January 21, 2006

wright was wrong

i had lunch a few days ago with my college's esteemed president. it was surprisingly dull. basically we all went around, said our names/majors/home states and then had small talk for like an hour. the closest we came to discussing college policy was when we talked about the writing program...which i guess is some kind of contentious issue that i have never heard of. frankly, the president's intern was a lot better at inspiring conversation. at the beginning when we were all stating our names she asked us to say which author, living or dead, we would most like to have lunch with. the first few students chose these weird people i had never heard of. when it was my turn, i replied that if he counted as an "author" i would most like to meet richard feynman, who did, technically, write a few books, though he is best known for his demigod-like work on qed. for some reason the table full of humanities majors lit up in recognition (though i doubt any of them could have told me what he accomplished. meanwhile, i have to learn all about goddamn "heart of darkness"...). the president said "the physicist? if you had been here a few years ago you could have" since, (and he was talking very confidently here) feynman had been a montgomery fellow "within the past five years. were you not here for that?" i mentioned that feynman died in 1988.

he was not pleased. basically, he was suddenly channeling the expression of that foiled millionaire or conservative dean at the end of some clich├ęd 1980's bildungsroman. the blood drained from his face, there was a moment of awkward silence, and he moved on the next person without any sort of good-natured "oops!" that would have diffused the embarrassment. it was both comical and depressing at the same time. i wouldn't expect him to know in detail what one of the most important physicists of the 20th century worked on, but some basics like "quantum theory of electrodynamics" or "wasn't recently on campus" should be a given if you want to be the head of an ivy-league university. it is no wonder our physics program has to fight so hard for funding.

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