September 12, 2001: From the Editor
Enter Peyton Hall from the
north beneath the unmistakable dome marking it as Princetons
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.
orrery first arrived in Princeton in 1771, when, as part of his effort
to strengthen and broaden the young colleges 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 colleges 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 Worlds 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 Princetons 19th
president. Its so rare for a lab researcher to leave the lab that
one colleague likened Tilghmans decision to basketball superstar
Michael Jordans 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. Its just down the hall from the telescope.