Mar 20, 2011

Our Hope for the Future...

The President meets with the finalists of the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search in the East Room
The other evening, while watching the news, I learned of the winners of the Intel Science Talent Search.  They were a very impressive group of young scientists and engineers about to embark on what we all hope will be rewarding and fulfilling careers.  And I think there's a second hope that we and our nation will benefit from their talent and hard work.

The Intel Science Talent Search is a cooperative effort between the Intel Corporation and the Society for Science and the Public (SSP).  According to the SSP Website, "
The Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) is the nation’s most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors. Since 1942, first in partnership with Westinghouse and beginning in 1998 with Intel, SSP has provided a national stage for the country's best and brightest young scientists to present original research to nationally recognized professional scientists.”  In 1957-58, I not only had the opportunity to participate in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search; I became a semifinalist.  How that happened is interesting.
The Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab (1951)

I have always had an interest in science.  In the early 1950's, I begged for the A.C. Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab as a Christmas present, and I received it, probably in 1951.  I described that event in this blog in 2007.  That single gift had a profound impact on my life.  It introduced me to a world of subatomic physics in much more accessible, tangible way than I had ever experienced through reading about it.

The centerpiece of the Atomic Energy Lab was its Wilson Cloud Chamber.  This is a device that enables its user to see the tracks of subatomic particles as they are being emitted from a radioactive source.  These tiny particles leave a path of electrical charge as they move through a medium such as air.  The Wilson Cloud Chamber causes condensation to take place on the charged atoms left along the path of the subatomic particle.  The first time I saw that wisp of vapor, a tiny filament of "smoke", I was hooked.  I wanted to be an atomic scientist.  Suddenly, I could see a phenomenon that supported the theories.

A few years later I attended Mont Pleasant High School in my home town of Schenectady, New York.  This was one of three so-called "technical" high schools in the state.  It had a curriculum available that concentrated on science and math to a greater degree than other schools and it had the faculty to support the program.  I was fortunate to cross paths with an earth science teacher named Donald B. Stone, a co-author of the leading earth science text at the time.

Mr. Stone was thoroughly acquainted with the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and introduced me to it.  He fervently encouraged me to enter the competition and said he would assist me in any way he could.  I agreed to enter and informed Mr. Stone that I wanted to develop a state-of-the-art Wilson Cloud Chamber.  I had in mind a chamber with every variable I could think of, one in which I could vary the volume of the chamber, the gas used in it, the type and timing of the lighting, the pressures involved, etc.  Mr. Stone agreed that this would be an appropriate and challenging subject for research.

At that time, our school system had established a cooperative program with the General Electric Research Lab (located in Schenectady) to assist and encourage promising students in science and math.  GE would provide mentors from their "faculty" of scientists and engineers to guide high school students who wanted to conduct independent research.  Through Mr. Stone's endorsement, I found myself being helped by a General Electric scientist, Dr. Donald H. Miller, in the pursuit of an award from Westinghouse Corporation, one of GE's major competitors!

An image created in a bubble chamber

Dr. Miller was a leading researcher in the field of bubble chambers which were devices that succeeded the cloud chambers and were then the latest in research instruments for studying subatomic particles.  He had successfully built a number of liquid hydrogen bubble chambers used for research into the origins of subatomic particles such as the recently discovered Pi- and Mu Mesons.  He encouraged me to abandon the idea of the super sophisticated Wilson Cloud Chamber.  In lieu of that project, he suggested that I try to build a liquid freon bubble chamber, something that had not been successfully done.  I took his advice and began the design of such a device.  Under Dr. Miller's guidance I learned a great deal about freon, the phases of organic compound gases, pressure-temperature-state diagrams, and other ideas I had never previously encountered.

A few months later, the deadline for research submittals approached.  Although I had not yet completed the bubble chamber to the point where it could be tested, I documented my research and design, as well as the extent of completion of the project.  This is what I submitted to the competition.  I did not expect to do well because the whole process had taken months longer than I ever expected and I had no evidence that my design would work.

I waited for a couple of anxious months.  No one was more surprised than I when I was notified that I had been selected as a semi-finalist.  Out of 40,000 entries, my project was one of 200 semi-final competitors.  I was not down selected into the final pool of 100.  Those people got to go to Washington DC, all expenses paid, and got to meet President Eisenhower in person!

There was an unexpected result of all this.  I began to receive unsolicited scholarship offers from colleges and universities all over the country and Canada.  These were schools I hadn't even applied to!  I never followed up because I had already decided where I wanted to go to school.

I am still grateful to all those who made this experience possible -- my grandmother for the gift of the Atomic Energy Lab, Mr. Stone for his insight and encouragement, Dr. Miller for guiding me toward the most current technology at the time, and all the teachers who had guided and encouraged me up to that point in my education.  I count myself as very blessed by encounters completely out of my control.  What a great adventure!  

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