Nicolaas Bloembergen is a Dutch-American physicist and Nobel laureate. Nicolaas Bloembergen shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics with Arthur Schawlow and Kai Siegbahn for their work in laser spectroscopy. Nicolaas spent much of his life investigating properties of matter undetectable without lasers. This is a transcribed interview exploring a matter that’s often undetectable: purpose. More specifically, the purpose that kept Nicolaas going and ultimately led to the scientific breakthrough that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
We are in his office at the University of Arizona. The building is new- it has a whole wing of accomplishments dedicated to Nicolaas. He is sharp in intelligence and proud in demeanor at 86 years old and about 5 foot 5 in height.
How did your passion develop for science in your childhood years?
I eventually chose physics when I was a senior in high school. I went to a Latin school. I’m a native Dutch born and I went to a Latin School in Utrecht. That was in ’38. I was the valedictorian. I already decided I would enter university and study physics.
As you know the Dutch European schools at that time were much further than the high schools here. They included all the general education, and after that you could enter university and immediately specialize in a field. You didn’t need a broad distribution of courses anymore.
So why did I decide in 1938 to enter the University of Utrecht? I was a major in physics. I found it the most challenging field. I liked challenges and found it the most difficult. I still feel that physics is one of the more difficult branches of human enterprise. But that fascinated me.
Of course, looking back now, I’m glad that I made that decision. But it wasn’t easy. As you know, World War II started in 1939. In 1940 the Germans overran my country of Holland. Just before the Germans overran all the universities in 1943, a few weeks before that I passed my final qualifying exams for the doctorate. That was a fairly fortunate thing for me. Because once you had passed the doctorate qualifying exam, you were legally not a student anymore. For the interpretation of the German laws.
They required all students sign a declaration of loyalty or else they would be taken as forced laborists to Germany. Not the concentration camps, of course if they were Jewish they were sent to horrible places like Auschwitz and so on, but the non-Jews either signed the declaration of loyalty to stay. But very few did that because they were no universities anymore after the Germans formally closed them. Most didn’t sign the declaration of loyalty. Many of my friends were shipped to Germany for a couple of years.
There was always the possibility to go underground and hide as well. But in Holland, sometimes it was densely populated with no mountains or forest, so that was no very easy to survive in the underground organization. But I was spared this difficult dilemma by having passed the qualifying doctoral exam. I was in a research position at the university, which didn’t do much anymore because everything was in shambles. There was no new equipment and no money. But I became a member of the fire brigade at the university. That was in my identification permit. So I could show my face among the men my age.
Men between 18-50 were liable to be picked up at random in the last year of the war. I had to hide underground in the winter during the last year of the war. 1944 to 1945. But I survived. In May of 1945, the situation was pretty grim because the country was in ruins.
At the advice of an older brother, I wrote to three American universities. All the European countries were all in shambles. There wasn’t much possibility there. Switzerland, possibly. I wrote to three American universities. I made my choice based on the scientific publications in the Physic Review. But the most Physic Review I had was from September 1939. Because clearly no American scientific publications were available under German rule. Some scientists clearly had them, but we didn’t.
In the library, the latest Physic Reviews were from 1939 (laughs). I looked at those and found three places. I made pretty good choices. One was UC Berkeley. Second one was University of Chicago. The third one was Harvard University. How did I end up at Harvard? University of Chicago never answered my letter. That taught me that you should always answer your mail! Even if it is very brief. You have to respond. Chicago never answered my mail so I didn’t go to Chicago.
Berkeley wrote me a letter that caught me by complete surprise. This was early July 1945. V-E Day was May 8th. The capture of European forces and of course, Holland was liberated. Everyone said the war was over. We didn’t think about the Pacific. This letter from Berkeley said they’d love to consider me for scientific research, but as long as the war was on, they couldn’t admit any non-citizens. No non-Americans citizens. That suddenly dawned on me that the war wasn’t over (laughs). There was this very big fight in the Pacific. Two weeks later, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Then of course, every one knew the war was still going on.
So Harvard answered and told me to send some more documents and letters of references. I was admitted as a graduate student at Harvard. I came in early ’46. Together, there were a lot of bright, young people who either served in laboratories or in the armed forces. They started studying again in the spring term of ’46. But I was ahead of them because I had passed my qualifying exams. So I got a research position with Professor Purcell, who had just discovered nuclear magnetic resonance in condensed matter.
I was his first PhD student. He was still busy writing at the MIT radiation lab for a massive 24 volume thing that explained all the technology that was so instrumental in nuclear energy and nuclear bombs. So I had built equipment for nuclear magnetic resonance. And in a year and a half, I had enough to write a thesis. They said, ‘Why don’t you get your PhD?’ I said, ‘I don’t have any more money. And I would have to pass more exams.’
In the summer of ’47, it was a year and a half, there was a Dutch professor who was visiting a professor at Harvard. He just missed out on nuclear magnetic resonance. He was the first who suggested it and tried experimentally and didn’t quite succeed. Partially because of the war circumstance in Holland. But Harvard was very interested in his work all the time. Soon after the war they offered him to come over. He offered me a research position in Liden. That’s where I got my PhD. But then I came back to Harvard in ’49 as a society fellow.
So in everybody’s life there are good times and bad times. During the war I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time in the Netherlands. Then after the war, I was in the right place at the right time at Harvard University where there was lots of physic activity blossoming up with the wartime efforts. So that was very exciting.
How do you think the war shaped how you are today?
The war time was awful. I ate tulip bulbs just to have something in my stomach. No nutritional value whatsoever. And you had to boil them for six hours. Then they taste bitter and you have no food. So at least you have something in your stomach.
I read a book on quantum mechanics by the light of a kerosene lamp. But you didn’t have kerosene. You had a few quarts of number two heating oil left. The Germans had taken the house, so we saved a few quarts of number two heating oil. You put that in the kerosene lamp and it burns and you get soot. Every fifteen minutes I had to clean the lamp and clean the wick. But that’s how I learned quantum mechanics. By myself (laughs).
What I’m saying is you have to be steadfast and fight through difficult times. There will be an opportunity and everything blossoms up.
How was that transition going from Europe where everything was in shambles to America and going to Harvard?
It was very exciting of course. All these courses on advanced theory. At Harvard, there was Julian Schwinger, who got the Nobel Prize, and Norman Ramsey on the faculty in ’46-’47. There was Professor Black who later got the Nobel Prize. So it was at the right place. Very exciting time.
What would you consider to be your proudest accomplishment in your career and in your research?
There are two things. One there was a nuclear magnetic relaxation. The data in my thesis had to do with so called relaxation times in T1 and T2 with nuclear spins, protons, water, and acre solutions. It related to the basis of MRI.
Edward Purcell, my professor, he was also 60 or 70 years old. He didn’t forsee any applications in ’46-’47. He said so even in public once. We certainly had no inkling at all that our work would eventually lead to MRI. That took an awful lot of conserved scientific effort of many other individuals. That became a lot of standard diagnostic techniques in medicine. But only in the last 25 years. There’s this whole book on MRI.
But we had no idea. You never know of these implications. It’s always fascinated me.
My other field was optics and masers. There again, there are so many applications. Lasers have changed considerable segments of our society. The most pervasive one is optical fiber communications throughout the world. All they do with the internet now is transmit data using optical fibers (laughs). So that was very exciting. But then again, I never thought of optical fiber communication. But my work I did on the properties of matter and high density, which you would get by focusing laser beams and so on, you get new optical properties, which is called the field of non-linear optics. That field is important in analyzing what happens with these optical fibers and so on. You have to know non linear optics to make optical fiber communication possible.
I was always excited about being a consultant to the industry. Not only because it brought in some money to amplify the low salary of beginning faculty members, but it also was a stimulus. You get new perspectives on what you are doing and where it might lead.
In regards to being a consultant, I read that you did some work with the U.S. Defense Department? What was one of the coolest projects you worked on over there?
Well, I was a consultant for the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the fifties. That was just pursuing applications of magnetic resonance and building new devices for microwave technology. And of course the military were very interested in the three level maser that I invented. Because that was in a few years used with distant early radar stretching all across North Canada to look for incoming planes from the Soviet Union.
I was interested because you could also look at the hydrogen hypofine stretcher line. That so called famous 21 centimeter line. That would be discovered by Purcell and a graduate student in ’51. That was the first specter line to extraterrestrial matter. Very important in astronomy in looking at the structure of our galaxy. But you needed very good low noise receivers and the maser would improve those technologies.
And then, something that I clearly didn’t forsee, was that the same maser was used to detect the 3 degree cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang. That was successful because of the maser.
So you see a whole network of possibilities by interacting with colleagues and students. You see all this interconnection. Very exciting.
So your work helped lead to the creation of MRI, the Big Bang theory, and you might be able to make a case for the Internet there. Can you just forsee the future?
Well, I…no. I can’t. I wish I could. It’s so unexpected. In thirty years before MRI and not an inkling that it would come. Nor optical fiber communication. It’s the synergism of many, many people. Now of course there are large efforts in nano technology. People are now excited about biophysics. I think some of the most exciting things will happen in applications of physical principles to biology. Our whole body functions on nano devices and individual molecule proteins and so on. And how they interact and how you can label them.
How does it feel to win a Nobel Prize and be recognized for your accomplishments?
Well, I used to say, but my wife doesn’t agree, that it didn’t make that much difference. I got it when I was 61. We already traveled a lot internationally to conferences, so it was nice to get the highest honor. And it did make a difference in my life because you get so many invitations after that. And you have to learn how to say no (laughs).
Looking back on your path, what advice would you give leaders about the general principles that you’ve learned along the way?
Well in fact, there was an article in the latest Science American that argues champions are not born but bred. The chess grandmasters, they do it because they are so motivated. They make brain circuits that help them to do that.
They say that the same is true for Mozart in music and Tiger Woods in golf (laughs). That if you train persistently, and persevere, is one of the most important things. Perseverance. In every experiment, it’s 99% sweat and 1% ingenuity. I just put in long hours and tried again. And tried again.