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WAMC Bids Farewell To Essayist David Nightingale

David Nightingale
Courtesy of David Nightingale
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A valuable part of the WAMC family is saying goodbye after more than two decades. About once a month on Sunday Midday Magazine since 1999, David Nightingale has been offering essays on the sciences, culture, philosophy and his own experiences. 

Nightingale is professor emeritus of physics at SUNY New Paltz, where he taught for 31 years. He turns 85 this year.

How did you first come to WAMC?

Yeah. That is interesting, to me. Anyway, I wrote an essay. You remember in the millennium, 2000, there was a lot of fuss about possibly banks failing and nuclear things failing and so on, and so on.

Y2K? Yeah.

Y2K. And I thought, that's not really making sense. And I wrote an essay, and I gave it to a friend and the friend said, why don't you send it to WAMC? And I said, well, I don't think they'd be interested. I sent it anyway and I quickly got an email reply back from Susan Arbetter. And she said, we like the essay, will you come up and read it, please. And I said, well, I'm afraid I can’t, because I don't have the right accent. So if somebody up there could read it, for me, that'd be fine by me. And she wrote back and she said, no, people who contribute have to read their own stuff. So he gave me the directions, I came up to Central Avenue, and I read it. And amazingly, it seemed to have seemed to resonate with a few people. And there was a nice little bit of feedback. So that was how it started.

For people who haven't heard all of your essays over the years, where are you from originally?

Originally is not very interesting. My parents were working in South Africa so I came back to England, they were English, when I was 2 years old, so I really don't even remember that. But I grew up in UK in the south of England and the Kent and Sussex area, Kent and Sussex border. And then I went to university at in Scotland at the ancient University of St. Andrews founded in 1411.

You've also written for us about your time in Turkey. How did you wind up there?

Oh, well, I was in England then and Scotland, until I was about 24, approaching 25. And then I saw an ad in London newspaper that if people wanted to teach science and math and English in the Middle East that Turkey was offering a decent salary and all travel and so on. And basically I thought, well, this is very interesting. So I went to do that. And I spent three years in Turkey and thoroughly enjoyed it. And then so by the time I came back from Turkey, I was I was nearly 28, and that's when I came to America.

How did you catch on at SUNY New Paltz?

Oh, luck, a lot of luck. I had my bachelor's degree in maths and physics, and I had a graduate diploma from London University in optics, actually. And that was, that was OK. But I had never done a PhD. When I was teaching in Turkey, I had a couple of nice American friends, one from Oak Ridge National Lab, and I asked him, I said, do you think I'd be able to get a job in America teaching? He said, I'm sure you would but you probably need to work on a PhD. And so I came to America in 1964 carrying my heavy duffle coat on the hottest day of September, wearing it, actually. And then I went to the Institute of Physics to see what jobs were available and stroke of luck. So I had no idea where New Paltz was, but I saw it was about 70 miles north of New York City, and got the bus up. And I said, repeating myself, I was very lucky. I was hired immediately at SUNY New Paltz.

Did you think that you would stay this long in the U.S.?

No. In my late 20s there, I was still enamored of traveling and I remember sitting in my office in New Paltz thinking, OK, I'll give us a maximum of five years. Well, so here I am, 56 years later.

I only really know you from your essays. You know, I hear them before they air. That's a privilege of this job. It seems to me you've always had a curiosity and an inquisitive mind about questions that we don't necessarily know the answer to. What drew you to science in the first place?

Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Let me just go back a second but those early essays that she wrote to me again, she said she'd like me to do maybe one a week and I was extremely flattered. But I said, I don't think I can do that. But do you want me to do essays on scientists? And she said, no, you can write about anything you want. So I'm looking at my list of my 1999 essays, the millennium one, Einstein's birthday, Primo Levi the chemist, Hubble, Roebling, the engineer. And then I did one on Lake George, which had nothing to do with science whatsoever, because I love it up there. And the one on Herschel. So because she said I could write about anything, that's exactly what I did.

What were some of your favorite topics to explore?

Well, I really did enjoy writing about scientists in general, because in teaching physics, I looked at the work, and the equations and so on and so on, but I hadn't really looked at their lives. When I got to look at, for example, the chemist Primo Levi, and learn that he was in Auschwitz, a brilliant Italian writer, he managed to, at the end of the war, managed to escape or managed to leave. And then Herschel, Wilhelm Herschel, the German astronomer, I had never heard his beautiful oboe music. He was a musician for the first half of his life. And the more I read about this, the more I was really enjoying looking up some of these people. And I just wanted to mention that Herschel one, it was Susan Arbetter, who mixed in the music of the astronomer Herschel. And she did a beautiful job. Actually, on the table here is the Sir William Herschel: Music by the Father of Modern Astronomy, Richard Woodhams solo oboe, and I like to listen to that one occasion because it gives me great pleasure what a good job she did mixing in the music.

Did you look at your role with us at WAMC as continuing your role as a teacher or a professor after you had retired from teaching?

Well, I didn't go into it thinking that directly. But I realized after a few essays that that was actually what I was doing. Continuing teaching. Yes.

A lot of people have noticed that science is under attack in the United States today. We debate things that are settled fact, at least in politics. What do you think about the current role of science in our public discourse?

Well, it really saddens me, you know, to have spent basically my whole life amongst physicists, and mathematicians. It's been sort of not exactly a surprise, but a depressing thing that so many people are anti-science. Actually, one of my later essays was on that. And I would actually fault, sorry, but I would fault this administration very strongly for being so not really interested in science. And I don't like how they can criticize an excellent scientist like for example, Dr. Fauci. Sometimes when I when I was working at SUNY as a physics professor, we occasionally I'd meet a stranger and they say, what do you do? And I said, well, I teach physics. And they would always pull a long face, or nearly always. Yech, they would say, and it's strange, because I always found physics to be so interesting. Absolutely. And I really wasn't any good at other things like history and philosophy and so on, languages. Physics was my thing.

Quick back of the napkin math here says that you've probably done over 320 essays for us over the years. And now you've decided to stop. How come you reached that decision?

Yeah. Glad you asked that question. In December, I'll be turning 85 and we all know, we all have to realize that things go wrong when one's 80. So for myself, I've found that I, my energy level is very low now. And I used to love walking, I used to lead walks for the Mohonk Preserve. And I don't walk any such long distances now. I get tired too easily. The other thing is, other things are breaking down. For example, my hearing is not good. I have to have a hearing aid. And my sense of balance is not good either. Which is a real nuisance. So I think I was just thinking, well, time is up. One can’t go on forever. And I would really appreciate hearing some younger people, younger essays, some commentators and listening to them.

Well, David Nightingale, I just want to say, I have the power to do this in my role, that the slot will always be there for you. And if the mood strikes you and you've got an essay that you just want to share, we'll hold a spot for you as long as you want us to. But in the meantime, congratulations on 21 years of volunteering for WAMC and bringing so much richness to our weekend broadcasts. I can't thank you enough for it.

Well, thank you very much, Ian. That’s very kind, and I should also thank, over the years, I had a lot of interaction with Brian Shields, Katie Britton, and Susan Arbetter I'd mentioned, and it's all been very pleasant. So thank you very much.

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