Monday, March 2, 2009

Michelson Comes Home to California

At the CMG conference in Las Vegas last December, I was presented with the A.A. Michelson Award. It actually consists of 2 pieces: a framed citation, which you can see (and hear President Cathy Nolan reading) in the video of the ceremony, and a wooden plaque with lots of brass bits on it; including a ruler for performance measurement. :-)

Both items were too large and metallic to attempt getting them through TSA easily (although sometimes I wonder), let alone put them in an overhead bin on the aircraft back to San Francisco. So, CMG conference staff agreed to ship them to me in the new year. Finally, they arrived in California. Here's the plaque with the brass ruler on the top ...

and here is the separate citation ...

Not the greatest photos, but you get the idea. Click to enlarge.

Apart from the fact that this award already has a double significance for me, both as a physicist and a computer scientist, there is another level of symbolism associated with their arrival in California. Although Albert Michelson was born in the Polish region of Prussia, his family immigrated to the USA when he was about 3 years old, and he grew up in the California towns of Murphy's Camp or Murphys (as it is called today) and San Francisco, during the post gold-rush (or silver-rush) period of the 1850s.

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Albert Michelson's boyhood home still stands in Murphys today and interestingly enough is recognized with a small monument in the front. My neighbor happens to have a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains and passes through Murphys on the way. Knowing that I received the Michelson Award, he took some photos and emailed them to me from a Starbucks up there. Ain't the net grand?

It hadn't actually dawned on me by the time I gave my acceptance speech, but the fact that Michelson was Prussian means that his family name would not have been pronounced: Mike-al-sun (as everyone at CMG and every physicist says it). Although it looks like an English name with British spelling, it would have been pronounced like this (courtesy of Christiane Sattler).

As if all this isn't curious enough, Henry P. informed me that there is a 1962 Bonanza episode which involves Albert Michelson (the boy) as a central plot character. For anyone too young to have witnessed black and white TV (although Bonanza was filmed in color) or too old to remember it, the fictional Ponderosa ranch was set in the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe (topside in the TV logo below), just north of Murphys on the Google map above.

The plot line of that episode reads:
"The Cartwrights encourage young genius, Albert Michelson, to pursue his scientific experiments while trying to discover why schoolmaster, George Norton, expelled Albert from school and seems determined to stand in the way of his appointment to the prestigious Annapolis Naval Academy."
Although there are some factual inaccuracies (e.g., he entered Annapolis from school in San Francisco, not Murphys), for the life of me, I cannot fathom how some Hollywood script-writer would not only learn about Albert Michelson, but actually incorporate him into a TV script and get the damn thing on the air! Musta been slim pickin's, back then. I can't see it happening today (celebrity-trash index too low).

Anyway, it's good to have Albert home.

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