Physics alum shares details and reflections from his career path
Part 1. Drew and the University of New Mexico (UNM)
In the Autumn of 1956 I was a freshman physics student at Drew and John Ollom (straight out of Harvard) was the new physics professor on campus (there was only one such back then). In those days most of the freshman physics majors didn’t have calculus in high school, so Dr. Ollom used a physics textbook by Gilbert that used only algebra but passed the appropriate calculus-like limits when it was necessary to get correct answers (like the factor of half in the expression for kinetic energy). Also, I took first year calculus from Dr. Isaac Battin in the math department while taking physics from Ollom in the physics department.
Dr. Ollom took over the Physics Department at Drew from Walter Glass. During Glass’ tenure as head of Drew’s Physics Department he and a student built an actual nuclear reactor. I never saw the reactor, but I did see pictures of it. Both Glass and the student were also in the pictures.
Back in those days at Drew, the physics curriculum consisted of two semesters of general physics, two semesters of modern physics, two semesters of electricity and magnetism, two semesters of classical mechanics, a semester of optics, and a semester of thermodynamics. In our senior year we also had a semester seminar about various topics in physics. The corresponding courses in mathematics for physics majors were a semester of trigonometry, a semester of college algebra, three semesters of calculus, a semester of ordinary differential equations (ODE), two semesters of advanced calculus, two semesters of complex variables, a semester of vector calculus, and a semester of various topics in mathematics. Back then when you graduated from Drew with a major in physics and a minor in mathematics, you had a pretty good foundation in the physical sciences and mathematics.
As an undergraduate I was an indifferent student and managed to graduate with a average grade just slightly under a B. There was just too much else going on at Drew, and I became heavily involved in extracurriculars: four years of varsity soccer, one year of varsity baseball, one year of intramural softball, Green Key Club, Varsity D Club, Baldwin Hall Council representative, Baldwin Hall Vice President, and Student Council Vice President. Social life on campus was vibrant, and I indulged heavily in it.
Then, after graduation from Drew in 1960, I went to the University of New Mexico to get a master’s degree in physics. I chose UNM because it was about 100 miles from Los Alamos where the first nuclear bombs that ended WWII were developed; and after I got my M.S., I wanted to work there.
I was seven years old in 1945 when the U.S. dropped one type of nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and another type on Nagasaki. I knew that these bombs had something to do with Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc2, even though I had no idea what that equation meant. I was fascinated by the fact that physics could win wars and, I hoped, could keep the peace. Also, I had been brought up on Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Brick Bradford (less well known than Buck and Flash, but Brick had a time machine) in the comic strips and Buck on the radio.
Buck Rogers was a kind of swashbuckling, rocket ship pilot in the 25th Century who had all sorts of adventures in a world of highly developed science. Buck was given a “side kick” to help him successfully navigate this advanced scientific world. That “side kick” was none other than Dr. Huer, a physicist who often times used physics to get Buck out of many a jam. I strongly identified with Dr. Huer and wanted to be just like him when I grew up – a physicist!
At the time I was also strongly influenced by something Edward Teller said (even though at the time I had no idea who Edward Teller was, except that I knew that he was a physicist). Teller said something to the effect that science should be used in the national defense. It was wartime, my father was in the Army, and so Teller’s statement resonated strongly with the young scientist in me. I had no idea at the time but in the coming years Dr. Teller would personally have an effect on my physics career!
Meanwhile, at UNM out in Albuquerque in 1960 I was having a very rough time with my first year graduate studies in physics. It was the penalty I was paying for not having been a better physics student at Drew. But Drew had given me a solid foundation in physics and math; so I persevered and eventually succeeded in getting my Master’s Degree at UNM.
My academic journey at UNM, though, was difficult and had many twists and turns. First, I was given a TA and taught an undergraduate physics lab. Then I got promoted to a RA and worked in the research labs supporting various professors’ scientific investigations. I, however, was a complete and hopeless disaster in the lab. At Drew there was no research going on when I was there, so I had absolutely no experience in doing research lab work. Heck, I didn’t even know which end of a screwdriver to pick up. And, there I was, in the physics department of a large research university as a RA. I was lost.
While I performed my tasks moderately well, I also had some colossal disasters. The head of the physics department once snarled at me saying, “You have probably just ruined a $10,000 experiment!” Fortunately, I hadn’t ruined that experiment, and it even turned out to be one of the better experiments in that specific series of experiments. I realized then that I just wasn’t cut out for laboratory research work. Then the laser was invented! It saved my graduate career at UNM.
For some reason (which is still not really clear to me to this day) I was asked to set up a laser laboratory in UNM’s Research Center, which I did. Then I performed a series of laser experiments which I used as the basis for my Master’s thesis; and viola, I had my M.S.!
But, I must back up here to the end of my first year at UNM. While starting very badly for me, that year ended on an uptick. In the Spring I suddenly realized that the academic year was coming to an close and that my money would be going away until the Fall. I was 2000 miles from home, and I essentially had no funds. I had to get a Summer job.
So, I went over to the UNM employment office where corporations came to interview students for jobs after their graduations. I looked over the jobs in despair. It was evident that I would be driving an ice cream truck for the Summer. But my girlfriend at the time noticed that the U.S. Navy at Kirtland Air Force Base (which was right there in Albuquerque) needed a Master’s degree level physicist. I told my girlfriend that I had seen the posting for that position but that I didn’t yet have my master’s degree. Her reply was, “So what! You’re going to get one, so go talk to them.”
Well, I did just that. I borrowed a friend’s bicycle (I was quite graduate student poor at the time), rode the three or four miles out to Kirtland and interviewed for the job. I must have done quite well in the interview because they hired me on the spot. The reason that they liked me, I think, was because they were looking for someone to work on heat conduction problems; and, luckily, I knew something about them. My knowledge about heat conduction problems came mostly from my Drew physics and math classes, so I was able to have an intelligent discussion with the Navy folks about the heat conduction equation and Bessel functions necessary to solve them. They were impressed.
Part 2. The Naval Weapons Evaluation Facility (NWEF) and Los Alamos
I started working for the Navy (at the Naval Weapons Evaluation Facility, NWEF) while working on my master’s degree; and I kept on working for them after I graduated with that degree. It was a very interesting job with lots of different projects, most of them highly classified, on which I could work. Eventually, I ended up working on a applied nuclear physics project that involved that involved working with the Los Alamos (then known as Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, or LASL) on these problems.
To do this, the Navy flew me up to Los Alamos once a week to work in its famous T Division, where many of the geniuses from the Manhattan Project still worked. For instance, Stan Ulam’s office was just down the hall from where I worked. I never met him though because he was always at the University of Colorado every time that I was up to the “Hill”, as Los Alamos was locally called. But I did meet some scientists at Los Alamos (Carson Mark for one) who were on the “chase planes” when the “atomic” bombs were dropped on Japan.
I would always fly up to Los Alamos because it was just too far away from Albuquerque by road and took way too long to get up there by driving. The airplane in which I flew (a five seat, two engine Cessna) was nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” because of the rough conditions sometimes experienced when flying over the deserts and mountains between Albuquerque and Los Alamos. The “Vomit Comet” was a commercial “air taxi” connecting these two places.
In spite of sometimes experiencing rough flying conditions, I always enjoyed these flights, and upon occasion (when I was the only passenger) the pilot would let me fly the plane. Once, over Santo Domingo Pueblo (a “reservation” for some of the Pueblo native Americans), the pilot urged me to fly the plane around in circles and also to vary our altitude while doing so. The Pueblo residents below must have thought that whoever was flying that airplane had completely lost his mind.
John Ollom told me about some of his adventures up at Los Alamos when he was there (I think that he was in the Army). Years later, I too experienced some of the same things that Dr. Ollom had experienced while he was at Los Alamos. Dr. Ollom once told me that while he was there he was called on several times to help forest fight fires in the surrounding mountains.
Well, one time when I was returning to Albuquerque on the “Vomit Comet”, we were asked by radio to investigate a smoke plume that was rising out of one of the canyons in the Jemez Mountains. Well, flying up mountain canyons looking for fires is quite tricky, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Almost all of the “suits” (probably all distinguished physicists) in the back seats, however, were quite frightened. Other times while returning to Albuquerque from Los Alamos the pilot would fly through clouds in order to “wash” the plane. I don’t think, though, that Dr. Ollom ever experienced that one.
While all of this was exciting and fun, the work that I was doing for the Navy, both at Kirtland Air Force Base and at Los Alamos, involved challenging physics and mathematics, as well as computer simulations; and I learned a lot on the job. Big digital computers were brand new to science, but both Kirtland AFB and Los Alamos had the biggest, newest, fastest computers available anywhere.
When I first went to work for the Navy, I discovered equations that described the work I was doing; but these equations had no analytical solutions (except in special cases). This prompted me to learn numerical analysis and computer programming. The combination of the physics work that I was doing coupled with numerical analysis and computers opened a whole new world to me. I could now produce results for the Navy that were critical for the national defense.
While I first started working on an IBM 704 and a Bendix G-15, at Kirtland AFB, the Air Force quickly acquired a CDC 6600. At this time the CDC 6600 was absolutely the greatest computer around anywhere. Los Alamos, of course, also had a CDC 6600. Los Alamos gave me one of their neutron transport codes which I was able to run both at Los Alamos and at Kirtland. I was doing physics, mathematics, and computer coding that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Working up at Los Alamos, however, made me realize that if I wanted to continue to do significant work in the scientific defense community, I would have to get a Ph.D. So, I applied to the doctoral program at the Department of Applied Science (DAS) in the University of California at Davis. Little did I know that this department was founded by Edward Teller, the “co-father” of the hydrogen bomb (the other “co-father” was Stan Ulam) and that Teller was still active in the department. After its founding, DAS was reverently referred to as “Teller Tech”.
Soon after I applied to DAS, I got a phone call, “Dr. Teller wants to talk to you. We are sending you a plane ticket. Please meet with Dr. Teller at his home in Berkeley, California on such and such a date.” I was scared out of my mind, terrified really! But I went to the interview anyway.
Part 3. My Interview with Dr. Teller
I flew from Albuquerque to San Francisco, then took a shuttle helicopter to downtown Oakland where the helicopter did a somewhat tricky landing on the top deck of a seven story parking garage (landing on this garage was later discontinued because it was thought to be too dangerous!). The helicopter then flew me on to the Berkeley heliport located on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. From there I took a taxi up to Dr. Teller’s house on Hawthorne Terrace, which is just north of the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) campus.
Dr. Teller’s maid let me in and told me that Dr. Teller would be late for the interview. I was ushered into a very large but comfortable living room where I was to wait for Dr. Teller. Distributed around this room were many awards Dr. Teller had been given for his service to science and to our country. This room was decorated with “Indian rugs” that Teller had collected in New Mexico during his time at Los Alamos. Dr. Teller’s famous grand piano was also in this room. Teller played the piano very well and even gave a few piano concerts at the Livermore Lab. These concerts were filmed and can still be seen today.
Dr. Teller soon arrived and greeted me. I was seated on a couch and Dr. Teller sat in an easy chair next to the couch. The folks at Los Alamos had told me that Teller would probably want to talk to me about the work for the Navy that I was doing at Los Alamos. This would involve talking about neutron physics and nuclear reactor theory. That, however, was not the case.
Dr. Teller wanted to talk about physics, all of physics! The next couple of hours basically turned into a Ph.D. oral exam. At this point, I had not taken any physics courses for several years and was really stretched to come up with the right answers to Dr. Teller’s questions.
To start things off the maid came in with a beautiful silver set for serving coffee, tea, cream, sugar, and cookies. Dr. Teller took a cookie, but the maid took it away from him saying, “Now Dr. Teller. You know what your doctor said.”
I thought, “Oh boy. I’m now in trouble because that will put him in a very bad mood.”
But Teller didn’t seem to mind. He just kept firing physics questions at me. One question had me really stumped, and I sat there silently searching for the answer. Teller noticed the silence and said, “Eat your cookie, drink your tea.”
“Drink my tea,” I thought. “Yes sir!” And I took a big mouthful of tea. It was a huge mistake. The tea was boiling hot, and I burned my mouth badly. I managed not to show my pain though, and Teller didn’t seem to notice.
Why did I do such a stupid thing, aside from being super, super nervous, you may ask? Well, I had just traveled from mile high Albuquerque to sea-level Berkeley where the tea is much hotter than the tea that I was used to up in Albuquerque. At least that is my story, and I’m sticking to it!
The interview continued. Teller asked me things like “What is Kepler’s Second Law?” “How do you derive it?” I blundered through that one.
“There is a burst of neutrons on the sun. How long will it take the neutrons to get to the Earth?” Teller asked. I inquired what the energy of these neutrons were. Teller responded, “Any energy you like.” I knew right then and there that it was a trick question; but, as it turned out, it was a valid physics problem. “They won’t get to the earth,” Teller informed me, “because the neutron is unstable and has a half-life of about 14 minutes.” While I knew that, I was unable to give Dr. Teller the correct answer.
At least Teller didn’t ask me Fermi’s famous oral question, “Given that the sky is blue, what is Avogadro’s Number?” This problem, by the way, was first solved by Einstein.
Well, I stumbled through this interview and was quite disappointed with my performance. Fortunately for me, Teller saw it differently. He said that he would get me an AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) Fellowship (for three years) and that I “must go to Livermore”. And so I did.
I returned to Albuquerque and then went up to Los Alamos to tell all of my T-Division friends there that I was leaving to go to Edward Teller’s school in California in order to get my Ph.D. They were happy for me but said, “Ah, yes. Edward. A very smart guy. Plays the piano beautifully. Is a lot of fun at parties. But I will never speak to him again because of what he did to Oppie!”
They were referring to Teller’s testimony before an AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) committee investigating J. Robert Oppenheimer, then the former Director of Los Alamos, for any communist sympathies that he might have had while he was the Director of Los Alamos. Teller’s easily misinterpreted testimony basically resulted in Oppenheimer’s losing his security clearance. Teller later claimed that he was not commenting on the Oppenheimer’s political trustworthiness but rather on some of his scientific decisions. Toward the end of his life, Teller regretted ever giving his testimony to that Senate committee and called it the worst mistake of his life.
The “cult” of Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos was very strong at the time of the AEC investigation, and he is still very much respected and revered at Los Alamos today. Unfortunately, the animosity exhibited against Teller by most of his peers in the physics community lasted for all of Teller’s life and has strained the relationship between the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories to this very day.
Part 4. Teller’s Department of Applied Science (DAS) at The University of California Davis (UCD) and at the Livermore Laboratory
So, I left Albuquerque in September, 1967 and moved to Davis, California, the home of UCD. I did so in order to do all of my classwork and to take my candidacy examinations at the university there rather than at the Livermore laboratory. Then, after I was advanced to candidacy, I planned to return to Los Alamos where I would do my Ph.D. research which would be supervised by my former Los Alamos mentor, Henry A. Sandmeier. This was possible because the Los Alamos laboratory back then was also part of the University of California and had been since its inception in 1943.
During the Manhattan Project all sorts of scientists, engineers, and technicians disappeared into post office Box 1663, Sante Fe, New Mexico. Most of the country didn’t know anything about what was going on up at Los Alamos (but the people in Sante Fe suspected that something very mysterious was going on up there in the Jemez Mountains, they just didn’t know what it was). In fact the existence of the Los Alamos laboratory was so secret that the birth certificate of Edward Teller’s daughter states that she was born at Box 1663, Sante Fe, New Mexico when she actually was born in Los Alamos.
Anyway, all sorts of different scientific types were gathered together at Los Alamos to make an “atomic bomb”. But there were some problems. Before they could begin creating it, everyone had to learn some of the basic physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering that pertained to making a nuclear bomb. So, a survey course in nuclear physics was quickly put together and was taught to the scientists there by a number of distinguished scientists including E.O. Condon and Robert Serber. Condon also took notes on these lectures and with Serber consolidated them into a small book, “The Los Alamos Primer, The First Lectures on How To Build An Atomic Bomb”, which you can find online today.
Teller started his laboratory to in Livermore in 1952. The purpose of this laboratory was to build the first hydrogen bomb, which Oppenheimer had opposed at Loss Alamos. Teller wanted to avoid the “educational” kinds of mistakes that had occurred at Los Alamos at the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Teller wanted a university department attached to his laboratory in Livermore that would essentially train physicists in nuclear bomb physics.
It is interesting to note that Teller, a Professor at Large at the University of California’s (at the time) nine campuses, first wanted to associate his department with the Physics Department at Berkeley (UCB). But UCB (being the extremely radical “peaceniks” that they are) emphatically said no, never! But Teller had a friend who was a consultant at the Livermore laboratory and who just happened to be the Dean of Engineering at UCD. Noticing that Teller was having extreme difficulty getting his department into UC Berkeley, the Dean invited Teller to establish his department in the Engineering Department at UC Davis. Teller promptly did that. And so Teller’s Department of Applied Science (DAS) was born at UCD (but was also co-located at Livermore). And forever after DAS has been known as “Teller Tech”.
Teller then devised a curriculum for the DAS that essentially covered the physics of nuclear weapons. Teller’s core curriculum ultimately consisted of several basic subjects that included quantum mechanics, physical chemistry, mathematics, numerical analysis, electricity and magnetism, statistical mechanics, and nuclear physics. Other useful courses like fluid dynamics, nuclear reactor theory, and computer programming were also available. But then, disaster struck! The Academic Senate at UCD decided to kick Teller’s DAS out of UCD!
The Cold War and the Vietnam War were both going on at this time and the Academic Senate at UCD, which was full of pacifists who didn’t think that UCD should be supplying Teller’s bomb factory in Livermore with Ph.D. scientists. Ultimately, a tumultuous meeting of the UCD Academic Senate was held, the fate of the DAS was debated, and a vote was taken. After the dust had settled, the DAS was permitted to remain in UCD.
All along in my tenure at Teller Tech I had planned to return to Los Alamos to do my Ph.D. research there after I had completed my course work at UCD and had been advanced to candidacy. When I proposed that idea to my UCD professors, however, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was absolutely impossible to do so because it would tie the DAS much too firmly to the country’s other nuclear weapons laboratory and that would put the UCD Academic Senate into another uproar.
When I had been at Los Alamos, I had been working on the vulnerability of nuclear weapons to radiation. This involved, among other things, neutron physics and nuclear reactor theory. So, at Davis I immersed myself in those subjects in anticipation of my return to Los Alamos. But now all of my preparations for an unclassified dissertation project in those areas simply went out the window. Now I would have to find another area of physics in which to do my Ph.D. research.
Part 5. Reinventing Myself at the Livermore Laboratory
There was no UC faculty member at either Davis or Livermore who was doing either neutron physics or nuclear reactor theory. So, I had to find another field. My work for the Navy and at Los Alamos involved the use of computers and numerical methods, and I was extremely interested in using computers to model physical phenomena. The only unclassified computer oriented activities open to students at Livermore, however, were in plasma physics, specifically the Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) program and the fledgling Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) program. I was accepted into the MFE program, which was great. But I didn’t know anything about plasma physics! I would have to teach myself plasma physics and learn the Lab’s computer systems and do both very quickly.
So, I managed to teach myself plasma physics that was concerned with producing fusion energy by magnetically confining a DT (deuterium-tritium) plasma. After I passed my oral exam (defending my proposed research), I began writing a Fokker-Planck computer code that would simulate experiments conducted on various magnetic fusion devices. LLNL always has the world’s biggest and fastest computers, so developing such a necessarily large computer code by using the LLNL’s big computers was a lot of fun.
Due to the publications of several papers describing work very similar to the code that I was creating, however, caused me to modify my work several times. But eventually I came up with a unique code that accurately described a fusion experiment that was conducted on a mirror machine (a type of magnetic fusion device). I was finally done!
LLNL kept me on as a “post doc”, but I was sick and tired of working in MFE. I needed a change. After six months as a “post doc”, I quit LLNL and took a job as a nuclear engineer with General Electric (GE) over in Silicon Valley. I was once again working with neutrons!
Part 6. General Electric and Breeder Reactors, and the Presbyterian Church
I joined GE’s Advanced Reactor Division (ARD) in Silicon Valley. This group main task was to develop breeder reactors, even though ARD also developed other advanced reactor concepts. My primary assignment was to model the buildup of radioactive nuclides in the liquid sodium coolant of breeder reactors. A breeder reactor is a fission reactor that produce more fuel than it burns up. This is possible because the neutrons produced in the breeder reactors fission reactions interact with U-238 to produce plutonium, which subsequently can be “burned” in nuclear reactors. Theoretically, breeder reactors could supply the earth’s energy needs for a very, very long time. The trouble is, breeder reactors, in addition to producing energy, also produce plutonium which is the primary component of nuclear weapons. Of course, breeder reactors would be fine for use by the U.S., but one wouldn’t want them available for every country to use.
Except for the commute from Livermore (where I decided to live because the housing costs over in Silicon Valley were just too high), GE was a dream job. But then, unexpectedly, disaster struck – Three Mile Island! While those of us in the nuclear reactor industry realized that this was an important but minor incident, the country went nuts, and the anti-nuke folks had a field day!
Well, Jack Welsh was then CEO of GE at GE headquarters up in Schenectady, New York; and he essentially said to us out in here in Silicon Valley, “Boys, I’m not now going to be able to sell any of those reactors that you are developing, so your operation is being closed down, and you’re all fired!” So, after almost four years with GE, I was suddenly out of a job!
While GE gave me a great severance package, I still needed money to make ends meet. So, I tucked some of my GE technical reports under my arm and went around Silicon Valley knocking on doors. I really didn’t expect what happened next. I had a lot of interviews but got comments like the following: “Oh, we don’t do anything that technical here. You’d just get bored here and quit, so no job for you.” “I’m not going to hire you because you’d have my job in six weeks.” And so on and so on!
I actually did get an offer from Lockheed, but they took it back because they lost some contract and had to reabsorb all of their employees who had been working on that contract. That meant that they just didn’t have any money for new hires!
I tried to get back into LLNL or Sandia National Laboratory here in Livermore, but there was a national recession going on and the local labs just weren’t hiring. I was completely out of a job.
But, then by some curious twist of fate, the local Presbyterians offered me a job as a church janitor. I snapped it up as fast as I could! And, it turned out to be a pretty good job. They paid reasonably well and also provided benefits! That janitor job took the financial pressure off of me and allowed me time to work some of my LLNL connections. Long story short – I finally managed to get back into LLNL.
Curiously enough, the church janitor job may have been the best job that I have ever had. That is because the wax salesman would come around and take me to lunch, the broom salesman would come around and take me to lunch, the cleaning supply salesman would come by and take me to lunch, and so on. But when I got back into LLNL, I was one of about 2,000 Ph.D.’s, and no one ever came around to take me to lunch!
Part 7. Back at LLNL
I have had a variety of different jobs since returning to LLNL. I have worked in computations, atomic vapor separation, weapons engineering, environmental protection (modeling the air dispersion of radionuclides), and intelligence modeling. Currently I am supporting the inertial confinement fusion (ICF) effort. ICF is the creation of fusion energy by using lasers to compress and heat small pellets containing deuterium and tritium so that the deuterium ion (1D2) and the tritium ion (1T3) can fuse thereby creating a helium ion (2He4), a neutron (0n1), and energy: 1D2 + 1T3 ➛ 2He4 + 0n1+ energy.
Way back when I was working in the magnetic fusion energy (MFE) program, we thought that ICF was a joke. But now, 60 years after the inception of ICF, here I am working in the field of ICF where recent experiments seem to confirm that at long last a sustained fusion reaction in the laboratory can be achieved by ICF. Of course, MFE is still in the running for the production of fusion energy by its building the huge (but still incomplete) ITER MFE facility in France.
I am still working full time at LLNL, and in 2024, I will have been at LLNL for 50 years. If sustained fusion is actually achieved by then, it will probably time for me to retire.