The Making of Project M

Photo Illustration by Glenn Matsumura

On the chilly spring evening of April 10, 1956, a number of boxy Fords and Chevrolets began pulling up in front of the rambling, ranch-style Los Altos Hills home of a young Stanford physics professor named Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky. About 20 earnest-looking young and middle-aged men with short- cropped hair got out and walked into the house. Neighbors thought nothing of this convergence-- Panofsky had been hosting regular Monday night bull sessions with students for several years. But this was not a Monday night, and it certainly was no ordinary bull session.

Gathered in Panofsky's living room that night were the top professors in Stanford's electrical engineering, microwave and high-energy physics laboratories. For these normally cautious men of science, the concept under discussion was breathtaking. "All other physical sciences, and probably all life sciences, must ultimately rest on the findings of elementary particle physics," Panofsky, known since childhood as "Pief," would later write. "We cannot afford to be ignorant of the most fundamental type of structure on which everything else depends." On this April night, these men were setting out on a quest to find that fundamental structure--the basic building blocks of the universe.

Encouraged by early experiments on subnuclear matter obtained using the University's 220-foot long Mark III electron accelerator, Panofsky and the others had begun dreaming about a massive scale-up. Their audacious vision: a machine that would generate 50 times the power of the Mark III and extend in a straight line over two full miles. As physics professor and Nobel laureate Felix Bloch, an initial skeptic, later told Panofsky, "Pief, if you must build a monster, build a good monster."

Panofsky and his team did not disappoint. The plan envisioned that evening and refined in late-night sessions over the next year became known as "Project M." And the M stood for "Monster." The idea was to make Stanford home to the biggest and most expensive atom-smasher ever built. And just as amazing, they would fight to open that facility to users well beyond the Stanford community.

Known now as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), the Monster cost $114 million to build, at that time nearly twice the size of Stanford's entire endowment of $61 million. But the hardware was only one part of the proposal. In 1956, the annual SLAC budget was projected to be about $14 million, paltry by today's standards but certainly monstrous when you consider that the budget for the entire University was then only $22 million a year. (SLAC now accounts for approximately 10 percent of the University's $1.4 billion annual budget, and all of it is fully reimbursed by the Department of Energy.)

As director emeritus, Panofsky clearly enjoys the chance to reminisce about the origins of SLAC. An ebullient figure dressed in plaid shirt and suspenders, Panofsky emerges from behind a paper-strewn desk. He is packing up for a two-week assignment in China, where he has been advising on projects for the past 20 years. At the age of 77, a full 12 years after his "retirement" as director of SLAC, Panofsky has barely slowed down.

Panofsky's bibliography lists more than 100 largely technical works, and there are numerous references to his accomplishments in other publications. Not listed, however, is a 1977 Playboy article-- thankfully without pictures--in which SLAC is described as "a long vacuum pipe that is housed in a heavy concrete casing sunk 25 feet underground. It has no practical use whatsoever, but this is part of Panofsky's charm." The piece goes on to describe Panofsky as "maybe the brightest man in the world" and compares him to other "Strangelove types" like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Herman Kahn, all former advisers to presidents on Cold War nuclear policy. "Whenever the others are about to go off the deep end," the article concludes, "one of them usually stops to wonder what Panofsky thinks. He is their best and brightest."

As a man whose ego matches his diminutive size, Panofsky rejects the "cult of personality," giving liberal praise to his colleagues whenever the opportunity arises. But it was clearly Panofsky and colleague Ed Ginzton who orchestrated the original SLAC proposal, beginning that night in Panofsky's Los Altos Hills living room. It was they who shipped the final proposal off to government funding sources exactly one year later. It was primarily Panofsky and Ginzton who sold the SLAC concept to Stanford president Wallace Sterling and then endured five years of continuous multi-stop turbo-prop commuting to Washington to secure the funding and to work out the contractual relationships. It was Panofsky who figured out a way for the monster to live peacefully and productively with the University, the federal government, the various research communities and the surrounding towns. And it is Panofsky whose spirit is stamped all over the institution to this day.

Born in Berlin shortly after the end of World War I, Pief was the younger of two brothers 18 months apart. The family soon moved to Hamburg, where his mother and father both taught art history in the local university. Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power, and young Panofsky's world was turned upside down. One of Hitler's first priorities was to ferret out the Jewish influence from German universities. Bowing to the inevitable, Erwin Panofsky packed up his family one year later and moved them to Princeton, where he had landed a teaching position.

Young Pief arrived in the United States at the age of 15, speaking little English and still three years away from finishing his course at the German gymnasium. But rather than enroll at the local high school, Panofsky applied to and was accepted at Princeton. He loaded up on math and science courses, where he could minimize the need to speak and write English. Despite the disadvantages of youth, language and culture, Pief graduated top of his class at the age of 19. By then he was thoroughly hooked on physics.

Panofsky did his graduate work at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he attached himself to an eminent physicist by the name of Jesse DuMond. He learned two invaluable lessons under DuMond: how to design large, complex experiments that required mastery of both the theoretical aspects and also of the intricate technical instrumentation involved. He also learned that a good physicist must do everything for himself from scratch, a concept that he would later apply at SLAC.

Not yet 20, Panofsky soon fell under the influence not only of Professor DuMond but of his 16-year-old daughter, Adele. With the full blessing of her father, the two were married by a local justice of the peace shortly after Adele's high school graduation. Pief and  Adele have since raised five children and recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.

Panofsky's work with DuMond during World War II caught the attention of the renowned Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez, who was part of the Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos. Alvarez asked Panofsky to create an acoustic shock-wave calibrator to measure the yield of atomic blasts. In connection with the work, Panofsky found himself aboard a B-29 on the morning of July 16, 1945, as the first nuclear bomb was exploded 10,000 feet below in the New Mexico desert. What he remembers now about that experience was the relative insensitivity of a young physicist to the dawn of the nuclear age. Exhausted from the pressure-packed deadlines, he recalls being relieved that the bomb actually went off and then falling asleep in his seat as the plane descended.

World War II transformed the nature of large-scale basic research at major universities such as Stanford, Cal Tech and Berkeley. Stanford's claim to fame in experimental physics was based largely on the pioneering work in the 1930s of William W. Hansen, who invented the rhumbatron (a conducting metal chamber capable of producing very high voltages with little power input), and the Varian brothers, who invented the klystron (a vacuum tube producing or amplifying microwaves). After the war, Hansen and his colleague Ed Ginzton sought government funds to harness the power of the klystron to accelerate electrons with energies up to 1 billion electron volts.

Their project, which came to be called the Mark III linear accelerator, had just been approved when Hansen died of chronic lung disease at the age of 40 in 1949. Ginzton and other Stanford physicists went on to build the Mark III and, in 1950, the University recruited Robert C. Hofstadter from Princeton. Hofstadter almost immediately began the electron scattering experiments that would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in 1961. Even with the addition of Hofstadter, a pure experimental physicist, it was clear that the Stanford program needed a person of stature in the physics community who could also manage a major enterprise, someone comfortable with both particle physics and accelerator technology. That person would have to combine a theoretical understanding with an experimental background and have a deep appreciation for the intricate instrumentation involved.

After the war, Panofsky had followed Luis Alvarez back to the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley to help build a large proton linear accelerator out of surplus radar sets. He kept his hands dirty in what he calls "the plumbing"--designing and building not only the accelerator, but helping to develop three other major new scientific instruments that were to turn the Rad Lab into the country's leading center for basic physics research.

Across the Bay, physics Professor Felix Bloch and department head Leonard Schiff decided Panofsky was the ideal man to fill the void at Stanford, but the appointment never would have happened without the loyalty oath controversy at Cal.

It is difficult now to reconstruct the hysteria that swept the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s concerning the supposed influence of Communists and communist sympathizers in government, academia, entertainment and other fields. In March of 1949, U. C. President R. Gordon Sproul announced he would require a loyalty oath for all faculty as a means of heading off what he thought would be an even more onerous witch-hunt to be mandated by the California legislature.

When some non-signers were dismissed, including his good friend Gian Carlo Wick, Panofsky determined that he had to leave. His decision created quite a stir on campus. Panofsky received a direct appeal from Sproul and was summoned to a lunch meeting at the Hillsborough estate of John Francis Neylan, president of the U. C. board of regents. Though sympathetic to Sproul's predicament, Panofsky believed the oath violated individual civil rights as well as principles of academic freedom.

So when Schiff and Bloch offered Panofsky a full professorship at Stanford in 1951, it fell on receptive ears. Despite counteroffers from Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, Panofsky chose Stanford largely because he didn't want to move his wife and young family clear across the country. He liked the people at Stanford, and yet he was cautious because his mentor Alvarez and others doubted that Stanford was the right place to do significant physics. "That frightened me somewhat," he says, "but I was a kid, full of confidence and ready to give it a try."

Despite his self-assurance, Panofsky was not ready for the "chaotic situation" he confronted on arrival at Stanford in the fall of 1951. The Mark III project was in trouble. Ed Ginzton, in charge of completing the linear accelerator, had been diverted by work related to the Korean War. In order to reach its goal of 1 billion electron volts, the tube had been extended beyond the original design and now ended only 6 inches from the laboratory wall, hardly enough room to install elaborate detection devices. Panofsky took the project in hand and made a big push over the next two years. The Mark III was almost completely re-engineered, the lab enlarged, detection instruments added, and a quality research program organized.

With the initial experiments on the Mark III proving highly successful, Hofstadter and the theorists soon began pondering the potential of a truly gigantic, next-generation machine that could fire electrons into their targets at ever-higher energy levels. The breathtaking results of this informal brainstorming process began to take shape at the all-hands meeting in Panofsky's living room on that night in April 1956.

Most of those in the meeting believed this huge new tool could be developed, as had the Mark III, just for the private use of the Stanford physics department. Panofsky thought otherwise. He convinced the group not only that government funding of something this big would depend on its being available to many users, but that it was morally right to open up research availability to all qualified scientists. On the other hand, Panofsky successfully argued against the "national laboratory" structure, where the government could impose research priorities and set administrative policy. He developed the concept, successfully in place to this day, of a "national facility." This means that Stanford leases the land to the government and manages all aspects of SLAC, including determination of its research program, subject only to annual budget approval by the Department of Energy.

The original plan was to start near the golf clubhouse and tunnel underground to an end station on the other side of Page Mill Road-- an idea that proved geologically unfeasible. Ginzton recalls that many after-hours committee meetings took place at Rossotti's on Alpine Road. "It's hard now to convey the spirit of these meetings," he says. "There was a sense of excitement, of promise, and of personal pride in participating in a project of great importance." Panofsky describes the efforts of that year as "an incredibly smooth and collegial process--quite fun actually."

At the end of the one-year study period, a 100-page proposal-- professionally done but amazingly thin by today's standards--was shipped off to three possible government funding sources. The only major dissenter was Hofstadter, who wanted the machine but didn't want to share it with outsiders. Panofsky says that Hofstadter was a brilliant physicist, but one who felt that the world owed him exclusive use of all the tools needed to do his work. This difference of opinion was one of the causes of the deep rift that developed in the Stanford physics community (Hofstadter refused, in fact, to attend the SLAC groundbreaking ceremonies in 1962).

To obtain clearance from President Sterling and the trustees, Panofsky and Ginzton assured them that the new facility would follow University academic policies and that its research program would not be controlled by Washington. They also agreed that day-to-day administration would be handled by a separate SLAC institutional structure.

In 1957, Panofsky and Ginzton began five years of commuting to Washington to obtain the funding for SLAC and then to negotiate a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission, which had been selected as its overseer. As scientists, Panofsky and Ginzton got along well with their counterparts in the Washington agencies reviewing the SLAC proposal. But while the two physicists were familiar and comfortable with the technical discussions, they found Washington politics unfamiliar and frustrating. Ginzton recalls that there were many times when the future of the project was in grave doubt--not because of its merits, but because of the political trade-offs involved.

Late in 1958, President Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee, of which Panofsky was an abstaining member, recommended that the project be funded. Eisenhower declared his support in a New York speech in May of the following year. The Democrat-controlled Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had not been consulted in advance and reacted harshly to this premature announcement when it took up hearings on the matter in July.

To embarrass Eisenhower, committee chairman Clinton Anderson threw up a variety of roadblocks, asking for additional studies on the cost estimates and for potential sites off the Stanford campus. He also objected to Ginzton's role both on the project and as a director of one of its potential contractors, Varian Associates. Questioning on this potential conflict of interest was particularly acrimonious. Ultimately, Varian voluntarily agreed not to bid for any Project M contracts, and Ginzton decided to leave Stanford and become CEO at Varian.

Congress finally approved the project on September 15, 1961, after what Panofsky describes as "a rather amusing set of coincidences." Against Republican objections, the Democrats were looking for authority to upgrade the reactor at the nuclear weapons facility at Hanford, Wash., and to sell some of its excess power commercially. The Republican administration, meanwhile, supported the accelerator in Palo Alto. A deal was eventually struck--the "Hanford-Stanford Compromise"--giving both sides what they wanted.

Panofsky, now back at Stanford and in sole charge of the SLAC project, turned his attention to negotiating a contract with the AEC (later the Department of Energy). He pushed hard the unique concept of SLAC as a hybrid between a single-purpose university lab and a multi-purpose national lab. Stanford manages all operational aspects but opens the facility to all qualified users, currently accommodating some 2,000 non-Stanford researchers annually.

Contract negotiations with the AEC almost unraveled over what Panofsky calls "two real cliff-hangers"--important issues where substantial brinksmanship was involved. The AEC, then headed by John McCone, had little confidence in Stanford's construction capabilities and wanted to manage the civil work themselves. Panofsky admits that people at Stanford didn't know much about civil construction, but he nevertheless pressed for full control, seeing the intimate linkage between civil work and the technical and scientific needs of the project. He recruited President Sterling and Trustee Chairman David Packard to join a meeting with McCone on Alameda Island. McCone was particularly impressed with Packard's testimonial and consented to Stanford control. Due largely to the heroic efforts of Project Manager Richard B. Neal and his staff, the facility was eventually built on time, and it came in pennies under its $114 million budget.

The other major issue that could have derailed the project concerned Panofsky's insistence that SLAC have complete authority over its own research program and that it be able to freely publish the results of all experiments. It was then AEC policy to insist, for national security reasons, on the right to impose research priorities or to classify certain research results. Against the advice of AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg, Panofsky drew a line in the sand, effectively gambling five years and $114 million on what he considered to be an important issue of principle. When he agreed to at least consider government requests based on national security, the AEC approved the revised wording by a 5-0 vote. As it turns out, no classification issues have arisen at SLAC in its 31 years of operation, and it retains a remarkably open, campus-like environment to this day.

With the contract signed, Panofsky turned his attention to the considerable challenge of assembling a world-class staff of engineers and physicists. Their task would be to build this massive, highly complex and unprecedented machine and then bring electron-beam research into the mainstream of particle physics. Panofsky knew that the first-class citizens at any university are the professors, and he thought that the recruitment of superstars would depend on his ability to offer academic tenure.

Panofsky's solution was to create a SLAC faculty independent of the physics department. Panofsky refers to them as "professors of monstrology." In the inbred world of university politics, this created quite a controversy and added to the tension that already existed between the physics department and SLAC. It is largely due to Panofsky's powers of persuasion that the arrangement has been made to work over time. Today, 36 of SLAC's 196 PhD physicists are also faculty members of the University.

One more major hurdle had to be cleared before the first two-mile electron beam could be fired up on schedule in 1966: getting enough power to the facility. The PG&E plan was to cut a 100-foot swath through woods and meadows from its main trunk line on Skyline Boulevard and erect an unsightly string of steel stanchions down the hillside. This stirred up the citizens of nearby Woodside, who approached a then-unknown ex-Marine attorney named Pete McCloskey, '50, JD '53, for help. McCloskey took on the triple Goliaths of PG&E, Stanford and the AEC with alacrity, winning court cases and getting Lady Bird Johnson to intervene with her husband even after Congress had passed special legislation to allow the power-line plan to proceed.

Panofsky worked quietly behind the scenes to reach an acceptable compromise. The result is that today those almost undetectable power lines, strung on a single pole, cross Interstate 280 and head toward SLAC. Panofsky says that McCloskey approached him after the truce had been signed and said, "Pief, those are the most beautiful power lines I've ever seen."

Largely on the strength of the notoriety gained in this fight, McCloskey was elected to Congress, where he had a chance to observe Panofsky in Washington many times over a 15-year period. "The magic of Pief," he says, "is that he can bring all kinds of people together. He was a person of unquestioned credibility and an unbelievable builder of coalitions."

The first electron beam was shot down SLAC's two-mile runway in 1/90,000 of a second on May 21, 1966. With the correction of a few minor glitches, the machine was running at full power only a few weeks later.

The first experiments were a huge success. At lower energies, electrons fired at stationary protons had bounced off them like billiard balls. At SLAC's higher power, however, the protons--once considered indivisible building blocks of nature--tended to break up, revealing additional subatomic particles and eventually proving the existence of what some theorists had begun to call quarks. Panofsky enjoyed being an integral part of the early experiments but gradually removed himself to focus on his management responsibilities. The significance of the early work at SLAC in identifying the quark substructure of matter was eventually recognized in 1990 in the form of a Nobel Prize to SLAC Professor Richard Taylor and his MIT collaborators, Henry Kendall and Jerome Friedman.

Despite the almost immediate success of the first experiments, there was only so much that could be learned by firing electrons at fixed targets. During the congressional hearings that authorized SLAC, Panofsky had been asked how long he foresaw a useful life for the machine. His reply: "About 10 years or so, unless somebody has a bright idea." Perhaps Panofsky's most significant achievement in the 23 years he has been head of SLAC has been recruiting top-quality people and encouraging them to come up with those bright ideas--ideas that have renewed and regenerated the institution. Over the years, the SLAC staff, which now numbers 1,400, has produced 3 Nobel Prize winners and countless discoveries about the composition of subatomic matter.

Current SLAC Director Burton Richter recalls how easy it was for him to get Panofsky excited about his ideas for a circular storage ring, which would take electrons and positrons from the accelerator and smash them into each other instead of at stationary targets. It was the late 1960s, and the two were confronted in Washington with tight budgets because of the Vietnam War and the upcoming moon landings. They eventually scaled back the project to $5 million and found a way to build it out of the SLAC operating budget. The resulting "SPEAR" (Stanford Positron-Electron Asymmetric Rings) began operation in 1972 and, in terms of the discoveries it has yielded, is probably the most cost-effective high-energy physics machine ever built.

Panofsky remembers being called out of the bathtub at 6:30 on the morning of November 21, 1974, to witness what has come to be known in SLAC lore as the "November Revolution"--results that led to the discovery of the psi particle (or charm quark) and produced a Nobel Prize for Richter and MIT's Samuel Ting. Martin Perl later used this facility for his Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the tau lepton in 1976.

The SPEAR ring now feeds a dedicated synchrotron radiation lab, which has produced important applied results in fields such as medicine, environmental science and electrical engineering. The success of SPEAR helped secure $78 million for the construction of a much larger storage ring called "PEP," the upgrade of which is now an essential part of SLAC's plan for the future. And, just before Panofsky's "retirement" in 1984, work began on the Stanford Linear Collider, which splits the electron-positron beam at the end of its two-mile course and circles around to produce high-energy collisions within a newly designed detector.

SLAC Deputy Director Sidney Drell says simply that "without Pief, there is no way that this institution would exist today." Panofsky's vision and universal credibility were essential to its founding. The machines have always worked brilliantly. And, most important, his leadership has inspired great scientists to come to SLAC to do great work. On his retirement in 1984, the SLAC staff dedicated the "Panofsky Grove" of redwoods alongside the main entrance. Like those trees, Pief's Monster has grown strong and stood the test of time.


Bernard Butcher, '64, had a career in banking before he returned to Stanford in 1994 to study history. He wrote about the 1964 Mississippi voter registration movement in the July/August 1996 Stanford.