AMy working life to date has had many highlights. Some of them outline the nature of daily work in Human Resources and Talent Management. Here’s the story of one of my most enjoyable days ever at work. It gave cause for deep reflection on the ethics of work, which I will pick up on in another post.
It’s a Summer evening in 2016 on the banks of Lake Constance (Bodensee) after the formal events at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and I was in a quaint timber-framed restaurant waiting to host a dinner on behalf of the Helmholtz Association. Eight of the most talented post-doctoral researchers from the Association’s 40,000+ staff had been invited to make conversation with a Nobel Laureate. All I had to do was check that the researchers turned up, oil the conversation with the Laureate and pay the bill.
I didn’t know which Laureate would be assigned to our event but I hoped that, like 2015, more than one Laureate would be attracted by a free gourmet meal. In 2016, Wüthrich, Lehn and Cronin rolled up and chatted with the postdoctoral researchers about anything ranging from incomprehensible chemical phenomena to cute Mongolian ponies and maintaining modesty whilst being revered by others (sage advice from credible mentors) to sexism in research laboratories.
This year, my researchers were early and started guessing which Laureate might turn up. A quiet man in his 90s soon appeared with his female companion. She piped up, ‘You must be Andrew, I’m Atholie and this is Roy.’ Roy remained subdued, maybe knackered from climbing the gnarled oak stairs.
Not knowing the list of Laureates, I asked Roy for his surname. ‘Glauber. Physics. 2005.’
After Atholie lowered him down onto the carved bench and sat snuggly next to him I poured them both a water. He settled and I slowly lured him into conversation with the youngsters and withdrew. A very pleasant and inspiring exchange flowed between ‘Glauber. Physics. 2005’ and the researchers. Roy was normal. Like them he liked to discuss science.
I chatted with Atholie. She told me that he hoped his Nobel Prize winning work on the nature of light and perhaps some satire on academic culture (he was the Keeper of the Broom at the Ig Nobel Prize) dominated conversation and not his work as a teenager. She was fishing for me to ask, but I didn’t want to within his earshot. So, I looked it up after.
He was recruited at the age of 18 to be part of the Manhattan Project calculating the critical mass for a nuclear explosion and one of the last people alive to have witnessed the ‘Trinity Test’, the first ever nuclear detonation.
I guess his feelings about being part of advancing humanity into a ‘new and awful’ (his words) era created a level of nervous hypervigilance for the question, ‘How does it feel?’ Mercifully, no one asked him. They asked about how he felt about becoming a Laureate some 30 years after his discoveries on the nature of light in the 1960s.
If there was anyone that I have met who has lived ‘under the shadow of the bomb’ it is Glauber, known for not only being a scientist but an intellectual who reflected deeply on research ethics and academic culture. His knowledge not only helped in the race towards a nuclear device but his invention of Quantum Optics helps discoveries in fundamental physics which have applications in many industrial fields from medicine to computing.
I’m sure that he hoped until he died (2018) that his earlier mathematics would never be applied in the same way again and that it would only be use for peaceful, ethical purposes.