I.I. Rabi

Rabi: Scientist as Citizen, Part II

VTR Date: April 12, 1987

Guest: Rabi, I.I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: I. I. Rabi
Title: ‘Rabi, Scientist and Citizen’
Part II
VTR: 4/18/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Basic Books recently published John Rigden’s study of that great man of American science, I. I. Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and dean of his profession. The book is entitled, Rabi: Scientist and Citizen, and last week here on THE OPEN MIND I had the privilege of first talking with Professor Rabi himself about this vital dual role he has played so long and so well. Well, now, he’s stayed on for a further look at integrating far more than just two cultures. Dr. Rabi, thanks for staying. At the end of our first program we mentioned… you mentioned Eisenhower’s name. We were talking about science advisors, etc. What was the significance of establishing an Office of the Science Advisor to the President?

Rabi: Well, the President realized right after Sputnik that we were in deep trouble, national trouble. And he needed help. And he called in the Science Advisor Committee, which had existed, but did not report to him directly. It could, but did, but through Flemming one of the cabinet members. And I was Chairman at that time. He called me in and I said, “what you need is a man in your office with whom you can get along, whom you like.” Who, in so far as possible, understands your problems and talks to you about the scientific aspects of the problems that come before you. They’re enormous in every range, but you can’t be expected to see them. He has to be a part of your personality, a part of your mind.” And he was a great man and he agreed. And then the Scientific Advisory Committee was established, a part of the White House group. And we had a Chairman, who was a man the President liked and it went very well. It was always a joy to come in and talk with him because he was so quick on the up-take and so understanding. And also, which was most important to us, his requests for help in specific situations.

Heffner: You make it sound though, Dr. Rabi, as though there is a scientific community. There’s science out there and what was needed was someone who could interpret the President to science and science to the President.

Rabi: That is partly so. But the point you mention about the community is very important. It’s not an individual alone. But he’s representative of a large community. And you had a Science Advisory Committee of very eminent people in science, who in turn had connections with the vast group of scientists in the country. And they were there for no other purpose, but to serve the President.

Heffner: To interpret to him what scientific developments where, what scientific invention is…

Rabi: Some of that. But also the implications of some decisions that he may make. He may have enormous implications, both for the progress of science and for the progress of humanity and more importantly, of more immediate importance, the progress of the United States.

Heffner: Of course I guess I’m so old now that my picture of this is the picture of the conflict within the scientific community itself. I’m thinking about the development of hydrogen bomb, with Oppenheimer and Teller and all of the political machinations that went on.

Rabi: Yes. In the first place there was not conflict within the community.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Rabi: There was a small group, for reasons of their own, and misunderstandings, that took another side, but it wasn’t a conflict within the community. It wasn’t a conflict it was maybe differences of interpretation. What the proper action should be, but it was not a scientific conflict at all. So, some were mistaken. It’s quite possible for scientists, however eminent, to be mistaken. They’re human, but there were no real conflicts.


Heffner: Is that true, generally in science, that you would say that there is no real conflict, there is science, there is the science of…the development of the bomb, the development of radar, the quantum mechanics, whatever it might be, that can be interpreted to a political leader like the President.

Rabi: I don’t see why not. Of course, he has to be intelligent in the first place; which Eisenhower eminently was. He was a very intelligent man, very quick mind.

Heffner: You make it sound so much, and I certainly know so little that I wouldn’t challenge you. You make it sound as though science is the process revealing the mind of God, the mind of being. Is that a fair…

Rabi: That’s its goal. Nothing else. Its revelation. Here we are, living in this world, with no powers, no native powers, except some extraordinary brain. To survive, to turn around and instead of being at the mercy of natural forces, like the wind and the rain, cold. Controlling them because of knowledge, which did not come from revelation, which the human spirit investigated, discovered. It took many, many centuries. And the science I’m talking about is hardly more than a half a millennium. So, it’s a remarkable thing. And in the course of that, basic new ideas came out… how to observe nature, all the kind of logic you would use and to understand. How different the developments were from common sense, but which, I mean the ordinary ideas you get from experience, of space and time and causality and all that. And to be able to penetrate into the very structure of matter and the very structure of the human body and more even now, the human mind, and then of the vastness of the universe.

Heffner: I gather you feel that Eisenhower, President Eisenhower was, when guided by this Scientific Advisory group or by a Scientific Advisor, very, very capable of understanding what was set before him.

Rabi: I think so. He was. Of course to run a country, there are many, many things. It’s really driving a very complicated stagecoach and the surface of the road, all that, is a part of it, and so on. I would not say, for example, we advise something and if he does the opposite or ignores it, I wouldn’t feel at all put out. He understands so much more, so many other problems that come up, political, economic, so on.

Heffner: Have other Presidents drawn upon the science community, scientific community in the same way?

Rabi: No really. Some was Kennedy and then this thing sort of passed out.

Heffner: Why?

Rabi: They weren’t up to it.

Heffner: Who wasn’t up to it? The scientific community?

Rabi: Oh no, no, no. The Presidents. And his Advisors.

Heffner: You have to explain that to me.

Rabi: They weren’t just that, that bright. You look at the Presidents after Eisenhower and there are no intellectual giants there. It’s a sad thing. For most of this period we’ve had people who were basically political. Which is wonderful if you have to be, but were not, were not intellectuals. Or intellectual interests. Or really had a grasp of the larger grasp of humanity in the world.

Heffner: Dr. Rabi that makes me go back to the nature of our discussion in the first program. If our Presidents have not been capable, if their Advisors have not been that capable, aren’t you speaking then of, the necessity to identify and put political power in the hands of a very, very, very small number of people.


Rabi: I wish some people who understand these things and had ideas would come along with a proposal. I think it’s a necessary thing. It hasn’t been proposed, nobody has enough nerve to propose it.

Heffner: It doesn’t fit into the traditional, historic, democratic (inaudible) procedure, does it?

Rabi: The trend has been against that. The Founding Fathers understood it perfectly.

Heffner: Okay. So everything is downhill from…

Rabi: If we go back to the Founding Fathers, we have an example of general directions in which to proceed.

Heffner: You go back then to extraordinarily well-educated men.

Rabi: Absolutely.

Heffner: And we, we haven’t seen that.

Rabi: Well, some have been, I guess. I think that…

Heffner: Didn’t Kennedy say, at a dinner for your Nobel Laureates at the White House once that so much talent hadn’t been gathered there in the White House since Jefferson dined alone?

And are not in power. Britannia does not rule any longer.

Rabi: No.

Heffner: And you’re suggesting if we continue to go the way we’ve gone, we shall not either.

Rabi: I’m not much concerned that the world may not go. All humanity, I’m thinking of that.

Heffner: In the epilogue to Rabi: Scientist and Citizen, the Rigden book, you… you write, ‘there is a ray of hope. Just as we learned a great deal from the Russian success of Sputnik, which awoke us to many deficiencies, the industrial success of the Asian world, Japan, Korea, Singapore may spur us on to recover our depleted native intellectual elan. We can rely on nobody but ourselves to get us out of this intellectual slump. We must start with our schools, the training of our teachers and the restoration of our ideals of learning for its own sake’. Are you taking bets, Dr. Rabi, as to whether we’ll do it?

Rabi: I don’t know how to be other than optimistic. The situation is so dark if you’re not, why continue living?

Heffner: Fair enough.

Rabi: So I have to be optimistic, perforce.

Heffner: What in our society will take us in that direction? Rabi would, but there are others involved.

Rabi: I don’t know. I remember this. I hate to say it. I was in Germany, a post-doctoral fellow in 1929, ‘28. In 1929 some scientists came through the Bell Labs into this laboratory where I was working with this great physicist, Otto Stern. He was very disappointed, he couldn’t talk physics with them, they were so full of the stock market.

Heffner: You talking about today?

Rabi: 1929. And then I came back from Europe in September, 1929 and then came the great slump. And how wonderful it was, after that terrible stock market drop, the Depression. People began talking sense, reality and so on. So, it’s possible for a turn. And the ‘30s, terrible as they were for some people, was a great time for the development of science and for the arts. So that it’s quite possible for the mood of a country to change and I’ve seen it myself.

Heffner: Out of adversity. You’re not the first person to sit there and say, other very distinguished persons have said, that have also said, you know, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not rooting for it… but have said perhaps only out of adversity.

Rabi: Well, there’s another thing. When the Russian Sputnik went up, it had a tremendous effect, a very sobering effect. Unfortunately, it wore off very quickly and we had this mindless revolt of the students in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I’ve seen things, the possibilities. So I’m not pessimistic, really. Something will happen, I don’t know what.

Heffner: But you know… forgive me if I don’t let you off the hook too easily. That, that’s fair enough. It seems to me that what you want, what you need to have a society that is well enough run, that recognizes the power of science, the powers that science reveals, what you need is a population that is so much better educated than our population today. But it isn’t likely that any turnaround is going to achieve what I believe you feel must be achieved if we are to survive. You need people who are scientifically literate, you need humanists. You need a population, when you say ten million people. Ten million educated people; where do you get ten million educated people? And when you have them, go back to my question, do they vote twice? Do they have the preferred stock in our society? Where do they get their power? This elite. And it is an elite.

Rabi: We have an elite that have the power now.

Heffner: Where? Who?

Rabi: The upper class, your upper economic class, the upper social class. They’re there. If we could educate them, it would be wonderful. There’re there. They go to the best schools, but they don’t get the kind of education I’m talking about.

Heffner: But you know…

Rabi: But for the public…just one, one more word.


Heffner: Sure, please.

Rabi: The public have a feeling for reality. Now the last six years, the public had a tremendous feeling for unreality. It was a whole movie set, we went along with a tremendous actor. You watch it and that’s what it was. They claimed the Republicans, for example, and the national debt piled up, this sort of thing. But the public loved it, somehow. They were reassured. And that shows a weakness of human nature. You have to take that into account, we’re not moved by logic alone. It’s part of our problem.

Heffner: I dare say, that if I may use the phrase, of the ten million you look for that perhaps the best and the brightest went very much along with this world of fantasy.

Rabi: Yes, that’s it. That’s it. A sense of reality. In other words that we don’t have and what we need is some idea of a goal. Where are we going? What do we want to do? What does the United States stand for aside from the possibility of a fair deal or a new deal and that sort of thing. A smoothly running society — have to go beyond that. That’s why I was trying to bring science in. Not as a body of skills and knowledge, but a realization of the power of the human spirit.

Heffner: Now do you think for a moment that that realization, which may come, it may come out of adversity, it may come out of just a sparkling leadership, can make up for, and I know you’re going to say, as Norman Cousins said here, “I don’t know enough to be a pessimist, I’ve go to be an optimist.” Do you think that it really is likely that we can make up for the decline in our educational system?

Rabi: There are many things that enter human society, human motivation. The rise of Islam.

Heffner: Yes.

Rabi: There are these desert people who went out and conquered a good part of the known world, at that time. There are other things, material things, which can have an appeal. Somebody may arise who knows how to talk to the common man about this science. If they can do it with Allah, why not with the human spirit, to great achievements, to wonderful possibilities, infinite possibilities. I think it’s possible. I can’t do it, but I can conceive that there are people who could.

Heffner: That’s such a beautiful thought that I, I don’t want to be in a position of looking askance at it. But in the meantime, how do we relate the information, knowledge, attitude that you identify as science? How do we build it into public policy?

Rabi: It has to be a re-definition of morality, which I was trying to say. That you use the achievements… should not use the achievements of the human spirit to destroy humanity, to destroy people. It’s a great respect, a re-definition of sin.


Heffner: It’s not exactly a re-definition. It’s an extension.

Rabi: All right. I’m willing to… any sort of help (laughter).

Heffner: Do you think that’s… I won’t ask whether that’s in the cards. As you look around you, do you see that? Do you see the scientific community, itself, participating in that? The way it tried to in the years right after the Second World War?

Rabi: Well, my own group, this is before the World War, before the Second World War, certainly had it.

Heffner: What do you mean when you say “your own group?”

Rabi: People doing research with me, my laboratory.

Heffner: I see.

Rabi: Wonderful people. And I think most of us had, even after the Second World War. We certainly had it when we were doing radar, during the War. I think it’s possible to communicate. Actually I think the whole country had it. If you go back to 1946, the country understood the meaning of the atomic bomb, then. That’s been lost since in this tremendous raise of propaganda and misunderstanding. But they had it. You can go to a pinnacle of understanding and then go down. These things have happened in history.

Heffner: And the scientific in the community today?

Rabi: I can’t speak for them. I’m almost ninety years old and the active scientists are forty years, or more, younger (laughter). I can’t speak for them. I wish I knew. But they’re doing wonderful things and I can’t believe that they’re untouched by it. But there is such a thing as the spirit of the country, which has become so materialistic.

Heffner: Does it wash off on the scientific community?

Rabi: It’s bound to, they’re human. That’s one thing, it’s very important to remember when you talk about science, it’s made by people. That’s the most important thing to remember, they’re people, like you and I and everybody else.

Heffner: Dr. Rabi, I’m getting the signal that we have almost no time left and I did want to ask you, Star Wars. As a physicist, what’s your response to it?

Rabi: I expressed myself in the column by Jimmy Breslin. This is an old man, he’s had a yard of intestine taken out, he’s had cancer, he’s been shot in the chest. What do you expect of him. It’s nice that he had these feelings. I respect him for his feelings. That doesn’t mean that you have to take him seriously. But you do have to take him seriously because he’s the President of the United States and commands these enormous powers.

Heffner: I. I. Rabi, we’ll consider that a question mark for our viewers to puzzle out at the end of this program. Thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please do write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts please send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, ‘Good night and good luck’.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsberry Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.