The Cathedral of Learning

By Sean Carroll | February 23, 2009 12:39 pm

I just got back from Pittsburgh, a city famous for honoring football players along with Fathers of our country. Apparently they recently won some sort of sporting contest, so the citizens were generally in good spirits.

I was visiting to Center for the Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, to speak in their annual lecture series. The Center, along with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, help make Pittsburgh one of the world’s leading institutions for studying philosophy of science.

The Center is also a remarkably friendly place, and I had a great time during my visit. The highlight, predictably, was lunch with some of the graduate students, where we got to let our hair down and talk about big ideas concerning time and causality and determinism. (Almost all professional academics start out fascinated by big ideas, but the interest is gradually beaten out of them along the way by the demands of professionalism and career advancement. Grad school is probably the peak combination of background knowledge and willingness to confront the hard problems.) I also got to chat with Adolf Grünbaum, whose declamations concerning the Primordial Existential Question had impressed me a year and a half ago. And I got to meet some fellow bloggers in the flesh — the formidable Cosma Shalizi, who helped me understand how to augment the principle of indifference with conditionalizing over the past hypothesis, and Bryan Roberts of Soul Physics, who was one of the aforementioned grad students.

Cathedral of Learning But if I’m really honest, my favorite part of the trip was probably the building. The Center for the Philosophy of Science is housed in the Cathedral of Learning, a looming structure on the University’s campus — the second-tallest academic building in the world, after one at Moscow State University. Despite my lack of religious sympathies, I love cathedrals — the looming structures, swooping curves, open spaces, all designed to elicit a certain emotional response going far beyond their direct practical purpose. (Not that different from the best casinos in Vegas, really.) And I love learning! So the Cathedral of Learning is pretty much the perfect building.

And it really does work as a building. What everyone points to are the many Nationality Rooms scattered throughout the building — a series of 27 spaces decorated in the style of various different countries, often with the input (and financial assistance) of the respective governments, which work as display pieces but are also functioning classrooms. (I was told that prospective students are sometimes convinced to come to Pittsburgh by a visit to the room corresponding to their personal heritage.) But what I liked was the immense Commons Room (pictured), with impossibly high ceilings, which is just a place where people can sit down and read and talk and think. Such places are very precious, and the world should have a lot more of them.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the Cathedral grew out of a vision of Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman in the 1920’s. He insisted that the Commons Room be built on the principles of true Gothic architecture, with self-supporting arches. When told that these things cost money, he replied:

“You cannot build a great University with fraud in it.”

I’m not sure if that’s strictly true, but it’s an honorable principle to strive towards.

  • John

    Since the University of Pittsburgh is a few miles from downtown, the Cathedral of Learning is the only tall building in the area and is a really inspirational sight for miles around. I’m hoping to be a Pitt grad student in the fall.

    No idea if the quote is true or not though.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    I’m absolutely delighted to learn about this. While also not religious, I had always thought that cathedrals would make a fantastic space for academic work. Modern variants are possible – it doesn’t have to be in a literally gothic style, as long as attention is taken to create an inspirational space. Sadly, too many departments are set in indifferent or even antagonistic architecture, under the belief that architecture that promotes thinking and interaction is a needless luxury. Few of us have the occasion to participate in the design of our work spaces, but it’s an area that can produce real rewards when the opportunity to shape it is taken seriously.

  • gyokusai

    I’m awed. Makes me want to start studying again, from scratch. Why not physics.

  • Julia

    As one of the less blog-savvy grad students of the ‘trip highlight’ lunch during the author’s visit, I must say I was delighted to find this post via a link left on my Facebook wall by a friend from Houston who thought I might like to see a nice write-up on the town I moved to last August. Little did he know…

    Very flattering post! I was thrilled to meet Sean and look forward to final subtitle of his upcoming book. And any time anyone wants to talk big ideas (especially if they are about the ontology and experience of the passing of time) we Pitt HPS grad students are always game for a chat.

  • Yvette

    Did you check out the Hungarian room by chance? I spent many many hours of my preschool days there, as my mom taught a Hungarian language class that met in that room so she often took my twin brother and me. We still decorate the room for Christmas every year- anyone in Pittsburgh who has never done so should check out the heritage rooms around the holidays, as it’s like seeing them all over again!

    Ah, memories. So odd to think of special places half a world away. :)

  • Bryan

    There aren’t so many gothic skyscrapers around these days, it seems. 😉 We were happy to have you, and look forward to your next visit.

  • Amanda

    Pelase do tell us more about your conversation with Adolf, Dr. Carroll.

  • Sean

    Amanda, there’s not much to tell; it was mostly social chat. He told some amusing stories about famous physicists that are probably not for public consumption. And he made a few good-natured semantic points about the arrow of time; he doesn’t like it when people refer to the “direction” of time, as it prejudices the prejudices the idea that time “moves” in a certain direction. He prefers the “anisotropy” of time, although he’ll accept the “arrow” of time, as at least an arrow has a head and also a tail.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar