Stimulus funds, meritocracy, enlarging history
A Report to Readers
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Aging and Exercise
Daniel Lieberman’s article about physical activity and health in aging is eclectic and terrific (“Active Grandparenting, Costly Repair,” September-October, page 28). Two areas are unclear to me. First, he names “the accumulation of excess fat, especially belly fat” as “a chief cause of inflammation and other problems.” Belly fat and bad outcomes are certainly associated—apples do worse than pears. But what is the strongest evidence that the relationship is causal? This is tricky because, for example, while the high sugar levels of Type 2 diabetes are strongly associated with increased mortality, lowering these levels with drugs does not reduce mortality. To convict belly fat as causal, in particular, wouldn’t you need a randomized trial comparing surgery to remove fat from within the abdomen vs. surgical removal of an equivalent fat mass from other sites?
Second, he lists “inadequately sensing and acquiring nutrients” as a “form of senescence.” But while he discusses overnutrition and its harms at length and shows evidence that taking antioxidants is harmful (in exercising 40-year-old men), he makes no further mention of undernutrition. For most readers, the chance that we are failing to acquire adequate nutrition is tiny. This is tricky too. When people get sick, we eat less (sickness-associated anorexia is seen throughout the animal kingdom) and lose weight. The illness may be blamed on undernutrition, but trials of nutrition support for sick people, beyond providing ready access to favored foods, show benefit in only a very few circumstances. Suggesting that we may be inadequately acquiring nutrients might encourage visits to the multibillion-dollar carnival that touts an endless rainbow of special sauces with no proven worth.
Tom Finucane ’71
Senior Lecturer, Harvard Medical School
Daniel Lieberman replies: Randomized control experiments involving surgical removal of excess abdominal fat would be interesting, but are hardly necessary to demonstrate that obesity, especially excess “belly” fat surrounding abdominal organs, has a causal role in inflammation, hence diseases such as atherosclerosis and Type 2 diabetes. Many lines of evidence show that over-swollen fat cells become dysfunctional, attracting white blood cells. In turn, it has been shown that distended fat cells and their attendant white blood cells release high levels of molecules (adipokines and cytokines, respectively) that trigger inflammation, which plays a causal role in many diseases. Finally, swollen visceral (belly) fat cells appear to be more inflammatory than subcutaneous fat cells in part because they release masses of triglycerides and other substances directly into the portal vein, flooding the liver. Many epidemiological studies demonstrate strong associations between obesity in general and abdominal obesity in particular with chronic diseases affected by inflammation.
My reference to “inadequately sensing and acquiring nutrients” intended to describe deregulated nutrient sensing by cells (not by organisms as a whole): a well-studied hallmark of cellular aging involving several pathways, including IGF-I and mTOR, which promote tissue growth (anabolism) in response to nutrient abundance, as well as sirtuins and AMPK, which promote tissue breakdown (catabolism) when nutrient levels are low.
Lieberman asserts that the exceptional longevity humans enjoy past reproductive years is rare in the animal world, an exceptionalism attributed to elders’ substantial assistance in rearing grandchildren.
As a breeder of Labrador retrievers and standard poodles, I object. A bitch’s reproduction ends at seven to eight years of age. She will likely live the second half of her life-span post-reproduction, likely enjoying human companions, not caring for grandchildren.
Domestic cats and dogs live far longer than their reproductive lives. Reports of wolf packs suggest that other canids also far outlive reproduction. Elephants? Lions? I suspect many species enjoy post-reproductive years.
Sandra Scarr, Ph.D. ’65
Daniel Lieberman replies: Domesticated dogs bred through artificial selection and living in people’s homes can indeed live beyond the age at which they reproduce, but natural selection acts on animals in the wild. To date, just a few species of whales—including killer whales (Orcinus orca) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhyncus)—are the only non-domesticated species of animals apart from humans in which a notable proportion of females in a given population live an appreciable portion of their lifespan after they cease reproducing. Grandmothers in other long-lived species such as elephants have also been shown to enhance their reproductive success by helping their offspring, but even very old elephant females appear to be capable of giving birth.
The author compares at one point the average walking speed of American women (if under 50 years of age, 3 feet per second; if over 50, 2 feet per second) with that of Hadza women (3.6 feet per second, well into their 70s).
I grew up in New York City, then came out to Berkeley as an undergrad in 1959, and I noticed that people in the street there walked noticeably slower than I was used to. On the other hand, I spent a year in London in 1969-1970, and saw people walking considerably faster than I had ever seen—I would describe it as “striding” down the street. (I’m afraid I don’t recall noticing one way or the other during my years at Harvard, 1963-1967—probably it was roughly as in New York.)
So it would be interesting to gather statistics about these points on a local basis. And one might see whether the results correlate with longevity in the different localities, as the article suggests it would.
George Bergman, Ph.D. ’68
Daniel Lieberman replies: Wonderful question! Walking speed in different cities has a long history as a topic of inquiry going back to a classic 1976 Nature paper that showed a strong correlation between population size and walking pace [Marc H. and Helen G. Bornstein, “The Pace of Life,” Nature (vol. 259, February 19, 1976, pages 557f)]. That paper has since inspired additional studies that looked at other variables such as ambient temperature, smoking, etc. [Robert V. Levine and Ara Norenzayan, “The Pace of Life in 31 Countries,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (30:2 March 1999; 178-205)]. Associations between walking speed at a given age and health/mortality risk need to be done on an individual basis and there are plenty of studies on that, too. Unsurprisingly, people with slower speeds for a given age above 50 have higher risk of mortality within that population.
I was dismayed to see the headline “Aging vs. Exercise” on the cover of the issue. Aging is living. The adversary is cell senescence, not aging, which exercise enhances. Framing it otherwise is ageist, leading your readers into the same trap as all the “anti-aging” cremes and elixirs promoted by the beauty and life-extension industries. The goal is health, not youth. Much evidence, conducted by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer among others, shows that fact, rather than fear-based attitudes toward aging, affect the way our minds and bodies function at the cellular level [“The Mindfulness Chronicles,” September-October 2010, page 42]. You do your readers a disservice by promoting the opposite.
Robert Stein, M.A.T. ’69
Daniel Lieberman replies: I agree. In my book, I emphasize the important distinction between aging (getting older) and senescence (the deterioration of function over time). Aging is inexorable but senescence is influenced strongly by many factors, including physical activity. More to the point, I tried to explain how and why staying physically active as one ages is by far the most effective way to slow senescence.
Thank you, Professor Lieberman, for your inspiring article and for giving me hope that while “aging is inexorable, senescence can be slowed or partly reversed.” I promise to work hard on that! And I am inspired to share a story about my active parents.
She is almost crouching on a steep slope, somewhere in the Tatra Mountains, her rubber boots firmly grabbing the slippery underbrush, short mushrooming knife in her left hand, and equally sharp eyes focused on the prize—a glistening, bright orange Lactarius deliciosus (Milk cap). This is the contemporary gatherer—my dear Mother, age 73. I am so lucky to be her son and bear witness to this “fit aging” phenomenon so eloquently described by Professor Lieberman.
Naturally, she is more of a recreational gatherer, if you will, but she does it with unparalleled passion as if gathering a full basket of mushrooms would mean life or death from starvation for her family—my Dad. In the process of gathering, she is activating multiple muscles, many that are not used frequently; she is activating her visual pathways; and her cerebellum works with the intensity of a 20-year-old Olympic gymnast to keep her from falling down into the ravine. She will pay for this: she will be achy for some time after the expedition but her mood will be elevated for days. The harvest of now processed mushrooms, neatly stocked on the pantry shelves, will be a happy reminder that it was all worth it.
“Exercise is like scrubbing a kitchen floor so well after a spill that the whole floor ends up being cleaner. The modest stresses caused by the exercise trigger a reparative response yielding a general benefit,” Lieberman writes in his article. My brother Jacek, M.Arch. ’02, and I are very lucky to have fit parents. Both of them were always on the go.
Our Dad’s orthopedic practice was both mentally and physically challenging over the years. While working in a small hospital in a mountain town, Zakopane, in southern Poland, he would take demanding night calls well into his late sixties. General orthopedics can be a very physical specialty, requiring stamina and strength. To stay in shape, he would play tennis with his buddies two to three times a week. Now in his early eighties, he is still engaged in consulting services, continues to play tennis, and has embraced biking.
For their fiftieth wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, we gave our parents electric bikes. Given the hilly geography of their hometown and surrounding areas, it felt like a good idea to encourage bicycle outings. My mother was naturally very skeptical at first as she felt it would be “cheating” to use an e-bike and she was only interested in “real” exercise. My Dad, on the other hand, had no problem adopting the new trend in biking! They have now covered over 1,000 kilometers (more than 600 miles) of the hilly trails and they don’t seem to have enough! We get weekly reports of newly found destinations and mileage updates (and, of course, who used the e-bike support engine on the recent trip and who didn’t…a healthy competition!).
It seems like our parents have found a way to decelerate senescence. Not unlike the Hadza tribe discussed in the article, they seem to have known that hard work and physical activity can keep them fit into old age. I only hope that we can follow their example and do the same.
Maciej M. Mrugala, M.P.H. ’06, M.D., Ph.D.
Lincoln Caplan’s explication of Noah Feldman’s position on social media (“Near and Distant Objectives,” September-October, page 35) raises a question of major contemporary importance. “He regards Facebook and other social media as today’s equivalent of TV, radio and newspapers….” In fact, TV and radio were in a different legal category subject to government regulation because of their reliance upon publicly owned spectrum.
My position is that today’s social media are in the same position for two reasons. First, the internet was a government creation. Second, federal law gives social media a tremendous special privilege not even accorded print media: total freedom from liability for their content.
There is room for debate on what sort of government regulation should be imposed. My view is that the price for retaining that special privilege should be serving as a common carrier open to all comers. The worst possible solution would be Feldman’s—that impossible dream of a totally impartial board to censor “morally repugnant material.” Moral repugnance is one of those cliches such as justice, fairness, equity, etc., devoid of any objective meaning. An opponent of abortion will regard support for abortion morally repugnant. I regard Harvard’s affirmative-action policy morally repugnant.
Let me add that the boycott by much of America’s corporate elite to force Facebook to bar President Trump’s messages is far more dangerous to democracy than anything he has done or is likely to do. The executives responsible did not rise to their positions by being selfless devotees of the larger public good.
John Braeman ’54
Lincoln Caplan makes a common vocabulary mistake that a copy editor (if not every reader) should have caught. He writes, “The enormity of the challenge and the joy of the hunt...make Feldman ebullient.” Objection! “Enormity” means wickedness, an outrageous, abusive, or immoral act. The appropriate word is “enormousness”; the right word, which sounds less awkward and conveys the meaning better, is “magnitude.”
Jacqueline Lapidus, M.T.S. ’92
I enjoyed this profile of Feldman’s paths through academic and public life. In support of the argument that he is more of a “ranger” than a “tunneler,” I fondly remember watching him present the best science lecture I had attended in my four years as an undergraduate. In the fall of 2013, the Division of Science invited him to speak in the Science Research Public Lecture Series, and he presented “On the Nature of Evidence.”
The professor argued to the crowd that even a field as seemingly objective as particle physics cannot ignore human subjectivities. He spoke eloquently of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, glossing over some quarks and bosons but making abundantly clear that projects like the LHC could illuminate mysteries of our Universe.
The rub, he argued, comes in the consensus. The LHC generates enormous amounts of information, and one publication of findings can have hundreds of authors. With this many people involved, it’s impossible for every scientist to agree with every facet of every finding. But it would be career suicide for a young researcher to keep his or her name off a publication because of disagreement over 1 percent of the content.
Conflicts like these, Feldman argued, make scientific knowledge not only a reflection of nature, but a reflection of those who complete the work, and it is shaped by the biases, pressures, and power hierarchies that may be more obvious in other human endeavors, but apply to science all the same.
That lecture was one of my most memorable lessons in a Harvard classroom, and by the end of the talk, I think Feldman had us all convinced that particle physics, like constitutionalism, could in fact be a branch of the humanities.
Daniel J. Kramer ’15
New York City
Overseeing the Stimulus Funds
The article on Bharat Ramamurti (“The Watchdog,” September-October, page 56) espouses the socialistic line of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Fortunately, her beliefs were rejected by her own party. As I understand the article, corporate boards would no longer have the right to select all their directors, set executive salaries, or hire or fire employees without getting permission from some unknown entity. In other words, we are to reject something that has worked well in the past.
You have chosen to highlight one sentence: “When you say corporations exist to maximize shareholder returns, you are saying the goal of corporate America is to maximize the amount of money they send to the wealthiest people in America.” A good sound bite, but obviously false. The largest portion of dividends and interest goes to pension funds, endowments, nonprofits, etc. Indirectly, millions of Americans share in these distributions. His thinking might do well in academic circles, but gets no traction in the real world.
Jones Yorke, M.B.A. ’57
WHILE I am sensitive to many of the issues raised by Michael Sandel (at least as summarized by Spencer Lee Lenfield, “No One Deserves a Spot at Harvard,” September-October, page 53), I remain puzzled as to what he thinks is a better option. My parents immigrated from places where there wasn’t even the pretense of social mobility. Is that preferable? Historically, it was pretty much the default option, and remains the norm in many places. As Lenfield implies, the ills Sandel attributes to meritocracy are really a consequence of much deeper biases in our culture that would not go away if meritocratic institutions magically disappeared. It has become fashionable to bash meritocracy, but I have yet to encounter a serious proposal for a better alternative.
Charles Hsu ’79
Michael Sandel makes a case against meritocracy. I agree with the basic points the writer of the article makes against the position of Sandel. But I would go much farther. There are many ways to a college education. A local two-year community college can give you a good start at a low cost and living at home. If you know what you want there are many specific paths to success. There is a wide variety of higher educational institutions with a range of costs and if you dig you can find the right one for you. Again, if you know what you want by picking the right part-time or summer job, you can learn and make contacts in your desired career field.
Bob Youker, M.B.A. ’61
Here’s a proposal that might take some starch out of the movement to abolish meritocracy: if Harvard students don’t deserve their spot, then surely the members of the faculty don’t either. What is the rationale for tenure if you didn’t earn the privilege? So if Sandel’s proposal is to admit students randomly above “a basic minimum threshold” (and by the way—who decides that threshold?) then let’s replace the faculty randomly as well.
My argument against my own preposterous suggestion is that it would be highly inefficient to keep replacing the faculty randomly, and that reveals the value of meritocracy: it’s efficient. What was wrong with feudalism, monarchy, etc. was not just that wealth and privilege were unevenly distributed, but that they were highly inefficient systems because responsibilities were usually not assigned to the most suitable candidates (and when they were, it was by accident). But meritocracy does not work without equal opportunity, because if not everyone in society has the opportunity to compete for the same positions, you cannot know that you are choosing the most suitable candidates. So let’s retain Harvard’s admissions procedures; let’s even retain tenure for Harvard’s exalted faculty; but let’s fix the real problem: the lack of equal opportunity in this country. If you’re going to fire cannons, at least fire them at the right target.
Paul R. Goldin, Ph.D. ’96
The Road Ahead
I have never written a comment before, but President Bacow’s editorial “The Road Ahead” (September-October, page 3) was one of the strongest and, to me, most comforting articles I’ve read during these depressing days. I am very proud of Harvard for having identified and engaged such a talented leader.
Daniel D. Rabuzzi ’57, M.D.
President Bacow describes a joint lawsuit by Harvard, MIT, and many others to reverse a federal action injurious to many American universities. This joint action is understandable: the threat by the Trump administration was immediate. People and institutions are good at responding to immediate threats.
But evidently bad at responding to threats perceived as distant. President Bacow observed: “Our victory became a symbol of hope for the possibility of righting more complex and pernicious injustices…and a model for how American colleges and universities, along with other institutions, could work together to speed change.”
I hope that this observation predicts action by similar coalitions to advocate for immediate, massive, and effective action by governments, especially the federal government, to combat the climate crisis. Universities, better than most organizations, are positioned to understand the threat of the ever-growing climate crisis and to see that their own un-shattered existence 50 or 100 years from now depends on action now.
Political action has not been a normal choice for universities and other conservative institutions, but the climate crisis is not a normal problem. I look forward, if to nothing else, to a flood of full-page ads in The New York Times, signed by hundreds of university presidents and their faculties, describing the immediacy of the climate crisis and urging action by government “on a war footing” to combat that crisis. The time for climate-passivity by universities, as by everyone else, is at least 30 years gone by.
Peter Belmont, A.M. ’61
I am troubled by President Bacow’s commentary. He discusses the now-rescinded directive (July 6) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency which stated that international students who would be taking courses entirely online in the fall would not be allowed to stay in the country. He asserts that “International students across the country were being used as pawns to try to force colleges and unviersities to open their campuses for in-person learning not withstanding risks to public health.” He presents noble and virtuous reasons for the academic outrage and the lawsuits that were immediately filed by Harvard and MIT and supported by more than 200 other universities and colleges.
However, he does not even mention the fact that international students (and their supporting governments) bring a ton of money to universities and colleges in the U.S. As a former professor of 26 years in two major universities, I can attest to the importance of the tuition and supporting funds that international students bring to many campuses and departments. Is it possible that at least part of the reason for the academic outrage might be the potential loss of a lot of money if more than a million international students had to go home? American universities would face significant financial challenges if foreign governments were to choose to send their students to other countries where face-to-face classes were available.
Donald D. Runnells, Ph.D. ’64
Professor emeritus, University of Colorado
Editor’s note: No doubt many universities and colleges do derive significant tuition and fee income from foreign students. Harvard College extends its need-blind admissions, and financial aid, to international students, and many graduate students receive fellowships and stipends, rather than paying such fees. So although there are certainly economic elements of the issue for many institutions, it is hard to believe that the financial concern was remotely at the top of Harvard’s academic priorities in this case. A quick review of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ financial statements, for example, suggests that financial aid and fellowships provided to graduate students (a cohort only somewhat smaller than College enrollment) loom as large, if not larger than, tuition and fees received from them, and a lot of those students come from around the world; net everything out, and foreign students’ net financial contribution to FAS’s revenues is far from decisive in its overall economic position.
Thank you for “Royall House and Slave Quarters” (September-October, Harvard Squared, page 8L). The Royall House has been in the forefront of confronting the involvement in slavery of colonial historic sites. As a Rhode Island resident, I was particularly interested in Nell Porter Brown’s pointing out how the industrial revolution, birthed in Rhode Island as she mentions, depended on cotton from Southern slave plantations. The quote from Royall House executive director Kyera Singleton concerning the vital role New England played in financially supporting and profiting from slavery was spot on.
But Brown and Singleton fail to mention New England’s largest role in slavery: the slave trade. Sixty percent of all slaving voyages during the colonial and early American eras left Rhode Island ports, principally Newport, Bristol, and Providence. Between the slave trade and textile industry, the state’s economy was almost entirely dependent on the capture and enslaving of other humans. Boston and other New England cities also sent their share of ships across the Middle Passage to capture and enslave Africans.
Elizabeth Shearer, M.Ed. ’67
The September-October article on the Great Marsh (“A Step Up from the Usual Beautiful,” Harvard Squared, page 8F) almost writes the First People out of history.
“[M]uch of what’s now Essex Country was Native American territory….,” the author writes. Then without a single mention of how this land went from Native land to colonist hands, she continues, “When John Winthrop the Younger…arrived, agriculture and fishing soon became mainstays of the colonists.”
This is what it looks like to create the misleading U.S. history we now march to protest. The editors should have more sensitivity than to allow this to escape their scrutiny.
When many of us were suspended from Harvard for demanding a Black Studies department, University officials argued that Black history was already in U.S. history, so it was not necessary to create another department. But when the department of African and African American studies was finally created and scholars there began to rewrite U.S. history to include African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and Africans, we could begin to see what was missing. The history of the Great Marsh is not just the history of the colonists; and the editors should have known better than to print this without comment.
Judith Kauffman Baker ’70
Author Nell Porter Brown replies: Covering the history of Native Americans on the North Shore properly would require far more detail than allowed for in an article about enjoying the Essex area’s shipbuilding, recreational activities, and walking trails. Certainly more, and more up-to-date, information about the First People would be welcome on tours and in other sites and contexts in the region.
The letter by Judith Baker about an article by Nell P. Brown, quotes Brown: “When John Winthrop the Younger arrived, agriculture and fishing soon became mainstays of the colonists.”
Baker is not only right about Brown taking the Manifest Destiny route of omitting First Nations' histories, she could have pointed out also that for millennia, those First Nations in the region had agriculture and fishing as mainstays. And as every schoolchild is supposed to know it was a native of the region, Tisquantum (“Squanto”) who taught those Puritans how to subsist on corn, and where the fisheries were.
Alice Beck Kehoe, Ph.D. ’64
Author, North America Before the European Invasions (Routledge, 2017)
Having lived until recently in the central Massachusetts town of Royalston, I read with great interest the article on the Royall House and Slave Quarters. To long-term residents of the town named for Isaac Royall Jr., his checkered past is well known, having been described in some detail in Lilley Caswell’s The History of the Town of Royalston, Massachusetts, published in 1917, shortly after the town’s sesquicentennial (available online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:History_of_the_Town_of_Royalston,_Massachusetts_-_Caswell_(1917).djvu).
It might also interest readers of Harvard Magazine to know that slavery is not the only indignity represented by Royall and Royalston. Like other central Massachusetts towns, Royalston was parceled out by the colonial government from Native American lands through a system of grants and charters for “services rendered” in the various “American Indian Wars” that had begun as early as 1609. According to Caswell’s History, the earliest grant for lands in Royalston was made in 1737 “in consideration of services rendered by the grantees in burying the bleached bones of certain soldiers, who...fell into an ambuscade and were slaughtered by the Indians” (near Northfield, Massachusetts, during a battle of the Wabanaki-New England War of 1722-1725).
Most of the original town land (28,357 acres), however, was purchased in 1752 by a consortium of nine men, including Isaac Royall Jr., for £1,348. The town was named Royal-shire (hence, Royalston) in 1765 when Royall pledged £25 for the construction of the town’s meetinghouse. Although he never lived in Royalston, he donated 2,000 acres of land—most of which was in Royalston—to Harvard. This “gift”—of land taken from Native Americans and sustained by the slave trade—helped found the Law School and funded its Royall Professorship. Harvard still owns the 40-acre “Tall Timbers Tract,” in Royalston, whose hiking trails range through a magnificent hemlock stand and continue into the adjacent Royalston State Forest (owned by Massachusetts), the Tully Lake Reservation (owned by the Army Corps of Engineers), and Jacobs Hill Reservation (owned by the Trustees of Reservations). Unfortunately, none of the local trail maps or interpretive material discusses the tragic history of the land and its peoples.
Aaron M. Ellison
Senior research fellow in ecology and deputy director
Harvard Forest (Petersham, Mass.)
Your recent article (“Allston Options,” September-October, page 5) was very informative. Harvard is a human museum with unlimited potential. It is time to open its windows and let in some fresh air.
More than 10 years ago I actively pursued Cardinal Sean O’Malley to pressure Boston College to include an “employee village” in its site plan for expansion funded through Massachusetts Educational Finance Authority. It was my opinion that a Catholic university could take the leadership role in expanding affordable housing on campus for all employees and faculty members. It was my hope this action would encourage every single institution to do the same, filling a big vacuum in the lack of affordable housing in Massachusetts.
Sadly, Cardinal O’Malley rejected my plea to be a leader during BC’s expansion.
To regain momentum, all higher-education institutions must develop such employee villages, based on many national models. These models can then be duplicated by interested cities and towns, agencies, and expanding businsses like Amazon and other civil and religious organizations.
Continue your quest and urge Harvard to unlock all its talents to embrace a bold leadershp role in this simple concept.
Marc U. Cronin
As one who came from Oxford to Harvard 42 years ago, this is what the plans for Allston should be: Young people come first—use the 120 aces for amazing woodland planting with sensible housing for students and visitors amongst trees and green grass. Parents of perspective students—the kind that will support Harvard in the long term—will love this: suddenly Harvard is planning ahead and has a future in mind not for crowded corporate building based on hotels/high-tech labs/offices. A beautiful conference center would be good among the trees. This is for philosophers who move from north to south of the river on foot dreaming and thinking and learning in a place that is safe and beautiful.
Every blade of grass in Oxford is protected and the labs and buildings for this do encroach but there is a sense of peace at all times. The conference center should only house 150—frankly in my two subjects, biochemistry and physics, I cannot think of more than 100 worth meeting with at any one time. By year 500 Harvard may have a mature oak forest and be living up to its motto, Veritas.
Julie E.M. McGeoch, Ph.D
Department of molecular and cellular biology
Robert Baker’s letter (September-October, page 6) reflects a common misperception: that electing the president by National Popular Vote (NPV) will result in California and New York “running the show.”
First: there are many Republicans in California and New York whose votes are now being ignored (the same is true for Democrats in Texas and Florida). With the NPV, rural voters in California will matter.
Second: the NPV agreement among states retains the Electoral College and simply changes how states choose to allocate their electors (not unlike the changes that occurred in the early nineteenth century when states abandoned proportional allocation and adopted winner-take-all).
Finally: the tension between urban and rural issues is addressed in our bicameral form of legislature (used as a model in 48 states) where laws are made. Not a single governor is elected using an Electoral College model, despite similar urban/rural tensions within most states. This is not accidental.
We should elect the president the same way we elect every other position: one equally weighted vote per person and the candidate with the most votes wins.
Stuart W. Zeiger ’72
Just a short note to say how incredibly beautiful “To Catch a Crawdad” was (The Undergraduate, September-October, page 24). I was blown away by Drew Pendergrass’s humor and the gorgeousness of his writing. And I agree...we are all being called to reckon with the impacts of our fast-paced lifestyle and ethos. I guess I’m stereotyping, but I was further stunned to find out this piece came from a Ph.D. student in engineering! All the more impressive.
Monica Eav Glicken ’99, J.D. ’05
Los Alamitos, Calif.
How dismaying it is to find that a classmate of mine has fallen for the extreme disinformation campaign about climate change by the fossil-fuel industry and their allies [Letter from Dan Sullivan ’70, September-October, page 7]. There are indeed many natural events that affect climate. The sun’s emissions do vary a little over time. Every few centuries there is a volcanic eruption big enough to cool the earth for a year or more. On a much longer scale there are several aspects of the earth’s orbit around the sun that affect Earth’s climate in long cycles: the earth would be expected to cool by six or eight degrees over the next 10,000 to 12,000 years, all else being unchanged
But it was in the 1800s that it was first noted that man might affect global temperatures. The earth absorbs a great deal of energy from the sun. Much of that energy is emitted back to space in the form of infrared light. If you’ve ever felt heat radiating from the side of a building after the sun has gone down, or from a hot pan on the stove, that energy was transmitted to you as infrared light. Carbon dioxide, methane, etc., in the atmosphere absorb infrared light, reducing the amount of energy that escapes into space.
In the 1890s, as these things were being worked out, there was a suggestion that heating from increased CO2 might balance expected cooling of the planet. This suggestion was, of course, before automobiles, before most heavy industry, and at a time when Earth’s population was a fraction of what it is today. Today’s emissions are astonishingly huge by comparison.
At this point the science is pretty solid that the earth is indeed warming and that most of the effect is human-caused. But Dan Sullivan apparently thinks that a 1978 science-fiction TV show about “The Coming Ice Age” helps prove that cooling might be happening. He then cites the claim of a two-decade “pause,” starting in 1997, in global temperature rise. Now, 1998 was a record warm year, about 1/3 degree Celsius warmer than 1996, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. It was, indeed, seven years before there was a warmer year and it was 2013 before all years were warmer than 1996. If you look at an overall graph of world temperatures, it is clear that temperatures were steadily rising, but if you chop off everything before 1998 you can fantasize that there is little overall change in the next few years.
Dan Sullivan, who is not himself a scientist, accuses Drew Pendergrass of being an “anti-scientist,” because Pendergrass accepts the increasingly overwhelming evidence that the earth has indeed been warming and asserts that we desperately need to address the resulting problems. As I sit here suffering from the currently brown skies of California’s wildfires, made far worse by global warming, I applaud Pendergrass. Human-caused climate change is a slowly developing disaster. We need to acknowledge this now while we can still reduce the coming catastrophe.
Glen Lindwall ’70
Steve Fischer’s letter about the story on the removal of John C. Calhoun’s statue (September-October, page 7) asks whether Yale should change its name, and the editor’s reply addresses only Yale’s decision to change the name of Calhoun College (Yale’s “colleges” are the equivalent of Harvard’s “houses”). As a Yale College graduate, I would not advocate changing Yale’s name. But if we had to retire Eli, I would elevate Nathan Hale, based on his strong association with the college, impeccable character, heroism in the American Revolution, and credit for one of the greatest quotations of all time. And for us football fans, it would be super easy to revise all the songs.
Andrew Satlin, M.D. ’79
New York City
As an Extension School alumnus, I was delighted to see the school featured in Yesterday’s News in the July-August and September-October issues (pages 24 and 18). ES students often have a (perhaps self-imposed) perception that they are somehow second-class or the “others” of the greater Harvard community. By featuring the ES, Harvard Magazine reinforces the sentiment of former dean Huntington D. Lambert: “For the first time in history, the rest of Harvard…all understand who the Extension School is and what it does, and why it’s earned a place at Harvard.…Anybody who tells you you’re not really at Harvard, correct them. They’re wrong.”
Patrick W. Phillips, A.L.B. ’12
The Rise of Computer Science
I ENJOYED Harry Lewis’s article (“A Science Is Born,” September-October, page 42). Though I concentrated in chemistry and physics, I made a career change after junior year and took computer-science courses, after which I went to Carnegie Mellon (CMU) for graduate work in the field. I may have known only three or four of the people Lewis mentions at Harvard, but in later years I met several others, and it surprised me to learn how many people I knew, or knew of, had been connected with Harvard in those days.
I graduated in 1973. Richard Stallman, who later started the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, was also a student at Harvard, although he may have been doing more computer science work at MIT. D.J. “Jack” Mostow ’74 followed me from Harvard to CMU one year later, but oddly, we had not met each other at Harvard.
Lewis, in quoting Mark Tuttle describing the tension between the old school of “symbol manipulators” and younger AI researchers who were interested in data-driven systems, was helpful to me in understanding what happened in AI after I finished grad school. In the 1970s, the largest research project at CMU was speech recognition, but we were using PDP-11s. Reading about the problems we worked on then, and the approaches we used, 40 years later, is like looking through a telescope from the wrong end.
As a spare-time project, in my sophomore and junior years, I wrote a program to play chess. I was quite a novice programmer, and this was my introduction to PDP-10 assembly language. But I did not understand the ramifications of my activities. I was warned at least once about running a chess-playing program on the same computer people were using for class work and, probably, research. Of course, my program was primitive and I had no expectations for it; but somehow it became a last-minute substitute entrant in the ACM North American Computer Chess Championship in Boston in 1972. It played embarrassingly badly, but rubbing elbows with people who were doing real research, rather than spare-time projects, made the tournament worthwhile for me.
Bruce Leverett ’73
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1962, I became part of John Kemeny’s pioneering work at Dartmouth on BASIC and computer time-sharing. Ironically, it has taken academia many years to bring digital transformation to academia.
Charles A. Morrissey, M.B.A. ’62, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor, Strategy and Information Systems
I enjoyed Harry R. Lewis’s article. However, I have an issue with its title. Specifically, computer science was alive and kicking well before his start date in 1966. I was a GSAS intern in the Harvard-IBM Computer Center, in the basement of Littauer Library, from September 1959 until June 1961. There, an enthusiastic bunch of math, physics, and electrical engineering students—plus me—struggled to master an IBM 650 computer using Assembler language and some brilliant engineering workarounds.
Assembler had no diagnostics, so we just had to keep correcting our code or data until our program correctly performed. We were given “dates” for each attempt, scheduled anytime in a 24-hour day. I can’t remember the name of our charismatic leader, and don’t think he had a faculty position, but no one taught me more, with more patience or determination. We took on projects from faculty members, ranging from the head of the math department’s request to calculate eigenvalues (I bravely said sure, but didn’t even know how they were spelled) to the head of the economics department’s request that we predict the baseball World Series. My big contribution was a box of cards (yes, physical cards) that managed to calculate multiple regressions, despite the inability of the 650’s tiny memory to store a square-root table. The workaround was to install a special board that allowed square-root calculations on the go. That was a collaborative effort that had no equivalent in all of my other Radcliffe and Harvard memories.
Cynthia Travis ’59, G ’61
In the spring of 1961 one of my classmates, Constance Demos, asked me to take a class with her so we could be labmates. This was a class on computer programming taught by Peter Calingaert: Eng.Sci. 110, “Introduction to Computers and Numerical Analysis.” It was the first time I’d heard of “computers.”
I think we ran our programs on the Harvard Mark IV. The code was written in machine language (no compiler or assembler). It was reasonably readable: Annkk stood for “Add contents of addresses nn and kk,” M for “Multiply,” etc., or some such thing.
We would submit the code on paper worksheets and a group of women would transcribe it onto magnetic tape and run it overnight. I can’t remember what the final project was; I did all the work and I never got it to run correctly. But I learned that programming was something I enjoyed and could do.
Other old memories:
After graduation, I took a job with the Service Bureau Corporation, a subsidiary of IBM, in Manhattan. (Hiring was based on a programmer aptitude test; my recollection was that it was similar to the math portion of the SAT). They taught us Fortran and Cobol, and we would be assigned to various customer projects. We sent decks of cards to the computer, and would sit down at the card punch and punch our own cards. It seemed so advanced! The standard joke they’d play on newbies like me was to hand us a deck of punched cards and say, “There’s a bug in here, please find it.” The cards were glued together except for a small hollowed out square with (you guessed it) a dead bug.
The most interesting project was CASSI, Computer aided switching systems information...? The idea was to assign colors to the wires on a wiring diagram so that no adjacent wires had the same color. The customer was the phone company.
We needed to sort data at some point and there was no sorting program available to us, so I was assigned to write one. My bosses sent me to a conference on sorting at Princeton, but you couldn’t do anything really fast without a read-backwards feature on the mag tapes, which IBM didn’t have, so it ended up being a pretty simple program. I sent it to SHARE (the Society to Help Avoid Redundant Effort) but they didn’t take it up.
I spent the bulk of my career working in Fortran for a biostatistics application at UCSF. Fortran is still the language used at the Supercomputer centers.
Alison Boeckmann ’61
The excellent article was understandably Harvard-centered with a brief note of a “world beyond Harvard.” A nod to the late Herbert A. Simon and his team at Carnegie Mellon University would have been good. Although his 1978 Nobel Prize was in economics, Simon’s biography, Models of My Life (MIT Press, 1996), makes clear his important contributions to computer science and the basis of AI. It also documents his work with a variety of institutions and his wide-ranging imagination.
Phil Bock, Ph.D. ’63
Presidential Professor emeritus of anthropology, University of New Mexico
Los Ranchos, N.M.
I write this from a distance of over 11,000 air miles from Boston in Tasmania, an island state of Australia that has simply raised the drawbridge until Christmas and effectively locked the virus out. One outbreak was contained, and subsequent infections and deaths have been minimal. But we look with dismay at what is happening in other parts of the world.
Harvard is rated as the best school of public health in the world, four out of the top five schools of public health are in the United States, and nine of the top 10 schools are in the U.S. or in the U.K.
But if we look at the performance of major countries in combating COVID-19, especially cases and deaths per million of population, the performance of some countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., has been abysmal. Many countries in far more exposed localities and with far fewer resources have done far, far better.
This raises a number of questions as to why it is so. First, are the evaluations of the quality of those prestigious schools of public health grievously inaccurate and should the faculty of Harvard School of Public Health collectively hang their heads in professional shame? Second and alternatively, is the sociopolitical sphere so poisoned against competence that the governments have acted against the best interests of the electors? Finally, I acknowledge the counter argument—“It is all about the economy, dummy”—and this raises the third question: What is the economic cost of 5.7 million COVID-19 infections and 176,000 deaths (USA figures as of August 20).
I am watching the world from my little island and I do not want to rejoin it.
Graeme Cook, M.B.A. ’82
Editor’s note: This magazine has extensively covered Harvard researchers’ work on the epidemiology of the infection and effective public-health responses, vaccine development, and more. Nothing we have seen indicates that University talent—whose insights have shaped Harvard’s response to protecting students and faculty and staff members—is in any way less than superb. And the Harvard community’s response to testing, tracing, social-distancing, and other requirements has been strong, with the hoped-for health results. So, one would have to look closely at the second hypothesis.
In re: “Boats and Coats” (The College Pump, May-June, page 68): for some students, even $69.99 is too expensive for a winter coat. Even at Harvard
Fern Greenberg Blood, Ed.M. ’92
Editor’s note: In most such cases, we hope, the responsible Harvard school is supplying financial aid commensurate with the need. But that doesn’t deal with the sting of discovering that the current in fashion is a Canada Goose model, or something even more expensive.
Thank you for your recent column on the contributions of David Evans, “Changemaker in Admissions” (September-October, page 23). Dave is one of the most respected enrollment people in the country, and I appreciate your recognition of him. I joined the Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduate admissions staff in the fall of 1978 as the second Mexican American/Chicano. Part of my work was to improve the recruitment of Mexican American students. From day one, he was a mentor and colleague as he guided my work and the work of three other new hires, all recent graduates: Connie Rice ’78, Roberto Noya, Ed.M. ’78, and Susan Oliver ’78. As I progressed in my career in enrollment management, I would often contact him for advice. We would also see each other at various events and conferences, and he always greeted me with a handshake and hug. We remain good friends and colleagues. He is definitely a gem and respected voice in the enrollment field. Thank you for recognizing him.
John Fraire ’77, Ed.M. ’82, Ph.D.
Nicholas Burns sees diplomacy as a career and laments that over one-third of our ambassadors come from outside the Foreign Service (“The Indispensable Power,” July-August, page 38). I agree that bundling campaign contributions is not a particularly outstanding indicator of one’s temperament or capability to represent this country faithfully and effectively, but neither is having spent many years laboring in obscurity in a series of unelected deputy-this and assistant-that positions accumulating what cognoscenti might call “policy credentials” when they chafe at the appointment of an ambassador who does not come from their ranks or does not share their worldviews.
Burns emphasizes that diplomacy is able to prevent war, and rightly so. But the rigid limitations of diplomacy, its elite transnational traditions and its emphasis on avoiding military conflict at all costs, can lead to bad outcomes: forgetting whom one represents, missing the forest for the trees, moral relativism, elevating consensus over what is right and misguided appeasement. Unfortunately, there are times when the apples in an applecart are rotten, and the applecart needs to be upset, not necessarily by warfare but by a radical shift that may well offend the entrenched dogmas of diplomatic elites. That is what President Reagan did against the urgings of all the diplomats and his closest advisers, when he demanded of Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.” But the diplomats never seem to learn; there are videos from a few years ago (if they haven't yet been taken down) of Burns making the rounds of the interview circuit insisting that President Trump, as others, should refuse to fulfill his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem because it would precipitate a disaster. Well, guess what? Trump moved the embassy, the Arab street did not erupt in violence, the world did not end and as I write this the UAE has announced normalization of its relationship with Israel.
Not everything a president does is right and not every cautionary judgment or warning a diplomat makes is wrong. Far from it. But the job of the diplomat is to inform and represent the president, not to be a buffer or a check and balance, not to slow-walk decisions with which he disagrees, and above all not to undermine the president anonymously or otherwise. The elected officials, not the permanent bureaucracy, are the ones who have been entrusted by the nation to set policy.
And with all that, I recognize that Burns has served this country honorably in what have often been challenging circumstances. I wish him the best, and I truly do look forward to reading and hearing his views.
Robert Kantowitz, J.D. ’79
U.S. politicians have been buying votes with our money for years; LBJ admitted as much after creating the “Great Society.” Vote-buying continues, in spite of our record debt, which now approaches annual GDP, and the risk of hyperinflation or bankruptcy makes overgenerous spending hard to justify. In particular, welfare payments to illegal immigrants seem indefensible, yet the Foundation for American Immigration Reform confirms that those payments exceeded $116 billion in 2017 alone (figures from FAIR [Federation for American Immigration Reform] under “Search: ‘cost of illegal immigration in 2017’”). While it is technically unlawful to subsidize illegals, (a) the law is poorly enforced, and (b) “birthright citizenship” of illegal children permits payment, which is then shared with parents. These parents have broken our law upon entry, are largely uneducated and non-Eng-lish-speakers; some of them will fly our flag upside down, then burn it. Others will become wards of the State; a few will be rapists and murderers, of whom we have enough already. Are we so badly in need of low-wage labor that we’re buying illegal immigrants? Or are our politicians just enlarging and funding a dependent population of reliable voters?
Richard Merlo ’57
Editor’s note: FAIR has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Harvard and the 1936 Olympics
“Yesterday’s News” for 1935 in the September-October issue (page 18) quotes William Bingham, then the Harvard athletic director, that “if the German government persists in its policy of excluding Jewish athletes from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Harvard will not be represented on the American team.”
As it turned out, Bingham should have directed his remarks to Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee and Dean Cromwell, the American Olympic track coach, for it was they who excluded Jewish athletes from the Games, thus doing the German government’s work for it.
Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, two Jewish-American runners, had qualified for the American Olympic 400-meter relay team. They had travelled to Berlin and trained with the relay team for weeks. On the morning of the event they were told by Cromwell that they had been excluded from the team and replaced by two sprinters who had never practiced “passing the baton” with the relay runners. Glickman and Stoller never ran. No reason was given for their exclusion, but most commentators felt that it was the desire of Brundage and Cromwell to spare Hitler the embarrassing sight of two American Jews on the winning podium.
If it’s any consolation, in 1998 William Hybl, then president of the A.O.C., presented Glickman with a plaque in lieu of the gold medal he didn’t win in Berlin. Hybl noted that although there was no written evidence that the exclusion of Glickman and Stoller was an appeasement of German anti-Semitism, it was clearly the case. “I was a prosecutor,” Hybl said, “I’m used to looking at evidence. The evidence was there.”
I don’t know if Harvard was, in fact, “represented on the American team.” in Berlin. I have read, however, that Bingham did attend the Berlin Olympics. [He chaired the U.S. Track and Field Committee.] Perhaps one or more of your readers has some information on this.
For those interested, the episode is related at some length by Glickman in his memoir, The Fastest Kid on The Block.
Leonard Elman, J.D. ’55
New York City
Editor’s note: Two star Harvard track and field athletes—Milton Green ’36 and Norman Cahners ’36—both Jewish, and both considered highly likely to win places on the U.S. Olympics squad that year based on their victories in pre-Olympic trials, were persuaded by their rabbi to boycott the national trials and thus the Olympics because of the Nazi government’s treatment of Jews in Germany. Green’s account appears at: www.ushmm.org/exhibition/olympics/?content=american_boycotters_milton_green&lang=en. We have not been able to determine whether any Harvard affiliates participated in the Games.
In “A Science Is Born” (September-October, page 42), Danny Cohen was identified as a pilot; he was a paratrooper, his son informs us.
Other glitches in the issue included misplacing Roseland Cottage on page 8B; it is in Connecticut. And the caption on page 22 identifies newly appointed dean Nancy Coleman with the “devision,” rather than Division, of Continuing Education.