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La Jolla Centenarian: Retired physicist Ken Watson celebrates a century of having fun

Centenarian Ken Watson has pursued physics and photography and has always had fun.
(Delle Willett)

Ken Watson, who is approaching his 100th birthday Tuesday, Sept. 7, has helped advise presidents, had close brushes with famed physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller and directed a lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

He’s also dedicated his retirement to pursuing his passions, and he advises those looking for longevity to “have fun doing what you’re doing.”

Watson, a resident of the retirement community Vi at La Jolla Village, is celebrating his first century Sunday, Sept. 5, with a small party of family and friends at the Grande Colonial Hotel on Prospect Street in La Jolla.

Ahead of the big day, he answered questions from the La Jolla Light about his career as a physicist, which began with undergraduate degrees in physics and electrical engineering from Iowa State College and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Iowa.

In the late 1940s, Watson was invited to a summer program for postdoctoral studies with Oppenheimer, known for his involvement in the development of the atomic bomb.

Watson said he didn’t work at the Los Alamos Laboratory where Oppenheimer served as director during World War II, but he visited it while participating in the summer program, during which Watson studied particle physics.

Oppenheimer then recommended Watson to Teller, who was instrumental in the design of the hydrogen bomb, for a postdoctoral study at UC Berkeley.

“[Teller] brought me there,” Watson said, “but I didn’t actually work with him.”

Watson worked on projects involving “detailed calculations on electromagnetic phenomena,” before “nuclear physics began to be interesting,” he said.

“That was a much messier subject,” he said. “We all worked in nuclear physics for a while.”

Watson said he was “very fortunate” to be able to work in Oppenheimer and Teller’s spheres.

Later, Watson said, he had “a White House pass through the Eisenhower, Kennedy [and] Johnson era,” serving on the President’s Science Advisory Strategic Military Panel.

He advised President John F. Kennedy on the Apollo space missions, flying from Berkeley to Washington, D.C., weekly on propeller planes. “That’s a long haul overnight,” he said.

In 1981, Watson transferred to UC San Diego, where he directed the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Oceanography in La Jolla until his retirement in 1991, though it would be another decade before he left his office and lab work entirely.

Watson began to look for hobbies beyond physics and boating, which had taken up the bulk of his time before retirement.

“I started writing [computer] games, board games, shooting games and so forth,” he said.

He also took up photography and videography, he said. “I started doing animations, making up stories and making movies” at a time when “there was a big transition from film to digital photography.”

After Watson’s wife, Elaine, died in 2013 after 68 years of marriage, he met Faye Girsh, also a Vi resident and a board member of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, an organization that supports and raises awareness for right-to-die efforts.

Girsh, who founded the San Diego chapter of the Hemlock Society in 1987, asked Watson to join the board to lend his videography skills to record the organization’s meetings.

“I’m sympathetic” to Hemlock’s mission, Watson said. “The threat of suffering when you die troubles a lot of people. I think the principal thing is information to help people who have questions, and then to bring a little bit of comfort knowing that there are options for avoiding a very painful end.”

He said the past decade has been his most memorable one because of his involvement with Hemlock and his traveling with Girsh to places such as Indonesia, Quebec and New Orleans.

“It’s probably the happiest time of my life,” he said.

Watson, who has one son in Sedona, Ariz., and another in San Diego, along with two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all of whom live in San Diego, said no matter what he’s done, “it’s always been fun. That makes a huge difference.”

La Jolla Centenarians is an occasional series in the Light. If you know a La Jollan who is or is about to be at least 100 years old, email robert.vardon@lajollalight.com.