President Grant Finds Nobelist Seat at Annapolis: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe" by James D. Stein. Source: Basic Books via Bloomberg

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Born into a Jewish family in Strzelno, now in Poland, 2-year-old Albert Michelson came to the U.S. in 1855 with his parents. He grew up in tough California and Nevada mining towns, and managed to win a nomination to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

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Michelson was interviewed by President Ulysses Grant, who told him all 10 places at the academy had already been taken, but advised him to go to Annapolis just in case one of the other candidates dropped out. None did, so the poor and now dejected boy boarded a train home.

He heard his name called out. It was a messenger from the White House, who told the amazed student that the president had created a special place at the academy specially for him.

Michelson went on to win America’s first science Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work on the speed of light.

I spoke with James Stein, author of “Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe,” on the following topics:

1. Root of Science

2. Constant Defined

3. Let There Be Light

4. Unknown Cosmic Numbers

5. Dark Energy

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at