Imagining Harvard at 400

"Young superstars" from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences speculate about Harvard circa 2036

Led by professor of history Maya Jasanoff (from left), Harvard faculty Martin Puchner, Ann Pearson, Hopi Hoekstra, and David Charbonneau participate in Conversations @ FAS, a panel discussion that imagines how current trends may transform the way Harvard faculty teach and carry out their research in the future. The discussion was held in the Tsai Auditorium of CGIS South at Harvard University.

Five younger faculty members convened at the first Conversations @ FAS panel of 2012, to discuss what the University might become when it turns 400 in 2036. In so doing, they pursued a similar venture to that of a distinguished group of alumni who envisioned Harvard at 400 in Harvard Magazine's 375th anniversary issue.


The panel of “young superstars,” in the words of Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, convened February 16 to discuss “The Future of the Present: Faculty Imagine the FAS at 400.” (The event is among those commemorating the University’s 375th birthday this year; the panel belongs to a series, “Conversations @ FAS,” that began a year ago to explore “redefining teaching and learning for the 21st Century.”)

Professor of history Maya Jasanoff  ’96, a scholar of British history, moderated. She led off by looking back 20 years to her own freshman year, a time when, she reminded the audience, iPhones, iPads, Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter didn’t exist and even e-mail was rarely used—though Jasanoff herself was an early adopter. Looking ahead to 2036, she encouraged the panelists to speculate on “how the digital revolution is changing what we do as scholars and teachers, and what we can do in response to it.”

David Charbonneau, professor of astronomy, led off by remarking, “I’m David Charbonneau, and I’m from the future.” He dove into an arresting presentation on “the challenges and opportunities that arise from the exponential increase in data, and the ways we collect data.” Charbonneau said, “I build robotic telescopes,” and went on to describe how “totally automated” data-gathering via telescope can easily collect 10 to 20 gigabytes of material per night.

His “exoplanet” research aims to find planets outside the solar system. Graduate students who work with him receive traditional academic training in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and so on—just as Charbonneau himself did. However, when a student finds a new planet—as did Zach Berta, making front-page news in the New York Times—that accomplishment draws upon advanced data management and data visualization skills that Charbonneau said “arguably, could be done by someone who had never taken a course in physics or astronomy!”

The Large Scale Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSSST), planned for construction on a mountaintop in Chile, will be capable, he noted, of snapping an image of the night sky every 15 seconds using a 3.2 gigapixel camera, gathering so much digital data in the process that it would require a 40 x 40 array of normal monitors to view even one image. The LSSST’s 10-year archive will accumulate 15 petabytes (a petabyte is one quadrillion bytes, or 1,000 terabytes) of data, enough to fill 600 million filing cabinets with text. Staggering as these numbers are, when the LSSST begins work in 2021, its computers “will not even be in the top 500 computers in the world,” he explained, noting that users like Google and Bank of America store far larger data sets.

Charbonneau went on to note the effects of crowdsourcing on research; collected data can become public immediately and a scholar like himself will not be a co-author on a discovery paper. He also explained the process of “data mining”—“Many are engaged in research based on pre-existing data sets.”

The Astrophysics Data System, a fully searchable archive of 10 million articles and records based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, indicates that the productivity of researchers has ramped up to the point where 7,000 new papers are submitted per month—and papers may be posted before peer review, attracting comments that alter the content or approach of the research. Another problematic development—the proliferation of authors on papers—stems from the increasingly collaborative nature of research in science. Scientific papers with literally hundreds of author names are not uncommon; Charbonneau questioned how this will “interact with the academic priority set on individual achievement.”

He closed by asking how future scholars will deal with the extraordinary volume of data they will collect, “especially when most of the innovation comes from outside academia.”

Ann Pearson, professor of biogeochemistry, spoke next, focusing on the evolution of scientific equipment needed for research and the ballooning costs of it. As a chemist, Pearson does much of her work with mass spectrometers, and took note of a 2000-fold increase in their ion-detection performance since 1989. Pearson showed a 1941 ad for a spectrophotometer, priced at $10,700 in today’s dollars; she noted that these days, “minor instrumentation” is ”anything that costs less than $2 million.”

Pearson outlined three laboratory “narratives” connected to technological evolution. The first is that with advances in technology, a given item gets cheaper to buy and easier to use, so every lab is expected to have one. The second narrative is that certain other items get more expensive, but each lab must have access to the newest version to “keep up.” (Today’s DNA sequencers are far more powerful than those introduced in 1986, for example, but can carry a price tag of $690,000.) The third narrative is that owning a new and/or unique piece of technology conveys membership in an exclusive group, and allows an investigator to say, “My competition doesn’t have one.” She gave one example of a scientific paper that mobilized $3.7 million in instruments and required field work at sea that cost $35,000 per day.

Martin Puchner, Wien professor of drama and of English and comparative literature, followed. He opened by saying that the digital revolution “is affecting the humanities, but only slowly.” He described some of his own research on Plato, a project involving drama and philosophy that called for unearthing plays that had Socrates as a main character. Using Google, he was able to locate more than 100 examples of “these extremely obscure plays,” something that would have been impossible or vastly time-consuming without digital technology.

Puchner said that the faculty must educate students to be global citizens, and “recognize that literature is currently being written for a global marketplace.” He himself is the new general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, to be published in a few weeks. “I wonder if, when Harvard is 400, we will even have national literature departments,” he mused. Puchner warned that digital humanities and world literature bring a danger with them—abstraction: “more texts entering into a more abstract realm of world literature.” He foresees a countervailing movement as well, due to “the need to restore texts to the local contexts in which they emerged.”

Hopi Hoekstra, Agassiz professor of zoology, discussed future classrooms. Where a lecture or class a decade ago might hold a population of students with notebooks and raised hands, today, “a sea of laptops” is the norm. She wondered if in the future the classroom will be empty, as the student watches lectures online in bed, and asked what the role of the lecture is, and whether it is necessary. She traced the evolution of lecturers’ technology from chalk and blackboards to Power Point to tablet computers and clickers; the future might hold software allowing teachers to see students learning via close-up views of their faces. “We need tools to teach the teachers to teach more effectively,” she said, adding that items like handheld clickers can give professors useful feedback on class comprehension, for example (see “Twilight of the Lecture,” in Harvard Magazine’s March-April issue).

“Now, students are analyzing a lot of data,” Hoekstra declared, “and are spending less time in the lab gathering data.” Furthermore, with more data available, “critical and creative thinking becomes increasingly important.”

She told of how the Museum of Comparative Zoology arranges its displays of stuffed animals to reflect the relationships of the creatures to each other. Today, researchers are able to take snippets from the animal skins and perform DNA sequencing on them, which has even resulted in “specimens being moved from one side of the hall to the other because of relationships discovered in their genetic data.”

Hoekstra described the “journal clubs” that graduate students form—analogous to book clubs, except that the students read a journal article and then discuss it together. Lately, she said, some clubs have enhanced these conversations by contacting the researcher and inviting him or her to join their discussion via Skype. This helps them not only to get questions answered on the research, but to “learn about the research process.”

In closing the discussion, there was consensus about the growth of collaborative and interdisciplinary work. Technology, it seems, will play a greater role in data collection, and students and scholars will increasingly focus on analysis, interpretation, and critical and creative thinking. In 25 years, Puchner said, “I would like to see the humanists having labs.” Charbonneau remarked on how we train graduate students in such a different way from undergraduates; the former do hands-on research under a professor’s supervision, but the latter, for the most part, attend lectures and sections. Jasanoff added a closing note—that as a historian, she was trained to pursue research in archives, an activity that can involve serious travel and require “an enormous amount of support. The breakthrough that is transforming the field is the digitization of archival materials.” 

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