I was born in 1940 in Archbald, PA, which is about 10 miles north of Scranton in the northeastern part of the state where anthracite coal mining was a major industry until easily-mined coal gave out after World War II. I graduated from the University of Scranton in 1962, after which I went to Baltimore, MD to study physics at Johns Hopkins University. I can still remember my first walk onto the campus, passing by the bust of Johns Hopkins, the merchant who founded the first graduate school in the U.S. It was exciting to be going to a school that had a great history and reputation in physics.
My study of physics was both exhilarating and sobering, the exhilaration coming from learning new and astounding things in physics but sobering too as I realized that I was no longer a big fish in a small barrel, but more the opposite. I can vividly remember learning about vector spaces in a math course and matrices in a classical mechanics course, and encountering these same techniques in several other courses in physics. What unity in variety! I loved H. Goldstein's Classical Mechanics, which included a beautiful treatment of special relativity.
The civil rights movement was in full swing in Baltimore at the time, and it had a major influence on my life. During the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson campaign, I helped canvass areas in west Baltimore and got to see ghetto life close up. The effort was run by A. Eugene Chase, a black man who had great influence on me and remained my close friend until he died in 2004. I felt a need during the campaign to be better-educated about the issues of the day, and this led me to read Eugene McCarthy's A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge, a book which had a major influence on me. I continued my studies in physics after the campaign, and passed my comprehensive exam in May, 1965, which allowed me to proceed with research leading to the Ph.D. I continued with civil rights work also, and I became deeply engaged in a successful effort to establish legal aid programs in Baltimore. I also helped survey resident opinions in West Baltimore to determine community needs. Again, my eyes were opened to the gritty reality of ghetto life.
My graduate school studies were sidetracked by the tragedy of the Vietnam (really, the Indochina) war. I can vividly remember listening to the radio on February 7, 1965, nary a month after Lyndon Johnson took office, and hearing that the U.S. was bombing North Vietnam. What a disappointment! Goldwater was gung ho for military action in Vietnam, but during the campaign Johnson counter-argued that "We're not going to send American boys 10,000 or 12,000 miles to do a job that Asian boys should be doing." In spite of Johnson's Great Society achievements, it soon became evident that he could not make the required effort to attack poverty while government funds were increasingly siphoned off to the war effort. My political efforts went more to ending the war. There was an active SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) chapter on campus, where we carried out many actions, including a boycott of campus recruiting efforts by Dow Chemical (maker of napalm) and the CIA. During this time, I struck up a great friendship with John Ferchak, who came to JHU in 1965. John and I grew up a few miles apart, but didn't know each other until I met him in a bar in my hometown right before he was to start at JHU. John and I became thick friends in our efforts to end the war and promote progressive policies in general. Around this time, I also became involved with an off-campus group associated with Phillip Berrigan, a Catholic priest who first gained national attention when he and three others poured blood on draft documents in Baltimore. In May 1968, Berrigan and eight other people napalmed documents at a draft board in Catonsville, in Baltimore County. These actions of moral witness provoked people to think seriously about the horrible punishment the U.S. was inflicting on Vietnam, and inspired anti-war forces in the city to organize harder and spread the word about the injustice of the war. The theme of the anti-war efforts I was involved in was "Celebrate Life," a vital perspective in a time of poverty and war. These were exhilarating days, despite our distress at the great suffering we were inflicting on the Vietnamese, because there was a great sense of comraderie and achievement as public opinion began to turn against the war. I made a number of life-long friends in Baltimore during this time. Over the years, I visited Bill and Marilyn O'Connor and on occasion, my old friend Dean Pappas.
All these political activities detracted from my graduate studies, but by 1969 I had essentially completed my thesis work on the magnetic critical point of ferrous carbonate using the Mössbauer effect. The work involved a false start, since I initially thought that the novel effects observed near the critical point resulted from a break-down of short-range order, which would cause magnetic spins to flip at a higher rate. My second reader, Professor Herman Cummins, straightened me out when he suggested that the effect was due to a long-range fluctuation effect which grows in influence near the critical point and causes spin flipping to actually slow down. But even failed efforts were intellectually exciting as I probed the intriguing intricacies of matter and energy. My thesis remained to be written, a task I didn't complete until late 1973 since I was still sidetracked in anti-war activities.
By 1972, the anti-war movement splintered badly and depression set in when the Nixon administration switched to a tremendously destructive air war against the Vietnamese people. The air war allowed Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops, which by his crafty design succeeded in quieting the broader but less active opposition to the war.
In September 1972, I left Baltimore for Washington. In Washington, I completed writing my Ph.D. thesis, and also worked with the Indochina Resource Center (IRC). One IRC project involved combing through tons of different world newspapers and recording compliance and violation of the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. The information was compiled in a booklet that Fred Branfman, director of IRC, distributed to a congressional committee when he testified on peace treaty compliance. So my anti-war efforts had switched from protest to politics, a move some in the anti-war movement, including Phil Berrigan, failed to make. Despite Kissinger's promise that "Peace is at hand" prior to the 1972 elections, the war ground on until May 1975, more than ten years after that troubling radio report I heard about Johnson's bombing decision.
January 1974 was memorable: I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis and met my future (and second) wife, Cynthia Fedri, at an event organized by IRC. But by then, the bottom had dropped out of the physics market, and I couldn't get an academic job. I was reluctant to get a job in industry, especially in the Washington area, because most jobs for physicists involved defense research which I refused to do. So in June 1974, I began working at the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), one of several consumer action groups associated with Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group. Work consisted initially of writing up comments on proposed regulations involving such issues as x-ray machines, seat strength, and combustion properties of cabin materials. My ACAP work culminated several years later in a comprehensive statistical study comparing accident rates of commuter air lines with major carriers. Commuter regulations were much weaker than for major carriers, which was reflected in an accident rate three times higher, as measured on a departure basis. My work was a serious contribution to the effort to tighten up commuter regulations. I also represented ACAP on NASA's Safety Reporting Program Advisory Committee, a tremendous experience which involved meeting and working with major industry and government people in aviation safety.
Cynthia and I were married in November, 1976, and our first child, Jason, was born less than two years later. During this time, I was working for a consulting company in Washington to make more money for my growing family. In October, 1978, we moved to Baltimore! It was great re-establishing relationships with my old civil rights and anti-war friends. The commute from Baltimore to Washington took at best 2 hours when the trains ran on time (which was, thankfully, about 90% of the time).
My consulting work was great for a few years. It was essentially a single project for the Treasury Department, devising models to estimate physical lifetimes of capital assets from financial data. The mathematical modeling was a lot of fun. I also designed surveys to be administered to businesses. But after Reagan was elected in 1980, the decision was made (in the interests of business, of course) to depreciate asset lifetimes over a single time period, totally unrealistic from an economic standpoint but a great boon for already-wealthy businesses. This ended the asset lifetime estimation project. But the company I worked for was run by Koreans, and in line with Korean practices, they didn't lay me off but put me on other projects they had going. But the work became deadly boring, and gave me absolutely no satisfaction. So in August 1981, shortly after the birth of my dear daughter Shelly, I took a job at West Virginia Institute of Technology (WVIT) in Montgomery, WV, about 30 miles east of the state capitol, Charleston.
WVIT was primarily an undergraduate engineering school, and a very good one with very bright students. I liked teaching there. My department chair, Keith Honey, was very helpful in getting me started on my teaching career. But it was a tough area for people like Cindy and me who had spent many years in big cities. Montgomery had a population of several thousand (without students), and the Kanawah Valley was a gritty, grimy place, with towns such as Boomer, Alloy (where there was a large metal alloy plant), and closer to Charleston, Nitro (which leaves nothing to the imagination). We were living in Charlton Heights with a population of about 300. People were friendly, but Cynthia felt too isolated, and rightly so. During this time, we worked on the Nuclear Freeze campaign, which required me to learn details about the arms race and nuclear weapon physics. The campaign also afforded me the opportunity to go to groups such as the Rotary Club and talk about the need for a freeze on nuclear weapons.
After two years at WVIT, I got a job at Northwest Missouri State University (NWMSU) through a recommendation from my old grad school friend John Eck who was at Kansas State. NMSU was located in Maryville, MO and with a population of about 10,000 was the county seat and the biggest burg around. St. Joseph was about 60 miles down the road, and Kansas City, a great place, was 30 miles further on. We made many good friends at NWMSU, but about that time, the farming crisis hit and the school cut back on a number of programs, including physics. So I had to look for a new job after three years there.
After about 6 or 7 interviews, I got an offer from Roanoke College for an enviable position in a beautiful part of the country. Roanoke College is a Lutheran-affiliated college founded in 1842 with about 1800 students and 100 faculty. I really appreciated teaching at Roanoke, because it offered me the opportunity to teach several interdisciplinary courses.
One semester after my arrival at Roanoke, I put together an interdisciplinary course on the nuclear arms race. Roanoke is conservative as academia goes, and I made sure to invite a number of faculty to come in and guest lecture to provide some balance for my own critical views. Nevertheless, serious study revealed to me the falsity of claims that the Hiroshima bombing, and even more so the Nagasaki bombing, were necessary. At most, the bombings contributed only modestly to ending the war. (See "Hiroshima bombing" under "Politics" for details. It includes a survey I administered to students to try to provide every conceivable option, including those that justified the bombings.) An even bigger eye-opener was the fact that most of the U.S. claims of Soviet arms control treaty violations were completely bogus or at best gross exaggerations, and that the most egregious arms control violations were committed by the U.S.
One of the high points of my experience teaching the arms race was a "travel course" with six students in Germany in May, 1990. We were located in Munich for three weeks, and also did a side-trip to Leipzig and East Berlin. Most people thought the hated Berlin Wall was down by then, but one of my most vivid memories is going through surly East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie and on to the other side where people were chipping pieces off the wall. There was a hole about 4 feet in diameter in the wall, but on the other side was an armed East German soldier looking as threatening as possible. Nobody was hopping through the wall.
Our experience in Leipzig was very moving. Church people at Roanoke College put me in contact with Lutherans who were associated with the massive Monday night rallies at St. Thomas Church which were so instrumental in bringing down the dictatorial East German Communist regime in late 1989. Ironically, the people we talked with were appalled that they were being flooded with West German politicians who were running in the elections to take place there. There was also great disappointment that East Germany would be swallowed up by what they saw as the shallow materialism of West German capitalism.
I also team-taught an honors course, "Scientific Milestones and Millstones," with Religion/Philosophy prof Ned Wisnefske. This was a great opportunity to present to students a number of issues in science and the philosophical/ethical implications of them. Ned and I taught this course for about 7 years. A final interdisciplinary course was "Nuclear Energy in Fact and Fiction," a senior-level course. The students and I read several novels about nuclear annihilation and investigated nuclear power and the problems and opportunities it presents.
I must say something about my experience in physics at Roanoke College. When I first started in 1986, Bob Hudson and I were only two full-time faculty members. Bob did a great job with the lower-level courses, and I taught mainly upper-level ones, but there were few physics majors (typical for a college of our size) and advanced courses were offered every other years, so I taught the lower-level courses too. In 1989, we hired Nasser Barghouty, who was a high-powered theorist with great expertise in many areas, including nuclear fragmentation. Nasser's arrival alleviated the teaching load a bit.
One of my most satisfying achievements in physics at Roanoke was supervising a physics student in a project to use light scattering to determine the diffusion constant of polystyrene microspheres. Up to this time, I had avoided doing any serious experimental physics, and this was my first attempt to do a relatively complicated project from the ground up. We had to build a light-tight box, purchase equipment such as a spectrum analyzer and sensitive photomultiplier tube, and, of course, learn the underlying light-scattering theory. The spectrum analyzer was somewhat primitive, just a plug-in to an old oscilloscope. So the scanning across different frequencies had to be done by hand, and data recorded by hand for each frequency. It was a great personal achievement to finally figure out how to analyze the raw data to extract the information we wanted.
Roanoke College was very generous in providing funds to purchase a Mössbauer spectrometer and a closed-cycle cryostat that went down to 12 K. I did a number of projects with students over the years, and the Mössbauer spectrometer and cryostat are still being used by a colleague.