Beginning at the end

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Being Dean of Science at McGill means that I am, in some sense, the local guy who is expected to understand all areas of modern science, and understand the relevance of those areas to our lives.

This came through to me last fall when the CERN collider was getting set to be turned on for the first time. McGill is a major partner in the ATLAS project at CERN, and there was a fair bit of media coverage. I was asked questions about the ATLAS project at CERN by members of the media, by alumni, by my professorial colleagues, by my friends, and by my family. They figured that, as Dean of Science, I was an expert. In fact, their flattering misunderstanding showed they did not appreciate that a rather large fraction of a Dean’s job can best be described as clerical rather than scientific, and by no means am I an expert on all, or even a few areas of modern science.

I mentioned above that I was asked questions, but in fact I exaggerate. I was asked exactly one question, over and over again: “Will the CERN collider create a massive black hole which will devour the Universe and end life as we know it?”

My answer to this, as Dean, was simplicity itself. No, I said. I did not explain that there were more massive energetic events in the cosmos which dwarfed the energies within the collider, I did not explain the details of the physics involved, which I do not fully understand, I simply said no, and all my questioners were satisfied that the end of life was not at hand.

Last month, I attended an event involving the end of a life. Keith Worsley, a McGill mathematical statistician, who had studied and made major progress understanding how the brain works, had died unexpectedly at a young age. The memorial service was packed with people. Keith was a force of nature, an intense scientist, a strong friend to many, an iconoclast in some ways, and respected by all for his achievements. In the language in which these events are now couched, the memorial was termed a celebration of Keith’s life. Perhaps. The raw grief of Keith’s friends when they spoke was all too clear.

Afterwards, a colleague asked me what do we accomplish in life, and what is it that we leave behind. Deep questions, circling the black hole of despair, aimed at me because I am the Dean.

Last week I had dinner with several graduates of our geology program. They were not recent graduates, and in fact they had graduated well back in the last century. It was a fun dinner, and they shared with me story after story of a man they called Tommy Clark, a geology professor at the time. Apparently Tommy was a force of nature, an intense scientist, a strong friend to many, an iconoclast in some ways, and respected by all for his achievements. Indeed the effect he had on their lives when they spoke was all too clear. I could see Tommy Clark as if he had just walked into the room.

A couple of years ago, the Faculty, with the help of generous alumni, created the T. H. Clark Chair. A worthy celebration of Tommy Clark’s life. Perhaps. But still not comparable to the impact he had on young students and their lives, the impact he had on science, and the impact he had on our Faculty and our University.

Finally, my colleague’s question about what we accomplish in life was answered.

Martin Grant
Dean of Science

One response to “Beginning at the end”

  1. Zihan Dong says:

    I’ve always wondered that impact that I may/may not have after my death to those around me. Will my accomplishments, hopes, dreams, goals and desires matter after I’m gone? And what will I be remembered as? Or even, will I be remembered at all?

    After reading your “Beginning at the end,” I feel that I can better grasp the concept of one person truly impacting those around him/her. I can only hope that someday, I can positively affect one person, whether it is as complex as to help him make better decisions or just as simple as telling him a joke that he can fondly recall 30 year later.

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