Ruby Family History Project Blog

Portuguese consul Emile Gissot

I somehow overlooked a very interesting comment on the blog from early in January. A staffer at the Aristedes de Sousa Mendes Foundation had seen our Ringel escape route postings and wanted to know if the signature on the Portuguese visa in Elly's passport matched any of several other names besides Sousa Mendes. On her list was the name of Emile Gissot, and indeed as you can see from the closeup here, that's who signed off on granting a transit visa to Portugal to our family members in Toulouse on July 11, 1940.

After sending back this photo, I heard back from the director of the foundation with additional questions. She may be able to help clear up our party's movements in the weeks leading up to their arrival in Toulouse. We may also find that our family members will be added to the foundation's roster of those who benefited from the heroic action of de Sousa Mendes.


This site demonstrates the functionality of Family History Machine. Given a set of dates and locations about a subject, it automatically presents maps, timelines, family trees, and articles that provide a visual, informative overview of the subject. Add your original blog posts and media files, and you have the ultimate tool for presenting family narratives.

Quick experiment

Sorry to have dropped the ball on the saga of Stan's experiment. I'm working intensely on a related project at another site. You are invited to visit Traveling Docent, which is meant to be a general tool for exploring history and geography, but I am using some Ruby family content to test the system. I'll post again as the project proceeds.

Meanwhile, here is a photo from the infamous Rustad-Ruby experiment at Brookhaven National Labs in 1952. This is one of a set of photos of the experimental apparatus that I found in my artifact archive. I post more later. For now, this is a test of how quickly this never before published photo will show up in Google image search and be available to Traveling Docent for its Stan Ruby page.

It is 12:25 p.m. on February 11, 2013.

Stan's Columbia transcript

The other mine of information available at my home is the rolling filing cabinet of genealogical artifacts I have collected through the years, including two drawers of documents and items related to Stanley L. Ruby. What I went looking for was his Columbia University transcripts, which I knew were there from previous inspections. At the moment, I was still uncertain of his precise years of enrollment as an undergraduate and graduate student. I realized that I did not know, for example, where his years of military service fit into his academic progression.

The answer to that and numerous other questions was in the three pages of transcripts I found in the drawer. They are oversized pages that don't display legibly at blog size, but click on the one above or two below to view in larger size.

From the transcript we learn that Stan finished two years of college (1941-42 and 1942-43) before entering military service. After the war, he returned for the Spring and Summer sessions of 1946 and finished his degree with a full year in 1946-47.

Feynman wasn't joking

Angular correlation data at three energy ranges in Rustad-Ruby experiment. Feynman questions the validity of the curve-fitting to the predicted tensor (T) values.
I managed to get seriously ill two weeks ago and had to set aside the blogging project right at the crucial moment of my discovery of Allan Franklin's writings on the Rustad-Ruby experiment. Now I can pick up the story again, but without any pretense of it unfolding in real time. The following will be my best attempt at reconstructing the revelation of information about this incident beginning the morning following my return home by Amtrak from a visit to Twyla in Los Angeles. 

For starters, I have my own bookshelves, including a generous selection of my father's science library. Some is in his specialized field of physics and I select titles by Hans Frauenfelder and Harry J. Lipkin. Also, The Story of Spin by Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, which Joanne reminded me that Stan was reading in the last week of his life.

Tomonaga was among a number of physicists who were involved in one way or another in the history of weak force unification, and which might be relevant to the Rustad-Ruby matter. Here we have Leon Lederman's The God Particle, Freeman Dyson's From Eros to Gaia, The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, and What Is the World Made Of? by Gerald Feinberg.

Some of these are more popular treatments for general audiences, none more so than Richard Feynman's classic memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! This volume gives an immediate playback in a full chapter, "The 7 Percent Solution," covering Feynman's involvement in events following the discovery of parity non-conservation. Here, he references the Rustad-Ruby He-6 recoil experiment and reflects on the possibility of scientific errors.

I went to Professor Bacher and told him about our success, and he said, "Yes, you come out and say that the neutron-proton coupling is V instead of T. Everybody used to think it was T. Where is the fundamental experiment that says it's T? Why don't you look at the early experiments and find out what was wrong with them?" 

I went out and found the original article on the experiment that said neutron-proton coupling is T, and I was shocked by someting. I remembered reading that article once before (back in the days when I read every article in the Physical Review—it was small enough). And I remembered, when I saw this article again, looking at the curve and thinking, "That doesn't prove anything!" 

You see, it depended on one or two points at the very edge of the range of the data, and there's a principle that a point on the edge of the range of the data—the last point—isn't very good, because if it was they'd have another point further along. And I had realized that the whole idea that neutron-proton coupling is T was based on the last point, which wasn't very good, and therefore it's not proved. I remember noticing that! 

And when I became interested in beta decay, directly, I read all these reports by the "beta-decay experts," which said it's T. I never looked at the original data; I only read those reports, like a dope. Had I been a good physicist, when I thought of the original idea back at the Rochester Conference I would have immediately looked up "how strong do we know it's T?"—that would have been the sensible thing to do. I would have recognized right away that I had already noticed it wasn't satisfactorily proved. 

Since then, I never pay any attention to anything by "experts." I calculate everything myself. When people said the quark theory was preetty good, I go two Ph.D.s Finn Ravndal and Mark Kislinger, to go through the whole works with me, just so I could check that the thing was really giving results that fit fairly well and that it was a significantly good theory. I'll never make that mistake again, reading the experts' opinions. Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that's the end of you. 

RIP Robert Felenstein

Bob Felenstein, our dear cousin, passed away on Thanksgiving Day several weeks after learning that his cancer had returned and spread to his brain. Several family members, most especially Walter and Marsha, reached out to comfort him and his widow Jane during his last days. Cousin Janis Brenner was able to attend the memorial service held on December 2, 2012. Here is her report.

Dear All, 

As Walter and Marsha already know, I went to the intimate gathering that Jane had this afternoon for Robert, in Baldwin, LI at the small Silver Lake Park. About 20-25 people were there. I brought along a print-out of the photo Leslie happened to have sent the night before, of all the cousins. Jane asked me to say a few words---I was the only family member there. We all stood outside, around a bench, she had brought Robert's guitar, and a photo of him playing and her singing, a pretty wooden box with his name on it, and a cassette deck. A Rabbi said a few things. I held up the photo and said that many of us live so far away and were there in spirit. Jane mentioned Walter wanting to be there, but having the flu. I said how the cousins and families were so close when we were all young; how I recall Robert bringing his guitar to our house and he and I playing songs together on our 2 guitars. One other long-time male friend spoke. 

Jane then put on the music deck and she sang the Beatles "In My Life." It all lasted about 20 minutes or so. Very simple, very touching. I thought very Robert and Jane. 

Love to all, Janis

Thank you, Janis. Here is to the memory of Bob in the fullness of life. And here is to Jane, who has been remarkably strong and courageous throughout.

Allan Franklin's oeuvre

Before I move on to the details of Stan's academic career, I realize that I overlooked mentioning the rest of my literature search for information about Stan's work at Brookhaven.

First of all, Franklin's 2008 paper that we have discussed is far from his first treatment of the subject. (That's Franklin at left.) His 1990 book Experiment, Right or Wrong covers the Rustad-Ruby experiment in detail. His 1998 encyclopedia essay on Experiment in Physics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) includes Rustad-Ruby as one case study, and the article's Appendix 8 is his best summary of the matter in a publicly assessable location. I urge you to read that one. Then, as we have seen, he revisits the entire matter in his 2008 "Inevitability" paper, this time in the context of the academic debate between scientific social constructionists and rationalists.

Nor is Franklin the only historian or memoirist to cite the significance of the Rustad-Ruby episode. Many of the scientists who played a role in the wider story of beta decay and development of the weak nuclear force had opportunities to reflect on the events in later years; or  were the subject of historical articles.

The first ones I discovered were two 2009 tributes to George Sudarshan, covering the questions raised about Rustad-Ruby by one of the key theorists involved in proposing the V-A theory. Another of the theorists, Richard Feynman, appears to reference it in his popular book "Surely You are Joking, Mr. Feynman" (more on that later). T.D. Lee .... Maurice Goldhaber, the head of the physics group at Brookhaven National Lab and later its lab director, talks about it in a retrospective 2002 talk on the roots of neutrino research.

And there is more. I don't have all the references handy. But the point is that the Rustad-Ruby experiment, so little known about in our family, is very widely known and discussed in the literature of physics history. This is due in part to the dogged efforts of one historian who has made it one of the touchstones of his academic narrative, but also to science's natural process of documenting its history both in the moment and in retrospect.

So the reality is that, despite the successes of his later work in the Mössbauer effect and related subjects, Stan Ruby will be most remembered for an experiment that went wrong. We will want to understand just exactly what the error was, and how and why it came to pass.

The legend of Wu

It is time to look more closely at the famous Chien-Shiung Wu. How does a Chinese woman born in 1912 become America's foremost experimental physicist (of any origin or gender)? How do the events of our story fit in the arc of her career development?

We'll start with the basic biography. Raised in a village near Shanghai, educated at women's primary and secondary schools, studied physics at North Central University in Nanking from 1930-34, continuing graduate work until 1936, when she and a young female chemist gained admittance to U.S. universities and set off to America.

Wu settled in at U.C. Berkeley, worked directly under Ernest Lawrence, and earned her Ph.D. in 1940. She stayed there as a lecturer and researcher for several years, marrying another Chinese-American physicist Luke Yuan. She then followed academic opportunities to Smith College and Princeton, but returned to laboratory work at Columbia in 1944, where she played a key role in developing instrumentation for the gaseous diffusion process for uranium separation, an important component of the secret Manhattan Project.

She stayed at Columbia after the war and until her retirement as research associate (1946-52), associate professor (1952-57), professor of physics (1958-72), and Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics (1972-81). We are already familiar with her most famous achievement, the 1957 confirmation of parity violation. That capped her years of work on beta decay and led to further successes in the unification of the electroweak force in the 1960s. Her text Beta Decay (1965) remains the standard reference in the field.

She won just about every honor except the Nobel Prize, among them the Comstock Award, National Medal of Science and Wolf Prize in Physics. She holds many firsts, including first female recipient of a Princeton honorary doctorate (1958), first Chinese-American member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, first female president of the American Physical Society (1974); and the first recipient of the Wolf Prize (1978).

She passed away February 16, 1997, in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment where she had lived for more than 50 years.

There is much more, of course, and I'll want to come back for a deeper look in the future. But this gives context for understanding the crucial events of our story. While Wu's reputation will grow formidably later on, when Stan encounters her in the Columbia physics department in the late 1940s, she is still just a research associate—someone who might have influence in the lab but who is not in position to be his doctoral advisor.

This brings us to the subject of Stan's academic career. What do we know of his progress through undergraduate and graduate school after he got back from the war? Quite a lot, actually, which I will review in a coming post.

No, that's not why dad left Brookhaven

By the time my train arrived at Oakland's Jack London station well past midnight, late due to delayed bus connections in Bakersfield, the main outlines of the story of the reversed experiment had become clear. But a big question loomed: Should this new information change our understanding of Stan's reasons for leaving the nest at Brookhaven and Columbia, as he did sometime in 1953 or '54, to work for industrial labs at IBM and Westinghouse?

The next day I spoke to Walter and Joanne to compare notes on the chronology. I was born on Long Island December 12, 1952. Stan submitted his paper with Rustad on December 31. Stan and Helga moved to Vestal near Binghamton when Stan went to work for IBM after that, some time before Joanne was born there in October 1954. Walter reminded me that they then returned to Long Island for a time following that, living in Massapequa before making the move to Pittsburgh in 1957.

I recalled something about a big storm impacting the move to Vestal. Walter knew right away I was referring to Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm that swept through the lower tier of New York State on October 15, 1954, four days after Joanne's birth on October 11. There were sustained winds of 72 mph in Binghamton.

Okay, but that doesn't get us closer to knowing when they moved to Binghamton, or to a bigger question, why. Was it closer to my birth date or Joanne's? Certainly they wouldn't have moved immediately prior to Joanne's birth, so they must have been settled in Vestal no later than, say, June of 1954, but it could have been any time after January 1953. Still some work to do here.

Nevertheless, I fairly quickly came to see that the timing of the move from Brookhaven could not have been related to possible problems with the experiment. Following Franklin's chronology, which I had confirmed by now by downloading all the relevant scientific papers, the Rustad-Ruby experiment is considered golden at least until 1956. The first suggestion that it might be problematic doesn't come until after the hubbub over parity violation in January 1957. Wu's critical re-examination is in April 1958.

Unless time and effect can run backwards, as relativistic physics allows, then there is no way that something that happens in 1957 and '58 can cause an event four years earlier. No, Stan decided to move on from his post-graduate position at Brookhaven and embark on his career at industrial laboratories for reasons other than a discredited experiment.

Very likely, the reason that we have always understood for the move still applies. With a wife and two sons, and another child on the way, he needed a real salary and future prospects more than he needed the prestige of working on fundamental physics in a world class lab. He was freshly minted grad ready to go out and make his own way in the world of applied physics.

That said, his relationship with Madame Wu bears more study. It is said she was a task-master. Possibly she was immune to dad's charm, and went hard on him. Walter's first email reaction to the revelations was to write, "Screw Wu," but I'm not ready to go there yet. For one thing, we don't yet have access to her critical reexamination, which is held privately at Columbia. Franklin's paper gives us the technical gist of it, but it would be helpful to see the full document to see what else can be gleaned from it.

That to-do goes on my list for pursuing the investigation.

What we learn from Franklin's Inevitability paper

We pick up with the Amtrak San Joaquin pulling north out of Fresno and me struggling to absorb the dense information in Allan Franklin's paper "Are the Laws of Physics Inevitable?" Fortunately Franklin avoids heavy mathematics in the paper and I am able to follow most of it—at least for a while. As he mentions names and concepts, I flip to Wikipedia in my iPad browser for quick refreshers. So here is the thread of Franklin's narrative with some added historical context.

Beta decay had been known and studied since Becquerel had discovered radioactivity in uranium in 1896. In 1934, still in Rome before emigrating to America, Fermi theorized that beta decay occurs when an atomic nucleus transitions from one element to another while simultaneously releasing a combination of electrons and neutrinos (or their antiparticles) as beta radiation. Others picked up on the idea and sought to improve on it. One group in particular modified the mathematics in order to better fit the existing experimental data. Their work met with wide acceptance but was later shown to be wrong. That's the first of Franklin's comedy of errors.

Another pair of famous names, George Gamow and Edward Teller, are next in the story, freshly emigrated to George Washington University from Russia and Hungary. They offer a more generalized version of the equations that allow for spin and angular momentum in the particle interactions. The mathematics to account these quantities becomes rather abstract, resulting in a set of five "couplings"—vector, scalar, tensor, axial vector and pseudoscalar—that can applied in combinations to describe nuclear interactions. The debate for the next dozen years or so becomes which combination of those couplings best describes the beta decay interaction.

For this first time through the material, I am going to keep it really simple and tell you that the scientific consensus by the end of the decade was that the correct solution must be some combination of scalar, tensor and pseudoscalar (S, T, P) or a combination of vector and axial vector (V, A). Meanwhile, a new experimental technique had been developed by various groups that allowed for measurement of nuclear spin and momentum. Such angular correlation experiments were designed to "calculate the angle between the direction of emission of the decay electron and that of the emitted neutrino," summarizes Franklin.

One of the researchers best known for experimental work on beta decay was the aforementioned C.S. Wu, who had come to the U.S. in 1936, studied under E.O. Lawrence at Berkeley, worked on uranium separation for the Manhattan Project, and was now a lecturer in the high-powered physics department at Columbia University, where Stan returned in 1946 to resume his war-interrupted studies.

In 1952, Stan and collaborator Brice Rustad are working in Wu's lab at Brookhaven Labs when they design an apparatus for an angular correlation experiment on an isotope of radioactive helium. Helium gas produced in a reactor is pumped into a semicylindrical volume while two detectors count the emitted particles and direction of nuclear recoil. Thus they can calculate electron-recoil angle for each event and plot a graph of angle to coincidence rate.

Franklin's Fig. 7 shows two graphs Rustad and Ruby published in their February 1955 report in Physical Review, showing the data fit to the predicted tensor values. Franklin summarizes Rustad-Ruby's conclusion: "The theoretical curves predicted on the basis of the various forms of the β-decay interaction clearly show that the tensor (T) interaction is favored."

Here I find myself wondering how it is that this first-time publication by a fairly green postgraduate achieved such attention to begin with. By now I have figured out how to log in to the journal database of the American Physical Society and can see a list of all papers by S.L. Ruby, including a list of papers to reference each of those papers. By navigating citations, you can get a pretty quick idea of how any historical paper impacted future work.

Rustad and Ruby published twice, first in a short report in February 1953 titled "Correlation between Electron and Recoil Nucleus in He6 Decay" and then in a full paper in February 1955 titled "Gamow-Teller Interaction in the Decay of He6." I see that the first has been cited 28 and the second 60 times, and that some of those citations are by names like Feynman, Goldhaber, Frauenfelder, Marshak, Wu—all names I am becoming familiar with.

So why does the experiment get such notice? Franklin doesn't say so here, but it must be because of its association with Madame Wu. Rustad had published with her previously, but this is Ruby's debut publication in the Physical Review. Also, Franklin implies that the result was easy to accept because it supported the prevailing theoretical supposition at the time.

Things changed in a hurry by the end of 1956. Research in particle interactions from cosmic radiation had identified a whole category of new middleweight particles, bigger than electrons but smaller than nucleons, called mesons—and there was a profusion of variants with names like pion, muon and others. It had turned out that mesons exhibited decay transitions very similar to radioactive beta decay, and theorists now sought to find a single explanation for both phenomena.

A particular puzzle for meson researchers at the time was whether two identified mesons, the so-called tau and theta, were two separate particles or two forms of the same particle. One way they seemed different was that they had opposite direction of spin and parity, referring to a long-held principle that spacial reflection (parity) is conserved in force interactions. It was said that nature does not prefer left- or right-handedness—you shouldn't be able to tell the difference if you are looking directly at an event or at it through a mirror.

Conservation of parity was well proven in electromagnetism and for the strong nuclear force. In 1956, two Chinese-American physicists, C.N. Yang from Princeton and T.D. Lee from Columbia, asked if it was possible that parity is not conserved in weak interactions? They examined the literature and found to their surprise that it had never been explicitly tested. They wrote a paper that pointed out the lack of proof and proposed several experiments that could settle the question.

At first, few theorists thought there could be anything to it. Richard Feynman bet $50 that parity would be upheld; Freeman Dyson remembers thinking, "This is interesting," but he didn't pay it anymore attention. Nor did many experimenters rush to do the test, except the redoubtable Madame Wu, Lee's Columbia colleague who cancels a long-planned visit to China to do the experiment as quickly as possible.

It is a complex apparatus that requires the cryogenic expertise of a lab at the National Bureau of Standards, where by December Wu and colleagues have demonstrated that beta electrons emitted from a single layer of aligned radioactive cobalt nuclei preferred a specific direction of emission relative to the nuclear spin. Thus, there was a preferred handedness. No, the law of conservation of parity does not hold in the case of beta decays.

This was big news and before it was announced a second group of Columbia physicists obtained an independent confirmation in a test of meson decays in a cyclotron. Columbia pulled out all the stops when it made the announcement of the two confirming experiments, getting a full page of coverage in the New York Times on Jan. 16, 1957. It was all anyone was talking about at the American Physical Society annual meeting a month later, and again at the important Rochester High-Energy Physics meeting in April. Yang and Lee walked off with the Nobel Prize in October, quite possibly the fastest recognition in Nobel history.

All of that is very exciting and you might expect Stan as a Columbia man to share in the good feelings. Except for one thing. To account for parity violation, Lee and Yang now proposed a new "two-component" theory of the neutrino that predicted a muon interaction that could not be S-T-P. It had to be V–A. Here's Franklin:

By the end of the summer of 1957 parity nonconservation had been conclusively demonstrated and there was strong experimental support for the two-component theory of the neutrino. That ... led to the conclusion that the weak interaction responsible for the decay of the muon had to be a doublet VA combination. Although most of the evidence for β decay was consistent with such a doublet VA interaction, Rustad and Ruby's angular-correlation experiment on He6 provided seeming conclusive evidence that the β-decay interaction was tensor (T). 

In January 1958, Physical Review published papers by Sudarshan and Marshak and by Feynman and Gell-Mann independently proposing a Universal Fermi Interaction with a combination of vector and axial vector (V–A) terms. Both papers directly cited the Rustad-Ruby paper as contradictory evidence that needed to be reconfirmed. Feynman and Gell-Mann went further and said the experiment was likely "wrong."

Franklin's next section is called "The Removal of Experimental Anomalies," and Rustad-Ruby is exhibit one. None other than C.S. Wu, with Arthur Schwarzchild, another Columbia physicist, undertake a "critical review" of the Rustad-Ruby experiment.

Franklin writes that Wu and Schwarzschild raised several questions concerning the apparatus design—a possible variation in the size of the source volume and not considering the effects of the angle of detection—that might have led to an incorrect result. They built a ten-times larger scale model of the apparatus to test the suggestion that the source volume of gas was effectively enlarged by the pressure of gas in the chimney below it. To get the picture, here is the original schematic from the 1953 paper.

Adding together the several corrections that Wu and Schwarzchild calculated to account for artifacts of the apparatus design led them to an overall corrected result that is "more in favor of axial vector (A) than tensor (T), contradictory to the original conclusion." 
Franklin next adds:

Their [Wu and Schwarzchild's] work cast doubt on Rustad and Ruby's original conclusion, and in a postdeadline paper that Rustad and Ruby presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society in January 1958, they agreed with that assessment.*

The asterisk leads to a further comment that "There are no abstracts of postdeadline papers. Ruby remembers, however, that the tone of their paper was mea culpa; private communication, 1989."

I also check Franklin's citation for the Wu-Schwarzchild information and see that it was published in an internal Columbia University Report, April 1958 titled "A Critical Examination of the He6 Recoil Experiment of Rustad and Ruby." (It will sure be interesting to read that full report, I think to myself.)

Finally, Franklin wraps up the section by reporting that one other group at the University of Illinois redid the He6 experiment and concluded that the axial-vector interaction is dominant in beta decay. "One of the experimental anomalies for the V–A theory had been removed," writes Franklin. One more for his comedy of errors.

Whew, this post has gone on way too long. There is still much to come, but for now we end with the train heading through the Sacramento Delta and Allan Franklin restating his inevitability thesis.

The history of the development and articulation of the theory of β decay from its inception in 1934 to the proposal and acceptance of the V–A theory in the late 1950s is an example of what I mean by the inevitability of the laws of physics.... This was not a history of an unbroken string of successes.... Physicists can overcome errors.  

Would it have been possible for some physicist or physicists to propose an alternative explanation of β decay? Logically, of course, the answer is yes. But, as we have seen, theoretical principles and calculations and experimental results—Nature—introduced constraints, so that the development of the V–A theory of the weak interaction seems to have been almost inevitable.