“Are they always like this?” I asked my prof.
“Yes.” he said. “They know exactly that government-funded projects pay. Nobody here uses their own money.”
It was my first scientific conference, way back when. In Orleans in France, I remember. Around us, everything bustled with activity. There must have been at least three meetings going on at the same time.
“They didn’t give us the best conference rooms, did they?” I asked.
“They never do.” my prof answered. “Scientists don’t complain about stuff like that. It’s hard to get worked up about it, too.”
“Ok, but seriously, why don’t you complain?”
“I like the idea of not getting worked up. Life’s too short to complain about conference rooms. Which overpriced lunch do you think we should eat? Project’s paying.”
I looked around.
“Dunno. Shall we go have a closer look?” I said.
“Excuse, me professor!” I heard a voice behind me say. A young student, younger than me even by the look of him, approached. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“You go,” my prof told me, “I’ll get myself another coffee and talk to this young gentleman.”
I nodded to the other student, and took a few steps down the corridor, while the two moved towards the tables in the hope of catching some of the last drops of free coffee. My prof always did that. Not the coffee, I mean. Never aloof, always time for the student and even the silliest of questions. If you came with one of those, he would always end up asking you stuff making you figure out something about your own question that really interested you more than the actual answer to it. Like Socrates, but without the knife under the tongue, I had always thought. Until that day.
Something in the student’s voice caught my ear. I turned around. None of the two noticed me.
“…why I came to you, sir. I’m disappointed, to be honest. How can someone of your stature and importance be so ignorant? Do you not see the implications?”
Stature? Importance? I knew what that student meant, of course. But that was my prof, he was talking to. That man was not living the life of a scientist to meet people being impressed with other people’s stature and importance. Science meant something different to him – and to me, too, I might add.
“Well.” my prof said. “I think you should calm down. As should those who jump too far ahead.”
“Alright.” the student said. “I will comply with your wish. I will calm down. But tell me, have you done a lot of work in particle physics or quantum mechanics?”
“You do not think it possible that many of the more advanced theories may be natural consequences of those two fields of study?”
“I don’t know enough about it to be able to answer that.”
“And yet you don’t seem to like String Theory? What if String Theory is a natural consequence of all the calculations made on particle physics and quantum mechanics?”
“Natural is a big word.” I heard my prof say.
“Just because you haven’t worked on it, doesn’t mean it can’t be right!”
“I haven’t said it can’t be right. Don’t put words into my mouth.”
“You don’t even understand quantum physics! That’s it, isn’t it? And to think that I should respect you for your work. You don’t understand even the most basic physics at all!”
“That’s it, isn’t it? I’m right, am I not?”
“You listen to me now, will you? Nobody understands quantum physics. Only fools even think they do! The same is true for String Theory and all the others. I don’t need to study your precious unifying theories to know that. And you know why? Because I know science. You don’t run away with your pen and think it’s true because some equations say it might. You predict, you test. That’s it. We have first year students who know that coming from high school. Do you even listen? Nobody understands quantum physics. It’s a thing to use to find out about the universe as well as build your mobile phone, to be sure, but only, listen now. Only. Fools. Think. They. Understand. It!”
My prof had grown during this rant. He had grown into a beast of a sensei physicist, some sort of last level master enemy towering over the hero in a computer game — with one difference, of course. He was the hero, here, too. The student was, as I thought then, probably into his home uni’s culture a little too much, that’s all.
“Yes, Sir.” the student chirped. “I’m sorry, Sir.”
“No.” my prof said, much too calmly now. Did he just play his anger? “You stop being sorry. Open your eyes, kid! Get that arrogance out of you and open your eyes! When you’ve done that, start thinking, will you? Who’s your supervisor? She’s alright, you listen to her and not to whomever told you that you understood quantum physics.”
At that point, I remember that I had a charge to fulfil. I scanned over the cafés in the vicinity, chose one at random, and strolled back towards my prof. When I got there the student had disappeared.
“What did he want?”
“I’m not sure. What he needs is a little less conference and a little more actual study.”
“Misguided. Maths prodigy since high school. Makes him blind.”
That was that, as we say in Norway. We went and ate lunch some place.