John H. (Jack) Marburger, III (1941-2011) – requiescat in pace

Jack Marburger died Thursday, July 28, after battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma for four years. A former science advisor to President George W. Bush from 2001-2009, he also served in many positions at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A physics professor and then chair of the physics department there, he was named president at the age of 39. He then held that position from 1980-1994. He directed DoE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1998-2001.

None of these tenures was particularly easy. It seemed to be his lot to encumber these jobs during times of great difficulty and controversy. He served as science advisor to the president longer than any of his predecessors, yet was dogged throughout by criticism from the scientific community and from some political leaders during a very contentious period. The dustups ranged from fights over climate science and stem cell research to “the politicization of science” many saw in the Bush-administration appointments to advisory committees, etc. However, those who knew Marburger found him to be not only a capable scientist but also a man of great personal integrity and strength of character. Someone once said that “meekness is strength under control.” This portrayal fit him. He never abused his position or influence. He never complained. He never lashed out in response to any of the unfair things said of him. He was humble. These are virtues for anyone.

For more of his biography, please click here or click here. These and other accounts list his accomplishments far better than I ever could.

That said, here are one or two additional vignettes that add to the picture of this wonderful man. The first comes from an incident I shared in an earlier post:

Early in the Bush administration, sometime during the winter of 2001-2002, I got to sit in on a remarkable conversation. Three of us were meeting with the president’s new science advisor, John H. “Jack” Marburger, III, in his office. He was just getting his feet on the ground, and reaching out to different sectors of the science community. We were there to speak a bit to the contributions atmospheric science had made to the country, and how these contributions would not have been possible without steady government support, sustained for several decades. We weren’t there to ask for something; we were there to express thanks for past support, from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

At one point Jack invited us to each say something about the work of our respective organizations. I’d been at the American Meteorological Society only a year or so, and felt I’d rather say something about the work of our Education Program rather than my own policy interests. So I described how Ira Geer[1] and his staff had constructed a wonderful Ponzi or pyramid scheme. Many science education programs focused on getting practicing scientists in the classroom; the idea has been that somehow these scientists could convey the excitement of the research bench. Some university faculty have proved better at this than others, but the results have been checkered at best. Ira and the AMS came at this from the opposite direction: public school teachers knew how to relate to the school kids; so why not give these teachers the resources they’d need to teach Earth science content? The AMS focused on reaching into the classrooms of education departments at universities and community colleges. They also chose to work closely, over a period of years, with a small cohort of public school teachers, who in turn would return home each year, and establish and  maintain further cohorts (of cohorts) in their home states. In this way, Ira and his staff of ten or so were reaching 100,000 teachers and ten million students. Good numbers! [learn more.]

Marburger thought so too. He had been polite all along, but now grew animated, leaned forward. “American kids care about three kinds of science,” he said, “space, dinosaurs, and the weather.” He then recounted a story from his Brookhaven National Laboratory days. “We had an open house every year,” he said.

“One year, looking for ways to boost public attendance, we realized we had a National Weather Service Forecast Office on our [extensive] Brookhaven premises. We added them to our open house. The good news was that attendance shot way up! The bad news was everyone flocked to the Doppler radar. No one wanted to see our particle accelerators.”

The point of the earlier post had to do with education. But this conversation was revealing in another respect. Many political appointees (and I’ve seen my share); might have been looking to see the end of a introductory visit such as ours, impatient to get on to larger affairs of state. If Jack felt that way, he hid it well. Throughout he displayed his signature graciousness. He was generous with his time. He listened to what we had to say and kept the conversation there versus bringing us around to his agenda.

At Brookhaven, Jack had befriended Robert Crease, a science historian at SUNY-Stony Brook. Robert has an extensive biography, but he also writes a monthly column for Physics World. Back in December of 2000, he wrote a column entitled A Top Ten for Science and Society, which was so intriguing I asked him to give an after-dinner speech at our AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. He did, providing one of the most memorable evenings we’ve enjoyed in the ten-year history of the Colloquium. But afterward, he suggested that Colloquium participants might enjoy meeting Marburger. I thought that was a bit beyond our reach, but Robert made an e-mail introduction, and Jack agreed to come speak.

It was the first of three times he would speak at the event over the years. Each time, his encounter was regarded as a highlight for the participants, as expressed in their written evaluations.

It’s the third visit I’ll always treasure. Jack was already struggling with the lymphoma. His scheduler told me he was undergoing chemotherapy, but she knew he liked the event, and so she said she’d ask. To our surprise, he agreed. In a period when he was accepting no other invitations he took this one. He enjoyed talking with young scientists.

My wife came in to town from home that night to join us and hear him. He came in for his dinner talk by Metro, and the agreement was she and I would give him a ride home. During the evening, I found myself wondering what we might talk about…you know, that “elevator speech” we all prepare. But when we got into the car, I found to my surprise that my wife had an elevator speech all her own.  As soon as we were settled, she allowed as how she wasn’t a big fan of making automobile fuel out of corn-based ethanol, and what did he think? For next twenty minutes they had a marvelous dialog. She’d ask questions and he’d give answers, and add an anecdote or a bit of background, and share some of his own concerns.

It was a privilege to be their chauffeur.

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