Message from the President
“…they are to be made like the light of stars…” (Apocrypha—2 Esdras 7:97)
The winter sky of a North Country night is the beginning of wonder and wisdom. St. Lawrence students and alumni, however, are more naturally prone to tell subzero stories than the keepsake glimpse of a shooting star. And the longer one is away from our college years, the more extreme becomes the severe dip of remembered temperatures.
I have never argued the weather records when hearing broken thermometer claims at Reunion. But, c’mon, when walking home from Park and Main, is there any cracking difference between the feeling of minus 40 and only minus 25? Unguarded bare skin on the coldest, snow-crunchiest Canton night is at risk in seconds, not minutes, of survival.
Robert Frost once pondered fire and ice as massive powers to measure, giving neither the ultimate edge, but leaving them as comparable forces able to create or destroy. Fire melts ice. Ice quenches fire. But they can be taken together, too, at least in a student’s imagination, and then, as in my case, carried decades later into a lifetime assent of awe. It is an awe formed by opposing powers, unscaled, unexplained, and undeniable.
When the air doubles down below ice-making levels, the stars, lyrically thought to be the inexhaustible fires of the universe, are never more spectacular. What is truly felt is a rare combination of elemental terror and beauty in those frigid St. Lawrence nights. Those hasty occasions of extreme cold and traceable stars escort learning into the deeps.
Today’s students, in accord with prior generations, seem mostly indifferent to the overhead astronomy, no more visible anywhere than on the St. Lawrence campus. They may give passing notice to the Dipper on their way to the night’s music. And even if they catch the stick figure of Canis Major, they never mention to anyone their joy of stitching with their eyes the embroidery of the cosmos.
Wisdom, like wonder, requires an appetite perspective. Mere wonder will not resolve the issues of life, but wise reflection can carry the most wearisome days to the other side of the problem.
And yet, I note recent individual conversations with students who brighten when asked if they have seen aurora borealis (the northern lights). A first-year student, informing me about the ideal electro-magnetic conditions of that phenomenon return in a few years, also admitted to me his sincere bucket-list ambition for that experience before he graduates.
Why may such flashes of night wonder be important in a liberal arts education? For starters, there is more to the story than knowing the difference between a lightning rod and a light-year. For the record, about 50 years ago, an Australian farmer headed out one morning to play tennis. As he opened the door of his house, he was startled to see “an enormous ball of fire that suddenly whooshed across the sky.” It looked like William Blake’s image of Elijah riding a chariot of fire.
The farmer heard a booming explosion, like the crack of doom, and saw wisps of smoke pluming skyward near the little town of Murchison. Over the next few weeks, dozens of basalt-like fragments were gathered nearby and sent to museums and universities all over the world. The total collected mass of the Murchison meteorite weighed more than 200 pounds.
The high significance of the meteorite’s composition was later understood when American scientists announced that in this specimen they had identified five of the organic bases needed to compose the human genetic code. The amino acids necessary to form protein molecules and DNA were present in this object from space. At the time, the director of the research calmly remarked, “I like to think that the universe is in the business of making life. There is a characteristic of life in almost everything, and at a certain point it becomes recognizable.” He was echoing words from a 2,000-year-old pre-scientific source: “they are to be made like the light of stars.”
The story gets better in the present day. In January 2020, scientists confirmed that the oldest material found on earth, so far, is the silicon carbide particles of the Murchison meteorite, determined to be 7 billion years old. That makes it 2.5 billion years older than the Earth and solar system. Every human intellectual endeavor must now contemplate what that is supposed to mean. Move over spectroscopy and make room for the poet’s trope. Physics and philosophy, Planck and Plato, drink from the same cup.
More than any place in my long professional travels, whether institutions of art, commerce, or research, the liberal arts college remains the surest consolidation of insight about the unchanging big questions informed by ever-changing minds. In other words, a magnificent discovery, too large for the most capacious single mind to comprehend, can be scaled to a small college world of mixed disciplines, to something individual, even intangibly personal.
While the joy of finding things out begins in wonder, begins with the wink of Venus at dusk, pure knowing is never enough. What don’t we know that we still have to learn? What other thought begins in the subzero night, when infinity is that strange companion lighting the way?
The beginning of wisdom has many starting words, but mostly it’s the desire of looking up to catch a moment of reassurance. Wisdom, like wonder, requires an appetite perspective. Mere wonder will not resolve the issues of life, but wise reflection can carry the most wearisome days to the other side of the problem.
A riveting Laurentian raconteur and orator, Seth Brooks, Class of 1922, for all the years I knew him, kept tacked on the inside door of his office an index card with a sentence written out in his unique cursive hand. It was a line from playwright George Bernard Shaw. “Look to the stars; there are more important things than personal problems.” Remembering those coldest, clearest St. Lawrence nights will ultimately console us in life later on, when facing whatever seems unbearable, when we most need to be dazzled again, by the sheer silence speaking through the stars.—WLF