SEEKONK, Mass. Norbert Holstead, a professor of Physics at UMass-Seekonk, has come agonizingly close to winning the Nobel Prize three times, a fact that has demonstrated to him the validity of his theory of the role chance plays in our world at all levels, from the molecular to the human. “A few years ago I had to drop off a team that won for the discovery of optical tweezers and their application to biological systems,” he says, shaking his head ruefully at the fame and fortune that two of his former colleagues enjoyed after winning. “All because I got a lousy case of poison ivy looking for a golf ball in the rough.”
“The music goes round and round and it comes out here.”
So Holstead decided to become pro-active about his quest for the prestigious prize, and last night found him tuning up his guitar at the Morning Light Coffee House for a three-song set of tunes he hopes will vault him past competitors next year. What exactly, this reporter asks him, does folk music have to do with quantum physics, his specialty?
“Look at Bob Dylan,” he says of the singer-songwriter who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 even though he had written only one novel, “Tarantula,” which received universally poor reviews. “I figure if it worked for him, it could work for me.”
“This next song is about two elementary particles–a fermion and a boson–who fell in love.”
As a newcomer to the “open mic” night here Holstead must defer to regulars, who prefer not to go first since few audience members will have arrived at the start of the set, and those who do tend to be hard-of-hearing senior citizens who have dropped in after dining on the “Early Bird Special” at the Black Goose Restaurant across the street.
“This first song is about my favorite sub-atomic particle,” Holstead says as he applies a “capo” to the neck of his guitar to play in a higher key. “The anti-neutrino, who are contrary little cusses. Hope you like it.”
“Oh, there’s one tiny feller,
who’s pretty neato-keeno,
He goes by the name
The crowd gets into the bouncy rhythm, and begins to clap along as.
“He’s cute and he’s got no electric charge,
he’s really quite small, not at all large.
It you don’t understand exactly what I mean-o–
It’s ’cause he’s quite shy, Mr. Anti-Neutrino.”
The audience applauds politely, bringing a smile to the aging professor’s face. “Thank you, thanks,” he says as he checks a 4 by 6 notecard he takes from his plastic pocket protector to recall his spiel about his next song.
Cute widdle guys!
“You know, there’s a lot about the universe that’s a mystery,” he says in a reflective tone. “Love is a big one, but there’s another one that you don’t hear many songs about.” He clears his throat, strums a chord to get the pitch for his opening bars, then begins to sing softly:
Every morning, as I put each shoe on–
I think about quarks, and also gluons.
They combine to form a plasma
that’s a deconfined state of matter.
The resulting miasma
will cause folks to scatter.
A few people get up to go to the snack bar, where mulled cider and congo bars are available on a “pay-what-you-can” basis, but others resolutely stick it out, even though the science behind the lyrics is opaque to them.
Sensing that he may be losing momentum, Holstead makes a last-minute decision to close with an upbeat “flag-waver.” “I want everybody to put their hands together on this one,” he says as he pats his thigh to demonstrate the rhythm. “Then, you have to remember to take your hands apart and put them together again, and so on. You can’t just put them together, okay?”
“I’d like to get into your subatomic structure, baby.”
A silver-haired widow front gives him a big smile and indicates she’s ready to clap along, then he launches into “I’d Make a Quantum Leap for You.”
“It’s a very fundamental theory–
one of which you shouldn’t be leery.
I’m telling you it’s true–
I’d make a quantum leap for you.”
He gives the woman a smile bordering on a leer, and notices that she isn’t wearing a wedding ring, begins to croon with a focus directly on her.
Objects have qualities of both particle and wave,
I hope your love for me you’ll save,
Don’t blow it on an English professor named Dave–
‘Cause I’d make a quantum leap . . . for . . . YOU!”
The audience bursts into applause at the climax, and Holstead expresses his sincere thanks while keeping the bottom line in view. “You’re been very kind,” he says. “I’ll have CD’s for sale in the back.”
As he makes his way through the audience the greying woman gets up to follow him and before he can get his guitar in the case she has button-holed him back by the coat rack.
“That was great,” she says, “I loved it.”
“Would you like to come over to my house for dinner sometime,” she says, batting eyelashes behind tri-focal lenses. “I make a mean tuna noodle casserole.”
Holstead blanches and the color drains out of his face as he recalls this form of gastronomic torture that was forced on him in a grade-school cafeteria long ago. “I’m not the man for you,” he says with a sorrowful tone.
“Why do you say that?”
“For that dish, you’ll need a chemistry professor in a hazmat suit.”