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.
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.