Life-changing world journeys take physicist from apathy to activist


By Claire Discenza

One day, years ago, physicist Francis Slakey found himself about to fall off the side of a mountain, attached to the rock by only a single piece of unraveling fabric. “I wait for the inevitable,” Slakey, reads from “To The Last Breath,” his newly published memoir. He tells those gathered at a book-signing event at UCSD May 16 how his adventures changed the way he looks at his life, the world, and science.

Dr. Slakey, Upjon Lecturer on Physics and Public policy at Georgetown University, and associate director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, happens to have an Earth-size adventurous streak. For him, the streak led to what he dubs “The Global Surf and Turf,” a mission to climb the tallest peak on every continent and surf every ocean.

He said one of the seminal events of his life occurred while on one of these adventures. Slakey recounts the time he was returning from a climb in Indonesia, when military forces stopped him and his traveling companions. As it turned out, this wasn’t the first ambush in that location — two days earlier, another group of Americans were captured, but that group wasn’t so lucky. “Two Americans gunned down dead,” said Slakey.

The incident surrounding the fatal Indonesian ambush was a mystery. No one knew who was responsible, and no one was investigating the event. “Before I could surf one more wave, before I could climb one more mountain, I had to see what I could do about the ambush,” Slakey said.

He stepped in and wrote an op-ed column to the Washington Post imploring Congress to suspend all funding to the Indonesian military until an investigation could be conducted. His letter, along with a serious push from Patsy Spear, the lone survivor of the attack, convinced Congress. As a result, the perpetrators are now “rotting in an Indonesian prison,” Slakey reported.

He relates other life-altering stories, including one from the slopes of Everest. While climbing the tallest mountain in the world, Slakey said he stopped in to a monastery to receive a blessing from a supposedly-300-year-old reincarnate Lama. On a whim, he decided to ask the ancient spirit for the meaning of life.

“I ask my question, and the translator whispers it to the Lama, and then the Lama thinks, and he whispers back to the translator, and the translator says: ‘He’ll have to get back to you on that,’ ” Slakey recalled with a smile.

But the Lama does get back to Slakey, giving him an amulet to wear around his neck with the meaning of life carved in an extinct Tibetan language. Slakey said he spent years searching for a translation of the message, a search that culminated in another life-altering moment while surfing the Arctic Ocean.

“It suddenly hit me. I suddenly realized what the letters on the amulet meant, and no, I’m not going to tell you. You’re going to have to get the book to find out,” he teased the audience.

Until his journeys opened his eyes to the real world, Slakey said he was “the classic physics professor — my back to the students, chalk in my hand. That was all science was to me. That’s all life was to me … analytic … detached.”

Now through his work with the American Physical Society’s Panel of Public Affairs, he tackles what he considers to be some of the most pressing global challenges: climate change and energy policy.

“Every glacier I have ever punched my crampon into is melting. So this map of mountains and oceans is actually a map of global challenges. The question is what to do?”

Slakey said his answer is to change his teaching style. No longer does he emotionlessly write ancient formulas on a chalkboard. Now he leads students to take scientific principles and apply them toward solving real-world problems.

“It’s been successful,” he said. “Since 2007, three student groups have had their ideas passed through Congress and signed into law by the president.

“Here’s the point, science doesn’t just exist within the walls of the laboratory. When a sense of social purpose inspires a scientist, then science becomes the most powerful tool we have to build a better world.”

For more information on “To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes” by Francis Slakey (Simon & Schuster, May 8, 2012), visit