Observations of a scientific life
One got the sense that Uncle Marty did not so much live in his apartment as it had swallowed him. The high ceilings made him look even shorter than he was at five feet, five inches, and the floors, carpeted in a plushy beige faux suede, sank you with every step. Against the burgundy wallpaper, he seemed to be not merely pale but fading away.
I never saw him working. Once, when I was wandering back from the bathroom and took a wrong turn, I chanced upon his study. It was strangely empty, as if it had been drained. On his desk were a small tin of alligator clips, slim folders in file sorters, and several modest stacks of paper. Looming above the printer was a large framed black-and-white poster of Einstein, with his tongue hanging out and his eyes manic, that could have belonged to anyone.
As I closed the door, I swatted the urge to search through his drawers. I was never good at Magic Eye; my brain refused to stitch those apparently senseless patterns into anything resembling a Dutch seascape or cheerless dog. Even if I had seen something in that room, I would not have understood what it was.
Science did not run in our family. It struck Marty alone. He was a genius, an inventor with over six patents to his name. So said my parents. At one Thanksgiving, I studied him, watching him spoon mashed potatoes into his wide, contented mouth, white flecks accumulating in the short whiskers above his lips. He cut his meat into small, uneven pieces and appeared to swallow them whole. From this I learned that geniuses were not particularly clean eaters.
His mind seemed a hermetic well. Perhaps he shared nothing because he doubted I would understand what he was saying. I returned his silence with my own. The consequences of speaking to him, of distracting him, seemed dire. The future of science was at stake, I thought, and I dared not hamper Progress with the minutiae of my weekend plans. He had high cholesterol and had inherited a family history of serious heart trouble. He was in his sixties and his retired features seemed pleasant because his face knew no other way. We said hello and goodbye to each other and presumed the rest.
We had our chins in common, maybe. Sometimes I had to remind myself that we were really related.
Manhattan, 1958. At six in the morning, six senior boys convene in the basement of Stuyvesant High School, a public high school for the scientifically adroit. They are the members of the Cyclotron Committee, a new club, and they intend to build the first atom reactor ever to be housed in an American high school. Martin Gersten, age 15, of Brooklyn, is their president and founder. (He has skipped several grades.) He is the neighborhood darling, the human interest feature of the year after year after year. The New York Mirror publishes a short, bemused article on Marty’s quest to gain permission for the project from the Atomic Energy Commission.
When the club turns on the cyclotron three years later, the sheer energy it requires causes a neighborhood blackout. It chokes on its stolen light, impossible to save, abandoning six boys in the dark. For an instant, however, it works. It is alive for as long as it takes for it to die. But alive is alive.
Marty only had good fortune with science. All his marriages except the fourth and last concluded in divorce. Each of his wives was younger than her predecessor. His third wife had two young children from a previous marriage, and was an engineer at Marty’s audio technology company. A year after their wedding, they had a daughter. At the time of her birth two months too soon, she could fit in my father’s hand. Her parents named her Emily, after the nurse who saved her life.
Emily stayed small. In winter, when she was a sophomore in college and I a freshman, we agreed to meet at a restaurant downtown. My parents assured me that “Emily is doing well, very well,” which meant she was doing better than before. Compounding her problems was her poor sense of direction, not unusual among premature babies, that meant she could not always find her way. I walked to the back of the restaurant and finally spotted her, a dark huddle beside the far wall. Her coat enveloped her; she seemed to have been swaddled in it.
People mistake us for siblings, although she has slightly darker skin. We are the spitting image of our fathers, and thus each other. We have their hooked noses, long limbs and oblong faces. We look nothing like our mothers, both of whom are Asian immigrants. Against reason, we both feel this is our fault.
What Marty was occurred in isolation. It struck our family but once. We felt no envy, only confusion about what we had done to deserve it.
My mother tried her utmost to interest me in the lives of the scientific intelligentsia. She lugged home stacks of biographies, whose frequently neon covers featured clean-looking people hunched over microscopes as if looking for something lost. They piled on the kitchen counter, collecting dust and fines.
One book I did read was a picture book about Phineas Gage. After a horrific accident in which an iron rod went through his skull and destroyed much of his frontal lobe, Gage evolved from construction worker to 19th-century medical curiosity. Inside the book was an image of a real human brain. The uncomplicated smoothness of the skull belies the brain’s tight, effortful coils: the duplicity of the body.
Genius is clean, unmarred. Genius is inherence, arising of its own accord. Genius: unbidden, the mind will construct something from nothing.
Sometimes, with the writing I admire, I perform a kind of fieldwork: weighing it, measuring it, listening to how it is speaking. But the work continues to be like interrogating a stranger, or worse, someone you are trying to know, who is silent though his expression sears.
When I asked my mother about why Marty never spoke to me, she laughs. You were never very sophisticated, she says over the phone. It was you who never wanted to talk to adults. You just wanted to leave dinner and play with your cousin. Maybe all children are like that.
Marty played music when he was young. Like my father, who played the bassoon, and like me—I play the violin. More fascinating for Marty, however, was whatever made music, music. He quit the violin after his bar mitzvah and began studying sound. He had two jobs in his teens, one at a classical radio station and another as a technician at Bell Laboratories. As my father tells it, Marty got both of them by simply walking into their offices and explaining who he was. He created a radio station at age 13; at 20 he had founded his own speaker company, Ohm Acoustics, which still exists. He found investors in Japan and India.
Even as an infant he had pointed to things—That! That! What is that—demanding to know what they were and how they worked. He commenced a research position studying sight. In his 30s he created the software used to evaluate patients for Lasik surgery. Like my father, he had astigmatism.
He was obsessed with clarity.
Patents by Inventor Martin Gersten
Ultrasonic Scanning Device with A Hybrid Controller
Device for Performing Opthalmic Procedures with Improved Alignment
Ultrasonic Scanning Apparatus with A Tuning Fork-type Vibrator
(He had perfect pitch and an unbelievable ear)
Compact Keratoscope with Interchangeable Cones
Loudspeaker Voice Coil Arrangement
One Saturday, when my parents were away, he picked me up from music school in a taxi. He helped me balance my violin case on our laps, asked me how I was (fine), and resumed his silence. The radio was on, but not loudly enough. Fortunately the ride to his new apartment was not long. He had sold the old one after his divorce and was now living in a smaller, whiter apartment by the water.
“What do you know about quantum physics?” I blurted. Of all the questions. As in school, I was only interested in asking questions that made me sound smart. But this had only sounded smart in my mind.
“Well, nobody really knows anything about quantum physics,” he chuckled. “I can give you a few basics…” He continued, but I was not really listening. I did not know what was more disappointing: that I had squandered our ride discussing something inane, or that I had not been simply dazzled by his response.
Uncle Marty left all of us at different times.
A month before, he was at the airport, waving to his adult son, Alan, at the terminal’s edge. Some weeks later, he dropped Emily and her boxes off at school. Then one night Marty was at the kitchen table, the teakettle screeching. My father, opening the door for my mother and me, wasted no time: Marty’s gone. When it came to Uncle Marty, the three of us were always the last to know.
The funeral was on a Saturday. My parents picked me up early from music school and drove several hours to the reception at a small Italian restaurant by the water. The three of us drifted past faces we did not know, seeking out the food though none of us were hungry. Emily was at a table in the back, flanked by her friends, one of whom was resting her head on Emily’s shoulder. Emily was holding a guitar but not playing it, just swaying and humming to herself.
When she saw me, she hobbled over and looped her too-long arms around my neck by way of greeting. Her grip burned me. When a down feather came free of her coat and lodged itself in my nose, I nearly sneezed, but thought better of it. She began to rock me, and it occurred to me that she thought she was holding me together.
About a hundred of us gathered on the picnic tables beside the river. Emily and her old babysitter sang a song about loving people and growing old. I wasn’t really listening. I was crying without knowing precisely why.
My father is retelling one of many stories about Uncle Marty’s trip to Japan:
Marty accepts a colleague’s invitation to dine at a well-known expensive restaurant. Gathered at the table are six tall Japanese businessmen in suits and Marty, Jewish, stocky, sweating through his shirt. The shrimp arrive writhing on a porcelain platter, headless but alive. They are engulfed by a swarm of hands. Marty, who does not care for sea- food, feels he must be polite. Following his colleague’s lead, he dips a shrimp in sake and swallows it unflinchingly.
“Whole, live!” my father exclaims from the couch. “Can you believe it? Live!”
Marty shifts in his seat. “That’s Japan for you,” he says, and goes quiet. His souvenirs are all over the living room. There are two hanging scrolls on the far wall, one of a samurai and another of a young girl masked by her fan. Her eyes are not facing front, but to the side. She knows something, I think on some days. And on other days, like today, I think she is just shy.