HOW AND WHY I BECAME A SCIENTIST
Porter Johnson


I was born in Chattanooga Tennessee during the darkest days of World War II (1942). My mother taught American History in the local public high school for 42 years, and my father had completed several quarters of pre-medical study, only to discover that he became violently ill at the sight of human blood. This must have been a big surprise, since his father was a farmer, and they routinely slaughtered cattle together! I always thought of my father as a "jack of all trades", who knew a little about everything and who could do anything. He worked in personnel and management in a number of companies, and for about a decade he farmed with his father. Like my father, my older brother is a sportsman who has always enjoyed the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and hiking --- and unlike me!  Apart from some competence in baseball, which I attribute to a great extent to my being born left-handed in a right-handed world, I am not an athlete.  However, I have been a life-long baseball enthusiast.

In elementary school I was not a very distinguished student, and was bored to distraction [but not to perfection!] by the tedious rituals of long division and multiplication with long, quite unimportant numbers.  Actually, I recall that I memorized the multiplication tables up to 12 ´ 12 in the 2nd grade---after all, the tables were printed on the fronts of our tablets!  I don't remember studying science in school until the 6th grade, when my teacher stimulated our interest in the stars and planets, as well as science in general.

He also told us a lot more about evolution than he perhaps should have---given the laws in the state of Tennessee that prohibited teaching that subject in the schools.  I had discovered elaborate records, articles, and notes at home, which  my maternal grandfather had collected concerning evolution and  the infamous Scopes Trial of 1926 in nearby Dayton TN.

I began to get interested in chemistry, and liked to watch the TV program Mr Wizard on my aunt's and uncle's television set.

We didn't get a TV until 1956, and then only so that  my mother could watch the Presidential Nominating Conventions at home.  My father believed that TV would "numb the intellect", and subsequently proved that point by watching it almost every night until he fell asleep.
I spent endless hours studying the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, and my father built a chemistry laboratory in the basement.  I scrounged materials from old chemistry sets, and saved my allowance to go to drugstores and downtown chemical and surgical supply houses [the first time with my father!] to buy chemicals.
Regulatory standards in the 1950s were less stringent than those today, and I could purchase materials such as concentrated Sulfuric Acid, Potassium Hydroxide, and the like. One day I dropped by a supply house while ostensibly participating in a Regional School Musical Concert in the auditorium just across the street, and stored my chemical acquisitions in my coat pocket during the concert.

I completed requirements for the Chemistry Merit Badge in the Boy Scouts at age 11 [in our district the requirements were interpreted quite strictly and literally], and I met with a regional scout leader, whom I convinced that I deserved to get it.

My sixth grade teacher had said that, if you knew algebra, you could set up and solve math problems with a general, systematic approach.  I was entranced by the picture of the crescent moon over a middle-Eastern desert on the cover of an algebra book, and by chemistry-based questions, such as:

How much of a 20 % solution of KCl should you mix with 100 ml of a 5 % solution to get a 10 % solution?
Algebra was deeply connected to my world-picture; and I was determined to understand it.  The only problem was that it was 1954 and I was in the 6th grade.  I discovered old math books in the attic, which probably belonged to my maternal grandfather and uncle; who both died during the war years.  I especially remember studying Wentworth's Algebra, and later Granville's Calculus.  People who speak of the "new mathematics"  should take a look at the materials in Wentworth's Algebra [1881].   Here is a typical fun problem:
A greyhound makes 3 leaps while a hare makes 4; but 2 of the greyhound's leaps are equivalent to 3 of the hare's.  The hare has a start of 50 of the greyhound's leaps.  How many leaps does each take before the hare is caught?
My mother was certified to teach algebra, and did upon occasion, although she wasn't of much assistance on the harder problems in Wentworth's  book.  In the evenings I proceeded with independent study of math and science, while during the day I was being bored by repetitive preparation to learn stuff that I already knew.

A big change occurred in October 1956 --- and I can still hear Mel Allen announcing the last few innings of Don Larson's Perfect Game [The New York Yankees slaughtered the lowly Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series that year, and they retreated all the way to Los Angeles!] over our school's public address system --- we stopped classes to listen to this historic event!   I had been busily attempting to enroll in 9th grade General Science and Algebra I [6 weeks into the semester]. The Principal's wife, who was also the school's Latin teacher, suggested that I should---against the strong objection of the algebra teacher, who said that he [and most of his algebra students] felt that I might succeed "academically" but would fail at  "socialization". Nevertheless, he agreed to let me enroll in his class---provided I would take the regularly scheduled test with the class the next day, before I got a copy of the textbook.  I made 80/100 on the test, which I regarded as a failing grade, although the teacher at least said that it was OK

Actually, I enjoyed the class, since I sat in the back near a cheerleader and a band majorette.  They both eagerly sought my assistance in algebra, which they needed to complete in order to graduate.  I was the 8th grade "pet" of these upper-class goddesses!

The next Spring I represented the school in the East Tennessee Math Teachers Algebra I Test, and was one of the winners, along with two students from the (prestigious, private) McCallie School in Chattanooga.  I felt that I was proceeding on the "right track" on my career trajectory.

About a year later [28 October 1957] the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I (which we strained our eyes to see at night) and shocked the world.  It was my turn the next day to make a "current news report" in the World History class, giving a brief description of 10 different news stories. According to my future wife, who also took the class, I got up and said "there is only one important news story today, and I am going to present 10 different aspects of it".  After Sputnik, scientists like Werner von Braun became national heroes, and those who liked science, rather than being merely socially maladjusted misfits, came to be considered as the "people of the future". My maternal grandmother often said that people were ultimately  evaluated "from the neck up"; that she had picked out the smartest man she could find to be her husband.

I continued to take regular classes in high school, except for being a year ahead in mathematics and science, until October 1958, when the Principal's wife [here we go again!] suggested that I enroll in American History [from my mother!] and then take the required course of 4th year English in the following Summer so that I could graduate a year earlier and go to college in Fall 1959.  My mother was quite concerned that I would complete all the courses in math and science, and have nothing left to study in college.

My mother felt that the Principal's wife was a snoop who should have worked for the FBI, but I made the more charitable interpretation that she was one of those rare individuals capable of seeing into the hearts and minds of others. And, she could smell chewing gum through a brick wall--- it was a forbidden "controlled substance" in schools those days!  Dostoyevsky would have enjoyed knowing her, and then exposing her soul in one of his intricately structured novels!
I made the changes, and soon took the College Board Entrance Examinations [which I had hardly heard of before!]---I managed to skip the National Merit Examination entirely.  I also entered the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and developed a science project on "binary logarithms".
My idea was that, since it is faster to add numbers than to multiply them, digital computers should perform multiplications by doing a "fast interpolation" to get logarithms [some sort of super-efficient look-up and interpolation of logarithms], which should properly be done in "base 2". My idea was "far out" and impractical, since I didn't appreciate the difficulty of computing and inverting logarithms accurately---even though I needed them only for numbers between 0.5 and 1.0.  The general approach of hardwiring fast interpolations into microchips is commonplace these days; in fact,  a  bug in that type of hardware led to the recall of the Intel™ Pentium I chip several years ago.  To my knowledge nobody has used base-2 logarithms for multiplication by addition, since additions would then become tedious. Why not have chips in parallel---to add, to multiply, to get logs, and to invert them?  Or not? 
Whatever the talent search people may have seen in me, it certainly was not the glamour and professional artistry of my science project!  I was declared one of the 400 semi-finalists, and soon began receiving interesting letters from schools all over the country.  Two McCallie students made the "top 40" list, and went with the other winners to Washington to meet President Eisenhower

I took physics in high school in 1958-1959 from the basketball coach, who was conscientious but shy.  At the same time, a college level physics course, called Continental Classroom, was broadcast on network television at 6:30 am.  The course, taught by Professor Harvey White of UC Berkeley, with frequent guest lecturers, covered one semester of mechanics and one semester of atomic and nuclear physics.  I gradually realized that physics provides a means for answering the fundamental questions in the universe.  I was frustrated that I could not fully understand all the intricacies of even simple subjects such as mechanics, but was absolutely fascinated by the scope of basic questions that could be addressed through its deep and fundamental approach.  At the end of that year a cousin came to town with  her new husband, a PhD Physicist, whom I severely cross-examined for an explanation of the motion of a gyroscope.

I accepted a four year full tuition Alfred P Sloan Scholarship at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland Ohio.  Actually, I turned down exactly the same offer from MIT, since I did not feel ready to go that far away from home.  I met Mr Sloan himself at a reception he held for all 4th year scholarship recipients in November 1962 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.  He was nearly 90 years old, but still smoked big black cigars.

Our family made an automobile visit to Cleveland in Summer 1959, but everything seemed different when I arrived there on a cold, rainy morning after completing an 18 hour train trip just before my 17th birthday, to live in the dorms and enroll as a student. A few days later on a sunny afternoon a few of us walked from the Case Campus to Public Square in downtown Cleveland.  During this walkabout of only a few hours, I saw many compact used car lots with burning light bulbs strung across them, as well as small businesses and family restaurants.  There was also a steady stream of electric buses up and down the street.  It was certainly a different world. This microcosm image of 1959 Cleveland, soon to be altered beyond recognition by the course of time, is indelible.

I was very fortunate to have Professor Martin J Klein for the first semester of Physics, as well as several other courses later on.  From him I learned that Physics has "soul" as well as intellectual depth.

Klein had just completed the definitive biography of  Paul Ehrenfest, described as the "conscience of theoretical physics".  He subsequently became the Chair of the newly established Department of the History of Science at Yale University. As the pre-eminent historian of physics in the world, he was chosen to be the editor-in-chief of  the "Einstein Papers". 
In my freshman year there was the famous duck incident during an early class in Strosacher Auditorium---"quack quack"; then "boom"; then "thud", as a dead duck was thrown onto the lecture stage.  The instructor "lost his cool" that day, and threatened to fail everybody.  The whole incident was soon blamed on a student from Chicago, who wouldn't be expected to know better.

My father died suddenly in January 1961, just after the inauguration of President Kennedy.  I rushed home on my first ride in an airplane, after taking a serpentine route to Cleveland Hopkins Airport; we took off during a serious snowstorm. I came back to Case by train a week later;  this was my last train trip during college, passenger rail service having become increasingly unreliable.  The magnificent passenger hub in Cincinnati, with its glorious depression era Murals to Progress, had been closed and abandoned, and makeshift passenger service was handled on a siding.  I had read the novel You Can't Go Home Again by expatriate Southerner Thomas Wolfe; still I didn't expect my home environment to undergo such quick, permanent change.  I became even more determined be a scientist; although I would never again be the object of my father's pride, or receive his strong yet constructive advice.  My room mate Jerry Tessin --- who took up his true calling as a musician after graduating from Case, and who once played trumpet while touring with Elvis Presley --- helped me very much in this difficult period; as did my other friends and teachers.

I was especially close to Arthur Benade [expert on the acoustics of musical instruments],  Leslie Foldy [the theorist who introduced the concept of "form factors"], William Gordon [lab director, friend, and mentor], Frederick Reines [Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of the neutrino], and or course Don Schuele [then a graduate student, who has had a distinguished career at Case as research scientist, Professor, administrator, and baseball enthusiast].  I worked for the Engineering and Science Review throughout my undergraduate years.  In one issue, we listed the editor  as Ferdinand Feghoot, because the real editor  [who could have sold refrigerators in the Klondike in the winter] was on probation.  A staff photographer took some pictures of international hero  Former President Eisenhower when he visited the campus  in 1962.  We had to destroy most of the shots of this living ikon because he was buttoning his overcoat--- in fact, we were too embarrassed to keep them.

My friends in the dormitory felt that I should learn to speak properly, so they endlessly drilled my southern accent away.  [The hardest sequence for me to master was owl, bowel, trowel.] They did such a thorough job that now I cannot even imitate a Southerner.  They were fairly good-natured about it, in spite of the fact that I was a somewhat unwilling pupil---unlike the 3 years of physical education, this course was not required for graduation!
I graduated from Case in 1963. During one busy semester I took 24 semester hours, including 2 classes that met at the same time.  I took the sequence in electromagnetism as a junior;  the seniors were jealous because I had taken the sophomore pre-requisite using the radical new textbook by Resnick and Halliday, which presented the subject using a proper mathematical base.  My experience at Case had been all that I could have hoped for, and in retrospect I might not have flourished at MIT, since there is a very different culture. One does not know the course of alternative futures.  In my opinion, it is sufficient to pick a path on which you are comfortable, and stick with it, unless compelling reasons for change occur along the way.

In June 1963 I got married, and my wife and I moved to New Jersey two days later, where I went to graduate school at Princeton University and she finished undergraduate work at Trenton State College [known today as The College of New Jersey].  It was and is very difficult to get into the Physics program at Princeton; good luck is an essential ingredient in that stochastic process.  In addition, the atmosphere of the school and the department, while very stimulating, could be quite daunting.  It is fair, at some risk of understatement, to describe it as "competitive" as well as "exciting", especially during that glorious era of scientific expansion in the decade following Sputnik.

I was surrounded by student colleagues destined to become leading physicists.  I attended graduate school during the same years as Henry Abarbanel, Steve Adler, George Bertsch, Curt Callan, Paul Fishbane, Robert Geroch, Fred Gilman, Arthur Jaffe, John Rosner, Barry Simon, and Kip Thorne.  Several others became equally outstanding physicists; some students were just as promising, but seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. You cannot predict who will achieve fame and fortune in science, or in anything else.
I took courses from such distinguished scientists as Bargmann, Blankenbecler, G Brown, Dicke, Goldberger, Wheeler, Wightman, and Wigner.    I regularly visited the nearby Institute for Advanced Studies, and walked where Einstein had walked; where Oppenheimer, as well as with Dyson, Regge, and C N Yang, was the guiding spirit. As during my graduate years, I continued to gain an understanding of General Relativity and worked for several months upon Dicke's legendary Solar Oblateness Experiment to challenge the predictions of Einstein's theory.  After passing the General Examination at the end of the second year, I began thesis work in Theoretical High Energy Physics.  I consider myself blessed that Sam Treiman was my Thesis Advisor, and I owe a great debt to his patience and understanding in mentorship, as well as his high standards of scientific enquiry.
For much of the time we lived in Hopewell NJ, a quaint little town evocative of New England, complete with skeletons in its closet.  Namely, Charles Lindbergh lived nearby for a number of years, and the kidnapping and murder of his infant son took place there.  A German immigrant was eventually arrested for the crime --- and then tried, convicted and executed in short order --- but there have been lingering suggestions that he might have received some "local assistance".  Still, we loved the town, which had barely changed the last time we visited it.  By contrast, the town of Flemington NJ, where our son was born, as well as adjacent formerly rural portions of Hunterdon County, have become "bedroom suburbs" of the New York megalopolis.
I graduated from Princeton in 1967, and I became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the newly federated Case Western Reserve University [back to Cleveland!] for two years, where our daughter was born. I found the environment to be radically different from my halcyon undergraduate days---and not just because I was no longer a student! I did indeed live through interesting times there, in the sense of the Chinese curse. I worked closely with many exciting physicists who stayed at CWRU throughout their professional careers, as well as equally creative ones who departed during this turbulent period after the merger of two institutions with large Physics Departments.
I certainly attempted to mind my own business, spending most of my time writing papers and discussing physics.  I succeeded to a certain extent, even during the unforgettable year 1968, which is the most turbulent that I have experienced.  There was no rioting in Cleveland that year, although there was a very tense period just after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, during which National Guard troops were stationed in University Circle Parking Lots.  In my opinion, if you focus energy on professional activities and goals when you are getting an education, and ignore "political intrigue" and "gossip", you will be happier and more successful. Someday you will be in a better position to "change the world", with the benefit of perspective acquired by hindsight!.  In other words, you should stick to what you are good at, and what you enjoy doing!.
I taught a general physics undergraduate course every semester of my postdoctoral studies (without salary, to gain teaching experience), and found that I really liked teaching.
I especially enjoyed team-teaching  with Robert Shankland, giving common exams with him, and chatting during coffee hours.  I distinctly remember that one student arrived late to an exam and kept his rain hat on his head the whole time.  Shankland whispered softly to me: "Now, there's a leader of men!"  Shankland almost chose a career in professional baseball, rather than physics.  His father arranged for him to meet a local baseball celebrity, a French émigré named  Napoleon Lajoie (1874-1959), who batted .422 for the Cleveland Indians in 1901---still the American League Record.  Shankland felt that baseball had been destroyed by "night games", but he was concerned that only "bankers and the idle rich" could go to the day baseball games during the week.
In 1969 I accepted a faculty position at Illinois Institute of Technology. In fact, I turned down a "better offer" at a more widely known university. I was looking for a place where I would feel comfortable, and I felt that IIT had these distinctive features: I have been at IIT ever since.  But then, that is another story.