Bright stars

A new season brings a special section of the Magazine.

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Oct. 1, 1784. Gathered-in the Swan’s egg, autumn-burgamot, Cresan-burgamot, Chautmontelle, & Virgoleuse pears: a great crop. On Oct. 1, 2016, I headed to the quads to help out at a photo shoot with some of the Odyssey Scholars in “Epic Beginnings.” It was the Saturday after the first week of classes, and the campus population had swelled accordingly.

Art lovers wanted directions to the Smart and the Oriental Institute. People streamed toward a conference in Wieboldt Hall and a Bond Chapel wedding (the groom was a recent PhD). Campus tours wandered by with regularity, and the weather changed equally often as umbrellas bloomed, collapsed, and bloomed again.

Because I write these notes quarterly, the impulse to describe seasonal shifts is powerful. That impulse thrives in Chicago, where the seasons are, to put it mildly, distinct—and on a campus that fills and empties reliably as the days grow short and long.

But I also blame Gilbert White.

I first learned about the 18th-century naturalist and diarist from a former UChicago classmate, Martha Bohrer, PhD’03, now an English professor at North Central College near Chicago. Ever since, I’ve kept a copy of his journals at hand to read what was happening in one rural corner of England on the same day two centuries ago.

Oct. 1, 1787. Wheat not so good as last year: 50 sheaves do not yield more than forty did this time twelve months. Almost daily for 40-plus years, White chronicled the natural history of his small Hampshire village. His journals document the comings and goings of local flora and fauna, and each year’s variations.

White rewards different ways of reading. Flipping from one October 1 entry to the next acquaints you with early autumn’s dependable martins, pears, woodcocks, and wheat. Reading chronologically unfolds the story of a year spent closely observing White’s latitude. Each shift to new crops, colors, air, and light feels like a small revolution, and at the same time a comforting return.

Oct. 1, 1777. Bright stars. Speaking of small revolutions, this issue of the Magazine brings something new. We’ve partnered with our friends in the Physical Sciences Division to include their alumni publication, Inquiry, in the Magazine. There you can read about the past and future of computers; trustee emeritus Walter E. Massey, the very model of a modern polymath; and the chances, according to UChicago astronomers and planetary scientists, of finding extraterrestrial life on planets in galaxies far, far away. I know you’ll find Inquiry illuminating.

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