Saturday, June 15, 2013

Prof. Donald A. Glaser

I just came across the fact that one of my undergraduate professors died a few months ago. He played a small but uplifting role in my life.

In high school, I'd been one of the few college-bound students not to take biology. (I'd fulfilled the science requirements with physics and chemistry.) There were parts of biology I liked, such as genetics, but the physiology and behavioral aspects of animals or even plants, what fills zoology and botany, didn't interest me. (Having subsequently become a long-time cat owner, I'm now much more interested in animal behavior than I was then.) But college is more specialized.

Having dutifully signed up for my first term at UC Berkeley for courses in my intended major (history) and freshman comp, I found a hole in my schedule. I needed another low-credits course to be taking enough. So I browsed through the catalog for something that was interesting, met at a convenient time, and wouldn't be too taxing. Most of the science departments offered a non-technical lower-division course for non-majors. One of them was the Molecular Biology Department. That sounded cool - genetics, but from a different angle - so I signed up.

It was a simple 3 hour/week lecture course, no assignments but the midterm and final, held in the department building's small lecture hall at the top end of campus. The lecturer was a Prof. Glaser, a soft-spoken, unprepossessing man. He gave us a lot of information, and I absorbed much about nucleic acid transcription and such topics. I learned about bacteriophages, which I found intriguing, particularly for their alien-spacecraft appearance, and when I founded an on-campus SF club I proposed calling it the Phages, which gave us a neat logo and addressed the deficit of SF clubs with biological references in their names.

I got an A in the class, by the way. And even after nearly four decades, with all the subsequent advances in the field and all the fading of my own memories of the course's details, I still better understood the scientific issues in the recent gene-patenting case than did the average U.S. Supreme Court justice.

A few weeks into the course, when leaving the hall one day, I overheard a couple other students saying something about a Nobel Prize. Wait a minute - could mild Prof. Glaser up there actually be a Nobel laureate? I looked him up and ... he was! Before he became a molecular biologist, he'd been a particle physicist, and got his prize for inventing the bubble chamber. I knew what that was.

How unutterably cool, I thought, to be a first-term freshman and have one of your professors be a Nobel laureate. Not a unique experience at UCB, either. Laureates Glenn Seaborg and Melvin Calvin were also known to give lower-division lectures and even to teach occasional sections of freshman chem lab. (Chemistry at Berkeley being a local specialty and hence such a large-scale industrial process, I never took it there myself.)

And that makes me ... Well, a few years ago I was on an SF con panel about hard SF. The first two panelists to introduce themselves (both women, by the way) were rocket engineers, so at my turn I said:

"After that, I need to burnish my scientific credentials. I could say that I studied molecular biology under Nobel laureate Donald Glaser at U.C. Berkeley. That sounds good.

Actually, I took a freshman lecture course from him."

But it is a neat thing to have done that, and both for the cachet and the content, I'm glad I did.

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