The Boxwooder
Number 146, September 1981
William C. Wineland
Front Cover

On Saturday, April 18, Leah and I attended a memorial service for William C. Wineland who had died as a result of a heart attack. I was struck by several statements in the service. The minister said that Bill Wineland had been such a warm friendly person that it was difficult to think of him as “Dr. Wineland.” I must have been fifty years old before I could think of him or address him as anything but “Dr. Wineland.” The minister said that Wineland’s alma mater had said that his record there had been equaled but never surpassed and that it seemed a little strange to know that Wineland had had such an intellect. But that was the feature of him that I knew best, and my first characterization of him would have been on the sharpness of his mind. The minister said that most of the church members would remember his service and devotion to the church. In all the years I associated with Wineland, I never recall him mentioning a church, and I did not even know that he attended one. I almost felt the minister and I had known an entirely different person.

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In the memorial service the minister invited each of us to think of his own association with Wineland and what that association had meant to each of us. During the brief silence that ensued, it occurred to me that it was quite possible that I had known Wineland longer than had any, save one or two, of the two hundred or so people present at the service, and that Wineland had strongly influenced my life – I had not really thought of it that way before, but it became clear to me that Wineland had, perhaps casually and without being aware of it, played a major role in the shaping of my whole life. The purpose of this brief piece is to explore further the sudden realization that he had been involved in nearly every decision I had made about my professional life. After the service I told his son that I wished I had at some time told Wineland how he had influenced my life. But on further thought I’m sure I would never have told him because I believe it would have embarrassed him and probably me as well. I have often made fun of the phrase, “close personal friend,” but I believe that Wineland and I were close, but not personal, friends.

Bill Wineland was my first physics teacher. When I was in school at Morehead State College, three people, for various reasons, exerted a considerable influence on me. I had known some smart people, but I had never known anyone whose business was his knowledge and who considered the gaining of knowledge to constitute the primary function and joy of being. I can still remember clearly Wineland’s grin of pleasure at the neat mathematics of the cyclotron, at that time a brand-new particle accelerator. I regarded him with awe and some envy, and I now believe that in some respects I adopted my view of him as a role model. If that’s what I did, I had the good fortune to choose a model that a lifetime later I can say was an excellent choice.

It seems very strange to me now that although I occasionally played tennis with him in those days, (It had to be doubles – I was not nearly good enough to compete with him in singles.) I viewed him as belonging to an entirely different generation. I don’t recall ever having any feeling about his age, but he was only eight years older than I, so he was, at most, 27 years old when I met him. So firm was the teacher-student relationship to me that only after we were both old men could I bring myself to omit his title or address him by his first name. This was in spite of the fact that during the period when I worked closely with him almost everyone else called him by his first name or unadorned last name – he must have thought it odd of me.

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When I started to college I had no idea what I wanted to take, but I was inclined toward journalism and would probably have gone in that direction had it not been for Wineland and a math teacher, Linus Fair. Fair was by far the hardest teacher I’ve ever known. Making the highest score in the class on his tests, as I occasionally did, was by no means enough to mollify him. Any score less than perfect, and mine were seldom perfect, brought his displeasure squarely on my head. I don’t know that I ever had a kind word from him, but the result was somehow a respect for and an inclination toward mathematics. Years later I was astonished when I met Fair at some meeting and he said he wished he had students now as good as I had been. In the physics department were Wineland and an even younger teacher, L. W. “Bud” Cochran. Cochran was closer to my age (He was 24.) so I did find it possible to talk to him. A year or so later when I was trying to decide whether I wanted to major in physics or math, Cochran talked to me about it and finally said, “Physics is what you think math is.” By then I had had enough of both to conclude that he had stated it well and at that point turned to physics as my major.

It is sometimes difficult to recall that becoming a physicist in those days, before physicists bit the apple, was somewhat like majoring in history today – the only possible jobs were teaching physics in high schools or college. No one knew of any physicist employed by industry or government. If you told someone you were going to be a physicist, his response might well be, “What’s a physicist?” The only practical science in those days was chemistry; most people equated chemistry with science and looked to it to bring them the spoils of modern technology. Of course the revolution was well underway – in chemistry classes they were still talking about the atom as the indestructible particle, but Otto Hahn had already split the atom in Germany, fission had been demonstrated, and physics was in ferment over the possible realization of atomic energy which seemed to be on the horizon.

When World War II involved the U.S., Cochran left to take a position in the army’s radar school at Lexington, Kentucky and later told me that if I decided to leave college before the draft board got me that I would be welcomed as a student in the radar school, and, in fact, I did spend a year in that school before being inducted into the Army Signal Corps.

After the war I decided to use my GI bill to go to the University of Kentucky to finish up my physics degree. On arrival there, I found Cochran installed as a teacher in the physics department. When I had obtained my master’s degree from Kentucky, Leah and I decided (for reasons now unrecalled) to come to the Washington area, and Cochran suggested that I look up Wineland who had for some years been working there for a navy laboratory. I followed his advice and among other things discussed graduate schools with Wineland. He said that if I had a choice I should go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. After my first year at Hopkins, Wineland suggested that I might like to work for him during the summer, so I joined the Naval Ordnance Laboratory as a temporary employee in the summer of 1950. When autumn came, I was given leave without pay to go back to school, and the next summer I returned to the lab to stay for eleven more years.

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For the first two or so years at the lab, I worked closely with Wineland on his major interest of the time which was the theory of the naval minefield, and it was common for us to have daily technical conversations. Almost everyday a group of us, including Wineland, had lunch together, all of us brown bagging it because we worked a mile or so from the cafeteria. During this time I got to know him rather well but, at the same time, rather impersonally. I cannot but feel that we were close impersonal friends. This period ended when Wineland began an abrupt rise in the hierarchy of the Naval Ordinance Lab by becoming a division chief in another department, and I saw little of him after that.

By that time I had been a GS-12 for perhaps two years, and the prospect for further promotion did not look good. At the lab in those days, the step to a GS-13 was a difficult one because the only way one could reach that level was to become a branch chief, and the number of branch chiefs was very limited. Perhaps six months after Wineland had left to become a division chief, he asked me if I would transfer to his division and head up a new research branch he was forming. Of course I immediately assented. Shortly after that we went on vacation for a couple of weeks. When we returned I found that I had been transferred to his division and promoted, but then his division had been abolished and Wineland had been promoted to department chief. I had been retransferred back to my original division. For all of that I still had my coveted promotion. Although I never learned another detail of all this maneuvering, there is no doubt in my mind that Wineland, probably from his sense of fairness, saw to it that my promotion was not lost in the furor of reorganization.

In 1962 I was offered a job at the Office of Naval Research and could find out little about the difficulties or the possibilities, mainly because I didn’t know what questions to ask. I called Wineland to ask him for any advice he might have, and he said, “I know they have a rather formidable reputation, but I’ve had a number of dealings with ONR, and I’ve not found them to be such hot shots. I think there’s no doubt but what you can handle it. From what I’ve heard, it’s a good place to work; you’ll probably like it.”

Wineland became the associate director in charge of research at the Naval Ordnance Lab, and in the next fifteen years we talked business a few times and ran into each other at meetings here and there.

He retired a year or so before I did, and when he learned that I had retired, tried to enroll me in tutoring at the University of Maryland. For several years a small group of physicists had been operating a tutoring program for the physics students at Maryland. Each tutor works about one day per week, and the university supplies space and parking places and pays each of them $1 per year for the service. Wineland said that he found it very interesting to teach these young people and he was sure I would enjoy it also. I agreed that it sounded interesting but begged off for the time because of several things I was embroiled in.

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The minister at the memorial service spoke about how easy it was to communicate with Bill. I had never thought about it, but it was true. Unlike many people, he listened to you, he turned his attention to you when you spoke to him, and like many people of superior intellect, immediately comprehended what you were trying to say even if your presentation was a bit disorganized. He had the smart persons capability to leap to the crux of the matter and to listen to, and understand points of view in which he might not concur. On technical matters it never occurred to me to defer to his opinion unless I was convinced that he was right, and when I was working with him, we had many arguments about the details of the new field of operations research that we both were trying to understand. He was not defensive about his work, and though his minefield theory was somewhat responsible for his rapid professional advancement, he freely admitted its limitations.

When I heard the news of Bill’s death, I was surprised at the depth of my feeling of loss. After all I had seen him perhaps six times in the last twenty years and then in only the most casual encounters. Some two years ago Leah and I met Bill and his wife Fran at a Christmas party where we knew very few people and the four of us talked together most of the evening. That was the most I’d talked to him for at least 25 years and even that was merely party talk – the impersonal kind of conversation that I was accustomed to having with him.

It was only when I began reviewing my memories of him that I realized that the shape of my whole life would have been different had I not known him. It’s a strange feeling.

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Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Goudy Text; the initial is Lombardic. Cover stock is 80-lb. Beckett Brilliant. Text is Hammermill Bond. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 465 copies on a 10 x 15 C&P press at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770

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