H.M. James: Autobiographical Highlights

A letter Professor James wrote to Dr. Spencer R. Wearst of the American Institute of Physics, circa 1980:

Dear Dr. Wearst:

This is in reply to your letter of May 16. Please feel free to use extracts from it or the whole account, as may be best suited for your purposes.

I chose to study physics the day I entered graduate school in 1926. From the age of 13 I had been interested in chemistry, and had read everything about it I could get my hands on. By the time I graduated from high school I had also read a standard college text on physics (Duff) for my own pleasure and without any idea that I might want to work in that field. I attended a small college (Randolph-Macon College for Men, Ashland, VA) as a chemistry major. I graduated in three years, but took all the mathematics and physics courses that were available there. I became increasingly interested in mathematics and physics and began to read books on twentieth century physics. My closest approach to modern theory was in reading "Contemporary Physics", by K.K. Darrow, which, of course, stopped with the Bohr theory.

I was admitted to graduate study in chemistry at Harvard. I showed up there with a list of courses in mathematics and physics that I wanted to take, in addition to those in chemistry. The list of physics courses included essentially all the courses offered by the Physics Department, except for a new course called Wave Mechanics, which I took to be a specialized part of hydrodynamics. When I talked to Prof. Baxter, then Chairman of the chemistry Department, about my program the conversation was (as I remember it) the following:

"I would like to take these courses while getting my Ph.D. in chemistry. How long should it take?"

"About five years."

"Isn't that rather long?"

"Are you sure you are in the right department?"

So I went to the Physics Department and talked to Prof. E.C. Kemble, and by the next morning I had decided to switch over to the Physics Department. I regret that I never went back to Prof. Baxter to thank him for raising a question I had never seriously considered. My interest in physics had developed while I was committed to chemistry, and it had never occurred to me that I might have to choose between them. Some boys get into this sort of fix with girls, but my problem was easier, and I have happily spent much of my time working where the fields of chemistry and physics overlap.

My decision to study physics was purely a matter of my then current interest in a field about which I did not know a great deal. I was very scantily prepared for graduate work in physics by two five-hour year-long courses in physics, designed for the general student. I did not expect financial support from either department, though it was very welcome when I was asked, after some months, if I would like a scholarship. (I doubt that even Harvard hands out money like this nowadays.) My choice was certainly not based on the financial prospects of a career in physics, where jobs were fewer than in chemistry. I did understand that one could make a decent living in the field. Since I felt that interest in ones work was more important than what it paid, this was enough to make me feel free to follow my interest in theoretical physics as a way to go beyond the chemist's picture of the structure of matter.

Going to graduate school in 1928 was not the problem it is now. I studied the catalogs of a number of schools and chose Harvard as much for its offerings in mathematics and physics as in chemistry. I applied for admission only to Harvard, and it did not occur to me to ask for financial support; its availability was certainly not advertised. As a graduate student I was unaware of any great concern among the students about job prospects, even in the depths of the Great Depression. The Ph.D. graduate in physics considered himself as a man-of-all-work at the technical level, and there was no marked preference for academic jobs, as opposed to those in industrial or governmental laboratories.

By the academic year '31-'32 I had completed the taking of courses, and was well started on a thesis topic suggested by Prof. Kemble: calculation of the binding energy of Cl2 using the Heitler-London method and making the approximations that had led to apparently satisfactory results in a number of calculations on very simple molecules such as Li2 and LiH. The problem of Cl2, in which each atom lacks one electron in the outer shell, has some formal resemblance to the problem of H2, but the large number of electrons, even with the inner shells neglected, made the actual calculation more laborious by several orders of magnitude. It was now necessary for me to support myself, and I was given an appointment as Instructor and Tutor in Physics, at the comfortable salary of $2000/year. In the spring semester of '31-'32 I was asked to share with Prof. Kemble the lecturing in an advanced course on electricity and magnetism, to be given at double rate, though I had taken the course from Prof. Bridgman only the year before. At the same time my thesis work was turning out badly, as it became evident that the standard methods gave nonsensical results in the case of Cl2. What I had to show for a year's hard labor was a knowledge of the literature of atomic and molecular calculations, experiences in evaluating certain types of integrals, practice in the handling of calculators that were partially or completely hand-powered, and memories that made all the calculations I did afterward seem reasonably easy. No comment on this calculation was ever published, but it did lead into paths of research that I followed for some years afterward. This was the most stressful semester I ever went through.

From this time on I picked my own research problems. First, I showed that the supposed success of the Heitler-London method in treating Li2 was illusory: the apparently good results were due to a chance cancellation of the errors arising from the customary approximations with those inherent in the Heitler-London method. I returned from my summer vacation with a new bride and a new proposal for a thesis, calculation of the binding energy of H2, using a variational method modeled after that employed by Hylleraas in treating the atom He. I realized that the calculation would be laborious, and I got Prof. Kemble to agree to my sharing this labor with Dr. A.S. Coolidge, who held a permanent appointment in the Chemistry Department. We had previously traded checking of each others wave-mechanical calculations, and worked well together. This calculation turned out to be easier and more successful than we had anticipated. It was very exciting to watch the addition of each term to the trial function lower the computed value of the molecular energy toward the observed one. By March 1933 we had results accurate enough to provide a check on the adequacy of wave mechanics in a new context: the polyelectronic molecule. We continued this pleasant collaboration until 1940, when it seemed to us that we had completed all the calculations of this sort that were worthwhile with the computers then available. With the advent of high-speed computers, this type of calculation has been carried to the point where the calculations on H2 are perhaps more accurate than the spectroscopic observations, but our interests had been turned elsewhere and I never went back to that area of research.

I completed the degree requirements in January 1934 and was given a fellowship that enabled me to put all my time on research. This arrangement was equivalent to a Research Associateship, but was uncommon at that time. It kept me going until, with the improving economic climate, a suitable academic job appeared.

I became Assistant Professor at Purdue University. The Physics Department there was poorly developed, but it had a vigorous new Head, Karl Lark-Horovitz, and Lothar Nordheim as Visiting Professor. Their European connections made it possible to bring to the Department for short, and sometimes extended, visits many of the most distinguished refugee physicists (Fermi, Bethe, Teller, Wigner, Placzek, Herzberg, Segre, among others) as well as non-refugees (Oppenheimer, Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler). This made the Department an interesting place to work, despite the fact that Purdue could then reasonably be described as out-of-the-way.

Other useful contacts were also made by holding one-day seminars, together with the physics departments at the University of Illinois, Indiana University, and Notre Dame. This was done about twice a year, with the place of meeting rotating from one school to the other. Everyone went, and everyone was interested in everything. These meetings were abandoned during the War (persons my age will have no difficulty in understanding that this means W.W. II), and they were not entirely successful after the War, probably because of the rapid increase in size of the departments, which made the meetings unwieldy, as well as the increasing outside commitments of physicists and their increasing specialization. They were soon replaced by more specialized conferences of people drawn from a larger region. Such meetings are useful, but not as much fun as the earlier smaller ones. The same thing has happened within the larger physics departments, such as that at Purdue (now 60 professors). Before the War, it was customary for all professors and graduate students to attend the weekly General Colloquium, and to be interested in the work done throughout the department. Now the staff and students are separated into quite distinct groups. The larger groups have their own weekly seminars, and tend not to attend the same meetings of the Colloquium, except when there is a very distinguished visitor from outside the department. This fragmentation of the field of physics as it has grown larger is probably inevitable, but I regret it.

During the War I worked at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory. I was told that I was to act as a roving theorist, giving help anywhere they wanted it. I was asked to study night-fighter tactics, the propagation of radar waves at long ranges, and the stabilization of radar systems in ships and planes. I took on problems in systems analysis, and suggested how to use particular radar systems for purposes for which they were not designed. There were a few problems nearer my own field, such as the phosphorescence of radar display tubes, and I applied techniques I had learned from wave mechanics to an analysis of the effect of "strapping" magnetrons. There were in the laboratory scientists from many fields of pure science working toward an end that was strictly technological. I think almost everyone enjoyed it; certainly I did. This was partly due to the strong motivation provided by the War, and partly due to the fact that scientists then had fewer preconceived notions as to the work they should do than they seem to have now.

The effectiveness of scientists working in various laboratories throughout the country convinced the Department of Defense that scientists were a military asset and ought to be encouraged. This resulted ultimately in the very important support given, with an enlightened lack of constraints, to support research in the stronger physics departments. It made it possible for them to grow rapidly, and to undertake ambitious and costly research programs. So far as I was concerned, the main effect of this money was to support more graduate students and Research Associates in work with me on problems I would have suggested in any case, mainly in polymer and solid-state physics.

The War also changed the attitude of the general public toward physicists. Before the War they hardly knew we existed. Right after the War they thought of us as people who could do remarkable and useful things, especially designing nuclear reactors and bombs. Now some of them think of us as people who do diabolical things, like designing nuclear reactors and bombs. We need a good PR campaign, and I hope this will not have to wait for another War.

As a research physicist my main satisfaction has been in personally solving problems, whether by developing new understanding of a subject, or by carrying out useful calculations based on established ideas. In directing the thesis work of graduate students I have tended to participate in that work--perhaps too much. In the six years since I became Emeritus Professor of Physics (1974), I have worked for CINDAS, a non-teaching department of Purdue devoted to collecting all published values of many thermal and electrical properties of broad classes of materials, and deriving from them, with the aid of all available theory, convenient tables of best estimated values. I am still helping to solve other people's problems, and working on problems of my own choosing but generally supportive of the Department's program. I expect to do research as long as I am able.

As a teacher, I enjoyed both graduate and undergraduate teaching, especially in modern physics, but I was actually surprised at the satisfaction I got out of teaching a rather demanding undergraduate course in classical thermodynamics with modern applications.

My personal disappointments in my profession have been very few. Perhaps the most disappointing thing was the discovery during my eight years as Head of the Purdue Physics Department that I could not do this job as I wanted and still carry on my research as before, even though I gave up teaching classes. As a result, I had to stop accepting new Ph.D. candidates as students, and my research program slowly dwindled during my term as Head. Perhaps this could have been avoided if it had come more naturally to me to delegate the solutions of departmental problems. But I am still suspicious of the Head of a larger department who directs the work of twenty Ph.D. candidates; something must be skimped.

I have never regretted my rather abrupt decision to become a physicist.

Very truly yours,

Hubert M. James

Emeritus Professor of Physics

Biographical Highlights

Hubert Maxwell James was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia on March 10, 1908 and died on 23 May 1986.

He earned the A.B. degree at Randolph-Macon College in 1928 and the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1930 and 1934, respectively. He remained at Harvard as a research fellow until 1936 when he came to Purdue University as Assistant Professor of Physics. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1938 and to Professor in 1944. He served as Head of the Department from April 1958 to February 1966 and became Professor Emeritus on his retirement in 1974.

During World War II, from March 1941 until July 1946 he was on leave to serve as a staff member at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory, where he worked both as a theoretical physicist and as an operational analyst. He became an editor of the Radiation Laboratory Series and was co-author of the volume on servomechanisms. He is the author or co-author of nearly 80 publications.

He was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Indiana Academy of Science, and was a member of Sigma Xi, Sigma Pi Sigma, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors. He was active in all of these societies and served as president of the Purdue chapters of both Sigma Xi and the American Association of University Professors.

He was the recipient of the Herbert Newby McCoy Award in 1971 and the Sigma Xi Research Award in 1970. For ten years he was a member of the Solid State Advisory Panel of the National Research Council and served a term as vice-chairman of the Division of High-Polymer Physics of the American Physical Society. He received the honorary D.Sc. degree both from his alma mater, Randolph-Macon College, in 1955, and from Otterbein College in 1971.

Throughout his thirty-eight-year professional career James made pioneering contributions to science by applying quantum mechanics to various problems, many in the field of molecular structure. His doctoral research on the ground state of the hydrogen molecule, carried out at Harvard University with the collaboration of A.S. Coolidge, led to several classic, papers on the application of quantum mechanics to problems of molecular structure. As a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard in 1934-1936 he and Coolidge generated ten papers in which quantum mechanics was employed to obtain information about light molecules (hydrogen, deuterium, helium, and lithium).

After he joined Purdue University in 1936, he continued to work in the field of quantum molecular physics but soon became interested in research investigations of high polymers, and particularly in the physics and physical chemistry of rubber. In collaboration with Eugene Guth of the University of Notre Dame, James developed a generally-accepted theory of high polymers and clarified the statistics and thermodynamics of such materials.

After returning to Purdue after the war, James developed an interest in solid state physics. He made valuable contributions to the understanding of energy levels produced in semiconductors by impurity addition and by nucleon irradiation. Particularly noteworthy is the classic paper by James and Lark-Horovitz on the production of localized electronic states in bombarded semiconductors. Perhaps his work with high polymers led James to extend the power of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics to the analysis of molecular arrangement in lattices and he developed a new approximation method for the study of order-disorder in these structures. A 1959 paper by James and Keenan showed that these techniques succeeded in explaining the existence of three different solid phases in heavy methane (CD4) and predicted transition temperatures in good agreement with observation.

Following Professor James' death on 23 May 1986, his wife Madeline created a fund for the Hubert M. James lecture series by means of which eminent scholars are being brought to Purdue each year.

-Solomon Gartenhaus

Last Updated: Apr 29, 2016 10:02 AM