July 11-13, Lund, Sweden.
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The most significant event in the Center’s calendar happens once every four years. Then we have our “Quadrennial Fellows Conference” or just “Quad.” It is a reunion event to which all past Center Fellows are invited. They are dense conferences. They have many parallel sessions and some plenary sessions and go for three days. They are also a wonderfully human event. Old friends who may not have seen each other since the last Quad or since their visit in the Center are thrown together.
To make it work, we hold our Quads in interesting places. Four years ago we met in Mugla, in rural Turkey, and stayed in a tiny resort town on the Aegean Sea. Four years before that, it was the classic, Norman Rockwell-esque Athens, Ohio. And before that it was Rytro in Poland.
This year, this July, it is in Lund, in Southern Sweden. Lund is a charming, European university town. It has town center of narrow cobblestoned streets, built around a magnificent cathedral. It is a town that invites a quiet stroll and leisurely cup of coffee at a cafe.
Most importantly, it has Lund University and past fellows Johannes Persson and Nils-Eric Sahlin. I don’t know if Nils-Eric and Johannes quite knew what they were getting into when they entertained the idea of hosting the Quad conference in Lund. The first tentative discussions happened over four years ahead of the event. It takes that long to pull the pieces together. Then, as the event drew nearer, more people were drawn in until we had to fill a full page of the conference book with thanks to them.
And I do really thank them all. It was a collaborative event in which people on opposite sides of an ocean worked together, sometimes in rapid exchanges. In Pittsburgh we had our staff: Karen Kovalchick, Carolyn Oblak, Cheryl Greer, Joyce McDonald, and Trey Boone. In Lund, Nils-Eric and Johannes were helped by Eva Sjöstrand and, in the final days Niclas, Hanna and Ieva. Then there’s the program committee -- it was chaired by Nils-Eric and Peter Machamer and had Sarah Green, Johannes Persson, Trey Boone and myself on it.
I arrived in Lund a little early, on the Friday before the conference. Nils-Eric met with me over dinner. He carried the heavy burden of the conference with him to the table. He explained to me, in animated despair, that he had resigned himself to disaster and catastrophe.
As he explained this, I pulled out my camera and captured the moment. He kept talking, powered by the relief of the unburdening.
Of course, I knew that no such disaster would happen. Everything was running perfectly. The Fellows would arrive shortly and pick up their conference program books and name tags at the hotel reception. They were already arriving on Sunday afternoon as I headed off for a planning meeting at LUX, the site of the conference.
There things were humming. Eva Sjöstrand waved me down, as I tried my best to walk past the conference site at LUX into some distant Swedish woods. At LUX I found everything well in hand. We had already marveled from a distance in Pittsburgh just how dedicated and thorough Eva was in all the planning. We now joined in the task of setting up tables for the reception area, inspecting the conference rooms and reviewing all the last minute details. The rooms were fully equipped, each with a computer and adapters, ready to run.
Every detail had been addressed, right down to the strict no smoking policy.
Nils-Eric and Eva had prepared some wonderfully designed t-shirts for everyone. In a moment of dubious inspiration, Nils-Eric decided that organizers only would wear the bright pink t-shirts. That way, everyone would know who to ask for help. I held mine up to my chest while Sarah Green took the photo. Pink has never been my color.
When all was done, Eva produced some water, still and sparkling, and some pastries. We needed sustenance, she declared, after all the work.
“So,” I thought to myself, “it is possible to think of everything!”
Sarah and I walked back to our hotels. As we lingered on the street, one past Fellow after another appeared from inside or from a stroll around the town. The conference is beginning, like a boulder rolling down a hill. It can no longer be stopped.
Peter and Gereon were where you would expect them to be, in the bar of the Grand Hotel.
The Grand Hotel, where I am staying, is true to its name. It is a spectacular building with luminous wood and polished marble everywhere. The staff is attentive and helpful, but I feel like an imposter who does not deserve the splendor. I’m hoping the feeling will pass.
The conference has now started.
At 9:30am, after everyone has arrived and picked up their t-shirts, we assemble for an opening orientation. Nils-Eric began. His major concern was to alert everyone to timing changes. The bus leaves for the excursion on Tuesday at 1:15pm (not 1:30pm as the conference book says). There’s a ferry to catch, so we must leave on time, with you (we hope) or without you, if you are late.
There would also be a “mystery event” this evening at 6:40pm after the talks are over. Do not leave before then, Nils-Eric insisted. His manner flagged clearly that this was not a matter to dispute or to pursue with further questions.
Then it was my turn. I worked my way through the list of people to thank and then made some miscellaneous announcements. There were many to thank. This was a collaborative effort of many hands. I could see the weariness spreading over the assembled group. It is time for something a little lighter.
Our excursion will be to the island of Ven. There is no better place to go, I said. This is a place of legend in HPS circles. It is where the last great, naked-eye astronomer, Tycho Brahe, had made his observations in the sixteenth century. These were the observations that Kepler used to arrive at his famous discoveries concerning planetary motion. We had already circulated a poll to find who wanted to go to the reconstructed observatory; and who wanted to visit the distillery on the island.
“I found your confidence in us heartening,” I said, “No one paused to reflect on the extreme improbability that this tiny island of legend might have a distillery. Did no one suspect that this might be a ruse, a test of your academic sincerity? Choose the distillery and we will send you off to a reeducation program!”
I like to think that I deadpanned these lines well-enough so that at least some in the room had to wonder if they had failed a devious test. It was time to end the ruse.
“Your confidence in us was not misplaced,” I concluded, “There is indeed a distillery.”
The talks proceeded well during the day. Even though the winding streets and parks of Lund were an ever present lure, as far as I could tell, everyone stayed in the conference. The talks were very well attended.
Now finally it came time for the mystery event. All would be revealed. While we waited in the reception area, wondering, six elegantly dressed figures appeared. They are, I later learned, the “Giant Finn Quartet.” (I guessed that quartet has a novel meaning in Sweden.) The six mounted a ledge and began to sing. To my novice ears, they were very accomplished.
It was a harmonic way to end the day. As they sang, I thought to myself and later said to Nils-Eric, it’s a good thing this is the last Quad conference I’m organizing. How could I ever top this?! I thought that was all there was to the mystery event.
Then Nils-Eric took the stage and the real reason for the event was revealed. These are my last months as director and a farewell was planned. It was done well. That is, it was done quickly without great fuss. Peter Machamer made a short speech and presented me with a medal from the University.
I made a short speech of thanks and then turned to fulfill my obligation.
Karen Kovalchick, our long-time Assistant Director, retired earlier in the year. It would have been wonderful if she could have come to the conference. She knows almost everyone here. Alas, she is trapped by her dogs, who will not permit such a long trip. She sent me a letter to read out to everyone. It was a lovely letter. It recalled the kindness of Fellows who visited and the friendships that had developed. Many Fellows pulled me aside afterwards to tell me that they found Karen’s words moving.
The event closed with a final song. It was, I inferred, in my honor. For as they began to sing, they each put on large, round cartoonish glasses, quite like the ones I wear.
The second day of our conference has now come. The morning was filled with short plenary lectures. Each speaker was kept carefully to time by the chairs. This was essential since we could not be late for the busses that would take us on the excursion.
The excursion was a marvel of coordination. The buses left punctually at 1:15pm. A nice packed lunch was provided for the bus ride.
The buses took us to the ferry at Landskrone. We boarded for Ven. As we crossed the waters to the island, we watched with a mix of awe and anxiety as fierce storm clouds moved all around. We escaped with just a gentle sprinkling.
Then the picturesque island approached.
More buses took us to the Tycho Brahe museum, where we were taken on a quite thorough tour.
Then we split, some of us stayed at the museum. Others visited the whiskey distillery.
The day ended on a beach on the island at the village of Kyrkbacken. Two large tents had been set up and a catered dinner was laid out for us.
It was a quite wonderful day. This was an especially relaxed way to enjoy dinner. We could eat and chat with friends, old and newly made, while watching the waves and water.
Nils-Eric was still fretting. Were we losing someone in the jumps between ferries and buses? Was everyone having a good time? The answers were no (mostly) and then most definitely yes. I think we finally managed to convince him of this after dinner when we offered him a loud and rousing cheer!
There was one more very full day of the conference to go. Travel and the excursion had wearied us. So it was heartening to see that the rooms with the talks remained quite full to the end. It was not hard to understand. This is an accomplished group of philosophers of science and they do give good talks!
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John D. Norton