Tuesday, November 8, 2011


From Ting and I: A Memoir

The Pennsylvania State University, 1966– 69

Part of what attracted me to the research assistant position I took at Penn State’s Center for Air Environment Studies (CAES) was the likelihood that I would be admitted to the graduate physics program with a full U.S. Public Health Service Traineeship, with tuition and living expenses paid, for the two years needed to get the M.S. degree. I had graduated from Cornell in physics with honors and had scored at the 99th percentile in the verbal and 99th percentile in the quantitative aptitude tests in the Graduate Record Exams that I took my senior year. Indeed, I not only was admitted to Penn State but was awarded the Traineeship.

The work at CAES dealt with pollutant particles and gases in the air, and I had my first technical paper published, dealing with using light to measure airborne dirt, “Effect of Humidity on Light-scattering Methods of Measuring Particle Concentrations.” It was a great pleasure to see it in print. As with many of my subsequent publications, it dealt with subtleties in measurement and data analysis and interpretation, especially as applied to airborne particles. Eventually, over a thirty-year span, I had more than 125 papers published in refereed technical journals, some of which I was quite proud.

At CAES I also did some lecturing, primarily to undergraduates who would become air pollution technicians. The work there was a nice mix of experiments, data analysis, lecturing and writing. A colleague, John Davis, became a lifelong friend.

Somewhat sadly, I learned of the transient nature of much professional achievement early, at CAES. The widow of a noted engineer/scientist donated his two score technical publications, done in a related technical area, to the Center. We accepted gracefully, but when I looked them over afterward, they were already outdated or of marginal significance. Sic transit gloria mundi. Science had marched on.

I also learned about transience of scientific fads. Lasers were new and were “in.” They had become available commercially only a few years earlier, and my M.S. thesis advisor and I were able to get Federal research funding to use them in particle measurement studies. From this came my M.S. thesis and, later, three technical publications. The work was also the basis of a successful grant award that funded work over the next Christmas and summer vacations. It was during such a summer vacation period that I met the young woman who was to become my wife. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, which is anatomically odd.

I learned, too, that graduate students are cheap labor, thus likely to be exploited. When my M.S. thesis advisor wanted even more work done before signing off, I appealed to the physics department chairman, who said, in essence: “Hold. Enough.” A few years later, at Harvard, I had a somewhat similar showdown with my doctoral thesis advisor; and I gave him the ultimatum that I would be leaving at the end of the year, regardless. He relented. Three solid technical papers resulted from that dissertation.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” wrote Lord Acton, probably without the teacher-student relationship in mind.

Of the three colleges I attended, Cornell, Penn State, and Harvard, I liked Penn State the best. The people seemed nicest, least pretentious, the setting very pretty. I lived a couple of miles off campus and had a car, but I often took my bicycle back and forth, first to work, later to school. There was not a lot of traffic then.


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