Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Historic Link with the Past: the Passing of Physicist Larry Johnston

Last Sunday (December 4), University of Idaho Emeritus Physics Professor  Lawrence H. “Larry” Johnston passed away in Moscow. “One of the last survivors of the Manhattan project,” Larry “is believed to be the only eyewitness to all three 1945 atomic explosions – at White Sands, New Mexico, and in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki … ”

A full obituary is available from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Although not an active member of the Idaho Academy of Science, Professor Johnston had two close links to our organization. Our recent President from the College of Southern Idaho, Mark Daily, said Johnston “was my first physics professor at the U of I and I did my senior project under him, building a spark arrestor for his HCN laser. Larry had a profound effect on me as a young man.”

There are, no doubt, other members of the Academy who likewise remember Johnston with respect and affection. His obituary spoke of him as a “natural teacher,” who looked for “teachable moments” in the most unlikely settings.

It is with some pride, that I – alerted by Mark – also mention that the Academy made Larry the 2010 recipient of our Distinguished Scientist Award. While, on paper, we honored him, it is equally true that he added luster to the Academy, and the teaching profession in Idaho.

The Journal of the Idaho Academy of Science described the many accomplishments for which Johnston received his Award. The item noted that, “His work on proton-proton scattering is still the definitive work on the subject.” It also points out that, “Dr. Johnston’s invention of the Exploding Bridge Wire Detonator continues to save lives today, since this detonator is now used to activate automotive air bags.”

Although Dr. Johnston attained many other fine achievements, interviewers inevitably returned to his link with the atomic bomb. Again quoting the Journal, “Dr. Johnston flew in observation planes during the the testing at Trinity site in New Mexico, and both delivery missions of bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Since this issue receives so much attention, let me digress a bit. Reporters almost invariably asked Johnston if he had any regrets about the bomb. Larry – a thoughtful, and deeply religious man – always said he felt “privileged” to help end the war quickly and save many more deaths, on both sides. (Your “blogster,” having studied that issue at some length, whole-heartedly supports that view.)

Beyond the war context, air bags continue to save lives, as do Dr. Johnston’s contributions to nuclear medicine. The Journal article also said, “When he was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, part of his treatment was irradiation from medical accelerators, which were great grandchildren of Larry’s early devices.”

The item commented that it was “not possible to hear Dr. Johnston speak and not think long and hard about the joys and duties of citizen scientists and engineers.”

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