An Adventure in Magnitudes
College Government President Marjorie Cantine '13
September 4, 2012
Welcome to the start of this new academic year, President Bottomly, Provost Shennan, faculty, staff, Wellesley sisters, siblings, and friends. It’s a delight to see you all, and to meet those of you who are new.
My favorite film bills itself as “an adventure in magnitudes.” It is more exciting than it sounds. Made by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977, the nine-minute film Powers of Ten starts with a picnic. The view glides away, farther and farther, all the way out to the city, planet, solar system, and galaxy containing this picnic. We are a hundred million light-years away from earth, and then we reverse course. We head back to the picnic—and get closer and closer until we see the tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms inside one picnic-goer’s hand.
I am not sure if Charles and Ray Eames meant this film to be some sort of philosophy. However, what this film demonstrates about scale has become my meditation for when Wellesley and its request that I be somebody who makes a difference in the world start to make me sweat.
It is good to know that I myself contain multitudes (of atoms), and it’s good to know that the universe, even many millions of light-years away, is shatteringly beautiful, and that there is nothing I can do to mess that up. Realizing these things constrains the size of the world Wellesley is asking us to make a difference in. It is this world—the one right here, the one visible with the naked eye, the view with the people in it.
This is the scale we are working on, at least part-time, no matter what work we do. We are always looking for stories and explanations and descriptions, and that search is very frustrating if what we find has no meaning for other people.
But we all already knew that we wanted to make a difference on the human scale—and of course, this human world is also an adventure in magnitudes. You could be a school nurse or you could be the Surgeon General; you could be college government president or you could be The President (if you’re Hillary you’ll go for both). Sometimes, the world will use the scale of your work as a measure of the importance of your work. A fair amount of the anxiety provoked by the excellence Wellesley asks stems from this false conflation of scale with prestige and importance. We think that if we want to do something good, it must be at the hundred million light-year level.
And that is so distressing, because it is the quality of our work that determines its value, not its scale. We must measure our success with an understanding of the scale we are working on, but the scale on which we solve problems does not limit our ability to make a difference in the world. Excellence is needed everywhere, at every scale, because a telescope is a very poor microscope, and you cannot sail across Lake Waban in an ocean liner. On the scale of our individual lifetimes, the most vital work we do may be the work of being people—friends, collaborators, and mentors.
Charles and Ray Eames, who made the film I mentioned earlier, were lifelong partners, not only as architects and designers but also as a married couple. In fact, Ray herself was the graduate of a women’s college. This year, I hope you are blessed with colleagues and friends who are tenacious, passionate, and creative. We are lucky to be here with so many folks who are just that. That is something really tremendous, using any measure. Thank you.