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Thomas Marshall Olsen
Class of 1949
B.S., Liberal Arts, from N.U. in 1953; M.S., Physics and Math, from University of Wisconsin in 1955. As an N.U. physics student my part-time job for Dr. R. A. Fisher was running the hydrogen liquefier. I needed a full-time summer job and he introduced me, in his capacity as consultant, to U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment in Wilmette (since moved to New Hampshire). I worked there for my three summers of graduate school as assistant to snow physicist Dr. Ukichiro Nakaya. Eventually I married his daughter Sakiko who later earned a PhD in geology at Johns Hopkins University and there still teaches igneous and metamorphic petrology. Memorable moments: 1) In 1958 as a Nuclear Engineer at Martin Aircraft in Baltimore, I had Admiral Rickover’s reactor design equations but not their derivation, which was kept secret. With the desktop mechanical calculators available then as state-of-the-art it took eight hours to evaluate a candidate reactor design. After a few months it became obvious how the differential equations were derived and solved for fission neutron slowing down in a hydrogenous moderator. (Power reactors exploit a larger fission cross section for thermal neutrons.) I wrote up the derivation and presented it to the U.S. Army engineers, our customer, at Ft. Belvoir, VA. 2) In 1973 at Teledyne Energy Systems in Baltimore, our primary product was radioisotope thermoelectric generators, powered by 238Pu. NASA needed four for the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft to Jupiter and beyond. Output current flow through the thermoelectric elements caused a characteristic magnetic field. This could potentially interfere with mission measurement of Jupiter’s magnetic field. Each generator included a compensating electrical loop at one end. The designs for earlier missions seemed an afterthought and results were notoriously inaccurate; NASA commonly attached small dipole magnets to “shim” the generator field. For Pioneer, I started with Maxwell’s equations and used a Taylor series expansion to separate circuit and space variables. Evaluation for earlier missions used spherical harmonics and simple geometrical approximations for the generator circuit. The circuit, while complex, is essentially piecewise continuous linear segments and is a natural for dyadic algebra. Evaluating the contribution from each segment explicitly yielded an accurate value for the generator magnetic field. The net field with a compensation loop was small enough that NASA needed no shim magnets on the Pioneer mission. My reward was invitation to watch the launch on closed-circuit TV from Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland. I marveled that the spacecraft took only 90 minutes to reach our moon versus the 55 hours travel time for our Apollo astronauts. In 1956, only one academic institution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered a degree in nuclear engineering. Since that was my area of job assignment, Martin Aircraft classified me as a Nuclear Engineer. Martin sold the nuclear engineering group to Teledyne in 1968 and I kept that job title at Teledyne. By 1980 the nuclear power industry in the U.S. had waned until government contracts were few and far between. Over my 24 years of experience to that point every project I had worked on needed computer skills. I found I could maintain my modest but comfortable lifestyle by working as a computer software developer. I moved from Baltimore to Phoenix and joined Karsten Mfg. Co. – now renamed Ping Golf – and supported their numerically controlled machine shop. With two years of German from Meno Spann’s department at N.U. behind me I enjoyed six trips to Germany and brought back IBM Germany’s state-of-the-art metal cutting software. At Ping I also served as interpreter for the steady flow of Japanese visitors touring the Ping facility. I retired from Ping in 1995 but still develop computer applications part-time for Darrell Survey company in Los Angeles.