Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Harry Weiss (SX 1949) 
Interviewed by Charles P. Strehlow (SX 2009)


Dr. Harry Weiss was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and grew up there.  His father was a grocer and His mother a housewife. In 1940 Harry was accepted to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University), where he spent two years studying Mathematics before joining the war effort. In 1943 Harry left Pittsburgh for the Army. In April 1946 Harry was discharged and started back in college that summer.  Carnegie Tech had a full summer schedule for returning veterans, allowing Harry to complete his Bachelors degree by the summer of 1947. Harry continued his education immediately; earning his MS in May 1949 and Sc. D. in May 1951, both from his undergraduate Alma Mater, which had yet to offer a Ph.D.

What made you want to be an engineer?

When I first started college I wanted to be an architect; to this day I still have my drawing tools. While I was an undergraduate I was inspired by a professor to pursue mathematics.  I remained in Mathematics until I got my job at Iowa State University (ISU), in 1954.  At ISU got to know a lot of the engineering professors quite well through research collaborations and teaching applied mathematics to their students. As a professor of Mathematics I sat on many committees for engineering Ph. D’s as the extra-departmental member. In 1963 I was asked to take over as Chair of the Engineering Science & Mechanics Department, to which I agreed and to this day do not regret.

What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment?

The development and stewardship of my department.  I am very proud of how it grew and how I was able to cultivate a culture of interdisciplinary and collaborative research.

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

Engineering Science & Mechanics: the Backbone of all engineering. There was a time in academia when all engineers had to take Engineering Science & Mechanics courses. At ISU we were more like a service department to the entire college of engineering than a separate department.  Since the 1980’s Engineering Science & Mechanics has taken a minor role at most engineering institutions across the country. The ISU Engineering Science & Mechanics department no longer exists; it was absorbed by the the Aerospace Engineering department in 1992.

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

I always liked teaching. Even as an administrator I made sure I taught at least on class each year. The interaction between the teacher and the student is very important.

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?

10 years? As a global community of researchers, we need to answer questions about the environment. I very much believe in climate change, and we must address those issues. I would very much like scientists to get involved with those issues politically; however, progress will not come with out scientific involvement at all levels.

100 years? More exploration of space, and a combination of both private and public funding should be used.

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?

I have to admit I have not seen any Unethical conduct. A researchers ethic is all a matter of one’s innate desire to do something, its a consuming passion; without such conviction it is difficult to remain active in both academia and research responsibilities.

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?

Extremely important. Most problems can only be solved by interdisciplinary research.

What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

The articles by Henry Petroski (Engineer), Brian Hayes, Very mathematically oriented.

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

I would like to see Sigma Xi continue to develop internationally. I have always enjoyed the research conferences, especially the student talks.

What was your favorite part of being a tenured faulty member of ISU?

The people I worked with and my internal and external opportunities. When I was department head, I was partially responsible for establishing the ISU Center for Non Destructive Evaluation, worked in conjunction with the Department of Energy  Ames Lab. The Center for Non-Destructive Evaluation is a separate research center on campus. It is a Department of Energy funded, interdisciplinary collaboration of professors from multiple departments around the university with staff scientists as well, that studies non invasive practices for the evaluation of complex machines(satellites, the space shuttles, jet fighters ect.).  I was also involved in the establishment of the Ames Lab Acoustics Center, the first Anechoic Chamber in the state of Iowa, for the study of acoustics by the dpt of Engineering Science & Mechanics.  My external opportunities included a lot of volunteer work and the pursuit of my hobbies.  Over the years I have been an evergreen volunteer for: The United Way, The League of Women Voters, and many Technical Societies. I have always loved Jazz music and traveling abroad.

What was your favorite part of being a retired faulty member of ISU?

Between 1989 and 1991, after retirement, I taught at Army and Air Force bases around Europe, employed by Boston University and the University of Maryland through the Department of Defense. Courses where graduate Mechanical Engineering and Undergraduate Mathematics.  Back here in Iowa, ISU has a college for seniors housed in the alumni hall, where I have taught a course on the history of classic jazz, 1890’s - 1930’s.  I have obviously enjoyed my involvement with Sigma Xi over the years.  I was President of the local chapter in the 60’s, and secretary treasurer from 1992-2010.