Historian’s cut: IRRI’s introverted “mad” scientist (full interview)

85. Water Irrigation_BangladeshWater. It brings to mind a line from Johnny Cash in his album At Folsom Prison. He gets a glass of water from the warden and he takes a sip—‘Brahhh, yup, that’s water alright,’ implying that it’s better to drink something else. 86. Johnny_Cash_At_Folsom_PrisonThat was the first thing that came to mind when you said “water,” unfortunately, that’s my answer. Yes, water, rice—all aspects of life!

Convenient convergence and an inconvenient divergence. Yes, that’s my line and it’s a good one, I think. I used it with my first realization that the work we are doing for the poorest of the poor—developing rice varieties tolerant of drought, flooding, heat, salinity—is exactly the same kind of work we need to adapt to climate change. The convergence of the agenda of meeting the needs of the poorest of the poor while addressing the future challenges of climate change, I thought, was a very convenient convergence of agendas. And it should enable us to generate support from a multitude of donors with different agendas.

87. Inconvenient divergenceUnfortunately, shortly after I came up with that term, Al Gore [U.S. vice president and presidential candidate] came up with “An Inconvenient Truth.” I had “Convenient Convergence” and he had “Inconvenient Truth.” I withdrew my Convenient Convergence for a while, but now it’s time to resuscitate it. I think it’s a sound concept.

[Editor’s note: I came up with “inconvenient divergence” where population continues to increase as productive agricultural land continues to decrease. Bob: Yes, and I say that we counter that by making the productivity of the area of land increase and that’s a challenge for us.]

Rockefeller Foundation. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant visionaries—founding IRRI, working in health, providing a philanthropic example for the Gates Foundation, not to mention the guys coming out of the Foundation who were giants in our lifetime: Norman Borlaug, Peter Jennings, David Thurston, to name a few. Then, there is the Foundation’s Rice Biotechnology 88. Rockefeller logoProgram, which has transformed the way biotechnology research operates. Single-handedly, they did that, making rice a model system. Other colleagues coming out of the Foundation—Bob Herdt, Gary Toennissen, John O’Toole—I admire to this day. They have rendered an unbelievable service and should be recognized; I hope they will be.

Being 65. I’m not 65. I’m 64 and my wife hasn’t left me yet! At 64, I feel about the same as being 24 or 25. I just move a little slower.

89. SantaMaria3Being Santa Claus at IRRI Christmas parties. Being Santa Claus or meeting him? It was fun. I enjoyed it. I could be irreverent. There is nothing that more I love than being irreverent. [That’s Maria Hettel getting a gift from Santa Bob in December 1996.]

90. Bob&WillowBeing a grandfather [with new granddaughter Willow in the photo]. Unbelievable. Everybody says it’s a great experience, but until you become a grandpa you don’t know. It’s transformation, and I look forward to years and years of being a doting grandfather and it gives me a thrill that I did not think was possible.

91. Arthur's PlaceScuba diving at Arthur’s Place [in Anilao, Batangas, Philippines]. It opened an entire new world. I really love seeing a whole other part of the planet and appreciating it, pretty humbling in terms of the diversity of life and how, for all of that life, we are completely irrelevant. There’s nothing like swimming around in a tropical coral reef with the fish and the unbelievable biological diversity and realizing that all of that life predates human civilization by millions and millions of years. Aside from the pollutants and the temperature change that we might induce, we are 92. Zeigler on a planecompletely irrelevant and it’s humbling—and beautiful, sublimely beautiful.

Spending time on a jet plane. I spend far too much time on jet planes. I watched too many bad movies. I tried to do too much work and didn’t sleep nearly enough. I never ever talk to my seatmates. [That’s true; on a flight to Jessore, Bangladesh, in September, Bob spoke barely a word to me.]

After more than 22 years at IRRI, Gene Hettel, editor-in-chief of
Rice Today and IRRI historian, retires shortly after Dr. Zeigler. Read Gene’s history blog about IRRI’s rich heritage—by the month or by the week.

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