An autobiography about a physicist who emigrated from a small Serbian village to the US. Having won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924, its relevance still shines a century later. It’s comically hair-raising how some aspects of academia haven’t changed at all. The book is in the public domain and free to download. Here are some quotes I’ve found particularly relevant.


I saw an endless chain of difficult things between me and my enrolment as a student at Princeton, the home for gentle American youth. Social unpreparedness, I felt, was a much more serious difficulty than unpreparedness in things which one can learn from books. This difficulty could not be overcome by associating with people east of the Bowery, and I was heading that way. The nearer the train approached New York the less anxious I was to return to it. From Nassau Hall to the Bowery was too abrupt a change, and from the Bowery to Nassau Hall the change would have been even more abrupt. I compromised and looked up Christian’s home on West Street.

Questions in life

I told him that my feast had already begun and called his attention to the heavenly melody. He said: “Oh, that’s Gabriel, the son of my neighbor Milutin. He entered the village school when you left Idvor, and he finished it long ago. He will be married on St. Michael’s day, and what you hear now is his sefdalia (song of sighs) for his future bride, who is over there in our drowsy village.” When he jokingly suggested that I might be looking forward to the enjoyment of the sweets of simple pastoral life which were in store for Gabriel, if I had not turned my back on Idvor eleven years before, I answered that perhaps it was not too late to correct the error. The priest looked astonished, and asked me whether I had crossed and recrossed the Atlantic in order to become a shepherd of Idvor. I said nothing, but I knew that Gabriel’s melody had disclosed to me another world in which the question “What is Light?” is by no means the most important question. There were other great questions of human life, the answers to which can perhaps be found in Idvor without a knowledge of Maxwell’s electrical theory.

Gabriel did not know much, I said to myself, but the little knowledge he had was very definite. He knew that he loved the girl he was about to marry, and he also knew that his life, following in the footsteps of his peasant ancestors, had a definite object in view which, as everybody in his village knew, was easily attainable. I knew more than Gabriel did, but my knowledge was not as definite as his. My aim in life was, I thought, much higher than his; but was it attainable? And, if attainable, was it worth the struggle? Two months earlier such a question could not have occurred to me even in a dream. But Gabriel’s melody and the dreamy atmosphere of Idvor suggested it.


In the course of time I discovered that I was not alone in my opinion; many Cambridge men failed to find in tripos drills the stimulating elements of that scientific spirit which leads to original research. I was a goose which groped around in a fog when I came to Cambridge; but, if I had come from an English college as a promising tripos candidate, with my work cut out for me by my superiors and in accordance with old customs and traditions of Cambridge, I should not have discovered that there was in Cambridge at that time an epoch-making movement, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. I shall return to this point later.


I never understood the full meaning of low living and high thinking as well as I did while I was a lodger at the Macmillan homestead. My thinking machinery, I thought, never worked better, and even my vision, always very good, seemed to be better than ever before. On exceptionally clear days I was sure that from the high elevation of the Macmillan cottage, on the slope of Goat Fell Mountain, I could see the beautiful Firth of Clyde as far as Greenock and Paisley, and at times even the gray and gloomy edifices of Glasgow seemed to loom up in the distance. I bragged about it, but my friends at Corrie met my bragging by informing me, jokingly, that any Scotchman can see much farther than that. One of them, a pupil of Sir William Thomson at the University of Glasgow, met my bragging by the epigrammatic question: “Can you see in Faraday as far as Maxwell, the Scotchman, saw?” I never bragged again about my vision while I was in Scotland. I was certain, however, that from the Macmillan homestead on the slopes of Goat Fell Mountain I obtained a deeper view into Faraday’s discoveries than I could have obtained in any other place. I seldom mention the names of Faraday and Maxwell without recalling to memory the beautiful island of Arran and the humble Macmillan homestead on Goat Fell Mountain.

Is admin death?

Why did not our Joseph Henry, who discovered the oscillatory electrical motions and operated with apparatus similar to that employed by Hertz, pursue his studies further than he did in 1842? and why did not Maxwell, the formulator of the modern electromagnetic science, perform those ideally simple experiments which Hertz performed?

Henry’s fame among men of science was very greatand promised to grow even greater if he continued his scientific researches. He was still in his prime, only a few years over forty. But a patriotic duty called him to Washington, where the Smithsonian Institution waited for his skilled hand to organize it and to defend it against the scheming politician. … He was a great scientist, but he was also a great patriot; his country stood first and his own scientific achievements and fame stood second in his heart.

Maxwell was called to Cambridge to become the director of the new laboratory, and he responded, knowing well that, from that moment on, most of his time would be devoted to organization and administration. … But as director of the Cavendish laboratory he had trained a number of men, in order to prepare them to push on the line of advance where he had left it; and one of them, in particular, was soon to take the leadership in the rapid development of the Faraday-Maxwell electromagnetic theory.

Obstacles to research

But there were two obstacles: first, lack of experimental-research facilities; second, lack of leisure for scientific research. Rowland and his followers recognized the existence of these obstacles, and demanded reform. Most of the energy of the teachers of physical sciences was consumed in the lecture-room; they were pedagogues, “pouring information into passive recipients,” as Barnard described it. My own case was a typical one. How could I do any research as long as I had at my disposal a dynamo, a motor, an alternator, and a few crude measuring instruments only, all intended to be used every day for the instruction of electrical-engineering students? My own case was a typical one. How could I do any research as long as I had at my disposal a dynamo, a motor, an alternator, and a few crude measuring instruments only, all intended to be used every day for the instruction of electrical-engineering students? When the professor of engineering died, in the summer of 1891, a part of his work, theory of heat and hydraulics, was assigned to me. The professor of dynamics died a little later, and his work also was transferred to me. I was to carry the additional load of lecture-room work temporarily, but was relieved from it, in part only, after several years. As a reward my title was advanced to adjunct professor, with an advance of salary to two thousand five hundred dollars per annum. But in return for this royal salary I had to lecture three to four hours each forenoon, and help in the electrical laboratory instruction in the afternoons. While this pedagogic load was on my back scientific research could not be seriously thought of.

Rowland said once that lack of experimental facilities and of time was not a valid excuse for neglecting entirely scientific research. I agreed with that opinion; neglect breeds indifference, and indifference degenerates into atrophy of the spirit of inquiry.

Revisting the roots

I firmly believe that the amalgamation of the foreign-born would be speeded up wonderfully if we could make it obligatory that every foreign-born American citizen should revisit his native land at stated intervals of time. Had I not visited my native land so many times since my landing at Castle Garden in 1874, the memory of my early experiences in America, described in the earlier parts of this narrative, would probably have faded away completely long ago. Had I not visited Belgrade and Panchevo in 1919 I should not have been stirred up on the subject of American idealism, and particularly about the American idealism in science. It was in Belgrade and Panchevo where the stimulus was applied which revived the memory of my experiences in Columbia College, in the Universities of Cambridge and Berlin, and in my professorial work at Columbia University, and made me pass in rapid review through all my experiences which have a bearing upon American idealism, and particularly upon the idealism in American science.