Remembering Alfred O. C. Nier
Alfred O. C. Nier, born in 1911, was one of the preeminent physicists of his age, publishing over 200 articles in his lengthy career at the University of Minnesota. The Chemical Heritage Foundation was lucky enough to conduct an oral history with Nier in 1989, five years before his death. However, his oral history is not the only source of information about Nier. As a prolific scientist, important member of the Manhattan Project, and early convert to mass spectroscopy, he appears throughout our oral-history collection.
Alfred O.C. Nier at the Control Panel of Minnesota 180 and 60 degrees mass spectrometers, 1938-1941; Photograph courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities.
Harland Wood, a longtime Case Western University professor in biochemistry, described his initial interactions with Nier, which ultimately led to Wood setting up a mass spectrometer in his own institution.
Then I found out about Al Nier at the University of Minnesota. He was doing work with carbon-13, the stable isotope which is assayed using a mass spectrometer. It just happened that my brother, Earl, who was in physiology at the University of Minnesota, knew about Al Nier. I was telling Earl about my problem when we were at our summer place out at Lake Washington near Mankato, Minnesota. He told me about Nier, and I went up to see Al. I told him what I wanted to do, and he was really pleased because a lot of people were doing work there, but they’d feed CO2 to a rat and then they’d take the organs and burn them and assay the resulting CO2. But they didn’t have any specific question. He could see that I had a question that could really be solved. [...] Anyway, we struck up a nice relationship with Al Nier. He’s a wonderful person, and he helped us a lot. It turned out that the fixed C-13 carbon dioxide was where we predicted it would be. (Wood, 12)
Wood continued by describing how helpful Nier was in actually building the mass spectrometers.
They made the actual mass spectrometer tube at the University of Minnesota, and we made the magnet in Ames [Iowa] and lined everything up. Nier was going to come down and show us how to run the mass spectrometer and test it. Well, I got a call from him, and he said, “I can’t come.” He was going to send down a graduate student named Ed Nye, who was very good. I know him now. He’s in the National Academy of Science. Then I got a call that said, “Nye can’t come.” They finally sent an undergraduate student, Donald McClure, down to work with us. He is in the National Academy of Science too. During the Christmas holidays we worked our fannies off. We couldn’t get that damn thing to work! Well, they had an electrometer tube in a casing that was supposed to be under vacuum. I looked at the casing and I thought, “Our machine shop didn’t make this properly. We don’t dare put this under vacuum.” So we put calcium chloride in there to take up the water. Finally, I said, “Well, nuts, it must be that you’ve got to have that drier than we’re getting it.” So we put it under vacuum, and the case just caved right in and broke the electrometer tube. My wife was up in Minneapolis where her folks lived, so I drove there that holiday. I went over to see Nier. It had all changed. I couldn’t get in his lab. I couldn’t get downstairs. There were policemen around there with guns, and I thought, “What’s going on here?” I had no idea. You see, he was in the Manhattan Project and isolating U-235 for the first tests of whether it would serve to make an atomic bomb. He told us that we couldn’t get an electrometer tube. They were all requisitioned. Well, as it turned out, [Lester] Krampitz went over and found one in the physics building, and we finally got the thing working. (Wood, 26)
However, despite Nier’s best efforts, not everything he did for Wood had the desired outcome.
Nier, kind as he was, did two things with good intentions that turned out to be detrimental. He figured he was going to make things so we couldn’t foul it up. The mass spectrometer has a platinum filament that’s heated electrically, and it shoots the electrons across and ionizes the gas. That filament has to be lined up properly so when the electron beam goes through and ionizes the gas, the ions will pass through the slits and form a beam. So he made the thing with a couple of brackets with prongs on the filament holder. If the filament burned out and was replaced, you had to slip the holder into the brackets and the filament was lined up right. [...] The thermal diffusion column at the University of Minnesota had a big pipe up at the top, which then was reduced to a smaller pipe. The first 12 feet or so was this great big pipe. Nier thought, “That big copper pipe is going to be hard for them to solder.” So he designed ours with two columns coming down first, which were joined by a collar to a single small column. Well, that was a fatal mistake, because if these two parallel columns at the top didn’t get heated exactly the same, one became a chimney and recirculated the methane gas. So when we started the column, the C-13 increased for a little while, but then it didn’t go up anymore. I finally figured out, “Well, just by logic, if that cock-eyed thing isn’t heated exactly the same it is no good.” So we cut the one column at the top right off, and then the C-13 increased just fine. So this held us up too. Every time Nier tried to save us time, he made us spend more. [laughter] (Wood, 26)
Spare hydrogen isotope mass spectrometer tube with internal permanent magnets. Constructed 1942-1943, CHF Collections
Often people’s stories about Nier are indistinguishable from their stories about the instruments he made. Describing the double-focusing instrument Nier designed, Fred McLafferty said, “Then they decided at about the same time to bring out their own tiny double-focusing instrument designed by Al Nier. It was for GC-MS but it was double-focusing. It was slow as hell scanning. It had a terrible pumping system on it. The background was horrible, and it was a total disaster, and besides it was the same time that the computerized quadrupoles came out” (McLafferty, 68). John Beynon described Nier’s instruments with awe akin to wonder. “The ion source was the one that Al Nier had designed. It was remarkable in that Nier just built one, got everything absolutely right; nobody ever improved it as far as I know. Everybody copied it” (Beynon, 22). Similarly, Vincent Coates of Perkin-Elmer briefly described Nier and his instruments: “I had gone to visit him because I learned he had built a small, high-performance mass spectrometer that he used for his research. After my visit I got Perkin-Elmer to license his instrument and hire him as a consultant” (Coates, 20).
Nier’s work—and mass spectrometry itself—reached to outer space. Klaus Biemann recalled Nier’s involvement in the Viking mission to space in the 1970s:
He had his own experiment, looking at the atmospheric composition during entry and descent of the spacecraft. But, it could not survive to the surface because it was put on the part that had to be thrown off to be able to analyze the upper atmosphere. It was one of his Mattauch-Herzog instruments. He was in the middle of the project and joined my team, the organic analysis team, because some advisory group outside of NASA said that we were flying a complicated instrument, but we had nobody on our team who was an instrumentalist. They wanted Al Nier on the team; so he joined our group. He was leading his team and was a member of my team. That led to a close friendship with him, whom I had known before that. (Biemann, 34)
In Alfred Nier’s 60-plus-year career his research had a lasting effect on mass spectrometry as a field and as a community. His research jump-started instrument innovation and literally propelled mass spectrometry to new heights.