2014-15 was a year of both inspiration and reflection for Arts & Sciences. Our students and faculty gained new knowledge, achieved noteworthy recognitions, and confronted difficult issues facing our community and country. Below you can find a sampling of what we’ll remember from this year.
What makes you curious? Throughout “Ampersand Week” in February, professors and students from philosophy to physics celebrated the diversity and vitality of the liberal arts. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, creators and co-hosts of the hit podcast Radiolab, spoke to a jam-packed Graham Chapel for the week’s capstone event. "There's nothing more exciting than listening to someone think," Abumrad said.
Visit WUSTL ArtSci on YouTube for thoughts from Jen Smith, dean of the College, on the importance of the “&” in Arts & Sciences.
Last August, the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown sent shock waves across St. Louis and the country. In response to Brown’s death and the turmoil that followed, hundreds of students and faculty joined protests in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri. Frank discussions about inequality and injustice led to conversations about the importance of diversity and inclusion even closer to home – on campus. Following a two-day forum on race and ethnicity, Provost Holden Thorp announced a new university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee. The 17-person committee includes both students and faculty from Arts & Sciences. For perspectives from throughout the year on Ferguson and related topics, visit voices.wustl.edu.
Why does time go forward? According to Kater Murch, assistant professor of physics, the bizarre, microscopic world of quantum mechanics holds clues to this question. By looking at a quantum system’s evolution both before and after a specific time, Murch was able to predict information about the quantum system with 90% accuracy. The same type of prediction is just 50% accurate when scientists only look forward in time. The improved odds imply the measured quantum state somehow incorporates information from the future as well as the past. This suggests that in the quantum world time runs both backward and forward, whereas in the classical world it only runs forward.
For his work in quantum mechanics, Murch has been awarded a prestigious 2015 Sloan Research Fellowship. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grants these fellowships to early-career scientists who may become the next generation of scientific leaders.
Every two years, the Center for the Humanities awards the largest humanities prize in the country to a noted scholar, writer, or artist. According to Jean Allman, the center's director, literary critic Marjorie Perloff was the unanimous choice for the 2014 prize. Perloff’s family fled Nazi troops in Austria and came to the United States when she was a child. Later in life, she returned to her roots to examine Viennese reverence for “high art” alongside more democratic American artistic ideals. Now regarded as one of the most influential literary critics of her generation, Perloff became especially well known for her writings about avant-garde poetry. “She is one of the most interesting, important, and acclaimed voices in her field," said Allman.
In his 33 years on campus, economist Steven Fazzari has won teaching awards, held numerous leadership positions, and become a leading expert on income inequality in the United States. Recently, he accepted the unique challenge of leading a new academic department. For more about Fazzari and the new Department of Sociology, see our feature story: Sociology Reborn.
Jeff Zacks, professor of psychology, loves movies. He’s also passionate about cognitive neuroscience. These two topics come together in his latest book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies. In the book, Zacks explains how human brains have evolved such that that we react to real-life situations in predictable ways. For example, if we view a person smiling or crying, we may also smile or cry. By tapping into these instincts, films successfully get into the heads of audiences. Zacks looks at both at the history and future of movie-making in this compelling read.
Scientists believed for most of the 20th century that optical microscopes would never be able to observe anything smaller than .2 micrometers. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, this was kind of like being able to look down at a city and see its buildings, but not its inhabitants. W.E. Moerner, an alumnus of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering, has earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in bringing this imaginary city’s people into focus. In 1989, Moerner became the first scientist in the world to measure the light absorption of a single molecule. Scientists now use the fluorescence of molecules to track cell division at the nanolevel, monitor individual molecules, and observe disease-related proteins.
In cities across the globe – including St. Louis – invisible lines separate communities. How are these boundaries experienced, and when and how are they crossed? To examine these types of questions, in fall 2014 the Center for the Humanities, in collaboration with the College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design, embarked on a four-year, $1.6 million project focused on urban segregation. So far, six faculty collaborative grants have been awarded. One of these will examine urban segregation and grassroots political activism by gathering oral histories of the Ferguson movement.
Celebrated filmmaker Ken Burns recently gave a somber order to the class of 2015: “Our cities and towns and suburbs cannot become modern plantations.” Later on in his commencement address, Burns again charged the new graduates with the difficult task of fixing national problems developed over generations, saying, “We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it.” His moving vision for a great United States included appeals for the class of 2015 to appreciate and celebrate common sense, curiosity, Mark Twain, jazz, and the liberal arts. “Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts,” he said. “They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country — they just make our country worth defending.”
Originally published for the Ampersand: Alumni Edition. For more stories and updates from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, visit our news and events page or subscribe to the Ampersand weekly newsletter.