This evening I spent an hour smooshed into a toilet paper roll as a fire engine, three jackhammers, and a shotgun popped off multiple rounds around my person. Or, as it is known in laymen terms, I had an MRI.
It has been a very long time since I had an MRI–probably well over twenty years. Great strides have been made in the imaging, but the racket? Fer crissakes, we can put men on the moon, a Rover on the surface of Mars, but the MRI still sounds like a 19th century textile factory floor on steroids.
I walked into the room where the machine emitted a background noise that sounded like a squeaky wiper blade brushing back and forth over a dry windshield. You could tell it was up to something. I would be hard pressed to prove it, but I think the thing smirked at some point when I was told that I would need to remain perfectly still as two sets of images were taken; one set with contrast dye and one set without.
I had forgotten to bring along a Led Zeppelin CD, so I opted for Johan Strauss. I liked the idea of listening to the waltz featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey as I participated in some state-of-the-art medical testing. Not that I could hear it.
– “Are you comfortable?”
+ “Yep. I’m good!”
– “Okay. Lie still now.”
ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! EEET! EEET! EEET! ZEEEEEEEE. ZEEEEEEEEEEEEE. rattle. rattle. ZIP. BURP. ping ping ping ping POP POP POP POP POP
– “Are you doing okay in there?”
– “Okay. The next series will take about 15 minutes.”
+ “Great . . .”
Johann did his best to augment the racket, but unless you were a guitar prodigy with a Fender Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall amp turned up to eleven you had little chance. The orchestra was defeated.
As I lay there relaxing inside the toilet paper roll, I started to think of a wonderful man that I had the great pleasure of meeting and with whom I chatted many times: Britton Chance. Dr. Chance was, in a word, brilliant. He was an Olympian who won the gold medal for sailing in the 1952 games. Dr. Chance held a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in biology and physiology from the University of Cambridge. At 17, he invented a feedback-controlled automatic steering equipment for marine vessels. During WWII, he pioneered radar systems that were adopted by allied forces and helped win the war. His obituary in the New York Times describes his scientific contributions much better than I can: “He created a series of instruments to measure and rapidly follow changes in the energy status of cell mitochondria, which take in nutrients and create energy for cells. His later work in magnetic resonance spectroscopy and near-infrared optics aided in the development of techniques for the analysis of muscle dynamics and tools to detect cancer tumors in muscles and breasts and to assess cognitive brain function.”
As I told him once, “You’re scary smart, Dr. Chance.” He chuckled.
My interactions with Dr. Chance concerned not his science, but his archives. And boy did he have archives! His storage room in the basement of the building in which he worked at the University of Pennsylvania was easily 600 ft³ of raw data, correspondence, publications, and slides and photographs. We chatted at great length about what he thought was particularly important, why he thought that the raw data collected could be tossed, and I teased out many details of his life.
He told me once that, while staying in a home in Germany, he had received explicit instructions that no one was to enter a particular locked closet. His family had full access to every nook and cranny of the house, except that closet. His children were young and, as children are wont to do, figured out a way to get into the one place that was verboten. The closet contained the man’s Nazi past: uniforms, publications, medals, et.al. I gasped and asked him what he did next. “I closed the door.”
In the midst of one of our conversations, I asked him what it felt like to have literally changed the world. He just smiled and changed the subject. “So, how will people find all of this when it’s in an archive?” I suppose he got that all of the time. No matter who you are, I imagine that can be a lot to take in.
I in no way knew Dr. Chance beyond our business interactions–and in no way do I wish to assert that I did–but he was always kind and affable when we spoke. He was a gentleman and had a flirtatious side, but in no way offensive or inappropriate. I always looked forward to speaking with him. When I had an appointment with Dr. Chance I always had a little more pep in my step. And I always learned something new when we spoke. For me he was absolutely unforgettable. When I learned that he died in 2010 at 97 years of age, I was sad and I shed some tears for him.
EEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRP.ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRP. ZING.ZING. ZING. POP. POP. POP. POP. ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! EEET! EEET! EEET! ZEEEEEEEE. ZEEEEEEEEEEEEE. rattle. rattle. ZIP. BURP. ping ping ping ping POP POP POP POP POP
As I laid there surrounded by a cacophony of hardware insanity, I thought a lot about Dr. Chance and his pioneering work in magnetic resonance imaging. How he focused on the detection of tumors in the breast. And I got a little weepy.
+ “Thanks, Dr. Chance.”
– “What was that?”
+ “I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud.”
But seriously, thanks, Dr. Chance. Thanks very much.