Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Park
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Interview with Dr. Robert Park
Session I | Session II
McCray:Let’s start with where you were born.
Park:I was born in Kansas City, Missouri.
Park:In 1931, which makes me seventy years old. But I spent most of my growing up in Texas, in the very southern tip of Texas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
McCray:How did you end up there after Kansas? What brought you there?
Park:My father was a lawyer, and not a very successful one, but he wanted to be a farmer. We moved to South Texas and he grew grapefruit maybe more successfully than the law practice, but only slightly so, I would say. When I was a kid, I attended a small high school in South Texas, the total population of the high school was 200. So physics was something that was taught only rarely and was not taught at all in the years that I might have taken it at my little high school. The only science course that I took was chemistry, but I had always been interested in science, or at least in nature, and I didn’t make a distinction between the two. Science and nature were to me kind of the same thing. My grandfather was a retired dentist and he had great interest in science and was an influence in those years. I collected butterflies; I collected everything, as a matter of fact.
McCray:Tell me more about your parents. You mentioned your father was a lawyer turned farmer. How about your mother?
Park:My mother was also college educated and she was a person that no one ever disliked. She was just a perpetually cheerful person. Nothing ever seemed to get her down, and I suppose if I inherited anything it was probably that. I have never been depressed for more than an hour at a time I think. So. But those were tough years. My father volunteered to work for the Selective Service Administration during World War II, and essentially his business just went to pieces during those years because he devoted essentially full time to this – they were known in those days as “dollar a year men.” There was an assumption that one day the government would reimburse them, but of course they never did.
McCray:This was sort of volunteer pro bono work?
Park:Yeah, yeah. I spent those years working on the farm in the afternoons. I was not a good student. I did – well, it was mixed. I never did homework. I just never did homework. My high school advisor told me that I probably wasn’t college material but if I really insisted on going to college just to stay away from anything that had to do with math or science. I naturally followed his advice as closely as I could.
McCray:Were there any particular books or anything that you read, just popular science books, that caught your imagination?
Park:Yeah, there were a couple that really grabbed my imagination. One was Human Destiny by LeCompe DuNoery, at the time in South Texas it seemed to me like a very important book. But it was not an important book. It was a book about evolution in which he concluded that there had to be some force beyond just blind chance that was guiding evolution. But I thought, even as I read his book, that his arguments were wrong. It started kind of a lifelong interest in the whole evolution debate. He drew these verbal images of a bat dragging useless wings before the wings finally developed to the point that he could fly with them. And you know, I was sure that was not the way it had worked. Even today, as the argument rages between evolutionists and the intelligent design – the latest effort at this – I liked Richard Dawkins’ comment that these people are just lazy; the intelligent design people say, “You cannot explain how things developed. Take how the eye.”
Park:And Dawkins said, you know, “Their job is to get out and show how it developed – not to assume that it was somehow supernatural.”
Park:So now this of course was in the context of a small town where nonreligious views just didn’t exist.
McCray:Was your family religious?
Park:Well, they were religious to the extent that they belonged to the Methodist Church and sent us to Sunday School, but I do not recall my parents ever having invoked divine powers in an emergency. You know, in a crisis that was not the way the family turned. So I would say it was not a religious family, but neither was it overtly atheistic. It just was not an important part of our lives. But this whole debate over evolution was kind of my first introduction to, if you will, to fuzzy thinking on the part of most people if not– And so that started a kind of a lifelong interest in wacky science and this kind of thing. Though I really didn’t do anything about that until I opened the office in Washington for the American Physical Society.
McCray:But this is an interest in something that had been in the back of your mind for a long time.
Park:Sure. And another book that influenced me very strongly at the time was Man and His Gods by Homer Smith. And which got me to reading The Golden Bough by Frazier and these books. Which were hard to get hold of in Donna, Texas. The town did not have a library. They certainly didn’t have them in the high school library. My sister, who was living at the time in Paris, would lend me books from time to time.
McCray:Paris, Texas or Paris, France?
Park:Paris, France. So she was kind of an influence. She was interested in these, though never followed up on any of them, but she would share things with me. And then as I say, my grandfather, who again was interested primarily in nature and taught me a lot about that. He always knew what kind of cocoons you could find on a willow tree and the moth that would develop from that. How he knew all these things, I have no idea. And he would also always challenge me with little questions like, “How long is a day on the moon if the moon always turns the same face toward Earth?” when I was just a young teenaged kid, before I could figure that out for myself. And he would pose other little mental problems. Good pillow problems, good for going to sleep on. If you take an inner tube and you cut a small hole in it, you reach through the hole and pull the inner tube through the hole; what do you have? And I’m embarrassed to say it took me years to figure that out – to actually be able to image pulling that inner tube through the hole and what I would get.
Park:But at that time I never thought seriously about being a scientist.
McCray:Did you have an image in your mind of what a scientist looked like or what a scientist did?
Park:No, not really. And people assured me that scientists didn’t make very much money – which I have found is true.
Park:But so I was never encouraged to follow up an interest in science. And because my father was a lawyer in a small town in Texas, everybody assumed I would be a lawyer. And I originally went off to college to study law. And then the Korean War intervened, and I went in the Air Force.
McCray:Did you choose the Air Force or were you drafted?
Park:I chose the Air Force, and it was either that or be drafted I think at that point. And that changed my life completely, because the Air Force gave a huge battery of tests to find out what we were suited for.
McCray:Psychological tests or intelligence tests?
Park:Intelligence tests, of a sort. And they told me I was going to radar school. And I said, “Radar school? I should be in the General’s office,” you know, “What is this?” And then I found that I loved it. And though I had never paid any attention to these things in high school, I now had a wife and before long a son. There were new responsibilities and so I took these things much more seriously, and found that there was just – that I really loved it. Ironically, after I got out of the Air Force and went back to college I worked part time for a company called Psychological Research Incorporated that designed these tests. I would write questions for them, and the questions would be tested against a group that should get them right and a group that should get them wrong, and you would develop a ratio for each question to see an index that would tell you how many got it right who should have gotten it right and how many got it wrong who should have gotten it wrong. And I got a special bonus whenever that ratio went above a certain value. It was kind of interesting, because such tests had changed my life. If it had not been for those tests that the Air Force gave me and sending me off to radar school – which is, you know, not terribly scientific, but it was my first introduction to the fact that you could calculate a lot of things in this world; that there were equations there and they made sense and they had come from a long process. In using those, it was astounding what you could figure out for yourself. Most of these were in electricity.
McCray:Where were you stationed for radar work, and just what does a radar operator learn?
Park:Well actually I did well in radar school. The first thing you learn is electronics. So you learn electricity and magnetism. You are actually learning a little physics. And this was all at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, of all places. And at the end of the course they asked me if I would like to teach the course.
McCray:How old were you at this point?
Park:Twenty – nineteen or twenty. And I said, “Sure.” So I spent the next few years teaching electronics and I was a commissioned officer, and so you know it was not a bad life. Later I went out in the field and installed radar sets and this kind of thing.
McCray:How did you feel just about being in the Air Force in general, I mean as an institution? How did you respond in that type of environment?
Park:I understood the faults of the military. You know, I was not blind to the difficulties. But at the same time, I could see that it worked. It was a system that, for what it was supposed to do, it did it pretty well. I was always, I thought, fairly treated in the Air Force. As I say, it gave me a whole new perspective on what I wanted to do with my life. And so yeah, I liked the Air Force and look back on those years fondly. I was fortunate in that people, my commanders, were always – I thought – terrific people. And so I was impressed with the people that I worked for, and yeah, I responded well to the Air Force. And actually I suppose gave some serious thought to making it a career. Because then I did have family responsibilities and this kind of thing, and but I talked to people and they told me, “You did well at this. Maybe you ought to study science.” And I agreed.
McCray:Was that a strange concept to you at the time?
Park:The GI Bill of Rights made it possible for me to be a scientist.
McCray:Okay. So you left the Air Force in ‘56.
McCray:Did you have any nervousness or just reservations about leaving – not going on with a law career and leaving the Air Force and going off on [inaudible phrase]?
Park:Oh, sure. Because now I did have these responsibilities. And I was untested. I mean, I went to the University of Texas, where I had been, but because of the courses I had taken before, I needed no new electives. All I needed was math and science. That’s a little grueling. And I was in a hurry. I didn’t have time to waste, so I signed up for a very heavy load, taking physics and math essentially. And to make it even a bigger load, in order to do that, it meant I had to take physics courses plus the prerequisites and the courses that follow at the same time. And so I didn’t know how I would do. The first semester was kind of terrifying, you know, “Am I gonna wind up at the end of the semester and find out this is something I can’t do?” But it was just the opposite. In one semester I had the highest total number of grade points in the university – you know, because I was taking so many courses and then getting A’s in all of them. And I had never gotten A’s before – because I was never interested in what I was doing. And to suddenly be making straight A’s and became a Phi Beta Kappa and all these things, this was pretty heady stuff for me. In addition to which, you know, every day was a joy learning this stuff.
McCray:What types of courses were you taking at this point? You mentioned taking the prerequisites as well as the more advanced, but what were types of things that were being taught?
Park:Well, I would take basic physics and intermediate mechanics at the same time for example, which is not easy. Most physics majors took applied math, but because of what courses were available I started out in pure math. I liked these people and I liked the courses, and so I continued to have a pretty heavy emphasis on pure math instead of applied math – which I never regretted. And I enjoyed the math almost as much as I did the physics. But in the Air Force, many of the courses were total immersion. For example, to train Russian translators, (we had in the Air Force a lot of people who monitored all Russian broadcasts) the Air Force had to train its own people. There just weren’t that many people who were fluent in Russian. And they did this by total immersion: they just sent them off somewhere and from the first day on you heard nothing but Russian. There’s a huge failure rate. Some people just can’t handle that. But I’ve seen it many times since with colleagues who go on sabbatical to foreign countries and their children are tossed into schools where they understand not a word, and often they come home in tears for a while – and then they start picking it up. It’s easier when you’re a kid, and I was not a kid anymore, but the total immersion of just taking math and physics I have always thought was a very good thing, because I just thought about nothing else. And my wife made it possible for me between her salary and – well, I left Texas and went to Brown University on a fellowship, and my wife got a position on the faculty there.
McCray:What is her career?
Park:She’s a librarian.
McCray:Oh. So is mine.
Park:And still is, and still works. So but she made it possible then for me to really just focus, and I really did focus, and I think it’s a great way to learn.
McCray:Your education and even your Air Force time is all taking place against the background of the Cold War. How did that enter into your thinking or your experience?
Park:Yeah. I’m not sure I remember exactly how I responded to that. I was in some ways a closet socialist. You know, I was sympathetic to the objectives of the socialists but it was pretty obvious already that it was failing in Russia in ways that were important to me. But I was never rabidly anti-Soviet. I was not anti-communist; neither was I a communist or a socialist, but I was – of course I’ve always been a member of the Democratic Party. But yeah, I knew what it was all about. I understood why we had to have armies and nuclear weapons and the rest of it, but I guess at some level I was sort of a pacifist. I was certainly not one that ever wanted to have to use these things.
McCray:Okay. How about Sputnik? Again, this is something that happened while you were finishing your bachelor’s degree. What impact that have?
Park:Oh. Huge. And of course that was followed by the Apollo program. I would say there are two things in science in my life that moved me to tears – or sort of science. One was to watch a human being step off onto the moon. And not because scientifically this was of great importance, but it showed what human beings could do, you know, if we put our mind to it and devoted the resources to it, it was a measure of what humans were capable of. The other thing that had the same impact on me was when they made the announcement that smallpox had been eradicated. Because that showed what human beings could do if they all worked together. Because to eradicate smallpox meant you had to have a program that crossed every political border in the world. No place would be off limits. And they did it. Somehow they got this agreement through, and no matter how isolated the country or its politics or anything else, those borders were crossed when it came to the issue of eradicating smallpox. When you think how many people – the integrated suffering over the centuries from smallpox, and to eliminate this from the planet was a stunning achievement. And so again, the one showing what you could do if you apply yourself and the other showing what you can do if you get everybody working toward the same goal.
McCray:So with Sputnik did you have any sort of reaction, or did it motivate you to work in a particular fashion?
Park:No. By that time I was not short on motivation to begin with, and early on, as impressed as I was by the Apollo program, I recognized that the science that was coming from the Space Program was not coming from Yuri Gagarin; it was coming from our own unmanned probes. But that’s very natural for a scientist. A scientist uses instruments to make his measurements. He doesn’t have to go out and experience all of this firsthand.
McCray:One doesn’t have to go to Mars to collect the rocks.
Park:That’s right. They collect ‘em in Antarctica apparently [laughs], but it would at this point be a splendid idea if we went to Mars and brought some rocks back. They’ve been studying that Antarctic meteorite for five years. I think it’s time they looked at something else.
McCray:Tell me about Brown. Why did you decide to go there?
Park:Well, there was a particular fellowship. I applied to a number of Ivy League schools and the University of California and elsewhere, and my recollection is that I was accepted by all of them. But Brown had a fellowship that looked like it was almost tailored for me in that it was a fellowship in physics, curiously for people from Texas.
McCray:Is this the Edgar Lewis Marston?
Park:Edgar Lewis Marston Fellow. And the reason I knew about it was that one of my professors at the University of Texas had held that fellowship at Brown. And it – you know, it was kind of a wonderful thing that here was a fellowship at an Ivy League school that I could really hope to compete for. And then I did. And Brown was good. I mean, it was a great influence. It’s a wonderful school, and I’ve gone back since. In fact one of the high points in my life was to be invited to give the graduate school graduation address at Brown, which I did. It was just a terrific experience. Brown of course is sort of the opposite of the University of Texas.
McCray:I wanted to ask you just culturally how that shift was to go from the University of Texas to Brown.
Park:We could even start with football. In the year that I went, the University of Texas was undefeated in football, and Brown was unvictorious – and didn’t seem to mind. The football players did play hard, and the school did get out and cheer, and of course all these things, but somehow they kept it in proper perspective. And I thought that was very important. But the whole environment at Brown was – you know, it’s a school which is so – the graduation exercise is still done in Latin, so steeped in tradition.
Park:And I enjoyed this very different culture. Though in a way as a graduate student I really, I suppose, didn’t get to know the culture. You could always tell the graduate students, because they had patches in their blue jeans and the undergraduates wore ties and coats in those days. Now they might wear tennis sneakers with their tie and coat, but they wore a tie and coat every day. So I was never a part of that culture. But I liked the physics department at Brown.
McCray:Your fellowship would provide support for your entire time there?
Park:No, not for the entire time. Actually only for I guess the first couple of years, and but by that time, as I say, my wife was on the faculty and supporting me and I had a research assistantship, and so we were okay.
McCray:Did you have an advisor by this point?
Park:Pretty early on I got an advisor. Actually in the summers at the University of Texas I had worked for something called the Defense Research Laboratory which was associated with the university and which did research in underwater sound.
Park:Acoustics. Sonar. And so they had a pretty strong group in the physics department at Texas that was interested in acoustics and this kind of thing, and it was a great way to spend the summer, because we had a research lab out on Lake Travis which was a few miles from Austin and where we had sonar units and this kind of thing. And I got a lot of swimming done, and a little bit of research done, and so when I got ready to go to Brown it turned out that Brown had a very strong program in acoustics as well. And furthermore, one of the people, one of the strong people in acoustics at Brown was doing experimentally what I had done theoretically for my master’s thesis at Texas.
McCray:Was your master’s thesis on an acoustics topic?
Park:No. Actually the master’s thesis was on Brillouin zones in solid-state physics. But it turned out that one of the ways you could measure the energy surfaces in a material was acoustically. And that was being done at Brown. So I went to Brown with the understanding that I would work for that group when I got there. You know, we had agreed by long distance. But when I got there and met the professor, I had an uneasy feeling. He was about to accept a position higher up in the administration at Brown, and I guessed that he was not that committed to research. He had done extremely well and in a relatively short period of time had become a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
McCray:Who was this?
Park:But I guessed that he was not going to stay in research. And he didn’t. And his graduate students were left hanging.
McCray:So he leaves and takes this administrative post.
Park:That’s right. And kind of deserts his graduate students. So I saw this coming. And at about that time we had – one of the courses we were required to take was grad lab, and in grad lab we had to do one experiment that had never been done in that lab before. And I groped around for an experiment that looked like fun, and I thought building a field emission microscope would just be great fun. I was impressed by the simplicity of a field emission microscope, you know, that you could image the surface of a small, of a sharp point, but that you could image it with such an incredibly simple device – simple in principle, it turned out. So I soon found myself way over my head in vacuum technology and how to etch tips and all of these things. And the expert at Brown in this was a crusty old faculty member named Harry Farnsworth. And I went over – I talked to several faculty members about this, and they said, “Well, the expert is Harry Farnsworth, but I don’t know if you want to talk to him.” And finally I decided I had to talk to this guy. And I was amazed. He sat down and started asking me a few questions about what I had done so far. And at first I think he was very skeptical. But when he realized how much I had done on my own, he suddenly – there was a transformation and all of a sudden he was providing me space in his laboratory to do this and coming in and working shoulder-to-shoulder with me in ways to coat a fluorescent screen, ways to achieve ultra-high vacuum, all these things. And at the end of the semester he offered me a position in his group.
McCray:What was his research group specifically oriented to?
Park:Surface physics – in particular low-energy electron diffraction. He was the world’s leader at that time. In fact, it was a long story. Farnsworth had apparently discovered the wave nature of the electron before Davisson and Germer. (Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer did 1st e- diffraction experiments in U.S. at Bell Labs.) In fact, he had given a talk while still a graduate student the University of Wisconsin. He gave a talk in which he said that there were electrons scattered from the surface that had lost no energy.
Park:And classically that’s not possible.
Park:And of course it’s the first example of the wave nature of the electron. He in fact used the term the electron is reflected. And that’s just a term that more classically-minded scientists objected to, including Davisson, who was at that time a world-famous physicist at Bell Laboratories. And Davisson got up and ridiculed him at a Physical Society Meeting. When you go back to the Physical Review in those days, it includes the proceedings of Physical Society Meetings with questions and answers.
McCray:So there’s like a transcript there of the–
Park:Yeah. And here was Davisson, scoffing at this graduate student saying, “They must have lost some energy.” And Farnsworth defending the point of view that they had lost no energy. And of course it was Davisson then that got the Nobel Prize for discovering the wave nature of the electron. Farnsworth – the reason that he failed was that he was very much a loner. He worked by himself. And Davisson on the other hand was a well-met fellow. He knew everyone, spent all his summers in Europe traveling around Europe talking to the great scientists.
McCray:So he had an extensive network then of–
Park:He had a real network. And lo and behold, he gets to Europe and he is reporting some of his new results very much like Farnsworth’s. But not the no loss of energy, but the fact that the electrons seemed to be scattered in certain directions preferentially. And somebody said, “It sounds to me like the kind of thing that this guy DeBroglie is working on.” And so Davisson went back to the United States, teamed up with Germer who had just joined Bell Laboratories after World War I, I guess – at least he had been in World War I. He was a veteran. But they set up the experiment, got the Nobel Prize, and Farnsworth was bitter beyond belief.
McCray:I can imagine.
Park:The rest of his life. He never, never got over it.
McCray:Did he talk about this frequently?
Park:Not frequently, but as you got to know him you heard about it more and more. And then finally, you know. But Farnsworth, when I talked to other faculty members about the possibility of switching over to Farnsworth’s group, one advised me, “Well, just think of it as joining the Marines. It won’t last forever.”
McCray:Just do your tour of duty and–
Park:And indeed, he had the reputation of being maybe the toughest thesis advisor at Brown.
Park:He was. He could be very cruel to his graduate students.
McCray:In what ways?
Park:He was very demanding, and he could ridicule them, he could – you know, whatever it took to get the work done. And among other things he did not allow us to go department colloquia. That was time taken away from research. He believed in putting in the hours. And so in spite of all this, to me he was so kind, so generous in his time working on that field emission microscope project. And there was clearly a lot to be learned from this guy. And in spite of all the advice not to, I went to work for Farnsworth, and was never sorry that I did. It was tough tour of duty, but he did, for whatever reason, he seemed to treat me differently than he did his other graduate students. I don’t know if it was because I was just a few years older, having been in the Service, or what, but he treated me differently and at times almost like a colleague – which was not common in his group.
McCray:Were there many other students besides yourself in this research group?
Park:Yeah. He had a pretty good sized group. He had plenty of research support and–
McCray:What was your dissertation topic and title – or topic at least?
Park:Gosh, I’d have to go back and look it up. But I was – the thing that was really new in my research was it was the first use of low-energy electron diffraction to study defects at surfaces.
McCray:So you were looking at vacancies and things like that?
Park:Steps and– Up until then – I mean, the thing that diffraction does well is define the order.
Park:And defects are a step harder to get from diffraction. But I reasoned that that was where the interest would be.
McCray:Was your thesis – on a spectrum of theory at one end and instrument building and hardcore experimentation at the other – where did yours lie on that continuum?
Park:Yeah. There was a little bit of both, but it was mostly experiment.
McCray:Okay. Building equipment and things like that?
Park:Later on I did a little more. I enlarged on the theoretical part of it, which was to use a – if you want to call it theory – it was to use a very different approach to two-dimensional crystallography: a matrix approach which I thought gave a different insight into it.
McCray:Okay. So you would imagine the surface as being sort of a two-dimensional grid if you will, with atoms?
Park:That’s right. Yeah, yeah.
McCray:Okay. While you were at Brown did you spend your entire time there, or did you go elsewhere to do experiments other places?
Park:No. Farnsworth wouldn’t let you get away from the lab for a minute.
McCray:Okay. So you couldn’t go spend a semester at another–?
McCray:Okay. All right. You finished in ‘64 and then find yourself back at the opposite end of the country then.
Park:Yeah. Well, I finished, and at that time, by that time, it was clear that Farnsworth would one day have to retire. They had apparently tried to get him to retire earlier and they didn’t want to go through that again, but they approached me to take a research professorship with the idea that I would be on hand to take over when Farnsworth retired. And I said I didn’t want that. It looked to me like the research professor was second class; that if I took it I wanted a regular professorship.
Park:They agreed. But by that time relations were changed between Farnsworth and I. They had gotten a little more strained.
Park:Well, I had published a couple of paper on my own, and he I think felt that I had in some way betrayed him doing that.
McCray:By not having him as a co-author?
McCray:Just for a moment, just to clarify, was this common practice for a graduate student to publish his or her own papers without putting the advisor’s name on it?
Park:No, not a common thing. And in fact he had initially offered it to me as a way of inducing me to stay on after I got my Ph.D.
McCray:Publishing your own papers.
Park:That I would be able to publish my own papers. But then when I did it, it seemed to put a wedge between us.
McCray:How did you become aware of this?
Park:When Farnsworth was on your case, you knew it. At about that time, then, I began to think – well, there was one other person on the faculty who had taken his Ph.D. at Brown. Only one. This is not common among Ivy League schools. And there was only one other member of the faculty who had done this, and in fact it was another of Farnsworth’s students. And I found that when he saw Farnsworth coming, he hid. He didn’t even want to talk to Farnsworth. And furthermore, I sort of had the feeling that he was still treated as a graduate student by the faculty.
McCray:Because he had gone through the program?
Park:Yeah. And I began to realize that to be on the faculty at the same institution where you got your Ph.D. for some people you are always going to be a student.
McCray:Yeah. Because they remember what you were like as a graduate student.
Park:That’s right. And so I decided on fairly short notice then to look for another position.
McCray:Did that improve your relationships with Farnsworth once he–?
Park:No. And in fact we didn’t talk for several years. But we finally reconciled and became good friends in later years. But among the offers that I got was an offer from Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque. I went there never imagining that I was going to work in industry. This was just – I had a couple of other academic offers, but they weren’t from top flight institutions. Just a cut below the top. And I thought, you know, “I’m better off to go into industry and wait until I get a position at one of the top schools.” And essentially that’s what I did. But I stayed at Sandia much longer than I thought. I was there for ten years.
McCray:Okay. How did you learn about the position there? How did it come to your attention?
Park:Well, they contacted me, and they recruited me. I had by that time published several papers and there was – surface physics was a developing field, and there was one big international conference in which I gave my work and it was very well received. And I got a lot of inquiries after that, a lot of offers.
McCray:Which conference was this?
Park:Well, it was held right there at Brown, as a matter of fact. And I think it was the First International Conference on Surfaces. Something like that.
Park:But one of the offers that I got as a result of that then was from Sandia. And I imagined– Sandia made me a wonderful offer in that they would provide me with support for my research, a technician and what was a decent salary, and that all I would do is research.
Park:Yeah. I mean – in fact when I got there, I got a visit from a vice president of it who said – you know, he was just talking to some of the new hires to see if they had any questions that seemed unresolved. And I said, “Yeah. How do you justify a guy like me?” And he gave me an answer which I knew had to be wrong. His explanation was that, “Our scientists have to be able to communicate with scientists at other laboratories, and so we need some people who are in the business of interacting with the rest of the world that will make it easier for them to do that.” After that I began to ask that question of everybody in the administration at Sandia, and they all gave me a different answer. Sometimes “we do it for prestige,” other times “we do it because we regard these people as sort of in-house consultants,” “we’re isolated out here in Albuquerque, New Mexico and we need experts that people can go to.” And I suppose there is some truth in all of these explanations, but no two explanations were the same.
McCray:I have a clarifying question. When I think of Sandia I’m thinking of Sandia National Laboratories. This is–?
Park:This was before it was a national laboratory.
McCray:Okay. We can come back to that. So at this point it is run as an industrial laboratory.
Park:That’s right. It was run by Bell Laboratories. So in effect, I was an employee of Bell Laboratories.
McCray:When did it make the transition from–?
Park:Not long after I left, actually.
McCray:Okay, so early or mid-seventies.
McCray:Okay. Well, what was it like just personally to go from – I mean you grew up in Texas, spent time at Brown, and now you’re back in the desert Southwest.
Park:Yeah. I loved New Mexico and Albuquerque. I love the climate, I love the desert, there are mountains there, you know, it’s beautiful. And Sandia never denied me any request. When I said I needed money, they always gave it to me. And whenever I asked for anything, they provided it. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go to, to start building a reputation. I mean, if I couldn’t have built a reputation there under those circumstances, I didn’t deserve it. But at the same time, as time went on they did expect you to sort of begin to be involved in the company’s business.
McCray:What was the company’s business?
Park:They were the systems engineering laboratory for nuclear weapons. And so for example at one point the assembly line for the production of zipper tubes, the triggers for nuclear weapons, for some reason they stopped working.
McCray:The tubes or the assembly line?
Park:The tubes. And so there was some problem in the assembly line. And so I went to the plant in Panella, Florida and we went through the whole process, and it was a long experience. I most certainly wasn’t the only one. But it was my first introduction into the real – what the company really does.
McCray:How did you feel about that?
Park:Well, the first thing I noticed – I mean, I had always imagined atomic bombs being put together by a bunch of guys in white smocks.
McCray:A clean room or something with–
Park:Yeah. And here I was faced with this plant that made one little component. These are the little tubes – you know, a couple of inches high and a couple of inches wide. And they had this huge plant to produce them, and an assembly line. And these things are coming down the assembly line and being put into boxes kind of like eggs in a carton, and the cartons are loaded into cases, and the cases are loaded on semi trailers which drive out the gate. And, you know, there are two of these – one for redundancy – in each weapon. And I said, “Is this how many atomic bombs we’re producing?”
McCray:When you’re seeing the trucks leaving?
Park:Yeah. And it was. And I was shocked. You know, this was not– Maybe I was naive to have not discovered this until that point.
McCray:The idea that atom bombs aren’t something where you make custom made and then you make the next one.
Park:But you’re making them like you would refrigerators.
Park:And that kind of shook me. Not too much later– But at that point I began to think about the possibility of really getting out and looking for another position. And I had had a couple of offers in the meantime, but again they were not from quite the top rung of schools. And I was sent out to California to Livermore for a demonstration of the new MIRV. At that time we had just added the multiple re-entry vehicle to our– And what it amounted to was that we had produced a very small hydrogen bomb. And I was sent out to take a look. It was kind of a briefing on this. And I got there, and this is a laboratory where you’re, you know, you really know you are in a weapons laboratory.
Park:Just the whole atmosphere – the secrecy level of it is certainly one. And we went to this little auditorium behind these electrified fences and vehicles patrolling between the fences and the whole thing, and somebody got up and closed the blinds. And I thought, “Wow.” And we sat there waiting, and up at the front of this little auditorium was a table with something there and a black velvet shroud over it. And I noticed that everybody was whispering. There was something about it, about the atmosphere, that kept you from speaking up. And then these people began to come in and give us a briefing with slides and the whole thing.
McCray:Air Force people or lab people?
Park:No. These were scientists. And, you know, all the problems that had been faced in doing this and how they’d been solved. And finally at the very end then they pulled the shroud back. And it was the weapon cut away, but a real weapon – but with the skin cut away in places so you could get up and see how it was actually assembled. Which was incredibly ingenious, you know, how they had fitted all this in to that much space was technologically just absolutely marvelous.
Park:We walked by single file looking down into this cut-away weapon. And I had this feeling that I was at my mother’s funeral, looking into the coffin.
McCray:Had your mother passed away recently?
Park:Yes. Just fairly recently, as a matter of fact. And I had nightmares after that. You know, it was in a way a funeral. And I had not suddenly become a raging pacifist or something, but I realized I didn’t want to be part of it. And I left that briefing, you know, knowing that it was time for me to go.
McCray:Do you remember what year this was? I know you left Sandia in ‘74, so it’s probably close to around that.
Park:Yeah, it would be about that. About a year before that I guess. And lo and behold, the University of Maryland made me an offer. And it was a good offer, and it came at just the right time.
McCray:Before we talk about Maryland, I’m curious about your own work that you were doing at Sandia Labs. It continued, I imagine, in surface physics and solid-state.
Park:It continued in surface physics, certainly initially almost what I had been doing in my thesis work, and but then spreading into other things.
McCray:Were there particular projects that you would work on or research topics?
Park:Yeah. And I was free to pick them, and I had a good technician who was a big help in putting this stuff together.
McCray:So the two of you were pretty much that particular team?
Park:That’s right. He was mine full time, and here was a laboratory with all the resources that you needed, and I mean right down to good secretaries and the whole business – and you could really get something done. So it was a joy to work there under those circumstances, though from the very beginning I used to sort of try to imagine that I walking down the halls of Sandia University. And that was – oh, you know, I would get a rude shock every time I would have to go through the gates and show my pass and the whole business.
McCray:Towards the end of your time there, I mean the Vietnam War is escalating. And does any of that enter into just your consciousness?
Park:Sure. Yeah. By that time there were a lot of people at Sandia who were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, including myself. And so, yeah, it was kind of a split. At the same time, I began to be more and more aware that there was another group of people who were sort of Dr. Strangeloves. They were fascinated by the power of the bomb and they loved working on anything that powerful. They tended to be very much in favor of the Vietnam War, but that’s not surprising. But I became very aware of that split. These were not the people that I had to work with, for the most part. And again, I have no complaint about Sandia. They could not have treated me better. But the idea of getting back into a university, by that time it really sounded good to me.
McCray:Okay. Actually I have a few more questions, more specific ones. In ‘69 you were director of the surface physics division. What was this?
Park:It just was those, you know, they collected together those of us who were doing research in one aspect or another of surfaces. And it ranged all the way from the very basic kind of research that I was doing to much more applied research, like designing high-voltage equipment – insulators, for example, that would not have a surface breakdown under very high voltages. Because these little tubes that I mentioned, you know, they operate at 250 kilovolts and they’re small space. You’ve got to design things in a special way. So some of these things were very, very applied.
McCray:Mm-hm [affirmative]. But your own work was more in basic science?
Park:My own work was primarily very basic science – aside from the fact that I was their in-house consultant for some of these other problems that had to do with surfaces. But we got involved in some other things that I was very pleased about: involved in the design of this snap capsule that went up on Apollo, the space nuclear auxiliary power supplies. This was what powered the experiments that were left on the moon. And they operated for years and years and years, and without a flaw. They were designed to last for two years, and they lasted for many years beyond that. But there were a lot of surface problems involved there.
McCray:Where there particular places that you would tend to publish your work? What were the major journals for publishing at that time?
Park:Well, the major journal for publishing, that was a source of some conflict back in those days. The surface science community had approached the American Physical Society about having more sessions on surface physics at its annual meeting. And there were people within the Physical Society who said, “That’s not physics, that’s technology, and we want no part of that.” And so they didn’t get much encouragement. At the same time, the American Vacuum Society was a much more technically directed group, a much more applied group, said, “Well, why don’t you have your sessions with us? And you can be as basic as you want.” And so they created a surface science division.
McCray:Within the American Vacuum Society.
Park:Within the American Vacuum Society. And I guess I was the second chairman of that division. And we organized international conferences and did the whole thing, and the Vacuum Society was a great home to us. The Physical Society as a result of that I think kind of reexamined themselves and decided that, “This is not a good idea. We’re spinning off whole societies.” And they had already spun off other societies, like the Acoustical Society which had left for the same reason I think.
McCray:Yeah. Of being too applied?
Park:Yeah. They did not feel at home, and the APS was not making them feel at home. And I think we’re very different now. I can’t imagine us doing that anymore.
McCray:So some of those prejudices, if you will, have been pushed aside.
Park:Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
McCray:Okay. Well, tell me about coming to Maryland. This sounds whenever you left Brown you were interested in eventually returning to a university type setting.
Park:Sure. And here was, you know, back to academia. And I felt — I couldn’t have felt better about it. And it was my first experience at having graduate students, which are – I don’t want to overdo the analogy, but they are almost like your own children in that you take great pride in what they accomplish, and you are almost as happy at their accomplishments as you are when you do something. Maybe more so in a way.
McCray:How did you find out about the position here? How did it come to your attention?
Park:Oh, they contacted me at Sandia and said, you know– At that time the solid-state group at Maryland had lost one member, and they were looking for somebody else and they decided that surface physics – at that time was a very hot field – and so they deliberately I think were looking for somebody in the surface science field. And I guess it was Bob Anderson, who is still on the faculty here. Bob had some contact with Sandia scientists and came out there for the summer and went back and said, you know, “This is the possibility.” And so, you know, the usual thing. I was invited to come out and give a colloquium and the whole – the matchmaking went on there for a while.
McCray:Okay. Did you feel good about returning to the east coast?
Park:Well, not the east coast so much. I loved the west, and still do – though I love the east too now. And but the return to academia, that was the joy. And this was a kind of academia that I didn’t know as a graduate student. You know, Brown being a private Ivy League school. And in a way my heart lay with the big state institutions – you know, the University of Texas, when I went to the University of Texas the first time the tuition was $25 a semester, you know. I couldn’t have gone to a Brown. But to be part of a big state university and you know the people here at Maryland were obviously people that I felt an affinity with, and I just thought it was great. I couldn’t have been happier.
McCray:When you arrived, you started very soon as the director of the Center of Materials Research. And I have several questions about this, but I guess one of them just in general is material science is such an interdisciplinary field I’m trying to get a sense – I’d like to get a sense from you – of how that center at Maryland functioned. Was it located in the physics department?
Park:No, it was not, actually. The physics department had almost been excluded from it. But it was going under. It was supported by the National Science Foundation and had not been well managed I think. And it was dominated by engineering at that time.
McCray:Engineers from chemical engineering, places like that?
Park:Chemical engineering and places like that. And so the physicists felt they really had been shunned, and I think to some extent they had. Physics at that time at the University of Maryland was by far the most famous department within the university, and they had great support and a lot of good contracts, this kind of thing. And engineering was kind of at the other pole but trying hard to build up. And so they felt that if they – I think – that if – that the physics department would just take over this center.
McCray:Sure. And push the engineers aside.
Park:Yeah. And so they kind of deliberately I think kept physics out of it. But then when it looked like the thing was going under they were looking for somebody who had experience directing a group that was kind of broad-based. The group I directed at Sandia, as I say, went all the way from very applied to very basic. And so they were looking for something of that sort that could begin to pull all these things together and pull physics back into the center. And I suppose it was maybe the worst career move anybody ever made when I agreed to do that.
Park:Well, the decision had already been made at NSF to close it out. And the question was, “Is it possible to get them to reverse a decision that they’ve already made?” And I suppose it was possible, and we took our best shot at it, but it didn’t happen. And so in a sense my first step was a failure at Maryland, that I agreed to take this thing on in the belief, in the cockiness that I could turn things around.
McCray:Sure. Did you have reservations about doing that, about that being a risk to your own career?
Park:Sure, I had reservations. And it was in grave need of some real surgery. I mean they were supporting some work that was very poor, and good people even in engineering were being cut out of it. I don’t know quite how these things get going that way, but it was clearly time to do something, and I thought we could. And we didn’t do too bad, but we didn’t quite make it.
McCray:How was it organized? You would have people from chemical engineering and physics. Were there other departments involved?
Park:Yeah. The whole thing was under what’s called the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at Maryland, which was an outgrowth of the Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics – which Maryland was very famous for. It had some really great people that started that institute, and we were organizationally under that. At the same time – well, it was a strange organization, and as I say, I think wiser people would not have touched that job.
McCray:Okay. Did Maryland eventually develop a material science department or program?
Park:No, no. They had a solid-state physics program at the time, and what happened was that Maryland simply, like other places, changed the name to condensed matter, and surface physics became maybe the largest – in fact it is the largest – area within the condensed matter group. Maryland is such a huge department, you have to understand kind of how it’s organized.
McCray:Sure. Tell me.
Park:It’s broken up into what amount to subdepartments that sort of manage themselves. So nuclear physics, plasma physics, condensed matter physics, all of these, they are all organized almost like departments, in which a person is chosen kind of as the leader and usually on the basis of seniority more than anything else. But they do their own hiring, they have their own staff of secretaries and this king of thing.
McCray:So you have physics and then sort of underneath that you would have nuclear physics and solid-state physics and plasma physics.
Park:That’s right. Exactly. And in each of these groups there was a fair amount of autonomy. And it seemed to work pretty well, but it does one thing that might not be so good, and that is, is sort of locks you into whatever you’re into.
McCray:So if you’re in solid-state physics-
Park:That’s right. But if you decide that there is some area you would – like biophysics – that you would like to get into, there is no support for it. Everybody is on the basis of his group fighting for their share of the resources. So to start something really new I think is very hard to do under that kind of a system. But in many ways it’s worked very well for Maryland.
McCray:You became department chair in ‘78, so that would have put you in charge of the person at the top with these separate sub-departments.
McCray:During the time that you were department chair, what specialties were you interested in encouraging or promoting within the department? Or what were strong points that they had that existed?
Park:Plasma physics was I guess at that time really riding high. And that of course was at a time when the country was putting a great deal of money into fusion and fusion power. But I enjoyed my time as chairman. I mean – I don’t think I was a great chairman, but the department held together pretty well.
McCray:Into all this time you have your own students that you are working with?
Park:Yeah. As a matter of fact my research group grew during that time.
McCray:How many people were in it?
Park:I guess at one point we had a total of twelve, something like that – twelve, fifteen.
McCray:That’s a good-sized group.
Park:Yeah. I was – well, one of the concessions that was made to get me to Maryland was they agreed I could hire an assistant professor. And I wanted a theoretician working in the same area. And they agreed to that, and I went out and recruited what I thought was the best theoretician around and got him on at a reasonable salary. And the department chairman says, “Okay, but you got to understand: no more unless it’s an Einstein.” So I went out and hired Ted Einstein. So I then had two – which turned out probably not to be a good idea, because they were both very good.
McCray:They’re both theoreticians?
Park:Both theoreticians. But unfortunately, they came up for tenure at almost the same time, and it was clear that only one could make it. And so I probably did not do them a favor. But– Ted Einstein of course is still there.
McCray:Yes. I always marvel whenever I see the name. It’s quite interesting. What type of research were the students and the members of your group engaged in?
Park:Well, we did a number of things, but one of the more original things we did was to look at interfaces with low-energy electrons.
McCray:Solid-vapor or solid-liquid?
Park:Solid-solid. The solid vapor interface is the one everybody had looked at. You know, you study atomic absorption on the metal crystal. And what we looked for, we would epitaxially grow one metal crystal on top of another.
McCray:Would they have the same crystal orientation?
Park:Well, they might even be different crystal orientations. And certainly they would have very different chemical properties.
McCray:What would an example be of one metal put on top of another?
Park:You might grow tungsten on gold, or gold on tungsten would be much easier to do.
Park:And then – well, one of the things that I had been interested in for a long time, there is a way of measuring work function, which has always been a difficult thing to measure, called retarding potential method, in which you take a beam of electrons aimed at normal incidence to the surface and then you begin to put a bias on the sample, on the surface, that slows the electrons down. So just as they arrive at the surface they are almost stopped. So they enter the surface at very low energies. And so by measuring the bias that you have to put between them, you actually have a measure of the work function. So it’s the difference between the positions at the two Fermi levels. And it’s a very accurate way, it’s a wonderful way to measure work function. The threshold measures your work function. Above the threshold there is this funny structure that you see. And now the structure – I had an idea of what that was due to; it had to be due to the electronic structure of the material. If there are a lot of states for the electrons to go into, the reflectivity goes down. If there aren’t many states for the electrons to go into, reflectivity goes up.
Park:And so by putting a different metal on the surface the idea was to see electrons that are scattered from that interface.
McCray:The solid-solid interface?
McCray:Okay. So you have a very thin layer.
Park:Yeah. So for example if you grow a thin layer of gold on the surface of tungsten, if you pick the right orientation of tungsten it turns out that there are virtually no states for the electrons to go into.
McCray:So you have a very high reflectivity.
Park:So you get very high reflectivity. And you could actually study then the film that you had put down, see the result of steps in the surface, all kinds of things, and then essentially look at the surface states in the electronic structure of the surface. And we did a fair amount of that in those years.
McCray:Who was providing funding for this type of work?
Park:Well, by the time I got to Maryland I already had funding lined up from the Office of Naval Research, and NSF and NASA were all providing a little money. Office of Naval Research, I think, was the best in that they provided a substantial amount of the money. And all I had to do was write them a letter once a year and explain that we’d been doing great stuff, “and if you send us the money, we’ll keep doing it.” And they would do that each year.
McCray:Hmm. What types of equipment do you need to do this type of research?
Park:Well it’s all changed now. At that time we built our own low-energy electron diffraction apparatus. By that time you could buy them commercially, but we built them ourselves that could do things that the commercial devices couldn’t begin to do. So it’s a lot of ultra-high vacuum equipment. And now of course the emphasis at Maryland is on scanning tunneling microscopes. So I was – I really missed the boat on that. One of my first hires when I got the job – well, I guess it was when it was clear I was going to become department chairman. And I said, “Okay, I need somebody to look after the group on a day-to-day basis. So I’ve got to get a postdoc to do that.” And I hired Ellen Williams. And now, a lot of people warned me that you can’t hire a young Ph.D. woman to be in charge of watching young men who are about to get their Ph.D.s. And they were dead wrong. She was perfect at it. She had just the right touch. And the students respected her. One of the things that I had looked at was this idea of scanning tunneling microscope, and I was skeptical as to whether it would ever work. And of course it worked fantastically. And Ellen saw that, right at the start. And so that’s a large part of what the group does now. And the group still works closely with Ted Einstein doing the theory.
McCray:In terms of the organization of the group, did people work on their individual projects or did they work as a large team on a single project?
Park:No. Individual projects - almost entirely. Occasionally you’ve got two people working together or something.
McCray:And then would the people come together on a weekly or biweekly basis to talk?
Park:Well, even oftener than that. I had weekly meetings of the group. Which we provided beer. In those days, we could. And I never felt that it was a chemical effect from the beer, but beer is sort of an announcement that the barriers are down, and those were great meetings. But in addition, every morning as department chairman at 8:30 in the morning the group assembled in my office. I had a nice conference table in there, so the group would assemble every single morning and we would discuss what everybody was doing and what they were going to do that day. So everybody was familiar on a day-to-day basis with what the other people were doing, and could often offer, “Well, you know I ran into that, and here’s what I did.” And so those were very effective. Not all students were willing to do that, and if they weren’t willing to do that, I didn’t want them in the group.
McCray:So you preferred a more open style of interaction.
Park:Open style, but also a willingness to come in at 8:30 in the morning.
Park:Maybe I got that from Farnsworth.
McCray:In terms of your own personal style of management?
Park:Remember that Farnsworth was this loner who worked by himself, and that Davisson won the Nobel Prize because he knew everybody.
Park:But Farnsworth then was deeply hurt, and became very secretive. And I was convinced that that was the exact opposite of what you needed to be and that it hurt the group in the long run – and that now and then somebody is going to take advantage of something they’ve picked up from you, but that the group should be very open – which we always were – and secondly that, you know, the students really have to do it. That was troubling. The first day that I realized that I was standing in a laboratory and didn’t know how to turn the equipment on, you know, was kind of a shock. And I had to get used to that. But I really think it’s the only way to train graduate students. If you – you can maybe get them through this stuff a little faster if you stick your nose in all the time, but aside from these morning meetings in which we discussed everything, the students were really pretty free to try out any new ideas they had.
McCray:Did your students tend to go on to academic careers or industry, or is it just a mix with no clear pattern?
McCray:Okay. At this point in time government funding for science in the late seventies was beginning to decrease. Before we end up talking about the public stuff, which I’d like to save for the next session. It’s actually 10 after noon. Do you need to finish up pretty soon?
Park:Before long. Yeah. I’ve got to go for my physical therapy.
McCray:Okay. Actually this is a pretty good place to stop, because I’m sort of at the end of the formal questions. So why don’t we just close down for now and we can finish later.
That’s swell. That’s swell.
Session I | Session II