I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr George Baldwin, author of The Science Was Fun. George is 89 years young, and spent his working years as a nuclear physicist. Much of his career was spent trying to create a device called the Graser (Gamma Ray Laser). The Graser is an illusive goal for the nuclear community. There are significant problems that still need to be solved. Dr Baldwin has been retired for almost 20 years, his friends and associates persuaded him to write an account of his long and illustrious career.

Much of your career was spent chasing the elusive Graser, my impression is that this is one of the ‘holy grails’ of the physics world. If you could do it over, would you pursue the Graser?

In the book I say “I wouldn’t change a thing!”  But I really should have done something else after about 1975. The money for research was just not there. Without the financial backing it is hard to pursue any challenge.
Is the graser any closer today that it was in the 70’s?
No not really. We thought it would be relatively easy to create, unfortunately many of the obstacles that we faced are still there. 

Today the graser is much less likely to be realized than when we thought it might be easy. The problems are many; in fact I do not think that it is feasible to build a Graser. I have spent over 60 years trying to create the Graser, I can not see a way around some of the engineering issues.

One of the points that you make is the sad lack of bright young minds entering the field. What is the solution to make the science fun again?
When I retired in ’87, the Executive of the American  Institute of Physics urged me to write my memoirs as a help in the recruitment of young physicists. Scientific research is always fun.

Although you have been retired for nearly 20 years, I find it impossible to believe that you are not at least involved in fringes. What is the next ‘hot’ project that grabs your attention?

I was slightly involved up until last year. I had an article rejected, so I finally
retired for good. The article involved the feasibility or rather the infeasibility of building the Graser. At that point I decided that I had had enough.

If you had to pick one high spot in your career, what would it be?

When I first thought I knew how to make a gamma-ray laser.
It is clear that in your early years of research being multidisciplinary, chemistry, physics, electronics, even optics, was a must have! That is a big list of things to know. Do today’s graduates have that broad background?

It is a choice of knowing a single field well, or N fields only 1/N well. For research to work in today’s world, everyone needs to work together. The scientists have become very specialized, as a result they know a lot about a very small field. The one area that shows great hope is the Bio-Engineering sector. Biologists, Chemists, and even Physicists are working together with a common goal.

Physicists seem to want to stick by themselves, without collaboration there can be no significant gains.

You did not enjoy the politics on occasion. What needs to happen in the academic world to make it so that creators can create?

Reduce the amount of time and effort scientists must expend in begging for financial support!

It was an honor talking to Dr Baldwin, I wish him all the best with his book. I certainly learned a lot about the politics in science. You can find my book review here.

Simon Barrett


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