Orange Alert

My Memories of Niel F. Beardsley

Posted on: May 1, 2022

Physics alumn Al MacRae (’54, G’57, ’60 PhD) takes us down memory lane by sharing a few of his memories.

One of the Syracuse University Physics Department awards is the Niel F. Beardsley Memorial Award for undergraduate research, which was established by Beardsley’s friends and colleagues. He was not a faculty member, so it is easy to forget about him. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to capture my memories of him, a warm, friendly person who was responsible for the funding and support that made possible my PhD thesis research.

I first met Niel F. Beardsley during one of his periodic visits to Henry Levinstein’s Syracuse University Infra-Red Detector Physics laboratory. I was a first-year graduate student and a research assistant in this laboratory. Beardsley was the Wright Patterson Air Force Base contract monitor of the Levinstein infra-red activity and made numerous trips to Syracuse to oversee our activities. I am sure that my initial impression was that he was a friendly government bureaucrat doing his duty. However, it did not take me long to appreciate that he had a physics background after he asked a few penetrating questions about my research. We did our best to impress him with our recent results, realizing that he was the source of funding for the laboratory. It turns out that he was involved in the Manhattan Project and had a PhD in Physics from the University of Chicago and stayed there as an Assistant Professor. We looked forward to his visits and we treated him as a friendly contract monitor. He treated us as part of his family presumably because he did not have biological children of his own. The fact that he was responsible for the well-funded laboratory certainly enhanced our homage for him.

For some reason, Beardsley took a liking for me and always spent a fair amount of time with me during his visits. Then, out of the blue as far as I was concerned, he told Levinstein that MacRae would give our Lab’s status report at the next renown IRIS (Infra-Red Information Symposium) meeting in Chicago. I was the junior member of the Levinstein lab and was pleased with the recognition, but on the other hand was uncomfortable with the responsibility over more experienced and knowledgeable members of the Lab. Werner Beyen, Howard Davis, Dean Mitchel and I drove from Syracuse to Chicago on a combination of recently constructed sections of the Interstate Highway system and local roads. These guys were tough on me. To ensure that the content of my talk was delivered correctly and representative of the recent research in the Levinstein Lab, they made me rehearse my talk almost continuously during the drive, including possible questions and answers. To this day, I remember that harrowing, often intimidating, talk rehearsal. Needless to say, the talk went over well, and I was flattered by the number of compliments. This was a great learning experience for me – I always made sure that the scientists in my Bell Labs organizations rehearsed their talks, often in front of me.

I remember well one of the Beardsley visits. The members of the Levinstein Lab obtained 50-yard line season tickets to the football games in the newly constructed metal stands in Archbald Stadium. We even purchased an extra ticket for a possible last-minute girlfriend. These games were lots of fun and were characteristic of the camaraderie of the members of the Lab. One year, Beardsley visited us during the week before a game. Naturally, we invited him to attend the game with us. His immediate response was “No, I can’t accept gifts from people or organizations that are recipients of my government funding.” Despite our repeated coaxing, he continued to reject our offer until the Friday before the game when we told him that we couldn’t fill the seat. He then relented and attended the game and cheered, along with his infra-red children, whenever the Syracuse University football team made an infrequent touchdown.

In the Fall of 1959, after I had defended my thesis, climbed Mrs. Jennings Wooden Leg, and was preparing to leave for Bell Labs, the Levinstein Lab threw a great party for me in a nice restaurant in North Syracuse. Beardsley made a point of attending and tears flowed down his cheeks after several people said nice things about me. That is an incident that I will never forget and is an indication of how Beardsley developed an emotional attachment to the members of our lab.

Beardsley left Wright Field sometime in 1959 and moved to the Santa Barbara area where he consulted with Raytheon. Unfortunately, he disappeared in June 1960, along with six other engineers and scientists when the Marie, a refurbished WW II landing craft failed to return from a top-secret mission off Santa Cruz Island1. The mystery of this disappearance continues to this day. Beardsley left a legacy of being a pioneer in enhancing infra-red detector research and applications for the US military.

After he died, his friends and colleagues raised funds to establish the Syracuse University Physics Department Niel F. Beardsley Memorial Award for undergraduate research.

1 Mystery of the Marie, Teresa Newton-Terres and James H. Pence TNT Press (2017)