A “gap” in my research for Professor Cipolla

After a gap year working in construction management between my freshman year at Oberlin, in the late 1950s I attended Cal Berkeley for my junior and senior year (although half of the senior year was spent at the Mexican National University in Mexico City.)


For some reason that remains obscure to me, I was asked to produce the thousand participant “Axe Review”variety show that preceded the first football home game.


I had an economics history course in mid-afternoon and between lunch and the class I would help with the preparation of “flats” used in the background for various acts. Which meant I was dressed in a blue jeans and old sweat shirt, often with paint splashes, rather than the slacks, jackets and ties yet common for male students attending classes  in the late 1950s.


The internationally renowned and yet youngish medieval scholar Carlos Cipolla was the professor and he was not surprised to receive a note from the university administration to ask me to contact them.  As a friendship ripened between us, he acknowledged that he had made me out from my attire to be a revolutionist at best or a terrorist at worst and the note had fed that impression.


Skipping forward I enrolled in a graduate class taught by Professor Cipolla in the last half of my senior year.   And during the final two weeks he asked me to take on an assignment which meant descending to the sub basements of the Cal library building to trace birth and death rates for past decades on various countries in the World Book of Statistics.    He explained the purpose was to learn more about what he called a “demographic gap”,a concept he was soon thereafter to help bring to the attention of the world.


What the statistics clearly showed in country after country was a generation separation between when death rates declined (largely due to advances in health care) and when birth rates began to follow downward.  This caused a one time spike in population, hence the “gap.”


Professor Cipolla was very pleased with the information and suggested I should write a paper on what this all meant.  Mindful that I was but days from being out the university door, I responded:  “Sir, only an academic of your brilliance and years of study could do justice to such an assignment.”   He said he understood and assured me that I would receive an “A” for the course.


I then offered a caveat concerning my research:  “Sir, English is my only language and the statistics were reported in foreign languages.  Therefore before publishing anything, I recommend you make sure that the charts measured humans rather than barn animals!”

Updated: May 12, 2021 — 10:16 am