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Interview of Raman Anantaraman by Philip Kao on 2010 October 15,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/43093
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In this interview Dr. Raman Anantaraman, senior physicist and former assistant director of user relations, explains how he ended studying physics, charting his career from India to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL). He gives an account of the development of the Program Advisory Committee (PAC), and how users contributed to the mission of the lab.
Good afternoon, Dr. Anantaraman. My name is Philip Kao, this part of the continuing series of discussions on The History of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at MSU. Talking with a lot of the key figures and people with a lot of experience at the laboratory. I am with Dr. Anantaraman and thank you for talking with me. I was wondering if you could begin by telling me a little bit about how you got into physics and how you came to Michigan State and East Lansing in the first place?
Okay. So I was born in India and remained there for the first 23 of my life. Got into physics in college, mainly because I was a good student, that was a trend for good students to go into physics. So I did my bachelor’s degree in Calcutta with physics honors. I did two years of masters before coming into the University of Chicago as a master student. Then we could choose either nuclear physics or solid state physics, as it was called then. Now, it is call condensed matter physics. I got into nuclear physics, it was my choice, because again, there was a slight preference for that over condensed matter. Partly I think they were building a cyclotron in Calcutta. It was beginning to build, or thinking of building it around 1969 when I came to this country. I wanted to go back and book in nuclear physics. So I got into physics and then into nuclear physics. In Chicago [inaudible] and did my thesis in nuclear physics at Argonne National Lab with John Chiffer. I completed that in ‘73. Did of couple of years of post doc at the University of Austin, which is one of the good centers for nuclear physics. I also, actually, applied to Michigan State, but did not come for an interview. I think they called me for an interview in ‘73, right after my PhD, but I did not come here. Then went back to India for a couple of years, and it took a couple of years to stay my visa status out. Then in 1980 I came here in Nuclear Physics Cyclotron Lab at MSU.
Do you remember, when you came, what equipment was running at the time, and what kind of experiments and what kind of projects were you working on when you first got here?
So, right at that time, nothing was running. We were getting ready for the first model, the K-500 Cyclotron. The K-50 Cyclotron had been turned off in 1978. We were all getting ready to do experiments in the 500. I think the first beam came out in the last quarter of ‘81. So my first year or so was actually getting ready for experiments here, and also doing some experiments with the collaborators here. In particular, Aaron Galowsky and Gary Cauley — Gary Cauley has left us some time in the 80’s, I think. Experiments both at Indiana University and also in Austin, France. In the Cyclotron, I was getting ready for experiments with the S-800 Spectrograph, which was under construction. In fact, I think I was first given responsibility for building part of it. But that didn’t work out, and it was taken over by Steve Bricker, who completed the S-800. These collaborations, especially at Indiana and [?] really got me nice interactions with the experimenters here. I should say that the thing I like most about coming to MSU, before that I was at the University of Rochester. In Rochester there were just three or four faculty members. The total number of staff was ten or so. So coming from that to a lab that already had about 60 or 70 people and with about 12 or 15 faculty, you could find people with similar interests, similar taste, much more easily. It was a much more open place. Many of the physics discussions took place in the corridors. That in Austria are very different from Rochester, and I really like that in Austria. The open communication and just talking in the corridors, talking about physics.
So when you came, you were actually an experimenter?
I came here as an Assistant Professor of experimental physics. It was not regular faculty. There’s new type of position process tied to the [???], that the lab was just creating those positions. There were three people like that, myself, Lee Hardwood and Gary Westfall, who came in that position. Then later, became a regular faculty member.
Okay. So, can you describe a little bit, maybe, about — you came before the K-1200?
Long before K-1200. I think they were just planning it or maybe procuring material for it. But even the 500 was not operating at that time.
Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the challenges and some of the successes or if you can remember, as you were building the 500 and 1200 and getting those proposals running, was this lab still producing experiments? Was that a challenge to balance — continuing to maintain scientific production at the same time trying to gear it towards the future. As a laboratory were there any challenges in that?
Not too much I would say. The experiments that I mentioned that I got involved at Indiana and Chicago were to keep the scientific productivity of the lab going while people could not do experiments here for some years.
Right and a lot of people said that MSU allowed them the freedom to go out to these other facilities to conduct their experiments.
That’s correct. One thing, I analyzed the data from the lab over the years. Not in 1980, but from the 1900, for example, again we had [?] but no experiments could be done here while the — I think there is more than one period, but the most recent one was when there was coupling between the K-1200 and the K-500. And that was around the ‘90, I think. There was a year and a half that — and again the productivity, people went outside to do experiments. For the PSD productivity went down, because the outside users, they used to come here for students, used to come here and do experiments that they obviously didn't want to come here and not do experiments. So the PSD output total, within closed to outside PSDs, shows a dip between 1990 and — actually even in 2000 there was a dip. Cyclotrons are being coupled and that lasted for over 3 years.
To get into — I guess, you at this time, you’re assistant professor and you’re also doing experiment, working out on experiments. I know that right now, you have a current role as the — doing the PAC. When did you fall in to this position?
In 1983, I switched out of being an assistant professor mainly because I was not good enough in research. Not creative enough in research. I did continue to do some good experiments, but did not really, to be completely honest, did not have the right experimental skills to be an independent researcher striking out on my own. That’s what the lab felt and in retrospect, I agree with that judgment. But I’ve been very happy. My skills, really are in organizational, attention to detail. Right from ‘83 onward, I got in to, what they use to call liaison physicist, support for the experiments, which I did well. Then in 1992 when Conrad Gelbke became the director, he made me the head of the user services department. Then sometime later I became the assistant director for user relations. My responsibilities in the user area, have grown over the years.
What have you seen from your vantage point? Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution of the experiments? You touched upon — I’m sure that experiments have changed over the years. Are the experiments more dependent on the type of equipment that’s available, or are the experiments more tied to trying to strike out an innovative discovery? How would you characterize what motivates the changes in experiments over the years? Do they follow certain scientific trends or theories that are more popular? What tends to drive shifting trends and paradigms on it in the experiments?
I haven’t really thought about it much, I have to think as I transcending you. It is true, and I always felt this, that any new equipment leaves you to make new discoveries. One of the strengths of this lab is the ability to come up with new instrumentation ideas, go out and get a funding for it, and then build the instrument. These are state of the art instrumentation, with them lets you make good fundamental discoveries. Examples: almost every one of the equipment you can think of in the last 15 years that the lab has got, like the Model Neutrality-A, the Levitt System, the counting system, all those things, have led to new — and in particular, including the radio frequency fragment separator. Have let their researchers explore areas that they could not explore without these instruments. So one aspect of it is instruments have led the way, in terms of what the discoveries have been. Another aspect of it is engineering the experiments. But thinking of already existing equipment, using them and creative ways. The example I can think of in that area is the discovery of magnesium 40, for example. That was one of the highlights in nature published six or seven years. The basic idea there is using two existing fragment separators, the N-1900 separator and then using the S-800 beam line as another fragment separator, to really pick this one in [???] particles. But it came late. That was not new equipment, but the idea of existing, using existing equipment in a noble way. A third thing is where the equipment is built with a particular experiment in mind. Like the radio 10-100 experiment. People realized that without the radio frequency fragment separator, it was difficult to cleanly identify proton rich nuclei like 10-100. Without motivation the inventor had built a radio frequency separator, and then use it for making some good measurements in 10-100. Then use it also for other studies for other proton rich nuclei. Those are the three things that come to my mind. You just build equipment because you can do it, it will become state of art. You use existing equipment in noble ways, and you go ahead and build particular experiment with the physics already in mind and what will you use it for. All those things that happened in this lab. Did I answer your question fully?
Oh yes. You did. Let’s talk a little bit now on this lab and what makes it unique? You've already talked a little bit about the collegial atmosphere here. It’s also kind of a university lab. It’s located on campus, it’s in the Midwest, and it's not one of those large known national facilities that you find in the east and west coast. What else do you think has made this place a little bit unique? People talk about the rare isotope research has been a little bit of — more or less recent niche that it’s developed and really honed in on. Other than that, is there anything about this lab that makes it a little bit more unique, interesting, and productive?
It is the fact that we have a large number of faculty involved in many different areas of research. Which is contribution intellectual vibrancy. There’s a group, the nuclear reaction group, that is [???]. Which has done many experiments pursuing deeper and deeper one particular aspect of nuclear reactions. They are this large structured group. So that, I suppose, compared to other university labs, this is a much broader range of interest within nuclear science, within nuclear chemists. So in that sense it is big — there’s a more vibrancy done in other university labs. In terms of, when it compares to national labs, [???] large stuff, what makes us interesting, unique, if you want, is the great number of students of coming do their experiments here. So it's a combination of a large faculty and access to students that makes this a unique place.
Going off of what you have said and in your, now expertise role and really supporting — you are a resident physicist supporting physicist and tells somebody who doesn’t know anything about physics supporting these. How have the users’ needs — how have they evolved overtime, as well in conjunction to the lab? Have they gotten more complicated? Do they require more technical support? Do they require more relationships and networking? What do physicist need today to conduct experiments successfully and how have these need to change overtime?
We have become, over the years, we have grown to be a lot more professional in how we deliver beams to the experimenters. Identifying rare isotopes, especially in the heavy mass lab; medium mass and heavy mass. It’s not a just job. So we have a dedicated pool of four or five beam delivery physicists whose expertise, whose tools have gone over the years. Therefore, all the time we give them exactly the beam that they want. It’s easy to get off track. Many years ago, there’s one case where we delivered, for a day or so, a wrong beam. That hasn't happened in probably 15 years. I would say that most of the experiments done here have a routine that what is expected of lab is routine. Or even the experimenters themselves, have standard equipment. Once they build the new equipment they had to shake it down. They had to understand its characteristics. But then they use it over and over again in similar ways. And they do add new small things. New ideas get added on like this digital data acquisition system added on to the gamma detector system of the beta counting system. But by and large, for majority of experiments done here the demands have been constant. Where it is different, I think it’s in the reactions area. There, each time their reactions blueprints, it’s a different configuration. It’s a lot more planning, as they call it. A lot more set up time is required. That’s where my headaches come in. Because we have coupled with that and the reason it’s a headache is because the same vault is shared by different experimenters. S-800 — S-3 vault for example, all experiments done at the cyclotron are done in the S-3 vault. They cannot run continuously in the S-3 vault unless they could mend the campaign is the same. So it’s only to the campaign mode, but when we are to change from one campaign to another, I need to find the time for the group, one group to set up in the S-3 while experiment is going on in some other vault. That is possible for most of this standard experiments. Because the other 50% [???] other vaults, like the N-2 vault, or the S-2 vault. But when it comes to reactions, it's very long set up times that are required. No matter which vault it is in, and especially if it is in the S-3 vault, it is difficult to find the time for them to set up and it’s a continuing challenge.
Because there's always somebody doing something on the S-3 vault?
Let’s say I’m an experimenter who has never been to the NSCL, but I am a physicist and I know I want to use the S-800, but I’ve never used that before. I submit a proposal and it’s been approved. Does the acceptance of the proposal grant that experimenter time to come and learn about the equipment? Or is there a test run? Do people who come in to do experiments, do they already have experience with this equipment, or do you get experimenter who sometimes who don’t have any experience with this equipment, and they have to get up the speed or partnered with someone here? What happens?
Generally, they’re partnered with somebody. For example, there’s an experiment scheduled for next February, whether the spokesperson, the chief is presenting somebody from Italy, who has never been a spokesperson for an experiment here. He came just once. He has only been to the lab as an experimenter once, as a collaborator on some other experiment. He watched how the S-800 runs and he got together with some people in whole other experiments including NSCL stuff. He made a proposal, the PAC mentor accepted it, gave him beam time. Even when he comes for the experiment in February, he won't know everything that is to know about the S-800, but he doesn’t need to. We have the vice physicist, Daniel Bazan, who will help him set up the S-800 for the particular measurement he wants to do, who will make sure the detectors are working properly. Then all that is detailed — this spokesperson and his group need to know, is the basics that they are already known in any other particular experiments. How to identify the particle from the spectacular, how to do the data analysis. Those are not specific to the NSCL. There might be some small specific to the NSCL, but mostly it is not. And he will be able to go ahead and —
Right. They've all pass that course of experiments. We hope it has never been that it is just that somebody — The old days there’s jokes about people coming, exposing photographic plates, and not knowing anything about the machine, then going back and analyzing the tracks on the photographic plates. Niko Valentine would be just coming here, putting in his target, taking the data and just going and analyzing it. We hope it will never come to that. We hope that the experimenter knows enough about how the instrument operates, that he can make meaningful positions about what kind of data he needs and how to take parts as the experiment proceeds. By at large, that has been true.
I want to talk little bit about PAC process, because I think it is and really is an important part of experiments and laboratories. When did the PAC process starts here at MSU, roughly? It started —
Not with the K-50, right?
Not with the K-50, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure not, even though that was before my days. The PAC process started with the operation of the K-500, around 1980. I have been associated with the PAC process. Not from the PAC one, but I think PAC four or five. Ever since then I have been accepted and now we are — the next PAC that meets in end of November, it’s PAC 35. So I have been with more than 30 PACs.
The purpose of the PACs, can you talk a little bit about the initial intent and purpose of finding whether an experiment needs to be done at this laboratory and then ranking and stacking them and trying to fit them into a schedule? Talk a little bit about the original intent of them if you could and also how they’ve changed. Have they been more competitive? Has it been more about the money? Has it been more about the competition of the actual experiment quality? What happens after? Is there a follow-up, a quality control, after the experiment has been done? The PAC approved it, is there a review to say whether or not the PAC choice was correct or not? Can you talk to me a little bit about the process, the intent and the changes in the whole PAC structure?
I think the original purpose of the PAC, probably was that we were a national laboratory at that point in 1980. And the intent to us was that the in-house group — this is a very strong, talented group, did not get any undue advantage in what extreme has got a group. So this committee of experts, I think it was five or six people at the beginning of it — now, it is eight people. There’s always been only one member from within the NSCL on the PAC and all the other — and minus one scientist, were highly qualified scientists from other labs, some international. So they were there to make sure that the proposals that were approved granted for bin time, were based on merit and not — And not biased towards the NSCL. I think that was the original intent. It continues to be the original intent that experimenters are selected on the basis of quality. Quality is the one tiding criteria. In the second round of this — Then the cell PAC selects these proposals. The lab tells them how many hours they can approve. And actually even that’s the wrong word, they don’t approve it, they recommend for approval. It is the director has always had the power. It is the director who makes the allocation. The PAC is just advisory committee. That’s why it’s called the Program Advisory Committee to the director, to [?] the experiments, that in their view is the most highest ranking in terms of scientific merit. So that intent has not changed, but then in the second round — the PAC usually meet for a day and a half. In the first day the criterion is purely science, the scientific merit. Then the second day we look at secondary considerations, like graduate students whose thesis is based on these proposals. Are we doing well by the graduate students? Do they have a thesis experiment that in the approval list? Is that a good representation among the different devices that are in the lab? In other words, which means different groups, because each group is associated a particular instrument. We don’t want all 100 person with experiments to work with the S-800, for example. So is that a good representation that each group is productive, consistent with the number it has got. So at some level, those that are very poorly ranked in terms of merit are never considered. But those at the borderline between, yes if they’ve got one more point than I’ve got in and one less point, it would have gone out. You look at the borderline experiments to see where something can be done, up or down, to make this other criteria somehow satisfied. A good representation of all experimental equipment, graduate student thesis and so on. That competition has not changed, I would say. Can I look at my log I had [???] I keep the statistics of these for many decades now. Generally, I would say the competition the PAC has been able to approve roughly 50% of the available time — sorry, the available time is enough to just satisfy 50% or 60% of the requests. But let’s if that was true at the very beginning. My records go back to PAC nine which is in September 1988. Even then, if in 1988, the request was for 3900 hours, and what was approved was 2000 hours. So it’s roughly 50%. You can say that has remained the 50, 60% throughout all these years. So there’s a competition, all has been there. One thing that has happened is there have been some groups that submitted their proposals — a group that has not yet beam timed, generally submitted the next time as well. But in the same group that’s rejected three or four times, they get the message and they don’t submit anymore. They give up hope. So that day they have weeded out over the years, some are very big groups. But even the strong groups — sorry, what remains is so — even almost every proposal we get is a strong proposal. The fact that only half of them get beam time does not mean that the other half is not strong, because it’s just they just don't have the time. In some cases, in a very cases, we think why do they have to do it here? The PAC considers that aspect and this experiment can be done at another facility where the beam time might be more easily available. That is taken into account. By now, the experimenters, themselves know that they wouldn't submit a proposal if they think they can do it at some other place, in the US. If you’ll have to go abroad, that's a different consideration altogether. Okay. What else do you want to know about the PAC process?
No. I’m sure that there are some other questions I can think of, but —
Generally, our Brad Schneider — it used to be Conrad Gelbke, who use to be the PAC chair. Non-working PAC chair. I’m the PAC secretary. Until two PAC’s ago, and then Brad Schneider — Conrad wanted Brad to take over as the chair of the PAC. Conrad also still continues to attend it. Both Conrad and Brad, the very first session, the first hour of the PAC meeting, they remind the PAC of the criteria that they should use for beam time allocation. That doesn't mean the same all these years. I can show that to you later on. Okay, sure.
That’s a lot of information that you’ve given already on the PAC and the support to the physicists, how's that changed. Can you talk to me a little bit about — this is more personal, your account of this place? Before, it still wasn’t that small when you got here. You got here in the early 80’s. But it’s definitely gotten bigger since you’ve been here. What’s the organizational culture of this place? Was it able to maintain good communication all these time? What were these challenges?
Yes. The main change — there has been change, it has been needed, is that communications are going a lot more formal by necessity. Only ten faculty members, maybe. People in the sign track staff, they could just communicate orally and that wasn’t good enough. But now with the 250 people in the NSCL and another 100 people in [?]. We have grown from a small lab to a medium size lab. Everything has their quarters, so everybody knows what’s happening. The people who need to know can find out by return communications, websites, and so on. Rather than by word of mouth. That is something all of us are having to adjust to including me. When I first came here, one of the stories I heard with some of the old faculty members, in the K-50 days, I think it was Walt Bennetson and Ed Kashy, they were telling me that when the K-50 started operating there was shake down problem, as there always is with a new machine. The computer staff was 1%, there’s only one electronics engineer basically. There was break down every evening for the first few weeks. They used to call this Bill Johnson, I think his name was. I think was David when I first came and then he left soon after. I think he was an electronics engineer. They used to call him every evening for some problem — to fix me problem, it always happened at dinner time and he used to come. Then one day there was no problem, but they still called him. Bill come here; there is no problem. [chuckle] So that was a kind of ad hoc, just because they got into the habit of calling him, they called him. That would not happen today. To call somebody unnecessarily would be a big matter. So that’s the kind of informality that used to exist, that cannot exist. But I think the kind of corridor interactions is still happening among the faculty, though they also have to more formal in other ways they act. Another thing I will say is, maybe in the old days and even now, many of us work for a lot more than 40 hours, but we cannot expect any staff member to work more than 40 hours. He may on his own choose to do it, but in the old days we were less concerned about strictly sticking to the 40 hours.
And everyone worked a lot more?
Everyone worked long and happily. I’m sure many people still do, but it cannot be asked of them. I think there’s also — not just this lab, but the whole country probably a much stricter adherence to timelines and expand budgets. Doing things on budget, on time. Even in 1981 when the K-500 was being commissioned — the first beam was coming out — there was Jim Carr, who was a student at that time — he went to Florida State, senior student — he had a lottery going as to when the first beam would come. Henry Blosser left it vague. When the beam comes, is when it comes. There was no particular deadline we had to meet. Again, that has changed and that's something that the funding agencies have become much stricter about delegating on time, on budget. It was not that strict even if when it first came in 1980. So a little bit of less flexibility over time. Even though people said Blosser spent each dollar like it was his own money. In other words, we were very conscious of money, but there was no pressure about meeting deadline.
Well, you’ve given us a lot of great information and insight into, not just the history of the lab, but your role and the changes of your role in this important context of laboratories, and laboratory science.
Let me say one more thing. I’m proud of this lab. I’m proud to be a member of this lab. I consider my role as facilitating good experiments here as an important role. That’s my contribution to the science of the lab. It’s an important contribution, I feel. So I am happy in my job. One lesson that was not personally me but an observation, the fact that we’ve got effort. Effort was important to MSU, or even to the country. It shows the persistence — that was a very long drawn out process, like more than 10 or 20 years, I think. Even for the funding agency, the science organization in this country to decide that such a facility was needed for the US, not at MSU, but for the US as a whole. It took them many years of convincing, and then they almost were convinced and then their financial situation became bad so then they retreated. Then we kept pushing the scientific community, and then finally got it again. So it shows the importance of persistence, of single mindedly going after something that you think is important. To that the credit for that goes, most of it to Conrad Gelbke. His focus on that, while still paying attention to smooth running of lab. That's something that is worth emulating in any developments which looks hopeless or is a big fight. You have to keep the focus on that and keep working.
Yes that is very important. Okay, well thank you Dr. Anantaraman for your time this afternoon.