My First and Most Important Encounter with Doctor Sam Katzoff, Famous NASA Scientist

Doctor Sam Katzoff was one of NASA’s most prestigious research scientists, and he worked at NASA’s Langey Research Center in Hampton, Virginia for several decades, where he made outstanding contributions in the field of theoretical aeronautics. He authored more than thirty research papers and served a term as the center’s prestigious Chief Scientist, but perhaps his most famous work was a little book titled, “Clarity in Technical Writing.”. “Doctor Sam,” as he was known affectionately, believed in simple clear expression to explain a point, and his little book is still the standard for clear writing for many people in technical fields, especially for young engineers. The most frequently quoted lines from his book goes like this: “Time flies, you can’t; they fly too fast.”

My first important encounter with Doctor Sam came less than a year after I was assigned to my first work place at Langley. It was PARD (Pilotless Aircraft Research Division), where much of the work involved the development and testing of unguided sounding rockets. One of my first tasks was to use samples of wind speeds and directions measured at Washington and Norfolk – and combine them to produce statistical wind profiles that would predict winds at Wallops Island on the eastern shore of Virginia. Wallops Island was where most of our sounding rockets were launched, and accurate predictions of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes were sorely needed during those launches. That is because unguided rockets are extremely sensitive to wind, especially during lift off when the rockets are moving slowly.

The meteorologist at the Wallops Island Launch Facility who provided the wind measurements and who asked for the analysis left me pretty much on my own. I had no experience or knowledge of the specific type of statistics with which I had to work, and which had the imposing name, “Bivariant Normal Distribution Function.” The task was personally important because it would be the project that I would use to get my first promotion. And to accomplish that I would have to defend my analysis before Doctor Sam, who at the time was the division’s chief scientist and who reviewed all the division’s research papers before they were approved to begin the publication process.

My anxiety over making a presentation before Doctor Sam increased when shortly before it was scheduled, Doctor Sam failed a young engineer who worked in my office. Doctor Sam had given the fellow a second chance but apparently was not satisfied with the second presentation. It was just me and the good doctor in his office, and for a while I fielded most of his questions handily. But there came a time when he made it clear that he did not understand what I was attempting to describe. I went to the black board and gave it my best shot. When I finished, Doctor Sam said, “Bill I think I understand what you are describing.” He paused and said, “but do you plan to go along with every copy of your paper?” I got the message and went back to my office and rewrote the defective section. The presentation became the material for my first research paper at at NASA, and with further research, I published a follow-up paper on the same work. It carried the fancy title, “Tables for the Integral of the Circular Bivariant Normal Distribution Function.”

Thankfully, Doctor Sam gave me a passing grade without a second meeting. My supervisor told me that Doctor Sam told him that he was not certain that I knew what I was doing, but that he gave me the benefit of the doubt. I saw Doctor Sam many times, and I do not believe I have known a more brilliant, modest, or gracious man. I saw him at a shopping center a few years before he died, and we exchanged pleasantries over my almost-failed presentation, and we both had a good laugh.

You can read more about Doctor Katzoff at the link, NASA – Technical Writing Guru Katzoff Dies at 101.

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