Presidents of Reed

Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles

Convocation 2003 August 27, 2003

Remarks of Reed College President Colin Diver


Good afternoon. As president of Reed College, it is my privilege to declare the 2003 convocation in session. In so doing, I am pleased to inaugurate the 93rd academic year in the history of Reed College.

I want especially to extend a heartfelt welcome to the new students, and their parents, who have arrived here from literally around the world. May your experience here confirm our wisdom in selecting you for admission to Reed, and your wisdom in accepting our invitation. I also want to welcome back the upper-class students here with us this afternoon, seasoned veterans of Reed, who will gladly tell you newcomers everything they think you need to know about this extraordinary institution. I also want to express my thanks to Susie Shea, Teresa Keirns, and all of their colleagues on the orientation planning committee who have organized this week's orientation. When I was a candidate for president two years ago, one of the students who interviewed me said, rather solemnly, "You know, the students really run Reed College." I have found that to be partially true.

In her welcoming remarks this noon, Teresa Keirns mentioned the cosmological significance of this day, when the elliptical orbits of Mars and earth bring those two planets into unusual proximity. Mars has long held an important place in the human imagination. It was known to the ancient Egyptians as "The Red One"; to the Babylonians as "The Star of Death"; to the Greeks as "The Fiery One"; and it has long been named for the Roman god of war. More recently it has been the inspiration for countless works of the imagination, from H.G. Welles's War of the Worlds, to the classic science fiction writing of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, to the movie Total Recall, one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's greatest triumphs. At least, up until now. (Parenthetically, it occurs to me that having conquered Mars, he may just be ready to take on California.)   diver convocation

Some of you may think that the proximity of Mars suggests that we are about to enter an age of unusual bellicosity or just plain goofiness. To me, however, the proximity of Mars symbolizes something very different and more directly relevant to why we are all here today. And that is the progress of human knowledge.

The story of how we came to our present understanding of the structure of our solar system is one of the great sagas in the evolution of human knowledge-from the earliest geocentric theories of the universe espoused by the ancient Greek astronomers, to the heretical sun-centered speculations of Aristarchus of Samos, quickly rejected in favor of Ptolemy's tortured epicycle theory, then, a millennium and a half later, resurrected in Copernicus's heliocentric vision, which was, in turn, attacked by Tycho Brahe, and finally sustained by Johannes Kepler and explained by Sir Isaac Newton. Throughout this process, Mars played a central role: every time someone came up with a new theory, there was Mars, whose ever-changing positions and brightness confounded prediction and demanded explanation.

The Copernican Revolution is a deeply human story, of intellectual restlessness, inquisitiveness, skepticism, dreaming, theorizing, testing, doggedness, stubborn resistance, and great courage. That is how knowledge grows. And that is what you are here to do-not only to do, but to learn to do. So that you can continue doing it for the rest of your careers.

So, as you look up at the southeastern sky in the coming nights and see a surprisingly large red object rising, don't think of war, or fire, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Think of Aristarchus of Samos, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton. Think of joining in that progression of skeptics and dreamers who have changed the world.

That is why you are here. Thank you, and, again, welcome.

Colin Diver signature
Colin S. Diver

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