It's a bittersweet feeling for University of Utah research professor Richard W. Shorthill, receiving this award from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
The sweet part is that it is a national honor recognizing the work he and Victor Vali carried out in the mid-1970s, blazing the trail for today's internal guidance systems. Their work will be commemorated with a dinner and medal given by the institute, the oldest organization in America devoted to furthering education in science and technology.The bitter part is that his old friend Vali, who also is to be honored in the April 29 ceremony, died last December -- shortly after learning of the honor the two will share for the first demonstration of the fiber-optic gyroscope.
When word came that they would receive the 1999 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering, Shorthill began looking forward to seeing Vali again at the ceremony in Philadelphia. "Then I got word he passed away," he said.
Vali is listed in Franklin Institute literature as receiving the honor posthumously. Shorthill and Vali are the only experts cited in the engineering field this year.
"We're very pleased that Richard will be receiving this award," said Robert B. Roemer, chairman of the university's mechanical engineering department. "His expertise and skill have been very valuable to our department."
The institute is awarding medals in seven areas. To form an idea of the caliber of the award, consider some of the other winners this year:
Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who developed a system of linguistic analysis that is the basis for computer languages, shares the medal for computer and cognitive sciences. His co-recipient is Douglas C. Engelbart of the Bootstrap Institute, Fremont, Calif., inventor of such essentials as the computer mouse.
John C. Mather, manager of NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer experiments that helped to confirm the Big Bang, shares the medal for physics with the Japanese scientist Akira Tonomura of Hatachi Ltd., developer of the high-resolution electron holography interference microscope.
Barry Marshall of the University of Virginia Medical School, who helped identify a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal ulcers. The discovery brought hope to millions of patients who suffered from ulcers.
Or consider some previous winners: Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre and Marie Curie, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking.
Shorthill is a physicist by training, earning his bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Utah in 1954, and his Ph.D. at the same university in 1960. He later worked as a scientist for the Boeing Co., conducting research to determine the surface properties of the moon.
He worked with geologists and lunar scientists to help selected landing sites for the Apollo program. In April 1970 he became a principal investigator in NASA's 1975 program to land unmanned probes on Mars. Shorthill joined the University of Utah Research Institute in 1974 and founded the Geospace Sciences Laboratory.
He joined the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in 1982 as a research associate professor. He is now a research professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Vali had received his physics bachelor's degree in Sweden, then earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Colorado. He was a research laboratory staff scientist for Boeing when he and Shorthill began work on the project that resulted in improving optical gyroscopes.
Vali became a senior research scientist at the U. in 1974, leaving in 1978.
The work Shorthill and Vali did was a dramatic advance on the world's first optical gyroscope, invented in 1913 by Georges Sagnac.
Although Sagnac managed to use his gyroscope to prove that Earth rotates, it wasn't practical for navigation, the main value of gyroscopes.
"It didn't have much sensitivity," Shorthill said of Sagnac's version -- that is, it wasn't sensitive enough for navigation unless somebody built one 65 or 100 feet long. Then it would be too bulky.
Shorthill and Vali thought they could make an advance on the Sagnac gyroscope using the new optical cables that were coming out. Perhaps they could use it to measure gravitational waves, they speculated. That turned out to be impractical because the cables absorbed some of the light, and the cable would need to be miles long.
Then they thought about making something like a Sagnac interferometer gyroscope using optical fibers.
"We got about 100 meters (around 330 feet) of fibers and built this device," he said. It worked.
The significance is that "we demonstrated the feasibility for the first time" of building a gyroscope of moderate size and expense, using optical cable.
Since then the technology has advanced tremendously. Fiber-optic gyroscopes are used for guidance systems of everything from ships to planes to missiles to some new cars.
"It's very pleasing," Shorthill said of the award. He feels honored, thinking of the ceremony, when the governor of Pennsylvania will pin on the awards. His only regret is that Vali can't be there beside him.