Abstracted from A Scientist’s View of Almost Everything
By Mark M Green
As I prepare this article the evening of July 19, 2022, it is shortly after watching the PBS NewsHour, which presented a segment on the attempt by Congress to pass a bill allotting billions of dollars for enhancing the manufacture of the chips necessary for the production of everything using computer technology. The urgency as explained by the Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo is the security of the United States both militarily and commercially. She explained how dangerous it is for us that these ubiquitous chips, although manufactured using technology invented in the United States, are now manufactured elsewhere, Taiwan for example, and therefore their shipment to our factories could be blocked. She gave one of many examples of a car manufacturer in the United States having to close down for a shortage of necessary chips.
There follows the story of Arnost Reiser, a professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, now New York University Tandon School of Engineering, who played a critical role in understanding the field of microlithography, the fundamental technology behind the manufacture of these chips. The story begins in Czechoslovakia.
Arnost and Ruth Reiser had long been under suspicion by the Soviet Union controlled Czechoslovak authorities. Although not a victim of the several purges in the early 1950s, Professor Reiser was known to have been friends with several people who had been purged and moreover, although given the opportunity, he had never joined the “Party.” The Reisers were suspected of harboring dangerous views. Perhaps the secret police even imagined that Arnost and Ruth’s escaping from the gas chambers in Auschwitz during World War II was not because they were useful (slave) laborers to their captors, which they were. In the twisted minds of these secret police they might have imagined that Ruth and Arnost, who had met in the camps, somehow held anticommunist views, and therefore were looked on favorably by the Nazis. Remarkably in the face of this suspicion by the authorities, Arnost and Ruth were able to pass through a sieve of multiple assurances by all kinds of “authentic” communist authorities and neighborhood groups and police, meant to filter out people such as themselves. Passing through this multiple filtering process, they were given papers allowing them to take a vacation trip out of the country to East Germany and a cruise in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. The first phase of their plan to escape was in place.
The last words Arnost Reiser heard while he was still under communist control and after watching Ruth and his son Jan, a moment before, jump from the East German vacation ship “Seebad Albeck,” was “Ja was ist den de los.” Arnost then twisted away from the man suddenly grabbing his jacket and he, holding his infant son Paul, jumped into the cold North Sea. Paul was awakened suddenly by the shock of the cold ocean water and the baby’s shriek was the only sound heard as everyone on the ship was startled into silence. Arnost, with his infant son in his arms, seeing Ruth and Jan ahead of him approaching the dock at Gedser, began swimming the one hundred meters to freedom. The East German guards were hesitant to fire their weapons, perhaps from their humanity, but maybe also because the ship was in Danish waters and that Danes were watching all this on the nearby dock, looking directly at them and their weapons.
Arnost Reiser had been professor of physical chemistry in the Technical University in Prague. Influential scientists in England who knew Arnost learned what happened and contacted Niels Bohr, the most famous scientist in Denmark. Bohr’s word was enough to allow the family to leave their immigration status in Denmark and to move to England where they eventually become English citizens.
Shortly after arriving in England in 1960, Dr. Reiser was hired at the Eastman Kodak Company working on imaging technology where he remained for many years, rising to a distinguished position for his accomplishments, even winning an award from the Queen. On retiring from Kodak, nearly 30 years ago, he moved to the United States accepting an offer to organize an institute at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn for exploring the chemistry responsible for microlithography, the technology responsible for the manufacture of the chips in our computers—important stuff.
The original chemical process that has evolved to produce computer chips started in the 1950s at a chemical company in Wiesbaden, Germany with an accidental observation of what happened to a chemical mixture on exposure to sunlight. The areas on a specially made film exposed to the light could be dissolved away (become soluble) from the rest of the film, which would not be affected. An image could therefore be formed by controlling the parts of the film to be exposed, just as an image is formed in photography by exposing silver salts to light, which are then changed while leaving the rest of the film unaffected. But this new process allowed imaging technologies not possible with photography.
For forty years, until Professor Reiser’s investigations, the light in this new process was thought to cause a chemical reaction that released an acid substance, which was thought to be responsible for making the light-exposed film soluble. Gradually, it was discovered that controlling, with great precision, where the light shone on the film one could form the microscopic lines on a chip, which directs the flow of electrons that control a computer.
Reiser’s investigations showed that the long believed mechanism of what the light was doing could not be correct. Instead his research revealed that the area exposed to the light underwent a chemical reaction that gave off a great deal of heat, and it was the heat that caused the film to become soluble. He showed that the reason behind the solubility was that the heat disrupted a kind of chemical interaction, hydrogen bonding, that is the most important phenomenon in the molecules that are responsible for life—but here encountered in a system that has nothing to do with biology.
Professor Reiser published his results showing that lithographic processes including the microlithography behind chip production could be made simpler by allowing the light to bring in the necessary heat directly—using lasers and infra-red light, the light that carries the warmth of the sun’s rays. Large corporations, Kodak-Polychrome, Agfa, Fuji and Mitsubishi, immediately jumped on the discovery and fought each other in their claim to priority.
A remarkable man Arnost Reiser, although no longer with us, has left an important legacy in his wake.