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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Thomas Miller

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Interview with Dr. Thomas Miller
By Gary L. Cameron
At the 61st Annual Gaseous Electronics Conference, Dallas, Texas
October 14, 2008

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Thomas Miller; October 14, 2008

ABSTRACT: In the interview Thomas Miller discusses topics such as: schooling at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech); Earl W. McDaniel; atomic molecular physics; plasma; Chun Lin; ion molecule reaction rates; Frank Niles; Ben Bederson; Stanford Research Institute; funding of the Gaseous Electronics Conferences over the years; Manfred Biondi; Art Phelps; balance between fundamental and applied research at the conferences.

Transcript

Cameron:

What I’ve been asking various members is things like what was their first meeting, what were their first impressions, why did they get involved, and then more or less letting people tell their story first, and then I ask questions later.

Miller:

I did my undergraduate and PhD at Georgia Tech because my parents lived in Atlanta, I lived at home; it was really nice, convenient. I lucked out by starting research work with a professor there, Earl W. McDaniel, who was known in this field because he wrote one of the first books on atomic molecular physics called Phenomena in Ionized Gasses. It was really the basic fundamental physics: electron scattering, ion scattering, everything in the book about understanding the details of the plasma. So he was very well known. He was a very enthusiastic guy. I’d have to say it wasn’t a great scientist, like we would get to know quickly almost as much as he did. But he was constantly invigorating in telling us how important our research work was, and he had money, which a lot of the faculty at Georgia Tech didn’t have in those days. Science wasn’t heavily funded in the department at that time.

Cameron:

When was this?

Miller:

I started my PhD work in ’64, and at that time the Gaseous Electronics Conference was where all of atomic and molecular physics was reported. [Later note: I’m told that this isn’t true; it was just my impression being a McDaniel student!] It still had a lot of work on discharges, but it also had this fundamental leaning, and Chun Lin was one of the big leaders in that. It was only when the American Physical Society’s Division of Electron and Atomic Physics started having its separate meetings from the APS that a lot of that fundamental work, or almost all of it, got drained off into that meeting. That was sometime around 1970. But before that, it was all reported in the Gaseous Electronics Conference, but at that time, the GEC switched pretty heavily to the arcs and discharged. But it’s also a time when lasers were coming on; people trying to understand gas laser media, and the GEC went heavily into the laser area. But then all the laser people started having their own meeting, and a lot of that went off into those meetings. So the GEC over the years has a lot of ups and downs and what’s important and what’s not at the meeting. That’s one of the things I thought it would be interesting to look into, but it takes somebody that really understands it to actually do it. You’d have to look at the abstract booklets and see what was really important. But when I first started out, it’s amazing how primitive the fundamental stuff was. Over the many years in my career I’ve measured ion molecule reaction rates, which are always a prefactor and then an exponential 10-9, 10-10, 10-12, whatever. And in those days, people would come to a GEC meeting and argue about the exponent, whether it was a fast rate or a slow rate, and it was only in the late ’60s that people started talking about the actual pre-factor, was it 2 × 10-10 or 3 × 10-10? So it’s amazing over the years how this has gone. Frank Niles, who was at the Army and Research Lab at Aberdeen, had a big model of reactions in the ionosphere, and at the time when I’d hear him give these talks on this model, I would think this is totally ridiculous to be talking about this, because so far the rate constants that he needed weren’t known. But I later realized that his model, as people filled in things and made measurements, it would show you where the important ones were, where the bottlenecks were, and people would study those. Nowadays, the ionospheric reactions are so well known hardly anybody studies them. So there’s been an amazing amount of progress. When I first started at the GEC, things like electron-atom theory were so crude that about the only thing they could do was electron-helium scattering, and nowadays you can pick almost anything: atoms, molecules, and people will do the theoretical work on them and bring out an experiment that would be pretty phenomenal.

Cameron:

How has the technology of science changed, things like instrumentation and also things like computing?

Miller:

I think that computing is one of the reasons that theoretical work is so advanced now. It’s phenomenal. Back in the days I was talking about at the first GEC, there were no personal computers. You took punch cards to a Burrows computer or something like that and picked them up several days later.

Cameron:

Or got out your slide rule.

Miller:

Yeah, your slide rule or your Marchant calculator. When I was doing my thesis work, we got the data off of sheets that had numbers, and we’d have to type these numbers into a machine that punched cards and we’d take the cards someplace. We eventually got a thing that would punch holes in paper tape and we’d take the paper tape to a machine, and it would automatically make these cards that punched holes. But computing for the theorists and experimentalists has been amazingly…I went eventually to the Stanford Research Institute, and that was the first time in the ’70s, like 1974 or ’75, where I saw an experiment that was actually coupled to a computer — it was a computer-controlled experiment. People had done things on a simpler scale before that with multichannel scalers operating an experiment. But computer controlled experiments are early in the mid-’70s, it’s just been amazing. Nowadays you would hardly want to do anything different.

Cameron:

I assumed things like computer models.

Miller:

Yes. Let me get back to when I was a graduate student. My father was a vice president at Delta Airlines, so I could fly for free, so as soon as I started working for McDaniel in ’64, I started going to meetings, because other than the registration fee I could go for free, basically. So I went to meetings in Vienna, Leningrad, Canada, and I started going to every GEC. My first was the one in Minneapolis, the 18th, and I forget what year, but it was probably ’64. Then I think the year after that it was at Georgia Tech, and I remember working that meeting with a student, we had duties going around, coordinating all those talks and making sure the audiovisual worked and that sort of thing. As an aside, anytime a meeting has been at my institution, I hardly ever get to hear any of the talks. You are so tied up in the organization and worrying about stuff, that even if you go in you can’t get your mind on it. Also if it’s your institution, you continue to teach your classes or whatever and you miss out on 90% of the meetings. The only other thing I would say is being at these early meetings, the thing for me is having known so many of these older guys, like Biondi, Lorne Chanin at Minnesota, and Hendrik Oskam, all these guys who a lot of them aren’t around anymore. Leonard Loeb and it’s just amazing to think I actually knew all these guys.

Cameron:

Georgia Tech was originally an engineering school. Wasn’t it a land grant?

Miller:

It is still an engineering school. You can get a degree in English and math, but it’s fundamentally an engineering school.

Cameron:

It’s similar to Iowa State in that way. [Yes.] When you were studying there, you were in physics, [Yes.] not engineering [No.]. I’ve noticed a fair mix of people who are engineers as opposed to physicists here, so I was wondering if it was the same when you first cut into the cheese here, or did physics dominate?

Miller:

I remember it as being mainly physics. The lighting people, there was always a kind of heavy lighting component: high density lamps and ferroelectric booths responsible for that, and those guys were terrific. I don't know what their background is, but I suspect its engineering.

Cameron:

Your first meetings were as a student? [Yes.] Were you presenting papers?

Miller:

Only after we — I was building an experiment with a friend, another graduate student, and it was only after our instruments started producing results. And my first paper would probably have been like 1967. [Later note: my first paper was in 1965 at the IVth International Conference on the Physics of Electronic and Atomic Collisions in Quebec. My first paper at a GEC was at the 1966 meeting at Georgia Tech.]

Cameron:

What stage were you at, at that point?

Miller:

I finished in late ’68, so it could have been as early as ’66. I’d have to go back and look at the abstracts.

Cameron:

But probably about when you were starting to work on your dissertation.

Miller:

Yes. Well, the first couple I went to, I probably didn’t have a paper.

Cameron:

Do you consider that the meetings were friendly to students?

Miller:

I don’t remember having any problem in that regard. Some of them I was going to by myself without other professors around, and I don’t remember encountering any problems along that line.

Cameron:

From what I’ve found interviewing other people, that seems to have been a shift that happened fairly quickly, although I know from talking to Biondi that he was the only graduate student to deliver a paper at the first conference, so that was fairly unique. [Later note: this statement isn’t accurate. Ben Bederson was a graduate student at NYU and gave his first paper at that first GEC in 1948.]

Miller:

Wow. That’s interesting. Well, I could imagine there might have been a time when graduate student were very lowly and wouldn’t even be allowed to go that meeting. The people like Leon Fisher worked for Leonard Loeb at Berkeley. Loeb did not allow his students to get married, all sorts of things like that, so it was a different era.

Cameron:

You were first involved in the ’60s. What was the most prominent aspect of gaseous electronics at that time in terms of what were people really excited about?

Miller:

My part was it was a swarm experiment, but it was still fundamental individual collisions, and that’s what I looked at the GEC as: I knew they had this component of doing arcs and sparks and so forth, but I didn’t really feel like that’s where the fundamental work was done. So I tended to go just to the things that were along the line of what I knew something about, and didn’t pay much attention to the other. In fact, it reminds me that Rob Varney sent me his collection of the books of abstracts from the first one until about the 24th or something. Unfortunately, he didn’t go to the second one, so I don’t have the second one. I’m going to try to get that from somebody else. [Later note: Chun Lin has had all of the Books of Abstracts put into pdf format, from the first one (1948) through the 1992 one. After that, the Bulletin of the American Physical Society began printing the books of abstracts for the meetings. Prior to 1993 the Bulletin published the abstracts several months after the meetings, but not necessarily all of them: you had to pay a fee for your abstract to appear in the Bulletin.] But I was looking through those before coming here, and up until that time, whatever it was, they didn’t have parallel sessions, and then one says that they are getting so many papers submitted that they had to reject about half the papers that came in to avoid parallel sessions, and they’re warning people that as the meeting grows, they’re probably going to have to go to parallel sessions. I remember the same sort of thing happening in the DEAP, an international meeting, when poster sessions were first suggested as a way of solving that problem. The old-timers were really violently against parallel sessions; they wanted to hear every talk; they were violently against poster sessions.

Cameron:

That was a comment of I think John Waymouth this morning, I asked him what was the biggest change he’s seen from the early days to today, and he almost immediately said something about the parallel sessions. Because nobody gets the broad picture anymore, or at least it’s very hard to.

Miller:

Yes. Now as a student, I couldn’t have gotten a broad picture very well, and I could really only understand the things I knew something about.

Cameron:

As time went on, did you see any trends as far as what was being studied? I guess I’m trying to get at things like was there a period where everybody was really interested in stuff like lasers?

Miller:

Like I say, things change. When I was at Stanford Research Institute from ’74 to ’78, the gas laser media was a big deal, and the GEC was one of the main places. When I was at SRI, I don’t think I ever went to a laser meeting. As I said, just the Gaseous Electronics Conference. And people were trying to figure out what was going on in the gas laser media — how could you amplify light better? And in particular at Lawrence Livermore they were trying to do laser fusion, shoot 20 beams, and they needed a particular color range wavelength of light, I think it was some sort of green, and everybody was trying to come up with some laser media that would give them this green light. For building their instrument to study it with they were using solid-state lasers, but they said to actually make fusion, you’re going to have to have this particular color. I don't know how that ended up. I know they had some proof-of-principal experiments where they could see neutrons coming off, but I don't know what developed; SRI got out of that sort of thing. But definitely the laser part I remember. And the lighting people, the high-intensity lighting had always been a component of the meeting. It got a huge amount of money involved in like a 2% improvement in efficiency.

Cameron:

That’s another thing I’ve been asking people about, what was the situation with funding? I’ve received a lot of responses about the ’50s and the ’60s sort of being the golden years of physics when you could research just about anything you wanted and you’d get money for it.

Miller:

There are two reasons. One is industry sponsored research. Bell Labs — the breakup of AT&T, almost any physicist would say that was a real shame because Bell Labs was paramount in several fields. And General Electric sponsored a lot of fundamental research. And the other thing was the military agencies, after the War, ONR in particular sponsored a lot of university research, and they didn’t require that you tie it to some military application. That’s changed now. They sponsor very little and the Air Force sponsors very little.

Cameron:

That’s something that came out in my research of the first meeting was I noticed how many people were getting sponsored by Army Signal Corps and Office of Naval Research and so forth. Of course for historians of the science of technology, it’s all World War II: the radar, the Manhattan Project…

Miller:

Right. All those people who were getting money had worked for the military during the War, and it had naturally carried over when they went back to university that they gave them money to continue research.

Cameron:

Of course when you produce something like the atomic bomb, it gets the attention of the government. They say, “Fundamental research is useful.” [Right.] And of course, there’s something that happened in the early ’70s, some kind of legislation passed that had to do with Defense Department funding.

Miller:

I remember that. It had to be more relevant. Mansfield Act. I remember, that was a big change. He didn’t want the military giving out money without knowing what they were getting.

Cameron:

And from that point on it was more like NSF funding. [Right.] In later years, how did industry participate either in funding or in cooperative research within the GEC?

Miller:

I remember industry always having a big component of the GEC mainly through the lighting and laser work. At one of these meetings a couple of years ago, at the business meeting, somebody stood up and made a comment that they didn’t think there was much industry participation in the meeting the way it used to be, and I must say, I didn’t realize that. But he was saying if you count the number of industrial people here, it’s very small compared to previous years, and I didn’t realize that.

Cameron:

First GEC meeting it was half: 20 out of 40 papers. When I interviewed Fisher this summer, his opinion was that in the ’40s, at least, colleges and universities basically had no money for fundamental research, and it was really industry that was funding most of the fundamental research.

Miller:

Yes. I wasn’t in it at that time, but that’s my impression too. When I was a student at Georgia Tech, most of the faculty did piddling little things that didn’t cost much money. The fellow I worked for, Earl McDaniel, was the first one who really had a lot of money, and we built a nice shiny new ultra-high vacuum system. Be we were like the showcase of the department — if they had visitors, they would send them down to our lab to see this big shinny thing. I really enjoyed talking to Leon Fisher a lot. His memory is amazing.

Cameron:

For 90 years old, that’s what’s really amazing. And Varney, he’s 98 now, that’s even more impressive. [Later note: Robert N. Varney died on April 9, 2011, at age 100 plus 5 months.] Some other questions that have come up, there has been definitely changing aspects with the GEC as far as internationalization of the conference, because originally it was pretty much strictly American, and now it’s half or even two-thirds foreign contributors.

Miller:

Yes, I’ve been very surprised at that, because I don’t think anybody in the GEC has encouraged it; it’s just happened. But I see people like Michael Allan from Switzerland at almost every meeting I come to, and the Japanese contingency is very obvious here, and I can’t remember when that started, but I don’t remember it up until the ’90s. I guess somebody could easily do a study if you had a list of participants over the years. And yeah, it is very amazing to me. The only thing is I’ve been to meetings where they had a list of participants, and I don’t think I ever save it. I may save it for a year or two, but when I’m cleaning up I throw it out. I don't know whether just looking at the abstracts is enough; might be. In fact, do you know when the abstracts started getting published in the bulletin of the American Physics Society?

Cameron:

No I don’t. The only thing that’s ever been transmitted to me is the very first abstract from the ’48 meeting; I haven’t seen any of the others.

Miller:

Because I wanted to try to find out when that happened, because like I say, Varney sent me all of his books of abstracts, and it only started in 1970 or something. When I was leafing through them before coming here, it’s really interesting for me to see when certain people first appeared in the list of authors.

Cameron:

I’ve also been asking people about who were people that stand out in their memories. I’ve used the word influential, but that may not be the right phrase to use. People who stood out in your memory.

Miller:

In the old days, Leonard Loeb. I hate to put him up as an idol, because as I mentioned to you, every meeting I went to he would stand up and make a critical remark about somebody’s talk, to the point that I was afraid to ever say anything to the man, and didn’t get to know him until the year he died, and then I regretted it because he was really fascinating. But aside from him, Fred Biondi and Art Phelps were the two I looked up to the most. And Eldon Ferguson of NOAA, his first wasn’t until the ’60s because of the kind of work he was doing. He was at NOAA. He developed a flow tube method which we use today in the Air Force Lab all the time for measuring ion molecule rates, and he measured the first really accurate ion-molecule rates, and not just one, but he’d come to a meeting and have done ten. I went to one meeting, which wasn’t a GEC, where he’d done the first negative ion-molecule reaction, and not just one but he had a dozen of them. So his work became very important here. But Fred Biondi and Art Phelps. I remember one meeting where Art was giving a talk, and I showed up slightly late and could barely get into the door, the place was packed. Those guys — well known, and their work was good. Art is still doing it. I know also you interviewed Chun Lin. Chun was interesting because when the DEAP (Division of Electron and Atomic Physics) started having its own meetings, a lot of the fundamental work switched to that. Chun, for whatever reason, he thought it was important for the GEC to have this fundamental wing, and he has really over the years tried to keep it here. He would write me and say, “Why don’t you submit an abstract on that work to the GEC,” and he would push keeping a fundamental section here. I don't know if he’s retired, but he’s certainly slowed down. I was surprised to see him at this meeting. [Later note from 2011: Lin is not retired, and hasn’t even slowed down!]

Cameron:

That is something I asked some of the others, is just the whole balance between fundamental research and applied research, and how that’s changed. Because originally it was they wanted to make it a conference about fundamental research, and then gradually in more recent years it’s been somewhat increased pressure in applied.

Miller:

Yes, I think that’s definitely true. But there are people like Steve Buckman from Australia who comes here talking about electron-positron collisions, and Michael Allan from Switzerland is doing very fundamental single-collision work, and you can see that there are four sessions here that are really fundamental work, and something keeps those people coming here instead of other places.

Cameron:

Well, thank you.