Coming Home, continued
remember sitting with my feet in the warm salt bath of tide pools, reading
how Aristotles 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 Harveys careful anatomical drawings; the speculation
on the kind of agony of penetration that marked Pascals career; the
surmising that Einsteins relation to particle physics begins in piquancy
and ends in pathos. If many of the books algebraic equations slipped
by uncomprehended, if too many of its illustrationsof earth movements
or quaternary chemical elementsdid as well, if today Id fail even the
most basic of exams on Gillispies classic, back then it didnt 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
Imagine my relief, then, when,
upon returning to the campus, I discovered the enclave of classes and
professors and thought that was Penns unique program in the history and
sociology of science. Housed in a tiny old-fashioned building beside the
massive chemistry fortress, Penns 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 hed 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 werent
strugglers and there werent 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. Its empowering, its 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.