Honor travels to Netherlands to celebrate Nobel Laureate great-grandfather
by Honor Taft, Friends School Head of School
At this end of the month , I’ll be taking a trip abroad. Normally, a head of school wouldn’t take time away during the busy month of January. This trip, however, is deeply meaningful to me, so I’d like to share why I’m going.
On Saturday, January 26th I will set off to Leiden, Netherlands in honor my great-grandfather, Peter Debye who among many accomplishments, won a Nobel Prize in 1936. He is perhaps most famous for his discovery of the “dipole moment” (Dipole moments occur when a molecule creates temporary charges and builds bonds between atoms) and development of equations to calculate the size of the dipole moment (called a Debye). His discovery contributed immeasurable to our understanding of molecules which is the foundation for so much of what we understand and can accomplish in science today.
Along with some members of my family, including my father, step-mother and my father’s cousins, I will attend an event at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. This event will honor and celebrate the handing over of heritage objects, including letters, photos, school diplomas among others items, which will be added to their national science collection. This museum already holds heritage collections of many Dutch Nobel Prize winners, and they are excited add these to their collections.
During this event, a number of people will speak about the importance of my great-grandfather as a Nobel Prize winner. Wiel Rousseau, a Dutch scientist who learned from my great-grandfather and with whom I have kept up a connection, will talk about his discovery of the heritage objects and how he has cared for them through the years. My father will also speak about his life growing up with Peter Debye’s in Ithaca, New York, where Peter served as Professor of Chemistry, Principle of the Chemistry Department and eventually Professor Emeritus at Cornell University (our family donated his Nobel Prize, and some other medals to the University in 2004). These medals had an interesting life of their own, a story I would love to share one day.
Of particular importance for me in the story of Peter’s life is that he was born into a poor family in Maastricht, Netherlands. As such, he was entitled to an education only through grade 5. During his schooling, however, a teacher took note of his potential and lobbied to the state requesting that his education be funded (this letter is among the heritage items that will be presented to the museum). Achieving this funding laid the groundwork for Peter Debye’s rise through academia and ultimately for his contributions to science, which arguable impact how we live today. This story reminds me of what I believe and why I do the work that I do – a teacher, through their belief in a child, can change the course of that child’s life, and even change the world.
I look forward to sharing photos and moments from this trip as I travel, and when I return. You can follow me on twitter @HonorTaft for ongoing updates from my adventure.