My father has been battling metastatic cancer for over 3 years. 41 months ago, his doctor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance told him the median life expectancy at this stage is 9 months. Today, he is still alive but his fight is over. His days are numbered. While the statistics are somewhat meaningless, I'm told he's lived 3 sigma longer than the mean. (Okay, I botched the statistical terminology, but you know what I mean.) It was a great fight and a valiant one. He lived a good life during these three plus years. And, for me, the silver lining is that I immensely enjoyed this time with him and my family...We spent good times together. It was time and enjoyment that were "carved out" unexpectedly due to this unfortunate circumstance. It was an unexpected bonus in life.
I remember my dad as a great father, husband, and friend. He is loved by many. And, beyond that, he was a great scientist, though perhaps unrecognized. Today, I reflect on his life. Here is my tribute to him, that I made on my birthday in 2008. (Note: Wayne Fest is my annual self-serving celebration of my birthday.) Dad, I will miss you.
July 18, 2008
And, second, because it is my birthday and you are a captive audience, I will subject you to one story -- a lesson -- that I want to share.
It is a lesson in 20th Century History.
This is John Hennessy. He is a famous computer scientist and now president at Stanford University. John said around the time of his inauguration as president, "The 1900's was the age of physics." Physics is what defined the 20th century.
Let us, for the moment, accept that this is true.
And if the 20th century is the age of physics, who were the people -- the physicists -- that made this so?
Albert Einstein was one. He was certainly a great theoretical physicist. Maybe the greatest theoretical physicist of all time.
However, I don't think Hennessy was talking about theoretical physics but rather applied physics. After all, he was an engineer by training. He built stuff. At the time, the United States was engaged in a geopolitical and military struggle with the Soviet Union. The Cold War. The winner and loser would be defined by physics -- the ability to deploy the bomb. Theory was certainly important, but winning the war would depend on applied physics. The winner of the cold war would shape history moving forward.
So, who were these applied physicists?
This is Wernher von Braun. As a German, he was responsible for the V2. He figured out how to apply Newtonian mechanics to launch objects really long distances. After World War II, he came to the United States and he figured out how to build rockets -- the delivery vehicles -- that would become our ICBMs. Certainly, he was a great applied physicist.
This is Robert Oppenheimer. He was the director of the Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb. Clearly, another great applied physicist.
So we had the rockets -- the thrust -- to deliver the payload -- the atomic bomb -- anywhere in the world. But, there was still a problem, a missing piece of the equation. If you aimed your rocket at Moscow -- sorry Tanya - would you be able to hit it? Or will your rocket just as likely fly off into the Black Sea?
So in addition to THRUST and PAYLOAD, we needed a third component -- GUIDANCE.
Before I answer the question of who provided the guidance, my story takes a short detour. When I was growing up, I never engaged in a typical argument among boys -- "my dad is smarter than your dad." Somehow, I KNEW, perhaps, smugly, that my dad WAS smarter than anyone else's dad. I don't know how I knew this, I just knew.
And, today, I've realized why. It's because my dad provided GUIDANCE. Guidance to me and guidance in general. And, this is how this story ends.
von Braun delivered the THRUST. Oppenheimer delivered the PAYLOAD. My dad delivered the GUIDANCE. I'm not going to go into the complex math of what this all about, but he built guidance systems for our ICBMs, the B52, and other missiles. Without him, along with von Braun and Oppenheimer, we would not have won the cold war.
I believe my father, George, stands among the greatest physicists of the 20th century. Indeed, he must be pretty smart.
So, I must now come clean -- this is not a 20th century history lesson. That was a "head fake." ("Head Fake"-- I borrowed this from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture.) This is a story about my father that I want to share with you.
Thank you all for coming and celebrating my birthday with me.
I would like to raise a glass in honor of my father:
In addition to being my father that I respect and love, this is how I, and I hope you, will remember him. Dad, thank you for your guidance.
I love you.