Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius: The Little Book of Black Holes

Black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago, have long intrigued scientists and the public with their bizarre and fantastical properties. Although Einstein understood that black holes were mathematical solutions to his equations, he never accepted their physical reality—a viewpoint many shared. This all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a deeper conceptual understanding of black holes developed just as new observations revealed the existence of quasars and X-ray binary star systems, whose mysterious properties could be explained by the presence of black holes. Black holes have since been the subject of intense research—and the physics governing how they behave and affect their surroundings is stranger and more mind-bending than any fiction. The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius takes readers deep into the mysterious heart of the subject, offering rare clarity of insight into the physics that makes black holes simple yet destructive manifestations of geometric destiny. Read on to learn a bit more about black holes and what inspired the authors to write this book.

Your book tells the story of black holes from a physics perspective. What are black holes, really? What’s inside?

Black holes are regions of spacetime from which nothing can escape, not even light. In our book, we try to live up to our title by getting quickly to the heart of the subject, explaining in non-technical terms what black holes are and how we use Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand them. What’s inside black holes is a great mystery. Taken at face value, general relativity says spacetime inside a black hole collapses in on itself, so violently that singularities form. We need something more than Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand what these singularities mean. Hawking showed that quantum effects cause black holes to radiate very faintly. That radiation is linked with quantum fluctuations inside the black hole. But it’s a matter of ongoing debate whether these fluctuations are a key to resolving the puzzle of the singularity, or whether some more drastic theory is needed.

How sure are we that black holes exist?

A lot more certain than we were a few years ago. In September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, each one about thirty times the mass of the sun. Everything about that detection fit our expectations based on Einstein’s theories, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there really are black holes out there. In fact, before the LIGO detection we were already pretty sure that black holes exist. Matter swirling around gigantic black holes at the core of distant galaxies form the brightest objects in the Universe. They’re called quasars, and the only reason they’re dim in our sight is that they’re so far away, literally across the Universe. Similar effects around smaller black holes generate X-rays that we can detect relatively nearby, mere thousands of light years away from us. And we have good evidence that there is a large black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Can you talk a bit about the formation of black holes?

Black holes with mass comparable to the sun can form when big stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves. Ordinarily, gravity is the weakest force, but when too much matter comes together, no force conceivable can hold it up against the pull of gravity. In a sense, even spacetime collapses when a black hole forms, and the result is a black hole geometry: an endless inward cascade of nothing into nothing. All the pyrotechnics that we see in distant quasars and some nearby X-ray sources comes from matter rubbing against itself as it follows this inward cascade.

How have black holes become so interesting to non-specialists? How have they been glorified in popular culture?

There’s so much poetry in black hole physics. Black hole horizons are where time stands still—literally! Black holes are the darkest things that exist in Nature, formed from the ultimate ashes of used-up stars. But they create brilliant light in the process of devouring yet more matter. The LIGO detection was based on a black hole collision that shook the Universe, with a peak power greater than all stars combined; yet we wouldn’t even have noticed it here on earth without the most exquisitely sensitive detector of spacetime distortions ever built. Strangest of all, when stripped of surrounding matter, black holes are nothing but empty space. Their emptiness is actually what makes them easy to understand mathematically. Only deep inside the horizon does the emptiness end in a terrible, singular core (we think). Horrendous as this sounds, black holes could also be doorways into wormholes connecting distant parts of the Universe. But before packing our bags for a trip from Deep Space Nine to the Gamma Quadrant, we’ve got to read the fine print: as far as we know, it’s impossible to make a traversable wormhole.

What inspired you to write this book? Was there a point in life where your interest in this topic was piqued?

We both feel extremely fortunate to have had great mentors, including Igor Klebanov, Curt Callan, Werner Israel, Matthew Choptuik, and Kip Thorne who gave us a lot of insight into black holes and general relativity. And we owe a big shout-out to our editor, Ingrid Gnerlich, who suggested that we write this book.

GubserSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String Theory. Frans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton.

Kip Thorne & Roger Blandford on Modern Classical Physics

PhysicsThis first-year, graduate-level text and reference book covers the fundamental concepts and twenty-first-century applications of six major areas of classical physics that every masters- or PhD-level physicist should be exposed to, but often isn’t: statistical physics, optics (waves of all sorts), elastodynamics, fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and special and general relativity and cosmology. Growing out of a full-year course that the eminent researchers Kip S. Thorne, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Roger D. Blandford taught at Caltech for almost three decades, this book is designed to broaden the training of physicists. Its six main topical sections are also designed so they can be used in separate courses, and the book provides an invaluable reference for researchers.

This book emerged from a course you both began teaching nearly 4 decades ago. What drove you to create the course, and ultimately to write this book?

KST: We were unhappy with the narrowness of physics graduate education in the United States. We believed that every masters-level or PhD physicist should be familiar with the basic concepts of all the major branches of classical physics and should have some experience applying them to real world phenomena. But there was no obvious route to achieve this, so we created our course.

RDB: Of course we had much encouragement from colleagues who helped us teach it and students who gave us invaluable feedback on the content.

The title indicates that the book is a “modern” approach to classical physics (which emphasizes physical phenomena at macroscopic scales). What specifically is “modern” in your book’s approach to this subject?

KST: Classical-physics ideas and tools are used extensively today in research areas as diverse as astrophysics, high-precision experimental physics, optical physics, biophysics, controlled fusion, aerodynamics, computer simulations, etc. Our book draws applications from all these modern topics and many more. Also, these modern applications have led to powerful new viewpoints on the fundamental concepts of classical physics, viewpoints that we elucidate—for example, quantum mechanical viewpoints and language for purely classical mode-mode coupling in nonlinear optics and in nonlinear plasma physics.

Why do you feel that it is so important for readers to become more familiar with classical physics, beyond what they may have been introduced to already?

KST: In their undergraduate and graduate level education, most physicists have been exposed to classical mechanics, electromagnetic theory, elementary thermodynamics, and little classical physics beyond this. But in their subsequent careers, most physicists discover that they need an understanding of other areas of classical physics (and this book is a vehicle for that).

In many cases they may not even be aware of their need. They encounter problems in their research or in R&D where powerful solutions could be imported from other areas of classical physics, if only they were aware of those other areas. An example from my career: in the 1970s, when trying to understand recoil of a binary star as it emits gravitational waves, I, like many relativity physicists before me, got terribly confused. Then my graduate student, Bill Burke—who was more broadly educated than I—said “we can resolve the confusion by adopting techniques that are used to analyze boundary layers in fluid flows around bodies with complicated shapes.” Those techniques (matched asymptotic expansions), indeed, did the job, and through Bill, they were imported from fluid mechanics into relativity.

RDB: Yes. To give a second example, when I was thinking about ways to accelerate cosmic rays, I recalled graduate lectures on stellar dynamics and found just the tools I needed.

You also mention in the book that geometry is a deep theme and important connector of ideas. Could you explain your perspective, and how geometry is used thematically throughout the book?

KST: The essential point is that, although coordinates are a powerful, and sometimes essential, tool in many calculations, the fundamental laws of physics can be expressed without the aid of coordinates; and, indeed, their coordinate-free expressions are generally elegant and exceedingly powerful. By learning to think about the laws in coordinate-free (geometric) language, a physicist acquires great power. For example, when one searches for new physical laws, requiring that they be geometric (coordinate-free) constrains enormously the forms that they may take. And in many practical computations (for example, of the relativistic Doppler shift), a geometric route to the solution can be faster and much more insightful than one that uses coordinates. Our book is infused with this.

RDB: We are especially keen on presenting these fundamental laws in a manner which makes explicit the geometrically formulated conservation laws for mass, momentum, energy, etc. It turns out that this is often a good starting point when one wants to solve these equations numerically. But ultimately, a coordinate system must be introduced to execute the calculations and interpret the output.

One of the areas of application that you cover in the book is cosmology, an area of research that has undergone a revolution over the past few decades. What are some of the most transformative discoveries in the field’s recent history? How does classical physics serve to underpin our modern understanding of how the universe formed and is evolving? What are some of the mysteries that continue to challenge scientists in the field of cosmology?   

RDB: There have indeed been great strides in understanding the large scale structure and evolution of the universe, and there is good observational support for a comparatively simple description. Cosmologists have found that 26 percent of the energy density in the contemporary, smoothed-out universe is in the form of “dark matter,” which only seems to interact through its gravity. Meanwhile, 69 percent is associated with a “cosmological constant,” as first introduced by Einstein and which causes the universe to accelerate. The remaining five percent is the normal baryonic matter which we once thought accounted for essentially all of the universe. The actual structure that we observe appears to be derived from almost scale-free statistically simple, random fluctuations just as expected from an early time known as inflation. Fleshing out the details of this description is almost entirely an exercise in classical physics. Even if this description is validated by future observations, much remains to be understood, including the nature of dark matter and the cosmological constant, what fixes the normal matter density, and the great metaphysical question of what lies beyond the spacetime neighborhood that we can observe directly.

KST: Remarkably, in fleshing out the details in the last chapter of our book, we utilize classical-physics concepts and results from every one of the other chapters. ALL of classical physics feeds into cosmology!

The revolution in cosmology that you describe depends upon many very detailed observations using telescopes operating throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum and beyond. How do you deal with this in the book?

RDB: We make no attempt to describe the rich observational and experimental evidence, referring the reader to many excellent texts on cosmology that describe these in detail. However, we do describe some of the principles that underlie the design and operation of the radio and optical telescopes that bring us cosmological data.

There is has also been a lot of excitement regarding the recent observation by LIGO of gravitational waves caused by merging black holes. How is this subject covered in the book, and how, briefly, are some of the concepts of classical physics elucidated in your description of this cutting-edge research area?   

KST: LIGO’s gravitational wave detectors rely on an amazingly wide range of classical physics concepts and tools, so time and again we draw on LIGO for illustrations. The theory of random processes, spectral densities, the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, the Fokker-Planck equation; shot noise, thermal noise, thermoelastic noise, optimal filters for extracting weak signals from noise; paraxial optics, Gaussian beams, the theory of coherence, squeezed light, interferometry, laser physics; the interaction of gravitational waves with light and with matter; the subtle issue of the conservation or non conservation of energy in general relativity—all these and more are illustrated by LIGO in our book.

What are some of the classical physics phenomena in every day life that you are surprised more people do not fully understand—whether they are lay people, students, or scientists?

KST: Does water going down a drain really have a strong preference for clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the south? How strong? What happens as you cross the equator? How are ocean waves produced? Why do stars twinkle in the night sky, and why doesn’t Jupiter twinkle? How does a hologram work? How much can solid objects be stretched before they break, and why are there such huge differences from one type of solid (for example thin wire) to another (a rubber band)?

RDB: I agree and have to add that I am regularly humbled by some every day phenomenon that I cannot explain or for which I have carried around for years a fallacious explanation. There is, rightly, a lot of focus right now on climate change, energy, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. We hear about them every day. We physicists need to shore up our understanding and do a better job of communicating this.

Do you believe that some of your intended readers might be surprised to discover the deep relevance of classical physics to certain subject areas?

KST: In subjects that physicists think of as purely quantum, classical ideas and classical computational techniques can often be powerful. Condensed matter physics is an excellent example—and accordingly, our book includes a huge number of condensed-matter topics. Examples are Bose-Einstein condensates, the van der Waals gas, and the Ising model for ferromagnetism.

RDB: Conversely, quantum mechanical techniques are often used to simplify purely classical problems, for example in optics.

Writing a book is always an intellectual journey. In the preparation of this tremendously wide-ranging book, what were some of the most interesting things you learned along the way?

KST: How very rich and fascinating is the world of classical physics—far more so than we thought in 1980 when we embarked on this venture. And then there are the new inventions, discoveries, and phenomena that did not exist in 1980 but were so important or mind-boggling that we could not resist including them in our book. For example, optical-frequency combs and the phase-locked lasers that underlie them, Bose-Einstein condensates, the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11/01, the discovery of gravitational waves and the techniques that made it possible, laser fusion, and our view of the universe at large.

Kip S. Thorne is the Feynman Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. His books include Gravitation and Black Holes and Time Warps. Roger D. Blandford is the Luke Blossom Professor of Physics and the founding director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. Both are members of the National Academy of Sciences.


Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.


setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

Scott E. Page on The Diversity Bonus

What if workforce diversity is more than simply the right thing to do in order to make society more integrated and just? What if diversity can also improve the bottom line of businesses and other organizations facing complex challenges in the knowledge economy? It can. And The Diversity Bonus shows how and why. Scott Page, a leading thinker, writer, and speaker whose ideas and advice are sought after by corporations, nonprofits, universities, and governments around the world, makes a clear and compellingly pragmatic case for diversity and inclusion. He presents overwhelming evidence that teams that include different kinds of thinkers outperform homogenous groups on complex tasks, producing what he calls “diversity bonuses.” These bonuses include improved problem solving, increased innovation, and more accurate predictions—all of which lead to better performance and results. Drawing on research in economics, psychology, computer science, and many other fields, The Diversity Bonus also tells the stories of people and organizations that have tapped the power of diversity to solve complex problems. The result changes the way we think about diversity in the workplace—and far beyond it. Read on to learn more about the Diversity Bonus.

What is the Diversity Bonus?
The diversity bonus refers to the increase in performance that results from cognitive diversity.

When team members think differently, when they bring different representations, categories, heuristics, models, and frameworks, their collective performance includes a diversity bonus, an extra amount. That bonus is a quantifiable, measurable value add.

Can you give examples of diversity bonuses?
I’ll give three. When multiple people make predictions, their collective error (the error of their average guess) depends in equal amounts on their average error and on the diversity of their predictions.  If each person made the same prediction, the crowd would be as accurate as the average person. If they make different predictions, the crowd is more accurate than the average person. In one study involving thousands of predictions by professional economists, the crowd was better than the average economist by 21%. That 21% is the diversity bonus.

Creative tasks produce similar bonuses. Psychologists measure the creativity of a person by the number of ideas she can generate. They measure the creativity of a team similarly. A creative team therefore requires creative people. It also requires diversity. If the creative people all have the same ideas, then the whole only equals the parts. If they differ in their ideas, they produce a diversity bonus.

Finally, when solving problems, diverse representations create what Stuart Kauffman called different adjacent possiblesA smart person can be stuck on a problem and another person might present a new adjacent possibility and get that person unstuck. New adjacent possibles create diversity bonus.

Where do you see evidence of biggest diversity bonuses?
The evidence from the academy is overwhelming. It used to be that most papers were written by one or two people. Now teams predominate, as noted in a major report by the National Research Council. Multiple studies based on about 20 million academic papers written by, among others, Brian Uzzi, Ben Jones, Richard Freemen, and Wei Huang, find that working with people from other schools or from different ethnic groups results in substantial diversity bonuses. Lada Adamic and coauthers find similar effects for patents. The deeper dives on both papers and patents shows a correlation between the number of ideas, and combinations of novel ideas. In brief, the evidence from almost every academic paper ever published and every patent ever issued by the United States strongly aligns with diversity bonuses.

I should add that in creative domains, diversity bonuses could be even larger. Just as the academy has now turned to teams, so has Hollywood and the music industry. Not that many people are aware that the modal billboard hit now has multiple songwriters. Pop music has followed the same trend as physics and computer science. The same goes for movie scripts. Most films are now written by teams.

Your core argument rests on cognitive diversity. When most people talk about diversity they mean identity diversity.   Are the two related?
Great question. Yes. The two types of diversity are interwoven. The connection merits a careful unpacking. Identity diversity refers to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical capabilities, and culture. Cognitive diversity refers to differences in information, knowledge bases, representations, categories, heuristics, causal models, and frameworks. In thinking about how identity diversity correlates with and influences cognitive diversity, we must guard against simple one to one causal claims such as their being something called a “woman’s perspective.” Better to recognize that our identities consist of multiple dimensions that collectively influence what we know, how we see, and how we think.  Our whole selves contribute to our cognitive repertoires. We cannot pull out one component of identities and map it to one component of our cognitive repertoires.

While identity matters, it is also not the only contributor to cognitive diversity. Our experiences, formal training, work activities, social networks, and preferences all contribute to how we think. Identity interacts with each of these and how much it contributes in any one instance will vary. I would guess that identity matters more in discussions of health care than in a statistical analysis of the evidence for the Higgs’ Boson.

The contribution in any one context will be up for empirical studies to reveal. That said, I’m a theorist and I would warn against placing too much weight on empirical studies until we better learn how to work in diverse teams. As we learn how to achieve diversity bonuses, we will increase the likelihood and magnitude of those bonuses.

Do diversity bonuses exist for all problems?
No! Diversity bonuses will only exist on complex, high dimensional tasks. On routine tasks like processing claims forms, packing boxes, or chopping down trees, no bonus will exist. The performance of the team equals the sum of the performances of the individuals. Economists call such tasks separable.

Diversity bonuses arise in complex, high dimensional contexts. As work becomes more cognitive—most high value workers solve problems, design, predict, and create—diversity bonuses become more and more important.

How do diversity bonuses challenge current thinking?
Diversity bonuses challenge narrow “meritocratic” thinking. Diversity bonuses mean that the best team will not, as a rule, consist of the best performing individuals. The best team will include diverse thinkers. Hiring, college admissions, and promotion decisions tend to make direct comparisons among individuals rather than think about what a person brings to teams.

How does an organization produce diversity bonuses?
That’s a great question. It used to be that organizations had diversity policies. Now, almost all organizations speak about diversity and inclusion. That’s because diversity bonuses do not come for free. You cannot just toss diverse people in a room together and expect bonuses to fall from the sky. Bonuses happen for a reason. They have an underlying logic. The book lays out that logic to guide you to diversity bonuses. Without that logic, to paraphrase Da Vinci, you are setting sail without a rudder or compass.

The logic suggests the following: you must identify the tasks where diversity bonuses will exist, you must create space and opportunity for people to contribute, you must reduce biases in hiring and recruiting, you must adopt policies and protocols that enable diversity bonuses, and, most important, you must practice.


PageScott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies and Diversity and Complexity. He has been a featured speaker at Davos as well as at organizations such as Google, Bloomberg, BlackRock, Boeing, and NASA.

A. James McAdams on Vanguard of the Revolution

Vanguard of the Revolution is a sweeping history of one of the most significant political institutions of the modern world. The communist party was a revolutionary idea long before its supporters came to power. A. James McAdams argues that the rise and fall of communism can be understood only by taking into account the origins and evolution of this compelling idea. He shows how the leaders of parties in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and North Korea adapted the original ideas of revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to profoundly different social and cultural settings. The first comprehensive political history of the communist party, Vanguard of the Revolution is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand world communism and the captivating idea that gave it life. Read on to learn more about the origins and evolution of the communist party in Russia.

What led you to write a book about the communist party?

My initial motivation was that I couldn’t find any systematic political histories of the party. I felt that scholars and other interested readers would benefit from a broad comparative study that accounted for both this institution’s tremendous staying-power over the past century and then its swift collapse by the early 1990s. The communist party was more than a fleeting political organization. It was the principal rival to the other, prevailing form of party rule in modern times—liberal democracy. During the past century, over a billion and a half people were ruled by communist parties, roughly 38 percent of the world’s population.

I was also motivated by a factor that was missing in my discipline. Political scientists have written an impressive number of books on party behavior in both developing and advanced democracies. But they have generally neglected the communist party. This may be due to the assumption that that all communist parties have adhered to a stereotyped definition of “Leninism,” i.e., an organization characterized by dictatorial practices, rigid hierarchies, and rampant brutality. Yet, as I show in my book, the communist party took multiple forms over its long history, just like liberal-democratic parties did in the West. Although all communist parties had certain features in common—especially the conviction that the progressive march of history was on their side—they also differed in significant ways. Just look at the variation in the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. This was not only true of dictatorships. There were notable differences among the communist parties that competed in national and local elections in the West, such as the French and Italian communist parties.

Communist parties also assumed different identities over time. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were vastly different from what the communist party became under Joseph Stalin. Likewise, Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s conceptions of party leadership were different as well. One of the most important things Mikhail Gorbachev did when he came to power was to attempt to transform the party according to a highly idealized vision of Leninist rule. Yet, his efforts to reform the idea of the party inadvertently resulted in the institution’s total loss of legitimacy.

What do you mean by referring to “the global idea” of the party in the subtitle of Vanguard of the Revolution?

I am a big believer in the role of ideas in driving human behavior. You can’t understand the communist party’s lasting appeal unless you recognize that the party was an idea before it took the form of a fully fleshed-out organization. When Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, he did not trouble himself with the issue of party organization. He was so convinced about the immediacy of the proletarian revolution that he assumed that the party would simply materialize as the prophetic voice of the working class. Over the following century, his ideas about the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressed and the inevitable victory of good over evil galvanized the emotions of revolutionaries in as disparate locations as Hungary, the United States, Poland, Yugoslavia, and China. Although the conditions these radicals faced were very different from those that Marx encountered in England and Germany, his and his successors’ ideas gave them the confidence that they, too, would be victorious.

Of course, I don’t mean to attribute the longevity of communist parties to ideas alone. As I emphasize in Vanguard of the Revolution, a political order based solely on the idea of constantly revolutionizing society would explode. At one point or another, all communist leaders recognized that their movements would not survive without effective organizations. Yet these parties would not have lasted if they had lacked the ideas to motivate their followers. It’s when you put ideas and organizations together that you get a viable institution, one that lasts a long time.

What is so exciting about the communist party is that it was a truly global institution. Long before the advent of the internet and social media, a combination of factors—advances in communications media, repeated military conflicts, and social upheaval—made it possible for communists and other sympathetic radicals to bring the idea of an international revolution to life. These revolutionaries were not only focused on their own countries, they drew upon a vast network of personal ties to spread the good word about communism around the world.

Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, including comrades and family members—in defense of their cause?

This question haunts everyone who seeks to make sense of the history of world communism.  Certainly one motivating factor was fear. During Stalin’s Terror or Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, if you failed to denounce someone who was accused of being a “counterrevolutionary,” you would be accused of the same crime. Another factor was opportunism. For many party cadres, these times presented opportunities for moving up the social and political ladder.

But the factor I consider the most important—and disturbing—was the rigid psychology of many of the true-believers. As writers like Arthur Koestler, Wolfgang Leonhard, and George Orwell, have beautifully captured in their accounts, there was an intoxicating element of messianism in these movements. Party cadres were prepared to do normally unthinkable things to others because they truly believed that they were on the right side of history. As we know about all messianic movements, the more deeply such believers are immersed in their cause, the more they are inclined to engage in cognitive denial. In the face of all contradictory evidence, they can be convinced that people they have known their entire lives are spies, saboteurs, and “wreckers.”

Your book covers an extraordinary number of communist parties over long periods. How did you become interested in the study of communism?

Well, I began with East Germany. I was studying German at the Free University in West Berlin in 1973, and went to East Berlin on a regular basis. Crossing through the Berlin Wall was always an adventure. When I stepped into the Eastern side of the city, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to live under communism. As I passed people on the street, they would invariably look at my shoes and my jeans—both signs of capitalist affluence. Clearly, they were wondering what it was like to live in the West.

Once I had become familiar with one communist country, I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit all of them! Everywhere I went, whether to Cuba, Poland, or China, I found intriguing similarities and differences among their regimes. One of my goals in writing Vanguard of the Revolution was to account for some of these differences.

What is the most unusual communist country you’ve visited?

It would have to be North Korea, although strictly speaking, its government no longer has the formal attributes of a communist regime. When one sees pictures of North Korea, it looks like a very strange place. But when you get there, the country seems even more unfathomable. There are statues of the “eternal leader” Kim Il-sung everywhere, colorful mosaics of the “dear son,” Kim Jong-il, and endless monuments to heroic military battles. When I was there in 2006, I witnessed tens of thousands of parading students, jubilantly preparing for mass games to celebrate their leaders’ achievements. The word “bizarre” does not begin to capture the fervor you experience.

In building this anti-Disneyland, the North Korean government has been remarkably successful in blocking the flow of information into and out of the country. The first thing the police take from you when you arrive at Pyongyang International Airport is your cell phone. As a result of this enforced isolation, the country’s citizens have an almost childlike understanding of the outside world. They also know next to nothing about conditions in their own country. Our tour guide practically fell over from disbelief when I told her that Kim Jong-il had three sons. Now that one of those sons, Kim Jong-un, holds the reins of power, she undoubtedly reveres him as a divine presence who will safeguard her needs.

If you could go back in time, what aspect of the communist party’s history would you like to experience?

I would like to have been a “fly on the wall” during the early battles among Leftist radicals that led to the formation of communist parties, such as the founding congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called First International) in 1864 or the French socialists’ Congress of Tours in 1920. These were fantastically dramatic events. Both the passions and the animosities that they generated contributed substantially to the character of communist parties in subsequent decades. They also played a huge role in the terrible tragedies that were to come to the movement in later years.

Did writing Vanguard of the Revolution present any special challenges?

The biggest challenge was to get inside the heads of the people I was describing. Why were so many party members willing to sacrifice their lives—or the lives of others, their comrades-in-battle, and family members—in defense of their cause?

During my travels to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia, this was the first question I posed to long-time communists, people who had become disaffected with liberal democracy and capitalism at an early age and had experienced the tumult of war and other upheavals. Invariably, they convinced me that they were not opportunists; they sincerely believed that they were building a better world.

My challenge was to imagine what these and other communists were thinking and feeling as they lived their lives forward. To satisfy my curiosity, I not only familiarized with the relevant secondary literature.  I also read a lot of biographies, interviews, and even popular literature. These revolutionaries’ ideas directly reflected the cultures of which they were a part.

You call your study of the communist party a post-mortem. Why should we care today about the life and death of this particular institution?

If we interpret the party’s history in the right way, we can gain insight into the vitality of our own political system. The communist parties that ruled countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany didn’t come out of the blue. They were the product of the distinct political and social conditions of the twentieth century—war, economic collapse, and revolution. Strictly speaking, we will never again see this specific type of party. Even the few parties that are still labelled as communist, such as those in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, long ago shed the features that identified them with the Leninist tradition. However, this does not mean that we won’t encounter other militant parties that are equally opposed to liberal democracy. It all depends on having sufficiently turbulent conditions that allow incipient rabble-rousers and demagogues to convince their followers that the prevailing order should be replaced. We see signs of the potential for such extremist movements in the rise of right-wing populism in Europe today. Vladimir Putin’s perversion of Russian democracy is a good example of this trend.  Alas, even parties in the US are not immune to this authoritarian temptation.

McAdamsA. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include Judging the Past in Unified Germany and Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Alexandra Logue: Pathways to Reform

Change is notoriously difficult in any large organization, and institutions of higher education are no exception. From 2010 to 2013, Alexandra Logue, then chief academic officer of The City University of New York, led a controversial reform initiative known as Pathways. The program aimed to facilitate the transfer of credits among the university’s nineteen constituent colleges in order to improve graduation rates—a long-recognized problem for public universities such as CUNY. In Pathways to Reform, Logue blends vivid personal narrative with an objective perspective to tell how this hard-fought plan was successfully implemented at the third-largest university in the United States. Shedding light on the inner workings of one of the most important public institutions in the nation, Pathways to Reform provides the first full account of how, despite opposition, a complex higher education initiative was realized. Read on to learn more about Pathways, the motivation behind it, and the challenges that had to be overcome.

What is Pathways and what motivated you to develop it?

For 40 years the worst academic problem facing CUNY students was difficulty in transferring their credits from one of the 19 CUNY undergraduate colleges to another.  CUNY students, similar to other current college students in the United States, transfer a great deal, and when students lose credits upon transfer, or credits taken to satisfy general education or major requirements are changed into elective credits, it can make it more difficult for students to graduate and their financial aid may run out.  These problems were hitting CUNY students particularly hard because their median family income is quite low, almost half are the first in their families to attend college, and almost half have a first language other than English.  Therefore, even without credit transfer difficulties, many CUNY students have an inordinate number of challenges to overcome in obtaining a college degree, in a society in which a college degree is increasingly necessary for employment and advancement.  In addition, New York State Education Law treats CUNY as a single university, and instructs CUNY to function as “an integrated system and to facilitate articulation between units,” too often the opposite of what was happening with undergraduate curriculum pre-Pathways.

What were the big goals for Pathways?

The immediate specific goal was, after students transferred, to have them lose fewer credits and to have fewer of their general education and major credits changed into elective credits.  We expected that result to lead to other important outcomes, particularly increased retention and graduation rates, fewer excess credits (students taking credits in excess of the number needed for their degrees), and a lower percentage of students having used up all of their financial aid prior to graduation.  However, we knew that it would take many years before we would be able to determine whether these other results had been obtained. To fully assess Pathways, we would need to assess students who started at one college and then transferred to another, with the total amount of time at the two colleges sufficient to obtain a bachelor’s degree (a total period of up to 6 years). Therefore, our immediate, most important, goal was simply to have credits transfer more effectively.  In the effecting of this goal, we also aimed to increase the quality of CUNY students’ education by clarifying and expanding the faculty-specified learning goals that courses were to accomplish, and by adding an additional layer of faculty review to all Pathways general education courses.

Was there a template for the program? Were there other institutions to which you looked for a model?

In the book I discuss how we examined the policies of other systems that had tried to solve credit transfer problems.  In particular, we examined what our sibling system, SUNY (the State University of New York), as well as the University System of Georgia had done.  However, we examined what these other institutions had done not simply to model them, but to learn from their not-so-perfect aspects.  Our goal was to construct transfer policies that were the best in the country.

What did you expect the challenges to be going into the process?

First, the CUNY system is huge (approximately 240,000 undergraduate students in 19 colleges) and complex, which makes any policy change difficult; communicating and effecting changes can be quite challenging.  Second, changes to curriculum, as occurred in Pathways, can take years (due to the time needed for multiple levels of approval as well as the time needed for the work on the curriculum itself), so we knew we would have to sustain our efforts over a long period of time. Third, we knew that everyone would not agree that the new policies were an improvement, or even needed, that some faculty would be particularly opposed, and that those faculty would try to stop Pathways.  As it turned out, the opposition was even larger than we expected.

Why was the program opposed by faculty?

I spend many pages in the book trying to explain the many different reasons that faculty opposed Pathways.  Much of it boils down to the fact that many faculty feel that they should have 100% control over the curriculum—that they are the experts and should make all curricular decisions.  However, the difficulty with this view is that faculty’s work lives are significantly affected by curricular decisions, so there is a built-in conflict of interest, and sometimes what faculty want can conflict with what is best for, or helps, students.  Therefore, in some cases, someone, in this case the CUNY Board of Trustees, may need to intervene and put some constraints on faculty choice in order to ensure that students’ rights to a high-quality, efficient, education are not violated.  We constructed Pathways under the overall principle that faculty and colleges could do whatever they wanted as long as it did not impede students’ progress towards a high-quality degree—the principle that all CUNY students are students of one university, and transferring from one college to another should not cause any harm to a student. In contrast, many faculty wanted no constraints whatsoever on their control over the curriculum.

How can we see, a few years in, that Pathways is making school easier to complete?

Each semester, many thousands more CUNY students are now transferring without losing any  credits.  In addition, transfer rates from community (associate’s-degree) to senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges have significantly increased, and the percentage of these students transferring with an associate’s degree has increased 31% (very helpful to students in case a student for any reason doesn’t finish the bachelor’s degree).  Under Pathways, community college students know that their credits will transfer to the senior colleges, and therefore they do not have to transfer before finishing their associate’s degrees.  Thus even though it is only a few years since Pathways was first established, students are showing better degree progress than prior to Pathways.  CUNY Admissions offices are also now using the existence of Pathways in their marketing of CUNY, pointing out to potential applicants that if they come to CUNY, they will be able to switch to different colleges as their needs change, without losing credits.

This is not just a NYC story, how is the issue of credit transfers being handled nationwide? Are these other schools doing it really well?

Credit transfer is a national issue.  Over half of the nation’s bachelor’s-degree recipients now graduate with credits obtained from a college other than the one from which they are graduating.  Many states, national organizations, and researchers are now working on how to improve credit transfer.  Over half of the states already have statewide transfer policies for all of the public institutions of higher education in that state, and some states are even working together to facilitate credit transfer across state lines.  However, there is a paucity of data indicating how well any of these policies are working.  Many of the policies have large loopholes.  I am hopeful that CUNY will lead the way in obtaining excellent evidence as to whether or not its transfer policies are working, and in using that evidence to help future transfer students.

What do you hope administrators, students, and faculty can learn from your book about improving credit transfer systems here and nationwide?

There is much to be learned from my book.  First, the book has a great deal of information about why credit transfer can be difficult and about policies that can help.  However, more generally, the book contains a great deal of information about how higher education functions and why change in higher education can be so slow, tortured, and sometimes nonexistent.  The book also discusses lessons learned as a result of establishing Pathways, many of which can be generalized so as to help facilitate other aspects of change in higher education.

Why did you decide to write a book about what happened in establishing Pathways?

W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1949 that “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” I believe in that right deeply, and I particularly believe in making excellent higher education available to everyone who can benefit from it. Unfortunately, there were many points during the establishment of Pathways at which I felt that the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education, the students’ voices, and the facts about what the students needed and how we were trying to address those needs, were all being lost in an overwhelming tide of college and faculty actions, misinformation, and rhetoric.  As a result, making the changes that we felt would ensure the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education was extremely difficult.  I wrote this book to show why the changes needed to effect Pathways were necessary and why they were hard–why change in general is hard in higher education.  My hope is that the book will facilitate future change that will help to preserve and enhance higher education for everyone.

What was it like writing about the events that you had lived through while establishing Pathways?

On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the space and the time to explain, in what I believe is a comprehensible, comprehensive, and accurate way, what Pathways is, why it is important, and why it is formulated the way that it is.  This is information that should be helpful for establishing good transfer policies everywhere.  On the other hand, some of what happened during establishing Pathways was quite painful, and living through those events again was difficult.  However, there were moments of pure joy that I also got to relive, moments that are described in the book.  For those of us working on establishing Pathways, we could be totally up one day and totally down the next, and this happened over and over for three years.  We truly despaired that the process would ever end and that we would accomplish our goal, to the point that we hardly noticed when Pathways was finally effected.  I felt all of that again while writing the book.  Now that the book is done, I can finally reflect on the benefits that Pathways is bringing to many thousands of CUNY students.


LogueAlexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking and Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today.

All net royalties received by the author from sales of Pathways to Reform will be donated to The City University of New York to support undergraduate student financial aid.

On Weaving by Anni Albers: Revised and Expanded Edition

Written by one of the twentieth century’s leading textile artists, this splendidly illustrated book is a luminous meditation on the art of weaving, its history, its tools and techniques, and its implications for modern design. With her focus on materials and handlooms, Anni Albers discusses how technology and mass production place limits on creativity and problem solving, and makes the case for a renewed embrace of human ingenuity that is particularly important today. Now available for a new generation of readers, this expanded edition of On Weaving updates the book’s original black-and-white illustrations with full-color photos, and features an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber and essays by Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai Smith that shed critical light on Albers and her career. Read on for our Q&A with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, to learn more about the legacy of Anni Albers.

Why is Anni Albers considered a great textile artist?
Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar at the age of 22. Here in the weaving workshop she first began working on the loom and learning her way with threads. Over the course of her 60-plus year career she became one of the most innovative and influential textile artists of the twentieth century, creating subtle abstract works of art, bold wall hangings, and sophisticated architectural fabrics, in addition to experimental jewelry and prints. Albers was a perfect combination of designer, maker, and artist. She spoke passionately about materials and how the parameters inherent within them are a key to creativity and problem solving. The attentive maker must listen to her materials and be guided by their specific properties, for example: cellophane and metallic threads for light reflection; the soft thickness of chenille to absorb sound; natural fibers such as jute and horsehair for durability; and cotton and linen for strength. As machine-made fabrics and surface designs became the industrial norm in the twentieth century, Albers insisted that true progress and innovation must come from understanding materials and construction. Beauty is achieved through the architectural properties of textiles as much as the surface effects of color and rhythm. Albers’s works are as forward thinking and beautiful today as they were fifty years ago, and the lessons they offer continue to inspire designers.

Why does Anni Albers continue to be an important influence on contemporary artists and designers?
In recent years there has been an energetic resurgence of interest in skilled craft, material awareness, and efficient design. Anni Albers’s work and philosophy are a guiding force. Artists working in textiles look to the inventiveness of her craft, while artists in other disciplines find inspiration in its proportions and aesthetic brilliance. Her laser-like intelligence and acute perception of the magic to be discovered in the mundane make her writing a must for amateur and professionals alike. Designers are attuned to her problem-solving skills and the courage she showed in using new materials and making art a part of life. Her focus on experimentation and independent thinking is a boon to contemporary educators. Albers considered material a means of communication and the weaving studio a laboratory for experimental work in construction and design. For her, handlooms allowed for the slow operation necessary for experimentation. To create something lasting was to pay close attention to the material at hand, and she let the thread lead the way.

Is On Weaving intended for weavers only?
Absolutely not—Albers addresses the book’s wide appeal in her introduction: “Perhaps I should start out by saying that this book is not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers, nor is it a summary of textile achievement, past or present. … My concern here was to comment on some textile principles underlying some evident facts. By taking up textile fundamentals and methods, I hoped to include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems. This book, then, is an effort in that direction.”

On Weaving relates to all makers, artists, designers, students, teachers, philosophers, historians, and readers. Albers writes in a clear and engaging manner that works on many levels. She tells a compelling history of weaving that parallels cultural evolution and how textiles have influenced human progress over the past 8,000 years. She gives notes and diagrams that work on multiple levels: they are instructive for the experienced weaver and also reveal more advanced construction techniques to the non-weaver. Albers walks us through a design problem—creating a wall fabric for a museum—so that we might see her process and the kinds of questions she asks. The final chapter has broader implications for design and its relationship to both nature and technology and offers a philosophy that resonates today.

How was Anni Albers involved in the original book’s design? How does her process translate to the new and expanded edition?
In designing On Weaving, Albers focused on collecting the highest quality images, highlighting a symbiotic relationship between text and image. In her introduction, Albers explains: “I approached the subject as one concerned with the visual, structural side of weaving.” Over the course of twenty years, Albers researched and collected images from institutions, museums, acquaintances, and fellow artists within the United States and abroad, handpicking objects during personal visits to New York City. She often used textile-focused publications as a first point of reference, bringing together the best images for her own book. As a result, reviewers and readers continuously praised On Weaving for its illustrations.

Albers desired to publish in color and even requested grants to do so: 52 years later, the new edition features more than 100 full-color images of objects originally produced in black and white. The stunning new color plates give readers a privileged understanding of Albers’s eye for structure, texture, and color.

The new edition of On Weaving pays homage to the original book’s design, in which the image plates are gathered together at the back, separate from the text, almost like a field guide. The book is generally half text and half image and a reader may choose to read the text straight through, or dip into sections, or browse the images, thereby opening up possibilities to make new connections.

What else is new in the “new and expanded” edition?
Along with new full-color, full-page images, all objects in the original book have been retained, with new photography of Albers’s own textile and graphic work. For example, the diagrams Albers created for the original On Weaving are presented in the new edition as art objects, leaving the artist’s hand visible. In addition, new essays by contributing scholars provide context for understanding the importance of Albers’s achievements. Manuel Cirauqui’s essay “Two Faces of Weaving” considers the opposite poles of Albers’s work and how she was able to weave contradictions into a unified philosophy. T’ai Smith’s subtle essay, “On Reading ‘On Weaving,’” considers the implications of the original book’s design and provides a framework for understanding how the book relates to the rest of Albers’s oeuvre. The new edition also features a personal afterword by Albers Foundation director Nicholas Fox Weber, who knew Anni during her life. Weber creates a lovely portrait of a friend and mentor and provides a window into the artist’s more personal motivations.

Why now?
The original On Weaving was in print for twenty years through the 1980s. Since then, the hardcover and subsequent paperback editions have become rare and expensive, though they continue to be in high demand. Using the latest print technology, we were able to make the new edition available at an affordable price and in full color with striking resolution to a much larger audience. Albers’s intention to create something meaningful and timeless, her efforts to connect the past to the present, and her understanding of the process and progress of technology hold important lessons today.

AlbersAnni Albers (1899–1994) was one of the foremost textile artists of the twentieth century; her works are in major museum collections around the world. Nicholas Fox Weber is executive director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and the author of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. Manuel Cirauqui is curator at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. T’ai Smith is associate professor of art history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Bauhaus Weaving Theory.

Emmet Gowin: Mariposas Nocturnas

American photographer Emmet Gowin is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. The result is Mariposas Nocturnas. These stunning color portraits present the insects—many of which may never have been photographed as living specimens before, and some of which may not be seen again—arrayed in typologies of twenty-five per sheet. The moths are photographed alive, in natural positions and postures, and set against a variety of backgrounds taken from the natural world and images from art history. Essential reading for audiences both in photography and natural history, this lavishly illustrated volume reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” Read on to learn more about Gowin’s evolution as a photographer, the underlying philosophy that he brought to this project, and his biggest influences.

As a photographer you’ve long been known for intimate photos of your family, and later, aerial landscapes of the American West. Can you explain your evolution from these projects to work on these stunning portraits of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths?

There are two main factors in my evolution from images of family and landscape to this long term study of moths. Even as a child I seemed to have an interest in small things, and if the small thing was alive all the better. If I drew, the drawing was usually small. Later I came to a deep reverence for insects even if I didn’t photograph them yet. In the 1970s I used a child’s small collection of insects, found dead in the windowsill, to enliven a nineteenth century book on rhetoricThat became an important image for me, though it was a singular event at the time. Later, I worked with some neighborhood boy scouts on their insect merit badgethus learning the basics of how a collection was built. So a respect for insects has been a part of my makeup, my curiosity, for as long as I can remember.

More particularly, my experience photographing the Nevada Test Site in 1996-97 left me at a turning point. Later I came to realize that one cannot study industrial scale agriculture, excessive water usage, and the building and testing of the atomic bomb without being changed. Three visits to the Nevada Test Site were all I could endure.

Its an important story but the next step will need to be taken by others. And all this exactly as my wife Edith and I made our first trip to Ecuador. Initially, I could not have told you what I was doing there, only that it was where I wanted to spend more time.

Can you talk a bit about the philosophy that underlies your work on this project? Was it your intention at the outset to raise awareness of the need for biodiversity?

Not so much a philosophy, although one must have one, I suppose, but the desire to turn a corner and begin to educate myself to the concerns of a working tropical biologist.  Even as a beginner this seemed a critical subject and also a key time in Earth’s history. And I was about to publish Changing the Earth, in 2002. For me, a respect for and admiration for insects was already in place, but I was also interested in learning something about field biology and in getting into the field myself. Alfred Wallace’s Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle were already important books for me.

Also, in our time even children understand the importance of loss of habitat and that the destruction of the Amazonian forest, any forest, concerns us all. At the Nevada Test Site I was stunned by just how many tests had been conducted, mostly to little real gain. I understood the history but I still felt a great shock in witnessing this destruction, mostly hidden from our view, and with such grave consequences to Americans downwind. That America had in fact bombed itself breaks one’s heart. I’ll just say that at this point I felt I had learned enough about the human willingness to destroy ourselves. Then, an almost chance visit to Ecuador opened my eyes to how I felt about the tropical forest. At first I imagined that the forest itself would be my subject, but the introduction to a research cabin in Panama in 1999 changed all that. There I recognized that the symbiotic relationship between the insects and the forest would be my way of discovery.

A nice story: After a few years in Panama I had made my first moth portrait grid. We took it to a store for framing. When our poster was collected there was an interest in selling them. “Where did you find these?” “Panama”, we said.  To which the shop owner said, “No, you can’t fool me, I’m from Panama, and none of these live here. I would know.” We didn’t argue, but leaving we conferred, “I guess we are on to something here.”

What photographers have been your biggest influencers in terms of style and aesthetics?

Let me just say that it was a very small photograph that first brought me to a feeling of transcendence. I later learned it was by Ansel Adams. That photograph and that feeling I never forgot. However, the artists I really loved were a mixed lot. Of course, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank were among the practical examples, and of course they were spiritual examples too.  Walker Evans and Harry Callahan were especially dear to me, and Callahan was my graduate advisor in Rhode Island. At the same time I was introduced to the history of art and film. Both felt very important to me, but perhaps painting and drawing felt the most accessible to me then, at least until photography arrived with its particular capacity for transcendence, which was closely followed by the introduction to the miracle of the silver image and its process. I still love the process of photography.

After Callahan, Frederick Sommer was perhaps the clearest example of the possibility of combining all these interests. Sommer would say, “you have to make it to find it or you have to find it to make it,” indicating that photography in a sly way combined everything that was of interest to me. That in our search for discovery and revelation, chance and purpose were intertwined, and both could and should serve the imagination.

How (if at all) has your early interest in drawing impacted your work as a photographer?

Drawing was the first art which opened for me. I drew often as a child and loved projects in which I could add a drawing. Like all dreamy and inattentive children I drew in school when I should have been paying attention. It was an impulse which seemed to come out of nowhere, which felt so real; I knew I could trust it. I saw very little art until art school, but when I was shown the great works I knew this is what I wanted, where I belonged. When photography came along I could see that I would need to serve all the same problems and concerns of painting an drawing; the distribution of weights, configuration of space, tonality and edge, the bounding line.  Within drawing and painting, it felt to me, that everything matters. By the end of my first year in art school I realized and I could serve these concerns with photography too, and it seemed to fit my nature and quickly became my constant joy.

Let me end this thought by calling attention to the kind of materials I began to carry into the tropics; most of them were copies of drawings and paintings—and the long history of graphic arts: Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Redon among the moderns and the old masters like Gruenwald, Bellini, Blake and Segurs. A small pantheon of great love and wisdom.

I’ve read you grew up in Chincoteague Island, surrounded by marshes and nature. Has that experience had a lasting impact on your work and your choice of subject matter?

Actuallyour family moved to Chincoteague when I was 13 and we only lived there two years.  I think I have given the mistaken impression of growing up there as that experience, beguiled as I was by the riches of the natural world, has always felt to me that it was there that I found my self, my identity, and the desire to be either a naturalist or an artist in those two short years.

How do you capture such photographs of moths, which are all, it should be noted, photographed alive? How do you keep them still?

The question of keeping them still is a bit misleading. Rarely do they stay still except for small periods when they settle themselves under a light onto the white collecting sheet. and then only until disturbed by another insect, which is quite often. Any moth I am seeing for the first time I attempt to photograph there on the white sheet to at least have a record of the species. But as my feelings were being educated by the moths I learned which I could touch, which could be nudged, which would fly with the first flash of the strobe. Some were, of course, photographed where I found them. but as I learned my way, I found I could transfer a moth to another surface with some success. Then I might have a minute to get a decent photograph. I was always aware that my chance to make a photograph could end in an instant. In Ecuador we sometimes collected moths in small plastic bags at night for photography the next day. Its a bit risky but on its leaf and with plenty of air inside, most remain calm. Sometimes these could be photographed in our motel room the next day. They could, of course, take flight, but at least we were in the same room.

Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword to this book, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” How does this idea of uncertainty play out in your work?

That “the world is saturated with loveliness” I have never doubted, but I rejoice in her finding just these words. In the late 60s and early 70s, our corner of Virginia felt something like the passage from St. Matthew—let me say it as I remember it—”unless you become as a little child, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is how I felt. At the same time we were visited each evening by images from the Vietnam war, and yet in our daily lives there were just the opposite. There was an intuitive sense that both the war and the “Kingdom or Heaven” saturated the same world, and in many ways it was chance which had placed us there, in Virginia. “Its what you do every day in the most simple way that counts,” my friend Frederick Sommer reminds us. This may sound too simple but if we could only live like this; treat everyone we meet as, just perhaps, the most important person in the world. And if you live that way, some of this feeling will embrace the butterfly, the ant, the moth.


GowinEmmet Gowin is emeritus professor of photography at Princeton University. His many books include Emmet Gowin and Changing the Earth. His photographs are in collections around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art. Terry Tempest Williams is an author, conservationist, and activist. Her books include The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Dennis Rasmussen: The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of their friendship—and how it influenced their world-changing ideas. Read on to learn more about the relationship between these two towering figures in Western philosophical thought.

Who were David Hume and Adam Smith, and why are they important?
Hume and Smith were eighteenth-century Scots who ended up becoming two of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment, and indeed the entire Western tradition. Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language. He’s also among the most provocative of philosophers: a powerful critic of both religion and the capacities of human reason, as well as a forceful champion of commerce and the all-around benefits of civilization. Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we’d now call capitalism—in fact, he’s often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. As his modern interpreters never tire of pointing out, though, Smith was far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. Instead, he was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests, and he recognized—to a greater degree than Hume, as a matter of fact—a number of potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. It’s truly remarkable that two thinkers of this stature were best friends for most of their adult lives; that’s a big part of what inspired me to write the book.

It’s certainly remarkable that they were best friends, but you go so far as to claim that theirs was the greatest of all philosophical friendships. That’s a big claim.
Yes, it is, but I think it’s a warranted one. In fact, it takes some effort to think of who the closest rivals would be. During the course of writing the book this became something of a parlor game that I played with fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy? Most people’s first instinct is to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The leading contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

You suggest that the context in which Hume and Smith’s friendship took place was almost as remarkable as the friendship itself; can you say a bit more about that?
Hume and Smith were the leading figures of what’s now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement. Some of the important men of letters of the period, in addition to Hume and Smith, included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. This Scottish renaissance also comprised natural scientists like the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramsay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. Hume and Smith knew all of these figures personally, and they each play a role in the book. I also describe their encounters with some of the luminaries of the age beyond Scotland, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire.

Did Hume and Smith influence one another’s ideas and writings, in addition to being close friends on a personal level?
Hume was almost certainly the single greatest influence on Smith’s thought. There are numerous references to him, both explicit and implicit, throughout Smith’s writings. The reverse is less true, as Hume—the older of the two by a dozen years—had composed almost all of his works before Smith even began to publish his, though Hume did write an anonymous review of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, soon after its release. That’s not to say, however, that Smith simply adopted Hume’s views wholesale. On the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. The book explores where and how Smith drew on his friend’s thought and where and how he challenged it on a host of topics, including morality, economics, politics, religion, and the workings of the human mind more broadly.

What’s the significance of the title—why The Infidel and the Professor?
One of the running themes of the book is that Hume and Smith adopted broadly similar views, but very different public postures, toward religion and the religious. Hume was a religious skeptic; he never denied outright the existence of a higher power, but he deemed the principal arguments on behalf of one highly implausible, and he considered the effects of religion to be mostly pernicious. This will be somewhat controversial, but I argue that Smith’s views on this score were substantially closer to Hume’s—that is, substantially more skeptical—than is usually assumed. In making this case I place a special emphasis on a controversial public letter that Smith wrote soon after Hume’s death in which he chronicled—some would say flaunted—the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days and described his unbelieving friend as a paragon of wisdom and virtue. Whereas Hume was fairly forthright about his lack of faith, however, Smith generally went to great lengths, in both his writings and his personal life, to avoid revealing his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). These contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations: Hume was christened “the Great Infidel” and was deemed unfit to teach the young—he twice sought professorships, but in both cases the clergy opposed his candidacy decisively—while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy.

Does the book break any other new ground?
The literatures on Hume and Smith taken individually are vast, but this is—nearly unbelievably—the first book on the two of them considered together, so it’s easily the fullest account of their personal and intellectual relationship. On a related note, the book also provides the first systematic treatment of Smith’s responses to Hume’s thought over the course of his entire career, from his early essay on the history of astronomy (which was written by 1746) through the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (which was published in 1790). Still further, the book aims to shift the usual assumptions regarding what’s original and important in Hume’s and Smith’s writings. For much of the twentieth century Smith’s philosophical writings were deemed to be little more than a series of footnotes to Hume’s, and as an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he is taken notice of at all. Ironically, putting the two side by side serves to highlight the importance of Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy and Hume’s to political economy. Smith followed Hume in developing a moral theory based on human sentiments, but his version of moral sentimentalism incorporated several significant improvements on Hume’s. Conversely, Hume argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared, and it’s striking how much of that work builds on Hume’s insights.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

Yuri Slezkine on The House of Government

Slezkine The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Read on to learn more about the House, the book, and why the Bolsheviks can be considered a millenarian sect.

What gave you the idea to write this book?

YS: I grew up in Moscow, in a communal apartment (an apartment that contained several unrelated families, each occupying one room and sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and hallway). About twenty years ago, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a history of the Soviet Union through the history of one such apartment. Tracking down different families and their archives proved difficult, however, and I kept moving from one building to the next until I ended up in the largest and most famous of them all, the House of Government.

What was the House of Government?

YS: It was the apartment building where most top members of the Soviet Government lived in the 1930s. It was located in a low-lying area called “the Swamp,” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe and a model of socialist domesticity, it combined 550 fully furnished family apartments with public spaces including a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, child-care center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, theater, movie theater, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals). It is still there today, next to Swamp Square and across the river from the Kremlin—still a house, but no longer “of government.” Most Muscovites know it as a huge, sinister gray building—the last address of the founders of the Soviet state and the subject of Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novella, The House on the Embankment.

Is The House of Government a history of that building?

YS: It is a history of the building and of the men, women, and children who lived there. It begins with the Old Bolsheviks’ conversion to communism, culminates in their execution for treason, and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the original revolutionaries and their families.

 In what sense is it a “saga?”

YS: It is an epic prose narrative with multiple heroic characters and, at the same time, a history of particular families over several generations. The reason an apartment building is a perfect subject for a book about the revolution is that all radical attempts to transform human life are ultimately assaults on the family (the oldest and most conservative of human institutions). Family apartments were places where Bolsheviks came home and the revolution came to die. Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. My book is about how and why that happened.

Why millenarian?

YS: Because, in my view, the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect. They believed in Providence (which they called History), the fatal corruption of the world (which they called “the last stage of capitalism”), the approaching apocalypse (which they called Revolution) and the more or less immediate—”in this generation”—collective salvation leading to the Millennium (which they called Communism).

Their prophecy was analogous to those of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Mormonism, Nazism, Rastafarianism, and the Branch Davidians, among many others, but the Bolsheviks were more successful than most because they took over Babylon while still expecting the disappearance of the old world in their lifetimes (Christianity did not become the empire’s official faith until the wait for the Last Days had become routinized). It is as if the Fifth Monarchists, the most radical of the nonconformist dissenters, had won the English Civil War and formed a Puritan International. Or as if Jim Jones had installed himself in the White House, renamed the United States the People’s Temple, and won the civil war he had done so much to bring about.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in casting out the moneychangers and collectivizing most worldly possessions, but they failed the test of disappointment. All end-of-the-world prophecies have so far proven false. Some millenarian sects have managed to cross the succession threshold, institutionalize themselves as churches with hereditary membership, and turn the revelation into an allegory and the promise of “till Kingdom come” into a synonym of “till the cows come home.” Others—the overwhelming majority—have disappeared, more or less violently, along with the first generation of believers.

The Bolsheviks’ failure was almost as spectacular as their success. They built a great empire but never figured out how to penetrate the home and reform the family. Their faith remained silent on the mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and the Babylon they conquered proved more durable than they did. A hundred years after the fall of the Winter Palace, Russia is back, and the Bolsheviks are all gone.

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books includeThe Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.