Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Fingerprints on Jupiter

I had hoped to mark my father's 93rd birthday today in my usual way, a call home to exchange well wishes and update him on our goings-on.  But two weeks ago he entered the hospital for what turned out to be a final visit, so instead I am writing this.
I ended up visiting him one what turned out to be the final two complete days of his life.  Because I was legally in charge of his care, the week preceding his death gave me a crash course in supportive and palliative care and a lifetime of ethical dilemmas to contemplate -- a final set of lessons from my father.  My final time with him had some good moments, when his mind was clear and he was comfortable, but that visit also removed any illusions I had about his deteriorated state or the quality of life he was experiencing.  In one of those moments, he suddenly asked me "what is delta T -- it's a difference, right".  And I assured him, yes.  "What is T?".  "Big T is temperature, little T is time".  He nodded, a final lesson from son-to-father complete.  Thankfully, my last memory is of a huge, proud grin, as I had told him I was leaving to go present science at a meeting.

My father had a lasting impact on my life, as so many fathers do.  There are some of the stereotypical paternal moments I do not remember: I'm virtually certain it was siblings or neighborhood kids who taught me to throw a ball and catch one.  The only book I ever remember him reading me was Gulliver's Travels.  We didn't spend a lot of time playing board games -- I remember chess and mastermind but not much else. 

But he taught me to solder properly -- heat the work, not the solder.  When I had an electronics shop class, most of my contemporaries failed to absorb that lesson, which was already instinct for me.  When I wanted my pinewood derby car to look like a fish complete with a fin? Then he helped me score the line on a piece of aluminum and guided me with the hacksaw and then showed me how to file.  He showed me the right way to set tomato transplants, leaving only a few leaves above the ground as the stem will sprout roots all over.  How to prune a fruit tree.  That mints have square stems. He wasn't a fan of many sports, but he tutored me on proper soccer dribbling and later refereed games in the youth league.

Dad did try to impress on me certain prejudices -- I suppose every family has them.  He loathed Fortran and COBOL and looked askance at BASIC.  I was allowed the latter until he got his favorite, APL, installed on our early model IBM PC clone.  Pascal was legitimate in his eyes, but the first inexpensive compiler was a bust.  So I used APL for a while and found it useful, though never acquired his intense fondness for it.  Perhaps today he would use R, with its similar power in manipulating matrices of data -- and avoiding writing loops.  A loop to him was an ugly kludge if instead you could apply a function across a matrix.  Once we got Turbo Pascal though, I never returned to it, but he never begrudged my desertion.

My father treasured excellence.  When I went through a fishing phase, he insisted that I practice casting in the back yard for both distance and accuracy, and so I spent many afternoons casting washers into an old tire. He taught me many basic knots and encouraged me to learn not just to tie them, but to feel them intuitively. He probably suggested I learn to tie without looking, but executing a bowline or square knot behind my back is my own flourish he would be happy with.  He also showed me the relationships, how cutting the loop of a bowline gives you two ropes connected by a sheet bend -- they are really the same knot.

He particularly taught me photography, his other passionate hobby besides gardening. When my wife took me to Vegas for my 40th birthday, she had arranged a van tour to the Grand Canyon that stopped on Hoover Dam.  I could remember the very spot Dad let me first work his beloved Exakta SLR (well, technically he had three of them).  When I got a camera of my own, he insisted I experiment with different lighting and learn to manipulate depth-of-field.  How to brace my arms and how to gently squeeze -- never jerk -- the shutter button.  We even started designing a darkroom for the basement, but then I realized I would be soon off to college and that it would sit idle too often.

He was always willing to help me with my pursuits.  If there was an excursion train to photograph, then off we went.  In high school I was enamored of Buckminster Fuller's work, so when he saw an item about an event of some Fuller-oriented organization called World Game, down we went for the day.  My high school internship delved into exotic physics -- Auger, x-ray and ultraviolet photospectroscopy.  Photocopied articles from the GE library soon helped me get up-to-speed.  When the AAAS Annual Meeting was in Philadelphia and a contingent from high school would go to a special event aimed at students, he volunteered to chaperone -- and then took me back another day to hear talks on the prospects and implications of interstellar space travel.

He was also always willing to critique my writing when I was in grade school. I would print out my long reports space-and-a-half, and he would return them festooned with many corrections and suggestions in red ink.  The more red ink the better! I know many wouldn't like this and would find it discouraging, but I thrilled to go through rounds of crafting the text, until he could find nothing more to mark.  It was a service I deeply missed after I went to school.

Dad tried hard not to work on weekends, but there was one case when I was in second or third grade where he needed to go in and spend a morning, and then he and I would go off on some adventure in Philadelphia.  So I brought some science book from the school library and we went to a windowless lab within the sprawling hilltop GE campus overlooking King of Prussia Mall.  Dad let me know I could sit quietly at a table to read, or if I wanted I could observe him -- so long as I obeyed all my paternal training on where to stand out of the way and not touch anything.  At some point I lost interest in the book and came over.  He was moving around these metallic cylinders -- and then I noticed the red-and-yellow triangle symbols on them.  "Aren't those dangerous?", I asked with some alarm.  No, he calmly told me, as long as he handled them carefully they were quite safe. So I never had an innate fear -- just a copied model of respect -- for radioactive materials. 

Dad raced through a wartime Ohio State University, getting his degree in under 3 years.  He went on to graduate work at the University of Delaware, but it always remained a mystery why he didn't earn a degree there.  He certainly enjoyed his time and encouraged each son to consider that institution; I think it gave him great pleasure that the third son chose it. It's a bit remarkable I did, as two of the stories he most often told were a bit scary -- during that time he had an emergency appendectomy and another time woke up in a hospital after he crashed his bike into an open manhole.  Indeed, I felt I was reliving the one incident when I had an intense pain in my lower right abdomen during my time there, though mine proved to be only a passing cramp.

My father spent his career as an engineer for General Electric.  He was trained as a chemical engineer, but really worked more as a physicist.  Perhaps that alone has made me not hold much stock in labels on scientific disciplines; the boundaries are fluid.  He worked on a variety of projects over the years.  Many never saw any serious fruition: the kelp farming project during the energy crisis, the atomic plane project he started his career with and a space-based reactor project that he ended it with.  He spent a number of years working on heatshields for nuclear warheads, a project I'm glad has never seen active use.  That work was focused on measuring the ablation, and he and his boss came up with two general classes of designs for embedded sensors -- one required irradiation of wire fragments and the other could collect data in real time.

The irradiated wires led to an experience that was unfortunately lost on a kindergarten aged child.  I remember being in a dark, high-ceiling industrial space and staring at a strange swimming pool I was told was thirty feet deep.  Mom says the Cerenkov radiation was the most beautiful blue she ever saw.  In this post-9/11 world, even the idea is absurd: a government contractor touring his young family past a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge!
He worked on two very successful space projects.  One was Nimbus, a series of weather satellites which pushed boundaries of what could be done.  I think his role was as part of the team that developed the 3-axis stabilization system, using flywheels to adjust attitude without firing rockets.  Nimbus would evolve into Landsat, which demonstrated astounding abilities to monitor the environment from a high perch.

I will confess that the other successful project he worked on inspired me more than any other.  Dad's group was involved with the Galileo Probe, the portion of the Galileo spacecraft that entered the Jovian atmosphere.  If Challenger hadn't exploded, we would have gone to the launch with prime tickets that someone at NASA had given him.  That was one of the few times my parents even contemplated the idea of us missing school  

 I remember him talking about a number of aspects, ranging from testing battery life to a mass spectrometer, but a key bit was the heatshield for the probe.  Dad's old designs for measuring ablation in real time had been dusted off.  These would provide valuable data that could be integrated with other results to infer the density of the clouds.  I was annoyed later to discover that the Wikipedia entry on the probe made no mention of this -- though it being Wikipedia, that shortcoming was quickly fixed.  So atoms are in the atmosphere of a gas giant because his mind crafted a reason for them to journey there.  So while it is a bit more imaginative than he would have really felt comfortable with, I will always look at the night sky and remember my father left fingerprints on Jupiter.


JEsse said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your father. My condolences for your loss.

SB said...

Sorry for your loss, I hope you will get through it eventually. That beautiful essay is touching.

Mavis Dixon said...

What a wonderful post. I am sorry for your loss.

Steve Marshall said...

My condolences to you and your family.... a nice tribute to your dad.

Alli said...

I'm sorry for your loss. This was a beautiful post.

Wavefunction said...

Wonderful tribute Keith, your father was definitely a special man.