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September 1998

Among friends: Warren Washington kicks off Walt Roberts lecture series

He's explained difficult science to difficult audiences and vouched for atmospheric research in the White House and the halls of Congress. Compared to all that, Warren Washington's appearance at the Boulder Public Library (BPL) on 10 August was a cake walk. Before a warmly appreciative, standing-room-only crowd of more than 200, Warren looked back at key events of his life as a student, an NCAR researcher, and a science advocate.

Warren's talk, "From Slide Rule to Supercomputer: A 30-Year Review of Atmospheric Science and Public Policy," was the inaugural Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture, organized by the UCAR Office of Development and Government Affairs to honor NCAR's founding director. "It's hard to believe it's been eight years since Walt passed away," observed UCAR president Rick Anthes at the beginning of the presentation.

Introducing Warren was longtime friend and colleague Shirley Malcom, director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "Warren has played a major part in the lifeblood of the AAAS," said Malcom as she recounted their meeting in the mid-1970s, when she had just joined the AAAS staff and Warren was involved in fledgling diversity programs at the Education and Human Resources Directorate.

The first part of Warren's talk was a chronology of his interest in science, which began during his grade-school years in Portland, Oregon. He recalled reading about Albert Einstein and George Washington Carver and investigating why egg yolks are yellow. Warren's first job was washing dishes at a local hospital for 72 cents an hour: "This gave me great status in my community [because] I was able to buy a $75 car [a 1936 Ford]. . . . I actually washed dishes up through my first year of graduate school."

Things changed quickly for Warren during his years at Oregon State University. At first a physics major, Warren didn't get the weather bug until he was assigned to operate a research radar atop Mount Mary, in Oregon's Coast Range. (Warren joked that the experience actually caused him to shift from observational science toward modeling.) After a brief stint at Stanford Research Institute, where he met visiting Russian premier Nikita Khruschev in 1959, Warren moved to Pennsylvania State University to complete his doctorate in meteorology.

"The story becomes muddy," said Warren in describing his leap from State College to Boulder, adding that "NCAR was rather informal in those days" (a comment that elicited knowing chuckles from the many senior research associates in the audience). Warren met with NCAR associate director Phil Thompson in a "dimly lit cocktail lounge" in New York City at the 1963 meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Warren recalled Phil's description of his job offer--"after a suitable show of reluctance, [Warren] accepted"--and revealed that NCAR offered him $9,000 a year while another institution had ponied up $12K.

Flanked on the left by his daughter Teri Ciocco and wife, Mary, and on the right by stepsons Brian and Raymond Curtis, Warren Washington endures a gentle roasting from Shirley Malcom. "Right now," said Malcom, "he is sitting here squirming in his seat, being forced to listen to me say nice things about him." In the audience were four of the eight children in Warren's extended family and five of his 16 grandkids. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

Later in the talk, Warren recounted his increasing involvement in the AAAS and in presidential advising, from his 1977 appointment by Jimmy Carter to the National Advisory Committee for Oceans and Atmosphere to his current post on the executive committe of the National Science Board. He regaled the audience with the inside version of a story later publicized in The New York Times. During the Bush administration, chief of staff John Sununu (an engineer) asked Warren to develop a climate model he could run on his Compaq 386 computer. Eventually, Warren devised a stripped-down model that he delivered to Sununu on a single floppy disk, amid a bevy of Secret Service agents.

Warren closed by stressing the need to make the case for science to the nation at large: "We need to come up with better methods to make our science known to policy makers and the public . . . and scientists have to help in this process." To young people in the audience, he asserted, "There is no limit" to their potential--especially if they're prepared to change careers several times in their lives. •BH


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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