Sidebar Surprises: Opening Convocation Address 2011
August 28, 2011 By chemistry professor Jeff Fieberg
Good evening! As President Roush said, I am a chemistry professor and I am known for exploding hydrogen balloons. Tonight, however, I promised Dean Fabritius that I would not blow anything up . . . How about a small balloon?
[Pull out balloon, pull out lighter, light lighter, put lighter away, pull out scissors, inhale gas]
[Said in a low pitch from inhaling a gas denser than air]
“Surprise! Life is full of surprises! That was not hydrogen or helium!”
Class of 2015, tonight let’s consider the web page you began constructing (metaphorically) this week, www.MyCentreExperience.com. While your Centre experience will include many meaningful extracurricular activities, the faculty members on the stage know that the home page of your site features the most important aspect of your college experience—your academic experience. Consider the main article on the home page to be the coursework that directly relates to your chosen major and/or your career path.
Now I realize that I just freaked many of you out, because when trying to access your “probable career” link, the dreaded “Error 404: File not found” pops up—you are “undecided.” Don’t worry—24 years ago I sat where you are tonight. And the main article on my web page (dang it—no web pages in 1987!) . . . the main idea chiseled into my stone tablet after “chosen career” was: ceramic engineer. So, how did I wind up as a chemistry professor, performing collaborative research with Centre’s religion program to unroll and date ancient amulets, and teaching a course on Chemistry in Art in London even though in high school, I never took an art history or studio art course? The awesome thing is that it all began at this magical place—I was transformed by surprises while navigating sidebars, those academic experiences that do not directly count toward your major or career goal.
My interest in art began in the Humanities sequence during my freshman year (back in the stone age, we used to be called “freshmen”). I truly enjoyed analyzing the evolution of architecture and studying the artistic elements of Renaissance painting. My aesthetic appreciation deepened considerably during two more sidebar courses taken my senior year, when I studied art, architecture and music in Paris, Florence, Munich, and Amsterdam. And what really got me was following the progression of painting from Realism to Abstraction. The paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, in particular, spoke to me. Kandinsky is the artist typically credited with taking the courageous step to complete abstraction. On the brink of his final step to absolute abstraction, Kandinsky wrote, “A terrifying abyss of all kinds of questions, a wealth of responsibilities stretched before me. And most important of all: what is to replace the missing object?” Kandinsky wrote prolifically about his art theory, explaining the symbolism of his choice of geometrical objects and colors in his paintings.
You may be saying, “OK, I understand where your interest in art originated. But what about this “Chemistry in Art” thing? I thought those two disciplines had zero overlap!”
Guess what—for those of you who despise science in general, and chemistry in particular, I’ll let you in on a little secret: chemistry is everywhere. In fact, in class, one of my favorite sidebar sayings, taken from a bumper sticker is, “What in the world isn’t chemistry???!!!!” And why is it that this reaction that science and art are disparate topics is so accepted by many? Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, technologist, and scientist. In fact, da Vinci wrote, “Those who devote themselves to [artistic] practice without science are like sailors who put to sea without a rudder or compass and who can never be certain where they are going.”
In my course, my students combine science and art to understand the chemical causes of color of pigments in paintings and learn how analytical techniques are used in conservation science and forgery investigations.
Centre College’s motto, Doctrina Lux Mentis, means “learning is the light of the mind.” “Light” may take on many meanings and symbols. But the technical name for light is electromagnetic radiation and the electromagnetic spectrum includes light that we cannot detect with our eyes, including X-rays, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Tonight, I want you to think of the non-visible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to represent the general areas of Centre College’s curriculum: Humanities, Society, Science, and Fundamental Questions. And if you have access to the correct instrumentation (laser sources and photon detectors), you will expand the light of your mind beyond the visible range and into the IR, UV and X-ray regions along the entire spectrum of scholarship—aesthetic, societal, scientific, and ethical.
When you study abroad, be sure to power your detectors over the entire range of the scholarship spectrum, including the scientific region; in London, visit the Royal Institution where 10 elements were discovered and stroll the sand walk at Darwin’s House and reflect on the origins of life; in Strasbourg, take time to understand the astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral; in Merida, visit a now-defunct sisal rope-making factory to understand how technology helped to reshape and enslave part of Yucatan society.
During your time at Centre, you may optimize your detectors to one or two primary regions of the scholarship spectrum. So, while some of my sidebar classes increased the sensitivity of my “aesthetic detector,” for many of you, your science courses will be sidebars.
Louis Pasteur, professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Make sure that you develop your detectors with a broad bandwidth with which to view the world, so you are prepared to detect those faint photons being emitted from your sidebar courses.
As a Centre College graduate, you will see connections between disciplines that may appear unrelated to others—religion and chemistry, philosophy and physics, or chemistry and art. I am confident that your development of detectors across the scholarship spectrum will enhance your ability to ask insightful questions and provide you with tools to seek answers to many of those questions.
For example, we may ask, “What is a painting?” Well, it depends on which region of the scholarship spectrum you use to look at it. Consider Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas. The painting captures la vie modern (the modern life) of Paris with the bourgeoisie in a park, holding umbrellas over their heads. Using our societal detector, the painting is a commentary of the uneasiness that the one working-class woman feels as she navigates through the bourgeoisie crowd. Our aesthetic detector tells us the painting is in the Impressionist style, the umbrellas frame the composition, and we appreciate Renoir’s feathery brushstrokes and mood felt by his choice of blues. The aesthetic and scientific detectors also tell us that the brushwork of the working-class woman is different—the brushstrokes are smoother and broader than the other figures. Ultimately, the painting is made of materials (chemicals—gasp!).
A scientist can investigate a painting with a barrage of analytical techniques. Using x-ray fluorescence, a scientist can determine that the painting is dominated by the use of cobalt blue, a pigment invented (by a chemist) in 1802. Can such a seemingly despotic discipline, chemistry, be partly responsible for the beauty of Renoir’s painting? The scientific detector shows us that Renoir reworked the primary figure, the working-class woman—she was originally dressed in high fashion with a hat and lace collar. How do we know this? X-radiography penetrates through the canvas and reveals the original lead white paint of the earlier version. Our scientific detector leads us to a question, “Why did Renoir rework the painting?” Our societal detector may tell us the answer. Between these versions, Renoir took a trip to Italy and on the way back, spent an extended stay with Cezanne in southern France. The changes in Renoir’s painting show the influence of Cezanne in the added geometrical composition of the umbrellas, smoother brush strokes, and working-class subject. Each detector enhances our understanding of this painting, and, ultimately, of the world.
I want to take the last part of my talk to carry out an exercise. Class of 2015, let’s consider your life as a painting. A painting begins with the support—perhaps canvas or wood panel. Your support has been chosen before you arrived at Centre—your family has provided you with this solid foundation. A preparatory layer called the grounds is usually worked directly onto the support. Your grounds are also in place—your teachers and friends have contributed to preparing you for this next step in your life. And if you have checked the “undecided” box for your “probable major,” this is where your painting now stands. Some of you have your major and career path all planned out—you have sketched out your plan as an underdrawing in charcoal or graphite. All of you are now ready to paint!
What will your painting look like after four years? Some of you will attempt a huge canvas, filling it with double majors, athletics, service activities, extracurriculars, and fraternity parties; some of you will make a small masterpiece, staying focused on a few activities. And there are so many styles that each of you may attempt! If you choose to major in chemistry, your canvas may explode with color! Some of you will become so enthralled with a sidebar course that you will rework your entire painting to major in that subject. Some of you will choose to not work as hard as necessary to go to medical school—you will stare into an abyss not unlike that of Kandinsky—what to replace your original object? Be as courageous, creative and convictive as Kandinsky with how you rework your canvas. I advise all of you to make your painting your painting, not a forgery.
As you look upon other people’s paintings and the surrounding world, how sensitive will your detectors be across the scholarship spectrum? Each person who looks upon your painting will see something different. Some people will only be able to view the surface of your painting; others will be able to see your original intentions (using x-radiography).
Your painting will never be finished—but if incompatible materials are placed adjacent to each other, a painting may quickly crack and flake. What future conservation issues could you avoid with a little extra planning, a little extra knowledge, a little extra hard work during your four years at Centre?
While the main subject and style of your paintings as the Class of 2015 will all be different, there will be some common features from the heart of your liberal arts education. And some features barely noticeable at graduation (sidebars), may be the parts that, as your painting gets reworked, will become a greater focus of your painting, your life.
My initial demonstration that lowered the pitch of my voice may have been surprising to you. At Centre, you will be transformed in ways you cannot even imagine at this moment.
Class of 2015, let me summarize my charge to you: as you construct your web page, prepare to light up the full spectrum of your mind, get ready to splash some paint onto your canvas, and embrace those sidebar surprises, because you never know where they may take you!
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Forbes magazine ranks Centre 24th among all the nation's colleges and universities and has named Centre No. 1 among all institutions of higher education in the South for two years in a row. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, click here.