Keynote Address - Phi Kappa Phi - 25 April 1999
Larry J. Curtis

I'm delighted to be able to participate in the honoring of the new initiates today. It is important that we regularly pause to emphasize and celebrate intellectual successes in a public way. Most intellectual accomplishments occur inside your heads, and no one knows but you.

As a University of Toledo graduate, I began exactly where you are today. I recall being very pleased when I was inducted into Honor Societies, but at the same time I wondered if this should be the end or the beginning. I thought about a number of things. Was I was having as much fun as my friends who studied less? Should I continue to pursue scholarship, perhaps only to wind up working in some dingy dark laboratory? Could I could really compete with the very gifted individuals who inhabit this world? I decided to say yes to all those questions, and I couldn't have had more fun along that way!

My work has been primarily in the hard sciences, but I am convinced that the basic process is the same for the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Professions. Friendships with gifted colleagues in this room have shown me that much of the joy of intellectual accomplishment is discipline-independent.

Since I started in the same place as you are in now, I am, in a sense, a time traveler back from your own future, here to describe it to you. For this reason, I'd like to tell a little about the path I took, and share some aspects of my good luck with you.

The Doctoral Promotional Ceremony in Sweden next month has a similar purpose to our celebration today. I had a preview of this while I was a senior at the University of Toledo. I saw the classic Ingmar Bergman Swedish film "Wild Strawberries" at the Westwood Art Theater on Sylvania Avenue. It is the story of an aging Swedish Medical Professor who travels from his home in Stockholm back to his alma mater in Lund to receive an Honorary Doctorate. The road south becomes a journey back in time as he confronts the memories of his life as flashbacks.

The title of the film in Swedish is "Smultronstället" (the Smultron berry place) and the translation into English does not convey the meaning. In Sweden there is an ancient privilege called "Allmännerätt' which prescribes the entire country as eminent domain. Property rights exist, but anyone can walk anywhere they want, if they show very simple courtesy to the owner. The freedom to go for a solitary walk in the woods is considered a basic undeniable human right. In the Swedish woods there are unusual patches of ground where the delicious (but uncultivatable) Smultron berries grow. Since these patches are rare, when a person finds one the finder keeps it as his/her own secret magical place. Thus "Smultron place" is a metaphor for the happiest times of our lives.

It is a touching film, and culminates in the inspiring pageantry of the Doctoral Ceremony. Let me tell you a little bit about Lund. It is a very picturesque medieval walled city. The Doctoral Ceremony will take place in a Great Romanesque Cathedral consecrated in 1145. The University was founded in 1666, and maintains traditions from that time. The Ceremony will begin with a colorful academic processional from the University down through the old town to the Cathedral. The ritual will be conducted entirely in Latin (including my name - I can't wait to find out what my name is in Latin). A Doctoral Ring will be placed on my finger and a Laurel Wreath will be placed on my head. I will be given Trumpet fanfares, the Cathedral bells will be rung, and I will be given a salute fired with old field cannons. After the ceremony, there will be a white-tie banquet honoring Kofi Annan and myself. Since Secretary-General Annan has diplomatic status, it is anticipated that the King, the Queen, and the Prime Minister of Sweden will attend our banquet.

I saw much of this in the film when I was an undergraduate, but I never dreamed that this old-world pageanty could reach out and engulf a dull, unsophisticated kid from Libbey High School. Life is a journey, not a destination, and I'm surely enjoying the ride!

Like the old Professor in the film, let me give you a little flashback. As a young Associate Professor on Sabbatical Leave from UT, I was working at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. I was interested in a problem in Astrophysics. Evidence had recently been obtained for the presence of silicon ions in light from quasistellar radio sources (called Quasars - objects that are billions of light years from earth, moving away from us at close to the speed of light). I had just been studying silicon ions by observing their in-flight radiation in a beam from a particle accelerator. I was intrigued by the possibility to determine the amount of silicon in the Quasar if I only knew the right rate constant (or orbit lifetime).

However, an atom has an infinite number of possible orbits, and electrons cascade down from orbit-to-orbit in a veritable death spiral. Thus light from each orbit contains a mish-mash of an infinite number of rate constants. Accurate interpretation was incredibly complicated - some had claimed impossible. I later made a Historical study using the libraries of Europe, and found that this problem had frustrated scientists in many different applications since at least 1795! Gaspard Riche de Prony had described the problem just after the French Revolution. Fortunately, I was much too naïve then to realize that the problem was insoluable.

One Saturday morning my friend Indrek Martinson and I were at the Institute. There had been a going-away party for friend the previous night, and we had slept over in the Guest Rooms there. I sat sleepily at my desk with this great spiral of orbits cascading down in my head. Suddenly a new picture coalesced in my fantasy. I saw vividly that the only way this cascade death spiral could reach the last step was for the whole infinity to funnel through the next-to-last step. Instead of considering a chain of infinite length, I could look at only the last two links. The last step would distort the next-to-last in a characteristic way, and my ignorance of the infinities would pass through like a smart sieve, and yield to a stimulus-response analysis.

For a particular time of decay, I could add the light from all the next-to-last steps with properly adjusted coefficients, find the rate-of-decrease of last step, and plot it as point on a graph. If I did this correctly for a lot of different decay times, the points should all line up with each other. All the points would be on right side of the graph because the left side is experimentally impossible - it corresponds to the cascades being totally unpopulated. This can't happen in the lab, but it's my fantasy - anything I want can happen in my head! All I had to do was to lay a ruler along the points, and the intersection with the axis would give me the rate constant. So, instead of relating my measurements to an infinite number of math functions inexactly, I had a way to relate my measurements to my other measurements exactly. At that moment I looked Mother Nature straight in the eye and said "Gotscha!"

Indrek came into the room and asked who I was talking to. I said "I think somebody was talking to me, but I'll let you know in a few minutes." I ran to the lab, did the math to make the graph, and found that the points formed a perfect straight line, just as I had fantisized. I laid a ruler along the points and found the lifetime. I checked the uncertainties and verified that this measurement was the most accurate that had to that time been obtained. Then I applied the results to the astronomical data. With a 30 centimeter ruler (1 foot in the US) I had measured the abundance of silicon in an object that is billions of light years away, and moving further away at nearly the speed of light. I recalled than that Archimedes had said "give me a lever long enough and I will move earth." I had found that 1 foot may be long enough. Today powerfully rugged computor algorithms have been developed to replace the ruler, but it's still the same method.

That night as I rode home on the Stockholm subway I felt a tingle in my spine, because I knew something that no one else in the world knew. This discovery has been very good to me. My technique is now used in atomic lifetime laboratories all over the world. Some years later I was talking to a colleague in Carlson Library, and my gaze fell on the big rotating globe of the earth in the lobby. I suddenly noticed that, as it turned, I could always see a continent that has a lab that uses my method. Literally, the Sun never sets on the use of something that happened inside my head! It is a modest discovery - neither the globe nor the earth began to shake because of this, but it became my very satisfying little secret and made all my hard work and study worthwhile. It's even more satisfying to know that people at the University of Lund have now noticed this little secret.

I share this small conceit with you to indicate how rewarding hard work and intellectual striving can be. Sometimes it may seem that others have more fun than we do, but we know what they're missing.

In anticipation of today, I gave some thought to the following question: if there had been a time traveler from my future who was present when I was in your place, what wisdom could he/she have given to me? As I mentioned earlier, as a UT student I was satisfied that I had done pretty well so far, but I wondered if I was really smart enough to continue on this path. Let me assure you - if you have gotten this far with the successes we recognize today, you are smart enough to do whatever you want. Don't be intimidated! There are many people in the world who are very big and very strong - but much of the heavy lifting is done by machines invented by others. Sometimes it can be an advantage to think slower than the prodigies who are out there with Mozart. This forces you to develop alternative strategies for thinking about things, which may actually allow you to see further. If others seem to understand things faster than you, this is sometimes because their understanding is wrong! If you are willing to stretch yourself, you may find that there are marvelous things inside your head that you never dreamed were there.

Let me close by congratulating both the inductees and their families on the accomplishments we are celebrating. Let me also express the hope that, when you look back on your time at the University of Toledo, you will regard this as one of your Smultron places.