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A Love Match in the French Tennis Open

My friend Herb Henrikson, the Caltech physics engineer, is sojourning in Neuchatel, France, where his “time projection chamber” is being used in some arcane international experiment.

Though Henrikson and I often meet for breakfast near Caltech, and he tries to explain to me what he is working on, I, like Omar Khayyam, “come out by that same door wherein I went.”

When he is abroad in pursuit of time reversal or the elusive neutrino or on some such extraordinary mission, he sometimes writes me long letters about the difficulties of life in an international scientific community, or merely philosophizing about the local culture.

In the beginning I answered one or two of Henrikson’s letters, but I gave up doing so, since my answers seemed so inadequate. He recently told me that writing to me at first was like playing tennis with a garage door, and now it was like playing tennis with a garage door with the door open. Henrikson sees things clearly and has a gift for the original phrase.

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Like anyone who goes abroad, he misses the local newspapers. “After a few valiant efforts,” he writes, “I had to give up reading the French newspapers. I felt triumphant when I could understand the headline and the lead, but I soon bogged down in the body of the article. It was like peering through the old-fashioned letter slot in the bottom of the door--lots of calves, knees and feet, but no body.”

Next he tried the London Times, but was “ignominiously defeated” by the use of a word he didn’t know in the leading article on the front page. He sent a clipping to me. The headline says: “Thatcher calls for curbs on gazumping.”

The word occurs thereafter several times, and it is evidently the key word in the story. It begins: “The Prime Minister yesterday told estate agents to put their house in order by bringing in rules to stamp out gazumping.”

From the text, I infer that gazumping is a term for unethical real estate dealings, evidently one of those peculiarities of English English that have not made it across the Atlantic to the Colonies, and which tend to disorient Americans in exile, like Henrikson.

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Henrikson tells me that his Time Projection Chamber, which he designed and built at Caltech, made the journey to France intact and presumably is doing whatever it is he expected of it. I myself am of the opinion that it is probably best not to toy with time, but of course I disagreed with Einstein about the fourth dimension, and I still don’t understand it.

But Henrikson reflects in simple language on the amiability of his fellows and the small pleasures of his days. “The professor in charge of the collaboration is one of those anomalies who rise to the top without making the expedient compromises that usually pave the way. . . .

“The facilities are first rate: good staff and good instruments during the day--a swim in the clear waters of the lake in the afternoon, and a few deciliters of Neuchatel blanc at a sidewalk cafe as the sun begins its trip to Pasadena.

“Looking across the lake you can make out the white peaks of Mt. Blanc and the towering Alps. Hundreds of white swans paddle along the shallows, adding a fairy-tale quality to the scene.

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“Soon my friends take off by bicycle or by tram or by bus to their homes in the suburbs of this small city--to return in the morning and regale us with tales of their precocious children. Their hopes of someday discovering some new phenomenon in science are whetted by the avalanche of discoveries that are made by these new fathers every night. Their enthusiasm delights me. I sense a little of what it must be like to be a grandfather. . . .”

That’s the sound of a ball hitting an open garage door.


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