The 19th of October is a big day for me. It marks the beginning of the only time I've been really depressed. A depression triggered by something that should have been a celebration. That afternoon I had just defended my Ph.D. thesis.
The audience, while nothing like Harald Bohr's, was full of friends possibly lured by the cherry cheesecake I had baked to calm myself.1 The committee - my advisor, a theorist and experimentalist from my department and a professor of surgery who was also a classically trained violinist. The surgeon who took his duty seriously and I had spent many hours teaching him some particle physics. He rewarded me with some of the more penetrating questions of the afternoon. Years later I returned the favor serving as committee member for one of his students.
The cheesecake vanished and I was supposed to be preparing for the big celebration with friends. Instead I just sat in a quiet room. I felt directionless and a sense of despair built. It made no sense. This had been a goal for years and I had done a good job. I had a post lined up. The feeling darkened and I didn't feel like celebrating, eating or even moving. I just sat there with a piece of cheesecake next to me.
People found me and tried to pull me out. I walked back to my room and didn't come out. The big celebration never happened. People kept checking on me. It went on for nearly three days.
The path began when I was about a month shy of turning twelve..
The structure was small but, despite the amazing view, there was only one small window. A curtain kept out sunlight. A cluster of electric cables connected the building to the cable car building a thousand feet distant. Eleven or twelve is an age when most of us are still curious and society is still encourages it. I knocked on the door.
My family spent a few weeks each Summer anywhere from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana up to Jasper in Alberta. That year it was Banff. We had taken the Sulphur Mountain cable car to the viewing platform. On a clear day the view was nearly a hundred miles. The observation deck was crowded to capacity with tourists from all over the world. My parents and sister were talking to a couple from England when I left for the unusual building along the mountain's North ridge.
Physicists have a primal need to explain things as deeply as time and their audience's patience and curiosity permit. Almost immediately I was learning a bit about cosmic rays, muon showers, scintillators, photomultiplier tubes and so on until my father showed up. He had been looking for me for a few hours and happy wouldn't be the right word to describe his mood.
The ride down the mountain and back to our camp was quiet - I knew better than to say anything. Nothing else seemed to matter at the time. I was completely engaged in what I had seem. Most of it was over my head, but seeing the existence of the remnants of a cosmic ray shower on a simple detector someone put together solely to explain what they were doing hit me deeply. I saw the beginnings of how people ask questions of Nature and it had nothing to do with looking up things in a book. By the time Lyra was overhead I feel asleep knowing I would be either a physicist or an astronomer. It was my calling.
A month later I tagged along with my Dad on a trip to Los Angeles. He was taking a ten day workshop for a certification and I was seeing California for the first time. Friends and family lined up trips to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Hollywood, and the beaches - the things kids are supposed to see in Southern California. To Dad's dismay I wasn't interested and somehow managed to get my way. Instead I visited JPL, had a professor explain something about stellar explosions on his blackboard at Caltech, and visited the Griffith Park planetarium.. Gateway drugs all..
By the time I entered college I was focused on the narrow path of math and physics not letting much else get in the way. I wasn't aimed at a career as much as it was wanting to learn more. Somehow the title of doctor had become a goal. And all of a sudden I had it. All that work for something and it felt so hollow.
What finally worked came from a Scottish friend. Jack is a quiet and deep thinker. He said something like "So you've managed to catch the hubcap you were barking at for so long. Rest assured there are an infinite number of hubcaps of types you haven't imagined. May you find a few."2 I didn't realize I was just at the threshold of the always new.
Some of you are working towards greatness. Some are arguably there, not that the distinction matters. It's just part of your path .. a visible point where we take stock of things. Important before and (hopefully) a just a happy memory as new hubcaps begin to shine.
One of these days perhaps I'll celebrate mine and I'm thrilled to celebrate those visible points along the paths of friends.
note: Some of you have struggled with serious depression. I don't discount those experiences. My modest skirmish was a profound experience to me and continues to make me think. I can't imagine the impact of deeper experiences.
1 Harald was the brother of the great physicist Niels Bohr. He was an elite footballer representing Denmark in the 1908 London Olympics as they took they the silver medal. He became a national hero and his PhD thesis defense in math was so packed with football fans that it had to be held in a large auditorium.
2 I translate roughly - he suggested a proper Hilbert space of hubcap types.