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Meet Dr. Stirling Colgate, Iconic Tech President

During the summer of 2011, former Tech president Dr. Stirling A. Colgate agreed to be interviewed over lunch for New Mexico Tech’s Gold Pan alumni magazine – and for Gold Pan readers only. This article was originally published in the fall 2011 edition.

Even before Colgate arrived at the Fidel Center for lunch, Dr. Dave Westpfahl, longtime chair of the Physics Department and a colleague of  Colgate’s, explained that the former Institute president spends his time on campus at two locations. His main haunt is the Dynamo Lab situated in a metal shed (albeit air-conditioned) behind Workman Center. Colgate’s lab is filled with tall, intricate metal devices, what scientists call “fabricated” machinery. Colgate built the equipment with colleagues Joe Martinic, a Tech graduate who worked with the late Professor Charlie Moore and knows how to fix and build anything mechanical, and Jiahe Si, a postdoctoral fellow who has just been promoted to electrical engineering associate. Various undergraduate students have helped as well.

Colgate’s second work area is the Dynamo Site, a World War II vintage Quonset hut located among the buildings and rock-studded fields. The Dynamo Site serves as the storage site for much of the “surplus” atmospheric research apparatus, where he’s trying to build a dynamo that will explain the origin of the magnetic fields in stars and galaxies and intergalactic space. This humble site is near the scientific research laboratory known as the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), often called “the place where they blow things up.”

On campus, often in consultation with other scientists, such as Westpfahl and Dr. Dave Raymond, Colgate continues to explore the single question he has pondered all of his life: “What makes the universe work?” Colgate was 13 or 14 when he realized that answering that question was to be his life’s work.

“It was an epiphany the first time it happened,” he said over lunch on a hot June afternoon. Colgate is easily recognizable by his emblematic short-brimmed oil-stained felt hat. Long before that moment, when he was only 5 or 6 years old, Colgate’s siblings and later his peers referred to him as “the professor” because, says Colgate, “I was always a nerd, never a jock.”

Colgate was born in New York City and grew up in Morristown, N.J. After his parents were divorced when he was two, he lived in a number of places in the East traveling back and forth between his mother’s and father’s residences. His older brother Dick developed asthma in response to the emotional turmoil of that time, and in response to the asthma, his brother was sent West, to the Los Alamos Ranch School. With his brother having adjusted well to his new surroundings, young Stirling was sent there, too. Several years later, when Stirling was around 16, the United States declared war on Germany and Japan, and the Los Alamos Ranch School was closed quite suddenly — following a visit by two gentleman, a “Mr. Smith” and a “Mr Jones,” one wearing a porkpie hat and the other a fedora.

During that visit, Colgate, who knew a thing or two about fusion, fission and explosions from reading the newspapers. He, along with a few other seniorcohorts in his class, recognized the two men from photos in their physics text. “Mr. Smith” and “Mr. Jones” were none other than the famous nuclear physicists Earnest O. Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer and their visit clearly meant they were going to build a nuclear bomb in Los Alamos

“It was a no-brainer to realize that the fission ratio must then be two or greater and an explosive chain reaction was possible,” quips Colgate.

Colgate is emphatic that this nomenclature be accurate: The weapon produced on The Hill by the scientists and engineers and technicians who trekked to Los Alamos from the University of Chicago and other places is a nuclear bomb, and not an atomic bomb; which, Colgate said, “is just a scientific misnomer.” That having been said, we can continue.

The history books tell us that the war effort forever changed Los Alamos, where Colgate and his wife, Rosie, still live. When not at the Dynamo Site or the laboratory housed outside Workman Center, Colgate can be found at the national laboratory that bears the name of the city in which it was built.

With high school not yet completed, Stirling returned to the East and enrolled at Cornell University when he was just 17.

“Everything was speeded up because of the war,” Colgate said. He spent two semesters at Cornell studying electrical engineering and some physics. “Despite having grades like a smart-ass nerd and before the Navy could get a hold of me to put me into the V-12 college program to become an ‘officer and a gentlemen,’ I joined the Merchant Marine.  I had had enough of privilege growing up, and I wanted to contribute to the war effort.”

Of all the islands and ports-of-call Colgate encountered during his travels across the Pacific, including Eniwetok where later he helped test the country’s largest bomb, the Bravo test, Colgate found the bay city of San Francisco most to his liking.

One day in the summer of 1945, aboard a sea-going tug pulling a giant dry-dock out to Eniwetok on the rolling waters of the Pacific, Colgate heard the voice of the ship’s captain booming over the public address system. The United States had dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war was over.

“I already knew they were building a nuclear bomb,” Colgate said. “And I was expecting, secretly hoping, it would end the war.”

Immediately the captain summoned the ship’s electrician, the young sailor Colgate, who knew neither the ship’s captain, nor any of the deck officers, to report to the mess hall and explain what this bomb business was all about.

“If you’re a smart-ass kid, you are recognized from day one,” Colgate said. “To this day, what I said then about a nuclear bomb, explaining fission and fusion and how a nuclear bomb works, would be classified information. I’ve always loved explosions.”

It only made sense, then, that soon after the war Colgate returned to Cornell where he switched his major from electrical engineering to physics, and after three years as an undergraduate and three years as a graduate student, he earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1952.

“In those days, even after the bomb, there were few physicists who knew about neutrons and nuclei and gamma rays, and so I had my choice when it came to getting a job – doors were open everywhere,” he said

Colgate gravitated to the University of California at Berkeley, then making the world’s largest linear accelerator, the A-48. A half year later at the inception of a neighboring laboratory, now called Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Colgate was invited to join the fledgling counterpart to LANL.

“Instead of doing magnetic fusion, which is what I wanted to do, I was put in charge of the “fast” diagnostics (neutrons and gamma rays) for the Bravo test, on Bikini Atoll , the U.S.’s largest thermonuclear test with a yield of 15 megatons ,” he said. 

Colgate was 27 or 28 at the time, very young for all this responsibility to be dropped in his lap. He said there were few Ph.D.’s with his background, such as his experience as an electrician in the Merchant Marines, a marine engineering license to operate seagoing ships, and a Ph.D. in measuring gamma-ray absorption coefficients. 

“These measurements are still used by the Bureau of Standards,” he adds, a hint that his experimental acumen was well-known to the higher-ups.

There was one particularly amusing part of this bomb test experiment involving a dozen two-mile-long vacuum pipe lines necessary to accurately view the device from far enough away to save the recording equipment from the expected blast.

“When six of us young physicists arrived in Bikini several months before the test, but after an immense effort by thousands working for the contractor Holmes and Narver, we found that the gamma rays from a radioactive test source wouldn’t pass through the vacuum pipelines for a distance of two miles.”

After a few of the “juvenile young scientists” straightened one pipe line using a special telescope, Colgate recalls being awakened that night by another still younger  engineer, who showed him the corrections.

“I took one look, calculated the geometry, and said out loud so everyone in the tent could hear, ‘Oh my God, they forgot that the earth is round!’ ” he said.

For gamma rays to get through, the pipes had to be straight, not level with the ground. The next day at a management meeting, Colgate reassured everyone that there would be no recriminations, but at the end he joked,

“The one thing we young scientists would like is a small correction. To compensate for our hurt feelings about forgetting the earth is round, we’re asking that the X-rated movies be turned back on.”

Evidently protecting their young minds had been the excuse to turn off the X-rated movies. Both problems were indeed corrected with the result that the congressmen and admirals and the generals came “roaring in on their helicopters” every evening to join watching selections from the cache of X-rated movies Holmes and Narver had stashed away. Men will be boys.

History books will tell us that the hydrogen-bomb test on Bikini Island was, indeed, a gigantic, tragic, mushroom-cloud-shaped success (three times the expected yield).

Six years later after a stint in Geneva, Colgate was part of negotiations toward a treaty to ban nuclear weapons tests in space. Here our physicist/engineer reported back to Edward Teller, the so-called father of the H-bomb, the then director of Lawrence Livermore Lab and once an invited speaker at Tech. In those Cold War years in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs and an angry Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table in the United Nations building near Grand Central Station, then as now, Colgate states,   “The question for humanity was: ‘Is cooperation possible?’.”

Colgate knew it was possible because, in negotiations to detect each others possible secretly testing in space, the Russian scientists, all senior to Colgate, agreed to launch capable satellites that could “spy” on each other. Colgate convinced them by posing a question no one could answer. “What if a supernova goes off in the galaxy? How will we be sure it’s not a nuke?” When Colgate returned to Livermore, Teller agreed to an inertial fusion program, now NIF, and the initiation of astrophysics at the Livermore lab.

To answer his own question, Colgate, with Dick White, used bomb computational codes to calculate how a supernova, a massive stellar explosion, might work. These calculations showed that neutrinos, ghostly, near mass-less particles, were vitally important to the explosion process. Serendipitously, a major experiment to detect neutrinos from the sun was underway, deep in the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, where McGlaughlin was a director, a major owner and a regent of the University of California. He was also a close friend of Dr. Teller and a close friend of Thomas Cramer, potash mining owner and engineer and then chairman of the New Mexico Tech Board of Regents. Tom was looking for a new President of Tech, because of  the pending departure of its World War II-era president, Dr. E.J. Workman, who truly made N.M. Tech.  Then guess what?

 “Edward was tired of my constantly arguing with him at that stage, so he suggested me,” Colgate deadpanned. “Actually, he was a very good friend.” Between Teller and Thomas Cramer, Colgate succeeded Workman as the 10th president of New Mexico Tech. The year was 1965 and Stirling Colgate was 39 years old.

“It’s a weird touch of irony,” Colgate said, “that because of neutrinos I became president of Tech. On the other hand perhaps it was because Marx and Dotty Brooks were young UNM students during the war, living together in my mother’s house, a small adobe on the UNM golf course, and I visited twice, once during the war, and once after leaving the Merchant Marine and the Pacific.”

History reminds us that the Colgate years (1965-75) would have been eventful under any administrator – there was an unpopular war being waged in South Asia, the nation was still recovering from the assassination of its popular president and college campuses were boiling over with student unrest. Here at New Mexico Tech, its new president was young, brilliant, and an active researcher who developed a strong rapport with its students, making him the right leader at the right place at the right time.

“How could Tech change fast enough, maintain a superlative academic standing and stay ahead”? Those were Colgate’s concerns on arrival, especially when he found that the engineering students had to wear black suits and black shoes! When he argued for the first computer at Tech, an IBM 44, the State estimated the proposal to be 100 times the expected usage. Instead, the new machine was saturated with users in the first year.

The essence of change during the Colgate years were the “forums.” Held once a month, they were free-for-all discussions between students, faculty, administrators and the president, where long-standing policies were rapidly changed and then some reversed again. 

“Very many students, faculty, and staff made this happen. A few who were overwhelmingly involved were Bill Hume, Belinda Cooke, Lucy Chavez, Candy Holtz,  Marx Brooke, Mardi Hantosh, Virginia Marquez, John Gregg, Albert Petschek, Charley Moore, Charley Goshey, Jim  O’Connor, Dick Gibson, Marvin Wilkening, Bob Cormak, and on and on and on,” recalls Colgate, visibly nostalgic. Then Tom Cramer and his board had to approve,

“I spent the other half of my time trying to understand everyone’s research,” Colgate said. “It was my job to understand their research, so I could argue for it, get people to support it,” he said. “It was easier to get money in those days because of Sputnik, and I put a lot of energy into grants and contracts and research for Tech, because I felt that the research support of students was half their education.”

He spoke of his former scientific colleagues, the physicists Marx Brooke, Charlie Moore and Chester McKee; the paleontologist and geologists, Christina Balk and Rousseau Flower; mining engineers, Roshan Bahpu and George Griswold; and the exciting work going on at that time in atmospheric science, Earth science and mine engineering. That was in the days of oscilloscopes, slide rules and students calling the tower of Workman Center, the Tower of Babel.

Suddenly Colgate lays down his fork and turns to Westpfahl to pose a question, one about the origin of galaxies and giant black holes. Westpfahl said: “I asked him, ‘Stirling, are you aware that at the center of every large galaxy is a continuum source?’ … that question, inspired by the research of Jason Speights, (a current Tech grad student with Westpfahl) and others at Los Alamos, prompted Colgate to fit yet another piece to the master puzzle.

“That’s what life as a scientist is all about,” he said. “It’s testing nuclear bombs and research: how does the universe work? Then what is the origin of humanity, and how to lead a university?

“The hardest part of being president of New Mexico Tech and all that came with it, was the balance between academia and creativity. A particularly poignant example was the question of whether course credit should be given for designing an adobe house,” he said. The issue was raised by Albert Petschek, who represented the intelligencia of the faculty, and it was raised somewhat impertinently at that.

“Finding a definition of what constituted course credit was unquestioningly the most difficult thing for an administrator to deal with, especially when asked by the leading intellectual at the Institute. Finally, I suggested an algorithm that stipulated that a project had to have an abstraction to qualify for course credit, and the faculty went along with that.”

The second issue was indicative of the times. One group of students was Vietnam veterans; others wanted peace at any cost. Of course, their differences were to be decided by a confrontation at the flag pole.  Tech had a major role in supporting the testing of much of the nation’s most advanced conventional armaments.

“There was set to be a big confrontation at the flag pole between veterans and the new age students. Yet right before that, here I was in the auditorium with 40 to 50 mining engineering alumni, the most conservative members of the mining industry and I had to describe to them that I had to go to the flagpole and moderate the anger,” Colgate said. “Explaining this to a group of conservative members of the mining industry was not easy, nor was trying to quell their anger at all this uproar on campus.”

Colgate looked at the assembled alumni and said: “I hope none of you have a son or daughter at the flagpole,” he continued, “but my job is to see that no one is hurt and no one was.”

“Many, many students helped run the place,” Colgate said. “Sixty percent of the students had jobs with Tech, and forty percent had jobs in their majors. That was the single most unique aspect of New Mexico Tech. Tech is the greatest nerd institution of the country, and even of the world. One of my many mistakes was not supporting Porphyry, (the yearbook) from day one. It took three years for me to learn.”

History will tell us that four students were killed at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, midway through the tenure of the Stirling Colgate administration at New Mexico Tech; and that around that time, there was a confrontation at the site of a flagpole at Tech, a symbolic confrontation between tradition and change and what-comes-next.

Nowhere in history will you find any of these words. Stirling Colgate, during the 85th year of his life, agreed to share these memories with the fine alumni of New Mexico Tech and that is just what he did.

– NMT –

By Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech