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Interview of Orson L. Anderson by Henry Bass on 2000 May 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Dr. Orson Anderson describes his family background; his military service, which influenced his entire scientific career; his educational background; his work at Bell Labs, Columbia University, and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the University of California Los Angeles; he also discusses his current family life and his plans for retirement.
My name is Henry Bass. Today’s date is May 21, 2000, and we are at the National Center for Physical Acoustics at the University of Mississippi, in Mississippi, in the United States. The time is about 11:30, and I am about to interview Orson Anderson for the Acoustical Society of America’s Technical Committee on Physical Acoustics. The first few questions are just background questions and easy to answer. They’re supposed to make you comfortable and make you relax. First of all, what’s your present address?
I live in two cities — in Los Angeles at UCLA and in a little town in Utah, which I have as my summer home. The Los Angeles address is: The Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCLA. The address in Utah is: Post Office Box 72, Green River, Utah, population 900.
If a transcript of the interview were sent to you, where would you prefer that it be sent?
To the UCLA address.
What is your present telephone number?
At UCLA it’s 310-825-2386. In Utah it is 435-564-3357.
Who is your present employer?
My present employer is the University of California, Los Angeles, and my supervisor is the Director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.
What is your present business? The present business of the organization, is it educational or research or a combination?
The Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, my primary employer, is entirely a research organization. The University also requires me to teach, so my secondary employer is the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, where I teach a half-time load.
What is your present job title then?
Professor of Geophysics.
How long have you been with UCLA?
That’s a long time. Let’s talk some about your affiliation with the Acoustical Society. Are you a member of the Acoustical Society of America?
Yes, I am.
What year did you join?
I joined twice. Once in 1951, then I let my membership lapse, and I rejoined in 1995.
What has been your primary area of interest within the Acoustical Society?
These questions, again, have to do primarily with the Society but we’re sort of curious in asking people, especially those who are not perhaps affiliated with ASA for a long period of time. What were your reasons for joining the Acoustical Society?
Because my job was physical acoustics at Bell Labs working under Warren Mason. I presented my papers at Acoustical Society meetings when I first got into research.
So is Warren Mason the one who encouraged you to join?
I think so. I think you can say that.
Have you ever been on any Acoustical Society of America committees?
Yes, in 1960, some committee on research. I’ve forgotten its name.
Are there any particular meetings of the Acoustical Society that stand out as being special in your mind because of some event that took place or because of some humorous activity?
Yes. This goes back to the ‘50’s. At that time Herb McSkimin and Warren Mason shook up the Acoustical Society quite a bit by their work in acoustic properties of solids derived from sound velocity measurements. This was a result of applying principles of radar that came into science right after World War II. They were able to make very accurate velocity measurements in the neighborhood of one megahertz or less. Physical acoustics was never the same after that because this group at Bell Labs, of which I was one, was able to obtain measurements of elastic constants to better than one part in 105. That topic had the biggest impact within the Acoustical Society of America. There were many seminars and special sessions about that between 1950 and 1960.
Are there any particular ASA members that had especially influenced your career or your future activities?
I think the ASA members who influenced me most would be Robert Thurston and Herb McSkimin, as well as Warren Mason. Perhaps also Konrad Brugger and Hans Bommel.
Besides the Acoustical Society what other professional organizations do you belong to?
I’m in a field where members of many societies need acoustically measured information. As a matter of fact, in the American Geophysical Union, which is a major concern of mine now, I was the person who brought physical acoustics of solids into that field. Others followed me, and, as a result, we’ve been able to say much more about the properties of the Earth. I introduced acoustical measurements of solids into the AGU. It has grown to the point that it has a name in the American Geophysical Union; it’s called Mineral Physics. Mineral physics now includes more subfields than physical acoustics, but it started as physical acoustics. Measurement, by various physical acoustical techniques, of the properties of rocks and minerals, allowed us to deduce thermodynamic properties of those rocks and minerals in the Earth. Although I introduced this field into the AGU, I can truthfully say that I’ve been in physical acoustics all my life. The need for understanding material properties, has taken me into various societies: the Geological Society of America, the American Ceramics Society and, to a lesser degree, the Physical Society. In the period 1950-1970, my kind of work was sought by the Royal Astronomical Society of London, and for a while, I was a member of the Royal Society of London. I touched bases with the American Materials Society. Of these six societies, I was appointed as a fellow in four.
They’re on your resume though, right?
Yes, they’re all on my resume.
The only other question related to the Acoustical Society as an organization. Do you have any comments about the society related to your own participation? Either the past society or the way it’s done now or what you would like to see in the future?
I find that the impact of physical acoustics as I understand it is less now in the society, ASA, than it was in the ‘60’s. I just look at the agenda of a meeting and I can’t see physical acoustics as nearly as strong as it was back in the Warren Mason era. That’s my general comment. I don’t find a focus on physical acoustics very sharp in the present structure of ASA.
Is there another organization you feel that’s better at home for physical acoustics?
No. I’m in physical acoustics. I worked in other societies because measurements on materials of interest to that society were made with physical acoustics.
The next series of questions actually begins your history. Those were sort of opening questions and to get some ideas and general comments. But let’s now go ahead and start the oral history. We’ll start that out at the start, specifically when and where were you born?
I was born in a little town of Price, Utah, which is the next neighboring town to where I live now. I was the son of a rancher and I lived in the mountains herding cattle in the summer. I was sent; reluctantly I must say, down to the city of Price, which then had a population of 5,000, to go to school in winter. My ranching career ended when I went into the service at age 17 in World War II.
Were your parents also from that area?
So they were native to Utah?
Yes, they were.
So how many generations back do you have ties there?
Two, besides my generation.
Before that, did they come over from another country?
I have two great-grandparents from Denmark and one from Switzerland and one from England.
So total European background.
Yes. All those great-grandparents emigrated at about the same time.
Did the great-grandparents settle somewhere else before they moved to Utah?
No. They went right to Utah.
Before entering college, where were some of the places that you lived?
Well, before I went to college I was in the military service in the South Pacific. I could name a number of islands in the South Pacific where I lived but I think you would say that I was stationed in the Philippines and Indonesia and New Guinea and intermediate islands.
There is a section in the history to delve in more detail into the time you spent in the service, so we’ll skip over that for now. What were your parents’ occupations?
My father was a rancher, and when the price of meat was low, he also ran a little construction company. It wouldn’t amount to much today but it wasn’t too bad in those days in which he built bridges and dams and stuff like that more or less as one or two man operation. My mother was at home all the time.
Can you describe what you were like? Were you a big reader of books? Were you introverted? Outgoing? What were you like when you were young?
I read a lot of books when I was a kid. I didn’t participate in as many sport events and teenage events as I might have because I really was in the Price City library a lot of that time. I enjoyed reading, and during middle school and high school I was plagued by a sixth grade English teacher, who tried all kinds of things to make me learn to write. Her name was Stubby Peterson. She was my mentor in writing, and now I’m very grateful for her, but at the time I thought she was a sliver in my toe.
A lot of us think that when we’re young. As a youngster did you really know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Well, I thought I would be a rancher until I got into the military service. But there I was exposed to aeronautical engineers because I turned out to be a pilot. I was in a repair squadron, which looked like a garage for cars. Planes that were not flying well were brought there and the mechanics went over them and then they were checked out by pilots just as a mechanic might run a car around the block. I was one of those pilots. But they had at this depot where I worked engineers from Lockheed and North America and so forth who were there to look at the planes performance in combat. There were reporting back to the parent organizations about faults in the planes. But they were also interacting with the pilots in this group. I thought at that time it would be very nice to be an aeronautical engineer. That was a turning point in my life because I hadn’t thought of a university at all until I had this experience.
Was there a particular engineer that you identified with there or just watching them in general?
No. I flew about 20 different planes in all my career. We had to test whatever plane was in being fixed, like the mechanic in a big garage today.
Before you went to college, what were your special interests? You mentioned reading. Were there other interests?
You have to remember that when you’re 17 and going into the service you stop being a teenager and you’re concentrating on staying alive. I was wiped out from 17 to 21 in terms of other interests. I had my reading. I did take correspondence courses, as a result of my association with aeronautical engineers, in mathematics and physics.
During that period, can you identify specific people that you really looked up to? Who were your heroes?
At that time my hero was Captain Joseph Lynch, who was the operations officer and chief test pilot. He was the one who decided who flew what and when and he taught us young pilots lots and lots of very important principles which were aimed at saving our lives. He was really a very big hero with me. He was a good teacher. Imagine an 18-year-old lad being sent out to a P51 who had never flown one. You hadn’t flown much of anything and there wasn’t anybody to sit in the plane with you. Lynch was responsible then for teaching us how to fly that plane. He was a very good teacher. Poor Captain Lynch didn’t have experienced pilots to help him with his work and his responsibilities, because the war stretched everything out. But he taught us well, and none of my group were killed doing their work.
Had you flown a plane prior to going into the service?
No. I flew only training planes that they have in the service. Before I got my wings, I was in advanced training to become a multi-engine pilot. Probably flying bombers was my selected career, but for some reason or another I was selected with a few other young pilots to try out this job, which was called operational test pilot. The ironic part was that none of us young pilots had the engineering training needed to be an operational test pilot.
But prior to going into the service had you ever flown a plane prior to that?
Had you ever ridden in a plane prior to that?
So it did have a big impact, didn’t it?
I wanted to join the Air Corps, and somehow in all that processing I got directed in the right direction. It was a very good thing for me.
In high school, what were your favorite subjects?
Math, history and debate. One of my mentors in high school was a debate coach. To him I owe a lot. He taught us a great deal about the spoken English language. We went out to debate tournaments with other high school debate teams. I think I regard him as a very influential teacher in my life.
What was his name?
During that period of your life prior to going into the military service, were there other people like that who were very influential in setting your life other than your parents of course?
Yes. The English teacher, wife of the football coach, who taught me in sixth grade and then later in the tenth grade. Her name was Verda Peterson. Stubby Peterson, we called her behind her back because she was so short. She influenced me in writing and Morgan influenced me in speaking. I think that combination allowed me to think about intellectual activities during high school more than other boys my own age. As a matter of fact, I graduated a year earlier than the other people, and I was valedictorian. Which shows you the way I was going in high school. I took a lot of art courses. The art teacher was Carl Olson. He counseled me to consider a career in animation. The librarian, Elizabeth Norton, introduced me to Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, whose works, like those of similar great writers, lured me away from intramural athletics.
Were you especially good at math or science?
I was good at math. I don’t remember whether I was good in science. I studied calculus by myself in high school as a senior.
For a small high school I guess it did not have a formal course in calculus.
No, it didn’t. But I had a math teacher, named Harold Bithel, who knew it and could help me out a little bit and encouraged me.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go and talk some about college. Let’s start out with the undergraduate college. Where did you go as an undergraduate and what was your major?
I came back from the service aimed at becoming an aeronautical engineer. I went to the University of Utah because I was a Utah lad and I knew some people and I read something in the paper about the University of Utah expanding very greatly and so forth. So I went to the University of Utah and said I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I was told, “No, we really don’t train aeronautical engineers; before you can be one you’ve got to be a mechanical engineer.” So I took mechanical engineering. I was under the influence of a professor named Mervin Hogan, who interested me greatly in the mathematical solutions of engineering problems. I ended up teaching a class in the strength of materials in the Mechanical Engineering Department when I was a graduate student in Physics. But while I was getting this degree, I found out that there were classes in mechanical engineering that I detested. They were laboratory classes involving heat engines, and surveying and drafting, and so forth, in which I wasn’t an A student. But I could always take a math class and get an “A”. As a junior and senior I was in the mechanical engineering department, but I was teaching algebra and calculus for the math department because the math professors got acquainted with me and they needed help at that time, because of a big surge of postwar students. So I ended up teaching math when I was a junior and senior. I was persuaded by a number of events that I wasn’t cut out to be in engineering, but I didn’t listen to the inner voice. I was convinced that you could not make a living as a mathematician, so I split it down the middle and went into the physics department as a first year graduate student.
So you actually got your undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering but switched over to physics for your first year of graduate school.
That’s right. I rolled right through physics. I got an MS in one year and a Ph.D. in three years and that was fast for that time.
While you were still an undergraduate, was there any special school activity that you became a part of that you were interested in?
I think that you have to say that the veterans coming back from the war and going into college were wholly devoted to getting that degree. Not just with me but with my friends there, there was absolutely no interest in other activities besides getting that degree.
Were you married at that time?
I got married during this time.
As an undergraduate or as a graduate student?
I can’t remember. I think I was a junior.
Was your wife a student also?
She was a nurse I met in the service and she came from California to marry me.
That’s romantic. As an undergraduate, still speaking of the undergraduate days, was there a particular professor, you mentioned someone named Hogan –- but was there a particular professor that had a big influence?
Oh yeah! It was Beasley in mathematics. He was the Chairman of the mathematics department. He had a big influence on me. He got me the job teaching calculus and algebra to incoming freshman. Those were the classes for engineers and medical people and things like that. Big classes — they were not down-the-line mathematics students. He recruited me for that job. I liked Beasley very much and I took all his classes I could.
When you were teaching those courses, did you look upon teaching those courses then as a preparation for future teaching or was it just a way to get money to go through college?
I didn’t think of myself as a teacher at all, but I was getting through college and it was a fun way to make a little money.
I think that’s true with a lot of people who start out that way. During that period while you were an undergraduate, was there again some particular role model, some astronaut or scientist or writer or someone that you really considered to be someone that you would like to aspire to be like.
As an undergraduate, no, although Merv Hogan taught me how to solve an engineering problem. Once I got into graduate school I found two role models.
Who were they?
One was the dean and professor of chemistry, Henry Eyring, a very famous physical chemist. I took all of his classes. And the other was Walter Elsasser, who is a geophysicist but always in the physics department wherever he went. He was the first one who proposed how the dynamo of the Earth could generate a magnetic field. He also taught astronomy and other classical physics classes. I admired him very much and was molded by him. My research attitude was set by these two outstanding research scientists.
When you were an undergraduate did you ever participate in rallies or demonstrations or anything like that?
Did you have those in Utah?
Yes, but I was a Veteran.
And Veterans didn’t do that.
Not to my knowledge.
I served my time during the Vietnam era and a lot of Vietnam Veterans did. So there was a change in culture by the time Vietnam came along.
There was, yes.
Looking back if you had to do it over again would you still go to the University of Utah?
Yes, because I had these wonderful role models. They shaped my life.
Would you still start out majoring in mechanical engineering?
No, because I know better now.
Did you learn anything as a mechanical engineer that became useful later?
The mechanical engineering episode was important to me because it was the transition from the cattle industry into education to become a scientist.
An intermediate step.
An intermediate step. The first step.
Let’s talk about the graduate level education. Specifically you got your master’s degree at Utah also. That was in physics, right?
How were you supported during that period of time? I guess your GI benefits were only four years, weren’t they?
There were two supports. There was the GI Bill, which gave me some money but not enough to support a family. But then I was in the Air National Guard, the Utah Air National Guard, and that’s where I spent a lot of my weekends. That may be why I didn’t have any time for the cultural activities of the university. Also, I was a teaching assistant in the Math Department and later in the Physics and Mechanical Engineering Departments.
Was there any specific projects that you worked on while a master student that stand out in your mind?
Yes. Henry Eyring was my role model in that regard, and he induced me to use rate process theory as an explanation for a fracture process. Fracture is mechanics and acoustics. He was telling me, “This is a chemical rate you’re talking about. You’re breaking bonds.” So I wrote a paper and it became my master’s degree thesis. I was never satisfied with that paper. And I reexamined it after I graduated, and submitted it to the American Ceramic Society. To my astonishment, the Society awarded me a prize for the best paper of the year. In his classes, Henry Eyring taught me how rate processes worked with chemical bonds, then the atomic point of view. I carried that over to my master’s thesis as a way of explaining fracture. I did a pretty good job. It helps explain static fatigue of glass, still a problem in windshields today. Why does something break after a long time when it didn’t break up to that time?
What was the title of the thesis?
Application of Rate Process Theory to Fracture and Flow in Glass.
Let’s go and talk more about graduate school and your Ph.D. work specifically. You were there at Utah for that as well.
How were you supported during that period of time?
The GI Bill, flying on the weekends for the Air National Guard, and teaching classes.
What specific projects did you work on for a Ph.D.?
I was sort of being channeled to acoustics without really feeling I was in acoustics. I got interested in the difference between fracture and flow. What was it about materials that made them break or flow? We have all kinds of theories about that now. Now there are textbooks that are based on dislocation theory. This is the pre-dislocation era, back in 1949. I wrote a thesis draft about the principles of fracture and flow. Walter Elsasser was on my committee. He called me in and said, “I really don’t think nine-tenths of your thesis is up to a standard we could endorse. One-tenth is pretty good.” And he said, “Why don’t you throw the nine-tenths away?” What he told me was that I had for the first time explained the principle of why the stress tensor, is composed of a pressure tensor and a stress deviator. He said, “There’s a lot of ways you can break a stress tensor up but you have shown that there’s one and only one physics way to do that. What Elsasser was talking about I had placed in an appendix.”
That became your dissertation then?
Yes. The problem was that other professors were involved on my committee, and they apparently favored the parts of my draft that Elsasser would drop out. A compromise was struck on the way my thesis was structured. My thesis is only eight pages long, but a lot of the other material is in an Appendix to the thesis. Time has shown that Elsasser was right. My eight-page thesis was later published in the American Journal of Physics.
Did Elsasser serve on that committee?
Yes. There was Walter Elsasser, representing classical physics; Henry Eyring, representing physical chemistry; Dan McLachlan, representing x-rays and modern physics; Frank Harris, representing optics; and Eugene Poncelet, a visiting professor representing the Ceramic Department (fracture of solids), and Leon Linford.
Who was the department head?
Leon B. Linford, the Physics Department Chairman.
Who was chairman of the committee?
The head of the Physics Department was officially the chairman, but he really didn’t operate as a chairman should. Elsasser and Poncelet acted as co-chairmen. I think I owe Elsasser a lot because it was during the process of writing that I learned so much about what a research project is, how to identify it, and how to develop it. From Poncelet, I learned how to write a proposal.
You mentioned earlier that you were teaching, at least as an undergraduate, a math class. Did your teaching continue as a graduate student?
In the math department?
Yes, in the Math Department.
So you continued to teach math while a graduate student in physics?
In the physics department, I was an assistant. I had a higher rank in the math department. I was actually some kind of a lecturer. But in the physics department when I got out I was simply a teaching assistant. There’s a difference there, in pay too.
But your classes in mathematics continue to be the introductory classes in calculus for the engineering and science students, medical students?
That was math for engineers and medical students?
How about in physics? What course did you teach there?
Anything to do with mechanics. I didn’t teach optics. I was an assistant in thermodynamics. I didn’t teach modern physics. Modern physics in those days was different from the way it is now. Modern physics in those days was, for example, cosmic rays and nuclear forces. So if the class had a real classical connotation, except for optics, then I was an assistant for that. I liked that.
I’m going to stop our morning session at this time. We’re getting ready to go to lunch here in just a few minutes. You have some other visitors. We’ll continue this after your seminar, probably tomorrow morning. Okay?