Weekly Round-Up, 1-6-17

Greetings, earthlings–we mean Corelings. This week we’re ushering in the new year with a star-studded link round-up.

  • Today (1/6) is the Epiphany, by the way–the day that commemorates the visit of the three Magi to the child Jesus. As Core scholars may recall, the three kings, or wise men as they are sometimes called, followed a star that led them to the manger in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Magi, 1632.

  • Despite 2016 being “a year of dark matter disappointments” (among other things), scientists are hopeful that 2017 will prove fruitful in proving the existence of dark matter…or perhaps not, according to theoretical physicist and Harvard professor Lisa Randall.
  • Speaking of dark matter, astronomer and dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin passed away Christmas night at the age of 88. Read about her contributions to the field of science here.
  • Off switches? Cosmic vanishing acts? These are just a couple ways of describing two recently discovered pulsars. Astronomers observed that one of the pulsars was “on” only part of the time, and when it was “off,” its rotational slow-down rate is significantly slower. The reasons for this phenomena are still unknown.
  • Just for fun: What does William Blake have to do with space travel? We’ll let this caption explain: “In his 1793 engraving [I Want! I Want!], the poet and artist finds a novel solution to getting to the moon: a really big ladder.” This engraving and other works by over sixty artists are on view in exhibition Towards Night in the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, England. Closes January 22nd.

Next CC111 lab? William Blake, I Want! I Want!, 1793. (Photo via The Fitzwilliam Museum)

There you have it, folks! We hope you continue to enjoy break, whether you’re in Boston or a far-off galaxy (believe us, scholars come from all over)!

Weekly Round-Up, 12-30-16

Goodness, what a year. We’re lucky all of our Core authors are long since deceased; otherwise, we’d be in a mess of trouble. But no matter. We’ve got a end-of-the-year wrap-up to usher in the long-awaited new year. (That’s a lotta hyphens…)

A close-up of Orion’s belt. By Davide De Martin via Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator. (Public Domain)

Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Public Domain)

That’s that! We’ll see you again next week. (PS – if you’re wondering why this post is slightly later than usual, blame the new Star Wars flick Rogue One. Brownie points to anyone who can relate the movie to the Battle of Thermopylae according to Herodotus’s Histories.)

Weekly Round-Up, 12-23-16

Hello hello, Corelings! What, did you think the Weekly Round-Up would be on hiatus during this hibernation period we call Winter Break? Of course not. Knowledge never rests.

Aeneas and Charon by Wenceslas Hollar, 17th century.

First edition cover of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (Fair Use)

There you have it! Core hopes you have a lovely holiday(s) and a refreshing break!

From The Guardian: The non-western books that every student should read

It is easy in the Core Curriculum to feel content with having acquainted oneself with the tradition that is of primary concern, namely, thewestern. It is also understandable, but we should at least be aware of other kinds of classics that usually earn only a cursory treatment in this corner within the western corner. And in doing so, we should beware of the dangers that attend a view of the world and the cultures inhabiting it too provincially–something of which these days we desperately need much less. An article for The Guardian has sought various authors to share those books that despite their not belonging in the western tradition deserve a placeon each of our reading lists. One is R K Narayan’s magnus opus, Malgudi Omnibus:

"From Frantz Fanon to Li Ruzhen, international authors deserve more attention from universities. Photograph: Christopher Thomond." Image for The Guardian.

“From Frantz Fanon to Li Ruzhen, international authors deserve more attention from universities. Photograph: Christopher Thomond.” Image for The Guardian.

Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as Indias sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.

It was discomfiting to realize how many of the books listed I have not read or of which I have not even heard.A reading list that will never be exhausted before I myself am exhausted thus grows larger, and yours might also after

Reading his full post at The Guardian

From the Guardian: Welcome to the Age of Anger

It seems that any article seeking to explain the recent capsizing of our politics will obligingly run through the explanations we have come to know by broken heart: it was rigged. Actually that is one explanation we unfortunately haven’t heard, since the one who would have made it most vociferously did not lose the election. But there is another explanation of this kindthat is not so conspiratorial, which posits that the Trump presidency represents a reaction to a global trend whose worst effects have only recently struck the United States. In this sense, it was inevitable that world leaders who pursue iniquitous policies will disturb the unfavored dregs that do not quietly settle below. But the disquieted may also react irrationally, of which, again, the United States is only the latest example. Pankaj Mishra at The Guardian explains

The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.

There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trumps victory in the words of Thomas Piketty as primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States. Liberals tend to blame the racial resentments of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obamas tenure. But many rich men and women and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.

We are in turn at risk of regarding the causes of our political turmoil too parochially or reflexively. It is easy to denounce supporters of Donald Trump as racists or a bigots, and automatically gainsay rather than engage with anything that is said by them. This would be suffering from the same dogmatism that one is supposedly above.

Read his full post at The Guardian

Weekly Round-Up, 12-16-16

Good morning, Corelings! We hope this installment of weekly links keeps you toasty warm today, because the temperature outside is criminal.

  • BUCFA is presenting Chekhov’s last full-length play, The Cherry Orchard, Dec. 14 through 18, at the Lane-Comley Studio 210. On the fence about going? There will be a real, live dog in the production.
  • Women Playing Hamlet, a play by University of Wyoming playwright-in-residence William Missouri Downs, closed last Saturday. Featuring an all-female cast, the comedy explores an actress’s attempt to discover who she is as she prepares to take up the role of Hamlet in a New York production of the Shakespearean play.
  • The New York City AIDS memorial, recently unveiled and soon to be open to the public in West Village, includes a text piece by artist Jenny Holzer piece that utilizes excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The work commemorates the 100,000 New Yorkers who suffered and lost their lives to AIDS.

The New York City AIDS memorial. (Credit: Max Flatow Photography)

How could you say no to a face like that?
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Best of luck on finals, scholars! We’re sure each and every one of you will do great!

Whales, Barnacles, and Ancient Migrations: A Possible Break in One of Evolution’s Biggest Mysteries

What do barnacles have to do with prehistoric whale migration and evolution? A whole lot, according to UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Larry Taylor.

From their origins as four-legged, dog-like creatures in Pakistan to their present-day incarnations as “preposterously large” marine mammals that traverse the vast oceans, whales are the “poster child of evolution.” Millions of years is a lot of ground to cover, so that’s why Taylor decided to study humpback-whale barnacles. According to Taylor, barnacles are the secret to revealing migratory patterns of whales, and it has to do with the chemistry of their shells. The shells of barnacles vary according to the lighter and heavier oxygen isotopes found in seawater. In a cycle of rain and evaporation, the heaviest of oxygen isotopes remain at the equator, and the lightest remain moving towards the Arctic. Meanwhile, barnacles grow new bands of shell with each season, the compositions of which alter according to the isotopes found in the water. In other words, the growth band of a barnacle on a whale that is spending the season in the Arctic will reflect the lighter isotopes that are found there…right?

A breaching humpback whale. (Credit: NOAA)

As it turns out, this isn’t strictly true. Humpback whale barnacles have been shown to use more of the heavy oxygen isotopes in these colder regions. But that’s nothing geochemists and a “Greek-alphabet-soup of an equation” can’t fix. With this new data, then, Larry Taylor has been able to graph the isotopes against today’s oceans and, in turn, accurately follow the migrations of Alaska humpbacks (and the Alaskan humpback barnacle). As for prehistoric migrations, Taylor hopes to apply the same sort of methods to the isotopes of fossil barnacles.

So how did whales get so huge? Taylor’s already way ahead of us. And the answer is surprisingly simple: bigger whales mean farther distances may be covered. Farther distances mean greater access to increasingly scarce food sources, brought on by the ice ages. And if the vast migration patterns of today’s whales are the result of ice ages, then data gleaned from fossil barnacles may prove that prehistoric whales originally didn’t need to migrate in the first place.

There’s a lot more to the story of whale evolution, and the Atlantic article is well worth the read. The author, Peter Brannen, even presents a critical reflection on our own time:

Today human society is a geological force in its own right, and its an open question what its ultimate influence will be on the long evolutionary story of whales. The ocean is warming faster than it did even 56 million years ago, while ice sheets are poised for a collapse on time scales only seen at the end of the ice ages. But even before this global chemistry experiment gets completely out of hand, whales have alreadyrather acutelyfelt the influence of human civilization. Not that long ago, humans drew their oil, not from petroleum-soaked rocks, but from whales headsand Nantucket played the role of Abu Dhabi in this cetacean oil economy. Whale extinction was on Melvilles mind as he watched this global slaughter unfold, firsthand. He wondered whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.

Though the hunt has relented, and Leviathans numbers have recovered somewhat, genetic studies indicate that populations of North Atlantic humpbacks were once 20 times more abundant than present. And given that climate and oceanography have played such an important role in whales evolutionary past, through ice ages and super-greenhouses both, what will their future hold in an ocean thats not only rapidly warming but quickly acidifying as well?

And in true Core fashion, Brannen makes an astute observation on the very nature of geology, which, we think, applies to most, if not all of the subjects we learn in Core:

Like any subject in geology, pull on one thread–in this case, humpback whale barnacles–and all of Earths history begins to unspool. To understand an animal you have to understand its history, and to understand its history you have to first understand the history of the earthand beyond. Indeed, whales even benefited from the influence of outer space as well, as the asteroid that executed T. Rex also cleared the ocean of its sea monsters, inviting that dog-like ancestor of all whales to colonize the seas ages ago.

Read the whole article on The Atlantic.

Rembrandt: Style and Observation

In a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, curator of the Department of European Paintings Walter Liedtke takes a look at the life and works of the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt. Over the course of the lecture, we can see the influence of the Old Masters in the artist’s work and the evolution of his style as well patterns that carry across his artistic career, such as the combination of observation and style and the application of studies in final works of similar or diverging subjects.

Here’s a breakdown of the lecture:

Portrait of Jan Six, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, oil on canvas.

  • The Old Masters (specifically Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Titian) greatly impacted Rembrandt’s body of work. One example of the former is the artist’s Portrait of Jan Six, which exhibits a kind of pyramidal composition taken from Titian’s 1509 portrait Ariosto, which in turn takes after Renaissance sculptural busts, which then go back to sculpture from antiquity. Talk about a long genealogy!
  • In a similar vein, Rembrandt was known to have drawn studies of engravings as well as models and to apply them to the compositions of his paintings. One example is a drawing after an engraving of da Vinci’s Last Supper, from which the artist subsequently lifts figures for paintings like Wedding of Samson (in which Christ becomes the bride of Samson and Samson adopts a pose of one of the astonished Apostles) and Supper at Emmaus (1648).
  • Rembrandt didn’t market his self-portraits as, well, self-portraits. Instead, they were “expression studies” used to demonstrate his artistic ability. He used these as he did with his other studies: to lift facial expressions and poses for use in other works.
  • Local art also exhibits a clear influence on Rembrandt’s paintings. His Presentation in the Temple, for example, reflects what Liedtke calls his “constant synthesis between northern style and other selected artists.” The figure of St. Joseph, cast in deep shadow, recalls Dutch landscapes of the 1620s that also make use of deep shadow that covers part of the canvas.
  • Similarly, the presentation of Rembrandt’s works also reflects local culture. His paintings were mostly created for domestic settings, to be held and observed or hung on a wall. As a result, they bear a personal and intimate quality, even in their subject matter. At times he looked to his family to model for him–his mother in Old Woman Reading the Bible, his father in Old Man in Armor, and his wife in Bathsheba–effectively humanizing Biblical subjects in history paintings.

Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629.

Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1648.
Compare the focal point and the use light and shadow of with those of the earlier work.


  • Over time, his work matures from a Baroque, Caravaggio-influenced style to a quieter, less dramatic one, which is most evident through the comparison of two versions of Supper at Emmaus, separated by a period of 20 years.
  • The separation of what Liedtke calls observation and style is a concept that “we, as the inheritors of Realism, Impressionism, etc.” have adopted in recent centuries. It entails a differentiation between naturalism, or works that are true to life, and stylization, or works that are abstracted. Rembrandt, however, combines the two. We see the more loosely-painted style of Rembrandt’s later period or the more theatrical style of his earlier period incorporated into meticulous depiction of texture, scenes from life, and humanized elements that recur over and over in his work.

That’s a lot to unpack! But we can see some Core themes emerging in Rembrandt’s methods of painting. Looking to the past (and to the present), evolving and maturing one’s way of thinking over time… These are all concepts with which we’ve grown familiar in Core.

From Aeon: When robots read books

As our understanding of Artificial Intelligence and its relation to our own intelligence is slowly becoming illuminated, one cannot help but to speculate whether machines of the future will be able to replace our role in certain activities. And some feel immediately slighted when such functions are also one’s dearly cherished. Many of these involve literature: reading, creating, and criticizing. Inderjeet Mani at Aeon ponders how algorithms are able to perform certain functions of the critic, such as identifying similarities among different characters in literature, within a fraction of the time it would otherwise take:

The computational linguist David Bamman, now at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues, mined a database of more than 15,000 novels to produce a Bayesian statistical model that could predict different character types. They used features such as the actions that a person participates in, the objects they possess, and their attributes. The system was able to identify cases where two characters by the same author happen to be more similar to each other than to a closely related character by a different author. So the system discovered that Wickham in Jane Austens Pride and Prejudice (1813) resembles Willoughby in her Sense and Sensibility (1811),more than either character resembles Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (1847).

Many of us are of course bristled in protest, yet Mani honorably concedes that the critic serve a much more wide-ranging function than can be dreamt of in the algorithm of such a machine. He labors, however, that computers have shown the rudiments of something which critics would be doing a disservice to their own scholarship by overlooking.

Read his full post at Aeon

From the Nation: Criticism in the Twilight

Nicholas Dames at The Nation reviews three books that attempt to vindicate the practice of literary criticism. One of the most salient ways in which all three have done so is by laboring howcriticism opens the sensibilities of its readers to more valuably appreciate works of art that wouldotherwise have been abstruse or mysterious. What, Dames alarmingly asks, is the role of the critic in an age that appreciates him or her apparently less than ones before them.

Lionel Trilling. (Bettman). Image for The Nation.

Lionel Trilling. (Bettman). Image for The Nation.

But where can one find a good enough teller these days? What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institutions can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public. Suggest any one of these sites and you can hear the laughter in advance. Too commercial, too hurried, too rarefiedand all of it too partial: Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.

Is is in part these questions that the three authors whose books are themselves undergoing criticism, which the triad set out to answer. We learn throughout that the critic who is likened often to the artisan rather than artist is part of an historical enterprise that is much more imaginative than commonly supposed. But that criticism itself might be suffering from the bias that comes from any partisan. But we can at least have solace in its not being propaganda, since that is a kind of art that criticism has failed either to live up or down to, depending on your view.

Read his full post at The Nation