May 5, 2003

Gravity Monument returns to campus

By Michael Terrazas

Tucked humbly to one side of what is now the Callaway Center, for 37 years it rested, a 5-foot-high block of Etowah Cherokee pink marble. Then it was gone, displaced for five smaller blocks of granite. Now it’s returned.

“It” is the Gravity Monument, one of Emory’s more eclectic pieces of campus lore, which has a new home in the courtyard adjacent to the Math & Science Center. The piece had been in storage since 1999, when it was removed from its previous home just off the Quadrangle to make room for the Isamu Noguchi outdoor sculpture “Beginnings,” loaned to Emory from 1999–01.

The Gravity Monument carries with it an interesting history and—while perhaps not “controversial”—is held in wildly varying degrees of esteem by University faculty, administrators and alumni. Some remember it fondly; others view it as an embarrassment. Some explanation is in order.

Donated to the University in 1962 by the New Hampshire-based Gravity Research Foundation, the Gravity Monument’s stated purpose, inscribed on its face beneath a set of scales, is “to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled.”

If that sentiment sounds a bit anachronistic, there is good reason. The Gravity Research Foundation was founded in 1948 by Roger Babson (also founder of Babson College, an undergradate and graduate-level business school just outside Boston). For all his success as an engineer, entrepreneur, writer and philanthropist, Babson drew no small amount of ridicule for his devotion to furthering research on gravity.

Babson believed that, once properly understood, gravity could be harnessed and used to propel vehicles through perpetual motion instead of a fuel-consuming engine; he even envisioned spacecraft that turned the force of gravity against itself to effortlessly break free from the earth’s gravitational pull (indeed, the monument was donated to Emory in sympathy for the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed more than 100 Atlantans).

Such ideas seem the stuff of science fiction, and this is why some in the Emory community consider the monument a testament to pseudo- or even antiscience, unworthy of display at a top-tier research university.

“Those who like it seem to find it charming and eccentric; those who dislike it
find it naive and irrational,” said President Bill Chace.

“To me it’s a nostalgic and memorable symbol of the old Emory,” said Ray DuVarney, associate professor and chair of physics. DuVarney chaired the University Senate’s Campus Development Committee when the monument was displaced in 1999 and strongly advocated its reinstallation at its new home.

DuVarney points out that, despite the aspirations of its founder, the Gravity Research Foundation is viewed as a legitimate scientific institution. It hands out awards each year for the best essays on “gravity research,” and past winners have included top physicists at major research universities— names like Ron Adler and Stephen Hawking.

DuVarney also said that gravity remains a valid field of inquiry—scientists still do not understand how it operates. “People say [in response to the monument’s inscription], ‘You can’t control gravity,’” DuVarney said. “How do you know that if we still don’t understand what gravity is?”

The monument so enchanted Robert Rohrer, 1939 graduate of Emory College and longtime professor and chair of physics, that he specifically requested a marble bench named in his honor be installed next to the monument.

“I was right there when the Gravity Monument came to Emory, and I’d be delighted to have it back by my bench,” Rohrer told Emory Magazine in 2001.

Rohrer’s bench will be moved to the Gravity Monument’s new location at the Math & Science Center, said DuVarney, who also plans to organize a “rededication ceremony” for both the bench and the monument, possibly during Alumni Weekend this fall.

For his part, even though he doesn’t buy into the claims of pseudoscience put forth by the monument’s detractors, DuVarney feels people should perhaps not take it too

“I’m thinking,” he said, “about calling [the rededication ceremony] ‘Gravity and Levity.’”