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Benjamin DeMott Lecture

Johnson Chapel
Amherst College
August 30, 2010

Welcome to Amherst College.  

Once upon a time, undergraduates were required to attend morning “chapel” meetings here at least twice a week.  So I spent a lot of time in the uncomfortable seats you are now in.  Let me now report that the view from the podium is better. I am very pleased to have a chance to speak to you from it on this important occasion in your lives.

I know some of you were surprised that your undergraduate careers would begin with a summer reading assignment to prepare for this lecture.  A friend of mine happened to see the following tweet on the web (and I quote):

“My college sent me summer reading.  I was sad; then I found it’s b/c a Nobel Laureate alum is speaking at orientation.  Now excited!  Geek :)”

I will try not to disappoint geeks or anyone else.

This talk honors the memory of Benjamin DeMott, an extraordinary member of Amherst’s English Department and an influential observer of American culture, who died in 2005.  I was a devoted student in two of his courses---one on seventeenth century poetry, another on modern British fiction---and enjoyed numerous chats in his office.  I’d like to mention three disconnected and idiosyncratic recollections of his influence on me.  

First: when he recited the famous passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost that describes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he wept.  Sensing that the class was unsettled by his display of emotion, he explained that the passage reminded him of his young children playing in their sunlit garden and of their eventual need to grow up and leave it.  We were jolted and touched by this connection between literature and life.  

A second item: When DeMott’s first novel, The Body’s Cage, appeared, I dutifully bought it and asked him to inscribe it.  I am not sure what I hoped for, but he wrote “For Mr. Varmus, my favorite door-closer.”  It is true that I often sat near the door and would close it before class began, but I found---and still find---the intent of the inscription intriguing and mysterious.  

Third and less ambiguously: one day, he read aloud to the class from my assigned essay about Henry Green’s novel, Loving.  Probably unknown to him, I was thinking at that time about giving up my interest in medical school in favor of graduate school in English literature.  That small tribute to my essay made me think I might someday be successful in a field I hadn’t thought about before arriving at Amherst.

I tell you these things to illustrate how memorable the words and opinions of a great teacher like DeMott can be on impressionable  students, especially at a place as intimate as Amherst College, where teachers and students actually get to know each other.  

The memories of DeMott are also related to my over-arching ambition for this lecture:  to say, on the occasion of your entry into college, that---despite all your guidance counselors and the aptitude tests---we don’t really understand how lives take shape or how careers are chosen.  In asking you to read about William Herschel in Richard Holmes’ wonderful book, The Age of Wonder, and in now speaking about Herschel’s life and accomplishments, I will be touching on some things that you’ve come to college to learn, things I also came here to learn here some years ago:  What interests me? What gives me satisfaction? What are my real talents? And how am I going to develop and use them?

Holmes was writing about the Romantic Age, the period between 1770 and 1830, a time of great intellectual ferment in Europe, in both the arts and sciences. (Although barely mentioned in his book, the American and French Revolutions were also profoundly changing political history.)  More to my purpose today, the Romantic Age was also a time when cultural life was much less highly categorized and specialized than it is now.  Still, as I hope to show, many of the things Holmes tells us about the Romantic Age have resonance in our own very different times.

Consider our hero, William Herschel: trained as a musician, renowned in his twenties for both his oboe performances and symphonic composition, he ultimately became the most important astronomer of his day, the first person in over a thousand years to find a new planet, the source of radical new ideas about the universe, a brilliant fabricator of powerful telescopes, an explorer of the skies still honored today by the naming of new telescopes---on land and in space.  But he was also distinctly an amateur, largely self-taught, driven by his own curiosity about our galaxy and galaxies beyond, helped enormously by an intriguing and amazing woman--- his sister, another amateur who became famous for her discovery of comets---at a time when it was exceedingly rare to find women in science.

In the Romantic Age, science was not really a distinct profession.  Scientists were called “natural philosophers” if they were called anything at all.  (As Holmes points out, the term “scientist” didn’t officially enter our vocabulary until around 1840.)  Funders of research were royalty or the rich, not universities, public institutions, or governments.   The study of natural phenomena had been recognized in Europe as an organized activity only for just over one hundred years.  (There were older traditions in China and Islam.)  

In England, where Holmes’s story largely takes place, the Royal Society of London was the focal point for this notion that science was a communal function.  The Society was founded by enlightened people from all spheres of life---the arts, government, the legal and medical professions, the aristocracy---who were interested in natural philosophy and who enjoyed observing experiments or learning new information about the earth, its life forms, and the stars.  Its leaders, especially its long-term President, Joseph Banks---who provides continuity in Holmes’ narrative--- were willing to listen to anyone who shared those interests and showed aptitude.  So a German musician, like Herschel, living in a provincial town, like Bath, might quickly come to the attention of the Astronomer Royal if he set up a home-made telescope in the street for celestial viewing and had an unexpected encounter with the son of a member of the Royal Society.

How did it happen, this pivotal encounter that opens the first chapter I asked you to read?  And what then brought Herschel to his moments of scientific glory?

William was born in 1738, in Hanover, now a city in Germany, one of ten children in a musically accomplished family.  Taken from school at the age of fifteen, he joined his father and an older brother as members of a military band that played, among other places, in England, thanks to the tight familial bonds between the rulers of Hanover and England.  

Instantly enamored of English ways and culture, William learned the language and came back to live in a series of English towns where he was offered a succession of musical posts, culminating in 1766, when he was twenty eight, with an appointment as organist and musical director in the fashionable town of Bath, many hours west of London.  

Herschel was not just a journeyman musician.  Here is my evidence:

     Play CD of Herschel music

You have just heard part of the first movement from one of his oboe concertos.  It is terrific!  It testifies to Herschel’s skill as a performer, as well as a composer.  He lived too soon to be recorded directly, but he was nearly alone among musicians of the time in writing out his cadenzas.  So we know the difficulties of what he was willing to play as a soloist.  (Having been a very amateur oboist myself as a young adult, I know how hard these passages are and would never attempt one in front of this audience or any other.)

While exercising his prodigious musical talents, Herschel was also reading the best available texts on mathematics and astronomy.  Years earlier, his father had fostered William’s interest in the constellations and introduced him to the popular writings of James Ferguson, an early 18th century Scottish farmer who also taught himself to become an astronomer.  William was also learning how to make reflector telescopes--- the type advocated by Isaac Newton---so that he could observe the night sky directly.  Herschel’s growing obsession with astronomy brings me to my first and perhaps most important message of the evening: talent and training in the arts or humanities is not a barrier to the successful pursuit of science.  

Just as he travelled from music to astronomy, Herschel had also travelled from Hanover to England.  He was an immigrant, driven by curiosity about many things, undaunted by boundaries.  This is a continuing tradition in modern science.  Many of the best scientists in the U.S. today---fully one quarter of the members of our own National Academy of Sciences---were born elsewhere.  They were not deterred by the barriers of cultural differences to get themselves to places where science is respected, supported, and done well.

Herschel was skilled technically, not just intellectually.  That talent may have helped him to shape his oboe reeds from bamboo cane.  It certainly accounted for one of his most notable accomplishments---the construction of telescopes of increasing size, with perfectly polished mirrors over a meter in diameter.  These telescopes gave him unprecedented power to penetrate the night sky and to perceive new objects---most famously, a new planet; most profoundly, stars in all stages of the development.  As is true today in all fields of science, improved technology was the key to new discoveries.  And as is also true today, improved technology is often expensive.

From that monetary perspective, his famous nocturnal meeting with the young William Watson on the streets of Bath in 1778 was much more than quaint.  It led swiftly to a correspondence with the Astronomer Royal; to papers published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society; to audiences at the royal court; and finally to the patronage of the King, George the Third, the enlightened and witty man who was also the enemy of American revolutionaries and ultimately the victim of a brain deranged by a metabolic disease.  King George bought many of Herschel’s expensive telescopes and funded Herschel’s plans for telescopes scopes as large as forty feet in length.  These days, of course we turn mainly to our governments---or to our great foundations or wealthy Board members---not to royal families (which are often impoverished) for such support.  But that support is still essential, as I will remind you before we are done.

But for Herschel, as for all of us today, money, methods, and ideas are not enough.  We need co-workers and assistants.  Herschel found the best possible helper when his adoring, diminutive, brilliant, younger sister, Caroline, eagerly left Hanover in 1772 to try her luck as a vocalist with William’s musical group in Bath.  After a highly promising start, Caroline was persuaded by William to repudiate an offer to perform in London, in favor of assisting him with his astronomical observations.  As we learn from Holmes’ admiring account of Caroline’s life, her brother did not treat her very well----at least by modern standards.  (Those of you who read the assignment will recall the time she was “hooked” on a piece of equipment.)   But she did learn astronomy and, much later, became known throughout Europe for her sensational discoveries of new comets.

Nearly alone among women of her time, Caroline dramatized the capacity of women to master even very difficult scientific methods.  Surprisingly, this notion is still occasionally challenged today, even when we have so many more examples of women who have been enormously successful in so many fields.

Unfortunately, in early March of 1781, Caroline was not at her usual place at the other end of the telescope, recording her brother’s observations, when he had his most famous moment.  Close to the horizon, he sighted an object that proved to be a new planet, Uranus.  As Holmes emphasizes, the story of this discovery has been simplified into a simple “Eureka” moment over the years.  In fact, several more nights of viewing by both William and Caroline; confirmation by others, including the Astronomer Royal; deductions based on experience with comets, planets and stars; and calculations by others of the orbital movement of the new object were required to suggest that it was a planet rather than a star or a comet.  This is the way most science usually works.

Herschel took the discoverer’s prerogative to propose that his new planet be named Georgium Sidus, or George’s star, to honor his patron.  But this name was unpopular with the French who had no respect for an English king.  Finally, an international compromise was reached to name the planet for Urania, the goddess of astronomy.  Uranus was then the outermost known planet, and its orbit enlarged the volume of our galaxy two-fold.  Just as the public conception of the universe changed, Herschel’s cautious process of observation and deduction was condensed in the public retelling into a moment of Eureka.  In this way, the discovery became even more romantic and inspirational than it was inherently.  

Nothing displays the symbolic significance of this discovery better than a remarkable poem by the young poet, John Keats, written thirty-five years later, in 1816.  Keats was then twenty years old (not much older than most of you) and a medical student at a London hospital.  After a long night with friends, reading aloud and joyfully a translation of Homer’s Iliad by the early 17th century poet Chapman, Keats dashed off, in less than four hours, a sonnet that compared the evening’s revelation of great poetry to the discoveries by astronomers and explorers--- moments in which (as Holmes points out) “the geography of the earth or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever.”

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”
MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,   
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;   
   Round many western islands have I been   
  Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.  
  Oft of one wide expanse had I been told        
  That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;   
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene   
  Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:   
  Then felt I like some watcher of the skies   
   When a new planet swims into his ken;        
 Or like stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes   
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men   
  Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—   
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.  

Herschel was made famous at the time and is best remembered today for that “new planet” swimming “into his ken.”   But, in Holmes’ account, Herschel impressed me more by his revolutionary conception of the universe.  The conventional image of our galaxy---seen even today in some planetaria---shows the sun and orbiting planets inside a larger orb that is studded with fixed stars of various sizes.  But Herschel’s universe was dynamic and of uncertain, unthinkable vastness.  He envisioned our galaxy moving through three-dimensional space.  That deep space was punctuated with stars in various phases of development----as gaseous condensations in early stages of star formation, as mature stars, and as stars undergoing extinction.  He viewed the universe as “a luxuriant garden which contains the greatest variety of productions, in different flourishing beds…resembling… germination, blooming, foliage, fecundity, fading, withering, and corruption of a plant.”

He also realized that stars that seemed small to us might be extraordinarily large, but a great distances---distances so great that the stars might be gone by the time their light reached us here on earth---an idea that long preceded any careful calculation of the speed of light. In these ways, Herschel changed the way we think of our place in the universe—or paved the way for that change---even more profoundly than Copernicus or Galileo.  (Of course, not even Herschel got everything right, and Holmes takes amusing note of his beliefs that there were forests and other creatures on the moon, that life like ours was possible under the surface of the sun and on other planets.)

Deductions and conjectures by a great astronomer about the composition and function of the universe remind us that astronomy is different from other sciences---more dependent on observation than experiment, and more closely tied to theology and philosophy than to the practical arts like medicine or manufacturing.  Astronomy was probably man’s first science.  Changes in the moon and the stars in the clear skies of a non-illuminated world would have been an irresistible object of curiosity, providing ideas for myths about our origins and for gods that control our fates.  Yet, by the 16th century, astronomy had also become a very pragmatic discipline---especially for a nation, like England, with her sailors and traders, that depended on navigation guided by the sun and the stars.  In Herschel’s own century, for instance, many astronomers had responded to a royal offer of a prize for a reliable way to determine longitude while at sea.  And, as we’ve seen, success in astronomy had become a source of national pride and a prized symbol of royal power.

At this point in this lecture, I could recall, with pleasure, much more about Holmes’ account of his extraordinary astronomer----Hershel’s discovery of infrared energy and planetary moons; his grand parties inside the forty foot telescope; his marriage and its damaging effects on Caroline; his difficulties in providing career guidance to his brilliant son.  Instead, before giving Ben DeMott the final word, I would like to turn briefly to another story---one that links Herschel’s transformed view of the heavens to a freshman’s arrival at Amherst College at the time of another transformation of the sky.  


I was that freshman.  My mother dropped me off at 302 Stearns Hall in early September, 1957.  A few weeks later, on the evening of October 4th (my sister’s birthday), I learned from gossip and the radio that the Soviet Union had, for the first time, placed a man-made object into an orbit around the earth; this was the satellite called Sputnik.  At that moment, a new heavenly sphere, a mini-moon, was circling the earth, supposedly visible in the night sky, issuing a detectable rhythmic signal, allegedly in the key of A-flat.  (Late that night, I went out of Stearns Hall and onto the quad but couldn’t hear or see anything unusual.)

Although still in an earthly orbit, not really very far away, and not expected to pose any direct danger, Sputnik had an enormous impact.  Americans were then pre-occupied with the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and for most of them Sputnik was a frightening development.  The immediate concerns were about espionage or the delivery of weapons.

Our president at that time was Dwight (“Ike”) Eisenhower, a hero of World War Two, someone who seems more and more sensible with the passage of time.  But in his own time, he was often thought to be a lightweight who spent inordinate amounts of time fishing and golfing.

The launch of Sputnik further undermined confidence in Eisenhower, especially since he seemed to have misjudged the public’s reaction by offering a surprisingly temperate response to Sputnik.  We have learned from declassified papers that he knew well beforehand that a Soviet launch was imminent; was advised that Sputnik posed no immediate dangers; and was pleased that the Soviets were  treating space as neutral territory and the launch as a scientific rather than a military enterprise.  

Still the public was skeptical and worried.  Its views of the famously golf-loving President were put into verse---not quite with the skill of John Keats---by the Democratic governor of Michigan, G. Mennon (Soapy) Williams:

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it's a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam's asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

With time, Sputnik came to be viewed as evidence for an inherently exciting idea---that man is not earth-bound.  But by taking a first step towards space travel, the USSR had also demonstrated a kind of scientific pre-eminence.  Although Sputnik was small (only about 190 lbs) and essentially empty, it was a lot bigger than the planned first US satellite (about 3 lbs).  In addition, a month later a much bigger Soviet satellite (1100 lbs) was launched into orbit, where it remained for over three months.

Sputnik raised some pragmatic questions for the US government:

  • Should space science be controlled by the military or civilian services?  A year later, the Eisenhower administration created NASA, a civilian space agency.  
  • Should the US undertake a yet more ambitious effort in space?  In 1961, John Kennedy pledged to send Americans to the moon and we landed there in 1969, an mere eight years later.
  • Should the exploration of space be conducted by human beings or by robotic probes?  (This argument is still heated today.)

A more general question posed by Sputnik turned out to be especially significant:

  • Was the USSR becoming the dominant power in science and technology?  In an effort to avoid that, the US dramatically increased its investments in science---in education, training, and research.

None of this seemed to have any immediate effect on my own aspirations.  If anything, I moved away from science and medicine, more heavily influenced by Ben DeMott, Bill Pritchard, and other great teachers of literature.

But several years later, after I had reverted to and graduated from medical school, an unusually late exposure to research at the National Institutes of Health inspired me to pursue a scientific career.  This happened because the Vietnam War, one of the hottest manifestations of the Cold War, impelled me to perform government service.  (A choice between research at the NIH and military service in Vietnam was not difficult.)  At that time, in the late 1960’s, the influence of Sputnik was still in play.  Abundant funding for science, a partial legacy of the launch, made a transition to independent scientific work relatively easy, even for a young physician schooled mainly in English literature.  

So Sputnik and the Cold War were spurs to Federal funding of American science in that era, just as European competition for intellectual supremacy helped Herschel secure money for his telescopes from the treasury at Windsor Castle.  What does this mean for those of you who now aspire to a scientific career---or to those of you who will aspire to one after your exposure to some of the great science teachers on this campus?  

This has to be a matter of concern.  Funding for research and training has been static or in decline across scientific disciplines for the past several years or more.  Our country is in the midst of a serious recession, we are waging two wars, Congress is in partisan gridlock, and the administration is considering budget cuts to halt further growth of national debt.   One of our best bets is our enlightened president, who views science and technology as the means, perhaps the only sensible means, to achieve the world’s aspirations: alternative energy sources, better health, reversal of climate change, environmental remediation, and economic revitalization. But, as President Obama knows, science also needs another critical ingredient for success: a love of discovery itself, driven by curiosity, regardless of practical applications.


In 1955, after his first four years as a teacher at Amherst, Ben DeMott was asked by the students who started with him as freshmen to speak to them at the moment of their departure.  He began by disabusing them of some of the purely sentimental reasons why they might be sorry to leave.  For instance, he said, any “emotion of regret” should not be ascribed to the idea that “ the time in which you led the life of the mind is coming to an end.”  On the contrary, he argued, “the life of the mind once begun ends only in the grave.”  And for many “the life of the mind does not begin until after college….  For under a complex academic curriculum [he continued] the student is more nearly a victim than a free agent, and the life of the mind is one that can only be successfully led in the state of freedom.”  But if there is inherent tension between the institution and each student, he also argued that the College he had come to know---and the one I also knew---was one in which “personal connections are somewhat more vividly realized… than in many institutions,”  that “the massive abstraction [of the institution] did not engulf the relations of individuals….” 

To you who are now entering this institution fifty-five years after DeMott’s farewell to his first seniors, I hope that this is what you will also find: that close relations---among students, between students and faculty---will encourage musicians to become astronomers; pre-meds to become literary scholars; and everyone to exercise a wide-ranging curiosity that is personally satisfying and perhaps also beneficial to others.