Rafi Blumenfeld: The Other Resumè
Extracurricular interests: Volleyball, Chess, Backgammon, Tennis, Swimming, Bridge
Volleyball miscellaneous achievements out of Israel:
- 1976-81 Chess player for "Hapoel Ramat-Gan" club, division 3, Israel. Ranking 1900.
- 1978-89 Semi-professional Volleyball player in several premier and 1st division clubs, Israel (sampling altogether four clubs was a salary-induced process).
- 1989-92 Head coach of the Men's Volleyball Varsity team of Cambridge University, England.
- 1989-92 Volleyball player for the Cambridge National League's 3rd division Men's team (The team never really bothered to try to make it to a higher division, in fact we declined when we managed in 91).
- 1990-91 Head coach of both the Men's and Women's Volleyball Varsity teams of Cambridge University.
- 1997-2000 Volleyball player for the Cambridge NVL Men's team.
- 2001-2002 Volleyball player for the Cambridge EVL Men's team.
- 1993 - Champions, the Santa Fe annual Three - Men Volleyball tournament (the prize money was not negligible relative to my salary then)
- 1993 - Champions, Princeton University Winter Volleyball Intramural games
- 1993 - Champions, Princeton University Summer Volleyball Intramural games
- 1994 - Champions, Santa Cruz CoEd Volleyball League with a Los Alamos team
- 1994 - Champions, Espanola CoEd Volleyball League with the same team
- 1995 - Champions, Los Alamos YMCA CoEd Volleyball League (another team)
- 1996 - Champions, Princeton University Summer Volleyball Intramural games
- 1996 - Champions, Heightstown YMCA BB Volleyball League
- 1998 - Champions, Cambridge Men's East Anglia Volleyball Regional League
- 1998 - Grand Prix points: Received points in the top UK Grand Prix Tournament (i.e., managed to be on the top best 16 teams in the UK if only for a fleeting period, but hey, most players on the tour were twenty years my juniors!)
- 1998/9 - Champions, (with Cambridge Volleyball Club) of the EVL Premier Men League
- 1998/9 - Cup holders (with Cambridge Volleyball Club) of the EVL Premier Men League
- 1999 - Champions in two coed tournaments
- 2000 - Champions, Ashcombe tournament, Div I Mixed 6-a-side
- 2003 - Retired from volleyball (quite an achievement of will power)
- 2004 - Called to the flag for the annual Cambridge volleyball tournament. Our team, Cambridge Old Boys, won (controversially, I must say) the Div 3 championship
- 2002 - Champions of the LTA Men's doubles league division 6 with Girton Tennis Club
- 2003 - Captained and won the LTA Men's doubles league division 5 with Girton Tennis Club
Anecdotes, name-dropping, just so stories
When I was 3 Danny Kaye visited Israel and my parents took me to the airport to see this idol of theirs getting off the plane. My mom tells that I stood at DK's feet vigorously pulling at his trousers and yelling (in Hebrew, of course) "I want to see Danny Kaye, I want to see Danny Kaye". The folklore then goes that he picked me up in his arms and gave me a big hug and a kiss. Since my parents did not possess a camera at the time and DK is smelling the roses from underneath it is not too easy to confirm this story.
At the ages of 16 and 17 I captured, for two years in a row, the Givataim regional championship in high jump. I later went on to set an all-time new record for a variation of the high jump competition at the pilot cadet course in the Israeli Defence Force (which never helped me in the flying business; I dropped from the course after excruciating 14 months).
After finishing the military service I went wholeheartedly into chess practice and was visiting daily a somewhat disreputable chess club in Tel Aviv. That club enjoyed the attendance of very colourful characters, most of whom real chess-bums, whose stories could fill a volume. One character I came to know was a quiet chap named Yakir who was also almost a daily visitor trying to imrove his game. I even played with him a few times. It was during that time that I became interested in physics and one of the few names I managed to pick up was that of a supposedly bright star at Tel Aviv University, one professor Aharonov. One day I found out that that Aharonov would be giving an open lecture on quantum mechanics at the University. I arrived about twenty minutes before the lecture to be sure of a good seat, namely, one in the middle and by the isle to allow a good view and the option to sneak out unnoticable if the business got too boring. After about ten minutes of warming up my seat I suddenly saw that Yakir from the chess club strolling in and starting down towards the front rows. I enthusiasticaly hailed him over and asked "Hey, I did not realise that you are also interested in all this?" He looked at me with a hint of a smile, which I could not decipher at the time, said "Yes, to some extent" and, after exchanging some more pleasantries, continued down the isle to the very front row. I vividly remember thinking that this was rather optimistic of him, given the highly likely possibility that he may find the talk uninteresting or way over his head. In any case, the host, one Professor Gotsman, (Actually the person who later on triggered the chain of events that eventually led me to choosing condensed matter physics as my field, but that's a different story) got up to introduce the speaker and made quite an issue of his achievements, increasing my admiration to that idol physicist whom I was growing anxious to set eyes on.
You can imagine the pain in my jaw as it hit the floor when my chess-bum colleague got up to the microphone and started delivering his talk.
Yakir remembered that incident, not entirely unfavourably, when I later became a physics undergraduate.
1985 - Appearance in the Israeli Volleyball Cup Final with "Elitzur Tel Aviv", a first-division team. We ended Runner Up. I played small middle blocker.
Benoit B. Mandelbrot:
1987 - From beginning of February to end of June I was a visiting research scientist with Benoit B. Mandelbrot at IBM Yorktown Heights on funding that came from Harvard. My job was to try to quantify the concept of lacunarity of fractals in general and of Lèvy flights in particular. One Friday my wife and I were invited to the Mandelbrots for dinner. The weather turned out to be quite stormy and it was pouring heavily. We reached their place with a huge old Chevrolet Malibu (there is another story related to this car, which was my advisor's, how it died on me and my desparate, but fruitless, attempts at resurrecting it lest I get into trouble with him) and found that to get to the parking place we needed to drive along a path that traversed a neatly arranged lawn. Dinner was a very pleasant event with Benoit and his charming wife, Aliette, full of delightful stories and intriguing anecdotes on anything and everything. At around 10 or 11pm we turned to go. We bid good night to our hosts, got into the Malibu, and realising that the car is too big for turning around safely, I started to drive in reverse gear back to the gate. Here things started to go wrong: The night was pitch dark by then and the rear lights had no hope of coping with the heavy rain screen and reveal what lay behind. Having to guess the way, I suddenly found out, to my horror, that I was driving on the lawn, which I remembered as rather well formed when we had come. To add to my rapidly mounting misery, the heavy rain turned the lawn into a very slippery landscape that easily overcame the car's traction. After a few minutes of the wheels spinning in vain and sounding like a dentist's drill and the Malibu's old engine trying to imitate an elephant's mating cry, I managed to disengage the car from the (in retrospect) already-not-too-neat lawn and we drove (across the lawn, of course) outside the gate and home.
The next Monday Benoit came and said that they spent the entire weekend trying to flatten their lawn back to its original form. The panick attack that I sustained remained with me until I went back home to Israel. I was sure that if ever Benoit advertised for a research assistant he would specify "all candidates considered except Rafi Blumenfeld". Years later I found out that he did not take it as gravely as I did and he is now one of my references whenever I need to apply for something or somewhere. In fact, Benoit told me he was surprised to find out that I did not mention him as a reference when I finished my graduate studies and started applying for a postdoctoral position. The fact was I thought that as a reference he would make sure that I would not be in a position to harm innocent professors unfamiliar with the destructive Blumenfeld phenomenon.
Sir Sam F. Edwards:
1989 - Professor Sir Sam F. Edwards was the Cavendish Professor and the head of the TCM (Theory of Condensed Matter) group when I arrived as a fresh postdoctoral Research associate to that famous group. He did not waste much time before he summoned me to his office in order to explain to me some facts of life. "First," he said "there are no prima-donna's here." "Right," I thought to myself, going in my mind over the TCM roster: Brian Josephson, Robin Ball, Mike Cates, Mark Warner, Volker Heine, Mike Payne, and a few others, not exactly your everyday meek give-the-other-cheek bunch of scientists. But he meant something else, namely, what he perceived a good theoretical physicist should be interested in and how he/she should choose the problems to work on. His view was somewhat novel to me at the time and seemed to make sense. Essentially, he believed that there are plenty of problems out there that a theoretical physicist can find, not only interesting, but also a challenge to tackle. "The most difficult ones," he claimed "are in fact some that are crucial to industrial applications and to technological progress." As examples he gave flow of granular substances and polymeric materials. These problems are much more complex than supersymmetry formulation or a gedanken spherical-cow model, he said. In retrospect, it does seem that in the name of scientific freedom, theoreticians sometimes tend to fall back on models that are readily formulated with tools that they altready have, rather than responding to the challenge posed by difficult problems per se. Sam's Prima-Donna would rather invent a beautiful Ising model then touch a `dirty' industrial problem. In the course of half an hour of that lecture he managed to make me acutely alert to this issue, and to this day I think about that lecture when approaching a scientific problem. Whether I am cured of Prima-Donna-ness I don't know -- I would like to think so. In any case, that lecture may have marked some sort of transition from an innocent fresh physics Ph.D. to a
real research scientist. At least I think so now. Later I discovered that that particular lecture (I got quite a few during the three years that I spent in the TCM, most of which I enjoyed and learned from, one or two, however, came as a rebound from lunch arguments between Sam and Professor Sir Michael Pippard on what is good science) was in fact a prelude to something else that Sam had in mind for me. A couple of days later he suggested that I look at a problem that he had started to work on with a collaborator. It took me the good part of a few weeks to go over his notes, which, I eventually decided, merely formulated the problem. Nevertheless, I found that I did not know how to solve the damned thing. In frustration, I returned to Sir Sam with my notes, meekly confessing my lack of success and begging to know how he had approached it. "Oh," he said "I have no clue. I just know that what most people do currently won't hold water and I thought you may come up with a good idea." All in all, Sir Sam was a good educator that had exactly the attitude that physicists need nowadays. Between him and Dr. Robin Ball (now there is a physicist to write a couple of stories about, which will be done one of these days), I got quite a few ideas about how to choose and attack physical problems.
1990 - Head coach for Bronze-medal-winning Cambridge University Men's Varsity team in the annual British-Universities-Sports-Federation Volleyball Tournament. This was Cambridge's first and last medal in volleyball since they entered this tournament in the early twenties and due to this achievement, and with the strong support of that team's captain, Peter Duesing, I was awarded the Cambridge University Half-Blue scarf. (For the non-British, this is something like the American leather jacket tradition).
Incidentally, Peter's link also contains pictures that were taken after we won the varsity games against Oxford in 1990 and 1991. It is not diffficult to recognise me among all my tall and young players.
1991 - Weymouth, UK. A win in the Beach-Volleybal doubles Grand-Prix tournament with a German partner, Till Pfleiderer, over the then British champions (they had just returned from representing the UK in Brazil and were unprepared for an ambitious Israeli-German collaboration).
Professor Sir Nevil F. Mott:
1992 - One day, on my way to the Cavendish cafeteria for lunch, Professor Sir Nevil Mott (Nobel Laureate, quite a few of them to be found at the Cavendish cafeteria, with the good and the bad implications of this) caught my arm telling me that Trinity College Dublin are looking for a condensed matter theorist and would I like him to recommend me. Ignoramous Blumenfeld asked
"Never heard of the place; are they any good?" He looked at me kindly, cocking his head to one side in a typical gesture and, mildly inspecting the not-so-clean ceiling, said "It is not a place without reputation", going on to tell me, with a touch of mischief in his eyes, about Schrödinger's adventures while there. Needless to say, I never got that job.
Personal Obituary (August 1996)
It is the second week of August, 1996 and I must include here a serious paragraph.
It was just brought to my knowledge that Sir Nevill F. Mott passed away on August 8.
It is a great loss to the scientific community and to me personally.
To me he epitomised the ideal of a scientist. Someone to truely look up to and try
to follow. He was a great person both as a scientist and a human being.
When discussing a physics problem he would always listen carefully, regardless of
who you were, let you finish and would usually retort kindly, and illuminatingly.
If he thought you had made a mistake, or displayed some ignorance, he would never
point it out as a such. Rather, he would ask you quietly, almost apologetically,
to please explain a particular observation, which would immediately bring the
problem with your view to the fore. Our first of several meetings may shed some
light on his personality. It was 1990, less than a year after I came to the
Cavendish, and I was working on relations between XY spin systems and
high-temperature supeconductivity with Prof. Naeem Jan, who happened to be on
sabatical there at the time. One day I received a note from Sir Nevill's secretary
saying that he had learnt about our work and could we please come to his office on
either of three particular dates to discuss it. Naeem ducked elegantly, claiming he
had to fly back to Canada in a couple of days and that, friendship, loyalty and all
that notwithstanding, against Mott I am on my own. You see, we were sure he was
going to bust our bubble of a new picture of superconductivity in no time. So it was
with shaky legs and a heavy heart that I braved the lion's den on one of those dates.
Sir Nevill received me in his usual kind manner, which sparked my admiration to him
there and then. He was crystal clear and as far from senility as I was
(maybe further, in fact), not a little feat given that he was 84 years old.
We talked about the problem and our (actually) different views of the issue
(He believed bipolarons to be the charge carriers, I did not. It seems that we
were both off the mark) for about two hours. Around lunch time he announced that
he needed to go to lunch at his College, Caius, which I took as a dismissal, but
then he asked me to join him. I gladly accepted and off we were in his car, which
he drove remarkably well, and not because he sensed my apprehension as we had
enetered it with him at the steering wheel. In the car he went on to discuss
religion with me, knowing that I am from Israel, and told me about his getting
closer to christianity in his old age and that he was preparing a book on religious
scientists. I remember reflecting at the time how uniquely he practices his belief,
being as humble as possible with everyone and especially lowly Research Associates
like me. This should be especially appreciated in the context of him being a
physicist. You see, there is an unusually high percentage of arrogant people in the
physics community (myself probably not excluded) and more often than not this
feature is amplified as a person climbs up the ladder of the physics community.
So to find this sort of humility in a scientist of his status was quite unique.
He also probed me about my family, and although I thought it was only him being
polite, he continued to remember that information many months after that
conversation. Reaching Caius College we went into the dining room, where a buffet
lunch was spread on two tables. Here the great Sir Nevill F. Mott started casually
serving me at each stop along the buffet table. He first asked: "would you like
some of that?", and since my attitude was never to refuse free food, I instinctively
replied "yes", starting as if to fill my plate. But he was already doing it for me
and suddenly I realised that I had put myself in quite an embarrassing situation: here was a person who in my
eyes stood on the highest pedestal I could place anyone, insisting on serving me
food. My embarrassment escalated when I became conscious of the many people in the
dining room observing us. With red hot cheeks I was frantically thinking of
strategies to get out of that situation. Getting a grip on sanity and remaining
faithful to my upbringing, I was also reluctant to remain hungry in the face of free food. I decided on the truth as my best bet and awkwardly asked if he could please stop serving me, trying to explain my embarrassment. I am not sure he did understand my reason but he said with a ghost of a smile: "All right, just this soup then", lavishly pouring me some soup. I was quite relieved to sit down to the dining table and enter a relative anonymity. The rest of that lunch went on without any special event except for me denying him the (dubious) pleasure of serving me fruit, pies, cheese and crackers, and the extended assortment of desserts that they pile on you in Caius College. I was fortunate to meet with Sir Nevill from then on approximately once every week or two for over a year. My respect for him as one of the greatest scientists of our era only increased with time. It is now with great sadness that I regard the passing away of this beautiful soul. I hope he will be remembered as the great person that he was as well as a beacon of science and a rare engineer of landmarks along the path of human scientific endeavour.
P. W. Anderson:
1993 - Official Office-mate for half a year to P. W. Anderson (another Nobel Laureate, what can I say? life is tough) at the Princeton Materials Institute, Princeton University. This does seem a bit unlikely, doesn't it? For proof: i. I took a picture of both our names on the door, ii. you can also browse through the PMI 1993 roster, iii. ask him. In any case, he was not really there most of the time. On reflection, this anecdote is not so amusing because the official proximity did not help me see any light more clearly. I got to know some of his visitors quite well, though.
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