Monday, November 18, 2013

My Favorite Cerebral Place

As some of you know, I received a law degree from the University of Chicago. I was hardly the typical hyper-intellectual U. of C. student. Nor was I destined to be the typical Law School graduate—that is, one who actually works in the field of law. Nevertheless, I harbor an inordinate love for the entire university, a feeling that was confirmed yesterday, when I attended an inspiring lecture by Juan de Pablo, a U. of C. professor in the newly-created Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Perhaps you've heard the line about the University of Chicago—the place where fun goes to die. During the late seventies, when I was there, it could certainly have been called the place where fashion goes to die. People simply didn't care how they looked. But they did care about ideas. If "the life of the mind" had a physical location, that spot would have been Hyde Park, where the University is situated. Back then, for those inclined to engage in non-stop intellectual discourse, the U. of C. was the very definition of fun. Yesterday's talk confirmed that the University still deserves its cerebral reputation.

Professor de Pablo's lecture was part of an alumni series that brings University of Chicago faculty to locations around the country. Over the years, E. and I have attended lectures in both Boston and South Florida on subjects as far-ranging as astrophysics, literature, mathematics, education, and psychology. We've almost always enjoyed not only the content of the lectures but also the enthusiasm of the lecturers.

The U. of C. has long been known for collaboration across disciplines. The Law School pioneered the field of law and economics. In fact, E.'s cousin, Aaron Director, a professor at the Law School for many years, founded the Journal of Law & Economics. The Committee on Social Thought, another example of the interdisciplinary approach at the University, uses literature, philosophy, history, religion, and art to explore trans-disciplinary issues.

Now comes the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the University's latest endeavor reflecting its long tradition of cross-collaboration. Its mission is to "translate discoveries in basic physics, chemistry, and biology into new tools to address important societal problems." The approach of combining basic research in the sciences with cutting-edge engineering techniques seems simultaneously obvious and brilliant.

Prof. de Pablo illustrated the concept with a discussion of his own work in directed self-assembly of nanoparticles for use in integrated circuits. As with the best lectures, I gained a glimpse into the thought processes of an insightful mind. On the one hand, I was reminded how little I know or understand about the universe. On the other, I felt just smart enough to be thrilled by the exciting new developments in nanotechnology. And, once again, I found myself caught up in the passion for learning that's the hallmark of my alma mater.