You learn something new every day

After living the better part of half a century, you think you know someone until a newly discovered fact causes you to re-think your assumptions about the person and even the world in which you’ve made your way over the better part of five decades.

It turns out that Olivia Newton-John, the singer of 1970s and ’80s pop standards who starred opposite John Travolta in the movie ‘Grease,’ has scientific greatness in her blood. I did not know this. The revelation came yesterday, 21 pages into a biography of Robert Oppenheimer by Jeremy Bernstein, the physicist who wrote profiles of scientists for the New Yorker magazine for decades.

Bernstein possesses a sly sense of humor, injecting comical nuggets here and there in the narrative, making you smile with recognition or admiration at how his witticisms sneak up on you. But in discussing Max Born, a scientist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in helping to discover quantum mechanics, Bernstein abandons subtlety for bluntness. He plants an asterisk at the end of a sentence about Born, directing the reader to the bottom of the page where he or she finds this bit of trivia:

*An endearing fact about Born is that he was the grandfather of the Australian popular singer Olivia Newton-John.

Really?!

My first reaction was, I wonder how Olivia Newton-John did in high school physics and did her illustrious grandfather provide a little surreptitious help here and there. “Honey, let me tell you how Werner Heisenberg arrived at his uncertainty principle.”

My second reaction was, I really didn’t know her, did I? even though these eyes looked at her almost every day thanks to a beautifully rendered poster that no doubt claimed a special place in millions of teen-aged boys’ closets in this country during the 1970s.

My third reaction was, If I didn’t know this, how much else don’t I know about people, about the world?

That one’s easy. Plenty.

I’m sure Bernstein will drop other intriguing tidbits into his narrative as I read on.

Bernstein’s biography is on the smallish side and not nearly as comprehensive or analytical as American Prometheus, the definitive study of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin that garnered the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. Anyone interested in Oppenheimer, or in that era of American science, I highly recommend that book, as well as Richard Rhodes’ Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun.

But nothing he can tell me will disrupt my world like this newly discovered fact about Olivia Newton-John. Next I’ll learn that Farrah Fawcett’s grandmother was a world-famous literary giant.

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