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Portrait — Physicist Benny Lautrup has got Alzheimer’s. Slowly, stubbornly, the disease eats in to the acuity of mind that made him a professor. The poor boy from the working class Istedgade district in Copenhagen, who ended up as a recognised scientist, is used to standing up to adversity.
We have just managed to sit down at the coffee table, when Benny Lautrup gets up again, trudges out of the room and disappears into the recesses of a room on the other side of the corridor.
He rummages around at a bookcase. Then he mumbles something, aggravated, probably because he can’t find the book he is looking for, or perhaps because he has forgotten what book he was out to find in the first place.
Then he exclaims some syllables in triumph and walks back to the sofa.
»This little book here,« he says and puts a monumental work in my lap.
Physics of Continuous Matter is the title on the red cover. At the bottom of the front cover: B. Lautrup. Short for Benny Lautrup.
The author behind the now ten-year-old textbook sits next to me on the sofa and flicks through the book while he, with curiosity, reads his own words aloud and comments on the pictures he has chosen. Some of it he can remember, some of it seems new to him.
He points to a passage about the Bermuda triangle and laughs when he sees a picture of a physicist he has met. He then looks at an algorithm that he has placed next to a picture of a Californian bridge collapsing.
»It says a Strohal number … Span thickness is equal to four metres, Strohal is equal to 0.2,« Benny Lautrup murmurs while he moves his finger across the algorithm.
»I can’t remember what this means.«
»I can’t remember it. It is probably in here somewhere.«
Then he continues to turn the pages, says that there is something he wants to show me, something that came up recently, a particular remark, a critique of a theory that he had proposed probably, he just can’t remember where it is.
He flips the pages, but has to give up.
A lot has happened since the 80-year-old Benny Lautrup held his last lecture. It was in 2013, when he entertained a whooping, probably quite inebriated, young crowd on a stage in the Christiania district in Copenhagen, where scientific lectures and cocktails met up in merry abandon.
That night, he kept up a high cadence on quantum physics, peppered with spontaneous jokes and an infectious joy in narration for the young audience.
He has not lost this joy in narration. But he often loses his train of thought and gropes for that thread that has eluded him. He forgets numbers, names and places, and he would find it difficult to elaborate on what it was he lectured on that night in Christiania, even if you showed him the slides.
It’s all because of the beast.
Benny Lautrup takes his black glasses off and gives the left side of his head a knock.
It’s in there, it sits there, eating into your memory. The beast has a name: Alzheimer’s Disease. It was after the lecture at Christiania that the illness began to manifest itself.
Birthe Østerlund, who is Benny Lautrup’s wife, noticed that something was wrong. She found him in the middle of the night in front of the boiler in their farmhouse on the island of Falster, where he tried to convince her that it was broken. Another time, he said the house was on fire. He covered himself with quilts on the hottest day of the year, and got angry and aggressive when something confused him, even if it was simply that a potted plant was not where it used to be.
»I didn’t really understand what was going on. Normally, I was lucid and aware, and this was no longer the case. I did not go to the doctor because I thought it would stop and disappear by itself. Slowly, however, I became aware that something was wrong,« says Benny Lautrup.
»I said to Birthe: I think I need to stop now.«
I have a bit of difficulty getting stuff to make sense in my head, but it will come back to me. It will come while I talk.
He couldn’t stand living in the large farmhouse that his wife loved with all her heart. So he sold it to his sons and moved permanently to their apartment in Østerbro, Copenhagen, where he now sits in front of the coffee table.
He couldn’t stand going to the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen where he had spent most of his professional life.
»At some point I shut down completely. I don’t want to do this any more, I said. I have had it. I can’t use it for anything any more.«
»I did not feel that I could be what I am used to being, namely astute at physics. Until then I had always put physics first. I had to concede that I could no longer do this, and so I thought: I don’t want to go in to the institute at all.«
»Then … then … «
He looks for the right sentence.
»I chucked it out.«
»I became aware that I could no longer contribute. That was how I felt it. It distressed me. It upset me for quite some time.«
He is no longer distressed.
Before our meeting, he turns up smiling from his gym exercises in the autumn sun, stops and chats with a workman repairing the pavement in front of his apartment, and lumbers up to the entrance with his sports bag slung over his shoulders. In the doorway, he receives me with a smile.
Both his clothes, and his features, have gotten looser since that time at Christiania, but the intensity of his gaze has not receded.
He does not talk much about what he has lost, even though you might believe that what was lost was a large part of his identity: his superior powers of thinking. Instead, he says several times that he is proud of what he has achieved.
He glances towards the large book on continuous matter that rests on the table.
»I recently asked out at DTU (Technical University of Denmark, ed.) whether anyone looks at my book? Yes, everyone does, I was told. Because it is concise, and easy to understand, and the students appreciate it,« he says.
»The last students I had, they have made full professor now,« he laughs.
A part of the explanation for his high spirits can be found in the adjoining room, where he takes a liquorice tin from a shelf. He forgets for a moment what he was doing, stops, and silence breaks out, before his gaze again attaches to the tin box in his hand. »Oh yes,« he says, opens it and shows the pills he swallows every day.
He got them when he finally got the diagnosis from the Copenhagen University Hospital Rigshospitalet in November last year after months of tests, like simple memory exercises to a couple of brain scans and a spinal cord test.
For others, the diagnosis can be traumatizing. And Benny Lautrup says that he was shocked. The Alzheimer’s label, however dark, and however hard to bear, also gave him clarification after several years of despair and frustration.
»After I’ve got the medicine, I started to see my world in a different way.«
»I thought of dying and things like that before. And I couldn’t understand what it was that had my brain not working properly anymore. I am well aware that my Alzheimer’s is in there somewhere, but my high spirits have returned to me. I feel great now.«
He has returned to the Niels Bohr Institute where it all started for him when he got his magister degree in 1967 and where he was subsequently employed. Every Friday he bikes to a lecture and notes that the young researchers are still ‘sharp’ – an adjective that Benny Lautrup uses frequently and vehemently in the sense of quick-witted and brilliant.
»It’s good to see the young men in action. They are aggressive. They get to the point. That is the way to improve things,« he says, gesticulating.
Between the lines, you feel that he also got to the point in those lecture halls.
»I was a sharp young man,« he says.
Despite the lapses of memory, despite the words hiding in obscure chambers and refusing to allow themselves out through his lips, and despite the fact that the thoughts once swarmed inside his head disappear like dew on a car window, according to Benny Lautrup.
»I have a bit of difficulty getting stuff to make sense in my head, but it will come back to me. It will come while I talk,« he says.
In fact, fragments from a hard and rich life do come out. From the life of a man that is not subdued by adversity.
He talks about his poor childhood in the Istedgade district in Copenhagen, where his first scientific interest was awakened in the most implausible place. As a boy, he made an instrument that was able to measure the distance across the street to the sex workers on the opposite pavement from his window.
He talks about his research in the US, Switzerland and France. From CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and the true ‘Mecca’ of physics, he remembers an episode where the world-famous Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann pointed at him, stabbed him in the chest with his finger, because he disagreed with him on something or other that Lautrup cannot remember.
»I’ve been a wild man. I have taken the path of brilliance. Done the travelling and everything. In the US. Did lectures in front of the top people … Harvard! Where the big names were. It has been … it’s funny you get me thinking about those things. My wife has heard all this so many times, but you are new,« says Benny Lautrup with a wide grin.
Benny was ‘sharp’. As early as 12 years old, he began to study Latin in the early morning hours before school. He read up on the Sun and the stars at the local library, and when he was done in the children’s section, he went on to frequent the section of the library for grown-ups.
His father had a violent temper. One day, after his parents were divorced, he came back to the apartment and tugged at the door so hard that it fell off.
He was the last person who would go for a topic because there was funding in it that you could apply for. He was driven by his curiosity.
Professor Søren Brunak
It was easy to pick a fight in the poor part of Copenhagen, and Benny Lautrup came home several times with black eyes after encounters on the streets. In the summer holidays, he was put on the Bornholm ferry, for the first time right after the war, with a name tag around his neck, and throughout his childhood and youth he holidayed at a small farmhouse on the island until school began again.
The family wanted him to learn a trade as a carpenter or work at the local post office, but young Benny insisted on using his brain. In school, he got such good grades that his teacher supported him in this: »Benny should be allowed to study,« he said.
As one of just two in his school class, the boy from the poor district continued on, up to upper secondary school, where he received heavy-handed treatment from some of the more affluent children. One of them bullied him so badly that he asked Benny Lautrup for forgiveness at the class reunion dinner earlier this year, more than half a century later.
As it happens, Lautrup ended up with such an excellent exam that he got a prize from the school’s management.
Sure, he measured the distance over to the street prostitutes, and sure, he made small bombs in a garage with his best friend Johnny, but he thought that he was going to do a language study programme until a temp teacher in upper-secondary school, one day in the 1950s, took him to the Niels Bohr Institute.
Benny Lautrup remembers that it was as if »my whole universe flipped over that day«, and that he knew he wanted to be a physicist. But he finds it difficult explain why.
His former colleague, the associate professor Claus Emmeche offers an explanation.
He says that Benny Lautrup believed in physics as an explanatory model to grasp the world. In time, he also believed, the subject would solve the mystery of human consciousness, and this was something that Emmeche and Lautrup spent a good deal a lot of time discussing.
They were fundamentally in disagreement, but they shared their curiosity, and together they set up an elective subject on the philosophy of nature.
»Benny was always lively, curious, and eager to discuss things that were not just nuclear physics. It was good to discuss with him because he got straight to the point, and he was brilliant in his argumentation,« says Claus Emmeche.
Lautrup was of great importance to many young scientists, not just himself, according to Emmeche.
Because my mind is not clear. I shut up and listen to the young people.
Professor Søren Brunak, who has written a book on neural networks Neurale Netværk: Computere med intuition with Benny Lautrup says that the professor was – and is – »a great inspiration« to him.
»He was the last person who would go for a topic because there was funding in it that you could apply for. He was driven by his curiosity,« he says.
Brunak remembers Lautrup and him being called »crackpots« in an auditorium packed with three hundred people, because the computer scientists did not like the two physicists’ research into what would later become known as machine learning.
Lautrup refused, however, to yield and continued to pursue his interest.
»We were interested in what is called complex systems, and we tried to look at the most complex systems that are at all possible. The most obvious choice was to work on the brain, because it is probably the most complex object in the universe,« says Søren Brunak.
»Then we tried to simplify everything, with something a bit like a wrench for physicists, and probably too rough an instrument. But something came out of it that helped inspire the machine learning revolution – making computer programmes by using data. And this even if you have not cracked the code and found out how the brain works in general.«
Benny Lautrup is a good example of this as he now sits and tries to fill in the blanks behind his cranium. Suddenly, it is the brain that helped him out of the slums of Istedgade and into the Niels Bohr Institute, that has betrayed him, and that has forced a new struggle upon him.
This one is hard to win: It is believed that Alzheimer’s always attacks the patient’s identity and removes the person who once was, piece by piece.
For Benny Lautrup, the brain was a large part of his identity.
His wife jokes that he knew more about languages than she did herself, even though this was her field: »He is one of those prodigies,« she says.
Nowadays, he finds it difficult to read.
He goes to the bookcase again, rummages around for half a minute, and comes back with the book The Universe Speaks in Numbers.
»This is the book that interests me at the moment. I would like to read a bit from it, but it is not certain that I can keep it up.«
Are you afraid of getting started with it?
»No, it’s more that I get stuck. And I can’t remember what it says.«
Can you enjoy reading even though you know you might not remember it?
»No.. No… I don’t know,« he says, now a little slower and with a lower pitch as if he would like to talk about something else. So he does.
»I can cope with TV. And do you know what the best thing is for me to do?«
»World of Warcraft. You probably know this,« he says, amazed.
»Here I am completely with it. This part of my brain is still there, I can see this. That’s a fact. I can train myself here, and this really amuses me. I really enjoy it.«
Is this a new interest?
»No, I’ve been familiar with it for a long time, but now I’ve got myself a decent, big machine,« he says and glances towards the corner of the room, where a stationary PC stands next to another bookcase.
Then he looks back at the book about the universe.
»But I am not sure I will read this book,« he says.
Every Friday he sticks to the person he once was.
He turns up at the Niels Bohr Institute and listens to the sharp young men and women lecturing a few metres from the office where Benny Lautrup used to sit and do his research.
It was here that he studied, it was here he graduated with his magister degree, and it was here he made professor – in 2009, many years too late, if you ask his former colleagues Claus Emmeche and Søren Brunak.
Returning to the department is his own decision.
»It’s not that I pressure him to do it. He is a strong-minded man. A proud man who you should not try to make decisions for. But I like him doing it,« Birthe Østerlund smiles.
»To be there. To sit in the chair that I sat in when I started physics at the department … I feel at home when I’m there. It puts me in a good mood,« says her husband.
»But I don’t say anything. I don’t get involved with the discussions.«
I’m not afraid. I see myself as a living person, and one day I am dead. I am OK with this.
»Because my mind is not clear. I shut up and listen to the young people.«
Can you follow what they are saying?
»Yes … No, only partly, but I sit and talk to those who have just spoken, including those that come from abroad. I am perfectly fine with this. The physicists know 100 per cent what Alzheimer’s is, and that it is not a dangerous disease for others.«
A researcher from Hong Kong, who does research in the USA, did a lecture here recently. He was on his way to that huge white place near America, the one with snow on it, Benny Lautrup says, while he puts his hand on his head.
»It is not Alaska, it is further out, a big Danish region.«
»Yes! He is going to go there and do measurements to see if black holes exist. Black holes are not visible, but if there is something that glows on the outside, if there is something that is burning, then you can see them. This is new. This is very exciting.«
His curiosity drives his syllables, and he speaks in staccato, as if his flow of speech forces his brain to pursue it, sentence for sentence, word for word.
Then he whispers, as if to say something in confidence:
»We stood and talked for hours after his lecture. He wanted to know what I made of it. You know what, I said, I found it fun, but I can’t make a real assessment. I can’t do that any more.«
»It doesn’t really matter, he said. And then we talked about all sorts of other things.«
The disease has not only been a loss.
Benny Lautrup says that he has become more friendly and open to the people he encounters, he speaks to people even if they don’t know the foggiest about physics or science. But it was not always like this, he says.
When he meets other Alzheimer’s patients, he is reminded of the fact that the illness has many faces, and that what he has experienced so far is of the milder variety.
He knows that the beast will devour what is left of his mind, it’s just a question of when.
»But,« he adds, »I have not lost myself. There are things that have been weakened, but I am myself.«
Are you afraid of losing yourself in the future?
»I’m not afraid,« he says and repeats: »I’m not afraid. I see myself as a living person, and one day I am dead. I am OK with this.«
»I look to the future, and I know what might happen in the future. There will be a point in time when I will not be able to recognise my wife. I won’t recognise who anybody is.«
He looks over at Birthe on the couch.
»But it may take a long time, up to ten years, before things go awry. And you know what? At that time, I am 90, so let it be.«
(This story is translated from Danish, the original title is ‘Farvel til viden’, printed in Uniavisen 5 2019).