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Oral-History:Richard M. White

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About Richard M. White

A native of Denver, Colorado, Richard White earned his A.B. and A.M. degrees in Engineering Science and Applied Physics from Harvard University, followed by a Ph,D., also from Harvard, in 1956. He worked as a research scientist in the microwave division at GE labs in Palo Alto, CA, where he rediscovered the the photoacoustic effect (originally discovered by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880), before returning to academia in the 1960s in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department at the University of California at Berkeley.

White received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968, and was made a fellow of the IEEE in 1972 "For Contributions to the discovery and applications of surface elastic waves." He received the IEEE's Cledo Brunetti Award in 1986 and became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1994. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Berkeley's Graduate School of Engineering.

In this interview he discusses his groundbreaking research in ultrasonics and surface elastic waves and his distinguished career as an educator.

About the Interview

Richard M. White: An Interview Conducted by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center with the assistance of Jan Brown, IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control Society, 8 November 2007

Interview #474 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center. Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user. It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows: Richard M. White, an oral history conducted in 2007 by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Richard M. White
Interviewer: Michael Geselowitz
Date: 8 November 2007
Location: New York, NY

Early Life and Education

Geselowitz:

This is Michael Geselowitz, and I'm here at the Hilton New York, interviewing Richard White on behalf of the IEEE History Center, and also the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society (UFFC), which is one of the technical societies of IEEE. I am accompanied by Jan Brown of the UFFC. Professor White, I hope to discuss a little bit with you how it got its name and your involvement in it. However, what we mainly like to do when we conduct these oral histories, as I was telling just before the tape ran, is to capture someone's life trajectory in a way that might not be in the patents or the articles or whatever. So what I'd really like to do is go all the way back and start with your birth and your early education.

White:

Okay. Well, I was born in 1930. I saw a birthday card recently that had a nice sentiment, it said, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" [laughter] I kind of like that as I don't think age is important, and I try not to pay attention. As for my early life, I was a single child. I grew up in Denver, Colorado. I always lived near the edge of the city, which was nice, because I could get on my bicycle and go out and look for arrowheads and things like that. One big influence was my father who worked for the phone company. And I remember one of the best Christmases I ever had was when he brought two bushel baskets full of junk home from the phone company, and I got to play with that and build things. Those were the real influences.

Geselowitz:

Did he have a technical job for the phone company?

White:

He was an engineer, but he didn't have a college degree, so he became an engineer by working there and he really was doing an engineering job, but without the college training.

Geselowitz:

So you knew early on that you wanted to get scientific or technical training?

White:

Well, I didn't make a conscious choice, but it was so much fun, when I was doing it, so I figured ultimately when I went to college, I would want to go into a scientific area.

Geselowitz:

And where did you go to college?

White:

I went to Harvard, which was quite a shock from being in the outskirts of Denver. My first semester there, I was majoring in physics, and I found I was really unhappy, and it was just so abstract. And my undergraduate advisor could hardly speak English. I then discovered there was something called "Engineering Science and Applied Physics," and that was wonderful. It's now what, I guess you'd call electrical engineering in most places, but that was ideal for me.

Geselowitz:

Right. Are you aware that Harvard now is starting a separate engineering school?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

And doing new massive hiring in engineering?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

How do you feel about that, since you went through the old system?

White:

Oh, it's fine. Things have to change. [laughter]

Geselowitz:

So then, you were finishing up your education, and you had to decide what to do with your self, so what did you decide?

White:

Well, the draft board actually helped me because the Korean War came along and they wanted to draft me. I didn't think that was a good idea, and so I stayed on at the same institution, for a masters degree and then a Ph.D. So it was less of a break than most people usually have at that point.

Geselowitz:

Go ahead.

White:

Well, I just found that I really enjoyed what I was doing, enjoyed the idea of continuing to learn, continuing to dig into things, and so stayed for the Ph.D. I then went into industry, after that, for about five years, working as an engineer in California. And then I had the opportunity to get back to a university, Berkeley, so I did go back to academia

Geselowitz:

Did you have an opportunity to teach when you were a masters or a doctoral student?

White:

I was a teaching assistant for a little while. And frankly, that was pretty bad. But then when I got out working in industry, I felt I really wanted to get back to the university, so I continued to teach night courses in the Bay Area. I was also advised to continue to publish, if you can, as a way of getting back into the university, so I did that too.

Geselowitz:

What was your dissertation on?

White:

It was an ultrasonic topic, the scattering of sound waves at a cylindrical bore in a solid. It was both an analytical and experimental project. I had a block made of metal with a cylindrical bore in the middle. I sent in longitudinal waves and looked at the longitudinal wave scattering; I could also look at the conversion from longitudinal to shear waves. And at that time, electronic computers didn't exist, and so I did all my calculations on a Marchant calculator, and I remember spending about three boring months doing these calculations. But they worked out very well. But about 20 years later, I was at one of the ultrasonics symposia and a researcher from Japan showed me this movie they had made; they had programmed my analyses and it took it no time whatsoever to get the results [laughs]. Of course, by then the electronic calculators were widespread.

Geselowitz:

Was there an application for your particular research?

White:

Perhaps. There had been some work done in the same lab where people had looked at scattering of ultrasonic waves from a solid object in a liquid. I would think there are some applications in non-destructive testing, where you send in a sound wave and from its scattering, you can tell something about the size and the characteristics of what you're scattering from. So there are some applications.

Geselowitz:

Could it have been scaled up to prospecting, say geological prospecting.

White:

Possibly, although those people really go at this in a -- they have computers, so--

Geselowitz:

Now they do.

White:

Yes, that's right, they do. No, I think, maybe a little bit of application at one time, but not now.

General Electric Microwave Lab

Geselowitz:

And so tell me a little bit about your first industry job. How'd you end up in California?

White:

Well, I like big cities, and I like mountains, and I looked at the places I could go to work, and I decided I wanted to end up around San Francisco and not far from the Sierra, so I discovered that General Electric had a microwave laboratory in Palo Alto, and so I applied for a job with General Electric. They flew you around to various plants where they're trying to get people. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and it wasn't Richland, Washington—that was one of the possibilities [laughs] So, it turned out I got hired at this microwave lab. I had worked a couple of summers at Bell Labs, which was a wonderful experience—a fabulous place—and I was doing microwave and RF problems there. So I'd had some experience and was hired by the GE lab in Palo Alto.

Geselowitz:

And that was before Silicon Valley.

White:

Yes, that was before Silicon Valley. And it was an interesting time because we were able to get government funding very readily, and there was also funding for research within the GE company. And this department I was with was the Power Tube Department, whose headquarters was in Kentucky. We were far away in California, and the managers in Kentucky weren’t concerned about what we did, provided we didn't lose any money. And so we had an incredible freedom. It was a wonderful situation.

'Geselowitz:'

So, what did you do there?

White:

Well, I was just saying that the freedom that was there was really wonderful. And, in fact, I had considerable personal freedom. At one of my annual employee evaluations my boss said, "What have you been doing? I realize I don't know what you're doing."

Geselowitz:

[laughs]

White:

But I was busy and productive, and so it was perfect.

Geselowitz:

I thought, Bell Labs is also famous for that sort of atmosphere.

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Had you, since you interned at Bell Labs, consider going there full-time when you graduated?

White:

No, I guess I was focused on getting out of the east, and getting to mountains. I'd been to California once and I thought it was great. I was used to Massachusetts, to New Jersey, and I figured now it's time to go to California.

Geselowitz:

Right, well must've been, well must've been actually at that time, it was probably so undeveloped, it probably reminded you a little of the edge of Denver.

White:

Just about, yes.

Geselowitz:

You had the city in one direction, but the other direction must've been open fields -- you know, vineyards and the like.

White:

Yes, well, it was at first. I had rented a little house, a two-room house that was in Los Altos, and I think the rent was $85 a month. The owner was just holding onto it until Silicon Valley, frankly, built up. And it was great, as long as it lasted. It was on an apricot orchard. When the owner finally decided to sell the house, he turned it over to the local fire department, who set fire to the house five times and put it out four times. The fifth time…

Geselowitz:

They let it go?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

For practice?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

So, what sort of applications was GE looking for in their microwave lab?

White:

Well, they were building very high-powered vacuum tubes, klystrons for radar applications. And then they also were building high-powered gas-filled microwave filters, for low microwave frequencies that were the size and shape of ventilation ducts.. That's how I got back into acoustics, because they were putting very large amounts of power in them. And from time to time they would arc over, and there would be a very large bang., They were trying to figure out why and where it was arcing over. Using my ultrasonics experience, I made a little detector that would determine where the arcing was occurring from the delay of the sound. That worked very well and was useful, but they had another device there which was sort of similar, but that could be pumped to a very low gas pressure (a high vacuum.) When this device arced, I still detected an acoustic signal, which seemed rather surprising, because there weren't ions inside that were banging on the walls. From these experiments, I rediscovered, in effect, the photoacoustic effect; if there is transient energy absorption at the surface of a material, it will cause thermal expansion and this will set up a sound wave. The source can be electrons, in the case of the evacuated device. I soon realized that it's a universal phenomenon. Take a flashbulb -- just the light absorption will cause this effect. We had electron beams in one of our tubes that were going astray, and I'd been trying to find out where the beam was going astray by the fact it made a sound wave where the beam hit the wall of the device. I measured the delay time, and figured out where the impact was. And as a matter of fact, I went to a meeting at the General Electric research lab, shortly after the first ruby lasers had been made to work, and they had one there. I took along my little detector, went to the meeting and beforehand I asked a technician if he could take this detector and put it in front of the laser, and if he saw anything on his oscilloscope to bring back a Polaroid picture of it. He came back about two hours later, his eyes very wide and showed me the picture. So I never saw the laser that produced this, but I think it was the first time anybody intentionally produced a sound wave from a laser pulse. I wrote a little article and published in Applied Physics Letters with that picture.

Geselowitz:

So, the applications of this discovery were mainly in terms of --

White:

Well, it's had several applications. For example, the people in Canada have used this effect to do non-destructive testing of fighter aircraft, because they can send in a higher-amplitude laser pulse over the surface of the fighter and then pick up the surface motion produced with a second little laser pulse. People also use this to measure quality of steel pipes and bars coming out of the rolling mill while they're still red hot; they can bounce a high-powered laser beam off the red hot object to set up a sound wave, and then use a small laser beam to measure the surface motion to tell whether the pipes or bars have flaws in them. So it does have some applications.

A return to Academia

Geselowitz:

Interesting. And is that pretty much what you were working on when you decided to go back to academia?

White:

Yes. It turned out that the person I was working for there in GE, had gone back to Berkeley to teach, because a professor there took a sabbatical. He knew about this work I had just done, and he urged me to publish it. I had the experimental results and I worked out the theory behind it, so when I first went to Berkeley, that's what I was working on, and I published a paper on that. Apparently I did a good job because they showed it to some expert else later, and said, "Now, what other pieces are missing? " The expert said, “It’s all there. He seems to have done the whole thing." [laughs]

Geselowitz:

Great, so when you went to Berkeley, what department were you in?

White:

It was the electrical engineering department. Now I think it was combined, at that time, with computer sciences.

Geselowitz:

So it was already called something like “The Department of electrical and computer engineering?”

White:

Well, I think it was “electrical engineering and computer sciences.” And then the computer science folks decided to split off. But then, about two or three years later, they brought in some of their alumni a an oversight committee and asked, "How are we doing?" expecting them to say "You’re doing a good job." But the committee said, "Why don't get back together again with electrical engineering." [laughs] So ever since then, they've been combined as electrical engineering and computer sciences.

Geselowitz:

Interesting, because now, in recent years, there has been a trend sometimes for computer science departments to want to go it alone again.

White:

That's right.

Geselowitz:

And this was very advanced, only it didn't work out. [laughs]

White:

That's right. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Geselowitz:

Before you talk about what direction research went, I want to ask something. Since you went back to Berkeley with a faculty position, did you have to get involved with teaching again?

White:

Yes, right.

Geselowitz:

And you said previously, your teaching fellow experience at Harvard had not been so enjoyable. So, tell me a little bit about some of the teaching you did, and how that informs your career.

White:

Well, it's kind of interesting. One of the things that we had to do, when it was the electrical engineering department without the computer scientists, was to teach our own introductory FORTRAN programming course. And this would be a lecture course, and I had to take my turn. To lecture interestingly about Fortran I think is one of the hardest things to do. And about that time, I'd gotten involved with the Science and Math Education Graduate Group at Berkeley. In graduate groups, people from other departments could spend part of their time working with a group, and deal with graduate students in that subject. And so through that, I began to meet people who were focusing on education, although their home department was math, or physics, whatever. There I discovered there were things called "self-paced courses," and I thought,”ah, that's the solution to the Fortran problem.” So I generated a self-paced Fortran course, because computer programming is the perfect subject for self-paced courses. And then, working with a grad student TA, we did a version for Basic, and so that got institutionalized, and I ran it for a few years. And I think as of about five years ago, something, something like over 20,000 students at Berkeley have taken self-paced programming courses, and I'm proud of that. I did it to get out of something [laughs] I didn't enjoy, but it can be very effective. As to other teaching, I was teaching introductory electronics courses and things of that sort.

Geselowitz:

So, now, so since you were teaching Fortran, they must've thought you knew Fortran.

White:

Well, yes. I had just learned Fortran because I was starting to work on the surface acoustic wave problems, and since I wanted to do some programming, I had to learn a programming language, so it was pretty fresh in my mind

Geselowitz:

Right. There are two parallel tracks I want to follow with the interview: One is, as you just mentioned, the introduction of computers--before you talked about having to use a calculator to do incredibly complex calculations, so I was wondering when you moved into computers and how it influenced your work. The second is that, of course, this is around the time that you began your work on surface elastic waves, for which you are best known.

Surface Elastic Waves

White:

Okay, I’ll take your two questions in order. When I was working with the science and math education group, timeshared computers were beginning to come in. And it seemed like this would be a great way to teach with the self-paced course. But they were very, very unreliable. But I did start working- working with those, and they did inform my work. I was also instrumental in setting up the first general purpose personal computer lab at Berkeley. As for surface waves, when I got involved in those, one problem I was trying to solve was the problem of tenure. [laughs] I was initially trying to make surface acoustic wave amplifiers, that is, devices that would amplify surface acoustic waves in piezoelectric semiconductors, because people had shown that you could do that for bulk waves. And so, in order to do that, I had to come up with a way of generating the surface waves. The methods that people were using then were very unwieldy: putting gold wedges on the surface and things of that sort. It occurred to me that--and I think this came because of the work I'd done at GE on traveling wave tubes, which consisted of periodic structures with spaced electrodes—that the amplifier was like a traveling wave tube. You send a wave along and stimulate the electrons and they can feed energy to each other. And so from that, the idea of interdigitated transducers seemed very natural, because you have set up a structure where the excited voltages of fields are the right spacing to keep up with the waves in the piezoelectric. we also had just, in 1962, started a microfabrication lab at Berkeley. And so there was the feasibility of making these electrode structures there. That’s how it all came together.

Geselowitz:

Did you realize what all the applications would be, when you started to generate these waves?

White:

[laughs] No. I gave the first public presentation on this was at an ultrasonic symposium. A number of people came up after my talk, including Harper Whitehouse from a Navy lab in San Diego. He said, "Do you realize what this means?" [laughs] He told me he had a relay rack full of equipment back in his lab, and he realized that thanks to my discovery all of the things it could do could now be done on the little chip. And so gradually I began to realize what the implications could be.

Geselowitz:

That is a good story. For this interview, could you just summarize what you think some of the high-point applications are? I mean, I'm not a an expert in this area, but my understanding is that even down to this day, cell phones and other important devices take advantage of this phenomenon.

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

So you want to say a little about that?

White:

I was told by a Russian scientist, Yuri Gulyaev, that in the year 2003, there were something like 16 billion SAWF devices sold worldwide; that was the number he quoted. Many of them were in cell phones. It's kind of hard to say with the latest cell phones nowadays and how they do filtering, but I was told that most TV sets still have SAW filters in them. That's a huge amount of devices! (Note: in 2011, Dr. Gulyaev told me that worldwide sales of SAW devices in 2008 totaled 18 billion dollars.)

Geselowitz:

And what makes it so effective for filtering, as opposed to previous technologies?

White:

Well, they're small. Previously filters involved capacitors, which are bulky and inductors, (coils), which are hard to make by micro-fabrication processes. With these acoustic wave filters you've got a planar structure, so you can mass produce them photographically, and you can design them very easily because there's a one-to-one connection between the physical layout and their functioning. I think that is pretty powerful.

Geselowitz:

So did you go on to work on any of the applications?

White:

I explored a number of related interactions using SAWs, but not industrially, At Berkeley, we have many visiting people giving seminars and several have talked about their technologies that will “finally get rid of SAWs,” not realizing that I was in the audience. [laughter].

Geselowitz:

No technology lasts forever, you know.

White:

No, no, that's right.

Geselowitz:

Did you pass off the application work to others and return to the basic theoretical work because you were in a university setting?

White:

That’s basically correct. The question you ought to ask is about patents. The University of California did not apply for a patent on the SAW transducer,, and I was told by the person in charge of the University patenting decisions “electronic patents don't make any money.”

Geselowitz:

So there was a patent office, and in certain of the fields they were doing patents, but they said to you, "We don't do electronics." What year was this?

White:

'66 or somewhere around there. You know, the person said, electronic patents just don't make any money for us. What make money are the things like the tomato picker. That came out of UC Davis. So did the “squirt,” a specially bred cubical tomato that is easier to pick. That's what made money for UC Davis [laughs]. I’ve been told that it’s probably a good thing, because then all these companies can come in and do their own thing. But we did so a lot of work pursuing SAWF devices past the theory stage . Not in the commercial sense, but we were just exploring the ideas—which was just, you know, enormous fun.

Geselowitz:

So, how many years would you say you worked on SAWF?

White:

Oh, I don't know, maybe 15 years, something like that. I then got into another version of acoustic things called Lamb wave plate devices.

Geselowitz:

Lamb waves? How is that spelled

White:

L-A-M-B.

Geselowitz:

Named after a person?

White:

Yes, Sir Horace Lamb, who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Geselowitz:

How do Lamb waves work?

White:

Well, instead of being on a solid substrate like the SAW- SAWs go on the top of substrate that is many wavelengths thick—these things are on a membrane typically a fraction of a wavelength thick. As a result the waves are propagated very slowly. It had a number of applications, but certainly not as many as the SAWs.

Geselowitz:

When you started working on them, were they well understood?

White:

Theoretically, yes, but few applications were realized. I decided that with the advances in microfabrication, people could make structures now that, if you can conceive a structure, you could probably come up with a way of making it. And that opened it up for me and other people to experiment with a wide range of devices.

Geselowitz:

With the SAWs and with your Lamb wave work, were some of the companies interested in learning about your basic research and trying to develop the technology and pursue patents Silicon Valley startups? Did you see the rise of Silicon Valley from your office in Berkeley?

White:

I didn’t have much to do with Silicon Valley directly. I would meet some of these entrepreneurs at conferences. Just give a plug to the IEEE International Ultrasonics Symposium, it's been my main conference over the years, and I very much value the connections I made there. It was also a lot of fun just to go from session to session seeing who was talking about SAWs and thinking that we’ve done a number of those things also.

The IEEE Ultrasonics Symposium

Geselowitz:

Actually, that's a good segue to a question of interest to Jan Brown and the other IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control Society (UFFC) people, who asked me to do this interview: You've just mentioned the IEEE Ultrasonics Symposium, which was in fact originally organized by the IRE—the old Institute of Radio Engineers—that preceded IEEE. How did you get involved with that, and how did you get involved with other aspects of what was first called the IRE Professional Group on Ultrasonics and evolved into UFFC.

White:

Well, the logical place to give our first paper on SAWs was at the ultrasonics symposium.

Geselowitz:

And what year was that?

White:

I think it was '65.

Geselowitz:

And where was that held?

White:

I was trying to remember. The first one was before the one I attended, in New York I think.

Geselowitz:

The first one was in 1959 on the west coast. The second was not held until 1962—that was the one in New York. After that, it was annual. In 1963, it was held at Columbia University in New York. After that, it became an IEEE rather than an IRE symposium.

White:

It wasn't at Columbia, but I'm just not sure where it was

Geselowitz:

From that one paper, did you get involved regularly in symposia, and also in other aspects of the UFFC?

White:

I'd say that symposium became the venue at which SAW work was discussed. So it was very natural to continue. I met a lot of very interesting and wonderful people through it, and those relationships also continued. Why change it if it isn’t broken? [laughs]

Geselowitz:

What's now the IEEE UFFC actually started as an ultrasonics professional group in IRE. Over the years they added technical committees on photoelectrics and on frequency control, and eventually they decided, when it became a society, to change the name to be more inclusive. I know you've been involved with the Society, that you've been on the Fellow committee and- and so forth. Did that just grow organically out of these friendships at the conference, or did someone call you up and say “We need you to get more involved.”?

White:

I guess I’d say it was just sort of a natural progression. One thing I really have always liked about the subject matter of the Society and its symposia and its journals and so forth, is the breadth. Nowadays, you've got biomedical applications, you've got communications applications--there's a huge, huge range, which I find very stimulating. At the symposium I will go from one session to some other session, and people say, "What are you doing here? This is biomedical." [laughs] But it's very exciting.

Geselowitz:

I'm always interested in the incredible complexity of IEEE and it's convoluted history. You were still in graduate school when the professional group started, but in your opinion what makes ultrasonics distinct a community, such that you didn't say go to the symposium run by the IRE signal processing group, which was then actually called the acoustics group. There was an acoustics group dealing with sound and a communications group dealing with communications applications, things that would become the cell phone and so forth and so on. So what is it about- about ultrasonics that makes ultrasonic scientists and engineers need to have their own symposium?

White:

I'm not sure I can give a good answer to that. There is this other organization, the American Acoustical Society, which is part of the American Physical Society, and I have given papers and at a few of their meetings. They're I think less application oriented, and here I was having, as I have said, an interest in applications from an early age, even if I ended up doing more theoretical work. So I think it was that. The first paper that I published I actually published in a journal of the Acoustical Society of America, but I like the applications, both from working in the industry, and then the university. I felt it was important to work in the industry for a while, because if you're training engineers you ought to find out what it's like to work in industry. And the applications grew out of the theory, so it all just kind of fitted together. I guess, I should say another thing. From being in Palo Alto, I knew some of the people at Stanford—for example, Cal Quate, Gordon Kino and others who were also involved with the Society so it was sort of natural

Geselowitz:

Did you get involved the local activities, with what IEEE calls a Section

White:

Oh, I tried a little bit, and I didn’t find it as interesting as the Society.

Further Research

Geselowitz:

Okay. Let’s go back to your research. How long would you say you worked on Lamb waves?

White:

Oh, probably five or seven years, something like that.

Geselowitz:

And then from there you migrated to-- ?

White:

Well, various applications of various things. Recently I did a paper about particulate matter monitoring, talking about diesel exhaust particles and a monitor for detecting the concentration of those. That's an application of acoustic FBARs for example. Then somewhere along the line, seven of us got together and wrote a book on acoustic wave sensors, and that was an interesting experience. And--

Geselowitz:

Seven total co-authors is a lot. Was that meant to be a textbook?

White:

More of a reference book than a textbook, really, although, but working with six co-authors is kind of interesting process, too. One of the other things I've enjoyed doing is writing with others, and so I've coauthored three books. One was on solar cells back in 1983. Then there was the one on acoustic wave sensors. Then I started a freshman electrical engineering course and co-authored a textbook for it called Electrical Engineering Uncovered. This was a reaction to my own experience, when in college they said, "Take this course, take that course, take that course," and they didn't give you any reason why you were doing this. It wasn't until about the third or maybe the fourth year you found out how that all fit together. So I started a freshman course to tell students up front what it was all about, and how it would fit together. And that was fun.

Geselowitz:

Did you include any history into that course? You know, how the science developed and who the great figures were?

White:

A little bit, not a lot. We did have this wonderful story of Alexander Graham Bell and the solar communications on light beam, and so forth, so, yes, we did bring in some history.

Geselowitz:

And was that course replicated anywhere else that you know of? Because it sounds like a great idea.

White:

Some places picked it up, but it is challenging to teach. I'm told that at Stanford, the department chair was trying to find somebody to teach it, and was told that people said, "Well, it's too broad. Nobody here can teach it." [laughs]

Geselowitz:

Which sort of proves your point about the educational system.

White:

That's right.

Geselowitz:

Was this course required or an elective?

White:

It was an elective.

Geselowitz:

And how popular was it?

White:

It started out slow and grew—at one time we had 80 students in it. And then gradually the curriculum got more confined and more busy and more filled with required courses, and so the size reduced again. It wasn't ever accepted by the department as a mainline course, which I think is a mistake, really.

Geselowitz:

I think you're right, no that's unfortunate, because it’s probably even less clear to engineering students why they were taking the courses they are.

White:

That's right.

Geselowitz:

Usually if you're going to major in history, you need some kind of foundation course in historiography before they start saying, "Okay, now learn about the French Revolution, now learn about the American Revolution," but in engineering they just throw you in.

White:

Yes..

Geselowitz:

When I went to MIT, the first year there was a two-term computer course, there was the physics, there was the first solid-state course. And none of it made any sense in how it fit together.

White:

Yes. Another example is that since the students were hopefully technically oriented, one of the things I included in a sophomore circuits course I was teaching was non-linearity. And normally people don't talk about non-linearity. It doesn't mean anything to them, but we would talk about it and make sense out of it. Students normally were not talking about that until their fourth year, and yet it's very useful in many areas—and it's easy to teach, if you do it right.

Geselowitz:

And did that become institutionalized?

White:

No. The circuits course is institutionalized, certainly, but not my non-linearity unit.

Contributions to Education

Geselowitz:

Interesting. Besides your contribution to SAW, you're also known for you contributions to higher education, but it sounds like your institution didn't always appreciate your innovations.

White:

Oh, that's true.

Geselowitz:

But I know you've published on education. You mentioned earlier that you taught that first Fortran self-study course out of self-defense and self-interest, but it seems to me that you went on and you designed several of these sorts of courses. And have disseminated them through publication.

White:

Yes. We did a paper, it was probably for the IEEE Education Society transactions, on a self-paced circuits course.

Geselowitz:

Demonstrating self-study techniques, so that others could apply it.

White:

Yes, that's right.

Geselowitz:

And has that course been a success?

White:

Let me tell you how successful it was. In the department, when they decided to try it out, they said, "Well, we have a lecture-taught version of the course, and there's three sections of that. So, we'll give those three groups and your self-taught group the same mid-term exams and final exams, and see how your group does. Well, the self-paced group did better on the final exams, and the mid-term exams than the lecture faction. The lecturers hated it, because they were doing these wonderful lectures, and this other bunch, you know, they don't go to class—there are no classes—but they do better. [laughs] You can argue that there were other factors—the self-selection of courses by students, for example, but it was an interesting experiment.

Geselowitz:

It is interesting. What happened next

White:

Still didn't trust me. [laughs] I had the data, but they still dropped my courses.

Geselowitz:

So, when did you officially retire from Berkeley?

White:

I hate that word.

Geselowitz:

When did you become emeritus, then?

White:

In June of last year I stopped teaching undergraduate courses, and now I am a professor of the “graduate school,” which means I can guide grad students, and occasional undergraduates, in research projects; I can go after research funding and so forth.

Geselowitz:

There's special status that UC Berkeley confers?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

There is a graduate school that's separate from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or whatever, and can make separate appointments?

White:

Well, it's not that different somehow. That appointment went through the Dean of Engineering, as did any other appointments in the department. It's just a status with certain privileges and freedoms, like the being on dissertation committees without being on service committees.

Geselowitz:

So how many graduate students would you say you're working with now?

White:

I'm working with about three grad students at the moment, and one undergraduate.

Geselowitz:

And over the years…?

White:

I'm in several projects which are multi-disciplinary, with people from mechanical engineering and material sciences, and myself. I find this very stimulating to work with their students as well as electrical engineers.

Geselowitz:

And that's easier to do through the graduate school than through the regular process?

White:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

And how many grad students do you think roughly you have supervised over your career?

White:

I've never counted.

Geselowitz:

You never counted?

White:

Never counted, no.

Geselowitz:

They don't have a reunion for you, and show up and count themselves?

White:

[laughs] No.

Going Underground

Geselowitz:

Interesting. And what are you working on now?

White:

Well, let's see, I've sort of gone underground, in the sense that one of our projects, supported by the California Energy Commission, is to figure out why underground power distribution cables fail catastrophically. They go underground, and they work fine for 20 years, and then all of the sudden they explode. So power companies have done research on it for quite a while, and haven’t gotten that far, so the California Energy Commission decided to give us some money. We are not that familiar with the problem, and they hope that maybe will think outside the box. We got a three year project on that. Another project we've got going on is to take the particulate matter monitor I mentioned earlier and try to couple it to cell phones. The deal there is that if you can do that, and the cell phones know where they are through GPS, then as people wander around they can be measuring particulate diesel exhaust, say, and other things like that. You can then get a geographical map of whatever the bad zones are, and so forth. And another project that may be developing is to look at ways of telling about gasoline filling stations that leak, trying to detect the hydrocarbons leaking underground, and also following the subsequent remediation process. So, again, all of those things really relate to micro-sensors, which I've been working on for quite a while.

Geselowitz:

Say a little more about sensors.

White:

Well, another faculty member and I started the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center in 1986, under NSF sponsorship, and we now have ten co-directors and over 100 grad students.

Geselowitz:

Are these interdisciplinary students. Is this the mechanical/electrical cooperation you mentioned earlier?

White:

Yes. And then there's also bio and fluid devices.

Geselowitz:

A lot of goes back to your very basic work, that you're looking at sound waves, which are mechanical phenomenon, in essentially an electrical or electronic context, so your work is kind of interdisciplinary to begin with.

White:

Yes, yes.

Geselowitz:

I just heard on the radio, yesterday, I think on NPR, that with the fires in Southern California the Santa Ana winds are blowing the particles out to sea, and they're being carried by wind currents up the coast, and they're entering back onto land in the Bay Area. It's forming kind of a kind of a current, so you may be giving your particle detector experiment something pertinent to work on.

White:

Well, let me tell you, I don’t need the detectors. Last week I could smell the smoke. It had done exactly as you heard. it went 800 miles out and came back, yes.

Geselowitz:

Interesting.

White:

I should say another thing. I live in what I think is the most dangerous place in Berkeley is a hill that’s unstable, is at a great risk of a disastrous wildfire, and that sits on a major earthquake fault. I’ve been involved in emergency preparedness stuff in Berkeley.

Geselowitz:

I see. So we've covered the sweep of your career and the high points. I was wondering if, looking back, if there's anything we missed that you would like to add? Any particular triumphs that we missed? You’ve had so many important developments in your career. Are there any disappointments that stand out? Something you didn't pursue and now in hindsight you realize that someone else pursued it and you realize it would have been very interesting or fruitful.

White:

Well, I'm quite content. [laughs]

Geselowitz:

I'm happy to hear that—it's nice to meet someone who's content.

White:

I had a divorce, but I have a wonderful family. My two sons, aged 40 and 42, are both environmentalists and they credit me with having started them down that track.

Geselowitz:

What work do they do?

White:

They both work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, in Oregon. And I have four grandkids.

Geselowitz:

Did any of your descendents go to Harvard?

White:

No, both my sons went to California schools.

Geselowitz:

So they stayed on the west coast. As you explained, you had been in the Rockies, you had been to the East Coast, and you thought you knew the west coast was for you—and you were right! It turned out you never left and you never felt the need to leave.

White:

That's right.

Geselowitz:

Apparently were correct in your assumptions. And your family didn't leave, they stayed there also.

White:

They're west coast, yes.

Geselowitz:

That's grea.t Jan would you like to add any questions, particularly on the Society, before we conclude?

Monitoring Particulates

Brown:

Yes, I would. This cell phone monitoring of particulates be embedded in the phones in such a way so that people don't have to do anything, and just everybody that's carrying a phone becomes an environmental monitor for us.

White:

It could be that way. That’s what we’re working towards. What we're doing right now is we're building this sensor on a board, which would also contain the battery for the cell phone, so that where you had the battery pack you would replace it with this thing, the battery and the sensors together. So everybody could be collecting data. Some people might like to see the data, and say, "Oh, this is, the particulate count is pretty bad."

Brown:

And other people don't care, but you'd still have the means to query their phones.

White:

That's right.

Brown:

And track what's going on.

White:

That's right. And there's a student, not one of my students, but at Berkeley, who's doing this with carbon monoxide. What he's done is he's added this—he hasn't coupled it quite yet to the cell phone, but he's just about there—and gets the data. Once he collects the data, he adds it to a Google Earth Map, and you can end up with a map that shows you distribution plus the land contours and so forth. This could be pretty powerful.

Brown:

That would be really nice. I mean, kids today are very environmentally sensitive. I mean, they still throw crud on the floor, [laughter] but they're aware of the environment, unlike when I was a kid.

White:

Yes.

Brown:

And to think that they could part of this grand experiment, this collection thing, I think they would just be more than happy to help.

Geselowitz:

And they love their cell phones, they always have them with them.

Brown:

That's right.

White:

Since I've been in Berkeley, I ran into a couple of kids who, we talked about this in public, and they said, "Well, great, we can then go around and we could find which companies are polluting and nail 'em.” [laughter]

Brown:

Exactly.

Geselowitz:

Also, I don't know what level of analysis you can do, but people who lived in Lower Manhattan after 9/11 would have liked to be able to walk into their room and check themselves and not wait for the EPA guy to show up three weeks later and then take two more weeks to run the test, and then lose the test results and have to come back and do it again. So, professor White, do you have any final thoughts?

White:

Well, I just want to say that shouldn’t go too far with the cell phone thing, because if you don't know what you're dealing with, then you could maybe measure the particulates, but you don't what they mean.

Geselowitz:

Right, right. Anything else?

White:

There were two more items on the preliminary list of questions you sent me that I wanted to cover. One was my heroes. Bob Adlers was absolutely one. And there were others, such as John Whinnery, wonderful people, marvelous people with marvelous senses of humor and deep understanding. Wise, wise people that I'm really proud to know. The other thing is that you mentioned actually trying to get young people interested in science, and I think somehow they need to learn how exciting this can be. It's not rigid stuff like they think it is, and I don't know if the problem is the way it's taught.

Brown:

There’s also a problem with public image.

White:

But for me, one of the most marvelous things is to invent something, and for a couple of weeks be the only person in the world who knows this. [laughter] It's really exciting. So. If that idea can be gotten across, it would be great.

Geselowitz:

How to do it, that's the question. I think hands-on experience for students is a big piece of it. You mentioned the self-taught courses versus the lectures at the college level, and at the high school level, if they're going to be lecturing the kids, they're not going to resonate the same way if you could have some other, more creative way of getting them engaged.

White:

Well, all these contests, you know, the robot contest and things like that can be a powerful tool. And the higher level the student poster contests or paper contests here. But I don't see kids nowadays working so much with things.

Geselowitz:

Yes.

White:

Wish I had a solution.

Geselowitz:

Well, we're grateful that educators at least have been thinking about it, and working- working on the problem. Any last words?

White:

Well, I've enjoyed it.

Geselowitz:

I've enjoyed it immensely. I really appreciate your time. Thank you and goodbye.