Last year, a friend from Minnesota came into town with a checklist of sites I’d never heard of. Pulled from sites like Roadside America, this list ignored the museums and cultural centers, the public art and the historical attractions. Instead, it focused on cultural oddities, mostly results of corporate branding and privately-funded eccentricity; Though our explorations took us all over the state, one landmark that’s stuck with me was hidden in my own backyard.
On Emory University’s campus, tucked behind the Math and Science Building and obscured by trees, is the Anti-Gravity Monument. The tombstone-like face contains a cryptic message:
THIS MONUMENT HAS BEEN
ERECTED 1963 BY THE
GRAVITY RESEARCH FOUNDATION
NEW BOSTON NEW HAMPSHIRE
ROGER W. BABSON FOUNDER
IT IS TO REMIND STUDENTS
OF THE BLESSINGS FORTHCOMING
WHEN SCIENCE DETERMINES
WHAT GRAVITY IS HOW IT WORKS
AND HOW IT MAY BE CONTROLLED
As it turns out, Emory was one of thirteen colleges to receive a stone monument from the Gravity Research Foundation in the 1960s, as well as a gift of ‘gravity grant’ stocks. The foundation was the brainchild of Roger W. Babson, whose obsession with gravity began in childhood after the drowning of his older sister—“She was unable to fight gravity, which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom,” he wrote in an essay titled “Gravity-Our Enemy No.1.” Though Babson’s vilification of gravity in this tragic incident seems misguided, the savvy businessman correctly applied his theories to predict, and subsequently benefit from, the fall of the stock market in 1929 (On the subject, he mused, “What goes up will come down”).
But as the years went on, the eccentricity of his passion grew increasingly apparent. During Gravity Research Foundation conferences, attendees would sit in chairs with their feet higher than their heads to counterbalance gravity. Babson pushed scientists to consider the weight of this important research as well as the humanitarian applications of “harnessing gravity,” including the reduction of airplane accidents.
Though the work of the foundation continues, the Anti-Gravity Monuments have taken on the cumbersome status of punchlines at the colleges where they rest. According to Wikipedia, the Anti-Gravity Monument at Colby College was moved to a less visible location due to students knocking it over as an example of gravity’s power (very funny, guys). Tufts cosmology graduate program has honored their monument by incorporating it into their graduation ceremony; students stand near the monument for their crowns to be christened by a falling apple, a lá Newton.
It’s unclear whether Emory University moved their monument or chose to build around it in order to obscure it; either way, it seems to have become just another of Emory’s little embarrassments, willfully ignored by the administration. In the few years my husband and I have lived in Atlanta, we’ve seen seven students arrested for trespassing while holding peaceful protests on the quad. We’ve swallowed the news of Emory’s cutting of the Visual Arts Department, and watched Visual Arts faculty and staff struggle with their frustrations with the administration while simultaneously trying to meet the needs of current students. And most recently, we’ve witnessed Emory’s current president, James Wagner, bury his last shred of credibility with his declaration of admiration for the “Three-Fifths Compromise.”
If anything, it seems the Anti-Gravity Monument has become a fitting symbol of the university: Despite Emory’s lofty aspirations, its reputation in the community remains weighed down by a misguided administration.