There are many demanding activities in life that come with a wide margin of error -- parenting, for example. For most of us, a few moments of inattention at work will not result in any serious consequences (as long as we are not performing brain surgery, or installing steel beams 30 stories off the ground). But one of the least forgiving activities in our busy lives is driving. Here, a moment of inattention (an animated conversation on a cell phone) can be disastrous. The risks of driving, considerable at any time, are magnified a thousand fold when people drive under the influence of alcohol.
We have blogged a number of driving catastrophes, where highly successful and productive individuals have ruined their lives (and the lives of others) by driving drunk. Now, in an article by Steve Chawkins in the Los Angeles Times, we read of a Nobel laureate in physics, John Robert Schrieffer, who faces prison time for slamming into a van at more than 100 mph last year, killing one passenger and injuring seven others in Santa Maria, Calif.
Schrieffer won the Nobel Prize in 1972 when he was just 26, for a theory he helped formulate that explained superconductivity — the disappearance of electrical resistance in certain metals and ceramic materials under extremely cold temperatures. (If you are interested in Schrieffer's actual contribution to science, you can read his Nobel acceptance speech here.) The theory was developed in 1957, sparked in part by an insight that Schrieffer experienced while riding on a New York subway.
He undoubtedly wishes he had been on a subway on the day of the crash. Instead, he was barreling down the road in a new Mercedes, driving on a suspended Florida license. He had nine speeding tickets on his record. On U.S. Highway 101 near Orcutt, Schrieffer struck a van at 111 mph. He has already pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and is soon to be sentenced to prison.
A San Diego attorney representing the plaintiffs in the wrongful-death lawsuit against him called his scientific credentials irrelevant.
"From our standpoint, his pedigree doesn't matter," Stacy King said. "The only thing that matters is that he was driving recklessly." Actually, one other thing matters to the attorney: Schrieffer has assets worth going after.
I cannot help but wonder at the strange tale of this extraordinary man. Fifty years ago he had an idea that was to contribute significantly to the growth and development of technology. He achieved the dream of thousands of scientists across the globe. When he stood on the stage in Sweden to receive his prize, no one could foresee the plunge that the fates had in store for him. A beautiful mind, capable of exquisite concentration, was rendered useless by alcohol. Schrieffer became just another jerk behind the wheel of a 5,000 pound missile. Now he'll have plenty of time and leisure to figure out just what it all means.