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Self-Portrait of a Scientific Wizard

 There is a widely circulated story: a factory equipment does not work properly, a lot of effort can not find the reason, can only ask engineers to repair, the boss agreed to pay 10,000 U.S. dollars as a reward. After inspection, the engineer diagnosed that there was a problem with the coil of the motor, so he drew a line with chalk in the problem area and asked to open the motor to remove 16 turns here. Doing as he asked, the machine was fixed and the engineer was rewarded with $10,000. Some people were not convinced, saying that you just drew a line to charge 10,000 yuan, is not too high. The engineer laughed and responded that drawing a line was only worth $1, while knowing where to draw it was worth $9,999.


This story is true. The engineer in the story is the famous Hungarian-American scientist von Kamen (1881-1963). In his early years, when he was teaching at the Aachen Institute of Technology in Germany, a small tool factory owner came to him for advice. There was a machine tool in the factory that vibrated so violently when it was started that it was in danger of collapsing, but no one could find out what was wrong. Therefore, the owner wanted to ask his distinguished professor to come and "diagnose" the problem. It took von Kamen only a few minutes to get there and find out what was wrong. He suggested turning one gear 90 degrees and reinstalling it. As a result, the vibration miraculously disappeared. The boss was overjoyed. However, a few days later he came back to Von Kamen and complained, "How can you ask for so much money for turning a gear 90 degrees?" "Well," replied von Kamen, "you turn that gear back again, and I'll tear up the bill."




Not many people know about Von Kamen nowadays, but when it comes to the fact that he was the doctoral supervisor of such Chinese science masters as Qian Xuesen, Guo Yonghuai, and Lin Jiachiao, as well as Qian Weichang's postdoctoral supervisor at Caltech, many Chinese people still have great interest in exploring what kind of a person Von Kamen really was.


Theodore von Kamen: A Scientific Wizard of the Aerospace Era, published by Fudan University Press (by von Kamen and Lee Aitken, translated by Cao Kaicheng), is von Kamen's autobiography. Aitken, a science journalist for the Washington Evening Post, became acquainted with von Kamen in 1957 when he interviewed him. Later, Von Kamen asked him if he would be interested in helping him write an autobiography. Since then, Von Kamen dictated his colorful career and dramatic scientific development when he had time, which was recorded, organized, and embellished by Aitken, and then read and revised by Von Kamen. Unfortunately, only three-quarters of the book was completed by the time of von Kamen's death, and it was later finalized by Aitken on the basis of the materials left behind by von Kamen.


Theodor von Kamen was a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest into a family of philosophers and educators. His father was knowledgeable, had advanced educational ideas, and devoted his life to the modernization and reform of education in Hungary. He was upright, exposed and criticized the conservative and hypocritical educational bureaucrats of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was suppressed and combated by them.




The elder Kamen's educational philosophy had considerable influence on his son. Von Kamen was a prodigy, able to do mental arithmetic of tens of thousands times hundreds of thousands at the age of six, and people visiting his house kept asking him to perform. But the elder Kamen was not complacent about his son's talent; he did not believe that overachieving children who were "ahead of the curve" in some area were more likely to grow up to be successful. After the guests dispersed, he asked the boy to learn more about other things and not to settle for such "smarts". He did not even let von Kamen study mathematics too early, but rather geography, history, poetry, and foreign languages. The fact that he did not start studying mathematics until he was a teenager did not prevent him from becoming a highly skilled hydrodynamicist. Looking back on his own rise to success, von Kamen was always grateful to his father. "My lifelong admiration for a humanistic civilization is inseparable from the fact that he got me out of the numbers game in my childhood."


Von Kamen received his higher education at the Royal Josef University in Hungary. That university, which had been upgraded from a technical school, taught a practical, theory-less approach, quite different from the mathematical and logic-based pedagogy his father promoted. His father said that it was more important for teachers to teach students how to think than to explain exactly how to build machines. He also said, "True thinking is much superior to playing smart. You must constantly enrich your mind; if you apply it without enriching it, you will be at best a half-bottle of vinegar, and in the end you will achieve nothing." Von Kamen himself realized that engaging in scientific theory and logical thinking was his true calling. It was his father's teachings that pointed him in the right direction for his future extraordinary achievements, so after graduating from university, serving in the military and working as an assistant teacher for several years, von Kamen sought the opportunity to study in Germany, the most technologically advanced country in the world at the time.


Studying at the University of Göttingen and working at the Aachen Institute of Technology was a key step towards becoming one of the world's leading scientists. He was taught by scientific masters such as Planter, Hilbert, Klein, Lundgren and Nernst at Göttingen, and his classmates included geniuses such as Bohen, later Nobel Prize winner, a faculty and student lineup that would be the envy of anyone who aspired to a career in scientific research. After two years of study in Göttingen, he went on to study at the University of Paris. Once, he accompanied a friend to watch the first two-kilometer flight show in Europe, and the ideal of human beings wanting to fly by mechanical force aroused his great interest. So he began to study aerodynamics.


In retrospect, any of the major achievements in fluid mechanics in the first half of the 20th century were made with the hard work of von Kamen, but in fact they were not achieved without a hitch. At first, before mankind entered the age of aviation, the object of physics research was relatively static. Traditionally, it was believed that technology was far more important than theory, and engineers far more important than scientists. As long as the machinery was made bigger and better by experience, the world could progress, while theory was just playing mind games using formulas. Von Kamen, on the other hand, insisted on the combination of theory and practice, and that technology without theoretical guidance is not destined to go far. Basic theoretical research is not optional, but leading to technology. Only when basic theoretical research makes a breakthrough, technological progress is guaranteed. This advanced view was inevitably unappreciated at the beginning, and it was only with the formulation of Einstein's theory of relativity and the success of the Wright Brothers' test flights at the beginning of the 20th century that the scientific community realized that static Newtonian physics was not enough and that new breakthroughs in basic research were needed. The time had come for von Kamen to make his mark on aerodynamics.




As a basic theoretical scientist, von Kamen revealed various mysteries about the atmosphere and the unimaginable forces, air currents, and vortices acting on flying machines. These theoretical studies made possible such remarkable milestones in the history of human aviation as zeppelins, wind tunnels, gliders, supersonic jets, missiles, artificial satellites and sounding rockets. The U.S. Air Force and von Kamen had a close relationship. At first, the Air Force did not value the role of scientists, believing they knew nothing about operations and training. But von Kamen's wisdom and research earned him the respect of the Air Force, and the USAF grew into a powerful force with leading scientific research and advanced technology.


By insisting on the direction of combining theory and practice, von Kamen's theories were widely used in many fields, such as water diversion projects in California, the efficiency of turbines, the thinning of windbreaks, the prevention of dams from cracking, the wind resistance of giant bridges, and the treatment of deserts.


The concept of combining theory and practice also made von Kamen the most missed teacher. While teaching at the Aachen Institute of Technology in Germany and the California Institute of Technology in the United States, he vigorously pursued reforms in engineering education, training two generations of scientists and engineers who were majestic in the pioneering fields of science and technology, and laying a solid scientific foundation for aviation and aerospace. His students spread across five continents and included such outstanding talents as Qian Xuesen and Guo Yonghuai, the Chinese "two bombs and one star" heroes, who are responsible for technological leadership in outer space worldwide.


Von Kamen enjoyed the company of the rich, the famous and the powerful. Because of his family background and his own achievements, he was a regular guest in the social circles of the prominent and wealthy in Hungary and Aachen, where people enjoyed listening to his high-minded speeches. When he arrived in the United States, entrepreneurs, military leaders, and scientists tried their best to befriend him in order to hear his insights. However, Von Kamen was by no means a snob, and he also associated with people who were less famous or less wealthy.


What is particularly admirable is that von Kamen was good friends with his scientific contemporaries. His circle of friends was an eclectic who's who of 20th century scientific masters. In addition to the aforementioned mentors and friends in Germany, he had in-depth conversations with Bohr about the peaceful use of nuclear energy, with Fermi about the reasons why geniuses emerged in large numbers around the world at the same time, and with Einstein about the significance of science to human society.


Von Kamen's mentors and students were too many geniuses. Nevertheless, he considered Qian Xuesen to be the best of them all. Therefore, he devoted a chapter of his autobiography to Qian Xuesen.


After receiving his master's degree at MIT, Qian Xuesen came to Caltech to see von Kamen, hoping that he would become his doctoral advisor. Von Kamen has a vivid description of the first time he met Qian Xuesen.


In 1936, he came to me one day to ask for my advice on furthering his education. This was our first meeting. I looked up at the small, serious-looking young man in front of me and asked him a few questions. He answered all the questions with exceptional accuracy. In a moment, I was impressed by his quick thinking, and then I suggested that he come to Caltech to pursue his studies.


In the book, Von Kamen also goes to great lengths to praise Chancellor's talent and work accomplishments. This was almost unique for von Kamen, who had always believed in Goethe's famous saying that "only mediocre people are modest".


At the beginning, he (Qian Xuesen) worked with me on some mathematical problems. I found him to be a man of great imagination, with a great talent for mathematics and a great ability to translate natural phenomena into physical models, and to combine the two effectively. As a young student, he had already helped me to clarify some concepts on a number of difficult propositions. I felt that this kind of talent was rare, so we became close colleagues.


Soon after Qian came to campus, he attracted the attention of other professors at Caltech. I remember the distinguished theoretical physicist Professor Paul Epstein once saying to me, "Your student, Qian Xuesen, is in one of my classes. He is brilliant."


......


By 1938, we had achieved some promising results in rocketry. Malina and Chia had made a theoretical analysis of the thermodynamic properties of rocket engines, and they had launched some small homemade rockets to verify some of the conclusions of their theoretical studies.


......


Qian was one of the experts I recommended to the USAF Scientific Advisory Panel in 1945, when he was already one of the top rocket experts in the United States.


Qian was the patriarch of the rocket group at Caltech and had made significant contributions to U.S. rocket development in World War II. He was already a recognized genius at the age of 36, and his work had greatly advanced the development of high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion technology. It was for this reason that I recommended him for appointment to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.


In February 1947, I took great pleasure in recommending him for tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After returning to MIT, Qian taught at MIT for about two years and then returned to Caltech as the Goddard Chair in Jet Propulsion and Director of the Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Research Center.


The story of Qian's subsequent persecution by McCarthyism is well known, but what is less well known is that when Qian was imprisoned and restricted from movement by the FBI, von Kammen used his reputation in the United States and his connections in the government to campaign up and down the country to try to justify the wrongs done to Qian. But the U.S. Immigration Service was so tyrannical in its attitude toward those suspected by the McCarthyists that it rendered von Kamen's efforts useless. In his book, Von Kamen said that McCarthyism had gone too far. He also appreciates Chancellor's condescending attitude in the face of persecution, not bothering to go to the McCarthyists to clear his name. He said, "If it were me, I would have done the same thing."


Von Kamen was active at the forefront of top scientific research throughout his life, achieving countless epoch-making results that changed human life. He had a true vision of how to promote scientific research. He advocated that the academy should gather eccentric and independently uninhibited scholars; that seemingly whimsical and outlandish ideas should be tolerated, and that everyone should not be required to follow the rules. Scientific achievements that are now widely used were considered by most scientists at the beginning of the 20th century to be impossible fantasies, such as the impossibility for man to fly long distances with man-made instruments, the impossibility for airplanes to break the sound barrier in speed, the impossibility to control the burning speed of rocket fuel and therefore the impossibility to send satellites into space, and so on.




Modern scientific research projects are huge and must take collective cooperation to be carried out. But the collective work is important, individual work alone is also important, and the role of individual work alone cannot be erased. Von Kamen also believed that epoch-making scientific results are often the result of individual scientists' inspiration, not of collective research. He did not reject collective cooperation in general, but only opposed the excessive governmentalization of the research sector. He believed that organized, contractual and directed research was not very effective for pioneering scientific work. It is better to create more research atmosphere and provide more necessary conditions for such research.




In von Kammen's report to the Air Force on looking to the future, "Toward New Horizons," he pointed out that research is best done without government control, because the control approach makes the distribution of research funds flawed. It puts too much power in the hands of one person or one agency, to the detriment of progress in R&D. If there is only one source and you don't have a good personal relationship with that source, then you won't get anything done.


Do these lessons from von Kamen's experience in promoting scientific research have any lessons for the current scientific community in China?


In the final part of his autobiography, Von Kamen makes a prediction about how space science will change the world and benefit humanity behind him.


In the next few decades, space science will be a fertile ground for the benefit of humanity. There will be many amazing developments in astronomy, meteorology and communication technologies. In astronomy, observations from Earth-orbiting laboratories will enable more precise determination of distances between stars and planets and the state of outer space.


In meteorology, as knowledge of interstellar gases, solar winds, and the density of electromagnetic fields in space gradually increases, we may be able to gain precise insight into their effects on Earth's climate (e.g., the formation of hurricanes). The use of meteorological satellites does have the potential to uncover patterns in atmospheric phenomena, thus making meteorology a truly logical science.


In von Kammen's report to the Air Force on looking to the future, "Toward New Horizons," he noted that research is best done without the government's single-handedness because the underwriting approach makes for a flawed distribution of research funds. It puts too much power in the hands of one person or one agency, to the detriment of progress in R&D. If there is only one source and you don't have a good personal relationship with that source, then you won't get anything done.


Do these lessons from von Kamen's experience in promoting scientific research have any lessons for the current scientific community in China?


In the final part of his autobiography, Von Kamen makes a prediction about how space science will change the world and benefit humanity behind him.


In the next few decades, space science will be a fertile ground for the benefit of humanity. There will be many amazing developments in astronomy, meteorology and communication technologies. In astronomy, observations from Earth-orbiting laboratories will enable more precise determination of distances between stars and planets and the state of outer space.


In meteorology, as knowledge of interstellar gases, solar winds, and the density of electromagnetic fields in space gradually increases, we may be able to gain precise insight into their effects on Earth's climate (e.g., the formation of hurricanes). The use of meteorological satellites does have the potential to uncover patterns in atmospheric phenomena, thus making meteorology a truly logical science.


One of the earliest benefits from space technology will be long-distance communications. I believe that great progress in long-range communications will continue to be made in the coming years. Using existing technology it will be possible to launch a series of artificial satellites that can be used to solve worldwide communication problems; the best option is to launch several artificial satellites with a 24-hour orbital period, synchronized with the Earth. The advantage is that at any given time there would be an artificial satellite in a fixed position in the sky.


Of course, all these developments will not happen unless there is a friendly world to accept them.


Comparing the above-mentioned state of science, will readers be compelled to be impressed by von Kamen's profound insight?


This 300,000-word book, Theodore von Kamen - Scientific Wizard of the Aerospace Age, is the autobiography of one of the greatest scientific wizards of the 20th century, but it is not an interpretation of the difficult, specialized knowledge of aerodynamics. On the contrary, there is essentially no specialized knowledge involved. The author's goal in writing the book was "to give the public a glimpse into the lives of the creators of jet planes, other flying machines, and rockets, and to reveal the inner workings of the minds of the scientists who explored them," and this goal is well achieved.


The book is full of interesting stories about famous people, the early years of von Neumann, the father of the computer, and the history of the famous think tank RAND Corporation. With the fluency of the translator's writing, even readers who do not have knowledge of the relevant fields can easily and enjoyably read the book in "fragments of time", thus gaining a very brief knowledge of the history of aviation in the 20th century.





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