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Interview of Tihiro Ohkawa by Stuart "Bill" Leslie on 2006 May 23, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/35130
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In this interview Tihiro Ohkawa discusses topics such as: General Atomics; University of Tokyo; nuclear physics; Don Kerst; betatron; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); Marshall Rosenbluth; Ted Taylor; Atomic Energy Commission; Fred de Hoffmann; Ed Creutz; accelerators; high-temperature gas cooled reactor (HGCR); United States Department of Energy (DOE); J. Robert Beyster; Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
This is Stuart William Leslie from Johns Hopkins. Today is the 23rd of May, and I’m with Dr. Tihiro Ohkawa, formerly of General Atomics and now head of his own company. But I thought maybe we’d begin with your early education, how you got interested in physics, and what it was like to work in physics in Japan just after the war.
I’m sort of the World War II generation. The war ended when I was 17 or something. My first exposure, let’s say, to physics was during the war. Some of the laboratories in Tokyo… Tokyo, as you know, being bombed and all that, so they decided to disperse the laboratories to the more rural areas or the outside of the island. One of the laboratories chose Kanazawa, which is my hometown, which is beside the Sea of Japan, for the study of nuclear physics and the cosmic ray and all this. The cosmic ray laboratory is the one that moved to Kanazawa. That was in the old educational system, so it’s more like a European system with a gymnasium. In the war effort, some of us were drafted into the laboratory. That was when I was 15 or 16.
So you were young.
Yes. But the problems at the laboratory were very different than the wartime research. So a physicist hired us, and they were kind enough to educate us in physics. My job was to maintain logical scales. Nowadays, you just have little chips and do everything, but then you had big vacuum tubes, and it’d count down; each step or stage counts two down in stages. So I learned how to deal with the vacuum tube circuitry, and at the same time, there are the — those are the Geiger mirror counters, but then there were also the ionization chambers and stuff like that. That was my first exposure to physics.
So then you went to the University of Tokyo for —
And then the war ended. Then I went to the University of Tokyo. I will tell you it was a hard time because I literally starved because the government ration was behind and all that kind of stuff. So I finished the undergraduate degree. That was a three-year university. It was 1950. And then the graduate thing was still in the old system, so there’s nothing like you going to graduate school for five years or whatever and getting your Ph.D. There’s no such system. It’s graduate. After I graduated, I went into Professor Miyamoto’s laboratory. Nowadays, there are high energy physics, particle physics, and nuclear physics is different, but not then. I went into nuclear physics, and did beta ray spectroscopy and such things. In 1953, in the Japanese Physical Society meeting, I published an idea on the new type of accelerator. Later, it was called FFAG. Then it turned out that in the U.S., there was the group called MURA.
The Midwestern Universities Research Association.
Yes. It consists of mostly the Big Ten. And then Dr. Kerst, the inventor of betatron, and one of the Japanese professors visited the MURA or something like that, and then he told the MURA people that he invented the FFAG. By the time that the MURA — They invented them almost at the same time, I think. But then Dr. Kerst wrote me and said, “Instead of meeting, why don’t you come join us? They don’t have money, but I can offer you this assistantship. It pays 300 bucks a month.”
“But then we can’t pay you directly, so you have to apply to the Fulbright Program for doing this.” That’s how it happened.
So you never had been to the United States before you went to the…
When you went to the U.S., you went to Wisconsin to work with Kerst?
First, Don Kerst was running the betatron at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Oh, at Illinois.
Champaign. MURA was temporarily there, so in 1955, summer, I arrived. First I went on a prop plane from Tokyo en route to San Francisco.
That was a big trip in those days, wasn’t it? That must’ve been really something.
And then I arrived in Champaign, Illinois. When I got out of the airplane, it was 100 degrees. [Laughs] So that’s how it started.
How long did you intend to stay in the U.S. when you first arrived?
I was on leave. MURA moved to Madison, Wisconsin the next year, ‘56, so I stayed two years. So one year in Champaign and the second year in Madison. Then I went home back to the University of Tokyo.
When you were working in Tokyo and then later with Kerst, etc., did you consider yourself an experimentalist, or an experimental physicist?
Was that difficult to do in Japan after the war without the money?
That’s one of the reasons why I eventually ended up in the U.S., because the research funds were scarce and people were starving. So I couldn’t do much.
So you worked with Kerst. Can you tell me something about your work those two years?
Sort of designed. MURA was created to compete against the East Coast and the West Coast. Eventually ended up in [inaudible]. [Laughs] And then I improved the FFAG, and then I got that two-way, meaning symmetrical. That caught the fancy of some of the journalists, and I remember that the paper was picked for the APS journal thing. I remember that there was a sort of famous journalist in New York. They wrote about the bomb and stuff like that.
So after you worked on the accelerator, you did go back to Japan for a short time?
No, not a short time.
Oh, not so short. So you’re teaching at the University of Tokyo.
Mostly research. At that time, the fusion was still, in the U.S., classified. But then the word goes out that there is such a thing like fusion. [Laughs] The Japanese start looking into fusion, too.
It wasn’t a field that you had been interested in to that point or knew anything about.
Sort of. My professor was interested and so on. I was to go back to MURA, but then in the meantime, Don Kerst moved from MURA to General Atomics. But even before that, I decided to go to CERN.
To work on accelerator physics.
Yes. I spent the year in CERN. ‘59, all I did was skiing. [Laughter] Then Don Kerst sought me. He said, “Why don’t you come here to General Atomics?” So after one year in Geneva, we came here.
Had you heard about General Atomics before?
You didn’t know anything about them.
Just through Don Kerst.
What did he tell you about it? You said he wrote you.
Then he said, “Come visit us,” so I came here and spent three or four days. From Geneva to here, and we went back to Geneva.
What were your impressions of General Atomic at the time?
I don’t know. First of all, around here, it was not very much populated anyway, so it was kind of an entirely different world compared to Geneva.
Who did you meet? Did you meet Freddie de Hoffmann or Ed Creutz?
Fred, I met him in Geneva. He used to come here. He is an European scientist. It kind of ended up like an interview as far as General Atomics is concerned. So I met Marshall Rosenbluth, and then Ted Taylor, the Orion guy. I was young, so I said, “What the heck, why don’t we come here and see what happens?”
It must’ve been a pretty impressive group of people if you met Taylor and Rosenbluth. These are people whose reputations you knew?
You didn’t know them then.
I’m curious, what did you think of the design of the laboratory since it was sort of a space-aged design? Did you notice?
Yes, it was quite impressive, but it’s quite different. From what I remember, it was different from CERN. [Laughs]
CERN is all square. This is round.
Had you ever seen anything like that before, with that kind of design?
What did they say the project you would be working on would be?
Fusion. Okay. Did you fit into a particular part of the program?
Who was your group? Was there a group leader that you were working with?
No. I don’t remember exactly, but they were building the stabilized toroidal pinch. But then that as proposed by the theoretical group, and then Don Kerst came here, and they built it. He’s a very good machine builder, you might imagine, from building betatron, small to big. But by the time the machine was built, then the theorists found out it was not quite stable enough, and all that. Then there was a big dispute because the machine can’t be built overnight; it takes some time. After he proposed it, in nine months to a year later, he said it may not work, and I can’t change that quickly! I don’t think — Anyway, here he wanted to do the experiments, so there I was, so I did the experiment with him.
The program that you and Kerst were working on was this toroidal pinch. What was the ultimate goal? Was there a commercial product that people thought would come out of that?
This is the early days of fusion.
So it wasn’t like the TRIGA reactor or something, where you expected to have it in the market.
That’s correct. The fusion project was funded by the Texas Utility Group.
So the funding was not coming directly from General Atomic, but was coming through the Texas Atomic Research something?
Yes, Research Foundation, which is supported by 10 or 12 utilities in Texas.
So they eventually thought it would be a power source for electric utility.
Yes. This is not first hand, but what I heard is the Texas Utility Group went to Washington at the Atomic Energy Commission and asked them, “We’d like to invest in a long-time energy thing, but Texas has plenty of oil, so we don’t need the nuclear fission.” Then the Atomic Energy Commission told them, “In that case, you might want to invest in fusion. The place you might consider is General Atomic.” That’s how we got…
I see. Even though it wasn’t in Texas or even close.
That’s correct. So they supported the General Atomic fusion from ‘57 to ‘67; ten years.
Do you remember roughly the amount of support?
Probably totaled around $10 million or something like that.
Over ten years.
Yes, but that was big money then!
That was big money, yes. Tell me a little bit about the relationship between experimentalists and theorists at General Atomic.
Oh no, you know it takes too long.
No, I’m very interested because one of the things that I’ve heard about General Atomics is that, in fact, there was a lot of mixing between — they weren’t so divided between experimentalists and theorists.
Oh, no, it was… finally, it exploded.
The relationship between the two exploded?
That they did not get along well?
Oh, they began to fight.
Yes, that’s right. That was, I don’t remember exactly, mid-’60s it finally exploded and the theorists wanted to leave the group, and so on. Then over the weekend, that decision was the worst, so Don Kerst took off — left.
He left. If you can describe it for me, what was the tension between them?
They had different ways of doing physics.
So there wasn’t a close collaboration between theorists and experimentalists in that early toroidal program?
Initially it was, but then after that, when I came here, there was already some tension. I didn’t know that, of course.
What year did you actually arrive to work at General Atomics?
Summer of 1960.
So General Atomics had been in business for five years, but the lab was pretty brand new; it was only a year old. Where was your group? Which building was it in?
The office was in that circular building.
And the experimental work itself?
Experiments were a little bit down in there, on the right-hand side, a little bit over, the experimental…
You were in the experimental building?
No, but the office was.
I see. Can you tell me a little bit about the difficulties and the successes of building some of those early machines?
I don’t know the difficulty.
It wasn’t difficult?
It’s the same old experimental physics. [Laughs]
What did you consider to be your successes in terms of building the machine? What were you trying to achieve, and what did you achieve?
After that, Don Kerst left, and then the theorists stayed. But then after ten years, the Texas Utilities’ director died, and so, they decided to put it out, so all of a sudden, nothing. So, most of the theorists left.
But Kerst was an experimentalist, right?
No, he took off. But that was before the funding ran out.
So when the funding diminished, then the theorists also left.
I mean, General Atomics couldn’t support it, so essentially, everybody should leave. The exact year, I don’t remember, but in the late ‘50s there was the Sputnik thing, so everywhere in the United States, the universities were expanding physics and engineering nationally, so there were a lot of general opportunities for the physicists. So most people went all over the country.
Could you describe something of the research environment at General Atomics? What it was like compared with a university or compared with —
No, it’s more like a University.
It was like a University?
But no students, of course.
No students, yes.
How about the budgets? You were being supported by the Texas group for a while.
After that point, ‘67.
Did you also have any federal contracts?
It was just the Texas group.
For a few years, yes.
So you didn’t have to apply to what’s now the Department of Energy or other federal programs.
[Inaudible]. No, but the other groups, not the Fusion Group, the other group had the defense contracts and things.
Did you have much to do with those other groups, or did the Fusion Group stay by itself?
I don’t know. It’s just like a university, more like a university.
Most Universities’ groups pretty much stayed by themselves.
Yes, that’s right. Work-wise, yes.
So the Fusion Group had its own facility and its project, its own money.
Yes. Some physicists were doing radiation effects and things like that. Like Bob Beyster, SAIC’s founder.
Yes. That’s another spin-off of General Atomics.
I know when de Hoffmann and Dr. Creutz set up General Atomics, they thought of it as a kind of, oh, “Utopia” might be a little strong, but they really thought it would be a unique place to do physics research. Did you sense that spirit, even when you got there in the early 1960s?
Yes and no, but nobody… The U.S. is a foreign country, so by its surface, it’s quite a change, right? [Laughs]
Yes. But did it feel any different than MURA had? Or other places that you had been working?
No, not much.
It was very similar.
Okay. I’d like to explore a little bit more the tension between the theorists and the experimentalists.
Oh, no, no.
Well, not for any particular personalities. But usually, the theorists are either proposing experiments or proposing ideas that the experimentalists test or the experimentalists are producing something that the theorists have to explain. I just wondered how the two groups worked together on the fusion project.
It probably initially started that way, but after this thing was going on — I mean, it’s growing a little bit personal and all that. So I mean, it was fighting the fight.
Yes, I was just wondering; was the problem that the theorists wanted to move in another direction in terms of the kind of machines they wanted? Or the experimentalists wanted to work on one kind of machine, and the theorists thought they should be building something else? Was it something like that?
Okay. But the result of it was that Kerst left, and the theory group —
Yeah, you know, because Don Kerst hired me, so I was considered to be the Kerst boy. I didn’t want anything to do with that kind of stuff.
Yes, I see. Kerst went back to the University of Wisconsin at that point?
Did he ever consider or did he ask you if you wanted to join him?
Yes, and eventually, he got mad at me because I didn’t.
What kept you at General Atomics?
I’m comfortable with that. I mean, keep away from that kind of thing. [Laughs]
Oh. I’m just curious that you seem to be happy enough with General Atomics to stay.
No, I was still on leave from the University of Tokyo, so I said, “Well…” You know, with everybody leaving, no fun. No support. So at that time, the fusion thing… you know, there was Princeton and all that, and everybody was having trouble with confinement. Then Princeton kept saying there is no avoidance of that. So I said, “Well, that can’t be.” And they came up with the multipole confinement scheme, and if I could do the experiment with it, then I would stay. Then Ed Creutz said, “All right, we’ll support you for a short time. So then you get the AEC contract.”
This was for multi-pole confinement.
Multi-pole confinement program.
So this was your idea, the multi-pole confinement. Okay. Do you remember, roughly, the date when you came up with that?
I don’t remember. Early ‘60s.
After Kerst had left, though.
Oh, while he was still here.
So he’s gone, the funding is gone. But then if they were to support me one way or another, then I get to do what I want.
Can you recall how you came up with the multi-pole confinement idea?
Yes, it’s somewhat related to the same kind of principle that the accelerator has.
Can you explain that a little? Because to somebody who’s not a physicist… How was it related to the accelerator work? That’s very interesting.
Accelerator work, the orbit has to be stable. To make it stable —
You were going to explain what it was that you learned from your accelerator work that helped with the fusion-multi-pole confinement.
The stability of the orbit is important; it’s a key thing for the accelerator. But the accelerator is not like a dense plasma, so here, the electron beam and whatever, and then the electromagnetic field you are applying, so electromagnetic field is given to particles, orbits. But in the plasma case, they have so many particles. Then the particle group or particle will modify and affect the field you apply. So that’s the main difference. But the basic principle is you want to confine. You might call it a confinement device where you are confining particles. So there are some similarities.
Yes. What was the scale of this multi-pole confinement device?
I built a very small one to begin with.
How big is “very small?” A tabletop?
Yes, a tabletop. So the next step, I did the scaling study. It’s probably best to have a physically large scale, but a weak magnetic field for a given amount of money. So it’s huge.
What does “huge” mean? A room-sized device?
Yes, a big, room-sized device.
Do you remember roughly what a budget for something like that would have been?
I don’t remember.
But the budget came? Did you apply to the AEC for funding for that project?
Yes, but at that time, I had already done the small-sized experiments, so the results were there. And then all the other laboratories were having trouble with confinement. Though General Atomics is not like national laboratories or universities.
I’ve heard people say that General Atomics functioned like a national laboratory. Do you think that was true?
No. At that time, we were not allowed to make a direct pitch to the Standing Committee because that’s done by national labs, so we were outsiders.
Did you consider yourself in competition with places like Princeton?
Who were the major groups that were also working on the problem that you were competing with?
Princeton, Livermore, Los Alamos, and maybe a little bit with Naval Research Lab.
Did you visit those places very often?
What was your impression?
Princeton’s okay, but then Los Alamos and Livermore, I was not a citizen, so…
Oh, you were not a citizen, so you were not allowed to go. But you did have access to Princeton, so you were able to see what they were doing.
Yes. By that time, the fusion itself was unclassified, so all the information was there.
I see. Can you give me a sense of what size the group was that was working on the multipole confinement? Did you have ten people? 20 people?
Including technicians, maybe half a dozen.
Only half a dozen? So only six people?
So it was a pretty small number of people. Who did the engineering work? Did you have to build your own parts?
Me, by Shoup the physicists, but he is more like an engineer. Physicist/Engineer.
That was Kerst, you said?
Shoup, okay. So he was both engineer and physicist.
Okay. Did General Atomics build all the parts in-house, basically?
Basically in-house, yes, but some parts you ordered from the shops and all that.
Then what happened after you scaled it up to a large scale, but with a small magnetic field? What was the next step?
Actually, looking back, that’s the experiments I’m most proud of, because that really proved there are such things like classical diffusion, meaning the Holy Grail then.
The Holy Grail?
Yes. No confinement.
When you say the work you’re most proud of, it was demonstrating that the technique could work.
Not only the technique would work, but then all this basic theory of plasma transport. When the plasma is quiet, it’s stable, all is right. The parameter scaling and everything, it [inaudible], yes.
Did you publish some papers as you went along about the project?
And you were encouraged to do that by General Atomics. They wanted you to publish?
Was there an expectation on the part of — I guess Creutz was still the lab director at that point?
Yes, but now the history of General Atomic, this parallel thing, right? In the fusion case, got the Texas support and…
Ten years, and it stopped.
Yes. But then individual projects like mine and others, we raised support and all that. Some people left. Then Fred de Hoffmann decided that with the HGCR (High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor) we had to go commercial with this thing.
Who made that decision?
Mostly Fred de Hoffmann
Fred de Hoffmann made the decision. Okay.
Gulf Oil bought GA.
What did that mean for the projects you were working on when General Atomics was sold?
Gulf Oil, maybe after a year or so, decided maybe they should concentrate on HGCR, and then made a decision to get rid of things like fusion.
Just so the acronym is clear, that’s a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor.
Had there been a history of working on that kind of project earlier?
And had you worked on that?
No, not the fission one.
Okay. So the fusion was one track, and the fission reactor, TRIGA and the…
TRIGA was another small thing, but then HGCR is the real big one. So, you know, it’s going to be done differently.
Right. It’s a full scale.
Did that project affect what you were doing? Were you asked to contribute in any way to the…?
No, but I told you that Gulf Oil decided to get rid of all the rest and just concentrate on HGCR.
I see. So that hurt the fusion project, I assume, in terms of budget, or…?
No, they just decided to drop it.
So it hurt it that it stopped. The fusion —
Then Creutz sort of fought that.
But the fusion was a small-scale project compared with the fission.
Yes. Not only that, it was a different culture.
Different culture? Could you explain? I’d be very interested if you explained the difference.
Building a big reactor is not a research project.
I see. Would you consider it an engineering project?
Or commercial. That’s what happened. Then after, I don’t know. They had the 300 megawatt thing in Colorado, in Denver. That thing got delayed, it overran, and all this. And then, I forget exactly the year, Gulf management came in and within maybe 24 hours, Fred was fired.
Really? Because of the cost overruns and so forth on that reactor for Denver?
Yes. It was quite a few years late, but then eventually, it was completed. But then, management and everything was quite different.
Didn’t Ed Creutz also decide to leave about the time that General Atomics was sold to Gulf?
No, I think that’s the time when Fred was fired, I think.
Oh, when Fred was fired, Creutz decided he would also leave.
Can you give me a description of — I’ve met Dr. Creutz, we’ve talked. Can you give me a description of him as a laboratory director? What kind of director he was?
I don’t know. We didn’t have much of a work contact. I mean, you know, he was up there. [Laughs]
Yesterday, Ron Waltz took me around and we were talking about the fusion program. He pointed to a building and he said, “That’s Tihiro’s garage.” Had you ever heard that?
No, I don’t know. [Laughs]
I guess maybe that’s what the theorists called it.
Was all your work done in that particular building? So the toroidal work, and then the multi-pole, it was all done in the same building.
Yes. After multi-pole, I did the doublet.
Can you tell me a little bit about the doublet and your ideas for that?
The multi-pole works, but then it cannot easily become a reactor because of its configuration. It’s very good for stabilizing plasma, but not so good for a reactor.
So it demonstrated the concept, but it wasn’t going to be a workable reactor.
Well, not really the concept. It’s just, you know, plasma physics is great. [Laughs]
Okay, I understand.
So then they say I have to make a compromise between reactors and good confinement. So I built, using in-house funds, a small one. Again, a tabletop-sized doublet, which is, in the simplest way to put it, a compromise.
Can you explain a little simply how the doublet was different? How it worked? Or the concept behind it?
The doublet is like two tokamaks on top of each other.
I see. Okay. So there were two tokamaks. What was the purpose of having one on top of the other? Why was that an advantage?
More stable. So then the Doublet One asked the — by that time the AEC decided to support Doublet Two, which is a little bit bigger.
But the same theory.
Yes. Then after three or four or five years, then asked the AEC, the DOE then to fund the big one — Doublet Three.
So you worked on the design of that one, also.
Not only the design, but then I had to run the whole thing. You know, get the money for it and everything else.
And that was a fairly large-scale project.
Well, it’s still there. It’s called D3 now, but it’s still there.
Do you remember when, roughly, you began working on the D3?
The ground breaking was ‘75, and it was completed in ‘78.
That’s the thing that I’ve seen that’s a very large, almost like a sphere.
Yes, that’s right. And to make the story shorter, in ‘79, I got the Japanese government to contribute $70 million for Doublet Three.
So the $70 million that Japan contributed was specifically for the D3 project?
Yes, but after it’s built, it’s not only for construction. For the funding and such things, in exchange, we would have Japanese physicist group come here, and half the machine time would be their experts.
So that was your idea. I did know that the Japanese had sent a team, but that was your idea to involve them.
Yes. The whole deal was.
That’s very interesting. Did you have particular connections in Japan?
But that’s a long story.
That’s okay. But if you could tell me then, at least briefly, about the Japanese exchange? Because given that now they’re going to have the reactor in France as an international project, this is kind of an interesting beginning of that kind of collaboration.
But this went the other way around. Well, okay. Prior to that period of time, there was the first round of problems between the U.S. and Japan on the trade embargoes. You know, too many Japanese things coming in. Same thing with China and the U.S. now; so the Japanese government had sent a mission group of people who consisted of industrialists and all that kind of people to tour around the U.S. to see what they could do to bring money from Japan, because then it would be helpful to those countries. One of the members, I didn’t know him until that time, but was a Bank of Tokyo banker. He came and he said, “Well, okay.” He went to visit the SLAC accelerator. He suddenly shows up and asked the DOE and the DOE said, “We’ll support both.” So I met him, and then we kind of it hit off all right. About the same age. He had a direct pipeline to the prime minister so, he would say, what can he do? You know, what kind of money can he use for this? For those days, I had the accelerator proposal in my drawer at any time, so I quickly had, you know, about $60 million, we could do such and such. Then he went back, and he — But he also visited Stanford.
To the SLAC.
Yes, same thing. But nobody was quick enough to even give him a proposal.
But you had a proposal in the drawer to hand to him.
Yes [chuckles]. Then what happened — this is not first-hand — the prime minister visited New York. He gave a speech in the Chamber of Commerce. Then what I gather was that on the airplane from Japan to here, my proposal through Mr. Zuma [couldn’t figure this one out?] [me neither, finding the name of a Japanese bank isn’t easy, and not important here] went to his hand. He thought that, you know, it’s a tradition to always have some kind of a project or something would be helpful. So he declared that he was going to do this. [Chuckles]
Was one of the reasons you think the Japanese wanted to invest was that this was an energy kind of project?
I don’t know.
Because it wasn’t just pure physics, right? The idea was that you were you going to improve —
Yes, it was funding, but was the idea to build the commercial version of the D3?
No, it was just to have the joint research. You know, high-energy accelerator.
So it was like an international collaboration of physicists.
Yes, that’s right.
Did it go both ways? Or just Japanese physicists came to General Atomics?
Come with money.
And what did they do? Were these theorists and experimentalists?
The thing was really… we operate, of course.
Can you tell me a little bit about the experiments that you were doing on the machine that you and the Japanese were doing on the D3?
There were different subjects. But all I’m trying to tell you is that when that thing was done, the Japanese fusion people didn’t know about it. It came from the prime minister.
So the work you had been doing was not known in Japan at all.
Well, it was known, of course, but this deal kind of, they had no idea.
Did you think the collaboration was a success?
Yes. After it was done, I was told, with many praises, it was a success.
Did the Japanese team build their own version of the D3, or something like it, in Japan?
Was going to. They dropped it. But they could do the experiments without waiting three or four or five years to build it. Usually, they don’t speak international languages they learned, so overall it was okay. But initially, it was tough.
When did you decide that you were going to start your own company?
After I got out of General Atomics.
Had you retired officially from General Atomics by that point?
So you had spent 30-something years.
What would you consider to be your proudest contributions or the things you’re most proud of having done at General Atomics?
I don’t know.
Was it more the proof of the plasma theories? Or were the machines themselves?
The whole thing. I don’t consider the boundary between the theories and the experiments that hard.
So the line was not sharp between the two.
Yes. We were supposed to run both. Some people are better at the experiments than theory, but other than that…
Did you find that the theorists actually were helpful to you?
Despite the tensions you mentioned before.
Now, I had heard, I guess from Ron Waltz, that one of the problems was the theory group, as you say, kind of disbanded at one point, and then it was basically your group, but there were very few theoreticians. Did you have to go hire new, young theoreticians?
As the project scaled up?
Yes. All young men. [Laughs]
What did you look for when you were hiring people for your group? What kind of people did you look for?
People with energy.
Were they coming from particular places like Princeton or Wisconsin?
No, back then, it didn’t matter.
They came from all over.
How many did you have in your group at the largest? When the D3 was at it’s…
I don’t know. I don’t remember. On that order.
But certainly a large group, that’s for sure. Finally, I guess, what do you think the prospects are for this international thermonuclear experimental reactor?
You need to ask someone else because it’s beyond my time horizon. [Laughs]
Ah. But it is a little bit like the project you had at General Atomics where you have international collaboration.
Yes, but it can get handed around because people from Japan would come here and maybe stay a couple of years and go home, and then a new member might come. It’s not like spending almost a lifetime building machines.
I understand. But on the D3, you said there were 500 people working on it at one time. That’s a big scale. Where was that built? Where was that actually constructed in General Atomics? In the same building as the others?
No, it’s down in the Valley.
Down in Sorrento Valley.
So it’s still running after all these years.
Yes. It was built to last five years. I said, “Make it five years because after five years, this machine’s going to be obsolete.” [Laughs]
But it’s not obsolete.
Which means its progress is not great overall. I don’t mean here, but overall in fusion.
So one of the important measures of a machine is that it should have a short lifetime because then it will be replaced by something better.
Do you ever go down to see it still?
No, not anymore.
But it must be a very impressive machine.
I don’t know.
Well, judging from the — I mean, it’s large.
The intention was that it would eventually be a commercial machine of some sort for a power plant?
Probably, but at that time, it was not done.
So it was useful for physics, but it wasn’t a commercial…
Do you think it could have been —
It can’t do it there. It can’t actually burn anything.
Did you imagine when you were building these machines, that fusion would be a successful commercial energy source in your lifetime?
Was the reason it wasn’t because of the theoretical and experimental problems? Or just lack of money?
I don’t know. I think the general observation is it doesn’t matter with the fusion or something else. If the machine gets big, it takes more money and more people, which means a bigger number had to agree, which means the design has to be very conservative, or otherwise, you won’t get the approval.
I see. That’s interesting. So the larger the scale, the more conservative the design.
Yes. Then it was to be held back, which makes it more expensive. Therefore more conservative, yes.
So, I guess, as a conclusion, you thought that you were able to develop the most interesting ideas when the scale was small?
When you had more control and there were six people, you thought you had a chance for more interesting designs than when it was large. When does the scale start to kick in and become a problem and make things conservative? Do you have any rough guess of where that would be?
Well, it’s not the physical size, but how many signatures you need. If it has to go to the top of the DOE or something like that, that’s big enough. But then if you have to go worldwide, I mean.
That’s very interesting. When you were working on your earlier projects, you didn’t need many signatures at all?
Who did you actually have to get approval to build, say, the first multipole…?
Inside the fusion, part of the DOE, right? Then when it’s a large fraction of total fusion projects that is different.
In the end, do you think that you had made more progress than the Princeton lab in terms of coming up with —
Oh, that’s a loaded question.
[Laughs] They were the competition, after all. But they’ve always been the lead national lab. So were you sort of in competition with Princeton, but did you ever see them as collaborators?
Well, I had a lot of good friends.
But you didn’t have joint projects together.
Once in a while, but they were still outsiders to me.
I see. Do you think that’s an advantage, to be an outsider?
Depends on your personality.
For you, was it an advantage, do you think?
I don’t know. Probably.
But you were able to do things at General Atomics that you might not have been able to do in a national lab.
I don’t know. You never get to try it both ways, so I don’t know. [Laughs]?
I certainly understand. Maybe as a way to finish up, do you think that the confidence that people had in fusion in the early 1960s, were they too optimistic?
Did it look like a realistic energy source?
There’s an old joke about fusion being the energy source of the future: always has been, and always will be. Could it have turned out differently if more funding had gone into the fusion projects? Do you think they would have been commercially successful?
I don’t know because after all, fusion is the power source of the sun. The science is too big. We’re trying to make it smaller and smaller and smaller to do it on Earth. How small is small enough?
Did you ever feel that the commitment to fission and nuclear reactors hurt the Fusion Group by taking resources away? Or you had sufficient funding to do what you needed? In the last five or so years at General Atomics, you sort of were not working on fusion so much, but building a new scientific group. Could you something about that?
To create one. But then the university tried to do that by cooperating between two departments.
The University of California, San Diego?
Oh, any University. Okay.
So all of the ‘90s, the biotechnology is a great thing. But then in my mind, just having departments cooperating together is not the way to do it because their jargons are different, the units are different, and all that. So okay, I will create the group, and half is biologists and half is physicists, and then put them in the same laboratory, side by side.
And this was at General Atomics.
Yes, and I did.
And you did that. Did they have biologists before that point?
So this was the first time that they…What was your expectation for arranging, and what was going to come from this new group?
Well, okay, you have to choose some particular area to do that after a while. Then the human genome kind of stuff. That’s kind of in between biology and… you know. We’re not to get it to work on the biological function of genomes, but the sequence and something like that.
Did you have support from the administration of General Atomics?
No, this was done internally.
Maybe you should explain that, I guess. You decided, basically, on your own that you would be able to do this, and you had the funding for it?
I’m a little confused. Did you go out and hire biologists for this project?
And nobody at General Atomics said, “Why are we hiring Biologists?”
Because by that time, I was higher up.
I see. So what was your larger expectation for this experiment in multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research?
Well, just like the early ‘60s or ‘50s, when they started the fusion group. It’s a new area, so you just have to start somewhere.
I see. I’m very interested in how you arranged them. You said you put different groups side by side.
Not side by side — same room.
In the same room. Was this arranged in the main lab in the semicircle?
How did you make sure that they would talk to each other and work with each other in the way that you had hoped?
They will eventually talk to each other if you put them in the same room.
Did they have particular projects that you expected them to work on? Like, you would have a fusion project.
What were the projects that you wanted them to work on?
Like I said, it’s like the genomes. Start the sequences. Then we might have to learn new disciplines.
But this was an effort to diversify General Atomics? To move it in different directions?
“Diversify” isn’t the word. It’s more like a new era for new technology.
And you think it was easier to do that in a place like General Atomics than it would have been in a university or some other kind of institution?
I don’t know, I haven’t done a University. But the department is kind of more structured. This one doesn’t have any structures.
How well did the experiment work?
There were many interesting results, but then I had to leave.
So the experiment kind of died when you left.
Can you give me a couple of examples of things you thought that they were doing that were particularly interesting?
I can’t recall many of them.
But you funded them from internal sources? They didn’t have to go find funding?
That’s right. I don’t know. They probably aren’t familiar with the contract with — I suppose they have a contract with the DOE, fusion or something. And then there is a certain amount of funding that can be used for what is called independent research and development, which can be charged on the contract, but not related to the contract.
So that’s how the funding for this group… Have you used that in the fusion projects also to fund things that were a little independent?
That’s management’s decision.
I see. You said that by the time you founded this new group, you were fairly high up. What was your title by that point at General Atomics?
Vice Chairman of something. [Laughs]
I guess I’ll end here, but as you look back on General Atomics as a kind of experiment, and, you know, de Hoffmann had great expectations. To what extent would you say the experiment, as a new kind of lab in this new field, was a success?
You say it was a success.
It was a success. As far as I’m concerned, I really enjoyed it, and it was good to me. Then there are all of the people in this area, ex-GA people, who founded their own companies?
What were the most successful of those spin-off companies?
Who founded that?
Did that grow to be larger than General Atomics?
Yes, much, much larger. But that’s the employee-owned company.
That would be an interesting one to follow.
Yes. Beyster is in this neighborhood.
Were the ideas behind the company things that General Atomics didn’t choose to work on?
I don’t know.
I’ll have to ask him. Okay. When you say that it was successful, you mean as a scientific laboratory?
That is, the results of the fusion research, etc., were successful.
But they failed when they tried to become a commercial reactor builder.
So as a scientific laboratory, you’d say it was very successful, but commercially…
Not GA’s fault as such, but because the oil companies have lots of money, so they could afford it. But they’re used to the engineering of refinery building kind of stuff. To build a new type of nuclear reactor, that kind of culture is difficult.
So oil companies probably weren’t the best group to be owning a fusion company.
It depends on the management. If they realize that, they’ll do it differently. But they’re sometimes conservative, used to the way it used to be.
So you can’t build an experimental reactor in the same way that you build an oil refinery. One is much more experimental, and the other is…
Yes, any reflections on its future now that it’s owned privately again? Can it return to the kind of culture it had?
I don’t know.
Okay. Well, thank you very much. Nothing that you needed to add or something I forgot to ask you about in terms of your own work?
Okay. Your own records, etc., were they kept by the company? Or did you keep records on your fusion research?
Technical papers, yes I do, but not on that.
But you do keep those.
I’m not interested in history, as such. I’m always looking forward.
That’s very good. [Break] That’s something I did forget. So there was a smaller fusion project for Phillips?
Yes. I forgot what year it was, maybe in the ‘80s. At the time, Fred de Hoffman was the head of Salk Institute. Then Phillips Petroleum was going to fund the OHTE (Ohmically Heated Toroidal Experiment. Then I think Phillips asked Fred, “Is there anything else we might be interested in?” And Fred had brought up GA and me. So, I had another one in my drawer. We talked, and then it became a project. I don’t remember exactly how many millions. And then we built an OHTE machine.
Could you describe the machine briefly? What was it that they were funding?
It’s kind of a toroidal pinch-like thing, but it was a helical. We built a machine on time, on budget, on schedule, and did the experiments, and that was kind of, “Oh, that’s what we expected.” So they said, “All right, let’s go to the next step.” The next step was bigger. The next step was going to cost 200 million bucks. This is big money then. Then it went all the out to the board of Phillips, and they said, “All right. We’ll do it.” Then, unfortunately, it was the time of T. Boone Pickens. Then shortly after that, they went after Phillips. And the government couldn’t fight that, so they escaped to Chevron. So that killed it.
You had the commitment, but then after T. Boone Pickens —
Phillips has to do something defensive after that.
Yes. So it didn’t have the $200 million.
No. They can’t spend it on that stuff.
That must’ve been a little disappointing, having a great idea and having the money.
Did Phillips fund that while General Atomics was owned by another company?
So they funded it independently, like —
I remember that Gulf co-owned it. I still remember I said, “Well, I want to do this and this." I think it was something like this. I said, “Well, is it okay to support it?” They said, “Yes, it’s okay. Sure.”
Even from another oil company?
The funny part is, that deal was sort of ideal, 50/50. Something like that, for so many dollars. Then after I got Phillips to say yes, and then the management from Gulf and the oil company says, “Why did you sell it so cheap?” [Laughs]
But if it had been commercialized, GA and Phillips would have owned it 50/50.
Yes, something like that. But they were including us to begin with. They wouldn’t put the money in this kind of stuff.
And then when it looked like someone would put in the money, you sold it too cheap. Are you sorry that you never got a chance to actually build the machine?
We built a small one.
But would you have been happier to have something that was actually out the front door?
I mean, these all sound like they work so well experimentally, but none of them really made it into the market.
That’s because fusion is… you can do these — it wasn’t part of the experiments, but then making the reactor is a different thing. I remember the transition from the small reactors to the big commercial reactors. Different culture.
But you always considered the measure of your success whether the experiments worked, whether the concept worked.
You didn’t worry much if it was a commercial success.
No. That was not my doing.