Words Aren't Wind

by Erik Tamre, Harvard University

Thus arise all those works of art in which a single individual lifts himself for an hour so high above the sea of suffering that his happiness shines like a star and seems to all who see it as something eternal and as a happiness of their own.

– Hesse “Steppenwolf”


The ultimate scientific product of this summer is text. JIRP will generate previously unwritten reports, unheard lectures, unpublished articles – unspoken words.

Most students will not remember words as defining this summer. We’ll see flickering images: fleeting smiles, laughing eyes, white vistas and black frames. We’ll renew unshaped feelings of amazement and fear to do with the place, of sympathy and friendship to do with the people. In the wind howling and the raindrops popping into the snow we will hear voices, mysterious and elusive and such that we cannot make our own.

Words of a lecture are simply human – and as such less exciting than whisperings of the wind. But we understand words so much better than wind, as a vanishingly small fluctuation in their delivery remains meaningful. Therein is the power of lectures: sometimes, in a champagne moment, the speaker makes choices so apt and accurate in his diction and inflection that his voice rings true in the ears of the audience and holds onto their memory.

These are the moments I ultimately remember – the only ones in a world where both lecturers and listeners overestimate the amount of memories an attentive audience can take away from a talk. Select sentences, points and conclusions will stay with me for years, but they really need to be expertly and often painstakingly crafted and are thus few. To expect more would be to expect too much.

Yet there are lecturers who deliver consistently the magical moments when their ingenuity meets the response of the audience in a brief flash of understanding. This consistency is a great marvel, for I do not believe such flashes can simply be repeated from lecture to lecture. They need to have about them an air of discovery, an implicit understanding that the truth was in this moment seen for the first time. They have to be small epiphanies, but still such that can only once befall a human soul; twice it cannot happen.

I can only imagine the passion one needs for reproducing always the excitement of the first time. Some lecturers perhaps have it in them from the beginning – a match made in heaven with their chosen subject – and while they speak, their happiness shines like a star and seems to all who see it as something eternal and as a happiness of their own.

Others have found and nurtured this passion only in time, perhaps owing to some detail in their personal or professional history. None strike me more clearly as a possible example of such kind than our own Ben Santer, the one – one of many – behind the famous “balance of evidence” conclusion in the Summary for Policymakers of the 1996 climate assessment report by the IPCC. Together with his colleagues, he was conscious of the punch that this confirmation of a human-induced global climate change would carry, and they accordingly took a great deal of care to communicate with this sentence precisely and beautifully exactly what they had in mind.

I think it worked: after an initial storm of vicious criticism, the report’s conclusion became widely accepted and, in time, iconic. If it weren’t for the composed and competent aptness of each sound in the sentence, would it still have happened?

Whether owing to this defining episode or some other confluence of reasons, Ben Santer’s calm, competent, and controlled lecture style remains a benchmark – at least in the context of JIRP. He imperfectly reflects the idea of a lecturer that I have been painting: I can devote my attention to the minute fluctuations of his voice and meaning in the reassuring knowledge that they are there for a reason, and I can see truths that would otherwise elude me, and I will remember. God is in the details, and I can finally catch them.