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Interview of Stephen Buckman by Gary Cameron on 2008 October 15,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview Stephen Buckman discusses topics such as: Gaseous Electronics Conference; Arthur Phelps; Robert Crompton; atomic collision physics; American Physical Society: Division of Atomic Molecular Optical Physics; his education at Flinders University; working at Australia National University; John Lowke; William Allis.
In general, I’ve been letting people tell their own story, and then I jump in with questions as they occur.
I’m from Australia. I first attended GEC in 1981 in Boston, which I think was number 34. I attended that as I was traveling from Europe to take up a job here in the US working with Arthur Phelps, who is one of the grandfathers of GEC. Phelps in fact suggested that I would benefit from attending the conference on the way to take up that position in Boulder, Colorado. So I did, and since then I’m not sure how many GECs I’ve been to, but it’s probably close to 20, and I find it really seems to be pretty much my conference of choice, if I’m picking a conference I’ll attend during the year, then this is one I really get a lot out of. Many of my colleagues from Australia are also regular attendees of GEC. Some certainly before me, people such as Bob Crompton, who is one of the fathers of atomic physics in Australia, attended many GECs and has been attending up until recently, although in the past few years I don’t think he’s been. The conference itself I think has changed and evolved somewhat, but it’s always been a conference where there was I think a very healthy mix of people such as myself who work on the fundamental end, if you like, of atomic and molecular physics, and having opportunities to talk to people that work in industry and in other areas in laboratories where there are applications of gaseous electronics.
Right, and that’s something I’ve found interviewing the founders of the GEC, that I think at the first conference about half the attendees were from industry and half were from academia.
Yes. And even those from academia come from a wide variety of sub-disciplines. There are many people from academia who work in very broad areas in materials research, and there are others like myself who work in very fundamental areas. I think one of the key things to me about GEC is that almost every time I come to this meeting I leave with an idea for something that we can apply our fundamental research techniques to, and that’s usually something we hope will have some use and we can make a contribution to an applied technology area.
What is your particular field of interest?
My particular field is in atomic collision physics, so atomic collisions down to low energies to overlap with most of the more applied aspects of GEC in gas discharge physics and even some materials and nanoscience. And I think one of the areas the GEC seems to be going is in applications to nanoscience, applications of nanoscience to biology and medicine, applications of plasmas and discharges to biology and medicine.
In looking through the abstract, I saw something about DNA.
Yes. And some of our work is now related towards DNA and to radiation damage that’s caused by charged particles. We also work with antimatter, with positrons, and I see that in the future there will be… we’re starting to coin a term called gaseous positronics. There are applications of positrons, the electron antiparticle, in materials science and medicine, in techniques such as positron emission tomography, which is used for cancer diagnostics, and there are many similarities in the way in which positrons will be feeding into future technology, I think, to complement work that’s being done with electrons. There’s a little bit of work at this meeting, and has been in the past four or five years in positron physics. So GEC to me is very much a dynamic sort of meeting that grows and evolves and changes with the times.
Right. And I’ve noticed, looking back at the history of the GEC, although I’ve been told otherwise by many of my interviewees, it seems to me there are little pulses where something really catches on as the new thing and everyone gets into that, and then that maybe dries up. What was it like when you were first in; you said ‘81, what was the big thing at that time?
I think the big thing when I first came into the GEC was in lighting applications, lighting and lamps and lasers, so those lighting devices or lasers that relied on gas discharge technology. That was very big when I first arrived in the early ’80s. Some of the things that we’ve moved through a little bit after that was to dielectric barrier discharges, which are used in ozonizers and things like that for purification of water. So that was one area. A very big area that has been part of GEC for many years has been semiconductor processing, plasma processing of semiconductor materials, and the fundamental and applied physics that underpins that. That’s still a strong field.
In terms of fabricating?
In terms of fabricating, yes. So plasmas and discharges are used to etch the semiconductor surfaces. It’s a well-established multi-billion-dollar industry, but I think this is one of the conferences where a lot of the new technologies and new techniques are actually probably aired for the first time. And more recently, I think in the biomedical applications, plasma has been used in sterilizing wounds and surgical tools, and then applications in DNA damage and radiation damage by charged particles. So it’s quite a broad field, and I think an interesting field. Like I said, you can always come to this meeting and go away with some ideas for things to do, and they’re quite often in areas where you would never have imagined there might be some application for your particular expertise.
That brings up something else that people have asked me about, and I’ve already gotten a few answers from some of the old timers that I’ve interviewed. In the late ’50s, that’s when the plasma physics people sort of broke off and had their own conference, and what I’ve been told is basically it was just an issue of that being such a huge subject that they needed their own conference. Do you see anything like that happening, another conference spinning off from the GEC?
No, I don’t think so. People that come to the GEC also go to quite a lot of others — there are many, many conferences these days with opportunity. People who come to the GEC would go to a variety of conferences, some of which I would never come to. So it’s such a mixed audience at this conference. But I think it serves a very good purpose, and I don’t necessarily see there ever being anything spinning off like the plasma people did. Plasma physics became so big, now the division of plasma physics in the American Physical Society, for instance, is thousands of people, and the meetings have thousands of people. The GEC is now incorporated into the DAMOP division of the American Physical Society: Division of Atomic Molecular Optical Physics. It’s interesting; because the DAMOP division is really the division that’s interested in fundamental aspects of atomic physics, so I think there’s a bit of a nervous relationship between DAMOP and GEC. Most of the people who come to GEC would not be members of the DAMOP division, for instance. They’re probably more likely members of the Division of Plasma Physics and Material Science.
That brings up something else, too. I’ve met a few people here at the conference, and one of them was a graduate student in computational engineering. That’s another thing, too, is it’s not just a physics conference; it’s an engineering conference, computing.
Absolutely. I think of all the meetings I go to, this one has by far the greatest breadth of things that are discussed. You only have to look at all the session titles. It’s a very broad conference. I think it’s very common. And people are very inventive in many respects, the way in which they can apply their research activities to the new technologies, and GEC I think is always looking to capture the new stuff, and to try to inspire those new directions that are coming along. So the Executive Committee, of which I have served on several times, one of the main tasks of that committee is to try and identify new and emerging areas in the community. GEC has developed focused sessions on those areas and invited specific speakers. And I think it works fairly well.
About your own background, where were you educated?
I’m originally from Sydney in Australia, and I was educated in Sydney, and then in another city in Australia, Adelaide, where I did my Ph.D., and following that did a post-doc in England and then a post-doc in Colorado.
Does Adelaide have a program that’s related to gaseous electronics?
Absolutely. When I was graduate student, the institution I went to in Adelaide is called Flinders University, and at that time it was one of the strongest if not the strongest institution in Australia in atomic collision physics. They trained a lot of people. Four of my colleagues are here today who were either trained at that institution or presently work at that institution. So it is a university that is relatively new; it was opened in the ’60s, but it’s had a very important impact on atomic physics in Australia.
Is it primarily a science and technology university?
No, it also has social sciences. Australia universities are somewhat different from US universities. We don’t really have these liberal arts colleges; they’re more a broad spectrum type education.
Do you bring grad students to these?
Sure. Right now I’m a professor at Australia National University in Canberra, and I have a group of about 15 people, and this meeting is a little atypical because I’m the only one that’s here at the moment from my group. Normally I would come with graduate students and post-docs. In fact this time was a bit of a problem because one of my post-docs couldn’t get a visa to come to the US for reasons that we don’t fully understand; probably due to the difficulties now with homeland security in the US. And I think that's actually something that the GEC is likely to suffer from. There are many conferences in the US suffering as a result of visa difficulties for internationals. So this is somewhat unusual. I would normally have two or three or four different people from my group.
That’s a theme I’ve been following in doing these interviews. Originally the GEC was very much an American conference, and then it slowly broadened out, and especially people I’ve noticed in the past 10-15 years it’s really become international.
Absolutely, it’s clearly an international meeting. There are a lot of Japanese scientists that come, a lot of Europeans, a lot of Australians. It’s being held outside of the US now. On one occasion it was held in Ireland a few years ago, and it will be held in France in 2010. In the past there were some tensions there because it is an American Physical Society sponsored conference, and there are only so many times I think that they’ll want to see it outside the US. There is a realization within the community that it is an international meeting. That in fact is reflected I think by the management of the conference. The conference chairs I’ve found have always been respecting of the international aspect of the meeting, and have done their best, in fact, to ensure that there’s good international representation on the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee makes the decisions about locations and speakers and things.
Are there any conferences in Australia?
Sure. We have a meeting that is actually tailored on this one that’s run every two years called the GEM, the Gaseous Electronics Meeting. We hold it in January every second year. We’ve had a lot of GEC participants who have come to our meetings. They are much smaller meetings, typically between 50-100 people.
Do you notice any differences in the way science is done in Australia?
No, I don’t think so. Science is very much an international activity these days.
I guess what I’m getting at is things like not so much the science itself, but the mechanics of getting things done, administrative things, funding…
Sure. Things like that are certainly different because they’re driven by differences in the system, and no two systems are the same — the ways in which science is administered and funded all over the world is different. But mostly it’s done by peer review of project proposals. But I think now that there’s so much exchange of people internationally, an order of magnitude more I would say now than when I first got into the business. The way we do our science has become somewhat homogeneous; not necessarily the way we fund it or administer it has.
Who does provide the majority of the funding in Australia?
It comes from the federal government, administered by the Australian Research Council, which is pretty much a National Science Foundation type organization.
Any industry funding?
Very little. That’s part of our problem, because we’re a small country, we spend a lot of our GDP on education and research, but we don’t have anything like the industrial backing. We import a lot of our technology. That’s changing somewhat. But we export primary products and import technology, which I think our government would like it the other way around. We export a lot of wheat and a lot of iron ore, but there aren’t the opportunities that there are in the US or Europe because of the lack of significant industrial capacity.
That’s another thing I’ve been discovering, is that there’s been just a changing balance of industry funding and industry leadership. For instance, I was talking to Fisher and Varney, who are two of the founders; they said that at the time of the first conference, it was really the industry labs that were getting the most money, doing the most research, that sort of thing. It’s just interesting to see how that funding situation, public versus private funding, has altered.
Now it’s mostly public funding. The other Australian I think who featured strongly in the early days of the GEC is a gentleman called John Lowke, who in fact worked at one stage with Art Phelps. He was a graduate student of Bob Crompton’s who you mentioned earlier, and I believe that Lowke worked with Phelps when he was at Westinghouse. He was a regular attendee of the GEC conferences. I don’t think he has been to the GEC in recent times, but is a regular attendee of our sister conference, the GEM conference here in Australia.
Anyone else really stand out in your memory as far as a person that you really latch onto?
Well, a lot of people I think have been. I think of the people who are still coming to the GEC, Phelps is clearly one of the old timers of the business, and he’s still active even though he’s retired now, and active in his attendance of the meetings and his participation. He’s one that clearly stands out. I saw John Waymouth up here also, who I don’t know very well, but I certainly know who he is. Of those that were around at the start of the business, I think those two, perhaps. And I also had the privilege to meet Will Allis many years ago now on several occasions. Again, perhaps the founding father.
You have answered most of my questions, unless you have something else you’d like to contribute?
No, I think we’ve covered most of what I thought I’d be talking to you about. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Good luck with the project.