Why Gamble? Hire a Physicist.

I landed my first and only free-lance physics job right around the time I turned in my PhD thesis with all the required signatures to the UC Berkeley graduate office in 1974. It was at a time when I was without an income or a place to live. No, I wasn’t on the street. I had plenty of people I could crash with, and my mother was sending me a little money, but it wasn’t an ideal situation, to say the least. As part of a cost-cutting move, I and at least one other grad student, who like me must have seemed destined to maintain his Research Assistant status at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab indefinitely, had been given a cutoff date for support by the particle physics research group we belonged to. Fortunately, I had been able to use the Lab’s computer facilities and my office there to finish writing my thesis during the summer, albeit without being paid. I’m afraid the other student I spoke of never did finish. I hope things turned out all right for him.

Anyway, I needed to make some money while I figured out what my next step would be. I had personal reasons for staying in the Bay Area, and having given my physics research a much lower priority than political activity (remember, this was Berkeley) for so long, I don’t think it even occurred to me to ask my thesis advisor Ron Ross to help me get a postdoc somewhere, which would have been the normal course for a new PhD to follow. Ron and I weren’t on bad terms exactly, but he hadn’t understood my participation in student strikes and so on, and we hadn’t interacted all that much for quite a while. To be honest, I hadn’t really expected to finish my degree. I was definitely not on the normal career path. I should add that when a physics professor called Ron about hiring me several months later, he gave me a strong recommendation, for which I am grateful.

Now the University maintained a bulletin board in some campus office where jobs available to Cal students were posted. I found out about this and went to check it out. One unusual posting intrigued me and seemed to have my name on it. Someone was looking for a physics grad student that had completed the graduate classical mechanics course. I believe the posting was even more specific about needing to be able to derive equations of motion using the Lagrangian formulation of mechanics. Though it had been years since I’d taken the course, this sounded right up my alley: a textbook problem, though I assumed it must be a pretty hard one.

The office put me in touch with my prospective employer, who turned out to be a former UC Berkeley math teacher, one currently engaged in a court battle with the University over some unfair practice, so he claimed, related to his being no longer a teacher there. I don’t remember the details, but it sounded pretty hopeless. The guy, whom I’ll call Bob, wanted to make sure I could handle the problem first, and then that I would agree to work on it without knowing its purpose, which was to remain secret. He said the work was related to some device he and others were planning to make. He also assured me that it was not weapons-related.

After he had determined I might be capable of succeeding at the task, he brought in one of his partners (there turned out to be several) in the secret venture to help negotiate my pay rate. This was not easy for me since I had been making a low Research Assistant salary for several years and had no idea what hourly rate I should get as a new Physics PhD (or near-PhD, whichever it was). We agreed on something, which was definitely an improvement over nothing, but which was unfortunately, as it turned out, an hourly rate instead of a flat price for the whole job. Afterwards the partner, call him Ben, felt obliged to tell me he thought I had sold them my services at too low a price.

The problem to be solved was that of a sphere rolling down the inside of a cone. It must be a funny kind of a device they wanted to build. Some kind of guidance system? Bob explained that all they needed were the equations of motion because they had other team members who were computer programming experts that would be able to solve the problem numerically.

Bob had tried to find the equations of motion in numerous physics books, without success. Something he had seen in a paper or a textbook by some Russian physics professor had led him to believe that, if he could only reach that particular Russian, his quest would be over. Bob had been trying to track the professor down, making long-distance calls to the Soviet Union for several days. I believe there was a language problem. In the meantime he was turning to me to get the project past this crucial step.

It wasn’t a very hard problem, and I found the equations all too quickly from the standpoint of income. Bob, however, was a very generous fellow, and I benefitted from his generosity beyond the money I earned for solving his problem. For example, when Bob heard I didn’t have a regular place to stay he told me I could come by his house any time. The window by the front door was always unlocked, so I could just climb in if no one was home. I slept on his living room floor two or three nights, though it was not a very restful place. Bob actually found the equations in a text book not long after I had obtained them, so it was just as well he hadn’t spent too much on it.

It was not the best time in Bob’s life. In addition to losing his job, he had split up with his wife (though his teenage son was living with him), and the bank was foreclosing on his house. Eviction was imminent. He was approaching that problem from a legal angle as well, working on a presentation to US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to halt the eviction, arguing that the bank had not sent the final notice to his actual address. Not only that, they had knowingly sent it to the wrong address, and this was a widespread practice by California banks, thus making the issue one that the Supreme Court should take up.

Bob had obtained all the proper legal forms for petitioning the Supreme Court, but still had to type his argument and the requisite names in them. I helped him with that. This was in the days of the typewriter, before computer word processing. I believe he needed a lot of whiteout. Whether Bob’s drinking was a cause of or a result of his current troubles, he was definitely drinking too much at this time, and I had a very hard time waking him up so he could get the Supreme Court package sent out in time. But the package was sent and received, and a court clerk affirmed by telephone that Justice Douglas had taken it home with him to read overnight. Even I felt some satisfaction in knowing that, though I had no hope for a Supreme Court intervention. There was something admirable about Bob’s never-say-die spirit.

The rest of Bob’s team also seemed to have seen better days. At least one other, a large, morose programmer, had a drinking problem. The group also included two rather attractive women of the same name, but of different stature, one being referred to as “tall Gwen” and the other as “small Gwen.” I think small Gwen may have once been married to Ben.

Bob once took me, his son, Ben, and one of the Gwens out to eat in a nice restaurant but got his credit card rejected, which I mention just to show what dire straits he was in. He managed to come up with some alternative payment method, which I don’t recall now. Much worse than the credit card refusal, which could happen to anyone really, was the night an angry artist came with a burly friend to retrieve his paintings from off Bob’s wall. I was asleep on the living room floor when the two of them burst in, one of them saying “Rip off an artist, will you?” as he knocked Bob down. It was over pretty fast. I lay low. Later Ben asked why Bob hadn’t waked him up, for he would have come downstairs with his 38. I relate these details just to give you a picture of the kind of life these guys were leading. It would take Dickens to really do them justice.

Anyway, everyone in on the project’s secret seemed to be counting heavily on it to turn their fortunes around. They had a code name for the project: The Number. They spoke of The Number a lot, sometimes in ways that indicated they viewed time as before The Number and after The Number. What could this mysterious project be?

The name provided a clue, and you probably have guessed it by now. Although I have to say I never had it verified by one of them, and I never even mentioned that I thought I might know the secret, what else could it have been but a project to beat the roulette wheel at a casino?

I’m afraid they hadn’t thought it through sufficiently, for I can’t see how they would have made practical use of any kind of solution they came up with, never mind that a sphere rolling in a cone hardly seems an adequate model. I wasn’t going to be the one to break the news, and they never asked me what I thought. My job was done, and I moved on.

I imagine they eventually gave up, but for all I really know Bob may now be living in a magnificent Tuscan palazzo, sending out a new money-gathering party to Monte Carlo whenever the wine cellar needs replenishing. Or maybe I was just wrong about what The Number was. What do you think?

I actually know of some physicists that found a way to beat the roulette wheel, but they ran into other problems. I’ll tell that story in my next post.

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