Global Divestment Day, Feb 13

Reed College was established just over 100 years ago. I don’t know what the pressing issues of the day were back then, but they certainly didn’t include global climate change. The notion that human activity, everyday human activity no less, could alter the global ecosystem, threaten food production, accelerate the pace of species extinction, etc., etc., was not only completely foreign to the College’s founders, it would have seemed like the most far-fetched idea imaginable. Perhaps, just perhaps, they believed that global transformation was something that Divine Providence could bring about, but it is a virtual certainty that they never conceived of this as being within the power of human beings to effect.

A look back is necessary because the College’s founders wrote a policy statement for how the College should behave in the future, and that statement is based on a massively ignorant view regarding humanity’s potential for good and for ill, and the policy it contains is being used as an excuse for inaction.

Reed must divest now.

That said, getting there might need to take more time than I would like and it might need to happen in stages rather than all at once. But as far as I’m concerned those are details to be worked out later. The College’s stated policy on fossil fuel investments needs to change now. We are facing a massive crisis that confuses us only because it is happening slowly, because it is taking different forms in different locales (and most of those are far away from Reed and places are trustees live), and because a huge amount of money and institutional inertia is trying to appeal to deep-rooted habits of action and thought with this time-tested message: “Ignore this. You can always take care of it later. Much later.”

Fortunately, we know better. The consequences of global climate change can’t be ignored and the causes have already been set in motion so we can’t wait to act. Come to the Global Divestment Day events on campus on Feb 13. If you aren’t at Reed, follow the events on the web. And be sure to check out this 2012 video: “Bill McKibben’s Thought Bubble: The Fight of Our Time.

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Reckoning with Evil? Divest!

The first day of classes brought a new poster on the building’s front door: “Reckoning with Evil, an interview with Prof. Newlands, Notre Dame.

This simple poster caused me to reflect. Evil has so many disguises.

Consider the burning of fossil fuels. A little bit of burning is actually good – it has kept me (and my ancestors) warm in winter, cooked our food, and preserved our health. But now the burning has clearly gotten out of hand. The unbridled use of fossil fuels has a clear potential for global evil, so why is it so hard for Reed College to divest itself from fossil fuel industries? Why can’t the trustees muster up the courage to place any limits on its appetite for fossil fuel investments? Why can’t they see any wisdom or potential for good in divesting from the dirtiest sector of this industry: coal?

If you want to see how evil can cloak itself in good (“fossil fuel investments protect academic freedom”), and camouflage its true character by sowing confusion (“this is a political matter, there is no clear moral course”) and uncertainty (“how do we know divestment will be beneficial?”), just read the July 17, 2014 Statement on Divestment from the Reed College trustees.

We will all be guilty until we get free.

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Holiday greetings from the Dalai Lama

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has a message for us (reposted from Lion’s Roar):

My hope and wish is that, one day, formal education will pay attention to what I call education of the heart. Just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.

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The name of our beautiful reward is not profit

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of Portland’s greatest enduring gifts to the world of letters. I keep three of her so-called “young adult” books in my nightstand and I have obtained several copies of her rendering of the Tao Te Ching over the years, partly out of forgetfulness, but mostly out of enthusiasm for the spirit that she fires into these ancient teachings.

Ms. Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards ceremony last week in New York. Her acceptance speech has gone viral online (people still care that much about authors and books!?) and a follow-up interview with the Oregonian explores how the speech came about and her ideas on authoring, publishing, science fiction, and capitalism. Read the speech, the Oregonian interview, and listen to NPR’s coverage.

Some speech highlights:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. …

We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

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The True Source of Chemical Bonds

Move over G.N. Lewis. Forget electron sharing, bonding orbitals, and ionic attraction. xkcd has finally deduced the secret of chemical bonding. (And guess what? I see some unexpected connections between C and U chemistry!)

Typographic Chemistry, xkcd #1442

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Eric Mazur on Assessment

Eric Mazur is well known in science teaching circles for the innovative teaching approaches that he has popularized. He pays close attention to student behavior and data on student performance, and he also thinks deeply about what is going on in our classrooms. Most importantly, he isn’t afraid to try new things and advocate for them. So when he says something is wrong with the way we assess student work, one should listen. Or better yet, watch and listen because his 2013 lecture* “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning,” can be found on YouTube.

*Presented on Oct 29, 2013 as the Dudley Herschbach Teacher/Student Lecture

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Environmental Summit echoes one year later

The Dalai Lama Environmental Summit was held in Portland in May 2013. Many thousands attended. Maitripa College, the first Tibetan Buddhist college in the Pacific NW, has released a free 11 minute video highlighting some of the speakers, ideas, and feelings from that day. I hope some of this continues to echo one year later.

See the video. It will make you smile.

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Do what we must: Divest !!!

Reed’s plans to divest all fossil fuel holdings from its endowment were announced today by commencement speaker, Igor Vamos ’93. In the midst of his speech, which focused largely on the challenges of climate change, he told today’s graduates that their job is to “do what they must” to address these challenges rather than just “do what they love” (a reference to a phrase used by Steve Jobs at a Stanford commencement address). Vamos then added that Reed College Pres. John Kroger had informed him over breakfast of Reed’s decision to join 11 other colleges and universities and divest from fossil fuel companies.

This statement, along with much of the speech, was greeted with wild and enthusiastic applause. Let’s hope that the President and the Board of Trustees were listening.


May 22nd update: link to the Oregonian’s coverage of the Vamos prank.

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Prof. Cynthia McClure, 1953-2014

In a few days I’ll sit under the big white tent and watch a few hundred Reed seniors walk across the platform and accept their diplomas. It will be a proud, happy moment for the graduate, their family, and all of us at Reed. Then, hours later they will drive away from campus, heading off into a new life. Maybe a job, more school, or just testing the waters for what to do next.

All of this takes me back to my own college graduation in 1976. It was a sunny day in Pasadena and even as I accepted my diploma I was already thinking ahead to Madison, Wisconsin, my future destination. I wasn’t really interested in a ‘summer vacation’ (I had come down with a case of senioritis in the final quarter of my senior year so that had felt like vacation enough) and I was eager to get into a real research lab and start on my life’s work: being a professional organic chemist.

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And the Oscar goes to…

While I’m on the topic of science animations (see Animation Students take on Science), here’s another one that certainly deserves a larger audience. (And maybe should have attracted a little more notice at last Sunday’s Oscar ceremony?)

What is a Scientific Theory?

The video tackles the distinction between scientific theorizing and water-cooler speculation right from the start with, “You might say that you have a theory about alien spaceships or who ate the last piece of cake, but a scientist would not call these theories.” One key difference: scientific theories rest on facts. But there’s more.

Like the animations that I posted yesterday, this one came about as a 2012 class assignment. The class was offered jointly by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and the video was written, animated, and assembled, by two Brown undergrads: Jessica Brodsky and Alexis Shusterman (disclosure: my daughter).

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