Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

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Our friend Sidney Coleman has left the planet

November 20th, 2007 · 18 Comments

It happened on Sunday, November 18, peacefully, without pain, after long illness.

To several generations of physicists, Sidney was guru, clown-prince, and zen-master. Sidney was the centerpiece of a thousand stories from the time that he was just a loud-mouthed brilliant fifteen year-old aka Squidney rampaging into Chicago’s sci-fi fan community.

There’s a lot more to say but I’m too sad to say it right now. We loved you, Sidney.

As for how Sidney would like to be remembered–this photo by Lubos Motl is simply perfect:

SidneyColeman

Tags: Cambridge · Science

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 8:18 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 1:

    In 1959, famous young sci-fi fan Sidney Coleman, already famous not only for brilliance but also for egregious (always self-mocking) bumptiousness (From SaFari 3, SAPS 49, October 1959):

    I am not interested in sf as income; I am interested in it as art. This makes me an esthete and a dilettante, and I know it. I am interested in the sf market only indirectly, because the prices paid for sf influence the quality of the finished product (I am not so much an esthete and a dilettante as to subscribe to the Catharist Fallacy – James Joyce may work for nothing, but only Ivar Jorgensen works for one cent a word.), or even more indirectly, because it is related to the financial well-being of some of my friends.

    For me to shoot off my mouth on the feasibility of a writer’s union or methods of escaping ms.-eating editors would be the height of egregious bumptiousness — on this I know from nothing.

  • 2 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 8:23 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 2.

    There was a time when Sidney was also famous for the number and wild variety of his Jewish jokes. Here’s one, allegedly about his own family tree, from the same essay as the previous comment (SaFari 3, SAPS 49, October 1959):

    Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather, Stephen Rich, the stingiest man in Slonim? When the local stonecutter went out of business, he had him make up a tombstone for him, cheap, with everything on it but the date of great-grandfather’s death. He kept it in his front yard and tethered his goat to it. At least that’s what my mother has always told me, but she’s quite capable of having stolen the whole incident from an Erskine Caldwell novel.

  • 3 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 3:

    Lubos Motl, in his long blogpost about Harvard’s SidneyFest, quotes one of Sidney’s few non-self-effacing quips:

    “If I have seen further than others, it is because I was standing in between the shoulders of dwarfs.”

  • 4 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 4:

    Preserved from oblivion by science-fiction author Alexei Panshin, Sidney in his own words on Heinlein the craftsman and Heinlein the creator:

    I had an argument on this subject at the Detention with James Gunn. I claimed Heinlein, as a novelist, had deteriorated sadly in recent years. Gunn said, “No such thing. Heinlein is better than he ever was, and will be better still in the future.” He cited chapter and verse. When I returned home, I looked up the chapters and the verses and found I had to agree; things that were awkward and clumsy in early Heinlein were handled with grace, ingenuity, and skill in the recent product.

    For a month and a half this worried me. Did I have Moskowitz’s Syndrome? Did yellowed pulp paper emit, for me, a golden haze viewed through which all stories become classics?…

    Then I realized Gunn and I had been talking about two different things. He had been discussing Heinlein’s technique; I had been discussing Heinlein’s novels. Heinlein has, by dint of hard labor, native talent, and careful thought, built for himself the finest set of science-fiction carving tools in the business. But he is using these tools to craft equestrian statues and little figurines of the gay philosopher…

  • 5 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 8:57 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 5:

    Back in 2003, Earl Kemp gathered a collection of many sci-fi community tributes to Sidney. His own reminiscence–brilliant, funny, and generous (you can see why Sidney liked him)–is one of my favorites:

    The Punch-Line Kid

    By Earl Kemp

    I recall being accosted by Sadie Coleman’s street waif Sidney, the wandering Jew, in early 1952. He was trolling a bookstore looking for unsuspecting victims at the time, either that or what turned out to be his usual, stalking the science fiction section.

    As a result of our encounter, Sidney decided to keep me as an acolyte. There were many things he felt compelled to teach me. He was 15 at the time and I was 23. The thought of spending time with a kid had never occurred to me. I already had two of my own at home; I didn’t need another one ordering me around. Only I must have, because Sidney kept me forever.

    It wasn’t easy, either…way back then…listening to a kid, however smartassed he was. That was the hardest part of it all, that he was some kind of mental giant spinning wheels all around everyone he ever got close to, and making them like it.
    He was at his very best when criticizing someone for what he thought was a shortcoming on their part…and doing it with sparkle and charm, with witty words that left them, while injured, somehow happy about the whole thing and anxious to tell others about it.

    One of the first things Sidney ever taught me was that he loved to tell stories. I don’t think he thought of them as being funny stories, but they were. He also liked to have an audience when he was telling one of those stories but, if necessary, he could go on without them.

    When he had an audience, he loved to keep them enthralled by the play of his words. He held their attention completely as he tilted his head just so and grinned that patented secret-sharing grin while trying to suppress the delighted twinkles flashing like strobes out of his laughing eyes.

    Little wonder he grew up to become “The Famous Professor Coleman” at Harvard whose physics classes were always packed.
    Shaggy dog stories were his favorite, early on. He could hold an audience for a long time that way, stretching out the minute details of the yarn he was spinning only to land with a whomp and a pun that would leave all the listeners stunned. His favorite, for a long time, ended with, “Bear-foot boy with teak of Chan.”

    Just thinking about that punch line brings a smile back to my thoughts.

  • 6 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 6:

    Ken Lane told this story, one of my favorites, at SidneyFest 2005.

    Steve Weinberg (Nobel Physics 1979) was giving a lecture at Harvard when Sidney Coleman wandered in, late. As it happened somebody in the audience had just asked a question, so what Sidney heard as he walked through the door of the hall was Weinberg’s reply: “I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.”

    ‘I know the answer!” said Sidney, not yet in his seat. “I know the answer–ask me! What was the question?”

    And of course, being Sidney, he did really know the answer.

  • 7 TA // Nov 20, 2007 at 9:15 am

    Very sad. He seems to have been one of those truly rare cases, a universally liked physicist. Considering how much I liked “Aspects of Symmetry”, I guess I should not be surprised to learn that he also was an SF fan saddened by Heinlein’s trajectory as a novelist.

  • 8 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Great Sidney Coleman stories you might want to know, Part 6 revised and improved!

    Via email, just now, in Ken Lane’s own words:

    At Harvard in the good old days of 4-dimensional physics with real-world consequences (circa 1978-9), we used to have what was called the “Gauge Seminar” every Wednesday at 12–1. It was informal, mainly Harvard folk. It was held in the wonderful old theory lounge, across from Steve’s and Shelly’s and Blanche’s offices. I was a lowly Asst Prof, but I sat with Shelly on the sofa, in front of the speaker, and we smoked; lunch and cigarettes were allowed. Sidney, who slept till 11 or 11:30 never showed up before 12:30, often later. I have pictures of the one I describe next.

    Steve Weinberg was giving the gauge seminar one Wednesday and was, as I recall nearly finished or just finishing his talk. Sidney had not arrived. So-Young Pi asked Steve a question and Steve replied (as I recall) “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer; I haven’t thought about it.” At that exact instant Sidney enters the room, hears Steve’s reply, heads for the coffee pot, and says “I know the answer; what’s the question?” He was told the question, and he answered it. (Correctly, of course.)

  • 9 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 10:49 am

    Update: Sean Carroll also has an extended piece about Sidney today, from which let me harvest just one funny Sidney-ism:

    “Modesty forbids me, but honesty compels me…”

  • 10 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Update: another fine bit of Sidney lore, attributed to Claude Bernard by an anonymous comment on Peter Woit’s report of Sidneyfest:

    “How do you do physics at Harvard?

    You go to Witten to give you a problem to work on.

    You go to Coleman to tell you how to solve it.

    Then you go to Weinberg to write you a reference letter.”

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  • 13 Betsy Devine // Nov 20, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    More Sidney lore, another email from Ken Lane:

    A picture Sidney used to have in his office. Really!

    http://www.marcelduchamp.net/images/L.H.O.O.Q.jpg

    Cover up to the chin (and alter the mustache, ditch the goatee) and note the resemblance.

    Plus an extra email link from Ken, who urges everyone (at least those of us not upset by naughty Frenchness, as Sidney was surely not) to check out what “L. H. O. O. Q.” means:

    http://www.marcelduchamp.net/L.H.O.O.Q.php

  • 14 Betsy Devine // Nov 26, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    More Sidney lore from the Internet–in 2002 famed filmmaker Errol Morris created a wonderful pre-Oscar short with super-short clips of 98 different fascinating people talking about movies.

    Number 37 (someone counted them) is Sidney Coleman.

    You can see the whole marvelous thing on Errol Morris’s website: http://www.errolmorris.com/content/shortfilms/oscarmovie.html

  • 15 Betsy Devine // Nov 30, 2007 at 2:22 am

    Thank you, Mr. Internet!

    In the archives of Harvard there is a one-hour movie reel of one trademark-funny and sharp Sidney Coleman lecture from 1994, “Quantum Mechanics in Your Face.”

    This movie just got posted to Google Video on November 22: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4674461198051839963&hl=en

    It would be even greater if there were some more Sidney lectures available…

  • 16 Betsy Devine // Dec 3, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Harvard Gazette writer Roberta Gordon (aka Mrs. Jeffrey Goldstone) just wrote a long, informative, warm, and funny piece about Sidney’s life and death, still online at the moment here:

    http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2007/11.29/15-coleman.html

    In addition to lots of great quotes and a mention of Sidney’s multi-decade poker game (joining it in 1987, I was a very late-comer), Roberta tells a story I’d never heard about Sidney’s famous sartortial “look:”

    In the 1960s, he threatened to sue a student publication for calumny, because they said he taught physics in a purple polyester suit. “It was wool,” he sniffed.

    The first time I ever saw Sidney was in Princeton in 1972 or 1973. Wearing a glamorous bottle-green velveteen jacket, he was the focus of every eye in Jadwin Hall. Or maybe I’m wrong and that jacket was really wool. I wish he were here right now to threaten to sue me.

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