Prisons, Pluto & Pedigree
2016 Research in Review
By Rebecca King
Each year, researchers across the globe create and publish new knowledge—so much so, that it can be hard to keep up with one field, let alone the liberal arts! So what happened in 2016? We asked several faculty members to share some of the inspiring discoveries or groundbreaking work done in their field this year.
The observation of gravitational waves was the big news in physics this year. These ripples in the fabric of spacetime were first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago, and were confirmed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. So far, most of our observations of the universe have been based on light; gravitational waves open up a new way to discover more about the unexplored aspects of the universe.
Ray Arvidson—Earth and Planetary Sciences
The New Horizons mission, for which my colleague Bill McKinnon is a co-investigator, continues to provide historic and fascinating information from the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.
Deanna Barch—Psychological & Brain Sciences
Research over the past 40 years has shown that people often have a difficult time remembering the events of American history, including the names of presidents. Further, humans can be prone to “false” memories, such as thinking that a famous figure in American history was a president when they were not. Research by Roddy Roediger tested this question using modern memory testing methods. He and coauthor K. Andrew DeSoto found that even when memory is examined in a way that supports recall, knowledge of the American presidents is imperfect and open to error, including the frequent belief that a familiar figure - like Alexander Hamilton - was president, even though he never was. This suggests the need for enhanced methods for helping students of history retain facts and avoid false memories.
“Recognizing the Presidents: Was Alexander Hamilton President?”
This was the year of the “Elephant graph” – proposed first in a 2012 paper by Branko Milanovic. The horizontal axis ranks the world population from the poorest 5% to the richest 1%. The last two points are for the 95%-99% and top 1% groups. Vertically you find the cumulated growth in the real income of the corresponding quintile. There are two curves: the second one shows how the Great Recession changed things. The message is striking: everybody gained, but some people gained more than others. Gains are huge for the world middle class, and all goes well until the 75-90% groups, where they become much smaller, to increase again for the last two groups, the global elite. In the words of Milanovic: “The […] non-winners of globalization were those between the 75th and 90th percentiles […]” “These people, […] include many from former Communist countries and Latin America, as well as those citizens of rich countries whose incomes stagnated.” This simple observation goes a long way to help us understanding the economic roots of the ongoing debate in our country, and in Europe.
“Global Income Inequality by the Numbers: In History and Now”
Mass incarceration in the United States, finally, landed in the center of a national debate this year. That’s in large part a result of more than a decade of research and publications by social scientists, legal scholars and historians. In 2016, several historians contributed key studies of the history of crime and punishment in America, including: Elizabeth Hinton wrote about the expansion of federal prisons and criminalization of poverty in the late 1960s, the dark underside of the Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs; Heather Ann Thompson published a long-awaited account of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, highlighting the guards’ brutal attacks on prisoners and New York state’s decades-long cover-up of the violence; and Sarah Haley detailed the history of women sentenced to hard labor in prison camps in late-nineteenth-century Georgia. These books, spanning nearly a century, reveal a troubling and long-neglected piece of American history.
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
No Mercy Here: Gender Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity
The sun is central to the lives of plants, as sunlight provides their food energy and is a key source of spatial and seasonal information. A big breakthrough in the field of plant biology this year was the discovery that a single protein allows the plant cell to perceive both the light and the heat of the sun. This protein, named phytochrome b, was already known to respond to the color and brightness of light. Two new reports in the journal Science, one from the lab of WashU biology professor Rick Vierstra, show that phytochrome b is also sensitive to temperature.
“Phytochrome B integrates light and temperature signals in Arabidopsis”
“Phytochromes function as thermosensors in Arabidopsis”
Review article: “Light-sensing phytochromes feel the heat”
Excellent examples of this include two books published this year, Debating Gun Control and Debating Climate Change Ethics.
I’ve been particularly encouraged that first-rate philosophers have produced empirically informed work on some the most theoretically-vexing and practically-pressing issues that we currently face both as a domestic society and globally.
Adia Harvey Wingfield—Sociology
I think one of the most exciting books to come out this year is Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree. I’ve been recommending it in classes, to colleagues, and pretty much everyone I know interested in how social processes undermine meritocratic ideals in the job market. Rivera studies hiring processes for elite professional service (EPS) firms in law, consulting, and banking, and finds that rather than these jobs going simply to the “best qualified” applicants, recruiters pick candidates who are the most like them, apart from qualifications and criteria. This might seem like a commonsense finding, but Rivera makes it more complicated by noting that when salaried professionals make hiring decisions rather than HR professionals, social activities such as being an avid skier or squash player suddenly become characteristics that take precedence over grades and academic performance. She also finds that by targeting recruitment to a few select Ivy League institutions, these firms exploit students’ sense of self-importance and entitlement—they “deserve” these high paying jobs because they are “the best and the brightest,” even if these careers don’t really appeal to their interests. It’s a terrific study that highlights how economic inequality is maintained in ways that allow those at the top of the economic spectrum to shore up and reproduce their advantages.
Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs