A Boy Wonder Finds a Home
Because Paul Horowitz has always loved gadgets, and because he had always wondered how much arsenic was on the skin of unwashed apples, he didn't notice the two graduate students talking as he leaned over his newest creation, the proton microscope. They were impatient to try their own more traditional experiments--analyses of ancient pottery shards--and they had driven from MIT to Lincoln Laboratories in Lexington earlier that morning expecting that Horowitz would not be there, that his new gadget would be free. Horowitz, who had come on impulse from his home three minutes away, did not seem pressured by this. Nor did he seem aware of a rapidly approaching lunch date, or the morning appointment for which he was already late. A meticulously considerate man under most circumstances, Horowitz was grinning at a shriveling slice of apple skin while people were waiting for him, ten feet and ten miles away.
Horowitz was concentrating on a helium-filled acrylic box connected by a series of pipes to an enormous Van de Graaf generator. The generator was splitting hydrogen molecules to produce protons, which were accelerated down the pipes and into the box. There the stream smashed into the apple skin, turning the helium in its path an eerie purple. The apple skin was browning and curling up under the bombardment. "Wow," Horowitz said. "This baby is taking quite a beating."
Horowitz looked up at the counters and scopes that caught the radiation bouncing off the apple, measured pulses, and eventually spit out sets of numbers that revealed which heavy elements were present. He made some quick calculations, and detected iron and calcium--he expected them. He looked at a third set of numbers, and found that it was arsenic--about 30 parts per million.
His observers were shocked, but Horowitz showed no surprise. He didn't know how much arsenic was dangerous, but he had heard that many orchards used an insecticide of arsenic and oil that could easily be washed off. The results would be good cocktail party conversation but little more, and Horowitz was already losing interest. He had a new idea.
"I want blood," he said, and left the room in search of a donor and a knife.
The graduate students looked at each other and smiled, and suddenly they didn't seem as hurried. Blood was just as mundane as the other samples Horowitz had analyzed that morning--Gainesburger, vitamins, chicken bullion and maple syrup. But they had remembered how much they liked Horowitz and his bursts of enthusiasm that sometimes went beyond "real physics," and they were pleased that his microscope was working so well.
"Paul is good because he's really interested in his work," one said. "When most physicists design an experiment, they stick to the minimum. But Paul will come up with some idea, he'll play around, and sometimes something important will come of it."
"And besides," he added, "Paul is sort of a genius."
Horowitz doesn't like that word. He knows his intelligence--and particularly his ability with electronics--sets him apart and increases expectations of him, but these vocational hazards of brilliance don't bother him. Like most geniuses, he doesn't mind being one--he just doesn't like being called one. It embarasses him.
Nevertheless, people have been calling Horowitz a genius--a boy genius, to be exact--since he was seven, and gurgled over the air in Morse Code, the youngest ham radio operator in the country. The talk continued as Horowitz went through Summit High School in New Jersey and Harvard, building gadgets in his free time like refrigerators with no moving parts and advanced telescopes. And when he began dating a tall blond nursing student named Carol Grodzins a few years ago, colleagues often approached her at parties and whispered, as if sharing a delicate secret, "Paul is such a genius"
Some of the whispering has died away as Horowitz has settled down. He married Grodzins two years ago, and she says that since he got tenure this year, fewer people pull her aside to murmur their awe. Horowitz generates less commotion just because he will probably be around Harvard for a long time.
This makes Horowitz feel more comfortable in the Physics Department, which is filled with boy wonders now grown up or fizzled out. And although other faculty members describe him to outsiders as "exciting" and "brilliant," he particularly enjoys their weekly Monday luncheons, where the Physics professors sit and casually discuss their work with none of the pretensions of prodigies.
But there has been no refuge from the boyish image, because with the peach-skin complexion and endless energy, Horowitz seems younger at 32 than most of the undergraduates in his electronics course, Physics 123. While they slump unshaven and bleary-eyed on their lab stools on the second floor of the Science Center, Horowitz stalks the room in short, quick steps, like a freshly-scrubbed Boy Scout armed with a calculator instead of a pocket knife. He pushes aside his thick, perpetually mussed hair, and talks in bursts about electronic circuits and gadgets.
The words tumble out in a rush, full of hard advice in terms of "bucks" and hours, and mixed with engineering jokes about explosions and electrocutions. "That's a good way to get yourself blown up," Horowitz says as he modifies a circuit plan on the blackboard. His students, who had to fight their way into the course, laugh briefly but quickly return to their slouches and listen carefully, sifting through the secrets about studying stars, building stereos, and what Horowitz might have found on an apple skin the other day.
* * * * *
Horowitz could find neither knife nor volunteer, as both grad students declined his invitation. "We're not your grad students," they said. "We're only on loan." But he was determined to analyze some blood, and after sterilizing a probe he began testing his fingertip gently. His resolve waning, he wondered aloud, "Is this the way you do it?"
Reasoning that a puncture would be less painful where there were fewer nerves, he pulled up his left pants leg, exposing a skinny calf and a sagging sock, and began scraping. The cut was not clean, and Horowitz forced a muttered "fuck." The grad students smiled.
Only after removing several layers of skin did Horowitz squeeze out enough blood to make a sample. The analysis showed large amounts of iron--again, just what he expected. Horowitz prepared to leave.
He called to rearrange his shattered schedule, cancelling the original lunch date and making a new one with his morning appointment, the owner of a small company who wanted to hire Horowitz as a consultant. Now he felt rushed, but before turning the proton microscope over to the grad students, he reviewed safety precautions and shutdown procedures.
The students were impatient again, and joked about "just pulling every plug" they could find, but Horowitz didn't laugh. He thought of how expensive replacing a delicate exposed membrane on the counter would be. It might cost thousands of dollars, money he and his grant did not have. He has never broken anything more expensive than a large Bell jar, but knows that he has often been more lucky than careful.
Because Horowitz understands how every valve, scope and gadget in the lab works, he doesn't like to take chances. He remembers the way some of the lessons were learned. There was the explosion that splattered him with acid when he was very young, and tried some experiments with batteries. And there was a severe shock in a lab several years ago, when a powerful charge ran in a complete circuit from one arm to the other, passing through his heart. He was almost knocked unconscious, but his first thoughts were, "What went wrong?" He quickly realized that there were two ways to install a fuse, and one of them could lead to accidents like his. "That's probably the best way to learn," he says, laughing.
But Horowitz did not have time to joke now, and he quickly gave the graduate students some last-minute instructions on how to shut off the helium supply and checked out. He turned in his radiation counter--he hadn't absorbed much today--and was ushered out the back door by a security guard, a reminder of the classified work that goes on in the labs, an old radar-research center from World War II.
For about two seconds after Horowitz started the engine, there was a high pitched hum, a noise that ordinarily warns of an open door or unused seat belt. But all the doors were shut, and the belts were snapped into place Horowitz glanced at the dash. The hum stopped, and he drove on.
Horowitz had rewired his car so that the seat-belt warning sounds when the oil pressure is low. "That's much more important to know," he says, "and besides, I figure we'll wear seat belts anyway." He hooked up another switch to a fan, so he can cool his engine in heavy traffic, but otherwise he hasn't meddled with the European engineering, which seems clever to him.
He is only just learning about cars, because unlike most teenagers who grew up in New Jersey in the late 1950s, he spent little time tinkering with engines or hanging around parking lots. When Horowitz turned 16, he didn't rush out to get his license--he picked it up a couple of years later. Cars didn't seem fun. Neither did boy scouts, football games or proms, the things most of his schoolmates liked.
Horowitz enjoyed technology. He wasn't attracted to radio by the prospect of making small talk with other hams--he liked fiddling with the dials. One of his earliest memories is electronic--he and his older brother found pebbles with flecks of metal in their driveway in Elizabeth, N.J., and used them as crystals for radios. Then seven, he was astounded that science touched something as mundane as a rock in his driveway.
His parents, a textile manufacturer and a marriage counselor, felt a thrill of their own. "They thought they had a young genius on their hands," Horowitz recalls. "They still think so."
They discussed the best way to educate Horowitz, and decided to keep him in the public schools when they moved to Summit. His mother, who skipped grades when she was young, decided that her genius son would not. So he went through school one grade at a time, taking the same courses as everyone else, and enjoying them with no hint of impatience. And after the last bell, he would rush home to his basement workshop, where he kept his rockets, photographic equipment, radio rig and chemicals, where he blew up the battery, and where the sink had lost its protective coating to acidic solutions Horowitz poured down the drain. His parents left him alone, realizing that he knew more about what he was doing than they did. Once, though, they cautioned him after his brother accused him of carelessness. Horowitz resented it. He was only having fun.
From the beginning, Horowitz wanted to be an engineer. He liked figuring out how gadgets worked, and improving them. While other would-be geniuses were building rockets that looked like real missiles down to the decals, that spun into the sky spitting fire from their bottoms, Horowitz and his brother realized that without a guidance system a rocket had to be pulled, not pushed, to fly straight. So they mounted their home-made engines at the front of long rods, like the old Chinese fireworks, and sure enough, they went straight up. Horowitz took photographs to prove it.
In high school, teachers reacted to him with a quiet hysteria. He was put on independent studies in English courses, even though he thinks now he was only an average student outside of science. But no one wanted responsibility for holding back a genius, the boy who didn't just look through the microscope at onion skin cells, but also took photographs of them; who didn't just take postcard pictures, but tried to blow them up to enormous wall murals. He was oblivious to the fuss, just as he never wondered whether he would rather be athletic or glib with girls than be alone in his basement so much of the time.
Horowitz was happy there. He enjoyed the long hours of mindless work, and still does today. "Science is far more tedious than people realize," he says. "But I have a high boredom threshold, and a low thrill threshold. Looking through a telescope might sound exciting, but you're not watching galaxies explode. There are very exciting times, but those times are few and far between. You have to be happy in between."
Horowitz has always found much of his amusement in dreaming up gadgets, off-beat electronic gear that no one has built before, whether by choice or by oversight. As offshoots of early hobbies, he built a teletype for ham operators that transmits in Morse Code, and a metronome that, with a few adjustments, clicks out a syncopated beat. Lately, he seems most tickled by a small box he and two undergraduates built, which has been programmed with the algorithms of various types of music. Given a note, the machine will make a random choice based on probabilities of which note to hit next, and how long to hold it. The result is an inoffensive if bland series of electronic tones, reminiscent of belly-dancing one moment and, after flicking a few switches, baroque music the next. It's not great music, but it's music nevertheless. The box took two hours to design.
* * * * *
Horowitz arrived at the morning appointment that had become a lunch date 30 minutes late, but took the time to lock his new calculator--an $800 model from Hewlett-Packard that can run a computer program--deep in his trunk, pushing aside neatly arranged tools and a box of his own microphones, still in his car since Yo Yo Ma's last concert. Horowitz tapes many of the cellist's concerts, using equipment he designed and built himself, as he has become good friends with Ma. In college Horowitz played a little cello himself--he was better at building metronomes--and was an early fan of Ma's. When he was looking for music for his wedding, he called up Ma, even though they had never met. Charmed by the directness of the request, Ma agreed to play. Horowitz has taped several of his concerts since, and the physicist and the music major often talk by phone, discussing performances and laughing at gadgets that would make music.
Horowitz replaced the microphones, carefully closed the trunk, and walked into the offices of the little firm, a manufacturer of pinholes no wider than a wavelength of light, and found that now he had to wait. The owner of the firm was on the telephone, but Horowitz didn't mind. He glanced through some brochures on laser equipment, and then stared into the rain, wondering how long it would take his dog, a Siberian husky, to dry when he returned home that evening and let him in.
Horowitz had called the owner of the company the week before in search of a pinhole for his proton microscope, but quickly found that he knew better ways of making distortion-free pinholes than anyone else. He spent months developing his own technique when he was a graduate student working on an X-ray microscope, and though he published his method he never bothered to patent it. Now the owner wanted to learn how to make them, and hoped to hire Horowitz as a consultant.
Lunch was at a nearby sandwich house. Horowitz looked at the menu and said, "It looks like we're supposed to order The Special." The Special, a steak on bread with beer, would take a few minutes more than the sandwich his prospective partner ordered, so while the pinhole manufacturer nibbled at his food as slowly as possible, he and Horowitz made mannish talk about beers. Both gushed over the legendary Coors, bemoaning its scarcity east of the Rockies. Horowitz talked about the virtues of American draught, mentioning a few brands. The manufacturer hadn't heard of them.
The manufacturer's real gaps in knowledge became apparent when, while mopping up his plate, Horowitz changed the subject to science. He described his techniques, and patiently answered questions that were not always good. The questions would continue back at the offices, where