Born: January 27, 1943,
Lancaster, PA. College: Yale University, B.A., Physics, 1964; Harvard
University, M.A., Physics, 1968; Harvard University, Ph.D., Physics, 1970. Married:
Roberta Louise Williams, June 5, 1965; Dickinson College, B.A., 1964; Boston
University, M.A., 1965. Children: Erika Lynne Francis, Christopher
Grandchildren: Emma (b. 2006) and Marin (b. 2009).
Occupation: EMT and Captain of the Chatham
Emergency Squad, after retiring in 1998 as Engineering Vice President, Bell
Laboratories, and later spending 7 years consulting with the Department of
Homeland Security. Military
Service: U.S. Navy 1964-1966, Lieutenant.
Penn Charter Alumni Award of Merit
(awarded May 4, 2012)
“To a graduate of the William Penn Charter School whose
outstanding achievement have reflected lasting credit upon this old school.”
Sam Francis has enjoyed a successful career in
scientific research and development, primarily with Bell Laboratories in
A native of Lancaster, PA, he graduated first in his
class from Penn Charter, was President of the Trident Society, and sang with
the Quakers Dozen. He was captain of the varsity soccer team and was named
MVP, All-Interac, and honorable mention All-Philadelphia. He was awarded a
National Merit Scholarship to study at Yale University.
At Yale, Francis majored in physics and graduated summa
cum laude, tied for first in his class. He played varsity soccer and was
captain of his residential college soccer and volleyball teams. He was also
midshipman commander of Yale’s Naval ROTC unit and entered the Navy
immediately after graduation.
During his two years of active duty, he circled the
globe twice and spent eight months in Vietnam waters while serving as a deck
officer aboard USS Bainbridge, the world’s first nuclear-powered
He then earned a PhD in theoretical physics from
Harvard University in 1970, serving as Commencement Marshal based on his
GPA, the highest of all PhD recipients in all fields that year.
Francis began his 28-year career at AT&T Bell
Laboratories as a research physicist studying wave propagation in the
ionosphere. He later developed an advanced magnetic-sensor cable-location
system for SCARAB, a remotely operated undersea vehicle now on display in
the British National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He was then promoted to
systems engineer and technical supervisor, leading the development of a
high-sensitivity towed sonar array for U.S. Navy submarines. He ultimately
became vice president for ocean systems research and development, leading an
organization of 700 engineers and scientists in developing technologies and
systems for the U.S. Navy. He retired from Bell Labs in 1998.
From 2004 to 2011, Francis consulted in Washington, DC
with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology
Directorate, working to institutionalize best practices in systems
engineering and project management.
For the last ten years, he has been a volunteer
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with the Chatham Emergency Squad. He is
currently serving his second two-year term as Captain, having also served
one term as President.
A passionate sailor who has annually captained
chartered cruises in sailing grounds from Tahiti to the Aegean, Francis also
rode a bike from Seattle to Washington, DC in the 1998 American Lung
Association’s “Big Ride Across America.” He has also run the New York City
Francis lives in Chatham,
NJ with his wife, Roberta (Bobbie), a gender equity consultant and writer.
His father, W. Nelson Francis (OPC ’27), won the Alumni Award of Merit in
Remarks at the Award Ceremony, May 4, 2012
Thanks to Head of School Darryl Ford, to the Alumni Society, Ted Decker, and
Jack Rogers. Also thanks to the faculty 52 years ago when I was a student
here. And thanks to my family, particularly my wife Bobbie, for putting up
with my single-mindedness, which is kind of the way I get things done.
How did I get to Penn Charter? Born and raised in Lancaster, the son of an
F&M professor, I didn’t have Penn Charter on my radar screen. But my father
and his two brothers had gone here, and incidentally he won this award
almost 40 years ago, so when it came time to choose a prep school, my father
and Jack Gummere co-conspired to assure that my brother John and I became,
so far as we knew, the only boarding students at this excellent day school.
I was here for three years, graduating in 1960.
Your early education is your launching pad. If you’re launched in the right
direction and with sufficient momentum, the rest is just follow-through.
Jack Gummere and the fine teachers of Penn Charter launched me in the right
I remember those teachers well. Albert Linton, math teacher without peer,
Bugsy Evans for biology (natch), Wilbert Braxton for physics, before they
kicked him upstairs, M. Minault for French, Ernest Wells for music, and
Chick Conard my soccer coach. My warmest thoughts are for Lou Connick, not
because I learned much English literature (I didn’t) but because he made it
a practice each year to take three seniors by the scruff of the neck and
drag them up to Yale for the hard sell. He got two out of three my year (the
football captain went astray ― to Princeton). My trajectory was well
launched, by a Penn Charter teacher who cared about his students and went
far out of his way to do the best for us, as he saw it.
We remember our teachers, of course, because they have such influence on our
lives. But the remarkable thing is that they remember us too. It doesn’t
have to be that way. There are so many of us and so few of them. As a
touching example, at our 50th Reunion I sat with Ernest Wells, and after 50
years and 800 Quakers Dozen members and a fading memory, he not only
remembered me, he recalled that I had sung a particular solo in a particular
spiritual. It’s not that I had a memorable voice (I didn’t – I was just
loud). It’s that Ernest, like so many PC teachers, cared about us enough to
remember us. That matters.
I suppose a physicist talking to educators ought to say something about
science education. What do we take away from our educational experience?
Facts? Not so much. Father Guido Sarducci, that great educator of the 1970s,
conceived the “Five-Minute University.” The idea was that in 5 minutes
you’re taught what the average 4-year college graduate remembers 5 years
later. Want to take Spanish? “Como esta usted? Muy bien.” Economics? “Supply
and demand.” That’s it.
There’s a lot of truth behind the 5-minute university. I can’t actually
remember a single scientific fact I learned at Penn Charter. Instead, what I
learned ― or think I learned ― was how to think about science, how to
analyze, how to revere facts (rather than common sense) as the ultimate
test. I also acquired awe for the big mysteries of science – not “mysteries”
in the sense of unsolved problems, but “mysteries” in the sense of the
wildly strange nature of the natural world, inaccessible to common sense
beyond the narrow range of our senses. Truth is much stranger than fiction,
and more interesting. If Penn Charter students graduate with a sense of
wonder about the natural world, and with the confident knowledge that
science and the scientific method ― rather than intuition, myth, common
sense, or common nonsense ― is the key to understanding that natural world,
then we’re helping to create, not only the next generation of scientists,
but also a scientifically literate citizenry, which is not what we have now.
What do I mean by scientific illiteracy?
The domains of science, faith, and politics exist side by side in an uneasy
truce, with border skirmishes where they intersect. At the intersection of
faith and science, myth trumps fact, to the eternal frustration of
scientists. Evolution through natural selection is more firmly established
than the theory of gravity, yet only 40% of Americans believe in evolution,
and only 25% of churchgoers. To most churchgoers, evolution is an
inconvenient truth, to be warded off by the artificial concept of
intelligent design, un-testable and barren.
Another example … At the intersection of politics and science, wishful
thinking and self-interest trump fact. Consider global warming. 97% of
scientists believe in man-made global warming, compared with 70% of
Democrats and 29% of Republicans. That gaping political gap tells you that
politics trumps fact. To many politicians, global warming is an inconvenient
truth, conflicting with favored political goals and therefore rejected,
regardless of the facts..
This is the kind of stuff that drives scientists nutty, if they let it. Why
does it happen? It’s partly special pleading for favored views, of course.
But it’s also partly a seductive reliance on common sense as the ultimate
arbiter. Common sense is the easy way out, avoiding analysis and objective
scrutiny. But in the world of natural law, common sense misleads much more
often than it helps.
A classical example is that, for almost all of recorded history, humankind
knew that the sun and the stars, like the moon, orbited the earth. How could
it be otherwise, since all heavenly bodies rise, traverse the skies, and
set? The fact is self-evident, as is the corollary that the earth is
stationary, at the center of the universe, therefore a logical focus for
personal intervention by whatever gods you believe in. One wonders how the
history of religion might have been different had common sense led humankind
to the truth, which is that we don’t live at the center of anything, but
instead live on the third rock from a minor star, at the periphery of a
galaxy of 200 billion stars, with that galaxy one among 500 billion
galaxies. Not only that, but the universe, already of unimaginable size and
scope, is not just expanding but expanding at an accelerating rate (one of
the great mysteries of modern science). And it gets better. Not only don’t
we live at the center of the universe, there actually is no center, nor can
there be, in our 4-dimensional space-time continuum. It’s a geometric
impossibility, contrary to everything your common sense will tell you.
Common sense is often common nonsense.
World rankings of students’ knowledge of science puts the US in the middle,
far behind competitors such as China, Korea, Japan, Germany, and even
Singapore and Estonia. That’s not good enough. Penn Charter’s new strategic
vision expresses a courageous intent to examine its present state and to
construct a bold strategic plan for its future. But in its 10-page vision
document, the word “science” does not appear. What is Penn Charter’s vision
for math and science education, in the face of America’s mediocre standing
in a world whose reliance on science and technology is exploding?
I offer a modest and inadequate suggestion. In science courses, don’t just
teach facts, soon forgotten (remember the 5-minute university). Alongside
facts, inspire wonder and awe for the complexities and strangeness of our
counter-intuitive natural world, and convince students not to trust their
common sense. Teach reverence for facts, awe for analysis, and respect for
skepticism. We are acculturated to respect faith, but we are never
acculturated to respect skepticism, which most of us view with suspicion.
When I say skepticism, I mean the presumption that any theory – absolutely
anything that you or I think must be right ― is possibly wrong. Scientific
inquiry starts with that presumption, and tests every theory by relentlessly
trying to find a hole in it. Theories surviving that onslaught become
accepted, but never so accepted that they don’t continue to be tested.
Skepticism is the path to learning. Teach Penn Charter students to question
everything. In facts we trust.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many mysteries which science cannot help us
understand, such as love, the meaning of life, and the Red Sox. But if we’re
talking about the natural world and how it works, teach students to mistrust
common sense and trust science as the only reliable guide to understanding
that strange, counter-intuitive, and literally unbelievable place we live.
“Good instruction is better than riches.” That I know. As for the Red Sox, I
haven’t a clue.
Observations on Life and Times
The professional chronology is simple: after Yale, sea duty in the Navy
(nuclear-powered destroyer) for 2 years; Harvard graduate school (physics)
for 4 years; research and development at Bell Laboratories for 27 years,
ending as vice president of something or other; retirement in 1998;
free-lance website development for 5 years (still messing about with
currently consulting half-time with the Science and Technology Directorate
of the Department of Homeland Security in DC. Also volunteering with the
Chatham Emergency Squad (EMT, President, Computer Systems Manager, and former Captain).
The Homeland Security gig included an educable
moment which may be of interest. I was nominated in 2003 to be the first Director of Advanced Research at the
new Department of Homeland Security, but the White House quashed the appointment after they discovered during
my interview that I hadn't
voted for George W. Bush in 2000. (I kid you not.) So I turned to consulting for the same outfit, and
have had fun with that since 2004.
wife Bobbie, children Erika and Christopher, and granddaughters Emma and
Marin, are the best. I live in a great house in a great community. I’ve
sailed across the Atlantic in a small boat. I've run the NYC Marathon twice,
once with each kid. I've biked 3300 miles from coast to coast. And I go
sailing somewhere in the world each year (see
www.franciscruises.net). Life is