Ceremony of the Pens

beautiful mindMy daughter and I watched A Beautiful Mind a few weeks ago. Although it’s a film — and a wonderful one at that — I am not reviewing it for Film Friday. Instead, I am focusing on one element of the movie: the Ceremony of the Pens.

A Beautiful Mind tells the story of brilliant, yet schizophrenic, mathematician Dr. John Nash, who in real life went on to win the Nobel prize in economics for his work on game theory.

Early in the film, a young Nash, played by Russell Crowe, watches a professor being handed pens by his colleagues in the Princeton faculty club. Nash is told it’s a mark of respect, a way to recognize a mathematician’s contributions to the field. Many years later, Nash himself is silently presented with pens by his fellow professors, who finally accept and acknowledge him, despite his illness.

ceremony of the pens

It’s a beautiful scene, a poignant scene. And it’s pure Hollywood.

I am so disappointed that Princeton does not really have a Ceremony of the Pens! I’ve dined in Caltech’s faculty club, the Athenaeum, where the paneled walls and dignified oil portraits provide the perfect setting for such a tribute, but they don’t have such a ceremony either. Apparently, no one does.

What better way to salute someone for his or her creative contributions than to symbolically present that instrument of creation: The Pen. How many novels, essays and letters have been written by pens? How many portraits sketched, inventions doodled, buildings designed and equations calculated? Generals have outlined strategy, cooks have passed down family recipes and boys and girls have expanded their horizons by writing to pen pals, all through the medium of the pen.

A pen is a magic wand, a conductor’s baton that can make real the symphony of imagination. And in a more perfect world, the Ceremony of the Pens would exist, and we could all hope that one day our peers might lay them before us, a tribute to our boundless capacity for creation.

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