Skip to main content

Robert Compton: His basic curiosity and enthusiasm were unsurpassed

Robert Compton
Robert Compton

For over half a century, Robert Compton has been a celebrated experimentalist and inspirational leader and teacher in the fields of physics and chemistry. Compton came to work at ORNL's Health Sciences Research Division in 1965 after receiving his doctorate in physics from the University of Tennessee.

For much of his career, he was a group leader in molecular physics in the Health Sciences Research Division. He was named a Corporate Fellow in 1986, a Senior Corporate Fellow in 1995, and retired from the laboratory in 1996. Not content with one successful career, he joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee, teaching physics and chemistry until retiring again in 2015. Compton continues to serve as Professor Emeritus in both UT's Physics and Chemistry departments.

Compton attributes his longevity in the field to his desire to understand the physical world.

"I'm not that much into applications — just the fundamental understanding of nature — understanding it at as deep level as we can," he said, "That's what has always motivated me. It still does."

His desire for understanding has proven to be contagious, and it rubbed off on younger researchers, like chemist, Bob Hettich, who began collaborating with Compton not long after arriving at the lab in 1986.

"He had the most incredible passion for science," Hettich said. "He was very focused, very dedicated, very excited by fundamental knowledge. Our hallway discussions and office discussions were wonderful explorations of 'Well, what if we did this?' It was really out-of-the-box thinking."

Bruce Warmack, a physicist at the laboratory for over four decades, worked under Compton in the late 1970s as a postdoctoral student and later as a colleague. Warmack recalls that the intellectual diversity was also a hallmark of Compton's research.

"In his group, Ray Garrett was a theorist, and Compton was an experimentalist, so they were a good team. Eph Klots was in the group as well — as both an experimentalist and a theorist. The synergy between the two approaches was quite productive. They fed off of one another. I learned that you could gain a lot of understanding of a research problem if you had theory to correct and guide experiments and vice versa."

As a postdoc, Warmack worked as an experimentalist, and he noted that Compton had an interesting method for determining just how good an experimentalist a new hire was.

"What he really wanted to know was how good is this person at scrounging equipment?" Warmack said. "Instead of waiting on the cash to buy something, he wanted to know whether you could go down the hall and find somebody with a similar piece of equipment, borrow it, and get it going. One of his criteria for a good experimentalist was the ability to get things together and make progress quickly."

Beyond developing a talent for improvisation, working for Compton was also good for a new scientist's resume because he put a premium on publishing research.

"I was brand new, but we published like crazy," Warmack said. "I had seven publications in the two years that I worked with him as a postdoc.

"He also supported me in getting onto the laboratory staff. Since I had experience with mass spectrometry, I applied to the mass spectrometry section. He helped me overcome a couple hurdles along the way — one of which was that the mass spec section was made up of about 30 people — all chemists. I was a physicist. They said, 'What are we going to do with a physicist?' But with Bob's help, I got on staff, so I credit him with launching my career at ORNL."

Compton was also known for his willingness to collaborate on research projects and for his wide network of contacts across the scientific community.

"I just was always thinking of new things to investigate, to be honest with you," Compton said. "And then I would find places that had the technology that I needed to, to answer the questions I was bringing up in my head."

"He was never afraid to give someone a call and discuss new ideas," Warmack said. "Back then we didn't have email, of course, so we would call collaborators around the country and around the world as well. He also encouraged us to go to conferences and present our results. In fact, he took me to a conference in Paris back in 1977 to present work I had done."

Despite being involved with his own research and various collaborations, Compton still took the time to be a leader and a mentor.

Compton minimizes his role in the process.

"I tended to pick out good people," he said. "Then it basically comes down to encouraging them to do good, basic research, come up with new ideas and test them out."

Others give him credit for being generous with his time and experience.

"He was very comfortable around other senior corporate fellows, as well as young postdocs," Hettich added. "He was a very approachable guy. He was world class, but there was no arrogance about him. He was very engaging to people at all levels. To him everybody was equal. Everybody was valued."​