University of Texas
Peter Julian Riley
July 6, 1933–



Peter Julian Riley

Peter Julian Riley


I was born on July 6, 1933 in Kamloops, BC, Canada, the son of Winifred Marion Olivia Reed (1892–1990) and John Edward Riley, Jr. (1893–1980), of Celista, BC. In 1913, the Land Agency Office had opened up a parcel of undeveloped land in the (then remote) North Shuswap Lake area of BC for 160-acre “homestead” applications. My parents, shown at right, were both from England. My father (born 1893) was one of the first applicants to apply for and be granted a homestead in what would be called “Celista”. Later, in 1925 he met and married Winifred Reed, who was visiting the area from England, and together they moved into John’s small log cabin and started a family.

My grandfather, John Riley, Sr. (1859–1945), had been a carriage driver for a wealthy family at Broughall House in Whitchurch, Shropshire, England. He and his wife, Eleanor (Helena) Annie Ely (1865–1904), immigrated in April, 1903 with their young family of one girl and five boys, arriving St. Johns, New Brunswick en route to Ontario, Canada, in search of opportunity for their family. The mother, my grandmother, died soon after arrival, and much of the care of the young family fell to the daughter, my Aunt Margaret. There was little opportunity in Ontario, and as soon as they were able, the older boys Will and Charles travelled west to B.C. for work, and on finding that there was a possibility for homesteads in the North Shuswap area, sent for the family to join them. I believe that they arrived in Celista in 1908, and along with other pioneer families settled on land they hoped to homestead.

After long lobbying with the Canadian government, they and the other “squatters” in the North Shuswap were finally granted 160-acre homesteads in 1913, helped by the recommendation of the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfried Laurier. Of the approximately 70 that were then granted, one was my grandfather’s, John Riley, Sr., three were respectively deeded to the older Riley sons, Will, Charles, and John (my father), and another to John Dalin, who married my Aunt Margaret.

My grandfather was the first postmaster in the area, and served from 1908 until 1922. The Post Office was a cabin near the beach of the Shuswap. The mail was delivered from across the lake by boat once a week.

My Mother was the only member of her family to move to Canada. Her close friend, Beatrice, met and married my Uncle Will, who served in France in World War I, and moved to Canada (well before my Mother did). At Beatrice’s invitation, my Mother came over for a visit to Celista in 1925, and there met and later married my father.

By the time that I was growing up in the late 1930s, Joe Brown, principal owner of “Brown & Smith’s General Store”, the only operational store in Celista, was postmaster, and the mail was still being delivered once a week to the new Post Office, located inside the store. We lived about 2 ½ miles inland from the ferry, but “mail day” was a focal day of the week when nearly everyone in the whole community would converge at “Brown & Smith’s” for mail, groceries, news and gossip.

By then, too, the mail was delivered by truck— a ferry took cars, trucks, and people across the lake to gain access to the CPR railway, the Trans-Canada Highway, and the nearest town called Salmon Arm. After 1930, it had also become possible, by taking a rough dirt road an extra 20 miles, to get to and from “town” all the way by car. We grew most of our food. Refrigeration was a serious issue during the summer, but not in the winter, since we could butcher an animal, hang it up to freeze, and let it remain in place. We “canned” as we could to preserve food, used a “root-house” to store apples and potatoes during the winter, and a “smokehouse” for smoking meat, but by summertime fresh fruit and vegetables were more than welcome.

The homestead, shown at right, gradually became a farm with horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Still, life there without electricity, running water and telephone wasn’t easy, and Depression days were especially difficult. During the approximately six months of winter, all transportation was by horses; the nearest doctor was about 40 miles away. When I came along in 1933, the youngest of three children, my mother’s health was such that she had to stay for several weeks in Kamloops Hospital, 60 miles from Celista, before the birth. To pay for her costs, my parents reimbursed the hospital with their best cow, a major cost at the time for a homesteading family (as I have been occasionally reminded).

School for grades 1–8 was a one-room log building, heated by a large pot-bellied wood stove, about a mile from our home, usually with about a dozen students. The teacher would typically live with one of the families, and often that was ours. Our log home was larger now, and I can remember riding to and from school on horseback, especially during winters. For me life wasn’t difficult—it was the only life I’d known—and we didn’t consider ourselves poor (even though we were). Celista was a small, isolated district, and nearly everyone lived in similar conditions.



Our family was, however, different from most Celista families in that Mother, who had earned a master’s degree in classics from London University, was determined that her children would receive a good education, even though the nearest high school was ~40 miles distant. So instead of ending school in the 8th grade, all three John Riley children, one by one, enrolled in High School Correspondence Instruction, administered from the Provincial capital of Victoria, B.C. Picture at left shows, from left to right, my brother Paul, sister Pam and me.

I started “high-school by correspondence” in 1946, immediately after the end of WWII. Lessons (“papers”) were sent out to me by mail, and returned to Victoria for grading. We took tests at the local one-room school. My mother tutored me well in English and Latin; fortunately, I was able to complete the mathematics and science assignments without extra instruction. I became interested in nuclear physics partly because of the well-publicized role it played at the end of World War II (1945). On completing my high school studies in the spring of 1951, I was able to earn a scholarship to the University of British Columbia (UBC).








I entered UBC in 1951 and encountered social, cultural, and educational shocks. I was also undecided about what I’d take, but thinking that I’d either take classics or engineering. Aptitude tests did little good, but the advice of the testing center was “if you want to earn a living, you’d be better off in engineering.” (Peter with his dog at right.)

My experience with freshman physics that first fall was mixed. I was totally unused to formal classes. The professor was from Germany and very bright, but I had a hard job understanding him. Several of my classmates loved him— he’d sketch out on the blackboard diagrams showing how many things worked— but from the back of the large classroom, I couldn’t see his diagrams, couldn’t hear him well, or even understand what he was saying. I was lost. The first mid-term almost destroyed me—I realized that I not only could, but almost certainly would fail unless things changed. I hadn’t entered University with any thought of failing, so I immediately changed classes, and enrolled in the class of the departmental chairman, a large, loud, and demanding person, who taught with traditional lectures and demos, and pretty much “from the book”. Determined to pass the course, I took the textbook and worked every problem, chapter by chapter, as the semester progressed. In doing so, I learnt about problem solving, but not a great deal about physics. However, I did end with an A in the course – and with some curiosity to learn more about the subject.



In my third year of engineering, I specialized in engineering physics, a branch of engineering that didn’t really equip me with any particular skill set, but which did allow its graduates to go forward in graduate work in mathematics and physics, or in almost any branch of engineering. By the time I graduated, I knew, and had the support of, the departmental chairman—the one who had taught me freshman physics. He encouraged me to take graduate work in physics, which I really wanted to do anyway, and supported my application for a graduate fellowship. I joined the laboratory of a well-known nuclear physicist, John Warren, for my master’s degree, and loved it. I loved all the design and prep work that went into an experiment, and I loved that when you started experimental measurements, you never really know whether they would “work” or not. If they don’t, you just go back, do a little thinking, refine the apparatus and techniques, and try again! Soon, I was hooked on physics and have spent most of my life doing exactly what I like doing. Most of us, I think, have been very fortunate in that respect.

I was lucky in the experiment that my thesis advisor suggested. Using the old “home-built” UBC 2-MV Van de Graaff accelerator, I bombarded a solid tritium target with alpha particles, producing lithium nuclei, and measured the gamma radiation emitted from the lithium in the reaction process. It was the first time that this t(alpha, gamma) 7Li reaction, significant in stellar element formation, had been observed in the laboratory.

I received my master’s degree in 1958, and decided that I wanted a PhD. The nuclear physics era of the “ EN tandem Van de Graaff”, a 6 MV machine that could accelerate protons to 12 MeV, was just starting, and I heard that Florida State University (FSU), had hired the well-known nuclear physicist Alex E. S. Green, and was ordering a tandem from the manufacturer. I wrote to Alex, was offered a research assistantship, accepted it, and moved to Tallahassee, Florida, in the fall of 1958. The physics department was young, growing, and exciting. Alex Green had assembled outstanding graduate students and post-docs, and was deep into planning for the new laboratory, then still about two years away. He was a human dynamo and treated his group as family members. However, in the spring of 1959, Alex abruptly let us know that he had resigned from FSU and was looking for a position elsewhere. It was my introduction to the unpredictable world of university politics, and I was upset.

I heard that a group headed by former UBC graduates was setting up a Van de Graaff research lab in the University of Alberta, in Edmonton. I wrote and asked if they would provide me a research assistantship; the answer was “yes,” and so I returned to Canada that in August 1959.

During my year at FSU, I met my “to-be” wife, Eva Barkhouse, a sophomore from Miami, who had found a part-time job in Alex’s research group. We married in December 1959, after I had moved to Edmonton, Alberta. Fortunately for me, Eva didn’t immediately divorce me on arrival in dark and frigid (sub-zero) Edmonton! At FSU, I had also met a future life-long friend, Mel Oakes, then a young graduate student fresh out of LSU. Mel, together with his young wife Pat (who, like Eva, was raised in Miami) later came to Texas as a post-doc to work with Professor Hans Schlüter in plasma physics a few years after I arrived.

Wedding, December 1959, L to R: James Barkhouse, Patricia Murrell, Eva Barkhouse Riley, Peter Riley, Richard J. Berkeley, John Becker,
Central Baptist Church, Miami, FL

The Alberta van de Graaff was only a 2 MV machine, but unlike the UBC machine, it was a new and reliable commercial High Voltage Corporation product, and the lab was fully instrumented for pulsed neutron time-of-flight measurements. For my PhD research, I measured deuteron induced (d,n) reactions using neutron time-of-flight techniques. I graduated in 1962, and on hearing that the University of Texas had ordered a 6-MV (12 MeV) tandem accelerator plus an injector from the High Voltage Corporation and was building up a large tandem laboratory in Austin, applied to UT for a post-doctorate position. Then Chairman Claude Horton responded that although he didn’t have any post-doctorate positions, he could offer me a tenure-tract Assistant Professorship. I accepted, and was one of the first new junior faculty members in what was to become the UT Austin Center for Nuclear Studies.

We had a great approximately 10 years of research at the UT Center for Nuclear Studies, but by the mid-1970’s the “golden” years of the tandem Van de Graaff had ended, and I started a research program at the new Los Alamos 800-MeV Meson Physics Facility (LAMPF) in the field of nucleon-nucleon studies. I continued in this “medium-energy” nuclear physics research until about 1990, by which time these LAMPF research programs were ending. Several of us at Texas joined a collaborative “rare-kaon decay” program at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), using the 24-GeV beam from the BNL synchrotron, and participated in these experiments at BNL for a few years.

Growing up on the farm, I never had to worry about weight or exercise issues. However, after starting a family and a career, I found that I’d become less physically active and was putting on weight. I didn’t think much about it until one hot summer day in Austin, Texas, I became very tired just mowing the lawn. I was about 40 years old, overweight, and clearly “out of shape”. I decided to start jogging, and soon joined two others who’d become fairly serious LSD (long, slow, distance) runners, Terry Wagner and Al Smith, both UT faculty members. Growing up, I’d never had much chance to participate in any serious sport, and here was my chance. I found that I had good endurance, but that I was slow. My first marathon (26 ¼ miles, Galveston, Texas) was not successful, since I could only walk after mile 18, and had to be helped into the bus at the end of the course. But I became “hooked’ on running—too much so—and loved it.

At about that time, my research program started to shift to the new 500-MeV Los Alamos Meson facility, LAMPF, and I spent a full semester there in a small apartment. By chance, I fell in with a “fast crowd”, mostly members and friends of the Louis Rojas family. Louis Rojas was then the well-known and much-liked sheriff of Los Alamos, and two of his sons were proficient long-distance runners. One of them, Ricardo, was outstanding, and had been offered a UT track scholarship. I loved running with (or behind) the Rojas “boys” and other Los Alamos runners in the many mountain trails near Los Alamos, itself at an altitude of 7,355 ft. On returning to Austin, I found that my running had improved significantly, and soon I completed my first sub-three-hour marathon.

At that time, there formed a large noon-hour “running crowd” at UT. We typically ran north from Belmont Hall, usually 8 miles total, but sometimes 10. Runners included Jim Wiley and Don Patterson (Physics), John Booth and Fred Harvey (McDonald Observatory), John Weinstock (Germanic Studies), Terry Wagner and Elmer Hixson (EE), Charles Earhart (Microbiology), George Forgie (History), automobile salesman/dealer Rox Covert, and others.

Our annual “Turkey Trot” race/run evolved from our Belmont noon runs. In 1979, we held our first “Taco Trot”, an informal “invitation only” approximately 10-mile race/run, starting at noon from Belmont Hall on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and following our usual 10-miles run route. What made it different from “just a run” was that Rox Covert insisted on hosting, that evening, a dinner party at the East Austin Restaurant “La Tapatia,” for runners, participants, and their families. Rox’s “Taco Trot Party” was an instant and continuing success - and was followed by many more annual races and parties. There have now (spring 2013) been 33 of these. “Elmer’s Taco Trot #33” was most recently held the evening of November 21, 2012 at Serano’s Restaurant, and was, as usual, hosted by Rox and enjoyed by many. It is now named “Elmer’s Taco Trot” in honor of Elmer Hixson, who passed away in 2012.

During the late 1970s, I began to experience significant knee problems, probably exacerbated by extensive long-distance running, and eventually in the late 1990’s had my left knee replaced. This was followed by the eventual replacement, in succession, of both ankles; my final ankle was replaced in 2010. In all cases, the medical diagnosis was loss of cartilage by arthritis, but, if I were to relive my running days, I would run less and exclude marathons. Still, I enjoyed them all, and have no regrets. Today I still can, and do, enjoy road biking, but my running days are long gone.

During the mid-1980s, the Department of Energy (DOE) received approval to convert its Brookhaven 24-GeV synchrotron in to a “relativistic heavy-ion collider (RHIC)”, to be used primarily for “high-energy” nuclear physics research. That transition was completed by about 2000, and those of us (Hoffmann, Moore, and Riley) who had previously worked at LAMPF joined the research program of relativistic heavy ion nuclear physics at BNL associated with RHIC, specifically the effort to design and construct the STAR detector (Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC). The main purposes of the STAR experiment were to search for the quark-gluon plasma, observe chiral symmetry restoration, and study nuclear matter as it may have existed during the early moments of the universe. Although these experiments are still (2013) ongoing, I closed out my research activities in the late 1990’s, and so never participated seriously in the RHIC program of research.

As time progressed during my career, accelerator beam energies became higher and higher, the experiments more and more complex, the size of the group involved in each experiment became larger and larger, and the cost of each experiment increased enormously. In the 1960s, during the era of the Center for Nuclear Studies here at UT Austin, one experimenter with graduate students could conduct an effective experimental program. In the 2000+ eras, STAR experiments have literally hundreds of participants from many different institutions and countries. By the mid-1990s, I had decided that I could probably more effectively spend the rest of my career in administration rather than in research, and stopped doing research during the late 1990s. In 1992, the UT physics department needed a new chair. I applied, was accepted, and enjoyed the position very much for the next three years. In 1995, I was offered the position of Associate Dean for Research and Facilities in the College of Natural Sciences, and held that position for the next 17 years. Research was great, and I loved it, most especially working with graduate students, but I enjoyed administration too!

I am closing with the most important (and perhaps the only important) part of my life —my family. Our first child, daughter Joan, arrived in late 1960, followed by sons Ken (1962), Chris (1964), and Michael (1969). Joan is a nurse; Ken and Michael are both software engineers; and Chris is a lawyer. Joan and Ken both attended UT Austin; Chris attended Harvard, followed by the UT Law School; and Michael, the University of Pennsylvania. All now live and work in Austin; Chris is a member of the Austin City Council. Eva and I have five grandchildren, ranging in age from 9 to 23; our oldest granddaughter is a now a college graduate. Our next wedding anniversary will be our 54th. I have had the most wonderful good fortune to have an incredibly loving, understanding, and supportive wife and family; I am most thankful and grateful (and especially to Eva!) for all that they have given and meant to me for so many years!




Peter J. Riley Photo Album

Peter Riley’s Retirement Party, 2012
L to R, Front Row: Christopher, Eva, Peter
Second Row: Charlie, Virginia Driver Riley, Jake Laves, Susan Laves, Sarah Laves, Joan Riley Laves
Back Row: Michael, Chris, Denise Brady, Kenny, David Reitblatt
Riley Home, Celista, British Columbia
William and Agnes Matilda Haden Reed, Peter's maternal grandparents, William was a minister.
Agnes Matilda Haden Reed (1861–),
Peter’s Maternal Grandmother
Paul, Peter and Pam Riley
Caption by Peter Riley: On the extreme left is my dad’s older brother, my Uncle Charles; the next man over to the right is my dad, John Edward Riley, Jr., and directly behind him (slightly to his right) is my mom, Winnifred Riley. The older man in the middle of the picture is my grandad, John Edward Riley, Sr.. Behind him (and slightly to his right, is my dad’s sister (and Grandad’s daughter), my Aunt Margaret. The lady on the left in the picture, between Uncle Charles and my dad, is Elsie Roberts, Aunt Margaret’s oldest daughter. The man to the right of Aunt Margaret is my dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Ed. To his right is his wife, my Aunt Dorothy. That’s the lot— now all long gone!! I’d guess that the picture was taken ~ 1940. (My Grandad died when I was about 12, or about 1945, and the picture must have been taken a few years before then. )
John Edward Riley,
Peter’s Father
Winnifred and son, Peter Riley
Pam, Peter and Paul Riley
Peter J. Riley
Paul, Pam and Peter Riley
Paul, Pam and Peter, mountain home..

Peter J. Riley

University of Alberta Physics Department, Edmonton,
Peter Riley, right end of the two man fifth row, pen protector in pocket. Eva Riley, front row, 4th from right, 1960.

Peter Riley, Neal Evans (Astronomy), Rox and Elizabeth Covert (Founders and Sponsors), John Booth (Astronomy-McDonald’s Observatory)
1995 Taco Trot Party, now “Elmer’s Taco Trot.”
Chris, Eva and Peter Riley, Driskill Hotel


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