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Dr. David Shoemaker: The Compleat Physicist

Editor's Note: All right, LIGO fans, here's where we test your mnemonic powers! For those of you who recognize this article as a reprint from a past issue, you win our official LIGO "virtual blue-ribbon" for your hawk-eyed acumen! And for those of you who don't... Shame-Shame! It's banishment to the back of the class for you! Okay, so what's going on here anyway? Are we trying to pull a fast one? You bet! Here's the scoop: Our principal writer in the MIT group, David Shoemaker, our foreign correspondent from Cambridge as it were, has been dutifully penning us a story almost every month with nary a complaint. Who will ever forget his fearless exposť on the Phase Noise Interferometer work? Or that heartwarming series of articles on the MIT group's move from the dilapidated Building 20? (A story that had more installments than the old "Gunsmoke" tv-show.) So, you get the idea. The man has been a tireless and steadfast trooper. With that in mind, and knowing how busy he's been with his diurnal work, we offered him a rest this month from his usual authorial chores. Reluctantly--but clearly with a sense of a great weight lifted from his shoulders--he agreed. Days later we had misgivings, doubts, second thoughts. Had we acted impetuously? Was this decision judicious? A LIGO Newsletter without an MIT column is like a three-legged dog--off-balance, sadly incomplete, something you mock and jeer at viciously the moment its back is turned. Plainly some fix-it had to be found. Our solution lies below. It is the essence of subtle ingenuity. Basically, we foraged through all our back issues until we found an MIT article that was not time-dependent and so consequently not dated into irrelevance. Best of all, it happens to be an autobiographical sketch of the David-meister himself, lending the whole ridiculous ploy an air of legitimacy and a kind of poetic justice! Marvelous! But this is not all. Our new intention is to publish this story over and over and over again every single month until each one of us can recite all the intimate details of David's life as perfectly as we can the theme song to "The Jefferson's." (Well, we're movin' on up! Movin' on up...!) Similar age-resistant articles will be found for our other columns, and they too will be repeated with mind-crushing constancy. Eventually the newsletter will become a fully-independent, self-perpetuating, hands-off automaton endlessly reiterating itself. At last this will free up some slack time and allow me to sneak down to the Super-Sub-Post-Sub-Basement-Annex where the boys from Bio-Hazard wage their 24 hour/7day poker-fest! Deuces wild! So slip on your bifocals, settle back in your swivel chair, and get ready to participate in our very first Best of LIGO MIT column. Because a tale this good deserves to be repeated, again. And again. And again...

Dr. David Shoemaker: The Compleat Physicist

- Contributed by David Shoemaker (with a foreword by Syd Meshkov)

David Shoemaker is a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Space Research at MIT. He is additionally the Deputy Detector Group Leader for LIGO. Recently it was suggested to David that we would enjoy publishing a biographical article about him, and we asked for some helpful comments and data. His reply--a short, first-person narrative--is an engaging story that we couldn't hope to improve upon. It is presented in full after the following introductory paragraph.

Born in Boulder, Colorado, in 1953, David has also lived in Falls Church, Virginia; the comically-named Walla Walla, Washington; Eugene, Oregon; Scotch Plains, New Jersey; Boston, Massachusetts; Munich, Germany; Paris, France; and now once again resides in Boston. The photo at left is a recent snapshot of David in a characteristically good-humored temper.

David Shoemaker Personal Notes

My father was an experimental psychologist (which used to mean mice, mazes, lights, and trap doors), and it was he who gave me my desire to understand how things fit together (as well as come apart--I was often in trouble when the typewriter, clock or sewing machine was discovered dismantled into a hundred tiny pieces). My education took a meandering path, since playing guitar in rock bands seemed more important to me than schooling. So it was a jazz bassist at Tufts University (who was also--secondarily, in my opinion--a Physics professor) who convinced me to write an undergraduate thesis on the physics of the guitar. This clicked, as I discovered that a carefully guided intuition for experiment is as necessary as analysis to a successful measurement.

As I was finishing my undergraduate work at Tufts, Prof. Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was searching for someone to help manage a teaching lab for Juniors at MIT, and he engaged me as a technical assistant. I was immediately drawn to Rai's approach to physics, and became his graduate student in 1977, finishing my Masters Degree at MIT in 1980. My thesis was the construction and test of the far-infrared spectrometer prototype for the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, and which made the definitive measurement of the Planck Spectrum of the Big Bang microwave background.

Afterwards, when I stopped to weigh all things considered, I had to admit that I didn't really like academics all that much--and, for its own part, academics didn't seem to care too much for me either, so I started hunting for something new to tackle.

While in Weiss' lab, I was exposed to the beginnings of interferometric gravitational-wave detection, and after working for several years on prototypes at MIT, I sent a letter to the group working in this domain at the Max Planck Institut fuer Quantenoptik in Garching, Germany (just north of Munich) asking if I might join them. The group there had just completed the construction of a sensitive instrument, and they needed some impetuous young American to show up, start asking a lot of naive questions, work all night, and generally exploit and collect the enormous reserves of experience embodied by the group. This was a very rich time in my scientific life, and I am still learning from it. They also took the time to teach me the German language and this was as much of a challenge (and as much fun) as the physics.

I next went to a new group starting to work on gravitational-wave detection in Orsay, just south of Paris. I wrote up my research in Germany, and some new work on frequency-stabilized Nd:YAG lasers, for my PhD thesis (1987). The principal challenge was, in fact, to write and defend the thesis in French. It was here that I met my wife (who, I should add, was instrumental in my learning French). She was just finishing her PhD in Astrophysics. While I had at last made the transition from musician to physicist, she was eager to do the inverse: she had decided to pursue a singing career once finished with her studies! All of which led us back to Boston and my present work with the LIGO Project.

My time at LIGO has led me through tests of novel interferometers, designs of seismic isolation systems and, most recently, systems approaches to the LIGO interferometer--how to ensure that the parts form a whole which will perform as we require. Installation and commissioning will consume me as it will us all, with the data and the next generation of interferometers on the horizon to make it fun. I will also be leaving time for my family, though, as we have a son now (born October 7, 1996) and he is the hardest, and most rewarding, experiment I have ever attempted! As a close second, an old farmhouse in Acton is changing the meaning of weekends. All this, and binary inspirals too.