Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Journey to the Foundation of Reality

In the late afternoon on Thursday, I made my way out to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to catch a 75 minute flight to Fayetteville, Arkansas for the University of Arkansas Physics Centennial. The new Northwest Arkansas Airport in nearby Bentonville was a revelation, a neat little airport run with the style of a more urban place. I drove past little Arkansas towns with names like Cave Springs, amazingly green grass, and fruit trees in bloom.

Within an hour and a half after landing, I was walking into a packed auditorium in the university's flagship Old Main building, to hear a lecture by Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle,
the German physicist and MIT professor who won the Nobel Prize for his work in chilling atoms to unimaginably cold temperatures edging near to absolute zero and observing their new properties at these numbing temperatures.

Dr. Ketterle gave a fascinating talk calibrated to be easily understandable to the lay people among the audience of hundreds of people. His work is fascinating--to work out ways to chill atoms down to unfathomably cold temperatures was an amazing feat--and to be able to report on the behavior of such chilled (and slowed) atoms must be like touching the pulse of reality's smooth, porcelain wrist, and scenting the flavor of jasmine while imagining with the inner flutter of anticipation the heart of the person beating within.

The talk lasted an hour, following which half an hour of questions ensued. My favorite question was the most telling--the questioner pointed out that since known nature has not evolved a way to achieve these cold temperatures, only these labs, and perhaps labs on alien planets, can achieve this form of reality. We learned how the slowed bits of things tend to assume lockstep formations. We learned that rotation can lead to pattern-making of the thing rotated. The evening was pitched so that I got that we do not really know or understand what I heard, but I got a glimmer of a hint of a truth beyond our prior reality. I stood in the back, fascinated, while the lecture went on, wondering, as I surveyed the room, which class I had taken there 27 years ago but no longer recall.

They had punch and cookies in the hallway after the lecture, and I went and said "hi" to some of my professors. Dr. Raj Gupta, a lasers specialist, was my favorite physics professor among many fine professors, because although I showed far less aptitude than many of his students for the science, he consistently worked with me to engage me in the material, and consistently found me amusing even when I was at my silliest (as I was then and still am apt to be, to my later chagrin).

I often think that one key value of education is to teach one how to acquire perspective, and Dr. Gupta taught me that one can keep one's own sense of purpose while not taking oneself so seriously. It was a pleasure to see him still at his post and doing well--he had helped organize this Physics Centennial, which proved successful beyond the wildest dreams I could have had. I got to see Richard J. Anderson, a former Physics professor who later went on to do work on a national level for an agency. He had been an organizer of a Summer Science Training Program I attended at age 15 at the Uinversity, which essentially led to me ultimately being a physics major there. It was great to see him well and in good spirits.

On Friday morning we all gathered once more at Old Main to hear talks about physics at Arkansas. Dr. Gupta gave a great talk, with powerpoint slides, about the history of the major at the university. Physics was and is a rather unpopular major--Dr. Jiali Li, a researcher into nanopores, had a satisfying and non-elaborate theory for the lack of popularity of the major--"physics is hard". Dr. Gupta's talk highlighted the familiar issues--the major was first offered in 1907--and the first bachelor's degree awarded in 1928. The first hundred years was an inspiring history of a department persevering and ultimately thriving despite institutional neglect, a building which, until 1994, was essentially an un-renovated HVAC building, a lack of a proper building even yet, and a world of obstacles overcome and handled.

I got to hear a discussion by Dr. Jacques Chakhalian, a fairly recent Ph.D. graduate of the University of British Columbia, who described his work in nano-fabrication, a quest for various useful findings ranging from super-conductivity to finding what happens in the transition points between two substances. This was not all within my ken, but very fascinating.

I had to miss the rest of the morning lectures (and my lunch), while attending to a
number of work situations, including driving to a conference center for a court hearing by telephone, as my work has a way of happening no matter where I roam. I will not discuss the work matters, but instead mention I drove by the Wal-Mart headquarters in nearby Bentonville, which was interesting but perhaps not a tourist attraction. I learned this morning that Alice Walton has helped build a wonderful art museum near Bentonville, which I resolved to see next visit.

The afternoon sessions were at the physics building. I just missed the unveiling of the centennial sculpture, an amazing toy-like thing the size of a huge blackboard but with the transparent general shape of an ant farm, in which mechanical processes related to the department took place with a cartoon abandon which reminded me simultaneously of
the Mr. Wizard television program, the inventions in "Honey I Shrunk the Kids", and a world of cartoon cause-and-effect machines. I drank punch and ate fresh pineapple in the
physics library, and then began to visit individual laboratories. I saw research into rubies being subjected to lasers, got a guided tour of Dr. Chakhalion's lab, and
also saw cross-sections of lasers.

All of the research was fascinating. Dr. Eitan Gross, however, went an extra mile for me in a way I will never forget. First, one of his graduate students, a great guy named Jared, I believe, toured me around the small lab.
Then Dr. Gross himself gave me over forty five minutes of one-on-one attention, using a classroom marker board to describe to me in detail his work in neuro-physics. He walked me through his research into the way that he hoped to use physics to understand human behavior. We scratched but a macro surface of what he and his collaborators do, of course, but I was repeatedly impressed by his patience with my layperson questions and the clarity of his metaphors and analogies, all rendered in an easily understandable form in his not-difficult Israeli-accented English. The things I learned gave me food for thought, as with the idea that we each have a neural "fingerprint" in how our individual nerves report what we see to the rest of our brain. I liked hearing all he had to tell me--at last, at 4:30, when he had give me half an hour more time than the open house format provided--I thanked him for this really impressive kindness. Imagine having one's own physics seminar, one on one, on a cutting edge area of bio-physics. That was my Friday afternoon. I did not know Dr. Gross until yesterday--and in most ways I do not know him even yet. But I will be grateful to him for a lifetime.

On the way out I met Dr. Art Hobson, my adviser, who wrote a textbook for non-science majors we used to call "physics for poets". He had been my adviser, who helped line me up to be the first English minor the department produced. He is a jazz player and a
free spirit with a very 1960s air even yet (though he was a young Ph.D. in 1964, and theoretically a different generation from the "hippie kids"). Dr. Hobson was on his characteristic bicycle, having been a "green commuter" long before it was a cause celebre'. He said he remembered being interested in my desire to use my physics degree for law, because inter-discliplinary cross-over was what he was all about. I like the idea that in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a retired physics jazz septuagenarian is still biking the streets of bringing physics into contemporary life. I see one great religious quest of our time to be the quest to integrate the search for truths of science into everyday dialogue in life. I wish my wife could have come to the open house, as she would have found the discussions fascinating.

Of course, I am a lawyer, not a physicist, so I am a slender reed to hold the things I learned. My cell phone, meanwhile, proved itself a powerful lightning rod, as I had to step outside the building a goodish number of times as I walked the hallways, to deal with this work matter or that work matter. Still, I was grateful to get to attend at all, and grateful to the extreme that modern technology, dilgent attention, and folks at my office helped me make sure my work matters got their due attention.

Friday afternoon, I picked up a set of mildly comic but cool ties at Dillard's, a department store, which were on sale for under 10 dollars each--all curious prints, such as one which is Van Gogh's "Irises", one which was patent and instruction manual drawings of airplanes, one which is a map of south Texas missions, and one which was an endless series of gingerbread men. I put on the drawings tie and went to the banquet. The pleasant and very attractive young woman who helped me explained how she was a junior international business major, who hopes to use her new French speaking skills in business someday. I told her how even my modest work involves international travel once in a great long while--but I wish I had told her further never to let anyone tell her that you can't do something merely because you are from Arkansas--my day had already been filled with physicist from a cinderblock building who are doing wonders.

Fayetteville has grown a bit in population since the 1970s, but it has mostly grown in diversity and prosperity since my college days. Dickson Street is still the archetypal music-and-stores-and-a-fun-feel street, but both on campus and off, new construction aided me in getting perpetually misplaced while driving. The Physics Banquet was held at the new Town Center on the square, a really nice municipal banquet-and-ball place.

Dr. Allan (Al) Hermann did pioneering work in superconductivity while at the University of Arkansas, helping put the physics department "on the map" for more than laser and nuclear work. He is now an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado--but more to the point, he is a killer jazz trombone player. His ensemble played an hour of music, of which the up-tempo numbers were my favorites--and often stunningly good. I sat with Dr. Alan Tribble, who got his bachelor's in physics two years behind me, and wrote a seminal-in-its-niche rocket-science book before going into private industry, Dr. Michael Lieber, my adviser his freshman and sophomore year, a witty long-time veteran of the university, Dr. Li, the bio-physicist who mentioned that her graduate students might not know what to make of the rather fetching dress she wore, as well as the kind graduate student who showed me the plasma experiments at Dr. Chakhalion and his quiet, cute female companion. The food was good, and the event was thronged with attendees. The incoming chancellor of the university explained how he saw the needs of the future--and that he recognized that the physics department, which has grown and dramatically improved its reputation in a few decades, is a pace-setter to emulate.

When I asked the young graduate student what he did to have fun, his answer was given with a simple and only slightly rueful smile--"go to the lab". Despite the mild irony, I was impressed that he understood that physics is fun (and worthy also of mild self-satire).

The progress was not just research-centered. Students are part of the process. Graduate students helped out throughout the events. Although less than 500 bachelor's in physics have been awarded in 100 years, they have 100 current undergraduates in the department.
I melted into sleep at the Country Inn and Suites quickly after a phone call home, when the evening ended.

This morning the reunion continued, as individual professors and former students told their anecdotes. We all mised most of all Dr. Paul Sharrah, who passed away a few years ago, and who, in over 40 years of service, became the bedrock of the faculty. Someone aptly observed that Dr. Sharrah would have loved this Centennial--and my own hope is that, someday, when the new physics building is built and the entry into the Promised Land occurs, they name the building for Paul C. Sharrah. His kindness to me and to numerous students was legendary and remembered.

I wish I could say that I saw billions of billions of old friends, but in fact, most of the hundreds of people were before or after my time. I did see the nice plastic surgeon who was a senior when I was a freshamn and held down the fort in electronics lab--she did not rememeber me (who remembers freshmen?),but I was able to recall classmates who were my relatively friendly acquaintances but her friends.

It was interesting to hear about the solo practice of plastic surgery. When I was in college, to become a doctor was considered a kind of "easy street"--but in fact, it's very hard work, and I know from other medical friends it is more challenging each year in light of managed care bureaucracy and reimbursement structures. Only the paper printers and big pharma make the best money in medicine these days, though of course I did not talk all the nuts and bolts of economics with a long-ago if very charming bare acquaintance, and thus speak generally rather than in situ. I was touched when the plastic surgeon helped her physic mentor get his tea--I like people who are filled with simplicity rather than with what we in Arkansas call "their own stuck-up selves". I asked the surgeon if she ever considered another field, and she says "sometimes, but always surgery". I told her I preferred trial work, myself, and we noted how both puruits have an element of theater. Both share, too, the satisfaction of seeing directly the results of one's efforts.

I must taunt Dr. Gregory Westbrook, my dear friend who had an understandable conflict involving a child's school play, for not coming--he would have loved the open house, and could have explained to me what the heck some of the terms meant. I am alays amused when people use terms I do not know, when I know they are already dumbing down the terms to my level. I have a law degree, and am a a professional magpie, so that raw, blinding ignorance is not the obstacle it might be for a scientist at such a seminar.

I thanked the professors I could find during the morning break, including Dr. Surendera Singh, an optics researcher who heads the department, and who did a great job of making me and everyone else feel welcome. Dr. Singh arrived at the uinversity just after I left, and yet he seemed part of the "home feeling" about the place to me.

I went to a university of 15,000 students, but took courses in a near-forgotten little building from real researchers who really cared that their handful of students succeeded. I saw these past three days academics and rocket scientists from across the country and the world attend a celebration of this spirit.

I loved the talk by the professor from Beijing University, who was the first mainlander to get a Ph.D. in physics at Arkansas. He drew a laugh as he related how when he attended, he could never find Chinese products in the stores--but things have changed now. But both then and now, I felt that I was in the presence of a search for truth, as well as immense collegiality. An undergraduate does not get that sense of shared time and experience that the lengthy hours of real experimental work requires. But I got a glimpse--and a reminder--of what the collegiality can mean in making life more livable.

I could not stay for all the reunion, as my plane, hired with frequent flyer miles, beckoned. I sat next to a UA Ph.D candidate in chemistry, who told me of the burial of the nuclear lab of legendary chemist the late Dr. Paul Kuroda, and her work in nano-chemistry. She also explained working with physics professor Greg Salamo, who is working with a program to introduce young students to science, as studies are showing that after age 12, interest in science wanes because of the idea that "it is hard". I believe this is a missionary work as important any I know.

The flight home was an uneventful delight of conversation. I stopped off for two slices of cheese pizza on the way home, and then settled in for a restful weekend after an interlude of utter joy.

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