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2006-01-30 - 5:54 p.m.

..goodbye Sir Nick....

This morning I received an email from the editor of a science journal, asking me to review a manuscript for an upcoming Special Issue, dedicated to one of the most highly respected scientists in my field. The email also informed me that this scientist died last Tuesday.

I was very saddened. My relationship with this scientist dates to the very beginning of my career. I met him two months before I started graduate school, and not in the context of science, but as a fellow musician.

In 1990, one of my professors (my hero in science, but that's another entry) was retiring during the same week that I was to graduate from college. He was by far a favorite of mine, and I invited him to my senior clarinet recital and last orchestra concert. When he learned that I was a clarinetist, he urged me to contact Nick Shackleton. For, in addition to being a great oceanography, Nick was an avid clarinetist.

I was excited to meet Nick the Scientist, but especially interested to meet him as a clarinetist. I immediately mailed him a short handwritten letter - on pink stationery - explaining that I would love the opportunity to play with him during his visit. I never heard back from him.

I was working the administration table at the retirement symposium, and I was pleasantly startled when a little man with crooked teeth, thick dark eyebrows, thinning long grey hair, stubble, khacky trousers, and birkenstocks (without socks) showed up and addressed me with this delighted grin of a child. He spoke quietly with a British inflection: "Are you the clarinet player?"

He stayed in Rhode Island for a week, and was one of the star speakers at the retirement symposium. His talk was awful....And although he was constantly surrounded by admiring students, he unfailingly sought ME out during every spare moment to play duets with me, even skipping out parts of the conference!

His first night there, he took me out to dinner. I can only imagine how I bored him to tears with my endless naive chatter about graduate school and research and science. I asked EVERY cliche question ("Are you related to the famous explorer Shackleton?"). I took him to an Indian restaurant (having no idea of the selection he could enjoy in his native England!). In fact, I thought that I bored him immensely. And yet he continued to seek me for clarinetting.

I next encountered him at our field's big international meeting five years later - a meeting at which he encouraged me to bring my clarinet so that I could play principle clarinet in the musical society he had organized around the conference. I did, and had a lovely time!

I met him again three years later in Sweden at another talk in his honor. He looked bored to tears, and I was so pleased to see his face light up when he turned around and saw me (although he immediately chastised me for not warning him in advance - he would have brought his clarinet!!). At that meeting he invited me to be a guest scientist in his lab the following summer. I did not accomplish so much science during this visit, but I played several duets, and was even invited to play a Beethoven Serenade with his chamber music group.

It was during this trip that I truly comprehended his dedication to music, and how he had managed to combine his love of time series and wavelet analysis with his love of the clarinet. In his house he maintained a collection of over 500 clarinets of varying ages, and had begun a study of evolution and natural selection in the instruments development. As each key is added, does it produce a stable harmonic? If so, it remains. I was captivated.

Nick was unquestioningly brilliant as a scientist, and he was a very strange man. His greetings and interactions were guarded and awkward. His compliments were unfailingly backhanded, "You sightread well...for an American." I was insulted more than praised, and yet for him it seemed like a commonplace part of the conversation. And he countered this shocking bluntness with his childlike enthusiasm and quiet pride (I'll never forget his smile when he gave me a copy of the newspaper article about his Knighthood.) Truth be told, I never really knew him well as a scientist. But seeing him through the eyes of music allowed me to see that he had a heart of gold. He was unfailingly kind to me. And he made my introduction to my field unique and pleasant. I am saddened and I will miss knowing that he is out there - tuning up for his next conference..

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