I had planned to write about the Higgs boson this week.
However, in view of what has happened this past week, I don''t
feel up to a column on something I find hard to understand
myself. In less than a month, I''ll be 73 years old. As they say,
aging is better than the alternative. The flip side is that the older
you get, the more friends to whom you''ve had to say a permanent
goodbye. Last week I attended a memorial service for one of
these friends and I also learned of the death of another last
October. You probably have never heard of these individuals,
but both have touched your own life, if only indirectly.
The memorial service was for Dr. Thomas M. Buck. Tom and I
entered the University of Pittsburgh as graduate students in 1946.
He was truly a member of the greatest generation, having served
in the U.S. Navy in World War II from the Mediterranean to
Okinawa. At Pitt, we both ended up getting our PhDs under
Prof. W. E. Wallace. Not only that, but we worked on the same
materials, magnesium-cadmium alloys, in our thesis work. Tom
measured the heats given off when these alloys were dissolved
into solution, while I measured the voltages developed in
electrochemical cells with these alloys as electrodes. I like to
think that the achievement of these measurements were
significantly more difficult than they sound. The goal of both
studies was to find out information concerning the energies of
forming these alloys and their structures.
When Tom and I left Pitt, he went to National Lead in New
Jersey and I went to NACA in Cleveland, as I''ve discussed in
earlier columns. By chance, Tom and his wife were visiting in
Cleveland and we met for a picnic, where I mentioned some
dissatisfaction with my job at NACA. Tom returned to New
Jersey and informed Don, another fellow graduate student at Pitt,
of my discontent. Don was recruiting for Bell Labs and invited
me for an interview. I came there as an employee in November
of 1952. Tom Buck followed me in December of that year. So
how did Tom affect your lives? He fought for you in World War
II and also got me to Bell Labs, without which I certainly would
not be writing these columns that you''re reading today.
But that''s not all. Although Tom was a physical chemist like
myself, he tended more and more towards the physics side of the
house. A major project at Bell Labs was the launching of
Telstar, the first communications satellite. Tom obtained a
patent on the design of radiation counters used in Telstar. The
Van Allen radiation belts in our atmosphere had been discovered
and Tom was heavily involved in experiments on the first and
succeeding Telstars to determine the characteristics of the
radiation. This radiation presented the potential to damage the
electronic circuits in the satellites. Tom''s contributions to our
first orbiting communications satellite helped lay the groundwork
for today''s satellites that carry TV, telephone and data signals all
over the world and feed to you many of the images on your
nightly news and other programs.
Tom also made seminal contributions in an area that probably
has not affected your life but is of great scientific interest. He
initiated research at Bell Labs on analyzing the surface
composition of materials by a process known as ion scattering.
At the memorial service, his son said in effect that when Tom
was asked what his most memorable scientific achievement was,
Tom replied that it was going down four atoms deep. An
example that intrigued me was his work on copper-nickel alloys,
which coincidentally occupied my own studies at NACA. Tom
and his coworkers showed that the composition of the alloy at the
surface was not the same as in the bulk of the sample. There was
more copper at the surface. This may sound pretty esoteric but
one can imagine quite practical consequences. For example,
corrosion starts at the surface of a material and let''s say we have
an alloy that is of a composition that resists corrosion. If the
surface composition is significantly different, this corrosion
resistance could be lost.
I was shocked to learn of the passing of my other friend, Dr.
Robert Powers. Bob was a force in the field of batteries, a field
that has occupied me for the past three decades. I mentioned
attending the International Meeting on Lithium Batteries in
Como, Italy this past June. Bob was there, as he was at most
battery conferences, in his most recent capacity as a reporter and
analyst. In retirement, Bob started his own battery report, an
annual compendium and analysis of the important battery
developments and of the industry itself. He and a colleague or
two took upon themselves the unenviable job of going to these
meetings and attending innumerable talks, trying to separate the
wheat from the chaff. Not an easy job, even in such a lovely
place as Como.
In Como, we had an afternoon open to explore a number of
options. Bob had suggested to my wife that I join him and his
wife on a scheduled tour of a silk factory in Como. I was
reluctant, thinking there must be a better way to spend my time
in such a scenic area. However, I agreed to the tour, which
turned out to be one of the poorer tours I''ve taken. Everything
else about the meeting was great. Consequently, Bob took a
good bit of good-natured ribbing about his suggestion that we
waste our time on the silk factory, which actually turned out to
be a museum. I told him he owed me one. After I returned
home, I was surprised to find in the mail a copy of the latest
Powers report, an item that sells for several hundred dollars!
Bob''s accompanying note said that he hoped this would
compensate for the silk factory tour! I assured him that he had
more than adequately done just that.
How has Bob touched your life? If you''ve ever bought an
alkaline battery (and who hasn''t?), Bob was a key player and
manager in the work on the Eveready alkaline battery at Union
Carbide. (Eveready is now Energizer, after being spun off from
Ralston Purina and fair disclosure suggests you should know I
own stock in both.) If you''ve never dealt with the dry cells of
old, back when I was young, you can''t fully appreciate the
reliable, leak-free performance of today''s alkaline cells. Bob
served as director of research of the Consumer Products Division
of Union Carbide and as Technology Director of the Battery
Division of Union Carbide.
Bob may be touching your life in a completely different area.
Unless you are in chad-counting country or similar climes, Bob
also had key patents on the antifreeze formulation used to keep
your car from freezing up in our cold winters. I don''t know if his
particular formulations are now in use but I''m told he contributed
significantly to field of corrosion inhibitors in antifreeze. I seem
to recall as a child that rusting radiators were not uncommon and
it may well be some of Bob''s work that is the reason I don''t hear
much about this problem today.
I mentioned chad-counting country. I''ve become a Judge N.
Sanders Sauls junkie this past week and have devoted far too
much time watching the proceedings in his court carried on C-
span. I was surprised to find I have a loose connection with one
witness in the trial, Dr. Richard Grossman. Dr. Grossman
teaches rubber and plastics technology at the University of
Wisconsin at Milwaukee and was called to testify on the
properties of rubber. Underneath the punch card ballot, the
pointer that punches the chad hits rubber and one question was
whether the hardness of the rubber was changed by the impacts
of the pointer. My connection with Dr. Grossman is that he
mentioned that he also teaches under the auspices of the Center
for Professional Advancement. This is the organization that
sponsors the courses on batteries under my direction that I''ve
discussed in these columns. I was glad that I did not share with
Dr. Grossman the experience of being a witness in the chad-
counting trial. Unless the color on my TV was off, I saw Judge
Sauls turning red with exasperation at the lawyers'' tactics in
Bob and Tom, I will miss you both. You were both true
gentlemen and credits to your professions.
I''ll try to understand the Higgs boson next week.
Allen F. Bortrum