College Years and SomeScience
CHAPTER 4 - COLLEGE YEARS
This past week saw the season finale of Dancing With the Stars, Dancing has probably never been a topic of such heated discussion, with the controversy over whether or not the success of Bristol Palin in reaching the finals was due to Tea Party support. Last month, you may recall that I told of how I danced my way into Dickinson College back in 1943. My own fascination with Dancing With the Stars stems in part from the innumerable attempts on the part of my wife to make me into a dancer. After many series of lessons over our nearly 60 years of marriage, I think I may have convinced her that I have a genetic problem with dancing, namely I cannot keep time. For example, if I'm in an audience clapping in unison in appreciation of a performance, I'm always out of sync with the clapping. My feet do no better in that regard.
I mentioned last week that I would talk a bit about recent findings about our universe and space-related items. One of the radio programs that I listened to as a child, and which spawned my keen interest in such things, was the program "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". Buck, and his sidekicks Wilma and the brilliant Dr. Huer, shared all sorts of escapades in that first sci-fi radio adventure series, broadcast from 1932 to 1947. I certainly wouldn't have guessed back then it would only decades, not centuries, for actual manned rocket travel to the moon, a manmade space station orbiting Earth and robotic trips to the very outer limits of our solar system.
Within the past couple of months, announcements of major findings about our solar system and other planetary systems have made the headlines. The Holy Grail for astronomers would be to find evidence of life on another planet or moon. Just two months ago, astronomers using data from the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii announced that, in cooperation with other observatories, they had found a "Goldilocks" planet orbiting the star Gliese 581, a mere 20 light-years away from Earth. This star, a red dwarf, has several planets orbiting it but one of them, planet Gliese 581g, lies in the habitable zone where it's possible that water could exist and it appears that the planet may also be a rocky planet, as is our own. It's not a slam dunk, of course. The planet resembles our own moon in that it is tidally locked to the star so that one side faces its star all the time. However, there are regions in between the very cold dark side and the very hot bright side where more modest temperatures prevail.
The Goldilocks planet and its five companion planets orbiting Gliese 581 were detected after many years spent analyzing data on the "wobble" of the star as the planets orbiting it pushed and pulled the star and its other planets due to the complex gravitational attractions of each planet and the star on each other. This wobble effect, as we've discussed in past columns, is responsible for the detection of most of the roughly 500 planets found to date orbiting other stars. I should note that when I went on the Internet I found that the existence of the Goldilocks planet has been questioned by some other astronomers who claim their own data do not support the claim. Stay tuned.
Closer to home, a series of papers in the October issue of Science expand upon the earlier results of NASA's LCROSS experiment back in 2009 when they crashed an orbiter into the Moon with another orbiter following that recorded the features of the plume resulting from the first crash. The most interesting result now is the deduced presence of actual water ice on the moon in some locations. Previously, it seemed to me that the scientists had implied that the water they found was tied up in compounds with other materials but now the more extensive analysis seems to show water ice itself exists in certain areas. If so, this would certainly bode well for any prolonged stays of humans on the moon. The plume from the crash also contained other volatile species such as ammonia , methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
All good things come to an end. For example, one of the Mars rovers seems to be stuck in place, possibly permanently. Last month NASA announced that one of its superstars has been retired. Back in September, the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) thrusters were fired, putting the spacecraft into a permanent parking orbit around the Sun. What a wonderful job it did in its nine years of scanning the sky! In probing in exquisite detail the patterns of the cosmic background radiation, the light left over from about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, WMAP, as cited in the Guinness Book of Records, delivered the "most accurate measure of the age of the universe", 13.75 billion years. WMAP revealed that only 4.6 percent of the universe consists of normal atoms and that dark matter and dark energy comprise the rest. WMAP even had something to say about the first few trillionths of a second after the Big Bang, supporting the rapid expansion scenario known as inflation, ruling out some versions of inflation while providing support for others. Well done, WMAP!
OK, I've indulged my passion for cosmological topics. I could go on about the recent release from NASA citing the finding of what may be the youngest black hole we've seen. A supernova SN 1979C, discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1979, appears to have evolved over 30 years into a black hole, even as we've watched it. Oh well, I'd better get back to my memoirs if I ever expect to finish them. As mentioned last time, my mother seized upon my taking a girl to a dance as the rather weird reason that I should skip 12th grade and enter Dickinson College in the summer of 1943. The commute from Mechanicsburg to Carlisle by bus was relatively easy, only a roughly 10-mile trip each way.
At 15, I was significantly younger than my classmates, mostly female, with roughly 50 male and 250 female student comprising the student body. Most of the males who would have been attending this normally predominantly male college had either enlisted or been drafted for military service in the war. However, When I entered Dickinson, there was a contingent of the Thirty-Second College Training Detachment, an Army Air Corps program involving some 500 or more Air Corps cadets who trained on a rotating basis and who marched from class to class in amongst us regular students. Over 2,000 cadets went through this program, which ended in 1944. One might think that the women students would be overwhelmed with so many men on campus but, apparently, any relations among the women students and the cadets were severely restricted. One account says that the reason the cadets were made to march to between classes was that conversations and exchanges among cadets and the women were getting out of hand. Poor gals; they had to settle for the paltry number of ordinary male students.
Sadly for me, in this collegiate environment with a plethora of females, they were virtually all two or three years older than I. At 15, the age difference also meant a seemingly insurmountable difference in maturity and this golden opportunity for social enrichment was wasted. Ironically, 8 years later I married a gal two years older; in this coming January, we will celebrate our 60th anniversary!
Scholastically, I did well at Dickinson, getting all A's except for two B's, one in an English course and the other in hygiene! I took all the chemistry, physics and math courses the college offered. I knew that I wanted to be a chemist, even though I had not had chemistry in high school, thanks to skipping 12th grade. My first chemistry teacher was Prof. Ernest Vuilleumier, a tall imposing gentleman with an interesting background. I had thought he was of Swiss heritage but I just found a wonderful group of biographies and pictures of present and past Dickinson faculty members on the Dickinson Web site and now realize what varied backgrounds my key professors had. Born in New York City Vuilleumier got his Ph.D. from the University of Berne in Switzerland. When the United States entered World War II, he found his way to France to join the U.S. Army infantry. He became an associate professor of chemistry at Dickinson in 1920 and soon became chairman of the chemistry department. Vuilleumier invented a device known as the Dickinson Alcometer, a device used by state and federal law enforcement officers during Prohibition.
He was especially polite and had some interesting ways of demonstrating certain chemical properties. For example, to show us the difference between concentrated hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, he dipped his bare hands into a beaker of the former, rinsed them off and then made a point of not dipping his hands in the sulfuric acid. We quickly got the point that sulfuric acid was not to be trifled with. Vuilleumier died with his boots on, so to speak, passing away while preparing for class in the stockroom of the science building in 1958, at the age of 64.
Vuilleumier taught inorganic and organic chemistry, while Prof. Horace Rogers taught us analytical and physical chemistry. Rogers was a student of Vuilleumier, who urged him to stay at Dickinson, where Rogers spent the whole of his career aside from time out to get a Masters degree from Lafayette College and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He was a genial, less colorful teacher than Vuilleumier but I must have gotten a good grounding from him in physical chemistry based on results of a graduate exam I took before entering graduate school. At Dickinson, I decided I liked organic chemistry and was doing some kind of honors work under Vuilleumier.
When there was time between classes, I was a devoted ping pong player and often played against one student, J. Ohrum Small. We were quite evenly matched and decided to play a 500-point game, accomplishing this feat by remembering our scores from successive short sessions during breaks between classes. I now forget which one of us won but I do remember the final score was 501 to 499! Aside from his ping pong affinity, J. Ohrum was an enterprising prankster.
For some reason, I had run across a simple method to make a compound known as nitrogen triiodide, NI3. This compound is easily prepared by reacting ammonia with iodine crystals. Nitrogen triiodide has the interesting property of "exploding" when jostled. Sprinkle a bit of it on a sidewalk and when someone steps on it there's a loud pop. I shared some of my compound with J. Ohrum and he somehow managed to get it placed on toilet seats in the women's dorm! Not being as enterprising I just took some home with me and sprinkled it on the sidewalk outside our rented house. One of the victims who was startled when he walked by was, fittingly, the school superintendent who had denied my mother's request that I be given a high school diploma even though I skipped 12th grade.
I hadn't realized that nitrogen triiodide would not only pop on contact but could also pop spontaneously, which it did one day when I was in the lab talking with Dr. Rogers. He questioned the origin of the sounds and I never knew whether or not he really accepted my feigning a lack of any knowledge of the source. I suspect he let me off the hook. While writing this paragraph, I've just learned some chemistry. My spellchecker wouldn't accept the word "triiodide". I thought it wasn't good at chemistry but, to make sure, Googled "nitrogen triiodide" and what do you know? I was led, of course, to Wikipedia. There I found that nitrogen triiodide made when one reacts ammonia and iodine is actually a compound of nitrogen triiodide with ammonia, NI3, NH3. I checked back in one of my old chemistry volumes and, sure enough, Wikipedia was right. I also learned that nitrogen triiodide was so highly explosive that you can set it off by touching it with a feather! I'm glad I only made a wee bit of the stuff!
Aside from the nitrogen triiodide, my only other dubious indiscretion was the time when Eddie Brame, a minister's son, and I broke into the gym one weekend to shoot baskets. I loved basketball and joined a fraternity, Sigma Chi, primarily so I could play basketball in the intramural games. I still remember in one game making a hook shot from the corner that was a thing of beauty as it went through the hoop. Those were the days when a long shot was made using both hands and anyone over six feet was considered quite tall.
Aside from my science and math courses, there was one course that stood out in my mind, as well as in the minds of most other students at Dickinson. This was a required history course taught by Prof, Herbert Wing, Jr. Wing was born in Minnesota and after graduating from Harvard got his Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin. I remember in his course and unusual amount of attention being paid to Dante and his circles of hell. But what really made an impression on all of us students was the fact that each student had to pick a topic to write about and research thoroughly. My choice of a topic was the history of science during a certain period in the 20th century. We were required to do a thorough job of consulting various sources, noting the sources and information on 3" x 5" cards. The project was quite valuable in teaching us the use of the library and the organization of information. Of course, there were no computers in those days and those stacks of 3 x 5 cards were our files that today would be so easily stored and manipulated on a laptop. Wing's course provided the best background for learning to write a coherent, well researched paper. In retrospect, Prof. Wing and Bessie Bashore, my high school English teacher, were probably my most influential teachers in whatever success I've had over the years writing and/or editing my columns and scientific publications.
By going to summer school, I was in my junior year in the spring of 1945, when the college decided to renew a semblance of prewar intercollegiate athletic activities and scheduled two baseball games with Gettysburg College. I made the team, not that big an achievement with the limited number of male students. Normally an outfielder, I was thrown in at third base, not a comfortable position for me. However, we played the two games and lost both by quite substantial margins. I was happy though, having had a clean single over second base in four official times at bat for a 0.250 lifetime batting average in NCAA baseball. (I made the team the next year but the veterans were back and I was the last to be included. The only game I was definitely going to play in got rained out. Incidentally, I had no idea I had played "NCAA baseball" until a month or so ago when I received some literature from Dickinson in connection with a forthcoming 65th reunion next year.)
In August that year the atom bombs were dropped on Japan and the war was over. The college atmosphere changed very quickly with the return of veterans from the war and the student body started to return to its normal male to female ratio. In my senior year, I finally had a few dates, probably no more than a handful, taking different girls each time to dances. One notable date was arranged, why I'll never know, for me to take a 27-year-old gal to a dance. It turned out that she had spent most of the war years in the Philippines in some sort of camp. Obviously a woman out of my league, she spent the evening talking with one of the returned veterans, with whom she should have been paired in the first place.
In December I turned 18 and took my draft physical and was in 1A but the draft was called off with the end of the war. About this time, my mother once again stepped in to significantly alter my future. We've discussed how she tutored me when I had a reaction to the smallpox vaccine, resulting in my skipping one and a half grades on entering school in Philadelphia. Then she wouldn't agree to me being put back a grade when we moved to Mechanicsburg. Next there was seizing on the dancing to skip me 12th grade and enter Dickinson. This time, she happened to know the mother-in-law of the dean of the graduate school of the University of Pittsburgh. My mother heard that he was coming to town on a visit and arranged for him to meet me. Before he left our house, it was all set. I was going to Pitt as a graduate assistant in the chemistry department!
Would you believe that today, November 30, I decided to Google Herbert Longenecker, the dean in question and find that he just died on September 10 this year at age 98! He was President Emeritus of Tulane University. In his obituary, I find that indeed he did marry the only girl he ever dated, Marjorie Jane Segar, of Mechanicsburg, in 1936 and the marriage lasted 69 years until her death. His obituary is fascinating and I never realized what a great guy he was. For example, I was not the only one Longenecker recruited to Pitt. He was the one who recruited Jonas Salk to come to Pitt, where Salk did the studies that led to the polio vaccine. Salk came to Pitt the year after I arrived and, in 1955 or 1956, when a neighbor contracted the disease, I eagerly got the Salk vaccine.
Back to Dickinson, after the fall semester I had enough credits to graduate but chose to stay another semester in order to finish taking the remaining physics and chemistry courses. In that period there were even more returning veterans and I didn't know many of those who graduated in my class of 1946. One of those veterans was Fred Edwards; I met Fred at Pitt that summer. He was also a graduate assistant in the chemistry department and, as we shall see later, entered and reentered my life at various stages.
One of my best friends at Dickinson was a fellow student, Jake Barber, to whom I talked on the phone only a few weeks ago. We were among the few who took the physics courses taught by Prof. Wellington Amos Parlin, born in Iowa with a Ph. D. from Johns Hopkins. In one course, meteorology, I believe Jake and I were the only students in the class. I don't believe it was in meteorology that I recall vividly one experiment we did. It was the only time in my life I shot a gun. I think it was some sort of BB gun with small pellets. I'm not sure what it was we were trying to measure but I do remember the pellet bouncing back and nearly hitting me in the eye. That was as exciting as the physics courses got. Parlin lived to the ripe old age of 97.
Well, I know that much of this has probably been of little or no interest to you but from the time I first started writing these columns I have stated that one reason I've been doing them is to either learn something new or to con myself in thinking I understood something about which I really have no clue. I've had more fun writing this column than many of past columns, if only because I've learned so much about people in my past. I was truly shocked to find that Herbert Longenecker was still alive this year. To appreciate what an unusual individual he was consider this. He married the gal from Mechanicsburg in 1936 and, as mentioned in the obituary, the marriage lasted 69 years until her death. By my calculation that means she died in 2005. According to the obituary, Longenecker is survived by his wife Katherine Butler. That means he remarried at or beyond the age of 93! He must have been quite a guy!
Realistically, I may not post my next column before the new year. I'll shoot for January 7. Have a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
Allen F. Bortrum