Recuerdos de Jan J. van Loef

Septiembre 2005

In this contribution to the early development of physics in Chile. I'll focus on the following three items: Start and the first years of 'El Laboratorio de Física Nuclear pura y Aplicada' of the University of Chile covering the period 1955-1960; the formation of the 'Escuela de Física' at this university at the end of 1958 and lastly the foundation of 'Sociedad Chilena de Física', (Sochifi), during the first reunion on 28/29th of May 1960 held in Santiago de Chile and some notes on its development.

El Laboratorio de Física Nuclear pura y aplicada (1955-1960)

In the aftermath of the nuclear development during and after World War II, and under influence of the First UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1955, nuclear research became a favourite topic. While visiting Chile Mr. Th.P. Tromp, vice-president of Philips met Don Juan Gómez Millas, Rector of UCh. Upon finding out about the latter's initiatives related to that field, Mr. Tromp promised to assist him and the plan for founding a nuclear physics laboratory was made. Prof. Don Arturo Arias of the School of Engineering together with Dr. Hendrik Spaa, a scientist on the staff of Philips Research Labs. made available to work for a period of 11/2 years in Santiago, established the brand-new laboratory. Chief of the laboratory was Ing. Carlos Martinoya.

The laboratory was not set up for nuclear physics only, but it included radiochemistry and radio-biology as well. These activities were headed by Prof. Eduardo Schalscha and Dr.George Hodgson, respectively, both of whom had research experience. Hence people with different backgrounds such as engineering, physics, chemistry and medicine were active in the laboratory, approximately 25 in scientific research ( their mean age was 29 years), some of whom also lectured at UCh, and besides around 15 technical and other personnel. All full-time employees of UCh. The laboratory was located in the School of Engineering on the Blanco Encalada 2008 . The major instrument was the 800 kV cascade generator with auxiliary equipment delivered and installed by Philips. In electronic and mechanic workshops design and construction of various measuring instruments were carried out, a section for high-vacuum technique and a glass work-shop supported the research work. Both the know-how present in the laboratory and its stock of spare parts among which special radiotubes and precision resistors has shown to be very useful not only for own use but for some other institutes of the university as well. A library gave access to recent scientific publications through subscriptions on various journals, particularly in nuclear science. At the time a few scientists from abroad were around: Dr.George G. Manov member of the USA Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Raymond and Pascaline Daudel and Dr. Victor all from L'Institute de Radium in Paris.

Upon arrival in Chile in October 1956 I found a reasonably well-organized modern equipped laboratory with enthusiastic people. Transfer of work from Dr. Spaa to me was much facilitated by his presence during one week of overlap (I did not know Spanish). When I took over, plans for a concrete research program did not exist. I was appointed as a scientific director of the laboratory and decided to start experimental research in nuclear physics. As a tradition in doing reseach in experimental physics was absent, I considered it important to set up nuclear physics research in close collaboration with people in the laboratory. Lectures were presented by the staff on different topics of physics, seminars held covering the various nuclear activities in the laboratory and a practical course was given in handling and measuring techniques of radio-active isotopes. People from outside the laboratory participated in the latter too.

An accelerator in operation and the facilities in the laboratory provided a base for carrying out these activities. The main problem I faced was to perform advanced research with people who were not trained in modern science. I thought improving the latter to be of crucial importance and initiated discussions on how to create a graduate program in physics at the university. Meanwhile, young people interested in a career in research were stimulated to apply for a fellowship abroad that various universities in the USA as well as in Europe offered at that time. A few of them accepted this challenge and were successful in obtaining a graduate degree, some of whom a PhD. The hope was that afterwards they would return to Chile so that the laboratory could profit from the experience of these young scientists. In the period 1957-1959 diplome work for the title of engineer was finished by Igor Saavedra, Patricio Riveros and Egbert Hesse and others(?) Upon my leaving Chile at the end of 1960 I recall Martinoya's saying and I quote: "In 1956 Dr. Spaa left behind an organised laboratory equipped with various instruments, from which we hardly had a notion what to do with it. This instrument fear is gone by now, and we know how they work and what is their use. We have reached the state that we begin to understand theoretically the experimental data obtained in the laboratory over the past years." Meanwhile results of our work were published in some outstanding scientific journals as Physical Review, Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Instrument and Methods in the late fifties.

Some stories about customs: Upon my entering the laboratory, I found the accelerator installed, however without the electromagnet which is necessary e.g. to separate accelerated protons from deuterons. I knew that the magnet was part of the equipment to be delivered by Philips and also financially accounted for. Some weeks later I learned that the magnet had arrived in Valparaiso, but customs declared that it could not be cleared because the papers were not in accordance with present import regulations. I felt very uncomfortable with the situation and asked Martinoya what to do.

We visited a friend of Carlos, a bank director, and he suggested the following: Put the magnet on another ship and export it to a harbour that belongs to a different customs district, such as Concepciółn, and change in the mean time the papers so that clearance should not be a problem. The director was helpful in this and the import operation was successful. After having send a truck down South to pick up the magnet, the latter arrived a week later in the laboratory and it was soon properly installed.

A different problem with customs some time later. We urgently needed an essential part of a radiation measuring instrument (I don't remember what it was) and we suggested the manufacturer to put a sticker for activity warning on the package outside. In reality there was no radiation whatso-ever, but it worked out well as the package went without any delay through customs at Santiago airport. Of course not a procedure which should be repeated more often.

Our personal belongings were shipped from the Netherlands to Valparaiso and vice versa 4 years later. People from Philips Chilena were willing to help in getting things properly through customs.

It was very convenient that I had a jeep from the university to my disposition during our stay in Santiago not only for my personal mobility and that of the family, but also very useful in having the im/export operation being carried out in an efficient manner. I only had to lend the jeep for a long week-end to the man who knew how to handle this kind of things.

Another story: Once driving the jeep at late hours in Santiago I was stopped by the police telling me that one of the rear-lights was not working. Upon showing my driver-licence and after a short discussion in my modest Spanish, the police gave me a fine. Early next morning the policeman was ringing our house bell; to my great surprise he asked me to give him back the fine. He felt ashamed that he had given it to me as a foreigner. All these incidences I had not encountered in my life before!

Escuela de Física

As mentioned earlier I was convinced that the future of advanced research in a physics laboratory is safeguarded only in the case the university has a sound graduate program in physics. I discussed this with the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Don Carlos Mori, who immediately reacted by saying that this would cost him the brightest among the first years students who would otherwise have enrolled in engineering. My answer was yes that may be correct, but we probably are talking about 10 students yearly at most, who not only might be bright but on top of that should also be idealists. The profession of a physicist did not exist in Chilean society of 1957 and hence the chance of obtaining a job afterwards in their field outside the university was very slim. I also discussed the issue with the Rector, who fully understood the situation, and I told him that the colleagues in the laboratory were able to make a sound curriculum. They made a formal 4 years study program in which most staff members were to participate in giving different classes and conduct additional laboratory exercises.

A fifth year was added to include various specialities in physics out of which students could make a choice before obtaining their final degree in physics.

From the booklet I have on the school I quote:'el Honorable Consejo Universitario, en sessión del 17 de Diciembre de 1958, acordó crear una nueva Escuela Universitaria, la Escuela de Física' and I can add that an extended description of the school rules and curriculum, both dated 1959, are in my file. By the way, I always thought that it was up to the Senate of the UCh to decide whether a specific study in physics could be incorporated in the university. Although the votes were divided, the majority supported the proposal, and I was told that the Faculty of Engineering was against it, while the Faculty of Medicine was in favour of this new school. I intuitively felt that the practical assistance the laboratory by times had been given to members of the Faculty of Medicine did its work in a unexpected positive manner.

Before finishing this part I like to mention the following. In 1989 I participated the celebration of 50 years of nuclear physics taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. ( By the way I did my PhD research in Madison in the period 1952-55). At that occasion I met professor Oscar Salas from Sao Paolo, whom I knew and visited once in Brasil. I asked him as an organizer of the Latin-American physics school in Sao Paolo what his impression was of the Chilean students he has met there. He was very positive about them, and telling me about their high quality and motivation!

Sociedad Chilena de Física

My motivation to start the foundation of a national physics society was twofold. First to stimulate mutual contact among the relatively few physicists in Chile by organizing annual scientific meetings at different locations each time. My impression was that contacts between colleagues within the country were poor, leave alone knowledge about what was being done elsewhere. Second to create a representative body through which contacts could be established with sister organisations on the continent. In the late fifties we met with some members of the Argentinean Physics Society in BA to discuss possibilities of organizing a common congress in the future. Mendoza was mentioned then When Sochifi was founded in May 1960 in Santiago, I was elected its first president during the 1st congress. Eight scientific papers were presented with contributions by colleagues from UCh, the Technical University Santa Maria in Valparaiso and the University of Concepción. The 2nd congress was also held in Santiago, now at the Catholic University on 28/29 October 1960. Ten contributions were presented by the Catholic University, UCh, the University of Concepción, the NASA station at Peldehue and the Physics Institute in Bariloche. The latter gave this congress an international flavour.

During this meeting I resigned as the president, because of my plans to return home at the end of that year. Dr. Nahum Joel, the first secretary of Sochifi, was elected as a new president.

In 1962 I received the honorary membership of Sochifi for which I am grateful. In that year the 3rd congress was organized at the Technical University Santa Maria with 22 scientific papers. And I recall that in later years congresses were held at the University of Concepción and at the University Austral also. It is nice to know that in the sixties Sochifi has developed along the lines I had imagined. And it was an honour for the society that Don Juan Gómes Millas, the Minister of Education by then, was willing to give an inaugural presentation at the 8th congress of Sochifi in Santiago. I am also impressed by the membership in 1970, in total 172 of whom more than 50% listed as active members. A few years later the curtain fell... . I don't know how Sochifi has developed after Chile's return to democracy. I sincerely hope that it is well alive and also that regular contacts with sister organizations in other Latin-American countries have been established one way or the other. Once, I believe in 1960, I was invited to lecture at the L-A school for physics in Bariloche. The trip down there by train, bus and boat I enjoyed very much e.g., the volcanoes, particularly snow-capped Osorno, the eruption of which has been described by Charles Darwin vividly in the diary of his voyage with the Beagle. I was much impressed by what I saw in the Atomic Centre Bariloche and astonished by hearing the story told by Carlos Balseiro on its origin. I hope it still keeps up its good reputation.

Upon my decision to return home at the end of 1960 after having spent four years in Chile, the Rector asked me to find another physicist from the Netherlands willing to take over the job. I have tried to do so, but in vain. I knew that Igor Saavedra, after obtaining his PhD in Manchester did post-doc work in London before his returning to Chile. I suggested that he might be willing to take over and so he did. I kept in touch with him by correspondence for a number of years after-wards. Through Ed Burke I got contact with Jack Rapaport anew since many years and from him I learned about the project initiated by Patricio Cordero. Jack inspired me to look into my file on Chile and this enabled me to write the present contribution on the early days of physics in Chile mainly during the years 1956-1960.

My departure from Chile was very well organized. The picture with Lincoyán González y Sra in front of the swimming pool was taken at our leave party. El Conjunto "Los Cristalinos" was singing and playing nice songs. One of them, 'Yo me vine desde Holanda', I have copied it here.

And I am much pleased by the very nice letter from the Rector Don Juan Gomez Millas dated 12 December 1960 which I've send you already together with the copies of El Mercurio.

JJ Jan van Loef
30 september, 2005

Coplas escritas para despedir a JJ van Loef al irse de Chile

Yo me vine desde Holanda

Yo me vine desde Holanda
a este remoto lugar
donde un grupo de optimistas
se propone investigar.
Eran niños paleteados
con ganas de progresar
más por mucho que estudiaran
les crujía poco y ná.

Atentos muchachos
atentos a la lección
el átomo es un sistema
de mucha complicación.

Armado de gran paciencia
yo les commencé a enseñar
las secretas veleidades
del protón y del neutrón.
Me dicen que han aprendido
los núcleos a acelerar
y pueden a las bolitas
con los átomos jugar.

Cuidado muchachos
no vayan a reventar
con una bomba casera
que sin saber van a armar

Ahora me vuelvo a Holanda
de este querido lugar
donde a mis buenos amigos
gran pega voy a dejar.
Con bloques de parafina
pa evitar la difusión
tomen bandas de energía
y métanle ionización.

Cuidado muchachos
con el acelerador
que el día menos pensado
saldrán como volador.

Y otra de mis hazañas
fué fundar la Sochifí
más todas las reuniones
fueron puro rififí.

Los gallos son muy lateros
y buenos para copiar
hablan como condenados
nadie los puede parar.

Cuidado muchachos
con el acelerador
que el día menos pensado
saldrán como volador

If I remember well, Isabel Garaycochea* was playing the gitar; other members of Los Cristalinos, among whom Nahum Joel, were singing. They also made the text, I suppose.

* La guitarra realmente la tocaba Magdalena González, secretaria reemplanzando a Lucía Fuentes que estaba con permiso maternal.