Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Albert A. Bartlett (SX 1950) 
Interviewed by Rachel Wildrick (SX 2010)

University of Colorado Chapter of Sigma Xi (Chapter # 021)

We are pleased to submit the following interview with Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus, Physics conducted on June 21st, 2011 by Rachel Wildrick (one of our newest chapter members).  We are immensely proud of Professor Bartlett for his professional achievements, as well as his contributions to Sigma Xi, the scientific community as well as his passion for sharing his work with the general public.  We are also thankful to Rachel for conducting and producing such a wonderful interview.

Rachel Wildrick: What made you want to be a scientist?

Albert Bartlett: I started college in Ohio, in 1940. After one year, I dropped out and worked as a dishwasher for a while on an iron ore freighter on the Great Lakes – I was on the freighter the day Pearl Harbor happened. The next year, I went out on another ship as a night cook.  But with the war I figured I had better get back to college, so I applied to transfer to Colgate University. I took a first year physics course and was deferred for military service to continue my studies. I enjoyed the physics courses I took – I thought they were just marvelous! I graduated in 1944, and it was clear that I had to do some sort of war work. I accepted a job, sight unseen. The only thing I knew was the address: Post Office Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To get there, I hitchhiked, drove trucks, hopped freight trains, and hitchhiked some more. When I got there, I received instructions that led me to an army bus that trundled me across the desert landscape to Los Alamos. Los Alamos was a hasty introduction to real physics; all the big physicists were there. In my career, with all its happenstance, I’ve never looked back!

Wildrick: What significant changes have you seen in your field during your career?

Bartlett: With the war, there was an explosion of energy: new discoveries in low energy nuclear physics that culminated in the nuclear bomb. Through the years, there has been a transition into high-energy applied physics with giant accelerators. There are exciting developments in this research area, such as the work at University of California at Davis, where they identified dangerously high levels of lead around super-highways. Physics, on the whole, has moved from the small scale to the very big scale… Now we have papers authored by 30 or more authors. This would have been very rare 60 years ago.

Wildrick: What would you consider to be the most important advice you could offer a younger, upcoming scientist?

Bartlett:  A colleague of mine at Los Alamos shared this wisdom: if you go to graduate school thinking professors are going to help you, you’ll be disappointed. But if you resolve that you’re going to learn physics, in spite of your instruction, it is to your benefit.  If you have a good professor, it’s just icing on the cake. Be prepared to work your tail off.

Wildrick: What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years? What would you like to see scientific research accomplish?

Bartlett: Unfortunately, the most pressing needs for science aren’t in science itself. Science needs stable society, but we are headed for an unstable society. I remember the wars in Serbia and other places, where violence impeded productive research. Now, our biggest problem is not a discovery to be made.  It is to stop population growth, which will lead to all manner of societal instabilities. There are many ecological, biological and sociological problems that result from our attempts to increase agricultural yields in order to feed the exponentially increasing population. These problems must be addressed by looking at their fundamental cause, population growth. Science does not need to go to the forefront of knowledge, to find some new particle, but instead must recognize that we must be concerned with society, to educate the public about overpopulation. The first challenge is to overcome political correctness, and start addressing the real problems that are confronting us. We must start investigating potential solutions  that to alleviate overpopulation, such as supporting domestic and global efforts of family planning so that every child is a wanted child. Science requires a sustainable and stable society, and these developments will allow science to continue to be productive.

Wildrick: As part of Sigma Xi’s 125th celebration, we are focusing on ethics and responsible research. Have you seen any changes in ethical conduct within your field during your career?

Bartlett: No, I have not. I am more aware of ethical misconduct allegations that I have been in the past, but I haven’t seen much in my area of research.

Wildrick: One of Sigma Xi’s strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. How important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in science?

Bartlett: Collaboration is an excellent source of innovation, but I suspect there is always some reluctance to collaborate because the researcher’s home department is the source of recommendation and professional advancement. There was a tendency in the past to refrain from collaboration because it did not allow the advancement of a career. Of course, if someone was exceptional, they received recognition, but there is the risk of becoming forgotten. I hope we can change that!

Wildrick: What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

Bartlett: I like pretty much everything. It has the best general science presentation that I know of.  American Scientist is awfully good! It allows me to get an idea of what is going on in other disciplines. I especially enjoy Bryan Hayes’ writing – he’s just amazing! I also like the engineering articles by Henry Petroski. They are fascinating!

Wildrick: Where would you like to see Sigma Xi in 125 years?

Bartlett: I hope Sigma Xi continues to shape the United States and world opinion about the developments and successes of science!  But it is especially important that scientists lead society in addressing overpopulation. If we fail in this, social instability may prevent us from having a significant scientific enterprise in another 125 years.