As the lab celebrates its 75th, a 75-year-old researcher celebrates 50 years at the lab

-November 01, 2000

Walter Brown's appearance belies his age. The 75-year-old director of thin-film metal and dielectric research has thick, distinguished-looking gray hair, sparkling eyes and an easy smile that doesn't show many wrinkles. He could easily pass for mid-50s. In fact, he has reach a milestone of 50: On Dec. 1, 2000, he celebrates 50 years with Bell Labs.

After 1947, when William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen invented the transistor at the labs (winning the Nobel Prize in 1956), "Bell Labs became a hotbed of excitement about transistor and semiconductor materials," says Brown. Brown was hired by Shockley in 1950, after Brown received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University in 1947.

Although working for Shockley was an honor, Brown diplomatically implies that this relationship was difficult. "He had a tremendous ego," he says, "and not unjustifiably . . . it was very humbling.

"[Shockley's] relationship with Brattain and Bardeen was not one that was very harmonious," adds Brown. Shockley eventually left the labs in 1955 to found Shockley Semiconductors, which eventually failed, at least partly, Brown implies, because of Shockley's temperament. "The only ideas he thought were any good were his own," he says.

One of Brown's first projects was to investigate the effect of radiation on semiconductors, work that led to radiation-hardened ICs. Brown actually put semiconductors on the Telstar, one of the first communications satellites, launched in July 1962, to measure such effects. "It was one of the most exciting times in the history of Bell Labs, as far as I'm concerned," he says.

Today, Brown's research focuses on interconnect technology for MOSFETs, investigating the properties of copper and other materials compared to the aluminum used today.

At 75, Brown could retire at any time but doesn't plan to. When asked about his attitude toward basic research, his reply seems to reflect his feelings about aging researchers as well.

"Putting a time-scale on basic research is a misnomer," says Brown. "If you don't know what it is you're going to learn, then putting a time scale on when you're going to learn it is almost impossible."-T.H.

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