Listen to Pilot Light

Monday, December 7, 2015

Arguing with Einstein


Years ago I had a friend who was not a well-known figure, but a great man in the sense that his visions, and some of his actions, were larger than life. Life can be far too small for some people and I like people like that.

Erwin was much older than I, and we met through work. I was writing about technology and he worked in the research laboratory of a large corporation. It was a highly innovative company at the time, and his job was ideas—to come up with them. I had co-written a magazine article with Arno Penzias, who had recently won the Nobel Prize for his work with light-beam architecture. A few days after the article appears, this strange man called me, told me his name, and asked what he thought was an obvious question: “Why didn't you write an article with me?”

I answered honestly: “Because I've never heard of you.”

“You should.” Immediately I knew we'd be fast friends.

He introduced himself and that started an exchange of ideas that evolved to a collaboration on a voice-recognition system, funded by the corporation he worked for and intended for use at EPCOT at DisneyWorld. My good friend and next-door neighbor, Gary Gonnella, joined in (doing the heavy lifting on the actual design) and we had great fun. Gary and I co-authored a book on the project (VOICE TECHNOLOGY for Reston Publishing), and when the project was finished, I crossed the country to work with Erwin at the lab, installing the prototype.

Working with Erwin was slightly weird. Hell, talking with Erwin was weird and I loved him for his eccentricity as much as the fact that he was a good-hearted person. (I've known lots of good-hearted people and not enough of them are entertaining.) Even in the creative environment of a research lab, my friend was well enough known as a loose cannon that if you called the switchboard of this huge company and asked to speak to the Mad Hatter, you'd be put through to his extension without question. That's saying something, considering that the company, although innovative, was, like most big companies, rather staid and conservative.

And it was true that my friend was slightly mad, but then all my close friends are slightly mad. I've never figured out if that's because I like (slightly) mad people or if it's a simple matter of like attracting like. I don't suppose it matters. And, while he was mad, Erwin was a mover and a shaker. So much so that, over the years, he had met and worked with a variety of interesting people during his life. Then one day he mentioned that when he was an undergrad at Princeton, he met Albert Einstein. He didn't study with him, or work with him... he simply ran into him on campus. A casual encounter. “We talked,” he said.

I tried to imagine such a meeting. What an opportunity! But what would a person would say to Albert Einstein on meeting him face-to-face? “I really dig your theories, dude,” wouldn't make it. I figured I'd just embarrass myself.
“What did you talk about?” I asked him.

He smiled. “We argued about whose mother made the best onion soup.”
And to think I was concerned he might've wasted the opportunity. He hadn't.