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Robert Kemp Adair (1924–2020)—Notes on a Friendship

Robert Kemp Adair (1924–2020)—Notes on a Friendship

Reflections on the life and work of a superb scientist, for whom integrity and rigor were paramount.

· 19 min read

Robert K. Adair, Member of the National Academy of Sciences and Yale University Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics died in Hamden
on September 28, 2020 aged 96.

~New Haven Register, October 3, 2020.

I.

I first met Bob Adair in 2003. At the suggestion of a colleague, I wrote to him regarding the biophysics of human exposure to “extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields” (ELF-EMF or simply EMF). Ever since 1979, when a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggested that children living near power lines had increased rates of cancer, the safety of EMF had become a major concern among certain scientists and the public at large. I had always been skeptical about the plausibility of a causal association—the fields emanating from power lines and other sources were extremely weak and diminished rapidly with distance. But few in the epidemiology community, of which I was a part, appeared to have any interest in what a different discipline—physics—had to say on the topic.

In October 2003, I drove up to visit Bob and his wife Eleanor at their home in Hamden, Connecticut, just north of New Haven. Bob was 80 and emeritus professor of physics at Yale, where he had devoted a 30-year career to research in elementary particle physics. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and held the title of Sterling Professor of Physics. On that first visit, I interviewed him for several hours in the spacious, book-lined living-room of their house, built by Thornton Wilder in the late 1920s with money he made from the sale of The Bridge of St. Luis Rey. Bob told me that, as he approached retirement, he had looked around for a problem he could work on without having to run a large laboratory typical of research in high-energy physics.

Through his wife Ellie, a physiologist and authority on microwave radiation, he attended several meetings on the biological effects of EMF and got to know many of the key figures in that area. Bob found that there was “a bit of a gap” in the physics of biological interactions of low-frequency EMF, which he wanted to understand better. In 1991, he published a major paper in the journal Physical Review in which he used fundamental physical principles to question the possibility of health hazards from ambient exposure to power-frequency EMF. Titled “Constraints on Biological Effects of Weak Very-Low-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields,” the paper started out from the position that, due to the low energy of such fields, any contribution to cancer or leukemia incidence could not be due to the breaking of bonds in DNA. Rather, it would have to involve “less catastrophic effects” that are not well characterized or understood. 

Bob demonstrated that, due to the resistivity of tissues and cell membranes, EMF actually penetrating the body are, in fact, so weak that they cannot be expected to have any significant effect on the biological activities of cells. He then considered different aspects of EMF—electric fields, static and changing magnetic fields, pulsed magnetic fields, and different types of resonance. In each case, he invoked the principles of classical physics to bring clarity to the discussion of specific mechanisms by which EMF could affect biology. He concluded that “there are good reasons to believe that weak ELF fields can have no significant biological effect at the cell level—and no strong reason to believe otherwise.”

Characteristically, in spite of the paper’s thoroughness and provocative conclusion, Bob wasn’t certain that he was right. As he put it to me in an email in 2004:

Negative arguments, such as those that say that weak fields cannot affect biology are always suspect as being possibly incomplete. I was not completely converted myself for a long time. When I published the 1991 paper, I rather suspected that someone would come up with an angle that I had missed. Indeed, it was much later, after I had considered matters at greater length—and published perhaps ten more papers on the subject—that I became a complete convert myself to the view that environmental fields of 10 milligauss indicted in the epidemiology cannot possibly affect biology. By that time, no one had found any convincing theoretical process—or convincing experimental data—that would allow power-line frequency fields of less than 500 milligauss [the strength of the earth’s magnetic field] to affect biology.

In an article written for the layman in the late 1990s titled “The Fear of Weak Electromagnetic Fields,” Bob was both more outspoken and more accessible. He compared concern over weak EMF from power lines to the fear that leaves falling from trees could fracture a person’s skull.

How then do we account for the numerous experimental studies purporting to show effects of exposure to EMF? Bob pointed out that, after more than 20 years of research, there were no reproducible, agreed-upon effects, and he attributed most findings to experimental error. He contended that much of the research in this area—fed by public concern and the availability of funding—was published and accepted uncritically by those who had a stake in the existence of adverse health effects from ambient EMF.

As an experimentalist in high-energy physics, Bob judged the vast majority of experimental work on this question to be of extremely poor quality. The reporting of an exciting new finding was typically followed by the failure of other researchers to be able to reproduce it. When he became aware of the highly cited paper by the epidemiologist John Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” the biases described in that paper struck him as crucial to accounting for the mass of suggestive but irreproducible findings regarding the biological effects of EMF.

Bob’s work, along with that of his Yale colleague William Bennett and others, was instrumental in persuading the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences to conduct independent reviews of what was known about the health effects of EMF. The American Physical Society’s report was published in 1995 and the National Research Council report appeared in 1997. Both documents concluded that there was no compelling evidence of adverse health effects on humans. In addition, a large study of childhood leukemia by the National Cancer Institute came out in 1997 showing no evidence of an association. Bob’s lucid, tightly-argued writings played an important role in putting the longstanding concern over EMF to rest.

Bob continued to write about EMF, and in 2003, when radiofrequency energy from cell phones and base stations had supplanted EMF as “the risk du jour,” he wrote a superb article bringing the principles of physics to bear on that question, too. He pointed out that there were no reproducible effects on biology of exposure to radiofrequency (RF) or microwave fields below the level at which heating occurs. After considering a complete set of possible biological interactions involving possible athermal effects of low-intensity RF and microwave electromagnetic fields on human physiology, he concluded that it was “quite unlikely” that any mechanism could transfer enough energy to cause harm to the human body. It is “most unlikely,” he concluded, “that RF or microwave fields of an intensity less than 10 milliwatts per centimeter squared incident on humans can affect physiology significantly.”

But Bob went a step further. When gauging the probability of an effect, he argued, one needs to take into account prior knowledge bearing on its likelihood. This Bayesian approach is more sophisticated than simply examining each new finding in isolation, as if there were no previous relevant knowledge. Pointing to the body of published experimental findings purporting to show physiological effects of low-intensity fields, Bob commented that, given the theoretical implausibility of such effects, the results would have to be “especially definitive,” since “remarkable conclusions—which seem to violate well-considered principles—require remarkably strong evidence.” In his judgment, the existing studies did not meet that standard. He was not saying that it is impossible that RF could cause cancer. He was merely saying that, given everything that we know, it is extremely unlikely.

Bob’s explanations were invaluable to me when I was writing a chapter devoted to the question of whether cell phones increase the risk of cancer in my latest book.  By the time I sent him a draft of the chapter on cell phones, I had included a two-panel figure showing the dramatic increase in cell phone subscriptions from the mid-1980s to 2012, and below it, a graph of the age-adjusted incidence of brain cancer for the period 1977 to 2012, which was completely flat for the 30-year period. Bob wrote back:

I have just finished reading your Chapter 4 for the second time. I expect to reread it again, and again. I enjoyed it very much and I learned a lot. Although I append a short list of unimportant comments, my only serious suggestion is to add emphasis to the remarkable Figure 1. I had not seen that data before and I found it to be a simple, stunning affirmation of the conclusion that cell phones are harmless, a conclusion we had reached through scientific reasoning—albeit reasoning disputed by biased incompetents. That figure will impress everyone and convince even skeptics that cell phones are not very dangerous.

II.

I continued to stay in touch with Bob, speaking to him by phone every couple of weeks and exchanging papers. Whenever I reached him and asked how he was, he always answered in an upbeat, faintly sing-song voice, with a laugh, “Oh, pretty good, pretty good!” His demeanor was unassuming and down-to-earth, and I chalked this up to his roots in the Midwest. He was amused by human foibles, which he observed in himself as well as in others. Often, he would bring his critical faculties to bear on topics he felt were being distorted by scientists, journalists, activists, and even regulatory agencies that didn’t bother to consider the fundamental properties of the phenomenon they were addressing. 

During a discussion of the questionable claims made about EMF, Bob once said, “I got into nuclear physics when it was at its height. If you did an experiment, you knew that other groups were going to repeat it. And if you made a mistake, you were going to be exposed as a fool. If you made two mistakes, you’d better look for a job as a professor of English.” Bob was referring to the very different culture in epidemiology, where he said “there’s no cost for being wrong.”

As Bob’s daughter Margaret Quinn explained in an email exchange following Bob’s death:

Bob’s bête noire in his later life was the bad science he saw everywhere. He rightly mourned the rigor of the scientists of his salad days, and he recognized how the scramble for funding in every scientific field forced bias even on good practitioners. I think he felt physics was immune for a long time, but it saddens me that he was sure he had stopped doing physics at the right time, because he wanted to compete for knowledge and discovery, not for funding. While he knew he was fallible and had made mistakes in his work, he never ever felt that he had compromised his honesty or his integrity.

From our very different backgrounds this was terrain we shared. He was always glad to talk and we never had trouble finding a topic of current interest to talk about. Often, in these conversations, I would grab a pen to make a note of an anecdote or something pithy he said.

In what follows, I want to record a few of Bob’s views on various topics and anecdotes that reflect his curiosity about the world and his drive to figure out how it works—whether the topic was casualties in war, the genetics of height, climate change, or the education of a future Secretary of Defense.


I once mentioned that I had come across a quote from Richard Feynman to the effect that you have to follow the data in your interpretations. Bob told me that when he was at Brookhaven in the 1960s, Feynman had come to deliver a lecture on superconductivity. Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, was in the audience. Bob said that Feynman’s lecture was way over his head. At the end of the lecture, Teller raised his hand and said that Feynman hadn’t proved his theory of superconductivity. He went on to give specific reasons, which Bob couldn’t follow either. Feynman fell silent for a full minute, and Bob said you could see the wheels turning as he worked through the math. Then he said, “You’re absolutely right.” This anecdote seemed to me to convey something of the slippery mental world in which theoretical physicists live, as well as Bob’s uncompromising honesty.

In 2012, I sent Bob a copy of a paper I had published on height and cancer in a cohort of Canadian women, in which we found a positive association of attained height with increased risk of a number of cancers. Bob had a strong interest in the genetics of IQ, and he wondered whether the association we observed was universal or just applied to Canadian women. In an email he wrote:

From your data, one can see that it is likely that there is a nearly equal association of cancer incidence with education and, thus, with IQ, and, thus with family income—a class difference. Along with a class difference—hence between diets, medical care, infant treatments—there are surely ethnic differences and thus different life-styles. In particular, humans with different ethnic ancestries have different mean heights. Could then the different cancer incidence derive from different heredities? Today, the French are shorter than the Scandinavians and, also, the Scots. As late as 1950, the lower class in England was significantly shorter than the upper class. Today there is still a class difference in height, albeit smaller. And the Welsh are shorter than the English—and the Scots taller. Does the lower class in England—and the Welsh—have lower cancer rates? The Scots higher?

I present the Tay-Sachs relations to illustrate my concerns with ethnic effects on general conclusions. As you know, the Tay-Sachs syndrome is found only in Ashkenazi Jews, French-Canadians, and Louisiana Cajuns (the Quebec and Cajun forms may be slightly different from the Jewish forms, but that need not concern us). Hence, in the United States, the disease is found almost wholely [sic] in Jews. American Jews have a mean IQ of about 115—much higher than any other simply defined ethnic group. Hence, ignoring ethnic identification, there is a high correlation between high intelligence and the Tay-Sachs disease in the U.S. However, the correlation is specious, inasmuch as the non-Jewish high intelligence population does not suffer from the disease and there is no special correlation between the significant disease incidence and high IQ in the populations of southern Quebec and southeastern Louisiana.

In summary, I question the universal character of the association you show between height and certain cancers in the Canadian populations. But I would hold this relation more likely to be universal if the Quebec population and the Anglo population considered separately showed similar correlations.

Prompted by Bob’s message, I conducted further analyses, examining the incidence of all cancer and postmenopausal breast cancer (the most common cancer) in women from Quebec and women from all other provinces. The association with height was of similar magnitude and statistically significant in both Quebecoise and non-Quebecoise for both outcomes. “Very interesting!” Bob replied. “To me, that result almost eliminates the likelihood that ethnicity effects are dominant. It would be fun to look at Southern U.S. blacks for both weight and height effects (Southern blacks have little white admixture) though I suppose the data doesn’t exist. Thanks again—great fun, as well as useful.” 


In a conversation in May 2017, I mentioned to Bob that I had seen Noam Chomsky talking up the impending catastrophe from climate change. I said that I had always admired Chomsky and I had gone to sit-ins in Cambridge in the ’60s and read his books. It struck me as odd that someone as hard-nosed and critical as Chomsky could be carrying on like a doomsday prophet. Bob said that he was aware of Chomsky’s views on climate change, but he said he was not surprised because he had never agreed with Chomsky’s politics. He said that Chomsky’s father was a much more solid scholar, who disagreed with his son on most issues.

During the last 15 years of his life, Bob was deeply preoccupied with the question of climate change, and he spent time closely examining the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The reports were the work of hundreds of climate scientists from all over the world, and he considered them to be an impressive piece of work. On the other hand, the “Summary for Policymakers” was more of a political document, and this was unfortunately all that most people read. This had the effect of creating an orthodoxy about a dauntingly complex issue, and skeptics who attempted to raise valid questions, or who pointed to missing pieces of the puzzle, could be brutally maligned. The issue would often come up in our phone conversations.

In 2008, Bob had published a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters titled “Stochastic Contributions to Global Temperature Changes.” This was his last publication, and the last IPCC report it referred to was from 2001. But he continued to study the later reports (from 2007 and 2013). In December 2014, Bob told me that he was writing yet another iteration of his climate-change paper, which I had read at least four drafts of but which I had some difficulty following. I asked him again to give me the main points. Bob said that, when you look at temperature records going back a hundred years (such as those taken in Central Park), there is an increasing trend, but there is also an enormous amount of noise in the data. Weather is a chaotic phenomenon, and climate is merely weather integrated over time. When he projected the increase in global temperature out to 2100, he came up with an increase of 1.5 degrees Centigrade. This was the case he made in his 2008 paper.

Bob now pointed out that the IPCC 2007 report—which is a thousand pages long and which he considered to be an impressive piece of work—made no mention of chaotic behavior. IPCC 2013 (1,500 pages) has three mentions of chaotic behavior in the index, but when you look them up, they do not cite any references addressing the point. (It seems quite incredible that in such a document, which is the work of hundreds of scientists, there is no mention of the fact that we are dealing with a chaotic phenomenon.) In any event, the noise in the temperature data means that predictions for what will happen in the future are basically meaningless. The computer models are just not capable of modeling climate and predicting the future with any degree of accuracy.  

Bob read to me from an article about Freeman Dyson. (I hadn’t realized that Dyson had worked on climate change in the 1970s by taking an experimental approach at Oak Ridge.) Dyson said that climate has always been changing and that climate is always lousy, and that basically humans have learned to adapt and live with it. He felt that climate scientists rely on their models, which are terrible, but they have an investment in them, and therefore attack anyone who questions them. He pointed out that models do a very poor job of taking into account the effects of clouds.

Bob’s view of climate change is clearly not the dominant view, and in the last few years of his life, he no longer felt equipped to keep up with developments. In 2018, at a celebration commemorating 125 years of Columbia University Press, I had approached Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies to get his view on climate change. He took out his iPhone and showed me data on temperature trends, making the point that scientists had been able to validate their models by assessing how well they had predicted more recent trends based on earlier data. In any event, we know that there is a degree of “play” among the projections of future temperature rise (and sea level rise) based on different scenarios for the rate of growth or reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, and at least one of the IPCC’s scenarios (“RCP 8.5”) appears to have overshot the mark. 

The point here is that Bob had the independence of mind to try to work through for himself what one can say about the global temperature trends and their causes over the past century in order to think rationally about how to respond. He was not someone who could just accept the consensus view on faith. 


During a conversation with Bob in 2015, I must have mentioned that the incoming Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, was a theoretical physicist. Bob laughed. A good friend of his, he told me, had taught an undergraduate physics course at Yale, and for a period Bob took it over, using his predecessor’s notes and exams. The course was called “introductory physics,” but it was really not elementary—it presupposed quite a bit of physics. Ash Carter, who was then a sophomore history major and needed to fulfill his science requirement, came to him and said he would like to take the course, which he understood to be the best beginner’s science course at Yale. Bob tried to dissuade him, but when Carter persisted, he agreed.

On the first exam, Carter did okay, though a good chunk of the class failed. But by the end of the semester, Carter was excelling. “Ash wrote an almost perfect paper—the best in the class.” Then he went off to Scotland to study medieval history at Edinburgh University. He said that in Scotland the academics didn’t think very highly of the US, and they claimed that the medieval history program was full. So, he looked at the physics offerings, and they tried to dissuade him there too. Look, he said, I’m hanging around here, you have room and you lose nothing by letting me take the course. So, they let him in. After his semester in Scotland, Carter came back to Yale, and with his considerable work now in physics, he asked to be considered a joint history and physics major.

Bob had no doubt about Carter’s ability, but he wrote to Edinburgh requesting an assessment of his work. The British—including the Scots—tend to write reserved credential statements, but the statements on Carter’s work were far from reserved. One respondent said that he was the best student they had ever had! When he came back to Yale, he took quantum mechanics with Bob and, again, was one of the top students in the class. For two summers, he worked with Bob on a high-energy physics experiment at Fermilab outside of Chicago. They had the night shift, and for most of the time they just had to be there to make sure nothing went wrong with the equipment. But they spent a lot of time together and became quite close. Bob said that Carter would take out his books and read medieval Latin through the night. 

Later, Bob’s daughter Margaret told me, “Bob said often that, while he had met a lot of very, very smart people in his life, Ash was probably the smartest.”


In August 1943, just before his 19th birthday, Bob had enlisted in the army and served as an infantry rifleman in combat in France and then in Germany. His platoon landed in Normandy in September 1944 and fought all the way to the banks of the Rhine, where he was badly wounded on the penultimate day of fighting after 180 days in combat. He was hit three separate times by machine gun fire in a 15-minute interval, and lay for hours with wounds to his arm and head, pretending to be dead and listening to the German chatter 30 yards away. When medics finally arrived to collect him, they told him that he had seven bullet holes in his helmet.

Bob received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In 1995, he compiled the letters he had written home to his parents into a book titled Letters Home from the Second Platoon. They make for gripping reading. Bob gives acute descriptions of his training, his fellow soldiers (whom he admired, with some exceptions), and the experience of the frontline infantry, whose view of the battlefield was limited to 50 yards. He already thought like a physicist, quantifying every aspect of soldiering and warfare, whether assessing the firearms used, improving on the regulation way to throw a hand grenade, or calculating the casualty and replacement rates among the US forces in the drive to beat back the enemy. In those letters, and in the accompanying commentary he wrote 50 years later, he was constantly surveying the terrain and calculating probabilities and trajectories. 

In 2011, Bob sent me an unpublished essay he wrote titled, “Infantry Rifle-Platoon Casualty Rates in World War II.” It was prompted by Stephen Ambrose’s contention in his 1997 book Citizen Soldiers that the US high command had badly mismanaged the replacement of soldiers taken out of combat in the drive against the Wehrmacht. Bob felt that Ambrose’s conclusion was based on anecdotal evidence, and he used tables taken from Ambrose’s book to compute casualty and replacement rates among US infantry divisions in France and Germany during the war. This led him to conclude that no feasible change in the replacement policy could have overcome the brute reality of the very high casualty rates among the frontline troops, particularly the rifle companies, which he had observed up close.

He calculated that the rifleman’s odds of being a casualty was 3.5 times that of the average soldier in the division and that the per-person casualty rate in the rifle companies was almost 6.8 times the mean rate in the rest of the division. The probability of becoming a combat casualty in an infantry rifle company was at least ten times greater than for the 50 percent of the troops who formed the rear echelons of an infantry division. “Thus, during the 10 months of combat from D-day to VE-day, the rifle platoons in the most heavily engaged divisions were replaced about six times!” He added:

I believe that the biggest problem was the unprecedented casualty rate in cutting edge troops—higher even than in WWI! A system that would have worked reasonably well if the mean survival time of a rifleman were 180 days, broke down when that “mean life” was 30 days or less, which was the case for some periods in the European war.

Stephen Ambrose responded to Bob’s essay, saying that he had convinced him and that he was now in agreement.

III.

Looking back on his career in high-energy physics, Bob said that he felt that he had made the wrong choice at several junctures—he went in one direction, but had he gone in the other, he would have won a Nobel Prize. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote, “I did well in my scientific research, where I made a few modest contributions to human knowledge. I have sometimes joked that most of my friends have won the Nobel Prize. While I was a step behind these men—some of the ablest scientists of my generation—I am proud to have walked in their ranks.” We all make mistakes, he told me. Still, looking back, he felt that he had led a very good life.

In early October 2020, Bob’s daughter Margaret called me to tell me that Bob had died. I looked for an obituary in the New York Times, and was shocked when none appeared, likely due to the increased deaths from the pandemic. I wrote to an epidemiologist colleague and friend, who knew Bob’s work on ELF-EMF and microwave energy, and who had served on a committee to assess possible health effects of the Pave Paws radar array on Cape Cod. My friend Bob Tarone wrote back, “Very sad to hear that. Adair was not directly involved in the Pave Paws study, but we relied heavily on his superb published papers on the biological effects of radio-frequency energy in our report. He and his wife were superb scientists. Losing too many who don’t seem to have competent replacements. Too bad honesty and truth are in such short supply in science today.” He concurred that there should have been an obituary in the Times.

This is an edited version of an appreciation published on the author’s Medium blog under the title, “Robert Kemp Adair—A Personal Remembrance” on March 15, 2021.

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