Monday, May 14, 2007

The Bethe that Got Away (Part II)

Thoughts by Alaina G. Levine (continued)

A number of years ago, I was working a gig as the assistant to an editor of a major journal. My job was simple: process the papers as they were submitted and follow up with the referees.

Aside from an occasional 2am call I made to scientists in places like Russia and Denmark reminding them their reviews were overdue, it was a mostly uneventful, but relaxing, position. But one day, I walked into my office and my life changed.

On my desk was a packet that included a type-written paper and a type-written letter. My boss attached a sticky note asking me to copy and file it. Everything was within normal parameters until I glanced at the signature on the letter.

My heart stopped as I read it – the letter was from Hans Bethe.

To me, the offspring of a scholar of physics history, who knew about Oppie and his crew even as a wee one, this was equivalent to being handed an album autographed by a Beatle (specifically Ringo).

The letter was not important to the review process; it was only the cover letter after all, so I asked my boss if I could keep it. He told me no, and instructed me to file it. As a consolation, he offered that when the next Bethe paper came in, I could keep that accompanying letter. I was obviously disappointed but I respected the editor’s decision.

But I pined for the pen of the Prize-winner. So one day a few weeks later, I opened the file just to glance at the signature of this remarkable scientist and dream about adding it to my collection one day. But shocker of shocks, the letter was gone!

I told my boss about it, concerned that some bandit had snuck into the office and stolen this valuable piece of physics history. Surprisingly, he did not display any sense of astonishment at its disappearance. He simply shrugged it off.

My heart sank. The letter was gone, and my dream of a Bethe signature for my collection broke into a million little quark-sized pieces.

Years later, it finally occurred to me that the editor, realizing its value, probably procured the letter for himself and then pretended to not know anything about its departure. Perhaps he has his own collection of Nobel autographs.

I vowed that no one would come between me and a Bethe again. Or for that matter, a Lederman or a Curl. I am getting serious now, and I am still growing my collection. A plan is to put the signatures on the web, and if you would like to contribute, please email me through my website or mail your signature to:

Alaina Levine
PO Box 87225
Tucson, AZ 85754

I welcome autographs from all Nobels, both once and future.

Copyright, 2007, Alaina G. Levine.

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