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Britton Chance – A Man To Be Proud Of

Steve Miller / Rytallix Technologies Inc.

19 September 2011

It was with much sadness that I learned of Britton's passing, and despite his impressive age, also much shock – it was just so hard to believe that such a towering figure of science, life and achievement was now gone. Over the years, I had always periodically checked the internet and the journals to see what he was working on, and I guess I had always expected him to somehow simply go on forever. I had joked to myself, that if there was some secret of immortality lurking within the laws of biochemistry then maybe he had found it and was keeping it to himself. While in reality all lifetimes are necessarily finite, his was nevertheless a charmed and truly remarkable one: few people ever have such a long and fulfilling life and career, following their deepest interests and passions, doing exactly what they want to do each day; and having such an impact not only on human knowledge but in influencing and inspiring others too. It is a truly remarkable legacy that goes beyond just the difficult ground-breaking work completed beautifully and the hundreds upon hundreds of papers with his name on them spanning many decades.

When I came to Philadelphia in the summer of 1994, I had pretty much lost any definite sense of direction of what to do next and motivation in general was flagging. I had acquired an honors degree in mathematical physics and a PhD in applied math and bioengineering. I sent off a few letters with resumes but received only one with a definite offer–from the Johnson Foundation of the University of Pennsylvania. It was a long trip via the only connecting flights available: from Glasgow to Boston to Detroit then back to Philadelphia from Detroit through a humid summer thunderstorm. I was somewhat nervous about initially meeting the distinguished and accomplished professor from the distinguished east-coast university, thinking he might perhaps be somewhat pompous or overly elitist and formal. It was a relief therefore to be met by a down-to-earth guy in an old shirt and baseball cap, with some white stubble, who could easily have passed for a midwest farmer.

Despite all my formal education I quickly became aware that, with him as a mentor, some weaknesses and inadequacies in my training, knowledge and experience were becoming all too apparent. Having said that, he was also quick to offer credit, direction and encouragement. Although he could be very critical or difficult and demanding one could always talk to him on equal terms. He was an ego at times, and it goes without saying that he could think with power and precision, but if you felt something could not work or his idea was wrong then you could argue with him or tell him straight. As a scientist he had total academic integrity and he was very much a gentleman. It also has to be said that he had a wry wit and subtle sense of humor too. On a few occasions he made remarks that had me laughing on and off for days.

Although there were some challenging times for me personally in Philadelphia, I have many fond memories of being at the Johnson: Brit cycling along the path to or from the Richard's Building or in his office holding up glass slides to the morning light; in the Johnson library, eating Chinese food bought from one of the campus trucks; having a lot of smart and positive people to talk to; working throughout the night with rain hitting the windows and going for coffee and breakfast at sunup; and just reading and photocopying endless journal articles and books and studying. And many will remembers Brit's infamous Saturday morning seminars, which I usually woke myself up for with a lot of nut-flavored coffee from the nearby 7/11. I learned later that a 6-day week was a wartime work schedule for scientists during WW2, so maybe that was a throwback to his MIT Radiation Lab days.

After a year, I came to the conclusion that biomedical optics/photonics was not really my thing and that given my way of doing things, I realized that I was really better suited to other fields and new interests. He agreed. We had different styles which was not conducive to a long collaborative partnership. He always thought a lot of my work and ideas were "beautiful" but perhaps not particularly "useful". But it was my time at Penn and his guidance and criticism that enabled to see what my strengths and weaknesses actually were and what I should best focus on; which I then tried to do through the 90s and later, gravitating more towards math than science. I do know that I learned and grew a great deal that year. One life lesson I have learned from him is that getting older is no excuse to slow down or stop. And I always thought it was great the way he readily gave so many people an opportunity: generous with his funding, generous with his time, even offering the hospitality of his home to new arrivals.

Later, he was always delighted when I wrote and told him I had gotten something new published. I was almost like an excited child showing his grandfather a fish he just caught, even if it was not a particularly big one. He was always gracious and encouraging and lent his support. Every so often I wrote or emailed. I needed that positive-energy feedback and inspiration. I never had to justify what I was doing or why I was doing it or why it interested me--he was one of the few kindred spirits who knew where I was coming from. I always feel a positive energy when I think of him and he will always continue to inspire me, especially as I get older, as indeed I hope he will continue to inspire us all.

I heard a story that Brit once raced Ernest Hemingway in a boat race. Brit worked on as long as he could right to the end so a quote from Hemingway's the "Old Man And The Sea" seems fitting: "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated".

– Steve Miller