Dante For Kids

Recently, someone had the idea that if Dante’s description of an eternal blazing netherworld were reprinted in comic sans, alongside understandably disturbing yet cartoonish illustrations, it might be more accessible to children. Consequently, a series of picture books based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, titled “Dante for Fun”, was published. Originally in Italian, the books simplify each of the three installments in the epic poem (one per book) for young readers.

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From reading this review–and simply from viewing sample pages of the books–”Dante for Fun” doesn’t quite seem fitting for a child. Then again, this is exactly the creepy, back-of-the-library kind of book that I remember being secretly captivated by as a kid.

What do you think of these picture books? Are you or a young’un you know enthralled by images of diviners with their heads on the wrong way, crying into their butt cracks? Let us know in the comments.

Ancient seals & amulets found in Turkey!

Late Babylonian seal depicting a praying man in front of divine symbols Source: Forschungsstelle Asia Minor

Late Babylonian seal depicting a praying man in front of divine symbols
Source: Forschungsstelle Asia Minor

Most Core students start off with Classical antiquity and its myriad cultures.

Integral to those cultures is their art, and we keep digging up more of it! Take, for example, the massive discovery of more than six hundred ancient seals and amulets in a sanctuary in Turkey, at the sacred site of the storm and weather god Jupiter Dolichenus.

“Such large amounts of seal consecrations are unheard-of in any comparable sanctuary”, said excavation director Prof. Dr. Engelbert Winter and archaeologist Dr. Michael Blömer at the end of the excavation season. In this respect, the finding of numerous pieces from the 7th to the 4th centuries B.C. close to the ancient city of Doliche is unparalleled.

“The amazingly large number proves how important seals and amulets were for the worshipping of the god to whom they were consecrated as votive offerings”, according to Classical scholar Prof. Winter. Many pieces show scenes of adoration. “Thus, they provide a surprisingly vivid and detailed insight into the faith of the time.” The stamp seals and cylinder seals as well as scarabs, made of glass, stone and quartz ceramics, were mostly crafted in a high-quality manner. Following the restoration work, the finds were handed over to the relevant museum in Gaziantep in Turkey.

Up to now, the researchers were able to identify late Babylonian, local Syrian Achaemenid and Levantine seals. “The large find provides new impetus for research to answer unsolved questions of cult practices, cult continuity and cult extension – above all, these are important for the understanding of the early history of the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C., which had been unknown until recently”, according to Prof. Winter. Later, in the 2nd century A.D., Jupiter Dolichenus turned into one of the most important deities of the Roman Empire.

To read on, visit the full article.

Also: don’t forget that your BU ID grants you free entry into the MFA (a mere 20 minute walk away from campus), where you can experience treasures such as the ones described above.

Voltaire & the Republic of Letters

A depiction by Achille Devaria of Voltaire greeting Ben Franklin and his nephew as they visit France. —© DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

A depiction by Achille Devaria of Voltaire greeting Ben Franklin and his nephew as they visit France.
—© DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

CC202 has just moved on from Candide. Voltaire strikes even the casual reader as a captivating persona, with wit and intelligence.

However, Voltaire’s role in the “Republic of Letters” is certainly worth a mention. To escape arrest, Voltaire lived at Cirey for fifteen years. He wrote a steady stream of letters to stay connected with his friends in Paris and others who were abroad, which helped promote his plays, historical works, and essays, while keeping him up to date with the latest intellectual developments.

This recent article from the National Endowment for the Humanities tells us more:

“Republic of Letters” sounds like a term coined by a historian, but it was one used by the participants themselves. In an era defined by monarchical government, class hierarchy, and religious divisions, the members of the “republic” saw themselves as engaging each other on intellectual—and therefore equal—terms. “Letters” refers to both learning and the way that intellectual and scholarly developments spread throughout Europe and abroad. In thousands upon thousands of letters, members tried out new theories, critiqued ideas, relayed the newest gossip, and chronicled the mundane matters of life. The more international your network, the more cosmopolitan you were thought to be.

Correspondence was such an integral part of scholarly life that Montesquieu mocked it in his Persian Letters, when he has a boorish astronomer brag, “I have very little contact with people, and among those I do see, there are none that I know. But there is a man in Stockholm, another in Leipzig, and another in London, whom I have never seen, and no doubt shall never see, that I maintain such a regular correspondence that I never fail to write each of them with every mail.”

Scholars have used these letters to trace networks of friendships and shared knowledge. Who wrote to whom? Where did that idea come from? Did the English influence the French? Or, mon dieu, did the French influence the English? What about the Dutch? Have you heard the latest about Voltaire and his endorsement of Newton?

Much like our late-night Facebook chats or Skype calls with our old friends, these letters document how people at that time stay abreast of the trends and news of their time.

Working with the Packard Humanities Institute and the Electronic Enlightenment Project, the Stanford team created a database that logged the metadata for each letter, including sender, recipient, date, and location. A team of students led by Jeffrey Heer, then an assistant professor at Stanford, designed the visualization software. The tool, RPLVIZ, lets users select which authors to display, along with options to render the full correspondence, or only letters sent or received.

The resulting maps not only proved that correspondence could be visualized in a useful way, but also yielded surprising results. “Most of the correspondence networks were far more national than you would gather from reading the letters,” says Edelstein. Voltaire’s network explodes like a firework over France, with tails to England, Russia, and the Swiss cantons. John Locke’s covers England and Scotland, with a foray to Dublin. Correspondence by Joseph Addison, who founded The Spectator, sprawls from London to Dublin, Paris, Chennai, and Venice.

It is not surprising to see these spheres spread to the newly-formed United States of America.

If Voltaire left an indelible mark on eighteenth-century France, then the same can be said of Benjamin Franklin and America. Before Franklin became one of the Founding Fathers, he made a name for himself in Philadelphia as a publisher and innovator. In 1727, at the age of twenty-one, he formed “Junto,” a group of tradesmen and artisans who gathered to discuss key issues of the day. Four years later, he came up with the idea of creating a subscription library, which made it possible for members to read and share books they might not otherwise be able to afford. He also founded the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), becoming its first president in 1749. Along with running his own printing business, Franklin also served as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. When he wasn’t moving type and discussing politics, Franklin conducted scientific experiments, inventing the Franklin stove (a metal-lined fireplace) and bifocal glasses, not to mention his famous proposal of flying a kite with a key during an electrical storm to prove that lightning is electricity.

If the Republic of Letters was an imagined community of Western thinkers, then Franklin was certainly a member. But as a resident of Philadelphia, which had a population of 25,000 in 1750, Franklin didn’t have the same resources as someone who lived in a European capital. Paris had 565,000 residents, while London was bursting with 700,000. There’s also the matter of the Atlantic Ocean, which presented a vast physical obstacle to connecting with his European counterparts.

Perhaps, this “Republic of Letters” has evolved into Tweets and vlogs, and Snapchats. Do you see our communication as a natural successor to what happened in Voltaire’s time? Leave a comment and let us know!

Famous Winters and Famous Symphonies


As February continues to barrage us with snow and ice, cold winds and cloudy skies, it can seem to many of us, especially those from warmer climes, that winter will never end, the snow will never melt, the days will never grow longer. At such a time, it can be nice to get a little perspective and think that, despite the cold and the damp and the gray, most of us will be spending these winter days inside where it’s warm (perhaps even too warm if you happen to be living in the overzealously heated dorms) and dry; we are all well fed and surrounded by hot chocolate and warm tea, and, oh yes, Hitler’s army isn’t laying siege to our walls.

Now many of us know more, already, than we want to about the harrowing 900 day siege that beset Leningrad in the early 1940′s. Death, despair, and famine all against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal weather and extreme winters. Russia has always been a country in opposition to the elements, carving cities out of ice it seems, even to those New Englanders who have been here in the chilly North winter after winter. It takes a tough breed to last those Russian winters, and this tough skin along with cold and hunger made them formidable foes to the Nazis, despite their own loss and suffering.
Of course many books, both fiction and nonfiction, have immortalized the story of Leningrad’s perseverance, but Brian Moynahan’s new book Leningrad: Siege and Symphony puts the siege in a different perspective by telling two tales simultaneously: the resistance against the Nazi’s and the creation and first Leningrad performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the battered city and a symbol of opposition and the free world to the West in the days following the war. Yet, according to this review of the book by Stephen Walsh, even more moving than the symbol this symphony did and has become is the descriptions of the concert where music was created against unimaginable odds:

How else to explain the successful performance of the Seventh Symphony that following August? It was a full-blooded 70-minute work for an orchestra of more than 100, performed by a radio band reduced by death and infirmity to a mere handful of sickly regulars, augmented by military-band players from the battlefront and by whatever extra wind and string players could be drafted in from the city’s dilapidated musical substrata, and directed by a conductor — Karl Eliasberg — who could himself barely hold a baton or stand upright.

Even more moving is the realization of this concert:

Yet eventually, at the final rehearsal, it all suddenly comes together, and the performance is an incredible triumph, greeted by a packed Philharmonie with a standing ovation that begins even before the end of the work, as the players falter and the audience urges them on.

The human will is an amazing thing that can create beauty and music in such conditions. Every year, still, there is a performance of this over an hour long piece in the very same concert hall where the original performance happened. If you need more inspiration than that to get through the rest of winter, here it is, the complete symphony that inspired a city about to break.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Today students in CC202 will be treated with a lecture on Beethoven by the Boston Conservatory’s Professor Elizabeth Seitz. Here are two excellent performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:

Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic

Abbado conduting the Berlin Philharmonic

All are welcome to come to the lecture in CAS B12 at 12:30 pm today to enjoy a full hour and a half of Beethoven!

CC106 Integrated Forum: Bird Song

Today, February 13th, at 2 PM in CAS 211 three biologists will meet for an integrated forum on bird song. Although the forum is for the CC106 class, anyone is welcome. Professor Tim Gardner will discuss the physiology of sound and hearing, Professor Frederick Wasserman will discuss the behavioral function of bird vocalizations and Jelle Atema will discuss “Is it music?”

Professor Tim Gardner received his PhD from the Rockefeller University. He teaches a course on neuroethology is research focuses on the mechanisms of temporal sequence perception and production, focusing on vocal learning in songbirds. Read more about his research here.

Professor Frederick Wasserman received a PhD from the University of Maryland. His research focuses on bird song, behavior and territoriality from an evolutionary perspective and recently he has focused on Ovenbirds in suburban Massachusetts. He teaches a number of courses, including introductory biology, ecology, vertebrate zoology, animal behavior and ornithology.

Professor Jelle Atema received his PhD from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the chemical ecology of lobsters, navigation in sharks and dispersal in larval reef fishes. He is an adjunct scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and in addition to teaching in the core natural sciences, he teaches a course in the marine science program.

If you cannot make it to the forum, don’t fret: We’ll make sure to post a synopsis of what was discussed!

Ian Mckellen reading The Odyssey

Ian Mckellen’s voice is excellent. The Odyssey is excellent.
Ian Mckellen’s voice reading the Odyssey is even better!

This is essentially Mckellen impersonating Homer himself.

Are there any other exciting audiobooks of Core texts you have stumbled upon?
Let us know!

What is wrong with TED talks?

Do you like TED talks?

Some address issues relevant to the Core, including literature, art, theater, music, education, and choice of curriculum. Many of the talks can be informative and inspiring.

However, Benjamin Bratton, a theorist in philosophy, art and design, raises an important point in his TED talk, titled What’s Wrong With TED Talks?

He tackles what TED really is, discusses its focus on innovation, and offers valid criticisms of TED’s approach towards technology, entertainment and design. Here is an excerpt from the video linked above:

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realization, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are  complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time –and the audience’s time— dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

For more information, visit Benjamin Bratton’s own website.

For a humorous take on the TED talks, be sure to watch some Onion Talks!

The Advantages of a BU ID


A Boston University student ID has always had the power to get you in to the MFA for free, but just this semester, you can go the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well! Now that’s good enough of an incentive for most of us, but for the few unconvinced, here’s a brief article that might give you the final push. Three sociologists Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen found themselves in the unique opportunity to study the relationship between art and the human mind when Alice Walton (daughter of Walmart’s founder) founded a huge art museum in Arkansas, where very few students had had access to one before.

Students who, by lottery, were selected to visit the museum on a field trip demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.

Now, we’ve had a few posts before about the benefits of art education and the power of exposure including links specifically pointing out the power of reading literature, but like Kisida, Greene, and Bowen point out, very little research has been done on the actual causal relationship. For that reason, this article’s implications are especially exciting. The arts have always had a difficult time justifying themselves, and it’s studies like these that remind us all the importance of supporting the arts, or continuing to be create art yourself.

And extra brownie points to anyone who can find all three of these pieces (all living right here in Boston).

I Bet You Thought Neil DeGrasse Tyson Was the World’s Richest Astrophysicist

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I like my progressive/arena/opera rock the way I like my education: Far-reaching in the realms of content and style, influenced by timeless masters of the past, and damn groovy. I write of the latter in reference to an integral part of the CC105 curriculum; that is, learning to bump to Professor Alan Marscher’s sweet, sweet tunes.

Another artist, however, which I have always considered a worthy listen is the band Queen. One of the finest and most legendary acts to emerge from the domain of 20th century British rock wizardry, Queen endures as a sound that is simultaneously accessible and complex. This sound owes its success to, most notably, the honest flamboyance of the late Freddie Mercury, and the talent and creative fire of lead guitarist Brian May. May’s solos and riffs complement Mercury’s marching staccatos in a special way that gives Queen its intoxicating signature layered sound.

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And just to reiterate, May, now at age 66, is the one responsible for all the milky solos heard on your favorite Queen tracks. Take, for example, the aristocratic echoes on “Killer Queen”, or the warm wahs of “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”–both were seamlessly weaved into grooviness by our English gentleman’s own nimble fingers.

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But, in the style of the Core, May has also extended his energies across multiple intellectual dimensions. At the same time that the release of the “Queen II” LP in March 1974 began to pull Queen into the limelight, May had been in the process of pursuing his PhD in astrophysics at Imperial College London. Due to the new demands of his band, he abandoned his scientific studies–only to return to school to complete his doctoral studies more than 30 years later. In 2008, May graduated from Imperial College (the graduation ceremony was held in the Royal Albert Hall, at which, ironically, the original Queen lineup never played). Only a month after completing his doctorate, he was even appointed as Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

"Don't stop me nooooooow, I'm havin' such a good time."

“Don’t stop me nooooooow, I’m havin’ such a good time.”

May’s PhD thesis, A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. If you would prefer a sample of his work that’s a little less dense, May also co-authored a book, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, along with astrophysicists Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. The book’s introduction reads:

So let us look back to the very start of the Universe – just after the Big Bang itself. It is tempting to picture the Universe suddenly bursting out in a vast ocean of space, but this is completely misleading. The true picture of the Big Bang is one in which space, matter and, crucially, time were born. Space did not appear out of ‘nothingness’; before the moment of creation there was no ‘nothingness’. Time itself had not yet begun, and so it does not even make sense to speak of a time before the Big Bang. Not even a Shakespeare or an Einstein could explain this in plain English, though the combination of the two might be useful!

Sounds to me like something to consider reading next year in CC105, as the Core explores the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. Then again, maybe this Monty Python skit that Professor Marscher shared with the class this fall satisfied everyone’s existential qualms.

Either way, Brian May’s interdisciplinary success is an inspiring testament to the Core’s dedication to liberal education. Also, note May’s spooky resemblance to Sir Isaac Newton.