Professor Seth J. Putterman, the middle son of a U.S. Customs Service employee and a housewife-turned-interior-designer, attended engineering school at Manhattan’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art for two years before transferring to Caltech, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. At Rockefeller University in New York City, where he got his Ph.D., Putterman’s thesis adviser was famed physicist George Uhlenbeck, with whom he worked on various research papers in the field of quantum fluids.
Putterman recalled that it was the chance to work with physicist Isadore Rudnick that drew him to UCLA in 1970 as an assistant professor. “I was a theorist, and Izzy Rudnick was an experimentalist. It looked as though there was room to combine and do interesting things,” he said.
In Putterman’s talk, titled “Fiat Lux: Light from Gas Bubbles, X-Rays from Peeling Tape, and Fusion from Crystals” Putterman is hoping to carry out an experiment on stage that will demonstrate a phenomenon called “sonoluminescence,” in which a flash of light accompanies the bursting of a bubble in a liquid when sound waves are passed through it.
As long as certain safety conditions are met, the physicist said, there shouldn’t be a problem. The caution is understandable, though, when you realize that to demonstrate sonoluminescence, Putterman will take a flask filled with phosphoric acid and shake it until the temperature inside reaches 10,000 degrees Kelvin, or roughly 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A bubble inside the liquid expands and collapses, releasing a tiny flash of light as it does so.
Putterman recently received a sizeable grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study this bubble of liquid, with the goal of increasing its energy density. Should his lab reach its goal, however, he will be careful about what he says — lofty claims in science are always challenged, as Putterman well knows. In fact, in 2005, the UCLA physicist was the subject of a BBC documentary in which he was asked to reproduce results that scientists at Purdue University claimed they achieved.
“The documentary was called ‘An Experiment to Save the World,’ ” Putterman said. “People at Purdue claimed that by making bubbles using deuterated acetone, when the bubble collapsed, they got deuterated acetone nuclear fusion. And that would be very interesting, because they were saying that instead of 10,000 degrees, they got to a temperature of millions of degrees. And at temperatures of millions of degrees, they reached thermonuclear fusion.”
In a form of “reality physics television,” a BBC camera crew filmed Putterman and his staff as they tried to reproduce the experiment in real time. They set up the experiment with deuterated acetone and used a neutron detector that was built at UCLA. After two weeks of filming and interviewing, however, Putterman’s lab was unable to reproduce the Purdue results.
“This is a very important point: No one has proven that it’s impossible to do this,” Putterman concluded. “And the payoff is so great that although it’s risky, it’s worth doing if you have an idea. So this is what we could call ‘high-risk, high-gain’ research.”
From Wendy Soderburg, UCLA Today