As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Inspiration and Entropy (April 2018)

Welcome back, welcome to Celebration term, that curious time in which I claim that exams are a celebration and in which you try very hard to believe me. They’re not like any other celebration but a celebration they are, of how much you know, of how hard you’ve worked and of how clever you are – and if you’re not feeling that there is much to celebrate on the first two scores at the moment then you have some time to get yourself ready for the party because it’s coming and after the exams is the time that I think you find easier to see as a celebration – post exams: a time to look back with pride on what you’ve achieved and I would urge you to do everything in your power to make sure you can look back with pride, rather than regret, and that the summer break, when it comes, will be well-earned.

Looking back with pride on an achievement that is the result of hard work is an activity that the England team are currently enjoying. Did you follow the netball over the weekend? If so - wow, wasn’t it amazing? If not – then you should: there are two matches to watch on catchup: the England-Jamaica semi and the final and three amazing teams of players going all out for victory. The joy on their faces was not merely having achieved something rare and wonderful but also pride on the hard work that had got them there. The goalkeeper – Geva Mentor – was in her fifth Commonwealth games but her first final: this was the first time England had reached the finals (normally it’s Australia against New Zealand). Years of hard work culminating in a few hours of stressful performance to achieve something wonderful that you can look back on with pride - gold medals and A-levels both fall into that category but actually the Abbey is filled with memorials to people whose achievements have been both wonderful and hard work.

As you walk out today, look around you and be inspired. Where particularly do we look for our inspiration? We’re spoilt for choice but we must be careful not to expect too much from our heroes even the netballing ones – they are all just human with weaknesses and failings (often quite big ones): we can be inspired by their words, their deeds, their stories without losing ourselves in worship. Our greatest inspiration as a school comes not from Netball (although that might change), not from the Kings and Queens behind me or the politicians on my right nor even the poets and writers on my left although Shakespeare’s memorial there makes me pause and share with you some of his words on the role of the poet. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus says

“The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Shakespeare is rather brilliant and maybe if he were actually buried here – but he’s not, he’s in Stratford.

When the student president, vice-presidents and I meet at the beginning of an assembly ready to process through your midst we stand at the foot of Isaac Newton’s memorial and sometimes actually on his grave or, rather, as it says in Latin on his gravestone, the burial place of all of him that was mortal. I suspect the Dean who had that engraved was thinking of an immortal soul but whether or not you believe in such things, Newton’s legacy lives on. He was an amazing scholar with a tremendous brain and a driving thirst for knowledge – he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and once he had worked out all there was to be worked out in Mathematics including inventing calculus he moved on to fix Physics and finally, finding music intractable, moved onto Magic. He was not famed for his modesty (quite the reverse, in fact) but he is known for the charmingly self-deprecating quote “If I have seen farther than others it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”.

With other scientists standing on Newton’s shoulders we have an image of scholarship as a huge human pyramid up which we are trying to climb. It’s quite a complicated tower – some of the shoulders you might climb on belong to giants (who are trustworthy) but others belong to trolls on whom you should avoid placing reliance. As you climb you must constantly test the strength of your footholds – this is critical thinking: is this a giant who really knows what they’ve written, whose writing can be trusted or is it a troll with an agenda or a weakness for fabrication. In order to develop as a giant ourselves – and this is the goal that all scholarship is working towards: that one day you might say, or write something that others can believe in – in order to be trustworthy we must be clear about who in the pyramid is carrying our weight, how we got to where we are, how we know what we claim to know. This is scrupulousness.

But I digress – back to looking back with pride and admiration. Within the school we have a legacy that is passed from each cohort of students to the next in a sort of relay with the leavers’ assembly next month the moment of passing the torch. In that assembly, by the way, you’ll see the victorious house captain placing flowers on Newton’s memorial on our behalf. By that time, though, they won't be house captain any more because Easter is the moment of passing on the student leadership roles from one year group to the next and now is the moment for the old Senate to pass their responsibilities over to the new. 

And so we move onto the other inspirational grave – the one that doesn’t exist yet. It will be Stephen Hawking whose ashes will be interred next to Newton’s grave in June. He was a brilliant Physicist, quite clearly standing on the shoulders of Newton but also Einstein and many other members of the human pyramid of physics scholarship. Interestingly he was also the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (Newton was the second, Hawking the seventeenth). His epitaph will be the Bekenstein-Hawking formula which makes sense of the thermodynamics of black holes. Before Hawking, you see, black holes were a problem because they were thought to be point masses – singularities sucking in objects from the space around them. The problem with this – apart from the inconvenience should you be in the space around them – is that by sucking objects in and making them disappear they would be tidying up - making space less messy – and the second law of thermodynamics is that space always gets messier, nothing ever tidies itself. Hawking said that black holes have a size and that the inside of a black hole is the messiest space possible – the equation is a mathematical description of the messiness of the space inside a black hole in terms of entropy: the careful and precise term for what I’ve rather casually described as messiness.

The second law of thermodynamics actually states that entropy always increases and is as close to absolutely confidently true as Physicists will ever let you be about anything. More casually, the idea that unless you make an effort things get messier is true of bedrooms, desks, revision notes and knowledge. If we don’t work hard at making things better they don’t stay the same but actually get worse – an idea expressed in lines by Philip Larkin’s poem: Churchgoing in which he said, talking about the fading glory of church buildings –

“Superstition, like belief, must die, and what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky, a shape less recognisable each week, a purpose more obscure”. Larkin is memorialised over in poet’s corner, close to Shakespeare and did you see his poet’s eye, if not in fine frenzy rolling, then at least passing smoothly over the crumbling building: grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.

Larkin was one of the most recent memorials added to the abbey – in December 2016 – memorials are becoming less frequent as the space is used up and Stephen Hawking’s position midway between Newton and Darwin is a great honour. We can take a lot of inspiration from his achievements and I foresee that in assemblies yet to come we will muse on the way in which he refused to let his disabilities get the better of him: I find it difficult to imagine how hard it must have been to work when his only means of communication was pointing with his eyes to different parts of a screen. We will reflect on the amazing people and technology that enabled him to survive and continue working with a disease that would surely have killed him in other times; but today I’d like to pause on the second law of thermodynamics and that phrase of Larkin’s because although it’s an amazing thing to be buried in Westminster Abbey – a church that has stood for almost a millennium – eventually even this place will crumble and all that was mortal of both Newton and Hawking be lost but their scholarship will, I think, live on. Certainly their discoveries will remain true – their hard work has left a mark on the world even more enduring than Commonwealth Gold medals and so, as we head out into Celebration term, looking forwards to the opportunity to make our own marks, to celebrate how much we know, how hard we’ve worked and how clever we are, let us be inspired to make sure we can look back on our achievements this term with pride.