Guest blogger interview with Dr. Lanzerotti…



In November I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Louis Lanzerotti. Dr. Lanzerotti is a very nice man and has many interesting stories.  The interview was a pleasant experience. Here is my recount of the questions, answers, and stories.

1) When did you become interested in science?

That’s hard to say. When I was a child I started building things, mostly houses and buildings out of cardboard, small things like that. Then I got into crystal radios and telegraphs. Then I learned Morse code. Some of my colleagues at Bell Labs had become interested in ham radios but I never got a lot out of ham radio. I just liked to listen and build things.

2) Why are you interested in science?

Because I was always interested in how the world worked, why the world was there, and why it worked. I don’t know why. I was always interested in building things too. That’s why I went to Bell Labs. I could do some engineering as well as science. I liked the combination of those two things.

3) How did you pursue your interest in science?

Well, I built little things, constructed little houses out of cardboard. And I don’t know if that’s science but, measurements and stuff. I built one tube radios, and crystal radios. I tried to build a rocket once with firecrackers. There’s a part where I put them in a tube and it blew up! (ed note: kids do not try at home) It’s a danger to the eyes, no doubt. Later when I went to college, I took a lot of math courses. I was very interested in math. In high school I had a math teacher who was very good and she encouraged me to do more than just trigonometry and geometry. But when you’re in school, you rebel. I liked to fuss around. I was on the yearbook staff, and I’d do that instead of math. I always did a lot of math.

4) As a kid, did you have friends who loved science the way you did?

No, I don’t think any of them were as intense or active in science as I was. I just liked to build things. I built crystal radios and two tube radios. I had a lot of friends. We used to go camping and hiking. None of my friends built radios. It was very hard scavenging for spare parts. There was a radio dealer, television dealer, and occasionally they’d have a spare part. You know, we lived in a mining town. There wasn’t anybody collecting spare parts in those days.

5) Did you take Shop Class?

Yes, in high school. Even now, I love to wander around hardware stores and Radio Shack. I go to the Bernardsville Hardware Store and I walk around and look at all the things. It’s just fun.

6) Where did you attend college?

I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, College of Engineering and Physics. I was a graduate at Harvard for my PhD in experimental nuclear physics.

7) How long did it take you to get your PhD?

5 years, my wife finished in 4 years.

8) What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?

I went to Bell Labs after graduate school because I wanted to build things, do some engineering, and do science too. When I went to Bell Labs it was the beginning of the space age. I used my background in nuclear physics to work on communication satellites  – to measure the radiation around the earth that affects the operation of the communication satellites. That was the reason I went to Bell Labs – to use what I learned in graduate school, and build some of the instruments that went into space, which is what I did.

Bell Labs had a lot of communications – covers a wide range of things, and they had a number of problems with the space environment around earth, which affected communications in various ways. So I did a lot of different projects. I measured electric fields across oceans using AT&T cables. I sent instruments into space on AT&T spacecraft and NASA spacecraft.  I also did some laboratory experiments where I used electrons and protons to irradiate ice. We made ice in the laboratory in a low vacuum, then we irradiated it with electrons and protons, and we had water-ized, ammonia-ized combinations of ice and that was very interesting. I was involved in Voyager, and we were going to go to Jupiter. One of the most wonderful things about Bell Labs was the lunch table. We had these round tables we’d sit at and talk about what we were doing. Most of my patents came from sitting around the lunch table talking to people. One day at lunch I said, “You know, Voyager is gonna get to Jupiter. Jupiter has a lot of intense radiations – electrons and protons. That radiation is hitting all those icy satellites of Jupiter. What does radiation do for ice?”  My colleagues around the table were condensed matter types and all, and nobody had an answer. So one of my colleagues said, “Why don’t we do an experiment?”  So we set up an experiment to irradiate ices, and we did that for almost eight years, and we published some papers on that, which were very interesting, and it was very important for when we got to Jupiter and measured particles at Jupiter. Turns out we made some important advances in understanding not just the radiation of ices but ice is a semi-conductor and so it turned out it was really important for AT&T which was still doing microelectronics at the time. In particular, it was important for resist, resist materials, on how you can change the resist materials to make better electronics. So that’s one of the things I did. I was also involved in measuring lightning in Jupiter’s atmosphere. I built an instrument with some German colleagues. AT&T also had problems with lightning because lightning could affect underground cables and the communications, so AT&T was interested in lightning. So I said, ‘okay, we’ll measure lightning on Jupiter and earth too and that will help understanding’, and everyone believed it, which is true. We did a lot of measurements of lightning in Florida quite a number of summers. We used that information to design an instrument to measure Jupiter’s atmosphere, and was done mainly with German colleagues at the time, as this was a German-U.S. project in the 1980s. The instrument was an atmospheric probe and we built it.  It was back almost to my childhood where you wrapped wires around a coil for measuring radio – that’s how radio works, you have wires wrapped around coils and it measures frequencies, and that’s what we had: wire wrapped around coils. We tuned it to frequencies we thought lightning in Jupiter’s atmosphere might be. You asked me a very open ended question!  Now I have two instruments flying around space. We’re measuring the earth’s radiation environment and it’s back where I started 50 years ago. It’s back to the future for me. So this is my last space mission and it’s a lot of fun. We’re getting a lot of data, and I’m having a good time analyzing data. We launched a year ago August.

9) What’s the largest known molecule?

I don’t know. There’s a very large one in astronomy. I don’t know biologically. I’m not going to answer the question. That’s a good question. Google it and you’ll get an answer for the largest molecule seen by astronomers with telescopes, and you’ll also get an answer for biological systems.

10) Were you ever interested in pursuing a career in anything other than science?

I think not. I was interested in the combinations of science and engineering.

11) Did you have any mentors to guide you?

Only in high school. There was almost no science to speak of in grade school. In high school there was a great chemistry teacher. He’d lead us around, especially me, doing extra experiments in the lab. I always liked to do things with my hands. Once, he let us hydrogenate vegetable oil, and he’d ask us great questions. Our chemistry class had about 25 kids in it. Most of them weren’t interested. We didn’t do much in class, but he encouraged us later. I’d say he was my mentor. At the University of Illinois, Charlie Slichter was my mentor.

12) Do have some advice for kids interested in science?

Explore widely the opportunities there are in physical science: physics, chemistry, materials; and biological sciences (medicine, life sciences).  Also, read broadly on your own.  It is important to be quantitative, to have a quantitative base for science. You must have a strong foundation in math and science. I recommend reading “Advice to a Young Scientist” by P. B. Medawar.


Anh-Minh Tran – 4H


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