Henry W. Kendall


Henry W. Kendall

I was born on December 9, 1926 in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents were Henry P. Kendall, a Boston businessman, and Evelyn Way Kendall, originally from Canada.

I lived in Boston until the early 1930s when the family – there were five, for by then I had a younger brother and a younger sister – moved to a small town outside Boston, where the three of us grew up and where I still live.

I went briefly to a local grade school but was held back by a reading disability which was cured after I was moved to a school some miles distant. From age 14 to 18, most of the period of World War II, I spent at Deerfield Academy, a college preparatory school. My academic work was poor for I was more interested in non-academic matters and was bored with school work. I had developed – or had been born with – an active curiosity and an intense interest in things mechanical, chemical and electrical and do not remember when I was not fascinated with them and devoted to their exploration. Father was a great encouragement in these projects except when they involved hazards, such as the point, at about age 11, when I embarked on the culture of pathogenic bacteria. He also instilled in both me and my brother a love and respect for the outdoors, especially the mountains and the sea.

I entered the US Merchant Marine Academy in the summer of 1945. I was there, in basic training, when the first atom bombs were exploded over Japan. I was unaware of the human side of these events and only recall a feeling that some of the last secrets of nature had been penetrated and that little would be left to explore. I spent the winter of 1945-46 on a troop transport on the North Atlantic (a most interesting experience), returning to the Academy for advanced training in the spring of 1946. I resigned in October, 1946, to start as a freshman at Amherst College. Although a mathematics major at college, my interest in physics was great and I did undergraduate research and a thesis in that field. But history, English and biology were all most attractive and there was a period, early on, when any one of these might have ended up as the major subject. Non-college enterprises, in the summers particularly, absorbed considerable time. I and a Deerfield friend became interested in diving and two summers were spent in organizing and running a small diving and salvage operation. We wrote our first books after that; one on shallow water diving, another on underwater photography, with a considerable success for both. These activities, mostly self-taught, were a good introduction to two skills very helpful in later experimental work: seeing projects through to successful conclusions and doing them safely.

On the urging of Karl Compton, a family friend and then President of MIT, I applied for, and was accepted at that institution’s school of physics in 1950. The years at graduate school were a continuing delight – the first sustained immersion in science at a full professional level. My thesis, carried out under the supervision of Martin Deutsch, was an attempt to measure the Lamb shift in positronium, a transient atom discovered by Deutsch a few years before. The attempt was unsuccessful but it served as a very interesting introduction to electromagnetic interactions and the power of the underlying theory.

The two years after receiving the PhD degree were spent as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and at Brookhaven National Laboratory, followed by a trip west to join the research group of Robert Hofstadter and the faculty of the Stanford University physics department. Hofstadter was engaged in the study of the proton and neutron structure that was later to bring him the Nobel Prize, work that even at the time was clearly of the greatest interest and importance. The principal facility used in this research was a 300 ft. linear electron accelerator, a precursor to the 2 mile machine at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), later built in the hills behind the University. Here I met and worked with Jerome Friedman, got to know Richard Taylor, then a graduate student in another group and W.K.H. Panofsky, the driving force behind SLAC. Friedman, Taylor and I were later to join in the long series of measurements on deep inelastic scattering at SLAC.

As in the college years, absorbing non-physics matters claimed a portion of my leisure time: mountaineering and mountain photography. Stanford and the San Francisco Bay area offered a number of skilled climbs as well as Yosemite Valley not far away. After two years of rock and mountain climbing, I was invited on the first-of several expeditions to the Andes. Later there have been trips to the Himalayas and the Arctic, with cameras of increasing size to capture some of the astonishing beauty of those remote places. Many of the friends made during those years have remained through life.

After five years at Stanford I moved back to MIT as a member of the faculty. Friedman had gone there a year earlier and we reestablished our collaboration. By 1964, the joint work with Taylor, by then a research group leader at SLAC, was initiated. This collaboration was surely the most enjoyable of any physics I have ever done. It was a pleasure shared by most people in the effort and well recognized at the time. All three of us have remained, up to the present, in the universities we were at then. I have been involved in research in later years, after the SLAC effort wound down in the middle 1970s, at the proton accelerator at Fermilab and since 1981, again at SLAC. The most interesting physics for me has always been the searches for new phenomena or new effects. With colleagues I have searched for limits to quantum electrodynamics, heavy electrons, parity breakdown in electron properties, and other such things. Unfortunately, the ever-growing size, scale, and duration of particle experiments, as well as the much larger collaborations, have made such programs less and less congenial to me over the years, circumstances that disturb many in the physics community.

At the start of the 1960s, troubled by the massive build-up of the superpower’s nuclear arsenals, I joined a group of academic scientists advising the U.S. Defense Department. The opportunity to observe the operation of the Defense establishment from the “inside,” both in the nuclear weapons area and in the counterinsurgency activities that later expanded to be the U.S. military involvement in South East Asia proved a valuable experience, helpful in later activities in the public domain. It was clear that changing unwise Government policies from inside, especially those the Government is deeply attached to, involves severe, often insurmountable, problems.

In 1969, I was one of a group founding the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and have played a substantial role in its activities in the years hence. UCS is a public interest group, supported by funds raised from the general public, that presses for control of technologies which may be harmful or dangerous. The organization has had an important national role in the controversies over nuclear reactor safety, the wisdom of the US Strategic Defense Initiative, the B2 (Stealth) bomber, and the challenge posed by fossil fuel burning and possible greenhouse warming of the atmosphere, among others. I have been Chairman of the organization since 1974. The activities of the organization are part of a slowly growing interest among scientists to take more responsibility for helping society control the exceedingly powerful technologies that scientific research has spawned. It is hard to conclude that scientists are in the main responsible for the damage and risks that are now so apparent in such areas as environmental matters and nuclear armaments; these have been largely the consequence of governmental and industrial imperatives, both here and abroad. Yet it seems clear that without scientists’ participation in the public debates, the chances of great injury to all humanity is much enhanced. In my view, the scientific community has not participated in this effort at a level commensurate with the need, nor with the special responsibilities that scientists ineluctably have in this area.

This expenditure of effort and the sense of responsibility to help achieve control of aberrant technologies which drives it, stems in no small measure from the example set by my Father, who, throughout his life, spent a great deal of time and no small amount of energy on quiet, pro bono work. He was not alone among his own friends – nor among his own contemporaries – in this; it has been a tradition in New England of very long standing. In continuing to pursue such objectives, my expectation is that the challenges facing both me and the Union will be made substantially easier by the award of the Nobel Prize. This is perhaps the most attractive part of having gained this exceptional honor.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1990, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1991

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Henry W. Kendall died on February 15, 1999.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1990

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