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Bright Horizons #19 — Seminars

Southeast Asia • February 3rd – 17th, 2014

Sean Carroll, Ph.D.



Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D.

Andrew Wilson, Ph.D.

NATURAL HISTORY: Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.

The conference fee is $1,575 and includes all 26 60- to 90-minute seminars below.

• • • SEAN CARROLL, PH.D. • • •

The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson and the Future of Physics

For decades, particle physicists have searched for the elusive Higgs boson, the missing piece of the “Standard Model” that explains the world we see. In July 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced that they’d found it. We’ll discuss why the Higgs boson is so important, the enormous challenges physicists overcame to build the LHC and get it running, and consider what the future of particle physics will look like.

Our Preposterous Universe

The 20th century witnessed breathtaking discoveries about the nature of the cosmos. We learned that the universe is over 10 billion years old, that it is expanding, and that ordinary objects (stars, planets, human beings) represent less than five percent of what the universe is made of. The rest is in the form of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” mysterious substances that physicists are still trying to understand. I’ll discuss the evidence that points us to dark matter and dark energy, as well as some of the theoretical ideas that might help explain them.

The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time

One of the most obvious facts about the universe is that the past is different from the future. We can remember yesterday, but not tomorrow; we can turn an egg into an omelet, but can’t turn an omelet into an egg. That’s the arrow of time, which is consistent throughout the observable universe. The arrow can be explained by assuming that the very early universe was extremely orderly, and disorder has been increasing ever since. But why did the universe start out so orderly? We’ll discuss the nature of time, the origin of entropy, and how what happened before the Big Bang may be responsible for the arrow of time we observe today.

The Many Worlds of Quantum Mechanics

One of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century was the theory of quantum mechanics, which tells us that experimental results can only be predicted probabilistically, rather than with certainty. Yet, after decades in which the theory has been successfully used on an everyday basis, most physicists would agree that we still don’t truly understand what it means. Learn about the source of this puzzlement, and why an increasing number of physicists are led to an apparently astonishing conclusion: that the world we experience is constantly branching into different versions, representing the many possible outcomes of quantum measurements.

• • • JOHN MATTICK, PH.D. • • •

The (His)Story and Characters of the Molecular Biology Revolution

It’s been only 70 years since Oswald Avery and colleagues settled a long-running dispute by showing that it was the DNA, not proteins, in the chromosomes that transmits genetic information, and only 60 years since the elucidation of the famous double helical structure of DNA, confirming the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s prediction in his book What is Life that the genetic material would be embodied in “an aperiodic crystal.” These were heady days, as enzyme chemists joined physicists to decipher the genetic code, and later joined the bacterial geneticists to develop the tools that would launch the gene cloning and ultimately the genomic revolutions that are laying bare the programming of life. Hear the story of the great characters, rivalries and debates of time, of how visionaries were ignored, and how the pioneers succumbed to hubris and self-satisfaction, and their successors to lack of imagination, ignoring seismic shocks that did not fit the orthodoxy, and which are still reverberating.

From Primordial Soup to Life: How Did That Happen?

The story of life is the story of the reversal of the second law of thermodynamics by systems that use information to gather energy and resources for replication. The murky part is how variations in the concentration of organic molecules in a primordial soup could have created the conditions to set this process underway.
            Once “cells” had formed, the next big jump in the development of life was the development of stable and easily replicable DNA from the progenitor of RNA. After that, it was all uphill, as variations in the system allowed innovations that increased metabolic, developmental and ultimately cognitive sophistication, a process that has taken at least 4 billion years of trial and error. Learn how evolution navigated cellular biology, then the challenges and extraordinary molecular innovations required to program differentiated and architecturally complex animals, and subsequently how plasticity was introduced to enable realtime adaptations in the brain, to produce a species that can remember, learn, sing, think and write.

Junk DNA: Challenging the Dogma

It appears that the genetic programming of humans and other complex organisms has been misunderstood for the past 50 years, because of the assumption that most genetic information is transacted by proteins. This assumption stems from the so-called “central dogma” of molecular biology that “DNA makes RNA makes protein,” implying that RNA is simply a temporary intermediate between genes and proteins, which make up the fundamental enzymatic and structural components of cells.
            This assumption was born in a mechanical age, before the emergent understanding of information technology, and is largely true for simple organisms like the bacterium E. coli, where the foundation studies were done and whose genomes are composed of wall-to-wall protein-coding genes. Surprisingly, the human genome has a similar number and repertoire of protein-coding genes as other animals, even primitive worms with only 1,000 cells, which suggests that the information directing our vastly different developmental and cognitive complexity must lie largely elsewhere. Consistent with this, the amount of non-protein-coding DNA increases with developmental complexity, with over 98 percent of the human genome comprising vast tracts of non-coding sequences within and between genes, which when discovered were quickly dismissed as “junk” — evolutionary debris.
            However, virtually all of these junk sequences are actually copied into RNA in very precise patterns in different cells at different stages of development, especially in the brain. The emerging evidence indicates that these segments of RNA form a massive network of regulatory information that organizes the genome and orchestrates gene expression during development. It is also evident that plasticity has been superimposed on these networks to enable the evolution and function of the brain. Thus what was dismissed as junk because it was not understood in a previous age holds the secret to understanding human evolution, development, diversity and cognition.

Two Views on Evolution: Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Though Charles Darwin is largely credited with first conceiving of evolution, the French naturalist Jean Baptiste-Lamarck actually proposed evolution half a century before Darwin did, and suggested that it occurred by adaptation (“use and disuse”). In contrast, Darwin proposed that evolution occurred by reproductive competition between variants (“survival of the fittest”). Darwin did not know what was responsible for differences between individuals, and was apparently happy to acknowledge that Lamarck’s ideas were not antithetical to his own. But Lamarck wrote in the flowery language of the late 18th century, and was not a member of the Royal Society, black marks both.
            Later, in 1870, Dr. August Weissman conducted a bizarre experiment involving the amputation of mouse tails over multiple generations to conclude that Larmarckian inheritance (by learned adaption) did not exist and, further, that there was no communication between body cells (the “soma”) and reproductive (“germ”) cells, the sperm and ova. This idea was reinforced by the Neo-Darwinists in the 1930s in their reconciliation of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian inheritance — the so-called “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis.” However, recent observations have shown that the soma can and does communicate with the germline, and there is intriguing evidence of non-Mendelian inheritance of characteristics linked to the genetic and physiological states of ancestors.
            We’ll discuss the real possibility that Lamarck may have been, after all, partly right, and that our biology is a mix of hard-wired genetic information, and soft-wired additional information, possibly conveyed by RNA or modified proteins. Moreover, other long held tenets of evolution — that mutation is random and that selection acts only on the progeny — may also be incorrect. All the indications are that evolution has learned how to learn, and that we are the product of this capacity. (Note: this session is 30 minutes.)

Your Genome and You: Welcome to the Future of Medicine

There have been amazing developments in DNA sequencing technology over the past two decades. The first draft human genome sequence published in 2001 cost around $1 billion, but today the cost of sequencing a genome is well below $10,000 and dropping. In fact, the reduction in cost and increase in capacity of DNA sequencing has easily outpaced the famous Moore’s law of computing. Next generation devices, the shrinking size of computer memory sticks, and integrating advanced optical, biochemical and nanotechnologies, promise the ability to sequence a human genome in a few hours for a few hundred dollars eventually.
            This remarkable revolution is fuelling an information explosion about the molecular basis of cancer, revealing that cancer is not only a very heterogenous disease — cancers are not all alike — but also showing that cancers in one tissue may well have the same underlying cause as those in others, for which effective drugs are already available. It is also enabling a whole fleet of studies connecting human genetic variation to differences in our physical, psychological and disease risk characteristics, although there are still intriguing mysteries associated with this topic.
            Nevertheless, it is already clear that not only will tumor genome sequencing soon become the standard of care in cancer, but also that most, if not all, people in advanced countries will have their genomes sequenced and placed on their medical records within the next decade or so. Medicine is evolving from the art of crisis management to the science of good health, no longer reflecting population averages but increasingly tailored to the individual’s own genetic and environmental circumstances, bringing with it enormous social and economic benefits. There may, however, be some interesting surprises in store as we learn who we really are, genetically speaking. (Note: this session is 60 minutes.)

• • • JOHN R. HALE, PH.D. • • •

Southeast Asia: A Land of Natural Wonders

Southeast Asia is nature’s bridge between the great landmass of Eurasia and the island world that spans the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Here you will find the oldest rainforests on Earth, inhabited by many unique species of plants and animals, as well as spectacular coral reefs along the coasts. Learn how rice, chicken and pigs were all first domesticated in Southeast Asia. From volcanic ranges to vast river deltas, the landscapes of Southeast Asia represent an unrivaled treasure house of geology, biology, and natural history.

A Cradle of Human Evolution

In the 19th century, scientists believed that Southeast Asia, and not Africa, was the point of origin for the human species. This view was based on an examination of orangutans brought back to Europe by explorers. The discovery of the Homo erectus skull dubbed “Java Man,” followed by the bones of “Peking Man” from China, encouraged the “Out of Asia” school of evolutionary theory. Learn about the unique set of fossils, from Gigantopithecus (the largest of all hominids) to “Flores Man” (the smallest, sometimes called “Hobbit-like”) that continues to keep Southeast Asia near the forefront of evolutionary research.

Lost Kingdoms of Southeast Asia

From the Khmer rulers who built Angkor Wat to the Siamese kings who defied the European colonial powers (best known to the English-speaking world through the musical “The King and I”), Southeast Asia has a rich history of kingdoms and empires that have left behind gigantic monuments of their wealth and artistry. Though always living under the threat of cultural and political takeover by the Chinese, these early powers nonetheless created unique cultures and artistic traditions in their forest capitals, and rivaled the emperors of China in their ambitious building programs and vast public works.

Religious Faiths in Collision

Three of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam — gained firm footholds in Southeast Asia, eventually overcoming the region’s native animistic religious cults. Indonesia is in fact the most populous Islamic nation on earth, and is home to a brand of Islamic culture quite distinct from the more familiar Arab world. Buddhism, too, struck off on its own path in Southeast Asia, becoming a tremendous force of political resistance right down to the 21st century. We’ll discuss the remarkable architecture — temples, monasteries, and mosques — of these religions, as well as the ways their beliefs continue to permeate everyday life.

The Spice Trade and the Globalization of Commerce

Starting at the time of the Roman Empire, the people of Europe became increasingly addicted to the spices of Southeast Asia: pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and many others. Tea was also much sought after in the West. The desire to gain access to the sources of these precious substances drove Europeans — led by the Portuguese and the Dutch — to forge sea-routes to the lands they called “the East Indies.” It was in search of a shortcut to these spice-producing regions of Southeast Asia that Columbus stumbled on America. Learn how the global trade that we take for granted today in all sectors of our economy had its origins in the spice trade.

Ships and Shipwrecks of Southeast Asia

Beneath the seas and coastal waters of Southeast Asia lies an underwater museum of historic ships that were lured to this corner of the world by commerce or war. Arab dhows, Chinese junks, European trading ships, World War II warships — all these and others can be found on the coral reefs or sandy sea floor. Many of the greatest discoveries have been made in the area of Chinese art. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain, including both blue-and-white ware and celadon, bear witness to the popularity of these treasures in Europe for more than a millennium. We’ll discuss the chests of Chinese and Korean coins, rare woodcarvings and bronzes, as well as the wooden hulls of the ships themselves, that have helped nautical archaeologists reconstruct the trade routes that linked East and West. You’ll also learn about a current search for the lost Mongol invasion fleet sent by Kublai Khan to conquer Vietnam.

• • • MARK A. STOLER, PH.D. • • •

Why Bother? Myths and Realities in the Study of History

History, Henry Ford once remarked, is bunk. That comment tells us much more about Henry Ford than it does about history, which I’ll argue is one of the most important fields of human study. But history is not what you may think it is. It is not the rote memorization of facts, nor an objective study, and it is not concerned only with the past. Rather, history is a highly complex and subjective study of the relationship between past events that is heavily influenced by, and tells us a great deal about, the present. This session will explore the process of historical study and illustrate it with examples from a few controversial episodes in American history.

Vietnam: America’s Longest and Most Controversial War

The Vietnam War was the longest and one of the most divisive conflicts in United States history. Indeed, it continues to divide Americans today, and to shape our often-conflicting perceptions of the world and America’s proper role in it. It is also a history filled with myths — on both sides of the political spectrum. In light of where we are traveling on this cruise, as well as these facts, we’ll explore the historical realities of the Vietnam war, focusing on when and why the United States became involved in it (this happened far earlier than 1965), why we were so unsuccessful, and why the experience still haunts Americans and influences our policies elsewhere.

Biography as History: George C. Marshall and the “American Century”

Biography is one of the most popular forms of historical study. Understand the reason in this session, where we’ll explore the life of one of the most important and respected, yet today relatively unknown, figures in 20th century American history: George Catlett Marshall. Marshall wore many hats, including head of the U.S. Army of Allied Victory during World War II, rebuilder of Europe, and creator of the basic U.S. strategy in the Cold War, when he was Secretary of State. He’s also credited with creating the most successful aid program in U.S. history, and was a key figure in the Korean War as Secretary of Defense. We’ll discuss what made Marshall so important and unique, as well as his numerous accomplishments. Through this investigation of Marshall, you’ll come to understand America’s rise to global superpower status between 1900 and 1951 — and thus the ways in which biography can illuminate history.

Myths Versus Historical Realities in World War II

For nearly 70 years, Americans have maintained a strong set of beliefs regarding the causes, consequences, and historical lessons of World War II — lessons they have consistently cited to justify postwar U.S. policies. Scholars have called into question many of these beliefs, however, labeling them ethnocentric perceptions and myths that distort the history of the war and ignore the contributions and perspectives of other powers and peoples. This lecture compares our standard perceptions of the war with what historians now maintain. It also analyzes the alternative vision of American participation in the war that has arisen in the last three decades.

• • • ANDREW WILSON, PH.D. • • •

Strategic Literacy: Why the Classics of Strategic Thought Still Matter

It goes without saying that high-ranking military officers and senior Pentagon civilians should be conversant with the vocabulary, the theory and the practice of strategy, but this course makes an impassioned plea for all citizens to increase their strategic literacy. Given the financial and human costs of war, it is incumbent on all of us to know more about how the great strategic theorists — from Thucydides and Sun Tzu to Mao and Machiavelli — treated the causes, conduct and conclusion of war. Thoughtful citizens must be able to evaluate the political purposes of their nation’s wars, the complex balancing of political and military considerations, the varied types of wars, the many ways in which wars can be waged, and the immense difficulties involved in bringing war to an end and establishing a better state of peace. Fortunately, the classics of strategic thought are a ready resource for cultivating exactly this kind of strategic literacy.

Is There a Chinese Way of War? A Skeptic’s View

The Chinese have been thinking about war and strategy for thousands of years. China is also unique among the great civilizations in its remarkable political continuity: the People’s Republic of China of today can trace its lineage all the way back to the Qin Dynasty of the 3rd century BCE. These facts should encourage us to ask whether the Chinese possess some unique and potentially superior approaches to strategy, diplomacy and warfare. Moreover, given the contemporary rise of China, we need to understand the cultural and historical factors that inform Beijing’s strategic inclinations and great power aspirations.
            In this course we will deconstruct several of the most commonly cited attributes of the Chinese way of war based on what Chinese strategic thinkers actually wrote and what strategies Chinese states have actually pursued. By taking a skeptic’s view of the historical accuracy and explanatory power of common assumptions, we not only demolish the myths, but also gain a better understanding of the actual strategic inclinations of Chinese states, past and present.

China’s Relations with Southeast Asia: Past, Present and Future

The Chinese have had a long history of interaction with their Southeast Asian neighbors. From the sprawling regional trade networks of the 8th century, to the massive outflow of Chinese émigrés in the 19th century, to the 20th century insurgencies in Malaya, Vietnam and the Philippines that were inspired and abetted by communist China, the history of Southeast Asia is inextricable from the ebb and flow of Chinese power. As we contemplate the waxing of Chinese economic and military clout in the 21st century, this course places Chinese-Southeast Asian relations in historical context, examines the most intense resource and territorial frictions today, especially those in the South China Sea, and looks forward to the most likely future approaches that Beijing might take in the region and the reactions that these approaches will engender among China’s neighbors to the south.

The Treasure Fleets of the Great Ming: The Voyages of Zheng He

Our Great Courses voyage cruises the same waters as the epic voyages of Zheng He, and it presents a wonderful opportunity to revisit those enigmatic argosies. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven voyages into the South China Sea and across the Indian Ocean. His fleets traveled as far as the Horn of Africa and included up to 250 ships and 27,000 personnel. Within the vast armada were several dozen “treasure ships,” the largest wooden ships ever constructed, stocked with all manner of gifts for foreign leaders willing to accept Ming hegemony. In this class we first explore the factors that motivated the Ming Dynasty to go to sea so aggressively and so ostentatiously. Second, we’ll look at the ways in which Chinese emissaries interacted with foreign powers, and what these interactions reveal about how the Ming saw their place in the world. Finally we look at the abrupt end of the voyages and the implications of China’s retreat from the sea. Along the way, we’ll address some of the biggest controversies surrounding Zheng He, including the theory that a contingent of the Ming fleet circumnavigated the globe in 1421.

• • • CRAIG BENJAMIN, PH.D. • • •

The History of Everything: Big History

Understand the universe, our planet, and the history of humankind in a whole new way by taking a broader view and focusing on the big picture. Traditional academic disciplines look at subjects in detail, honing in on the minutiae. While that approach has value, a more inclusive understanding requires broadening and deepening our inquiry. This means not only examining the relationships between a wide range of elements — individuals, cultures, technologies, political structures, population growth, and the environment — but also considering these relationships over larger geographical and time scales. The reward for expanding our spatial and temporal perspective is a much better understanding of where we have been, and where we are going as a species.
           Big history, which emerged as a developed field in the 1980s, considers the whole of the past on the largest possible timescale: it begins with the origins of the universe, and goes on to consider the modern scientific accounts of the origins of stars and planets, of life on Earth, the emergence of human beings, and the various types of human societies that have existed up to the present day. Ultimately the big history approach encourages us to consider our own particular place and time in the globalized world, and to think of how we might contribute to the future of that world.

Session One: What Is Big History and Why Does It Matter?

Introduction to the exciting interdisciplinary world of the big historian.

Session Two: The Big History of the Universe, Stars, Planet Earth, and Life.

The cosmological, geological, and biological environment in which human history has unfolded.

Session Three: The Big History of Humanity.

The key revolutionary changes in human history, from 200,000 years ago to around the year 1800.

Session Four: The Big History of the Present and Future.

The modern revolution, the present, and the near and distant future.

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