Jezzy Leszczynski was living the good life: He was a visiting scientist in quantum chemistry at the University of Florida, his two children were happy, his wife was working at the university as a postdoctoral fellow in environmental science. So why did Leszczynski suddenly leave his family behind to become a research associate at the University of Alabama?

No, this isn’t some sad tale about a “science marriage” on the skids. The fact is, Leszczynski hops on a bus or piles into his 1982 Plymouth Horizon every two weeks to make the 480-mile round trip to Gainesville just to pretend to be part of a nuclear family for a few days. Nor is this story a classic case of university headhunting—indeed, Leszczynski is being paid more, but only by a pittance, and his status remains unchanged. What drew Leszczynski to ‘Bama was something the chemist considered more fundamental than money:...

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