Christofilos, Nicholas C.

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(b, Boston, Massachusetts, 16 December 1916: d. Livermore, California, 24 September 1972)

engineering, particle accelerator design, magnetic fusion, nuclear physics.

The only child of Greek nationals, Constantine and Eleni Christofilos. Nicholas Constantine Christofilos was born in Boston, where his father operated a small cafe. From the age of seven he was raised in Athens, his father having returned to his native country to open and operate a coffeehouse. His penchant for argument and his later willingness to devote his considerable creative talent and energy to American national security programs were forged in the increasingly tumultuous atmosphere of the Greek capital. In Nicholas’ youth Greece experienced the establishment of a dictatorship in 1936, occupation by German troops during World War II, and an increasingly bitter civil war in which first the British and then the Americans intervened to prevent the triumph of leftist forces against a government that looked to the West for political and economic guidance and support.

As a child in Athens, in addition to argument and politics. Christofilos was exposed to music, astronomy, electrical devices, amateur radio, and science. He felt a strong attraction to science, although as a practical matter he selected engineering as a career. After earning an advanced degree in electrical and mechanical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens in 1938. Christofilos accepted a position with a company that installed elevators in office and apartment buildings. When the German occupation forces redirected the company’s efforts toward the repair of military vehicles, Christofilos devoted much of the abundant spare time afforded by his supervisory position to the study of nuclear physics, especially readily available works in German.

After the war Christofilos established his own elevator installation business. He also continued his scientific interests and began designing atom smashers for nucler research. Christofilos brought an extraordinary inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit to this work. In 1946, and with more detail in 1947, he applied for Greek and American patents for a particle accelerator of his own design, one he later learned incorporated many of the features of the synchrotron, which had been developed by Edward McMillan in the United States and Vladimir I. Veksler in the Soviet Union.

Pursuing the possibility that his accelerator work might lead to a career in one of the newly created U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) laboratories, in 1948 Christofilos wrote to Ernest O. Lawrence at Berkeley and enclosed his latest patent application. Laboratory scientists replied that the focusing scheme he described would not work. Taking the criticism to heart, Christofilos refined his invention. He realized that the magnets used in existing particle accelerators were limited by the perceived need to focus the particle beam simultaneously in the two directions perpendicular to the direction of the beam’s path. Christofilos saw that simultaneous focusing was not required and proposed a magnet design that would produce alternating regions in which the gradient of the guiding field would strongly focus and then defocus the beam in a given direction (focusing in one direction while defocusing in the other). Thenet effect, he claimed, would be far more powerful than what was possible with any arrangement that attempted to focus the beam in both directions simultaneously. In a patent application dated 10 March 1950 Christofilos proposed magnetic fields whose gradients varied sinusoidally along the direction of the beam. Devices that use this scheme, or a similar scheme invented independently in 1952 in the United States at Brookhaven National Laboratory, are called “strong” focusing machines. The discovery made feasible a new generation of particle accelerators with energies an order of magnitude higher than was practical with much larger and more expensive “weak” focusing magnets.

Again Christofilos sent his scheme with a letter to Lawrence’s laboratory in Berkeley. In the laboratory’s response it was suggested that Christofilos avail himself of a specific mathematical text so that his ideas could be expressed in a formalism familiar to American scientists. In 1952 Christofilos finally obtained the recommended text; upon mastering it he realized that his focusing scheme could indeed be demonstrated with full mathematical rigor. Rather than rely on correspondence, early in 1953 he booked passage to America to press his discovery.

One of the first stops Christofilos made upon returning to the land of his birth was the New York Public Library, where he scanned the latest issue (volume 88) of Physical Review. In it were articles announcing the focusing scheme that had been invented at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Christofilos immediately recognized the Brookhaven invention as essentially the same as his own and arranged to travel to the Long Island laboratory to discuss his priority. Brookhaven scientists were surprised by his revelations and the dated patent application he carried. After consulting with Berkeley colleagues, the Brookhaven scientists set up a series of meetings with AEC patent officers. Theresult was that, in return for a $10, 000 payment, a license and agreement were granted for the use by the United States government and its contractors of the “strong focusing” principle. Christofilos also accepted a position at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He was awarded U.S. patent 2, 736, 799 on 28 February 1956.

Though Christofilos maintained an interest in the problems of accelerator design, his work on the interactions of magnetic fields and moving ions had already triggered an interest in using magnetic fields to contain high-energy plasmas. The goal was to produce a controlled thermonuclear reaction. Christofilos had already filed for a separate patent on a device in which a high-energy beam of electrons would orbit within a closed cylindrical container, forming a current layer that would in turn produce closed magnetic field lines. The magnetic field theoretically could contain a plasma, which would be heated to ignition temperatures by interactions with the circulating electrons.

In 1953 the subject of controlled fusion was highly classified and of great interest to the AEC As soon as he started work at Brookhaven, the process of investigating Christofilos and obtaining the necessary security clearances for him began. Meanwhile, at Brookhaven he continued to develop his ideas. He chose the name Astron for his proposed thermonuclear reactor.

In 1954 Christofilos married the daughter of a Greek physician. Elly and Nicholas Christofilos had one son and were divorced in 1960. That same year Christofilos married Joan Jaffray; they had one son.

In 1956 the AEC established a research program based on the Astron concept at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California. Christofilos moved to California to direct the program. One of a number of competing ideas, the Astron program required the design and building of a new, high-energy, high-intensity electron accelerator as a source for the relativistic electrons that would make up the so-called E-layer. With funding from both the AEC and the Department of Defense, Christofilos set out to design and build the accelerator as well as the Astron device. Defense Department interest in the project was no doubt related to its long-term concern with the practicality of using intense particle beams for military purposes In fact, the electron accelerator designed by Christofilos has played a major role in the free-electron laser program at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, an important component of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

As the Astron project ran into several technical and scheduling problems, Christofilos fought extraordinarily hard to maintain support. Frequently reviewed and criticized, the project was always given high marks for itsingenuity and potential. However, already in severe trouble, it was formally canceled in December 1972, following Christofilos’sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack.

The Department of Defense took up several other ideas generated by Christofilos. Most remarkable was a suggestion he made in October 1957 (just after the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik) that the earth’s magnetic field could serve to trap ionized particles injected at the correct altitudes, for example, by the detonation of nuclear devices. As a potential hazard to missiles and satellites and to manned space flight, as a possible means of disrupting essential military communications, and as a way of understanding the magnetic and radiation environments of near-earth space, Christofilos’ idea interested the Department of Defenses Advanced Projects Research Agency (created in the aftermath of the Sputnik launch), which decided to pursue it.

Soon the concept was independently supported by James Van Allen’s discovery of natural belts of radiation trapped by the earth’s magnetic field. Van Allen had made his discovery using instruments on the Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 satellites, so in April 1958, when it was decided to proceed with a test of Christofilos’ idea, Van Allen was brought in to instrument a special satellite to monitor the expected artificial radiation belts. Code-named Project Argus, the effort produced trapped electrons as a result of three separate high-altitude detonations in August 1958. The Argus tests were revealed by the New York Times in March 1959. A great deal of attention was given to Christofilos, who was portrayed as the lone-wolf genius behind the idea.

The Astron project and related particle-beam studies occupied most of Christofilos’ efforts until his death. Nevertheless, he found time to propose and take part in several other defense-related projects. One of these ideas of special importance was a proposal for a practical means of global radio communications using extremely-low -frequency (ELF) radio waves. A more complete account of this and other important aspects of Christofilos’ career will have to wait until relevant records are declassified.

Among Christofilos’ honors was the Elliot Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1963).


I. Originai Works. Christofilos published infrequently in the open literature. His strong-focusing patent (2, 736, 799) is available through the U.S. Patent Office, as are his numerous other patents and applications. Unclassified technical reports written after 1965 can he obtained through the U.S. National Technical Information Service (NTIS). Publications in the open literature include “Astron Thermonuclear Reactor,” in Progress in Nuclear Energy, 11th ser., I, Plasma Physics and Thermonuclear Research (New York, 1959), 576–603;’ The Argus Experiment,’ in Journal of Geophysical Research, 64 (1959), 869–875; and “High Current Linear Induction Accelerator for Electrons,” in Review of Scientific Instruments, 35 (1964), 886–890, with R. E. Hester, W. A. S. Lamb, D. D. Reagan. W. A. Sherwood, and R. C. Wright,

II. Secondary Literature. For biographical information see Current Biography 1964 (1965), 82–84; John S. Foster, T. Kenneth Fowler, and Frederick E. Mills,’ Nicholas C. Christofilos,’ in Physics Today, 26 , no. I (1973), 109–115; William Trombley, “Triumph in Space for a “Crazy Greek,” in Life, 30 March 1959, 31–34; “Up from the Elevator,” in Time, 30 March 1959, 70–71; “Volatile Scientist Nicholas Constantine Christofilos,” in New York Times, 19 March 1959, 16; and Burton H Wolfe, “That Crazy Greek.” in Coronet, 46 (December 1958), 177–180.

Accounts of Christofilos’scientific work are scarce. On the invention of strong focusing, see E. D. Courant. M. S. Livingston. H. S. Snyder, and J. P. Blewett.’ Origin of the “Strong-Focusing” Principle,’ in Physical Review, 2nd ser., 91 (1953). 202–203. On the Astron project see Joan Lisa Bromberg, Fusion Science, Politics, and the Invention of a New Energy Source (Cambridge, Mass., (1982), 118–123. 201–204. On Project Argus see Walter Sullivan, Assault on the Unknown: The International Geophysical Year (New York, 1961). 108–163.

Allan A. Needell

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Christofilos, Nicholas C.

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