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LIGO Waves Farewell To Fred Asiri

LIGO Waves Farewell To Fred Asiri

- Contributed by Linda Turner

This past month, LIGO said goodbye to one its long-time employees, Fred Asiri, who is leaving Caltech to pursue new challenges at Stanford University. Not only will we miss a valued colleague, but also a friend and master storyteller. When asked to interview Fred for the LIGO Newsletter, I was delighted for the chance to sit with him and hear his reflections on over twelve years of service to LIGO. Fred's effervescence and sense of humor are contagious, and both prevailed in his reminiscences. Some stories I affectionately remembered from after-work LIGO get-togethers, others I first heard around the table at dinner parties in my home. Nevertheless, I laughed all over again during this interview as Fred recounted his hijinx on LIGO, all while providing exemplary contributions to our LIGO observatories. Here is a glimpse into life on LIGO with our special friend and colleague, Fred Asiri.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born and raised in Iran attending Abadan Institute of Technology where I earned my B.S.C.E. I immigrated to America in 1971 and attended U.S.C. where I completed my Masters in Civil Engineering in 1972. I was employed with Tamcor and worked in R.M. Parsons where I was involved in the design and analyses of several buildings: the Panama International Airport, the Long Beach Children's Hospital, and the geodesic domes for the NSF at the South Pole. Just prior to coming to LIGO, I had spent about 15 years with Joy Technologies.

When did you come to LIGO and who interviewed and hired you?

It was 1988 and both Robbie Vogt and Bill Althouse interviewed and, subsequently, hired me.

What was LIGO like when you first came on board?

It was a small group--five of us in conventional facilities plus about a dozen in the Science group and half a dozen at MIT.

Where were the LIGO offices initially located? The Engineering Suite?

Suite? No, more like the Engineering Dungeon! Just kidding. I was in the office that is now Dorothy Lloyd's.

What was your title and job description and were there changes to them over the years?

When I was hired I was told to pick my own title--that it could be anything I wanted. So I started with LIGO Civil Engineer. Over the years it changed, first to Project Civil Construction Engineer, LIGO Technical Representative for Building and Infrastructure and, most recently, LIGO Facility Technical Manager. Now, that last one sounds like a glamorous janitorial type and that's why I decided I better look for another job!

But my actual job description is getting conventional facilities built. Actually, I felt like I had a default position that was made up of everyone's leftovers--all those tasks that didn't fit anyone else's job description.

Do you have a favorite Hanford memory?

Charlie Peck came to my office to ask about the rough grading status for the Hanford site. I told him we had selected a contractor who had been waiting for a few months for a notice to proceed, but no decision had yet been made. I told Charlie that if the rough grading wasn't done before springtime, I had learned that there were whitetail kite birds and if they laid their eggs in the bushes at the Hanford site, there could be no clearing until the end of the hatching season. So, Charlie then authorized the blading of the bushes so the birds wouldn't have a place to lay their eggs. In order to do that, I called an environmental specialist at Battelle. I told them that since we were going to blade up all the bushes, make sure someone goes and walks the site to ensure there are no eggs already laid. An hour later I received a fax that Battelle had dispatched 12 of their best biologists to go and survey for eggs. I immediately called to say that the purpose was to not find any eggs, so send your worst (or hopefully blind) biologists. Luckily no eggs were found and the contract was awarded.

How about a favorite memory from Livingston?

It was my first trip to the Livingston site and we went to the middle of the woods to see where the vertex point would be. Someone asked, "Do you know where north is?" From my Boy Scout years, I looked for the moss to grow on the north side of the trees, but the whole damn trunk was covered in moss. Figuring no one else knew, I just pointed in some direction and confidently stated, "That's north," and everyone believed me.

On another visit while walking in the woods to accept the staking of the site, I looked and saw no stakes. When I asked the surveyor where the stakes were, we realized that all of the stakes had been knocked out. So, I asked him if he really staked out this area or was he bluffing. He insisted that someone must have knocked out the stakes. I wondered who would be crazy enough to knock out stakes in the middle of the woods. After restaking, lo and behold, some were again knocked out. Who could it be? Later in the week, while with the surveyor, we saw a cow charging a stake. Apparently it was the orange color of the flag on the stakes that was ticking-off the cows. They were the culprits. Needless to say, no more red or orange flags were used at the Livingston site.

Over the past twelve years, what's the funniest story or memory you have from LIGO?

Well, as part of my default position, one time I was called into Bill Althouse's office, in the presence of Rai Weiss and I learned that in order to remove water vapor pressure in the beam tube, the tube would have to be baked. So, I asked, what has this to do with me? Their answer was my assignment: go and find the cheapest way to insulate the beam tube. Returning to my office, I called the Owen's Corning Research Lab in Houston, Texas at the end of their day. Of course I told the man about the project and what we were trying to find, etc. I then told them I was looking to insulate a tube and in the cheapest way. When I told him it was a tube 16 kilometers long and 4 feet in diameter, I suddenly had his attention. He rapidly asked me several questions: What's inside the tube? Velocity of materials flowing in the tube? Temperature? Etc. I said, "Wait a minute, there's nothing inside." "What do you mean nothing?" "Absolutely nothing--empty!" He called a few guys into his office and said, "Hey, come listen to this guy. He wants to insulate a 16 kilometer tube full of nothing and doesn't know how much it's going to cost him." One of the guys in his office asked, "What's this project all about?" "I don't know, some kind of fu-fu government project. Sounds like they want to catch gravity waves and look for a black hole." And from then on it just got more and more hilarious--you see, these guys didn't realize they hadn't muted the call. I could hear the whole exchange! He later called back and apologized for making nasty comments. I said that I was paid to do this and it was indeed a serious project. The man at Corning felt so sorry for me that he came to Los Angeles and helped me cost out the insulations for the beam tube.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but what about your most embarrassing moment?

All twelve years! No, really, it was the first time I was called to go to the Hanford site. I got a fax telling Bert Switzer and I that we should come to the site with "snake boots." I asked Bert if he'd ever heard of "snake boots" before. He said he hadn't. Neither of us with a clue, we went to Sears and told the shoe salesman we wanted to buy snake boots. Well, he hadn't heard of them either. Returning to work, we sent a fax back to Hanford and asked them to tell us what a snake boot was. It turned out to be simply a boot that covers the ankles--and here we'd been all over town looking for some sort of mysterious "snake boots."

Fred Holds Down the Fort at Livingston. Looking back, what would you consider your greatest challenge?

It would have to be working on such an "earthy" matter with a group of highly talented "Astro" and "High-Energy" physicists and scientists.

What are you most proud of accomplishing while with LIGO, and what brings you the greatest sense of satisfaction?

I'm most proud of seeing the building of LIGO. When I visit each site and remember the original landscape--bug infested, dense woods, rats--and see the transformation that has occurred, I find tremendous satisfaction in seeing far-fetched dreams coming to fruition.

Several years ago, when I was new to LIGO, I recall a story about your first "magnetic" office that left everyone laughing. Can you tell it one last time?

I was in the office that is now Dorothy's office. Greg Hiscott ordered and installed the first color Sun Microsystem in my office. That was a novelty in those days. So as I was playing with it, I noticed that every time I moved the screen, the color shifted. When I told Greg there was something wrong with the monitor, he agreed. Sun was called and they replaced the monitor. Again, we started playing with it and the problem was still there. Greg started knocking around and adjusting the insides but for no good. I just gave up.

Later, after returning from Edward's Air Force Base, I happened to have a compass. I laid it on my desk and noticed that the needle "N" was facing downtown Los Angeles. I started moving the compass around and the "N" was shifting and the compass was rotating out of whack. At the time, we thought to call maintenance people to say there was something wrong with the office having a large magnetic field. Then Mike Zucker came in and said he wasn't surprised, since the office had been the experimental pit for Dr. Anderson, the scientist who discovered the positron and the magnetic field that created the positron. Honestly, this was the first time I had heard of a positron and I thought Mike was pulling my leg. "Are you serious?" "Yes, this is why the whole room is magnetized." We then called Physical Plant and told them of the problem with the magnetic field.

Well, that day happened to be Halloween. And while I was sitting in my office, some guy walks in looking like a mummy and he is carrying a large vacuum cleaner and brooms--totally mechanized, too. "Why are you here," I asked. "I'm here to degauss your office." "Here to degauss? I've heard of ghostbusters but never degaussers!" I thought he was a student playing a joke on me. So to make a long story short, the guy started degaussing, working up and down on the walls. There was no effect and so he determined he couldn't degauss it. He asked if there was anything else he could do for me. Well, it so happened I was to attend the JPL Halloween party that evening in Dabney. I asked to borrow his outfit. And wouldn't you know I won first prize for my costume at the party as a ghostbuster. And that office is still filled with the ghosts of the positron.

We know you're leaving our project for another one at Stanford. Can you tell us a little about it?

I'm working for the Next Linear Collider Project as a civil engineer. My involvement is in the pre-conceptual design of the conventional building facilities for the project. The concept is to inject electrons from one end of a 20-mile long beam tube and positrons from the other end. As they race toward one another they smash right at the center, at a place called Interaction Hall. And now we are chasing positrons and electrons, and I'm again haunted by positrons.

It sounds like your new challenges are similar to those of LIGO--working again with high-energy physicists.

You see, I still haven't learned my lesson!!

Award plaque given to Fred Asiri. Close-up of plaque inscription.

On his departure, Fred was given a newly-designed plaque in recognition of his outstanding service to LIGO.