Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Growing by degrees

Tom and Margaret were rooting around in the attic this past weekend for relics of their youth. Tom found my Ph.D. thesis, University of Notre Dame, 1964, and read out the abstract to me as I stood at the foot of the stairs:
Optical properties were measured in the visible and ultraviolet for molybdenum films of varying thickness evaporated onto fused quartz substrates at pressures from 10-6 to 10-9 torr. Evaporation was carried out by electron bombardment or resistive heating of molybdenum wires or ribbons. The spectral dependence of the complex index of refraction n=ik was similar for all films, and could be approximated in the visible by the Drude theory for absorption by free electrons...etc. etc.
Talk about relics of one's youth!

My doctoral degree was a ticket into the world of academics, but the optical properties of molybdenum films were soon left far behind. I have no idea if my thesis work ever found application. I vaguely remember someone's interest in using molybdenum films on the nose cones of rockets, but if that ever came to pass I would prefer not to know about it.

Were the four years in the lab then a waste of time? Not at all. Looking through my thesis for the first time in 43 years, I can see how important those long hours of primary research were for shaping my intellectual life.

I learned the value of questioning nature closely, without preconceptions. I learned the importance of quantitative thinking. I learned the difference between reproducible evidence and anecdotal evidence. I learned to respect and cherish the sensate world. I learned that beauty can be found at every level of reality.