1933 - 1945 Grammar School and Early Gymnasium years (Junior High School)
Born 6 April 1933 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. When I was 6, two presents from my father set the course for my future: a little chemistry set and a little physics set, both of which became my first laboratory. My scientific specialty was such things as explosions, color fogs etc., based on the beautiful recipes of Amusing Experiments of a Young Chemist by Hynek Šalanský (in Czech language Zábavné pokusy mladého chemika, 1940). World War II interrupted my chemistry studies: my parents had to escape from Prague to the countryside (Libice/Doubravkou and Libická Lhotka, both near Chotěboř), about 120 km east of Prague. My love to our rabbits and geese - as pets, not as food! - nearly made me a vegetarian. The 5 kilometer one-way trip to school (gymnasium in Chotěboř) through the forest brought me to an appreciation of plants and nature. I started to build a herbarium.
1945 - 1947 Middle of Gymnasium years (Junior High School)
After returning to Prague in 1945, I continued my studies in chemistry, designing special gun powders to propel my micro-spacecraft. I equipped a small room in our apartment with a lot of bottles of chemicals. For quantitative work, I constructed a simple balance: its beam pivoted on a support stuck in the cork of a bottle. Because I could not buy expensive milligram weights, I cut 10 grams of copper wire (I calibrated this amount by the known weight of Aspirin tablets) into appropriate lengths. My two new recipe books were Organic Chemistry in Test Tube (1943),: and Chemistry of Metals (1944), both by Hermann Römpp (Czech translations from German). I studied also theoretical literature, such as The World of Modern Chemistry (1946) by Alois Červín, and made some money to buy burettes for volumetric titration by selling my pyrotechnic products among fellow boys. During the course of this capitalistic enterprise, an explosion on of gun powder that I designed and was mixing on my lap burned my fingers, face and hair, and temporarily sealed my eyes shut. After I returned from the hospital, my mother almost put an end to my alchemist laboratory...
1947 - 1949: Middle of Gymnasium years (Senior High School)
So my science turned to more peaceful pursuits: geologic investigations of the surroundings of Prague, especially the Barrandium, using detailed geological maps (1:75,000) obtained from the Central Geological Survey of Czechoslovakia (ÚÚG), which would become my employer 8 years later... I combined the geological trips with hunting plants to complete my herbarium I started in 1941: soils on limestones, some with valuable magnesium near Karlštein were perfect substrates for rare plants, such as European Orchids, some Rutaceae and Liliaceae. During vacations 1949, I assisted Dr. Vladimír Zoubek (professional ÚÚG geologist) as "fuchs" on his mapping Algonkian spilites in the region around the city Stříbro, western Bohemia. And at about that same time (1947 to 1949), I purchased eyepieces of submarine periscopes and achromatic objective lenses from a surplus shop which sold various mechanical and optical parts left by the German army and marines, and from faulty telescope production. I could then build a telescope - first a refractor in a wooden case, and, after I finished grinding and polishing of a 5" spherical mirror (focus about 500 mm), a reflector. Though the optics was good, my observations without a tripod were even more handicapped than those made by my ally colleague Galileo: I also discovered his 4 Jupiter's moons, binary stars, nebulas etc.. In the school, I experienced a big disaster in December 1946: I failed from mathematics. My father, having learned from our new teacher that I did not command the algebra covered at least in the last two classes, forced me to rewrite all notes and calculate missed homework over Christmas and New Year. Surprisingly, I started loving mathematics since I completed all that work. My grade of math became then 1 (=A) during the rest of gymnasium, and I selected mathematics for the final exams. This math love influenced my whole future in which I have always combined mathematics, particularly during my doctoral and postdoctoral studies.
1949 - 1951: Late Gymnasium years (Senior High School)
This was the time of my interest in biochemistry and plant pharmacotherapy. During vacations, I worked on some projects in the Research Institute for Pharmacy and Biochemistry (VÚFB) newly built in front of our house in Kouřimská street, in the department headed by Prof. RNDr. Josef Koštíř, the best Czechoslovakian biochemist. These projects included quantitative identification of ascorbic acid in fruit juices, and its catalytic decay due to traces of copper in aluminum alloys (typical cooking dishes of that time). Another project was the extraction and ultraviolet-fluorescent quantitative identification of ether extract of ergot alkaloids (ergotamine, ergotoxine, etc.). The new book Organic Chemistry by Oto Wichterle (1947) opened me the world of modern organic chemistry and the brand new Geneva chemical terminology.
During the last two gymnasium classes; I have been using university literature and visiting university laboratory courses to study human medicine, such as Systematic Atlas of Anatomy by Karl Toldt, Atlas of Topographic Anatomy by Karel Žlábek, Human Physiology by Ludvík Drastych, Human Embryology by Karel Žlábek, and General Biology by Jan Bělehrádek. And I exercised piano, playing not only classics but also Czech jazz compositions by Jaroslav Ježek (such as Bugatti Step), and his songs (especially blues) with Jiří Voskovec & Jan Werich, in that time almost forbidden by the communistic regime (therefore hardly obtainable). In the gymnasium, I played violin in the school orchestra. Living in Prague, I have been visiting opera almost every evening, collecting signatures of the famous Czech singers. My piano playing hobby was so strong that I seriously considered studying music instead of natural sciences. From sports I enjoyed figure skating and skiing, from other hobbies photography (black and white, of course), doing own development, magnifications and prints.
1951 - 1955: University Studies at Charles University Prague, Czechoslovakia
Continuation will follow...
1955 - 1968: Employment at Central Geological Survey of Czechoslovakia (ÚÚG), Prague, Czechoslovakia
In 1956 it became possible for the first time for me to buy an important scientific book for my private library. The cultural attaché of the United States Embassy in Prague offered to obtain professional literature paid for in Czech Crowns for interested persons. Owning western currency for even a few seconds on socialistic territory was considered a crime. Therefore, this was a unique legal opportunity to get my own scientific book. I visited the US Embassy; however, the cultural attaché, Mr. Hoffman, was not available. When I returned from the Embassy - the territory of an enemy - I started to realize that I was being followed by a secret police agent. When I saw this nondescript person behind me, I began to entertain this thought, and then started running on Charles' Bridge in Prague. The "shadow" followed me. I jumped into a street car and he also, and always kept a distance from me. After I changed street cars several times (I had a ticket with a universal validity for all street cars in Prague that allowed me to do that), I was sure that in fact three "shadows" in total had been following me - each changing places with the others at various points. I decided to approach the last one of them, and tell him that, in fact, I wanted to buy scientific literature at my own expense in order to work better in my position as a geologist. It was only through a trick that I could approach him: whereas he was in the first car, I took a position near the last entrance of the last car, jumped out, ran backwards around a corner, and waited. I caught him when he passed the corner, and asked him why was he following me. Of course, he denied any association with me. I asked him to show me his ID in front of the nearest policemen. He agreed, and I found out that his name was Jaroslav Beer, who lived as a tailor in the SNB street of Praha Vršovice. How naive I was: certainly his ID card would not reveal that he was "shadow". It was strange that a tailor would have also a universal street car ticket... The final evidence of his activities came half an hour after I arrived at the Geological Survey: a representative of the Communistic party called me to come to their special meeting. I was the subject of that meeting. And they knew everything about my US embassy enterprise. After I said that I wanted to buy the 2nd edition of Sedimentary Rocks by Pettijohn, the party chairman, a geologist one year older than me who studied in Soviet Union, asked me whether I thought that Czechoslovakian geology is based on American geology. I pointed to his feet and said: "If your geology does not, you stand on hovno." The membership responded with a groan. I had demonstrated that I was not a good geologist (one deserving of the trust of the socialistic society), and should be expelled from the Survey, a category A high level scientific institution. I could only remain employed there if I gave them compromising knowledge about one of the Party Committee members. I never did give any, and amazingly, they turned a blind eye to my case with no further immediate consequences for me.
In 1962, as an employee of the Central Geological Survey of Czechoslovakia (UUG), I prepared a research paper (#33: 1963b, Kapteyn's Transformation...) for submission to a journal in the United States (Jour. Sediment. Petrology 1963). However, before I could send the article to the editors, I had to hand it over to government censors for political, not scientific, approval. This seemingly trivial activity underscores the lack of freedom both in one's personal and professional life, particularly in this matter. Scientists in any Western country would consider it ordinary, even mundane.
My American contacts & visitors – the first visit surprised the Survey leaders so much that they failed to prohibit it to me
In early 60ies, I corresponded with Felix Chayes (Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution, Bethesda, Washington D.C.) through the iron curtain. Finally, he (with his charming wife Irene Hendry) visited me in Praha, Czechoslovakia, for 3 weeks of 1963 (I think it was in May). Felix arrived in a rented car from Vienna, and I prepared a very nice trip with him and Irene through the country. I asked regional geological experts to join us, such as Lubomír Kopecký (expert for volcanites in the Mid-Bohemian highland) and Miroslav Kuthan (director of GÚDŠ, Geological Survey of Slovakia). However, the communists of my employer, the Central Geological Survey of Czechoslovakia (ÚÚG), were shocked: from geoscientists, he was the first American (enemy number 1) who intruded our country after WW2. The shock was so abrupt that they did not attempt to prohibit Felix to visit me. After he returned home (with several hundred kilograms of minerals & rocks he donated to Smithsonian Museum), they interrogated me and warned me never to do something similar.
Of course, I did it again the next year: Dr. Lewis M. Cline (editor of Journal Sedimentary Petrology) with his family wanted to visit me. Though Lewis called me several time from his trip (waiting in Bern, Switzerland), and I urged an entrance permission for him, the ÚÚG communists disabled his visit of Czechoslovakia. I was ashamed.
I have been in written contact with many other western (particularly US) geoscientists – all contacts traced by the secret service of Czechoslovakia, as I learned later during my two 8-hour-interrogations in August and September 1967. These interrogations resulted from tracing me since December 1966 upon a denunciation. This tracing included x-raying of my and received letters (special hi-technology by focused long-wave x-rays imported from Sweden), recording my street discussions with foreigners by powerful directional microphones, interrogations of 22 persons they knew me, perhaps some bugs in my environment.
Among US sedimentologists I had been in contact in that difficult time, I take particularly two of them as a big honor:
- Robert Louis Folk (1925-now; University of Texas, Austin) – he started to learn Czech, my native language and could use it even recently, when I called him on his 84th birthday (30-SEP-2009).
- William Christian Krumbein (1902-1979; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL) – the top 20th century sedimentologist. We should have met in August 1968 at the 23rd International Geological Congress at Praha, however, he wrote to me on 7 October 1968 and explained that he „managed to get as far as London on August 21, just before all flights to Czechoslovakia were cancelled“. Professor Krumbein’s recommendation was instrumental in my application for the Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellowship (Bonn - Bad Godesberg, Germany), at the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, Univ. of Karlsruhe, 1969-1971. I had always appreciated his fundamental sedimentological ideas, and I devoted my life to my vision of continuing to build on his body of work.
I count contacts with many other personalities too as unusual honor (in addition to the above two ones, all helped me with valuable comments on my manuscript Kapteyn’s Transformation… for Jour. Sedim. Petrology 1963):
- John Cedric Griffiths (1912-1979; Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA),
- Felix Chayes (1916-1993; Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution, Bethesda/Washington D.C.),
- Joseph R. Curray (1927-now; Scipps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, CA, USA) - demonstrated a pioneer idea: to decompose natural distributions into mixture Gaussian components, in 1960 graphically; a few years later, Tjeerd "Jerry" van Andel used an analog subtractive solution (DuPont Curve Resolver 810); 1978-now, I am using a stable digital solution (adapted the ROKE program by Isobel Clark 1977).
- Gerard Viner ‘Gerry’ Middleton (1931-now; McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada); after reading my 1962 manuscript (Kapteyn's transformation, 1963), in which I used a decadic logarithm of sedimentation velocity and called it BETA, Gerry used a negative binary logarithm of sedimentation velocity and called it PSI, similar to Krumbein’s PHI, the negative binary logarithm of grain size, which made his unit popular;
- Richard B. McCammon (1932-now; Dept. of Geol. Sci., Univ. Illinois, Chicago, IL, USA): his skills in mathematical statistics were very helpful to me, particularly in seeking a useful distribution decomposition algorithm.
1968 Escape from the Communist Nightmare
In January 1968, Alexander Dubček, General Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, set out to reform the communist system, attempting to put a "human face" on an otherwise inhuman system. His only important reform was a lifting of censorship on March 15, which created a free press. Shortly thereafter, a communist politician (Alois Indra) delivered a speech denouncing Dubček's reforms, and advocating a return to the previous repression. I responded by writing an article in which I equated communism with nazism. I had no fear of reprisal at that time because of freedom of the press. My article even appeared in several leading newspapers at the time, including Rudé Právo (Red Truth), the communist party newspaper.
Uneasiness with Dubček's reforms on the part of the Soviets lead to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, 1968. I was attending a Geological Congress in Prague at that time, when a sympathetic agent of the Czechoslovak secret police, who was himself in the process of escaping, informed me that my name appeared on a KGB list of subversives. My crimes? I had written the incendiary article several months before. In addition, I had long been under suspicion because I corresponded with American geologists in connection with my work, contrary to official policy at the Geological Survey. Shortly before my escape, I burned several kilograms of my correspondence with these people so as not to endanger my family. Likewise, the previous autumn, I had been accused of attempting to escape from Czechoslovakia and encouraging my former wife to do the same. Conviction on those charges would have led to two terms of imprisonment of two years each. More than 20 people were investigated by the secret police in connection with this incident.
It was at that point that I decided to escape from that country. I asked the secret agent (who had told me that the Secret Police of Czechoslovakia [StB] had passed my name to the KGB), about how to escape. He knew which border crossings were not yet guarded by the Soviet invaders, but this information would only be valid for the next 48 hours at most. I was given this information on Thursday August 24, so I would have only until the following Saturday to escape.
I was acquainted with Geoffrey C. Russell-Jones, a British businessman for whom I had acted as a go-between when he sold a computer (of his company, Clary DE-600) to the Geological Survey. I convinced him to take me and my family with him in his Aston Martin DB6 sports car. I went home to tell my wife that we had to escape, but she believed that it would be a short vacation to the West, after which we would return.
By coincidence, her name day, Helena, was on August 18, and as a present, I managed to obtain for her a passport (which was only legally possible under Dubček's reforms). So I gathered my wife and 2 1/2 year old daughter, took my Italian espresso machine La Piccolina La Carimali, and began the trek to freedom. In so doing, I left everything behind, including parents and friends. Yet another facet of the cruelty of the communist system is that I never saw my father again after having escaped.
It had been my first intention to go to London where I had an invitation from Imperial College. We had intended to travel through West Germany on the way to England. Because the West German trade mission, which could grant visas, was blocked by Russian tanks, we went to the Austrian embassy instead, where, after midnight, we were given our visas.
With Geoffrey, we started heading south to Linz, Austria, where along the road in Czechoslovakia we saw only signs pointing to Moscow (the Czech suggestion for Russians), but happily no tanks. At the border itself, the Czech guards were friendly, and even put my daughter's name into my wife's passport, thereby making it legal for her to be taken across the border. In that respect, the border guards were sympathetic to our plight, and knew full well what we were doing.
Once across the border, I saw a world of colors that were unknown in the dismal shops and on the gray and dirty streets of communism. Our first stop was in Linz, where we ate lunch and went bowling! Afterward, in Salzburg, we stayed in a pension while waiting for visas for West Germany, and Geoffrey had to continue his way to London without us.
Although I wanted to immigrate to the USA, where I had invitations from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Rice University, my wife wanted us to remain in Germany to be close to her family. She didn't even want to go to England (I had an offer from the Imperial College, London) because she had a fear of English - 'a language in which one speaks differently from writing'. I called my earlier friend Dr. Max Linseis, Selb, Germany, for help. He arranged a position for me with his schoolmate, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Hans Rumpf, Director of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, Technical University of Karlsruhe. So we settled for 2 and 1/2 years in University Park at the University of Karlsruhe, where I had a Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellowship.
For the first time that I could remember, I slept well at night, knowing that the slamming of a car door outside my window at 3:00 in the morning did not mean that the KGB was coming to take me to prison.
1968 - 1971: Postdoctoral Studies at Institute of Mechanical Engineering, University of Karlsruhe, Germany
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1971 - 1972: Developing Thorium/Protactinium Dating Method at Geochronological Laboratory, Geological Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany
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1972 - now:
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A brief information on the Czech language may be found: