FEATURE — Winter 2004
   

 

At Home with Physics

Alumnus Harry Ringermacher, B.S. '68, M.S. '77, Ph.D. '80, applies real physics to industry; in 2004 he was awarded the Mensa Foundation's Copper Black Award for outstanding creative achievement for his groundbreaking work in infrared imaging.

by Terri McClain

Creativity probably is not an attribute most people associate with physicists and mathematicians. After all, the scientific method is logical, methodical. Mathematical equations are neat and orderly.

But creativity is the ability to see patterns where others do not, to see past the distinctions we use to create categories of knowledge and data, and to apply such insights in new and interesting ways. The greatest discoveries are often the result of magnificent intuitive leaps across these artificial boundaries.

Creativity, therefore, is at the heart of science, and it can change the world. Take Einstein's theories, for example.

As a physicist, Harry Ringermacher spends a lot of time thinking about Einstein's work, which did much to shape the 20th century. Einstein's theories influenced science, literature, politics, and philosophy. "In 1905, his miracle year, he published four fundamental papers," Ringermacher says. "Each one stimulated a new branch of physics. Every day we use equipment and communications—like global positioning systems—that are based on Einstein's general relativity and special relativity. It impacts everybody."

Ringermacher, a senior research scientist at the General Electric Research Center in Schenectady, New York, specializes in thermal imaging technology. He has numerous patents and publications in his field and has published on general relativity as well.

"I'm an experimentalist, not a theoretician," says Ringermacher. "I developed infrared imaging techniques and the theory behind them. Here at General Electric it's real physics applied to industry. But my hobbies are general relativity and geometry. I consider myself a generalist. I don't like to be focused very narrowly like many people in physics are."

Making connections

The son of Polish Jews who survived the Nazi concentration camps, Ringermacher was born in a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany, not far from Einstein's birthplace. The family came to St. Louis when he was 2 years old.

The blade image is the result of a computer imaging program—developed by Ringermacher's "IR team" (Infra-Red) at the GE Research Center—that incorporates his theoretical and experimental physics research. He works closely with Donald Howard, an expert at computer imaging, to ensure that the computer algorithms incorporate the physics correctly in creating this unique form of thermal imaging.

By sixth grade he had developed an avid interest in science. After earning a B.S. in physics from Washington University in 1968, Ringermacher worked as a summer graduate fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He'd only been there a month when he received his draft notice. "Then, while I was in basic training," he says, "I got this phone call from a West Point professor, Lieutenant Colonel William Streett. He asked me to work in his lab for my two years in the Army, and, of course, I jumped at it."

Although only a 22-year-old private first class, Ringermacher published two papers with Streett. In 1971, their theories about Jupiter's Great Red Spot were written up in Time magazine.

After leaving the U.S. Army, he married and returned to Washington University to pursue a doctorate in physics. Two professors had a particularly large impact on his work.

"I worked in nuclear magnetic resonance because I admired Richard Norberg," he says. "The other influence was Dan Bolef, who introduced me to acoustics and ultrasonics, which eventually led me to the career I have now. I pursued an unusual mix of ultrasonics and nuclear magnetic resonance. I also published papers on general relativity."

By the time he graduated, he already had two small children and needed a good job. With no academic positions immediately available, Ringermacher went to work first for NASA and then, from 1981 to 1997, for United Technologies Research Center in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1997 he joined General Electric.

He developed novel techniques using thermal imaging to inspect and evaluate industrial materials and airplane components, such as engine blades. Ultrasound is often used for such evaluations but can be expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to interpret, potentially resulting in dangerous and costly errors. Ringermacher's technique uses a high-power light flash to generate a heat pulse on the surface of the object. An image is then captured with a high-speed infrared camera.

"The trick after that is to analyze the data accurately," says Ringermacher. "And that's really where the work that I do differs from everybody else's. I developed a proprietary, novel technique to make the image look much like an ultrasonic image so the data is easily interpreted. Then the evaluation can be done very quickly—in seconds rather than in hours. So this technique is fast, efficient, and more accurate.

"I've always been interested in his [Einstein's] one last try," says Ringermacher, "which was unifying electromagnetism and gravity. I've thought about it for many years, and I believe that I have a way of unifying them inside a geometric formalism."

"I also did a lot of work at United Technologies in laser ultrasonics, which uses a laser pulse to generate sound waves, and published papers in that area. It's a combination of thermal imaging and acoustics. When I joined General Electric, I was asked to lead both efforts, laser ultrasonics and thermal imaging. Eventually the thermal imaging began to dominate my time because I had to develop techniques to evaluate GE's new composite materials."

In July 2004, Ringermacher received the Mensa Foundation's annual Copper Black Award for outstanding creative achievement for his groundbreaking work in infrared imaging. A popular speaker at Mensa events, Ringermacher has a talent for explaining complex science in lay terms—even such abstruse concepts as the invisible dark matter and dark energy that are theorized to make up much of the universe.

Unified field

In physics, it seems that all roads lead back to Einstein.

"I've always been interested in his one last try," says Ringermacher, "which was unifying electromagnetism and gravity. I've thought about it for many years, and I believe that I have a way of unifying them inside a geometric formalism."

Harry Ringermacher is a senior research scientist at the General Electric Research Center in Schenectady, New York, where he specializes in thermal imaging technology. (Above) He works at home.

Ringermacher's unified theory was solid enough to make predications of new effects. He theorized that electric fields affect time, and nuclear magnetic resonance could be used to measure the change in the "clocks" of isolated protons that had passed through an electrical field.

In 1999, NASA put out a request for new ideas of unified fields for "Breakthrough Propulsion Physics." Ringermacher joined with United Technologies aeronautical engineer Brice Cassenti and Washington University physics Professor Mark Conradi to submit a proposal and won the contract. The project was completed in 2001.

"It was a successful experiment, but it was a null effect,"  says Ringermacher. "To isolate the protons and move them about is a very expensive process. We had to use hydrogen atoms, and the negatively charged electrons canceled the effect of the positively charged protons. It doesn't mean the theory failed. It means the experiment was really not adequate to test the theory.

"This was a very blue sky concept," he continues, "and Conradi did an absolutely brilliant job. He and his students were actually able to create new techniques and make this measurement using high voltage together with nuclear magnetic resonance, a very unusual combination."

Visualization

Before he developed an interest in science, young Harry Ringermacher loved art. He continues to paint and sculpt in his free time, attributing both his artistic talent and scientific success to his ability to visualize the abstract. He seems to have passed both abilities to his children: Daughter Jennifer is a computer scientist, while son Jeremy is an artist.

His wife of two years, Judy Keating, is a forensic accountant, fellow Mensan, and valuable sounding board for his theories. Most recently, she has helped him work through his evolving—and controversial—theories on dark matter and dark energy, on which he is collaborating with yet another University physics alumnus, Lawrence Mead, professor of physics at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

Suffice to say that his approach to the subject springs from his hobbies—general relativity and geometry—and from his natural gift of creativity.

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.