Absent Mindedness

Sir Nevill Mott: The Absent-Minded Nobel Laureate

Sir Nevill Francis Mott (1905-1996) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1977. He was a professor at the University of Manchester, Cambridge, and the University of Bristol. His students remember him as brilliant — and a bit batty. He was, by all accounts, the quintessential absent-minded professor.

While teaching at Bristol, he started the practice of going one day a month to Harwell for a day of consulting. Shortly after assuming a new position at Cambridge, he went to Harwell for his monthly appointment, but instead of taking the train, he decided to drive there with his wife. He left her in Reading for a day of shopping and went about his business in Harwell.

At 5 pm he was asked by the secretary at Harwell if he needed his usual ride to the station. Mott instinctively replied in the affirmative, and upon his arrival at the station, bought a ticket to Bristol. He later recorded that it was some time thereafter that it dawned on him that he was on a train heading west to Bristol, but his wife was south at Reading, wondering why he was late. Meanwhile, his car was back in the parking lot at Harwell, and his home was east in Cambridge.

In his book Nevill Mott: Reminiscences And Appreciations, E.A. Davis includes a number of stories about Mott’s legendary forgetfulness. One of them recalls the time Mott stopped by the desk of Phil Taylor, a graduate student, and said, “Taylor, you must come to tea at the Master’s Lodge.” The student was naturally very pleased with this invitation, but when months went by without an actual time being set, he asked the professor about it. Mott said, “Taylor… Ah yes, I was going to have you over to tea.” After an awkward pause, he continued, “Yes, I remember now what happened. I wrote, ‘Taylor to tea’ in my diary. Later, I invited Sir Geoffrey Taylor over to tea, and then when he came I couldn’t remember what I wanted to talk to him about.”

Another student commented about the professor’s “selective memory” and how it made it difficult to know how much he remembered of the last conversation one might have had with him. The student happened to be sitting next to Mott at a dinner when the conversation turned to the topic of that student’s research. Mott gave the impression of being very interested in the subject and asked the student to call on him at 10:00 the next morning to continue the discussion. The student was flattered to have earned the respect of such a learned scholar, so he spent the night reading everything he could on the topic to prepare himself for the meeting. When he knocked on the professor’s door the next morning, he found Mott reading a paper. After a few seconds, he lifted his head, looked at the student, and asked, “Who are you?”

So many stories were spread about Mott’s absent-mindedness that it became difficult to separate truth from fiction. Mott was asked once whether there was any truth to the story that he stopped someone outside a building to ask the individual happened to notice whether Mott was coming in or going out of the building because that would help him decide whether or not he had already eaten his lunch. Mott responded, “I’ve had that story told about me in three different languages, and it’s not true in any of them.”

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