High Impact Hardrockers: Darrell J. Drickey

Dr. Darrell James Drickey graduated from South Dakota Mines in 1956 and went on to make significant contributions to the field of physics.

This profile of Dr. Darrell J. Drickey the first in an on-going series of articles describing Mines alumni who have made significant impacts on history.

Darrell James Drickey was born in Rapid City, South Dakota in June, 1934.  One of his maternal great-grandfathers, George H. Sanders, was a pioneer rancher in Dakota Territory in the 1880's.  The Sanders ranch along Rapid Creek near Caputa, South Dakota  was to be Darrell's home for the next two decades.  The Sanders ranch was celebrated in the area as having the largest private barns in the county, if not the state.  These were also known for an ingenious method of rapidly unloading hay wagons that Mr. G. H. Sanders incorporated in the hay barn.  Darrell was a typical farm/ranch boy which is to say that early on he worked in the fields, with live-stock and with machinery

He attended school from the first through ninth grades at Caputa Consolidated School.  In this school there were sometimes one and sometimes two operating classrooms.  During most of his time there, the school room was lit by kerosene lamps or Coleman lanterns.  Drinking water was hand pumped from a nearby household well and carried to the school house in buckets by students appointed to the duty by the teacher.  All daily and weekly janitorial work was done by students.  The student body numbered from 20 to 25 students in usually six or seven active grades.  On completing ninth grade Darrell, as did most Caputa students, went on to Rapid City High School (RCHS), the state's second largest.  This was far enough from Caputa that, given the marginality of the roads and lack of accurate weather forecasting, these students boarded in Rapid City during the week.  

He was considered by both fellow students and the RCHS faculty as one of  the top (perhaps the top) mathematics and science students of his class.  After his junior year in 1951, he was selected as a RCHS delegate to Boy's State.  At this event, he was chosen as one of South Dakota's four delegates to Boy's Nation in Washington D.C. where he was elected to a leadership role.  He graduated near the top of his high school class in 1952.  He earned varsity letters in both football and basketball.

He entered South Dakota School of Mines and Technology that fall determined on a career in physics at the urging of his high school physics teacher, Donald J. Joslyn.   He participated in some intramural sports and worked part-time as an ambulance driver.  His main extra-curricular activity was as a member of the school choral group, The Singing Engineers.  He graduated cum laude in 1956, applied for and was accepted into the highly regarded Physics graduate program of Stanford University.

Darrell was awarded a Ph.D. in Physics by Stanford in 1963.  His advisor was Professor Robert Mozley, who trained several students who went on to do important work and occupy academic chairs.  Darrell's dissertation was on neutral pion photoproduction induced by polarized gamma rays.   He was initiated into the Stanford Chapter of Sigma Xi.  

During his student years at Stanford, Darrell was employed as an operator at the High Energy Physics Laboratory and transitioned to the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) as it was commissioned.

Throughout his life, Darrell exhibited a bias for action. He was neither foolhardy nor impulsive.  Rather, once he had considered and analyzed a situation, he focused on rapidly resolving and implementing the next step.  This bias for action, apparent in his youth, became characteristic of his professional persona.   As he was completing his doctoral experiments at Stanford, he adapted his experimental apparatus to the measurement of other particles.  Upon completion of the dissertation, his effort was turned to the new experiments.  This resulted in improved precision measurement of the charge radii of the neutron and proton.

In 1963, he joined Linear Accelerator Laboratory of the University of Paris-Sud (Orsay) in a post-doctoral role.  He became the advisor/mentor to a young undergraduate, Michel Davier, suggesting adapting a previously created apparatus to the photo production of pi mesons on deuterons.  This work became the basis of Davier's MS thesis and his first professional publication (coauthored with Darrell et al).  Darrell also recommended Davier for entry into the Stanford Physics Department in pursuit of his doctorate and vice-versa.  Davier went on to become a staff member of SLAC, an investigator at the Large Hadron Collector in Geneva and later the director of the Linear Accelerator Laboratory at Orsay as well as a member of the French Academy of Sciences.  In his 2010 address on the occasion of receiving the prestigious André Lagarrigue Prize from University of Paris-Sud, Davier gave substantial credit to Darrell as his mentor in experimental physics, his model as a project leader, as well as collaborator and friend.  

Upon his return from France, Darrell became a staff member at SLAC conducting experimental work there as well as at Brookhaven.  Among the important aspects of this work was participation in the development of the large streamer chamber for photo production which became operational during this time.  His work at Brookhaven was on muon pairing. 

In 1967, he became a tenured Associate Professor of physics at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).  He was known for his propensity to and enthusiasm for getting students (both undergraduate and graduate) involved in research and experimental design as rapidly as possible.  He quickly moved them to the lab.  He was also regarded as generous for including them as co-authors on papers and reports.

In 1970, Darrell was selected as the leader of the USA contingent in a joint USSR/USA high energy physics collaborative experiment.  The initial work was to be conducted at Serpukhov, USSR, then the world’s highest energy particle collider. To accomplish the experiments at Serpukhov, Darrell took a leave from UCLA and moved with his family to Russia.  Several other US physicists and their families also moved to Russia as part of this project.  This High Energy Science collaboration was the first such between the two nations and is regarded as important to the thawing in scientific cooperation.  This work resulted in the first measurements of the size of the pi meson. 

Following the sojourn in the USSR, Darrell and his family returned to the USA with Darrell resuming his professorship at UCLA and continuing collaborations at SLAC, Fermilab and Brookhaven.  He also testified to a Congressional committee on the state of US Science based on the Scientific collaborations with European and Russian scientists.

In early 1974, Darrell took leave from UCLA to join Fermilab to develop improvements that would increase the collision energy.  He also was appointed chairman of the Fermilab User's Committee which prioritized and scheduled facility experiments.  The improvements for which Darrell had been recruited were the implementation of super conducting coils for the magnets and the energy doubling technique.  He is credited as being a "mover and shaker" in the initial stages of these improvements especially the use of superconductors in the magnets and the energy doubling approach.  While engaged in these works, he was diagnosed with pituitary gland cancer and died in December 1974 after a short hospitalization.

Despite his tragically curtailed career of a scant fifteen years, Darrell made significant contributions to physics.  In addition to the more than sixty published papers and over twenty formal scientific presentations, he created several important technical apparatuses that were used by other researchers in further discoveries.   Fermilab sponsored a series of Drickey Memorial Lectures established by Norman Ramsey, a Nobel laureate, and Louis Hand, coauthor on Drickey’s first post dissertation research paper and now an emeritus professor at Cornell.  The initial lecture was delivered by Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez. 

Just as important as his scientific contributions were the fellow scientists who became fast friends.  His French colleagues regarded him as one of them; this was also true of the Russians with whom he worked.  His fellow Americans saw him as one always pitching in and contributing to a constructive, productive project.  One of his SLAC colleagues, David Leith, contacted 40 years after Drickey’s death, put it thusly: "(We) thought back those many years to refresh in our minds the smiling, energetic presence of Darrell at SLAC."  Another of his international colleagues, Dieter Fries, an emeritus professor at the University of Freiburg, remembered this: "In those days he said once to me : 'I may not know too much theoretical physics , but I know how to make things work.'  ..Darrell knew sufficient theoretical physics,  but his second point was truly correct : he knew how to make things work."   Martin Perl, a Nobel laureate  and fellow SLAC staff member wrote, "I remember Darrell as a fine physicist and a wonderful person. ... It was always a pleasure to talk with him and learn his insights in experimental physics".

Martha Tomovic and Darrell were married at Whitewood, SD in September of 1957.  They had three children, Russell, Sheryl and Linda. Linda Drickey Alexander graduated from South Dakota Mines in 1998 with a baccalaureate in Mathematics.

 -- This article was contributed by South Dakota Mines alumnus Donn Lobdell.

Last edited 3/9/2020 8:25:35 AM

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