next up previous
Next: Bibliography

Edwin Thompson Jaynes
July 5, 1922 - April 30, 1998

By: G. Larry Bretthorst
  Dept. of Chemistry
  Washington University
  St. Louis MO 63130

On July 5th, 1922 Edwin Thompson Jaynes Jr. was born in Waterloo, Iowa to Ethyl and Edwin Jaynes. At the time the Jaynes' lived near Cedar Falls, Iowa. Ed had two sisters, and an older brother. His father, a surgeon, practiced in Waterloo. By 1922 standards his family was fairly well off. However, his father died when Ed was very young, leaving his mother to care for four small children. Consequently, the Jaynes family moved to Parkersburg, Iowa where Ethyl's parents lived.

Ed grew up around Parkersburg. His first word was ``kitty'' which he uttered when he was seven months old. He took his first step at 13 months. He called his mother ``Ma.'' His family did have some fine furniture, linen, silverware, a Knabe grand piano, a classical music collection, and a large library, including the Harvard Classics, housed in elegant glass-front mahogany bookcases - things left over from when his father was alive - but no money. Their only source of income was from renting half of the house. They had to grow most of their own food. Ed Jaynes has noted that his grandfather had to help them out financially many times [8].

The presence of the piano and library must have exerted a great influence on Edwin, because he considered a career as a concert pianist. At his death he had a Bosendorfer grand piano in his home valued at approximately $100,000 dollars and hundreds of tapes of himself playing compositions from various classical composers. His library consisted of more than a thousand books, including statistics, physics, music, chemistry, biology, history, and philosophy.

Ed attended both grade, school and high, school in Parkersberg. However, Ed left Parkersburg in 1938 to enter Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. He returned to Parkersburg occasionally to visit his mother, and grandmother. Interestingly, his mother kept his grades from Cornell College. In his first semester he received a B in English, an A in mathematics, a B in German, and a B in chemistry. By the second semester he was doing better, receiving all A's except for a B in mathematics. By the end of his second year his grades were straight A's. That continued for the third and fourth year, with one exception. He received a C in philosophy. He finished his undergraduate schooling in 1942, receiving a B.A. in physics.

During the time he was attending Cornell College he supported himself by working and by loans from the Louise Foote Foundation. He noted with pride that these loans were repaid on time and that ``my entire college education cost my mother a total of $25; one winter she bought me an overcoat'' [8].

Between his junior and senior, year, he worked at the Warner Institute with Drs. Gustav Martin and Marvin R. Thompson. After receiving his B. A. he intended to return to the Warner Institute for another summer, but his plans changed because of the war. From 1942 to 1944 he worked for the Sperry Gyroscope Company on Long Island helping to develop Doppler radar.

At the end of 1944, he became Ensign Jaynes, and worked at the Anacostia Naval Research Lab in Washington D. C. developing microwave systems. During his stay in the Navy he spent some time on Guam. There is one picture of him on Guam holding a machine gun. When he was discharged in 1946, he was a lieutenant (j.g.). There are two documents written by Ensign Jaynes: the first is a series of 9 lectures on solving circuit problems using Laplace and Fourier transforms [1]; the second, is titled ``Theory of Microwave Coupling Systems'' [2]. These two documents constitute the earliest known professional writings of Ed Jaynes.

Jaynes left the Navy in 1946 and headed for California. In the summer of 1946 he worked in the W. W. Hansen Laboratories of Physics at Stanford on the design of the first linear electron accelerator. At the end of the summer, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, In ``Disturbing The Memory'' [7] Jaynes notes

I first met Julian Schwinger, Robert Dicke, and Donald Hamilton during the War when we were all engaged in developing microwave theory, measurement techniques, and applications to pulsed and Doppler radar; Schwinger and Dicke at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, Hamilton and I at the Sperry Gyroscope Laboratories on Long Island. Bill Hansen (for whom the W. W. Hansen Laboratories at Stanford are now named) was running back and forth weekly, giving lectures at MIT and bringing us back the notes on the Schwinger lectures as they appeared, and I accompanied him on a few of those trips.

I first met Edward Teller when he visited Stanford in the Summer of 1946 and Hansen, Teller, and I discussed the design of the first Stanford LINAC, then underway. After some months of correspondence I first met J. R. Oppenheimer in September 1946, when I arrived at Berkeley as a beginning graduate student, to learn quantum theory from him -- the result of Bill Hansen having recommended us strongly to each other. When in the Summer of 1947 Oppy moved to Princeton to take over the Institute for Advanced Study, I was one of four students that he took along. The plan was that we would enroll as graduate students at Princeton University, finish our theses under Oppy although he was not officially a Princeton University faculty member; and turn them in to Princeton (which had agreed to this somewhat unusual arrangement in view of the somewhat unusual circumstances). My thesis was to be on Quantum Electrodynamics.

But, as this writer learned from attending a year of Oppy's lectures (1946-47) at Berkeley, and eagerly studying his printed and spoken words for several years thereafter, Oppy would never countenance any retreat from the Copenhagen position, of the kind advocated by Schrödinger and Einstein. He derived some great emotional satisfaction from just those elements of mysticism that Schrödinger and Einstein had deplored, and always wanted to make the world still more mystical, and less rational.

This desire was expressed strongly in his 1955 BBC Reith lectures (of which I still have some cherished tape recordings which recall his style of delivery at its best). Some have seen this as a fine humanist trait. I saw it increasingly as an anomaly - a basically anti-scientific attitude in a person posing as a scientist - that explains so much of the contradictions in his character.

As a more practical matter, it presented me with a problem in carrying out my plan to write a thesis under Oppy's supervision, quite aside from the fact that his travel and other activities made it so hard to see him. Mathematically, the Feynman electromagnetic propagator made no use of those superfluous degrees of freedom; it was equally well a Green's function for an unquantized EM field. So I wanted to reformulate electrodynamics from the ground up without using field quantization. The physical picture would be very different; but since the successful Feynman rules used so little of that physical picture anyway, I did not think that the physical predictions would be appreciably different; at least, if the idea was wrong, I wanted to understand in detail why it was wrong.

If this meant standing in contradiction with the Copenhagen interpretation, so be it; I would be delighted to see it gone anyway, for the same reason that Einstein and Schrödinger would. But I sensed that Oppy would never tolerate a grain of this; he would crush me like an eggshell if I dared to express a word of such subversive ideas. I could do a thesis with Oppy only if it was his thesis, not mine.

Eugene Wigner became Ed's thesis advisor in 1948.

His dissertation was a calculation of the electrical and magnetic properties of ferroelectric materials. Ferroelectric materials are crystalline substances which have a permanent electric polarization (an electric dipole moment per unit volume) that can be reversed by an electric field. His dissertation ``Ferroelectricity'' was finished in 1950 and he received his Ph.D. in physics. He published his first paper in 1950 while still at Princeton. It was titled ``The Displacement of Oxygen in BaTiO3'' [1]. This paper is essentially a one page summary of some of his thesis results. The paper is so short that it does not begin to hint at the amount of work and original thought that went into his thesis calculations. Joel Snow, one of Jaynes' early graduate students, refers to ``Ferroelectricity'' as a ``tour de force''.1 Jaynes' thesis was extensively modified and later published by the Princeton University Press in 1953 [3] in the series Investigations In Physics. It was vol. I of this prestigious series. Investigations In Physics has featured many famous authors, including John Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, and Eugene Feenberg.

After finishing his degree, Jaynes returned to Stanford in 1950. He stayed through 1960. In his early work Jaynes was both theoretician and experimentalist. For example, his fourth paper was on the observation of a paramagnetic resonance in a single crystal of barium titanate [4], essentially an experimental paper. His second paper, on the concept and measurement of the impedance in periodically loaded wave guides [2], had both theoretical and experimental aspects. Jaynes continued to maintain an active research laboratory well into the 70's (many years after moving to St. Louis). Indeed, among his papers there was a copy of the Sunday magazine supplement of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat dated May 30, 1967 containing a photograph, of Ed Jaynes in his laboratory in Crow Hall on the Washington University campus. The photograph shows him working with a high energy laser. During this period his students were testing some of the predictions of neoclassical and quantum theory.

While he was an Associate Professor at Stanford he also supported himself consulting with Varian Associates, the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers, and the University of California at Livermore. While consulting he wrote a number of reports for both Varian and the U. S. Army. Many of the U. S. Army reports still survive, but are not available for general release; a condition that will change shortly. Two of the reports done for Varian still survive, but are only available from the main Varian corporate library. Varian, at that time, was a young upstart company that could not afford to pay Jaynes in cash, so they paid him in stock. Additionally, Jaynes' records indicate that he continued to buy Varian stock throughout most of this period. At the time of his death this stock constituted about one fourth of Jaynes' total wealth.

Prior to 1957 Jaynes published a total of 6 articles [1, 2-8]. These articles essentially grew out of his thesis work. However, his interest were varied as illustrated by the fact that these 6 papers covered such diverse research areas as solid state, classical electrodynamics, electron spin resonance, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Yet these papers are all related, they are all applications of classical electrodynamics to real physical problems. Jaynes had essentially four different areas of research: his first could be called applied classical electrodynamics; his second, information theory (entropy as a measure of information); his third, probability theory; and finally, semiclassical and neoclassical radiation theory.

During the years preceding 1957, Jaynes was preparing a set of lecture notes on probability theory. This material eventually was presented to the Field Research Laboratory of the Socony-Mobil Oil Company. This group in turn published, at least internally, a collection of five of these lecture notes [7]. Jaynes did try to publish the first of these lectures, ``How Does The Brain Do Plausible Reasoning,'' in 1960. However, this work was also rejected by the referee and Jaynes eventually gave up on publishing it. It was later rediscovered in the Stanford Microwave Laboratory library and, with Jaynes's permission, it was published in 1988 [64]; some 28 years after Jaynes first tried to publish it.

In 1957 Jaynes published his first articles in information theory, ``Information Theory and Statistical Mechanics,'' [9,10]. In these two articles Jaynes reformulated statistical mechanics in terms of probability distributions derived by the use of the principle of maximum entropy. This reformulation of the theory simplified the mathematics, allowed for fundamental extensions of the theory, and reinterpreted statistical mechanics as inference based on incomplete information. These articles were published over the objection of a reviewer. (Jaynes comments on this review in ``Where do we Stand on Maximum Entropy,'' [37]). Jaynes kept that review, framed and hanging on the wall of his office for more than 40 years.

The two 1957 articles, by themselves, would have been a career for most scientists; but Jaynes was far from finished. In the three years he remained at Stanford he published articles on wave guides [11, 14], relativity [12], information theory [13], masers [15] and 50 others after moving to Washington University in St. Louis.

In the years immediately preceding his departure from Stanford (1960) he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the publish or perish mentality plaguing Stanford, a condition he talked about in ``Backward Look to the Future'' [74]. So in 1960 he packed his belongings, sold his house, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he joined the physics faculty of Washington University.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Jaynes set out on his remaining research interest, reformulating quantum electrodynamics to avoid quantization of the electromagnetic field. Jaynes published his first paper on this subject in 1963 with Fred Cummings. It was titled ``Comparison of Quantum and Semiclassical Radiation Theory with Application to the Beam Maser'' [18]. Jaynes continued to publish articles on both semiclassical and neoclassical radiation theory more or less continuously until he retired [18, 26, 27, 31, 34, 35, 39 ]. However, much of this research is in the theses of his graduate students and has never been published in the open literature.

Sometime in early 1980 Ray Smith and Tom Grandy, both at the University of Wyoming, organized a conference on the use of Maximum Entropy and Bayesian methods. They solicited Jaynes' advice on whom to invite. The meeting was held in June of 1981 at the University of Wyoming. The list of attendees included such people as John Parker Burg, John Skilling, John Shore, Tom Grandy, Ray Smith, B. R. Frieden, Ted Ulyrch, and David McGomery. While at this meeting Jaynes presented two papers ``Where Do We Go From Here,'' [50] and ``Entropy and Search Theory'' [52]. This meeting was to be the first in a series of meetings that have continued to this day. Jaynes regularly attended these meeting until roughly 1990.

While his graduate students were working on semiclassical and neoclassical radiation theory, he was continuing with his other research interests. For example, in statistical mechanics he published 14 articles from 1960 onward. In probability theory, especially during the 80's, he published 21 articles. These articles addressed fundamental questions within these theories and often extended them to new application areas. Many of these articles are published in proceedings volumes. It was commonplace for mainstream journals to reject his manuscripts. Consequently, he often had to wait many years to respond in print to a critic.

In 1982 Jaynes took a two year sabbatical. He spent the first year at the University of Wyoming as an Adjunct Professor. While there he taught statistics, gave a few colloquia, generally renewed old friendships, enjoyed himself, thought, and wrote. Ray Smith told me that he, his son, and Gary Erickson took Jaynes camping in the Snowy mountains. Apparently Jaynes enjoyed this experience so much that when he returned to St. Louis he went out and bought a tent and sleeping bag in the hopes of going camping again some day.

The second year of his sabbatical was spent as a Fellow at St. John's College in Cambridge, England. The time Jaynes spent at St. John's college was the highlight of his life. Had it been possible, he would have stayed. During the time at Cambridge he attended the weekly meetings John Skilling had with his graduate students. He wrote a number of papers related to the discussions that were going on at these meetings; ``Monkeys Kangaroos and N'' being the most notable of these [58]. He wandered the campus thinking about the history and magnitude of human accomplishments that are associated with Cambridge. He mentioned spending parts of several weeks trying to find the tomb of Rev. Thomas Bayes. He succeeded at this, because in his possessions were a number of pictures of Bayes' tomb.

Jaynes retired in 1992 after a long and productive career. Jaynes' contributions to science were of the highest caliber. His work in reformulating statistical mechanics has illuminated the foundations of that theory and enabled extensions to non-equilibrium systems. His dedication to rooting out contradictions in quantum mechanics is legendary. He must have single-handedly sparked more debate in quantum mechanics than any other person in the last 50 years. The verdict on his neoclassical radiation theory is still not in, and may not be for many more years. It may yet prove to be a better description of nature than quantum electrodynamics. He also helped take an interpretation of probability theory from being virtually unknown to a healthy research area that is being applied daily in economics, biology, physics, nuclear magnetic resonance and many other disciplines. His writing helped to clarify the foundations of probability theory in a way never achieved before. He wrote profusely, in a warm and friendly way that enabled one to see complex points as if they were intuitively obvious. He spoke as he wrote. When he criticized someone's work, he always stuck to the facts; he never reverted to name calling. His friendship was hard to earn, and hard to keep, for he had little tolerance for incompetence. He would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with all of the attention being lavished on him now that he is dead.

Edwin Thompson Jaynes
July 5, 1922 - April 30, 1998

next up previous
Next: Bibliography

This site is being maintained by:
Larry Bretthorst
Dept. Of Chemistry and Radiology
Washington University
St. Louis MO 63130

Phone: 314 362-9994