History Home | Book Catalog | International Catalog of Sources | Visual Archives | Contact Us

Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lynn Sykes

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Access form   |   Project support   |   How to cite   |   Print this page


See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection


Interview with Dr. Lynn Sykes
By Ron Doel
At Palisades, New York
October 9, 1996

open tab View abstract

Lynn Sykes; October 9, 1996

ABSTRACT: Family background and early education; how he became interested in science; his fatherís career as meteorologist, then air traffic controller; living with his motherís parents, meeting his fatherís parents and their influence on him; influential school teachers and extracurricular activities; hobbies; religion; reasons for choosing Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1956–1960); joining a fraternity at MIT and choosing earth science as his major.

Transcript

Session I | Session II | Session III | Session IV | Session V | Session VI | Session VII

Doel:

This is Ron Doel and this is a recording with Lynn Sykes. Todayís date is the ninth of October, 1996, and weíre making this recording at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And I know that you were born on April 16th, 1937 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but I donít know much about your parents. Who were they and what did they do?

Sykes:

I was an only child. My motherís name was Margaret. She was born and grew up in the Pittsburgh area. My father grew up in a small town in Vermont. In fact when he was a teenager, he was sent out as the oldest son to help his grandparents take care of a farm. He was not able to go to college for a number of reasons, even though he was tops in his small class in Bristol, Vermont. He went to work for the U. S. Weather Bureau as an observer in 1929 and more or less learned the trade there. Went on to other jobs in the Weather Bureau. Moved to Cleveland then Pittsburgh where he met my mother.

Doel:

And this was all connected with the Weather Bureau?

Sykes:

This was all connected with the Weather Bureau.

Doel:

How did he develop and how had that opportunity come about when he went in 1929 into the Weather Bureau?

Sykes:

I think that there was some friend who, someone who came from outside of the small community to visit during the summertime and just mentioned weather to my father and he applied for a GS position or something like that and got it. So, even though he didnít make a lot of money, he was lucky to have a job throughout the whole Depression.

Doel:

Indeed. Indeed.

Sykes:

My mother went to college for two years. Both at the University of Akron and the University of Pittsburgh. In Music. She had to drop out to take care of her elderly parents. During the Depression my maternal grandfather lost everything in a business that had to do with picture framing. Needless to say, picture framing was one of the first things to go in a depression.

Doel:

That was a luxury. Where had she gone to College those two years that she —?

Sykes:

University of Akron and then she lived at home the second year and went to the University, to Pitt.

Doel:

Yes. What sort of jobs did your father do at the Weather Bureau? What was his day like?

Sykes:

In the beginning, it was making simple observations. You know on a regular schedule, temperatures, putting up balloons. Getting temperature and pressure measurements at various levels. Tracking winds. But in that period, he did go to work for I think about two years for what was then called Pennsylvania Central Airlines. He was the first person who was hired by the airline as a meteorologist. He then went back to work for the Federal Government and the Weather Bureau.

Doel:

Of course it was the airlines that helped to stimulate the interest in meteorology as both a profession and —

Sykes:

Right.

Doel:

Did he talk to you about his own interest in meteorology? Do you remember going with him to the Weather Bureau when you were growing up?

Sykes:

No. When I was two years old, my parents moved from the Pittsburgh area to Arlington, Virginia, where I lived until 1948. From 1939 to 1948. And we lived about a mile from National Airport and the Pentagon. The Pentagon was actually under construction at that time.

Doel:

Right.

Sykes:

And my father changed from the Weather Bureau to Air Traffic Control. Which he stayed with until he retired at age fifty-five. So he did take me to the National Airport up to the third floor where there was one small group for air traffic control, one for weather, and one for communications. So that was, that was kind of the first taste that I had. But he did take me to work and I saw what people were doing in these various areas.

Doel:

Right. Right. How big was your fatherís group? Was he running it at that point?

Sykes:

No. At that point he was an assistant air traffic controller. He gradually worked his way up to senior, and the person that would be in charge of an eight hour watch, where by the time he retired was probably fifty to a hundred people whom he supervised. And the last few years that he worked for air traffic control, he was in charge of security. So you can imagine in the Washington area that there had to be communication between the control of civilian airplanes and military flights, particularly if there was some emergency in the Washington area.

Doel:

Right. And there would be I would imagine hand overs between Andrews Air Force base, for instance, flights that were going in and out of National.

Sykes:

Or if some B52s were flying; they would have to make sure that they were identified, that they didnít run into some other airplanes, and vice versa.

Doel:

Right. Thinking back to Arlington at that period of time, did it seem to be that a major shift? You were quite young when you moved, but did your family feel that it was a very different environment from where they had been living in Pittsburgh before?

Sykes:

I donít think so. But I only have one memory from Pittsburgh. I donít think that it was too big a change. Throughout that whole period my father worked shifts so that was a difficult thing for him. It was difficult for me. Of keeping quiet during the daytime when I was at home and my father was trying to sleep when he was working night shifts.

Doel:

I suspect there was even more pressure on the only child when there was no one else in the house to.

Sykes:

Right. And one significant thing was that from probably the time that we moved to Arlington my maternal grandparents were living with us and by then my grandmother was sick and in bed until she died when I was about seven years old. And not too long after that, my grandfather who was close to eighty, developed major medical problems and he died a year after my grandmother. But he was a person who was quite significant in my life. Taking me out for walks. He had been a teacher. His name was Frank Woodburn.

Doel:

What was he teaching?

Sykes:

Math, I think.

Doel:

Was it a grade school do you know? Or high school?

Sykes:

I think that it was probably high school math.

Doel:

Interesting. He had, of course, retired years before you had come to.

Sykes:

Right. So in the Depression, when probably, yeah, 1930s he had lost everything, and was dependent entirely on my mother and then on my mother and father for sustenance. And yet he remained a Republican and was vehemently opposed to Roosevelt. [Laughter]

Doel:

So you heard politics spoken about quiet often at home?

Sykes:

Yes. Yes.

Doel:

At home. Were the rest of you family, did they support him in that or had them become Democratic?

Sykes:

No. My parents remained Republicans, although I donít remember them saying nasty things about Roosevelt.

Doel:

But you do remember your grandfather having said that?

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

He was certainly in the generation of which many did feel that strength of feelings. You mention that he had a strong influence on you, he had taken you on walks?

Sykes:

Yes. I think thatís because my father worked these irregular shifts and my grandmother was sick. My mother then was occupied with the care of everyone. My grandfather was in a position, heís probably the only person that could take me for walks.

Doel:

Did he have an interest in nature? Did he point out either birds or rock formations?

Sykes:

No.

Doel:

Or things like that.

Sykes:

No. About the only thing, he was scared of dogs. He pointed out big nasty dogs to me. [Laughter]

Doel:

You knew that he had, or at least you suspect, that he had taught mathematics. Did he talk to you about the sciences or mathematics at all?

Sykes:

No.

Doel:

Iím curious if your parents, as you think back, did they have an interest in any part of the sciences or —?

Sykes:

Well of course my father did in what.

Doel:

He had it in the meteorology work.

Sykes:

Right.

Doel:

And thatís very clear. Did he begin to read in meteorology? Did he have other books at home that you recall that had to do with meteorology?

Sykes:

He had a few, but I think that they were probably from the time before he was married. And in fact I have some of those books. But I think he did not continue studying. But he always felt that, the fact that he didnít have a college degree held him back in the Weather Bureau and in air traffic control. He put a lot of emphasis on practical experience which was understandable.

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

But I think that itís probably realistic that he was held back for not having a degree.

Doel:

If I recall correctly, it was Rickeldecker [spelling cannot be checked; no word list provided for this interview] who was heading the Weather Bureau at that point, by the late 1930s?

Sykes:

I donít remember.

Doel:

But clearly it was becoming professional in the sense that Ph.D.s were becoming expected for those who were in service.

Sykes:

Right. And certainly people who would be a normal weather observer, interpreter, it was expected that they would have a college degree. Which he didnít have.

Doel:

Iím just curious if he talked to you about the practice of what he did, about having to make these careful measurements and about what that meant?

Sykes:

Yes, I can remember him, but its probably more after Iíd been an adult, of his talking about the hours that he spent making weather maps, particularly when he worked for Pennsylvania Central Airlines. And of the fact that he made a major prediction. At that time, weather stations were just being put in. And he was an advocate in the Pittsburgh area of getting enough stations so that they could make forecasts of major fronts. And that he has told me that he made a prediction over a Thanksgiving day weekend in which he could see that this front was still in the Midwest and that the temperatures were like forty degrees colder the other side of this front and that it was going to come through the Pittsburgh area over that weekend. And so he called up the news media and newspapers, which considering he was a fairly shy person, was a pretty big thing for him to do. And this warning was broadcast and it was a really major beginning of a winter storm.

Doel:

Thatís very interesting.

Sykes:

So that probably had some echoes for me with my own work in earthquake prediction.

Doel:

Thatís very interesting. I was thinking about that when you said that. And itís interesting because that sort of practice really wasnít done on a national level or in many parts of the country.

Sykes:

Thatís right. Right.

Doel:

And you mention too a weather front. Of course that was an idea that was coming out of the Berjkness school.

Sykes:

Right.

Doel:

At the time. I sense though from what youíre saying that his own training wasnít theoretical in that sense.

Sykes:

No, but he was aware of the presence of it at school.

Doel:

But he was aware.

Sykes:

And I think that he regretted that he didnít have enough knowledge, but he thought that he could make up for it by having a really good knowledge of local conditions in western Pennsylvania, for example.

Doel:

Did he have other colleagues who were reasonably close that he could talk to about his work or did he pretty much work in isolation during those days.

Sykes:

I really donít know whatís the answer to that. Iím not aware of it. Iím not aware of his talking about professional colleagues in that period. I can remember him talking about people who were friends of his, a place where he had a room, the people that introduced him to my mother.

Doel:

Yes. Iím sure that was a memory that was Ė-

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

How did he, he meet your mother? Iím curious.

Sykes:

I think that these people, you know, fixed him up.

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

Thatís interesting. Iím curious when you mention about his awareness of the Berjkness school, did you have a library in the house? Of course, youíll remember it primarily from the time you were in Arlington. Was there a library that you —?

Sykes:

Well, I can remember that we had a set of encyclopedias. That probably went back to about 1930. But it was one in astronomy that I read very avidly, and one on chemistry. So, rather than being organized alphabetically, there would be one book per subject. So I can particularly remember reading those two. And I can remember reading ones about building of modern bridges and skyscrapers.

Doel:

That was of course a shared interest of many by that period of time.

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

The 1930s was — Did you have an interest in astronomy as a hobby at any point when you were growing?

Sykes:

Not of going out and looking at stars through using a telescope. But I certainly read that book avidly. I think my interest changed when my Aunt Ethel, my fatherís oldest sister, sent me a chemistry set when I was in the fifth grade. And somewhat to the chagrin of my mother who thought I was going to blow up the house. And so I, at that point, I really shifted to a major emphasis in chemistry. My father had always been very handy with tools, and down in the basement he had his own workbench that he allowed me to use. And then, in fact, he made me one of my own. And so I had some of my own tools, and so thatís where my chemistry set went.

Doel:

Thatís interesting. And you were fifth, sixth grade by the time. How old were you when he actually made your workbench?

Sykes:

Probably about second grade.

Doel:

That early?

Sykes:

Yes. And then I also, about that same time, my father got a letter from a coworker of his who had gone to Trinidad. Of seeing the stamp got me interested in other places and so I became an avid stamp collector which I was through about the tenth grade.

Doel:

How big did your stamp collection grow to?

Sykes:

Probably twenty thousand stamps.

Doel:

Significant. What sort of house did you live in Arlington?

Sykes:

We rented in a house that was probably twenty feet from the houses on either side. Definitely a middle class neighborhood. Itís interesting that Iíve been back to that area and it in itself has not changed much. You know, houses have gotten older. The house was probably built about nineteen hundred. It was fairly small particularly for a family of two grandparents, two parents and a child.

Doel:

How big was the school that you were attending, say elementary or junior?

Sykes:

I can remember my mother walked me to school the first day which was about six blocks away, and from then on it was up to me to walk to and from school. And so this elementary school was, probably had about twelve rooms, went through the sixth grade.

Doel:

Iím wondering if any, when you think back, whether any of the teachers back at that early period had any influence on you?

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

Or do you have a general memory?

Sykes:

Well, I had a general memory that when I went to the first grade that I didnít do very well. And that a lot of the other kids had been to kindergarten and I hadnít.

Doel:

You hadnít?

Sykes:

And I can remember the teacher berating me for my poor penmanship in the first grade. I think in the third grade was kind of an upsetting time for me because my grandparents died. And then in the fourth grade I had a teacher who was for me very memorable. And I really became a scholar at that time.

Doel:

You felt it at that early age?

Sykes:

Right. That we had, we did Virginia history and U.S. history and that really interested me. We did geography. This teacher had two easels in the back of the room and students could take about three days each for doing some watercolor painting. Arid I can remember painting the Great Wall of China.

Doel:

How had you found about, do you recall about the Great Wall of China? Reading in geography?

Sykes:

Yes. And of course during World War II there was a lot of emphasis on the effect of the war and the Japanese on China. And I think that I was probably told that I should clean everything in my plate because there were starving people in China.

Doel:

Yes. You would have been about eight years old when the war ended, World War II.

Sykes:

Thatís right. In fact, I can specifically remember Pearl Harbor. It was a Sunday afternoon and my parents were listening, I think along with my grandparents, to this very big radio. One of those that was in a great big wooden console.

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

Tunable AM set. And that was one of the few times that I can remember that I was told to shut up. And I was normally indulged at a time like that on a Sunday afternoon. But I realized there was something big was happening. And I think that I was told that that was generally the case and that we were at war with Japan.

Doel:

That was Rooseveltís famous Day of Infamy speech.

Sykes:

Right. Yes.

Doel:

Were you parents religious? Do you remember going to church?

Sykes:

Yes. My mother had been brought up Presbyterian and my father Methodist. And they went to the Methodist church in Arlington. So I was baptized and went to Sunday School. Liked to sing. And in some ways we may be getting a little bit ahead of the story, but in 1948 my father decided that he wanted to build a house and have a house of their own and not rent. They bought a half an acre lot on a dirt road in a town called Annandale which has now blossomed into a gigantic sprawling suburbia. At that time it had very few houses. But religiously, and we, and I did not particularly like moving to the country or the sticks. And I can remember that we went to an evangelical church for a while, Baptist, and the local Methodist church. But I can remember that I didnít like that.

Doel:

Do you remember what you were feeling? Did you feel more isolated when you were out there from friends?

Sykes:

Yes. I had some good friends, particularly people who were on my intellectual wave length. They collected stamps. And so I missed that when we moved out to Fairfax County.

Doel:

Was there a good public library or a good school library that you were also making use of when you still lived in Arlington?

Sykes:

There was a public library and I can remember going several times. But more for fairy tale type of things.

Doel:

You said something very interesting a moment ago. That in fourth grade you recognized that you were becoming a scholar. That that was a turning point.

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

Iím wondering what it was that, when you think back, that was that switch turning on?

Sykes:

I think there were probably several things. I had a very good teacher who was stimulating. I was aware that I really liked what we were doing, history, geography. I excelled at it. I was the best in the class. And so that that gave me a good sense of myself. And I think that it helped me to get beyond the death of my grandparents, who I was probably closer to than, than I admitted at that time.

Doel:

You were investing in work an in energy.

Sykes:

Yes. And I had a good teacher in the fifth grade. So probably from there on, you know, I was a very good student.

Doel:

When you look back on those years, did you find that any one area intrigued or interested you particularly, or were you interested in many things? You mentioned chemistry, and astronomy, and history.

Sykes:

Yes. I was particularly interested in history and geography. I really didnít have an interest in literature until I went to MIT and took humanities and philosophy. In high school I developed quite an interest in American government and world history. And I had one teacher, Mr. Taylor, who had been a high official in the Truman administration in the Department of Agriculture. And when the Eisenhower administration came in, he lost his job and became a teacher, and so I had him for world history in the tenth grade and American government in the twelfth. And so he, he had a big influence on me. And I was kind of his star pupil in American government. That probably accounts for some of my interest in things like the Comprehensive Test Ban and public policy issues related to science.

Doel:

Indeed. And when you were talking with Mr. Taylor about, did he talk about extensively his own experience in being in the Truman administration or?

Sykes:

Not too much. Except I knew that. But I can remember one other student who was a good student, that Mr. Taylor in fact drove the two of us out to see his farm. He had enough money that he had a farm and caretakers that was out in Virginia, which was not an atypical thing for people that had enough money and were in high positions in Washington.

Doel:

Right. And did he talk then about the sorts of things that he had done in the Truman?

Sykes:

No. No.

Doel:

This was information that you were largely gathering from other kinds of observations?

Sykes:

Right.

Doel:

From what others would say.

Sykes:

Right. But you know I could get interested in the Interstate Commerce Commission and how it developed and the Sherman Act and things like that.

Doel:

This was a public high school that you had attended?

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

And was that out in Fairfax county then?

Sykes:

Yes. So that when I was in the fifth grade was the time in which my father built the house. I helped him build this house. So we moved out there and I started the sixth grade, the sixth and seventh grade were in elementary school and the eighth grade through twelfth was in the high school. Fairfax High School.

Doel:

And how big was it at that point, the high school? Or how many people were in your?

Sykes:

Well, letís see, in my class that started I think that there were five hundred in the eighth grade and about half finished.

Doel:

Itís drawing from a pretty wide area.

Sykes:

Yes. It drew them from a good third of Fairfax County which probably now has thirty high schools.

Doel:

Indeed. Was there a time in high school where you found a new or renewed interest in the sciences? Did you have any particularly memorable teachers in the sciences?

Sykes:

Well, in fact, in the seventh grade I had a teacher, Miss Quigg who did some chemistry. And so I can remember kind of being invited to come and do some chemistry experiments for the class. I had a big interest in chemistry. In the eighth grade, I can remember giving a book report in which the other students said, OHHH. [Laughter)

Doel:

It was stuff that you found.

Sykes:

Something that I found interesting, the discovery of the elements that other people couldnít care less about. And you know was a transition to people getting interested in the opposite sex and that probably took me yet a couple more years. But I think that I, I didnít have some inspiration there in the eighth grade so I felt a bit rootless then. I think in the tenth grade I started working for the school newspaper and I discovered some people who were more on my wave length. But still in this high school, starting in the eighth grade, and in fact our teacher had told us that if it hadnít been generally announced to everybody in the class, in the whole big class, but that our home room was the best one in terms of recommendations of people of teachers from the seventh grade and our test scores. So it was a high school in which all the way through the twelfth grade we were divided by ability.

Doel:

Yes. You had a group of peers then that were stimulating in and amongst yourselves.

Sykes:

Right. And I think a big thing for me in high school was when I tried out for the junior play, and had a part in the junior play. And so I think that it represented, and working for the school newspaper, a broadening out and my starting a social life.

Doel:

Yes. You mentioned your father was a shy man. Did you feel shy in growing up as well?

Sykes:

I think probably so. Yes.

Doel:

Iíd like to. Please go ahead.

Sykes:

Well I was going to say that by the twelfth, by the eleventh grade, I had found some comrades in high school who I did things with who had an interest all the way from arts and photography, making movies to science and working for the school newspaper.

Doel:

Your interests were rather broad clearly by the end of your high school years.

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

When you had mentioned your interest in chemistry earlier, did you have a chemistry set in the sense of having condensers and some of the chemical apparatus?

Sykes:

Oh yes. Yes. This moderate size chemistry set that I got from my aunt, we had some, a friend in Arlington who was a pharmacist, so he provided me with a lot of quantities of various chemicals that were, you know, big size bottles compared to little tiny things in a chemistry set, and I gradually acquired pieces of equipment.

Doel:

You didnít have facility to blow any glass yourself, did you?

Sykes:

No.

Doel:

Or make any equipment?

Sykes:

Maybe just something that you could heat over a Bunsen burner. About all. But before that time, going back to probably about the first or second grade, one of the things that I very much wanted was an erector set. And it was during the war and my parents managed to get a second hand erector set. It was a huge one. It came in a wooden box that was this big.

Doel:

Youíre holding your hands out, twenty-four inches.

Sykes:

Yes, right. And so that that was something that I was really into from about the first to the fourth grade or something like that.

Doel:

Were you reading ďPopular MechanicsĒ, other magazines.

Sykes:

Yes. My father had got ďPopular MechanicsĒ and ďPopular ScienceĒ. And so I looked pretty extensively at those and ďBoys LifeĒ.

Doel:

Were you in the Scouts at all?

Sykes:

Yes. So I was Cub Scout in Arlington. When I was about in the sixth and seventh grade I was in Boy Scouts. And then after that for about three years I was in an Explorer Scout troop. And we had a very good scout master who was really was interested in camping and hiking and so we did a lot of trips. Camping trips. So that certainly kindled in me a sense of the out of doors.

Doel:

I was curious if you had, thinking back, you had an interest in the earth sciences in any way while you were still in high school?

Sykes:

Well I can remember it must have been about the seventh or eighth grade that over on one of the main highways I just happened to find beside the road. I had a bicycle so I got around extensively on my bicycle. I found what was this piece of metal. It was about five inches long and maybe three inches the other dimensions. It was silvery, but I knew it wasnít lead. And I couldnít figure out what it was and so, in fact, I took it to the American Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Doel:

Thatís interesting.

Sykes:

And one of the formative things for me when we lived in Arlington was that probably from about the time I was seven or eight years old, the bus stopped within a hundred feet of our house and I was allowed to go into Washington myself. Which no child today would be allowed to until theyíre eighteen at least.

Doel:

Right.

Sykes:

But Iíd take the bus in. I would go to the main post office, and buy stamps. Go to the Smithsonian. And I became a kind of tour guide for visiting family members from other cities who would come to visit. So anyway, I knew the American Museum.

Doel:

Yes. Did you know any of the people who worked there or was it more familiarity with what was in the cases.

Sykes:

It was familiarity with what was in the cases, but in this case I think I probably asked a guard. Got this rock. How can I find out? So they opened the door to the inner sanctum. And someone told me that it was a piece of bismuth, that it was probably some slag; he thought from some mine in West Virginia. I had wondered before if it could be a meteorite.

Doel:

Yes. Wondering if that was something you remembered from reading in the astronomy text about?

Sykes:

Could have been about meteorites. So that is the kind of the first thing I remember about rocks. I think in high school I may have had a small collection of rocks. And I kind of had a vague interest in earth science but I knew I was interested in science, but I didnít know exactly in what until I went to college.

Doel:

Yes I want to get to that area of time in just a moment. Were there astronomy, were there science clubs of any sort that you recall from the high school? Were you part of any?

Sykes:

No. I think there may have been a club for stamp collectors, but it wasnít very active. So the school newspaper was a much more active thing.

Doel:

And you mentioned the drama club that you had been.

Sykes:

Yes.

Doel:

Involved in drama productions. Were you involved in sports?

Sykes:

We, everybody of course had to do gym. I felt that I was very awkward and so was usually assigned a place where not very many balls went. But I did enjoy playing touch football and even some tackle football when I was in kind of seventh, eighth grade level with some local friends.

Doel:

When you were growing up, did you have a chance to travel much or on vacations or extraordinary times?

Sykes:

I can remember making a trip to, out to the Ohio River in western West Virginia to visit my aunt.

Doel:

Was this the aunt you had mentioned that had helped you, Aunt Ethel is her name?

Sykes:

Aunt Ethel. Yes. She was important to me in the sense she was the oldest, the oldest sibling in my fatherís family. She had gotten divorced in the 1920s which was almost unheard of in a small town. And remarried. Never had children. And she and her husband worked at various veteranís hospitals. And after West Virginia they ended up in the San Francisco area. And they would take long trips by car out in the west and send me postcards. So that was very stimulating to me.

Doel:

I can imagine. Because the landscape would have looked so much different from what you knew from growing up to see those.

Sykes:

Right.

Doel:

When you were thinking, was it clear to you say from tenth or eleventh grade that you were going on to college? Was that something that you had already set in your mind as a goal as something you wanted to?

Sykes:

Yes, I think so. And from my parents the encouragement that I got was that I should go to college because that was the only way to get a good job. And that my father had not done this, and, therefore, I should. And I had a lot of stimulation from teachers in high school. That I had mentioned this one person in American government. I had another teacher, junior year, who was also head of the Honor Society for American Literature. And she, as well as one man who taught physics and solid geometry, trigonometry, was very instrumental in trying to give some special attention to the brightest students in class. And to encourage them to apply to some of the top schools in the country. And I was aware that there was one person two years ahead of me that they talked about who had gone to Princeton. And that most of the students in my class ended up in Virginia or regional colleges.

Doel:

Had you known that person who had gone on to Princeton?

Sykes:

No. I just knew of his name. So there were probably six to ten of us who went out of state to college.

Doel:

Yes. And thatís one of the interesting things how you began to hear about what other, what schools were doing and what each of them could offer.

Sykes:

Right. Well that kind of brings me back that I havenít talked about my paternal grandparents.

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

And so. And you talked about trips. I can remember that when I was probably in about the first grade that my father went to visit, by train, his parents in Vermont. And he took me with him. So I have distinct memories of him waking me up to see Manhattan from the railroad, the Hellgate Bridge, and going by steam locomotive the final way up to Vermont.

Doel:

After the electric portion of the road ended.

Sykes:

Right. At New Haven. So that was a big thing for me. And then right after the war and about the time that my grandparents died, my maternal grandparents, we started going about once a year to Vermont by car. It was like an eighteen hour trip from Washington. And so then I got to know my paternal grandparents better. And they ran a small store in Vermont. My grandfather prided himself on being a jack-of-all-trades. He was very smart. He was one of two Democrats in this little town in Vermont. And he prided himself on that. A bit different.

Doel:

Interesting that you remember that.

Sykes:

Right. And that he said that he was a Jefferson, Jackson Democrat.

Doel:

You were saying that you had — How big was the town that your paternal grandparents lived?

Sykes:

Oh probably two hundred people. It was called Brownsville. West Windsor, Vermont.

Doel:

Do you remember doing things particularly with him? Or [cross talk].

Sykes:

I can remember that my father took me fishing, which was something that he enjoyed doing very much as a child, but it didnít particularly excite me. But I mean it was definitely rural. There was one spectacular mountain, Mount Ascutney there, which you could easily see from where they lived. My grandparents at that time had, and I guess about the time my father was in high school, had bought a huge house that at one time was a small hotel that the stagecoach stopped at. And they then had a business, my grandfather, grandmother had a business of a small store, and my grandfather had a big plumbing business along with that. It was kind of all out in a whole bunch of sheds behind the house.

Doel:

Given your interest in tools, at least your exposure to them from your father, did you have somewhat free rein to go to look around and see how things worked?

Sykes:

Yes. Though, letís see, that would have been then just before my father decided to build the house.

Doel:

Yes. You had mentioned that there was a connection that you were recalling between your paternal grandparents and learning more about other colleges and schools.

Sykes:

Oh, right. And it was interesting although that my father had not gone to college, that he had three sisters, one of whom died. But two of them went to nursing school. So except for me there has been a very strong tradition in our family that the women were better educated then the men. And so neither my father nor his brother, who was the youngest in the family, went to college. But my father had some cousins who, from that town, got interested in radios. They were about his age. And they went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and became electrical engineers. So I kind of heard indirectly about them. So itís probably how I heard about MIT.

Doel:

That is interesting. And of course radio was such an influence from the 1930s, 1940s, on that generation growing up.

Sykes:

Right. Right.

Doel:

Had you heard of other technological schools like Cal Tech on the other end of the country?

Sykes:

I hadnít heard of Cal Tech, but I had heard of RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute].

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

So the three, four places that I applied to were those and Cornell and Duke. And I took the SATs or whatever the equivalent of them was. I did very well. And so, another person from my high school class and I were invited down to Duke as being regional winners, in which after interviews there we had a chance for a scholarship. It turned out it wasnít a very big scholarship. But I clearly found that Duke was not the place for me. It was definitely a place for southern gentlemen. And for some reason I decided not to pursue Cornell. And so RPI and MIT were my top choices.

Doel:

Iím just curious what you knew about Cornell when clearly they had many good applied schools by then.

Sykes:

Yes. Iím not sure. But I knew about RPI in science. And in fact I won a naval ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] scholarship to RPI in which, if I had taken it, I would have had to have served four or five years in the Navy afterwards. I was fortunate that I won a full scholarship to MIT, which was my top choice. And that made a really big difference in my life. It was very clear to me that Boston, Cambridge was the right place for me. I liked being in a moderate size city. New York would have been too big for me then. Being at a small college out in the country wouldnít have been right for me. And I think even when I chose, I was aware that RPI was pretty strictly technical. And afterwards I was aware that Cal Tech was too and that would not have been a good choice for me.

Doel:

Had you been to either Boston or Cambridge at the time?

Sykes:

No.

Doel:

That you decided. So this was a new experience.

Sykes:

Yes. So I was dropped off at MIT.

Doel:

If I recall correctly, you had the Proctor & Gamble? Was this the fellowship, the scholarship that you had in the undergraduate years?

Sykes:

Yes. Yes.

Doel:

How did you get that scholarship?

Sykes:

It was one in which I had an interview in Washington in which the head of scholastic aid came down to interview students at the Cosmos Club in Washington. And so I was interviewed along with several other people and I was rather surprised then to hear that I had won a scholarship, a full scholarship.

Doel:

And that covered tuition? Did it cover beyond that?

Sykes:

It covered a little bit. It covered books. Interestingly enough MITís tuition at that time seemed astronomical. It was nine hundred dollars a year.

Doel:

Yes.

Sykes:

And if I hadnít gotten the scholarship, I think my parents would have thought that they couldnít afford for me to go to college there. And they had grown up, I think, with a depression mentality that you really hold onto your money. And particularly that you donít take out loans. Even though much later they told me, which my grandfather never had, my fatherís father, that he would have helped me if I needed to go to MIT. But I never heard that at the time. [Laughter]

Doel:

Those are the sorts of things one sometimes hears so much later. When you got that, was MIT offering some aid as well or was that not part of the offer?

Sykes:

No. In fact, this was a scholarship from MIT. So MIT had money from Proctor & Gamble.

Doel:

I see.

Sykes:

So it was not Proctor & Gamble that gave me the scholarship. It was MIT.

Doel:

I see. I see. So you were meeting with people from MIT.

Sykes:

Thatís right.

Doel:

Their representatives.

Sykes:

Thatís right.

Doel:

What were your impressions? Youíre dropped off at MIT and — What did you think of the school when you first became acquainted with it?

Sykes:

Well I got a bunch of literature. I mean I had the catalogues and so at least I had enough interest in earth science potentially that I had looked through every course and kind of planned four years of courses which I immediately changed after the first year.

Doel:

Yes. Were they courses in the earth sciences?

Sykes:

Yes. There were a number that I picked out. Iím not quite sure why. But the other thing was that I got a lot of literature on were the fraternities at MIT, and so I went to rush week and I joined a fraternity. It was a live-in fraternity and for me that was a pretty big decision, an important one. And for me the right decision. But I think there were probably twenty-five people or members, live-in, in this fraternity so I really got to know people well. And being an only child and first in my class, of kind of having some siblings for the first time. That was very important. Fraternity brothers who had big sisters who fixed us up with dates.

Doel:

It was an important part of the social environment.

Sykes:

Right. And I lived in Boston across from MIT and walked across the Mass Avenue Bridge to MIT.

Doel:

And I would imagine given MIT in that period of time that most of your fellows in the fraternity were in the either the engineering or the science departments.

Sykes:

Yes. Although there were a few, MIT had the Sloan School of Management. So there were a few students that were in that.

Doel:

Yes. Thatís what I was curious about how big a mix it was just amongst the.

Sykes:

Yes. And there were one or two people who were majoring in economics. And MIT had as part of their undergraduate program you had to take humanities every semester. So I think they had a stronger humanities program than Cal Tech or RPI had.

Doel:

I think thatís right.

Sykes:

And so that was something in which I really caught fire and had an interest in kind of the history of philosophical thought. My junior year I had one very outstanding professor, Karl Deutsch, who taught history of philosophical thought. It was an elective that I took. A very inspiring person.

Doel:

Did he concentrate on history, the philosophy or science or —?

Sykes:

No.

Doel:

Probably philosophical systems.

Sykes:

Philosophical systems in general. And he later became a Sterling Professor at Yale.[1]

[1]Pages 36 to 54 and the recorded portions of the interview from which they were produced will not be made available to others for research or other purposes with Dr. Syke's written consent.

Session I | Session II | Session III | Session IV | Session V | Session VI | Session VII