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April 18, 2014

Another good friend of strikingly superior intelligence was Edward (Ed) U. Condon. I was best man at his son’s wedding and got to know him that way. Since I loved mountain climbing in Colorado and since he and his wife Emilie lived in a big house in Boulder in which they liked to have guests, I stayed with them on many occasions.

Ed was incredibly lucky to receive a National Research Council fellowship to study at Goettingen and Munich just when modern quantum mechanics was being developed. He was the first American to return with an up-to-date knowledge of this incredibly fast moving field and was thus the conduit by which American physicists anxious to learn about the subject first got their information. 

He is perhaps now best remembered for several things outside his research. Several are amusing. 

During the McCarthy period, when efforts were being made to root out communist sympathizers in the United States, he was a target of Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee on the grounds that he was a ‘follower’ of a ‘new revolutionary movement’, quantum mechanics. He defended himself with a famous commitment to physics and science. 

It was probably his wife Emilie Honzik Condon who first got him in trouble. She was proud of her ability to speak most of the East European languages. As the wife of the Director of the National Bureau of Standards, she was invited to diplomatic parties in Washington D. C. Made voluble by the free flowing alcohol, she chatted with all the communist diplomatic delegates often in languages that the FBI agents did not understand. Very suspicious!

This ordeal gave of the HUAC hearing him sympathy for other targets of HUAC, and that gave me the opportunity for one of my best pranks. Through, my wife Laramie I had gotten to know the wonderful couple Frank (Dank) and Mary Folsom who are best remembered as prolific authors (often under pseudonyms) of children’s books many dealing with science. Frank was also head of the Communist party USA authors section. At the time of this incident they were retired and living in a beautiful modern log cabin on the edge of a cliff high above Boulder. (Folsom Stadium at Colorado University in Boulder was named for Dank’s father who had been the football coach there.) Ed was friends with Robert Openheimer and his younger brother Frank and during the summer while I was staying at his house Frank was scheduled to make a visit. Frank had been a member of CPUSA at a time when this was a sort of romantic thing to do. Party members imitated Russian party members by taking the name of a prison as their party last name. (In Russia this was the first prison in which they had been incarcerated.) So Frank Oppenheimer was a second Frank Folsom in the CPUSA. HUAC and the FBI totally misunderstood nearly everything about CPUSA, so they became TOTALLY confused by two Frank Folsoms, leading to much confusion in hearings. Without giving either one advanced notice I invited the real Frank Folsom to meet the fake one. When I introduced them, they were (not surprisingly) very wary of each other. Later in the evening they found a quiet place and had a long talk.

Robert Oppenheimer had wanted Ed Condon as second in scientific command (General Leslie Groves was in full non-scientific control) at Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was developed. Ed visited but could not stand Groves and was deeply disturbed by the secrecy that even divided people within the scientific faculty, so he worked on radar instead. (As a Quaker this was more comfortable.)

Richard Nixon and HUAC were interested in Ed because President Truman had appointed him Director of the National Bureau of Sciences. A post of Presidential Science Advisers was established much later and the director of NBS acted in this capacity for Truman. President Truman and Ed got along extremely well, despite their quite different backgrounds.
Since Ed was known for bluntly speaking his mind, when a public craze about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) seemed to be getting out of hand, In the late 60s the Air Force appointed him to lead a panel of experts and write a report. I was staying at his house during part of this time and he had lots of funny stories. After widely reported incidents he would call up all those who had talked to the press and say that he would be there as soon as possible to investigate. On a number of occasions these widely quoted sources would deny having heard anything about the incident. There was almost never any physical evidence in the reports, so he was very interested when a stain on beach sand was reported to be from the exhaust of the UFO’s take-off engine. It turned out to be male human urine. (Too bad modern genetics was not available. Perhaps a shed cell could have identified the source.)

Here is a bit more plagiarism from Wikipedia. (I use this source many times a day to get proper dates and spellings of names for my memories, so I am also a financial supporter. I encourage you to do likewise if Wikipedia is important to you.):

Edward Uhler Condon (March 2, 1902 – March 26, 1974) was a distinguished American nuclear physicist, a pioneer in quantum mechanics, and a participant in the development of radar and nuclear weapons during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project.[1] The Franck–Condon principle and the Slater–Condon rules are named after him.
He was the director of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) from 1945 to 1951. In 1946, Condon was president of the American Physical Society, and in 1953 was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This article goes on to point out that Ed was born in New Mexico because his father was an engineer building narrow gauge railroads there and in Colorado (another interest of mine.)

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