Wisdom's Children

It is my privilege to live in a small country community, and there to belong to a ‘Science Club’ of singular audacity and charm. Not one of our thirty-odd members can lay any claim to specialized knowledge, or even to a particularly scientific bent. With the exception of our founder and president, we are not scholars; and he is no scientist, but a retired professor of theology, with a passion for stars. And yet we make bold to foregather each month and discuss atoms, radium, psychic phenonena, ether, space; and every now and then we invite a professor from some not too remote college to come and lecture to us. We can pay him nothing but his ‘expenses,’ for we are as poor as we are presumptuous and ignorant. Moreover, our state railroad system is such that no one can reach us from any direction without spending hours in junctions and loitering local trains, and our winter weather is frequently terrific.

They always come, too, these college professors — some of them come more than once; and they give us the best they have in them: admirable addresses, not too technical, yet not condescendingly popular, either; talks which so flatter our self-respect that some of us have to hold our breath, sitting roundeyed on the edge of our chairs, in an effort to prove ourselves worthy. They are serious, modest, quite matter-offact about taking all this trouble, and even, in the end, grateful for our hospitality! Excellent sages! Their virtue has at last irresistibly constrained my pen to utterance.

How mysterious is the working which tends to endow diverse followers of the same calling with the same traits! All dentists love fishing; all sailors are happy-go-lucky; all clergymen have good appetites and tell good stories; all lovers of books love gardens and cats. And, judging from my experience in our Science Club, all teachers of science are modest, humorous, gentle, well bred, and such good company that, when any one of them comes our way, Christopher and I hasten to put our guest-room at his disposal.

We did not understand this at first; and, being requested to ‘entertain’ an imminent lecturer, we consented with some misgiving. It seemed to us rather alarmingly risky to take a perfectly unguessablc stranger into our home. How would he bear himself? In any one of a hundred thousand possible ways. What would he want for breakfast? Any one of a score or more possible combinations of food. We awaited his advent with anxiously open minds. But we are wiser now; and when the Club announces a lecture by Professor So-andso, or This-and-That, of Dartmouth or Middlebury, we promptly put in our application: may we entertain him? And then, with confidence, we prepare the things we know he will like, and, never having seen him, we meet him at the station as if he were an old friend.

He is generally rather tall and thin, with a serene mouth and meditative eyes behind spectacles. He is not particularly well dressed, but always neatly and carefully, as if he had a good wife. (It is, in fact, one of his outstanding traits that he has a good wife.) He is so unassuming and modest that, if one did not know better, one would sooner pick out the haberdashery salesman as an eminent personage. He moves slowly, speaks quietly, and has a whimsical smile. He is so essentially human — ‘just folks’ — that, before one knows it, one is telling him all about the freezing of the kitchen sink and he, in turn, is diffidently but sincerely explaining that, since we have no Bridget, he would like nothing better than to come out in the kitchen and wash the supper dishes. One has to pinch one’s self rebukingly, to remember that he is an astronomer whose speculations range nightly beyond the farthest star, who has lost himself in vast nebula?, who has calculated eclipses and charted constellations — who, moreover, five minutes ago, was the completest stranger.

His demeanor in the household is perfect. When, in the mild stress of preparing the simple supper that we know he prefers to an elaborate meal, he is left to his own devices, he does not fidget, but hies him straight to our bookshelves, there to become acquainted with us, as we so mysteriously seem acquainted with him. And at the supper-tabic the charm of his conversation is such that we are apt to be late in arriving at the Science Club. Mellow, tolerant , humorous, human — what excellent talk is his! And lull of idiosyncrasy too, as if, for all his modesty, he had plenty of courage to be himself.

But it is his demeanor before the Club that fills me with the most admiring realization of his essential greatness. What does he think when he faces us? Had he at all expected us to be so simple? An invitation to address ‘the Natural Science Club ’ of a certain town in a certain state might lead one to suppose that a serious body of wellequipped researchers was at work in seclusion. Instead of that — oh! we are not unintelligent; we know a good deal about various subjects, ranging from Biblical criticism through marble quarrying, apple and chicken farming, landscape painting, and teaching, to cooking and sewing. But we are distinctly not scientists, and the expression our faces assume in the presence of scientific revelation is one of wonder and awe.

Well, perhaps that is not unstimulating. It may be that miracles tend to lose their impressiveness when they are frequently and familiarly handled, when they are taken for granted. Certainly, I dare say, our mental response is a change from that of the average college classroom. At any rate, every professor of science who has ever addressed us has done so with zest and dignity, speaking to us as fellow adventurers in a marvelous realm; and our most foolish questions he has contrived to redeem with answers of boomerang distinction. Never has one of them given us to suppose for a moment that he was more than a few steps ahead of us along the road of knowledge. They have been really rather wonderful evenings that we have spent together thus, discussing the greatness of our universe; and I think that probably true Wisdom has for the hour hovered over us.

For she is humble herself, is she not? And she loves little children better than sophisticated bigwigs. It is the humility of professors of science that leads me to hope that their line of investigation may eventually conduct us to the remote goal of clarity and righteousness that we have all been seeking so long and earnestly. It seems safer to trust the future to their patient, firm, gentle fingers than to the fists of the politicians.

I would certainly trust my guest-room to any one of them, sight unseen. Professor of Science, if you ever find yourself in my neighborhood, my house is your home.