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Herman Brenner White, Jr.

Physicist Herman Brenner White was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on September 28, 1948. He attended Macon County public schools and developed a great interest in science at an early age. Growing up so close to the Tuskegee Institute, White was able to talk to the professors there about science. In 1966, he graduated from the Tuskegee Institute High School. He decided to attend Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana for his undergraduate studies where he obtained his B.A. degree in physics in 1970. During graduate school at Michigan State University, White split his time at Michigan State's Cyclotron Laboratory in East Lansing, Michigan and the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois. As an award for excellent graduate research, White became an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and was sent to study in Geneva, Switzerland at the CERN European Laboratory for Particle Physics in 1972. He found a new passion there and shifted his research areas from nuclear and acceleration physics to particle physics. In 1974, he received his M.S. degree in physics from Michigan State University.

White was initially a neutrino physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and has held various positions there since 1974. Fermilab is the highest energy particle accelerator in the world where White has been a senior scientist. He was a university fellow in physics from 1976 to 1978 at Yale University. He taught physics again starting in 1987 during his doctoral studies at Florida State University and received his Ph.D. degree in 1991. At Fermilab he has collaborated on numerous high-energy particle physics experiments in addition to the design of high-energy particle beam and detector systems. One notable collaboration was when White worked as a kaon researcher and diplomat with Universidad Autonoma de San Luis Potosi in Central Mexico.

White has been an adjunct physics professor at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. In addition to his earlier fellowships, White was selected as an Illinois Industrial Research Corridor Fellow for North Central College in 1994. He has served on various physics communication and advisory panels for governmental agencies and the American Physical Society and has been a member of the American Physical Society’s Public Face of Physics Team.

Herman White was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 13, 2006.

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Physicist Herman Brenner White, Jr. (1948 - ) has worked as a staff scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for over three decades, and is known for his particle physics work regarding mesons and quarks.


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Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Herman White's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Herman White shares his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Herman White talks about his mother's side of the family, part 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Herman White discusses the Tuskegee Institute as well as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Herman White talks about his perception of Tuskegee, Alabama

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Herman White talks about his mother's side of the family, part 2

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Herman White discusses his family origins on both sides

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Herman White talks about how he takes after his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Herman White talks about his aunts and uncles

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Herman White talks about his sister, Zepherine White Finch, and her name origin

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Herman White describes his earliest memories

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Herman White remembers taking piano lessons and his family's appreciation for music

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Herman White recalls the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Herman White talks about how he was perceived in school

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Herman White shares his early interest in science

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Herman White talks about his favorite teachers in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Herman White recalls the names of his schools

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Herman White talks about growing up in Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Herman White talks about the church community and well-known parishioners

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Herman White recalls how integration was a dangerous and intense time during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Herman White remembers Sammy Younge Jr., the first black college student to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Herman White recalls how the Civil Rights Movement affected his college choices

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Herman White talks about Earlham College

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Herman White talks about his interest in science at age sixteen and choosing Earlham, College

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Herman White talks about his interest in physics

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Herman White talks about his summer job at Chrysler Corporation and his interests in computer programming and engineering

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Herman White talks about how he switched from nuclear physics to particle physics

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Herman White describes his mentor, Professor Henry Blosser, at Michigan State University

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Herman White talks about Michigan State University president, Dr. Clifton Wharton

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Herman White explains his work at the cyclotron lab

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Herman White explains the difference between a nuclear physicist and a particle physicist

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Herman White discusses atoms and the laws of nuclear and particle physics

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Herman White talks about high energy beams and accelerator laboratories

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Herman White talks about his first two years working at Fermilab and going for his Ph.D. at Yale University

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Herman White talks about his particle physics research at the CERN laboratory

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Herman White explains the kaon

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Herman White talks about how Fermilab was named

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Herman White explains the Stefanski and White model for a neutrino production equation

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Herman White shares how he chose Florida State University for his Ph.D.

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Herman White talks about Fermilab's Illinois location and his number 711 experiment on constituent scattering

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Herman White describes his ten year long experiment

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Herman White talks about the kaons of the tevatron experiment and his essay about how the public needs physics

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Herman White talks about increasing representation for women and other minorities in physics

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Herman White shares his plans for a future neutrino experiment and the international linear collider

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Herman White describes how scientific training could be useful for politicians to make more informed decisions

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Herman White explains why accelerators are underground for safety and regulation

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Herman White talks about employee safety at Fermilab and how his former teachers perceive him

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Herman White talks about employee safety at Fermilab

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Herman White talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Herman White hopes his legacy will be that of an innovator







Herman White shares his early interest in science
Herman White talks about his particle physics research at the CERN laboratory
And when actually did your interest in science evolve? Were you up in age or (unclear)?$$It's still evolving. Well I would say my interest in science was--I cannot remember when I wasn't interested in science. And of course, now I call it science but I think certainly when I was growing up it was just curiosity. My concerns was really answering some very basic questions. My--I go back and give my parents a great deal of credit for tolerating some of my eccentricities. I would always try to mix things up in my mother's kitchen and I learned how to clean the kitchen very well as a result of that mixing up experiments. But I was given a great deal of latitude to try to explore and to understand in fact how nature worked around me. I recall actually being in the woods next to my house finding a--the bottom part of one of these old Coca Cola bottles and this effectively turns out to be a lens because these were thick pieces of glass. And it was fascinating to me that I could actually use this thick piece of class to essentially focus down the rays of the sun and start--I'm not a pyrotechnic person but focus down the sun's rays and cause a little heat combustion with some leaves. That was very fascinating to me. I could not understand how it would be possible to do that and I could put my hand, not at the focus, but put my hand underneath this lens and nothing would happen to it. But there would be enough heat concentrated at the focal point to actually cause combustion. And I think this sort of thing was the, sort of the basis by which I actually started to study and to think about how things really work. You know why the sky is the color it is? Why the stars look the way they do? And of course in Alabama in the early 1950s, you could actually see the sky rather clearly. You didn't have as much pollution and that sort of--light pollution or any other type of pollution. So it was very, very fascinating for me to be able to put these things together to see in fact the environment that I lived in and also to understand something about the science that would probably answer some of these questions. And I had a great deal of, how do I put it? I had a great deal of support with regard to the community as well. Tuskegee, Alabama is a real significant place with regard to education activities. Certainly as a young person growing up there and having a university town essentially where you could go and talk to chemists or you could talk to physicists or you could talk to people who were aviation pioneers, this was a very easy thing to do. So it was, it seemed normal to me to be able to actually exercise some of the resources that I had to be able to do things. And I really enjoyed that a great deal. I think once I started down this path of asking these questions and being able to do little, small experiments and so forth, I think that sort of provided the, at least the direction, at some level the motivation as well to continue to do scientific work.$Well at CERN laboratory CERN [Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire/European Council for Nuclear Research's European Laboratory for Particle Physics]in 1972, I--my work there was, it was a great revelation for me to be able to go from a graduate student at Michigan State [University, East Lansing, Michigan] studying nuclear and particular physics to actually the possibility of doing something different. I was in the, what's known as the MSC division which is the nuclear physics accelerator division but I also got a chance to hang out with European students who were over in the PS division which is the proton/synchrotron division and also to study during the summer--well during the fall, spring, fall and--spring, summer and fall with the students who were studying particle physics. And I was very lucky to be able to do this being one of the first Americans who ever was allowed to be in this particular program. I got a chance to essentially interact with some people who were truly textbook named scientists and indeed I studied with a number of people who provided lectures for us. Professor Victor Weisskopf [Victor Frederick Weisskopf] who was chairman of the physics department at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts], Professor Valentine Telegdi [Valentine Louis Telegdi] who was a professor of physics at the University of Chicago [Chicago, Illinois] and Professor Kurt Gottfried who was a professor of physics at State University of New York [SIC] [Cornell University, Ithaca, New York]. And I had the opportunity to interact with people some of whom I didn't realize who they were. In particular, and I don't mind actually telling this story. We had a meeting after our lecture series that day that Professor Weisskopf invited all the students to come and have lunch with him and so we sat around. And I made some comment at the lunch about the quark theory that I wasn't so sure about this theory. And of course it was interpreted that I was criticizing this theory as opposed to just not being well read in that particular area of particle physics. And Mr. Weisskopf said well perhaps we should all introduce ourselves. We went around the table and just to 2:00 o'clock on the other side of the table from me a man introduced himself as Murray Gell-Mann. And I said you're not the uh--and he says, yes I am the uh. Murray Gell-Mann was the most recent Nobel Prize winner in physics for the quark theory and here was this young, energetic summer student saying he wasn't so sure about it. So I spent about three hours with Professor Gell-Mann after that walking around the laboratory, going to his office, going to the library trying to essentially recover myself in terms of understanding the quark theory and understanding something about the science. He was a very kind person and didn't tell me to go away. I mean this was about three hours with a Nobel Laureate and I was somewhat depressed after that point because I really sort of figured I had blown it pretty well. But actually he understood that I wasn't actually criticizing the quark theory, I was basically expressing a lack of knowledge about it and so I got a real lesson so to speak. My work primarily at CERN was the development of certain types of measuring systems for the MSC, for the synchrocyclotron and I had a very good opportunity to do scientific computing as well as to interact with people from other countries. In particular, my office mate was from the Duvna Laboratory in what was the former Soviet Union [Duvna U.S.S.R. Laboratory of Theoretical Physics]. And that was a very interesting experience of course because we, our interactions with various individuals during those times was somewhat limited, but being an American citizen of course you didn't expect to actually interact--I didn't expect certainly to. But I did research work there and I also did research work in kaon physics as a student assistant to Professor Valentine Telegdi who gave a series of lectures on Kaon physics. And being a summer student and somewhat not in the European tradition I would introduce myself and interrupt the professor during his presentation, which was not done. So at the conclusion of his lecture series, I was asked to be his lecture assistant and write up his lectures on the K0K0 bar complex and little did I know that maybe twenty years later I would be doing an experiment on the K0K0 bar complex.