DOE Physicists at Work - Rob La Haye
DOE Physicists at Work
Profiles of representative DOE-sponsored physicists
doing research at universities and national laboratories
Compiled by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information
Rob La Haye
Rob La Haye has always loved movies. As a child in New York City he spent almost every Saturday afternoon at the theater, taking in B-Westerns and horror pictures. "But my favorites were the science fiction pictures, like The Magnetic Monster," says Dr. La Haye, experimental scientist with the Fusion Group at General Atomics. "It was great when the heroes and heroines - the folks in the lab coats with the coffee mugs in their hands - saved the world with the power of their special knowledge." No surprise, then, that the twelve-year-old sitting rapt in the dark would grow up to become a physicist.
Today, he tames his own magnetic monsters: the hot plasmas in experiments designed to study thermonuclear fusion, the energy source that powers the sun and all stars. The explosive fission reactions of the atomic bomb were long ago brought to order in nuclear power reactors that produce electricity. The fusion reactions of the hydrogen bomb will do the same thing in the future - with far less danger from radiation or nuclear waste. "Making fusion power work is a tough physics problem for many reasons, and it has been an endlessly fascinating career for me for those same reasons."
After getting his B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics at Queens College, New York, Dr. La Haye spent a year working as an antenna-design engineer at Grumman Aircraft, then was drafted into the Army. He obtained his Ph.D. in physics from the City University of New York in 1975.
"One of the teachers who influenced my outlook on physics was Banesh Hoffman," Dr. La Haye says. "He taught at Queens and also at Harvard and had been a friend of Albert Einstein's. He and Helen Dukas wrote a wonderful biography of Einstein, and he also wrote The Roots of Relativity, a book that gave me an appreciation for the importance of understanding the history of science in the context of world history, the relationships between theory and experiment, and the value of collaboration."
Dr. La Haye considers himself lucky because he has been able to pursue his own career in a unified context. "The first job I obtained after graduate school is the job I still have," he says. General Atomics is a company in La Jolla, California, originally founded after World War II as a spin-off of the General Dynamics Company. Many of its programs have long been largely supported by DOE.
On its own campus north of San Diego, GA initially gathered a group of scientists interested in peaceful uses of atomic fission, and shortly after the thermonuclear fusion research program was declassified in the mid-1950s, GA started a fusion power research program. "This history is discussed in Freeman Dyson's book, Disturbing the Universe, and the labs at GA clearly fall in that tiny class of company basic research laboratories, like Bell Labs, that have been long-term incubators of innovation and progress in science and engineering," says Dr. La Haye.
Dr. La Haye is celebrating his thirtieth anniversary at GA. Two years ago, he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in recognition of his contributions to the study of instabilities in magnetically confined plasmas.
The experiments Dr. La Haye has worked on have embodied different theories of the best way to confine and heat a plasma. "My role has been to invent and evaluate new and different ways of applying magnetic fields and electric currents to keep the plasma stable in a variety of magnetic 'bottles,' which are usually doughnut-shaped devices called tokamaks," says Dr. La Haye. "One of the best things about the fusion program is that there are many, many international collaborations. Theorists and experimentalists from other countries are often working at GA, and I've had the opportunity to spend nearly three years abroad at other labs during my own career."
In 1976, shortly after he began working at GA, Dr. La Haye spent three months working in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known then), Russia, at the Ioffe Institute on US DOE/Soviet Union exchange program. In the early 1980's he was able to collaborate with scientists on experiments with the JFT-2 tokamak in Japan, and in 1986 he was working on a tokamak at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow when the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred. Dr. La Haye has long worked closely with colleagues at the Culham Laboratory, near Oxford in England, on a variety of experiments, including a pan-European experiment called JET.
Throughout his career, he has never lost his love for cinema, and his trips abroad have given him the opportunity to pursue his passion for collecting old lithographed movie posters and pulp fiction magazines featuring his favorite science fiction and detective writers.
"I still see a lot of movies," he says, "and traveling has also given me a chance to see old and foreign movies I would never get to see at home."
Dr. La Haye’s articles accessed via OSTI:
Suppression of Large Edge Localized Modes with a Stochastic Magnetic Boundary in High Confinement DIII-D Plasmas
Please search the Energy Citations Database for additional papers by this researcher