Sam Stern: Friday May 29th, 2009 9:35 and we are interviewing William Radigan. Interviewing today will be Sam Stern, Rosi Zhou, Becky Lewis, Jared Mayron, Yufan Lin, and Janie Schwab
Sam: Alright, to begin, just out of curiosity, when did you work at Dudley?
Bill: I think I started there probably about 1970 and left in about 1975
Sam: Alright, in the beginning of your education what influenced you to study biology?
Bill: I liked biology in high school and I liked science in general, and with biology there wasn’t so much math.
Sam: Yeah, haha.
Yufan: We’re a little bit of the opposite with the math.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, there’s two kinds of people you know what can I say.
Sam: Ha, yeah, did working with the Dudley electron microscope during your undergraduate research bring you to Dudley?
Bill: No actually the other way around, I was working on some kind of teenager job and I decided that I needed to do something that would help with my career and my buddy worked at Dudley as a photographer and so he told me that they did and I said “Oh that sounds interesting” so I went over there and I applied for a job, for a summer job and they gave me one just because I seemed like a bright young boy and they could teach me stuff and so that’s how I came to work there. Then, as I moved along, I learned how to use the microscopes and the clean room techniques and then all the stuff you learn there, so when I started doing independent research, my biology professor said, “Oh, you know electro-microscopes were rare and expensive, here’s a resource”. So what would happen is somebody would come along into her lab and say hey I need this plant photographed you know with the SCM of this fly or whatever and could you arrange that and I would do that. I got to meet a lot of scientists and do a lot of interesting things and it’s pretty cool.
Sam: That is cool, that’s a great connection.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, it was one of those things where it was a good move, to think for yourself where would be doing interesting to work, what would be a good thing to do. I just got a lot of huge experience out of it. When I got out of school that qualified me for my job at Princeton which was another great experience. That all worked out great for me, one of my bright strokes in life you know.
Sam: That’s awesome.
Bill: Yeah awesome, Dudley was a great, was a great opportunity for me.
Sam: What did you do after graduating from SUNY Albany?
Bill: I got a job working at Dudley for another year or two.
Bill: And then I got a job with Princeton University managing what they called the materials lab in the school of engineering and what they had was they had some prototype machinery used for making thin films like for making chips, this was back when the whole thing of integrated circuits was just getting started you know so there was a lot of basic research to be done on crystals and what happens when you plant a crystal with an ion and thin films and all that stuff and they had a scanning electron microscope and, so based on that, I think my experience with that and also then we worked at Dudley and Dud-independent research had published a number of scientific papers at this point so I seemed like a bright boy to them too so they hired me and that was another great opportunity I spent five years there and that was that was just awesome, a great place to work, a great place to go to school too.
Sam: Yeah, I visited and it was beautiful.
Bill: Yeah it’s beautiful and I’ll tell you about Princeton, undergraduate education means a big deal to them.
Bill: Like a Harvard, maybe not so important. At Berkley you could be invisible you know, but at Princeton it’s a big deal, it’s worth going to if you can get in.
Sam: Yeah, good scientist-
Jared: If you can get in. Haha.
Bill: Well, you know it’s very selective like all those schools, but it’s a pretty good school if you can make it in.
Sam: Yeah, if only. So did teaching the microprocessor course at Princeton teach you anything new and did you have fun with it?
Bill: I had a blast! I mean first of all when they gave me that job I didn’t know anything about microelectronics, not many people did actually, nor electronics. I said I’d be glad to do this but I don’t know much about this. They said well this is a big time so you better learn. So, I stayed a chapter ahead of the kids for the course and they didn’t know. And it went great. The next year was easier because I new knew what I was talking about.
Becky: As long as you could fake it.
Bill: But the professor who organized this was a great guy and he was interested in model trains so he figured, this is a good excuse for me to play with model trains. He said go out and buy a little model train set for all the kids and plus some other stuff because we’re going to have this big project, with this big model train set and the kids are going to make microelectronics to control all this stuff like raise a draw bridge, read a bar code on a boxcar, or control the speed, all that stuff, so each of the kids would make his own little computer you know, it would be about that big that would just fit on a rail car or two rail cars and he would make a bunch of electronics to do something, right, and then fit on three or four more rail cars and then it would go do something and the first few years a lot of these projects didn’t really quite work because people didn’t quite know what they were doing you know? It worked better in later years, but whatever it did, it was a lot of fun and I got to go out and this is why Princeton is so cool at the undergraduate. I spent something 15,000 dollars on model train stuff.
I got this nasty letter from the department secretary in a little while saying “Bill! You spent 15,000 dollars on model train stuff. You only have 15 kids in the course! But they paid for it and then when the course was popular and got some good press and stuff they thought it was terrific because as long as the undergrads were happy, they were happy. That was a lot of fun that course and it still is as I understand.
Sam: Did anyone come up with a really cool computer function for the train?
Bill: The ones I remember were barcode readers, speed control, draw bridge openers. The first year we did that we were working pretty hard getting the nuts and bolts down, teaching them how to use the kits and basic electronics and such. I think later on that we got more got into the swing of it people learned how to teach the kids how to put together the computer in a couple of days. At first, when I was teaching it, the first couple of years if anything at all worked, we were pretty happy. Later on they got some pretty ingenious stuff.
Jared: It’s Princeton, of course you’ll get genius stuff.
Sam: How did you get into grading rare coins?
Sam: Oh, I love coins by the way, I love coins!
Bill: This was after I was with Princeton. This is how things go, from thing to thing. Because they knew electronics and computers in Princeton, somebody was opening up a new computer store in town and they needed a technician to fix Apple II, does somebody know what Apple II is?
Jared: I’m familiar with it, I’m kind of the techie.
Bill: Yeah, Apple II is the original desktop computer, first Apples were made of discrete chips and they would break. You’d have to fix them and that was mostly a matter of swapping the chips, but no one knew that. Everyone thought it was hard, right?
Bill: So they hired me. Universities don’t may much money so I was looking for some extra income. I got a job at the local computer store fixing these things at night. Some customers were impressed with me and they decided to start up a rival computer store and they hired me away. I didn’t want to leave Princeton so they said well we’ll give you some equity, we give you a part of the business and I said okay, I’ll try it.
That worked out pretty well for me. I was working at this business for a while and we did pretty well with it. That business started out, as an example: Warren Phillips who was the chairman of Dow Jones at the time, Dow Jones was headquartered at Princeton he wanted to open a store and he said “What do you do with these things.” We explained it to him and I showed him a spreadsheet, one of the first spreadsheets.
Jared: I use those.
Bill: Yeah, of course you do right, everyone does.
Jared: I do research, I use spreadsheets a lot.
Bill: Yeah, so before personal computers they didn’t exist and if you wanted to add up some numbers you sat down, you wrote them down on a piece of paper right
Bill: So Warren Phillips looks at this and he goes, that would just save me tons and tons of time. “Well here it is, 2,000 dollars.” he said, “I want you to bring it out to my house.” I said well we usually don’t deliver he said I want you to do this for me, bring it up to my house and install it okay? And I knew who he was so I said okay he says okay the house is on Long Island, I’ll send you my driver on Monday morning and he’ll drive you out there and you can set everything up.
Sam: How tough.
Bill: Well, I said okay.
Bill: I tried to talk him into a helicopter but he wouldn’t go for that one
Bill: So, anyway, that business became a real adventure business at the start and it became sort of a commodity business after a while. Kind of like a car business you know, with a guy down the street selling the exact same product and all the costumers want to know about is the price really. I wanted to get out so I sold out my interest to partners and left. I was doing some consulting and a guy down in New Orleans had heard about me from one of my employees. He was starting up a business to grade rare coins. The deal with this was that if a coin is a certain grade, it might be worth 10,000 dollars, but if it’s got, you know this, which one of you is a coin guy? Yeah you are.
Bill: So if it’s got another grade up it might be worth 20,000 dollars right? That’s a big deal. He always got the feeling that he was being, this guy was a collector himself and he had a lot of money, he always had the feeling he was being bamboozled by the dealers. The grading business wasn’t quite honest you know. So he wanted to develop a system to do it by computer and he had enough money that he could do that. These guys had two jets, there were two brothers that owned the business. They each had a jet.
Sam: Oh my gosh.
Jared: All that from coins?
Bill: Well no, it wasn’t. He was in the scrap business. It’s even more surprising, just chopping up old cars and that kind of thing. So he hired me because I had a science background and stuff. He said “I want you to see if you can make this work.” I said “You know I don’t have a whole lot of experience in this kind of optical image processing and automated stuff.” He said “Well you seem okay and who else am I going to find in the next month to come down and do this. Why don’t you give it a try?” and so I did, it actually worked. That was that was kind of a fun project that went on for a couple years. What happens when you grade a coin, I’m going to pass this around, you grade it and you figure out the grade and then it goes into that plastic box that can’t be broken. Well it can be broken, but it can’t be opened and so the grade gets sealed with it and that becomes the official grade and it gets sold on that basis.
Sam: So is that the system that they use now?
Bill: You know, it turns out, it’s one of these, it’s a good business lesson, we got it to work technically but we never got dealers, coin dealers, to go for it because it turns out the uncertainty in the grade was how they made their money. A dealer would take a coin that you brought to him and he’d go, I’ll bet if I took this out of the case I could send it back in and they’d grade it higher this time. Right? Well that’s how they made their money, the last thing they want was a machine that would say, oh yeah I’ve seen this before, this is grade six right? After a while the owner decided he’d put enough money into it and he gave it up but technically it worked and it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from it.
Sam: My favorite coin for this year is a 1909 penny.
Sam: Which is the first year Abraham Lincoln was on the penny.
Bill: Oh yeah, yeah that’s cool.
Sam: Yeah, so it’s like the hundred year anniversary, oh yeah.
Bill: A lot of it was from the experience I had at Dudley because what we were looking for were micrometeorite impacts. They’re little defects in highly polished surfaces. When we were working we were always trying to find illumination so that you could see this very small thing at as small a magnification as possible. If you set up the lights just right you can, so at least when I started this I knew how to do that stuff. Then it was just a matter of lifting the image of the defects from the background which you can do and then figuring out the algorithm to compute the grade from the defects, because right away we have a perfect defect map, we got a map of all the scratches, scruffs and all that stuff, so we though, we’re done. It turns out that we were done for a human, but not for the image. A human looks at something like this, a scratch that’s on Kennedy’s nose looks a lot different than one on Kennedy’s cheek because of the prominence and stuff like that. Figuring out an algorithm to take ten thousand different, it’s not ten thousand but several thousand or several hundred defects and then figuring out one grade from that was pretty hard actually. That was the hardest part. That took us about six months.
Sam: I couldn’t imagine.
Bill: It’s mostly just keeping at it you know.
Sam: So you said the experience at Dudley gave you the background with the micrometeorite.
Bill: Yeah, yes
Sam: So, you got into electronics before computers?
Bill: It was kind of simultaneous. Back then it was very unusual to find computers in things. If you buy a GPS now right or this recorder, it probably has at least one computer in it right? Anything you buy has a computer in it now. But back then, this was, 1980’s or 70’s, late 70’s. That was unheard of. It just didn’t happen. People were producing chips that were little computers; they were about half the size of this recorder. That would be a computer. People were rapidly getting the idea, gee they’re cheap enough, they’re ten or fifteen dollars and we could put them in different devices and they could do things. Being a university we had to be on the leading edge of this stuff.
Bill: We would put together the chip that would be about this big and there would be some memory about this big and then a couple other control things, a little power supply about that big and then, you want to interface it to the real world right so you have to get it to read a resistance or read a voltage or put out a voltage or do something to interact with the real world. By doing that I learned some electronics; how a transistor works and how to use resistors and hook capacitors up ten tiny circuits and all that stuff.
At the time there was a book called “The TTL Cookbook”. Before that you if you wanted to build anything useful you had to buy little components like transistors and capacitors and put them together and it was a lot of work. But when these chips started coming out, you didn’t have to do that anymore, you could buy a little chip that cost a dollar fifty right. So the guy that wrote “The TTL Cookbook” said well you might think that you could just buy these things and put them together and make useful circuits just by reading the catalogue and doing the wiring and he said if that’s what you think you’re right and this book’s for you.
And so once we learned, once we had the little computer, then we used books like “The TTL Cookbook” and some similar ones, too, to put together useful circuits like tellers or they’re called a one shock something that makes a little pulse that goes for five seconds or all kinds of things. It was actually not that hard. It was something you could show to undergraduates and they could understand it. They have things that can open drawbridges and that was new, that was a new thing. In 1968 you couldn’t have done that but in 1975 you could. It was a very cool thing back then.
Sam: It’s amazing how far from there things have come. Like you said, everything has computers.
Bill: Yeah everything has computers now. I remember my wife was in the lab and I was helping a kid with a barcode reader, a homemade one. She said “What’s the point of all this.” I said “Well, someday they’ll have these things when you go to the supermarket. They’ll have a little scanner and they’re going to scan anything you want to buy and they’ll figure out the price.” I said “Then it’ll talk to the computer, the store computer and it’ll deduct that from the inventory and then it’ll compute up what the cash register should say.” She said “Crazy.” Because there were no scanners back then, there was no such thing, but you could see where that was all going, that there’d be a computer in everything pretty soon.
Sam: Yeah, alright, we noticed that you went from biology and working with micrometeorites to coins and then business. What were some of your challenges that you faced transitioning from so many different focuses?
Bill: Well I guess I have more of a problem keeping focused than transitioning. The hardest thing for me was when I left the technical business and went in to business and eventually became a manager how much more difficult that was than working the technical stuff. When you have 100 people working for you, everyone lies to you. Nonstop. Everything you do involves politics and different factions and I used to deal with scientists where you could say okay, A, B, and they’d look bright and then say oh yeah then C but when you’re dealing with fractious people, you would say A, B, and they’d kind of look at you.
And it was just a whole different thing and I found that very, very difficult to deal with. I really didn’t like managing people. It’s a different kind of mind for that. There’s people who like dominating other people, but my impulse is always to use reason and persuasion. It just wasn’t so. I had a hard time with that.
But, because we had picked a hot market when we started our computer store, there were no personal computers, maybe one person out of a thousand had one and then, now you know everyone has three in the house right, it was an explosively growing market, just explosive. We went from nothing to a fifteen million dollar business in four or five years.
Sam: Really, wow.
Bill: I fitted a curve later; it’s the scientist in me. I fitted a curve to our growth. It was fifteen percent per month.
Bill: Yeah, it was just astonishing. It was a wild ride. It was the wildest thing. So that was a lot of fun, but then you found it that what used to be just you and three other guys now was a hundred people you had to manage. And they were all snorting stuff. Back in the 80’s, this was in the 80’s, which was the height of the cocaine fad. A lot of our employees were liberal arts majors who were now making some money, and a lot of them spent the money on cocaine. Once they started with cocaine they would just do more and more and more of it, until something horrible happened. They’d have to be fired, or they’d get into a car accident, or they’d get arrested. It was the most amazing drug you’ve ever seen. It was like a big fad and, oh man, what a nightmare. It was just one of the examples of why I didn’t like management. The cocaine was just one of those things.
Sam: How long did it take for that business to turn more into the commodity like you said?
Bill: It took about three or four years and I was in it for I think five. By three years it was well on its way towards becoming a commodity and by five it really was. I remember there was a customer we had, he worked for high tech business in Princeton and he was a good customer and he had been for a long time. He called me up one day and he wanted to buy a Macintosh, one of the first ones, and I gave him our lowest price because he’s a good customer. He said okay and he was the vice president of a big company so he calls me back in about an hour and he goes, I’ve found a company in Washington D.C. that will sell it to me for fifty dollars less. I said, this isn’t going to work.
Bill: You know, if a guy who’s very busy is willing to scour the country to save fifty dollars, it’s just like?
Becky: What can you do?
Bill: Yeah, what are you going to do? So I started losing my interest in the business.
Sam: So when you changed focuses, you moved around a lot.
Sam: Was it you following jobs or did you move to locations that you choose?
Bill: I always followed a job.
Sam: Was Princeton your favorite place to work?
Bill: In New Jersey at that time real estate prices were very high compared to the rest of the country and I was getting a university salary so that was a hard life. That part about living in Princeton and being on campus is very stimulating so that was terrific. I didn’t like New Jersey that much, I thought it was crowded and over governed and expensive, but Princeton was great.
My favorite city was probably New Orleans just because… it’s New Orleans. All that history and the different cultures that are there. There’s a beautiful natural environment outside the city in the swamps. You can go through the wetlands by a little flat boat. a little swamp boat, and you can explore out there and see bald eagles and all kinds of things. You’d feel like you were a pioneer, exploring, because you couldn’t tell that there was this giant city twenty miles away. It was just impossible to tell, just real pretty, just pretty undisturbed wilderness. That was a pretty cool place to live, and there was a lot of cool stuff about Southern Louisiana.
Sam: Last year my youth group and I went down on a trip and we all loved it, it’s amazing.
Bill: Yeah, you went down to help out?
Sam: We went to New Orleans and then we went to Gulf Port, Mississippi afterwards and we built houses there.
Bill: Oh that’s cool.
Bill: Yeah, that’s cool; Gulf Port’s a nice town too.
Sam: Yeah, it was much colder than we expected though.
Bill: When’d you go?
Sam: We went in April, over April break.
Bill: Yeah, it usually isn’t but it can be.
Sam: Alright, of all the projects you worked on which did you find the most interesting?
Bill: They were all interesting but I think I got a lot of satisfaction out of that train course. I thought that was a big thing. It was a big thing; I learned a lot; that was great. It was inherently interesting that was great, but kids learned a lot and that was great too. You do this stuff and a lot of the kids who come up with creative ideas on their own, where they’d figured out what was going on finally and they’d start thinking and start rolling with stuff and they’d do things and, that was that was pretty cool. I really liked that.
Sam: On that, do you have any hobbies, like do you still play with trains?
Bill: Not with trains, but I have an interest in robotics and I’m in the design stage of making myself a little robot.
Sam: Yeah, what is the robot’s function?
Bill: Well, the way I thought of it, I was out the first year I moved to Maine. It snowed everyday and I was always out shoveling. I said there must be a better way to do this and I thought to myself, could you make a robot to shovel the snow.
Bill: Right? So I said, well we could automate a snow blower, but then I thought, a snow blower running around the neighborhood on its own probably wouldn’t be a good idea. They make these little RC trucks about yay-big? Well, suppose you could put a plow up on one of those, right? And then suppose what would it have to do? It would have to find out where it was, right? And maybe pick up snow somehow and go onto the lawn and dump it.
I was thinking of all the ways you could do that and so to help me do that I learned Java and I learned modern microprocessors the ones they make now. Then I kind of put that aside for a little while but because it turns out if you looking into that whole industry used to be when I first started this was several years ago, the if you buy, you can still buy it now you know the Lego robot kit, you ever seen this thing?
Bill: You’ve seen this right, Storms? [The Lego Mindstorms series of kits contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robots.] Yeah Mindstorms, you could program that and get it to do things but all your development is on this little thing. You have to load-reload it. It is hard, it’s a primitive language, what you really want to do is have the brain in your computer right in your desktop because then you could do some proper software development. On that you have things like .net and visual studio, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this stuff.
Jared: I am.
Bill: You are, okay. A proper in-development environment, then what should be on the computer is just there. On the robot itself is just things like “get a voltage”, “send it back to the brain”, “get a signal from the brain”, “turn the motor on”. You just want that doing simple things because it’s very hard to program stuff such as the decision “what path should I take to get to the end of the driveway”. That’s very hard so you want to do that on a big computer where it’s easy to develop and then have a dumb computer on the robot and a wireless link.
I thought about that and I figured how that would work and a language to talk between the two but I had to drop that for a little while because I just didn’t have time. Now Microsoft has what they call Microsoft Visual Studio which you can download for robotics.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, it’s Microsoft Robotics Studio and you can download it for free. It’s got a simulator that you can simulate a robot like the Lego Mindstorms and then you can think up algorithms and have it do things and then you can try that out on the simulator and there you go, right? So that’s pretty cool but that that doesn’t do much because the interface they have is just single commands like A, B, C, you know turn left, go a little faster and you can’t do more complicated things.
What I’m working on right now is to devise an interface that’ll let you send a whole string of instructions. I got the book on that. Go get a measurement from A and B and measurement from something else and then if they’re, 12 send me back this.
Jared: Considered using an open source platform to adopt the old software?
Bill: Yes, but I wanted to get my own interface so I could send and receive more complicated commands.
Jared: That might be difficult though.
Bill: Yes, it is difficult, but that’s my hobby project right now.
Sam: That’s awesome.
Bill: It may never get anywhere, but it keeps shooting.
Becky: How long have you been working on it?
Bill: A couple years. Mostly thinking about it rather than actually doing anything.
Sam: It always seems like the tough thing to actually.
Bill: It is and if you work in software development which I do now, they tell you and I’m sure you’ve all had software courses, the first thing to do is put down the computer and start thinking, That’s true.
Sam: So, with that what do you intend to work on in the future?
Bill: Well, I’m fifty eight now so I’ll probably finish my career doing pretty much what I’m doing now which is software development and doing business type stuff.
Jared: What software Oracle databases?
Bill: Oracle databases yeah, that’s what I work in mostly and I’ll probably just continue doing that until I retire I think, unless some other cool thing comes up.
Jared: You never know.
Bill: You never know, well you know I’m free now. When I had children, your parents will tell you this is true, your choice become a lot more constrained. You can’t go leave your cushy Princeton job and go start a new business because you’ve got a wife and two kids to support. Well now they’re grown up so I can do whatever I wanted to.
Becky: Are they interested in what you like to do?
Bill: No neither of them has any scientific interest.
Sam: It’s alright.
Bill: Well my daughter is thinking of going to medical school.
Bill: So that’ll be great, yeah that would be awesome.
Jared: There’s quite a lot of medicine required on storing on high use computers
Bill: It does that.
Sam: Alright, do you have any recommendations or advice for someone interested in science?
Bill: Well, you know if you don’t study hard, what can I say?
Bill: I’ll tell you though; my advice to young people is the same advice that I think Janie would tell you. It’s this: if you ask anyone over thirty what their biggest regret in life is and they’ll say that they I didn’t try harder or do better in school.
Bill: And I should have gotten a PhD and gone on and done something with that. I was sick of school by the time I was twenty something. I didn’t because I couldn’t take it but I should have and I regret, even now, that I didn’t. I guess the advice would be to get all the education that you can. That the time that you spend on that stuff when you’re young really pays off, anything you learn when you’re young really pays off later on for the rest of your life.
Becky: If you were to go farther, what would you have done? What would you have pursued?
Bill: I’m not sure, probably something in biology. The other reason I regret that is the two big explosive developments in my time were computers, that was one thing and I did pretty good with that, but the other was molecular biology. That’s a huge thing now. Those guys are just amazing and that would have been a cool thing to ride too. When I first started learning biology in 1969 it was really pretty primitive compared to what it is now. Now, it’s just amazing. I understand there’s this thing you can do where, some MIT students figured this out, they got some e. coli that was sensitive to light right and the e. coli would produce some something, some kind of color if it’s in the presence of light. So they get these e. coli which they’ve genetically engineered to do this, they put them out in a big layer, and they shine an image on them. Then you go away for a couple days and pretty soon the things start growing this image in living bacteria. Well that’s pretty cool I don’t know what the use of that is, but that’s pretty cool.
Becky: Living art.
Bill: And I understand you can get now, just like how like “The TTL Cookbook”, a DNA cookbook.
Bill: That you can buy.
Jared: No no, I actually work, I work
Bill: Do you?
Jared: In a genomics lab so I do programming for biotechnology
Bill: Oh that’s cool, that’s wicked cool
Jared: Yeah, I do the spread sheets. You know Moore’s Law where you have a cell, a chip that you can increase, it doesn’t exist anymore for computers but now it it’s in biology in gene sequencing, it’s exceeding Moore’s Law. We have sequencers that can sequence billions of base pairs now.
Bill: Yeah that’s pretty cool. Who’s that, what company is that?
Jared: There are several different companies.
Bill: Which company do you work for?
Jared: I work at Wadsworth, Micrology
Bill: What’s that?
Jared: It’s the New York State Department of Health.
Bill: Oh okay. Well that’s good.
Becky: Yes, all of us are in AP Biology or have been so we know there’s a lot.
Bill: I think that’s an awesome field.
Sam: I feel like in science it often hits walls you know he said he first he studied physics and it got down to five big physics questions that nobody could answer you know and I feel like once you break through those barriers those walls for example in biology it’s amazing.
Bill: It’s just amazing it’s the Moore’s Law effect, like you said, and it’s great when that happens. Just all kind of possibilities open up.
Sam: So with computer I think like I’m amazed with the force you had to go into that and pioneer in that field. Did you feel like it was kind of coincidence or did you recognize that and really take hold of the opportunities?
Bill: No I used to read Scientific American and I remember reading about integrated circuits the possibility of making microprocessors, stuff like that, and I said this is going to be a big thing, and it was.
Take that in 1970, I’ll give you an example, an everyday example, you want to start a car all day in the winter. You know cranking the thing and you use ether and squirt it down the carburetor and then the battery would wear down. You’d have to take the battery to the house and warm it up. It was just the whole thing, to get the car started in 1970. Now, when it’s below zero out in Maine, I just turn the key in my truck and it starts right up. And why is that? Because there’s a computer inside the engine that goes oh it’s cold now, so we have to advance the spark timing and enrich the mixture and add something to the spark and we’ll do this and things will start right up in the winter, and it does. I could see that coming when I started working on this stuff, that these things will be everywhere and it will be just a cool thing to be in.
Sam: I’m envious of that force.
Bill: It was it was great I had a great career.
Becky: Well, do you think that if you had come along when it was the computers along with biology you would have gone into that? We now have a lot of computers in biology, would that have interested you?
Bill: Yes it would of, it would of. One of the things I did was at Albany State, they had a big computer with these little terminals that you could kind of rent by the hour. You could write programs in FORTRAN. Well, I wrote a program to calculate standard deviations. Everybody thought that was wicked cool because a lot of people were spending a lot of time with calculators, putting in numbers and averaging all this stuff. It took a long time. So when they could automate that stuff they just thought it was a wicked cool thing. But that was kind of before the time. When I was at Princeton I did some work automating experiments of different kinds and that was a lot of fun. So, you know rather than somebody writing things down on a chart, the computer would take a reading every five seconds or whatever and do that stuff. That was a lot of fun to do that work.
Sam: Yes. I once saw a computer called like “The Golem”, and it was very primitive, and they had cards that you punched and you put it into the computer, and it did the programming from there. Well that blew me away.
Bill: Punch cards yea. In 1970, you went around some computer science department,
you’d see all the kids running around with these boxes full of punch cards all wrapped up with rubber bands, and that was a program, right? And if you wanted to run it, you went over to the computer center, and you gave the punch cards to the guys, and they would run this thing for you.
And then it wouldn’t run, there’d be some bug, so then they’d give you your punch cards back and you’d have to go through them and sort them all out until you find the error, and you’d have to type in another punch card, put that back in, go back to the computer center, and say “Here let’s try this one!” right. And I never did that, I just refused, I said “If it’s that hard I’m not going to do it.”
Jared: Now we have Python.
Bill: What’s Python?
Jared: Python or Pearl, Python is a C++, it runs on top of C++, it integrates like spell checker.
Bill: Right, right, right.
Jared: Which is an amazing programming, I’ve done C++ and it’s so frustrating even if you know where the error on the line is it’s so frustrating in programming.
Bill: Yea, yea (laughing), yea.
Jared: It’s crazy.
Becky: Those details.
Janie: My very first day working at Harvard, the guy I was working with took me down to the computer room to you know just show me how it worked, and our program would, you know, either take in two numbers and print them out or add them together,
Janie: something totally trivial, just so he could show me where the computer room was, and so he grabbed a bunch of end of record card off, you know, by the door and stuck them in front and in back and whatever and we ran them through, and it didn’t work.
Janie: And it took us three days because it turns out that one of the end of record cards wasn’t punched
Janie: So that bollixed the whole thing up.
Becky: Oh no.
Janie: It was pretty funny.
Bill: Those were dark days.
Becky: I can’t imagine that.
Jared: I couldn’t imagine even programming in fortran. That is such a cumbersome language.
Bill: Yea but the alternative, I mean there were so many, it was a target rich environment. There was so many tedious horrible things that to be done by hand, you know. At Dudley, we had time, this was 1977. We had a programmable calculator. It was about this big right, and it had this big key pad and a couple of instructions. People though that was the coolest thing in the whole world because the alternative was to sit there and have a piece of paper.
Bill: And type in four hundred numbers and add them up by hand. Those were dark days. It was a terrible time.
Jared: Rosi, I have one, but Rosi I think she has one of the TI-84 that you can program in TI-Basic?
Jared: I actually programmed a DNA recombination program for that. It took a while but it worked well.
Bill: That’s pretty cool.
Becky: It’s impressive. How you can do anything now. You can say “Oh I want to pretend to go to the moon today” and they’ll be “Hey I can make you a computer program step right over here and I’ll show you what would happen.”
Bill: It’s astonishing.
Becky: It’s insane.
Janie: I would curse them for being slow.
Bill: I know it’s amazing. God bless Mr. Moore and his law.
Yufan: Do you have any more amazing insights into the future of technology?
Bill: I think Biology is probably the big way of the future. I think it is, I’m sure it is. It will just be awesome I just can’t imagine what they’re going to be able to do. There’s a book I read recently called Microcosm about E. Coli of all things and how they work and all this stuff about how busy molecular biologists have been, and it’s just awesome, it’s just awesome. They’re starting to be able to make organisms that work. It’s just a huge thing.
Jared: They actually do.
Bill: Yes they do, don’t they.
Jared: Yes we can order them, we actually do order them, we get samples, we do order them, we’re doing a study on Darling’s disease, trying to find a better way of diagnosing. We ordered some so we can make sure our test is perfect.
Bill: Yea. Like these sequences you were talking about.
Jared: The Sangitus’s [?] are first generation with the Sangur [?], Denyas [?], Rorschfar [?] 4 by 4, and now there’s a new solid by Solaris
Bill: You’re keeping up with those?
Becky: He knows what’s going on.
Becky: We’re just here for the ride.
Bill: That’s all wicked cool stuff. I have to believe that’s going to be huge.
Jared: Yes, You can access thousands of genomes online. I could go on the internet right now and type in a name, get genes, thousands of base pairs. 700 megabytes actually, is the entire size of the human genome, which, if you put it in that way, it sounds like so trivial, but it’s so. All the essence of our being can be put on a flash drive. Think about it, you can put our entire essence of being on a flash drive.
Bill: That’s right you could couldn’t you.
Becky: Well, of everything else they’ve been able to manipulate, biology is the last one. They’ve understood biology but they couldn’t do much with it, and so now, now that’s the last thing left, you know chemistry they can make things and physics they can change things, and then, but biology they haven’t been able to make something happen. Now is their chance, they’re really doing something.
Bill: That’s wicked cool.
Sam: What I love about it is that even as much as we think we’ve got it down to a science, no pun intended, that there’s always an uncertainty and there’s always that surprise. We read about all these experiments, and it’s never what they were looking for, it’s always “Oh what’s that”
Bill: Yea, yea.
Sam: Then they research and they find.
Bill: I’m sure that will happen, that their will be a huge number of surprises in bio in the next twenty years. Huge number. Probably some of them not so pleasant [laughs] but anyway it will be interesting.
Sam: Yea. We saw yesterday a presentation on HIV which was interesting and seeing what approach they were taking, and just the creativity they were applying to problems that we have.
Becky: Some really smart people going into biology. You hear a lot about people who want to go into medicine, and they go and they take these biology courses and they’re like “Wow, there’s stuff that I’ve never thought of” and then they almost have to stick with that because it just excites them so much as opposed to just medicine which is kind of known. Like research and they get really interesting. You don’t find that with a lot of fields.
Bill: There’s interesting things going on in physics but it’s not cascading. Like in the 50’s they invented solid state physics, the transistor and the laser, and all that stuff and there was other stuff every week, it just kind of calmed you know, I think bio is just going to take off.
Sam: Yes. Like how.
Becky: I don’t like biology, sorry.
Sam: So a question, back to the research. With micrometeorite, how flat are those surfaces of the metals, the stainless steel and copper?
Bill: Oh, pretty flat. Well that don’t have to be flat, if there’s a little ripple like that a long wavelength ripple, that doesn’t matter but they had to be pretty mirror. At a microscopic level, some of the impacts we were looking for were a tenth of a micron, a micron is one ten-thousandth of a millimeter, so we’re a tenth of that, that’s pretty small. One of the things that I did was to prepare all these collection surfaces. There are ways that you know, metallurgies have ways of polishing metal, but it turns out those leave a lot of imperfections. It looks smooth, but it’s not. What you had to do was to develop techniques so that it was really mirror like. And mostly, we could tell the difference between a micrometeorite impact and a not one. The fewer little artifacts that caught the light and distracted you when you were, we had to do this by hand, that would distract you when you were scanning them and looking for micrometeorites, the better. That was a big thing to get these things just as flat as you could. So I would start out we’d take out a piece of metal from the shop and then grind it with sand paper, and then finer sand paper and finer sand paper and finer sand paper, until you ran out of sand paper to grind. Then we’d polish it with diamond paste, that went various widths from one micron to a tenth micron. The trick with doing that, it wasn’t, it was just work, and trial and error, but to get that, the polishing will kind of develop defects if you’re not real careful so you have to do it for just the right amount of time, just sand it for the right amount of time and polish it with the diamond and each grip for just the right amount of time and it came out right. And it took us a while to get that, to figure out how to do that.
Sam: So, did you ever try to apply the process you applied the identifying the scratches with the coins?
Sam: Yes. Did you find any other applications?
Bill: No, I’m sure there would be but I didn’t. It was kind of a weird turn in my career to be doing that at all, you know.
Bill: I had a lot of fun doing that, we had a good time. It was a little group in the lab, we were all good friends, you know. It was pretty cool, I had a good time.
Becky: What did you use that information for?
Becky: The micro, when you were detecting micrometeorites.
Bill: Well, they didn’t know. When they started flying space flight in the 60s, they knew there were small meteors up there but they didn’t know how many there were. So they were thinking of doing things like going to Mars and going to the Moon. This is how Dudley got into this, they were thinking of going to the Moon, and going to Mars after that, so they knew there were micro meteors up there, they could see those. They hit the Earth and they knew there must be micrometeorites, but they didn’t know how many. The concern was that spacecraft will get up there and get bombarded with tiny little impacts, it hits at 15,000 miles an hour. And the kinetic energy of even something very small going 15,000 miles an hour is big. It makes, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the picture from Dudley, but it makes a little crater, like a crater on the Moon, you know, in steel, right. And, so they were very concerned about these things. That was NASA’s first concern. And then there was the scientific concern that, if you catch these things and analyze their structure and stuff, these things have presumably been floating around since the origin of the solar system, so it kind of tells you what the stuff was that Earth was made out of, that all the planets were made of. So that was the interest of all that stuff, partly practical, party theoretical.
Becky: But how, I mean if they’re moving that fast to damage the spacecraft, how do you catch them without damaging your instruments?
Bill: Boy that’s an interesting story. We couldn’t, of course, you know. We tried to catch them. We had a couple of experiments that tried to catch them in the upper atmosphere. There was a balloon experiment.
Becky: The Sessi moon?
Bill: The Sessi moon, very good, that’s had a lot of contamination problems, because, if you look at stuff microscopically, it’s pretty dirty, everything is. So it was hard to tell what was something floating in from outer space and what was something that floated off my sleeve. We put in a lot of effort keeping it clean. It was very difficult. In space everything’s going 15,000 miles an hour so you can’t catch it, it just makes an impact crater, but we had this scanning electron microscope that let us see the crater. The microscope had on it what’s still called a microprobe, which uses the electron beam. The electron beam and the SEM is high energy and, when it hits an atom, it will cause an excitation, and the atom will let off a mild X-ray, and those X-rays are characteristic of the atom. You can tell a zinc X-ray from a copper X-ray, and so the hope was, if we had like a steel plate, then we caught manganese in it, then you could guess that it would leave traces. And so that’s what we were trying to do with that. We had some surfaces, we had very thin gold foils, and layers, and the idea was we could get an idea of the fragility of these things, and hopefully try to capture some of the material, after it was all over, to see what it was. It’s all kind of crude, you know, when you look back at it, but I didn’t see a better way, I don’t think anyone saw a better way to do it. But now I think that they just had this mission to the comet, and I think they used arrow gel to capture the things, right?
Bill: So boy if we could have done that back in 1970 it would have been great, but we couldn’t.
Becky: Very convenient.
Bill: Yes. So that was a great experiment.
Becky: It sounds very exciting because, it’s something you don’t really get to see, and all of the sudden you can kind of bring it up, you’re not looking at it I mean you can’t look at it, but just kind of bring it to life.
Bill: Yea! It was, you know I was 22 then, it was pretty exciting stuff to work on you know?
Janie: I have a question. You said that you moved a lot of places for different jobs and you’d mentioned that they were all interesting. Can you tell about where you went and what you did?
Bill: Yes, I started out at Princeton, that was great, that was awesome. I stayed at New Jersey for another five years after that running the computer store, and it was New Orleans for about five years and then they, when they abandoned this project they liked me, so they made me their IT director, that was great you know, an interesting thing. And then, after that, I came to Maine, which was a great place to live, and then when I was done with that I was out in Arizona for a couple years, and Connecticut for a year or so, and now I work in Massachusetts.
Becky: Oh haha.
Bill: It was a little moving around. It was very stimulating to move, I think, to change places, and change cultures and stuff like that.
Jared: I have a question. When looking through your information, I see you did something for IEEE Spectrum, which is a telecommunications magazine, that kind of stood off as, I knew you were kind of micro-ish, I didn’t think you were the telecommunication type of guy.
Bill: Oh, no I wasn’t that. I don’t remember which one that was but, I was lucky, well, I went into, Albany State’s a big school, and I was sitting in lecture halls with 400 people and I said not for me. So I went to one of the professors and asked her if I could do some independent research, and she said yes, and then we worked together, when she found out I had access to the equipment at Dudley, then we did a lot of things. I pulled up some papers with Dudley in astronomy. My name was on there as a courtesy but it was still nice you know. Then we did some papers on, because back then SEM’s were new and electron microscopes were pretty new, so you could put a random bug in a microscope and you’d find something interesting about it, and then that led to some thing. And then I brought some of these papers, um, she had a friend who, who was a brilliant theoretical physicist, a chemist, over at Albany State, and I’ll show you these things let’s see, and I’ll show you some of these things. If you look at these, this professor, his name was Frisch, he had a theory that um, you know, physicists, chemists, work on things, like the spreading of thin films or droplets, right?
And that’s a big deal because, you know paint and all kinds of things have to do with spreading liquids on solids, and he had this theory, because the math didn’t work out, their models weren’t working out, and he said, you know if there was this little precursor foot on the spreading film, then that would make the numbers work out. So he came to us and he said, I think there’s this microscopic film, in droplet spread, you know, he said and I can’t see it, and no one’s seen it, but I want you guys to look for it and see if you can find it. So we went into the SEM, and we melted some polyethylene on glass. You could kind of see this little foot here, but it’s kind of unconvincing, because you heat the thing up and it spreads, and you cool it back it down, and the polyethylene shrinks, right? It shrinks at different rates than the glass does. So, you go, well, if that a real foot like you’re saying is or is that an artifact of the shrinkage, and it’s kind of hard to say. So we thought about that for a little while and we said, well, if you look at a light bulb or vacuum tubes that metal seals because the glass expands at the same rate as the metal that it’s attached to, so we could do that with glass and this special metal that has the same expansion coefficient as the glass does and we wouldn’t have that shrinkage thing. So we did that.
This was from the Dudley Observatory. It’s from the Dudley microscope, and sure enough, it was the little foot. That was pretty cool, because it was like classic science. Like some guy came to the experimentalist and said the math isn’t working out, there must be some physical thing, that we should be able to see, you guys go look, let’s see if you can find it. And so we did look for it, we did find it, it was pretty cool, it was pretty awesome.
Jared: I never knew that, it’s very interesting.
Bill: Yes, yeah. You wouldn’t know that, it is kind of interesting. And then, then, he said well you know, I’d like to see if the math really works, could you make the thing spread at different rates. So we said, well, that’s kind of hard to do, you know. But we came up with another experiment where we put a glass slide into something, I learned at Dudley putting thin films down, but we had a glass slide that was stuck in a jar of HCl, which is conductive, and the glass slide had an aluminum electrode on it, and, we could, raise the level of the HCl towards the electrode, and the question was if it was really a thin film, a precursor, then you should start seeing electrical conductivity before it actually got there. It turns out that worked, and we were able to raise, change the rate at which the HCl rose and then measure the changing resistivity as the thing got closer.
Jared: The HCl must have been slow. It had to rise very slowly.
Jared: Well in order to detect if it started conducting quickly or it might have been splashes or
Bill: Oh, yea, it was pretty slow it took us about five seconds to an experiment, that’s pretty slow maybe ten seconds. Of course back then we had char recorders instead of computer-like detection.
I’m oversimplifying this. We had a Faraday cage too. It was a pretty small signal, as it turns out. Anyway, when we were done with that our numbers worked out with his calculations. He was thrilled. And I was thrilled because as I was looking up information for this interview I found some old stuff. That paper got referenced, it was some guy in France, I think his name was Gen or something, he was writing up a review article on this whole field of spreading and stuff like that, and he said that was the most brilliant of the experiments that were done in the old days. And that guy won the Nobel Prize, so I got a Nobel Prize winner that called me brilliant, I’m happy, you know. There you go, I guess it must be true.
Sam: Haha, it’s alright I guess.
Becky: It’s got to be cool to have your name on this paper.
Bill: It is yes. Well you know what’s really cool, I hadn’t thought about this for a long time until Janie called me, but I did a search for my name and Dr. Frisch’s name and four pages of references came up, so people have been reading these things all over the years and it becomes part of the body of knowledge you know. Everyone’s gone past it.
Jared: Like this will become the body of knowledge too.
Bill: Yes, exactly, yes. So that’s kind of cool. I kind of like that, thanks to you. You know my paper comes up, that’s ok, but also, you know, 30 or 40 or 50 papers that cited that come up too, and that’s cool you know, because 50 people read this thing and though it was important enough to cite. Okay, I’ll take that. Beats selling computers, you know?
Becky: Seems kind of cool to just get your name out.
Bill: It was cool, it was cool, it was great. Do independent research when you get to college, it’s worth doing.
Jared: I have my name on my paper, bio senior year.
Bill: Good for you.
Jared: It’s because I’ve been working on my college essay.
Bill: Yes put it out there, that’s cool.
Becky: Yea I would love to do research.
Sam: Was there anyone that you really enjoyed working with?
Bill: Dr. Urdella, she’s still at Albany State and she was a great person in many ways. And Dr. Firstick the chemist who worked with us on this was just a remarkable man. He had an incredible life story. He grew up in the 30s, he was Jewish he grew up in the 30s in Austria. His family was like assimilated, you know, they didn’t make a big deal about being Jewish, in fact he went to Catholic School. Well, after the Germans took over Austria, and he was just like five or six years old, the Christian kids in the school got caught up in all this kind of stuff. They picked him up and they threw him out the window. Fortunately it was only the second floor and he landed in some bushes, and he wasn’t hurt. But another kid got thrown out from the fifth floor, and he was killed, I mean these were 7th graders, 6th graders. So that’s how he grew up. Then his family managed to come to America before the war started, so he was here, you know. That was great for the world because he published something like 300 papers over his career in all kinds of fields, and he was one of the most famous scientists in America for a while. And he was real smart. He just passed away last year. He would have some calculation or some idea like about spreading droplets and he’d go over to the blackboard and he’d start writing equations you know, just writing equations and finally the whole blackboard would be filled up with equations and he’d step back and he’d look at it and he’d go, “Is that right?” I really felt stupid when he did that. When he passed away we had a little memorial service over the chemistry department and I came down to that. The chairman of the chemistry department got up. He’s giving a little remembrance of Dr. Frisch and he said, “You know Dr. Frisch, the thing about him was that he had some idea, and he’d go to the blackboard, and he’d start filling it up with equations. One after another. Finally the whole black board would be filled up with equations and he’d step back and he’d say, ‘Is that right?’” And the chairman of the chemistry department said, “I didn’t know!” So I thought maybe I wasn’t so dumb after all. But he was a wicked smart guy and a real nice guy. Collaborated with people all over the university in all kinds of fields and made all kinds of contributions to all kinds of things. He was a terrific guy.
Sam: That’s amazing he went from being thrown out of windows to that.
Bill: Yes it’s an amazing story, and he never had any bitterness towards those people or anything like that. It just wasn’t him. But he was sort of glad to have gotten to the United States and been able to live. When they got going they caught one kid on the fifth floor and got him on the second floor. And that was the difference in 1937 between living and dieing. Kind of a sad thing.
Yufan: You said you developed and managed the production of something like the stepping stone?
Bill: After I got out of the computer store I had a buddy from Princeton who owned his own scientific instrument company. They made these various high vacuum products to use for spectrometry and stuff like that and crystals mostly. So, one of the things you have to do is that you might have to move something around inside the vacuum, something like a diffraction grading or a lens to focus.
He had me build this thing for him. Do you know what a stepping motor is?
Bill: They use it in robotics a lot. It’s a motor that, you give it a little electrical pulse, and it moves a discreet step, right. It might be like 12 degrees, or whatever it is right? But it’s machined in so that it’s accurate. If you’ve got a computer control you can give it 50 steps backwards and 30 steps forward and 3 steps this way and everything is very precise and repeatable. That’s how C and C machinery works. Most automotive equipment now has stepping motors so that the car part comes out exactly the same every time, exactly, ok? So ok, so you had these things on the side of an experimental apparatus in the vacuum, and the trouble is that everything gets hot, because there’s no where for the heat to go. So your stepper motor controller has to have just enough energy to move it, right. So we made this special stepping motor controller that would do just that, it would just put out the exact amount of energy you needed to move the thing, or however many steps you wanted it to move. That was the trick of that. It wasn’t very complicated electronics, but that’s what it was all about. It was just kind of a cool thing to do. It was kind of cool because I did everything you know. There were only three of us in the shop. We had a good business but it wasn’t huge. Very profitable. These instruments we built, these stepper motor controller, we built those for, maybe 300 dollars, sold it for 1,500. I designed that, and developed it, and organized the production. There weren’t that many, maybe I sold 100 when I was there. But it was like my product, it had a little brochure and hand shrink wrapped in a box, and said SK1 Stepper Motor Controller on it and I actually screwed them all together and shipped them out the door. It was cool.
Becky: Just knowing.
Sam: I wish I could do that, making your own product.
Bill: You know you could, you could do that.
Becky: Go for it.
Bill: Yea go for it.
Sam: Alright. Maybe. Alright. So thank you Bill.
Bill: Thank you!
Jared: Thanks Bill.
Yufan: Thank you.
Rosi: Thank you.
Becky: Thank you.
Bill: I appreciate it.
Sam: This has been great.
Bill: Oh good.
Sam: I love the stories.
Bill: Oh good I’m glad.
Jared: Yes, very interesting.
Sam: I’ll definitely look into it.
Bill: Oh and I’ll tell you the one that always impressed the Princeton students.
Bill: I was at Woodstock.
Janie: Ok. Do you remember anything you can tell us?
Bill: I do. I was
Jared: That’s all it will probably be better if it’s off the record.
Janie: No, it can be on the record.
Bill: You know that saying: “If you remember the 60s you didn’t really experience it?”
Jared: This is the end of tape three.