Leaving Home: Stories about the places we're from

This week, we're presenting stories about leaving home in pursuit of science.

Part 1: After being raised as a creationist, Jennifer Colbourne falls in love with evolutionary science.

Jennifer Colbourne is a graduate student at York University where she is currently researching raccoon intelligence. She is interested in how animals are adapting to cities, and how to improve animal-human interactions in the urban environment.

Part 2: Herman B. White leaves his hometown of Tuskegee behind to pursue physics -- but his Alabama roots help him make a surprising connection later in his career. 

Check out the full video of our show at Fermilab>>

Herman B. White, Jr. is a Senior Scientist having served Fermilab for over 43 years in leadership roles and research on nearly a dozen experiments covering, Neutrino, Muon, and Kaon physics and projects in accelerators and particle beams. For decades, he has worked to communicate important decisions about physical science research to the U. S. Congress, agencies in Washington and the world, including service on advisory panels for the Energy Department (HEPAP), National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Academies, the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, and APS. He was a Resident Research Associate in Nuclear Physics at Argonne National Laboratory for a period in 1971, a Sloan travel fellow at CERN during part of 1972, a University Fellow at Yale from 1976-78, and received his Ph.D. from Florida State University. Among his recognitions, for his contributions to Kaon Physics and the establishment of a new kind of interaction distinguishing matter from antimatter, he received the (APS), American Physical Society, Edward A. Bouchet Award in 2010.  His life story recorded in 2006 by the HistoryMakers organization in Chicago, was made a part of  the HistoryMakers Video Oral History Archives currently included in the USA Library of Congress permanent repository.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jennifer Colbourne

More than anything, when I was a kid, I wanted a testimony.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Christian evangelicalism, a testimony is when you get up in front of your church and tell everyone about how you found Jesus.  The best testimonies are full of trials and tribulations and how finding Jesus transformed your life from darkness to light.  I never had the chance to have a testimony. 

I was a born Christian.  Sure, when I was six I repeated the Sinner’s Prayer after my parents and invited Jesus into my heart but even then I thought that was a strange formality because I felt like Jesus always had been in my heart.  It was the same when I got older and it was time to get baptized.  I didn’t feel like I was making a decision.  I felt like that decision had been made for me.  The thing is, when you're a kid, whatever your parents tell you as real becomes part of your reality. 

I was told that the world was round so I believed the world was round.  And I was told that if you didn’t wash your hands, these invisible little germs would make you sick.  So I washed my hands.  And I was told that God created the heavens and the earth in seven days and sent his only Son to die for our sins so I wouldn’t be tortured in hell for eternity.  So I believed that too. 

The thing was, though, strangely I didn’t like that I had been born a Christian.  I really wished I had had the chance to find Jesus for myself.  It would have felt more genuine.  I wanted to experience firsthand the supposed life-changing effects of finding our Savior, but I had to resign myself to my faith as a Born Again Christian. 

I was also a born researcher.  Ever since I was little, when I was interested in a subject, I had to learn everything about it.  The librarians always got such a kick out of me because I would leave the library with a stack of books right up to my chin.  When I was nine, my obsession was all volcanoes.  I read everything you could think of even though I was kind of terrified of volcanoes because I had seen Dante’s Peak and, of course, Volcano, and I was kind of convinced that the mountains nearby were actually unknown dormant volcanoes and one day I'd wake up to lava flowing into my living room. 

Through volcanoes I discovered Pompeii.  Then I became obsessed with ancient civilizations.  When I was ten if you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would tell you in all sincerity that I would be an archeologist, travel around Egypt in a motor home full of cats. 

That was the year I ended up in Mr. Pew’s class.  Mr. Pew is the kind of teacher every kid should have.  His classroom was like a natural sciences laboratory.  We had snakes, toads, frogs, we had geckos and salamanders, hedgehogs, six actually, and a Cayman.  Like those little alligator things.  Yeah, we had one of those. 

Mr. Pew was a paleontologist so he brought the neatest things to class to teach us about.  He brought an actual mammoth hair, which we got to touch.  He brought in dinosaur bones and, to our amusement, dinosaur poop.  We even did a project where we got to clean amber for scientists at a university so that they could look at the insects inside. 

Mr. Pew could pick up on my keen interest and I quickly became a teacher’s pet.  In fact, he even gave me a few fossils of my own and it became my most treasured possessions.  I had a secret, though.  I felt a little sorry for Mr. Pew.  The thing was, he seemed really convinced that these fossils of his were millions of years old when in reality they were six thousand years old and have been created by Noah’s flood. 

I knew this was a problem and a lot of scientists have been taken in.  I kept running into the same stuff with volcanoes millions of millions of years, totally not true.  And what bothered me more was that some scientists did know the truth.  If other scientists could just look at the evidence unbiased they would see that it was ridiculous that the world was so old. 

It really turned me off that scientists were keeping this big secret and from what I've heard, it was to turn people away from God.  I just didn’t want to be part of that.  So after Mr. Pew’s class, I really started to drift away from my early interest in the natural sciences. 

When I was twelve, the moment I had been dreading came.  We had to learn about evolution in class.  Now, my parents have prepared me.  They said, “You know what?  Whatever they say, just put it on the test.  You'll know in your heart that it’s not true.” 

And I did know it wasn’t true because my cousin had a written a book for junior high students called Somebody’s Making A Monkey Out Of You and I had read it.  It explained just how carbon dating was just a huge accident.  They were getting all the dates wrong.  They were misidentifying the bones and sometimes even just making stuff up. 

My dad had big books on his shelf by scientists that explained, in detail, just all the things that were wrong with the theory.  I felt that if I could just bring one of these big books to my teacher, he could see that he had been duped. 

So I asked my dad, “Can I borrow one of these books to show my teacher?” 

And he said, “Well, yes, Jennifer, but maybe you should read it first.” 

I tried flipping through it but it was pretty hard to understand but I knew it was smart because it had graphs and big words and I knew my teacher was smart enough that just reading this book he would be completely convinced of the conspiracy. 

I still remember vividly my march up to his desk.  I plopped the book down and said, “The Theory of Evolution is false.  Look at all the problems with it.” 

He turned bright red and, with some self-restraint, I may add, he said to me, “Yes, there are some small holes in the Theory of Evolution but there are even bigger holes in your Theory of Creationism.” 

I was taken aback.  I never really thought of what I believed as a theory requiring evidence before.  It was the divine truth, wasn’t it? 

After that, I disengaged from science even further.  The conflict was just too much.  Even for an evangelical Christian, my sect was considered extreme.  Pentecostalism.  We’re talking faith healing, casting out of demons, speaking in tongues.  We’re talking no sex, no alcohol, no non-Christian music or TV.  We’re talking being convinced in your hear that your non-Christian friends were going to be tortured for eternity in hell and feeling guilt and shame that you hadn’t tried harder to save their souls. 

Jennifer Colbourne shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto. Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

Jennifer Colbourne shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto. Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

Science just didn’t line up with the young earth creationist narrative that the people I loved and respected assured me was true.  So in high school I focused on music.  And when I went to university, I focused on English and history. 

History is my next big challenge, though.  The archeological evidence just seemed so clear that other civilizations had existed for thousands and thousands of years before Abraham came along, before technically the beginning of earth was supposed to happen.  Even worse, the Bible stories that I had taken as history seemed to appear in other cultures as myths long, long, long before the Old Testament times.  I had this feeling that if I kept going to university, I was going to lose my faith. 

So I stopped going to university.  But I came back the next year because I was so bored.  I had been working as a house painter and, let me tell you, that’s as boring as watching paint dry.  But sure enough, I lost my faith.  To be an evangelical Christian you have to believe the Bible is 100% true and I just couldn’t believe that anymore. 

I felt like a hypocrite.  I stopped going to church and I broke my mother’s heart.  I still remember my mother saying to me, with all sincerity and no irony, that she wished that she and my father hadn’t taught us kids to think for ourselves.  I felt alienated from my family, my community and my friends.  It was the hardest decision I've ever made. 

At this time, I was taking an English course with one of the most brilliant women I've ever met in my life, Miriam Nichols.  And I still remember sitting in on a lecture on T.S. Eliot and it was as if a light had gone on in my head.  I could suddenly think of things in a deeper way that I've never thought before and I had started my journey to becoming a critical thinker. 

Dr. Nichols encouraged in me a love for great ideas and I soaked up as many perspectives in the world as I possibly could.  I quickly began to excel as a student and started to think that maybe I would fit in academia. 

However, at this time my plan was that I was going to be a literary critic and I was about to graduate.  It was my honors year.  I was doing an honors thesis with Dr. Nichols on Gertrude Stein and sex and I had to take a required social sciences course.  Almost at a flip of a coin, I ended up in psychology. 

In psychology, I learned about the scientific method.  And maybe most of you learn about that in high school but somehow I had missed the memo and it just blew me away.  The logic and simplicity of science. 

This time with an open mind, I learned about natural selection and I was as excited as if I had discovered it myself.  When I was little, I had always had a fascination with animals but I had been told animals had no souls and that they were unimportant compared to humans.  Now, learning about the evolutionary continuity between their minds and mine I just wanted to know everything I possibly could about how they thought and I was filled with the conviction that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. 

But I already had a degree and a career path.  So I took a year off and I thought, well, and I started paying off my substantial student loans.  And I came to the quite cheesy resolution that, you know what?  I only have one life to live so I might as well do what I really want to do.  I went back to school part time and upgraded my degree to psychology and focused on animal cognition. 

While I was doing this, it came to my attention that primates and apes were not the same as us.  I had been taught that we descended from apes but now I was learning that they were our cousins.  And I learned about just how similar their minds were to us and that it was ridiculous the idea that we descended from them because, in fact, they were our cousins. 

Then I finished my animal cognition upgrading and at this time I was living very close to my family.  I couldn’t tell our family about what I was learning because it ultimately meant I was talking about evolution.  They also though it was crazy that I wanted to know anything about animal minds. 

However, when I was just about to leave for grad school, I was in the car with my mother and out of nowhere she mentions that God created evolution.  My jaw almost hit the floor.  I knew they had been going to less radical churches.  They had left the Pentecostal church, and my dad’s best friend was a Christian biologist.  I think he had helped them reconcile their faith and science.  It was one of the greatest moments of my life. 

Now, I am a researcher.  I’m just a master’s student but I’m learning all about raccoons.  And everyday I’m amazed by their adaptability and tenacity.  I've become passionate about urban animals.  I want to know just how the cities are shaping them and how we are living with them.  I think I might be the only person at downtown Toronto who gets a giant smile on my face every time I see a pigeon. 

It’s been a long journey but I think I’m finally living my best life.  So no, I didn’t get to have a testimony.  If anything, losing Jesus radically transformed my life.  But this is the closest I’m ever going to get to having one, so thank you for listening. 


Part 2: Herman B. White

I've often wondered how you make decisions about doing new projects, that is things that you don’t know is going to work, things that may actually fail.  And what arguments do you make to the decision makers who are not scientists about why they should support it?  I have a little bit of experience in this. 

It turns out that being able to actually talk about the science and how the science is used is equally important.  This is important to me basically because I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, the Deep South.  This will become important as I go on with this talk. 

My parents grew up in rural Alabama, on farms, and settled in Tuskegee, a fairly famous city in the middle of Alabama where I grew up.  My father served in World War II in the U.S. army and when he returned from Europe where he served during the war, he had an international perspective, a world perspective that I hadn’t seen in many people but I benefited from it as a result. 

Tuskegee was an unusual place at that time as well and so science and the Tuskegee Airmen, if you remember them, were individuals who actually were trained in Tuskegee.  So I was surrounded by essentially science and technology and the ability to do new things.  I had a really good time actually as a high school student with the college and with many people who are relatively famous in terms of what they did. 

Alabama at that time also was very important because of the testing of the Saturn V booster.  This was the rocket that actually took people to the moon.  So you can see that it was probably not unheard of that I would probably windup doing science for my career. 

Nuclear science was new at that time so I decided that nuclear physics, actually nuclear engineering would be something that I should pursue.  Let me point out also that Tuskegee was an interesting place also not only for how science was done but how it was actually used.  We had science that was good enough and innovative enough to produce an atomic weapon that would stop a war, but we also had the legacy of the Tuskegee Experiment in which poor men in a segregated community were allowed to suffer untreated for a disease so that science could find out how that disease would actually ravish their bodies. 

This is my basis for being able to make the case for science.  I could say all the great things and the new things and the wonderful things that we actually get out of science and get out of our research, and that drove me into science, but my humanism is remembering what I actually learned from my hometown. 

I left Tuskegee and went off to a number of universities and CERN Lab, as you heard, and various places around the country, and wound up at Fermilab, the highest energy accelerator in the world.  It was wonderful. 

I did a lot of nice experiments here, we made a lot of discoveries, made a lot of friends.  Of course, it was extremely hard because we were doing things that you didn’t know what the outcome might be. 

Many of us actually developed an ability to talk about science and to make science an important aspect of our lives and an important aspect of the world that we lived in.  So every year, the agencies that supported our basic science, and let me just point out that applied science is usually supported not only by the people of the country but also by industries and companies.  But basic science is usually not supported by companies, at least they used to but they don’t do that now. 

I have the opportunity to join with some of my colleagues in going to Washington, DC, to make the case for science and every year we had maybe 300 or so meetings in the congress of the United States to get support for our science.  And they made… I don't want to say it’s a mistake but they put me in charge of this at one point.  They were lucky. 

And I decided to change things.  Of course when you get a new leader you always find things get changed.  So I decided that we needed to not only see all the people in congress but we needed to see the congressional leaders, that is the individuals who were important for various committees that made decisions about science. 

It turns out one notable visit that we had required us to go to the chairman of a committee, a very important man, who was a congressman from the first district of Alabama.  There's some value in that, by the way.  The great state of Alabama.  So I decided that we were going to not only go to Washington to see this man but we were actually going to get in to see him. 

Now, a district of the United States has about 700,000 people in it and so to see a congressperson themselves is somewhat rare because the priority is given to constituents and so, eventually, you just run out of time.  But in my case, we decided that we should take all of the particle physicists in the first district of Alabama and bring them with us to our meeting.  The people who were providing the resources for this trip were concerned.  They actually wanted me not to do this because they didn’t think we were going to have enough resources and I convinced them that it was absolutely important that every one of the particle physicists in the first district of Alabama needed to come with us, and both of these persons actually agreed to do this.  They were exceptional. 

It turned out that the congressperson also felt this was important enough to actually have a briefing in his office before we went in.  This had never happened to me before.  So we’re waiting outside.  There are three of us.  He's being briefed by the people, his advisers from his district, and being briefed by the people who support him in the congressional committee that he chairs.  This is the Appropriations Committee, a very serious business, they deal with money. 

So we were ushered into the room and, of course, it’s crowded.  There were a lot of faces looking at us now.  My colleagues sit down and I do what’s now known as my stand-up routine in Washington and I start to talk about the great things that particle physics does for us, the great discoveries we've made, the possibilities of great things in the future. 

And the congressman was frowning.  Have you heard that term “I’m dying up here”?  Well, I had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t doing very well, but eventually he stopped me and asked my colleagues where they were from and what they were doing there.  They said, of course, we are from the district, we’re from the university and we, along with our students, actually engage in the science that Herman is talking about at a laboratory, a national laboratory in Illinois.  Ah, he thought that’s interesting. 

Then he turned to me again and looked and said, as he moved closer off of his seat, “Where are you from?”  And for a millisecond, okay, it was two milliseconds, I started to say I was from Naperville, Illinois, which is a nice place to live, by the way.  But I thought very carefully and said, no.  I should tell him, which I did, “I’m from Macon County.  You know, Tuskegee.” 

He said, “Tuskegee?  You're all from Alabama.” 

I said, “Yeah.” 

Then he turned and beamed a beautiful smile at me, which I really enjoyed, and said, “Well, why didn’t you say so?  What can I do for you?”  And with that declaration we had succeeded. 

Two things happened.  One, is that the congressman saw us and decided to support us, and two, an appropriator asked you what they can do for you.  That’s very rare. 

That congressman and I probably would never have crossed paths many years before that.  The volatile ‘60s with all the civil rights and with social change and with wars was not a time in the South where you actually had communication between various groups of people.  But I saw progress.  I saw the ability for us to actually be in the same room.  His formative years in Alabama were very different than mine but somehow, over thirty years or so, we found ourselves in the same room.  And that meeting which really was a meeting about science and about physics stopped being a meeting about reporting on physics and turned into a meeting - to use the euphemism - of folks from down home. 

And we actually stopped talking about physics for fifteen minutes.  The 15-minute meeting we were supposed to have turned into forty minutes and we got a nickname.  We were called the ‘Science Guys’.  That’s really important because you're not doctor this or professor that.  Everybody knows the science guys. 

And I was very, very happy to be able to actually have done something like that.  To succeed, in fact, making the case for our science with people who not only would understand that the science was good, that was an international and a national effort, but that people from his district, in the first district of Alabama and - that’s down by Mobile, by the way - were actually doing research in Illinois and that it was a national effort and that it was important.  We succeeded in getting that support.

And I have to admit that when I talk to young people today and they ask me how do you make the case, I invite them not to follow the path that I took, to pioneer their new paths because things are different now than they were in the ‘60s and different now than they were in the ‘90s.  But you cannot forget that past. 

The humanism in which I understood something about doing science and about being able to make the case for the work that we do that we’re not sure is actually going to make any impact on the problems that we have now, but may very well may impact tremendously on the problems that we don’t know we have now. The things that we do in particle physics may actually be understood and applied fifty years from now.  And actually I guess since I've been in Fermilab so long it’s almost approaching fifty years, I should be careful about making that statement. 

But I am very pleased and very happy to be able to have developed those skills and very happy to be able to have had that experience.  We’re now at a point at which there are lots of discussions that are being made and people are saying a number of things that are basically not true and it is time for us scientists, if there are scientists in the audience, to stand up, to speak the truth about what we actually know.  These are our skills.  We cannot let others determine what those skills are.  This is what the congressman said to me.  I certainly hope I stimulate some young people to replace me.  Thank you very much. 

Hear Herman’s story on Soundcloud.