the lab is a dangerous place

I delivered the following remarks on March 3, 2005, at Bard High School Early College, towards the end of my tenure there as their first Associate Dean of Studies. BHSEC is a public school where graduates receive an associate degree from Bard College along with a high-school Regents Diploma from New York State. Towards the end of the institution’s fourth year of existence, during its second year on the Lower East Side, we formally opened some badly needed laboratories.

It’s all too easy for me, as a theoretical and computational scientist, to forget the importance of the work that goes on in a laboratory. And for those here today who rarely step forward into a lab, the place can seem quite foreign, filled with strange devices and artifice that have little to do with everyday experience.

What we must remind ourselves is that a laboratory is a place to observe and measure the world, the same world we all occupy. The equipment in a laboratory may be less familiar than the books in a library, but both facilities are essential to education.

Earlier this school year at Bard High School Early College we opened a new library, and now we open these new laboratories.

A laboratory is : to a scientist :: as a library is : to every scholar.

In a library, we become directly engaged with what other people have thought and seen. Reading and understanding what others have seen and thought is essential, because this takes us outside ourselves, and enriches our own insights and discussions. In a laboratory, we engage directly with what we ourselves think and see. I want to emphasize that point: in a laboratory, we see for ourselves. We think for ourselves. It doesn’t matter what presidential or papal decrees may state — in a scientific laboratory, we the people have in our hands the authority to confirm or reject established doctrine.

I am verging on talk of revolution here… but consider. Let us count among early modern scientists Galileo and Newton, Faraday and Maxwell, Mendel and Darwin, Lavoisier and Mendeleev and Curie. It is no coincidence these scientists lived during times connected with religious and political and artistic upheavals which celebrate the individual, and sometimes even they themselves were catalysts for revolution. To cite another example, fairly familiar: the Benjamin Franklin who conducted experiments with electricity is the same person who dared to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in world history, and propose the experiment of our nation, built upon the rights of the individual. As Americans, we are inheritors of this tradition of open questioning.

Along with the library, the laboratory is an essential structure for a proper liberal arts education. The laboratory and the library are dangerous places, because they have the capacity to liberate students, elevating them to citizens who are able to criticize and to create for themselves, by themselves.

The capacity to see and think for ourselves, and to be careful and honest as we convey our observations and theories to other people, is central to the liberal arts education that we provide here at Bard.

It is possible to overstate the importance of science, and laboratories, and anything occupied with our material world. These rooms — two biology and chemistry laboratories and a dedicated lab prep room — in conjunction with another existing adjacent lab, and on the same floor as additional labs for geology and for physics — these rooms are simply rooms, after all. They will require additional equipment, just as a library always needs more books. And, without a dedicated faculty and engaged students, they are simply beautiful shells.

The opening of this new laboratory is nonetheless an extraordinarily joyful occasion for Bard — a cause for immense celebration — for the promise of education in the liberal arts. I thank in general those who made this possible, some of whom Professors Cordi and Gamper will later thank by name. Let us keep in mind that the true dedication of these facilities will occur over weeks, semesters, and years to come, as students work together with professors ~ at the difficult task of learning ~ how to see and think for themselves.

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