Sam Wait Interview
Bethlehem Central High School- Mr. Reed’s AP Chemistry Class
Leslie Klein: …On May 25th, at 9:30AM, we are here at Bethlehem Central High School with Sam Wait. Interviewing today will be Nick Dugan, Adam Nye, Barbara Pohl, Leslie Klein, and Jennifer Liebschutz
will be the primary interviewer. Mrs. Schwab from Dudley Observatory is here to sit in on our interview, and so welcome!
Janie Schwab: Thank you.
Sam Wait: Oh, it’s good to be here.
Jen Liebschutz: This is Jen Liebschutz, we’d like to start out by asking you about your earlier years and your interactions with science as a child. Was it a part of your life from a young age, or…
Sam: Probably was a part of my life from, certainly age 12 onwards. And, going back a little bit further than that, my mother started off in college as a chemistry major, and then switched to English. So she’d always had an interest in science. My father was not a college graduate, but I got a Gilbert chemistry set for Christmas when I was 12 years old, and got hooked on it. And in those days chemistry sets could actually- you could actually do something with them. [Student laughter] They weren’t as watered down as the ones today. So I started setting that up in the basement in my home, and then, after that, my parents allowed me to either mail order [chemicals], or there was a drug store in downtown Schenectady called Walker’s Pharmacy, which was right near Proctor’s Theatre. And the proprietor of that, Nick Commanzo, was willing to sell chemicals to kids as long as they had their parent’s signature. And so, I’d built up a collection of maybe a couple hundred chemicals down there in the basement, and then a lot of laboratory equipment as well. And did a whole bunch of experiments. Actually my best friend, who is still my best friend, that was in 1944, and he’s still my best friend now, in 2007, he also became a chemist. And we used to do a lot of experiments in the basement of the house, including some that were sort of noxious [Student laughter].
One of the ones I remember best is making Bakelite, which is cooking up phenol and formaldehyde. And we did it in an open beaker, [we] didn’t have a fume hood. Occasionally we would just open the windows if it got too bad, and then once in awhile I would take it upstairs and try to cure the Bakelite in our kitchen oven, [which] was pretty stinky. I remember very well doing it one day when my mother was having bridge club. And it did not go over big! [laughter].
That was sort of the starting point of my chemistry career, and that was when I went on to junior high school. Let’s see, I was in junior high school from 1944 to 46, that’s right- 44 to 46. And, took all the science I could, and [all the] math that I could. There was a teacher there whom I mentioned in this biographical sketch, Olive Robinson, who really encouraged people to go on in science, in a number of different ways. There were three of us, actually, at that time who eventually became chemists. And she’d allow us to stay after school and unpack equipment, or try new equipment, or do experiments on our own, her being there of course. And I had her both for eighth and ninth grade, general science, and kept in touch with her for about 40 years until she passed away. Both my friend Bob Clendinning and I visited her in the hospital while she was in her final moments. And she was the one who I think really made the difference in our lives of wanting to go on in science. And continuing our interest not only in chemistry, but in a whole batch of different areas.
Janie: That sounds a lot like the stories in October Sky.
Sam: Mhm, yes. Which is a good one, by the way. [laughter]
Jen: Was there a specific type of chemistry you were interested in from a young age, or did you not really specialize until later?
Sam: Well, I thought I was going to be a polymer chemist. An organic polymer chemist. Hence I was making the Bakelite and the other plastics. And I kept thinking that way all the way through high school, and when I entered RPI as a freshmen, I still thought I was going to be an organic polymer chemist… Until I got to take organic chemistry. [Student laughter] In those days, you took [both] organic chemistry and physical chemistry in your junior year in college. And I very rapidly discovered that I liked the physical chemistry, the quantitative and the numerical calculations, the theory. And my friend Bob became an organic polymer chemist. And stayed with that all the way until he retired.
Jen: We’re not sure if this question is really applicable to you, but, what was it like to live in Schenectady after GE left, and did this have any role in your life, or as a scientist?
Sam: My father did not work for GE, and during the war at a time when you didn’t ask who do you work for, you say what division are you in. It was a common question. There were something like 30,000 people in Schenectady working for GE at that time. And another group, I’ve forgotten how many now, working in for the American Locomotive Company, which also was in Schenectady. And by the time GE really cranked down, I had pretty well left Schenectady. I lived at home and commuted to RPI, so by 1953 I was still living at home and commuting to RPI on a daily basis. And then after 1953 I moved to Troy and then went on elsewhere in the world. It was very noticeable in downtown Schenectady that one store after another was closing. There were three major department stores in Schenectady, Barney’s, Carl’s and Wallace’ and there were something like four movie theaters in downtown, and one by one those closed, the Carl company being the last one.
Jen: Can you explain in general your research and it’s major applications?
Sam: Yeah. My research is primarily in physical chemistry, spectroscopy. Again, I started off for my doctoral thesis working on the synthesis of heterocyclic molecules. If you take, say a, five carbons in a benzene ring, plus… (To students) Have you had chemistry? [Students: Yes.] Okay. So I was synthesizing compounds related to pyridine in which benzene rings were one of the carbons substituted by a nitrogen. And the way we did that was by heating them up to about 400 degrees over a catalyst in the vacuum system. We’d mix things like acetonitrile, CH3CN, and butadiene, which was a conjugated hydrocarbon, C4H8. And you’d heat these two things together over a catalyst and they would come and they would form pyridine or, if you used something that substituted butadiene, they would form different substituted pyridines. And then we’d have to analyze them to make sure what our product was. In some cases the product could be two different isomers of the same thing, and so we wanted to use x-ray crystallography, infrared spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy to see what they were, they didn’t have magnetic resonance spectroscopy in those days. So, in doing that, there’s some interesting episodes with that particular thing and some of the compounds were pretty toxic. The nitriles in particular. And some of the pyridines. And you’d always have a pot residue of some sort, some sludge in there. It used to be standard practice for my advisor, the professor in charge of the work, to hold the door open to the laboratory and I’d run down the hall with this pot of stuff and dump it down the toilet. [Student laughter] Not exactly what EPA would approve of. But anyway, in analyzing these compounds I got interested in spectroscopy, and, so, one of the people I mentioned in this version of the biographical sketch, Steve Wiberley…
Jen: Just hold on for one sec…
Sam: So, I got interested then in spectroscopy, and one of the other faculty members who was on my doctoral committee, Steve Wiberley, who later became a trustee of Dudley Observatory, as well, got me interested in the theory of spectroscopy as well as the practice on some of the early instruments. One of the things that [I] became particularly interested in was the application of the group theory, the mathematical theory of groups, to determine symmetry in chemical molecules, and what you could learn simply by trying to apply group theory to the symmetry. I actually brought along a handout which shows a little bit of this. Because I’ve been fascinated by symmetry and spectroscopy ever since.
Just very, very briefly, on the first page here I have put in symmetry and group theory as sort of the center piece of it, and shows what it does, or how it can be applied to different systems, and without going into details, if you look at the second page, the back of the first one, what you find is that every molecule has some sort of a symmetry. If you think of water, you think of water as H2O, as a molecule that looks like this. There’s an oxygen here and the hydrogen’s up here, and you can’t tell which hydrogen is which. But if you look at it a little bit more detailed, then there are lone pairs of electrons that are on the oxygen. And again, you can’t tell which pair is which. So if I look at the molecule and I think of the principles of a group, what constitutes a group, there’s an identity element. And that’s the identity, just as you’re looking at it here. Then if I rotate the molecule 180 degrees, about the line bisecting the oxygen, then you couldn’t tell that this water was any different from that one. Or if I put a mirror here right in the center of them, and I look at that mirror, you can also see the image at the object distance is equal to the image distance. Or, if you reflect the, molecule in the plane that it forms, three points form a plane, then it’s the same. But now if I artificially number these things as I have in the picture- you see I’ve labeled hydrogen as one plus, two plus, and then I rotate it, and two interchanges with one, and the plusses become minuses. Because what I’m thinking now is the lone pair orbitals. If I reflected in the horizontal plane sigma H, then one plus becomes one minus. And if I again rotate it, that, I will have four different pictures, one plus two plus, one minus two minus, two minus one minus, and two plus one plus. And that collection of symmetry operations forms a group in the mathematical sense. For water it’s pretty simple. In order to have infrared radiation absorbed you need to have a change in dipole, so the vibrations of the water molecule are like this, the OH bond lengthens and vibrates like a Hook’s Law spring, or it can bend like this, and again the dipole moment changes. Or it can stretch and bend like this, one bond lengthening the other one, shortening, so long as the center of gravity stays the same. And each of those has a change in dipole, so that, those three fundamental vibrations show up as absorption bands in the infrared. Now, in some molecules, and if you go back to the next page where I’ve got C2H2Cl2, then, again, I’ve put down the group. It has the identity operation, it has the C2 rotation, and it has two reflection planes. Those symbols on the right hand side simply says translation molecules a whole or is it a rotation, and down below, it tells me the type of vibrations that I get. A1 is totally symmetric. B1 and B2 are anti-symmetric, and so I’ve just sketched out the vibrations on the next page. On the next to last page, I have another isomer of C2H2Cl2, where the Chlorines are on opposite sides. Remember on the first one it was the cis configuration where they are the on the same side. This is a trans configuration and then on the last page is the 1-1 configuration. All of which have different symmetry. And, if you look at these three isomers, what you would find then is that some of the vibrations do not create a change in dipole, and hence are not active, they don’t absorb infrared radiation. Those that don’t absorb infrared radiation can scatter radiation in the Raman inspector of the fundamental vibrational frequencies.
So I became very interested in how much you could determine about the vibrational spectra of a molecule without actually doing a measurement. I could say that there should be four, four bands that are active in the infrared. Or three. And two in the Raman. And if you take the very last picture. No- take the next to last picture, where it’s a trans configuration, to find that those vibrations which are active in the infrared are not active in the Raman, and vice versa.
So, this then, I looked at a series of molecules for my doctoral thesis that were based on the ones that I’d done the synthesis with. I looked at CH3CN, CCl3CN, trichloroacetonitrile. CCl2CN, Cl2FCN, fluorine (indistinguishable), and, tried to determine not only which vibrations were active, but tried to determine where they would be. There’s a technique you can use for calculating. The so-called fundamental vibrational frequency. It depends on the kinetic energy matrix and the potential energy matrix. And you assume it’s all based on Hooke’s Law, as simple harmonic oscillation, which it isn’t really, but it’s a close approximation. So I did that for my doctoral thesis. And then, still thinking that I wanted to go on into industry, I interviewed [at] a number of places. Dow Chemical Company in Michigan. Uh, Union Carbide Carbon in Ohio, DuPont in Parlin, New Jersey. Still thinking I want to do spectroscopy. And eventually, it came out that…
Well, I’ll tell you one more story about job interviews, it came out that Parlin, New Jersey was interesting in the spectrum of polymers. And so this sort of, this was their textile fiber division, and so they were interested in infrared Raman spectroscopy of textile fibers. Another interview I had later on was at Westinghouse. And, I got down to Westinghouse not long before Christmas and they were having a Christmas Party and couldn’t care less whether I was there or not. But they also said, this work is classified, and you’ll be working back there behind those doors but we can’t let you in or tell you what you’ll be doing. [Laughter] So that interview did not go particularly well. But then, I actually accepted a job at DuPont in Parlin, New Jersey. In the mean time my advisor said, why didn’t you apply for a Fulbright? And so I did apply for the Fulbright to go to University College in London, and his suggestion was that I write to the professor with whom I’d be working, whose name was David Craig, David was then in Australia, at Australia National University, but, moving to London. And then I wrote to the head of the chemistry department at, uh University College London, Professor Sir Christopher Ingold. And said, if I get a Fulbright can I come to your lab, and if I get a Fulbright can I work with you, Professor Craig? And the answers both came back yes, and so that was the end of it as far as I was concerned that I was going to work for DuPont. And sure enough the Fulbright came through, so I wrote to DuPont and said “Sorry, I’m going to take the Fulbright.” And they wrote back saying, “That’s fine, we’ll hold the job open for you, here’s a 10% raise.”
So, I wound up in London. And there are many interesting stories about London. It’s a wonderful city. [I was] intending to do, in this case, ultraviolet spectroscopy. What we started doing there was really a two-phase project. We took naphthalene, which is a two-ring system, C10H8, and I wanted to look at the vapor phase of naphthalene. So that we could see when you hit it with ultraviolet light, did the molecule expand this way, or did it broaden this way, and so how are you going to determine that. Well, every molecule has rotation, and so I said, ok, if we could calculate these spectra of this asymmetric rotor it means all three moments of inertia are not the same. If we could calculate the spectra of that, assuming that the bond lengths increased a little bit this way, or assuming that the bond lengths increased a little bit in the other direction, and by a little bit I’m talking about 1%, or less. 1% was an overestimate. So, we had a molecule of ultraviolet light- it jumps from a ground state to an excited state, but it also has these vibrations in the ground state and it has vibrations in the excited state, and then it has rotations in both of them. So, ok, so I can look at the spectra. And, the spectra I saw, if you have something that is totally symmetric, then, you will see spectra that are totally symmetric. There will be a P, Q, and R branch and the branch on either side will be sort of round humps and the one in the center will be a sharp spike. Or you’ll have two round humps and no sharp spike, and they’ll be totally symmetric. But if the size of the molecule changes, if the energy changes, then instead of seeing a sharp spike and two round humps, you’ll see something that goes up like this, and comes down like that. And, either the sharp side will be on the left or the sharp side will be on the right. And if the sharp side is on the left, it means that the molecule has elongated. If the sharp side is on the right it means that the molecule has broadened.
Along about that time, my advisor David Craig knew an individual called Michael Barnett who worked at IBM in London and made contact with Michael Barnett and I had the idea that if I could compute the frequencies of the molecules from using the theory of asymmetric rotors, then, I could calculate what the spectra ought to look like. You can’t resolve it, there were too many many lines in there.
And so, first thing I did then was learn how to program a computer. Which I had never done before, and this was a computer called an IBM650. The IBM650 [was] very much like computers today, it had a magnetic drum rather than another storage device- transistors weren’t in vogue yet so it was all electron tubes. That magnetic drum rotated, and it had 2000 ten digit decibel words, and what happened was, you would write a program in machine language- by the time I finished there 2 years later I was using some assembler- but originally it was machine language. And let’s say you wanted to add two numbers together. There was a drum, an upper accumulator, a lower accumulator, and a distributor, and as you pulled a number off the drum it went through the distributor and stayed there, and then it went either to the upper accumulator or the lower accumulator telling you what you wanted. So if you wanted to take a number from a location where you put it on the drum, you’d write something like 65, which is reset, add to the lower accumulator, the contents of location 1050, and then you’d say, next, and go on to the next location which would be stored in location 700. And then 10 would take another number, say 1151 and put it in the upper accumulator. And then you would add it to the contents of the lower accumulator and put it back through the distributor, and store it in another location, where you told it to. All done with punch cards of course. What this involved was taking a matrix and diagonalizing it. [The] first thing I had to do was to write the program. And it took me weeks and weeks and weeks to write that program, because there were things in there like expressions, quantity (J-N times A-N+1 times J+N times J+N+1). Which gave a quite a quartic equation. And, in order to optimize the performance we spent many hours trying to figure out how the fastest way to compute that was. It was really educational trying to learn the computer in those days. And so I spent hours after hours doing that.
At IBM their site is about 10 miles out from the center on London, and they would let me go out and actually run the computer myself. I could turn on the computer, I could run it, and I’d go out there and spend all day Sunday running that computer. Then in order to print out the results, we had to have a printer and we had to wire the own boards so it would print where we wanted it to. Or the punch cards to have them punch the way we wanted to, we’d have to punch it. And eventually we got the thing, I thought, working. I was very space limited. Remember 2000 words had to hold the program had to hold the data, and the operating system. So I had to take apart the operating system because there were pieces of it I didn’t need. So I cut it down from about 750 to 800 parts, to about 500. So all of this was a lot of fun, I enjoyed doing it.
At the same time I was making measurements in the laboratory of ultra violet spectra. The spectra graph we used was 21 foot long, and in order to get sufficient naphthalene vapor, I had to design and build a vapor cell which turned out to be 9 feet long and heated- I had to figure out how to heat it and keep it so that it was airtight. That was also a very great learning experience for me. Because I was told that [at] the machine shop in the university, well… if you talk to him real nicely, maybe you’ll get something done in 6 months. So, here we are in England, the thread sizes are different, the pipe sizes are different, and so I sketched up what I want, just a very little hand sketch, and I went do to the old guy in the machine shop, he must have… (tape cuts out)
Sam: …As I mentioned, his name was George Alice, and I sketched up very briefly what I wanted. I’d made something like this back at RPI, so I just sketched it up and I went down and said, “Mr. Alice, I need some help. I know that English thread sizes are different, I know that the pipe sizes are different, and they told me that I had to have a blueprint to bring down to you to do this, but, I really need some help.” And that was something very unusual. You didn’t go to a technician in England and say you needed help. You were the doctor, the professor, the whatever, and so he looked at it and he asked me a couple questions, and he said, “Ok that’ll do,” and two weeks later it was done. I think the moral of that is that, you may be an expert in your field, but if you go to someone who is an expert in his field, treat him like one, don’t treat him like a servant. And, that same thing came up when we were ready to come home. We had bought a small refrigerator and I wanted to sell it. So I advertised it around the department, one of the technicians wanted to buy it, and I said, “Come on in and look at it, come on over to my house and look at it.” That was unusual- you didn’t invite a person like that into your home. I think things have changed in the last 50 years…
So anyway, the other part of that is that I went over for a year on the Fulbright, and didn’t think about staying the second year until it was too late to apply for a second year Fulbright. I said I did want to stay so they created a position, sort of like an instructors position. So the second year I was there I taught physical chemistry laboratory, and continued doing the research. Mean time, I’d been going to get married when I got home, so I saved up money and paid transportation on board one of the Cunard liners for my fiancé to come over, and we got married in London and lived there for the next year. Which was a great experience. If you have an opportunity, I really encourage you to go overseas at some point, either junior year abroad, or post-doc, or something like that. I really encourage you, I think it’s probably one of the best experiences I had in my life.
Janie: And just exactly how long ago was that?
Sam: 50 years next week- week after next.
Jen: I had a question about how the computer related to your research. Like the computer program, was that hooked up to your spectrometer?
Sam: No, you couldn’t. They didn’t have devices in those days that you could hook the computer to your spectrometer so I did the calculations, and then having done the calculations I then compared the results with what the actually spectra looked like. When I was doing the calculations, what we had to do was to calculate the energy levels. And then take differences between them. So we did subtractions, and we had several thousand of these to do, manual subtractions. Because by the time I was actually doing that I was back in the states. And so my wife did an awful lot of it, that type of thing.
So, at the end of the two years in London I came home and had accepted a post-doctoral position at University of Minnesota. And turns out that doing electronic spectroscopy, ultraviolet spectroscopy, turns out that the person with whom I was going to work was killed in and auto accident in June of that year, and here I was coming to work with him in August. So here I am sort of high and dry, what do I do? So I wrote to the head of the department at Minnesota and said I was coming there, is there a possibility that I could come to Minnesota anyway. And this was one of the preeminent infrared spectroscopists of this time, Bryce Crawford. And so he said, “Yes come, if you don’t mind teaching.” So I said I don’t mind teaching. I was doing half time research and half time teaching at Minnesota. That also was a big lesson in my life- that we had one guy in the class who was a football player, linesman…
Sam: Yes, these are undergraduates. He was a football player, linesman, you know, big guy. And one of the teaching assistants in the class was a very small, very short Chinese girl. And he went into her one day and said, “I want the answers to the homework.” And she said “I can’t give them to you.” And he said, “What would you do if I threatened violence?” He obviously scared her, he had sense enough not to. But she came to me, and so, that was an object lesson. At the end of the semester on the final exam we caught him cheating. And, so I reported it to the course supervisor, my boss. And turns out that he was cheating copying from the wrong guy, because if he got a zero [only] on the question that we actually caught him cheating on, he [would get] a D in the course and remain eligible to play football. If he got an F on the final exam, then of course he got an F on the course, and would have been ineligible to play football. Well nothing happened for a couple weeks, so, finally a word came back that since we only caught him cheating on one question, he’d get a zero on that question. And, pass the course and be eligible to play football. [The] next year he went to the Rose Bowl and he won the Rose Bowl. There may be a moral there somehow. But that was a one-year position in Minnesota, it wasn’t extended, it could have been if the other guy hadn’t been killed.
I started looking for positions and I found one at what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology, as a visiting assistant professor. And went down there and then was strictly doing calculations again, the vibrational calculations on diatomic molecules. Their computer was pretty good but I did most of it, diagonalizing matrices, on a Monroe 8N computer, a manual, not a digital computer. So that position was a one-year position and I was told at the beginning of the time that if the faculty member on sabbatical didn’t come back, then it could turn into a permanent position. Well, along in January we found out he was coming back, so I started looking for another job.
Jump ahead five years to my meeting, at a national meeting, the person with whom I was working [at the Carnegie Institute], and he said, “Why did you leave Carnegie? We thought…” and I said, “You told me when I came that if Gill Mains came back, that the position wouldn’t be there.” And he said, “We thought you didn’t want to stay.” So five years after the fact I found that I could have stayed at least for another year or so, or more. Might even be there today for that matter. So the moral of that story is, ask questions if you’re someplace where, even if you’ve been told you can’t do it, stay. So you know, I went to the National Bureau of Standards, which is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, doing again infrared and Raman spectroscopy. And NIST has changed its mission a lot, it’s now much more standards and less fundamental research, over the years.
Jen: So why did you decide not to go back to DuPont when you got back from England? Did being in England change your view of what you wanted to do?
Sam: It absolutely did. It convinced me that I wanted to stay in academia. And do the research that I wanted to do rather than the research that someone else wanted me to do.
This came as a bit of a shock to my wife, we thought I was going into industry but, 45, 50 years later I think she thinks it’s the right decision. Didn’t have much choice in the matter…
Jen: Do you prefer research or teaching or different…?
Saw: Both, yeah, both. I very much enjoy teaching. One of the favorite courses to teach is Chemical Application of Group Theory. Which is the symmetry bit I was talking about earlier. But, the last few courses I have taught have been General Chemistry, and I like that.
Jen: We know that we got you to come here because you have a relationship with the Dudley Observatory, so we’re wondering what that relationship is. And what you did there.
Sam: Well, Steve Wiberley, who is one of the people who I mentioned in this biographical sketch, is on the Trustees of Dudley Observatory and he nominated me to be the representative for the President of the University. The Board of Trustees of Dudley has representatives… well, officially the Trustee is the President of RPI, President of Union, President of SUNY. But each of those presidents appoints a representative. And so Steve originally appointed me as the representative from RPI, he was acting provost at the time. Then, that was about 1972 I think, some place right in there, and so as time went on I moved from that position, continued as that position, but then also became a regular Trustee of the Observatory. And the individual who was Head or President of the Trustees, Charles Bean, when he was ready to step down and there was quite a bit of controversy over his presidency, involving what someone claimed was a harassment issue. So he stepped down when it was settled, and they asked me if I’d become president, and I said yes. That was about 1990. So they voted me in as President and I stayed as President for about the next 11 years. Which were some very interesting times for Dudley.
First, roughly then, there was a decision made just prior to that, while Dr. Bean was President, that Dudley would have to get out of the business of research or go broke. And we had at one time about a hundred scientists and technicians working at Dudley Observatory looking at micrometeorites and cosmic dust. And they actually launched rockets- commissioned some rockets to be launched. And then the director, Curt Hemenway, who was the administrator and director of the Dudley, I think maybe his eyes were bigger than his stomach, but funding started to dry up for that type of research. So we had to downsize. And a conscious decision was made that since we could no longer conduct active research, that we would move to a foundation and become a private foundation specializing in funding grants for other people for the history of astronomy and for science in general. And so since that time Dudley’s been serving as a private foundation. It has a wonderful library. Consisting, I really think, of three parts. The first are the rare book collection that is housed in the Schaffer Library Collection at Union College. And that consists of about a hundred volumes probably worth about a quarter million dollars. There is a working library that is at the Dudley premises at Nott Terrace. And then there are the archives, which are the history of Dudley Observatory, going back to 1852, and all these are very valuable things.
During the course of this time, the State University of New York had been renting property from Dudley at 100 Fuller Road. Then they built their new atmospheric sciences building and said they no longer wanted to rent from us. So here we are with a big building, which we had been drawing very good rent from, that we had to sell. We did sell the building eventually, and relocated Dudley Observatory from Fuller Road to 69 Union Avenue, which was a house owned by Union College. Somehow or another I did not get involved in that move. I’m not quite sure how, but everything was moved. A lot of stuff was stored in the garage on Union Avenue, as well as [the] basement. Full of books and journals, the whole building- the whole house was full of books and journals and some equipment. So we started looking at it, and this was Ralph Alpher and I in particular, and said we’ve got to clean out that Garage- it’s a mess. And it was literally piled floor-to-ceiling with equipment, filing cabinets, that sort of thing, and then in the loft of the garage there also was junk. And so we went through it and had a number of work parties on a weekend when we’d get other trustees, or sometimes just Ralph and I to be there, and we’d start unloading that garage.
First thing we found was that there were some books and journals out there that we brought into the house. [Another] thing we found was a cardboard box that was about [motions to students] that big, that high, and we looked to see what was in the cardboard box and there were bottles of fuming nitric acid that had been out there for 10 years, in the garage, upside down. So what do you do with that? Well, I picked it up and took it over to RPI and put it out for our chemical disposal. There was another something, I wish I could remember exactly what it was, but it was radioactive. It was in there, low-level radiation. So Ralph took that to Union and they got rid of it with some other radioactive stuff. And then there were filing cabinets after filing cabinets of papers, proposals that had been written that weren’t funded, so he and I made an executive decision, which I’m sure our archivist would be horrified at, and we threw away most of them. I mean, they weren’t funded or active research. We sort of went through them on a drawer-by-drawer basis to make sure that there wasn’t anything that was really valuable. But there must have been 8 or 10 filing cabinets out there that were full of stuff. And there were broken chairs, there were some cabinets with equipment in them, but most of it was miscellaneous stuff that they hadn’t thrown away when they moved from Fuller Road. And so that took, probably by the time it was all said and done, it took the better part of 6 months or so to clean out that garage, you know, working a weekend here and a weekend there, or something. You could pick up some of the history of Dudley by looking at it, but it was still stuff that I’m glad we didn’t keep most of.
Jen: Have you found that your field of research has really advanced over the years, or changed at all in how you do the research?
Sam: Yes, when I first started doing spectroscopy in the 1940s and 50s the laser had not been invented yet. Digital computing was in its infancy. I used to have to develop photographic plates to look at the spectra I wanted. Today it’s hooked up to automatic sensors and detectors and recorded directly- either transmitted onto the computer or printed up on paper directly. The resolution that you can get, the ability to separate lines, is much, much greater. We used a high-pressure mercury lamp to generate ultraviolet radiation or to generate radiation for Raman scattering. The equipment today is so much superior. The theory of it has advanced some but I’d say the biggest change has been in the equipment.
Adam Nye: I was just wondering if any of your experiments as a kid in your basement or, even in middle school where the teacher lets you test out the new equipment were potentially dangerous or hazardous.
Sam: Absolutely. Absolutely yes. I mean, formaldehyde is a toxic substance. Phenol is a toxic substance. And cooking them up and breathing the fumes, maybe that’s what pickled me so I’m still here but… [Student laughter] but then we had lots of other chemicals that were toxic and hazardous. Probably less so in the high school environment than in the home environment. And, actually one time… you know, if you want an emergency light when the power goes out, you take a three pound coffee can, I guess they’re two and a half pounds now, and you cut one side of it off like this and you put a candle in it and it gives you a nice reflector and it makes a light. When we were playing with that one time downstairs, so much wax got started that flames were going up to the ceiling. We got that out. And then there were a couple other, as I say, I probably had a couple hundred chemicals down there, many of which we wouldn’t use today in even professional chemistry. So, yes there was toxic and there also were things that we were experimenting with that we didn’t have lab manuals for, so we probably mixed some things we shouldn’t have. And as I say, we did dump them down the drain.
I think the other thing I’d like to say about Dudley is that one of the greatest things that happened there was the ability to work with Ralph Alpher. As, Janie said earlier on, Ralph was the father of the Big Bang Theory, who should have had the Nobel Prize and didn’t, and he is very embittered about it today. But, just to hear him talk, to read his book, is absolutely fascinating. To see what his thought processes were, and how it was when he was growing up. And he tells the story, for example, of the first physics class he ever took. They wanted to learn something about mechanics and something about electricity. So the physics teacher brought in a Model A Ford or a Model T Ford and they took it apart. And put it back together again. And that was his entire physics class. You could learn about mechanics that way, you could learn about electricity, optics, and lights. And how you powered the system. He said it was really a great learning experience. And further more, he could prepare cars after that.
Janie: This is Janie, I have a question. Can you tell us about your hobbies.
Sam: Yes, there’s a whole batch of different hobbies that I have. One is scuba diving. I took that up about 15 years ago or so, I highly recommend it to anyone. Second is foreign travel. And, we’re actually leaving on Monday for a few days in Russia and then some time in London. Third, I like playing with number theory. I’ve spent many hours trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Fermat’s last theorem says that (a^nth + b^nth = c^nth.) (a^2 + b^2 + c^2 has a solution). But Fermat’s last theorem says that there is no closed solution in whole numbers for a, b, c, and n, for n >3. And that was posed many years ago, centuries ago, and in the note in the margin of the book, Fermat wrote, “I found a truly wonderful solution for it, but the margin is too small to contain it.” Only in the past 20 years has anyone solved that problem. And solved it by something like 140 pages of calculations. So I love playing with number theory. I love playing with symmetry as I mentioned here. And you know I’ve mentioned symmetry in terms of chemistry, but if you think of it, there’s symmetry in music, there’s symmetry in art, there’s symmetry in literature, poetry. All around it, you look at symmetry. There’s symmetry in the biological world. Mirror image, same thing as you got an image here.
I like reading. Recently I’ve got sort of hung up on sudoku…
Jen: Yeah, we saw that. We were going to bring you a different kind of puzzle called kakuro, I think it’s called. But we didn’t have one.
Leslie: Oh no, I have one, if you’d like one. I’ll teach you how.
Sam: Mhm, great… There’s a website if you like sudoku called Fiendish Sudoku and if you go to that website you can pick easy, hard, or fiendish. [Student laughter] And, it will let you do it online, it will give you hints if you want to, if you need them. And that really is sort of fun to do. A good time-waster.
Let’s see, what else do I do as hobbies… Well, I’ve been a volunteer fireman since 1966. And, served on the Schenectady County Hazardous Materials Team, which is making use of some of my chemistry. I’ve been on the Math, Science, Technology Advisory Committee for the Schenectady Community College since the 1970s. I’m not sure..
Jen: Plan on retiring soon?
Sam: I was thinking about it, but my new boss, the new dean of science, just started January 1st, and I wanted to get him through at least one year cycle, and then we’ll see what happens then. He made the comment the other day that he hoped he could celebrate my 85th birthday…
Nick Dugan: This is Nick. Where else have you traveled besides England?
Sam: I’ve been to Australia twice. Once to a spectroscopy conference and retirement symposium for my former advisor who went back to Australia after he was in London. The second time, my wife gave me a birthday present of a trip to the Great Barrier Reef for scuba diving. So we went down and spent two weeks there, one up in the north at Cairns, and the other on an island called Herron Island, where the only thing to do was scuba dive. [I’ve] been to France, Italy, Spain, Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and then each winter we try to take a one weeks vacation, get away from the snow and cold. The last couple of years we’ve gone to Mexico, to the Mexican Riviera, which is just south of Cancun. We’ve [also] been to Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Nassau, been to Turks and Caicos, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and lets see, where else… Long Island in the Bahamas, and a few other islands. So we try to do that. We sort of try to take a trip every year to some place or another. And about every fifth year my wife’s family has a reunion up near Boulder, Colorado. So we go there for a few days, and then go someplace from there. Last year we went to Alaska. We got to spend a few days in Alaska.
Adam: Winter or Summer?
Jen: Do you think science is viewed differently in other countries? Like do you think America is the preeminent scientific world or…?
Sam: I think the, that science in many countries is emphasized more than it is in the United States, at an earlier age. In England, for example, students entering university, are at least two years ahead of students entering university here that have the equivalent of general chemistry for example, and maybe the sophomore level analytical chemistry course. They’re also much more specialized in the sense that if you’re a chemistry major you don’t take much more else other than chemistry, unless your particular field calls for it.
In Japan it’s my impression, I’ve never been there, so I’m speaking to hearsay, that students are much more, learn much more at an earlier stage. So I do think there’s, I don’t think the United States is preeminent in math and science. To the extent that it was before, I think it slipped.
Sounds like Mr. Reed is a very good teacher, and, sort of the type of person you might remember.
Students: Yeah, definitely.
Janie: I have another question. I’m not sure how to phrase it but you were pointing out that in other countries people tend to be much more focused on a specific area of science. Do you think that in your life, were you really focused on an area of science, or did other interests that you have affect that?
Sam: I was really focused on chemistry in my earlier years, but then as I went on I made a serious mistake in college of not taking enough mathematics. By the time I got to graduate school I had to take 3 or 4 or 5 more math courses to get where I wanted to, and even then I didn’t have enough. So when I was in England I had to learn a lot of matrix algebra and calculus that I didn’t know before. I didn’t know the theory of asymmetric rotors. So as time went on I probably got more interested in the math and the theory and less interested in the experimental chemistry. Then when I got back from England, one of the things that happened was the head of the math department then was also chairman of the Computer Users Advisory Committee, and he appointed me to that. I actually taught programming for the IBM- RPI had an IBM650 at the time- and taught courses in programming for a couple years there until RPI got a new computer and got more advanced. So I became very interested in that and then I did a lot of committee work as you can see from the biosketch. And somehow or other, again, Steve Wiberley said that there will be a new dean of science appointed, who happened to be this head of the math department, George Handelman. And George had the point of view that he wanted an experimentalist, because he was a theoretician, and he wanted a experimentalist to help him run the school of science. So he asked me if I would be assistant dean. And I did answer yes, because I liked him and I would like to work with him, having about it a while.
That had several repercussions. The first one was that it was initially a half time position. That meant that you couldn’t do halftime teaching, halftimes research, halftime administration and everything else. So I kept up an active research career for about 15 years after that, but the quantity of research went down, and I finally made a decision that if I was going to do something other than just be an administrator, I’d teach rather than carry out research careers. About 1990 I pretty well stopped doing research. Other than playing around with number theory or something like that. And about, probably about 1995-2000 the spectrometer that I had was moved and I no longer had it, so I still did some computation, but not much.
And then I got involved in another project- the chemistry building, the old chemistry building at RPI was build in two phases, one about 1900 and the other 1905, and not much had been done to it since then. So the decision was made that, either we were going to build a new building or we were going to renovate Walker. And eventually it turned out the decision was made the renovate Walker. And so for about four years I spent most of my time going to weekly meetings, helping to design and gut Walker Lab..
Jen: We actually have to go [ tape ends]