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The Human Experience: The Human Experience

My Family’s Path to Science

Sessler, Daniel I. MD

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doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000006007
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My father (Figure 1) was a theoretical physicist who directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Figure 2) during the period when the bottom row of the periodic table was filled in or, more specifically, when the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory filled in the bottom row (Figure 3). There is a reason that there are elements named Lawrencium, Berkelium, Californium, and Americium. Also note element number 106, Seaborgium, named for Glen Seaborg, my Chemistry 1A laboratory professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Figure 1.:
Andrew M. Sessler (1928–2014) in the 1970s.
Figure 2.:
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Figure 3.:
Elements discovered at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, outlined in blue.

Half-a-dozen Nobel laureates reported to my father in his capacity as Director of the Lawrence Laboratory. Among them was Louis Alvarez, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering antimatter. Remarkably, he also proved that dinosaurs were obliterated by climate change resulting from an asteroid impact. As my father explained, Louis would be in his office almost every morning proposing a new project. And according to my father, 99% were “just nuts.” But about 1 in a hundred was pure genius. His job was to decide which to fund.

My mother was also a physicist (Figure 4), and as it happens, my mother worked with Louis Alvarez during his search for antimatter cosmic rays. There were none, which was one of the all-time great “negative” findings because it hinted that charge-parity conservation—then considered a bedrock of physics—was, in fact, incorrect.

Figure 4.:
Gladys Sessler (1929–2000) in the early 1990s, shortly after her retirement.

My parents met in physics graduate school at Columbia University, which dominated physics before the center moved to Berkeley. They noted, for example, that 13 of their professors had or subsequently received the Noble Prize. How my parents got to Columbia could not have differed more.

My paternal grandfather was a high school principal, and my grandmother was a high school English teacher. That made them relatively well off in depression-era America because, unlike so many, they actually got paid—even if only a little. My father earned a degree in pure mathematics from Harvard. But as he once explained to me, “in mathematics I could prove anything, whether it was true or not.” He thus decided to focus on something more grounded in reality, namely, theoretical physics. Go figure!

In contrast, my mother’s parents were first-generation Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Ukraine who lived in Hoboken New Jersey, then a gritty port town. Of course, my mother attended the local public schools. In high school, she once confided to a friend that she wanted to go to Columbia University. That aspiration percolated around the school, finally reaching the authorities. The principal—her putative mentor—called her in to tell her that she should forget going to Columbia because: (1) she was a girl; (2) she was Jewish; (3) her parents were poor; and (4) because no one from that high school had ever gone to any college—much less Columbia! Undeterred, my mother got herself a full scholarship to Columbia’s Barnard College and then another to the physics graduate school.

Given my parents’ background, it will not surprise you that my family’s core belief was that accomplishments matter, not externalities such as honors, awards, and titles. But their philosophy was unusual in tracking to a specific poem, Ode to Shakespeare, written by John Milton 4 centuries ago:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,

The labor of an age in pilèd stones,

Or that his hallowed relics should be hid

Under a star y-pointing pyramid?

Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,

What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?

Thou in our wonder and astonishment

Hast built thyself a live-long monument.

For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,

Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart

Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book

Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,

Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,

Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;

And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,

That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

What the poem means, of course, is that Shakespeare is remembered for his writing and accomplishments, not because of a fancy mausoleum—or even a pyramid. As you might imagine, Shakespeare anticipated the concept:

Not monumental stones preserves our Fame;

Nor sky-aspiring Pyramids our name;

The memory of him for whom this stands

Shall outlive marble and defacers hands.a

Both poems mean the same thing: accomplishments matter. Get stuff done! The philosophy expressed by Milton guided my family and was dutifully absorbed by all 3 children. It was not only Milton’s philosophy that we adopted: Milton’s words are inscribed on my mother’s grave: “Kings for such a tomb…”

Given our upbringing, it is hardly surprising that my siblings and I all chose science. My brother is a National Academy chemist, and my sister studied and practiced geology before diverting to nonprofit management. However, none of us quite lived up to the statement attributed to Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting”—a philosophy my father more-or-less shared. That said, my parents finally conceded that medicine and medical research are worthwhile endeavors. And, a highlight of my early career was coauthoring half-a-dozen papers about heat balance and flow with my father.

In Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked “How did you go bankrupt?” and famously answers “Two ways: gradually, then suddenly.” The quote resonates because “slowly and then all at once” is how many of life’s events transpire. Adversity too often unexpectedly and unfairly befalls good people. But failures of one sort or another also attach to people who for some time have been cutting corners, making compromises, and not exactly doing the right thing. Success, similarly, is rarely sudden: it is preceded by substantial effort—often decades of it. Both were points my parents made repeatedly, and over the years, are ones I’ve increasingly appreciated.

Copyright © 2022 The Author. Published by the International Anesthesia Research Society.