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A mind-molder whose name baffled me

Stories about a prof from University. Setting: Lyon, France.


Prologue: A few days ago I had a dream. I was taking an exam in crystallography and could not remember the formula for the volume of a unit cell in a crystal. I was sweating! And I thought “Where are you Monsieur Deshayes? Where are you when I need you to remind me the formula?”.


Now mind you, when I heard his name pronounced (something like Deh-eh), I assumed it had less letters in it. And then I saw it written and my brain had to take a personal day because it had been literally blown away! Who would have thought?


Monsieur Deshayes is a Chemistry professor. And by far my favorite prof from University. I was lucky enough to have him share his wisdom in my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year when he taught Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. He’s not only my favorite prof, but I also suspect he contributed to my choosing to study Life Sciences.

He’s a great teacher. Great!

During his Thermodynamics lectures, he actually used the huge, green chalkboard, not transparencies like other profs. I like chalkboards. And I still remember the PV=nRT equations and phase changing curves he drew so perfectly in white & yellow chalk. Yellow for emphasis. He told us about entropy, the measure of chaos in matter, and how at the beginning of the lecture the students are like gas molecules with high entropy, they’re restless, moving from one place to another. Then they settle down and their entropy diminishes.


One of the things he used to say all the time was “Faut pas se poser des questions métaphysiques” , “don’t ask yourselves metaphysical questions” when a simple concept became so complicated and twisted in our minds that it just wouldn’t go through. Things in nature follow simple rules, and if you know the right equations all the doors will open. I think that’s what he meant.


His courses were serious, the majority of times. I mean, he is not one of those jokesters that just tells joke after joke, like in a stand-up comedy show. But he would sometimes  ask his students of different nationalities what their name means and how come they write the letter “J”s in such a strange manner. “Oh! That’s a Hungarian J, I see!”.


Something you probably know about French numerals is that the 70-99 interval is kind of hard to digest. 96 is actually pronounced four twenties and sixteen, quatre vingt seize. So for anyone who was not a Camembert eater by birth,when someone is dictating you a number like 96, your first instinct is to write down a number beginning by 4. You can see the predicament we, foreign students were in when we had to go in front of the class and solve a problem. You try writing molar concentrations, temperature values, and atomic masses during Chemistry class when all these 4-figure numbers keep flying towards you and you think it begins by a 6, but it’s actually in the 70-79 range! La galère! 

So to make things easier for us, Monsieur Deshayes would always dictate in the Swiss numeral system. Nonante-six moles d’eau, 96 moles of water. It was like till then you had moss growing over your ears and suddenly someone goes “Hey you have moss on your ears! Let me take that off for you!” and what do you know, you can hear everything crystal clear again!


One day during a course, he opened his briefcase and took out a walnut. He’d found it at lunch and kept it because it had not two lines joining in 180 angles at the top, but three, joining in 120 degrees angles. I probably would have kept it too. This is something that you get to see once in your lifetime.




And last story: during a practical course during which both my friend and I had hooked up the pH meters the wrong way, he looked at our foolish set-up quite baffled and said “Mais vous avez fumé la moquette ou quoi?*”. And that was the first time I’ve ever heard someone asking me if I had smoked the carpet.


How about you? Any favorite profs who molded your mind and character?


*[Literally fumer la moquette means to smoke the carpet. But actually the expression means to say/do stupid things, to be nonsensical.]

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