N.B. What follows is a humorous look at faculty recruiting, with just a bit of tongue-in-cheek perspective. And yes, the "Gershwin incident" really happened.
A long time ago in an academic institution far, far away, I was a frequent participant in that annual rite of spring known as faculty recruiting, where academic units compete for new faculty, both freshly minted graduates and more senior, established faculty from other institutions who are seeking new and more hospitable intellectual climes. It is sometimes stressful and often frenzied, but it is always emotionally and physically enervating for all involved. The outcomes shape the professional future of the applicants, the stature and reputation of the units, and the education and future prospects of the unit's graduates.
A Bit of Courtship
Like all courtship and mating rituals, faculty recruiting has its own mores and Darwinian spectacles. It includes the bright plumage and courtship display of the candidates, the by turns demure and affected disinterest of the units, then the active pursuit and ardent courtship when the candidate is found intellectually desirable. The ultimate probability of a pair bond is determined by perceived compatibility, but also by the academic pedigree of the candidate, the reputation and ranking of the unit, and the relative plethora or scarcity of candidates with respect to job openings. Population dynamics rule, and speciation can occur when new disciplines emerge.
In most traditional variants of the recruiting ritual, there is a public research presentation by the candidate, where he or she attempts to impress with extraordinary erudition and insight. This is either preceded or followed by one-on-one meetings with the faculty, who attempt to sway and awe with their own accomplishments and prestige. In between, there are one or more meals involving the candidate and selected faculty, where they break bread and continue courtship.
Just a Jingle
At one among many such events, I found myself sitting in a restaurant with a colleague and a candidate, making small talk while awaiting the arrival of our dinner party's final member. As in many restaurants, recorded music played softly in the background, a subliminal counterpoint to the murmured conversations and the syncopated clink of silverware. Finally, a burst of winter air heralded the belated arrival of our final dinner guest. As my tardy colleague doffed his winter coat and voiced vague apologies, he cocked his head toward the ceiling. Looking at the three of us with some bewilderment, he asked, "Why are they playing the United Airlines theme song in the restaurant?"
In a scene worthy of The Matrix, I felt time slow to a fractal crawl. In the Planck time separating what was and what could be, I considered the Hamiltonian and its myriad possibilities. Was our candidate the embodied apotheosis of cultural bifurcation, also blissfully unaware that Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was an icon of the American songbook, a fusion of classical and jazz, with a touch of 1920s ebullience? Were C. P. Snow's mournful words on the cloven nature of The Two Cultures – the sciences and the literary arts – both prescient and sadly understated? Or, was there hope that The School of Athens still echoed across the years, yielding scholars and polymaths equally facile in natural philosophy, the humanities and the arts? Meanwhile, in my mind, the spirit of Gershwin emitted an anguished and uncertain wail.
Wave Function Collapse
I could only wonder, did objectivist reality and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory hold? Were there worlds and timelines where Gershwin was only an airline jingle writer, created at the instant of my colleague's question, and destined to evolve independently? Or, in the Copenhagen interpretation, would the wave function truly collapse on my observation of Gershwin's role in American musical culture? There in Schrödinger's box sat Gershwin's legacy, indeterminate, awaiting my response.
With a weary sigh, I looked at my colleague. "It's Gershwin," I said. As that single eigenstate materialized, then wafted away like a clarinet glissando, somewhere, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck smiled.
We lost the faculty candidate to another institution.