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What makes our nation worth defending

PHOTO:  President Don Michael RandelOn 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 on stamps.

Of 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.

In 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.

The 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:

"How do you do? I see that you are in Department X."

"Yes, I'm in Department X, but I'm really a Y."

This 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.

Even 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.

When 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 defending.

Wilson's 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.

Will 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.

It 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.

Long 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.

U of C President Don M. Randel writes each issue on a topic of his choosing.-Ed.



  > > Volume 94, Number 2

  > >
Wealth of notions
  > >
The remains of the day
  > >
A new Chicago seven
  > >
Beyond the bomb
  > >
The life and tomes

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