Eléna Rivera on her new collection, Scaffolding

RiveraEléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.


Why the sonnet?

ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?

ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.

Is that why your sonnets are dated?

ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.

I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?

ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).

So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?

ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.

Do you think of yourself as European or French then?

ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.

About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?

ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.

Why poetry?

ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).

Eléna Rivera is a poet and a translator. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times and many others. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land. Her  ranslation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Rivera was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She currently resides in New York City.

An interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

Solving last week’s L.A. Math challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I give up. What’s innumeracy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fee? What fee?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haven’t you forgotten something?”

I turned around. “I give up. What?”

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

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

What made you include this particular idea in the book?

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

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

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

Anna Frebel on the search for the oldest stars

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

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

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

What is your biggest discovery?

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

Why do people say we are made from stardust?

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

How did you decide to become a scientist?

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

What kind of telescope is used for your astronomical observations?

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

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

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

Are you traveling to any telescopes?

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

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

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

What does a typical night at the telescope look like?

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

Did anything ever go wrong at the telescopes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Denny discusses Ecological Mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the scope of the subject matter?

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

What tools will I take away from reading Ecological Mechanics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

An interview with Nicholas Higham on The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics

Higham jacket

We are excited to be running a series of posts on applied mathematics by Nicholas Higham over the next few weeks. Higham is editor of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics, new this month. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book, and where the field is headed. Read his popular first post on color in mathematics here.

What is Applied Mathematics?

NH: There isn’t any generally agreed definition, but I rather like Lord Rayleigh’s comment that applied mathematics is about using mathematics to solve real-world problems “neither seeking nor avoiding mathematical difficulties”. This means that in applied mathematics we don’t go out of our way to consider special cases that will never arise in practice, but equally we do not sidestep genuine difficulties.

What is the purpose of The Companion?

NH: The Companion is intended to give an overview of the main areas of applied mathematics, to give examples of particular problems and connections with other areas, and to explain what applied mathematicians do—which includes writing, teaching, and promoting mathematics as well as studying the subject. The coverage of the book is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is certainly very broad and I hope that everyone from undergraduate students and mathematically interested lay readers to professionals in mathematics and related subjects will find it useful.

What is an example of something aspect of applied mathematics that you’ve learned while editing the book?

NH: Applied mathematics is a big subject and so there are many articles on topics outside my particular areas of expertise. A good example concerns applications of computational fluid dynamics in sport. An article by Nicola Parolini and Alfio Quarteroni describes the mathematical modeling of yachts for the America’s cup. The designer wishes to minimize water resistance on the hull and maximize the thrust produced by the sails. Numerical computations allow designs to be simulated without building and testing them. The article also describes mathematical modeling of the hi-tech swimsuits that are now banned from competition. The model enables the benefit of the suits on race times to be estimated.

The Companion is about 1000 pages. How would advise people to read the book.

NH: The book has a logical structure, with eight parts ranging from introductory material in Part I, the main areas of applied mathematics in Part IV (the longest part), through to broader essays in the final part. It is a good idea to start by reading some of the articles in Part I, especially if you are less familiar with the subject. But a perfectly sensible alternative approach is to select articles of interest from the table of contents, read them, and follow cross-references. Or, you can just choose a random article and start reading—or simply follow interesting index entries! We worked very hard on the cross-references and index so an unstructured approach to reading should lead you around the book and allow you to discover a lot of relevant material.

What was the hardest thing about editing The Companion?

NH: The hardest aspect of the project was ensuring that it was completed in a reasonable time-frame. With 165 authors it’s hard to keep track of everything and to to ensure that drafts, revisions, and corrected proofs are delivered on time.

How much of the book did you write?

NH: I wrote about 100 of the 1000 pages. This was great fun, but it was some of the hardest writing I’ve done. The reason is partly that I was sometimes writing about topics that I don’t normally write about. But it was also because Companion articles are quite different from the papers I’m used to writing: they should have a minimal number of equations and formal statements of theorems, lots of diagrams and illustrations, and no citations (just Further Reading at the end of the article).

How did you choose the cover?

NH: We considered many different ideas. But after a lot of thought we settled on the motor boat picture, which captures the important topics of fluid mechanics, waves, and ocean, all of which are covered in the book in a number of articles.

What is the most unexpected article?

NH: Perhaps the article Mediated Mathematics: Representations of Mathematics in Popular Culture and Why These Matter by sociologist of education Heather Mendick. She discusses the way mathematics is represented in numerous TV shows and films.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a mathematician?

NH: I’d be playing a Hammond B3 organ in a jazz or blues band. I’m a keen musician and played keyboards semi-professionally for many years, starting in my teens.

How did you go about organizing the book?

NH: I recruited five Associate Editors with expertise in different areas and we met and planned out the eight parts of the book and the articles, along with a list of authors to invite. We looked for authors who are leading international experts in their field and are at the same time excellent expositors. Signing up the 165 authors was quite a long process. We were able to find authors for almost every article, so just a very small number had to be dropped. In some cases the authors suggested changes of content or emphasis that we were happy to agree with.

What range of readers is The Companion aimed at?

NH: The target audience for The Companion is very broad. It includes mathematicians at undergraduate level or above, students, researchers, and professionals in other subjects who use mathematics, and mathematically interested lay readers. Some articles will also be accessible to students studying mathematics at pre-university level.

Why not just seek information online? Why is there a need for a book?

NH: When Princeton University Press asked me to edit The Companion they told me that reference books still have great value. Many people have trouble navigating the vast amount of information available online and so the need for carefully curated thematic reference works, written by high calibre authors, is as great as ever. So PUP’s experience is that print is definitely not dead, and indeed my own experience is that I have many books in PDF form on my computer, but if I want to read them seriously I use a hard copy.

How have you ensured that the book will not go out of date quickly?

NH: This was a major consideration. This was a five and a half year project and we wanted to make sure that the book will still be relevant 10, 20, or 50 years from now. To do that we were careful to choose articles on topics that have proven long-term value and are not likely to be of short-term interest. This is not to say that we don’t cover some relatively new, hot topics. For example, there are articles on compressed sensing (recovering sparse, high-dimensional data from a small number of indirect measurements) and on cloaking (hiding an object from an observer who is using electromagnetic, or other, forms of imaging, as in Harry Potter or Romulan space ships in Star Trek), both of which are areas that have grown tremendously in the last decade.

What sort of overview of applied mathematics does the book give?

NH: Applied mathematics is a huge subject, so we cannot cover everything in 1000 pages. We have tried to include the main areas of research as well as key underlying concepts, key equations, function and laws, as well as lots of example of applied mathematics problems. The examples range from the flight of a golf ball, to robotics, to ranking web pages. We also cover the use of applied mathematics in other disciplines such as engineering, biology, computer science, and physics. Indeed the book also has a significant mathematical physics component.

Where is the field going?

NH: Prior to the 20th century, applied mathematics was driven by problems in astronomy and mechanics. In the 20th century physics became the main driver, with other areas such as biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, and medicine also providing many challenging mathematical problems from the 1950s onwards. With the massive and still growing amounts of data available to us in today’s digital society information, in its many guises, will be an increasingly important influence on applied mathematics in the 21st century.

To what extent does The Companion discuss the history of applied mathematics?

NH: We have an excellent 25-page article in Part I titled The History of Applied Mathematics by historians of mathematics June Barrow-Green and Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze. Many articles contain historical information and anecdotes. So while The Companion looks to the future it also gives an appreciation of the history of the subject.

How do you see the connections between applied mathematics and other disciplines developing?

NH: Applied mathematics is becoming ever more interdisciplinary. Many articles in The Companion illustrate this. For example,

  • various facets of imaging feature in several articles, including those on compressed sensing, medical imaging, radar, and airport baggage screening,
  • the article on max-plus algebras shows how what may seem like an esoteric area of pure mathematics has applications to all kinds of scheduling processes,
  • the article on the spread of infectious diseases shows the value of mathematical models in epidemiology,
  • several articles show how mathematics can be used to help understand the earth’s weather and climate, focusing on topics such as weather prediction, tsunamis, and sea ice.

What are you thoughts on the role of computing in applied mathematics?

NH: Computation has been a growing aspect of applied mathematics ever since the first stored program computer was invented here in Manchester. More and more it is the case that numerical computations and simulations are used in tandem with, or even in place of, the classical analysis that relies just on pen and paper. What I find particularly interesting is that while the needs of mathematics and of science in general have, naturally, influenced the development of computers and programming languages, there have been influences in the other direction. For example, the notation for the ceiling and floor functions that map a real number to the next larger or smaller integer, respectively, was first introduced in the programming language APL.

Of course numerical computations are expressed in terms of algorithms, and algorithms are ubiquitous in applied mathematics, and strongly represented in the book.

Do you have any views on ensuring the correctness of work in applied mathematics?

NH: As the problems we solve become every more complicated, and the computations we perform run for longer and longer, questions about the correctness of our results become more important. Applied mathematicians have always been good at estimating answers, perhaps by an asymptotic analysis, so we usually know roughly what the answer should look like and we may be able to spot gross errors. Several particular aspects of treating correctness are covered in The Companion.

Uncertainty quantification is about understanding how uncertainties in the data of a problem affect the solution. It’s particularly important because often we don’t know the problem data exactly—for example, in analyzing groundwater flow we don’t know the exact structure of what lies under the ground and so have to make statistical assumptions, and we want to know how these impact the computed flows.

A different aspect of correctness concerns the reproducibility of our computations and treats issues such as whether another scientist can reproduce our results and whether a computation on a high-performance computer will produce exactly the same answer when the computation is repeated.

All of these issues are covered in multiple articles in the book.

Nicholas J. Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester. Mark R. Dennis is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Bristol. Paul Glendinning is professor of applied mathematics at The University of Manchester. Paul A. Martin is professor of applied mathematics at the Colorado School of Mines. Fadil Santosa is professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. Jared Tanner is professor of the mathematics of information at the University of Oxford.

An interview with Louise Fresco on “Hamburgers in Paradise”

Fresco JacketIn Louise Fresco’s new book, Hamburgers in Paradise, the term “Paradise”, in her own words, is “a metaphor that refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production.” It is a view shared by many in a world simultaneously plagued by food shortages and GMO fears. In such a climate, is there room for optimism? Fresco looks at our food situation in all its complexity, taking the stance that there is no one perfect way to produce or consume food, and that balance and trade-offs between different goals are central to any long term solution. You can see her TED talk here, and the English subtitled version to a documentary she made about the food industry here. Recently Fresco took some time to answer some questions about her book.

What’s new in this book?

LF: Human history has been one of continuous scarcity. The abundance of food that has emerged for the majority of the world population in the last decades is so unique that we have not yet learnt to deal with it. We are still scared that there will not be enough, and that we will destroy our environment. Scarcity is our default mode, and that of our bodies, hence our difficulties to balance our diets and to reduce our ecological footprint. Abundance is a triumph of science and trade; it allows us to shed our fears of shortages. But the book argues that we require new ways of thinking, to reign in our needs (for example of meat) while producing food sustainably for all, with new methods (for example through recycling or using algae). The book demonstrates in detail that there is not one perfect way to produce and consume food, but that we always have to balance the trade-offs between different goals, such as large scale production (i.e. low food prices) and biodiversity. What is best depends on our goals and our insight in unintended side effects (we may like to see free roaming chickens but they may be more prone to disease that way).

Can you explain the title Hamburgers in Paradise?

LF: The title refers to a thought experiment: if Eve were alive today, what food would she offer Adam as a temptation? Paradise as a metaphor also refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production. These semi-conscious images of a pre-Industrial and idealized past are still guiding many of our reactions to modernization. The hamburger, of course, is the iconic food that symbolizes the rise of the modern middle class, from suburban America to places like Moscow or Mumbai, as well as the critical counterforces: slow food, vegetarian and organic products. The hamburger illustrates also the adaptation to new demands: fat and salt contents have been lowered, information on calories and nutritional values are published, wrappings are made of recycled materials and advertising to children is limited. In the most recent twist of history, the hamburger becomes popular once again in upper class restaurants, dipped in liquid Nitrogen, or in a vegetarian reincarnation.

Food is the source of much confusion today, we hear so many, contradictory stories about what we must or mustn’t eat and why. What is the reason for this confusion?

LF: Food and agriculture are the basis human survival. Food conjures up strong feelings, based on individual memories, strict convictions and long traditions, especially in times of rapid modernization. Many people, even in rural areas, are hardly aware of how food is really produced and how it lands on their plates. Nearly all of us rely on others, often far away, to feed us. Ignorance and dependency make us feel vulnerable and worried about food.

But we can also turn this around: behind every meal there is a story, one that is nearly always fascinating and often complex, but always worth telling. Food connects us with the past and the future.

Is there room for optimism?

LF: With current knowledge, we can feed nine or ten billion people quite easily. This doesn’t mean that there is no world food problem. Even if enough food can be produced this is not easy and more production does not mean food reaches people automatically. The current gap between actual and attainable yields is still enormous. At the same time, agricultural research and innovation continue to be needed to tackle specific problems of animal and plant diseases, poor soils and climate variation. The application of existing knowledge is hampered by poor infrastructure, unavailability of irrigation or fertilizer, dysfunctional markets and policy.

Food shortage is more a matter of distribution than just production. Hunger is caused by poverty, so creating employment is essential. The great improvements in agricultural production since the 1970s have benefitted the urban poor more than the rural poor. These improvements involve higher yields, through better agricultural techniques such as irrigation, leading to lower food prices that benefit those who buy food (those living in cities), while farmers selling foods are at a disadvantage. Today more than 850 million people go hungry and perhaps as many as 2 billion may lack balanced nutrition. Most of the hungry live in areas of civil war or frequent natural disasters, so peace and resettlement are priorities.

There seems to be much concern about Genetically Modified Organisms, is this concern justified?

LF: This is a very complex issue about which it is impossible to generalize and about which there are many misunderstandings. For example, if cows are fed genetically modified soy bean, their milk does not become genetically modified, even if some people fear this. The modified genes and cells do not survive the gut. What the effects and risks are depends very much on what crop or animal, what genes are used for what purpose and where. Certain problems, for example diseases in banana, can only be tackled with biotechnology, a large toolkit which does not necessarily result in GMOs. There are two types of risk, for human and animal health. While we need to continue to monitor the situation, there are no indications that GM crops lead to additional food related risks in human beings or animals. So far, there are no indications of environment effects (such as insect mortality or genes “escaping “), but ecosystems are complex and difficult to monitor. Finally, there is also the issue of intellectual property rights: while a fair reward is needed for the companies developing the biotechnology or GMOs, we must also make sure that farmers and scientists and breeders elsewhere can keep access to varieties or breeds. Here the U.S. and EU legislation and traditions do not coincide.

What about chemical inputs such as fertilizer. Are we not destroying the land?

LF: Plants and animals need food just as we do. These nutrients come nearly exclusively from the soil (and through water, transported from soils elsewhere). Only very few soils can sustain production for long periods and their nutrient reserve needs to be built up through other sources of nutrients. Whilst manure from animals can be used for this, this does not solve the problem, it just means that animals have to graze somewhere from where they take up the nutrients. Almost without exception agriculture requires fertilizer to be sustainable. Fertilizer has a bad name mainly because it has been overused in the past with detrimental effects on surface water, but in itself, if wisely used, it is a blessing. More land is depleted through lack of fertilizer than is affected through its use.

Is fast food the source of all evils?

LF: Fast food is part of a complex process of transformation of society: greater mobility, work pressures, urbanization, diversification through trade, smaller and singe households, greater affluence of young, ubiquitous equipment like microwaves and fridges people all lead to out of home eating and pre-packed meals. As with all foods, it is not the individual item that is “bad” but the pattern. Eating fast food from time to time is acceptable in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, fast food often contains too many calories and we should be concerned if there are no other options, In so-called food deserts, neighbourhoods devoid of shops selling vegetables, fast food is often the recourse for single parents.

What type of agriculture is most sustainable?

LF: There is no blueprint for an agricultural model that fits all situations. Agriculture is the art of the location-specific and always depends on soils, climate, geography, culture and economics. Agriculture is forever changing, adapting to new consumer demands and new technology. However, using resources as efficiently as possible is essential to avoid wasting labour, water, land, fertilizer, seeds or animals as well as reducing post harvest losses in the entire value chain. Efficiency is often misunderstood as large-scale and anonymous, but it applies at all scales. No farmer can afford to waste resources, nor can we as humanity. The World will need 50% more calories in 2030.

Would the world be better off if all meat would be prohibited?

LF: No, meat is necessary for certain groups such as pregnant and lactating women, children, the elderly and sick and of course the malnourished. Meat is not only a source of proteins but also of essential nutrients such as iron and certain vitamins (B12). Humans evolved as omnivores; vegetarians, even in India, have always been a small minority. Also, there are areas in the world where nothing else can be produced but grazing land and animals. The growth in demand for meat and fish is expected to increase faster than the growth in population, especially in Asia and Africa.

However, there are major problems associated with meat production: environmental (water, emissions, production and transportation of feed) veterinary public health, human health (diseases associated with high red meat intake and overuse of antibiotics) as well as animal welfare. These can all be solved with adequate research and regulation. Reducing meat consumption through substitution of animal proteins in healthy individuals in affluent societies is part of that.

Louise O. Fresco is president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. The author of several books, she is a member of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize and has worked extensively in developing countries for many years. She lives in Amsterdam.

An interview with Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of BEYOND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Beyond Religious FreedomWhat’s at stake when governments set the standards for religious practice? Policymakers in North America and Europe regularly advocate abroad for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and protections for religious minorities. But what is the real outcome of such intervention? In her new book, Beyond Religious Freedom, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd makes the case that such policies actually create more social tensions and divisions than they resolve. Recently she took some time to talk with us about her book, and why international relations got religion wrong.

What prompted you to write this book? Is it part of a wider conversation or series of conversations?

EH: Beyond Religious Freedom is an attempt to think differently about religion in relation to law and governance on a global scale. In the field of religion and international affairs there’s been a gold-rush mentality lately as scholars scurry to ‘get religion right’ – but I find many of these efforts to be confused and even troubling. The problem, as I noted in a recent piece for The Monkey Cage, is that international relations got religion but got it wrong. Beyond Religious Freedom develops an alternative that neither celebrates religion for its allegedly peaceful potential nor condemns it for its allegedly violent tendencies. It proposes a new framework for the study of religion, law, and governance.

The book brings together conversations from a range of sources, including on the politics of international human rights and the European Court’s jurisprudence; the study of contemporary religion; law and the legalization of religious difference; Turkish and Alevi studies; and debates over religion and religious freedom, and the politics of religious outreach and toleration programming in US and European foreign policy. These are topics that haven’t been brought together before in this way, and I think together they contribute in important ways to an effort to better understand the intersection of religion and global politics today.

How would you describe the challenges facing scholars of religion and global politics?

EH: Today there’s a disjuncture between how religion is lived in the world around us and the way many scholars are writing about it. A wave of scholars has been working overtime trying to identify precisely the contribution of religion to world affairs and to control religion for certain political ends. That is a world apart from the way religion is lived by people, the myriad and complex ways in which religion is interwoven and entangled with how they live their lives and get through the day, individually and collectively. There’s a deep disconnect between these two, and the scholars are missing the reality of lived religion as they construct their theories and models.

To sort this out, I distinguish in the book between expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion. This framework provides the backbone of my argument. Expert religion is religion as construed by those who generate what is understood to be policy-relevant knowledge about religion, including scholars and other experts. Lived religion is religion as practiced by ordinary individuals and groups as they interact with a variety of religious authorities, rituals, texts, and institutions and seek to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world. Official or governed religion is religion as construed by those in positions of political and religious power. This includes states, often through the law, but also supranational courts, governing entities such as the European Union, a range of international and nongovernmental organizations, and also churches and other religious organizations.

Can religion be treated as it if were a coherent and stable variable?

EH: It can’t. We cannot ignore religion by collapsing it into other domains of social life or reducing it to allegedly more fundamental social, economic, or political variables. Nor can we rely on a singular, trans-historical, and transcultural notion of religion as a freestanding descriptive and analytical category. That is, religion cannot be treated as if it were a differentiable quantity that can influence society and politics without being merged into it and shaped by it. We need other ways between and beyond these two extremes. The challenge, then, is to devise new ways to ‘normalize’ religion, neither absorbing it fully into the political nor allowing it to stand apart from history.

International relations theory and practice has a way to go on this front. I’ve been struck by the strangely persistent, almost ritualistic alternation in this field between the naïve celebration of religion as the source of morality, community, and freedom, and the simultaneous denigration of religion as the root of all global instability. Robert Orsi has described this as the ‘agenda of reassurance’ and the ‘agenda of surveillance.’ These agendas have real world consequences: in the first case, governmental support for and deference to religious “authorities,” self-identified and/or created by religious experts; in the second, the dangerous politics of national and international religious surveillance, discipline, and reform. My book criticizes these practices and trends.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

EH: You never know what readers will find in a book. I’d like to see a shift in how scholars and pundits talk and write about global situations and problems that are described as essentially ‘religious’ in nature. This doesn’t make sense given that religion does not stand apart from history. Instead of asking, “why are Burmese Buddhists persecuting religious minorities such as the Rohingya?” we should ask, what factors—economic, political, social, religious, geographical, and so on—are enabling the comprehensive exclusion of the Rohingya from Burmese society? What’s the role of the state and other interests, including powerful monks’ organizations such as 969, in these processes? Who benefits from framing this as a matter of religious difference, and as a problem of religious freedom, and what do we lose sight of in that framing? The book urges readers to adopt a critical sensibility when they see terms like religious conflict, religious minority, religious violence, religious freedom, or even religious diversity and religious pluralism. The idea is to take a step back and think about what it means to describe a conflict or a situation as ‘religious,’ and whether it might be advisable to broaden the lens to see a bigger picture in which religion is entangled in a host of economic, social, ethnic, political, and legal formations. Religion is a deeply intersected category.

Were you influenced by the media and scholarly frenzy surrounding religion?

EH: I tried to distance myself from that, and the sense of urgency to locate a solution and prescribe the right policy. I’ve come to believe that what’s needed right now is something rather different. I hope this comes across to readers. What if we lower the volume of these conversations? Is there a register in which one can speak, teach, and write about religion and politics that neither prescribes nor proscribes? Is it possible to work toward understanding lived political-religious realities while resisting the urge to normative closure? Can we remain open to epistemologies and ontologies that may cast doubt on modern certainties such as the supremacy of secular law, the indispensability of international human rights and freedoms, and the primacy of the so-called free market? I’m drawn to new work that embodies this sensibility and hope in my future work to convey its significance for global politics and public life.

One of the main points of the book, starting with the prologue, is that narratives of Christian persecution need to be reconsidered. What about Christians in the Middle East today who are suffering as a result of their religious identity? Don’t you leave them in the lurch?

EH: Religious freedom and religious rights are often presented as the default solution to the challenges of living together in a diverse and globalizing world – as a device for stopping conflict and ending oppression. But the reality is far more complex.

In Birds Without Wings, a novel set in rural Anatolia during WWI, there is a dialogue between two childhood friends, Mehmetçik, who is Muslim, and Karatavuk, who is Christian. That distinction has only recently come to make a difference in their lives. On the eve of Mehmetçik’s departure to join Atatürk’s forces, the two boys discuss their predicament: “Ah, my friend, my friend,” [Karatavuk] said, drawing back and thumping his chest, “I have a heavy feeling in here. I feel as if I have a stone in my heart. I wonder what’ll become of us all.” “I think we’ll be divided,” said Mehmetçik sadly. “Suddenly it matters that I am a Christian, where it mattered only a little before.”

Beyond Religious Freedom is, among other things, an attempt to understand some of the modern legal and political processes that contribute to situations where it matters—often in a life and death sense—that one is a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, or an atheist. These situations do not just fall out of the sky. They are created in history. They involve intertwined socio-legal, religious, and political processes in which particular identities, often construed by the state and others in positions of power, shape subjectivities and collectivities, forms of sociality, and public and political relations and institutions. It is important to study each of these varied histories in their own right.

The politics of religious freedom are often at play in such histories. Modes of governance that rely on stabilizing ‘religion’ as an object of law and governance draw and naturalize the boundaries between religions, and between religion and non-religion, exacerbating the very social tensions they are intended to mitigate. When governments take up religious freedom, it requires that they discriminate: which “religions” are protected and how, and which individuals and communities have which religious rights enshrined in law. This places states and the religious freedom advocates who seek to mobilize them in the position of determining what counts as a legitimate religious practice, right, or community, granting the latter special status above the others. It thus gives governments more tools for disempowering those whom it dislikes, disagrees with, or refuses to recognize, creating political and legal spaces and institutions in which state-sponsored religious distinctions are not only inevitable but also publicly and politically salient.

What are your thoughts on those who make legal claims relying on the language of international religious freedom?

EH: I don’t pass judgment. As I emphasize throughout the book, there are strong legal incentives today that make claims to religious freedom efficacious. Individuals and groups can and should use all means at their disposal to make the best of difficult circumstances. My point is different. It is that in the long run we need to think about the kind of world we create when we legalize religious difference—in part through the promotion and legalization of religious freedom—and naturalize those distinctions. I argue that these efforts generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it. This leads to a politics defined by religious difference, favors forms of religion authorized by those in power, and excludes other ways of being and belonging.

Therefore, the issue is not of being pro- or anti-religious freedom. Instead, my book asks, what are the effects of constructing a legal regime around ‘religious freedom’ and a discursive world around that. Does this advance or impede efforts to live together across deep lines of difference? Advocates of religious freedom presume that the answer is self-evident and affirmative. Along with a number of others, I see it as much more complex, and the outcome as much less utopian.

What would you have been if not a political scientist?

EH: Definitely a caterer. When I was in college I worked for a caterer in Boston, and we had a booth at Chowderfest and catered several weddings. I loved it. I would specialize in pies, cakes, and tarts. The minute I finished this book and had a moment to catch my breath this summer, I started making tarts. I’ve thought about making an offer: if you buy both books that just came out, I’ll come over to your house and bake you a cake.

Read chapter 1 here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton) and the coeditor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age and Politics of Religious Freedom.

An interview with Daniel Schlozman, author of WHEN MOVEMENTS ANCHOR PARTIES

When Movements Anchor PartiesWhy is it that some social movements, such as organized labor and the Christian Right, have forged powerful alliances with political parties, while others, such as the antiwar movement, have not? When Movements Anchor Parties answers this question by looking at five prominent movements and their relationships with political parties, offering a new interpretation of electoral history. Recently, Daniel Schlozman took the time to answer some questions about his new book:

Tell me a bit about the book.

DS: When Movements Anchor Parties is about five social movements across American history that confronted American political parties. Two movements forged long-running alliances with parties: organized labor with the Democrats starting in the New Deal years and the Christian Right with the Republicans starting in the late 1970s. Two movements couldn’t make alliance work, and basically collapsed: the Populists in the 1880s and 1890s and the antiwar movement in the 1960s. And finally the abolitionist movement got inside the Republican Party but, as Reconstruction fell apart, couldn’t stay inside the party.

What’s your argument?

DS: The book does three things at once. First, it narrates the stories of these alliances and would-be alliances. And those stories go a long way to getting us our polarized politics. So much of what we’re arguing about today, about race, about wealth, about work, about war, about values, and so much of what’s politically possible or not, goes back to these confrontations between parties and movements.

Second, and more analytically, the book offers a framework to make sense of why movements do – or do not – get inside parties. Basically parties accept movements inside their coalitions if they prefer them to other paths to majority. Movements need to convince pragmatists inside parties that they’ll be a good electoral bet, and that they won’t upset the apple cart and disrupt the rest of party coalition too much. So movements have got to offer resources to parties that they can’t get elsewhere – votes, and the money, time, and networks needed to get votes. In return, parties will deliver policy for their group allies. That’s the exchange that makes alliance work. But it’s a tall order.

And finally, it’s a new way to understand big moments in American political history – what a prior generation called realignments. At all these major turning points – 1860, 1896, 1936, 1968, 1980 – came a major social movement making once-radical demands. As the parties responded, coalitions shifted, and possibilities opened and closed.

Why did you decide to examine cases across time rather than place?

DS: Comparisons of parties and movements across countries – and I draw on a long, rich tradition of them – almost invariably end up in the same place: that the United States is more or less exceptional given our history and our unique political system. So I flipped the question around. The book deliberately compares across American history and all the way across the ideological spectrum. I wanted to show similarities in apparently dissimilar cases. In different guises and with different results depending on the circumstances, movements with radically divergent priorities have faced common challenges in the American political system. For activists, or scholars of a particular movement or period, who read the book, I hope that’s eye-opening – and maybe even a little uncomfortable.

What advice would you offer to movements as they think about how to win influence inside the party system?

DS: Let’s be clear: When Movements Anchor Parties is not a how-to, but I think there are lessons. Above all, build movement organization. Without a sustained movement that can register its supporters and bring them to the polls, and then do the same for their friends and neighbors and coworkers and fellow congregants, parties will ignore movements’ demands, and mobilize directly. And the key movement-building is face-to-face contact, stitched together with leaders who understand national politics. Now, there’s a question about new technology here. We know that social media can mobilize, but how can they help build organization to last? We’ll see, but I’m skeptical that the hashtag can replace the basement meeting hall with folding chairs.

Another lesson, one that movements won’t want to hear: the most radical activists are a double-edged sword. They’re the most dedicated, tireless organizers, the ones who really expand the boundaries of the possible, but they’re sometimes beyond the pale for parties that want to win national majorities. So the price of alliance, the price of shifting possibilities in the political system as a whole, is often jettisoning those radicals. That’s not a normative statement; it’s just a repeated historical fact that comes through, especially for movements on the left. If you want to read the book as an argument for moderation over maximalism, I certainly won’t stop you.

The movement that gets this best – it’s not in the book, but, again, the lessons are clear – is for immigrants’ rights. They’ve organized hard in communities across the country, using a variety of tactics, and they’ve coalesced behind a clear set of ideas that they’ve made politically palatable. The Democratic Party looks at this bloc of voters and future voters, and sees majorities long down the line, but gets that it won’t win them without appealing to immigrants on their issues. Look at what Obama finally did on DACA, and what Hillary Clinton, who was much quieter on the issue in 2008, has proposed to do beyond that.

You were a local party activist yourself in Massachusetts for awhile. How did that experience influence the book?

DS: American parties are coalitions of really disparate groups trying to win elections and wield power together, and I saw that up close. I’d go to the Mass. Democratic conventions in Lowell or Worcester, and watch all these different tribes. It was my lefty-wonky crowd from Cambridge; the Irish backslappers; unions – the building trades, the SEIU in purple t-shirts, the teachers; the earnest suburban liberals straight from Lily Geismer’s book, with their resolutions about recycling; business types, who’d sponsor receptions. And the book is all about how movements do or do not get, in a quite literal sense, to take their seats at party conventions.

Also, procedure is the lifeblood of party politics, and I got pretty good with Robert’s Rules. That was really helpful as I did my research.

Tell me about the cover.

DS: As something of a busman’s holiday, I collect political buttons. They’re wonderful ways to tell the story – the stories, really – of American political history, and I was delighted to take four of my buttons out of their Riker mounts and photograph them for the cover. Somebody wrote a novel recently entirely in emojis. Maybe someday I’ll write a long complicated book about American political development with no words – only buttons.

Read the introduction here.

Daniel Schlozman is assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Ellen McLarney talks about SOFT FORCE on ISLAMiCommentary

In the years preceding Arab Spring, when Mubarak’s authoritarian regime fell from power, Muslim women took a leading role in developing an Islamist presence in Egypt’s public sphere. Their success in opposing secular dictatorship hinged on their use of something called “soft force”, a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest.

ISLAMiCommentary, a web forum for public scholarship based at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, recently interviewed Princeton University Press author Ellen McLarney about her new book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening.

From the book’s introduction:

Soft Force jacketOne of the most visible public faces of the 2011 revolution in Egypt was Asmaʾ Mahfouz, a young woman who posted a video blog on Facebook calling for the January 25 protest in Tahrir Square “so that maybe we the country can become free, can become a country with justice, a country with dignity, a country in which a human can be truly human, not living like an animal.” She describes a stark imbalance of power: a lone girl standing against the security apparatus of the state. When she initially went out to demonstrate, only three other people came to join her. They were met with vans full of security forces, “tens of thugs” (balṭagiyyīn) that menaced the small band of protesters. Talking about her fear (ruʿb), she epitomizes the voice of righteous indignation against the Goliath of an abusive military regime. “I am a girl,” she says, “and I went down.” The skinny, small, pale girl bundled up in her winter scarf and sweater speaks clearly and forcefully, despite a slight speech impediment, rallying a political community to action against tyrannical rule. Mahfouz’s vlog is not necessarily famous for actually sparking the revolution, as some have claimed in the revolution’s aftermath. Rather, she visually embodies and vocally advocates what the Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat calls “softforce,”al-­quwwa­al-n­āʿima.

You can watch the interview here:

Read the full article here.

Ellen McLarney is assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University.

An interview with Robert Wuthnow on his forthcoming book, IN THE BLOOD

Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD

Robert Wuthnow, Princeton sociologist and author of IN THE BLOOD

You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?

RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.

Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?

RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.

In the Blood jacketApart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.

You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?

RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.

Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.

Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?

RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.

Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.

You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?

RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.

What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?

RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.

Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?

RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.

The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.

Read the introduction here.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).