Shirley Temple at the Movies…Yesterday, Today, and Always

There’s no business like show business – especially in the film capital of the world, Hollywood. Actors come and actors go: It has always been thus. Most have not been fortunate and talented enough to leave any lasting impression. Those who made it big in tinsel-town left their impressions in cement at Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Of all those bona-fide stars, only a handful combined the brilliance and uniqueness of the pint-sized, mop-top child actress with the bright eyes and long curls who magically materialized in 1932, Shirley Temple.

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People still love her films and revere her memory, as evident to Linda and me last Saturday at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. The beautifully restored classic movie house, which dates back to 1925 and the days of silent pictures and traveling vaudeville stage acts, showed four of her pictures that day in conjunction with a large exhibition of Shirley memorabilia on display for three days in the theatre’s “history hall.” The substantial exhibition was but a small part of a huge collection of Ms. Temple’s important personal and movie memorabilia – all  to be auctioned on  July 14, 2015 under the auspices of Theriault’s which typically specializes in dolls and doll auctions.

IMG_4373This auction will disperse a huge, diverse collection of memorabilia, objects which were lovingly (and professionally) preserved for over eighty years at the behest of Shirley’s mother and youthful guardian, Gertrude Krieger Temple. The collection is both in pristine condition and unprecedented in quality and breadth – in keeping with the uniqueness of the whole Shirley Temple saga.

The hour-long line of dedicated fans waiting to view the free exhibit stretched down the sidewalk of University Avenue and around the corner – obviously a small price to pay for fans of the pint-sized phenom whose persona inspired several of her movie titles: Bright Eyes (the film we saw that afternoon) featuring the tune On the Good Ship, Lollipop; Curley Top featuring Animal Crackers in My Soup; Dimples; and The Littlest Rebel. And, no…the patient fans in line for the exhibit were not just women of a certain age group; there were equally as many men and all ages were represented, ample testimony to Miss Temple’s timeless appeal.

Shirley-Temple[1]Many a precocious, talented youngster has had a “run” during Hollywood’s long history, but none so young, so talented, and so completely charming as little Shirley. Who can recall any child actor who has ever performed so professionally at such a young age as Shirley did without leaving movie-goers with a lingering aftertaste of annoying, excessive precociousness?

Who could resist the little mop-top as she mugged, sang, and tap-danced her way into the nation’s heart during a time of widespread emotional and economic depression? Little Shirley was just what the doctor ordered, and millions flocked to her movies to pay fifteen cents for “the Shirley happiness cure.” The acclaimed actor, Adolph Menjou, her co-star in the early film Little Miss Marker, confessed, “This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks [of the trade].”

Her movie career was unique, enough, but her later life seemed equally unique and exemplary given Hollywood’s demonstrated ability to derail young actors and actresses before they reach adulthood. I would guess that she collected some personal scars during her young years given her extraordinarily intense exposure and her market value to the movie studios. My curiosity about her and her driven mother/guardian is piqued, so I obtained a copy of her autobiography, Child Star, published in 1988. Was she a happy, bubbly child as so often portrayed on the silver screen, or was it all just superb acting?

Despite the excessive childhood adulation and the accompanying hardships she surely endured, she forged a dignified adult life of accomplishment and public service for herself once she completely retired from motion pictures in 1950.

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Her first notable movie debut was in the 1934 film, Stand Up and Cheer. The red polka-dot dress she wore in that film was on display last week along with the similarly dressed Shirley Temple doll produced by the Ideal Company which proved very popular with sales of $45 million by 1941. The first movie completely crafted to feature Miss Temple was Bright Eyes, the film we saw last week which was released in 1934. Her career reached warp-speed almost immediately, not abating until 1940 when, as a teenager, her persona became more difficult to delineate from those of other, talented young actresses.

She was married in 1945 to John Agar who subsequently became a movie actor, himself. They appeared in two pictures together including Fort Apache in 1948 which starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Victor McLaughlin. The couple’s roles in the movie were minimal, but the film by John Ford remains a classic of the western genre – and one of my favorite movies. The couple divorced in 1949, and her husband to-be for 54 years until his death in 2005, Charles Black, soon came along in 1950.

Shirley AutoBio_1But, enough about the mere details of her life! What intrigues me about her and about any other, supremely accomplished individual, is the question: “What made them tick?” Who or what motivated little Shirley Temple and from where did that talent and charisma come which distinguished her from millions of other little girls of her era? People have wondered for decades.

I am hoping her autobiography will provide some insights and answers.

 

 

More Pictures

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 IMG_4336Shirley’s motorized car – a gift from early co-star and lifelong friend, tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

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Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

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How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

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The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

Leland and Jane Stanford: Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

Today, as I write this, Linda and I visited the local Los Altos History Museum to see an exhibit titled “Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends.” The theme of the exhibit centered on the technology explosion which has taken place over the last one hundred years in this former valley of orchards. As a retired electrical engineer involved in and intrigued by this colorful history, I know the stories well – the people and the technology companies, many of which have come and gone and changed our lives forever. The institution most responsible for all of this is still here and thriving like never before: The Leland Stanford Junior University.

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Founded in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to Leland Stanford Junior, their only child who died suddenly and early at the age of sixteen years, the university in nearby Palo Alto, California, was the seed-stock from which Silicon Valley took root. It continues to influence the region in a major way, to this day.

MrandMrsLelandStanford1850[1]The eastern academics who the Stanfords initially consulted ridiculed their proposal to erect a first-tier university out in the “intellectual wastelands” of frontier California, but the Stanfords had the foresight, the will, and the money to brush aside discouraging nay-sayers and proceed with their dream. The echoes of Horace Greeley’s well-publicized advice to “Go west, young man, go west!” must have resonated with them. The Leland Stanford Junior University was to be a memorial to their only child… and a gift to the “children of California.”

Seldom in history has a personal vision played-out so well. The university not only fulfilled its original, stated purposes, it has played a major role in transforming life as we know it through the technology companies it has spawned over the last several decades. Besides educating generations of engineers, like myself, the school provided the impetus for its graduates to stay in California and start new companies to pioneer new technologies. Prior to the nineteen-thirties, newly-minted engineers from west of the Mississippi would head to the east coast where companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM were the established industrial players….with ready jobs.

Stanford soon had something else besides fine weather and elbow-room that none of the old, established schools in the east, including the Ivies, could match – and that was professor Frederick Terman in the electrical engineering department – later longtime Dean of Engineering at Stanford.

Like Leland and Jane Stanford, Fred Terman foresaw the potential of the young university and its western environs. It was Terman who, as early as the nineteen-thirties when orchards still covered the land around here, envisioned Stanford University as a technology center surrounded by vast numbers of research and development companies which derived their mother’s milk from Stanford’s presence. Fred Terman was dead-center with his vision, and what he visualized is precisely what we have today in Silicon Valley – thanks largely to his efforts.

To ponder the changes in this valley over the last sixty years as the result of Stanford University’s  influence is to marvel at the enormous gamble of Leland and  Jane Stanford in the eighteen-eighties and how marvelously prescient they were!

Leland_Stanford_p1070023[1]As perhaps one of the earliest examples of the university’s role in this valley, I am able to show you an early founder’s stock certificate dated 1910 from the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company located in Palo Alto, near the campus. It is for over one million shares of the company, assigned to the president and founder of the company, Cyril Elwell. Elwell was a 1907 engineering graduate of Stanford whose company pioneered early wireless (radio) in the area and quickly became the Federal Telegraph Company. To initially finance his company, Elwell borrowed $500 from 4.0.4David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. Additional funding came from other faculty members thus heralding the beginning of the huge venture capital tradition which has always played a key role in this valley’s dynamic growth.

 

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The scope of Stanford’s influence is not confined to just the local region, or even to California; the university and its influence have significantly determined the way many of us live our lives, today. I can cite many specific reasons for the truth of that statement, but that would not be appropriate, here. Suffice it to say that technology has changed the world, and Stanford has played a major role in its pervasiveness within society. The companies spawned by Stanford and the research which takes place on campus have revolutionized all aspects of human existence – from our understanding of nuclear physics to state-of-the-art cancer research at the Stanford Medical Center.

For those young students interested in studying the liberal arts, business, the law, or medicine, Stanford also offers a top-tier education that is second to none. My advice to young students: Keep those grades up; you’ll find it very tough to be admitted. If you don’t make it here, try the Ivy League schools!

A visit to Wikipedia on the internet will yield many of the pertinent facts about Stanford which support the above contentions. The school’s large array of Nobel laureates is but one indicator of Stanford’s world-role.

Yes, I knew all of this before, but I had to pause and reflect on it all yet again after seeing the Silicon Valley exhibit and film, today. Periodically refreshing one’s perspective (I love that word!) is so important. The story of Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley is unique; what a fine gift to the “children of California,” and what a timeless memorial to young Leland Stanford Junior.

The Palo Alto Garage Where California’s “Silicon Valley” Began

California’s “Silicon Valley” is justly known as the technology center of the world. Why here, in this former agricultural valley nestled between San Francisco and its neighbor sixty miles to the south, San Jose? As recently as the 1950’s, this fertile region was covered with apricot, cherry, and plum orchards. Interspersed here and there among the orchards were new, start-up tech companies, but mainly, the region was still about agriculture. Today, the orchards are gone.

Stanford University, in Palo Alto, was the initial catalyst for the chemistry which created Silicon Valley. In a sense, the 9600 acre Stanford campus is where it all started, but a small garage tucked behind a venerable old home just a mile or two from Stanford is where Silicon Valley truly began. A garage?

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Yes, this is where electronics giant Hewlett Packard was born in 1938/39 with a roster of two, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Hewlett Packard, long known as “HP” by the tech community, was merely a pipe-dream of two friends and recent Stanford graduates in electrical engineering (Class of 1934). Stanford was very fortunate at that time to have Fred Terman – a most uncommon individual and educator – as professor of electrical engineering. Terman is rightly considered to be the Father of Silicon Valley and the legacy which ensued, here. Terman had a vision for Stanford and its surrounding environs, one which he proceeded to implement through his prescient encouragement of young engineering grads like Hewlett and Packard. It was Terman who suggested to his two young charges that they go out and start their own business … in this unlikely locale. Up until the 1930’s when Fred Terman’s influence took hold, it was not uncommon for young engineering graduates, here, to pack-up, head east, and take the “safe option” by joining established companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, and that growing company in New York, IBM. Under Terman’s influence, the two recent grads decided to give it a try, right here, in Palo Alto.

Any seasoned “techie” in this region knows of the house and garage at 367 Addison, about a mile from campus and mere blocks from University Avenue, the main drag of downtown Palo Alto. Linda and I often walk in the area and have passed by that house many times, always pausing to reflect upon the little garage at the end of the long driveway. Often, we continue our walk from there to dinner at a favorite downtown Mediterranean Café and on to see classic movies at the Stanford Theatre, located at the campus end of University Avenue.

A few weeks ago, we were walking again, and I said, “Let’s go by the HP garage on Addison!” As we rounded the corner, we saw a group of people going in and out of the house – we had never seen that, before. The house and garage were purchased by Hewlett Packard several years ago, being properly deemed an important historical site both for the company and for the region. The house and garage were given a loving (and first-class) renovation, an effort that reflects the importance of the site.

I asked a man standing in the driveway who appeared to be part of a security detail what was happening. He explained that HP had opened the house and garage for (new?) members of the company’s marketing/sales staff to tour. I explained that I am a Stanford electrical engineering graduate (class of 1963) and a retired engineer, and I added that we often pass by, here, on our Palo Alto walks.

He offered, “Would you like to see the garage?” Would I ever! Would a kid like to be let loose in a candy shop? The green front doors of the garage were wide open; inside, I could see the various treasures that I knew the garage contained, some of them original items that had returned home, but which I never expected to personally see up-close-and-personal inside the garage.

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Two HP 200 audio oscillators (Bill and Dave’s first commercial product) sit on shelves above the workbench (the metal cases with the three dials). In front of the slide-rule and the soldering iron is a vintage photo taken as the two young graduates worked tirelessly to birth Hewlett Packard, today a global giant which, along with its offspring companies, has tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. In my heyday as a working engineer in this Valley, the R&D development laboratories where I and my colleagues worked were chock-full of HP electrical test equipment – of all types; HP was THE standard in lab equipment – here, across the country, throughout the world.

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 Electrical schematic of the HP 200B audio oscillator initialed “DP” (1939)

I felt privileged having that garage to myself for a while with Linda and the security man in the background. HP has long been to high-tech as Coke is to soft-drinks – practically synonymous. From the humble beginnings before my eyes was born the iconic company that millions of electrical engineers have known like a family member for decades since 1939. In fast-forward fashion, I recalled the countless hours I spent in development labs surrounded by HP test equipment throughout my thirty-seven years as a practicing development engineer.

With those working years of my life as an electrical engineer behind me, walking into that garage was like entering a time-machine which transported me back to the beginnings of so much that I knew and experienced over those years. I have known about the garage and been intimately familiar with the HP legend for a long time, but there is no thrill quite like being there and experiencing it first-hand.

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One of the first capital equipment expenditures made by the two young founders was the purchase by Dave Packard of a Craftsman drill press – present alongside the workbench.

 Before Personal Computers, Came the HP 35 Scientific Calculator

One of Hewlett Packard’s greatest products was introduced in 1972 – the world’s first pocket-sized scientific calculator. The announcement and the product itself created a tidal-wave of excitement…and demand from the engineering and scientific communities. Now, complex calculations, including logarithmic and trigonometric functions, could be completed in seconds with accuracies well beyond the three significant figures of the venerable old slide rule.

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Bill Hewlett, the more engineering-oriented of the two company founders, personally wanted such a device to become a reality and became involved in the program. At $395 in 1972, the price was steep, but sales boomed. As a retired engineer, I can recall no other product introduction that impacted the rank-and-file engineering profession to a greater extent – except personal computers which followed several years later. I still have my HP 35 (and my old slide-rule, too).

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Hewlett Packard engineered the HP 35 beautifully after targeting a ready-made market of engineers waiting to be liberated from the limitations of the slide-rule. Packaging so much capability inside a pocket-sized device with LED display and decent battery life was quite a challenge for the HP engineers.

The technology utilized in the HP 35 anticipated the coming microprocessor revolution which would emanate from the start-up Intel Corporation – also located here in the Valley. Robert Noyce, a legendary engineering genius who co-founded Intel, was, a decade prior to that, a principal architect of the whole semiconductor integrated circuit revolution which began at Fairchild Semiconductor in nearby Mountain View. Prior to that, Noyce was a principal engineer at Shockley Semiconductor, in Mountain View, which was founded by William Shockley who shared the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories, back east.

Such is our history, here, in this Valley! People like these and their companies have largely defined our way of life, today.   

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Humble beginnings from which grew a technology giant!

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 The house on Addison

Dave Packard and his young wife, Lucille, were renting a floor of the house by 1938. Although there were few company “perks” back then, the fledgling founder did have an enviable commute consisting of eight steps out the back door to the garage. Co-founder Bill Hewlett, unmarried at the time, stayed in a very primitive “shack” in the backyard, near the garage. The early years were a struggle. The pair’s first “big” contract came from Walt Disney in the form of an order for eight HP 200 audio oscillators to create the then-revolutionary sound-effects in Disney’s upcoming movie, Fantasia. From that point on, Bill and Dave were on their way.

The Silicon Valley start-up model fashioned by Hewlett and Packard has been followed by countless entrepreneurs, many of whose small companies have blossomed into mighty tech-corporations – right here in this valley.

Have you heard about those two guys in a nearby Cupertino garage named Jobs and Wozniak and that company called “Apple?”

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 This way to the Palo Alto birthplace of Silicon Valley!

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.

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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.

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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?