Physicist Francis Slakey: How a World Record Quest Led to a New Career in Policy
When physicist Francis Slakey decided to become the first person to climb the highest peak on every continent and surf every ocean, he never thought the challenge would cause him to reevaluate his approach to life and his career. But after encountering some unanticipated complications during his world travels, that’s just what happened.
“At some point, in all our lives, we will all fall. The question is: What kind of a person are we going to become when we get back up?” Slakey told an audience during an 11 May talk at AAAS organized by the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. His newly published book, To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes describes his adventures and his personal transition from physics lecturer to someone who teaches students to use science to make policy and improve people’s lives.
Slakey is the youngest of three boys. He says he first began to think about setting a record in mountaineering as a teenager, after being told by his brothers that he wasn’t good enough to join them in their rock-climbing adventures. He decided to take on the combination climbing-surfing world record when he was 37. At the time, he was working as a physics professor at Georgetown University and in public affairs for the American Physical Society—positions that gave him the flexibility his travels would require.
“Twenty years ago, I was your classic, old-school science teacher. Back to the class, … scribbling away at the chalkboard and the only one making a sound in that classroom was me,” he said. “That is all science was to me. That is all life was to me—analytic and detached.”
The event that spurred Slakey to reevaluate his career happened in 2002, two-and-a-half years after he began his quest. He had already summited the tallest peaks in North and South America, and had just finished an uneventful climb of the highest peak in Indonesia. The peak lies just outside a gold mine that is owned by an American, making it a political hotspot in a country with a history of unrest.
He and his climbing partner were being driven out of the jungle surrounding the mine in a Jeep, when they found themselves surrounded by military forces pointing automatic rifles them. It wasn’t something his other adventures around the world or his training as a physicist had prepared him for. So he did the only thing he could think of.
“We just opened up our wallets to these guys and gave them every nickel we had,” he said. The forces took the money and let the climbers’ Jeep pass. That would’ve been the end of the story, Slakey said, since he didn’t intend to return to the region.
But a few days later, while he was surfing in Bali, he read in an English-language newspaper that three Americans had been shot in Indonesia. They had been confronted by armed men in the exact same spot that Slakey and his climbing partner had been, only their story had a much different ending. Two of the Americans were dead, but one woman was alive, although critically injured after having been shot multiple times. The article quoted Indonesian government officials saying they had carried out a brief investigation, and found antigovernment rebels were responsible for the attack.
That conclusion didn’t sit well with Slakey. It didn’t make sense, based on what he knew. For starters, the site was only a couple hundred yards from a military base, and the attack lasted half an hour, making it highly unlikely rebels would have been able to carry out such an attack unnoticed by the Indonesian troops. Also the guns used in the attack were the same kind the Indonesian military carried. He decided that he had to find out what really happened and why.
“It turns out that two weeks before I got there, the mine had cut the salaries and the perks of the Indonesian military guarding the mine. Within hours after the ambush, the military was saying, ‘See—you need us, you’ve got to restore our salaries,’” Slakey said.
“Now… what would you do with this information? Would you try to step in and steer this story towards the truth? I decided to step in.” He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, telling his story and calling on the U.S. Congress to suspend funding for the Indonesian military until a full investigation of the attack was carried out. Eventually, after what Slakey described as relentless efforts by the woman who survived the attack, Congress did. The shooters were eventually captured, tried, and put in prison.
Slakey said he realized he had taken the same analytic skills he had previously applied to physics problems and solved a human problem.
“And so I changed. No more back to the world of chalk in my hand, scribbling on a chalkboard,” he said. “When you push for justice—not for a summit, not for a wave, but when you push for justice—you can set things right.”
He returned to Georgetown, and later established the Program on Science in the Public Interest, which teaches students to use science to address social problems using policy to influence government, industry, and communities. Since then, students in the program have worked on problems around the globe, and three student projects have been adopted by Congress and signed into law. Slakey was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2009.
“When a scientist is inspired by a sense of social purpose, then science becomes the most powerful tool we have to build a better world,” Slakey said.
Slakey has led several policy development workshops for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. Cynthia Robinson, director of the Fellowships, said she thought they could also learn from his personal story.
“He showed a very human side about taking a stand for things that you believe are right,” Robinson said. His talk also reminded the audience “it takes interdisciplinary approaches to address the challenges in the world. Crossing boundaries and cultures helps effect change.”
Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.