, he didn’t know what to do with the square root to solve that problem. I taught the physics course, sort of, on the side.
Tortorice: (laughs) So you were teaching physics plus the violin at an early age.
Fry: Yes, yes, yes. Yeah.
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake. And this is a little bit off the subject, but during the 20s and 30s, did you experience major changes in terms of rural electrification—
Tortorice: —heating the house—
Tortorice: —this kind of thing.
Fry: For example, my father was the head of a group of five farmers who got together, formed a corporation for electrifying the farms. And this was in 1932. And so people made a contribution to it, joined the group and therefore got electricity in their houses. Before that, we had no electrical devices. We had kerosene lamps.
Tortorice: So it sounds to me like from a very young age, you were a person who had a talent for teaching, but also a kind of interest in improving yourself, improving those around you.
Fry: There was a vacuum of knowledge.
Tortorice: That you filled in a very proactive way, it sounds like.
Fry: And well first as a junior in high school, I built and sold public address systems to auctioneer barns.
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake.
Fry: And I built one, I had a good friend who was interested in electrical things, also. And we together built the public address systems and that sort of thing. And we enjoyed amplifiers. And whenever the Fourth of July, we provided the public address system for the 00:30:00 celebration in the park.
Now, but this time I began to realize that there was so much more to the world than the farm.
Tortorice: And Carlisle.
Fry: And Carlisle. The first real shake-up came when our radio failed and my father went to my friend in Carlisle who sold radios and bought a new radio, which had short wave. And the first night that he brought it home, I turned it on short wave. And I heard languages which I couldn’t understand a single word. And I began to realize that the world doesn’t speak English. The whole world doesn’t speak English. I heard some Chinese. I heard some German. I heard some Italian. I don’t know what other languages. On the short-wave radio.
Tortorice: And that along with your other interests made you realize that you were going to have to make your life—
Fry: Had to do something, get away from the farm. The farm didn’t answer my questions. I was curious.
Tortorice: And so you graduated in what year from high school?
Tortorice: Thirty-nine. And you hadn’t been a great student, but it sounds like you made the most of it.
Fry: No. no, not at all. And in fact, I had not learned to study. So when I went to Iowa State College, I enrolled in electrical engineering, but also in music. I was a double major.
Tortorice: And that was Iowa State in what city?
Tortorice: It’s the Iowa State in Ames. Okay.
Fry: It’s now Iowa State University.
Tortorice: And you started in the fall of 39.
Tortorice: And so you already really carried over to the university your twin interests in music and science.
Fry: But suddenly I realized that I had not been prepared, I had not learned to study. But I discovered the library. And I spent a lot of time just browsing through books that I had no idea existed. I discovered psychology. I discovered psychiatry of Freud. I read that in the freshman year. I read a lot of chemistry. I read a lot about musicians and musicians’ lives. But I was doing very poorly in academics. I remember taking sociology and getting a D. I remember that I was not prepared in mathematics 00:30:00 and when I took algebra I got a C. But I was also fortunate in having a very good English teacher who made us write short stories. And suddenly the ability to express myself. Because I had no ability to write, no ability to talk. In fact, I didn’t communicate with anybody. I was a loner. My family just didn’t say much. We were not great talkers. And so I had no friends that I spent time with intellectualizing or expressing things.
And so all of this expansion took place in my first year in Iowa State College. And I almost flunked out. I was a low C student. Fortunately at that time, it wasn’t difficult to get into college nor stay in college. And fortunately, I had a very outstanding violin teacher. Her name was Ilza Niemack (1903-1993). Her father was a famous doctor. And so he had sent Ilza to Russia to study under Leopold Auer (1845-1930), the teacher of [Jascha] Heifetz (1901-1987). She shared the adjacent room of Heifetz’s practice room.
Tortorice: And here in Ames, Iowa, you made contact—
Fry: Yes. Well, she was quite well known. She had written quite a bit of music, which had been played. And she was a very strong-willed woman who never married. Lived with her mother. Her mother was a very good pianist. I remember two things about her that I was impressed. One, one day I took a lesson. I had lessons every week. And the symphony orchestra at that time was very good, with a very good conductor. And we played concerts, we toured. The college orchestra toured. We broadcast programs on WY.
Tortorice: And you were in the orchestra playing?
Fry: I was in the orchestra. I was the head of the second violin section.
Tortorice: I see. Okay.
Fry: Until the conductor said, “Is there anybody in that can play a viola?” So I raised my hand. He said, “Well, good. Do you have a viola?” No. “I’ll get you one.”
Well it turns out my high school teacher, in order to impress the judges, decided that somebody in our high school orchestra should play viola. We needed a viola. So he got me a viola from somewhere, I don’t know. And the orchestra conductor at the Iowa State College 00:36:00 found the same viola I’d used in high school in Carlisle just by accident.
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake. So this allowed you a special place.
Fry: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Now one day I went in for my lesson. I was playing Mozart. One of the concertos of Mozart. I was playing badly. But anyway, she said, “You know, Jack, you’re not playing it in tune.”
And I said, “I think I am.” She played it on the piano.
I immediately said, “Oh, the piano’s out of tune.”
She laughed and said, “You know, one time I was practicing in Russia. And every time I played a passage, Heifetz pounded on the wall. And finally about the third day Heifetz broke in and said, ‘Ilza, you’re playing it wrong! You’re playing the wrong notes!’” And Ilza says, “No, look at the music.” He says, “It’s a misprint!” which it was. And so this was the learning experience of I had trained my ear incorrectly. That’s not an uncommon thing.
Tortorice: I see. Yeah.
Fry: The other thing which I was very impressed by her, after the first year, the second year, she turned to me and said, “You know, Jack, I think you’d do well to spend all of your time on engineering.” (laughter)
Tortorice: That was a very kind way—
Fry: That was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Yeah.
Tortorice: So you switched your emphasis.
Fry: I gave up.
Tortorice: And yet she still was the one that stimulated your academic interest.
Fry: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And in fact, in I think 1971, I went back to Iowa State College and gave a talk on the acoustics of violins. And there was Ilza Niemack sitting in the front row.
Fry: She was in her early eighties. But still very alert. We had a great time. That was a great time.
Tortorice: So after this transition over to engineering—
Fry: I stopped music.
Tortorice: You stopped music completely.
Tortorice: And you really dedicated yourself to—
Fry: Trying to become a better engineer.
Tortorice: And what kind of engineering?
Fry: Electrical engineering.
Tortorice: Electrical engineering, which is what you had been interested in at a younger age.
Fry: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: And so was there any teacher in that area that really influenced you, or any experiences?
Fry: Not strongly. But there was a teacher in physics that as I look back, 00:39:00 one of the students in the electrical engineering class that I was in took the physics course at the same time I did. It was a class with a section of maybe twenty. And after the second week, the professor who taught it, Lester Earls was his name, a wonderful man, came to me and said, “You know, Jack, do you know a student in this class by the name of Watson?”
I said, “Sure. Why?” He sits next to me.
“I call on him but he never answers, and I don’t know who he is.”
Well, it turns out that Ken[neth] Watson (b. 1921) was an outstanding student in electrical engineering. He was a straight A student. He got straight As in physics. But he was so bashful and timid, he talked so slowly, the professor never could hear him. Well, this is the Ken Watson who became the outstanding professor in theoretical physics later in life.
Tortorice: Really? [pause] I wonder. Maybe I should, it does say it’s recording. Sometimes I get a little worried, but I guess it’s fine.
Fry: Yeah. We’ll talk about him later, because he played a part in my life.
Tortorice: So, this was another amazing development that someone of such accomplishment was—
Fry: Yeah. Right. Was in my class. He was the outstanding student.
Fry: Well, let me just summarize. This guy graduated the same time I did. And he went to the same national laboratory I did in Washington, DC. Naval Research Laboratory. He had trouble communicating. And our department chairman never really respected him because he couldn’t communicate. So he gave him a desk in the corner back there and didn’t pay any attention to him. It turns out that, this was now during the war, it turns out that the laboratory was visited by the chairman of the radiation laboratory of Harvard University, who came down to the Naval Research Laboratory and said, “I understand that there’s a man by the name of Ken Watson who works here.”
And the department said, “Oh, yeah, but we don’t pay any attention to him. 00:42:00 He’s sitting over in the corner. Why?”
Well it turns out that he had in this time written the definitive article on noise jamming of transmission. He had done all the mathematics of controlling all the parameters of noise generation.
Fry: And what happened was, this guy kept writing reports, and my boss, our boss, his boss, couldn’t understand, he stamped them top-secret. And so that’s how they got to the radiation laboratory.
Tortorice: Oh, how funny. Isn’t that amazing? (laughs)
Fry: So when the war was over, well, this guy always had trouble communicating. And during the war, we were put in uniform. And this guy’s a stumblebum. And there was a time when we were doing exercise and there was a military officer that came to inspect us. He saluted with his left hand instead of his right hand. (laughter) He also fell out of line one time. He had a hard time. But anyway.
Tortorice: So you, a couple of years into your college education, the war was declared.
Fry: That’s right. And we got deferred because we were in engineering, which got a deferment.
Tortorice: I see. And I assume that there were a lot of major changes with many of your friends and maybe even family being drafted?
Fry: Well, you see, we graduated in 43 and the war wasn’t over until 45.
Tortorice: And so at that point then did you have to go into the army?
Fry: No. No. I went to research laboratory in, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. As a civilian. But the next year we were given a uniform and we were then in the navy officially. But we still had the same job.
Tortorice: You basically were doing your science.
Fry: Yeah. Right.
Tortorice: So to do that, you must have been by that time a very good student and had really taken to engineering and accomplished satisfactory—
Fry: I wish it were true, but it is not true. I was never a good student as an undergraduate. I think my average grade as an undergraduate was C+. Not very good. I woke up, so to speak, when I went to Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. Because this was a laboratory which was involved in part, my division that I was in, in guided missile jamming and that sort of thing. And so I was given the job to build a transmitter which was used 00:45:00 to deflect German bombs. This is a story a little later on, maybe.
Tortorice: Okay. So now you are at the end of your college career.
Tortorice: Is there anything else you want to mention about your college years? Now your current wife Audrey who grew up with you and who went to high school with you—
Fry: All the grade school, too.
Tortorice: Grade school.
Tortorice: During these years, was she in college, also, with you?
Fry: No. She was a year behind me because she moved to Carlisle, I think, when she was in the third grade. And she had gone to a school where there was a kindergarten. So for her age, she was a year behind, even though we’re the same age. So she was a year behind in high school. She graduated in 1940. And she went into nursing.
Tortorice: I see.
Fry: But we had dated when, the summer, no, the year I was in college and she was in nursing school, graduated. But then we sort of went on our own separate ways then.
Tortorice: So during the war years, was she working in a military hospital?
Fry: No. She was doing nursing duty in the hospital in Des Moines. And then in college, I had met my first wife, Virgie Eastburn (1921-2013). She entered the college the same time I did and graduated at the same time. And we were married at the time of our graduation from college.
Tortorice: I see. So already you were married.
Tortorice: Okay. So then we go out to the Naval—
Fry: Research Laboratory.
Tortorice: Research Laboratory in Washington, is that right?
Fry: In Washington, DC.
Tortorice: Okay. So tell us about that and some of the—
Fry: It was a great awakening because I had responsibility. And I knew how to build electronic devices probably as well as anybody in the laboratory. And at one stage shortly after I got there, one of the directors of the laboratory decided that there needed to be a jamming system because the Germans had developed a bomb which was guided by radio control from the airplane as it was dropped. So you could visually see the bomb and guide it by controls. And so the Naval Research Laboratory got a ship and put it 00:48:00 in the Mediterranean. Built a bonfire on it so it was clear that they would see it. And they dropped a bomb and the American ship had receiver and recording techniques to pick up the signal that they used for dropping the bomb.
So the next week we got this tape. And it was clear that the signal was a frequency modulated control of this bomb. And so my boss said “Jack, you’ve got to build a high-powered transmitter to jam these guided bombs.” And so it took a lot of effort and there were about eight of us worked on it. I was the one responsible for it. I designed it. We built a prototype in the Naval Research Laboratory, which took only two weeks. Then the one which would be on ship was built by a company in New York. So I lived for a month and a half in New York City supervising the construction of this device. It would put on a ship and indeed they jammed effectively all their bombs.
Tortorice: My, so you made a major contribution to the war effort.
Fry: Yes, that’s right. I got some citation for that. Yeah.
Tortorice: I imagine!
Fry: And then the thing that happened was the Germans developed something, it’s hard to believe, a method of unrolling electrical cord fast enough so that the bomb maintained this attachment to this electrical cord and sent the signal down the cord. You’d never jam that.
Tortorice: No. Amazing.
Fry: But that took another six months or something like that before it was operating, and that was towards the end of the war.
Tortorice: And was this your first experience of leading a group effort and motivating people and administrating an effort in science of this type?
Fry: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Tortorice: And what was that like? I mean, did you find that you took to it easily? Did you think about it much, or did it just come naturally that you were all working on the same goal?
Fry: As I look back on it, I enjoyed it. I had one worker who wound coils for me who got very frustrated. And he just destroyed some things, and that bothered me, because I knew the timescale was important. And the company in New York had 00:51:00 administrative problems. And I was frustrated by that. I couldn’t do anything about the administration of that. But all in all, it went well.
Tortorice: So you have this ability to really work collaboratively.
Tortorice: And to lead the—
Fry: There were, I think technically four electrical engineers where we worked together. I was the youngest. But the other people didn’t want to take the responsibility. And they did some incompetent things and I just lost patience with them. And my boss never got involved, but he noticed what was going on.
Tortorice: He was able to select you for—
Fry: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: So was there anything, that’s where you spent the war years, pretty much.
Fry: But, but, during the war years, I became more interested in the question why rather than how.
Tortorice: Explain that.
Fry: Engineers build things. Their basic knowledge of the fundamentals are taught to them. They don’t do research on the fundamentals. They develop skills and ways of improving and utilizing basic things which are taught them. But I was interested because of my reading things in the Iowa State College Library. I had a box of, every time you checked out a book, you filled out a slip. And you got one and they took the other one. So I don’t know why, but I kept this box of slips. And oh, fifteen years later or so in the attic I found this box of slips. And I realized, gee, I’d read the right things. I was beginning to get awakened in many things.
So I thought there’s more to it than what I’m doing. I’d better go back to college. So I went to night school.
Tortorice: While you were working at the Naval—
Fry: At Naval Research Laboratory. During the war. And fortunately, I went to George Washington University, fortunately George Gamow taught physics at George W University.
Tortorice: And who was he?
Fry: George Gamow (1904-1968)? George Gamow is one of the leading theoretical physicists of our time. He is the one who developed the Big Bang. He is the one who pointed out the importance 00:54:00 of tunneling, which is a thing of quantum mechanics. An internationally well-known scholar. He defected from Russia. And because he was Russian, he was never given the opportunity to work on the atomic bomb. He was given a mundane job at the naval ship station. That’s not quite right. Not Naval Research Laboratory, but where they did wind tunnels and that sort of thing. And so to sort of keep going in theoretical physics, he taught.
Tortorice: And he happened to be teaching this night course?
Tortorice: Another great stroke of luck.
Fry: Oh, yeah! That’s the reason I’m a physicist.
Fry: He was a very inspiring man. And suddenly the whole field of physics—and he taught, the course I took was nuclear physics—and he taught it in a very interesting way. He was a charming man with lots of energy. And of course he had all the history of growing up during the development of quantum mechanics, the use of quantum mechanics in astrophysics, and so on.
Tortorice: You said an interesting way, that he taught the course in an interesting way. What do you mean by that? That he looked at it—
Fry: He talked about ideas.
Tortorice: I see. Not just formulas.
Fry: Not just mathematics of solutions to things. In fact, he didn’t teach me very much about how to solve problems. But he taught me about the ideas that were behind physics, and that was the inspiring thing.
So I decided I would go into physics. Due to George Gamow. And you know, he wrote some very interesting books for non-science people. Birth and Death of the Sun (June 1940) is one of the great books he wrote.
Tortorice: I’ve heard of that book.
Fry: And he wrote One, Two, Three … Infinity (September 1947). He wrote a book of Alice in Wonderland [Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940)], which is a parody on relativity. And of course his big contribution to ideas is the Big Bang. And the Big Bang work was done by him in the beginning.
Tortorice: Well, between Gamow and your violin teacher, we see this kind of incredible enrichment of American culture by—
Fry: I was extremely fortunate.
Tortorice: —by these exiles, essentially, at that period.
Fry: Yeah. Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh, yeah.
Tortorice: The really brought—00:57:00
Fry: They brought culture.
Tortorice: —to your life, and to so many other people’s lives.
Fry: Technical culture to me. Right, right.
Tortorice: It’s an amazing story that this, these two major figures in your development were both immigrants, essentially.
Fry: That’s true. I never thought of that. That’s true. That’s true.
Tortorice: So you’re at the end of your stay at the—
Fry: Naval Research Laboratory.
Tortorice: Yes. Anything more from that period you want to mention?
Fry: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. Another world. After the war was over, we brought back to the United States the V-2 bombs from Germany.
Tortorice: Oh, yes.
Fry: They were brought to the, what’s it called? White Sands testing facility in White Sands, New Mexico, and were fired. [Wernher] von Braun (1912-1977) came along as well as four other highly technical men, all of which were much more informed and better-trained people than von Braun. Von Braun was the leader.
Tortorice: Interesting. Because he’s always given credit for all of this.
Fry: That’s right. But he was not the idea, he was not the technically informed man. He was an administrator. But he was in charge of the V-2 program in Germany.
Tortorice: So he got both the credit and the blame in this country.
Fry: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: Really recreated himself and moved into this—
Fry: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Into the missile business. So, the Naval Research Laboratory decided that they should use and get involved in the V-2 program in White Sands. And I tried to convince the head of the section of the Naval Research Laboratory that I’d like to do some research on gases. The guy said, “Go ahead. We’ll supply you with everything you need.”
So I spent two months trying to understand plasma physics in a very simple way. But enough that I convinced my boss that I should be the one sent to White Sands. So I was sent as an ambassador or the scientific representative of the Naval Research Laboratory at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. And my colleague who worked with me at the Naval Research Laboratory, one of my colleagues, was a man who was also strange, in a sense. He never got involved with people and he had his own interests. But he was interested, 01:00:00 he was an electrical engineer and he was interested in the reflection of radio waves from the ionosphere.
You know, the nighttime, the ionosphere becomes less conductive so that it doesn’t absorb the radiation, but it reflects it. So the reason that we can hear London in the middle of the night is that the signal from London goes up in the atmosphere and gets reflected down.
Tortorice: [Guglielmo] Marconi (1874-1937) and all of that—
Fry: Yeah, yeah. So he was interested in that, and he was interested in trying to understand how radio waves get reflected by the ionosphere. And I had thought about plasma physics, so I got talking with him. And he said, “You know, let’s do an experiment on the V-2 program. Because it goes up in the atmosphere. It goes a hundred miles high. And so it enters the atmosphere.”
So I made a proposal building a system which would send a signal back down but which would then get absorbed by the radio waves in the ionosphere. So this, my colleague, who actually knew more than I did about this, he had thought about it a long time, he sort of convinced me not to do that, but to do my own experiment. So I thought well, there’s another problem with the V-2 rockets. Namely the jet that comes out of the V-2 rocket, it’s a good conductor. You can send a radio wave through it. So I said the thing to do is to measure the attenuation of a radio signal through the rocket jet and see how much attenuation it is.
So I built a transmitter up in the warhead and a receiver, transmitter went down on the one tail fin. The radiation was sent across the jet, received on the other side and goes back up to that. And the signal then, the transmitted and the received signal is sent by telemetering back down to the ground. So you can measure this while the rocket is going.
So I built this and it was installed. The first rocket went, when the rocket was fired—that was a long story—but anyway, the rocket was fired, I could not get a signal. And I couldn’t figure out what on earth was wrong. I could never get a signal through the rocket even before it was turned on. So I said, “Look, the next time that they install my equipment, I’m going to watch and see. Because there’s something that destroyed the signal 01:03:00 between the transmitter and the jet.”
Well, it turns out I was sending a signal inside these small pipes, transmission pipe, microwave pipes. And when the Germans installed it, they insisted the Germans install all the things, because we were unsure about rockets and things.
Tortorice: They had the expertise.
Fry: They mounted this microwave pipe by drilling holes through it and putting bolts through it.
Tortorice: Oh! (laughs) Well, that ruined your transmission.
Fry: But then that next experiment worked.
Tortorice: That worked.
Fry: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: I bet that was a great—
Fry: That was a great coup. Yeah.
Tortorice: —coup for you.
Fry: And in fact it turns out that the reason that you can get a signal through it is that sodium for these frequencies ionizes. And that ionized sodium becomes just as equivalent to a piece of metal for a rocket. So to get rid of that problem, you had to get rid of the sodium. But you had to get rid of it to ten parts in a million. The sodium in the water, which was burned in the alcohol, had 200 parts per million. So it turns out you just can’t get the sodium content low enough to solve the problem.
Tortorice: So you felt a real sense of, well, that you had the skills to do this kind of hands-on experimental physics—
Fry: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: —that that really was what excited you. Figuring out—
Fry: Just figuring out how to make things work.
Tortorice: How to make something work. A problem.
Fry: And deciding what is the physics that goes on behind these complicated things. Well, for example, there is a resonance in gases which was discovered by an Indian scientist, oh, 1925 or 1930. And I had heard about this. And that was an important part of the conductivity of it. One time fifteen years ago there was a conference in Madison on the absorption in interstellar space of certain types of radiation. And I said, “Well, the problem is, Meghnad Saha’s (1893-1956) equation tells you that the density of this is such and such.”
And the committee turned around and said, “Who’s [Saha?]?” Because I had studied gases, it worked right straight application into astrophysics.
Tortorice: So 01:06:00 tell me the process of how you approach a problem. Do you think about it deeply first and then approach it with various solutions? Do you work it out on paper? I mean, how did you all of a sudden develop these skills? Because you really by that point didn’t have a lot of education in this area. It was really more practical commonsense approach to figuring out—
Fry: You always start by trying to answer why. Why is it doing what it is? Why is it important? What ideas is behind the functioning of it? And I think that’s the glue for physics. Physics always wants to answer why.
Tortorice: So you would look at the problem and you would ask that question.
Fry: Why was a hot gas so damn good conductor?
Tortorice: Uh huh. And so then you would go out trying to figure out a solution? And you would approach it from various—
Fry: Trying to understand what’s going on in the gas. What controls the conductivity of the gas at those microwave frequencies. What’s going on. Atomic collisions. The temperature makes the electron density significant because of ionization. One part in a million gets ionized. But there’s millions and millions of stuff, so that means there’s a lot of electrons. Why does the electrons absorb it? Because the electrons get deviated. If electrons are free, they don’t absorb it, they just re-radiate it.
Tortorice: And so you immediately took to this kind of problem solving and then—
Fry: All physicists would give you the same answer.
Tortorice: Yeah. Right. Okay. Do you want to stop at all?
Fry: Let’s stop, and let’s maybe. [pause]
Tortorice: So Jack, you are now decided on a career and you have shown your mettle and found something that you really enjoy. And you decided to go to graduate school in physics. And so where did you decide to go?
Fry: I decided to go back to Iowa State College in Ames.
Tortorice: Ah, okay.
Fry: And I was restricted by that choice because my undergraduate grades were so poor that I had no hope of getting into graduate school elsewhere. 01:09:00 Fortunately, my boss was a very good friend of the department chairman at Iowa State.
Tortorice: Your boss in Washington.
Fry: At the Naval Research Laboratory. So he said, “Well, look, I’ll write a letter and make sure that you can get in.”
So I went back to there and talked to the department chairman. He said, “Yes, we got a very good letter of recommendation. But we looked at your undergraduate grades and the committee decided that you’d have to be admitted on probation. And we decided to make it a very severe probation because of your low grades.” And somehow or other my night program never got involved in it, so.
Tortorice: Oh, night school.
Fry: Night school with George Gamow.
Tortorice: So they hadn’t really taken that into consideration.
Fry: So they said, “We will give you two semesters on probation. You have to take theoretical physics and thermodynamics and get As in them.”
Tortorice: Oh, my.
Fry: And theoretical physics was the second-year course. And thermodynamics was a second or third-year course normally. So they really threw the books at me. And fortunately I got As in them, so.
Tortorice: Oh, great. Great. That’s great.
Fry: So that settled that problem. And then at Iowa State, fortunately there were three staff members who I felt were really outstanding physicists. One was Frank [Harold Spedding] (1902-1984), was Oppenheimer’s first student. And the other one was an experimentalist who had worked with developing the first cyclotron.
Tortorice: At the Lawrence Lab would that have been, in California?
Fry: Yes, yes.
Tortorice: Do you recall the names of these?
Fry: Oh, yes. I have to think though. One was Julian Knipp (1910-1990), who eventually turned out to be my major professor. The other one was Joseph Keller (d. 1971). And the other one was a student of Oppenheimer. I can’t think of his name right now. But anyway, he was famous because he and Oppenheimer had written a joint paper on one of the fundamental aspects of electro thermodynamics. Keller, I don’t know where he was trained. Somewhere in one of the eastern schools. 01:12:00 Julian Knipp was a well-known theoretical physicist who had studied with Niels Bohr (1885-1962). And had been with several groups in Europe and had a very broad education.
The first two years I spent just really taking coursework. But I had decided, I first decided to go into biophysics because there was a very young man there who was very inviting and was interested in getting some graduate students. But I quickly decided that was not really my interest. And so I decided that I would do work on fundamental particle physics, high-energy physics. There was no one there doing that work. And so I was by myself. And that’s why I got associated with a theorist. Joe Keller was extremely kind. There was no place for me. I had a desk in the basement. And he invited me to share his office, which was very kind of him and very thoughtful. And Julian Knipp was interested in things I was doing. I decided to use the latest techniques that involved nuclear emulsions, which had been developed by [Giuseppe] Occhialini (1907-1993) in Italy and Cecil Powell (1903-1969) in Bristol, England. And they had shown that if you increase the density of the silver bromide crystals, made the density very high, you could see the trajectories of particles that had gone through the emulsion. And by looking under a high-powered magnification, you could discern each grain. And the grains were about a micron in diameter. Very, very small. So the resolution was very high.
And I had read in some of the scientific journals about the work of the people who had done work on nuclear emulsions in England, principally, and decided that’s what I wanted to do. And so I decided that the way to expose the plates was to fly them up in the high atmosphere by means of balloons. So I 01:15:00 got some weather balloons and I got some nuclear emulsions from England. Ilford was the company, the only place that manufactured these specialized emulsions. And so I had I think about ten balloon flights, of which they went to about seventy thousand feet to a hundred thousand feet, and the balloon broke and then they came down again. So I left a note on the box saying notify me and I’ll come and pick up the nuclear emulsion.
So I had nuclear emulsions exposed to very high-energy cosmic rays. And in the nuclear emulsions were all of the, production of all the fundamental particles that now we know exist. Because the energies were very high.
So I started just looking at the nuclear emulsions, not knowing what particularly to look for. I had learned that Powell in England had gotten a Nobel Prize for discovering the pi-mu decay, which is the process of decay of fundamental particles. So I decided, and there were a lot of them in my emulsion. And I decided to study them. And I found two cases, two examples, where because the decay is a two-body process. One is a neutrino and the other is the mu-meson. And since only two bodies involved, the energy of the mu-meson is fixed. So the range of the mu-meson is fixed in the nuclear emulsion. And I found two examples where the range was only about half the predictive value, the known value. And so I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t know an explanation for it. And so I sat about and in a period of about three months, I found five of these, not of exact range, but at the variation in range, all short compared to the normal mu decay range.
And nobody there had really thought about fundamental particles. So there was no one to talk to about the physics of it. So I decided to publish it just stating what I saw with photographs. And I thought it was very unusual and probably not be published by Physics Review, which is the leading physics journal in the United States. So I sent it to an Italian journal. And fortunately, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) always read his Italian journals, and read the article. 01:18:00 And he was chairing a session in New York on high-energy physics, we called it at that time. Cosmic rays, high-energy physics. And there was a man from Columbia University presented a paper on these unusual pi-mu decays.
And Enrico Fermi said, I wasn’t there, but other people told me, “There is someone in Iowa who published a paper three months ago on this phenomenon. Why didn’t you quote him?” And he didn’t reply. And then the rate in which he found these—and they’re quite rare, one in a thousand—was five times higher than what I had found.
And so I was very upset as a graduate student. I got in the car and drove to Columbia University. And brought along my plates. They were microscope slides, actually. And I looked at his plates. And it was clear his plates had a lot of distortion in them. And some of the events which looked like they were short had been just the range changed by the distortion in the emulsion. And so I convinced him that actually his rate was probably wrong.
So then he published another paper with the rate half of what I had given.
Tortorice: And he still didn’t cite you?
Fry: No. They still didn’t cite my original publication. Well, I’ve forgotten what theorist, but some theorist at Columbia University decided that this guy, who was an assistant professor, was not being well-behaved scientifically. They fired him. And when I wrote my thesis, it was on another subject but related to that. Julian Knipp, the theorist, really convinced me that I should apply for a postdoctoral appointment. And of course he had heard about Enrico Fermi’s comment. So he asked Enrico Fermi to write a recommendation for me and describe my procedure. And I immediately got the fellowship. Postdoctoral fellowship.
Tortorice: So Fermi wrote on your behalf?
Tortorice: So for you, this was a great—
Fry: That was a great coup. (laughs)
Tortorice: —another great—
Tortorice: Accident. Good luck. (laughter)
Fry: Good luck.
Tortorice: Well, that’s a wonderful story. 01:21:00 So then where did you go for the postdoc?
Fry: So the interesting thing was, two months after I published the paper, there were three theorists which gave the physics interpretation of the whole phenomenon. And what happens is that when the pi meson stops and is stationary. When it decays, the mu-meson moves very quickly. And in the process of this acceleration of the charge, there’s a gamma ray emitted. So that was then a three-particle decay. And so that got rid of the uniqueness of the rate. And one theorist was [Jayme] Tiomno (1920-2011), a theorist in Brazil. The other was Henry Primakoff (1914-1983), who was a very famous theorist in Pennsylvania. And the other one was a professor at the University of Illinois. It all came out and they could calculate the rate to agree exactly with the result I had given.
Tortorice: Did your technique of using the balloons, was that replicated by others? Was that something that you really pioneered? Or was it—
Fry: Well, it developed into a normal procedure for exposing emulsions. And then they developed very high-flying, long-lasting plastic balloons. See, these were rubber balloons. These are meteorological balloons. And they expanded as you decreased the pressure as it went up. And of course then it got to a point where they would break.
Tortorice: They would explode.
Fry: But then they developed a series of plastic balloons which would stay up for ten, fifteen, eighteen hours. They would track them by radar and then recover the big thing. So that was the means of getting high-energy particles to study. Because the energy was millions of times bigger than any accelerator that we had built at that time.
Tortorice: At that point. Wow. Interesting.
Fry: So it was an energy source.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. Well, a very ecologically appealing source to use the—
Fry: Yes. Yes. One of my balloons got trapped in a Jetstream. And normally because of prevailing winds from the west, they would go maybe fifty miles from where I released them. That would be about the average distance. But this went all the way to the eastern coast of Canada near the Atlantic Ocean. It was picked up by police and 01:24:00 it was mailed back to me. But it had been exposed so long that the emulsions just literally filled with millions of tracks of particles in them.
Tortorice: Wow. So it was hard to decipher that.
Fry: I couldn’t use them. So, I got the postdoctoral appointment and due to Fermi, I was invited to go to Chicago. So I spent a year not with Fermi’s group directly, but with Marcel Schein (1902-1960). But Fermi had built and had friends build this cyclotron, which was the largest cyclotron that existed at that time. So I got involved in using the cyclotron along with Fermi’s group. So I got to know Fermi there.
Tortorice: And what was he like? I’ve heard that he was a very appealing man, a very kind person. That his wife was also a very appealing person. Modest.
Fry: The first impression I got of Fermi was that he was a very simple man. He had no pretentiousness about his demeanor. And I remember I went to the railway station to meet him, to pick him up to drive him back to the university. He would not let me carry his suitcase. He just felt that was demeaning. He was an almost unique combination of an experimentalist and a theorist. And he among probably all the people I knew had more numbers in his head of consequence. He could sit down and he was famous for this, of calculating things on the back of an envelope. He didn’t need a handbook to look up numbers. And there’s a famous story which I enjoy hearing. I heard it from the man who was with him. Of course, Fermi was building the Pile in Chicago. He was normally at Columbia University initially. But they decided the place to build the Pile was Chicago. So he transferred professorship to University of Chicago. And that’s how he became associated there. He and the department chairman typically almost every month would go to Los Alamos. Fly on a plane.
And on one of the flights, he told the department chairman [Samuel King] Allison (1900-1965), “You know, there’s something strange. Every time I go to Los Alamos, my wristwatch gains 01:27:00 about a minute or two minutes. Two or three seconds.”
And Fermi said, “Oh?” Pulled out an envelope and started calculating. He says, “It should be 2.3 seconds.”
Tortorice: (laughs) Amazing.
Fry: What it was, is that when the airplane was not pressurized, when it went to high altitude, the air friction in the flywheel diminished, and so the watch gained time. Now the important thing is, first of all, Fermi immediately thought through on what the explanation was and why. Secondly, he knew the coefficient of friction of air.
Fry: Which is amazing. And he knew it the right orders of magnitude and could calculate it in five minutes what the effect was.
Tortorice: Well, so a very inspiring.
Fry: Very inspiring man. And I remember shortly after I went there on the postdoctoral appointment, they asked me to give a colloquium talk, which is every Friday. And I was talking about new meson physics, which I had used a cyclotron to produce the new mesons. And Fermi raises his hand up and they said, “I think the value in this equation is not right.”
And I thought, and it was a simple calculation. I thought. I said, “Well, maybe you’re right, but I don’t think so.” And it was ended.
After the colloquium was over, his leading student came up to me, who was a good friend of mine, Art Rosenfeld (1926-2017). He said, “You know, Jack, occasionally Fermi makes a mistake. But it’s really rare. You’d better go back and find out what’s wrong.” (laughter) Of course, I’d made a mistake.
But there were two things. First of all, he could calculate in his head, which I could never do, of course. Secondly, he didn’t enforce his opinion. It was just a polite telling me that something’s wrong. You know many people would grind it into the ground and you know—
Tortorice: Very charming.
Fry: A good, very productive way of doing it, yes.
Tortorice: Indeed. That’s a great teacher.
Fry: That’s a great teacher, yes.
Tortorice: So were there some other individuals there that stand out that you’d like to mention?
Fry: Yes. The person who I joined, the group 01:30:00 I joined, was an experimentalist by the name of Marcel Schein (1902-1960). And he was a very interesting man. He is the one who proved that the fundamental particles in cosmic rays were protons. Everybody before said they were electrons. And by doing experiments, he proved that indeed they were protons. And I’d heard a lot of things about Marcel Schein. He was born in Switzerland. He grew up there. Educated in Europe. And was doing work on high energy physics and was asked to join University of Chicago. A very inventive man. But he could not calculate anything. He somehow had never developed the skills of being able to calculate quantitative things. But yet this man had three of the very important ideas that developed into being very important in cosmic ray physics.
Tortorice: So he was able to conceive—
Tortorice: —and think through problems.
Fry: Yep. Right, right.
Tortorice: But he just couldn’t do the calculations to solve them.
Fry: And this was very frustrating. Because you know, if you’re a young guy and you are trained to do this sort of thing and it’s sort of second nature, not necessarily experimentalists as much as theorists, there was a feeling, and by some of the younger people in his group, that Marcel Schein was incompetent. He can’t calculate anything. They didn’t see the important aspect that Marcel Schein contributed to physics, and indeed the world in general recognized him. But quite often, they would sort of make fun of him sometimes. And so the man suffered from a complex. And the group sort of broke up when I was there. I was spending probably more time with the group of Enrico Fermi than with him because I got involved in the pi-mu decays from the particles.
And so I was planning to stay there another year. But the group just broke up and all his people left him and he was there by himself. And so I decided that I had to go someplace else. And so I contacted my major professor back in Iowa State, Julian Knipp. 01:33:00 And he said, “I have a very good friend here at the University of Wisconsin. And I’ll write him a letter. And University of Wisconsin doesn’t have any high energy physics. And you probably could start a group there.”
So he had written his friend, who was Bob [Robert J.] Sachs (1916-1999). You may have heard of Bob Sachs. He was a theorist in the physics department. And said, you know, “Why don’t you hire this guy?” And so I got a letter saying, “Won’t you please come up and give a talk here at the university? And we’re interested in starting a high energy physics program.”
Tortorice: And what year was that?
Fry: It was in 1952.
Tortorice: Oh, 52. So you were in Chicago, so you graduated, you got your degree in what year in Iowa?
Fry: In late 49.
Tortorice: Okay. And then you were in Chicago for—
Fry: For one year.
Fry: And so I came up here, I came by train. And it was a terrible day. It was raining and blowing. I fell in a ditch in Chicago. Just got filthy from head to toe. I had to make my train. So I arrived in Madison with a dirty suit and a dirty coat.
Tortorice: (laughs) Oh my goodness.
Fry: And I gave the talk here, which was not one of my very inspiring talks. I was put up in the Student Union. And there was a party that night and I didn’t get much sleep. I gave this talk. And after it was over, I met Bob Sachs, of course. And then I met other people in the department. And they didn’t show much enthusiasm for starting a high energy physics program. Because the physics department up to that time had been very well recognized as a center of nuclear physics. And they wanted to, most people wanted to expand nuclear physics.
Tortorice: They were involved with Oppenheimer and all of the—
Fry: Yes. Because Ray Herb, have you heard of Ray[mond] Herb (1908-1996)? You probably have. Ray Herb developed this linear accelerator. Which was physically packed away and moved to Los Alamos. And it was this accelerator which presented Los Alamos to measure the cross sections of all the rare earths. Which is very critical, because the rare earth has a high cross-section absorption, cross-section for neutrons. And if you don’t get rid of the rare earth, the neutron flux gets swallowed up and you never can build a bomb.
Tortorice: So they had a successful program.
Fry: Oh, yes. Very successful program. And Heinz Barschall [Henry Herman Barschall (1915-1997)] was one of the leading men. And he was the one that emphasized 01:36:00 the importance of measuring all of these cross sections. And he was involved in measuring many of them. And Ray[mond] Herb (1908-1996), of course, had gone down there to operate his accelerator. And Hugh Richards (1918-2006), who was a nuclear experimentalist, had gone with Ray Herb. He worked with Ray Herb and so on. And a couple of graduate students. Then there was a man who was an optician here, Julian [Ellis] Mack (1903-1966) who was a spectroscopist. And they needed someone who could do good spectroscopy of rare earths. And Julian Mack worked on that and played a very critical role. So Wisconsin was heavily involved in the experimental program at Los Alamos.
Tortorice: So you arrived and—
Fry: I arrived and gave this talk. And another thing happened. They said, you know, every candidate has to meet the president of the university. Fine. So I went with Bob Sachs and we, this was Fred [Harvey Harrington (1912-1995)]. Went into his office. And Fred was a very interesting man. He was non-pretentious, friendly, talkative. And we talked about Lake Mendota all the time. (Tortorice laughs) He never asked me a single thing about, I thought this is just a bust. I blew it again. Well, he didn’t know nuclear physics. I didn’t know anything about Lake Mendota. So we just tried to carry on for this half hour that we were obligated to do.
Tortorice: Well, he still was probably evaluating you the whole time.
Fry: Oh, he was. Oh, he was.
Tortorice: Because he had a reputation for not talking about specifics but still—
Fry: No, that’s right. There’s more to one’s demeanor than just plain knowledge of your specialty.
Tortorice: Yes. Right.
Fry: Right. So I went back to Chicago very disappointed. I thought I just blew it. And in two weeks I got a letter from University of Wisconsin saying we are offering you assistant professor for the fall. I said, hey, that’s great. And Schein’s group had broken up from Chicago. So I was very glad. I drove up here with my family. And Bill [William] Beeman (1911-1987) was the department chairman. And Bill Beeman was a very outgoing, jolly, jokedy sort of fellow. And he said, “You know what you need. We’ll give it to you.”
And I said, “Well, I need an office. And maybe if it could be arranged, a telephone.”
“Of course you can have a telephone.” And he said, “Do you have any preferences in teaching?” (phone interruption)
So, interesting enough. I arrived. There was no documents 01:39:00 I signed. I never got any communication from either the department or the university. And I started teaching. And at the end of the month, I begin to wonder am I really on the staff or not, because there was no document saying that I belonged to University of Wisconsin. But I got a paycheck, so I decided not to worry about it. So I never received any notification of joining the staff.
Tortorice: Wow. That’s—
Fry: The first identification I ever got was an identification for the library. Of course now it’s—
Tortorice: It’s much different.
Fry: Much different. Yeah.
Tortorice: Yes. So, that fall, then you came to Madison. And what was Madison like when you arrived here? What was the department like?
Fry: The department had about twenty-one staff members. Now I think the number is probably fifty-eight or something like that. So it was not small but not large either. And it was a, I would say a relatively closely knit department. It was clearly very democratic. I was informed at the first department meeting, and there was a department meeting every month, that the newest staff member had to keep the notes for the meeting. So I took notes. Everything was voted on. Including everyone’s salary. By everybody. It was passed out a sheet with all the staff people’s names and their salary.
Tortorice: My goodness.
Fry: And you filled out what your recommendation was for promotion.
Tortorice: For your colleagues.
Fry: For your colleagues. Yours was, let’s see. Yes, your salary was left out.
Tortorice: Of your sheet.
Tortorice: Boy, that must have created a certain tension.
Fry: But they still do it.
Tortorice: I know it. I don’t think they do it quite as blatantly.
Fry: No, not as blatantly as that.
Tortorice: My goodness.
Fry: It had good things. It had good things as long as there were outstanding people who had major control of it. So the department chairman was just a figurehead. An organizer.
Tortorice: I see.
Fry: And there were about three or four people in the department who made the major decisions. And then under those conditions, it worked very well. But when the department got much larger, 01:42:00 the democracy got more enforced and it became a leveling process. And that became a deterioration.
Tortorice: By leveling process, people tended to want to replicate their level of work and they saw people who were—
Tortorice: —and salary and so they saw people that—
Fry: The real outstanding person never really got much different than the media. And the lowest person, there were a few cases where they were quite low in salary. But in general, the spread was—
Tortorice: In the middle.
Fry: In the middle. And that was a problem because we lost people. And of course then you lose the best people.
Tortorice: But the department really didn’t respond, or the university with a different approach?
Fry: No. No.
Tortorice: Or realize this?
Fry: Just a gradual migration of modification. Yes. So, they gave me an office, they gave me a room for research which was the size of an office, which is all I really needed and wanted. And I decided that if I was going to do high energy physics, I was going to need some support. So I applied to the Atomic Energy Commission at that time for support. And my budget request was either five thousand or six thousand dollars a year. I didn’t hear from them for a while. Which I thought was a long time. I think maybe a month. I finally got a letter back saying, “We have considered your proposal but we cannot yet support your program because there is similar work being done at University of Chicago.” I don’t know anybody at University of Chicago that’s doing that work. Well, it turns out that guy was me. (laughs) So Bob Sachs wrote them back a letter saying that they had better look into the name of the guy in Chicago. Yeah, it was my work. So I immediately got support.
But in the meantime, I’d gotten support from WARF. And that was really critical, because I was able to take on a graduate student. I was able to get a microscope for him as well as for me. And the grant from WARF, I think, was four thousand dollars or something like that. But it was vital.
And WARF has played that role in the physics department very well. It has been a very important thing for the young people who have joined the staff. So that 01:45:00 support then was carried over to the people we hired. The next person we hired was a man by the name of Bill Walker (1923-2010) who was a graduate of Cornell University. Had very high recommendations and was an outstanding student of, what is the man, very famous, he trained a lot of physicists at Cornell. Terrible. Anyway, he came and started his own group. And then the third person was Ugo.
Tortorice: [Ugo] Camerini (1925-2014)?
Fry: Camerini. Now Camerini had, was living in Brazil because he was a Jew and the family had moved from Italy. And he had, on the recommendations of [Jayme] Tiomno (1920-2011) the theorist in Brazil and other people, had gotten a fellowship to work with Powell in Bristol. And so his name appeared on several of the leading papers along with others. And that’s how I was very encouraged to try to get him to come here. His colleague came here to visit because of nuclear physics. And he told me that Camerini was interested in coming. And I said, “Oh, I’m interested in hiring him.” Nothing more was said. I left for Europe. And Ugo Camerini showed up because he had just assumed that when his colleague went back and said, “We’re interested,” that he had an offer. No offer was made.
Tortorice: (laughs) How amazing!
Fry: And he never got a contract, either. He just showed up.
Tortorice: Showed up and started working.
Fry: Showed up with his family out of the blue. And doesn’t have a doctor’s degree. He never wrote his thesis in Bristol.
Tortorice: Really? Wow.
Fry: No problem. We hired him.
Fry: So the program expanded and it gradually grew with some quite capable people, which had different interests. And one of the things which I felt was productive was the fact that it wasn’t one big group which represented a particular interest. It was a group of various people with differing interests who brought different aspects to high energy physics to the department. And because of that, and because I had start—(phone rings) Is that me? The department was one of the earliest universities aside from Stanford and MIT that started to get funding from the Atomic Energy Commission. And because 01:48:00 of that, our budget was growing while the others were starting. So for almost twenty years, the high energy physics program at Wisconsin was the highest of all the funded programs in the United States, except in a later period, MIT did a little better than we did, but other than that. So it got really very good support from the Atomic Energy Commission.
Tortorice: Wow. From the beginning.
Fry: Primarily because of diversity and the fact that we’d started early.
Tortorice: And then coupled with the WARF funding, it really gave the department a basis of—
Fry: It took off. Yes. Yes.
Tortorice: —the kind of resources that needed to really grow in the 50s.
Fry: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Well, I don’t want to get involved in terms of what the activities were. I just felt that I’d come to a university where I was first of all, given support. Support financially but also support from attitudes of people. And early stages, Bob Sachs played the critical role that of sort of discouraging other department members from trying to suppress the high energy physics program. There were quite a few who were quite outspoken that wanted it to grow. But that’s not all. It wasn’t true of others, because they wanted their program to grow.
So the program grew, I think probably as fast as any program I know. And I was the principal investigator for the program essentially most of the time. And by the time I left, it had grown to an income of 6.7 million a year.
Tortorice: Wow. And what year was that that you left?
Fry: Well, let’s see. I relinquished my responsibility, I think it was 91.
Tortorice: Okay. And so these years when you first came to Madison and were active in the department initially, were years of important discoveries in high-energy physics and an exciting time in the field.
Fry: Right. The field was just beginning. And when I got involved in the field, the basic fundamental particles that we dealt with were just pi-mu mesons. And I was involved not in the discovery of the K0 meson, but in all of the K0 meson physics at the very beginning.
I will toot 01:51:00 my horn in one case. There was a meeting in Geneva. There was a conference of high energy physics programs which was developed by the University of Rochester. And these were held in Rochester for, every year for almost ten years. And then the high energy physics community got very large and they decided that this Rochester meeting would be held in various places. And in the 60s, mid 60s, the meeting was held in Geneva, Switzerland. And of course so many famous people attended, practically all of the leading members. And Heisenberg was there. And Heisenberg got up and gave a talk on what the Americans called a crazy idea. And it didn’t fit into the theoretical ideas of the time. And I was, there was a party on the boat in Lake Geneva. And I was standing nearby. And a young American theorist walked up to [Werner] Heisenberg (1901-1976) and said, “Professor Heisenberg, why can a very famous man like you spend your time doing such a crazy thing?”
And Heisenberg never batted an eye. He said, “Well, look, I spent a lot of time doing things which I found very exciting. And I think I deserve the right to do something crazy.”
Tortorice: So did his idea ever develop into anything?
Fry: No. No.
Tortorice: No, it was a flop.
Fry: Yeah. It was just a passing thing.
Tortorice: But it did show a kind of creativity and willingness to take risks.
Fry: Oh, absolutely. This is the point. And the American, I don’t remember who it was. It was a young theorist. I don’t think he was being disrespectful. He was not being thoughtful. But you know, on the bigger scale, we all have the right to do crazy things. Because sometimes the crazy things happen to be important.
Tortorice: Was there any sense that Heisenberg was shunned by certain—
Fry: Oh, yes.
Tortorice: —aspects of the, portions of the profession?
Fry: Yes, yes. 01:54:00 There was a very strong feeling at that time that Heisenberg had first of all not done anything to help the Jewish problem. He was head of the atomic bomb program in Germany, which failed.
Fry: And so on.
Tortorice: So that he was, he had a certain reputation that really diminished his—
Fry: Didn’t diminish it. People who knew what his contributions were—
Tortorice: Ignored all that.
Fry: —and anyone with some insight would say anybody has a right to do crazy things. That isn’t negative. The thing then shortly after that, I don’t know how much time involved, but I walked up to Heisenberg and he turned to me and said, “You know, Professor Fry, I’m very glad to have the opportunity to talk with you. Because you probably know more about K0 meson physics that anybody else.”
Tortorice: Wow. What a compliment.
Fry: A compliment. Of course it wasn’t quite true. (laughter) But that was a highlight.
Tortorice: So you’re established now in Madison. You are building your program. You are taking on graduate students. What was the university like? It was much smaller, of course. Did you know colleagues outside your department?
Fry: A few, but not many.
Tortorice: Not many. You were really focused on—
Fry: I was dedicated. Part of the time, you see, at that time in the 60s, I was already using accelerators elsewhere.
Tortorice: I see.
Fry: A lot of my time was spent at the bevatron at California in Berkeley. And before that, I spent time with Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island. So I was gone a lot.
Tortorice: You were gone. Were you, did you consider yourself a theoretical physicist?
Fry: No. No, no. I was always experimental.
Tortorice: You were always experimental.
Tortorice: Always, yes. That was your—
Fry: And in fact, that is a problem.
Tortorice: The distinction is not always so valid, really, in a case where you come up with the ideas yourself and then do the experiments, also. I mean, it’s amazing.
Fry: Yes, but there are very, very few people who are skilled in both.
Tortorice: I see.
Fry: Fermi was one. And I still have a problem. One of the things which you are judged, rightly or wrongly, on is what were your mistakes? 01:57:00 And how much of physics do you know? And I will tell a story about Fermi. When Fermi was moved from Columbia to University of Chicago, he had to go meet the president of the University of Chicago, [Robert Maynard] Hutchins (1899-1977). And the president said, “Professor Fermi, I’m just curious. How much of physics do you understand?”
Fermi, the department chairman was with him, and I’ve heard this story from him. Fermi sort of chuckled a little bit and was silent. “Maybe one percent,” he says. Nothing was said.
And after the interview was over and they went back, the president of the university called the department chairman. And he said, “You were proposing that we give a special title to this man who says he only knows 1% of physics?”
And the department says, “That is the most intelligent man on earth. I know about one millionth of physics.”
Tortorice: (laughs) The president didn’t come across as a very smart man.
Fry: Not a very smart man.
Tortorice: My goodness! That’s a great story.
Fry: But it is true in physics. You know I’ve often thought well what answer would I have given? And I probably would have said one in 100,000, something like that. And I think any physicist who was honest would probably—except for a few. [Richard] Feynman (1918-1988) would give an answer like Fermi, maybe.
So there is in the field a fundamental problem psychologically. Two. One, you’re judged on how many mistakes you make. Two, you never can develop a feeling that you really understand the field.
Tortorice: Because it’s—
Fry: You understand a little microcosm. And so this is a field which plagues experimentalists. Because the experimentalists don’t have time to learn theory. Generally. There are a few who did, but not many.
Now I’ve always had a guilty conscience of how really little I understand. Secondly, I have a guilty conscience because I’ve made lots of mistakes in physics. In some sense, one guy who I knew says, “Yeah, I know Fry. He’s more famous for the mistakes he’s made than what he’s done.”
Tortorice: Well, but isn’t science all about mistakes?
Fry: Of course. Yeah.
Tortorice: But in physics, that was not considered acceptable. Or it wasn’t—
Fry: Some people don’t like that.
Tortorice: Yeah, that approach.
Fry: But Fermi also had a remark about that. He said, for an experimentalist, if you do one right experiment that’s significant out of twenty, you’re a genius.
Tortorice: I would assume that that’s the ratio, at least.
Fry: Yeah. Exactly.
Tortorice: Given the uncertainty.
Fry: And there have been about four mistakes which I published which were wrong. Two of them were crucial. If I were to have been much more intelligent, much more clever, my work could have led to a Nobel Prize. But I was just completely off the wrong end of the pier.
Tortorice: So you published work then it was critiqued by others and—
Fry: Not necessarily critiqued, but proven by other experiments.
Tortorice: I see. Okay. But that’s how the field—
Fry: The experiments were not definitive. I’ll take one case. There were two cases. There was a time when there was a theory which sort of suggested that parity was violated. Parities of primary decay. And Bob Sachs came up with the idea. He says, “You know, Jack, you have thousands of pi mu decays in your emulsions. If parity is violated, there is a correlation between the direction the mu meson goes and the direction the electron goes.”
I said, “That’s simple. I’ll just look at my plates and see what the answer is.” And I found no correlation at all. So I told Bob Sachs. I never published it. I just said, “I don’t see any correlation. I don’t think parity’s violated.”
Well it turns out that the reason I didn’t find anything is my plates were exposed in the Chicago cyclotron. And the magnetic field wipes out all the effects.
Tortorice: Oh, I see. Oh, for heaven’s sake. Well that’s the (laughs) I mean, the great challenge of the field isn’t it? With everything.
Fry: Yeah. And now a man by the name of [Valentine] Telegdi (1922-2006), who is an outstanding physicist but slightly crazy at the University of Chicago was working on plates like I was. He was interested in this problem. But he had heard from Bob Sachs that I had found a negative result. So he never did the experiment. But if he did it, he would have found the same result. But anyway, he blames me for not him getting a Nobel Prize. He wouldn’t speak to me for five years!
Fry: And he always badmouthed me because 02:03:00 “I would have had the Nobel Prize if it weren’t for you!”
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake, and he was serious?
Fry: Oh, oh! He’s dead serious. Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake.
Fry: He was an interesting man. And he, he was one of these people in the discussion that we had of being a very unhappy man. And he doesn’t have a reason to be unhappy. Because he has been accepted. He has done some great physics. He’s been accepted for his talent and all of this. But he’s never quite good enough for his own thing.
One time I was invited to give a talk on violin research at Caltech. And I realized that Feynman was going to be there. Of course, Feynman knew so many things about everything that I was scared. So I arrived and there in the front row in front of me sat Feynman. I started talking and he raised his hand. I thought oh, here I go. He said, “You know, Fry,” he always called me Fry in public. But in reality always called me Jack. “If there’s any truth in what you say, the bridge of the violin has to be asymmetrical to make a good violin.”
I happened to have a bridge in my pocket. I put the bridge out and put it on the projector. Yeah. It’s asymmetrical. Go ahead. (Tortorice laughs)
And Telegdi was there. Then Telegdi started giving me a hard time. Just nitpicking. Feynman turned to him and said, “Val, why don’t you just shut up?”
Tortorice: Wow. (laughter) Huh. Amazing. Well, you have a very good attitude toward the kind of cosmic joke aspect of research in that you understand the methodology and yet you don’t, it sounds as if you accept that sometimes you’re going to fail. Sometimes you’re not going to be able to explain what you’ve done. And you can’t take it as seriously as obviously some of your colleagues did.
Fry: But I don’t take the credit for that. I take the fact that I was extremely fortunate in knowing some really outstanding people. George Gamow. Oppenheimer. Feynman. Schein. All of these people, I had the chance to look at and see, you know, they all have their mistakes. They all have their limitations. And if you start 02:06:00 taking yourself seriously, you’re going to be in psychological difficulty.
Tortorice: So when did you first meet Feynman? Was he a contemporary of yours? Did you meet him through a physics—
Fry: I met him at conferences.
Tortorice: I see. At conferences.
Fry: I don’t know, I suppose you know Wisconsin’s the only university that ever fired him.
Tortorice: No, I didn’t know that.
Tortorice: Oh, for goodness sake. What a—(laughs)
Fry: Feynman was at Cornell. And it became quite clear to the whole society of physics that Feynman was a very outstanding man. And Wisconsin made a very outstanding offer to him. But in the meantime, the Los Alamos Laboratory started to develop and carry on work. And since there were four people from Wisconsin at Los Alamos, they knew that Feynman had gone there. The department secretary, who sort of scheduled the classes and teaching, Feynman never showed up. And the third week, she wrote Feynman a letter saying, “Dear Professor Feynman, you have not shown any responsibility. You have not shown up for your classes. And therefore we dismiss you.”
Tortorice: The departmental secretary?
Fry: Well, of course. She ran it. (laughter)
Tortorice: Oh, for heaven’s sake. (laughs) Boy, this place was really a very, very informal place in those years.
Fry: Oh, yeah! Sure. Oh, yeah. Of course, see, the thing is, Ray Herb was there, Julian Mack was there, Heinz was there, [Hugh T.] Richards (1918-2006) was there. They all knew Feynman was there and they didn’t expect him there. But nobody wrote a letter back to the department saying, “He’s not going to show up because he’s at Los Alamos.”
Tortorice: Well, I would assume that letter could have been overturned if the university really wanted to. I mean, if it was just done on the behest of the secretary, that’s rather amazing that it stuck. But I wonder if he would have come—
Fry: No, no, of course, no. He was so involved in Los Alamos. And his reputation had grown enormously. So that we didn’t have the chance.
Tortorice: Right. (laughs) Very interesting. So all of these, when did you then get tenure? Since the process of hiring you was very informal, did they actually at some point put you through a tenure process? Or was it—
Fry: Yes. In fact, see, I came in 52. 02:09:00 In 54, I was promoted to associate professor. And the year I went to Italy in 56, I got a letter in the mail saying that you have been promoted to a full professor.
Tortorice: Oh. So very rapidly you were promoted.
Fry: Yeah. Four years. From assistant professor.
Tortorice: Now before we move on to Italy and the other parts of your career, I assume that your interest in and love of music continued. And that you continued to perform the violin over these years, although you were probably so immersed in making your career that that took a second fiddle, so to speak.
Fry: I had completely dropped all I did with music. The third year, or the second year as an undergraduate, when Ilza Niemack convinced me to devote my energies to electrical engineering, I’d stopped playing the violin. I listened to music. I enjoyed music. But I didn’t play.
It was initiated by Wilson Powell (1903-1974). Wilson Powell was a professor of physics at the University of California in Berkeley. And he had built the first heavy liquid bubble chamber, of which we at Wisconsin decided we would like to use. So we convinced him that the film that he took in Berkeley, we would get the film and do the physics here. So there developed a very strong relationship between the three of us here and Wilson Powell. Who was a really remarkable man. He had one skill which was almost innate. He understood magnetic fields and how to build magnets. He had built all the big magnets that were built at the time of Los Alamos Laboratory. And so for the separation of uranium, they needed a very big magnet, big in size and strength. He was hired to design that magnet and build it.
He was also interested in music. And one evening when, and he played piano very well. He could sit down and play, improvise. And you’d swear it was music of Brahms. He’d change and make like Chopin. He could play Beethoven. He was just extremely talented musician on the piano.
And so I was invited 02:12:00 to his house. And he said, “Well, why don’t we spend the evening playing?”
I said, “I don’t have a violin.”
“Oh, I’ll get one from the university.” So he brought home a Strat and a Galliano. And that was the first time I’d ever played a great violin. And all of a sudden, here I began to realize, that some of my problems—small, small number of my problems—was related to the quality of the violin. And of course then I was a physicist and understood I thought mechanics and that sort of thing. So a physicist ought to be able to understand what Stradivarius was doing. It’s all physics. So that started me on the violin program of research.
Tortorice: So your interest in music was stimulated by this physicist.
Fry: Wilson Powell.
Tortorice: Wilson Powell. So where did that take you, Jack?
Fry: Well, I had a very strong impression that there was a major difference between a great violin and a trivial violin. And of course being rather arrogant, I thought it’s a problem which is really a physics problem of mechanics. And I thought I understood mechanics in its simplest form. So I ought to be able to solve the problem.
So I came home. And it turns out there was a violin maker here in Madison, Larry LeMay was his name, who made violins. Had a repair shop on State Street.
Tortorice: What year was this about?
Fry: Nineteen sixty-three.
Tortorice: Sixty-three. Okay.
Fry: And so I immediately went down and made friends with him. I was hoping to learn something from him. And he was very capable. He also had enough reputation that great violins passed through his shop to have them repaired and this sort of thing. So I had the opportunity then to play some other great violins. And I became convinced indeed there was something major going on. And Larry became a very good friend. But he claimed he knew a secret. And he wouldn’t tell me. 02:15:00
Another of course being a physicist, I didn’t like that terribly well. And he said the secret’s in the varnish, which was a common belief.
So I said, “Well, look, let’s do some experiments. Let’s change the varnish. Let’s change the nature of the varnish and see what happens to the quality of violins.” And what can you do? Well, you can change the viscosity of the varnish. You can change pigments. There was a belief that some pigments change the nature of the varnish. So there was quite a bit of time spent in trying to duplicate that. And one of his ideas was that the Italians use Venetian varnish, which had some unknown pigment. And the problem then was to try to find what that pigment was. This came out much later.
But being the physicist, many of these things I disbelieved. And I felt that maybe we should learn things by doing experiments. But there was a fundamental problem. Most of the time when you’re doing the experiments, you fail. And you know, he spends, he worked very quickly and was very skilled, a hundred hours, 150 hours building a violin. I come along in two days and destroy it. That didn’t go over very well.
So, I worked with him. But fortunately there were several things which he brought to the world. Namely, his skill in making violins. And some of his violins were not bad. Not great, but not bad. Also, just learning the mechanics of how you build violins, how you select wood, and these sort of fundamental things, he was anxious to teach me.
And the second important thing was I began to develop a critical ear in learning what the acoustical differences were between the great violins and the normal violins. And it’s a very subtle thing. And Rosie keeps pointing out that that is one of the critical aspects which has developed through the years, this ability to quantify and learn what produces many aspects of the violin sound. And so he started me on that.
But it got to the point that quickly, 02:18:00 I wanted to do experiments and I couldn’t do experiments on his violin. And here Wilson Powell came to the rescue. He said, “Look, why don’t we just buy some German violins, white. Send me the bills. I’ll pay for all the costs.”
This was a dramatic change. Because I could do wrong things. And do experiments where occasionally I would learn something out of this hocus pocus of secrets. So, he played a critical role over a period of almost ten years of financing me and getting so that I wasn’t worried about having to succeed every time. I was able to do physics. Namely, do an experiment and learn from the experiment.
Tortorice: And so he would buy violins, or you would buy violins in Germany—
Fry: I bought them through an agent in Baltimore.
Tortorice: I see. And then you would just have them shipped here.
Tortorice: And you would go to work on them.
Fry: Exactly. At that time, you could buy a reasonable violin for forty bucks.
Fry: Yeah. Now they cost about six hundred dollars. Well, forty dollars was worth much more than now.
Tortorice: Yes. It certainly was.
Fry: But anyway, Wilson freed me of a fundamental problem. He made it possible for me to do experiments. And he was always interested. In the meantime, he had learned to play the violin. And it’s amazing, this man at the age of sixty-two started learning to play the violin. And in five years, he could play simple things of Mozart, some quartets. And he, every time he traveled to Europe, he would find people to play. And he’d have a quartet he’d play and so on. And he didn’t play too well, but he could play the simple things. He was very positive. Always encouraging.
Tortorice: So this connection really in a way enriched his life, too.
Fry: Very much so. Yes. And then I began to realize that one in fact, the most important parameter is thickness control.
Tortorice: Thickness of the—
Fry: The plates. The top and the back plates.
Tortorice: The plates. Yeah.
Fry: And they have, if you look at diagrams that have been published, they have big variations in thicknesses. So I began to think about what that does and what is the physics of motion of 02:21:00 complicated plates. And here you have to think about an extremely large frequency band. The lowest frequency is 256 hertz. And the upper frequencies are perhaps 10,000 hertz. So the phenomena is enormously variant from low frequencies to high frequencies. And of course there then simple physics enters in. I mean, you begin to realize you can’t get a plate that big around to move fast. So you have to think about how to isolate areas for the high frequencies, how you make the low frequencies work. How does the violin radiate sound when its area’s very small? And so I realize that the motion of the air through the F hole acts as an amplifier for the low frequencies. And to get that amplifier to work, you have to have a series of levers. And the way you create the levers is by the variation of thickness in a very complex way.
And I had come up with the idea that one of the fundamental things to make the back plate work like a piston, because it’s driven off center, is to make the thickness zones asymmetrical. So the physics helped me there. I could use levers and simply approximate things. So I came to this conclusion that there should be an asymmetry in the thickness control of the back plate. This was a fundamental idea which is a critical idea.
And Wilson jumped on it immediately and recognized that indeed it had to be true. So he invented the way to measure the thickness of a plate of a violin without taking it apart. Now, you don’t take a Strad apart, because if you crack it, you’re in trouble. And as you might expect, having spent his time worrying about magnets, he had thought of a very clever way of using little teeny miniature magnets. And it’s very simple. You drop one of these little magnets inside the violin. You put the other magnet on the other side of it on a postage stamp scale. And you raise the violin, and the point where these magnets separate is related to how thick the wood is. So he could, he calibrated that and therefore was able to measure the thickness of the back plate of great violins. So in his traveling around the world, he always carried a device, he would measure any violin. He measured hundreds of violins. And of this he measured I think probably something like eight Strads. 02:24:00 And maybe four or five Guarneris. And he found out that indeed if you measure carefully, in fact the asymmetry is not very big. And if you don’t look for it or are aware of it, you’ll miss it. And if you measure it carefully, indeed the asymmetry is there and is about the right amount which I had estimated by these levers.
So he wrote a paper. He wrote a paper saying that it would seem that the thickness variations of the violin is one of the most critical parameters of the violin. And he had maps then of his measurements that he had on some Strads and Guarneris and so on. He sent this in to the American Acoustical Society.
And he got a letter back saying, “It’s the general consensus of everyone who has reviewed your paper that it’s nonsense.”
Tortorice: My goodness! (laughs)
Fry: He never got the paper published. In his lifetime.
Tortorice: Wow. It was just a matter of not being able to really conceive of what he was attempting to do and—
Fry: What he was talking about with a simple idea.
Tortorice: — with a method that’s very simple measurement technique. And they weren’t willing to try it out themselves.
Fry: No. No. It was a great disappointment. And then he developed a more precise system which involves what physics calls the Hall effect. Namely if I increase the magnetic field around a probe which measures a stray magnetic field, that stray magnetic field changes the voltage that’s generated in the little teeny magnet. And so you can drop this little magnet inside and this monitoring system which is on the outside, you can move around and move the magnet around. And it’s much more accurate than this postage stamp scale.
Unfortunately, he forgot one thing. He forgot that aluminum has a very weak magnetic field. There are two classes of materials, ferromagnetic and diamagnetic. Ferromagnetic is like iron, which influences the magnetic field extremely large amount. And then paramagnetic, diamagnetic, is a very small effect. He calibrated his device using aluminum. And he forgot that the aluminum is a very weak magnetic field. So all of his measurements are 02:27:00 slightly wrong. But I know how to correct them, because I know what the correction was.
So he died a disappointed man because he never got his manuscript published. He never got public recognition of his ability to build small magnets. Furthermore, there was a man in Germany who had heard from a talk that I gave there that he thought he could build a better magnet with a better postage stamp spring. And so he now manufactures these and sells them. But he never once gave Wilson Powell credit for the idea.
Tortorice: Wow. So it was a matter of just ripping off someone else’s invention and not even—
Fry: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: Oh, that’s too bad. So you took this beginning experience and these experiments and then worked—
Fry: Yes. So, what I did once I had this idea, then I immediately started taking violins I had, making the back asymmetrical. And indeed, you did improve them. But you never made a great violin. It never was the thing that differentiated between a trivial violin and a great violin. It made it a little bit deeper in the sound. It made its response a little bit better. But it was not a critical parameter. But it was a critical stage in my thinking. Because here was a case where physics did give the right answer.
And so then I started worrying about the top. And the top is extremely complicated. There’s lots of things going on. And three months ago, I came up with the idea that actually there is a little area about the size of my fingernail in the top where if you could reduce the stiffness of wood, you see wood is very asymmetrical in strength. It’s very strong along the direction of the fibers, very weak perpendicular to the fibers. And so there is, for a very complicated reason, there is a little area about the size of my fingernail where if I could, incidentally, the ratio of these two stiffnesses called Young’s modulus is about twelve or fifteen. It’s very big. So it’s very weak from perpendicular and very strong this way. And there’s a little area where if I could reduce that from fifteen to seven or eight by a factor of two, the violin ought to improve in a major way. And indeed, it did. Now what I did was sort of crude. 02:30:00 I changed this by just impregnating in the wood a little bit of glue in that area, where the glue is stronger than the weak direction but not as strong as the other direction, so it changes that ratio. And suddenly the violin is much better.
Tortorice: Really? And this is a recent development.
Fry: That’s a recent one, yeah. And Rosie, the last time I was here, she agreed that it was a major step. Now, I think Stradivarius did have a secret here. It is possible—this is just my theory—it’s possible that Stradivari used varnish to harden it, change this ratio. Now that area lies near one of the feet of the bridges. So if when you build the violin and before you put all the varnish on, if you put a little bit of varnish in that area and keep soaking it up by putting on other coats before it hardens, you can impregnate more than half the thickness of the wood, and you can change this stiffness ratio. Now, if you use transparent varnish, then when you varnish with color, it covers it up and you can’t see it. So there’s no way of knowing that it is there. I think he did that.
Tortorice: Interesting. And to prove this would be very, very difficult.
Fry: Very difficult. You prove it by taking a violin which has all the other things that you know about correct, and then just changing this one thing. And suddenly you realize it has a major improvement. So that’s the proof of the pudding.
Tortorice: Well, congratulations on this recent. But I mean, this is something that you’ve worked on now for fifty—
Fry: Three months.
Tortorice: Not just this, but I mean the physics of the violin for fifty years, or forty—
Fry: Oh. Well, I started in 64. Sixty-four, that’s forty-two years, forty-four years.
Tortorice: Yeah. That’s amazing. And it was in a sense a progression that has recently culminated in another discovery. But there were multiple discoveries along the way that got to this point.
Fry: Let me try to list them. The first one was asymmetry in the back. The second one was a recognition of how the violin moves, oscillates, as a function of frequency. So I have sort of codified three frequency bands, of which I call the 02:33:00 breathing mode, the low-frequency band, the rocking mode and the high-frequency mode. And these determine pretty much the ratio of sound from various frequency bands of the violin. So the concept of how to control the low frequencies, the mid-range and the high frequencies by these separate processes and their interrelationship took many years. But that concept, I think, is valid.
Then the next thing which I recognized, which is very important, is that I thought the high-frequency radiation from the violin came from basically some area around the sound post. And you don’t need a big area, because the wavelengths are so small. Well it turns out that concept is completely wrong. There is a region off to the side of the right hand of the F hole where there is a tweeter system which is loosely coupled to the rest of the box. And all the high frequencies come primarily from that area. And I spent a lot of time convincing myself that that statement is true. So I now know how to build a good tweeter.
The next concept which a year ago was that I’ve always said, all the lecture I gave, the base bar is heavy and big and long. And so it can’t oscillate at a high frequency because of its mass. Force equals mass times acceleration. So the force gets big if you make the mass big. So I thought the bass bar was just a device that was an I beam. Which stiffens and couples the left hand foot motion to the bulk area of the top. I’ve said that hundreds of times. I couldn’t have been wronger. It turns out that you can get any object to move at high frequencies if you drive it right and you have enough force. Well it turns out you can shape the top so that it forces the bass bar to have a rotational motion like this about its center. And that’s done by fitting the top, because it’s glued onto the bass bar, and that affects the weight of the bass bar. So there’s a high frequency component to the bass bar which is related to this rocking motion, which is established by small areas of thinness along the bass bar. It has to be that way because the bass bar gets replaced. And you take a Strad and you put a different bass bar in and you don’t destroy it. It’s not a function of the shape of the bass bar as much as the way the top plate is made to force it into 02:36:00 having that type of motion.
Tortorice: So how do you think the great violin makers came to understand these concepts and to create the violin? Do you think that they did? Do you think that it was some of it accumulated knowledge that we would have very little way of tracing? Because of course these instruments are instruments that have been around a long time. Or whether they just maybe experimented or tried and failed various ways? Or came up with a prototype that they then tried to replicate? How do you think they came to this great discovery?
Fry: You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s all of these. The first violins, as we know it in terms of shape, violins from Gasparo da Salò (1540-1609), who lived in the little town of Salò in 1550. And at the same time, the oldest Amati family had a maker, Andrea Amati (1505-1577), at roughly the same time. And then he had two sons and then a grandson. And the grandson was the teacher of [Antonio] Stradivari (1644-1737). So there is a continuous chain over two centuries where they taught. And in fact, violins are improving all that time. And I think, and this is the book of Bill Jordan, I think that they understood levers. They understood inertial properties of heavy things. And they understood that if you change the thickness you’d change stiffnesses. Now there’s all indications that there was a gradual increase of this—I think they were experimental. In fact, in looking at the tools of Stradivari, I found a tool which could have been used as a scraper. Which he could have inserted through the F hole and did the scraping to—
Tortorice: Scrape the—
Fry: Underneath side.
Tortorice: Underneath side to modulate the—
Fry: As I do.
Tortorice: Yes, the thickness of the top of the—
Fry: Because I never can control that accurately. I always have to do the final adjusting after the violin is made. After the varnish has hardened and is stable and so on.
Tortorice: Have you found any evidence of, I wonder if one could put a small camera inside to see whether there were evidences of scraping marks detected.
Fry: There is a book written by the famous violin dealer of London, Hill, 02:39:00 several books. And he wrote a book on Stradivari. And in it he says two things. The thickness of the plates has nothing to do with anything, and he couldn’t have been wronger. And the other said and the evidence for the fact that the inside of the violin looked as though it’s been scraped, is not finished well.
Tortorice: (laughs) Amazing.
Fry: So, no, there was no understanding.
Tortorice: Well, this led to many, many new initiatives in your life. Not least of which was teaching a course on the subject. But also I know there was a television special made on your work. And as you mentioned, there’s someone that’s writing a book about this work. In fact, two people.
Fry: Yeah. And I’ve made a DVD book.
Tortorice: Oh, that’s right, that the library has, right?
Fry: Yes. And I’ve convinced them through the effort of my daughter Katherine to put it on the internet.
Tortorice: Oh, very good.
Fry: So the whole book will be on the internet. I still have these last things to put on tape. They’re at thirty-three hours now.
Tortorice: Wow. Well, that is certainly an amazing resource, also, for anyone that’s interested in the subject.
Fry: Well, the idea was, this DVD book was what I envisaged, is just a way of putting down things. It’s not elegant. It’s boring in many ways. It goes into greater details with the language of physics. So I just wanted to get down all the things that I am interested in in the acoustics of the violin.
Tortorice: The actual calculations, formulas.
Fry: Exactly. Diagrams. So the DVD book has a big tablet which I write in with felt pins as if I were giving a lecture.
Tortorice: So the course you taught, what was the name of the course?
Fry: Acoustics for Musicians.
Tortorice: Acoustics for Musicians. Also then you became friends with Rose Mary and John Harbison and other musicians. And you took up playing again. So it really, it became a big part of your life.
Fry: Very big part of my life. And I want to say that Rosie has played a very critical part in all this because—
Tortorice: This is Rose Mary Harbison?
Tortorice: The violinist.
Fry: The violinist. Because— 02:42:00 for several reasons. First of all, she’s critical. That’s always helpful. Her standards are high. And she can challenge a violin. She can discover things which I can’t explore because I don’t have the skill in violin playing. And so she has a very good violin which is a violin made by Santo Serafino (1699-1776) who lived in Venice in the early 1700s, who was a student of Stradivari. And it’s a very good violin. So here is sort of a standard.
Tortorice: And that was very helpful to you in—
Fry: Extremely helpful. And still is. So I have ideas. And I put them in a violin and I take them to her and I say, “Rosie, what do you think of this?”
Tortorice: And so then the two of you over the years have worked together—
Tortorice: —on these, the testing of your theories and your ideas.
Fry: Of the ideas. Yes. Right.
Tortorice: And this has been very, very helpful in moving your way forward.
Fry: Yes. Right. Right. And she is absolutely correct in that in order to really make progress in this field, you have to develop, she says you have to develop an ear of these subtleties which great violins have. It’s not just completely obvious. And many times I develop a feeling of what a violin sound should be, which is just wrong. I mean, I quite often spend eight hours in the basement scraping and playing, scraping and playing. And many times I just go off on the deep end. (laughs)
Tortorice: (laughs) Doesn’t result in anything.
Tortorice: Well, is there anything else you want to say about this at this point? About this work and about your collaboration?
Fry: Yes. There is a fundamental problem, which we all have. And that is, well, first of all, it is generally believed by most really capable violinists that violins of Stradivari, Guarneri and [of the Cremonese School are better than all the others. But there has been developed, since nobody’s been able to duplicate these, there has been developed an enormous feeling that there’s secrets involved, that it’s not just simple, and that physics is not the way to approach the problem. Mysticism, in some sense. This comes about from several reasons. One, there has been a large number of people who’ve tried to duplicate the sound of the violin. Not successful. Two, there are dealers which have multimillion 02:45:00 dollars invested in the Italian violins. They don’t want you to take a lacquer box and make it a great Strad. So, there is a great insecurity among professional violinists that is satisfied by the fact that they have a Strad. They don’t have to worry about it. And so they don’t have to worry about having control of a sound which is related to, or restricted by the way we play. So there is a very difficult period of trying to convince the world that you’ve made progress or that you have basically solved the problems.
Tortorice: Because the changes are so subtle and they’re so easily dismissed as being an inferior sound. And once you have the real thing, you’re in such a position of power and authority that trying to challenge it is extremely difficult.
Fry: And this problem, I’m convinced, will not be solved in my lifetime. And that’s the reason I want the DVD book. Now there are some people who are building violins who’ve picked up a few of the ideas and putting them in their violins. And they’ve been successful.
Tortorice: And you build your own violins.
Fry: Well, I get junk violins. I get older violins, take them apart and rebuild them.
Tortorice: And try to improve the sound.
Fry: Oh, yeah. Sure. Oh, yeah. There’s a separation between what I call furniture building and acoustical solutions. Of course, you have to have the right shape. You have to have a reasonable varnish. You have to have the archings that’s reasonable. You have to have reasonable wood and that sort of thing. But the number of great built violins that sound terrible is enormous.
Tortorice: Enormous, I think, yes.
Fry: For instance, there is an argument that in Cremona, I’ve been in Cremona, and they say these violins in two hundred years will be as good as Strads. They have to be two hundred years old. There are more violins made outside of Cremona which is junk. None of them compare with the ones in Cremona. I can’t buy the argument.
Tortorice: Well, we may return to this subject. But this is a nice place to transition to Italy—
Fry: Yes, yes.
Tortorice: —because you mentioned that you have been in Cremona. And the first time that you went to Italy was in 1956.
Tortorice: And I assume it was related to—
Fry: High-energy physics.
Tortorice: —your work in high-energy physics. So why don’t you tell us about the work, and also about your impressions of Italy and your first experiences 02:48:00 there?
Fry: You want to go into starting on that now, or—I was thinking maybe this is the time to make the break.
End May 12, 2008 Session.
Tortorice: And this is another follow-up interview with William F. Professor Jack Fry. And we are in the Department of Special Collections in Memorial Library. And Jack, I will begin by just summarizing where we were. And then we’ll move on. We had gotten to around 1954. And you were in Madison and you had established your career at the university. And you’d talked a little bit about your family and your scholarly work, in particular your experiments and your students and settling in at Madison. And now we are at the point when you began to engage with Italy. And could you tell me what really prompted you to go to Italy? And when it was? And then also perhaps a little bit about Italian physics in those years and your work in Italy?
Fry: Sure. Well, 1954 basically my endeavor was all here with use of accelerators which were in Berkeley and Brookhaven. At that time, there had been established an international conference which was called the Rochester Conference. It was an international conference on fundamental particle physics, basically, high-energy physics, which involved also cosmic ray research. And at these conferences, which were at that time being held all in Rochester, New York, established by a professor there, there are people that came from all over the world. And there were quite a few people from Italy. And having had the wonderful experience of working very loosely with Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segrè (1905-1989) I knew, and some of the others I knew, I was sort of fascinated by the Italian personality, the skill, the freshness which they represented. And particularly a gentleman who was the leading theorist at the University of Padova, Professor Nicolò dalla Porta (1910-2003) 00:03:00 was at this conference. And he somehow or other mentioned it would be nice if you came to Padova sometime. And that sort of put a bug in my brain. And I thought well, it would be very nice to spend some time in Italy.
So with the encouragement of my former major professor Julian Knipp and Bob Sachs here in the physics department, I applied for a Fulbright lectureship in Italy. And I was received and was given the fellowship. And interesting enough, there were stipulations. Namely that I had to spend an equal amount of time at the University of Padova and the University of Milano. And Beppo [Giuseppe Occhialini] was in Milan. And dalla Porta was in Padova. And the Fulbright Commission apparently wanted to disperse the time between the two. And Occhialini was a person who I’d heard a lot about. And I had not met or spent much time with him, although I’d got to know dalla Porta fairly well. So when the time came to make up my mind, I requested that I go to Padova first, and then spend the other part of the time in Milano.
So there was an indoctrination period for the Fulbright people. Which was held in Perugia. And this lasted for a month. And it was a time where you could hear lectures on the Italian culture and that sort of thing. And there was a group of us, maybe fifteen Americans who went to that indoctrination period. And from there, then I went to Padova. And there I found a wonderful group of people who were very active, very positive and very friendly. And I enjoyed getting involved in their activity. And I had brought along some nuclear emulsions which they did not have at that time. So that was a program that was started there.
Well, I very quickly realized what a wonderful place Italy was. 00:06:00 Of course I enjoyed the month’s stay in Perugia. But it was frustrating because basically I did not know Italian. And in Perugia there were not very many people who spoke English. And it was a real impact to realize that there are parts of the world where you could not communicate. Of course I knew that was true. But to feel it in everyday life was a real shock.
Anyway, my stay in Padova was most entertaining. I got involved with a group of older people and some very good young people in Padova. I got interested in the Italian culture, as well as in the science aspect of it. And of course from Padova, they sort of expected the Fulbright people to travel, to see as much of Italy as would be reasonable. So it was a period of exploration.
Tortorice: And would you say that Italian physics after the war was at its height? I have read that in those years there was a lot of creativity and achievement and also did this have an impact on the fact that you went? Or were you immersed in that scene?
Fry: Yes. It was clear that there were quite a reasonable number, well, an outstanding number compared to the population of the country. Very outstanding younger people who had some association with the early school of Fermi and so on, who with their freshness of ideas and encouragement from the society in general, that they contributed in a major way to the science of high-energy physics. It was a freshness, because it was growing from a very restricted activity immediately after the war, economics and so on, to one where basically new ideas and the challenging of the forefront was the important part that the Italian physicist provided to high-energy physics at that time.
Tortorice: So it both was a, in terms of your career, in terms of your work, 00:09:00 a very stimulating, exciting time and place. And also, this discovery of another culture that really resonated with you.
Fry: Yes. I would say it’s one of the most intense and probably one of the most pleasurable times of personal expansion of myself. Of ideas, of ways of looking at things. And the discovery of another culture, which was the more I looked, the more I realized how complex it was and how beautiful it was and the vastness of that historical culture. And to think that I could go down the street in Florence and pick up a book that was printed in 1500 was just almost inconceivable. In fact, I remember that at one time, probably the next summer, one time shortly at that time, we took a vacation on the Adriatic near Pesaro and I went to a newsstand to pick up a newspaper. And I got talking to, and at that time, I’d began to learn some Italian. And mentioned that I didn’t really understand the paradox between the vivacious thinking and outgoing aspect of the people and the acceptance of Fascism. That was a paradox which I could not understand. And I said, “You know, sometime I’ll see if I can find a newspaper from that period or so and see if I can get some sense.”
“Oh,” he says, “I have lots of them.” I began to realize then that there was material there which I could get original material and start learning things. So he brought in, I think the next day, two or three newspapers which I bought for nothing, essentially. And I was fascinated by how different the world looked from reading the newspaper from the contemporary Italian culture. This paradox grew. And it wasn’t—well, I’m still trying to find answers to the origin of the Fascism in Italy. But that paradox became sort of a challenge to understand. But it was, that period more was, I guess I’d say, an awakening of aesthetics. Probably more than science.
Tortorice: And this was the kind of origin 00:12:00 of your collecting of materials on Italy. And we’ll go into that in more detail. Was this when you started working with the, in Lucerne, with the reactor in Lucerne?
Fry: No, no. This was way before that. At this time, these were emulsions which had been exposed them at the bevatron in Berkeley. And at this time, the accelerator at Lucerne was not operative yet.
Tortorice: Okay. So we’ll go then into the collecting.
Tortorice: So this was kind of the origin of your extensive efforts in collecting material on Italian life and culture that then resulted in the Fry Collection in the Department of Special Collections at UW-Madison. You started initially with the idea of trying to understand the origins of Fascism. But it sounds like very quickly—
Fry: Very quickly.
Tortorice: —you started to broaden—
Fry: To go into times much earlier. And in fact, just a short story. During that period, I remember, I think the first time I visited Florence, there were bookshops along the Arno, out on the street. And I happened to pick up a book which I found very interesting. It was a book which was bound in vellum. And it obviously was a church. It was printed in two colors. It was a religious book. And it had some printed music in it. And I thought, you know, that would be nice to have. And I asked him the price and at that time I was relatively poor. And I said, “Well, I can’t afford that.” And he started arguing by typical a little. And saying, “Oh, I’d sell it for such and such.” And I said no. And after, I don’t know, quite a long time, the discussion about this one little book, I said, “No, I’m sorry.” And so I left.
And then that night in our motel room, I got to thinking. You know, that’s stupid. That book is nice. I think I should go back and see if I can get it cheaper. So there I was the next day. And we argued for probably a half hour, talking about books in general. Finally I decided, you know, this is stupid. I’m going to buy it. So I handed him the money and walked away. I paid eight dollars. It was a book of 1600s 00:15:00 from a church. In fact, it’s in the library now. And the aesthetics of early books somehow became very, very exciting for me. And so with this book, I began to start collecting several books of different topics. Literature, for example. And for a period of almost ten years, I was interested only in collecting books. Because I was unaware of several things. Of the importance of manuscripts, the existence of manuscripts, the availability of it and so on. So the early stages was just to find books that I felt were enlightening and beautifully, aesthetically pleasing. With no idea of forming a collection. Just my own personal things.
And it wasn’t probably until about 65, 66, in that period, that I realized that I had a reasonably interesting collection of books from 1500s through the 1800s. That I had begun to make a collection for myself. And in the meantime, I had found some older newspapers, a few older documents which were of interest to me. But the collection was still, was mainly books.
But then the price of books suddenly began to rise. For instance, in the early 60s you could buy a book printed in 1500s in fairly good shape for twenty dollars. But then the price of antique books began to increase. So I felt well, maybe some of the manuscripts and newspapers and that sort of thing would be just as interesting. And then I really got involved in manuscripts because I began to realize the uniqueness of a manuscript compared to that of a book. So I started then seriously to look for manuscript material. And the person who played a major role in encouraging me that because he had a substantial amount was Danilo Nogarotto (d. 2010).
Tortorice: So you’ve known him. 00:18:00 since the 60s.
Fry: Yes, late 60s. Yes.
Tortorice: And he’s a manuscript dealer in Padova.
Fry: Yes. He was a collector of books and art etchings and that sort of thing as well as manuscripts. He was a very personable man, and a person who was not pretentious. But it’s clear that he had a vast knowledge of Italian culture. Of all periods. And well, the better I got to know him, the more I realized how unique he was in his knowledge of things. And through the years, of course, he developed a great reputation as, in the sense a scholar with a broad knowledge of things from early times to later times. And well, he had humble beginnings. He told me this many times about aspects of his life. Let me summarize it, because I think it’s important. He was a member of a family of, I think nine children from Veneto, not far from Padova. And Mussolini decided to drain the marshes, the Latino marshes south of Rome. This was in the 30s. And to establish a whole culture there, so to speak. And he decided, Mussolini, apparently. I don’t know how much was Mussolini and how much was the people around him, but it doesn’t matter, that the people who would be asked to go there would be people from Veneto because he felt that the farmers from Veneto were more skilled in being a farmer than from the south. That he wanted big families, and he wanted families which would be willing to move all the members of the family and take up life in the marshes. And [Danilo] Nogarotto’s family was chosen as one of these by the by the 30s.
So Danilo basically grew up in this area. And he went there with nine brothers and sisters, the parents, the grandparents and I think two uncles. Big family 00:21:00 moved down there. And spent their life there. In fact, he has, I think at least one brother and a sister still living there, from that period.
So he became sort of interested in collecting things as a fairly young man. And had sort of started a collection of the things related to Latino there. And in fact he kept them until a few years ago. And I said, “Well, you know, that would be extremely interesting if we could get a hold of it.”
And he said, “Well, I want to check with my family, of course.” And he checked and said, “There’s nobody in my family that’s interested in keeping the documents.” So we—
Tortorice: So the Latina, the Latorio was really an experimental community of the future.
Tortorice: It was a kind of how the new Fascist citizen would live in a kind of constructed and controlled—
Fry: Controlled, isolated region. Yes. so they built schools, hospitals, stores, churches and all the things that the society has. And it’s indeed a very interesting sociological problem which became quite productive there, actually.
Tortorice: So during these years, during the 50s and 60s, then you were coming back and forth to the US. And you were still affiliated with the university here, of course, and still teaching fulltime.
Fry: Yes, yes, yes.
Tortorice: But also spending more time in Italy.
Tortorice: With the collecting, it sounds as if it kind of grew to be a more important part of your interest as the years passed. And tell me how that evolved and the directions you went and some of the highlights of your collecting. I recall some of the things I know, of course, are the Ariosto manuscript and some of the material related to the Basso family. And of course the very extensive collection of material on Italian Fascism. Tell me how this all—
Fry: Well, I guess I first started to think about the problems related to the fascist culture, and period of fascism. But that quickly expanded into, in fact, I became more interested in Venetian culture than I did in expanding the ideas of Fascism. 00:24:00 And of course, living in Padova, going back and forth from Wisconsin to Padova was a natural thing that I became interested in Venetian culture. And Nogarotto, after he left the marshes, he became a policeman in Padova. And traveling around there, he had obligations to contact very small towns and so on. And he realized that they were not conserving or not interested in conserving manuscripts. And he tells the story about one of the things that changed his mind was that one day he was driving through the town of Conselve, which is a little town about fifteen miles south of Padova. And there he saw a dumpster loading documents onto a truck that was going to haul them to the dump. And he stopped and said, well, you know, “Can I purchase these?”
They said, “Well, if you pay for the cost of taking them away, you can have them.” And so he collected, oh, I don’t know, something like five to seven thousand documents from the archive of this town of Conselve which we all have now here in the library. And he began to realize that there were so many things that were just being trashed, and that he could involve his interest in preservation, interest in history and culture by getting involved in trying to find documents.
And because he was interested in documents from all periods, he began to study and learn about all the aspects of Italian culture from earliest times on. And as of now, he’s considered to be probably the most knowledgeable collector in the whole region of Veneto.
Tortorice: And so in a sense he became your mentor in the collecting.
Fry: Very much so.
Tortorice: And built your enthusiasm, too, then for it.
Fry: And in fact he plays such a very important role because he basically took the time to educate me in all these complex aspects of Italian culture. And he 00:27:00 began to be well known as a knowledgeable man. Not only in Italian culture, but in terms of manuscripts that people would bring him things. And they would come and consult him about things. So he was the center of, in some sense of, and he was willing to spend—and this was the thing which I want to emphasize—although he was the dealer in manuscripts, he helped set up in Padova four or five other young people who now deal in manuscripts. And they still come in and talk to him and ask him and that sort of thing.
Tortorice: So he has continued his legacy through mentoring other young people. That’s great.
Fry: Right. Now, there was a period for quite some time where he would never say anything. But I could tell he was curious, because he would say, “Well, what is your special interest?” And one of the aspect of my collecting was I’ve always had this indecisive feeling of not knowing exactly what to collect. And this would come up sometimes in Danilo’s comments about, “Well, are you interested in this? Or what do you want?”
And I would say, “Well, I don’t really know. Let’s look.” And so he began to realize, and I began to formulate more of the considerations of which I felt were important in forming a collection. And the more I collected and the more I saw, it’s obvious, for example, that a single person, I don’t care how much money or how much skill or how much time he has, cannot amass a collection which competes with the archives in Italy. And so I kept asking myself, why are you making a collection? Because people won’t come to Wisconsin to learn about a idea. You pick up any one subject in detail, you could find an archive in Italy which is infinitely better than anything you could amass. And the more I saw and the more I dealt with collecting, 00:30:00 the more I realize that I could never make a collection which would be the best thing for a specialized idea. And I think it is true. I still have that problem. But my interest was into trying to understand why the Italians were the way they are. What makes an Italian different from an American? What aspect of their culture is uniquely Italian? And the more I thought of it, the more I realized, it’s not one thing. It’s the wholality of Italian culture. And that’s made up, of course, of governmental and governance, but it’s made up of the daily life of the Italian people.
So I became more and more interested in learning about what Danilo would do if he were a man of 1700 living in Padova. What would his life be like as a person? What touches his life? What controls his life? What frustrated him? Where were his joys? What did he believe? Reaction to the church. Reaction to all these sorts of things. And so my focus became slowly more and more of trying to understand the lives of the individual people at all times in Italy.
Tortorice: And so you started to focus on personal documents and diaries.
Fry: Of course then when you see an important document from the church which changed a life, that may be a very important governmental document, or a church document. But it’s important for me because it touches the lives of the people that were living at that time.
Tortorice: And so the breadth of your collection is quite unique in the US. It runs really from the late medieval period to the contemporary period, the postwar period. There are some areas that are quite unique and in depth. Collections of letters, collections of particular material related to Italian Fascism that go into an in-depth look at the subject. But it’s also a great teaching collection. And the one thing that I think is so important is that it is a collection that is accessible. 00:33:00
Fry: Very much so. Yeah. Very much so. And there’s several things I want to put on tape. One, the emphasis or the inspiration of making a collection comes to a large extent from my interaction with this library. It is the people that I’ve been working with which emphasizes and inspires me to do things. And it has many aspects. First of all, it’s always nice to think this piece of paper will be here three hundred years from now. It will be preserved. But equally important, it will be accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. So the conservation of documents is an important aspect of my inspiration for collecting.
And there are several examples of that which I would like to say and tell about. Starting about twelve or fourteen years ago, I would go to Danilo Nogarotto and say, “What do you have for me today?”
And he would say, “Well, I have a basement full of sacks of stuff.” And so he would say, “Well, let’s go and see what you’re interested in.” So he would take me to a room in the basement of his apartment building, which was a room only two-thirds of the size of this room with a few cabinets with just stacks of plastic sacks full of manuscripts and documents. I think it would be safe to say that in that time, there were between twenty and thirty thousand documents in that room. Unsorted. Unkempt. In plastic sacks. And we decided to operate in the following way. That I could go down into his basement. He would lock the door and leave. He would bring me coffee after a couple of hours. He would come down at roughly one o’clock and invite me up to have spaghetti in his kitchen. And I’d go back down. And this would go on to maybe five or six o’clock. And of course I mean, this is 00:36:00 heaven because you had unlimited access to anything that’s in the room.
And we decided that the way to proceed was the following. I would pick out things that I was interested in and make three piles. A pile which were documents which I didn’t think were very valuable and I thought that he probably wouldn’t evaluate them very much, we’re talking about a dollar, fifty cents, a dollar, maybe two dollars. Another pile which obviously were, I thought, much more important, and probably he would, too, and they would be more expensive. And then a third pile of something which generally were more important governmental documents, but things that would still be extremely interesting. But would probably be of more interest to him than to me. Or they were beyond my reach economically.
So at the end of the day, he’d come down and say, “How many documents you got in this pile?” I would say oh, I don’t know, maybe a hundred or so, fifty. And he never looked at them. The middle pile he’d say, “Well, how many have you got here?” And he’d pick up one or two or maybe half a dozen and leaf through them. He’d say, “Oh, yeah, how many have you got,” and so on. Then in the last pile, he said, “Well, you know, I don’t know whether I should even look at these because we sort of agree that probably beyond your means or more of interest to Fondazione than to your library.”
This particular day, in the morning fairly early I had found a printed document of maybe thirty pages. It was without a cover. Just a whole pile of names, just listing of names on blank pages. It didn’t look very good, so I put it in the cheap pile. And then I got to thinking, after I had my morning coffee, you know, any listing of two hundred or five hundred or a thousand people has something to do with something. It’s probably worth more than a dollar. So I moved it to the middle pile. And in the afternoon I looked at it and I found a date, 1867, I think. Hey, that’s when Italy became a state. I think he probably should look at that. So I moved it to the expensive pile. Didn’t think any more about that.
He came down and it happened to be on the top. 00:39:00 He picked this up and said, “Oh my God. The Italian government has sent out a notice that I am to look for this document. There is one in existence as far as I know. It’s a listing of all the men who went with Garibaldi from Sicily to Rome in forming the nation of Italy. It’s called the mille, meaning a thousand people.”
I said, “Hey, that’s interesting! How much you want for it?”
“Well, you can’t buy it. It’s too expensive.”
I said, “Well, what do you mean, too expensive?”
“I really don’t know. But it’s certainly more than fifty thousand dollars.” I said oh, fine. He said, “I didn’t even know I had it.” He said, “Well, you found it. I’ll make you a copy.” So, okay.
And I hadn’t thought about it until about five years ago. I went back and Danilo was in poor health. And I thought I’d better try to get as many documents as I can because he may not be with us very long. So I asked him about this document of “Spedizione dei Mille.” “Oh,” he says, “I’ve been saving it for you. Here it is. I’ll give it to you.”
Fry: And I said, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
He says, “Yes. I know it will be preserved in Wisconsin. I know that anybody who wants to look at it can see it. And I think that’s where it belongs.” So it’s here.
Tortorice: So it’s in the collection. Goodness. I should go take a look at that.
Fry: Yeah. It’s called the mille. It’s interesting particularly because about 20% of the names have some material written in telling about where they lived or when they died or their profession or this sort of thing. And he said, “You know, there is a meeting every year of the descendants of these people.” They meet in Rome to celebrate the mille.
Tortorice: That’s amazing. So that was certainly a highlight of the collecting experience. And really does explain how you worked over all these many years.
Fry: Yes. Yes.
Tortorice: And it really sounds like a very exciting and would pique your interest and keep it going.
Fry: In fact, the feeling of discovery is one of the greatest enjoyments of the whole field. And of course there are times where you discover something you can’t afford to buy or you don’t feel, you know, it belongs there better than here. 00:42:00
Tortorice: Well he obviously understood that, too.
Fry: Yes. Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: And gave you the best kind of situation.
Fry: And he is extremely happy that the material’s coming here.
Tortorice: Great. Well, I don’t know. Do you want to continue with the collecting? Or we could come back to it and maybe now go back to Madison and the physics department in the 50s. And we had gotten up to about ‘4. So after 54, could you tell us a bit about the department?
Fry: Well, then I went to Italy in 56.
Tortorice: I see. Okay.
Fry: Fifty-six, 57. And then I came back a changed person. Changed in the sense that not only was there physics, which I was very interested in, but there was Italian culture, which was a part of my life. Because then the collaboration with University of Padova was established and we then collaborated through the next, well, almost thirty years. So I would go back and forth and they would come here occasionally and that sort of thing. And some of my students went there and so on. So there was a close connection between Wisconsin and the University of Padova physics department ever since.
Tortorice: And that was due primarily to you and to your connection.
Fry: Yes, I guess so. Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: And so you, during those years you were teaching in Madison and conducting your research. Was your entire career in the physics department in Sterling Hall?
Tortorice: Yes. Okay.
Fry: Yes. Until it changed over to Chamberlain. And then of course I moved there. Then I, the last six years of my life I was involved in astrophysics and from there particle physics.
Tortorice: So could you talk a little bit about how the culture of the university, of the department, changed over these years? The role of, say, the student/professor relationships, how you felt you had an impact on the direction of the department, what its strengths were?
Fry: Yeah. Well, when I came, of course, I was the first one to do work in high-energy physics. And then the department expanded. And see, I came in 52. And by 56 there were three of us in high-energy physics. And I had started a contract with what was then at that time the Atomic Energy Commission, 00:45:00 who then gave you money for research and that sort of thing. And a little bit of a short story. In 53, I applied for funding from Atomic Energy Commission for work in high-energy physics here in Madison. I had a graduate student and I needed funds for, this time the work was all nuclear emulsions. And so I needed a couple of new microscopes for looking at nuclear emulsion. So I turned in a proposal to the Atomic Energy Commission I think for a five-thousand-dollar grant request. I got a notice back in maybe a few weeks saying, “I’m sorry, we cannot provide funding for you in high-energy physics at Wisconsin because there’s someone at University of Chicago that’s doing the same thing. And we can’t duplicate that funding.” I don’t know anybody at the University of Chicago that’s doing fundamental particle physics in the field that I’m in.
So I called them up and I said, “Are you sure that there is someone at the University of Chicago doing this?”
“Well, we’ll look.” With about a ten-minute hesitation, she says, “Oh, yeah, that guy’s name is Fry.”
Tortorice: It was you. (laughs)
Fry: It was me! So I immediately got the funding.
Tortorice: Well, great.
Fry: So that was the beginning of the funding. And Wisconsin was one of the two first universities to get funding from the Atomic Energy Commission in high-energy physics. And with the growth of the people, number of people and activities, it continued to expand. And because we were early, we became the second largest funded group in high-energy physics in the United States in universities. The other one was MIT.
And when I left the administrative aspect of the contract, the contract had developed to 6.7 million dollars a year.
Tortorice: And what year was that that you—
Fry: Let’s see. I think it must have been 87.
Tortorice: So, all the way till [1987. So you were working with graduate students during those years—
Fry: Yes. Yes.
Tortorice: —and training.
Fry: And high-energy physics group had grown from in 57 there were three of us. And when I left there were, I think, twelve or fourteen professors.
Tortorice: Twelve or fourteen, wow. 00:48:00
Fry: And an employment of over a hundred people. Which I administered.
Tortorice: Wow. My goodness.
Fry: Principal investigator. So it grew. And because it got started early, it really was very well-funded.
Tortorice: And so did you have to do a lot of communication with the granting agencies, a lot of paperwork? Did you do all of that yourself?
Fry: Well, no. Because we had to prepare a document every year. And then it was decided quite early that the document would be prepared by each one of the professors who was involved. And that was divided up. But then the overall putting it together and working on a budget, that was my responsibility. And I had the responsibility of the expenditure of the funds.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. So you had a strong role in the administration of this aspect of the department.
Fry: Yes. Yes.
Tortorice: And were you involved in the overall governance of the department by being chair or—
Fry: No. No. No.
Fry: I felt that I had done enough to be the principal investigator of the high-energy physics program. And of course as it grew and gained strength, the technical aspects became more and more divided to every individual. And I really had no impact on that. it was driven by their—
Tortorice: Research interests.
Fry: —research interests and their capabilities and their students. That was good, because then the responsibility wasn’t mine. And I don’t think any one person could have been diverse enough to have really effectively governed that. It was governed by what one would say is a democratic system. We had common things like we had common secretaries. The facilities, graduate students and this sort of thing. So we decided on those. But technically, no. That was the way it should have been.
Tortorice: So it didn’t put you in the position of overseeing other people’s work and funding—
Fry: Not technically. But administratively, every cent that was spent went through my hands. I assigned them. Now for short periods of time when I was gone and because other people sort of took on, the principal investigator is the person who does that. That shifted occasionally. But most of all this time, I was the principal investigator.
Tortorice: Was there any relationship with the other parts of the department? How 00:51:00 dominant was this in the department? Was it the major faculty cluster in the department? And did you have to compete with other parts of the department? Were you rather independent and separate?
Fry: Well, at one time it was probably the largest and one of the very active groups in the department. At the beginning, of course, it was very small compared to nuclear physics and some of the other branches. But as the high-energy physics group grew in the 70s and the 80s, it was obviously the dominant one, the largest. But there were other fields which did very well. And I must say, I don’t think there were major conflicts between the various groups. All we competed for assistant professorships and that sort of thing. But you know, one of the great things of the physics department, one of the bad things of the physics department in my judgment, is that it is and still is an extremely democratically run system. The department chairman has no real power. And one of the negative aspects of that is every year we got a piece of paper which gave the salary of every professor in the physics department. And asked us to vote on the increase of salary of every other colleague. It’s a great leveling procedure.
Tortorice: It seems like it would also create a certain level of animosity or jealousy.
Fry: Oh, there’s always that. But I would say that, well, maybe I’m undecided, but I would say that physics department never had a real major conflict. We got discouraged by the fact that we lost people because we never were able to get adequate salary for them. Because everybody voted on everybody else’s salary. I remember one year Ugo Camerini said, “Look, I don’t give a damn what that happens. It only raises you by the price of a cup of 00:54:00 coffee anyway.” But everybody voted on everybody else’s salary. And that has many negative aspects.
Tortorice: I would imagine, yes.
Fry: But it keeps the department from making major mistakes.
Tortorice: It’s true. Hmm.
Fry: But for example, I’ve always cited the University of Illinois, which I would say in many ways is a comparable school to ours. The physics department had a department head. He didn’t answer to anybody. He made all the decisions. The department was not informed. But this man—his name was [Frederick] Seitz (1911-2008)—had extremely good judgment and hired an outstanding staff and run it with great skill. But if he didn’t have that, it would have been disaster.
Tortorice: And that’s a fairly rare phenomenon.
Fry: Right. Right. Right.
Tortorice: Well, that’s fascinating. Were you in Sterling Hall when the bombing occurred in 1970 of the Army Math Research Center?
Fry: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. I wasn’t physically there. I was in my house. I heard it.
Tortorice: Tell me about the impact that that had on the department and on your work personally, on your—
Fry: I would say in terms of high-energy physics, it had really no impact. Nuclear physics, yes, because the person who was killed as a—
Tortorice: [Robert] Fassnacht (1937-1970) I think, his name was —
Fry: Yeah, Fassnacht was, I think he was a postdoctoral person at that time. And of course it affected nuclear physics very much. And I think it sharpened everyone’s recognition of the importance of security. But you know, this was a time of change, too. This was a time where some people in the physics department felt that it needed to think more of young people.
Tortorice: Take their concerns into account?
Fry: Their teaching.
Tortorice: And their teaching.
Fry: Their teaching. And so Bob [Robert] March (1934-2015), for example, wrote this book on physics for poets, which was tremendously criticized in the department. In fact, two professors said that nobody should junk 00:57:00 physics like that.
Tortorice: This was a lowering of the quality.
Fry: But you know, it was not lowering in reality. It was bringing much of physics to people who would never think about it otherwise. And it was not wrong. There was no wrong physics in it. It was simplified, if you wish. It was put into perspective and had a way of writing that appealed to non-physicists.
This was a period also where physics attracted people for graduate school who shouldn’t have gone into physics but should have gone into other fields.
Tortorice: What do you mean by that? Just that this was—
Fry: There were people who took physics because it was the enlightened, so-called activity at the time. And people who should have been lawyers or economists or some other profession.
Tortorice: Didn’t really have a—
Fry: That wasn’t their skill.
Tortorice: Their skill. But they went into it because they thought it was the career of the future or it was the—
Fry: Exactly. Exactly. And in fact probably at that time the number of graduate students in physics was at a peak. Maybe slightly after that, but around that time. So there were two things that were then happening. One, there was this attempt to make physics understood by non-physicists. General education. And Bob March played a critical role in that. And he was criticized. He was not given any salary increase for that.
Tortorice: Support. Mm hmm.
Fry: It was a time when the physics field was attracting people which probably didn’t really deserve to be in physics.
Tortorice: Do you know whether those people ended up with careers in physics? Or whether they—
Fry: A few did. But many of them actually after a couple of years realized that it was not their forte. So the decretion rate was appreciable. So the physics went through that sort of period then. And there were some strong feelings in the department against and for those changes.
Tortorice: So that was probably when the department was at its height in terms of numbers of students and faculty.
Fry: Yeah. Now it’s always been true that the physics department 01:00:00 never spent the appropriate amount of effort in undergraduate teaching for physics majors. So the number of graduate students was much bigger than the number of undergraduate students.
Tortorice: Oh, that’s interesting.
Fry: Which reflected that.
Tortorice: Probably because a good deal of your funding came from outside the university and you didn’t really need to have those undergraduate numbers.
Fry: Right. Right. Right. And there wasn’t the interest in teaching undergraduate. In fact, the people who became recognized as teachers and influential were the people who taught graduate students.
Tortorice: So in the sense, the physics for poets was an attempt to really augment the undergraduate program—
Fry: Not undergraduate physics, but outside of physics.
Tortorice: Mm hmm. Even bring in people outside, because probably they got science credits—
Fry: They did.
Tortorice: And that was part of the overall university credit structure.
Fry: Right, right.
Tortorice: So the department plugged into that.
Fry: Yes. And finally recognized and established a laboratory to go with the course. And the enrollment became so big they restricted the enrollment.
Tortorice: Well, it became really a major, major phenomenon on campus. Because I do recall it very well.
Fry: Right, right, yes.
Tortorice: And of course Bob March became very much an advocate of undergraduate education.
Fry: Exactly. Exactly.
Tortorice: And got involved in a lot of initiatives.
Fry: But you know, the sad story is the physics department did not treat him appropriately for that.
Tortorice: Really? You would have thought they would have given him an award for such efforts. He got recognition in the community, in the university.
Fry: Oh, he did. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And eventually in the department from many people.
Tortorice: Now would your course on the physics of violin have been at the same time? Or did that come—
Fry: Yes it was.
Tortorice: Was it a similar kind of effort to open the field to non-physics majors?
Fry: This was directed, I thought, mainly towards music students. It was called Acoustics for Musicians. It was a general course in acoustics, not, violin was part of that.
Tortorice: I see, I see. So it wasn’t—
Fry: And more than half of the students at that time were music majors.
Tortorice: Hmm. Very good.
Fry: And the others were art majors and non-science majors. 01:03:00
Tortorice: And you taught that for many years.
Fry: Quite a number of years. Yeah.
Tortorice: And this went really hand in hand with your own research interests.
Fry: Research on violins, yes. Yes. I started work on research on violins in 1964.
Tortorice: We covered some of that in our previous discussion. But in recent years, your work has continued. And you’ve made some discoveries. And you continue to make violins and continue to pursue this. And also there have been discoveries by others, and the field has somewhat expanded. It’s become more and more prominent, it seems to me. In particular, the violin.
Fry: Yes. But in terms of the results in understanding and controlling the acoustics of the violin, I have to say, I’m prejudiced, but I think no one has made major steps in that besides me.
Fry: The problem is, it’s very easy for a physicist to pick a part of that subject and to deal with it correctly in great detail. But that doesn’t solve the problem, because the problem is solving a whole complex series of things that are involved in it. And one little teeny thing will not solve that problem.
Tortorice: And you’re the person really who has looked at the complexity over a long period.
Fry: Exactly. A long period of time. I still am.
Tortorice: And we talked about all of the various aspects of this complex issue of tracing the quality of—
Fry: I still spend half my time doing violin research, and the other half abstracting manuscripts. That’s my life now.
Tortorice: And you still make violins.
Fry: Oh, yeah.
Tortorice: I know you’re still working with Rose Mary Harbison—
Fry: Starting tomorrow.
Tortorice: —on her violin. And that’s very much tied with Token Creek and—
Fry: And there is scheduled for a conference at the Boston Museum of, a session where I will teach and she will demonstrate things in the museum. That will be, it’s scheduled for sometime this coming spring.
Tortorice: Oh. So you really are staying very active.
Fry: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: And in many fields.
Fry: And the interesting thing for me is I’ve spent enough time to make a DVD book on the violin acoustics, which has now recorded 32 hours of lectures on DVD. 01:06:00 And I started to make what I think is sort of the summary of the book. And I think I have about four hours more to complete the book. And the library here special collection has agreed to put it on the internet.
Tortorice: Oh, excellent. That’s great.
Fry: I had thought of having it as a DVD book. And the library agreed that they would do that. But then it was Katherine’s idea that well, if it’s going to be free and open, why not just put the whole thing on the internet? So that’s what’s going to happen.
Tortorice: That’s wonderful. Well, to get back to the more mundane aspects, were you involved in professional organizations in your field over the years? Did you have a role in the development of organizations related to high-energy physics?
Fry: Yes and no. The answer yes is that there is a conference, international conference, that’s held every year in Venice, which is the International Conference on Neutrino Telescopes is the title of it. And I played sort of a role in that every year. Since it started about, I think, eighteen years ago.
Tortorice: And you attend every year still?
Fry: Oh, yeah. Sure. Oh, I still, I’m going there in October when we’ll make out the schedule for the conference that’s being held in the spring. And this is held and organized and run by a professor of physics at the University of Padova, Milla Baldo Ceolin (1924-2011). She started it. And this will be the last one. She is retiring this year.
Tortorice: And no one is picking it up?
Fry: She was my student when I first went to Padova in 56.
Tortorice: Oh! Very nice.
Fry: She’s an experimental physicist. Quite a well-known career. She is the professor of Galileo Galilei at the University of Padova.
Tortorice: Wow. Could you tell us of any honors you’ve received, or awards? Or recognition?
Fry: Well, the one I’m the most proud of, I was invited to be a member of the academia, the Galileo Galilei in Padova, which is one of the oldest academias in Italy. It was founded by Galileo when he was a professor in Padova. For my work on high-energy physics and acoustics. That was what, three years ago? 01:09:00
Tortorice: I just put it on pause because the—Jack, well, we’re coming to the end of the interview. I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and to do this oral interview. Are there any final words you would like to say before we wrap up?
Fry: Yeah. Two basic subjects. One, as you get to be my age, you wonder about where have you made contributions, and recognition of people who have made your life great and enjoyable. And I guess the first thing I want to say is that the physics department has been an unusually wonderful place to have been. Because of the people make it, of course. But because of attitudes which were probably established long before I came. The stature and so on. You don’t get graduate students just out of the blue. You get graduate students because your college long before you have prepared them and convinced them through the society they know. So I’ve always been indebted to the fact that we have had some outstanding graduate students. And I think the general attitude in the physics department to actually want to keep up with the times. Of leading the forefront of physics. That is an attitude in the department which has dominated and I think is one of the reasons that the department has done so well. I’m very proud to have been a member of that department. And I think back upon my times and I think, you know, Jack, you were very lucky to have been in the department at that time.
Physics, like all fields, always is undergoing change. And I entered the department at a time where a single person could do experiments by themselves which were important and profitable. And as time passed on, by the time I was thinking of not being able to contribute to it much anymore, if you look at the journals, the number of people on the journals, on a single paper, maybe two hundred. And that plus the fact that it takes probably fifty million dollars plus 01:12:00 eight years, ten years, to do an experiment. As opposed to when I came I could do a significant experiment in two or three months, publish the paper and maybe spent no more than five thousand dollars. So the field changed. I think I was extremely fortunate to be in that field at the time where I was there. And certainly the university gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do. They did not dictate.
And so my stay in the physics department, I felt, was a most enjoyable one. I never hated the physics department. I always enjoyed being there. I was always glad to go back. I was always glad to talk about the physics department.
But then as you get older, you begin to wonder well, did I do much? In other words, let me give you an example. One of the graduate students and I discovered an effect in the decay of K0 mesons. And we had four events which we published as an initial discovery. About eight years later, I visited CERN, the European accelerator, and met a young man who walked up to me and said, “Oh, yeah, I remember your first paper. Well you know, right now we have ten thousand of these events.” With all the details and all the physics that could be worked out and learned. What I did is inconsequential to the real understanding of that phenomenon. So, this is typical of early stages of things. And so it’s difficult to put in perspective what you did when it has been expanded, improved and quantified, understood by other people. But that’s science.
And so as I look back, it’s not what I did that I am proud of. What I look back and appreciate was the joy and the great pleasures I had in working in the field. At a time where you could get really involved at the frontier. I no longer could make any contribution to the frontier anymore. That’s gone by. It’s probably true now that very few professors in the physics department makes a fundamental contribution to the frontiers of high-energy physics. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It’s big. It’s expensive. It’s slow. 01:15:00
The other thing I think about with great pleasure is the potential of having brought to the University of Wisconsin something that will be useful for many years. Namely, the collection. Now here again, that is really, that pleasure and that thought is small compared to the pleasure I had in making it. The feeling of discovery. The feeling of learning something I never understood before. The joy of meeting people I would never have met if I were not involved in that. The experience of sharing ideas about that which I am no expert on in any way. I’m not a historian. I’m not a man in preservation of documents. I’m not a specialist in the Italian culture. And so on and so on. The list goes on and on. I’m none of these. But yet, I had the potential of putting together something which will last.
Now, that’s related to lots of people. And I want to make clear that they should have the dues. One is Danilo Nogarotto, who taught me more about Italian culture than anything else, aside from stopping and visiting in the coffee shops. Two, the University of Wisconsin. And the Special Collection Department at the University of Wisconsin, which always brought me the idea that there is something worthwhile that is happening that will be permanent and will be there. So the idea of preservation of the material, appreciation of the material, of availability of the material, is all an important part. And if it weren’t for that, I would never have collected things. So to these, I say thank you.
End August 6, 2008 Session