Obituary: Professor Arthur Schawlow

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The Independent Culture
ART SCHAWLOW wore his Nobel Prize lightly, writes Steve Blinkhorn [further to the obituary by Jeff Hecht, 4 May]. Once I asked him: "What do you have to do to win a Nobel Prize?", and he answered: "Well, it helps to work at Bell Labs." The rest was good luck, not least in having first- rate collaborators.

Schawlow was not just a brilliant physicist, he was a warm, unassuming and kindly man. I met him while on sabbatical at Stanford shortly after he was awarded his Nobel Prize, when it looked as though some of my work might be relevant to the care of his autistic son. He used to take care of my two-year-old son, Edward, in his office for half a day at a time, playing with one of the original Apple I computers, and with gadgets demonstrating various physical phenomena. I would return to collect Edward to find them both totally absorbed and engrossed in some joint feat of programming.

At that time documents were circulating amongst some Nobel laureates concerning the special place and political influence which that select group should have in the world. He found the notion preposterous.

Even more preposterous in his view was the proposal (which he showed me), from William Shockley and others, that a special sperm bank be established, whose only depositors would be Nobel prizewinners. The qualifications for making a withdrawal were less explicit. He imagined scornfully out loud what such a sperm bank would be like: Doric portico, uniformed security guards, vaults secure against nuclear attack, and a row of cubicles stocked with top-shelf magazines, suitable receptacles, and late middle-aged academics in a state of partial undress.

It is a vision that comes readily to mind when dealing with those whose intellectual brilliance has soured into pomposity.