It is December 3rd, 2015. I am standing in Grant Hall at Queen’s University, surrounded by students, faculty and reporters. Faces are illuminated with smiles. There is palpable feeling of happiness and contentment in the room. A colleague takes the stage. People are on their feet. The circumstance of this happy gathering was a send off for one of our own, Dr. Art McDonald, who departed days later for Stockholm to be acknowledged on the world stage as co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Having successfully completed Physics 101 at Queen’s (the professor let me through on the condition that I take no further physics courses), I am of course well qualified to explain Dr. McDonald’s landmark achievement. His discovery has something to do with the changing flavors of neutrinos, a repurposed mine in Sudbury called Snolab, dark matter physics, the sun and …. Maybe, I will have Dr. McDonald explain his work at a future Medical Grand Rounds (but I digress).
As we awaited Dr. McDonald taking the stage I was surprised to see so many faculty, themselves accomplished individuals, engaged in a public display of joy inspired by their colleague’s success. All too often achievement in academia can foster resentment or be met with indifference. When you put a bunch of talented, driven people in a room there is competition for altitude and oxygen. Henry Kissinger famously observed, “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because stakes are so small”. However, on this day in Grant hall there was nothing small in play.
As I stood and listened to Art I found myself struggling to come up with a concise word to summarize the positive energy that emanated from those assembled. Oddly, the first word that came to mind was the opposite of what I was looking for, Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a German word meaning, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude is a guilty pleasure in which some of us periodically indulge. I was trying to think of an English antonym of Schadenfreude, perhaps joy, pride, or pleasure? None of these words seemed to concisely and accurately capture the non-self serving happiness we were experience because of the success of Dr. McDonald. As I played amateur etymologist, this positive but unnamed feeling overflowed, spreading to include his collaborators, without whom he could not have succeeded, and to the entire Physics Department, who supported him in this multi-decade particle pursuit. What IS the right word!?
Having cleverly coined the term Schadenfreude, surely the Germans must have minted an anti- Schadenfreude. Having no German language skills I consulted a friend and scientific collaborator with whom I worked at the University of Chicago, Dr. Jalees Rehman. Dr. Rehman is a stem cell biologist, cardiologist, blogger and Bavarian! Most importantly Dr. Rehman is a thoughtful philosopher. When I posed the question, “What is the antonym of schadenfreude” he replied, “Perhaps it is telling about German character that we have a word for Schadenfreude but not its opposite. However, I did come across such a word in one of my other heritages – India. The Sanskrit word “Mudita” refers to vicarious joy or sympathetic joy and is used in Buddhism to highlight the importance of feeling joy for others good fortune even (or especially) when we do not directly benefit from their good fortune. “
So thanks to Dr. Rehman I learned a new word (and also learned how to express what I had been feeling in Grant Hall): Mudita.
As 2016 begins I congratulate Dr. McDonald and his team on their achievement. Because of this work we walk a little taller as a citizens of Queen’s University. I also thank Principal Woolf for creating a venue that generated much needed Mudita.
For readers of the blog who aspire to Nobelity….listen to Kingston’s world champion town crier, Chris Whyman announce the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics (and substitute your name in at the appropriate moment).