I was working on a couple of encyclopedia entries involving J. Robert Oppenheimer this winter when I stumbled upon the most remarkable coincidence: Melba Phillips, one of Oppenheimer’s students, was from my small town. This itself isn’t so strange, I guess, but it turned out that my high school social studies teacher, Billie Longabaugh, was Phillips’s niece. Now add to this the fact that Phillips, like me, was raised on a farm by nominal Methodists, and that our shared small town has well under 1,000 residents.
Oh, and I had never heard of her, nor had anyone I asked back home.
I desperately wanted to explore this story, but I had a hard time, at first, identifying the hook. Beyond “OMG THAT’S SO COOL,” what part of this would be interesting to other people? Eventually, I realized that, more than anything else, I wanted to know about the cycle of forgetting. Who was this woman? Why hadn’t I heard of her? And how many other forgotten people, like her, come from places that most Americans have mostly forgotten about?
The result is a somewhat out-of-character personal essay, “Physics from the Farm,” that appeared in Belt today. I’m so grateful to the editors at Belt for giving me a chance to explore my obsession with this remarkable woman. Let’s not forget her again.