Origin Story

Katherine Sharpe asked about the best science books ever, as a proxy for “what got you into science?” I wasn’t able to give a really good answer to that question, but I will share a science-related anecdote from when I was a kid.

There’s a good chance that this will come off as either painfully dorky or just plain cloying, so I’ll put it below the fold, lest it damage my street cred.

(Shut up.)

When I was a kid, I watched a Nova special on dinosaurs– it must have been in 1981 or so, when I would’ve been ten– which presented the asteroid-impact theory of dinosaur extinction. The theory was put forth by Luis and Walter Alvarez, based on measurements of odd isotopic abundances in the clay layer marking the K-T extinction, and the show prominently featured both of them.

Like most kids, I went through a phase of being mad about dinosaurs, so this really caught my imagination. I decided I wanted to know more about this business, and I read whatever I could find about the theory (which wasn’t much), and then somehow got the idea of writing a letter to the Alvarezes. Luis Alvarez being a Nobel laureate in physics, his address was in Who’s Who (which the school librarian looked up for me), and I wrote a letter asking him a bunch of questions about the asteroid theory. I don’t remember everything I asked, and what I do remember seems pretty silly– stuff like, “If all the plants died, why didn’t the planet run out of oxygen?” and “Has anybody found fossils actually in the clay layer, which you would expect if that’s what killed them?” Anyway, I wrote this up very carefully (on my father’s good letter paper), and sent it off to California.

Much to everyone’s surprise (certainly to mine), I got a letter back. It was about a page and a half, typed, and very graciously and patiently answered my silly questions. He also included copies of a couple of articles about the theory that I couldn’t really make heads or tails of, but the letter was the important thing.

The funny thing is, while it was a huge deal to me at the time, I don’t think I really appreciated what a big deal it was. After my boss won the Nobel when I was in grad school, I have a better idea of the volume of mail that famous scientists get, and for him to take the time to answer a bunch of painfully naive questions from a grade-schooler in a tiny town in upstate New York was really amazingly generous. And, like I said, that letter meant a lot to me– I remember my mother making a handful of Xerox copies, so I wouldn’t keep reading the original until it fell apart.

If this were a movie of the week, this is the point in the story where I would tell how that inspired me to go on and become a physicist, but like I said earlier, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist, so that wasn’t really necessary. And while it’d be nice to say that it serves as a reminder to me to always answer questions from young people, really, who would I be kidding? I’m a jerk with a website, and I barely manage to respond to my students asking questions about the homework that’s due tomorrow.

This might also be a good spot to tell the story of how I met him years later, and told him about the letter and what it meant to me, but alas, he died of cancer in 1988, and I never got the chance to meet him in person, or even send him another letter years later thanking him for that response (which would also be a touching anecdote). To be honest, I sort of forgot about the whole thing for a period of several years, though I would run across the letter every now and then when I had to clean my desk.

About the only really concrete thing I can say that it inspired was another letter. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was either on the air at the time, or had recently completed its run, and he was just up the road in Ithaca, so I sent him a letter, too, asking a bunch of questions about black holes. Sagan was kind of a dick, though, so all I got back in that case was a form letter from his secretary. Which is a shitty way to end the story, I know, but what did you expect, a moral?

I bet my parents still have that letter from Alvarez, though. I hope so. Maybe I’ll look for it the next time I’m home.

Comments

  1. #1 Johnny Vector
    April 7, 2006

    Sagan was kind of a dick, though…

    Not dick, Butt-Head.

  2. #2 Mary Kay
    April 7, 2006

    Apparently that was Luis Alvarez all over. He was still at UC Berkeley when Jordin started grad school there and he flew a handful of them, including Jordin, down to SoCal to see the first shuttle land. (He was a small plane pilot and had his own plane.) So Jordin has an Alvarez story too.

    MKK

  3. #3 Jordin Kare
    April 7, 2006

    In fact, I have several of them (Alvarez stories, that is) since I was at Berkeley and in what was loosely Luis Alvarez’ group (LBL Astrophysics, under Rich Muller, who was Luis’ protege) during the whole iridium/dinosaur extinction adventure. Luis’ office was around the corner in the high energy physics section, but he’d come over to talk to Rich about asteroids, the Supernova search (my project) and other stuff frequently. He also ran a weekly lecture series/discussion group at his home in the Berkeley hills (right on the Hayward fault) which was semi-mandatory for grad students and postdocs in the group — we’d show up a bit early and help set up the folding chairs… In hindsight, I’m boggled by some of the folks who showed up, but at the time it seemed just part of grad school.

    Luis was not so much a nice guy (though he could be charming) as a dynamo — he did more in an average day than three ordinary people, I think. And he was very strongly supportive of bright people interested in science (which I’m sure your letter made obvious you were) — though he was correspondingly impatient with stupidity and anti-science attitudes.

    How I ended up getting him to fly us down to the first Shuttle landing: he’d been a licensed pilot continuously since WWII, but he had just bought himself a twin-engine Cessna and was doing a lot of flying (and going after an instrument rating!). I wanted to see the landing and figured Luis could provide both transportation and admission, so I asked him if he’d like to fly down to Edwards to see the landing and oh by the way would he be willing to fly some of the Astrophysics group down with him? He said, basically, “get us an invitation, and I’ll fly you down. Try Hans Mark. Here’s his number.”

    What I didn’t know was that Hans Mark was deputy secretary of the Air Force (and, something that was officially still classified in those days, director of the NRO). So I called and asked if he could get passes to Edwards for the shuttle landing, for Luis Alvarez and party. Duh.

    Edwards itself was off limits for private plane landings, so we flew down to a tiny field in Mojave. What I had foolishly not checked on was how to get from there to Edwards — NASA had been running buses, but stopped several hours before the landing, before we arrived. Fortunately, someone had ordered a rental car to meet him at the airport, and not shown up. So we squeezed Luis and 5 students, plus the rental car driver, into the car, and made it to the landing site in time.

    Other than the actual Shuttle landing, the main thing I remember about the morning is that I didn’t see anyone in the VIP viewing area I recognized — until I noticed a know of cameras and microphones around someone and saw it was John Denver… Oh, and Luis letting me take the controls for a while on the flight back.

    Now my equivalent of your letter from Luis was the postcard I got from Isaac Asimov in response to a letter I wrote him when I was about 13. Not as lengthy a response as yours, but he did answer my questions, and I shudder to think how much mail *he* used to get….

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