December 9, 2015 at 11:00 am at 2nd Presbyterian Church, 812 Edith Blvd. Albuquerque, NM 87102
Dr. Christopher Pratt Leavitt passed away early on November 30 after a long, productive, and caring life. His last two years were spent peacefully at Casa de Rosa where their loving care is much appreciated. He was born in the Boston area on Nov. 20, 1927, and grew up in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. His happiest times as a child were when he and his brother spent summers at the beach on the New Hampshire coast and on North Haven Island off the coast of Maine. He graduated from Gamaliel Bradford High School and commuted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for college and graduate school, receiving his doctorate in Physics in 1954.
While at MIT he spent two summers at the top of Mount Evans in Colorado studying cosmic rays, and it is there that he discovered his love of mountains to go along with his love of the ocean. His Ph.D work focused on mesons, which were little understood at the time. After graduation he worked at Brookhaven National Labs on Long Island, where in addition to his work he helped organize concerts by famous chamber groups and hosted visiting scientists. He took a Nobel Prize winner Freeman Dyson out on his sailboat. Much as he loved knowing and interacting with famous physicists, he decided that lab work was too limiting and that he really wanted to teach.
The University of New Mexico appealed to him because of the mountains and the small active physics department. He moved to New Mexico in 1957, and ended up teaching at the University for 37 years, where he guided 77 Ph.D students. During much of this period, he also served as a liaison to Los Alamos Laboratories, often taking small planes back and forth between UNM and the lab.
He was most proud of his support for Fred Begay, who became the first Navajo to get his Ph.D in physics in 1971. Fred kept in touch with Chris and his family throughout his life in physics, which he used to help provide support for his people. Fred was featured in a 1979 NOVA documentary titled "The Long Walk of Fred Young."
As a professor, Chris was known for his brilliance and for providing sympathetic support for his students that often extended well beyond academic guidance. He always maintained an open door policy for all of his students. He was an Experimental Physicist, always wanting to know more about the universe, while being wary of the theorists who extend their reach beyond observable scientific evidence. He focused on elementary particles, chosen as the field of study most deeply connected to the fundamental understanding of the universe and its origins.
Chris played an important role in the early days of space research with the development of instruments for rockets and satellites, principally for the detection of high-energy neutrons. With the advent of the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility, Chris helped to found a medium energy physics group at UNM, which has become an important player in the study of hadronic physics. He later focused on the study of neutrinos, which involved work with weather balloons, satellites, and an experiment a mile deep in a mine in Idaho. One of the weather balloons found its way to daughter Karin's room, which left very little space for anything else.
Music always played a significant role in his life. He played the piano and recorder and taught himself Andean music that he had heard on his short-wave radio. For many years he played the recorder and other instruments in an early music ensemble that played around Albuquerque in the 1980s and 1990s. He combined his love of music with physics when he taught musical acoustics, in a course that he continued to teach several years after this retirement.
After retiring, he kept up with science and the world, and his thirst for knowledge and understanding never faded. He was a born teacher and liked to explain complicated physics to anyone who was interested, and spent many of his retirement years developing physics software to help explain Einstein's theory of relativity and the theory of color.
His earliest memories were of wanting to know and understand the world around him, and this curiosity stayed with him his entire life, leading to phenomenal knowledge on a wide range of topics. As a six year-old he conducted his own experiment into the reality of Santa Claus by carefully smoothing the ashes in the fireplace in order to directly observe his passage. In high school he worked with radios and general electronics and developed an interest in short-wave radio that lasted his whole life. He spent many evening listening to short-wave broadcasts from around the world so that he could understand foreign countries unfiltered through American media. During the war he was invited to help teach a course on Morse code to draftees. The students did not seem to fully respect their mild-mannered and nerdish teacher, until he and some friends were arrested on Halloween night for setting up radio equipment to broadcast scary Halloween noises over the usual radio shows. When he found out he could reach difficult students, he decided that he could, in fact, be a teacher!
Two years after arriving in New Mexico he married graduate student Joyce Ann Carlson. The marriage took place in the home of a Placitas friend, with a graduate student who lived at the base of a steep snowy hill ferrying the small wedding party up the hill. With the exception of one year in Placitas the couple lived in the North Valley. The first house they lived in was a one hundred year old adobe on Guadalupe Trail and fifty years later one son coincidentally stayed in same house while visiting the family in Albuquerque. They were blessed with five children, one of whom was diagnosed early on with autism.
The family life was at times chaotic, but he always rose to the occasion through whatever challenges life brought. He loved his children dearly and was a good, engaged, caring father and husband. He taught them about music, science, electronics and computers, as well as general lessons on a kind and caring approach to life.
When the boys developed an interest in model rockets, he built an electronic launch platform, which was brought on many missions to the then-empty West Mesa for rocket launches, and driving lessons on the empty dirt roads. His parental duties often took him well beyond what might be expected of a distinguished professor. These episodes include being peed on by a large and bored male lion during what turned out to be his last trip to the zoo! Another time a camping trip included a pet baby goat, which seemed to be catching cold in the moist cold air. The kid was brought into the family tent, and Chris's job was to rush the goat out of the tent if it began to squat. Imagine the important physics professor babysitting a baby goat!
He always supported Joyce with her many projects in the community, never complaining when they temporarily "adopted" adults who needed a family, or when she invited South American educators to their home for meals and parties. He attended all of Joyce's New Mexico Women's chorus concerts in spite of it really not being his style of music. In fact he even appeared on stage on one occasion to play a train whistle. He also supported many others in need, and was a generous, non-materialist, free thinking, and gentle man, who was loved by many.
He was preceded in death by his parents Helen Pratt Leavitt and Richard Came Leavitt, and by his brother Thomas Leavitt. He is survived by his wife Joyce Carlson-Leavitt and by his children Stephen Christopher Leavitt, Richard Carlson Leavitt, Karin Elizabeth Leavitt, Suzanne Marie Leavitt, and Jonathan Pratt Leavitt, as well by three grand children, Silas Leavitt, Emma Leavitt, and Jeffery Leavitt, and by his sister-in-law Michelle Leavitt. All are grateful for the kind care he received in the final years of his life, especially by his doctors, the staff at Casa de Rosa, and the staff at Rust Presbyterian Hospital. A memorial service will be held at the Second Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, (Edith and Lomas).
More than any other scientist, Albert Einstein stood out as a role model to Chris. Not only did he embody the lifelong quest for understanding of the world that was so much a part of Chris's life, but his pacifism and strong humanitarianism parallel Chris's views. In addition, Einstein's spirituality in which God is a non-personal but superior force that reveals itself in the world of experience is the view that mostly aptly describes Chris's spiritual outlook.
The following are quotes from Einstein that capture Chris's perspective on life.
• The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing.
• The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
• Nature shows us only the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it even though he cannot at once reveal himself because of his enormous size.
• My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.
• The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.
• The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.
• Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.
• Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
• Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment.
• Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
• Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
• Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.
• Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.
• Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.