Sept. 28, 2005

Pass the conundrum and the syrup: Conversation tops the menu at brunch sessions

Robert Barker/University Photography
Medieval studies Professor Paul Hyams, left, at one of the recent Sunday brunches he holds with students in Appel Commons.

Sex and dating at Radcliffe after World War II. Mathematics beyond numbers. The cystic fibrosis gene. Redbud Woods. "March of the Penguins."

These were a few of the topics raised over eggs, coffee, bagels and dim sum at a series of four recent Sunday brunches hosted by medieval studies professor Paul Hyams in Appel Commons on Cornell's North Campus.

Seven years ago the one-time Oxford don, who was then a faculty fellow on West Campus, began inviting guest speakers -- usually faculty members -- to informal meals, open to any interested student but generally small and intimate by design and necessity. His original intention was "to build up a dinner group of the willing," Hyams says. Since then, the conversation, like the brunch buffet, has been colorful, diverse and never less than filling.

"Both sides have to be alert and interested," Hyams says of the dynamic of the brunches. He is officially taking this academic year off but managed to schedule four brunches this semester before he leaves for Europe next week. The series will resume briefly when Hyams returns in January and in late April.

Hyams brings a broad curiosity to the brunch table. His questions go well beyond his guests' research and teaching, or even his own interests as a historian. He often throws out book recommendations, from "Guns, Germs and Steel" (the first freshman reading project at Cornell) to Norbert Wiener's "The Human Use of Human Beings" -- "one of THE great books," Hyams says.

Paul Sherman
Robert Barker/University Photography
Paul Sherman, professor of neurobiology and behavior, talks with students at one of Hyams' brunches earlier this month.

He has rarely had the same guest twice. "The merit of that is we have a large campus with a large number of interesting and varied people," he says.

On Sept. 4 Hyams invited biologists and behaviorists Paul and Janet Sherman because "I'm curious about what scientists talk about over breakfast." Together, the Shermans teach a senior seminar, Darwinian Medicine. They told the students that they spend their spare time reading, hiking, fly-fishing and hunting for chanterelle mushrooms.

"We go to church often, and to us church is the woods," Paul Sherman said. "We're biologists, so that is our spiritual place."

Sherman raved about the summer hit movie "March of the Penguins," in which the birds walk 70 miles to a mating ground. Hyams was prompted to mention intelligent design, observing, "surely it can't happen by chance."

"You're pushing all of my buttons today," the biologist said. "One thing I say in my Darwinian Medicine class is how unintelligent the design is. We're a bundle of circumstances and mistakes."

On Sept. 11, novelist Alison Lurie, a professor emerita of English, came to brunch. Lurie said the events in "The War Between the Tates," her 1977 roman à clef of the marital (and extramarital) travails of a professor and his wife, "happened to people I know, but it happened at three different universities."

She also talked about the sexual mores and career aspirations prevalent when she was a student at Radcliffe. "What everyone expected [was] you'd work for a couple of years and then get married," she said. "When I first got to Ithaca, I was the second woman in the English department."

Unexpected connections between topics are frequent. So are laughter and thought-provoking asides. Looking to get to the bottom of theoretical and applied mathematics, Hyams asked Graeme Bailey, professor of computer science, his guest on Sept. 18, to "define what thought is" and "to what extent are numbers necessary, and is it possible to think without words?"

Said Bailey: "The process of understanding something is a highly creative exercise."

Hyams: "So you're making it up as you go along?"

Discussing patterns and information theory with Bailey, Hyams declared, "This is a blind alley. Clearly we shouldn't ask questions because it screws up information."

Hyams credits Campus Life and his "minder" at Appel Commons, Denice Cassaro, with helping him to present the series.

"I believe it is actually the best thing I do here," he says, "and the one with the most far-reaching consequences -- and the kind of experience that students remember for years and years afterward."