(A year later, another autobiographical birthday card, sequel to the ^zhurnal entry of 29 September 1999, BookhouseBoy.)
The acorn falls close to the tree. In 1970-71, ^z stayed at home for his first year of higher education and attended the University of Texas in Austin ... a safe, cost-effective choice. Good test results placed him out of introductory courses in English, German, and Spanish. This came back to haunt him a few years later, when apparently-excess credit-hours made it seem as though he should have graduated in three years instead of four. He had to defeat a minor bureaucratic attempt to cut off his financial aid.
UT Austin was a mammoth state school, with tens of thousands of students. ^z was quite shy and could easily have become lost in the crowds. Fortunately he got into the habit of sitting in on physics department seminars, especially relativity and astrophysics talks, even though he understood little of the material under discussion. This brought him to the attention of some friendly faculty members. ^z also did well in his freshman classes, including classical mechanics taught by Professor Lawrence Shepley. Larry was an energetic, charismatic, approachable young lecturer who awarded science-fiction books to those who aced his exams.
In a brush with future greatness ^z met another Larry --- a grad student named Larry Smarr. Smarr went on to considerable fame in computational general relativity (numerical models of colliding black holes) and then rose to head a major National Science Foundation supercomputing center. In the early '70s Larry was (or seemed to be) an Ayn Rand fan, an Objectivist. This was a political philosophy which ^z empathized with, to a degree, during that youthful phase of his life. He was moving from conservatism through libertarianism to something less easily categorized. Along the way, he read many anarcho-capitalistic tomes by such authors as Benjamin Tucker and Albert Jay Nock.
But UT/Austin was too big and impersonal for ^z, dedicated introvert, to feel comfortable at --- although living with Mother was a cozy nest to retreat to. He gathered his courage and applied to Rice University in Houston Texas, and transferred there in the autumn of 1971. ^z had visited Rice only once before, ca. 1969. He made the 200-mile trek with a high school friend, private pilot JimHoward, to hear John W. Campbell speak. Campbell, science-fiction author and editor, was aged and gravel-voiced but impressive. He advocated a healthy skepticism and played a tape of striking aural illusions: ever-ascending and descending tones which never really got any higher or lower. It was a sonic equivalent of the Penrose staircase (made famous in M. C. Escher art). Neat and memorable.
Moving away from home was a quick introduction to real life, in more ways than one. In his first year at Rice ^z lived in a rented apartment with another high school chum, Joe Walling, plus a couple of other students; call them "M" and "F". Both were eminently nice guys. They were also dopers, into recreational chemistry and the drug import business. This situation penetrated ^z's consciousness only gradually, however, as he was singularly naïve about worldly matters and spent most of his time at his studies. But eventually he figured out what was going on. Certain all-night parties were a clue; "M" and "F" were popular fellows. They are rumored to have gone on to military service and a career in medicine, respectively.
^z's classes as a sophomore physics major went splendidly. A part-time job shelving books in Rice University's mammoth Fondren Library was pleasant and paid the rent. In another coincidental close encounter with future fame, his faculty advisor was young Prof. Neal Lane, years later to become the President's Science Advisor.
Rice was small, roughly two thousand undergrads. No room to hide in the back of the room for a shy ^z! --- there were only a dozen or so physics students in each annual cadre. Every teacher got to know every student. Rice's Space Science depasrtment was strong and offered many good courses, which ^z took advantage of. A professor there, F. Curtis Michel, derived some measure of notoriety as a scientist-astronaut who left the NASA program when he (correctly) became persuaded that it was focused not on science but on spectacle. Curt Michel came to Rice from Caltech. The two schools had a rather close though informal connection, via bidirectional flows of both students and faculty. ^z was to become a part of that linkage a couple of years later.
Friday, September 29, 2000 at 22:14:21 (EDT) = Datetag20000929