December 2, 2015

Dear Tom, this one’s for you,

Almost a year ago, Jan. 1, 2015, you sent me an email about my blog.

Here’s what you said about your writing:
“My similes, usually involving neutrinos or surface plasmons and the like, draw deservedly airless responses.”

Well….yea… I guess. I have no idea what a neutrino or a plasmon is. (I’m not even sure if my last sentence is grammatically correct.) So I looked them up. That was no help but I liked one of the illustrations in a neutrino entry.


It would make a great t-shirt — to bring neutrinos, either singular or plural, down to my level. My research took me deep into the NET and still I couldn’t figure out what I was reading. I wanted to show you how you can write about neutrinos and that other thing you mentioned because they are part of your life. I assume. And you’re funny.

So here you go. A Canadian, Arthur (Art) B. McDonald, along with Takaaki Kajita from Japan, jointly won The Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass”. The Nobel Prize website goes on: “neutrinos – elusive subatomic particles – change identities or ‘flavours’, and expand our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and the universe.” Hot Damn.

I’m still not sure what neutrino oscillations are but my father Eric* had an Oscilloscope on his workbench

As his Alzheimer’s progressed, Eric began to refer to the computer I’d installed in his bedroom as the oscilloscope. Good word substitution because I knew what Eric meant. As a child, I played with the oscilloscope and its wavy, pulsating green lines.


So you see, it is possible to work neutrinos into a piece of writing. Maybe not as a simile in my case because I still only partially understand what a neutrino is and I’d never use it to describe or enhance anything.

But one question remains. Tom what on earth do you do to have neutrinos and surface plasmons in your vocabulary?

*Thank you for the insightful note you sent when Eric passed away. I still look in the mirror at the strange configuration my hair takes on my forehead and think of you describing him “with that Superman curl”.

And in fact, to be perfectly honest, this has finally allowed me to work his oscilloscope and your Superman curl stories into my writing. He haunts me still.


  • gail says:

    Beautiful. Elegiac without being sentimental, with your typical light, witty touch. You could work anything into your writing.

  • Tom Ewart says:

    Actually it is your living legacy with TVO that expands our vocabularies with the words and concepts of physics, math, chemistry. I was taught physics 50 years ago, but much of what I now retain and understand of physics is owed to TVO. In one of my favorite scenes, Jim Al-Khalili OBE sits on the dirty floor of an immense abandoned factory leaning against a rusty beam and calculates on one page how visible matter is only 5% of the mass of the universe. The other 95% is dark matter and dark energy and explains the accelerated expansion of the universe. He points to a spec of dust floating in a shaft of light and says that is the size of an atomic nucleus relative to the shell of the factory as its surrounding electron cloud. This week, Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves from the beginning of the universe were confirmed by experiment. I can’t wait for that TVO episode.

    One property of neutrinos is that they can pass through the entire earth without making an impact on a single atom. Sometimes I feel that my life has been neutrino-like (simile I hope). A middling scientist with middling contributions, little beneficial impact if any, I would have to live thousands of years to have my cumulative work add up to just one of these fundamental discoveries of physics. But then I am not a neutrino, I am human and have had some beneficial encounters with the human world. Four surviving Canadian companies and some 2000 person years of high tech employment are one of my legacies.

    You see Barbara, you have had an impact on TVO and the ripples of it carry on today. It builds generation after generation. Great writing gives us greater understanding of everything. No schmaltz here, seriously, I am indebted to you as is every other TVO viewer. My children learned more and performed better, and I watch it more than any other station today. It is defense against senility.

    One of my best remembered and treasured encounters was with a Barbara of Beaver Lake. Of a Summer Saturday noon hour a small flotilla of teen male driven outboards would arrive at the Boyden dock hoping to persuade model Barbara to put on her bikini and go skiing. I know what happened to Brian from the signs of his Kawartha real estate enterprise. Of the lives of John and Terry I know nothing since 1962. Socially superior to all of us, self-confident and merely amused by the antics of boys, Barbara preferred to drive the boat and laugh at us, as I remember. How we tingled when chance brought us close to her. The sight and sweet natural scent of Barbara’s silken sun-warmed skin and fair hair so stupefied a 14 year old boy as to leave his brain and body to languish all Summer. I wish I could lose weight like that today.

    And of all the infinitesimal probabilities in this universe that Barbara kind of liked me. I lingered at the Boyden shore for untold hours. The other guys called out as they were leaving, “Come away Tom, you dad is going to be pissed! He wants the boat for fishing.” It did not register – – until my father arrived in my uncle’s boat to haul my shameful butt away. Those Summers my father referred to me as “the late Mr. Ewart” and he would use that on any occasion that I displeased him for the rest of his life. So the visceral and emotional memories of you have spanned my life too.

    That scope is a classic beauty. Never let it go. Today they are the size of a cell phone. With my aged eyes and fat shaky fingers I can neither see nor operate their tiny controls.

    Thank you Barbara!


  • Tom Ewart says:

    I should have answered your question about what I do. I develop medical diagnostic assays and instruments, genomic and proteomic microarrays and lately human 3D micro-organs-on-a-chip (e.g., placenta-on-a-chip) for drug discovery and testing.
    Surface plasmon resonance (SPR) was discovered by U of T Chemistry Professor John Polanyi, another Canadian Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry 1986). SPR is used in research and clinical diagnostic assays, GE Healthcare Biacore being best known. It’s advantage is that no label (like a radioisotope) is needed to detect biomolecules (cardiac troponin, Zika virions, etc.) with high sensitivity. It is well explained in Wikipedia.
    Most strange what happens in the mind once a pathway is re-excited. I have The Theme From A Summer Place with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, Percy Faith Orchestra, playing in my head like an infernal ear worm 🙂

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