It is with great sorrow that I must report to SETI League members the recent passing of a legend. Dr. Bernard M. Oliver, SETI League advisor and life member, the father of Project Cyclops and former head of NASA SETI, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving evening, 1996. He was an energetic 79, actively pursuing SETI interests up to the end. Although I only worked with Barney personally on perhaps half a dozen occasions, I considered him one of my three most important mentors, and am highly honored just to have known him. It was Barney who first introduced me to SETI, almost 23 years ago. I shall always be grateful.
The Barney Oliver anecdotes are legion. An EE Ph.D. degree from Caltech in hand, he had established himself as one of Bell Labs' most creative microwave receiver designers before I was even born. You may have heard how he dropped out of the sky in a single-engine Mooney to visit Frank Drake at Green Bank WV in 1960, as Frank was preparing to launch Project Ozma, the very first SETI effort. Barney was one of the first to use the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's private airstrip. When I landed my Beechcraft at NRAO Green Bank some 35 years later, I was acutely aware of flying in Barney's shadow. Perhaps you recall the story of how, as Engineering VP at Hewlett-Packard, Barney spearheaded the development of the scientific pocket calculator. Every few days, it's said, he rushed into Bill Hewlett's office with a slightly smaller package. When the prototype finally fit in Hewlett's shirt pocket, the HP-35 was born.
Let me contribute to the Barney Oliver legend a personal remembrance. In mid-1977, Barney had just given one of his wonderful missionary presentations on Cyclops, at Lockheed/Sunnyvale. That was the year I left Lockheed and went into full-time college teaching, but Nick Marshall (now a most active SETI League member) invited me to attend the presentation. I expected it to be the same talk I had heard Barney give at MIT some four years earlier, but was pleasantly surprised that he had updated his presentation to reflect the very newest technology: monolithic microprocessors. After the talk, Barney, Nick, my then-wife Suk, and I went out for dessert at Charley Brown's Steak House on Mathilda Avenue.
I've always felt you can tell a great deal about a person by how he or she chooses to unwind. Nick, though Hungarian, had been educated in Paris, and ordered something sweet and gooey from the French pastry cart. Suk, who was pregnant with our son Andrew, ordered ice-cream, and joked about pickles on the side. My ethnic roots drove me to order New York style cheesecake. And then Barney blew us all away by ordering a double Scotch on the rocks. Suddenly, I felt I understood something of the source of his genius. I told him so; Barney tried to deadpan, then grinned that warm engaging smile of his, and sipped his Scotch.
Much of what we in SETI do in the months and years ahead will be a tribute to Barney. All of it will be impacted by his influence, and our sense of loss. The Winter 1996 issue of SearchLites is dedicated to him. We hope to hold a Cyclops 25th anniversary conference in his memory. And the SETI League and SETI Institute are now collaborating to reprint the Project Cyclops report, which will be dedicated to Barney Oliver, father of the greatest SETI receiver never built.
None of this is an adequate tribute to a man who taught us all how to dream. It will be difficult ever dreaming at so grand a scale without him.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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