2005 A Gathering of Nobel Laureates: Science for the 21st Century – Robert C. Richardson Autobiography
I was born on June 26, 1937 in Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC. My parents, Lois Price Richardson and Robert Franklin Richardson, lived in Arlington, VA. My sister and only sibling, Addie Ann Richardson, was born on May 6, 1939, also in Georgetown University Hospital.
My earliest memories are of the apartment building in Arlington where my mother, sister, and I lived during the years of World War II while my father was away in the US Army. He was an officer in the Signal Corps. We lived across the street from the fire department and became accustomed to the blast of the siren at all hours of the day and night. It is fortunate that we lived so close to the fire department because one morning while my mother was visiting neighbors my sister set the apartment on fire while playing with the gas stove. Little damage was done, though I am certain that my mother was thoroughly embarrassed.
My father was a native Virginian. Branches of his family could be traced back to the early colonial times. His father, Robert Coleman Richardson, after whom I was named, owned a general store in a small rural village, Penola, VA. My father attended Roanoke College for two years during the Great Depression. When his mother became seriously ill, he left college because of the increased family expenses. He became interested in electricity and began work as a ‘lineman’ for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in Richmond, VA.
My mother’s family was from North Carolina. She was an orphan, practically from birth, and was shuttled among relatives in North Carolina. As was a common practice in the rural South, she was taught at home by various aunts. She attended only one year of public school before going off to college. The one year of high school was in Reidsville, NC in 1918. She attended various colleges – Gulf Park College, the University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Virginia. She was one of the first women to attend the latter and obtained a Master’s Degree in History there. During her college career she was brought in to the large and warm family of Ernest H. Mathewson in Richmond, and thus gained three brothers and two sisters. The Mathewsons were known by my sister and me as our other grandparents during our youth.
My parents met in Richmond and were married there in 1935. Shortly thereafter, my father was transferred by the telephone company to their branch in Washington, DC. As an army reservist my father was called to active duty during World War II and again during the Korean War. During his service for the latter he was assigned to the Pentagon so that it did not become necessary for him to leave home. During his second tour of duty with the army he took advantage of the educational benefits associated with the ‘G.I. Bill of Rights’ to finish college. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1955.
I do not remember having any special scientific interests during childhood but I did love school. In 1946, when I was in the fourth grade, my family moved from the apartment building we had lived in during the war years. My father bought a new house in one of the housing tract developments so common to the postwar suburbs of American cities. We still lived in Arlington, VA. My new elementary school, Walter Reed, was overcrowded. The fourth and fifth grades met in the same room with the same teacher. I paid as much attention to the fifth grade instruction as the fourth. I especially loved the history lessons because Mrs. Walton, our teacher, was a remarkable storyteller. During the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I went to summer school just to have something to do. The teacher of the summer session was confused about my grade status and inadvertently promoted me to the sixth grade. The Arlington County School system accepted her decision. So I skipped a grade. Had I remained in the same grade, one of my classmates in Walter Reed School would have been Warren Beatty (of film star fame), whose family had just moved to our neighborhood in Arlington.
With my parent’s encouragement, I became very active in the Boy Scouts. Scouting did not exist in rural Virginia, where my father grew up. In his youth, he had always envied boys from larger cities who could be in scouting. My involvement gave him, vicariously, the scouting experience he had missed. With his help, I became an Eagle Scout in the minimum amount of time permitted by the rules. I especially enjoyed the outdoor activities of scouting, hiking, camping, and even birdwatching.
I spent the enjoyable summers of my high school years working as a counselor in Camp Letts, a Boy Scout Camp on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. I was a nature counselor. I spent my days leading tours on nature trails through the camp. My ankles were covered with a minor poison ivy rash from June through August. In the evenings I led groups in ‘stargazing;’ and one morning each week I led a ten-mile canoe trip through the Maryland marshland to look at birds. I liked the canoe trips best. We would arrive at the entrance of the marsh just at sunrise when the maximum number of birds would be out feeding. The marshes had large water birds like egrets and herons, three kinds of wrens, more than twenty different warblers, vireos, plus large birds of prey like hawks and eagles. It was possible in a single morning for a scout to spot enough birds on a single trip to qualify for the birdwatching merit badge. I learned where all of the birds hung out and how to tell them by their songs. Although I am color blind, I memorized their descriptions in the bird manual. I would describe subtle pastel features of warblers and vireos flitting about in the tree tops 60 feet above the ground to the amazement of even the adult scout leaders. There is a famous painting by James Audobon of a bald eagle diving toward an osprey just after the osprey has caught a fish. Each summer I was fortunate enough to see that scene re-enacted at least once. It made a special impression on the groups I led because I showed them a copy of the painting before we left on the trips.
My high school class at Washington-Lee High School had 925 students in it. I graduated, as I recall, in a six-way tie for 19th place. There was nothing exceptional about the math and science training at Washington-Lee. The idea of ‘advanced placement’ had not yet been invented. I did not take a calculus course until my second year of college. The biology and physics courses were very old fashioned. The idea of a ‘photon’ was said to be controversial. This in 1953! I was taught that absolute zero is the temperature at which all motion stops. It is most fortunate that the statement was wrong. Otherwise 3He could not become a superfluid.
I entered Virginia Polytechnic Institute, also called Virginia Tech, in the Fall of 1954. In those days, the Reserve Officers Training Corps program was compulsory for all physically fit entering students at VPI. Moreover, all ROTC students lived in a cadet corps with fairly rigorous military discipline. I surprised myself by really enjoying life in the VPI Corps of Cadets. I learned an easy and democratic camaraderie. As we were assigned to live in cadet companies in alphabetical order, my closest friends were those in the bottom third of the alphabet.
In class, I started out as an electrical engineer but soon became bored and impatient with the mechanical drawing course and the rote application of a single principle, Kirchoff’s Laws, in a five-hour course. I tried to become a chemistry major but ran into great difficulty in a course called quantitative analysis because of my color-blindness. I could not tell when the color of the indicator solution turned from pink to blue unless I made a very strong over-concentration of acid or base. When I complained to the professor he told me that I was very fortunate to discover my disability early in my college career because I certainly was not suited to be a chemist.
Finally, I turned to physics as a major. I was not an especially diligent student but nevertheless obtained a reasonable education in physics. I graduated with a B average and fourth in a group of about 9 physics majors. My education through the Cadet Corps was at least as valuable as that in formal class training. I was a leader in several campus organizations. The rigorous honor code at VPI in those days was almost exhilarating. We were all very proud of it. I never saw anyone cheat on a test in my years there.
In summers, while in college, I had a very interesting job with the National Bureau of Standards. I worked in the Electricity Division calibrating electrical resistance standards which power companies sent to NBS once each year. The NBS program for summer students was quite wonderful. First, we were well paid. Next, we actually did useful research. Finally, we attended a weekly seminar series which was given at our level of understanding. In my spare time at NBS, I read the scientific literature on electrical instrumentation and even met some of the authors of some of the classic articles. The experience at NBS gave me some notion of what a scientific research career could be.
After graduating from college, I had a vague idea of going to a graduate program in business – with hopes of becoming an executive in a large corporation. First, though, I felt that I had not quite given physics and research a chance so I decided to remain at VPI for one more year to obtain a Master’s Degree before going off to military service as an Army Officer. The project I worked on was the measurement of the lifetime of photo-excited carriers in germanium. In the process I had to build a great deal of equipment because Tom Gilmer, my advisor, had just come to VPI to a practically empty lab. Tom was a good mentor, but he was very busy as department chairman and VPI professors had quite a large teaching load. I learned a great deal about how to do things with my own hands – operate a lathe, solder, make simple electronic circuits, etc. I knew about keeping a lab book from my summer jobs at NBS. In that year I became a good deal more confident that I could learn physics at advanced levels, but still was not in any way special. I think I was still fourth in the group of graduate students. With the feeling that I would probably be a mediocre physicist, at best, I left VPI with the intent of attending a Masters in Business Administration, MBA, program after finishing military service.
A great piece of good fortune fell for me during my year of graduate work at VPI. The Army ran short of money. Thus, rather than having to spend two years on active duty, I was only assigned for six months of active duty in the US Army Ordnance Corps between November 1959 and May 1960. This was a time well after the Korean War and well before the Vietnam War. There was no likelihood of actually having to see any combat. At Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Ordnance Corps training base, I took courses in how to manage a platoon which would do things like repairing jeeps and tanks. I hated the course and the being in the Army. Wearing a uniform and the military discipline did not bother me; I had become used to both while in the VPI Cadet Corps. But I did not enjoy the training in how to run a small business – for that’s what a repair platoon in the Ordnance Corps was. Therefore, I decided to return to graduate school to obtain a Ph. D. in physics.
I had no opportunity while in the Army to take tests like the Graduate Record Exam to qualify me for admission to one of the top graduate schools – like MIT, Harvard, or Cornell. Besides, I probably would not have been admitted even if I had taken the tests. Therefore, I looked for smaller research universities with strong specialties. In my graduate research project, I had made a simple liquid nitrogen dewar, and found the area of low temperature physics to be interesting. I had read some articles about the work going on at Duke University so decided to apply there. I received a warm letter from Horst Meyer, a new Assistant Professor at Duke, encouraging me to come to work for him. The letter was very flattering – the first strong encouragement I had ever received about my potential as a physicist. Therefore, I entered Duke in the Fall of 1960 as a full-time graduate student.
I had a glorious time at Duke. I made strong friendships which have been maintained through the rest of my life. I met my wife, Betty McCarthy, there. One of only two physics majors in her class at Wellesley College, Betty was also a graduate student in Physics. We were married in 1962 and our daughters Jennifer and Pamela were born in Durham, NC, in 1965 and 1966.
Horst was a very conscientious mentor. He taught me a great deal of the craft of low temperature technology he had learned as a research associate at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford. In all of the subsequent years he has been a valued friend. We had the best of two worlds in our low temperature group at Duke in those days. Bill Fairbank had been there but left before I arrived. Much of the old equipment and the residue of the experimental technology from Bill Fairbank remained. Horst brought a different set of techniques with him and we had our choice of which way to do things – for example the use of wood’s metal to attach vacuum cans along with Epiezon J-oil for thermal contact were the Oxford technique. Indium O-rings and vacuum grease were the Fairbank method. Both had advantages.
Horst put me on a good problem – the NMR study of the exchange interaction in solid 3He. Earle Hunt came to Duke as a research associate with Horst and taught me about the new methods for pulsed NMR-spin echos and all of that. The combination of training with Horst and Earle put me in business for practically the rest of my research career.
I finished my thesis in 1965 and remained at Duke for another year as a research associate in order to clean up some of the loose ends of the research and to look for a good job. In the latter, I was fortunate indeed. Cornell University, with its special funding as an Interdisciplinary Laboratory (IDL) had decided to expand its effort in low temperature physics. In the Spring of 1966 the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics invited me to join them to work with Dave Lee and John Reppy on very low temperature helium research. As far as I was concerned, there could be no better career opportunity.
I moved my family to Ithaca in October 1966 and have remained there ever since. I received sound career advice from Dave and John from the day I arrived. The research environment at Cornell has been superb with an unbroken string of talented graduate students, close colleagues in both theory and experiment, and a team of technical support specialists who helped make everything work. During my thirty years at Cornell I even learned how to teach undergraduate physics courses, an activity which my wife and I enjoy a great deal. After our daughters entered Junior High School, Betty turned to teaching physics at Cornell also. She is now a Senior Lecturer.
My children grew to adulthood in Ithaca. It is a wholesome college town with few of the problems of large cities. Jennifer went to college back at Duke and later attended a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Columbia University. Jenny married James Merlis in June 1994. We had a beautiful wedding reception among my large rhododendron bushes in our back garden. In addition to her writing and other activities, she now plays violin in an all female rock band called Splendora.
Pamela went to college at Cornell. After graduation, she went to the New York School of Interior Design for a year and then decided to become a nurse. She returned home to take the science courses she had skipped at Cornell. She spent a year at our local community college taking chemistry, biology, anatomy, etc., displaying a surprising scientific talent. After the year at home she went to Vanderbilt University where she entered a Masters of Nursing program. In November of 1994 – after one year in the Vanderbilt nursing program – she died tragically, of heart failure. Though she had been born with a heart defect, her death came without warning.
In an effort to drag ourselves out of our grief and despondency over losing Pam, we have taken on a major family project in the past year: the production of an introductory college physics text book. Betty is the co-author of the book, with Alan Giambattista of Cornell; and I have been working on a companion CD ROM. When completed, the work will be published by McGraw Hill.
From Les Prix Nobel 1996.