Joachim Jänecke: Conferences, Reminiscences

.                                                                                          JJ:  September, 2014

It was in the fall of 1998 shortly after my retirement that I attended the International Conference on Exotic Nuclei and Atomic Masses ENAM1998 at the Shanty Creek Resorts near Bellaire in Northern Michigan. One day I became aware that several of my faculty colleagues from the University of Michigan were present, Fred Becchetti, Larry Jones, Bob Lewis, Ted Hecht, Byron Roe, and a few others. I asked them whether they had come to play golf at the resort. Well, they hadn’t. What I didn’t know was that at the beginning of the banquet in the evening Fred Becchetti announced that I had retired, and he gave me a present and a document. I then had to say a few words which were not very coherent. I very much regret not thinking about this earlier, because I could have made some interesting comments for the attendees of this conference and selected reminiscences about earlier atomic mass conferences.

For example, something like this: “First, I want to thank my colleagues from the University of Michigan to have come here on this occasion. When I saw them earlier I thought they had come to play golf. Also, I thank you for the gift. – Given the opportunity, I want to say a few words mostly about earlier AMCO and ENAM conferences. (Atomic Masses and Fundamental Constants / Exotic Nuclei and Atomic Masses)

The first AMCO Conference which I attended was AMCO3 at Winnipeg, Mannitoba, in 1967. I had received a letter from Professor Burcham in England whether I could give a talk on Coulomb energies. I had just published a paper on “Vector and Tensor Coulomb Energies”.

But let me very briefly back up. The first International Nuclear Physics Conference which I ever attended was as a beginning student in Heidelberg in about 1950. The occasion was the 60s birthday of Professor Bothe. He later became my Ph.D. thesis chairman, also – more importantly – he received the Nobel Prize. This was the very first international conference in Germany after the second world war. It was attended by Bothe, of course, Kopfermann, Mayer-Leibnitz, Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, Schmelzer – who built the Univac at the GSI in Darmstadt – J.H.D.Jensen and Maria Goeppert-Meyer from Chicago – later both recipients of the Nobel prize for the discovery of the nuclear shell model. Then Gentner who became important at CERN and then director of the MPI in Heidelberg, Prof. Clay from Leyden, Nordheim from California, remember the Nordheim rules, Scandinavian participation, Lise Meitner, Wolfgang Pauli, also a recipients of the Nobel prize, and many others. Again, this was my first international nuclear physics conference. – Another interesting conference which I attended was a few years later in 1958 in Geneva on the “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy”. I came back and told my colleagues at the Max–Planck-Institute what I had learned, fusion energy will become available in 2-3 years.

A conference which changed my life was the Congrès International de Physique Nucleaire in 1964 in Paris. I had previously spent a couple of years as a Research Associate and Lecturer at the University of Michigan, and I had returned to Germany. At this conference I again met my colleague Bill Parkinson from Ann Arbor. He asked me why I had never responded to their letter. I hadn’t received this letter. It got lost. Well, they had made me an offer for a faculty position. The rest is history.

JaneckeWithParkinsonParis1964Professor William Parkinson with  Joachim and Christa Jänecke

Back to AMCO3 in Winnipeg. I gave my invited presentation, and I still remember that a distinguished participant of the Conference, actually a very distinguished participant, fell asleep in the first row. I am inclined to believe that this was due to jetlag, of course. – But I also distinctly remember walking down a hallway, with sunshine coming in from the side, when three Israeli physicists came the other direction. I had exchanged pre- and re-prints with Nissan Zeldes before, but this was the first time I met him in person. I did not know then that this would become a lifelong friendship with him and later also with his wife Carla. Christa and I met Carla when they spend a long sabbatical in Ann Arbor at the end of the 1980s and again in 1995.

And then came all the other wonderful and interesting AMCO Conferences in Teddington near London, in Paris, East Lansing, Damstadt. Then the joint NFFS/AMCO conference in 1992 in Bernkastel-Kues, beautiful sunshine, and the first ENAM (Exotic Nuclei and Atomic Masses) conference in Arles, France. And finally the present conference in Northern Michigan.

At the Teddington Conference I remember the evening when Nissan and I went to see the play “Fiddler on the Roof”. In Paris I remember the banquet up on the Eiffel Tower, and also the initial reception at the Musèe de Metrology. We were reminded of the 100-year anniversary of the 1875 “Convention du Mètre”. But I still have to memorize that 1 mile has 5280 feet and a gallon of milk contains 128 fluid ounces !

So, let me conclude with AMCO 8, the conference which wasn’t. AMCO 8 was to take place in Jerusalem in 1990 organized by Nissan Zeldes. I had prepared such a nice talk, and then it was cancelled because of events in the Middle East. E-mails went back and forth before the conference, whether one should cancel, or whether the Israeli organizers had worked out plans to evacuate all participants. Well, long before the beginning of the conference I had requested airline tickets from TWA using frequent flyer miles, still worth something in those days. So, I had two free tickets from Detroit Metro to Ben Gurion Airport. Also with a one-week stop in Rome. And, since TWA didn’t fly Rome-Israel, “unfortunately” we had to fly back to Paris for another two days. Well, we arrived in Israel but there was no conference. Therefore, Nissan and Carla had all the time to spend with us. There were no tourists in town. At the hotel we could pick the room with the best view down onto the Old City and the Jaffa Gate. Christa and I together with a woman from New York tried to have a guided tour through the Old City. After much effort the boss of the tourist organization took us around to interesting places. In one place Yeshiva students shouted at us because women were not allowed there, in another place young Palestinian boys wanted to throw stones at us. One day the four of us drove down to the Dead Sea. We swam, and then we sat down in a spa hotel lobby, and I remember that we started talking into the dark as if we had known each other since childhood, even though our childhoods in Germany and Israel, Carla’s in Italy before she had to leave, were indeed very different. – After the week in Jerusalem was over, at the suggestion of a secretary, I was the only one who had his registration fee reimbursed. After all, I had attended the Conference !

International Conferences are important for the exchange of scientific ideas and for establishing collaborations. But these gatherings are equally important for making personal contacts between people from different parts of the world and different cultures. – Let me stop here.”

Added later: Since ENAM1995 in Arles the four of us always spend time together after the conference, then driving through the Provence with Nîmes and Avignon. In 1998 at the conference in Bellaire the two wives explored the Northern Michigan countryside while the husband listened to lectures, and afterward we spend time together at our cottage on Lake Michigan. In 2001 after the conference in Finland we flew to Saint Petersburg to enjoy this beautiful city with its museums. The last of this sequence of conferences we both attended was ENAM2004 at the beautiful Callaway Gardens in Georgia. After this conference we drove back to Ann Arbor and spent a week together. Yes, friendships are important. Since then only email, snail mail, telephone calls.

AnnArbor2004-1&2     (L) Carla and Nissan Zeldes with Joachim and Christa Jänecke
(R) Nissan Zeldes with Homer Neal 

I have, of course attended over the years very many other meetings, symposia, workshops, and conferences, many in the United States, but also in Canada and many places in Europe, and in later years in Russia and Japan. In 1990 I attended the Symposium “Nuclear Physics in the 1990’s” in Santa Fe in Honor of Akito Arima, an important Japanese theorist and administrator and visitor to Ann Arbor in 1973 for a 2-week workshop. In 1991 I helped to organize here in Ann Arbor an International Symposium to Honor our colleague K.T.Hecht, “Group Theory and Special Symmetries in Nuclear Physics”. In 2000, at the last conference I attended in Japan, a special challenge arose when towards the end I had to express thanks to the conference organizer – in Japanese.

Shown in the photographs are Nissan Zeldes (1926 – 2014) and his wife Carla Zeldes (1929 – 2013).  Nissan  was Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Racah Institute of Physics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During his career he has been guest scientist at the Niels Bohr Institut in Copenhagen, at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, at CSNSM and IPN in Orsay, at the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and at the University of Tennesse in Knoxville. In particular, he spent a sabbatical of 15 months at the University of Michigan in 1989/90 and again for 3–4 months in 1995. He interacted primarily with the Nuclear Group and the Theory Group, also with Professor Homer Neal.
.   Nissan Zeldes’ last publication was a review of the groundbreaking papers of Racah who developed the mathematical methods for the calculation of the spectra of complex atoms. This work was carried out in Jerusalem in complete scientific isolation during the years of World War II. In this work Racah pioneered the use of symmetries and group theory.
Zeldes, N., “Giulio Racah and Theoretical Physics in Jerusalem”, Arch Hist Exact Sci 63, 289 – 323 (2009)

Peter Franken on Research Inhibitions

from International J. Science & Technology, May 1963

1963 FrankenResearchInhibtions1   1963 FrankenResearchInhibtions31963 FrankenResearchInhibtions2

1963 FrankenResearchInhibtions4

Experiences with Professor Otto Laporte

Marvel John Yoder

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.

Ralph Sawyer accepts a position at Michigan.

Ralph Alanson Sawyer (1895 -1978) was an active member of the Michigan physics faculty for 45 years. He had a distinguished record for pure and applied research along with a talent for administration that brought him to important positions of scientific, military, and academic leadership.   From 1919 to 1939 he rose from instructor to full professor within the physics department.  With the onset of WWII he went on active duty with the Navy and then, back as a civilian, became the scientific director of the 1946 Bikini atomic bomb tests.  The University then recalled him in 1947 to serve as dean of the Rackham Graduate School and, in 1959 added the title of vice president for research.  He was president of the Optical Society of America from 1955–57 and chairman of the board of governors of the American Institute of Physics 1959-1971.

          In 1967, Sawyer was interviewed at length by the distinguished science historian Charles Weiner; the transcript
         of their conversation is available on the AIP website.  (
The following text derives and is adapted from a short portion of that interview.


Ralph Sawyer graduated in 1915 from Dartmouth and by 1919 had finished his Ph.D. under Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago.   In the summer of that year, Randall wrote a letter inviting Sawyer to join the Michigan faculty. The two men had not met, but Randall had been impressed by an article on ultraviolet spectroscopy that Sawyer and Millikan had published in the Physical Review.  Randall, knowing that that Millikan had been busy and often away from Chicago during WWI, conjectured that Sawyer had done most of the work himself and thus was capable of independent research.   The negotiations were entirely by correspondence; Sawyer first saw Ann Arbor when he arrived to join the University of Michigan faculty in September of 1919.  He retained the affiliation with Michigan for his entire career.

Sawyer came to Ann Arbor to establish a research program, but he also knew that his responsibilities included teaching.   He had been appointed as an instructor, and the standard teaching load for instructors was 12 hours per week; moreover, instructors did not have teaching assistants and so had to grade exams, quizzes, and homework themselves.   For several years, then, Sawyer had five recitation sections, about 150 students in all, every semester.

In his 1967 interview with Wiener, Sawyer recalled this load as being nearly murderous.  Nevertheless, he quickly attracted graduate students as he built a laboratory for visible and ultraviolet spectroscopy that complemented the infrared spectroscopy for which Michigan was already famous.

The Physics Scientific Instrument Shop


The intent of this website is for its sections to be repositories of information that encourage comments, additions, and alternative opinions.   As such, its organization may not be optimum for the reader but it can at least serve as a source for a more carefully developed history of Michigan’s Physics Department.


Shop History  1890-2012

This section of MichiganPhysics is an archive of historical items related to the Physics Instrument Shop, a facility dating from the end of the 19th century that existed as a unit within the physics department until 2010.    This shop had a rich history; it built research apparatus ranging from small, precise optical instruments to the large components of high energy accelerators.  The shop was an indispensable part of the research done in the times when physicists built much of their own research apparatus, but the role of such shops has changed in the recent past, and it is the purpose of this section to capture the history of that change.

In the decades 1950-1970 the shop fully utilized as many as ten machinists and instrument makers, but by 2000 most physics research projects bought much of their apparatus from commercial vendors; over the following years the physics shop staff shrunk to five, and finally, with the retirement of shop supervisor Ted Webster, the shop staff comprised three individuals: the two instrument makers Dave Carter and Jim Tice along with the student shop supervisor Julian Broad.

Similar issues affected the Chemistry Department Shop that was facing the retirement of its supervisor Al Wilson and instrument maker Kim Firestone, while George Johnston and Steve Donajkowski were planning to remain.   The Astronomy Department’s technician, Scott Webster, was affected by the upcoming move of his department to another building.

In 2010 the University Administration, after deliberation and with consultation, decided that future research within the entire College  of Literature, Science and the Arts would be better served by unifying the Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy resources to create a Scientific Machine Shop under collegiate administration.   The existing Physics shop area in the Randall was cleared of obsolete machines and otherwise renovated to make room for the best of the machine tools from Chemistry.  Older milling machines were fitted with CNC drives.  Michael Folts, newly hired to be the supervisor of the unified shop, oversaw the acquisition of a 3-Axis CNC mill and a modern CNC lathe.   Several  of the machines that were deemed surplus to the new shop  trickled down to replace much older machines in the student shop.

We contrast the earlier configuration of the shop, in which lathes outnumbered milling machines

with the new arrangment shown below in which milling machines predominate.   The computer control retrofitted to these Bridgeport mills enable one to machine circular flanges, o-ring grooves, and bolt circles quite easily, tasks that were formerly done on lathes.


Technical Staff  1890-1937  as listed on the Michigan Physics Timeline
(prepared in 1937 by Charles F. Meyer)

Ralph H. Miller, Instrument maker, 1892-1894
Sidney W Barrow, Instrument maker  1916-1920
F G Nagel, Instrument maker, 1920-23
Captain Achilles de Khotinsky,  1921-1925, Design engineer  and instrument maker
B. Banta, instrument maker,  1922-1924
Hermann R. Roemer, 1922, Instrument maker; head of shop until retirement in 1965
Paul Weyrich, 1923-1962 (?), Instrument maker
August Wagner,  1924-became head of shop in 1965 and retired in 1970(?)
H.C. Ritz, 1927-193?  shop assistant
W.O. Mintel, 1935-19?? Instrument maker

Physics Glassblowers

Frank Schaefer, glassblower (piece work and part time) 1923-1926
Gunther Kessler, 1926-1965(?), our last glassblower in physics.

Post 1937 Shop Personnel  (fragmentary list, estimated dates)

Fritz Bausch  1960-1994?
Rudi Wolf      1964- 1990?
John Dix        1982?–1995?
Ernst Luder   1962?-1990?
Walter Widmayer  1960’s
Paul Halloway (in ~1970 followed Wagner as head of the shop) retired
Ted Webster   1975?  (in ~ 1980 followed Halloway as head of shop) retired 2004?


.   to be continued —-

Michigan and the first Atomic Clock

Michigan and the First Atomic Clock

Jens Zorn,
Randall Laboratory of Physics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1040

The first atomic clock has its origins with the research done at the University of Michigan and by its graduates over the years 1912-1948.

Although the current (2012) standard of time/frequency is based on a 9 GHz microwave transition in cesium, the first device that one could really call an atomic clock was designed and built in 1948 by Harold Lyons (UM physics PhD 1939) at the National Bureau of Standards. This clock, which predates the first cesium clock by four years, was based on the 24 GHz microwave transition in the ammonia (NH3) molecule. The existence of this transition was predicted by David Dennison in 1932; it was discovered in 1934 when the Michigan experimentalists Neil Williams and Claud Cleeton developed the magnetron tubes to produce the necessary radiation to perform the first-ever microwave spectroscopy.

But the story begins even earlier.
The theoretical understanding of the ammonia molecule rests on the experimental work started by Harrison Randall when he returned to Michigan in 1911 after working for a year on the infrared spectroscopy of atoms in Paschen’s laboratory in Tübingen. Randall built his own infrared spectrometer and initially studied some unresolved questions on the barium atom.
Then in 1913 from Berlin, Eva von Bahr published spectra arising from vibrational transitions in HCl, spectra with indications of a fine structure that was conjectured to arise from molecular rotation. Randall, whose spectrometer had a higher resolution than von Bahr’s, realized that he could resolve the question of whether molecular rotation was quantized in the same way that Bohr had assumed for electrons in his 1913 theory of the atom. Randall then directed the Michigan infrared effort toward molecules, first to diatomic molecules and then to small polyatomic molecules including NH3. The issue of quantized rotation was soon settled by Elmer Imes whose thesis experiments on HCl proved definitive , but it took longer to understand ammonia. By 1929, Barker had finally established the dimensions of the NH3 pyramid, and subsequent measurements of its spectra by Dennison and Hardy, and later by Wright and Randall, determined values for the doublet splitting of the vibrational states.
A theoretical calculation by Dennison and Uhlenbeck (1932) confirmed the dimensions and energies in this double minimum problem, however their paper does not explicitly mention the possibility of observing a microwave transition in NH3. Rather it appears that Dennison was the one who made the suggestion in 1932 that UM Professor Neil Williams and his students look for the absorption of 24 GHz radiation.


Photo of Dennison explaining to Ray Van Ausdal the focusing and state selecting action of a quadrupole field for  focusing a beam of NH3 molecules.  Dennison’s theory was the basis for the first Maser as built by Gordon, Zeiger and Townes in 1954.

In the early 1930s, no one had been able to produce controllable frequencies higher than 8 GHz with vacuum tubes, but Neil Williams had been engaged with the physics and engineering of vacuum tubes since 1924-5 during his time on leave at the General Electric laboratories in Schenectady. There Williams had worked under the guidance of A. W Hull, a pioneer in the development of the magnetron as a vacuum tube for generating very high frequencies. After his return from Schenectady, Williams did research at Michigan on aspects of electron emission but he did not particularly concentrate on high frequency generation.
Fortunately, Williams responded with enthusiasm to Dennison’s suggestion: He set Claud Cleeton, his graduate student who was already well-versed in research, to the task of building a magnetron to generate radiation of appropriately high frequency. Cleeton succeeded; he and Williams then built spectrometer to look at the absorption of microwaves by a gas of ammonia molecules. The successful results of this experiment, the first microwave spectroscopy ever done, were reported in 1934.
(Cleeton and Williams continued their development of magnetrons and by 1936 had pushed the limit for high frequency generation by vacuum tubes to 45 GHz, a new record; this led to Cleeton getting a wartime assignment to do radar development at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC )

"NH3"   --- a sculpture commemorating Michigan's discovery of microwave spectroscopy

“NH3” — a sculpture by Jens Zorn commemorating Michigan’s discovery of microwave spectroscopy

Harold Lyons was a graduate student in the Michigan Physics Department over the years 1934-39 doing a PhD thesis under the direction of Professor Ora Duffendack (who had also been in Schenectady in 1924-5). Lyons graduated in 1939 and went from Michigan to work at the Naval Research Laboratory for two years; he then joined the National Bureau of Standards and was soon chosen as chief of the Microwave Standards Section. Lyons’s familiarity with frequency standards together with the post-war availability of microwave hardware led him to build a clock based on the 24 GHz transition in ammonia. This clock consisted of a quartz crystal oscillator that was stabilized to the absorption frequency of a 8-meter-long tube filled with ammonia gas. The signal from the oscillator was then divided down to a frequency appropriate to drive an ordinary electric clock that was mounted on the front of the apparatus. This ammonia clock, the first atomic clock, was built by Lyons and his staff in the NBS Laboratories; it became operational in August of 1948,
It turns out that pressure broadening and power dependence of the 24 GHz transition limited the 1948 ammonia clock’s precision to parts in 10E+8, this not really improving on carefully-built quartz oscillator frequency standards. For increased precision it seemed promising (as suggested by Rabi and others) to base a clock on transitions observed in atomic beam spectrometer. Several laboratories (including a collaboration between Lyons of NBS and Kusch of Columbia) began working on a cesium beam clocks, and some of these became operational in early 1953. By 1967 their improved precision (parts in 10E+12) and their reliability led to the adoption of the 9 GHz hyperfine transition in cesium as the international standard of frequency. At this writing (2012), the best cesium clocks approach the 10E+16 level of precision, but it appears that optical transitions in trapped beryllium ions may offer almost two orders of magnitude improvement for the standard of time/frequency.
Given the relatively close interactions among the Michigan graduate students and faculty in the mid-1930’s, it is quite likely that Lyons knew much about Cleeton’s thesis already in 1934; moreover, after leaving Michigan both men had overlapping time in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. Both worked on radar systems during WWII and in the immediate postwar years. (I am now looking for correspondence or other evidence that they might have had discussions of the NH3 absorption during their time in the Washington area — evidence that would link Cleeton more directly than he already is to the development of the atomic clock.)

Comment: The term “atomic clock” is here regarded as describing a timekeeper or frequency standard that uses a resonance in either an atom or a molecule, either neutral or ionized, as a reference pendulum
It is interesting to note that as ammonia was being eclipsed as a frequency standard in 1952, its very large electric dipole moment made it the molecule of choice in 1954 when Gordon, Zeiger and Townes used it as the working molecule in the first maser

Development of Biophysics at Michigan

 On the Development of Biophysics at The University of Michigan

 by Samuel Krimm
Professor Emeritus of Physics and Research Scientist Emeritus of Biophysics
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
June, 2011

Biophysics has had a long history at the University of Michigan, from its beginnings in the research of faculty members of the Department of Physics in the 1940s, through efforts to establish a department in 1950, toward the final success in establishing a University institute in 1960, and to the present formation in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) of an Enhanced Program in Biophysics (which is equivalent to a department) in 2009. My aim here is to provide an account of the early activities, which center around the research of major individuals and their persistent actions to establish viable academic biophysics units at the University.

Individual Biophysical Research

The early development of interest in melding the disciplines of physics and biology centered on the research of scientists, primarily in the Department of Physics. It is therefore important to know the history of this evolution, particularly in its elements of marrying the fundamentals and techniques of physics with the desire to answer basic questions in biology.

Detlev Bronk. Although the most substantive efforts in biophysical studies began in the 1940s, it would be amiss not to note the singular emergence of this disciplinary vision that is associated with Detlev Bronk   This future president both of the National Academy of Sciences and of the  Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research started his scientific career at the University of Michigan. Although he enrolled in 1921 in the graduate program in Physics, working on studies of the infrared absorption of hydrogen chloride, by 1923 he was attracted to the idea of physical investigations of physiological mechanisms, encouraged by Chairman Harrison Randall “…in the belief that there is a large and undeveloped field in the investigation of physical laws in living organisms and [who] said that he would be glad to have such work carried on in his department…” (Brink, Jr., 1978).  Bronk went on to study physiology and, with Robert Gesell, published seven papers on physiological properties of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and neural excitation of secretion from the salivary glands in mammals. In 1926 he received the Ph.D. in Physics and Physiology, the first of its kind in the nation.

Bronk’s subsequent research career continued with biophysical studies of physiological processes, and his advocacy of the discipline manifested itself in the transition of the Rockefeller Institute to Rockefeller University.

H. Richard Crane. After getting his Ph.D. at Cal Tech and doing a post-doc there, Crane came to Michigan in 1935 and soon built an accelerator to continue his research in nuclear physics.  Because of the Medical School interest in the biological effects of radiation, he started a seminar on this topic and even pursued his incipient interest in biology by attending courses in biochemistry and physiology. In the early 1940s the Bacteriology Department acquired an electron microscope with funding from the Rackham Graduate School with the proviso that the Physics Department install and run it, which naturally fell to Crane. To help visualization, he “…asked [Robley Williams] if he could evaporate a little metal onto the bacteria and viruses that were to be photographed in the electron microscope, and wondered what they would look like. The effect was striking. They looked three-dimensional.” (Crane, 1997). By 1945 Crane had perfected a shadow casting unit for the microscope, which Williams would exploit in his work.

After the war, Crane maintained activity in the biophysical area. In a paper on “Principles and Problems of Biological Growth” (Crane, June1950) he enunciated a basic idea: “The attachment of one [unit of a structure] to another was always done in exactly the same way, geometrically…The first and most striking thing to be noted in the models is that all of them take the form of a screw, or helix, which winds around a straight axis.” It is intriguing to wonder if this article influenced Linus Pauling in his seminal proposals of basic protein chain structures, since he states in his first of many papers on the subject (Pauling, Corey, Branson, April 1951) that “Hence, the only configurations for a chain compatible with our postulate of equivalence of the residues are helical configurations.” After the 1953 Watson and Crick discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA many scientists engaged in discussions of its biophysical properties, one of which was the 1956 Crane and Cyrus Levinthal (of the Physics Department) physical analysis of the proposed  unwinding of the two strands during replication. Even though he no longer worked in this area, Crane maintained an interest in the development of biophysics at Michigan.

Robley C. Williams. Williams came to Michigan in 1935 as an Assistant Professor of Astronomy, was recruited in 1941 for war work (during which he was introduced to viruses), and returned to Michigan in 1945 as Associate Professor of Physics. His work on evaporating  an aluminum coating for telescope mirrors was what induced Crane to approach him on evaporating some on viruses for possible visualization enhancement. In 1945, together with Ralph W. G. Wyckoff of the UM Department of Epidemiology, Williams  published the first electron shadow micrograph of the tobacco mosaic virus protein (Williams and Wyckoff, 1945), the forerunner of his many subsequent contributions to the study of the structure of this and other viruses.

Williams left in 1950 for Berkeley to continue his virus studies. In 1957 he was elected the first President of the recently formed Biophysical Society.

Cyrus Levinthal. After a Ph.D. at Berkeley and coming to Michigan in 1950, Levinthal turned his attention to biophysical studies. This resulted in the above-mentioned work with Crane and in an important paper on the mechanism of DNA replication (Levinthal, 1956). In this work he used 32P labeling to demonstrate that, as the replication proceeds from an initially fully labeled DNA reproducing in a non-labeled cell growing in a non-labeled medium, the label is fully retained in one strand of the double helix rather than being dispersed among the growing strands. This provided strong support for the complementary replication mechanism suggested by the double-helix DNA structure of Watson and Crick.

Levinthal left Michigan for MIT in 1957 and in 1968 he joined Columbia University as the Chairman of its newly-established Department of Biological Sciences. In subsequent work he stimulated considerations of the dynamics of how protein molecules fold into their biologically active form (“Levinthal’s paradox,” which points out that if the protein samples all possible conformations before finding its native structure it would require a time longer than the age of the universe); and he was the first to develop the basis of computer imaging of the three-dimensional structures of biological molecules.

Gordon B. B. M. Sutherland.    Joining the Physics faculty in 1949, the eminent British scientist Gordon Sutherland quickly built one of the most prominent and diverse infrared  spectroscopy laboratories in this country, thus continuing Michigan’s traditional strength in infrared research that had started when Randall returned from Tübingen in 1911.

Among the areas of research were macromolecular systems, including synthetic polymers and a continuation of his studies on biological systems. This was still the era of interpretation based on so-called group frequencies that were derived from complete analyses of the spectra of relevant small molecules, and is represented in his review on “Infrared Analysis of the Structures of Amino Acids, Polypeptides and Proteins” (Sutherland, 1952). At this point it did not seem feasible to obtain for such large molecules as polymers and proteins the kind of physical insights into structure provided by the normal mode analysis that could be implemented for small molecules. Nevertheless, Sutherland provided important continuity to the long-standing Michigan excellence in the field of infrared spectroscopy established by Randall, and he set the stage for the coming challenges to apply normal mode analysis to understanding the structure-spectrum correlations in macromolecules.

Sutherland left Michigan in 1956 to become director of England’s National Physical Laboratory and in 1964 he became Master of Emmanuel College in Cambridge.

Samuel Krimm. One of the postdoctoral fellows in Sutherland’s group was Samuel Krimm, who came in 1950 to study the infrared spectra of synthetic polymers. His initial goal was to investigate the then-unexplored far infrared region, which was accessible only at Michigan with a far-infrared vacuum spectrometer built in 1936 by Randall to obtain the long-wavelength rotation spectrum of water. Krimm’s subsequent research involved obtaining experimental spectra of a range of polymers and implementing normal mode analyses for such systems based on force fields developed from small-molecule analogs. These studies led to a deeper understanding of fundamental aspects of the structure and interactions in polymers like polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride. It was this capability that induced Krimm in the early 1970s to extend his earlier preliminary studies on protein spectra into an extensive program of normal mode analyses of the infrared and Raman spectra of polypeptides. The results of this research were summarized in a comprehensive and much-quoted review on “Vibrational Spectroscopy and Conformation of Peptides, Polypeptides, and Proteins” (Krimm, 1986). This area remained a major  component of his ongoing research program, of which other biophysically related studies included: circular dichroism investigations of the supposedly “random” chain structure of denatured proteins in solution; and theoretical studies to improve the physical accuracy of classical (so-called molecular mechanics) potential energy functions used for structure and dynamics calculations on proteins by requiring agreement with force-dependent properties such as vibrational spectra in addition to the (then-restricted) agreement with energy-dependent properties such as structure.

Others. In 1948 Harrison Randall (at the age of 78!) began a series of infrared studies on compounds found in viruses and bacteria, and was publishing papers on this work well into his 80s. Richard Sands arrived in Michigan in 1957 and soon after started his electron paramagnetic resonance and Mössbauer studies of cytochrome oxidase and other biologically important molecules.

During his 1961-69 tenure, Charles R. Worthington embarked on incisive small-angle x-ray studies of molecular organization in collagen, muscle, and nerve myelin.

After the phase-out in the mid-1970s of the department’s cyclotron and the termination of its local research program, William Parkinson turned to studies of the effects of electromagnetic radiation on biological systems.   C. Tristram Coffin shifted his interests from particle physics to biophysics.

Academic Biophysics Units

It should be clear from the above descriptions that merging the disciplines of physics and biology was embedded from the earliest times in the vision of many members of the Department of Physics. The major players also felt strongly that the key to progress in achieving this goal would depend on a parallel effort by the University to establish an academic base for defining the discipline, developing the training of students, and promoting the acquisition of financial support for research programs. As the following chronology attests, this was not to be achieved in a timely manner, dedicated people left, and it is clear that Michigan failed to capitalize on the revolution in molecular biology that was started by the 1953 discovery of the DNA double helix.


6/1949   Dean Ralph Sawyer announces the establishment of a “doctoral degree Program
in Biophysics” in the Graduate School and appoints Robley Williams as the
chairman of its implementation committee.

12/1949  Williams transmits to Dean Sawyer the Program’s recommendation for the
Ph. D. in Biophysics. Its approval remained the basis for the degree.

1950       A decision is made to create a Department of Biophysics starting in the 1950-51
academic year, but the action is rescinded by the Regents following the
resignation of Williams in June to go to Berkeley, attracted there by the virus
work  of Wendell Stanley and the opportunity to join the newly created
Department of Virology. A bachelor’s concentration in biophysics is established
in the Physics Department.

1/1951    Following the departure of Williams, Dean Hayward Keniston of LSA asks
Sutherland to “reactivat[e] a program in biophysics” by “creating a
committee which would serve to coordinate all of the interests in the field.”

7/1951    Sutherland organizes a “Summer Symposium on Biophysics” at the University.
Speakers include Salvatore Luria, J. Lawrence Oncley, Paul Doty, Ernest
Pollard, and Max Delbruck.

11/1951  Sutherland, for the Committee on Biophysics, recommends to the Division of
Biological Sciences “the early establishment of a Laboratory of Biophysics in
the Physics Department with a separate allocation of funds.”

1954       A group of physics professors, supported by Chairman Ernest Barker, submits a
proposal to the Administrative Officers “to sanction the formation of a
Biophysics Research Unit as a separate entity in the University.” Although “it
would not be expected that it would be given any appropriation…it should
receive due consideration in future appropriations… for research.”

9/1955    The Regents, on request of the Department of Physics, establish in the Graduate
School a Biophysics Research Center “to encourage research in biophysics and
to administer funds provided for research in biophysics.” Sutherland is named
Director of the Center.

9/1955    The Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry Study Section of NIH sponsors a
“Conference on the Status of Biophysics” at the University “to discuss mutual
research and administrative problems with leaders in the general area of

7/1956    A “Summer Symposium on Biophysics” is held at the University. Speakers
include Francis Crick, James Watson, Alex Rich, Erwin Chargaff, David
Harker, Cyrus Levinthal, Gunther Stent, Seymour Benzer, Fancois Jacob,
Joshua Lederberg, Sol Spiegelman, Felix Haurowitz, and many others.

12/1958  Following the departures of Sutherland and Levinthal, Samuel Krimm is
appointed Director of the Biophysics Research Center.

1/1960    An application by Krimm to NIH for a graduate training grant is rejected,
with the following  comments: “ The University of Michigan’s early venture
into physical biology was well known as well as are more recent difficulties
which have been experienced. The failure of physical biology to develop and
flourish was a source of great concern to our consultants and a cause for inquiry
into why the environment was not a propitious one. [Our] consultants were of
the opinion that [the Biophysics Committee] was in reality largely a paper
structure which could not exercise the strong and continuing leadership in
support of the proposed program which is so necessary for its success.” The
Center decides to urge substantive University commitment to biophysics and
the search for an eminent outside Director.

5/1960    Evolving from the impact of the NIH decision, and following intensive
discussions by the Director and members of the Center with the administration,
Dean Roger Heyns of LSA and Dean William Hubbard of the Medical School,
with the concurrence of Dean Sawyer, submit a proposal to transfer the Center
to the newly formed Institute of Science and Technology (IST). They propose
that about “$75,000 of Institute funds be allocated to the support of the Center,
to be used primarily to secure one major appointment in biophysics and several
younger appointments and to provide initial research support for [these].”

6/1960    The above proposal is formalized, presented to the Regents, and accepted by
them to reorganize the Center as the Biophysics Research Division (BRD) of
IST, under the Office of the Vice-President for Research, with a Director.

6/1960    Based on earlier studies by the Center, Dugald Brown (Zoology) and Horace
Davenport (Physiology) prepare an application to NIH, submitted by Dean
Sawyer, for a Health Research Facilities Grant. Approval permits construction
of the BRD wing of the IST building on North Campus. A committee to choose
a director is formed.

9/1960   The committee to choose a Director of BRD first meets, with David Dennison
of Physics as Chairman and Dean Heyns as a member.

1961       Oncley accepts the University’s offer of the position of Director.

1962       Oncley arrives in Ann Arbor to assume the position of Director of BRD. The
Biophysical Society, established in 1957 with Robley Williams as its first
President, elects Oncley as its fourth President.

1963       The BRD wing in IST is occupied, including laboratories of several faculty
groups that Oncley brings from Harvard as well as  those of the Michigan
groups of Krimm and Sands.

1964       An NIH Training Grant in Biophysics, with Oncley as Director, is awarded for a
5-year period to support the Ph. D. program, and is renewed in 1969.

It is evident that, with the establishment of the Biophysics Research Division, the discipline of biophysics becomes embedded in the academic structure of the University. Its later history is another story, but it may be worth noting some highlights.

1) Interdisciplinary Chairs: Krimm (Physics) 1976-86; Martha Ludwig (Biological Chemistry), 1982-83, 86-89, 95-96; John Langmore (Biology), 1989-95; Rowena Matthews (Biological Chemistry), 1996-2001; Erik Zuiderweg (Chemistry, Biological Chemistry), acting chair 2001-02; James Penner-Hahn (Chemistry), 2002-07; Duncan Steel (Electrical Engineering, Physics), 2007-08; Jens-Christian Meiners (Physics), 2008-.

2) Financial Support: In addition to the University’s traditional funding of faculty salaries and other administrative support for BRD, the Executive Officers approve in 1985 the establishment of a Program in Protein Structure and Design, with Krimm as Director, that includes funding for future additional BRD faculty appointments, many of them in Physics. In 1986 the Program receives a $940,000 award from the State of Michigan’s Research Excellence and Economic Development Fund, a portion of which is used to provide new and improved equipment in BRD.

3) Division Move. In the interest of being located closer to participating departments, BRD is moved in 1993 from the IST building on North Campus into renovated space on the third and fourth floors of the 1908 wing of the Chemistry building on Central Campus. The move proves beneficial in all respects.

4) Organizational Change. In view of the increasing role of teaching in the BRD mission, Provost Paul Courant initiates in 2005 a study of whether Biophysics should be more appropriately placed as a department within LSA. This results in 2009 in the creation of LSA Biophysics, an Enhanced Program with tenure-appointing power, and the inclusion of the Undergraduate Biophysics Concentration, formerly in Physics, with Meiners as its Chair. Progress to Departmental status is envisioned, a hopeful end to a 60-year journey. 


Brink, Jr., F. (1978) National Academy of Sciences Memoir, p. 10.

Crane, H. R. (1950) Scientific Monthly 70, 376-389.

Crane, H. R. (1997) Personal Recollections.

Krimm, S. (1986) Adv. Protein Chem. 38, 181-364.

Levinthal, C. (1956) Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 42, 394-404.

Pauling, L., Corey, R. B., Branson, H. R. (1951) Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 37, 205-211.

Sutherland, G. B. B. M. (1952) Adv. Prot. Chem. 7, 291-318.

Williams, R. C., Wyckoff, R. W. G. (1945) Science 101, 594-596.