Electronics is wonderful, all right, but what is it?
One of the few men who knows — although even he can't really explain it in everyday words — is an eminent 31-yearold Montrealer named Morrel Bachynski. His business is basic research in something called plasma physics, and if the rest of us can't quite grasp how this branch of electronics is going to change the world, we can at least grasp what kind of a man Morrel Bachynski is
THE FACT THAT WE live in a scientific era has become a cliche that everyone repeats and almost no one understands. Within the last twenty years Canada, like other industrial countries, has exploded in a technological revolution so vast and complex that we are only beginning to realize how radically it will change the way we live. The conspicuous wonders of our age —human beings shooting through space, magic picture boxes in our living rooms, machines that think like men—are only the glittering surface that betrays an iceberg of discovery and development. What goes on beneath the surface is a secret shared by the handful of people the English novelist C. P. Snow calls “the new men." the scientists who have inherited our world and are now' fashioning a new one that, better or worse, will at least be very different.
What are they like, these new men? In Canada they are still so rare, so secluded in laboratories, that we have had little chance to assess them. Russia has been training a scientific elite for thirty years, the United States now pours huge sums into research, but Canada is still scrambling behind for her toe hold in the space age. In proportion to population we have as many scientists in universities and government establishments as comparable countries, but in industry we have only a few, mostly chemists in fields such as plastics.
The biggest commercial laboratory doing basic research in physics in Canada, at the RCA Victor Company in Montreal, exists because the electronics industry is itself so new that it is singularly dependent on research. Eighty percent of the business of Radio Corporation of America, RCA Victor's parent company, is in products that weren't on the market ten years ago, and this product turnover will be repeated during the next ten years.
Although we've rapidly become accustomed to electronic gadgets like television, transistor radios and giant computers, for most of us, these things are run by a kind of familiar magic. We take them for granted, without knowing how they work or even what electronics is. The truth is that electronics is a subject so complicated, so wide in application, that the word has two different meanings.
To an engineer, electronics means electricity without wires. A toaster or an iron, in which current simply flows down a wire, is electrical; but a radio or television set, in which tubes or transistors are used to make free electrons jump through space, is electronic.
To a scientist, electronics means the study of the properties of electrons, the infinitely
small particles of negative electricity that revolve around the positive nucleus of an atom. While engineers learn how to make electrons work, the research physicists are finding out why electrons behave as they do.
Dr. Morrel P. Bachynski, director of the microwave division in the research laboratories at RC'A Victor, is a fair representative of the new breed of men who are on familiar terms with such wildly improbable tools as electrons. Perhaps the most brilliant scientist there, working on the most abstruse subject, Bachynski is thirty-one years old and already eminent. Dr. J. R. Whitehead, director of research, who has himself a distinguished record in his early forties—he was a member of Sir Robert Watson-Watt’s original thirty-man radar team, and now spends four days a week in Ottawa serving on the Glassco Commission on Government Organization—says flatly, “Bachynski is absolutely first-class. I put him in the very top rank of scientists in North America.”
PLASMA—THE FOURTH STATE OF MATTER
Bachynski is a mild, brown-haired young man, boyish and engaging. He is entirely natural and yet there is a kind of anonymity about him. Some of his colleagues bear more noticeably the stamp of their background. Dr. Whitehead, civilized, vigorous, enthusiastic, could have stepped from one of C. P. Snow's novels. Dr. Ray W. Jackson, director of the semiconductor laboratory, a reflective man with a deliberate voice and wide, melancholy, bearded face, is the sort of intellectual one sometimes meets in other fields. But one feels that Morrel Bachynski has traveled so fast that he has left his Ukrainian parents’ farm in Bienfait, Saskatchewan, far behind, and hasn't yet had time to wrap himself in fresh layers of identity.
His main interest is in plasma physics, a field as new as the men exploring it. He explains that the building blocks of ordinary gases are neutral atoms—atoms that have negative electrons and positive protons in balance so that they “neutralize” each other. When a neutral atom loses one or more of its electrons, giving it a positive balance, or picks up extra electrons, giving it a negative balance, it’s called an ion. A plasma is like a gas made up of free electrons and ions as well as neutral atoms. It’s made when heat or some other force tears some electrons loose. In other words, Bachynski says, a plasma is a fourth state of matter—not solid, not liquid, not quite gas—but like a gas whose atoms have changed in a way that alters the very nature of the substance.
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ELECTRONICS IS WONDERFUL continued from page 26
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“There’ll be more Gagarins and Shepards up there, but no tourists in our time,” says Bachynski
universe, including the sun and stars, is composed of plasma. Even designers of fluorescent lighting and other simple plasma devices didn’t understand how they worked. Now two events, the H-bomb and the space race, have abruptly focused attention on it. Because plasma created by intense heat is the source of the hydrogen bomb, we must study plasma before we can
harness thermonuclear power. And because layers of natural plasma circling the earth interfere with communication between satellite and base, we must learn how to get signals through them.
To physicists a subject with so many problems, such immense scope and such promise of an inexhaustible store of information about the forces at work in the
universe is irresistible. Dr. Whitehead comments, “In the past a field in which you get so much scientific excitement has usually produced significant results.”
In the microwave laboratory, two big rooms that look to the unscientific eye like a movie set for The Man in the White Suit. Dr. Bachynski moves unobtrusively among a group of physicists as young and
absorbed as he is himself. He watches closely as Dr. Tudor Johnston, a sandyhaired scientist with a Boston manner and light, expressive hands, shoots a beam of electrons through a glass tube filled with a glowing violet mist of plasma and measures its effect on a dial across which a jagged green signal moves like a random pattern on a television screen. Bachynski shakes his head ruefully; they’re getting a result they didn’t expect, interesting in itself but not telling them much about how microwaves interact with plasmas.
We urgently need to know the effect of plasma on radio waves because any vehicle that soars into outer space will encounter layers of plasma: the ionosphere, two or more Van Allen radiation belts whose existence was discovered by the U. S. rocket Pioneer HI. and other areas of radiation as yet uncharted. When a rocket passes through plasma, control and communication black out. Before we can send up a manned ship we must know how to avoid radio interference, how to keep the pilot in control and how to protect him from lethal radiation. Then. too. the ship will run into similar trouble when it re-enters the earth's atmosphere, traveling faster than sound and creating around it its own sheath of plasma, too strong for a radio signal to penetrate.
“Our problem is how to create a window in this sheath.” Bachynski says. “These things will take a while. Our kids won’t be traveling in the sky except for experimental purposes. There’ll be more Gagarins and Shepards up there but no tourists in our time. First we've got to find out a lot more about plasma itself." He pauses, then smiles gently. “Something fundamental you’ve got to learn in order to solve practical problems. To me that's a very nice combination.”
Morrel Bachynski has the unassertive authority of a man who knows he is very good at his job. Occasionally one meets an artist—a painter, a musician, perhaps a doctor-—for whom the sense of accomplishment seems strong enough to flood his whole personality. Physicists share this assurance and add to it a mental discipline. a kind of reasonableness, that makes them seem more closely in touch witli reality, more intensely aware of the basic facts of existence than most people. Perhaps because they arc trying to find out how the universe works and to overcome obstacles we’ll be facing not tomorrow but ten. twenty or a hundred years from now. these men seem more astute and level-headed than the rest of us with our misgivings and pretenses and confusion about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
All this doesn't mean that scientists are less than human. Apart from their discipline they are as various in background and temperament as any other group of people. Here in the laboratories are men from widely different places, with different training and different working methods. This is partly because physicists arc scarce, partly a deliberate provoking of interplay among ideas and personalities. Dr. Whitehead. who brought Bachynski with him from McGill when he came to RCA Victor to set up the laboratories six years ago. says, "When you get a group up to a certain critical size it suddenly clicks. You can cope with the odd prima donna but not a whole lab full of them. Someone like Morrel Bachynski who can deal with people and finances as well as research is a better scientist than one who can't.”
Another visitor to the lab joins us now. a precise, Germanic young Ph.D. who has
applied for a job on the scientific staff. His day-long interview is apparently informal but in fact he is under close scrutiny by Dr. Whitehead and the physicists who are showing him around the lab. Dr. Johnston turns from his purple plasma and cryptic green signal to give me a casual layman’s explanation, “We use argon because it's nicer than air, air is horrid stuff.” then, seeing the candidate’s distress. Johnston translates fluently into scientific language.
Dr. Bachynski describes another experiment with the lucidity of a natural teacher. Though he’d rather do research than teach, and tends to look on courses he gives to McGill graduate students and to adult education classes as an outside activity rather than actual work, he admits that he finds the response to a good lecture exhilarating. This apparatus, he tells us, generates ions for ionic propulsion. Plasma, an ionized gas, may be the answer to the problem of how you keep a space vehicle going. Once you've shot it past the pull of gravity with a conventional high-powered
rocket, you need only a little power to keep it in orbit or in any desired path but you may want this power for weeks or even months. Since only a limited amount of fuel can be sent up in a space vehicle, you need a way of shooting it out rapidly to get the most thrust.
One possible fuel is plasma, propelled by magnetic fields. Another is a beam of ions, charged particles shot out at high speed. Several researchers in the U. S. are experimenting with positive ions, particles that bear a positive charge because they’ve lost some of their electrons.
“Dr. Gilles Cloutier here is directing a program in negative ions to complement the U. S. work.” Bachynski explains. "If you keep on shooting out positive ions the vehicle itself soon becomes negative and starts attracting the positive ions back.
So our idea is to shoot out both.”
Who devises the experiments? Who decides to shoot brilliant pink plasma through this miniature wind tunnel at twice the speed of sound, sending shock waves reverberating in diagonal patterns down a glass tube? Ideas may come to any one ot the group because they’ve all been picked for their creativity. Bachynski says, "A good scientist has a kind of intuition, ? *
feeling for what is physically possible. A poor one ends up as a technician working on other people’s ideas. Here I generally decide which experiments should be continued.” He laughs, “Maybe this is why my ideas get pursued more than other people’s.”
After the idea comes the assembling of equipment, the anxious observation of results, often the redesigning of the experiment to eliminate irrelevant side effects, sometimes a fresh start from a slightly different hypothesis. Dr. Johnston complains, “On a year’s contract you spend
six months building your apparatus before you begin to get results.”
“You’re a theoretician,” says Dr. Osborne, a slight, neat man with a lazy smile. “You can’t w'ait to get it all on paper. Me, I like to set up the experiment and see what I get.”
Each man has his own way of working, his own way of thinking, even his own way of relaxing. Johnston launches into an anecdote about a scientist, “a mountain climber, like most physicists . . .” Dr. Cloutier looks up from his book, his finger on a column of mathematical func-
tions. “Nonsense, physicists are golfers.”
“All physicists are tennis players,” adds Bachynski.
None of the five experiments now going on in the lab is an attempt to create thermonuclear energy from plasma, which takes gigantic, enormously expensive equipment. but this momentous enterprise hangs, tempting and terrifying, at the back of every mind. Though the splitting of the atom w'as hailed as a breakthrough that would solve the problem of the world’s failing supply and rising consumption of power from natural sources such as coal.
oil and gas, scientists now realize that nuclear energy isn’t as accessible as they originally thought. Fission, the process of splitting a kirge nucleus into fragments, is relatively easy, but it creates radioactive waste and fallout. A more promising plan is fusion, welding together two lighter nuclei, which releases more energy without radioactive waste and has the further advantage of using cheap and plentiful hydrogen as raw material.
So far the chief disadvantage of fusion appears to be the fact that no one has yet learned how to do it. Hydrogen-bomb tests are uncontrolled fusion experiments. No one, in Russia or the West, has yet produced a successful controlled fusion reaction. The obstacles are formidable. First, the particles to be fused must be heated to temperatures above 100,000,000 degrees, temperatures so high that the particles split into ions and electrons and the gas therefore becomes a plasma, and a particularly unstable one. Second, since at these temperatures any material container would not only melt but would cool the fusion reaction by diverting the heat to itself, the plasma has to be held and squeezed in some sort of magnetic field, from which it escapes all too readily.
"We have to know a lot more about what’s going on before we can harness the atom. Here in the lab we’re trying to get a better understanding of the fundamentals,” says Bachynski. Alight with enthusiasm, he glows like one of his own plasmas; one suspects that their intransigence enchants him even more than their possibilities. He adds, "Another thing, plasma may provide the electrical power generator of the future, because it’s a conductor. You’d replace moving mechanical parts with a moving fluid that couldn't wear out.”
As he crosses the hall to his office, a small businesslike room whose desk, two tables and bookcase are all stacked with neat piles of books and papers, he remarks, “I'm accused of being too tidy but space is like time, you have to fit everything in. To juggle so many things at once you have to organize your thinking. A scientific habit of mind overflows into everything you do. I was lucky—I learned to work by myself when I took grades nine and ten by correspondence because I lived on a farm. I find that I sort out the factors in a problem, any problem, in the lab or outside, and somehow let them sift down into my subconscious. Then when I come
back to it I find my decision half made, and I wonder how I could have seen it another way.”
Like his colleagues, he has to keep up with a flood of scientific information whose volume is now doubling every eight and a half years. Someone has estimated that ninety percent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive now, and they’re all publishing their findings. As Dr. Jackson told me later, "In time these masses of technical periodicals will be replaced by lists of titles and abstracts. The articles themselves will be stored on microfilm, available to anyone who asks for a copy. This job will be done by electronic devices.”
All the physicists take their problems home, on paper or in their heads, not only because they never have enough time but because their work isn’t mechanical enough to be mentally switched off on holidays. “The work itself is fun and you get involved.” says Bachynski. who admits that he wouldn’t leave at 5.30, except perhaps to play a set of tennis by daylight, if he didn’t drive home with his wife who works as a secretary in the Home Products Marketing Division of RCA Victor. Though they’ve been married almost three years, a tired office joke still wonders how Dr. Bachynski ever found time to fall in love. A pretty, composed girl with a sweet grave smile, Slava Bachynski conveys the impression that she is equal to her husband’s future.
Except for Mrs. Bachynski and the top administrative staff of RCA Victor, most of the people who work in the sprawling, shabby building in Montreal’s drab St. Henri district scarcely notice the research labs. The other three thousand employees are busily engaged in more worldly traffic ranging from selling records to building lines of microwave stations in remote areas of the Yukon and Brazil. RCA Victor's latest contract is to supply the U. S. government with the electronic guts of Project Relay, a series of satellites designed to transmit television and two-way telephone calls across the Atlantic. These experimental satellites will be launched late next summer and should bring European programs to North American TV screens within a few years. Eventually cheaper and quieter telephone conversations via satellite will replace the present submarine cable. We’ll have two-way radio sets for cottages, pocket-size color television, motorless cold drawers instead of refrigerators and the long-
promised marvel of electronic cooking.
To the men whose desks carry emblems of commerce—a copy of The Organization Man, a box labeled 61 Ways to Help You Sell More TV Sets, a golf trophy with a ball marked Satellite, or a plaster model of the familiar listening dog—the men in the laboratories seem withdrawn, even mysterious. As John D. Houlding. president of RCA Victor, puts it, "There's a problem of communication with research personnel but we have a good management there and they bridge the gap. Research men like to live in an ivory tower, while we naturally tend to apply pressures to get practical results. From a short-range standpoint it’s sometimes difficult to justify a research lab because it doesn’t make money. However, our people have been carrying their operating costs by doing over $1,000,000 worth of outside business a year, mostly for the Canadian and Ü. S. governments, but we keep providing capital equipment. You gradually discover that if you’re going to compete internationally, as Canada has to do now, you must have facilities for development with a research arm. Before you can make practical applications somebody has to understand the science itself."
Although the research physicists aren’t expected to invent new products they sometimes come up with a marketable piece of equipment, such as a nuclear particle detector recently developed in Dr. Jackson's laboratory. This seven-inch instrument. designed for measuring radiation from food and clothing contaminated by fallout as well as for other experimental and industrial purposes, is smaller, cheaper and more rugged than a Geiger counter because it uses transistors instead of vacuum tubes.
On the whole, though, the men in the laboratories arc left free to pursue their special enthusiasms within broad limits, because the company is aware that a physicist's talent and training confer on him a magnificent independence. He can take a government job with slightly more freedom and slightly less money; he can take a job in the U.S. for more money and more or less freedom depending on his company. At RCA Victor salaries for a member of the scientific staff range from just under $8,000 a year to just over $15,000. Salaries in the eastern states are about twenty-five percent higher and those on the west coast are higher still. Some American companies reduce their scientists to engineers by forcing them to develop new' products, while others expect them to direct policy because they’re most able to predict trends.
As we sat in his office Dr. Bachynski talked about the far future, about inexhaustible power and infallible communication and space ships voyaging to the distant reaches of the universe. "These are our present goals, hut who knows.’ he asked, looking down at his hands as if they could give him an answer. "Accomplishing everything we set out to do will take time, perhaps even centuries, although we will undoubtedly see significant results in our lifetime and we may discover things that entirely change our direction. Some by-product we don t even see yet may lead to the really important discoveries.”
I said good-by to Morrel Bachynski and walked past the guard at the door into the slow heavy heat of a fall afternoon. Dowm on Côte-St-Antoine three children played a shrill game in a rubble of pavement torn up for repairs. I thought of my own small boy and then the week’s news came crowding in on me again, news of the crisis in Berlin and Khrushchov’s announcement that the U.S.S.R. was resuming nuclear tests. All at once the thought of a group of reasonable men speculating about the next century seemed immensely reassuring. ★