First-Hand:An Electrophysicist's Role in Academia and Star Wars

Submitted by Enrico Levi

I was born near the end of World War I in Milano, Italy. Most probably, my family had lived in Italy for more than two thousand years, and at various times, took active roles in creating its history. It was not until the promulgation of the racial laws in 1938 that I discovered that I was not an Italian, but a Jew. I decided to become an engineer at the age of four when I received a steel construction toy called "Meccano." I never regretted making that decision.

My engineering studies at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy were interrupted when World War II began. I had to transfer to the Technion, now the Israel Institute of Technology. There I had the privilege of studying with such teachers as Ollendorf, Naot, and Kurrein. In 1941, I received my first academic degrees, BSc's in mechanical and electrical engineering, and got married. All my subsequent studies were made with the encouragement-and financial support-of my wife, Nechama Bitia. In 1942, I received another degree fashioned after the German tradition and called "Diplom-Ingenieur."

My first job was in Haifa Harbour. Since I contempt as a "native"; the official classification was "unskilled labor," and the salary was commensurate. In practice, my job was to restore completely the electrical systems of ships that had been sunk and then refloated. This included desalting, redesign, and rewinding of motors and generators of every type and size. Another task was to fit Liberty ships that, more often than not, were put to sea in a great hurry and without many essential components. It was a lot of fun and a great opportunity for getting field experience.

In September, 1955 I enrolled as a graduate student at the Polytechnic University, at the time called Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. To this date, it has remained my homebase. In June, 1956, I got a master's degree in electrical engineering and a year later I completed my doctoral dissertation. The haste was due primarily to the inadequate financial support provided by a fellowship, and also to my advanced age-I was 38 years old!

It was my good fortune to have thought of a good idea, for which I later got a patent. Unfortunately, the device was a magnetic amplifier. (This recently has regained popularity under the name of "magnetic switch.") However, it was no match for its solid-state counterpart then being developed.

In 1959 upon the death of my revered teacher, Michael Liwschitz-Garik, I had to step into his shoes, which I found uncomfortably large. Disregarding his warning about book writing that "crime does not pay," I started to write the first draft of, Electromechanical Power Conversion. This book was later was published in various editions, and was even translated into Russian. Perhaps because I was an electrophysicist, I tried to unify the two fields by dealing both with conventional electrical machinery and naturally occurring phenomena. At the time, the Space Age was just being born, and I thought that my engineering students should be encouraged to broaden their horizons beyond the bounds of the Earth and into astrophysics.

Much more down to earth is my second book: Polyphase Motors: a Direct Approach to their Design which has also just been published in Chinese. I was motivated by the thought that machinery design was becoming a lost art, and that I owed it to my teachers to pass on to a new generation what they gave to me.

Teaching, however, has not been my only occupation. Since 1956, I was an active participant in the "Star Wars" effort and, if I contributed anything to its accomplishments, I am proud of it. Many of the things I worked on thirty years ago have been reinvented recently and even patented by others-but this is unavoidable in a program of this scope. It is unfortunate that the publicity of the last few years has engendered a false impression about this effort. It has given us the opportunity to learn a lot of physics. Among its spin-offs are many technologies that characterize the world today and, in particular, those in which the U.S. still holds a lead. The wisdom that is supposed to come with age entitles me to pontificate, so I will now offer some advice to the young.

First a few do's. Do what you like best, if you have a choice. If you don't, get deeply involved in what you are asked to do and you will end up liking it. Make your work your hobby. Do engineering, if you are technically inclined. It is a very rewarding profession, even with salaries what they are today.

Get a broad-based undergraduate education. Computer science notwithstanding, take as much math as you can. This opens the door to an understanding of the physical world and its wonders. Start your career with good hands-on, field experience. Stay near a good university and persevere with your education. Keep yourself well informed by joining the IEEE and other professional societies and by attending their meetings.

Now a few don'ts. Once you have made a decision, never look back and ask: Was that the right thing to do? Don't rush into specialization at the beginning of your career, and into management later. Above all, never despair!