April 27, 2014

The Inescapability of Norman


Shortly after being accepted to the University of Chicago in 1982, I took a day off school so I could tag along when another newly-accepted student (a girl I happened to have a terrible crush on at the time) and her dad drove down to the campus for some sort of tour and informal orientation. I don’t recall much of what was involved save for the informal luncheon in the middle. An open, gray room with tall, dirty windows and a cement floor had been set up with a handful of folding tables and a paper plate buffet. After half-filling a plate with fried chicken, I sat down alone at one of the empty tables near a window. A moment later a short, round man in his sixties or seventies sat down across from me. He had a thin, sloping nose, wore gold-rimmed spectacles, and his white hair had been combed straight back from his high forehead. He removed the pipe from his mouth and set it next to his own paper plate, then introduced himself. He spoke softly and gently, and I immediately forgot his name.

            After a few futile attempts to cut into the fried chicken with the plastic cutlery we’d been given, watching the chicken leg slip and roll away across the plate each time, he finally set the knife and fork down. “Well,” he said with a sad, apologetic smile, “when tools fail us we resort to our primal selves.” He picked up the chicken leg with his fingers and began eating. As we ate, he asked me a few standard questions—what I was planning to study, why I was interested in the University of Chicago, the rest—informing me along the way he was a professor of physical chemistry.

            I told him (it would be a few months until I learned better) that I was going to be studying physics, but stopped short of explaining I’d applied to Chicago and only Chicago on account of the Manhattan Project. I’d been obsessed with the Manhattan Project for years, an offshoot, I’m guessing, of my generally apocalyptic outlook. I had a shelf full of books and articles at home, consumed everything I could about it, and was particularly fascinated by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Studying physics right smack dab where the Manhattan Project was born, well, just seemed the thing to do. In fact it was the only thing to do. But I figured bringing any of that up now might be a bad move. Instead I told him about the particular problems in theoretical physics at the time that most interested me. I was such a damn geek. Not long after we started talking we were joined by the girl I had the crush on and her dad, and the introductions began again.

            When he finished his chicken, the professor grabbed his plate and pipe, wished me luck, and left. I figured at the time it must’ve been some sort of penance for some terrible misstep on his part. As punishment for whatever it was he’d done, he’d been forced to stop by and make friendly chit-chat with a couple of incoming students. A few minutes of putting on a happy intellectual face and making uncomfortable, disappointing conversation with these useless newbies, and he was free to go back to work.

            On the drive back to Green Bay that afternoon, the girl I had the crush on told me repeatedly I’d made a fool of myself, I shouldn’t have said all the things I did, I sounded like a big idiot. I’ve heard that a lot from people ever since I was a kid. You’d think I’d take the hint.

            Well, now jump ahead three months to my first week at the university. Thanks to a glitch somewhere along the line, there was a problem with my dining hall card. As a result, I was not allowed to eat in the dorm for the first three days. That meant I didn’t eat at all for the first three days. So when a free welcoming picnic on the university president’s front lawn was announced, I lurked over there quietly, trying to remain invisible and trying not to look like I was about to collapse from hunger. My head was pounding. It was another paper plate buffet, so I filled a plate with what I could carry and found an empty picnic table near the exit so I could make a fast getaway if need be. as I began cramming food (I didn’t care what it was) into my mouth, someone sat down across from me. I looked up, and it was that same old physical chemistry professor. He didn’t seem to remember me, and I never had learned his name. Despite the heat and unbearable humidity of that afternoon, he was wearing a dark suit and tie. Maybe it was his job to track down those students seen eating alone just to minimize the general sense of isolation and alienation that permeated the campus. Again he set his pipe down and began speaking in that gentle voice, giving me a welcoming spiel about the wonders of the University of Chicago. Maybe it was good he didn’t remember me, given I’d apparently made such an ass of myself the first time we met.

            “Hello there Professor Nachtrieb,” a voice next to me said. “Mind if I sit down?” A tall, reedy professorial type with glasses and a thick, gray, drooping mustache took a seat next to me. His name, I learned, was Wayne C. Booth, a humanities professor I would likewise run into a few times during my brief stretch at the U of C. He’d make a splash a few years after I left with a book called The Company We Keep, in which he argued if you read bad, violent, hateful books, you’ll become a bad person (go figure).

            Anyway, back at the picnic all I knew was that I was surrounded. Lucky for me, the two of them began talking like old academic buddies, which left me off the hook.

            “So how was your vacation, professor?”

            “Oh, it was quite lovely. I vacationed in Greece this summer, where I read The Aeneid.”

            “Ah, very good. In the original?”

            It struck me at first what I was seeing was a ruse, an act these two put on for any newbie they encountered to create an illusion of what academic life was all about, with chemists who read the classics and lit professors who knew science. They talked about students who impressed them and their hopes for the future. I didn’t say a word. After a bit I got the feeling that no, this wasn’t a ruse, a second-hand pep talk for newbies—these guys were serious. And that scared the hell out of me. I cleaned off my plate, tossed it in the trash, and ran away.

            Okay, now we jump a few more months down the line, when I found myself at some kind of obligatory academic cocktail party. There were a lot of those at Chicago, sometimes in the dorms, sometimes at professors’ homes, with students and faculty alike invited to mingle and chat casually outside the classroom. I neither mingled nor chatted as a rule but had to be there, so found myself standing against a wall looking nervous, a warm beer in my hand.

            Suddenly he was next to me again, the little white-haired physical chemist. Much to my relief he still didn’t seem to remember me, or if he did he made no mention of it.. He had a glass of wine in his hand, and it obviously wasn’t his first. He began talking, and in that soft voice of his it came out. His name was Norman Nachtrieb, and he had worked on the Manhattan Project from the beginning, both in Chicago and later at Los Alamos. It shouldn’t have surprised me at all. You run into any scientists at Chicago over the age of sixty-five—physicists, chemists, mathematicians—and they all worked on the fucking Manhattan Project.

            He told me about the terrible living conditions at Los Alamos, about the team he worked with and about Enrico Fermi, though he didn’t know Oppenheimer. I was a little too tongue-tied to find myself talking to someone who’d been a part of something I’d studied so thoroughly to ask any useful questions. I did realize, however, that I probably did come off like a stupid ass at our first meeting, and I was relieved he didn’t recall it.

            “We got highly classified memos every day,” he said as the wine went to work. “Thousands of them. We were supposed to destroy them after reading, but I kept them all. And one of these days I’m going to publish them and blow the lid off that whole operation.”

            He never elaborated on that, and so far as I know, never published the memos.

            It was inevitable, really, that my last semester there I would end up in his class. He seemed to be everywhere. By this point it had been made savagely, brutally clear that I should not be studying physics, and was only in Professor Nachtrieb’s course in order to get some necessary credits.

            The second or third week, I was in my usual front row center seat in the auditorium before class started and he was up by the lectern preparing his notes. Suddenly he looked up at me, then slowly made his way down to the front row. He removed the ever-present pipe and said, “I always like to see students sitting in the front row. It tells me they’re eager to learn.” I didn’t bother telling him I was only in the front row because I’d never be able to see the board otherwise. Nor did I warn him that I was going to be a terrible disappointment. I’d let him find that out for himself.

            Some weeks into the class, perhaps sensing I was having a hard time with entropy (something I understand all too well now), he stopped me after class and handed me a small book entitled “Entropy and Life,” offering some extra credit if I wrote him a paper about it. I took the book back to my dorm room and read it carefully, still hopelessly wanting to make some kind of splash. I then wrote a paper on it in which I proposed some sort of cockamamie theory that made an awful lot of sense to me at the time. A little too proud of myself I handed the paper to Professor Nachtrieb after the next class, and gave him a thumbnail outline of my brilliant new theory of entropy.

            He slowly pulled the pipe from his mouth and shook his head, the same way he did whenever a student, however well-intentioned, made an incredibly stupid point.

            “No,” he said, gently and kindly as ever, “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way . . . You see, everything falls apart, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing at all.”

            Years later I learned that Professor Nachtrieb was the author of two fundamental undergrad chemistry textbooks, and was considered one of the most beloved faculty members at Chicago. So it wasn’t an act after all, and there was nothing underhanded about our chance meetings. He really was a splendid teacher, even if I was a miserable student. But to me he will always and forever be the little elf who kept magically appearing everywhere, and the guy with that boxful of classified memos, waiting for the right time to blow the lid off the Manhattan Project.


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