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Bob Warner at the computer
Bob Warner's "laboratory" on campus is a computer.

American Physical Society Awards Robert Warner 1999 Prize for Research at an Undergraduate Institution

By Karen Schaefer


"I've always considered myself in the bottom quarter of the Oberlin faculty for intelligence, but in the top quarter for accomplishment. I feel like I've worked pretty hard to get done what I've done," says Bob Warner.



NOVEMBER 20, 1998--In March, Robert Warner, Donald R. Longman Professor of Natural Science, will become the 15th recipient of the American Physical Society's (APS) Prize to a Faculty Member for Research at an Undergraduate Institution.

It's a big deal in the world of research physics. Only one physicist in America has received the award each year since its inception in 1985. For the 67-year old Warner--who won't retire from Oberlin until 2001--the APS Prize commemorates a lifetime of research.

A member of the physics-department faculty at Oberlin since 1965, Warner has a remarkable record of achievement. His research in nuclear physics has received continuous grant funding from the National Science Foundation for 30 years. He has published more than 100 research papers, more than 90 of them since joining the Oberlin faculty, and has involved 57 Oberlin students in his work, 31 of them as co-authors.

"I sometimes think it's the first time the prize has been given posthumously," quips Warner. "The citation seems to cover my whole career. It's usually gone to younger, mid-career people doing very specific things. I'm pleased that they would just consider a body of work as a whole.

"I've always considered myself in the bottom quarter of the Oberlin faculty for intelligence, but in the top quarter for accomplishment. I feel like I've worked pretty hard to get done what I've done."

What Warner has done could fill a vita longer than most small-town telephone books. Working with colleagues and students from around the globe, he has conducted experiments in nuclear physics at some of the world's most state-of-the-art nuclear research facilities. He has been awarded visiting professorships at Oxford University, Michigan State University, Notre Dame University, and the University of Michigan; was a visiting scientist at KVI and Osaka University in Japan; and served on the Working Group Upgrade and the Users' Executive Committee of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.

About 10 or 12 years ago, Warner hit on a new method of measuring the cross sections of nuclear reactions using silicon as the target, a method he and his students are still refining. He says it's hard to overemphasize the importance of his students' contributions.

"By coming to Oberlin, I've really had a number of wonderful students that have contributed enormously to my research program, and I couldn't have gotten very much done without the students I've had here.

"I've had a wonderful student for the last six months, Nathan Shaner. He's just terrific at both physics and computers. What Nathan has done for me is to develop an analysis program for playing back our events that we can use here at Oberlin. So I no longer have to do the analysis at the laboratories where I do the experiments. And that's a big help, a big expansion in capability."

Shaner '99, a New Jersey physics major with plans for a Ph.D., says working with a research scientist of Warner's caliber was one of the things that drew him to Oberlin.

"I've had other research experiences," says Shaner, who did a Winter Term project gathering background research, then accompanied Warner to Michigan State University last summer. "But it's been less stressful and more rewarding being able to work closely with Dr. Warner and knowing he was interested in what I was able to do and what I could accomplish."

In October, Shaner and Warner co-authored a presentation of their research at a conference of the American Physical Society's Division of Nuclear Physics in Santa Fe. "It was great, really great. I'm hoping we'll be able to publish a paper on our results," Shaner says.

Physics majors aren't the only students to benefit from Warner's tutelage. Megan McKinnon '00, who co-authored a paper with Warner--number 102--just submitted for publication, plans to enter medical school in her native California after leaving Oberlin.

"It means a lot to me to be published as an undergraduate," says McKinnon. "And although I don't plan to go on in physics, I've learned a lot from Dr. Warner about scientific research. He knows what he's doing and he's really excited about his field."

Associate Professor of Physics John Scofield, who recommended Warner for the APS prize, credits his colleague with important contributions to the College as well. In 1990 Warner took on the task of chairing the physics department during a $1.5 million project to renovate the student and faculty research facilities of the 55-year old Wright Laboratory of Physics. He believes the weight of Warner's reputation made NSF grant funding for the project a reality.

"By any reasonable measure, Bob has personally been responsible for roughly half the research productivity of the six-member Oberlin College physics department," says Scofield. "His efforts have helped provide for the future of experimental physics research at Oberlin College."

But while others celebrate his accomplishments, Warner is busy planning his future. Semiretired now, he will be 70 when he retires in three years. So what does an experimental nuclear physicist do when he's no longer investigating physics?

"I think my research is at that point now that I can continue doing something for the next few years," says Warner, who is considering spending a terminal sabbatical working with colleagues in England. "But I'm really looking forward to having more time to hike, read, and pursue my so-called singing career."

For years, music has been Robert Warner's other passion, a love he has also shared with students. For nearly two decades he has taught a course in the physics of music that attracts nearly a third of its enrollment from conservatory students eager to learn more about the production of sound and the acoustics of auditoriums. Warner provides most of the demonstrations himself on his own instruments: a violin, saxophone, recorder, clarinet, trombone, and French horn that he plays "with varying degrees of badness."

"The first time I ever heard of Tylenol was when a student told me that after my lecture on the violin, he had to go home and take it," jokes Warner.

But singing is his first love. Five years ago, after singing with Oberlin's Musical Union, Warner joined the Cleveland Orchestra Choir as a second bass. His voice is included on a recent EMI release of Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast," recorded in England in 1997. This year he took on the position of bass soloist and section leader at Fairview Park Community Church.

"It's my first professional music job," says Warner, who also plays piano. "Years ago, I told my wife that if I could just sing the Brahms Requiem one more time and do two other things, then I could die happy.

"Since then, I've sung the Brahms Requiem eight times with the Cleveland Orchestra and forgotten what the other two were."

For Warner and his wife, Mary Ann, an operating-room nurse, semiretirement has brought time for other new challenges. A few years ago, the couple joined the Cleveland Hiking Club and last summer accompanied a group that climbed Mt. Marcy, the tallest peak in New York State.

"I tried to climb it 40 years ago, but I got sick and had to turn back, so it's been sort of a lifetime goal. It wasn't too difficult," says Warner. "You get to know which hiking guides have the mentalities of Marine drill sergeants and which ones are more relaxed. I've gone on some of the former, just to test myself."

Despite his other interests, Warner remains focused on physics. Reflecting on a lifetime of scientific investigation, he believes his most important contributions to physics include his current research on nuclear reaction cross sections and an experiment he undertook at the University of Manitoba just before he came to Oberlin. Along with scientists at Harvard, Warner was investigating the creation of gamma rays during a collision between two protons.

"This process had been predicted by the theorists in about 1947 or '48. I did the experiment in 1965," says Warner. "I wasn't the first with this; I was second. The people at Harvard actually concluded their experiments a couple of months before the Manitoba machine came on line."

But for Warner, physics has been as much about teaching as it has been about research.

"My work has been basic research. There isn't any commercial or military application that I can imagine. I suppose it's like art, except that fewer people can appreciate it.

"But I think it's of enormous benefit to initiate students into basic research as part of their scientific training. And I still get students who are capable of doing great things."





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