Robert Forward was one of Joe Weber's students in the physics department at the University of Maryland, back in the 1960s when he did his thesis on gravitational wave detectors. He was a force behind the early development of "Weber bars", those multi-ton masses of aluminum that, when suspended on threads and coupled to ultra-sensitive strain gauges, have a chance to pick up the vibrations in spacetime caused by collapsing black holes or other extreme astrophysical phenomena. (see QuantumNondemolition (5 Feb 2000), RelativityPlusAstrophysics (29 Mar 2000), NiAndMe (27 Apr 2000), etc.)

Bob Forward was also quite a character. As a poor young scientist he couldn't afford much of a wardrobe — but his wife sewed him a closet full of eye-searing polychromatic vests, and he made them his trademark. His oblate spheroidal profile helped display them to maximum advantage. So did his habit of slipping away and changing vests during the day, particularly at conventions and conferences.

After a career at Hughes Research Laboratories Forward moved on to write science fiction, both for fun and to help pay his daughters' college tuition bills. His stories, as he himself admitted, were weak on character development; Bob's trump cards were in the physics. His early work Dragon's Egg remains one of my favorite sf novels. It's much like Hal Clement's classic Mission of Gravity, but on steroids — a tale of aliens who live on the surface of a neutron star, and who age and evolve millions of times faster than humans. (re Clement, see also FanLetterFeedback, 7 Mar 2001)

I was lucky enough to meet Bob in the mid-1970s. We sat next to each other in a basement Caltech conference room during one afternoon departmental seminar when a small earthquake rippled by. Our eyes met as we tried to decide whether to run for the door or sit it out. (The ground stopped shaking after a moment, and the lecture continued uneventfully.) Bob was a constant source of encouragement to grad students in their thesis work on general relativity, particularly concerning "practical" aspects related to sensors.

A few years later, when I was married and moved to the East Coast, Bob Forward's path and mine crossed again. He kindly visited at my invitation and gave gratis seminars on his work for my co-workers — high-energy talks on exotic technologies including light valves, atomic refrigerators, and antimatter rocket propulsion.

Bob's enthusiasm for new ideas in science was contagious. But just as impressive, on a more personal scale, was his graciousness and courtesy toward a young fellow physicist (i.e., me!) and family. Bob told stories of going to junior high not far from our neighborhood ... he sang the school song ("By the banks of bounteous Sligo ...") ... he took us out to dinner and insisted on paying ... and he went out of his way to acknowledge minor contributions and suggestions that I gave him on some of his manuscripts. Thanks, Bob.

I haven't heard from Bob now for almost a decade. I hope that he's happily retired, cultivating his garden and enjoying his grandchildren. Well-deserved pleasures.

Robert L. Forward, gentleman and scholar ....

TopicScience - TopicProfiles - TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-02-21

(correlates: FreeTrial, SpinCycle, FastForwardFiftyYears, ...)