Three Vignettes Modeling the Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Dear Academy Families,

This week’s All School Meeting (ASM) was particularly noteworthy, both because of the range of reference by our speaker, and because he was my own freshman year astronomy professor at Harvard in college…!

Professor Owen Gingerich is professor emeritus at Harvard in astronomy and the history of science, having chaired the latter department, and when he retired, his astronomy course was the longest running course then at Harvard under the same “management” — 34 years, with over 3,500 students taught (I took it in its first decade, which suggests how old I’m getting). He is one of the world’s top experts on Copernicus, having viewed almost 600 copies of the first edition of De Revolutionibus to analyze the marginal annotations of the scientists who owned those copies, has published 750 articles, and has also seen over a dozen total eclipes of the sun around the world.

He spoke to our students about three vignettes in his life: going as a 16 year old to Europe in 1947 as a “cowboy” with 800 horses on a boat bound for Poland, on which trip he first encountered the astronomical alert station in Copenhagen that he decades later would run and move to Cambridge; his unexpected discovery that a car’s spark plugs cause an arc that creates atmospheric nitric acid (“acid rain”), combining his undergraduate work in chemistry with his graduate work in physics and astronomy; and his address on global warming this spring to the UN General Assembly (a surprise to him, having arrived thinking he was addressing a small conference group), which will be published in an upcoming edition of The American Scholar (put out by Phi Beta Kappa).

The gist of his three vignettes was that varied experiences introduce you to random opportunities that overlap and reinforce each other — a perfect modeling of the value of a liberal arts education, if I ever heard one. And our students asked him astute questions, with a final vignette on how he helped to recover a copy of the Copernicus first edition stolen from a library in Italy. So, we had the pleasure of experiencing great erudition, learning about global issues, and enjoying a mystery solved.

A wonderful ASM…and a great joy for me to connect with one of my own favorite college professors, still active and fascinating!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *