Friday, 1 October 2010


We all had heroes growing up. Football starts, freedom fighters, rock stars. Mine were physicists.

So I was very excited the other day when I tuned in to a BBC Radio 4 programme about the wonderful life of the physicists equivalent of a rock god, Richard Feynman.

It was guys like Feynman, Paul Dirac and Murray Gell-Mann who inspired me to rebel in my teens and read physics at university instead of a sensible subject like engineering or accountancy. I tricked my Dad by claiming that it was just my strategy to get into University and I would swap to Engineering my second year, but as soon as I got in amongst the electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and wave particle duality I was smitten.

Unfortunately as the maths got harder I came to realise that my dream of the beautiful life of a physics professor was not to be. How sad. As Feynman said, maths is the language of physics, and I'm afraid my halting, pidgeon maths was just not strong enough to take me to the higher levels.

I did meet one of my boyhood heroes in real life though. I bumped into the Nobel-prize winner Murray Gell-Mann himself.

I had to go quite a long way to bump into him to be honest. Nearly 20 years ago I got married and for our honeymoon we (okay "I") decided to go to the States, hire a car and cruise along the legendary Route 66 through Texas and all the way to New Mexaco. Little did my wife know that the journey would end in a little town called Santa Fe, the home of a world famous scientific institute for the study of complexity. Fortunately Santa Fe happens to be a lovely, artistic, creative town so it wasn't a complete disaster.

After a week of driving around together, I was given permission to go and roam around on my own, so off I went to the Institute.

And so it came to pass that, while I was photocopying papers on the behaviour of ant colonies or genetic algorithms or something, I came face to face with the Great Man Himself.

He looked at me. I looked at him. Paused. A moment, frozen in time. Then in that unmistakable, gravelly voice he said "excuse me young man, I want to use the photocopier."

Wonderful. Wonderful. My hero. I will treasure those words for ever.

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