Snyder: Serendipity Sometimes Takes Us To Places We Never Expected To Go

Philip Morrison talking with Emilio Segrè at the Nuclear Physics Conference held at Los Alamos in 1946. Courtesy photo

By Sharon Snyder
Los Alamos Historical Society

In my first years as a young science teacher not long out of college, I showed a film series titled, “Search for Solutions” to my students. The content featured scientists talking about the role that curiosity plays in discovery.

Manhattan Project scientist Philip Morrison appeared in the film, and I admired how easily he could get an abstract idea across to viewers.

In a memorable scene, he stood in a Bedouin’s tent and focused the students’ attention on a beautiful braided camel rope that he was holding. Then he pointed to where the rope disappeared under the wall of the tent, and asked, “but is there a camel on the other end?” It was a point of departure for discussion.

Many years later I was visiting in Massachusetts with friends—Nancy Steeper, author of Gatekeeper to Los Alamos, and Priscilla McMillan who authored The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the course of our afternoon conversation, Priscilla mentioned that she knew Phil Morrison and that he lived nearby. I told her of my admiration for his creative innovations for teaching science, never expecting anything more would come from our discussion, but Priscilla took it further. Realizing that it would mean a great deal to me, she arranged for Nancy and me to meet Philip Morrison in his home a few days later.

Despite his physical disabilities caused by recurring polio, Dr. Morrison greeted us with enthusiasm. His home was like a museum with art and artifacts everywhere we looked, and he delighted in showing them to us and relating stories of where he acquired each one. There were baskets, pottery, and fossils in addition to carved corbels and pillars from India that seemed perfectly normal in his living room.

There was a bulletin board with human footprints of all sizes, from adults to children, on individual pieces of paper. He jokingly asked if I saw anything unusual about the footprints.

I was so intent on counting toes and looking for any anomaly that I completely missed the paper that showed a dinosaur print! That was exactly what he expected me to do, and we all had a good laugh over it.

He offered us tea amid the books stacked on the table where we sat, and he talked of the memorable times in his life. He told us of meeting Albert Einstein, of his time in Los Alamos during the war, and remembrances of people from those years, including Edith Warner and Tilano. I was still in the final stages of researching Peggy Pond Church for the book I would eventually write, but we talked about a letter he had sent to Church while she was writing The House at Otowi Bridge. He had related to her a recollection of a time when he and his wife had dined at Edith’s place, “especially one evening after the war, probably in the summer of 1946, just before some of us left for the east. There was a clear starry sky, and Miss Warner joined us outside after dinner—something she rarely did. We all stood and talked of the Hill, the Valley, the world—various deep and simple things.

We do not remember any details, but only a great feeling of calm and peacefulness.” And then, Dr. Morrison said something I will always remember. He told us that he was afraid that people would eventually forget what he and the others had done here in Los Alamos during the war years. I tried to assure him that nothing was farther from the truth. Nancy and I had brought gifts for him that hopefully helped allay his worries.

Nancy presented him with an inscribed copy of Gatekeeper to Los Alamos, and with my book still unfinished at the time, I gave him a copy of Pat Burns’ In the Shadow of Los Alamos. He asked me to inscribe that one to him as well, and I wrote, —“To Dr. Philip Morrison, in the spirit of our shared memories of Los Alamos, with gratitude.”

Serendipity is an amazing thing! It gave me an afternoon that I will never forget.