Thursday, November 27, 2014

Veteran scientist #10, Louis de Broglie

Louis de Broglie (1892-1987)

French Army 1914-1918.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.


Louis de Broglie was one of France’s most famous physicists and an early contributor to quantum mechanics.  But his story also involves World War I, the early development of signals intelligence, and the Eiffel Tower.

Before rising to prominence as a physicist, Louis de Broglie got a degree in history in 1910.  He then discovered his love of science and decided to study physics, getting a second degree in 1913.

When the First World War broke out de Broglie joined the French Army.  He served in the wireless section from 1914 to 1918 and was stationed at the Eiffel Tower.

The Tower served then, as it does today, as a radio broadcast tower.  World War I saw the first widespread use of radio communications in war, and the first exploitation of those signals.  This period thus marked the development of signals intelligence—the branch of intelligence that focuses on intercepted electronic signals.  The Eiffel Tower played a central part in the Allied signals intelligence effort, and de Broglie was there through it all.

Allied operators used radio transmitters on the Tower to jam German communications during their advance on Paris.  The Tower also intercepted enemy communications, transmitted zeppelin warnings, and gathered intelligence on enemy troop movements.  In one famous event, operators at the Tower intercepted enemy radio communications revealing that a popular exotic dancer—Mata Hari—was actually a German spy.  She was arrested, charged with causing the deaths of 50,000 Allied soldiers, and executed.

After the war Maxwell pursued a Ph.D. in physics.  His dissertation in 1924 extended some work of Einstein’s and was an important development in quantum mechanics.

From Maxwell’s equations in the 1800s light had been treated as waves of electromagnetic fields.  Then in 1905 Einstein published a paper showing that light could also be described as discrete particles called photons.  De Broglie, as a grad student, extended this idea to propose that electrons, and all other matter, also behave as both waves and particles.

When de Broglie submitted his thesis his graduate committee found themselves unable to evaluate it, and so they passed it along to Einstein.  Einstein approved and de Broglie received his doctorate.

Three years later his hypothesis received experimental support when two American physicists confirmed that electrons behave like waves.  Following this confirmation de Broglie was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his discovery of the wave nature of electrons.”

De Broglie spent the rest of his career studying different extensions of the wave theory of matter.  He was elected to the French Academy of Sciences, where he was Permanent Secretary for mathematical sciences, and the Académie française, the governing body on the French language.

Louis was not the only veteran physicist in the family.  His older brother Maurice de Broglie (1875-1960) was in the French Navy for nine years, where he served on a gunboat in Tunisia and the Mediterranean.  He left the navy in 1904 to become an experimental physicist.  While Louis was serving at the Eiffel Tower in WWI, Maurice did research on radio communications for the navy.

Maurice had also been elected to the Académie française.  When Louis was elected ten years later he was inducted by his own brother.

Louis went on to serve as counselor to the French High Commission of Atomic Energy, was knighted into the Légion d’honneur, and won the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for his efforts at explaining physics to the public.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Into the field

It was my turn.  I rushed forward and climbed onto the thick pine log in front of me.  On the other side was a second log, raised above the ground on short supporting beams.  I jumped onto the second log, hugging it while I pulled my legs up.  I balanced myself on top and prepared to jump to a final, even higher log.

I aimed, I jumped—and I miscalculated.  My body was too low, and I couldn’t wrap my arms around the target.  My chest bounced off the log and I fell ten feet to the ground below.

“What are you doing, Helms?  You’re embarrassing yourself.  You let a little log beat you.”

Staff Sergeant Whitehead was my favorite of our three drill instructors.  He was supposed to be the kill hat—the scariest DI who meted out the most punishment.

In this game of good cop, bad cop, SSgt Wooten—the Senior Drill Instructor—was the good cop.  He was fatherly, occasionally giving us snacks or asking personal questions.  When we got quarterdecked by another DI he would save us after we’d had enough.  But if we ever disappointed him he’d turn away and unleash the others.

SSgt Whitehead was the primary other DI, the baddest of bad cops.  He was also the most attentive and made an effort to learn all our names and faces.  He was the first DI to recognize me.  His job was to cause us the most pain, and he was good at it, but I think he sympathized with us.

When I bounced off that log he pounced on me.  I did the right thing—I didn’t react.  I jumped up, ran around to the front of the obstacle and started over.  This time I timed my jump well, made it to the top of the high beam, and dropped off the other side.

Boot camp had been getting harder.  And it wasn’t all about late night painting.

Swim week and the two weeks on the range had been tough, but they were just the beginning.  Now that we could shoot we spent more time in the field.

We learned to shoot under different conditions.  We fired at multiple targets and moving targets.  We fired while wearing body armor and gas masks.  We fired at night and used luminescent tracer rounds to adjust our aim.

We slept in canvas tents with our rifles tied to our arms.  If a creeping drill instructor stole someone’s rifle while he slept, the recruit would pay for it in the morning.  We wore camouflage face paint, communicated with hand signals, and didn’t shower for days.

We rappelled and fast-roped off towers, learned to move under fire, ran obstacle courses, and crawled in the dirt under concertina wire.  We practiced urban warfare in empty buildings, climbing up walls and into windows, and moving from room to room.  We practiced night movements, and learned how to stay hidden and not lose our night vision when an enemy shoots a flare or shines a light.

We learned to use our gas masks and practiced in a chamber filled with tear gas.

We were, in short, doing Marines stuff.

The training took its toll on us.  Our platoon started with 80 people and we lost 9.  A few who remained were on crutches.

One guy failed at the rifle range.  Another recruit didn’t adjust well and had to start all over with a new platoon.  Most of the others who dropped just got too sick or injured to continue.  Their fate was the worst.  They were sent to a Medical Rehabilitation Platoon until they recovered.  Then they’d try again with a new platoon.  Some of them might end up suffering through boot camp for six months or more.

I developed burning rashes, got sick a couple times, hurt my wrists, and lost feeling in my toes.  The numbness lasted for weeks after graduation.  But I never had any serious problems.

In the midst of all this I received my first bank statement.  In two months I’d earned a measly $613.

A few days later we went on a 10 mile hump.  A man in the platoon ahead of us passed out.  His rifle skittered onto the concrete as he collapsed under his pack.  Without missing a step, we diverted our course and flowed around him, as a corpsman ran over and poured water on his motionless body.

We stopped in a clearing for a short break.  I sat on my pack, propped my rifle between my legs and drank from my canteen.  Old gnarled live oaks surrounded us.  Spanish moss dripped off the massive branches.  Birds sang.  A steep drop-off fell to the ocean.  I could see across the water to the mainland.  There were buildings and cars.  I imagined the people there going about their daily lives.

Then the break was over and we were on the move again.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Veteran scientist #9, Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)

Austrian army artilleryman 1914-1918.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.


Erwin Schrödinger was a father of quantum mechanics and one of the world’s most famous physicists.  He is perhaps best known for his thought experiment about a cat in a booby-trapped box—Schrödinger’s Cat.  Less well known is his combat experience in World War I.

In the pre-war years Schrödinger studied physics in Vienna under Friedrich Hasenöhrl, receiving his doctorate in 1910.

When war broke out he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army and served as an artillery officer during all four years of the war, from 1914 to 1918.  Assigned to the Italian front, Schrödinger earned a combat decoration for his command of an artillery battery.

His mentor, Hasenöhrl, also fought in Italy and was killed by a grenade in 1915.

Through it all, Schrödinger somehow found time to continue his research.  He wrote several manuscripts, including one submitted from the Italian front early in the war.  Toward the end of the war he served in Vienna as an instructor, and published his first work on quantum theory.

After the war, Schrödinger returned to physics full time.  In 1926 he published the equation that would earn him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933.  Later known as the Schrödinger Equation, it provided an elegant way to describe and predict the behavior of quantum systems.

In 1935, while probing the interpretation of quantum phenomena, Schrödinger came up with his famous thought experiment.  In essence, he asked whether objects could simultaneously exist in two states until being observed (could a cat be both alive and dead until someone checks?), as suggested by some interpretations of quantum theory.

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Schrödinger fled his Austrian homeland and took refuge in Ireland, where he spent most of the rest of his career.

Thanks to his eponymous equation and cat, Schrödinger earned a place in science history.  There’s even a crater on the moon named after him.  We would do well to remember that this great mind was also a soldier who distinguished himself in war.

photo credit nobelprize.org

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An offer you can't refuse

“I should just throw you off this tower, Helms.”  Staff Sergeant Wooten looked at me.  “You know why.”

It had been nearly a month since I put myself on Senior Drill Instructor’s radar by becoming the artist recruit.   I had successfully hidden from him for the first half of boot camp.  But now he knew who I was, and he held a grudge against me.

I had hidden my painting ability when it was needed and the platoon suffered as a result.  Though we won the company shooting competition, our success was dampened by our pitiful range flag.  We may have had a better design if I hadn’t let fear keep me from volunteering.

A week after I finally revealed myself and became the artist recruit, SDI gave me an assignment.  I would paint his hat plaque—a wooden frame for hanging his wide-brimmed campaign cover.  A former artist recruit, Santos, stayed on as my assistant.

From now on my Sundays were devoted to art.  While other recruits cleaned the squad bay, I would sit on the floor of the gear closet, amid the cleaning supplies, and paint for hours.  I also painted in the evenings on other days.  And after lights out I would shut myself in the closet and paint for another hour.  We were told to only paint in the closet, and not show anyone what we were working on.

And SDI began to target me.  While working in the laundry room one week, I found ten dollars and gave it to the Marine in charge.  SSgt Wooten heard about it, accused me of stealing it and told me I would die.  He knew I didn’t take the money, but he wanted to torture me.  He left me alone after another recruit vouched for me.

The next day he quarterdecked me because the recruit across the aisle from me screwed up and I didn’t prevent his mistake.  He told me to drink a lot of water because he would punish me again every hour on the hour.  I didn’t think he was serious, but an hour later he called me over.

“I never lie to you, do I?”

He pointed to the ground and I started pushing.  Fortunately, he left before the next hour was up and another DI took over, so I didn’t get quarterdecked a third time.

This was not my plan.  I wanted to be anonymous.  I didn’t even wear my glasses, to keep from standing out.  My Drill Instructors never knew I needed them.  At the rifle range I shot, and passed, without them.  But now, despite my best efforts, I stood out.  It was like my hickeys had returned.

After two weeks of hat plaque work SDI called me into his office to show him my progress.

“What, did you go to art school or something?”

I told him I just took art classes in high school.

“Why didn’t you volunteer for the flag?  It’s because you’re a selfish little bitch, and you weren’t willing to use your time to help me.  You said fuck me, and fuck the platoon.”

“This recruit was just shy at the time.”

“Confidence keeps you alive,” he said.

I tried to remember that a few days later when I stood on top of the 50 foot tall rappel tower.  An instructor attached a harness and I braced myself for the jump off the side.  That was when, predictably, SDI found me.

“You look like a geek, Helms.”

“This recruit is a dork.”

“Why do you think you’re a dork?  And why are you admitting it?”


“This recruit likes math and stuff.”

“I like math.  Are you calling me a dork?”

“No, sir.”

“I should just throw you off this tower, Helms.  You know why.”

He walked away and I jumped off the tower on my own.

That was our relationship.  I owed him because of the range flag.  But as long I worked on his hat plaque he couldn’t punish me too badly.

Two weeks before graduating he called me into his office.

“You’re a pretty good painter, ain’t you, Helms?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Too bad you lied to me at the range.  We had to walk around with that piece of shit.  I should make you make me another flag just for the hell of it.”

He handed me an Oreo.

“This is for all your hard work…even though you’re not willing to scratch my back even though I scratch yours.”

I didn’t ask for a cookie.  That’s not why I painted.  But I couldn’t turn it down.  Plus, it was real food…from the outside!  I ate it, and it was delicious.

My friend saw me through the window and smiled and shook his head.

It was like accepting protection from the mob.  Somehow, despite weeks of work, I owed my Senior Drill Instructor even more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Veteran scientist #8, Roger Tory Peterson

Sergeant Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996)

US Army engineer 1943-1945.  Artist and ornithologist.


I’m not sure this week’s veteran scientist really qualifies as a scientist.  But he certainly influenced science and the public’s perception of it.

Roger Tory Peterson became fascinated with birds as a child in New York.  Through his love of birds, and the early ornithologists who painted them, Peterson discovered his talent for art.  After going to art school he pursued a career of drawing and painting birds, while also teaching natural history and art to young people.

Tracking his subjects in the field, Peterson learned to quickly identify birds from features that were visible from far away.  Traditional identification methods used by scientists relied on features that could only be distinguished on dead specimens.  Those methods were more precise, but weren’t useful for amateurs who wanted to enjoy birds passively.  Peterson, in contrast, relied on obvious field marks, which may have had less biological meaning but were more accessible to the non-expert.

Peterson codified this new method as the Peterson Identification System.  Using his system, in 1934 he wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to the Birds.  The new guide’s simplicity and detailed paintings revolutionized bird watching by granting millions of amateurs an easy toehold into the field.

The success of his field guide earned him a prominent place among American ornithologists.  He joined national societies, wrote popular articles, designed bird guides for children, and worked with the Boy Scouts to revise their Bird Study Merit Badge.

In 1943, during World War II, Peterson was drafted into the US Army.  He went to engineering school and served in the Army Corps of Engineers and then the Air Corps.  According to one story, while in school he convinced his unit to alter their marching path to avoid a horned lark’s nest.  Throughout his service he continued to draw and paint birds.

Recognizing his talent, the Army put him to work designing camouflage and illustrating technical manuals.  The Air Corps even adopted his identification system to design a plane spotting guide for troops on the front.

Finally, in 1945 he was sent to Florida to research the effects of DDT on birds.  He performed a series of experiments alongside another veteran ornithologist—George Miksch Sutton.  The experiments were rushed and the results inconclusive, but they introduced Peterson to the post-war world of pesticides.

Peterson left the army that year and resumed painting and birding full time.  Four years later, building on the success of his early publications, he launched the Peterson Field Guide series—a string of books that would incorporate his identification system into popular guides for all sorts of things.  There are now over 50 Peterson Field Guides, including books for birds, mammals, herps, fishes, insects, shells, plants, mushrooms, wild medicines, forests, seashores, coral reefs, stars and planets, and geology.  There’s even A Field Guide to the Atmosphere.  The series has continued to use the Peterson Identification System to help scientists and amateurs alike observe the natural world.


The Peterson Field Guides continue to inspire people to observe and enjoy nature

Peterson also entered the world of science advocacy.  He made documentary films, and promoted environmental protection and the regulation of pesticides.  In 1964 he testified before the US Senate on the dangers of DDT, and in 1980 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.

Though not a scientist himself, Sgt Roger Tory Peterson devoted his life to bridging the gap between science and the public.  He made lasting impacts in several fields, and advocated for the role of science in guiding responsible environmental practices.

—Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. 2008. Elizabeth J. Rosenthal.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It's a trap!

I sat on my footlocker with a notepad and pen, staring at a recruit across the aisle.  I’m not sure what he was doing—writing a letter or tightening his war gear.  I was focused on his leg.

I had just finished my first painful week at the rifle range.  In addition to the usual mind games, physical challenges, and marching in the South Carolina sun, I suffered from the most painful sinus infection of my life.  But today, Saturday, I drew.

A couple weeks earlier our Senior DI had asked who the artist recruits were.  He didn’t say why he wanted to know.  I enjoyed drawing and painting.  I took art throughout high school, entered a few things in shows, and painted murals around town.  But common sense—and my drive to blend in as much as possible—recommended silence.  It could be a trap.  At the very least, it would give DIs something to remember about me, and I didn’t want to be remembered.

So I stayed quiet as braver souls volunteered themselves.

There was a tradition on the rifle range.  In addition to the normal scarlet and gold flag—the guidon—each platoon marched with a second flag, hand painted by recruits.  Platoons competed unofficially for best flag, paralleling a more serious competition in shooting scores.

Those brave artist recruits got the honor of painting our flag.

And they did a terrible job.

Our flag violated basic principles of aesthetics and graphic design.  Instead of a single large image on a simple field, which the eye could recognize from a distance, our flag was randomly scattered with tiny drawings that could only be made out from less than a meter away.  There were crude sketches of cartoon skeletons, guns and people.  It looked like a comic book drawn by a ten year old.  Instead of an intimidating symbol of aspiring Marines learning to shoot and kill, we had a Halloween decoration.  It was the worst flag in the company.

To be fair, those guys didn’t know what they were getting into when they volunteered, they were rushed, and the conditions were less than ideal.  They later admitted they were not even painters.

So when SSgt Wooten, disappointed with our flag, again asked who the artist recruits were, I raised my hand.  I knew now it wasn’t a trap.  Artist recruits got to be artists.

This time our Senior DI was smarter—instead of taking us at our word, he held a sort of audition.  Anyone interested in being an artist recruit (again we weren’t told why) had 30 minutes to draw him a picture to show off their talent.

I liked doing art but was never an artist.  I had the technical skill to produce images but lacked the creativity to design them.  Hence the leg.

With the clock ticking, I just drew what was in front of me—in this case a recruit on his foot locker in PT shorts.  I started with his foot and worked my way up his bare leg.  But just as I finished the top of one thigh, the unthinkable happened.  The recruit got up and walked away.  I lost my model.

I moved on to another recruit, making sure to start at his head.

When time was up I stood in front of the platoon and handed SSgt Wooten my drawing, including the hairy detached leg floating in space.

“What is this?  Why the hell would you draw a man’s leg?”

 “This recruit just drew what was in front of him, sir.”

He went into his office and the platoon laughed.  After a moment he came back with a picture of a bulldog and told me to draw it the next morning.

The bulldog drawing was less of a failure.  Senior DI loved it and so did the platoon.

“Keep drawing,” he told me.

I was the new artist recruit.  But I still didn’t know why.  What project would I have to do?  He would let me know when the time came.  Turns out, it was a bit of a trap after all.

I had given our Senior Drill Instructor a reason to make fun of me.  He knew my face and my name and my penchant for drawing dudes’ legs.  Even worse, he was angry I didn’t volunteer earlier.

I owed him.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Veteran scientist #7, Walter Kohn

Walter Kohn (1923-present)

Canadian Army infantryman 1944-1945.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Chemistry.


Walter Kohn grew up in a Jewish family in Austria in the interwar years.  Kohn fled to England just before the outbreak of World War II, and moved from there to Canada.  His parents, who were unable to leave Austria, died in the Holocaust.

Across the Atlantic, Kohn majored in mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto.  He tried to enlist in the Canadian military but was denied several times because of his German nationality.  He was finally accepted into the Canadian Infantry Corps and served during the last year of the war.

Kohn not only continued his studies during his infantry service, earning a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, but also published a paper in his spare time on the physics of spinning objects.  The paper, "Contour Integration in the Theory of the Spherical Pendulum and the Heavy Symmetrical Top,” served as part of his Master’s degree after the war.  He went on to get his Ph.D. in nuclear physics at Harvard.

In 1998 Kohn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in the development of density functional theory, a revolutionary model for determining the properties of materials based on their electronic structure.  Methods based on Kohn’s work allow researchers to scale up properties of individual atoms to predict the behavior of whole systems.

Kohn is not just an infantry veteran and researcher.  He is also an activist who worked to end the US-Soviet arms race.  Now retired, Kohn continues to do physics research, and also advocates for renewable energy, stabilizing the world's population, and combating climate change.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Media blackout

“Look at you.  You’re all writing to your girlfriends even though they’re probably fucking someone else.  That guy’s probably reading your letters right now and laughing.  You should spend your time stretching instead.”

It was the end of our first week at the rifle range.  We’d spent the past few days learning the Marine Corps shooting positions—standing, kneeling, sitting and prone.  Some positions, especially the kneeling, were awkward and painful.  We had to practice the poses for hours on end to get our bodies used to the unfamiliar contortions.

It was worse than the body hardening we did in martial arts training, where we lined up and hit each other to deaden our nerves and prepare our bodies for fighting.  We’d bang our forearms together, kick each other in the thighs, and punch each other in the stomach.  Even so, I’d prefer twenty minutes of body hardening over an hour of the dreaded kneeling position.

Now, during our single hour of free time at the end of the day, Sgt Crum wanted us to stretch more.  We were safe—he had to let us write letters if we wanted.  But he had a point when he said writing home was a waste of time.

Isolated from the outside, the few reminders I received of the world beyond the platoon jarred with my daily experience.  My girlfriend sent me my scores from the AP tests—English Composition, Calculus, Electricity & Magnetism, and Mechanics—I had taken just weeks before.  I was happy to get my scores but it seemed like a different life.  Instead of physics tests, we now had the kneeling position.

She also wrote about going to parties and seeing movies I hadn’t heard of, and complained about people I didn’t know.  I once asked her for news about world events.  She sent me a newspaper clipping about Kobe Bryant getting accused of rape.  So for the most part I was in the dark about the world beyond.

The media blackout went both ways.  This is the first letter I ever wrote from boot camp, to my girlfriend.

Dear ______,

    I’m doing well and learning a lot from my Drill Instructors.  I have the best Drill Instructors and Senior Drill Instructor on the island.  Our SDI will take care of us.  This letter is fake.  They are telling us what to write.  I get 3 meals a day and plenty of sleep.  I love you.


                                                                                         —Jackson


Like the scripted phone call when we first arrived, the fake letter probably just caused more anxiety back home.  And I’m sure mentioning the meals, sleep and good care aroused more suspicion than it eased.  At least with the letter I could sneak in a couple scribbled over sentences that someone could decipher.  Since I had little time to write real letters, couldn’t make phone calls, and didn’t keep a journal, my family and friends were as blind as I was.

One day in late July our Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Wooten, sat us down for an announcement.  Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, had been killed in a firefight in northern Iraq.  Every once in a while we’d get more tidbits from Iraq—soldiers were getting attacked on the streets and in cafés.  We didn’t know, and I suppose most civilians didn’t either, that an insurgency was brewing.

The war wasn’t over, after all.

I spent the summer in a universe defined by my platoon, while events half a world away, in Iraqi neighborhoods and alleys, decided my fate.  Meanwhile I trained and studied, preparing for that unknown future.  I learned to swim, learned to fight, learned to shoot.

And I practiced that damned kneeling position.