Experiences with Professor Otto Laporte

Marvel John Yoder marveljohn@icloud.com


September 2, 2014

 I was a new graduate student in 1962 and needed to find a research assistant position to support myself and my wife. I had graded papers and taken office hours for Dr. Dolph in the Engineering Math department, and he suggested that I contact Professor Otto Laporte. Even though I had been at Michigan for 4 years, I had not heard of Professor Laporte. That was because since he had just returned from Japan where he had been a Scientific Advisor to the US Embassy, so he had not been around Randall Laboratory.

 I boldly knocked on his door and asked him if he had any work/research for me. Little did I know his reputation for sometimes being very demanding and gruff if he did not like what you were saying/asking. That afternoon he was most gracious and asked me if I knew anything about computers. My reply was negative, but he said, that’s ok, you can learn about them. He had a project to solve Laplace’s equation on the exterior of a sphere, he and was looking for a numerical solution.   He also had some money to support this work.

 Later, when I talked to my other student colleagues about my conversation they said “you asked him WHAT? And he did not throw you out of the office?” He evidently had quite a reputation for sternness. I told them how nice he was. Little did they know that his strictness was only external (a little like a German professor) and that when you were working with him, he was usually as mild as a “pussy cat”.

 I spent a year learning about computers and programming his problem. Unfortunately in those new days of large IBM computers you could not form a matrix larger than about 400 x 400 or the computer would run out of memory and would crash, so it took a while to get good solutions. Also, you had to submit your pile of IBM punch cards in the computer center one day and had to wait for another day to see if you had made any mistakes (usually formatting, spelling or other small problems). We were programming in MAD (Michigan Algorithmic Decoder) language and if you made a mistake you got a print-out of Alfred E. Newman with a statement “What, me worry?” Later we programmed in Fortran. Otto seemed to be pleased with the calculated results. This all was a great learning experience for me since computers were just becoming popular and useful.

 The second year I took Otto’s two semester Theoretical Physics class and enjoyed it a lot. He prided himself on teaching the class without notes.   I learned however, that for about an hour before the class, he took out his previous notes and went over them thoroughly. He then closed up his notes and went empty-handed to the class.

 I somehow did not think I did well on the final exam and was too embarrassed to ask him about summer work. (In fact, I did quite well in the course but did not know it.) So I got a summer job for the University moving furniture into the new dorms and washing dorm windows. A few weeks into the summer I got a phone call from Laporte asking me what I was doing. He said that he had other work for me if I chose to do something other than washing windows. Of course I agreed to see him about it. As I entered his office he said “aha! The prodigal son returns.” Part of my work was checking his arithmetical calculations and another part involved more programming.   His detailed calculations were very precise and whenever I thought that I found a calculation mistake, it was usually mine, not his. I did better with the programming.

One day during his theoretical physics course Otto asked the class about the origin of sodium D lines. No one answered. He became very angry and threw his chalk against the blackboard and said “class dismissed, come back next week when you know about this basic fact in spectroscopy”. Things like this kept us students on our toes, never knowing when he was going to ask another similar question.

 My wife and I took three semesters of German, and we had saved our money so that we could spend a year studying in Germany in 1964-65 after my master’s degree in 1964. I worked for Laporte during the summer and was prepared to go to Göttingen, Germany starting in September. In August Laporte brought up the subject of what I would do in the fall. Thinking that he would be pleased, I said that I was going to spend the next year studying in Germany. He frowned, was stern and asked why in the world would I want to do that! I replied something about learning about science in Germany and broadening my experiences in the world and learning another language. He seemed OK with that and asked me where I had my scholarship. My answer was that I had no scholarship. He was most annoyed. “That will never do,” he said. “You go over to the German Department right away and see Chairman Otto Graf. He will give you a scholarship.” (Evidently he had been at a cocktail party with Professor Graf and they had discussed how only German-studies students took part in the exchange programs. “Real people” did not usually do it.)

 I then approached Otto Graf with trepidation wondering if this possibility was real, since I had not applied for it, but he was prepared for me. He had all the papers laid out. He said, how about going to the Freie Universität Berlin? I readily agreed. I got 500 marks a month and books and tuition.   Without that assistance we would never have been able to complete the year in Germany. There was no paperwork for application and no competition for this exchange scholarship. I was amazed and very happy.

 When I returned from Germany in the fall of 1965 I asked Laporte for more work, and he had a funded position in the experimental Shock Tube Project. Laporte had a reputation of requiring a lot of work and it taking a long time to complete the thesis research. This was not a problem for me at that time. It took me about 5 years to complete the research and write my Ph.D. thesis. About 4 years into this work he said that I needed to complete my work soon (perhaps he was concerned about his health problems, I don’t know). He wanted me to “test” the validity of the Rankine-Hugoniot equation as my final project. I said that it was ok, but I wanted to add a measurement of the rotational relaxation times for orthohydrogen and parahydrogen to my cryogenic shock tube research. He accepted that, but said that I needed to hurry up and get out into the real world and learn about other science and technologies. I would learn more there than by staying at the University. He was right.

 Otto invited me to lunch several times to discuss technical and other issues. One of the times I offered to pay, to which he answered. “When you return several years after your degree, I will be glad to take you up on that offer.” Unfortunately that never happened.

 Several times I dropped into his office to talk to him just as he was leaving to teach a class. He said that he could not do it then, but he invited me do walk with him to talk. That was most enjoyable. Otto had a particular way of holding his notes/books under his arm. I noticed that I was doing the same thing with my notes/books. It was an interesting but totally unintentional imitation.

One semester Otto was to teach the 500 Advanced Mechanics course (Euler-Lagrange equations, Hamiltonians, etc.), but he had to miss the first three weeks of class because he was in Europe. I had done well in the class a year earlier and offered to teach the class for him. He agreed that it would be ok but I could only teach one class per week. Little did I know how hard it was to teach it well. All I did during those three weeks was to prepare for a single lecture on Friday. The lectures went very well, and I had good feed-back from the students. However, I learned that knowing a subject well and presenting it in an interesting and intelligible way were two different things. Good teachers are not born, people have to work hard to become good teachers.

At Michigan I had several noteworthy classes/lectures that left me in awe of physics. These were delivered by George Uhlenbeck (1961 physics colloquium), Gabi Weinreich, Karl Hecht, David Dennison and others. One of the noteworthy lectures was by Otto in a quantum mechanics class. He derived two solutions of the Schrödinger equation for centro-symmetric atoms. One solution implied that the spectral lines for transitions between the states would consist of a triplet at a higher frequency and an associated singlet at a lower frequency. The other solution implied that the singlet would be at a higher frequency than the triplet. Only one of them occurred in nature. The other did not. From this directly followed the Laporte Rule that transitions occurred between states with a change in parity [even (gerade) parity to odd (ungerade) parity or vice-versa], but not from even to even parity or odd to odd parity. These latter transitions were forbidden. After he reached this conclusion, he left the room with no further discussion. My jaw dropped in amazement at the simplicity of the derivation and the consequences.

Another memorable lecture was given in about 1969 in a Wednesday colloquium in which Otto gave first hand reports of his interactions with Arnold Sommerfeld, Wolfgang Pauli, and his contemporary Munich graduate students Werner Heisenberg, Gregor Wentzel, Karl Herzfeld, and Paul Peter Ewald. One of his stories was that Wilhelm Wien (of the Wien displacement law) did not want to grant a doctorate to Heisenberg. After much urging from Sommerfeld, Wien finally agreed to approve Heisenberg’s doctorate, but only with the lowest possible grade.

 In about 1969 I was aware of Otto’s stomach problems, but did not know that it was cancer. I finished the draft of my thesis in late 1970 and gave it to him. He retuned it with a few small changes and thought it was good. Unfortunately Otto died in March of 1971. It was very sad. He seemed old to me at the time, but now that I am 75, he was not old at all. I finished my final draft and Ph.D. thesis defense with Professor Michael Sanders in late 1971.

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