Chance Encounters: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now!

Just a bit of background: The Danish postage stamp pictured was issued in honor of Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Laureate in physics from Denmark and father of the scientific quantum theory of the atom. A close colleague and contemporary of Einstein’s, Bohr’s role in physics and his work on quantum theory share the highest pedestal in physics along with Einstein’s relativity theories and Newton’s mechanics. No, I never met Niels Bohr, but I did have a chance encounter with someone who knew him very well and who contributed to quantum theory.

Bohr Stamp_1

It occurred many years ago, 1960 to be exact. I had just transferred to Stanford University from San Jose State College to begin my junior year there. On a September afternoon in 1960, I moved into Stern Hall, the on-campus dormitory at Stanford, with much anticipation (and many qualms) about the great adventure ahead. Being the first in my entire extended family to ever go to college, I had a great number of those qualms and, just like two years prior when first enrolling at San Jose State, I was continually “learning on the fly.”

Checking in at the dormitory desk, I was handed a key to room 102 which was not yet occupied by my (unknown) roommate. It was nice to have first choice of the beds and desks, even though the room was symmetrically arranged. Who will be my roommate and where, in this great United States, will he be from: Perhaps a proper Bostonian with an eastern accent? Maybe a southerner…with an even stronger accent. Because my home in San Mateo was only twenty miles away from the Stanford campus, I was excited about meeting someone from a completely different part of the country.

The day wore on and still…no roommate: I thought that was somewhat odd. Finally, my roommate, Bob, strode through the open door carrying surprisingly little luggage. No wonder! Bob was from…Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University! “Well, so much for the cultural exchange,” I thought to myself, but I could readily see that Bob was a good guy and we would get along fine. That proved to be true even though he was a music major and I, an engineering student going in rather different directions.

But this meeting of roommates is not the subject of this post; the particular encounter which I want relate was Bob’s doing one evening, not far from campus. His mother lived literally just a mile across the El Camino Real which borders the 9600 acres (not a typo!) of the Stanford campus. One evening, we jumped into his Volkswagon beatle and drove over to the house. From there, we drove several blocks in the same residential area to visit two boyhood friends of  Bob’s who he must have known at nearby Palo Alto High School.

As we pulled into the large driveway, he related that Dan and George were twins. He also gave me a heads-up that their father worked at Stanford – a very smart man who won a Nobel Prize in physics, he told me! Despite my youthful naivete, even I  knew at the time that a Nobel Prize in physics is a pretty big deal. I knew little else. We walked in to a very warm, friendly living area which featured a full-size pool table.

Bob introduced me to his friends and to their father, Mr. Bloch, who was relaxing in a large easy chair and puffing on a pipe. We probably shook hands although I cannot recall for certain – at least I hope so.

I hope I shook his hand because Felix Bloch was, in his early years, one of the great young European physicists who ushered-in the scientific revolution called “quantum physics.” The great unveiling of the atom and its mysteries took place in the first three decades of the last century, and Felix Bloch was there when it happened and contributed to it. He worked with and knew, personally, some of the greatest European names in science: The “Great Dane,” Niels Bohr, the father of the quantum atom; The German, Werner Heisenberg of “uncertainty principle” fame; the Austrian whose innate genius was said by colleagues to be second only to Einstein’s, Wolfgang Pauli; and most of the others in the famous cast of roughly two dozen. This revolution, this peeling-back of atomic physics and its mysteries, took place almost exclusively in Europe because that is where the greatest talent in physics resided.


Felix Bloch was Swiss-born, talented enough and fortunate enough in circumstance to participate in one of the great epochs of science. A young Felix Bloch can be seen in the illustrious company of Bohr and the others at Bohr’s Institute for Physics in Copenhagen, posing on the long auditorium benches in the famous lecture hall where assaults on the mysteries of quantum physics were launched and often won. These period photos date from around 1930 when brilliant young physicists received invitations from Bohr for extended working visits at the Institute. It is no exaggeration to say that the atom grudgingly yielded many of its secrets as the result of the myriad gatherings and collaborations that emanated from Bohr’s circle of brilliant young minds. 

Have you ever had a medical MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)? If so, then you, along with millions of others have benefitted from the talent and fundamental research of Felix Bloch…and many others. My wife’s bout with cancer (complete recovery) several years ago invoked the miracle of MRI many times. It was in recognition of his research on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR, that Bloch shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1952. The beginnings of that research date back to the original work of Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Paul Dirac who first endeavored to understand the atom and its mysteries. The seminal paper of Bohr’s which first cast a quantum light on the then-mysterious atom was published by the very young physicist in 1913. It followed on the heels of the 1900 paper of Max Planck which revealed the quantum nature of radiated energy and the 1905 paper of Einstein’s on the quantum photoelectric effect (Nobel Prize, 1921). My wife’s benefit from MRI technology was a first-class connection with the man I met way back in 1960.

One other personal connection to Mr. Bloch and his contributions comes to mind: My first real job, ever, came through my high school physics teacher at San Mateo High School. He recommended me for a summer position at the Stanford University Microwave Lab that summer between graduation and college. While there, I assisted two physics post-docs with their research projects in …NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance – well before its advent as a medical tool and two years before meeting the man so instrumental in the field. Felix Bloch had come to Stanford in 1934, so it was not surprising that the university would be well-versed in and actively pursuing the physics and the technology in the Microwave Lab and elsewhere on campus. For those interested, I add a humorous postscript at the end of this post.

In summary: I had no clue about the importance and historical significance of the gentleman that I met that evening in 1960. I never would have guessed that he came to reside in familiar, nearby Palo Alto only after an early life spent travelling between the intellectual centers of early European physics, working with many of the greatest names in modern physics!

Since retiring from engineering twelve years ago, I have become very interested in science and science history, as most of you have surmised, so I learned about much of this over the years since. I delved quite deeply into Einstein’s relativity several years ago, but it is only now that I have generated the courage to really learn something in detail about quantum mechanics, a revolution in physics which is just as strange and equally challenging as Einstein’s relativity. Ironically, and surprising, the old textbook for one of my physics courses at Stanford is where I expect to get my firmest footing in the theory (again!). I re-discovered that old text by thumbing through my library (I almost got rid of it once!). Too bad that I did not have the requisite perspective and drive back then to better learn and recall what I now appreciate is contained in that textbook.

Equally regrettable is the fact I did not realize, at the time, my great good fortune in personally meeting Felix Bloch. If I had any inkling back then of what I know today, I would love to have bought lunch and a bottle of fine wine at the best bistro in Palo Alto and discussed with him his recollections of those weeks and months spent in the company of physics’ elite at the Bohr Institute of Physics in Copenhagen. I would certainly have made sure that I at least shook his hand when introduced! As the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes, “Too soon oldt; too late schmart!” Ah, so true.

Quantum book

Several days ago, I pulled a recently purchased book off of my “must read” shelf and dove-in. The book is titled “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar, an historical/scientific account of quantum mechanics. Reading the richly-detailed historical account of this scientific revolution revitalized the memory of my introduction to Felix Bloch and prompted the post you have just read. One need not have much of a science background to benefit from Mr. Kumar’s outstanding account of those colorful days and events in the intellectual centers of European science. His recounting is as much a story of the human spirit as it is a scientific overview. I heartily recommend this book; it truly captures the golden years of physics during the first decades of the twentieth century. Google any of the names mentioned, above, and the internet will provide a treasure-trove of both historical and scientific information. “Niels Bohr” would be where I would start! He was at the center of the quantum revolution; everyone else who orbited around quantum physics, including Felix Bloch, was heavily influenced by the “pull” of his persona and acumen.

A Humorous Postscript: My contributions to NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) technology during a summer job in the Stanford Microwave Lab – 1958. My job as a student intern that summer was to help two physics post-doctoral students with their lab experiments involving NMR in ferrite materials. One of the assignments was to grind “chips” of this black rock-like substance into very tiny, round ferrite balls for magnetic resonance testing.

This was accomplished by using cylindrical “wells” bored about an inch deep into blocks of wood. Each well had a small inlet pipe through which compressed air could be used to blow the small ferrite chips around the walls of the capped cylindrical wells. Different wells were lined with different grades of sandpaper. The idea was to “start the ball rolling” using a rough grade of sandpaper, progressively polishing the forming sphere using finer and finer grades.

This particular day, I had eight different, tiny samples to prepare. It was tedious work, efforts for which there is no Nobel Prize! After a full day spent forming ferrite spheres and polishing them to precise diameters as measured with a micrometer, I had my ferrite mini-menagerie. I carefully used tweezers to place them on a twice-creased sheet of paper where they nestled in the apex of the folds. I proceeded to deliver my ferrites and started across the open courtyard between buildings when a sudden gust of wind lifted my paper. My tiny ferrites were now nowhere to be seen. I was standing on the grass at that instant, so forget about finding them. Sorry, no Nobel Prize for me that day; instead, I felt like dummy-of-the-day. My post-doc was quite sympathetic; he probably had a good laugh once I slunk out of sight. Who said doing science was easy?