Oral History Transcript — Dr. Manfred Biondi
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Interview with Dr. Manfred Biondi
Manfred Biondi; August 16, 2008
ABSTRACT: In this interview Manfred Biondi discusses topics such as: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); William Allis; S. C. Brown; Ben Bederson; Ted Holstein; Westinghouse Electric Corporation; people from Bell Laboratories; Dan Alpert; Henry Morganeau; Leon Fisher; Rob Varney; Geiger counters; serving in the United States Navy; radar; ionized gas; Ron Geballe; University of Pittsburgh; Julius Molnar; Leonard Loeb.
Biondi:The first conference is basically a continuation of something that had been going on at MIT. I got there in í46, and I started working with Professor W. P. Allis, and I was an experimentalist so I worked with S. C. Brown. Even then, the conferences were held yearly, of a sort. What we were, we were working with core gaseous electronics, the basic processes going on in ionized gas. It was a parallel field at MIT, what was called physical electronics, and this was a pretty lively field from both the practical and the basic range. There was a fellow named Nottingham, and he was in charge of the conference that he ran at MIT. It took up four or five days and had a bunch of the people from that particular specialty. There was time set aside for those of us who were in the field of the plasma or gaseous electronics. This had worked for a number of years. I don't know how long it was before I started there; Iím pretty sure it was í46. But what happened is each year we were the orphans because the program had a lot of physical electronics, we surely got shunted toward the back end of it. So one time, the culmination was the year before the first GEC, and that was put to late Friday afternoon, and so the senior people who came to that got together and said, ďWell, we can't do this any longer.Ē I don't know who it was who volunteered the possibility of Brookhaven. As I say, I was just a graduate student there, but Sandy Brown and Will Allis were the two people who were in charge of that operation in plasma or atomic physics. But they contacted people like Leon Fisher, and then they were contacts into Brookhaven, which I also don't know much about. So the first conference was held there. I gave a paper that was I guess about the first paper I gave in the field, in my field.
Cameron:Were there other graduate students giving papers?
Biondi:I don't honestly know. I would guess not. But anyway, Iím not even sure how it came that — Well, Will Allis had been sort of a spokesman for the little conference there with Nottingham, so I presume it logically devolved on him to sort of be a factor in the Brookhaven meeting. But there were people from NYU; such as I think Fisher Iím pretty sure.
Cameron:Yeah, Fisher was from NYU.
Biondi:There were a couple of others whose names escape me.
Cameron:Well actually, I do have a list of all the attendees of the first conference.
Biondi:Okay, Alpert. Ben Bederson, who was one of the ones I was trying to think of. Sandy [Brown], yes. Bill Baker from Westinghouse.
Cameron:Iíve marked all the MIT people with a red dot on this.
Biondi:Okay. Well, there are a lot of names I do not know. Hagstrom from Bell Labs I knew quite well. And Herlin was from MIT. He was in the same group that I was in.
Cameron:You were a physics graduate student. [Yes.] Not engineering. [No.] Because I usually think of MIT as an engineering school.
Biondi:Well, itís got pretty strong physics and chemistry departments. Ted Holstein from Westinghouse was a very serious physicist. And Holt from Harvard. Well, the amazing thing is this is a rather large group, and I think it has stripped by quite a bit the numbers that were at the earliest meetings, so it was quite an expansion. 257, no wonder. This Nottinghamís thing, I think if there were 50 people there.
Cameron:So a much larger conference.
Biondi:Yes. Well, we were not in any giant auditorium. I suppose it could have been even as a large as 100, the predecessor. But anyway, it was organized exactly how the structure evolved. You know, a secretary as well as a chairman. Allis had been sort of heading things up, so I think it was sort of a logical step, but I don't really know that much about the rest of the structure. I guess youíre concentrating just on the first one.
Biondi:Okay, because the second one was held at Westinghouse, and I had just graduated, got my degree and gone to Westinghouse, so I know more about that one.
Cameron:There were not a large number of graduate students at the first conference.
Biondi:No, I think not. I think a lot of these people whose names I read were far more senior than I, and so they were no longer graduate students.
Cameron:Were they open to graduate students?
Biondi:Oh, yes. Well, I guess in the sense that the professor had a group working in the field and he might contribute, but also his students. That was the situation for me. Well, Herlin was an attendant, and he was in that group. He was also, though, an experimentalist, as I was. I was wondering — I didn't see any of Will Allisís people. Bob Fletcher. Freyberger. Mel Herlin, I said. Ted Holstein and Holt from Harvard, they were working in the same sort of a field, and they more or less just attended — they didn't figure in the running of the thing. What Iím really not clear on at that early date is what the organizational structure was like. The later years, in addition to Allis, there were a number of secondary people who — Well, of course there was a secretary, but I guess structurallyÖ I just don't see any names thatÖ Did I mention Malter before? He should have been there. No. Morganeau from Yale. In fact what happened is the group I was in had been the Radiation Lab at MIT during the war. That whole building came part of the research laboratory of electronics.
Cameron:Having done radar research.
Biondi:Yes, they were the major radar developers. Morganeau, for example, was a theoretical atomic physicist, and he had a group that had done some work that we were doing sort of a follow-on when we started. It was cold gas with electronics, but it was really the physics and weakly ionized gases. He was a theoretician with Holston, as was Allis, and then Brown was one of the experimentalists. Then at HarvardÖ
Cameron:From what Iíve learned so far, it was the conference for people doing theoretical and experimental, and didn't really want the applied side of physical electronics. [No.] It was not industrial.
Biondi:If they came from industrial labs, the emphasis was on what basic work they were doing. I don't know how strongly Bell Labs was — Well, I don't actually — Iím trying to think of the Bell Labsí guyís name. They certainly figured in just a little later. It may have been that these groups were just — This was just post-war, really, and so their things were starting up.
Cameron:Right. Well, I noticed looking through —
Biondi:Itís the Murray Hill Iím looking for. Seems like Iím seeing familiar names.
Cameron:Well, looking through the list of papers presented, I noticed — Well first of all, a lot of them were from people in industry like Bell Labs and Westinghouse and so forth, and also there were still quite a few being funded by the federal government.
Biondi:By that, university type? [Right.] Well the thing was, right at the end of the war, there was a strong surge toward fundamental research in industry. Places like Westinghouse, GE, Bell, had really not done very much that way. In fact, the group I joined — Alpert and Holstein and the others — had worked on microwave radar on a thing called a TR switch. Itís a means of protecting the sensitive gear while the transmitter is on, and it depends on a plasma being formed. So you had to know from plasma physics the basic processes. So this sort of led them into that area. Then after the war, Westinghouse says, ďWell, weíd better start supporting fundamental research because weíve found how little we knew about things. We had to do everything cut and dry.Ē So the deal was to do something — At least I was told the management there was saying, ďWell, the higher-ups now agree that we have to support basic research and can't just depend on universities.Ē So GE to a lesser extent got into it and Bell got strongly into it, although they always had their eye on the ball and turned to making sure it stayed pretty close to something they could see or tie in back to some practical thing like communications. In the Westinghouse case, they were broader than that, although we didn't go off into completely nonrelated areas. But there was this big surge in funding, and thatís what I think led to this expansion into this larger group. I don't know exactly how the Nottingham conference and the Will Allisís gaseous electronics part of it, how that really evolved, who was invited and things like that. They were just there, and they were just faces.
Cameron:As a graduate student at the time, you were doing research directed by your major professor? Is that how you did it back then?
Biondi:Yes. Well, the way it went is on the experimental side, we had a laboratory. My professor had worked pretty much on — youíve heard of Geiger counters. Well, compared to now, theyíre sort of all crude. So he did his type of research in trying to understand what was going on inside of a gas-filled Geiger counter, the plasma that was there, and that was how he sort of got into it. Allis was a theoretical physicist, but he was interested in things like energy distribution. So if you have electrons in an ionized gas, they have a spread in energies and a certain form, and it changes depending upon the conditions. In fact, itís the high energy end of that distribution that can cause the ionization that will generate the plasma. So that was their interest. When I came, a lot of people were really trying to calculate, experimentally determine and get a theory for the breakdown. A large part of Sandy Brownís group was concerned with developing theories and experiments for the breakdown of a gas, but the primary initial ionization of the gas at microwave frequencies — that was the difference. I did breakdown studies for many decades, but then with the radar of the war, microwaves came into being and little was done or said about it, and people like Morganeau were needed to try to understand, and Holston. So basically when we came into Sandyís group at MIT early and on the experimental side, some of us were given the assignment of trying to understand this breakdown phenomena at microwave frequencies. I was lucky, I think, because I got to look at the basic processes that are going on in an ionized gas. So in terms of a rich field where you could go in many directions, that was a nice choice. At GE, I think the emphasis was — They gave some latitude, but it was still directed toward what could it lead to in the way of devices, and Bell Labs had a true fundamental thing where you could explore but had to initiate it because of their area of their interest. I don't know. Perhaps some of the other people from the New York area know more about what Brookhavenís connection, other than being a host, was. I really don't know what areas they had.
Cameron:Well what Dr. Fisher said, in a way Brookhaven just opened up, and what he understood was they were looking for some big conference to host to kind of boost their image.
Biondi:Yes, visibility. OK, that makes sense. Yeah, it was very nice to go there, but it wasn't clear what the connection was. We certainly didn't get into the nuclear energy range.
Cameron:Right. Just some more about you as a graduate student at the time. Iím interested in how you worked. Were you funded as a graduate student? Did you receive money from —?
Biondi:There were two ranks in graduate school: research assistant and research associate. The research assistant was paid very modestly, the research associate princely by comparison. But the thing was that because of the war, there were no graduate students who were senior. It was after graduate students were around for three years we got to be an associate rather than assistant. So it turns out that those of us who came around after the war were lucky and we very quickly were research associates and so we received a living wage, actually. But the thing was the groupsÖ The Research Laboratory of Electronics, have you heard of that?
Cameron:No, I actually havenít.
Biondi:Thatís what MITís outback was called as a research establishment after the war. That had been the radiation lab where the microwave radars were developed. So thereís a tremendous background to it, a good shop. So it had a lot of stats. So there were a lot of technicians. It turns out, for example, there was on the order of ten experimental students. There was just one technician that sort of — we sort of had to make our own way. But he was a pretty savvy guy who had worked as a technician during the war and he knew his electronics very well. So basically, the building was there. The facilities were all there, and so we sort of lucked into we walked in. Well, I had as an undergraduate at MIT, I had actually had Sandy Brown as my senior thesis advisor, and I had done a little study on Dr. Miller. Basically after the war when I applied to MIT graduate school, I went back and worked with Sandy again. Then they had established this new microwave plasma-type laboratory. We werenít studying low frequency or direct current type things. We were studying microwave-type behavior of plasmas from either the fundamental atomic processes, or else the others were looking at the conditions required for the electron to gain enough energy to cause the plasma to form. But this was a very fortunate thing. We didn't have to start and build a lab from scratch — there was this whole structure. There were machine shops and there were glass blowing shops and things like that. So it sort of kick-started research in the field. But I think to me, the key factor in the conference at Brookhaven was the great dissatisfaction with the treatment we were getting from physioelectronics in Nottingham. It was his conference and he ran it, and we were just sort of an addendum that sort of tagged along the last day. So we were sort of serendipity. Brookhaven arrived at the right time because it made a much bigger conference than we had ever had before.
Cameron:Yes. One thing that came out in my conversations with Dr. Fisher and Dr. Varney was that at that time, universities really werenít doing or werenít able to do that much fundamental research compared to industry just because universities didn't have any money. Is that the way you see it?
Biondi:I disagree. I think that what happened is that industry, the emphasis was always on the application for the research. It was at universities that people could noodle around and do basic, fundamental studies. On the other hand, sometimes they were tied somewhat toward devices. Sandyís own interest field was Geiger counter physics, and thatís a clear application. But I think what really happened is that great technology advances that spun up during the war in a lot of areas, not just ours, were finally taken advantage of in the post-war period. I think about the same time is when the government started funding things, so there were funds that had never been there before.
Cameron:That was going to be my next question was did you ever receive funding from the government?
Biondi:Not directly. See, the research laboratory of electronics, which was the old radiation lab, was a structure unto itself and it had some hierarchy and how the funds leaked into it I don't know, really. But there were funds.
Cameron:Now when youíre a graduate student, you have to apply for grants and things like that.
Biondi:Oh, yes. No, there was — well actually, thatís not quite right, I don't think. I think that largely the professor applied for the grant, and he had — well, I was a professor and I applied for the grant; my students didn't. So over my careerÖ
Cameron:Things are different in history.
Biondi:I see. You have to get your own?
Biondi:Well, I think there are cases where itís going to be tough. But in general, if you go into a group like Sandyís group — I mean I had a group of five or six students typically in atomic collisions and some in low temperature physics, and I had NSF grants. I had the grant, and thatís how I hired my student and paid my rent and paid for the equipment.
Cameron:Well, yes, and I suppose that does still happen in the sciences.
Biondi:Well, the thing is NSF, how itís reviewed, some student had better know or he hasnít got much chance. So they often go by track record, and if youíre lucky enough to have had some means of establishing, youíre okay. But I think the time of the first conference is really a time of major change in how things were going. It was a couple of years post-war. The shakedown was pretty much highly developed. The system, there was the National Science Foundation, which wasn't nearly the big spender then. Iím trying to think. Well, in the Research Laboratory of Electronics got a grant from some government agency; I don't know what. And there was no NASA, of course. No, I really can't say where they — There must have been some sort of applied science pocket of money in the government that was being tapped by these people.
Cameron:Another thing, too, 1948, thatís when the Cold War was starting. Were you people aware of things like that during that time?
Biondi:Nobody was getting involved in it then. Iím trying to think about that. I havenít thought in those terms. No, I think we were just — The Cold War hadnít started, and I guess we felt pretty superior.
Cameron:Of course it wasn't until the next year that the Russians excluded their atomic bomb.
Biondi:Yeah. Well, we always felt the spies were doing it all along, getting the information, and to some extent it was true. But we didn't give them credit. They had some good scientists who, compared to how ours are treated in terms of given freedom and such were treated horribly. But they had very smart — they had fine theoreticians.
Cameron:Yes, yes. All right. Iíve prepared a few questions ahead of time. Actually, youíve done a great job already of answering a lot of them. I wanted to ask, weíve talked about the Second World War and how big of an impact that was. Did you actually serve in the military during the war?
Biondi:Yes, I was in the Navy. I started MIT 1941. I got into MIT in September, and I was a member of the string quartet because I played violin, and I remember on a Sunday we were about to have a performance on December 7th when the news came over. So I was 17 at the time, and so when I turned 18, I enlisted. But the point is again was a fortunate thing for me and others like me, I was in MIT. They started a program, it was called B12, and they were trying to train officer material. So what they did is they rushed me through MIT. I should have been three years; I did it in about a year and a half for the remainder, and then I got my commission in the Navy. I was a radar officer. So you see my background was in microwave-type things, so it was sort of a natural fit.
Cameron:So did you actually serve on board a ship?
Biondi:Yes. Well, they had a problem. If a ship at sea had radar trouble, thereís a guy on board, a radar officer or maybe a couple if itís a big one, but he knows generally the whole 10 or 20, or 10 types of radar. There are surface search. Different companies make them. What I wound up doing, I went to the various schools on radar, and a small group was selected and we went to special schools where we learned one companyís particular radar from every nut and bolt and how it worked. The idea was that if a ship was at sea on duty and it developed radar trouble, the radar officer tried to fix it. If he couldn't handle it, I think there was some secondary thing, some group. But if it really was something they couldn't handle, rather than bring the ship back into port, they would fly or by fast ship get us out there, and we were supposed to be able to fix anything on that particular radar. So that was the group I was in. We were based in Washington. So I got to be on a lot of different ships, from aircraft carriers to cruisers and things like that.
Cameron:Did that impact how you went about your work as a graduate student?
Biondi:Well, studying those radars and complex electronics, and how they worked really was a wonderful preparation for — we didn't have a lot of technician help, so if you need electronics, you built it largely. So if a thing broke, yeah it was very good. I just was very fortunate my whole career that way.
Cameron:Getting back to the first GEC again, Allis was your major professor? Is that correct?
Biondi:No, Sandy Brown. They were a team. He [Allis] was a theoretician.
Okay. In your graduate work, did you more or less follow along with what they wanted you to do? [No.] Or did you have your own interests?
We were in a virgin field. We were just discovering things right and left, and that was the really neat part about it. I mean you could show your professor something he didn't know anything about. No, I lucked out, and as I say, I got to make an ionized gas and watch it disappear and try to figure out what was causing it to disappear after you turned off the excitation source. Thatís how I discovered a couple of things — and things I had to show my professor, not the other way around. So Iíd say that we were turned loose. We had the equipment. We had people there to help us, but pretty much you sort of made your own way, at least with the group I was in. For some groups which were working on complicated microwaves, effectively instrumentation of studying things, the professor had to really sort of tell the people what they had to be doing. In our case, the apparatus we used was on that level simple compared to what they were trying to develop, and so the student could actually do it.
Cameron:Now there were a few other graduate students at the first conference, a few. [Yes.] I think youíve mentioned a few of them already.
Biondi:Yes. Well, Herlin, for example, was one.
Cameron:Well, I assume you must have met graduate students from other institutions.
Biondi:Yes. Now, though, I really have very little memory of exactly what happened there. Well, some of these guys were senior enough that I suspect they were already junior faculty members. Ron Geballe and Fisher and people like that were I guess ten years at least my senior.
Cameron:Iím just wondering if going to a conference like this is usually considered to beÖfor graduate students, anyway, is considered to be kind of a spring board to getting recognized by the rest of the community.
Biondi:Well, it was good exposure. Both Alpert and Holstein were at that conference, and theyíre ones who hired me at Westinghouse. But what happened is there was a position for an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh that was open. I went there and gave the colloquium on that on my research. They came down — they with permission from the university physics department — they came down and all of it, and then they asked me whether Iíd come to the event. So I did, and actually I chose to go to Westinghouse because they were just starting a fundamental research group and so it was sort of carte blanche, and they liked the area I was working in, microwave studies with plasmas. So it turned out that I chose to go to Westinghouse. But then, being fickle, 10 years, 11 years later, I went back.
Cameron:Yes. You got to meet people with all these other organizations at these conferences. Itís pretty much like conferences today. Well, letís talk a little bit about maybe the second conference that you were involved with, and maybe whether you saw it as being different or just another step.
Biondi:Well now, thatís where my only vague memory of the first conference is doing me in because in the second one, I was helping to set it up. I was a very junior person, so I at least could see the work and could make suggestions. They decided on the area of gaseous electronics, and then decided who would make good invited speakers. So a framework was established, and I think an abstract book was published, if Iím not mistaken. Iím not sure about Brookhaven. I guess there must have been two. All my records like that are long gone now. But Holstein was pretty much an unworldly theoretician, in terms of things like this, so it was Alpert, and McCoubrey who was there with him, and I to some extent, who sort of did the structuring of the whole thing. But we had to decide on what areas each day and each session, and I think we got input from people. Iím not exactly sure how. Iím sure we got input from people. But it pretty much was the local chairman or the people who really fleshed out the conference.
Cameron:Right. And the second conference again was held where?
Biondi:Westinghouse. I had just graduated from graduate school and gone to Westinghouse and met that next conference right there. Iím trying to think. The conference, when in the year did it occur? Because I went to Westinghouse in í49. The conference was í49.
Cameron:The first conference I think was in the fall. I believe so.
Biondi:I think they all were. My memory is going on those things. But anyway, I don't know. Westinghouse, the infrastructure was better, but it seems to me that things were pretty well — You know, just the abstract booklet and things like that, all that was turned out pretty nicely. I think what happened is a lot of the experience with the first conference made the second one a lot easier. But I think I finally threw away those abstract booklets after many decades, but each year built pretty much on the previous one. The thing that — Well, the conferences from early on, Will Allis was sort of a natural head of the thing, and they exercised very good — I mean he was a theoretician, but I think he had a good appreciation of the experimental side and contribution, so I think the sessions were pretty good. But it was really a lot of the work of the organizing committee that had to do that so they have knowledge from a whole bunch of different areas. But by the time of the second one and there on, it started to get pretty well structured, so it became more of a team.
Cameron:Weíve already talked about this, but do you have any more recollections about who you considered to be the most influential people? You mentioned Allis and a few others.
Biondi:Sort of the core of people with experience after Allis were Alpert, and guys like Ben Bederson. Sandy, of course. Dieke from Johns Hopkins. Tom Donahue was at Johns Hopkins then.
Cameron:Was Johns Hopkins kind of another specialist group in this field?
Biondi:Yeah. Dieke was into plasma instabilities, and Tom Donahue was his graduate. Tom Donahue was a little ahead of me. He was his student. So he really was concerned with the instability in these celestial lamps where they there would be a spiraling and these instabilities took place, and he tried to quantize it and make it — Oh, Ed Everhart there, too. Okay, Ed Everhart was a graduate student with me, but he was finished ahead of me. So by that time, he got into Dartmouth. Finkelenberg, was a German, was rather well regarded. I guess he immigrated. Leon Fisher. Gallagher from GE. Ron Geballe. Are youÖ?
Cameron:A few of the names are familiar.
Biondi:Hagstrum, whom I think I mentioned. A lot of these were senior at the time — they were not students; they were well established scientists by then. Kenty — GE kept a pretty tight leash on some of the research they allowed, but he did nice work, and he had a reputation in the field before. I mean he was in the books — you knew who he was. Leob, of course. Leob was sort of an authority. He had written a massive book that was sort of the only book around at the time in which he described sort of the processes going on in gas discharges, not atomic physics. Much better books came out much later by Massey in England looking at the atomic nature of the processes going on there. Leobís was more the types of things that when you understood that, you could figure out why a fluorescent light was doing what it was doing. Did I mention Molnar before? He was a senior at Bell Labs. He was a well-regarded person. Iím amazed to see all these names. Oh, Dave Rose actually came to our group just about as I was leaving. He was more senior in age, but he got in later. He worked a lot on the instabilities in plasmas. Oh, Varnerin, yeah. That's interesting. He was a student. LeViolette was a student that started later than I did, but he was there for me. He actually did uncover a program of the meeting with the papers.
Cameron:Yes, actually there is one that was sent to me electronically. I got an electronic review. It looked like they did separate sections up into topics.
Biondi:They tried hard to. Yeah, there was noÖ Sometimes thereís not a nice clear distinction. In fact, some things sort of fall half in one and another.
Cameron:Well, in a way gaseous electronics has been around for a long time.
Biondi:It certainly has.
Cameron:I suppose you could even go back to the 1880s.
Biondi:I think thatís when they were first making X-ray tubes.
Cameron:Right. But still, I would think that as a discipline within physics, it was still kind of shaking itself out at the time of the conference.
Biondi:There was an evolution in which one moved somewhat away from always being able to tie what was going on back to some application, not so much the fluorescent light, but just some of these — Different things like circuit interrupting in plasma type breakers and things like that. In New York, no equivalent conference to my knowledge started up, but at least in England, they had more basic atomic collision conferences. On the continent, they had more applied meetings where Siemens and companies like that made fluorescent tubes, plasma interrupter type things. But I believe they didn't have anything posted at GEC.
Cameron:Just kind of a more general question about gaseous electronics as a field as compared to other fields in physics. I know when I talked to Dr. Fisher, he said that a lot of graduate students were worried at the time about — well, everyone was going into nuclear physics, and there was some concern about ďWould I be able to get a job going with gaseous electronics?Ē
Biondi:Itís sort of funny, because nowadays I think the situation is quite different. Gaseous electronics was not; I think, as highly regarded as a front tier field by any means, because after all, Townsend had been around from turn of the century and said, ďOh, that old stuff.Ē But the thing was that a tremendous amount of understanding of the details, and also introducing new complexities like plasma instabilities. So atomic physics, which is sort of the area it falls under, has sort of evolved in different ways, and Iíd say that the types of things one does in gaseous electronics are really not anywhere near the forefront. Itís all now theyíre concerned with what the individual atom and the substates and stuff are doing. I don't know what to say. I havenít been to any conferences for a number of years, and so I don't know exactly where the emphasis is any longer. But I suspect theyíve moved on to somewhat more elegant details of the things. Fundamentals are pretty well understood.
Cameron:Well of course with you, you received your doctorate in í49. [Yes.] Letís see, Iím trying to remember. The first gas lasers were early í60s, I think. I want to say 1964.
Biondi:Well, you know it was Harvard, but I forget theÖ
Cameron:But throughout those years, especially the í50s —
Biondi:That was very nice, that problem. The sort of gaseous electronics we were doing was just routine stuff and so something as quantum, that reactivated the field for quite a bit. Well there were the masers before the lasers, and they were sort of — well, Iím not sure what I was going to say makes sense, but the gas laser, the gas laser, the helium-neon laser for example, that was a nice, clean use of plasma to atomic processes to achieve an end.
Cameron:You mentioned textbooks a little bit earlier. As a student, how did you learn about these things?
Biondi:Well, I must say the situation was not very good. I hate to be recorded! [Chuckles] There were only two textbooks at the time, one by Cobine. Are you familiar with that one? [No.] I think he was a GE scientist, and it was a fairly simple, low-level text. There was nothing wrong with it or anything, but it told you about the various kinds of plasma that discharges, fluorescent lamp type discharges, things like that, and you knew somehow that part was going on. Then there were Leonard Leobís books. Iím sure youíve heard of those. They were sort of a compendium. He would take articles that people wrote and he would sort of put them together into chapters. You could look there for a lot of things, but there wasn't any sort of unifying —
Cameron:Right. It was really more of a — well, maybe not quite a reference book, but it wasn't a textbook that took you step by step.
Biondi:Later on, Massey and Burhop put out what was really a great book for our field because it really dealt with the basic processes in a consistent, coherent way. The only two books we had were Leobís and Cobineís when I was a student, and when Massey and Burhop came out, it was great. But Leob, he wasn't there, was he? He should have been there. He never would have missed that.
Cameron:Yeah, there he is.
Biondi:Okay. I couldn't believe he wouldn't have been there. He was a hallmark in the field. Oh, I have one interesting thing to add. There was a problem on the diffusion of helium ions. Well, it was also called mobility. Well you know, mobility means how free you move. If you apply an electric field to an ionized gas, the ions don't just go moving across because theyíre hitting the atoms on the way, and that motion is — If you just had a vacuum and had the voltage, the ion would accelerate all the way across. When you put a gas in there it makes a collision, and it eventually comes to a steady-state drift motion, and thatís the drift mobility. Now the mobility is tied to the diffusion, the diffusivity of a gas, and there was this one anomaly in there in which the helium ions moving in helium had a certain diffusion coefficient or a certain mobility. There were two values given for that: it was a 2:1 ratio. Leob had come down on the side of taking some early, very nice, precise work by some British people who measured the mobility of helium ion in helium. He said the value is x. The value is 20, letís say, okay? We made a measurement of helium plasmas and how they decay on the decay diffusion, whatís called ambipolar diffusion. Well, that diffusion coefficient is related to the mobility by a simple kinetic theory relationship. Itís a truth, and we got a diffusion coefficient from this measurement I was making on helium. It turned out he wanted the value 19. We got the value 12. So he wrote a letter to us, a steaming letter to Allis. Maybe it was in that talk, I don't know. He wrote this very steaming letter, saying, ďBiondi and Brown are muddying up the waters Iíve spent decades trying to clarify.Ē So he was really down on us. Well, it turned out we turned out to be right, and in the end he thought the world of us. He was a figure in the field and heíd done an awful lot, but he also felt that if he said it was so, it was so.
Cameron:Well, and just from my own research on history of science, Iíve found that in a lot of different fields it almost should be obvious that the senior people, theyíve been working at it a long time, so they know more than everyone else.
Biondi:Yes. The only thing is Leob was really good with the purple toes. He could really write letters that would sort of take the hide off of you.
Cameron:Both as a graduate student and as a junior scientist in the field, did you feel a lot of pressure from people like that?
Biondi:No. Iím sorry to say I think we were — whatís the right word? We felt we knew what we were doing, and we didn't worry about what those whole old fogies said. Well in Leobís case, we did it to excess, and so later people didn't worry about it that much. But early on, it could have been crushing. Luckily, ours came out that he was on the wrong side. Oh, I didn't give you the explanation. Thereís a perfectly good explanation. The measurement that the British had made had applied to an ion that they didn't understand existed. The helium ion, when you take away, when you have He+, when the electronís gone, turns out then if another helium atom comes up, it combines to make He2+ , and this happens at moderate pressures. What the Tyndall people had in their thing, they had made He2+. They had a perfectly good measurement, but the identity was wrong. And we had, by luck, we happened to have conditions where it was He+, and we measured the ambipolar diffusion. It came out right for the ion. Oh by the way, ours was pumping theory. But the quantum people — back then things were a little shakier, so they werenít sure. But I remember that letter. We framed it.
Cameron:At the conferences, do you remember people getting into disputes?
Biondi:A few. Not that many. Not memorable enough so I can recall. Oh, there were some arguments. But Leob was a very strong character. He felt he had done his work and he was to be regarded as an authority, and that was it. Later we were very great friends.
Cameron:Actually, talking about friendship, was there a lot of socializing at these conferences?
Biondi:Pretty much. Weíd go out to dinner together with some groups and stuff. Yeah, and at the breaks and stuff. They were very pleasant conferences. As the years went on, generally the different people like GE or a university would invite us there, and they often would point out the attractions of having it where they were. In no case that I can think of did we simply go to some place which was nice and then somebody far away was willing to act as host. It pretty much was tied in. We went up to Minnesota once. That was a very nice conference. Over the years, itís been around. The hosts, the invitation came pretty freely.
Cameron:The early conferences were all pretty much in the Northeast.
Biondi:Yes. Well, it was a big thing, too. The concentration of people working was there as well, and so to say, ďLetís have it out in San Francisco,Ē and Berkeley, which was where it was, I don't thinkÖ It probably was the logistics at the time. People didn't travel all that far on grants or on the company.
Cameron:Starting to get back to being that way.
Biondi:Yes, especially with the airfare being what it is.
Cameron:Just looking again at the list, not so much the names of people, but the institutions that they came from. Thereís MIT and New York University, Johns Hopkins, those universities, but then thereís all these people from Westinghouse, SylvaniaÖ
Biondi:Well, there were people, for example, from Westinghouse lamp division, because they were concerned about their plasmas and they wanted to see what they could learn about the basic understanding.
Cameron:Right. Is the conference of academic or scientists, I guess is what Iím trying to say. But did they try recruiting people to these conferences?
Biondi:Oh yes. That was one of the — well first of all, when a student would give a paper, they would, depending on how well he did — In fact, Art Phelps was a case where I believe — he came to Westinghouse. What happened is we had McNelhum at Westinghouse speaking. He had a connection back to MIT, and so we were keeping track of what the students were doing. We had Varnerin from there and Phelps — all those were in Sandy Brownís group. But no, people came around to the conferences, and they did sort of rate the students and pursued them, if they wished.
Cameron:Yeah. Well, itís interesting what you say about Westinghouse and MIT. Itís almost like different companies would form relationships at different universities.
Biondi:I think it was with regard to the students. We wound up at Westinghouse with three or four in the group that I was with. About three or four of the people from Sandy Brown and llisís group. So that was the nature of the tie. There were some companies who used to assign people, say, ďYouíre going to coverÖĒ I think Bell Labs did that. They had people looking out so they could find big talent.
Cameron:So they would actually send people to the conferences with that in mind.
Biondi:Or just go up to visit the groups. Dr. So-and-soís group or Professor Such-and-such.
Cameron:We have also people from government labs, too. Thereís Oak Ridge, Los Alamos.
Biondi:Yes, we did. At the time — well, I had only a narrow — I mean later I came to appreciate these labs, but at MIT, we just werenít really aware of all the different people who are in some way or other related to atomic physics, plasma physics.
Cameron:Oh, one person is from National Research Corporation in Cambridge.
Biondi:MIT. Well, they were only peripherally — They probably came just to find out what was going on.
Cameron:That reminds me of something else that Iíve heard Dr. Fisher and Dr. Varney talk about is especially at the first conference, they said that there were a fair number of people who seemed to come to the conference just out of curiosity.
Biondi:It could well be.
Cameron:Was that the same at the second conference? Do you remember people showing up to that conference and never seeing them again?
Biondi:I couldn't answer that. I just don't remember.
Cameron:I would guess that at the first conference, since that was the first conference, people were just kind of showing up to see what it was like.
Biondi:Yeah. I think by the second conference they probably had shaken out some of that or else people wanted to go to Long Island. Whoíd want to go to Pittsburgh?
Cameron:I see a fair number of people coming from Northwestern University. Do you remember them being prominent?
Biondi:I don't evenÖ
Cameron:No connection at all, okay. Very large numbers of people coming from New York University.
Biondi:Yes. Part of it may have been proximity, but I mean NYU did have workers in the field, but I don't know, not a large number.
Cameron:Right. Itís interesting what youíve said about comparing the American conference to the ones in Britain and Europe. It sounds like what youíre saying is it wasn't so much that youíre completely excluding people from Europe coming; itís just that they were interested in doing different things.
Biondi:I think there were some of both. I think that back in those days, coming from Europe to a conference in New York was a big deal. Also, I think the way they evolved — In England, the big center was at University College, London. That was the sort of center. And it was a mixture. Massey, Bates, andÖ I forgot all the names, they were theoreticians, but there was an experimentalist there [Hasted]. He wasnít at that conference, Iím pretty sure. But I later met them. But they were looking at it not as gaseous electronics where you eventually might produce light or something like that, but as basic atomic collision processes. That was their view. Thatís how they looked at it. So they were trying to do fundamental measurements. That mobility I was talking about, that Tyndall and Powell, they were British, I think from that university. They were sort of forerunners back in the í20s with Leob.
Cameron:So really there were national differences in the way they approached these.
Biondi:Well, I think on the continent, there were big companies the equivalent of Westinghouse or GE. Siemens was one. And Holland had theirs. So there was Germany, Holland. In France, it was more the universities. Again, they were more atomic collision types than gaseous electronics, so they were more down to the nitty-gritty fundamental stuff throughout, not the integrative effects. So they ran rather different conferences. Now I can't speak for the engineering conferences on the continent. There may have been such, but I wasnítÖ
Cameron:Right. Were there people from engineering schools that would show up to these conferences? So far, weíve talked mostly about people who were physicists.
Biondi:Yeah. I can't really answer that because the only thing I know from letís say applied type things was like Westinghouse lamp division, things like that. I don't know exactly what engineering department they might have come out of. Although nowadays, with all the plasma devices, sure, probably a goodly number would be in such a thing.
Cameron:I think Iíve just about exhausted all the questions I can think of. Do you have anything that you would like to add?
Biondi:No. Iíll be most interested to see how this turns out, because I certainly don't know much of this real history. Thanks to the input of a whole bunch of people, maybe weíll get a good start.
Cameron:What do you have in the folder?
Biondi:Oh, itís nothing much. A couple of emails from you. No, but basically how to get here. Well, we never did discuss the thing down the line because what happened is as the conferences went on, Will Allis sort of became automatically the chairman, and as everybody would, I think, he sort of had his thing in how weíd like to do it. So as the years went by, people felt that when they made a suggestion, he just sort of turned them down cold and they werenít too happy with that. He did a good job as chairman, but he had that limitation, and he went on sabbatical for a couple of years and I was made acting chairman. I don't know if Iím in your history or not. During that year, a kabow occurred in the sense that everybody said, ďNow look. Weíd like to have some flexibility. Willís done a great job, but he wants to do things his way and he doesn't accept any other suggestions.Ē So they set up a structure that in addition to a chairman there was a steering committee with I forget how many members. Basically, the other thing that was decided was that they would have a chairman whoíd have an appointment for I don't remember, a couple of years, and then there would be a new one. Thatís why we have new chairmen so often. So basically, Allis did a very fine job, but as I guess with any person, he became set in what he would like to do, and he was making people unhappy with the fact that he didn't take their suggestions. So thatís why now a steering committee does a lot of that.
Cameron:Do you remember when the change occurred?
Biondi:No. I think he must have been chairman for, I would guess somewhere between five and ten years, something like that. Iím sure the records would show it. But thatís the other thing: all my records are gone. But anyway, that was the one thing. He was a great chairman, and the only problem was I guess he had the standard feeling that if you do it, you get to want to do it your way, so that made a number of people, some of whom youíve mentioned, pretty unhappy, until there was this use of his being on a sabbatical to sort of change it. But I think he was Chairman Emeritus for life type thing. We greatly, really greatly appreciate all he had done. Itís just that they were feeling restricted. I think itís only natural. But thatís about the only thing. I think the conference has been quite a success over the years. Although, maybe weíre finishing it up because when you start to write the history, itís a has-been. [Chuckles]
Cameron:Well, Iíve seen some histories that were written pretty soon after things started and thenÖ
Biondi:Okay, so maybe things are going well.
Yes. Well, I guess with that, Iíll go ahead and turn off the machine.