UW News

December 10, 1996

Research crosses continents, disciplines and generations

It had been a frustrating computer search for Vicki Schroeder, a geophysics graduate student at the University of Washington. First the trail for information led her to an aeronautical institute outside Paris. Then to the University of Padua in Italy. Finally she found her quarry. It was work done in the early 1950s on atomic processes by Ronald Geballe.

Who, asked Schroeder, is Ronald Geballe?

Who indeed: He was sitting only a few steps away in Guthrie Annex lecturing 13 and 14-year- olds on the elementary laws of physics. He was, as he puts it, “having a lot of fun teaching some very lively students.”

Thus were Schroeder, a 25-year-old from Cape Town, South Africa, and Geballe, a 78-year-old dean emeritus of the UW graduate school and professor emeritus of physics, brought together this fall by research that spanned more than four decades. “I could hardly remember my own work, it was so long ago,” says Geballe, a white-haired, genial man who for the past 12 years has been teaching in the UW Early Entrance Program.

It was great fun chatting with him,” recalls Schroeder. “He was so happy that anyone would still find his work relevant after all these years.”

As so often happens in academic research, Geballe’s work was in an area that at first glance would seem to have little connection with Schroeder’s project, which will become part of her doctoral dissertation on cloud physics.

Geballe recalls that while he was professor of physics at the UW, he and his graduate students were experimenting with the collision of electrons with oxygen molecules in an electric field. At that time, he says, the processes were not well understood, and the experiments helped to “disentangle” them. The research was published in Physical Review. Apart from a query in the late 1950s about the relevance of the research to the study of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, his research remained largely forgotten — even by Geballe.

Fast forward four decades. Vicki Schroeder is researching her doctoral thesis at the UW under professor of geophysics Marcia Baker. She and her husband, Brett, a doctoral candidate in solid state physics, came to the University in 1994 from the University of Cape Town.

Schroeder’s main area of research is to understand how the spark that produces lightning gets started, and particularly to explain how, if the electric fields in clouds are so low, lightning is even produced. One of her projects is to understand how electrons attach to molecules in air. Baker suggested that she contact Onera, an aeronautical research group in France that is studying the effects of lightning on aircraft and buildings. The French scientists suggested she contact the Italian researchers. They in turn referred her to a myriad of research papers. This led her through countless computer searches, until she stumbled across Geballe’s work.

“I told Marcia Baker I had found some research,” Schroeder recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, whose is it?’ I said it was by Ron Geballe, whoever he was. And then Marcia laughed and said, ‘but he’s right here.’ “

In fact, Geballe has been “right here” since August, 1943, when he arrived at the Applied Physics Laboratory from the University of California at Berkeley. His war-related research ended, he stayed on to become assistant physics professor, then a full professor, then chairman of the physics department, and in 1975, dean of the graduate school and vice provost of research.

It was during his tenure at the graduate school that he helped launch the early-entrance program, in which talented youngsters are admitted to the university. Then, shortly before his retirement from the UW in 1984, he was asked to teach a physics course in the program. He has been doing it ever since for two academic quarters a year, five days a week.

And how does an eminent scientist who has reached the age of wisdom communicate with adolescents? “They ask lots and lots of questions,” he declares. “Some I don’t know the answer to, and lots of questions there isn’t any answer to.”