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An Introductory Lesson in Electronics with Brit at the Early JF

Paul Liebman / Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of Pennsylvania

31 May 2011

The year was 1959. Interim JF director and electron microscopist, Tom Anderson, had recently departed for Fox Chase and Brit had begun to change the JF into the place that became so famous for its extraordinary scientific inventions and diversity. The post-doc cast included Heinz Schleyer, just arrived from Germany, trying to devise a high voltage log converter using a chain of diodes, Robert Rikmenspoel, Dutch physicist building a sperm tail-wave activity photometer, Georg Czerlinski fresh from Manfred Eigen’s lab, building temperature jump kinetics machine and the young Takashi Yonetani attempting to purify the a-a3 complex. Joe Higgins had just left to do 2 years of irreversible thermodynamics with Ilya Prigogene in Brussels. Aaron Wasserman, a rare classical biochemist from David Green’s lab, was to Brit’s chagrin, fumigating everyone with pyridine extractions, and Blake Reeves and another patrician whose name has escaped me and who wore his driving gloves to work after parking his Mercedes, were trying to purify other cytochromes.

Brit was, as almost always, in the back room with the lights off and the double-double (double trouble?) beam on. Of course Vic Legalais was turning metal into gold, in order to make all these projects possible. Pre-docs were Roy Castor building a triple beam tissue culture spectrophotometer, Helen Conrad (later Davies) doing ox/phos via oxygen electrode, Jack Holmes building a cyt C electrometer. The just arrived babies were Fred Schindler (organic chemist) and me (proper doc) and Jack Leigh who was there almost from the beginning, an undergraduate physics student ready to accept any challenge in applied physics and high frequency electronics. Jack taught me so much in electronics, quickly going from light spectroscopy to EPR and then to NMR some years before Mildred Cohn’s arrival. We had twice daily seminars in the library, a darkish room hardly bigger than the famous long library tables in width or breadth. Here came an incredible flow of famous people from Brit’s incredible network that obviously went back to his work on the WWII rad-lab projects at MIT in the 40’s.

So how did I end up in this improbable place? Brit generously replied to an inquiry I sent from my medical residency at Washington University, with an airplane ticket to come visit and interview. On recommendation of Arthur Kornberg then in St. Louis, I sought out this man who could study living biochemistry spectroscopically without needing to take the system apart. On my arrival at the JF, Bo Thorell was visiting from Stockholm. He and Brit had just begun testing a newly built microfluorometer that was designed to see changes in pyridine nucleotide fluorescence as it went from oxygenated to reduced state in subcellular regions of living grasshopper spermatids.

The microscope was adumbrated with a quartz plate, mercury column-driven fine stage movement accurate to about 0.1 μm. This instrument had perhaps the earliest annular ring illumination optics and used the famous 1000 watt AH-6 mercury arc lamp. The DC power supply for the lamp weighed about 150lbs., traveling on a four wheeled trolley that could be rolled around from one instrument to another. It actually followed me all the way into my first faculty appointment and occupied more lab space than the human operators in the tiny closet in which the work took place. This was a compact arc capillary lamp that sometimes blew up when we forgot to turn on the cooling water or the pressure relay failed for the water-cooling jacket which Brit and Vic Legalais had designed and built. This lamp always seemed to have a grounding problem with its power supply. Thus, users of the microscope would complain of a burning sensation when their eyebrows inadvertently touched the metal eyepieces of the microscope!

I was assigned to this as my first JF project. What my duties were I was never quite sure but on the second day on the project and my third in Philadelphia and then knowing nothing at all about electronics, there was a muffled explosion near my chest. Of course, the PMT housing was built onto a front port of this inverted microscope stand and it always stuffed inconveniently into your chest. The explosion was accompanied by the Sylvania oscilloscope monitor traces going crazy. So I came out of the dark closet into which this apparatus was built (after pulling the plug) and sheepishly lined up to tell Brit what had happened. Brit said to just take the PMT housing apart and look at it (knowing nothing, I was afraid to do this a priori). When I did, a horrible runny mess of goo dripped out. The goo covered all the neatly packed electronics inside. That was still in the early days of Brit’s famous packaged vacuum tube cathode follower amplifiers housed in all the PMT sleeves and other signal conditioning circuits.

So the dynode resistor chain and everything else was soaked in this goo. Now I was really feeling responsible for having done something awful, I’m still not sure what, to mess up this fine instrument. So I show it to Brit who is as always, multiplexing himself on a half dozen channels. He takes one look and says, “Well clean it up!” But how? Gradually, my undergraduate confederate, Jack Leigh and I get the idea that alcohol soaked queue tips may be the way to go and we spend a day or so delicately mopping every square micron of this densely packed bunch of electronics with its spicules of wire junctions and solder sticking up from the circuit boards. And we still have no idea what had happened!

But this was my introduction to electronics via electrolytic capacitors, those modern marvels of very high electrical capacity built into a small package that sometimes just up and explodes but I suspect, for the same reason that my eyebrows were burning!

Ultimately, things did get much better as I crammed electronics theory and everything else that permeated that sparkling intellectual environment of the early Johnson Foundation.

– Paul Liebman, JF pre-doc and post-doc 1959-1963