Monday, May 14, 2007

The Bethe that Got Away (Part I)

Thoughts by Alaina G. Levine

Some people collect stamps or model trains. I collect the autographs of Nobel-prize winning scientists. I don’t have many, but my collection is growing.

I started seeking the signatures years ago in a fortuitous moment at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. While doing PR at the fair in 2000, I sat in on a panel discussion with five Nobels.

After the talk concluded, I saw in amazement as the kids in the audience rushed the stage, clutching the event program in their sweaty hands with the focused goal of getting the scientists’ autographs.It was pandemonium. It was chaos (in application, not theory). The scientists were celebrities to these children.

Not to be left out, and realizing the youth often are an excellent barometer of value trends, I grabbed my program and pushed my way through the crowd.

I succeeded in securing what I considered at the time to be the most coveted of the autographs: those of Lederman and Curl. Sure, I knocked down some nerds along the way, but collateral damage is to be expected when your eyes are on the (Nobel) Prize.

Later I ran into Lederman and introduced myself. I had been working for the University of Arizona (UA) Physics Department at the time and I complimented him on his work to promote changes in physics education in secondary school. He took my business card and promised to stay in touch.

Lo and behold, within two weeks he mailed me a packet of articles and information about his cause. And as I read the literature I knew I had scored big time: he had included a personal letter to me thanking me for my help, and signed it “Yours Truly, Leon”.

So I realized I had something here. It didn’t take me long to gather more. Alan Heeger stopped by the campus that fall for a lecture and I got his John Hancock on a promotional poster with his picture. And of course, I couldn’t resist asking Murray Gell-Mann for his autograph following a seminar he gave at the UA on Native American archeology. I think he got a kick out of my request.

Like any dedicated collector, there came a time when I was presented with a monumental opportunity to grab what I considered to be the jackpot, the gold at the end of the physics rainbow, the piece that I knew would make my menagerie the envy of all science geeks everywhere and give my life purpose.

But like the climax of a good movie, just as I had the coveted treasure in reach, it ultimately slipped through my fingers. Here is my tale...

Stay tuned for part II!

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