Applied Physics Laboratory names new associate director


December 31, 1990|By Ted Shelsby

Gary L. Smith has been named associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia, a high-technology job that may have him involved in submarine warfare one day and medical science the next.

He assumes his new post tomorrow, succeeding James E. Colvard, who is retiring as the No. 2 person at the research center, which historically ranks among the nation's research institutions receiving the most funding from the federal government. During 1989, the laboratory received research grants totaling $392 million.

Dr. Smith, who received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California in 1969, first joined the APL in 1970 as a principal staff physicist.

Over his career at APL he has served as assistant supervisor for planning in the Submarine Technology Department and was program manager in the laboratory's efforts to develop ways to make submarines run more quietly, making it more difficult for enemy forces to detect them.

Dr. Smith was named head of the Submarine Technology Department in 1984 and deputy assistant director for Research and Exploratory Development four years later. Most recently, he was assistant director for research and programs.

The 55-year-old scientist said one of his first assignments involved hiding the Navy's fleet of submarines armed with Polaris

and Poseidon missiles. "The main strength of these weapons is their lack of detectability," he said.

That kind of work was prominently featured in the popular movie "The Hunt For Red October." In the movie, Soviet scientists develop a silent-propulsion system that allows one of its submarines to become invisible to U.S. sonar-tracking equipment. The fear was that the vessel could fire its missiles from somewhere off the East Coast with very little warning before hitting their targets.

At the same time that Dr. Smith and other researchers at Howard County laboratory were working on ways make it more difficult to detect U.S. submarines, engineers at the Gould Inc. Ocean Systems plant in Glen Burnie (now owned by Martin Marietta Corp.) were producing more sophisticated underwater electronic listening devices designed to locate and track the less noisy submarines.

Dr. Smith explained that when the program began it was not assigned to companies working in anti-submarine warfare systems because the Navy wanted a fresh look at the security side of the operation. He said that the people at APL were not competing with the engineers at Gould and when the laboratory came up with ways to make submarines less detectable, that information would be passed on to companies working on equipment to locate the vessels.

As assistant director of research and exploratory development, Dr. Smith's work expanded into other areas, including materials science research and the development of materials used in integrated circuits to make computers work faster.

Another challenge, in that area, he said, is to develop a material that protects the eyes of factory workers and military forces from the blinding effects of laser radiation.

Dr. Smith also will be involved with the laboratory's work in the area of neural networking, a scientific term used to described the development of computer systems modeled after the human brain.

"The idea," he said, "is to build on what we understand about how the human brain works, then develop models and apply them to the solution of real problems."

Dr. Smith said neural network systems could be used to study satellite photos or radar images to locate and track enemy tank or ship movements.

"They can't outperform humans," he said of the artificial intelligence systems, "but humans get tired." The machines would have "the ability to be a relentless observer."

Another application, he said, could be in the area of security. A neural network system could be trained to recognize a human face, for example, and admit only authorized persons to a sensitive area.

Though the APL is better known for its research on nuclear weapons and the construction of satellite and satellite components, it is also involved in a program to control the spread of diseases in Third World countries. One of its newest developments, Dr. Smith said, is a device that fits into a standard medical syringe and prevents it from being used more than once.

There are still some parts of the world, Dr. Smith explained, where people are not familiar with sterilization practices and can spread diseases while trying to cure them.

Dr. Smith sees even more challenges for himself and the APL in the years ahead. A big portion of the laboratory's work, he said, is associated with a variety of Navy programs, "and the challenge we face is to meet the mission requirements of the Navy in an era of a declining budget."

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