George Mitchell: A man who quietly helped bankroll the Superconducting Super Collider and saved the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for George Mitchell, the billionaire wildcatter who died last month. My reasons are simple: He was a thoughtful man who cared deeply about the Houston region, and who was genuinely curious about the natural world. He was different than a lot of us in that he had lots of personal wealth to devote to these interests.

In this weekend’s Chronicle I had a story about Mitchell, his relationship with Stephen Hawking, and the far-reaching investments he made in astrophysics in Texas. But the story didn’t capture the full range of interests Mitchell had, and the impact he has made on science, from the Superconducting Super Collider to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.

Here, then, is a guest essay written by Texas A&M University physicist Peter McIntyre, who knew Mitchell well and benefited from his largesse. It’s long, but a good overview of Mitchell, and explains why his loss is so deeply felt by physicists.

In 1983 I had a dream – that we could build a supercollider for high energy research, in which beams of protons would be collided at 40 trillion volts of energy, and that we had the right technology and the right site to do it in Texas.  When I sought advice about how I might best put my ideas forward to the state, my colleagues suggested that I talk with George Mitchell.  I called his company in the Woodlands, asked form Mr. Mitchell, and after a few connections he came on the phone.  I was timid, I had never talked with a person of such wealth before, but George put me at my ease and asked what I had in mind.  I began explaining about quarks, and superconducting magnets, and 100-mile tunnels, expecting that at any moment I would hear a click on the other end of the line.  George asked a number of astute questions, then suggested that I come to his office the next day and discuss it more.

I came with my drawings and papers, and soon we were squatting on the floor of his office, he asking questions and becoming excited, I marveling that this man found my physics and technology interesting.  After an hour or two George said ‘I suppose you came to me to ask for some help.’  I said yes, people had told me he was a man of great vision.  He asked how much I needed to go the federal government with a major proposal for the next step.  I told him $3 million, expecting that would be the end of the meeting.  He said ‘I’ll give you half, and I think the Aggies should give you the other half.’  And with his help and persuasion they did.  In that one day, George Mitchell had launched a train of events that led to the commitment by the US to build the Superconducting Super Collider (which they later reneged upon after spending $2 billion).  That was a measure o of George’s vision, his capacity to look at ideas on their merit and prospects for opening new ways of seeing the world.

George supported us in creating a laboratory in the Woodlands, a new center in his Houston Advanced Research Center, where we developed accelerator technology for high energy accelerators.  He helped us to apply the same technology to make a new, more powerful magnet for magnetic resonance spectroscopy for biomedicine, a key tool in deciphering the structure of proteins for cancer research, and placing the unit into service at UT Medical Branch in Galveston.

One of George’s great passions was with astronomy, a fascination that began for him when he got a small telescope as a boy in Galveston.  He idolized Stephen Hawking, and he would call me whenever Hawking was quoted in the press and ask me to explain in clear terms what he was saying.  A day came when Chris Pope, a fellow professor at Texas A&M and Hawking’s first student, received a generous offer from another university seeking to lure him from us.  I called George and sought his help to persuade Chris to stay at Texas A&M.  George rose to the challenge, we structured the Mitchell Institute to provide a basis to build a new focal area of research and teaching at Texas A&M in astronomy and astrophysics, Chris stayed, and the Mitchell Institute was born.

Those moments were the beginning of an extraordinary era of generosity to Texas A&M, that culminated in hiring Nicholas Suntzeff, co-discoverer of Dark Energy, and six young world-class astronomers to our faculty, taking a share in the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope that will be the most powerful telescope on Earth, and building two beautiful architect-designed buildings for the home of the Physics Department and the Mitchell Institute.

George Mitchell pioneered the development of shale gas technology, with which the immense reserves of natural gas underlying shale deposits can be tapped.  He was developing that technology in his company in Houston during the same period when I would come every month or so to tell him how we were progressing with our supercollider technology.  George was a very involved person – when he supported something he wanted to know what you were doing and would suggest ideas and contact people to help in lots of ways.  I remember asking him on several such occasions what he was working on with his company. 

He was very modest in answer, saying just some new ideas for how to get natural gas that no one but he believed was down there.  I only learned later, when he had transformed the entire gas industry and America’s energy independence by making shale gas a success, that no one in the gas patch, no one in geophysics, and no one in the government labs had believed in his ideas, indeed most had ridiculed him. 

He persevered, he made it a success, and his driving force in that was not the vast wealth (although he had plenty of that), but the prospect of making our world a more sustainable place.  His vision for sustainability was another theme that ran through his life, his way of raising his family, and his choices for philanthropy.

Later in our friendship I would come to George to share my enthusiasms for new projects.  Sam Ting, Nobelist in Physics for the discovery of the charmed quark, asked me to help him prepare the superconducting magnet for his Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that was being built to stage on the International Space Station.  I helped him with the magnet, and the experiment was prepared for launch, but NASA began cutting its launch schedule for the Space Shuttle and decided to cancel plans to launch AMS to the Space Station.  George helped us to identify key people in Congress and seek their help to persuade Congress to put AMS back on the launch plan. 

After two years of effort we succeeded, and earlier this year AMS discovered signals for an excess of high-energy positrons (the antiparticle of the electron that is in every atom) that signals the radioactive decay of a new heavy particle of nature.  We have not yet found that particle, or the new field of nature that it likely carries, but we are one step closer thanks to George Mitchell.

I tapped George’s passion for sustainability with my recent efforts to develop a technology with which to destroy the dangerous transuranic elements in the spent fuel from nuclear power plants.  Those transuranic elements are made during the same process that generates power in those plants, and they will pose an immense long-term hazard to life for 100,000 years into the future unless we can destroy them.  We are developing a way to destroy them by fission, using a new variation of the fission.  Our technology does not align well with the current thinking of the US government, and I would talk with George about my frustrations in what felt like pushing a heavy load up a hill to develop it.  George had a keen sense of humor, and he would always succeed in cheering me up in those times of frustration.

George P. Mitchell was one of the greatest Texans of all time, with a vision, and heart, and a mind to embrace the world, to do new things to make it a better place, and to care about friends and family along the way.

We will miss you, George

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© 2012-2017 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.