Published in the December 2015
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.37, No.4.
Nobel for Old Men
by Jeremy Whitlock
"I know you."
The words leave my lips before I realize I've spoken. I don't actually know this man. I know "of" him.
Perhaps it's the casual way he holds his drink. The tired, wise eyes that seem to see a different world than those around him.
"And I know why you're here."
He turns to me, nods, and takes another drink.
"This is kind of exciting," I hear myself continuing, "A Nobel prize in physics! We don't get too many of those in Canada."
"This makes four", the man concedes, staring into his half empty glass.
"Well let's see," I say, counting on my fingers like a child, "the last was Boyle in 2009, for inventing the charged-couple device. Then Brockhouse in 1994, for neutron scattering. Then Taylor in 1990, for inelastic electron scattering. And now McDonald, 2015, for neutrino mass. Yup, four."
"Unless you count Rutherford in 1908, for radioactivity," the man adds, "and you Canadians really should count him you know. He wasn't Canadian but he did the work here."
"Ah yes," I smile, "the one that started it all. Except he had to settle for that prize being in chemistry!"
He still hasn't looked my way, after that first perfunctory nod. I shift a little closer.
"Say, what was it like?" I ask, "All that brilliant science... I've heard stories, of the old days."
A pause, and then he turns.
"It's true," he says, "all of it."
Against my better judgement I emit an incredulous chuckle. The man ever so slightly straightens.
"I mean, all of it?" I ask, "It seemed so easy then to uncover earth-shattering discoveries. One might say even to earn a Nobel prize. Einstein, Rutherford, Fermi, all the greats - they could each have earned two or three."
"Science was fertile", the man finally offers with a nod, gazing past me at whatever ghosts he alone is privy to. "There was much to learn, and much fortitude to learn it."
"Ah but surely life was simpler then," I wonder, "the big questions were there for the answering... particles to be discovered... science was smaller, faster, more personal. Look at Rutherford's benchtop apparatus, and compare to McDonald's SNO laboratory. Look at the infrastructure, the sheer number of people involved."
This time a long reflection: upon my words presumably, but he seems to be plumbing greater depths.
Finally, nodding: "Life was simpler."
We take a drink.
"Learning was simpler," the man adds, more quietly. I lean closer to hear.
"Knowledge was king. Business, finance, politics, medicine, even the occasional war - it was all important and consuming. But above all, knowledge was king. We didn't lose sight of the need... the basic human need... to push back our horizons. Governments knew this. Corporations knew this."
I detect longing, almost as for a lost child.
"What do the youth see in science today? Predefined, scheduled, project managed, fitting within an envelope, cost-recovered, risk mitigated, planned, budgeted, gap-assessed, addressing policy outcomes..."
I sigh, then shrug.
"Maybe," I whisper, hesitatingly, "maybe it wasn't so different back then. Only..."
".... only policy outcomes included learning," he finishes.
The ensuing silence is shattered by his stool scraping backwards. The man rises with his coat, turns, picks up his glass with its lingering mouthful.
"To neutrinos," he says, and I barely sense a smile as he drinks.
I raise my glass. "To neutrinos."
In a moment he is gone, and I'm left with the ghosts I cannot see. I do hope I see more of him in the future.