Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Les Blatt Finally Graduates

In the early 60s S. Leslie Blatt and I worked for our PhDs under Walter Meyerhof, sharing time on the same accelerator in the basement of Stanford's Varian Lab. Earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton, a PhD at Stanford, Les went on to do research at Ohio State University and chaired its physics department for many years. Then he took a post at Clark where he was Dean of their graduate school. After a long and distinguished career in physics, summarized here, Les Blatt is at last getting out of school. He's retiring this month--finally graduating from the academic community he served so well.

One well-kept secret about Professor Blatt is that when the world got Les as a physicist, it lost a talented writer of musical comedy. It was the custom at Stanford for graduate students to satirize their profession and their professors at the annual physics Christmas party. Most of these satires are best forgotten but one of the most ambitious efforts along these lines deserves to be remembered--an unabridged parody of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady by Les Blatt and Dave Coward. I remember this production especially well because the principals rehearsed it in the living room of the house in Woodside that I shared with fellow Stanford grad student Chuck Buchanan.

Highlights follow (from my copy of Physical Revue--its title a spoof of America's major physics journal Physical Review--thanks, Les):

The play opens with Higgins (a theorist) and Pickering (an experimentalist) striding about Higgins's office, bemoaning the low quality of physics students. They sing:

...Clever grad students--two or three--
Working hard for their PhDs.
Who'd do my work for me.
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?...

Higgs: By golly, Pickering, you've got something there. A clever student once in a while would be a real joy. But they seem so rare these days.

Pick: Rare? They don't exist. What's more there isn't one who's even average. They're all stupid!

Higgs: Now, now, You're being too harsh. Perhaps we ourselves are partly to blame...

Pick: Nonsense! Students are irrational, that's all there is to that--their heads are full of wires, nuts and brads. They're nothing but an oscillating, relaxating, congregating group of beer and coffee drinking, never-thinking, irritating grads!

Higgs: Why can't we teach our physics students how to think?
The subject matter's easy; the concepts are distinct.
If YOU learned as slowly as a lot of your students do,
Why you might end up in engineering too!

Pick: I beg your pardon!

Higgs: Why can't we teachers teach our students how to think?
We say it to them clearly; they just sit there and blink...

Psychologists ply their art on man
Which seems quite narcissistical,
While chemists learn their alchemy
With methods that are mystical!

But educating physics students is the task I preach.
Oh, why can't professors
Why can't professors
Why can't professors...learn...to...teach?

Pick: Well, perhaps you are right. But if you feel that way, why haven't you done anything about it?

Higgs: Pickering, I have. I'm convinced that the new method I'm working on is the answer. Why I could turn ANYONE into a first-rate quantum mechanic, thermo-dynamo and general all-round good guy at coffee hour. And in just a few weeks.

Pick: Oh? There you go exaggerating again. If your method is so good, why haven't I seen any of these marvelous products of your mind?

Higgs: Simply not enough time.

Pick: Ha! I call your bluff, mister wiseguy theoretiker. The next person that walks in that door is your guinea pig, sir. You've got to turn them into a physicist. And I'll give you exactly thirty days, no more.

[A knock on the door reveals Liza Doolittle, a Stanford pom-pom girl selling Big Game tickets. Higgins goes to work, teaching Liza how to pass as a physicist and Pickering schedules a PhD oral exam for her in thirty days in front of Stanford's top professors.]

Liza: Alpha j commutes with gamma five.

Higgs: By Schiff, she's got it! By Schiff, she's got it!
Now once again, the game we play...

Liza: Alpha j, alpha j!

Higgs: Now make the sign survive...

Liza: Gamma five, gamma five!

Liza, Higgins, Pickering: The alpha j commutes with gamma five.
The alpha j commutes with gamma five.

[On the appointed day, Liza and Higgins enter the Small Seminar Room where she will be examined by a trio of eminent Stanford profs--Sid Drell, Charlie Schwartz and Wolfgang Panofsky.]

Higgs: Thank heaven for Wolfgang Panofsky!
If he hadn't been there, I'd have died of boredom.
Yes, he was there, all right, and up to his old tricks.

Armed with his perennial grin,
His form factors and pion spin,
He made it his devilish business to show
How much Miss Doolittle didn't know.

First I tried to slow him down--
Persons of such great renown should take it slow.
Finally I decided it was foolish
Not to let him carry out his plan.
So I stepped aside...That's when the fun began!

Using problems from his book
He thought he had her on the hook...
Maxwell tensors, gee-mu-nu's
But he could not get her confused.
And when at last the test was done,
He turned and said: "Okay, you've won!"

Pick: That's why I say you did it,
You did it, you did it!
You said that she would do it,
And indeed she did!

You took a pure beginner
And you made of her a winner.
There's no doubt about it.

[Higgins celebrates with Pickering but, upon returning to his office, discovers a telegram from Liza declaring that she has left Stanford for a high-paying job in industry. Higgins is dismayed and dejected by Liza's departure. But eventually Liza changes her mind, arrives back in Higgins's office and expresses her decision to stay.]

Liza: I've grown accustomed to this place;
I like its easy-going way.
I like the Navy paying bills,
The monster in the hills,
The lecture tower,
The coffee hour--
They're quite a habit with me now...

I didn't know how much I'd miss it when to industry I went.
Now that I'm back at Stanford, I'm starving but content.
I've grown accustomed to the search for fundamental facts--
Accustomed...to this...place.


Congratulations S. Leslie Blatt on your distinguished career in the service of science! I wish you many happy years of retirement and encourage you to consider writing musical comedy again. These few highlights only hint at the brilliance of your full production which bore the unforgettable title:  


webmayin said...

I'm feeling an Emmy coming on. Or maybe it's a semi...

nick herbert said...

The cast of this Stanford Grad Student Production was Dave Coward as Higgins; Les Blatt as Pickering and Irene Ortenburger as Eliza.

nick herbert said...

Irene Ortenburger was a serious mountain climber (as were many physicists at Stanford.) But Irene has a rock formation named after her --Irene's Arete -- in the Tetons of Wyoming.