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So many scientists become scientists – astronomers, biologists, inventors – through the influence of mentors. The first episode of the new  “Cosmos,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, recalls Tyson’s encounter as a high school student with famed astronomer and original “Cosmos” creator Carl Sagan. Seth Redfield, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, also credits an early mentor with his “conversion” to astronomy.

A joint music and astrophysics major in college, Redfield went on a summer field experience in Tucson, Ariz., where he watched real star scientists doing their jobs. He recalled on WNYC’s “The Takeaway”  how that influenced him.

While working that summer with an astronomer named Charlie Lindsey, “I was fascinated by him and his colleagues, Redfield said. “They spent their days working on these projects.”

During the program on Monday March 10, host John Hockenberry asked Redfield and two other astronomers about “Cosmos” ‘ effect on their early interest in the field.

“Asking the big questions is a deeply human desire,” Redfield said. “We have an insatiable human desire … to place ourselves in this cosmic context.” The first “Cosmos” series attempted to answer some of the questions, he said.

 

Boylan   In the wake of the College Board’s big changes to the SAT, Jennifer Finney Boylan ’80 recalls a difficult experience with the exam while she was applying to Wesleyan. A mordantly funny op-ed in The New York Times details her confusion, frustration and fear during her first SAT attempt.

” I was in trouble,” she writes. “The first few analogies were pretty straightforward — along the lines of ‘leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped’ — but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance.” Getting past the analogy questions was one thing. Boylan details what happened next:

“This was the moment I saw the terrible thing I had done, the SAT equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. I’d accidentally skipped a line on my answer sheet, early in that section of the test. Every answer I’d chosen, each of those lines of graphite-filled bubbles, was off by one. I looked at the clock. Time was running out. I could see the Wesleyan campus fading before my eyes.

“I began moving all my bubbles up one line, erasing the wrong answers. The eraser on my No. 2 pencil hadn’t been at full strength when I’d started, and now I was nearly down to the metal.

“Then there was a ripping sound.

“I picked up the answer sheet. Through the gaping hole in the middle of it, I could see the hair of the girl in front of me.”

Boylan says the problem isn’t the way the Scholastic Aptitude Test is structured – it’s the test itself. She calls for its abolition.

 “The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture,” she writes. “The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.” Boylan is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of several memoirs. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times.

Writing in Transitions Online, Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought Peter Rutland speculates as to the rationale behind Russia’s show of force in the Crimea region of Ukraine. He considers the possibility that “Putin’s unilateral display of military muscle would seem a classic example of a state rationally pursuing self-preservation, using the means at its disposal,” though this seems unlikely, as Ukraine poses no real threat to Russia. Alternatively, Putin could seek to annex Crimea–or even other Ukrainian provinces where Russians form a majority–Rutland writes, though the advantages of doing so would pale in comparison to the international condemnation such an action would provoke. Putin’s strategy also could be to undermine the European Union to show its weakness, or to sow discord between the EU and the US. Finally, Rutland writes, “Grand strategy aside, maybe one can find a more mundane explanation for Russian behavior. As things were falling apart in Kyiv, Putin had to be shown to be doing something –anything – even if it did not make much sense from the point of view of Russia’s national interests. The military and security services had some contingency plans in their office drawers – to secure the Crimean peninsula, and to trigger an ersatz nationalist uprising in the Donbas.”

Rutland is also professor of government, professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies, and a tutor in the College of Social Studies.

Following the collapse of the Mt. Gox online currency exchange, Professor of Economics Richard Grossman writes on Slate that, as some bitcoin proponents argue, universal adoption of bitcoin would similar in many ways to adopting the gold standard. “And that would be a disaster,” he contends. As with bitcoin, gold has historically been subject to meddling–both official and private. It also seriously restricts the ability of governments to respond to economic downturns.

He writes: “The United States is fortunate that it was not on a ‘bitcoin standard’ when the subprime crisis hit. Because it was not, the Federal Reserve was able to undertake extraordinary monetary easing, pushing interest rates to near zero and increasing the supply of money…Had the Federal Reserve’s hands been tied by the bitcoin standard, the economic and financial devastation would have exceeded that of the Great Depression.”

While the recent events in Ukraine tend to be most often explained in light of recent history, the tensions over whether Ukraine should lean to the West, and align itself with the European Union, or should remain tied to Russia have much deeper roots than the Soviet and post-Soviet era. In Talking Points Memo, Professor of History Magda Teter writes that in fact,  the current clash between western and eastern Ukraine are a fruit of centuries of political and cultural developments that only in the 20th century forced the two parts into one Ukraine.

“These pulls and pushes between east and west in Ukraine are not new, their roots go back some five centuries,” Teter writes. “It does not mean that the conflict has such deep roots but rather that the long separate histories of the two parts of Ukraine have become a major destabilizing factor.”

 

 

 

In his review of a new book exploring the notion of time as a link between the Balinese and their gods, Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins points out the “timelessness” of certain cultural concepts in Bali even as modernity threatens the island’s survival.

The book, Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali, focuses on the seminal story of Sinta and Watugunung. Each week of the calendar at the heart of Bali’s complex ritual life is named after a character from their saga.  The book’s bountiful illustrations make it special, Jenkins writes in The Jakarta Post.

“One could also spend hours puzzling over abundant charts and illustrations that visualize the logic behind Bali’s multiple overlapping calendars,” he writes.

Jenkins, whose interests include international traditions in comic performance, particularly in Balinese theater,  is on sabbatical in Indonesia.

 

In a dual review of books on the lives of Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies Jeanine Basinger notes how the two stars, who each came from modest backgrounds, worked with the film industry  differently. Gardner was immediately absorbed into the star-making machinery of the studio system; Stanwyck arrived in Hollywood with an independent contract and made her own deals.

“Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not “writes Basinger in The New York Review of Books.

Yet the two, thrown together in movies and personally  connected through Gardner’s affair with Stanwyck’s second husband, both “knew Hollywood for what it was,” Basinger writes. Neither trusted the vagaries of fame or the powerful studios; Gardner even kept the cheap coat she had arrived in California with, as a reminder of the impermanence of fame and wealth.

The two books are: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, and A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson.

 

 

While the U.S. Senate is now unable to make use of the filibuster to delay judicial nominees to federal courts, they must still undergo a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Assistant Professor of Government Logan Dancey and two colleagues write in the London School of Economics U.S. Politics blog that the political environment is a better predictor of the hearing’s content and questions than the characteristics of the nominee. Nominees who face confirmation hearings when the White House and Senate are controlled by different parties are more likely to face questions on crime, abortion, civil rights and on their judicial philosophy. The blog post was based on findings in a paper the three published this month in American Politics Research.

“What we found is that divided government … consistently mattered for the types of questions a nominee faced,” wrote Dancey and colleagues Kjersten R. Nelson of North Dakota State University and Eve M. Ringsmuth of Oklahoma State University.

The paper was based on research into confirmation hearings for more than 500 district court nominees from 1993 to 2008 (during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies).

“Times of heightened political competition (e.g., divided government and presidential election years) lead to more ideologically charged questions,” the group writes. “In addition, senators’ questions are often focused on issues known to be of concern to attentive interest groups. The hearings may thus simply be another venue for senators to engage in partisan and ideological position taking.”

 

Western media took little notice when Russian nationalists complained about the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. The spectacle, largely produced by non-Russians, celebrated aspects of the culture typically noted by outsiders but little known by ordinary Russians, and out of sync with Vladimir Putin’s campaign to return to “traditional values.” Professor of Government Peter Rutland, writing in the Moscow Times, noted that “nationalists complained Putin had contracted out the country’s national narrative to a cosmopolitan intellectual elite.

“Indeed, Vladimir Gomelsky, deputy director of state-controlled Channel One, explained that ‘Our ceremony was designed for an international audience.’ Producer Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One, insisted that the show was an ‘expression of love for our homeland’ on behalf of  ‘real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the Cold War.’ ”

“It turns out that Ernst relied on international experts to script and stage much of the show,” Rutland writes. “They included the New York-based George Tsypin, production designer for “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” who presented a tableau of dancing puppets at the 2002 Venice Biennale. Costumes were designed by Kim Barrett, another “Spiderman” veteran. Two producers had worked on the London Olympics ceremony, three aerialist experts came from the Cirque du Soleil and a director of the Shanghai circus choreographed the gymnastics.”

The debate over the content of the opening ceremony, according to Rutland  “may be little more than a storm in a samovar, but it does illustrate the continuing ambiguities around Russian political identity.”

 

Theaster Gates has been dubbed “the real-estate artist,” “the opportunity artist,” “an anthropologist, urbanist, activist — the 21st-century artist,” “the poster boy for socially engaged art,” #40 in Art Review’s “2013 Power 100, A ranked list of the contemporary art world’s most powerful figures,” and even “the Mick Jagger of social practice.” Associate Professor of Anthropology Gina Athena Ulysse writes in the Huffington Post that she “believed the hype, but still wasn’t sure what to expect” when she went to the “activation” of See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (2012) at the Studio Museum of Harlem.

This event was billed as a performance: “designed as an experience for learning created by the people assembled in and around it, the installation will be a site for engaged conversation and dynamic interaction.”

“While, the potential was there for this moment to be more communal and interactive, ” Ulysse writes, ” in the end, it was about Theaster’s way; a Whitmanesque “song of myself” from a man who unquestionably contains multitudes (conceptual artist, urban planner, performer, etc. etc.) and is currently negotiating, or “leveraging” as he says, the value of his capital with keen awareness of the temporality of this moment.”

She ponders the “illimitable want” of the artist.

“Indeed, for those among us who have inherited sacrifice, the tools and stakes of the trade have never been quite the same. Thus, illimitability even as a prospect is not only seductive and worthy of exploration, but also potentially transcendental. I dare to wonder just what would this Gates do without the burden or constraints of being what the late poet June Jordan so aptly called a “representative other.”

The exhibit is on at the Studio Museum through March 9.

 

 

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