Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for physics and Harbor native Doug Osheroff has cast his keen eye from the wonders of sub-atomic particles to the landscapes of the wider world they form.
Both endeavors have roots in his childhood in Aberdeen and Grays Harbor. Osheroff returns here this week to attend the 50th reunion of his class at J.M. Weatherwax High School on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
He and his wife, Phyllis Liu Osheroff, who is also a photographer, will make a road trip of it, from Woodside near Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he is a professor emeritus in physics.
“My wife and I love landscape photography and so this is one of my passions in life, hard to do that and teach (physics), though I do teach a course on photography to Stanford students using Sony Digital Alpha Nex digital cameras provided by the university,” he said in a phone interview from his office at Stanford.
“You can see that we are serious photographers,” he said, providing photos they have taken. He also likes to use a Hasselblad H4D, which has a 60 million pixel sensor that is about 1.5 inches high and about two inches wide, he said.
His father, William Osheroff, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and a medical doctor, who “inspired in me passions for both photography and gardening, which were his hobbies when time permitted, as they are mine,” he notes in a narrative biography. His father “gave us all Brownie Hawkeyes.” Black and white prints were developed in the basement darkroom.
Coming to the Harbor
His father, who “investigated all kinds of religions,” met his future wife, Bessie Anne Ondov, a Lutheran and nurse. They met while both were headed into an operating room in New York City. They moved to the Harbor because there was a shortage of medical doctors, he thinks. They had five children, Doug is the second. Attendance to Sunday school was mandatory, he remembers. Doug pursued “a myriad mechanical, chemical and electrical projects, culminating with construction of (an) x-ray machine my senior year in high school,” his narrative says. He liked to work on projects. He took apart an electric train he got for Christmas at five or six years old, because “even at that age I was fascinated by electricity and magnets.”
He and Mike, his younger brother, were also ham radio operators and during one of those experimental sessions, he attached leads and solenoid relays. He wasn’t watching closely enough and the electricity discharged through his body. “I woke up on the other side of the room, no recollection of being propelled,” he remembered.
“Either I was going to be a Nobel Prize winner or dead at an early age,” he says.
His favorite teacher at Weatherwax was William Hock, who taught chemistry. “He probably did more to shape how I thought about science than anyone else,” he said.
He remembers Hock bringing in a milk carton and he shook it. “Research is like trying to find out what is in the milk carton,” Osheroff remembers him saying. Ask questions of nature, but nature isn’t necessarily going to answer what is in the milk carton. From Hock he learned what physical research was all about “as opposed to my experimentation,” he wrote.
Years later, as a young scientist at Bell Labs, one of the preeminent physical research labs in the world, Osheroff, who had just been named one of the first MacArthur Fellows, called Hock, who by then was living in Los Angeles. “‘I said, ‘Mr. Hock, guess who?’ ” Hock said it must be Douglas Osheroff and that he had been waiting for the call.
Osheroff began work in low temperature physics and nuclear magnetic resonance. He and two others discovered that super fluid helium-3 atoms move in a coordinated way at very low temperatures, within 1/1000ths of absolute zero.
“Most of my work was done using superconducting magnets, electrical currents,” he said. “The current will continue flowing around and around the wire essentially forever as long as you keep it cold,” he added.
In August of 1970, he married Phyllis Liu, who works in biochemistry. Tired of commuting in New Jersey, and recognizing in him a “teacher waiting to be born,” she suggested they move west, where Osheroff was named professor of physics at Stanford and she went to work for Genentech.
In 1988, after teaching his first lecture to a large group, one student was scathing: “Osheroff is a typical example of some lunkhead from industry whom Stanford University hires for his expertise in some random field.” It proved to be a minority opinion. In 1991, Stanford awarded him for excellence in teaching. He served as Physics Department chair from 1993-96, stepping down to spend more time with graduate students.
“The day I learned I was to receive the Nobel Prize, after just two and a half hours sleep the night before, I taught my class on the physics of photography, although the lecture was not on photographic lenses, but the discovery of super fluidity in Helium-3,” he notes.
The couple did not have children. Osheroff thinks teaching young people fulfilled that aspect of his life. “As an academic, I have got lots of children.”
He still travels about once a month internationally to talk about science, he is now a 2 million-mile airline traveler. The avid photographer also likes road trips. They will spend three days or so heading up to the Harbor and back for the reunion. He is scheduled to attend a tour of Grays Harbor on Saturday and social events at the Elks Club that evening and Sunday morning, reunion organizer Jim Wynans said.
Osheroff is looking forward to seeing old friends and the Harbor where he worked with brother William John at the Grays Harbor Paper Mill because his father believed they should do manual labor. He mentions many classmates during conversation. Richard Townsend, Dr. Stuart Markwell, Jane Bivens and Gary Sanford are but a few who live in his memories of his life on the Harbor. Townsend and Sanford are deceased, Bivens and Markwell will be there, Wynans said in an email. Osheroff doesn’t know if the landscape of the Harbor influenced his photography. Then he remembers Camp Bishop where he went every summer for five or six years. He was the first camper to catch a fish, “probably a trout.”
He and “the great Gary Sanford” hiked up to Flapjacks Lake where there is a shallow waterfall between two lakes. Watching the sunset against the sharp crags and the stars appear is vivid in his mind. There the son of a medical family and the son of a mill family could talk. Though from different backgrounds, they had one of “those wonderful conversations that really touches your heart.”
Bivens is the daughter of Al Bivens, the track coach and head of the wood shop, Osheroff remembers. “When I was awarded a distinguished alumnus award in 1982, the high school gave me a most impressive memento, with the school emblem carved into a solid walnut board and with my name, year of graduation (1963), and the year the award was given. It is the award which I prize most dearly.”
CLASS OF 1963
Doug Osheroff is modest about his time at J.M Weatherwax high school. He was a good student, but “only really excelled in physics and chemistry,” he says. He was valedictorian mainly because of a rivalry with his older brother William John, who had also been one, he claims.
Beachcombers band member and reunion organizer Jim Wynans shares these memories about Osheroff and the extraordinary class of 1963:
“I would hate to single out Doug as being different in school. He was NOT different other than being the class valedictorian. He participated in school activities and was “one of the guys” (a quote I used when interviewed by KOMO TV after he received the Nobel Prize). He played poker on the weekends and attended dances and socialized with the rest of us. We all knew Doug was talented but we didn’t worship him.
“Our class was very strong willed and collectively we accomplished a lot. We all supported community activities as a whole and raised funds for the United Weatherwax Drive raising a record amount to give to the United Way. We stuck together when it came to class activities, always challenging the other classes. It was said by the principal that changes had to wait until we became Seniors and then we would lead the changes and underclassmen would follow. Indeed, that is a part of our legacy. Our music department was always judged with superior ratings in Band, Orchestra and Choir.
“Our athletic department was two years consecutive first place in the SW Washington league in Football and Track and we were Washington State champions in Track and Field. Our graduates include three persons who went on to be professional entertainers, several All-American football players, numerous teachers and school administrators, notable doctors of oncology and neurology, a military leader, a Nobel laureate, successful business people and supportive moms and dads and grandparents. All in all, we were typical in most respects of 18-year-olds when viewed from outside, but within the class, we were supportive of each other and strong willed in our destiny. Our reunions have always attracted a large number of classmates returning for social interaction and all of the classmates have continued being financially supportive of our other classmates. No classmate is denied attending our reunion for any reason. That is close-knit class support.”