The Quadrangle Club in the 1920s and ’30s experienced its “golden age.” After lunch men relaxed in the solarium, reading newspapers or playing cards; later in the afternoon they gathered for billiards or cowboy pool. By the 1950s part of the billiards room (shown) had become a cocktail lounge. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf2-06092r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Billiards is a good game

From our print archive: Gamesmanship and America’s first Nobel Prize scientist, Albert Abraham Michelson.

When I came here in 1928, now more than half the history of the University ago, the University of Chicago was the one institution of higher learning that was thought to exist west of the Appalachians by the populace east of the Appalachians. This widespread recognition was based largely on the names of Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow (who in the eastern mind was also connected with the University of Chicago), A. A. Stagg, and Albert Abraham Michelson, who in 1907 had been the first American to win the Nobel Prize in science. Before arriving on campus, I may also have heard of Arthur Holly Compton, because only the year before he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, but I have the feeling I did not know of him until I saw Mrs. Compton showing him off at intermissions in Mandel Hall.

Michelson and Einstein, however, were the best known scientists of the time—in some ways for almost opposite reasons, although both were physicists. Einstein was the wonder of the world because he had encased the whole universe in a simple formula, E=mc2, which we were told, equally wonderful to us, would be very upsetting if we could understand it. Especially to us who could not understand, he was the theorist beyond theorists.

Michelson’s wonder was what his head did with his hands, and a few boxes and rotating mirrors. He measured things, especially things that were regarded as unmeasurable, ineffable, and precious as life itself. Among other things, he had measured light and a star. I watched him play billiards nearly every noon for several months before he retired from the University, and, in introducing myself, I could further say with equal truth, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.” If I get the right opening, though, I prefer saying, “When young, I watched Michelson play billiards.”

Michelson’s hands were to make many things that brought light to our universe, but nothing so marked him in the popular mind as his measurement of the speed of light itself. Throughout most of history, light had been thought of as instantaneous and present wherever there was nothing to cast a shadow, and probably throughout all history light will be thought of by poets and the rest of us as the source of body and soul, without which there would be no photosynthesis or food or love or moonlight in which to make love. Without light for a metaphor there would have been little poetry written and no candlelight to write it by. Christ said, “I am the light of the world,” and Cardinal Newman’s hymn to Him begins, “Lead, kindly light.”

The billiards player is Albert A. Michelson, professor of physics on the University’s original faculty and the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize. (University of Chicago Magazine archives)

Michelson was to measure the speed of light many times (his most accurate figure being 186,285 ± 2½ miles per second) and modern electronic equipment has changed that figure to only 186,282.3960. When in 1878 as an ensign in Annapolis he made his first measurement he spent $10 of his own money to assemble his equipment (for $10 light measured 186,508 miles per second).

In 1928, three years before his death, everyone said of Michelson, "He measured light," and today he is one of the few Nobel Prize winners whom nearly all educated people can name and give the reason for the award, although Michelson’s award actually was based on a wide spectrum of experiments. His youngest daughter Dorothy Michelson Livingston showed her father’s own sense of truth and artistry when she entitled her recent biography of him, The Master of Light: A Biography of Albert A. Michelson (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).

Of course, the fact that he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in science helped to enshrine him both nationally and locally. Nowadays Nobel Prize winners at times seem to come a dime a dozen and every now and then in job-lots, two or three to an award, but for a long time in history there was none and then there was one and he was at the University of Chicago. President Harper himself had started the University on its long string of firsts—the first university to have a summer school, the first extension division organized as part of a university, the first university press to have its own press, and, certainly not least or last, the first university to have women on its faculty and a dean of women. But probably the University’s two most unforgettable firsts go to Michelson for the first American Nobel Prize in science (1907) and to Enrico Fermi and his group for the first self-sustained nuclear reaction (1942). To include one of my old students, I’ll add Jay Berwanger for the first Heisman Trophy (1935).

In 1928, when I first saw Michelson he was eating lunch at the Quadrangle Club, and I thought instantly of the opening of Carl Sandburg’s poem, "I saw a famous man eating soup." One look at Michelson in old age and there could be no doubt that he was famous. He did not eat at the table reserved for the physicists. He ate at a table always reserved for him alone, and he occasionally smiled as he drew on his napkin. The waitress told us he drew sketches of the faculty he did not care to eat with. She said they all had long noses.

Few of us in these present days of unfamous and infamous men have any idea of what it was like to be one of the two or three most famous physicists of the early twentieth century and to eat your soup at a table reserved for you alone. The meaning of the words “elite” and “aristocratic” have been lost, except in their profane senses, and it is doubtful if we would recognize an aristocrat if there were one and we happened to see him. But at the first general open meeting in 1900 of the American Physical Society (of which Michelson was vice-president seven years before his Nobel Prize), its president, Henry Rowland, addressed his fellow members as follows:

...We meet here in the interest of a science above all sciences which deals with the foundation of the Universe...with the constitution of matter from which everything in the Universe is made and with the ether of space by which alone the various portions of matter forming the Universe affect each other...

...We form a small and unique body of men, a new variety of the human race as one of our greatest scientists calls it, whose views of what constitutes the greatest achievement in life are very different from those around us. In this respect we form an aristocracy, not of wealth, not of pedigree, but of intellect and of ideals.

In case present-day readers might feel this prose is running over with self-anointed oil, they should start jotting down the names of some of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century physicists whom they and the world remember: Madame Curie and her husband, Pierre (radium and radioactivity), Lord Kelvin (as in Kelvinator), James Clerk Maxwell (electromagnetic field), Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (X-rays), and, to end where we began, Einstein and Michelson. Every once in a while science comes to a place where it meets a bunch of great men coming its way who are big enough to overturn it and then set it on its wheels again but going forever in a different direction.

Portrait of Michelson by photographer Russell Moffett. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf6-00086, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

But his being the first American physicist to win the Nobel Prize still doesn’t give us an adequate measurement of how high Michelson stood in the firmament of men apart from other men. Michelson was a Navy man. He had received his basic scientific training at Annapolis and it was better all around and forever after not to forget he had been a naval officer.

Shortly before anyone else in the dining room had finished his lunch, Michelson rose and went downstairs. Before long, I heard that he went down to the billiards room and probably at the same time I heard he was a fine billiards player. Nobody in the University, I was told, was good enough to play with him. Immediately, I started arriving earlier for lunch, and, when he folded his long-nosed napkin, I rose and followed him.

So for at least several months before he left Chicago for good, I sat on one of those high pool-room chairs for ten or fifteen minutes at noon and watched the famous physicist play billiards after he ate soup and sketched the ordinary self-anointed physicists with whom he did not sit. He and I occasionally spoke. Most of our communication, however, was carried on by a lifted eyebrow followed by a nod or shake of the head. He lifted the eyebrow, and I shook or nodded the head.

I had come here in 1928 to start graduate work with an A.B. in English from Dartmouth, and, since I had taught courses there in freshman English for two years after graduation, I was able to start here as a Graduate Assistant, a form of degradation that has since been abolished, at least in the English Department. As the first half of the title suggests, it was bestowed upon certain graduate students, but the second half of the title, “Assistant,” give’s no idea of how little money and how much servility went with it.

Michelson while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I. {{PD-US}}

Only a few years later (in 1932), Vanity Fair, the magazine of the sophisticates (The New Yorker just getting under way), started publishing a series of caricatures by Covarrubias entitled “Impossible Interviews,” the one that comes to mind first being between Mae West and Dowager-Queen Marie of Romania. If Covarrubias had seen the young Graduate Assistant in English and the great and aging physicist who was the first American Nobel Prize winner in science gathered each noon around a billiard table he might have included us in his series.

In 1928 there were two ways graduate students in English without money could see their way to an advanced degree, both involving considerable medical risk. Besides “the Graduate Assistant route,” which was the scenic detour, there was the more common family way which was to marry a fellow graduate student, the marriage vows often consisting only of promises that each would take his or her turn in working on some job until the other received his or her Ph.D. In 1928 (as in 1975) it always fell out that it was the woman’s turn first to give up her graduate studies and become the bread-winner. By the time the male finally fenced in a Ph.D., the female of the species had had so many children and jobs and was so generally worn-out (or dead) that it was too late for her and she could never bear to open a book again, except for pleasure.

The “Assistant” half of a Graduate Assistant needs a little more defining before one can appreciate the spectator as well as the billiards player in the coming scene. A Graduate Assistant, in addition to taking graduate courses, could teach up to three sections a quarter of the required course in English Composition at the rate of $200 per section. Financially, this meant that a Graduate Assistant who taught the full schedule of three sections for three quarters of a school year made $1,800. Since many of our freshmen in 1928 were still from the rural Middle West, being a Graduate Assistant teaching three sections of English Composition spiritually meant going home late Friday afternoon, having a couple of shots of Prohibition gin, going to bed right after dinner and reading thirty (students) times three (sections) of one-thousand-word compositions on “How to Fill a Silo.” By then, he was too weak to get out of bed, and besides he had to start preparing the graduate courses he was taking.

So the great difference between the two kinds of needy graduate students in English was in how they spent their weekends in bed. As a result of my weekends, I became an expert on corn, but my conversations with the great physicist were still limited to billiards.

Painting of Michelson by the artist Ralph Clarkson. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-04508, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

For instance, we never mentioned bridge; yet I was soon to discover he hurried down to the billiard room before anyone else left upstairs because he wanted to play bridge but was not a good bridge player. Although he was too good at billiards to play with anybody in the club, none of the bridge players in the room next to the billiards tables wanted him for a partner. He coordinated these two facts by eating early, getting downstairs before anyone else, playing billiards by himself for ten or fifteen minutes, and then, just before the first big scraping of chairs upstairs, seating himself at the bridge table where there was room for just three others. But, though I also watched him play bridge, we never spoke about anything except billiards.

Undoubtedly, then, I would never have exchanged a single word with the Master of Light if I had not been brought up in western Montana, where all my generation spent more time in what were then called Card and Billiard Parlors than in school or at home. In the early part of this century the Card and Billiards Emporium was “the home away from home,” and home was only where we ate and slept. Usually, the first table was the billiards table, because in Montana billiards was thought of as the sport of the upper class and was played only by the town’s best barbers and the one vice-president of the bank. Then came three pool tables with dead cushions and concrete balls that hairy loggers hit so hard they jumped off the tables. At the rear, enthroned by several steps as at the Quadrangle Club, was the card room, in the center of which was the poker table under an enormous green shade. In the glare of the circle of light were always two or three poker players trying to look clumsy. They were housemen or “shills” waiting for some lumberjack to drop by who had just cashed his summer’s check. If you were any good at cards yourself, you could see it was hard work for them to look clumsy.

We high school players were pool players, although we should like to have been billiards players if for no other reason than that each billiard player was so elite he had a woman besides a wife, but we could rarely finance our aspirations. It cost twenty-five cents an hour to play billiards, and only ten cents a game for rotation pool and, as any high school rotation-pool player knows, it is no great trick, when the houseman is not looking, to sneak balls back on the table that have already been sunk and thus to prolong the game.

When I came to the University as a Graduate Assistant, then, I was just as good a billiards player as I had had spare twenty-five cent pieces when I was in high school, and, still aspiring to be better, I ate my lunch early to get downstairs and watch the club champion.

Michelson was the best billiards player I have ever seen at the University, and I think I have seen all the really good ones, including the barbers at the Reynolds Club. At first I was somewhat embarrassed to see how good he was, because I did not expect to find any academic type as good at a “manly sport” as the best we had in western Montana. But the more I thought about it and the more I learned about Michelson, the less surprised I became. Before long, I comforted myself with the question, “Why not? He’s the best head-and-hands man in the world.”

So it wasn’t just billiards I watched when I arrived early every noon to watch Michelson play billiards. I came to watch his hands. The year 1928 was still in an age which counted men who made machines among its marvels and took for granted that the rest of men could use tools and that women could embroider beautifully. Edison still performed his wonders, but the wonders of Bell and Edison were more or less household utilities. Michelson’s head-and-hands made machines almost godlike in properties, designed to tell us how it was with the universe. His favorite creation was his interferometer, with which, among other things, he (and later a collaborator, Edward Morley) had performed an experiment that shook the old universe and gave Einstein a big push toward creating a new one with his theory of relativity.

Concluding page of Michelson’s handwritten draft paper on the velocity of light. {{PD-old}}

Before the Michelson-Morley experiment, the common scientific assumption was that the universe consisted of bodies of matter moving through and permeated by a substance that, although invisible, had somehow itself to be material. This substance at first was spelled “aether.” Since Michelson tended to believe that the major theories of the universe were already in and that accordingly the chief jobs left to do were to measure what was sailing around in ether, his head and hands produced his interferometer which split a light wave, sending one half with the orbit of the earth and back again where it met the other half wave length that had been sent on a return trip at right angles to the orbit of the earth. If there were ether out there (unless it were being carried along by the earth as if it were an envelope of the earth), the expectation was that when the two halves of the light wave rejoined they would be “out of phase,” since one had held a course parallel to “the ether drift” and the other had crossed it at right angles and returned. The difference between the two half-light waves would indeed be small, but Michelson was sure he could measure it—and measure it he did, again and again—only to conclude reluctantly that there was no difference and that therefore there was no stationary ether "out there" and that light traveled at equal velocity in all directions.

In 1928 we only crudely knew how these negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment opened the universe to Einstein’s theories of relativity and we had even vaguer notions of the kind of machine that left Newtonian physics lying in a heap feebly struggling to get out from under its own ruins.

I had heard, however, something about the interferometer, and, having worked ten or eleven summers in the Forest Service and logging camps, I had enough feeling for tools to make it hard for me to keep my mind solely on billiards. After Michelson would run ten or twelve billiards with a touch so delicate that the three balls could always be covered by a hat, I found myself wondering instead how he had ever made a machine so delicate its finding would be invalid if it vibrated half a wave length of light, a whole wave length of light being so small that it can’t be seen by our most powerful microscope. A fancy, wide-angle billiard would also take my mind off the game, because I knew just from the nature of the experiment that the machine had to turn ninety degrees without vibration (in mercury, I later found) so that any change in the pattern of the light waves could be observed. Perhaps the most American, air-conditioned question I kept asking was, “How the hell in the 1880s did he ever keep the machine in a temperature that probably couldn’t vary a tenth of a degree?”

You don’t have to have a diagram of the interferometer to realize why it was Michelson’s favorite creation or why Michelson must have felt about his interferometer something of the way Galileo felt about his telescope:

“O telescope, instrument of much knowledge, more precious than any sceptre! Is not he who holds thee in his hand made king and lord of the works of God?”

But even this poetical outpouring isn’t as moving a tribute to a machine as the factual statement about the interferometer made by Arthur Stanley Eddington, the English astronomer; it is a machine, he said, that can detect “a lag of one-tenthousand-billionth of a second in the arrival of a light wave.”


A master’s hands

No wonder that before long the astronomers tried to enlist Michelson’s hands in their service and succeeded. Dissatisfied with their own attempts, they urged him to give them the first accurate measurement of a star. For the first star ever to have its diameter measured accurately he picked a big one with a big name a long way off—Betelgeuse, linear diameter 240,000,000 miles (2,300 times larger than our sun) and 150 light years from the earth.

His hands were legendary long before I ever saw them. As legend, they were part fact and some fiction. For instance, I soon heard he was a fine violinist and a mini-Stradivarius who made his own beautiful instruments, but I think the truth is that, while his Jewish father was out selling pick-handles to California gold miners, his Polish mother kept him indoors to "practice, practice, practice," with the result that he became a fine violinist and, in his turn, spent half an hour before going to his lab in passing on his love and skill to his daughters. The business, though, about his making violins was just a fictional tribute to his hands.

An undated watercolor by Michelson. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-04523, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

It is a fact, however, that at the end of his first year at Annapolis he stood at the top of his class in drawing and that all his life he expressed himself by sketches and water colors. Often in late afternoons if you looked over the wall in front of his beautiful home at 1220 East 58th Street (just behind the Robie House) you could see him in the sunshine and shadow of his yard painting shadow and sunshine.

Many of his last late afternoons in Chicago he spent either in his yard or at the Quadrangle Club. In those days, before so much of the Quadrangle Club was turned into an eating place, there was a beautiful chess room on the second floor, and on late afternoons his slightly stooped shoulders were often reflected in the dark and light squares of ingrained wood. He had been good enough once to play the American chess champion, Frank James Marshall, who however was not overpowered by his unorthodox openings, as most of his opponents were, and is supposed to have remarked that the physicist’s game was a little long on imagination and passion.

He also had the reputation of having been a very good tennis player, but I have no memory of ever seeing him play; perhaps at seventy-five he had quit the game, but supposedly he had been very good.

It may not be so surprising as it first seems that he was not a good bridge player, although always wanting to be in the game. It is hard to predict just where there is going to be a gap in somebody’s genetic tape, and, before I ever heard the word "genetic," I was learning in the Quadrangle Club that a gene can be very narrow and not include what seems almost necessarily a part of it. For instance, Leonard Eugene Dickson, the outstanding mathematician, who at the time was writing his classic works on the theory of numbers, was sometimes a poor card player. Anton J. Carlson was also not a good bridge player, although he was nationally famous as an exponent of the scientific method in the biological sciences (“Vat iss da evidence?”). In fact, there were quite a few card players in western Montana who would have taken the money from the world-famous intellectuals who gathered at noon in the card room of the Quadrangle Club in those days (and since).

After watching Michelson play bridge for a while, you could predict more or less the kind of mistake he would make, and it was not unrelated to the American champion’s description of his chess game. He would make a bid short of game, but, after getting the bid, would see that, if he took and made two long finesses, he could come in with a little slam. Of course, a little slam would make only a few points difference since he hadn’t bid it, but he would take the two finesses and not only lose both but lose his bid on an absolutely “lay-down hand.” He was a rather small man, as you know, and he would look with almost childlike incredulity at the ruined remains of his daring invention of two long finesses where none was a sure thing.

Diploma presented to Michelson in 1907 for the Nobel Prize in Physics. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-04521-002, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

There may also have been a causal relation between his shortcomings in bridge and chess. As the great head-and-hands scientist, the games that he was really good at involved great skill with a cue, a violin bow, a paint brush or a racket, but chess and bridge required no gift of hands. This is just a guess. The University of Chicago had as yet no Nobel Prize winners by the names of George Wells Beadle and James Dewey Watson to decode the hodge-podge of genetic tape that makes us one, or to explain why Michelson, who when it came to games was a mini-Leonardo da Vinci, with a wide spread of gifts, was not wanted as a bridge partner. It is easier to understand Carlson’s case—we certainly don’t think of there being much connection between animal experimentation and fifty-two cards and two jokers—and there wasn’t.

Dickson, the master of numbers, was sometimes expectedly brilliant in a game where only 13 x 4 numbers were involved; his habitual troubles were at least partly environmental—he had come here by way of Texas. He almost consistently overbid and, when he lost three or four hands in a row, he would slam his cards down on the table and leave the card room in a rage, always denouncing Carlson on the way out. No matter who had misplayed—Carlson, Michelson, or himself—he always denounced Carlson. While the cards were still shivering on tht table, he would shout, “Why the hell, Carlson, don’t you go back to your lab and feed your dogs? And don’t let Irene Castle catch you killing any of them.”

Overbidding three or four hands in a row and then blaming the great biologist seemed to put the great mathematician in the right state of mind to race back to his office and resume his classic studies on the theory of numbers.

But be sure that Dickson or no one else ever even mentioned that Michelson did not play bridge well. Michelson was something like the other great University tradition we had in those days (observed in these present days only by James Cate and me)-namely, that the University shield in the floor of the Reynolds Club, in front of the entrance to the cafeteria, should never be stepped on. No one wanted to play with Michelson, but he was Michelson, and no one ever stepped on him and said he did not play bridge well.

At seventy-five, though, he was still the best billiard player in the club. He even looked like a billiard player. In fact, he looked like everything he did well—he looked like a violinist, a water colorist, a chess player and a physicist. And he still looked like an Annapolis-trained naval officer. At seventy-five, he was slight, trim and handsome. He was quietly dressed, with a high, stiff collar and a small, sharp mustache. He was small all over, and even his hands did not look particularly unusual. In fact, one of the fascinations of his hands was that they looked fairly ordinary. I suppose we are used to thinking of a master’s hands as being long and powerful and “esthetic,” but the hands of the greatest of all billiard players, Willie Hoppe, were not particularly unusual just to look at, although those of his great rival, Jake Shaefer (the Younger), conformed to the picture in our minds and were like long and powerful bridges. I had learned, though, while working in logging camps, that a man’s hands don’t always tell how good he is with them.

A 1929 watercolor by Michelson. (U.S. Naval Academy, Nimitz Library, Special Collections & Archives)

Michelson was slightly stooped-shouldered (possibly from age), and his small size and slight stoop made him fit the proportions of a billiard table when he was taking a shot, and, when he was standing, he looked as if he were leaning over his cue to chalk it. With a shift of context, of course, the slight stoop and quiet elegance made him look like a violinist, a painter and a chess player.

Like most of the very good “downtown players” at Bensinger’s, he seemed to shoot slowly, an obvious illusion if you kept track of the number of points he was making. It would be more accurate, therefore, to say he shot steadily and rhythmically, only occasionally taking more time to study one shot than another. Those who had seen him shoot in his prime said he was best at three-cushion billiards and credited his skill at this wide-angle game to his mastery of physics, but when I saw him play, his long game was his weakness, possibly because his eyesight was not so sharp as it had been.

In 1928 what he was best at was getting the three balls close together and then “nursing” them—that is, making long runs by keeping the balls together with a soft, delicate stroke. When they slowly worked apart, he would bring them together again with a “position shot” that required an understanding of the angle each ball would take when it came off a cushion, together with perfect control of the speed and hence the distance each ball would travel. Speed and angles he had under his control. When I saw him play, he was essentially a control player.

It would be non-scientific to describe him as a great billiard player but he was a very good amateur player. At seventy-five he could have played downtown at Bensinger’s, and he was the best billiard player in the history of the University. I saw him run over forty several times, and it was not unusual for him to put a string together of twenty or thirty; he had to start with a tough “leave” if he didn’t make five or ten.

Once he handed me his cue and said, “Shoot a few yourself.” Considering my general confusion, I thought I did pretty well. In fact, he said, “Not bad.” Then he added, “But you use ‘English’ on too many of your shots.” English comes from putting a spin on the cue-ball by hitting it on one side instead of the center so that it comes off the cushion or another ball at an unusual angle. “Once in a while it is necessary to use English,” he said, “but it is hard to predict accurately. Cue your ball in the center as often as you can. Don’t use something hard to control unless you have to.”

Only this once did he hand me his cue and ask me to shoot, so once must have satisfied him that, although I wasn’t good enough to play with him, he could turn to me now and then and lift an eyebrow.

Undated photograph of Michelson. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-04505, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Often when he missed a shot, he stood silently studying the green cloth until (I think) he had reconstructed the preceding series of shots and had decided where he had started to lose control of the balls. Once he said when he missed a shot, “I am getting old.”

Just he and I were present, so he said this to me or himself, but I had to let him know I heard it and I have always been glad I did. I said, “No, no. It was a hard shot, but it was the one you should have taken, and you barely missed it.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

I said, “I am sure. The easy shot would have left the balls spread all over the table. Any of the good players down at Bensinger’s would have played it the way you did, and a lot of them would have missed.”


Extended epigram

I think that he was glad I had stopped him from blaming old age, but he was through for the day. He locked his cue into the rack on the wall, and said, either to me or himself or the wall, “Billiards is a good game.”

He made sure that his tie was in the center of his stiff collar before he added, “But billiards is not as good a game as painting.” He rolled down his sleeves and put on his coat. Elegant as he was, he was a workman and took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves when he played billiards. As he stood on the first step between the billiard room and the card room, he added, “But painting is not as good a game as music.”

On the next and top step, he concluded, “But then music is not as good a game as physics.”

“Grandpa’s Lullaby,” written by Michelson on May 4, 1930. (U.S. Naval Academy, Nimitz Library, Special Collections & Archives)

As you can see, I have never forgotten this extended epigram, but for many years I thought of it largely as an extended epigram and for some time I thought probably he had shaped it for me, knowing vaguely that I was in English and should appreciate a literary construction that extended across the billiard room to the top of the stairs. As I grew older and more detached from myself, however, I could see nothing in our relations that would have suggested to him what I intended to do with my life, so next I came to assume that it was just a stylish remark he made to himself, because at seventy-five he was still very stylish—in appearance, dress, serenity, and slowness of movement that turned out not to be slowness but the shortest distance between two points, which is one definition of grace.

Always, though, I must have sensed that this extended epigram was more than a reflection of style, because, forty-five years later, by which time I had several subjects I might have talked about, I suddenly decided I would tell the Alumni Cabinet about Michelson’s comment on games. I also decided it was time for me to clarify to myself what was missing to me but I always knew was there, so I went over to the President’s Archives, got Michelson’s file and read his most serious scientific prose. Then, not long afterwards—but unfortunately not until after I gave my talk to the Alumni Cabinet—I discovered and read the humanly and scientifically perceptive biography of him by his youngest daughter. You should read it, too, if you wish to experience for a short time Michelson’s universe which moves in beauty playing games. It is not a universe governed by morality or theology but by esthetics, mechanics, and gamesmanship, all shades of one another.

In 1928, then, Michelson was not talking to the wall when he said, after missing a correct but hard shot: “Billiards is a good game, but billiards is not as good a game as painting, but painting is not as good a game as music, but then music is not as good a game as physics.”

He was saying much the same thing many years earlier, only more formally, and more beautifully. In 1899, for instance, he began the Lowell Lectures on physics before his Boston audience by speaking first of esthetics:

If a poet could at the same time be a physicist, he might convey to others the pleasure, the satisfaction, almost the reverence, which the subject inspires. The esthetic side of the subject is, I confess, by no means the least attractive to me. Especially is its fascination felt in the branch which deals with light, and I hope the day may be near when a Ruskin will be found equal to the description of the beauties of coloring, the exquisite graduations of light and shade, and the intricate wonders of symmetrical forms and combinations of forms which are encountered at every turn.

In the games that were going on in the universe, the participants were not only the universe and those hoping to understand it, but even the machines that were made to help the understanding. Of one of his machines that Michelson could never quite master, he said:

One comes to regard the machine as having a personality—I had almost said a feminine personality—requiring humoring, coaxing, cajoling—even threatening! But finally one realizes that the personality is that of an alert and skillful player in an intricate but fascinating game—who will take immediate advantage of the mistakes of his opponent, who “springs” the most disconcerting surprises, who never leaves any result to chance—but who nevertheless plays fair—in strict accordance with the rules of the game. These rules he knows and makes no allowance if you do not. When you learn them and play accordingly, the game progresses as it should.

Einstein left behind, not only a formulation of the universe, but a formulation of Michelson’s delight in it. His telegram on the one-hundredth anniversary of Michelson’s birthday began:

I always think of Michelson as the artist in Science. His greatest joy seemed to come from the beauty of the experiment itself, and the elegance of the method employed.

Although I watched Michelson play billiards regularly at noon for a few months before he retired from the University, I have the feeling now that he never came to know anything about me, except that I put English on too many of my shots and so did not have perfect control of them.

But I am certain that eventually I came to know something important about him, perhaps in part because I taught literature, and certainly in part because I was brought up in pool halls and logging camps—he was an artist and played many games well, especially those involving something like a cue, a brush, a bow, or, best of all, a box with slits and silvered mirrors. In that game he was playing with light and a star.


Undated photograph of Maclean. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-04076, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Norman F. Maclean, PhD'40, professor emeritus of English and the William Rainey Harper professor emeritus in the College, discussed his recollections of A. A. Michelson in a brief talk before the Alumni Cabinet almost two years ago. Since then he expanded them into this article. Maclean was thrice honored for excellence in undergraduate teaching as a member of the University's faculty, he has just completed The River Runs Through It; and Other Stories, which will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press, the Press' first venture ever into the field of fiction.