September 12, 2001: From the Editor

Enter Peyton Hall from the north — beneath the unmistakable dome marking it as Princeton’s astronomy building — and turn left when the first sign for the telescope directs you right. On the wall beyond a conference room hangs the Rittenhouse Orrery, an 18th-century mechanical wonder that accurately shows the position and movement of the planets. Tiny white balls representing Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Moon, Mars, Jupiter and its four largest moons, and Saturn, its rings, and five moons — everything known at the time — once revolved around a brass Sun the size of a marble, all the while rotating on their own axes.

The orrery first arrived in Princeton in 1771, when, as part of his effort to strengthen and broaden the young college’s curriculum, Princeton president John Witherspoon himself rode to Philadelphia to buy the device from its inventor, scientist David Rittenhouse. Witherspoon paid the remarkable sum of £220, more than 10 percent of the college’s annual budget, for the instrument, at a time when the school was still struggling back from the brink of bankruptcy. The orrery proved a worthwhile investment, however. Though damaged by the Continental Army, it was used to teach astronomy for some 50 years and brought fame to Nassau Hall, where it was originally installed. More than a century later, the orrery was still well enough known to merit a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair (after which it was promptly lost, not to be rediscovered until 1948 in the basement of McCosh Hall, still in its Exposition crate).

Though Witherspoon, the old rebel, was willing to invest so much in the teaching of science, it took 230 years before a teacher of science finally replaced him at Nassau Hall. Molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman — who has spent her professional life gazing not outward at the vastness of the universe, as the orrery helped those early students do, but inward at the smallest components of living organisms — follows generations of theologians; several philosophers; one professor of jurisprudence, one of politics, and one of classics; and two economists in taking over as Princeton’s 19th president. It’s so rare for a lab researcher to leave the lab that one colleague likened Tilghman’s decision to basketball superstar Michael Jordan’s retirement (the first one).

After the last thesis is written, Tilghman will have to shutter her lab. When she misses the place, she might think about taking a stroll over to Peyton for a little perspective on science, teaching, and history. It’s just down the hall from the telescope.


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