Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chapter 13 Now, Back to School

Chapter 13

Nuclear testing had begun, all right, but it had done so without me. In February, 1946, I was out of the Army, and I returned to school in Sterling College.
Many veterans of the war were also enrolled; Sterling had a new President; there were many new friends; change was in the air.
Addie Leah and I had an apartment a few houses south of the campus. My goal was to have my B.A. by May, 1947, meaning I had to do it in one less semester than normal. Not only that, but being uncertain about majors, I chose to have a major in both math and science with a minor in education so that I could teach high school. Such goals meant there was not really any time to fiddle around. Although I was truly busy with class work, I managed to devote time to my music, and spent some great hours on the pipe organ at the United Presbyterian Church.
Before I graduated, I gave several organ recitals, and look back upon that achievement with considerable amazement. Surely it was someone else who did such things.
I graduated from Sterling in May, 1947, and shortly thereafter Nancy arrived. Two daughters! I am ready for a paying job.
Hired by the Osborne City Schools in Osborne Kansas to teach math and science in their high school, I did so for two years. I was also an assistant coach. We rented a house on the edge of town, and seemed to be doing well. I was elected the president of the teachers association, and that’s when I learned about the National Education Association (NEA), and what a narrow-minded set of people the NEA could be. Despite the fact that I enjoyed teaching very much, I kept feeling that I needed to search for more challenging work. I also concluded that thanks to the so-called GI bill, I could go to school and live about as well as I could by teaching school. So I entered graduate school at Kansas University in the fall of 1949.
Our first apartment in Lawrence, Kansas, was upstairs across the alley from a mortuary, and on our second or third night there in the middle of a violent thunderstorm a man appeared at our alley door. The lightning flashed just as he was about to knock, and he was silhouetted with arm raised. It was very frightening! He ran the mortuary, and informed us that he always employed whatever university student lived in that apartment as we were most likely available at nights if he needed us for emergencies. So I hired on, and learned quite a bit in my indoctrination tour of the whole business, and in the ambulance runs we made. Once in a while I went along to pick up the body of someone who had died to bring the body to the mortuary for the work to begin. Oh, the things you can learn in graduate school if you are lucky enough to have a spare time job.
I served as a graduate assistant to the math department while making astronomy my major subject. One semester I taught three algebra classes—one for the brightest students, one for students who were more average, and the third was for those who had failed the course before but still wanted (needed) the credits. That last class was a challenge beyond all my previous experience with math. I dreaded the class and had to breathe heavily before entering.
I had had a good start with my own math and physics courses, but even so a major in astronomy meant that I had to take a number of under-graduate courses in that field.
It happened that India was becoming two countries, and the Muslims and Hindus were redistributing themselves. A Hindu, Professor Sarvandaman Chowla, had to flee what was now Pakistan. It happened that he was reputed to be the world’s foremost number theorist, and KU hired him to teach as a way of helping him find a new place in the world. So, the university was now offering a course in number theory.
I managed to find a way to add this course to my schedule—as I remember, it was my only elective course. Professor Chowla’s English was not American English, and he lectured facing the black board, writing out the English with his right hand, and erasing it with his left. One had to be quick!
Though we rarely saw his face, one day he turned to us, and his face glowing, he told us that the great beauty of number theory was that no one had ever been able to find a practical application for it! Ah, the love of numbers!
Another day he presented to us a special lemma about primes of the form 4n-1, and after I returned to my desk in the Astronomy Department, I briefed Prof. Storer on the class, as I normally did. So I selected prime number 143 as a sample of such a prime, and whattayouknow, it did not work. We spent a several hours on the problem, and finally concluded that the lemma was supposed to be for primes of the form 4n+l.
The next class Prof. Chowla began, as usual, with the question, “Are there any questions?” despite the fact that there had never been any at all. I held up my hand, and told him that I thought the minus sign should be a plus. He stared at the ceiling, and in a matter of maybe 30 seconds did the calculations for all the primes from 3 to 143, confirming each calculation with the word “chess” for “yes”. (It had taken me two hours to do these) He seemed to be very surprised that I was correct, and asked for permission to work on the problem before the next class. Now each of the other students in the class was a math major, and being from the Astronomy department I was considered to be an alien. I had heard them discussing the lectures, and they were uniformly against them. They had no idea whatsoever that anyone would work on the problems at home. When we next met, Prof. Chowla announced that I was correct. From this time forward, every class began with the question “Was everything alright last time, Mr. Brownlee?” I never again heard those math students slur the astronomy Department.
But I had an “A” in the class, thanks to Prof. Storer wanting to hear what I had learned in each class!
Because of this episode, Prof. and Mrs. Chowla became our good friends, and we were entertained in their home in Lawrence. Prof. Chowla was born into a family of the highest social order in India—for example, he told me that he had never once dressed himself, as servants always did so. When he married, his wife performed that function. She was a wonderful person also, and told us some wonderful things about her remarkable husband. As their guests, we were served a dessert pudding that was completely covered with a leaf of pure gold. We were assured that it was OK to eat it, so we did. After the semester ended, we took the Chowlas in our old Ford to Colorado, and spent two weeks staying in places that I could afford. They were completely taken by the American West, and made many comparisons with India. Thanks to the fact that my Aunt Theresa had been in India for many years, and indeed was present for the separation of the two countries, we were able to relate to their experiences.
Professor Chowla subsequently spent time at the University of Colorado and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His fame lives on. His friendship is still remembered, and treasured. Had I only been able to guess when I was barn sitting of the power of numbers, practical application or no!
Son Wayne was born in December 1950. My being a graduate student with three children was not unknown in those days, for many fellow students were veterans, and some years older than the normal student.
The head of the Astronomy Department was Professor Storer, one of my all time favorites. He and his wife Mary took considerable interest in us, and helped in many ways.
We were living in a wonderful old house in downtown Lawrence. It was originally in the category of a mansion, having been built not that long after the civil war. The windows were stained glass—and magnificent ones too—and our apartment was the entire third floor. Just before Wayne was born, the pot on the stove caught fire, and as Addie Leah attempted to put it out, there was a real explosion. She was badly burned on her right arm and hand. The explosion caused me to run to see what was happening, and I found parts of the kitchen on fire—window curtains were afire, and that window was at the top of the stairs—our only way out. The fire had to be extinguished. I did it by throwing pots of water on it, but I had turned on the hot water faucet instead of the cold, and had no time to correct my error. Thus I had some hot-water burns. Addie Leah’s burns were really serious, so once the fire was out, and Mrs. Walters, our landlady was on the scene, we left for the hospital. This happened only a couple of weeks before Wayne was to arrive, so there was some stress to be dealt with. As soon as Addie Leah had recovered from Wayne’s birth, she had surgery at the university hospital in Kansas City, and would be gone for a number of days. Mrs. Storer cared for the three kids for the first couple of days. Then, I had a friend take me to Topeka where I caught a plane to Hutchinson. Wayne was only a couple of weeks old. At the Topeka airport the girls had a wonderful time, and a lady waiting to take an airplane kept trying to find out from them just where their mother might be. They were much too busy to answer her questions, and so she fastened her attention on Wayne. Finally she asked the question: “Why are you taking the plane with this baby?” I replied that I only had two extra bottles of milk, and did not have time to take the train. At that moment the flight was called, and the poor lady never learned the true story.
One of the interesting facets of our life in Lawrence resulted from the fact that some Osborne High School boys also had rooms in Mrs. Walters’ house, so we pretty much lived as one big happy family—and that included Mrs. Walters.
It took me two years to obtain my Masters Degree, but I enjoyed every minute. I was encouraged to get my Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Indiana, so in the fall of 1952 it was on to Bloomington, Indiana.

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