Keep it Simple, j| Suomi
We just got along like brothers. His interests and personality were what was missing from mine. I tend to dream a lot and jump to conclusions. He was thorough and patient. How hard we worked.
—Verner Suomi, talking about his friend and former colleague, Robert Parent
As I look back, I can see all the trial and error. I don’t want to use the word comedy.
—Leo Skille, an electronics technician who worked with Suomi and Parent from 1959
t rained on the morning of Verner Suomi’s memorial service. Deep – throated Midwestern thunder played its inimitable summer accompaniment. And as one might expect among people gathered to celebrate Suomi’s life, there were questions—asked humorously, sadly—about just who it was that was responsible for the weather.
Ponytailed graduate students joined family, visiting scientists, and colleagues from Suomi’s own academic home at the University ofWisconsin, Madison, in the Lutheran church on the edge of campus. Soon organ and trumpet released the opening notes of Giuseppe Torelli’s Sonata in D Major: lively notes that grew thoughtful, a little sad, and again lively.
Suomi’s son Stephen spoke of a man who could be stubborn, even too stubborn, but who would fake footprints and sled marks in the snow to convince him for one more year that Santa Claus existed. The minister spoke of a great scientist, but here he missed Suomi’s essential strengths, which lay in his engineering ingenuity, in his experimenter’s determination to collect data, and in the stubbornness that his son recognized.
Suomi’s engineering ability, his “practical eye,” helped him to see how to build instruments that took advantage of the spatial and geometric relationships between orbits, the rotating Earth, and the satellites, which were themselves spinning. Time and again he watched as instruments
embodying his engineering concepts were launched. During interviews in the late spring of 1992, Suomi recalled that “what was exciting was to see this big rocket with ‘United States’ written on it, and your gadget was in the nose cone.”
It was Suomi’s stubbornness that placed the instruments in those rockets and kept his interest in satellite meteorology alive during the two decades it took him and other pioneers to find ways of extracting useful information from satellite data and to convince the wider meteorological community of the information’s validity. Verner Suomi held his own in the competitive and dynamic arena of meteorology. He knew quite well that he was stubborn, and said of himself, “I just yell and holler until I get my way.”
Building things was important to Suomi throughout his life. He was fascinated as a teenager by radio and flying. To his generation—the teenagers of the late 1920s—these comparatively new technologies were what computing is to the scientifically inclined youngsters of the late 1990s. It was almost obligatory to build your own radio set, which Suomi did during his summer holidays. He took a car mechanics course at school and worked on an aircraft engine as he trained to be a teacher at Winona State College in Minnesota.
As Suomi was contemplating these memories in his office, he recalled that some years past he had met an old girlfriend, someone from the days before he met his wife, Paula. This woman had commented on his patience with things but lack of patience with people.
“I thought a lot about that; it had a big affect on me and was a milestone. Since then, I’ve tried to be patient with people. Whether I was successful or not, well that’s another story The thing is, it’s easy to work with things, they don’t talk back.”
Given this aspect of Suomi’s character, it makes sense that at the age of twenty-seven he gave up teaching high school to take a degree in meteorology at the University of Chicago.
Chicago’s meteorology department was run at that time by one of the giants in the history of the subject, Carl Gustav Rossby. Reportedly, it was after learning from Rossby of Lewis Richardson’s failed attempt to make a numerical weather prediction that John Von Neumann concluded that weather forecasting was an ideal problem for the new “high-speed” computers.
Suomi had learned a little about meteorology and weather forecasting while he was learning to fly but had dropped the subject after he had received his license. (As he talked about flying he wistfully remarked that he would like to fly “one of those big planes.”) At Chicago, he found Rossby to be an original and fascinating person, someone who “could talk you out of your shirt and make you think you had a bargain.”
Suomi also met Reid Bryson, who established a meteorology department at the University ofWisconsin, one that became among the best in the country. Bryson asked Suomi to join him in developing the department, which subsequently proved to be a source of discord between the two men. Suomi and Bryson developed a complicated relationship that incorporated friendship and professional rivalry. They had both moved to the University ofWisconsin in 1948, where Suomi completed the doctorate he had begun in Chicago, earning his degree at the age of thirty-eight in 1953.
In many ways, Bryson’s and Suomi’s rivalry typified the greater rivalry that existed in meteorology between atmospheric modelers and advocates of satellites. Suomi, of course, was the satellite advocate, interested in improved weather forecasts; Bryson was more interested in computer modeling and climate. With these interests, both placed themselves out of what was then the mainstream of meteorology—Suomi because satellite instrumentation was not providing what meteorologists needed, and Bryson because in the late 1950s and early 1960s climate modeling and prediction were not quite respectable. In the pursuit of more accurate weather forecasts, both for long-range and short-term predictions, tension over resources and staffing arose between the two men. Neither was content to rely only on traditional instruments and weather maps. Both satellite technology and bigger and better computers on which to run more detailed models cost money and call for expensive expertise, and local tensions mirrored these at a national level. The fierceness of the disagreement at all levels was fueled by genuine scientific disagreement about the correct way to move meteorology forward.
As a general rule, the modelers were theoreticians at heart, while the satellite advocates had the souls of experimentalists. Of course, experimentalists had to understand theory and theorists had to incorporate the results of experiment, but there seemed and seems to be a difference between the two groups that can set the two sects at one another’s throats.
The difference was manifest between Bryson and Suomi. Bryson worked on theories of climate. Suomi wanted to design instruments to learn more about what were then the largely unexplored regions of the atmosphere in the Southern Hemisphere and at higher altitudes, regions which, in an interview with William Broad of the New York Times, Suomi called the ignorosphere.
In the end, of course, meteorology proved to be big enough for both of them and to need both of their approaches. And they continued to live as neighbors in the houses they had helped one another build.
During the 1950s, Suomi formed another important professional relationship, one that was synergistic. This was with Robert Parent, from the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering. Their first collaboration was in the design and construction of an experiment known irreverently as Suomi’s balls, and more properly by the title of their proposal to the International Geophysical Year, which was “satellite instrumentation for the measurement of the thermal radiation budget of the earth.”
This property of the earth—its thermal radiation budget—is a crucial aspect of meteorology. It may even be the most basic factor influencing the world’s climate. Thus, the radiation budget is of more interest to basic research than in the applied field of weather forecasting. And there is some irony in the fact that Suomi, who became known for designing satellite instruments for improving short-term weather forecasting and who had the differences of opinion that he did with Bryson, should have been the first to put forward a proposal to measure the earth’s radiation budget.
The radiation budget is the driving force behind both atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Very simply stated, it is the balance between the incoming solar radiation and the outgoing radiation from the earth. Over time and over the whole earth, the incoming and outgoing radiation streams balance one another. The importance of the radiation budget, however, lies not in this balance but in the way that the balance of the incoming and outgoing radiation varies with geographical location and time.
The outgoing radiation falls into two broad categories: that which is reflected from the atmosphere and the surface without any change in wavelength, and that which is absorbed and reradiated at longer wavelengths from the surface and the atmosphere. The amount of radiation reflected by some structures, such as ocean, cloud, or icecap, is known as the albedo of that surface. Meteorologists know now that the mean albedo of the earth is thirty percent, but that individual surfaces can have albedos ranging from ninety percent for dry snow at high latitudes to fourteen percent for dark, moist soil. Since the albedo is greatest at the poles, and concomitantly, absorption and reradiation are lowest at these latitudes, heat flows to the poles from the equator, driving the atmospheric and oceanic circulation without which there would be no weather.
Many types of atmospheric behavior and processes connect the global radiation budget to the weather. They range from large-scale structures, such as the circumpolar vortices that spawn the jet stream, down to familiar weather features like cold fronts and storms. So the radiation budget, while it is the reason for the existence of the weather, is not of immediate application to short-term forecasts. Nevertheless, it is crucial to any deep understanding of meteorology, to climate studies, and to the exploration of long-term weather fluctuations.
Satellites have provided values of the three radiation fluxes (incoming solar, upwelling reflected, and reradiated energy) that contribute to the earth’s radiation budget, and they have done so for different geographical locations and seasons. The next step in this field will be to disentangle the detail: How much of the reradiated energy comes from the surface as opposed to the atmosphere, for example, and how absorption and reradiation vary with altitude and the physical composition of the atmosphere.
In the late 1950s, much controversy still surrounded the basic question of the earth’s overall radiation budget. That controversy arose because scientists were calculating the radiation budget from too little data. They needed a Tycho Brahe, or several Brahes, who would collect the observations “heaped on observation,” but before satellites, there was no practical way of collecting comprehensive data. Some sounding rockets and ground stations had measured values of, respectively, the incoming solar radiation and terrestrial radiation. And even before the administration announced the satellite program, the meteorology panel of the International Geophysical Year had plans to gather more ground-based observations to increase their understanding of the earth’s radiation budget. Then came the satellite program, with its offer of a new perspective on the earth, that made possible Suomi’s proposal.
Suomi and Parent did not join the International Geophysical Year until nearly a year after President Eisenhower’s announcement that the United States would launch a satellite. Then, sometime in the spring of 1956, Suomi attended a lecture given by Joseph Kaplan, the “five cigar” chair of the U. S.’s National Committee—the man who had shepherded the U. S.’s IGY proposals past wary administration officials. Kaplan by now was promoting the IGY and the satellite program to a wider scientific audience and to the public.
As he listened to Kaplan’s lecture, Suomi knew that he wanted to participate in the satellite program. His doctoral thesis—about ten pages of text and thirty of charts—had described the radiation budget of a cornfield. That is, he was interested in what happens to the sun’s energy: what is absorbed, what reemitted, when and how. Such basic information is valuable to agriculture. And today such studies are also important for correlating satellite observations with what is actually happening on the ground.
Never niggardly with the scope of his ideas, Suomi thought he could study the earth’s radiation budget from a satellite, and that the project would be “much more interesting than the radiation budget of a lousy cornfield.”
After the lecture he spoke to Kaplan, who told him to contact Harry Wexler, then chief scientist of the Weather Bureau as well as the chair of the IGY’s meteorology committee and a member of the U. S. National Committee of IGY By now the satellite panel was assigning priority to the various payload proposals, and at this late stage the sponsorship that Wexler quickly provided was essential. “Harry rigged it up,” said Suomi, “so my little proposal snuck in about three days after the door was closed. I got about $75,000, which in those days was an enormous amount of money.”
Wexler and his colleague Sig Fritz worked on some of the theoretical aspects of the scientific consequences of Suomi’s instrument and told the satellite panel that he and Fritz were interested in exploring whether data from Suomi’s instruments would show a correlation between isolines of reflected radiation and large-scale weather. Wexler presented Suomi’s ideas on June 7, 1956. During the next six months he also solicited the support of other influential meteorologists.
Although Suomi and Parent did not submit a formal proposal until the beginning of 1957, their new idea upset the proverbial apple cart. It was not the last time that Suomi would disturb nicely laid plans with a last-minute idea. He was to do the same with his idea for a spin-scan camera.
In the case of the radiation budget experiment, the overturned apple cart belonged to Bill Stroud of the Signal Corps of Engineers. His idea, like Suomi’s, was too ambitious for the existing technology, but both were pushing the boundaries. And both saw conceptually the promise of the bird’s-eye view.
Stroud wanted to photograph clouds from orbit. He had two broad purposes: first, to seek ways to identify cloud types from above, and second, to estimate the albedo of clouds.
The panel was interested in Stroud’s idea but concerned about the difficulties of extracting any useful information from the photographs. This was the concern that Kellogg and Greenfield had expressed in their report of 1951 and that would surface again during the TIROS program. Nevertheless, by the time Wexler introduced Suomi’s idea, the panelists had decided to back Stroud’s work, though it was classified as one of the “priority B” experiments.
And that is the priority that the experiment retained until the turn of the year, when a flurry of events precipitated a face-off between Suomi and Stroud.
By the end of 1956, the panelists had money for only four experiments. One of these was to be the Naval Research Laboratory’s satellite designed to measure temperature and pressure in space, another would be Van Allen’s payload, the third was to be a geomagnetic experiment, and the fourth experiment was to be Suomi’s.
Stroud must have objected, because when the panel next met early in 1957, they had decided that he and Suomi should compete for the fourth launch vehicle and that at the end of 1957 the country’s leading meteorologists should decide between them. The two raced to prepare their satellites. But then Sputnik I was launched, followed shortly by Sputnik II, and President Eisenhower’s administration brought in the Army. There were now enough launch vehicles, and all the meteorologists had to do was to endorse both project.
Stroud’s payload was launched first, on Vanguard II. His camera worked, but its images were of little use because the satellite was precessing wildly. It was not possible to say where the camera was pointing. Stroud’s problems sprang from the difficulties that arise with spinning bodies. The final stage of Vanguard II was spun so that it would be stable in flight. And the satellite was designed to spin up after separation from Vanguard so that it too would be stable in orbit.
When the IGY’s satellite panel met for the last time to wind up business, on July 21, 1959, John Townsend, of the Naval Research Laboratory,
Verner Suomi posing with the Vanguard satellite that was launched on June 22, l959.The satellite ended up in the ocean.
gave a report of the Vanguard II launch that gives a flavor of the difficulties and the unknowns of rocketry and satellites in those days. One theory was that there had been a collision between the third stage and the satellite. The idea stemmed from what they had learned about Vanguard I, the launch that generated the data for O’Keefe’s deduction of the pear-shaped earth. In that case, the Vanguard team had asked Fred Whipple’s group of optical trackers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to locate the third stage for them. Whipple’s group had found the rocket’s final stage to
Robert Parent (left) andVerner Suomi work on the electronics of their radiation balance experiment.
be in a markedly different orbit from that of the satellite. “So,” reported Townsend, “even after what appears to be a shutdown [of the third stage], there is enough propulsion in that unit as it cooks, or burps, to account for several hundred feet per second difference between the bottle [i. e., the third stage] and the satellite itself.” In other words, there was enough difference in velocity to send the two into slightly different orbits, raising the possibility of collision.
The alternative explanation centered around the fact that the spin up and separation might have occurred at the same time. This could have
ExplorerVII which carried Verner Suomi’s and Robert Parent’s radiation balance experiment into space on October І З, 1959.The white hemisphere attached to the mirror is one of the bolometers that gathered data for the experiment.
caused a problem because of the third stage’s unburnt fuel. The bottle, Townsend told the group, was an unbalanced stovepipe with holes in it that was unpredictable mathematically. If the satellite’s spin thrusters fired while still attached, the bottle would precess wildly and impart that precession to the satellite. Whichever explanation was correct, Stroud’s experiment was in trouble because the satellite had no internal damping mechanism.
Six months later, on October 13, 1959, Suomi and Parent’s payload reached space. Suomi had a receiver in his bedroom. He received four signals a day, two within 105 minutes of one another, then a similar set twelve hours later.
“We worked like dogs,” said Suomi of his and Parent’s work on the radiation balance experiment. Leo Skille, a lab technician who worked with Suomi and Parent, recalled that Suomi had an air mattress that leaked, and that after four hours Suomi would find himself awake on the hard floor. The mattress served as Suomi’s alarm clock, and it was not uncommon for Skille to come in at eight in the morning and see both Suomi and Parent still working.
Suomi spent most of his time in electrical engineering because the meteorology department did not consider the satellite work an enormous blessing, although it did not hold him back.
Suomi and Parent amused observers as, sporting the bow ties favored by some academics, they strode around campus deep in discussion. When they encountered a grassy quad, Parent would—so the story goes—walk around it, while Suomi strode diagonally across.
“I’m a person,” said Suomi, “who says ‘lets do this.’ It might be a crazy idea, but I don’t let initial problems stop me. Bob was there as an evaluator. He didn’t discourage me. He put a certain amount of reality into some of the wild things I thought about.”
“Suomi would go off at tangents,” said his technicians, “Parent would bring him back to Earth. Suomi would figure you could build an instrument as fast as he thought of it. We’d say,‘Watch out for Suomi on Monday mornings.’ He’s come in with a whole bunch of ideas he’d thought of over the weekend.”
The engineers would wonder sometimes what he was getting at, and they wondered whether it was just they that didn’t understand his idea or whether he was coming out of left field. He always wanted to know why something wouldn’t work. “He could be stubborn,” they said, “and there were big rows, but he never held a grudge.”
Suomi and Parent’s first satellite experiment comprised four ping- pong-sized balls on the end of Vanguard’s antennas—hence its irreverent nickname. One was white and thus reflected visible radiation but absorbed the longer-wavelength radiation reflected from the earth. One was black and absorbed all wavelengths, and the other two were shaded in such a way as to discriminate between incoming and upwelling terrestrial radiation. Each contained a resistor that enabled a determination of the balls’ temperature (the relationship between resistance and temperature for different types of material is well known). These numbers did not provide absolute values for the three different types of radiation, but they did show how the radiation balance varied.
Suomi and Parent did most of the early construction themselves. “We were probably as capable as any of the engineers,” said Suomi. The two of them built four models: one for mechanical and vibration tests, one for electrical tests, one flight model, and one backup.
The bane of their lives were the transistors, which they knew comparatively little about because transistors were a new technology. Suomi would order them in batches of fifty, paying $35 for an npn type transistor and $65 for a pnp. (A $35 watch today, said Suomi, contains about five thousand transistors.) The transistors were supposed to work within certain temperature ranges, but most of them clustered at the extremes of the stated range rather than at the center, as became usual when the technology matured. They tested each component by cooking it in Paula Suomi’s electric frying pan and then putting it in the freezer. Then they hooked each component up to an oscilloscope and checked its characteristics by observing the plots of voltage against time for various inputs. If it worked, it could be soldered onto a circuit board; if not, it went into the bin.
At each stage of the construction, there were laborious tests. “I can honestly say,” recalled Suomi, “that we never took any short cuts. If we made any changes, we made the tests. We almost worshipped that rule.
“I remember distinctly that as we worked on something, we would work it to death, and if the improvement was not satisfactory, we didn’t say we don’t have to worry about that anymore. We’d go and find a blackboard and try to understand the problem at a deeper level than just something we were soldering. For example, we needed a power amplifier to work over a wide range of temperatures, and so we needed transistors that would work over a wide range of temperatures. We tried to use silicon, but the only thing then that could handle enough power was germanium, but germanium is temperature sensitive; therefore we put in resistors to modify the power input. The resistors had to be reliable at a range of temperatures, so we put in thermistors to compensate for different temperatures.”
In the end, they had underestimated by a factor of a thousand the time needed for testing, but to Suomi’s irritation, the flight model was not put through the severest tests. It was felt that testing wore out the payload.
Their task grew more complicated when the Army became involved. All of those assigned launches were asked whether their payload could be modified for Explorer. Suomi and Parent were among those who built payloads for both types of satellite and launch vehicle. Werner von Braun told Suomi that if he could not have his experiment ready by the launch date, the rocket would carry a plaque reading “this space was reserved for the University ofWisconsin.”
Suomi and Parent’s first launch attempt was atop Vanguard on June 22,1959. That payload went into the ocean. When I asked whether he and Parent went for a drink after the launch failure, Suomi looked into the distance for a moment and said, “Yes, we went for a drink.” He paused and added, “maybe more than one. We weren’t thinking yet about Explorer. It hurt too much to lose the experiment on Vanguard. I could tell you a lot of things we did and said then, but they’re unprintable.”
But they had to think about Explorer very soon, perhaps even before their hangovers cleared, because the launch was scheduled for July 16. Suomi and Parent observed this second launch from the blockhouse at Cape Canaveral. Photographers and journalists only a quarter of a mile away watched the liftoff and saw with horror that the rocket appeared to head straight toward them. The photographers continued shooting as those around them dived under cars and trucks.
The rocket was, in fact, veering toward a populated part of Florida, and the range safety officer deliberately exploded it. The blazing rocket fell within 150 feet of the blockhouse. Suomi and Parent were trapped for more than an hour. When they were allowed out, they went to the smoldering rocket and hacksawed out their instrument package.
For the next launch, in October 1959, Suomi, who now saw himself as a jinx, stayed in Wisconsin. That rocket reached space, and the payload collected its data successfully.
The value of Suomi’s experiment is not that! it provided a global map of the radiation budget, because it did not. Rather it is in the existence of the idea and in the thought that went into exploiting this new place from which to make observations and in the painful lessons learned during the primitive days of the space age.
The first factor operating against Suomi was the low inclination of the orbit selected for Vanguard and later for Explorer. From the low inclination the satellite could “see” only a limited area of the surface and missed the poles completely Secondly, the primitive state of computing and data processing imposed limitations. In June 1961, Suomi wrote to a science journalist that they had been drowned in data from Explorer VII. The satellite was supposed to have been turned off on October 13, 1960, but the timer failed, so it was still operating eighteen months later. Suomi wrote, “Records are now being corrected on a minimum scale—it’s reassuring to compare records a year apart… the condition of the black sensor is nearly the same as originally, but the white sensor has discontinued due to exposure to the sun’s radiation.”
Though the results fell far short of the ambitious plan, the first attempt had been made to gather comprehensive data about the most fundamental process driving the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. And Verner Suomi was hooked by the new field of satellite meteorology. He went on to fly radiation budget experiments on two of the TIROS series of spacecraft and on classified satellites. He later referred to results from all of these when he was arguing that the spin-scan camera, for which he is most well known, should fly on one of NASA’s experimental spacecraft—the application technology satellite, or ATS-1.