Childhood and Early Education


Undergraduate and Graduate Education

I was born in 1949 in Yakima, Washington and grew up in Selah, a town of about 3000 people not far away from there.  You can read about my family and my early childhood in the McLerran section of this website.  

Selah was a wonderful place to be a kid.  I could ride my bike anywhere.   My parents were not worried about such independence, being more worried by visions of Communists from Russia or China than of predatory child molesters. Every kid who was old enough to walk went door to door for Halloween, and all the candy got eaten.

I had favorite fishing spots, and hikes and long bicycle rides took me to them.  I was never too picky about the kind of fish I caught; I was happiest simply with catching a lot of them.  

I had my first job when I was 14 years old.  I picked corn, following a truck through fields in hundred-degree heat.  I acquired a rich vocabulary from older workers which in times of stress naturally comes back to me.  I worked every summer on the farms in a variety of roles, and by the time I was in college was probably the fastest apple picker in the orchards where I worked.  I could make around 50 dollars a day.

I still remember a coyote which would come to a pile of wood I used for propping trees where I worked in one of the orchards.  He wanted to get close and make friends, but every time he started to move forward toward me he thought about it and pulled back.  I also met an old man who was incapable of telling a lie, and it got me thinking hard about honesty.  In the end I concluded that lying was probably not such a good thing for most people, since you have to remember all your lies, and if you are caught out once, you are finished (unless you are a politician).

I went to school in Selah until my junior year in high school.  I was a good student but not an outstanding one.  The young people I went to school with in Selah have as the years pass become more and more interesting to me.  I was at the 40 year anniversary of Selah High School, and received a CD showing photos of the classmates as young people.  I can now see in those images things that I did not think about or appreciate at the time.  In almost all of the photos, you can sense drive, energy and optimism.  There is an eagerness to take on the world, an impatience with being young, and a body posture of challenge.  

I think this was a very good time in history, and Selah was good for the kids growing up there. There was a strong sense that the world would be a better place, that we would do better than our parents, and that our children would do better yet.

There was of course tension.  The Cuban missile crisis came and went.  Many of my friends’ families had fallout shelters dug into their backyards, and we boys would use them as a place to read our favorite magazines.  There were above-ground nuclear tests in those days, and 50 miles away at the Hanford Atomic Works they were carelessly venting radioactive gas  and doing a poor job of storing radioactive waste. Yet these things did not seem close to our lives.

Of course, the Vietnam War came in my last years of high school, and this war I think greatly changed the psychology of America.  Optimism changed to cynicism, and pride to anger and then to shame -- both over what we did in Vietnam and what we did to our young people who had served there.  A lot of time has passed now, and many of the scars of that era have faded.  But the war damn near destroyed some of my best friends.  Somehow they managed to pull themselves back together again and raise good families and kids of which they are very proud.  My friends were lucky.  Not all those damaged by the war made their way back with such success.  

I now have a good friend, Dam Son, who is from Hanoi in Vietnam.  We first met in Moscow about 15 years ago.  We were sharing an office, and at first we both hesitated to talk with one another about the war.  After talking a little bit of physics with me, Dam asked me what I thought about the Vietnam War.  I told him I was not too happy about what we did there, but I was much less happy with his country.  I can read some Russian, and had read a propaganda novel supposedly written by a North Vietnamese soldier.  I was sickened by the bragging about how they murdered the families of teachers and doctors in towns that they had “liberated” simply because of their “class”.   Dam and I talked for a little while, and then he simply told me that when he was a baby, the bombing had ended. I understood that much time had passed, and he was younger than I.

Selah was a town of farmers, many of whom had immigrated to the Yakima Valley during the Dust Bowl.  Those who were not from Arkansas or Oklahoma or Missouri also had struggled through the Great Depression, largely by the sweat on their backs.  People were proud of what they had accomplished, and had little tolerance for those who didn’t make it.

In my junior year, I moved to Richland, where I graduated from High School.  Richland is an unusual town.  The Hanford Atomic Works, nearby, was one of the places where work was done on the atomic bomb during the Second World War. The town was built for the workers, managers, engineers and scientists who built the chemical separations facilities essential for the atomic bomb project during the war.  Richland was a secret city for a period during and immediately after the war.  The high school team name is The Bombers.  The young people there were largely the children of upper-middle-class college graduates.  Most parents had carefully planned out their children’s futures.  

I graduated from Richland High School in 1967, and was accepted for college at the University of Washington in Seattle.