The ProsenPeople

A Bite of the Apple

Friday, January 01, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bruce J. Hillman shared the story behind writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein and why Jewish doctors make great writers. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I know it’s unwholesome, but I am obsessed with the idea of an afterlife. It’s not something I think about every day or even once a week, but it is always is out there, residing on the edge of consciousness— “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchhill said. Unknowable. Untestable. Alien to my life as a scientist.

About ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled, “What Comes Next?” about a man who awakens in total darkness. He neither sees nor senses touch but intuits that he is confined in a very narrow space. Dimly at first, but with increasing clarity, he hears a mélange of recognizable voices—his rabbi, his wife, business partners, an illicit lover—relating perspectives that reflect the successes and failings of his life. Realizing that he is listening in on his own memorial service, he comes to believe that he lies at the doorstep of the afterlife. Per the title, he wonders what comes next? His mind runs wild with possibilities. In the end, however, the brief episode of postmortem consciousness turns out to be nothing more than a final pulse of neurotransmitters that, once exhausted, leaves nothing but darkness.

The doyens of my writing critique group uniformly panned “What Comes Next?” as unnecessarily morbid and pessimistic. No one, they predicted, would publish such a story. Their prophesies proved accurate. After having the story rejected by several obscure literary journals, I interred it in my electronic files, never, until now, to be dragged out and reconsidered.

So why did I dig this hoary chestnut from its cyber-resting place now? Recently, I sat with my wife Pam, her children and grandchildren, in a steeply canted university auditorium and listened to a performance of Messiah. Handel tends to get all the credit for this remarkable creation. However, the power of Handel’s music is abetted by the prophetic Old Testament passages chosen by Handel’s collaborator, Charles Jennens. Jennens’ selections complement handles soaring music to accentuate the central theme of Messiah—the coming of the Messiah, rebirth, and eternal life.

Like many Jews, I have had little instruction in these matters. Raised in a Conservative Jewish family, the conversations I heard at home and in synagogue were about this life. The emphasis was on living a good and righteous existence for its own sake with neither the promise of heavenly reward nor the threat of eternal punishment.

Absorbed in the music and following Jennens’ libretto along with the choir, sufficiently absorbed by consciousness that I could suspend my usual disbelief. I asked myself: Why not an afterlife? If, in fact, there is a God, and He is active in the world, and He is truly omnipotent, as believers say, was there any reason to doubt that He could orchestrate even the most fantastical events: arranging for a leap to heaven for an overnight stay, dispatching an angel with new dictates inscribed on golden tablets, directing history towards a colossal end of times battle between good and evil…why not any of these? For that matter, why not all? Who can know the mind of God? Who can imagine the enormity of his plan?

The leap to faith in an activist God is the big bite of the apple. Once that chasm is crossed, fathoming an existence beyond our world of the senses is nothing more than a nibble.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care.

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The Jewish Physician as Author

Wednesday, December 30, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bruce J. Hillman shared the story behind writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In his autobiography, William Carlos Williams, the partly Jewish American physician and poet largely responsible for rethinking how we define poetry, asked himself rhetorically: “How do you do it? How can you carry on an active business… and at the same time find time to write?”

“One occupation, complements the other,” he explained. “They are two parts of a whole… that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”

Williams was verbalizing what many Jewish physicians have experienced over the centuries. From the Hellenic Jewish physician, Luke—whom some credit with writing the eponymous New Testament Gospel— to the many contemporary Jewish physicians who write because some inner voice tells them they must, medical doctors have found the energy to both pursue busy practices and write and publish literary works.

I count myself among them. As a Jew, a university physician, and a commercially published author, I benefit not only from the respite writing provides but from how my two interests proceed in parallel, each informing the other. A thoughtful physician is not simply a student of health and disease. His experiences practicing medicine teach him to think beyond his five senses to arrive at new insights that can inform the thoughts and actions of his literary characters. In turn, putting words to a page clarifies his thinking and enhances his empathy for the human condition, benefitting both himself and his patients.

My Jewish upbringing and my training as a physician powerfully influence what I choose to write about and how I execute my thoughts. My first effort at creative nonfiction, The Man Who Stalked Einsteintells the true story of Philipp Lenard, a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose jealousy of Albert Einstein’s popularity, fear of being rendered inconsequential by Einstein’s new physics, and rabid anti-Semitism led to his hounding Einstein out of Germany and spearheading the dismissal of Jewish professors from German universities.

My second book, tentatively titled A Plague on All Our Houses, is to be released by ForeEdge Press in the fall of 2016. Plague follows the medical career of Dr. Michael Gottlieb from 1981—when he discovered the deadly new disease, AIDS—through 1987, when a Job-like confluence of adversities forced him from academic practice. Gottlieb’s early medical celebrity, caring for the AIDS-afflicted Rock Hudson, and co-founding amfAR with Elizabeth Taylor brought him into conflict with his immediate superiors and put him at odds with the ruling conservatism of that era. As such, the book is an instructive tale of envy, ambition, and the perils of fighting a powerful system.

Writing and medical practice. It is not a question of choosing between one or the other. Those who hear the call, must choose to pursue both.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care.

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Writing 'The Man Who Stalked Einstein'

Monday, December 28, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Bruce J. Hillman shares the story behind his first non-medical book, The Man Who Stalked Einstein: How Nazi Scientist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

 

A glance at my photograph is enough to tell you that I am not your typical first-time author. I have enjoyed a 40-year career as an academic physician. Much of that career was devoted to writing and editing scientific and medical manuscripts. Nonetheless, I wished for an opportunity to express myself more creatively than the strictures of scientific writing and publication allow. About 10 years ago, a small group of university women invited me into their monthly writing critique group. Kindly but firmly, they set me on the path to writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein.

I came upon the history that underpins The Man Who Stalked Einstein serendipitously. While sifting through a list of references on an unrelated topic, my attention was drawn to the citation for a 1946 medical journal article about an American military doctor’s interviews of a Nazi war criminal named Philipp Lenard. Researching online, I found that Lenard and Einstein had, for many years, engaged in a dangerously antagonistic relationship that had been referenced in other works but never examined in detail.

A chance phone call to a prospective agent (one of eighty or so inquiries I made seeking representation for a novel I had written; the still unpublished manuscript resides on the hard disk of my computer) led to my reorienting my writing priorities. I would become a writer of creative non-fiction. My new agent, Claire Gerus, instructed me in writing a proposal, sounded out the interest of a number of publishers, and ultimately secured an agreement and an advance for Einstein with Lyons Press.

I began to conduct research on the book in earnest. As it turned out, Lenard initially had been gratified by Einstein’s crediting him as an important influence on his early work. Over time, however, Einstein’s theoretical approach to physics came into conflict with Lenard’s traditional experimentalism. In the fall of 1920, at the first meeting of German scientists following the Great War, the scientific dispute between the Nobel Prize-winning Lenard and the seventeen years younger Einstein turned ugly. Envious of Einstein’s popularity and angry over the desertion of German physicists to Einstein’s camp, Lenard sought to debunk the theory of relativity and defame Einstein as a charlatan. He turned what was supposed to be an open debate on the theory of relativity into a mano a mano showdown gauged to depict Einstein as a cynically calculated fraud. High noon on a cosmic scale.

To this point in time, Lenard had scantily clad his repugnance for Einstein in the trappings of scientific rigor. Following ‘die Einsteindebatte,’ Lenard dropped all pretenses. His vitriolic anti-Semitic rants personified Einstein as “the Jew” and did more than their fair share to alter the once very positive popular view of Einstein. In 1933, en route back to Germany from a sabbatical at Cal Tech, Einstein got wind of invasions of his homes in Berlin and Caputh. Learning that a price had been put on his head, he resigned his German citizenship and returned to the US. Upon Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, Lenard and his younger acolyte Johannes Stark spearheaded the dismissal of Jewish scientists from German universities, prompting the scientific diaspora to Germany’s future enemies that continues to influence international scientific leadership to the present day.

How Lenard became radicalized in his anti-Semitic beliefs, hounded Einstein in his writings and speeches, and became the touchstone for what was acceptable science during the early years of the Third Reich is a cautionary tale about the spoiled fruits of envy and prejudice with a satisfying and moral ending: Albert Einstein was Time’s “Man of the 20th Century,” while Lenard has been consigned to the historical dustbin.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care. The Man Who Stalked Einstein is his first non-medical book.

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