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Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 (1993)


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Suggested Citation:"CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 329
Suggested Citation:"CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 330
Suggested Citation:"CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 331
Suggested Citation:"CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 332

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RICHARD BROOKE ROBERTS 329 to write out quite a bit myself so that the poor devil will only have to cut out the meanderings and leave the hard core. As ever, I continue to appreciate Dick's help. The next paragraph of AB, entitled "Genetics," starts: "Since I am convinced that the genetic endowment is by far the most important factor in an individual I will begin by recording a few items about my ancestors." There was a Roberts on General Washington's staff and there was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Roberts who traveled to China and set up trade. L. Q. C.'s father-in- law (Mr. van Braam) gave the set of china to Martha Washington which is now at Mount Vernon. Dick's grandfather, Walter B. Roberts (brother of Edward A. L.), was a businessman and state senator; the brothers were dentists who invented and sold dental equipment, and there was a banker in the family as well. His grandmother on the Roberts side was Emily Titus, and Titusville was where Dick was born. The family on his mother's side was also involved successfully in Pennsylvania oil, having started a refinery, sold to Standard Oil in 1870. In AB, Dick states, "For a memoir probably all this would boil down to one sentence like[:] His ancestors were active, intelligent, well educated etc. Active is the key word for LQC Roberts . . . for W.B. Roberts.... Intelligent is the key word for the Titus family and my father." CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION Dick was born on December 7, 1910, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the third child with two much older (perhaps twelve and fifteen years) brothers. The family moved to Princeton in 1916 and to New York in 1921 but continued to summer every year in Titusville into the 1930s. His schooling was that of well- to-do families of the time, never setting foot in public school—Miss Fine's School in Princeton,

RICHARD BROOKE ROBERTS 330 Lawrence Smith School in New York, St. Paul's School, and Princeton. His interest in science and math started at St. Paul's School, and the reasons given in AB were that he enjoyed them and was not so good at sports (though his love of golf started there) and that the supervision was not too strong. He and a friend (Charlie Thayer) forced the school to give them a calculus class for two, which was rare before college in that era. A quote from AB: "I liked to use the calculus for physics problems and baffle the physics teacher who didn't know calculus." In AB, Dick raises the question of why none of the other very bright youngsters in the school went into science and answers it as follows: "Probably it was because most were very rich. The class list read like the NYSE. Our family was always very comfortably well-off but I felt like a pauper at SPS. For example I was the only one of the 6th form who did not have a raccoon coat. The free time to play in the lab. was particularly valuable. Too much supervision may be deadly." For Dick, Princeton was a great success as he grew up, but there is no comment in AB that suggests that great interests in physics were formed or that the classes were particularly good. Apparently, in his senior year he did drift down to the basement at Palmer lab, where research was going on, and got hooked. There seemed no possible choice but to do graduate work at Princeton and go for a Ph.D. Of course, his older brother Walter, who was an RCA radio engineer (with valuable circuits named after him), had been living in Princeton for many years, having graduated from Princeton during the First World War and returned for a Ph.D. (Later he often worked for RCA in a lab attached to his Princeton house.) One quote from AB about mathematics is interesting:

RICHARD BROOKE ROBERTS 331 I think math is one subject that has to be learned in the classroom. The assignments are essential. Who has the will power to go through it without some compulsion. I have frequently tried to go through the book on group theory but never got beyond the first chapter. History, economics, etc. even biochemistry were not hard to pick up but not math. And it's not that I was dumb at it. I never had worse than 1st group. But my math stopped with the differential equations and complex functions or whatever it was that junior year. Possibly this was because math was an applied subject for me. I liked to solve problems with it but did not care much for elegant proofs. Heaviside's approach appealed to me (the man who used operators without formal proof...). Dick did graduate first in the class shared with a St. Paul's School comrade (Lew Van Duzen). For those who don't know, the quality of students is high at Princeton and the competition is strong. There was never any doubt in his mind that he was as intelligent as anyone around. Meeting him, one would quickly recognize that this was a man of importance, yet there was a complete lack of pomposity. As with all such persons, he made demands on the world around him and instantly recognized a bore. His circle of friends was large, and the parties at Linnean Avenue, with barrels of oysters and steamship roasts, are to be remembered. It was hard for him to take much of anything seriously except for a prime list: science, family, golf, new weapons, the fate of humanity, and money. His open-mindedness was remarkable. As a minor example, ESP caught his eye as a student at Princeton and remained a lifelong interest, with total objectivity as far as I could tell. But in writing the history of genetics, some have tried to cut him down for this. Dick's informal approach to mathematics was just right for the main part of his career in biophysics, where a major contribution was an analytical quantitative approach. His skill was in crossing the line between a problem or sets of ob

RICHARD BROOKE ROBERTS 332 servations and the mathematical formulation. An important part of his time at Princeton was spent in the ROTC, and he became a first-rate artillery officer. About the start of graduate school, AB states: "Arriving at the beginning of the fall term 1932 I was told that I was assigned to work with Prof. Ladenburg in Nuclear Physics. My reaction was fine, but what is nuclear physics? .... It had not been included in the undergraduate work. Thus began 4 years of battle to get the degree." There is detailed reminiscence about troubles with high-voltage equipment (Cockcroft-Walton) and ion sources. This was ultimately all resolved, and his thesis was on deuteron-deuteron reactions. By virtue of Ladenburg's extensive absences and a lot of independence, he had become an experimental nuclear physicist. There is, of course, more to it, and I quote AB again: "Somehow the theorists did not resonate with the experimental people. I picked up more from Ed Salant while working with him than any other time. ... . 32-34 were big years in nuclear physics. Artificial disintegrations, the neutron, the positron and induced radioactivity. And the deuteron. At Princeton we had enough equipment to follow along closely but not enough insight to contribute anything. Ladenburg had 1 curie of radium and so he could add a little beryllium and show neutrons within a week after the announcement arrived." It may be worth remembering the fate of that curie which Ladenburg was assembling into a sealed brass cylinder, quoting AB again: "Just before the solder hardened the water pressure (or rather steam pressure) blew the top and his whole curie. He had to take treatment to reduce his radium dose, the whole chemistry stockroom . . . where the explosion occurred ... was sealed off.. ." It was still sealed off when I arrived as a graduate student thirteen years later.

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Biographic Memoirs: Volume 62 contains the biographies of deceased members of the National Academy of Sciences and bibliographies of their published works. Each biographical essay was written by a member of the Academy familiar with the professional career of the deceased. For historical and bibliographical purposes, these volumes are worth returning to time and again.

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