makes our nation worth defending
September 29 the University celebrated the 100th anniversary of
the birth of Enrico Fermi (see "Beyond
the Bomb"). It was a day for both philatelists
and physicists, since the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative
stamp, and I learned things about both fields that I had not known.
The Postal Service has a well-oiled routine for first-day-of-issue
ceremonies, including the autographing of souvenir programs (strictly
limited to five copies per person) by the participants (yes, there
are now stamp collectors somewhere who have my autograph, along
with those of various postal officials and one University physicist
who actually knew Fermi and a good deal about him) and the sale
of first-day covers (I got one for each of our four daughters
and two grandsons). The overlap between the community of philatelists
and the community of physicists did not appear to be great, but
one must congratulate the Postal Service for the attempt to put
the two communities in touch with one another, given some of the
other flora and fauna, events and ephemera, that have appeared
course, Enrico Fermi's life is a life worth celebrating by everyone,
and the University of Chicago is the place to celebrate it (though
there were also celebrations at the Scuola normale in Pisa, Argonne
National Laboratory, and Fermilab). In the daylong symposium that
followed the stamp ceremony and at the dinner that evening, we
heard from a warm gathering of Fermi's colleagues and students
about his intellectual and personal qualities: his wide-ranging
mind, which refused to be pigeonholed as exclusively that of either
a theorist or an experimentalist, his generosity with his own
ideas and in helping others to work out theirs, his impatience
with seminar presentations that had not been as well worked out
as they should have been, and, perhaps more than anything, his
greatness as a teacher.
such a gathering, one felt in touch with one of the great moments
in the history of science in the 20th century. Unfortunately,
it will not be possible to recreate that particular gathering
for very much longer, and this is bound to lead us to wonder who
among us now might deserve to be the subject of a commemorative
stamp 50 to 60 years from now, which is more or less the length
of time between Fermi's great achievements and our recent celebration
of his 100th birthday.
speculation about individuals is perhaps less interesting than
asking ourselves whether we continue to create the conditions
that attract and nurture such talent. My experience earlier this
quarter at a reception at the President's house for new members
of the faculty suggests that we do. Conversation after conversation
went something like this:
do you do? I see that you are in Department X."
I'm in Department X, but I'm really a Y."
kind of exchange tells me that we continue to attract talent that
refuses to be pigeonholed-talent that pursues ideas wherever they
lead, without regard for the taxonomy of academic departments.
The enabling condition for such types of exchange is that our
departments themselves do not feel constrained by traditional
boundaries between disciplines and are prepared to pursue talent
wherever it seems most promising. All of this is especially true
with respect to our youngest new faculty members, and betting
on young talent has long been one of our most productive strategies.
the enormous stimulation and promise of these new members of the
faculty, however, does not erase the shadow of September 11. In
a nation still deeply concerned with defending itself against
immediate threats, how do we concentrate on what might prove 50
or 60 years from now to have been important? Robert Wilson-the
great physicist and founding director of what we now know as Fermilab,
where some of the University's physicists today lead experiments
at the nation's most powerful accelerator-captured the matter
elegantly in his 1969 testimony before Congress on the appropriation
of the considerable sums that made Fermilab possible.
asked whether the laboratory would contribute to the national
defense, Wilson replied that its contribution would be not to
the defense of the nation but rather to what made the nation worth
words are worth remembering in our present circumstances. Universities
in general and our university especially are an important part
of what needs defending. Our value to the nation and the world
is, to be sure, quite immediate in the degree to which we make
daily contributions to the understanding of the physical world
and the people who inhabit it. But our value is also to be measured
50 to 60 and more years from now.
we then be judged to have done today the things that made the
human condition better? In our present circumstances, we might
ask whether we will be judged to have taught the languages and
the religions and the history that helped us to understand better
whatever befalls us.
is an embarrassment that the U.S. government has had trouble finding
enough people who know Arabic or Farsi to do some of the work
that needs doing now, that so many confess to knowing so little
about Islam, that so few could say the most elementary things
about the countries whose names regularly appear on the front
pages of the newspapers these days. But when I was asked recently
by the Economic Club of Chicago (a group made up of the leaders
of the business community and accustomed to hearing talks from
such notables as Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin) whether I could
bring along a few faculty members who might contribute to our
understanding of the events of September 11, the only problem
was to narrow the list to as few as three.
before September 11, and as the interest of the public (and their
elected officials) in exotic places and beliefs waxed and mostly
waned, talented people at the University of Chicago were hard
at work trying to understand such things. It ought to be a lesson.
of C President Don M. Randel writes each issue on a topic of his