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Philosophy, Astrophysics, and Time's Arrow. Donald Schumacher

Sometime during the mid-fifties George Gamov, the well known Russian nuclear physicist, visited K.U. and gave a talk concerning the origin of the universe about which he'd written a very popular and best selling book. There was a large expectant audience in one of the lecture halls, although I don't remember which hall it was. Gamov turned out to be quite an extravert, and very humorous. He began by saying that the evolution of the universe reminded him of a pregnant woman, that is, they both are expanding...(he paused)..., and furthermore the most interesting things happened at the very beginning. The audience warmed up to that line, I must say. At the end of his performance he received copious applause, and then willingly answered questions from the audience.

During the talk I had noticed a young man sitting on the front row; he was noteworthy because his head was so abundantly covered with dark curly hair. In the milling about that took place after the talk I overheard him ask someone if K.U. had an Astronomy Department, so I of course admitted to being a member of it, and we had a short, animated discussion. He certainly was enthusiastic about astronomy and physics! His name was Donald Schumacher , and he lived in Prairie Village, KS (near Kansas City, Kansas). I judged that he had just completed high school and was wondering about which college he should attend. Much later I found out that he was born on May 24, 1939 in Oak Park, IL. He told me that he favored theoretical subjects, and had studied quantum mechanics and relativity all by himself while in high school; indeed, at the time we met he was studying Corson's Quantum Electrodynamics, a graduate textbook. Of course it was natural for me to wonder whether I was witnessing a real-life phenomenon or not. In any case he would be tested and judged in college by a variety of professors and students; so I adopted the attitude simply to wait and see.

He enrolled the next autumn at K.U., and I would see much of him during the next six years. In his ordinary course work he did very well, and he could speak French and German fluently, but in sophomore physics he posted two D's to my great surprise! I asked him about this, and he said that he already understood physics and didn't like wasting time just to fulfill college requirements. I also remembered my own days back in Junior College, where one of the physics teachers routinely failed a high percent of the class using (in my opinion) an unfair grading system. So I didn't make a big deal about the situation. On the other hand Schumacher continued doing well in astronomy, and Dr. Storer and I could see that he had plenty of ability.

As the time went by, his interests focused more and more on the foundations and philosophy of science, for example, he spent a lot of time studying the thought experiments that Bohr and Einstein argued about, and wrote out his own analysis and conclusions. His grammar and composition were excellent, but his vocabulary involved technical terms that were better known to philosophers than to astronomers. On occasion this caused misinterpretations when Dr. Storer or I tried to understand some of his sentences; we suggested to him that he should strive to express himself in a less erudite fashion, but we were only marginally successful.

Since he had already displayed interest in cosmology, I suggested that he investigate something on this subject for a possible thesis. He had read Schrödinger's book on the subject (Expanding Universes, Cambridge, 1955), and soon got very interested in the direction of time, or "time's arrow." He made progress of the hard-earned variety, and got some interesting results pertaining to the effects of time reversal which he carefully wrote up (The Direction of Time and the Equivalence of "Expanding" and "Contracting" World-Models). These concepts formed the nucleus of his M.A. thesis.

However, I worried about whether he could adequately handle his oral final (the examining committee consisted of Dr. Storer and me, plus two physicists). Also, the morning of the exam Don phoned me, saying that he didn't believe he could make it through the ordeal. I tried to calm him down, and apparently succeeded, because his performance turned out to be very excellent without his showing any sign of nervousness. Later Dr.Ling, the theoretical physicist who attended, said that Don showed indications of being a genius.

Shortly thereafter Don presented a paper on his thesis topic at a meeting of the AAS at Yale (August, 1962); his good friend, a mathematician named Gary Miller, and I accompanied him. Unfortunately he was the last one on the entire program, and only a handful of people were present. But the trip was worthwhile anyway, because he had made the acquaintance of Dr.T.Gold, who had written some papers about this same subject, and the two got along so well that Don was invited to go to Cornell University, where he spent several years as a research assistant and graduate student. In particular he assisted Gold to edit a book, The Nature of Time (Cornell University Press, 1967) which presented the papers of a symposium devoted entirely to that subject.

He didn't get his Ph.D. there, and instead (1967) went to Maidstone College of Arts, U.K., in 1971, and two years later to Birkbeck College, University of London, to study with Dr.David Bohm, the prominent philosopher of science (refer to Bohm, Foundations of Physics 1, 359, 1971; 3, 139, 1973; Schumacher, Foundations of Physics 4, 481, 1974). Schumacher never directly worked towards a Ph.D., saying that he only wanted to be known for what he did, which shouldn't be a consequence of whatever degree he had acquired. I argued with him, saying that he should get the Ph.D., because it would give him all the more freedom to pursue what he really wanted to accomplish. I received several letters from him while he was in England, in the first he was quite optimistic, but later they became more pessimistic; apparently he and Bohm had significant differences. In a letter dated May 9, 1971 he writes "Thanks for your letter of some time ago. It cheered me up quite a bit. I was in the hospital at the time. I'd had a nervous breakdown after working a little hard on a short book and they kept me in that zoo for about two months. I've just about given up science. Too many disappointments...I've packed in working for Bohm about a year and a half ago." Another letter dated October 4, 1972 refers to a book he wrote, titled The Unimportance of Being . It contains a collection of six papers that Don wrote between 1965 and 1973, about which he writes the following: "the last two papers are of special importance both from the standpoint of fundamental physics and from that of logic and philosophy...(and) it will make the 'failure of communication' with Bohm more clear and will make arguments which I was not able to make at the time--but which I found were made previously by Wittgenstein, and not understood."

Shortly thereafter his visa ran out, and he returned to the U.S. Later we were able to meet a couple of times, and the last time I saw Don he was very dejected, because both of his parents had died. Presently Don lives in Kansas City, MO, and I only learned his address recently, and have exchanged letters with him. Hopefully we shall be able to continue. In passing I should like to mention that Bohm's point of view of quantum mechanics has been published recently in Physics Today 51, 39, 1998.


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