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Archive for December, 2012

The Adventurous and Connected Life of David Tressel Griggs: Part VI of the Holiday Serial

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

If you research Agnew Hunter Bahnson, long enough, you’re likely to come across an interesting reference to his connection to the Harvard Society of Fellows and David Tressel Griggs. Griggs is unique in that he doesn’t actually participate in our story, but sits at the periphery of several parts of it.  Griggs was a student of geophysics at Harvard in the 1930′s.  Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr. was studying there at the same time.  In the summer of 1936, Griggs and Bahnson set out on a trip to hike the Caucasus Mountains, a mountain chain connecting the Black and the Caspian Seas.  The two never made it to their hiking destination though.  Heading towards Bucharest Agnew suddenly swerved to miss a bicyclist and struck a tree.  He was thrown from the car and sustained a concussion.  Griggs was trapped in the car; the dashboard had crushed his legs.  They convalesced in Budapest and then Vienna.  Griggs narrowly missed having his legs amputated. Although he regained full use of his legs, his injuries still led to being declared physically unfit to serve during World War II in the United States armed forces.

Agnew’s dad, Agnew Hunter Bahnson, Sr.,  had taken out a travel insurance policy on Agnew and David’s trip.  Using the proceeds from the insurance payment, Griggs purchased a Luscombe airplane and became a pilot.  He flew the plane in the first tests of radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratories.  After helping to prove out the system on the East Coast, Griggs traveled to Europe as a consultant for the military.  In order to better understand the conditions the radar systems were used in, Griggs flew on missions that used the technology.  In one instance, a squadron had taken particularly heavy enemy fire when cresting a nearby mountain range.  Griggs flew along with them and surmised that the enemy was actually listening to their radar signal.  Griggs instructed the squadron to wait until they had cleared the mountain range to turn on their radar.  On their next bombing run they took the enemy completely by surprise.  In another incident, Griggs kicked open a jammed bomb bay door and almost careened out of the plane along with the bombs.  He held on by one hand until he was pulled back in.  After that, the general in charge of the operation had him grounded saying that Griggs was far more valuable as a scientist than as a bomb.

Griggs involvement with the United States millitary didn’t stop with the end of World War II.  He was instrumental in starting Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as a nuclear bomb lab.  He was also instrumental in convincing Edwin Teller to run it, the same Edwin Teller who would later hire Bryce DeWitt.  Between 1951 and 1952 Griggs served as the chief scientist for the Air Force.  In 1947 Griggs helped setup the RAND corporation and was the first head of its physics department.

Griggs’ association with Bahnson didn’t end after the war either.  Soon after reading Bryce DeWitt’s prize winning essay, (Part V), Bahnson sent DeWitt a proposal to setup an institute to study gravity.  Griggs is mentioned in relation to Bahnson’s ideas as to how they might proceed, (see below).

Griggs maintained his work as a geophysicist throughout his life and studied some of the moon rocks returned from the Apollo missions late in his career.



The DeWitts and Bahnson and Babson: Part V of the Holiday Serial

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Happy second half of the holiday season!  The long delay between parts IV, (Thomas Townsend Brown), and V was due to finally actually taking my finals and then getting to visit with friends and family over the holidays, and now we’re back!

Today’s chapter is firmly rooted in mainstream physics and is about Bryce and Cecile DeWitt, a husband and wife team of physicists.  Bryce and Cecile met at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ.  Soon after, they were wed in Cecile’s native France in 1951.

Cecile was a force for physics in the United States as well as in her home, France. In France, Cecile started the Ecole De Physique des Houches, a physics summer school.  The school has been attended by many notable physicists over the years. At last count, it’s students included two dozen Nobel laureates before they won their prizes.

The school was started in a rather unorthodox manner inspired by the strictures of the times.  To gain access to the male minister of state in France who would eventually fund the school for its first year, Dr. DeWitt-Morette dressed as an office worker and waited until the minister’s secretary was at lunch. She then slipped into his office, asked for, and received an appointment.  She gained support for the school from her male colleagues by helping them think the whole thing was their idea.  She would propose the idea to them one week and then call them the following week to tell them that she thought what they had told her about about the week before was a great idea.

Bryce received a Fulbright fellowship at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay, India, and they both did work there.  While at the institute, they co-authored their first paper together, “The Quantum Theory of Interacting Gravitational and Spinor Fields“.  It was an early attempt to combine the fields of quantum mechanics, and general relativity, (Einstein’s theory of gravity).  Their first child was born in India and soon after, they returned to the United States.

Back in the States, they found a dearth of research jobs in general relativity. Bryce took a position working for Edward Teller at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab had recently been setup as one of America’s nuclear bomb laboratories.  While working there, Bryce was also on loan to the Institute for Advanced Studies at UC Berkley.  It’s during this time that he wrote the essay that finally lent credibility to the Gravity Research Foundation’s essay contest.  It was titled “New Directions for Research in the Theory of Gravitation“.  The essay actually rebuffed the GRF for not taking the study of the fundamentals of gravitation more seriously,

“Before anyone can have the audacity to form even the most rudimentary plan of attack on the problem of harnessing the force of gravitation, he must understand the nature of his adversary.”

The essay won first place and Bryce said it was the easiest $1000 he had ever earned.  More importantly for our story, the prize winning essay brought Bryce and Cecile DeWitt to the attention of Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr.  Bahnson, now a member of Babson’s Gravity Research Foundation.

Following Bryce’s entry, there was a year by year increase in the number of reputable scientists that entered the contest.  Eventually, the essay contest would have such notable winners as Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and Banesh Hoffman.  Still, the early going was rough.  Oppenheimer actually requested that two scientists who worked for him and who won the contest soon after Dr. DeWitt give the prize money back.  He wasn’t sure he wanted the name of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton associated with the Gravity Research Foundation.  The two scientists kept the money.



Thomas Townsend Brown: Part IV of the Holiday Serial

Monday, December 10th, 2012

Part IV brings us to Thomas Townsend Brown.  Brown is a bit of a legendary figure in fringe physics.  His name is associated with all sorts of anti-gravity and UFO stories.  If you watched the X-Files, you might have noticed the occasional reference to the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena, (NICAP).  NICAP was an organization that studied UFO sightings and was founded in the 1950′s by Brown.

The Thomas Townsend Brown, (pictured to the left), history/mythos is as follows, and is not generally taken to be ‘good physics’.  As a boy in Zanesville, OH, Brown managed to get ahold of an x-ray tube.  He performed many experiments with the device, but in the end wound up with the tube supported on top of a balance scale.  He noticed that when he turned on the tube’s power supply with the tube’s positive electrode facing up, the tube’s weight as indicated by the scale became lighter.  When he reversed the tube so that it’s positive electrode faced down, the scale indicated the tube had become slightly heavier.  Brown was convinced that he had managed to influence gravity electronically.  This was the pivotal event that led him into a lifetime of anti-gravity research.

Brown refined his invention over the years and eventually came up with the design for a propulsion system that in its most basic form consisted of a wire placed in front of a metallic plate with insulators separating the two.  A high voltage, (on the order of 25,000 volts and reportedly up to 200,000 volts), was placed between the wire and the plate, and the entire apparatus would move in the direction of the wire.  In the 1950′s a version of the invention was patented by none other than Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr.

Brown and Bahnson showed the invention to a number of scientists who all came to the same conclusion, the propulsion was caused by air being ionized by the wire.  The resulting positively charged ions were then repelled by the positive voltage on the wire and swept back over the metal plate causing a thrust in the direction of the wire.  Brown’s and Bahnson’s claims that the apparatus worked in a vacuum fell upon deaf ears in the science community, although the claims are still widely believed in the fringe physics community to this day and the entire matter inspired a segment on MythBusters, (it didn’t work out well for Brown there either).  More recently however, Linda Brown, Dr. Brown’s daughter, points out that the notebooks containing documentation of successful vacuum experiments in France have now been released, (see the comments below).

Thomas Townsend Brown enters our story for three reasons, which will become clear later.  First, in addition to working for Agnew Bahnson, he also did work for the RAND corporation. [Please see Linda Brown's clarification on this below.]  Second, two of the scientists  that Brown and Bahnson demonstrated their device for were Bryce and Cecile DeWitt.  They’ll play a large part in the story soon.  Finally, late in life Brown landed in the field of geophysics studying the influence of gravity on the formation of rocks.

As far as ‘physics fact’ goes Thomas Townsend Brown invention would eventually evolve into a familiar item:

Roger Babson: Part III of the Holiday Serial

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Back to part I.
Today’s episode moves slightly up in time and centers on Roger Babson.  Babson was an investment entrepreneur who graduated from MIT in 1898.  He made his millions by publishing an investment report that analyzed the stock market in terms of Newton’s Laws of Mechanics.  His method wasn’t quite as loopy as it sounds.  He used Newton’s laws as analogies or metaphors to describe sound investment techniques.

Babson’s study of the stock market enabled him to pull the majority of his money out of the market a few months prior to the great crash of 1929.  Babson consequently safeguarded the majority of his millions from the Great Depression.

Babson was however, struck by two great tragedies.  His sister and one of his grandsons both drowned in separate incidents.  Reasoning that gravity was the root cause of these drownings, Babson used part of his fortune to create the Gravity Research Foundation.  The foundation’s main objective in the early days was to find a way to counter the ill effects of gravity, ideally by finding a way to turn it off, anti-gravity.  The groups members counted many of Babson’s industrial associates including Thomas Edison and Clarence Birdseye of Birdseye frozen foods.  At one point, the foundation posessed a collection of several hundred bird specimens because Thomas Edison was convinced that a bird’s ability to fly was based on some anti-gravity compound created by the bird’s body.

Another member of the foundation was Agnew Bahnson Jr. who was introduced in the previous installment.  Bahnson’s interest was spurred by his desire to be the first man in space.

In the 1960′s the foundation placed stone monuments at a number of universities through tout the United STates.  These monuments were often associated with large monetary contributions to the university to fund their science programs.  The stone monuments had sayings carved into them such as “It is to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when a semi-insulator is discovered in order to harness gravity as a free power and reduce airplane accidents.

The only lasting legacy of the foundation is a gravity essay contest.  When the contest was started in the late 1940′s, the announcement read, “awards are to be given for anti-gravity devices, for partial insulators , reflectors, or absorbers of gravity, or for some substance that can be arranged by gravity to throw off heat.”  Not surprisingly, not a single serious scientist entered the essay contest for its first three years.  One eventually would and that would make all the difference, but that’s another part of our story.



Fringe Physics and the Higgs Boson, Part II of the Holiday Serial

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Many old Native American myths, have a coyote character.  Coyote is a trickster and is often intertwined throughout the story influencing events in unexpected and sometimes apparently meaningless ways.  This story’s coyote is Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr.  References to him, his relatives and his associates turn up in a number of places.  Go to the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art and you’ll be treated to this larger than life painting of one of Agnew’s namesake, Dr. David Hayes Agnew.

Although Agnew won’t come into the story until the 1950s, today’s installment takes us all the way back to the end of the Civil War.  Henry T. Bahnson found himself on the losing side and in need of an elbow excision.  There’s an old story among Freemasons that a Union general touring a hospital of wounded with the chief physician noticed the doctor sending a number of confederate soldiers for immediate care.  When he asked the doctor why he was prioritizing these men, his reply was “They’re my brother masons”.  Whether or not Henry Bahnson received excellent care at the hands of Philadelphia doctors because of his brother’s status as a Freemason may never be known, but his brother Charles Frederic Bahnson would ultimately become the Assistant Grand Lecturer for the Grand Lodge of North Carolina and author the North Carolina Lodge Manual.

The elbow excision was performed by Dr. David Hayes Agnew, and his assistant Dr. Charles T. Hunter. In addition to saving Henry’s elbow, Dr. Hayes was the attending surgeon for President Garfield after he had been shot by an assassin.  Henry, a medical doctor himself recovered but never regained complete use of his right elbow.  He named his son Agnew Hunter Bahnson after his two attending doctors.  Agnew carried on the tradition and named his son Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr.  It is the younger Agnew that we’ll be concerned with in our story.

One more medical footnote to the history of Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr…  Another of Henry’s grandsons, Agnew’s cousin, the second Henry Theodore Bahnson wound up in possession of his grandfather’s excised elbow bone.  More importantly though, he was the first doctor to successfully perform a heart and liver transplant.  Henry studied under Dr. Alfred Blalock who was featured in the movie about Vivien Thomas, the African-American surgical technician who developed life saving procedures for treating blue baby syndrome.  Dr. Blalock and Henry are pictured together in a medical journal early in Henry’s career, and if you look behind Dr. Blalock, in the background, there’s Agnew.


Dr. Agnew on Wikipeida


Higgs Boson a Fringe Physics Success? A Holiday Serial.

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

When I was little, the local newspaper always ran  a serial story over the Christmas break.  While all the kids were home from school, the paper would run one part of the story, (usually a Christmas mystery), per day.  The story was always a little hokey, but it was a lot of fun to get the next installment each day.

So, in the tradition of the holiday serial, (and to provide me with a constructive way to blow off steam as I study for finals), I present to you the story of how fringe physics led to the the Higgs boson.  The story will span almost 100 years  and includes romance, good will towards man, industrial magnates, burlesque strippers, tortured artists, anti-gravity zealots, military scientists, and a few honest-to-goodness physicists and engineers.

To keep everything honest, the story has a few rules.  All fringe science and real science will be labeled as such so there’s no confusion and no claims of ‘bad science’ being purported here at the Canonical Hamiltonian.  I won’t make any leaps of logic between the various facts of the story.  I will try to arrange the facts in a contiguous fashion so that you can make said leaps for your own entertainment if you so desire.  I’ll try to include references where possible, but I won’t hold myself to high standards since this is a holiday serial and not a scholarly tome.  If I heard something from someone who heard it from someone else, or who might not want to be referenced, I’ll throw the info in without a reference just for the fun of the story.

The clue that led to this story is pictured below.  It’s a small footnote, indicating the air force grant funding number, from Higgs’ paper, (seen above), where the boson that would bear his name was fully proposed.

Today’s references:

Higgs’ first note on the subject

The Higgs’ article discussed today

Semiconductors and the Search for Dark Matter

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Just a quick note on another use of semiconductor manufacturing technology for physics instrumentation.  A research group here at Texas A&M University is involved in the search for dark matter as part of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, (CDMS).  They’re using silicon and germanium detectors with aluminum and tungsten circuit elements to search for elusive dark matter particles, (see picture to the left).  In contrast to traditional semiconductor manufacturing, the detectors are built on top of quite thick discs, (around six mm and up). The massiveness of the disc provides more material for dark matter particles to interact with.  Many of the detectors are being built right here at Texas A&M using fab equipment provided by Maxim Integrated.

What is Dark Matter?
As far back as the 1930′s, astronomical measurements have detected discrepancies between gravitational effects in galaxies and the amount of observable matter that should account for the mass and therefore the available gravity in a given galaxy.  One example of this is the rotational speed of galaxies.  Based on the observed matter distribution of galaxies, their rotational speed should be slower near the edge of the galaxy than at the center.  Instead, astronomers observe a roughly constant rotational speed with respect to the distance from the center of a galaxy.  To account for this discrepancy, physicists and astronomers have proposed the existence of weakly interacting massive particles, (WIMPs), also known as dark matter.  While WIMPs have not yet been detected, it is theorized that they account for up to 23% of the mass of our universe.