Campus & Community

Weinberg, Phillips honored at PBK ceremony

6 min read

Scientist speaks, poet reads

Late this morning (June 3), Adam Goldenberg ’08 — in a fashionable bow tie and flowing academic robes — joined a long line of gowned seniors in the shade of trees outside Harvard Hall.

A few months before, the Vancouver, B.C., social studies concentrator had dressed a little differently (in pink tights and a yellow Bo Peep dress) to entertain Hasty Pudding’s Man of the Year Christopher Walken.

“This is a little less flamboyant,” Goldenberg offered.

And a good thing, too, given the gravity of the occasion. He was in line with other recipients of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honors this year, ready for the traditional fife-and-drum procession to Sanders Theatre.

Since 1876, Sanders has been the venue for the Literary Exercises — a celebration in honor of PBK scholars that was first held in Holden Chapel in 1782.

Harvard’s PBK chapter, called Alpha Iota of Massachusetts since 1995, first met in 1781, two years before the end of the Revolutionary War. It’s the oldest continuously running chapter in the United States.

Goldenberg and his peers had reached Memorial Hall by 11 a.m. A few minutes later, seated in Sanders and joined by a thousand or so well-wishers, the new inductees watched as the sedate tradition unfolded for the 218th time.

Howard Georgi, president of the chapter and Harvard’s Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, provided the welcome, wearing his trademark running shoes beneath his academic robes. He briefly introduced Harvard President (and Lincoln Professor of History) Drew Faust, who was at the Literary Exercises for the first time as president.

At the heart of the PBK ceremony are two addresses: one by a poet, who reads a work written just for the occasion. The other is by an “orator” — a kind of guest essayist invited to offer a timely discourse.

Georgi pointed to honorees of the past. Invited poets have included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. The orators have included John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and E.O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard.

This year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet was Carl Phillips ’81, a onetime classics concentrator who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, and who taught poetry writing at Harvard in 1995-96. His “The Rest of Love” was a National Book Award finalist. The latest of his nine books is “Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006.”

He read “Night” — a new poem about “risk and faintheartedness,” he said — dueling views of the world by which we order our lives.

“Now risk, now faintheartedness,” the poem read in part. “Now a kind of youth again.”

The oration — a wide-ranging, funny, and engaging rumination titled “Without God” — was delivered by University of Texas physicist and 1979 Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who from 1973 to 1982 was Higgins Professor of Physics at Harvard.

With the rise of science, the power of religion has weakened, said Weinberg, who over the decades has never been afraid to depart from physics and enter wider realms of public debate. “As religion weakens,” he asked, “how are we to live without God?”

Morally, and with empathy and courage, he said. “There is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, to facing up to life without wishful thinking and without despair — with good humor, but without God.”

Weinberg pointed out four main sources of tension between religious belief and science. For one, religion’s long-observed mysteries are gradually all being explained “in a purely naturalistic way,” he said — though science will never have all the answers.

Science has also taken away any special role humans might think they have in the universe that we now know is a vast territory billions of galaxies wide.

A third tension is more important to Islam than to Christianity, Weinberg speculated: “The laws of nature seem to put God’s hands in chains” — a view of the universe infuriating to fundamentalists of any stripe.

And lastly, science has altered our views of authority. There are experts, he said of his vocation, but no sacred writings. In science, Weinberg said, any expert “might be wrong.”

In this age, he said, the details of religious belief — the nature of God, the afterlife, sin — are less important to most people than the idea of leading a good life. Religion, he said, offers a moral code, advice on sexual behavior and diet, healing rituals, and what Weinberg called “the comfort of affiliation.”

Beyond that, Weinberg asked, “I wonder how long religion can last without its core — the belief in something supernatural.”

Life without God or the comfort of an afterlife is tolerable with humor, he said — the kind of “sympathetic merriment” celebrated by Shakespeare.

Then there are the pleasures of life, said Weinberg. “When bread and wine are no longer sacraments, they will still be bread and wine.”

Earlier in the ceremony at Sanders Theatre, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Ann Blair announced two Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prizes, an honor based every year on nominations by the students themselves.

Sean Gallagher, an associate professor of music, got a raucous blast of applause. Blair praised his “mesmerizing” teaching style, which helped revive Harvard’s traditional music survey course. “Many of his Music 1 students are profoundly grateful to him for changing the way they hear the world,” she said.

Carlos Diaz Rosillo, a political science graduate student and teaching fellow, got the second teaching award for embodying “the best of what Harvard outstanding graduate students can offer to Harvard’s outstanding undergraduates.”

James Wilkinson, director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, introduced seven of the day’s nine honorary PBK members. (Phillips and Weinberg, the other two, got separate introductions.)

The seven: Frederick H. Abernathy, Harvard’s Gordon McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering and expert on “lean manufacturing” and on real-world problems of energy conservation; neurologist Jang-Ho Cha ’83 of the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, who investigates genetic links in Huntington’s disease; Harvard Associate Professor of Medicine Anthony Hollenberg ’83, who directs thyroid research at a laboratory named after him at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; medieval Russia scholar and Harvard’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History Edward Keenan; State University of New York at Farmingdale scholar of Jewish American literature and women’s studies Ann Rabinowitz Shapiro ’58; Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith, Harvard’s Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering; and Letitia Wheeler Ufford ’58, an independent scholar of Middle Eastern history from Princeton, N.J.

Breaks for gorgeous a cappella music came from the all-male Harvard Glee Club, clad neatly in white shirts, red ties, and chinos — and conducted by Jameson Marvin, Harvard’s director of choral activities.

The only thing to make such music better, Weinberg noted, “would be the presence of women.” For that, he got a good-natured laugh, and a few hisses.