1930 ~ 2011
Memoriam for Neil Wotherspoon from colleagues and students of the
PhotoPhysics Lab (MP3L)
passed away recently. His role in nurturing the MicroParticle PhotoPhysics Lab
(MP3L) was huge.
He always had time to teach students how to machine a part for their research, design an electronic circuit,
and remind them of the history of scientists and technologists who had come before them.
Many students owe the beginnings of their brilliant research careers to Neil.
thought it only proper for the students who could be readily contacted to
provide their recollections about what Neil meant to them
Steve Arnold, Director MP3L.
Ali Serpenguzel (Postdoctoral Fellow) - “I met Neil while working as a Postdoc in the Microparticle Photophysics Laboratory. I remember him impressing me with his vast chemistry knowledge. Being a physicist, chemical problem solving looked like magic to me. As I recall, when not helping us with our optoelectroaeromechanical equipment needs in the lab, he was busy manufacturing electromagnetic evitators and droplet-on-demand generators for the small company that they were running together with Steve. His work could be described by these two adjectives: perfect and precise. At the time, Neil was also teaching at CUNY. He was a true altruist, being active on the leadership of the Polytechnic Chapter of Sigma-Xi. I am grateful to him and Steve for introducing me to Sigma-Xi through that chapter. Neil was also very knowledgeable on the history of Brooklyn. I learned a lot about the borough, the bridge, the Roeblings and the subway lines from him. We will always remember him as a gentleman applied scientist, who contributed generously to our microparticle community.”
Lorcan Folan (PhD Thesis 1986) - “Neil was encyclopedic in his knowledge of experimental techniques and he was always approachable and willing to help with a problem, large or small.”
Stephen Holler (BS Thesis 1995)- “Neil Wotherspoon was a man with a seemingly limitless breadth of knowledge and experience, and an incredible eye for detail. During my time in the MP3L Neil became a teacher and friend. He fostered my nascent experimental skills, particularly in electronics and machining, and he did so selflessly. He seemed to know everything and there was always an accompanying tale; whether it was some interesting circuit or the NYC subway system, Neil truly lived his passion. I always enjoyed our conversations and the tidbits he had to share, these were, to borrow a term, the “head fakes” that capture the student and make a good teacher great. We lost a treasure trove of knowledge, you will be missed Neil.”
Noel Goddard (MS Thesis 1998)- “Neil was an extremely generous man who was a constant fixture in Steve's lab when I started as an undergrad researcher in the 90s. We became close when I started my graduate work and Steve Arnold went to Japan on sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo. The lab had recently downsized following the move and most of my years there, it was only the 3 of us. Neil enjoyed students tremendously, and never hesitated to mentor me through tasks that must have seemed mundane to someone with his skills. Most students never have the opportunity to work with a master instrument builder like Neil. He was a meticulous machinist as well as an expert in electronics. In an age where most people purchase digital lab equipment, it's easy to overlook that the majority of research instrumentation pre-National Instruments was once built in-house. Although he spent the majority of his office hours with us, his full time position was across the street at New York City Tech - a branch of the CUNY system. A lifelong resident of Brooklyn, he loved to reminisce about New York from decades past. He knew the history of many buildings and their
evolution through various industrial identities. Professionally, he had worked both in industry and academia (NYU, Poly, City Tech). One of his favorite stories recounted how the new NYU physics building was actually built around a giant lathe placed into the basement. To this day, I have Neil to thank for many projects in my own research (or life) that required custom machining or electronics. At Rockefeller I taught the other lab members to machine, as most had never had the opportunity in their previous education. I even machined a custom bag rack on my street bike after consulting Neil for advice on milling steel pipe.
Above all - my Neil's patience was unrivaled. He would spend hours, removing 0.001" at a time to create the perfect object. No piece could leave the machine with tool marks. Everything was polished. He would grimace, as Steve or I would rush the process to keep moving on some experiment, but always remained amazingly composed and helpful. His soldering skills were superb. The interior of his custom built power supplies looked professional. In fact, Steve and Neil formed a company, Uniphoton Systems, which custom-built piezo driven picoliter pipettes for aerosol droplet work, a technology developed in Steve's lab. Neil manufactured each instrument, power supply and hand-pulled glass tips. The units became the standard in numerous aerosol and levitated droplet laboratories across the globe, especially in US military labs.
Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Stella, Neil's daughter, he often spoke of her with great pride and adoration. One year he decided to take the cross country Zephyr from New York to San Francisco to visit his daughter. He had a passion for railways and was complete unphased by the trip's 2-week duration. I had the pleasure of touring Grand Central Terminal with him as well as Transit Museum accompanied by my own parents. He spoke volumes of information on nearly the entire collection, again generously sharing his knowledge with others. If I ever manage to cross the Rockies by rail - I'm sure I will think of my kind friend and the love he shared with all of us.”
Mayumi Noto (PhD Thesis 2005) - “Neil was a great teacher, and I will miss him very much. He was always willing and ready to help people around him. I remember how patient he was to teach me how to use the milling machine and other tools in the lab. Also, he had so many interesting stories to tell about science, engineering, New York City, and Polytechnic. On weekends, I often found him in the lab, and I ended up talking with him instead of doing some work for my project. I will always be grateful for his support and friendship.”
Ophir Gaathon (BS Thesis 2006)- “During my time at MP3L it was my great fortune to be mentored by Neil Wotherspoon. Throughout the years, Neil taught generations of students the art of machining and the magic of electronics. From the design of experimental apparatuses to prototyping, Neil was always happy to help, guide and explain. With his wealth of knowledge and his careful attention to details, Neil was a compass in the treacherous waters of experimental research.”
David Keng (PhD Thesis 2009) –“Neil was a great mentor. I joined MP3L 10 years ago and my first task was to write a LabVIEW code that monitors a Michelson Interferometer. I didn't know much LabVIEW then, so I needed a lot of hardware help to get the job done. We needed a counter that counts sine waves. On the 10th day 5pm that I joined MP3L, I asked Neil if he could help me build a counter. On the 11th day 10am after joining the MP3L, there was a digital counter with adjustable front-end analog comparator and NAND enable latch circuit sitting on the bench. On the 11th day 10:15 am, that counter was working hard and counting. Later that same day, impressed by Neil's work, I decided that MP3L is a cool and magical place to stay around. Very few people have changed my life so profoundly, Neil was one of them.”