Part 6: Kistler Speaks

Excerpts from His Many Non-Technical Writings

By Dr. Mike Ayers Contributor
May 2000

Sam Kistler wrote extensively on a variety of topics throughout his career. As he neared his retirement, he self-published a collection of his non-scientific writings entitled Memorabilia (University of Utah Library). These works reveal Kistler to have epitomized the ideal scientist for his day and age. He was a strong advocate for the ideas that a thorough scientific education was, and would continue to be, of critical importance to society, and that the frontiers of science and human enlightenment were infinite in scope. He was also deeply concerned about improving the lives of the world’s disadvantaged, albeit from a western-industrial point of view.

Below are several excerpts from Memorabilia that shed light on his personality:

On the infinite world of science and finite resources

From “Innovation and the Impossible”, 1955

“We are finite beings in the midst of an infinite universe. There is an infinity of time behind us and an infinity of time stretches before us. As far as we can perceive, space is limitless in all directions. To date, there is no indication that we are approaching a complete understanding of the physical universe. The farther we probe into the structure of matter, for example, the more we discover that in generations to come will have bearing upon the everyday activities of people. Only a few years ago the neutron was an almost inaccessible, uncharged particle of matter that, though it seemed to be one of the fundamental building blocks, gave promise of never being more than an intellectual curiosity. Now we are planning to run our ships, our locomotives, our airplanes, to turn the wheels of industry and to fight our wars with devices containing atmospheres of neutrons. Doubtless, the many other particles of matter now known or to be discovered will be made use of at some time. With an infinity ahead of us in any direction in which we move, regardless of our progress and the magnitude of it on a finite basis, there will still be an infinity ahead.

The magnitude of our present industrial activity is indeed impressive and the rate at which we are consuming our raw materials heritage is at times frightening. Nevertheless, this is a situation which, looked at broadly, offers no problems that are impossible of solution. It is only illustration of the fact that new problems spring up in greater number as old ones are solved. But are we not approaching saturation of the public’s ability to consume? Though I would answer that question negatively at present, it is conceivable that the tonnage of new material that people can use in any one year may approach a limit, but I do not believe that there is a limit to the refinement that can be built into such materials. Tonnage is a very crude measure of usefulness. A tiny vacuum tube or transistor may render more service to an individual than a ton of steel. When Samuel Gompers, President of the A. F. of L. for many years, was asked, “What does labor want?” his answer was one word, “More.” I think that, in general, characterizes people. The more goods and services that we have, the more demand there is for yet more.

Though our fuels are limited in amount and our liquid and gaseous fuels are rapidly approaching exhaustion, though copper, lead, zinc and tin are very scarce in the earth’s crust and we are using them at a prodigal rate, there is no reason that I am aware of why our commercial activity must be based upon these raw materials. Long before our fuel supplies have become very dear, atomic energy will be providing our major needs for heat and power. Long before our uranium supply is exhausted, other sources of nuclear energy will be made practical. Long before the sources of nuclear energy approach exhaustion, we will be able to obtain all of the heat and power that we need directly from sunshine. Long before we have exhausted our supplies of copper, other metals, such as aluminum, magnesium, and sodium, will have become satisfactory substitutes. This is an age of steel, and we are exhausting our great iron-ore deposits at a tremendous rate. Nevertheless, were steel more difficult to obtain, we could even now find satisfactory substitutes. For example, without much further invention, we could construct our great bridges and tall buildings with concrete for the compression members and glass fiber for the tension parts. In fact, glass fibers are intrinsically much stronger than the best of steel and, on a weight-for-weight basis, are immensely superior. The raw materials for glass are everywhere about us, so future generations can build stronger, and lighter, and cheaper structures of glass and concrete than we now build with steel.’

On dressing for work

From “Elegance”, 1958

“It is with considerable trepidation that I choose this subject for a brief discussion in the Data Sheet, since I am very cognizant of the time-honored attitude of engineers toward prissy pretense and artificiality. Nevertheless, for two or three years I have had some- thing in mind that I have thought was worth saying, and now I risk the displeasure of the rugged engineers by putting it into print…

…When I studied engineering at Stanford, it was the custom of most of the engineering students to wear tan corduroy pants, but it was scarcely acceptable to appear in public with clean ones on. Only those that had become black from long use and wiping greasy hands on them were really comfortable. These corduroys with an OD flannel shirt and a sombrero represented the spirit of engineering of that day. It was the garb of the rugged individualist who went forth to do battle with inanimate nature to tame it for man’s uses. There was something in that spirit that has been lost today as a result of the downward leveling of educated people in the social revolution that we have been passing through and the exchange of group norms for personal standards and convictions.

I hope that the cult of the common man, in which mediocrity has been striven for and admiration of the uncommon individual has been regarded as antisocial, has about run its course and that we can again develop an interest in individualism. However, I do not recommend a return to the greasy corduroy days. Between 1920 and the present, the engineer’s function in society has greatly changed. He must still be the individualist in his community, but this is not incommensurate with elegance.”

On international students

From “The Peace Corps and the Universities”, 1961

“The sudden enthusiasm with which we in the United States have taken hold of the Youth Peace Corps idea is very characteristic of us. Some foreigners watching the American scene have classed us as manic-depressive, fluctuating between states of mental depression, which bring on economic depression, and states of elation and enthusiasm…

…Romantic as it is to contemplate going to a foreign country to help needy people to a better way of life and, incidentally, to make friends for the United States, there may be a better way for most of us to win friends, though admittedly it lacks the romantic touch. We have now in the United States 54,000 foreign students, and it is estimated that within five years this number will swell to 200,000. Distasteful as it may be to us, it is concluded by many of those who are brought most closely into touch with these foreign students that at least half of them will return to their countries disillusioned with America, and many of these will have resentments varying from sullen disapproval to violent hatred. An acquaintance with whom I discussed this matter recently said that he had talked to an Indian student working as a taxicab driver in one of our eastern cities. This student openly stated that, when he gets back to India, it will be his object to do everything within his power to discredit the United States.

Many complaints are registered by these foreign students, ranging from racial discrimination through the mad materialism of U. S. life to the excessive violence on our TV. The most common source of strained relations with our African and Asian students is the color discrimination that they meet. Unfortunately, Salt Lake City is particularly vulnerable on this point. Dark-skinned students have difficulty getting haircuts in the vicinity of U.C.L.A., and they find that housing of a respectable character is hard to come by in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps unconsciously identifying themselves with the colored people in the Southern states, they are alienated by the intensity of the segregation problem in the South…

…Certainly we can not turn foreign students into friends simply by locating them on college campuses. Something more than that is needed. A home youth corps dedicated to the problem of winning the friendship of the 27,000 foreign students who now dislike us might in the long run do much more good toward international friendship and understanding than a great number of our young people going to foreign lands.”

Letters to home from around the world

Kistler and his wife traveled around the world from 1958-1959.


“…Europe was, of course, very interesting, as attested by our mileage of 7,800 in the Diesel car. The mechanical engineers would like to know more about the car, but I shall leave that until my return…”


“…I have been looking around a bit and find that in Nairobi I can buy a second wife for twenty cows, which seems high to me, In Gulu, on the other hand, I can get one for five cows and six goats, though there is no way to determine if the quality is the same, This is within my means and I am tempted to bring one home.

In some places, the girls looking for husbands put on a dance, a veritable hoedown, designed to show the men how strong they are and with what endurance they could undertake the responsibilities of a household, The ones that last the longest without collapsing are worthy of a chief. Now I regard myself as a sort of chief and expect to have to pay an extra cow or two for the best performer, but she would be worth it.

These wives have many advantages they don’t need shoes, a few yards of cloth a year will satisfy them, and an acre or two of ground on which they could raise manfoc, corn, beans and sweet potatoes would seem like heaven. Whereas an American wife needs a car in which to haul home even a small bag of groceries, these ebony girls can carry prodigious burdens on their heads and they walk great distances without complaint.

I understand that in Salt Lake City, one can have a second wife without molestation if he keeps out of the papers. The girl I have in mind would have no interest in publicity. At least if we meet raised eyebrows in Salt Lake City, we could move to Davis County.

I haven’t broached the subject to Peggy yet, but I should think that she would like company around the house, wouldn’t you.”

South Pacific

“…After over an hour of telephoning (one is lucky if the phones work at all on Bali), a small bus was located to take the party to the extreme west end of the island and arrangements were made for a little ferry to take them to Banjuwangi on Java, where there was a hotel. It was now late afternoon with no breakfast or lunch but bananas. On arriving at the channel, it was found that the ferry had tied up on the Java side for the night. More scurrying about located the constabulary and got them to agree to take the party to Banjuwangi in three outrigger canoes.

Part way across, the canoe with the three old ladies in it broke a rope and turned back to repair it, promising to follow soon. For reasons not clear to a stupid western mind, the stalwarts manning this canoe decided to wait until the next day to cross the channel. It was getting dark, and the three timid, fluttery old ladies were left stranded on the beach of a tiny fishing hamlet occupied only by South Sea Island natives who, doubtless, grew larger, wilder, and more terrifying as darkness fell.

After it became clear to our friends who reached the other shore that something had gone wrong, they succeeded in locating a launch and sent it back for the women, but it was one thirty in the morning before they were rescued. Although it is said that all is well that ends well, the little old ladies seemed not to be convinced and refused to speak to the other five for the remainder of the voyage. The last report was that they will sue the Royal Interocean Lines…”


“…Kobe has few attractions for the tourist, so we hastened westward to Hiroshima. Every American, or better, every civilized person should visit that town where the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare was dropped. Here the most terrible deed ever to be committed by the human race was done by Americans, men from a country that prides itself in its humanity. With this one bomb, 240,000 people were killed and 63,000 houses destroyed. There is a large park now on the site of the worst destruction with a cenotaph to the dead, a monument especially to the children that were killed, a memorial hall and a museum. When the trees have had time to grow, this will be a very impressive park, marred only by the unattractive buildings that some would-be Frank Lloyd Wright designed…”

Words to graduating engineers (1965)

“…Be proud of your profession and your good fortune to be in it, but look not down upon the people in other callings; for wisdom, character, and human values are randomly distributed and often wear a shabby coat. The self-righteous man is a wizened character behind a paper mask.

Recognize that technology has no morals; it serves evil as efficiently as it serves good. Upon you, therefore, rests the responsibility for moral and ethical use of technology. You must have “a conscious recognition of social duty to be fulfilled by sharing advances in technical knowledge, by guarding the standards and ethical codes of your profession, and by rendering a fair share of gratuitous public services.” Your world has become so completely dependent upon your services and those like you that upon you rests uncommon responsibility for high character and judgment…”

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