Home

YOUTHFUL EXPLORATIONS

My family was never wealthy and sometimes poor when my father was between jobs. My earliest years were spent in the Eagle Rock suburb of Los Angeles, California. I was born in 1939. Both parents had university science degrees from UCLA, my father's in geology and my mother's in chemistry.  My paternal grandfather, the original William Hall, had done a number of things from working as a lumberjack to banking and home building in the LA area (my parents lived in one of the houses he built), before retiring to a farm in West Virginia. My maternal grandfather owned a large printing firm, and lived in a hillside "mansion" within walking distance. He had workshop in his garage well equipped with hand tools I was sometimes allowed to use, and I also sometimes had the opportunity to visit the printing plant.

Prior to WWII, Father worked as a salesman for my grandfather's printing company (when both he and my mother developed drinking problems). During the War, based on a college minor in aircraft engineering, he worked in the defense industry as an industrial engineer. From before I was born, my parents maintained a small cabin cruiser in LA Harbor, where we would often spend weekends (Father was a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary). In 1945 we moved aboard the boat, sold the house in Eagle Rock, and as the War ended we bought and refurbished a larger cabin cruiser that had been used during the war by the Coast Guard. With the proceeds from the house, Father also bought a surplus landing barge, and converted it into a 2-man troller and spent summers fishing for albacore tuna. In the late 1940's this was a lucrative business, and at one point he was operating two trollers, plus high speed private charter boat, plus the boat we lived aboard.


Evergreen Aviation Museum. Spruce Goose (click picture to see details). Note that the picture combines water and technology

However, when his best troller sunk from under him, and the price of albacore was driven down to an uneconomic level for trolling, Father took on a job as boat handler for Howard Hughes's seaplane ("spruce goose") project. Later, just as I finished elementary school, he took an industrial engineering job with Ryan Aeronautical (then building target drones for the US Air Force), and we moved the boat to San Diego.

Although the boat we "lived aboard" moved from marina to marina along Cerritos Channel of the inner Wilmington (LA) and Long Beach harbors, all of my elementary schooling took place at Thomas A Edison School in western Long Beach. This was a "progressive" school that followed the philosophy that students should progress at their own pace, and basically direct their own education as dictated by their growing interests. I mention this, because the platform provided by my elementary education may have influenced the direction of my career. As a child I was probably dyslexic - or perhaps just plain lazy in school. The fact is that I didn't learn to read until a third grade teacher raised my illiteracy as a problem. However, when I was placed in the remedial reading course, and shown that I could read to myself vastly faster than anyone else could, it took me less than three months before I was reading at a university speed and comprehension. I devoured my Father's geology library and the public library's books on astronomy, geology, natural history and science fiction. However, whether due to the progressive education or dyslexia, I never did learn to be any good at spelling or arithmetic. 

On the other hand, the progressive style of education may have left me more open than most to the kinds of extracurricular learning experiences that formed the basis for my parallel and sometimes intersecting careers in academia and industry. My youth included two parallel threads of exploration enabled by my family background and my family's unusual lifestyle - one of learning about the diversity of life, and the other oriented toward the leading edge of technology. These stories of these respective threads are presented in parallel columns and can be read in any order, with some cross connections between them.

BIOLOGY

I grew up in a natural world that exposed me a range of the diversity of living things that few people, including most scientists, would ever experience in a full life. Until I reached my 20s, I never thought of becoming a biologist professionally. However, by the time I started university, I knew more about the full diversity of animal life than did many people teaching zoology courses. For example, by then I had spent years watching living examples of almost all of the macroscopic animal phyla and most of the classes in their native habitats and in my in my aquaria.

Living aboard a cabin cruiser in marinas in Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Diego harbors provided me with a wealth of experience that could not have been gained in any other environment I can imagine. For a good part of my childhood - until I started college, summer weekends and holidays were spent in various coves around Catalina and occasionally the other Channel Islands of California. There, I spent most of my time immersed in tide pools or snorkeling in the coves and kelp forests, where I became familiar with the diversity of life at its richest. When not in the water, I roamed the reasonably pristine chaparral of the island itself.

VKC00583.jpg

The light-filled cathedral of a kelp forest. 2005 Kike Calvo/V&W/Image Quest Marine 

INVERTEBRATE ZOOLOGY

Even the most polluted waters of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach supported interesting colonial hydroids and the stunningly beautiful sea slugs (nudibranchs) such as the hardy Hermissenda crassicornis that grazed on the hydroids, and a variety of tunicates, sponges and crabs. I often kept these in dockside aquaria for close observation, along with anything else the lived on the pilings and floats of the docks. Also, although there was plenty of oil spilled, the oilfields were not urbanized and still supported some of the original native fauna of birds, frogs, lizards and snakes.

PDP00900.jpg

Near microscopic colonial hydroids - 2002 Peter Parks/Image Quest Marine. Image Quest Marine has the best image collection of the diversity of marine invertebrates I have found on the Web.


Hermissenda crassicornis. David W. Behrens. Click the picture for details on this beautiful creature, its photographer and its fascinating relatives.

Also, once I discovered what could be found in libraries, my explorations of nature were informed by texts on everything from astronomy to zoology.

A neighbor in one of the marinas, a retired photographer, gave me a couple of good quality 10 X and 40 X microscope objectives he had used in his photography business. These turned my near useless "student" microscope into a shrinking space capsule that gave me a way to swim with the range of microorganisms and protozoa that could be found in my aquaria and in the marine environments.

MARINE BIOLOGY

When we moved to the Shelter Island Yacht Harbor in San Diego, not far from the open ocean, the water around the docks was much cleaner, and I also had access to the extensive sandy to muddy tide flats of San Diego Bay. There was a wider variety of fish and invertebrates to temporarily inhabit my aquaria, ranging from anemones and sea pansies to echinoderms, crustacea, estuarine and the odd rocky shore fish species drifting into the harbor along with rafts of kelp and sea grass. I also started breeding freshwater tropical fish in my aquaria. In high school, once I had a car, I also spent many a day fossicking through the extensive rocky tide pools on the seaward side of Point Loma.

My high school biology course had little to teach me that I didn't already know, but did manage to refocus my attention on protozoa through a lab that taught us how to set up cultures for amoebas paramecium, stentor and volvox.

Science Club field trips took us to the mountains and deserts of Southern California, and one memorable long weekend was spent at Puerto Santo Tomas south of Ensenada in Baja California, where we roamed a pristine beach, an undisturbed freshwater stream and a marvelous reed bed in the lagoon behind the beach, finding frogs, stickleback fish (which I took home for my aquaria), and two species of salamanders (Aneides lububris and Batrachoseps major) at what must be the southern limit of their range. (In my days as a herpetologist, I subsequently tried to find my way back to this magical place, and could only conclude that it had been totally devastated by agriculturists who had taken advantage of the fresh water this oasis provided in an otherwise deserticolous peninsula).

Thanks to the Science Club, I also became quite familiar with the Scripps Institute Aquarium and the San Diego Natural History Museum, and usually attended their respective public lectures on a monthly basis. At some point, I also worked in the Museum's herpetology department for a summer as a curatorial assistant to Lawrence Klauber, the herpetologist and renowned rattlesnake expert.

When I started at Occidental College, I had little opportunity to do biology. I lived in the dormitory, and rules did not allow even the keeping of fish tanks, although I often went hiking in the chaparral behind the campus.

I spent the first semester after transferring to UCLA in a student dormitory, but it was so cramped that I made other residential arrangements as soon as I could where I could again set up my cold water marine and freshwater aquaria. To find interesting organisms for the marine aquaria, I made a field trip up to California coast to Monterrey, San Francisco and as far north as Fort Ord, where I collected a several brightly colored blenny eels, which I managed to keep for several months until an aeration and circulation pump failure. In the fresh water tanks, I was breeding cichlid fish and bubble nest builders.

Because of my poor marks, I was placed on academic probation and had to seriously rethink my future. In my second term  at UCLA, I took two biology courses, both of which had an important influence on my further career.

NATURAL HISTORY AND ETHOLOGY

The first, which met a diversification requirement, was Raymond B. Cowles' Natural History of Plants and Animals in Southern California. Cowles was one of the first environmentalists concerned about the exponential growth of human populations, and his course was highly controversial (i.e., he proposed a government bonus for not having babies), because most students didn't like his message. On the other hand, with my physics and maths background, I could see he was discussing simple truth that needed action. From his course, I adopted a strong environmentalist point of view and a growing commitment to apply my understanding of physics to ecology.

The other course was a graduate psychology seminar in comparative animal psychology (ethology) taught by William C. Beckwith - who had studied under Konrad Lorenz. Nickolaas Tinbergen's Study of Instinct was the text (this was before Lorenz and Tinbergen were awarded the Nobel Prize). Although I had no prerequisites, a flatmate who was a graduate student in psychology convinced me that I should sign up for the ethology course. He was aware of my knowledge of the behavior of aquarium fish, including the sticklebacks that Tinbergen had used for many of his studies. I received an "A", and learned a lot about the comparative methodology of "natural experiments" from the course.

I breezed through both Cowles and Beckwith's courses, and it finally began to dawn on me that one could do biology for a profession!

However the good marks in biology did not make up for the failures in physics and maths, so I was placed on academic probation.

During the first term of my second year, I formally changed my major to zoology, and started the formal curriculum with the year-long zoology course to meet my diversification requirement. In the first term I achieved a near perfect score, and a field trip introduced me to the tidepools along the rocky shores of Palos Verdes - almost as good as those of Point Loma. The second term started well, but a failed romantic involvement with a fellow student taking the same biology lab had a major detrimental impact on my grades, even in zoology. I failed to meet the terms of my probation, and was dismissed from university at the end of my fourth year.

Most would have quit. I continued down the biology path at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University).

PHYSICS and TECHNOLOGY

Physical science and technology were also an early part of my life.  Even before I learned to read in the third grade, I managed to convince my parents to read popular science books to me - especially astronomy and geology.

Through my elementary school years, we lived in various marinas along Cerritos Channel next to the Henry Ford Bridge amongst the oil fields of the Wilmington area of LA or inner Long Beach Harbor. The boat we lived on was docked for a while just outside the lower margin of the picture below.

The Henry Ford bridge. The Library of Congress American Memory collection

The Henry Ford Bridge, Ford Motor plant and surrounding oil fields. The Library of Congress American Memory collection

My ambition in life from as early as I can remember in elementary school through the first years of college was to design and build starships to cross the oceans of space. This continued through high school and my first three years of college. Some of this interest may have followed on from early contacts with Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose  (to this day the largest heavier than air craft that ever flew).

I stayed home from school when I was around 6 or 7 on the day the fuselage was moved through west Long Beach to its assembly hangar at the Kaiser Shipyard, and watched from the entry to the marina as the the hull was trundled past on the highway. I was actually a bit disappointed because it didn't have rockets, but it was real! We also watched some of the taxi tests in LA Harbor from the boat (but not on the day it actually flew). Dad only started work for Hughes a couple of years after that flight - and I never got to visit the hangar.

Evergreen Aviation Museum. Transporting the Spruce Goose to its home in LA Harbour.

When I wasn't immersed in the sea and had read everything I could get my hands on, I would spend hours drawing and designing space ships - paying particular attention to ideas for nuclear and thermonuclear propulsion systems.

When my father started work for Ryan Aeronautical (who had built the plane Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic), we moved the boat to the Navy town of San Diego. There, my father founded the Silver Gate Yacht Club for boat owners of moderate means, and I helped build the docks, raising walls of the original clubhouse and did much of the landscaping. 

Father later moved into a civil service position as an industrial engineer with North Island Naval Air Station, where he was responsible for methods and standards used in the overhaul of Navy and Marine Corps jet fighters. An older cousin was a naval officer who served on the USS Hornet and other carriers based in San Diego, that we were often invited to visit when he was in port.

At San Diego's Point Loma High School I took a pre-science curriculum and joined the American Astronautical Society - a professional society for aerospace engineers - as a student member, and even attended several meetings of the local chapter where various engineering papers were presented. There was also a very active science club in the school that crossed the domains of the life and physical sciences. We took many field trips and were on the mailing lists for university and research institute seminars, and I attended those that seemed to be of interest. In the physical sciences I remember lectures on nuclear power by Edward Teller, and field trips to Mt Palomar Observatory and the nearby Navy Research Laboratory on Pt Loma.

Junior high school and high school courses included electric shop, a full year print shop course (following on from my interest in my grandfather's printing business) - where I learned about typography, page and book design, to say nothing of handsetting type for our letterpress, a year of typing (I was one of the very few males in this largely secretarial course), a year of engineering drawing, and Army Junior Reserve Officers Training Course - as well as all the science and maths courses on offer. Because of my problems with dyslexia(?) my grades were not particularly good, but I was one point short of a perfect score on the College Board verbal test and over 90 percentile on the maths test.

PHYSICS

For my tertiary education, I applied to several pre-engineering programs. I was short listed for CalTech because of my College Board scores, but didn't quite make the cutoff, so I ended up at Occidental College in Los Angeles. I started there in a pre-engineering curriculum, but I soon decided that engineering was mainly arithmetic - which I could never do accurately because of a continuing dyslexia or aphasia with numbers. I soon recognized that I was genuinely much more interested in basic research than engineering, and, besides that, astronomy was a part of physics. In the small classes offered by Occidental environment (i.e., 25-35 students in the required general physics and maths courses) I did well in physics, and calculus, where the main focus was on understanding concepts. However, my second year statistics course was a disaster, since most of the grading was based on numeric results.

COMPUTERS


From Weik, 1961, A Third Survey of Domestic Electronic Digital Computing Systems" Report No. 1115

However, as often has been the case with me, even in my college years, my most important learning experiences were extracurricular. The calculus instructor - whose name I have lost - organized a fabulous project for those of us who were interested. He managed to gain access to an obsolescent first generation Burroughs computer with a 1000 word magnetic drum storage at CalTech. For our first exercise, we programmed the computer to do differential algebra (which could be done by rule-based parsing of equations and looking up derivatives in tables). From this activity, I learned analysis, flowcharting, and object code programming. For integration we graduated to an IBM 709 computer at UCLA, that started us down the track to learning FORTRAN and working in a batch mode with jobs stored on punch cards.

In my third year of college, my parents could no longer afford Occidental's tuition and residency fees, so I transferred to UCLA (where both of my parents had earned their degrees) as a physics major. Father was most disappointed that I was not interested in joining his fraternity (or for that matter any fraternity).

UCLA

At UCLA as a physics major, I was defeated by my dyslexia. The junior year required courses (involving 200+ students) for the major were analytical mechanics, where the teacher introduced his own unique and horrendously complex notation scheme, and electrical theory and measurement lab. Both courses required extensive manual number crunching in the days before electronic calculators. For the two hour lab, I was spending 20 hours doing calculations (which inevitably came out wrong because of my problems with numbers)! I failed the lab course and nearly failed analytical mechanics. In my second term, I started atomic physics and differential equations, but withdrew from atomic physics it was becoming obvious that I wasn't coping with the maths. I also nearly failed differential equations, which was taught by the same teacher that had given the statistics course I nearly failed at Occidental.

The failures forced me to seriously consider whether I had the fundamental aptitudes to do physics - and I concluded I didn't. I started thinking about changing my major from physics to zoology, but I was seriously thinking of combining the two in the emerging discipline of biophysics. Given that my parents were no longer providing significant support for my education, I also had to earn enough money to pay further tuition and the expenses of living away from home.

NEUROPHYSIOLOGY

Towards this end, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. George Misrahy, an NIH Career Investigator and founder of the Deafness Research Lab (which became the Sensory and Developmental Physiology Research Lab) at Hollywood Children's Hospital (coincidentally, where I was born in 1939). He organized an NIH predoctoral research fellowship for me for the summers of 1960 and 1961, with part time work in between. I also returned for full-time stints off and on until Misrahy's death from cancer in 1963. Misrahy et al., (1962) was my first publication.

At Children's Hospital, I worked with a variety of high tech electrophysiology equipment - including a specialized second generation computer, one of the first computers of average transients (CAT). 


A small ferrite core memory (256 bit?). Click frame - copyright release pending. 

The CATs used a ferrite core memory to sum time based cortical or neural responses to a triggering stimulus. Even though responses to single stimuli were lost in the noise of unrelated neural activity or general electronic noise, by repeating the stimulus many times and adding time slices of activity following the triggering stimulus, any response bearing a fixed time relationship to the trigger would add (or subtract) algebraically until it visibly emerged from unrelated noise. "Noise" would on average show as many negative deviations as positive ones in any given time slice. The logic of signal averaging and autocorrelation provides a powerful basis for discovery.

 

Next: LIFE AS AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST

 

     Under Construction