When I was a graduate student, on my second year I was put in an office that was shared with two postdocs – Arne Brataas and Stefan Kehrein. It made me really feel like I was being initiated into this community of theoretical physicists – something I had been dreaming of since I was a teenager. The most conspicuous thing in the office (Harvard’s Lyman 332 if I recall correctly), was a big three or four panel poster of an astounding mountain range, craggy peaks, glaciers, steep drops. There was a small note on the corner: “The Eiger et al. – the amazing history of this poster is recounted in the book ‘Who Got Polchinski’s Office’ ”*
There is no such book of course, but about that time Polchinski was one of the most famous string theorists, having written the definitive textbook on the topic. But, it seems that it was I who had his office. Looking around a bit, I also discovered a map of the city of Rehovot hanging hidden behind the bookcase. As a student arriving to Harvard from Israel a year before, it was a nice reminder that I was not the first Israeli in that office, and that a graduate of the Weizmann Institute had likely been there before me.
Suddenly, I was a part of this secret society with its deities and temples, its stories and its heroes.
I think that the role of these stories and heroes is a bit overlooked in the training of new scientists. A good physics education seems to rely on listening to lecture, reading a textbook, solving exercises, and going to lab and shining some lasers at each other. But if I think of what got me excited in the first place – it was the people. Nothing got me more fired up as a teenager than reading Feynman’s collection of anecdotes. During college, it wasn’t just solving problems for me. I was lucky having Igor Lisenker – a recent immigrant to Israel from Moscow – share his collection of Russian Olympiad problems in Physics, their history, and the relevant Russian jokes to go with them. That’s also why my grad school office was so great. I was sharing the room with two postdocs (Arne Brataas of spintronics fame, and Stefan Kehrein who made the Wegner flow equation method useful) and immersed in a group which had the likes of Eugene Demler (who later became my co-mentor) and Yuval Oreg. Every hour of gossiping with my officemates and neighbors ended up with me learning new physics wrapped in some personal anecdote. That’s how I remembered things. Forget books – for me it was all notes made out of an oral tradition relayed to me by these mentors. Then again, maybe I’m just an unrelenting gossip.
At Caltech, as a young faculty, the point was driven home to me when I attended a Physics 11 meeting presided by Tom Tombrello. Who knows how true his stories were, but they were so great; you could see the shining eyes of the freshmen who were taking the class. They got inspired. I still remember: Tombrello talked about advising the military on using big bubbles to crack the hulls of warships, and of spontaneous fission in ancient uranium deposits in Africa.**
You may wonder what gave me this retrospective mood. Well, I’m in a middle of (finally) a sabbatical. Life is again that of a grad student – no dishwasher, shared office at FU Berlin, and a (rather nice) student apartment. Also, a lot of time to think back without the Caltech responsibilities. More than anything though, my current vacation spot is responsible for bringing Polchinski and my old Lyman 332 office together, through its big poster surface. Swiss readers may guess where I’m writing this blog entry, my first, from. I’m sitting in bed in the Gletschergarten hotel in Grindelwald, Switzerland. I see the Eiger, et al., again, but this time, outside my window. It’s beautiful. Tragic, with a lot of history. No wonder people get thrilled climbing it.
* It was signed – Margaret E. Law, who was the director of the Harvard physics department at the time. Notes by her were scattered across the department, including, I kid you not, above the men’s room urinals.
** Doubtful myself, here is what I found on google: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ancient-nuclear-reactor
The poster was purchased by Polchinski, shortly after his arrival as a postdoc in 1982, and remained after he left for UT Austin in 1984.
The annotation was added when the office was mine in the late 80’s (a take-off on the book entitled “Who Got Einstein’s Office?” by E. Regis, published in 1988).
Gil, I should have told you more Caltech stories when I was still around. 🙂
Not only is the Oklo nuclear reactor real, it is (or at one time was) one of the better ways to test for time-variation of the fundamental constants: http://prc.aps.org/abstract/PRC/v74/i2/e024607
In 1995 I shared an office in the Harvard’s Jefferson lab with yet another Alexander who just wrote the very first paper in Nature about usage of Oklo nuclear reactor for testing of fundamental constants.