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Stanford Report, August 27, 1997

Physics Tank enters history: 8/27/97

Physics Tank razed to pave way
for completion of SEQ

BY LISA TREI

Ken Sherwin knew time was running out in early August as he struggled to remove wooden planks from a bookshelf in the Physics Tank. The following day, this white-haired consultant, a retired lab technician, said the electricity was scheduled be turned off, leaving the officially named Bloch Auditorium in the dark for good.


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On Aug. 18, a demolition crew moved in with a wrecking machine to chew up the walkway roof and columns surrounding the 40-year-old lecture hall. A few days later, the noisy machine, which maneuvered across the ground like a crab, started pounding away at the concrete walls of this squat, round building that has been a base for physics students for decades.

"Almost from the day it was built, architects have wanted to get rid of it," 77-year-old Sherwin said as he wiped his hands on his stained work pants. "[The tank] doesn't blend in. It doesn't have a tile roof."

Removal of the tank, built in 1957, will clear the way for a palm-lined pathway leading from the Inner Quad to the new Science and Engineering Quadrangle, or SEQ, which is scheduled to be fully completed in 1998. University Architect David Neuman says the new quad will restore the intent of architect Frederick Law Olmsted's 1888 plan for the layout of the university. "[The tank] is sited in the wrong place," Neuman said. "As a piece of architecture, I find it rather unattractive and not in keeping with Stanford's traditional architecture."

The tank and the adjoining Varian and McCullough buildings were designed by architect Gardner A. Dailey. Professor Emeritus Arthur Schawlow said budget constraints at the time meant that the tank was completed with few decorative frills. Trees were planted around it to soften its stark lines. "They called the tank the 'hatbox,'" Schawlow said. "The physics building [next door] was the 'shoebox.' "

In 1992, following a renovation project, the tank was dedicated as the Felix Bloch Auditorium. Bloch, who died in 1983, taught at Stanford for a half century and in 1952 became the university's first Nobel laureate. According to a 1989 proposal calling for the tank's name change, Bloch's work on the theory of metals in 1929 laid the foundation for the development of semiconductors, which in turn led to the development of the transistor, the integrated circuit and, ultimately, the personal computer. "His work made possible the creation of the computer industry and through it, Silicon Valley," the proposal read.

A metal plaque outside the tank commemorates the scientist and his lifelong achievements. Physics department administrator Rosenna Yau said the plaque, which features a smiling professor Bloch, will be hung in a classroom in the new SEQ Teaching Facility when it opens this fall. Longtime visiting professor Jerry Fisher, who worked with Bloch at Stanford, said the university should be sure to honor this longtime faculty member after his namesake building is demolished. Schawlow added, "Bloch is probably the greatest scientist Stanford ever had."

The tank's utilitarian design inspired mixed feelings about its demise among longtime users of the building. With its two windowless lecture halls, each seating 150 and 300 people, and a prep room in between, the tank was an efficient place to work, Fisher said. "I've taught a lot of lectures and that's the best setting I've ever seen," he said. "It's just a shame [it's being demolished]."

But Professor Doug Osheroff, a 1996 Nobel laureate in physics, recognizes that the tank didn't offer ideal conditions for everyone. "The seats were very uncomfortable, especially for people with short legs," he said. "The air-conditioning was never under control. When I wanted to do some kinds of demonstrations I couldn't because of the breeze [inside]."

The department's new, smaller digs, which it will share with biologists and chemists, are set to open during the Fall Quarter. Construction delays mean that during the first few weeks of term, classes will be scattered across campus. "A lot of demos won't be shown," Yau said. "But we're working to have as little disruption as possible for the students."

While the tank turns into just a campus memory, tales linked with it endure. Schawlow recalled walking into an undergraduate lecture in 1981 after being informed that he had won a Nobel Prize. "I told [the students] there's still a lot of beautiful things left to be discovered," he said.

In one memorable demonstration, Schawlow said Professor Emeritus William Little used a blowgun to fire a projectile at an object dropped from a balcony in the lecture hall. "Bill Little found a coonskin cap and left it around for those demonstrations," he said.

In 1961, the American Rocket Society held a partly secret conference in the tank called "Guidance, Control and Navigation." The three-day meeting included classified sessions on such subjects as "Inertial Guidance for Ballistic Missiles and Space Probes." Registration for the conference was $10 for society members and $1 for students. A single room in Stern Hall cost just $5 a day.

Besides its place in Cold War trivia, the tank commands a spot in folk music lore. Martin LaPointe, an introductory lab supervisor and longtime employee, said that a young Joan Baez, the daughter of visiting physics professor Albert Baez, used the tank's sound system to practice singing and playing her guitar when the hall wasn't filled with students.

Meanwhile, Sherwin, who has been on campus seven years longer than the tank, said he will probably leave when the new construction project is finished because his experience will no longer be needed. "It's like being a museum curator," he said as he walked past one-time state-of-the-art demonstration tools, including some dating back to the 1920s. "Most of this stuff is so obsolete it's pathetic." Sherwin said a lot of the pieces would be ditched because the department's new teaching rooms have less space.

Although Sherwin is not happy about the changes, alumnus Peter Allen, former News Service director and a Farm resident since the 1930s, says he backs the SEQ project. Allen's link to Felix Bloch dates back to a morning in 1952 when the newly named Nobel Prize winner said he wanted to finish an 8 a.m. lecture before speaking to a gaggle of reporters on site.

"I think it's important to [finish the SEQ] so that the humanities and sciences have a passageway," Allen said. "It helps [promote] intermingling between the two disciplines. If we don't do anything, there's a barrier." SR