The Cohen Era

For the next 12 years Cohen was the chairman of the Physics Department and a major agent in its creation and transformation. The entry in WHO’S WHO IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING, a Marquis Who’s Who publication 2003-2004 edition has the following entry:

Cohen, Robert Sonne, physicist, philosopher, educator; b. NYC Feb. 18, 1923; m. Robin Gertrude Hirshhorn, June 18, 1944; children: Michael, Daniel, Deborah. BA, Wesleyan U., Middletown, Conn. 1943, LHD, 1986; MS Yale U. 1943, Ph.D. (NRC Fellow), 1948. Instr. Physics Yale U. 1943-44, instr. Philosophy, 1949-51; sci. staff, war research div. Columbia U. and Communications Bd., U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1944-46; asst. prof. Physics and philosophy Wesleyan U. 1949-57; assoc. prof. PhysicsBoston U., 1957-59, prof. physics and philosophy, 1959-93, chmn. Dept. physics, 1959-73, chmn. Dept. philosophy, 1986-88, prof. emeritus 1993—; acting dean Coll. Liberal Arts, 1971-72. Chmn. Boston U. Center for Philosophy and History Sci., 1970-93, chmn. Emeritus, 1993—; vis. Lectr. Humanities and philosophy of sci.. Mass. Inst. Tech., 1958-59, 61-62; vis. Prof. history of ideas Brandeis U., 1959-60; lectr. history and philosophy of sci. Am. U., Washington, summers 1958-68; vis. Frllow Polish and Yugoslav Acad. Sci., 1963, Hungarian Acad. Sci., 1964; vis. Prof. philosophy U. Calif., San Diego, Yale U., 1973; rsch. Fellow history of sci. Harvard U., 1974; mem., chmn. U.S. Nat. Com.for Internat. Union History and Philosophy of Sci.,1969-75; trustee Wesleyan U., 1968-84, emeritus, 1984—; trustee Tufts U.,1984-93, emeritus 1993—. Author, editor articles, books and jour. in field.; Editor: Boston Studies in Philosophy of Sci., Vienna Circle Collection, Sci. in Context. Trustee Bill of Rights Found. Am. CouncilLearned Soc. Fellow philosophy and sci., 1948-49; Ford faculty fellow Cambridge, Eng., 1955-56; fellow Wissenschaftskollegium zu Berlin 1983-84, Inst. Fur Wissenschaften dem Menschen, Vienna, 1994. Fellow AAAS (chmn. Sec. L history and philosophy of sci. 1978-79), Am. Phys. Soc.; mem. AAUP, Am. Assn. Physics Tchrs., Am. Philos. Assn. (exec. Com1988-91), History Sci. Soc., Philosophy Sci. Assn. ( v.p. 1972-75, pres1982-84), Nat. Emergency Civil Liberties Com. (mem. Nat. coun.), Am. Inst. Marxist Studies (chmn. 1964-82), Fedn. Am. Scientists (nat. coun.1967-70), Inst. For Unity of Sci. (exec. Com. 1960-74). ….Office: Boston U. Dept. of Philosophy 745 Commonwealth Ave. Boston MA 02215-1401.

The next document is an annual report for the year 1958-59, dated June 1959, by Acting Chairman Robert S. Cohen. The report was directed to Dean Graham, CLA stating in its first paragraph: “Professor F. Dow Smith resigned as chairman of the department and was replaced by R.S. Cohen as Acting Chairman.” Apparently, Smith did not completely break his connections to the Physics Department since the paragraph continues “Dr. Smith generously continued as Research Professor without stipend and taught PY 207, 208, Optics-Sound, during this academic year. He will not be on the faculty next year.”

1958 was the year when most of the physics faculty of Boston University left to establish Itek Corporation, a company engaged in Government work involving optics. From there on, one gets a narrative description of the Department and its faculty, with no list being furnished. The characters have changed. Courses are being named and a course in philosophy and some in astronomy are being taught by the Physics Department.

Previous reports by Smith have decried the space, pay and conditions under which physics was taught. Now there was an effort to develop the experimental laboratory and demonstration part of the courses by J. Gordon Stipe who had come from being chairman of the Physics Department at the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and Booth who was instituting the Advanced Lab. accessible to seniors and graduate students. Michael Rice, whose research was in nuclear magnetic resonance, was also about to teach a course in his specialty. That year was also the year that the Physics-Astronomy major was planned to be first offered in ’59-60.

The professional (research) activities changed. Whereas previously we had most of the activity concentrated in optics, now there was research in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Rice, Low Energy Nuclear Physics, (Booth), Radio Astronomy, (Hawkins), History and Philosophy of Science, (Jammer and Cohen), Quantum Mechanics of Molecular Structure, (Nesbet), Optics and Information Theory, (O’Neill). Siegel was working on the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Physics, and Willis on the Statistical Mechanics of Transport Phenomena and Plasma Physics. Optics, became but a small part of the research effort, and the department’s attention shifted to some of the more diverse traditional areas as well as to the Foundations of Physics. As many young physicist, those in the Boston University Physics Department endeavored to discover and explain the secrets of the universe and thought that they had the key to it.

In the 59-60 Annual report submitted to the Dean of GRS and CLA, Edward K. Graham, Cohen writes “All undergraduate teaching laboratories have been satisfactorily equipped this year for the first time.” This was mainly accomplished by Stipe with the assistance of Booth and Rice. The demonstration lecture equipment was still not up to par and needed upgrading. Furthermore, Cohen notes that:

“In the course of negotiating with prospective new faculty members in the Department of Physics, I have been led to appraise the nature of the graduate program here in physics. The matter must be put bluntly so that we may make informed choices. We do not have an adequate program of research and teaching in experimental physics at Boston University. We are not merely faced with the danger for the immediate future; rather we must realize that at no time have we had an adequate program which could have justified a full doctorate.”

Only Professor Edward Booth’s investigations in nuclear physics have been supported in recent years.

It will come to pass that this will be repeated in the ‘70s, when Booth was also one of the few whose research was funded at the time. Cohen goes on:

In this case, we have to recognize that his work has been limping badly and that it is overwhelmingly surpassed by experimental nuclear programs in other medium sized university physics laboratories. We can expect to receive support from the government and private foundations but only when we can offer sufficient laboratory basis. This has been lacking. We have neither a nuclear research device for producing nuclear phenomena nor the necessary instrumentation and fabrication laboratories to go with a device. We have in fact been entirely parasitic upon the instruments which have been made available from time to time by neighboring institutions.

It will turn out that this state persisted for some time and experimental physics at Boston University was able to thrive only due to the generosity of “neighboring institutions”. This report was accompanied by a request to the University for $50,000 to purchase a “modest nuclear research device.” Apparently, this request was not granted.

Cohen then adds that the department will be joined in the following year by Dr. Paul Roman from the University of Manchester, in theoretical quantum physics, and Dr. Paul Chagnon from the University of Michigan, in experimental nuclear physics. There was also talk about O’Neill’s connection to the former Physical Research Laboratory in optics and a colleague of his George Parrent who was associated with the Air Force research center in Bedford, forming a national center for optics at Boston University. Other centers will be proposed in the future but few of those will be funded by the Government.

The next report, dated June 1, 1961 for the 1960-1961 school year addressed to Lewis H. Rohrbaugh, Acting Dean, CLA and Dean R..M. Millard, Acting Dean GRS, starts on a high note. “This has been a good year.” Cohen writes, “ We have more and better graduate students, enormously improved physical facilities, and continually productive faculty. There are still a number of serious problems unsolved, which I shall discuss first. Then I shall state the positive achievements, briefly.” Cohen then mentions the need for more experimental faculty despite the appointment of Wolfgang Franzen; he decries the lack of physics undergraduates, only three per class; no large well-equipped lecture room; a nascent research services facility lacking tools and equipment, the fact that the newly created library which was housed in the Physics Department does not have any periodicals, those remain in the main library with restrictions on use. There was also a shortage of teaching fellows to help teach the increased numbers of undergraduate students. Apparently David Kellandposition of Laboratory Curator and Franzen joined the faculty in ’61-’62.

On the positive side, Cohen mentions the appointment of Paul Roman and Paul Chagnon, both visiting appointments Associate and Assistant Professors, respectively, and the move to 700 Commonwealth Ave. Prior to that, the Physics Department was housed in the Stone Science Building at the east end of the Boston University main building complex at 675 Commonwealth Avenue and corner of Granby Street. 700 Commonwealth Avenue was a long, two story building which had a street level and underground garage separating it from Commonwealth Avenue. When a high rise dormitory was built on the site of the garage and named the Warren Towers, it became 700 Commonwealth Avenue and the building where the Physics Department was housed became 111 Cummington Street. The Physics Department was not the only department to occupy the building which was later characterized as a three story basement. In the basement there were experimental psychology laboratories with experimental rats and their accompanying odors. The new building was not ideal, but apparently much better than the previous facilities.

700 Commonwealth Ave., 1963. Parking garage fronting Commonwealth.

There were also proposals to provide a machinist and an electrician for the sciences, as well as a laboratory curator. “Huge increases in enrollment at the upperclass and graduate level were seen, for example 75 students in Theoretical Physics I (PY303E).” He attributes this to the “provision of a rigorous and complete physics program in the late afternoon and evening hours.” The program was tailored to the research and industrial population so that they could upgrade their credentials. It was offered, at that time through the equivalent of what later became the Metropolitan College which served the Boston Metropolitan population who were employed during the day. “There has also been a steady increase in the number of students from other schools and colleges in our various basic courses. These have been formally arranged by agreement with Sargent College and School of Education; and it is anticipated that similar arrangements will be made with CBA and SPRC.” Those were the Sputnik days when we were in a desperate race with the USSR into space. Science, especially physics, could do anything and science was necessary to solve all the problems of humanity. The talks and publications of the physics faculty, which increased significantly that year, are enumerated in the tables.

In the 1961-1962 report there are more positive developments and the department began to look more like a regular Physics Department. The Deans were Richard M. Millard, CLA, and Richard S. Bear, GRS. Some resignations were announced: Nesbet who went to IBM in San Jose, CA and Woodcock, a lecturer who taught General Physics departed. Abner Shimony, who apparently came to Boston University previously as an assistant visiting research professor to work with Siegel is also left for MIT. Paul Roman became a regular as opposed to visiting faculty member and a whole slew of new appointments was announced for ’62-’63. Those were of Bernard Chasan as assistant professor, and Mendel Sachs and John Moffat as associate professors.

Apparently, Cohen succeeded in his arguments and the Dean agreed that the Physics Department should be expanded. Despite that, the experimentalists, Booth, Rice, Franzen, Dean and Stipe constituted only a small part of the department and of those only Booth and Franzen were actively engaged in experimental research. Chasan was the experimental physicist who would join next year and join Booth in nuclear physics. Siegel, Roman and Sachs were tending to delve into the foundations of physics and Shimony, who had a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Yale had just obtained another Ph.D. in physics with Wigner at Princeton University. Cohen’s work was mainly in philosophy, history, and social concerns. The previous year he also established the Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science of which he was now chairman.

The department was growing, but the research fields of the faculty were heavily weighted towards theory and philosophy as opposed to experiment. Cohen and Siegel were also interested in the social consciousness as indicated by the titles of some of their invited lectures.

There was a plan that will grow astronomy. The interest by students in astronomy and astrophysics requires an additional faculty member besides Hawkins. The plan was to hire that faculty member in the ‘63-’64 school year.

Some needs having been satisfied, others were pointed out. The need for a small discretionary fund, the need for a lecture hall with demonstration equipment; the need for a higher teaching assistant stipend and additional secretarial help. “The one secretary provided by CLA simply can not provide the work for an active faculty of 17 teachers of whom 15 are engaged in research.”

That year also saw a review and significant revision of undergraduate courses as well as the introduction of specialized graduate courses and seminars. “An advanced course in solid state physics, a nuclear physics laboratory in addition to nuclear theory, a course in physics of the upper atmosphere, an advanced seminar in optical and magnetic resonance phenomena (Franzen, Rice), a similar seminar on fields and particles (Roman) and a seminar on the history and philosophies of nature (Cohen offered in the philosophy department.)” Some ground was lost that year as some departments questioned the requirement of physics for their majors.

As far as professional activities were concerned, Hawkins was now only one of the faculty whereas previously he dominated publications. Nesbet, Roman and Willis were the runners up while Cohen, by far gave the most invited lectures. Franzen received an NSF research grant.

For 1962-’63 Millard and Baer are still deans and Cohen started with:

The general activities of the department during the Summer of 1962 and the academic year 1962-63 were full and satisfactory. Research in several areas of investigation has begun to yield results, both scientifically and educationally. ...A number of substantial grants for research has been received and a large grant for educational laboratory facilities has also been received. The number and quality of graduate students has once again improved as compared with previous years, but this has not been matched by comparable improvement among the undergraduate majors. A considerable number of honors have been received by our students and by our faculty.

Problems, as the previous year, still persisted. The lack of adequate lecture rooms, Teaching Fellow salaries, University funds for research and its support etc were still a problem. The large grant for educational laboratory facilities was $11,250 for the Advanced Lab. with Chasan, Edmonds and Stipe as Principal Investigators. Also, seven graduate students received outside fellowships from the National Science Foundation, John Hay Whitney Foundation and the Asia
Foundation.

Under faculty affairs, besides enumerating the activities of each faculty member, Cohen writes: “Assistant Professor Michael Rice has resigned to accept a position of Associate Professor at Smith College. Mr Prenowitz’s term as instructor has terminated. Dr. George Zimmerman will come to us from Yale as Assistant Professor of Physics and will initiate a program of work at low temperatures. Several other appointments are in prospect.” There was no record of courses taught or their enrollments. The number of publications was holding steady and becoming more physics oriented. There was also a glimmer of research groups being formed in that Chasan was collaborating with Booth and Edmonds with Franzen.

We do not have the 1963-1964 report, but the 1964-1965 report, addressed to Millard and Baer, was much more substantial than the previous ones, running to more than 50 pages while previous ran 10 to 20 pages. There was no list of faculty and/or their appointments, but there was a list of faculty actions. There was also a list of some courses and the number of students in each. Those are reproduced in the tables. In his comments, Cohen writes:

We have had a good year, and this will be evident to the reader who persists on to the end. But while we tremble of becoming a noteworthy center of pure physics research and teaching, we have not yet become one.

There follows the list of problems including

our undergraduate students are mainly poor in motivation and in ability; our graduate students, while decidedly improving, are still often beset by fear of committing themselves wholeheartedly to the love of studying the nature of things; and our research still limps (however vigorously) because so much of it depends upon the generosity of neighboring institutions. If we can continue as we have been, we should be able to solve these problems during the next five years.

Cohen continues:

I hope that I am not biased in reporting these matters. It seems clear enough that the faculty at least are flourishing in their scientific lives, and much of this report was testimony to that, and the improvement in the department’s material support for them. Moreover it was also clear to me that the faculty are unanimously as devoted to teaching, and to careful thinking about the department’s teaching obligations, as they are to Pure Physics. This seems to me to be the mark of health in any department in this University.