IN one cartoon series, a woman was trying to ring the bell to stop the bus but to no avail. In desperation she walked towards the driver and poked his thigh with her umbrella and it worked.

Bus and train commuters meet all sorts of strange characters among fellow travellers.

In the book God Particle – If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question, Leon Lederman and Dick Tenesi have some interesting travelling tales to share.

Several years ago, on Manhattan’s IRT subway, an elderly man who was sweating over an elementary calculus problem in his textbook turned to Professor T. D. Lee (co-winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics), who was sitting next to him, asking if he knew any calculus.

Lee, being a gentleman, nodded yes and gamely proceeded to solve the man’s problem for him. Lee regales in telling his friends the interesting story for it is not every day that an old man will ask him to solve mathematical problems on an IRT subway.

Leon Lederman (co-winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics) also had a similar train experience, but with a different ending.

One fine day, he was sitting on a commuter train coming out of Chicago when a nurse boarded, leading a group of patients from the local mental hospital.

They arranged themselves around him as the nurse began counting. “One, two, three…” she looked at Lederman in puzzlement, not sure if he belonged to the group. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’m Leon Lederman,” he answered, “Nobel director of Fermilab.”

Mental patients live in a dream world and often indulge in fantasy and the nurse assumed that Lederman was a typical case. She included him in the head count.

“Yes, four, five, six…” Lederman must have felt rather amused — the nurse had assumed that he was also an inmate from her asylum.

Again, it is not everyday he encounters such a comical and bizarre situation.

Lederman’s story reminds me of a Hollywood movie called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The main character was played by Jack Nicholson as a mental patient in an asylum. One day he somehow managed to take some of his fellow inmates for an outing. He made sure they dressed and behaved well, belying their true state. They cooperated with him and enjoyed themselves.

Nicholson, when introducing his fellow inmates to people, unabashedly said “This is Dr XXX and this is Professor YYY.”

The audience of course had a good laugh and for his excellent acting, Nicholson later won an Oscar, which he certainly deserved.

Koh Aik Khoon
Koh Aik Khoon

Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled Musing from the Ivory Tower’.

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