Morris Shamos

PhD, 1948, Title: Meson-Decay and the Energy Dependence of the Positive Meson Excess
Professor Shamos, former Chairman of the Physics Department, had an intense interest in science education, both in college courses, bringing science to the public, or simply inspiring his own son to develop an inquiring mind. We though that it would be interesting to share a few excerpts for Michael's tribute to his father.
H Henry Stroke, 6/10/02

Some Reminiscences by his son, Michael Shamos

...What can an only son say about a father? In this case, plenty. We had parallel careers, his in physics, mine in computer science. We were both fascinated by how the Universe is put together.
I‘m going to review some events of his life with you from a son‘s vantage point. We don‘t have time to review his whole life — that would take 84 years. You know the main points. He was an experimental atomic physicist, chairman of the Physics Department at NYU for 14 years, Senior Vice-President and Chief Scientific Officer for Technicon Corporation, President of the National Science Teachers Association, President of the New York Academy of Sciences. Some of these were elected, some were appointed. It didn‘t matter — if my Dad was qualified to do something, he got chosen.
For you to understand this father‘s effect on his son, which is similar to the effect he had on many of you, you need to know something about where I ended up to figure out how he got me there.
I went to the best schools, met great scientists and worked with some of them, but I didn‘t always make the most of my chances. I went to Horace Mann School in Riverdale, then Princeton in Physics, Vassar College in Physics, American University in Technology of Management, then three degrees at Yale in Computer Science followed by a law degree at Duquesne University. If you weren‘t counting, that‘s 7 earned degrees. That may seem like scholarship run amok, but it‘s nothing compared to Dad‘s resume and accomplishments.
Now they call me a Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where I run the Institute for eCommerce, a degree program and several research projects. When I was growing up, people thought that Dad the scientist was forcing his son to be a scientist. Nothing could be more ridiculous. I loved science every moment literally from when I was 5 until today.
For me, everything was about opportunity and example. He gave me incredible opportunities and showed by example how they should be explored.
In 1956 Dad wrote a book about the great experiments in physics over the centuries. He had a new idea. Instead of giving a historical narrative, he would show the actual data used by Galileo, etc. so modern readers could appreciate how profound were the observations of the early experimenters. This required him to read the original manuscripts of famous scientists. I was 8 at the time, and he took me to the rare book room of the NY Public Library, where over a period of days he read Galileo‘s works, which were in Latin, and made notes for his book.
The book was dedicated to me and my mother. It is still in print after 46 years and is often used as a textbook. I learned so much from those trips: the value of libraries, the fascination of rare books, the value of reading things for yourself, and an understanding of the scientific method. Opportunity and example. At age 8.
He had a laboratory on the roof of the Main Building at NYU‘s Washington Square Campus. He studied cosmic rays, the most powerful form of radiation in the universe. They‘re so powerful they‘re difficult to detect, since they mostly pass right through the Earth without a trace. But occasionally they hit an atom down here and create a shower of particles. These can only be detected with sensitive instruments, which is what his lab was for. It had to be on the roof so that nothing would block his detectors from the sky. This was my playground. Everyone there had to wear radiation detectors since there were radioactive sources around to calibrate the instruments. What parent would expose a healthy child to ionizing radiation? None, and my Dad didn‘t either. He was more careful with radioactivity than a diamond cutter is with a gem.
Anyway, one day the instruments started giving strange readings. There was no apparent explanation. Dad suspected that some lab assistant had failed to put away a weak radioactive sample, so we were all on our hands and knees with Geiger counters trying to find the stray. Nothing. The lab was clean. It took weeks of detective work to figure out what was happening. He had detected radioactive clouds floating over Manhattan. He traced them to a leak of radioactive Argon gas from Brookhaven National Laboratory 60 miles away. After that, he was engaged for seven years as a consultant to the Office of Radiation Control of the New York City Health Department.
Travel was another opportunity. The seminal trip of my life was a seven-week car trip through Europe in 1958. Dad was on special assignment to the BBC to cover the Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The three of us sailed over to Europe for the summer to sightsee before the conference. Some of you here were on the Liberté that day to see us off.
The trip was an education for all of us, but events transpired at the conference that changed both me and Dad. He introduced me to Sir John Cockcroft, who won the Nobel Prize for observing that if you hurl accelerated protons at the nucleus of an atom, it splits apart, leaving two different elements where previously there had only been one. This was called splitting the atom, and is the basis of atomic energy. It was quite a heady matter for an 11-year-old to meet this man and have him refer to me politely as “Master Shamos.”
We then spoke to Igor Tamm, who would win the Nobel Prize a few weeks later. Remember, I‘m 11. He said to us, “First study physics, then study biology. In the first half of the 20th century, physics was the most important science. In the second half it will be biology.” When we got back to the states, Dad indeed did turn his attention to biology, although I can‘t say it was just a chance encounter with Tamm that made him do it. But the effect on both of us was profound.
With Leroy Lavine, a prominent orthopedic surgeon, Dad began to study the electrical properties of bone, with a view to understanding how bone grows and how abnormalities might be corrected. … This work required some delicate experiments in Dad‘s laboratory at NYU. I don‘t think they had any funding for the work, so they got me to do the measurements from which they were able to prove that bone emits electric signals when mechanically stressed. I used a device called the vibrating reed electrometer, which is probably now an antique. This work was published in the journal Nature, so at age 14 I was a co-author on my first scientific paper. This was immeasurable in helping me get into college. None of the other students had a paper in Nature. Opportunity and example.
When I was in elementary school there was a TV how that all the science kids watched religiously. It was called “Watch Mr. Wizard,” and each program began with the announcer saying, “Watch Mr. Wizard … That's what all the kids in the neighborhood call him because he shows them the magic and mystery of science in everyday living.” Dad was the scientific advisor to the program. He provided Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard) with equipment and experiments to illustrate the principles explained on the program…
So I got to go to the tapings at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. This was the peer equivalent of carrying Superman‘s cape. It earned me awe at school but more important I learned how to set up experiments and demonstrate them. When I was a graduate student at Vassar I insisted on teaching. The professors wouldn‘t budge so I offered to teach physics laboratory since I knew all the apparatus and the demonstrations. They hated that job, so they let me do it. Opportunity and example...
Dad‘s work with Mr. Wizard made him look at elementary school education, which he immediately decided was in a bad way. In 1960 he proposed that the universal goal of scientific literacy for all might be unattainable, but spent the next 30 years trying to attain it, rising to the position of president of the National Science Teachers Association…
… After college at NYU, he went up to MIT for a year to work on electronic timing circuits. Now that‘s a euphemism for radar, which was very important in 1941. When you send out a radar signal, the range to the target is determined by measuring the time it takes for the signal to come back, so precise timing is very important. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he attempted to enlist in the service, but was refused because of his background in atomic physics, which was considered an essential civilian occupation. He wasn‘t on the Manhattan Project, though. He worked for the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission…
He was a serious man, lavish with criticism and stingy with praise, but never for a second did he expect more of anyone else than he was prepared to give. I received a lot of the former and very little of the latter. But he never lied to me and he never let me pay for anything. And he never lied to YOU or let YOU pay for anything, either, unless you tricked him into it. How many times did we come home from a restaurant only to find that one of his uncooperative guests had slipped some cash into his pocket? He did the same thing, though, when someone else snatched the check first.
I lied to him plenty, as children will, and I let him pay for everything. So what did I learn from him about the difficult task of accompanying children to adulthood? Just a few things to do and not to do. I don‘t lie to my children and I try not to let them pay for things. And I give them opportunities and try to set an example, just like my Dad. We are blessed by the opportunity to have learned from his example.

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