From Alaska to Sicily to Retirement
CHAPTER 20 - Winding Down at Bell Labs
All may be well in the world of physics after all. Remember last year's announcement that neutrinos traveling from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to the Gran Sasso lab in Italy arrived there about 60 nanoseconds before a light beam covering the same path? The neutrinos were traveling faster than the speed of light! If true, this violates Einstein's special theory of relativity and would start a revolution in the field of physics. Workers at CERN now report that a loose fiber optic cable connection, when tightened, may account for those 60 nanoseconds. A planned experiment in May, with tightened connections, hopefully will resolve the problem. I'm still betting on Einstein.
Returning to life at Bell Labs, last month I discussed the roller coaster ride that characterized our attempts to commercialize a rechargeable lithium battery, our Faraday cell. We were operating in a new environment, thanks to Bell System breakup. No longer a regulated monopoly, we were just another company trying to make it in the competitive marketplace. In the old Bell Labs, we were required to license our technology and, once a patent application was filed, were encouraged to publish our results. Now it was different. For example, I was invited to give a paper on our work at the 4th International Meeting on Lithium Batteries in Vancouver in May of 1988. As usual, I wrote an internal memorandum prior to giving the paper and in the memorandum I acknowledged all my colleagues in the Faraday project. There were over 20 names mentioned. However, when I cleared the paper for publication, management decided that I should acknowledge no individuals, but simply the "Faraday team", so as not to tip our hand at the size of the effort. It was indeed a different world.
For me personally, the 1980s was an eventful decade. In 1982, Bell Labs instituted a Distinguished Member of Staff category and I was fortunate to be in the first group to get that honor and, as I recall, a $5,000 prize. For many years I had been active in The Electrochemical Society (ECS). In 1980, I was elected Secretary of ECS and served four years from 1980 to1984. As Secretary, I was a member of various committees and was responsible for the day to day operations of the Society. Actually, we had a paid executive, Bud Branneky, who ran the operations but I was responsible for recommending the size of his raises in salary and, among other things, I also instituted a more liberal vacation policy for the employees.
As Secretary, I was chairman of the Society Meeting Committee, which chooses the locations of future national meetings of ECS. I remember leading a decision to cancel a meeting in Dallas, something I would not do today. Probably my most significant act as chairman of that committee was voting to schedule a controversial meeting in Honolulu in 1987. There was considerable skepticism about this venue, our first offshore meeting site. Many were saying that companies would not spring for the added expense of flying to such a distant and exotic location. However, that Honolulu meeting was one of the largest in ECS history and since then several very successful meetings have been held there. In fact, one is scheduled in the fall of this year and cosponsors of that meeting include the Japan Society of Applied Physics, the Korean Electrochemical Society, the Chinese Society of Electrochemistry and the Electrochemistry Division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.
After serving as Secretary, the rest of the 1980s was a mixed bag as far as ECS was concerned. On the plus side, I was made an Honorary Member of the Society. This was a very nice award to receive, placing me in a select group of less than a hundred individuals, including one Thomas Edison. Not that I am or was anywhere near the caliber of that illustrious fellow! In the mid 1980s, I was nominated to run for vice president of ECS, tantamount to running for president, inasmuch as the first of the three VPs always runs unopposed for the presidential slot. I happened to have been on the nominating committee that year and I nominated Fritz Will, who ran against me and won the job by some 40 votes! (Later, I was nominated again and lost by a more substantial margin to Larry Faulkner, later to become President of the University of Texas at Austin.) So much for my political career.
Let's get back to 1988. I mentioned the May meeting in Vancouver in that year. After the meeting, my wife and I took a cruise from Vancouver to Alaska on a Holland American ship. A memorable highlight of the trip was a scary flight from Sitka to Juneau in a tiny plane piloted by a local housewife, who insisted on showing us the various byways between the mountains with all the other little planes carrying out tour's passengers buzzing around us like flies. I was sure there was a whiteout coming into the airport at Juneau. I couldn't see a thing but our gal made a perfect landing.
But the really scary part of the cruise was on the ship returning from Alaska in 30-foot seas while watching the bloody movie "Basic Instinct"! My wife and I were OK, having gotten seasick meds just before hitting the heavy seas. We had been on several cruises but had never experienced a cruise liner being lifted up and crashing down with such violent shuddering of the whole ship. The restrooms were filled with queasy passengers, while some crew members were actually lying on the floor in the main reception area of the ship! The ship's officers were berating them to go down below to close the hatches or whatever they did down there. After leaving the storm, the captain came on the public address system to tell us that we could say to our friends that we had truly been at sea and called our attention with some satisfaction to another cruise ship sailing north into the storm.
In contrast to the rough seas and the calving glaciers we saw in Alaska, it was only about six weeks later that we found ourselves in Sicily in July, with temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit! The occasion was a two-week long NATO Advanced Research Workshop on "Solid State Microbatteries" held at the Ettore Majorana Centre for Scientific Culture in Erice, a walled town situated on a relatively cool mountain top over 2100 feet above sea level overlooking the city of Trapani. My experience in batteries and semiconductors prompted one of the organizers, James Akridge of Eveready, to invite me to give four lectures devoted to an overview of the battery and semiconductor fields.
In Vancouver, I had talked with Akridge, who assured me his wife was going to accompany him to Sicily and would be company for my wife. I also talked with Minko Balkanski, a Frenchman and co-organizer with Akridge of the workshop/course. I expressed my wife's concern about spending two weeks in a small town in Sicily with no knowledge of Italian. Minko assured me that everyone in town spoke English. Well, Akridge's wife did not come to Erice and virtually none of the shop owners or waiters in the restaurants spoke English! My wife would make a daily circuit walking around the town, with the shop owners smiling as she greeted them with "Ciao!", the only word she knew! Fortunately, there were some chances for her to experience other places than Erice. For example, she and John Goodenough's wife managed a shopping trip down the mountain top to Trapani, on the shore of the Mediterranean. (Goodenough was one of the lecturers in the workshop and his name will appear in a later column as a key player in the world of lithium-ion batteries.)
One afternoon, we all went on a bus trip down to the seashore. That day it was over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and some people in Palermo died from the heat! Our bus had big letters on the side indicating it was air conditioned but, if so, our driver never turned the cooling on! We were told by someone that the locals did not approve of artificial cooling. We were never so glad to get back to our cool mountaintop venue, which probably was still over a hundred degrees. Einstein said everything is relative!
The language problem would provide moments of hilarity when we dined with our students and fellow lecturers at the local restaurants. With nobody familiar with Italian, and some students not all that proficient in English, our choices of items from the menus would often be complete surprises to everyone. We became good friends with two of the students, women from Portugal and from Turkey. We still correspond with them over two decades later. The evenings after dinner were generally spent in the courtyard of the Centre enjoying the complimentary Marsala wine on tap and being entertained by some very talented students such as Pierre Adelbert, a terrific jazz pianist and singer, and others whose talents ranged from Bach to Spanish guitar.
The final event of the two weeks in Erice was indeed a memorable one. It was the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Centre and there was a celebratory event in the church in which we held our classes. A nuclear physicist, Antonino Zichichi, was the father of the Centre and was in charge of the proceedings. We and students were all invited to attend. I was quite impressed that outside the church there were a significant number of Carabinieri in colorful uniforms carrying their weapons. They certainly added a decorative touch to the ceremony. The speeches were in either English or Italian, depending on who was speaking. No translations were available.
Zichichi opened the session, speaking in Italian, when a rather striking woman arrived in the hall with an entourage. Zichichi stopped speaking and waited until she was seated, with many in the audience applauding. After acknowledging her presence, he continued his speech and I heard the words "Mafioso" and "assassinado". "Whoa", I thought, "those Carabinieri aren't just for decoration!" It turned out the woman was the widow of Piersanti Mattarella, former President of Sicily, who was gunned down by the Mafia in 1980. Not only was his widow present but Piersanti's brother, Sergio, Minister for Relations with Parliament, was one of the speakers. This was no small affair. There were also three Nobel Prize winners - T. D. Lee of Columbia University, A. Salam of Imperial College, London and K. Siegbahn of Upsala University, all of whom spoke.
At the end of the session there was an elegant buffet. the likes of which I have never seen. Among the various dishes were whole lobsters, which were absolutely delicious! It was a fitting end to an unforgettable two weeks in Sicily. There was, however, a glitch the next morning when we were to take a plane from Palermo to Rome. Whereas it had taken us just an hour to get from the Palermo airport to Erice in the Alpha Romeo driven by a dashing Italian driver, it took us 45 minutes longer in a bus back to the airport and our plane took off while we were standing in line to check our bags! This resulted in a 4-hour wait in the Palermo airport, which unlike our tour buses, was air conditioned, thankfully. In Rome for a couple of days we managed to get in a performance of "Aida" in the outdoor Baths of Caracalla under a full moon - delightful! We had seen the same opera in that venue in 1968 on our first trip to Europe.
After returning home, I spent a lot of time writing up my talks, condensed into a single 39-page paper published in the book "Solid State Microbatteries". Although my four talks were given in the second week of the course, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my "overview" paper was published as the leadoff article in the book.
Back home at Bell Labs, although our hopes of any commercial success with our Faraday cells were fading, I was having some fun with the preparation of our niobium triselenide. One day I was looking through a microscope at some material and spotted an object that looked like a tiny hoop. I then started looking at samples with my scanning electron microscope (SEM) and was blown away. Collaborating with colleague Leo ter Haar, we found a whole bunch of amazing objects that formed in the process of making the compound NbSe3 via a route that involved the intermediate formation of another niobium=selenium compound, Nb2Se9. The latter is a crystalline compound while our niobium triselenide is fibrous. In our samples we found all manner of shapes - "pure" hoops, thick hoops, "tires", "doughnuts", thin cylinders, thick cylinders, "balusters", "garden hose nozzles", Mobius strips (closed hoops that twist in forming), "ball joints", smooth discs, "bottles with small necks", etc., etc. It was amazing. If I had an SEM today, I would love to continue searching for the mechanisms by which these oddities form.
While I was having fun finding these things, our battery world was collapsing. We heard a rumor that a Japanese company was about to announce a rechargeable lithium battery involving manganese oxide. If true, the voltage and the low cost of the manganese oxide would certainly kill our Faraday cell. Things were winding down and Management was beginning to hint at dire times ahead. By the time 1989 rolled around, there were indications that the battery work would be curtailed and/or shift to Dallas. I was offered the opportunity to retire with an attractive financial incentive and, not wanting to accept the possibility of having to transfer to Dallas, I took the offer and retired on March 1, 1989. Our department head, Harry Leamy, did get transferred to Dallas, the only one of us to go there. Eventually, our battery department was no more. The rumored manganese oxide battery did not materialize but another lithium battery was about to make its debut and that would change things forever. More on that next month.
Next column will, hopefully, be posted on or about May 1.
Allen F. Bortrum