Physics and the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

When I arrived at Berkeley in 1981 to start graduate school in physics, the single action I took that secured my future as a physicist, more than spending scores of sleepless nights studying quantum mechanics by Schiff or electromagnetism by Jackson —was buying a motorcycle!  Why motorcycle maintenance should be the Tao of Physics was beyond me at the time—but Zen is transcendent.

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The Quantum Sadistics

In my first semester of grad school I made two close friends, Keith Swenson and Kent Owen, as we stayed up all night working on impossible problem sets and hand-grading a thousand midterms for an introductory physics class that we were TAs for.  The camaraderie was made tighter when Keith and Kent bought motorcycles and I quickly followed suit, buying my first wheels –– a 1972 Suzuki GT550.    It was an old bike, but in good shape and ready to ride, so the three of us began touring around the San Francisco Bay Area together on weekend rides.  We went out to Mt. Tam, or up to Vallejo, or around the North and South Bay.  Kent thought this was a very cool way for physics grads to spend their time and he came up with a name for our gang –– the “Quantum Sadistics”!  He even made a logo for our “colors” that was an eye shedding a tear drop shaped like the dagger of a quantum raising operator.

At the end of the first year, Keith left the program, not sure he was the right material for a physics degree, and moved to San Diego to head up the software arm of a start-up company that he had founder’s shares in.  Kent and I continued at Berkeley, but soon got too busy to keep up the weekend rides.  My Suzuki was my only set of wheels, so I tooled around with it, keeping it running when it really didn’t want to go any further.  I had to pull its head and dive deep into it to adjust the rockers.  It stayed together enough for a trip all the way down Highway 1 to San Diego to visit Keith and back, and a trip all the way up Highway 1 to Seattle to visit my grandparents and back, having ridden the full length of the Pacific Coast from Tijuana to Vancouver.  Motorcycle maintenance was always part of the process.

Andrew Lange

After a few semesters as a TA for the large lecture courses in physics, it was time to try something real and I noticed a job opening posted on a bulletin board.  It was for a temporary research position in Prof. Paul Richard’s group.  I had TA-ed for him once, but knew nothing of his research, and the interview wasn’t even with him, but with a graduate student named Andrew Lange.  I met with Andrew in a ground-floor lab on the south side of Birge Hall.  He was soft-spoken and congenial, with round architect glasses, fine sandy hair and had about him a hint of something exotic.  He was encouraging in his reactions to my answers.  Then he asked if I had a motorcycle.  I wasn’t sure if he already knew, or whether it was a test of some kind, so I said that I did.  “Do you work on it?”, he asked.  I remember my response.  “Not really,” I said.  In my mind I was no mechanic.  Adjusting the overhead rockers was nothing too difficult.  It wasn’t like I had pulled the pistons.

“It’s important to work on your motorcycle.”

For some reason, he didn’t seem to like my answer.  He probed further.  “Do you change the tires or the oil?”.  I admitted that I did, and on further questioning, he slowly dragged out my story of pulling the head and adjusting the cams.  He seemed to relax, like he had gotten to the bottom of something.  He then gave me some advice, focusing on me with a strange intensity and stressing very carefully, “It’s important to work on your motorcycle.”

I got the job and joined Paul Richards research group.  It was a heady time.  Andrew was designing a rocket-borne far-infrared spectrometer that would launch on a sounding rocket from Nagoya, Japan.  The spectrometer was to make the most detailed measurements ever of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation during a five-minute free fall at the edge of space, before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.  But the spectrometer was missing a set of key optical elements known as far-infrared dichroic beam splitters.  Without these beam splitters, the spectrometer was just a small chunk of machined aluminum.  It became my job to create these beam splitters.  The problem was that no one knew how to do it.  So with Andrew’s help, I scanned the literature, and we settled on a design related to results from the Ulrich group in Germany.

Our spectral range was different than previous cases, so I created a new methodology using small mylar sheets, patterned with photolithography, evaporating thin films of aluminum on both sides of the mylar.  My first photomasks were made using an amazingly archaic technology known as rubylith that had been used in the 70’s to fabricate low-level integrated circuits.  Andrew showed me how to cut the fine strips of red plastic tape at a large scale that was then photo-reduced for contract printing.  I modeled the beam splitters with equivalent circuits to predict the bandpass spectra, and learned about Kramers-Kronig transforms to explain an additional phase shift that appeared in the interferometric tests of the devices.  These were among the first metamaterials ever created (although this was before that word existed), with an engineered magnetic response for millimeter waves.  I fabricated the devices in the silicon fab on the top floor of the electrical engineering building on the Berkeley campus.  It was one of the first university-based VLSI fabs in the country, with high-class clean rooms and us in bunny suits.  But I was doing everything but silicon, modifying all their carefully controlled processes in the photolithography bay.  I made and characterized a full set of 5 of these high-tech beam splitters–right before I was ejected from the lab and banned.  My processes were incompatible with the VLSI activities of the rest of the students.  Fortunately, I had completed the devices, with a little extra material to spare.

I rode my motorcycle with Andrew and his friends around the Bay Area and up to Napa and the wine country.  One memorable weekend Paul had all his grad students come up to his property in Mendocino County to log trees.  Of course, we rode up on our bikes.  Paul’s land was high on a coastal mountain next to the small winery owned by Charles Kittel (the famous Kittel of “Solid State Physics”).  The weekend was rustic.  The long-abandoned hippie-shack on the property was uninhabitable so we roughed it.  After two days of hauling and stacking logs, I took a long way home riding along dark roads under tall redwoods.

Andrew moved his operation to the University of Nagoya, Japan, six months before the launch date.  The spectrometer checked out perfectly.  As launch day approached, it was mounted into the nose cone of the sounding rocket, continuing to pass all calibration tests.  On the day of launch, we held our breath back in Berkeley.  There was a 12 hour time difference, then we received the report.  The launch was textbook perfect, but at the critical moment when the explosive nose-cone bolts were supposed to blow, they failed.  The cone stayed firmly in place, and the spectrometer telemetered back perfect measurements of the inside of the rocket all the way down until it crashed into the Pacific, and the last 9 months of my life sank into the depths of the Marianas Trench.  I read the writing on the thin aluminum wall, and the following week I was interviewing for a new job up at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the DOE national lab high on the hill overlooking the Berkeley campus.

Eugene Haller

The  instrument I used in Paul Richard’s lab to characterize my state-of-the-art dichroic beamsplitters was a far-infrared Fourier-transform spectrometer that Paul had built using a section of 1-foot-diameter glass sewer pipe.  Bob McMurray, a graduate student working with Prof. Eugene Haller on the hill, was a routine user of this makeshift spectrometer, and I had been looking over Bob’s shoulder at the interesting data he was taking on shallow defect centers in semiconductors.   The work sounded fascinating, and as Andrew’s Japanese sounding rocket settled deeper into the ocean floor, I arranged to meet with Eugene Haller in his office at LBL.

I was always clueless about interviews.  I never thought about them ahead of time, and never knew what I needed to say.  On the other hand, I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish.  I think this gave me a certain solid confidence that may have come through.  So I had no idea what Eugene was getting at as we began the discussion.  He asked me some questions about my project with Paul, which I am sure I answered with lots of details about Kramers-Kronig and the like.  Then came the question strangely reminiscent of when I first met Andrew Lange:  Did I work on my car?  Actually, I didn’t have a car, I had a motorcycle, and said so.  Well then, did I work on my motorcycle?  He had that same strange intensity that Andrew had when he asked me roughly the same question.  He looked like a prosecuting attorney waiting for the suspect to incriminate himself.  Once again, I described pulling the head and adjusting the rockers and cams.

Eugene leaned back in his chair and relaxed.  He began talking in the future tense about the project I would be working on.  It was a new project for the new Center for Advanced Materials at LBL, for which he was the new director.  The science revolved around semiconductors and especially a promising new material known as GaAs.  He never actually said I had the job … all of a sudden it just seemed to be assumed.  When the interview was over, he simply asked me to give him an answer in a few days if I would come up and join his group.

I didn’t know it at the time, by Eugene had a beautiful vintage Talbot roadster that was his baby.  One of his loves was working on his car.  He was a real motor head and knew everything about the mechanics.  He was also an avid short-wave radio enthusiast and knew as much about vacuum tubes as he did about transistors.  Working on cars (or motorcycles) was a guaranteed ticket into his group.  At a recent gathering of his former students and colleagues for his memorial, similar stories circulated about that question:  Did you work on your car?  The answer to this one question mattered more than any answer you gave about physics.

I joined Eugene Haller’s research group at LBL in March of 1984 and received my PhD on topics of semiconductor physics in 1988.  My association with his group opened the door to a post-doc position at AT&T Bell Labs and then to a faculty position at Purdue University where I currently work on the physics of oncology in medicine and have launched two biotech companies—all triggered by the simple purchase of a motorcycle.

Andrew Lange’s career was particularly stellar.  He joined the faculty of Cal Tech, and I was amazed to read in Science magazine in 2004 or 2005, in a section called “Nobel Watch”, that he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for his work on BoomerAng that had launched and monitored a high-altitude balloon as it circled the South Pole taking unprecedented data on the CMB that constrained the amount of dark matter in the universe.  Around that same time I invited Paul Richards to Purdue to give our weekly physics colloquium to talk about his own work on MAXIMA. There was definitely a buzz going around that the BoomerAng and MAXIMA collaborations were being talked about in Nobel circles. The next year, the Nobel Prize of 2006 was indeed awarded for work on the Cosmic Microwave Background, but to Mather and Smoot for their earlier work on the COBE satellite.

Then, in January 2010, I was shocked to read in the New York Times that Andrew, that vibrant sharp-eyed brilliant physicist, was found lifeless in a hotel room, dead from asphyxiation.  The police ruled it a suicide.  Apparently few had known of his life-long struggle with depression, and it had finally overwhelmed him.  Perhaps he had sold his motorcycle by then.  But I wonder—if he had pulled out his wrenches and gotten to work on its engine, whether he might have been enveloped by the zen of motorcycle maintenance and the crisis would have passed him by.  As Andrew had told me so many years ago, and I wish I could have reminded him, “It’s important to work on your motorcycle.”