Wednesday, November 28, 2012


As my M.S. work wound down, it seemed appropriate to look for something different, better. I was at the top of my class at Penn State that year, and I had those fine GRE scores to try to cash in. I applied to several universities more eminent than Penn State, got accepted by most, got financial offers from some, and ended up going to Harvard University’s Division of Engineering and Applied Physics (DEAP), with a Harvard Fellowship for the first year and a U. S. Public Health Service Traineeship for succeeding years.

As it turned out, I had been well above average at Cornell, near the top at Penn State, and merely middling at Harvard. On the other hand, though I did not end up impressing Harvard, Harvard did not end up impressing me.

In DEAP at Harvard

My professors ranged from the inspiring to the depressing. The most famous prof came in, wrote equations illegibly on the blackboard, mumbled in a monotonic British accent, and did not seem to care whether we learned anything or not. His book on fluid dynamics was considered a classic. The best professor I had was Professor Howard Emmons, who taught a course on transport phenomena, delivering lectures of rare clarity on material of genuine utility to me. He hadn’t written a classic book. Such a nice man, too.

I came to Harvard planning to do my doctoral research on a device that I had invented, the variable-slit impactor with photocounting. It measured an important aspect of dust or mist particles (aerodynamic diameter) and did so with a convenient counting method (detecting light scattering events). It was not clear at first how to optimize its performance nor how to analyze the data it obtained in order to compensate for significant inherent imprecision. The device, its optimization, and its data analysis became my topics.

Although the device was novel, it had its limitations and never became a commercial instrument. The data analysis techniques I worked with (data inversion) became the source of several papers I wrote subsequently, on this device and other measurement instruments. Some of that work made me proud. In another field, similar theoretical work led to a Nobel Prize for the developers of the medical CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) scanners, which needed related sophisticated data inversion techniques to make sharp images out of smeared data.

By 1973, I felt I had done enough lab work and computer analysis. I had gotten married a year before, was working part-time outside the lab, and I waved good-bye to my dissertation advisor. A year later, writing at home, after work, I finished the dissertation and got my Ph.D.

At the Harvard graduation ceremonies, where many degrees of many types were awarded, the undergraduate speaker presented his speech in Latin. The graduate students and their guests were perplexed. Only other undergrads seemed to be understanding it, laughing together at certain parts. Later we found that only they, but not the other graduates and guests, had been given translations. A tradition, it turned out. Cheap trick.

My dissertation advisor did not end up getting tenure at Harvard, but got a full professorship at a fine engineering school. Not many years later, he committed suicide, reportedly from disappointment with his career.

Lesson learned: it is more important to balance the whole life than optimize a segment of it.

Harvard YAF

During this period at Harvard, 1969–73, I was very active in Harvard’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. Activities included writing, public speaking, organizing, and hosting a radio talk show on Boston University’s FM station, WBUR-FM. Almost all my friends were drawn from our political minority group. We would not just sit down and shut up. Some of these allies went on to have media and public affairs careers: Bill Kristol, Dave Brudnoy, Dan Rea, Avi Nelson, Don Feder, Bob Biddinato.

Radio Days

From 1972 to 1976 I had a half-hour talk radio program on WBUR-FM. Around 1976–77, I did a lot of paid part-time four-hour talk-show work on a Boston commercial AM radio station, too. To me, science was my vocation, my likely meal ticket; public affairs media activities would remain an avocation. The summary firing of the staff at my radio station, WITS, when it went from talk to music, confirmed my decision. Fun, patriotic, but not to be relied on.

Science is a bit more honest, too. One liberal Democrat talk-show host was leading a boycott of coffee because the price had risen too rapidly. He led it while drinking ... coffee. He was amused, but I was not.

Science is less subjective, too. My radio station bosses in those days gave me several rules for radio success that today’s most successful radio host, Rush Limbaugh, ignores: he uses fewer guests, fewer calls, long opening monologues.

Sometimes you’ve got to break the rules.

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