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A Great Name

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:
“Budapest tram 3” by Siemar – originally posted to Flickr as El 2. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The motor coach cruised the French countryside through fields of dazzling yellow canola. I and about thirty other conferees from an internationals scientific conference were enjoying an excursion to the CRNS laboratory in Saclay. The young graduate student in the window seat turned to me and glanced at my name tag. His eyes widened slightly and he exclaimed, “Are you the Matteson?”

I laughed but inwardly was pleased at the recognition. In the relatively small community of scientists in my field of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, I was indeed the only “Matteson.” I, perhaps like many who strive to become distinguished in their disciplines, secretly craved recognition and the acquisition of a great name. I was happy to exult for a few moments in the wan glow of a qualified superlative: I was in fact, the Matteson who had dripped an arcane fact-drop into the vast ocean of knowledge. I was pleased that the ripples of that discovery had caught his attention. But all I had done was uncover a scientific detail that would take an hour to explain to a layman and who would, at last, be left scratching his head in puzzlement at its dubious significance.

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Over the years I had struggled with the desire to make something of myself which in the sciences consists of being the first to discover a phenomenon or to explain accurately a physical process. I had been trained well by my scientific mentor in my graduate student days to design and construct critical experiments. Dr. Powers had insisted that I become my most severe critic so that my work alone could answer any subsequent reviewer or reader. If anyone would read my published work, they could trust that the results were diligently obtained and the conclusions were trustworthy.

A Hungarian Sojourn

I recalled as we passed through the brilliant yellow kilometers how that years earlier for a few weeks in the summer and early autumn of 1978, I and my immediate colleagues were the sole trustees of the knowledge of the temperature dependence of a process called “ion mixing,” because we had completed a difficult but exciting experiment. I had been dispatched to Budapest by my post-doctoral mentors both to present the results at the biennial international conference and to remain in Hungary along with my family, consisting of a wife and three children, aged six, five, and four months.

After a few weeks of acculturation in Germany at the Max Planck Institut with my European collaborator and host, we had relocated to the east and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Buda the weekend before the conference. I stepped onto the Villamos, the electric tram, that ran to the city center. I was ready, clad in a dark suit and tie, my beard neatly trimmed but still full, my poster and the draft of my paper tucked securely in my brief case in my lap. As the tram neared the stop for the Institute for Science and Culture where the conference would be held, I pulled the cord that signaled my stop.

The dull yellow Villamos halted, the doors opened with a whoosh and I stepped down to the pavement, as inconspicuously as I could. I wanted to be mistaken for a Magyar, a Hungarian or at least a Német, a German from Munich, perhaps on holiday. An öregasszony clad in a black shawl, print dress and apron accosted me. From her crouched position, bent over with age, she looked up at me and began to berate me in Hungarian with a curled fist from which protruded an arthritic finger. Of course, I had no idea of what she was accusing me since my Hungarian consisted of only a few phrase book essentials, like please (kérem) and thank you (köszönöm). The pedestrians that coursed by on the busy street stared at the scene. When they looked at me, I only shrugged (as Hungarian-like as I could). Mercifully, the old granny moved off having relented briefly in her assault. She crossed the street while I headed in the opposite direction. I was relieved but felt guilty at my relief when I looked over my shoulder to see her addressing her harangue at another hapless man. “Not an auspicious beginning to my stay in Hungary,” I thought.

I was wrong. Fortunately, my work spoke for itself. Broken Hungarian was unnecessary. I was encouraged when one of the big names in the field acknowledged the significance of our results and also the typo of an erroneous minus sign in one of his published papers (that we had identified and he had previously corrected, but in an obscure errata). My post-doctoral mentors were pleased, as well, at the reception of the work. They were also delighted when their fears were put to rest at lunch that day. We dined with the Minister of Science for the nation of Hungary who was partially footing the bill for the exchange between the National Science Foundation of the US and his country. The future of the collaboration between Caltech, my academic home, and KFKI, the Hungarian National Institute for Physics hung upon his favorable impression. My Hungarian friend and host fidgeted with his white linen napkin as I told of my experiences over the weekend and my encounter with the old crone. I elaborated on my adventure at the meat market when I had held up five fingers and had tried to ask for öt szelet, five cutlets. The butcher, apparently very proud and protective of his Hungarian tongue, corrected my pronunciation. It seems I had learned to pronounce the difficult Hungarian short umlaut o from a southern Hungarian and those sounds offended his northern ears. I would later hear that I pronounced Hungarian words (since I did not actually speak Hungarian) with a Transdanubian, that is Austrian, accent. I do not think that it was a compliment.

The Butcher’s Friend

My host and my mentors all leaned back in their seats when the Minister remarked through his interpreter (although he spoke excellent English and understood every word I said as his immediate laughter revealed), ”It is clear who will be staying behind after the conference. He is the one who is making friends with the butcher.” We all laughed and relaxed a little. My mentors beamed at me, sensing the approval of this powerful man, when the his excellency patted me on the shoulder and said, ”You remind me of my son. I hope that you will have a productive and pleasant stay in our country.”  Then he lifted his glass for a toast to the collaboration.

It was indeed a grand adventure. Decades later I still remember those days with fondness and gratitude. That scientific paper (tudományos könyv) ultimately appeared in the scientific literature and has been cited many times. By it I began to achieve my childhood dream of becoming an explorer, not of geographical spaces, but of intellectual ones. Over the years, too, I have struggled with pride, wondering if it were unworthy to desire a great name. Then, I recently hear a sermon about Father Abraham and his call that liberated my heart at last.

Abram, as he was first called, heard the Almighty saying, “Go to a land that I will show you. . . . And I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Oh, how I identified with this call! I went to a far land when we sojourned in Hungary, where we dwelled as aliens and strangers. It was there I began to acquire a “great name,” at least among the small community to which I belonged. And the point of this “fame?” I learned finally to become a blessing. Ultimately as a professor, I was able to encourage thousands of students. One of my graduate assistants once even gave me a button that read, “Almost famous,” not quite world renown but important enough to a few. I pray that I have been and will continue to be a blessing to those who trail after me, that I will indeed be “The Matteson” who showed the way and the one that demonstrates that a great name can be earned even by a child sprung from the mud of the swamp of his youth.

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya Lisa (6), and nővére Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya (Mother) Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya (daughter) Lisa (6), and nővére (sister) Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

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