What happens when a non-science type person encounters an essayist who happens to be a paleontologist? Quite a lot, actually.
It began one year when I was in college. My mom gave me a subscription to Natural History magazine one Christmas, simple because she knew I enjoyed the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I enjoyed reading about the various exhibits at the museum and many of the articles, skipping over the more scientific ones. But I gradually began reading the monthly column, “This View of Life,” by Stephen Jay Gould. I imagine that the first time I read it was because of an interesting title or subject.
I was hooked – even if I found nothing else of interest in the rest of the magazine in a given month, I never missed reading “This View of Life.” I even started reading and collecting Dr. Gould’s books. The first ones I read were collections of his essays from the magazine, usually being related to a central theme. Gradually I began to read other books of his, including The Mis-measure of Man and Wonderful Life.
I often felt challenged by Dr. Gould’s massive vocabulary, and hindered by my own lack of knowledge regarding biology and other sciences. (After all, what need does a language major have of knowing a thorax from a dorsal fin!) I often read his books, especially Wonderful Life, with a dictionary on one side of me and an encyclopedia on the other.
Because I read so many of his books, I noticed that there was one word in particular that Dr. Gould liked to use quite regularly. That word was ‘polymath.’ I could not find it in my rather large (but apparently not large enough) dictionary at home, so I went to the public library one day and tried their HUGE dictionary. Nothing. Having some small knowledge of word origins and Latin roots, I knew ‘poly’ meant ‘many,’ and ‘math’ obviously had to do with knowledge or numbers somehow, but that’s as far as I could get through deductive reasoning.
One day, I was at work and someone asked what I was reading, and in the course of the conversation, I mentioned trying to find the meaning of ‘polymath.’ My co-worker said, “Well, why don’t you write to him and ask what it means?” Hmm. So, I found a phone number for Harvard University, and called them up, asking them for a mailing address for Stephen Jay Gould. Surprisingly they gave me a general address for his department. So I wrote. And he answered! A handwritten letter, even. He said that a “polymath was a person who was skilled in many different areas or disciplines. (Thank you, mystery solved.) Oh, and by the way, I’m lecturing at the Free Library in Philadelphia in a few weeks – I would love to meet you if you are interested.” Was I? Brother, you know it.
So, I called the Library to see about a ticket. They gave me another number, called that, tickets sold out, but I can view a free simulcast in the library rotunda and they’ll put me on a waiting list. Co-worker (same one – smart girl!) says, why don’t you write to him and tell him you can’t get a ticket – maybe he can get a pass?
Well, I thought it was a long shot, but since he wrote on Harvard letterhead, I now have an exact address to send it to, so, why not? Fast forward about 3 weeks. Busy day at work as usual. My coworker takes a call, places it on hold, and says to me, “Jackie, it’s Dr. Golden for you. I think he’s with the University of Pennsylvania. Are we still handling that account?” I didn’t think so, but a call is a call, so I picked up the line.
“Hello, this is Stephen Gould from Harvard. I have a guest pass for the lecture, and I will leave it at the desk for you. Will you come backstage afterwards? I’d like to meet you?” I nearly fell off my chair! Needless to say, I went over to Philadelphia, found the library, and went backstage after (with my copy of Wonderful Life, naturally!) I listened as Dr. Gould spoke to others there who there asking him to sign books, and telling them he never personalizes them, just signs his name, if that’s alright. When I was able to speak with him, I explained who I was. He immediately took my book and wrote in it. But I could tell, he wrote more than his name! He did indeed personalized it! When he handed it back to me he asked if I could wait and have coffee with him later. Naturally, I agreed. After all, coffee at the Four Seasons and conversation with such a mind -who wouldn’t?
What an experience speaking with such a brilliant man. He was down to earth, speaking about his son and his love of baseball, his family, his work. What struck me is that he didn’t have separate vocabularies for speaking and writing, as most people do. No, he used words and used them well.
But all good things come to an end. After all, it was a weeknight, I lived an hour away, and I had to go to work in the morning. He walked my back to my car, I dropped him back at his hotel. Good night, farewell.
The only other time I met Stephen Jay Gould was in New York, at the American Museum of Natural History, several years later. Another lecture, another line of people having books signed. He was looking down at the table as each one placed a book there for him to sign. When it was my turn, I just said, “You already signed mine in Philadelphia.” He looked up then, stood up and smiled, gave me a hug, and said, “It is so nice that you came to another lecture. It’s good to see you again.”
He died a couple of years after that, but I still remember how a simple word led to such a memorable encounter with one of the most interesting men I have ever met.