Archive for August, 2016

Mount Vernon

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

I had a summertime visit to SAIS in DC, and also took some time to stop in at a place (I’m quite embarrassed to say) I’d never visited before: Mount Vernon. George Washington’s home sits majestically above the Potomac River, in Virginia about 15 miles from the Washington Monument — and he and his wife Martha are interred there as well. It is a fascinating place, steeped in history about our country’s early founding – and the incredible man who helped bring it about.

It also gave me a ready excuse to be contrarian…. for while the rest of the country has spent this summer reading Ron Chernow’s classic work Alexander Hamilton (the inspiration for the hit Broadway play), I sat down with another one of his books: Washington: A Life. This latter magnum opus won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, and does a masterful job in describing Washington’s life, as well as the major problems he faced with both fortitude and skill.

The book suggests that while his Revolutionary War battlefield skills were notable, a more significant accomplishment rested in simply keeping the Continental Army as a functioning entity. Similarly, I hadn’t realized the substantial hostility he faced in his second presidential term, as political battles raged between the Federalists and Republicans. In my Pollution Markets book, I had described how the differing views of those two parties had a significant impact on environmental conditions in urban Philadelphia at that time. Washington had initially sought to act as an independent arbiter between the parties early in his administration, but his views were more closely attuned to those of Hamilton and the Federalists…. and Republicans were not to be appeased. The resulting schism was very deep indeed, and could not be bridged even by this Revolutionary War hero.

A comparable split is evident in our politics today…. although when reading books like this (or David McCullough’s wonderful John Adams, another Pulitzer Prize winning biography), one can’t help but wish that the intellectual and literary talents of those competitors (Hamilton, Washington & Adams for the Federalists and Jefferson, Madison and Monroe for Republicans) were still in evidence, given the magnitude of today’s problems. Instead, we have one major political party that is anti-science, led by a narcissistic and uninformed political leader who appears to be anti-fact as well….. almost the complete opposite of a Washington.

Chernow wrote that Washington’s “instincts were the antithesis of a demagogue’s: he feared his own influence and agonized over exerting too much power.” Washington himself wrote: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.” In this very, very worrisome political season, let us hope that this great Founding Father’s words and beliefs still hold true.

HNC’s 30th anniversary

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

HNC observed its 30th anniversary this year, and we had a big celebration in late June (just after graduation) to mark the occasion. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madelyn Albright and former Chinese Minister of Commerce Chen Deming (himself an HNC alum) were keynote speakers – and we had numerous other events, including a concert by the Nanjing University Folk Music Orchestra, a Forum on Sino-Global Relations, and a Gala Dinner with several hundred guests at the InterContinental Hotel.

The occasion was also marked by a video (above, now available on YouTube), and just like in a previous HNC video, you can see yours truly for just a brief glimpse (at 1:27). This time I’ve got my arms pumping & waving around in my air pollution class, in a classroom routine my students know all too well…. [even though the (exciting?) slide under discussion was about ‘Project Prairie Grass,’ a series of tracer studies conducted in Nebraska in 1956 to determine air pollution dispersion coefficients].

But the real star of the video – evident in the cover shot – is HNC Prof. Joe Renouard, who teaches American history & diplomacy at the Center. Even though he’s a very well-published scholar with exceptional classroom demeanor & reviews, faculty wives remain convinced that he was highlighted in the video primarily to enhance HNC’s female enrollment….. (and yes, ladies, he’s still single!).

Natural history trifecta

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

My Spring semester course at HNC entitled ‘Challenges in the Global Environment’ covers a wide range of environmental topics, beginning with a description of the Anthropocene; an exploration of ‘planetary boundaries’ (including worrisome biogeochemical flows such as nitrogen and phosphorus); and the broader topic of biodiversity, including extinction rates and the loss of ecological functions. It thus gives me a ready excuse – as if one was needed! – to delve into a wide range of natural history readings…. & over recent weeks, I’ve pretty much hit the jackpot.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at CalTech, has written The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself – a nice overview that tackles exactly the complex issues described in its subtitle. Carroll describes a “poetic naturalism” which recognizes multiple ways of talking about reality — as long as they are based within a scientific/naturalism framework and are consistent with one another. Carroll does an exceptionally good job of discussing his ideas within a philosophical framework – something not always found in science writing – and does so in a clear, succinct and very engaging style.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was written by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian…. and I can honestly say it has been a long, long time since I’ve read such a fact-filled and thought-provoking book that is so entertaining! Harari starts out his book with a chapter entitled “An Animal of No Significance” – and ends with an afterword entitled: “The Animal that Became a God.” In between came three major human revolutions: cognitive, agricultural & scientific, and – sometime around the first millennium BC – the appearance of three “potentially universal orders” associated with myths & imagined ideas about money, imperialism and religion. You probably won’t agree with everything Harari says…. but you’ll certainly have a lot of fun along the way.

Finally, Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life requires a lot more heavy-lifting on the science side…. but it’s well worth expending the effort. The author is a biochemist at University College London, and posits that life didn’t arise out of some “primordial soup.” Instead, the key ingredients were to be found in deep-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents – and there, the most important factor was an energy flux operating across a natural (rock) membrane. He suggests how the three principal domains of life on the planet (bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes) interacted and evolved, again focusing primarily on energy fluxes…. and how “the use of proton gradients is universal across life on earth.” These might in turn drive the development of complex biochemical mechanisms, and indeed such “chemiosmotic coupling ought to be literally a universal property of life in the cosmos.” There’s a competing hypothesis about RNA, so this isn’t the absolute final word…. but it’s a masterful look at a complex – & thoroughly fascinating – subject matter.