A Tribute to Prof. Al Bartlett

Published on September 19th, 2013

"Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?"

– Prof. Al Bartlett

Professor Emeritus Al Bartlett (1923-2013) died on September 7, 2013. He was 90 years old.

As a young man seeking adventure in 1941, Al Bartlett obtained a summer job washing dishes on a Great Lakes iron ore freighter. It took him several hitchhiking trips to Cleveland to obtain the federal papers required to work on the ships.

Embarking on a more serious endeavor, he joined the Manhattan Project in 1944 and worked for 25 months at Los Alamos, primarily on mass spectrometry of plutonium. There he encountered well-known physicists of the Heroic Generation, including Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman and Niels Bohr. He subsequently worked on high-speed photography for the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll.

He often told the story of how he sent home a silk parachute from a magnesium flare he used to test his photographic equipment. His wife Eleanor used the silk for her wedding dress. This dress is now on display at the Los Alamos History Museum.

Having found physics immensely interesting, Bartlett obtained a BA degree from Colgate University and MA and PhD degrees in Nuclear Physics from Harvard University in 1948 and 1951, respectively.

Dr. Albert A. Bartlett joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder as a Professor of Physics in 1950. In 1969 and 1970, he served two terms as the elected Chair of the Faculty Council of all four campuses of the University of Colorado. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Prof. Bartlett was an exceptionally successful teacher and was one of Colorado University's most revered teachers. During his tenure, he taught introductory physics to generations of young scientists and engineers. In 1981 he received the Robert A. Millikan Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) for his outstanding scholarly contributions to physics education.

In his address to the AAPT, entitled, "Are we overlooking something?" he observed that:

In recent decades great strides have been made in advancing the analytical level and content of introductory college physics for scientists and engineers… But if our students are to become more than mere analysts, we must share with them some of the fun, fascination and understanding that can be found in the physics of everyday phenomena, in the applications of physics in other disciplines, and in the interface between science and society.

Equally influential in his community, in the late 1950s, Bartlett organized citizens' efforts to preserve open space in Boulder, Colorado, which ultimately led to the formation of Boulder's Open Space Program. By 1999, more than 26,000 acres of land for preservation had been purchased for public open space.

Bartlett also was a founding member of PLAN-Boulder County, a City and County environmental group. As well, he initiated the "Blue Line" amendment that kept houses from being built into Boulder's foothills by restricting city water supply to a maximum elevation.

In a 2005 interview, Bartlett commented on the prevailing pro-growth political mindset:

Many years ago I was discussing this with a Colorado State Senator. At one point he said, ‘Al, we couldn't stop Boulder's growth even if we wanted to.’ I agreed, but said, ‘Therefore let's put a tax on growth so that it pays its way.’ He almost shouted, ‘You can't do that, you'd slow down our growth!’

Bartlett observed:

Remember that politicians will try to claim that there isn't a conflict between saving the environment and smart growth. Unfortunately, both smart growth and dumb growth destroy the environment. The only difference is that smart growth destroys the environment with good taste. It's like buying a ticket on the Titanic, if you're smart you go first class. But the outcome is the same… the boat still sinks.

He also noted that unconstrained population growth can have a pervasive impact on our sustaining environment:

Carrying capacity is a measure of how many people can be supported indefinitely. Therefore if any fraction of global warming is due to the actions of humans, this alone proves that human populations are larger than the carrying capacity of the earth. Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

Bartlett had the uncanny ability to present mathematical concepts in a manner that were not only understandable, but interesting to the lay person. Realizing that most people do not understand the ramifications of compounded or exponential growth, he developed his celebrated lecture, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy,” in 1969 and subsequently presented it 1,742 times. His audiences ranged from junior high and college students to corporate executives, scientists and Congressional staffs. He began every lecture with the statement:

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.

In his lecture, he gave a basic introduction to the arithmetic of steady growth, including an explanation of the concept of doubling time. He explained the impact of unending steady growth on the population of Boulder, of Colorado and of the world. He examined the consequences of steady growth in a finite environment and observed this growth as applied to fossil fuel consumption. This basic lecture helped listeners more readily understand the implications of unending growth on a finite planet.

Bartlett also testified before Congress on energy policy. He was among the first to receive the M. King Hubbert Award for Excellence in Energy Education at the ASPO USA Denver World Oil Conference in 2005. In 2008, he was awarded the Population Institute's Global Media Award for Excellence in Population Reporting. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Colorado Environmental Center, the Gilbert F. White Award of PLAN Boulder County and the Pacesetter Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Boulder Community.

Bartlett's papers have been published by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the book, “The Essential Exponential! For the Future of Our Planet.” Many of Bartlett's articles and interviews, along with his famous lecture, are at AlBartlett.org.

Al Bartlett was an extraordinary man. Those who knew him remember him as gentle, personable and wise. He indeed will be missed.

Al Bartlett Tribute by Author, Fred Elbel (video)

Al Bartlett Tribute by Growthbusters

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