Hébert Labs

Frequently Asked Questions

I've tried to anticipate as many questions as I could. Still, if you have a question that isn't here just let me know. I may even add it below.

Q: What's the deal with "Hébert?"
A: "Hébert" is my surname. Believe it or not, in South Louisiana "Hébert" is the functional equivalent of "Smith." It's as common as dirt. But cross the Sabine or Pearl Rivers and it becomes the most exotic thing anyone has ever seen.

Q: How do you pronounce "Hébert?"
A: "Hébert" is pronounced "A'∙bear." The "H" is silent, so resist the temptation to include it by saying "Hay'∙bear." Also, the diacritical over the first "e" is called an acute. It's what makes the "e" pronounced like a long "a." Of course, the acute's most important function is to help people (outside of Louisiana anyway) notice that there is no "r" between it and the "b." Without the acute, most people put in that phantom "r" and call me "Herbert."

Q: What are you working on now?
A: Since early 2001 I have been working on a next generation mass spectrometer. If successful, and that's a big caveat, it will be man portable and at least as sensitive as a canine olfactory system. In other words, it will be about briefcase-sized and able to measure anything a dog can smell. On the other hand, if it's not successful it will have been a colossal waste of more than ten years.

Frankly, I'm a bit annoyed that it's taken me so long. There have been more than a couple of set backs, obstacles and delays to overcome. On the other hand, I know that doing what's never been done before often takes longer than one expects, and there was never a guarantee of success.

Q: What is a mass spectrometer?
A: A mass spectrometer is an instrument that measures, albeit indirectly, the mass of atoms and molecules. More correctly, a mass spectrometer measures the mass to charge ratio of ions. Let me explain.

As an example, the most common isotope of carbon is C12. It has an atomic weight of 12 u (atomic mass units). If a C12 atom loses one electron it becomes a positive ion, C12+, with a net charge of +1 e (where e ≡ |e|, the magnitude of the charge of an electron). It's mass to charge ratio would then be 12u/1e, or 12 u/e. If it were to lose 2 electrons it would become a C12++ ion with a mass to charge ratio of 12u/2e, or 6 u/e. By knowing the charge state of the ion, one can easily calculate its mass by a simple multiplication.

The word "spectrometer" in the name reflects that when a sample is analyzed, the constituent components of that sample are displayed as a spectrum of peaks of increasing u/e, the amplitude of each being proportional to the relative abundance of that component.

Actually, there is also an historic aspect of the use of the term spectrometer. Early studies of atomic structure examined the colors of light emitted by excited/energized elements. Instead of a continuous spectrum of light, different elements emitted light only at discrete wavelengths (colors), and in unique combinations. The combination of discrete colors (called a line spectrum) made up a kind of fingerprint identifying the element. In time it was learned that the various colors corresponded to discrete energy levels in the atomic structure, or more precisely the difference in energy between such discrete energy levels, or orbitals. For more information, look up Johannes Rydberg and the Rydberg Constant with your favorite internet search engine.

Q: How can an individual afford to do what you do? Are you rich or something?
A: To be sure, God has blessed me. But no, I'm not rich. Think about it for a moment. Average working people all across the nation spend tens of thousands of dollars on boats and tackle, and some even buy a second home on their favorite river or lake, just so they can go fishing a few times a year. That doesn't mean they're rich. It just means that they spend their money doing the thing they most want to do. In my case that's scientific inquiry, research and development. And unlike the weekend fisherman, I don't have to buy a special trailer to haul my labs to some distant location in order to use them.

Q: I see the Hébert Labs' logo, and the favicon for your website, is a stylized "H" made to resemble a circuit board? Are electronics where most of your efforts are focused?
A: No. Electronics aren't my main focus, but they were my first focus. Electronics led to, and even facilitated, my education. I was introduced to electronics in 1981 while I was still just a high school drop out working at an alarm company. It was there that I learned about principles of electronics, and even built my first circuit board (using dry transfer tape and a Black & Decker drill).

That work experience led to my undergraduate education being funded largely by a scholarship to study electronics. That is why two of my undergraduate degrees are in electronics.

The ability to utilize electronics and computer programming were major contributors to my continued success, both at the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory and in my graduate studies. Even today, the physics of printed circuit operation fascinate me, and much of what I do involves designing and incorporating electronics into my projects.

So yes, electronics are still a big part of my work, in the same way a good hammer is a big part of a carpenter's work. Electronics have been, and continue to be, one of the biggest hammers in my tool box, and that is what the Hébert Labs logo reflects. It's an homage to that good beginning that has well carried me through.

Q: I've noticed you sometimes refer to circuit boards as PCBs, and other times as PWBs. What's the difference?
A: PCB is an abbreviation for Printed Circuit Board. PWB is an abbreviation for Printed Wiring Board. And no, they are not the same thing.

A board is considered a PWB while it remains unassembled. In the industry vernacular, assembling a board means soldering the components into place. In other words, a bare board is a PWB.

Once the board is assembled it is considered a PCB.

"Why," you ask? A circuit without a load is just wire. Think of your house. Many circuits snake through the walls into your breaker box (service panel). But if all you have is the wire, if no one has yet mounted and connected the switches, the outlets, the light fixtures, you don't have circuits. You just have wiring.

Similarly, if all you have is the bare board, you don't have any circuits. You just have wiring, hence the term "printed wiring board" (PWB).


Spending more money is not always the best solution to every problem. Here are a couple of examples.

Reflow Oven
A Black & Decker Infrawave toaster oven makes an excellent SMT reflow oven. The thermal profile is controlled via a PID controller interfaced to my laptop computer.

Lamination press
Developing my own multilayer PWB lamination press took considerable time and effort, but still cost only a fraction of the cost of even a used commercially available unit.