Migration of Blog and St. Patrick’s Day Greeting

Dear Friends and Followers of my Blog,

I recently had my Blog moved from one host to another, a process known as migration. This should make things easier in the long run, but a few mishaps may occur during the interim. So, I should first apologise if you have received repeats. For the record, the address of the blog is now http://jpmcevoy.com/. There is nothing for you to do with regard to the change and you should receive all blog posts – like this one – as normal.

However, since I have your attention and it is St. Patrick’s Day, I must tell you something about my Irish ancestors. Several years ago, my son Joe Jr. and I had some remarkable success tracing the McEvoy family roots starting with the most meagre of clues. Apparently, our branch of the family tree comes from County Louth, just below the border with Northern Ireland near the city of Dundalk about 100 miles north of Dublin. I won’t go into the story now, but to warn you that a tale reminiscent of James Bond (in my son’s words), is coming which describes how we uncovered the genealogical history of the paternal side of the McEvoy  family. The story culminates with visiting the grave in Castletown Cemetery near Dundalk of one Patt McEvoy, my great-great-great grandfather born in 1779.

Meanwhile, may I a wish you the ‘top of the morning’ this day and leave you with a poem by Billy Collins which is NOT Irish but a favourite of my wife and myself. It is not political or even romantic. Yet in its own way, it justifies the writing of this blog, i.e. so I won’t forget all the amazing things that have happened to me and my family during this short time we have on this green planet. It is called . . .

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

News on Fermi’s Fountain in Rome

A friend of mine who lives in Manhattan has just discovered a very interesting article on the internet. Maryann Macdonald has sent me a link which informs that the European Physical Society has designated the Enrico Fermi Fountain I wrote about in my last blogpost as an historic site! (See below). The ceremony took place about three years ago but was not known to me. I am most pleased in receiving this information, a confirmation of my own feelings after my visit to the Via Panisperna site some 35 years ago. Many thanks to Maryann for her keen observation. She is a writer herself and has published a number of books for children including the poignant Odette’s Secrets, so relevant to the situation today in Paris. See http://www.amazon.com/Maryann-Macdonald/e/B001HCWVH0

 

Enrico Fermi fountain designated EPS Historic Site

Posted By Administration, 21 May 2012

The “Second Conference of Fermi Centre Projects” took place on 19-20 April this year in Rome, Italy, in the temporary headquarters of the Museo Storico della Fisica e Centro Studi e Ricerche “Enrico Fermi”, which is presently located on the premises of the Italian Ministry of the Interior.

The conference focused on the presentation of the results and perspectives of the advanced inter- and multi-disciplinary research projects currently underway at the center. About 250 scientists, researchers and professors took part in this gathering, accompanied by a number of high school teachers and students.

A plenary session took place, in the conference hall of the Ministry of the Interior, on the morning of the second day. Activities were opened by Annamaria Cancellieri, the Italian Minister of the Interior, and Luisa Cifarelli, the President of both the European and Italian Physical Societies, as well as of the Fermi Centre.

A keynote speech detailing the fundamental scientific research undertaken in the nineteen thirties by Enrico Fermi, at the Institute of Panisperna Street, Rome, was delivered by Antonino Zichichi. The crucial and symbolic importance of the “Fermi fountain” in the history of physics was highlighted in his address.

The morning session of the conference concluded with a visit of the Head of State to the “Fermi fountain” during which a commemorative marble plate was unveiled, designating the fountain as a Historic Site of the European Physical Society.

The ceremony was undertaken in the presence of the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano; the Minister of the Interior, Annamaria Cancellieri; the Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, Lorenzo Ornaghi; and the Undersecretary of State for Education, University and Research, Elena Ugolini.

The Fermi Centre is one of the youngest Italian scientific institutions. Formed in 2001 under the ten-year presidency of Antonino Zichichi – who was also president of the European Physical Society from 1978-1980 – the Fermi Centre implements important research projects, promotes the dissemination of scientific culture and gives top priority to talented young scientists.

Soon it will take up permanent residence in the former Physics Institute of Panisperna Street: which, embedded in the building complex of the Ministry of the Interior, is currently being restored.

Located in the institute’s garden, the “Fermi fountain” – the restoration of which has already been completed – is the famous goldfish pond that Enrico Fermi used, establishing for the first time – on 22 October 1934 – the importance of hydrogen-rich substances, like water, in slowing down fast neutrons for nuclear fission reactions.

In his address, Cancellieri underlined how the involvement of the European Physical Society significantly enhanced the importance of the event, testifying to the determination – since 1968 – of European scientists towards strengthening the cultural unity of science in Europe.

For more information, please see the Italian Ministry of the Interior press release.

Tags:  historic sites

The Benefits of Learning Physics: Archimedes and the Law of Buoyancy

I suffered a stroke in 2011, a haemorrhage in my cerebellum which has affected my body balance quite severely. I have worked diligently on physiotherapy –  though my wife thinks I could try a lot harder – receiving help initially from the NHS and later from ARNI (Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury), on a recommendation via the TV from the BBC news presenter Andrew Marr. I found out that my proprioception was diminished . . .  and I didn’t even know I had any! Proprioception is one of those miracle attributes of animals – like humans – to know where your limbs are located even if your eyes are closed.

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There are other effects of the stroke, like fatigue and spasticity – (from Greek spasmos, meaning “drawing, pulling”) – a feature of altered skeletal muscle performance with a combination of paralysis, increased tendon reflex activity and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch.

To my credit, I have only fallen four times . . . once at Christmas time on the snowy streets of West Hampstead when a passer-by pardoned me because of the season and once in Covent Garden when I became disoriented looking for a restaurant that had been closed and torn down.

Yet, my first real problem developed in a hotel in Alsace, a favourite of ours, when I got stuck in the bathtub and couldn’t lift myself out. The owners had made some trendy refurbishments in all the bathrooms and the new tubs were  very deep indeed. To exacerbate the situation, I had just had more than my allowed single glass of Riesling to wash down the delicious Quiche Lorraine served up by the hotel’s chef.

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Fortunately, my long-suffering wife was there to pull me up to a point where I could grab on to the sink. But oh my, what a bother!

Well, it happened again recently in our London flat. It was late and my wife had retired, so I was on my own. Again it was the wine. This time a lovely Chianti Classico we had brought back from Italy after our annual summer holiday in Tuscany. I had imbibed nearly half a bottle to accompany the delicious spaghetti bolognese my wife had made just for the two of us. Usually, after soaking my frame in the steaming water laced with a fragrant bath oil, I grab the spigot mounted on the wall and lift myself into a standing position. Then I climb over the side of the tub and exit with my dignity intact.

But not tonight. I couldn’t get my ass more than a few inches off the bottom of the tub. Several times I tried without success and began to panic.

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My Eureka Moment

Then I remembered the discoveries made by the Greek Archimedes, who remarkably was also in the bath at the time. These led to his Law of Buoyancy. This law I learned many years ago and explained in Physics 101 when I had the responsibility of teaching the basic course to undergraduates as a young assistant professor at Clark University in the 70s. The law is very simple and states the following:

. . . when a body is immersed in a liquid (like water), there is a buoyant force pushing upwards on the body which is equal to the weight of the liquid displaced . . 

This law is the reason why ships float and balloons filled with helium rise in the air. It is known – not surprisingly – as Archimedes Principle. So, I realised on that angst-filled night that if I filled my tub to the brim, thereby submerging myself in the water, the weight I would have to lift would be reduced by an amount equal to the weight of the water which my body displaced. This is demonstrated in the figure below.

Arch'sPrinI figured that if I could submerge say, 70% of my body under water in the tub, I would only have to lift 198 lbs less the weight of water displaced by the 70% of my body, instead of the 198 lbs of my full body weight. I couldn’t help whispering Eureka under my breath as I started filling the tub.

So, how much would I have to lift? Generally, if one knew the volume of one’s body, it would be a simple calculation because the density of water is well known, 62.4 lbs per cubic foot at room temperature. Just multiply the volume of a person’s body (in cu. ft) by 0.70, (for 70% submerged) then multiply by 62.4. This immediately raises the question of how to measure the volume of one’s body. That’s difficult and some special equipment is needed. For example, one could fill a tub to the absolute brim and then fully submerge oneself. The volume of the overflow water would be the desired volume of one’s body as Archimedes discovered in the 3rd century BC.

But, an approximate result of the buoyancy effect can be had by assuming a certain average density of the human body, which is about 1.08 times that of water. Then, if my body is submerged about 70%, my weight to lift would be reduced by 128 lbs. (198 lbs times 0.70 divided by 1.08)  So, I effectively only needed to lift about 70 lbs. That’s why I was able to exit the tub so easily without disturbing my sleeping wife. Eureka, indeed!

Archimedes

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So, who was this guy Archimedes and what exactly did he do in the 3rd century BC that was so important? He certainly did not run through the streets of Syracuse in his birthday suit screaming . . .

. . . when a body is immersed in a liquid (like water), there is a buoyant force pushing upwards on the body which is equal to the weight of the liquid displaced . . .

No, it was more subtle than that. He essentially discovered how to measure the volume of an irregular object. And when he did, he shouted Eureka . . .                   (I found it!)

But wait, there’s more to it than that.

The measuring of the volume led to the solution of a problem posed by King Hiero of Syracuse to Archimedes, i.e. how to assess the purity of the irregularly shaped golden crown. The king had given his goldsmith pure gold to be used to make the crown  and suspected he had been cheated, guessing the goldsmith had removed some gold and added the same weight of silver. Equipment for weighing objects accurately already existed in those days and now that Archimedes could also measure volume, their ratio would give the object’s density, an important indicator of purity.

density = weight/volume

You will find below the story of Archimedes and the king is told in a cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher which reminded me of the books Oscar Zarate and I wrote years ago to explain Stephen Hawking’s work and the bizarre world of quantum theory. If you have a few seconds, I recommend you click on the link below and find out how the story unfolds and what happened to the goldsmith.

http://archimedespalimpsest.org/images/kaltoon/

This isn’t the discovery of Archimedes which helped me out of the tub, but he went on from here to his breakthrough with the buoyancy law which is now known as Archimedes Principle.

As a final note, when I was stuck in the tub, I could have used another technique from the theory of hydrostatics by dissolving copious amounts of salt in the water, thereby increasing its specific gravity (or density) above its nominal value of 1.00. Anyone who has visited the Dead Sea where the specific gravity = 1.166 knows that the human body will not sink below the surface of the lake which is nearly saturated with salt. I was there in the mid-eighties and had someone take the pictures shown here.

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Floating in the Dead Sea, circa 1985
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Dead Sea Mud is Good for the Skin

 

Some scholars have doubted the accuracy of this tale, saying among other things that the method would have required precise measurements that would have been difficult to make at the time. Yet, for the problem posed to Archimedes, there is a simple method which requires no precision equipment at all, just a sensitive scale balance. First, balance the crown against pure gold in air, and then submerge the scale with crown and gold in water to see if they still balance. If they don’t, the goldsmith is in trouble !

I really should finish this story with a little proselytising about two important issues in this post.

1) If your doctor determines you have hypertension (high blood pressure), don’t think you can reduce the readings with life-style changes like less salt and more exercise. Take the pills. (I’m taking them now.)

2) Make sure you and your children study the fundamentals of physics. You never can tell when you might need to use them.

 

A Fountain in Rome-Edited

 In the Eternal City, physicist J.P. McEvoy reminisces about the Italian Enrico Fermi and visits an unusual artefact of the nuclear age.

On the day John Kennedy was shot in 1963, I was busy as a young physicist on a neutron scattering experiment at the RCA Sarnoff Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. I am sure of this because the news that day made an indelible mark on my imagination, as it did on most of my generation.

Since that time, I have since given up physics research and the idealism I had in the 1960s, but the fascination with the elusive subatomic particle, the neutron, has stayed with me for years due to its importance to the work of one man, the Italian Enrico Fermi. The least known of the giants of 20th century science – at least in the non-scientific community, Fermi’s work is so fundamental and influential to the major technological developments of mid-20th century physics that if anyone warrants the title ‘Father of the Atomic Age’, it must be Fermi. He almost single-handedly built the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor at Chicago in 1942 and was the head of an important theoretical group of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos which resulted in the first atomic bomb in 1945.

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Fermi, in a Characteristic Pose, with his Sleeves Rolled up

 

Yet Fermi did not attract publicity, having no time for such frivolous activity and processing such an ordinary, everyday persona. One story which sums up his attitude towards his self-importance is told about his attempt to cross the wide Via Foro during one of Mussolini’s demonstrations in the 1930s. Confronted by the carabinieri and told he couldn’t cross until the parade was finished, Fermi told the police it was urgent as he was Professor Fermi’s driver, knowing the truth would not be believed as he was dressed in his usual khaki pants and sweatshirt.

In December 1992, the University of Chicago certainly tried to change this image by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction which Fermi achieved on the campus in a converted squash court under the grandstands of Alonzo Stagg Field. I was there for the celebration.

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Time Cover, 1 July 1946

 

By contrast, Albert Einstein attracted the publicists. In a classic example of media distortion, Time Magazine’s cover story of July 1, 1946 showed Einstein’s unruly mane and his equation E=mc2  superimposed on the mushroom cloud, associating his genius with Hiroshima in the minds of generations to follow. Though it is true that the famous equation did ultimately give an explanation for the large amounts of energy released by nuclear reactions, Einstein’s  theory, Special Relativity was definitely not an important factor in the development of the atomic bomb. Even the public’s perception of Einstein’s role in preparing the famous letter to President Roosevelt is false. He merely signed what Leo Szilard had drafted. The entire development of fission was led by    experimentalists concerned with radioactivity. A continuous link can be traced from Becquerel and the Curies through Rutherford to Fermi and the horde at Los Alamos.

There are many other reasons why Fermi is little-known when the unassuming Einstein, the enigmatic Robert Oppenheimer and the arrogant Hungarian Edward Teller, have become household names. First of all, Fermi did not discover the neutron. It was the meticulous British physicist, James Chadwick, who first demonstrated the independent existence of the particle. In fact, Fermi did not even discover nuclear fission. This great discovery is attributed to the German nuclear scientist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, though many other laboratories were very close in 1938, including Fermi’s group in Rome. The Viennese physicist, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch gave the first explanation.

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Fission: A Slow Neutron Enters the Uranium Nucleus Causing Splitting, Secondary Emission And A Large Release of Energy

 

What Fermi and his loyal band of colleagues in Rome did discover was that slowed neutrons are better in causing fission and secondary admission, which make the chain reaction possible. Thus, the remarkable and subtle process of nuclear fission, the splitting of the atom, was made possible by slowing down the neutrons. This discovery became the basis for two of the most significant technological innovations of modern times . . .  the atomic bomb and the nuclear reactor. Fermi was in the vanguard of both these projects and in the latter case, led the project almost single-handedly.

The reader may well be wondering at this point whether Fermi should be considered a hero or a villain, given the disastrous problems society has had with these two developments. Yet for me, he is clearly a hero and deserves to be appreciated outside the parochial confines of the scientific community. His greatness stems from an unrelenting drive to understand everything and his inspired gift for creative, practical tests of new ideas. Furthermore, in a field where a high degree of specialisation was the norm, Fermi made no distinction between theoretical and experimental problems and was the authority on both. Emilio Segrè, a member of the Fermi’s pioneering group in Rome and later a distinguished professor at Berkeley, believes Fermi was the last of a vanishing rare breed of physicists to accomplish this. In my view, these traits make him a model for the modern day intellectual.

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Fermi (right) and His Group on Via Panisperna, 1934

 

Oppenheimer may have been more profound, Einstein more original and Niels Bohr certainly more politically aware. But none of these was as willing as Fermi to share his brilliance, to take on any problem brought to him, to roll up his sleeves and tackle the myriad questions of students, theoreticians, experimentalists or governments during the heady pre and post-war days of nuclear physics. In addition, his generosity and fairness to colleagues, his humanitarian concerns and his role in the great Italian family tradition make him a role model over again. Lastly, his almost pathological modesty endeared him to all who lived and worked within his orbit.

One of the many legendary stories told about Fermi inspired me to visit Rome several years ago. I hoped to find traces of a certain artefact remaining from his tenure there in the 1930s – a fountain. It seems that soon after he realised neutrons could be slowed dramatically by collisions with other particles of unit mass (such as hydrogen atoms), he surrounded the sample with paraffin and saw an increase in the radioactivity. But then in an inspired impulse, he took his entire apparatus from the laboratory into the courtyard of the university and submerged it in a pool of water (H2O) surrounding a small fountain there. The Geiger counter suddenly went berserk, demonstrating dramatically that water could be used as a moderator in neutron-induced collisions. Subsequently, this has been proven to be true and is used in modern nuclear reactors, one of a series of creative, intuitive hunches with which Fermi dazzled his contemporaries.

Arriving in Rome on a warm, sunny day, I set out to see if I could find the courtyard and maybe even the fountain. After all, others go to Rome to see fountains. All I had was a photograph taken in the 1930s showing the University of Rome on Via Panisperna. I easily found the street and the building, helped by the large palm trees in the photo which were still there. Alas, the university had moved many years before, the war causing major disruption in the city. The buildings were now occupied by Italian government agencies and completely off-limits to a passersby. A security clearance was required even to enter the precinct.

I decided to give it my best shot and talk my way in. I tried everything: my US passport, documents showing my credentials as a genuine scholar, papers and photos of Fermi. I even explained that my wife was of Italian descent, which almost did it. Fermi, I said, dove ha funzionato?  Nothing. My Italian was poor, their English was worse. But I wouldn’t leave, waiting for the Italian simpatico to take over. Finally, a shy middle-aged man was brought in . . .  Signor Albanese. He seemed to know what I wanted. The clearance was arranged easily after I filled out some forms and a plastic badge was clipped onto my jacket.

We walked through several doorways, then along endless corridors, peopled by functionaries carrying stacks of paper and cups of espresso. Are you a journalist? Er, yes. I said. The International Tribune. Thinking perhaps the IHT would print a story if I wrote one about my visit. Finally, Albanese opened another door and stopped . . . gently nodding for me to enter. Along the hallway were several rooms all converted to modern offices. No plaques on the wall, no photos, no evidence of the pioneering work in physics done here in the 1930s. At the end of the corridor was a doorway leading out to a courtyard. My heart skipped a beat as I spotted a small fountain. Signor Albanese seemed puzzled but said he would leave me for ten minutes.

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Fountain in the Courtyard at Via Panisperna

 

I walked into the courtyard and sat on the edge of the fountain, transfixed. I thought for a moment that this object belonged in the Smithsonian Institute. Now completely overgrown with flowers and vines, the fountain had a special kind of beauty one only finds in neglected Italian gardens. I reached down through the stagnant water into the earth that filled the inner space of the pool. Statistically, it is almost certain that at least a few of the atoms from Fermi’s apparatus were still there emitting radioactive particles. Perhaps some were passing through my arm at that very moment.

Suddenly, I knew my pilgrimage was over. I had made contact with Fermi and the euphoria of that day – 22nd of October, 1934 – when the Italian navigator began his epic journey, a journey that would take him to the squash court in Chicago in December 1942 for the first controlled nuclear reaction and to the sand flats of Alamogordo in July 1945, for the first uncontrolled nuclear explosion. A new age had begun.

1968: Meeting Jean Genet in the East Village NYC

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St. Mark’s Place, NYC 1968

It was a lazy sunny day in the summer of 1968 when I gave in to my brother-in-law’s pleading to visit St. Mark’s Place in New York City to see America’s youth sitting on curbs injecting themselves with heroin. As we came close to our destination, the East Village, I had assured him that no one was going to run up to us and stick a needle in our eye. Once we got to the infamous street, we passed houses where W.H. Auden and Leon Trotsky had once lived and now (1968) were important because the likes of Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman had moved in.

Strolling along in the urban sunshine, I suddenly noticed a gnome-like creature walking on the other side of the street talking with great animation to a rather well-dressed gentleman and two very attractive women. I immediately recognised this character as none other than the French writer Jean Genet. Excited, I turned to my brother-in-law and said: You know I think that’s Jean Genet. He looked very puzzled and I soon realised that he knew nothing of this strange literary hero of the French underworld. Walking a little further, I buttonholed a passerby and again enthusiastically announced my discovery. She also was unimpressed and knowing nothing of Genet’s importance, was quite puzzled with my excitement. 

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Jean Genet

I was not completely confident of my identification, having only recognised Genet from a picture about the size of a postage stamp on the back of a paperback copy of one of his plays I had bought years before. (I think it was The Maids).  So I decided to proceed slowly and walked behind the party, wondering if I had been rash in my recognition. Suddenly, I heard French being spoken, which increased my confidence that I have indeed identified this iconic writer casually strolling in the most incongruous of locations.

So, I crossed the street and in time caught up to the group, tapping the diminutive figure on his shoulder asking, Monsieur Genet ? He turned with a strange grin on his face which revealed to me his surprise that anybody had recognised him in New York City. I started a short conversation with him about how excited I was to meet a writer whom I’d heard about for so many years.  

We talked for a few seconds about nothing that I can remember except that he was in America to attend the coming Democratic Convention in Chicago. I do know that he seemed to be relishing the fact that he was recognised by someone in the United States. Finally, I got up enough courage to ask him for an autograph and he wrote on a small piece of paper ‘souvenir de Jean Genet’ (see photo) and I was on my way with a big smile on my face. 

One thing I do remember about the encounter. A few seconds after continuing his walk down St.Mark’s Place, Genet called out to me, Hey Joe, to you I am Brigitte Bardot, eh? and laughed with delight. Knowing his reputation as a notorious homosexual, I found the comment to be most comical and explained the irony of the remark to my bemused brother-in-law.  

Later, I was to find out more about Genet’s visit to the USA in August, 1968. 

It seems that Esquire Magazine had commissioned four radical writers (Genet, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern and William Burroughs) to record their impressions of the Democratic Convention being held in Chicago from 26-29 August, 1968 only a few days after I met him in New York.

But Genet had trouble entering the USA.

He always maintained that he was obliged to enter the country secretly because the American Embassy in Paris had denied him a visa. Genet’s FBI file provides a fuller picture of his immigration difficulties. On his first application in 1963, he had been issued a visitor’s visa; but ten days later, when a routine investigation revealed his unsavoury past, U.S. Embassy officials revoked the document. Yet, the visa was never physically cancelled, since Genet stubbornly refused to relinquish it. In 1965, when he made a second application for an American visa, his request was summarily rejected. By this time, embassy personnel had ready access to data that made Genet clearly ineligible for entry under three separate sections of the Immigration and Naturalisation Act: he was considered a sexual deviate, had been affiliated with a proscribed organisation and possessed a lengthy criminal record.

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Alan Ginsberg, Burroughs, Genet and Seaver in Chicago – 1968

So, in late August 1968 as a guest writer for Esquire, Genet was obliged to enter the USA clandestinely. He travelled by air from Paris to Montreal, where he met  Grove Press editor Richard Seaver. He was then driven without incident by a student of literature across the border and on to New York City. After checking into the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan, he immediately contacted Seaver whom he had specifically requested as his interpreter. Genet and Seaver had been friends since the early 1950s, when Seaver had published excerpts from Notre Dame des fleurs in 1948 in the literary journal Merlin. Seaver had become Genet’s editor at Grove Press and had overseen the American publication of Our Lady of the Flowers in 1961 and The Thief’s journal in 1964. Presumably, it was Seaver who was walking with Genet when I met him in St. Mark’s Place that sunny afternoon.

Genet did go to Chicago and spent the week in the streets and parks of the city with America’s disaffected youth. This stands out as an important early involvement for him in political activism outside of France. In the aftermath, he produced two pieces of writing. First, his recollections of the Chicago visit, “The Members of the Assembly,” published in Esquire in December, 1968 and also “A Salute to 100,000 Stars” in The Evergreen Review the following month. These remain samples of Genet’s first overtly political writing.

 

For me personally, the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago was a milestone indeed. I watched the proceedings on television in a friend’s house just outside Princeton, New Jersey.

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Mayor Richard Daly Shouts at Senator Abraham Rubicoff at the Chicago Democratic Convention 1968

While Mayor Richard Daley shouted obscenities at Senator Abraham Ribicoff on the podium, the Chicago Police used billy clubs and tear gas on anti-war protestors in the streets outside the convention. A few days before, Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia and there were tanks on the streets of Prague. The reformer leader Alexandr Dubcek had been arrested and with three other leaders were sent to Moscow. I thought the world was coming to an end.

I had just resigned from a position as a research physicist at one of the most prestigious research institutions in the USA – The Radio Corporation of America Research Laboratories in Princeton – and was on my way way to Worcester, Massachusetts to join the faculty of a small liberal arts institution called Clark University. There, my wife and three sons, aged 7, 5 and 1 were waiting for me in our recently-purchased clapboard house in the heart of the industrial town.

It had been a tumultuous year for me and for most Americans of my generation. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis in April and my last hero on the political scene, Robert Kennedy, was killed two months later in Los Angeles just after announcing his intention to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. That event broke my heart. When I heard a colleague (who I  respected), lament the next morning that Kennedy’s death would have a negative effect on the stock market, I could not believe my ears. I knew then that the commercial world was not for me. The bus was speeding by and I was not on it. I vowed to quit and take up a position at a university where I might have some involvement with the changes that were occurring in America.

With the words of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson blasting away on my car radio and the crass remark by my colleague at RCA still ringing in my ears, I continued my journey up the New Jersey Turnpike and on to the New York Thruway, finally reaching the Massachusetts Turnpike. I was on my way to take up a position as Assistant Professor of Physics at Clark and face the next stage of our family’s development in America. 

But that’s another story.

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Clark University, 1968