Princeton 1982

Princeton University

Roy Lisker

May 1982

At 7 AM on the morning of Tuesday, May 4th, I arose from a couch on the ground floor of the Newfoundland Theater, at 6 West 18th Street in New York City. Not yet recovered from a night of anxious slumber, all but penniless and out of sorts, I prepared myself for a day that would bring me to Princeton, New Jersey by the middle of that afternoon.

With regards to the immediate situation, the visit had already in been delayed 4 days, as I wandered New York City trying to get things done. From a long range perspective the journey had been delayed at least 3 years, since the unforgettable week in which I meandered my way around Princeton University's security to cover the Einstein Centennial Symposium at the Institute for Advanced Study in March of 1979. This article was published in Les Temps Modernes, the magazine then edited by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, in January, 1980. ClickEinstein Symposium for information on obtaining the English language version.

The train fare from Penn Station to Princeton Junction was $6.15. Between 11 to 1, $12 were pulled together through playing the violin in front of the Barnes&Noble store at the corner of 5th Avenue and 18th Streets. Standing before a plate glass window stuffed with posters promoting the unshaved face of Luciano Pavarotti, I played renditions of 'Un Bel De', 'Nina's Song', 'Walther's Preislied', and the 'Meditation from Thais'. Then I hastily packed up the instrument and rushed for dear life to Penn Station in time for the Princeton train.

The arrival of Ferment's editor in Princeton at 3:30 was unheralded by any fanfare. The sky had exploded into bubbles of frothy blue, clouds lay all but immobilized across the bronze shield of the sun, the trees warbled melodious odes, the birds drooped ... etc, etc.

A gentle stroll up and down Nassau Street brought me to the Nassau Arts and Crafts store to pick up a 30 inch piece of white poster board. Palmer Square is the sleepy centerpiece of this (not totally without charm) contrived colonial village. Picture a sun-drenched concrete pavement brocaded with stone benches, in back of these a shaded arcade holding a grocery store, bank and brokers' offices. At the dead center of the square rests the bone dry bowl of a stone fountain, its rim designed for sitting. On the rim, slightly to the right, there is the bronze statue of a teen-age boy. Beside him rests a pile of bronze schoolbooks held together by a bronze belt, while another bronze book lies opened on his lap. Ferment is too polite to reveal what it is he's reading: Princeton does after all have some pretensions to scholarship! Anyhone who really wants to know what he's reading can come to Princeton and see for himself!

I wrote on my sign with a felt pen, then placed its message face outward on the concrete pavement of Palmer Square:

Wandering Scholar
Needs Place To Stay For A Few Days
Recites Poetry
Research Mathematician

Beside this was deposited my opened violin case. Taking up the violin I began playing. Less than 20 minutes had passed before I was approached by a woman accompanied by a young boy. Her age was estimated to be in the 40's, his was about 14. Both wore orange tee shirts bearing the same message: " NO NUKES!" They'd been attracted to me because, in addition to my violin playing, they'd noticed a prominent bumper sticker affixed to my briefcase:

Nuclear Power: The Perfect Crime!

"Hello. How are you?" I'm Tamar Cohn." Her son added "I'm Daniel"

" How do you do? My name's Roy Lisker."

" Roy Lisker?" Tamar stared at me " Roy Lisker?"

"Why? Do you know me from somewhere?"

"Roy Lisker? Why, of course I know you! I met you at the conference of the Committee for Non-Violent Action in Voluntown , Connecticut on July 1973! How are things in Canada?"

Not only did she remember who I was, she remembered I'd been living in Canada at the time, that is to say, 9 years ago.

" I haven't lived in Canada since 1975."

" Do you need a place to stay? Come stay with us."

Their downstairs neighbor's apartment held a spare room with a cot, which they were allowed to use for guests.I stayed two nights.

Tamar cooked up dinner. As we sat and talked around the table we were surprised to discover that we both knew the Kirbys. This was the English couple of Philosophy graduate students who'd put me up in 1979 when I was covering the Einstein Symposium. I learned that the Kirbys were back in Manchester. We wished them well.

The next morning I strolled the considerable distance to the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). It was my hope that some of the people I'd interviewed in 1979 might still be around . Fuld Hall is its main building. After resting up in its lobby, I walked through the doors which open to a corridor that connects to the Henry Chauncey Conference Center. This is where all of the talks of the Einstein Symposium had been held. In the article written for Les Temps Modernes it is described as a collection of glass, steel and grey stone cubicles arranged like a playground's Jungle Gym.

Next to the 2nd floor cork message board hangs is a faculty directory. I stared at it to see if anyone of my acquaintance was listed. Because my attention was directed elsewhere I was nearly run over by John Schrecker.

John Schrecker is a historian of China, nephew of a famous historian of science, Paul Schrecker . John claims that his uncle Paul propounded the notion of the paradigm shift before Thomas Kuhn. There were frequent occasions to meet his uncle when I was advertised as the campus Wunderkind at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. Somehow Herr Professor Paul Schrecker had given me the impression that he eagerly awaited my suicide as confirmation of his theory of the decadence of modern Western science. Coming back to Penn for a brief visit in 1980 I could testify that the institution still crawls with incestuous bed-bugs of the mind, decorated by many rotting medieval cobwebs of rare and precious aroma.

My impression of John at the time was that he was an arrogant, if self-deprecating faculty brat ( I might also have been labeled such.) As I was to learn, the form had undoubtedly changed, although the content was much the same.

" Roy Lisker! Are you following me all over the place!" I'd run into him the year before at Brandeis University during a concerted search for newsletter subscriptions. John offered to buy me lunch at the Institute cafeteria. Memories of divine banquets from the Einstein Centennial Symposium intoxicated my brain and brought tears to my eyes. It did not take long for me to make the discovery however, that when the IAS is not servicing dignitaries, the standard fare may be creamed peas and defrosted breaded fish fingers!

Before going in to lunch John drove me into downtown Princeton to pick up another historian, Stanley . Along the way he unloaded to my astonished ears a sad saga of numerous professional grievances:

"Roy, I'm one of the best Chinese scholars in the country, but I'm only earning two-thirds what a academic of my age and level ought to be making: a lousy $30,000"

I jingled the remaining $5.00 in my pockets left over from the previous day's violin playing, and said nothing.

" I've really been black-listed because of my activities during the Vietnamese War! Of course Roy you did a lot more and paid a greater price. "

(In November, 1965, together with 4 other activists I burned my draft card in Union Square. This earned me a 6 month jail sentence, served in 1972 at Danbury and Allenwood Penitentiaries.)
I continued to hold my peace, as befits a Peacenik. Later that afternoon however it seemed to me that something had to be said, after John had complained to Stanley: "I've done everything, been to all the right places, accumulated all the right references and credentials, and still I only make a lousy $30,000 a year because of what I did during the Vietnamese War."

"John it's really terrible" I remarked, " that someone who's played the academic game as faithfully as you have, has been given such a raw deal." Stanley burst out laughing. After a moment's hesitation John followed suit, though one suspects that he didn't quite know what to make of my remark.

Up until then I'd considered what John was saying comical and a bit sad, but now it appeared that his real goal was to embarrass me to the maximum extent. He began by introducing me to Stanley as " A mathematician with a mind greater than Poincaré's, who did his best work before he was 18 then left the field."

In the IAS dining-room he introduced me to another mathematician as " An Algebraic Geometer working on the hardest unsolved problem in the field." He would not let me talk with Lee Smolin, the mathematical physicist and someone I would really have liked to meet, until he'd described me to him as " A very famous mathematician who was black-listed from the University of Pennsylvania because of his anti-war activities."

In fact Penn and I had seen a parting of the ways 3 years before my involvement in the anti-war movement. Not letting me get a word in edgewise, John announced to a group of anthropologists that I was " one of America's leading number theorists."

Rectifying these distortions and outright lies took up the rest of the afternoon. In point of fact my research output in mathematics is quite slender though not without interest, and it is doubtful that that I will ever be as famous in that field as the better mathematicians in residence at the IAS at that time.

John's come-on to most people tended to be brash, impulsive and rude. However I am grateful to him for having provided me with a unique caricature of everything I loath about the Academy.

Before leaving I did manage to exchange a few words with Lee Smolin, and with Mrs. Hirschmann, encountered 3 years earlier at the Einstein Symposium.

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