Tuesday, 6 October 2009


My dad, Laurance David Jacobs, died on the 25 May 2009, aged 72. The problem with death is that words are inadequate tools to describe the devastation of bereavement and that little phrase, in itself, is a hackneyed old cliche.

Despite saying that, a possible way of conveying the experience is by means of historical anology. At the moment, I'm reading Richard Rhodes' 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning account of the making of the atomic bomb. As everyone knows, the atomic bomb resulted in the tremendous destruction at Hirsohima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Here is the account in Wikipedia of the Japanese realisation of the bombing of Hiroshima:

Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at headquarters; they knew that no large enemy raid had occurred and that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at headquarters that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor.
The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly one hundred miles (160 km) from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning. Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left.

I remember my dad telling me, when I was a child, that at the end of the World War 2, the Americans dropped a bomb on a Japanese city that was so powerful it immediately killed 60,000 people. I recall struggling with the magnitude of this fact, I just couldn't believe that humans could be so clever and so immensely destructive at the same time.

How did that Japanese staff officer feel when he first realised that a major city had been wiped out in an instant? It was completely without precedent, entirely different from anything experienced before. But that it what the loss of a parent is to you, something that is so outside the bounds of your life experience, that you struggle for days and months to just try and make sense of what has happened. Most often, you can't.

I'm not yet ready to eulogise properly about my father in writing, either in this blog or anywhere else. However, I would like to just share another initial realisation - my first awareness that my dad had a brain that was superior to just about anyone else I've ever met.

I always knew that my dad was incredibly clever. The house was full of unintelligible books and even as a little kid I was dead proud that my dad had come from a very humble background to win scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard and then become - of all things - a nuclear physicist. But it only really struck home the day I decided to test my dad's vocabulary.

Around 1978, when I was 11 years old, my dad bought a slim book called Test Your Wordpower. The book comprised of a prologue followed by 50 tests. In each test, there were 60 words divided into 6 levels of 10 words. Level 1 contained really easy words like dog, cat, house etc. Then the levels increased in difficulty until you got Level 6 which was made up the words which were punted around in a gameshow like Call My Bluff.

The prologue helpfully told you there was a huge correllation between your vocabulary and your IQ. Basically, the smarter you were, the more words you knew. The majority of the adult population ended up in Level 3. If you found yourself in Level 4, you probably had a very decent job. If you landed in Level 5, you were probably a top professional or heading in that direction. Level 6 meant you were very flipping sharp.

I kept taking the tests and usually scraped into Level 3. (Rather irritatingly, I took the test a few months ago and still scraped into Level 3 which shows how little I've learnt in the last 30 years!) My mum comfortably made Level 4 and then, one day, I decided to see what my dad would score. Incredibly, it turned out, that my dad could define every single word in the book.

I was always trying to catch my dad out by hauling in the family's immense English dictionary and checking his definitions but I never tripped him up, ever. He could always define the word thrown at him and it just staggered me. The prologue didn't tell you what kind of person could score full marks on every test but I had a pretty good idea!

Of course my dad was infinitely more than a walking dictionary, he was an absolutely unique and brilliant individual. However, as I said, this blog is not a eulogy just a few random thoughts and memories.