Choosing MIT

With the guidance of the Dean of Men at Lincoln High School, Herb begins his quest to pursue his love of the sciences – which takes him to MIT, then Purdue and, ultimately, a career at Lincoln Lab.

I decided I wanted to be a physicist


  • The reason I went to MIT is I had read a book about Paul Dirac who is one of the great physicists of the 1930s who helped to invent quantum mechanics. It talked a little about quantum mechanics and that just fascinated me. It was such a strange thing that I decided I wanted to be a physicist too. A bunch of the kids on the math team wanted to go to very good colleges and become doctors because it is every Jewish mother’s wish that the son become a doctor or a lawyer or a CPA. Two or three of them actually did that. A couple of the guys on the math team went to Harvard. They eventually became doctors but I’ve lost track of them. When I was at MIT and they were at Harvard, they took me to the Harvard eating place once. I saw them 2 or 3 times but we didn’t really keep up after that.


  • The way things worked in those days is the Dean of Men told you which college you could go to. That is, he had a certain number of slots from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, all of those. So, he was your guidance counselor as to where you could go to college. You would go and tell him what colleges you wanted to go to, and then he would tell you what college he could get you into. A couple of guys from the math team got into Harvard - he had some slots there. Some for Princeton. He had two slots for MIT. There were three of us on the math team that wanted to go there, but I think he picked me because I had aced the SATs. I got perfect scores on the SATs, so that was impressive enough that he thought MIT would take me. Plus, they gave me the math medal when I graduated from high school. I would have rather had the physics medal, but you take what you get. So, he told me I could go to MIT. The other two guys, I think, ended up going to Cornell. I applied to Columbia, MIT, and RPI. I got into all 3 of them.


  • I felt a little bit bad about going to MIT because if I had gone to Columbia or RPI, since they were in New York State, I would have had a scholarship there. For some reason, I really wanted to go to MIT. I think it was hard on my parents producing that (tuition). They never took a vacation in all of the time that I was going to college. My sister, Chickie, was becoming a nurse because that’s another thing you could be during that era, so she had become a nurse while Irwin was overseas fighting. I remember getting a letter saying I could go there, but I don’t remember my parents being enthused. My father didn’t really know what MIT was. There was this famous thing he said when I told him I was going to be a physicist, he said, “From that you’re going to make a living?” But they always wanted us to do what we could do.

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Scientists in the lab


Transitioning to Graduate School


  • I graduated from MIT, and I wanted to get to the west coast. I had applied to Berkeley, CAL Tech, USC, UC Santa Barbara, and none of them would offer me anything so I said, “ok, you better stay at MIT.” I started graduate school at MIT and that’s when I met Sumner Davis who was working in the spectroscopy lab. I started to do a thesis with him but he was a young assistant professor and had no money at all. The lab was run by Dean Harrison and his goal in life was to make perfect diffraction gratings. MIT made the finest gratings and shells and other things that you got by scribing in a very controlled fashion on aluminum. Dean Harrison said, “I will give you a research assistantship - subsistence pay - and you work 24 hours a week on my projects.”


  • I was trying to do a thesis with Sumner Davis so I would work on my thesis during the week and then on Thursday, I would work for 24 hours straight because Friday morning you reported to the dean. I would work for 24 hours, come and show Dean Harrison all the work I had done and then go home and crap out. And then start on my thesis when I was done. I did that for about a year and I probably would have stayed and done that although I hated working on the grating engine. I remember once I was babysitting the grating engine and you monitor the atmospheric pressure so you can adjust how that affects the scribing of the grating and the pressure kept dropping, dropping and dropping. Finally, I hit stop on the machine. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It turned out that a hurricane had gone through Boston at the time and I didn’t know it. That was in October or something. But, at any rate, what happened is that Sumner got a faculty position at Berkeley so he absconded. I was left without a major professor and I didn’t want to stay just working on the grating engine. That was not my idea of life.


  • I was about ready to just quit college at that point but Soule Champ – a friend from MIT - and Ray Fessel had gone to Purdue. Ray called me and said why don’t you apply to Purdue, they’ll take anybody. So, I applied to Purdue and they took me and gave me a teaching assistantship there. There was a spectroscopy lab there also – a very famous one – with Karl Meissner running it, a real old German professor who came over in 1939 when things got bad because his wife was Jewish. The Purdue physics department had about a half dozen German physicists who had fled from the Holocaust. He was a famous spectroscopist who did outstanding work in Fabry Perot spectroscopy which is the way you make lasers as it turns out. If you have a Fabry Perot and put the proper gas in it, and pass a current through it, whamo you get a laser. Meissner looked at me and said, “You’re young, you’re single, you’re not going to go anywhere fast, you can come work in my spec lab.” So that’s the way I started working in the spec lab.


  • I went into physics, in a sense, just at the right time. Just when the government decided “Wow, the Russians are ahead of us, we are going to put money into science.” I enjoyed it more when I was actually doing physics. Once I got to Lincoln Lab, the first 5 -6 years were still ok because I was still doing research but eventually you get booted into administration.

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Herb (2nd from left) with Prof Meissner

Building a Career: Lincoln Lab


  • The shock of my life: at one point, they put me in a division office. We were running a $150M/year program because DARPA decided that they didn’t want to have any part of Star Wars. I had gone down with 3-4 other guys from Lincoln. We were making a modest proposal to do a $10M laser radar program, and the guy who was the head of DARPA at that point said, “Look, we don’t want anything to do with Star Wars. We have $150M. You take the whole thing or we’ll give you nothing.” And we had to sit there in his office that day and write a proposal. I wrote a paragraph. Chuck wrote a paragraph. We faxed that back to the lab. The word came back, “OK, we’ll take the money,” and that’s how Lincoln got that whole Star Wars program. The whole Star Wars program was given to Chuck. He needed an associate division head and they came and said, “OK Kleiman, you are going to be the associate division head because nobody hates you”. So, I went into a division office. I tried to keep up with technical work to the extent that I could but mostly you were going around to different companies giving them money and then having to check up to see that they were doing any sort of decent work. There was no hands-on work for me anymore which I didn’t like particularly. What made it bearable was that Chuck is a very good guy – he’s probably my best friend at this point - and we would share the agony.


  • I think I was happiest again when Star Wars ended. They dissolved the division I was in so they made me a senior staff which is the path they have for people who are good technically, but they don’t want to do any management. For 5 years, I was a senior staff in tactical technology which was different from the laser stuff I had been doing. And that got me into the field a little bit. It was sort of interesting for about 5 years. That was between my age of 60 and 65. Stars Wars went bust when I turned 60. Then for 5 years, I was a senior staff. At 65, I retired, but it was sort of a Lincoln retirement, that is, you can work part time up to 50 percent. I would typically work 30-40 percent a month, and that was nice because there is not a lot of pressure anymore. They use you as they see fit. I would work with some of the younger staff that had come in. I was the visible light and infrared expert in the division for a while anyway.


  • Going in the field was very interesting. We would build specialized equipment at the lab that would do certain things and then you had to take it out in the field to test it. And this often involved firing guns and stuff like this which, as lab people, we are not allowed to do. We had a team of Green Berets assigned to us and we were at the White Sands Missile range in New Mexico. We went there with a bunch of Green Berets. We had some specialized equipment and they were there to fire mortars for us. They had gotten hold of some Chinese mortars. They would fire them and we would do experiments on tracking them. We had lasers and we were tracking the missiles as they came out and figuring out where they were fired from so you could immediately fire back at it. It was a reasonably successful program. But it was interesting hanging out with Green Berets. After 10 hours in the field, we would go back to the grubby motel that we were all staying at because there isn’t any great infrastructure in the middle of the desert. Going out to the bar. They would get drunk. I would sort of get drunk. I’d get drunk a lot sooner than they’d get drunk, let’s put it that way. That was interesting. A different part of life.


  • When I was in the division office, we were also running laser radar things. We had experiments where we were firing missiles out of the missile range in Virginia, there is a NASA facility there. They would fire missiles out over the Atlantic, and we would track them from Firepond – a laser radar facility we had there. That was to try and discriminate a real warhead from a decoy. We were able to make detailed imagery of the objects so that we could say, “Oh, it’s a cone-shaped object” as opposed to “it’s just a balloon”. That’s still a very active field. It has advanced way beyond that now, but discrimination is still a very important part of what Lincoln does. We were building some high-energy lasers at the lab also. Then we were working very late. We would work all day from 8 to 10 at night, or something, trying to get this machine to work. It finally did work more or less. We were trying to develop laser radars which were developed at some point later.


  • They (Lincoln) run the facility out at Kwajalein also. I had to go out there once for a week – that was no fun. Kwajalein is in the middle of the Pacific. They have a missile range there, and a complete radar facility that Lincoln built up. Now I think Raytheon may have taken it over, but there are still some Lincoln people out at Kwajalein. For at least 30 years, they have been in the ABM business trying to discriminate ballistic missiles from decoys. I had to go to Kwajalein for 1 week. The director there for some reason liked me which is not a good thing. When I was offered the division position, I didn’t feel competent to take it, and I said to someone, “Are you sure you didn’t want Al?” who was our group leader. The next morning, Jerry came along and he put his arm around me – and that’s a bad sign – and he said, “We don’t want to cause Walter Morrow any problems.” That’s all he said, and he left. So, ok, I accepted the job. It was very clear that it wasn’t a job I could reject. I have some good memories of Lincoln Lab. It was pretty much good to me. There were only a couple years there where I felt, “What am I doing here?”

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Firing mortars