Money made in oil, Mitchell dreamed of the stars

George Mitchell had an epiphany as he watched PBS a decade ago. There was Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous living scientist, being asked about his greatest disappointment. His answer? The U.S. government's failure to complete construction of the Superconducting Super Collider, near Waco, after spending $2 billion.

Mitchell, whose wealth played a key role in persuading the United States to build the collider, could relate.

So as Mitchell watched a physicist whom he idolized, awakening within him was a renewed desire to plumb mysteries at the edge of modern physics.

Obituaries written after Mitchell died last month endowed him with the legacy of a wildcatter who launched the present-day fracking boom. However, at the bookends of his life, Mitchell showed far more interest in the mysteries of the cosmos than in digging for oil.

And after 2002, when Hawking mentioned the super collider on PBS, Mitchell launched one of the greatest philanthropic campaigns to support basic science in Texas. Ever.

His deep pockets and enthusiasm helped Texas A&M University launch an astronomy program and gave the state a stake in the construction of the world's largest telescope, and his eventual friendship with Hawking elevated the profile of Texas among the exclusive club of cosmologists, some of the world's most brilliant thinkers who use mathematics to try to understand the earliest moments of the universe.

"He did incredible things for our reputation in the scientific world," said H. Joseph Newton, dean of science at Texas A&M University.

Galveston origins

In interviews about his interest in science, Mitchell always explained that cosmology was one of his first loves after staring at the stars from Galveston's beaches as a kid. At the time, scientists were just beginning to understand that our galaxy was one of billions of galaxies rather than unique.

"When I was just getting out of high school, I was very interested in cosmology," Mitchell said in 2009. "I read all that I could find out about it and even strongly considered becoming a physicist. But then I went out in the oil fields that summer with my brother, and I decided to go into petroleum engineering because I decided I had better go into something where I could make some money."

After attending Texas A&M he would make a lot of money in petroleum engineering, and, later, in developing The Woodlands.

Didn't hang up phone 

He made enough that, when A&M physicist Peter McIntyre called him out of the blue in 1983, Mitchell listened as the timid caller on the other end of the line explained about quarks, and superconducting magnets, and 100-mile tunnels.

"I was expecting that at any moment I would hear a click on the other end of the line," McIntyre recalled.

But Mitchell didn't hang up, and after a face-to-face meeting he gave McIntyre $1.5 million to move forward with a proposal to build a large collider in Texas to probe the most fundamental particles in nature. The federal government later agreed to build the massive collider before canceling the project in 1993 due to rising costs.

Mitchell was bitter, which is why Hawking's comments in 2002 resonated with him. After that TV program, he phoned McIntyre to talk about it, at which point McIntyre suggested they go and meet the great physicist, then visiting the California Institute of Technology, in person.

Meeting Hawking 

Hawking, who was skeptical of oilmen and had taken some delight in the fall of the energy company Enron, at first was uncertain about meeting Mitchell. But after the initial face-to-face meeting in 2002, the relationship quickly warmed.

Hawking had visited Texas once, in 1995, at the invitation of Ross Perot. During that trip he had stopped to visit Chris Pope, a physicist at A&M who had trained under Hawking.

Under an agreement between A&M and Cambridge University, where Hawking taught, the physicist would visit Texas more than half a dozen times after the 2002 meeting in California, giving several sold-out lectures. Hawking came to love the 5,650-acre ranch owned by Mitchell in Montgomery County, Cook's Branch Conservancy, where he and other elite physicists could gather in private and natural beauty to ponder the universe.

Mitchell's last gift to A&M, in fact, was $20 million to ensure such meetings would continue.

Since 2002 Mitchell has given nearly $100 million to A&M, endowing 10 chairs in physics and astronomy.

Among the biggest hires was Nick Suntzeff, one of the lead discoverers of dark energy, to oversee A&M's new astronomy program. Suntzeff and others encouraged Mitchell to help the university get a stake in the 80-foot Giant Magellan Telescope, one of three major efforts to build the next largest telescope in the world.

And so he did, investing $39 million in the project, allowing it to begin constructing mirrors and giving A&M and the University of Texas, whom Mitchell has encouraged to work together, time to use the telescope for observations when it is completed in Chile.

A rare interest

"None of this would have happened had George Mitchell not provided money for getting us into the Giant Magellan Telescope," said Suntzeff, explaining how his merely 7-year-old department is already gaining international recognition.

Mitchell's gifts also led to the construction of two modern buildings on A&M's campus, one of which houses the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Many wealthy energy industry philanthropists spend their largesse in medical research, which explains why the Texas Medical Center is among the best in the world. But it's relatively rare for energy titans to have such a keen interest in basic science. Suntzeff recalled Mitchell explaining that some of his oil friends ribbed him about giving so much money to physics and astronomy.

"They said he should be giving back to petroleum engineering," Suntzeff said. "His response was that Exxon and Shell had a lot more money than he did, and they should be giving it to engineering. He wanted to support basic science."

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