The Old College Try

By Mark Alpert

Monday’s the first day of school in New York, and both my kids are nervous. My son is starting high school and my daughter’s going into seventh grade. They’re worried about all the usual things — making new friends, dealing with new teachers, resuming the nightly struggle with homework. (Frankly, I’m worried about that too. I hate cracking the homework whip.)

I try to empathize with my kids by telling them how nervous I got on my first day of college. I remember it so clearly, the sick feeling in my stomach as I drove with my parents down Route 1 in New Jersey and saw the Gothic spires of Princeton on the other side of Lake Carnegie. But that feeling vanished as soon as I met the other kids in my dorm. By dinnertime I was laughing my ass off. (And I hadn’t even drunk my first beer yet.) College turned out to be the best four years of my life. Well, at least the most amusing four years.

And those old college ties can be very useful for a novelist. Over the decades since graduation I’ve stayed in touch with my thesis adviser, Professor Richard Gott of Princeton’s astrophysics department. Dr. Gott is one of the world’s leading authorities on time travel. In his book, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, Gott describes how a spaceship could travel back in time by maneuvering around a pair of rapidly moving cosmic strings (infinitely long strands of high-density material left over from the Big Bang). He’s a brilliant, fascinating man, so when I was writing my first novel — a science thriller titled Final Theory — I decided to add a fictional version of Dr. Gott to the cast of characters. And when I finished the first draft I asked my old prof to look over the manuscript and tell me what he thought of it.

His first reaction: “Well, I recognized me.” He also recognized some of the other characters who were based on real scientists. Better yet, he fact-checked the manuscript, pointing out a multitude of scientific errors. If not for his help, I would’ve come off like a real dunce.

I also reached out to Princeton’s alumni magazine, which gave the novel a nice review. The book got some additional exposure when I wrote a cover story for the magazine about the latest advances in cosmology. And whenever I have a new book coming out, I make sure to send an advance copy to the magazine’s editor.

In a world of limited attention spans, this kind of resource is invaluable. Making the connections sometimes requires a bit of work, but it’s worth it. Although I attended Columbia for grad school, until recently I hadn’t made much of an effort to maintain ties with the place. But now I’ve signed up to participate in an alumni book fair that’ll be held at the Columbia campus on Saturday, October 12th, from 11 am to 5 pm. So if you happen to be in New York that weekend, drop by the alma mater and say hello!

4 thoughts on “The Old College Try

  1. School hasn’t started yet? Good grief, how late into June do they go? Seems like the day after Labor Day is the latest start out here in CA.

  2. It’s because Rosh Hashana came so early this year (Sept. 5). No point in opening the schools for two days and then closing again. And yes, the school year goes to the bitter end of June.

  3. Mark, I know the feeling. Consider this: my fifteen year old daughter is technically a junior in high school but is a registered freshman at THE Ohio State University and is taking sophomore pre-med courses. I’m not sure whether to be overjoyed or anxious. I’ll settle for overjoyed. Good luck to your son and daughter as they embark on those next steps.

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