AVS Historical Persons | Daniel Alpert - 1993

Daniel Alpert - 1993

Oral History Interview with Daniel Alpert

Interviewed by Bill Lange, November 18, 1993

LANGE: Good morning. I'm Bill Lange, and it's Thursday morning in Orlando, Florida. The occasion is the 40th National AVS Symposium. I have the most distinct honor to talk with an old friend, Professor Dan Alpert. He doesn't need an introduction; I'm sure you all know who he is. More than that you probably wish you were sitting here and had the opportunity to talk with him as I have. I hope I do him justice. Dan, it must be most satisfying to see your work so widely used, so widely recognized, and so widely appreciated. It's remarkable. Can you comment?

alpert.JPGALPERT: No, I just feel it a privilege to be invited back after all of these years, and to see that some of the instruments and some of the experiments we were working on then still have some people concerned and interested.

LANGE: Well, we certainly are interested and concerned, using them daily. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background and the circumstances that led to your work in the ultra-high vacuum area, and in fact launched, I think, the ultra-high vacuum era?

ALPERT: In my talk this morning, I started way back. I started with my work as a graduate student at Stanford University with Bill Hanson as my professor. I was working on a new microwave device, in those days, a microwave electron accelerator.

LANGE: Do you want to mention a year?

ALPERT: 1937. I was there from '37 to '41. And Bill Hanson is the one who ultimately used klystrons to build the Stanford Linear Accelerator. He also was a key author on the Bloch-Hanson Packard Experiment which introduced nuclear magnetic resonance to the field, and Bloch1 got a Nobel Prize for it. The people next door to me, also working with Bill Hanson, were Russ and Sig Varian, and they were building the first working klystron. I want to tell you that watching them work, and in particular Sig Varian, putting together vacuum components made out of old Pyrex custard cups, was quite a wonderful experience. 
As a graduate student there, the total discretionary budget for the whole Stanford physics department - it wasn't a large department - was $10,000. And even if you take inflation into account, it was less than what the average physics graduate student has today, which is a way of saying that we really were operating with equipment that we built ourselves out of scraps. I built my own oscilloscope for my research, and that was a kind of background. My vacuum system, in which I put a large, single-cavity accelerator; microwaves, at the time, had a wavelength of one meter. So it took a tank about seven feet across and three feet high with a gasket with a seven foot diameter, so you can imagine what it was like to get a vacuum down there. When we had to clean the tank, I had to jump into the tank. 

LANGE: Get in there and scrub!

ALPERT: Well, it gave me a good introduction, both my experience of working on the klystron project and working with this experiment, to see what vacuum conditions and vacuum technique was like in the pre-war period. During World War II, I, like a bunch of other people my age, got involved in the war effort. I took a post-doc fellowship at Westinghouse Research Lab, and immediately - this was in October of '41, and two months later came Pearl Harbor, and we all began to look into what we could do to aid the war effort. In that following few years, I worked on the development of airborne radar components, which included gas switching devices. It was a truly remarkable period. One of the stories I remember very vividly was the time I first brought a prototype TR (transmit/receive) switch up to the Radiation Laboratories at MIT, and I interacted with Zacharius2 and Jerry Wiener2 and Ed Purcell2, who then introduced me to Rabi2. We stuck my TR switch into Ed Purcell's microwave radar system and for the fist time saw a streetcar coming up Mass Avenue. The entire visit lasted two and a half hours. There were no proposals, no contract papers. At the end of two and a half hours, Purcell brought me into Rabi's office. He called my boss at Westinghouse by telephone, and we shook hands on the work that we were to do for the next year. 

LANGE: Is that right? Remarkable.

ALPERT: Later I joined the Manhattan Project and worked with Ernest Lawrence on isotope separation of uranium, and then back to research at Westinghouse.

LANGE: After the war?

ALPERT: Right, in '46. Needless to say, when we came out of that experience, the physicists in my acquaintance were extremely confident - some would call it arrogant - and we thought we really could solve any problem. We were given a blank check, very similar to the blank check that academic physicists were soon to be given by the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies, and a group of us started to build a program in physical electronics and gaseous electronics. Several young people who graduated after World War II joined us, and it was in trying to do basic research - and by the way, I'll say that we were trying to show not only that we could publish in basic research, but that we could show Westinghouse how to use basic research - we embarked on a number of experiments that involved imprisonment of residence radiation, microwave discharges, and just physical surface phenomena and atomic phenomena. I was responsible, I think, for looking at the vacuum systems as a system problem rather than as an individual cottage industry problem where every researcher had his own troubles. We really began at a very early stage to design modular systems that were standard and that could be used in a variety of applications.

LANGE: I wanted to ask you about the modular nature, how that evolved.

ALPERT: By early 1950, we already had bakeable valves, we had a standard modular bench-top system, standard furnaces, and we had already begun to use the flash filament technique as well as the standard ionization gauge to measure pressures. We already could achieve pressures of absorbable gas that we knew were below the 10-8 [Torr] that our gauges could read. This was before Bob Bayard joined the laboratory.

LANGE: Well, the environment was not exactly as it nowadays. You alluded to that to a certain degree, but I wondered if you could expand on that environment, in particular at the Westinghouse labs, where you were working then?

ALPERT: The idea of building standard modular systems was generated by the fact that there were a number of us working closely together and in need of different particular experiments, but generally speaking, having a much better way of going about the process of gas handling and vacuum achievement. We all needed an empty bottle ultimately for the research that we're doing, and that was the motivation there.

LANGE: For the cleanliness, correct, for the gaseous electronic work? 

ALPERT: Right, or the surface work that we might do. We were building a program in basic research in which we had the interesting challenge of doing self-initiated research but realizing that we work for a company and that there was a need to relate it in the long run to the company's activities. Our first pre-occupation was to build a first class physics department, and it wasn't too long, I might say, before we realized that the only way we could fully justify a basic research enterprise was to also have an applied physics enterprise within the Westinghouse Research Laboratories.

LANGE: You're being a little modest here, because when you say "we", I didn't read any other papers that people wrote there at the labs that were entitled "Physics and Industry" and things like that, so I think you really were the one with the foresight, the one who saw the need to justify the work.

ALPERT: Yes, that was built in.

LANGE: That's a credit to you.

ALPERT: Either that or my background [chuckles]. But that was one of the considerations, and when I met with my counterparts at Bell Labs or GE, including the older guys, Sol Dushman and people in that generation, we would stay up long hours into the night and compare notes as to how our management worked and how it was supposed to work.

LANGE: Is that right? Interesting. Our common acquaintances at a lower level, the common working physicist, wasn't worrying about those problems. That's excellent, good that you did. Do you have any other comments along that line? I know that you also have not only your technical scientific career a success, but you've been a successful administrator and you've worried about such things as policy, and I wonder if you have any comments on the future of research in the United States?

ALPERT: Let me first tell you a little bit more about the development of the Bayard-Alpert gauge and a little about some of the stuff we were doing. Bob Bayard joined the laboratory as a young research scientist with a Bachelors degree and he wanted to get a Masters degree. He came to me and asked if I had any ideas that he might work on to get his Masters degree. I'd been thinking pretty hard about the x-ray effect...

LANGE: Measurement problem?

ALPERT: The measurement of very low pressures, and I had been at the Nottingham Conference in 1947, as had a number of my colleagues in other major laboratories, and listened to Nottingham talk about the limits of ion gauge pressure measurement. That was the same conference at which Roy Apker described the flash filament technique, which he said showed that the partial pressure of absorbable gasses could vary significantly, even when the ion gauges that we had read the same value. He clearly knew there was a limiting factor on the ion gauge. Nottingham ran the Nottingham Conferences; he was the moderator of the conference. The entire community of people that were interested in ultra-high vacuum physical electronics and gaseous electronics fit into one lecture room, maybe 200 to 250 people. Nottingham was the moderator of every session, and he never imposed time limits on the discussion. Most of his presentations were in the form of comments about the last speaker's paper.

LANGE: Not always complementary?

ALPERT: Well, they were extemporaneous, let's put it that way! It was in one of those extemporaneous sessions that he described some of his work that led him to believe in another context that impinging electrons on a surface could generate x-rays and then release photoelectrons somewhere else. That was on my mind for some time; how could one do something about that? In the late summer of 1950 is when Bob Bayard came along and I said, "Well, here's a problem that we ought to be able to work some kind of a configuration in which you shut off the photo-electrons from the ion collector." Bob gave some thought to that, and the very first model of a gauge to reduce the photoelectric cross section was an inverted model.

LANGE: Is that right?

ALPERT: The very first one. Within a month or six weeks after we had started the problem. We had laid out what you could do to differentiate between them. We had measured the gas cross-section for measurement of ions at higher pressures and shown what the characteristics of the curve was, and showed that we could get pressures readily down to the level where the collector current versus grid potential was a straight line on a log diagram. 

LANGE: Independent of gas ionization efficiency. 

ALPERT: That's right, none at all. So we had all of the tools we needed, and Bob put together this gauge himself; welding the thing on a handy piece of brass.

LANGE: A mandrell.

ALPERT: A mandrell, and spot-welded it all together. He got Charlie Cassidy to assemble it in the glass shop. And he was able to install it, get down to the pressures in question, within a couple of weeks. So within a total of a few months, there was the Bayard-Alpert Gauge. And we had some tricky moments there. There was one time when it worked fine, no problem, but about a week or two after we had used it, outgassed it a few times and gotten down to the low pressures, the limit of the gauge began to go up and it went right up to what was the limit for the standard gauge, the RCA 1949, and we scratched our heads for a while, and then decided that it had to be the deposition of tungsten on the glass walls of the enclosure. When that made a continuous electrical path to the collector, we were back to having a cylinder outside the electron collector. That's when the skirt (a glass sleeve) was added; just put a skirt in so you open the circuit. 

LANGE: So obvious, in retrospect.

ALPERT: When we gave the paper at Nottingham's Conference in March, this is March of '50. I had it wrong before; it was in '49 that we started and we reported it…

LANGE: Summer of '49.

ALPERT: Right, late summer of '49. The tube still didn't have a skirt on it. We went back and worried about whether we had just sold a bill of goods.

LANGE: Published the right paper, huh?

ALPERT: But fortunately we were quick to find what the trouble was. That was one of those remarkable situations. Bob, by the way, later went on to join the Atomic Power Division at Westinghouse where he thought he had a better future, and he went on to get a PhD in Nuclear Physics on a thesis that I don't think many people around still remember.

LANGE: His Masters work was better.

ALPERT: His Masters thesis was!

LANGE: At least stood up longer. I wonder if I could interrupt just a minute or interject something? It is remarkable that the geometry should happen for you fellows so easily because, when I arrived in Nottingham's lab in mid-summer '51, his technician showed me a bunch of mistakes. They were Nottingham's Follies; they were Professor Nottingham's attempt to make a better gauge. Larry Sprague, his technician, said, "This is the Apple Gauge. We call this one a Pear Gauge." He had names for all of these things. I'm only sorry that I didn't look into them and see why they didn't work and what the geometry was. They were regarded as follies. The fact that you did it so quickly and recognized what you had so quickly, I think it's remarkable.

ALPERT: It really was one of those fortunate things, and what is surprising and a source of great, great pride, good feelings about it, is that 40 years later I show up at an AVS meeting and it is still the tool of choice, the measurement instrument of choice with very few changes. Dan Bills has just come out with another version of the gauge that has some interesting properties, and I don't doubt that other people have as well, and it was interesting for me to just go over with Dan some of the features of his gauge and could corroborate some of the observations that he made with respect to the nature of some of the uncertainties in measurement.

LANGE: Remarkable work, and for any work to stand up for 40 years like that and be still at the forefront is more than seminal; that's just remarkable.

ALPERT: You may be amused to know that our first collector was about ten mils [0.01 inches] in diameter for the tungsten, and it seemed obvious to both of us that if you want to have a lower x-ray limit you just make it thinner.

LANGE: Finer?

ALPERT: Well, that isn't necessarily the case. We found that sensitivity went down; beyond a certain point it went down faster than the size of the wire. We couldn't suspend it any longer; when you get down to two mils [0.002 inches] tungsten won't stand still. Anyway, those are some of the kinds of considerations that went on. It was pure luck! We picked the wire that you could handle readily, and it turned out to be close to optimal.

LANGE: Modesty calls it luck but some of the rest of us know how hard it is to make a mark at all. Congratulations really - that's just incredible. I was going to move on to your later career as a successful administrator and policy maker, and I wonder if you wanted to comment at all on the future of US research. There's been a letter to the editor in a recent Physics Today you probably saw.

ALPERT: Ah, yes.

LANGE: Would you like to comment?

ALPERT: I feel that the entire physics community, in fact the entire science community today in academia, is experiencing the saturation of the so-called "Golden Age" when everything grew and the amount of dollars for research went up from one year to the next. Basic research was sold by all of us as a very powerful contributor to the well-being of the country, to its economic competitiveness, and so on. 

LANGE: Just be patient, right?

ALPERT: That's right. And I think that we are experiencing in academia a new era, one in which some of the people who really pass on the policy, people in Congress, people in important positions in government, really need a better handle on what is the relationship between basic science and better competitiveness, better weapons, better schools, better education, and so on. This happens to be an area in which I've had a deep interest ever since I left Westinghouse, because we also had experienced a period when I was selling basic research to the company, and by '57, which is a long time ago, we ran into a situation where a board of directors, that looked very much like congressmen to me, began to feel that they had to have a better connection between the affairs of the company. Most of them had very little experience in R&D at all, and in my opinion, had trouble understanding how the job was done. There were a few laboratories in the country, and Bell Telephone Laboratories was one of them, in which the management that had grown up from the R&D field into the upper echelons of management of the company had a clear picture of how it could really be related. And in fact, the applied research divisions of Bell Laboratories were much larger than the basic research divisions. They had a very strong relationship even though one was done on self-initiated research in certain areas, and the applied research were clearly defined as to what the outcome and even what the time constraints were in which they had to deliver. 
I think that we're now experiencing, for all of science, a rather tough period. For the academics it's a sudden end of an era, the sudden end of the era where the mythology that basic research leads automatically to a better world. In industry we're observing a different effect, namely that the large corporations, for one reason or another, and that includes AT&T, IBM, Kodak, and other such companies, are really losing the total wherewithal to support good R&D programs. The country, it seems to me, is facing a crisis both in the industrial scene and in the academic scene, and we've just got to get beyond the mythology and get on to rethinking the problems. I've recently written a paper called, "Rethinking the challenges facing the American research university." I want to tell you that as I see the problems today, as I've described them, most of my colleagues in academia don't want to read the paper. I'm sorry, I'm afraid that, as in both industry and in the universities and in government, there is a need to reinvent the way we do our job, and that happens to be a dimension of my interest today that drives me to try to do something that is an extrapolation of something I've tried to do all of my life.

LANGE: Do you have strong suggestions as to how this change might come about or how to adapt to the new world?

ALPERT: Well, that's the subject of another session. But I do feel that re-examining the mythology is very important, re-examining the assumptions on which we're doing business, and I think it also involves a new set of relationships between industry, the universities, and the government of a type that we have not done very well in this country. So all three segments have some challenges to reconsidering…

LANGE: Now, when you say "the government", you mean agencies in particular?

ALPERT: Funding agencies. We have to examine the division if we and the universities are splintered among all of the different disciplines, and within the discipline, like physics between the high energy physicists, and the solid state, and condensed matter physicists, who are fighting as to who should get more money. In the government agencies, there is a fragmentation that is at least as strong, and those that are dedicated to applied research have almost nothing to do with those agencies that are dedicated to support basic research. That's part of the situation. I don't know how it is. I keep telling myself and my wife that working very hard on these problems, which take a lot of my time, is a way of staying in shape. I also happen to believe that you stay in physical shape, too!

LANGE: I wanted to ask you about that. People are interested in people, and in particular people are interested in famous people. You may not think you're famous people, but the rest of us think you're famous people, and anybody listening to this would be interested to know to what you attribute your vigor. I know you've passed the proverbial three score and ten. What do you attribute your vigor to? It's not genes. Don't give me the genes story!

ALPERT: No, no. First of all, you have to have a family that is tolerant of things like skiing and mountain hiking and climbing. Even though Natalie doesn't indulge in those herself very much these days, she's been a tremendous support for me in both working six and seven days a week at the university and…

LANGE: And in your play.

ALPERT: And in my play. I have two wonderful daughters, one of whom is a professor and trying to run the University of Oregon. 

LANGE: Is that the biologist?

ALPERT: Yes, that's right. The other one lives in Phoenix and helps manage a group medical practice that her husband is the head of. They're wonderful.

LANGE: A reason to be proud.

ALPERT: Right, right. My grandson is a freshman at Stanford University, which is the fourth generation of our total family at Stanford, so it's carrying on.

LANGE: At Stanford. Well, I know you've always been active physically as well as mentally. I first skied with you, I think, in 1956 or so.

ALPERT: Oh, yes.

LANGE: You introduced me to activities in the Laurel Mountains. But there is one more question that I'd like to ask you. You may have other comments, but I have one more question. Can you comment, or do you have any suggestions or any input as to what your career success is due to? You don't have to be modest here, and it isn't just genes, and hard work, and luck, as you mentioned; it's more than that; insight, intuition, would you use any of those words?

ALPERT: First of all, let's get back to success. There are times, and visiting the AVS today for this conference, has given me a sense of what success was about. But in my day-to-day life what imposes itself on me is failure, the many times that I've guessed wrong, that I've not been able to see the future, or I saw it clearly but I was off on a time constant for quite a while. The one great thing about failure is that's the only way you'll ever learn anything. I keep telling myself-- See, I embarked with a group of others on introducing computer-based education in a serious way to our educational system. This was back in 1960 when I got involved in it. Some people would talk about, "Well, we'll make a book with feedback using a computer." 
I soon began to dream about transforming American education from kindergarten through college, and I really felt then, and I still feel now, that it needs basic transformation. We've got to change the way we think about education; we've got to focus on learning instead of teaching. We've got to begin to bring research and development into a field that is practically devoid in terms of its needs, hasn't known it. In some ways, I worked very hard on this for 15 years of my life, from 60 to 75, and when I think about it, I think about, "What was it about universities and public schools that made it so difficult to introduce an obvious technology?" At least obvious in the sense that computers and its use in transmitting and handling information and knowledge seems obvious today as it did in 1960? What we learned was that there were barriers in the system that we certainly could not account for. It was, of course, economics, but it was also sociology: the way the system was set up, the way it was organized, the marriage of professors to technology. They don't even think about using technologies that were available before the printing press was invented, and we still use them as the preferred way for instruction today. So for every success I can think of, there has been at least one major failure. 

LANGE: Failure only in a sense, only in your high standards. 

ALPERT: Well, okay.

LANGE: Those failures are stimulants for the successes that follow.

ALPERT: By the time I switch careers and become a ski instructor, I will be an educated man.

LANGE: Do you have any other comments you'd like to make, Dan? No? 

ALPERT: That's it. 

LANGE: I'd like to thank you on behalf of the Society, on behalf of the History Committee of the AVS, and personally it's been a real pleasure just to know you. Thanks.

ALPERT: Thanks very much, Bill.

1. Felix Bloch, Nobel Laureate, 1952
2. Jerrold R Zacharias, Norbert Wiener, Edward M. Purcell and I.I. Rabi were important members of the radar research effort during World War II.

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