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Some Miscellaneous Items

I have often had military personnel in my elementary astronomy classes, and especially remember one officer in particular, Captain Bernard, who had just returned from Korea at the end of the hostilities (1953). He had fought with distinction in the infantry, and he described to me having to fight against Russian tanks for several hours using a bazooka; the tank armor was unexpectedly thick and could not be penetrated even though he got in very close. He said that he possessed a sort of "charmed life," and enemy fire never touched him no matter what happened.

He brought an audio tape to class one time, and wanted me to listen to it at home; it contained interrogations of American prisoners of war after they had returned to South Korea at the end of hostilities. Curiously, there wasn't a single American prisoner who escaped from his captors during the war, and the U.S.Army wanted to know why. Apparently, the prisoners were treated well in the physical sense, but systematically `brain washed' by ceaseless exposure (saturation) to communistic ideas presented by well-trained instructors. Captain Bernard predicted that we would be soon fighting in Vietnam.

Towards the end of the semester (it was autumn) he brought his wife with him to class. I had earlier taught the class how to construct a simple sundial, and she wanted to show me several that she and her husband had fashioned out of plexiglass to send to friends for Christmas; they were very artistically done, and she presented one to me.

One summer day I was teaching a small class and explaining the three simple equations describing a falling body. As an example, I calculated the time for an object to fall to the ground from the top of the nearby FM tower, about 500 ft. tall; my answer was 5.6 seconds. I noticed that the two big, football types in the back row were nodding affirmatively at each other, and I asked how they knew the answer without having to calculate it. One grinned and said: "We're paratroopers!"

I've found that students can have unexpected talents; for example, I was showing the moon to the class one evening through the 27-inch reflector. Since the students could only observe one at a time, they would line up while waiting and there would be informal conversation. I said off-hand that I wasn't very good at adding up long columns of numbers, and usually resorted to the method of adding by tens. A girl student spoke up and said that you didn't have to do that at all, just simply run your eye up the column and voilá, there's the answer. Don't think about it, she emphasized, you just look (or alternatively point your finger) consecutively at the numbers. Curiously the method works, but you have to practice at it. Another method, and quite different, is described in a book I have about the Japanese abacus: one must first become very, very adept at using the abacus, and then, if one perseveres, it is possible to dispense with it entirely and mentally visualize the movement of the beads. I didn't even bother to try this; indeed, I'm in favor of reducing drudgery, but some of the remedies seem worse than the disease! When I was a student in grade school, everyone had to spend hours learning to be proficient in performing arithmetic operations, and I preferred almost anything else.

Later, in high school and college, we did many of our approximate calculations on a slide rule; if high accuracy was required we used logarithms. Nowadays one can do all the simple arithmetic operations and evaluate the basic math functions by simply touching buttons on a battery powered calculator. Furthermore, we can even do elaborate mathematical operations, and solve difficult problems by "programming" the home computer; my PC has a program called Scientific Workplace (I'm using it now to do my word processing) that can print mathematical equations containing a multitude of symbols, including the Greek alphabet, etc., and uses a sophisticated routine called Maple to solve algebraic, trigonometric, statistical and calculus problems; it can also plot two and three dimensional graphs. Of course one cannot use such powerful tools without thought, but nevertheless we're all experiencing the wave of the future, and education will never be the same. There is a downside to all this progress, and my experience has been the following: the drudgery in doing arithmetic has been replaced by the necessity of having to check the results of a program to determine if they are reasonable, unexpected or just wrong. Prayer doesn't apparently help either, at least no more than it does in weather forecasting! Oh, yes, I've heard about Y2K.

Summer employment was always a problem at K.U., and I had arranged to work at U.C.L.A. during the summer of 1965 to do some calculations of Mie scattering functions for the well-known optical theorist Dr.Rudolf Penndorf. Dr. Storer was going to teach the regularly offered Elementary Astronomy, but there would also be an Earth-Science Institute for High School Teachers to be given at K.U. that would include astronomy. Storer didn't want to handle that course, so a Dr.(Mrs.)Hutchings, an astronomer from, I believe, the University of Washington, was hired to teach in the Institute. She was the daughter of the well-known geodesist Hayford, whose specialty was measuring the size and shape of the earth. Storer told me that when he first knew her some years previously, she was rather overweight and sometimes introduced herself as "Hayford's spheroid." She always exercised in the morning by taking a swim in one of the pools at the university. Unfortunately, one morning the exercise was too strenuous for her, and she had a heart attack and died. She had already taught a week, and the Director of the Institute needed an astronomer quickly. So I was prevailed upon to fill in for her, provided I could get Dr.Penndorf's permission. He was very understanding about the situation and I completed the remaining five or so weeks of instruction. It wasn't clear to me exactly what had already been covered in class, so I started from "which way is up?" and tried to make doubly sure they understood certain fundamental concepts rather than just a lot of descriptive material. I certainly do remember the last day of class: some of the students had brought their spouses, and to my great surprise, the class arose and gave me an ovation! I'd never had that happen before, and I must confess that it was almost more than I could handle.

This next few paragraphs may seem out of place, but they do pertain to the visit of an interesting personality to K.U. My interest in the game of Chess developed when I was a teen-ager in the 1930's, and had the opportunity to learn the game and play against some strong players in Kansas City. We chessplayers met regularly at the Y.M.C.A. every Saturday afternoon, and in a few years I became rather proficient at the game, eventually winning a few tournaments there. My rating was about that of an "Expert" (just below a "Master"). From time to time a touring Grandmaster would visit us to give a simultaneous exhibition, and we would each invest a few dollars to play against him. Israel Horowitz, the one-time U.S. champion, visited us at least three times; I managed to draw the first two times, but the third time the exhibition wasn't completed because half-way through the simultaneous event (I suppose about thirty of us were there) one of the participants, Mr. Arthur Harris, a good friend of mine in his fifties, had a sudden heart attack and died (January 20, 1941). It was quite shocking to see the dark shadow move across his face, and his life disappear in just a minute. Indeed, it is not generally realized that Chess can be a very exciting game, so I took a quick look at his position. I didn't see anything there that would have particularly evoked stress, for his position seemed safe enough.

Now at K.U., at least as far as I could discover, there has never been much serious interest in Chess; this is understandable, since competing in it is hard sedentary work, akin to academic studying for a final, and students would rather participate in physical sports for their recreation. However, early in the year 1964 some of the students got together and were able to entice the International Grandmaster Robert (Bobby) Fisher to give a simultaneous exhibition on April 30 at the K.U. Union Building. Bobby was only twenty-one years old, and the strongest player ever produced in the United States; he was destined to become the World's Chess Champion in 1972, when he would decisively defeat the then World's Champion from the Soviet Union, Boris Spassky. Fischer had learned Chess in the New York environment of strong master players, and he had succeeded in besting all of them. His style was geared more to attacking than to defending, and he played all phases of the game (opening, middle and end games) equally well. His attitude towards the game was entirely practical, and he had studied very hard to attain his goals. He also possessed a rather low opinion of so-called intellectuals (I sometimes think he was right). When he played against us at K.U., he had about 50 or 60 opponents (I would guess), and he completed his exhibition very quickly in only a few hours; I was one of the last to go down in what to me was a difficult end game. I don't remember Fischer's total score against us; if he had lost a game, we would undoubtedly have heard about it. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience. I wonder how he would fare against the "Big Blue" computer that recently (1997) defeated the present (human) World's Champion, Kasparov? Unfortunately we'll probably never know, because Fischer retired from active competition immediately after gaining the World's Championship.


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