“Take my word for it"

Sen. Howard Baker reminisced about ORNL science and personalities during a visit in 2000


Sen. Howard Baker (second from left) with three ORNL directors, Bill Madia (left), Alvin Weinberg and Herman Postma (right) in June 2000.Sen. Howard Baker (second from left) with three ORNL directors, Bill Madia (left), Alvin Weinberg and Herman Postma (right) in June 2000. (hi-res image)

The late Sen. Howard H. Baker was a friend to the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is in the state he represented in Washington. The Tennessee "favorite son" was invited to present the annual Alvin Weinberg Lecture in June 2000. The following is a story on Sen. Baker's talk.

The title of former Senator Howard Baker's Weinberg lecture on June 13 was "At the Nexus of Science and Public Policy." What he really talked about was his relationship with ORNL and science issues during a career that has earned him renown as a senior statesman.

Baker said that over the years he has received so much guidance and criticism from the lecturer's namesake, ORNL Director Emeritus Alvin Weinberg, that he wouldn't be surprised if Weinberg handed him a grade on his talk. Weinberg indeed was in the audience.

Baker recalled getting a call from Eugene Wigner, ORNL's first research director. He knew Wigner was one of the scientists who persuaded Albert Einstein to convince President Roosevelt to build the atom bomb. "My god, what now?" he recalled thinking.

What Wigner wanted to talk about was the disparity in civil defense preparedness that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Baker said Nobel laureate Wigner arrived at the senator's Huntsville, Tenn., home perched on the sissy bar of the late ORNL researcher Conrad Chester's motorcycle.

Baker once asked Wigner what Einstein was really like. Wigner replied, "He was a great idea man but a terrible mathematician."

Baker also recalled that the fledgling Human Genome Project came within a "hair's breadth" of being discontinued. "President Reagan couldn't figure out why it was important," Baker recalled "Just take my word for it," he assured the president.

The former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff says the success of Silicon Valley underscores the role science plays in the creation of wealth. "If economic growth depends on information, we must be on the threshold of a new era—if we don't drown in all the information."

Baker's day in Oak Ridge wasn't purely a pleasure trip. He was accompanied by veteran political advisor Lloyd Cutler for meetings on nuclear nonproliferation in preparation for a trip to Russia.

 -  Bill Cabage,  865.574.4399,  June 26, 2014

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