"Great Gravity" is featured every edition of God & Nature magazine, and tells the story of BNL physicist Bill Morse's journey through the world of muons and quarks, colliders and bubble chambers, with the light touch of a distinguished scientist still mightily in touch with his inner child, and with the heart of a committed Catholic and longtime-teacher of Sunday school. Read the next post in this series here.
The Early Years
Mount Washington in winter
by Bill Morse
I was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine to Donald and Eileen Morse. My father was a mad man.
I'll just give a few stories here to illustrate my point.
When I was in my early teens, my father decided that it would be interesting to climb Mt. Washington in the winter. We couldn't afford to buy crampons, so he made four pair, for me, him, and my two younger brothers, Dave and Rick. We went up the carriage road from Pinkham Notch to Lion's Head. Going up Lion's Head was very steep, and the snow was deep. We were exhausted when we got to the top.
Above Lions Head, the snow had blown away, which was good, but the cone up to the summit was pure ice. At one point close to the top, I looked down and realized that if one of us slipped, we would careen down the ice until we hit the rocks at the bottom. It was bitterly cold, and there was no one else on the mountain that we could see.
I wondered if this was a good idea.
Of course, now that I have passed my father's age at that time, I realize he was mad! We got to the top, but it was late in the day. My father said. "Now for the easy part, we just ski down the auto road..."
However, the auto road was also pure ice, and we only had wooden skis! At one point, my father's skis gave way and he slid down the slope out of sight.
Luckily, he responded when I called, “Dad…?” I asked him if I should come down to get him. To this he replied,
"No, one idiot down here is enough." He took off his skis, put on his crampons, and climbed back up.
We got below the tree line at dusk. Now we had nice snow and no ice. The auto road was wide enough that we could—kind of—see the boundaries in the dark. However, the car was not at the bottom of the auto road, it was at Pinkham Notch. Dad decided that he and Dave would ski down a hiking trail to the car, and that I should walk with Rick down the auto road and they’d pick us up in the car. Again, I wondered—this time aloud—if this was a good idea. He said he and Dave would be fine.
When Rick and I got to the bottom of the auto road, we waited, and waited, and waited. It was very cold. We began to wonder if we had any other options but to continue to wait.
Finally, the car pulled up. I asked what took them so long. They said they couldn't see the trail in the dark, and kept skiing into trees!
Another story: I was helping my father work on the car and I asked him how he learned about cars—did his father teach him?
He said no, his father was a salesman, and never worked on cars. He then explained that after the war, he’d gotten a job as an appliance repairman and one day told his boss that they needed a new company truck. When his boss said they didn't have the money right now, Dad said he told him that he would re-build the engine of the current truck over the weekend—if the company would pay for the parts. His boss said "sure!"
Friday night, Dad called a mechanic friend of his, and told him he had beer if his friend would come over and help him re-build an engine. They managed to finish late Sunday night—the engine, not the beer—but when they climbed in to start the truck, the engine wouldn't turn over.
Thinking the rings might be too tight, he and his friend got in my father’s car, and used the car to push the truck from the top to the bottom of Munjoy Hill in gear.
The engine still didn't turn over. So they pulled it back up and did it again. Finally, it started. After that, my father knew engines.
What I learned from my father is that you can do anything, if you put the effort into it.
Fortunately, my mother was not a madwoman—she was just “Mom.” My favorite book when I was young, which she used to read to me over and over, was the Big Book of Astronomy. I especially remember one page: it showed Mars viewed with the naked eye and from a large telescope. I remember that I knew then what I wanted to do. I wanted to build instruments to see what no one else could see.
I wanted to be a scientist.
Read the next post in this series here.