“Curiouser and curiouser!”, said Alice– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
I have to confess that I wrote this last September after participating in the event myself and only now have discovered it resting gently in long-forgotten piles of paper, but here it is since I think it perhaps gives a different view of one of the lovely traditions of Lund University.
As we enjoy the remaining warmth of summer before we slip gently into autumn with its falling leaves as well as the ripening blackberries, it is perhaps just the right moment to reflect on earlier happenings when the leaves were still a bright, fresh green and blossom was everywhere. Spring is a time for hope and autumn is more of a time for reflection, at least in my mind.
For me, during the weeks before summer, I was faced with a rather unusual situation. I was asked to be fitted for a hat and a ring. The instructions, in a letter from the University Marshall, were clear and the procedures that were outlined were quite baroque… I should confess that I do not have the fingers to wear rings and neither do I have the head to wear hats. But sometimes you have to go with the flow. And so I did, when I was kindly invited to attend an event in the Cathedral of Lund which involved all kinds of ceremony, cannons, dressing up and of course it involved the hat and the ring. Modesty forbids me to say more but I and my family had a wonderful week and for that I thank the university and in particular the Faculty of Engineering, better known as the Lunds Tekniska Högskola, i.e. LTH.
Everything about the annual doctors’ event is so impressively well-organised: timings to the second; everyone in the right place at the right time thanks to rehearsals and instructions (see below in the cathedral the day before the ceremony). And yet it is relaxed and joyful with an air of jollification. But what about the ring and the hat, to say nothing about the white tie and tails from Erikssons Skrädderi at Gröngatan, not forgetting the black waistcoat for the ceremony itself which had to be replaced by a white waistcoat for the dinner? Well, these preparations were definitely from a different age, tried and tested and thoroughly dependable. If there was stress, it was they who suffered it and not me, since this particular week is a high point in their year, it seems to me. And it was all handled with complete efficiency and beaming smiles. Lund enjoys its traditions, quite clearly.
One of the many memorable characters in Alice in Wonderland is the Mad Hatter. Now surely it is completely unfair, not to say politically incorrect, to label hatters as being mad. No more mad surely than other professions, such as scientists, who are also traditionally labelled as being mad. But hold on a second! There is a solid basis for the commonly used phrase “As mad as a hatter”.
Not so long ago, in the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury was liberally used in the manufacture of felt – one of the main materials used for hats. Hat makers in those days were therefore exposed to excessive quantities of mercury vapor whilst making hats and they succumbed to its effects, which are not at all nice. Mercury poisoning is associated with a lack of coordination, and impairment of vision, speech and hearing. It causes blockage of the arteries.
Compounds of mercury are even more damaging than the metal itself, and a gram is enough to cause death. I will not burden you with all the gory details – it is enough to read the Wikipedia entry for me to regret my actions when I was young and those of my school pals when we used to pour mercury from hand to hand when we should have been studying organic chemistry all those years ago before the use of mercury was forbidden. I have to say however that it is a beautiful element – a metal that is liquid at room temperature – and it is surprisingly heavy (13.6 times denser than water) and it feels cold in your hand. Its compounds are highly colourful and thus were commonly used in the manufacture of glass and pottery, just like arsenic and lead and uranium, though not nowadays.
“Take off your hat”, the King said to the Hatter.
“It isn’t mine”, said the Hatter.
“Stolen!”, the King exclaimed, turning to the jury, who instantly made a memorandum of the fact.
“I keep them to sell”, said the Hatter added as explanation; “I’ve none of my own. I’m only a Hatter.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s adventures in the Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
The hats that all graduating doctoral students wear, as well as the honorary doctors, are specially made. And they are made to fit by using a special device whose design must be as old as the ceremony itself, with levers and pins that create a scaled down version of the shape of your head on a small sheet of paper, as shown below. It turned out that my head is not symmetrical according to the device and of course I was certain that some mistake must have been made, so the whole process was kindly repeated with great patience, just to show me – doubting Thomas – the reality.
This piece of paper is then transferred to a similar device onto which the hat is built up using traditional materials and then onto a wooden former. The master hatter is shown below with his library of hat formers in his workshop, nicely hidden away in Malmö. At that point the black outer covering is put on and the hat begins to takes shape. As you can appreciate this is a skilled profession that few can aspire to.
But I must say that the hat is an excellent fit, so at this late stage of my life I have to grudgingly accept that I have been blessed with a strangely shaped head. And that surely explains many things to those who know me better than I know myself.
This final photograph on what was a splendidly sunny day in Lund one year ago shows an array of those hats sitting on the (symmetrical) heads of more photogenic (and certainly younger) wearers. I have little doubt that a number of them will go on to benefit from ESS and MAX IV and will enjoy the facilities of Science Village Scandinavia. Good luck to them all – they are our future!
This year the ceremony also enjoyed the benefits of a beautifully sunny day but on this occasion I was an observer on the grass outside the cathedral and I could appreciate just how deafening the cannons are.