by G. T. Kohman
SPOKEN LIKE A RESEARCH SCIENTIST
“When I took this job, I thought I knew it all,” said coach John Thompson. “After four years, I’ve found out how much I still don’t know, not how much I know.” – Washington Post, 12 March 1976.
THIS STORY BEGAN as the result of a letter to Mr. Jacob Warner commenting on his account of “Type Metal Blight” which appeared in the February Boxwooder. Two additional points, possibly of more general interest, (1) the influence of research on the state of our knowledge, and (2) the lifelike behavior of inanimate things, are included.
Research appears to raise more questions than are answered. The boundary between the known and the unknown is constantly expanding. This is probably fortunate as life as we know it would probably cease once we had all the answers. A president of a telephone company quotes an old story that more than a hundred years ago the head of the U.S. Patent Office suggested that it was time to close up shop. He felt that everything that could be invented had been invented. This was before automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radio, and television.
Lifelike Behavior of Things
AS reported in Boxwooder No. 37 the water molecule, one of the simplest, is still regarded as one of the most mysterious. As our knowledge of even the simplest things increases they appear to become more complex and the distinction between the animate and the inanimate becomes less sharp. For example, in the growth of crystals seeds are planted in a nutrient environment where the seeds grow and crystal growers speak of harvesting the crop. The quality of the crop depends on the quality of the seed planted. As described in the Bell Laboratories Record1 a crystal infection has been known to sabotage the growth process and spread to distant locations much like a bacterial infection until “sterilized” by the action of heat.
Crystals are employed in communications as policemen in directing traffic. They sometimes take on weight because of a “craving” for substances in their environment which interferes with their activity as policemen. Certain metals grow whiskers which are attractive but which sometimes cause trouble by becoming “entangled” with neighboring apparatus.
The telephone system was probably the first to become concerned with atmospheric pollution. It threatened to “paralyze” the “nerve centers” of the system in central offices. Certain pollutants result in the formation of barriers which disrupt the passage of signals in computer-like equipment. The action is much like the disruption of signals in the brain (the human computer) as in some forms of multiple sclerosis. The construction of the nerves which transmit signals to the brain is not unlike that of the conductors which transmit signals in central offices. They consist of a central core surrounded by a wrapping known as the myelin sheath which in the case of multiple sclerosis is destroyed, as sometimes happens in telephone cable failure.
Capacitors and Vitamins
THE telephone system depends on millions of paper capacitors, the premature failure of which in the past has resulted in a serious problem. Laboratory studies showed that in spite of their simple construction (metal foil electrodes separated by sheets of paper), capacitor life in some respects resembles human life. Residual moisture in the paper due to faulty processing was first suspected as a cause of short life, and tests clearly showed that traces of moisture were extremely effective in causing early failure. When this was reported to the manufacturing department, they were confused, and they showed data indicating that moisture had little or no effect on capacitor life. We were then confused until we were told that the tin foil electrodes formerly used had been replaced by less expensive aluminum foil. Laboratory studies then showed that traces of moisture actually prolonged the life of aluminum foil capacitors for the following reason: To decrease the size of capacitors the paper was impregnated with a chlorinated wax of high dielectric constant. Aluminum chloride was formed as a product of electrolytic action. This was found to be a catalyst for the action causing early failure. A trace of water converts the aluminum chloride into aluminum hydroxide which destroys the catalytic action.
This observation reopened laboratory study of the action of water. Examination of aluminum foil electrodes which had been under d.c. potential showed circular areas where the foil had been converted into a grey powder, suggesting a relationship to type metal blight described by Mr. Warner. Only one of the electrodes appeared to be attacked, suggesting the following simple explanation: During processing drops of wax fell on the paper sealing water in the pores of the paper. This appeared to be supported by a low electrical resistance in these areas and to confirm the electrolytic theory.
The laboratory report was prepared and was about to be released when it occurred to one of the investigators that the current flowing during the test was much too small to produce the powder. The test was then repeated under more carefully controlled conditions and the results added to the confusion. They showed that the action was just as often on the negative as on the positive foil. Further confusion resulted when powder was found on foils from capacitors which had no applied potential.
At a conference luncheon it was accidentally disclosed that the manufacturing department had found that the capacitor winding operation was improved if one coil from supplier A, which produced only aluminum foil, and one from supplier B, which also produced tin, copper, lead, and zinc foils, were used in the winding operation. Careful examination of the affected areas showed a small dark speck in the center of these areas. Spectroscopic examination revealed a high concentration of tin, copper, and zinc in these specks. Apparently, the aluminum foil from supplier B had been rolled on mills also used in the preparation of other metal foils. It was found that when particles of other metals were rolled on the surface of the foil from supplier A, powder would also form on this foil.
The story becomes more intriguing. Large differences in capacitor life were traced to capacitor paper composition. When trouble was experienced, it was the practice to call a conference, and tighter controls of paper purity were introduced until the paper was practically pure cellulose, but the trouble continued. Finally it appeared that certain impurities in paper, considered harmful, actually prolonged capacitor life by inhibiting the electrolytic action causing failure. It was embarrassing to find that what was regarded a low cost, low grade paper composed of wood pulp out-performed the more expensive, highly purified paper. This was traced to the presence of lignins in the wood pulp.
Another surprising result was traced to a change from a three- to a two-shift manufacturing schedule. This involved an overnight storage of partially processed capacitors for the next shift and was not regarded as a significant part of the process. Such capacitors, stored overnight in air ovens, were found to have longer lives than those not stored in ovens. This was traced to oxidation of the lignins by air in the ovens. This oxidation produced a compound, in the paper, related chemically to anthraquinone which is chemically related to a vitamin. This compound inhibits the action which shortens capacitor life. At present a large increase in capacitor life is obtained by the addition of a small amount of anthraquinone to the impregnating compound.2 This is now probably the largest use.
When these results were reported to our chemical director, Dr. R. R. Williams, who isolated vitamin B1 and who developed the process for its synthesis, he replied, “You have told me that capacitors need air to breathe, now you are telling me they need vitamins to prolong their lives. When will you be telling me they are beginning to reproduce themselves?”
WHILE these observations might suggest that the distinction between animate and inanimate is narrowing, it is unlikely that we need to be concerned by competition in the near future. Patent attorneys have stated that it is becoming difficult to determine whether the patent should be assigned to the computer or to the individual who feeds the information into the computer. An inventor takes information from texts or from literature and feeds it into the human computer (the brain), and the brain comes up with an invention, so the problem might be real.
It has also been suggested that we might be waging a losing battle with the machines we produce. These machines are polluting the atmosphere and our bodies of water. Unless we control them they could ultimately destroy us or force us to leave this planet and seek refuge on more friendly planets or on artificial satellites in outer space. Such artificial planets have been designed and are regarded by some to be a practical solution of a future problem. It has also been suggested that in the distant future our earth might become a polluted manufacturing plant to supply the needs of future colonies forced to leave the earth, if we do not control pollution.
U Thant,3 Secretary General of the United Nations, in 1969 stated that if we do not control the problems of environment, population explosion, and similar problems in the next ten years, they could be beyond our capacity to control.
While this story might resemble science fiction, it is based generally on fact. Possibly the imagination has been taxed in some respects in suggesting what might happen in the future. The excuse for writing the story is the possible relation of the capacitor problem, which has been solved, to Mr. Warner’s type metal blight problem. Perhaps a slight change in type metal composition or the addition of a chemical like anthraquinone to printer’s ink might eliminate type metal blight.
1Bell Laboratories Record, Vol. 28, 13 (1950).
2Ind. & Engr. Chem., 44, 135, 1952.
3The Limits to Growth (New American Library) page 21.
Afterword – The Image of the Scientist
by Jacob L. Warner
SCIENTISTS project themselves as cool, impartial seekers of knowledge who proceed logically from step to step until the problem is solved. There may have been reasons for projection, but it is quite false, and it does a disservice to science.
Scientific research, whether it is basic fundamental research or applied research such as that described by Dr. Kohman, normally proceeds very much as he has related it in the above article. The scientist discovers one incomprehensible situation after another and is often vastly surprised at the results of his investigations. Intelligence, flashes of insight, intuition, and even chance play important roles in his work. It is fun. Part of the scientist’s fun is to report his results in a journal in a deadpan, cut and dried manner.
The truth is, of course, known to his colleagues. The main objections that I have for the false image is that it (1) discourages students who need to see that the work is not a deadly bore but is exciting and challenging, and (2) it alienates the scientists from intelligent laymen.
For some reason, maybe pedagogical, science textbooks gloss over the paucity of our knowledge, and the undergraduate student may have no suspicion that the subject is not as dead as King Tut. He may perceive that physics has all been done, and it’s now only a matter of rote. It may well be that before he finds out that the field is full of fascinating puzzles, he has completely lost interest in it. Until I had some experience as a “manager” of research, I had no notion that there were so many apparently simple things about which we know almost nothing. In modern elementary schools they may attempt to arouse interest in science by determining the boiling point of water by majority vote of the class. I think it would be better to watch a pan of water come to a boil and try to convey to the class what a mysterious thing this action is.
The scientist is perceived by the public, including intelligent laymen, as something not quite human. For a brief period after World War II, science became our sacred cow, and scientists enjoyed very high prestige, approaching that now lavished on medical doctors. But the time has come when scientists have begun to need to be understood by a public that shows clear flashes of anti-science attitudes.
In about one generation we have gone from “mad scientists” in horror movies, through technological saviors, to environmental despoilers. The sacred cow is no longer science, and scientists ought to be trying to inform and to enlist the aid and sympathy of the public whose good opinion may be necessary for the support of a reasonable level for future research.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display types are Glamour Medium and News Gothic. Initials are Fournier. Inks are Van Son Ivy-Mint and 40904 Blac.k Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a IOx15 C&P press.
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