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Dr. Robert L. Forward

Copyright 2002 Robert L. Forward

A fifty year journey through the multifaceted professional career of Dr. Robert L. Forward from 1952 to 2002.
Acknowledgment: To Martha… I could never have done it without her.



Early Learning

Interstellar Flight

Smart Structures

Antimatter Propulsion

A Walk Through My Novels


I will never finish this autobiography. I will keep adding to it until I can no longer do so. It will then be up to someone else to close out the chapters, add the final dates to the obituaries, and send it on its way.

I have decided not to make this a straight chronological record of my personal history. Because I have worked in parallel on many different scientific fronts at the same time, I will segment this story into separate topical chapters. Most of this book will be history, but toward the end I will have two chapters: one, Future Tasks, will outline what I intend to do, and how I am planning on doing it. This chapter will be constantly changing as I accomplish some of the tasks, while new tasks will continually crop up. The other chapter will be Exercises for the Reader, containing a listing of problems and mysteries that I have found over the years and which I believe need further work and study.


I am an aerospace engineer, with 134 publications to date.

I am a physicist, with 35 publications to date.

I am an inventor, with 28 patents to date.

I am a popular science writer, with 61 articles to date.

I am a science fiction writer, with 11 novels and 21 short stories published to date.

I have been a research department manager directing more than 50 scientists and engineers at one time.

I pioneered the field of gravitational engineering, and invented the gravitational mass detector.

I pioneered the fields of smart structures, of ultra-cold neutrons, of antimatter propulsion, of space tethers, of rocketless propulsion.

I was the first to figure out a way to go to the stars using laser-pushed light sails.

I was the first to invent a method for levitating spacecraft without its being in orbit.

The space tethers, which I invented and pioneered, will revolutionize space travel within the solar system.
Many of the fields in which I have done pioneering work are now being advanced by other people and other technologies. My philosophy as a scientist has been to work on problems that other people consider impossible. I chose that philosophy as a very young man, because if you make any progress at all on that problem, it is still an advance. When I felt I had launched a new technology, I wanted to move on to something new, different, and more difficult.
Interwoven through the technology aspect of my career is my separate and distinct occupation as a writer. The reason I write is to teach. Every time I found a facet of science that I thought was interesting, I would try to find a way to pass on that information to the public. I was very fortunate to be able to generate words that people would publish, and read.

I am my mother's son. I have her language-skill genes, her musical and artistic genes, her leadership and intelligence genes, and, fortunately, her hair genes. From my father I also got a good dose of intelligence and leadership genes, plus the desire to "be your own boss".

I was born on 15 August 1932 to Robert Torrey Forward, 32, and Mildred Lull Forward, 29, in what was then the small town of Geneva, NY. When my parents met, he had been a paid employee of the Boy Scouts, in charge of a Camp on Lake Seneca, and she had been a paid employee of the Girl Scouts running a similar camp on the opposite shore. They were generally a happily married couple. There were very few babies born that year, as we were in the depths of the Great Depression. (This fact made it a lot easier for me to find jobs when I grew older.) My mother, of course, was not employable any longer since she had children to care for. I don't know what my father was doing for a living, but I don't think he was employed by the Boy Scouts, as we were desperately poor. The situation was made even more difficult by the birth of my brother, David Ross Forward, two years later. But the family managed to get by, and my brother and I had a happy home life except when we were squabbling with each other. David was born with a feisty personality, and resented being "bossed around" by his older brother. It would probably have been better for both of us if he had been born first.
Then came Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. Things changed for the world and for the Forward family. My father got a full-time job with the Red Cross, organizing and running the overseas Red Cross Canteens for the troops. After a stint managing the one at the Navy's Submarine Base in New London, CN, he was sent overseas after the successful Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942. As the troops advanced across the Sahara Desert, across to the Island of Sardinia, and up the Italian Peninsula, he would follow along behind, setting up Red Cross canteens for the troops returning from the front lines for R&R. He stayed there until the German surrender in 1945. He was thus gone for three years during some of my most impressionable years. After the war, my father was given a desk job at the Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, DC. The family finally settled down in Silver Spring, MD, where we were to stay until I started life out on my own.
There was one major thing that my father did for me which changed my whole life. He sent me away to Boy Scout Camp for the summer…but this "camp" was in France. Using his contacts within the Boy Scouts, he arranged to have his 14-year old son selected as one of the 20-30 Maryland delegates to the Sixth World Boy Scout Jamboree, which was to be held outside Paris, France. I came back at the end of the summer a mature grown-up 15-year old. Little did I know what was in store for me. The phone calls and letters started coming in from Rotary Clubs, Boy Scout troops, Ladies Coffee Klatches, and others, wanting me to come and lecture to them about: "What is Europe Now Like?" So, thanks to my father, I, previously a solitude-loving bookworm and science nerd, was winkled out of my shell at age 15 and forced to become a public speaker.
I became good enough at public speaking that I probably could have gone into politics, but I can't remember names. I also probably could have become an actor, but I can't follow scripts (the writer in me keeps improvising on my lines, which louses up the cues for the other actors). Instead I have become a popular-science lecturer. I go into a lecture bringing a bunch of pretty color slides about some scientific topic, such as "Interstellar Flight", and, using no notes, improvise my speech as I go along - based on what shows up on the screen.
There was also a major thing that my mother did for me and my brother besides dedicating her life to bringing us up right. She paid our way through college. She did it through her writing. She entered a contest run by a manufacturer of boys' shirts, where you had to write the last line of a jingle that ended: "It has more value in it…" and she added "than first meets the eye." Five words… five thousand dollars! In those days, $5,000 would pay for tuition and books at the University of Maryland for two boys for four years, provided they lived at home. So we did, and we didn't have to work at part-time jobs to pay our way through college. We could concentrate on our studies. As a writer I have yet to match that payment of a thousand dollars a word, and I don't think even Hemingway ever got close to that figure.
I attended Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD, and went to Christ Congregational Church in town. It was through the Youth Fellowship group at church that I met my future wife, Martha Neil Dodson . She was my first date, and except for some "friends of Martha" dates that she arranged for some of her friends whom she felt sorry for, my only date.

Martha and I were married on 29 August, l954. I was 22 and she was 20. I had just graduated with a BS degree in Physics and a Second Lieutenant Reserve Officer Commission in the US Air Force. The Korean War was still on and we were stuck with the "infringe benefits" of service life for two years. When I finished my tour of duty in September 1956, I joined the Hughes Aircraft Company Fellowship Program. We moved to California where I would attend UCLA full time on the Fellowship and work part-time

at Hughes when I wasn't going to school. Martha was now pregnant with twins. Unfortunately, there was a miscarriage and both babies were lost.
A year later a new baby was on the way. All the grandparents were pleased to hear the good news, especially my father, who was sick in the hospital with internal bleeding inside the esophagus. It was a serious condition caused by liver failure, which in turn had been brought on by a combination of yellow jaundice that he had picked up in North Africa and excessive drinking. He had left his secure desk job at the Red Cross Headquarters a number of years previously, and decided to "be his own boss". He set up a series of small businesses, each of which failed, and this led him to drink. Fortunately for the family finances, my mother was a well-respected, well-paid teacher in the Montgomery county Public School system, one of the best in the country, so the two of them managed on her salary.
Robert Torrey Forward died in November 1957, and his grandson, Robert Dodson Forward, was born on 5 March 1958. He was followed two years later by Mary Lois Forward on Leap Year Day - 29 February 1960, and by Julie Elizabeth Forward on 12 October 1961. Martha and I had talked about having four children, but there didn't seem to be any more coming, so we enjoyed the three children we had.
The children were a lot of work for Martha, especially since I was working on my Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Maryland during the school year, and working at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, CA, during the summers, which meant moving back and forth between rented apartments twice a year. Rob was born in Santa Monica, CA, and Mary Lois and Julie were born in Takoma Park, MD. There was one final year of extreme stress, where Martha was pregnant with Julie, and we were living with Martha's parents, Edwin Neil Dodson and Lois Young Dodson. My thesis adviser kept dragging the thesis work out, and finally Martha informed me, after the birth of Julie, that it was time to go. We left while we were still friends with Martha's parents, although my thesis was not finished yet, and I started working full time at the Hughes Research Labs.
After looking around in the Malibu area and surrounding areas, in early 1962 we bought a new four-bedroom house in the town of Oxnard, CA, a 45-minute drive up the coast from Malibu. We stayed put for over 20 years, giving stability to the whole family. We finally had our fourth child, Eve Laurel Forward, on 17 January 1972. As of 2002, all the children are married and doing well.
Writing fiction is now a Forward Family tradition. Three of the children are authors. As "Bob Forward", my son makes a good living writing scripts for movie pilots and writing, editing, directing, and producing shows for animation television series. He and I have jointly outlined a book, "Heaven Must Fall", but we haven't been able to sell it yet. Julie has co-authored two books with me, "Return to Rocheworld" and "Rescued From Paradise". Eve has had two books published in hard-cover and paperback by a major publisher, Tor books, and has contributed many scripts to a number of the animation series that Bob was Senior Editor for. Martha has also co-authored two with me, "Ocean Under the Ice" and "Marooned On Eden".
After taking early retirement from Hughes in 1987, when I had reached 55 years of age and had 31 years of employment, Martha and I sold the Oxnard house as the older kids had gone. We joined Eve in Idyllwild, CA, where she was going to the Elliot-Pope Preparatory School. At the same time, we bought a house in Scotland.
Back in the summer of 1985, Martha had taken Mary Lois on an educational trip to Scotland, while I stayed home with the others. They traveled as far north as Wick, in Caithness, and Martha enjoyed Scotland so much she dragged me back there the following year. I too liked it very much, especially the friendliness of the Scots (after all, we were Americans, not English, and we came from the magical Disney-like world of California.) That year, and the year after that, we, sometimes with Eve, stayed in a Guest House in Nairn, near Inverness, at the entrance to Loch Ness. We drove north from there and the further north we went, the better we liked the scenery and the people. We drove along the top of Scotland through Caithness and Sutherland. The population is so low in Sutherland, the main road along the coast is single track - one lane for both directions, with "passing places" every few hundred yards, where the road is wide enough for two cars to pass. We stopped to look at the real estate ads in the shop-windows of the solicitors - the legal profession handles real estate sales in Scotland - and realized that we could buy a large mansion for what we expected to sell our house for in California. We eventually settled on a small three-bedroom place that used to be the "field-servants-cottages" on Sandside Estate, in the village of Reay, Caithness. We bought the property in 1987 and stayed almost a full year the first time, bringing Eve over to live with us while she did her school-work through correspondence. Martha and I go back as often and as long as we can. We have more friends and social life there than we do in our present rented house on Whidbey Island in Washington state.
Living in northern Scotland is not all fun. In 1995 I had my first heart attack just before we were to return to the US. It was a 45-minute ambulance ride from the town of Thurso to the Caithness Hospital in Wick. Although the UK Health Service is good, it doesn't have the depth of the USA Health System. Fortunately, I only had a minor blockage episode. Eve came over to help Martha nurse me back to health enough that I could take a transcontinental flight, so for a while the three of us were back together again, but it was not as much fun as the times before.
The Scotland venture will be closing down in 2002. We have found a Dutch attorney who wants to buy the house to use while he goes deer-hunting in the surrounding hills. He is willing to let us come use the house when he is not there. We may do that for a few years, but it won't be the same.


I enjoyed math classes. The pure logic of mathematics and the certainty of it was a pleasure. (It was only much later that the "certainty of it" was knocked into a handbasket when I learned about Godel's Theorem.) I had a good mathematics teacher in High School, Mr. Hitchcock, a burly man who made learning mathematics fun. When I was taking Algebra from him, I worked ahead in the class and independently invented a method for calculating the coefficient in front of each term when you expanded an equation. Mr. Hitchcock appreciated my "discovery" and then gently led me to the back of the books, where he showed me the tables for Pascal's Binomial Theorem, first published in 1665 - almost 300 years earlier than my discovery. I wasn't disappointed, or even surprised, for I knew that algebra had been around for a very long time. Instead, I felt a little proud that I had done it on my own.
I experienced the thrill of "discovery" again the following year, when I was taking Analytic Geometry. I discovered a formula for calculating the area of a complex polygon of irregular shape by just knowing the coordinates of each of the vertices in the polygon. When I brought this little gem to Mr. Hitchcock, he again expressed appreciation for my ingenuity in mathematics, and then showed me a reference book describing Simpson's

Area Rule, which could handle the area of any planar shape, even one with curved lines, and which worked especially well for polygons with straight sides. Simpson had published in the 1750s. I actually felt quite good at learning that. In one year of study, I had gained 100 years on the old masters of mathematics. In a few more years of math, I figured I would be up to speed and beginning to invent new mathematical theorems before other people did.

That never came true, because although I liked math and did well in math, I was really not a mathematician. I was a physicist. A physicist works with mathematical logic tempered with reality. A mathematician does not allow his logic to be "contaminated" by reality. This was forcibly brought to my attention in college. After taking progressively more difficult mathematics courses through college and getting almost straight A's, I had completed every math course that a physicist needed, including Differential Calculus and Quantum Mechanics. Then I decided to take Advanced Calculus. The problem was that, unlike the Differential and Integral Calculus courses which had been taught by physicists in the Physics Department, the Advanced Calculus course was taught by mathematicians in the Math Department. I whizzed through the course, thinking I was doing well, although puzzled a little with the "epsilons" and "deltas" which seemed to have to be "bounded" around the point of integration. After the first semester test was over I was called into the Professor's office.

"Mr. Forward,", he said, looking up at me with a sorry shake of his head, "If you promise not to take the second half of my course, I will give you a C."

I still don't fully understand what I was not understanding. The basic problem I was having was that in physics there is no such thing as a "discontinuity" in a physical quantity that you are describing with a mathematical function, whereas in mathematics the discontinuities are not only allowed, but "expected", since it is the discontinuities in a mathematical function that make the mathematics fun. For example, if you take an equilateral triangle, divide each side in thirds and take the middle third and turn it into an equal-sided "point" pointing outward, you end up with a six-pointed star. If you then divide those sides into thirds and turn the middle third into points, you end up with a spiky star. If you keep that up forever (and mathematicians are good at that) you end up defining a spiky planar polygon that contains a finite area but has an infinitely long perimeter. In addition, that perimeter contains an infinite number of discontinuities which plays havoc with the integral calculus which you need to calculate the area. The mathematicians, by carefully bounding the discontinuities with epsilons and deltas can somehow get a finite area by integrating an infinite perimeter. Physicists can get as close as they want to the same answer for the area by successive approximations. My teacher was trying to teach me how to do it properly, the mathematical way, the exact way, but I was unable to do so. I not only didn't know how to do it, I didn't even understand why I didn't know how to do it. It was then I was glad that I had long ago decided to major in physics rather than mathematics.
The Korean War was going on when I completed high school I was deferred from the draft to go to college and join the Air Force Reserve Officer's Training Corps at the University of Maryland. Outside of ROTC classes and parade formations once a week, my military career was a minor influence on my life, for I still lived at home. I graduated in June, 1954, and in short order had a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics, a Commission as Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, a wife, and apartment in Bethesda, MD, and orders to report to the 727th Tactical Control Group at Shaw Air Force Base in Myrtle Beach, SC, on 29 September 1954. Martha stayed at the apartment and attended American University, while I went to South Carolina to live in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters until she finished the semester and I found us an apartment.
The task of the 727th was to supply radar coverage and direction for the Air Force planes that would be supplying air cover to the Army troops on the ground. I was in a small forward Mobile unit. We had a range-azimuth radar that would scan in a circle out to about 100 miles, and a height-finding radar that could be directed at a suspicious track on the range-azimuth radar and determine the height of the track. This information would be used by our controllers to guide our aircraft to a given target, and to warn our aircraft about the approach of enemy aircraft. We thus had two large radars, a command and control center, and all the radio equipment needed to communicate with the Air Force base at the rear, the Army troops all around us and just ahead of us, and the Air Force pilots up above. My primary job was to be the Radar Maintenance Officer, keeping the radars running. Thus, right out of college, I was given a leadership job over a fairly large crew of Technical Sergeants and radar maintenance technicians. In the wisdom of the Air Force, since I had a degree in Physics and was a ham-radio Operator to boot, I should be telling well-trained radar technicians what to do. I knew enough, however, to ask the Master Sergeant what we should do, and then recommended that we do it his way.
Very fortunately, shortly after taking command of my small group, we ran into a technical problem with one of the power systems for the radar. The crew was baffled, for all the tubes in the unit were glowing properly, but the power wasn't coming out. I walked into the tent and smelled something. Something very familiar from my early ham radio days, when I had fried many a power supply. It was the smell of burnt cabbage.
"A selenium rectifier," said my nose. I opened up the cabinet and the smell was even stronger. I looked down at the bottom of the cabinet and there was a bank of selenium rectifiers that are often used instead of tubes to turn ac voltage into dc voltage. A burnt-through selenium rectifier looks just like a working one, so you have to take measurements on it, not just look at it. I suggested they check, and my nose turned out to be right. My relationships with the men improved remarkably after that bit of nasal detective work.
My other job was Mobility Officer. Since the 727th had to be near the front lines, not way back like most Air Force facilities, we had to be as mobile as the Army around us. All of our heavy equipment was built permanently on trucks and trailers, and everything that wasn't on a truck, had to be built so that it could be dismantled and put into a truck - fast.
My job involved planning where every piece of equipment and cable and consumable item would go on which truck. This wasn't a paper exercise, for we then proceeded to go on maneuvers with the Army through the scrub forests and swamps of South Carolina and Alabama. We loaded everything and drove south. (I got very good at driving a Jeep ahead of the convoy, then stopping to hold up traffic while the convoy thundered past. We did it again and again over the next few months as the mock battle moved back and forth over the southern states. (Even today, I can look at a bunch of wrapped Christmas presents, go into the garage where we keep empty boxes, and pick the perfect box to hold all the presents with only the smallest amount of space left over.)
The major things I got out of my two years of service life were an excellent knowledge of the inner workings of real-life radar systems, and two years of experience as a leader, both of which came in very handy in my next (and final) job at the Hughes Aircraft Company. When I finished my tour of duty in September 1956, we moved to California, where I began to attend UCLA full-time on the Hughes Fellowship Program, and to work part-time at Hughes.


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