I have the greatest possible respect for Yuan Lee and I think he will appreciate this silly little story I am about to relate. I met him at the University of California I-House last year, where he was giving a lecture promoting a scientific career. Lee has won a Nobel Prize, and it was an earned prize not an unearned honorarium like the one that was recently given to our current President in an obvious attempt to gain some political leverage. As Dr. Lee’s and my conversation developed, it turned out that our paths had crossed once before in the 1960’s in Burris Cunningham‘s home. Lee was a super hard-working grad student and I was an up-and-coming coffee-shop raconteur who somehow had gained the interest of Burris’s daughter. I was introduced, but they were obviously involved in some important business, with papers spread over the dining room table, so that was the extent of it. I don’t know why that particular event on Bret Harte Street stuck in my memory, but it did.
Lee already had a promising career and had moved through several huge upward steps to what was probably the best possible chemistry lab in the world at the time, the University of California, Berkeley Rad Lab. It was here where they were creating new elements and posting their qualities for the world to see. These elements are now on the bottom of the Periodic Table in every chemistry classroom in the world. Because they were working with vanishingly small quantities of elements and isotopes that themselves vanished in an instant, it required very exacting work and the creation of new tools and methods for working with these isotopes. Lee was working for Cunningham, the top man in the field, who had isolated the element plutonium from the debris of stuff created by Glenn Seaborg, Ernest Lawrence and other physicists, which set off the creation of a whole new city near Richland, Washington, where I went to high school, to create more of the unnatural stuff. This plutonium was used to create the first atomic bomb explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, two months before a uranium bomb was exploded over Hiroshima, Japan. The lab where he was working certainly had an impressive record! Dr. Lee went on to bring even more glory to the Rad Lab and himself by devising ways of trapping and analyzing single molecules of matter using laser beams.
At the I-House lecture Dr. Lee was talking about his life as a chemist and mentioned Burris Cunningham more times than he mentioned all the other famous people he was associated with put together. And of course he had to mention his encounter with Albert Einstein. It was a funny story because as an illustrious grad student at Columbia he was given the opportunity to have an encounter with Einstein. So Lee traveled the couple of hours to the appointed meeting place on the Princeton University campus, under a particular statue and at a particular park bench. This would have been about 1955, when Lee was a youth and Einstein was about to pass on, I mean die. Lee got there early and sat waiting and waiting and finally here comes Einstein, ambling along talking to someone. Apparently Einstein was told about this appointment so he paused in front of Lee and asked what was he studying, and Lee said whatever it was, to which Einstein replied that that subject was a waste of time and ambled on with his companion. And so Lee’s encounter with the most famous physicist of all time was a painful memory. Comic in the long run because Yuan Lee went on to win a Nobel Prize in a field which Einstein said was a waste of time.
My conversation with Lee, as I remember it, was to bring up my event at Princeton. It was very similar to his and about a year later. Einstein had recently died, and my set up was with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the then reigning most famous scientist. He was the man who headed the Manhattan Project and created the atomic bombs. I am certainly no scientist, but was attending an event called The Encampment for Citizenship which was being held in Oppenheimer’s old high school. I got to do the photographs for the Encampment and was given a key to the chemistry lab, where the photo lab was located. It had been renamed the Oppenheimer lab in honor of their most illustrious graduate. I don’t know why, but these super successful intellectually elite people really liked me. Perhaps in part because of my family name, the distant relatives of whom are fabulously wealthy New Yorkers.
I have wondered for years why Oppenheimer named the first A-bomb ever detonated the Trinity. The name Manhattan Project came from their first office building just down the street from the world famous Trinity Church,which abuts the west end of Wall Street and the graveyard where Caroline Schermerhorn Astor is buried under the largest monument in the church’s very small graveyard. It is pure speculation, but these famous people treated me with some sort of undeserved respect. In any case, it was through these people that I got to visit with Oppenheimer at his home in Princeton for a full half hour and it was wonderfully memorable for me. It was the most gentlemanly encounter of my life.
My visit to Princeton’s world-famous physicist was so much better than Lee’s.