Michael Pupin in Maker of Patterns

2018/12/04

I came across this beautiful story about Michael Pupin in the book Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters - Freeman Dyson:

Michael Pupin began life as a shepherd boy in a remote part of Hungary but Serb-speaking. At the age of fifteen, having had a little schooling, he decided to run away to America; and having sold his warm clothes to pay his fare, he spent a fortnight almost frozen to death crossing the Atlantic and finally arrived in New York not speaking a word of English and with five cents as his total wealth. He managed to get a job on a farm and so spent five years moving from one job to another, using the intervals to teach himself Latin and Greek and a little science. At the end of this time he considered himself educated enough to compete for a scholarship at Columbia College and astounded the examiners by knowing the first two books of the Iliad by heart; he got the scholarship.

At Columbia he made a brilliant career in athletics and social success, but he decided that he wanted to be a scientist, and he could not find anybody at Columbia who could teach him any real science. One day he happened to pick up James Clerk Maxwell’s little book on the new electromagnetic theory, and this so captured his imagination that he decided he could not rest until he had understood it. So when he had his Columbia degree, he took a ship to England and went to Cambridge to work under Maxwell.

[…] his enduring monument is the Pupin Laboratory at Columbia, which he conceived as a centre for research in the most modern and refined parts of pure physics, to do for America what the Cavendish did for England. It is sad that he did not live to see this dream come true. The three great experiments which during the last year have confirmed the new radiation theory were all carried out first in the Pupin Laboratory.

Maker of Patterns, a collection of letters written by Freeman Dyson (a Nobel Prize Winning Physicist) to his parents over four decades, is crowded with stories about extraordinary people spanning across his time, most of them in the field of Physics. These letters, delivered in their purest form, sprinkled with retrospective remarks from Dyson after re-reading them, protrude a glimpse into one of the greatest and most humble minds of the twenty-first century.

In many of these letters, Freeman shared to his parents detailed experience from the time being a student of Paul Dirac, Godfrey Hardy and many other professors at Trinity College as an undergraduate; how he got to know Richard Feynman in the United States; the strange tension, respect and empathy he developed over the years for Oppenheimer; his passionate yet unintoxicated views about peace, nuclear weapons, space travel and making positive contributions to science and mankind; to how he treated his family turmoils with extreme grace and moralily.

Despite being written by a great theoretical physicist and mathematician, little technical details were mentioned. On occasions when they appeared, the explainations were straight-forward and comprehensable without requiring much of preceeding knowledge.