Robert A. Thornton

born 1898 died March 9, 1982

place: Houston, Texas

Robert A. Thornton, who was born in Houston. He became interested in science as a youngster at the Houston Colored High School. After graduation he attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High, a school that filled a modern language and math requirement for college.

When he arrived at Howard University in 1918, he was sure about science. Sometimes he got carried away with it. Like the time he was working as an on-call waiter at the Cosmos Club and struck up a conversation with David Todd, an Amherst astronomer. "He was amazed that I knew about the inclination of earth's axis," Thornton recalls with a quiet chuckle. "He asked me to sit down and we talked for 45 minutes. And he ended up suggesting that I come to Amherst to study. "Well, I went back to the kitchen and no one said anything. But the next time I showed up for work, they told me to go home."

Thornton also cut enough of a figure in music to be given a tryout to replace Paul Robeson in "Shuffle Along," a black musical on Broadway in 1921. "I was too stilted," he says. "I wasn't flamboyant or theatrical. But I continued singing after the rejection." Thornton picked up musical tips by hobnobbing with singers Roland Hayes, Harry T. Burleigh and Mme. Schumann - Heink. He gave recitals and sang in groups. "I can't sing like I used to," he says with a big laugh. "But music is one of my most comforting memories."

, graduated from Howard University. He earned a master's degree at Ohio State University and a doctorate in physics at the University of Minnesota. He taught at Shaw and Fisk Universities and the Universities of Chicago and Puerto Rico. He spent 16 years on the faculties of the University of San Franciso and San Francisco State University before retiring in 1969. He also had been chairman of the Natural Sciences Division and Dean of the Science school at San Francisco State.

Thornton, while visiting the University of the District of Columbia, fondly remembers his first meeting with Albert Einstein: Einstein said to Thornton at Princeton on the late 1940s, "Show down, professor, I've always had trouble with math."

"I tried to impress him with my knowledge of physics and mathematics. That's when he told me to slow down.

"I thought I was going to meet a godlike presence when I walked into his house. But he quickly dispelled that. He was casually dressed and calm, very down to earth." 

Thornton first wrote Einstein in 1944, asking for a brief statment on the methodolgy and philosophy of science for a liberal arts program the professor was setting up in the University of Puerto Rico. This started a correspondence that lasted several years. The two men also met seven times, by Thornton's count.

"I had first seen Einstein in 1921 when I was a student at Howard," recalled Thornton. "He lectured at the Belasco Theater and spoke in German. I didn't understand everything . . . .Years later when I saw him, I'd always formulate a problem. I wanted to know about his notations and his mathematical concepts. The conversations were always about some aspect of theory. I had been calling theories true and false. He corrected that. He told me that any theory is tentative. A theory can't be wrong, he said. It's just like grammatical nonsense. The grammar itself is not wrong. The person makes it wrong."

"I never wanted to be a great physicist," Robert Thornton says. "I've alway wanted to be a master teacher."


careful there are at least three Robert Thorntons


References: We had considerable help on this web page from Robert Fikes.


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