Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
Credit: The College of William and Mary
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.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Warren W. Buck by David Zierler on March 2, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Warren W. Buck, Chancellor Emeritus, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Washington at Bothell, and Adjunct Professor of Physics and Special Advisor to the President for Equity in the 21st Century at William and Mary. Buck recounts his upbringing in segregated Washington DC, his early interests in science, and the opportunities that led to his admission to Lincoln University for his undergraduate degree before transferring to Morgan State. He discusses the racial strife and the civil rights movements of the late 1960s, his interest in physics as an undergraduate, and his decision to pursue a graduate degree at William and Mary. He explains his decision to leave after getting a master’s degree to teach at Bowie State and to be more involved in Black student organizing, and he describes his thesis research on deuteron theory under the direction of Franz Gross. Buck describes sailing in the Bahamas after graduate school and his appointments at Stony Brook and Los Alamos, and he explains his interests in nucleon-nucleon interactions. He describes a formative research year in Paris and his subsequent faculty position at Hampton University, his collaboration with Jefferson Lab, and his work introducing theoretical mesonic form factors. Buck discusses meeting Lillian McDermott and his recruitment to help build a new UW satellite campus at Bothell as chancellor. He surveys his accomplishments in that role and explains his decision to retire, and at the end of the interview, Buck discusses his interest in Buddhism and how Buddhist philosophy can be understood in the context of nuclear theory.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 2, 2021. I am so happy to be here with Professor Warren W. Buck. Warren, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you. Thanks for asking me for this interview. I’m looking very much forward to it.
All right. So, to get started, would you please tell me your titles and institutional affiliation? I put plural on “titles” because I know you have more than one.
Yeah. So, at University of Washington, Bothell I have the titles of Chancellor Emeritus and Professor of Physics Emeritus there. At the University of Washington, Seattle, I have the title of Adjunct Professor of Physics. At William and Mary, I presently have two titles: Adjunct Professor of Physics and the title of Special Advisor to the President for Equity in the twenty-first Century.
So, like all other physicists, you really have no idea how to retire (laughter).
No. The nice thing about where I am right now, however, is, in one sense, I have no boss, in that sense meaning that I don’t collect a salary and have to report, you know, semiannual report or whatever I have to do to jump through the hoops. People say, “Warren, you have to do this job,” and I say, “No, I don’t want to do that job.” So that’s good, and the other sense is I’m still working. I’m just doing things that I really, really like to do, and there are a lot of those and so truly I’m busy, but in a very good way.
When did you take on the equity job at William and Mary? When did that start?
That started last year in June. It was July 1, actually, of 2020, and I stepped down from the board. I was on the Board of Visitors, which is our governing body for William and Mary. It’s a gubernatorial appointment. I spent four years on the board and stepped down and actually didn’t get reappointed, which was really okay. The president asked me right away, would I serve as special advisor, so I said sure.
Warren, of course last year, among all the other crises that we were dealing with as a country, was really a year of racial reckoning, and this did not spare STEM from looking inward. I wonder if your appointment at William and Mary with this position was specifically responsive to all of the tragedies that happened last year.
I think it was partially responsible, David. I think that we are faced with not only STEM, but a cultural transition. Hopefully we’re transitioning to a place where more of us can feel more welcomed. It also was a downturn in money and availability of things to purchase, people to hire. Yeah. So, it was a big effect, and I think this president here at William and Mary, Katherine Rowe saw an opportunity that- I’ve been pretty fortunate in many respects that pretty much everywhere I go I make some positive change, so she’s hoping I can do that here at William and Mary once again.
One of the first things I got to do was to chair a working group on naming and renaming at William and Mary. You know, William and Mary is an old place and a lot of the nation’s founding fathers are alumni. I guess they were alumni as they’re not living anymore. It was also not very far away from the home of- the beginning of the English version of the African slave trade in the United States. It started twenty miles away- actually twenty plus, in Hampton and then also in Jamestown, which Hampton is about twenty-eight miles and Jamestown is about ten. At the same time, David, in 1619, the representative government, the colonials created a representative government at Jamestown within about a week of the first African slaves arriving, and so the whole business of the United States was built on that representative government (now Congress, Executive branch and the Judicial branch) and the trade of making as much money off people as possible without regard to others welfare, mainly black folk suffered horribly. Yorktown is thirteen miles away from Williamsburg. So, this has been interwoven throughout the centuries, 401 plus years, something like that, although and William and Mary is at the nexus of that, so it’s really right in ground zero.
Warren, a question in the moment, one that we’re all dealing with, but specifically for you, for all of your responsibilities and all of the geographic diversity in terms of your affiliations and responsibilities. What has been challenging for these past eleven months of social isolation and remote work, and in what ways has video conferencing sort of allowed you to do more and establish more connections than you otherwise might have been able to?
Yeah. You know, thank goodness for Zoom. Zoom came in just at the right time.
(Laughter) That’s right.
It’s not the same as being in a room with friends and colleagues, but it’s as good as we can get under the pandemic. I think at first it was kind of getting adjusted to how do we communicate, you know? What’s the way we collaborate? I think eventually we discovered that Zoom was a good thing to do, and so we’ve had a lot of collaboration meetings. I meet even sometimes with family (laughter). We have family reunions over Zoom, and actually a reunion from Hampton University. I was there, and the group that I actually created had a reunion and so we had this Zoom meeting. It was great to see people I hadn’t seen for years and hear what they’re doing. So, I think this platform of Zoom, also, the clarity, the resolution on Zoom is much better than other forms that we used to have, and it doesn’t crash as often as Skype or something like that. So, it’s really been a boon. I’m liking it more, and even though my second shot is coming up for the vaccine, I’ll probably still wear a mask and still do a lot of Zooming.
The down part of that is in some ways we lose the human touch, and there’s a lot to say about that. As human beings, like almost any living animal, we like to be in groups, you know? We like to bump into each other in the hallway and have conversations, impromptu, and it’s very difficult to impossible with Zoom because it all has to be planned out. So, there is something that we’re missing there and I’m not sure how we’re going to evolve. In the coming years as we deal with pandemics, and maybe there will be more coming; who knows? How do we deal with that and how do we deal with the human condition?
Well, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
So, my parents are/were Midwesterners. My father, who I’m named after, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and my mother grew up in Evanston, IL. She was one of the first African Americans, or the few African Americans in the thirties to attend Evanston Township High School, which was an all-white school. Then my mother’s family later relocated to the western suburbs of Chicago - Maywood. All of the twelve of my uncles and aunts got, at least, bachelor’s degrees.
Where did they meet? Where did your parents meet?
They met at- this is a very interesting connection. They met at Lincoln University in Missouri on the Missouri River, Jefferson City. That university was essentially founded by buffalo soldiers and free black folks. They met in a calculus course (laughter), and the calculus course was taught by a fellow by a name of Walter Talbot. Dr. Talbot was this remarkable African American mathematician who, according to my family lore, and I haven’t fully checked this out, got his PhD from University of Pennsylvania around twenty-three-years old, something like that. A big thing- he could write with both hands simultaneously. I remember hearing this when I was growing up and I thought, “My goodness! I’ve never seen that.” I had no real reason to not believe my parents, but it just sounded suspicious to me (laughter).
So anyway, my dad got a job in D.C. He was one of the first- in fact, I think at the time, the only African American who worked for what was then called the Weather Bureau (which turned into NOAA). During World War II, the Weather Bureau. He was a draftsman and he would draw weather maps, and those were sent to the frontline on a regular basis so that troops could get the best information. All of his brothers and my mother’s brother (only brother) served in World War II, and my uncle, Uncle Bobby (Robert Buck), was a Tuskegee airman. My mother’s brother, Uncle Wilbert (Wilbur George), was also a Tuskegee airman, and my father’s brother flew in Italy, really. My father worked in the Weather Bureau to help keep his brothers alive, so he wanted to draw the best maps he could to keep them alive, and they all came back with all their parts, as far as I know. It’s amazing. Those four, five uncles all served in the war in Europe.
My mother’s father and mother only went through the sixth grade. Also, my father’s parents, I don’t know how they- I think they went to high school, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t go to college at all. I’m not certain about that, but I think it’s pretty- if the folklore holds true, that’s right. But the Georges, my mother’s family, bought a whole bunch of land in Wisconsin. He worked several jobs and spoke like a scholar. We would go to visit every year. We’d drive in our car. One year I remember traveling by train from D.C. I think the first year we drove out to the Midwest was in a 1949 Dodge (laughter). We went out there, and as a young, I was only, what, three or four years old or so at that time, and I didn’t really know about racism. I had the family and we traveled, and I didn’t see any issues at all as a young boy.
And this is in D.C. You grew up in D.C.?
I grew up within D.C. attending Spingarn High School. So, my father had a job at the Weather Bureau in D.C. They moved to D.C. They got married, moved to D.C. I don’t know what year it was. I think it was in the mid, early forties. I’m pretty sure it was. Then we’d travel out to the Midwest once a year during the summer when my dad had a vacation scheduled. My dad- they were both interesting people. My mother’s family bought this land in central Wisconsin, which we still have some of it today. I don’t know. It’s been about seventy years ago that they bought it, something like that. The George grandparents saved up their money and bought this land just so the family could have trees to look at. It’s incredible. Incredible vision, especially for a person who just went through the sixth grade, but you talk with him, he would talk like a professor. I mean, he was very literate, a very amazing, amazing guy. So, I grew up in that environment. I had one brother, Lawrence, and he’s younger, two and a half years younger than I am.
Warren, when you say that you really didn’t think about racism or know about it, even as a boy in Washington, though, was your upbringing not mostly segregated? Or it was and you didn’t even think about things as being abnormal in that regard?
It was segregated. There are some interesting stories I can tell you, David, that woke me up from- when I mentioned I didn’t feel it, it was when I was four years old, five years old. My mother was a daycare instructor and a director, so she directed a daycare center and was one of the first Head Start teachers in the country. So, I grew up in that environment, and then in 1954 when the courts ordered D.C. public schools to be desegregated, I moved from an all- I lived in an all-black community and moved from an all-black elementary school to a new school which was mixed, but by the time I got there, all the white folks had taken off. I mean, they weren’t staying around at all. White flight. I remember I learned how to multiply on a slide rule because my dad taught me. He taught me how to use a slide rule, and my fourth-grade teacher told me that I couldn’t use a slide rule, that I should learn to remember the numbers, which I can probably see some of that reasoning. It was actually a black teacher, so I didn’t feel any discrimination there.
But then in the sixth grade, I was on the hall patrol and I had- my job was to help usher students across the street after school. There was this white cop on that beat, and he called me all sorts of names, the first time I had heard these names like that. I went home and I told my parents what had happened, and actually, probably the second and third day I wasn’t sure how to tell them this because I was so upset.
So, do you know my mother- my dad worked and my mother took me down to the fourteenth Precinct in Washington, D.C.- I still remember the number of that precinct, and got in to see the captain, the all-white police force. Got in to see the captain! She said to me, “Honey, tell this man what happened,” so I did and the next day that cop was gone off that beat. It was amazing. It was nineteen- what was that? 1956, 1957, something like that.
So, I started getting those experiences about that point. That’s when I started getting the experience of this racism. I would hear my father talk about it a little bit, but we were pretty closed on that. I was raised in some ways, I wouldn’t say isolation, but we had lots of good friends, but they were all black. We had no white friends at all that I remember.
It sounds like the example that you learned from your parents was as long as you were respectful and careful, you could stand up for yourself, and this wasn’t anything that you had to accept.
Yep! Yeah, that’s right. When my mother took me to that precinct and that guy was gone the next day, it taught me that if I could speak up, I could solve some of those problems. And that’s stuck with me to this day.
Warren, when did you start to get interested in science? Was it early on?
It was early on, you know. My brother and I would always look at the stars, as most kids would do, and wonder why they twinkle. They had glowed and what was the deal on that? I think that was my first- and also, my dad was kind of a physicist. He was an engineer type, so we got chemistry sets, got a little chemistry set when I was a kid and I could play with some chemicals. I was a good math person and so was he. He was Phi Beta Kappa at Lincoln. I did math really well. I love math, but I hadn’t taken physics. So I was about, I don’t know, seven years old when I started to really try to understand what was going on in the heavens and the question that was a- to my brother and I, you know, what shape is the universe? Everything has a shape that we see pretty much many of the shapes are complex yet geometry, geometry helps to guide the shapes, you know, and so what was the shape of the universe? Of course, that question is still unanswered, but it was something that provoked thinking, contemplation, and wondering. You know, what is that all about? So that was a lot. It got me moving.
I have to admit this because a lot of people know it. Some people know it, but some others don’t, that when I first went to college, I went to Lincoln University in Missouri. I was a jock. I ran track in high school, and I got this partial scholarship to go to Lincoln University. I thought, “I’ll go there and see Dr. Talbot!” because he was still around then. But when I got out there, he had just left. Unknowing to us, he had left. I stayed there for a couple of years and didn’t really find it very challenging. Also, I took physics there and I didn’t do well in physics at all. It was really bad (laughter). I got two D’s in two semesters.
Oh, no! (laughter)
And as a math major, that was unheard of. Too much. I was seventeen years old when I went out there. I was away from home and I partied too much. I did all kinds of extracurricular things too much. I wasn’t paying attention to my studies, really. So, I left there and found Dr. Talbot at Morgan State and I went there. In a differential equations class I asked him, “Can you write with two hands simultaneously?”
(Laughter) What did he say?
He says, “Who told you that?” No, he knew very well. He was a showman. He knew very well who I was and who my parents were. So, he turned around to the board (blackboard in those days) and wrote an equation. It was an ordinary differential equation. You know, he started from one end, either end, and came in toward the center and put the equal sign there at the center, and the rest of the people in the class, like their jaws were dropped. This guy was writing with both hands simultaneously right in front of us, you know?! (laughter) So anyway, that’s part of the evolution of that story.
What were the political scenes like at Morgan State in the late 1960s with regard to the draft, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement? What was happening on campus at that time?
It was pretty raucous. Those were the days of Carmichael at Howard and a lot of Black Panthers. When I was at Morgan, there was- I found physics. I had to take physics over again because my grades were so lousy at Lincoln. I had to take it over again to be a math major and I was doing really well, so I thought, “Oh, it’s just because I had it before.” So, I started really focusing on the physics and that’s where just the lights went on and didn’t go off. Most of my effort was not in the radical scene but mostly in the physics. I was learning all I could. I was eating it up every day, every night.
But nonetheless, there was- I had to work my last two years to pay for my school, and I worked in the recreation department in the evening. My former jock life paid off so I could do that. But in ’68, my last year when I graduated from Morgan in ’68, I went out one night to work at this recreation center, which was in one of the poorest areas of the city (of D.C.) because I commuted back and forth between D.C. and Baltimore. Nobody was around. The recreation center was empty, and I was wondering what was going on. It was eerily quiet, and it was in the projects. It was a recreation center in the middle of the projects in D.C., Anacostia area.
Suddenly, somebody came into the recreation center. “Have you heard? King was shot.” I hadn’t heard. Then maybe- I was trying to process that because I was leaning more toward being more radical than King. I thought we had to make a radical change as opposed to a peaceful one, and so I was going back and forth supporting King or not, pretty much supporting him, but it was just a different approach. I wanted more radical changes. Suddenly, contemplating all that, the place lit up. I mean, fires were everywhere. People were yelling and screaming and throwing things. People had given up. I mean, they had just totally given up. Here was a good guy who got shot and killed, and here’s one more African American man, African American person, who’s getting killed for standing up, so there was no hope. There’s no hope for anybody else, and so people set fires. I know a lot of people are wondering, why do people set fire to their own homes? They had nothing left. There was nothing left. Hope was gone. It was pretty bad. I even- when I went home that night, I had armed National Guard outside my apartment door, and I had to prove I lived there to get past. It was a jeep rigged with machine guns, etc. They were in battle armor; they were ready to fight. So, it was very- it was a bit scary.
Warren, was the draft something you had to contend with?
It was. When I went to Lincoln and then dropped out after two years to the shock and, I would say, disappointment of my parents, I felt- I went out there for my junior year and didn’t unpack my bag. I said, “I just don’t like it here. I can’t live here. This is not my place.” I had enough gumption at that point to say, “I recognize this is not working,” and so I left. When I left, I came back to D.C. and I was working in different jobs, even a waiter, and that didn’t work out well (laughter). I was not a great waiter. I wash dishes pretty well, so it was a good thing I did that. But I tried to bartend, and I couldn’t do that either.
So, I got drafted. I got the greetings letter, and that’s when I found out that my father never went into World War II and when I heard- he told a story that he stayed out of enlisting to work for the Weather Bureau to help his brothers stay alive. That was a thing he could do, and he was committed to it. I also must say, David, I was a Boy Scout, too. I was an Eagle Scout with Bronze Palm and Order of the Arrow. My father was Cub Scout Master at the church and so I grew up that way. I had a lot of things going on at the same time as I grew up.
So, I was working and I got this letter, and so I didn’t want to go. I even considered going to Canada, defecting, you know, thinking about all that, and I really discovered that what I wanted to do was go back to school. I wanted to go and get a degree in physics, or actually, at the time, mathematics. Sorry. Mathematics at that time. I applied to Morgan, got in. We applied through Dr. Talbot, so he says, “Okay, we’ll get you in.” Those were the days.
I came in and I was due to go into the draft on a Wednesday morning, go into service on Wednesday morning, and due to go to Morgan State to register on Thursday, the day after. It came down to me sitting outside the director of Selective Services office for about a week trying to get an appointment with him to plead my case. Heard nothing. Then on Friday, the secretary came out and said, “He’ll see you on Monday.” So great.
So, my dad took off from work. He planned to take off work, and that Monday was one of the biggest snowstorms in recent history and all the government buildings were closed down. So that left Tuesday and I had to be at the bus on Wednesday morning. So, my dad took that day off, too, he couldn’t work on Monday, and went in. We got in and he and I sat before the director and I pled my case. I said to him, “I can do more for this country if I get a degree than fighting on the field,” and at that point, I was on the rifle team as well as the track team at Lincoln (laughter). And you know, he signed my deferment right there. Right there. He said, “Okay, you can go to school.”
He saw that you were being honest. You were not escaping the draft.
You were saying, “I can serve my country this way,” and he believed you.
He did, and every degree I’ve ever gotten, I think of that man who gave me that chance. It was a big transition in my life, and so it committed me to doing the best I could to help this country.
Right, because from that moment you owed something more than just to yourself.
That’s right. That’s right, and being a Boy Scout, an Eagle Scout, honor is a big thing.
Warren, when did you start to transition into thinking about physics for a career and not mathematics?
It was at Morgan State. I started thinking about physics. When I took physics again at Morgan State, I did really well at it. I got A’s and B’s; I’ve forgotten now. I didn’t get C’s, but I got A’s and B’s. I probably got a B and then an A in my introductory physics course, and I thought, “Oh, it’s just because I had it before.” But then I took another course. I liked it. I liked it and I started understanding it and so I took another course and got an A. I found a professor who I still am friends today with, that was back in 1967, Bob Dixon (Dr. Robert Dixon) who was very interesting. He could teach me in a way that I could learn very rapidly, without blaming or shaming, so I took as many courses as I could from him.
What was [Dixon’s] specialty?
He was/is a nuclear theorist. He had gotten- at that point he had a master’s degree from Rutgers, and he later got a PhD from University of Maryland in College Park. So, I thought, “My goodness!” Dixon got a master’s degree and I thought I could get a master’s. My uncles and aunts all have bachelor’s degrees, and a couple of them have master’s degrees and so I thought, “I can only get a master’s degree.” I thought that was as high as I could go and he says, “No, no. You can do more than that.”
I almost was a double major; I think within one course. I had dropped a course because I was commuting every day between Baltimore and Washington. I was working at night. I had a young wife, Francine, and a young son, Eric. It was just too much to do and so I dropped that course. I would have been a double major if I hadn’t dropped that course. I said, “I want to go into graduate school in physics,” and at the time, I got an offer from Sylvania Electronics to work there after I graduated from Morgan. They flew me up to Waltham and showed me around the plant. They wanted me to work on anti-radar devices, which was like stealth technology back in the sixties. It was interesting, but I wanted to go to graduate school and so I told them I wanted to-
Warren, was Sylvania more like basic science or applied science?
It was more- it had both. It had both. Mostly it was applied. They wanted to use my mathematical skills and my physics interest. When I told them I couldn’t do it, that I was going to go to graduate school, they said, “Well, how long is that going to take?” I said, “Two years,” and do you know- (That was to get a master’s degree.) Do you know in two years they called me back and asked me to come back to them? Very interesting life there. I didn’t go. I stayed for a PhD because then I realized that’s what I really wanted was more. I wanted more physics. Give me more! More, more, more! So that’s when I went to William and Mary.
Warren, what kind of advice did you get when you were thinking about programs to apply to, what would be right for you?
Well, I asked Bob Dixon. I said, “Where should I go?” and I also asked Dr. Talbot, “Where should I go?” They suggested some places. They even suggested Howard University and I got denied at Howard; they didn’t let me in. Long stories about Howard. I got two other denials from Howard. I never applied again. They just didn’t know what they were doing. Anyway, that didn’t end up well.
I went to William and Mary and they said, “You should go there because it’s small.” At the time there was a proton cyclotron there, a 600-MeV proton synchrotron, and that was owned by NASA but managed by William and Mary. I thought it would be a great way to be in a small environment with not a big university and have people from all over the world coming to work on this machine. So that was the thing that got me.
Before I went to William and Mary, Dixon said, “You should go and spend the summer working,” and so he managed to get me into Johns Hopkins for summer work in the mechanical engineering department there summer of ’68. It was fun. I was playing with internal waves with Prof. Phillips’ group, learning how to- I was tweaking knobs. I had never had, except for freshman physics, never really “tweaked knobs” in a lab. I was mostly a mathematician type, theoretical. And I could tweak knobs. They gave me my own oscilloscope and said, “This is your oscilloscope for the summer. Learn how to use it.” It was really quite great. Every morning around ten we’d have coffee. All the senior people would show up and so would the grad students. There were a couple of students, but mostly a couple of postdocs. I think I was the youngest in the group. They had coffee and we’d bring in toys and take them apart and see how they worked. First, we talked about how they would work and then we’d open them up to see if our guesses were right, and so it was kind of nice to do that.
There was this one guy who- everybody was first name, and there was one guy who they always referred to as Professor Bell. So, one day I said to a postdoc who I was working under, “Why is he called Professor Bell?” He said, “Oh, he doesn’t have a PhD.” Then I waited and he said, “Oh, and he was the guy who invented the Bell lung.” So here I was having coffee with the guy who invented the iron lung, and he was just the nicest person. It drew me more into this whole thing of doing science and doing physics. Not only was the work that we did very interesting, but the people that began to show up were very interesting, too. So, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with some great, great folks and that propelled me.
So, when I got to William and Mary, I picked up plasma physics and built an experiment in plasma physics, but as one might say, the chutzpah was acting up. So, I had this professor, Prof. Fred Crownfield, who was very good. He was one of the people who worked on the early radar devices. So, I gave a talk. I was working on this waveguide experiment. I built a waveguide and it was very fun. I went to the grocery store and bought stuff that I couldn’t get in the catalogs, and I tried to blow glass myself; that failed. I had to go get parts, so I would go get parts and I loved that. I went around getting parts and putting it together. I had to actually put a vacuum gauge feedthrough to the waveguide. The waveguide was a glass tube so we could see the colors, right, and see what kind of chemicals were there, what kind of wavelengths were there from the scope. The toroid magnet trapped to gas fluctuations. My father was the first to teach me how to solder. But now I had to learn how to solder a copper vacuum feedthrough to a brass end plate because I put this brass plate on the end of the cylinder so that you could have an anode and a cathode. So, I had to place a little wire loop in the center which was the source of the juice and then the endplates. So, you get this oscillation.
I went through so many different copper feedthroughs because- and we had a lot of them. They were surplus. I would take the copper, put it on the brass. I actually drilled a hole in the brass, countersunk it myself. I actually made a tool for the lathe myself. You know, I was doing that, learning how to do that the first two years I was there. Then I’d take this copper bell, kind of a bell shape, that went on the plate which was also countersunk, and then I would take solder and put a torch on it, right? Of course, the heat difference- I mean, the brass plate was absorbing all the heat and the copper was heating up too much and so I’d blow up the copper. It would just sort of boom! right in front of my face and I’d go, “Whoa!” I did this repeatedly (laughter). I don’t know how many times it took me, maybe six, seven times or something like that. Then I realized, “Oh my god, this is brass! Brass.” So, I would put the solder on the brass, let it sit on the side, put solder around on the copper, let it sit on the side, go get some coffee, come back, and then just heat up the solder. Perfect. Anyway.
So, I gave my first talk in physics on this experiment without a dry run. It was my first physics talk, period. I had never talked in front of anybody about physics, especially people at the University. My advisor kept interrupting me every five minutes, it seemed. He said, “But you forgot. You forgot this part of it.” I don’t know how many times that was, three, maybe four times. It was in a half-hour of time. I closed my book. I had my notebook, you know? That’s all I had because I didn’t know how to present any other way because I had no experience and he never taught me.
So, I closed the book, walked over to him, and there were professors in the room and some students in the room, some graduate students. I gave him the book and said, “Here. You know more than I do. You give the talk,” and I walked out. My friend’s students said, “Warren you’re done, they’re never going to give you a degree here. You’re done. That was a big professor you just embarrassed in front of everybody.” I said, “Well, then I don’t belong here. I want to learn myself. I want to make my own mistakes. I don’t want to get interrupted in front of-” Anyway, it was a feeling that I had.
So, I was cleaning out my desk in the lab and he came in. I was expecting him to say, “You’re fired. Don’t come back. I don’t want to see your face again for a thousand years.” He said, “I didn’t know that I affected you that way,” and he sat down, and we talked for, I don’t know, an hour, an hour and a half, and in that time we became friends. I finished up with him in two years and then I switched advisors. I couldn’t work with him again, but it was interesting, an interesting set of actions that I was taking during that period in the sixties. That was in ’68, ’69.
So anyway, that’s how I got to William and Mary, and I didn’t know- I also didn’t have all my homework done and I didn’t know that William and Mary was- I had no real sense of white or black. I mean, I knew that there were some people that had trouble, a lot of trouble, but I wasn’t thinking about a global sense of it because I had lived in a black community all my life up to that point and I went to William and Mary and in physics I did physics. I was so busy I didn’t go around the campus.
I remember one day I had this student, a beautiful black student, who came in and asked me if she could take me out on a date, and I said, “No, I’m married. I don’t know if you know I’m married. I can’t do that. I’m not doing that.” She was upset and I thought, “What’s wrong? Here’s a beautiful person and she’s asking me.” It was almost like a last resort. I said to myself, “What’s going on here?” So, I went outside on the campus and looked around and it was all white folks, hardly any black faces at all. When I saw the black folks, they didn’t talk much, so I was wondering where am I? What is this place? So, then I began to realize about race.
Warren, when did you start to- I should say when did you stop toggling between theory and experimentation? When did you decide, “This is the kind of physics that I want to pursue professionally.”
When I was at Johns Hopkins and when I was at Morgan State, Bob Dixon took us through the field equations in a course called Tensor Analysis. So, I was working through those equations then. When I got to Johns Hopkins, there was another man named Stanley Corrsin (laughter). He was there. I used to talk to him a lot, too. So, one day I was in his office talking and he said, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “You know, I like relativity.” He reached on his shelf and pulled off Einstein’s book on relativity and gave it to me. It wasn’t the first edition; it was the second edition. I just gave that book away to a former student of mine, Devin Walker. So, when I came back to William and Mary- I dropped out of William and Mary after receiving a Masters Degree in1970 because I was pretty radicalized and trying to get the Black Student Organization going which I was the first president of, founding president. Went to teach at Bowie State College for a time, mathematics, and came back and William and Mary kept my Fellowship. I called back. I was gone a year. I called back and said, “Can I come back?” and Rolf Winter, Dept Chair at the time, said, “Yes. We kept your full Fellowship. We were hoping you would come back.” I said, “I’m coming!” That kind of community, that’s my people, you know?
So, I went back and there was a new professor there who did relativistic nuclear physics (theory), Franz Gross, and I asked him if I could be his student. He said, “Yes! Sure.” I was his student and so I learned then relativistic nuclear physics. We worked on stuff that had not been done before. I showed that the repulsive core of the nucleon-nucleon interaction was actually due to relativistic effect, so that was me in that. Franz had proposed this for some time, but I showed it could be done numerically. So that was the beginning of it.
How was Gross as a mentor? What was his style? Was he hands-on, hands-off?
He was more hands-off. than not. He was a really good advisor. There were three of us working with him at the time. He fixed nice dinners for us, you know, starving graduate students. He was really very- he still is. We’re still good friends. A very kind person and encouraging. He encouraged us. I struggled a lot myself. He didn’t show- he didn’t take me by the hand very often and I still like him. Part of the reason for coming back to William & Mary on these sojourns is to see my people like Franz.
Warren, were you aware of the very early ideas of a National Society of Black Physicists? Were you involved in any of those discussions?
Yes, I was, David. In fact, they started it at Morgan State (laughter).
When did you first meet Sekazi Mtingwa?
Sekazi! I think I met- I remember this meeting that we had at Morgan. Shirley Jackson was there. Other people were there. Shirley Jackson and I have known each other for a lot of years because she’s from D.C. and one of my former girlfriends was one of her best friends (laughter). I don’t remember how many people there were; I just don’t remember that. But we had a meeting in the lab, and I think Sekazi was there. He had a different name at that point.
But I think he was there. And Ron Mickens was certainly there. Ron was a talker, you know, and he was the one who really kind of organized us.
Ron still is a talker! (laughter)
Well, that’s just the way it is once you get to know the animal. He was very good at that, and I don’t even remember what year it was. I was still in graduate school. That’s for sure. I was still at William and Mary, and I don’t even remember the year now, I’m sad to say. I just don’t- I think it had to be in-
It must have been the early, mid-seventies. It must have been like ’74, ’75, right around then.
[Unintelligible] that, about right. ’73, ’75, yeah. Something like that.
What was the nature of those original discussions? Was it more about banding together out of a recognition that there was systemic bias for black physicists, or were the goals sort of like not that macrosocial? It was more just getting together and supporting one another?
I felt it was more the latter. We also talked about the global issues of why are there so few of us, you know. So that comes from systemic issues.
But the big thing was to get together so that we could have a network and work together and give each other support, knowing that there were just a few of us out there, that we had some chance to talk and share our experiences together. Pros and cons.
Warren, was one of the specific motivations a recognition that not all black physicists would be teaching at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and there needed to be a mechanism to deal with that as you were going out and teaching in the wider world?
That issue was not the biggest issue, but it was there, yes. I think everybody in that original group had gotten or were getting at the time- I hadn’t gotten my PhD at that point, a PhD from a majority school. So, we knew how slim, how low the density of people was, and we started asking questions of why. We decided to get this society together so that we’d have at least yearly conferences where we could talk, and so there was this- I’ve forgotten what it was called, an annual meeting of talks or something like that. It had a- I’ve forgotten the official title of these conferences, but we would have them annually at different places. They were at different schools so they could be at the majority schools, and some of them were at the HBCUs. It was a place where we could talk about a lot of things.
There was a fellow who I know, I won’t name him and I won’t name where he was, who we learned that his advisor was- So, the student turned in some work on paper, and the advisor looked at it and then just tore it up right in front of his face. Part of that was racism. Part of that was the kind of personalities of physicists, and sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish which is which. So, we could see that. We could see those kinds of effects. It was hurtful.
We didn’t want to be part of the APS, so there was a period of time, several times. I think it was several in the last I don’t know how many years now, since the seventies, questions of why not join the APS? There was an effort maybe ten years ago or twenty maybe now of trying to join the APS or the APS wanting to bring in the National Society of Black Physicists, and the NSBP didn’t want to do that because it would take away our identity. It was just not- and actually, the organization, the society kind of split in its thinking about that. People took choices and so there was a period where it was not very active, and then now it’s active again. It was around those issues.
Getting back to the thesis research, how closely was your research connected to what Franz Gross was doing at the time?
It was directly connected. I was actually taking his equation that he had gotten from the Bethe-Salpeter equation. I took it and actually I did some non-relativistic reductions to show that you can get the Dirac equation from it. You can get the Schrödinger equation from it to all orders of V/c …Pauli equation…and I showed that. I then took it and solved the deuteron problem, so I, as an example, did the deuteron as well as just derive spin orbit terms for regular hydrogen-like atoms.
Warren, I wonder if you could explain a little what the deuteron problem was at the time.
So yeah, at the time, Hans Bethe had- and I met Hans Bethe a couple of different times along the way (laughter). Hans Bethe had a student named Reid, and Reid collected a bunch of the data. The data was showing- and this was the phase shift, so this was the nucleon-nucleon scattering issue where there are basically different levels of wavelengths involved in the scattering process. Those were phase shifts, how they shift from one phase to another, one state to another state, one wavelength to another wavelength trying to fit- the deuteron data only fit with what’s called a hard core, so they had this- from zero, if you have a configuration space graph, then there would be a straight line on the x axis. It would be r, you know, interaction radius up to about half a fermi and then there will be a non-zero wave function. People would say, “Oh, that’s the wave function!” I mean, the deuteron has only one bound state. It’s not an excited state, so it’s always in a ground state and so people said, “Well, it has to be a ground state. If it has some zeros in the wave function, then it can’t be a ground state. It has to be something else and it’s not going to be a deuteron.”
So, at that time, there was this hard core approach that was dominant, and it was getting the right binding energy, quadrupole moment, and getting all the right things there, the mass, the long-term, long-range things. But it couldn’t get the short-term things, and that would affect the phase shifts. Then Reid did a phase shift fit, so he basically fit the phase shifts with a whole bunch of Yukawa potentials, and I don’t remember how many. It was like just a bunch of Yukawa potentials …each Yukawa had two parameters, a “mass” and a coupling. So, however, many Yukawa potentials one had, you multiply two and that is your parameter space and then he fit the available data (empirically obtained data) employing the Schrodinger equation - non-relativistic physics. It became very multi-user; everybody was using that at the time, but there was still a question of what is the hard core? What is the real physics? And just around that time quarks were starting to show up in nuclear physics, and what is that?
So, Franz had this idea that it’s relativity and people were doing, all these fits were doing nonrelativistic physics. So, Bethe created this totally double off-shell scattering equation which was totally relativistic, covariant and all. But nobody had used it or solved it, so Franz said, “I want to use a modified version of this with one nucleon on shell and the other off,” because Franz was at Cornell with Bethe for a while, so they had overlap. Actually, Franz was at Princeton first. He went to Princeton for his PhD; then he went to Cornell. I think Bethe was behind hiring him. I’m not sure of that. I’m not sure if he was a Postdoc or a junior faculty member.
But at any rate, the idea was now to solve for the wave function, so it goes all the way to zero. So, I did the calculation and showed that there was this- if we have an axis like this, a two-dimensional coordinate system, amplitude and then distance, Reid’s wave function came out like this and then went up like that and came out, and mine came from zero, went down below zero and then up and out, and people went bananas. They said, “That can’t be because it’s a ground state. That’s an excited state wave function. You’re using the wrong formula,” and we had a hard time publishing because of that, which was- but anyway, it stuck.
It turns out that not only are there a couple of channels for L = 0 and L = 2, orbital angular momentum 0 and 2. Usually the deuteron was represented by the S and D states (L = 0,2) at 0 and 2 and that’s why you had a quadrupole moment because of L = 2. We found that the deuteron had L = 0, 1, and 2 channels and so it was coupled not only between 0 and 2, but coupled between 0, 1, and 2, so instead of two wave functions, you get four! (laughter) Anyway, that’s what we did and so that’s what got me rolling in the theory world.
Warren, I’ll test your memory. Who was on your thesis committee?
Let’s see. That’s a good one. Carl Carlson was on, and we had Charles Perdrisat was on there, a Frenchman. Oh, and I had a guy! I had this guy, I guess I can tell you this. This is pretty public knowledge, but anyway, a guy named Ed Remler. He has now passed. He was a decent physicist at William and Mary. He was on my committee, and I think he’d been on for a year or so. I was going to give my final oral defense on these new ideas on a Monday, and on Friday, he came up to me (the Friday before that Monday). He said, “Warren, your work is all wrong. I want nothing to do with it. Goodbye.” Ugh. I mean, that was a major blow. That was a major blow, so I went to Franz and I said, “Franz, what do we do?” I just had the minimum number of people, and with him off I was not able to defend. Franz said, “You should ask Hans von Baeyer.” So, I went to Hans to ask, and Hans said, “Warren, I would have been on your committee from the beginning. Why are you asking me now? It’s only a weekend to go before your oral. Why are you asking me now?” I said, “Hans, I need you. I need you.” He reluctantly said, “Okay. Okay.”
That weekend he read the dissertation and so he was on the dissertation committee. He read it, and on Monday I gave my talk. I passed. The one question I missed was one by Carl Carlson, but I now know the answer, of course. It was nerves. Then Hans came out of the room and said, “Dr. Buck.” It was the first time I’d heard Dr. Buck. Then he said, “I’ve got to go now to my operation,” and before I could ask him any questions, he was down the hall. Other people were coming out of the room, and I was wondering, “What are you talking about, operation?” It turns out he had postponed brain surgery that weekend just so he could be on my committee.
You know, we’re talking about good people here.
I mean, this was a serious community, right?
Not just good people, people who believed in you.
They believed in me! They believed in me! It was just incredible, you know, just an incredible thing, and of course, it proved that- many people worked on that problem and it proved that I was correct, that I didn’t make mistakes, and that was a good thing. There was another person on, it was George Rublein, I think. He was a mathematician, so we had a mathematician on, I think there was an extra person, but I don’t remember who it was. But anyway, that’s my best answer.
Warren, after you defended, what opportunities were available to you? What did you want to do next?
Okay (laughter). So, I wanted to go on to keep working in physics. I just was- I like working with covariant stuff. It was just really quite kind of magical to me to be able to manipulate these symbols and physics came out, you know? (laughter) Really quite nice. Just incredible. I extended my time because I had applied for jobs or postdocs but didn’t get anything, and so I extended my time for, I forgot, a couple of months. Franz paid me for a couple more months and so something would show up.
In the meantime, though, I took off and went to the Bahamas, so I had this- I had learned how to sail when I was in D.C. in 1970. I bought a little boat, a little fifteen-foot Albacore day-sailer and learned to sail on the Potomac River, so I was a sailor. This was now six, seven years later and I’m still sailing, right? So, a friend, a physicist, Chris Fronsdal, invited me to go on his boat. He sails all the time. In fact, he’s trying to get me to go to the South Pacific with him this spring. Anyway, he’s a big sailor, and so I flew down to Nassau to meet him. My friend who operated the computer at William and Mary, you know, those were the days when there was just one computer on the whole campus! and it took up the basement of the Math building.
I had a big computer job, you know, with FORTRAN. It was a big computer job which took up a lot of time during the week. So, Franz organized a time where I could work on the weekends and I had the machine to myself for two weekends in a row, so I could finish computing all my results. My BIG job was a whopping 450k (laughter). The fellow who ran the machine became a friend of mine, so he and I went to the Bahamas.
We stayed for a couple of weeks and I came back and there was a telegram for me. yep, telegram. It was classic. I don’t have it now. I wish I was more organized and could keep stuff like that, but I- if it’s here, I don’t know where it is, but anyway. It said, “We have a job for you. Can you come as soon as possible?” It was from Gerry Brown at Stony Brook. I had applied to them a few months earlier and they said, “No job. There’s nothing available.” So, the fellow who was there, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember, was hired into a an Assistant Prof position at Michigan State. He got a job at Michigan State, so there was a job open for me at Stony Brook and so I went to Stony Brook that summer. Came back from the Bahamas, got my PhD, and went to Stony Brook.
When I was in my, I think it was 1974, ’72 maybe, ’72, ’73, Hans Bethe came to William and Mary to give a talk, and I had the good fortune of having dinner with him and about six other people over at the department chair’s house. This was my first Nobel Laureate that I had ever met, and I was sitting next to his wife (laughter). He was on the other side of the table. I wanted so badly to go to the other side of the table. She was talking about their travels and all that, and I just wasn’t that interested. A nice lady, but it just wasn’t-
So, after dinner, I went over to him and said, “I’m working on something. I’m working on some things with weak interactions,” and I didn’t quite know exactly what I was doing at that time. I was explaining to him what I was doing, and he said, “We should-” You know, in his German accent [imitating the accent], “We should meet tomorrow.” He had an office at William and Mary, so I went there and asked Franz to join me because I was scared to death. I have a nervous reaction. My body just- I get nervous in front of people. I had my notes on computer printout. I just found some old- this old printout (laughter). I’m leaving. William and Mary wants to keep my papers, so I’m giving them a bunch of stuff. So, I had a computer paper that had notes on it. I don’t remember how many pages it was, but it was a number of pages, maybe six or seven of those pages, maybe more. I don’t know.
In Bethe’s office, there were two big blackboards, so I was writing. I filled them both and I was explaining as I was going. He sat back in his chair and was very quiet and I just kept going. I got to my conclusion and I said, “And here’s what I have,” and it was a decay. I had some decay that I had calculated which was clearly- it was exponential. It had a nice little shape to it, and it was based on an idea that I had that there was some unknown particle that was causing the neutron to decay. It was an interaction. It was not something so much internal, but there was an external force that had to hit the neutron that we didn’t know what it was. Maybe it’s dark matter now. I don’t know what it is, but anyway, it hits the neutron and decays.
So, he sits back. He leans back in his chair and he says, “Ah!” And he goes back to the second line and he says, “You made an error in the sign there,” and I went, “Oh, shit.” That threw everything off, right? So instead of decay, I had growth, I walked out with my head down, like okay, I’ll never do physics. Franz said, “No problem.” Franz was very quiet. He didn’t say a thing. He was really great. He didn’t say a thing, but I felt stronger with him in the room, you know. And I met Bethe again at Stony Brook because he came to- we had a big celebration for a birthday of his and he remembered that! (laughter)
But anyway, I ended up at Stony Brook and that’s where I did more sailing in Long Island Sound and through New England on my boats. I had a couple of boats there, one was a trimaran. And I actually learned to watercolor paint from Nándor Balász, who was Einstein’s assistant at Princeton and was also Schrödinger’s assistant when Schrödinger was in Ireland. Nándor would go in. He was Hungarian. I went to his office to talk about stuff and he taught me to watercolor paint. This is kind of broader than what your question was, but I had a lot of experiences at Stony Brook which were really good. Met Max Dresden, Frank Yang and Murry Gell-Mann there too.
What about Los Alamos? How did you get involved with research at Los Alamos?
Well, when I was at Stony Brook. So, one of the places I had applied just before [getting] my PhD was Los Alamos, and I met Dick Silbar, who is now well retired and, sadly, his wife, Maggie, just recently passed last year. They had become good friends of mine. He was at Stony Brook visiting one year and we talked about my- you know, I was kind of lukewarm about Los Alamos because there was no water and I liked water to sail in. He said, “Why don’t you come out to Los Alamos? We’ll make a deal. You come out one month of the year anytime you want, and we can work together,” so I said, “Okay.” So, we had that deal. I went for three years. I was at Stony Brook for three years.
What were some of the broader research interests that you had during your postdoc years? In what ways were they connected with your graduate research and in what ways did they represent new avenues of inquiry for you?
Well, it was on nucleon-nucleon interaction, so Andy Jackson was there, who was editor of Physics Letters at that time. Stony Brook had a nucleon-nucleon potential which was semi-relativistic, but at the time I arrived, Gerry wanted me to work on nucleon-antinucleon interactions, NN-bar stuff. So actually, Iosif Shapiro at Lebedev Institute in Moscow generated something called G-parity transformations, and so it was easy for meson theory to convert this so you can change the nucleon to an antinucleon pretty easily. I was calculating these states using the then Stony Brook Potential and the tensor force now was not repulsive, but it was generally attractive and so there’s just a ton of states in there. So, I worked with Jean-Marc Richard and Carl Dover. Dover has also passed. He was one of my good buddies. Jean-Marc is still living and it’s always good to see him. We still see each other now and then. So, that was a place where I started doing some different things.
I also started working on isobars because isobars were something Gerry liked to do, and he had a problem that looked like it was a double isobar exchange and so I was calculating that in collaboration with Werner Fabian, another post doc. In and of itself, it gave a nice result; it matched the data pretty much, but if you put it in with all the other exchanges, it washes it out, so it wasn’t a real contribution. So, I was doing those kinds of things.
Warren, how did the opportunity to do research in Paris come along for you?
So that came along, David, at Stony Brook. Gerry and I were beginning to move in different directions. He was having a lot of- some would say a mental breakdown. He was kind of erratic and it was not pretty and so the group was kind of in disarray. Actually, I helped interpret for Gerry Brown, so when people said, “What did he mean?” then I was the one who would talk about, “Oh, I think he means this. This is what he means.” Gerry would give me, “Yeah, that’s right, Warren.” Then he would say something and then people would say, “What did he say?” and I would say, “Okay, I think he’s saying…” So, I was a translator, really.
The Paris group had also a nucleon-nucleon interaction called the Paris potential of which Jean-Marc was the spokesperson. It was a meson exchange potential, and it was also non-relativistic mostly. It was very popular. It had replaced the Reid potential in popularity, you know, old Reid from Bethe. So, I met Jean-Marc who was at Paris. His PhD was at University of Paris. So, when Gerry and I kind of went different ways and Dick Silbar- Silbar has helped me a lot. They helped me through that. They helped me understand that he was not as level as he had been, so that helped me understand him, helped Gerry a little bit more about that. One time, Gerry said- I stayed at Los Alamos a little longer than he wanted me to, and when I got back to Stony Brook, he said, “Okay, Warren. You have your physics; I have mine,” and he walked away. That was pretty much the last time I talked to him. Oh, that’s not true because I actually stayed at his house some years later. We made up and it was a whole big wonderful thing.
But Jean-Marc was at Paris, so at my wedding to Linda Horn, Jean-Marc brought his PhD advisor, Robert Vinh Mau, who has now passed, but brought Vinh Mau to the wedding reception and at that event he said, “Why don’t you come to Paris?” I had an offer to go to Mainz, Gutenberg University, and I had an offer to go to the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and some other place. Then Paris came up, so I said, “I’ll take Paris” (laughter). So that’s how I got to Paris.
It wasn’t really a postdoc. It was a staff position at Orsay, and I stayed there one year. It would have been a permanent job, actually. I stayed there one year working on weak interactions with K. Kang of Brown University and with Fronsdal on DeSitter Space calculations before I quit and went sailing. It was interesting because the nucleon-antinucleon interaction was starting to be pretty big and so I got there because of that. I took my- my mother and brother Lawrence came to visit. Neither had ever been to Europe, so I had her hosted in my house, my flat in Paris. My brother went to the Netherlands and my mother came down with me to CERN. I was giving a talk at CERN and it happened that the machine was down and- oh, I can’t think of the fellow’s name who was in charge of experiments there. It was Kurt Killian, anyway, he said to me, “Let’s take a tour!” My mother was there and my mother had never been inside the workings of an accelerator before, few have of course (laughter).
So, we took this tour and we landed at one of the experimental stations and there were like three to four people working on their equipment there. My mother, who was very upbeat, you know, she would engage anyone and was very straightforward. She said- she’d see a governor and she’d go to the governor and say, “Hi, I’m Warren’s mother. Let’s talk about food and life” (laughter). I mean, she was really very, very much a free soul. So, she saw these people working and she said, “What are you doing?” and one experimentalist said, “We are trying to prove your son’s theory.” I had no idea who they were at the time, and I thought, “Oh my god! I’m at CERN and they’re trying to prove my theory! Boom! That’s nice.” It was really nice.
So anyway, there were a lot of things that happened in Paris. I traveled all around Europe giving talks and it was a good time, but I realized that it was going to be a long time before anyone could discover any metastable states in nucleon-antinucleon interactions. So, I decided I would take five months off. I asked Vin Mau if I could take five months off on leave without pay and he said, “Yeah, sure.”
So, Linda and I returned to the States and sailed to the Bahamas from Martha’s Vineyard. We ran out of money just at the right time and were going to come back to Paris and decided to stay. Ron and Jean Chapman encouraged us. Ended up staying for three years on the boat in the Bahamas and went back and forth between Annapolis and deep in the Bahamas. So, I quit my job in Paris and there I was. We sold our artwork to mostly pay for the trip. We were on a sailboat without auxiliary power.
Warren, as I’m sure you know, there’s a rich tradition of African Americans going to France, and Paris in particular, and really having an eye-opening experience in terms of racial politics. I wonder what your experiences were and how that might have broadened your horizons.
I had great experiences in Paris. I went to some of the cafés that some of the very famous musicians had been. I found the French people- some people think that French people are kind of, you know, not very friendly, but I found them extremely friendly. I tried to speak the language and I speak a little French; I learned it there. But I found it very friendly. I could go anywhere. I didn’t feel any discrimination. It was really interesting. I could certainly feel I was a foreigner at times but didn’t feel like there was any discrimination. It was really quite the place. I had working and resident papers. In fact, all through Europe at that time I felt really good even going to Germany, which is a whole other story there. I wanted to go to Germany to see what kind of people the Nazis came from. The racism in the States comes a close second. But Paris was really good. I still go back to see friends. I go back there and visit. It’s a nice place to hang out.
Warren, of course you can’t know in real time; there’s no grand plan for the future, but when you got on the boat and you were focusing on watercolors, did you accept the possibility that you were removing yourself from the science to such a degree that it might be hard, if not impossible, to get back in even when you wanted to?
Yeah, I think so. I think it was- I had that feeling. But I was so happy with the boat and learning how to move this boat, this other piece of equipment through oceans and all kinds of waters deep and shallow etc. I was just intrigued by all that, and Franz thought I was throwing my life away. A lot of people thought I was throwing my life away. They would say, “Warren, you’re just throwing it away.”
So, I did finally come back after three years, and actually, Franz wrote me a letter, general delivery in the Bahamas, that essentially stated, “Come back, because we’re going to build a lab in Virginia.” Franz was always honest with me. I believed him, so I came back to William & Mary and then I stayed in the area. I got off the boat, had a young daughter. Linda and I and a young daughter, Liandren (who now has a son, Jayden, and a daughter, Aliana). That’s when I- and I did that because I really wanted to find a way to get more African Americans involved in first-rate science, first-rate physics. I was really motivated at that point to see if I could make a difference, and so I just “knocked” on Hampton University’s door - talked with Demetrius Veneble who was physics chair at that time. I just went over there and said, “There’s a USDOE electron accelerator machine coming to Hampton Roads. I know something about it. Please hire me” (laughter). And they did! They said, “Okay. We’ll give you a shot.” So, I stayed at Hampton fifteen years and we played a major role in building The Jefferson Lab.
At first, I had to bring attention to Hampton - unknown in the nuclear high energy physics world, so I created the Hampton University Graduate Studies program (HUGS), which was an international summer school. I got my friends in. I got Silbar in, Gerry Brown, Dresden, Frank Close, Carl Carlson, Franz, Dirk Walecka and a host of other very distinguished physicists. I got my friends from Paris and Germany to come fly over to give lectures and whatnot. Even Feynman had agreed to come and then he was sick that year and he didn’t make it. So, he didn’t get there, but I had Jerry Friedman there and it was a good number. Jim Gates was there, so we had lots of great people coming and giving talks, Bev and Fred Hartline and I became good friends there, Bev was our champion for HUGS with the lab…she supported us strongly.
But then we needed to build a PhD program there because if you’re going to stay in touch with that lab growth, we need to have some students to go into it and learn about the new physics. I had to learn too because it was a lot of electromagnetic physics which I hadn’t pursued before, so I had to learn how to do that. Franz helped me once again. So, I built a research group, you know. I had a lot of help from NASA. I had a friend who I had overlap at graduate school together who worked at Langley NASA, and when I was looking for a grant, he said, “I can give you a grant” (laughter). So, I had this little $20,000 grant, my very first grant, that I got from him to work on cosmic rays and so we did that. of course, antinulei was one of the research topics. But ended up after fifteen years, with tremendous help from NSF and many individuals, I had built this group (NuHEP - Nuclear High Energy Physics Research Center of Excellence) of about thirty, you know, depending on the number of students, about thirty-two people.
I created an external advisory committee the NSF required me to do, so I did that. Bob Dixon, Kunal Gosh, Jerry Friedman agreed and also Gérard Mourou- this was a number of years before Gerard won the Nobel Prize. I asked Jim Gates to chair this advisory committee and he accepted. NuHEP built another experiment with Thia Keppel and Rolf Ent and Ketevi Assamagan, Paul Gueye, and one undergraduate. We took one of Gerard’s ultrafast lasers at Michigan Ann Arbor and shined it on different gases and detected the electrons kicked out through wakefield acceleration, and we got a nice peak around 36 MeV. But we got some GeV electrons. Gérard was thinking, “These could be TeV electrons, Warren! You’re going to get lots of good ones.” I think we got some out, but there were like one or two. The density was low. Momentum distribution was broad because you’re just throwing electrons out.
But anyway, the NuHEP group was a good research group and we built. Keith Baker was there. I hired Keith. I hired all of them. It was interesting. I hired all these folks, and the NSF and DOE were very generous in helping us get going and stay going. I really thank them for seeing the potential that we could do. It was a marvelous run, fifteen years.
Warren, were you present at the creation of the partnership between Jefferson Lab and Hampton or that preceded your time?
No. The partnership preceded me. Hampton University was an early member of SURA even without faculty in that area. I came in as the fourth physics faculty member at Hampton and the only one in Jefferson Lab physics. For the nuclear high energy physics connection for Hampton, I created it. With the help of Nathan Isgur and Franz, I wrote the MOU (laughter). This was included in the NSF proposal for a Research Center of Excellence, it was Roosevelt Calbert and Roosevelt Johnson who helped me understand what was needed to win the cooperative agreement. Others such as Jack Lightbody, Johnny Toll, and a number of folks. So, we had four joint appointments that I wrote in, and I think Hampton still has four even to this day. I’ve forgotten what year in the eighties it was that I wrote that MOU with Jefferson Lab. They too believed in us, Bev Hartline certainly did. At that point we didn’t have any professors. I was the only, you know, when I came to Hampton, I was the only one in nuclear high energy physics. There was nobody else. The other three were all in solid state or- it was mostly solid state and laser, laser work. So, if I was going to get Hampton to play a role in Jefferson Lab physics, we had to have staffing.
We had to have people who could do those things, and so I coaxed Keith Baker to join Hampton to build a detector for hall C. There was early concern about his ability to build a detector for CEBAF energies. He later proved that to be faulty thinking. We got Liguang Tang to build/refurbish a hyper nuclear physics dipole magnet detector too. Actually, it was in the same hall, both in Hall C. We had Thia Keppel (a former HUGS student) there working on her projects. Then we brought in people. You know, people started showing up, right? So, Ben Zeidman was at Argonne and he started showing up. In fact, I met Ben the first day I went over to the CEBAF library just after I came off the boat, you know, I went over there to see what was cooking. I had a little office which was a library carrel and Ben was on the other side of the library carrel (laughter). So, he and I could talk a lot and get this thing going. He was pivotal throughout as I knew nothing of this type of experimentation. we all had to learn about it.
So, what I did was to get nuclear and high energy physics going there at Hampton, I worked with Hall C. It was Hall A, B, and C at the time. Hall A was fully prescribed, and Hall B, there was a big collaboration already starting to form. There was no room for us upstarts. This was before the detectors were built, but they already had a collaboration going. But Hall C was kind of… Nobody thought Hall C would work, really. They didn’t think it was going to make any good physics. So, there was plenty of collaboration room in Hall C and, so with Ben Zeidman’s supportive urging, I made a deal with Roger Carlini, who at that time was Hall C leader. I said, “Well, we can come over here where there’s no competition,” and he said, “Okay!” So, he and I got together and crafted the kind of things we might want to do. Then we had to go out. So, then I undertook drafting the MOU for the four joint appointees, and then, I had to find people to fill the jobs.
The first joint appointment one was filled by Keith Baker. He was doing very low energy stuff. I think it was electron volt or KeV range. I had met him because I visited Duke. He was at Duke as a postdoc and was miserable. He was really not thinking about staying in physics, and so Calvin Howell said to me, “Can you find something for him?” So, I talked to Keith and I said, “This is what we’re doing,” and he said, “I’d like to learn that!” and so I recruited him.
Then he took on building the detector package, actually the wire chambers, for Hall C, and there were people who said, “He can’t do that! He has no experience.” You could say it was racism or this physics mindset, but they said, “He can’t do it! He doesn’t have any experience doing that.” I said, “Well, give him a chance. What have you got to lose? If he fails, you say, ‘Okay, see? He failed.’ But if he succeeds, what a great thing.” It also changes the face of physics.
Part of my goal when I moved to Hampton University was to get minorities in the door for…you know, to perform world-class physics up front so we don’t have to come at the last minute and say, “How do I fit in?” You start off fitting in. You just start off fitting in, right?
So instead of fighting to get in, you’re in. You’re in. So, we got Keith, and then of course he did a little test run on his wire chamber, a little one, and it was better than spec. People said, “Oh, it’s a toy. It can’t work, a real one. We need somebody who is experienced at pulling wires.” So, I said, “Give him a chance. Give him a chance.” So anyway, he built it and it also did better than spec and had, I think, the third… The second or third experiment of Jefferson Lab’s history was done by an HBCU, and it was the first time an HBCU had had. At that time, when I left, we had something like, oh, I can’t remember, David, but I want to say seven major experiments in the queue, and by all measure it was successful. It was a very successful operation.
What made me leave was the difficulty of existing at an HBCU. It was really- we were a very high-powered group, you know, and all those people I hear about are doing very well. Mark Harvey and Steve Avery are as good as anyone. We had Devin Walker, who was the first American-born African American to get a physics PhD from Harvard. He’s now a professor at Dartmouth. We have Keith now who has gone to be a full professor at Yale. Thia Keppel runs both Hall A and Hall C at Jefferson Lab. We’ve got them all thru out the country. We have Assamagan, who is tenured at Brookhaven. We made a difference, and at the time, there was only a half of- the national average for putting out an African American PhD in physics was a half a year. Half a year. Less than one granting of a PhD in physics for the entire nation!
We got to the point where we were putting out two and three a year, okay?
But we couldn’t sustain that because of the university environment. It just was not sustainable. It’s still going on. We still have the PhD at Hampton, but it’s been reduced in strength substantially. A lot of really good people have left.
Warren, just to stay on the Jefferson collaboration because it’s so foundational, all in, what were some of the major scientific results that would never have happened had you not pushed this from the beginning?
I would say definitely the e,e´k experiments. Hall C was/is about strangeness, and that’s why there weren’t a lot of collaborators there at the beginning. Hall C has a full set of experiments now. So, we helped develop that in a couple different- and Ben Zeidman had an e, e´k experiment. Keith had an e, e´k experiment, of course. Liguang had an e, e´k. He was looking for strange nuclear states. So, I think that’s one thing.
The other thing I think we did that wouldn’t have happened otherwise is we still have HUGS. It’s still going on (laughter). I mean, it’s amazing. I’m a grandfather. It’s really great to see that. It’s changed in its style. It’s changed in its style, but it’s still going on. It’s like the longest- it didn’t run last year because of COVID. That was the first time it stopped since 1986, but even thenm it was the longest running summer school for graduate students for nuclear physics in the world. So those are good things.
The other thing is we got students in and we graduated them. We got students interested in physics. We graduated them. The more names I mention, the more people I’m going to leave out and I’m sorry about that because I know- I don’t have them all written in front of me. For me, introducing theoretical mesonic form factors such as the kaon, charged and neutral, were contributions I pushed on.
So, people who read this, forgive me for not mentioning your name. Andrei Afanasev, now professor at George Washington U, came out of the NuHEP Center. Michael Frank became an executive at Boeing. But Aziza was blind, officially blind. I got called- I was at Hampton at the time and one of the professors at William and Mary called me and said, “Can you talk with this student?” Aziza was a William and Mary undergraduate. She was legally blind, and people didn’t have a lot of hope in her. It was prejudice against people with diversity, or adversity. There’s a saying. She needed special equipment to see. She also identifies as African American. He said, “Talk to her and see what you can do.” So, I came over and talked to her and she wanted to do science communications, physics communications, and nobody would give her a graduate school recommendation at William and Mary, which was shameful and a terrible disappointment for me. I told them that was just really a shame. You should be ashamed of yourselves not to be able to write a letter of recommendation for her. She’s trying! She’s working hard. Give her credit. So, I kind of told them that in their faces.
Anyway, I got her to come over to Hampton, so she came over and got a master’s with us and then went on to get a PhD in nuclear physics at University of Maryland College Park. She’s now still- she’s making movies, making documentaries. She’s still a struggling artist with a PhD in physics, but you know, we had people like that who were impacted positively. I mean, that’s real stuff. The physics is good, but really, the human part of this effort is even more successful- oh yeah, there is also Wendy Hinton now Chair of physics at Norfolk State University- more names, Ioana and Gabby Niculesku at James Madison University- others, Jose Goity, Khin Maung, Peter Agbakbe, daen of science of a large community college in Virginia- I just cannot remember them all. Can’t forget Carlane Pittman who was BS in physics from Spellman and came to NuHEP to be if not the first, but one of the first, NSF funded Outreach Directors. She received a PhD in Education at William & Mary and is now an associate dean of the business school there.
Element. The life, the interacting, and helping people rise up beyond what they thought they could do and giving people an opportunity, that’s all we ask. Give me an opportunity and I will show you what I can do, but if you don’t have the opportunity, it’s really difficult to show. So, people try to replicate that. That is not replicable and that’s a shame. Like everything, it rises then it falls, it grows and then decays, we all hope the rise is forever, nay, it is not.
One year I got called. I got invited out to University of Washington to give a talk on meson, I was doing form factor work, looking at QCD structure functions of mesons particularly. My deuteron work from my PhD, Franz used it as part of the theoretical justification for the lab, so that’s why he wanted me back here. At least it’s referenced in the proposal. But I was changing to electromagnetic interactions, and so I was giving a talk on the pion form factor from a relativistic point of view. I went out there and immediately saw Mark McDermott. Mark is Lillian McDermott’s husband. I met Lillian on the APS Committee of Education when I was chair there and she was coming back to that committee. Lillian was- have you ever met Lillian?
I interviewed her before she passed. I was so lucky for it.
She was just the strongest person, but she was so- we fell in love. She, her husband, and I. Anyway, there’s another story. Mark and I met first, actually, second. I met Lillian on this committee and then Mark and I were asked to go to Louisiana by the board of regents to evaluate some physics departments in Louisiana. So, it was he, me and David Campbell who was at Boston College, who I think got the job at Los Alamos that I had applied for back when I was a student (laughter). We just had a blast going through Louisiana, just a blast.
So, I got this offer. I got an invite from Roxanne Springer, she was Feynman’s last student, who was also someone I was trying to recruit to Hampton to hire. She went to Duke instead, but she said, “Why don’t you come out to Washington? I’m hosting a conference and you could fit in really well,” so I flew out. The first person I saw when I got in the physics building was Mark McDermott, and he said- he didn’t even say, “Hi, Warren.” He said, “Does Lillian know that you’re here?” and I said, “No, I haven’t reached out.” He said, “You’ve got to talk to Lillian. You’ve got to see Lillian.”
So, I got on the elevator, went up to Lillian’s office, knocked on her door. She was there. “Warren! You’re here! Why are you here?” you know, in Lillian’s way of talking. I said, “Well, I’m giving a talk on physics calculations I’ve been doing,” and she said, “You’ve got to talk before my Physics Education Group.” I said, “Lillian, I don’t want to do any of that because I’ve been absorbed in doing a bunch of stuff at Hampton as well as my research, but I just don’t feel like I want to talk about anything other than my research. I don’t want to.” “Warren, you have to give a talk.” “Okay.” You know Lillian, you just agree. You say, “Okay.” Jim Stith knows what I mean.
So, I went to give a talk to the group and what I was talking about was the Hampton. I call it the Hampton experiment, so how we did it, how we got started, and actually, what got started- I went over to my friends at William and Mary and I said, Rolf Winter, who was the chair who kept my fellowship while I was in D.C., said- I said, “Rolf, how do I create a PhD program?” He said, “A lot of money.” So, I went out and got a lot of money! (laughter)
So anyway, I was talking about that to Lillian’s Group and then there was one administrator in the room to whom I was introduced by Lillian. He said, “Have you been to the campus before?” and I said, “No, this is my first visit to the Washington campus.” I had actually been to PNNL some years ago, Pacific Northwest Labs, because they wanted to make a matter-antimatter propulsion system and I told them that they couldn’t do it. They brought me out there to explain why they couldn’t do it, so I explained why not now. So, this wasn’t my first visit to Washington.
So, my second visit was to the UW physics department and so this administrator said, “Let’s take you around the campus and show you around the campus.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So [I was] walking around and ran into Lois Price Spratlen, a black woman who was the first female ombudsman for any U.S. university. She coined the term ombuds because she was a woman. She didn’t want ombudsman. And she was from Hampton University! She graduated in nursing from Hampton University.
So, I met her and then he took me to a dean’s office, the dean of the graduate school Marsha Landolt, and we sat down. I had my physics “uniform” on with tennis shoes and jeans. I was relaxed. So, went in to see this dean and there were maybe four people in the room. She was a sailor and she had this boat she kept. I said, “Oh, I’ve sailed that type of boat before,” so we had this whole discussion about sailing. Then her face completely changed, and she said, “You’re perfect for this job!” and so I said, “What job?” She said, “Chancellor of a new campus we’re building.”
So, I said, “Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute.” I was kind of off keel there for a bit. Lillian had set it up. That’s why she wanted me to give that talk.
So, she wanted to get me to Washington so I could help build this new campus at UW and we would be closer to collaborate.
And what, she was thinking if she gave you a heads-up on what she was really after you might not have come out?
I would have run. I mean I was like fed up with administration, you know, but I like building stuff. I like building things. I like building things for people, building things for myself. I’ve always liked that and not just widgets, but programs. I like building organizations, you know. So, Lillian and Mark took me out to dinner, and I complained that they were railroading me, you know, and they said, “Yeah, we are, but it’s okay. You should come out anyway.”
I ended up getting the job and I had to go back to my group and explain what was going on here, that there was a chance of a lifetime for me to build a campus from the ground up. I hadn’t ever done that. Few have. It’s a rare thing for anyone to do that, and I felt that I’ve done as best I can here in Hampton. The group was not happy to see me leave because I was running administrative interference for people so they could do their work, you know. I really believed that I didn’t want them burdened down with administration because then they can’t do the physics.
Warren, last question on the collaboration with Jefferson Lab. Given the path-breaking nature of this partnership between a Historically Black College and a national lab, was your sense that this partnership resonated more broadly? Were other national labs aware of what you were doing? Were other HBCUs aware of what you were doing, and would you see other partnerships arise as a result of what you had built at Hampton?
Yeah. So, people were definitely aware of it, but it was so difficult to replicate because it was so unique with unique circumstances.
We even had- there was a group, the NSF Research Center of Excellence that I had, there were, I think, eight others at the time with different HBCUs around the country. Only Hampton had this strong connection to a national lab and a prominent NSF STC. We went to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to see Ernie Moniz. I knew Ernie; I’d met Ernie back in the Stony Brook days.
So, he comes in the room. We’re all lined around this table, a big old wooden table. The chair of this organization, National Association of Research Centers of Excellence (NARCE) said, “We need a lot more money to stabilize our efforts. We’d like to get more money for our work. We think we do great work,” and Ernie said, “If you can do what Warren has done, then you can get a lot more money.” It kind of floored the room because none of them could do that.
So, to make that kind of partnership was- and David, I don’t know why so much as that I know that you have to kind of put your ego in your pocket and you have to say, “Help me. I need your help. Let’s partner together and you do this; I do that.” When you do that, doors start to open up for you. But if you come in and say, “I have this. How can I do this? I want to only do this,” then people say, “I’m not doing that. I’m not going to pay for that because I’m not interested in that. But I’m interested in this other thing over here.” So, I think part of it is that.
Also, the location was fantastic. I mean, the distance between Hampton and Jefferson Lab is only maybe ten to twelve miles, by car something like that. It can’t be any better than that, so I could go back and forth between Hampton and the lab office easily. Another thing too is that most HBCUs don’t have nuclear high energy physics, so there are not people in place who can actually perform that sort of work. So, the national labs mostly are nuclear and high energy physics. Now you can get some multi-purpose labs where you can get to condensed matter type of things, but in those days, there was not much around, so it was a very difficult thing to imagine how to do that.
Given that you joined the faculty as chancellor and dean only nine years after the creation of the whole enterprise, to what extent were you truly working with a blank slate, and to what extent that even in those nine years you really inherited some institutional history that you needed to work with for better or worse?
I actually spent fifteen years at Hampton, I could see it in the beginning when I first arrived. I went in with a very low salary. I was right off the boat, so to speak (laughter). I agreed to work there for a low salary because my goal was not to make money as much as it was to open doors for African Americans. That was my real goal, so I just wanted to be in a position to make some difference. I knew it was a hard thing. I had no illusion it would be a cake walk. When I got the first million dollars, I got it like a month or so before the second million came to Hampton for Demetrius Venable who was awarded a million from NASA. But when I got the first million from NSF, the University didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I’d never had that kind of money before.
Luther Williams from NSF came and gave- I think it was a convocation speech, you know, the president had invited him and he announced it at the commencement. I said, “Oh, great! We got the grant!” It was a cooperative agreement. I hadn’t been told, or at least if they told me, I didn’t hear it. So, then what’s next? Nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Finally, I called NSF and said, “When is the check coming?” and they said, “Well, the check is not coming. You already have the award. You spend the money and bill us.” I said, “Oh!”
So, I went over to the business office and said, “We have to spend first and then bill,” and that was a whole new system for them. I used to think about adiabatic expansions, so I would think about, as I was going through this whole time, when you make this type of cultural change, you change just enough and then pause and let people catch up before you change again because if you change too fast, people will never catch up. They’ll never know what you’re doing; they can never help you. It requires some patience and some deliberate planning as to how to make that work, so I knew from the beginning there were going to be some difficult roads ahead. The joint appointments were actually a requirement of staying because the University was not going to put in four full-time salaries of faculty on a venture that hasn’t been built yet, you know.
That’s not going to happen! (laughter) So, we got half the money from Jefferson Lab, half the money from the cooperative agreement. Hampton had to pick it up the salaries after the agreement was gone in ten years, which I believe they’ve done. It takes some work in the culture and really kind of just being kind to people and not trying to push so hard for your agenda and then complaining that you’re not getting things.
We built a house, my third wife now, Cate and I. She built this house made of mud or Cob. We’re just selling it, actually, now. Hopefully it goes through in the next week. It was mud! It’s clay, sand, straw, water, and dung, and you build with it. A lot of the world builds with it. We lived in it. Cate asked me to finish- we built it and it has wifi, a mud house with wifi, the juxtaposition with that is contemplative. It’s been now fourteen years since we built it and lived in it, and people said, “That’s never going to go. You live in Washington State. Hello! It rains there.” Well, the rain in Washington State is just a drizzle, basically. It’s a dusting. It’s not hard torrential rain like back east. We worked with- it wasn’t permitted, so she built it without a permit. The county found it and said, “If you don’t get a permit, you’re going to have to tear it down,” and at that time, no-one we heard of had built these kinds of houses had ever gotten their permit. So, Cate says, “Can you do it?” and I said, “Sure.”
So, she and I- we were just getting together, basically, so it must have been seventeen years ago. Our friend Bob Ditzler, who lives, Bob the builder who built a lot of houses and knew the county planning folks. We went to the planning office and got a permit, and they were kicking and screaming the whole time at the office. “You can’t do this unless-!” But we passed all the tests. They said, “Okay. We’ll give you this permit, but the inspections are going to kill you.” So, we went through it, got it fully inspected. It was the first house in Washington State of its kind to be fully permitted to live in. It took patience. It took a little give and take. It took not going in people’s faces and saying, “You’ve got to do this for me.” It took just “How do I do this? How can you help me make this work?” It’s that simple.
Warren, when you accepted the job, did you harbor any fantasies that you’d be able to keep up your research agenda, or was that just not feasible and you recognized it?
You mean as chancellor?
Oh, I harbored those feelings, but then I realized I had to wait, and at that time there was no physics at Bothell. There were two chemists who didn’t have a lab. Actually, that’s not true. One had part of a lab. But it- the campus was all humanities and so they thought I was going to come and build an accelerator. You know, it’s a beautiful place out there. I mean, it’s really- there’s a natural wetlands there and they thought I was going to build the accelerator under the wetlands. I said, “That’s an idea. That’s a good idea” (laughter). But we didn’t. We didn’t do it. But the wetlands had to be restored as part of the construction agreement with the state and the city of Bothell- the largest restoration of a fresh water wetlands in the NW, it is now a beautiful addition to the Bothell campus for many reasons.
I arrived there in 1999, and I stayed as chancellor for six years, left, went over to Seattle to teach physics for two years…struggled through creating class web pages…, came back to Bothell to help start the new science and technology program the new chancellor and vice chancellor for academic affairs, Susan Jeffords, asked me to do that. There was no science and technology there, so they both asked, “Can you do this?” I said, “Sure,” so we made it happen. We started hiring. We started writing proposals for courses and that course and this curriculum and that curriculum. I’m making it sound a little simpler than it is, but we started hiring.
We already had a little computer science going there when I arrived, so we made that more robust. We got a different slant on that. We built a new biology research lab. The engineering-we put engineering in place. Electrical engineering was the first one to come, and I did that on purpose because what does electrical engineering need? They need physics! So, you get the electrical engineering in. You get the mechanical engineering in. What do they need? They need physics! And you get biology. Sometimes they need physics; sometimes they don’t. But you get biology in and all this, and then finally you have to put in a proposal to make a physics major (laughter).
It flew through because the chancellor said, “We can pay for that.” UWB was still growing in enrollment rapidly and STEM had become the largest school because the students will pay for it thru tuition and state dollars as the students were growing, numbers of students, so you had a growing budget coming. Physics is an expensive program anywhere, and at Bothell we now have a physics program. I think it’s two years in a row we’ve had outstanding SPS chapters. That’s the best you can do in SPS! This also meant we were reaching more students.
I mean, what a wonderful thing! And then just before I retired, we hired Joey Key, who is a long-term LIGO collaborator, and we hired her before they were awarded the prizes!
Okay? So, then you say, “Oh, Bothell has a prize winner!” UWB had two mathematicians win a prize the year earlier. That brings in the students and it brings in more money. Then we have Rachel Scherr, who is a Fellow of APS with physics education. She was a post-doc with Lillian McDermott. It took a long time, David, to get there, but we got there. You know, we got there.
During the early years when I was at Bothell as chancellor, we have this multi-campus university in Washington, and nobody was really understanding it. So, I created a little- well, it was not a seminar, but a working session. I had three people come and talk, a panel, who had experience with multiple campus universities, and one of them was Johnny Toll. I met him at Stony Brook. He was the president of Stony Brook and he was one of Wigner’s students. John and I got along real well. He ended up at Maryland and he was chancellor there and president there, so I had Johnny there. So, he came in- he was not the first president of Stony Brook, but he was I think the second. But he started bringing in the physicists, right? The way he said he started building physics in particular, he said “I just called Frank Yang up and said, ‘You’ve got to come over here. Leave Princeton,’” and there were a whole bunch of people leaving Princeton at that time and he was grabbing them up.
So, the Bothell and Seattle people were hearing this, these techniques of how you build things. How do you make things happen? I was using all these techniques, all the techniques I could muster. So now it’s very respected. We, UWB, were number one in the country for being the most affordable education of the public, at least for publics at Bothell. It was a situation that was similar to Jefferson Lab where people thought it couldn’t happen, you know. It’s not going to happen. So, I figured if we lose, it would be expected, you know. No big deal. But if we win…
Big deal. Warren, an overall strategy question. As you’re thinking about taking on the chancellorship, obviously there’s a mandate for growth right from the beginning. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about when it was most efficacious for you to live in the shadow of Seattle and when it was efficacious to branch out and really demonstrate that Bothell could be its own Center of Excellence.
Yeah. When I first arrived, the Bothell campus had been created, so it was ten years old at that time. They had been living in a business park in one and a half buildings, and there was a lot of feeling that it was not going to survive. I would call Seattle the Montlake branch. The Seattle folks did not like that, they did not want to share the stage but it’s the Montlake branch. They really want to be the big Husky. They don’t want any competition. I was at a meeting once that the chief financial officer, in a cabinet meeting, I was sitting there, said, “A dollar for Bothell and Tacoma (University of Washington, Tacoma). A dollar for Bothell and Tacoma is a dollar Seattle does not get.”
Also, at Bothell we had to co-locate with a community college. I wanted to find out why we had to, so I went to the legislature and asked questions of different legislators, and finally I got led to a senator, Bauer, I believe. I went into his office one day and said, “I was told that you know why UW Bothell and Cascadia Community College have to…” Cascadia had no students yet. It was a name only with a very dominating and fearful president; it had no campus, it had a president and a Board but no students. He was so excited. I think it was Senator Bauer, that was his name. He was so excited! He went to his bookshelf and pulled off a piece of- he was looking for a book of legislation, pulled off a book of legislation, opened up the book to the right page, and he said, “Here. Look right there. In the sentence,” he said, “I changed one word from the University Washington can co-locate with the community college. I changed it to the University of Washington must co-locate with the community college,” right? I found out how that worked, and so then I realized, he was a UW Seattle graduate, alumnus.
I started making alliances. The UW president at the time, Dick McCormick, who later went to Rutgers. I think he’s at Rutgers now, but I think he’s a historian as a professor, but I don’t know. Anyway, he didn’t quite know how this three-campus thing was going to work, but I kept him abreast of what I was trying to do. I realized that he (mostly the people around him) didn’t want us to grow. You know, they wanted to be University of Washington without any other qualifiers. Even today they hardly ever say, “UW Seattle.” It’s almost always UW, right? This is part of the culture.
There were times when I had to just decide I was going to build up my local representatives, so I worked the local ones to a point when luck happened where one of them became chair of the Committee on Education for the State Senate (laughter). Rosemary McCauliff had legislators calling me from the floor saying, “How should I vote?” and that didn’t go over well with Seattle at all. They didn’t like that one bit. They said, “Are you doing this?” and I said, “I’m building up support for UW Bothell. You hired me to bring in and build this place. I’m trying to build it.” I didn’t say that I was undercutting them, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t. I was never in any- when the door closed, I tempered my speech so that I just called Seattle the Mount Lake Branch of the UW. I always just said how good we are, you know? We can offer something that the state doesn’t have. One of the state legislators, Al Obrien was/is one of my best friends. I happened to be in his office when I received news my mother died. He let me stay, alone, in his legislative office to help me process my sadness. I even opened the door to leave so he could see others on his calendar. He saw me and basically ordered me back in saying, “you have not been in long enough.!” So those were some of the stresses and joys I had.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you didn’t see coming until you dealt with them in real time?
Oh, one of them was there was a period of time where with UWB we had an upper division only at the time I arrived, so it was only juniors and seniors, and the whole idea about the community college was to provide the lower levels of education and the students would transfer over, and they needed a new community college in the area. We shared the same campus. Even though we created co-location agreements, the transfer of students was just not working, so folks in that community college were not coming over in droves as expected. So we did some needs assessments in the area and really found out that people would come to the UWB campus if we had lower division and upper division and had lower division in addition to the community college instead of trying to run the community college out of town, which the community college felt we would do. You know, we could coexist, which we still coexist today, by the way. who would have thunk it?
So, I was talking to legislators, and one day in the Christmas holiday, I think it was just after Christmas, I got a call at home from a state senator who was head of the House Budget Committee, Representative Helen Sommers. She said, “Warren, do you want a four-year university?” I said, “Yeah! You bet,” and she said, “I want to have a legislative discussion about that this upcoming session.” I said, “Okay, good. Have you talked to the UW president and the president at Cascadia?” “Yes, I talked to them already. You’re the last one to talk to.” I said, “Okay. I think, let’s have it.”
Well, that discussion turned out to be- she dropped the bill that said, “We are going to abolish UW Bothell, abolish Cascadia Community College, create a new university called Cascadia University with a whole new board, and that would be the present board of Cascadia Community College.” Oh, man! So, I thought, “I didn’t bargain for that!” That’s a big price to pay.
I managed to get the UW president on board, so he and I drove down to Olympia and testified, and I brought alumni with me and students, you know, had a bunch of people testifying and then also people in the gallery who would raise their hand when I’d say, “How many of you are students?” Anyway, they would do that. It shocked me. You know, it shocked me that that kind of thing could happen. We could lose the whole place, you know. It was the University of Washington brand that was bringing people in, and so if we got rid of the University of Washington brand, will we have the same kind of students? What’s going to happen to that?
Anyway, Helen Sommers asked questions and it was really pointed, like, “What will you do if you have a new board?” It was really tough. We responded and I got the president to say, “We want UW to stay. We want…” I got the big Husky to come and talk about it. The legislation process continued, and that bill died.
A new bill came up and it said, “We’ll make UW Bothell four-year” (laughter). And then a whole bunch of other community colleges also wanted to be four-year because they wanted to be upside down in their curriculum, so I said, “Okay. Whatever is needed to get us four-year.” So, we got four-year, and I think that was the biggest challenge in my time there. We got it. We’re growing like gangbusters now. It’s very strong and so is Cascadia College. We’ve got great faculty. We’re hiring good people. Many students are first-generation students, you know, and they never had a chance before.
Going to Seattle was a big, in some ways it’s a huge school. The introductory physics courses are not quite as big as Illinois, I think, but you get 300 students in one room and there are like multiple sections of them, you know. When I was teaching those courses, it’s impossible for me to remember everybody’s name, so you don’t get the kind of one-on-one treatment that we could give you at Bothell. So, we had nearly one-on-one. The first year I offered physics, I had- I think it was five students. I had five students (laughter). Because I was former chancellor and at that time chancellor emeritus, they said, “Okay, you can pretty much do that. You can do what you want,” basically. If it were another professor facing that kind of enrollment, the class would not be offered. The first quarter there were five, and then the third quarter there were only three left (laughter). People said, “See? It’s not going to work here. It’s not going to work,” and I said, “Well, give me some time. This is just the first year.” Second year, I think I had twelve and finally got up to- when I left, we were having several sections of- we had two or three sections of one hundred plus students in our intro physics courses alone.
So, those were hard times. Those were times of trying to kind of go against the grain to expect… And also, at the same time when UW Seattle was saying, “A dollar for UWB is a dollar they don’t get,” at that particular time they had deferred maintenance of one billion dollars. The annual budget at that time was just over two billion dollars. Today, I believe the operating budget is about three billion dollars, one billion dollars in maintenance arrears, right? (laughter) Pipes were clogged up. Air conditioning didn’t work. There is generally no air conditioning in Washington State, but heat wasn’t working. You know, there were all kinds of- water wasn’t flowing. Mud would drip out of faucets. It was really pretty bad, but we made it through. Everybody got through it, and Seattle is doing fine, as far as I know now. I was really happy to have that experience. Cate and I even helped to elect then re-elect Governor Jay Inslee. He and I worked on UWB issue when he was in Congress. The number of known and unknown people I worked with is astounding! It has been a fun experience, actually.
Warren, what were the matrix of decisions when you decided to go emeritus, both in terms of confidence that the next generation was…you were leaving things in good hands, and to what extent was it simply personal and you wanted to go on and do other things?
Yeah. It was in pretty good shape. I thought there were people behind. Like at Hampton, we had folks I left behind there who were really in great shape and I thought they could survive if they could solve the administrative issues. But when I left UWB, I was tired. I was kind of just ready. I was tired of grading papers. That was really the trigger that said, “You know, I’m ready to go.” This particular type of organization is good in some ways, but for me I’m done. You know, I’m just done. So, I left. I wasn’t chased out in any way. In fact, I still have an office over there, so (laughter). It’s a small one, but it’s an office, nonetheless. And I have lots of friends there. We stay in touch. I’m going back in April next month and planning on hitting the campus again and going over to Seattle, going over to Bothell and just hanging out. So, the emeritus thing was good. It doesn’t give me a whole lot. It gives me a nice title. Now I have great insurance. Health insurance was great. That still continues. But I get free parking (laughter). And I get to go to the library and check out things for free for infinite amounts of time, which I never did anyway, but (laughter) I can continue to pursue intellectual topics of my choosing as well as submit grant proposals, etc.
Now you can! (laughter)
I can! If I want to, I can do it! (laughter)
That’s right. Warren, for the last part of our talk, I’d like to ask a broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we’ll look forward for the last question. Over the course of your career, it seems that we could look at it in three broad themes or buckets. There’s your contributions to physics, there’s your contributions to the sociology of making STEM a more inclusive place, and there’s your contributions to education most generally. My question is what are the through lines where we can learn from your experiences, your family history, and your motivations that might connect these seemingly diverse areas of contribution over the course of your career?
I think one thing is to encourage growth, encourage, allow people to experiment and also help us learn, help more people learn that one failure is not the end of the world, or ten failures is not the end of the world. So, you just keep going and doing the kinds of things that you like to do, even when people say, “You can’t do that.” You know, “Warren, you can’t.” I’ve heard that so many times, you know. It’s kind of a joke at this point. But it seems no one tells me that anymore and some things I can’t do or don’t want to do. I don’t know if I can’t, but I just don’t have any energy to do it, so I don’t do it. But I just need room to play, you know, to just play, but instructions may be needed on the toys that you have to play with. Get some instruction there - create instruction here and so forth.
Also, another thing too, David, I think is to loosen up our expectations and to also reduce the number of assumptions we make about what can or cannot be. We get into a place many times where we feel because of history that you can’t make this change. This is something we have to live with forever. Then somebody comes along and says, “No, you don’t have to do that forever. We can change this and this and this,” and look what happens. It broadens up our world.
I also think about this in terms of reference frames, you know, basis vectors. When you fill the space and can’t fill any more space, but you have more to fill, you have more to use, you don’t throw that stuff away; you just make another basis vector. You know, you create another coordinate system and things will work there that wouldn’t work in the other one. And if you can transform between the spaces, all the better.
So, I think basically it’s just to give folks room to breathe, room to know that they can make a mistake and realize that it really wasn’t a mistake; it is just all leading toward success (laughter). And that you take another path if the one you are on severely limits your movements and intellectual growth. There’s another path, and there are many, many paths. There’s an infinite number of paths. You can’t explore all of those infinite numbers of paths, of course, but you pick what you like to do and go after it and find people who can help support you.
Warren, my last question, going forward. It might be an obvious one, but it might also be a difficult one. What’s next for you?
Well, I don’t know, really. I enjoy working with the process of dismantling racism with President Katherine Rowe at William & Mary but I do say that I’m still sailing. Cate and I bought another boat last year on my mother’s birthday. We have four grandkids that live out in the Seattle area, so we have a house near Seattle and a house in Williamsburg. We’re going to continue to go back and forth as much as we can. More sailing, but also, we picked up Buddhist studies. I think I’m a Buddhist at this point, and I think learning about meditation, one of the interesting things about meditation and with a scientist is that there were times when I thought, “That’s woo-woo. It has no real meaning. You know, you can’t see anything going on. You can’t build a widget out of it.” But I’m finding that there are meditative practices that resemble physics, that there are actually some clear states of mind that you can actually achieve and can reach repeatedly. They’ve given me a great deal of peace when I get into these states.
So, I’ve been studying that for itself, but also, I can’t help but make similes to physics. There are big things like emptiness. Buddhists talk about emptiness and it means really no self or no ego. Physicists have the biggest egos in the world, generally speaking. Nobody compares. It’s really “I am the best. I… I’m the only one that could do this. I was the first one who did this,” you know. It’s really- it’s almost out of control for physics, but that’s the way the beast is, right?
But living without that is an interesting question of how do we- we identify ourselves with things we’ve done. We identify ourselves with our names and our hairline, the kind of clothes we wear that we think is us. We identify those things as us, sort of like you take a glass of water. You say, “This is a glass of water.” Then you drink it and where is the water now? So, do you say, “That’s me?” It’s in me (laughter). That’s me.
So, this emptiness business is about trying to look at the world in a pretty different light of really interacting phenomena, very much like a physicist would approach experiments and the world that we live in in physics that we’re trying to explain. Then the big thing is how do we think? What is thinking? If we are empty, if we’re just a bunch of phenomena. And all physicists, I think most would say we’re all made of elementary particles or waves, and each particle has no personality (laughter). So now we have a collection of things that don’t have any personality, yet we say, “I have a personality.” Where did that come from? So, it’s explorations of these issues that I want to follow.
And you’re comfortable following them outside of the boundaries of deductive logic.
It’s an experiment and it falls within the boundaries of deductive logic, so when I meditate, I can consistently hit these states. I can experience this, and I’ve done it repeatedly now over the last couple of years and it’s real. I’ve been testing this. I’ve been testing it. It’s just a very, very different way of looking at the world. I remember hearing Eugene Wigner. I wanted to talk to him about it, but he died before I could talk to him. But he was talking about- and I think now physicists understand a bit more of Wigner’s experiments. He was a philosophical phenomenologist and talked about putting experimentalists into the experiment, and I remember he was laughed at. He gave a talk at Stony Brook and people were like, “Wigner is getting old. He’s getting out of it,” and he did have dementia toward the end of his life. But he was on to something, you know. I think there is something there. I just want to see if I can find some of that. At this point, I don’t mind people telling me, “Warren, you’re getting old. You’re moving along.” Okay, so you’ll get there one day, too. That’s my reply. At the same time, with all our physics industry, people are still hurting people. For what reason?
Warren, I hope not only that you get there, but that you can convey what it is that you’ve found.
(Laughter) Yes! That’s the trick, finding a set of words, a language. Finding a language to translate is the most difficult thing right now.
There are these eight different states that I’ve been able to hit, eight, that are very distinct, and people have been hitting these states for 3,000 years, the specialty states. I can get to them, and it’s really very powerful how you get there. The technique of getting there is not through reason. It’s through the heart (laughter). It’s through the heart (laughter).
Warren, it’s been a trip talking with you. What can I say? I’m so glad we were able to do this. I’m so glad our friend Julia Phillips connected us, and I’m so glad I was able to capture your perspectives and insight for the historical record. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.
Thank you, David. Thank you so much.