Why the Professor Went to Prison

Is John Reece Roth a martyr to academic freedom or a traitor?
  1. After lunch in his cell in the federal prison in Ashland, Ky., John Reece Roth noticed something unusual. Tiny red ants were swarming across his floor, feasting on candy bar scraps. Knowing that ants establish a trail to and from their food, Roth devised a trap: a Möbius strip with an on-ramp but no off-ramp. Ants carrying their prize home would climb onto the strip—a sheet of paper half twisted to have only one side and one edge—and be corralled. Fortunately for them, Roth couldn’t test his contrivance properly because the Scotch tape needed to secure it is contraband at Ashland.

    “I still have some inventing ability,” says Roth, in a resonant voice that once filled lecture halls at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Round-faced and bespectacled, he exudes poise and self-assurance, even wearing prison khakis and sneakers and leaning on a four-footed cane. Roth, an emeritus professor of electrical engineering, taught and researched at Tennessee for nearly 30 years. A former sc...

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