Amateurs used to make significant contributions to scientific research—as they still do, in astronomy at least—but generally speaking, their roles got small once the sciences got big. This is particularly true for physics, the hardest-core of all the “hard” sciences. Physics had become almost exclusively professional by the dawn of the twenti-eth century, when Max Planck first glimpsed the quantum principle and Albert Einstein was starting to grope his way to relativity theory. (Part of the charm of Einstein’s life story is that he was working as a patent office clerk in 1905, when he published the special theory of relativity, and so could be taken for an amateur scientist. In reality, though, he was a formally trained physicist who was simply having trouble finding a job, and he assumed academic posts once they were offered him.)
When an able self-educated physicist does show up—as did, say, Nicholas Christofilos, an autodidactic Greek elevator maintenance engineer who in 1949 discovered the “strong focusing principle” since employed in particle accelerators—he or she is obliged to maintain such constant, beehive-level communications with colleagues and to keep up with so imposing a volume of scientific literature that there is usually no way to do the job except by working at it full time.1
(Christofilos, once the importance of his work was recognized by the professionals, was promptly given a job at Brookhaven.)
Hence it is eye-opening to reflect, on reading Jennet Conant’s precocious first book, Tuxedo Park, that important twentieth-century research in ultrasound, brain-wave analysis, radar, and the LORAN (Long-Range Navigation) system was accomplished by an amateur physicist, the wildly successful Wall Street investor Alfred Lee Loomis. Loomis was a lawyer (Harvard Law, class of 1912) who made a fortune in corporate finance and cashed out before the 1929 crash. Although he was something of a teenage math whiz, given to experimenting with boomerangs, gliders, and radio-controlled model cars as a student at Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law School, Loomis had little formal training in science. Yet he turned out to be so good at physics that the Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez in 1980 called him “one of the most influential physical scientists” of the twentieth century.
Loomis’s early experiments, conducted in laboratories he set up on the grounds of his lavish summer estate in Tuxedo Park, New York, could easily be mistaken for the casual putterings of a wealthy dilettante. Intrigued by timekeeping, he sailed to England in 1928 and visited the London workshop of F. Hope-Jones, who made the most accurate—and expensive—clocks in the world. The experimental physicist Robert W. Wood, a close friend who came along on the trip, recalled that Loomis asked the price of a clock, “and on being told that it was two hundred and forty pounds (…roughly what the average American worker earned in a year), said casually, ‘That’s very nice. I’ll take three.'” But the elegantly casual Loomis knew what he was doing. When the clocks arrived, he set them up in the basement at Tuxedo Park, in a triangular orientation to one another, to break the gravitationally induced synchronic action among their pendulums, and analyzed their variations so acutely that he managed to verify a theoretically predicted tidal effect of the moon on clocks.
Years later, these results helped in the development of LORAN, which triangulates the positions of ships and aircraft by comparing the difference in arrival times of signals coming from two or more radio beacons at various locations, a calculation that depends on accurate timekeeping. Loomis worked out the basics of the LORAN system in 1940, playing so important a role in its development that, Conant reports, it was originally called LRN, for Loomis radio navigation, until “Loomis objected to its being named after him.”
In the early to mid-Thirties Loomis recorded the “brain waves” of sleeping subjects, an early instance of real-time brain imaging, and studied the ability of ultrasound waves to penetrate living tissue, a technique now routinely employed by obstetricians to check on the health of fetuses in utero. He also found time to patent a pressurized fire extinguisher, take high-speed photographs of lightning bolts, and build a photographic microscope attached to a whirling centrifuge. By 1939, with war clouds gathering over Europe, he was deeply involved in three of the most potent fields of military technology—radar, rocketry, and the Bomb.
Loomis’s radar research began when he and a group of MIT scientists mounted a microwave transmitter on a panel truck, took it out to the private golf course on his estate, and confirmed that they could measure the velocities of passing cars by bouncing signals off them. (“Hey, don’t let the cops get a hold of that,” cautioned Frank Lewis, an MIT graduate student working on the project.) But when they tried radar-ranging aircraft, using a Piper Cub flown by Loomis’s twenty-one-year-old son, Henry, the signals proved too weak to be useful beyond a distance of two miles.
Then in the summer of 1940, when elementary radar installations on the coast had already tipped the balance of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill took the gamble of gathering up a box of secret papers on radar (literally so; it was, Conant recounts, “a large black metal deed box, of the kind ordinarily found in a solicitor’s office”) and dispatching it to the States by ship, hand-carried by an electronics expert named Taffy Bowen. Drawing on Bowen’s memoir Radar Days, Conant describes the almost slapstick progress of this anxious young man—Bowen was not yet thirty—as he tried to sleep with the box of secrets under his hotel room bed, sweated out a taxi trip with it strapped to the roof, chased a fleet-footed porter who sped with it through a train station crowd, made an Atlantic crossing during which holes were drilled in the box—by the British physicist John Cockroft, who worried that otherwise it might remain afloat and fall into German hands if their ship was torpedoed and sank—then turned it over to Canadian authorities for delivery to the Americans.
Armed with this fresh information, and with a prototype “resonant cavity magnetron” produced at Birmingham University, Loomis and a team of American and British scientists were soon making real progress. By April 1942, radar was being used so effectively against wolf packs of German submarines—when they were on the surface, recharging their batteries—that, Conant writes, the “German admiral Karl Dönitz, who in 1940 had boasted that ‘the U-boat alone can win this war,’ was forced to admit that ‘the methods of radio-location that the Allies have introduced have conquered the U-boat menace.'” As Dönitz later reflected, “The enemy has rendered the U-boat ineffective…. Not through superior tactics or strategy, but through his superiority in the field of science.”
During the war, Loomis campaigned for rocketry, advising Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, as Stimson recalled it, that rockets represented “a permanent change in military weapons, as important as the first use of the barrel for gun powder.” “He is pretty shrewd in his outlook,” Stimson added. “I am giving considerable weight to that now, thinking up the possibility of getting a rocket coverage for Overlord.” Conant doesn’t specify whether it was through Stimson’s influence that rockets were in fact used on D-day, although she notes that radar and navigation systems devised by the MIT “Rad Lab,” which Loomis had established, were employed to guide paratroopers and glider-borne infantry to drop zones on Omaha Beach, and to direct “wave after wave of assault troops to prearranged points on the sixty-mile-long beach.”
Loomis fretted that the American armed forces would fail to capitalize on rocket technology after the war. He had enlisted in the Army in 1917, and had a story he liked to tell about the pitfalls of military conservatism and love of tradition. One day at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, Loomis, then a lieutenant colonel, was in the field with an outfit of cannoneers. “He recalled being puzzled by one of the company’s soldiers, who always walked fifty paces or so in back of them and would stand stock-still for hours at a time with one arm slightly raised,” Conant writes.
When Loomis finally asked what on earth the man was doing back there all by himself, he was astonished to learn that he was filling a role that dated back to when cannons were still pulled by horses. One soldier always led the horse and held the reins, and even though the horses were long gone, the post had never been abolished. Loomis formed a lasting impression of the military bureaucracy as fundamentally averse to change.
Involved in nuclear fission from an early stage, Loomis pledged financial support for Enrico Fermi’s work on building a nuclear reactor. When Niels Bohr arrived in New York aboard the SS Drottningholm on January 16, 1939, bearing the stirring and startling news that nuclear explosions might indeed be possible—and that this prospect was being actively pursued by the Germans, under Werner Heisenberg’s guidance—Fermi met Bohr on the dock and took him straight to Tuxedo Park. There Bohr received a cable from Lise Meitner, in Germany, reporting that large amounts of energy were released when she bombarded uranium-235 with neutrons. Bohr, as yet unfettered by considerations of wartime security, lectured publicly on Meitner’s result at the National Academy of Sciences a week later. “Practically before the sun was set it was confirmed in three labs in America,” Loomis recalled.
Soon The New York Times was reporting on “the probability of some scientist blowing up a sizeable portion of the earth with a tiny bit of uranium.” “Shortly after that,” Loomis recalled, “the thing went underground.” Loomis’s good friend Ernest Lawrence, developer of the cyclotron used to probe atoms and director of the Radiation Laboratories at the University of California, Berkeley, kept him abreast of their work there. Loomis, quick to appreciate the implications of nuclear weapons, bought a house in California in 1940 and was named to a post as a research scientist at Berkeley, home of a sixty-inch cyclotron that was to produce the plutonium-239 used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. But nuclear fission research vanished into the black hole of the Manhattan Project, leaving Loomis on the outside. He watched, not without some frustration, as many of the best physicists who had been working with him at the Rad Lab, which he had helped found at MIT, were spirited off to Los Alamos, traveling under assumed names.
Loomis returned to radar work, and by the end of the war the Rad Lab had become, in Karl Compton’s estimation, “the greatest cooperative research establishment in the history of the world,” with a staff of nearly five hundred physicists and a budget of almost $4 million a month. Everybody today knows about the Manhattan Project, and few about the Rad Lab, but, as Conant writes, “If radar had not kept the Germans from defeating England, the war might have been over before America entered the contest.” The physicist Lee DuBridge, who understood this as well as anyone, declared that “radar won the war.”
Born well connected (his grandfather was a world-famous physician and philanthropist; his father was a prominent physician and professor of clinical medicine at Cornell; and the admiring Stimson, twenty years older and a lifelong friend, was his cousin and, briefly, law partner) Loomis was adept at opening doors, twisting arms, and writing checks. As Conant shows, he sought out the company of the best scientists, learned from them, participated in their research, and intelligently supported their work. His papers on ultrasound and brain waves were written in collaboration with the eminent Princeton biologist E. Newton Harvey and with a Johns Hopkins dropout named Garret A. Hobart III, who suffered from frail health but seems to have taken to the security and seclusion of Tuxedo Park.
Loomis was on friendly terms with the physicists Oliver Lodge, Max von Laue, Max Planck, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He worked with Alvarez, George Kistiakowsky, and Vannevar Bush, and counted among his house guests not only Bohr but Fermi, Heisenberg, and Einstein as well. In view of the wealth of his connections, one might mistake his brilliance for reflected glory, but Loomis had real scientific talent. Frank Lewis said that although Loomis “was called a dilet- tante…there wasn’t anything phony about him at all. He was a first-class scientific person.” Karl Compton, the president of MIT, described him in 1940 as “the man who knows more about radiolocation than anyone else in America” and saw to it that Loomis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences the following year. The nuclear physicist Ernest O. Lawrence thought that Loomis had “vision and courage,” “used his wealth very effectively,” and “succeed[ed] in having his own way by force of logic and of being right.”
Yet few scientists of comparable attainments have cast a shorter shadow. Alvarez, one of the few capable writers to have paid much attention to Loomis while he was alive (he described him fondly in his 1987 autobiography, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist, and wrote a profile of him for the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences), noted that “I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen Alfred’s name in the public press.” The reason for this partial eclipse of a distinguished career had little to do with professional disdain of amateur scientists. The top physicists seem, rather, to have been impressed by Loomis, and to have liked him personally. Loomis was himself the author of his own obscurity. As Conant writes, “Few men of Loomis’ prominence and achievement have gone to greater lengths to foil history.” He had a rich man’s innate aversion to publicity—“He believed,” wrote Alvarez, “that the ideal life was one of ‘prosperous anonymity'”—and evidently learned at an early age that you can accomplish plenty if you don’t care who gets the credit.
In his later years, Loomis withdrew ever further from sight. Stung by critical public reaction to his divorce, on April 4, 1945, from Ellen Farnsworth, his wife of thirty-two years, and his marriage, a few hours later that same day, to Manette Seeldrayers, he devoted himself to golf, vacations in Jamaica and at Pebble Beach, and quietly funding the building of astronom- ical observatories. A hi-fi buff, he met a sound engineer named Avery Fisher, who had a small shop in New York, and set him up with a line of credit that led to the burgeoning of Fisher Electronics and the fortune that built Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Loomis died in 1975, at age eighty-seven, at his house in East Hampton. Alvarez, who had recently visited him there, reported that his chief pleasure in his final days was programming a handheld computer that he always carried with him. Thereafter the curtain fell, and little was heard about Loomis until Conant published her book.
Tuxedo Park is in some ways a family memoir. Conant’s grandfather, James B. Conant, the president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, was a good friend of Loomis’s, and her account begins with the suicide of her great-uncle, William T. Richards, a sometime consultant at the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, at age thirty-nine. Richards slit his wrists with a razor blade in the bathtub of his three-room apartment on East 83rd Street in Manhattan one night in January 1940. He, too, came from a prominent Boston family—his sister, Grace Thayer Richards, was married to James Conant, and his father was a Nobel laureate Harvard chemist—and the circumstances of his death were hushed up in the interest of propriety. The Boston papers glossed over the specifics, a suicide note found by the bathtub was destroyed, and Richard’s mother evidently was told, as she wrote in a letter to relatives, that “Bill died of an overdose of a sleeping draught.”
Extolled in his Harvard obituary as “one of the most brilliant members of [his] class” and described by friends as “a veritable Renaissance man” who had “a mentality which could be called great,” Richards was a concert-grade cellist as well as a writer and scientist. (Like his father he was a chemist, serving on the Princeton faculty for a while before leaving for Tuxedo Park, among other places.) But he was a solitary depressive who seems to have felt that his accomplishments in all these fields were insufficient. Conant writes that one of her concerns in writing Tuxedo Park had to do with confronting “the strain of manic depression that has been passed down through successive generations of the Richards and Conant families [and] acknowledging my own genetic vulnerability.”
A few weeks after Richards’s suicide, a novel he had written, Brain Waves and Death, was published, under the pseudonym “Willard Rich.” Set in an elegant, privately owned research center called the “Howard M. Ward Laboratory,” where guests “could live fully and graciously,” enjoying recourse to “a tennis court, bridle paths, and a nine-hole golf course,” it centered on the murder of a young chemist. Intimates understood that the doomed chemist was based on Richards himself, that the imperious Ward was Loomis, and that the laboratory was Loomis’s summer estate at Tuxedo Park, where Richards had been a frequent visitor. The Harvard chemist George Kistiakowsky, who knew Richards well and was a favorite of Loomis’s, recognized the book immediately as “a take-off on the Loomis Laboratory” but he kept quiet about it, as did others who benefited from Loomis’s largesse. Loomis, angered by the breach of privacy, threatened to sue for libel.
Even more disturbing to the Tuxedo Park crowd was the manuscript of an unpublished short story by Richards, titled “The Uranium Bomb,” found among the papers in his apartment. “A ton of uranium would make a bomb which could blow the end off Manhattan island,” it declared. Its characters included a prominent educator, called “Jim,” based on James Conant, and a physicist transparently modeled on Leo Szilard, a champion of nuclear fission studies. Jennet Conant writes that her grandfather “made sure the story was suppressed.” He went on to take a central part in the Manhattan Project, and was on hand for the Trinity test shot at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. In suppressing “The Uranium Bomb,” Loomis and his influential friends doubtless felt that they were guarding not only “family honor,” as James Conant put it, but national security.
In the decades following the nuclear bombing of Japan, American public opinion was sharply divided between those who felt that the scientists who worked on the bomb ought to be ashamed of themselves, and those who maintained that scientific research must be pursued wherever it leads. Loomis was of the latter opinion. He was unapologetic about having helped win the war by the means of applied science and he remained cheerfully optimistic about science and technology throughout his life.
Personally impressive, with large, dark eyes and a calm, even gaze, Loomis was famously bright—a chess prodigy who entertained house guests by playing several games simultaneously, blindfolded or with his back to the boards, before eventually turning to working, solo, on classic chess problems—and he did pretty much whatever he pleased. When he wanted to race a sailboat, he built a J-class racing sloop and entered it in the America’s Cup. His idea of acquiring a winter vacation home was to buy Hilton Head Island, virtually all of it, a 20,000-acre wilderness where he docked another of his custom-built yachts, the Northern Light, staged elaborate picnics and hunting parties, and performed magic tricks for his guests as they sipped 120-proof bootleg bourbon. Loomis chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, was a connoisseur of food and wine—in this he resembled his grandfather Alfred, an expert on the culinary qualities of canvasback duck who allegedly could name the vintage of a Cuban cigar by the color of its smoke—and liked a good party. He often invited his scientist friends to travel with him. George Kistiakowski’s second wife, Elaine, recalled that “they were all young, and quite good-looking, and they worked hard and played hard. And I gather they drank like fish.”
Alvarez, one of Loomis’s closest friends among the professional scientists, exemplified the live-hard, play-hard lifestyle of the Loomis circle. His research ranged from high-energy physics to X-raying the pyramids of Egypt, analyzing the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and proposing that an incoming comet had doomed the dinosaurs. Recently a journalist who has been covering Silicon Valley for more than a decade told me he’d turned down a substantial offer to write a book on the dot-com crash because “with a few exceptions, you’re just talking about nerds sitting at computers.” Neither Conant nor anyone else writing about twentieth-century physics has such a problem.
For all its vitality, Conant’s book is not entirely free of lapses. Her grasp of physics is less than invariably secure, obliging her to sometimes fall back on quotations from newspaper clippings, the quality of which falls discordantly below that of her own writing. The book’s lack of citations can lead to minor confusions: when Loomis, a lifelong Republican, is described as having no use for “Republican malcontents like Ogden Mills, ‘mounting assaults on the fortresses of the New Deal,'” it’s not clear who’s being quoted. But Conant knows how to tell a story succinctly, and keep it moving, and her enthusiasm for it is infectious.
Alvarez called Loomis “the last of the great amateurs of science.” Time will tell whether this verdict was premature. The physicist Freeman Dyson, writing recently in these pages, proposes that
each science goes through three phases of development. The first phase is Baconian, with scientists exploring the world to find out what is there. In this phase, amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant. The second phase is Cartesian, with scientists making precise measurements and building quantitative theories. In this phase, professionals and specialists are in the ascendant. The third phase is a mixture of Baconian and Cartesian, with amateurs and professionals alike empowered by the plethora of new technical tools arising from the second phase. In the third phase, cheap and powerful tools give scientists of all kinds freedom to explore and explain.2
Dyson notes that “astronomy, the oldest science, was the first to pass through the first and second phases and emerge into the third,” which may explain why there are amateur astronomers today using backyard telescopes to discover comets and asteroids, spot exploding stars in remote galaxies, monitor the weather on Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and search for planets orbiting distant stars—all work of genuine scientific value. “Which science,” Dyson wonders, “will be next?” His candidate is biology. Few would nominate physics, but one sometimes wonders whether a clever amateur philosopher-physicist may yet make a breakthrough in a field such as quantum nonlocality, where significant experiments can be done with tabletop apparatus. Should that come to pass, Loomis may one day be known, not as the last of the old amateur physicists, but as the first of the new ones.
March 27, 2003
Stephen Hawking made a similar point in a 1983 conversation. He was complaining that philosophers of science were “miles behind the current advances.” I asked if there were exceptions to that rule. “If there are exceptions,” he replied, “I must call them physicists.” ↩
Freeman Dyson, “In Praise of Amateurs,” The New York Review, December 5, 2002, p. 7. ↩