Cornell University was founded in Ithaca in 1865. Not until three years later did its progenitor, Ezra Cornell, declare “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
The delay shows that even in conception the school’s mission was a work in progress. Certainly the fulfillment of its heady goal has been a developing project. There were no African studies for over a hundred years, for instance.
Still, one presumes that from the start Cornell brought smart people to Ithaca, an even more remote place then. That legacy of big brain power in a small town endures.
Last time in this column, concerning weather, I mentioned what I perceived as a change of microclimate occurring near the town of Tully, about an hour north of Ithaca on Interstate 81. In numerous trips on that road I had noticed a distinct change in weather specifically at that point.
Not knowing anything about meteorology, I didn’t know whether it was science or chance, but was satisfied with finding it diverting.
Then one night at a party I met a meteorologist from Cornell. I asked whether this Tully thing could be real rather than coincidental.
He said it was indeed real, that two neighboring microclimates met at precisely that point.
I said, really? Microclimates change at particular points?
The scientist sipped his drink and said, well, wouldn't they have to?
There are a lot of them between the North and South Poles, he said, and they have to change somewhere. He went on to supply enough detail to convince me he was sincere and not just shining me on, which I might have suspected elsewhere, but not from scholarly Cornell. Not even with drinks.
Last month I was driving home from work with a car-pooling colleague who said, look, and pointed at a surprise rider, a praying mantis on the dashboard.
I said wow, and mentioned that I hadn’t seen one in years, and had the vague idea they were a protected species, could this be true? My passenger said he didn’t know.
I posited that maybe they are endangered, or were? Or maybe they were protected because they are beneficial, killing harmful insects?
My passenger again said he didn’t know, but that they are not strictly beneficial, as they are ambush predators and kill fairly indiscriminately, malevolent and well-meaning prey alike.
What does one do with open questions like this? One references Wikipedia, of course, which I did, and learned some things, including the fact that “ambush predator” is not a simply descriptive term, as I’d taken it from my passenger, but distinctly scientific.
As far as I know, my passenger is not an entomologist. But, again: Ithaca, small town, big brains.
This month I read a book by Roddy Doyle, the Irish novelist. Doyle is a master of dialogue and the book mostly consisted of talk between two Irishmen in a pub. One mentioned some personal despondency, and the possibility of going to Switzerland for the electric chair.
I might have passed right over it as a throwaway passage if not for the rejoinder,
“You don’t have to go all the way to Switzerland to get yourself electrocuted,” which made me laugh simply as a unique sentence, but also wonder what this was about: surely there’s no death penalty in benign Switzerland, especially no barbaric electric chair?
As it happens, this being worldly Ithaca, I have a colleague from Switzerland. I asked him about the reference and he said certainly there was neither thing there, so he was as puzzled as I was, and equally curious.
As it further happens, I soon after bumped into someone from Ireland I know here in town. I asked him about the quote. He understood right away.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “It’s a common joke in Ireland. There’s legal suicide in Switzerland, so you say you’re going there when you’ve had enough.” The electric chair bit he couldn’t explain, except as whatever jokey furtherance of the bar room banter.
There’s not just random intelligence in Ithaca, but also occasional genius. Recently I returned to the library a CD I’d been listening to by Malcolm Bilson, emeritus music professor at Cornell and a legendary interpreter of Beethoven on pianoforte, the precursor to the piano that Beethoven used. The very same day I saw Mr. Bilson at the supermarket.
I introduced myself and mentioned the CD. I said I particularly liked Sonata No. 17. In D, I continued, drawing it out with a pause.
He looked startled altogether. He was just out shopping, after all.
“D minor,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said. “I was testing you.” (I really was.)
Faber University, in the movie “Animal House,” had the motto “Knowledge Is Good.” In Ithaca, there’s also plenty.