Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: George Comsa

1993 Medard W. Welch Award Recipient
Interviewed by Max Lagally, November 17, 1993

LAGALLY: Hello, my name is Max Lagally. I'm from the University of Wisconsin. I'm speaking today with George Comsa, who is the recipient of the 1993 Medard W. Welch Award. George is a chaired professor of Vacuum Physics at the University of Bonn in Germany, and director of the Institute for Vacuum and Interface Physics at the Forschungzentrum Julich in Germany. George was born in Romania, got his Ph.D. in physics in Bucharest in 1960, and immigrated to Germany - "escaped" is probably a better word - in 1972. I've had the pleasure of spending the last two summers working in George's institute in Julich, and I've had lots of interesting conversations with him. I'm hoping that he will share some of those insights, that he left with me in the last two summers, with us today, and I would like to ask him a few questions. George, welcome. Let me ask you first. How did you get started in physics? What led you to the career that you're in? Were there some specific influences that caused you to take the career path you did?

COMSA: I wanted, since I was a child, to go in science. I remember my father called me "Mr. Why" all the time. [Laughs] At university, I headed in the direction of mathematics because I had a very good math teacher at school. However, in the second year, when the algebra became very abstract, I felt that it was not my field. I needed always help from colleagues, and I thought this is not the thing, and so then I decided to go in the less abstract physics.

LAGALLY: By "less abstract," how did you happen into vacuum physics? Or it wasn't really a...?

COMSA: It was not directly. In my diploma, I met in theoretical physics a very good teacher I had to take. Then, somebody came to me and asked me if I would want to make my Ph.D. with him, and he proposed, as a theme, to measure the work function. More precisely, the temperature dependence of the work function of metals. So, that was a chance, absolutely my chance. The vacuum physics came by necessity because, to study surfaces you need the vacuum, and we had almost no equipment. We had a few things we could buy. Rotary pumps we could buy, diffusion pumps. But everything else, we had to build. So I had to build gauges, ion pumps, omegatron, valves - everything in the lab. And so that is the way I came to vacuum physics.

LAGALLY: Tell me a bit about the sort of environment that - this was in the '60s.

COMSA: That was the beginning of the '50s. '53, I started.

LAGALLY: What was it like there, then, in terms of...?

COMSA: We had in the first few years - that is, say, almost ten years - it rather good from the point of view of the possibility to buy equipment in the East, in fact. So we rarely made it to the West where we couldn't buy anything. We had relatively decent money. Not compared to the others, but one could do something. So we started to buy glass, to buy tungsten wires, to buy tantalum, to buy titanium, it was possible. And so on. And we would build the things up. I was very, very lucky, I had a very good mechanical workshop, with very good technicians, and we could do everything. I can remember we did even metal-ceramic feed throughs, and it was not so easy. The ceramics were done by a colleague, and then we had to invent the things. So it was nice.

LAGALLY: I understood that maybe even a couple of patents came out of there.

COMSA: Yes, we had a couple of patents. They never brought money, but they were patents.

LAGALLY: This seems to be, really, the fundamentals of vacuum science at the time, dealing with the real Vacuum Society kind of things. Did any of that work get to the Vacuum Society meetings to get reported?

COMSA: That was, in fact, a very half-nice, half-unpleasant thing for me. I handed in three contributions for the Vacuum Congress in Washington in '61. All three were accepted. But my authorities didn't allow me to come to Washington. People from the AVS told me to send the manuscripts, and if possible , to send slides, and I did that. All the three talks were given here. What I enjoyed very much is that, afterwards, they sent me the notes. It was as if I was there in person. Unfortunately, I don't know the names. They sent me their notes. They sent me new slides they made because they didn't like mine! [Laughs] So it was very nice to have that, and I think this gave me real help very much for the future, because I didn't expect that.

LAGALLY: So you go back to the Vacuum Society a long, long way.

COMSA: Yes, more than 30 years.

LAGALLY: The Vacuum Society is 40 years old itself, and you just told us that in the first ten years, you were there.

COMSA: Yes, and that was in '61, as were the papers.

LAGALLY: Was it in Thin Films? Were there divisions by that time?

COMSA: I cannot remember. I know that the papers were different because one was about the omegatron and the collision of hydrogen ions in the omegatron and the production of H3+, one was about how the pressure varies in devices pumped by ion pumps, and the third was a metal-ceramic feed-through. So they were rather different. But they were a good experience, I think.

LAGALLY: When did you actually get to attend your first Vacuum Society meeting by yourself?

COMSA: Ten years later, in '71, when I was a Humboldt fellow in Germany, and so I had the opportunity to come. It was a meeting in Boston, and it was very nice.

LAGALLY: Tell us a bit about those times, because I think that then you didn't go back to Romania after that.

COMSA: No, I went back. I went back because my wife was there and I didn't want to leave her there, and to try to take her out later, because nobody knows how long this lasts. These times after '65 were worse and worse, and then the possibility to work was not good.

LAGALLY: Because of political or less money?

COMSA: Combined. They asked us, which is also here usual in science, to work for industry. This is clear, but the only problem was that in the industry they had no interest to get something from the lab because they were only buying complete industries. They didn't develop. The whole thing was extremely formal. The thing which convinced me to leave was a visit of a director of a factory who came in the lab. He had to spend because the state told him, "You have to spend this money for this institute." He looked around - he had no idea about anything; he was a director of a factory for electronics, but had no idea about anything - and saw three ion pumps we had just built. They were shiny and very nice, and asked me, "What is that?" I told him, "Ion pumps." And he told me, "Make me five of them." [Chuckles] I was sure he would put these on the table or throw them away. That was, for me, such a shock to work, and it was enormous work to make in a small workshop, these pumps, that I decided that it was not the future.

LAGALLY: How did you actually get out?

COMSA: I got out with my wife. We said always, "Legally out, illegally not back." That is, my wife was also a physicist, and she was at a conference in Venice. I arranged a visit to Vacuum Generators, as a consultant. It was a very, very narrow margin that we managed to be outside at the same time.

LAGALLY: That's supposed to be illegal? The authorities are supposed to...?

COMSA: No, legally out. They didn't know that we were both out. That's the only thing. We didn't come back. I may say that we came to Germany with nothing, but it came rapidly. I felt rapidly again at home, so people were very nice and helped me. I had no problems.

LAGALLY: Then, how did you continue? Or did you continue afterwards in Julich?

COMSA: At first, I started in Bonn because I was a Humboldt fellow before in Bonn. I applied everywhere, and when these openings were in Julich, I applied and they took me. I started nearly two years after I came to Germany, in Julich.

LAGALLY: But you have now very varied research interests: magnetic levitation, vacuum physics, gas scattering, helium scattering, reactions, STM.


LAGALLY: How did all that develop?

COMSA: The most difficult problem was the magnetic levitation, in fact, because nobody understood what magnetic levitation has to do with vacuum or surfaces. I told them a number of studies about it, but my main reason why was that there were two excellent guys doing magnetic levitation, and I was sure we would get some interesting things. One of them is the spinning rotor gauge, which one these two people, Jan Fremerey, developed. It might be interesting that he developed it during his Ph.D. in order to measure the gravity radiation. He made it very sensitive within a fundamental study, and afterwards it became a product, which is now licensed and produced by two companies. And the different things, I don't know. Also, the choices, I told you, with surfaces, was a chance. I believe very much that you have to wait for your chance. You are not to fight before, too much. Chances come and go. So the only important thing is to be attentive. If something comes along, then you take it. You may be wrong, of course, but that is the way. It is a way without much stress.

LAGALLY: That leads me into questions of philosophy of how to do research and how to run research programs. You're eminently successful and, I would think, almost the epitome of the Welch Award recipient in terms of contributions to surface science, to vacuum physics, to a wide variety of things. How do you plan and choose research? Now, you've already just addressed a little bit that you wait and let things come to you, but is that the whole story?

COMSA: Not completely. Firstly, with planning, I am very allergic against planning in general because it comes from my first life in Romania where we had to plan everything. I find that, in science, planning is very dangerous - not planning, but to keep to your plans - because things you put in your plans are certainly not the newest, because you know about them. The interesting thing is what you see around you during the research. You have to keep the eyes open. So, I don't dare to plan. I don't find it reasonable to plan. Generally, of course, you have to write plans because otherwise you don't get money. Here, you have to give a direction to give a perspective. But don't be quiet and sit on your plan. On the contrary, give up the plan if you find a new thing which wasn't expected. In fact, most of the directions of research we did, came in by chance.

LAGALLY: But that becomes almost passive in the sense that you're not doing anything. I can't believe that.

COMSA: Of course, you're doing something. [Laughs] You are attentive. Of course, there are a number of things which are important. Of course, you have to work hard. The condition to work well is to have fun in the work. I can remember, even when I was a child, I thought I don't want to have a job where I am afraid to go there in the morning, or I am bored. I have to have fun to go there. I think you can do any job in this, but you have to do it well. This pleasure in work, I think, is very good for the health. I know you Americans are very concerned about health problems. I don't know if you like this opinion, but I think that to have fun in your job is more important for the health than jogging in the morning around the cars, or to eat zero cholesterol, things with zero taste, or something like this. I think it's much better. Anyway for me, it is.

LAGALLY: Well, I did notice you ate a lot of French fries for lunch in Germany, and you look perfectly healthy to me!

COMSA: Yes, and I even smoke! [Laughs]

LAGALLY: Terrible, terrible!

COMSA: So terrible. Yeah, I know. But I told Bill also, I think the most important thing is the co-workers. That was in my first life; that is the second life. I told you about this guy in the workshop. In fact, this guy gave us the possibility to make surface physics because he was so good and so interested. I must say he had only seven classes, but he was an excellent technician, and passionate and so on. Most of my colleagues now, also. That is the important thing, to have good co-workers. Of course, it's a game of chance. One has experience to look at the guy, but you don't know if he is good or bad until you work with him. And there, again, the philosophy is passive. If the guy is good, he has a strong personality. So leave him alone. If you start to change the personality, you can only spoil it. If the guy has no personality, then I'll give it up, it's hopeless. So, the only thing you can do is to try to give, not advice, but to give some ideas, or to say something. Of course, it should be the logical thing. And if he's a clever guy, he takes the logic, but don't expect that your advice is followed because the thing you tell him that seems to you very logical may seem to him illogical, and he will not take it.

LAGALLY: It's interesting. I spent two summers there, and it was very clear to me that the style and the management of these very good people in your institute were just absolutely ideal. Everyone was happy. And to keep a lot of very individual, strong-willed people happy takes some skills. Do you have some advice for us, how that is best done? I mean, again, your attitude sounds very passive, but I'm not so sure that that's the whole story. Are you keeping secrets from us?

COMSA: No, I don't keep a secret. [Laughter]

LAGALLY: You're not telling us?

COMSA: I don't try to impose myself on that. Because I am the director, I must be even more careful, because generally, authority is not a plus, but something which adds when you want to convince somebody. So, you must be careful to take it away and to stake only on logic and to be very, very careful because people are really very sensitive. The good ones are like a mimosa. You must be very, very attentive. What else to do? Leave them.

LAGALLY: Let me ask you two more questions. I've heard rumors that on vacation, you sit under the palm trees in Greece and correct papers. Is that the truth?

COMSA Yes. [Laughs]

LAGALLY: Do you do anything else for vacation?

COMSA: Yes, I am skiing. That is the vacation I like most. I ski between two and five weeks in the winter, and that is the best thing. Two or three weeks, I'm completely alone. One always has to think what happened the last year, if it was reasonable or not. And in the evening, I work on something. You know, after three days, I am relaxed completely. I, in fact, think that I'm relaxed all the time, so I don't need a vacation. But everybody takes a vacation, so I go there. The three days, if I wouldn't do anything. Skiing is very good because it keeps me busy. Other sports I don't do. In summer, I am swimming a little, but in general, you have to do something.

LAGALLY: Let me give you the final question. Not really a question. I'd like to just ask if you have anything that you would want to reminisce about, or anything that you would like to say for the record that might be of interest to you or something that you'd like to share with us.

COMSA: Let me say another thing, because you asked me at the beginning sometime about my connection with the AVS. I had also many, many friends who are scientists from America and Canada. One thing which influenced my career certainly very strongly was that in '62, I was allowed for the first time to go to a conference abroad. It was not in the West; it was in the East. It was in Hungary, and it was a very good conference. Two of the people, I think, are both here also. One was Daniel Alpert and the other was Paul Redhead. I was very, very impressed by their talk We talked very much together. Dan invited me to go to work with him for one year. My authorities didn't allow me to go. He kept the position open for one year, and then he gave it up. Maybe my life would be completely different. I don't know if it's better or worse, but anyhow, it was a very important thing for me. I was very happy when I was in Boston1 at the conference in '71. I went on purpose to visit him, and of course, very nice.

LAGALLY: I think he's one of our old-timers, in fact.

COMSA: Yes, of course. [Chuckles]

LAGALLY: Well, thanks very much, George. It was much a pleasure.

COMSA: Yes, I thank you very much.

1. The International Vacuum Congress and AVS Symposium were held jointly in Boston in 1971.