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HarrisFest – celebrating Dr. Stephen E. Harris at Stanford University

Posted by direwolff on September 19, 2006

This past weekend I had the honor to be invited to attend HarrisFest, where my father-in-law, Stephen E. Harris, was being honored by Stanford University, several of his former students, research assistants and collaborators, and notable alumni for the body of work in the area Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics that he has been responsible for over the past nearly 50 years. While I had known that Dr. Harris was a brilliant physicist, and that he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) among things, it really took an event like this one, where so many amazing scientists came together to honor his work and his influence on them, to give me a true sense of the magnitude of what he has accomplished. On the eve of his 70th birthday, the assembled group of scientists spent the weekend giving talks on the work they had performed with, for, or in competition with Dr. Harris. Many discussed his acute sense of professional integrity and humility. How he never looked to take credit where it wasn’t due, even to the point of having his name removed from research where he didn’t believe he had made a significant enough contribution. We heard countless stories about how he was always willing to collaborate or talk with others about the work going on in his lab without fear. He never felt the need to hide what he was working on for fear of someone stealing his ideas as it seemed more important to him that there be more collaboration.

My wife, Lil’ Pinot, who’s dad was being honored, counted five Nobel Prize Laureates at the dinner held for Dr. Harris on Saturday night. In addition to the praise and adulations, there was also a very special moment in which Dr. Ken Oshman and his wife Barbara Oshman announced that the chair held by Dr. Harris, known as the Ken and Barbara Oshman Professor of Engineering, would be renamed upon his retirement to the Stephen E. Harris Professor of Engineering. It was a breathtaking moment. Dr. Oshman had been one of Dr. Harris’ early students and later went on to become a business success as the “O” in ROLM Corporation, a telecommunications equipment maker acquired by IBM in the mid-1980s. Earlier in the day, another student had endowed a chair at Texas A&M in Dr. Harris’ name, so it was only fitting that there be one at Stanford University, and the Oshmans saw to it that there was.

Dr. Harris has had an illustrious career that continues to this date. Noteworthy accomplishments among several include his induction into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and winning the American Physical Society’s 2002 Arthur L. Schawlow Prize. It was a pleasure and an honor to have been able to share in this brief moment with his daughter and seeing the pride in her eyes as so many swooned over her father’s life time of accomplishments. It was funny, because as I mentioned to someone at the event, while many of the lectures sounded like Japanese to me (I understood about as much as I do of that language), the excitement and enthusiasm with which people recounted the stories of working along side Dr. Harris, really told you a lot about the kind of person he has been, and it’s truly enviable.

For my part, I only hope people at my funeral say 1/100 of the nice things they said about him in the midst of his wonderful life.

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