Astronomy and lightning

Some memories are created by family myths. This story about my father, FDK, may be an example.

In the early 60s FDK spent a few months at the National Radio Astronomy Obervatory in Greenbank, West Virginia. An emissary from the Sterrewacht in Leiden came to Greenbank to give a seminar about Professor Jan Oort’s latest theories. Oort was probably the most distinguished astronomer of his generation. He was also said to be slightly high handed.

FDK had spent a year working under Oort in Leiden. After the seminar FDK was walking home, thinking that Oort had the habit of altering the universe to fit his theories rather than vice versa, when he was struck by lightning from a clear sky.

I was in the kitchen with my mother when I heard the thunder. At first I thought she had dropped several pans on the floor. A few minutes later FDK came into the house and told us what had happened. He didn’t seem to be hurt but I can remember the smell of the burn in his hair. [This detail seems unlikely. But then, so does the whole story.] FDK maintained that the lightning was ordered by Oort as a punishment for heretical thought.

Another Oort story. A PhD student of Oort’s had some kind of crisis and decided to go home. As a joke, a colleague suggested to Oort that he should call the ports and have the student arrested before they could leave the country. Oort thought for a moment, and then said “One can’t really do that, can one?”