Hubert Palmer Yockey, 99, died peacefully under hospice care at his home in Bel Air, MD, on January 31, 2016, with his daughter, Cynthia Yockey, at his side. Born in Alexandria, Minnesota, he was the son of the late Frederick Milton and Mae Palmer Yockey.
Dr. Yockey was a retired experimental nuclear physicist, who began his career working on the Manhattan Project from 1942 to 1946. In the 1950’s, he was a pioneer in the application of information theory and coding theory to molecular biology. His first book was a collection of papers presented at a symposium on the topic, which he organized in 1956. In the 1970’s, Dr. Yockey began to apply information theory to evolution and the origin of life. He was the author of two books on these subjects, which were published by Cambridge University Press in 1992 and 2005. In addition, he was an Eagle Scout with a bronze palm; member of Phi Beta Kappa; Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Explorer Post leader; leader of numerous wilderness hiking and whitewater canoeing expeditions; mountain climber; and Fellow of the Explorer’s Club of New York.
Dr. Yockey earned his bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in nuclear physics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1938 and 1943, respectively. (He thought it was folly during the Depression to pay the $10 fee for his master’s degree diploma, so he did not hold a master’s degree.) Dr. Yockey studied under Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb; Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and 1939 Nobel Laureate; and his thesis advisor was Emilio Segrè, who became a Nobel Laureate in 1959.
In 1944, Dr. Yockey went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to work on the Manhattan Project supervising a division of Calutrons, the machines that separated the U-235 for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. He improved the design of the slits of the Calutron, which speeded up the uranium separation process, shortening the war with Japan. It was one of his many patents. Supervising Calutrons also introduced him to his future wife, Mary Ann Leach, who was the prettiest Calutron operator.
Dr. Yockey was one of the participants in the first atomic bomb test, on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, known as the Trinity Test. His job that day following the blast was to collect and analyze the dosimeters placed in structures specially built around the test site to determine the effects of the bomb.
In papers published in the 1950s, Dr. Yockey was the first person to apply Claude Shannon’s Channel Capacity Theorem to molecular biology as part of his work on determining the effects of radiation on the transmission of genetic information. To advance the application of information theory in biology, he organized the Symposium on Information Theory in Biology held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 1956, with Robert Platzman and Henry Quastler, and published the collected papers presented there in a book of the same name in 1958.
In 1958, Dr. Yockey also participated in the Hardtack II atomic bomb tests in Nevada.
From 1964 to 1968, Dr. Yockey supervised the construction of the Army Pulse Radiation Facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. The most powerful nuclear reactor of its type in the U.S., it began operation for materiel testing in June 1968. Dr. Yockey continued to direct the facility’s research on nuclear irradiation effects on weapons systems until he retired in 1987 after receiving a contract from Cambridge University Press for his second book, Information Theory and Molecular Biology, published in 1992.
In the 1970s, Dr. Yockey began to publish papers applying probability, information theory and coding theory to scientific hypotheses on the origin of life, such as self-organization and chance, or random, biogenesis. Even supposing very favorable conditions, he found that neither scenario provided a valid explanation for the origin of life, and therefore should be discarded by scientists.
In his 2005 book, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, along with his amicus brief in Kitzmiller v. the Dover Area School District (aka “the Panda trial”), Dr. Yockey showed that Intelligent Design is an invalid substitute for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution not only because the genome is the driver of evolution but also because the objection that an Intelligent Designer is required to explain gaps in the fossil record is obsolete: evolution is now studied through the genome and there are no gaps in the genome from the origin of life to the present or for life yet-to-evolve. Dr. Yockey argued this supports Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as one of the most validated in all science.
Regarding the origin of life, Dr. Yockey’s 2005 book demonstrated that information and coding theory show Darwin’s prediction that the origin of life would prove to be as unknowable as the origin of matter is correct. Thus, Dr. Yockey maintained, since the origin of life is unknowable, it must be accepted as an axiom of biology.
Dr. Yockey’s love of wilderness hiking, camping, mountain climbing, and whitewater canoeing began when he was a teenager and spent his summers in Yosemite National Park camping with his parents and brothers. He also became an Eagle Scout with a bronze palm. In the 1960s, he returned to scouting to give his younger son the same kinds of wilderness experiences he had. He was a Scoutmaster for the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and an Explorer Post leader. In the 1960s and 1970s, he led his scouts on wilderness hikes in the Smokey Mountains, on the Appalachian Trail, the C & O Canal; climbing Mount Baldy at Philmont and camping there overnight; paddling the St. John River in Maine; and climbing fourteen 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado.
Local rivers that Dr. Yockey loved to paddle included the Gunpowder and Potomac in Maryland, and the Youghiogheny River and Muddy Run in Pennsylvania.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Dr. Yockey led whitewater wilderness expeditions in Canada, paddling the Missinaibi, Moose, and Magpie rivers in Ontario, and the DuSable/Caniapiscau/Koksoak, Moisie, George, and Whale rivers in Quebec. Dr. Yockey is credited as the first to lead an expedition the length of the Whale River and his account of the trip was the cover story of The Explorer’s Journal issue 62, the official magazine of the Explorer’s Club of New York, in 1984.
In the winter, from the mid-1970s to mid-80s, Dr. Yockey also led expeditions every year the week after Christmas to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and camp near the summit.
Dr. Yockey was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Ann Yockey, in 2006, and his younger son, Eric Milton Yockey, in 1973; his brother, Paul M. Yockey, in 1999; and his brother, Donald William Yockey, in 2012. He is survived by his son, Franklin Wayne Yockey, 68, of Baltimore, MD; his daughter, Cynthia Ann Yockey, 62, who lived with him in Bel Air, MD, and provided his care the last 10 years of his life; his grandson, Eric Alexander Yockey, 32, of Baltimore, MD; his sister-in-law, Yolonda Russell Yockey, 92, of Mill Valley, CA; his nephew, Paul R. Yockey, 66, of Petaluma, CA; his niece, Kathie Yockey Fischer, 63, of Muir Beach, CA; and his twin grand nephews, Aron and Noah Fischer, 39, of Brooklyn, NY.
A celebration of life in honor of Dr. Yockey is planned for April 15, which would have been his 100th birthday, in Bel Air, MD, at Sean Bolan’s Pub.