The Big Question
5 September 2012
This afternoon is the first of our weekly reading group meetings. This is where we hope to solidify a process already underway: the transformation of eight disparate scholars from many places into a single, supportive community.
Each term our group is different. This one has three from the US, three from Germany and one each from Turkey and Italy. In melding them, I look for help from a universal. Every culture takes food as its organizing principle. The dinner table is where families meet and outsiders feel privileged to sit. Each meeting I try to have something nice on the table. Eating together sends the hidden message that we are family.
Over the weekend, I'd been in Ikea, watching the frenzy of new students in town empty the shelves. In the freezer section, I'd found some beautiful tarts. At least the photos on the box covers were beautiful and, I suspected, more beautiful than what was inside.
That suspicion lingered and required a photographic test. The tarts were thawed and laid out on the table. While the Fellows drifted in for the meeting, Kyle and Dennis helped me arrange them for a little photo shoot.
With everyone assembled, our first task was to take photos with the instant camera for the Wall of Fame. This is an awkward moment. No one likes to have their photo taken. I've learned the best strategy is make light of it. ("You are all ugly but the good news is that you look better today that you ever will again!") Then I zoom round taking the photos like a nurse jabbing patients with a syringe before they've even realized the danger.
What follows is the calm as they inspect the images slowly forming. It's encouraging. No one takes me up on the offer of a reshoot.
They take their turns pinning them on the Wall.
Now we turn to the serious business. I make my speech. Please use your offices. Be the sort of audience you would like to have in a talk; philosophy of science is not a blood sport. I feel awkward making the speech and I am trying to decipher the smiles that mask their faces. Finally, we need to decide which twelve pages we will read next week.
The speech passes quickly. What will occupy the bulk of our time is a simple exercise. We need to share our intellectual biographies. We need to hear from each other what we care about, what we think about, what makes us tick intellectually.
This year, I thought I'd try something new: the Big Question. What is the one you'd most like to have answered? What is the one that lives at the heart of your thought and work? Write it up on the white board. All this can seem challenging. So I went first. Then another took a turn and the board began to fill.
As the biographies unfolded, I was looking for the connections that would bond us. They came. Idealization, explanation, psychology, psychopathology and a lot more that I couldn't keep track of. Maria had an interest in creativity. That got my interest since I work hard to make the Center a creative place. I pressed her. If you can choose when to take a break when you are working on a hard problem, that, the research shows, increases the chances of a solution. There were human connections. Two of our number were drawn into philosophy of science by the wonderful experience of Arthur Fine as a teacher.
At the end, we lined up for the family portrait. I used a self-timer so that, for once, I am in a photo.
When we broke, Collin came up to me with an astonished look. "Was Chris Pincock a fellow?" He'd seen his photo on the Wall. "He's the one who turned me on to mathematical idealizations!"
It was time for our family dinner. We are in the last warm days of summer, so we can still find a place to eat outdoors. We took the bus to the Doublewide Grill on the Southside. For this communal photo, I stood high up on a neighboring table. That explains the looks of amusement and embarrassment.
The food here is decidedly American. "No one thinks buffaloes have wings," I explained, "The dish was invented in Buffalo, NY."
And here, right on the ketchup bottle, is the keystone, the symbol of Pennsylvania. Serife captured the moment on her iPad.
"It's a Pittsburgh company," one said. "I always thought Heinz was a German company. It's all the way through Germany!"
Serife realized that I am forever excluded from the photos. She demanded my camera and took this. I think it's quite a nice one, even if I am ugly, because I look better today...