When I first started working at the Space Sciences Laboratory in 1994 my boss, more or less, was Stuart Bowyer. He was one of the main principal investigators of the research group that hired me. Among his many achievements was being on the team that discovered Cygnus X-1 (insert Rush riff here), getting the whole field Extreme Ultraviolet Astronomy off the ground, and also starting SETI research at Berkeley, encouraging students and colleagues that eventually formed both the SETI Institute and the Berkeley SETI Research Center.

Stu was an older, giant, overbearing man consistently making loud, stubborn proclamations that echoed throughout the lab. Most people tolerated him more than liked him. He could be a real hard ass, but he always delivered the goods. I actually found him kind of oddly charming because he was such a character, and his brutish competitiveness didn’t affect me as I had zero skin in the academic game. Plus despite all his intelligence and fortitude he couldn’t be bothered with the trifles of this silly, new internet – part of my job was to print out his e-mail so he could read it, and then he’d scribble a response on the paper which I’d type in and send on his behalf. So I was privy to his professional communication like nobody else. This sorta made me an unwitting confidant. 

We had this weird rapport, to be sure. I remember once showing up to the lab with freshly painted black fingernails, i.e. floating a goth balloon. Stu eventually noticed the polish and flashed me this look which I immediately knew meant, “nice try kid but you’re not fooling anybody.” And he was totally right.

No surprise: He loved to party! At the end of a conference he organized in Berkeley he threw a big closing ceremony on a boat that sailed at night around the Bay. No expense was spared to make that an epic shindig. He knew I was a musician, and happily hired me to tinkle on the piano during the dinner service. I think this was my first real professional gig in California with a pretty good payout. Anyway after he retired around age 65 I saw him far less, though I continued to hear second hand stories about his annual pilgrimages to Burning Man.

Stu passed away this September at age 86 due to complications with COVID-19. Upon learning the news a lot of old timers at the lab started an e-mail thread sharing anecdotes and war stories. I was just a grunt back in the day, so I didn’t want to show up those higher in the ranks with any of my mundane tales, not that any of them were appropriate for a memoriam or interesting really. Like that time I helped navigate through the awkward situation of him landing in Italy for some big convention and he only then realized his passport expired the following day.

But here’s a short one that was kinda funny, I thought. I came to work one day and noticed a small package arrived for Stu. When he arrived, clomping down the hall, I flagged him down and handed him the box. “Who is it from?” he asked and then I noticed there was no obvious return address anywhere on it. This was around the time when the Unabomber was terrorizing the country, so I darkly joked, “I dunno. Maybe it’s a bomb.” Stu and I had a short, dark laugh about that and he headed into his office.

About ten minutes later he appeared back at my desk, saying, “Um.. maybe we should call campus police about this.” Poor Stu had been sweating alone in his big office that whole time, nervously staring at the mysterious package unsure what to do thanks to my unserious suggestion that it may be dangerous. Well.. better safe than sorry I guess. We were on edge a bit as one of the guys in our group had a neighbor that lost a hand having been sent an unexpected explosive via post.

I called the campus police and alerted them that we got an unidentified parcel sitting in our lab. A small bomb squad showed up fairly quickly and inspected the box. Yep – it was of suspicious size and from an indiscernible source all right. They had the entire floor of the lab cleared immediately so they could safely inspect it. Jeez. 

We all congregated outside. Most people were annoyed by the disruption more than concerned, and I felt pretty bad about starting this ball rolling which is now negatively affecting dozens of peoples’ days. I don’t remember if I owned up to being the cause of all this. Knowing me, probably not.

Soon enough we got the all clear. It wasn’t a bomb. Phew. Stu and I went into his office and found the box, torn open by the police. Inside were two bottles of really nice red wine. Stu snapped his fingers and said, “oh yeah – I forgot I ordered those.”

About Matt Lebofsky

Musician wearing many hats. Played in a bunch of bands, toured in hundreds of cities around the planet. Also a general geek who works on several of the world's biggest scientific projects searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Grew up in suburban NYC. Now lives in Oakland, CA.
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