Fieldnotes – A Horatio Alger Story

Loren Acton is a really interesting fellow, addicted to science, to the idea that competent scientists, pooling their knowledge, “can figure out lots of neat stuff.”

“I like working with competent people,” he told me. “That’s one thing I really liked about my work in the space program. The actual experience of space flight, however, was totally different from what I had expected. I had anticipated that it would be a kind of camping trip in space with my friends. Once I got up there, I somewhat overdosed on responsibility. I was just focused on the job, and doing a perfect job, and whenever I’d make a mistake, it’d just about destroy me. If I’d flown again I would have been prepared, and I wouldn’t have behaved that way. But I was blindsided by my own reaction to this unique position of being responsible for doing work for other people, in this very expensive, challenging environment. So I learned a little bit about myself on that trip. Turns out I have a whole lot more ego than I thought I had, buried down in there somewhere. And like most of us, it has to do with the attitude of others toward how we do our job. Working with all these great people, fellow scientists, accomplished scientists and astronauts, it was very important to me to do my job and do it well, because I had so much respect and appreciation for how they did their work. After coming back, I’ve tried to be not so serious about these sorts of things.”

Loren nearly became an engineer, but his older brother challenged him to go into physics – because it was more challenging. That advice changed his life.

“I found out there was quite a difference between how an engineer makes a living and how a scientist makes a living,” he told me. “An engineer’s job is to take some specifications and a problem that somebody gives them, and do what’s necessary to solve that problem or make that gadget. A scientist is the one in charge of deciding what the problem is, and that’s a lot of fun. It gives a person a lot of independence. I like to do science just because the human critter has this brain that is curious about stuff. And so that’s the primary driver for doing science is to learn new things.”

Loren has performed science at the highest levels, and under extreme pressure, but it also strikes me that he never changed fundamentally from the daydreaming ranch kid he was in the 1940’s.

“I was always interested in how things worked,” he told me. “As a kid I took all the watches apart on the ranch. I used to love taking things apart to study their mechanisms. I never really minded playing alone, in fact, I actually preferred it. I spent an awful lot of time alone. And I never minded being by myself because I could read a book. Once I learned how to read – which I did at quite a young age – I was quite happy to be alone. The little country school that we went to was a one room school with a coal stove in the middle. Dad never made us go to school if it was colder than 20 below. The school was a mile and a quarter from the ranch, and that’s where I did my first six years, and some years, I was the only one in my grade. I found that to be a remarkably good education, because you can hear the recitations of all the classes and you pick up stuff that actually isn’t being taught to you. So I would have to say…it was a pretty good life. It still is.”