Category Archives: Biography

Dr. med. Adolf Konrad Dekant (1938-2013)

Usually, I don't write about personal matters on this blog. This is a biographical blog post I'd rather not have written this soon.

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My father, before he met my mother, climbing the Cheops pyramid in Giza.

My father was born into what nowadays would be considered a very poor family. They lived in rural Franken (Franconia), a part of the state of Bavaria, an area set apart by the distinct dialect of its people that, while vaguely German, certainly doesn't sound anything like Bavarian.

He was the ninth of eleven children. Being born during the short and darkest period of nationalistic megalomania, his mother was thus a nominee for the Cross of Honor of the German Mother. His father, by all accounts, bought hook, line, and sinker into the Nazi ideology, and thus little Adolf was named after the genocidal leader of Germany at that time. He would later often joke that his parents were prescient enough to chose 'Konrad' as his middle name, since Konrad Adenauer turned out to be the first chancellor of (West) Germany after the war. Yet he stubbornly refused to go by his middle name, since this wasn't the name his mother used.

She must have been at the core of this large family, a simple, uneducated woman with, I imagine, a very big heart. Unlike my father's father, who died before I was born, I got to meet her as a little boy, but back then I didn't know what to make of her. She wore a big apron and smelled strange, of all sorts of food stuffs, and due to her dialect I couldn't understand a word she was saying. All I remember is that she thought I was funny, and I made her laugh. I guess that counts for something. Later, her funeral would be the first I ever attended, but I was too young to really understand the significance then. My father insisted that she didn't buy into the Nazi ideology like his father had, and told me that she remained a loyal customer of the Jewish peddler who came through the village (until he no longer did), her rationale simply being that he was even poorer than they.

It may be that this story resulted from a misremembered idealization of his mother, but there is one very good reason why I tend to believe this story, and that is the gentleness of his personality. I presume that this innate good naturedness must have been nurtured in his formative years in no small part by his mother's example. It is as if he was incapable of thinking badly of people. This attitude, combined with his ability to listen very well, proved to be a great asset for his chosen profession, but it was also very much exploited by 'businessmen'. As a distant cousin and fellow M.D. (of the Jewish and American branch of my family) once put it: Doctors are the equivalent of plankton in the food chain of the financial industry.

This is not to imply that he was naive, quite the contrary.  He learned early not to blindly trust in authority, nor to expect that the world would always make sense. During the war, there weren't enough priests to go around, but one of the French prisoners of war who was assigned to the area to work the fields happened to be a catholic chaplain.  This prisoner was asked to read the mass on Sundays. All the villagers then bent their knees to this Frenchman, and he'd also take their confessions.  Nonetheless, when back in the fields, some men treated him as badly (if not more so) than all the other PoWs.  This absurdity made a deep impression on my father.

His older brothers survived the war, but one came back severely crippled, and after Germany was finally defeated, all bread winners of the family were out of a job. Most Germans in the immediate aftermath of the war struggled to put food on the table. Being in a rural area at least allowed them to live off the land to some extent, but there was no money for anything else. The kids would go barefoot most of the time, and every child had to work as much as possible to make due. My father's job was to tend the geese. I guess one has to imagine it similarly bucolic as in this image.

Bodarevsky Ukrainian Girl Tending GeeseTo him it was an idyllic childhood, as he was too young to fully comprehend the fears and worries of the adults. But he recalled that without shoes the soles of his feet would grow so hard that when once he stepped on a bee he didn't even notice the sting.

Nothing at the time would have indicated that he was to become a doctor, nor was this the intent of his parents.

He was sent to a Catholic school. The idea was that he should become a priest.  Religion was important to his mother, and it probably was a grave disappointment when, despite donning the robes of the monastic school, he declared after graduation that he'd rather study science.

He never regretted it, telling me that he decided quite early, and had to pretend that the priesthood was for him in order to not jeopardize his education. He counted himself lucky to have figured this out quickly, especially when contemplating the emotional
upheaval that some of his peers went through who became priests, but then later had to resign after they fell in love.

He first enrolled in physics, but struggled with the math. It was when he changed to medical school that he finally found his true calling.  By then the German economy was booming and the young republic could already afford to give scholarships and interest free loans to disenfranchised students. This didn't cover all the costs of living, but well-paying jobs in manufacturing were aplenty those days, and working at the ball bearing plant in Schweinfurt between the terms allowed him to make ends meet.

VW_und_lauft After he passed the medical state exam, and before moving on to his medical internship, he and a fellow student decided that it was a good time to finally see some more of the world. They drove a VW beetle from Germany down to Spain, set off to North Africa at Gibraltar, and from there drove through Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, where the above photo was taken. They completed the loop around the 
Mediterranean sea through Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and then Greece. Being medical students, they didn't really particularly plan for the trip, they just took their car and set out to drive the distance. They had no break-downs.  I don't know if they just got lucky or if the legendary reliability of the original beetle was as good as promised in the vintage ad to the right (German text is: "The VW runs, and runs and runs ....").

There was no hostility to Westerners then, and also very little tourism.  When they visited the ruins of Carthage in Libya they were the only visitors.  At one point, they put up their tent on some private land.  When they woke up in the morning they found the owner waiting, not to scold them, but rather to invite them to a hearty breakfast and tea, and this was well enough communicated despite the lack of a common language.

Given that my entire life the ongoing violence in the Middle East has been headline news, it is hard to fathom that such a tour was possible less than fifty years ago.

It wouldn't be his last world travel, he also signed up to be ship's surgeon for an ocean cargo vessel which took a three month tour to South America.  This travel was complicated by the fact that he fell head-over-heels in love with the woman who would become my mother after having already signed up for the trip. On the crossing back to Europe he learned that my mother, a fellow M.D., had contracted hepatitis after accidentally pricking herself with a used needle.  It is astounding how well he already knew her back then; He realized that no matter how sick she was, she'd insist on coming to the harbour to be there when he made landfall.  So he gave a wrong date for his arrival to make sure she'd stay in the hospital.  This white lie endeared him greatly to my mother's parents, who quickly became convinced that he was the best husband she could ever hope for, especially as in this unemancipated time, they considered my mother 'damaged goods'. She was divorced, with a little girl from her first marriage.  Such circumstances required extraordinary measures to make this woman palatable to my father's conservative, Catholic family.  He managed to get the first marriage of my mother declared null and void by the Vatican, and so she became the rare Lutheran who got to enjoy two Catholic weddings.

Unlike most men of his era, he was happy to have found a woman who was his professional equal in all respects.  Taking measure of her ambition, he only had one request: that she not specialize in his field, orthopaedics.  Doing so would have inevitably lead to conflicts in second guessing each others diagnoses. So my mother turned to internal medicine.

They shared a common practice for their entire working life, and for their breed of doctor, that means until death parts them from their profession.  Even after his death my mother intends to keep their practice open.

My hope is that the dedication to her work and patients will help her to cope with the enormity of her loss.

Practicing medicine often means fighting a losing battle.  In the end my father benefited from the depth of his faith, which he kept despite his critical distance to the Catholic establishment (Hans Küng was his kind of theologian).  He told me that he imagined his last days to be worse than what he experienced - although this was when the worst was yet to come, at that later point he couldn't speak any more.  But it was clear in his demeanor that he did not fear death, and he endured with inspiring grace, still enjoying every good moment that was to be.

In life and death he was a humble, yet extraordinarily great man. There are no bounds to my gratitude for having been so privileged to call this man my father.

 

The Greatest Tragic Hero of Physics

Although widely admired and loved, in the end he died like so many who came to extremes of fame or fortune - estranged from family and separated from old friends. The only person to witness his death in exile was a nurse, incapable of understanding his last words which were uttered in a language foreign to her.

If his private life was a template for a telenovella, viewers would regard it as too over the top: As a teenager his parents leave him with relatives to complete school - they need to resettle to a foreign country. He rebels, his school teachers give up on him, he drops out. He travels across the Alps to reunite with his family. If it isn't for the unwavering support of his mother he would probably never move on to obtain a higher education. She manages to find him a place with relatives in a country of his native language so that he can finally gain his diploma. The same year he renounces his old citizenship and also quits the religion of his parents.

He subsequently enrolls in a prestigious university, but ignores the career choice that his parents had in mind for him. He falls in love with a beautiful fellow student from a far away land. His parents are against the relationship, and so are hers. Against the will of their families they want to get married, but our hero struggles to find a job after graduation. He hopes to be hired as an assistant at his university, just like the rest of his peers, but he has once again fallen out with some of his teachers. Many of the other members of the faculty only notice him because he skips so many lectures - especially the purely mathematical ones. Still, he passes all the tests, relying on his friends' lecture notes.

His future wife-to-be becomes pregnant out of wedlock, has to return to her family and gives birth to a little girl with Down syndrome. He never even gets to see the girl. This summer - two years after graduation - with the help of a friend, he finally lands his first steady job. Later that year his father dies, and shortly after that our man marries his beloved Mileva.

Meet the Einsteins:

Images of old Albert Einstein are so iconic that some people tend to forget that he wasn

Having settled down in Bern he now manages to find the discipline and inner calm for his subsequent groundbreaking works. I can not even begin to fathom how he musters the strength to do so, coping with a full time day job and a young family. Discussing his ideas with friends and colleagues certainly helps and surely he must discuss his research with Mileva as well (how much she influenced his work has been somewhat of a controversy). The following three years, even while working as a patent clerk, are the most fruitful of Albert Einstein's life. His research culminates in four publications in the year 1905 that irreversibly change the very foundation of physics. His papers ....

  1. ... describe  for the first time the theory of Special Relativity.
  2. ... show the equivalence of mass and energy i.e. the most famous E=mc².
  3. ... propose the idea of energy quanta (i.e. photons) to explain the photoelectric effect.
  4. ... demonstrate that Brownian motion is a thermal phenomenon.

Without the realization that mass and energy are equivalent (2), there'd be no nuclear energy and weapons. Without Einstein's energy quanta hypothesis (3), there'd be no quantum mechanics, and his work that explains the Brownian motion (4) settled, once and for all, the question if atoms were real.  At the same time, it provides the missing statistical underpinning for thermodynamics.

These were all amazing accomplishments in their own right, but nothing so resonated with the public as the consequences of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity (1). This one was regarded as a direct affront to common sense and achieved such notoriety that it was later abused by Nazi propaganda to agitate against "Jewish physics".

Already, at this time, physics was such a specialized trade that usually the man on the street would have no motivation to form an opinion on some physics paper. So what caused all this negative attention? Einstein's trouble was that by taking Maxwell's theory of Electrodynamics seriously he uncovered properties of something that everybody thought they intuitively understood. Any early 20th century equivalent to Joe the Plumber would have felt comfortable explaining how to measure the size of a space and how to measure time - they were understood as absolute immutable dimensions in which life played out. Only they cannot be if Maxwell's equations were right, and the speed of light was a constant in all frames of reference. This fact was really hiding in plain sight, and you don't need any mathematics to understand it - you only need the willingness to entertain the possibility that the unthinkable might be true.

In 1923 an elaborate movie was produced that tried to explain Special Relativity to a broad audience. It turned out to be a blockbuster, but still didn't convince the skeptical public - watching it made me wonder if that is where so many misconceptions about Einstein's theories started. It does not contain any falsehoods, but it spends way too much time on elaborating relativity, while the consequences of the invariability of light speed are mixed in with results from General Relativity, and neither are really explained. Apparently the creators of this old movie felt that they had to start with the most basic principles and couldn't really expect their audience to follow some of Einstein's arguments. Granted, this was before anybody even knew what our planet looked like from space, and the imagined astronaut of this flick is shot into space with a canon as the preferred mode of transportation - as, for instance, imagined by Jules Verne. Nowadays this task is much easier in comparison. You can expect a blog reader to be desensitized by decades of SciFi. Also, having a plethora of educational videos at your fingertips makes for a straightforward illustration of some of the immediate outcomes of accepting light speed to be constant in all frames of reference.

For a modern audience, a thought experiment containing two spaceships traveling in parallel with a setup that has a laser signal being transferred between them requires little explanation. All that is necessary to come to grips with, is what it means that this laser signal travels at the same speed in all frames of reference. For instance, this short video does an excellent job explaining that an observer passing by these spaceships will have to conclude that the clocks for the space pilots must go slower.

Nevertheless, even nowadays you still get publications like this one, where two Stanford professors of psychology perpetuate this popular falsehood in the very first sentence of their long monograph:

[Einstein] established the subjective nature of the physical phenomenon of time.

Of course he did no such thing.  He described how the flow of time and the temporal ordering of events transforms between different inertial reference frames as an objective physical reality.

Over a hundred years special relativity has withstood all experimental tests (including the recent faster than light neutrino dust-up).  Yet, public education has still not caught up to it.

This is the second installment of my irregular biographical physics series intended to answer the question of how physics became so strange. Given Einstein's importance I will revisit his lasting legacy in a future post.