Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Blog is moving to Family History Machine

After years of doing my genealogy work independently of my software development work, I am now able to merge my two projects at the new Family History Machine site.

As a result, this Blogger version of the Ruby Family History Project will remain active but will not get further updates. All future developments will take place at the new Ruby Family History Project blog at Family History Machine. The full archives of this blog are also available there.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Quick experiment

Sorry to have dropped the ball on the saga of Stan's experiment. I'm working intensely on a related project at another site. You are invited to visit Traveling Docent, which is meant to be a general tool for exploring history and geography, but I am using some Ruby family content to test the system. I'll post again as the project proceeds.

Meanwhile, here is a photo from the infamous Rustad-Ruby experiment at Brookhaven National Labs in 1952. This is one of a set of photos of the experimental apparatus that I found in my artifact archive. I post more later. For now, this is a test of how quickly this never before published photo will show up in Google image search and be available to Traveling Docent for its Stan Ruby page.

It is 12:25 p.m. on February 11, 2013.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The other mine of information available at my home is the rolling filing cabinet of genealogical artifacts I have collected through the years, including two drawers of documents and items related to Stanley L. Ruby. What I went looking for was his Columbia University transcripts, which I knew were there from previous inspections. At the moment, I was still uncertain of his precise years of enrollment as an undergraduate and graduate student. I realized that I did not know, for example, where his years of military service fit into his academic progression.

The answer to that and numerous other questions was in the three pages of transcripts I found in the drawer. They are oversized pages that don't display legibly at blog size, but click on the one above or two below to view in larger size.

From the transcript we learn that Stan finished two years of college (1941-42 and 1942-43) before entering military service. After the war, he returned for the Spring and Summer sessions of 1946 and finished his degree with a full year in 1946-47.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Feynman wasn't joking

Angular correlation data at three energy ranges in Rustad-Ruby experiment. Feynman questions the validity of the curve-fitting to the predicted tensor (T) values.
I managed to get seriously ill two weeks ago and had to set aside the blogging project right at the crucial moment of my discovery of Allan Franklin's writings on the Rustad-Ruby experiment. Now I can pick up the story again, but without any pretense of it unfolding in real time. The following will be my best attempt at reconstructing the revelation of information about this incident beginning the morning following my return home by Amtrak from a visit to Twyla in Los Angeles. 

For starters, I have my own bookshelves, including a generous selection of my father's science library. Some is in his specialized field of physics and I select titles by Hans Frauenfelder and Harry J. Lipkin. Also, The Story of Spin by Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, which Joanne reminded me that Stan was reading in the last week of his life.

Tomonaga was among a number of physicists who were involved in one way or another in the history of weak force unification, and which might be relevant to the Rustad-Ruby matter. Here we have Leon Lederman's The God Particle, Freeman Dyson's From Eros to Gaia, The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, and What Is the World Made Of? by Gerald Feinberg.

Some of these are more popular treatments for general audiences, none more so than Richard Feynman's classic memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! This volume gives an immediate playback in a full chapter, "The 7 Percent Solution," covering Feynman's involvement in events following the discovery of parity non-conservation. Here, he references the Rustad-Ruby He-6 recoil experiment and reflects on the possibility of scientific errors.
I went to Professor Bacher and told him about our success, and he said, "Yes, you come out and say that the neutron-proton coupling is V instead of T. Everybody used to think it was T. Where is the fundamental experiment that says it's T? Why don't you look at the early experiments and find out what was wrong with them?" 
I went out and found the original article on the experiment that said neutron-proton coupling is T, and I was shocked by someting. I remembered reading that article once before (back in the days when I read every article in the Physical Review—it was small enough). And I remembered, when I saw this article again, looking at the curve and thinking, "That doesn't prove anything!" 
You see, it depended on one or two points at the very edge of the range of the data, and there's a principle that a point on the edge of the range of the data—the last point—isn't very good, because if it was they'd have another point further along. And I had realized that the whole idea that neutron-proton coupling is T was based on the last point, which wasn't very good, and therefore it's not proved. I remember noticing that! 
And when I became interested in beta decay, directly, I read all these reports by the "beta-decay experts," which said it's T. I never looked at the original data; I only read those reports, like a dope. Had I been a good physicist, when I thought of the original idea back at the Rochester Conference I would have immediately looked up "how strong do we know it's T?"—that would have been the sensible thing to do. I would have recognized right away that I had already noticed it wasn't satisfactorily proved. 
Since then, I never pay any attention to anything by "experts." I calculate everything myself. When people said the quark theory was preetty good, I go two Ph.D.s Finn Ravndal and Mark Kislinger, to go through the whole works with me, just so I could check that the thing was really giving results that fit fairly well and that it was a significantly good theory. I'll never make that mistake again, reading the experts' opinions. Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that's the end of you. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

RIP Robert Felenstein

Bob Felenstein, our dear cousin, passed away on Thanksgiving Day several weeks after learning that his cancer had returned and spread to his brain. Several family members, most especially Walter and Marsha, reached out to comfort him and his widow Jane during his last days. Cousin Janis Brenner was able to attend the memorial service held on December 2, 2012. Here is her report.
Dear All, 
As Walter and Marsha already know, I went to the intimate gathering that Jane had this afternoon for Robert, in Baldwin, LI at the small Silver Lake Park. About 20-25 people were there. I brought along a print-out of the photo Leslie happened to have sent the night before, of all the cousins. Jane asked me to say a few words---I was the only family member there. We all stood outside, around a bench, she had brought Robert's guitar, and a photo of him playing and her singing, a pretty wooden box with his name on it, and a cassette deck. A Rabbi said a few things. I held up the photo and said that many of us live so far away and were there in spirit. Jane mentioned Walter wanting to be there, but having the flu. I said how the cousins and families were so close when we were all young; how I recall Robert bringing his guitar to our house and he and I playing songs together on our 2 guitars. One other long-time male friend spoke. 
Jane then put on the music deck and she sang the Beatles "In My Life." It all lasted about 20 minutes or so. Very simple, very touching. I thought very Robert and Jane. 
Love to all, Janis
Thank you, Janis. Here is to the memory of Bob in the fullness of life. And here is to Jane, who has been remarkably strong and courageous throughout.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Allan Franklin's oeuvre

Before I move on to the details of Stan's academic career, I realize that I overlooked mentioning the rest of my literature search for information about Stan's work at Brookhaven.

First of all, Franklin's 2008 paper that we have discussed is far from his first treatment of the subject. (That's Franklin at left.) His 1990 book Experiment, Right or Wrong covers the Rustad-Ruby experiment in detail. His 1998 encyclopedia essay on Experiment in Physics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) includes Rustad-Ruby as one case study, and the article's Appendix 8 is his best summary of the matter in a publicly assessable location. I urge you to read that one. Then, as we have seen, he revisits the entire matter in his 2008 "Inevitability" paper, this time in the context of the academic debate between scientific social constructionists and rationalists.

Nor is Franklin the only historian or memoirist to cite the significance of the Rustad-Ruby episode. Many of the scientists who played a role in the wider story of beta decay and development of the weak nuclear force had opportunities to reflect on the events in later years; or  were the subject of historical articles.

The first ones I discovered were two 2009 tributes to George Sudarshan, covering the questions raised about Rustad-Ruby by one of the key theorists involved in proposing the V-A theory. Another of the theorists, Richard Feynman, appears to reference it in his popular book "Surely You are Joking, Mr. Feynman" (more on that later). T.D. Lee .... Maurice Goldhaber, the head of the physics group at Brookhaven National Lab and later its lab director, talks about it in a retrospective 2002 talk on the roots of neutrino research.

And there is more. I don't have all the references handy. But the point is that the Rustad-Ruby experiment, so little known about in our family, is very widely known and discussed in the literature of physics history. This is due in part to the dogged efforts of one historian who has made it one of the touchstones of his academic narrative, but also to science's natural process of documenting its history both in the moment and in retrospect.

So the reality is that, despite the successes of his later work in the Mössbauer effect and related subjects, Stan Ruby will be most remembered for an experiment that went wrong. We will want to understand just exactly what the error was, and how and why it came to pass.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The legend of Wu

It is time to look more closely at the famous Chien-Shiung Wu. How does a Chinese woman born in 1912 become America's foremost experimental physicist (of any origin or gender)? How do the events of our story fit in the arc of her career development?

We'll start with the basic biography. Raised in a village near Shanghai, educated at women's primary and secondary schools, studied physics at North Central University in Nanking from 1930-34, continuing graduate work until 1936, when she and a young female chemist gained admittance to U.S. universities and set off to America.

Wu settled in at U.C. Berkeley, worked directly under Ernest Lawrence, and earned her Ph.D. in 1940. She stayed there as a lecturer and researcher for several years, marrying another Chinese-American physicist Luke Yuan. She then followed academic opportunities to Smith College and Princeton, but returned to laboratory work at Columbia in 1944, where she played a key role in developing instrumentation for the gaseous diffusion process for uranium separation, an important component of the secret Manhattan Project.

She stayed at Columbia after the war and until her retirement as research associate (1946-52), associate professor (1952-57), professor of physics (1958-72), and Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics (1972-81). We are already familiar with her most famous achievement, the 1957 confirmation of parity violation. That capped her years of work on beta decay and led to further successes in the unification of the electroweak force in the 1960s. Her text Beta Decay (1965) remains the standard reference in the field.

She won just about every honor except the Nobel Prize, among them the Comstock Award, National Medal of Science and Wolf Prize in Physics. She holds many firsts, including first female recipient of a Princeton honorary doctorate (1958), first Chinese-American member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, first female president of the American Physical Society (1974); and the first recipient of the Wolf Prize (1978).

She passed away February 16, 1997, in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment where she had lived for more than 50 years.

There is much more, of course, and I'll want to come back for a deeper look in the future. But this gives context for understanding the crucial events of our story. While Wu's reputation will grow formidably later on, when Stan encounters her in the Columbia physics department in the late 1940s, she is still just a research associate—someone who might have influence in the lab but who is not in position to be his doctoral advisor.

This brings us to the subject of Stan's academic career. What do we know of his progress through undergraduate and graduate school after he got back from the war? Quite a lot, actually, which I will review in a coming post.