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Encounters with BC

Irving Bigio/ Boston University

23 June 2011

My first encounter with BC:

Around 1992, when I was still working at Los Alamos, I had started developing the concepts of elastic scattering spectroscopy (ESS) for tissue diagnostics (running Mie theory calculations for organelles of different sizes and making numerous assumptions about tissue optical properties). Being new to the field of biomedical optics, I wanted the opinions of leaders in the field, and since I was planning a business trip to Washington DC, I hoped to make a stop in Philadelphia and pay a short visit to Brit. So I called, introduced myself and asked if I could visit. He was immediately welcoming: “Sure. Come on over.”

A couple of weeks later, I arrived at the Philadelphia airport, foolishly rented a car, called BC’s secretary and told her I would be at campus in a half hour. Having grossly underestimated big city traffic, I reached the designated parking structure at Penn 45 minutes late. Walking towards Brit’s building, along one of the broad walkways in the central Penn campus, I saw an elderly gentleman riding an old bicycle. He noticed me, rode straight up to me and stopped. I immediately recognized BC. “You must be Irv. I thought you might be lost on campus, so I decided to look for you,” he declared.

Somewhat startled, I replied: “Yes, and I know you are Professor Chance, because I’ve seen you speak at conferences, but how did you recognize me?”

“You just came from Washington. Who else would be wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase on campus?” was the response, with a sly smile. Fortunately, over coffee in his “office” that afternoon, BC was highly encouraging about my ideas, and urged me to move forward with animal/clinical studies as fast as possible. (Of course, he asked about scattering from mitochondria.) That encouragement was a key factor in my decision to move from pure physics into interdisciplinary biomedical research.

A few years later (late 1996):

By then we had built a couple of our early ESS systems and had reported our first clinical studies. BC invited me to visit for a few days, to do some animal measurements and to see if we could set up some collaborative clinical studies at Penn with the breast surgery people. I arrived (without a rental car and not wearing a suit) and brought our ESS system in a wheeled carryon. At that time Nimmi Ramanujam was in BC’s lab as a postdoc, and she worked with me on the animal measurements.

During the two days I was there I stayed as a guest at BC’s house. (Shoko is an amazing cook!) On the first morning, I woke up at about 5 AM (needing to pee) and headed in my pajamas from the guest room down the hallway toward the bathroom. BC’s study was off that hallway, and the door was open. Strange buzzing and humming sounds emanated from the room. When I crossed in front of the door, BC chimed out, “Good morning Irv. Come on in.” I walked in, looked around and was enthralled. Hanging from the ceiling were several models for racing-sloop hull designs, sleek and elegant works of art (and naval engineering). Sitting on the table, however, were two, small complex instruments that I could not identify. These were intricately machined contraptions with various brass wheels, arms and levers, connected by coil springs and other things, each device siting on a finely polished wood stand, with an engraved brass plaque proclaiming it to be a gift to Professor Britton Chance. If my memory serves me - someone please correct me, as needed – one was from the King of Norway and the other from the Prime Minister (or Emperor?!) of Japan. I examined them carefully, but remained baffled as to their function. BC enjoyed explaining to me that they were Morse-code key pads, designed to allow very fast signaling, tapping with the hand piece (both up and down ?) with minimal effort and without bouncing. Again, works of art, especially for their mechanical engineering. The funny sounds, it turned out, were from BC’s ham radio equipment. Evidently, BC’s morning ritual was to get up early, check on the weather reports for the Eastern seaboard and Caribbean, and send out radio messages to sailors in those areas to warn them about impending storms. So, sailing was, for Brit, a passion not only for his personal enjoyment.

Ever since the first encounter, on subsequent crossings of paths Brit and I would greet each other with a hug. It just seemed the natural thing to do. Over the years every encounter was a learning experience for me because I was always amazed at Brit’s uncanny ability to have highly disparate fields inform each other; and while he had little tolerance for shallow thinking, he always encouraged risk taking. BC was clearly one of those rare people who, when they leave this world, it is a better place for his having been in it.

– Irving Bigio