Voyager, E8 and Bio
CHAPTER 5 - EARLY PITT YEARS
Before resuming my memoirs, there are two items I can't resist mentioning. One concerns the stalwart Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched by NASA 33 years ago. To me it is unbelievable that, after all those years and now almost 11 billion miles away, it is still sending back data as it heads out to interstellar space. In June, when it was 10.6 billion miles from our Sun, Voyager 1 reached a true milestone. On its journey Voyager 1 has been measuring the speed of the solar wind, the stream of particles (mostly protons and electrons) emitted from the Sun. In June Voyager 1 found that the speed of the solar wind had dropped to zero! NASA scientists wanted to be sure that the speed was really zero and followed the data for several more months before announcing the finding.
NASA believes this means that in the far reaches of our solar system particles coming from interstellar space (an interstellar wind?) are strong enough to turn the solar wind sideways. It also means that Voyager 1 is now just a few years from actually exiting our solar system and truly being in interstellar space. What a voyager it has turned out to be!
In essence, Voyager's journey is something we can all understand at its basic level. We shot a spacecraft into space at a speed and direction that has permitted it to reach hitherto unreachable distances and environments. The other item that caught my attention is something that I find essentially incomprehensible, at least for my feeble brain. In past columns I've mentioned the long quest for a so-called theory of everything, a theory that can reconcile Einstein's theory of the big stuff such as gravity and spacetime with quantum mechanics and the world of the tiny stuff such as quarks and all those other exotic particles. In the December 2010 issue of Scientific American I found an article titled "A Geometric Theory of Everything" by A. Garrett Lisi and James Owen Weatherall.
In 2007, Lisi, a dedicated surfer in addition to being a theoretical physicist, published a paper that apparently has provoked a great deal of interest and may indeed be the long sought theory of everything. The basis of the theory is the Lie group E8. Surely you've heard of Mr. Lie (pronounced "Lee") and his groups? I certainly have not, until now. It seems that Lie's E8 group is a geometric set of some 248 sets of circles, as Lisi and Weatherall put it, "wrapping around one another and dancing over spacetime in all possible ways..." As near as I can make out, all these various combinations of circles (and fibers) combining and twisting in various numbers and combinations correspond to the known particles in physics as well as some unknown particles such as the Higgs boson, the object being searched for in the famed Large Hadron Collider. According to Lisi, E8 also produces the graviton, carrier of gravity, and hence the possible melding of Einstein and quantum mechanics.
Not understanding E8, I Googled the subject and was shocked to find a video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, about Lisi, E8 and surfing on You Tube. Freeman talks about the graviton and the Higgs boson and I'm thinking, hey, if he can understand this stuff why can't I? I also found other videos of Lisi talking to scientific groups. In one of these he notes the downside of working in theoretical physics, namely that if your theory is shown to be wrong, you've wasted years of your time. He's probably holding his breath, hoping that the Large Hadron Collider produces not only the Higgs boson but also the other new particles predicted by E8. Lisi says he balances his scientific quests with love and surfing, which certainly requires balancing of the highest skill!
Well, back to my memoirs, not as exciting as E8, but surely more understandable. Last month, I talked about Hebert Longenecker and his recruiting me into going to Pitt as a graduate assistant in the chemistry department and the fact that the next year he recruited Jonas Salk. For me, it was off to Pitt that summer of 1946. The war was over and, at 18, I would be teaching chemistry labs in which the student population ranged from freshmen students my age and returning veterans much older and more experienced. My fellow graduate students were also significantly older than I. Having commuted to Dickinson College, this was also my first experience of independent living away from home. I thought it might be of interest to give a flavor of my life in Pittsburgh during my four years at Pitt.
Having now spent over 59 years of my life here in New Jersey near New York City, I've been amused by the feeling of many here in the East that Pittsburgh is some culturally deprived city "way out west", as my barber said when I got my first haircut here in 1952. Pittsburgh was indeed a different place back in 1946 when I arrived, equipped with the very light powder blue suit that my mother had chosen for my new life in the big city. Bad choice of apparel! In 1946, the steel mills were in full swing in and around Pittsburgh and the smog was often so bad that at noon some days we would debate whether that light down the hill was the sun or a street light! Taking notes in class, there would be smudges on the page by the end of the class. I wore that powder blue suit once or twice, no more. I stood out like a visitor from another planet and the suit was in need of cleaning after a single wearing.
The steel mills weren't the only source of the polluted air, the burning of soft coal also contributed to the problem. While I was at Pitt, the soft coal was banned and the air quality improved noticeably before I left Pittsburgh. Today, with the steel mills no longer in the picture, my experience based on more recent visits is that Pittsburgh is as clean or cleaner than New York. I mentioned looking down the hill at either the sun or a traffic light. The chemistry department was located in Alumni Hall, which was part way up a very steep hill and the daily climb up the hill ensured that we graduate assistants kept in reasonably fit condition. The main campus of Pitt is located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, with the 42-story Cathedral of Learning being the central building, a couple of blocks down the hill from Alumni Hall in the flat part of Oakland. (Some nefarious types at nearby Carnegie Tech referred to our skyscraper as the Height of Ignorance but we generally ignored the snide reference.)
Being a rabid baseball fan in my youth, I was delighted to find that practically across the street from the Cathedral was Forbes Field, then the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Just today, Jan. 3, Brian Trumbore brought over a DVD of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series, in which the Pirates defeated the Yankees with Mazeroski's ninth inning home run. Sadly, when I was there the Pirates were awful, typically in last place. Even though my graduate assistant stipend was only $75 a month (later $100), I managed to attend as many as 40 games one year. As I recall, bleacher seats were only 50 cents and we bleacherites got a good view of Ralph Kiner patrolling left field. I typically would arrive an hour early, hoping to catch a foul ball during batting practice. It never happened.
Even in last place, the Pirates drew in the vicinity of 2 million fans attending the games in those days, thanks in part to Kiner hitting home runs like crazy and Hank Greenberg spending his last year in baseball with the Pirates. A colorful Rip Sewell would occasionally throw his blooper ball, or Eephus pitch, a pitch I imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger would call a "girlie" pitch. (Purportedly, according to Wikipedia, the only home run hit off Sewell's Eephus pitch was illegal! Ted Williams hit the homer in an All-Star game but later admitted he was running toward the pitch at the time and the ump failed to detect that Ted was out of the batter's box.) There were exciting players such as Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial on visiting teams and with Honus Wagner on the field, even the coaching was an attraction. (If you own one of the original Honus Wagner baseball cards, you're a rich man or woman!) I loved it! One time I found myself in the barber shop getting a haircut in the chair next to Preacher Roe, of the Dodgers. It was many years later that he admitted to throwing spitballs. I also talked with the Pirates' broadcaster Rosey Rosewell, and got the answer to a burning question - what did Ralph Kiner do with all those cases of Wheaties he got for every time he hit a home run? Kiner gave the cereal to homes for children.
My living quarters in Pittsburgh merit some attention. Upon arrival in Pittsburgh I found myself in an attic room of one Miss Kasket's house on North Dithridge street. Somehow, she managed to fit five of us in this attic dormitory-like room. One of my roommates was Andy, an older fellow whom I suspect may have had a thing for Miss Kasket. Another was Dave, who worked at the Mellon Institute, which had a tennis court. Dave took me there, where, never having played tennis before and also not having any sneakers, I played in my bare feet on what I believe was an asphalt surface! My feet hurt for weeks and, with one exception many years later, I never played tennis again.
I've mentioned that my father was a salesman for Brown& Bigelow, the world's largest calendar company. In addition to my light blue suit, my mother gave me something to help decorate my new digs. It was a large jumbo-size calendar featuring a beautiful nude painted by Zoe Mozert; Zoe was rumored to have used herself as a model for some of her paintings. If so, she was gorgeous and very nicely endowed! Unfortunately, Miss Kasket didn't cotton to the idea of even a tasteful nude adorning her boarders' environment. Even though I placed Band-Aids over the offending protuberances, she insisted I take it down despite my protests it was my mother who gave it to me.
My next domicile in Pittsburgh involved sleeping with a fellow destined to become an FBI agent! You may remember that I previously mentioned Fred Edwards, a veteran of WWII who, unknown to me, had graduated in my class at Dickinson. He was sharing a small upstairs room in a boarding house a few blocks from Forbes Field. His roommate was Don Koontz, another graduate assistant in the chemistry department. Don, another key figure in my future life, got married and moved downstairs in the same house. That left Fred without a roommate and he invited me to move and join him. Fred and I shared a double bed and, having slept in the same bed as my brother as a kid, it never occurred to me that two guys sharing a bed together might be viewed as somewhat questionable. My rent was only $13 a month.
However, after only a few months, Fred left to join the FBI. (Fred will show up again after I leave Pitt.) At the same time, one of our professors, Hurd Safford, lost his roommate and was looking for someone to share his rented apartment in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. Safford had a living room, kitchen and bedroom, with two beds. This was a much more luxurious accommodation than my two others in Pittsburgh and I expected to pay much more in rent. However, Safford was most generous and despite my offers to pay more, would only allow me to increase my monthly outlay from $13 to $15! It was an ideal for me. There was a convenient streetcar nearby and Safford and I alternated cooking dinners. I learned a good bit about the culinary arts and was more adventurous then. Beef tongue was a favorite item but my fried brains didn't go over well with either of us! On those days when I worked late on my research I would often eat at the Carnegie Tech cafeteria, most of the time with one of my best friends at Pitt, Al Weber. (Al was another fellow who would play a monumental role in my life, as we'll see later.) We chose to dine at Carnegie Tech over Pitt most of the time because the Pitt cafeteria was serving meals on metal trays whereas at Tech we ate off real plates!
I mentioned earlier finding that some Easterners tend to think of Pittsburgh as a cultural wasteland. Well, between Alumni Hall and the Cathedral of Learning there was the Syria Mosque, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted at that time by Fritz Reiner. I had never been to a performance of an orchestra before and was blown away by the wonderful music and the fact that they could all play in such perfect synchronization. In the Mosque I heard world renowned artists such as violinists Fritz Kreisler and Zino Francescatti, guest conductor Leonard Bernstein and was intrigued when the inimitable raconteur and pianist Oscar Levant took off his coat, lit up a cigarette and played as an encore Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I was still in Miss Kasket's abode when I scored two front row seats to hear famed pianist Artur Rubenstein. Somehow, I convinced Al, another roommate who was completely unschooled in music appreciation, to join me. We were seated directly under Rubenstein. Al fidgeted and squirmed so much I feared he was distract Rubenstein!
In addition to the Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, during the summer I attended performances by Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in Pitt Stadium with such classics as Sigmund Romberg's "The Student Prince". Pitt Stadium was also the venue for the Pitt Panther football games. Much of the time I was more impressed by the Pitt marching band than by some of Pitt's football teams. One season, the team only won a single game. (Years later, in 1975, I saw Tony Dorsett gain over 300 yards for Pitt in a convincing win over Notre Dame!)
Well, let me end this column/memoir with a bit about my scientific achievements, or lack thereof, in the chemistry department at Pitt. When I arrived, I was fairly enthusiastic about the field of organic chemistry, having done a bit of honors work in that field at Dickinson. However, one of the first courses I took at Pitt was a graduate organic chemistry course taught by Prof. Malcolm Dull. Prof. Dull was a very nice man but I found that the organic chemistry he taught was indeed dull, involving lots of sheer memory work as to percentage yields of various compounds in chemical reactions and my enthusiasm for organic chemistry was over.
I found physical chemistry and physics, especially nuclear physics, much more interesting. In those days, nuclear physics, especially as taught by physics professor David Halliday, seemed remarkably simple. There was no mention of quarks or Higgs bosons or all the other exotic particles and theories that emerged later and which the theory of everything will have to explain. Also, with the recent ending of World War II by the atom bomb, I was really taken by anything having to do with radioactivity.
My physical chemistry professor was William E. Wallace, known as Ed. Ed Wallace was young, only 10 years older than I, and was a very energetic fellow who became my research professor. I told Wallace that for my Master's degree project I wanted to do something involving radioactivity. He obliged by offering me a project to determine the solubility of barium sulfate in water at different temperatures. You probably have had barium sulfate in some form or other if you've had medical scans or barium enemas or the like. Barium sulfate is not very soluble in water (only a couple of milligrams in a liter of water) and Wallace suggested that I determine its solubility by using a radioactive isotope of sulfur as a tracer.
This involved making a batch of barium sulfate using the radioactive sulfur, then adding water and letting the water and sulfate come to equilibrium in a thermostatically controlled bath for, as I remember, a day or days. I then withdrew a small sample of the solution, pipetting it into a metal cup and evaporating off the water. I would then take my cup containing my radioactive barium sulfate down to Thaw Hall to use Prof. Halliday's Geiger counter to measure the intensity of the radioactivity. By comparing that intensity with that of a sample of my pure barium sulfate, I would know the amount of sulfate in my cup. It seemed ideal - I would satisfy my interests in both chemistry and physics with my two favorite professors.
Well, I soon realized that radioactivity was not necessarily as thrilling as I had thought. It turned out that I did most of my using of the Geiger counters at night and I learned that Thaw Hall at that time was not only the domain of the physicists but also housed dogs used in medical research. I like to think now that maybe the dogs were used by Jonas Salk in his quest for the polio vaccine but at the time did not even know he existed. So, there I would be, listening to the dogs howling and the Geiger counter's static sound counting the particles emitted by the radioactive sulfur. I did my Geiger counting at night, possibly because the Geiger counters were being used by the physics department during the day. With dogs howling and the late hours, radioactivity was not at all as glamorous or exciting as I had anticipated.
After some time, I had some data on the solubilities at different temperatures but needed to make another batch of barium sulfate to finish the work. I made the second batch and it soon was clear that I had a big problem. When I repeated some measurements on the second batch of barium sulfate, the results were quite different! What indeed was the solubility of barium sulfate at any given temperature? This was my introduction to crystal growth, a field in which I would later spend years of more successful efforts at Bell Labs.
The problem was simple - the sizes of the crystals in one batch must have been inadvertently much larger than the sizes of the crystals in the other batch. I didn't realize at the time that, if you have very finely divided crystals or noncrystalline (amorphous) material, more barium sulfate will dissolve than if you have large crystals. Until the system comes to equilibrium, i.e., the very small crystals grow larger, the measured solubility can vary all over the map. I'm not sure now that I even recognized my problem at the time but fate intervened. Wallace had gotten a grant from the Office of Naval Research. He came to me and said that he knew I probably wouldn't want to do it but he offered me the chance to work on a project that did not involve radioactivity. I may have surprised him with my immediate acceptance of the offer, which meant that I would not get my Master's degree but would have to go directly for my Ph.D. Hey, I had already skipped first grade and 12th grade - why not another skip?
In my next column, hopefully to be posted on or about February 1, I'll discuss the new project, meeting my wife-to-be, the biggest mistake of my scientific career (not meeting my wife, although the two are related) and heading off to Cleveland.
This is jumping the gun, but it's interesting that, this past week or so here in the New York area, much media coverage has been spent on criticisms and recriminations concerning the alleged failures of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Christie (in Florida on vacation) in dealing with the blizzard that hit us. When I went to Cleveland after leaving Pitt there was a blizzard leaving about 27 inches of snow that paralyzed Cleveland. That blizzard killed hundreds of people over some 22 states and the criticisms in the media in Cleveland were just as heated as today's in our New York-New Jersey area. Let's face it. Nature has the upper hand when it comes to weather!
Hopefully, my next column will be posted on or about February 1.
Allen F. Bortrum