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Chapter 11: Climbing Toward the Doctorate

11.1 Using a nuclear reactor (1961)

Order, order, order. That is what I miss. Order on my table, order in my pockets, order in my briefcase, order in my notebooks, order on my bookshelves. Well-organized people have much better chances of success than the rest of us. Efforts to keep things organized are just as important as efforts to learn, to understand, and to conduct research. […] Reprints of my first publications arrived today. At the same time I received a request for a reprint, from a German professor in Hamburg. This made me feel good; other researchers are interested in my work. I will now send one reprint to Pawlowski; he will probably be proud of me. […]

The large vacuum chamber, for angular-correlations experiments, was delivered from the laboratory in Ivry. Claude and I have been discussing necessary modifications. Working together is much more effective than working alone. Each of us feels responsible for what we do. […]

Summer is over. Work in Orsay is progressing. […] At today’s seminar we heard an American professor from Chicago, N. Sugarman. I read his papers last year but listening to him was something very different. Several of us, including Radvanyi and Claude, had a chance to talk with him in private, after the presentation. His comments about angular correlations were very interesting; Sugarman is a recognized expert in nuclear physics and chemistry. I wish my English was good enough to understand everything. […]

I was one of several people who volunteered to perform the cleaning job inside the radioactive magnetic channel of the synchrocyclotron. My pen dosimeter recorded a 40 mR dose. But my hands probably received at least two or three time more. […] This job was necessary to make some repairs possible. […] There was an article about the Polish writer, J. Kornacki, in Le Monde. His private diaries, describing numerous conversations with Soviet and Polish leaders, were exposed in Poland. Will my private diaries be exposed by secret police one day? I do not want descriptions of my thoughts to be exposed and used against me. That would be very easy because I am not hiding anything. I often fight with myself on these pages. The diaries will be placed in an iron box and left with Tunia. […]

It took some time to make our reaction chamber ready. The mechanical system was complicated by the vacuum requirements. But things seem to be working. Claude is as eager as I am to start using it at the accelerator. But we are not the only people waiting for the synchrocyclotron. Those who control the schedule decided that our setup should first be tested at the nuclear reactor in Saclay. We will have one month to demonstrate that our setup is ready. We are expected to show that the energy spectrum of fission fragments has two humps, and that the angular distribution is isotropic. I have no option but to give up the idea of skiing during the winter break. […]

It is December 28, 1961. We have installed the scattering chamber at the EL-3 reactor in Saclay. Our direct supervisor is Professor Netter; we know him because he was our neutron physics teacher in Orsay. Claude expects to be drafted soon. I find him to be a little shy. Working together we are becoming friends; I hope it will become a life-long friendship. Yes, it is my dissertation topic, but I do not think that this will create a problem. Each of us sees this work as an important scientific contribution. Everything else is secondary. I am certain of this. […]

The Devil is against us. We have been here for three weeks but the expected results have not materialized. Suspecting preamplifiers, we asked Monsieur Corbe, who built them, to come and check everything again. “Your electronic system is perfect,” he said, after examining everything with the oscilloscope. But why do we see about one thousand time fewer fission fragments than we should? We were desperate; the possibility of returning to Orsay without being ready for the accelerator was very real.

The only logical conclusion was that, contrary to assurances, the neutron beam coming from the hole in the protective cement block was not as intense as claimed. So we decided to test this. One night, when no one was around, we took the risk of doing something totally forbidden. Staying far away from the hole, we used the crane to raise the protective cement block up for about five minutes. Then we lowered the block down and ran to our instruments. They recorded thousands of fission fragments, displaying the expected two-humped energy spectrum.


When lowering the block we made sure the hole in that block was aligned with the hole in the first block. [It was probably not aligned before.] We verified the alignment by using a long rod. Now our chamber worked as expected. All data we needed, to show that we are ready for using the synchrocyclotron, were collected in the next two hours. Netter came in the morning and we told him what we did. He said that we disqualified ourselves as scientists. Consequences of this act are unavoidable. I tried to argue with him that this was our last resort--to test the only remaining hypothesis. But he was outraged. Then he left.

Several hours later I called Radvanyi and told him what happened. He was also mad, but not as angry as Netter. He asked us to come to Orsay and show the results. It was clear to me that he was at once impressed by our two-humped spectrum. No disciplinary action was undertaken against us. […]
[I suspect that things were settled privately between professors.]

Next week I will be describing the status of my doctoral project at the weekly seminar. After showing our Saclay results I will outline what we want to do in Orsay. I want to convince others that our scattering chamber can be placed near the exit of the beam pipe. It can remain there permanently, without disturbing other experiments, further away downstream. Naturally, I will say nothing about violating the safety rules in Saclay. [...]

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This is Chapter 11.
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Chapter 01 Brief Summary click
Chapter 02 Extracts From My First Notebook click
Chapter 03 Anya, Ika and Other Problems click
Chapter 04 Death of Our Leader click

Chapter 05 Last Years at Polytechnic click
Chapter 06 Beria was the Villain click
Chapter 07 Aftermaths of the 20th Congress click

Chapter 08 Warm Welcome in France click
Chapter 09 Communists Killing Communists Again click

Chapter 10 Fourth Year in Paris click
Chapter 11 Climbing Toward the Doctorate click
Chapter 12 The End of the Tunnel is Not Far click
Chapter 13 Back to Poland With the Doctorate click

Chapter 14 Missing Diaries click
Chapter 15 Year of Blessings click
Chapter 16 Appendix for questions and Comments click