Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

November 19, 2003:
Up Close and Personal
the Artist Close, the Ethicist Randy Cohen, and Alien Life

by Kate Swearengen '04

McCosh 50 filled 30 minutes early for painter and printmaker Chuck Close's October 9 talk. In attendance were some of Close's own relatives, Joyce Carol Oates, and the Belknap family, which sponsors the series of lectures of which Close's was a part. Also present were a large number of art students, several of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Keith, the portrait of a young man with a studied expression and Buddy Holly glasses featured on the posters advertising Close's talk.

Close, paralyzed in 1988 by a spinal blood clot, took the stage in a wheelchair. He showed slides of his work, punctuating his discussion with light-hearted asides. With his enviable posture and shaved head, Close looked nothing like his best-known work, a 1968 self-portrait of the artist sporting a greasy halo of hair and smoking a cigarette. The effect is that of a bohemian Jack Nicholson in full "here's Johnny" mode.

Close started out working with black paint on white canvas, but switched media when he felt that he had grown too complacent. Routine is an indulgence that Close prefers to avoid. His art is comprised of impressive range of media and forms that include his own fingerprints — "I wanted to make art that couldn't be forged" — donut-shaped pixels in magenta, cyan, and yellow, and plastic chips laid out like shingles.

Close treats the face like a landscape, a philosophy that is reflected both in the uncompromising realism and scale of his work. "The bigger they are, the more time they take to walk by, the more likely they'll be seen." Close said of his paintings.

His subjects are family members, friends, and fellow artists, including Philip Glass, Richard Serra, and Roy Lichtenstein.

At the conclusion of Close's talk the audience responded with an explosion of applause that only seemed to crescendo. "I love him." A senior in the art department said. "I always gravitated toward his paintings when I was a kid because they were the most accessible things in the modern art exhibit."


Randy Cohen, who writes the "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine, spoke at Rockefeller College on October 9. His talk was the first installment of "Do the Right Thing," a forum on ethics that will be held in the residential colleges.

Cohen, who looks nothing like the sketch that accompanies his column, addressed an audience of undergraduates who sat on the folding chairs and couches of the Madison Hall common room. He began with a disclaimer — "I did not major in philosophy in college. I barely got through college." — and recounted how he landed his current job. "When the editors first pitched the idea to me, I thought it was for a column called 'The Anesthetist,' and that my job would be to lull readers to sleep, much as William Safire does." Cohen said. "I think the editors picked me because I wasn't an academic type. Which is not to say that professors can't write. I mean, thank God they can't."

Cohen answered ethical dilemmas that had been submitted on paper prior to the meeting. The first question involved a scenario in which a nutritionally-conscious college girl habitually abstains from chocolate cake, but encourages her friends to partake of the dessert. Unethical, given the fact that the girl's friends aren't as calorie-savvy?

"I don't think that nutritional information is specialized knowledge. I mean, the whole chocolate cake thing has gotten out." Cohen said.

Subsequent questions involved the ethics of the Recording Industry of America's current crackdown, underage drinking, and the Honor Code. After Cohen rendered his judgment, the students voted with raised hands as to whether they agreed or disagreed. A roving microphone made its way around the crowd for those eager to voice their opinions.

"You don't have an ethical duty to report someone else's bad behavior. Social bonds put the person asked to report in an intolerable position." Cohen said. He acknowledged that the issue is complicated by the fact that Princeton students sign the Honor Code as a condition of matriculation. "Voluntary agreements are tricky because sometimes they're not so voluntary," Cohen said.


If Princeton were the Milky Way, the Fitz-Randolph Observatory, outshone by the celestial brightness of nearby Palmer Stadium, would be a dim body on the frontier. On the night that the Princeton football team was busy losing to Columbia, Princeton Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (P-OSETI) held its orientation night.

The Fitz-Randolph Observatory, which gained fame in Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast—"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Carl Phillips, speaking to you from the observatory at Princeton. I am standing in a large semi-circular room, pitch black except for an oblong split in the ceiling. Through this opening I can see a sprinkling of stars that cast a kind of frosty glow over the intricate mechanism of the huge telescope."—fell out of use until a few years ago, when physicist David Wilkinson reclaimed it and instituted P-OSETI.

Wilkinson has since died — his passion for the project is evident in the presence of his photograph on the observing deck and in the fond recollections of those with whom he worked—but P-OSETI lives on. Its mission is to monitor the universe for signs of intelligent life — that is, for pulses of visible light so brief that they last only nanoseconds. False readings are common, and therefore the project is carried out in tandem with Harvard. If both telescopes observe the same phenomenon, the signal is probably real.

The P-OSETI team strives to make observations on every clear night. There is a sunset-to-midnight shift and a midnight-to-sunrise shift. The work is carried out entirely by volunteers, some of them students and some of them local astronomers. Potential observers or those who would just like a tour of the observatory should contact oseti@princeton.edu.