Things Rick Built

Rick Lindsey

Rick Lindsey, academic department technician in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, died on Aug. 22, 2013. Below are tributes by Stuart Flury '13 and Hans Pfister, associate professor of physics.

By Stuart Flury '13:

Those at Dickinson who knew Rick Lindsey would readily agree that he was a genius. From classroom models and demonstrations to advanced, custom lab equipment, Rick's creativity and engineering capabilities allowed him to solve any problem. And not just effectively: His love of form resulted in an aesthetic that made his work seem more like art than engineering.

What made Rick such an asset to the Dickinson community, however, was neither his skill in the machine shop or his design. During the two and a half years I spent working with Rick in the shop, he became a friend and mentor to me. His down-to-earth nature and open-mindedness made him approachable as an instructor. When I first learned to use the lathe, went to him with my first project design and needed to customize a tool, he was quick to hear me out and offer insight.

Not only did he respect me as a student as I struggled to master the equipment in the shop, but he also treated me as an equal. It was his willingness to reach out to me that started our friendship. Rick carried with him a wealth of wisdom and experience that, combined with his modest attitude, made him an incredible mentor. He taught me many things about life, from finances to relationships to lifestyle, and he imparted to me his love of form. While Rick Lindsey may no longer be with us, what he has given to me, and indeed many in the physics department, will remain with me through the rest of my life.

By Hans Pfister, associate professor of physics:

It was some time in 1999 when I had walked over to Rick, my next-door neighbor. I forget the reason for walking over to his house, but I clearly remember how much in awe I was when I saw the gears of his Harley's transmission laid out in meticulous order on a cream-colored towel on his garage floor next to his motorcycle. Alongside those gears were some custom motorbike pieces that Rick had machined himself. At first glance I thought they were chrome plated, but Rick quickly instructed me that they were just highly polished aluminum pieces. At that time in my life I had machined many items made of aluminum for the various plasma machines that I had worked on; while my pieces were nice and shiny, they were nowhere near as perfect as the pieces Rick had made. It was clear that I wanted Rick to be our next technician in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

That fall, when I became the department chair and our current technician retired, I asked Rick if he would consider the position, and he graciously agreed. That moment marked the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration and a wonderful friendship.

Over the course of the following 14 years Rick and I built more than 100 inventions; physics demonstrations; hands-on experiments for our introductory physics program, known as Workshop Physics; pieces of apparatus for upper-division courses; and numerous items for the plasma lab and for faculty and student research projects.

Whatever I could conceive inside my head, Rick was able to build. And whatever Rick built in the shop turned out marvelously—better than I had envisioned it. It was not only shiny and beautiful, but it would be a piece that would function and work fabulously. As Rick would often say, "Chrome won't get you home," by which he meant that a piece might be shiny as chrome, but if it is not also fully functional it will do you no good.

Rick had a wonderful sense for aesthetics. I remember how much he enjoyed building our second kinetic art apparatus, a device that allowed students not only to engage with the kinetic art sculpture but that enabled them to investigate harmonic motion, damped motion, driven oscillations and coupled oscillations. We always wanted to build a kinetic art sculpture for the Tome building's front yard, but it appears that this will have to remain a dream for now.

Rick and I had built a number of electrostatic high-voltage generators, which all served to illustrate to our students in a simple manner the principle of generating a high voltage. One of the generators we called the Pendulum High Voltage Generator. To store the electric charge Rick had polished two copper toilet tank floaters to a mirror finish. The electrons just loved it.

One of our most significant accomplishments was the design and construction of the college's plasma thrusters, a space-craft propulsion device as it is used for interplanetary deep space missions and for so-called station keeping, i.e., maintaining a satellite on its designed orbit. The idea for this project originated during one of my plasma physics courses at the University of Bremen in Germany. In 2000, I had created the course Ph 204: Introduction to Plasma Physics, which I then taught several times as part of the Plasma Physics in Bremen Immersion Program. In that course I introduced my students to the wealth of plasma physics applications, one of them being plasma propulsion.

Sean Finnegan '01 and Jolion McGreevy '02 thought that plasma propulsion was really cool, and they asked if we could build a plasma-propulsion device when we returned to Carlisle. Thinking that this was just a short-lived infatuation with plasma propulsion, and that Sean and Jole surely would forget the idea, I said yes. However, shortly after our return to the U.S., Sean and Jole showed up in my office and reminded me of the plasma-propulsion device. I had to admit to Sean and Jole that I had never in my life  built a plasma-propulsion device, that I would have to start from square one, and that together we would have to learn as much as we could about plasma thrusters. Both of them happily agreed. After a few weeks of study and some calculations, we arrived at our design. And then came our meeting with Rick. I told him what, in my view, the ideal plasma-thruster core would look like and Rick simply said, "Oh yes, I can build that." Due to Rick's extraordinary skills we ended up with a plasma thruster that is quite unique.

When it came to making the magnetic field coils, Rick's experience from his previous job came in quite handy. He built three sets of concentric magnetic field coils that gave our plasma thruster a radial magnetic field with a uniformity in the azimuthal direction that, to this day, surpasses any other plasma thruster. This was possible only due to Rick's ingenious creation of a magnetic field coil that was suspended on the inside of the outside wall of the plasma thruster. This is like winding a coil not as it is usually done—on a core from the inside out—but winding it from the outside in. Trying for a moment to wrap some copper wire into the inside of a tube quickly reveals what a challenge this is. Furthermore, due to Rick's expert machining skills, our plasma thruster is the only one on the planet that has an ion-acceleration channel whose depth can be adjusted from outside the plasma chamber. As the depth of the acceleration channel has a significant influence on the performance of a plasma thruster, we are in the unique position to study this dependence.

In the end, Rick and I built a research plasma thruster that has about the same dimensions as one of those thrusters presently used for deep space missions or for GPS and communications satellites' station keeping. The temperature of the plasma plume (the white stuff visible in the insert of the above picture) turns out to be about two million degrees Kelvin, give or take a 100,000 degrees. And while my students agree that this plasma thruster is pretty "cool," it is actually rather "hot." Undeniably, it's the hottest thing on campus.

In 2006, in response to the urgent need for renewable energy devices, Rick and I wrote a research proposal to the Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) to design and build a cost-effective, sun-tracking solar concentrator. This is probably one of the largest items we built together.  

The idea was to build a solar collector that would be as inexpensive as possible, yet at the same time have a high solar-to-thermal energy-conversion efficiency. It was also supposed to require little maintenance and be easily serviceable. We decided that we would build the solar collector from readily available parts. As such, the device could be used in developing countries and at remote locations. Guided by these ideals we decided that we would build the concentrating mirror as a Fresnel mirror, consisting of 46 individual, flat mirrors that we purchased from Lowe's or Home Depot for less than a dollar each. Thus we were able to put together a concentrating mirror that would reflect more than 4,000 watts of solar power for a price that was not $5,000 but, taking mounting hardware into account, somewhere around $150, a cost that is certainly much more affordable in a developing country or for a homeowner here in the U.S.

The 46-square-foot mirror concentrated the sunlight on an 18" by 18" area, and we decided that a radiator would be readily available in any country and would do the trick. We used one from Gasoline Alley and paid a mere $40. At this opportunity Rick taught me the proper Central Pennsylvanian pronunciation of radiator: It is actually not radiator (ˈreɪdiˌeɪtə(r)), but rädieitr (ˈrædiˌeɪdr), he said.

When it came to supporting the entire solar collector in a way that it would track the sun from sunrise to sunset, we decided that the rear axle of a pickup truck would be adequate. It would support the weight of the mirror—after all it was designed to support a small one-ton pickup truck—and also withstand the wind load as in its original application the rear axle would safely handle the forces on the pickup truck, even while going through a highway curve at 70 mph.

One year, Rick and I received a KIZ, Innovation Transfer Network (ITN) grant that supported the development of a dental crown and bridge remover. Yes, we ventured outside of the realm of physics. But then, again, this dental device operated entirely on physics principles. Rick and I called our device the Gentle Dental Crown and Bridge Remover. The emphasis is on "Gentle!" And in contrast to another device, our device applies a series of micro pulses and essentially vibrates the crown off of the tooth, with a buzzing sound that is reminiscent of a barber's clippers. Absolutely no head holding and warning of an impending jolt required.

Rick and I soon returned to renewable energy devices. In 2009, we received a KIZ-ITN grant to support the design and construction of a Sun-Tracking Concentrator With a Thermoelectric Convertor (TEC). We spent an entire summer together in the shop. And as always we had a lot of fun inventing, designing, building, experimenting, refining, tweaking and taking data. It was always such a rewarding experience to bounce ideas off Rick. He had such an expert knowledge of materials and knew what materials could and could not do. When I thought that we could do something with a 3/4-inch angle iron, Rick said, "I would rather do this with a 1-inch angle iron." And, of course, he was always right.

Our sun-tracking concentrator achieved a temperature of 1,435 ˚F in its focal area, which means it could easily melt a hole into the bottom of an aluminum pot if it were held into the focal area.

In 2010, Rick and I built a device that actually should not exist. It is a physics demonstration apparatus from the realm of theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is mathematical in nature and exists in the heads of physics professors and physics students. Things in theoretical physics are constructs of the mind. But sometimes it is hard to visualize some of these constructs. For students it would be good if they could put their hands on it—if they could hold it, see it, turn it and touch it. While a typical physics demonstrations catalog contains hundreds of demonstrations from the fields of mechanics, electricity, magnetism, optics, thermodynamics, and even atomic and nuclear physics, there are no items from the field of theoretical physics, until now. The device we created—I call it the Laplace Surface—might indeed be the first demonstration apparatus from the field of theoretical physics. It allows our students to better understand concepts such as gradients, boundary conditions, local minima and maxima and Laplace's law and its consequences.

We can reduce our carbon footprint not only by using renewable energy and creating new renewable energy sources but also by using the energy we have more frugally; we call it increasing energy efficiency. For example, over the course of a sunny day, our sunroom is sometimes too warm. A simple solution is to turn on the AC to pump the excess heat to the outside. But then in the evening the room is too cold. Turning on the heater would be a simple solution then. However, it would be far better if, somehow, we could store the excess heat, which accumulates over the course of the day, in a box. Then, later in the evening we could release that heat from the box.  While this sounds like wishful thinking, it no longer is. In 2012, Rick and I built exactly such a box. Our students called it the Q-Box as "Q" is the physics symbol for heat.

One of the last items that Rick built before he received his diagnosis of colon cancer was a solar air heater, a renewable energy device that converts solar energy directly into thermal energy. Solar air heaters typically have much higher energy-conversion efficiencies than, for example, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. PV panels that are being installed these days have conversion efficiencies of about 17 percent. We only tolerate such low conversion efficiencies because we are so enamored with electricity. In contrast, solar air heaters achieve conversion efficiencies upward of 40 percent. The solar air heater that Rick and I and my students Sung Woo Kim and Ilia Pappas built has a conversion efficiency of over 70 percent. Our design criteria were to build it as simply and as cost-efficient as possible. Rick's slogan was "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,"  and we adhered to it always. One day, solar air heaters of our design might provide space heating for buildings on our campus.

There are reminders of Rick in every room and every hallway of the Tome Science Building. No problem was too hard for Rick to tackle. Not a solar collector, not a dental tool, not a plasma propulsion device. He approached everything with an amazing amount of calmness. If one of the professors in the department was in a moderate state of panic because a piece of apparatus failed in the middle of a class, he would just stop by and calmly say "No worries. … I can fix that."

Those words still ring in my ears, and I will hear them for many more years. I miss you, my wonderful friend.

Read more from the winter 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published January 14, 2014