HCH III

February 3, 2020

Members of the National Most Likely to Discover the Theory of Everything club. Chris is seated far right

Watching the recent Amazon Prime documentary Jacob reminded me of my own brush with a genuine polymath. I’m proud to have called him a friend as well.

In junior year math class our instructor demonstrated Pascal’s famous two-dimensional representation for binomial expressions, famously known as Pascal’s Triangle. While I wrestled with the idea of how a triangle helped explain an algebraic equation (about as helpful to my non-math brain as using a triangle to explain what a triangle was), the demonstration gave my classmate, Herman Christian Hasenkampf III, or “Chris,” an idea. The next day, Chris showed up for class with a three-dimensional plexiglas model of a triangle representing trinomial expressions. (I cried foul, because we weren’t supposed to get to trinomial expressions until the following semester.) Our teacher later informed us he could find nothing in the math books indicating such a model had ever been devised before.

HCH III

Chris had a goofy, childlike personality to accompany a brain capable of constructing the Ultimate Weapon. While dimmer bulbs made fun of him, I ingratiated myself in the hope of being invited into the bunker with him if he ever set it off. Chris accepted a National Honor scholarship to Loyola University, which allowed Loyola’s own scholarship to fall to me. At the Freshman Mixer, Chris managed to dance the night away with any number of girls, sweat streaming off him like he’d been through a carwash with the top down. I managed one dance with a girl who said she was joining a convent in the morning.

The author, actually using Study Hall to study. Not that it would help.

At Loyola I became Igor to Chris’s Dr. Frankenstein. I managed an A in my Computer Science class by shrewdly partnering with him on a mandatory programming project. My part was to carry the punch cards of “our” program carefully to the computer center without dropping them. (I never knew what “our” program was supposed to do, and I think Chris was relieved I never asked.)

As far as Chris being a polymath: in our senior year, I told him I was really sweating my upcoming Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in Political Science. He’d taken a poly sci class as an elective, and he offered to take the exam with me for moral support. I cranked hard on prep, while Chris read Sci Fi novels. I showed up on exam day a wreck; Chris arrived giggling and whistling. We both scored in the 98th percentile.

Just prior to graduation Chris showed me his calculations for launching water balloons off the roof of the Science Building toward the girls dormitory using an enormous piece of latex as the launcher. The balloons never made it past the edge of the roof, but Chris just laughed hysterically throughout the caper all the same.

Chris receiving a Science Fair award for his project entitiled “A Working Time Machine”

I lost track of Chris after graduation. I traipsed off to Europe, while he headed off to the University of Indiana graduate school. While I hitchhiked and vagabonded, Chris earned a double PhD in Chemistry and Physics. In December of 1974, I got a call from a friend. Chris had been on his way to a Department of Defense interview when his plane, TWA flight 514, strayed from its assigned vector and crashed into Mount Weather, just outside Washington D.C., killing all 92 aboard.

It probably explains why the DOD still doesn’t have an Ultimate Weapon. But it also explains why people like Jacob Appel are so important to human progress. They carry the torch for all the polymaths before them that didn’t make it.

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