Ronald Forrest Fox, (Ron Fox), was born in Berkeley, California on October 1, 1943. He is the son of Sidney W. Fox of Los Angeles and Raia Joffe Fox of Ufa Russia. He has two brothers, Larry the older and Tom the younger. When together in larger groups he and Tom like to amuse others with: “Tom is my younger brother.” “Ron is my younger brother.” Both are correct.
A simple calculation will show that Ron was conceived around midnight of New Years Eve, 1942-1943. This may be the explanation of his generally good nature and fondness for a good time. It was also wartime and the tide of the war hadn’t yet shifted. Like the Chinese, Ron often adds his prenatal time when calculating his age. Thus he is 64 but won’t have his 64th birthday for another two months or so.
His preschool, and elementary school years were spent in Ames Iowa, then the home of Iowa State College. This was a great place to be a kid with lots of farm land, woods and the Skunk River. The high school years were spent in Tallahassee, Florida, the home of Florida State University. Ron graduated from high school in the spring of 1960 at the age of 16, having skipped grade 11. He graduated around 5th out of 610 students, was inducted into the Honor Society and won the Mathematics prize (he had a perfect score in Math on the SAT’s). Ron played clarinet in the marching band and was a member of the debate team. He was also an accomplished water skier, able to ski on a single canoe paddle. Scuba diving and snorkeling were two of his loves as well as exploration. With his girlfriend’s older brother, Dick Heydenberg, he discovered old remains of a Spanish Fort where the Wakulla River meets the St. Marks River, and several sinkholes in the same general area. A fond memory is the capture of an 8 foot long Indigo snake in his back yard on Waverly Road, then outside of Tallahassee.
Still 16, he entered Reed College in Portland, Oregon. These were some of the best years of his life (see Fowl Tales). Ron double majored in Math and Physics, allowed for the first time at Reed when he and Gene Hirschkoff asked to do so. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (declined) and an at large National Science Foundation Fellowship (he had perfect scores on the GRE analytical and quantitative sections). At one time he was the Reed ping pong champion and also the arm wrestling champion (all that water skiing made for very strong arms). He also learned squash while there and was instructed by Jack Scrivens who was national handball champion. He began a long friendship with Joel Keizer (deceased) that lasted nearly 40 years during which they shared many scientific ideas.
In 1964, with the NSF fellowship in his pocket he entered Caltech as a graduate student in Physics. Soon he was hospitalized with a respiratory ailment caused by the smog. Life in Pasadena was not good and the “teaching” at Caltech in physics was abysmal, especially after Reed. Except for a excellent course in functional analysis in the Math department, the courses were poorly given and largely redundant after the Reed experience. Ron had to get out of there and discovered The Rockefeller University where a new program in mathematical physics had just been started, headed by George Uhlenbeck and Mark Kac (He learned of this from Reed upper classwoman by a year, Barbara Alexander who went to The Rockefeller after graduating from Reed. Barbara is now known better as Barbara Ehrenreich.). In the early months of 1965 Ron wrote to Detlev Bronk, president of The Rockefeller, and asked if he could come study with Kac and Uhlenbeck. Bronk invited Ron to an interview. After getting feedback from Kac and Uhlenbeck about his visit earlier in the day Bronk accepted Ron on the spot. Bronk said that anyone who could recognize the attractiveness of Uhlenbeck and Kac deserved to study with them. Ron moved to New York in the early summer of 1965.
New York is a great place to live as a subsidized student, especially at 63rd and York Avenue. Ron continued to play squash, sometimes with particle physicist Bram Pais. Pais was quite a bit older but would really relish winning a good point. Ron developed several long term friendships there, most notably with Alan Kapuler and with John Hildebrand. Read about Ron’s thesis work in the Science and Integrity section under Uhlenbeck’s problem.
At that time, students in residence were fed meals in the Rockefeller dining facilities. Dinner was served with table cloths and candle light. Ron managed to get into a fracas with the maitre de, who happened to be black. The woman in charge of dining and residences turned the fracas into a racial confrontation and Ron was nearly expelled just before graduation. A vice president (a quite famous scientist) called Ron to his office and basically expelled him before asking for his account. Ron screamed at him that this was unjust and that the charges were trumped up and he demanded a hearing. William Agosta, Hildebrand, Kac and Uhlenbeck came to Ron’s defense. Ron managed to graduate. In a year or so the woman in question was fired for long term embezzlement and the Rockefeller bartender always gave Ron the credit (after accusing Ron scrutiny centered on her). Every time Ron visited after graduating he was treated to free beers by the bartender, who had long disliked the woman in question. It also did not help that Ron had participated with Alan Kapuler in having a light show in Caspary Auditorium one night while everyone attending was stoned. When the administration learned of this, there were serious repercussions. Many of the drugs involved were still legal then.
At The Rockefeller, the top two graduate students in mid training were inducted into the Society of Sigma Xi at Rockefeller as associate members. John Hildebrand and Ron received this honor. It was the custom at that time for entering students to do a trial project. Ron’s was communicated to the The Journal of Combinatorial Theory by Gian-Carlo Rota and published there in 1967. That was pretty unusual for these projects. Upon graduation Ron was made a full member of the Society, a rare but distinct honor.
It was now 1969 and the job market in physics hit an post-war (WWII) low. Positions of any kind were rare. UC Berkeley had special post-doctoral fellowships funded by the Miller Institute. Each year there might be one in physics and another in math and another in biochemistry etc. The selection base was international. Ron got the one in physics based on his thesis work. Remarkably George Uhlenbeck’s son, Olke, got one in molecular biology and his then wife, Karen Uhlenbeck, got one in mathematics. Needless to say George was rather proud. Two other Fellows who became friends are Bill Saslaw in astronomy and Rick Dahlquist in biochemistry. The years at Berkeley were strange. One year Ron was bearded and certain persons would talk to him. The other year he was shaved and a disjoint group would talk to him. This was the aftermath of the late 60’s student protests that polarized the US in general and UC Berkeley in particular.
The earlier 60’s were a golden age of exploration of the mind and free love. It all came tumbling down around 1968. Ron attended several Berkeley parties where there were served fruit and nuts and chips with dips and weed with papers ready to roll. Ron had managed to go all through Reed and most of the 60’s, until 1968, without ever using drugs. He was high on life (at Reed parties other students assumed he was high on weed even though he wasn’t), and remains that way to this day. In 1968 Al Kapuler introduced him to weed and the remaining year at Rockefeller was quite an experience that also continued at Berkeley. One classmate, who will be called Seth, knew where there was an old bottle of synthetic mescaline on a high shelf that had been synthesized by an earlier outstanding organic chemist as part of his research. Seth fetched it but found that earlier students had already emptied it. He did scrape the insides of the bottle and we split the residue, about 200 mg. That was a revelation! Later, a fine, student chemist, who will be called David, synthesized DMT. That was a cosmic experience!! Ron had read in research by Hofmann and Schultes that DMT was inactive. It turned out that the natives in South America whom they studied took it orally and it did not cross the blood-brain barrier that way. Ron thought that by vaporizing it, it would get directly into the brain through the nasal tissues. This proved true and he had one cosmic experience in May of 1968 that still remains the most astounding single experience of his life.
At the end of the Miller fellowship in 1971, there was a party for the departing Fellows. Ron was asked where he was going. He said to Georgia Tech. The immediate uncontrolled response of the inquirer was; “I’m so sorry!” This person could not accept anything other than a top 10 institution as a sign of success. In those days, a job at Georgia Tech as the outcome was a sign of failure, at least to some. Ron was happy to have any job at all in physics at that time. As an example of the shortage, Ron’s junior colleague, Seth Putterman (not the Seth above), also a student of Uhlenbeck’s, was also a winner of a Miller Fellowship in 1971. He declined it !!! because he had a faculty offer from UCLA and did not want to miss the chance at a faculty job in physics. During the last 40 years Georgia Tech has developed into a first class engineering school and turned out to be an excellent home for Ron’s academic career (see Ron's Academic Website for more about the last 40 years in academe.)
Racquetball became his passion sports-wise. Tech had good courts made in 1975. Tech also had PE teachers in those days and one of these was David Houser. He taught racquetball. Ron and David became regular opponents. Through David, Ron met Gerald Smith and Roger Wehrle. Gerald was the gym’s physical plant foreman and reserved courts everyday for us, as well as supplying fresh balls. Roger was several times national amateur racquetball champion in his age group. He was an astoundingly good player. Ron finally got to play doubles with this group and developed into a pretty good player (in 1992 he was nationally ranked 9th in class C ). Ron once playing Roger singles, beating him 15-13 in the first game. Roger usually played to make it interesting for himself, not to demolish his opponent. When he saw Ron take too much pleasure in the victory he managed to win the match 13-15, 11-0, 11-0. See the academic webpage to look at Ron’s recent racquetball challenge to the undergraduates. He had 45 matches and won 43 (one loss was avenged 5 times), all at age 63.
Piano doodling is also a relaxing exercise for Ron. He sometimes makes CD recordings, that while amateurish are OK in the background. His favorite music is jazz and old standards. He plays from “fake books” on an electronic Roland MP-500 piano. Ron learned about chords from his father who had been a musician in college. In fact Sid and Paul Smith wrote musicals while students at UCLA. Sid became a biochemist and Paul became Walt Disney’s music director for around 40 years.
In retirement Ron is focused on the question of the origin and evolution of the genetic code and the associated protein biosynthesis machinery. To Ron this is the mysterium tremedum.