Honouring Burton Richter

15 March 2000

Winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, a longtime laboratory director and a leading
figure in international science – Burton Richter’s contributions range wide. A recent
celebration at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center paid tribute.

Haim Harari from the Weizmann Institute in Israel said it best: “On occasions like
the celebration honouring Burton Richter, the talks require a formula: 30% physics,
30% nostalgia, 30% entertainment and 10% admiration.”

Other speakers at
the day-long celebration held at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in
January varied a great deal in these percentages. The day was, in turns, serious,
funny and sentimental. When the balance shifted to the sweet side, Richter, now
emeritus director of SLAC, commented: “You can get sick on too much

Harari’s presentation reviewed the November Revolution of 1974.
He recalled mailing a letter home to Israel on 8 November of that year, saying that
things were rather boring at SLAC and that he wished that he were at Fermilab.
Two days later, the psi peak was discovered at the SPEAR electron-positron
collider and Harari realized his good fortune in being at SLAC on such a
momentous occasion.

Weighing in heavily on the admiration end of the
scale, both Martha Krebs, former director of the Office of Science at the
Department of Energy (DOE), and John O’Fallon, head of the high-energy physics
programme at the DOE, praised Richter for his candour and his mentoring of the
young (and “not-so-young”, according to Krebs). “Richter is a strong and ardent
advocate for science,” said O’Fallon. Known for having the last word in every
situation, Richter shot back: “If I’m so good, how come I didn’t get bigger

Recognizing Martha Krebs’ six-and-a-half years with the DOE in
Washington, Richter added a surprise event to the day’s agenda. After Krebs’
speech, he presented her with a coveted award given only to SLAC retirees – a
beam tree. “After all, you’re a retiree now,” he remarked.

SLAC director
Jonathan Dorfan’s welcome to the crowd of 300 people roasted his old boss with
gentle jibes about Richter’s trainers, the trademark New Balance shoes that he
habitually wears, almost regardless of the occasion. (Let the record show that
Richter did wear leather shoes for his celebration.) Dorfan showed pictures of
Richter in sneakers from 1970 to the present, with university presidents and
royalty. Richter’s golf hats also came in for some ribaldry. Later on at the
after-dinner speech, Sidney Drell admonished Dorfan on this topic. “Dorfan is a
good scientist but a lousy historian. I lost my hair long before Burt, and I started
the trend to golf hats at SLAC, and I want to set the record straight,” said Drell

Others continued to roast Richter while praising his wife
Laurose. SLAC emeritus director W K H (Pief) Panofsky complimented Richter on
his good judgement. “He stole my secretary and married her,” he said, referring to
Laurose. MIT’s Lou Osborne recalled the early days with Richter at MIT, but made
sure that he added “that one of the best things about Burt is Laurose: her
hospitality, her good sense and wisdom that rivals her husband’s.”

Phinney stuck to the science of the SLC/SLD for her talk. Artie Bienenstock, now
at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, flew in from Washington, DC, to
his old home at SLAC. He made some political remarks, which, he assured the
participants, “do not represent the President, the White House, the Congress or
OSTP,” adding that he was sure to offend someone, since that’s what happens once
a person moves to Washington.

That sentence gave Stanford University
president Gerhard Casper just the opening he needed. “Artie, rest assured that you
have offended at least one president in the audience,” he joked. A masterful
speaker, Casper included erudite allusions and ad libs, fact and fiction. “One needs
true genius to achieve praxis, the ability to combine theory and practice,” he said.
“Richter bridges the conceptual, practical and political to get results.” Casper noted
that Richter was lab director for 15 years, and in that time there were seven
Secretaries of Energy. “Why so many? They were all worn down by Burt,” said
Casper. “Politicians come and go, but like the Energizer Bunny, Richter keeps
going and going.”

CERN’s Luciano Maiani, in paying tribute to Richter’s
international science connections, was grateful for the arrival of a C-4 cargo plane
in Italy. “It carried the BaBar coil back to America and allowed us in Italy to say
the project was on time!”

John Rees spoke about Richter’s role in building
SPEAR and how they struggled to design something cheap enough to get funding.
“When we realized that we had spent too much the first year, like any good project
managers, we decided to cut the construction time and we finished SPEAR
sooner,” said Rees. Gus Voss traced the roots of the design for the next linear
collider from SLAC projects in the past to the grand designs for the future
generation machine.

At the evening’s dinner party, Sidney Drell brought the
day’s events to an eloquent and pithy close, even though Richter still had the last
word. “Physicists are not normal,” Drell said, “so we don’t have to follow
Shakespeare’s seven stages of man.” Instead, Drell (the theorist) theorized on the
stages of the physicist’s life: student, problem solver, builder, mentor, advisor,
statesman. “Richter may choose at some point to answer to a higher authority and
become a theorist himself.”

Richter came back with his own stages, having
written them on his dinner napkin. “Monomaniacal physicist – that lasts up until
about age 40,” he proposed. “Then in the 50s one becomes mature. I got a little
concerned about turning 60, then I decided that was the age of wisdom. But in a
few years I’ll turn 70, and I am looking forward to the next stage, whatever that
might be.”

The next stage may well be rearranging his office to display all
the plaques, pictures and memorabilia he acquired at his celebration. That is, if
Richter takes the time away from his role as president of IUPAP, champion of the
Next Linear Collider, advisor to Washington, and statesman for high energy

Copyright © 2020 by CERN
bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect