Mark Suskin

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BA 1974, Classics with a Physics minor
Eben Alexander Prize in Greek, 1973
National Science Foundation, Retire

I graduated from Chapel Hill in 1974 with a B.A. in Classics and a minor in Physics.  (I grew up in Chapel Hill, and my father, Albert Suskin, was a long-time professor of Classics and chairman of the department at the time of his death in 1965.)  I was a graduate student in Classics at Princeton until 1976, when I left to explore the “real world” for a few years.  Working at a manual-labor job gave me some much-needed experience, but it was not very stimulating intellectually, so I decided to return to graduate school in Physics and received my PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1987.  The degree in Physics opened many doors for me–I had several interesting and productive research jobs before ending up at the National Science Foundation, where I worked for 19 years until my retirement in July of 2015.

But throughout my career, I never lost my love for the study of Classics.  I continued to read the works of Plutarch, Seneca, Ovid, Hesiod, etc., primarily in English, though I always kept copies of Homer and Virgil in the original so I wouldn’t completely lose familiarity with the Greek and Latin I had worked to learn.  The unparalleled insight into the human condition that those works of the ancients afford was, in fact, a great help to me in my career.  What I absorbed from my reading was consistently useful in my interactions with my co-workers–it counseled patience, perseverance, and equanimity. Plus, it gave me a way to stand out in an organization full of hard-core scientists, since I was schooled in the humanistic side of things that most of my colleagues knew little about.  They admired my knowledge of the classics, and that perception certainly didn’t hurt as I strove to gain their confidence and support.

Though starting in Classics and ending up in Physics delayed the start of my career (I was 33 when I finished at Hopkins and got my first job in Physics as a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology), I would not trade my deep exposure to the Classics for anything.  And now that I am retired, I have the time once gain to read classical texts in the original, and am taking courses in Pindar, Hesiod, and Ovid at the university here in Hamburg.  (I still lack the linguistic facility to translate directly from Greek or Latin to German, so the professors have kindly given me a pass on rendering passages in class, but I hope to remedy that in time.)

I have been lucky enough to have delved deeply into both Classics and Physics, and I would not only encourage those scientifically included to study classics, but also encourage classicists no to neglect the sciences.  The two disciplines are not really as separate as some might think–deciphering a Latin sentence is not so different from solving a physics problem, and both give pleasure when solved–the pleasure in understanding something that you didn’t understand before.  And furthermore, I’ve harbored a suspicion for years now that the sciences hold great promise for helping classicists do what they do.  From new forensics to reveal hidden works of Aristotle in palimpsests, to computer-aided lexicography and learning aids (the Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/, was begun in the nineties with help from the National Science Foundation), to who-knows-what as yet undiscovered tools.  (When I see my classmate, Robin Rhodes, now a professor of classical archaeology at Notre Dame, taking pictures of the fragments of the remains of the pre-classical temple at Old Corinth, I wonder if new methods of computer graphics might not offer a way to design software that would render the photographs into 3-D images and use those to “virtually” reconstruct the Temple.  That may be pie-in-the-sky, but who knows?)

So, although my career has been in physics, I can confidently encourage all students at UNC-Chapel Hill to take advantage of what is still one of the best Classics departments int he country and to delve into the unparalleled literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  What has survived for over two millennia was kept for a reason, and those wonderful, time-filtered works that are the foundation of western culture repay the attention you give them so many times over–best to read them in the original when you can, but a good translation will do as well.  I do believe they will enhance your lives and careers as they have mine.

September 2016