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October 28, 2013
Back to Hendrix
It was a very strange experience to speak to a crowd of students in the same room where I had my first college chemistry course. I could see the row of seats where I used to sit 34 years ago, and I was glad that I was speaking later in the morning than that old class used to start (7:40 AM, and no, my notes were not always coherent). I wasn't able to relive the experience of walking into the old labs, though, because they've been extensively renovated and are far nicer (and more functional) than they were back then. The building itself has been expanded, like many other parts of the campus - from some angles, the place looked almost exactly as it did in the early 1980s, but from others, it looked the way your old school does when you have a dream about it, with odd buildings somehow added to the landscape.
The students themselves were excellent hosts, and seemed more poised and on top of things than I remember us being back then. But I think that's a common impression that people have during such visits. My guess is that we simultaneously over- and under-rate our previous selves; the accurate picture is the hardest one to get into focus. I fielded a lot of good questions about chemistry and drug research, but I also had sympathy for the guy who was falling asleep during the first class I spoke to. I'd already done the math: here I was, thirty years after graduating, and what would I have made back then of some guy from the class of 1953? I'd have been sure that I was looking at a figure from the nearly unimaginable past. And he wouldn't have been able to tell my twenty-year-old self what I couldn't tell these students: that they'd be surprised how fast that amount of time can seem to pass, and that seeing the campus from some angles made it feel as if I'd been gone for maybe six months. Not so.
Tom Goodwin, who launched me on my own chemical career, turns up everywhere when you look into the literature on mammalian chemical communication. If you'd told him back in 1981 that he'd be collaborating with people around the world and spending his time flying around to places like Rwanda and New Zealand, he might have had a little trouble believing you. He was the only organic professor when I was an undergraduate, but they've now added Chris Marvin, and talking with his students about ruthenium-catalyzed photochemistry, which I'd been doing recently in my own lab, was a lot of fun. I didn't try to tell them about how odd it felt to see a 400 MHz NMR in a building where the highest-field instrument used to be a 60 MHz EM-360. There was a 30 MHz machine in the teaching labs - it was a doorstop even when I was a student, and most people (fortunately) will have never seen an NMR with a field so puny. (At least it didn't look like this).
That picture in the upper
right left is me when I was in one of the (now reworked) labs back in 1983. That's a collection of T. S. Eliot that I'm reading next to my gravity column, and I managed to quote him during one of the classes I spoke to, to keep up my liberal arts credentials. Thanks again to everyone there for having me!
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