Memories Updated and Crabs Trading Up
CHAPTER 22 - Following Up
May was a month marked by reminders of my past. For example, last month I finished my column telling of the loss of half my blood and an intensive care stay in December, 1990. An endoscopy indicated the cause was an inflammation in the duodenum, i.e., duodenitis. I was encouraged to boost my iron intake and went on a binge of eating steak and all sorts of good stuff. Result - my cholesterol shot up to 320! During my recuperation at home after leaving the hospital, when I was not supposed to drive, my wife awoke me one morning with terrible pain. Of course I drove her promptly to our urgent care facility. She passed the kidney stones without surgery. The month ended on New Year's Eve and another scare. With eyes open or closed, I saw jagged streaks of black and white light. It was an optical migraine, my first. If you are unfamiliar with the optical migraine, in my case at least, there is no headache - just the jagged, lightning-like black and white flashes.
Would you believe that, shortly after finishing the final editing of the preceding paragraph, I noticed that I was having a problem reading some of the print on my computer screen, which seemed fuzzy in some areas. Sure enough, in another minute or so, I'm seeing white and black jagged lines - an optical migraine lasting about 5-10 minutes! The power of suggestion? I typically only have these optical migraines three or four times a year, if that.
In last month's column, I also talked about working with John Van Dine, who, in 1989, started a company (now called SAGE Electrochromics) with the objective of manufacturing so-called "smart windows" that lighten and darken on command. I mentioned that the best thing I did for SAGE was to suggest hiring Vijay Parkhe, a newly minted PhD from Rutgers. Well, it's been over two decades since those early days. Van Dine moved SAGE to Minnesota and grew the company to the point where a manufacturing plant was built and smart windows have been sold by SAGE. Over the years, a number of private and corporate investors, notably the French company Saint- Gobain, invested in SAGE. After posting my column, I learned that Saint-Gobain just announced that it is actually going to buy 100 percent of SAGE, which will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint-Gobain! The news prompted a call from Vijay, who has been working at Applied Materials in California for most of those two decades after leaving SAGE. It was my first contact with him in many years.
I find it rather ironic that my prime employer, Bell Labs, is now part of a French-dominated company, Alcatel Lucent, which pays me my pension. Now SAGE, which in effect was my prime employer as a consultant for a couple of years in my retirement, is now or will also be a French company. I have more than a passing interest in this merger in that part of my compensation from SAGE was in stock, which to this point I have not been able to convert into any monetary reward. However, I'm assuming that, when one company buys another company, the shareholders of the acquired company do get compensation? Hopefully, my stock will be worth some actual cash.
In last month's column, I had just retired from Bell Labs (by that time it was called AT&T Bell Labs) and described my activities following my retirement, such as the consulting for SAGE. However, I've spent a lot of time this past month reading about the glory days of Bell Labs in the recently published book by Jon Gertner titled "The Idea Factory. Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation". Gertner does a wonderful job of chronicling the origins and growth of Bell Labs into arguably the premier research and development laboratory in the world. After reading the 400-page book from cover to cover, I appreciate more than ever the fact that I had spent over 36 years in a truly unique setting populated with so many very talented, brilliant, and often complicated, individuals. Gertner's book concentrates on the backgrounds and achievements of some of the presidents of Bell Labs such as Mervin Kelly and Bill Baker and scientific superstars such as Claude Shannon (information theory), William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen (the transistor) and John Pierce (satellite communications).
I strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in how science and scientists really work and how human and weird some of them can be. Gertner spends a good bit of space on the wartime efforts of Bell Labs in World War II. I found a couple of things about Bill Shockley's involvement fascinating. He was associated with the submarine warfare effort and our planes were having trouble sinking German submarines when they surfaced. The bombs our planes were dropping weren't doing the trick. Shockley found they were set to explode at a depth of 70 feet. He recommended 30 feet and our airplanes became much more effective against surfaced U-boats. Shockley also was apparently very troubled at that time and a sealed note intended for his wife, but never delivered to her, indicated that he had flirted with suicide by Russian roulette! Fortunately, the bullet was not in the chamber that he fired!
Gertner tells the story of Morry Tanenbaum and Cal Fuller coming up with the first silicon transistor, a story I've mentioned in an earlier column. Until that time, most of the work had been on germanium but when Jack Morton, head of transistor development, heard the news while on a trip in Europe, he canceled the rest of trip and came home to order that all future work should be on silicon. I happen to have had lunch with Morry just a couple of weeks ago. The week before, I had lunch with a group that included Mike Noll, another former Bell Labs guy. I hadn't met Noll before and found that he had co-edited a much smaller volume titled "Bell Labs Memoirs. Voices of Innovation" in 2011 for the IEEE History Center. Another Bell Labs fellow, Bob Kerwin, was kind enough to lend me his copy of the book, which I also found most interesting, particularly where it concerned William O. Baker, president of Bell Labs for much of the time I was there.
Bill Baker was a most interesting guy and is given much of the credit for the success of Bell Labs during his time in office. Just over a year ago in my column of June 2011, I mentioned Baker , who asked me in my job interview what I would do if I were president of Bell Labs after I had stated my dissatisfaction with my management at NACA. Baker was known for his outstanding memory and knowledge of what each person was doing. I probably have written about my experience with that memory but it fits in here. Shortly after I retired, I still had a desk at Bell Labs and one day while waiting for the bus I saw Baker, who had also retired, walking out carrying two briefcases. In my 36 years at Bell Labs, I had only talked to Bill a couple of times, and then very briefly. As he walked by I said, "Bill, I see you're still busy, even in retirement." Bill looked rather puzzled and I thought, "He doesn't know who I am." Then he looked at me and said, "You should be proud that some of your work on semiconductors contributed to your school, the University of Pittsburgh, which is now wiring up their campus for the computer age." And he walked away - vintage Baker!
Baker was an extremely influential man in Washington, a confidant with several presidents and one who turned down more than once the chance to be scientific advisor to the president. He shunned publicity, drove an old car and was very secretive. According to Gertner, nobody at Bell Labs ever visited his home and when he died in 2005 his burial was private - no Bell Labs members attended. Which made one of the memoirs in the Noll book even more fascinating to me. The memoir was by "Duke" Dorsi, a glassblower I knew and sometimes used to make some of my glassware at Bell Labs. Dorsi describes how he and Bill Baker used to go woodcock hunting in the evenings after work. I was utterly shocked to read that Baker was a hunter. But perhaps I shouldn't have been. Baker was raised in an area known as Quaker Neck on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My mother was also born in the Eastern Shore region of Maryland and the rural surroundings would be conducive to hunting.
Back to my memoirs. After retiring from Bell Labs, my wife and I were able to spend a month or two every year down on Marco Island for quite a number of years. I wrote many columns down there, a favorite topic being what I found walking very early in the morning on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. We haven't been down to Florida in several years now and I miss those walks on the beach. I enjoyed collecting shells and tried to obey the law prohibiting collecting anything that was alive. Sometimes I would pick up an interesting shell, only to find it occupied by a crab. Naturally, I was fascinated by an article titled "Life Is a Shell Game" by Ivan Chase in the June 2012 Scientific American. Chase is an emeritus professor at Stony Brook University.
In the article, Chase tells of an incident that occurred in 1986 during one of his early morning walks, wading into a shallow tide pool on Long Island in New York; he describes what happened as one of the happiest moments in his life as a researcher. While in the pool, Chase dropped a snail shell into the water. Pretty soon, a hermit crab ambled up and examined the empty shell with its claws and, deciding it would upgrade its digs, pulled itself out of its old haunt and inserted itself into the empty snail shell and walked away, leaving its old shell behind. But that was not what made chase happy - it was what happened only a few minutes later. Another hermit crab came along, saw the shell discarded by the first crab and, after, suitable examination, abandoned its shell to move into the discarded shell. And, you guessed it, about ten minutes later a third crab happens by, notices the second crab's discard and it too abandons its old habitat for the more promising abode! Why was Chase, who directs Stony Brook's Laboratory for the Study of Social Organization, so happy? He was the first person to observe an animal making use of a so-called "vacancy chain", defined as "an organized method of exchanging resources in which every individual benefits by claiming a more desirable possession abandoned by another individual."
After Chase's initial observations, other researchers set out to study vacancy chains in other crab and aquatic species and compare their vacancy chain results with those for our own species. For example, we humans use vacancy chains when one of us buys a bigger house, thus freeing up our smaller house for someone else to upgrade from an even smaller house to our former abode, etc. But, recalling my beach walks, I was more interested in some other findings on crab behaviors, notably one that involves murder! I never thought of snails as predatory creatures but apparently there is a species of predatory snail that likes to dine on other snails. This predator actually goes up to its prey and drills a hole in the prey's shell with its tongue! It then injects some sort of digestive potion into the shell and pulls the poor target snail out of the shell.
All this takes about an hour, during which time hermit crabs, attracted by the scent of stuff released by the injured snail, have gathered in the vicinity. As soon as the snail shell is empty, a crab dives in - no careful inspection this time. It's first come first served. And the vacancy chain process goes quickly with each crab making quick decisions based only on what they see with those funny looking eyes. Even more impressive to me, in some cases researchers have found what they call synchronous vacancy chains. The hermit crabs will line up in order of decreasing size, with each positioned to jump into the next larger shell when the vacancy chain is initiated! These little guys don't have very big brains but they've got the vacancy chain bit down pat. Were I ever to go back down to Marco Island, I would certainly try to pay closer attention to the little critters scurrying around at my feet.
Next column will be posted, hopefully, on or about July 1.
Allen F. Bortrum