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Thank You, George Brown

Erik Snowberg

I want to tell you about someone very important to me. His name was George E. Brown, Jr., and he was a Congressman from California’s 42nd District. I know that very few of you have ever heard of him, but since he just died, I figured this was your last chance to learn about him and that I should be the one to tell you.

At the time of his death on July 15 Brown was 79 years old, the oldest member of the House of Representatives. He had been elected to Congress 18 times; he served his first term when John F. Kennedy was President.

In the words of one of my colleagues, Brown never did anything wrong. I am sure that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly seemed that his policies were always right -- even if it took years for the rest of the country to catch up to his ideas.

When he first got to Congress in 1962 he fought hard for civil rights legislation. There is a picture in his office of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the midst of a room packed with dignitaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., he is in the second row. As a freshman congressman he shouldn’t have even been there. The fact that he was is a testament to his efforts towards greater civil rights.

Brown next turned his attention to the Vietnam War. He was a lifelong pacifist and consistently voted against appropriation bills for the war. I am told he was one of only two congressman to vote against the war.

In 1970 he decided to run for the Senate, losing in the primary. He told me that his only satisfaction from that race was that John V. Tunney, who would eventually win the race, had to turn against the war in order to beat him. By the time Brown returned to Congress in 1973, a large percentage of Congress opposed the Vietnam War, and it soon ended.

Brown had a degree in industrial physics from UCLA and worked as a civil engineer until he entered politics. The obvious place for him to turn his attention was science policy.

He was an early champion of the EPA and always promoted both manned and unmanned space exploration. He realized the threat of chloroflourocarbons early on, and pushed for alternative energy programs and global climate change monitoring. He was influential in the establishment and maintenance of the Office of Technology Assessment, fought to make the National Science Foundation a powerful and influential organization for the advancement of science and engineering. It is said that if it weren’t for Brown we would all still be using leaded gasoline. (On a note of interest to many scientists, he was the only member of Congress who cared whether the United States ever adopted the metric system.)

The greatest thing about Brown was his irreverent streak. Tucked away in his office was a sign with an early political slogan of his. It read, “When the shit hits the fan it’s going to be BROWN.’’ He was always a straight shooter. At one point he tried to talk to me about Greek history, a subject I know next to nothing about. After having to explain story after story, he looked at me squarely and said, “You don’t know too much, do you?’’ I told him I was still young and there was plenty of time to learn. He agreed with me and told me to get cracking, suggesting a list of books I should start on right away. I bought them and still have those books, but sadly, I never did read them.

In the past year three great men I knew died. The first was Henry Kendall, a Nobel Laureate and a leader of the Union of Concerned Scientists who taught my freshman physics lab. The next was Gian-Carlo Rota, a talented mathematician and wonderful teacher. The most recent was Brown. While it is difficult to find anything positive in the deaths of wonderful people, I take solace in the fact that these great men are slowly being replaced with great women and men of all races and ethnicities. We still have a long way to go, but the day will come when our heroes and role models will more accurately reflect the diversity of our nation.

It is important to remember that we have gotten here through the efforts of those who came before us. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.’’I just hope I have the humility to look down sometimes and say thank you.