About Site


















March 1968
Added to website March 1, 2018


Every Sunday, I usually tried to write a letter home from Oberlin College to my parents in Richwood, Ohio.  However, my Physics 38 assignments were due on Monday, and I often spent all day Sunday working on them.  So I apologized on Monday, March 4, for writing a day late.

I wanted to report whether the mail from home had arrived the previous Wednesday, but I couldn't.  “I used to be able to remember such things, but I seem to be about twice as busy now with the radio work, and I don't have time to replay the week so I can remember the details later.  If you'd asked me last year what the weather was the preceding Friday, I would have been able to tell you, but now I'm too busy doing things to think much about them.”

One of the things I had to do the next day was an assignment for Physics 36.  It somehow involved the number n and the probability Pn of detecting n gamma rays being emitted in a tenth of a second from a sample of cobalt-60.  Using a pulse height analyzer to slice 39.9 seconds of radiation into 399 tenth-of-a-second observations, we had experimentally noted that the most commonly observed n was 71 of these high-energy photons.

But first I had to explore the statistics of bionomial distributions by evaluating the following expression for various values of n.

So I sat on the bed in my dorm room and consulted my trusty paperback book of six-place logarithm tables.

In those days, no one carried around their own laptop computer.  For approximate calculations we used slide rules, and for more precision we used log tables.  There was also an SCM Marchant calculator (a fancy adding machine) in the chemistry building.  And we could write programs for the college's IBM mainframe computer, but for that I would have to walk across the quad to the physics building and hang out there for a couple of hours.

Instead I preferred to stay in my comfortable room and use the log tables to crank out calculations like this one for n = 5, which led to a value of P5´ = .033868.


I filled 2½ pages in my lab notebook with similar computations for n = 0 to 20.  My professor, Robert Warner, added this comment to my notebook:  “Probably the computer can do these calculations even more rapidly than you can!”  Well, yes, and if I could have had a computer in my room I would have.

But I took the professor's hint.  Ten days later, I wrote the FORTRAN program shown here for the IBM.  After making a correction just before line 40 (DATUM – 5.0 should be D – 5.0), I actually got a usable printout.  It showed the probability peaking at .04778  for 69 counts in a tenth of a second, with a chi-squared of 35.45 for 31 degrees of freedom. 

I no longer know what any of this means.

(Have you noticed I've forgotten much of what I was taught in class, but I do remember the fun stuff?)


Visiting Cleveland

On Wednesday, March 6, a small delegation from our campus radio station drove 40 miles to downtown Cleveland to apply for our official broadcasters' licenses.   The tests were administered by the Federal Communications Commission at a federal building, namely the Post Office at 3rd and Prospect.

With a couple of hours to kill afterwards, eight of us walked over to Higbee's department store (which would later be featured in the movie A Christmas Story).  I recall the antiquated wooden treads on the escalators.  Our group included several WOBC disk jockeys, so our “shopping” consisted mostly of browsing through Higbee's record department.

photo from Internet

Government agencies were efficient in those days.  My license was issued just six days later!  When it arrived in the mail, I posted it near our transmitter, next to those of the other WOBC operators.


St. Pat's Day

On Sunday, March 17, according to the Oberlin Review, “The annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, which two years ago chased all snakes from campus and last year eradicated the bookworms, marched from Harkness Sunday with revolutionary zeal to ‘sweep away the Oberlin gray!’  After purging Dascomb with ‘fire and the motorcycle,’ the crowd stormed WOBC, leaving tell-tale blobs of green in its wake.”

I was familiar with all those places, but somehow I missed the excitement.  I wrote home that it was “a beautiful spring day after the fog lifted.  I really enjoyed being able to walk to church without wearing an overcoat.”

My lab partner, Jan Olson, didn't wear green on March 17.  Not being from Dublin, she preferred to act contrary and wear orange instead.

In class one day, her jacket was hanging on a chair.  For some odd reason, I was inspired surreptitiously to slip in a bit of paper with the question, “Do you ever look in your pockets?”  I concluded that she didn't.


New Leadership

Meanwhile, I applied for the position of WOBC Station Director for my senior year.  As it turned out, it wasn't much of a gamble.  I ran unopposed.  A classmate asked me why anyone would want that job.  “For the power, I joked.

However, there were many more candidates — 46 of them, in fact — vying for seats on Student Senate (above).  Campus activists wanted a Senate that would advance their hopes for change.

On Monday night, March 18, eight of those candidates appeared on Oberlin Digest.  The election was held the next day.  As I described here, that evening I broadcast the election returns live on WOBC as they were posted on the big board in the lobby of Wilder Hall. 


Counting Waves This Time, Not Photons

The next day, Wednesday, Jan and I returned to the Physics 36 laboratory for our third experiment of the semester.  Part of it involved setting up a Michelson interferometer, for which I drew a schematic sketch in my lab notebook.

Note:  In my college days I still wrote formal documents like this in cursive, or “longhand,” using a pen — as I had been taught in about fifth grade.  But that wasn't the easiest to read.


With the interferometer, we measured the distance between fringes of sodium yellow light, something like this photo.  According to reference books, this light consists of two wavelengths, 5.89 and 5.90 x 103 ångströms.  We couldn't resolve the two, of course, but we measured their average as 6.40 x 103 ångströms.  That's 8.7% greater than the accepted value.

Then we realized there might be a way to reduce the effects of backlash in the micrometer screw.  That enabled us to obtain a better result the following day.  Our revised measurement of 5.97 x 103 ångströms agreed much more closely with the accepted value, good enough for an A-minus grade on our laboratory exercise.

That day, Thursday, happened to be the 283rd anniversary of J.S. Bach's birth, so WOBC was playing more than 12 consecutive hours of the composer's music.


Ten Days Off

Our usual afternoons in the lab were Wednesday and Friday, but we went in on Thursday that week because Jan had to leave by 3:00 Friday.  She was headed to Cleveland Hopkins Airport, catching a flight to Philadelphia on her way home for spring break.

That gave me the opportunity to leave campus early as well.  My parents picked me up at 3:30, and we drove back to Richwood before dark.  I was hoping to catch up on my sleep during the week off.  “I've only been getting about six hours a night for the past month,” I wrote, “and I'm beginning to feel it.”

I did play the organ at church that Sunday, March 24.  I listed three of Bach's pieces in the church bulletin, including the chorale preludes “Jesu, Priceless Treasure” and “Hark, a Voice Saith, All Are Mortal.”

It must have been a quiet vacation after that.  The only other detail I recall is the final night, Sunday, March 31, when we watched on TV as embattled President Lyndon B. Johnson made the unexpected announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election.

But the next week would be quite eventful.


COMING IN APRIL:  Reacting to a memorable Thursday, photographing a laser shining through a pinhole, and dealing with the media.  Also, you'll be able to listen to some actual audio from my lab partner and me!

Click here to continue.



Back to Top
More CollegeMore College