In his Commencement address, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin declared, "If Galileo were alive today and wanted to speak to the best and brightest, he would have come right here to MIT."
But if Galileo (1564-1642) had been dropped onto Killian Court for Commencement 2001, he would have had just one question: "How can they wear those shoes?"
Four-inch high-heeled sandals were the footwear of choice for MIT women this year. Most of these spiky adventures were black leather shanks atop needle-sharp heels. Taking two steps -- never mind walking down Memorial Drive -- would have unsettlingly invoked laws of physics dear to the author of Starry Messenger, including those of dynamic balance and column buckling.
Following the many four-inchers were three-inch and two-inch-high varieties, complete with intricate straps, fresh pedicure and all the problems of marginally stable systems.
Teetery wedge-shaped heels in beige, faux animal prints also in three- and four-inch heights, and Doc Marten variants that resembled tractor batteries also were sighted.
Presumably the venerable astronomer, an admirer of gravity, wore comfy flat sandals, sans socks and sans pedicure, five centuries ago.
Mr. Goldin himself showed off the white ermine shawl collar and slightly oversized black pillbox hat of the University of Padua in Italy, from which he recently received an honorary degree. Galileo wore this very garb, said Mr. Goldin, who used it as a sort of power point.
"You may not remember me, but perhaps you will remember this cap and gown. More than that, I hope you remember Galileo," he told the Killian crowd, now settled in for a day of cheering and waiting.
Commencement veterans and newcomers accessorized for the long day, too. The dominant note in this group was the ringing cell phone.
Michael Damiano of Plymouth, MA kept in constant contact with his son, Matthew H. Damiano, as he waited for his SB in electrical enginering and computer science way up near the staging area.
"Where are you? Did you see us? What do you want to do for dinner?" were their mutual refrains.
Other audience accessories included straw boaters for men, wide-brimmed sunhats for women, and distractions for children including crayons, coloring books, Pringles potato chips, Teletubby dolls and Nintendo Game Boys (with the mute on).
Adults read (and reread) the book-length list of graduates' names, degrees and thesis titles as well as newspapers including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Herald, plus Vogue magazine.
Books favored by the MIT extended family included The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Underworld by Dom DeLillo and The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska. The last was recommended by Rebecca Ann Neuschatz of Virginia to her mother, Lousie Neuschatz. Rebecca received SB degrees in mechanical engineering and economics.
The Lanphier family of Washington, Camden and Nobleboro, ME brought a large flag with an eagle emblazoned on a blue background to celebrate Calen M. Lanphier's SB in aeronautics and astronautics.
"We couldn't get a Maine state flag we could handle," said Clayton Lanphier, Calen's father, who kept his eye on the large-screen TV. Calen's mother, Marla, and his two grandmothers, Willa Stevens and Louise Lanphier, also kept watch. Said a beaming Mr. Lanphier, "We want Calen to know he soars with eagles."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 13, 2001.