From football to physics

30th January 2014

News, Alumni news

Choosing to study Physics has been a way of life for Rhodes Scholar and Wadham alumnus Joe Romig (1963, Physics).

  • Joe Romig

    Joe Romig (1963, Physics)

Joe, who excelled both academically and on the sports field, chose to forgo a professional career as an American footballer and follow an academic route, which led to his direct involvement in NASA’s Voyager space missions.

Now an expert in the causes of noncriminal fires, explosions and carbon monoxide poisoning events, Joe is passionate about the subject which has provided him with a fulfilling and fascinating career.

Joe arrived at Wadham from Colorado in 1963 and was immediately won over by British culture and Oxford life. “I have always liked the cool British weather because it allows you to think,” he said. However certain adjustments had to me made. “I quickly learned to look left and then right to avoid getting run over by a bicycle when crossing the road,” he remembers, “and I had to learn a whole lot of new terminology, like ‘joining a queue’ rather than ‘getting in line’.”

As a Rhodes Scholar, at 22, Joe was older than many Wadham students, and the 11pm curfew did not sit well with him. “I got to know the way over the wall, and would inevitably bump into one of the tutors in the scramble,” he laughs. “Of course, there were no women in College then and women weren’t allowed in student rooms. And gowns…their purpose was to protect you from hostile scouts who wanted to spill soup on us in the dining hall.”

But most of all, Joe was thrilled to be able to concentrate his mind on Physics, the subject that so inspired him, working with Rudolph Peierls and WB Thompson and concentrating on theoretical plasma physics. He made lifelong friends, John Saunders and Michael Peagram amongst them, and remembers well the honour of dining with Sir Maurice Bowra.
Having gained his Master’s degree, Joe was about to embark on a DPhil in Oxford, when after a holiday in the US he decided to return there to get married, continuing his studies at Colorado University where he gained his PhD in Astrogeophysics. While working on his PhD, he also worked in Martin Marietta Aerospace’s advanced planetary programs section, responsible for contributing to NASA's Voyager space missions.

Anticipating that NASA in the mid-70s was as he puts it, “going downhill,” Joe thought about the transferrable nature of the skills he had learned. “I realised that we could use the same principles for detecting flammable gas leaks on earth as we were using to characterise planetary environments,” he said. So when he was laid off, he was able to spend the next five years doing consulting work and research and development for venture capital firms, investigating fires and explosions. It was in 1980 that he was hired by Ponderosa Associates, where he currently works part time as an expert in the causes of fires, explosions and carbon monoxide poisoning events, carrying out forensic investigations into accidental incidents to try to find out what happened.

Having now worked in accident investigation for so long, Joe is keen to stress the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. “Carbon monoxide cases are always difficult because we tend to get called in when someone has been badly injured or died.” He also feels that high schools should teach how things work; for example, why you shouldn’t use oil-based spray paint in an environment where there is a boiler flame. “There is a reason why the safety warnings are present on various products,” he comments, adding that he only wished they were adhered to.

When not investigating accidents, for some 34 years Joe taught Astronomy at the University of Colorado’s division of continuing education, stopping in 2004 to devote more time to travel associated with his consulting work. He lives with his wife, Barbara, a zoologist and artist, in Colorado.

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