Ted Shear

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History

My grandparents, John J. Sopka (1919-2014) and Katherine J. Sopka (1921-2009), both led truly fascinating lives. Although neither came from families of pedigree (academic or otherwise), they were introduced to each other by Nobel Prize winner John Van Vleck, when they were both studying physics at Harvard. Ultimately, my grandfather went on to complete his PhD in Mathematics at Harvard under Garrett Birkhoff writing a dissertation titled "On the Characterization of Reynolds Operators on the Normed Ring of All Continuous Real-Valued functions Defined on a Compact Hausdorff Space". My grandmother eventually completed her PhD in the History of Science at Harvard under Gerald Holton with a dissertation titled "Quantum Physics in America: 1920-1935" later published as a book.

Graduating magna cum laude, he was awarded the prestigious Parker Fellowship intending to study under Marshall Stone. Upon their graduation in 1942, with the world embroiled in World War II, further academic study for both was interrupted and they eventually ended up in Dayton, Ohio where John joined a team of radio-chemistry researchers at the top-secret site called the "Bonebrake Theological Seminary" developing an efficient process for extracting and purifying highly concentrated polonium. After the existence of the site was declassified, my grandmother and my mother, Elisabeth Sopka, co-authored a brief history of his experiences on the project. The article was published in Physics in Perspective and can be found [here].

Immediately after the Japanese surrender in 1945, John and Katherine returned to Harvard to resume their postgraduate studies, Katherine in physics and John in mathematics. John was torn between his desire to work under Marshall Stone who had since left Harvard for the University of Chicago and his need for the fellowship support and eventually completed his thesis with Birkhoff in 1951. Katherine completed was awarded her masters degree in 1946 after the birth of their second child.

This brief description accounts for only a small portion of their amazing lives. They had many equally remarkable adventures including moving twice to Switzerland first from 1966-1967 and again from 1982-1983. While there, my grandfather - an avid mountaineer - summitted the Matterhorn. Some of his other climbing experiences were recorded in the American Alpine Journal's notes on climbs and expeditions [here]. He also at one point sued the archdiocese of Boston over a contract dispute from his employment at Boston College. Eventually, he won the trial; however, was awarded (as I recall) $1 and during the trial, the lawyer for the archdiocese "damned [my grandfather's lawyer] to hell".

Below is my academic geneology combined with my grandfather's: