Politzer and the Harmonic Oscillator Rap

For anyone teaching mechanics,  this Harmonic Oscillator Rap: http://theory.caltech.edu/~politzer/SHO.mp3

Hugh David Politzer (born 31 August 1949) was born in New York City. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1966, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1969, and his Ph.D. in 1974 from Harvard University where his doctoral thesis was directed by Sidney Coleman.

In his first published article, which appeared in 1973, Politzer described the phenomenon of asymptotic freedom: the closer quarks are to each other, the weaker the strong interaction, given by the color charge, will be between them. When quarks are in extreme proximity, the nuclear force between them is so weak that they behave almost like free particles. This result — independently discovered at around the same time by David Gross and Frank Wilczek at Princeton University — was extremely important in the development of quantum chromodynamics, the theory of the strong nuclear interactions. Politzer shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics with Gross and Wilczek for their discovery of asymptotic freedom.
Politzer’s Nobel Lecture, The Dilemma of Attribution, is a friendly, readable account of the way credit is distributed among those who do important, original work in theoretical physics . (He gives an appreciation for Veltman in this talk)


Politzer is an accomplished musician.   Physicists and engineers will particularly enjoy the original rap “Simple Harmonic Oscillator” by Politzer and the Rho mesons. ( © S. Lewicki, D. Politzer, and D. Priest, 1986)


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.

Resonance Group Reunion-1993

Sixty five people attended the October 15-16, 1993  reunion of the Resonance Group, those faculty and students who worked in atomic, molecular, optical, and condensed matter physics in the years following 1950.  This had been originally conceived as a gathering of those who had worked with Peter Franken and Dick Sands back in the days when real scientists built their own circuits and their own vacuum systems, and when they didn’t need computers to do integrals, plot data, and write papers.   However, plans expanded to include alumni of the g-factor group and those doing related theory.

People at the Resonance Group Reunion, Set 1 — click on image for slide show  (JCZ photos)

Among reminiscences of work, classes, practical jokes, Peter Franken’s nickel bets, and other adventures, there were also talks on the development of science in our lab.  For example Bob Lewis described how his early work on angular correlations in nuclear decay led to the theory behind level crossing spectroscopy (link here).  Other speakers included Peter Franken, Dick Sands,  Mike Sanders, Jens Zorn, and Gabi Weinreich.    No matter the topic, all the speakers  recalled the special relationships that flourished in the late 1950’s  and for two decades thereafter.  Weinreich gave the concluding talk of the reunion (link here), saying “Humor and research are actually very similar entities.  Looking for the unexpected twist that clicks, and which everyone else knows clicks too.   Remember the story of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland?  The Cheshire Cat sat on a branch, with a smile, and as the situation developed the Cheshire Cat disappeared more and more..  That’s research, it seems to me, to start with a cat and find the smile”

People at the Resonance Group Reunion, Set 2 (JCZ photos)

People at the Resonance Group Reunion, Set 3 (JCZ photos)

People at the Resonance Group Reunion, Set 4 (JCZ photos)

Bill Williams-Hydrogen (1)

Bill Williams did his PhD at Yale and was persuaded by Peter Franken, Dick Sands and Jens Zorn to join the Michigan physics department in 1965. Williams immediately started an ambitious program of experiments in atomic physics. This included a re-examination of the fine structure of atomic hydrogen to resolve issues that arose when Richard Robiscoe’s measurements of the Lamb shift (done at Chicago for his 1964 PhD thesis and then again in 1965 when he was a postdoc at Yale) gave results that differed significantly with the then-accepted value. Robiscoe then came to Michigan in 1966 to join Williams in a new hydrogen experiment; their apparatus is shown here:

The magnetic fields for these experiments, produced by water-cooled coils mounted externally to the vacuum system, had to be stable and well-controlled. homogeneous over the region traversed by the beam. Those fields were produced by water-cooled coils mounted on the outside of the vacuum system. The photograph below shows Tong Shyn, then a graduate student, straddling the bed of a lathe in the student shop as he winds the magnet’s coil. He is spattered by the heavy varnish used to keep the copper conductors in place.

[Ater finishing his dissertation with Williams, Shyn moved to the University of Michigan’s Space Physics Research Laboratory where he and his students did a long series of elegant experiments on electron-atom collisions in order to measure cross sections needed for modeling of the atmosphere.]

Robiscoe left Michigan in 1969 to accept a position at the University of Montana in Bozeman. Within a few years experiments of a different sort were yielding a more reliable value of the Lamb shift. But Williams did not lose interest in atomic hydrogen; in fact he and Robert Lewis began to see a way to test for the violation of parity in this simplest of atoms. We will tell that long and complicated story in a further installments.

Gabi Weinreich –Talk to the Resonance Group

From the University of Michigan Regents’ Proceedings 380, 1995

Gabriel Weinreich, professor of physics, retired from active faculty status on May 31, 1995.

Professor Weinreich received his ANB., AM., and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in 1948, 1949, and 1953, respectively. From 1953-60, he was a physicist at Bell Labs. Professor Weinreich came to the University of Michigan as an associate professor of physics in 1960; he was promoted to professor in 1964.

In his early years at Michigan, Professor Weinreich and his colleagues were the first to report the generation of optical harmonics, thus founding the science of nonlinear optics. More recently, Professor Weinreich has been recognized for his work in musical physics. In 1979, he was awarded the first major National Science Foundation grant for a project in musical acoustics, which resulted in an influential Scientific American article. He has gone on to become a world authority in the field of musical physics. A fellow of the American Acoustical Society, he is recognized for his abilities to bring concepts from other fields of physics to the study of acoustics and for a number of significant discoveries in the discipline. In 1992, he was honored with the French Acoustical Society’s International Medal. The same year, he delivered the annual Klopsteg Lecture to the American Association of Physics Teachers and, in 1994, was distinguished public lecturer at the Acoustical Society’s annual meeting.
[addition: He was awarded the Silver Medal of the Acoustical Society of America in 2008].

A devoted teacher, Professor Weinreich has taught nearly every course the department offers; he also developed a revised elementary physics sequence for engineers and physicists in 1968-70. He earned a Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1968 and was named a collegiate professor in 1975.

Professor Weinreich was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986. He accepted a position as rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hamburg, Michigan, in September 1994, as he began his phased retirement from the University.

The Regents now salute this distinguished professor by naming Gabriel Weinreich professor emeritus of physics.

Talk by Gabi Weinreich to the Resonance Group Reunion

This talk was given in October 1993.  Photos of the reunion are on this website.    (Mike Sanders spoke at Gabi’s retirement in 1995, and his remarks are also on this website.

Like a lot of us, I was given a topic by Jens and I wasn’t given the topic by Jens; it just appeared on the schedule: “Perspectives on Physics at Michigan”.  I interpret that to mean perspectives on my life in physics at Michigan.  I also want to say immediately at the beginning that we’ve heard in the last two days a lot of very fascinating and worthwhile and interesting reminiscences, and so I decided to go easy on the reminiscence dimensions and perhaps try to share with you a little more of what happened after all that, and where I find myself today thinking about where my career has been.  Life does pass and I see myself as being at the end of it—which isn’t supposed to be a macabre statement, but in the sense that I’m retiring and it’s like some of the beautiful operas when the hero is about to die there’s the aria which goes on for an hour and a half, and sometimes that’s by far the most beautiful music, so this is not a statement of pessimism but simply a statement of acquiescence in where life has carried me.

Of course in listening in these last two days there is what I think of as the Rashomon effect.  I don’t know whether you remember that movie, it was one of the early Japanese movies that came around, and was based on the same story as having been perceived by different people, and the different ways in which different people have seen the same thing.   I was struck –I was talking to John Pearl yesterday—I was struck by something—you know our appearances have all changed, by and large; John has a white beard–I don’t remember him with a white beard–and similarly for the rest of you– but I think in a way that’s a camouflage, because that disappears after about thirty seconds conversation–you don’t notice those changes anymore, it’s the same people you’ve always known–but it’s not the same people you’ve always known.  That’s the interesting thing; in fact we’ve all changed a great deal, and so the important distinction is between what is the same and what is not the same.

The story that Gary Cochran told about me had a punchline, “I was afraid it was something serious.” I felt really struck by that, not because it was  a stupid thing to say—I mean the list of stupid things I’ve said in my life is very long, but that I have so much trouble seeing that, so to speak, from the “inside,” identifying today with the person who said that; and that’s what sobers me up to what has happened to me during those years and I presume also what has happened to you.

Now I spent my thirties, forties fifties and sixties here.  That sounds like forty years, but it’s not the full forty years because I didn’t come at thirty I came at thirty two, and today I’m only sixty five.  Nonetheless,  I can think of four distinct decades in my life,  and sort of in an approximate way I can state how my view of life has changed during that time: In my thirties I thought that life was infinite; in my forties I thought that life was finite– that is, it’s possible that if I choose to do A, that may actually be instead of doing B–which in my thirties I didn’t realize.  In my fifties it became very clear that I’m playing for keeps. That this isn’t the end of my life, but a lot of decisions, perhaps most of the decisions that I’m making in my fifties are permanent decisions. And of course in my sixties I’m retiring and winding down.  I’m not saying that I’m about to die, but a big chunk of my life will now consist entirely of reminiscences.  Some of you know that there are other parts of my life that are beginning to blossom at this point, but that’s not part of “Perspectives on Physics.”

In connection with travel, I recall that when I went on a trip in my thirties I said, “Don’t forget your tickets”; in my forties I said “Don’t forget your passport”; in my fifties I said “Don’t forget your credit card”; and in my sixties I say, “Don’t forget your medications.”

That’s true, I’ve got a pillbox in my pocket!

Children–in my thirties children became a reality instead of mythical beasts;  In my forties the children were growing up.  In my fifties my children were getting married.  In my sixties, some of my children at least are getting divorced  –some of you may have shared that experience–and that’s a painful experience–it’s a very painful experience.

With regard to physics: In my thirties when I came here, I was exhilarated by the fact that I really understand advanced physics—that comes from teaching it of course; in my forties I was exhilarated because I really understand elementary physics!  In my fifties I had a vague impression that all these new subjects are a little bit confusing.  In my sixties I have a feeling I no longer understand it.  It’s obviously not literally true because I still taught physics;  with people and my colleagues, apparently, value an opportunity to talk physics with me from time to time.  But I feel very confused.

So, you come here for a reunion, and again something came out of conversation with you. I had a conversation with Gary Ihas and we talked about the colloquia that he remembered. He said that at the Physics colloquia at Michigan the speaker comes, but the speaker is challenged;  you and Peter are there, and you’re not going to let anybody get away with anything; it’s a lively discussion.  Gary went on to say “where I’ve been since then, in other academic institutions, that’s not the way it is.”  Well it’s not the way it is here anymore either–and I think the difference between me and most of you really at this point in our lives isn’t so much a matter of age; when I came here as a professor I was only seven years out of graduate school; and in fact since I ran through graduate school a bit on the young side, the sheer age difference was in fact even smaller than that.  So it’s not that I’m that much older–there are some people here that I’m just not older than period, but in any case it’s not an age difference any more, at this point.  If we just met we wouldn’t think so much about who is older and who is younger.  I think the difference is that you still have the illusion that I’m still that person in that setting — that professor who taught those courses in that particular way.  That’s the way memories get frozen when you leave a place–you look back on it and somehow, without thinking, believe that other places and other people’s lives don’t change.

That’s the power of reminiscence of course, and it’s not necessarily at all a negative power because there are things one has learned. But if you want to think about reality, Michigan is not the Michigan that you knew.  Colloquia at Michigan are not the colloquia that you knew.  The faculty doesn’t go to lunch anymore and  they don’t talk about elementary physics problems.  We used to talk a lot of elementary physics problems at lunch —  we would talk about simple problems–we beat them to death at the lunch table! Little details, little paradoxes that we were all intrigued by and inspired by–that doesn’t happen anymore.  It seems that elementary physics isn’t interesting to most of my colleagues anymore.

I came to Michigan from Bell Labs which was a much better place to do research–I’m not exactly prepared to defend that in an absolute way, but in many ways Bell Labs was the perfect place to do research— I came here because I wanted to teach.  And when I first came here I was received in a way that seemed consistent with that; the important people in the department: Dennison, Uhlenbeck, Case, that’s what they wanted me to do; that’s what they assumed everybody else was doing.

I was honored for the fact that apparently I did a good job teaching, and I don’t know when that rug was pulled out from under me, but it was, and still after all these years there is a great deal of bitterness in me about that–in fact I remember one important discussion with the executive committee when I went in to protest the way I was being treated and it became very clear what the issue was.  The people on the executive committee were saying “Gabi, look, you’re good enough to do research, why are you teaching?”  And I said, “Look, I’m good enough to teach! Why should I be doing research?  Anybody can do research.”

Of course neither one is exactly true, but it shows you the kind of dead-end that I found myself in after a lot of you left.  And then of course I had to scramble back; I decided at least I would make it a challenge; at least I would do something weird. I would show them that I could get funding, including in a field that isn’t being funded, and that’s how I got into musical acoustics.  It’s been very interesting.

What are my thoughts as I listen to and watch all of you? What are the new thoughts that come into my mind, what are the old thoughts which are being awakened by it?  The atmosphere that existed in the resonance group has been commented on many times in the last few days, and perhaps I will comment a little bit on it too in a minute.

But there’s a particular concern that I have. The particular concern is–by the way, let me ask, how many of you are teaching? Okay, so there are quite a number–I want to make something very clear because I had to make it clear to myself over the years too–I was listening to George Gamota saying in the closing minutes of the last session that having your students not do basic research doesn’t necessarily represent a failure. Now I couldn’t agree with him more, but I will be the first to admit that in my younger days I did have that conceit, I did have that arrogance.  I did have the feeling that nobody can tell me what I’m going to do and that makes me very great and important and puts me in a more important position in society than other people occupy.  But George, I’ve long ago lost that point of view, I’ve long ago stopped feeling as a matter of principle that what we used to call basic research is what matters and that anything else is a failure–believe me–you reminded me of something that I haven’t thought of in a long time.

However,  I am a life-long teacher and I sense the real problem that the atmosphere that we had here isn’t self-propagating.  Is there a mechanism so that the next generation and the next generation and the next generation can continue to flourish in the same way, or is it being diluted, diluted, diluted?  We have that memory, we talk about it with our friends.  Some of them get an inkling of what it’s about, others don’t, and soon two more generations of students will be gone. That’s my concern.

Teaching at a university–although it’s certainly not the only way of contributing,  to the propagation of this creative atmosphere– is one setting that makes it relatively simple (if one has that understanding) to communicate it to other people who are coming in.  That’s my concern and I just share it with you on that level–I’m not particularly talking doom, nor am I saying everything is great.  I don’t know.  But basic or not, we were interested in research!

I’m just reminded that two weeks ago the coffee pot in which our secretary makes coffee every day–one of those Mr. Coffee type things–stopped working.  It would make coffee but it would take five hours to make coffee–just  a tiny dribble, and people were saying, “It costs 35 dollars; throw the damn thing out; buy a new one,” and I said, “Wait! Let me get a screwdriver.” You know–that’s what we always did, that’s really what we did.  Now, it’s hardly basic research.  Actually I was very frustrated because I took the whole thing apart—of course it was fascinating but I couldn’t see anything wrong.  I don’t know whether many of you know how that machine works.  But I’ll give you a hint–there’s only one heater–okay–maybe some of you know.  In any case, I took it apart but I couldn’t see anything wrong.  I put it back together, I poured the water in, it made coffee, it was fine. I said,”Well, something was dirty something was clogged, who cares; it’s all right now, I cleaned it out.” But in the afternoon it went back to the other way.  I think I managed to hide it so it wouldn’t show on my face, but I was really quite mortified because the young woman who had the office across from me, who’s a professor of physics. looked at it and said, “You know it’s got to be the thermostat,” Of course! I hadn’t thought of that. I’m old, I’m decrepit, it should have been absolutely obvious that the thermostat, once it clicks off, isn’t clicking back in and that’s it and it can easily be replaced–to replace the element which includes the thermostat it costs seven dollars instead of thirty-five.  But I couldn’t do it; I failed.  Very, very mortifying.

Okay, so what was it about? Let me just try to wrap up in a few sentences because you’re not the only ones who are starving, I’m starving too.  To a large degree based on what I heard and to a large degree based on what I’ve thought over the years,  how can I describe that atmosphere in the resonance group?  And by the way, we shouldn’t be arrogant either —we weren’t the only ones in the world that had that special atmosphere.  That’s fine — that doesn’t take away from what we had.  One example that’s been brought up repeatedly is the nickel bet.  Somebody –and I don’t remember who–said it so beautifully: the right to be wrong.  It’s a very, very important ingredient of a real discussion.  The right to be wrong.  You were not looked down on for the fact that you’re wrong.  And I don’t know why you should be looked down on for the fact that you’re wrong.  But in many places in the world,  probably most places in the world–you are looked down on if you’re wrong.  And so there’s a lot of temptation and pressure either to fake it and make it look as though you’re right even though you were in fact wrong–or simply not to offer opinions that aren’t safe.  Now we never had that pressure — it wasn’t an issue –and because we didn’t have it  our thoughts and speculations were liberated in a way that they just could not be otherwise.

In the process of listening to you reminisce I became aware of how much my teaching approaches have changed over the years; now I’m retiring from teaching. For example, that story about how I filled up a whole blackboard and somewhere in the middle of it was a mistake and I had to find it—I think today I would have said, “You go home and find it.  It should be minus, it’s coming out plus. You find out where I was wrong.”  And it’s really bad teaching not to do that–absolutely bad teaching not to do that.  It was my pride that kept me from doing that when I was younger.  I had to show that in just a glance or two I could find that mistake.  Luckily for me I could usually do it — I was very smart in those days.  But today I probably couldn’t find it.  But I also think its not a good way to teach.

I had a similar experience recently during one of my lectures on electricity and magnetism: A student called my attention to something that wasn’t right–I had derived something that seemed inconsistent with something else that was also part of the subject.  I did try to find the problem, but it was more than just a plus or a minus;  there was something conceptually wrong.  So after thinking for a minute I said, “I’m not going to find it now. Next time, next class meeting I’ll have the answer.”  So I went back to my office and found that I had made an interesting mistake, an error from which one can learn something.   Nonetheless  it was  a blunder.  Before beginning the next lecture I said “Now first we have to clear up this question from the last hour” and I explained what had gone wrong.   The student came up afterwards and he was amazed.  He said, “It didn’t seem to bother you — you didn’t seem to be defensive about the fact that you had blundered, you just stood there and explained what your mistake had been.”  And I said something to him then–I was lucky because it came out in a good formulation–so I’ll repeat it for you now, because it was part of that atmosphere: “Everybody makes mistakes,” I said.  “Who do think taught you to catch mistakes?”

And so I put that into the same category as stuff that was going on in the resonance group. That was the skill we really valued.  And to an outsider it often seemed like a cruel skill, like jumping on somebody, like finding somebody’s weak point as though it were personal weak points that we’re looking for; it was nothing of the kind. We were looking for the weak point in the argument, we were training each other to find, to catch mistakes.  And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing that replaces that kind of education.

The third item, that to my great surprise no one has mentioned in these last few days, it was something, an item that was crucial in the way we always dealt with each other, something that was assumed in all our interactions, something that I was exhilarated yesterday as soon as we got together for the first meeting to see that quality immediately blossom forth from the group.  And to me I think a crucial,  crucial quality.  Now as a teacher, if I weren’t starving, I would ask you to tell me what you think I’m thinking of–by the way, does anybody have something?

From audience:  “I am starving.” “Group self examination”  …..

Yes, group self-examination is certainly part of it.  But this could go on forever because it’s not what I was thinking of.

But what I was thinking of is something that you all know and you’ll all say of course: Humor!  Humor!  It was all done with a sense of humor.  Now it’s certainly true that in Peter Franken’s case we might say “Come on we don’t mean that much,” and yet, as one of the guiding spirits of the group, it was important.

Humor and research, these are very similar entities actually.  Sort of looking for the unexpected twist which clicks, and which everyone else knows clicks too.  It’s not just a private thing–you can’t make jokes to yourself.  You have to make jokes to other people.  There’s something about humor that clicks, and in a certain mysterious way that’s also the essence of the type of mental and emotional activity that we’re engaged in.   I thought of a metaphor just this morning listening–remember the story of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland? The Cheshire Cat sat on a branch, with a smile, and as the situation developed the Cheshire Cat disappeared more and more and what was left was a smile. That’s research, it seems to me, to start with a cat and find the smile.  The smile is abstract, the smile is not really something you can take off a cat, that’s what’s so funny in the way Lewis Carroll describes it–and yet in a way the Cheshire Cat is something–someone–whose essence is its smile.

The same story would not have worked if the Cheshire Cat had frowned, and as the action developed the cat disappeared, leaving only its frown; it wouldn’t work.  We wouldn’t be interested in that story. It wouldn’t make a good story. It made a good story because what remains is a smile. I think what remains with us when we turn on the memory of the resonance group and refresh ourselves in that memory is a smile. Everything was funny! Everything was silly; everything was ridiculous; everything was hilarious! We didn’t have to watch out for that, and what I said yesterday morning about how appalled I tend to be about people who make decisions in Washington who don’t understand, it struck me later: they don’t have any sense of humor!  Official releases are not funny, that’s what wrong with them!

I won’t reminisce about my research;  it meandered over many, many fields in the course of my career.  Lots of my contributions really involved kibitzing more than research, and in many ways that was my role in the resonance group: People would call on me and say “Do it right for us. There’s something confusing here. How does one say it so it’s consistent, so it’s correct?” It was very flattering to feel that I did occupy that role.  It’s a role that I occupy today in the field of musical acoustics, which is a very interesting and fruitful field, but there are a lot of people in it who work by fruitful intuition and lack the discipline.  So that was always what I enjoyed doing most, and even my own research became a kind of kibitzing.

With regard to teaching and of course the contrast between the two ways–in the beginning I was young and I liked to impress people. I think I did teach well, but I liked to impress people, I liked to impress students, I liked to impress colleagues. How do you impress colleagues about a course you’re giving? That’s a challenge. I mean they’re not in the classroom listening. There are tricks to impressing colleagues:  you show them your final exam–which you have made up so as to look very impressive but of course you’ve taught your class how to do those problems. It’s all unconscious, it’s all subliminal, but it can all be a great fraud! Probably I’m being a little hard on myself, but those were important elements when I was younger.  They really aren’t important now.  And it’s rather curious that since they became less important my student ratings went up.  I’m probably more relaxed.

During my time at Michigan I became more and more aware that conversation is a very important element of teaching.  Conversation is taking on the challenge of understanding what it is that people are saying to you, and taking on the challenge of giving them an answer that they will understand.  So it is conversation with colleagues, with students with friends, that has become in many ways the central activity of my life, with God, which is something I didn’t used to do, and other sorts of conversation.  I like to listen, and I too have something to say–you’d know I’m lying if I didn’t admit that, but it is somewhat different, but it draws on that tradition.

Real conversation opens the real vulnerability of the people who are conversing, and it takes a strength, for which age is useful, to be willingly vulnerable, to realize that the little bit one could possibly lose is trivial compared to the amount that one can gain.  Conversation can be a very scary activity, but I would say, at this age as I’m retiring, that’s what I’m into.  But I feel it’s not a new activity. All these attributes of life in the resonance group that we have recalled all involved a trust of each other is a rare gift  that none of us will ever lose having once experienced it.

I’m starting my last aria.  I hope it will be a long one, I hope it will a beautiful one, and whether for you, whether it’s the last or the middle or an early one, I wish you all to get the same enjoyment and satisfaction out of it. Thank you.

Franken remembered — by Alan Hill

How did it come about that Peter selected me to perform the original optical harmonics experiment? I was only a sophomore at the University of Michigan, taking a first-level physics course at the University of Michigan. After class, I asked Professor Franken what he would expect to happen if I applied an intense pulsed magnetic field to an aluminum cylinder by magnetic induction. He said…”I suspect it would be crunched short and fat”. My answer was…”No, it is crunched long and skinny”, whereupon I pulled out a cylinder I had so crunched in my home lab as a high school student. Peter then said: “I have a project for you to do this summer!”

He provided me with the first commercial (Trion Instruments) ruby laser, which put out 3 joules in 2 milliseconds (Q-switching had not been achieved yet). Realizing that harmonic production would scale quadratically with power, I intentionally pushed the flash lamps to their explosion point, thus managing to produce an initially invisible spot on a glass spectroscopic plate. I tossed the first plate into the trash, but then realized that a closer examination under the microscope might reveal something. It did. The one piece of evidence for optical harmonics (a visible speck on a spectroscopic plate), sent as a figure with our paper into Physical Review Letters, was removed by the journal’s lay-out person who had assumed it to have been left by a fly.
Here are a few of Peter Franken’s characteristics:

• Peter loved to shock or startle people; he was always full of mischief!

• Peter liked to play the “devil’s advocate” whenever possible. He would question the viability of a new proposal or concept, and could usually debunk them with a mental calculation if they were not sound; and he would often challenge the victim with a nickel bet (payable only in check- to be framed on his wall). He often lost, since he challenged everything – but sometimes he won.

• Peter never took himself too seriously, and he had the nerve to try anything. He was fond of saying: “It is easier to be forgiven than to get permission”, or “I’m going to get kicked in the ass for this, but my ass is big enough to take it.”

• When Peter felt someone had been seriously wronged, he has been known to make it a long-term commitment to defend that person, or to help them in every way possible. Examples: Gordon Gould with his laser patent; Walter Spawr with his trial defense and ongoing vindication.

• Peter had a very broad-based imagination and creativity in physics, but also viewed administrative problem-solving as nearly as interesting. • Peter felt genuine concern and affection for many – an aspect which transcended even his formidable talent for doing physics.

       Alan Hill, 2011

Franken remembered– by Joe Jenney

My first encounter with Peter created an image that has remained with me ever since. I had just arrived at the University of Michigan to start work on a master’s degree in physics. One of the first tasks was to meet with a counselor to go over classes for the summer. Peter was the assigned counselor and I was standing in a long line of students waiting outside his office. He came out of his office and said something to us. I don’t remember what he said; it was just the energy that was in both his body language and his comments. I had never encountered a professor who behaved with such energy and candor. I had a very positive reaction to Peter at that first meeting.

My next encounter with Peter was when I monitored his course in classical optics.  Again he demonstrated an unusual energy and enthusiasm. He also taught in the manner of others in the physics department that stressed clear and simple physical arguments over abstract mathematical explanations. A teaching methodology I was sincerely thankful for and have always tried to emulate in my training and writing. The most memorable event from that class was when he was explaining some principle of optics and said “and then the photon goes tear assing from here to there” as he literally ran across the room point to things he had drawn on the blackboard.

After completing my course work for the PhD program I began approaching professors to find a mentor for my research. I wasn’t having much luck finding anyone that thought the problem I was interested in would make a reasonable thesis topic. One day a friend who had shared an office with me at Willow Run Labs and was working on his thesis for Peter. He said Peter was looking for students and suggested I go see him. The first question Peter asked was “would you jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute?”  When I said yes he asked if my grades were “ok”. I said yes and he nodded and told me he was looking for someone to help with his flight experiments on clear air turbulence. I started work a few days later.

A few weeks later David Rank joined me and we worked on Peter’s ideas for finding quarks in the mornings and then spent our afternoons and nights at Willow Run finalizing the setup of a laser radar in a twin Beech airplane Peter had on loan from the Army. Peter had decided that if quarks existed naturally they might form a hydrogen like atom and have an optical spectrum that would identify them. I had done optical spectroscopy both at Willow Run and Randal lab so we rounded up the necessary equipment, got it working and began to think about how we might seek the quarks. Peter believed the best source would be in water so we collected water from a mile out in Lake Huron. We didn’t detect any. Dave came up with a better search method based on Milliken’s oil drop experiment and he based his thesis on that work while I pursued the turbulence experiments.

Peter was consulting for the laser company in Ann Arbor and they had built the laser and optical receiver. Our job was to align and calibrate the laser radar and prove it was seeing backscatter from atmospheric aerosols. We aligned the laser and receiver by firing the laser at the side of a hanger next to the one the plane was in. It was a ruby laser so we could see where the light was hitting and then move the receiver to be in alignment. This was before there was any safety standards for using lasers so we did our own safety calculations based on energy levels Peter said were safe.

The next step was to prove the alignment would hold during flight. Peter decided the best way was to dive the airplane at the large parking lot at Willow Run, which then served a GM car factory. The pilots didn’t want to do it and came up with arguments that the wings would be torn off the airplane. Peter would come out to the airport and try to convince them that the resulting g forces were well within the design limits of the wings. Once the pilots found they couldn’t buffalo Peter we were able to proceed. Having confirmed the optical performance we next needed to establish that signals from backscatter could be correlated with turbulence. Peter came up with the idea of tucking our plane close in behind departing passenger planes from Willow Run. We would fire the laser into the wake of the large planes and then fly through the wake turbulence. That allowed us to correlate the accelerometer reading with the backscatter signals. Fortunately the FAA didn’t know we were firing lasers in the direction of passenger planes.

In the spring Peter arranged for us to work with the National Severe Storms Center in Oklahoma and introduced us to people from the Flight Safety Foundation that he had met and invited to observe our experiments. I learned that Peter was a master at securing publicity for our work. We went to the Quantum Electronics conference in Phoenix that year and Peter held a press conference. Lasers were still relatively new and optical radar was very new so he was able to generate interest from the local press.

The reason Peter became interested in clear air turbulence was had just obtained tenure and decided both to learn to fly and to do whatever experiments sounded fun to him. He experienced turbulence in his flight lessons and the commercial airlines were struggling with turbulence effects on the new generation of large jet aircraft. He calculated that there should be enough backscatter from atmospheric aerosols to detect aerosol variations that he postulated would be correlated with turbulence so he initiated the experiments. By the time I started working for Peter he had his license and was working on a multiengine instrument rating. He used every excuse for flying. A couple of times he wanted to go to Willow Run with me so we went to Ann Arbor airport rented a plane and flew to Willow Run; about a ten minute flight.

Several flights with Peter are memorable. We had funding from Wright Field and one day the sponsor rented a small plane and flew to Ann Arbor to visit us. Of course Peter decided we would fly to Willow Run. The sponsor was an inexperienced pilot and unfamiliar with the plane he had rented. When we landed the plane began to shake violently. Fortunately Peter recognized the problem as nose wheel oscillation. He grabbed the control stick, pulled back sharply so that the nose of the plane came up until we were almost standing on the tail. The sponsor and I about had heart attacks but the oscillation stopped and we landed safely.

One time I came back from a flight out of Willow Run with a WW II fighter pilot who was very experienced and an expert pilot. His landing impressed me greatly. He brought the plane within a foot of touching down within ten feet of the beginning of the runway and flew at one foot altitude until he was about 50 yards from the turnoff to our hanger before he set it down on the concrete. He made it seem effortless but I knew it wasn’t as easy as it looked. When I described it to Peter he said he could do that and would show me the next time we went to Willow Run.  It wasn’t long until we made one of the flights from Ann Arbor airport to Willow Run and Peter proceeded to show me he could do the special landing. However, he flew about five feet above the runway and we hadn’t gone 100 yards until a wind gust caught the plane from the side and nearly tipped us over. I didn’t describe any more flying tricks to Peter that he might try to emulate.

Working for Peter was always a joy. He taught us many useful things that were invaluable to my career. He was rigorous in ensuring data was accurate. He would question us in detail about data. Was the equipment calibrated? What simple checks had we done to ensure the calibration was accurate? He always shared tricks that were useful in the lab and techniques that were critical to effective management of experimental work. As he developed confidence in us he gave us free rein to manage our work, including in my case the interactions with the management people associated with airports we worked with in Michigan, Colorado and Oklahoma. I benefited greatly from this leadership experience.

Peter had an interest in photography and since we had a camera installed in the plane to record the atmospheric conditions during our experiments he used that as an excuse and opportunity to teach Dave and me how to develop and print film. Peter obtained a room in Randal and we put all our experiments aside for ten days. He showed us how to set up and work in a photo lab. He even showed me how to take credible portraits. I still have a fine portrait of me that he took to demonstrate a technique.

Of course everyone will remember the Saturday lunches at the Brown Jug and the conversations about physics. I probably learned as much from those conversations and the accompanying nickel bets as I did from my thesis work. Since Peter was active in consulting for industry and the Defense Department he was often gone but he would see us on Saturdays and if he was in town he would pop in the lab, sometimes late in the evenings. One memorable event was when he popped in my lab one night and announced that he had just invented a diffraction limited camera with infinite depth of focus. I sensed a test, thought a minute and said “you mean a pin hole camera?” He smiled and shared with me what fun he had pulling that on the guys at the laser company where he was consulting. They had jumped for their notebooks and were ready to file a patent application, much to Peter’s amusement.

Peter took an appointment as the Deputy Director of DARPA near the end of my work. He told me if I would commit to finishing the management of the contract we had secured for the development of an advanced airborne optical radar and the associated flight experiments he would facilitate my degree work. I could finish the contract as either a post doc or working for the Ann Arbor company that was building the optical radar. Peter’s philosophy was that five years of graduate study was enough and spending any longer was not of much benefit to a student. With a wife and two kids I was eager to graduate and not have to live on $209.50 per month any longer. I quickly wrote up my thesis, graduated  and finished the contract working for the local  company.

Peter enjoyed recognition and status. I remember when he was given a membership in American Airlines Admirals Club for having flown 75,000 miles. (In those days membership was honorary.) He went around the lab proudly showing off his club membership card. When he received the appointment to DARPA he explained to us that his office would be in the E ring, the most prestigious location. Once when I visited him in Washington D.C he took me to dinner at a private club he had joined. If I remember correctly it was the Athenaeum Club or a similar name. I do know that it was a very exclusive club but Peter and I were 30 years younger than any of the other diners. Another time when I visited him at the Pentagon he took me to lunch in one of the private dining rooms reserved for the highest levels of the Secretary of Defense’s staff. He really enjoyed showing off.

He shared with me a story of his first days at DARPA which I came to appreciate a decade later when I was an executive at DARPA. In one of his first significant meetings at DARPA, while he was still trying to figure out what was happening, he was asked for his opinion on some important topic. Peter gave some excuse to avoid answering as he was so new. The official running the meeting wouldn’t let him off the hook. He said something to the effect that Peter was now in Washington and expected to give his opinion so give it! When I joined DARPA I found, as had Peter, that there is no time there to study things; you are expected to perform with what you bring to the job. It’s stressful work and it led to Peter collapsing during a meeting. If I remember correctly he left shortly afterward.

When I remember Peter I see him in his office on the phone. He is standing up and walking back and forth behind his desk as far as the phone cord allows. I witnessed this many times in Ann Arbor and the last time I visited Peter in Arizona he was still doing it. Arguing with some Washington official about funding for some new idea Peter had that he felt must be funded. For Peter everything was urgent and important.

by  Joe Jenney,  December 2010