Bio-sketch (December 19, 2007)

The early years

Ronald Forrest Fox, (Ron Fox), was born in Berkeley, California on October 1, 1943. He is the son of Sidney W. Fox of Los Angeles and Raia Joffe Fox of Ufa Russia. A notable grandparent is Max Joffe. Some remarks about him are in the China Chronicles. Ron has two brothers, Larry the older and Tom the younger. When together in larger groups he and Tom like to amuse others with: “Tom is my younger brother.” “Ron is my younger brother.” Each is correct.

A simple calculation will show that Ron was conceived around midnight of New Years Eve, 1942-1943. This may be the explanation of his generally good nature and fondness for a good time. It was also wartime and the tide of the war hadn’t yet shifted. Like the Chinese, Ron often adds his prenatal time when calculating his age. Thus he is 64 but won’t have his 64th birthday for another two months or so (originally written in August of 2007).

His preschool, and elementary school years were spent in Ames Iowa, then the home of Iowa State College where his father was a chemistry professor. This was a great place to be a kid with lots of farm land, woods and the Skunk River. Ron enjoyed the woods and captured gopher snakes that he then sold to farmers. The farmers used them to catch rodents in their barns. Ron’s mathematical abilities were already apparent during his elementary school years. The high school years were spent in Tallahassee, Florida, the home of Florida State University (FSU) where his father moved to direct the Oceanographic Institute at Alligator Point, 30 miles South of Tallahassee in the Gulf of Mexico. Ron spent many hours in the Gulf and could identify with scientific names many of the marine species. He sometimes accompanied marine biology graduate students on collecting trips. He was fond of looking through an optical microscope at micro-organisms.

Ron graduated from high school in the spring of 1960 at the age of 16, having skipped grade 11. Earlier his brother Larry and three of his friends had simply gone off to college after the 11th grade without really graduating. Fearing the same from Ron, the school agreed to advance him to the 12th grade from the 10th and he graduated with that class. This advancement wasn’t without justification. During the summers Ron attended two of the FSU music summer camps for each of which he earned ½ credit. He also took a course in Algebra at FSU (from Dr. Tinsley who happened to be the world checker champion) before graduating and earned another full credit. With 6 credits a year in 9th, 10th and 12th grades he had the requisite 20 credits needed for graduation. Taking Algebra at a university while in high school was the result of enlightened behavior on the part of a high school mathematics teacher, Edna Tate, who was also the mother of a close friend and classmate. When she recognized Ron’s talents early in the 9th grade she let him go through all of the mathematics curriculum in a small private room where he worked through all the problems in the text books. At about a book a month he quickly finished the high school courses. In later years he did special problems studies in lieu of normal math classes and this included calculus. Ron graduated around 5th out of 610 students (by GPA and the State Senior Placement Exam), was inducted into the Honor Society and won the Mathematics prize (he had a perfect score in Mathematics on the SAT’s). Ron played clarinet in the marching band and was a member of the debate team. He was also an accomplished water skier, able to ski on a single canoe paddle. Scuba diving and snorkeling were two of his loves as well as exploration. With his girlfriend’s older brother and neighbor, Dick Heydenberg, he discovered old remains of a Spanish Fort where the Wakulla River meets the St. Marks River, and several sinkholes in the same general area. It turned out that the fort remains were known to experts but no one at FSU had the money to do a proper excavation at that time. Sink holes are a product of the limestone composition of North Florida. When the roofs to underground rivers collapse you get a sink hole, called a cenote in Central America. At one end of the sink hole water came in and at the other it went out. You had to be careful not to get sucked into the outflow. To visualize a sinkhole, think of a hole in the ground, perhaps 35 feet deep with steep limestone walls. The hole cross-sectional area can be quite large. Ropes were employed to enter the newly discovered holes. Numerous deaths occurred to sink hole divers during the 1950’s. The water was crystal clear, flowing and full of plants, fish, snakes and turtles. Once during a free dive, Ron came up under a water moccasin, a poisonous snake common in the area. He remained submerged as the snake swam overhead and finally emerged gasping for air when it was safe to do so. Another fond memory is the capture of an 8 foot long Indigo snake in his back yard on Waverly Road, then outside of Tallahassee. These rare snakes have a beautiful indigo underbelly.

Today Waverly Road is well inside the city of Tallahassee. But in the 1950’s it was well outside. To get to school Ron had to ride a yellow school bus into town and back again. The bus came from rural Leon county and had in it many ruffians. Ron found himself in constant battles. One day some kid was tormenting Ron’s younger brother. Ron accosted him and became physical. As it turned out, this kid also had an older brother on the bus. He punched Ron nearly breaking his nose. On another occasion, Ron was in a fight with a large bully and got him down beneath the seats where he proceeded to stomp on him. Eventually this much stronger boy roared up and shoved Ron’s rear through a bus window, actually popping out the entire window. The two combatants had to share the cost of repairs. All of this was near to the end of segregation so that Leon high school was for whites only at that time. Integration did not begin in this part of the country until around 1963. One could say that in parts of Leon county, segregation ended much later.

Still 16, he entered Reed College in Portland, Oregon in the fall of 1960. These were some of the best years of his life (see Fowl Tales). Ron double majored in Math and Physics, allowed for the first time at Reed when he and Gene Hirschkoff asked to do so. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (declined) and an at large National Science Foundation Fellowship (he had a perfect score on the GRE mathematical section). At one time he was the Reed ping pong champion and also the arm wrestling champion (all that water skiing made for very strong arms). He also learned paddle-ball and squash while at Reed and was instructed by Jack Scrivens who was later national amateur handball champion. He even qualified as an Army marksman in the rifle range that existed under the gymnasium. Ron began a long friendship with Joel Keizer (deceased 1999) that lasted nearly 40 years during which they shared many scientific ideas and enjoyed many adventures in the natural world. In later years, Ron frequently visited Joel at his summer cabin in Cannon Beach, Oregon. There they would beach comb, search tide pools and hike mountain trails. On July 22, 1980 while hiking high in the coastal range near Cannon Beach, Ron asked Joel which way was Mt. St. Helens that had first erupted catastrophically in May, 1980. Joel looked around to the east northeast and said: “It’s the one over there sending up a plume of ash.” Indeed, the second major eruption had just commenced a few minutes earlier and they watched in wonder for an hour or so as the plume grew to tremendous heights and took off toward the East.

In 1963 or 1964, five (four?) Reedies (that’s what they are called) decided to climb Mt St. Helens with the aim of sighting and capturing Bigfoot. I remember Jim Borders, Joe Parnell and Rick Mootry. The latter two are deceased. I think there was one more besides me (Hirschkoff ?). You have to check that one of the major modern sightings of Bigfoot was in the late 1950’s and the excitement still lived in 1963. We crossed the Plains of Abraham about halfway up. That was completely blown away in 1980. At the time, we did not ask: “ was our climb going to be safe,” except with regard to Bigfoot.

Probably no other human being has had a deeper effect on Ron as a scientist than Joel Keizer, except possibly Ron’s father. Joel and Ron shared an fundamental interest in thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and biophysics. They spent many hundreds of hours together discussing scientific matters over many years. Joel’s book Statistical Thermodynamics of Nonequilibrium Processes,(Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1987) illustrates the close connection between his and Ron’s research. During the 1990’s Joel redefined himself as a very successful mathematical biologist, even changing departments. Joel died prematurely in 1999 from metastasized lung cancer. From discovery to death was only about 5 short months. Joel had smoked two packs of unfiltered camels a day while in college. Although he stopped soon thereafter, he did get lung cancer some 35 years later. Ron was present at the side of his death bed when Joel took his last breaths and died. No event has affected him more than this one.

Two years earlier another of Ron’s closest friends died prematurely. This was Duane Aldrich, a very successful Atlanta attorney specializing in corporate labor law, from the perspective of management. Among others his clients included the Atlanta Falcons, PepsiCo and Frito-Lay. With Duane, Ron attended many a Falcon’s game seated in the owner’s box. They met through their wives. Duane’s wife has been James Watson’s student secretary at Harvard. Ron’s wife had been an undergraduate research student in that lab. One day the two ladies happened to meet at a plant nursery in Atlanta. The couples got together, Duane and Ron became close friends and each family produced two children of about the same age who also were friends as young kids. Duane enjoyed having a friend who was not a lawyer, and Ron enjoyed having a friend who was not a scientist. They shared views about war, politics, economics, literature, family and divorce. Duane was prone to skin ulcers. In 1997 he got infected and succumbed to blood poisoning while in the care of a major hospital. This loss also affected Ron strongly.

In 1964, with the NSF fellowship in his pocket Ron entered Caltech as a graduate student in Physics. Soon he was hospitalized with a respiratory ailment caused by the smog. Life in Pasadena was not good and the “teaching” at Caltech in physics was abysmal, especially after Reed. Except for a excellent course in functional analysis in the Mathematics department, the courses in physics were poorly given and largely redundant after the Reed experience. The young faculty were not into teaching and the older faculty who did teach were not up to the task (famous faculty such as Feynman and Gell-Mann simply did not teach to first year graduate students, or to anyone else while Ron was there). Ron had to get out of there and discovered The Rockefeller University where a new program in mathematical physics had just been started, headed by George Uhlenbeck and Mark Kac (He learned of this from Reed upper class woman by a year, Barbara Alexander, who went to The Rockefeller after graduating from Reed. Barbara is now better known as Barbara Ehrenreich.). In December of 1964 Ron wrote to Detlev Bronk, president of The Rockefeller, and asked if he could come study with Kac and Uhlenbeck. Bronk invited Ron to an interview early in 1965. After getting feedback from Kac and Uhlenbeck about his visit with them earlier in the day Bronk accepted Ron on the spot. Bronk said that any student who could recognize the attractiveness of Uhlenbeck and Kac deserved to study with them. Ron moved to New York in the early summer of 1965.

The faculty at The Rockefeller during the 1960’s was sensational. Not only in mathematics and physics, but naturally especially so in the life sciences. There were many Nobel laureates and many opportunities to meet them and even get to know some. Ron had a special relationship with Fritz Lipmann. Fritz was a friend of Ron’s father, Sid, and shared an interest in the origins of life. Ron’s visits to Fritz were about pre-biotic synthesis. This is where Ron learned about the coupling of redox energy to polyphosphate energy via thioesters. It was later that Ron again learned about this view from Christian De Duve. De Duve was a rare early appreciator of the work of Peter Mitchell on chemiosmosis. In 1966 Mitchell’s theory was covered by De Duve in a series of lectures. At that time Mitchell was abused by the cognoscenti of energy metabolism, except for De Duve and a few others. Ron was fortunate enough to attend these lectures. In later life De Duve’s books about origins have had a lasting impact. Ron also met and conversed with Lars Onsager who visited The Rockefeller in 1967 or so for about six months. Lars also retired to Miami where Ron’s parents lived at the time and the elder Foxes and Onsagers played bridge together. Ron had several conversations with Lars while visiting Miami. Once Ron asked Lars: “will statistical mechanics have an important impact on biology?” To this question came back a terse:”No !” This response turned out o be false as later work proved, including Ron’s work on Rectified Brownian Motion, especially as applied to the motor protein, kinesin.

New York is a great place to live as a subsidized student, especially at 63rd and York Avenue. There was very nice subsidized housing for students and fine dining facilities. Ron continued to play squash, sometimes with particle physicist Bram Pais. Pais was quite a bit older but who really relished winning a good point. Steve Silverman, another Reed upperclassman then living in New York City, also came to play and improve Ron’s game. Ron developed several long term friendships at Rockefeller, most notably with Alan Kapuler and with John Hildebrand. Read about Ron’s thesis work in the Science and Integrity section under Uhlenbeck’s story.

At that time, students in residence were fed meals in the Rockefeller dining facilities. Dinner was served with table cloths, silverware and candle light. Ron managed to get into a fracas with the maitre de, who happened to be a black man. The woman in charge of dining and residences turned the fracas into a racial confrontation and Ron was nearly expelled just before graduation. A vice president (a quite famous scientist) called Ron to his office and basically expelled him before asking for his account. Ron screamed at him that this was unjust and that the charges were trumped up and Ron demanded a hearing. William Agosta, Hildebrand, Kac and Uhlenbeck came to Ron’s defense. Ron was allowed to graduate. In a year or so the woman in question was fired for long term embezzlement and the Rockefeller bartender, Leo, always gave Ron the credit (after unjustly accusing Ron, scrutiny centered on her). Every time Ron visited after graduating he was treated to free beers by Leo, who had long disliked the woman in question and was aware that something wasn’t right with the finances. It also did not help that Ron had participated with Alan Kapuler in having a light show in Caspary Auditorium one night while everyone attending was stoned. When the administration learned of this, there were serious repercussions. Many of the drugs involved were still legal then. Alan (now known as Mushroom) pursued an alternative lifestyle and became a very successful gene bank botanist in Corvallis Oregon.

At The Rockefeller, the top two graduate students in mid training were inducted into the Society of Sigma Xi at Rockefeller as associate members. John Hildebrand and Ron received this honor. It was the custom at that time for entering students to do a trial project. Ron’s was communicated to the The Journal of Combinatorial Theory by Gian-Carlo Rota and published there in 1967. That was pretty unusual for these projects. Upon graduation Ron was made a full member of the Society, a rare but distinct honor.

It was now 1969 and the job market in physics hit an post-war (WWII) low. Positions in physics of any kind were rare. UC Berkeley had special post-doctoral fellowships funded by the Miller Institute. Each year there might be one in physics and another in math and another in biochemistry etc. The selection base was international. Ron got the one in physics based on his thesis work. Remarkably George Uhlenbeck’s son, Olke, got one in molecular biology and his then wife, Karen Uhlenbeck, was also a post-doc in mathematics. Needless to say George was rather proud. Two other Fellows who became Ron’s friends are Bill Saslaw in astronomy and Rick Dahlquist in biochemistry. The years at Berkeley were strange. One year Ron was bearded and certain persons would talk to him. The other year he was shaved and a disjoint group would talk to him. This was the aftermath of the late 60’s student protests that polarized the US in general and UC Berkeley in particular. The war in Viet Nam was the main issue, but so was the drug culture of that period. At one point it was arranged for Ron to go to Caltech and spend two weeks with Max Delbruck discussing biophysics and origins. As a postdoc at Caltech years earlier Max had often availed himself of Raia’s cooking while Sid was doing graduate work. So Max was generous with his time with Ron and they had some interesting discussions. For Max the big stumbling block to doing origin research was that he thought the experiments would take about 10,000 years to perform.

The earlier 60’s were a golden age of exploration of the mind and free love. It all came tumbling down around 1968 as the drug culture became overrun by a dangerous criminal element (had drug use remained legal, take over of sales by organized criminals would not have happened). Ron attended several Berkeley parties where there were served fruit, nuts and chips with dips, and weed with papers ready to roll. Ron had managed to go all through Reed and most of the 60’s, until 1968, without ever using drugs. He was “high on life” (at Reed parties other students assumed he was high on weed even though he wasn’t), and remains that way to this day. In 1968 Al Kapuler introduced him to weed and the remaining year at Rockefeller was quite an experience that also continued at Berkeley. One classmate, who will be called Seth, knew where there was an old bottle of synthetic mescaline, that had been synthesized by an earlier outstanding organic chemist as part of his research, on a high shelf in a Rockefeller lab. Seth fetched it but found that earlier students had already emptied it. He did scrape the insides of the bottle and we split the residue, about 200 mg. That was a revelation! Later, a fine, student chemist, who will be called David, synthesized DMT. That was a cosmic experience!! Ron had read in research by Hofmann and Schultes that DMT was inactive. It turned out that the natives in South America whom Schultes studied took it orally and it did not cross the blood-brain barrier that way. Ron thought that by vaporizing it, it would get directly into the brain through the nasal tissues. This proved true and he had one cosmic experience in May of 1968 that still remains the most astounding single experience of his life.

At the end of the Miller fellowship in 1971, there was a party for the departing Fellows. Ron was asked where he was going. He said to Georgia Tech. The immediate uncontrolled response of the inquirer was; “I’m so sorry!” This person could not accept anything other than a top 10 institution as a sign of success. In those days, a job at Georgia Tech as the outcome was a sign of failure, at least to some. Ron was happy to have any job at all in physics at that time. As an example of the job shortage, Ron’s junior colleague, Seth Putterman (not the Seth above), also a student of Uhlenbeck’s, was also a winner of a Miller Fellowship in 1971. He declined it !!! because he had a faculty offer from UCLA and did not want to miss the chance at a faculty job in physics. During the last 40 years Georgia Tech has developed into a first class engineering school and turned out to be an excellent home for Ron’s academic career (see CV). More about the last 40 years can be found in the CV.

Racquetball became his passion sports-wise. Tech had good courts made in 1975. Tech also had PE teachers in those days and one of these was David Houser. He taught racquetball and bowling (Ron once watched David bowl 8 strikes in a row). Ron and David became regular opponents. Through David, Ron met Gerald Smith and Roger Wehrle. Gerald was the gym’s physical plant foreman and reserved courts everyday, as well as supplying fresh balls, and he was an excellent player. Roger was several times national amateur racquetball champion in his age group!! He was an astoundingly good player. Ron finally got to play doubles with this group and developed into a pretty good player (in 1992 he was nationally ranked 9th in class C ). Ron once playing Roger singles, beating him 15-13 in the first game. Roger usually played to make it interesting for himself, not to demolish his opponent. When he saw Ron take too much pleasure in the victory he managed to win the match 13-15, 11-0, 11-0. See the academic webpage to look at Ron’s recent racquetball challenge to the undergraduates. He had 45 matches and won 43 (one loss was avenged 5 times), all at age 63. 

Piano doodling is also a relaxing exercise for Ron. He sometimes makes CD recordings, that while amateurish are OK in the background. His favorite music is jazz and old standards. He plays from “fake books” on an electronic Roland MP-500 piano. Ron learned about chords from his father who had been a musician in college. In fact Sid and Paul Smith wrote musicals while students at UCLA. Sid became a biochemist and Paul became Walt Disney’s music director for around 40 years.

Ron has always enjoyed travel. He has been in all 50 states and on 6 continents. Ron and wife Lynn have done several white water rafting trips. These include two trips on the Chatooga river (where Deliverance was filmed), the Gauley river in West Virginia, the middle fork of the Salmon river in Idaho (a five day trip) and in Alaska on an ice cold river. Some of his favorite trips include Japan (especially Kyoto), China (Beijing, Shanghai and the Great Wall), Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia), the Northwest coastal islands off of Southern Alaska, the Greek isles, the Galapogos islands and the old center of Milan Italy. A trip to the Fiji islands has already been planned for 2008.

In retirement Ron is focused on the question of the origin and evolution of the genetic code and the associated protein biosynthesis machinery. To Ron this is the mysterium tremedum. A section of is dedicated to this topic.