I teach political economy and statistics at a large public university in the US. You can find my academic website here.

The Waste Book very occasionally collects my passing thoughts on politics, economics, statistics, data visualization, life, culture, and everything.

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stories · February 4, 2012 · comments

Doctor Margrave’s Ruby

by Chris Adolph

when I started college at ice University in 1994, I needed to find a job on campus. My dad generously paid my tuition and room and board, but left other expenses in my hands. I was in a rather odd category economically: well-off enough to be assured that no economic event would interrupt my studies, but cash-poor enough to need to work if I wanted to eat something other than ramen on weekends. And in Houston, Texas, life has no meaning if you can’t go out for Mexican food or the occasional off-campus Thai lunch.

As long as I could pay the phone and creamy jalapeño bills, I wanted as few hours of work as I could find. I wasn’t eligible for work-study, and the pickings for 10-hours or less a week non-work-study jobs were slim. Indeed, the first week of school, there were just two such jobs: an off-campus job at the Texas Medical Center maintaining a rabbit lab, and an on-campus job doing menial tasks for a chemistry professor.

I interviewed for the rabbit job first. I didn’t own a car – an unthinkable oversight in Houston – but I agreed to a no-notice interview. Striding out into my hall, I spotted an unknown floormate, introduced myself, and asked for a ride (there was little chance he’d turn me down; ice is like that). As I explained my urgent need for a lift, it occurred to me that my new best friend looked familiar. I was sure I’d seen that face hundreds of times, only his was browner, younger…

I should mention that my class had one member singled out for media attention before matriculation. That would be George H. W. Bush’s grandson, though back then, we didn’t need to say the “H. W.,” and were happier for it. As I made the connection, I also remembered the widely-reported factoid that the grandson was Latino. The president’s grandson (who later became a presidential nephew, and as a result has probability less than one in a billion of being president himself) promptly gave me a ride to the rabbit professor.

Who turned out to be completely ocd. After an hour’s interrogation on my round-the-clock reliability – which, should it turn out to be less than perfect, would apparently result in rabbit genocide and the loss of a massive research project – I decided that if I was going to make $5 an hour to buy tacos, I could do it without a martinet calling me in at all hours of the night to care for bunnies. (My other thought was: “I called in my favor with the president’s grandson for this?”) So I took the job with the kindly old chem professor.

Dr. John L. Margrave had a heart of gold, an unscratchable diamond thin-film watch, and an endowed chair in ice University’s very good chemistry department. (How good? Professors tended to get very tense around Nobel announcement time.)

My role in this prestige-and-weird-smells factory was simple and utterly pointless. Dr. Margrave – expert on fluorine chemistry and thin film deposition, academic superstar, science-show magician to small children, mentor to hundreds of Ph.D.’s – was deservedly more than a little absent-minded about everyday life.* It was his weekly habit to look over the tables of contents of the latest chemistry journals and check off a few dozen articles to read in “offprint” form. My job, in those heady days before the Adobe pdf, was to secure a physical copy of each article by sending a postcard to the corresponding author. Amazingly, many wrote back. Sure, one ussian professor mailed his reprint in an envelope apparently made by hand while drunk, but the offprints did come; slowly at first, and then in a steady, incomprehensible tide.

The great work went on for some months before Dr. Margrave’s secretary – a sweet woman who at 3 pm routinely “surprised” cash-poor me with 35 cents to buy a coke from the department’s discounted soda machine – tactfully pointed out that the offprints were piling up unread. I assumed it was time to admit the offprints, and the undergraduate assistant, were surplus to requirements.

Instead, Dr. Margrave suggested I file the offprints in a filing cabinet. Left unexplained was how a first-year political science undergrad was to categorize such works as “Stabilization of Low Valent Silicon Fluorides in the Coordination Sphere of Transition Metals.”

I decided to file each paper under the first-named element in the first-named compound, which led to some difficulty when I hit titles without any chemicals listed. I began to file papers under the first letter of the first capitalized word. It didn’t matter; no one was opening the filing cabinet but me. Hell, none of the other filing cabinets in Dr. Margrave’s outer office were even used.

Around this time, a couple of new postdocs were looking for office furniture, and Dr. Margrave offered to donate the empty filing cabinets. I volunteered to move them – it would be my first useful act as an assistant. And that’s when we made our first discovery.

Completely hidden by the filing cabinets was the door to a secret storeroom. With some trepidation, the postdocs, Dr. Margrave’s secretary and I went exploring in the dark. We found a space of perhaps 60 square feet hidden under a stairwell, with no other entrances or exits. It was full of unmarked boxes.

And the boxes were full of junk. Dr. Margrave had evidently once used this storeroom to stash detritus he couldn’t be bothered to sort out. Judging from the dates on magazines and memos, no one had been in the room since 1983; later, even Dr. Margrave seemed surprised to learn of its existence. And though it seemed unlikely the room would ever find a use, it was obvious it should be cleared out, and I didn’t need to ask who would do the clearing.

After a few hours throwing out old dry cleaning receipts, and under the mounting certainty that every last item in the secret chamber would go straight to the trash can, I found in a box a still-packed suitcase. Inside the suitcase, between Pan Am ticket stubs and conference procedings, I found a ruby. The ruby was blood-red and large – too large to be set on a ring. I knew it was a ruby because it was attached to a helpful gemologist's report stating, in plain language, that it was a ruby, and worth at least $1,500 in 1983 money.

I felt a little like Indiana Jones, if Indiana Jones’ archaeological finds came shrink-wrapped to certified appraisals from reputable authorities. And after months of assiduously collecting documents from around the world so they could gather dust in a corner, I had in an instant more than earned my year’s pay. True to form, Dr. Margrave had no idea if he’d lost a ruby a decade earlier, and didn’t really seem to know what to do with it once he’d recovered it. I note with some regret that giving the ruby to its discoverer was never discussed.

I stuck with my job through the rest of the academic year, and at Dr. Margrave’s request, even put in hours during the summer – which was odd, as I had three other part-time jobs. I was ready to give up requesting unwanted chemistry journal articles. And there wasn’t going to be another ruby.

My sophomore year, I took an altogether more useful and painful job. I suspected I wanted to be a political scientist, so I figured it was time to find out what political science was when not confined to a classroom. I ended up in another minimum wage job on a massive nsf grant. Our objective: to construct a biographical database of the century’s us state legislators or at least a goodly sample of them. My professors’ system for biodata coding was (unfortunately) the most obvious one: pick 20 years spread throughout the century, code life histories up to that year for each legislator in each state. inse and repeat. And go slowly insane with boredom.

In the end, repetition was the problem: instead of compiling a list of all legislators in the century and coding each career once, at the end, with each job in that career entered once (as a job type, start date, and end date triple), we were spending much more time to code multiple, incomplete slices of different years from the same life, with no way to ever reconstruct the whole picture.

When I went to grad school, the one thing I resolved never to do was construct a similar dataset. So naturally, my “big idea” as a grad student (that maybe we should pay attention to the wizards printing the money, and not just the laws that made them wizards) meant I needed just one thing: a complete biographical database of the central bankers of the latter 20th century. But having seen the costs of doing this the hard way, I did come up with a far cheaper and slightly less agonizing coding system. (I know. It would sound better if you’ve experienced the drudgery of biodata coding, which I almost wouldn't wish on my freshman floormate’s uncle.) The data led to a dissertation, an academic job, and a book. And then to new biodata-based projects, so seems there’s no going back.

Maybe none of it would have happened if hadn’t been looking for a new job in 1995. If I’d taken the rabbit job, and been quickly tried and imprisoned for involuntary rabbit-slaughter after oversleeping one Saturday morning, or if I’d found something I liked better than writing postcards to inebriated ussian amatuer papermakers, then maybe I wouldn’t have been looking for a job when the political science department needed a willing victim to go mad coding up the teenaged farming experiences of 1920s Minnesota State Senators.

But as I think back to that first year of college, and the Dantean futility of the postcards I wrote out long-hand for a famous professor in a field I’d never study, I realize that Dr. Margrave was probably a more important role model of the academic life than I’ve ever credited: my first proof that I could stay intellectually sharp, scientifically active, and above all, kind to grad students, lost freshmen, and small children well into my grandfather years.

I may have to come to terms with the fact that I probably won’t be finding buried treasure under the stairwell next to my office. It’s just as well: I haven’t found any secret doors, and I don’t think the U would like it if I brought a pickaxe to work.


* Dr. Margrave also lived in the house next to George H.W. Bush. (Yes, him again.) And just as in the Simpson’s episode aired a year later, these two neighbors did not get along, though to my knowledge, Dr. Margrave never destroyed George Bush’s lawn with a station-wagon.

tags: life, universe, everything

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Chris Adolph

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