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The Greater Community of Scholars Extended in Time
Professor Walter Alvarez
As a geologist who studies the Earth's past, recorded in sedimentary rocks, I consider myself a historian, and in any question I can't help thinking about the dimension of time.
As a community of scholars, those of us here at Berkeley today will be thought of in future times as contemporaries, which means we have the possibility of talking to each other--whether or not we choose to do so. But the community of scholars is broader than just us here and our other contemporaries around the world. Our community extends back into the past and forward into the future as well. We can think of ourselves as colleagues of Plato and Aristotle, and as friends of Dante and Francis Bacon. And in addition to the great generalists, we each have long-gone colleagues in our own particular fields as well. If only we could talk with our colleagues of the past, as we can with our contemporaries....
As a geologist, my colleagues include Claudius Ptolemy, who worked at the Library of Alexandria, probably the greatest community of scholars in the classical world. Ptolemy's research on the Earth and the planets set the standard for over a thousand years. He is best known for the Almagest, his great book on astronomy, but his other book, the Geography, was a long listing of the latitudes and longitudes of cities and harbors and headlands, as well as could be determined in the second century A.D. It was the first digital atlas, and I would love to be able to show Ptolemy the digital atlases we have available now, like the one that produces the beautiful colored relief maps of Italy I am studying now with my students, as we try to understand the evolution of the Italian landscape through time.
My community of scholars also includes Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century and Nicholas Steno in the seventeenth. The two of them made sophisticated observations on the rocks of Italy, long before anyone else cared, but to me their observations are wonderful. Looking at Leonardo's drawings of deformed rock outcrops or Steno's diagrams of the Arno Valley sediments, I can almost recognize places where I have worked myself. If only we could go on a field trip together--how much we three would have to say to each other!
Perhaps you have read the recent book, The Map that Changed the World, by Simon Winchester. It tells the story of my colleague, William Smith, who invented stratigraphy as a science in late eighteenth-century England. As a surveyor in coal mines and then as a canal builder, William Smith was the first to understand that rock layers occur in regular sequences recording the passage of time. He then realized that fossils could be used to determine the relative ages of sedimentary rocks, and finally he made the first geologic map--a large, beautiful work of science and art that showed how the bedrock of England was put together. My work as an Earth historian has all been built on the principles that William Smith discovered, and I would love to be able to tell him about what I have found.
Sometimes I imagine I am having lunch at the Faculty Club with Harry Hess, who discovered sea-floor spreading, paved the way for plate tectonics, and planned the Apollo science on the Moon. Uncle Harry, as we called him, was my thesis supervisor at Princeton. It has always been a sadness for me that he died before I really got on track as a scientist, and I never had the chance to tell him about any of the exciting things I've worked on. I wish I could talk to Uncle Harry just once more. We would have so much to say.
This is just a pleasant fantasy, of course. They are all dead and gone, and the remoteness of time past limits all such conversations to the imagination. I will never really talk with Uncle Harry again, much less with William Smith or Claudius Ptolemy. We are isolated in time, and the isolation is frightening to think about.
Once, while I was reading about special relativity, it came home to me that at the speed of light--a fundamental constant of the universe--one second is equivalent to 186,000 miles. And I realized that in this sense, something that happened a second ago is as remote as something 186,000 miles away. For a geologist used to thinking about hundreds of millions of years, the realization came with a sense of loss, and a wave of sadness, that even the very recent past is receding at that appalling rate, and is truly unrecoverable.
So my happy fantasy about talking with colleagues long gone is utterly hopeless.
Except that there really is a way to do it! Here on this campus we have an amazing portal that uses a phenomenal technology to overcome the apparently hopeless abyss of time that separates us from so many of our colleagues in the greater community of scholars. I can reach that portal by walking down three flights of stairs, across a grassy meadow, through a great granite doorway... and into the Library.
There, in the Library, that phenomenal technology is waiting for me to use--a technology called "written language." How often do we stop and think about how amazing it is? A human invention that allows us to overcome that horrifying isolation in time, imposed by the speed of light. Imagine how miraculous all those books, bearing voices from the past, would have seemed to someone who lived before the invention of writing! In those books we can untangle the intellectual threads that have woven the particular tapestry of thought that underlies each of our academic fields. In the library we can open intellectual gifts from long-departed members of the community of scholars--gifts that may be just what we need to make a new advance.
As scholars, each of us must have our own personal story of a gift from the past that came to us through the portal of the library. One day in 1990, while browsing in the Earth Science branch of the Library, I chanced upon an obscure little book entitled, Geology of the Tampico Region, Mexico, by a petroleum geologist named John M. Muir (this was not the famous naturalist). Muir worked in eastern Mexico in the days before Mexico nationalized its petroleum industry and stopped publishing geologic information. Muir's little book of 1936 was the last detailed publication on the geology of that part of Mexico, but in it I found a description of an intriguing rock outcrop at a place called El Mimbral. And when a little group of us went and hunted it down, it turned out to be the most amazing outcrop I've ever seen in 40 years as a geologist. In deep-water sediments, it recorded a rain of fiery debris from a nearby impact, a great tsunami, and the collapse of the nearby continental margin of Mexico. It provided the conclusive proof that the huge buried impact crater in the nearby Yucatán Peninsula was responsible for the great mass extinction 65 million years ago that finished off the dinosaurs. What a debt of gratitude I owe to John Muir for his transtemporal conversation with me!
Like any technology, written language as a way of shrinking time has its limitations. Most prominently, it allows only one-way communication. Uncle Harry and Galileo and Ptolemy can talk to me, but I cannot talk to them. But of course I can talk to geologists not yet born. Maybe, if librarians are successful in their sacred trust of preservation, I will be able to talk with members of the community of scholars thousands of years in the future.
For of course it is our librarians who keep those portals open, and make possible that miraculous communication with our lost colleagues in the greater community of scholars. Librarians are my link to Nicholas Steno and Harry Hess and John Muir. They are my bridge across time to colleagues in the community of scholars who would otherwise be lost. In the collections which are in their trust, I have learned the most wonderful things about the Earth, in the words of friends I never knew, who are no longer alive to tell me themselves.
As I comb through our library's map collections in my quest to understand the Italian landscape, I find the Apennine Mountains as mapped by generations of my cartographer colleagues--from ground surveys around 1900 to the first maps made from air photos in the 1930s, to copies made by both German and American military cartographers during the Second World War, to modern satellite images.
So for me the community of scholars is arranged in three concentric circles. First and closest are my friends and colleagues at Berkeley--those I can meet by arrangement or by accident for an interesting lunch at the Faculty Club. Then there are my contemporaries all over the world--friends I might see at a meeting once a year, or talk with from time to time by phone or e-mail. And finally there is that greater community of scholars, past and future, with whom I can talk--alas, in one direction only--in the Library.
Recently I had a particularly satisfying one-way conversation with my Italian colleague, Niccolò Macchiavelli, who shares with me an appreciation of the greater community of scholars, extended in time. In 1513, in a letter to a friend, Macchiavelli wrote:
"I go into the library, and as I cross the threshold I cast off my everyday clothing, covered with filth and mud, and put on the costume of the royal court.... Thus honorably clad, I enter the classical court of the Ancients. They welcome me warmly, and I feast on the nourishment for which I was born."
And thus in the Library can we, who are today's community of scholars, feast on the connections that bind us into the greater community of scholars. Some of those connections--the books already on the shelves--fade back into an ever dimmer and more remote past. Other connections--the books and articles that we and our students are writing now--point ahead toward a distant future, when scholars not yet born will savor their one-way conversations... with us.
Professor Alvarez was raised in Berkeley, received his B.S. from Carleton College (Minnesota), and Ph.D. in geology from Princeton University, with a thesis on the structure of the northernmost Andes in Colombia and Venezuela. In 1977, he joined the faculty at Berkeley, and served as chairman of the Department of Geology and Geophysics from 1994-97. In 1991, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1993 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His well-known book, T. rex and the Crater of Doom, was published by Princeton University Press in 1997.