Oakmont resident Gioietta Kuo grew up in China, attended a British boarding school and later became a nuclear physicist.
Published: Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 10:07 p.m.

Oakmont is a good place for pondering, during quiet moments, how far an elder has come in life and what the future holds for his or her children and grandchildren.

Retired nuclear physicist Gioietta Kuo (joy-etta quo) has traveled farther than most of her neighbors in the retirement mini-city on Santa Rosa's eastern fringe. At 77, she gazes at the scrubby hillsides that define the Valley of the Moon and can scarcely believe her upbringing in post-feudal, pre-Communist China.

In the 1930s and early '40s, she rode a rickshaw to school and tended a panda as a family pet. In her self-published memoirs, "China My Other Country," she writes of Sichuan province, where she spent her early childhood:

"Blessed with a mild climate, it is the only province in China to produce citrus fruits, so in that sense, it is comparable only to California. Early in the spring, the sight of delicate peach or cherry blossoms on a background of snow has inspired generations of Chinese painters."

Yet, not everything about her childhood — safely removed as it was from the bloodshed of Japan's pre-World War II incursions into other regions of China — was idyllic.

Kuo remembers the horror she felt upon learning that a young aunt she'd never known was forced by her family to drink poison after she bore a child out of wedlock, and her baby was drowned in a river. "I only missed the feudal society by one generation," she said with a shake of her head.

She recalls a childhood with servants and a classical education. Kuo recalls, too, the cruel moment that came after she gave a Cantonese friend one of her dog's puppies and later inquired about it. She said the friend replied, "It was delicious, thank you!"

The greatest shock of Kuo's childhood came in 1947, when she wasn't yet 14. Her father, a former education minister in the government of the Communist-besieged and soon-to-flee Chiang Kai-shek, shipped her and her two younger brothers to boarding school in England.

She didn't know it then, but she was finished with China and would live from then on in the West, a life so entirely different, "you can't compare the two."

She learned English, was accepted into the University of Cambridge and earned a doctorate in nuclear physics at age 24.

Kuo remembers her 20s and 30s as a period of romance, intrigue, travel and deep research into peaceful uses of atomic energy. Not long after she was awarded her Ph.D., she was at the Paris airport awaiting a flight to Milan, when a handsome man approached and invited her to have a drink.

"I'd never had a drink with a strange young man in my life," she said. She accepted and he introduced himself as Roberto Olivetti — future chairman of the board of the Italian typewriter manufacturer that would evolve into a large electronics communications company.

Kuo commits several pages of her autobiography to the three hours that she and Olivetti spent together before departing with a kiss she's never forgotten.

"I didn't want to wind up in his bed that night," she said. But even so, "I was totally mesmerized by him."

In 1958, Kuo was working as a research physicist for the French Atomic Energy Commission when she attended the second conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Paris. There she met a Soviet physicist whom she persuaded to dance with her in the streets during a Bastille Day celebration.

They parted after he kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear, "Gioietta, this has been happiest day of my life, thank you." She took him for his word but discovered over time, "Young men say all kinds of things."

The following year, Kuo married Goran Petravic, a Serbian physicist. Six years later, they both were working in England for Britain's Atomic Energy Authority when she was visited by two agents with the the MI6 intelligence service.

Kuo recounts in her book that British agents told her the Soviet physicist with whom she'd danced in a Parisian street had returned home and told the KGB "he met a very friendly Chinese girl whom they might recruit as a spy." They asked what he'd said in her ear, and she told them.

Kuo and her husband came to the United States in 1977 when she was hired to work in computational physics at Princeton University. They retired in the mid-1990s and moved to California, living for eight years in Twain Hart.

They relocated to Oakmont three years ago to be closer to their younger son, Stanford grad Robin Petravic, who owns and operates Heath Ceramics of Sausalito with his wife, Catherine Bailey.

Kuo now writes, directing her global experiences and her knowledge of energy into thoughtful pieces, published around the world, on the great danger posed by population growth and global warming.

"I wish we wouldn't reproduce," said the mother of two, then she conceded that dissuading people from having children is easier said than done.

Living in Oakmont, she sees the joy that accompanies visits by children and grandchildren. She certainly steps away from her writing on the perils of human reproduction when her grandson, Jasper, arrives at the front door.