Harold Palmer Smith Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the 'Unthinkables' in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Harold Palmer Smith, Jr., Professor, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, January 26, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Harold, welcome to the program.

Thank you, good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and then my parents moved to Pittsburgh. I grew up just north of Pittsburgh.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My father was a graduate of Harvard in 1932. That was, of course, the Depression, and hard upon us at the time. As a Harvard graduate, he expected the world to treat him accordingly and it didn't: there were no jobs. He finally found a job in Pittsburgh and that's where he stayed. It's a comment on that generation that he would never take another job. He just could not leave the one he had for fear that there would not be another job. His son (namely me, of course), I grew up in the boom times and the idea of quitting the gas station to take on some other job mid-summer worried him enormously, but it didn't bother me because they were boom times. It was that kind of tension, though, that made for a very interesting childhood where my modern ways and his Depression ways provided a nice basis for conversation between the two of us for many years.

What got you interested in the sciences?

I think, Harry, that's genetic. One is born with those genes, and I was. I loved mathematics for as far back as I can remember. I haven't lost that love yet.

Where did you pursue your education?

At MIT. That in itself was a wonderful comment on the United States. I was the first of a group of about a dozen Sloan national scholars. Alfred Sloan had made scholarships available at MIT and three other institutions, and they were very generous; wholly for academic effort but they paid everything, tuition, expenses. I had no choice but to go to MIT, even though my father would mention Harvard from time to time.

You wanted a job. [laughs]

Yes, that's right. But Harvard didn't offer that kind of a scholarship. MIT did, and MIT met with my genetic makeup. I wanted to study science, and so I did.

Did you do your undergraduate work at MIT, too?

All of my degrees are MIT. One, I guess, should go elsewhere for graduate school, but if one's already at one of the world's finest institutes, and it happens to be in Boston, and you know where all the girls' schools are, well, why leave? So, I didn't.

When you were there, what degree did you pursue?

Because I was a Sloan scholar, I started off as a business major. I was going to be a "captain of industry." Well, I soon learned that mathematics, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics -- that was easy. What was hard was marketing, accounting -- and, "well, this isn't for me." I left to study physics, but the best I could do and graduate in four years was to study a physics option and mechanical engineering. So, my first degree was mechanical engineering, and then nuclear engineering fellowships were offered, I was awarded one of those, and studied nuclear engineering, which is a heavy input of physics. So, you might say I've been pursuing physics through the world of engineering my entire life. As you know, my publications tend to be more in physics than in engineering.

What sort of problems in nuclear physics interested you in your early career, in your early scholarship?

Well, Harry, thank you. I haven't thought about that in a long time. The one I enjoyed the most was called the xenon poisoning problem. It involves a set of differential equations, and one has to invoke, to solve this particular problem, the theorems of Pontryagin, a blind Russian mathematician. That served me well, as I hope we'll discuss later in my tours of Russia. Solving that problem brought me considerable fame in the academic sense, and was probably the most rewarding piece of work I did. To put it in historical context, in the Manhattan Project, the Hanford reactors, shortly after they were started, shut down. Wigner had designed the reactors, and Wigner and Fermi figured out what had happened. It has to do with large cross sections, and radioactive decay, and the times involved. What I did was optimize that situation. The real credit, of course, goes to Fermi and Wigner. They recognized the problem and solved it in a very straightforward, mechanical way. But it worked. Later on, thirty years later, we now know how to do that slightly better, thanks to the work I did here at Berkeley.

You came to Berkeley; you were actually on the faculty here in applied science?

No, this was the Department of Nuclear Engineering. It's a compliment to Berkeley; I had been offered an appointment at MIT and I said no, contrary to my decision between graduate and undergraduate. I said, "No, it is time for me to try something else, but I will be back." And then as I drove an old Mercury around the bend, where suddenly all of San Francisco Bay comes into view, I remember saying to myself, "I'm never going back." And you know what? I didn't!

That's right. That first drive -- I was originally from Texas and that first drive, when you approach the West Coast, is ...

It is stunning.

Really quite stunning.

Now to be a little less frivolous, when I arrived at Berkeley, I found on my desk a telephone, and that telephone connected me with every expert in any field I could have the least possible interest. That was new, and that speaks very well for the diversity of this campus. As a young professor, I would call young professors in history, in a period I wanted to read, and I would ask them, "What do you recommend for the casual reader?" They would give me a set of books, suggest lunch in a month. I would say no, but I'd read the books. Of course, I closed the conversation by saying, "If you need any recommendations for casual reading in quantum mechanics, I'm your man. Call me." But Berkeley's diversity really, really impressed me then and it impresses me now.

This is a theme that we'll talk about later in some of your current work, namely the interdisciplinary environment one needs to research a lot of problems. Of course, Berkeley is an ideal place for doing that, and here you're not just talking about the array of talent in the sciences, but also in the social sciences.

Very definitely. And that's one of the reasons I didn't go back.

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