Chris Rapley: doing science as a rejection of materialism

Chris Rapley reflects on the choice he faced in the late 1970s of continuing in space science, or becoming a businessman.

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By one means or another, we ran into a guy who was an entrepreneur and this guy had finally made his fortune as the builder of Hollywood film stars’ swimming pools. So he built the piano shaped pool for Liberace and, you know, and so he was very well known and very sought after and very rich. So we got to know him and he got to like us. He liked the kids. We met him on a holiday. And so we went and stayed with him in Los Angeles and we were wandering round Los Angeles Zoo, and he must have been in his late fifties or early sixties maybe, and he said, ‘Chris, you know,’ he said, ‘I’m going to leave. I’m going to go up to Red Bluff, you know. I’ve bought a place up there. The air is good, you know. I like it up there. I can just relax and fish and so on. That’s fine.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting, Richard.’ And he said, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the only thing is,’ he said, ‘It seems a shame to close down the business.’ So I said, ‘Oh yeah, okay. Well, I’m sure it is.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, how about you taking it over.’ So I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about building swimming pools.’ And Richard said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.’ He said, ‘I’ve got people who can build the swimming pools.’ He said, ‘It’s your accent.’ He said, ‘You know, with your accent and your way about you, you know, you’d do fine.’ So I said – this was – [laughs] we were just about to take the XRP to Goddard Space Flight Centre, so this didn’t quite fit. But I said to him, ‘If I did, what would you pay me?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’d give you a basic half million dollars a year and if you, you know, made more than that then you could keep the rest.’ So Norma and I have often looked back [laughs] on that and said, ‘What were we thinking about?’ [Laughs] But actually we thought it through. We were saying to ourselves, what sort of lives would our kids have, you know. I mean, it just didn’t fit, you know. I was committed to – I was interested in and committed to the Solar Maximum Mission. But on a relatively modest post doc salary, you know, half a million dollars a year and anything else you could keep in 1980, 1979, was – well, it was an interesting proposition. 

I don’t know how seriously you took the offer, but in making a decision about whether to sell swimming pools or continue to be a scientist, did you have any sense at all about, I don’t know, the value of different kinds of work or the – or a kind of sense of morality about things that are useful or things that are not, or things that are exploitative and things that are not, and so on? 

 Well, erm … yes. You know, I hadn’t become a scientist, and I had chosen my career, erm, to some extent rejecting, I suppose slightly rebelliously, the idea that all that one should be doing in life was going out to earn lots of money, to acquire material goods and impress other people. I wasn’t very interested in that. In fact that was sort of antithetical to my values. So although in the swimming pool case the sum of money involved would make anybody stop and think for a minute or two, there was never really any question that we would have gone down that route. I mean, you know, it just – just wasn’t on the cards.

  • Interviewee Chris Rapley
  • Duration 00:03:21
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Paul Merchant
  • Date of interview 6/22/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/40

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