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June 1, 2008

To meet a famous scientist

060108_15231_2Throughout this weekend, I've seen droves of people, young and old, mobbing panelists at the end of each event. A regular among them has been Richard Diener, a 66-year-old former history teacher from Brooklyn whose camera is now loaded with pictures of many scientific icons who have spoken at the festival.

When I walked into the NYU auditorium this afternoon to listen to physicists talk about the quest for a unified theory of the universe, I saw that Diener had already staked out an aisle seat in the fourth row, with his camera slung over his shoulder. Diener is a large, round man who wears thick glasses. He moves very nimbly for a man of his size, which is an asset given his primary obsession besides travelling the world -- meeting celebrity scientists and opera singers at events and having his picture taken with them.

Yesterday, he grabbed me by the shoulder and asked me to click a photo of him with Francis Collins. I took a horizontal shot. "Now a vertical," he yelled out cheerfully. Collins looked at the camera with the measured smile that celebrities perfect over years of public appearances.

Today, Diener's target was Leonard Susskind (left), one of the pioneers of string theory. As the event ended, Diener leaped out of his chair, much as reporters do in order to buttonhole people for interviews, and got to the edge of the stage in a matter of seconds. A little later, as a swarm of audience members grew around him, I marvelled at how strategic his move had been. Nobody has quite as good an access to Susskind, who was still chatting with his fellow panelists while walking off the stage.

Diener recognized me. "Take a picture of me with Susskind," he said, handing me his camera. I was happy to stand ready. While we waited for the right moment -- Susskind was talking to other admirers -- Diener told me why he was crazy about the physicist, who is a professor at Stanford University and an author. "This man founded string theory," he told me. "It's like meeting someone like George Washington."

The organizers of the next event began clearing the auditorium, before we got our chance. Diener was unfazed. "Yes, yes, I'm leaving," he said in an annoyed voice, shuffling around but not losing sight of his quarry. He then tapped Susskind on the shoulder to make his request. I took the photo.

"I am more impressed with people who investigate fundamental questions about the universe than I am with presidents," Diener told me later. I asked him why he liked having pictures taken with scientific and other stars. "It's my training as a history teacher," he said, peering at me through his thick lenses. "I like to document everything. This is my story, my history." - Yudhijit Bhattacharjee