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James "Jim" Johnston, '60 B.S. Physics

James Johnston portrait

Tell us about yourself.

I attended local schools, finishing the last three years of High School at Woodrow Wilson High School. I was on the Chemistry team at Wilson High, majored in chemistry at Long Beach City College -- there realizing that it was the physics behind chemistry, and physics in general that grabbed my attention. In 1955 my family moved to the East Coast, and (at age 19) I got an apartment in downtown Long Beach and pursued physics at LBSC. During that time I worked at the Market Basket supermarket at Spring and Bellflower, and then in 1957 in the Jet Propulsion Group, and Advanced Design, at Douglas Aircraft. While still being an undergraduate, at Douglas I was promoted to salaried status, and trained Master degree engineers joining Douglas Aircraft. I was acutely aware that this was possible because of a single-semester course in thermodynamics taught, in a clear and delightful manner, by Prof. Cramer Schultz at LBSC. And, that was just the beginning of the love and appreciation I feel for the time I spent at LBSC.

Describe what the campus was like when you first attended LBSC?

 In those years, the ground north of the physics building was a dusty parking lot. Modern sculpture appeared at the South side of campus. The state college system was breaking free from the limitation of being only a teacher’s college. The head of the physics department at that time was Dr. George Appleton, young, and enthusiastic. He loved to drive his convertible, I was told.

One of the first classes I took from Dr. Appleton was “Electricity and Magnetism”. In the beginning, and often during the semester he would tell us enthusiastically that when we finished that class we would be able to write everything known about electricity and magnetism on the back of a postage stamp. (He was correct, everything in electricity and magnetism, including the theory of light and radio waves, is derived from the very concise Maxwell equations and two very simple “constitutive relations”.) This kind of enthusiasm was present in all of his well-taught classes.

Which professors made an impact on your academic or professional career and why?

The professors that made an impact were Dr. Appleton, Dr. Charles Roberts, Dr. Cramer Schultz, and Mr. John Hutcherson. In writing this, I am amazed at how those basic threads were woven through my education.

Roughly two years after I came to LBSC (as I remember), a theoretical physicist, Dr. Charles Roberts was hired, and given the chairmanship of the department. (This provided some free time for Dr. Appleton to pursue his interest in very low temperature experiments.) I was lucky to be one of the two students that Dr. Roberts took on to help him calculate a new Greens function derivation of the specific heat of an electron gas for three models of electrons. During that time he shared some of his history in growing up in China with his missionary parents. He taught us many of the mathematical “tricks of the trade” while doing those calculations, and others as well.

In the junior year “Mathematical Physics” class, Dr. Roberts presented a lot of tough things to learn, and taught them well.  Midway in that class, a study-partner of mine discovered that he was teaching us from a chapter in the first volume of  “Methods of Mathematical Physics”, a huge 2-volume tome treating most all of the mathematics required by physics (graduate level material at that time). Having that reference and the notes from Dr. Roberts class, one could see what a gifted teacher he was. His teaching was very clear.

Another professor that impacted my life was Dr. Cramer Schultz, especially in a one-semester class on thermodynamics. I liked the way he would often answer a question from a student. He would respond by spinning a tale about what would happen to a “Coca Cola” molecule under the conditions set by the question. When done he would pause, look up a bit, and ask, “Do I believe that?” (In this class the answer was always “Yes”.)

In 1960, I got my B.S. in physics, and decided to continue on to a master’s degree. Very close to that time, in one of the always good, almost always enthusiastic, seminars, someone gave a lecture about the helium-neon gas laser that had just been built roughly six months earlier. After that seminar, Dr. Roberts and Mr. John Hutcherson (the electronics instructor) were walking down the hall, and I tagged along. Dr. Roberts asked Mr. Hutcherson if it would be possible for the department to make such a laser. The answer was “Yes”. I asked if I could help and the answer was again “Yes”. Mr. Hutcherson and I spent around a 1½ years building one, learning to blow glass and mill our own brass parts in the process.  After the laser was built, Mr. Hutcherson and I built a superconductivity lab, designed the measuring apparatus, prepared lead-indium alloy samples and measured the effect of a strong magnetic field on the superconducting properties of those samples.  In super-cooling the samples by creating a vacuum in the liquid helium bath, we discovered, experientially, some of the really strange properties of superfluid helium – another “root” for my graduate work.  I spent a great deal of time with, and learned a lot with Mr. Hutcherson.  Later in life I became more deeply aware of the special influence, in many ways, he had in my life.

In these latter years of my time at LBSC, a recent graduate from Stanford, Dr. Frederick W. Cummings taught a couple of evening courses. (He had worked on a theoretical model of radiation interacting with atoms. Twenty years later his name and his advisor’s, Edwin Jaynes, would be highly referenced in the “Jaynes-Cummings model” in quantum optics.) He, also, was a very dynamic teacher (and very good friend). All the teachers mentioned here were living their passion.

What did you do after graduation?

Near the end of these nine years, Mr. Hutcherson suggested that I might want to go on to get a Ph.D.  (I had never thought of that before.) When I finally decided to do so, I was in a hurry, and did not bother to write a thesis for the masters degree. When I enrolled at U.C. Riverside, Fred Cummings (he forbid me from calling him “Doctor”) had already gotten a job there as an Assistant Professor. He immediately became my advisor. And, the two of us developed a quasi-particle model for superfluid helium, based on the concept that the special kind of coherence found in superfluidity is identical to that found in lasers. In writing this, I am amazed at how those basic threads were woven through my education at LBSC. (I had written a paper on a very simple model for superfluidity included in an elective senior course in quasi-particles taught by Dr. Roberts.  I remain amazed at his ability to teach those, at that time, highly advanced subjects to undergraduates.)

During my graduate studies at UCR, I was amazed at the tremendous advantage I had because of my preparation at LBSC.  At UCR, a solid state course covered material already covered at LBSC. I sat in class and read the notes I had taken at LBSC; the presentation at UCR was not as well organized.  There was only one topic that had not been covered at LBSC (stress and strain tensors). In a mathematics of physics course, all the mathematical methods we were responsible for had been covered at LBSC, except for one. It took me very little time to do my homework. This was great because that gave me more time to work with Fred on the attempt to show the similarity between superfluid helium and laser radiation. (Not a big deal when we found the right way to think about it.) Also, I got a good grade in an advance quantum theory course, having attended only two classes. I wrote a paper on the use of quasi-particles that had been learned at LBSC, and more finely tuned with the work I was doing with Fred Cummings; and I got a very good grade.

Tell us something about the value and /or meaning of your CSULB experience?

While Fred and I were working together, we drove from UCR down to LBSC to give lectures at the physics seminars several times. He and I took turns giving the lecture. At one lecture in which I presented on “Off-Diagonal Long-Range Order” (the parameter in physical systems that was identical to coherence in radiation), one of the teachers at LBSC asked me a question, and another spoke up arguing with the first questioner. I just stood there, riveted as they argued – this is science in action. (I was back at LBSC!) I stood there until the argument died out, added a comment and continued.  And— this is no exaggeration – every time Fred and I drove to and from these seminars, we spent a lot of time talking about how good it was to go to LBSC because it was so alive and interesting there.

“More Recently”

After teaching graduate quantum theory at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then at San Diego State, I worked for nearly a decade with the Joe Kamiya, the founder of brainwave biofeedback, then wrote and installed software for control rooms of several nuclear power plants and, after a few other “excursions”, am now involved as a research associate and assistant to Prof. Erik Peper in teaching his laboratory class in biofeedback at SFSU, and am near finishing a critique of some aspects of the common lore in quantum theory.  For the future, I am interested in the use of brainwave feedback as a tool for exploring subtle aspects of attention.

Dr. Charles Roberts and Dr. George Appleton

Dr. Charles Roberts and Dr. George Appleton, physics professors at LBSC.

Jacqueline Divenyi

Jim's life partner, Jacqueline Divenyi, pianist and piano teacher at the Berkeley Piano Club after having performed (beautifully -- of course).

James Johnston

More recent photo of James "Jim" Johnston,'60.

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