My father is a rocket scientist. Although the term has become cliché for any highly intelligent human being, true rocket scientists stand alone. Sheer brainpower is only the first requirement. What sets my father and his fellows apart is a particular way of being in the world.
I remember the first time I recognized this distinction. I was a fledgling driver at the wheel of the family Vista Cruiser, my father beside me in the passenger seat. “You didn’t stop all the way,” he observed after a brief visit at a stop sign.
“Sure I did.”
“No,” he said in a tone canceling out further debate. “I didn’t feel the fourth derivative.”
What? You know that sensation when a car ceases all forward motion and settles back like a cat on its haunches? Turns out that sensation has a name – and a robust mathematical formula involving seven variables, arrows, dots and a handful of actual numbers.
This is how my father sees the world, through a prism of higher-order mathematics that is as clear to him as a pane of glass. If this sounds like “Big Bang Theory” nerdiness, be assured he more than balances this perspective with other interests. He knows and loves music and the arts, is an athlete and story teller, and cherishes time with family and friends.
In May, the Youngstown Historical Society invited my father to speak about his involvement in the early days of the space age. Preparing his talk, he struggled to find a balance between the technical aspects of his career and the purely narrative elements. He had some great stories – in 1967, he made it deep into a grueling astronaut selection process before falling mere inches short of fulfilling that dream – but didn’t want to overshadow the technical accomplishments he knew to be the period’s true legacy.
He presented his talk against a slide show that included iconic photographs of fiery rocket launches. To hint at the science behind the smoke and flames, he interposed several screens crawling with a cryptic blend of symbols and letters. The challenge of the day, he explained, was to solve problems associated with speeds, temperatures and environments never before encountered by humankind. Embedded in that cryptic blend were the mathematical solutions to those problems.
Displaying an equation that had helped bring the first moon travelers safely home through the atmosphere, he found himself at a loss for words. “No one had ever done this before,” he said finally, his voice filled with awe – not at himself for having solved the problem at hand, but at the amazing fortune that had matched him at the height of his mental powers with the most exhilarating moment in human history.
Late in his career he returned from a technical conference bemused by an encounter with a young scientist. “It’s an honor to meet you,” the man said. “Your work has been critical to my own.”
“I had no idea,” my father later recalled, having long since moved on to leadership roles. Truly touched by this reference to his past, he added, “My equations are ancient history to him. He couldn’t believe I was still alive.”
That was 20 years ago. My father is still very much alive – even if years past his ability to solve complex technical problems.
Watching him give his talk, I couldn’t deny he is beginning to show a slight stoop of age. If so, it’s understandable. There’s a whole new generation of rocket scientists standing on his shoulders.