Herman White (Finding Aid)

Herman White

1948 -

Favorite Color: Blue

Favorite Food: Apple Pie with Ice Cream

Interview Length: 191 minutes

Interview Date(s): November 13, 2006

Interview Location(s): Chicago, Illinois


Herman Brenner White, Jr. was born on September 28, 1948 in Tuskegee, Alabama. He and his sister, Zepherine White Finch, were raised in Tuskegee and spent summers with their extended family in nearby rural areas. White's mother, Susie Mae Fort White, was a nursing assistant at John Andrew Hospital run by the Tuskegee Medical Institute. His father, Herman B. White Sr., a religious and disciplined man, served in the military, worked at the Moton Air Fields and at the Tuskegee Veteran's Hospital. All of his grandparents were farmers in Alabama. White and his older sister attended John Adams Elementary School and Washington Public School. White describes growing up in the segregated but intellectually self-sufficient Tuskegee community. His family attended the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, where he learned responsibility as a junior usher. White attended the Tuskegee Institute High School.

Herman White remembers his childhood. One of his earliest memories is playing in the woods near his house with his dog. He remembers the sights, sounds, and smells of growing up at his grandparents' farm and Christmastime at his house. In school, White was quiet and spent a lot of time studying. He was known for running organizations smoothly, though he never sought out leadership positions. White was the class president, chair of the photography club, and editor of the year book. He was also in the choir, in the science club, a member of the honor society, participated in some dramatic arts, and played football. White had several excellent high school teachers and felt that these teachers taught all the students to be competitive in the newly desegregated world.

Herman White discusses his childhood experiences at church. His family attended Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, a prominent church in the community. The church was the center of the community, and the ministers were the leaders in the community. Some notable members of White's community were Eugene Harrison Sr. and Lucius Amerson. During the Civil Rights Movement, White and his parents decided that finishing high school on time and going to college was more important than losing his senior year of school to participate with the first group of black students to integrate Tuskegee High School. White felt his role in the Civil Rights Movement was being an exceptional student and proving through excellent academic achievement that blacks deserved equal rights and equal access to education.

Herman White recalls enjoying growing up so close to Tuskegee Institute where he was able to talk to the professors about science. He became interested in nuclear engineering at age sixteen. White decided to attend Earlham College where he studied nuclear physics instead. In graduate school at Michigan State University, he studied nuclear physics. Under the mentorship of Dr. Henry Blosser, White worked at the Michigan State's Cyclotron Laboratory and completed his M.S. degree. He then received an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowship to go Switzerland to study at the CERN European Laboratory for Particle Physics. He found a new passion there and shifted his research areas from nuclear and acceleration physics to particle physics. Nuclear physics deals with protons and neutrons whereas particle physics deals with the quarks/partons that make up protons or neutrons.

Herman White describes his particle physics work breaking apart protons and neutrons with high energy beams. High energy beams are necessary to overcome the energy that holds the proton and neutron together. Quarks/partons do not allow themselves to be completely dissociated from the other quarks/partons. Fermilab only conducts high energy particle physics activities and is not a multi-discipline laboratory because it is the highest energy particle accelerator in the world and has been since the summer of 1972. At the CERN European Laboratory for Particle Physics, White worked with prominent physicists and Nobel Prize Laureate Murray Gell-Mann. Fermilab was named for Enrico Fermi a tremendous theoretical as well as an experimental physicist. White and Raymond J. Stefanski created a formula to measure how many neutrino particles come from kaons and pions, which are mesons. Mesons are the particles that make up quarks.

Herman White talks about how Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen worked to have the Fermilab located in Illinois. White's first experiment at the Fermilab took ten months and his longest experiment took ten years. White feels his most difficult and successful experiment was on kaons of the tevatron. White is working to obtain public support and funding for an international linear collider. He feels that the public should support this kind of research so we can solve problems now and in the future. White hopes that society will see scientists as heroes just as they see athletes and entertainment stars as heroes. He describes how scientific training could help politicians make better decisions.

Herman White explains that accelerators are located underground to protect nature and the public from radiation that may be caused during experiments. Also, if the experiments are done underground than no radiation from the sun can accidentally affect the experiments. White notes that physics is a popular B.S. degree for African Americans but they typically get their graduate degrees in engineering. This is because there is a better chance of job security as an engineer than as a physicist. White would like to be remembered for being a reasonable person to work with and doing "good" science. White would like his legacy to be that of an innovator, from conducting orchestras to learning neutrino physics to teaching students. He hopes these innovations were important.

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