E. John List
E. John List
E. John List
Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, Emeritus
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
August 31, 2021
DAVID ZIERLER: OK, this is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is for me, Tuesday, August 31st, 2021, and for Professor John List it is September 1st, 2021 because John is joining me from New Zealand. John, thank you so much for being with me today.
JOHN LIST: My pleasure.
ZIERLER: To start, can you explain why you're currently in New Zealand?
LIST: Well, it's really, very complicated. I have a vacation house here. I grew up in New Zealand. Bought a vacation house here in 1990. And I came here to be involved with the vacation house and I got stranded by COVID. [laugh]
ZIERLER: What is the COVID situation in New Zealand currently?
LIST: Oh, it's pretty weird—they had a thesis that they could eliminate it from the country. And because they effectively were successful, they slowed the introduction of vaccines, so basically few were vaccinated when the Delta variant arrived. And one person with the Delta variant arrived and infected 80 people and those 80 people gave it to another 80 people and so on. And so, the whole thing blew up. And now they're scrambling to vaccinate everybody. It was just a major screwup and travel is simply not possible at this time.
ZIERLER: Now when you plan to get back to the States, where is home for you here?
LIST: It'll be South Carolina. I've been living in South Carolina for the last 13 years.
ZIERLER: John, on a more official level, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliations?
LIST: Oh, I was a Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and for a period I was the Executive Officer of the Environmental Engineering Program. That was my official title at Caltech.
ZIERLER: And tell me about your current work as a consultant for Flow Science Incorporated.
LIST: Oh, for Flow Science—let me go back. I left Caltech in 1997 and basically the reason for leaving was—let me go back and start right in 1962. In 1962 I arrived at Caltech as a graduate student. The first week I was there, I heard this talk by Linus Pauling, Professor of Chemistry. And he had two things that have stuck with me ever since. One was that in addressing the undergraduates he said, "You must understand half of what you're gonna be taught here at Caltech is wrong and your job is to figure out which half of it is wrong."
LIST: And the second thing he said, "Don't be frightened of new ideas. It took a whole generation of physicists to die before quantum mechanics was accepted" Those two remarks made a huge impression on me. I was excited to be at Caltech. I graduated, I left came back to New Zealand, and got invited back to Caltech in 1969. So, I came there as a young faculty member. One thing that sort of kinda shocked me when I arrived back there was the sort of deep animosity that I got from some of the faculty. I thought, "Holy Toledo, what the hell have I done to be treated this way?" Then I found out later after talking to other young faculty they'd experienced the same thing. There are certain faculty members who sort of basically seem to resent young faculty coming there. But on the other hand, the majority of the faculty are very welcoming and supportive. Particularly, I got involved with Lester Lees and Robbie Vogt. I was involved with Lester Lees and Jim Morgan and Burt Klein in the formation of the Environmental Quality Laboratory, which sadly never really got permanently off the ground. I did write a report for EQL on energy use in California and how it was related to air pollution and it received a lot of attention.
I've sort of tried to understand what went wrong at EQL and I think it probably was the fact that Lester, who was an incredibly smart and visionary guy, got Parkinson's disease that progressed quite quickly. So, I went back doing more research involved with density stratified fluid mechanics and that's what I was involved with. My research, the whole subsequent time I was at Caltech, was basically looking at the way in which turbulence was modified by density gradients, that is the work done in mixing fluids of different density. When you've got a density gradient you have to do work to mix it and the energy comes out of the turbulent motions. So I had a bunch of graduate students who worked in that general area. I developed a number of techniques of studying that using laser-induced fluorescence. I had a great time doing that. The other thing that I did, and I had the pleasure of doing, was working with Robbie Vogt, who was the provost at that time. And he and I sort of had a very compatible vision about what we thought Caltech was. We both saw Caltech as sort of the SEAL team of the academic world. [laugh] Robbie was a very energetic and a very visionary Provost and we had a great time working together. He appointed me on a number of committees. Then it became clear that our vision of Caltech as the SEAL team of the academic world was not shared by all the faculty, nor all the students. [laugh]. It came to a head when I was a member of the scholarships and financial aid committee. We were doling out money that had been donated to Caltech for merit scholarships. We wanted to give a merit scholarship to this guy who had a brilliant academic record. And there was some faculty on the committee and a couple of students that were on the committee who said, "No, no, no, no. You can't give this guy any money because all he wants to do is work and study. And he could care less about any extracurricular activities." So, I blew up about that. Robbie ended up firing all the scholarships and financial committee and starting anew. The whole thing was abrogating the terms of the bequest to Caltech. It was very specific that this money had to be used for merit scholarships. Some of the committee had an idea that merit was kicking a soccer ball. Well, it didn't fit too well with Robbie or me. We had a good time. And also, he made me chair of the curriculum committee. I had a vision at that time that everybody should be computer literate—including the biologists—because it appeared to me that if you've got DNA molecules that are strings of a million pieces of information, the only way they'll ever be really understood was to be computer literate. I made this proposal that everybody should be taking a computer class and have a computer and access to a computer. The funny part about it is a few biology professors were quite antagonistic to this whole idea. They said, "No. We don't need computers." So, I had a good laugh about that.
Another issue that I had again was with my attitude towards this SEAL team idea. I used to teach an undergraduate applied mathematics course, and this basically involved—the students had to do something like 300 problems and homework sets. They took six examinations—a mid-term, a final, a mid-term, a final, a mid-term, and a final. And I said, "Five of these exams you can do on your own time, wherever you like, open book. But one of these exams you're gonna do on my time. You can do it open book, but you've gotta do it on my time." Because my idea was you know, nobody wins a gold medal by running around the track by themselves at their leisure. There are always some kids whose brains come alive when their feet are to the fire. Kids who did well on the designated time exam were always a different bunch of kids from the ones that did it at their leisure. And I took so much crap about that. I had a bunch of students who went to the dean and claimed that I was violating the honor code. Ray Owen, who was the dean at that time, went to the vice president of student relations (Jim Morgan) and wanted to have me fired from teaching any undergraduate classes. He said, "This is anathema." But the funny part about it was at this particular time there was a lady who was a biology major who was taking the class. There was no requirement that this applied mathematics course be done for biology majors, but she was doing it for, as she said, "cultural reasons." And when it came to this designated time exam, she sort of freaked out and said, "Well, I want to do this course pass/fail." I said, "Come on, look. You're a really bright student. You're doing very well. Get yourself an A grade in this class. Don't do it pass/fail." And she said, "OK. I'll do it." She ended up doing extremely well, got an A grade. When she left, after she had been gone a little while, she wrote me a letter and said that was the highlight of her experience at Caltech because nobody had ever challenged her before. In the whole time that she'd been at Caltech she had never done examination under a designated time. She thought it was just wonderful and —oh, it made my day.
ZIERLER: John, how far back does environmental engineering science go at Caltech?
LIST: We started with Jack McKee and Norm Brooks in 1960, I believe. They got a grant from the Keck Foundation. They also got a grant from U.S. Public Health Service to build what became the Keck Laboratory. And the interesting part was, as Jack McKee told me, William Keck said he wasn't having his name on a plaque on a building with the Federal government. So, as Jack McKee told me, Keck said, "I'll pay for the whole building." So Jack gave the Federal money back to the Public Health Service. And they said, "We can't believe this. Somebody is actually giving money back to government!" [laugh]
ZIERLER: So, you were really there from the beginning?
LIST: No. I was there from—yeah, from 1962. Yeah. But it started actually in 1960. Maybe a little earlier, '58, '59.
ZIERLER: And John, an overall question about the discipline. Where is the basic science and where is the applied science?
LIST: Well, there's two ways to it. Basically, one involves chemical interactions and the other involves the transport of the material that's chemically interacting. The basic science is the transport and the chemistry. And the applications of this are into water supply, which is treating water to get rid of things, studying the environmental impact of materials that are released into the environment. And that involves these two aspects of the problem. One is the chemistry and the other is the transport. What I was involved with with Norm Brooks was the transport side of it. One of the key things involved in the transport, in oceans and rivers and lakes, and atmosphere is the mixing that goes on. Something's released and it mixes. And the mixing process is controlled by the density differences that occur in the environment, like in the air it gets less dense as you go up, similarly so in lakes and ocean where the water gets more dense the deeper you go.. And that density difference controls the mixing very substantially.
ZIERLER: Well, John, we'll talk more about these as we develop the narrative. But let's go all the way back to the beginning. First, let's talk about your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
LIST: Well, my father was manager of a dairy factory that made butter, casein, and powdered milk, all those kind of things associated with milk. It was a large cooperative sort of like Land O'Lakes. New Zealand, basically at that time, was an agricultural economy that revolved around cows and sheep. So that was the cow side of it. Production of milk and cream and butter and cheese and milk powder and things like that.
ZIERLER: And your mother?
LIST: She was a homemaker and a very smart lady.
ZIERLER: How many generations back does your family go in New Zealand?
LIST: They arrived in 1876 from Norway. They were part of the colonial British attempt to bring more white people to New Zealand. The British were taking over New Zealand, which was then occupied by tribes of Polynesians -- Maoris. And there was interest by the first white settlers to get as many more white people into New Zealand as they possibly could and they were running short of Englishmen. So, they went to Scandinavia. At that time in Scandinavia there'd been the Danish-Prussian War of 1864. Scandinavia was in a very depressed economic state. They managed to fill ships up with Scandinavians: Norwegians, and Swedes and Danes, ship them to New Zealand as assisted immigrants. My great grandfather and his family were part of those assisted immigrants.
ZIERLER: Is List an Anglicized name?
LIST: No. It comes from my great-great grandfather who came from the island of Sylt. S-Y-L-T. List is the town on the island of Sylt. The island of Sylt is now the sort of Nantucket of Germany. But it was fought over by the Danes and the Prussians—switched backwards and forwards from being part of Germany to being part of Denmark to being part of Germany to being part of Denmark and so forth. So when my great-great grandfather List—his actual name was Hansen, left he took the name List from the town to distinguish him from all the other Hansen families in Denmark. My great grandfather met and married a Norwegian lady in Oslo (then Christiania) before shipping out to New Zealand.
ZIERLER: And where in New Zealand did you grow up?
LIST: Oh, in the middle of the north island of New Zealand in an agricultural community. Farming community. In fact, it's kind of paradoxical, but I grew up about two miles from Hobbiton, what became the Hobbiton in the Rings movies. It's a very beautiful part of New Zealand. Rolling green hills.
ZIERLER: Was anybody in your family involved in World War II?
LIST: One of my uncles was a captive—wounded in Crete and captured by the Germans and spent five years in a prison of war camp in Czechoslovakia. And another uncle was in a reconnaissance squadron with the Royal Air Force and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. Another fought at Alamein defeating Rommel. My father enlisted, but was then sent back to work because it was claimed that he was running a vital industry feeding everybody around the world. So, he got a lot of crap for not being at the front, and supposedly avoiding the draft.
ZIERLER: John, what kind of schools—
LIST: I'm very lucky. I'm one of the first generation of my family that never had to be shot at or shoot at anybody.
ZIERLER: What kind of schools did you go to growing up?
LIST: Oh, I went to a primary school that was run by a martinet that looked a lot like Adolf Hitler—a terrible man. Then I went to a local high school, and that local high school has given rise to, I believe, five Caltech Ph.D.'s. Kind of surprising.
ZIERLER: Were you always interested in science?
LIST: Oh, yeah. Always. I spent all my time reading Michael Faraday, Marconi, Humphrey Davy and all those people and trying to repeat their experiments and trying to reproduce what they had done. As a kid. I did blow myself up at one point when I was eleven and spent a couple of weeks with my face bandaged up.
ZIERLER: What opportunities did you have for university? Was leaving New Zealand ever a possibility?
LIST: No. The University of Auckland had quite a good school. I graduated from engineering there. I had a very influential professor named Cecil Segedin who was a Cambridge Ph.D., very knowledgeable and very helpful guy, and very inspiring teacher. He was a great guy. I did a master's degree with him and he said, "Well, you really need to go to the United States. Why don't you apply to a range of schools?" So, I applied to MIT , Brown, Stanford and Caltech and got accepted to all of them with financial aid. And then Cecil came out and he showed me the catalog from Caltech when he had applied to Caltech in the 1930s and said, "That's the place you should go."
ZIERLER: Now, were you aware of the new program in environmental engineering science?
LIST: No, not at that point. At that point I was just interested in transport processes. Norman Brooks was the professor there who was supervising that and so, I followed this program to work with him.
ZIERLER: What was the program at Caltech that you applied to?
LIST: It was the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. That's what it was at that time. And it was run by one Chair (Fred Lindvall) and he had one secretary, Patty Stephen. And they were the division administration, Fred and Patty. And then within that Division of Engineering there were graduate programs. There was one in environmental engineering, one in applied mechanics. I actually did my degree in applied mechanics. And civil engineering; there was civil and mechanical engineering. The program, it was very sort of amorphous. You could have your degree, like a degree in applied mechanics, but I had an advisor who was a professor of civil engineering. Then when I became a professor there, I had graduate students in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, aeronautics, engineering science and environmental engineering science. I had graduate students in six different graduate programs.
ZIERLER: John, before you got to Pasadena, had you ever left New Zealand? Had you ever travelled internationally?
LIST: Oh, yeah. I worked for the Nobel division of Imperial Chemical Industries in Melbourne, Australia. I worked for there one summer helping them design ammonium nitrate plants. At that time ammonium nitrate was sort of the designated mining explosive because it had exactly the right kind of detonation. If you use dynamite to blow up the quarry, it just shattered the rock into dust. And if you used black powder it just eased everything up and it fell back down again. Ammonium nitrate was very effective because it'll break rocks up into manageable sizes. And so, it became a weapon of course, because it was so easy to get. Because you're just going down to the local fertilizer store and buy a truckload of it, mix it up with some diesel oil, and it was a tremendous explosive. So I worked on building design to construct an ammonium nitrate for the Nobel division of ICI, which is now part of AstraZeneca.
ZIERLER: What were your impressions of Caltech when you first arrived?
LIST: Oh, wonderful. I thought I had found Nirvana. The professors really know what they're talking about. That's what impressed me most of all.
ZIERLER: Was smog an issue in the early 1960s?
LIST: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The air was brown. And it smelled bad. And so, when I went back there in 1969, the first graduate student I had was John Trijonis. He was working on smog chemistry and modeling and in his Ph.D. thesis he discovered the interesting fact that a control program that was being advocated for smog, which was to control nitrous oxide, was actually the worst thing you could do, because what it did was way the smog production curve went between hydrocarbons and oxidized nitrogen, if you lowered the oxides of nitrogen without doing anything about the hydrocarbons, you could actually make the smog chemistry worse. And he discovered that in his Ph.D. thesis. He was a very bright guy.
ZIERLER: John, what did you do for your own thesis research?
LIST: Density stratified flow in porous media. I was looking at the saltwater, the water from the ocean invading underneath the freshwater within the aquifers that are used to produce municipal water supplies.
ZIERLER: What did you do after you defended? What was your next opportunity after Caltech?
LIST: They asked me to stay there as a postdoctoral fellow for 18 months. Then I got invited to come back to New Zealand. Well, I was obligated to leave the United States because I had an exchange visitor's visa. I had to leave for two years. And I got invited to come back with Cecil Segedin. The guy I mentioned before invited me to come back to Auckland. I spent three years there and after I'd been there two years Caltech invited me to come back to Caltech. And I also had an invitation to go to Berkeley as well. But I decided to come back to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Now, when you left to return to New Zealand, did you think that you would be making a life and a career for yourself in New Zealand? Or did you always want to get back to the States?
LIST: I always wanted to get back to the United States. I just loved the United States. It was such an exciting place. And being in places like Berkeley and Caltech, all worlds, brains, posterity. They had this opportunity to interact with people and go to seminars with leaders in their fields all over the world. It was a special time. I loved it. It was the center of the universe.
ZIERLER: What was your research by the time you joined the Caltech faculty? What were you focused on at that point?
LIST: Density stratified flows. But I worked on a lot of different areas. My second grad developed a simulation model for the Colorado River and looked at the management of the Colorado River and won a national prize for his Ph.D. thesis. The third Ph.D. I had was a Greek guy, Nick Kotsovinos, who developed a technique for looking at the way fluid motions are induced by density differences. He won a prize for his Ph.D. thesis too. I had four graduate students that I supported win prizes for their theses.—I had another three very brilliant Ph.D. students. One of them became the head of DARPA, Regina Dugan. And I had another one, Greg Sullivan, and he became managing director of a huge European bank in Canada. Then I had another one who became the senior vice president for a very, very, large international an oil company, overseeing the whole Pacific-Asian operation. They were great.
ZIERLER: John, I wonder if you can tell me about the role of theory in your research?
LIST: Well, if you're familiar at all with fluid mechanics, fluid mechanics is one of the most difficult things because it's all nonlinear. Nobody has yet figured out how to solve the turbulence problem. There's all kind of work arounds that people have. The theory is essentially trying to figure out work arounds for the nonlinearity. And when you throw the density differences in there as well, it makes it a little more complicated. So, it's all theoretical, but then it is the application to practical problems where the challenge lies. So I did a lot of consulting work.
ZIERLER: What have been some of the practical applications of your research for consulting work?
LIST: One of them is the design of water supply systems. For example, Southern Nevada Water Authority was taking water out of the Colorado River and out of Lake Mead and intakes were getting exposed because water levels were dropping in Lake Mead. So they spent a couple billion dollars building a new intake and needed all the theoretical applications to figure out where the water outlets can operate. Another one is in Palos Verdes Peninsula. On the Palos Verdes Peninsula a manufacturer of DDT had poured all their wastewater into the sewers that had gone out and dumped on the Palos Verdes shelf. So, there was all this DDT out there. And EPA came after them and filed a suit against the company. And the company hired me as a consultant to figure out where is this DDT coming from, where it's going to, what's happening to it. It was a very interesting project because it involved both the fluid mechanics and the chemistry. But the interesting part about it for me was that I had done enough organic chemistry to be able to look at the results of field analyses to figure out the DDT was all disappearing. And where the hell was it going? And then I found out there was a compound there called DDMU. I asked these people at Montrose, "You ever make any DDMU?" "No, never." And the current thinking was that DDT was this refractory compound that was gonna be around forever. But it turns out, I looked at the chemistry of the molecules and figured out that there has to be some reductive dechlorination going on to take the DDT, run it through a chain of different other molecules to end up with this DDMU. So I proposed this. The organic chemists around the world and everybody vilified me, told me I had no credentials to make [laughs] a hypothesis about DDT. So, we ended up hiring a professor, Jim Tiedje from Michigan State who took the DDT, put some radio labels on it, put it in the sediments, and actually proved that the DDT was turning into DDMU. And an article in Science was published about it acknowledging my contribution. But it was quite a very strange amount of crap that I took for even proposing that this was happening. "You stupid ignorant man! You don't know what you're doing." [laugh] Well, anyhow.
ZIERLER: John, I'd like to ask about some of your administrative work at Caltech starting with first being Executive Officer for the Environmental Engineering Science Program. What were some of the duties that that entailed?
LIST: The duties were to sort of develop a teaching program and research interests to support the science that was involved. It meant working with the division chairman at the time—it was Roy Gould at that time—to find new faculty members. The whole idea of understanding DNA, and genetic engineering was starting. And I said, "How can you have an environmental program when you don't have anybody who's working in molecular biology of the molecules that are involved?" And Roy was very supportive of that. So we ended up hiring Mary Lidstrom as a faculty member to start that part of the program. And now that's still there. I'm having a senior moment. I can't remember the name of the replacement after Mary left. Mary left after I quit in 1997 and was then replaced by somebody else at that time. The other thing that I tried to do—it seemed to me that there was a real opportunity to coordinate the kind of program that we had, involved with the science of the chemistry of pollutant molecules and the mechanics of how they got around, with work in geological sciences. And I worked with Barclay Kamb, in which we proposed forming a joint program between the Environmental Engineering Science program at that time and Geology and Planetary Sciences. Well, we ran into a bit of a battle with some faculty and they refused to let that opportunity go forward. So, I quit as the executive officer of the program because it was clear that I was going to be obstructed in trying to do a program like that. What happened is that after I left and the obstructionists left, that program has actually gone ahead and it is in place right now.
LIST: And it's called Environmental Engineering and Science. Another thing I was very interested as Executive Officer of the Graduate l Program was trying to get JPL to focus more on Planet Earth than other uninhabited planets. JPL set up a position to encourage earth scientists to take visiting positions at JPL. It seemed that most planetary science faculty at Caltech were more interested in Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, so visitors from Scripps and elsewhere came to JPL. One of these visitors resulted in the development of SeaSat, a non-military open access satellite to exploit the synthetic aperture radar developed at JPL by Charles Elachi. In the first seminar at Caltech where SeaSat obtained data were presented there was one slide that showed what appeared to be sand waves on the bottom of the English Channel. The current over the sand waves was modulating the sea surface elevation in such a way that it imaged the sand waves. In the discussion period after the presentation I asked that if SeaSat could "see" sand waves on the bottom of the Channel wouldn't a large submarine also cause a surface wave modulation that would image it. The answer was probably yes. Well next morning there is a knock on my office door and a tall man with a buzz haircut, suit with narrow tie and black wing tips, flashed a badge at me and asked what did I know about submarines. A short time later SeaSat failed. George Carrier at Harvard told me later that SeaSat really did fail, but I was left to wonder.
ZIERLER: And during this time you also served on the curriculum committee. What was some of that work?
LIST: Yeah. Well, that work, as I mentioned before, the big thing there was my attitude that everybody should be computer literate, and establishing that as a requirement that people learn how to program computers and interact with computers. The idea was that not only would it help biologists, but if you had smart kids who had the opportunity to learn to program and operate computers, there was no way of predicting what they would discover. Because it just seemed like you've got smart kids and you've got this tool that can find the solution to a problem if it exists as one of a billion possible solutions. Without a computer you can never find it. That was probably my main contribution in the curriculum committee.
ZIERLER: John, tell me about the award from the National Science Foundation for special creativity. What were they recognizing?
LIST: The fact that I had so many students who had won national prizes for their Ph.D. theses. I had four of them. They said—in that whole sort of creative thing, so they gave me a special grant, a creativity grant. That was kind of funny because what subsequently happened—and one of the reasons why I left Caltech in 1997, was in 1996 I submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to continue working with mixing in density stratified flows. One of the really important things in climate modeling was the mixing of carbon dioxide in the ocean, the deep layers of the ocean, and the mixing within the atmosphere. And it's all controlled by the density stratification. So I wrote this proposal to the National Science Foundation. The reviews came back and I got four A+'s from the reviewers. And the National Science Foundation officer who was administering the program, Art Ezra, came to me and he said, "Look. I'm terribly sorry. You've got all these incredible reviews on this proposal. But I can't fund it because we have a new initiative. We've been funding you too long. We now have an initiative that we should be funding young people. You're too old and you've been at the trough too long." I said, "Well, what the hell am I gonna do? You're taking away my funding." He said, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry." So, I gave these reviews to John Seinfeld, who I think was the Division Chair at that time. They gave me a nice pay raise for having wonderful reviews, but I didn't get the money.
ZIERLER: And this contributed to your decision to retire from Caltech?
LIST: That was one part of it. The second part of it was, as I said, the sort of change in cultural thinking with the whole idea of Caltech being a SEAL team for academics, running crosswise with a lot of faculty—and I was taking a lot of the crap about that.
ZIERLER: What was the competing vision? If not a SEAL team, what was it going to be?
LIST: Oh, it's basically what it is right now. Diversity. Where you're not really enrolling students based on the desire to be the academic best in the world, but to fill a perceived cultural ideal and fix a societal failing—— this was also a contributing factor in my decision to quit academia. My basic thought was Caltech was unique and did not have to be like other colleges that could fill these needs. The SEAL team fills a society need without all the cultural baggage. A good example is there was an engineer in Las Vegas that I worked with, and his kid, a very smart kid, valedictorian, had done some work on Einstein's photoelectricity, got his pilot's license on the day he legally could, produced a video that was used around the world to explain the photoelectric phenomenon. Wanted to come to Caltech. He had this incredible academic record. And so, I said to the admissions committee, "Take a close look at this guy." And they rejected him because he wasn't adding to the diversity to the student body because he was too much like historical Caltech students. And that was another contributing factor. And also I was having more fun doing consulting work. So, what I did was I went to Steve Koonin who was the Provost at that time and said, "Steve, I've got a tenure contract here. You're gonna pay me millions of dollars to hang around Caltech. Why don't you buy the tenure contract off me?" He said, "Well, yeah, sure." We settled on it. He thought it was a great idea. He did it himself.
ZIERLER: John, tell me about the origins of Flow Science Incorporated, which goes all the way back to the early 1980s.
LIST: Yeah. I had three guys arrive in my office at Caltech one morning and said, "We've got this problem involved in mechanics of pipelines and pumping. What happens when the pump stops suddenly and the pipelines have a potential collapse? And then if they don't collapse, they maybe will blow up. We've invented this device to prevent this from happening. Can you analyze why this works?" So, I wrote some computer programs for them. They hired me as a consultant and I worked with them. And they formed this company, Flow Science, which they hired me as a consultant in that company. And then when I left Caltech, I bought them out. I owned the company myself.
ZIERLER: Who were some of the clients of Flow Science?
LIST: Oh, there's been 1,800 clients. Southern California Metropolitan Water District, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles, Southern Nevada Water Authority. King County—Seattle. Hawaii—the county of Maui in Hawaii. Chevron, IBM, Exxon Mobil, City of San Francisco.
ZIERLER: Let's start first with the municipal clients. What are the kinds of things that cities and counties need from Flow Science?
LIST: Again, designing water supply systems that don't blow up, if the pumps stop or the pumps go bad. We're doing that kind of work for practically every municipality on the West Coast. I also did it for IBM. IBM were having trouble with their silicon foundries. They had cooling water running around to keep the silicon foundries cool. And it kept blowing up. This is in White Plains, New York. They had to shut the whole place down. So, I went over to White Plains and went around and figured out what was going on and fixed it for them. [laughs] And the interesting thing is right about that time the most secret facility in the United States, which is in Colorado—it has three layers of barbed wire and open grass plains surrounding it and TV cameras in every direction, was shut down because the irrigation and fire protection system was blowing up. I went over there and fixed that one as well. [laugh] It's just simply the applications of Newton's laws and there's so many engineers that sort of don't really understand Newton's laws. Even Feynman apparently didn't understand Newton's laws. I found a mistake in a Feynman's textbook where he actually misapplied Newton's law, when he was figuring out the way temperature and gasses give rise to pressure.
ZIERLER: What about your work for energy companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil?
LIST: The ExxonMobil job was an interesting project where I never really quite understood what they were getting at. They had a very large heat source that was deep in the ocean. It was 1,000 feet long and 44 feet in diameter, which is the size of a nuclear submarine. This thing was sitting in the deep part of the ocean and they wanted to know where the cooling water was gonna go. So we figured that out. And then they came up with another idea——but basically it was a technique for prospecting for new oil fields. I don't think I should talk about that. And then for Chevron I did a lot of work with the offshore platforms and getting permitting for the drilling wastes off offshore platforms. Then I did some permitting for them for Barber's Point Refinery in Hawaii and for their refinery in El Segundo, but again it involved sort of density stratified flows. The one in Hawaii is really interesting because—it'd been there for years and years and years and then EPA came along and said, "Well, we need a dilution analysis for this cooling water discharge going out into the Pacific." So, I did the dilution analysis, submitted it to the Hawaii Department of Health. They submitted to EPA. Never heard a word back from ‘em. Ever. Nothing happened about it. Just the whole thing just sort of disappeared—but you asked me about something that I found amusing at Caltech, a very similar thing. That if you were on an administrative committee, you were never notified that you were no longer on an administrative committee the meeting notices just never appeared.
LIST: You just didn't get any notice of meetings anymore. Nobody said thank you. And it was like that in--what I called The Disappeared. There would be faculty members that would be there one week and then—"Where the hell...?" And over the weekend their office is cleared out and they're gone, and I called them The Disappeared. Never any announcement that they're no longer there. Never an announcement about what went wrong, or if it was something to do with harassment or something or other like that. They just disappeared, it was sort of Caltech's way of dealing with embarrassments. They would just disappear.
ZIERLER: One committee I'm curious about is your work for JPL's classified research oversight. Did that actually necessitate you getting a clearance?
LIST: Yeah. I can't talk too much about that.
ZIERLER: Can you just describe a little bit about what the work was?
LIST: Not really. It involved an application that JPL had—well, the one that was most contentious involved an application that JPL developed that the military wanted to take over. That has been extraordinarily successful for the military. Extraordinarily successful.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your work as editor of the Journal of Hydraulic Engineering.
LIST: The Journal of Hydraulic Engineering had sort of run under sad times. I got approached by the American Society of Civil Engineers to take it on as editor and to try to sort of reenergize it. The first few issues that came out after I became editor were rather thin because I sort of rejected an awful lot of poor papers. And then it got its reputation back and then I quit because it didn't seem like I should be doing it anymore after it got back on its feet.
ZIERLER: What were your motivations in becoming a professional civil engineer in California?
LIST: I was involved as an expert witness in a lawsuit. And the lawyer said to me—so I was expounding on what went wrong in this particular case—and this lawyer said to me, "How can you do that? You're not even a professional engineer." I said, "What the hell? Why become a professional engineer?" He said, "It would be like me getting up there as an attorney and never having passed the bar." I said, "Fair enough."
ZIERLER: What have been some of the values of Monte Carlo simulations in your research?
LIST: Monte Carlo simulations, they have been the basis for the Ph.D. thesis that I referred to by Art Jensen on the Colorado River. When you want to do simulation of a natural phenomenon and if you don't have the data there to do it, you generate the data by sort of rolling the dice, so to speak, so that you can determine the outcome of—suppose you've got a set of equations, and you've got input that represents say, climatic events, but you don't know what those climatic events really are. Then you simulate them and take the output. That's what's called Monte Carlo simulation. It's used very widely in things involving climate. I also used it to simulate the collisions of small particles as they agglomerate.
ZIERLER: What has been some of your work with regard to mitigating water pollution?
LIST: Well, that's what I basically did for Exxon and Chevron. To mitigate the effects of—in running a refinery you've got a lot of outputs which you need to get rid of. You've got water which you've heated up and you need to put it out, to get rid of it somehow. Put it out into the ocean, but put it out in a way that doesn't create any environmental problems.
ZIERLER: Have you contributed to mitigating California's water crisis?
LIST: I've done a lot of work for agencies. For example, like Metropolitan Water District's Diamond Valley Reservoir. I did a lot of design work analysis of both inputs and outputs for Diamond Valley Reservoir and Metropolitan Water District. Metropolitan Water District has got the only new reservoir that's been constructed in California for a long time. California really doesn't have a water problem. It has a water storage problem. The problem is that water arrives in five- to seven-year cycles cause that's driven by El Niño. In the past reservoirs were designed to take you from summer through winter. The rainy season through the dry season. But the problem with California is that the dry seasons are five to seven years long. So you need to have reservoirs that are very much larger or more of them than you would normally have. And there is this tremendous amount of water that is just running out into the ocean because there's nowhere to put it. Everybody mentions building another reservoir is essential, but there are only two agencies who've succeeded in doing that. One is Contra Costa Water District and the other is Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles. And Metropolitan built Diamond Valley and Contra Costa built Los Vaqueros. The interesting thing is that the impetus to build Los Vaqueros came from one of my Ph.D. students, Gregory Gartrell.
ZIERLER: The news stories are telling us that Lake Mead is running dry. What do you think is the cause of that?
LIST: It's had long-term overdrawing on the reservoir. It's the second Ph.D. student, Art Jensen, who did some Monte Carlo simulations of the operations of Lake Mead and won a prize for that Ph.D. thesis. What he did was to look at how you would operate the reservoirs under the uncertainty of rainfall. And I don't know that anybody ever actually applied [laughs] the work that he had done, but he did a very nice thesis on that. But the problem is it's been over-allocated for so long. Taken too much water out. They're big reservoirs and so they should carry it through those dry cycles, but if you're taking too much out, then it doesn't help much.
ZIERLER: Do you see climate change as altering these historic five- to seven-year El Niño patterns?
LIST: I don't know. I don't know enough about climate change to know, and I don't know how I feel about it—I read Steve Koonin's articles in The Wall Street Journal recently. And he and I are on the same wavelength there, that we don't really know. The only thing that's certain about it is the uncertainty. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Steve Koonin, he takes some unorthodox approaches to climate change, at least insofar as academic science is concerned.
LIST: Well, that's why I say he's following Linus Pauling's example. You question everything that's put in front of you and you think about it independently. And as Pauling said, it took a whole generation of physicists to die before quantum mechanics was accepted. Because people who questioned it at the time were reviled. [laugh] Even Einstein said, "God doesn't roll dice."
ZIERLER: Do you see desalination as a viable solution for California's water crisis?
LIST: It can contribute. I've worked on a number of desalination plants. I've worked on one for Chevron in Barrow Island in Australia. I looked at where to put the salt that you take out. The salt, it just comes out of the ocean, so you've gotta figure out a way of putting it back in the ocean without poisoning anybody or any other life form. And that's what I did for Chevron in Barrow Island and also did it down at Carlsbad. You know, we are doing it up up in Monterey right now. The best thing to do is if you've got a sewage treatment plant there that is putting out wastewater. If you're not going to use the wastewater to extract freshwater from, then you put the brine in and mix the brine into that and then put it back into the ocean as saltwater again.
ZIERLER: What have been some of the major technological advances that have been relevant for your research?
LIST: Lasers. Laser induced fluorescence made an enormous advantage in understanding what's going on. Helps you to visualize what was going on when we couldn't in the way we were doing it before. My papers in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, if you look at them, you'll see these beautiful amazing pictures. Which reminds me of another difficulty I had as an academic, was that some of my fellow colleagues were absolutely ruthless about stealing ideas. I came up with this idea of using laser induced fluorescence to visualize the turbulence in the water and made a presentation at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. And two months later—and one of the people who were at the presentation came up to me asking for all the details about the idea. And two months later he's got an article in Science with some pictures that looked exactly like what I had told him about. I mean, just completely ruthless about it. I had developed an idea using the same lasers with a dye which is pH dependent, so it changed color and changed the amount of fluorescence so you could pick up how gases moved through an air water interface. So, I made a presentation about that on the East Coast. Next thing, I'm reading an article in a journal by these two guys who were at the presentation. And no acknowledgement, nothing. I mean, it's really disgusting.
ZIERLER: Well, you can say at least that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
LIST: Yeah. Maybe so.
ZIERLER: John, tell me about the Handbook of Ground Water Development. What were the origins of that and who was your intended audience?
LIST: One of the most wonderful people I dealt with outside of Caltech, a guy called Roscoe Moss. And Roscoe Moss and his brother, George, had a company in Los Angeles they inherited from their father. Their father had the world's largest water well drilling company. He had drilling rigs in Libya and Iran and Viet Nam and Columbia or Peru and the United States. Everywhere around the world. What happened is Rocky and George were growing up in this extremely wealthy family. And then what happened is that Gaddafi took over their rigs in Libya and the Shah or the Taliban or whatever they were—Ayatollah—took over their rigs in Iran. Shining Path guerillas took over their rigs in South America and the Viet Cong took over their rigs in Vietnam and suddenly they woke up and realized, "Oh, God. We'd better get our act together." And so they came up with this idea making well screens instead of just drilling wells, so they have a manufacturing facility in east Los Angeles. They came up to Caltech and asked me if I could help them write a book, which would be a handbook so that everybody would know about ground water development. Myself and Dennis Williams out of Pomona worked with Rocky and George who were writing this book. And it got an award for the best published technical book of the year. And it's become sort of a classic in the field. I enjoyed working with Rocky. He was just the most consummate gentleman. I learned so much from him. He was just wonderful. Poor fellow. He died of Parkinson's disease just a few years ago. I tried to get him and George, with all the money that they had, to send some of it in Caltech's direction, but he had a daughter I think, who had other ideas about the money. [laugh]
ZIERLER: And who was the audience for the handbook? Was it more a technical group or academic?
LIST: A technical group. Anybody who wants to develop a water supply using wells – that's who the audience was. A lot of academics also read it. It's used as a basis for teaching classes around the world.
ZIERLER: John, were you involved at all in the Deepwater Horizon spill or mitigation?
LIST: No. Not directly. Only afterwards. When I was at Exxon doing some work for ExxonMobil, of course, it came up. I was involved in certain aspects of that. The person who did most of that was Eric Adams from MIT.
ZIERLER: What did you understand as the key cause of the crisis and how concerned are you that this could happen again?
LIST: The Deepwater Horizon, I don't know exactly what went on. But my thought about it was if you go back to World War II U-boats, they sunk an awful number of ships around the world. In fact, I sailed with one of my friends out from Charleston up to Beaufort, North Carolina. We're sailing along, we look at the charts, and I keep seeing all these wrecks on the chart at the bottom of the ocean. So, I was sitting in a Washington, D.C. airport and chatting with the guy alongside me, and it turns out he was the director of the museum at Newport News in Virginia. The Maritime Museum. I was saying, "All these wrecks out there, is it because we didn't have satellites telling people where the hurricanes were?" He said, "No, no, no! They were all U-boat wrecks. People don't realize that so many ships were sunk off the East Coast by the U-boats." And all that shipping that sunk put oil out and nobody cares about it anymore. And nobody cared about it then. They had much more serious things to think about. So my whole vision of what happens with these things like Deepwater Horizon is put in the context of the Valdez up in Alaska and the California coast where—I don't know if you've ever been at the beach up in Santa Barbara?
LIST: You cannot walk along the beach there without getting oil on your feet because of Coal Oil Point, and places like that. I think a lot of it is sort of overreaction. Somebody (Dixie Lee Ray) said, nothing tears at the heart strings like the sight of an oil-soaked duck. That's not to sort of diminish the fact that it's a serious issue. But it's not—it doesn't go on forever. I mean, it's terrible at the time, and you know, goes away after a while. And so far as the Deepwater Horizon one is concerned, that was really a very serious one and I don't know what could be done about it, the fact that people make mistakes. Which is another thing which I did with Flow Science. I spent a lot of time getting hired to unravel what went wrong. Forensic engineering. And invariably found that most of the time it was people making mistakes, probably half of the time, and it was very difficult to determine mistakes had been made because people who knew that they'd made a mistake and screwed up wouldn't want to come clean. And the other thing I discovered in the course of maybe doing 50 or so of these things is that it's never just one single cause. It's always a cascade of events any one of which is would have prevented the disaster.
ZIERLER: John, in your forensic work, when is it about just understanding what happened and when is it about preventing the problem from happening again?
LIST: Preventing it from happening again in my mind is the primary driving thing. With a lot of other people, a lot of lawyers, it's a matter of—the impetus is to find somebody who can pay for it—
ZIERLER: Yes. [laugh]
LIST: —pay up for it. So, there's a bit of a dichotomy there between what drives it.
ZIERLER: Now just to bring our conversation up to the present, are you able to continue your consulting work from New Zealand?
LIST: Oh, yeah. I've been doing that for—because I was doing it from South Carolina. And how Flow Science works at the moment is that people are spread all over the country. And this COVID thing has not interrupted the operation at all. It just means that you don't actually get to go and visit clients. I had worked as a consultant for the City of San Francisco for probably 15 years, and suddenly, a guy said to me one day, "Can't you ever get on a plane and come up here? We'd like to know who this is that's on the phone, on the other end." So, I went up there and we had a little tour around.
ZIERLER: So, essentially your business was quite ready for the pandemic because you were in remote mode already?
LIST: Oh, yeah. It's been operating like that for a long time. And it's easy to do with the internet and laptop computers and cell phones and these things.
ZIERLER: When did you move to South Carolina?
LIST: 2000, I believe.
ZIERLER: And the idea there was that because the business was primarily remote you could live anywhere you wanted?
LIST: What drove it was my daughter moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and said, "Mom, Dad, why don't you move to South Carolina and get a beach house so we can come visit you?" [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] How generous!
LIST: [laugh] So, we went there on two or three occasions and looked around and said, "You know, this is really pretty nice." And we ended up buying a waterfront house. That was a wonderful time in our lives because these people—we bought our house thinking we were going to renovate it and got into it and found out that it was just riddled with black mold. So, we tore it down and hired this Southern architect to build a house that was more in tune with the traditional architecture of that Charleston area. The neighbors all came out and cheered. And in fact, when we moved in, the week we moved in, the whole street invited us to a welcoming party. And we met a lot of nice people there. It was just really wonderful. Whereas when we lived in Altadena all we seemed to do was fight with the neighbors. [laugh] It was interesting. We had a wonderful time there.
ZIERLER: Have you had any difficulties with hurricanes in South Carolina?
LIST: When we built this house we said to the architect, "We want a hurricane-proof house." The house was three stories. It was built with ¾ inch plywood shear walls and floors throughout the whole thing. The whole thing was like a box girder. But these plywood planks were glued and screwed to the studs and the floor joists. And so the whole thing was just rigid—the neighbors all came by and said, "We want to reserve room for the next hurricane." [laugh]
LIST: We had one hurricane and the house just didn't even creak.
ZIERLER: John, now that we've worked up to the present, for the last part of our talk I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. To go back to an earlier part of our conversation, in the duality of basic science and applied science, first on the basic side, what have been some of your most satisfying moments in your research career just for understanding how something works, without necessary regard for applying it to a particular problem?
LIST: I don't know. I think the most satisfying thing is to know that Newton was right. [laughs] His laws are pretty much immutable on a scale of things that I do. I never cease to being amazed. It's just the basis of all of the work that I do, from the theory side of it. I never got into quantum mechanics or anything like that. I think that's the most satisfying thing. I think I know Newton's laws as well as anybody, and how to apply them.
ZIERLER: And in terms of applications, in terms of helping society, making the world more livable, what's been most satisfying to you?
LIST: The water supply thing that I've done for MWD, for Southern Nevada Water Authority, for King County in Washington, for the city and county of Honolulu and Maui and Phoenix and Tucson and San Diego. All of those cities have used stuff that I've done to make their water supply work. Yeah. So, I feel very satisfied with that.
ZIERLER: Given the tremendous success you've had as a graduate advisor in light of what some of your most successful Ph.D. students have done, what's been your secret? How have you been able to achieve this level of success with your students?
LIST: I think it basically came down to, I said, "I'm your Ph.D. advisor. But I'm not going to tell you what to do. What I want you to do is come in here and ask me my opinion about the things that you want to do. If you ever come in here and ask me, ‘How should I do this or how should I do that?' I'm going to just tell you to get the hell out of here until you come back and tell me what your idea is about what you want to do and then we can discuss that." And I think that worked. That works. It just encourages people—I don't know if it encourages them, but I was grateful enough to have students that were compatible with that idea. Again, it's the challenge. My whole thesis at Caltech was you've got very smart… you've got very bright kids here. They're looking for challenges. And that's what I used to do in this applied math class. What I'd do is I'd give challenge problems. And there was always a bunch of kids who would complain about it. But then there were others who would come—I still remember one challenge problem I gave which I had the problem, but I had never worked it out myself. Which was kind of unusual because usually I would work it out myself. So, it came down to when I had to talk about the problem, I still hadn't figured out how to do it, so I had my back to the wall a bit. I sat down and I tried to work it out. It took me about three pages of computation to actually get the solution to this. I was very satisfied with this. And this kid came in and did it in about four lines. [laugh] And I thought, "That's why I'm doing this."
LIST: You have these kids who were just so bright. So bright and so wonderfully inspired. Inspiring. And I felt that was what I loved about Caltech.
ZIERLER: John, you've made no secret what aspects of academic life you don't miss. Are there any that you do miss?
LIST: Yeah. Being at Caltech, having the world's brains come by and tell you about what they're doing. But now I get that from reading The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times every day. And The London Times. It keeps you abreast of what's going on one way or another. It's tilted a bit, but—
ZIERLER: Do you see your consulting work as relying on a different skillset than your life in academic science?
LIST: Not really. It was just a shift in interest. In the academic world it was sort of nurturing young minds, and that was all the focus of the academic work that I did. Whereas the change in career was to sort of deal with people's problems rather than nurturing young minds.
ZIERLER: Of all of the clients you've had—1,800—what are some of the big commonalities, the big themes, the big issues that you see, that sort of would tell us something more broadly about even the human condition?
LIST: Probably the most important one, the most serious one, is you've got a boss of an organization, and he doesn't know what the hell to do, and he's looking around for somebody to help him resolve the problem. Get it off his desk. Either that or somebody to transfer the risk to. So, if you have to make a decision, you hire somebody else to advise you about it. And then if it goes south, you can always point the finger — "Well, it was his idea." And so, I saw consulting as basically risk acceptance in a lot of cases and I was prepared to do that. Had enough confidence in myself. Just one of the things that I was very adamant about is that everything has to be reviewed. And so in the whole time of all of those projects and the whole existence of Flow Science, we haven't had a claim against us for errors and omissions, which is pretty rare in the engineering consulting world. When we started out, we bought an errors and omissions policy and it would be like $50,000. And I think now after 38 years of it, and no claims, I think it's down to $5,000 a year. It's just being careful. If you're going to accept risk like that then you have to be really careful. You can't do it in a cavalier way.
ZIERLER: John, of course, a consultant is brought in to find and solve problems. What are some of the problems that you've been brought in on that are really not solvable?
LIST: There's always a solution. There's always a solution. But it's the level of do you want one significant figure or three significant figures? I had a professor in New Zealand who said, "Look. If you've got a problem and you can't get one significant figure out of it on a sheet of paper, you're really not understanding what's going on. As long as you understand what's going on you can get one significant figure. Maybe one and a half significant figures without doing the whole other things. But the key is to get that understanding of what factors are driving the problem. And once you understand the factors that are driving the problem, there's nothing that's insolvable in the end."
ZIERLER: Finally, John, for my last question, of all that you've accomplished in teaching, in research, in consulting, what's left there for you to do that you haven't done yet?
LIST: I review more for others, provide quality assurance. I have so much experience that I can look at things and eyeball them and see whether it's out of kilter or off the page or whatever. That's what I told my students. The one thing about being an engineer or scientist is as you get older you get better because you've seen almost everything. If you're a surgeon, as you get older, your fingers don't work anymore, so you have to quit being a surgeon. But being a scientist or engineer, you don't. I had some wonderful people at Caltech who brought inspirations in that respect. Gerry Wasserburg over in planetary science, he was like that. He'd eyeball things and see whether it added up or not. As I said to somebody, Rupert Murdoch who owns The Wall Street Journal and The London Times started out as a reporter working on a paper in Adelaide, Australia. He has gone into an enormous number of business deals around the world. When he takes on another huge one there's always a cadre of people saying, "Well, Rupert, you've bought the farm this time." [laugh] "You've lost your touch." And I remember him saying, "MBAs? Who needs MBAs?" Because he had this intuitive feel when faced with a new problem in publishing or communications or whatever. He had this intuitive feel about what was right. I feel like I have the same thing with respect to technical stuff involving things that I've been educated with. I have an intuitive feel for it. I see things that other people don't see. That's the value that I continue to have to the company that I consult with. I can walk in there and look it up and down, eyeball it, and figure out where the leverage points are.
ZIERLER: This sounds like there's no interest in retiring anytime soon. You're having too much fun enjoying all of the wisdom and insight you've gained over the years.
LIST: Yeah. It's become a sort of—my wife is sitting over here—and it has become a bit of an item of contention. She always keeps saying, "When are you gonna quit?"
ZIERLER: But then what is she going to do with you all day if you do? [laugh]
LIST: Yeah. That's the point. Yeah.
ZIERLER: Well, John, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'd like to thank you so much for doing it.
LIST: Oh, sure.