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Interview of Morton Gordon by Philip Y. Kao on 2010 September 25,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/42917
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Dr. Morton Gordon, Professor Emeritus, talks about how he first arrived at Michigan State University Physics Department in 1959 and describes the various building construction projects that occurred during the early period leading up to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL). He comments on the political and economic climate of the 1960s and how this affected science funding and initiatives.
Today’s date is September 18th. This is Phillip Kao with Dr. Morton Gordon and we’re here to talk a little bit about the history of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. I guess we can have this as a rather informal conversation, but I’d like to get your thoughts on the early days of the laboratory and perhaps your role in it and what you’ve learned from it and what things were quite important for the set up and its success.
I came here before there was a cyclotron laboratory. And originally, the cyclotron was supposed to be adjacent to the physics building, which is on the old campus. Henry Blosser and I had offices at the south end of the building — the physics building — and there was Blosser and I and Sherwood Haynes was the department chairman.
And you were saying that President Hannah, at the time, got Sherwood Haynes who then got Henry Blosser from Oak Ridge then got you from Oak Ridge as well or…?
Well, that’s where we met — I was a professor at the University of Florida at the time. So, they’ve got me appointed here at Michigan State, which was a little problem, because at the time I told them that I was going blind, and they would have to deal with that later. So, there was a bit of a fuss, but eventually, I was appointed to the faculty of physics department, and we put out a proposal to the National Science Foundation for money to build the first cyclotron and the university put up the money for the building because the NSF doesn’t fund buildings. That was the way the package was put together.
So President Hannah had to invest and to raise money on behalf of the university?
That’s right and he didn’t want us to put the cyclotron back to the Physics building, but down south of the large open space which was part of the Art department and we weren’t very happy about that. We like to be close to the rest of the physics department. Then he said, “well, don’t worry, we will have lots of other people coming along our way. It’s going to be a chemistry building right next to the cyclotron and other buildings in that area.”
What was the vision at that time for the cyclotron? What you had put to proposal together for NSF? What types of experiments were you looking at conducting, what was on the horizon?
The cyclotron was supposed to produce 50 MEV, with those you can do all kinds of experiments, nuclear reactions and nuclear collisions. But first we had to build the building and the cyclotron itself and then we added to the staffs slowly. There was Bill Johnson. He came in as the developer of the radio frequency system for the cyclotron. Then we hired Martin Reiser from Germany who was supposed to develop the central part of the cyclotron. That was the initial staff in addition to students. Students were involved all along the way. Yes. And among the students was David Johnson who was good at programming the computer then, which was called the Mystic.
And that program was in Fortran or…?
That was before the days of Fortran. Fortran came along afterward. I bet this is a sort of ancient history of talking about. I got here in 1959. So it was 1960, 1961 and when Kennedy became President, he was interested in developing science because the Russians looked like they were getting ahead of us. So as a result, we got funding from the National Science Foundation. So a lot of the time was spent in just construction, construction of the building, and the hardware that went into it to run the cyclotron.
At this time the building was just a small fraction of what it is now. Now it’s a huge operation, but in those was just a few people and a small building coming up at that side, and —
Where did you get the blueprint for the original 50 MEV cyclotron?
We had to make the blueprints, make the blueprint for the magnet, and the coils — I have a piece of the coil — well that was a test coil around the house somewhere, but I can’t remember where exactly it is —
At this time were there other places that had a functional cyclotron?
Yes, all around the country —
So you had some working models, too? —
No, this was a new kind of cyclotron, a new kind of cyclotron that had focusing from sectors of the magnet, so, in that respect, it was untried, but we had company so it worked, and it did. So in that theory, we were busy with the staff and the students, and got the same book together.
Were there any discoveries made with this initial cyclotrons? I had come across someone’s saying the game out tell her giant residence?
Well, that was later. Anyway, the initial experiments were done by the faculty of Physics Department. I included a new young guy named Walter Benson, and he was fresh out of the graduate school. He spent a year in France so. And, who else? Well that’s when Galonsky came around too. Aaron Galonsky was an expert on neutrons so he was good for determining shielding requirements. Because the cyclotron itself would produce a lot of radio activities and we needed shielding to protect the general population. So Galonsky developed a shielding design which worked very nicely. We finally got it approved from the National Science Foundation which was in this agency and went ahead with the construction of the magnet. This was a single magnet. We sawed coils and steel. So, that’s the way things got started. Who else was on the beginning? I think I mentioned most of them.
In the beginning, did the university know much about why the cyclotron was there, a public relations campaign or the —?
Yes. Yes. People were worried that it would make everybody radioactive and that it will do some kind of effects but we had to calm our fears. So, we started with a small building and a small cyclotron One and these graduate students and undergraduate students. And yes, they were very good.
And there were no — didn’t sound like there were any hiccups or bumps in the early years. It seemed like once you had President Hannah’s confidence and backing it seems to go rather smoothly.
Yes as far as university went that is true. But we have to get funding from the National Science Foundation, and that will take a while, and finally the funding came through.
Why did it take a while?
Well it was competition, everybody wants the piece of the pie, and the National Science Foundation has only one budget, so they have to be careful what project they invested in. Fortunately we were lended, so that’s basically what it how we started, and there were also theoretical physics, nuclear physics, division, and that came about with the hiring of people and we also had set up a Nuclear Chemistry of division. So… that was also part of the system.
Now, did you conduct experiments yourself?
Me? No. I would just see rotation of pencil and paper I got. And but I will do the calculations to come up with designs, figures that could be implemented and it was a busy time in its first few years.
I have something written by Dr. Konrad Gelbke saying that this wasn’t a laboratory portrait of nuclear physics news of volume 12, number 2, 2002. It says that Professor Morton Gordon, he developed the theoretical basis for the class of separated sectors cyclotrons built, for example at the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility. Can you explain a little bit of what went into that, was that based off of the experience of the 50 MAV or was that later?
That was later though. Much later. Remember, I’m starting back at 1959 which was the last year of the Eisenhower administration and the development of all kinds of things. The idea for a separated sectors machines was not so revolutionary because there were cyclotrons and other machines that were built on that basis. It’s just that the cyclotrons have never been built that way. In Indiana University, I was interested in getting into the game. So they cannot work the design for a separated set of machine and I came up with the theory and background, so that put some ideas that would work properly. And so I spent a fair amount of time down and out in the Indiana University, hoping then to develop their cyclotron laboratory, which is the one around. Anyway, my job was to develop computer programs that would — that is to design computer programs that could design cyclotrons and that’s when I spent a lot of time on.
Is there anything that you wish you knew about before the building of the K500, before the Cyclotron —?
The first Cyclotron?
Yes. Anything in this period; between the 50 and then when it became the K500, K1200?
Well, before we got into the second Cyclotron, the first one isn’t working and it’s seeing good results.
And people were publishing papers based on the experiments?
Yes. Yes, and I was in the original building but then I keep adding additions to the cyclotron building. The first one was an addition to the — I guess to the west toward the chemistry building. There were a lot of open space there, so they built the first addition there and that brought us up closer to the chemistry building, and that had [???] where the theoretical physics people were located and that’s what I remember from the early days. It was a very hectic time, because things were always changing. New apparatus was added, new buildings were added or additions to old buildings so we expanded to the West and also to the South and finally, they build a new physics building down to the Southwest of the cyclotron, so we weren’t so far from where the Physics Department was located. Where we are to now, at least? We had our own computers as well as the university computer, and we weren’t that far from the university computer laboratory. And built it — let’s see, what was the name of that outfit that brought in the revolutionary small computers? Control Data, that’s it. CDC, Control Data Corporation. And they built on the campus a modern big computer for us to use, which was important. And so where the cyclotron was built originally was also an open fields for agricultural experiments. But as it later developed there was a huge parking ramp built just to the North of the cyclotron which is still there, I presume. And the new law school went up there and all kinds of buildings. So the university was developing in that direction, anyway.
And also, probably you were bringing in more people too.
Yes, more and more people. It grew and grew.
Did the Cyclotron — there at that lab, did you have a sense of community, as you were adding more people and more people? What kept everyone getting along? What was —?
We had regular meetings. We had regular meetings as groups. And yes, originally, Henry Blosser was in charge of everything and it’s good to have one general manager who looks after all the pieces to see that they fit together. Blosser did that part. Like everyone else, he’s getting old. I’m surprised that you got to talk to him.
Yes, I did and I’m going to talk to him some more as well.
He still has an office there and he still spends a couple days of the week there trying to stay plugged in.
Yes, but he’s mostly out of it now.
Yes. As I am. I retired back in ‘93 from the physics department and I retired from the cyclotron around ‘98, about five years after I retired from the physics department. So since ‘98, which is more than 10 years now. I haven’t been connected to what’s going on.
But you know that, you know, the coupled cyclotron, the K500, K1200 has been — Well, the K1200, once the K500 was running and showed good results, we got permission from NSF to build a second machine.
And you were there during this process as well —
Oh yeah. That was the K1200. Yes. Yes.
Now, were there any hurdles in getting funding for the K500?
Well, we thought the K500 would just turn out to be a magnet for the K1200 to analyze the beam, but it turned out that the best idea, and the biggest project, came from one of our staff members. Felix Marte. And he was the one that showed that the coupled cyclotrons, that is take the beam out of the K500, run it into the K1200 to the center, and then accelerate that beam out to the edge and get much more energy and much more current than any other way. And that has turned out to be very successful. It’s still going on actually.
It is, and as you know, the papers they’re transitioning over to the FRIB, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beam research, which I think is a linear accelerator model.
That’s completely different and still developing.
Still developing, that’s right.
We got approval to build it, as I understand. I wasn’t there at the time. We got approval to build the cyclotron machine, but we haven’t gotten funding for the hardware.
If it ever gets built I don’t know if they’re going to keep the cyclotrons or not.
Neither do I. Yes, but they’re still producing good results from physics experiments and so long as that’s true, they’ll keep them.
It seems today, when you go into the laboratory, there’s a division of labor. There are people who just work on the equipment, the engineers. There are people who are in charge of the beam, the operators, if something goes wrong with the super conductor. Also you have people conducting the experiments, interfacing with the computer programs, tracking things, coming and looking for coincidence events and then you have theoreticians. From my understanding in the past, these roles weren’t so divided. You had somebody who had to be involved in all aspects and it seems like there has been a little bit of a fragmentation in expertise.
Oh yes, no doubt about that, but that’s just part of growing. Just part of growing and you hire new people, they have new ideas, which is why you hire them, and they lead to their own little kingdoms so that’s the way things go. But that’s generally true.
But you were a theoretician, but yet you were involved in the design of actually —?
Yes, I was not involved in experiments with the beams. That does require a nuclear physicist.
They sure do. When you were doing your graduate training in physics did you think that you would be doing that kind of —?
No, I didn’t. I was trained in Washington University in St. Louis. That’s where I got my Ph.D. Blosser came out of the University of Virginia and let’s see, who else? I can’t remember where Bill Johnson came out of this. He was a Westerner. And Martin Reiser came out of Germany so…
During those years, I guess when you were conducting experiments with the 50 MeVs cyclotron, where you going to any international conferences and showing people what you were doing and there was an international connection there as well. Where were you going? What places were you —?
Every year, there’s an international accelerator conference and it’s held at different places. Usually it jumps back and forth between Europe and the United States. One year here, one year there. But those grew and grew. My goodness. They’re huge now. I’ve stopped going. It’s just too much to handle.
Maybe this is a good time to ask you, do you have any personal fond memories of your work in your years at the cyclotron? It can’t be all hard work, there must be some elements on the other aspects of fun, or times when you’ve inspired or been inspired by ideas in the hallway or something like that. Do you have any of those fun memories?
Not really, it’s a long time ago now. Yes, they are washing away. But the entrance to the cyclotron laboratory was originally where the offices for Blosser and for me were situated. And the other people had offices in the wings of the original building, but that has all changed now. They shifted the entrance, the main entrance over to the West, and towards the building. And the old entrance serves as car route over. In fact, if you look on the floor of the old entrance, you’ll find a graphic picture of the cyclotron, and its design. You can see the three sectors and the rest of it are built into the floor, but they’ve covered that up with other things, I don’t know. But at the time I left, that was the main entrance.
It was. It’s moved now.
Yes. My office was originally next to his on the other side, on the mass extensions. Now his office is on the East side. And we had a conference room which held 20 people over there, near that entrance. But that’s to go on, you need a huge conference room now. The number is downstairs. I think it’s downstairs; it was at the time, downstairs. But now it’s over further to the West, and that way we can hold seminars and collaborate. And when visitors get on and give talks, that’s where they would present their thoughts with the results. And we did too, anyway. It’s a long time ago.
You know they had this process in place called the PAC. The, is it Project, or Program Advisory —
It’s a committee that is set up to review, and perhaps rack and stack proposals, for experiments.
Was that always in place when you first, when you —?
No. It just grew out of necessity.
Because there were too many people wanting beam time, or —?
Yes. Yes. So we had to allow a scheduling process, or orderly scheduling process for the beams. Once those cyclotrons were running, and successfully producing beams, everybody in the world wants to come and do experiments with your beams. So you have to have some way of scheduling so that not very many people get mad at you at any one time.
It makes it fair and it provides, at least, a little bit of, I don’t know what the term would be, due process or at least a little bit of a check to ensure that the experiments have been well thought out.
I guess I could leave one or two more minutes and ask you, is there anything that you would like to say at this time about what future scholars should know or what the people running the lab in the future should know about physics and laboratories? Are there any lessons that —?
Well, it’s just amazing how things grow and develop in one direction or another. You could never guess where we would be today by what you knew 25, 30 years ago when things were getting organized.
But when people planned, they planned for the future, but it’s hard to see what direction that actually manifests itself in. So I guess it’d be to leave yourself open and to be flexible.
Well, we always were. And the university was mostly interested in money and as long as we had projects that brought in money, in terms of paying for overhead, which meant paying for the buildings, paying for electricity — huge amounts of electricity we used — and paying for other incidentals, which come under overhead. And the university collected about 50% of the budget just for the overhead. They saw us as a cash cow and they appreciated our — So they always supported us even though other groups on campus might complain, but we still got the main support that we needed.
Well, thank you so much Professor Gordon for you time and for your insight.