Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Me and the Nobel Laureates

I don't remember whether it was the question or the answer, but Jeopardy had something about Nobel laureate in physics, Enrico Fermi the other night.

"Did you ever meet him?" Walt asked.

I said I had not (I found out later I was in grammar school when Fermi died)

But if anybody else had been in the room, they might have thought this an odd exchange between the two of us.  But to us, it was perfectly logical.

My high school had been primarily a business school and had only recently become a college prep school, so it didn't have the variety of classes that you find in larger schools.  I took chemistry and biology, but physics was not offered (and I wasn't very good at chemistry or biology either).

When I got to UC Berkeley, someone suggested I take Physics 10, a basic physics course taught by Nobel Laureate Owen Chamberlain.  (They told me it was an "easy A") I had actually heard of him, but knew zero about him.  Mostly I remember that he reminded me of actor Rene Aubergenois.

I hated Physics 10 and couldn't understand anything.  The only thing I remember from that class is the Doppler Effect ("The Doppler effect can be described as the effect produced by a moving source of waves in which there is an apparent upward shift in frequency for observers towards whom the source is approaching and an apparent downward shift in frequency for observers from whom the source is receding.")  The only reason I know that was because I was dating a guy, whose name I have forgotten (I think we broke up over Physics), who drummed it into my head.  To this day I can't hear an approaching train without thinking of him.  It may be the reason I didn't fail that class but I can't believe I got higher than a D.

I was relieved when the class finished. I never, ever wanted to hear of physics again.

The next year, when I decided to quit the university, I went to the employment office to see about getting a job on campus.  I was sent to three departments.  I don't remember the first, but the second was the English department and the third was the physics department.

Well, I knew immediately that there was no way I was going to work in the physics department.
But the job came with my own private office and I would mostly be working for the billing department and on the side doing some typing for three professors.  It was interesting looking them up today.  I just knew them as names.

Arthur Kip, one of the great experimental solid-state physicists, died of a heart attack at the age of 85. Starting in 1951, and with small means, he built up the first research group in the field in the Western United States. He trained many graduate students who have filled distinguished positions in American physics.

Alan Portis was the first Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science which overlooks the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the first cyclotron ever built where EO Lawrence and Glenn Seaborg did their work. Alan was also one of the founders of the Search for Excellence in Science and Mathematics (SESAME) Group at UC Berkeley. He was both a scientist and a science educator.

Frederick Reif is an Austrian-born American physicist noted for his 1965 "Fundamentals of Statistical and Thermal Physics," which has helped at least two physicists, namely Vladimir Pokrovskii (1999) and Reiner Kummel (2011), come to understand entropy and to understand how it can be applied in economics in economic thermodynamics formulation. (I should note that the above named "Fundamentals of Statistical and Thermal Physics" was a book I typed...three times...on a non-correcting IBM selectric.  I also typed the accompanying answer book which might have had a few words in it, but was mostly a couple of hundred pages of equations)

These guys were big deals and reading about them tonight brought back a whole bunch of memories of the history of programs now established, which were just getting started when during the three years I worked there (I left just before Jeri was born).

Of the three, Fred was the guy everyone warned me against as a very gruff, very difficult to get along with professor.  All the secretaries were afraid of him, but he and I became very good friends (and today, more than 50 years later, we still are).  Kip retired a year or so after I went to work for him, and Portis started spending more and more time at the Rad Lab "on the hill," so ultimately, I became Fred's private secretary.  It was a job I loved and still my favorite job.  He even got me reading books like "The Strange Story of the Quantum," to help me understand, at least a little bit, the work he was doing.

But during my period of time working for the Physics Department, it happened that Owen Chamberlain needed some typing done and so I worked for him for awhile (I didn't remind him what a terrible student I was and how much I hated his class!)

Sometime later, I also did some typing for another Nobel laureate, Emilio Segre.  I have no memory of him, other than that I typed things for him.

So Walt's question was not as odd as it might have seemed.  Oddly enough, I did love physics once I didn't have to actually do any of it!

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