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Farewells and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
CHAPTER 108 Passings and a Nobel Prize
I'm starting this column on October 17, not having written anything last month. On September 29, my wife of 68 years, Victoria (Vicki) Trumbore, 93, passed away after being at home under hospice care for almost a year. Just a week earlier Frances White, the wife of a good friend and golfing buddy fell and died from her injuries. Coincidentally, Fran and my wife were born just a couple of days apart in 1925! Also, I have just learned of the deaths of two fellow Bell Labs employees, James Auborn and Robert Frankenthal, both of whom provided major inputs to certain phases of my life at Bell Labs and in retirement.
Before paying tribute to my wife let me talk about Auborn and Frankenthal. When I was working on lithium batteries at Bell Labs, Jim Auborn was in another department but we got together and, as well as being golfing buddies and sharing a fondness for lunching at a particular restaurant, Jim was up to date on computers and the Hewlett Packard programming language, hpl. He led me into that world and I ended up writing an hpl program for my computer, which had all of something like 25 K, not gigabytes of memory! I was very proud that I was able to write a program with hundreds of lines capable of cycling over a hundred batteries with individually controlled currents, voltage limits, alarms, etc. Jim was a nuclear submarine officer in Hyman Rickover's navy and in an obituary by Adam Heller (another former Bell Labs employee), Auborn is cited as waiting to see Rickover when he was interviewing to get into the submarine service. He had been sitting for some time waiting for Rickover to show when a fellow came into the room wondering why he was there. Auborn complained to the fellow about how long Rickover had kept him waiting. Of course , the fellow was Rickover! He still hired Jim.
Bob Frankenthal also worked at Bell Labs but I knew him more for his activities in the Electrochemical Society (ECS), in which I was very active. The Electrochemical Society was founded in 1902 in Philadelphia and Bob was in charge of aspects of a celebratory meeting of the Society in Philadelphia in 2002. Around, maybe on New Year's Day of 2001, I was taking a walk and stopped when a car was turning into my path. The driver was Frankenthal and he was just coming from a hospital visit to see Dennis Turner, my predecessor as Secretary of ECS. Dennis had Guillain Barre Syndrome and could not continue on a task he had just started, writing and editing a centennial history of ECS. Frankenthal talked me into taking the job and, for the next year, most of my spare time was spent writing and editing, prodding submissions from chairmen of the divisions of the Society, making trips to Pennington, NJ to consult with staff, notably Mary Yess, on pictures, etc. It was not an easy job! The result was a coffee table size 200-page book and I was proud that we had produced a quality product.
Sixty eight years is a long time. There are many memories of good times and bad that could be shared but I think my wife would have agreed that the most memorable times, aside from things such as having babies and parenting experiences, were during the many trips abroad that we were lucky to have had, thanks largely to my work at Bell Labs and trips to Europe associated with my short courses on batteries in Amsterdam . One trip that was not associated with employment of any sort was a trip to Scotland that was supposed to have been an African safari. Just a couple weeks before the trip my wife had a major adverse reaction to a shot required for visiting Egypt and we had to cancel the safari trip. However, we kept our flight to London and I routed us to St. Andrews, where I made a tee time reservation to golf at the Old Course about 4 PM one afternoon. My wife loved golf but was not a good golfer. When we arrived at St, Andrews there was a gathering of maybe 20 or 30 tourists around the first tee. The starter came on the loudspeaker saying "Will the lady please step to the tee." She did, and hit what I'm sure must have been the best shot of her life, long and straight down the middle of the fairway. There was significant applause from the "gallery". Vicki typically came through when there was a challenge. (I sank a 60-ft putt on that first hole. Then we both returned to our normal unimpressive games.)
Undoubtedly, the most memorable trip when I was at Bell Labs was almost 2 weeks in Erice, Sicily, where I was one of the lecturers in a NATO-sponsored "institute" (course) on microbatteries. Erice is a small town on a mountain (elevation about 2500 ft) about an hour's drive from Palermo. When I was asked to be one of the lecturers I asked one of the organizers, who suggested I bring Vicki, if they spoke English in Erice and the answer was that they all do. Hardly anybody did! My wife would walk around town every morning greeting the shopkeepers with "Ciao", the only word she knew. This was in July of 1988. There was a severe heat wave and people were actually dying from the heat in Palermo. I recall one of those hot days we were taken down to the beach, ostensibly to cool off in the Mediterranean waters. On the side of our bus in large letters was the Italian equivalent of "Air Conditioned". Apparently, the Sicilians don't trust air conditioning because I translated the Centigrade reading of the thermometer in the bus into 122 degrees Fahrenheit!! It was surprising how cool the 105 degrees felt when we got back to Erice.
There was lots of interaction among the some 40 students and 11 lecturers. My wife especially enjoyed two of the women, one from Turkey and one from Portugal. So much so that we have kept in touch with them all these years. In the evening, everyone would eat dinner at local restaurants, charging the meals to the school, and after dinner, it was to the courtyard or rec room of the Centre, where there was plenty of bottled water or, more to the point, kegs of Marsala and a dryer wine. Needless to say, the wines were the more popular beverages. One of the lecturers was a terrific jazz pianist and singer, while others in the group had talents ranging from Bach to Spanish guitar. Vicki especially enjoyed those evenings and that Marsala wine!
She was not the only spouse who accompanied her husband to Erice. One day in Erice she told me that she had gone down the mountain with the wife of fellow lecturer John Goodenough to check out Trapani. Well, would you believe that in the same ECS journal that I found the obituary of Jim Auborn there was an item about John Goodenough getting the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, a prestigious British award. And it was the next day that I opened our daily newspaper and, what do you know, there was John Goodenough awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the lithium-ion battery! Goodenough, 97, now the oldest Nobel winner, shared the prize with M. Stanley Whittingham, credited with being the first to make a working rechargeable lithium battery back in the 1970s, and Akira Yoshino. Yoshino, in Japan, took Goodenough's cobalt oxide cathode and combined it with a carbon anode to form the lithium-ion battery that Sony marketed, profoundly affecting the battery world. Lithium-ion batteries now power everything from Tesla's electric vehicles to those smart things that everybody seems to have up to their ears or pointing at people taking pictures these days, Incidentally, I know Stan Whittingham from back in the days at Bell Labs when we were interacting with Exxon researchers who were also working on lithium batteries. They gave up their efforts when one of their batteries exploded and we bought or were given some of their stuff for use in our lithium battery program.
But wait, I've sloughed over a key component of the lithium-ion battery - the carbon anode. Longtime readers of these columns will know what's coming - the sad story of Samar Basu, a fellow I suggested we hire in our battery group at Bell Labs. Here is a quote from an article by Dr. T. V. Venkateswaran in The Hindu Times ( I'm not sure whether this reference should be to the Times or the Business Line - it's a publication in India) on October 11. He gives what I consider an accurate history of the lithium=ion battery. This quote follows his account of Goodenough's work on the cobalt oxide cathode used in the lithium-ion battery. "Meanwhile, Samar Basu at Bell Labs in the US showed that lithium ions could embed in graphite. He developed a new battery with niobium selenide as cathode host and graphite as the anode host. The electrolyte was salt of lithium dissolved in an organic solvent. Both the anode and cathode could implant lithium-ion. Once the external circuit was switched on, the lithium ions were drawn from the graphite towards the niobium selenide, and the free electrons moved in the reverse direction. During the charging, the electrons could push the lithium ions back to graphite host. This was the first lithium-ion rechargeable battery where the lithium ions swung back and forth between anode and cathode during discharge and charge. As there was no free lithium, the battery was safer."
"This was the first lithium-ion rechargeable battery....". And the cathode was niobium triselenide. I've told the story in these columns of my being a coinventor of a niobium triselenide lithium battery. If Samar Basu had not died, I believe he would have shared in the Nobel Prize with Goodenough and Yoshino. Could I have replaced Yoshino? It turns out that in Erice Goodenough mentioned his work on cobalt oxide and in the book that followed the course there is a figure in one of his papers showing the 4-volt performance of this cathode. Our niobium triselenide battery was only a 2-volt battery. What would have happened if I had been alert and gone back to Bell Labs and replaced the niobium selenide in Basu's battery with the cobalt oxide? Nobel Prize? I looked up an internal Bell Labs report on Erice that I wrote after the trip to Sicily and I mentioned Goodenough and cobalt oxide, but nothing about 4 volts!
Well, thanks to these recent developments, this column has turned out to be much different in content than I had expected. One more thing. Within the past week or so, two women, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, made the headlines by being the first women to walk in space without a male companion. Which brought to mind another passing. The Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov died recently at 85. Leonov was the first person to walk in space back in 1964. Truly a pioneer, Leonov almost didn't make it back. His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he had to open a valve to let out enough oxygen to get back into his Voskhod space capsule!
Finally, a bit of humor. For the past year or so, I had trouble communicating with my wife, whose speech became very difficult to understand and she suffered from dementia. She would often say she wanted to go home and would have to be convinced that she was already home. However, about a week before she died, I greeted her one morning and she said, quite clearly and forcefully, "Where in the world is Chicken Little?" When I said I didn't know, she wasn't satisfied and repeated the question. Today, with all that's going on in the world, it truly feels like the sky is falling. Where indeed is Chicken Little?
Normally, at the end of my columns I say that my next column will be posted on or about the first day of the following month. I will no longer make that prediction as I ponder what to do as a soon-to-be 92 year old widower in a house crammed with incredible amounts of "stuff". I'll try to post a column sometime in December.
Allen F. Bortrum