Burton Richter Story
It was with great sadness that I learned that one of my heroes, Burt Richter, had died. Although we had no physics research overlap, I was lucky to work with Burt for ten years on serving the physics community.
I met Burt for the first time in 1994. He was then President of APS and I was the new Executive Officer. Burt became President during tumultuous times at APS. APS had just moved its longstanding headquarters from New York to College Park, MD, resulting in major staff turnover. Then he had to deal with me, the new EO, who had tons of APS experience but little administrative experience. This was probably no big deal for Burt with his history as director of SLAC, but I was very lucky to have him as the first of the 16 APS presidents with whom I worked. He was a wonderful mentor and a tremendous coach for me. He and I got things settled down at APS, and by the end of his term, I more or less knew what I was doing. During his years in APS leadership, he was always willing to use his entree as a Nobel Laureate to argue forcefully and effectively for the health and funding of the physics community.
By coincidence, Burt and I then got involved in IUPAP, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, at about the same time. Burt and I both attended our first IUPAP General Assembly in 1996 in Sweden, he as the incoming President Designate, and I as a member of the US Liaison Committee. At the next General Assembly that was held in 1999 in Washington, DC, Burt took over a president and I was elected Associate Secretary General. At that time the Secretary General was Rene Turlay, a French particle physicist, who unfortunately became ill. Because of this I almost immediately took over the administration of IUPAP, so that Burt and I were a team again - this time for 3 years.
As President of IUPAP, Burt’s message stressed environmentally sustainable development and stronger outreach to physicists in developing countries. But something special happened during the 1999 General Assembly. The issue of the worldwide underrepresentation of women in physics was raised and the formation of a Working Group on Women in Physics was proposed and accepted. It was Burt’s job as the new President to set this up, and he asked me to write a charge for the group and help him appoint the members. As a result of this, the first-ever International Conference on Women in Physics was held in 2002 in Paris at UNESCO Headquarters. 300 physicists from 65 countries attended. Burt opened the conference and stayed throughout. I think he was thrilled to see the excitement of the women, many of whom had never been outside their own countries. It was a major accomplishment and these conferences have continued every 3 years ever since.
Burt continued to work with APS on key physics-related issues. In 2009, when the US economy was in free fall, and the Obama administration was looking for places to invest money that would quickly lead to job creation, Burt worked tirelessly with a small group and got $8 billion directed to science research. His coworkers called him a ‘force of nature.’ He later chaired a major APS study on energy efficiency, which led him in 2010 to write the book “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century”, which received the Phi Beta Kappa science book of the year award.
The physics community rarely gets such a brilliant and dedicated champion. He was always ready to help individual scientists, but he was also intent on doing everything he could to promote science and science-based policy, and to save Planet Earth.