Saturday, June 02, 2007

In Memoriam: Physicist, Author, and Translator Hans-Uno Bengtsson

I was saddened by the news of true Renaissance man Hans-Uno Bengtsson’s recent, untimely death. Dr. Bengtsson was a Swedish physicist, the author of many books, and a translator from English to Swedish and from Danish to Swedish. He also liked to fly planes, ride motorcycles, and lecture all over the country on a variety of topics, and he was active in many organizations, including one focused on the author Fritiof Nilsson Piraten. He was a member of the Långaryd family, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the world’s largest charted family, with at least 149,000 members.

Many people spoke about the enthusiasm and care Dr. Bengtsson brought to his teaching. I was lucky enough to hear him lecture several times when I lived in Sweden, and he was always entertaining and energetic, and able to make any topic fascinating and easy to understand. I watched him walk on hot coals and I also watched him lie on a bed of nails while an assistant placed bricks on him and then hit the bricks with a hammer! Dr. Bengtsson did all this in order to explain physics in a way accessible to everyone. He certainly caught people’s attention!

I also had an interesting personal experience with him. One day, I’d been teaching in Lund, in southern Sweden, the same city where Dr. Bengtsson was a professor at the university. We both got on the train in Lund and he sat a few seats away from me. At the next stop, in Landskrona, right before the doors closed again, I saw that he suddenly rushed off the train, as though he had forgotten he was supposed to get off there. Unfortunately, he left his backpack behind. He owned a very unusually shaped backpack and it was, I’d say, as much a signature for him as his all-black clothing, including his leather pants and his Dr. Martens boots. So I was sure it was his bag and that he’d accidentally left it on the train in his confusion.

The next stop was Helsingborg, where I lived. I waited a few moments to see if anyone else would claim the bag, but finally I took it, ignoring the curious looks I got (after all, I already had my own backpack, and it did seem odd that I went over to another seat and took a second bag that clearly was not mine; no one said anything, however). So I took his bag home with me and I got my partner – who had had Dr. Bengtsson as a professor in several physics courses – to send him an e-mail, explaining what had happened.

The next day, my partner received a relieved reply. Apparently the professor had many important papers and other items in his bag and thus it meant a lot to him not to have lost it all. A couple of days later, Dr. Bengtsson was in Helsingborg and I went to the train station to meet him. I gave him his backpack and was very surprised when he expressed his gratitude and then handed me two bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne and a big box of chocolates. All I’d done was return his bag – I certainly didn’t expect such generosity. But he was known for his interest in good food and wine, and it makes sense that he’d want to share that with others whenever he could.

A Swedish database lists Dr. Bengtsson as the writer or translator of over one hundred texts. He was the author of physics textbooks as well as of many popular books, including ones on the physics of cooking, physics and alcoholic spirits, physics and flying, Sherlock Holmes, a couple of books about physics for children (based, apparently, on his own two children), and much more. He also translated both popular scientific books and fiction, including works by Murray Gell-Mann, Lee Smolin, Brian Green, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Fry, Robert van Gulik, Jill Paton Walsh, and others. An article I read about him mentioned how he enjoyed the challenge of finding just the right Swedish costume for each book.

Hans-Uno Bengtsson was an extremely productive and curious person, and his example is an inspiration.


Erika Dreifus said...

This is a lovely tribute, Brett. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you, Erika!

Best wishes,