In Memoriam - Albert A. Bartlett

Updated 10/11/13: A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 2nd at 3:00 p.m. on the club level of Folsom Stadium on the CU Boulder campus to celebrate the life of Professor Albert A. Bartlett, who passed away on Saturday, September 7, 2013 at the age of 90.

Professor Bartlett had a profound impact on the Department of Physics, the University of Colorado, the City of Boulder, and has had a transformative influence on science education and public policy. Al Bartlett joined the faculty of the University of Colorado Department of Physics in September 1950 as an assistant professor, and served on the faculty until his retirement in 1988. He has been a Professor Emeritus since that time. 

Before his scientific career, Al worked as a dishwasher and night cook on iron ore freighters in the Great Lakes. He did his undergraduate studies at Otterbein College and Colgate University, earning a B.A. in Physics summa cum laude from Colgate in 1944.

Dr. Bartlett joined the Manhattan project in July 1944. He worked at Los Alamos studying the properties of the plutonium to be used in the atomic bomb. His project involved measuring the Pu-240 contamination in the Pu-239 being produced by the nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington, as that isotope strongly affects the fission properties of the plutonium. After the Trinity test of the plutonium bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, Al was one of two technicians assigned the task of developing all of the photographs of this first atomic bomb. Al was given a complete set of photographs by the head photographer, which he donated to the CU Library archives. 

Photograph taken 16 milliseconds after the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

Allen Albert Bartlett circa 1945

In 1946, Al was assigned to photograph the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. One of his favorite stories is how he shipped home the silk parachute left over from a magnesium flare he used to test the photographic equipment. His wife Eleanor used the silk for her wedding dress, which is now at the Los Alamos History Museum. In 1944-1946 Al lived in room #38 in the Los Alamos dormitory. Nobel Laureate Roy Glauber lived in #37. Louis Slotin and Harry Daghlian lived in #39 and #40. Slotin and Daghlian died in separate incidents of uncontrolled chain reactions in 1945 and 1946 while conducting experiments to determine the critical mass of plutonium.  

Professor Bartlett earned his Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard in 1951, working with Ken Bainbridge, who had been a leader at Los Alamos for the engineering and testing of the atomic bomb. Al’s thesis project involved the design and construction of a double focus beta-ray spectrometer. A beta-ray spectrometer he designed and built was installed at the CU Cyclotron in the early 1960's.

Professor Bartlett was one of the most revered and successful teachers in CU’s history. He taught introductory physics to generations of young scientists and engineers. He won the Distinguished Service Citation, Robert A. Millikan Award and Melba Newell Phillips Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers, and served as the society’s national president in 1978. Teaching and service awards from the University of Colorado include Boulder Faculty Assembly Excellence in Teaching Awards, the Robert L. Stearns Award, Thomas Jefferson Award, Centennial Medallion, President’s University Service Award, University Heritage Center Award, and the Presidential Citation.

Professor Bartlett chaired the faculty committee responsible for designing the Duane Physical Laboratories building, the current home of the Physics and Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences departments. In particular Al and Professor Frank Walz designed the innovative physics lecture halls, including the revolutionary rotating stages used to move lecture demonstrations into the lecture halls during the 10-minute class-change periods. Al was a campus leader on long-term campus planning for new buildings. He served on the Boulder Campus Planning Commission for 25 years, and his advice on long-term planning still tangibly benefits the university.

In the 1960’s, Professor Bartlett was one of the founding members of PLAN (People’s League for Action Now) Boulder, a citizens group the grew out of the Blue Line advocacy he helped lead that limited housing growth on the mountains above Boulder by setting a maximum elevation for city water. Boulder’s pristine mountains, city parks, bike paths, greenbelts, and open spaces are the direct results of Professor Bartlett’s leadership.

In 1972, Professor Bartlett worked with Barbara Gamow to establish an endowment at the University of Colorado to permanently fund the George Gamow Memorial Lectures to honor her late husband.  Barbara Gamow’s gift has kept this program free and open to the public for over forty years. Professor Bartlett chaired the Gamow Memorial Lecture Committee for twenty-five years, establishing the highest standards of outstanding public lectures. Twenty-four Nobel Laureates have given the Gamow Memorial Lecture.

Al and Jack Kraushaar authored A History of the Department of Physics of the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2002. The book documents the remarkable evolution of the department from a single professor to a world-class program culminating with our first Nobel laureates: Carl Wieman and Eric Cornell.

Professor Bartlett posing with his exponential function award, celebrating his 1000th lectureProfessor Bartlett is world-famous for his acclaimed public lectures on Arithmetic, Population and Energy. This lecture highlights the irrefutable connection between population growth and the energy crisis, and provides a compelling call to action. He gave the lecture 1742 times in 49 states and seven foreign countries. The lecture, available online on Youtube, has been viewed nearly five million times! In his lecture, Professor Bartlett concludes his argument as follows: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function… 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?” 

Professor Bartlett’s advocacy for zero population growth and other environmental causes is locally and internationally recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Colorado Environmental Center, the M. King Hubbert Award for Excellence in Energy Education, the Pacesetter Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Boulder Community, the Gilbert F. White Award of PLAN Boulder County, and the Global Media Award for Excellence in Population Reporting

Professor Bartlett was proceeded in death by his dear wife Eleanor Francis Roberts Bartlett, and he is survived by four daughters Carol, Jane, Lois, and Nancy. 

An endowed scholarship in Professor Bartlett’s name was established by the University of Colorado in 2010 to assist physics students pursuing a high school science teaching career. The Albert A. Bartlett Scholarship is announced annually at the CU-Physics graduation ceremony in May. Professor Bartlett requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the University of Colorado Foundation Albert A. Bartlett Scholarship fund, in care of the Department of Physics, 390 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309.