Thursday, 13 September 2007
What brought you to philosophy of science? What are the ideas that fascinated you? What are the problems that you yearn to see resolved?
These were the questions hovering over the table at our first full meeting of the term's Visiting Fellows. They had to be asked. For they were the common ground of this very mixed group that otherwise might have nothing in common at all. That possibility was suggested by the array of different countries of origin of the faces now assembled: in alphabetical order: France, Switzerland, Togo, Turkey, US(x3) and oZtralia.
Those questions may seem formidable, at least until you try to answer them. Then you realize you have thought about them a lot and do have much to say. To show this, I went first, speaking the thoughts as they came to my head. One might expect the thoughts to scatter and die within a few moments. However, as each us soon found, instead they grow and cohere and soon they turn into speeches. We could each soon see how our neighbors' passions and fascinations drove them and how they connected to our own.
That, of course, was the plan. We needed to get to know each other academically so that we could work together communally and profitably in the weekly meetings to come. This group seemed to need the service less. As each new fellow had arrived, I was pleased to see that they had immediately fallen in with others so that, by early afternoon each day, the offices were full, with conversations spilling over to the hall and into our little lounge.
Joyce had set the table around which we sat with special care for this first meeting. There were two pots of coffee brewed, regular and decaf, cookies and a rather elaborate chocolate cake. I was too distracted by the give and take of talk to notice the communal politeness that prevented each person from taking the first slice. Too much time passed before I wielded the knife.
The talking continued past the two hour mark and then to a close. We posed for a group photo and I took enough shots so that none of those eight pairs of eyes would be closed when the shutter released in at least one of the snaps. We turned to the vexing decision of dinner. "American or Asian fusion?" "Well, the second as long as you guarantee I don't have to eat curry!" "OK--looks like we eat 'merican."
Only a little later we were at the Union Grill. Somehow we managed to merge two tables for four diners into one for eight. Packed closely together, we labored long in deciding just which beers should be chosen. Or rather, as our waiter managed to convey to us, we labored too long. We plumbed the menu and dealt with the awkward linguistic fact that there is no French culinary equivalent for the word "blackened," let alone a corresponding concept in that nation's culinary repertoire. Hamburger is a good choice, I advised, and subsequent events proved me right.
We ate. We drank. We relaxed. As we relaxed, the conversation grew in intensity. Things that could be not be raised earlier where asked now. "Jim, I wanted to ask what you meant when you wrote..." Soon heads were squaring off over the table in energetic dispute. There came a wonderful moment at which I suddenly felt superfluous. The faces were leaning forward to hear better over the background noise and hands were flaying about in wild gestures. "Law of excluded middle," I kept hearing over the din. I slid my chair back and opened the shutter on my little camera to see what shapes some one and two second exposures might grab.
John D. Norton
Coffee with the Director
September 13, 2007