Monday, December 17, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent the Summer of '91 (Part 3)

Ft Huachuca

If you didn’t catch the first part of this, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

When we arrived at Ft. Huachuca, it was like old home week. While I was in the Army, I had spent probably about a year there, in bits and pieces for training. There was of course no one left there from when I was in training (at least no one I would have known after all that time), but it was still fun to drive around and nostalgically see all the old buildings and places I remembered from 'back in the day'.

That being out of the way, we began the laborious task of installing our system in the trailer parked on the steel mesh that surrounded the wooden crane. My initial think on seeing this set up was a bit conflicted. We were going to attempt to coax a million volts of wild electricity away from the adjacent wooden tower, down our laser beam, and safely grounded out in the steel mesh upon which the trailer containing us and our equipment was resting? This is where ‘science’ comes into play. The trailer was insulated from the mesh by its rubber tires and, where necessary rubber mats. The fiber wire would optically isolate the laser from the lightning which in theory would follow the metal into the ground and not follow the laser back into our trailer for a spectacular explosion. Thus assured by ‘science’, I set about the work of powering my equipment and performing the initial system checks.

I managed to get the laser working in pretty short order. I didn’t actually fire it as Edwards would not arrive until later with the last minute ordered cheapest available optical couplings that would carry the laser outside the trailer to its mount. Additionally, we did not have clearance to fire the laser until the following day, as an aircraft warning the range had issues for planes flying around the area would not go into effect until then. It seems that a multi-watt non-visible laser pointed up in the air was viewed as some sort of flight hazard. That being done, our range escort noted a storm was coming and offered to show us what it looked like from up close at the range.

We piled into his pickup, and rolled into the main part of the field. We came to a stop several hundred feet from the tower, in a (metal) pickup truck, situated in the middle of a field coated with metal mesh, with a lightning storm fast approaching. Again, ‘science’ was on our side, and any nearby strike would not reach us through the rubber wheels of the pickup. In the unlikely event that the pickup was hit, our leather seats would insulate us from a smoking electric death. Our guide helpfully noted that a nearby strike would be preceded by ionization which would be detectable by hair reactions in our neither regions. He was a ‘good ole boy’ so I leave it to the reader’s imagination exactly how that was worded.

After we waited for an hour or so, the storm moved off and failed to approach our field, so we missed seeing any real fireworks. Returning to our trailer, I was inspired by talk of ionization, and decided to see how the charge buildup detection portion of the system was faring with an actual storm nearby. I looked at the measurements and became immediately horrified. What I was seeing was lightning effects, but not for a single cloud. Instead I was seeing a jostling of the stored charge as various charged clouds gained dominance, discharged with lightning, and then was replaced by other to be discharged clouds. Edwards cloud model was thus incomplete… a great description of a cloud with lightning, yet undetectable when masked by a storm front of hundreds such clouds. The code for the detector would need dramatic revision if this system were to work properly.

I spent the night and the next day in and around that trailer, revising the code to use the relative magnitude of the measured ground charge, along with frequency of polarity shifts as a secondary indicator. To say I was a little strung out after such an effort would be an understatement. On the other hand, I was much younger then and had a higher tolerance for such things. In the middle of this, Edwards arrived with the last pieces of the system. I continued to concentrate on my task as he and Olga worked on setting up the optics. I noticed there was something wrong between the two of them, but I did not pause in my task. Later that night, when I was taking a break I asked Olga what was wrong? She informed me that the cheaper, last minute optics that Edwards had brought were not the right specification and instead of ionizing a column of air a thousand feet in the air, at best we would be to ionize a column a couple of feet off the ground, and at worst, the optics would melt and explode. Thus the main event for the next day, the firing of the laser, would not occur.

Needless to say, when the government representative were told the next day that we had their laser protection, but would not be able to demonstrate it due to a last minute ‘mechanical failure’, they were bemused. I had been able to complete my part and stood ready to demonstrate it. Edwards began his presentation, which consisted of informing the government personnel how he had designed and coded the control system. Not his team, not at his direction, no himself had done it, and quite brilliantly. It was at that point I walked out of the room. Olga had a much calmer approach and noticed my exit. She followed me out and talked me into returning to perform my part of the demo, which mainly consisted of stimulating the system to just short of firing the laser, a task that Edwards had no idea how to perform.
It goes without saying the we did not get the follow on contract, and my resignation from that company and movement to another job almost preceded my arrival back home. I still occasionally hear Edwards on the local conservative talk station, as he is wont to call in and express his opinion of things. I really don’t have anything against him, as I have come to understand that his behavior is typical of PhDs. In retrospect, I believe he was doing his best, and deserves credit for the idea of the system, as well as the science associated with it. He did later visit me after I had left his company admit that his behavior was deplorable, and apologized.  I can see how, with the optics failure, he was looking for anything to make himself look better in front of his customer. That being said, I did learn a great deal that summer – much of it had nothing to do with science or programming.

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