Faculty image John C. VanderVelde Professor Emeritus of Physics


Curriculum Vitae


    1952:  After graduating from Hope College I enrolled as a graduate student in the U of M Physics Department. The chairman at that time was E.F. Barker. We were fortunate to have as teachers such luminaries as Uhlenbeck, Dennison, Crane and LaPorte.

     Upon completing the customary two to three years of courses it was suggested to me that I talk to Dick Crane and his cohort Bob Pidd about doing an experimental thesis on Crane's beautiful idea to measure the g-factor of the electron. I pitched in enthusiastically, but after about six months the current design was running into some snags and it became clear that the senior grad student on the project, Art Schupp, was going to need another year or two to get his thesis data. So Pidd suggested I shouldn't wait that long and perhaps I should see Don Glaser about doing my thesis work with him.

     Glaser was just finishing his first workable 12-inch bubble chamber and was ready to take it to Brookhaven to study the new "strange" particles produced in a beam of pi-minus mesons. I was able to participate in that effort and the student ahead of me, John Brown, did his thesis on those data. My turn was next and, with the help of Jim Cronin from Princeton and the new U of M profs Marty Perl and Don Meyer, we were able to set up a similar beam of pi-plus mesons at 1.23 GeV/c energy. (Or 1.23 BeV/c as it was called in those days.) We took 22,000 pictures in the bubble chamber from which I was able to glean 19 events of the type we were searching for. They were the first observations of the reaction producing a sigma-plus baryon along with a k-plus meson. This was a confirmation of the the "Eight-fold-way" scheme proposed by Murray Gell-Mann. Glaser, Cronin and Perl all went on to get Nobel prizes, so I was in pretty good company back then.

    The Nobel Prize for the bubble chamber was awarded to Don Glaser in 1960, just a year or so after he transferred from Michigan to Berkeley. I defended my thesis at the end of 1957. Needless to say, there was a large flux of bubble chamber researchers at Michigan in those days. Perl and Meyer had been interested initially but soon moved their own separate ways. George Trilling had been hired to replace Glaser and, with the addition of Dan Sinclair from England, stability of the program was restored. I was hired as an "Instructor" in 1958 and Byron Roe from Cornell was also added to the effort.  Trilling eventually moved to Berkeley and Sinclair, Roe, and I received a grant from the Department of Energy to build a large propane bubble chamber to be operated at Argonne National Laboratory. We were also involved in collaborations studying various particle beams, including neutrinos, in hydrogen chambers at Brookhaven and Fermilab.     

   In 1978 Dan Sinclair and I became interested in trying to measure, or set new limits on, the possible decay of the proton. New theoretical predictions based on SU5 theories suggested the lifetime might be as short (!) as 10^^30 years. We formed a collaboration with Lary Sulak (newley hired at Michigan) and the group led by Fred Reines at UC Irvine to build a detector filled with 10,000 tons of water in the Morton salt mine near Cleveland. Maurice Goldhaber from Brookhave national Laboratory also joined us. If the proton lifetime was indeed 10^^30 years we should see 100 events per year with zero background.

   After a few years of operating this "IMB" detector we had studied a lot of interesting cosmic ray muons and neutrinos but saw no proton decays. The SU5 theories had to be changed and, despite another 30 years of study by other detectors, the decay of the proton has yet to be  seen.

    Our years of watchful waiting, however, were rewarded beautifully on February 23, 1987 when a pulse of 100 billion neutrinos, which had been racing towards us at the speed of light for 150,000 years, hit our detector. Neutrinos interact so feebly that only 8 of them produced visible reactions in the IMB water. The happening was totally serendipitous and had never been seen before (or after, so far). The neutrinos were emitted by a supernnova explosion 150,000 light years away and our observations allowed us to confirm the theoretical understanding of how supernovae do their work. The Japanese, who at that time were operating a similar detector, recorded 11 events.

    The IMB detector was operated untill 1993 when a catastrophic leak in its walls shut it down permanently.





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