LET INGA TELL YOU:
It was no accident that the other wives and I were not invited to Olof’s college roommate reunion in the Pacific Northwest. This was the ultimate Geek Tour.
It’s actually fairly amazing that these six physics majors, now 70, have managed to stay in such close contact all these years. Reunions are pretty much yearly, some related to weddings or milestone birthdays, others for no reason other than the pleasure of getting together.
Olof still likes to recall his first exposure to freshman physics professor and by-then Nobelist Richard Feynman as an undergraduate at Cal Tech. It involved a heavy steel ball attached by a cable to the lecture hall ceiling which was intentionally hurled at considerable velocity at the professor’s face, and, by not killing him, demonstrated some extremely important law of physics. It definitely got his students’ attention.
Whenever Olof and I have traveled over the years, Olof was always immediately attracted to the technical aspects of whatever we were doing. When we lived in Sweden and were considering a trip up above the Arctic Circle to Kiruna, friends said, “Why would you go there? There is nothing there but a huge iron ore mine.” Olof lit up like a Christmas tree. “There’s a mine?” (As an engineer, Olof’s heart beats faster at the thought of excavation.) When he learned that one could take a three-hour mine tour, this trip was sealed in steel.
Another time, we took a large passenger ferry across the Baltic. As soon as the boat started moving, I was clicking away at the scenery and Olof was hanging precariously over the rail studying the ships steering capability and babbling excitedly about vector thrusters. Engineers are very big on thrusters. (Or is it vectors?)
Two of Olof’s college roommates live in Washington state, and as it turns out, there is no lack of tech-y, physics-y stuff to do there. Fearing glassy-eyed spouses whining “Are we done yet?” they opted this year to reune without us. We wives imagined them geeking out by day, and hanging out at a local bar at night, lamenting the demise of the slide rule.
Up first for the guys was a trip to Hanford in the southeast corner of Washington for a tour of Reactor B where plutonium was first manufactured as part of the Manhattan Project. (Please ignore all errors; I truly have no idea what I’m talking about.) Clean-up is still underway all these years later to make sure that all the reactor fuel is truly, safely “cocooned.” Afterwards they went for lunch to what Olof described as a “nearby winery.”
“How nearby?” I inquired. “Were the grapes the size of baseballs? Did the wine glow in the dark?” Apparently not THAT nearby.
The next day they were off to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) which is a large-scale physics laboratory aimed at directly detecting gravitational waves. As I understand it (and believe me, I really DON’T understand it), gravitational waves were predicted to exist by Einstein based on his theory of general relativity, but he apparently didn’t think it could be proven. But the detectors at LIGO were able to detect gravitational waves from two colliding black holes. For people with Olof’s background, life doesn’t get more exciting than this.
A brief somewhat sentimental (such as these guys get sentimental) side trip was taken to visit the nearby potato farm that was one of the roommate’s first investments. In fact, he had tried to entice Olof to move up there and use his technical skills to manage a processing plant that would convert all those potatoes into frozen potato products. Olof’s vision for himself at the time didn’t include being a potato farmer in eastern Washington. “Just think, Olof” I said upon hearing this, “if you’d taken this path, imagine all the life experiences you would have missed, like four years in Riyadh, a year in Dayton, 18 months at a project at the Dallas airport, all those trips to Biloxi, more than a million miles on an airplane. You could have just had a quiet life in Yakima churning out French fries!”
Then it was a drive back across the state to Everett, Washington for a tour of the Boeing factory where airplanes are manufactured. I hear they got misty-eyed.
It goes without saying that a hugely good time was had by all. They’re already planning next year’s trip and their top contender is to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva. It was built to detect the Higgs Boson particle and for physics guys who actually understand muons and quarks and leptons, this would truly be a dream. I have to admit it does sound sort of cool if I could acquire enough knowledge between now and then to have even the teeniest understanding of it all. Is there a “Particle Physics for Dummies?” Maybe a children’s tour?
— Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org