Oral History Transcript — Dr. Dan Nolan
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a
transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview
must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event
will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons
including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings
about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from
a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript
Access form | Project support | How to cite | Print this page
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Dan Nolan; January 24, 2007
ABSTRACT: Topics discussed include: family background; undergraduate work at LaSalle College; graduate work at Penn State; AT&T; Corning; military service in the Army; Roger Herman; Don Keck; and Mike Tetter.
Ashrafi: Today is January 24th, 2007. This is Babak Ashrafi in the office of Dan Nolan in Sullivan Park, New York for an interview for the AIP Oral History collection. Iíd love to start with your family background and how you first got into science and technology in your early education. When were you born?
Ashrafi: Ď44. Where?
Nolan: In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Itís a steel town.
Ashrafi: What did your parents do?
Nolan: My father worked for Bethlehem Steel. He didnít finish high school, but he ended up being like an engineer for Bethlehem Steel, in metallurgy. He worked there like 45 years cutting steel.
Ashrafi: Did your mother work as well?
Nolan: No, no. And I had two brothers a sister.
Ashrafi: In your education before college, did you have much interest in science and technology?
Nolan: Yes. You know, I wasnít a great student in grade school. I liked religion and arithmetic and stuff, but I never studied or anything. Then in college I liked algebra. But I didnít really like anything until I took physics. I donít know what it was, but I had a great teacher, a great high school teacher. Iím sure that affected me and I just was interested in it before I even started taking it, but then when I took it, even in high school, even though it was simple. Now it seems like simple stuff. It was something I really wanted to study.
Ashrafi: So you had physics in high school.
Ashrafi: And you also said you were interested in religion and math.
Nolan: As in grade school and in high school and always.
Ashrafi: There wasnít anything in particular that you could point to in your high school years that sparked your interest in physics?
Nolan: Nothing in particular. I just thought it was me. I think there are a couple of other things that affected me though. One of them is it was a steel town and it was considered a really great thing if you worked for Bethlehem Steel, and that was engineering and science at the time. And while I was in high school Bethlehem Steel built a big research lab somewhat like here at Corning, but of course they went bankrupt for a whole lot of reasons, more commercial than scientific. But thatís always been in my mind, too. I think I always wanted to work in industry because of that. And the other thing is at Bethlehem Lehigh University was considered an excellent engineering and science school, and I knew that. I donít know why, but I donít know why I wanted to do that.
Ashrafi: You were aware of what your father did?
Nolan: Yes. I knew what he worked on, but he didnít explain it well. I mean he specified what they call tool steels. I knew that, you know, how they made different steels with different compounds. He explained a little bit to me about what they do, but not much. It wasnít like a high paying job, but it seemed interesting.
Ashrafi: And you went to college where?
Nolan: I went to LaSalle in Philly. I had to get away from Bethlehem. And itís not a big school, but theyíve got a decent physics program.
Ashrafi: Did you know you were going to be a physics major when you went there?
Ashrafi: So you went to LaSalle to be a physics major.
Nolan: Yes, right.
Ashrafi: And what was the education there like?
Nolan: It was okay. You know, I still wasnít a great student. I liked physics, I liked math, history, but I wasnít totallyÖ You know, I look back on that and I think I didnít work that hard.
Ashrafi: When did you enter LaSalle?
Ashrafi: Do you remember the physics classes that you took?
Nolan: Oh, yes. I mean they were standard mechanics. I like quantum mechanics and optics. I didnít like the optics, partly in the way it works or explained or whatever. And itís funny, I ended up doing that. It was the one course I didnít like.
Ashrafi: Were there some particular events that stand out in your memory that were formative about LaSalle? Instructors maybe?
Nolan: Let me think. Nothing real strong. I mean well, thatís why Iím a teacher. I like Bertrumís [inaudible]. Actually he was doing his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught the quantum course, but I liked that one the best. But I donít remember much about college. I mean I remember more about my Ph.D. when I really got into it.
Ashrafi: Were you thinking about continuing on in physics after undergraduate?
Nolan: I wasnít sure if I wanted to work for a while or go for a Ph.D.
Ashrafi: When did you graduate?
Ashrafi: What happened after your graduation?
Nolan: Well actually I started working for the Navy in the Naval Air Development Center.
Nolan: It was outside of Philadelphia, and I didnít like it because it seemed so boring. So I had an opportunity to pick up a Masterís degree as a teaching assistant at the University of Dayton, and I took that.
Ashrafi: How did that come about?
Nolan: Well, I called up my — I had a connection with the chairman of the physics department at LaSalle. They had an opening there so I took it. I was glad I did it. I really felt then that I wanted to work. I wanted to pursue a lot more education. Not that the Navy wasnít — that was a good thing for me.
Ashrafi: In what way?
Nolan: I realized that if I wanted to do things that were interesting, then I needed to learn a lot more and get an advanced degree. So then I finished that Masterís degree and then I went to Penn State.
Ashrafi: So you finished your Masterís degree and you taught that.
Nolan: Well, just as a teaching assistant. Then I went to Penn State.
Ashrafi: What did the Masterís degree involve? Was it courses or was it —
Nolan: Yes, it was courses and a little bit of thesis in terms of I did some field theory. And I liked the mathematical physics the best. But I was concerned that there was a lot in the Physics Today about getting jobs back then, because physics was in huge demand, but even in the Ď60s it fell off. So I was always concerned that it wasnít going to get me a job, but not enough to not do it, though.
Ashrafi: Were you still directed towards industry or were you now open to academic physics?
Nolan: I think I was more into applied physics because of all the concerns, but not necessarily industry or university.
Ashrafi: Concerns about jobs?
Nolan: Yes. Would there be an opening to be a professor? And then when I was at Penn State it seemed to me itís very political, you know, appointments they made. And I didnít think it was just because of Penn State.
Ashrafi: Let me ask you how you ended up going to Penn State. So you mustíve done well.
Nolan: Yes, right.
Ashrafi: This time you were a good student.
Nolan: I was getting better. I mean still not spending as much time as I should have, you know. I would spend time on the things I liked, but not enough on the things that I didnít like, maybe. I still do that. So yes, then I wanted to work. I liked the idea of field theory, scattering theory, that type thing. But I still lean more towards getting a job in industry eventually.
Ashrafi: And was there anything special that happened that led you to Penn or did you apply to several places?
Nolan: Well, there were a couple, not great ones, but one of them was — Well, first of all, I liked where it was. It was closer to home. And the other thing is, this was like Ď68 then and there was a big problem with the Vietnam War, and I thought if I went to Pennsylvania, Penn State, I had a better chance at a real state institution and then if they were going to do like draft boards and all that, that I wouldnít have to go over there, but it didnít work. So after I was there for almost a year, I ended up getting — But I took a lot of courses towards the Ph.D. and I figured out what I wanted to do. I had a good idea of what Iíd like to work on, but then I got drafted into the Army, and that was in Ď69. And that was the biggest call, that month. So I was sent to basic training. But I was very fortunate, because after that they sent me to Baltimore to work as a civilian for the rest of the two years at a place called Edgewood Arsenal in the materials part of the Army. It was outside of Baltimore between Baltimore and Aberdeen. So while I was there I felt even more strongly that Iíd like to go back and finish the Ph.D. when I got out.
Ashrafi: Was there something that happened there that made you feel strongly?
Nolan: Again, working with the people in the lab, I thought that the work was — nothing against them and I learned a lot — but it seemed kind of a little boring. I donít know if thatís the right word, butÖ
Ashrafi: Did you choose materials research in the Army, or was it justÖ?
Nolan: No, they just assigned me there, but I consider myself very blessed to go there as opposed to infantry.
Ashrafi: You mentioned that when you were at Penn you became aware of the politics in academia.
Nolan: Yes. I mean itís nothing against Penn State. Itís just the way of life. We even see it here. And I donít know. It seemed to me like there were very few openings for academia at the time, and how they choose who gets in and where, itís not just your work. Itís your work, but you have to be connected.
Ashrafi: So this was something you became aware of as a graduate student.
Nolan: More so than anywhere, yes. Of course the Army didnít hurt.
Ashrafi: How do you mean?
Nolan: Well, you could see lots of politics in the Army, too. And even the civilians, how they moved up.
Ashrafi: Are you saying that you thought industry would harbor you from that politics?
Nolan: I wasnít sure. You know, there has to be some, thereís got to be. But I think, and part of it was reading Physics Today, for example. You learn a lot about whatís required to be a professor, reading between the lines, I thought. When there are fewer openings, thereís more politics. Thereís a lot.
Ashrafi: Thatís very interesting that you got that insight from reading Physics Today.
Nolan: Yes. I think thatís where I learned about it.
Ashrafi: How about your coursework at Penn? You were already doing field theory when you got there.
Nolan: Yes, thatís right. But of course, I took a lot more in terms of quantum electrodynamics, more electrodynamics. Statistical mechanics didnít have that before, some math work. So that was Ď68, but then it was interrupted for a couple of years. So then I went back in Ď71 and I finished it in Ď74.
Ashrafi: Do you remember some of the instructors of those courses?
Nolan: Oh, definitely. I had a great adviser, his name is Roger Herman. Heís retired now. We still keep in touch. In fact I got an award from the physics department a few years ago. Well, actually from the College of Science for contributions to telecommunications. And I always kept in touch with him. So, you know, I have good memories.
Ashrafi: Were there other instructors who were important to you?
Nolan: Well, heís dead now, but his name was Gibbons. I liked how he taught mathematical physics and electrodynamics, the advanced electrodynamics course.
Ashrafi: Were you ever drawn to experimental physics? Did you ever try your hand at that?
Nolan: You know, I always felt uncomfortable, only because I didnít have a lot of patience for it. But even here I did some experimental work.
Ashrafi: At Corning?
Nolan: At Corning, yes. But I prefer to work with others and have them do the experimental part. In fact Iíve had an experimental team, but I never did the experiments.
Ashrafi: A lot of optical cable it looks like around your office.
Nolan: Thatís right, optical fiber. Still work a lot in optical projects. For the most part thatís been my major, output communications. But I did do other material process stuff. Polarizing glass.
Ashrafi: Right. Different universities have different kinds of atmospheres. People either tend to work alone or work in groups. Itís very competitive or itís not.
Ashrafi: What was Penn like?
Nolan: Well, they had groups, they had big groups, especially in experimental programs. Iím trying to think what was the big one. They didnít call it, you know, the standard model now. They did call it then, elementary particle physics. They had some fairly big groups in that. And I know they do now, even bigger ones, like Abhay Ashtek is very well known in general relativity. But the person that I worked for was a theoretical person, but he sort of did his own thing.
Nolan: Yes. And I actually liked that. I didnít want to be part of a big team. Iím not sure I would recommend that now. I mean he liked to play around with theory related to different things.
Ashrafi: Like what?
Nolan: Like something related to surface physics or atomic physics or optics. You know, different areas and was able to publish different areas. I thought that was kind of neat. And actually that was a good background for here, because I wanted — it was good to work in different areas, especially when youíre younger, different projects. I worked on manufacturing things. Pretty fundamental class of science, I guess.
Ashrafi: What was your dissertation?
Nolan: I worked in absorption of particles on surfaces on field ion microscopy. It seems like a long time ago.
Ashrafi: Did you work closely with Herman in them days or were you by yourself?
Nolan: Oh, yes.
Ashrafi: As you finished up and were looking for jobs, how did that process go? Because you came to Corning and youíve been here every since.
Nolan: When I finished, again it was a bad time — it seems like itís always been a bad time for physics. And it was particularly bad.
Nolan: Yes. So I had a couple of post-docs: one at RPI, one at Cornell. And the job was a contract at the Goddard Space Center. Then I had this opportunity here. And when I interviewed here, they showed me the optical fiber, which really was not product yet; it was moving into development. And if I came here, I felt I could work on that, which singularly looked like a good opportunity for me.
Ashrafi: Okay. Let me step back a bit, Can we talk about RPI? How long were you there?
Nolan: I didnít go. I just had the opportunity to go. Those were post-doc opportunities.
Ashrafi: I see. So you didnít go to RPI, Cornell, or Goddard.
Nolan: No, I just came here.
Ashrafi: Was there anything else we need to talk about at Penn before we move onto Corning?
Nolan: Oh, probably not. Maybe, but I can come back if it fits in.
Ashrafi: Did you talk to Herman about going to industry or academia?
Nolan: Yeah. I sort of had the feeling that it was a disappointment at Penn State that I went to industry, because that was not using your best talents. Iím not sure, though. Maybe I was reading between the lines, but I thought that optical fiber communications, I could do some neat things. I wasnít wasting my life. Maybe thatís unfair to say that, but I just had that feeling.
Ashrafi: Whatís unfair?
Nolan: I mean from academia that itís considered not a good thing to go to industry back then. I donít know what itís like now.
Ashrafi: You said several times already that you were thinking about going to industry when you were younger.
Ashrafi: And was this still an active thought?
Nolan: I think so, yes. I think that had a lot to do with it.
Ashrafi: So you came here and you saw the optical fiber.
Nolan: Right. And I worked in a modeling group at the time, and I was modeling a couple of things with other scientists. One of them was with Don Keck, who was one of the inventors of optical fiber. Theyíre working on multi-mode fiber, which at that time was considered the way to go, because we didnít have connectors and single mode was hard to deal with. That lasted about eight years. Multi-mode was more important. Then itís funny, because I did a lot of multi-mode fiber towards the end of that eight years and people were saying this is finished now, but actually it lasted 30 years and it still makes lots of money. Itís just a different application than at the time. You see that a lot in industry: something works here and then applications change, but it doesnít mean that product or that engineering aspects of it or the science related to it go away. But you always want to do things right.
Ashrafi: Did you notice any differences in the work environment and the research environment between Corning and Penn?
Nolan: Thatís a real good question. Let me think. I think the teams were a little more isolated say at Penn State. Here people are more forced to work together.
Ashrafi: Forced by whom?
Nolan: By money, I think. If one team loses, everybody kind of loses, but thatís not necessarily true in universities because youíre more judged as your team, I think. Or history will judge you that way and your work will move ahead. I think, Iím not sure, but I suspect that you could be in a really great group of scientists and doing a lot of publishing and what have you, but another group may be working in a whole other area, but they may not be so successful than when there isnít that much there. Iím talking about the research aspect. The teaching aspect is different and then they probably have to work with them.
Ashrafi: So in this one feature that you pointed out, which is the collaborative atmosphere. Can we call it that?
Nolan: Yes. Not that itís perfect here, either.
Ashrafi: Sure. Has that changed over the 33 years youíve been here, since Ď74. Has that changed?
Nolan: Not really. I think collaborations are maybe even better now, you know. Coming is a very polite place. There is finger pointing, but itís done in a polite way [chuckles]. And it isnít so bad. I think thatís a good way to do it.
Ashrafi: Do you have a sense of what your expectations were for working in industry and in what ways theyíve been fulfilled or not?
Nolan: Yes. When I came here I didnít know much about how industry worked, I realize and I learned a lot from a couple of people in terms of how to advance your career and your opportunities. And Corning always had this dual path, we call it, a technical path and then a managerial path. But actually I straddled both. I did both, but I always kept coming back to the technical. And thatís Research Fellow is the ultimate title. In fact there is two levels of fellows: thereís fellow and then executive fellow, which I am.
Ashrafi: When you first arrived, letís say in this first eight-year period, were there particular individuals who acted as mentors to you, helped to show you how to advance your career?
Nolan: Yes, right and they told me totally different things.
Ashrafi: Thatís interesting. Can we go through those?
Nolan: Yes. Like Don Keck was, he was — And they all ended up being very successful people. He ended up being the vice president. He was the inventor for fiber. He was the applied, more applied and development oriented, I think, but he appreciated good publications and good work. But he would steer things a certain way. And then I had a good mentor in Nick Borrelli, who is also the other executive fellow at Coming. Heís about ten years older than I am. He had a whole different view on things, but I learned a lot from him. So I think I took the best of both. And another person that ended up being a fellow is Mike Tetter, who hired me and gave me some good information.
Ashrafi: So youíve named three people. The first was Keck.
Ashrafi: The second was?
Nolan: Nick Borrelli.
Ashrafi: Boreley. And the third was?
Nolan: Mike Tetter.
Ashrafi: Can you give me an encapsulated version of what you learned —
Nolan: I also learned from some people that left Corning and why they left, what they thought how to get ahead, how to be successful and productive. Yes. Now what was your question? Iím sorry.
Ashrafi: Can you tell me what you learned from these mentors?
Nolan: I think whatís valued by the company, which I think of the amount of money your research leads to is highly valued here, and I didnít realize how much. But also, how to do research that leads to profitability, and research as opposed to development. Because Corning really does appreciate applied research, you know. Itís not just development here, I think, but it is applied.
Ashrafi: Can you expand on that? Can you tell me what these distinctions are that youíre making?
Nolan: Between development and applied research?
Ashrafi: And how they play out here at Corning.
Nolan: Itís maybe a little hard to explain, but we have different — Corning is sort of unique in that we donít sell to the end customer; we sell to other companies and different things. So we are sort of diverse in terms of the type of science that we do. We have a lot of different scientists. We have glass ceramic scientists, applied material scientists, organic chemist physicists, lots of engineers. And so our work is kind of broad so that the research has to be constructed in a way that you reach all fields and products, which sell them to the automobile industry or sell them to Sony in electronics industry or sell them to the communication industry, and the customers are totally different from what they expect are different. So the way they explain it now here is we work on keystone components. Like the fiber is a keystone component. Itís amazing how much optics is involved in a fiber. Iíd have never thought that, that you could work on this for so long. But itís fascinating: the linear optics and guided wave optics and the materials aspect, the glass aspect. But thatís just one thing. So then thereís ceramic material and lots of aspects to how theyíre used, the engineering aspect, the materials aspects and then all with the glass, itís LCD glass. So exactly how you do your science that ends up being useful, you almost have to think ahead of time more whatís going to be important than to have somebody tell you. Once it comes from development, itís good to help out, but you have to anticipate that this could be important. And thatís what Iíve done a lot of.
Ashrafi: How does that happen? Is there some institutional way to help you anticipate what good research is? If I could ask a broader question, looking back, how have you selected research directionsÖ So you were going to tell me about how you selected research directions.
Nolan: Yes, right. So Corning makes clear, tries to make clear, where they want to be five years from now. What type of products, what type of industry, what have you.
Ashrafi: Clear to you?
Nolan: Yes, to everybody. They have communication meetings. But then I also talk to people in development, what they think. The other thing thatís real important is to be part of conferences and publications, because then you talk to people outside Corning. Like I think we can, Corning can, the development people can tell us what their needs are for the next two to three years. But like, I participate with the Journal of Light Wave Technology and the European conference on Optical Communication. These are administered by scientists and academia, even academia more than industry. And people are talking about their research. So you have to kind of pick based on what other people are saying, other scientists, other industries, other research universities, what they think is important. Sort of pick and choose and think, ďWell, how is that going to be relevant to what you think Corning wants to do?Ē
Ashrafi: So you have two inputs.
Ashrafi: And youíre trying to match them.
Nolan: Thatís what I do.
Ashrafi: And you said you didnít appreciate at first the connection between research and money and —
Nolan: How it is to your own career. I mean to my own career, right. Because youíll be given opportunity based on the fact that you take it at Corning, but also that youíre successful. A lot of times I did stick my neck out and say, ďThis is really important,Ē or ďThis is worth listening,Ē but I was sure that I was right. And if you do that and youíre right, youíre really given more opportunity, more freedom.
Ashrafi: How does that manifest? What do you mean given opportunity?
Nolan: To have resources or how you spend your time. Because when you first become a scientist, itís more so now, much more so with all these computers and everything, they watch everything you do. We have all these spreadsheets and the computer is in control. They watch people, almost too much. But as you grow in here and you take opportunity, then youíre allowed to take more. Thatís my view.
Ashrafi: Iím just trying to understand the details of how that happens. When you first arrive are you assigned research projects?
Nolan: Yes, for the most part. Most people are, they come in — [clicking noise]
Ashrafi: Oh, no! Whatís happening? [Recording ends] Okay. We started to talk about what happens when you first arrive and how youíre assigned projects and later on you get more freedom.
Nolan: I think itís probably much more so now that youíre assigned when you come in. And Iím not sure, because every department is a little different. But scientists, when you hire them they have a certain expertise, right, that they do their Ph.D. on, what have you. And they come. Theyíre generally hired to help with something, and you know what your objectives are in terms of the amount of work you do outside of that. They call that exploratory or discovery research apart from what youíre assigned, right. Then you have a certain amount of your own free time to come up with things. And I think thatís less and less than what it used to be partly — Although, I will say this though. We have a great research director who doesnít want that to happen. So itís held intact, otherwise the computer would take over and everybody would be given this number associated with the project that theyíre working on.
Ashrafi: So when someone comes in, first theyíre associated with a specific project.
Ashrafi: And some of their scheduled or allotted time is for exploratory research, which is free for them to do.
Ashrafi: And if theyíre successful, then presumably their assigned time decreases and their free time increases. Is that right?
Nolan: Over the years, yes. And some people donít take advantage of that time, of that exploratory time. And they just donít, or theyíre not interested in it. They really want to work on these projects that have been deemed very important.
Ashrafi: Can you describe to me how projects become deemed important?
Nolan: Yes. Usually they come backwards, from development backwards, that they need help with this or that or they donít understand this, mainly thatís it. You know, theyíre trying to make some product and thereís attributes related to underlying material science that just donít make sense, and then that backs up maybe. I mean thatís the way I see it. I donít know if everybody else would say that.
Ashrafi: What about your relations with academic physicists? You said you publish, you go to conferences.
Ashrafi: Has that changed over time?
Nolan: No, Iíve always worked with universities to an extent. I always published some papers. And it seems I work more with engineering departments than physics departments because theyíre working more on applying the science, right. So I work with the EE department at Michigan. I worked with Rochester, Applied Physics at Cornell. CCNY Department of Engineering. Those are the main schools that I think. Oh, Lehigh University as well.
Ashrafi: These contacts you have with academic scientists or engineers, is that drawn from your exploratory research time, from your project time, or both?
Nolan: Usually my exploratory research time, yes.
Ashrafi: Is it a dramatic difference?
Nolan: Kind of, because usually the exploratory research isnít super product oriented. When something becomes product oriented, we donít want to talk about it much outside the company for reasons of patenting type thing. So that tends to be worked on inside. Itís too risky, especially now days. All these professors have their own companies.
Ashrafi: Whatís the procedure for making that decision about what kind of work you can talk about or you shouldnít talk about outside of Corning?
Nolan: Well, if itís associated with fiber, you know, known products, known product divisions, you need to actually get clearance from the patent office and they help you with that. But you have a good sense yourself, if I should be talking about this or not.
Ashrafi: Do you have to pass everything through the patent office?
Nolan: No, but there are things that you know that youíre going to have to.
Ashrafi: So the first decision is yours.
Nolan: Yes, right.
Ashrafi: Whether to submit something for review.
Nolan: Right. But everything is theoretically supposed to be approved, like anything published. But if I go and talk to a university I donít have to tell the patent office ahead of time. Iím supposed to know enough to think that this is something I can or canít talk about.
Ashrafi: How about patenting? That mustíve changed over the 33 years youíve been here, or has it not?
Nolan: You know, I donít think it has a whole lot.
Ashrafi: Is that right?
Nolan: Yes. I mean itís the same procedure. If you have an idea, they call it an invention disclosure. You write up an invention disclosure. And then thereís a committee that related to that subjectólots of different committees. And they decide if it should be written up as a patent. And if itís an exploratory idea it takes longer to get through the system or if itís a product idea and itís going to be a product soon, then thereís a rush to get the patent.
Ashrafi: How about the emphasis on generating patents, or the encouragement you get or the reminders you get, has that varied over time?
Nolan: Not really. I think itís always been important at Corning.
Ashrafi: Some places, like Iíve done interviews with folks at Bell Labs who all of a sudden at some point realize they should be patented.
Nolan: Yes, right. Theyíre both totally different. I mean now itís the same. In fact, theyíre probably worse than us, I think. Not worse, but more patent oriented than we are. But weíve always been very patent oriented. And that may have been a shock to them, because theyíre now being judged on the dollar whereas before they were judged, I think, only on great science. Which is kind of the shame, isnít it? It was good that theyíre different in at least one area.
Ashrafi: Right. You talked about this a little bit before, but what is the procedure for evaluating scientists at Corning who are doing a lot of exploratory research? How are people evaluated? I suppose if youíre assigned a project, you can see if you solve it or not.
Nolan: Right. But exploratory stuff is more, you have to be the judge.
Ashrafi: Thatís you.
Nolan: Myself, right. If I think itís valuable to work with scientists at Cornell, right, on a particular subject. I like to work on particular things rather than generalities. Iíd like to do a whole lot more of that, but we just donít have the time. I always find that rewarding.
Ashrafi: How about for folks who arenít as senior as you are?
Nolan: Then itís harder, but I think anybody with a good idea is given an opportunity, but not as many.
Ashrafi: And then how does Corning judge the outcome?
Nolan: Thatís subjectively. Thatís sort of — But one thing we do at Corning is we have what we call exploratory research award every year thatís given to a scientist to give them recognition that they took a risk and that theyíre valuable work could lead to something, you know. And the fellows pick that person. So thatís to let everybody know that Corning does value them.
Ashrafi: How many fellows are there?
Nolan: I donít know. Thereís probably about eight or ten, at most, active.
Ashrafi: Can we talk about your role in Corning? So first you came in as an entry-level scientist and presumably you were assigned some projects.
Ashrafi: And then how has that role changed over time?
Nolan: Well, itís more that I get to pick what I do now, and I get more resources if I ask for them.
Ashrafi: But specifically in terms of your job description, has that changed over time?
Nolan: Well, whatís expected of you? Yes. As a fellow, youíre expected to mentor young scientists. I think youíre expected to come up with bigger ideas, if they fail or not. Youíre expected to publish, be recognized outside, work with universities, but also interact with development. I mean nobody does everything theyíre supposed to do, I think. Some people work more on interacting with development somehow, others work more exploratory. Coming doesnít force certain things on you. I mean you have to, there are expectations, right. I think if you didnít do them theyíd encourage you to retire or something like that or you wouldnít get any resources, thatís the other thing.
Ashrafi: You mentioned that youíve been in both tracks.
Ashrafi: Can you describe the management track activities youíve been involved in?
Nolan: One of the things that I did in the early Ď80s was the polarizing glass project, and that ended up being very successful. It still makes good money. Itís called Pola-cor. After that I was encouraged by the then research director to work for Dr. Keck in optical components, which wasnít defined, but we ended up doing fiber components. And I started working on making — And I needed technicians. I had a great technician, fortunately, because I wasnít good in the lab. And ended up making fiber components that we were thinking fiber to the home, but it ended up being important for, at that time, AT&T undersea systems. Because they wanted to — It was over a period of years, though. It was early Ď80s to mid Ď80s. We were working fiber to the home, which now is important. It never happened back then. That was a big thing at Corning. Interesting how things — they always take longer, so itís like 20 years later now. So they were going to shut that down. But I had hired like three scientists and then AT&T said theyíd like these components to be for undersea for amplifiers. They were going to do the first trans-oceanic systems without repeaters. Itís all optics. So this was a big thing.
Then they started throwing people at me. I had like 10 people, and I managed that whole group for a while. But I didnít really want to keep managing. I knew my heart wasnít in that, but I wanted to do it because I wanted it to be successful. Itís not that I didnít want to trust someone else to do it, you know. So that carried me through to the Ď90s, early Ď90s. So basically I was a manager, but we were still publishing things. It was a research department. There was a development group that built up over time and then during that period to receive all this stuff.
Ashrafi: Let me see if I got the chronology straight. You arrive in Ď74.
Ashrafi: And until about Ď82 youíre working on the multi-mode fibers.
Nolan: Well, also polarizing glass. I did both of those.
Ashrafi: Okay. And there your role is as an individual scientist. Is that true?
Nolan: Right. And then I started this optical component. In the early Ď80s, then I started to work on optical components.
Ashrafi: Oh, you were working on Pola-cor.
Nolan: Before in that Ď70s, up until Ď82. And then in Ď82 it became a product.
Ashrafi: But did you have a management role before Ď82?
Ashrafi: So the first management role you had here was on the optical components.
Nolan: Right. That was like Ď83 or something. Ď82 I started as an individual scientist on that, then in Ď84 I started getting people. And then that became a product in the 90ís. It takes a long time.
Ashrafi: So there could be a whole range of management activities.
Nolan: Right. And these are what I called as research management, right, but they never called me a manager, because I think they thought of me as an individual person; meanwhile it was encouraged to have all these people.
Ashrafi: So you were helping direct their research and coordinate their research.
Nolan: Right, and supervising them.
Ashrafi: Were you involved in product development as well, or not?
Nolan: Not directly. So there was a product development then that received all this stuff, but we worked closely. So that was good because Iím not a product development person.
Ashrafi: Which means what?
Nolan: Oh, itís a lot more — Product development is, I donít know how to describe it, but youíre so focused on something, right. Itís really broken down the way Corning does it. They get people on the product team and people have very important assigned tasks, well defined, and you canít go off thinking about this or that. And thatís how you have to do it. Itís amazing. All seems so simple, but itís unbelievable what they have to go through. Especially for that undersea with AT&T product that this had to last. The reliability was unbelievable. It had to be dumped under the ocean, these components, and they slammed them into the ocean, that were shocked. And they have to go to the bottom and last 20 years. I mean none of them could break. Actually, none of them did, as far as I know. I think I would hear about it.
Ashrafi: So did your involvement with the optical fiber components end in Ď91?
Nolan: No, actually I went back to fiber then. Fiber was becoming used in whole new ways. But before the fiber optical amplifier, which I worked on because these were these components for AT&T — Fiber now became used, because of the amplifier, you could go much further without reconverting to electrical signal. So now instead of going 50 kilometers they were going thousands of kilometers and then undersea tens of thousands. So things that werenít important like polarization mode dispersion, non-linearity in the fiber, they all became important now. So there was a lot to figure out. I worked on polarization, in that area. And there was a lot to do with non-linearity and how to minimize them. So I had a group doing, me and another guy, PMD.
Nolan: Theyíre called polarization mode dispersion. And then also I started a research communication meeting, I guess youíd call it, on optical propagation. We worked on trying to figure out what was important for the next generation fibers and stuff like that.
Ashrafi: And was that your initiative or a higher-level initiative?
Nolan: Well, I started it, but it wasnít discouraged, but then I think it was highly encouraged after I got it going because they realized that was real important.
Ashrafi: So now weíre talking about Ď91 on.
Nolan: Yes, Ď91. But then, you know, I still worked in the components because I worked WDM components, wavelength division multipliers. Now weíre going back to the fiber to the home again.
Ashrafi: And this is when now?
Nolan: Ď91. So I worked on fiber and new components. But the new components never happened. Well, they did, but they fell apart when the Telco bubble burst 2001, but over that time we invented a lot of things.
Ashrafi: Between Ď91 and 2001 you invented more components for —
Nolan: More for fiber to the home. And actually now theyíre coming back.
Ashrafi: Yes. Verizon is now doing fiber to the home.
Nolan: Right. Weíre working with them. We are doing some things for them.
Ashrafi: So I have a bunch of periods here. Up to Ď82, and then between Ď82 and Ď91.
Ashrafi: And then from Ď91 on until roughly 2001.
Nolan: Right. Until 2001 I worked a lot on the polarization mode dispersion and non-linearities. More on fiber, some in components, but mainly fiber.
Ashrafi: And in the period between Ď91 to 2001, did you have any management responsibilities in addition to your research direction?
Nolan: I did until about Ď95, and then I became a fellow. I just had like a scientist and an engineer. It wasnít much. And then that engineer, I promoted him up out from under me. Heís a great guy.
Ashrafi: How does life change once youíre a fellow? What was your title before fellow?
Nolan: Research associate they called me, senior research associate.
Ashrafi: What does fellow entail?
Nolan: Thatís just more freedom and more money. But actually, I still do the same types of things. Iím still an individual contributor, but less people are telling me what to do.
Ashrafi: So that happened at Ď96. And then the other period, we had 2001 until now. And so then youíre a fellow and youíre a senior fellow now.
Ashrafi: And what does that mean?
Nolan: Thereís just a couple in the company: maybe two, I guess. But they give you the freedom you ask for, I think now. Then they expect more too. A lot of mentoring, [inaudible], stuff like that.
Ashrafi: Well, when we were walking up, you were describing to me that these buildings are divided into two parts: fundamental research and applied research.
Nolan: Right. And then thereís development.
Ashrafi: And development. And you were saying that at Coming, for obvious historical reasons, research associated with glass is called fundamental and other research is called applied. Is that right?
Ashrafi: So what consequence does that have for the research to have these differentÖ?
Nolan: I donít think anything. I really donít.
Ashrafi: But theyíre in different buildings.
Nolan: I think before, they used to, butÖ Yes, theyíre in different buildings, right. But I donít think that has anything to do with the work. Itís more where people were at the time. This building was built for the boom of the Telco era, so all the Telco people ended up here.
Ashrafi: Does that mean fiber in particular?
Nolan: Yes. Research fiber. Itís also bio people. And I do some bio sometimes too.
Ashrafi: You hadnít mentioned that.
Nolan: Yes. Thatís all; I canít really talk about that yet. And quantum optics.
Ashrafi: So if you look at the long view, so your role has changed several times, but I wonder if thereís some evolution of research at Corning that you could describe?
Nolan: Oh, right. Thatís a good question. How research has evolved at Corning?
Ashrafi: Thatís a big question. Do with it what you can or what you will.
Nolan: I mean itís a real interesting question, right, because we started out as a glass company. And it had a history of making things toward products for people with big technical challenges. You know, Thomas Edison came here for the light bulb. He needed a bulb developed and he came to Corning, and Corning was able to do that and then make it in mass production. They did that with the TV bulb, too; that was another thing that nobody could make. And before that, I think even before the light bulb, they had these lanterns for trains was a big problem. They would break, the colored glasses, which was either green or red, would break and then accidents. So we made the glass so that it wouldnít be thermally shocked. So they came up with glasses, low expansion glasses, to solve those problems. So they were, I think the second company to establish a research lab. G.E. was the first. Or maybe we were the first. And to do this, because they realized — I assume they were doing this out of the factories then, and Sullivan was the leader, and so this is Sullivan Park. So primarily materials, I guess chemists, material scientists, but they always needed some physicists and then engineers. So, sort of maybe, maybe the mix has changed depending on the needs at the time. So, Telco came in the Ď70s so there was more opportunity for optics and physicists to come. We always actually had an effort in bio so there were always biologists here.
Ashrafi: Oh really.
Nolan: Because we have the life science product, which is the Petri dish, but things have become more sophisticated, but thatís a platform substrate. So we like to say, I guess here at Corning, saying what Corning looks for is like keystone components to fiber, itís a keystone component.
Ashrafi: Is this a new term or is thisÖ?
Nolan: Itís new after the crash of 2001, but I think itís a good description because we make catalytic converters, substrate for — And that was another big problem that was solved in the Ď70s because companies need catalytic converters to create that, cars would have these things on them and they needed a substrate. Corning came up with the substrate for that.
Ashrafi: What about the attitudes towards exploratory research? Has that changed in your experience here?
Nolan: Yes, Iíd say itís better than ever.
Ashrafi: Is that right? Because a lot of companies are cutting back.
Nolan: Yes. You know why, though? Because of the telco boom. What happened was if we hadnít had exploratory research the company would have gone under, and they know that, the company knows that — thatís what saved us, because we have these other things.
Ashrafi: How very interesting.
Nolan: So we never want to over commit to one thing. So thereís no doubt. Even the hardest minded financial officers know that. They were part of it. They realize that they wouldíve gone under.
Ashrafi: Are they aware that in this, theyíre taking a different direction than most other companies?
Ashrafi: We hit on the topics that I wrote down. You talked about records with Joe. Was there something that we should talk about that we left out? Some things that you think are important?
Nolan: I donít think so.
Ashrafi: Okay. Is there anything, since Comingís attitudes towards research is different, is there more that you can think of saying? Iím not sure how to follow up.
Nolan: I mean it always good, right. Iíd say now I think itís better than ever. I really do. I mean I could think more about that.
Ashrafi: All right. So why donít I stop the tape.