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Photo courtesy of Les Cottrell
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Interview of Les Cottrell by David Zierler on April 28, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Les Cottrell, emeritus physicist and former Assistant Director of Computing and head of networking at SLAC. Cottrell recounts his upbringing in England and how the Space Race captured his attention. He describes his undergraduate education at Manchester University, where he became interested in nuclear physics, and where he decided to stay on for graduate school. Cottrell discusses the Ferranti supercomputer, and he explains his early appreciation of the impact of computers on accelerator physics. He describes the opportunities that led to his postdoctoral appointment at SLAC to join Dick Taylor’s Group A, and he explains how computers were essential in analyzing experimental data. Cottrell discusses his collaborations at Berkeley Lab and his visiting position at IBM at Hursley. He explains the growing importance of SLAC’s networking group, and he discusses his advisory work for the SSC. Cottrell discusses the celebration surrounding Dick Taylor’s recognition with the Nobel Prize and his collaborations with IHEP in China. He explains the origins of the World Wide Web as a solution, in part, to transmitting physics data across international collaborations. Cottrell discusses his recent efforts to expand internet connectivity to rural communities worldwide and why networking was so important for LCLS and LCLS-II. At the end of the interview, Cottrell prognosticates on the future of computer networking, and the physical limitations that could be overcome by parallelizing computing.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is April 28th, 2021. I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Les Cottrell. Les, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Oh, it’s good to be here. Thanks for inviting me (laughter).
Alright, first things first, officially your name is Roger, and yet you go by Les. What is the backstory there?
My great-uncle, who lived in Winnipeg Canada, was called Roger, and I think my parents named me after him. And then when I got to high school, for some reason I thought, oh, I prefer Les, because I had another uncle in England called Les, and I had a cousin called Les, Leslie. And I don’t know. I don’t regret it, but I just- I don’t know why I chose to be called Les because, you know, it was a change, and I had to get people used to it (laughter). So, it was just kind of strange. I don’t know why.
Les, on a more official level, what is your title and institutional affiliation?
Okay, I’m- oh, god, what’s the word- emeritus at Stanford University. I became emeritus when I left SLAC, which was in- well, last- my first day away from non- non-employed at SLAC was April the 1st, which I thought was an appropriate date (laughter). So, my official title would be emeritus. I used to be head of- well, one time I was the assistant director of computing at SLAC, and then I was also the head of networking at the same time. So, I think those are as official as they ever would be.
Les, how have you fared during the pandemic in terms of the science, in terms of your collaborations, in terms of getting work done in a very different way?
That’s an interesting one. Well, at the beginning of the pandemic, we definitely had a collaboration going with Pakistan. That was actually already beginning to fade out. I think they were having trouble. They were not- they couldn’t go into work, so they couldn’t look at their computers, so, eventually, that one terminated.
I’ve pretty much- I’m still continuing something known as the PingER project, which has still got various people connected. But, most of the time actually, I’ve started working on other things just for fun. I’ve been looking a lot at the John Hopkins University information on the COVID virus, and analyzing that, and then writing some reports which I’ve shared with a few friends of mine. There’s about fifteen or sixteen different reports on different things. And, but, pretty much, I’ve not been going to work, so COVID has affected that part. Whereas before, I would probably spend two or three days a week nipping into work, and meeting people, working on the computer at work. That has all stopped obviously. So, it has been a change. The- I think that’s pretty much it actually, yeah.
Les, being emeritus and being unburdened from administrative responsibilities frees you up to just follow your nose in terms of what’s interesting in physics currently. So, broadly-
-in the field, what’s fascinating to you? What’s going on right now that has captured your attention?
Well, obviously, the COVID stuff has captured my attention. Yeah, so, that has actually been- was, for probably the first nine, twelve months, that has been my main interest. More recently, somewhat prompted by you is actually, well, I better go back and look into- look at my ancient data. And I’ve been digging through lots and lots of files, and finding out how to access them, and where they’ve been replaced by something else. And that’s been really quite a, I guess, you know, a skullduggery operation, finding things that are no longer existent. But I’m quite surprised at how much I’ve been able to find, and actually find references too, so it’s been quite interesting. I must say that this has been an opportunity to kind of write an autobiography of just this thing (laughter).
Well, Les, let’s take it all the way back to England. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me about them.
Okay, they got married on the twentieth of January 1936. He was what’s called an administrator in the hospital, and my mother was a matron, which is the head nurse at a hospital. I’ve since learned because- that they don’t have the term “matron” in the U.S. I don’t know if they still have it in England or whether they just have “head nurse” or something like that.
I was born four years to the day after they were married, and we lived- the war started like three months before I was born, but I don’t remember any of that. I had nothing to do with it. Not my fault. But the first few years, I do not remember much of what was going on, obviously. I mean, I know I broke my wrist at one stage, but I think I was about four years old by that time, so. And I think I fell down the stairs one day, but I- and I may have been younger then, but that’s the only thing I can possibly remember from being older than- being less than three years old.
I do remember bits of the war. We had- there were sirens would go off if they thought there was an alert coming in. And I can remember the sirens. They had two tones. They had a first tone which would go up and down, up and down, up and down. That means run for cover (laughter). And then the all clear would be- as I recall anyhow, I could be incorrect- was just a solid sound. I remember those then. And I remember-
Les, this was in Birmingham?
No, this was actually after we’d moved from Birmingham. I think my parents moved around quite a lot after- from Birmingham. I heard or I seem to recall having heard that they were actually in Leeds at one time when it got bombed. I think that got them to scarper out of Leeds (laughter).
But, by this time, I was in Banbury, Oxford. There’s a song, a nursery rhyme, Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross, which is associated with Banbury (laughter). And there is a cross there in the middle of town that is apparently the one she rode a cock horse to. I don’t know.
But, by this time, I was cognizant of what was going on. I do remember there was a bomb crater at the end of the road, which we would play in, and play cowboys and Indians or war games or things like this, you know, at the age of three or four. And then one thing that sticks in my memory for no real reason was convoys would come through, transporting armaments like Spitfires, you know, to be repaired. And one stopped at the end of the road, because we were on the main road from Oxford to London, and the guy invited me up, and lifted me into the cockpit of a Spitfire (laughter).
It’s amazing how little things like that you remember, and not some other things. I have no idea what went on. So, the war was, I mean, the war was quite a happy time for me. I didn’t really take in all the damage that was being done until much later when I started to read all the history books, you know.
Les, as a young boy, what are some memories that stick out about the way that England was damaged during the war?
Well, yeah, we were, as I say, only sixty miles from London. So, we were- I know that if planes were going east of us to, say, to Coventry or to Birmingham or somewhere like that, they would pass over us, which is I think why there was a bomb crater at the end of the yard because we were not a, obviously, an interesting site for them to drop. They probably just thought, “Well, let’s get rid of this and go home,” you know, and dropped it (laughter).
Other things that I remember than the war, I remember the adverts. There was one advert, which was quite frightening to a kid, and it was a widow all in black, and she looked like a witch as far as I was concerned (laughter). And I’ve since found out it was just an ad, you know, “Loose lips tell tales” or something like that, you know. In other words, don’t tell people secrets in case it’s an enemy agent. So, I remember that. It’s funny the things you remember.
I also remember just going to school and- which was I think about two miles away from us, and I think I was rather naughty. There was a poor guy raking up the leaves, and I just remember kicking the leaves up and, you know, and he was most upset. So, next day, I was escorted to school (laughter).
So, I don’t remember an awful lot about Banbury, but it was a pleasant time. And, as I say, the war, you know, was just something- well, that’s the way things are. It’s all my life, you know, so what’s different, you know? You don’t notice a difference if that’s what you’re born into.
Les, would you say your accent is a blend of regional accents, or is it associated with any one particular place?
No, I’ve got a non-regional accent. I know that we left Banbury, and went to the southwest of England, which has a very definite- Cornish accent. And I was told by our mother to talk proper, and not adopt the Cornish accent, which everybody else was talking. So, I never picked up that accent, which I probably would’ve picked up if I’d have not been told not to pick it up. But I think, you know, it’s not a posh Oxford University accent or it’s certainly not a London accent. It’s not a Yorkshire accent. It just isn’t an accent. It’s just British (laughter). It’s just English, you know (laughter).
And, Les, growing up, what was your sense of your family’s class status, which I know is something that the British think about more, or at least in different ways-
-than Americans do?
Yeah. I imagine they were upper-middle class at the time, you know. They had permanent jobs. They were leaders, you know, heads of their groups. So, they must’ve been reasonably, you know, upper-middle class. They’re definitely not- we’re not upper-upper class. And they- we were not, you know, in the poor folks or anything like that. I think later on when my mother died that they actually- they lost half the income, and then my, I think my father got laid off. I’m not sure what. So, things got a lot tougher for them. But that was much later on.
Les, when did you start to get interested in science?
Well, I think it was largely driven by the Space Race, I think. I was always interested in geography. Geography was definitely my favorite subject. I did best in it, and I was fascinated by it. But with the, you know, Space Race coming on, and Kennedy’s speech, you know, and the competition between Russia and the U.S., that’s when I got really interested in science. And I realized around that time that- I dropped mathematics in order to focus more on the geography, and- but I realized then that was a mistake if I wanted to do math, if I wanted to do physics. And I thought physics was- if you wanted to be in the Space Race and things like that, that was the way to- you had to have maths to go to university. So, I actually stayed on an extra year at high school in order to take a year’s worth of maths to try and catch up.
So, I think that was when I got really interested. As I say, until then, you can say geography’s a science. But it’s not what I would call a hard science. I mean, I would say a hard science is maths, physics, and chemistry, you know. So, I think that was when I- it was the Space Race I think that really got me excited about really doing, you know, science.
Where was your high school?
(Laughter) My high school was on the bor- it was in North Devon, which is about sixty miles away from where I- we were living at the time. And it was on the edge of Dartmoor, which is kind of, I don’t know. You can think of Hound of the Baskervilles or something, you know. It’s the kind of place where the Hound of the Baskervilles was set, I believe.
It’s a very desolate part of England. It’s very pretty. Lots of granite peaks and things like that. And the school was just on the edge of it. So, we were reasonably high up, so we would get snow in the winter where we were living, the school, and it was damn cold. And they’d just built this new dormitory when they put in electric heating, you know.
But they figured out the cost of the heating was just not worth it, so they never heated it (laughter). And it was bitterly cold at night. I remember you’d get into bed, and you’d turn upside down in order to heat it so that your breath would heat up the bottom of the bed, and then you would come back up, so your feet weren’t frozen. And there was a regulation number of blankets you could have, and I don’t know whether it was two or three. I’ve forgotten it. But whatever it was, it was about two too few, so you were always very cold. And I do- this is not an exaggeration. When you woke up in the morning, you might have a glass of water on, you know, right next to your bed on the table by the bed, and it would be frozen (laughter). So, you knew it was cold. In the summer, it was much better, but the winters were quite miserable in that dormitory. But, luckily, we got out of that after about a couple of years and got into a dormitory in the older part of the school, which was much warmer.
Les, tell me about your decision to attend Manchester University as an undergraduate.
That was interesting, yeah, because I also tried to get into Oxford University. But to get into Oxford, I needed to take Latin, which I had taken. I went for an interview, but I was unsuccessful in getting in. But I went to- I got into several universities.
But Manchester was choice because it was closer to where my father was born, and I had a favorite uncle live close by in Warrington. That was the place where he lived, which is about ten, twenty miles from Manchester. And, also, Manchester was quite famous for the time because it had Ernest Rutherford as a- was there as a professor at one time, and then before he was J. J. Thomson who- from my physics, I knew all famous people, and so I thought that would be good.
I think I was also accepted at various other universities. One place I wondered about was St. Andrews, which was in Scotland. But apart from being in Scotland, which is fine, the thing that turned me off was that that required a four-year course as opposed to most of British universities being three years. So, it was partly because, you know, of Rutherford and Thomson, and partly because it was close to where my favorite uncle lived that I went to Manchester. And I don’t regret it. I think Manchester was great. It’s such a tremendous change after where we’d come from, which was, at that time, we were living in Cornwall. And it was a little village called Henwood, which had about fifty people. And for somebody growing up and wanting to be, you know, with it, that was not the place to be (laughter).
But I did- I was very fortunate that I had an uncle who lived- who had a big farm not too far away, and that farm was actually part of the Duch- owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, aka today Charles. And the farm was on the moorland, Bodmin Moor, and so we could go- in order to bring the cattle in or the sheep, it was mainly sheep because the land was too bad for cattle, we would have to go out riding, which was wonderful. I think about riding on these Dartmoor ponies, and we’d go out and bring the sheep in. And it’s- it had its- it definitely had its up and downs, you know. It’s down was being isolated. It’s up was being able to go riding whenever I wanted to (laughter).
And it was physics from the beginning? That was your plan at Manchester?
Yeah, the plan at Manchester was always physics. The plan before that had been geography.
And I really enjoyed geography but it was an acade- it was a kind of- the choice was to stay with geography and as I understood it then, which was not right, wind up in the Alaska searching for oil, and not having any women around (laughter).
So, I chose a subject which would keep me in England, and that was physics instead, which is why I had to- you know, I dropped maths, and why I had to go back and do the maths in order to be able to do the physics. So-
Les, as opposed to the American system where it’s common to not declare a major until your third or fourth year, what do you see as some of the advantages and disadvantages from having that focus right from the beginning?
I think the disadvantage was the one I found, you know, that I couldn’t have changed once I got to university (laughter). The advantage is, I guess, it takes one less year to get your degree. But I don’t think, I mean, it definitely- I mean, you miss some things. We did chemistry as well as- and we did separate subjects, you know. When we were at university, we did chemistry, one year of chemistry, and we did one year of maths. I don’t know. It’s hard to know whether one is better than the other. I just know that mine suited me well. But it might’ve been better for me if I had been here because I probably wouldn’t have had to make that choice. I could’ve changed my mind at a later stage. So, I don’t know. It’s definitely different though. (laughter),
Les, what were some of the most exciting things happening in physics, from your vantage point as an undergraduate at that time.
Well, I think definitely the most exciting thing was the Space Race. That was- I mean, just calculating the orbits and things like that was just exciting. And the amount of research that had to go into figuring out how to get the rocket to work, and how to- what path you had to go in order to get to the- you didn’t just point yourself at the moon.
You had to- you had a vague path to get there so that you had the minimum- so you made it- so it went the easiest. What were the other things that were big at the time? It’s hard. I can’t come up with anything, you know (laughter). It was all Space Race as far as I was concerned.
Were there any professors who were really formative in terms of your intellectual influence, and who encouraged you to stay at Manchester for your graduate degree?
I think the head of the department was a guy called Brian Flowers. He’d just come up to the department from- I think he’d been working at Harwell where they- that’s the research establishment, Atomic Energy Research Establishment, down near Oxford. And he came up, and he was by far the most interesting lecturer. But as far as why did I do geography, going back to high school, it was- the teacher of geography was- I mean, he just was wonderful. His name was Foss, and we used to call him Ditcher, would you believe it, because fosse in Latin is a ditch (laughter).
So, anyhow, there’s actually an ancient Roman road in England, runs north-south, I think, called the Fosse Way, you know. Presumably, it had a ditch on either side, I don’t know. But he was-he’s the one teacher who I was really inspired by, which is, you know, wasted a year of my time because then I had to redo mathematics (laughter).
The interesting thing was the physics teacher before I, you know, started to do physics as an A-level subject, and he was really good, but he left and went to teach at a girls’ school. So, we didn’t get him (laughter). We got a new physics teacher, who I was not- I did not find very inspiring, which is, you know, which was a shame because I think if I’d had a better physics teacher, I’d had done better in physics, but never mind (laughter).
Now, by graduate school, were you more focused on theory or experiment?
Oh, definitely experiment. I didn’t have the mathematic strength to be a theoretical physicist. So, I had to- why- so, I did focus on the experimental side of things. I actually- I- it’s kind of funny this. This is kind of questionable, whether or not it’s true or not. But in the last year when I finished my BSc, my good friend at the time pointed out that I had won the prize in experimental physics, but I’ve never been able to prove that. So, that’s kind of one of these things that is anecdotal because I- he told me to go and look, you know in somewhere, which is where they posted these things, and I did. And, indeed, I saw it, but I’ve been to their website, and I can find no reference to it (laughter). So, I kind of even doubt my own recollections on that one. But it was definitely that I was an experimental physicist rather than a theoretical physicist.
And why the focus on nuclear physics? How did that come about?
Well, I think that came about because, yeah, nuclear physics at that time was big. High-energy physics had not really taken off. So, the nuclear physics was being headed by Harwell and- well, mainly Harwell, which was a government secret lab in Oxford. And it was where most of the resources were going because, you know, the thing was how do you make a bomb? How do you make it smaller? How do you make it so it can be carried by a plane, and all those things?
Other parts of physics, I mean, there was- high-energy physics was just beginning to start at Manchester. Optics was not interesting at the time, however. In fact, they always gave the optics course to the most junior person, which would be one of the postgraduates. So, I had to teach optics at one time.
But, nowadays, of course, optics is the thing, you know. You’ve got lasers. You’ve got all kinds of things going on in that area. So, and other things, I mean, quantum physics hadn’t taken- hadn’t really taken off. So, it was just- it was the most interesting, most pursued, I think, type of physics going on at the time for people coming out of university.
There were jobs in research. There were jobs at nuclear power stations, for example. I think England had the first nuclear power station, which was up in the Lake District, a place called- at the time called Calder Hall. It got renamed at various times. So, those were obviously jobs which, you know, one could move into if one felt like it. I did actually go to Calder Hall for an interview but decided again that because there were no ladies there, that was not for me (laughter).
Les, tell me about your interactions with the Ferranti computer and then the supercomputer.
Ah, yes, there were- when I was trying to analyze my data, and also trying to calculate what were called kinematics, that is, if you scattered a proton off something else, how would it bounce off? And that was all very mathematical. And I was using a program that somebody else had written, and it ran on the Mercury computer, and it was basically assembler language, so it was very complex, and it didn’t lend itself to modification. And then the Ferranti Atlas came, and that had an algol-like language, which was actually readable. And so, we- by this time, I was actually doing research. I was in the Van de Graaff accelerator, and we were doing the research, and I was gathering- getting the data, which would be recorded on paper tape, and then we would carry the paper tape over to the com- to the Ferranti computer together with our program, and it would be read into the computer, and analyzed based on what we were writing in our program. And the program would be written in this Atlas Auto-code. And it was a very nice language, which I picked up fairly quickly.
The computer itself, it was the first Ferranti Atlas ever to be built, and it was built as a joint consortium between Ferranti, which was a company owned by a person called Ferranti, and a joint with the Manchester University. It had all of 200 kilobytes of main memory, and it had- its input was mainly by paper tape, and its output was of course by paper. But it’s got me hooked on computers at the time anyhow (laughter).
What did you appreciate about the impact of computers on accelerator physics?
There were a couple of things. At the time, we got it- we wound up getting- a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-7 had been ordered for the lab, and this was to gather- to take the data, to control the starting and finishing of experiment- of data runs, and to do real-time analysis of the data so you can see what was going on. So, we ordered one of those, and the- my advisor at the time, a guy called John Lisle, was going to go to- it was late in being delivered. And, so, John was going to go to Maynard, Massachusetts, which is where Digital Equipment had its main factory, and he would spend a month there working on developing his programs to take- to control the computer, and also to take the data.
But, for some reason, which I don’t know what it was, he couldn’t go, and so he assigned the job to me, which was great. So, I got a free trip to spend a month at Maynard, Massachusetts, which was about- and we stayed at a Howard Johnson’s Motel about, oh, five, ten miles away from Maynard, the factory, the Digital Equipment factory itself. And so each day, I would get an hour on one of their computers to read in our code, modify it, find the bugs, and go away and think about it for the next day, and modify it, put it back in, and try it out. So, that was the thing that really pushed me over the edge, so to speak (laughter). At that stage, I figured this is much more fun than physics (laughter). Let’s get out of physics, and let’s get into, you know, into something that’s a bit more exciting, and that was the computing. So, I think it was- that was the thing that got me into computing real big time.
It was just being able to con- do something that would do your commands, and do your bidding, so to speak. It was like talking to a robot or something, except it was all by typing, etc. So, that was why I got on- that was what got me into this computing side of physics.
Was that the subject of your thesis? Did it have the focus on the computation?
No, the thesis had an appendix where all the stuff to do with computing was added. And the only computing that went in was the computing which was done on the Ferranti Atlas computer. None of my thesis had anything to do with the controlling the experiments by means of a computer, or any of the Digital Equipment PDP-7. That was all separate. I did actually give- write a paper on what we did with the thing, and actually gave a talk on that. But, and, actually, I also taught some of the students. I gave a course on computing, and using computers to actually analyze data, to some of the postgraduate students. So, that was about that (laughter).
What would you say are some of the key conclusions of your thesis research?
Interesting. I think what- by the time I did my thesis, I was less interested in the nuclear physics that we’d done to- and now I was just kind of glad to get that out of the way. So, the interesting part of the thesis to me was actually the appendix, which was interesting because when it came to the interview with the- because in order to get- go from a thesis to it being reviewed, and then being- there was an interview process, and there was a guy called Hodson, I think his name was.
Anyhow, he was from Ma- he was from Oxford University, and I know that his group had written a lot of computer codes to analyze what was called the optical model of the nucleus. And, so, I thought, oh, good, I’ll have him come up and interview me, and he’ll talk to me all about computing (laughter). Hell, no, he didn’t (laughter). He talked to me all about the physics. And I really had a hard time getting through that interview, I think (laughter). But I did get through it, and I didn’t have to go back and spend another year.
What were some of the most interesting postdoc opportunities for you after Manchester?
Okay. So, I applied to several places. I applied to Rolls-Royce, the division of Rolls-Royce which was making aircraft engines.
This would’ve been a very different career path for you.
That would’ve been very different. And I went there, and I- they took me, you know, and it- I- anyhow, they took me to the room where all the people who were doing the computing for the engine, for the engines were sitting. And it was kind of- it was the thing that decided me not to go to Rolls-Royce because it was a huge room with rows upon rows of people sitting at computers or typewriters, typing in commands and everything. And I realized I didn’t want to be doing that.
The- I also applied to several other places. I did accept- I was offered a job at CERN, the nuclear science place in Geneva, Switzerland. And I think I was offered it in the spring, late spring. And I kind of feel embarrassed. I kept them on tenterhooks while I kept looking because the job would’ve been designing magnets, and that didn’t seem very exciting to me, so I wasn’t- going to Switzerland was okay, but designing magnets was not okay, so I kept looking (laughter).
And then I saw in a magazine this place in the U.S., Stanford University, had just opened up something called the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And there was a photo of the head of the lab, Panofsky, standing next to the accelerator. And, so, I read through the thing, and I thought, hmm, I’ve been to- I’d been to the U.S. a couple of times before, once to Digital Equipment Corporation.
And also, in 1961 or ’2, I think it was- I think it was ’61- I’d actually spent six months in Winnipeg with my folk- with my relatives there. And I was working at the University of Manitoba. So, I was quite keen on going back to the U.S. I’d seen the East Coast, Boston. I’d seen kind of the middle, Winnipeg, and thought the West Coast would be good to see (laughter). Two years, go there, and then come back, and do something else. So, I read through the thing, and I found the names of the people, the leaders of the experiments. And I wrote to Marty Perl a handwritten letter, four pages long, outlining everything I’d done, things like that. Never heard back. So, I copied the letter out again, sent it to Dick Taylor this time, and this time I heard back. And he said, “Yes, we’d be very interested,” and actually offered me a post without ever having the interview, just based on the letter. I was quite amazed.
Now, why Marty and Dick? What were each of them working on that was interesting where you thought you could contribute?
Well, they were the leaders of experiments, which were high-energy physics experiments, so I didn’t know much about them. Marty was- looked like he was a more senior person, I think. He looked like he’d be more interesting. Dick was the second choice. I didn’t know much about the groups. I mean, they basically just mentioned that Professors Marty Perl and Dick- Richard Taylor are working on this- on experiments to use this machine, you know. So, I didn’t have much of an idea what they were going to do.
Did you have any idea that computers were being embraced at SLAC at this point?
No, I was just dead lucky (laughter). I really- I mean, things just worked out. I’m trying to think if there was anything. No. I don’t recall, and unfortunately, I don’t have the press cutting which I answered to which maybe said something about their computers. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t know that.
I did mention though in the letter that I was heavily- that I was very interested in computers in control of equipment and things like that. I was definitely posting myself not as a high-energy physicist but just as knowing a bit of physics, and being very interested in computing, and did they have anything that I might be interested in? And, luckily, they did- well, at least Dick Taylor did. And, so, that’s how it worked out. It was just a shot in the dark, which actually came up (laughter).
What were your first impressions when you arrived at SLAC?
Ah, interesting, yeah. So, well, before getting to SLAC, it was kind of interesting because I actually got messed up. In those days, they had given me a visa, which was not citizenship, but it was- I forget what it was called. But, anyhow, they gave me a visa which allowed me to reside in the U.S. for a long period. So, I got- we, my wife and I, got to New York, and came through customs, handed in our paperwork to say that we, you know, we had a visa, and then we went and stayed with friends, and then off we went to Montreal for the World’s Fair. We gave, as I say, we’d handed my paper in. So, everything went fine. World’s Fair very interesting, all kinds of good stuff going on.
So, get back on- I think we were about to fly, I think, to Detroit or maybe we drove to Detroit. Anyhow, no, we couldn’t have driven to Detroit. We must’ve been flying to Detroit or flying to somewhere. Anyhow, went to customs to get- or to immigration, and they said, “Can I see your paperwork?” And we said, “Oh, we’ve handed it in.” Uh-oh (laughter). So, for about two hours, we were grilled by the immigration people. But, eventually, they kindly let us in, and so then we got to Palo Alto. So, Palo Alto was interesting. Oh, we got to San Francisco. Palo Alto’s about forty miles away from San Francisco Airport. So, we took a taxi. We actually- when we were at the airport, we looked up all the hotels and motels in Palo Alto, and just chose one at random. Well, no one had met us because, probably my fault because I hadn’t told anybody when I was coming exactly. So, we took the taxi, and checked into the hotel or the motel. The experience was interesting. I mean, driving down, the freeways were quite novel. And I think there might’ve been some what we call motorways in England, but no- they hadn’t really taken off yet. Other things was, I mean, driving—I remember one day we drove along El Camino, and just the amount of lights, you know, neon lights and all the things was just quite outstanding. The cars were enormous, of course. I mean, they’re just huge behemoths compared to anything that we were used to. We actually did buy a car. In fact, we found it impossible not to buy a car, I mean, otherwise you’d have been stuck on the bus service, and there was almost no bus service. So, we bought a Chevrolet Bel Air, I think it was, which again, it was a huge, huge car.
In fact, on one vacation, we actually took, I think it was, eight of us- one, two, three- no, seven of us in the car, plus all our luggage (laughter). And you could actually get everybody in. It was a tight squeeze, but we drove all the way to San Diego on that trip.
Other things which I noticed, I think people were much more friendly, certainly at the lab. I remember at the university; I never met the head of the department. His name was Wilmott, and that’s all I know about him, you know (laughter). Whereas when I got to SLAC, we met- obviously met my boss, future boss, Dick Taylor. But the head of the lab, he would have these meetings at his home in Los Altos, and this would be evening meetings, and somebody would give a talk on something. And people like Bill Cain would- who would look like a very young person at the time- would be asking these questions which I had no idea what the question even meant, let alone what the answer meant (laughter). But people would be, you know, whoever it was would be answering it. And, you know, I thought it was great.
I’ve seen Pief, and I’ve been to his house, but he probably doesn’t know who I am. Except when I went on a trip to the Sierras, came back, and stopped off at the Delta, and who was there but Adele Panofsky and Pief Panofsky, who were big bird aficionados, and they were looking at the birds. And damned if he didn’t recognize me, and said, “Hello, Cottrell, how are you?” (Laughter) And I was blown away that he- not only did he recognize me, but he even remembered my name, even if it was my surname, you know.
So, things were much more informal than they’d been at Manchester University. Now, part of that was because now I was a more senior person as opposed to a graduate student. But I think it was more than that. It was actually- it was much more open. And the other thing was, of course, it was a brand-new lab, I mean, so everybody was new, and that meant that there were no old fogeys who were, you know, “I’ve been here for years. I don’t need to talk to you,” or anything like that, you know. So-
Les, what was your initial contributions to Dick Taylor’s group? What was happening at the group at that time?
At that time, we were doing elastic scattering of electrons of liquid hydrogen. So, the liquid hydrogen, of course, was a pro- was made up of hydrogen, which had a proton in the middle, and electrons whizzing around it, or one electron whizzing around it. So, it was basically scattering the electrons off a pro- off protons to see what happened.
Most of the electrons just went straight through the liquid hydrogen and didn’t do anything. But one in a billion, I think, or I think it was more than one- one in a billion or so would actually hit something, and you’d get some effect. So, we were picking up these events. The first experiments that were done were what were called elastic scattering where you just bounce- the electrons just do not lock out the hydrogen, the proton. They just bounce off it elastically, and go, and are then detected by the equipment that we were using.
That- at that time, there were three groups involved. There was an MIT group, there was a Caltech group, and there was a SLAC group, the SLAC group being held- led by Dick Taylor. After the elastic experiments were done, and they- and we’d actually calibrated the equipment because we knew what to expect, and that’s exactly what we saw, the Caltech people said, “Inelastic scattering is going to be too hard to analyze, so we want to do something more useful.” So, they left the collaboration, and we were instead left with just MIT and us. And then we went off on to do the inelastic scattering. My contribution was in the computing, obviously, and so I- we had two main computers in that time. We had a supercomputer which was from IBM called a 361—a 360/91, which was the supercomputer at the time.
It was interesting in that almost all the other high- all the other DOE labs had chosen to go with the CDC computer, the 6600, and then later on the 7600. But SLAC had chosen to go with the IBM one. So, I think- I don’t know whether we were the only lab which actually had a supercomputer from IBM. I think we were for a while. And then the online computer was this beautiful computer called an SDS, a systems- I’ve forgotten what it stands for. Anyhow, an SDS computer called a 9300, and that was a very nice computer, and it would do real-time data acquisition, and it had a very nice FORTRAN compiler. So, that was the one was used for the online. And, so, initially, most of my work was with the online. Later on, as the experiments got data, I obviously had to work on the offline too. So, I was the main person doing the computing for that group at the time.
Les, even within this relatively short timescale, looking back to the Ferranti computer, were you already noticing the growth in computational power at this point?
Oh, yes, it’s very different. I mean, the- as I say, the Ferranti computer had 200 kilobytes of memory. This computer had, I think, two megabytes of memory, you know, so it was a factor of ten more memory than the other one had. The ninety-one was also- was- did not have an Atlas Auto-code compiler. The Atlas Auto-code died with the Atlas computers (laughter). But it had a FORTRAN compiler, which was pretty awful but it did its job (laughter).
And what was the mode of transport between, you know, getting the data to the offline computers at the SLAC data center?
Yeah. So, the data, as it was read in, it would be recorded on magnetic tape. The magnetic tapes of the day were 800 bits per inch, and we had three tape drives on the SDS 9300. Those would be- those tapes would be carried up to the- we’d produce a few tapes a day-would be carried up to the data center where they’d be read into the 360/91 computer, and then we would analyze them. So, that was the way of transferring the data between them.
There was no network link between them. That came much later before there was network links between computers in high-energy physics. So, yeah, they’ve- the online computer also had paper, it didn’t have- no, I don’t think it had a paper tape reader. It did have a card reader. And I must say that after having used the paper tape readers at- on the Ferranti, the problem with them was they would tear every now and again because they would jam, or they’d come off the reader, and they would tear.
And paper tapes were awful because not only would they tear, but if you wanted to edit them, you would have to cut the paper tape with a pair of scissors, and splice in the new piece of paper tape, and, you know, sticking it with scotch tape or something like that, and then put it all back together again. So, anything was awful. Whereas with cards, you had these natural breaks. Every eighty bytes, you would have another card. So, you were able to- much more easy to edit things. So, that was a huge advantage of the- both the SDS 9300 and the IBM 360/91 compared to the previous Atlas Auto-code computer.
And, Les, just to zoom out for a second, are- is the use of computers, does it make the research for Taylor’s group possible, or does it make it more efficient?
That’s a good question. It definitely makes it a lot more efficient.
Just because of the amount of data that’s coming off of the machine?
Yeah. Prior to having computers, what one had was what was called kick-sorters at the time, and they would be able to read data. But they were very limited in how much they were able to manipulate the data. Whereas with this, any physicist with computer skills could modify the analysis programs of the online computer. So, next time you reloaded the computer deck- when you were shut down and not taking data that would happen- you would have a new analysis going on, or fix for some problem, or a deeper investigation of something.
It enabled the people who knew what the physics going on was, and what the equipment was really measuring, was doing- enabled them to more precisely understand what was going on. So, it was a huge advantage having computers compared to the prior things. As I say, before we got the PDP-7 at Manchester, we had a kick-sorter from a company called Nuclear Data, and it would- it could actually build spectra, and that was about it, you know.
And then you might have hardware scalers, which would count a certain type of a number of events, which would then- and you would select those events by having various pieces of hardware elec- hardware equipment in there, you know, with thresholds of something which would somehow select just events of the right type. But that was—that meant that any changes were very hard to make. Whereas with the computer, you could make a change fairly easy- I’d imagine some people thought too easily because it would- we would want to put a fix in, and then we would take the computer down. Although almost all changes, once you were running, were made- would be made when the com- when the accelerator was going down. The accelerator was fairly- when I say was very, what would you call it? Almost experimental at the time. There’s one in the world, for example, and it would crash now and again.
You know, the way the power was fed into the accelerator, which actually sped the electrons coming from the source to the destination, was by means of things called klystrons, and they’re about 240 klystrons along this two-mile Linac. And the klystrons would- you know, one would fail every few hours, and once it failed, they’d automatically put another one in place. But then, eventually, they ran out of spares, you know. And, so, there was plenty of downtime when we could reload the computer with new programs (laughter). So, it- even though you were now running, so to speak, you still were exchanging the programs every now and again, like a few times a day.
Les, I wonder if you might explain why the inelastic scattering of electrons experiment attracted such intense interest among the famous theoretical physicists.
Yeah. Well, I think when the experiments were started, they thought, well, the electrons will mainly scatter into the forward direction. But what we were seeing, there was far more electron scattering into the backward direction over ninety degrees, for example. And this was based- this was kind of thought to be, well, what’s going on here? We shouldn’t have as many electrons scattering in this what was called the deep inelastic region. And after a while, they began- various theories were put forward. One of them was headed by Feynman, Richard Feynman of Caltech. And he said, “Well, what’s going on here? It looks like it’s scattering off something hard, not just a proton- a hydrogen or a proton of such-and-such a size. But something inside the proton, which is very hard, and it just bounces off that.” And he called them partons.
And he put forward this theory, and it was- it’s- I think he was also talking to Bill Cain, and Bill Cain suggested, “Well, why don’t you plot it this way?” And because Bill Cain had this theory, you know, about how scattering would occur, and it might occur by such-and-such a method. And if it occurred by scattering on something hard, you would see something. And, so, he suggested to Feynman that you look at the data using this method, and you might see something, which would tell you that it’s scattering off something hard. And he did, and he saw this going on.
Now, after some time, a few years, a couple of years, it began to be realized that some theoretical predictions which were made by another Caltech person, Murray Gell-Mann, had actually said, “In order to account for how- all these different apparent elementary particles that people keep coming up with in their experiments, what- there’s actually an underlying rationale for this, and it’s explained by this theory, which was using something called a quark.” But it was just a mathematical, you know, theoretical idea, which was pretty good. But no one had ever seen a quark, so, you know, it wasn’t there. But it did explain some of the data.
And then as time went on, it began to be realized partons and quarks are very much the same thing, and that’s when, I mean, soon after- I mean, that was a huge understanding, a huge change in the way people looked at elementary particles. It helped a lot in coming up with a model for all these different particles that were apparently elementary particles that people were seeing. So, that was the big thing that came out of the inelastic data. I think there was probably by 1970, it was becoming clear that this model of the parton model was the way to go, and, as I say, I don’t when but soon after that, it was tied up with the quark model of the- quark theory of Murray Gell-Mann.
Les, tell me about the IBM 360, and how it was a game-changer for SLAC.
Yeah. It was a huge machine. Let’s see, it- as I say, I think it had three megabytes of main memory. It was faster, it was one- it was the fastest machine in the world at the time when it was produced. And I think we got ours a year after it was- the first ones were installed. I think the first ones were installed probably at NASA or something like that. I don’t know that they were, but, you know, somewhere like that probably installed the first ones. Well, the first ones were probably installed at IBM itself, obviously, for testing purposes. It- why was it such a good computer? It was just very fast. It had a lot of memory for its time. I don’t know.
What experimental work was it most relevant for?
Well, I think we- I think our experiment probably was using it more than any other experiment because we were actually- we had an awful lot of data coming off in the experiment, and that was all going to this machine. But it was being used by other experiments. There was one experiment that actually had a network link to the IBM, but I don’t know a lot about how they used it. But I know Marty Perl’s experiment actually did make- it did have an IBM 1800 computer that, in turn, had an IB- had a link to this IBM computer. But I think that was the one- that must’ve been a very early on connection, certainly for high-energy physics, between networking of two computers. I don’t know. I mean, it was a good computer for its day. But, I mean, it definitely had- I really did hate that com- that FORTRAN compiler (laughter).
Les, tell me about your sabbatical year at CERN.
Yeah, so, in 197- let’s see, I think Dick Taylor had spent a year at CERN. And in 1972, I figured out I could do with a break, and I wouldn’t mind going back to Europe so that I’d be a bit closer to my family and everything like that. And, so, I’d known a guy who’d been with the Dick Taylor’s group, Adolf Minten. He’d been with the Dick Taylor group, and he kind of indoctrinated me. He was leaving. He’d spent a year with the SLAC group. And as he was leaving, so to speak, he indoctrinated me into what was going to be needed in the computing side for the electron experiments that we were doing. So, he went back to CERN, and he was in charge of this group which was on an experiment there. And, so, I used my connection with him to get a one-year at CERN. So, in ’72, I think- I’m not sure what time of year it was, but my wife- our youngest daughter, who was probably only about four months old at the time, went to CERN to spend a year there. And I guess the first six months, we stayed in an apartment which was owned by CERN itself, but they have this rule that you could only stay in CERN apartments for six months, and then you had to find your own place. So, we got kicked out after six months, and then we stayed in a place which was closer to downtown in an Italian part of the town. But CERN was a wonderful place to visit.
I was in a team that was working on an experiment which was on some- what they call the Intersecting Storage Rings, which were proton-proton rings. Protons colliding on protons. And it was a very unusual piece of equipment. Instead of being what most storage ring experiments would be then and afterwards, which was what’s called solenoidal, it was a much more bizarre type of connection. And the bizarre type of way it was built meant that the scattering- the paths of scattered particles were very strange because they would be seeing very different fields. And, so, I was working on the offline analysis with another- with the- one of Adolf Minten’s group, and we had really quite a hard time dealing with it. I did get my name on a paper published by them eventually. But it was a very different experiment as far as the computing went. I enjoyed the year at CERN though. They had two wonderful cafeterias, far outranking the one at SLAC, I must say, unfortunately. And it was also nice because with something like a twelve-hour drive or maybe a bit more than that- I can’t remember how long it was- one could get back home to England and see the folks there. And so, we would go back fairly frequently to take the kids to see their grandparents. And, also, we were close to France, so we could go- just nip across the border on Sundays to get cheap French food because French food you could buy much cheaper than Swiss food. So, everyone would go across the border to do that. But- and then, of course, I mean, there were all these places you could go to, you know, like you could go to Mont Blanc or to Zermatt, all these famous places that you’d never been before, you know. So, we really enjoyed the year at CERN. But, after a year, I had to come back to SLAC, and so I did, and then got back into the experimental data-taking.
Tell me about some of the work that Group A was doing at that point, particularly in terms of its collaboration with Berkeley Lab.
Oh, okay. So, Berkeley Lab, there was a guy called Chamberlain, Owen Chamberlain. He was actually a Nobel Prize winner. He had won the prize some years earlier, and his group had hired for one year a guy from CERN to build a polarized target, a polarized proton target, so all the protons and thing would have this spin in one direction. And, so, using this polarized target, we would be able to change the polarization, and then see whether it had any effect upon the scattering. As I recall, there wasn’t much of an effect, and it didn’t really find much. But it was great because Owen, who you would kind of think, well, he’s a heavy, you know, a high-energy physicist, he would engage me in conversations, and he’d go really deep into how computers worked. And he was very smart. I was very impressed with him. And his team, some of which, you know, one of whom came to SLAC eventually, and another one went to work for Hewlett Packard, they were all very interesting because they were all undergraduates. And, so, it was a lot of fun working with them. That was one experiment.
Another experiment which was kind of interesting, although it didn’t find anything, was a bubble chamber experiment. This bubble chamber had a diameter of forty inches, and it had a depth of- I don’t know what- it must have been about three or four feet. As you can imagine, all that liquid hydrogen was a lot of stuff to keep cool, and so there was a lot of plumbing going on.
And then, at the same time, not only did you have this big mass of liquid hydrogen, you also- every- you- it would be- there was a piston on one end of the barrels, so to speak, which would come out. And as it came out, the pressure would drop, and the boiling point of hydrogen would change, would lower—no, it would—the boiling point would- hang on- yeah, it would lower. So, it- anyhow, what would happen was that you would get- these bubbles would form, and the bubbles would form, first of all, along the tracks that the particle had gone through.
So, slam these electrons into this bubble chamber, and they’d go through it, and every now and again, an electron would scatter off a hydrogen or proton in the bubble chamber, and you would see a track. And this thing was quite amazing. It would pulse at actually ten times a second, and it made a racket like a Volkswagen without any exhaust on it, except at ten pulses a second, you can imagine it (laughter).
But it would break down every few minute- oh, not every few minute- every few hours. And the team would not- the bubble chamber team would go in and fix it up and, you know, repair whatever had to be repaired, and it would go on. So, what we would have would be on the other side of the- where the electrons came- where the scattered particles came out, if they did scatter, they would go into what were called wire chambers. And as they went through the wire- the gas in the wire chambers, they would cause a pulse to appear on a wire, and so you would then know where the track had gone. And, so, we had this PDP-8 computer, which would read the output from the wire chambers. And it would tell you whether or not you could project the track, the apparent track that the- which was formed by the sparks in the wire chambers- whether or not you could- not wires- spark chambers, sorry, not wire chambers- whether or not the sparks would- if you tracked the sparks back, they would actually come from the detector- the bubble chamber itself. So, that actually- so, what we were looking for was, at the time, Burt Richter had just seen the J/psi- done the J/psi experiment, and actually had gotten a, well, it was- hadn’t yet got it, but he’d done the experiment, and that had kind of enlightened a lot of things which were going on in physics.
And we were doing this bubble chamber experiment to see if looking in more detail at the interactions of electrons and protons by looking at the actual tracks which are made after an interaction, whether or not we could see anything. Unfortunately, there was nothing exciting there. It was just a lot of work because the data that we got was from photographs. So, all these photographs had to put on what’s called a scanning table, and then you would scan- you would take the equivalent of a mouse, actually, it was one- it was a trackball, and you’d move the dots over the track, which would then be digitized, and then the computers could then maybe figure out where the track went, and various things about it.
But it was a lot of grunt work spent in darkrooms looking at photographs to- and trying to find the tracks in the photograph. And then I think there was one more experiment, which was actually exciting, and that was one which was proposed by a guy called Charlie Prescott. And in that case, we had a polarized target from, again, developed by this guy from CERN called Michele Bulgini, and also a polarized source. So, the electrons were polarized, the tar- they were spinning in one direction. The protons were polarized, maybe spinning in the same direction or the opposite direction. And looking to see what happened when you’ve scattered off polarized electrons off polarized protons, and you’d- by changing the polarization, you- of the beam of electrons, you looked to see where there was any difference what was going on.
So, a lot of smart things were done in that case. One was that we had to modify the beam so that we could steer it, so that we would hit one spot on the target, and the next pulse, which hit a different spot on the target. So, that if you just kept on the one stop—one place on the target, the target would boil away. But this way, you prevented the target boiling away by moving over different parts of the target, though you had a bigger target. And then we also had a LS- what’s called an LSI-11, which was also from Digital Equipment, and that one I programmed to randomly set the polarization up or down. And I remember many hours reading books on polarization, how to- not polarization- on randomization, how to test if a number is truly random as opposed to not truly random. And there were books I would read to figure it out.
But, eventually, we- even- I think we actually- the way we changed the randomization was actually by running a scaler at very- a counter which counted cosmic rays at a very high rate, and every time we wanted to do- send a pulse down the accelerator, it would read out what the cosmic ray was, and the least digit which we had one or odd or even, and then decided whether or not to- if it was odd one way the polarization; the other was the other way round. And that worked quite well, and the experiment actually did find some quite exciting physics out of it.
Where were computers for this? How useful was it for this work?
Oh, well, yeah, well, I mean, I don’t think we could’ve very- we would have a hard time- I don’t- we couldn’t have done it without computers, I think.
They were used- there was the LSI-11, which was used to control the target, the polarization in the target. There was the SDS 9300, I think. Yes, the SDS 9300 was actually doing most of the data analy- data acquisition. And there was also another LSI-11, as I recall, which was being used to control the motion of the beam on the target.
And that was- what we were doing at that time was we- because you would scan it like a raster scan for a TV, and we had magnets upstream of where the electron beam was going to hit the target. And that- those magnets, there was one in the X direction, one in the Y direction, and the computer would be modifying the current to the magnet in order to just shift the beam by a little bit so that it moved to the next raster dot on the target. So, we had at least three computers just going on the online. And then on the offline, of course, we had- by this time, I think we had not only the 360/91, but two other large mainframes, 370/168. It was called the triplex at the time.
Les, tell me about your subsequent leave of absence to go to IBM at Hursley.
Oh, yes. So, I had this friend who worked for IBM. IBM had a research lab in Palo Alto, and I said, “I’m interested in going to England. I wonder if you can- I know that IBM has a research lab in Winchester,” or not far from Winchester. It’s about four miles outside Winchester. “Can you put me in contact with somebody from there? Maybe I can get a one-year leave of absence there.” It was a wild shot, you know. It was not like the previous one where it was actually, I was still in the high-energy physics community. This was just totally outside the high-energy physics community. And he put me in contact with a guy called Davies, D-A-V-I-E-S, who was at the IBM Hursley Laboratories in England.
And after quite a lot of fuss, because IBM wanted all kinds of- what was it called- privacy things to be signed, and I had to get the agreement, you know, from Stanford, “Can I sign these?” And at one time, it looked like this is never going to happen. But I think, eventually, somebody says- some guy who was in control said, “It’s not nothing to do with you. You don’t have to worry about it” (laughter). So, anyhow, I got the okay to go, and so I went. And we stayed at- we got a house, which was- which the owners were moving out of for a year. I think they were going to one of the Gulf states to work there. And so, we stayed in that house, and it was about, oh, three miles downhill, it had a bicycle, so I knew about the downhill bit- in to the lab.
And, so, there was a team there who were working on what was- it was kind of within IBM. IBM was looking at what Apple was doing and was seeing how successful they’d been. And they realized they needed something to compete with Apple. And out of it came, eventually, the IBM PC, of course. But, at this time, many of the labs in IBM were competing where I’ve got this brilliant idea.
And, so, Hursley had its own share of this, and they had this idea which was to build something called the Video Graphics Terminal, I think it was, something like that. I can’t remember what it was called. But, anyhow, it consisted of a Motorola 6800 computer, an IBM display unit, and a hookup from the display unit to a mainframe, and the 6800 could control the hookup to the mainframe, and it could control the IBM display unit.
And these three things were all put together to develop this tool, which most of its mem- it had its own local memory, but then it kind of had virtual memory that was obtained by going via the link to the mainframe. And so, I was assigned the job of developing demonstration software to show how wonderful this device was. And so, I developed this graphics package which was based upon a package that IBM was selling at the time, which- but it was not for little computers like this but was a graphical package for big mainframes.
And so, I developed this, and it actually worked very well. It was about 30,000 lines of code. It was a lot of work, a lot of documentation, and eventually it was recognized that, well, at least we might be able to get a patent out of this. But I had to sign away all my rights as a patent person to IBM, but my name is on the patent (laughter), and so myself and another person- they needed an IBM person on the patent thing- got awarded about eight years later a patent for this device, oh, for the software to run on a microcomputer.
But it was- I really enjoyed my time there. I must say it was totally different than SLAC. They were paranoid about security. So, when you went home at night, you had to make sure your desk was clear, which is totally different from what it’d been at SLAC, you know, just walk out and leave everything a mess on your desk. Come back next day, and get on with it, you know. Whereas this was very, very regimented.
But, for all that, the people working with me or the team I was in were lots of fun to be in, and the lab was very friendly, and so I really had a good time there. And, of course, being in England again, we were able to see our friends, see our relatives, and I think we really enjoyed that year. But the-
And just to be clear, you were- this was a strictly computer environment. You were not working in your capacity as a physicist at all at IBM.
That’s right. That’s right. I had really taken a jump there. There was no physics, you know, no research physics anyhow, any kind that I was involved with. So, the interesting thing was when- as- about halfway through as I realized, well, this is going to end soon, I’m going to have to do something about this, SLAC had this advert out for a manager of computer networking. And I thought, well, I could do that (laughter). So, I actually applied for it because I realized this had a lot of things going for it. One, it was focused on my interests as opposed to my interests being peripheral to the, you know, things I would- the main goal of the people I was working with. And, so, I applied for the job, and I-
Les, did you ever consider staying at IBM? Was that available to you as an opportunity?
I definitely thought of that. I would like to have stayed at IBM. But I think there were no posts available at Hursley. There would’ve been a post available about twenty miles away in- I think it was in Southampton. But I figured at the time I don’t want to commute all the way to Southampton.
I wasn’t thinking straight because, actually, I would’ve got- I would’ve- I’d only rented this house that I was staying in, so I was going to have to move anyway. So, I could’ve moved to Southampton. Also, it wasn’t a research lab, which is what the Hursley lab was. So, being more in production, I wasn’t too excited about that. I was- I did like the freedom of being able to, you know, think of something, and then go off and try it. And, so, I decided not to go there. I always applied for another company, which I think eventually went broke, but I don’t know.
But this next opportunity at SLAC, what you were looking to do, your work at Hursley was highly relevant for this. It was quite useful for your next goal.
Yeah, that’s right. There were several tools that I was using at Hursley, which were going to be useful at SLAC. The most obvious one- there was an internal- not released outside IBM yet- programming language called REXX, R-E-X-X. And that was- I learnt about that when I was working on it, and I heard that IB- that SLAC was going to get a prerelease copy, and so I thought, well, that’ll be helpful.
I’d also been working on graphics and on networking stuff. I’d taken a course on IBM’s networking stuff called SNA, System Network Architecture, and so I knew how to spell the word at least. And so, a couple of things looked good for me. I mean, it looked like I would have a leg up when I got to SLAC, so that was useful.
I- when I arranged my IBM visit when I was still at SLAC, I’d actually talked to my tax advisor, and said, “Is there anything you think I should do?” Because he said, “Yeah, make sure you ask for them to pay for a trip back” (laughter).
So, I did, I did, and that was part of the contract. So, I returned from, you know, like three-quarters of the way through the year, I returned to SLAC, and I visited the IBM research establishment in Palo Alto, and met with people there. But I took a side trip to SLAC to get- to take an interview on this job. And I was selected, and so I had this job lined up when I came back. And, so, when I came back, I became head of the networking group of- in the computing group at SLAC.
How did the networking group fit in overall with where SLAC was institutionally at that point?
Well, what was happening at that point was instead of having to cart tapes or paper tapes or magnetic tapes from place to place in order to get your data moved around or to be analyzed somewhere else, one was working- one was looking at using networks to do this. And I’d done a little bit of networking before I’d left SLAC. I’d actually worked on providing a connection between the LSI-11 computers and the IBM mainframes. So, that ha- that was fairly important.
So, with this emerging of networking, they didn’t have a net- I mean, there was no need for a networking team prior to this. So, this was a brand-new team set up, and it had about five people in it, so it was a fairly small team, which was good. And our job was to figure out what we needed to do to get things to work together.
There’d been some kind- some rudimentary networking before, as I mentioned, with the LSI-11s talking to the IBM mainframe. And also, you can also regard terminals as talking to a mainframe as a kind of network. Even though it’s, you know, connected by a single piece of wire, you know, it’s not a general purpose network. But that was going on before. But now we were looking at the next generation, and it looks like the next generation at the time was a real mess. There were lots and lots of different contenders going on to provide networking, lots of protocols, lots of different technologies. And one had to be lucky to choose the right set because if you didn’t, then you would have to maintain the one that you’d chosen, which fewer and fewer people were using. And, at the same time, you’d have to be bringing on the new one that was the direction everybody you thought it was going in.
So, they were very exciting times, and that was during the eighties that it really went on till probably about 1990 as things because to settle down. I mean, not everything settled down at the same time. But if you were talking about, I mean, networking, there was the Ethernet. There was the Token Ring from IBM. There was coaxial cables for supporting 3270 type terminals. There was twisted pair for supporting dumb- what we called dumb terminals.
Then there were things that connected you to these networks I just mentioned. And then on the wide area, it was just getting close to chaos (laughter). But it was exciting because of this because you had to be on your toes. You had to understand all these different things, and then you had to make a decision because you couldn’t support them all. I mean, even if you managed to bring two or three of them into working, that was only part of it. You then had to support them, and that was- so, you really had to choose wisely in that case.
Les, now that we’ve gotten into the 1980s, I’m curious about your work as an advisor for the SSC.
Oh, yeah, that was interesting. Yeah, so I was asked by the head of the lab to actually help advise the SSC. The SSC, Superconducting Super Collider, had been proposed. It was still being built in the nineties. They were- well, being built. They already had a lab down there, which was- and they were digging the tunnel. I think they’d dug several tens of miles before they actually get- bef- they’d dug several miles of the tunnel.
And, so, I was asked to be part of a group who would go down and advise them on what they needed to do for networking. So, I would go down there maybe a couple of times a year, and we’d go to the big building, which is where their lab was, and meet with various people, and give talks, have committee meetings, one-on-one meetings with various people, and look at what they were doing, and try and help them out as much as possible. So, but that only went on till the Superconducting Super Collider got canceled back in about nineteen- in the nineties, I think it was, that I recall. So (laughter).
Did you feel that the SSC was going to be a success, or did you see early warning signs, from your perspective?
No, I cannot claim any foresight in that. It looked like it was going to go ahead, it would be built, it would be the highest energy su- collider in the world, it would turn on in 1990s, and that was the way it was going to be. Now, in terms of other labs, that meant of course that most of the DOE’s budget was going to be SSC, so places like SLAC and other labs like that were not getting as money as they might’ve wished to get. So, that was definitely the case. I was not-
Was there angst at SLAC as a result of this?
There probably was but it was at a higher than my pay grade (laughter). So, I didn’t worry about it. It did, it definitely affected us. I mean, certainly, there were some things that we couldn’t do, and- but I can’t recall anything in particular. But I do remember times were hard. There were being proposals made. I mean, SLAC had this kind of habit of reinventing itself every ten years (laughter).
So, first of all, we had the accelerator site, you know, which was 197- no, 1966 turned on. Then in 1974, SSRL turned- no, the SPEAR turned on, Stanford Positron Electron Asymmetric Rings. And then PEP turned on another eight years later. And then nothing happened for a bit until the B-factory was founded. So, or, no, there was also the Linear Collider, which was not a particularly great success. So, I guess, the lab went through kind of rough times for a bit there, some of which must’ve been affected by the fact that the money were going to the S- the Superconducting Super Collider. As I say, I didn’t get too involved in that though.
Now, the network hodgepodge that SLAC found itself in in the late eighties and early nineties, was the idea there that it would be survival of the fittest, they’d throw all of the different systems in together, and see what survived, or was that really simply a lack of planning at that point?
I think everybody was trying to, well, yeah, was trying to get their net- they were trying to network things. They wanted to communicate between everything, not just on the local area network but on the wide area network. And a lot of different solutions came up, and different solutions were picked up. I mean, companies would be pushing these and, I mean, there was always the classic one of the Ethernet versus the Token Ring. IBM were pushing heavily the Token Ring. The Token Ring was quite elegant. Ethernet was quite elegant. But- you know, there were- it really was- it was not necessary to have to support both, and that- so, you’d choose- I mean, some people might support both, but they might regret that too later.
In our case, I actually went to IBM. IBM had a research lab in Rushtikon near- oh, what’s the name of the place? A place in Southern Germany. And they were pushing hard the Token Ring. And then the Xerox, of course, had invented the Ethernet, and so they were pushing that, and Digital had joined them, and so had Intel. So, that was the- we chose that solution. It was somewhat simpler than the Token Ring, and it certainly won out in the long run, so that was a good decision we made. But there were other ones there. There was something called Sci-tech, which I know the accelerator people at SLAC pushed hard, and actually we looked at it, but we decided not to go with it essentially. And then there were other things in the wide area network or in the protocols.
There was TCP, of course, which won out. But there was the OSI, Open Standards Institute, which the government was pushing heavily. There was DECnet, and there was the XNS, which was the Xerox Networking Solu- Systems, and they were all very similar. But, you know, I’d say come 1990, it became time that we couldn’t support all of these.
We had to- I mean, “we” being high-energy physics. I’m not talking about the world. And so a committee was formed—was created, led by some eminent folks, and I think- I’m not sure where we met, but I think wherever we met, we had a two-day meeting where they reviewed the current plans of the ESnet, the Energy Sciences Network, which is what- where all the DOE labs were connected to, and tried to make sense of them, and also to say what directions we should go in.
Les, I’m curious if, at this point, absent a DOE review, if your sense was all of the national labs were pursuing their own network interests, that there was no standardization, there was no broader organization across the national labs.
There was some organization across them. All- most of the labs had invested in something called BITNET. Some of the labs had invested in TCP/IP. I remember Brookhaven had. Lawrence- not Lawrence. Lawrence Livermore had their own- I’ve forgotten what it’s called. It’s in my notes somewhere- had their own MFE, M-F-E, Magnetic Fusion Energy network, which was- which own- as far as I could tell, only they used. So, I mean, I think all the labs had some networking. A lot of the labs had BITNET. A few had TCP. Lawrence Livermore and maybe a couple other labs which were associated with Lawrence Livermore, maybe Los Alamos and Sandia, may have had MFEnet, M-F-E-net. But it was definitely- there was no one overarching Lord of the Rings to rule them all (laughter). It was everybody had their own. And, so, if you wanted to communicate with Brookhaven, you might have to put up TCP. If you wanted to communicate with somewhere else, you might have- with Livermore, you probably had to put up MFEnet, you know. So, it was somewhat chaotic (laughter).
To what extent did the DOE review resolve these issues?
Well, they went to the heart of it. They said, “Basically, you need to make a decision.” The way everybody’s going, as far as they were concerned, was with TCP/IP. I guess, I mean, if you look at the forma- the members of the committee, they were definitely strong TCP/IP people. They were not BITNET people. They were not MFEnet people. They were TCP/IP people. And, so, they said, “You should go TCP/IP.” And then they also said, “But if OSI is successful,” that was the one that was coming out of the woodwork, which was, you know, supposed to be the one to rule them all, “then when that becomes commonly used, you need to be able to move to that.” So, that was basically the recommendation, and it was accepted.
MFEnet went nowhere. The people at ESnet were looking to implement TCP/IP using LSI-11s. Fortunately, somebody pointed out to them that Cisco already had a- had routers and switches which would handle TCP/IP, would handle DECnet, which were the two main- oh, that was the other one which was going on then. A lot of people were running DECnet- would handle both of those protocols, so why don’t you just buy those, and not implement your own, which was a damn good decision.
So, we came out of the meeting with a direction to go, and it was definitely the right direction. OSI- we had to pay lip service to OSI for the next few years. Every year, we’d have to write, “How are you. How are we getting on implementing OSI?” And, so, we’d point to something like, “Oh, well, our mail system is based upon the OSI mails- mail protocol” (laughter). And then we’d say, “We’re implementing it. We’ve got- we’re further forward with it. We’ve actually got it working now” (laughter). But the rest of it, after four years, I think 1994 it was decided that OSI was not going anywhere, and so they changed the- what was called GOSIP, the Government Open Systems Interconnection Protocol requirement, as being OSI or TCP/IP. And as long as we had one or the other, that was all we had to do. We didn’t have to report on how we were getting on OSI, because we’d already got it because we’d redefined it (laughter). It was quite clever (laughter).
Les, I’m curious if, you know, from your relationship with Dick Taylor, if you had any insight into any of the buzz that surrounded possibly this would be the year that the Nobel Prize would be given.
No, I can’t say. I mean, I thought if he was going to get a Nobel- I mean, I hadn’t- didn’t really think- well, I mean, it was interesting. I mean, certainly, it certainly made the news. Now, Burt Richter, who did the J/psi experiment, had got his Nobel Prize much earlier, and so I thought, well, you missed your chance, Dick (laughter). Sorry, it didn’t make it. But, so, it was a surprise.
I don’t know whether Dick had an inkling that something was going on, and I don’t know enough detail of how the Nobel Prize is determined. I know it’s quite complex. I think it involves people in the Swedish Academy. It also involves previous Nobel Prizewinners. All of these have a say in- I think it may be by vote- in who gets the prize. But I would- it was- certainly from my point of view, it was a surprise. I think it was a surprise for a lot of the people. A few people might’ve figured out that, you know, well, maybe this is our year. But I don’t know that.
What did it feel like for you, and to what extent did Dick go out of his way to demonstrate that, even though the Nobel is awarded to individuals, it’s really a team effort that goes far beyond three individuals?
I think he did a lot on that. I mean, I looked at other Nobel Prizes, and typically the people who went to the celebration were family members and close friends, as opposed to team members. So, I think that was quite significant in Dick’s- and also not just Dick but also Henry Kendall and Jerry Friedman. Both of them, you know, all three of them invited their teams.
So, they’re- I mean, we- I think we had nine people from our team, and probably similar- a little bit smaller, I think, both from MIT. So, and from seeing the other groups, and looking at other years, I think that that was somewhat unusual, but I was certainly very pleased about it (laughter). And it was a hell of a lot of fun (laughter).
Have you reflected on your own contributions that made this Nobel Prizewinning work possible?
Well, I just wrote the programs. I mean, I wasn’t the head of any exper- oh, I did write up one experiment as the major member, but it wasn’t a particularly exciting experiment (laughter). I think I was lucky just to be in the right place at the right time. I certainly dedicated a lot of my time and effort and smarts to that one, and so I think I did contribute a lot to the experiment. So, I think it was good that it got- that it got invited (laughter).
What was that like for you, being in Stockholm for that?
(Laughter) It was awesome. Let’s see. I mean, you got to remember that Stockholm at that time of year, like this is like December the sixth, you’re in the middle of winter. You’re far north. There’s ice on the ground. It’s freezing outside. It’s dark by three o’clock in the afternoon. Who wants to be there? So, it shuts down, I’m told, for a long time. But then comes the Nobel Prize, and the whole place lights up. And they- I think, I mean, certainly, for example, on the presentation day, we all got loaded into buses, and driven across town to the town hall, and they shut down traffic. Any cross traffic was shut down. We just drove straight through. There were people on the sidewalks, you know, waving (laughter). It was a big deal (laughter). And the Institute, the Academic Institute in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy, they really looked after us. I mean, they- we had tours. We saw the local sights, you know.
They had this Middle- late Middle Ages galleon that actually sank in the harbor. It was top-heavy. And they dug it up many years later, and they restored it. They had a Viking longboat. They had all kinds of things for us to see and do. And, so, we were- we swanned about and saw all kinds of things, and every day was very busy.
The ceremony itself was spectacular. It was held in I’d say the town hall. We non-prizewinners sat up in the gallery and looked down. We had front-row seats, you know, so we had a wonderful sight of them getting the prize. And then in the evening, we- they had a- the- let’s see. No, at the town hall? I’ve forgotten where it was. But, anyhow, they had a big dinner for all the prizewinners, 1,500 people all served simultaneously. They had- the students from the university were all acting as the waiters or waitresses, and there was like three waitress or waiter or four waiters per table, so everyone got served at the same time. We had this wonderful meal.
And then after the dinner, we went- there was a ball, so we danced the night away, so to speak. And I met one of my heroes, the guy who made- what was it? Oh, darn, he’s a Swedish or Norwegian actor. I’ve forgotten his name. Anyhow, he made- oh, gosh, just a second. Hold the tape (laughter). Oh, I’ve got to remember his name. This old brain’s getting fuzzy. Anyhow, I just walked up to him. He’s a famous Swedish actor, made many famous films with Ingmar Bergman as the director, and I said- I didn’t know him. I knew him by face. That’s all I knew him by. And I just said, “I’d like you to meet” and I introduced him to Jerry Friedman, who was one of the Nobel Prize winners. I don’t know how I had- I think I had- must’ve had a few too many drinks at that time (laughter).
I do remember that. And then after that, the students ferried us back to their university, and there was a students’ dance and thing that went on till three o’clock in the morning. So, we didn’t get back to our hotel until about four o’clock in the morning (laughter). But it was a lot of fun, and cold. But- and the hotel we stayed in- no, not the ho- was right across the bay or whatever you call it, the harbor, from the Royal Household, which had one more room than Buckingham Palace as the Swedish people told us with great pride (laughter). I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but they certainly hammered it into me (laughter). But, no, those were- that was a wonderful time. And then we- when we got back, it was systems normal, get back to work. (laughter).
Les, tell me about the collaboration between IHEP in China and SLAC, and how that led to your visit to Beijing.
Ah, yes. IHEP had- so, SLAC had had this relationship with China for some time. Panofsky had been to China in the seventies, I think, and the eighties. And then in 1989, I think, Burt Richter, who was head of the lab at the time, went there. And he said- so, the Chinese were developing this accelerator or storage rings, which was very similar to the one which had been developed in SLAC called the- called SPEAR. And they were developing to go on this a detector, a solenoid detector, which was a direct copy of the one at SLAC called SPEAR- called, well, whatever it was called. Anyhow, so, when Burt came back, he asked- he arranged or we arranged that I would meet with a visiting delegation of IHEP physicists, and they also had some computer people with them.
And, you know, so, we were talking about how could we- so I went and talked to Panofsky, who was the head ex- who was now the emeritus head of the lab, no longer head. And he said, “I want this to be a true collaboration, just- not just a collaboration in terms of a name on a paper. But, you know, we’re really contributing to this. And the only way to do that is to have excellent computing networking to- between the two labs. Can you do something about this?” So, I met with their people, and I said, “Perhaps I could get a trip. I will be in Japan the week before. Perhaps I could take a side trip, you know, to IHEP.” And, so, they said, “Sure, sure, you come to Beijing.”
So, after the meeting in- at IHEP, I took a flight from IHEP to Beijing, and, at the time, it’s a very ancient airport. So, I remember that. It was pretty grim (laughter). And I was picked up in this big, big Russian-built limousine, and driven to the IHEP institute- no, not to the IHEP institute- driven to a hotel called the Friendship Hotel, which is where the Russian, quote, “experts” in the old days would be housed because, in those days, but no longer true at this time, there was a strong collaboration between Russia and China, which had actually lapsed. It wasn’t going too well at the time, which was the U.S. was trying to help along in it not going well (laughter).
So, I stayed there, and, then in the morning, was driven to IHEP, and taken to the computer room. And they had this VAX 750 or 785, that’s right, it was, two VAXs ganged together. And I’d brought with me—oh, the other thing I’d done was before I’d left Eng- before I’d left the U.S., I’d asked whether or not they could maybe connect- I knew that the only way to connect to the IHEP was actually by a phone, and the way to do that was to call the operator, and ask to be put through to somebody.
There was no direct connection, no automatic connection to something. So, I asked Pief if he could talk to T.D. Lee, who was another Nobel Prizewinner working in the U.S. but actually had strong connections to the Politburo in Beijing, whether they could put in three phone lines with direct connections. So, off we go. We wind up in IHEP, and I- this was about two weeks before I’d asked for the phone line, and damned if they didn’t have them. They were all three there. So, they showed me the phone lines, and so I brought with me a couple of modems, which enabled me to connect the phone line to a network, and connected one of them, a 9600 baud modem from Telebit, it was, it turned from out, and was able to make a connection to SLAC.
And, so, from that, we were able to make a connection to a computer, a VAX at SLAC from the VAX at this- at IHEP, and we were able to actually transmit small amounts of data. It was pretty awful, but it actually proved that we could do it. I mean, we would try and make a connection. There would be no lines available. All the lines from China to the- to- or from Beijing anyhow- to the U.S. were full at the time. Or we’d get there, but there were so much errors on the link that it would take seconds before a character would be echoed.
So, it was a proof of concept, and they could actually, you know, actually communicate with SLAC, with a computer at SLAC, and leave messages there for us. So, when I got back, I talked to various people, and we managed to get a link set up through Livermore to Timenet, which was a provider in wide area networking at the time. I think it had a 4800-bit-per-second link to China, and we were able to use that, and that was somewhat better, not much, but it was also- by the way, this was costing dollars per minute to use. I mean, it was like the ancient phone system where it’s a dollar per minute, you know, except it was three dollars a minute (laughter).
And then over the- we managed to convince the Department of Energy that we wanted something better than this, and we were successful. I was quite surprised, but we had the right people behind us. So, they funded us for $50,000 to actually get a satellite link from Point Reyes, which is about forty miles north of San Francisco, all the way to a down station, which was at the Beijing Airport. And then from the down sta- so that got us that far. Then all we had to do was get from there to IHEP.
Now, the airport is about thirty miles northeast of Beijing, and Bei- and the IHEP is about twenty miles west of Beijing, so that was nontrivial. It took us a couple of years to get that working. But, eventually, we had a connection that went via microwave from Beijing Airport to a centered sound and then via phone cables out as far as- copper cables out as far as one mile from- one or two miles from IHEP, and then I think the last bit was by fiber. I’m not sure about that.
But, anyhow, we managed to get the connection up. And once we had that, we can now transmit data at- to- you know, a few tens of kilo- a few kilobits per second, and it was actually fairly reliable. So, at this stage, there were 600 different physicists in the U.S. who had come through SLAC who could then communicate with IHEP to a gateway that we put up, and then we talked to internet, and said, “Can we connect up to internet?” And we replaced the routers which used to be DECnet routers with the Cisco routers, and we were able to use that. And I think sometime April, May of 1994, we finally had an internet connection all the way from Beijing all the way to the U.S. internet. So, it was- and that was used heavily by the experiment ever after (laughter).
Les, I wonder if you ever thought about how foundational this would be for global commerce and connectivity beyond physics.
I think it was huge. I mean, there’s some graphs, you know, where you show, like, in 1993/94, like, tens then hundreds of people being able to use the internet. And, now, you know, it’s- I think the number of Chinese people using the internet is something like 600 million or something like that, you know. So, it went from a few to hundreds of millions, you know. So, it was- it had a huge effect. The first internet website in China was put up in 1994. That was put up by IHEP. So, it’s gone from a few dedicated physicists to just about anybody has an internet link nowadays (laughter).
And then, of course, at CERN, back at CERN, the development of the World Wide Web.
(Laughter) Ah, yes. Yes, that was-
Were you involved in those early discussions at all?
Yeah. What happened then was Tim Berners-Lee made this proposal back in 1989 to David Williams, who was the head of computing at CERN, and David said, “It’s kind of looks interesting. Why don’t you go ahead with it?” So, he went again with it.
And two years later, in 1991, a guy from SLAC called Paul Kunz visited CERN, and he’d heard via the grapevine that they were devel- that Berners-Lee was developing this World Wide Web. So, he went and talked to Tim, and got a copy of the what was called the web server, in other words, the thing you always connect to from your laptop or whatever it is. And you- he brought that back to SLAC, and he installed it on the IBM mainf- actually, he installed it at SLAC, and was able to communicate over the web. And I think he had it up and running by very early- no, very late- that’s right- very late 1991 at SLAC (laughter). So, we were the first web server outside the- outside Europe. So, my bit was that I also recognized that this was a great way to get documentation done, and because we had lots of different ways of doing our documentation using things like word or using just text files. Then there were various libraries to use. And that- everyone had its good things.
But what happened in this case was this one had everything. It had a network, which you could share with anybody. You didn’t have to log in to get at stuff. You could just go to your computer, and it would connect automatically if you gave it the right address. So, one of the- so, from my point of view, it was a good way for us to centralize our documentation for computing and networking at SLAC, which is where I got involved.
At the same time, the library at SLAC had something called SPIRES, the Stanford Public Information Retrieval System, which enabled you to look at papers published in physics over the last twenty or thirty years, and get- and be able to get a copy. But to use it, you had to log on to a SLAC computer, and had to have a user ID and a password, and it became unmanageable. We had about 600 users, and we had to keep updating this, and adding new people to it, and it took time.
So, you know, somebody had to ask in advance, and then they would get an account, and then we would tell them they’d got the account, and this is your- and then you’d have to tell them the password, and off they went. But with this, you didn’t need to do it. So, the library folks, particularly a person called Louise Addis, and they’d got another person called George Crane, built an interface to the SPIRES database using some automated scripts, so that you didn’t have to have an account, and that really meant that SPIRES could be used by anybody anywhere in the world, just like you can go to any webpage you like, from pretty mu- unless it’s got some very funny security built into it.
So, that became the first real killer app that- for the internet. So, as part of this, and then particularly, you know, in part of the- my interest of actually using it for documentation, and developing scripts to enable access to databases and other things like that, I joined what was then known as the World Wide Web Wizards, WWWW, four W’s in that case and helped in my role as, you know, head of networking, and assistant director of computing, helped push the development of the ES- of the web at SLAC.
Tell me about the APS Computing Review. In what ways was that building on what the DOE had done, and to what extent was it an entirely different project with different goals?
Okay. So, I don’t- I only- okay. So, I was asked by Richter, who next year, the following year became the president of the APS, if I would set up a committee to look at what the AIP (American Institute of Physics)- that’s your group was doing in the way of computing, and what- how to move forward.
Well, I don’t know the backstory, whether there’d been complaints or whether or not this was just something they wanted an outside person to look at. But, anyhow, so I set up this committee of five, including myself, and we had a two-day meeting at the AIP. Actually, what’s the difference between the AIP and the APS?
Oh, the AIP is the umbrella organization of which the APS is one Member Society.
Oh, okay. Now that makes more sense.
That’s the simplest way to explain it.
Yeah, got it, got it. Okay. So, I set up this committee, and we met at the AIP, I suppose, headquarters or somewhere in Washington. The other members all came from the East Coast. I don’t know whether that was because the AIP was mean or whether it was just because they wanted to have it local (laughter).
Anyhow, so, we had these presentations. I’ve forgotten what they were doing at the time, but I do remember that we were heavily Cisco-oriented, and we recommended, quite naturally, that they go with a Cisco solution for their routers and switches, and it was a fairly standard way of doing it. I think they- I don’t think they’d actually made their minds up at the time.
I think they’d looked at Cisco, but they were looking at other things too, and I think the main thing we did was just cement their- the idea that they should actually focus on this one solution. And I don’t know whether they ever did but we presented the report, and that was the last we heard of it. But I just mentioned it because you’re from the AIP (laughter).
(Laughter) To what extent, Les, was the national laboratory infrastructure at the cutting edge of networking and computers beyond physics, you know, beyond the physics community in general? In other words, were people at universities thinking about this? People who were doing physics in industry, were they thinking about these things at this time, or it was really only the national laboratories?
No, I think it was definitely- it was the- the national laboratories were all bound together in networking by the Energy Sciences Network. And the Energy Sciences Network was much smaller than any of the other organizations you might think- can think of, apart from maybe some industries, yet had a need for state-of-the-art ways of distributing data among the labs because what we had at the labs were large collaborations of people from universities and from other labs who were constantly working on experiments at the labs. So, that was the thing that was driving us.
So, I think the leaders at the time, the ESnet had a slightly- but I think there was also Internet2, which was the univers- the major universities, was close on our heels, and they would- they were following very rough- very similar mechanisms for their wide area networks. The other people who were also into this, obviously the companies were interested, but, typically, companies didn’t have the same need to transport huge amounts of data. They were- there would’ve been some exceptions, but most of them, it was communication between people, person-to-person email, and stuff like that, as opposed to transmitting huge amounts of data.
That is no longer the case, but, at that time, it was- I definitely think that ESnet was a leader, followed right on its tails by Internet2 in terms of developing the leading-edge networks in the world. In Europe, there was- there were- they also had their own high-speed networks. I’ve forgotten what they were called. It was something- I think mainly they were somewhat disjointed in terms that Europe- the countries are much more independent than, say, the states in the U.S.
And, so, many of the countries had their own networks, like- let’s see, what was the- JANET was the Joint Academic Network was in the UK. I’ve forgotten what was in Amsterdam in Holland. And, eventually, they set up their umbrella organizations to bring these all together. They tended to be both at the labs and the universities. They didn’t separate out like we had done in the U.S. There wasn’t this thing where ESnet is using the same- and Internet2 are using the same technology, and they’re very close together, but they have different leaderships. I don’t know if that makes much sense to you (laughter).
Going into the late 1990s, I wonder how the BaBar, the B-factory physics at SLAC really compelled you to think about data sharing over the internet.
Yeah. So, let me think about this. So, the B-factory was, in essence, a kind of- when they cancelled the SSC, I think a lot of the money that would’ve gone to the SSC- not a lot of it, but some of it went to building the B-factory. So, the B-factory was a big experiment to be built at SLAC using an existing storage ring, the- what used to be called the positron-electron storage ring. That was PEP, yeah. So, now, okay- what was it?
They had a need to transmit data with about fifty other sites, and they wanted to be able to analyze their data not just at SLAC, but actually to use computers anywhere. They- so the data which was read from the experiment would be uploaded to- well, it would be shared with other people. There was actually a repository of data.
There was a repository at SLAC, and I think there was a repository at Colorado, but I’m not quite sure about that, to be quite honest. So, I’m trying to- ah. So, the needs for computing? Huh. I might want- let me just hold the press for a minute (laughter).
Let me look up, Control-F [Keyboard command] Sorry about this.
Take your time.
Right. Gosh. Ah, yes, yes, I remember. Yeah. So, they had a need to move a lot of data. So, the networks were capable of transmitting a lot of data. But you h- but using the standard way of doing it, they did not do very well, if you- in other words, basically, the fairness that was built into the internet meant that you were competing against everybody else who was using the network, so that if there were a lot of other people using the network, you only got one small slice of it.
So, even though the network might have a gigabit or one hundred gigabit or whatever it is links, you would be sharing that with maybe hundreds of other people. So, in order to improve your ability to get data, one had to think of ways to beat this fairness. Fairness, of course, has its good points. But, in this case, it also had its detriment.
So, we were looking at how could we get vast amounts of data from SLAC to other sites in order for them to be able to analyze it and at the same time as we were. And there were about fifty sites in IHEP- in BaBar that were involved. And, so, I got together with some what you would call computing physicists. In other words, it was a term that came into place I think in the seventies, or maybe even the late- no, probably in the seventies. You know, it was where somebody would know the physics, but they would also know the computing because computing became such an integral part of any physics that you were doing.
So, I was working with some of these [people] who were really physicists at heart and looking at how to improve the throughput. And we weren’t the only ones doing this. But the kinds of things that we came up with were to actually rather than sending one stream of data from A to B, you would actually simultaneously be sending multiple streams of data, so you’re beating the fairness. You’re increasing your chance of getting access to the internet by the number of streams that you were using.
At some stage, you would saturate, you know. If you went beyond, say, ten or twenty streams, you would find that you wouldn’t get any improvement. And then the other thing was the network would typically send a certain amount of data before it was requesting acknowledgement of the receiver getting the data. And if it- if the receiver said, “I didn’t get that,” you would have to stop sending data, and you’d resend the data that he had not got.
The other thing that we did was to increase the window of the unacknowledged data. And when you put these two together, you could have a much-improved throughput, like factors of ten improved throughput. And we published several papers on this. We were not alone in this, I don’t say, we- I mean, but we were part of the move, you know, to- for people who really need to move a lot of data around to come up with ways to do that. And that actually was quite successful. As I say, we were able to get ten times as much data through as we could, and if we used the standard TCP/IP protocol, well, rather than enhancing it by adding these multiple streams of TCP/IP. Does that make sense? (laughter).
It does, it does, It’s a whirlwind.
Yeah, well, it worked (laughter). And, I mean, at the same time, we would actually be quite careful. We would actually- in order not to be hogs, and take all the network traffic, we would typically throttle the performance so that we would only take, say, eighty percent of the traffic. And if you looked at the internet traffic, you would find that most of the traffic was only using, like, ten to twenty percent of the data. And, so, you- they- you- the impact that you would have would actually be relatively minor. But that was quite tricky (laughter).
More broadly speaking, what were some of the technological advances that allowed for this exponential growth in networking speed, culminating with, you know, among other things, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizing what you and your team were achieving?
Okay. So, obviously, the first thing that happened was you had to increase the speed of the links between the various places. Originally, the links would be, like, ten or one hundred megabits a second, which seemed enormous for the time. But every four or five years, there’d be a big improvement. Like, you’d go from, say, ten megabits a second to one hundred megabits per second; from one hundred megabits per second to a gigabit per second; from a gigabit to one hundred gigabits. And now we’re struggling to go to a few hundred gigabits per second. So, that would be the first thing: more bandwidth. The second thing was this idea of being- I don’t like to use the word “unfair” but, you know, actually using multiple streams to be able to transmit more data simultaneously, and also bigger windows. So, to do that though, you had to have somebody who really understood how to do this, and/or you had to get applications which would do this for you automatically.
And there was some applications that came along. There was one GridFTP, which was one. There was BBCP, XRoute D, and lots of funny names. But, anyhow, those came along at the same time, and enabled much faster speeds. At the moment, I guess, you know, that GridFTP—those three I mentioned are still in use, and there’s other ones coming along.
There’s a company called Zettar, which have a very effective way of using the bandwidth and getting the throughput required. So, it’s become quite an industry now. I mean, the industries in it- Zettar is a commercial company. It’s not a private company. So, it’s getting into the public domain, so to speak.
Les, tell me a little bit about some of your advisory work and visit to developing countries to ensure that the World Wide Web actually would cover the world, and not just East Asia and Europe and North America.
Yeah, okay. So, I think what happened there was we developed this tool called PingER, which enabled us to monitor the internet, in particular the internet for high-energy physics sites. And that was very useful for us because we were able to identify problems. We were able to identify where should we store programs that can be shared between everybody? Who has the best connection, the most reliable connection as apart from the major labs? In that case, it turned out to be University of Colorado.
So, that went on till about 2000, about the year 2000 or 2001. In 2001, I was invited to go to Italy to a research lab there. I- what was it? IT- oh, gosh. Anyhow, this lab this just outside Trieste, which was set up by a theoretician, a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize at- in- Nobel Prize in theoretical physics earlier. And so, they asked me to give a talk on, you know, and to make presentations on how to measure the network, and in particular their interest was how to measure the network to developing countries, not just the high-energy physics sites. So, I pointed out that actually PingER was built for this. It didn’t take a lot of bandwidth. It was very minor bandwidth it’s going to require to actually make the measurements, yet, at the same time, it could measure hundreds of sites without any difficulty whatsoever. International Center for Theoretical Physics- sorry about that- ICTP.
So, we entered into a collaboration with them to start monitoring what was referred to as the digital divide, in other words, the part of the internet that did not have good connectivity. And, of course, Africa figured pretty heavily in the number of- in countries which had this problem. So, we started- they- ICTP- internet center, yeah- had a lot of contacts in various parts of Africa, and so they would contact their members in those countries, and we would set up links to computers which they provided, you know, a name for, and started making monitoring.
So, that was the start of it. Then, we got involved with Pakistan, and what happened there was I ran in two thou- in what was the year? I forget what year it was. Anyhow, I ran into- in the year 2000, that’s right- into a person called Arshad Ali at a meeting that we had- oh, they invited us to give a talk in Pakistan at a summer school on monitoring the network, and how the network works, and a whole series of five or six lectures that I gave there. They- so, after that meeting- the meeting was not organized by Arshad. It was organized by another team. After the meeting, Arshad had invited me to visit his university in Islamabad, and give a talk to his students, and so I did okay. That was all very nice. I also got a trip to the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Khyber Pass, which was irrelevant but very exciting (laughter). We were escorted by a truck in front of us with a thirty-millimeter cannon on it, and truck behind us with a thirty-millimeter cannon, and I-
And of course, this is before 9/11.
This is before 9/11, yeah. They wouldn’t- you couldn’t go up after it. And, so, they took us up to- this is kind of an aside. They took us up to a- the border patrol place, and they took us up to the border itself. And we looked down over Afghanistan and the road that goes down and saw the trucks all winding their way slowly down the hill into Afghanistan, and then you could see the refugee camps right on the border. And they had a- they entertained us afterwards with a wonderful meal; really exciting. But I digress (laughter).
So, back to where we were. So, anyhow, I didn’t see Arshad again until in a meeting in Brazil, and he proposed that we set up a- what would you call it? A collaboration where the university in Pakistan would send two students to SLAC for a year to work at SLAC at Stanford on whatever I wanted them to work on, which was network monitoring and networking in general, and also trips back for me to Pakistan to, you know, rally support and to give presentations. And, so, that went on for a long time. It was a very successful collaboration. I- we- as I say, we had about ten or eleven years of people coming from Pakistan, and there were some very, very good students. Many have gone—some of stayed in the U- have come back to the U.S., and actually are working here now. There’s at least one working in Australia. I keep in contact with quite a lot of them.
So, [background sound] out of that, we developed- we further developed PingER to be- to monitor over 800 sites around the world. We were able to use this data to identify which parts that, say, of Africa are really having problems. South Africa’s not doing too badly. You’d also be able to see the effect, let’s say, of the World Cup in Africa because, prior to that, many- they built many new links around the coast of Africa, running down fibers and undersea fibers running to South Africa, and so you’d have a much better thing. And then after, it fell back into its normal case. So, that was it.
I also had a few trips to Africa, which was- I’d never been to Africa before. But this- I think I went to about eight different countries, and that was really quite exciting seeing that. I think the most exciting country, though I wouldn’t go back there, was the Congo itself, you know, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was really quite exciting in the wrong sense (laughter).
We were driving into Kinshasa from the university, and one of the guys in the- we were taking photographs as we went through and as we went through one of the villages on the way. And then we were stopped by the police, and they said, “We want to see your cameras,” and they wanted to delete the film. And we said, “Well, can we complain about this?” They said, “Sure, you can. You just have to take a forty-mile trip out of your way.” So, we just paid the fine and got out of there (laughter). It was somewhat chaotic. I know when we got to crossing the Congo River to go to Brazzaville, coming- we- coming back, we’d booked a trip to come back with the—with somebody at five o’clock or it was six- I think about five o’clock. And we got there in time, and he said, “Well, the boat’s not full. I can’t go yet. I have to wait for a few other people to come.” And, eventually, we had to pay for the empty seats too, otherwise we were going to be stuck in Brazzaville for the night, and that was not something to be wanting (laughter).
Anyhow, so, we had trips to Africa to spread the word there; a lot of talks given. The- and then after that, we got hooked up with Malaysia, and that was a much more formal arrangement, but it wasn’t as successful. But it was a- we had two years of good relations with them; no bad relations. It just kind of fell into disuse after a while.
Les, given how important the internet has become to people’s daily lives, I wonder if you’ve ever reflected on your work in humanitarian terms, in other words, internet connectivity almost as a human right throughout the world.
Yeah, I like to think that (laughter). Yeah. I guess it’s certainly- I think, you know, the stuff in Africa has definitely brought home the importance of having such connectivity. And you- if you start to read the journals and other things, you know, which aren’t necessarily reported very widely, you can see that it makes a huge difference to some of the places, you know, they- that they can order things in advance and, you know, get- maybe then go and pick them up, and that makes a big difference to- from- or even have them delivered. I remember there was one case where a guy would, on his bicycle, would pedal from village to village, and would set up a link to a satellite, you know, so that the village could communicate while he was there, and then he would go on to the next village, or something like that. There was a lot of things going on like that.
And the other thing which we found, which isn’t quite the same thing, is we were able to watch the news items, and when you’d see, let’s say, a tsunami in Japan, you could actually then see what did the tsunami in Japan do? And then you’d look at it, and you’d find out that, oh, all the traffic which used to be going from Japan to the U.S. suddenly stopped and started going in the opposite direction. And you’d find out, oh, a cable got cut. It got stretched too much.
So, and then you read of other things like insurrections, what- you can find the effect upon the internet, you know. Suddenly, there’ll be shutdowns, like Egypt shut down its network at one of the insurrections, you know, and other things like that. So, it gets into the- you can actually see things. Now, it’s not to say this is the way to look for it because it turns out that you can see this much quicker if you’re running the internet links themselves because you’re monitoring those every second, and so you can see a h- a sudden spike or a sudden drop in there.
So, the- whereas we kind of look at the data the next day, and we can then see the effect, oh, what happened yesterday? But it’s interesting that you can actually see all kinds of funny things going on in the network. And we even had a webpage, you know, which had about thirty or forty different incidents, as I call them, you know, of things, and it would show what the impact was, what the event was, and what the impact was. So, that was a different type of thing, but it was- also, at first, it was very valuable. But after a while, as I say, the companies running the internet itself could find- could spot these things a lot faster than we could.
Les, back at SLAC, I’m curious why there was such intense interest with regard to networking and the LCLS and LCLS-II. Why specifically that experiment was there so much discussion about networking and protocols and connectivity around the world?
Yeah, okay. So, the LCLS, which was the Linear Coherent Light Source, which is basically a laser, which is created by bending electrons, and the light goes straight on, they can’t go in some other direction, so the- this enabled you to look at things like molecular structures and things like that in much more detail, and it creates a lot of data. Now, the first LCLS, which I think turned on around, I’m guessing, 2009, around about that time, only had 120 pulses a second. That means an electron pulse comes down, creates the laser pulse, which goes into your equipment, and then you look at what happens.
So, then sometime around 2014, the next generation was proposed, and that would be a laser which instead of using 120 pulses a second actually could have up to a million electron pulses per second, and therefore a million X-ray pulses per second. The LC- the original LCLS was already pushing the state-of-the-art in being able to transfer data for some- from some experiments. The amount of data you wanted to transmit to a computing center such as LBL, Lawrence Berkeley Lab in Berkeley, was actually pushing the network, even in those days.
And when one thought about, well, now, you’re going to increase the repetition rate from one hundred to a million, and your data rates would go up by, in some cases, up to, say, a factor of 10,000, the amount of data you’d want to transmit is just going to overwhelm anything we have today. So, since I was at SLAC, and that’s where the LCLS is, I was asked to look at, you know, how are we going to get this data by the LCLS computer networking folks? And, so, we worked with ESnet and other people like that to see how—what would be the next generation of networking. And a couple of- ESnet was going to increase its bandwidth by, let’s just say, 400 bit- 400 gigabits per second, which would be one step of it. But to take advantage of that, we had to figure out how best to line the data up, and get it sent over the network. And, so, we worked- we’d been working with the physicists on these things like GridFTP and- what was it? XRoute D and BBCP and things like that, which were software programs.
So, we also had gone in- a company called Zettar contacted us, and they were building a solution which was really tailored for very high data transfer for specific types of data that you wish to get. And it fitted very well into our plans. So, we got together with Chin- his name is Chin Fang- who is the CIO of this company, to look at how we could take advantage of what Zettar was doing, and also maybe guide Zettar in a sense that these are our requirements. How are you going to meet them? Can you meet them already, or how are you going to get there by the timeframes that we’re looking at?
And, so, we would tell them what are the timeframes when we’re really going to need this huge amount of data, and plotting it maybe versus what you might expect the data rates to go up at just if you went through the normal upgrading of networks, and what we were going to require for us. And, so, that was a collaboration between Zettar and people at the LCLS, the LCLS computer physicists, I would put them, and myself. And it’s been going on since 2014. I’m still involved in that. We put a- we’ve put out several papers on it.
They, Zettar has also been involved in various- what would you call it? Runoffs, competitions, I think you’d put it- and has shown that they actually do beat the next one by almost a factor of two, you know. So, they don’t just talk the story, they actually can actually transmit a huge amount of data. So, I mean, LCLS-II is just turning on again, but it’s still- we’ve still got a couple of years before they really start creating an enormous amount of data. But within, say, by 2004, this stuff that comes from Zettar or from whoever else starts to compete with them, is going to be really necessary for this.
They’re not the only type of experiment that needs this amount of data. I believe human genome has huge amounts of data to transmit around. So, there’s- and the oil companies, you know, when they do a seismic explosion underground to try and map out the geology, they create huge amounts of data. So, there are several different industries, as well as, you know, this esoteric research done at the national labs. So, that’s another thing that I’ve been working on, and still am working on, that one. That’s my c- that uses up my spare time (laughter).
Les, as SLAC has increasingly moved into astrophysics and even cosmology, what work have those kinds of experiments needed from a computer and networking perspective?
That’s a very interesting question. I have not heard from any astrophysicists about needing huge amounts of data.
I’m sure there must be some. Like, if you would- if- I- well, that’s not quite true. The one in Chile- I’ve forgotten what it’s called- the LSST, Large Space Synoptic Telescope, they have huge amounts of data. They need to transmit that data to the University of Illinois, Chicago, and possibly to SLAC too, to archive it, and then make it available to anybody. Obviously, at first, it’s only available to the experimentalists themselves. But there’s a written agreement that after some amount of time, this data becomes available to anybody, including amateur astronomers. So, that could be a game-changer because there are large amounts of data. And if you imagine that amateur astronomers might be- just have a little Mac at home on a- I don’t know how they’re going to get the data (laughter).
But that certainly is one because they- when they run, they only run at night, for obvious reasons, but they do gather huge amounts of data. That’s about the only one that I know of at the moment, but I imagine there must be other astronomy experiments which are going to have a lot of data. But that one is the one that we’ve actually talked to a little bit, but not an awful lot yet. As I say, initially, we’re dealing mainly with the LCLS-II.
Les, this brings us right up to the present, and so I’d like to ask for the last part of our talk a broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we’ll end looking to the future. So, I’d like to come back to the sentiment you expressed about how lucky it was that you had these interests in networking in computers, and you didn’t even know by the time you had considered this opportunity at SLAC that there would be this remarkable confluence of your interest and SLAC’s needs, right? Now, if you look at your career in total, your contributions are in networking and computing, and so it begs the question counterfactually, you could have done these things in many different industries, right?
There could’ve been this need in different kinds of science, in- for commercial applications, for communications. Why then physics, why high-energy physics, and why SLAC? In other words, why these areas in this institution that allowed you to be at the cutting edge of all of these developments over your long career?
Yeah. Okay. So, I think one of the things that SLAC gave me was a lot of freedom. Obviously, when I was an experimental physicist in the high-energy physics group, being in a research establishment or in a research group, it was obvious I would have lots of freedom to do anything. And the requirement- I think a very nice part of that was Dick Taylor was not a- he was very hands-off in his management style. Point you at the problem, go fix it. And so that enabled me to, you know, just do what I wanted as long as I constantly showed that this was benefiting the experiment. Obviously, I had to show something for it.
I think when I got into networking, networking was still in its early days. So, at least for the first few years, it was still- even though it was an operations group, it still had a very strong research arm to it. And I- that- I was able to do that because the network was in such a- I don’t- I wouldn’t put it shambles, but it was in such a new- newly emerging thing that research was obviously an important thing. I think as time went on, that became less of a case. One could buy networking off the shelf. One could buy Cisco switches. One could buy, you know, any- all-pretty anything, and anyone could buy the software to monitor and things like that.
So, that- so, at that stage, to some extent, I kind of still continued my net- my research activities, and, to some extent, left- and that may be a mistake- a lot of the running of the network to other members of the team. And, so, I think towards the end, I was still doing the research, but not as much as in the past, relying on others to run the network itself, which may have been a mistake, but it’s a fact (laughter). I don’t know if that answers your question (laughter).
It is interesting though. Of all the- it’s not just your career, but it’s really that these things are happening anywhere first in physics.
Ah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think for many a year, I mean, the- given the Cold War, high-energy physics definitely had the pizzazz and funding that really enabled one to do things under the guise of it being advantageous to high-energy physics. That’s very definitely not the case now.
I mean, the SSC got canceled in whatever, 1993 or whatever it was. Some smaller experiments took its place, but now it’s all- the main high-energy physics site, of course, is in Europe at CERN. Many of the high-energy physicists who I know and worked with in the early days have now evolved, should we say- I don’t know whether it’s the right word- into other things. They’ve joined- certainly the computer sided people have joined things like the LSST or the LCLS.
I mean, I think both of those two experiments have a lot of ex-high-energy physicists in them. So, that’s another things that’s happened. And the funding for high-energy physics is not dried up but if the—in the U.S., I mean, the only high-energy physics place is Fermilab, and- I don’t know. It’s definitely changed. I’m trying to think of other things.
I think, I mean, SLAC certainly is not a high-energy physics lab now. It is a mixed physics, in particular, driven by LCLS. But there- it also has collaborations in astronomy, in biology, and other things like that. So, Fermilab is the- and Brookhaven is also no longer high-energy physics really. It’s other things. So, I think that’s just part of the evolution. Without the- well, I mean, if you- why did high-energy physics have anything to do with the Cold War and- but it didn’t. I mean, we did not develop anything like a laser that pointed up into the sky, and shot down planes or anything like that, you know. It was- so, it was just luck I think for high-energy physics that it got chosen as the standard bearer for physics and for funding.
Les, for my last question, we’ll look to the future. You created these systems essentially out of whole cloth. All of these things did not exist, and you created them. Looking forward as computers become increasingly more powerful, as we- as we’re at the dawn of quantum computing, what do you see as the challenges that the networking will be able to keep up with the computers and the data, to what extent is this an infrastructural one where it’s just making things work as well within existing systems, and to what extent will there need to be creativity on the order of what you have achieved in your career, thinking about things that didn’t exist previously?
Wow, that’s a big one (laughter). So, what’s going to change? Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s certainly true that no longer does one ship tapes around. That’s long gone. I think it was around 2000 or something like that it became- it did- became no longer sensible to ship data around by tapes. The network was beginning to make it.
Now, what- when an inflection point like that happens again, I don’t know what else we can transmit data around by. And we’ve got the network, the network can keep increasing in speed, you know, more fibers, more modes running on a fiber, ganging together multiple fibers so that you can get higher speeds, but all that’s happening now. I must say, it’s becoming harder. I mean, it used to be you went from 1 megabit per second to ten megabits a second, to one hundred megabits a second, to a gigabit to one hundred gigabits. Now, we’re going to, say, 200 to 400 megabits- gigabits in the same type of time period. So, it’s like computing itself, which, you know, it used to be you’d follow Moore’s Law, and you would double the speed of the machine every two years.
But, at some stage, you couldn’t speed up the clock any faster because the size of the components that were on the chip got down to molecular sizes or got down to sizes you could no longer etch into the chip. And, so, at that stage, they started doing things in parallel. So, you have multiple CPUs on a single chip all working together, and so that was the step there. Now, in networking, that’s interesting.
How do you parallelize networking? We’ve done some of that, as I say, with what we did with the parallel streams. And Zettar is certainly in a leading state in that case. But, I mean, at some stage, I don’t know what the next step is after that. I would say the next step is coming from people like Zettar and from GridFTP. And GridFTP’s been around for ten, fifteen years.
So, I mean, you- that’s not exactly brand new. Zettar’s been around for five years. That helps a bit. But how the next step comes is interesting. I don’t know. And quantum computing, I mean, and, I mean, quantum computing is certainly interesting, but so is the stuff you get from people like NVIDIA, you know, these parallel computing and all that. I mean, that’s bringing huge things.
The quantum computing, I mean, it’s fascinating, but it still has a way to go, and so I don’t know when it’s going to really take off, you know, when- and, you know, keeping things cold at close to the temp- those temperatures is a nontrivial job, you know. You got- I mean, you look at those things, and they look weird. They look like science fiction, you know, and the thing they drop into the bath, you know, it’s- I wish them luck but I wait to see it (laughter).
Les, it’s been great fun spending this time with you, listening to all of your perspective and insight over the course of your career. I’m so happy we were able to do this, and I know SLAC is thrilled to have your story on record as well. Thank you so much.
Oh, thank you. It’s been wonderful.