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Investing a Treasured Book with My Own Ghost


hold in my hand the fourth printing of 1937 book, A Textbook of Thermodynamics, by Paul Epstein. Penciled on the flyleaf, in a precise draftsman's hand, are the words, John Lienhard, 4033 University Way, Seattle 5, Washington, Telephone, Melrose 9694. The book is sturdy, but it's frayed, for it has been many places.

I bought it in the Spring of 1952 for a graduate physics course at the University of Washington. Those were turbulent times. With the Korean War raging, I'd just finished a year working at the Boeing Airplane Company. I'd been one of an acre of design engineers, all drafting parts for the B-52 bomber. When it finally became clear that the main intent of that machine would be to deliver atom bombs, I left. I gave up my essential industry deferment, went back to finish my master's degree, and awaited my draft notice.

I mention that because, by some supreme irony of fate, my thermo professor was one Seth Neddermeyer. You may not recognize the name. However, I would learn, much later in life, that Neddermeyer had been the father of the so-called Fat Man atomic bomb – the one which, triggered by implosion, devastated Nagasaki.

But, for the time, all that remained secret. I knew only that Neddermeyer's course was very strange. His first lecture consisted of the single sentence, "Read the first two chapters and work the problems." Throughout the quarter, he had little more than that to say to us.

If I gained little from the course, I would learn much from the book during the years that followed. Indeed, I would come to understand just why Neddermeyer felt so little need to add anything to what was already written. It is a beautifully dense book with every word in the right place. Epstein was the first person to write a sound thermo text that accommodated the new subject of quantum mechanics. The book was/is a masterpiece.

I carried only two books off to the army with me. Duffle bags are heavy enough without adding books to them. I had only the collected works of Dylan Thomas and Epstein's book. It was during my time in the Army that the form of the cold war altered. I arrived at Fort Monmouth just months after Joe McCarthy had. It was there that he finally lost his Svengali hold on the American people when he swooped in, making unsupportable accusations that Monmouth was infiltrated with communists.

I was put to work in one of the Signal Corp Laboratories. We studied the materials from which transistors could be made. I didn't realize it then, but the rest of my century would be dominated, not by atom bombs, but by transistorized electronics

So I designed an apparatus to determine the magnetic susceptibility of germanium while I read Dylan Thomas's poem, A Refusal To Mourn The Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London:

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

I designed small high-temperature furnaces, while I read Epstein's description of Bose-Einstein condensation and Einstein's quantum theory of specific heats. Then, one hot summer day in 1954, I put Epstein's book in my writing case and hitchhiked over to Princeton in hopes of seeing Einstein. I found the Institute for Advanced Study, and read my book there. I guess it worked, for, as I walked away, I did indeed see Einstein. And then I was too shy to ask for his autograph. (Wouldn't he have been a ghost to've added add to my book!)

Thirteen years later I coauthored my own first book. It was about statistical thermodynamics, and I wrote with Epstein's text at my elbow. Just this year, I finished another book, and it includes a full chapter based on an idea suggested by Epstein. Fifty-five years after I bought it, I look at this old book, and I think about Dylan Thomas's meditation upon the length of life, Fern Hill.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

The book itself will reveal very little of all this. But, a century from now, my ghost will be there in its worn pages. Will some hint tip my hand to a curious reader? Or will the book still exist? It's nice to imagine that it will. For, when I hold it today, I am powerfully touched by the ghost of that once young and easy self – that fresh, uncertain youth, singing in the chains of time – singing in the unaccountable mercy of time's winding means.

* * *

Twelve centuries ago, Charlemagne started a reading revolution when he engaged the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York to bring literacy into his kingdom. Listen then to our final ghost – the one that Alcuin created when he left us with these words,

O how sweet life was
when you and I sat – quiet
amidst all those books.

The Alcuin text is sung by Melissa Givens

P. S. Epstein, A Textbook of Thermodynamics. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1937)

C. L. Tien and J. H. Lienhard, Statistical Thermodynamics. ( Washington, D. C. Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1971, 1979),

J. H. Lienhard, 2006, op. cit. Chapter 6.

D. Thomas, The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. (New York: New Directions Books, 1953): See pp. 112 and 180. As I type out this reference, I notice another pencil inscription (in which Dev Det SCEL is to be read as Development Detachment, Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories). More of my own ghosts live in this book, but that is another story for another day.

For Alcuin's orginal Latin text, see: M. Drogin, Anathema: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. (Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram 1983). (It went thus: O quam dulcis vita fuit dum sedebamus quieti ... inter librorum copias. I have recast it in Haiku form).