The Early History of Scientia

Scientia has an unusual origin story. In 1980, two professors-- Solomon Bocher and Al van Helden—both wanted to use the collected works of Kepler for their research. However, Fondren Library only owned one copy, so the professors requested a joint carrel. Instead, the University suggested that they found an Institute, which would entitle them to an entire room at the library plus some seed money. Tasked with creating an Institute that would contribute to university life in a novel way, Bochner and van Helden conceived of Scientia as a public lecture series. Ronny Wells (Mathematics), Jane Chance (English), and Mark Kulstad (Philosophy) gave the first lectures, moderated by Bochner. Bochner himself gave a lecture in celebration of Einstein’s 100th birthday.

After serving as Scientia’s inaugural director for two years, Bochner passed away unexpectedly. Determined to save the Institute, the remaining members drafted a charter, formalized an annual lecture series, and recruited new members.

One of Scientia’s first decisions was to dedicate a special lecture each year in Bochner’s memory. The inaugural Bochner lecture was given by Bernard Cohen, a professor of history of science from Harvard. Bochner lecturers in following years have included mathematician Freeman Dyson, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and many other distinguished speakers.

In the 1980s Hank and Demeris Hudspeth, graduates of Rice in the 1940s, gave Scientia a permanent footing. They graciously set up endowments for Scientia and for a De Lange Conference that would be held every other year. The De Lange conferences aim to bring to Rice University top experts and major figures to focus on a topic of great concern to society.

Scientia has evolved into the University’s most visible platform for Rice faculty to share their work, as well as one of the University’s most important “outward facing” events sharing thought-provoking presentations with both the campus community and the public. Ronny Wells, Sidney Burrus, Franz Brotzen, Jim Pomerantz, Susan McIntosh, and Rick Wilson have all served as Directors. New members are recruited from as broad a range of disciplines as possible; once appointed, they serve for their remaining career at Rice. Thanks to its breadth of membership, Scientia has encouraged inter-disciplinary dialogues that reach across every corner of campus.

Each year the Scientia membership decides on a topic for the lecture series. Faculty, staff, and local speakers address the central topic. The centerpiece of the lecture series is the Bochner lecture, usually someone from outside the Rice community. Every other year, the De Lange Conference attracts speakers and participants from across the world. In between Scientia also sponsors small conferences that aim to bring scholars together to focus on narrower topics.

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