Inventions, Innovations, Ideas
- The editors
The Princeton Integrated Knowledge Initiative
An interview with William Bialek
Given the diverse preparation (or lack of) of incoming students, what is an introductory course supposed to do now?
Hard question. I have only taught introductory courses that are aimed at "honors" students in the sciences, so we can admit from the start that these courses are not for everyone. Maybe that is part of the answer: Surely we know that an introduction to physics for prospective physics majors (who presumably have considerable background already) is different than an introduction to physics for prospective philosophy or sociology majors. The real problem comes when students have talent and ambition, but not much background. You can't just tell people to take lower level courses and hope that they will build up, since they are only here for four years. To get around this you need to commit lots of resources, with tutoring and other individualized instruction to fill the gaps. We can just barely do this at Princeton, but I don't know how to scale it up to larger and less wealthy institutions.
Is it true that most undergraduate students are only open to influence in their first year of study? In this respect, do you see teaching as a matter of Socratically corrupting the youth or as shaping the character of "model citizens / model scientists" or is it a mere imparting of facts, organized for either preparation for advanced study or for entrance into the labor market?
It is true, by definition, that you only get one chance to make a first impression. As a physicist I tend not to worry so much about whether students can recite "facts" as whether they have mastered certain theoretical structures, understanding the ins and outs of the mathematics and how this formalism relates to the natural world. But I suspect that most of this mastery is acquired by the students working through things for themselves. This means that when we teach we really need to worry about point of view and intellectual approach. I guess that's a long way of saying that I'm definitely here to corrupt the youth rather than preparing them for their next job.
Princeton is known for its elitism and professionalism. Does this reputation shape the approach you take to transmitting knowledge?
Wow. Let's be honest: Science, and especially theoretical physics, is not an egalitarian enterprise. I think it can be democratic, in that we must create an environment in which all the participants have an equal shot at being heard by the community. But at the end of the day some people contributed more than others to our understanding of the world, and in this sense there is genuine elitism. I would like to see Princeton educating students who are part of this elite in the next generation, and I don't think it makes sense to hide this ambition. In this sense I am an unapologetic elitist.
An important historical note is that, at least in the 20th century, the scientific elite was of a very different ethnic composition than the social or economic elite of their home countries. In some cases what we look at as great flowerings of scientific activity were coincident with emancipation of previously disenfranchised groups. Thus there is a huge difference between elitism within science, which I think is unavoidable, and systems which carry the historical or socio-economic elitism of the larger society into the academy, which is a disaster.
Also on the topic of elitism, we know that lots of people enjoyed watching Michael Jordan play basketball even though they never got much beyond fumbling around the playground courts. Similarly, and perhaps more to the point, we understand that learning something about music allows us to better appreciate a symphony, and that being guided through a novel by a great literary critic is a different experience than reading on our own. I think we should be transmitting a view of science at its best -- science as practiced by the elite -- to the widest possible audience.
With literature, even if you don't become an elite writer or scholar yourself you still read the great novels. In science there is a huge barrier to reading the original work or even the professional level presentations of this work in textbooks. In this sense physics may be more like comparative literature, where you can't even get started until you have substantial language skills. To transmit an appreciation for the accumulated intellectual achievements of the scientific elite therefore involves laying down a lot of groundwork. Maybe this is a concise summary of the problem in introductory science courses: To bring students as quickly as possible to the point where they can appreciate for themselves the extraordinary beauty of what scientists have created in trying to understand the world around us.
What is the role of mathematics and other formal tools in each of the science fields you are integrating here? Is there a difference in the role that computers play?
It's conventional to say that mathematics has played a central role in physics, less in chemistry and not at all in biology. I think this is a drastic oversimplification of scientific history: Although it pains me to admit it (I'm a theorist) many important discoveries in physics were made by mathematically unsophisticated experimentalists. Conversely, many fundamental discoveries in biology in fact depended on mathematical analyses even if the resulting "facts" can be summarized without using math. What is true is that the education of physicists and biologists have diverged, so that these notions about the role of mathematics have become self-reinforcing. One of the reasons we are teaching this integrated course is the belief that this all has to change.
Is there any context in which any one of the fields can make claims about having a 'more or less complete and consistent' description of observed phenomena in its domain? If so, what is your opinion on the current state and the speed at which the knowledge (or data?) is being accumulated?
Surely there are large parts of the world for which we can write down all the relevant equations. For some situations we can even solve the equations and know what will happen. This is why, for example, people can build the chips that run your computer. There are other situations where we know the equations but solving them is very hard, and the solutions are very sensitive to details that are hard to measure; this is why it's tough to predict the weather. Finally there are situations where we don't really know the relevant equations. Much of life is like this. We could say that we know the equations, because in principle we can describe every molecule, but this is a completely empty statement. Realistically we don't know what equations to write down to explain what a cell does as it crawls on a surface, for example.
We have known for fifty years what kinds of equations describe the electrical signals flowing in a small piece of a nerve cell, but we don't really know how all the different terms add up when we look at big complicated cells that receive inputs from thousands of other cells. Although once again we know an enormous amount about all the molecules in these cells (which by the way are pretty much the same in earthworms and in our brains), we don't really know how to write down equations that allow us to understand how millions or billions of cells work together to produce our conscious experiences or even some of our more sophisticated unconscious reactions.
Do you think that differences between fields discussed in this section play a major role when designing a new integrated course - if so, in what way?
I'll admit that I'm a physics chauvinist: I think the future of all the sciences is that they will look more like physics does today, with sophisticated mathematical theories being tested by quantitative experiments, usually analyzed via substantial computing power. In this sense I don't feel that the historical differences in teaching the different disciplines should influence what we do now. On the other hand, our understanding of different parts of nature has developed in different ways, and we and our students need to deal with this current state. Thus we need to transmit the different cultural threads and a respect for the remarkably divergent strategies which have succeeded in different contexts. This really is hard.
By the way, it would be easier if we could look at the history of science and say: Whenever people try X it fails, or works for a while and leads to a dead end, while the program based on Y has marched along from success to success for centuries. Then you know you should do Y, and that's that. But we know from historians and philosophers of science that this just isn't a good model of what actually happened. So as much as we want to transmit a coherent message regarding how we as scientists think about the world, we also know to be wary of oversimplification.
An interview with Miguel A. Centeno
Everyone bandies the term about until it has become almost trite-yet no one knows what it means. How do you understand "globalization"? How do you startle students into a new, clear understanding of the term?
The term HAS become trite. Unfortunately there is no other that does not have similar problems. My version of globalization consists of a) increasing global or transnational linkages, b) across social, economic, cultural, and political categories, c) with constantly accelerating velocity, d) producing complex systems of interdependence. What that means is no one is isolated from other parts of the planet - for good or for ill. Indonesians both receive tsunami aid from the USA and pay with terror because of American policies; Americans can purchase any product from anywhere in the world, but can also see their economic lives ruined; Europeans can enjoy passport free borders, but with greater pressures from immigrant flows...and on and on.
Is globalization a force for good, a malicious plot, or an inevitable tide?
SILLY question and one that has dominated too much of the discourse. Globalization is a historical reality. As such, there is nothing universalistically inevitable about it. It is the product of a global market-oriented economy and its coexistence with unipolar political power. It has been VERY good for some - and not just the hyper-rich. All data indicate that on the aggregate an economy is much better off being part of globalization than outside of it. Within that aggregate there may many cases of individual suffering and we should fully expect resistance. As with practically any social phenomenon, the "good or bad" aspects of globalization depend on where you are sitting at any point in time - as a producer, as a consumer, as an economic actor, or as a political one.
What would the opposite of globalization be? Is something other than globalization even possible in today's world?
The obvious opposite is autarky, where societies or nations rely more on their own domestic capacity than on global links to produce or consume whatever. Given current structures and policies, I don't see us shifting from a globalizing model in time soon, UNLESS the infrastructure necessary for globalization (e.g. internet, global capital markets, transport) became impossible due to some kind of natural or man-made disaster. The chances of such a systemic failure really depend on where the damage is done: There is quite a bit of redundancy in the system and as a network, globalization is quite robust, but a hit on a key node (say, New York City) would be catastrophic.
When did globalization begin? Isn't it something that has been going on in one way or another for centuries?
It really depends on how you define it. We have been globalizing as a species since 100,000 years ago when we began the global migration from Africa. There is evidence of cross-regional trade as early as 3-5,000 BC. The Roman Empire could be seen as a globalizing force. Even more so, the Islamic ummah beginning in the 7th-8th centuries created a globe-spanning society linked by language and values. 1492 clearly represents another break, as do the transitional empires of the 19th century. So we have had previous cases of such connections, but I would argue that the contemporary phenomenon is unique because of its breadth, density and velocity.
What sort of students take your class on globalization, and in what ways do they consider it relevant to their lives?
So far only 5 MPA [Master of Public Affairs] students, but I hope that it will expand to a much larger course with undergrads next year.
What do students read in your course?
They start with Braudel and so far have read through Sassen - a lot of the materials are statistical sources, since that is what we focus on.
In your work on the International Networks Archive, what kinds of measurable, capable, or visible kinds of data are you using to understand globalization?
Based on your work so far, what would you consider the most important take-away lesson on globalization?
It has obvious benefits - the worst thing that can happen is that it passes you by - BUT it also comes with serious costs to which we have to pay much more attention if it is going to survive.
We can learn a great deal about the historicity and dynamics of globalization by re-reading The Communist Manifesto. Already in 1848, Marx could see many things coming. Whether we like or dislike globalization, I think we all have to admit that this is not a bad summary:
"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
An interview with Chibli Mallat
Chibli Mallat, you, a mere professor of law, have declared your candidacy for the presidency of Lebanon. But you have neither a legacy claim to this presidency nor does it appear that you yet have a popular following. Can you explain why this candidacy is more an innovation than an impossibility?
I am running to win. If additional, novel points are scored on the way, so much the better. The Lebanese president is elected by MPs; the present configuration, and the credit made with leading blocs, makes it highly winnable, as noted in two important profiles already published, in the Financial Times and in Arabian Business. Then there is the groundswell of enthusiasm among the decent people of Lebanon, who are the majority, for a person they know well from lead talkshows and regular hard-hitting articles in the press. 'Mere' is not the operative word here.
You are also an intellectual, and in the United States it has been nearly forty years since an intellectual ran for president. Even a plumber here might launch a more plausible candidacy. Are the qualifications for candidacy in the Middle East different?
The concept of "intellectual" is meaningless in a world where wealth is produced at 80 percent by services, eminently "intellectual" products if any. I am a lawyer, a writer, a columnist, a human rights advocate, a defender of the people in international fora. And I think it is not only possible, but would be great, if a professor of law at Yale or anthropology at Princeton seriously considered running in the next U.S. presidential elections.
You are well known for your work in international human rights, both as a theorist about the relation of law to democracy and as an activist. How does this work inform your candidacy, and what might it contribute to doing electoral politics differently?
My candidacy is, as the Financial Times has called it, that of a human rights lawyer who bridges the divide: the divide between East and West, and between various communities in Lebanon.
Lebanon is small, vulnerable, and weak, surrounded by neighbors who like to flex their muscles. Given your reputation for independence, and your advocacy for establishing genuine participatory democracy in the Middle East, how do you plan to resist either being bought out or assassinated?
I think the Saddam Husseins, Ariel Sharons and Muammar Qaddafis of this world, against whom I have led successful suits, know I am incorruptible. As for security, I do believe that after the Melhis investigation, political assassins are thinking twice before carrying on their traditional business. And I am extra careful.