Recollections by Richard Bleil
The path of my life has taken odd turns to be sure. Growing up in a family of moderate means, I’ve managed to rub elbows with some very remarkable people. Much of this was owing to my friends the Tsipis’s with whom I lived for several years in graduate school. The father, Kosta, was the national civilian expert in nuclear policy. Working as a physicist at MIT, he was the one that senators and news programs would go to for an “outside” perspective on policies. Every year, he would have “Greek Easter”, inviting huge names in the military and academia, including a plethora of Nobel Laureates. No, he wasn’t one, but perhaps he should have been. Either way, his position let him rub elbows with the biggest names in Nobel circles and befriend many of them.
There are researchers who design their careers around the Nobel prize, schmoozing in the right circles, choosing topics that will draw the attention of Nobel Laureates (who choose the candidates and recipients of the next prizes) and seeking out like-minded people with whom to do research. I’ve known this kind of scientist, not yet a winner (and possibly never to become one) but hungry for recognition. They are often arrogant because of their belief in their worthiness, and short tempered in their desperation for everything to go right. But the Nobel Laureates that I have known were quite the opposite of these hungry little twits.
I should mention that I’ve never followed the Nobel Prize. Whether or not somebody is a Nobel Laureate doesn’t impact my opinion of them, and although I’m very happy for those who have won the distinguished award, it’s relatively useless information to me. It’s like the new elements that high-energy physicists periodically discover. They fill in blanks in the periodic box, but if the elements have a half-life of trillionths of a second, you can’t really do anything with these elements anyway, so is it really chemistry? I’ve always taught that there are a hundred-ish elements, which puts us in the right ballpark for practical elements.
In the Tsipis Greek Easter Celebrations, I have no doubt that I’ve met and interacted with many Nobel Laureates without even realizing it. The truth is that they are just people, at least the ones that I’ve met, no different than anybody else. Or, if they are different, they’re just more relaxed. After all, they won. They already have received the top scientific award, which makes their careers more or less bulletproof, and removing any need to ever prove themselves. So they’re just friendly people.
I had the honor of working with one at Harvard. After my post-doc in New York City came to a halt, I took up a Visiting Scientist position with a post-doc in Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach’s research group. Understand that Dudley didn’t even have to seek out research funds for his work anymore. After winning the Nobel Prize, students would find their own research funding, offered to only the most spectacular graduate students, who would then approach Dudley to ask to be in his research group. All he had to decide is if he is interested in the student’s research project, and if he had space.
Dudley was a trip. Every day, he would wander around his lab, like some kind of benevolent Lord, and look over everybody’s shoulder in turn. “And how are you today?” he would ask, kindly and non-judgmentally. “What are you working on?” It was an odd question since it was his lab and everybody was working technically for him. At the time I was working on thirteen carbon clusters. There was a debate as to if these clusters were simple chains thirteen carbons long, or rings. Some experimentalists were finding one, others were finding the other. My quantum simulations indicated to me an answer. It was temperature dependent. At higher temperatures, entropy would take over and the linear chain was favored, but at lower, the enthalpy of the system favored rings. In a short communication, I suggested a “crossover temperature”, based on my calculations, where one stopped being favored and the other began.
Not long ago, I was speaking with a friend about the famous people I’ve met. He had rubbed elbows with several actors through his classic car club, but my cache of famous run-ins were academicians for the most part. People like Dudley, and even General Mikael Miltstein who was in charge of the defense of the entire Soviet Union. My famous people don’t really have names. There are those who follow Nobel prizes intensely who no doubt would recognize them, but their band of followers would be significantly smaller than my friend who met Arnold. But I can tell you this about the famous people that I’ve met. Not only were they kind and humble, but they went out of their way to make me feel accepted. And that’s pretty cool.