In October David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times made a request of people over 70. “I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way.” This is my report.
I am a first-generation Italian American. My father graduated from elementary school and worked in a machine shop. My mother graduated from what was called a technical high school, where she learned to make ladies’ hats. My parents loved me very much and provided for all my physical needs, but they never talked to me or gave me any advice, except on several occasions my father said to me, “Work with your mind, not your back.” I didn’t really know what he was talking about until 1957, when Denny DeMarco moved into the neighborhood where I lived in southwest Philadelphia. One day he asked me, “What do you want to be?” The question took my breath away. The implication was that if I didn’t do something, I’d wind up being nothing. Denny was only a year older than me, but he was a polymath, and I quickly decided I wanted to be like him, somebody who knew things. Later that year the Russians launched Sputnik, and I wondered why it didn’t fall down. I asked famous people whose names I saw in the newspaper and they said it was a matter of physics. I saw that if you knew physics you knew what would happen in the world, so I decided to be a physicist and I began my studies at St. Joseph’s College. That was the first important thing I learned. To have a chance at happiness, you have to want something and you have to embark on a course of action in the general direction of getting what you want.
I learned two important things in college, how to think, and how to overcome fear of failure. The Jesuits taught me how to think. With every passing year I am more grateful for that gift, although I know I was somewhat of a disappointment to them. They taught me abut St. Thomas Aquinas, but I went to the philosophy library at the University of Pennsylvania and saw that there were other philosophers including Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marx, and Freud, none of whom were ever mentioned in any of my classes. If you learn how to think, you have a fair chance for accomplishing something beneficial during your life because thinking is antithetical to the arrogant behavior that leads to poisoned human conduct, like Joseph McCarthy or Rush Limbaugh.
Professor Ensor taught me how to overcome fear. I was woefully unprepared for college, and I flunked all four tests in my freshman-year calculus course. Everybody gave me no chance of passing the course, which was an absolute requirement to study physics. Before the final I went to see Professor Ensor, who taught the course, and asked, “What should I do?”
“What do you want to do, Andrew?”
“I want to study physics. I want to study physics so bad I can taste it. I love physics; I can’t imaging living life without being able to study physics.”
I was pretty emotional, I guess, but I was sincere. Physics was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen.
“Well, you need to pass calculus,” he said. “If you flunk it nine times, take it a tenth time. There’s no alternative if you want to study physics.”
The conversation crystallized things for me. I expected to flunk and then take the course again, and again if I had to, until I passed it which, one day, I would do. I felt at peace, and that I had control of my life. I took the semester final on a cold December morning and my grade was 99%, higher than anyone had ever scored on a final examination in Professor Ensor’s calculus class. I don’t know how to explain that except to say it was a miracle. I passed the course. If you identify what you want and are always engaged in pursuing that goal, you’ll be happy and there won’t be any room for fear.
I graduated from St. Joe’s in 1962, which was a very good year for young physicists; my starting salary at RCA Victor was four times that of the non-science graduates. Nevertheless I quickly realized that I knew very little, so I went to graduate school at Syracuse University. I was becoming a better physicist but I found out that most physicists waste their lives studying silly things that nobody cares about and that don’t matter in the world, like general relativity, particle physics, and the big bang theory. Then I met Dr. Robert Becker who was an orthopedic surgeon at the VA Hospital across the street from the university. He was doing experiments on animals and people that involved using electromagnetic energy to grow new tissue, including entire limbs in amputees. Dr. Becker was like a Sophoclean hero, and certainly the greatest man I ever met. He profoundly changed the course of my life, but our meeting and the arrangements it led to that allowed me to use the research I did in his lab for my doctoral dissertation were pure luck and completely unpredictable. That is an important lesson I learned and would like to explicitly point out to young people. If you work and study, and prepare yourself, your day will come. You won’t know when, but when it does you will be in a position to capitalize on your good fortune.
For Dr. Becker the world was a round hole and he was a square peg. He was a product of the pre-capitalistic medical system, and his focus was always on treating patients, not making money. Most doctors were content to apply what they learned, Dr. Becker wanted to learn more and change what was taught. The Flexner Report, Franz Mesmer, and Albert Abrams had driven electromagnetism out of medicine, but Dr. Becker thought it belonged there and spent his life doing experiments designed to provide the necessary supporting evidence. The most important thing I learned from him during the 16 years I worked in his laboratory was how to lead an authentic life. You can’t go to the wall regarding every little issue that comes up in life, but when the issue involves the very core of your being, you need to stand up, tell it the way it is, and take the consequences. When 60 Minutes came calling and asked him whether the electromagnetic field from a huge military antenna was a health hazard, he told them it was and explained why. When 60 Minutes approached me about fields from powerlines, I too said they were hazards and explained why. We both got fired. That was catastrophic for him because he was forced to retire even though he was only 56. For me, that experience was the turning point in my life. I think every authentic life has one. I decided that Dr. Becker was right—a huge part of human disease could be traced to chronic exposure to electromagnetic fields in the environment produced by man-made devices. I decided to spend my life trying to show that Dr. Becker was right. I did, and I succeeded.
Stick with it. Do what you think is right. Acquire the tools critical to pursuing your goal. After I got my Ph.D. in physics I got my J.D. in law, which helped me a lot in dealing with the barracudas that were always swimming around me.
Here are a few other things I learned along the way. If you have children, pay attention to them. I bathed and told a bedtime story to each of our four kids almost every night. That’s an effective way to teach your children what’s important. There’s nothing more important than family. Explain the world to them, most especially that it owes them nothing except what they worked diligently to earn. A little brainwashing can be helpful, but it must be practiced when they are still quite young. My kids were raised thinking that there was a law that required kids to go to college and graduate school, and they all obeyed that putative law.
What I did well was to contribute 50% to the success of my 46-year-and-still-counting marriage and an equal percentage to raising four spectacular kids. I also solved the problem to which I devoted my professional life, and I remained healthy for 71 years. Part of Brooks’ request was to tell you what I did not do well. I can’t think of anything. I made mistakes, of course, but I corrected the important ones and the other ones don’t matter.
To sum things up, I learned that a happy life is pursuing goals, not achieving them, and that truth has a small t, not a capital T.