Shimer College

November 12, 2012

The Perks of Living with a Tech School

So, I can hardly believe that I am the first to write up a blog post on this, but recently IIT (the renowned engineering school that hosts Shimer’s modest one-story campus) presented a lecture by William Nye.  As in, the Science Guy. 

This is one of the two crowning moments of my life (the other having been another lecture by Bill Nye).  I mean, I actually got to stand in the same room as the man who introduced me to magnetismdescent with modification, and the water cycle.

I arrived in Hermann Hall about two and a half hours before the lecture, where the line had already stretched considerably longer than most do that long before an event.  I whiled away the time enjoyably with some engineering students, with whom I speculated as to what Dr. Nye would talk about and rewatched some old episodes of the show.  As we waited, the line grew to encircle the whole of the Hall (no mean feat, if you’ll take a look), making me very happy I’d prudently chosen to get there so early.

A half hour before the seven o’clock starting time, the security guards (whom, as one of my engineer co-waiters noted, were probably there mainly to protected Bill Nye from being mobbed) permitted us into the auditorium, where we continued to wait around, talking about xkcdcomputer science classes, and the James Webb Space Telescope (you could tell you were having a conversation with engineering students).  Finally, the (enormous) crowd exploded as an overjoyed and very lucky IIT student introduced Bill Nye.  (If it hasn’t become apparent, I’m pretty excited that this was Bill Nye.)

Nye’s lecture was itself pretty interesting.  His two main points were that a.) we take a lot for granted in our everyday life that depended for its introduction on painstaking scientific research and that b.) as (mostly) future engineers, his audience was in a unique position to change the role of technology in society.  To illustrate the first observation, he used the example of sundials: though we tend not to think about it, we daily use chronological measurements that owe their origins, ultimately, to people doing hard work with sticks, lines, and shadows.  These measurements, as he remarked are probably much more important than the wheel: everyone needs to measure time, but a good supply of tree trunks render wheels redundant, while hilly jungle terrain renders them mostly useless.  To illustrate the second, he gestured to a number of possible avenues for research on reusable, non-fossil-fuel-dependent sources of energy and other means of reducing climate change.

The second point, at least, left me feeling a bit left out, but it points to something really cool and unique about Shimer: being located on a big engineering campus, it offers opportunities simply not available to other, more isolated liberal arts colleges, like, say, St. John’s. You get easy access to STEM classes, mathematics and bio-engineering journals, and a really top-notch range of science-devoted students and faculty.  And Bill Nye.  Bill freaking Nye!

- Leo Carton Mollica

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