The Computerization of John B.

(Apologies to Robert Service)

A poem written on the occasion of John B. Warren’s retirement party.

John Warren was a great physicist, a good friend and a nice man. The world is less for his passing. This poem was written for his official retirement from UBC around 1980, a few years after his retirement as the first Director of TRIUMF due to a heart attack. He retired reluctantly, devoting much attention to the production of apples on his farm in the Okanagon but returning to TRIUMF periodically to remind us of what we were supposed to be doing, until his death years later. I miss his advice.


There are strange things seen at a big machine
by the men who moil for muons.
The various factions have interactions
that would make quarks spit out gluons.
The Meson Hall lights have seen queer sights,
but the queerest they ever did see
was that night by the beam of M13
when I computerized John B.

Now, John was raised in the ancient days
when computers were only a dream.
The numbers he’d pack on an envelope’s back
were astonishing! . . . so it now seems.
When microprocessors became our oppressors
and FORTRAN IV-plus was invented,
he thought of the lot as a mechanist plot
to drive J.B. Warren demented.

One midnight our team was taking beam
and fitting the data on line.
The computer was busy! The noise made us dizzy
as it hummed and beeped and whined.
If we opened our door then the Meson Hall roar
assaulted our sanity.
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one
who didn’t compute was John B.

Later that night as we stood packed tight
’round a rack of defunct nucleonics,
the oscilloscope screen cast a glow of green
on the tangle of wires and ‘lectronics.
He turned to me and, “Jess,” said he,
“I’ll retire next year, I guess,
and if I do, I wonder if you
might consider the following request:

“When I move to my farm, it would do you no harm,
and is even dictated by prudence,
that you should enhance the effects of your grants
by looking after my students.
It’s not my displacement, it’s the thought of replacement
by a computer that ruins my day.
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
you’ll maintain my PHA.”

Now, a colleague’s neurosis is fine in small doses,
but this was a wholesale batch.
So I promised that night to preserve pulse height
off-line techniques, with one catch:
I made John swear this burden to bear:
that he’d program the PDP
to pick and to happily polish each apple
that grows on the trees of J.B.



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