On July 11, 1960 — 50 years ago this weekend — the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” appeared in bookstores for the first time.In the decades since, author Harper Lee’s iconic novel of race, class, courage, gender, and moral complexity has never been out of print. The instant classic went on to be published around the world in more than 5,000 editions.What has made the story of Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Dill, and the doomed Tom Robinson so durable? A few Harvard professors weighed in on the novel, set in sleepy Maycomb, Ala., in the 1930s. The people moved slowly, Lee wrote, grass grew in the sidewalks, and “men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.”But fictional little Maycomb was also a place where racial tension simmered like summer heat — a place that Lee invented just as the American Civil Rights movement flowered. “To Kill a Mockingbird” — which soon won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into an Oscar-winning film — became the bestseller that summed up the moral quandaries of a race-charged age.“It was a landmark book,” said Vicki A. Jacobs, associate director of the Teacher Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The themes are universal, despite time.”One of those themes is self-realization, she said, the journey to moral and social awareness that Jem and Scout make as children confronted with the tragic consequences of Maycomb’s fragile racial climate.“ ‘Lord of the Rings’ endures, Shakespeare endures,” said Jacobs, a specialist in literacy, curriculum, and the teaching of English. “It’s all about a basic struggle.”“To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the first novels in a new canon of books that represented a diversity of voices, and that children gladly read, she said. It still resonates today at least as a social document from a time when Americans struggled as a nation with the moral dilemma of race relations. “I’m more interested in it as a piece of history,” said Jacobs. “It’s more of a book I carry emotionally.”In the book, much to the surprise of his children Jem and Scout, the mild and quiet Atticus shoulders a rifle, and expertly shoots down a mad dog roaming the streets of Maycomb. In the courtroom later — defending Robinson from trumped-up rape charges — Atticus takes aim at what critics have called the “mad dog” of racial prejudice.But it’s not such an easy shot. Robinson, one of the innocent “mockingbirds” of the title, is convicted despite porous evidence, and is eventually shot dead while trying to escape. He’s the victim of racism’s mad dog.“Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury,” Atticus said later, “but you saw something come between them and reason. … There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads — they couldn’t be fair if they tried.”James Simpson, Harvard College Professor and Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, grew up in Australia. But in his childhood, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still made itself felt on the other side of a great geographic and cultural divide.“Even way down there in Melbourne, the book cast its potent spell over generations of schoolchildren,” said Simpson, who also chairs the English Department, “evoking and half calming their anxieties about that spooky, silent house on the corner that every child fears.”The book also delivered a very American message. “ ‘Catcher in the Rye’ brought America to Melbourne adolescents by a mesmerizing voice,” said Simpson. “But ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ brought America to Melbourne through something much deeper — a palpable atmosphere of dark and troubling pasts, all unlike anything we knew.”Lee’s classic was not life-changing to Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard, and a professor of African and African-American studies. For that power, he prefers Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi.” The 1968 memoir follows a black woman through the humiliation of the Jim Crow era and the turbulence of the civil rights struggle.As for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “its moral center resides in a white male redeemer,” said Johnson, who studies 19th century American slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. “That might account for some of its popularity and longevity, [but] it also defines and — to an extent — limits its moral and ethical vision.”Like the movie “Amistad,” the novel’s moral focus seems racially one-sided, he said. “Both the strength and the weakness of the book is that it is, in the end, a book about white people.”Will its rugged popularity in the classroom last? “To Kill a Mockingbird” may not always be a feature in that canon of books still taught in high schools and middle schools, said Jacobs. But for now, “it still has its place,” she said, and her students regularly choose it when teaching their English classes.Simpson had greater hopes for Lee’s classic. “May books like this one,” he said, “continue to live much longer.”
Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have shown that those who start using marijuana at a young age are more impaired on tests of cognitive function than those who start smoking at a later age.The study results will be presented on Monday (Nov. 15) at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. Staci A. Gruber reported that subjects who started using marijuana before age 16 made twice as many mistakes on tests of executive function, which includes planning, flexibility, abstract thinking, and inhibiting inappropriate responses, as those who began smoking after age 16.“They performed significantly worse,” said Gruber, director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Core at McLean and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School (HMS).The early-onset users also smoked three times as much marijuana per week and twice as often compared with the later-onset users, she noted.“Our data suggest that the earlier you begin smoking, the more marijuana you smoke and the more frequently you smoke,” she said. “That’s an important finding.”Gruber said the findings are particularly critical today when legalization of marijuana is being considered in a number of states.“We have to be clear about getting the message out that marijuana isn’t really a benign substance,” she said. “It has a direct effect on executive function. The earlier you begin using it, and the more you use of it, the more significant that effect.”The study included 33 chronic marijuana smokers and 26 control subjects who did not smoke marijuana. They were given a battery of neurocognitive tests assessing executive function, including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which involves sorting different cards based on a set of rules given. During the test, the rules are changed without warning and subjects must adjust their responses to the new rules.The findings showed habitual marijuana users made repeated errors even when told that they were wrong. Users also had more trouble maintaining a set of rules, suggesting an inability to maintain focus. Early-onset users and those who used the most marijuana had the most trouble with the test, making more than twice as many errors and fewer correct responses than later-onset smokers.The researchers, who included Mary Kathryn Dahlgren, Kelly A. Sagar and Megan T. Racine, all of McLean Hospital’s Brain Imaging Center, also performed functional MRI (fMRI) scans on the subjects while they completed tests of cognitive control and inhibition.Marijuana smokers showed increased brain activation in a frontal area of the anterior cingulate cortex, a key region for attention, inhibition, and error processing, compared with control subjects. Interestingly, early-onset smokers activated a different part of that brain region compared to later-onset smokers, perhaps suggesting a neural change in response to marijuana exposure at an early age.“Our results provide further evidence that marijuana use has a direct effect on executive function and that both age of onset and magnitude of marijuana use can significantly influence cognitive processing,” said Gruber.“Given the prevalence of marijuana use in the United States, these findings underscore the importance of establishing effective strategies to decrease marijuana use, especially in younger populations,” she said. “These findings are critical, as adolescence is a time of important brain development, and the adolescent brain is likely more vulnerable to the effects of drugs than the adult brain.”McLean Hospital is the largest psychiatric clinical care, teaching, and research facility of Harvard Medical School, an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare. For more information about McLean Hospital, visit its website.
Lecture-goers were so intrigued last night (Dec. 2) by “The Razor’s Edge” that they stayed beyond the allotted time to try to get all their questions in. The talk, by four people who risked their careers and even their lives to stand up for principles they believed in, was sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and was the final event of a daylong conference on principled dissent.First to speak was Col. Ann Wright, who resigned on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stating that without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, the war would be in violation of international law. Wright, who had been in the Army for almost three decades and had then served around the world in the diplomatic corps, was one of only three U.S. government officials to resign in protest to the Iraq war. “You never know when your conscience is going to get you,” she said.Bakyt Beshimov had a very different story, having opposed the ruling body as leader of the Social Democratic Political Fraction in his native Kyrgyzstan. Beshimov’s liberal views and criticism toward two administrations led to detainment, interrogation, and ultimately to assassination attempts. “It was my dream to make my country better,” said the historian, later recalling the Oscar Wilde quote that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Beshimov, who sought asylum in the United States, is a Scholar at Risk at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “Last year I fled my country after the second attempt on my life,” he said. “Before me was just two ways: Stay and be killed, or leave.”Darrel Vandeveld is a former military advocate who for a time prosecuted Guantanamo detainees. “My frame of mind was I wanted to secure as many convictions as possible,” he said, and make sure that the guilty received the maximum sentences, including the death penalty. “I was outraged, I was angry, I wanted revenge.” After seeing rampant abuses of the system, Vandeveld said, he resigned as a prosecutor and was “vilified” by the Army. He is now a defense attorney, standing up “for the rights of the poor and those unable to defend themselves.”The final speaker was Carne Ross, who worked for the British Foreign Office, including serving as the U.K. delegation’s expert on the Middle East at the U.N. Security Council. He said he had a reputation as a “vicious Rottweiler” in defending his country’s policies until testifying in the British government’s Butler Review of 2004 that the U.S. and U.K. knew Iraq posed no threat to its neighbors and did not possess weapons of mass destruction.“I couldn’t believe my government was doing this,” Ross said. He drafted letters of resignation but never sent them because “I was afraid. Afraid that if I held my hand up and said this isn’t right, somehow I would be crushed.” His fears were justified, it turned out, when another whistleblower, his friend and colleague David Kelly, was questioned aggressively regarding his decision to go to the press with what he knew, and later committed suicide.“I realized that the government and the public in Britain were inoculated against the next person who put his hand up,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t be destroyed, because they had already destroyed David.”He resigned, sending his evidence of government lies to the Foreign Office. “It took a long time to reconstruct a professional career for myself,” he said.He ultimately founded an advisory group called Independent Diplomat, though he said he felt that he “did as much bad as I did good,” and warned against thinking of whistleblowers as heroes rather than human beings often at the mercy of “chance and circumstance.”Much of the question-and-answer period focused on recent news regarding the website WikiLeaks and rape allegations made against its founder, Julian Assange. The panel was divided over whether the site was justified in releasing thousands of secret government documents, leaning toward the side of government by citing the need for secrecy in many cases and comparing WikiLeaks’ actions unfavorably with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ultimately, however, “the crucible of experience is the best teacher for making these kinds of decisions,” said Vandeveld.Wright agreed. “Always second-guess,” she said. “Always be suspicious. Most of the time you kind of know right from wrong. It’s in your stomach. It’s in your headaches. Don’t dismiss those.”
If November and December are marked by a battle of will vs. appetite, then January and February pit our well-meaning brains against our unmotivated feet. As many a New Englander can attest, it’s hard to get out and exercise when freezing temperatures and seemingly endless snowfalls loom.But to Harvard biologist and barefoot running enthusiast Daniel Lieberman, that’s no excuse to sit still.“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Lieberman said Wednesday (Jan. 26).Inclement weather didn’t stop a large crowd from turning out at Sanders Theatre to learn how to overcome the winter blues and get motivated. The event kicked off Harvard on the Move, a running and walking program designed to build community and fitness among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the community. The program, sponsored by President Drew Faust and coordinated by the Center for Wellness, will include weekly runs and walks open to the public.The initiative will also highlight “the fundamental mission of the University to translate research into practice,” Faust said. With that in mind, panelists discussed the latest findings on how regular running (or walking) can improve mental, physical, and emotional health.Lieberman, professor and chair of human evolutionary biology, was joined by John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Christopher McDougall ’85, a magazine journalist who has chronicled extreme running cultures around the world.Humans are built for movement, Lieberman said, but our daily activities don’t give us the bursts of activity we need. “We still have those Paleolithic bodies, but we live 21st century lives,” he said.Perhaps because of the way humans have evolved, regular running has a host of positive effects on our minds and bodies, Ratey said. Studies have found that sedentary middle-age people who took up exercise were able to push back cognitive decline by 10 to 15 years, he said. Ratey has also prescribed running to treat attention deficit disorder and depression.McDougall, more adventurer than scientist, emphasized that running should be fun. The “ultrarunners” he has written about can win 100-mile races, he said, not because they train their bodies the hardest, but because they don’t.“They’re not interested in the limits of what’s possible,” McDougall said. “They’re interested in the limits of what’s pleasurable.”The panelists took questions from the audience on the usual anxieties: what to eat before a run, how fast and far to go, and how to run in less-than-ideal weather. The answers to most running questions, the panelists agreed, come down to listening to one’s body — whether that means eating more carbohydrates, drinking less water, or making the decision to go shoeless.“If it hurts, stop,” Lieberman said. “There’s this idea that you should run through pain. … I think pain is a symptom that something’s wrong.”The talk was followed by an informational fair, where faculty, staff, and students could have their gaits analyzed by specialists and buy signed copies of the panelists’ latest books: Lieberman’s “The Evolution of the Human Head,” Ratey’s “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” and McDougall’s “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”The first community walk will take place Tuesday (Feb. 1) at noon, leaving from the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard. Successive walks are scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon, and weekly runs are scheduled for Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 10 a.m.“I hope you’ll join me,” Faust told the crowd — rain, shine, or snow.
OK, we’re part Neanderthal, and not that much different from chimpanzees after all. We also know that some drugs won’t work on my cancer, even though they might work on yours.And, if you want to find out what your DNA has been saying behind your back, the price of having your personal genome decoded is dropping like a stone.The map of the human genome, completed in 2001, has wowed scientists in the years since, even if the scale of its impact has not matched some of the early predictions surrounding the project.Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project, said Tuesday (Feb. 22) that he has been surprised at the pace of advances stemming from the project, which has been likened to “biology’s moon-shot.”“This has gone so much faster than I ever imagined,” said Lander, president and director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School. “We’ve been able to read out the lab notebooks of evolution.”Lander was part of a panel of scientific experts who talked about the Human Genome Project and its legacy at Sanders Theatre.The event, “Mapping the Human Genome: Ten Years After,” was hosted by Harvard President Drew Faust and webcast by USA Today. Other panelists were Margaret Hamburg, head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; M. Susan Lindee, chair and professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania; Vamsi Mootha, associate professor of systems biology and of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate member of the Broad Institute; and Vicki Sato, former president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and today professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.“Has sequencing of the human genome been transformative, and in what ways?” Faust asked in her introductory remarks. “How are we all … different than we otherwise would have been and what will the coming decades hold?”The Human Genome Project started in 1990 and involved scientists from 20 centers in six countries. At a cost of $3 billion, the first draft of the genome was published in 2001 and the full sequence was published in 2003. The resulting map shows 21,000 genes that provide the instructions for making a human being and provide the foundation for better understanding our basic biology, how we differ from other animals, and what happens when things go wrong.Lander reeled off a list of advancements made possible by the project. In barely the time it takes to get a single drug developed and approved for use in humans, the number of genes tied to common diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s has increased from just 20 to 1,100, with more on the way. Scientists have decoded the genomes of dogs, chimpanzees, laboratory animals, and a host of other creatures. The cost of reading a genome has fallen dramatically in just 10 years. Technology today can do in five minutes a decoding task that would have taken a year to complete a decade ago, Lander said.The revolution extends to students and young researchers, who have at their disposal not only a new understanding of the foundation of life, but an array of equipment and techniques that didn’t exist not long ago.“They have the tools to do things today that it used to take armies to do,” Lander said. “My expectations have been blown away.”When it comes to the public’s expectations, however, hype surrounding the project may have led some to imagine an era of rapidly developed genetic cures, Sato said.Instead, as our understanding has advanced, the complexity of many diseases has emerged.But that’s not to say the Human Genome Project hasn’t had an effect on some illnesses, Mootha said.“I’m really excited about the future. If I were a student or graduate student, I don’t think there’s a better time to embark on biomedical research.”One problem, Mootha said, is that there is a “tsunami” of data from all the genetic analysis going on, so much so that equipment can’t handle or even store it.Another problem is the nature of the information, Lindee said. Though people are getting more information about their genetic tendencies, some of the information is ambiguous and difficult for doctors and patients to interpret, leading to an increase in what she called “uninformative information.”Sato said it has taken time for pharmaceutical companies to change how they operate to take advantage of a flood of genomic data. They have had to change the way they look at disease, but they also have gained a better understanding of the differences between patients, and the fact that certain medicines work better on some people than others.“If they have a mutation, we know this drug won’t work even though it is the same cancer [as another person without the mutation],” Sato said. “So much has changed in a relatively short period of time, I can’t imagine what the medicine of the future will look like.”
Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds welcomed members of the Class of 2015 to campus in Sanders Theatre on Thursday, promising parents that Harvard would take care of their sons and daughters and enticing students with the prospect of four years of exploration and opportunity.After introductory remarks from Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman, Hammonds, the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, told parents that Harvard sees each member of the College as a “whole human being — not simply a talented and superbly accomplished student.” Even as the school provides “intellectual sustenance,” it also offers a wide range of resources and supports to help students develop as people.A banner welcomed Harvard’s Class of 2015 during move-in day on Thursday. Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer“I want to assure you that there are many individuals here to help your children successfully navigate their college years,” she said. “Our goal is that each student has direct access to a number of individuals well-suited to support them in particular aims or challenges. To that end, a densely woven web of faculty, administrators, resident proctors, teaching fellows, peer advisers, and deans surrounds the freshman class.”Hammonds tried to prepare freshmen and their families for the occasional “sharp turn or two” that occur when curious students encounter the vast menu of choices that Harvard offers: The science prodigy may discover the joys of poetry and become an English concentrator; the prospective lawyer may set her sights on a career in evolutionary biology. Hammonds said the College would offer support and guidance wherever the students’ explorations take them.“We will take care of that newly hatched filmmaker or classicist or botanist,” she said. “And we will help each of them stretch. And we will do our very best to ensure that the environment here at the College is a safe one in which to ask questions, even uncomfortable questions, and in which to experiment, and in which to accommodate moments of both success and failure, those inevitable partners in learning.”Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds and Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman visit with incoming freshmen Christine Thexton (far left), Rose Traubert (back to camera), and Emily Rogers (far right) in their room at Weld Hall.Championing the value of a liberal arts education at a major research university, Hammonds pointed to recent initiatives that enable undergraduates to work alongside faculty who are leaders in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.“Just one of our recent endeavors, the Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE), has already generated hundreds of projects,” she said. “Under its aegis, students have mapped the self-intersections of fractal curves, taught self-restraint to rats, examined the magnetic variability in small stars, looked into the potential of supercharged green fluorescent protein as a drug delivery platform, and explored — in what must have been a lively experiment — ‘the secret life of bacterial promiscuity.’ ”Earlier in the day, Hammonds and Dingman toured the Yard to greet students. They found Ara Parikh ’15 of Florida standing outside her new suite in Weld Hall, waiting for her roommates to arrive so they could choose spaces and she could unpack. Parikh participated in the pre-orientation First-Year Urban Program (FUP) and said the experience helped her get to know Harvard’s campus and the surrounding community.Andrea Van Scheltinga ’15 and her mother Caroline joined other parents and students outside Harvard Yard during move-in day.“FUP was wonderful,” she said. “It was great to meet other students and come to moving day knowing some people and having some friends to visit, rather than coming in and being totally overwhelmed. The program taught us a lot about Harvard, so we weren’t totally clueless when we came to campus.”Parikh said she planned to keep busy during the Calendar of Opening Days.“I want to go to as many panels and meetings as I can,” she said. “I hope to get to know people in my entryway, and to get to know my roommates a little better too.”The deans moved through the Yard on the muggy, partly cloudy day, shaking hands and shouting hello to students and staff as they passed. The people they met represented a College community of great energy and diversity: a proctor from Massachusetts Hall whose entryway theme will be “creativity and taking risks”; a women’s squash champion in Thayer Hall; a new arrival to Weld Hall from Anchorage, Alaska, who complained about the heat; and another in Thayer who was happy to avoid the 110-degree weather of her home in Austin, Texas.Chaodan Zheng ’15 and her family unpacked outside Matthews Hall.Outside Grays Hall, Tim Duncan of Kansas City, Mo., smiled as he helped his daughter Amalia to move in.“It feels great to be here,” he said. “It’s like no other feeling we’ve ever had. I hope that she is able to take advantage of everything that’s here for her, and that she puts herself in touch with the people who are going to make her successful. I don’t doubt that that will happen.”
There are seven dams on the Missouri River, one of the main tributaries of the mighty Mississippi. And behind those dams lies Louisiana’s coastline.Tons of silt carried downriver from the Missouri to the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico have for eons laid the foundation for the Mississippi Delta. The dams, the first of which was built in the 1930s, have cut off that flow, leaving Louisiana with an eroding coastline.Today, those dams are managed for a long list of purposes: navigation, flood control, water quality, irrigation, hydropower, recreation, and fish and wildlife, but not necessarily for the health of the landforms thousands of miles downstream.To Gerald Galloway, professor at the University of Maryland, the disconnect between water management matters upstream and needs downstream is a symptom of a larger problem. The United States lacks a national water policy to guide development and use of the nation’s major water resources.Galloway, an engineer who rose to brigadier general in the Army and who served as dean of academics at West Point, was for seven years a member of the Mississippi River Commission and led the White House study of the 1993 Mississippi River flood. He spoke Friday at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s annual science symposium, this year titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Solutions: The Future of Water.”The event featured talks on a wide variety of water-centric issues, from desalination to pollutants to the dangers of contamination posed by the use of hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale deposits.Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen said that water issues reach across disciplines, making them good subjects for examination at the science symposium, which seeks to stimulate both interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration.To illustrate the sometimes stark choices made to obtain clean water supplies, Cohen raised the specter of four towns — Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott — that in 1938 were flooded to form the Quabbin Reservoir and provide water to Greater Boston. Without their disappearance, the growth in population, commerce, and industry in the Greater Boston region may not have been possible, Cohen said.Joan Ruderman, senior adviser to the Radcliffe science program, said that water is in the headlines regularly today, from stories about chemical pollutants like PCBs being cleaned up to links between water and energy, to the search for water in arid parts of the world.Galloway, one of the day’s last speakers, said that though we don’t know how the world of water will change, change seems certain.“It’s a volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous world,” Galloway said. “Things are going to change pretty rapidly and we’re going to have to deal with that.”Water planning itself has changed over the decades, Galloway said. Engineers used to look ahead, calculate future needs, then design projects to meet them in a somewhat straightforward process. Today, the forecasting process has to take into account a host of possible scenarios and then create flexible plans for multiple outcomes. Today’s planning is also more focused on the short term and on keeping costs low, he said. The 500-year flood standard used to guide policies in the early 20th century has given way to a 100-year flood standard, not because government officials believe it the best way to guard against disaster, but by default, because insurance companies use it to determine flood insurance coverage.Challenges today include drought and degraded water supplies, increasing flood damage, maintenance of ports and waterways, and environmental protection and restoration. Other challenges include interstate conflicts, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of assessment that keeps us blind to potential problems, Galloway said.To meet these challenges, the U.S. has 50 water policies, one for each state. With water growing scarcer and rivers crossing state borders, the state-by-state policies are a recipe for conflict, Galloway said. When it comes to the Missouri, for example, the result is a lot of law regulating it, but no unified policy, Galloway said.Efforts to move toward a national policy have had a rough road in the past, being ignored or fought outright. Several good scientific studies have been conducted, so the hurdle is not knowledge, Galloway said, but political will.
As “shopping week” wound down, half a dozen popular professors — and, for the first time, one undergraduate — put their best wares on display Thursday evening at Harvard Thinks Big 4, a chance to take the stage at Sanders Theatre with a screen, a microphone, and one big thought.In 12 minutes apiece (two of them donated by President Drew Faust, who had to cancel her scheduled appearance), the panel members delved into their favorite ideas, ranging from a look at why dead Romans are so much fun to a detailed explanation of breast-feeding in mammals.Joseph Blitzstein, professor of the practice in statistics and co-director of undergraduate studies, opened a mini-Stat 110 class by displaying columns of airplanes (“They don’t look like fighter planes, but they’re fighter planes,” he said of his art) on the overhead screen, then shooting holes into them with a pointer. The planes illustrated the work of Abraham Wald, a statistician who was asked by the British government how to protect the Royal Air Force during World War II. His answer came not in adding armor to the areas on returned planes where inspectors saw the most damage — the wings, the sides — but to something quite different, the nose.“What we’re really interested in is the planes we didn’t see, the planes that didn’t come back. There’s some statistical thinking there” about missing data, Blitzstein said, “a whole army of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Aircraft — and they all died.”Emma Dench also had things to say about dead people, who she said have obsessed her since she was small.“By the time I was 7, I realized that the Romans were more intriguingly dead than the run-of-the-mill dead people you see in the churchyard,” said the professor of classics and of history. You know, Betty Smith, she’s still warm.”Dench said the reason to study “very, very, dead people” is that they “can tell you about us.”“They can tell us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going,” she said. “In Rome we’ve got a senate, we have a capitol, and we have a Roman hero, and he is called Cincinnatus. So cutting to this country, ooh, yes, in this country we have a senate, we have a capitol, and we have Cincinnati. … We have a self-consciously multicultural society. Rome had a self-consciously multicultural society.”With enough study, she said, “We might even find out, because we are Rome, will we fall? And the answer to that, in my considered, scholarly opinion, is I haven’t a clue.”Doris Sommer, the Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Language and Literatures, professor of African and African-American studies, and director of graduate studies in Spanish, put her emphasis on culture.“If we want to take on the responsibility to change the world, we [must] engage with art and humanity,” she said. “Art because it involves change, and humanity because it involves a twist.”Sommer cited the case of Antanas Mockus, a “strange, nerdy philosophy professor” who became mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, in 1995, and began making a dent in the city’s violence and graft by hiring mimes to replace corrupt traffic cops. Within a year traffic deaths had been reduced by more than half, Sommer said, and Mockus then created one public performance art position after another. In his two administrations, Bogotá’s homicide rate went down 70 percent, income increased threefold, and public works boomed.“What we learn from Mockus and other great cultural agents is that first, without pleasure, there is no lasting cultural or political change,” Sommer said.Shifting gears, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the Roscoe Pound Professor of Law, put forth the proposition that “No one should ever have to do work that can be done by a machine.”“Everything that we have learned how to repeat, we can express in a formula, in a rule, in an algorithm. And everything we can express in a rule, we can embody in a physical contraption, a machine,” he said. “The point of a machine should be to do for us what we have already learned how to repeat, so that we can preserve our supreme resource — time — to learn that which we have not learned how to repeat.”Katie Hinde’s big idea was pretty simple: The power of breast milk is, her topic said, “Why Mammals Suck.” Calling such milk “a magic potion [that has] everything you need exactly when you need it, and … made just for you,” the assistant professor of human evolutionary biology said she wants to see more research into what milk provides, and see that translated into medical technology, government policy, and more support for nursing mothers.Milk “has the potential to change lives,” she said.“Staying Healthy for Fun” was the theme of the lone student speaker, Annie Ryu ’13, but her focus was serious. In a world of preventable crises, she said, “I have become a social entrepreneur, and I’ve learned to question the status quo.” Among her projects are a message service that texts reminders of medical appointments to expectant mothers in India; MyZooPets, a game that uses virtual pets to help improve children’s health; and her own pet, promoting the jackfruit, “one of the world’s underutilized crops,” to alleviate waste, poverty, and the scarcity of what she calls the world’s most delicious food.The night’s final speaker, Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion, went straight for the young audience with a mea culpa: His generation, he told them, left a mess for theirs to fix.“There was a sense in my generation that we had figured out how to organize the economic world, how to organize the political world … we really thought the basic problems had been solved,” Puett said in his talk titled “Ritual and Humanity.” “Meanwhile, all this evidence has emerged to prove this fundamentally false.”Like Ryu, Puett urged the audience members to question what they have been taught.“We’ve left you a foolishly complacent way of thinking,” he said. “Break out of that worldview. Do it now. … The world we’ve left you with, bad as it is, can still be saved.”
Read Full Story United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has named Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) alumna Speciosa Wandira-Kasibwe as his special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. A surgeon who has played a key role in both public health and politics in Africa, Wandira-Kasibwe, SD ’09, is currently senior adviser to the president of Uganda on population and health and a chairperson of the board of directors of the Uganda-based Microfinance Support Center Ltd. She also served as vice president of Uganda from 1993-2004—the first woman in Africa to hold such a position.Wandira-Kasibwe, who studied global health and population at HSPH, has worked on HIV/AIDS issues as a member of the group Champions for an HIV-Free Generation, according to an August 1, 2013 article from the UN News Centre.
After years of gathering input from students, faculty, and staff, after lengthy and meticulous planning, and after 15 months of intense construction, the first House renewal project, Quincy House’s Stone Hall, opened to students last fall, revealing invigorating social and academic spaces. Based on student reactions, the renewal is proving to be a success.“This has drastically exceeded my expectations,” said Kevin O’Donnell ’16 as he sat in Stone Hall’s bright, spacious Kates/Tobin Community Room, which previously had been dark, underutilized basement space.House renewal is one of the largest and most ambitious capital improvement campaigns in Harvard College history, aiming to transform the student experience by ensuring that each House can strongly support the learning and living needs of 21st-century undergraduates, enhancing their education for generations to come.“It’s really amazing. My first thought when I saw all of this was that people put a lot of careful thought into this building, and I just feel lucky to be here,” said Rose Whitcomb ’16 of Quincy House upon seeing the reconstructed Stone Hall. “It just feels like home. It gives me such an empowered feeling.”In the lower level of Stone Hall, the “smart” classroom and the Rothenberg Conference Room have hosted classes throughout the academic year, bringing faculty into the House to teach and interact with students. New music practice rooms allow students to pursue their art, and the Kates/Tobin Community Room has been a popular space for study as well as for gatherings.The exterior was painstakingly restored to preserve the historic character of the House. In fact, Stone Hall was recognized with a preservation award from the Cambridge Historical Commission.McKinlock Hall, the neo-Georgian portion of Leverett House, will be the second project to come online when students return in late August. As with Stone Hall, McKinlock’s transformation will better connect the entire House community, provide new spaces for collaboration, feature state-of-the-art technology, and preserve the historic character of the building.“There will be lots of new or significantly modified common spaces that we can only begin to imagine. The currently underutilized common space below the dining hall will contain a much enlarged and modernized student kitchen, pool table, and hang-out or meeting space,” said Howard Georgi, co-master of Leverett. “A gallery corridor, below-grade but with skylights, will lead across the courtyard to the Old Library and the art and music rooms. We anticipate great fun next year developing new Leverett traditions to go with the new common space.”Harvard’s residential Houses — where undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty live, eat, work, and learn together — are the foundation of the College experience, as 97 percent of upperclassmen call one of the 12 Houses their home. As multigenerational communities, each House provides residents with an intellectual as well as a physical home.Renewal is guided by five principles: preserving the historic character of the Houses; invigorating House life; connecting spaces and nurturing community; providing modern accommodations and sustainable operations; and accommodating the future.Because the House system is so critical to the student experience, renewal is one of the six funding priorities of the FAS Capital Campaign, which launched in October.“House Renewal is about more than just bricks and mortar,” said Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “House Renewal is about reinvigorating the heart of Harvard College for future generations of undergraduates. Thanks to the help of generous alumni, as well as the many faculty, students, and staff who have helped plan this effort, we are reinforcing President [A. Lawrence] Lowell’s vision of the Houses as the center of our students’ intellectual and extracurricular life.”This substantial investment in the Houses reinforces the College’s commitment to a residential liberal arts undergraduate experience.“We’re all dedicated to residential life and the Houses because it defines so much of what we do,” said College interim Dean Donald Pfister, a former master of Kirkland House. “The idea behind the Houses was to break the community into smaller groups to allow students to interact more easily with peers, with tutors and faculty. Even with advancements in technology, we could argue that this is needed as much now as it ever was.”Immediately following Commencement, Dunster will become the first full House to undergo renewal, with students living in swing housing centered around the former Inn at Harvard during the 15 months of construction. Winthrop House is to be renewed after Dunster. The House Program Planning Committee, composed of students, faculty, and staff, created the principles that guide House renewal.