I would never have exchanged a single word with physicist Albert Michelson, the Master of Light, if I had not been brought up in western Montana, where all my generation spent more time in what were then called card-and-billiard parlors than in school or at home. In the early part of this century, the card-and-billiard emporium was “the home away from home,” and home was only where we ate and slept. Usually, the first table was the billiard table, because in Montana billiards was thought of as the sport of the upper class and was played only by the town’s best barbers and the one vice president of the bank. Then came three pool tables with dead cushions and concrete balls that hairy loggers hit so hard they jumped off the tables. At the rear, enthroned by several steps as at the Quadrangle Club, was the card room, in the center of which was the poker table under an enormous green shade. In the glare of the circle of light were always two or three poker players trying to look clumsy. They were housemen or “shills” waiting for some lumberjack to drop by who had just cashed his summer’s check. If you were any good at cards yourself, you could see it was hard work for them to look clumsy.
We high-school players were pool players, although we would have liked to be billiard players, if for no other reason than that each billiard player was so elite he had a woman besides a wife, but we could rarely finance our aspirations. It cost twenty-five cents an hour to play billiards, and only ten cents a game for rotation pool and, as any high-school, rotation pool player knows, it is no great trick, when the houseman is not looking, to sneak balls back on the table that have already been sunk and thus to prolong the game.
When I came to the University of Chicago as a graduate assistant, I was just as good a billiard player as the number of spare twenty-five-cent pieces I had when I was in high school, and still aspiring to be better, I ate my lunch early to get downstairs and watch the club champion.
Michelson was the best billiard player I have ever seen at the university, and I think I have seen all the really good ones, including the barbers at the Reynolds Club. At first I was somewhat embarrassed to see how good he was, because I did not expect to find any academic type as good at a “man’s sport” as the best we had in western Montana. But the more I thought about it and the more I learned about Michelson, the less surprised I became. Before long, I comforted myself with the question, “Why not? He’s the best head-and-hands man in the world.”
So it wasn’t just billiards I watched when I arrived early every noon to watch Michelson play billiards. I came to watch his hands. This was still in an age which counted men who made machines among its marvels and took for granted that the rest of men could use tools and that women could embroider beautifully. Edison still performed his wonders, but the wonders of Bell and Edison were more or less household utilities. Michelson’s head and hands made machines almost godlike in properties, designed to tell us how it was with the universe. His favorite creation was his interferometer, with which, among other things, he (and later his collaborator, Edward Morley) had performed an experiment that shook the old universe and gave Einstein a big push toward creating a new one with his theory of relativity.
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