Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Sabines: An Impromptu Tour of the Jefferson Lab, Part 1

Here's another story from my research into the family of Professor Wallace Clement Sabine, a brilliant teacher, scientist, and war hero (1864–1919). I live on one floor of the Back Bay house where he and his family lived from 1909 to 1950.

The following little adventure happened in early May. I didn't think it would take me three months to get around to writing about it, although I knew I'd need some time to ruminate. For one thing, I was disappointed when I saw my photos; I was clearly too amazed to remember to use my camera or to hold it steady when I did. For another, it happened just days after I made a few unexpected discoveries about the Sabines at City Hall, and I was still reeling and recalculating everything I thought I knew about them.

Looking back, it strikes me as pretty weird that, within 72 hours of learning those things, I'd be standing in Wallace Clement Sabine's laboratory at Harvard, the legendary, soundproof room where he spent 20 years performing the meticulous original experiments in measuring sound that led to his "creating the science and the art of architectural acoustics." 

On the other hand, this amusing, casual research project of mine has turned out to be rife with strangeness and coincidences. By now I should be getting used to the fact that surprising material  and connections keep turning up, one way or another. That afternoon, I felt like I was being pulled back up on my feet, just what I needed. Now, it seems like a dream.

 * * *

On a Friday in early May, I put on my favorite dress, lipstick, and heels, and took the university shuttle bus to Harvard Square to meet my husband. We were invited to a party for one of his colleagues, and then we were going to see an interesting but unlikely Victorian house prospect in Medford, and then we'd have dinner. I spotted my husband in a café, having coffee with a young fellow I didn't know. He was introduced as a recent former student, doing post-doctoral work in physics. He told me he enjoyed one of my husband's courses so much that he'd taken it twice. I instantly liked him.

As the three of us walked to the Yard, my husband prodded me to tell his friend about my Sabine research. He was interested and told me what he knew about Sabine. He asked if I'd studied his acoustical discoveries and I confessed that I only understood a little but would focus on it eventually. (I did well in physics in school; Sabine's writing is remarkably clear and elegant, and so I think I can handle it.) 

He said he'd had a first edition of Sabine's Collected Papers on Acoustics, which he'd picked up at a campus book sale for a dollar, and offered to lend it to me. I accepted; it was the last book on my list to buy. My husband was mostly quiet, listening to our talk and enjoying it. He mentioned that I had recently walked him across campus to stand outside the Jefferson Laboratory and peek in its basement windows.

Our friend asked, "Haven't you been inside? You ought to see it, and I can give you a tour any time. I'm going there now. Want to come with me?" He was full of enthusiasm, practically bouncing up and down in anticipation. I wonder if there are many physicists who are so warm, chatty, personable, and nerdy in all the good ways. Plus he admired my husband.

I glanced at said husband. By now we were at the place where the party was in progress, and he holding the door open for me. I hesitated for about a nanosecond.

"YES!" I said. 

"Your wife is ditching you for me," explained the post-doc, "And we've only just met!" 

"It doesn't surprise me," said my husband. "Will you come back here later?"

"I don't know." I said. "Sorry! Give Arthur my regards. Text me later and we'll see where we're at."

And off I went to the Jefferson Laboratory with my new best friend: 

The Jefferson Laboratory, Harvard University.  Photo: Kris Snibbe, Harvard News Office

The Jefferson Physical Laboratory was the first building of its kind, built for a new style of teaching:
1884 was a watershed year for physics at Harvard: The Jefferson Laboratory (named after the third President) opened — the first building in the Western hemisphere dedicated entirely to physics research and teaching. The laboratory was built with funds donated by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, a businessman in Boston, and the scientist Alexander Agassiz. It was John Trowbridge of the Physics Department who had persuaded President Charles W. Eliot to support the idea, still unusual in the U.S., that laboratory research is essential for science — that faculty should not only teach physical knowledge but also do research, and that students should learn by actually doing experiments.  — Professor Gerald Holton, "Early History of the Physics Department," in Physics: Harvard University Department of Physics Newsletter, Fall 2014
Stay tuned for more.

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