BU in Athens: the Philhellenes’ Summer Trip, 2014

{ A guest post from Prof. James Uden of the Department of Classics; cross-posted from the Classics departmental homepage. }

Group Dinner in Athens

Group Dinner in Athens

Do Athenians ever sleep? No doubt many of the BU students who spent a month in Athens this summer were already accustomed to staying up late, but the Greeks really showed them how to make the best use of the nighttime hours. Combing the night markets during the name day festival of Saint Paraskevi, watching Euripides’ ‘Helen’ by moonlight in the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, holding long conversations in restaurants and in the dorms about Greek, and then, word by word, in Greek – these were some of the ways our BU undergraduates spent their Attic nights, in a city that stays wide awake once the sun goes down. Read More »

Joseph Luzzi on Dante, and why some books stay and others go

Dante_Alighieri_Tour_Florence_Italy_0Students just entering the first-year Humanities haven’t yet encountered the Divine Comedy of Dante in the Core classroom… but for sure, they won’t forget it. Many Core alumni report that their exploration of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso in seminar with their Core classmates was a formative part of their undergraduate experience. Accordingly, we keep our eyes open for any mention of our man Dante in the world of letters beyond BU.

Here’s the latest clip. Over in the estimable Paris Review, in an essay titled “The Great Unread”, Joseph Luzzi asks the question: “Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” In the following excerpt, he explains the reason Dante’s great work didn’t go the way of so many texts lost to the modern reader in the dust-bin of literary history:

In 1756, Voltaire proclaimed “nobody reads Dante anymore,” and indeed the Enlightenment had little time for Dante’s religious allegories and Christian doctrine. He was about to go the way of Manzoni’s Betrothed: a classic that was once much admired but now rarely read. Then the Romantics came along and rediscovered Dante, celebrating his individuality and heroism—those same qualities from Inferno that Dante would reject in Paradiso. But that didn’t matter to the Romantics. They creatively misread Dante, and in so doing made him the literary touchstone he is today. Our interest in Dante’s hell, the universality of its concern with questions of justice and crime and punishment, overrides our indifference to his medieval vision of Christianity.

What do you think — is this a plausible and sufficient explanation of the enduring success of the Divine Comedy? A cynical (non-Core) explanation for why some books stick around and some books are forgotten is: The books that stick around are the ones the professors put on the reading list. There’s a dismissive truth to that explanation, but Core people know there’s a lot more to the matter than this kind of pat answer can supply.

Read the rest of Luzzi’s essay at The Paris Review, and learn more about its author at josephluzzi.com.

From the Core Journal: “The Analects of Prof. Nelson”

These “Analects of Professor Nelson” were recorded during class discussion by Core student Matthew Spencer, and published in The Journal of the Core CurriculumVol. IX, Spring 2000:

  1. The Professor said of Rousseau’s Confessions, “Boy, it’s so nitty, and it’s so gritty!” Only then did Matthew understand.
  2. When Matthew thought he really understood Rousseau, the Professor said, “What’s the point of Rousseau’s life?” and Matthew could not speak for the rest of the day.
  3. The Professor said to a student in the class, “You remind me of Satan, but not in a bad way.”
  4. When the class thought that they had discussed everything, the Professor surprised them, saying “All we have to do now is figure out, who is Don Giovanni and why, and then we go home!”
  5. For a confounded class, the best medicine is more and more confusion. Thus, the Professor said, after a dizzying discussion of Faust, “And otherwise, we only have to figure out the meaning of the universe, and then we’re done, okay?”

Crystalizing the Grammatical Lines

Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines” has made quite the stir in the past year, prompting outcry generally saved for Southern politicians’ stances on birth control or gay marriage. Despite all this controversy over intentions, the tune and its marked “Hey, hey, hey”s is catchy, a fact that fills many a forward thinking person with guilt; to our combined relief, “Weird Al” Yankovic has provided a solution. Now, the same tune has been put to different, more Core related lyrics. Instead of “Blurred Lines” we now have “Word Crimes”, a spunky song outcrying the dastardly degradation of grammar and syntax on the internet. This song, besides reminding the general public to stay away from lazy one-letter words and “to who”s also cautions against the incorrect use of the world literally. Even the oxford comma makes an appearance. From Thicke’s blurred lines to Yankovic’s clear grammatical laws, this tune has definitely taken a turn for the better.

So here it is, the guilt free grammar song the features dancing punctuation, not mostly naked women. Enjoy and let us know what you think.

The Big Bang: What banged, why it banged, and what happened before it banged


The Big Bang theory was first conceived nearly a century ago. For many people, it seems to explain how the universe came to be. For cosmologists, however, it opens up many more questions. Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe writes, “The Big Bang theory offers an explanation for how the early universe expanded and cooled and how matter congealed, from a primordial soup into stars, planets, and galaxies. What it describes, then, is the aftermath of the Bang. But it is effectively silent on why or how that first massive expansion happened or where all the original matter came from.”

MIT professor Alan Guth has spent the past three decades hypothesizing about “what banged, why it banged, [and] what happened before it banged”. As a postdoctoral student, Guth developed the inflation theory, the “exponential expansion of the universe within its first fraction of a second”, which provided a solution to several major problems with the big bang theory – the monopole problem, the flatness problem and the horizon problem. Swidey explains the theory in everyday-English:

At extremely high energies, there are forms of matter that upend everything we learned about gravity in high school. Rather than being the ultimate force of attraction that Newton and his falling apple taught us, gravity in this case is an incredibly potent force of repulsion. And that repulsive gravity was the fuel that powered the Big Bang.

The universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old, and it began from a patch of material packed with this repulsive gravity. The patch was… one 100-billionth the size of a single proton. But the repulsive gravity was like a magic wand, doubling the patch in size every tenth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. And it waved its doubling power over the patch about 100 times in a row, until it got to the size of that marble. All that happened within a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. As a point of comparison, the smallest fraction of time that the average human can detect is about one-tenth of a second.

The ingredients of what would become our entire observable universe were packed inside that marble. While the density of ordinary material being put through that kind of exponential expansion would thin out to almost nothing, a quirk of this repulsive-gravity material allowed it to maintain a constant density as it kept growing. But at a certain point — while the universe was still a tiny fraction of a second old — inflation ended. That happened because the repulsive-gravity material was unstable, and, like a radioactive substance, it began to decay. As it decayed, it released energy that produced ordinary particles, which in turn formed the dense, hot “primordial soup.”

The theory turned Guth into a celebrity in the scientific world and landed him a professorship at MIT but at the time it proved impossible to collect observational evidence to support the theory.

Until this past March when astrophysicist John Kovak and his multi-institution team were able to come up with “rock-solid” evidence to back Guth’s theory. In 2006, NASA scientists produced a map of the early universe which suggested that Guth was on the right track, but Kovak’s evidence seemingly solidifies the theory:

Kovak’s team found the smoking gun for inflation: evidence of gravitational radiation, or more specifically, swirling patterns in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. In the viewfinder of their telescope on the South Pole was light formed just 380,000 years after our universe banged onto the scene. And in that ancient light they detected gravitational radiation that is far older, having been emitted during the universe’s first fraction of a second of existence.

Guth’s theory and Kovak’s supporting observations strengthen the overall theory of the Big Bang and provide a clearer understanding of the birth of the universe. The full article can be read on The Boston Globe.

On a side note, the inflation theory is not Alan Guth’s only achievement; he also won an award for the messiest office in Boston.

A Brief History of Why North is Up


A map dating from 1154 CE by Moroccan cartographer al Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily. South is oriented at the top of the page, placing Europe in the lower half of the page.

Perhaps you’ve seen McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World where the southern hemisphere appears on the top and the northern below. In the western world, the vision of a world map where the north is at the top with the Americas on the left and Eurasia to the right seems unquestionable. However, as a recent article on Aljazeera America points out, this convention is relatively new. For instance, the Egyptians placed south at the top and, for quite a while in Middle Ages, European cartographers placed east at the top of the page. So how did the north end up at the top of the page? Some theorize that the compass influenced this choice while others argue that a Eurocentric bias is at the route. However, there are issues with both ideas and it was likely a mixture of influences that contributed to our modern north-on-top maps.

Ridiculous Medieval Drawings of Animals

A humorous post recently appeared on Mashable which shared medieval drawings of animals which look nothing like reality. These hilarious works of art are fun to laugh at, but they also get us thinking about the artists behind them.


From the Rochester Beastiary

Look at the drawing of the elephant, for instance. While a certain amount of skill is evident in the techniques used by the painters, we know that even a young child today could give us a better representation of an elephant than the medieval artist who was likely actually highly trained in illumination and/or painting. This is a testament to the power of photography. Accurate images of elephants are readily available to everyone, while the medieval artist had likely only had one described to them by someone else who had it described to them in turn, and so on. Imagine drawing a creature you have never seen and cannot even be certain exists. In this instance, the artist was likely told that an elephant has a long nose like a funnel, thick legs, large fan-like ears, tusks like a boar and a tail like a horse. It would have been up to the artist to put this all together and fill in the blanks to give the largest land animal an image.


From Imgur

This oyster looks nothing like the pearl-presenting bivalves we are familiar with.


From Wikipedia Commons Peter Isotalo, origionally Livre des Simples Médecines

It appears that the artist was told a beaver is like a weasel with a fish tale. If beavers look like this, then creatures like griffins don’t seem all that far-fetched.

In short, these drawings show us the power of photography and our globalized world while giving us a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in a world where one had to rely on the spoken word far more than we are used to.

To see the rest of these ridiculous drawings, see the original post on Mashable: 14 Creepy Medieval Beasts That Look Nothing Like Real Animals.



How does one define a liberal arts education?

books-300x196The term “liberal arts” comes up a lot when discussing the various approaches to education found at American colleges and universities, but what exactly is a liberal arts education? Michael S. Roth’s new book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” tries to define it.

Roth argues that two distinct liberal arts traditions can be observed in the history of American tertiary education:

The first is a philosophical tradition emphasizing preparation for inquiry; its aim is freeing the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual. The second is a rhetorical tradition emphasizing initiation into a common culture through the study of canonical works; its aim is learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old. Roth characterizes the philosophical thread as “skeptical” and the rhetorical thread as “reverential.”

In most cases, universities or colleges define a liberal arts education as some combination of these two strands, emphasizing one or the other, in an effort at “serving the needs of the ‘whole person'”.

Roth’s discussion of a liberal arts education does not end here though. He goes on to critique the two-fold American liberal arts education and the idea that it must “higher education must generate useful knowledge that can benefit society, or can increase the student’s financial and social status, or can advance business and economic interests”, showing how influential Americans have helped to form the country’s educational system. Individuals discussed include Thomas Jefferson, who “admired knowledge for its own sake but insisted that it also be useful to human progress”; Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “education demanded cultivation of the self, resistance to the crowd and striving to transform society”; Booker T. Washington, who saw education as a means of “economic inclusion that might eventually lead to higher pursuits” for minorities such as the African-American community; W.E.B. Du Bois, who went further and asserted that education provided one with the ability to “help others attain their own freedom”; Jane Addams, who pursued education as a means to “cultivate empathy and cooperation”; and William James, who saw education in literature as a way to develop the imagination and “help overcome blindness to others’ points of view”.

Ultimately, Roth believes that education should go beyond the confines of university corridors towards the growth of the whole individual for the entirety of life. “Now more than ever, we need both reflective and pragmatic liberal education if we are to shape accelerating change rather than be shaped by it.”

The original article discussing Roth’s book can be found on The Washington Post. Another take on the same article can be found on The Daily Beast.

Professor David Swartz awarded History of Sociology Section Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award

swartzCongratulations to Professor David Swartz for winning the History of Sociology Section Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the American Sociological Association for his book Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Professor Swartz teaches in the Department of Sociology and the Core Curriculum Social Sciences. His book, which can be purchased from the University of Chicago Press, argues that power and politics are central to understanding Bourdieu’s sociology and that sociology is not only a science but a “crucial form of political engagement”.

Yet More Core Books


The Core recently did a survey of syllabi in programs at other schools offering courses that are like Core in method and structure: primary texts, organized chronologically, giving students a working knowledge of the foundational works and ideas of our shared cultural heritage. While many of the books we saw on those other syllabi were familiar to us — Gilgamesh! The Aeneid! The Confessions! Pride & Prejudice! — we were intrigued by the range of readings that aren’t studied in our own classes, but which we could imagine falling into place on our reading list if there were only room enough.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the major works students in other Core programs are reading. Some of them you’ll likely have heard of; others are less commonly encountered, inside the classroom or outside of it. In any case, we here in the Core office think a case could be made for including any or all of these books in a Core-type course.  But then, we here in the Core office also think a case could be made for establishing Core-type courses for students in the third year, and the fourth year, and, why not, as continuing education courses that alumni can take on campus or via some kind of online connection. Ὁ βίος βραχύς! If there is an emblem for our bookworm affliction, it would have to be poor tragic Henry Bemis from that old episode of The Twilight Zone….

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