Conway “Bud” Southard tells the story of Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s role in explaining the simple physics and perhaps even more simple politics that led to the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts in the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
Southard says his choice of Feynman is in part because they have much in common, including “being a geek since grade school. I started out in mathematics, and went to electrical engineering, but he went on to physics.” Southard went into the Marine Corps, “which brought some direction into my life. I set out to do something meaningful. Of course I was a rifleman, that’s what Marines do, fight, but most of my time in Korea beginning in 1951 I spent operating an analog computer on a big trailer. Yes, we had computers back then.” After his service Southard enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, then Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Southard says we hold the Challenger so dear because “everyone has had a teacher who was special. Christa McAuliffe represented our own special teachers.” His performance is more about “the teacher” than about “the physics.” “I was on a motorcycle trip with Belinda [Schlesener], Kansas to Wisconsin, pondering how I should describe the Feynman Diagrams for the upcoming workshop. How would Feynman have made it interesting? Epiphany: no one cares any more about Feynman Diagrams —it’s the teachers that are the universal; instead of Feynman’s physics, why not make the teaching the focus? The influence, the responsibility that one person has over another. Some teacher along the way makes a massive difference in their life, they change lives, they make the aha moments happen.”
Southard knew that like McAuliffe, Feynman took his teaching seriously. He carefully considered his role in the transfer of information, which was why he was able to explain the Challenger failure to a Presidential commission using only a piece of an O-ring and a glass of ice water. Southard’s decision as his Harley hummed: the Diagrams would be deleted, but Feynman’s beloved bongo drums would stay.
About Bud Southard:
Southard credits three teachers as most influencing his life. Prof. Russell at Marquette was one: “When he taught electric field theory he made something boring interesting.” A bachelors degree in electrical engineering (BSEE) led to a career in the space division at General Motors, then to Rockwell International (Collins Radio at the time), designing and building computers. “At Collins Dr. Jeff Russell was my mentor. He set fire to things I liked to do, sparked my curiosity.”
Much of Southard’s work, like that of Feynman, involved U.S. space exploration. “Apollo and Mercury both had Rockwell computers. When I started they were working on the Apollo program. When man walked on moon, it was communicated over a Collins program. We went to seminars that were heavily loaded on NASA and scientific community stuff. For a while I led the flight simulations activities. When people had a problem or a space idea they came to me and we worked through the equations. The trajectory of a space object is a giant math problem. If you want to fly to Mars, how are you going to get there?”
When the baby boomers and the GI Bill were swelling college enrollment schools experimented with recruiting teachers from industry. Bud Southard taught robotics, computer language, and communications theory as an adjunct for seventeen years at Mount Mercy at nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Southard credits his interest in motorcycles for introducing him to Belinda Schlesener. And he has Schlesener to thank for introducing him to the study of history at Emporia State University. She might not be a teacher in a formal sense, but, “She, too, is a learner. It’s an itch that never gets scratched, curiosity, lifelong learning. It strikes some people.” People over sixty-five can take free courses at ESU. Southard and Schlesener have audited almost all of history professor Joyce Thierer’s courses. “Her classes were only one night a week and didn’t interfere with other things we wanted to do. It was an epiphany. History wasn’t of interest to me and now it’s a major focus in my life.” While Southard still has a home in Cedar Rapids, “I spend over half of my time in Kansas.”
Motorcycling historians Southard and Schlesener supplement courses with forays to museums, conferences, and historic sites, including Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project, where Southard thought about all of the very “personable” scientists who should be better known by the general public, in large part because of the decisions they made and those decisions that brought them together for such projects as the creation of the atomic bomb. They also attended Ride into History performances.
Southard describes Dr. Thierer (a historian!) as one of his three most significant teacher/mentors. When he took her Preserving the Past through Performance course his first-person narrative was as Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, famous for his thought experiment that involved a cat in a box. “I gave Joyce grief—there are characters in science, why aren’t you doing any?”
In turn, Dr. Thierer put the responsibility back on Southard: “She challenged me to share those science stories if they were so important. I had no idea of doing it for the public. I did it because I got more out of history by studying it that way. We took the class just after [Dr. Thierer’s book Telling History] came out: three formal exposures to doing a first person narrative. I find the approach, the mechanism, particularly useful for my purposes, my self interest. I study a lot more if I stand up and talk, but the process of making it come alive before people’s eyes, that’s different.”
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