Tuesday, 19 September 2006
The First Coffee
On Monday, the last of our small group of Visiting Fellows arrived. The formal program of talks is already underway. Now it is Tuesday and time to start the informal program. The four Fellows are invited to afternoon coffee with the Director. It's more than just coffee. I also managed to conjure up a "Breton cake" from Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery in Millvale. It is unforgettable--a butter cake so rich that it seems like a cross between a cake and Scottish shortbread. I am a little too shy to ask Stephanie--just off the plane from Paris--if it measures up to the bakeries she just left.
Here's the plan, I announce, we'll meet regularly to read and discuss whatever you want. The schedule and the subject matter are up to you. Perhaps each other's work; perhaps something else interesting; but let's keep the reading short so everyone really reads it.
Today, however, I want us to get to know each other. Actually, I thought, this group needs the exercise rather less. I've noticed a camaraderie and intellectual engagement already developing, with one fellow already likely to show up in another's office. What I want from them is an extended statement of what they really care about in philosophy of science. That is a little scary to do in a new group. So I begin, as much to illustrate as to encourage. Whether they wanted it or not, they got a mini-intellectual biography: my fascination with science; my wonder at discovery and how that led me into history of science; the need to be assured that we really know what we know that led to much time pondering confirmation theory; and the outstanding problems that vex me. I start to fill the whiteboard with words as I talk.
Now it is the Fellows' turns. Nationally they are a very mixed group: a Greek via Minnesota, a Bulgarian, an Argentinian via Germany and a Frenchwoman. But the common fascinations begin clearly to emerge. Physics, in this group, is the repeated theme. Two are joined by a sense that there's some problem in knowing just what all the fancy physics represents, although they seem to differ in how to react to that uncertainty. Kant represents the clearer commonality for another pair. Both had strong experiences with Kant, but cannot agree on how to relate to Kant. One is the rebellious son, full of complaints and corrections; the other the loyal and obedient son. They will have a lot to talk about.
Some of the group are out-going; some are socially quiet; but they are all passionate about their work. That is the common bond that brought them to Pittsburgh.
Two hours have passed and the blackboard is filled. Stephanie offers the first reading for the next week. Without much cajoling from me, everyone lines up for a photo that, for once, includes me. Dinner will be, by general consensus, American food.
John D. Norton