Feature: May 8, 1996
A student's illusion of predictability comes to an end, in science and in life
In the fall of 1969, there were 500,000 american troops in Vietnam. The death of Ho Chi Minh caused only a brief interruption in the 15yearold war. And I, beginning my senior year at Princeton, was faced with the first real challenge to a life of privilege and ease. I was thrown into the national lottery for the draft. It was the first selective-service lottery in the United States since 1942. World War II, of course, had been a "popular" war. My father had been constantly afraid of dying on the beaches of Italy or Sicily, but he had not hesitated to enlist when he came of age, nor had any of his friends. My friends, by contrast, did everything possible to escape military service. They were usually successful. Many got educational deferments simply for being in college. Louis, a quiet boy with a brooding intelligence, had dressed up as a Cherokee Indian for his physical examination, including war paint and feathers, and received a psychiatric release. Others moved to Canada and were sent money from home. But the new lottery seemed a great equalizer of classes and backgrounds. Everyone faced the same odds. Each birth date was to be assigned a number by a toss of the dice. Local draft boards would begin drafting at number one and work their way upward.
The drawing took place on December 1 at 8 p.m.. Eastern Standard Time. Only the day before, on a Sunday, I had returned from Thanksgiving vacation and a grand dinner with my parents and brothers and cousins. After dinner, my mother, determined to be gay, placed a bossa nova album on the record player and made all of us dance with her barefoot in the living room. Now, a few evenings later, I sat anxiously with my roommates in our comfortable dormitory room, listening to the radio. The scent of marijuana hung in the air. I imagined millions of other young men, shortorder cooks in hamburger joints and gas station attendants trying to close for the night and other students in their rooms, all listening to their radios. Three hundred and sixtysix capsules were plucked from a cylindrical glass bowl in a government room in Washington, D.C. The first birthday chosen was September 14. I didn't know anyone born on that day, but I felt sorry for the poor devils. My birth date was chosen 280 draws later. I was never called. About a quarter of my classmates ended up in some kind of military service, that year or later.
Oddly, I remember that fall as intensely beautiful. Autumn had never been a particularly engaging season in Tennessee, where I had grown up, but here, up along the East Coast, the air was so clear and transparent that you felt you might see to the curve of the earth. I recall often hearing an extraordinary concert from a maple tree outside my dormitory window. Hundreds of birds had decided to roost in that tree for the season. They did not twitter or chirp but instead gave out a continuous drawnout song. When hundreds sang in unison, the sound was an unbroken chorus, with the effect on the hearing like that of a waterfall on the sight, a multitude of tiny droplets combining to make one sweeping flow. The birds stayed until the end of October, then one day were suddenly gone in their migration south.
The lottery disturbed me in many ways. I had lived a life of selfimposed blindness, not just the blindness that comes with financial good fortune and social entitlement. There was, of course, the real possibility of being sent to Vietnam and killed. But this outcome was so unimaginable that it never entered my consciousness. I had stood on the sidelines in naive disbelief as my classmates tried to batter down the front door to the Institute for Defense Analysis. I avoided the bonfires. When a young assistant professor sitting next to me at dinner one night lit a match to his draft card and invited us students to join him, I admired his boldness but didn't have a shred of understanding of what he had done. The lottery forced a vast, unwanted world on me, and the sensation was a painful gush of blood through the veins. Particularly distressing was the element of randomness, the uncertainty. I wanted to make decisions. I would go on to graduate school or I wouldn't. I would pursue a particular young woman or I wouldn't. I would leave my bicycle out in the courtyard at night or I would haul it down to the basement.
Science, for me, had been a source of certainty. I was a physics major, and physics reduced the world to its irreducible particles and forces. It is a banality to say that science holds a reductionist view of the world, and even a 21year-old knew that life wasn't so simple. But science, especially physics, provides a powerful illusion of simplicity and certainty. Textbooks on physics rarely offer any discussion of the history of the subject, with its wrong turns and prejudices and human passions. Instead, there are Laws. And the Laws seduce with their beauty and precision. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The gravitational force between two masses varies inversely with the square of the distance between them. Even Heisenberg's quantum Uncertainty Principle, which proclaimed that the future cannot be determined from the past, gave a definite mathematical formula for containing uncertainties, like a soundproof room built around someone who is screaming. More than its purity and grace, physics was Certainty. And Certainty, for reasons of my own temperament and perhaps also my middleclass upbringing, was my ally. Archimedes and Euclid had stood for Certainty. Lucretius had invoked the atomistic theory of the world in order to free humankind from the vagaries of the gods.
As a senior, of course, I was required to do a thesis. For some reason that I still cannot fathom, I chose to do an experimental thesis-that is, to build an apparatus for doing an experiment in physics. I had already shown myself completely incompetent in the laboratory. A gadget that I had constructed for my junioryear lab project caught fire because of faulty wiring. The oscilloscope, a standard tool for circuit design, a big metal box covered with knobs for adjusting voltages and currents, baffled me. On the other hand, I was good at theoretical calculations. I loved going from one equation to the next until arriving at the answer, as definite and unassailable as the area of a circle. I loved the cleanliness of pencils and paper. Why I didn't undertake a thesis in theoretical physics I do not know.
Perhaps it was my choice of thesis adviser, whom i will call Professor Turgot. There was something about him that I found immensely appealing. He was a big bearlike man, fortyish, beginning to bald, stoopshouldered, whose shirttails always drooped down behind him. He was not at all the absent-minded professor. He could fix me and all I was thinking with one eagle glance. When he lectured in the classroom, he addressed the blackboard rather than his students, as if he were having a private conversation with some mythical being living in the world he had created in equations and diagrams. I knew that this lecturing style was deficient, but it conveyed a lifelong fascination with his subject. I wondered whether I could contain my own passion for science, keep it from thinning out and dispersing for 20 more years, when I would reach the age of Professor Turgot.
Professor T was focused, but at the same time he was humble about the limitations of his knowledge. He sometimes confessed his professional blunders, an error in a calculation, a mispositioning of a target in the cyclotron. The rest of our teachers, almost without exception, projected the impression that they had gotten to where they were on a more or less laserlike trajectory. They had a magnificent selfconfidence, which I am sure inspired many of their students. But even I, with my devotion to certainty, did not feel comfortable doing research with such a person. I knew that I made mistakes, and a thesis adviser who did so as well might allow me to graduate with my dignity. After class, Professor T, bulkily slumped against the wall and covered with chalk dust, would sometimes talk to me about his wife. Almost immediately, he began referring to her as Dorothy, so that when I finally met her, at dinner in the Turgots' small house, I felt as if I knew her. None of the other professors ever mentioned their spouses. I asked Professor T to be my thesis adviser. He grinned and said I would be doing an experimental thesis.
The laboratory where I began working was a huge cavern of a place, resembling a warehouse more than anything else. The space was filled with natural light, from skylights 30 feet overhead, as in an artist's studio. There was always an odd smell in the lab-not an unpleasant smell-of oil and dry ice. Canisters filled with liquid nitrogen sat on the concrete floor. When opened, these would emit a wonderful hissing noise as the liquid bubbled and evaporated and escaped in thick opaline clouds. Along three walls, stretching for a hundred feet, were tabletops and workbenches, oscilloscopes, boxes of capacitors and resistors, odd pieces of metal, rubber tubing, Geiger counters, notebooks with radioactive decay rates handwritten in neat columns of figures. There were always a few novels by Proust and Gide sitting casually on a lab table. Professor T's wife, Dorothy, was a scholar of French literature. I like to think that she sometimes visited the lab in the evening, to keep her husband company when he worked there after hours.
In one corner of the lab, a shower faucet protruded inelegantly from the wall, in case someone accidentally came into bodily contact with a radioactive substance and needed to strip down immediately and wash off. The radiation shower I noted with special interest, as I discovered that I had to confront radioactive atoms on a daily basis. My project was to build a device capable of measuring the radioactive disintegration of excited states of neptunium. Neptunium, discovered in 1940, was the first chemical element produced artificially by humankind. Since its atomic number, 93, was just beyond that of uranium, 92, it was named for Neptune, the planet just beyond Uranus. (Plutonium, at atomic number 94, was named after Pluto.) The idea for my thesis, as it evolved in discussions with Professor T, was that the excited neptunium would be created by bombarding a uranium target in the cyclotron. The disintegrating fragments of the neptunium nuclei, in flight through my apparatus, would cause a gas to scintillate, and these scintillations would be detected by several electronic photomultiplier tubes. By carefully measuring the rate at which neptunium nuclei fragmented, we could learn something about the forces struggling and churning within the atom.
As I stumbled along, writing up the specifications of various parts to be made in the machine shop and then respecifying when the parts didn't fit, I was helped by Dave, Professor T's assistant. Dave was indispensable. He thought the undergraduates were "bloody Communists," and he despised the bearded protest marchers, but he was devoted to Professor T and his students, and he was the only person who could get the vacuum pump to behave. A vacuum pump, when working properly, starts out with a coarse, grating sound, like the chug of a locomotive, then graduates to a clicking whine, rising in pitch, and ends with a quiet, smooth hum when a good vacuum has been attained. When there is a leak in the system, the pump never progresses beyond the rough, grating chugs. On a number of occasions, I had to pump all the air out of my tangle of brass fittings and Mylar meshes, down to a billionth of an atmosphere. After applying epoxy and Glyptal to all the suspicious joints, we would turn on the vacuum pump. Dave understood that pump, as well as most things in the lab. His understanding went even further than that. I believe he was romantically involved with the woman who delivered small supplies to the lab. After her delivery each week, she would stand at an outside window and look in at him, sadly and longingly.
That winter Dave and I were often the only people in the lab, me puzzling over response curves of the photomultiplier tubes and him quietly fixing some gadget that had broken. Occasionally I had to stop and walk over to an electric heater for warmth. Outside, the snow lay across the ground in a vast white silence. Then I would hear a squeaking and crunching, distant at first but gaining in volume, the sound of Professor Turgot's galoshes in the snow as he walked along the path from his office to the lab to check on his charges.
My apparatus passed all its preliminary tests, but I never did truly believe that the final experiment would work, and I don't think Professor Turgot did, either. When it was time to insert the apparatus into the cyclotron in another building, I received a mysterious message that the cyclotron couldn't be scheduled until a few months after I'd graduated. "I'll write you about the results," Professor T kindly said, and gave me high marks on my endless drawings of side views and top views and calculations of solid angles and efficiencies. Professor Turgot never wrote, and I never asked.
One spring afternoon, soon after nixon had ordered the invasion of Cambodia, the Department of Physics held an extraordinary meeting. All the physics faculty and students crowded together into a small room to discuss our departmental response to the student riots taking place on campus. With neatly chalked equations still on the blackboard from some previous hour, faculty members got up one by one and delivered their views on the war. Most were strongly opposed, but not all. There were brief and passionate speeches about the nature of democracy, the rights of governments, the purpose of education, moral responsibility. I could hardly recognize these people dressed up like our measured professors. The little room became a struggling upsidedown box. I needed air. The discussion turned to a practical matter. What should the department do with its students who were cutting their classes? In the end, the faculty decided to exempt seniors from their final exams and, in some cases, their theses.
I reeled out of the room. To my dizzy and confused mind, randomness had finally won out. The world was a jumble of mistaken adventures, crossed wires, mirrors at odd angles. Certainty was a deception. And for me, at that moment in my life, there was either certainty or randomness, nothing in between.
I called Andrew, a roommate from freshman year and a quiet boy like myself. We walked to Lake Carnegie, a mile away, and went sailing. It was early May. The breeze was so light that we finally lowered the sails and just drifted, half asleep in the hot thick air. We took off our shirts. Soon we were coasting near one of the shores, passing below willow trees that hung down into the boat and tickled our faces with their soft filigree leaves. Finally, a large branch got tangled in the mast and stopped our motion altogether, and we just lay there, enjoying the shade. I got up from my practically prone position and saw that our boat was surrounded by lilies, floating just next to the shore. A few had started to bloom, in luscious white flowers with a speck of purple at their centers. We lay there for hours.
And as we lay there, accidents happened all around us. A bird landed in a nearby tree for no reason and began singing, then flew off just as unexpectedly. Twigs snapped. Clouds changed shape. Grasses rustled with the movements of unseen animals. The earth wobbled imperceptibly on its axis, as bits of cosmic debris randomly bombarded it from space. One such piece of debris, billions of years in the past, had struck with unusual force and cocked the planet over, producing a tilt of 23 degrees, producing uneven heating as the earth orbited the sun, producing the seasons. A crumpled piece of paper slowly drifted past in the water, caught on a stick. Some writing on it had become smeared and illegible, perhaps a schedule of someone's appointments, or a note to a lover.
Alan Lightman '70 is head of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. This piece is excerpted from his new collection of essays, Dance for Two, published by Pantheon Books.