Don’s Life in Science

(Updated May 2014)

I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, and successfully followed that path through school and with several high-tech employers.  I plan on spending a significant fraction of my retirement years doing science-related projects.  Some of those projects will be built on the foundation laid in my childhood.  These pages show some images and provide some commentary on my life as a scientist.  Many of the images are new photos of hardware I still have, or scans from the original magazines or journals.

The first page describes my earliest memories and photographs, with some of my favorite articles.  To keep this section shorter, other pages contain more details of my Tesla Coil paper and high voltage projects, my weather station papers and experiment on remote sensing, my laser experiences at Hughes Aircraft and Kaman Sciences, my Stellar Products company that designed and built the AO-2 and AO-5 adaptive optics systems, and my long career at Trex Enterprises.


My first science experiment was an attempt to understand the evaporation of water.  I was about four years old.  I learned by watching ‘The Romper Room” on television, that if you left a glass of water untouched, the water would disappear in a few days.  It took me more than 50 years to successfully complete the experiment!

My next experiment was also based on a television show, probably a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon.  I watched with amazement as one of the cartoon characters ran quickly across a wire that was neck-high.  After running through the wire, his head popped off.  A few feet later, demonstrating conservation of momentum, his head landed back on his neck and he continued to run without injury.  I tried to repeat the experiment by stringing a wire between two trees and asking my twin brother Ron to run across it as fast as he could.  He refused, ending my first biology experiment.  I was still about 4 years old, living in Nebraska.

I remember playing with magnets in kindergarten, and thought they were fun.  Maybe this led me back into physics.

When I was 6 years old, I spent my life savings ($6) and mail-ordered a microscope from Montgomery Ward.  I still have it in my lab at home, and still occasionally use it.  Some of the tools and all of the original glass slides are gone, but the clips that hold the slides to the stage, as well as the rotating mirror that illuminates the specimens, are still intact.  I remember looking at bugs, snot, spices, pollen, and sand.  The name on the case inspired me when I started my adaptive optics company fifty years later.


I also played with a magnifying glass in elementary school, about 3rd grade.  I remember getting into trouble with Mrs. Ellwein, a teacher, when I was showing some classmates that I could concentrate the rays of the sun and burn my initials in a piece of wood.  The magnifying glass was able to char the wood and create a little smoke, but I could never get a flame.  I must have dropped the magnifying glass sometime and broken the handle off, but I still have the lens.  It’s about 60 mm diameter with a focal length of 220 mm.

My parents bought a set of youth encyclopedias while I was still in elementary school in Wyoming: “The Golden Treasury of Knowledge”.  My mom bought one volume each week or so from the grocery store, until we had all 16 volumes.  I remember reading them from cover to cover, omitting only the biographical entries.  I remember reading that the 200” telescope mirror on Mt. Palomar was frosted glass.  I thought that I could make a mirror by freezing glass, so I took one of my microscope slides and put it in the freezer.  It did not turn into a mirror.  I was young enough to know a little science, but also knew that I did not know everything, so at the time, it was worth a try!

I did do some chemistry experiments in late elementary and early junior high school, sharing a chemistry set with Ron.  I got a little jar of mercury from a classmate (who got it by breaking open some mercury switches that were common in homes).  He showed me how to make copper pennies look silver by rubbing them with mercury.  One day I took an aluminum wire that I had scraped clean with a razor blade, and then placed a few drops of mercury on it to see if it would stick.  The mercury just beaded up, but when I looked at the wire a little later, I could see white whiskers growing out of the wire.  The whiskers grew so fast, I could watch them get larger in real time, perhaps at 1 mm per minute!  I acted like an experienced scientist and recorded this discovery on paper, so I would get credit and it would not be lost to mankind, should something happen to me!  I never pursued this chemistry, but was able to repeat it in college when I had a good camera with a close-up lens.  The wire shown here is about 3 mm in diameter.

In 1963, I bought my first telescope (a small refractor with about 60 mm aperture) for $11.  I pointed it at the moon, and saw craters!  I was so excited, I had to go inside and watch television with my family in order to calm down.  I didn’t tell them what I saw, but I went out a little later and looked again.  I imagine Galileo must have had a similar reaction the first time he saw lunar craters.  I was also able to use this telescope to see the bands on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, although the maximum magnification was only 50x.  Years later, the achromat glass elements started to separate, so I threw it away.  About this time, I also learned to identify the constellations by using a planisphere.  That skill has been useful for the next fifty years.

Since my father was a carpenter and built homes, I always had some nails and wire.  About 1965, my dad taught me how to build a small commutated motor by wrapping wire around some nails, and make the rotor bearings from holes punched in metal strips cut from tin cans.  The motor was no more than 50 mm long.  We used an old model train transformer to power the motor.  It probably spun at 1000 RPM, and was fun to try to optimize the performance by changing some of the variables.

My skills in electronics started when I was about 13 years old.  I took apart some old radios to get parts to play with.  My uncle Lou had taken an electronics course through the mail, and helped me with parts, too.  He even had a Heathkit oscilloscope that he showed me, and explained how some radio circuits worked.  I remember making a crystal radio set, using a real crystal of galena I had found at a gold mine dump in Colorado.  I used a safety pin to probe different parts of the crystal until I got the rectification I needed to make the radio set work with headphones.  I also built some simple one- and two-transistor circuits with a kit (the breadboard is shown in the figure below).  Later, I got a library book with some circuits to try, including a metal detector and AM radio transmitter.

I was confirmed at Immanuel Lutheran Church in 1966, and some of my relatives gave me gifts of a few dollars.  I spent all of it that summer on one purchase from an electronics catalog, including a volt-ohm-meter that cost $12.  My mom was not happy that I spent all of my confirmation money right away, but I felt I really needed that tool to become a better scientist.  I also purchased some small compartmented plastic boxes to organize my parts.  I remember building an FM radio transmitter with a small microphone, which had a range of perhaps 10 meters.  While I still have (and use) this analog meter, the test cables have been replaced several times.  I stopped building a lot of electronics when the magazines started using new-fangled integrated circuits.  They required a 3.3 volt battery to operate, and I didn’t want that kind of restriction.  I even cancelled my subscription to “Popular Electronics”.  Years later, I learned about integrated circuits in college courses, and found out how powerful they could be.  I can still design circuits using transistors.

One of the class projects all students were required to complete in 9th grade (with Ms. Doerr) was to choose a career and write a report on it.  I wrote to the American Institute of Physics for some information.  They sent me these two booklets on what it was like to be a physicist.  When I re-read these now, I see they were pretty accurate!  They confirmed my desire to be a physicist.  The opening sentences of the first booklet: “Someone has said that the only people who get paid for doing exactly what they like are physicists and baseball players.  This is an exaggeration, of course.  But it is true that physics and baseball players both offer prestige, income, pride in the work and, on top of it all, the day-by-day satisfaction of stretching one’s skills to the limit.”  The figure on the right is copied from the second booklet, and I think it accurately described my typical day during much of my career.  The booklet lists a number of current problems in physics, but severely underestimated the problems in producing cheap energy from fusion.


Science fair projects were required of all honors students in high school.  My sophomore project compared using long-range analog television antennas to receive Denver stations from Colorado Springs.  It only got as far as the regional fair.  My junior project on “Flame Amplification” was inspired by an electronics magazine.  It was successful enough to send me to the International Science Fair held in May of 1969 in Fort Worth.  Unfortunately, even though I built my own power supply and did a decent job of testing various chemicals, I only won a few minor awards.  The medal is now a little tarnished, but the silver-and-gold medal still hangs in my home.  I’ve judged a few regional fairs since then, and still enjoy the experience.  My senior project was on the effect of a magnetic field on the transmission and reflection of light.  I grew my own crystals (about 20 mm diameter) of alum, electroplated my other samples, and used a photocell from a camera to monitor the reflection of light from a fluorescent bulb.  I used the strongest horseshoe magnet I could find, but I could see only small effects on the metallic samples.  This project only went as far as the Colorado state fair.


I was always interested in high voltage, and built Tesla Coils and Jacob’s Ladders powered with a neon sign transformer.  I guess I was lucky that I never got electrocuted!  I also loved to watch lightning strikes, and still do.  One day in Colorado Springs, about high school age, I was touching the aluminum window frame while my bare foot must have been grounded on the floor furnace ductwork.  When a lightning bolt hit a mile or so away, I felt a small shock; the window frame acted like an antenna.  I immediately got a little neon pilot light and wired that between the window frame and ground.  Whenever a lightning bolt flashed nearby, either one or the other of the electrodes would flash orange.  This showed that I could measure the polarity of the lightning strike!  I never pursued this discovery, but it made for a very inexpensive experiment.

I started getting serious about astronomy in high school.  Edmund Scientific sold a 6” diameter spherical primary mirror with a 60” focal length.  The catalog explained that for this focal ratio, the difference between a sphere and a parabola was less than ¼ wave, so spherical aberration was negligible.  It was cheap, so Ron and I built the Newtonian telescope shown here.  We followed the equatorial design described in Norton’s Star Atlas, building the mount from oak and steel rods.  A coffee can filled with cement was the counterweight.  There was no drive mechanism, and Dobsonian designs were not yet invented, but we had fun manually moving the telescope to see nebulae and planets from our driveway in the outer part of Colorado Springs. I think I am the one pointing to the finder scope, but that could be Ron.

While Ron seemed more interested in observing nebulae (and sketching on paper), I was interested in photography.  I used a hall bathroom as a darkroom.  I used Kodak Tri-X film, the highest-speed standard negative film at the time, and used either prime focus or eyepiece projection with a Minolta SRT-101 camera body.  The pictures here were probably contact prints from the negatives.  They were short exposures, maybe 0.1 seconds, since there was no tracking.  Multiple images of Saturn and Jupiter were taken by not advancing the film between exposures, and simply allowing the planet to fall on a different part of the film.


I attended the University of Colorado in Boulder as an undergraduate, just as the physics department was moving into a new building.  I was the first student to get some of the standard laboratory experiments to work in the new labs.  The professors were particularly delighted to find that the optical pumping experiment was not broken, as all earlier students had suggested!  I was the only student to sign up for an elective optics laboratory course in my senior year, but the professor was happy to let me take the course alone.  I used modern microscopes and a Questar telescope, but I don’t remember the experimental details.  I also worked a short time helping to rebuild a Cadmium-Helium laser which used a purified isotope for a certain spectral line. These experiences proved to me that I would always excel in the physics lab, and I would have an outstanding career.

I was awarded a fellowship to attend the University of Illinois in Urbana.  I was recruited by Professor Nick Holonyak (who is considered “The Father of the LED”) to join his group at the Engineering school.  My physics department head encouraged me to stay in his department, and I worked the next few years with Professor Klein, who authored the optics text I used as an undergraduate.  I was able to use visible lasers and learned spectroscopy after building a novel dual-grating spectrometer based on concave holographic gratings.  I also learned to troubleshoot commercial electronics without a schematic, and align optical systems.  My one trip to a conference was in Washington D.C., where I presented two papers.  My thesis was on the light scattering properties of a thin 2-D layered metallic compound that was popular at the time.


I accepted a job at Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles in 1978, partly to get out of the cold Illinois winters.  I always wanted to publish papers on my hobbies, independent of the work done at my employer.  My best paper was published in Applied Optics in 1983, as a result of attempting to design a new technique for testing a telescope I was thinking of building.  The paper was well received by one of the reviewers, who even called me to congratulate me before it was accepted, breaking confidentiality protocols.  A few years later, the same paper was reprinted in an SPIE “Milestones in Optics” volume, a book which includes many other famous names in optics.


Another paper I especially enjoyed writing was accepted in “The Physics Teacher” in 1988.  My wife Carol and I enjoyed playing on the swing set at the local playground, but we found it difficult to hold a conversation when one of us were swinging faster than the other.  I realized that our rates could be synchronized due to non-linear effects at large amplitudes. Carol helped me take data that was published in the journal, making this paper a sentimental favorite.


About the same time, I published a paper on Tesla Coils.  That paper was also well received, and has been used in different physics lab courses at several universities.  The idea was that it was a low-voltage, hence safe, demonstration, and the output followed the theoretical model very well.

My sister-in-law had a friend whose hobby was shooting pistols at various targets in quick succession.  The object was to see how quickly the shots could be fired from a 45-caliber pistol.  A small computer from Radio Shack had just come out with an LCD display and a port that allowed access to the microprocessor.  An article explaining the machine language code showed how it could be programmed.  I added a microphone and a threshold detection circuit, then interfaced it with a built-in clock.  This small package could be used to time the individual shots and display the results on the LCD.  The device was called “FIST”, and I sold a few of them.  This was my first experience in the business and manufacturing world.

I’ve subscribed to “Science News” since about 1975, and have religiously read every article.  I’ve sent in a few comments, but this one about cause-and-effect was my first one to get published, in 1985.

When President Bush announced plans to put a man on Mars by 2019, I thought of my nephew Court.  He was very athletic, a little smaller than average, somewhat interested in collecting rocks, and a perfect candidate for the first Mars astronaut crew.  The letter here was published in “Rocks and Minerals” magazine in 1990, and I have seen posters of it re-displayed in mineral collections at various rock shows.  Too bad, that NASA never received sufficient funding for the program.  Court grew up to be a gymnast/trainer, and now works in the Texas oil fields analyzing drilling operations.  I think I had a good guess!

After developing adaptive optics for amateur astronomers in the mid-90s, I started to see more and more images of planets in the astronomy magazines.  They were taken with small webcams, and image processing made it appear that the resolution was much higher than one would expect based on the laws of physics.  In response, I wrote an article that was published in “Sky and Telescope” magazine in 2005.  I took some ideal pictures and processed them through webcam software to show what you can really expect to see.  More recently, better cameras with low noise and high frame rates are available, but I don’t think that the results in the article would differ.

In retirement, I want to start some projects that I never had time for.  With modern technology, the Internet, discretionary money, and computer-aided design and high speed digital control, some of the projects will be easier or even more successful.  One of these is growing crystals.  I will probably start with the standard technique of using a water-based, super-saturated solution, but I hope to change techniques and materials to grow more exotic crystals.  I have no illusions that they will rival some of the specimens in my real mineral collection, but it will be fun updating the original plans in this book I got in 1964.  Fifty years is enough time to wait!



Tesla Coil Paper and High Voltage Projects

Laser Experiences at Hughes Aircraft and Kaman Sciences

Stellar Products Adaptive Optics

Trex Enterprises Career

Weather Station Papers and Remote Sensing Experiment

Don Bruns’ Home Page