James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.

Q&A with Zoltan Barany, author of How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why

barany how armies respond to revolutions jacketWe know that a revolution’s success largely depends on the army’s response to it. But can we predict the military’s reaction to an uprising?  How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why argues that it is possible to make a highly educated guess—and in some cases even a confident prediction. Zoltan Barany recently took time to answer some questions about his book.

What prompted you to write this book? What gap in the literature were you trying to fill?

ZB: The book’s original motivation came from President Barack Obama. He publicly criticized the intelligence community for its inability to foresee the collapse of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime and the army’s refusal to prop it up in early 2011. I started to think about armies and revolutions in general and then read everything I could find on the Tunisian military. I came to the conclusion that the President was right, the Tunisian army’s behavior – supporting the demonstrators rather than a repressive regime that marginalized it for decades – did not seem all that difficult to anticipate.

I began to research the topic of military responses to revolutions and I realized that there was very little up-to-date work that would be useful for intelligence and policy analysts. Aside from two important books written in 1943 and 1974 – both very insightful but neither systematic analyses into the factors that military elites consider as they decide how to react to uprisings – there was no major study on this subject. I thought it was important enough to take another stab at it.

What was your objective as you were researching and writing this book? Who was the audience that you had in mind?

ZB: The purpose of this book is to present an analytical framework that helps analysts, policy-makers, scholars, students, and the interested public in analyzing, explaining, and ultimately anticipating the way in which generals react to domestic uprisings. No revolution can win without the support of the old regime’s armed forces. Therefore, I believe that once you can anticipate which side the generals will back, you can also make a “highly educated guess” regarding the revolution’s outcome.

My goal was to offer an analytical tool that is easy to use and can assist people whose job is to think about foreign affairs generally and conflicts more particularly. In other words, my aim could not be more practical: to offer a concise, policy-relevant book devoid of social science jargon that asks simple but fundamental questions and advances a straightforward argument illustrated by a manageable number of targeted case studies.

What is required to confidently anticipate the army’s behavior? What are the main components of your framework?

ZB: Most importantly, the analytical framework does assume a relatively high level of knowledge about the given state and its military. Unfortunately there is no shortcut, no substitute for having an in-depth knowledge of the individual case. The analyst who wants to anticipate a military’s behavior must be familiar with that institution and the context in which it operates.

The framework is divided into four spheres of information the generals take into account as they reach their decision. The first and most important source of information is the armed forces itself. Is it cohesive? If not, what are the sources of divisions within the military? Is the army made up of conscripted soldiers or volunteers? Do the generals consider the regime legitimate?

The second group of relevant factors pertains to the regime. How has the regime treated the military – its officers and the army as an institution? How much decision-making authority has the regime bestowed on the generals? Has the regime forced the military into unpopular and unwise missions? During the uprising do regime leaders give clear instructions to the generals?

The third sphere of variables has to do with society or, more precisely, the challenge the military faces. The generals must know the size, composition, and nature of the demonstrations. Are the protesters mainly radical and violent young men or peaceful demonstrators whose ranks include women, children, and old people? Is there fraternization between the protesters and ordinary soldiers? Is the uprising popular?

Finally, the external environment also influences the army’s decision regarding its intervention. Are the generals expecting foreign involvement in the revolution? If so, will foreign forces support the regime or the demonstrators? Will the army’s suppression of an uprising jeopardize the continuation of military aid from foreign powers? In addition, revolutionary diffusion – the quick spreading of the revolutionary ‘virus’ from one often neighboring country to another – might well shape the generals’ decision.

What are some of the factors that are overlooked in the few existing accounts of the army’s behavior in domestic conflicts?

ZB: There are several potentially significant variables that tend to be overlooked or trivialized. Let me mention just three. Perhaps the most important of these has to do with ordinary soldiers. First of all, analysts often focus exclusively on the top generals and occasionally on the officer corps as well while neglecting to study the men they are supposed to motivate to shoot demonstrators. When looking at the soldiers, the conscripts-volunteer dichotomy is key but one must also think about the backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes of these soldiers when trying to anticipate whether they would be willing to use their guns against demonstrators.

The fact that regime leaders often give the military no clear instructions or contradictory instructions is another issue often ignored by analysts. The period of uprisings usually is marked by great political instability and often debates and disagreements between top regime leaders. The notion that they issue conflicting orders or, in the rare case, they are paralyzed and give no clear instructions at all, is a possibility careful analysts must consider. Finally, most analysts tend to discount the importance of the external environment. The sensitivity of generals to the reaction of foreign governments to their response to uprisings is seldom taken into account.

Are there factors that are consistently more useful than others in explaining the military’s response to uprisings?

ZB: Yes. The framework rank-orders factors in terms of expected utility. Generally speaking, the two most important variables are the composite factors of the military’s cohesion and the regime’s treatment of the armed forces.

One wishes, of course, that a clever model could be devised into which one “plugs in” all the pertinent variables and it would “spit out,” as it were, the correct answer. But individual context matters a great deal that’s why it is so important to know the cases well. Some variables that are decisive in one setting may be trivial or entirely irrelevant in another.

So, did your framework pass the test? How useful is it in explaining past uprisings?

ZB: The framework explains the reasons why military elites settled on the course of action they did very well. Having said that, it is important to realize that some cases are easier explained than others. I actually rate the relative difficulty of explaining cases from ‘no brainer’ (such as Bahrain in 2011) to ‘difficult’ (e.g., Iran, 1979). Of course the timing of one’s prediction also makes a big difference: the longer an uprising lasts, the easier it gets to make an accurate prediction. Therefore, the framework includes a section that evaluates how challenging it is to anticipate the correct outcome at three different times: three months before the first mobilizational event of the uprising; one week after the first important demonstration; and three weeks into the crisis.

I am quite confident that my analytical framework can successfully anticipate the army’s behavior in future uprisings. In fact, in the book I used two hypothetical cases – Thailand and North Korea – and explain how one could examine them using my framework.

Why did you select these cases?

ZB: My guiding principle in choosing these cases – uprisings/revolutions in Iran, 1979, Burma 1988 and 2007, Romania and China in 1989, and six Arab states in 2011 – was to be able to say something directly relevant to contemporary audiences and to construct a tool for those who wish to conjecture about the military’s likely reaction to uprisings in the future. I wanted to select both revolutions that succeeded and failed. Another goal was to look at uprisings that took place in different world regions. Finally, to show that from the perspective of this framework it makes no difference what kind of regime follows a successful revolution, I included uprisings followed by sectarian dictatorship (Iran), emerging democracy (Romania, Tunisia), and various hues of authoritarianism (Egypt) or, indeed, state failure (Libya, Yemen).

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas. His books include The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (both Princeton). His most recent book is How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why.

Iris Murdoch: A writer ahead of her time

Living on Paper Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, co-edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, is a close examination of Murdoch’s life and writing, completely composed of her own personal correspondence. With its rare insights into Murdoch’s emotional and intellectual life, Living on Paper is sparking interest in her work and history from a new generation of readers. Recently Horner and Rowe took the time to speak to the project’s importance.

What was the original inspiration for Living on Paper?

AH & AR: The Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University in 2004 and now holds over 3,000 letters written by Iris Murdoch, as well as photographs, notebooks, original manuscripts and two private libraries: these comprise a relatively small library from her London flat and a much larger library from her Oxford study that contains over 1,000 books of which over a hundred are heavily annotated. Over the past 12 years Anne has successfully submitted bids to various funding bodies in order to purchase important letter runs to Murdoch’s close friends, including writers, painters, students and lovers. Other letter runs were kindly donated by individuals who had corresponded with Murdoch and a number of additional runs were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. The quality and interest of the letters were such that in 2010, we decided to select the most interesting of these for publication. In 2011 we were offered a book contract by Chatto & Windus in the UK and started serious work on the project. Of the 764 letters that comprise Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, over 500 are from Kingston’s Iris Murdoch Archive. The rest were sourced from other university archives – Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and the LSE in England; the University of Iowa, Washington University, St. Louis, and Stanford University, California in the United States. (Avril was awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust that enabled her to travel to most of these universities; others were kind enough send us photocopies of their holdings.) We thought it would take us two years to put the book together but we actually spent four years working on Living on Paper before it went to press.

Why was Murdoch such a prolific letter writer?

AH & AR: As John Sutherland pointed out in his review of Living on Paper in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books, Murdoch was brought up in a generation used to writing letters almost every day: ‘The habit was instilled at her boarding school, where letters home were an obligatory chore’. The habit never died and, in fact, she loved writing letters: ‘I can live in letters’ she wrote to her life-long friend, Philippa Foot in 1968. She would work on her novels and philosophical writings in the mornings and in the afternoon she would write letters, often spending up to four hours a day on them. Murdoch wrote all of them by hand using her favourite fountain pen. She answered every letter she received, responding even to complete strangers with great courtesy, and she would often reply immediately to friends or lovers who were currently in her thoughts. Like all writers, she was immensely curious about other people, and letters allowed her an intimacy with them and an imaginative entry into their thoughts and lives. It seems likely, despite the fact that she claimed never to use her own life or the lives of her friends in her novels, that she did draw on them for inspiration. She was careful though to transform imaginatively real people and situations so that they become unrecognisable in her art – at least most of the time.

How did you decide from a vast pool of resources which letters to include and which to leave out?

AH & AR: We read over 5,000 letters while working on the book and choosing which to include was a difficult task. We decided to focus on letter runs that, taken together, give what we hope is a full picture of a complicated personality, from Murdoch’s school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words and to select interesting letters that shed light on both her emotional and her intellectual development. Our greatest regret is that we were unable to find any letters to John Bayley. When Murdoch and her husband moved from Steeple Aston to a much smaller house in Oxford in 1986, they burnt many letters and documents. We suspect that Murdoch’s letters to her husband were destroyed at this time. We also have only a few notes to Elias Canetti; there are thirty-one letters from Murdoch to Canetti in the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, but these are closed until 2024. There was no ideal solution to the problem of what to include and what to leave out – but we found ourselves remarkably like-minded in our choices, guided always by the desire to tell the truth about a remarkable life.

What do we learn about Iris Murdoch from her letters that we did not know before?

AH & AR: We have been very pleased by the number of reviewers who have remarked that Living on Paper has brought to light a fresh portrait of Murdoch. Many have commented on her ability to sustain long friendships, even with ex-lovers, and have noted her immense warmth and generosity, both emotional and financial. Others have been surprised by her vulnerability and her insecurities about her own abilities. Several have remarked on her obsessiveness (this obviously fed into her novels, many of which offer brilliant portraits of obsessive desire) and on her droll sense of humour – something not evident from previous biographical studies. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her character that emerges from the letters is the way she perceived her own gender as fluid. In a fascinating letter to the mathematician Geroge Kreisel, written in 1967, she says, ‘I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise. […] I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my male equivalent.’ She was not comfortable with any kind of gender labels, either lesbian, or homosexual or heterosexual: she did not feel that she fitted into any preordained category. This aspect of her character has greatly interested reviewers and will fascinate readers.

What letter run is your favorite or the most significant in giving an insight into Murdoch’s character/personality?

AH: I particularly like Murdoch’s letters to Raymond Queneau and to Brigid Brophy. Her correspondence with the French writer Raymond Queneau began shortly after she met him in Innsbruck in 1946 and lasted for thirty years. Through it we can track both her excitement about French literature and philosophy and the enormous intellectual influence Queneau had on her mind and work (Under the Net is dedicated to him and owes much to his novel Pierrot Mon Ami) as well as the sad tale of her unrequited love for him. Queneau, living in Paris and married with a son, was clearly fond of Murdoch and knew she had talent but resisted her overtures for him to become her lover. Over the years, Murdoch’s obsessive desire for Queneau transmuted into a dignified settling for his friendship but it is clear that she felt, for many years, that he was her true intellectual soul-mate.

Murdoch’s letters to Brigid Brophy, whom she met in 1954 are altogether different. Like Queneau, Brophy was an immensely gifted polymath but she was also a political activist (she frequently expressed her deep antipathy to the war in Vietnam), an outspoken advocate of bisexuality and a vegan when few people had heard of the word. Beautiful, provocative, witty, erratic and irreverent she greatly appealed to Murdoch and in some ways functioned as her alter ego. They quickly became close, enriching each other intellectually and exchanging ideas, often daily, on paper. (The Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston holds over a 1,000 letters from Murdoch to Brophy.) Murdoch’s letters to Brophy are distinguished by their intensity of feeling, their intellectual acrobatics and their humour. The relationship was a stormy one, however, and Murdoch came to feel that she could never quite meet Brophy’s demands; nor did she wish to jeopardize her marriage to John Bayley. The intense liaison came to an end in 1967, when Brophy fell in love with Maureen Duffy, but Murdoch and Brophy kept in touch, on and off, until Brophy’s death from muscular sclerosis in 1995.

AR: For me, the letters to two students whom Murdoch befriended at the Royal College of Art between 1963 and 1967 are my favourite. David Morgan had a troubled adolescence that resulted in a spell in a home for maladjusted boys. Murdoch was fascinated by his unconventional background and stimulated by his views on art and obvious talent. She was attracted too by his good looks, and intrigued by his complicated love-life. Her sexually-charged and unwise relationship with him brought her perilously close to scandal. Yet she could not relinquish their friendship. Morgan was both enchanting and thrilling and she relished the danger he posed to himself and also to her. Morgan finds his way into the portrayal of dark, brooding ‘outsider’ characters and her fascination with him gives brilliance to the psychological realism that underpins them. These letters are electric in their intensity and have a compelling narrative – Murdoch is furious and fond in equal measure. Morgan came close to destroying Murdoch’s integrity as a wife, writer and public intellectual. Her letters to him, for me, provide the most compulsive reading in the book.

Rachel Fenner was assigned Murdoch as her supervisor and fell in love with her. Although making it clear that she could not reciprocate Rachel’s desire for intimacy, the two women became close. After seeking Murdoch’s advice, Rachel subsequently married but experiencing troubling emotional turmoil turned to Murdoch for support. Murdoch’s letters to her are among the most moving in the book and, unusually, Murdoch dispenses practical advice akin to her own moral philosophy: ‘Of course we are rather mechanical [. . .] but everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us that is not mechanical’. Murdoch condones their love here, despite the impossibility of fulfillment. But the relationship created turmoil in Fenner’s life and Murdoch’s letters illustrate that living by high moral standards was as difficult for her as the characters in her novels. With significant help and encouragement from Murdoch both Morgan and Fenner went on to highly successful careers, Morgan as a teacher and Fenner as a sculptor. Their love for their former teacher still endures.

How will Living on Paper change our reading of Murdoch’s novels and why might they attract a new generation of readers?

AH & AR: Even older readers who know Murdoch’s novels well might see them rather differently having read Living on Paper. For example, the sense of humour evident in many of her letters will alert the reader to the comical nature of many relationships and situations in her fiction. Murdoch’s interest in Mozart – previously undocumented and inspired by Brophy’s passion for the composer – we can now see reflected in the Mozartian dance of couples who interchange partners in such a way as to lend many of her novels a slightly comic and operatic air.

New and younger readers will undoubtedly be fascinated by Murdoch’s portrayal of sexuality. Recent research into sexual identities suggests that almost half of young people today are redefining sexuality in a surge of carefree “gender fluidity”. Murdoch’s views on sexual orientation and gender proclivity will not be in the least shocking to this younger generation, who will share them. This like-mindedness may mean that they will make very different interpretations of the tragedies at the heart of Murdoch’s novels as they are now able to consider them openly in terms of sexual repression and the social construction of gender. Whereas those who read Murdoch’s novels as they were published between the 1950s and the 1990s might have found her picture of humanity eccentric and far-fetched, many contemporary readers will find kindred spirits in her fiction. The propensity of Murdoch’s characters to have casual sexual liaisons with friends, the great speed with which they move in and out of sexual liaisons and the ambivalence about gender that mark her novels will no longer alienate twenty-first century readers who, instead, will see Iris Murdoch as a writer decades ahead of her time.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. They most recently edited together Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Horner is professor emeritus of English literature at Kingston University in London, and has published widely on women’s writing and gothic fiction. Rowe is associate professor of English literature and director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University. She is the lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review, the author of The Visual Arts and Iris Murdoch, and the coauthor of Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life. 

Q&A with Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage on Taxing the Rich

Taxing the RichWho to tax, how much to tax, and what the taxes should pay for are questions sure to elicit an array of responses in today’s politically charged climate. Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage combine forces on this comprehensive history and reflection on how the rich have (or haven’t) been taxed. Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United State and Europe tackles what is sure to be a hot election topic using an approach that manages to showcase both sides of the often contentious issue. Recently the authors took the time to answer some questions on their book.

Why did you write this book?

KS & DS: Taxing the rich is a subject of considerable political conflict today. There has been a great deal of debate about what government should do in this area, but we know far less about the reasons why some governments actually do tax the rich and others do not. We think answering this question requires a long run historical perspective, and one that doesn’t just look at developments in the United States. Our book considers income, inheritance, and other taxes from 1800 to the present in a set of twenty countries.

What’s your main argument?

KS & DS: Countries tax the rich when the public thinks the state has failed to treat citizens as equals and in so doing has privileged the rich. [a more colloquial version: Countries tax the rich when people think the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy and the government has done the stacking.]

Debates about taxation revolve around self-interest (no one likes paying taxes), economic efficiency, and fairness. We argue that fairness considerations center on what it means for the state to treat citizens as equals in income tax policy. Historically, there are three main fairness arguments that have been used for or against taxing the rich. Equal Treatment arguments claim that everyone should be taxed at the same rate just like everyone has one vote. Ability to Pay arguments contend that states should tax the rich at higher rates because they can better afford to pay when compared with everyone else. Compensatory Arguments suggest that it is fair to tax the rich at higher rates when it compensates for unequal treatment by the state in some other policy area. We argue that over the last two centuries compensatory arguments have been the most powerful arguments in favor of taxing the rich.

What are examples of compensatory arguments in history?

KS & DS: Compensatory arguments were important in the early development of income tax systems in the 19th century when it was argued that income taxes on the rich were necessary to compensate for heavy indirect taxes that fell disproportionately on the poor and middle class. But the most significant compensatory arguments over the last two centuries have been arguments to raise taxes on the rich to preserve equal sacrifice in wars of mass mobilization. These conflicts, particularly World War I and World War II, led states to raise large armies, often through conscription, and citizens and politicians alike adopted compensatory fairness arguments to justify higher taxes on income and wealth. Mass war mobilization led governments of both left and right to tax the rich.

When have countries taxed the rich?

KS & DS: Well, one thing our book shows is that governments haven’t taxed the rich just because inequality is high, nor have they done this simply because the poor and middle class outnumber the rich when it comes to voting. The main occasion when governments have moved to tax the rich is during times of mass mobilization for war, especially in democracies in which the norm of treating citizens as equals is held more strongly. The real watershed for taxing the rich for many countries came in 1914. The era of the two world wars and their aftermath was one in which governments taxed the rich at rates that would have previously seemed unimaginable.

How do we know that the effect of wars was due to changes in fairness considerations?

KS & DS: We show in the book that when countries shift from peace to war, or the reverse, there has also been a big shift in the type of fairness arguments made in favor of taxing the rich. During times of peace debates about whether it is fair to tax the rich center on competing equal treatment and ability to pay arguments. During times of war supporters of taxing the rich have also been able to make Compensatory arguments. If the poor and middle class are doing the fighting, then the rich should be asked to pay more for the war effort. If some with wealth benefit from war profits, then this creates another compensatory argument for taxing the rich. These compensatory arguments had the biggest impact in democracies that are founded on the idea that citizens should be treated as equals. The fact that war had a much bigger impact on taxes on the rich in democracies than in autocracies also suggests that the rich weren’t being taxed out of simple necessity. It was because war determined what types of fairness arguments could be made.

What are the implications for future tax policies in the United States?

KS & DS: Don’t expect high and rising inequality to necessarily lead to a return to the high top tax rates of the post-war era. What really matters is what people believe about how inequality is generated in the first place. If it is clear that inequality has risen because the government failed to treat citizens as equals in the first place, then there is room for convincing compensatory arguments. Today, in an era where military technology favors more limited forms of warfare — drones rather than boots on the ground — the wartime compensatory arguments of old are no longer available. Absent new compensatory arguments, we expect some to argue for taxing the rich based on ability to pay, but this probably won’t suffice to produce radically higher tax rates. More politically plausible reforms include those that involve increasing taxes on the rich by appealing to the logic of equal treatment to remove deductions, exemptions, and cases of special treatment.

Kenneth Scheve is professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the coauthor of Globalization and the Perceptions of American Workers. David Stasavage is Julius Silver Professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. He is the author of States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities (Princeton). Together they wrote Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.

Interview with Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn the fields of biological and environmental studies, Sean B. Carroll has made a name for himself not only as a scientist, writer, and educator, but as a storyteller. In his newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Carroll argues that the most critical thing we have learned about human life at the molecular level is that everything is regulated.

Carrol uses medical analogies, comparing the current blight on nature to a disease that ravages the body. The book will leave readers considering life on several scales, both personal and global. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book:

One of the central themes of your book is that “everything is regulated” in life. What does that mean?

SC: What it means is that at all scales of life the numbers of things are controlled. For example, in our bodies, the concentration of every kind of chemical – hormones, salts, enzymes and fats, and the numbers of every kind of cell –red cells, white cells and so on, are maintained within certain ranges by regulation. Similarly, in nature, the numbers and kinds of animal and plants in a given place are regulated.

Why is all of this regulation important?

SC: Regulation is very important because diseases (heart disease, cancer and so on) are generally abnormalities of regulation, when too little or too much of something is made. Likewise, in nature, when key species are lost or removed, too many or too few individuals of other species persist, and that habitat becomes unhealthy and may collapse. So learning the “rules of regulation” is very important to both medicine and conservation.

What have we learned about those rules?

SC: A century-long quest of biology has been to discover how life works, and that entails the deciphering of the “rules of regulation” in the body and in nature at large. The stories that make up the book are about those pioneers who tackled the mysteries of regulation and discovered important rules that have had huge impacts in medicine, ecology and conservation.

The scientists portrayed in The Serengeti Rules are admirable, sometimes heroic figures. Why did you choose to organize the book around their stories?

SC: I am a firm believer in the power of stories. Science is far more enjoyable, understandable, and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.

You use an analogy from sports to explain how scientists have figured out how to treat many diseases. How does that analogy apply to medicine?

SC: In the body, the key “players” are molecules that regulate a process. To intervene in a disease, we need to know what players are injured or missing or what rules of regulation have been broken. The task for biologists is to identify the important players in a process, figure out the rules that regulate their action, and then design medicines that target the key players. In the book, I tell the stories of just how that was done to make such dramatic progress against heart disease and cancer.

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CC Image courtesy of Celso Flores on flickr

Your book is called The Serengeti Rules. What are those rules?

SC: Just as there are rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place. I have called these the “Serengeti Rules” because that is one place where they have been worked out and they determine, for example, how many lions, or buffalo, or elephants live on an African savanna.

But these rules apply all over the globe, in oceans, rivers, and lakes, as well as on land.

Do these rules apply then to conserving and restoring species?

SC: Absolutely. But in contrast to the considerable care and expense we gladly undertake in applying molecular rules to human medicine, we have done a very poor job in considering and applying these Serengeti Rules to human affairs. For centuries we have hunted, fished, farmed, forested, and settled wherever we could, with no or very little grasp of altering other species. For a long time, we did not know any better, but now we do. So minding these Serengeti Rules may have as much or more to do with our future welfare than all of the molecular rules we may ever discover.

But as you describe in several chapters, there have been some encouraging successes in restoring species and habitats

SC: Yes, and I thought it was very important to tell those stories, to show that even war-torn and devastated places like Gorongosa National park in Mozambique could rebound given time, protection, and the efforts of just a small band of extraordinarily dedicated people.

You visited Gorongosa in the course of writing this book. What was that experience like?

SC: Life-changing. The people behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project are so inspiring, and the magnitude of the recovery in just ten years is astounding and so encouraging. If Gorongosa can be rescued from utter disaster, we should all take heart that we can restore other places and species.

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CC image courtesy of F Mira on Flickr

When readers close The Serengeti Rules after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?

First of all, I hope that they feel inspired by the stories of some exceptional people who tackled and solved great mysteries. Second, that they feel enriched with fresh insights into the wonders of life at different scales. Third, that they feel more hope for the future — that there is time to change the road we’re on. And finally, that they can’t wait to tell their friends to read the book!

You have had a very distinguished career as a molecular biologist. What inspired you to delve into ecology and conservation and write this book?

First, a desire to explore the bigger picture of life. When I gazed upon the Serengeti for the first time, I was as enchanted as any tourist, but I did not understand what I was looking at. For someone who has spent decades figuring out how complex, invisible things worked, that was a bit unsettling and embarrassing. So I dove into what was known and realized that the rules of ecology and even how they were discovered had some parallels to what we understood about life at the molecular level. These parallels had never been drawn; this book is an attempt to do that in the context of explaining why understand all of the rules matters.

And second, a sense of urgency. The disappearance of nature is an existential crisis for biology and humanity. As much as I love the world of DNA and cells, it felt a contradiction – to care so much about life at one level and to ignore what was happening to life at large. It is time to look up from the microscope.

Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and executive producer. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q&A with Lauren Arrington, author of Revolutionary Lives

Revolutionary LivesIn the period sometimes referred to as the Irish Revolution, upheaval led to unreliable witness accounts and buried historical evidence that has only recently come to historians’ attention. Lauren Arrington explores these untapped resources and the complex biographies of two European activists in her book Revolutionary Lives.

Who were the Markieviczes?

LA: Constance Markievicz is the better known of the pair, because of her political roles but also because she was an expert at self-publicity.

She grew up in a wealthy family who owned a sprawling estate on the west coast of Ireland, but she rebelled against the strictures of Victorian society and left home to study art—first in London and then in Paris. In the bohemian culture of Montmartre she met the dashing Casimir, a member of the Polish gentry, and they were engaged as soon as his first wife was out of the picture.

Constance and Casimir took their bohemian sensibilities back to Dublin, where they became involved in the local art scene that was closely tied to the growing nationalist movement. Constance was more politically radical than Casimir. She imagined that Ireland could be part of an international socialist movement, and national independence from Britain was the first step in achieving that.

Casimir was a nationalist in simpler terms. He hoped for an independent Polish nation-state and fought for the Russian Empire in the First World War because Czar Alexander II promised Poland independence in return for loyalty in the war. Casimir became even more conservative over time, especially after the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the burning of his family’s estate in the Polish-settled Ukraine.

Constance and Casimir split romantically, but they continued to love one another and stayed in touch as much as the political upheavals allowed. Constance was imprisoned on several occasions – and it was in 1918 in Holloway Jail, in London, that she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. This achievement and her leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year, have been the focus of several biographies of her.

If there have been several biographies of Constance Markievicz, do we really need another one?

LA: Absolutely – and I’d say that even if I hadn’t just written one! Previous biographies have been largely hagiographical. Their versions of Constance’s life have been driven by nationalistic commemorations or directed by the ambitions of feminist history. This has resulted in polemical depictions that exaggerate certain aspects of her character and airbrush out what are considered to be her less desirable thoughts and actions.

With Revolutionary Lives, I wanted to write a biography that told the lives of Constance and Casimir in their own time, as free as possible from our politics. So, I looked to contemporary sources that had never been consulted by previous biographers.

What kind of new sources?

LA: Well, first I should say that I consulted but did not really use the Bureau of Military History witness statements, a newly available source that has been plundered by researchers looking for new angles in Irish history.

Why not?

LA: The bureau solicited interviews as part of a project to compile a state history of the series of conflicts that are sometimes known collectively as the Irish Revolution. It’s very clear that certain groups, like the ITGWU – the major labor organization in Ireland – decided on a “truth” about what happened and suppressed any dissent. For example, in their statements to the Bureau, the ITGWU-affiliated witnesses explicitly endorse R.M. Fox’s history of the union’s role in the Easter Rising and refuse to add further details.

The witness statements are also problematic because Constance was (and still is) a hugely divisive character. Witnesses who submitted statements to the Bureau were either friends who wanted to protect her legacy or antagonists who resented her because of her sex or her social class.

So, what new sources did you use?

LA: Newspapers from the period were essential to my book. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but previous biographers have neglected them. Many historians have, too.

Why?

LA: The simplest reason is availability. Very few print copies still exist of left-wing papers such as the Irish Worker and Workers’ Republic, or Republican War Bulletin. Select libraries hold microfilm versions, but the films are very brittle and often difficult to read. It’s an outdated technology, and very little is being done in the way of preservation.

But even researchers who have access to these newspapers often ignore them, due to complex political biases that privilege majority opinion, represented in mainstream papers such as the Irish Times – which has, coincidentally, been digitized and is easy to access.

I also used Russian and Polish newspapers in order to trace down new aspects of Casimir’s life and thought – his opinions about Russian and Polish politics and his ideas about Constance’s activities in Ireland. I couldn’t have done this without the help of two expert researchers in St Petersburg and Warsaw, and a translator at a UK university.

As you mention, 2016 is a big year in modern history. How is your book relevant beyond the Irish commemorations?

LA: Revolutionary Lives is a deliberately provocative title.

The independent Irish nation-state emerged out of a series of conflicts: a major

trade-union dispute known as the 1913 Dublin Lockout; the 1916 Easter Rising; the Anglo-Irish War; and the Irish Civil War. Constance played an important role in all of these conflicts, and she believed that they were part of an Irish Revolution.

That term is debated among scholars and the public. Some believe that the ambitions of the Irish Revolution were thwarted by a counter-revolution in the form of the Provisional Government and subsequent governments, which retracted the socialist policies declared in the 1916 Proclamation, to which Irish Republicans remained loyal. Others believe that the independent nation-state that emerged was the product of a Revolution. (This view involves ignoring, for the most part, the Irish Civil War.) Still others believe that the events of 1913-1923 were not part of a cohesive “revolution”, so the term is inaccurate.

But the “Irish Revolution” is just one part of the story. Constance and Casimir were revolutionaries before their involvement in their respective national struggles. They were part of an avant-garde culture that revolutionized sexual politics and modern art.

Revolutionary Lives tells a story that is much bigger than Ireland or Poland. It’s a story of a couple that refused to be bound by national borders, a story of cosmopolitans whose contributions to culture and to politics created the world in which we live.

Lauren Arrington is senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. She is the author of W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Censorship, and the Irish State as well as Revolutionary Lives.

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Carl Wunsch: Has oceanography grown too distanced from the ocean?

Wunsch jacketWith the advent of computers, novel instruments, satellite technology, and increasingly powerful modeling tools, we have vast knowledge about the ocean. Yet because of technological advances, a new generation of oceanographers have grown increasingly distanced from the object of their study. Physics Today recently published a Q&A with Carl Wunch, author of Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean. According to Wunch, the field of oceanography cannot rely on theoretical truths alone. In this interview, he emphasizes the importance of the discipline’s observational roots:

Before Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean (Princeton University Press, 2015) was published, Carl Wunsch had already made “an immense contribution” to the field, writes Stuart Cunningham in his January 2016 review of the book for Physics Today. Cunningham counts more than 250 papers and “an astonishing list of master’s and PhD students whose own merits are widely recognized.”

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography is Wunsch’s fifth book. Cunningham writes that it will be “of value to anyone wishing to know more about how to observe the ocean, interpret the data, and gain insights on ocean behavior and on how oceanographers reach their understanding of it.”

Carl Wunsch

Carl Wunsch

Wunsch was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT before his retirement in 2013; he is now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He received his PhD at MIT under the tutelage of renowned oceanographer Henry Stommel. Among other things, Wunsch has studied the effects of ocean circulation on climate.

Physics Today recently caught up with Wunsch to discuss Modern Observational Physical Oceanography and his views on climate change issues.

PT: What motivated you to take up this book after retiring from MIT?

WUNSCH: In talking to students and postdocs, and in teaching, it became clear that we are in an era increasingly dominated by modelers and theoreticians, for many of whom observations are something downloaded from the Web and then taken as a “truth.” The field of physical oceanography and its climate components has become ever more remote from its observational roots.

In the past 25 years physical oceanography developed a number of highly useful, up-to-date, but theoretically based textbooks. There was no book known to me to which one could direct a colleague or student that emphasized the interesting complexities of the very diverse data types oceanographers now have available. The beautiful theories emphasized by the existing textbooks can produce the misperception of a laminar, essentially steady, ocean and in the extreme case, one reduced to a “conveyor belt.”

Read the full interview in Physics Today, here.

Solving last week’s L.A. Math challenge

LA MathWe’re back with the conclusion to last week’s LA Math challenge, The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks, (taken from chapter 2 of the book). After the conclusion of the story, we’ll talk a little more with the author, Jim Stein. Don’t forget to check out the fantastic trailer for LA Math here.

Forty‑eight hours later I was bleary‑eyed from lack of sleep. I had made no discernible progress. As far as I could tell, both Stevens and Blaisdell were completely on the up‑and‑up.   Either I was losing my touch, or one (or both) of them were wasting their talents, doctoring books for penny‑ante amounts.   Then I remembered the envelope Pete had sealed. Maybe he’d actually seen something that I hadn’t.

I went over to the main house, to find Pete hunkered down happily watching a baseball game. I waited for a commercial break, and then managed to get his attention.

“I’m ready to take a look in the envelope, Pete.”

“Have you figured out who the guilty party is?”

“Frankly, no. To be honest, it’s got me stumped.” I moved to the mantel and unsealed the envelope. The writing was on the other side of the piece of paper. I turned it over. The name Pete had written on it was “Garrett Ryan and the City Council”!

I nearly dropped the piece of paper. Whatever I had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. “What in heaven’s name makes you think Ryan and the City Council embezzled the money, Pete?”

“I didn’t say I thought they did. I just think they’re responsible for the missing funds.”

I shook my head. “I don’t get it. How can they be responsible for the missing funds if they didn’t embezzle them?”

“They’re probably just guilty of innumeracy. It’s pretty common.”

“I give up. What’s innumeracy?”

“Innumeracy is the arithmetical equivalent of illiteracy. In this instance, it consists of failing to realize how percentages behave.” A pitching change was taking place, so Pete turned back to me. “An increase in 20% of the tax base will not compensate for a reduction of 20% in each individual’s taxes.   Percentages involve multiplication and division, not addition and subtraction. A gain of 20 dollars will compensate for a loss of 20 dollars, but that’s because you’re dealing with adding and subtracting. It’s not the same with percentages, because the base upon which you figure the percentages varies from calculation to calculation.”

“You may be right, Pete, but how can we tell?”

Pete grabbed a calculator. “Didn’t you say that each faction was out $198,000?”

I checked my figures. “Yeah, that’s the amount.”

Pete punched a few numbers into the calculator. “Call Ryan and see if there were 99,000 taxpayers in the last census. If there were, I’ll show you where the money went.”

I got on the phone to Ryan the next morning. He confirmed that the tax base in the previous census was indeed 99,000. I told Pete that it looked like he had been right, but I wanted to see the numbers to prove it.

Pete got out a piece of paper. “I think you can see where the money went if you simply do a little multiplication. The taxes collected in the previous census were $100 for each of 99,000 individuals, or $9,900,000. An increase of 20% in the population results in 118,800 individuals. If each pays $80 (that’s the 20% reduction from $100), the total taxes collected will be $9,504,000, or $396,000 less than was collected after the previous census. Half of $396,000 is $198,000.”

I was convinced. “There are going to be some awfully red faces down in Linda Vista. I’d like to see the press conference when they finally announce it.” I went back to the guesthouse, called Allen, and filled him in. He was delighted, and said that the check would be in the mail.   As I’ve said before, when Allen says it, he means it. Another advantage of having Allen make the arrangements is that I didn’t have to worry about collecting the fee, which is something I’ve never been very good at.

I wondered exactly how they were going to break the news to the citizens of Linda Vista that they had to pony up another $396,000, but as it was only about $3.34 per taxpayer I didn’t think they’d have too much trouble. Thanks to a combination of Ryan’s frugality and population increase, the tax assessment would still be lower than it was after the previous census, and how many government agencies do you know that actually reduce taxes? I quickly calculated that if they assessed everyone $3.42 they could not only cover the shortage, but Allen’s fee as well. I considered suggesting it to Ryan, but then I thought that Ryan probably wasn’t real interested in hearing from someone who had made him look like a bungler.

My conscience was bothering me, and I don’t like that. I thought about it, and finally came up with a compromise I found acceptable. I went back to the main house.

Pete was watching another baseball game. The Dodgers fouled up an attempted squeeze into an inning‑ending double play. Pete groaned. “It could be a long season,” he sighed.

“It’s early in the year.” I handed him a piece of paper. “Maybe this will console you.”

“What’s this?” He was examining my check for $1,750. “Your rent’s paid up.”

“It’s not for the rent, Pete. It’s your share of my fee.”

“Fee? What fee?”

“That embezzling case in Orange County. It was worth $3,500 to me to come up with the correct answer. I feel you’re entitled to half of it. You crunched the numbers, but I had the contacts and did the legwork.”

Pete looked at the check. “It seems like a lot of money for very little work. Tell you what. I’ll take $250, and credit the rest towards your rent.”

A landlord with a conscience! Maybe I should notify the Guinness Book of Records. “Seems more than fair to me.”

Pete tucked the check in the pocket of his shirt. “Tell me, Freddy, is it always this easy, doing investigations?”

I summoned up a wry laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. So far, I’ve asked you two questions that just turned out to be right down your alley. I’ve sometimes spent months on a case, and come up dry. That can make the bottom line look pretty sick. What’s it like in your line of work?”

“I don’t really have a line of work. I have this house and some money in the bank. I can rent out the guesthouse and make enough to live on. People know I’m pretty good at certain problems, and sometimes they hire me. If it looks like it might be interesting, I’ll work on it.” He paused. “Of course, if they offer me a ridiculous amount of money, I’ll work on it even if it’s not interesting. Hey, we’re in a recession.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”   I turned to leave the room. Pete’s voice stopped me.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?”

I turned around. “I give up. What?”

“We had a bet. You owe me five bucks.”

I fished a five out of my wallet and handed it over. He nodded with satisfaction as he stuffed it in the same pocket as the check, and then turned his attention back to the game.

What made you include this particular idea in the book?

JS: The story features one of the most common misunderstandings about percentages.  There are innumerable mistakes made because people assume that percentages work the same way as regular quantities.  But they don’t — if a store lowers the cost of an item by 30% and then by another 20%, the cost of the item hasn’t been lowered by 50% — although many people make the mistake of assuming that it has.  I’m hoping that the story is sufficiently memorable that if a reader is confronted by a 30% discount followed by a 20% discount, they’ll think “Wasn’t there something like that in The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks?

There are 14 stories in the book, and each features a mathematical point, injected into the story in a similar fashion as the one above.  I think the stories are fun to read, and if someone reads the book and remembers just a few of the points, well, I’ve done a whole lot better than when I was teaching liberal arts math the way it is usually done.

James D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include LA Math, Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian).

Anna Frebel on the search for the oldest stars

Frebel jacketAstronomers study the oldest observable stars in the universe in much the same way that archaeologists study ancient artifacts on Earth. Stellar archaeologist Anna Frebel is credited with discovering several of the oldest and most primitive stars, and her book, Searching for the Oldest Stars is a gripping firsthand account of her work. Recently she took the time to answer some questions:

What is your main research topic and what is stellar archaeology?

AF: My work is broadly centered on finding the oldest stars in the universe and using them to explore how the first stars and the first galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang. This works because these ancient stars are about 13 billion years old and they are still shining. The universe itself, by comparison, is 13.8 billion years old. I find these ancient stars in the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, using a large telescope. I’m also researching how the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were first created in those early stars, which ultimately allowed Earth to form and to bring about life in the universe.

What is your biggest discovery?

AF: I have been fortunate enough to discover several “record holding stars”. In 2007, I found a 13.2 billion year-old star, which is incredibly old. This followed the 2005 discovery of the chemically most primitive star – a star of the second generation of stars to have formed in the universe. Since then, I have analyzed some incredible ancient stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy, and together with my team, we have recently beaten said 2005 record, which was enormously exciting.

Why do people say we are made from stardust?

AF: We humans are made from all sorts of different chemical elements, mostly carbon. We breathe oxygen and nitrogen, we wear silver and gold jewelry. All these elements were once, atom by atom, created inside different kinds of stars and their supernova explosions over the course of billions of years. Studying this evolution of the chemical elements in the universe with the help of ancient stars means that I’m literally studying the cosmic origins of the building blocks of life. So we really are closely connected with the universe, far more than we realize.

How did you decide to become a scientist?

AF: From a young age I knew I wanted to study stars. They were just so fascinating to me, these big spheres of gas, fusing new elements to gain energy to shine for eons in the sky. Fortunately, I received good advice during high school on how to become an astronomer. After studying physics until 2002, I turned to astronomy and the rest is history. Today, I take pride in sharing my story with young people and the general public by telling them what astronomers do on a daily basis, and how scientific results are achieved. I am passionate about conveying the importance of science literacy to the young and the young at heart while inspiring them with the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

What kind of telescope is used for your astronomical observations?

AF: Astronomers use all kinds of different telescopes on Earth as well as from space to peer deep into the cosmos. It depends on the type of project and the brightness of the objects which telescope is best suited. Space observations are being carried out remotely, whereas ground-based observations are still done by the astronomer who has to travel to the telescope. More and more telescopes are becoming automated to enable remote controlled “office observing”.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Are you traveling to any telescopes?

AF: Yes, I regularly fly to Chile to the Magellan Telescopes to carry out my observations. These are some of the largest telescopes in the world and the dark night sky in the Southern Hemisphere is terrific for studying the cosmos. It’s the favorite part of my job and I love discovering new facts about the universe through these observations!

What does it mean when you say you’re going observing?

AF: To use the telescopes, you have to fly to Chile. First to Santiago, then to La Serena and from there is a 2-3h drive up the mountains of the Atacama Desert where the telescopes are. There are guest rooms there for the observers to sleep during the day and the observatory chefs are cooking delicious meals for everyone. Dinner is eaten together by all observers, including the technical staff. It’s a little community with the sole purposes of caring for the telescopes and obtaining exquisite astronomical observations all night long of a breathtaking sky.

What does a typical night at the telescope look like?

AF: All preparations for the night happen during the afternoon while it’s still light outside. After sunset, I usually choose the first targets from my list, which I begin to observe soon after dark. Each star is observed for 10-30 minutes. We immediately inspect each observation and then decide on the fly whether we need more data or not. If we have found an interesting old star we may choose to immediately observe it for a few more hours.

Did anything ever go wrong at the telescopes?

AF: Of course! Mostly when it’s cloudy because then we can’t observe any starlight. This can be very frustrating because it can mean that we have to come back to the telescope a year later to try again. Clouds spell bad luck. Other times, the air layers above the telescope are often not as smooth as is required. This makes the stars twinkle and appear less sharp, which means less good data and longer exposure times. And sometimes there are technical problems with the telescope too.

How do you get your telescope time? Can I go to your telescope and observe, too?

AF: To obtain telescope time, astronomers have to submit a proposal to a committee that selects the best projects and awards them the time. The proposal contains a detailed description of the project and the technical details on what information is being sought. Telescope use is restricted to professional astronomers because of the considerable expense. The cost is about USD 50,000 to 100,000 per night, depending on the telescope, and often paid by various institutions and universities who jointly operate observatories. While this is a lot of money, it’s actually not that much in comparison to many other research facilities.

Are there any special moments at the telescope that you remember in particular?

AF: Yes, going observing is always magical and memorable. Of course I particularly remember big discoveries and the excited nervousness of checking and checking whether we didn’t make a mistake and that the discovery was really what it appeared to be. Then, there have been the frustrating moments of sitting at the telescopes for nights on end listening to the rain and flying home empty-handed. I have been there when severe technical problems and even a bush fire prevented observing during clear nights. But I always associate observing with the most colorful sunsets, the calm and peaceful atmosphere up in the mountains, and of course the sleepless but exciting nights.

Anna Frebel is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is author of Searching for the Oldest Stars, and has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lynn Gamwell on math and the visual arts’ shared cultural history

GamwellMathematicians and artists have historically shared a common interest: inquiry and comprehension of the intricacies of the world around them, whether through numerical or aesthetic design. Illustrating the relationship between math and art from antiquity to present day, Lynn Gamwells Mathematics and Art highlights the significant impact these two linked worlds have on one another. Gamwell recently took the time to answer some questions about her book. Examining the modern disciplines of art and math, she reveals the profound philosophy of self-reflection that these two cultural and intellectual pursuits share. Don’t forget to check out the stunning slideshow following the Q&A.

What’s the basic idea of your book?

LG: I started with the assumption that how people understand reality relates directly to the concepts of mathematics that develop in their culture. Mathematics is a search for patterns, and artists, in turn, create visualizations of the patterns discovered in their time. So I describe a general history of mathematics and the related artwork.

Since you begin in Stone Age times, your book covers over 5000 years. Is there a historical focus to the book?

LG: Yes, there are 13 chapters, and the first gives the background up to around 1800 AD. The other 12 chapters are on the modern and contemporary eras, although I occasionally dip back into pre-modern times to give the background of a topic. A central question that drove my exploration of the modern era was: where did abstract, non-objective art come from? Between around 1890 and 1915, many artists stopped depicting people and landscapes and start using pure color and form as the vocabulary of their art. Why? I argue that modern art is an expression of the scientific worldview. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing today, researchers describe bacteria, cells, radiation, and pulsars that are invisible to the unaided eye, as well as mathematical patterns in nature.

Can you give a few examples of the relation of math and art?

LG: Italian Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, constructed the space in paintings such as The Last Supper using linear perspective, which is a geometric projection invented in the 1430s by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In the twentieth century, Swiss Constructivists such as Karl Gerstner created symmetrical patterns based on the mathematics of group theory, which measures the amount of symmetry in a system, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. The contemporary America artist Jim Sanborn uses topology, which is the projection of geometric shapes onto surfaces that are stretched and distorted. For example in photographs of cliffs in Ireland, Jim first projected concentric circles onto the rocks and then took the photograph with a long exposure at moonrise. These artists are, of course, interested in many other things besides mathematics; aesthetic issues are their primary focus.

The examples you give are artists who are inspired by math; are mathematicians ever influenced by art?

LG: Mathematics are rarely inspired by a particular piece of art (since most artists use elementary arithmetic and geometry), but rather they aspire to include in their proofs general aesthetic qualities, such as purity, simplicity, and elegance.

You mention Leonardo da Vinci; didn’t he use the Golden Ration?

LG: No. It is a common misconception that a ratio described by Euclid as “mean and extreme ratio” has been used by artists throughout history because it holds the key to beautiful proportions. This myth was begun in the early nineteenth century by a German scholar who called Euclid’s ratio “golden.” The myth took a tenacious hold on Western intellectuals because, as science was beginning to take them off their privileged pedestal, it assured them that all beauty is based on a ratio embodied in human anatomy. There is no science supporting this claim.

Your book is a global history; did you find that there is a difference between math in the East and West?

LG: Yes, because a culture’s understanding of mathematics is based in its understanding of reality. In antiquity, Eastern mathematics in based in Taoism, the view that nature is composed of myriad parts that came together by self-assembly into a harmonious whole. Thus Chinese mathematicians discerned patterns in numbers, such as the Luoshu (magic square), in which numbers in the rows, columns, and diagonals have the same sum (the harmonious whole). On the other hand, Western cultures believed that a divine person (The Egyptian sun-god Ra, the God of Abraham, Plato’s carpenter) had imposed order on formless chaos. Thus Westerners went looking for this order, and they found it in the movement of the stars (the Babylonian zodiac), and the planets (Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion). Although there was a difference between Eastern and Western math when there was little contact, in today’s culture there is one global math.

The book includes the diverse fields of art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics; what is your educational background?

LG: I have a BA in philosophy and a PhD in art history. I’m self-taught in the history of science and math.

At 576 pages, this is a long book with extensive endnotes and 500+ illustrations; how long did it take you?

LG: 12 years of research and writing, plus one year in production.

Did you make any discoveries about art that especially surprised you?

LG: Yes. When I started my research I thought that artists during the modern era (the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries) would have only a vague knowledge of the math of their times, because of the famed “two cultures” divide. But I found specific historical evidence (an artist’s essay, manifesto, interview, or letter), which demonstrated that the artist had direct knowledge of a particular piece of mathematics and had embodied it in his or her art. Examples include: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, Dorothea Rockburne, as well as musicians, such as Arnold Schoenberg, and poets, such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Again, I would stress that for such artists mathematics is a secondary interest at best, and they are concerned with materials, expressive content, and purely aesthetic issues.

Any surprising discoveries about math and science?

LG: Yes, here are two. Much of what is taught as physics is really philosophy (interpretation) of physical data. An example is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which was taught as THE gospel truth from its announcement in 1927 to around 1960. In fact, there are other ways to interpret the same laboratory data, which were largely ignored. I’m used to such dogmatism in the art world, where artists and critics are known to proclaim what art IS, but I expected to find a more cool-headed rationalism in the laboratory. Alas, we’re all human beings, driven by our passions. Another example is the strong resistance to Platonism (the view that abstract objects exist outside time and space) in modern culture, even though Platonism is the view held by most working mathematicians (i.e., they believe they are discovering patterns not creating them). While doing research, I found myself viewed with suspicion of being a religious missionary (disguised as a scholar) because I gave a sympathetic reading of historical religious documents (in other words, I tried to describe reality from their point of view). In fact, my outlook is completely secular. I came to realize that many secularists are unable to separate Platonism from its long association with religious doctrine, which touches a nerve in certain otherwise dispassionate academics.

Are you planning another project? What are you going to do next?

LG: I’m going to take some time off and regroup. I’ve started to think about writing something for children.

Check out the slideshow highlighting just a few of the book’s stunning images:

Lynn Gamwell is lecturer in the history of art, science, and mathematics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is the author of Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual (Princeton).

Mark Denny discusses Ecological Mechanics

According to Mark Denny, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. In Ecological Mechanics, Denny explains how the principles of physics and engineering can be used to understand the remarkable ways plants and animals interact with each other and their surroundings, and how this controls where species can survive and reproduce. Recently, Denny shared some thoughts on the emerging discipline and his new book:

Ecological MechanicsEcological mechanics is not something I’ve heard of. Is it a new field of study?

MD: Yes and no. Biomechanics, the field in which I was raised, has traditionally focused on trying to understand how individual plants and animals work: how they are shaped to perform certain functions, what materials they are constructed from, how they interact with wind and moving water. But this biomechanical perspective has matured to the point where it can now be productively applied to questions of how individuals interact. In other words, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. That’s the basic idea of the book: to reveal to ecologists can they benefit from incorporating some physics and engineering in their approach, to challenge biomechanics to extend their expertise beyond the individual, to bring two well established disciplines together.

Can you give me a good example of ecological mechanics in action?

MD: I’d be delighted to! Let’s take coral reefs. They are an iconic example of how an assemblage of plants and animals interact to build a community that can grow and persist in a physically stressful environment, in this case the wave-beaten shores of tropical islands. But coral reefs exist in a delicate balance. Fish that shelter among branching coral colonies eat the seaweeds that otherwise would outcompete corals for space on the reef. If too many of the branching corals are broken by waves, the fish population declines, and the seaweeds take over. So, the state of the reef is a complex interaction between fluid mechanics (which governs wave forces), solid mechanics (which governs the ability of corals to resist those forces), and ecology, (which accounts for the community-wide consequences of coral breakage). But ecologists have had no way to predict how these interactions will play out as climate changes. Fortunately, ecological mechanics can now provide the answer. By taking into account both the predicted increase in intensity of tropical cyclones and the reduction in strength of corals due to ocean acidification, we can use the principles of engineering to accurately predict the change in species composition on a reef, and, from that, to use ecological principles to predict the change in competitive interactions between corals and seaweeds.

What’s the scope of the subject matter?

MD: Broad! In the first section we cover basic concepts from the physics of diffusion to fluid mechanics. We then use those concepts to understand the forces that plants and animals encounter both on land and in water, how animals move, and how the environment affects the temperature of everything, both living and dead. Then there’s a section on the mechanics of materials: how the chemical composition of a structure determines its stiffness and strength, how the shape of the structure affects the forces imposed on materials, and how structures interact in dynamic fashion with their surrounds. We then finish up by tying together the information from the previous sections. We explore how variation in the environment affects the plants’ and animals’ performance, and how that variation changes through time and space. We delve into the statistics of extremes (which can be used to predict the likelihood of ecological catastrophes), and we see how physics causes ecological patterns to emerge even in physically uniform habitats. There’s plenty here for both terrestrial and aquatic biologists, at scales ranging from the molecular to the global.

What tools will I take away from reading Ecological Mechanics?

MD: Great question. In a nut shell, you should come away with enough practical knowledge not only to understand the ecomechanics literature, but also to start working as a practicing ecomechanic. The chapter on thermal mechanics, for instance, teaches you how to construct a head-budget model for an organism that you can use to predict body temperature in any environment. The chapter on scale transition theory provides a recipe for predicting how the average performance of a population will change as the population spreads through space.

Sounds pretty technical, though. How much of a background in physics, math, and engineering would one need?

MD: Not much, actually. If you’ve had a course in basic physics somewhere along the line, and remember a reasonable amount of the algebra you learned in high school, the ideas presented here are should be easy to absorb. My own formal background in math and physics is absolutely minimal. Most of what I know about engineering I learned by explaining it to myself, and I think that has put me in a good position to explain this material to others. Readers are likely to be pleasantly surprised at how far a little bit of mathematics and basic physics can take them.

Given the scope and level of the discussion, what do you see as the audience for Ecological Mechanics?

MD: I wrote this text with several audiences in mind. First, there are ecologists and biomechanics actively involved in research, everyone from undergraduates on up. I feel certain that the breadth of information presented here will provide them with new perspectives on their subjects, new ways of thinking about the ways in which plants and animals interact with each other and with their environment, and the tools to explore those thoughts. The text can also be used as the basis for an upper-level undergraduate course. Combining as it does biomechanics and ecology, it could easily fit into a general curriculum in biology. It could equally well provide accessory information for other courses; various chapters could be used in isolation in a general biomechanics course, for instance, or a general course in ecology. And lastly, I hope there is an audience among folks who are just interested in science. Ecological mechanics involves such a compelling mixture of physical and biological science; I’m hoping that people will pick up this book just to scratch the itch of curiosity.

How did someone with little background in math and physics end up in a field like ecological mechanics?

MD: Pure serendipity. Like so many people, I went to college planning to go to medical school. I majored in zoology, avoided math, and put off taking physics until my senior year, and even then I took it pass/fail. But I found that physics offered a different (and intriguing) way of thinking about the world. And that really clicked into place when, in my final semester, I took a biomechanics course from Steve Wainwright and Steve Vogel. They showed me how the physics perspective could be applied to biology, and I’ve been riding that wow!! feeling ever since. I’d love to pass that excitement along to others, and books like this are best way I know to do that.

Mark Denny is the John B. and Jean DeNault Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. His books include Biology and the Mechanics of the Wave-Swept Environment, Air and Water, and How the Ocean Works.