Entering Columbia in 1938 as a freshman pre-law student with the intention, he wrote, “of doing good things for the world,” Hughes took enough time from his studies to play on the tennis team and work on the school newspaper, Columbia Spector. He wrote later that while he found some of the Columbia core courses in humanities and contemporary civilization valuable, the mathematics and physics courses were more interesting to him, and he decided to direct his efforts toward mathematics, physics, and engineering. Growing up in modest circumstances during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, he tells of his concerns about a choice of schooling that would result in a job after college.
After completing an especially heavy academic schedule with excellent grades in only three years and winning the Van Buren Math Prize, he graduated from Columbia as a physics major in the spring of 1941 just after his twentieth birthday. Looking for a new environment, Hughes enrolled as a graduate student at Caltech that fall. A picture from that time shows Hughes atop Mt. San Gorgonio in California along with fellow students Pief Panofsky, Bill Eberhardt, and Ed Deeds.
Hughes writes that at Caltech he found Smythe’s course in electricity and magnetism, which consisted largely of blackboard presentations by the students of problems assigned from Smythe’s book, especially challenging, but he wrote that the acceptance of his work was helped by his “being an acceptable tennis partner for Professor Smythe.”
After receiving his M.Sc. degree from Caltech in 1942, with the country at war, Hughes went back east to work on radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory. Here he joined a group directed by Burton Chance that was especially concerned with accurate time measurements—at the microsecond level—of the reflected radar pulse and thus target range