By: Nathan Traini
Copy Editor and Staff Writer
NEW KENSINGTON Pa.- Fred Ridener is an Associate Professor of science at Penn State New Kensington who teaches under the radar as a minor scientific historical figure concerned with educational funding.
Ridener is well respected by his students in Physics 211. “I have been enjoying Ridener’s class, mainly because the way he teaches the class is engaging and not to hard to understand” said John Rottschaefer, a student in 211. “He is an overall nice guy and definitely knows his physics.”
“I like physics 211 because it provides a real life application for math…” said William White, another student in 211. “As for Ridener, he knows the material very well and keeps the class entertaining.”
Ridener’s students have an appreciation of their teacher but if they sat down with him to talk about his past, they would be surprised to find that he is somewhat of a historical figure that’s educating them in the relatively small branch campus of Penn State New Kensington.
While attending New Mexico State, Ridener was part of a co-op program that allowed students to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA for two semesters and go to school for two semesters. There were multiple satellite systems at NASA but Ridener worked with Nelson Ness who, along with the system of satellites, were trying to accurately record the shape of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Ridener remembers Ness as, “a very hot person, he had a short fuse.” A scientist, Ridener thought, was a person that was measured and restrained, “and spoke with an english accent.” Instead Ness was a hot headed “volatile” person very protective of his research.
Ridener explained the whole process, he would record the data that came from the satellites and use that data to punch the programming cards that were fed into the computer by the programmer. Back in the early to mid 60’s, when Ridener was at NASA, the computer he ran the data through possessed half of all the world’s computing power.
They expected to find the shape of the magnetic field to be completely symmetrical. Instead, after running off what the computer calculated, the magnetic field looked like a comet, “with the field being compressed in the front, facing the sun, and a tail opposite the sun,” Ridener said.
The reason for the tear drop shaped field, Ridener said, was “hydrogen protons, charged particles from the sun, which reach all the way to the Kyper Belt, would interact with the magnetic field making the wind tunnel shape.” The Kyper Belt is a disk of asteroids beyond Neptune nearly 50 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Ridener was the first person to identify and see the true shape of the magnetic field. When he called his superior Ness over to see the results, Ness was visibly distraught.
Ridener recalled Ness’s “ears turned red” and Ness started to accuse Ridener of, “making up my own data points.” Ridener was innocent, but the unexpected shape of the field seemed to have irritated Ness because he, “ripped the paper off the plotter.” The Earth’s magnetic field’s tail was later named Ness’s tail, because he was the lead scientist.
After Ness realized Ridener was correct, “I could do no wrong” said Ridener.
Ness would say “we need this data by today” and Ridener would say “it’s going to take a few hours for us to compile the data and then run it through the computer.” The lead programmer was an African American man, “which was unusual in those days because African Americans were nearly shut out of the educational system.” The programmer said, as Ridener recounts, “Just bring the data to me, whatever you need, and leave Ness out of it.”
Ridener, after he graduated from New Mexico state with his dual degrees in mathematics and physics was excited by theoretical physics and went to Iowa state to get his PhD.
After he finished his PhD he went and worked for Westinghouse, programming the computer that helped make steel.
“University jobs have lower pay but at least you know you have a job and you can research whatever you want,” said Ridener, while comparing the differences between a university job and working in the private sector as a physicist. “Yes, you may get big bucks but the company could say, we don’t need your research, and lay off your whole team.”
Ridener went on to explain that he, “never paid a penny for school” and even if he had to pay to go to New Mexico State, “tuition was $150 a semester.” 150 dollars in the early 60s, given inflation roughly equals 1,200 dollars in 2016 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is still much less than the roughly 7,000 dollars students pay to got to Penn State branch campuses.
Back when Ridener was going into college, “we were channeled into special class, we were offered special scholarships.” That system of advancing people in math and science was put in place in response to the Soviets.
The system that allowed Ridener to go to school tuition free doesn’t exist anymore. Scientists would prefer to fund science and math to just further our understanding instead of funding it as a scientific arms race.
That is the beef scientists like Ridener have with how education is handled because we aren’t funding education to simply educate people, but we do it only when we face a threat that requires a scientific and technical response.
The United States was supposed to have a particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, but 20 times more powerful. The U.S. and the scientific communities had the land laid out but congress couldn’t understand the justification for the funding.
Ridener recalled what U.S. Congressman William Proxmire, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, said to scientists when they proposed the U.S.’s version of the particle accelerator to discover the Higgs Boson particle, “So, if you don’t find it this generation, it’ll still be there next generation.”
“What seems like useless science today, science that is an order of magnitude out of our engineering, eventually becomes the revolutionary technology” said Ridener.