Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg
By Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg
Consultant, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
December 10, 2015
Yvonne Koshland and Daniel Koshland Jr. at Forest Lodge,
Greenville, California. May 2007
For sixteen years, 1991 to 2007, scarcely a month went by that I did not hear from Dr. Dan Koshland. His usual opening to me was “Bill, you have to look at this problem. There just has to be a better solution.….” Then we would start tossing bizarre ideas at each other. That sometimes meant that I would be heading to the field to do an experiment that would have the experts shaking their heads -- or sneering. There was another side to Dan Koshland in addition to his major contributions to the forefronts of science that are widely covered in the many memorials to him. I try to cover a little of the “other side” in this memoir.
I would not have attempted the most bizarre experiments late in my career without the prodding from Dan Koshland and the power of publication in the great scientific journal, Science, of which he was the editor in Chief for many years. Here I pay tribute to Dan Koshland with an account of some of the technical adventures that he challenged me to pursue -- and that he later insisted should be published. The results were not scientific breakthroughs. However, the experiments described herein carried a message that he wanted young scientists to see and hear.
Dan Koshland often commented to me that he was acutely aware that a single page in the prestigious journal Science that he edited could greatly accelerate a young scientist’s career. As described herein, he was not bashful about using the persuasions of the editor of a major scientific journal to motivate scientific efforts and experiments that he believed should be explored.
I came to believe that Dan Koshland spent time with me because he was constantly seeking examples that would motivate other scientists to think “out of the box” and attack real world problems with the scientific tools they invented. The technical adventures he pushed me into are posted at www.wattenburg.us . None of these experiments or inventions were earth shaking. But some were “out of the box” solutions to major worldly problems that defied the predictions of the experts. This is what he wanted young scientists to witness.
Out of the Box Solutions p8
The first meeting with Dr. Dan Koshland p9
Putting Out the Kuwait Old Wells Fires 1991 p13
The Sour Grapes Part of the Kuwait Oil Wells Fires Story, page 44
The London Zoo p17
Fluorescent Barriers to Infiltration p19 (Science, 2 Dec 1994)
The Flatcar Modular Freeway Bridge p23 (Science, 14 April 1995)
The Rest of the Flatcar Bridge Story, page 30
Don’t Expect a Pat on the Back p27
CORTEX Revisited and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty p28
Great Mentors in Science p35
Berkeley Scientific Laboratories p38
Diversity the Easy Way at Berkeley Scientific p40
A Strange Adventure in the Oil Industry p 47
Added Safety for Deep Water Drilling and Nuclear Plants p49
Publications by Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg pp 50-53
Dr. Daniel Koshland Jr. held positions of great importance and persuasion in science. He was a senior professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was the editor in chief of Science Magazine for the years that I knew him. Late in my career, he taught me some lessons that I should have appreciated much earlier. He led me into technical challenges that I would never have considered without his encouragement. His compelling challenge still rings in my ears: “Bill, there has to be a better solution. What they are doing is just too damn complicated …..go find a sensible solution. I will see that the world knows about it…”
Dan Koshland loved to challenge the dogma of “professionals” and bureaucrats alike who refused to consider challenging new ideas or attempt bizarre experiments. He often told me: “We have to push our young scientists to try unorthodox ideas. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck in the goo of old boy’s dogma all their lives.”
My technical adventures with Dan Koshland began with the raging oil well fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991 and progressed in 1995 to building (of all things for a biochemist and a nuclear scientist) a modular four-lane freeway bridge that could be erected most anywhere in a few days to open freeways damaged by earthquakes or floods (and give third world countries a bridge they could afford). In 1991, the oil well fire experts of the world said it would take five years to put out the more than 500 oil well fires burning in Kuwait that were spewing black smoke into the atmosphere. Many called it the world’s greatest environmental disaster. Who would believe that a bunch of amateurs could be organized to cap all the burning wells in seven months? Who would believe that you could build an enormous four-lane freeway bridge out of old railroad flatcar decks – and install the bridge in two days time to open the busiest freeway on the west coast? Dan Koshland believed something different could be done. And he was right.
In July 2007, I was working on a field experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to detect the roadside bombs that terrorists were using to kill our soldiers in the middle east. A friend arrived and told me that he had heard on the morning news that Dan Koshland had died. My knees buckled in disbelief. Only a few weeks earlier I had enjoyed the company of Dan and his lovely wife Yvonne and other colleagues at a mountain retreat in northern California. For several years I have put his passing out of my mind and pretended that the phone would ring again one day and he would be challenging me to attack another technical problem that frustrated the experts. His inspiration is with me every time I see an unsolved problem that would be worthy of his attention.
An aside: Added Safety for Deep Water Drilling and Nuclear Plant Operation
After Dan Koshland died, I decided to attack two of the great technical tragedies of the decade: the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear accident. I began, Dan Koshland style, by revisiting and examining everything that the experts had ignored – everything out of the box. Indeed, I discovered that the obvious had been overlooked. I was guilty of some of it as an early advisor on nuclear plant safety in the sixties. There are inexpensive but significant improvements to the safety of deep water drilling and nuclear power plant operation using only inexpensive, existing infrastructure. These purported solutions are mentioned briefly in the last section in this memoir. Patent applications have been filed on both. The patent for the drilling solution has been granted (U.S. Patent 8042615 B1, 10-25-11). The nuclear plant safety design is pending. (I have assigned all of my national security patents to the university or the government. I ask only that they make a minimal effort to exploit them.)
I am convinced that Dan Koshland would be pushing government agencies and industry alike to test both of these solutions if he were alive today. The experiments are easy to do. In fact, the tests required are less difficult or expensive to carry out than the construction of the first Modular Freeway Bridge described in sections below. (See Science, v268, 14 April 1995, pp 261-262). All equipment required is available. No nuclear plant or drilling operation need be interrupted to do the tests. The cost of testing these designs is trivial compared to the horrible consequences of another major oil spill or nuclear accident (which will happen with greater frequency in the more than 400 aging nuclear plants around the world.) However, as usual, the industry experts in oil well drilling and nuclear plant design will have nothing to do with anything that would change the status quo.
l share some of Dan Koshland’s wisdom and style with anyone who has
ever felt intimidated by the experts in any field who say there
is not a better solution to a chronic technical problem just
because the “experts” have not solved it. Dan Koshland had
no patience for that.
of the Box Solutions
I first met Dan Koshland in March 1991, a few weeks after the end of the first Gulf War. I was working with colleagues in the physics “A Division” at the U.C. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory when the director’s office told me that Dan Koshland was trying to contact me. I wondered why in the world the editor in chief of Science Magazine would be calling me. I returned his call immediately.
He asked me to join him in his Berkeley office the next day. I asked him why. He said he had been told that I was a nuclear weapons designer in the group led by Dr. Edward Teller at Livermore and that I was still doing experiments on non-nuclear things at the Nevada Test Site (this was after the nuclear test ban). He had heard about a Helicopter Mine Sweeper that I had recently designed and field tested to remove the danger of land mines for soldiers and civilians alike in the Gulf War. He said he wanted to know more about it. He also wanted to talk to me about the 500 oil well fires burning in Kuwait after the defeated Iraq army had set the Kuwait oil fields on fire a few weeks earlier. The fires were being touted as the “world’s greatest environmental disaster” because the oil well fire experts announced that it would take up to five years to extinguish them all. As editor in chief of Science, he was being bombarded with requests to publish bright ideas on how to put out the oil well fires. He was properly skeptical of most. He wanted my opinions on the fire-snuffing ideas submitted to Science. I was already overloaded by the time I put the phone down.
As soon as I entered his office in the Molecular Biology building at U.C. Berkeley, Dan Koshland surprised me with the greeting: “I hear you are a real pain in the butt to officials at the University (California) and Washington as well.” I tried to shrug off the subject. But he warmed my heart with: “I think that’s great. Someone needs to kick their swivel chairs once in a while.”
I was standing before him wondering how he had learned about some of my exploits. Then he bluntly asked me why I had never published my invention of the simple technology for measuring the yield of underground nuclear tests known as CORTEX. I was taken aback a bit because my CORTEX experiment was in 1962, thirty years earlier. To my knowledge, it was of no interest to anyone in 1991. He explained that he was approached recently by an historian in Washington who was documenting the history of nuclear weapons test ban treaties. The historian told Dan Koshland that my development of the CORTEX technology in 1962 was an important reason why the U.S agreed to the first limited test ban treaty. I explained to Dan that the nuclear tests I did and my Livermore Laboratory report on the CORTEX experiments in 1962 were still classified almost thirty years later -- and that I had been a young and na´ve assistant professor on the Berkeley faculty who did not know how to get credit for such things at the time. Later I was just too busy with new adventures to worry about it.
Nevertheless, before we got on to the burning oil wells in Kuwait subject, he wanted me to confirm the story the historian had told him about how the “ experts” in nuclear test diagnostics at the Livermore Lab did not want me to waste resources on the silly CORTEX experiment I proposed in 1962. He wanted to know if it was true that (in spite of the reluctant experts) I piggybacked the first CORTEX experiment on a nuclear warhead test (code named Anacostia) at the last minute using electronics that I borrowed from a Las Vegas TV station. That was true and well documented in the classified files. He wanted to publish this in Science. To him, it was a lesson for other young scientists of what could be done if you don’t listen to the “experts” who tell you something cannot be done. I begged off with the suggestion that all he had to do was convince the Department of Energy and the Pentagon to de-classify the official 1962 CORTEX report in the files at the Livermore National Laboratory. He finally relented after I explained to him that even I no longer had the “need to know” required to read my classified technical report from 1962. (The director of the laboratory, John Nuckolls, authorized the release of a heavily redacted copy of the CORTEX report the following year.)
I spent the next three hours that afternoon in Dan Koshland’s office reading the “how to put out the oil well fires in Kuwait” submissions for Science that were stacked up on his desk. I explained to him that most of the well-meaning authors did not understand that the real problem was not putting out the flames roaring out of the damaged well heads. The real problem was stopping the flow of raw oil and gas, that is, capping the well head (broken riser pipe) very quickly after the fire is snuffed out for a few moments with explosive charges. You create a much bigger problem if you put out the flames burning the crude oil and gas belching out of the broken well but do not stop the flow of oil and gas immediately. If the oil continues flowing, the area around the well becomes an impassible pond of crude oil covering bubbles of explosive gas which makes it very dangerous for workmen to approach the well later. There were already many of these “cold wells” to deal with. (Some of the few American military fatalities in the short Gulf War happened when four service members tried to drive a jeep through a pool of oil. The gas trapped beneath the oil ignited and engulfed them in flames).
At the end of the day, Dan Koshland looked at me and said sternly: “Bill, you must go over there and help them.”
Again, I tried to beg off. Five months earlier I had set aside all my physics projects at Livermore to build and test the helicopter minesweeper for the Gulf War that was surely going to happen. I knew absolutely nothing about putting out oil well fires.
Then Dan Koshland told me about a meeting being arranged to solve the oil well fires problem. One week after the Gulf War ended in February 1991, Dr. Richard Garwin, a world renowned scientist and an IBM Fellow, began organizing top U.S. scientists and oil industry representatives to help the Kuwaiti government put out the 500 or more oil well fires that were raging in Kuwait. They planned to meet in Washington, DC, April 2-3, 1991. The meeting was supported by the McArthur Foundation ( see Kuwait Oil Well Fires at www.wattenburg.us ). The meeting would be chaired by Dr. Garwin and Dr. Henry Kendall, MIT, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Top officials and engineers from the Kuwaiti Oil Company (KOC) would attend the meeting.
Curiously, when I got back to the Livermore Lab the next day, the laboratory associate director for engineering called me into his office (for the first time in years) and asked me to go to this Washington meeting on the Kuwait oil well fires as a representative of the Livermore Lab. I asked him if he knew Dan Koshland. He smiled and answered: “Who doesn’t?”
I attended the Washington meeting in April 1991. I was asked to give a talk on how we had developed at Livermore a system to remove land mines and bobby-traps in the desert using a heavy lift helicopter that dragged a collection of digging knives over the ground to dislodge and/or explode land mines. We called it the “Chain Matrix.” The Chain Matrix was tethered on the end of a 500 ft. cable to keep the helicopter far away from the exploding mines on the ground that were dug up by the chain matrix ( see the field tests over live minefields at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fi5wPz8KWnU .
Meetings with the Kuwaiti royalty and their engineers from the Kuwait Oil Company took place in their spacious London hotel. However, I was never allowed to talk directly with Kuwait royalty. A highly educated Kuwaiti prince and an Egyptian engineer were my nightly contacts (daytime work was forbidden because it was Ramada). Our technical conclusions of one night were generally put into action in Kuwait the following day. I wrote numerous operational memos for their engineers in Kuwait. Copies of these memos were faxed to the Livermore National Lab and the U..S. Department of Energy.
Firefighting teams from many nations submitted proposals to attack the fires immediately. The toughest job for me was making sure they understood the real job they had to do and tell them how to avoid the dangers of the land mines and bobby traps that the Iraqi army had planted around the oil wells as they retreated from Kuwait. Fortunately, the experiments we had done at the Livermore Lab and the Yuma Army Proving Grounds in 1990 in preparation for the Gulf War provided workable solutions to remove the booby traps around the burning oil wells.
We formulated a plan that gave each national team a piece of the multi-billion dollar pie - and some real incentive. I suggested $500,000 for each well they capped. Each team should be given a territory and a specified number of wells to be capped each month. If they did not meet their quota in a specified time, their territory should be given to another team. The rest is history. The last oil well fire was extinguished seven months later (see the press reports and the university report at
A few days after I returned home from London, reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post called me about my involvement in the Kuwait oil well fires. They had all the inside details from the Kuwait Oil Company engineers in London who were already happy with the progress in the first few weeks. There wasn’t a lot to brag about on the technical side. I simply confirmed the optimism they were getting from the Kuwait officials.
The first paper I published in Science was not about the Kuwait oil well fires. It was a letter in 1994 describing how harmless, inexpensive fluorescent material can be used to “tag” infiltrators crossing most any ground border area. And indeed, it did not please some junior editors at Science.
Around February 1993, Dan Koshland invited me to join him and other senior professors at the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Club for lunch. I was on the Berkeley campus as a guest lecturer that day. Dan and his colleagues were discussing the problem of catching and stopping the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants streaming over the southern border of the U.S. He hailed me to join them at the long table. I was confronted immediately with “Bill, there must be some way other than using armed soldiers, dogs, and helicopters to intercept the illegals.”
I hesitated to respond because there was one senior faculty member present who had no great love for me as a nuclear weapons designer -- or the military in general. Nevertheless, I proceeded to describe a “fluorescent tagging” experiment I had done almost thirty years earlier during the Vietnam war when I was a member of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. The Pentagon desire at the time was to find a way to identify enemy combatants who came down the Ho Chi Min Trail which was a main supply route for the North Vietnamese army in South Vietnam. The scheme I proposed required laying down invisible fluorescent material on certain areas of the Ho Chi Min trail such that infiltrators would pick up some of the material on their clothes. At selected checkpoints, UV lights could be used to excite the fluorescent tags on the infiltrators as they passed by at night. An experiment was done with soldiers marching through a grassy field south of San Francisco. The Pentagon wanted to try it on the Ho Chi Min trial, but the war ended before any significant “fluorescent tagging” operation could be attempted.
In the 1968 experiment for the Pentagon, staff members of Sylvania Corporation supplied UV spotlights and fluorescent materials to set up an experiment in a grassy field south of San Francisco. We sprinkled a harmless fluorescent material ( I recall it was a borate compound used as a flame retardant on forest fires) on the grass and ground in a 3 meter wide band across the field to represent a border area. Service members in uniform marched through the border at night. We scanned them with UV spotlights at a distance of 100 and 200 feet. In both cases, it was easy to identify them by the sparkling fluorescent material that had stuck to their clothing and shoes.
To my pleasant surprise, two famous professors at the faculty club table (one with a Nobel Prize in physics) latched onto the idea with some enthusiasm. One of them commented loudly: “Hell, that sure beats shooting or turning dogs onto illegals whose only crime is that they want a job in the U.S.” A chemistry professor began listing numerous fluorescent materials that might be used for this purpose. I sat back and took mental notes of all the interesting materials I had not considered in my early experiment. Naturally, Dan Koshland insisted I had to revisit the idea and do some more experiments. This meant that, once again, I had to interrupt my work underway at the Livermore Lab and embark on another adventure.
So, in 1993, Livermore Lab staff members and I resurrected my 1968 fluorescent tagging experiments to test a wide variety of fluorescent materials. A number of relatively harmless materials proved to be of great utility. One surprise was that ordinary clothes washing detergent was a strong fluorescence emitter (that is why our clothes sparkle in sunlight).
In 1993, UV lasers and scanners were available which allowed effective scanning of areas at much greater distances and during daylight. In the 26 August, 1994 Science letter, I pointed out that oil and gas exploration companies were using UV lasers mounted in airborne platforms to scan vast areas for surface minerals that provided clues to fossil fuel deposits. These same airborne systems could be used to scan large sections of our southern border for infiltrators who passed through fluorescent barriers along the border.
To be sure, I expected a backlash from those who opposed any interdiction of illegal immigrants. Science soon published an assault from an academic who called this idea “chemical warfare” against human beings that was akin to the Holocaust. I responded in a Science letter, 2 December 1994, p 1461, that she should scold the Israelis for daring to consider the fluorescent tagging scheme to capture infiltrators instead of simply shooting them.
The next technical adventure that Dan Koshland, the biochemist, pushed me into was the design of a modular, four-lane freeway bridge made out of surplus railroad flatcar decks, of all the things that a biochemist and a nuclear physicist should be doing. It was another example of Dan Koshland’s insight into “something is missing here.” The bridge that resulted is a bizarre “four-lane freeway bridge kit” made out of surplus rail road flatcar decks connected like LEGO blocks without exotic fasteners or welding. Two men with a cutting torch and a 15-ton crane can put the bridge up at most any level site in two days. It embarrassed a lot of structural engineers who said that such a temporary freeway bridge could not be built. After it was built, tested, and actually used to open the major west coast freeway, I-5, after a flood, the design was published in Science Magazine -- “A Modular Steel Freeway Design Concept and Earthquake Resistance,” Science, v268, 14 April 1995, pp 261-262. The modular flatcar freeway bridge was just an ugly duckling, too simple and not expensive enough to be worth the experts’ attention.
The freeway bridge was constructed out of surplus rail road flatcar decks which are typically 10 ft wide, 55 ft long steel modules designed over many decades to be virtually indestructible so they can survive derailments without serious damage. A railroad flatcar deck is not attached to the axles and wheels under it. The deck simply sits on top of the axles. Anyone with a 15 ton crane can pick a flatcar deck off of its wheels and go down the road with it.
The freeway bridge design connected ten flatcar decks like LEGO blocks to make a high four lane bridge that can withstand more load and shaking than a standard rigid concrete bridge costing many times more. The nice feature for impoverished areas is that the flatcar bridge can be installed most anywhere by two men with a cutting torch and a small crane. And it is virtually indestructible. If a flood or earthquake knocks it down, you simply pick up the flatcar decks and put the bridge back together again. This is shown in clever pictorial form in the 14 April 1995, pp 261-262, Science article.
As reported in Science, it turned out that there was some good science discovered in the flatcar modular bridge project. Very complex computer simulations carried out on Livermore’s super computers by Dr. David McCallen and his team at Livermore proved that this “temporary bridge” made out of modular steel sections with loose, but robust connections was stronger and more resilient than any “permanent” reinforced concrete freeway bridge that the experts had ever designed. The flatcar bridge could be shaken by a strong earthquake without cracking or breaking. If it is ever knocked over, you just pick up the pieces and put it back up. You can leave it up forever if you just gave it a paint job to look like something more exotic and expensive.
In the Science article, 14 April 1995, p279, the Science staff shows the bridge assembly process in very clever pictorial form. The Science description is so good that nothing more has been needed by others to build copies of the bridge all over the world. Many have told me how easy it was after they actually constructed the flatcar bridge.
This surprisingly strong and inexpensive 26-ft high, free-standing flatcar bridge has since been used all over the world in areas to open up travel for people who cannot afford the standard multi-million-dollar poured-in-place concrete/steel structures designed by structural engineering firms.
A short nine months after the first prototype was built and tested by a CALTRANS contractor, the “insolvable problem” caught up with the out-of-the-box solution waiting for its mate to arrive. A flood destroyed twin bridges in the I-5 freeway in central California. The I-5 is the major north-south freeway on the west coast. The economy of California was taking a big hit. The California Department of Transportation transported the flatcar bridge kit to the site and erected it in three day’s time. The I-5 freeway was opened to full traffic flow on the fourth day. (The bridge installation operation was covered by around the clock international television.) Over the next three months, two new standard concrete bridges were constructed on either side of the busy flatcar bridge.
(see The Rest of the Modular Freeway Bridge Story, p 30, and read about an uncommon public official.)
I once complained to Dan Koshland that the structural engineering and freeway design technical journals had not even mentioned the Modular Freeway Bridge that had been so successful in opening the I-5 freeway. Dan Koshland gave me some words of wisdom about the rewards of thinking “out of the box,” in particular, finding solutions to problems that embarrass the experts in any field. His summary: “Don’t expect them to pat you on the back. Don’t expect any recognition or awards from them or in their technical journals -- that is, unless what you did is so earth shaking that the Nobel committee calls you. Just rest assured that others will do better because you showed them the way.”
next lesson the Dan Koshland taught me minimized the irritation of
his first warning that “experts” in a field will never give you
credit if you upstage them with something “out of the box” that
they should have tried. He told me: “You
can expect many others to come up with new or better solutions to a
problem if you open the gate out of the box and show them it can be
done. That alone is great satisfaction.” And,
indeed, this has been the case with most of the unorthodox
solutions I have found in other people’s fields. This was the
reason why I did not submit a lot of work for publication in top
journals. I relaxed with
Dan Koshland decided that some of my work described herein should be published. I was lucky. He thought it was more important than I did. Indeed, there was some pushback from junior editors at Science who did not think that subjects such as the “Fluorescent Barriers to Infiltration” and the “Modular Bridge” were leading edge science appropriate for the journal. But, Dan Koshland insisted that new and significant technical solutions to major problems were always appropriate. He insisted that “out of the box” solutions, in particular, were a major stimulus for young scientists before they were trapped in the dogmas of their fields. I heard him lecture a junior Science editor on the phone one time: “How do you think new science comes about if you don’t publicize those who put it to work and try new things and discover unorthodox solutions?”
It took a while for me to realize how right Dan Koshland was about experts shunning the renegade who upstages them. He made me think back to my first minor contribution in 1962 with the discovery of the simple CORTEX scheme for measuring the yield of underground nuclear tests. CORTEX quickly became important for our first limited test ban agreement with the Russians. But the chiefs in the Diagnostic Division, the L Division, at the Livermore Laboratory never bothered to tell me about the institutional empire they had built around this discovery after I left the Livermore Lab in December 1962 and returned as a junior faculty member to the EE Department at U.C. Berkeley.
I was asked to return to the Livermore Lab in 1966 as a consultant on a number of technical problems. I soon discovered that the Livermore Lab had a new “Diagnostic Division” called CORTEX devoted to underground nuclear weapons testing and “test-ban treaty verification.” My first question was: “What is CORTEX?” I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh when I was told that CORTEX was the official name given to the diagnostic technique for measuring the characteristics of underground nuclear explosions that I had invented, tested, and documented in 1962. Some of the new CORTEX division chiefs were the same ones who had told me in 1962 that my crazy experiment that led to CORTEX would never work. The head of the new division was the exact same diagnostic engineer who, in 1962, had refused to allow me to take a Lab oscilloscope and a simple signal generator to the Nevada Test Site to do the experiment that led to the technology that he was now glorifying in 1966! ( I had to borrow the signal generator and oscilloscope from a Las Vegas TV station the day before the underground nuclear shot code named “ANACOSTIA.”)
A friendly associate director of the Livermore Laboratory who knew the history and circumstances accompanied me on a visit to the “CORTEX” division offices. He took along the original classified test report on my 1962 CORTEX experiment (Performance of Coaxial Cable in the Vicinity of a Nuclear Explosion (1962),
U.C. Radiation Laboratory Report UCRL-7164, 1962 (Classified).
The CORTEX division staff were collected in a conference room waiting for our arrival. I asked them why they had never told me about the importance of CORTEX and how they were using it. It was obvious that most of the junior staff did not know the origin of the technology that was now the focus of their careers. The embarrassed division chief who did know the history sheepishly commented: “Well, you left the lab to go back to the university. We wanted to keep you informed and maybe use you as a consultant, but you know, you didn’t have a security clearance after you left. You didn’t have an approved “need to know” after that….”
I was tempted to question them whether they really understood the test data that came from my original experiment, but I thought better of it and let it go. The associate director with me instructed them to keep me informed thereafter because my “Q clearance” had been re-instated. The CORTEX division chief apologized profusely for the lack of contact with me and assured me that they would keep me informed in the future of how they were using “my baby” (his term).
Of course, I never heard another word from any of them.
And so it was that in 1991, almost thirty years later, that Dan Koshland was approached by an historian in Washington D.C. who was working on documenting the events and negotiations that led up to the first limited test ban treaty in the early sixties. The historian had learned the importance of the CORTEX technology to the U.S. negotiators. CORTEX gave the U.S. a means to measure the yield of Soviet nuclear explosions underground even though the Soviets would not let us put normal detectors down the holes in which they tested their warheads. They were rather amazed that we could do that. The Russians agreed to the CORTEX “no-detector” monitoring of their underground warhead tests. Of course, they got to use the same technology to monitor our tests.
This improbable flatcar freeway bridge came about because an impatient Dan Koshland insisted that there should be some way to construct temporary freeway bridges after the 1994 Northridge earthquake collapsed the busiest freeways in the Los Angeles area. The top structural engineers he contacted at Berkeley and New York had told Dan that it was not possible to build a temporary freeway bridge any quicker or cheaper than their standard multi-million dollar concrete or steel designs that take months to install, even on a 24/7 emergency basis.
Dan Koshland called me into his busy laboratory in the U.C Berkeley molecular biology building one day and insisted: “Bill, you have got to think about this for a few days. You’ve solved bigger problems at Livermore and Kuwait with solutions that the engineers never thought about. There has to be way.” And he was right as usual.
I realized immediately that I would have to find some steel modules that could be assembled like LEGO blocks to a make a bridge. But making such modules out of standard steel material would be as expensive as erecting a standard steel bridge. Then an idea hit me as I recalled the trains that I had seen overturned by the Northridge earthquake near Los Angeles. Railroad flatcar decks were lying alongside the tracks. They had fallen off of the wheels that support them on the rails. They were not even attached to the wheel dollies. A flatcar deck just sets on top to the wheel dollies. They were the modules I needed. A little research told me that there were thousands of older flatcar decks lying in surplus yards because the railroad industry was replacing them with lighter flatcars. But the older flatcar decks were the stronger ones I needed.
The minute Dan saw my first design sketches, he began smiling. I warned him that the structural engineers in charge of freeways would have no part of it. But Dan said that he would have it subjected to a thorough engineering analysis. If the design lived up to my calculations, he wanted to see it built immediately.
Dan Koshland called a renegade professor of civil engineering at U.C. Berkeley, Abolhassan Astaneh. Professor Astaneh called his friend, the chief engineer of the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS), James Roberts. James Roberts was considered by many to be the world’s greatest freeway designer. I was soon on my way to see James Roberts in Sacramento. Fifteen minutes after Roberts saw my design sketches and calculations for the flatcar bridge, he picked up the telephone as I sat there and ordered a Caltrans contractor to build a prototype (to me, it was absolutely astounding to see a public official move so quickly and decisively).
Fortunately, the flatcar decks were available at a nearby surplus yard in Roseville, Ca. Roberts told the contractor that I would be over to see them in an hour. I was stunned. I had never known a top public official to move so quickly (he was not your typical bureaucrat). The rest is history as related by CALTRANS chief engineer, James Roberts. in his companion article published in Science, 14 April 1995, pp261-262, and pp261-262.
A short nine months later, the “insolvable problem” caught up with the out-of-the-box solution waiting for its mate to arrive. A flood destroyed twin bridges in the I-5 freeway in central California. The I-5 is the major north-south freeway on the west coast. The economy of California was taking a big hit. The California Department of Transportation transported the flatcar bridge kit to the site and erected it in three day’s time. The I-5 freeway was opened to full traffic flow on the fourth day. (The bridge installation operation was covered by around the clock international television.) Over the next three months, new standard concrete bridges were constructed on either side of the busy flatcar bridge.
As I look back, it was not surprising that I had no hesitation about trying unorthodox ideas. I had some great teachers at Berkeley: Dr. Donald Glaser (nuclear physics), Dr. Arthur Rosenfeld (quantum mechanics), Dr. Edward Teller ( nuclear physics), all of whom pioneered radical, sometimes controversial, new ideas in their careers. I had the honor of studying under and working with all of them in various projects over the first thirty years of my career.
My first professor in nuclear physics at UC Berkeley, Dr. Donald Glaser, prepared me for the technical adventures that Dan Koshland would lead me into thirty years later.
Don Glaser was the youngest winner of the Noble Prize in physics in 1960 for the discovery of the hydrogen bubble chamber. The bubble chamber allowed physicists to detect and measure high energy nuclear particles that could never have been seen with the old cloud chamber technology.
As a young assistant professor at Michigan, Don Glaser persisted in doing basic experiments even though the giants of nuclear physics (including Enrico Fermi) had warned him that they had calculated that a nuclear particle could not generate a bubble track in a superheated liquid. Thereafter, the department chairman at Michigan purportedly cautioned Don Glaser that his career could be in jeopardy if he wasted time on this “dead-end research.” Nevertheless, Glaser sat up a simple experiment using a lab microscope to look at a small glass vessel full of ether at room temperature (a super heated liquid). He soon began seeing bubble tracks in the ether that he attributed to cosmic rays passing through the ether. And thus, he opened the world of nuclear particles to physicists who were wondering how they would ever measure the high energy bullets they were producing in the new billion electron volt particle accelerators.
I was a graduate student in his nuclear physics class at U.C. Berkeley in the fall of 1960 when, uncharacteristically, he arrived late for class one morning. The Nobel committee had called in the middle of the night. He apologized for his tardiness to his impatient students. But not a word to us about his Nobel Prize. We saw the newspaper headlines after class.
After he returned from Stockholm with his Nobel Prize, many of us in his nuclear physics class questioned him about how he had made the discovery of the hydrogen bubble chamber. By then we knew the story about how the greats of physics had told him he was wasting his time. A humble Don Glaser offered us a simple rule that morning in his class. It is the most important advice I ever heard in my career. He told us, “Don’t believe anyone who says you cannot do something unless he can show you that he has done the experiment to prove he is right -- and then you should repeat his experiment to see what he missed…….”
I continued to work with Donald Glaser on his biomedical projects after I was invited to join the Berkeley faculty the day after I finished my PhD in 1961. We published our first work in the New York Academy of Science (1). Together, we started Berkeley Scientific Laboratories (BSL) in a west Berkeley warehouse in 1966. I left the Berkeley faculty to run the highly successful BSL over the next six years.
In 1966, my hopes were raised after learning that my discovery of CORTEX was a significant contribution to national security. Surely, the faculty promotion committee in the Electrical Engineering Department at U.C. Berkeley would find it to be noteworthy. Wrong. I was informed that a classified publication could not be considered even if respected scientists at the U.C. Livermore National Laboratory (or even the White House) vouched for its importance. This disappointment was one of the reasons I decided to leave the Berkeley faculty in 1967 and start a company with physicist Dr. Donald Glaser with whom I had been working for several years on his biomedical projects at Berkeley.
Once again, good fortune shined on me. The company that Don Glaser and I started in a west Berkeley warehouse, Berkeley Scientific Laboratories (BSL), was an immediate success. We developed and marketed the first small computer systems for clinical laboratory data analysis that hospitals could afford (the CHEMDATA system). The first systems were installed in the National Institutes of Health. The systems generated reproducible test results that clinical staff could trust and verify. The products were expanded to full hospital information systems that collected all patient data for immediate access by clinical staff. We took on a number of government funded R&D projects, including development of new clinical laboratory testing techniques and instrumentation for the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health, testing and certification of the on-board Apollo guidance computer, and the design of a variety of diagnostic systems for the Poseidon submarine launched ballistic missile system.
BSL grew from six people to over four hundred from 1966 to 1969. We were desperate for employees to assemble and deliver the hospital computer systems that were being ordered faster than we could build them. I started a policy that would make most any employment manager cringe. Department managers were told: “If people walk in the door and say “I can do that job” hire them and give them a chance for two weeks, no questions asked. If they can’t do the job, send them to another department that might have a job they can do.” The word spread rapidly. We had a lineup at the front door to our warehouse headquarters on 4th St in Berkeley every morning.
We had to fire less than twelve people out of two hundred hired under this “give ‘em a chance” rule. And not a one of those twelve had a complaint. They had been given a fair chance. That was all they wanted. And they all left with a letter that said they had worked at Berkeley Scientific Laboratories for a period of time in a technical “training program”.
Within a year, two of the six BSL departments were run by women who walked in the door without prior experience. They quickly gravitated to the top simply because no one else could keep up with them. One of them was a mother of three with a degree in electrical engineering that she had not used in fifteen years. One day, she was driving by the employee line-up outside the BSL warehouse in west Berkeley and thought “why not?” The other woman said that she had “extensive experience “in cost accounting.” (In fact, she was a high school drop out and a welfare mom working two janitorial jobs to put her son through college. But, indeed, she could spot a mistake in a grocery store receipt a mile away). She was hired on the spot and given a stack of major accounts payable that no one had time to check for errors. Within a few weeks, she had spotted enough double billing to pay her salary for the next two years. She took night classes in real cost accounting at the local junior college over the next year. Then she took the accounting manager’s job when he became the chief financial officer of the growing corporation..
The walk-in employee story that really delighted everyone a few years later was about a very bright and personable black man who arrived at BSL with a certificate from the Control Data Institute that said he had completed a two year intensive course in computer operating systems and programming languages. Let’s call him Jeff. Within a year Jeff was the group leader of a team of twenty programmers supporting our advanced computer systems in hospitals all over the country.
Then one day we had to apply for a security clearance for Jeff so that his group could help on the Poseidon missile work we were doing. I was visited by an FBI agent who informed me that Jeff received his “Control Data Institute” training at San Quentin prison where he served three years for car theft. The agent couldn’t keep the smile off his face any more than I could. We called Jeff into my office. He calmly informed us that he no longer had to steal cars to feed his four brothers and sisters who had been abandoned by their drug addict parents when he was seventeen. The FBI agent went to his apartment in west Oakland where he met a teenage sister and a younger brother who were still being supported by their older brother Jeff. Jeff eventually got his security clearance to work on a submarine vehicle that was way too big for anyone to worry that he might take it home. .
Berkeley Scientific Laboratories was bought by a large conglomerate in 1970. I invested some of the proceeds from the BSL sale in another startup company called Comprehensive Health Services (CHS). CHS was probably the first high tech start up company founded and run by a group of women who were highly qualified in the medical sciences. They built one of the largest clinical laboratories in northern California near the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. CHS, led by pathologist Dr. Diane Oliver, assembled a medical staff of physicians in all the major specialties to do patient health screening for large labor unions and professional groups. CHS also designed and developed a small computer system for reporting radiology reports. That product was called RAPORT. It was sold by the General Electric company for the next ten years.
I returned to scientific research after 1980 with the luxury of being able to fund my own work and experiments until the money ran out thirty years later. I have never been one bit sorry. I probably escaped at least ten years of grant proposal writing and begging for government funds that seemed to be the life for my colleagues at the university with whom I worked. And indeed, at the best, four out of five of my scientific adventures were not successful. But I have never been one bit sorry. It was a great ride for me while it lasted.
The day after I returned to the states from my three week adventure with the Kuwait engineers, Dan Koshland called. He wanted to know the whole story. He had already heard that some American and Canadian oil well fire fighting companies were complaining loudly to the White House about my unofficial activities in London. They were angry that I had encouraged the Kuwaitis to give other national teams a chance to do some of the work. I imagined that the complainers were basically unhappy that they did not get all of the five billion dollar estimate they gave the Kuwaiti royalty for the cost of putting out the fires over five years before others started doing it. Their argument was: “The U.S. and its allies saved Kuwait. Why should other countries that made no sacrifice on the battlefield get the money we deserve for fixing the damage the Iraqis did to Kuwait? The only problem with that argument was that the U.S. and Canadian oil well fire fighters were not on the front lines with our service members during the Gulf War.
By the time I got back to California, both the White House and the U.S Department of Energy were telling the news media that I had no authority to represent the U.S. government, and that the U.S. government did not send me to London to help the Kuwaitis. And that was true. I volunteered after being asked by Drs. Garwin and Kendall to go to London. The Department of Energy issued at least one press statement saying that I was a private consultant to the Kuwait Oil Company and I that I was paid by them (they paid only my travel and hotel expenses). A reporter for the London Times told me that a White House press person had alluded that I was over there to get publicity as a struggling radio talk show host in America (I had been on KGO Radio/ABC for almost twenty years by that time).
I recall an intense discussion with Dan Koshland at lunch at the U.C Berkeley Faculty Club, with well-known senior faculty listening. This subject was the most intense disagreement I ever had with Dan Koshland. He insisted that these behind-the-scenes events in the Kuwait oil well story had to be published somewhere, preferably in Science. I pleaded with him that publication of the sour grapes would only cause the Livermore Lab and the University of California big trouble. The domestic fire fighting experts who were complaining were well known to the man in the White House who was an oil man from Texas. The Energy Department was trying to down play my involvement. Livermore was a Department of Energy (DOE) Lab that received almost all of its funding from DOE.
And besides, I argued, there was no real science involved in the advice I gave to put out the oil well fires. Indeed, the problem had been solved with common sense management decisions sprinkled with a little technology from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab on how to eliminate the bombs and bobby traps left by the fleeing Iraqis. I had to plead with Dan that I could actually be censored for giving the fire fighting crews in Kuwait classified information about land mine elimination techniques (fortunately, it was my team at Livermore, guided by Dr. Milton Finger, that had developed these techniques before the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War).
I had lost all interest in the subject by the time the last oil well fire was snuffed out in November 1991. It took only seven months, not the five years that the “experts” had predicted. To be sure, it was rather disappointing to be shunned by the U.S Government that had so loudly proclaimed how the U.S. would help the Kuwaitis repair the damage done by the Iraqi invasion of their country. However, there was no official U.S government request for me to go to London to assist the Kuwaitis. It was best to just keep my mouth shut and move on. The Kuwait Oil Company paid for my travel and expenses while in London. That was enough.
A spin off of the trip to London in 1991 to help the Kuwait Oil Company engineers with their oil well fires was that I met one of the great oil men of the twentieth century, Jim Bryan, then the executive vice president of Dresser Industries, a major oil drilling supply company (later acquired by Halliburton). He had volunteered to help the Kuwait Oil Company as well. He was a great source of information for me. Over dinner in London one evening, I made a smart-aleck remark to Jim Bryan that it would be easy to design a down hole directional drilling tool that could be commanded from the well head to go in a specific direction when the drill bit was thousands of feet down the hole. He had told me that was the driller’s dream device (tool). The only way they were able to do it at the present time was to pull the entire drill string out of the hole each time they wanted to change the drill bit drilling direction.
After listening to me tell him how easy it should be, Jim Bryan wrote out a check on a hotel dinner napkin that said: “Pay to the order of Bill Wattenburg the sum of fifty thousand dollars ($50,000,00) upon delivery by him to Dresser Industries of a down hole directional drilling tool that can be programmed at the well head to change drilling direction by a specific amount without having to trip the string” (meaning pull up the drill string). Signed, Jim Bryan, V P Dresser Industries.
I went home to California dancing on air that I had made an easy $50,000. However, reality set in very quickly. Over the next four years, it proved to be one of the most difficult problems I have ever attacked. I was sorry most every day that I had shot my mouth off to a wise old driller who knew just how difficult it would be. I later learned that tens of millions had been spent by oil companies and drilling companies trying to solve this problem. It became a matter of pride to keep trying.
Finally, five years later, after four prototype designs and frustrating tests in drill holes in Texas, I struck upon the answer. Jim Bryan gladly paid the $50,000 he had promised – and he paid all the expenses to build and test the prototypes that amounted to five times more. My designs were patented and licensed to Halliburton, the successor of Dresser Industries ( see the history under “Directional Drilling” at http://wattenburg.us/directionaldrilling.html#content .
I swore to never again make a bet with a professional in his own field until I had done some real investigation on my own.
Publications mentioned in this memoir
Many other short notes in Science news sections.
Added Safety for Deep Water Drilling and Nuclear Plant Operation
After Dan Koshland died, I decided to attack two of the great technical tragedies of the decade: the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear accident. I began, as Dan Koshland would have insisted, by revisiting and examining everything that the experts had ignored – everything out of the box. Indeed, I discovered that the obvious had been overlooked. I was guilty of some of it as an early advisor on nuclear plant safety. There are inexpensive but significant improvements to the safety of deep water drilling and nuclear power plant operation using only inexpensive, existing infrastructure. Patent applications have been filed on both. The patent for the drilling solution has been granted (U.S. Patent 8042615 B1, 10-25-11). The nuclear plant safety design is pending. (I have assigned all of my national security patents to the university or the government. I ask only that they make a minimal effort to exploit them.)
I am convinced that Dan Koshland would be pushing government agencies and industry alike to test both of these solutions if he were alive today. The experiments are easy to do. In fact, the tests required are less difficult or expensive to carry out than the construction of the first Modular Freeway Bridge (See Science, v268, 14 April 1995, pp 261-262). All equipment required is available. No nuclear plant or drilling operation need be interrupted to do the tests. The cost of testing these designs is trivial compared to the horrible consequences of another major oil spill or nuclear accident (which will happen with greater frequency in the more than 400 aging nuclear plants around the world.) However, as usual, the industry experts in oil well drilling and nuclear plant design will have nothing to do with anything that would move beyond their status quo.
Scientific journal publications on simple solutions to formally difficult and/or unsolved problems by Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
Stopping the Waste of Blood from Blood Banks:
Drop Money not Bombs