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Physics: The Musical?

16 August 2018

In recording a 1947 album of songs about physics, Arthur Roberts captured a momentous transition for physicists in the US.

Arthur Roberts working on music
Arthur Roberts tinkers with music he composed for a film on the 1964 Atoms for Peace Conference. The pianist is from the Chicago Symphony. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, George Tressel Collection

It was 1947, and physics was having a moment in the sun. Physicists were widely credited with winning World War II through their work on the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the country’s most sought-after experts. An article in Harper’s declared that “No dinner party is a success without at least one physicist.” And the federal government, especially the military, seemed eager to write checks for physics research as quickly as laboratories could cash them.

Not every physicist saw the new federal largesse as a positive development. Arthur Roberts, a physics professor at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), was one of those with reservations. He expressed his worries in an unusual and memorable way: He wrote them down as songs and recorded them on vinyl.

Physicist and pianist

Art Roberts was born in 1912 in New York City. His academic path led him to both a PhD in physics from New York University and an MA in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music. It was in the latter program that he met his wife, Janice, a vocal performance major. After finishing his doctoral work, Roberts moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he held appointments at the MIT cyclotron group, Harvard Medical School, and the New England Conservatory of Music.

By 1941 Roberts was working exclusively at MIT’s famous Radiation Laboratory. When the US entered World War II, Roberts’s group helped develop microwave-frequency radar, a critical development after the Germans learned to jam lower-frequency radar systems.

Roberts’s radar work was just one of many ways physics research contributed to the war effort. The US government—especially the military—suspected that physics would continue to be crucial to national security in the postwar period, particularly as tensions between the US and the Soviet Union rose. Grant money began pouring in to places like the University of California, Berkeley, to support research as well as graduate education, to provide the new scientific workforce that political leaders suspected they would need to keep US science competitive.

Federal money, however, was not a blank check. Military funders in particular expected that grantees would work toward tangible outcomes—including the development of new weapons, a prospect that raised ethical questions for physicists grappling with the legacy of the atomic bomb. Some researchers worried that their federally funded work would be more like engineering than physics. Scientists who accepted military money also faced the prospect of having to keep their work a secret, even from colleagues.

From 1944 to 1947, Roberts—an early skeptic of physicists’ new prosperity—wrote songs that reflected those worries.

Who needs a billion dollars?

In 1947 Roberts moved from MIT to the State University of Iowa and found colleagues who shared his love of music. He and his friends decided to record six songs he had written (or in one case, cowritten) about physics. Everett Hall, chair of the philosophy department, sang lead vocals on the album. Roberts played the instruments, and a collection of physics faculty and graduate students served as the chorus.

Roberts's sheet music in Physics Today
The November 1948 issue of Physics Today includes the sheet music to Arthur Roberts’s “Take Away Your Billion Dollars.” Click the image to enlarge.

The six songs reflected on the present and future of physics in an era of big spending. Roberts’s lyrics expressed anxiety about the direction physics would go in if it became dependent on money from industry, government, and the military. They also reflected a romantic view of physics as an endeavor that needed only passion, creativity, and a little bit of money to make great discoveries.

In “It Ain’t the Money,” Roberts writes about the career of I. I. Rabi, one of the founding members of the Radiation Laboratory. Roberts depicts Rabi as an impoverished but passionate physicist who relied on his wife’s income to “keep the wolf from the door” as he pursued his passion for physics. Rabi’s work would eventually win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics. Roberts urges young physicists to follow Rabi’s example and make do with modest incomes rather than succumb to the siren call of industry salaries. “You graduate assistants who subsist on peanut bars,” reads one verse, should remember that “it ain’t the money that makes the nucleus go round.”

How Nice to Be a Physicist,” written in 1947, was a tongue-in-cheek celebration of physicists’ new cultural prestige. “How nice to be a physicist in this our year of grace/To see the scornful world at last admit your rightful place,” Roberts writes in the second verse. He depicts physicists visiting women’s clubs, earning deference from senators, and thinking of grant money “only when you wonder how to spend it.” But the song takes an ominous turn toward the end, as Roberts writes of physicists caught in worries about whether they’re allowed to talk about their government work.

“If you find a fact essential
Classify it confidential
Never give
A second thought
The FBI’s approval must be sought.”

The most famous and cutting song on the 1947 recording was “Take Away Your Billion Dollars,” a lament about the future of physics that Roberts wrote for his farewell party at MIT. The song depicts a group of physicists “upon the lawns of Washington,” proposing a new “electronuclear machine” that would cost a billion dollars and deliver 10 billion volts. “That’s the future road for physics, as I’m sure you’ll all endorse,” Roberts’s fictional physicists inform the rapt generals and politicians listening to their pitch.

But then a single physicist rises in protest. After declaring that he has spent “a mere ten thousand bucks” in the past six months (not exactly a modest sum—around $117 000 in today’s money), he urges,

“Take away your billion dollars, take away your tainted gold,
You can keep your damn ten billion volts, my soul will not be sold.
Take away your army generals; their kiss is death, I’m sure.
Everything I build is mine, and every volt I make is pure.
Take away your integration; let us learn and let us teach,
Oh, beware this epidemic Berkelitis, I beseech.
Oh, dammit! Engineering isn’t physics, is that plain?
Take, oh take, your billion dollars, let’s be physicists again.”

Physics Today printed the song’s sheet music in the November 1948 issue. The article instructed interested readers to write to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Roberts had spent a research summer, for their own copy of Roberts’s untitled album.

The rise of big science
Arthur Roberts works with a spark chamber
As a physicist, Arthur Roberts made innovations in the design of spark chambers. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

“Take Away Your Billion Dollars” expresses some interesting fears about the future of physics. Roberts begrudged the shift from small-scale physics done “with love and string and sealing wax,” as he puts it in the song, to giant, expensive machines. He feared a loss of independence, both for individual physicists and for physics as a field. He was worried that physics would lose its disciplinary identity and become “integrated” into engineering and applied research. His warning against “Berkelitis” made it clear that he considered Berkeley a prime example of a department where physicists could not “learn and teach” due to their commitments to the government.

Many of Roberts’s predictions about the direction of physics held true, likely to his chagrin. Historians of physics have charted the rise of “big science”—enormous departments and laboratories working on high-energy equipment like accelerators—during the postwar period. Berkeley remains a standard case study in the rise of big science. Military and government funding became—and remains—central to high-energy physics due to the enormous expense of building and running equipment. Physicists’ reliance on federal funding is most obvious when that once seemingly infinite money supply dries up, such as in the 1970s, when the physics job market crashed, and in years following economic recessions.

Roberts’s album captures a moment when physics in the US was in transition. For modern physicists accustomed to strings of grant rejections, a song asking for money to be taken away must seem strange. But Roberts’s lyrics and the story surrounding them remind us that there are trade-offs to everything—even a billion dollars.

Audio clips courtesy of the Niels Bohr Library and Archives.

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