27 July 2007

Woods Hole Memories

Between my freshman and sophomore year in high school (summer of 1956) , I had the opportunity to spend the summer with my uncle, Dr. Morris Rockstein, and his family at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

I stayed in a small apartment with my uncle, Morris, his wife, Elaine, and my two cousins, Sue and Mady. The building we lived in was owned by the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). Upstairs around the corner was the renowed biologist, Julian Huxley [five years later I met Julian's brother, the author, Aldous Huxley , when he gave a lecture at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California].

One of my uncle's early mentors was the Nobel Laureate, Otto Loewi, who this summer lived nearby. Loewi, a Jew, had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, but was teaching and doing research at the University of Graz in Austria when the Nazi's invaded, arrested him, and seized his assets. He was fortunate to get to the U.S. in 1940 and was teaching at NYU when my uncle met him. He and his wife were warm and welcoming people who could find time for a curious teenager who was fascinated by this brilliant couple.

One day, my uncle introduced me to a very distinguished looking gentleman whose name was
Winterton C. Curtis. It turned out that Mr. Curtis had been one of the scientists called to Dayton, Tennessee, by Clarence Darrow to be one of the expert witnesses for the defense at the Scopes "Monkey Trial," but the judge would not permit their testimony. Mr. Curtis had written an account of the trial which was included in the book D-Day at Dayton. He gave me an autographed off-print of his story, which, unfortunately, has disappeared over the intervening years.

I only met Sir Vincent Wigglesworth, the eminent British entomologist, once at Woods Hole that summer. We ate most of our meals in a large cafeteria-style chow hall that served the laboratory community. One day at breakfast Sir Vincent joined us at the table. On his tray was a stack of three pancakes with three pats of butter. My attention was drawn immediately to his eating as I was unfamiliar with Europeans' tendency to always keep their fork in one hand and their knife in the other, rather than cutting with the right and then taking up the fork with the right. Very soon, however, I became more fascinated by the precision with which he would cut off a precise piece of pancake and then a precise portion of butter from the pat and butter the cut piece. Each time the pat lasted exactly for one pancake. At the end of this prodigious feat, I was tempted to applaud his consummate skill, self-discipline, and precision! I had been hypnotized--I could not not watch him eat his pancakes! Later in life, I purchased Sir Vincent's Principles of Insect Physiology and was once again drawn in.

There was an evening lecture series at the MBL during the summer. One of the lectures I really enjoyed was by George Gamow, the physicist and author of 1,2,3 Infinity. Gamow picked a small topic, "The Origin and Evolution of the Universe." I was a bit "shocked" by his first slide, the Origin of the Milky Way (click the link to see the slide). This was my first exposure to cosmology, but it was presented in a very interesting and entertaining way just like his 1,2,3 Infinity, a mathematical sojourn into physics.

Another interesting (and influential for me) lecture was presented by George Wald, the discoverer of Vitamin A and later to be Nobel Laureate, who spoke on the "Origin & Evolution of Life." I learned about the Urey-Miller experiments to recreate the conditions of the primordial soup that lead to the chemical evolution of life. It was heady stuff for a soon-to-be high school sophomore who would be starting biology the coming fall.

On July 25, 1956, the Italian ocean liner the SS Andrea Doria was struck by the Swedish-America Line's SS Stockholm off Nantucket and sank. For much of the rest of that summer various bits and pieces of the items carried on the Andrea Doria washed up on the shores of Cape Cod.
Cape Cod, Woods Hole, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the whole gestalt were a wonderful eye opener for young boy from a sleepy town on the Delaware River in South Jersey in the 1950's!

More another day

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