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Kees Bol, a scientist on Project Matterhorn, PDX and numerous experiments, dies at 90

Kees Bol, a physicist who played a part in the history of the Laboratory first as part of Project Matterhorn and then through roles in several crucial experiments at PPPL for three decades, died at his home in Skillman, New Jersey, on Aug. 8 at age 90.

Former colleagues of Bol, whose first name is pronounced “Case,” remembered his quiet professionalism and his role as a mentor in a career that spanned the beginning of the fusion program at PPPL through the 1980s.

“He was on the cutting edge of developing plasma operating techniques that have been crucial for the tokamak program,” said Richard Hawryluk, head of ITER and Tokamaks, who worked with Bol on the Princeton Large Torus (PLT) and on the Poloidal Divertor Experiment (PDX) in the 1970s and 80s.

When Bol joined Project Matterhorn in 1959, he worked on the Etude stellarator, a four-foot-high racetrack stellarator, which was modified in the early 1960s. He continued to work studying oscillations in plasma on the device through the 1960s.

A move to tokamaks

After Russian scientists performed successful fusion experiments using a donut-shaped vessel called a “tokamak,” Bol and his colleagues converted the Etude into the first tokamak in the U.S. called “The Test Tok,” in the late 1960s, said Ken Young, a retired PPPL physicist who met Bol as a young scientist at PPPL.

Bol continued working on early tokamaks, including the Symmetric Tokamak (ST Tokamak), which was converted from the Model C stellarator and began operating in 1970, recalls Joel Hosea, head of RF Science and Technology.  “When we started out on the ST Tokamak, we knew nothing about tokamaks, except what we read in the Russian papers,” Hosea said. The ST led to the ATC (Adiabatic Toroidal Compressor) in 1972, which was one of the first devices to use neutral beams to heat the plasma, Hosea said.

PPPL scientists, including Bol, were experimenting with various configurations for the tokamaks. The early tokamaks, for example, had an outer copper shell to try to control the plasma but the ATC and the Princeton Large Torus (PLT), which began operating in 1975, used poloidal field coils for that purpose. “Everything we know today was a gradual build-up,” said Hosea. “A lot of work came out of PLT that really set the field at the time.”

Bol went on to work on the Poloidal Divertor Experiment (PDX), built in 1978. He was head of PDX as well as the head of experimental projects in the 1980s. PDX was succeeded by the Princeton Beta Experiment (PBX) in the mid-1980s.

“He was a fine physicist with a deep reserve of knowledge about what was likely to succeed and, very importantly, what was not, based on his long experience with many previous experimental projects at the Laboratory. He was very involved in all aspects of the project, from the engineering to the research program,” said Michael Bell, a former head of NSTX research operations at PPPL who worked with Bol on PDX. “He was a true gentleman who sought always to put the interests of our field, the laboratory and its staff ahead of his own.” 

A “key player”

“He was a key player,” said Hosea. “He was leading the confinement and impurities studies in both stellarators and tokamaks and trying to understand what was controlling confinement with and without neutral beam heating.”

“He was one of the world experts at PPPL in the measurement of plasma fluctuations and their connection with plasma loss,” said Dale Meade, a former deputy director of PPPL, who first met Bol in 1966.   

Mentoring young scientists

Bol also served as a mentor to young scientists like Young who were just starting out. “He was very nurturing,” Young said. He also took Rob Goldston, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and former PPPL director, under his wing when Goldston was a first-year graduate student at PPPL in 1971. “There wasn’t a disingenuous bone in his body,” Goldston said. “His kindness and thoughtfulness about people and about me as an early graduate student made me feel welcome and made me feel I was part of the team in a wonderful way.”

Bol was born in Eindhoven in the Netherlands in 1925 but his family emigrated to Palo Alto, California, in 1936, where they lived and operated a horse farm. He met his soon-to-be wife, Margaret “Markee” Rose Coles, at one of the first integrated summer camps where he taught horseback riding. The two married in 1947. He studied physics at Stanford University and graduated with honors and at age 26, received his Ph.D. in physics from the university in 1951.

Bol was employed by Sperry Gyroscope Company in Lake Success, New York, on Long Island from 1949 to 1954 during the Cold War but lost his security clearance because the F.B.I. considered his work at the camp a sign of communist leanings and his father had received a newsletter from the Russian embassy, according to his family.

Bol taught physics at Adelphi College on Long Island for two years. He then received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the waves generated by a beam of electrons passing through a neutralizing background of positive ions and joined the Gordon McKay Lab at Harvard University where he worked for two years until he was recruited to join Project Matterhorn.

“Discipline and scientific rigor”

Bol’s work doing state-of-the-art precision measurements in his previous positions served him well in his work on fusion energy, Hawryluk said. “He brought that kind of discipline and scientific rigor to his work, at a time when our field was still in its infancy,” he said. “He wanted to make sure that whatever he said was accurate. It was great to have someone like that to work with.  You knew that when you talked with him about science he wanted you to do your very best and very much supported you.”

“Markee” Coles, who died in 2013, was a guidance counselor at Montgomery High School for several years. The couple lived in Montgomery Township for many years and raised four children: Peter Bol, of Lexington, Massachusetts; Stacy Stahl, of Ledyard, Connecticut; Christina Bol, of Blairstown, New Jersey, and Faith Fish, of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey.

The couple also had a summer cabin in Westmore, Vermont. They enjoyed hiking. Bol volunteered to help maintain the local hiking trails in Vermont.

Bol was born with one full arm and one that ended at the elbow but was remarkably dexterous with one arm, family members and colleagues said. He put the bolts into the Test Tok himself, for example, Young said. In his time off, he remodeled the family house, built a barn, and built furniture for his home. He continued to build furniture for his children even after he retired to Stonebridge.

Bol’s former colleagues say they will fondly remember a man who played a role in PPPL’s history, encouraged early-career scientists and had a passion for the Laboratory’s mission. “The main thing I remember about him was his positive, cheery scientifically-oriented disposition and his kindness to the graduate students,” said Goldston, “as well as his perspective on what we were doing here: the science was beautiful and the energy goal was important and this was a great enterprise to be part of. “

There will be a memorial service for Kees Bol at Stonebridge at Montgomery in Skillman, New Jersey, on Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.


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