Coming Home, continued


    I remember sitting with my feet in the warm salt bath of tide pools, reading how Aristotle’s physics, however “congenial” and beautiful, however certain of “common sense arrangements,” was, like so much of science has been, wrong. Nature, so said Gillispie, “is more elusive, more coquettish perhaps and infinitely more subtle, hiding her ways from the merely dogged or the worthy, and only occasionally yielding to the truly curious those glimpses of great order and altogether inhuman beauty.” I loved that sentence, the anthropomorphism of nature as she flirted, hid her ways. I loved the talk about William Harvey’s careful anatomical drawings; the speculation on the “kind of agony of penetration” that marked Pascal’s career; the surmising that Einstein’s “relation to particle physics begins in piquancy and ends in pathos.” If many of the book’s algebraic equations slipped by uncomprehended, if too many of its illustrations—of earth movements or quaternary chemical elements—did as well, if today I’d fail even the most basic of exams on Gillispie’s classic, back then it didn’t matter. By August, I had concluded that I had a passion, maybe even a predilection, for the history of science. That it was a vessel in which my mind could be contained.
    Imagine my relief, then, when, upon returning to the campus, I discovered the enclave of classes and professors and thought that was Penn’s unique program in the history and sociology of science. Housed in a tiny old-fashioned building beside the massive chemistry fortress, Penn’s HSS department was not even 10 years old in the fall of 1979; it palpably incorporated all the enthusiasms and possibilities of something organic, a being still dividing, coiling, growing. There was an energy in the place that appealed right from the start. There was a cramped quality to the corridors and classrooms, the conference-room tables where students and teachers sat elbow to elbow. Here there could be no disappearing into the perimeter chairs of lecture halls. Here the mere arrangement of furniture suggested democracy.
    I have a vague image in my head of the secretary I encountered on my first visit to Smith Hall, the stack of papers I was handed. I have a clearer, more emphatic memory of Dr. Robert Kohler, the diminutive man with the slight wisping beard who was chairing the undergraduate department at that time. He was carrying a heavy metal bike down or up steps when I first saw him, his shirt sleeves pushed up, his jeans baggy, well worn. He was hurrying somewhere and yet he stopped, on those steps, to say hello to me, nothing patronizing, nothing insincere, a simple human greeting. Dr. Kohler had a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Harvard, it was rumored. But it was the history of science that he’d taught himself and was now teaching others.
    I got enrolled. I got included in a conversation Dr. Kohler was leading about the influences of technology on the city. I read the hand-outs, bought the books, took fastidious notes through class time, then went off, down Locust Walk, across the bridge, and up into the high-rises, where I recopied my notes neatly on a fresh pad to the sighs and rolled eyes of my three roommates. There were no favorites, as far as I could tell, in a Dr. Kohler classroom. There weren’t strugglers and there weren’t stragglers, only the dynamism of conversation, the opportunity to get involved. Dr. Kohler let us think that we were learning not from, but with, him. It’s empowering, it’s liberating, to love the class you take.
    So I took more, packing my roster with classes on the history of Russian science and the American medical system, on ethics and the infamously paradigmatic Thomas Kuhn. I encountered historic personalities, philosophies, machines; wallowed around in timelines; sought out ambiguities and hard connections. Semesters yielded to new semesters. The seasons changed: Fall, Spring. Fall, Spring. Around the same conference table, over the same hand-outs and books, there gathered an increasingly familiar cast of characters. Through the corridors hurried a flight of teachers who knew their students’ names, who generated a breeze, a squall, the cinquant glitter of academic fervor. This was a home. This was my place. Smith Hall was the roost of my college years.


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