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A Physicist's Survival Guide

Malcom W. P. Strandberg

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

82 Larchwood Drive
Cambridge Massachusetts 02138 USA

First Edition completed November 2004
This Edition Printed, July 4, 2006

Is the Nobel Prize acquisition a spectator sport?

I have always felt that the expositions of the life of physicists and biographies of physicists are lacking in reality and usefulness. First, because they avoid discussing the visceral response to peer pressure or the siren call of society to enter the publicity spot light. Second, they avoid the topic of how to extract from the economic system the money needed to sustain the life style one chooses. And third, it avoids trying to assess how large a factor competitivity is and how it is managed.

As for myself, I had settled these questions early in my life. A recent physics Nobel Prize winner talked about the anxiety he underwent during the week of the physics Nobel prize announcement. It had been so for many years and was based of research he had published 30 years ago. But it is not only the chosen who have the years of waiting anxiously. There are many not chosen who go through life hoping that some circumstance will make a choice bit of their work worthy in the minds of the Anointed Twelve in Stockholm. It is such a waste of hormonal resources. And such a malicious skewing of careers. Feynman had wanted to reject the Nobel Prize. Given th commonly agreed upon false awards of the Prize, and the rules`laid down by the Nobel Foundation there is little reason not to believe that unjust awards have not been made in the past.

I remember the superconductivity conference at which people were talking about revving up work on the Nobel metals. It was funny and sad at the same time. I had early in my career decided I needed neither the luminosity a Nobel provided nor the prize money. I was happy with the satisfaction I and my students derived from our work. And I could make the prize money in a much more controllable manner; by selling my equity in a company I could start. So it was my banker who eventually awarded me my more than noble prize when he recommended a client to buy a microwave instruments company I had started. Anyway, that was more in keeping with the MIT as I had known it. When I joined MIT the alpha males were the consultants to industry, and the owners of businesses. It was only in later years that the Nobel laureate was sought by the administration at MIT. Given the commonly agreed upon false awards and the restrictive rules laid down by the Nobel Foundation, there is little reason not to believe that unjust awards have been made. After all, Richard Feynman did want to refuse the Nobel Prize, but the media announcement was made before he had a chance to do so. The National Academy of Science he did resign from as a sitting member.

I started consulting after the war. Jim Fisk was making visits to MIT for recruiting purposes for Bell Labs. He soon turned that activity over to Bill Shockley. I met with both of them and I discussed things like putting a grid in a germanium diode with Shockley. I visited Bell Labs and stayed with Bill during the visit. After dinner at his home we were washing the dinner dishes and I reached for a glass tumbler to dry it. Leave it, Bill said, It'll get dirtier than it was before you started drying it. I got a good job offer at Bell Labs from Bill early in 1947. The next time I saw him I told him I had decided to stay at MIT. My income from consulting made the offers equal financially, I told him. I thought so, he replied. Given the personality conflicts within the Bell Labs transistor group I doubt I would have had much to do with the invention of the point contact transistor that happened in December of that year. Shockley, in isolation, finally put the grid in the diode and invented the junction transistor the following January. I was able to maintain an amiable relationship with Shockley for the rest of his life with my remaining distant from him, however.

The HUAC hearings became active in 1947 and Senator Joseph McCarthy led a second wave of hearings in 1952. I had no reason to believe I would be involved in the hearings but other professors were. A professor with a laboratory next to mine quietly disappeared after 15 years at MIT during which time he had supervised 90 theses. I realized my financial foundations were my own responsibility. I asked the laboratory director of the laboratory that supported my work if MIT would protect me if I was investigated. I had Soviet contacts at that time. No, was his quick response. I had no blemish on my record that would lead to an investigation nor was there any likelihood that I would be terminated as a result of an unlikely investigation. But the response made real to me the tenuous nature of my income from MIT. It emphasized the importance of my interest in having a stake in a commercial venture. Consulting was something for which you were paid by the day. I needed to develop equity. I continued consulting. The alpha of alpha consultants at MIT, Warren K. Lewis, decided I was someone his Texas contacts could benefit from, so I spent time traveling to Texas. On occasion I would cross paths with Wigner when we rode from town to the company plant. And in other contacts I met other high luminosity physicists. I must have been doing something right. Through the years I have been having fun collecting data on the jobs the greats of mathematics and physics took on in the Summer, and whatever, that yielded the necessary patents and wherewithal to sustain their chosen life style on a university salary.

Then about competitivity, what is there to say? I never wanted to compete with anyone other than myself in my work. Art Roberts met me at a meeting and said that his group at Iowa had started competing with us. Oh, Art, I replied, You never will compete with us. After saying it I realized that it sounded bad so I tried to smooth it over, and we laughed at the whole drama.

The fact is, there has been a change in attitude over the last 60 years. When I joined the Physical Society there were 3,000 members, I think. In that time the physics world I dealt with was generous minded and supportive. Over the years the membership climbed to 50,000 and the atmosphere became meaner. The search for research funds became a zero sum game. The space you used in publishing in journals was not available to others. You once could sit on the lawn of the NBS property during the Washington meeting and talk about matters of interest or concern with its director, E. U. Condon, say.

For whatever reason one wants to assign to the act, we were actively open and supportive of others who thought we could help them. We entertained visitors from other laboratories for periods of as much as a year. They carried out research of their own choice using our laboratory facilities and MIT's resources. I recommend this attitude. It does make sleeping restfully much easier to accomplish. The dreadful story of the road to the double helix is excused by noting the age of the principals and the fact that their pre frontal lobes had not yet developed. Someone so-called won the competition but the cost in burned hormones and anxieties is not measured.

The scenario of the quantum mechanical maser amplifier is a testament to my position on how to manage competitivity. The center of ammonia maser research in the beginning was in the laboratory of Charles H. Townes at Columbia University.

As far as Townes as a competitor goes, his first paper on ammonia in 1946 had a couple elements that made us decide he was no threat as a competitor. One was the assertion that the fine structure Bill Good had seen on the lines did not exist. In fact we had submitted a thorough study of the fine structure and its explanation the same time that Townes' paper appeared. The second item was a mistake he made in computing the line intensities. The dipole moment must be projected to the space fixed electric field, using the direction cosine matrix elements, and he had neglected to do that, though he caught the error in the galley proofs. Obviously no threat there as a competitor.

Townes' general message on his efforts was that he struggled against great odds. One was the unwillingness to believe that coherent stimulated emission from a quantum system is possible that Townes said Rabi and others displayed, I really have difficulty understanding. I knew Rabi from the MIT Radiation Laboratory days. I was a member of his Advanced Development Group. We had close contacts there and he visited my laboratory in the early Fifties and during the visit he tried to sell me on using beams and state selection, one of his old tools of the trade. I told him I saw no need to do so for I was getting all the data I needed with the precision I needed with the apparatus I was using. He might have opposed Townes' work on the ammonia beam device because he thought Townes was wasting resources on ineffective work. But I can't see him opposing the work because the basic principles were flawed.

In contrast, my own work on quantum mechanical amplifiers was supported financially and institutionally. My colleagues listened to colloquia I gave on the subject. My department head, Ned Frank, would encourage me when we met, saying, paraphrased, Go get 'em, Tiger.

The competitive barrier that I faced was one set by utilitarian needs. Townes told me about his idea on an ammonia emission device for a source of electromagnetic energy in the far infra-red. It could have been at a Spring meeting of the APS in Washington D.C. when we were outdoors, alone. I didn't say much in reply because I thought that he had been blinded by the emptiness in the tables of radiation sources in the far infra-red that he dealt with as a member of the Joint Services committee on electromagnetic sources. If one only wanted a source of radiation there were other media that would be much more convenient with which to work. For a quantum mechanical amplifier to be really useful one needed theoretical guidance on possible amplifier noise figure, and guidance on the possible gain-bandwidth product a it could have. If one understood the noise figure and the gain-bandwidth of a quantum mechanical amplifier then one would truly have an invention, something with known properties that could be designed for any particular application. In a similar manner the 2005 Physics Nobel Prize elicited the comment that you don't need Roy Glauber's theory of the quantum properties of light to invent a laser, but you do need it to understand the properties of a laser.

It is a measure of my belief that this is the necessary structure of the foundation technology to achieve a useful quantum mechanical amplifier that I gave lectures and colloquia at any chance I was offered. I wrote papers describing the computation of the noise figure of a device. I tried to motivate other creative people to help with the invention of a steady state method of polarizing a paramagnetic crystal into an active emission state. I did prod my colleagues to develop an example of a maximum gain bandwidth quantum mechanical cavity amplifier. An active paramagnetic crystal has a lumped circuit representation consisting of a negative resistance and a negative reactance. If one matches the reactance with an equal positive reactance then the resistance would have unlimited bandwidth. Unfortunately, there is a series reactance that couples radiation into the crystal, and that coupling prevents matching out the reactance that simply. However, one can still optimize the pass band of the signal cavity and the paramagnetic crystal in the form of a two cavity device. The description of this approach was reported in our Tenth Quarterly Progress Report in February 1960. Within a few months I was made aware that this technology was being used as the basis for the technology for commercial amplifiers.

James Gordon built an ammonia amplifier at 12 mm wavelength. He carried out research for a 1949 senior thesis when he was at MIT as an undergraduate. Jerrold Zacharias supervised the thesis which had the title, A low background scintillation counter for gamma rays. In the early 50's he visited my laboratory and later reported1 that we were helpful. At the time of his visit we were engaged in large flux molecular beam research using crinkle foil sources that Jerrold Zacharias has pioneered. I feel sure we discussed the properties of this source with Gordon and since Zacharias was supplying the world with the foil I think he probably gave Gordon some also. I remember his visit but I am vague about the details. That source and the quardupole separator of W. Paul were essential parts of the ammonia maser Gordon coaxed into operation a year or more after his visit. The first Letter in Physical Review announcing the operation of the maser in 1954 gave no attribution for the crinkle foil beam source or the quadrupole field separator electrode. The second paper in 1955 does give references, however. In his 1983 interview Gordon is vague when talking about the crinkle foil, attributing it to Powell, meaning W. Paul, I assume. Physicists tend to express gratitude secretly.

There remains to be said something about mentoring. Unfortunately I do not know how to attract great mentoring. I was certainly helped early in my career by generous minded, and helpful people 2. A young physicist should try to attract that kind of support, and to be aware of exploitative relationships and avoid them. I know others have had success requesting benefits from their administrators. I tried it once and was told by an angry department head, You don't ask for that. For whatever reason I was awarded the benefit the next term. How I was awarded the honorary fellow membership in learned societies is a mystery. In fact, it was not until I received a letter from the secretary of one society asking me, pretty please, to write to them an acceptance that I discovered I was even involved in the process.

Then there is the Physics Mafia. They more or less run institutional physics. I have no advice on how to deal with them. A Sicilian friend recently told me that they often talk of my taste in research and for my refusing connections with the Physics Mafia. Is that testimonial not worth the price of abstinence? So a young physicist will have to make a decision based on other counsel whether to court institutional physics and enjoy the benefits derived from that connection.

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Malcom W. P. Strandberg, Email: mwpstrATmitDOTedu
Essay installed 2006-07-04