My Father's Stories

My dad graduated from Cal Tech in 1959 and his professional career as an employee spanned from 1959 to 1976. Over that period he was involved in a lot of interesting work, and over my childhood he'd share lots of stories. Some of his stories were about life in college also.

The probe to capture and return a sample of the upper atmosphere (20100916)
Some time in the 1960's, before we knew much about space and the upper atmosphere, there was a desire to learn about what conditions were like in these new places (low earth orbit, high upper atmosphere). There was a project to send up a rocket that would go high up, 50+ miles, and in the nose of the rocket a window would open up. This would expose a supercooled surface designed to grab atmospheric molecules and cool them down enough so they'd either turn liquid or solidify against the plate. Then some time later the window would close and the sample would be sealed, and the payload would detach from the rocket and parachute down to be recovered later, and then scientists could examine the captured sample.

The project was moving forward, the design was continuing, when a wrench was thrown in the works. Some professor at some college, a PHD or whatever, had done some analysis and his conclusion was that the cooling capacity of the capture apparatus was not sufficient. He claimed what would happen was the volume of air captured would be so great it would boil all the coolant and so no sample would remain. A lot of money and time had gone into the project, and careers were perhaps at stake here. So a meeting was called to evaluate the situation. My father was sent to attend this meeting.

Now the way my dad tells the story he had just started work at some new place and didn't yet have a definite assignment. So to keep busy he would nose around, see what other people were doing, and come up with physics questions to work on. It turned out related to the very question of the heat capacity of the cold capture apparatus and the density of the upper atmosphere, my dad had just so happaned to work out some math that was very similiar to what the professor had used to do his analysis. So when he presented his argument, my father had a good background in the physics involved, so he had a well informed opinion on the matter.

So my father objected to the analysis. He pointed out that the professor had made an approximation in his estimate of the density of the air at the upper atmosphere. The rocket would be shot up in a mostly vertical trajectory, and at some point the window would open to collect the sample. But after it was open, the rocket would continue to rise higher into the atmosphere, and the air would continue to thin out more and more. My dad pointed out that the professor's analysis didn't take into account the decrease of the atmosphere due to the increase in altitude. His analysis assumed the density of the atmosphere remained a constant from the instant the window was opened.

This approximation turned out to be a huge exaggeration of the actual amount of heat the captured sample would contain. If a more accurate model was used (which my dad provided) there was no evidence there would be any problem at all, the cooling capacity of the capture apparatus was completely up to the task.

After that meeting my father's analysis was accepted as a more accurate model. His reputation, a young punk fresh out of college, soared. Evidently the professor's reputation suffered. My father was proud of his contribution to that episode, that's probably why he told the story.

The paddle toy at Caltech(20100916)
Sometime in the late 1950's while my dad was attending Caltech someone brought in a toy that may have just been invented (lots of things we take for granted now had to have been brand new at some point). It was a wooden paddle with a piece of rubber string attached to a rubber ball. You'd try to hit the ball repeatedly as many times as possible before you messed up and it went wild.

Anyone could play with the paddle, say between classes. A policy got adopted where you'd keep count of the number of times you could hit the ball before messing up, and if you beat the previous count you'd write it down on the paddle itself. My dad tells how the numbers on the paddle grew, in a sequence like this: 5, 6, 8, 12, 19, 35, 95, 472, 3900, 15446. The joke being that the guys got so good at doing it so fast they could keep it going for longer and longer times.

The Soviet missile telemetry data(20100916)
Back in the 1960's again my father was involved in analysizing captured telemetry data from Soviet missile tests. The USA had operatives (spies) in the vicinity of the missile tests with recording apparatus to pick up the radio signals sent back from the Soviet rockets. When you're building these things you want to have live measurements of whatever you possibly can, in order to get feedback on whether you're building the thing right. There is a reason why, "It isn't rocket science," exists, it's because rocket science is horrendously complicated (compared to other things I guess). When the thing you're working on often explodes at some point, it's really useful to get as much information as possible as to what's going on, so you can learn as much as you can from every (very expensive) rocket launch test.

Nowadays everyone is familiar with the Black Box recorder on every airplane that is essentially indestructable and it records all sorts of live information about the airplane and the communications. When a plane crashes they always try to recover the black box and analyze the data recovered to try to figure out what went wrong. It's the same concept. Only there was not necessarily an on-flight recorder on the rockets being tested. Rather, the data that was interesting was just radioed back to ground stations and they would record it for analysis later.

So if the Soviets could record the data, why couldn't US spies? That was the thinking. So the US would snoop in on the data and bring it back to the USA for analysis. This was the cold war, the USA was paranoid about the Soviets pulling ahead in technology (in nuclear weapons and rockets especially, for obvious reasons). My dad was one of the people that was tasked with analyzing the captured telemetry data from the Soviet missile tests.

Now my dad describes it has having just big lists of numbers, all entered into computer such that they could be analyzed. The goal was to make sense of the numbers. There was no manual to consult as to what the numbers meant. It was all one of the early examples of reverse engineering. Trying to figure out how things work by taking them apart and examining them. My dad said that at the time people trying to analyze the data were just staring at the numbers, or running compuations on them to produce single numbers as output. For example if you have two lists of numbers, you might see if they correlate in any way, and in the end you get some number, say between 0% (no correlation) and 100% (full correlation). But the end result would be some number that would give the researcher feedback as to whether his guess was right or not.

My dad said he was one of the first to take the approach of graphing everything. He wrote computer code to take these lists of numbers and plot then on a sheet of paper, so you could visually look at how different groups of numbers could compare. My dad said that was a very powerful approach to knowing when things were related. He was able to figure out what almost all the numbers meant. He was very proud of his work on this and of his achievements.

He tells of one particular case where he managed to figure out one set of numbers was a measurement of the acceleration of the rocket, and another was of the fuel flow, and still another was of the level in the fuel tank. He tells that when he worked out these relationships he was so excited he ran and told some of his colleagues of his discovery. He was actually able to work out the shape of the fuel tank used in the rocket, something completely miraculous when you think about it. Now as he continued his analysis of this particular missile, the question came up as to what its range was.

The Soviets had only fired this particular rocket for short distances, maybe a few hundred miles at most. My dad used his analysis of the fuel tank and its capacity to estimate that the missile had a range of some 3,000 miles. Other groups analyzing the same data were far more conservative, they came up with estimates of around 500 miles. The superiors at my dad's company were even a bit skeptical about his estimate, they didn't want to stick the company's neck out too far, but in the end the company decided to back my dad's prediction and pass it upwards to the government. Because it was so far out of range compared to the other estimates, there was some amount of professional ribbing that took place. When you think about it, that's really a disgusting thing, but there it is. How honest is science, really, when if you go against the collective you subject yourself to ridicule and derision?

Anyway the prediction stood, and then some short time later, luck would have it the Soviets fired a test of the very same rocket and it went 3,100 miles before crashing into the ocean. My dad's prediction was spot on. His reputation was made, the company was in great shape (as regards getting further government contracts of similiar nature). Big success all around. And once again the competitors were somewhat humiliated.

My dad says the window of being able to analyze the captured Soviet telemetry data was very narrow, shortly after that they started encrypting the data so the numbers seemed just random garbage. The USA might have continued on with analyzing the data, but it might have moved into the realm of the super secret and my dad's involvement went away. I think later my dad once speculated that perhaps all his work was cover, maybe everything the government had claimed to want to know about the Soviet missiles might have been known already from spies among the Soviet scientists themselves, but in order to protect the sources of this information the government had to provide a plausable other means by which the USA could have acquired it. Who knows?

The bug on the street(20101026)
My father was with his friend Wayne, probably the two of them were under 20 years old. There was a strange looking bug on the sidewalk and they got down close to it to look at it. A woman walked by and said, "What are you doing to that bug? Leave that poor bug alone!" My dad said, "Lady if you don't get the hell out of here I'm going to step on it."

Endless big bangs, at some incredibly far future date everything will repeat (20110914)
One time my sister Cassie, I and my dad were walking along, I was probably around 10 years old. He talked about how according to the Big Bang theory the whole universe began as a point of super dense matter and exploded out in all directions, and gradually became galaxies and stars and planets and us. And the theory predicted at some point the expansion would reverse and it would all fall back in on itself and end in an infinitely dense point again.

He said that "Isn't it likely that instead of this cycle only happening one time, it would happen again and again, forever?" Then he said that if it did keep repeating again and again, there would come a point way, way in the future exactly like this moment now, where the three of us would be walking along and we'd be talking about this very thing again.

Finite Impulse Response(20120712)
My dad said that if you take a sequence of numbers that represent samples of some analog value captured at regular intervals, you can perform any filtering function, or perhaps any function at all, on the sequence if you have a table of weightings (in theory of infinite length) for each sample. That is, if S(0) is the current sample, and S(1) is the sample 1 unit of time ago, and S(2) is the sample 2 units of time ago (and so on), and A(n) is the weighting for S(n), you compute

for each successive sample. Your output could be any filter function you want. The weightings are constant values for any particular filter behaviour. Things like echo creation (or cancellation) can be done with this approach.

He observed that the real world acts as a filter, such as the acoustic behaviour of a large auditorium. His idea was if your input signal is a "pop", like a gunshot, if you sample the resultant sound you will be getting the A(n) values one after another. This is because in this situation when the gunshot goes off S(0) is non-zero but all other S() are zero. Then for the next sample S(1) is non-zero and all other S() are zero. That gunshot impulse moves back through the samples, and so our summation only has a single non-zero element, and these are just the sequential values A(n) one after another.

His idea was to capture such a response from a loud sound pop source in a big auditorium and so determine the precise acoustic properties of the space. I think his idea was to then be able to compensate for the introduced errors (echoes and whatnot) to improve the quality somehow.

It occurs to me one could take such information and reproduce in a home theater system the effect of being at any famous hall.

The Tape Recorder My Dad Built
Voltage regulation, regulators that take current into account can regulate voltage exactly
Recovered Soviet Submarine
The plotting program
Biofeedback and how a person can make any neuron spike
Any function can be broken down into a sum of sine waves, or any repeating function, of different frequencies
Ball that bounced higher and higher, french curve that is always horizontal at bottom point
Spinning in space, stars wink out, does centrifugal force vanish
Error in printing out program listing, dumping box after box of cards into recycling bin
Assertion that matter doesn't curve space, matter is the curvature of space
Spinning worm in space appears to defy conservation of angular momentum
Learning how to program, seeing "A=A+1" and thinking, "Aha! That's the problem!"
In theater, Wayne pretending to be usher, "Ok everyone! Blow up your balloons!"
In theater, pouring popcorn cup into mouth and getting lip full of salt
Senior ditch day, stupid freshman rigging sink with water balloon and messing it up
Stuffing the freshman in a barrel, sticking a broom handle through and turning the shower on
You can't go from 0 to 15 mph in one step, about my dad's car that couldn't go fast
Car in gas station, trying to get transmission to engage, and someone pulling in front
Fire on the motorcycle, "Throw down a wet blanket!"
Senior ditch day, freshman got rid of a dropout defending a room by spraying ammonia through the keyhole
Hector vs Achilles
The torpedo that needs to explode right under the ship's keel, could have milked DOD
"No known mechanism for wear", related to a handbook on bearings.
Warning about buying a stock as it crashes all the way down, you can become the market
Story of the auction he attended, overpaid for a calculator
Michael Chen coming by with a big program listing printout, asking, "See anything wrong with this?"
Ball that bounced higher each time, but got colder, suckered fellow Caltech student
He asserted oil from oil sands (shale?) could never be extracted profitably

Let Me Say This About That (20140220)

My dad participated in a mock trial when his friend Don Stern was in law school. This would have been some time in the late 1970's. There was a mock trial and Don asked my dad to be one of the witnesses. When my dad got onto the witness stand, at one point when he was asked a question he said, "Let me say this about that." That was a common expression Richard Nixon would say. He looked at Don, and Don at one point waved his hand over his on head, meaning the reference (and joke) had passed right over their heads.

Drunk woman my dad saw on the street when he was a kid
Access count (e^i)