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A tale of meteorites, re-entry vehicles, and a missing doctoral thesis

Bob Weiss earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from NYU’s Guggenheim School of Aeronautics in 1958 and his doctoral degree in 1963. Subsequent decades found him increasingly busy with a growing family, work at the Avco-Everett Research Lab, an early developer of survivable re-entry vehicles, and, eventually, leadership of his own company – Physical Sciences, Inc. (PSI), which was dedicated to supporting the country’s missile defense efforts. He was so busy that he completely forgot about an intriguing letter he had once received from two faculty researchers at an Ivy League university.

Weiss came across the missive while sorting through a box of artifacts in preparation for selling his New Hampshire home, and the memory flooded back. The researchers wrote that they had learned of his doctoral thesis, "Stability of the Stagnation Region to Three-Dimensional Disturbances," from the U.S. Air Force, as they had ostensibly been unable to find a copy in NYU’s library. Weiss recalled being puzzled when the letter nevertheless promised to reference his doctoral thesis. He had never pursued publishing the thesis more widely, given his rapidly mounting career demands, but was certain there should have been at least one bound and signed copy available in the NYU archives.

Weiss’s graduate research had been conducted under sponsorship of the U.S. Air Force, and the researchers had, they informed him, obtained a copy from the military archivists. Now curious after rereading the letter, Weiss, who had stepped down from running PSI in 2012, decided to investigate. He discovered, to his astonishment, that the researchers (both now deceased) had published, sans a key redacted section, a total reproduction of both his theoretical and experimental work, with no acknowledgement or attribution of the 1963 thesis. Adding insult to injury, there were, and still are, two copies of the thesis readily accessible at NYU, just as he had thought.

Bob, circa 1958

Despite his initial (and understandable) shock, Weiss has accepted the situation. No matter how outrageous that turn of events, he has enjoyed a stellar career – PSI was one of the first participants in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program and has become an industry leader in applied science and technology – and a long-ago act of academic intrigue was not worth too much emotional energy.

Still, Weiss decided that he would gain some measure of satisfaction by writing again about the appearance of recovered stony meteorites – the section of his thesis that the Air Force had probably deemed too sensitive to release more than five decades before. This class of meteorites exhibits longitudinal striations, with potential consequences for successful atmospheric re-entry. The new paper he has produced is available here, and while the field has moved forward in the 56 years since his doctoral studies, the subject should still be of interest to planetary scientists.

You’re never too young or too old to be a researcher, Weiss asserts, and he can point to his own trajectory as proof – from when he first decided to delve into aeronautics as a student at the Bronx High School of Science all the way up to the present day. In recent years, he has pivoted to cancer research, despite having last studied biology back in high school, and has co-authored several papers related to the diagnosis and advanced treatment of lymphomas and leukemias. “It’s a matter of always being ready to learn and to find the best mentors whatever your age,” he says.