‘His timeless, internationally revered lecture on the impacts of world population growth will live beyond his passing, a distinction few professors can claim’
Albert A. Bartlett, the iconic physics professor, helped preserve the city he called home, and now the city has moved to preserve his longtime home.
In November, the Boulder City Council designated the longtime home of the University of Colorado Boulder professor as an historic landmark. The city’s action reflects the impact Bartlett had on both the university and Boulder.
A dedicated scholar and civic pillar, Bartlett worked on the Manhattan Project, taught generations of scientists and engineers, helped to shape the look of today’s campus, spearheaded Boulder’s “Blue Line” initiative and launched a long crusade to educate citizens about the perils of exponential population growth.
“Al Bartlett was unparalleled in the breadth of his impact on CU physics, the university and the city of Boulder,” observed Paul Beale, professor of physics.
“Albert Bartlett’s influence is unmistakable in the foothills surrounding Boulder. With few exceptions, one sees trees, grasses and rock,” the Daily Camera wrote in 2006 as it bestowed a lifetime-achievement award on him.
This fall, the council designated the Bartlett family home at 2935 19th St. as historic landmark. Built in 1917 by Boulder pioneer Clinton Tyler, it was subsequently home to Daily Camera Publisher Lucius “Lu” Paddock.
Unlike the plagues of the dark ages, or contemporary diseases which we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable with means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.”
—The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., quoted by Professor Albert A. Bartlett at the conclusion of “Arithmetic, Population and Energy."
Albert and Eleanor Bartlett bought the two-story home in 1956 and lived there for four decades. It remains in the family’s trust.
The council concurred with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, which recommended that the home be designated as historic because of its notable owners.
Additionally, the board stated, the home is notable because it is designed in an eclectic variant of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, which reflects the architectural “vocabulary” of CU Boulder.
Bartlett was born in Shanghai, China, in 1923, to missionary parents but was reared in the United States. His first job after graduating from an Ohio high school was as an assistant cook on a Great Lakes iron-ore freighter. After one winter of that, “one of the hands took him aside and suggested that he consider other career options,” Beale recalls.
Taking that advice, Bartlett attended Colgate University in New York, from which he graduated summa cum laude with a BS in physics in 1944. Bartlett's faculty mentor at Colgate pointed the young physicist to the now-famous P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, N.M. He landed the job, which turned out to be with the Los Alamos Manhattan Project office. Bartlett was one of the youngest scientists on the project, Beale said.
To get to Sante Fe, Bartlett ferried trucks from a factory to a dealer in Oklahoma City, then hopped a freight train and hitchhiked. While working with the Manhattan Project, Bartlett did mass spectrometry of plutonium, conducting the first measurements of the isotopic constitution of plutonium coming from the U.S. reactors in Hanford, Wash.
These measurements were critical in ensuring that the nuclear-bomb calculations were correct, Bartlett later noted.
Bartlett, a skilled photographer, developed and printed the photos of the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity atomic bomb test in July 1945. After the end of World War II, Bartlett used high-speed photography to help record the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll.
After the Manhattan Project, Bartlett attended graduate school at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate. Bartlett joined the CU Boulder faculty in 1950.
At CU Boulder, Bartlett devoted himself to teaching and preserving the city and campus he loved. “Professor Bartlett was a community organizer before it became fashionable,” Beale observed.
Bartlett was the co-author of Boulder’s 1959 Blue Line initiative, which protected the mountain backdrop from real-estate development. He was also a founding member of PLAN-Boulder County, which is best known for launching the city’s open-space program.
Bartlett buttressed his commitment to the environment with his understanding of mathematics. On Sept. 19, 1969, Bartlett delivered a talk that was later titled “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101.” He began by asserting that humanity’s greatest shortcoming “is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
Bartlett gave that talk 1,742 times before he passed away in 2013 at age 90. The talk, which is available on YouTube, has been viewed more than 5.2 million times.
The world population has grown by less than 2 percent annually since Bartlett first gave his talk, but, as Bartlett noted, such an ostensibly low growth rate can be misperceived. The Earth’s population has doubled from 1969 to now: soaring from 3.7 billion people to 7.4 billion.
On campus, Bartlett routinely taught the large, calculus-based physics sequence for scientists and engineers. “Alumni that I meet very regularly brag about having learned physics from Al, whom they called A-squared, since his two initials are AA,” Beale recalled.
Beale met Bartlett in 1984, when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor. “By the time I met him, Al was already a legendary teacher,” Beale notes.
Bartlett became Beale’s personal mentor when Beale himself began teaching large, introductory classes. “I remember marveling at his blackboards after his classes when we rotated the stages in the Duane lecture halls that Al designed,” Beale said.
In 2013, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano memorialized Bartlett as a “man of many legacies.”
DiStefano added: “His commitment to students was evidenced by the fact that he continued to teach for years after his retirement. His timeless, internationally revered lecture on the impacts of world population growth will live beyond his passing, a distinction few professors can claim. And we can all be thankful for his vision and foresight in making the Boulder community what it is today.”
For more about Albert A. Bartlett, click here.