Updated: Sep 17
Stephen E. Kellogg
1 July 2011
I entered Caltech in 1973, fresh-faced and eager to learn everything on the forefront of physics. By the second semester, I was convinced that the great institute had made a mistake admitting me. I was taking up space, a coveted slot that should have gone to a more worthy student. True, I had mastered Special Relativity and NaI scintillation detection at an NSF program at Cornell two summers previously, but I was not quick enough to keep up with the avalanche of homework assignments. And there were ample examples of the extraordinary intellects that Caltech was meant for: Eric Adelberger (1960), Steve Koonin (1972), George Fuller (1975), Greg Griffin (1975), Nate Lewis (1977). Then there were the Nobel Laureates who strolled the halls like giants, nay gods: Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Linus Pauling. It took me five years to graduate – and crucial to surviving the grind were my extracurricular activities: Cross Country and Glee Club.
One of the perks of being in the Glee Club was that you were invited to sing at Commencement, and so were witness to that serious spectacle from the dais, right behind the nobly-plumaged faculty and distinguished guests. In the first of these (1974), Richard Feynman gave the address, entitled “Cargo Cult Science.” At the time, I was somewhat perplexed and disappointed. Why was he talking about charlatans and pseudo-science when he could have been unveiling the mysteries of the cosmos to those augustly assembled on the Court of Man? It took years for me to appreciate the importance of that talk and I commend it to your reading list today. (You can find it as the last chapter of Ralph Leighton's book "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman.") It was said more than once that Feynman would have loved the hoopla over Cold Fusion.
Though intrigued, I never felt I had the time management skills necessary to get involved in the campus musicals, and so I watched friends in Shirley Marneus' first Caltech production "Kiss Me Kate" (1974) and the student production of "The Student Prince" (1975). As it was essentially a Glee Club production, I did participate in the low-budget operetta "The Lowland Sea" (1976) but was back in the audience to watch Feynman's theatrical debut in "Guys and Dolls" (1977) and "Fiorello" (1978).
Disheartened by school, I spent the next two years rebuilding my self esteem doing electro-mechanical engineering on the cm scale (designing and building piezoelectric accelerometers) at Endevo, a small company in San Juan Capistrano, where I discovered that I didn't have to be a whiz at quantum mechanics. Simple calculations, a working knowledge of instrumentation and common sense carries one far. When I asked one older engineer how one makes an accelerometer, his philosophical answer was: "It's easy to build an accelerometer. It's hard to build one that isn't also a thermometer, a barometer, a radio receiver, a wind gauge, a strain gauge, etc." I lived 1 mile from the plant and so found myself biking past disgruntled motorists queued up outside gas stations during the 1979 oil crisis (corresponding with the Iranian revolution). This of course was the second oil crisis after the OPEC embargo of 1974 (following the Yom Kippur War), and in both cases the government was on the verge of issuing gasoline ration coupons. Angst about oil/energy supplies led to divergent responses. In Europe (and Japan) higher petrol taxes were invoked to prod the public and industry toward energy efficiencies, smaller cars and public transit investment, while the United States chose to tap fields on the North Slope of Alaska and broaden its base of imports, seeking accommodation with the Saudis to hold oil prices low and keep the economy in high gear (even though we lowered the legal speed limit to double-nickels for a decade). Our confidence in our mastery of energy supplies was further shaken on March 28, 1979 at Three Mile Island which effectively ended the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S., a mere 10 years before Pons and Fleischmann offered us pollution-free, abundant, cheap energy via cold fusion.
Emboldened to try my hand at academia once more, in 1980 I cast a wide net in search of a second-tier graduate school which still offered research on the has-been nuclear frontier. Thus I found a home at the Nuclear Physics Lab at the University of Washington where I honed my experimental techniques. I learned low-background counting, high-vacuum systems, accelerator kinematics, anticoincidence techniques, high-resolution gamma-ray spectroscopy, peak fitting, radiochemistry, neutron activation, computer programming, statistical analysis, initiative and independence.
A word about the NPL community of about 40 faculty, students, and staff members: This was easily the most diverse international group I have ever been associated with. My fellow graduate students hailed from Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Estonia, Germany and France. The postdocs came from Japan, Russia, Mainland China, Poland, Israel and Lebanon. In stark contrast to the us-vs.-them bluster of the Reagan administration, we all worked together – Christian, atheist, Jew, Muslim, Californian and Texan – in search of greater truths and the chance to peek behind Nature's curtain.
My thesis project seemed simple enough: measure the isomer-to-isomer beta decay branch which a clever theory paper identified as responsible for the observed solar-system abundance of 180Ta. Yet in the end, we measured (with great effort) branches too small to quantitatively explain the bulk of Nature's rarest isotope. To this day, its astrophysical production mechanism remains a mystery. In the midst of my efforts, Willy Fowler was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 for his work developing the experimental side of Nuclear Astrophysics at the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. As I was a student of Eric Norman who was a student of Dave Schramm at Argonne who was a student of Willy Fowler at Caltech, I guess that made me three-academic-generations removed from a Nobel and led in part to my desire to "close the loop" and return to the birthplace of my field.
1986, my last full year as a graduate student, proved most interesting from a science-in-the-popular-news perspective. First, on January 6, 1986, Ephraim Fischbach published a "Reanalysis of the Eötvös experiment" which he offered as evidence for a medium-range fifth force of Nature that couples to hypercharge (neutron-to-proton ratio). The 1909 Eötvös torsion-balance experiment was a classic demonstration of the equivalence principle: inertial mass = gravitational mass. As would happen three years later, Fischbach, who happened to be visiting UW that month, was inundated with requests for interviews by news reporters and a race to confirm the existence of this new force was on. At the same time, theorists couldn't resist calculating the consequences. In particular, they checked to see if it might explain the solar neutrino problem. Professor Adelberger, an experimentalist par excellence at the lab, was one of the first to jump into the fray. Transferring a generation of knowledge in clever nuclear and atomic techniques employed in difficult searches for fundamental symmetry breaking, he quickly began mastering the art of the sensitive table-top experiments. Methodically innovating and improving the apparatus – though at its heart it was still a 19th-century-era torsion balance – the EötWash group (as they called themselves) set about carefully identifying, quantifying and cancelling all possible sources of systematic error. "You don't do physics by archeology," he said, referring to Fischbach's paper, and several of my cohorts (Christopher Stubbs and Jens Gundlach) launched their academic careers hitched to this wagon. Within a year, they had bettered the Eötvös sensitivity and ruled out the likelihood that Fischbach was right. Today, this ongoing effort (now led by Jens) has expanded into other tests of fundamental symmetries and pushed sensitivities downward by another two orders of magnitude. No statistically significant evidence for a fifth force has been seen, which, of course does not rule it out completely, as the coupling constant could always be smaller than today’s sensitivity can measure. Often times, we can only establish upper limits on the unknown.
On January 28, 1986, I awoke to my clock-radio broadcasting word of the Challenger explosion 73 seconds after liftoff. I was in shock. I had worked on Endevco's accelerometers that were mounted on the Space Shuttle Main Engine. They were intended to initiate an automated shutdown in the event of excessive vibration. Prematurely shutting down the engine was preferable to an explosion which this marvel of engineering had shown a propensity for doing on test stands during its early development. Had I not done enough to develop a more reliable sensor during that first job? Eventually, it was Feynman, with an impromptu simple demonstration at the investigative committee table, who helped clarify the cold O-ring flaw that had sealed the fate of the astronaut crew.
In mid-April, 1986, Karl Müller and Johannes Bednorz published the tentatively-titled paper "Possible high-Tc Superconductivity in the Ba-La-Cu-O system" which, nevertheless, again led to fevered excitement among scientists and the public, cover stories in the news magazines, and the swift awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1987). To date, over 100000 papers have been written, and high temperature conductivity has been validated in a number of odd materials (like ceramics), unpredicted by theorists. The phenomenon does not seem to follow from the BCS theory which explains regular low-temperature superconductivity – a theory which Feynman was about one or two insights from discovering first, by the way. To this day, there is no consensus on the mechanism responsible and, unfortunately, the dream of low-loss transmission lines (which would save tons of green-house gas emissions) has not proved practical or economical.
Finally, on April 26, 1986, on the other side of the planet – Chernobyl! The Soviets would have been happy to avoid the press coverage, but the Iron Curtain was not tall enough to contain the radioactive cloud, first seen outside the USSR at a Swedish power station April 28. Taking note of the jet stream and meteorological forecasts, Christopher Stubbs, Jens Gundlach and I considered whether we could detect the weak residual fallout in Seattle, 10000 miles from its source. While my comrades constructed a crude collection station (held together by duct tape, I kid you not), I set up the low-background gamma-ray counting apparatus consisting of a Liquid-Nitrogen-cooled Ge(Li) detector surrounded by three layers of lead bricks. "Collection" consisted of sucking air through an off-the-shelf a/c filter by an industrial fan for 24-48 hours. We then collapsed the filter and "bagged" it (to prevent contamination) and placed it within the lead shield next to the detector for a 24-48 hour count. While counting one filter, we were always collecting with a fresh filter. Before the predicted arrival of the cloud, we completed one clean 48-hour run which showed the familiar background lines due to 7Be (cosmic-ray spallation) and the 238U and 232Th alpha-decay chains (via Radon gas seepage from the rocks below). Late on the evening of May 7, I was identifying lines by hand on the 8192-channel histogrammed spectrum printed out on a continuous 10-foot segment of line-printer paper, and there, in sharp contrast to the background spectrum, was the distinctive and quite strong line at 364.5 keV from the decay of 131I (8-day half-life) as well as the 228.2-keV line from 132Te (78-hour half-life) – both reactor fission products. I was alone in the lab listening to the Governor on the radio assuring the good people of Washington that no radioactivity had been detected in the state. I carefully annotated the lines, taped the background (May 1-3) and fallout (May 3-5) spectra on the window of the lab foyer and bicycled home after midnight. Early the next morning, I flew to Chicago where I gave a talk at Argonne National Labs on my thesis work – a sort of job application for an eventual postdoctoral-ship. After lunch, I received a surprise phone call from Jens: "You wouldn't believe what's happening back here...." Prof. Cramer, director of the lab, had taken one look at the spectra and called the local TV stations. So Jens and Christopher had their day in the klieg lights (with my spectra). Over the next month, on a part-time basis, we detected a total of 12 radioactive isotopes attributable to Chernobyl and deduced the Plutonium-to-Uranium makeup of the reactor, the day the accident occurred, and the neutron density in the reactor core. The fallout lines looked for all the world as if they rivaled the background radioactivity in strength, and stores in Seattle ran out of their stock of iodine tablets, but after more careful consideration of the half-lives, I concluded that our long collection and counting times favored the fallout activities with halflives of days or longer versus the shorter-lived Radon daughters by at least two orders of magnitude. That is, the dusting from Chernobyl had only increased the radiation burden in Washington State by about one percent above background, and that for only about a month. In retrospect, the Governor had been correct to chastise our lab for unduly alarming the public.
A year later, the mania spent, I made my way back to Caltech, the Kellogg radiation Lab in particular, under another cloud of deep depression. After participating in my legacy 24-hour relay (another story) in the fall of 1987, I happened to see the audition notice for "Oliver" and walked in cold, thinking I could help out in the chorus numbers. Little did I know that they were desperate to cast a tenor for Mr. Bumble. In February 1988, during the last weeks of rehearsals, Richard Feynman lost his battle with cancer. A banner "We love you Dick" was unfurled from the top of Millikan and my favorite memoriam to this great, but human after all, scientist was given by Shirley Marneus in the California Tech. So I missed the opportunity to take a class or share the stage with him, as he missed the chance to laugh over the Cold Fusion fuss.
As a final contextual note, remember that within 24 hours of the March 23, 1989 Pons and Fleischmann press conference, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound.