More Planets and Two Quick Showers in Grenoble
CHAPTER 18 - Stuttgart and Elsewhere
A plethora of planets. That's what emerges from a January 26 news release from NASA last week announcing the discovery by the Kepler mission team of 11 new planetary systems containing 26 confirmed planets. This almost doubles the number of confirmed planets whose orbits are such that the planets pass between us on Earth and their stars, thus permitting Kepler to observe the dimming of the parent star's light when this occurs. To date, Kepler has found over 60 confirmed planets and more than 2300 candidate planets, all in a patch of sky the report describes as "not much bigger than your fist".
In the announcement I learned a new term, TTV, Transit Timing Variations. TTV makes it easier to confirm the existence of a planet. Take the star Kepler 33, which has five planets, all of which circle the star in orbits that are closer to the star than any of our planets are to our Sun. These planets are so close to each other that through their gravitational push or pull on each others' orbits, the planets speed up or slow down enough that Kepler can detect the changes in transit times, making it easier to confirm the existence of a planet, or planets. So much for my what has become almost a monthly fix for my addiction to anything related to space and our universe.
Let's get back to the world of batteries, the focus of my work at Bell Labs for the latter half of my career there. As I noted in earlier columns, most of my efforts in the Battery Development Department at Bell Labs were on the preparation and properties of the compound niobium triselenide, NbSe3, as a cathode material for lithium rechargeable batteries. Why was this compound so attractive as an electrode material? First, it was electrically conducting. With many cathode materials, a conducting additive has to be mixed in with the active electrode material to make the electrode conducting. This cuts down the amount of active material, and hence the energy, that can be packed into a battery . Another advantage of the niobium triselenide was that it was of a fibrous nature and was kind of like Velcro. We didn't have to add any binder material to make it stick together. Adding binder material also decreases the amount of active material, and energy, that can be packed into a battery.
One of the delights of working at the old Bell Labs, may it rest in peace, was that you could work with others outside your own departmental or divisional areas. I especially enjoyed working with various members of the Research area, notably Don Murphy, Frank Di Salvo and Jim Auborn. Murphy and Di Salvo were working on other cathode materials for lithium batteries. Working with Murphy, we published a paper on another niobium selenide compound of possible use in lithium batteries, However, NbSe3 was still the most promising material. Jim Auborn would initiate me into the world of computer programming, which we'll talk about in a future column.
Well, our work in the 1970s on the niobium selenide compounds was attracting attention and we had achieved a modicum of success in cycling rechargeable lithium cells. I was invited to give a talk in June, 1979 at a conference, the "VI International Conference on Solid Compounds of Transition Elements", at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, West Germany. (Niobium is a transition element.) My director, Frank Biondi, was reluctant to let me go but Hans Queisser, who invited me, said to Frank, "If Nevill Mott, a Nobel Prize winner, can go certainly you can send Bortrum (actually, he used my real name)." Frank acquiesced and my wife and I went to Stuttgart. In an earlier column, I wrote about my weird experiences at a conference in Grenoble; later, you'll see that Grenoble again comes into the picture.
It turned out that this Max Planck Institute (there are many Max Planck Institutes) was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its founding when we arrived and that evening there was a celebration involving fireworks. My wife and I were horrified to find ourselves standing in a crowd in a courtyard only a few feet away from where they were igniting rather impressive displays. The anniversary was also marked in one of the sessions of the conference with an address, in German, by the mayor of Stuttgart.
This wasn't just any old mayor. It was Lord Mayor Manfred Rommel, son of the Desert Fox, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who led the fight against us in North Africa in World War II. The elder Rommel was respected as a worthy opponent and was forced to commit suicide when he allegedly was involved in a plot to kill Hitler late in the war. A touching account by Manfred of his father's last hour can be found on EyeWitness to History.com. Mayor Rommel later became friends with sons of both General George Patton and of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, two of his father's prime adversaries, according to Wikipedia 's interesting account of the mayor's life. He was a very popular politician and was reelected mayor a number of times with majorities of as high as 70 percent, something our current politicians would die for. Reading his bio, I wish I had understood what he had to say when he addressed us in German.
At the conference I felt somewhat out of my league hobnobbing with high powered physicists like Mott. However, at the meeting I met Jean Mercier, who lived in Grenoble, which was on my itinerary after the Stuttgart meeting. I was stopping in Grenoble to visit the lab of a researcher on lithium batteries, Michel Armand. (Searching the Web, I find that Armand gave a paper at a French meeting just last year.) Mercier suggested that he make a hotel reservation for us and that he would pick us up at the train station when we arrived in Grenoble.
My wife and I took the train from Stuttgart but something happened on the way and here my memory gets fuzzy. As I recall, we had some sort of breakdown involving a partial trip on a bus but whatever it was, we arrived at the station in Grenoble, both of us drenched in sweat and badly needing a shower. But where was our friend Jean? It turned out he had a flat tire and was about an hour late picking us up. When he finally arrived we put our bags in the car and he drove us to our hotel. It was right across the street from the station! We could have easily walked, wheeling our bags. Mercier let us off, saying he and his wife would be back to pick us up for dinner in about an hour.
Well, we checked in and headed to our room, which turned out to be easily the worst room we've ever encountered and my wife, justifiably, refused to stay there! What to do? We checked out, hailed a cab and said to the driver, "Take us to a hotel." He did and they had a room. Unbelievably, we both managed to take the fastest showers of our lives, hop on a streetcar and get back to the original hotel just in time to greet our host driving up in his car. After meeting his wife Genevieve, I had the unpleasant task of telling Mercier that the hotel he chose for us was a dump! He was quite surprised at the description of our room and said that was the hotel he typically used for guests. Fortunately, he was not insulted by our critique of his choice of lodging and we had a very pleasant dinner. After over 30 years, we are still in touch and he once stayed overnight at our home here in New Jersey.
After Grenoble, there was still a bit of strangeness left. We took the train to Brussels, and the next day I got up very early to catch a train to Eindhoven in The Netherlands to visit the Philips lab there. I was scheduled to meet with a researcher who was well known in the battery field. It turned out nobody had told me that he had transferred to another location quite a while earlier. So, when I arrived I was put in the hands of a poor fellow in a completely different field whose only contact with batteries was a paper he showed me that was written by the fellow I was slated to see. It was a painful day for both of us, I'm sure. At one point, he even took me outside for an extended walk around the grounds, pointing out the cows grazing in a field nearby. A bucolic scene, but not what I would have done to pass the time had I known my desired host had moved.
I was exhausted from having to get up so early to catch the train and I caught a cold, not a good thing with flights to Ireland and then back home on the schedule. I didn't realize that my ears had stopped up thanks to the cold and was amazed at how silently the traffic went by on the streets of Dublin. I had heard of how gentle the Irish were and thought that quiet "swooshing" of the traffic on the streets of Dublin was quite remarkable. It wasn't until I got home that I found I had an ear infection requiring penicillin. For years, I had been prescribed penicillin at the first sign of a cold or flu, a common practice in the days before the downside of overtreatment with antibiotics was recognized. This time, I learned that I had become allergic to the drug when my testicles turned a shocking beet red color!
Well, so much for another intriguing trip to Europe. I'll cut this short to tend to matters related to my wife's latest medical problem. A procedure she underwent to alleviate pain in her back and legs turned out to have resulted in back spasms and the worst pain she's ever experienced! She's spent over a week in the hospital and is now starting a third week in a rehab facility. It hasn't been a good start to the new year.
Hopefully, she'll be back home soon and my next column should be posted on or about March 1.
Allen F. Bortrum