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Last Word: A Hiring Incident in the Desert

March/April 2010


Gene WoolseyBy Gene Woolsey

Some years ago there was a nameless National Laboratory somewhere in this great land of ours. The laboratory’s main reason for existence was to improve the design of various kinds of thermonuclear devices, build them and store them. But like all government laboratories, its reason for existence slid glacially and asymptotically toward “pure” research. The way to get promoted or raised was to publish more papers in the “respectable” journals in the field. The most far-out department was the mathematics group. In theory their job was to provide whatever applied mathematics and optimization that any other part of the plant might need. The truth, however, was that its members happily had been doing, were doing and proposed to continue to do, “pure” research in whatever area of pure mathematics ran their motor.

Now the mathematics department was an aggressive recruiter and scouted out mainly those university math departments that satisfied its requirement of outstanding ability in pure mathematics. The result was, with a few exceptions, the mathematics department was made up of rather weird haystack-haired people who adored pure mathematics, chess and Kriegspiel. Kriegspiel took place every day at noon and is, in essence, playing chess where you and your opponent have a board and pieces but cannot see each other’s board. Only the close to reality. But I digress.

Many people who worked at this laboratory were blissfully unaware that it was operated by a phone company under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission. What that meant in practice was as follows: If you applied for a mathematics position in parts of the phone company and that organization didn’t find you desirable, they would automatically forward your application, as a courtesy, to the math department at the National Laboratory where it would land on the math department head’s desk. In time a very bright, young Ph.D. from a prestigious nameless western school we shall call Berkeford, applied to a mathematics division of the phone company. He was brought out but, alas, didn’t make the cut. A week or so later he received a letter offering him an interview in the math department at the National Laboratory.

This young man was a Class A “Ban the Bomber” San Francisco pot-using hippie and wrote a letter to the department head stating how outraged he was to be contacted by a “bomb factory.” The letter continued in an explosive way that he would see us all in Hades before even considering working for such an evil organization that designed thermonuclear devices with which to kill people. He also sent a copy of this letter to the vice president of human resources at the phone company, demanding that the process of forwarding bulletin board and challenged any member of his department to write a reply; the author of the best response would receive a bottle of Château Lafitte-Rothschild. It wasn’t long before some really witty letters were put up, including one that everyone agreed was the winner. For political reasons, it couldn’t be sent as it was not classified, but it was too truthful. The letter follows:

Dear Dr. Hippie,

As I am sure you know, your letter telling us all to go to hell provoked some interesting reactions here. There was a contest for the best reply, which follows.

Firstly, you must realize that at one time this facility was really pretty much a bomb factory, no question. However, as the years passed, its connection to anything real and anything having to do with the design, improvement and storage of thermonuclear devices has become a minuscule part of our expenditure. Our math department is really an ivory tower full of Ph.D.s. Our job is to push back the frontiers of pure mathematics while being paid a salary to research on what we damned please while being compensated with salaries that can only be described as “amazing, munificent or wonderful.”

You stated in your letter that you didn’t want to join us because this would make you a contributor to the proliferation of thermonuclear devices. And by accepting a salary you said that you would be part of the people aiding and abetting government expenditure on thermonuclear war.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

In my many years in the mathematics division I can honestly say that not one study done by this department has ever been of any use to anyone on the real side of the house. We have been outrageously paid to do what we pleased. And we pleased to do pure mathematics.

To get straight to the point, if you join us, not only are you NOT accepting tainted money, you are diverting government money that was going to bomb design and improvement to support your salary so you may continue to campaign for peace. And remember, every dollar you absorb is a dollar that didn’t go into the design and improvement of thermonuclear devices. If you join us and work very hard you can divert more money from atomic weapon studies than any other way.

So you see, the best way you can siphon away bomb-directed money and support peace is to join us!

Yours for peace,
(Name withheld)

Gene Woolsey ( is professor emeritus at the Colorado School of Mines, a past president of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS) and a former editor of several journals including The Production & Inventory Management Journal, Interfaces, The Journal of Operations Management and The Transactions of The Institute of Industrial Engineers.


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